Thirty Years – 1922-1952
The Story of the Communist Movement in Canada
BEFORE the Communist Party of Canada was founded many left-wingers had already become members of either the Communist Party of America, or the United Communist Party of America. Each of those parties had set up Canadian districts. It was clear to Canadian members of both parties that Communist unity in an independent Canadian party was a primary need. In 1920 there was widespread discussion between the various groups, looking to unity. A joint committee was set up, aiming at unity of the Canadian districts of the C.P.A. and the U.C.P.A. In June, 1921, a unity convention was held and for the first time all the workers organized in Canada under the banner of Marx and Lenin were united in one party: The Communist Party of Canada.
The War Measures Act still outlawed revolutionary working-class organizations. The unity conference had to be held in utmost secrecy, in a barn on the outskirts of Guelph, Ontario. Founded in conditions of illegality, our party started as an underground organization. The problem of public activity and mass connections with the workers confronted the leadership from the beginning. The imperative need to solve that problem was emphasized particularly by the Third World Congress of the Communist International, held during July and August of that year. The C.I. called upon Communists everywhere to unite the working class in broad popular activities. After consultation with active left-wingers in various parts of the country, a conference was convened in Toronto, December 11 and 12, 1921, to consider the launching of a public working-class party based upon the theses and statutes of the Communist International. There was universal agreement upon the necessity for such a party.
The conference adopted a five-point provisional platform, setting forth the aims to which the delegates considered the new party should dedicate itself, under the following heads:
1. For a Workers' Republic
“... the alternative to the capitalist system is a working-class government. The Workers' Party shall lead the workers in struggle towards the establishment of the Workers' Republic of Canada.”
2. Working-Class Political Action
“... The Workers' Party shall take part, whenever possible, in all such campaigns ... so that ultimately the real issue will be laid clear, and we, the working class, shall eventually triumph at the expense of the enemies of the working class, the capitalist oppressors.”
3. Trade Union Unity
“To help educate trade unionists to appreciate the possibilities of their organizations as definite factors in carrying on the class battles caused by capitalist oppression, to initiate a movement to expose the tyranny and treachery of the reactionary labor bureaucrats, and to make the unions real fighting working-class units.”
4. A Party of Action
“The party shall be composed of militant, class-conscious workers, members shall be subject to the discipline of the party and the direction of the national executive committee, which shall be the highest expression of the party between conventions. Democratic centralization shall be the guiding organizational principle of the Workers' Party....”
5. A Party Press
“The party shall eventually acquire a party press in order to give expression to the interests and aims of the working-class movement....”
The delegates addressed a manifesto “To the Workers of Canada” typified by the following excerpts:
“We address our manifesto to all workers. We cannot sit down and
wait patiently for capitalism to collapse. Conditions call for fight, for
action. With the prospects of further unemployment, a more intensified
open-shop campaign and, in the near future, imperialist war, the
Workers' Party of Canada issues this call. If we are to survive we must
be free from capitalist domination. If the capitalist class is to dominate
we must suffer even more bitterly.
“The issue is clear, therefore, between unemployment and prosperity, organized tyranny and political freedom, capitalist state and workers' republic.
“Working men and working women! We call upon you to play your parts in the establishment of a real live working-class party which shall ultimately produce a fighting machine able to organize and direct the oppressed masses in their struggles for political and economic freedom. Rally to the call for complete emancipation! In answer to the oppression of the capitalist class let our battle cry be:
'Workers of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains of wage slavery! You have a World to Gain!'”
