Lenin and Canada

Chapter 6: Lenin and the Character of the Canadian State

One of the many problems upon which Lenin’s teachings were crucial for Canadian communists was that of the character of the Canadian state, The official designation of our country at that time was “The Dominion of Canada.” In a formal sense the Dominions of the British monarch were dependencies. It was acknowledged that they were in transition from crude colonial status, presumably to some sort of junior partnership in the British Empire, but they did not have the constitutional right to amend their constitutions.

To help illustrate how deceptive threat formal limitation of sovereignty became, it is worthy of note that, in the same “formal” sense, it can be shown that Canada does not have the legal right to change her constitution now. This is so because, after the British Parliament adopted the “Statute of Westminster” which, among other things, formally acknowledged the full and unqualified right of the Dominions to change their constitutions unilaterally, the Canadian Parliament amended the Statute by inserting the words “excepting Canada” at the end of that clause. In other words the Canadian capitalist class demonstrated the reality of its sovereignty by rejecting Britain’s proposal to give it constitutional form and asserting instead its power to continue the constitutional pretence of subordination which it had found to be useful, particularly in its exploitation of French Canada.

But in 1929 the Statute of Westminster had not yet been enacted by the British Parliament and Canadian communists shared the prevailing illusion that, being “a Dominion” of the sovereign of Britain, Canada was necessarily in fact a British dependency.

Our demand for Canadian independence was for bourgeois independence — freedom from British rule. We did not describe the winning of that as the bourgeois-democratic revolution but that was the essential content of the demand. Because of the lag in popular understanding of the subtle change that had already taken place in the political reality of the relationship between the governments of Canada and Britain, our demand was acclaimed by many people, particularly among middle-class radicals.

Canadians have become accustomed by now to the idea that our country is in fact quite sovereign in relation to Britain, in spite of the archaic arrangement by which changes in its constitution have to be made by the cumbersome process of the Canadian Parliament going through the motions of submitting an appeal to the British sovereign and her ministers to enact the desired amendments to the “British North American Act.” But in 1929 it was understood only by the most sophisticated of the capitalist politicians who were nourishing the myth of constitutional subordination. Indeed, as recently as in 1926, Sir Clifford Sifton, a rich and very experienced politician who had held ministerial positions in several Canadian governments, both Liberal and Tory, was making public speeches on the theme of the potential danger to Canada of our dependent relationship to Britain. In one such public address to a meeting in Alhambra Hall in Toronto, he described how Britain had won her Empire by the sword and would hold it only by the sword. His thesis was that Canada should free herself from automatic involvement in Britain’s wars. How strongly entrenched constitutional illusions were at that time is illustrated by the fact that not one member of the audience pointed out that, in 1922, by rejecting Lloyd George’s request for an assurance of Canadian support if Britain intervened in the Near East (the Chank incident) the Prime Minister of Canada had disproved the theory of automatic involvement.

Sir Clifford Sifton and those who agreed with him were not the only ones among the bourgeoisie who were still nursing the idea of Canada’s colonial relationship to Britain. The violently pro-British Conservative Party wanted to continue dependence upon British imperialism. In the same period, i.e., 1926, the Governor General of Canada intervened in domestic politics in support of the Conservative Party. he refused the request of the Prime Minister, Mackenzie king, that the house of Commons be dissolved and a general election be held. Instead he called upon the rabidly pro-British leader of the Conservative Party, Arthur Meighen, to form a government. A general election had to be held soon afterwards when Meighn’s government was defeated in the House of Commons. That election is referred to nowadays as having been fought over the constitutional issue, But to a great extent the voters considered that it was the British constitutional tradition and practice that they voted for, not a change in Canada’s constitution. Mackenzie King counterposed the established the practice in England to the high-handed action that had been taken by representative of the monarchy in Canada, and appealed to the voters to stand by the British tradition. The voters gave him a majority but it was a majority in favor of “making the British connection work.”

In a way, the Communist Party was ahead of the bourgeois parties at that time. We recognized the change in the relationship of the influence of British and United States imperialism in Canada. We were pointing out that U.S. investments already exceeded the British and were growing very much faster, and that the British influence would be supplanted by that of the United States if the process continued. But from that we had drawn the simplistic conclusion that the struggle between the two giants must lead to war.

We assumed that the Canadian bourgeoisie would divide into two camps, one staking its future upon the protection of British imperialism, the other banking on the united States. Under the influence of the persisting conception of British power and the tenacity with which it would fight to maintain its leading position in the world, that is to say the conception explained by Sir Clifford Sifton in the speech referred to above, we assumed that the struggle for control of Canada would culminate in armed conflict between those two camps. We theorized that, while the decisive issues and interests in the coming conflict would be in the form of a civil war in Canada. In the course of that civil war, we assured ourselves and revolutionary workers, the working class and its democratic allies would repudiate both the imperialist giants and raise the banner of Canadian independence. That was, so we believed, our path to socialism.

In the light of events it is easy now to dismiss those illusions as fantastic. But, in judging our mistake, the contradictions which characterized that period should be considered. The relationship power between Britain and the United States was very much different from what it is today. In the United States as well as in Canada the idea was widespread that the conflict of interests between the two imperialisms would sharpen and lead to war. Capitalism had regained only partial stability and few people believed that it would last. Revolutionary workers in that period certainly did not consider such a perspective to be fantastic. They believed it to be “in the cards” and they applauded enthusiastically when we proclaimed our revolutionary intent. In one meeting, in Drumheller, Alberta, a thousand miners stood up and cheered that declaration.

