by Ian Angus
I recently found the following papers in my files. They were written in 1975 and 1977, while I was researching the history of the Canadian Trotskyist movement. I viewed them as very early drafts of the full history of Trotskyism in Canada that I was planning to write.
As so often happens, historical research led me back in time. In order to explain and understand the Trotskyist movement, I had to write an introductory essay explaining where it came from. That "introductory essay" grew into a full-length book — Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party of Canada, which was published in 1981.
I still hope to write the history of Canadian Trotskyism one day, but for now I am publishing these early efforts in order to make the information they contain available to other researchers.
Disclaimer: I wrote these papers 30 years ago, and have not rechecked any of the research they were based on. These accounts are very far from complete, and further research may well identify significant errors. If the two essays conflict, the second one (1977) is probably correct, but I can’t guarantee that. And of course no one should assume that I still agree with the opinions and judgments that I expressed 30 years ago!
These essays should be read alongside of The Trotskyist Movement in Canada 1929-1939, an essay by another researcher who investigated this topic in the mid-seventies. His paper provides information not included in my work, and vice-versa.
(This talk was given to an internal meeting of the Toronto branch of the League for Socialist Action, April 22, 1975 — IA)
For the past few months I have been researching the History of Canadian Trotskyism. This is a project the movement has been planning to carry out for several years, but the needs of other areas, and the various faction fights we’ve had, have prevented us from going ahead.
The work ahead in this project is enormous. It seems as if every week I find a new source of valuable material and information. And there are all kinds of interesting detours to follow, as well. The report of the Women’s Labor Leagues, which appeared in the Women’s Day issue of Labor Challenge, turned up in the Ontario Archives. And recently I found the minutes of the first national convention of the Federation of Women’s Labor Leagues, in the Dept. of Labor in Ottawa. Upstairs [in the LSA National offices —IA] there are about a dozen cardboard boxes of files, correspondence, minutes, documents, leaflets, and much more, which have to be sorted, organized and catalogued. No one knows what we might find there.
So what I’m going to say tonight is nothing more than a very preliminary report on one period in our movement’s history. It is the period that, I think, most of us know the least about: the first decade or so after our expulsion from the Communist Party in 1928. This isn’t a complete story. Further research may well even disprove some of what I’m going to say. But what I want to do is just give you an outline history of Canadian Trotskyism, from 1928 to 1939.
The most prominent person in the founding of the Canadian Trotskyist movement was, as we are all aware, Maurice Spector. But I don’t think many of us realize just how prominent Spector was in the Communist Party. He was a founding member of the party. He was its chairman for several years, he was the youngest member of its Central Committee. He was the editor of both The Worker, its weekly newspaper, and of its magazine, the Canadian Labor Monthly. He was a delegate to the fourth and sixth congresses of the Communist International. At the Sixth Congress Spector was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist International, the Comintern’s highest body. No other Canadian had held that post before — the only other one ever to hold it was Tim Buck, who was placed on the ECCI at the Seventh Congress, the last Congress the CI ever held.
Less than three months after being elected to the ECCI, Spector was expelled from the Communist Party as a Trotskyist. His views were officially denounced as "objectively counter-revolutionary."
In The History of American Trotskyism, James Cannon describes how he and Spector, at the Sixth Congress in Moscow in 1928, obtained copies of Trotsky’s Criticism of the Draft Program of the Communist International, how they spent sleepless nights reading it, how they smuggled copies out of the USSR, agreeing to launch an international fight for the Loft Opposition. I urge everyone to read that account.
James Cannon, Max Schactman and Martin Abern were expelled from the U.S. Communist Party on October 27, 1928. On November 5, the Political Committee of the Communist Party of Canada voted to endorse that expulsion. Maurice Spector refused to vote for the endorsation. The next day he declared his full support of the International Left Opposition. On November 11 he was expelled from the CP.
Just to show you how prominent Spector was, the news of his expulsion made the front page of the second section of the Toronto Globe on Nov. 13.
Within a few weeks, about 30 other members of the Communist Party and the YCL in Toronto were expelled as Trotskyists. One of those expelled from the YCL was Maurice Quarter, who became secretary of the Toronto branch of the ILO, and our principal correspondent for The Militant.
Several weeks ago I spent two hours talking to Comrade Quarter. Although his personal situation keeps him from participation in the movement, he remains in solidarity with us. He says that those expelled didn’t really know enough to be called Trotskyists, that they were expelled for refusing to endorse the attack on the Trotskyists. Comrade Quarter says that at the meeting which led to his expulsion, he declared that he didn’t know whether Trotsky was right, but he knew that Stalin had to be wrong. Because if Stalin were correct, he wouldn’t have had to use the methods of coercion and expulsion to win. He would have used the Leninist method of political persuasion.
