Thirty Years – 1922-1952
The Story of the Communist Movement in Canada
THE Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, and the change in relationships that accompanied it, changed the character of the war. As the Communist Party of Canada pointed out:
". . . the possible outcomes of the war have been drastically
changed. In place of the previous perspectives of peace through joint
action of the anti-war forces 1 n the neutral and belligerent countries,
or war fought to an imperialist conclusion, the people ... now face the
alternative perspectives of: unity of all who are against Hitler's plan
of world conquest . . . or complete Nazi victory and a return of the
Dark Ages. Such are the fundamental alternatives confronting mankind today."(1)
"As Stalin declared in his historic call to action of the Soviet people on July 3rd: 'This war with fascist Germany cannot be considered an ordinary war . . . The aim of this national war in defence of our country is not only elimination of the danger hanging over our country, but also aid to all European peoples groaning under the yoke of German fascism . . . Our war for the freedom of our country will merge with the struggle of the peoples of Europe and America for their independence, for democratic liberties. It will be a united front of peoples standing for freedom and against enslavement and threats of enslavement by Hitler's fascist armies'."(2)
Almost a year later the prime minister, Mr. Mackenzie King, admitted that the character of the war had been changed. Addressing the House of Commons on June 10, 1942, he said: "I do not propose to go, at this time, into the reasons which have since occasioned a change of attitude on the part of some. I readily admit that it may have been due in part to the changed character and world-wide scope of the war."
There was complete accord within the Political Bureau of the party that the character of the war had been transformed, but there were differences concerning the manner in which the party should help to ensure a people's victory. Leading comrades who recognized the fundamental transformation in the character of the war failed to see that, precisely because the new alignment of forces was that of the socialist state and the capitalist democracies in a grand alliance against the world alliance of fascist states, the war would change the world. As that decisive fact was recognized party unanimity developed behind the slogan "A National Front for Victory!"
The program of action to arouse and unite the party in the struggle for labor unity for victory, was issued with the party's new slogan as a title. Because of the differences mentioned earlier, the pamphlet bore the following significant warning: "The report printed herein was adopted by the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of Canada on August 28, 1941. It is the official statement of the party's estimation of the war and the tasks it brings forward, and the policy to be followed by the party in the present period. It replaces and supersedes all materials issued previous to its adoption."
A National Front for Victory was a call to the party for a complete reversal of its previous position. It urged the party membership to strain every nerve in the fight for labor unity to win the war. The party did not ask for organizational agreements or party alliances. It used the term "National Front" to express unity of aim and purpose on the part of all Canada's people who stood for the defeat of fascism. "Such a front, cutting across the lines of class and party interests ... will not even necessitate formal political agreements or pacts."
The party emphasized that the change in the character of the war had brought about a fundamental change in the possibilities for the labor movement to play a leading role, even perhaps to win the leadership of the nation. It called upon the labor movement and particularly the C.C.F. to join hands:
"Despite the profound differences between the Communist Party and the leadership of the C.C.F. on questions of socialist philosophy and the strategy and tactics of the class struggle, a united front of our organizations in the effort to destroy Hitlerism is possible. It is not only posible, but vitally necessary. The fundamental interests of the Canadian working-class movement and the Canadian people demand that such a united front be formed now. We urge the broadest unity throughout the country, of C.C.F. and Communist Party organizations, and all allied forces, around our common aim to defeat Hitler and destroy the menace of fascism."(3)
Condemning the slanderous chauvinistic propaganda of the Tories against the workers of French Canada and, equally, the propaganda of pro-fascist elements in the province of Quebec, the party declared its unwavering confidence in the democratic masses of French Canada and their readiness to fight for a just cause. The party statement, supported and elaborated by pamphlets dealing with the special problems of French Canada, pilloried members of Mackenzie King's cabinet for their big share of responsibility for the attitude of the people of French Canada. Those members of the goverment, with local politicians and clerics in the province of Quebec, gave systematic support to fascist hopes by defending "the men of Vichy," by praise of fascist corporatism as a political philosophy, by cultivating the lie that the main enemy of Canada was communism and the Soviet Union. The party statement declared that such voices did not represent the masses of the people of French Canada. The people are against tyranny, they are against exploitation, they are for bona fide trade unionism. Even as the party's pamphlet was published, the people of French Canada were demonstrating their sentiments by flockin into the trade unions faster than was the case in any other part of Canada.