A provisional national committee was elected, charged with the task of organizing a constituent convention. At that convention, held on February 22-23, attended by delegates representing organizations in six provinces,(1) a legal Communist party, the Workers' Party of Canada, was established.(2)
The prominent differences between the radicals at that time were illustrated by the fact that the issue which evoked keenest debate and the only organizational defection in the constituent convention was not the “new” issue of the dictatorship of the proletariat but whether the Workers' Party would make secession from the conservative unions its labor union tactic and the One Big Union its “industrial arm.” Enslaved by the idea that secession from the craft unions was the hallmark of militancy, the delegates of the One Big Union demanded of the convention that the new party declare war upon the A.F.L. and, indeed, upon all craft unions. The convention rejected that demand. Guided by the lessons that Lenin had emphasized in his recently translated Left-Wing Communism, it called upon members of the new party to join the unions that were supported by the masses of the workers in their industries and to fight there for genuine working-class policies.
By maintaining the unity of Communist organization while rejecting the long-established practice of war against the craft unions, the constituent convention took the first great stride toward making Marxism-Leninism a force for the unification and the political development of the Canadian working class.
The Workers' Party was qualitatively superior to all of the various parties that had preceded it. It was historically superior in that it based its theory and practice upon Lenin's fundamental re-clarification of the teachings of Marx and Engels on, the state, on the subjective role of the revolutionary proletariat, and on the character of the state in the transition from capitalism to communism. As noted above, the organizational principle of the Workers' Party was democratic centralism. Out of those fundamental differences there developed marked diferences on numerous questions. The Workers' Party dedicated itself to the task of helping the proletariat to become a class for itself. In contrast to the Socialist Party of Canada, it emphasized the necessity for the development of broad popular campaigns around the issues of the day, directed to strengthening the workers' understanding of their role as a class. In contrast to the S.P.C., with its contempt for the workers' economic struggles, the Workers' Party sought to unite Marxist theory with correct working-class practice in consistent and devoted support of all such struggles. The educational campaign carried on by the Workers' Party (later the Communist Party) through the 1920's, to develop widespread understanding among the workers of how modern industry was making industrial unionism necessary, was one of its great contributions to the Canadian labor movement. In combination with its systematic propaganda for industrial unionism, the Workers' Party developed its great “back-to-the unions” campaign and made the slogan “No struggle too small, no struggle too large” a law of party practice. In marked contrast to the general, all too general, propaganda which had been the sole Marxist activity of the socialist parties which had preceded it, the Workers' Party emphasized the necessity for systematic, organized struggle and study around every issue of working-class interest as an organic part of the long-term struggle for socialism. Against the false and anti-Marxist subservience to working-class “spontaneity” that had characterized the attitude of the syndicalists and previous socialist parties, the Workers' Party exposed subservience to spontaneity as one of the main sources of opportunism in the labor movement. It placed primary emphasis, for the first time in Canada, upon the study of theory “as a guide to action.”
The main resolutions adopted by the constituent convention illustrated the character of the new party. For the first time in the history of socialism in Canada, a revolutionary workers' party, dedicated to the struggle for socialism, called upon all radical workers to join the unions which commanded the support of the great majority of the organized workers and to fight for their upbuilding and unification. Here, for the first time, a revolutionary party called for the building of a labor party and for farmer-labor unity in all-sided struggle against big capital.
Next to defining the role that it aimed to play and the policies for which it would fight, the main task of the party following the constituent convention was establishment of its press. It should be mentioned here that the labor press, though weak, had a well-established tradition in Canada. The provisional conference which had started the movement to establish the Workers' Party had been convened on the initiative of The Workers' Guard, published under the direction of the underground Communist Party, edited at that time by Fred Peel, a foundation member of the party. Other influential papers such as the B.C. Federationist (British Columbia), The Maritime Labor Herald (Nova Scotia), The New Democracy (Hamilton, Ontario) , and several weeklies published in languages other than English, gave support to the policies of the Communist International in varying degrees. Following the unity convention in June, 1921, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Canada initiated The Communist, a four-page paper in newspaper format. Because of lack of resources and the difficulty of distribution, only four issues were published.
However, there had not yet been published a legal periodical which was the official voice and collective organizer of the Communist movement . Such a paper was established with the founding of The Worker, the first issue of which appeared March 15, 1922.
