Lenin and Canada

Chapter 3: Lenin and the Founding of the Party of a New Type in Canada

The first attempt to found a Communist Party of Canada was in February 1919. It was necessarily illegal because the repressive law outlawing the IWW, communist, socialist, syndicalist, anarchist, and all other revolutionary organizations, was still in effect. The plans for the founding conference were betrayed and the police caught several of the participants. Two leading comrades, John Boychuk and Tom Bell, were sentenced to prison terms. Two others were deported and later became active in the founding of the Communist Party of Germany, one of them, Comrade Ewert, becoming a member of its Central Committee. Mrs. Florence Custance was arrested but released without official charges, and resumed her activity immediately.

A number of groups continued to operate illegally. Most of us became members of the Communist Party of America when it was founded, others joined the United Communist Party of America shortly afterward. For the reason noted above and conditions in the United States at that time our organizations were necessarily illegal.

As members of U.S. parties the Canadian memberships had no direct contact with the International, but the spirit of its Second Congress, especially Lenin’s polemics against the leftist sectarians, combined with the situation in Canada, convinced the majority of us, in the Canadian units of both the Communist Party of America and the United Communist Party of America, that we should unite in a distinctly Canadian Communist Party. The American Commission of the Comintern, headed by Comrade Sen Katayama, agreed and encouraged us. A joint committee worked out a proposal for the merging of the Canadian members of the two United States parties in an independent Canadian party. After discussion in every unit it was approved by the majority of the members of each. The unity convention was held, of necessity illegally, on the outskirts of the city of Guelph, Ontario. Its exact location was a barn on a small farm. The occupant of the farm was Fred Farley, a worker in the waterworks department of the City of Guelph. It was he who had given me refuge after students from the Ontario Agricultural College had broken up an anti-war meeting and thrown me into the Speed River. Comrade farley had been an active member of the Socialist Labor Party, but had left it over the issue of affiliation to the Third (Communist) International. He was one of the founding members of the Guelph unit of the Communist Party of Canada.

The unity convention founded the Communist Party of Canada on June 1, 1921. Our new party’s application for affiliation to the Comintern was accepted. Under the influence of Comrade Carl Jansen, an American member if the American Commission of the Comintern,(12) and other United States delegates returning from the Third Congress, we undertook an energetic study of the best means by which to develop broad public communist activities. This led to the formation in February 1922 of “The Worker’s Party ,”a legal organization which became the Communist Party of Canada when the government allowed the repressive wartime legislation to lapse in 1923.

The campaign to establish a broad public party of the working class was initiated by a preliminary conference held in Toronto in December 1921. The conference issued a public call for the founding of a new revolutionary political party of the working class. It elected a Provisional Central Committee, charged with the task of establishing the organization and preparing for a constituent convention to be held in Toronto in February 1922. Two members of the Provisional Central Committee, Jack MacDonald and Tim Buck, undertook public speaking tours to establish local units of the projected party in Ontario and Western Canada.

The campaign to establish the new party was the first broad public call upon Canadian radicals to turn their backs on the ideological confusion and the political nihilism of syndicalism and the sectarian sterility of the SPC and the SLP. The prevalence of those baneful influences which had become rooted in the working-class movement and, opposed to them, the widespread confidence un Lenin’s leadership, were both emphasized simultaneously by the fact that, in the debate about the organization of the new party, the key issue very quickly became Lenin’s book: “Left”-wing Communism 7#8212; an Infantile Disorder.

Only a few copies of Lenin’s masterpiece had become available in Canada at that time, January 1922, but it was already the subject of a widespread and heated discussion. Albert Wells, editor of The B.C. Federationist,(13) was a member of the Communist Party of Canada and at the suggestion of its Central Committee he published “Left”-wing Communism in installments. The keen interest of the workers is indicated by the fact that the circulation of the paper increased from less than 9,000 to 40,000 per issue as a result. The first installment appeared February 18, 1921.