The party was still banned and compelled to operate underground. Because it was vital that the membership should be unified around the change of policy, it was decided that, despite the evident difficulties, a national conference must be held. An underground conference was organized and held in Montreal in February, 1942. There, party leaders from every part of the country thrashed out the whole question of the transformation of the character of the war, and the transformation made necessary in the work of the party. The main resolution adopted declared: "The Communist Party of Canada gives its unconditional support to the national war effort and to the alliance of the United Nations. . . . The Communist Party calls upon the people of Canada to build national unity around the country's war effort. ... The changed character of the war which has led to the world alliance of the democratic governments and peoples has also created the conditions for a class alliance embracing all classes in the capitalist democracies united by the common aim of defending their national existence. Such a class alliance is developing in Canada.... In this alliance the working class has a great role to play ... the level of its initiative and strength in the war is the measure of the rise of the subjective force of the people's war against fascism."
While emphasizing the necessity for the working class to win a place for itself in the leadership of the nation, the resolution castigated the Liberal government for its anti-working-class policy of freezing wages at depression levels while the profits of Canadian corporations were soaring to new record high levels. It called upon democratic Canadians to insist upon a hundred per cent excess profits tax and increased taxes on big incomes. It. called for equal pay for equal work for women and men. It denounced the King government's penny-pinching policy of maintaining two standards of "cost-of-living bonus," with the lower bonus for those workers who needed it most. At the same time, the resolution called upon all democratic Canadians to support the forthcoming plebiscite on the question of compulsory military service:
"The Communist Party calls upon the Canadian people to vote yes on the plebiscite, and directs every party member and organization to unfold a great campaign around the central slogan: Make the plebiscite into a mighty demonstration of national unity for total war!"(4)
One of the questions that confronted the conference was: "How shall the party develop a broad public campaign in support of the plebiscite, while tinder governmental ban?" The delegates answered that question by adopting a plan to set up "Tim Buck Plebiscite Committees" all over Canada under the national slogan of "Vote 'YES' for Victory!" The first committee was in Toronto with headquarters at 601 Yonge Street, headed by Leith McMurray, chairman; Harry Bell, recording secretary; Pearl Wedro, secretary-treasurer. Within a few weeks Tim Buck Plebiscite Committees were functioning in dozens of centres. By leaflets, newspaper advertisements, recordings of speeches and house-to-house canvassing, the committees carried the campaign for a Yes vote into every community. Acknowledging that a great many Canadians who wanted to see Hitler defeated were so dissatisfied with the government that they were advocating a No vote as a rebuff to the Liberals, the committees urged Canadians to recognize the historic significance of the plebiscite. The central pamphlet issued by the committees placed the question as follows:
"The plebiscite is now a factor in Canada's war effort. It can be, and it is our task to make it a positive factor. It will help to make all our people fully war-conscious. It confronts every one of us with the responsibility of taking a definite stand: for or against strengthening the nation's war effort. A national campaign to arouse the people and bring out an overwhelming majority to vote yes will be the biggest step forward that we have yet made in developing that offensive spirit, the spirit of attack, which is essential to victory."(5)
The party was banned, none of its prominent leaders was able to participate publicly in the campaign. Tories, as well as avowed pro-fascists, exploited the illegal status of the party to reduce popular support for the campaign but the Tim Buck committees made a powerful impression upon public opinion. The Montreal Gazette was impelled to admit editorially after the plebiscite that the only genuine national campaign in support of a Yes vote was the systematic and effective campaign carried through by the illegal Communist Party.
To study the lessons of the plebiscite campaign and to maintain the organization that had been built up in the fight for a Yes vote, a national conference of representatives of all the plebiscite committees was held in Toronto May 30-31, 1942. The delegates gathered there decided to unite their committees in a nationwide organization of "Communist-Labor Total War Committees." Lieut. William Kardash, member of the Manitoba legislature, was elected national chairman. The Communist-Labor Total War Committees continued the battle for working-class unity to ensure people's victory. They organized conferences of citizens, united groups of workers to fight for the establishment of labor-management committees in the plants. As their campaign developed and support for their program took on mass popular proportions, it became evident that a struggle had to be initiated on a national level to remove the ban from the Communist Party.