The establishment of a legal official organ of the Communist movement opened a new era for the working-class press in Canada. At the beginning, The Worker was published only twice a month. Its editor was a law student attending Toronto University. It was transformed into a weekly after its fourth or fifth issue when a delegation requested an interview with two officers of the party(3) to inform them that immigrant workers in Toronto had decided to raise $100 a week for The Worker every week until the next party convention.
That inspiring demonstration of proletarian solidarity was consistent with the tradition that the advanced detachments of the workers from Europe had already established in the working-class movement. It should be mentioned that among the founders of the Workers' Party there were several who had already felt the ruthless hand of capitalist justice in the service of the capitalist class. John Boychuk, Tom Bell, Mrs. Custance and others had been arrested early in 1919 under the authority of the War Measures Act. Their “crime” had been that of attending a conference for the purpose of establishing an International Workers Association to unite workers in support of the Russian Revolution and to further the struggle for socialism in Canada. Tom Bell and John Boychuk had been sentenced to prison terms. John Boychuk was released only a few months before our constituent convention. Among those who were leading members of our party during those early years, names which personified the national groups and the democratic organizations built by immigrant workers ranked very high. During the early period of struggle against secession as the labor union tactic of revolutionary workers and for a mass “back-to-the-unions” movement, immigrant workers from Europe led the way. Later immigrant workers shouldered a very large share of the struggles and sacrifices that went into the building of industrial unions by the Workers' Unity League and the C.I.O. Their lives–in the majority of cases their children's lives also–are expended in building Canada. Their only hope for happiness and a modicum of physical well-being lies in winning these things for all Canadians. They have enriched our movement and Canada as a whole by their contributions on the picket line, in the building of organizations and in their enrichment of our culture. Their underwriting of the party's English-language press in 1922 typified the role of which democratic members of the national groups are justly proud.
The popular issues confronting the working-class movement in 1922 differed from the issues of today. Canada's relationship to the United Kingdom was still one of constitutional inferiority. A very influential section of the Canadian bourgeoisie wanted to maintain that relationship. Arthur Meighen, the national leader of the Conservative Party, was urging the establishment of a supra-national “Imperial Cabinet.” Another section, personified by Sir Clifford Sifton, advocated an assertion of Canada's independence by a direct change in the constitution. Under the influence of United States imperialism, a majority of the bourgeoisie arrived at support of Mackenzie King's technique of leaving the B.N.A. Act alone, while asserting Canadian sovereignty from case to case as the need arose and their interests demanded.
While not yet fully understanding the devious ways of the Canadian bourgeoisie and their new prime minister, Mackenzie King, the Workers' Party correctly called upon the labor movement to take a stand for “Canadian Independence.” For the first time in Canadian history the party of the revolutionary workers pledged itself to the struggle for national sovereignty.
While grasping the significance of Lenin's emphasis upon the role of the working class in the struggle to protect the real interests of the nation, the party did not then grasp the full historical significance of the national status of the people of French Canada and therefore failed to put forward the necessary demand for the right of the people of French Canada to national self-determination up to the right of secession. During the first year following the foundation of the Workers' Party, there was established a French section under the leadership of the very well-known anarcho-communist of Montreal, St. Martin. The group had operated for some time as “l'Université Ouvrier.” Under St. Martin's leadership they had applied directly to the Communist International for affiliation as the Communist Party of Canada. The executive of the Communist International had urged unity of all Canadian adherents of the International in one party and the group affiliated to the Workers' Party as the French section. Unfortunately, the attitude of St. Martin combined the political weaknesses which had characterized both the right wing of the Socialist Party of Canada and the syndicalists, with extreme petty-bourgeois nationalism. He was violently opposed to any worker joining the international unions. He was violently and demonstratively anti-clerical but he differentiated between the international craft unions and the Catholic Syndicates on the ground that the latter were “Quebecois.”(4) At the same time his attitude towards the national problem of French Canada and its people was one of national nihilism. The majority of the members of what became the French section of the Workers' Party of Canada were honest revolutionary workers. Several of them, personified by Elphege Paquette, were and continued to be throughout their lives, loyal adherents of the revolutionary ideas of Marx and Lenin. But the majority of the members were completely under the ideological domination of St. Martin. The result was that the orgnization failed to take up the issues that were of fundamental concern to the workers and farmers of Quebec. It stagnated in sectarian isolation from the masses, a barrier between communism and the workers of French Canada until the great economic crisis overwhelmed even the sectarianism of St. Martin. Then a group of workers headed by Evariste Dube broke from the St. Martin tradition and, guided by Fred Rose, made the Communist movement an organic part of the mass activit of the working class in French Canada.
