Lenin and Canada

Chapter 1: The Canadian Labor Movement Before the Great October Revolution

The teachings of Lenin and the experiences of Lenin’s party have been powerful influences in the development of the Communist Party of Canada. The Great October Revolution, carried through to victory by the Bolshevik Party under Lenin’s leadership, inspired the founding of the Canadian party. In the long struggle which followed to achieve for our party a Leninist character, and in a number of crucial periods since then, the teachings of Lenin and the example of the Bolshevik Party have been always both the main inspiration and the guiding light for the members of it who fought for Leninism.

To appreciate the vital importance of Lenin in the formation and early development of the communist Party of Canada, it is necessary to consider the situation that existed in the working-class movement prior to the Great October revolution.

Up until that time the subjective attitude of the overwhelming majority of the workers was at the level described by Engels in his book, Anti-Dühring. The rise and growth of capitalist industry in Canada was “welcomed even by those who came off worst from its corresponding mode of distribution.” Exploitation was intense. We labored ten hours peer day. Only a very small percentage of strategically placed workers in what we referred to at that time as “sheltered occupations” enjoyed the eight-hour day. What a small percentage they were is illustrated by the fact that the eight-hour day was not enjoyed by the workers in the steel industry, the iron ore and other metal-mining industries, the woodworking ant the metal-working trades, or any of the mass production industries. When the Ford Motor Company announced that it would introduce the eight-hour day in its Detroit factory in 1915, the announcement created and international sensation.(1)

In spite of the hard conditions, the scourge of unemployment which accompanied seasonal work, and the calculated discrimination against those immigrants who came to Canada from lands other than the British Isles or the United States, the labor movement was very weak. The aggregate membership of all the unions in Canada at the time of the outbreak of the First World War was less than 175,000. That small membership was divided between Canadian unions, Canadian locals of the United States unions, and Canadian locals of British unions. The National (Canadian) unions were divided into rival groups. In addition to those united in the Canadian federation of Labor, there were Catholic Syndicates in Quebec initiated and led by the Roman Catholic Church, there were regional unions typified by “The Provincial Workmen’s Association” in Nova Scotia, and there were a number of outright company unions, organized and operated in open collaboration with employers.

The United States unions operating in Canada constituted the majority and the very conservative Trades and Labor Congress which was the subordinate Canadian organization of the American Federation of Labor, was recognized as the main center of the trade union movement. Some United States unions operated in Canada independently of the AFL. The strongest of them numerically were the independent “International” Railway Brotherhoods: locomotive engineers, railway firemen, conductors, trainmen, switchmen. But the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), being at that time the vigorous banner-bearer of the idea of anarcho-syndicalism, exerted an influence far greater than the proportion of its numerical strength although its actual organized membership was limited almost entirely to small, scattered local organizations of loggers, sawmill workers, migratory agricultural workers, a few miners and a few longshoremen on the Pacific Coast.

Division and regionalism in the trade union movement were paralleled by division and confusion in the sphere of political action. As Engels noted, also in Anti-Dühring,“Immature class positions correspond to immature theories.” The truth of that thesis was illustrated vividly by the bewildering confusion of “half-baked” theories which characterized the political activities of the Canadian working class prior to the Great October revolution.

There were several socialist parties and a large number of local “Labor Parties.” The latter were patterned i a general way upon the Independent Labor Party movement in the British Isles. In Canada these parties varied slightly from locality to locality. Some of them considered themselves “socialist,” but basic to all or them was their self-restriction to electoral action. With a few honorable exceptions their reformist leaders were unashamedly opportunist careerists.

Of the socialist organizations the one with the biggest membership was the Social-Democratic Party. Its membership was composed in the main of immigrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe. Its Jewish Federation was strongly entrenched among the workers in the clothing industry in Montreal and Toronto. Members of its Ukrainian, Polish and Croatian Federations were a militant influence among the workers in some sections of the coal and metal mining industry. Members of its :Finnish Federation exercised strong influence in the logging industry, the metal-mining industry and a number of small communities in which immigrants from Finland constituted a substantial proportion of the population. In 1912, A. Lindala, the president of the Toronto Finnish local of the Social-Democratic Party, received 12,000 votes when he ran as the socialist candidate for mayor. But the Social-Democratic movement had arisen as a federation in which the various language sections had retained sovereign owners. The reality of their autonomy was not eliminated by changing its constitution to that of a single unified party. Its language sections remained isolated from the general political life of the country, to a great extent even from each other. Because of these factors, and the very strong trend of anarcho-syndicalism among its members, the SDP never developed its potential political influence.