It should be pointed out here that the heroism displayed, the magnitude of the battles fought and the crucial significance of the victories being won by the Red Army, were then generating a profound wave of admiration for our Soviet ally. The Toronto Dally Star, for example, declared editorially on August 4, 1942: "Russia's strength lies not only in her well-trained army and military leaders. The root of it, a strong root, is in the people from whom the army and its leaders are drawn. The fact is that the entire Russian nation Is literally 'up in arms.' Every household is in this battle, every man, woman and child who is physically fit has a job to do and is doing it."
Great "Salute to Russia" demonstrations were held all across Canada to celebrate the anniversary of the change in the character of the war and of the Soviet-British alliance. Provincial governments, municipal councils, universities, churches, press, etc., paid warm tributes to the Soviet Union and her heroic peoples. There was indeed a flowering of mutual understanding in the democratic and heroic partnership of the war. Even the Toronto Globe and Mail was impelled to write editorially on October 15, 1942: "The time for recriminations and the continuance of past prejudices is long past. This newspaper has said some bitter things about the Russians. We have been wrong, and have repudiated many of them."
Meantime, although public enthusiasm for the grand alliance was growing, and the temper of class relationships in Canada increasingly reflected the new, people's character of the war, the Communist Party was still banned. Comrade A. E. Smith, secretary of the National Council for Democratic Rights, launched a campaign to press the government to "Lift the Ban." Communists incarcerated in Internment Camp "H" addressed a collective letter to the prime minister calling upon him to recognize the change that had taken place in Canada's policy as a result of the change in the character of the war, and the advantages that would accrue to the war effort, therefore, by their release. They emphasized that: "Not one of our number has been charged with a single overt act; in not a single case has reason been shown why any should be imprisoned in the interests of the security of the state."
Under pressure of the public appeals the government finally set up a parliamentary committee to study the case.
The minister of justice, Mr. Louis St. Laurent, refused to consider lifting the ban. There being no I onger any justification for maintaining the ban on the Communist Party because of its attitude toward the war, Mr. St. Laurent resorted to declarations that the fundamental philosophy of the Communists was in conflict with his conception of Christian civilization. It was a striking fact that even in the midst of the war against fascism, Mr. St. Laurent and General Franco used the same terms to excuse their persecution of the Communists. In the name of the Communist Party, its secretary declared: "I would welcome a comparison between our ideals as expressed in practice and his own (Mr. St. Laurent's) before any public tribunal in Canada. I have no fear whatever of the outcome"
After lengthy hearings, the parliamentary committee recommended that the ban should be lifted from the Communist Party and the rights of its members to advocate their point of view in public be restored. Still Mr. St. Laurent said no. The committee's report was not submitted to the House of Commons and nothing was done.
In a letter to Mr. St. Laurent, the secretary of the party drew the latter's attention 'to the profound contradiction between his admission that "Canadians belonging to the Communist Party can be helpful in our war effort" and his refusal to implement the committee's recommendation. Tim Buck pointed out that strong personal opinions about the differences between communism and "Christian civilization in our country" did not justify refusal by the minister of justice to implement the report of a parliamentary committee. He continued:
"To make the fundamental religious or political convictions of a man or a group the test of whether or not they shall be allowed to exercise the full rights of citizenship, as your words do, is to deny the essential principle of democracy ... It is to suggest a return to the principle of the Spanish Inquisition. Your words express an attitude towards Canadians with whose fundamental philosophical convictions you disagree similar to the attitude of Hitler's most violent adherents towards both the church and anti-fascist activities in Germany."
The party leadership recognized that the difference between whether it could work publicly or be forced to continue underground could make a big difference to the role of Canadian labor in the war effort. This realization was stimulated in July, 1942, by the arrest of Comrades J. B. Salsberg and Joe Gershman. The circumstances were as follows.