In the field of trade union activity the party supported the program and the organized activity of the Trade Union Educational League. The program of action of the Canadian section of the T.U.E.L. was as follows:(5)
1. Organize the Unorganized Workers for Higher Wages, Shorter Hours.
2. Organize a Powerful Minority Movement Within the Trade Unions.
3. Organize Shop Committees.
4. United Independent Labor Political Action.
5. Canadian Trade Union Autonomy.
6. Affiliation of Every Functioning Trade Union to the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada.
7. Affiliation of Every Local Union to the Local Trades and Labour Councils.
8. Build a Workers' Press.
9. Nationalization of Industry.
10. Amalgamate the Craft Unions.
11. International Trade Union Unity.
12. The Abolition of Capitalism.
Because of the widespread split that had accompanied the establishment of the One Big Union, the first general task that the party set itself was to persuade radical workers to spark a “back-to-the-unions” movement. The Workers' Party was built in the struggle to correct the mistaken worship of secession among Canadian radicals. The party's early organizers were simultaneously the initiators of campaigns to organize the unorganized, to reunite in one union workers who had become divided in the course of the class struggle, etc. They were the most respected advisers on trade union tactics, their meetings were tribunes of the rank and file trade unionists. It was not only the party organizers who had already been identified with the trade union movement for a long time who won that respect. As workers recognized the basic fact that the trade union advice of the Workers' Party was based solely and squarely upon the interests of the working class and not upon a fight for dues, they sought our advice. During that period Annie Buller and Beckle Buhay went into literally every camp in the mining districts of Nova Scotia, Northern Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia; the miners, including thousands who were not members of our party, sought advice from them as eagerly as from Tim Buck. At a later date the same was true of our late beloved comrade Jeanne Corbin in Northern Ontario.
The effects of the campaign to reunite the radicals with the masses of the workers in the old unions provided striking vindications of the labor union policy of the party. All over the country, militant workers who had been sitting on the sidelines returned to the craft unions. Their presence and work was reflected almost immediately in increasing militant trade union action. The campaign of the Trade Union Educational League for trade union unity, its official organ, The Labor Herald, and the paper published by its Canadian section, The Left Wing, received active support from local unions in every part of the country.
Organizations embracing a third of the trade unionists in Canada endorsed the program of the T.U.E.L. The “back-to-the-unions” campaign transformed the political content of trade union activity. Militancy supplanted passivity over a wide area of the movement. When the regular convention of District 26, United Mine Workers of America, at Truro, Nova Scotia, in June, 1922, was addressed by the Canadian secretary of the T.U.E.L., the delegates endorsed the program by unanimous vote, extended an official invitation to the secretary to visit every local of the union and instructed the officers of the district to apply immediately for affiliation to the Red International of Labor Unions. The miners of Nova Scotia were not the only workers who responded to the T.U.E.L. campaign. Scores of local unions of railways workers supported it, with particular emphasis upon the idea of amalgamating all the craft unions into one great industrial union of railway workers. In Alberta the return of the militants to the United Mine Workers of America brought about a transformation of that union's effectiveness. When the autonomy of the district was restored in 1923 and district elections were held, the entire slate of candidates put forward by the left wing under the leadership of the T.U.E.L. was elected. The miners immediately went out on an organizational campaign to bring back into the union all the open-shop mines, the operators of which had been exploiting the split in the labor movement. Within less than a year more miners were organized than ever before in the history of District 18.
