The mid-to-late 1960s saw the rise of the "new left" on Canadian university campuses. The term was used broadly to describe a variety of groups that held a wide range of radical views, united only by their refusal to support existing political parties and by their rejection of Marxism. It was a short-lived phenomenon: by the end of 1970, most new left groups were falling apart.
The most important new left group in Saskatchewan was the Committee for a Socialist Movement. In July 1970, five leading members of CSM resigned to join the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes. Three of the five — Richard Thompson, Howard Brown, and Paul Kouri — became prominent leaders of the Trotskyist movement in the 1970s. The articles below provide insight into their decision to join the YS.
Related documents: For examples of the contributions these individuals made to the revolutionary left in Canada, see The Present State of the Student Movement (Richard Thompson, Fall 1970); A Revolutionary Strategy for Canadian Students (Richard Thompson, September 1971); and Agribusiness and the Farm Crisis (Howard Brown, December 1971) See also the obituary for Richard Thompson that appeared in Labor Challenge in 1978.
by Jacquie Henderson
Labor Challenge, August 24 1970
On July 26 five leading members of the Saskatchewan-based Committee for a Socialist Movement announced to a provincial meeting of the CSM that they were leaving that organization and joining the Young Socialists/ Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes. The move came after months of debates within the CSM, an organization of radicals that attempted to contain the many points of view of its members by adopting no clear program or orientation.
Richard Thompson, one of the five, explained the development in this way: "The phenomenon of CSM, a broad, catchall organization of "revolutionaries" was only possible during a certain period of Saskatchewan politics. Without any doubt that period is over. The mixture of different political views: left social democrat, Stalinist, new left, and quasi-Trotskyist could not continue beyond a certain point. It was the attempt to continue such an alliance that led CSM into stagnation and inactivity."
Thompson is well known in Saskatchewan and on campuses across the country. He was once an Ontario organizer for the Canadian Union of Students and before that he was a director of the Company of Young Canadians. He first became involved in radical politics through the 1965 "Selma sit-in" in Toronto in solidarity with the Black struggle in the U.S. Later he went to Saskatchewan to work on the Student Union for Peace Action's Neestow Project which sent students onto the Indian reserves to do community organizing. Thompson was one of the founders of CSM and was a CSM candidate for alderman of Saskatoon last fall. He has been active in politics on the University of Saskatchewan campus in Saskatoon.
Thompson, for some years previous a known critic of the Young Socialists from a "new left" perspective, described his evolution in a public meeting of the Young Socialists held in Regina August 9.
Of the other four, Howard Brown, John Caswell, Karen Kopperud and Paul Kouri, two of them also ran in the Saskatoon municipal elections. Brown ran for alderman and Kopperud for school board trustee. Paul Kouri, a graduate student at University of Saskatchewan, has been active in student politics there and wrote for the Prairie Fire, a radical provincial newsweekly.
The CSM had been wracked with crises over direction from the day of its formation. Differences had centered over such questions as its orientation to the New Democratic Party and its left wing "Waffle" caucus, the relationship of revolutionaries to mass movements, and how a revolutionary organization is built.
Last winter several members of the Regina local of the CSM split from the CSM to work exclusively in the NDP and Waffle. They argued that (at least for the present period) nothing more than the Waffle group is needed. Other members of the Regina CSM leaned in the opposite direction of writing off the NDP and Waffle because of their reformist program.
The leaders of the Saskatoon CSM who later joined the Young Socialists argued against both positions. They said the NDP is a labor party independent of the capitalist parties and contains the most advanced and conscious sections of the Canadian working class. As such it reflects within its ranks the growing radicalization in Canada. They pointed to the emergence of the Waffle caucus as proof of the correctness of this view. Socialists they stated, must work in the NDP, and struggle to give the party a socialist program. But they also pointed out the necessity to go beyond the NDP and its left caucus, to build a revolutionary. organization that can lead the Canadian revolution.