As a result of the anti-working-class wage policy of the Liberal government and the manner in which Humphrey Mitchell, minister of labor, enforced it, there was acute danger of a tie-up of the shipyards on the Pacific Coast. Hoping to persuade the workers to refuse to be provoked by, Humphrey Mitchell's arrogance, Joe Salsberg proposed to run the risk of detection and go direct to Vancouver by plane. To secure the agreement of other members of the Political Bureau, he departed from the strict and usually rigid rules of procedure. As a result he was detected by the Mounties and arrested. That touched off a conclusive study by the leadership of the party of the measures necessary to force the issue of party legality.
After a careful canvas of opinions all over the country, it was decided that seventeen of the leading comrades would congregate in Toronto and publicly surrender. On the 10th of September, 1942, the seventeen made their way by various routes to the office of Mr. J. L. Cohen, and announced their intention to the amazed K.C. Then, with what almost amounted to humor, the R.C.M.P., which had failed until then to "get their men," asked the seventeen would 'they "mind coming over to the R.C.M.P. headquarters" at Beverley and Dundas Streets to surrender.
A special tribunal was set up to investigate whether the seventeen, or any of them, should be interned. The tribunal reported no upon each case. As the Political Bureau of the party had estimated, release of the seventeen compelled the government to release all the Communists. Within a month they were all free.
Those who were of military age volunteered immediately for overseas service. Several of them were parachuted behind Hitler's lines and served with distinction. A number of Canadian Communists were awarded decorations for service in the field. Some, like Harry Binder who was wounded in action three times, still carry the scars of their service. Some, like Dick Steele, Zane Navis, Muni Ehrlich, Hughie Anderson, Reuben Gorodetsky and others, including several of the comrades who were parachuted behind Hitler's lines, gave their lives in the People's War against fascism.
The leaders of the party, local and national, returned to their homes and took up the battle. In all-sided activity the left-wing movement was mobilized in a campaign of the widest public character to unite labor and win for the working class a leading role in the carrying through of the war effort. Integral with all activties to strengthen labor's role in winning the war, the party took up the fight to compel the King government to change its wage and labor policy. When, under pressure of working-class resentment, Mackenzie King set up a board to hold a national inquiry into wages and labor relationships, the national Communist-Labor Total War Committee submitted a brief which constituted, simultaneously, the wage program of the working-class movement and "A Labor Policy for Total War." Taking as its central idea the thesis that "the battle lines run through the plants of the nation," the brief showed that the inequitable wage and labor policy of the government was, by its rank injustice to the workers, an obstacle to the war effort. The brief castigated the government for its policy which forbade wage increases to 485,526 heads of families whose earnings then averaged only $17.46 per week, while paying so-called "dollar-a-year" men $125 a week for expenses, from which they asked to be excused the obligation of paying personal income tax.(6) It exposed the dishonest makeup of the cost-of-living index. It showed that the real driving forces behind the inflation, then starting were not wages and working-class demands for improved conditions, but the governments systematic expansion of currency and credit while restricting the volume of products coming on the market for civilian consumption - basically the same causes that are operating today. The brief concluded with the following words: "The inquiry your board is conducting is of tremendous importance in the life of our country.... The government will be provided by this inquiry with an opportunity to draw labor into full partnership in the present titanic struggle. We all hope that the government will avail itself of this opportunity."
The party campaigned in every section of the labor movement for support of the all-out war effort advocated in its, brief. Some of the reforms it urged were introduced, albeit cheeseparingly, but the government did not introduce any basic change in its approach to labor. The difficulty of raising these issues to the national level, the fact that the Communist Party was still banned and the. minister of justice was adamant in maintaining the ban, the evidence that it would not be lifted before federal elections were held, and the necessity for a national campaign around a genuine working-class program in the federal general elections, all combined to create an urgent need for "A New Party of Communists."
(1) A National Front for Victory, p. 3
(2) A National Front for Victory, p. 7.
(3) A National Front for Victory, p. 16.
(4) Political Resolution, National Conference Communist Party of Canada, February, 1942, p. 9.
(5) Vote "YES" on the Plebiscite, Tim Buck's Appeal, p. 11
(6) A Labor Policy for Victory, p. 9