In the field of independent working-class political action the Workers' Party supported the effort to build the Canadian Labor Party. The C.L.P., founded in 1921, while the Trades and Labor Congress was in convention at Winnipeg,(6) was a federated party. Its organizational structure was based upon provincial sections. In every locality all unions and other working-class organizations affiliated to the party co-ordinated their parliamentary activities through a delegate council. Each provincial section was autonomous in provincial matters within the framework established by the national program of the party. Each provincial section held separate annual conventions, the annual national conventions being made up of delegates elected in provincial conventions. The C.L.P. was open to all and any working-class organization. The only conditions were that affiliated organizations should abide by the program and discipline of the C.L.P. in electoral activities and should not at any time engage in anti-working-class activities. The C.L.P. was a working-class political united front. Some marked gains were made during the five years in which its unity was maintained. There is no doubt whatever that its continued development would have made the organized labor movement an important parliamentary force in Canada.
The Workers' Party, for the first time in the history of the revolutionary workers' movement in Canada, recognized the special interests of working-class women and undertook to organize them. The main channel was the Federation of Women's Labor Leagues. These were local organizations of women which took up the fight on every question that concerned the interests or the special needs of women workers, working-class housewives, etc. In those days the minimum wage laws, where they existed, were enforced only by tireless effort. For example, one day a girl employed in a large chocolate factory in the city of Toronto approached Mrs. Florence Custance, the president of the Toronto Women's Labor League, with a request for information as to “how the minimum wage act works.” Conversation with the girl led Mrs. Custance to suspect that few of her fellow-workers were getting the minimum wage, supposedly guaranteed by law. Fear of losing her job frightened the girl away even before, she had heard all the information she came for. Pursuing the matter, the local Women's Labor League canvassed the girls of the factory. The eventual result was that eighty of them received substantial wage increases and accumulated back pay. Such activities were carried on everywhere by the Women's Labor Leagues. They were active in elections, in trade union organizing campaigns, in aid to strikers, and they were the first organizers of systematic anti-militarist activities in English Canada. Their “No More War” parades were a high point of labor activities as early as 1923. At the height of its development, the Women's Labor League movement had organizations in twenty-two areas. Their leaders, typified by Mrs. Annie Whitfield in the East, Mrs. Florence Custance in Central Canada, and Mary English in the West, became the recognized representatives of the progressive working-class women of Canada. Delegates of the W.L.L. were seated on Trades and Labor Councils all across the country.
At the second convention of the Workers' Party, in 1923, delegates representing several local organizations of the revolutionary youth met in constituent convention and established the Young Workers' League of Canada. Leslie Morris of Winnipeg was its first national secretary, A. T. Hill of Finland, Ontario, its first national chairman. The Y.W.L. established local organizations throughout Ontario, in wide areas of Alberta and British Columbia, and in several localities in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. The local organizations already established in Montreal were among the most active in founding the national organization but the Y.W.L. (later the Y.C.L.) made very little headway among the French youth during the early years of its existence.
At its third national convention in 1924, the party changed its name to the Communist Party of Canada. Until then the party had combined federalism with individual membership. Mass organizations could affiliate en bloc. With the change of name, that practice was abolished. Since then individual payment of dues has been the sole form of membership. The 1924 convention placed the main emphasis on party activity in the places of work and called upon its members to build shop nuclei. In addition to limiting membership to individuals, the convention added to the constitution a membership obligation and a specific definition of party units. The following was the obligation:
SECTION 1: Applicants for membership, shall sign an application card, reading as follows: “I, the undersigned, declare my adherence to the principles and tactics of the Communist Party of Canada, as expressed in the program and constitution, subscribe to the party press, and agree to submit to the discipline of the party, and pledge myself to engage actively in its work.”
SECTION 1: The basic units of the Communist Party of Canada shall be factory groups, area units, farm clubs and units based upon a language other than English where necessary.