The Socialist Party of Canada, usually referred to as the SPC, was smaller numerically than the SDP, but a large proportion of its members were Canadian-born or immigrants from the British isles. A substantial number of them were trade union officers; more often than not they were elected because the members of the SDP in the unions supported them. A smaller but corresponding number of them were parliamentary candidates from rime to time. A small number, mainly in mining areas, won elections. As a result of these distinctive features of its activity the public image of the Socialist Party of Canada was more widely known than that of the Social-Democrat Party and, generally, it was considered to be the most representative organized expression of the idea of socialism in Canada.

The SPC was a narrow party, limited by its own peculiar conception of Marxist orthodoxy; in which a mythology of “economic determinism” was predominant. A lot of what Engels described as “the most wonderful rubbish”(2) derived from that distortion of Marxism. By their “free” interpretations of the materialist conception of history, members of both the Socialist Party of Canada and the Socialist Labor Party promised all but spontaneous disintegration and collapse of capitalism under the weight of its own contradictions. The form in which the inevitable collapse was to take place varied according to the prophet. SPC members preferred the thesis put forward by Karl Kautsky in his book entitled The Class Struggle, in which he described the operation of “The Law of the Falling Tendency of the Rate of Profit” as though it were absolute. Others preferred the thesis advanced by a right-wing socialist in the United States, named Herman Cahn, in his book entitled The Collapse of Capitalism. Cahn promised his readers the inevitable collapse of the system as the consequence of inflation getting out of control. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World, indeed all syndicalists and many right-wing socialists accepted the thesis of Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel, especially in its combination of pessimism concerning the revolutionary capacity of the working class and its fatalistic confidence in the role to be played ultimately by the de-classed masses of “The People of the Abyss.”

Although a number of active members of the SPC, some of them party spokesmen, were trade union officials, the party stood aloof from the struggle of the organized labor movement. The struggle for wages and economic gains in general was dismissed as “bargaining for hay and oats.” While members of the party were nominated as candidates in elections and a few of them were elected to provincial legislatures and municipal councils, the prevailing attitude to parliamentary action was brashly negative. Anti-parlimentarianism was common even to some of the members who were nominated as candidates from time to time.

Few of the spokesmen of the SPC objected to the deviations from Marxism which marked its activities. Indeed, very few if any of them considered them to be inconsistent with Marxism. Pride in what they considered to be their scientific Marxist orthodoxy fostered among its active members what we of the self-styled “Left” labeled “a superiority complex.” Victims of that sickness of self-delusion tended to look disdainfully upon their fellow workers who were not Marxists (sic!). A commentary upon the mood of many of the workers during that period is to be seen in the fact that very little resentment was expressed against such arrogance. For example, in a provincial general election in Alberta, a socialist candidate was asked in a public meeting: “Mr. Christophers, will you tell us why you, who always preach anti-parlimentarianism, ask us now to vote for you?” Without a moment’s hesitation the candidate replied, “Sure I’ll tell you. I want you to elect me to the gas house to provide me with a meal ticket.”(3) Comrade Phillip Christophers repeated that several times in different parts of the constituency during the election campaign, but he was elected. The prevalence of that attitude within the party helps to explain why its membership remained very small even in periods when the conditions were favorable for growth.

The foregoing is not to suggest that the SPC was composed entirely of cynics and working-class political snobs. On the contrary, a large proportion of its members were sincere revolutionary workers, loyal, although confused,(4) adherents of Marx and Engels. Our confusion was partly because the militancy of the anarcho-syndicalists and their leadership of a number of bitterly fought strikes attracted revolutionary workers and we, the would-be Marxists, were not equipped with sufficient knowledge of Marxist science to be able to convince our fellow workers that syndicalism “was not the answer.”

Before the Great October Revolution, few Canadian workers had read Das Kapital. An English translation of the first volume had been published by Charles H. Kerr and Company of Chicago in 1906, followed by English translations of the second and third volumes in 1909. But the cost of the books in relation to wage levels in Canada at that time, the long exhausting work day and the low level of formal education among workers combined to impede circulation of the full work. Usually the volumes were purchased collectively, one at a time, by an organization and made available to those members who could arrange to do their reading at a designated place, usually the home of the secretary of the local union or socialist club, and at an agreed time.

