A Party of A New Type
The Socialist Party of Canada and
the Birth of Canadian Communism
by Ian Angus
Author’s Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at
the Marxism 2005 conference in Toronto in May 2005, and posed on the
Socialist History Project website shortly afterwards. This version,
which was published in
Marxism: A Socialist Annual, Volume 4 (2006), entirely replaces that
essay. It incorporates a substantial amount of additional material and
draws new conclusions about the SPC-CPC debates in 1921.
Comments, criticisms and suggestions for further research will be
gratefully received: please email me at email@example.com.
A Party of a New Type:
The Socialist Party of Canada
and the Birth of Canadian Communism
by Ian Angus
It will be a party of action,
seeking contact with the workers, a party in which the theorists and
doctrinaires as such will find small place, a party of the workers,
and with them in their daily struggles against capitalist
oppression, seeking always to build up a united front of the working
class for Industrial Freedom and Emancipation from wage slavery.
1921 was a watershed year for the left in Canada,
a year when everything changed.
At the beginning of that year, the Socialist
Party of Canada (SPC) was the best known Marxist organization in the
country. Its twice-monthly magazine was widely read, and its public
meetings were well attended. During 1921, an SPC candidate came within a
few hundred votes of being elected to Parliament. The Communist
movement, on the other hand, was geographically scattered and
politically divided. Worse, it made a principle of operating in secret
“underground” groups, and so was isolated from the rest of the left and
from the labour movement as a whole.
By early 1922, a majority of SPC members had
joined the new Workers Party of Canada, which was Communist in all but
name. The Workers Party became the largest left political organization
in Canada, while the Socialist Party was reduced to a fraction of its
previous size and influence.
The change also ended a longstanding geographic
division in the Canadian left. At the beginning of 1921 Winnipeg was the
only place where both the Socialist Party and the Communist groups had
significant forces. Elsewhere, the Communists were concentrated in
Ontario and Quebec, while most SPC members were in the western
provinces. When the Workers Party was founded in February 1922, it
announced the event with a headline that read: “The Workers Party
Convention Unites the Militant Workers of Canada – East and West”.
The Socialist Party had condemned the Second
International, an international organization of socialist parties, for
admitting reformists. It had been among the minority of the world’s
socialist parties that opposed World War, and it had strongly supported
the Russian revolution. It had even called for a new, revolutionary
International. Once a Third International actually existed, it would
have seemed logical for the SPC to combine with the Communist groups in
Central Canada to build a pan-Canadian section of the new International.
This paper discusses why that did not happen: how
the Communists won over the SPC’s membership, and why many of the best
known leaders of the Socialist Party, people with impeccable credentials
as Marxists and as leaders of the revolutionary left, rejected
Bolshevism and the new Communist Party. It is a story of success and of
failure: the success was of a new revolutionary movement, and the
failure of a generation of Marxists who did not understand how to use their
theory as a basis for active participation in real movements for social
change, and not just as a means to analyze society.
Two Kinds of Party
The Socialist Party of Canada proudly declared
itself a party of revolutionary socialism. This meant that it stood for
the abolition of capitalism, nothing more and nothing less.
We do not stand for the reform of any
institution under capitalism — not even the criminal code. Our
activities have always been directed towards the complete overthrow
of capitalism, and to that end we have concentrated our attention
upon the education of our fellow men who are engaged in wealth
production and who are exploited in the process.
Despite that firm statement, the SPC had not
always rejected reforms. Prior to World War I, the SPC’s official
Platform included a clause promising to supporting legislation that
would “advance the interests of the working class and aid the workers in
their class struggle against capitalism.” SPC members who were elected
to the B.C. Legislature supported a variety of measures that improved
working conditions in the province.
But that clause was deleted from the Platform in
1915. Western Clarion editor Bill Pritchard defended the deletion
on the grounds that the clause was “a bulwark for reform” that had been
inserted in the platform by “serious minded old women, reformers of the
English and Stubbs type,” who went on to operate as “hacks and reformers
In part, the change reflected the idea that
support for anything less than the full socialist program was a betrayal
of principle. In debate with the more reform-oriented Social Democratic
Party of Canada, Pritchard argued that reforms are simply attempts to
patch up and prolong capitalism, and that any program that included
reforms “seeks to do the work of the master’s political henchmen.”
The Platform change also reflected the view that
nothing socialists did could hasten the revolution. The main leaders of
the SPC believed that socialism was inevitable, and the working class
would some day take power solely as a result of the contradictions of
capitalism, not in response to any agitation by socialists. The only
meaningful contribution socialists could make was to educate workers in
the principles of Marxism, so that they would be ready for the
revolution when it came. “When the slaves are educated and conditions
are ripe, they will take action,” was how one disillusioned member
summarized the party’s perspective.
Many socialists were active in unions and other
movements, but they engaged in such activity as individuals, not as
party members; the party deliberately refrained from offering tactical
or strategic advice. For example, although SPC members initiated the One
Big Union in 1919, the party itself declined to say whether workers
should support it, because “the comparative merits of various forms of
industrial organizations did not come within the field of S.P. of C.