During 1924-1925 the party started development of systematic municipal activities. The first Communist alderman in North America, Bill Kolysnik, had already been elected in Winnipeg and councillors had been elected in several smaller municipalities. These successes, however, had been achieved in spite of the fact that the party virtually ignored this type of activity. From 1924, recognition of the vital importance of municipal government in the fight for democracy and peace became increasingly evident in the party's work.
In September, 1925, the Toronto party committee convened a meeting at the Labor Temple at 167 Church Street to initiate organized action for the defence of victims of the class war. The immediate purpose of the meeting was to help defend miners who were then committed for trial upon charges arising from the great miners' strikes in Alberta. Tim Buck, who had played a leading role in the strike, gave a first-hand description of conditions in the mining camps, the causes of the strike, the shooting of Bert Renners (shot in mistake for Buck) and the plight of the miners and their families. He called upon the workers of Toronto to demonstrate their solidarity with the miners by providing substantial assistance for the arrested workers and their families, and for the legal defence of those who, like Louis MacDonald and Cecil Boone, might be railroaded to prison for long terms unless the police and courts in the mining districts were made to feel the pressure of democratic working-class support of the miners.
In that meeting there was or anized the Toronto Committee for Labor Defence. Mrs. Florence Custance was elected then and there as secretary. Within a few months a score of similar local organizations were established and the Canadian Labor Defence League was born. Mrs. Custance was its first national secretary. Later, under the joint leadership of Comrades Becky Buhay and our late beloved A. E. Smith, the Canadian Labor Defence League became a great mass movement and played a famous and heroic role.
In its early stages, the party did not yet measure up to the standards established by Lenin, very largely because of the inability of the leaders of the party to free themselves from the sectarian traditions of the revolutionary movement in Canada, and the ideological influence of the bourgeoisie. To overcome those weaknesses, the party membership had to advance politically to the stage at which it demanded leadership of a higher quality. It required a more critical and self-critical attitude on the part of all party members towards the party itself. In the early 1920's we did not yet understand that systematic use of criticism and self-criticism is “the law of growth of communist parties.” It took some years of Stalin's patient, persistent teaching to achieve that understanding. But, as shown above, the Workers' Party was a party of a new type. By devoted and unqualified support of every genuine working-class struggle it made its history as a party an inseparable part of the history of the working-class movement as a whole. By the same devoted participation in militant struggles, it earned its title of The Party of the Working Class.
(1) Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. No organization in the Maritimes was represented but the decisions of the conference received immediate and active support in the Maritimes from active and highly respected spokesmen of the revolutionary groups there: e.g., Jim MacLachlan, Joe Wallace, Roscoe Filmore and Harold Ross, each of whom spoke publicly in support of the projected new party and organized support for it in their localities.
(2) The first Central Committee of the new party was composed of: Bill Moriarty (general secretary), Maurice Spector (editor), Mrs. Florence Custance, Joe Knight, Mrs, Joanna (Johnny) Knight, Tom Bell, Jack MacDonald, Trevor Maguire, Tim Buck, Mike Buhay, Alex Gauld, Jack Margolese, John Boychuk, A. Ahlgvist, J. Latva, A. Green, M. Popovich, J. Navis, J. Penner, Malcolm Bruce, Walter Mills, Jack Lakeman, Bob Mogeridge, Phil Christophers, Jack Kavanagh, Bill Bennett. The first twelve named were all of Toronto. The first nine named constituted the Political Bureau elected by the Central Committee.
(3) Bill Moriarty and Tim Buck. The delegation was headed by the late Comrade Ahlqvist, then chairman of the Finnish Organization of Canada.
(4) The Catholic Syndicates had not then evolved into genuine labor unions. Under the direction of the church in Quebec they repudiated strike action and "the class struggle" in general.
(5) Steps to Power. Programmatic pamphlet of the T.U.E.L., 1925.
(6) The convention which expelled A. R. Mosher for "dual unionism."