During the July 26 debate some CSMers, grouped around a document called the "Brown Document" (because it was printed in brown ink), projected that the CSM could evolve into a revolutionary leadership organization if all the forces in it could stick together around a "minimum basis of unity." The five disagreed, explaining that such a vanguard organization as is needed to lead the Canadian workers to a successful revolution couldn't spontaneously develop out of a regional amorphous group with no program. They argued that a transitional program that relates to the level of consciousness of Canadian workers, students, etc. now and involves them in struggle for socialism must be the basis for such an organization.
Secondly, they argued that such an organization must be democratic centralist, not an amorphous organization based on "consensus" agreements. Lastly, they argued that such an organization and program exists in the Trotskyist movement.
On August 9 the CSM split again with 13 people left in the organization grouped around the "minimum basis of unity" of the Brown Document. This is what remains of what was once an organization of some 200 supporters.
The CSM was one attempt by the "new left" to find a new road to the socialist revolution, a short cut. In spite of a long history of consensus politics in Saskatchewan where various tendencies submerged their differences, the CSM could not survive. The new left, with its skepticism about the revolutionary potential of the working class, has had the props knocked out from under it. The general strike in France in May 1968 showed most graphically the willingness of the working class to overthrow capitalism. It also showed to thousands of youth on this continent as elsewhere the need to build a leadership that can lead that struggle of the workers to a successful socialist revolution.
The five CSMers who joined Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes last month are just a sign of things to come. More and more youth are coming to see the necessity of joining in the building of the future leadership of the Canadian revolution. The YS/LJS along with the League for Socialist Action/ Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere represents this leadership inasmuch as it already exists in Canada. The task is to build it into the leadership capable of creating a socialist Canada in a socialist world.
The move of five leading Saskatchewan socialists who have had a long experience in the new left to join the YS/ LJS is a sign of things to come.
The program of activities the Saskatoon Young Socialists have begun promises to attract far more youth in Saskatchewan to the revolutionary movement. They are actively building the antiwar and women's liberation movement there and participating in the New Democratic Party. They have carried a YS forum in Regina and have planned one for Saskatoon on why they joined. Tours of the province, the prairies, and across Canada are also planned.
Young Socialist, September 1970
On July 26 five leading members of the Saskatchewan-based Committee for a Socialist Movement announced to a provincial meeting of the CSM that they were leaving it to join the Young Socialists/ Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes. This decision came after months of debates within CSM, an organization that contained the many points of view of its members by avoiding the adoption of any clear program. It was an attempt by the "new left" to find a new road to the socialist revolution.
The five, Howard Brown, John Caswell, Karen Kopperud, Paul Kouri, and Richard Thompson are all leading Saskatchewan socialists who have had a long experience in the new left. Their decision to join the YS/ LJS is a significant sign of the times.
The following is the text of speeches given at a public Young Socialists meeting in Regina, August 9, where three of the five spoke along with Jacquie Henderson, executive secretary of the YS/ LJS. In these speeches the three explain their reasons for joining the Young Socialists.
I'd like to welcome you tonight to this meeting, the first of a series to be held in Regina by the Young Socialists. The Young Socialists is an organization of revolutionaries. That means that we feel that all the problems people experience in the context of our present society — war, poverty, pollution, the deep economic crisis of this province — flow from a cause, the nature of this profit-oriented society. We see that there are no real solutions to these problems until the entire society is changed.
I think we should be very clear about the kind of change that we are talking about. When we say that we are revolutionaries we are not talking about a change in Society that would take place some dark groovy night when a small group takes over the local palace and runs up the red flag. We are talking about a change that will involve the vast majority of Canadians consciously acting to change the entire society and all the relationships in it, from the way people relate to each other, to the way that the government operates to the way people relate to their jobs.
We're out to change the whole system. We see that all the problems of Saskatchewan are intimately tied to the problems throughout the whole country, the continent, the world. And therefore if you are serious about changing the system, about changing the world, it is necessary to confront the system where you find it. To be effective you have to build an organization capable of doing that. That is one of the important reasons why a number of us decided to join the Young Socialists. We felt that we could no longer continue to confine our activities purely to the problems of Saskatchewan. The YS is the only cross country movement which offered the opportunity for serious socialists to coordinate their struggles across the country and around the world.