The impact of that book upon the working-class movement in Canada was terrific. Lenin’s demolition of arguments used by the self-styled “left communists” applied fully in Canada. His simple but irrefutable arguments and the activities that he advocated presented Marxism to Canadian workers in a way that, for us, was new. Here was in fact the application of Marxism un the day-to-day struggle for socialism. That book was the main topic of discussion among revolutionary workers for a long time. It started a deep-going change in the thinking of the left in general, first of all in the trade union movement. Although that process was only at its beginning when the convention which founded the Workers’ Party of Canada was held, that convention and the party that it founded each felt and benefited from the warm power of Lenin’s influence. The party, in turn, became an influential factor in the further development of the ideological change to organizational regrouping.

The founding convention itself signalized the incipient change , both by its composition and by the palace where it was held. In addition to the delegates representing the organizations set up under the leadership of the Provisional Central Committee, there were delegates representing locals of AFL unions, of anti-AFL unions, of groups and members of some unions which had refused to authorize an official delegate, of the OBU, and one member, an official of the IWW. The One Big Union was represented by an official delegation composed of three members of its executive board, headed by its General Secretary, R. B. Russell. The convention met in the Labor Temple, headquarters of the American Federation of Labor in Toronto.

The proposed aim of the convention, set forth in the welcoming keynote speech prepared by the Provisional Central Committee, was to establish a Marxist party which, while prevented by law from affiliating to the Communist International, would be guided in its activities by the policies of the International and its resolutions and decisions as adopted from time to time. A party which would dedicate itself to the task of helping the working class to comprehend its real interest as a class, and to formulate its class policies. A party which would serve the working class, express its interests, and advance those interests by systematic revolutionary work among all sections of the population.

Stated in those general terms the proposed aims of the convention, and the character of the party to be founded, were greeted unanimously. But the minute that the question of the party’s activities was placed before the delegates, in form of draft resolutions prepared by the Provisional Central Committee, “the fat was in the fire.”

The draft resolution prepared by the Provisional Committee proposed that, integral with dedication to the fundamental tenants of Marxism, the convention should commit the new party to immediate tasks and aims that were diametrically opposed to the traditions of the left in the working-class movement in Canada and which contradicted violently, the then-prevailing attitude of its most vocal representatives. The general political expression of that contradiction was the proposal that the convention should call upon all revolutionary workers to unite in a brad systematic campaign to replace the disunity and internecine warfare which characterized the movement at the time, by a united front of the working class. Our draft resolution followed closely the line of the appeal that had been issued by the Executive Committee of the Communist International following the third world congress. Partly because of that, the majority of delegates were prepared to endorse that resolution without debate. It must be admitted that few of them recognized in full the logic of the political line indicated in the United Front Appeal of the ECCI. The immaturity of our movement at that time was evident in the fact that the majority of the delegates decided their attitude to general political questions by their attitude to one another of the concrete proposals submitted by the Provisional Committee. For all but a very few the decisive question was “What will the convention do with the draft resolution which defines its attitude towards, and the activities of its membership in, the trade union movement?” That question, of the new party and the trade union movement, became the touchstone of the convention.

It was the first time in the history of the working-class movement in Canada that such a debate had taken place in a public convention of representative revolutionary workers. A Marxist convention was proposed; to replace Socialist Party sectarianism, syndicalist irresponsibility, and to replace the myth that secession was the only weapon by which reactionary bureaucracy in the trade unions could combated, by systematic revolutionary activity within the trade unions and in all working-class organizations. Until then, the myth about secession had been challenged in public by reactionary bureaucrats and their supporters. Such denunciations caused many honest workers to sympathize with the secessionists. Now, in the convention called to found a workers’ revolutionary party, these entrenched features of the anti-capitalist movement were challenged from the left. More, they were condemned as harmful to the struggle for socialism. That condemnation and the consistently Marxist alternative that was proposed were debated, hotly and intensely, by the outstanding representatives of radicalism. And, from that very concrete and elementary point of departure, the debate developed until it embraced the whole of the principal question of what should be the rule of a Marxist revolutionary party in Canada.

That debate provided convincing evidence of the importance of Lenin’s warning that: “Revolutionary tactics cannot be built on a revolutionary mood alone.” (Vol. 31, p. 63)

Canada was a youthful and rapidly growing capitalist state. The elementary truths of Marxism, even the historical mission of the working class, its real interests as a class, and the relationship of revolutionary working-class action to those interests, were quite unknown to the overwhelming majority of the workers, including a large proportion of those who were active supporters of the Great October Revolution and the Soviet Republic.