And for this — for supporting the minority rights of an opposition faction — those comrades were expelled.
In February 1929, the Opposition held its first public meeting in Toronto. Spector spoke to a meeting at the Standard Theatre. According to the CP newspaper, about 350 people attended the meeting. The Standard Theatre, by the way, later changed its name, and it is still standing — it is the Victory Burlesque Theatre, on Spadina at Dundas.
But although hundreds came to hear Spector, even the 30 or so who were expelled did not all join in building the Trotskyist movement. The Left Opposition began with only a handful of members.
The Communist Party of Canada had not, in 1928, sunk roots in the English-speaking working class. In fact, over 90 percent of its members were foreign-born. The largest groups were the Finns, the Ukrainians, and the Jews. For them, the party was more than a political organization. It was a way of life. To break from the party meant breaking from its cultural groups, from all your friends, from everyone with progressive views who spoke your language. In a country where immigrant workers were systematically discriminated against, to break from those ties meant almost total isolation. Comrade Quarter’s father was one of those expelled as a Trotskyist, but he capitulated and returned to the party. The pressure was too great. His friends spat on him in the street, called him a counter-revolutionary, cursed him.
To take that kind of pressure, over what appeared to be obscure issues in Russia about which there was very little information available, required a special kind of determination and dedication. The main core of Canadian Trotskyism developed among young workers, almost all of them Jewish, working in the needle trades, at that time one of the most militant sectors of the union movement. In part this may save been accidental — the CP charged that Spector obtained a list of the members of the Jewish Labor League. He may have been able to do more contact work there than other places. The fact that Spector himself was Jewish and spoke Yiddish may also have helped.
We maintained extensive contacts within the party, but our group was small, less than a dozen members.
For three years this isolation continued. We could not afford to publish our own newspaper — we used the Militant. For the first years we functioned as a branch of the U.S. group, the Communist League of America. We identified ourselves publicly as the International Left Opposition (Toronto Branch).
The break out of isolation began in 1932. The key to this was our correct position on the united front, particularly in regard to Germany, but also in the fight against repression in Canada. The sectarianism of the Communist Party, which was then on an international and insane ultraleft binge, drove many militants away, and helped to build our movement. A sign of our break from isolation was Jack MacDonald’s decision to join the ILO in May, 1932.
Jack MacDonald was the National Secretary of the CPC from its founding until 1929. He was certainly its most famous member, right across Canada, and especially in Toronto. He was Toronto’s best-known leftwing unionist. He was an executive member of his own union, and a member of the Trades and Labor Council, a very capable organizer and a tremendously popular speaker. Just announcing that he was going to speak would guarantee a large audience.
If you read the Stalinist histories, the garbage Tim Buck and others have written, you are informed that MacDonald was a Lovestonite — a member of the right-wing opposition. This is not true — certainly there is no evidence to support the charge. I don’t have time to go into details on his 1930 expulsion from the CP, but the main cause was his refusal to submit to orders from Moscow. He blocked with and defended the rightwing of the party against the undemocratic and factional attacks of the Stalinist faction, but his expulsion occurred many months after they wore thrown out, and he didn’t share their views. He was expelled, literally, on orders from Moscow.
MacDonald joined the ILO in 1932. By the end of 1932 we were publishing our own newspaper, the Vanguard. It was published irregularly at first — only 4 issues in the first year. The Militant remained our main paper.
Having the Militant as our principal paper caused difficulties, because the authorities kept banning it from Canada. They also banned Trotsky’s The Permanent Revolution and other literature.
In 1932 we were still attempting to reform the Communist International. In pursuit of that goal, we worked hard at propagandizing CPers. When possible we sent people into the CP and the CL. At the beginning of 1933 a group of comrades were expelled from the YCL for supporting the Opposition. They formed the Spartacus Youth Club, the first Trotskyist youth organization in Canada.
Germany became the central issue of the day in 1933. In February 1933 300 people turned out to hear Spector and MacDonald speak on Germany. 500 attended a similar meeting in May. All of those meetings, by the way, faced physical attacks and disruption by the Stalinists.
The break out of isolation showed in the development of contacts in other cities. There were meetings held in Montreal and Hamilton. In the summer of 1933 two new comrades, Earle Birney of the ILO and Sylvia Johnstone of the SYC, were sent to Vancouver to organize the movement there.