The first speaker tonight is significant not just in himself but because, in many ways, he represents the experiences many young people have gone through — the things they've felt had to be done, the ways they've tried to devise to change things.
Richard Thompson first became involved in political activity quite spontaneously in 1965 during a sit-down of hundreds of young people at the U.S. consulate in Toronto in solidarity with the black struggle in the U.S. From that action a number of people including Richard came to the conclusion that something more was necessary than the one action.
At that point Richard came to Saskatchewan to participate in "cleaning up our own backyard," as we were told do when we demonstrated over "U.S. problems" like the oppression of blacks. He came to Saskatchewan to organize among the Native Indians in the Neestow Project that was run by the Student Union for Peace Action. After that he came to the Saskatoon campus of the University of Saskatchewan and became active in campus politics. Still searching for a way to change society he, like many other radicals, joined the Company of Young Canadians and became one of the board of directors. Later he resigned from that. He has been active in the Young New Democrats and a regional organizer of the Canadian Union of Students. He has been active in politics at the University of Saskatchewan, having run several times for the student council and being one of the editors of the student paper the River Fiddler.
In the past year Richard has participated in building an organization called the Committee for a Socialist Movement which was yet another attempt to build some sort of organization that could lead in a profound social change. Through his experiences in that organization he has come to the conclusion that it is inadequate and recently joined the Young Socialists. It is the reasons for that political process that Richard is going to talk about now.
I didn't prepare in great elaborate detail a speech on the process I went through. What I want to raise is some of the general themes that I think come out of it — themes about socialism and how to make the revolution.
I think there are three main directions radicals are going in Canada today. One is reformism, the tendency that sees that capitalism can be reformed, that it doesn't need to be overthrown. One is ultra-leftism, those people who call for armed struggle now. The other is Trotskyism.
I've never really been a reformist. I've been a liberal, I guess I've been apolitical and I've been radical. But I've never believed in the reformism put forward by the leadership of the New Democratic Party. For a long time I've been a revolutionary who saw the need to bring about socialism and tried to work within organizations which I thought were promoting that end. But all of those organizations had the limitation of either just representing, certain sectional interests of one group like, say, students, and couldn't really escape just working for the aims of that particular group — the Canadian Union of Students was such an organization — or they recognized the need for socialism but couldn't make all the bridges, all the links between the situation now and the socialist revolution. The CSM was this type of organization.
Ultra-leftism and reformism are both based in an idealist world view. They don't recognize the existing reality in Canada today and what the possibilities are right now for building the socialist movement. The reformists wish that the problems of the world could be solved by reforming capitalism. They don't want to have to work for a fundamental change in society. So they conclude that capitalism can be reformed. The ultra-lefts wish that the revolution could be made today without a long process of participating in the struggles of the working people and all oppressed people to take them forward. So they say that this is the time for armed struggle for power: It is because of this idealism, their failure to recognize the reality of the class struggle today that I rejected both of them.
When we look at the class struggle in Canada today we see most clearly that people's consciousness is not the same. A few workers see the need for socialism. Others don't see that need. They think their problems can be solved by trade unions or by the NDP, and so on. It is an unevenly developing consciousness. And not only is it an unevenly developing consciousness, but there are different sectional interests which can conflict. The farmers fight for their interests, the workers for theirs, the students for theirs, etc. What is necessary in order to bring all these struggles together into one common fight that can overthrow capitalism is some sort of organization that has an understanding of why the struggles are being fought in the way they are, which has some program that can bridge the gap between where the struggle is now and where we're trying to get — to socialism. I saw the need for an organization which could do this on a consistent basis. That is why I joined the Young Socialists.