The conflict over secession had been expected. The General Executive Board of the One Big Union had declared in advance that its delegation to the convention “would be prepared to vote for the principle of a united front of the working class but it would oppose and defeat any proposal which suggested that militant workers should return to the ‘International’ unions.” On the contrary said some spokesmen of the General Executive Board, “the new party must become the political arm of the One Big Union.”

At the beginning of the convention the proportion of the delegates who had fought hard in the attempt to replace the “Internationals” by the OBU seemed to give substance to the claims of the leaders of the OBU. The debate on the resolution on the party and the trade union movement was vehement, at times even violent. At first most of the speakers concentrated their fire on their traditional target: the reactionary class-collaborating bureaucrats who controlled the American Federation of Labor and its “International” unions. Detestation of Gomperism was unanimous. Collusion between presidents of “Internationals” and the employers who exploited their members was castigated and condemned unanimously. Others besides members of its official delegation spoke in favor of close cooperation between the One Big Union and the new party. Members of the OBU delegation started to speak confidently about “we and the other comrades in this convention who had been fighting shoulder to shoulder in the revolutionary struggle since the Western Labor Conference.”

What the leaders of the One Big Union failed to understand was the profound influence of Lenin upon every delegate whose support they counted upon. Only a few of the delegates had read Lenin’s “Left”-wing Communism#8212; an Infantile Disorder, but all of them knew of it and knew one thing about it; namely, that it urged revolutionaries to work in the unions, including the reactionary ones. They were hearing that thesis debated for the first time. The effect of that debate and the understanding that developed as it proceeded, provided striking confirmation of the correctness of Lenin’s characterization of such workers in his thesis “On Fundamental Comintern Tasks,” extensive excerpts from which had been published in English only a short time before by the convention. For example:

The erroneous views held by these organizations regarding participation in bourgeois parliaments can be explained, not so much by the influence of elements coming from the bourgeoisie, who bring their essentially petty-bourgeois views into the movement ” views such as anarchists often hold ” as by political inexperience of proletarians who are quite revolutionary and connected with the masses. (Vol. 31, p. 200)

That warning of Lenin’s described the main weakness, theoretical immaturity and political inexperience, that was common to the majority of the delegates in our founding convention, including most of us who were members of the illegal Communist Party. As the debate developed those members if the Provisional Central Committee who had carried through the struggle within the committee to invite members and supporters of the One Big Union and the Industrial Workers of the World, in accord with Lenin’s suggestion in his Thesis, had cause to be proud of having followed his leadership. One by one the delegates who had come to the convention as supporters of either the OBU or the IWW and advocates of secession and anti-parlimentarianism, turned away from the belligerent and confused negativism of the champions of anarchosyndicalism to the scientific revolutionary dynamics of Lenin.

The leaders of the OBU moved that the draft resolutions be “tabled.” Their motion was defeated. They moved that questions of the party’s specific relations with any part of the trade union movement be referred to the Central Committee that was to be elected by the convention. That motion also was defeated. Then they resorted to the maneuver of motion, amendments, and a confusing “substitute motion to cover the whole.” Again they were defeated. Realizing that they could not hope to win a straight vote, Bob Russell, the General Secretary and outstanding leader of the OBU, made an impassioned appeal to the delegates to “prevent the railroading of this momentous decision without adequate consideration.” To ensure “adequate consideration” he appealed to the delegation in what he said would be “a short recess,” to be brought about by a “temporary walk-out” in which he urged all delegates to join.

The convention responded to that appeal with a spontaneous and almost unanimous “NO!” Bob Russell and his fellow members of the OBU delegation walked out of the convention, appealing to other delegates by name to join them, but not one delegate did. The resolution was adopted unanimously.

Inspired and guided by Lenin, the founding convention of the Worker’s Party of Canada had turned away from the sectarianism and defeatism of the past, confidently to the future with the aim of proletarian unity in the struggle for socialism.

12. Carl Jansen was his proper name. He was Latvian by birth and had emigrated to the United States after the Revolution of 1905. He was an active member of the revolutionary Lettish Club of Roxborough, Massachusetts. The pseudonym under which he was a member of the American Commission was Charles Scott.

13. The B.C. Federationist was the official organ of the British Columbia Federation of Labor.