In 1933, in Toronto we were instrumental in forging the only mass united front against fascism every created in Canada — probably the only one in the world. There will be a full article on this in a coming issue of Labor Challenge, so I won’t go into details. [SHP Note: see The Toronto Anti-Fascist Strike] Just let me whet your appetite. It was July 11, 1933. 25,000 workers took part. For two hours the factories of the garment district were shut down in a general strike while the workers marched to Queens Park for a mass rally. Maurice Spector was one of the main speakers and organizers. It was the largest workers action in Canada since the Winnipeg General Strike, and it successfully smashed the Toronto police ban on leftwing demonstrations, something the CP hadn’t been able to do in 5 years.
But internationally, the Stalinist rejection of the united front led to disaster after disaster, including the victory of Hitler. This led Trotsky to the conclusion that it was necessary to call for a new International. The Canadians were among the first to endorse that decision. In October 1933 Arne Swabeck came to Toronto to speak at a public meeting with Spector and MacDonald on "The Need for a New International" — over 700 people attended that meeting.
To reflect the new change of direction, the SYC changed its magazine from October Youth to Young Militant. In mid-1934 the ILO changed its name to Workers Party of Canada. The paper began to appear regularly, once a month. The branches started to grow. Exact figures are hard to obtain, but the following are a guide.
In 1932 we probably had less than a dozen members in Toronto. By May 1934 we had 40. By 1934 December there were 90 members in the Toronto branch. We had then branches in 5 cities — Montreal, Toronto, Hamilton, Winnipeg and Vancouver. In April 1934 Max Schactman had spoken at the first public Trotskyist meeting in Winnipeg — 350 people turned out. 800 came to hear James Cannon in Toronto in November.
We published two newspapers, in two languages — not English and French, as today, but English and Ukrainian. At the end of 1934 the English paper, The Vanguard, had a circulation of about 1200. Workers Voice, the Ukrainian paper, sold about 500 copies per issue.
The Ukrainian paper was the result of our development of a group of Ukrainian comrades, with contacts in every major city.
The high point of Canadian Trotskyism in the 1930s was in 1935. The Workers Party was doing very well. The Vanguard was published every two weeks. Plans were made for a weekly, but poverty seems to have prevented that. Its hard for us today to appreciate that poverty — in 1935 we held a fund drive, and the paper listed all the contributions. The largest was only $20, and it was the only one that high. There was one for $15, several for $10, and most for much less, going down to 25 cents. Unemployment and poverty were a major hindrance to our work.
But by the end of 1935, for reasons that are not clear to me, a decline set in. The paper began to appear irregularly. This may have been related to the Communist Party’s sharp right turn in 1935, which brought them thousands of members and prestige. At any event there was a decline.
A sharp faction fight broke out in the Workers Party. Maurice Spector, in early 1936, left Canada for the U.S., where he functioned as part of the Abern group, opposing James Cannon. The majority of the Workers Party, headed by Jack MacDonald, adopted a position in favor of entry into the CCF, in order to break out of our isolation. This position was adopted at the beginning of 1937. The result was an open split. The minority, which included Ross and Murray Dowson, opposed the entry on tactical grounds. The only group which gained out of this split was League for a Revolutionary Workers Party, often called the Fieldites, who opposed entry as a matter of principle. According to Ross Dowson, the LRWP was larger than the genuine Trotskyist movement at one point in its existence.
The entry does not appear to have been a success, but it continued for two years. At the founding convention of the SWP, in Chicago in early 1938, the Canadian Trotskyists were reunified. There is a statement on that reunification in the Documents of the Fourth International anthology. [SHP Note: see Fourth International Resolution on Canada]
Inside the CCF, our comrades formed the Socialist Policy Group, and published a mimeographed bulletin called Socialist Action. This disturbed the brass a great deal, and on Nov. 16, 1938 12 members were expelled from the CCF. The expelled, together with the comrades who had not been able to get into the CCF, announced the formation of the Socialist Workers League, Canadian Section of the Fourth International, and began publishing a newspaper, Socialist Action.
At the time of the founding of the Fourth International, in Sept. 1938, there were about 75 members in the Canadian section. This was a sharp decline from 1935, but it was a strong and healthy nucleus. The SWL in 1939 made important gains. We won some important people from the Communist Party. We were able, in 1939, to have a full-time organizer in Toronto, and a part-time organizer on the prairies. But in August 1939 war broke out, and the SWL was declared illegal. The comrades had to go underground. They joined the CCF and the CP in order to have some cover for their work.
We had an effective movement in Canada in the 1930s. It could, and often did, draw 500 and more people to its public meetings. It had broad connections in the labor movement.