The next speaker is Howard Brown. Howard is from Saskatchewan, has spent all his life here. He was active in the NDY. He is now active in the NDP and particularly in its left-wing Waffle caucus. Howard, along with Richard and myself, was a candidate for the CSM in the municipal elections that took place in Saskatoon last fall. Howard is going to talk about something that was one of the most controversial questions in the CSM — a question which brought about the downfall of CSM. That question is the relationship of revolutionaries to the NDP.
The Canadian new left, since its very inception has rejected the New Democratic Party. In its earlier period the new left had a very ambiguous and amorphous sort of ideology. It was characterized by an anti-authoritarianism and anti-bureaucratism and centered around concepts of community organizing and what was described as "participatory democracy". It rejected both class analysis and historical materialism as a mode of historical explanation. It rejected the working class as any kind of a vehicle for revolution.
Today I think its even less possible to talk about a new left ideology. The new left is factionalized in a desperate search for theory and a strategy that can begin to explain the present dilemma and provide it with some sort of strategy for the next period. A whole plethora of tendencies, sects and factions have emerged. Anarchism, spontaneism, terrorism, ultra-leftism, often mixed with some form of Maoism, are all characteristics of the present new left. Basically the new left is a product of the uneven development of consciousness which Richard was referring to — the spontaneous radicalization of students at a juncture in which the working class remains relatively passive.
When we say that the student movement emerged spontaneously we don't mean to say that it sprang from the sky. What we mean is that the student movement arises basically out of the contradictions that exist within the capitalist university and the contradictions of world imperialism. Particularly the Cuban revolutions and the struggle of the Vietnamese people have given a tremendous incentive to radical students. They have bared the hollowness of the rhetoric and the ideology of advanced capitalism.
When we say that the new left emerged spontaneously, we mean that the new left has existed by a painful process of trial and error of a primitive character. It is clear that this spontaneity is not enough. It is not enough to repeat over again all the experiences and mistakes of earlier generations of revolutionaries without learning anything.
The new left has generally come to the recognition of its impotence in isolation and has thus come understand that it is the working class that will make the revolution. What remains is for the new left to recover the historical lessons of well over a century of working class struggle. It is our contention that experience is best summed up in its positive aspects by Trotskyism.
We support the NDP, despite its leadership. That may seem contradictory but the contradiction is not ours. To the contrary, that contradiction is rooted in the contradictory nature of the NDP. As similar as the bureaucratically-determined policy of the NDP may be to the Liberal and Conservative parties, the NDP is not a capitalist party. We support the NDP because it is a labor party. This fact is determined by its affiliation with the trade union movement, its support by workers at the polls, and particularly by its general independence from the capitalist class. Our strategy is to build an alternative leadership to the bankrupt leadership of the Romanovs, the Blakeneys, Douglas', Lewis', a leadership based in a socialist program.
Marx said somewhere in Capital, that theory only begins when we penetrate below the appearance of things. The ultra-lefts may recite all kind of rhetoric which may seem theoretical, but their understanding of politics argues that of appearance. The NDP for the ultra-lefts is no more than its reformist leadership. That's all they see when they talk about the NDP. Elitists themselves, they understand politics only in terms of the activity of elites. Whatever their recognition of some rhetorical working class they're fond of talking about but have very little contact with, the ultra-lefts fail completely to understand the political activity of that class.
Inevitably spontaneous radicalization will be reflected in the NDP. We can already see it in the development of the Waffle. For revolutionaries the choice in this situation is quite clear — either they can adopt a sectarian position, they can abandon the real movement of the working people and make rhetorical pronouncements, or they can build the NDP on the basis of an attempt to lead the radicalization in confrontation and on going basis with the NDP bureaucracy. The latter perspective is that of the Trotskyists. It is the perspective of attempting to lead the working class, not abandoning it.