A substantial number of workers read about Marxism, however, and read the smaller classics. The main ones were The Communist manifesto; Socialism, Utopian and Scientific; Value, Price and Profits; Wage-Labor and Capital; Marx’s famous Preface to A Contribution to a Critique of Political Economy published in pamphlet form, and the Erfurt Program of the Social-Democratic Party of Germany, published under the title of The Class Struggle by Karl Kautsky. All those were read widely and were discussed with varying degrees of consistency by the locals of the SPC and the other socialist parties. There was limited circulation of a 64-page brochure containing excerpts from Part I of the first volume of Capital and a full text of its 32nd chapter, “Historical Tendency of Capitalist Accumulation.”

Along with elementary Marxist literature the SPC used to circulate and popularize a variety of non-working-class publications dealing with subjects which the leadership of that party considered to be an integral part of the revolutionary world historical viewpoint. The best of these books were The History of Civilization by Buckle, The Evolution From Ape to Man by Huxley, The Evolution of the Idea of God, by Allen, The Republic by Plato, The Golden Bough by Foster-Frazer. The worst of them need not be catalogued. Popularization of such literature was usually associated with the influence in the local of a vocal activist whose ambition to “prove” the inevitability of progress by evolution, or his preoccupation with the struggle against religious superstition, was stronger than his Marxism.

It was not uncommon, however, fore one spokesman of an SPC local to champion several points of view. At weekly meetings he would lecture learnedly at different times in support of “The Materialist Conception of History” which he invariably reduced to a mechanistic conception if economic determinism, in support of “Evolution: Mankind’s Path of Progress,” in elaborate exposition of the “Evolution of the Idea of God,” in support of anarcho-syndicalism in the field of economic action. A number of them, including some prominent advocates of socialism, propagated the ideas of a bourgeois writer named Lester Ward, under the illusion that he was a “revolutionary sociologist.”

The other expression of the socialist movement which operated all over Canada at that time was composed of the Canadian locals of “The Socialist Labor Party” headed then by the very sectarian, dogmatic but brilliant agitator Daniel De Leon. The SLP ignored the frontier. Its Canadian locals operated under the immediate direction of their central office in the United States. Some of their members joined the union at their place of work, but most of them refused point-blank to join, on the ground that the union was no more than “a class collaborating job trust.”

As an organization, the SLP was committed to the task of building the “Workers’ International Industrial Union,” the schematic structure of industrial organization that De Leon conceived of as the “economic arm” of the SLP when he broke with the IWW because it refused to support the idea of working-class political action: specifically, support of the SLP as its “political arm.” The SLP did not succeed in building an effective economic organization, even in those cities in which Central Councils of the WIIU were set up and functioned for some years. But, stubborn and self-sacrificing efforts to implement De Leon’s proposal to reorganize the parliamentary system from representation of geographical areas to representation by industries and occupations.

The refusal of the leadership of the SPC to fight within the party for consistent Marxism, the equivocal attitude to Marxist principles which resulted from that, and the aloofness of the SPC as a party from the struggles of the organized labor movement, finally impelled the members of its Toronto local to secede. In 1916 we adopted a new constitution which differed from that of the SPC mainly in three conditions of membership that it included. They were:

“ applicants for membership must serve a probationary period as candidates. During that period they must attend the New Membership Classes regularly.
“ candidates must demonstrate an ability to explain: surplus value, dialectical materialism, and the class struggle, as a condition of promotion to full membership.
“ every member of the party must be a member of the union in his of her place of work.

Reflecting on our attitude to proletarian internationalism, we adopted the pretentious name “The Socialist Party of North America.” We did not attempt to extend our organization on a North American scale but we held to and advocated the idea of united action by the workers of Canada and the United States.

As indicated earlier, the organizations that we have referred to by name were but a few of the large number operating in Canada in 1917. They were proclaiming a bewildering variety of “solutions” for the problems confronting the working class. All of them were caught up in the turbulent ferment of working-class demands and the confused but irrepressible working-class militancy that had been generated by the radicalizing effects of the class contradictions highlighted and accentuated by the evils in Canada related to the first world imperialist war and the impact of the Great October Revolution. The effect of that had been like a thunder-clap. It stirred to action revolutionary workers everywhere in the country. It confounded the agents of the bourgeoisie and the other “traders in confusion” who, between them, had dominated the working-class movement in Canada until then.