The comrades had to fight against the stream. The CP had 20,000 or more members — 100 times what we had. The movement fought to keep the program of revolutionary Marxism alive — and that was its greatest accomplishment. Against all odds, against beatings by Stalinist goons, against the stream, the program survived, and the movement survived. The pioneer Trotskyists were able to hand the torch of Bolshevism on.
A Brief History of Canadian Trotskyism, 1928-1939
(This draft chapter of a pamphlet on the history of Canadian Trotskyism was written in the fall of 1977. It was never published. —IA)
On November 11, 1928 Maurice Spector was expelled from the party he had helped to found.
The expulsion shocked the Canadian labor movement. All of the labor newspapers reported it, as did the major dailies. The One Big Union Bulletin, published in Winnipeg, declared that "It is a long time since anything has happened in the Labor Movement that has created such a profound sensation as the expulsion of Maurice Spector...." (Nov. 29, 1928)
While it cut him off from regular party channels, the expulsion did enable Spector to approach party members openly about his views, and it enabled dissidents to approach him. Within few weeks he had gathered around him a group of about 10 party members and 20 YCLers who were sympathetic to Trotsky’s position.
They too were expelled as the party conducted a full-scale anti-Trotskyist campaign. Simply talking to Spector, or attending a meeting at which he spoke, was grounds for exclusion from the organization.
Nevertheless, by early 1929, the first Canadian Trotskyist organization had been formed.
The Years of Isolation
Cannon has described the first years of American Trotskyism as the "dog days." The movement was small, it was poverty stricken — and above all, it was isolated. It was swimming against the stream — the left was totally dominated by the Communist Party, and the Trotskyist movement was declaring that the CPIs policies were wrong.
The isolation Cannon described was even more powerful in Canada. The Canadian group was very small — of the thirty or so expelled, only about a dozen remained in the Trotskyist movement for any length of time. The rest either dropped out of politics, or tired and unable to deal with ostracism by their former friends, returned to the Party.
To be a Trotskyist in 1929 meant to fight for ideas which few people would take the time to understand — to defend Trotsky against the entire International. Only a handful were able to see the world-shattering importance of Trotsky’s fight for Leninism.
The organization was weak not only in numbers — it was weak in leaders. Spector was the only party leader to join the International Left Opposition — aside from Joe Silver, a member of the YCL’s Central Committee, he was the only prominent Canadian Communist to ally himself with Trotsky before 1932.
It is doubtful that the Canadian group could have survived the first years on its own. Fortunately, it didn’t have to. On Cannon’s proposal, the Canadian group followed the example of the first Canadian Communist groups in 1921, and operated as a branch of the Opposition in the United States.
In late 1929 the Trotskyists of North America were able to hold their first convention, and to launch themselves as the Communist League of America (Opposition), declaring their purpose to be:
The CLA(O), like the entire International Left Opposition saw itself as an expelled faction of the Communist International, and devoted most of its efforts to its campaign to put the CI back on a Leninist course. The CLA(O)’s newspaper, The Militant, strongly reflected this orientation — it was a paper written for workers in and around the Communist Party. Spector, as a member of The Militant’s editorial board, contributed frequent articles on the Comintern’s international policy. Other news articles from Toronto discussed the policies of the Canadian CP, and the activities of the Left Opposition in various CP-dominated organizations, especially in the CP-controlled garment workers union.
The first years of Trotskyism were in many ways a holding action. Recruits were few and far between, forums and classes scantily attended.
The organization held its ground, confident that its ideas and program would be vindicated.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party, was in turmoil. Having driven Trotsky and the Left Opposition out of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Stalin in 1929 turned on his allies — Bukharin and the right wing of the CPSU. Bukharin was deposed as head of the Comintern and quickly driven out of the party. The struggle against the "Right Danger" became the main issue. The Communist Parties around the world were expected to follow suit.
In Canada Stewart Smith, who had just returned from two years study at Moscow’s mis-named "Lenin School", and Tim Buck, a second-rank party leader who had been responsible for trade union work in the 1920s, joined forces to declare themselves to be the true interpreters of Stalin’s words in Canada. They launched a faction fight of unparalleled ferocity and bitterness, attacking the existing party leadership as the Right Danger, and calling for the expulsion of a number of long time party leaders, particularly William Moriarty and Mike Buhay. Subsequent events showed that Smith and Buck did indeed have the Stalin faction behind them.
MacDonald tried to play a neutral role in this fight — he endorsed, somewhat half-heartedly, Stalin’s ultraleft turn, but opposed expulsion of those who disagreed.
