Thirty Years – 1922-1952
The Story of the Communist Movement in Canada
THE TEST OF A PARTY, as Lenin pointed out, is its attitude towards its own mistakes. During and immediately after its election the new leadership of the party fell considerably short of a Leninist attitude in that respect. Faced with the task of overcoming the theoretical weaknesses which had facilitated the Trotskyite and Lovestoneite attacks upon party unity, the new leadership concentrated an energetic ideological campaign against those two anti-Leninist tendencies, but failed to recognize the very serious weaknesses in its own theoretical work.
The new leadership was in error on the question of the status of Canada and, therefore, of the perspectives of Canadian development. The importance of this question may be illustrated by the changes that had taken place since we had first issued the slogan of "Canadian Independence." By 1929 the Canadian bourgeoisie was exercising sovereign authority in all distinctly Canadian affairs. With the merging of bank and industrial capital, the rise to power of the finance-capitalist oligarchy and the increasing participation of the Canadian monopolists in the imperialist struggle for division and re-division of the world market, Canada had become an imperialist state. The monopolists maintained vestigial forms of colonial relationships to Britain as barriers between their monopolistic privileges and the advancing forces of the workers and farmers. But, while preserving these obsolete forms of colonial subordination, the Canadian monopolists were already looking towards a junior partnership in United States imperialism for themselves. The change in the status and the aims of the capitalist class had not brought national sovereignty to the people of our country. On the contrary, as events have shown, the Canadian monopolists deliberately betrayed the century-old dream of Canadian independence for their personal profit and class privileges. At the same time, however, the change had rendered the slogans of the struggle for Canadian independence from Britain obsolete.
Instead of recognizing the character of the change that had taken place, the new party leadership put its demand for independence from Britain at the centre of all its political work. It dressed up the demand for "Canadian independence" in an elaborate, almost fantastic argument that independence from Britain was essential to avoid the danger of Canada becoming the battleground in a threatening Anglo-American imperialist war. The effect of this false theory was to make the Communist Party an ideological ally of bourgeois nationalism which developments had already made reactionary. The new path of the proletarian struggle in Canada was determined by the domination of monopoly-capitalism and the anti-national imperialist aims of the finance-capitalist oligarchy. Events had rendered obsolete the idea of national struggle for freedom from British imperialism. The main enemy of the Canadian workers was now Canadian imperialism. The most dire immediate threats against the Canadian people now came from the Canadian monopolists and their anti-Canadian aims. The immediate and pressing need of the party was to concentrate every ounce of its energy to prepare the workers for sharp struggles which loomed ahead.
Thus, the leadership which had fought against the Trotskyite and right liquidationist revisionism was itself leading the party along a false path. Federalistic tendencies bad been developed systematically by MacDonald and his supporters and attempts to combat them were weakened by the errors of the new leadership.
Again it was the youthful members of the party who challenged the incorrect theories. Headed this time by Leslie Morris, Sam Carr, John Weir and Oscar Ryan, they challenged the "Canadian Independence" slogan and called for re-examination of Canada's political perspective. The reply of the party's political bureau was a lengthy and involved attempt to prove the validity of the "Canadian Independence" slogan. The attitude of the membership to that defence is illustrated by the fact that it became known simply as "the 24-page document." However, by dint of earnest, widespread and protracted discussion and a sincere desire to achieve a correct Marxist policy, the leadership did belatedly recognize the change that had taken place in the status of Canada. In the spring of 1930 the Political Bureau repudiated the estimation of Canada as a colony and withdrew its "Canadian Independence" slogan. Incidentally, it should be added that the resolution announcing that repudiation was simultaneously the first official document of our party which specifically described the new character of the Canadian state: an imperialist state, in which the fundamenal line of class conflict is between the interests of the working class allied with the democratic farmers and urban middle-class people, and the anti-social predatory imperialist ambitions of monopoly-capital.
Realization that persistence in our error had undermined efforts to improve the theoretical work of our party, combined with the repeated emphasis by Stalin during that period on the fundamental importance of criticism and self-criticism within parties, resulted in the opening up of a party discussion for the clarification of the party's estimation of Canadian perspectives and preparation for a national convention. For reasons over which the party had no control the convention wasn't held. Police repression had become increasingly violent after the election of the Tory Bennett government in August, 1930. By the technique of breaking up meetings, arresting literature distributors, raiding party offices on the flimsiest of pretexts, etc., similar in all respects to the methods by which the Duplessis government uses its Padlock Law in Quebec today, the governments, federal and provincial, had imposed conditions of semi-legality upon our party. Eventually we were compelled to, limit the national gathering to an extended conference of the Central Committee with leading members engaged in mass public activities in each province.
The plenum met in February, 1931, in Hamilton. It was raided on the very first day. None of the delegates was arrested; indeed, the policemen were very unsure of themselves because of the evident illegality of their action, but it was impossible to continue in that hall. The plenum was moved to another building in Hamilton only to be asked by the caretaker not to come back the second day because he "had received a warning from the police." At that, the presidium of the plenum decided that if it was to be held at all, it must be held underground -- so measures were taken accordingly. Thus the 1931 plenum, which extended over four days and marked a very important stage in the political development of the party, was held in conditions of complete illegality.
The plenum was self-critical in the extreme. It recorded its decision that the central mistake of the party leadership "consists in the failure to recognize the imperialist interests of the Canadian bourgeoisie and this has led to the false assumption of a basic difference in regard to the path of the proletarian revolution in Canada as compared with other imperialist countries."(1) The plenum called upon the party membership to engage in responsible criticism and self-criticism for the improvement of the party and its work. Its detailed resolution on trade union and economic struggles focussed the energy of the party membership upon the task of organizing the unorganized workers and fighting for progressive policies in the unions that were under reactionary leadership. It adopted a comprehensive program of immediate reforms, it called upon the membership of the party to join in the work of organizing the National Unemployed Workers' Association. It formulated the first fully critical and comprehensive resolution adopted by our party up to that time on its relationship to and program of action for workers in agriculture and working farmers. Similarly it adopted critical resolutions on the responsibility of the party to the youth of Canada and the Young Communist League, to working women and to working-class mass organizations. The latter resolution marked a vital and fruitful turn in the relation of the party to the mass organizations.
The plenum finalized the expulsion of MacDonald and other leading Lovestoneites from the party.
The plenum emphasized the serious shortcomings in the work of the party in French Canada. It emphasized correctly the glaring economic inequalities suffered by the workers in Quebec: "... 4,079 inexperienced women workers in the clothing industry in the district of Montreal receive less than $12 a week ... the wages of inexperienced tobacco workers in the Province of Quebec average $6.94 per week.... In Quebec where the greatest number of women are in industry, infant mortality is higher than in any other province."
The Young Communist League in French Canada had initiated splendid campaigns for the protection of the youth and the organization of young workers. Strikes such as those of the textile workers at Cowansville and elsewhere, led by the Y.C.L., marked the beginning of the emergence of the textile workers of Quebec from industrial peonage. But the party did not yet draw the Leninist conclusion from the fact that the people of French Canada are a nation in every sense of the word and demand for them the full right of national self-determination.
That self-critical national conference of the party adjourned with unanimous adoption of a declaration that, while the fight for unity on the basis of Marxism-Leninism had yet to be completed, the sharpening capitalist crisis and the incontestable spirit of struggle permeating the working class was the guarantee that through single-minded devotion to the cause of the working class and frank self-criticism of its own work, the Communist Party of Canada would make of itself a mass Bolshevik party.
(1) Resolutions of the Enlarged Plenum of the Communist Party of Canada, February, 1931, p. 21.