The process was not even, of course. From their spontaneous demonstrations of joy at the victory of the socialist revolution, broad circles of workers and working farmers moved into action to aid it. Resolutions and collections of money in support of the revolution quickly became the order of the day. The first hint of overt hostile imperialist actions against the fledgling Soviet Republic was opposed by mass actions of working-class organizations all over the country. The effect of those actions is indicated by the fact that Canada’s actual contribution to imperialist intervention fell far short of what was planned by the belligerently reactionary Conservative government of the day. Along with support of the socialist revolution there developed a wave of turbulent growth of the trade unions and of political organizations, all developing in an atmosphere of unprecedented radicalization of the working class.

But while enthusiastic support for the October Revolution and agitation for a like change in the social system in Canada characterized the activities of the radicals, it did not bring about unity. The immediate result of the intense ferment stirring the working class was that all revolutionary and allegedly revolutionary organizations became stronger and more active. Step by step they advanced their activities until open defiance of the “War Measures Act,” under the authority of which the government had outlawed them, became common place. There was, particularly, an upsurge of support for anarcho-syndicalism. Objectively, the situation was such that a united left could have achieved important changes in the trade union movement, particularly in the organization of the workers in the basic industries and in the mass production industries. Instead of that, however, influential radicals stimulated secession movements and internecine warfare in the trade union movement.

The Western Labor Conference held in March 1919, adopted a resolution endorsing the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary character of the state through the transition from capitalism to communist society. Jack Kavangh, the man who wrote that resolution and introduced it to the conference, was a militant revolutionary who proudly called himself a Marxist. He became a foundation member of the Workers’ Party of Canada when a branch of that projected communist organization was established in Vancouver two years later. But, in the Western Labor Conference and for a considerable period before it took place, his orientation was syndicalist and he denied belligerently, the contradiction between his actions and Marxism. The same was true of the majority of the 250 representatives of trade unions who were assembled there. Syndicalism was the dominant and unchallenged trend of the conference as a whole. Initiated by a caucus of delegates from west of the Great Lakes during the annual convention of the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada in 1918 to enable the unions in Western Canada to co-ordinate their activities, it became an organized attempt to split the trade union movement, to destroy the existing unions if possible, and replace them with a utopian “One Big Union”

The Western Labor Conference was typical of the activities of the majority of radicals adn revolutionary workers in Canada during that period. It illustrated vividly the correctness of Lenin’s warning that a revolutionary mood by itself is not enough. Stirred to action by the Great October Revolution but without the benefit of directions and became victims of the fact that , in Canada, there had never been a purposeful fight for Marxism such as Lenin had waged. Each of the several organizations which declared that their fundamental aim was socialism sought to improve its own fortunes without any regard for the fortunes of the working-class movement as a whole. It was only as revolutionary workers learned enough about Lenin’s teachings, and as his influence became effective, that the relationship between the struggle to integrate Marxism with the broad working-class movement and the struggle to abolish capitalism was recognized. As realization of that inseparable relationship spread and was debated, and thinking workers began to understand its crucial significance for a serious revolutionary party, it brought about a revolutionary change in the consciousness and the organizations of the working-class movement in Canada.

The change was not immediate, of course; it required a systematic struggle which extended over several years. The weight of the past, the influence of anarcho-syndicalism and of opportunism, along with the various distortions of Marxism, all aggravated by the cunning tactics of entrenched leaders, prevented the revolutionary workers from advancing ideologically at a pace which corresponded with the upsurge of their mass activities. Thus, on the First of May, 1919, when the working-class movement was in a ferment of radical expectation all over the country, great May Day demonstrations such as had never been witnessed in Canada before, greeted the Great October Revolution, sent greetings to Lenin pledging support to the Soviet government, and called upon workers to strengthen further their opposition to all forms of imperialist attempts to overthrow it. In the majority of those demonstrations the banner of support for the Winnipeg General Strike and of the struggle for socialism in Canada was raised strongly amid high enthusiasm. But, in the main, the speakers who joined in paying homage to the October Revolution and its incomparable leader Lenin were the very men who were keeping the working class divided and confused and preventing the development of effective revolutionary working-class political action in Canada.

1. The decisive consideration which motivated the change was the necessity to go over to three shifts per day to take advantage of governmental war orders.

2. Letter to J. Bloch, Sept. 21st, 1890. Marx-Engels, Selected Correspondence, International Publishers, New York, pp. 475-77.

3. The term “gas house” was a favorite epithet used by the anarcho-syndicalists to characterize parliamentary institutions. Philip M. Christophers was a member of the Socialist Party, but he spoke in terms used by the anarcho-syndicalists always.

4. For example, Phil Christophers became a foundation member of the Workers’ Party of Canada a short time after he was elected.