The above is necessary to illustrate the prevalence at that time of the two ideas, namely, that Canada“s relationship to Britain was one of dependence in fact as well as in constitutional form, and that war between British and United States imperialism was a probability. It does not excuse us for accepting popular prejudices and illusions instead of studying the reality in the light of Lenin’s teachings, but it illustrates the circumstances in which our mistake was made.

Correction of our error was initiate by a group of Canadian communists who were studying at the Lenin school. In their study of Lenin’s work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Leslie Morris, John Wier and Sam Carr came to the conclusion that all the decisive features, the emergence into monopoly capitalism, that is to say into imperialism, had matured in Canada. They collectively wrote a paper setting forth their conclusions and sent it to the party leadership.

Their paper forced us, indeed it impelled the party as a whole, to study Lenin’s classic Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism and to re-assess our estimation of the character of the Canadian state.

Through that study, under the impact of the students’ criticism, Lenin freed us from the them popular Kautskyite conception that the decisive characteristic of imperialism was “stiving for annexations”; that what constituted imperialism was solely possession of colonies and the oppression of their peoples. For the first time we recognized clearly the significance of Lenin’s repeated emphasis upon the fact that imperialism is a specific historical stage of capitalism which:

...emerged as the development and direct continuation of the fundamental characteristics of capitalism in general. But capitalism only became capitalist imperialism at a definite and very high stage of its development, when certain of its fundamental characteristics began to change into their opposites, when the features of the epoch of transition from capitalism to a higher social and economic system had taken shape and revealed themselves in all spheres...Monopoly is the transition form capitalism to a higher system. (Vol. 22, pp. 265-6)

Even today, as I copy that quotation, I feel a desire to underline every clause. Study of that statement opened my eyes and marked the beginning of our understanding. Belatedly, we realized that the political oppression and double exploitation of the hundreds and millions of people in India, Africa, the Philippines, China , and other colonial and semi-colonial territories, the glaring and repulsive evils which democratic people denounced and considered as constituting imperialism, were not the essence of imperialism nor its source. At last, with the help of Lenin and the ideological “ kick in the pants” from our student comrades, we came to understand that capitalist imperialism is the noxious fruit of the operation of the inherent laws of motion of capitalism. The character of a state, the question of whether it is part of the system of capitalist imperialism and its exploitation and oppression, or part of the exploited and oppressed majority of mankind, is determined by the level of development un the capitalist society which maintains and operates it — not simply by whether it annexes colonial territories. Astonishing as it sounds today, that was a revelation which revolutionized our understanding of imperialism.

The developments which Lenin showed to have changed the capitalism of free competition into capitalist imperialism were far advanced in Canada. Concentration of production and capital had transformed a youthful heterogeneous system of untrammeled competition into a highly monopolistic economy during the ten years the First World War and the Great October Revolution. The level of that concentration is illustrated by the fact that already, in 1929, of the 22,618 manufacturing establishments operating in Canada, 118, almost half of one per cent of the total number, produced 68 per cent of all the goods produced.

Monopolizatiuon had been accomplished by the merging of bank capital with industrial capital and the transfer of the control or the industries from the “men of industry” to the breed that Lenin described as “ the ‘geniuses’ of financial manipulation.” The reckless watering of stock and the brutal ruining of small enterprises which tried to resist the mergers makes a sordid story. By mergers (and one bankruptcy) the number of banks in the country had been reduced to 11, the four biggest of which held more than half of the assets and did more than half of all the banking business of the country. The board of directors of the banks had become the centres of a system of interlocking directorates which enabled the numerically small finance-capitalist oligarchy to control the entire economy of the country. By the integration of important sectors of the country’s economy 7#8212; chemicals, aluminum, asbestos, nickel paper, etc., etc. — with international monopolist associations, a dozen of the leaders of the Canadian finance-capitalist oligarchy had become active participants in the integration of Canadian with international finance capital. While the export of capital in 1929 was small compared with the exports of the older imperialist states, it was growing at a rate which enabled the Minister of Finance to inform the House of Commons a few years later that, over and above money coming into this country for investment, we were on balance an exporter of capital.(15) The occasional entry of a member of the finance-capitalist oligarchy into active politics, usually to become a member of the government, and the more frequent appointment of ex-members of governments to lucrative positions close to the finance-capitalist oligarchy, along with the decisive role of the oligarchy in the shaping of government policies, testified to the fact that, as Lenin had indicated, monopoly capitalism in Canada was becoming state-monopoly capitalism. The Canadian state was becoming the executive arm of monopoly capital rather than of the capitalist class as a whole.

Only those who have experienced the mental leap, from the restrictive and misleading assessment of imperialism as simply “a policy,” to be adopted of rejected depending upon the ambitions of capitalist governments, the thesis for which Karl Kautsky was the “authority,” to Lenin’s scientific analysis, can appreciate the change that understanding brought to our thinking. Capitalism had developed in Canada to the qualitatively higher stage of monopoly capitalism. The state had become an imperialist state. In demanding freedom for it from British rule we had been “kicking at an open door.” Worse, in looking to what we expected would be, in its essentials, the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, we had been looking backward. The bourgeoisie “in general” was no longer the leader of the propertied interests in Canada; the initiative of power had passed to monopoly capital. By persisting with the idea that the next step forward for Canada was the winning for the bourgeoisie of “freedom from British rule,” we had been diverting the attention of the working class away from its real enemy, the monopoly capitalists and the monopoly-capitalist state which they controlled.

Thanks to Lenin we recognized our mistake “just in time” to be free from it in the great mass struggles that the Communist Party of Canada led, against monopoly capital, during the economic crisis and the depression of “The Hungry Thirties.”

15. Charles Dunning, Minister of Finance, to the House of Commons. He added that more capital was exported than imported, in each year of the economic crisis 1930-34.