Lenin and Canada

Chapter 2: From Confusion to United Purpose

A revealing light on the political level of working-class consciousness in Canada at that time is provided by the fact that nobody in the revolutionary movement knew Lenin’s works — or anything about them. The SPC maintained that Karl Kautsky was the greatest living authority on Marxism and its attitude was not challenged in Canada. The one or two in Canada who had known of Lenin before the October Revolution had only heard his name during the 1905 Revolution from the aftermath of which they had fled. Daniel De Leon in the U.S. had met Lenin, but he had failed to recognize the significance of Lenin’s political position, and his fight. The real first knowledge that we gained was by sifting grains of truth out from the mass of vicious lying propaganda about Lenin and the Maximalists(5) which appeared in the capitalist press during the October Revolution. Even those few grains of truth garnered by our reading “between the lines” inspired us with confidence in an incomparable revolutionary leader.

Some fragments of Lenin’s writings were published in the English language during the year following the October Revolution. The text of his Letter or American Workers became available in the winter of 1918-19. A limited number of copies of The State and Revolution were secured from the United States in the spring of 1919.

Although we devoured those first morsels of Lenin’s teachings, the question: “For of Against Lenin?” became crucial in the left wing of the labor movement quite distinct from, it may even be said quite independently of, how much anybody had read of his works.

The actual base upon which Lenin “seperated the wheat from the chaff” in Canada at that time was that of affiliation to the Third (Communist) International. The question arose simultaneously with receipt of the news that the Third International had been founded. Discussion became widespread and heated with publication of the Manifesto of the Founding Congress. Except for a very small left minority, the leaders of the socialist organizations opposed affiliation. In the early stage of the debate they succeeded in confusing the majority of their members by a variety of arguments on the theme of “bolshevism is a purely Russian phenomenon, it won’t work here.” Spokesmen of the right wing of the movement started early in the debate to add “we don’t want it here.” Furthermore, in the early stage of the debate the question before the members of the various parties was “Should we affiliate our party to the Communist International?” The result was to divert the attention of the majority of the members to a variety of local and national questions concerning what various individuals or groups considered to be “the interests of our organization,” instead of being focused on the requirements of the working class and the socialist revolution.

In the early period of that debate the opportunists appeared to have all the advantages. They occupied the key positions. In the case of the Socialist Party of Canada they had complete control of the national office, the press, and the party apparatus. The fight against the left created a situation in which there appeared suddenly, close cooperation between the trade union bureaucracy with its offices and inter-connections all over the country, and all who were opposing the left.

It was in that situation of political confusion that Lenin, figuratively, stepped on to the stage, took the initiative out of the hands of the right-wing opponents of action and gave it to those who wanted action — mainly in the rank and file. The instrument through which Lenin accomplished that indispensable change was his masterpiece The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. As the thesis and the contents of that shattering indictment became known, first through reviews and they by publication of the full text, the carefully fostered illusions about Kautsky and his complete personal integration with Marxism, which had been like blinkers over the eyes of the majority of the socialist rank and file, were stripped away. The Canadian right-wing leaders saw their rank-and-file support dissolve. From then on the mask of pseudo-Marxism became less and less effective. Claimants to leadership were confronted by demands that they declare themselves unequivocally on questions of Marxism, particularly on its fundamental principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Through that process the sentiments of thousands of workers advanced. Instinctively but correctly they had early recognized the Soviet Republic as our guarantee that the age-old dream of abolishing the exploitation of man by man would be fulfilled. They were for the October Revolution and for Lenin. With Lenin’s help, the debate on affiliation to the Third (Communist) International developed into debate about what kind of party would be required.

In our advance from denunciation of opponents of affiliation to an understanding of the qualitative political change that had to be expressed in organization of a communist party and its affiliation to the Comintern, a vital role was played by those of Lenin’s writings that became available in the English language during that period. His masterpiece The State and Revolution and his Letter to American Workers had become available shortly before the First Congress of the Comintern. Soon after the Second Congress , its Thesis and Statutes, including the conditions of affiliation, were published by the United States government for the information of the capitalist class. We were able to arrange for a number of teachers, students, accountants, etc., to write and secure copies from Washington.

The year 1920 was marked by an important change in the content of working-class appreciation of Lenin in Canada. Until then revolutionary workers all over the country had admired Lenin and paid ardent tributes to him because of his brilliant leadership of the Great October Revolution and of the new revolutionary Soviet State. The militantly revolutionary Western Labor Conference in Calgary in March 1919 had stood in tribute to Lenin while the text of its greeting to him was read and voted on. On May Day, 1919, French-Canadian workers in Montreal joined with English-Canadian workers all across the country from Toronto to Vancouver in pledging support to Lenin and the Soviet Republic. Such was the confidence inspired by Lenin that millions of workers who did not even pretend to be revolutionaries paid spontaneous tribute to his name. They recognized him as the supreme revolutionary leader of all time.

The year 1920 witnessed an advance in the quality of our mass relationship to Lenin. The immediate reason for that was in the fact that publication of his writings in the English language was increased during that year and enabled those who studied to recognize the fundamental difference between Marxism as fought for by Lenin and Kautskyist rationalizations which most of us had accepted until then as “scientific socialism.”

To those of his writings that were already available in the English language were added during 1920 his pamphlets: Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power: The Vote in the Elections to the Constituent Assembly, and The Tasks of the Third International, his reply to Ramsay MacDonald. There was published also in the United States an American translation of parts of What Is to Be Done. In addition to the above-named pamphlets, there were published during that year a number of items in the capitalist press which included what Lenin had said or written instead of reporting only what the owners of those papers wanted the readers to think of him. Among such items, interviews with correspondents of newspapers in London England, and New York and Chicago in the United States, provided striking evidence of Lenin’s supreme statesmanship as well as of the consolidation of Soviet power.