Though he won a clear majority at the 1929 CP convention, MacDonald soon realized that his position was impossible. Stalin’s orders had just resulted in the removal of Lovestone from the leadership of the U.S. party, and Stalin’s policy was not to allow anyone to be neutral. In the hope of maintaining the stability of the party and preventing a debacle like the U.S. party was experiencing, MacDonald, in July 1929, resigned as National Secretary and nominated Tim Buck to succeed him.
Communist Party accounts of these events are thoroughly unreliable. For example, Tim Buck in his reminiscences, Yours in the Struggle, claims that the day after MacDonald’s resignation as National Secretary he broke publicly from the CP and issued a call for a new party. This is a total fabrication: in fact MacDonald remained in the party for another year and a half, even operating as Acting Secretary during Buck’s illness. MacDonald found himself more and more excluded from playing an active role in the party leadership. ‘Through 1929 and 1930 many long-time leaders of the party dropped away when the Buck-Smith faction drove the party into ultra left adventurism, MacDonald was suspended from the Political Committee for refusing to dissociate himself from the right wing in 1930, and finally expelled in February 1931.
Official CP mythology likes to describe MacDonald as a Right Winger, as a Lovestonite. Even the most superficial reading of the documents of the fight disproves that that story. There was a Lovestonite current in Canada, led by Moriarty and Buhay, which existed as an independent organization through the 1930s. Moriarty died in 1936, and about the same time Buhay capitulated to Stalinism and returned to the Communist Party.
MacDonald was always described as a "conciliator." He had never claimed to be a theoretician — his desire was to build a solid party of honest revolutionists. Tragically, Stalin did not want such parties in the International.
It was not until after his expulsion that MacDonald, who had voted for Spector’s expulsion, actually began to study the documents of the Left Opposition. He took a long time and studied hard. The May 28 1932 Militant announced his decision: Jack MacDonald had joined the Trotskyist movement.
MacDonald’s adherence marked the beginning of the end of the isolation the Trotskyists had gone through. He brought with him a small but experienced group of Anglo-Saxon trade unionists — for the first time the Trotskyist group was able to move beyond the limited circles of Jewish garment workers.
At the same time some connections were established on the University of Toronto campus — a series of lectures by Spector on the basics of Marxist theory brought new forces to the Left Opposition. A majority of the members of the Toronto Young People’s Socialist League, a small social-democratic group, began to move towards Trotskyism. On the advice of the Trotskyists, they dissolved the YPSL and joined the Young Communist League as a group with the objective of winning further forces away from Stalinism.
In November 1932 the Canadian Left Opposition took a giant step forward by publishing The Vanguard, the first Canadian Trotskyist newspaper. The Militant remained the group’s main newspaper, and The Vanguard was published quite irregularly, but a major advance towards a self-sufficient Trotskyist organization in Canada had been made.
The Break with the Comintern
Despite the important advances that were made in 1932, the audience reached by Trotskyist ideas remained small. The Left Opposition was directing most of its energies towards the Communist Party — and only few were prepared to listen.
In 1933, for the first time, the Toronto branch of the CLA(O) began to reach a broader audience. 300 workers turned out for a meeting addressed by MacDonald and Spector in February. 500 came to a meeting in May.
The issue was Germany. Especially among the Jewish garment workers of central Toronto, Hitler’s rise to power was of immense concern. Of equal concern was the absolute failure of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the German Communist Party (KPD) to resist the fascists. The SPD made token parliamentary gestures — the Communist Party issued radical manifestoes. But neither conducted a real fight.
No one familiar with its history would have expected a fight to be initiated by the Social Democratic Party — but an effective revolutionary policy from the CP could have forced the SPD leaders to resist. Between them, the SPD and the KPD had the support of an absolute majority of the working class of Germany. They could have stopped Hitler.
The German CP’s course, like that of the rest of the International, was one of insane ultraleftism from 1929 to 1934. They declared that there was no difference between the Social Democrats and the fascists; they christened the former "social-fascists." They refused to call on the SDP leaders to join in a united defense of democratic rights against fascism. They went so far as to vote with the Nazis against the social democrats in provincial parliaments.
Both the Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party rejected united action against the fascists. They blamed each other for the crisis. Divided and leaderless, the German workers could put up no resistance — meeting no resistance, the fascists marched ahead. Hitler took power in March 1933, without firing a shot. It was the worst defeat for the international working class since the opening of World War I.
The CLA(O) did its utmost to awaken Communist workers in Canada and the U.S. to the danger in Germany, to the catastrophic policy of the International. The Militant was published three times a week during the German crisis, calling for a united front of all workers’ organizations and a battle to the death against fascism.