We regard the development of the Waffle caucus in the NDP as a tremendously positive development. For the first time in Saskatchewan, socialists are organized into a caucus which functions openly and democratically within the party. Not only has the caucus open a discussion around basic socialist ideas in the clubs — if it only did that it would be a tremendous development. But it has posed itself, in terms of the Don Mitchell campaign for the leadership of the Saskatchewan NDP, as an alternative leadership. Whatever criticisms might be brought against the Waffle in terms of its program, its independent candidacy for the leadership has signified a tremendous step forward in working class politics in this province. It has adopted a strategy of grass roots organizing, a strategy of increased orientation to extra parliamentary activity and has refused to engage in any sort of unprincipled collaboration with the Blakeney leadership of the party. We support the Waffle. We support the Saskatchewan Waffle strategy. And the Saskatoon Young Socialists will make every effort in the next period to build the Waffle caucus. We can only ask for your support.
by Howard Brown
Labor Challenge, October 5 1970
It was not just one of the largest, but also without question the most productive socialist youth conference the Prairies had ever seen.
And when the September 18-20 Young Socialists conference in Saskatoon drew to a close, major antiwar and women's liberation projects had been launched, and a clear strategy worked out for the work of socialists on Prairie campuses this year.
An audience of close to 200 packed an enthusiastic first session to hear French revolutionary leader Alain Krivine speak on the significance of the world-wide youth revolt. Over 100 students and young workers from Edmonton, Lethbridge, Saskatoon, Regina, Brandon and Winnipeg stayed to participate in the three days of debates and workshops.
In its wide representation of student activists, its ambitious agenda and wide-open discussion, the conference resembled student gatherings previously organized in the west by the New Democratic Youth or the Canadian Union of Students.
But in concentrating on clarifying differing views, zeroing in on concrete proposals, and uniting to carry them out, the conference set a new tone in Prairie student gatherings.
The conference registered the rapid growth of the Young Socialists on the Prairies over the past year. From an isolated group in Edmonton the YS has expanded to four established and active centers, with other groups soon to be organized.
The session on women's liberation was a highpoint of the discussions. It issued the call for a conference of all western women's liberation groups and activists, to be held in Saskatoon in the early winter.
Discussions on the Vietnam war led to the decision to organize antiwar mobilizations in all major Prairie centers on October 31.
The first day's session included a discussion of the defense of the "Regina 12," students arrested for their activities in opposition to the Vietnam war.
Later the conference heard Manon Leger, 23-year-old candidate of the Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere for mayor of Montreal, describe the growing movement for an independent socialist Quebec.
The main strategical theme of the conference was presented by Richard Thompson of the Saskatoon YS. He described the strategy of the "red university," which projects how student actions can transform the campus into a base for revolutionary social action. Thompson, who before joining the YS was a prominent figure in the new left circles and the now defunct Canadian Union of Students, explained how the new left student leaderships had shown their limitations in the struggles of the past two years. [See Note]
The student movement has fluctuated between purely reformist strategies and ultraleft actions which isolate revolutionary students. The alternative, he said, is building mass student struggles around a patiently and flexibly applied transitional program.
Howard Brown of the Saskatoon YS elaborated on the crisis of the New Left: "Its basic dilemma was its failure to overcome the spontaneity which had produced it." The failure of the new left to commit itself to building a revolutionary Leninist party is its decisive error. "Only such a party is capable of the tremendous task of strategical co-ordination involved in a socialist revolution," Brown said.
The discussion on "Red Power in Canada," led by Jeff Choy-Hee of the Edmonton-based Native Youth Alliance for Liberation, centered on the demands that the government uphold all treaty and aboriginal rights granted the treat and people, and respect the right of the native people to determine their own life.
The concluding report to the conference, by Jacquie Henderson, executive secretary of the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes, emphasized the magnitude of the task of socialist education on the campuses, and the key role of the socialist press in carrying out this task.
Reports from Young Socialist locals reflected the bright future of revolutionary socialist youth in the west. All YS locals are in a good position to intervene energetically on the campuses, to move towards transforming them into the socialist strongholds projected by the "red university" strategy.
Socialist History Project Note: The views Richard Thompson presented in the talk described here were also presented in The Present State of the Student Movement, a paper he submitted to the YS/LJS internal discussion bulletin at about the same time.
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