The pamphlet in which Lenin set forth his penetrating analysis of the popular vote cast in the elections to the Constituent Assembly exerted a powerful influence on Canadian socialists — indeed, upon all politically-minded radicals. The fact that it was such a frank analysis of the reality of the relationship of class forces, as well as that it showed concretely how absolutely correct Lenin’s judgment had been, was perhaps the most popularly recognized reason for its remarkable impact. But in the course or the intensive discussion of that pamphlet which developed, more and more revolutionary workers grasped the vital, and dynamic relationship between Lenin’s emphasis upon the following facts:

The Bolsheviks were victorious, first of all, because they had behind them the vast majority of the proletariat which included the most class-conscious, energetic and revolutionary sections, the real vanguard, of that advanced class.(6)

An overwhelming superiority of forces at the decisive point at the decisive moment — this “law” of military success is also the law of political success, especially in that fierce, seething class war which is called revolution.(7)

...we in spite of the furious resistance of the bureaucracy and the intelligentsia, despite sabotage, and so forth, were able with the aid of the central apparatus of state power to prove by deeds to the non-proletarian working people that the proletariat was their only reliably ally, friend and leader.(8)

...state power in the hands of one class, the proletariat, can and must become an instrument for winning to the side of the proletariat the non-proletarian working masses, an instrument for winning those masses from the bourgeoisie and from the petty-bourgeois parties.(9) (Lenin’s emphasis — T.B.)

Until then we had understood the dictatorship of the proletariat wholly in terms of its function after the victorious revolution, of preventing of suppressing attempts to restore capitalist class power. Now, in this pamphlet, Lenin explained another aspect of the dictatorship of the proletariat: namely, placing the authority, the power, and the leadership of the state at the service of interests of the masses of people instead of at the service of the capitalist class. Furthermore, Lenin showed that, in the situation that existed in October, it was a decisive factor in the consolidation of working-class state power.

The theoretical concept, and the example, of the use of state power as a lever to bring non-proletarian masses to the side of the socialist revolution and isolate the opponents of proletarian state power introduced a whole new dimension into our understanding of Marxism. Our ardent proletarian internationalism made us really partners, in the struggle as well as in the understanding. We began to sense how profound was the reality of the genius of Lenin.

The other two pamphlets which became available in the English language during that year also exerted particularly strong influence upon the left in Canada. All three, along with the Thesis and Statutes and the writings which had become available earlier were discussed intensively. Bit by bit workers defied the law which made possession of any one of them a crime. From discussions on the job, in semi-secret meetings, and in union halls, we advanced to public lectures and round-table conferences without any concealment. Debate of those works was “the yeast which leavened the loaf” of our understanding. Canadian socialists had been “barking up the wrong tree.” We had been demanding that we be led to the socialist revolution by organizations which were ideologically and organizationally incapable of fulfilling that role, because they were the organized expressions of erroneous conceptions of what should be the role of a revolutionary party. Like a great light it dawned upon us that, for the Canadian working class to defeat capitalist reaction and achieve socialism, the revolutionary workers must me guided by a party of a new type — the organized expression of the collective will to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat.

We had not yet read Lenin’s advice to Russian Marxists written in 1899: “We do not regard Marx“s theory as something completed and inviolable; on the contrary, we are convinced that it has only laid the foundation stone of the science which socialists must develop in all directions if they wish to keep pace with life.”(10) Several years were to pass before the article of which that is a part was published in English. But those of Lenin’s works that had become available in English or French and the help of those among us who could read Russian, combined with the revolutionary impact of the founding of the Comintern, brought a radical change in our understanding of the role and tasks of a revolutionary worker’s party. Without having read Lenin’s article “Our Programme,#8221; we realized, in a relatively short period of intense discussion over the question of affiliation, that the task of a revolutionary worker’s party is: “...not to hatch conspiracies, but to organize the class struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate struggle of the proletariat and to lead this struggle, the ultimate aim if which is the conquest of political power by the proletariat and the organization of socialist society.”(11) (Lenin’s emphasis — T.B.)

Instead of simply reflecting the moods of the masses, the revolutionary party must make it its task to advance always at the head the masses without ever allowing itself to get “too far out in front.” In place of the conception of Marxist orthodoxy which reduced Marxism to rigid dogma, the need was for a party which would, creatively, develop both its immediate tactics and its long-term application of Marxism in accord with the dynamics of the relationship between its revolutionary activities and the development of the working-class struggle. The level of this qualitative change in thinking of the left was not uniform everywhere in the country, because revolutionary workers were scattered in a great variety of organizations and the influence of the past, including organizational loyalties, was strong. But the conflict between advocates of affiliation, became recognized quickly as the conflict between opposing attitudes to the socialist revolution and to the Bolshevik Party. By the dialectics of debate, it evoked recognition of the historical necessity for the building of such a revolutionary party in Canada.

The idea of a party to meet the standards developed by the genius of Lenin was achieved by revolutionary Canadian workers and intellectuals under the direct inspiration of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.

5. The capitalist newspapers, at that time, referred to the Bolsheviks as Maximalists.

6. Collected Works, V. I. Lenin, Vol. 30, p. 257. Progress Publishers, Moscow. Unless otherwise identified, further quotations and references are to be understood as references to these Collected Works.

7. Ibid., p. 258.

8. Ibid., p. 259.

9. Ibid., p. 262.

10. V. I. Lenin, “Our Programme,” Vol. 4, pp. 211-12.

11. Ibid., p.211.