More than calling for the united front in the abstract, the Trotskyists in Toronto were able to demonstrate what it meant in practice. On the initiative of the Left Oppositionists, a United Front Conference against Fascism was organized, involving dozens of organizations, including the most important garment workers’ unions. Spector was the principal spokesman for the united front organization which emerged, and the Left Opposition played a central role in organizing a mass demonstration against fascism on July 11, 1933.
This demonstration, though it has been ignored by historians of all stripes, was one of the most important to be held in the decade. It was more than a demonstration — it was a two-hour general strike in the garment district involving thousands of workers. In the words of The Globe:
10,000 workers took part in the demonstration, 25,000 in the rally that followed at Queens Park — over two per cent of Toronto’s population. It was an unprecedented example of united action, involving over 100 workers’ organizations.
Not only did the demonstration provide a stirring declaration of solidarity with the workers of Germany, it effectively broke through the longstanding police ban on radical demonstrations and outdoor meetings in Toronto. The CP had spent years trying to challenge the ban with isolated adventurist actions, resulting only in the arrest of hundreds of its members. In one day the July 11 demonstration, by showing the united force of Toronto workers, brought democratic rights back to them the city’s streets.
The Communist Party took part in the demonstration only with the greatest reluctance and after doing its utmost to sabotage it. At the first meeting of the United Front Conference, for example, the CP spokesmen proposed that as a precondition for united action the social democrats should confess their guilt in the 1919 murder of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht! Clearly the only result of such a proposal would have been to drive the social democrats (including the main union leaders) away. This was precisely the policy that led to Hitler’s victory.
The Communist Party of Canada learned nothing from the debacle in Germany, nor did any of the other parties in the International. Stalin endorsed the German CP’s policies totally, and not one voice was raised in the Comintern to protest.
From this incredible betrayal, the International Left Opposition could and did draw only one conclusion — the Communist International was dead as a revolutionary force. It could not be reformed.
The December 1933 issue of The Vanguard proclaimed this conclusion on its front cover, with the words; For a Fourth International! From then until 1938, when the Fourth International was founded, all of the efforts of the Trotskyist movement were directed towards assembling the basic forces of a new international revolutionary movement. Instead of orienting towards the Communist Parties, the Trotskyists began to look to other sections of the labor movement for an audience, especially to centrist (between reformist and revolutionary) groups like the Independent Labor Party in Britain) and to left-moving sections of the social democratic parties.
In Ontario the most promising developments were taking place in the newly formed Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), predecessor of the New Democratic Party. At its foundation, Ontario CCF had a tri-partite structure. Its provincial council was composed one-third of delegates from the United Farmers of Ontario, one-third from the CCF Clubs (composed of unaffiliated individuals), and one-third from the Labor Conference. The Labor Conference had been created specifically to provide for the affiliation of workers’ organizations. It included some unions and workers’ associations and a variety of socialist groups, including the tiny Socialist Party of Canada and the Lovestonite Workers League, lead by Bill Moriarty. The Labor Conference was the organized Left Wing of the Ontario CCF.
In 1934 J.S. Woodsworth launched a campaign to drive the Labor Conference out of the CCF — he achieved his objective only by dissolving the entire Ontario CCF and imposing a new constitution, which eliminated group affiliation.
The Trotskyists joined in the fight to save the CCF Left Wing. Jack MacDonald attended the March 1934 meeting of the Labor Conference as a delegate from his union, and the Conference chose him as a delegate to the CCF Convention. He was widely seen as one of the main spokesmen of the CCF left. Following the de facto expulsion of the Labor Conference, the Trotskyists worked to keep its components together in a Workers’ Alliance — a united front for action on key issues facing the working class.
Through this brief intervention in the CCF, the Trotskyists gained new forces. Membership in the Toronto branch rose from 35 in early 1934 to 90 at the end of the year. At the same time the organization expanded geographically, sending organizers to Vancouver and Montreal to establish branches. Trotskyist groups were also established in Winnipeg and Hamilton. A youth group, with a regularly published magazine was launched.
By mid-1934 it was clear that the Canadian Trotskyists could stand on their own without difficulty. While the formal constitutional change did not take place until December, the actual transformation took place in July 1934. The Workers Party of Canada was born.
The Workers Party and the CCF
The period from the formation of the Workers Party to the beginning of 1936 was the high point of the Trotskyist movement in Canada in the 1930s. In size and in political influence, the organization reached levels it was not again to experience until the 1960s.
In those years, Trotskyism won a wide hearing among Ukrainian Communist militants in Canada. A Ukrainian-language newspaper, Labor News, was published from 1933 to 1937, reaching a substantial audience in Canada. (It was also smuggled into Ukraine, as were a number of Trotskyist pamphlets in Ukrainian published in Canada.)
The Vanguard was published monthly following the formation of the Workers Party, and then twice-monthly in a 4-page full-sized newspaper format, from June 1935 to January 1936. This was an immense accomplishment for the Canadian Trotskyist organization, which had no outside support. Publication of the paper was possible only through substantial sacrifices by members and supporters of the WP of C — a majority of whom were unemployed.
In the unions, especially in the garment industries, small but important forces began to ally themselves with the Trotskyist left. In the Stalinist-controlled Industrial Union of Needle Trades Workers, more and more workers were becoming disillusioned with the policies of the Communist Party, which had split the trade unions down the middle. The Workers Party played an important role in the Progressive Unity Group in the IUNTW, a caucus which fought for unity of all needle trades workers in one union.
Young people, students and workers, were joining the Spartacus Youth Clubs in increasing numbers, attracted by its educational classes and its bi-monthly magazine (October Youth, later renamed Young Militant). The SYC established connections with left-wing forces in the youth organization of the CCF, and members of the SYC in 1935 joined the CCF in order it gain a hearing from these left wingers.
The CCF itself was open to united action with other leftwing organizations. The Workers Party was able to work with the Ontario CCF to build several substantial united front rallies and demonstrations, most notably a May Day march and rally in 1935. This demonstration, sponsored by 83 working class organizations, attracted over 8,000 workers. A measure of the influence of the Trotskyists in building this action is the virulence with which it was attacked in the Communist Party’s newspaper, The Worker. The CP went so far as to describe the parade’s chief marshal, William Dennison (later mayor of Toronto) as "the well-known Trotskyite CCFer."). Jack MacDonald spoke at the rally and was widely quoted in the press.
The important advances the Trotskyists made should not, however, lead anyone to think that the Fourth International was becoming a mass force in Canada. Its membership was still to be counted in the hundreds, while the Communist Party, especially after the extreme right turn taken by the Communist International in 1935, was counting its members by the thousands and even tens of thousands. The Workers Party remained a small propaganda group, winning militants one at a time.
Geographically, the organization was limited. It was strongest in Toronto and Vancouver, with smaller branches in Winnipeg, Hamilton and Montreal, and small groups of supporters and individual members scattered across the country, especially in the Prairies.
But the most important weakness of the Workers Party of Canada was not its limited numbers, nor its financial weakness, but the weakness of its leadership. Between MacDonald and Spector on one hand, and the mass of the membership on the other, there was a great gulf. MacDonald and Spector had behind them two decades, and more, of practical experience in the working class movement; most of the members of the Workers Party had only a year or two’s experience.
Cannon, in the United States, not only had a small number of long-time veterans on which to base the new organization, he had also won a substantial layer of secondary leaders from the CP, notably the solid core of trade unionists in Minneapolis. Cannon was able to forge a leadership team that could jointly shoulder the task of leading a small organization in the most difficult circumstances. It is the formation of this team, and his documentation of the process which made it possible, that stands today as Cannon’s greatest contribution to the Trotskyist movement.
No such team was created in Canada. All of the responsibility remained with MacDonald and Spector. Although a Provisional National Committee was formed, there was no functioning national leadership body — in fact the poverty of the organization made it impossible ever to hold a national convention in the 1930s.
Such a situation made it very difficult for the Trotskyists to withstand the demoralization caused by repeated defeats on a world scale — the collapse of the German workers’ movement, the betrayal of the Spanish workers by Stalin, the Moscow Trials — and by the continuing poverty of the organization and its membership. In 1936 the organization entered a period of decline, exacerbated by Maurice Spector’s decision to move to the United States to participate in political life there. Meetings declined in size, membership fell off, The Vanguard returned to monthly publication.
This was a period of general retreat for the left in Canada — the CCF, for example, was declining steadily. Faced with such a situation, an experienced and firm revolutionary leadership may have to retrench for a period, conduct what activities are possible, until the political climate improves.
The objective is to retain as much of the cadre as possible, and to prepare for a new situation. Unfortunately, the leaders of the Workers Party, including MacDonald, did not find it possible to follow such a course. Casting around for a way to escape political isolation, they hit upon a proposal to duplicate the so-called "French Turn" in Canada.
The French Turn was a tactic first proposed by Trotsky for the Trotskyist organization in France in 1934. Seeing a rapidly growing left wing in the Social Democratic organization in France, Trotsky urged his supporters in France to enter the socialist party en masse in order to win new adherents. The turn was successful in France, and even more successful in the United States, where the Trotskyists entered the Socialist Party in 1936, and more than doubled their membership in less than two years.
The French Turn was predicated on the existence of a growing left wing in the social democratic organization involved. There was no such left wing in Canada’s social democratic party, the CCF. The CCF was a declining force. Insofar as a "left" existed, it was influenced by the Communist Party, which had abandoned its policy of calling the CCF "social fascist" and was calling for unity.
Nevertheless, the Provisional National Committee, at the beginning of 1937, proposed that the Workers Party as a whole enter the CCF.
The proposal provoked a major crisis in the WP of C. While a majority of the organization voted for the proposal, those who opposed it included most of the most active members. Those who opposed entry went beyond simple disagreements: they made it clear that they would not accept the decision that was being made.
This crisis clearly illustrates the political weaknesses of the Workers Party. Entry into the CCF was a tactical question. The debate centered on whether or not there were forces in the CCF open to Trotskyist ideas — ultimately that question could only be resolved in practice. By all the norms of Bolshevik practice, the minority should have accepted the decision and put the decision to the test.
Given that a substantial minority of the organization was radically opposed to entry, the majority leadership, while it had the abstract right to insist on discipline, ought in reality to have pulled back. A compromise proposal, perhaps involving a partial entry, would have been in order.
But neither side followed a course which could have limited the impact of the disagreement. Instead there was a collision. Over entry into the CCF, a question, the organization split. The minority, which remained outside of the CCF, split again within a month. A substantial group of ex-WP of C members left, joining the League for a Revolutionary Workers Party, a centrist group which had seized on the entry question as its point of "principled" difference with the Fourth International. As a result the LRWP, often mistakenly described as Trotskyist in contemporary accounts, was larger than the Trotskyist organization for several years, leading to a great deal of political confusion.
The majority, which was attempting to carry out entry into the CCF, largely disintegrated. Jack MacDonald, exhausted by years of work to build a new party, and now faced with a disastrous split, resigned from politics. Others followed his example. Those who did try to carry out political work in the CCF found that the minority had been right, that there was no potential there. The entry experience was tremendously demoralizing for everyone concerned.
On December 31, 1937, the U.S. Trotskyists, recently expelled from the U.S. Socialist Party, opened a convention which launched the Socialist Workers Party, which continues to this day as the authentic voice of revolutionary socialism in the United States. Representatives of Canadian majority and minority groups also attended the Convention, held in Chicago, in order to meet with Bertram Wolfe, Trotsky’s secretary, who was attending as a representative of the All-American and Pacific Bureau of the Movement for the Fourth International. Through Wolfe’s mediation, the Canadian revolutionists were able to end the year-long split in their ranks.
As part of the fusion agreement, the minority agreed to put the majority’s policy of entry into the CCF to the test. While not all of the minority sup-porters were able to enter the party (Murray Dowson, for example, was refused membership by the Ontario CCF) the infusion of new forces substantially increased impact of the Trotskyists in Ontario among the CCF left. In early 1938 the Trotskyists with a small number of other left CCFers, formed the Socialist Policy Group, to fight for class struggle policies at the 1938 Ontario CCF Convention. The Socialist Policy Group began publishing a mimeographed magazine called Socialist Action, to put forward its views in the CCF.
It was clear by the time the SPG was formed that little was to be gained for revolutionary socialism in the CCF. The creation of the Group, and the publication of Socialist Action were designed, as a statement adopted at the time of the fusion stated, "with a perspective of completing the experience within this declining reformist organization and re-establishing the Canadian section of the Fourth International." (Documents of the Fourth International, p. 265)
This perspective was particularly important in Ontario, where the 1938 CCF Convention had been a notably sterile event, involving virtually no political discussion or debate. Even given their total stranglehold on the party apparatus, the Lewis-Joliffe leadership of the Ontario CCF would brook no opposition. They confirmed this in November 1938 by outlawing the Socialist Policy Group and expelling every supporter of the SPG they could identify. (They were aided in this effort by members of the Communist Party active in the CCF. The CP’s newspaper, the Daily Clarion, which was clearly privy to the internal discussions of the CCF Executive, hailed the expulsion as a "long delayed step" which should "be welcomed by all sections of the labor and progressive movements.")
The expelled CCFers, together with those Trotskyists who had been unable to join the CCF and some who remained in the social-democratic party, moved quickly to launch a new organization. In early 1939, the Socialist Workers League, Canadian Section of the Fourth International, was born. Socialist Action was converted from a mimeographed bulletin to a printed newspaper, and a new period of growth and development seemed to be opening up.
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