By contrast, the Communist International
(Comintern) aimed to be a worldwide organization of what we today call
activists – people who participate in and lead movements for social
change. In a famous passage, Lenin wrote that a revolutionary party must
aim for every member to be: “a tribune of the people,
able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no
matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of the
people it affects.”
The Bolsheviks saw the revolutionary party itself
as a factor in social change, not just a passive observer or educator.
They aimed to build a party that took part in workers’ struggles as an
organization, to educate the participants in action, and in the process
to build an organization of experienced revolutionary militants that
could eventually lead the struggle for power. To be a party of
education, or party of action – this was the core issue in the debate
that preoccupied the Socialist Party throughout 1921.
Debating the Third International
The debate was triggered by the Second Congress
of the Communist International, held in Moscow in 1920. That meeting
adopted the "Conditions for Admission to the Communist International", a
document that became known as the "21 Conditions" or "21 Points".
Designed to exclude reformists and centrists, it set out political
requirements for any party that wanted to join the new International,
The party must conduct consistent communist
propaganda and agitation in line with the program of the
The party must support colonial liberation
movements, especially those directed against its “own” imperialists.
The party must carry out systematic and
persistent activity in trade unions and other workers’
The Congress ended on August 7, 1920, and by
early fall the "21 Conditions" had been printed and distributed
internationally. They were discussed and debated in every group or party
that considered itself revolutionary, including the Socialist Party of
On Wednesday October 13, 1920, Winnipeg Local
Number 3 of the SPC met to discuss “the advisability of the Party
joining the Moscow (Third) International.” Party member Fred Kaplan
proposed that the SPC join the Third International right away. That
motion failed, but his follow-up proposal, that the Dominion Executive
Committee should hold a party-wide referendum on the question, was
“passed with an almost unanimous vote.”
The Vancouver-based party executive delayed
action on this for over two months, blaming the press of work caused by
a provincial election. Finally, on January 1, 1921, the party magazine,
Western Clarion, published the "Conditions for Admission to the
Communist International" as a front page article, and announced the
opening of a party-wide discussion on the issue. Locals were encouraged
to hold meetings to discuss it, and the pages of Western Clarion
were opened to discussion and debate. The paper promised a referendum on
the issue, but did not set a date.
From then until the fall, almost every issue of
the Western Clarion carried long articles for or against joining
the Third International. Articles were submitted by most of the party’s
leaders and many rank and file members, and intense discussions took
place in the party’s locals.
Fred Kaplan opened the written debate. In his
view, the issue was straightforward:
Only Socialists who present the true facts of
the class struggle, and who seek to advance that class struggle,
ought to be allowed to have the platform of a Party calling itself
revolutionary. If these individuals do seek to advance the class
struggle it can be done only by solidifying the ranks of the workers
the world over. Their duty is then to vote in favor of joining the
International. If they do not, and if they form the majority of the
party, then certainly the party cannot call itself Marxian, for Marx
calls upon the workers to unite internationally.
Similarly, Nova Scotia socialist Roscoe Fillmore
After following as closely as possible under
existing conditions the work of the Bolsheviki in Russia, and the
program and principles of the Third International, I am prepared to
endorse them wholeheartedly. They are the only body of workers today
who constitute a real international – the only considerable group of
workers who are consciously and intelligently carrying on the class
struggle. That’s what counts.
But that was not enough for other party members,
in particular for Jack Harrington and Bill Pritchard, two of the party’s
best known theoreticians and educators. Throughout the year of debate,
they were the strongest and most vocal opponents of affiliation.
Pritchard and Harrington had long and credible
records as Marxist theoreticians and educators. They were deeply
committed to the working class movement; Pritchard, for example, was
jailed for his role in the Winnipeg General Strike. They were sincere
partisans of the Russian revolution. But accepting the International's
"Conditions for Admission" would require a profound change in the
party’s activities, and they were convinced that the SPC’s “education
only” policy was correct.
Harrington made this point explicitly in his
first contribution to the debate.
It is by this program – these eighteen
points, we are bound if we apply for admission. The first question
for us to decide then is: How far do these eighteen points coincide
with our program and manifesto: and to what extent are we prepared
to change, or modify these declarations, should it be necessary. Our
activities to date have been governed by the principles of what has
become generally known as the Marxian philosophy. Our understanding
of this has led us to maintain a strictly educational program. . . .
In accepting the eighteen points, we would have to change this
position, and indulge in all manner of tactics which heretofore we
have looked upon as, to say the least, futile.
He discussed several of the "Conditions for
Admission", showing that they ran counter to the SPC’s policy of
devoting all of its efforts to Marxist education. Referring to the
requirement that the party work to get reformists out of leadership
positions in the labour movement, he wrote:
Such activity would immediately involve us in
a series of bitter struggles that would hamper and in the end
nullify our educational work . . . [I]t would use up all the
precious time and energy, at present limited enough, for the work we
are engaged in.
This debate divided the SPC’s Vancouver-based
leadership team, pitting Pritchard and Harrington against long standing
comrades, most notably Jack Kavanagh, who was the former president of
the B.C. Federation of Labour and a frequent speaker at the party’s
weekly public meetings. Like Harrington, he recognized that the issue
was what kind of party the Socialist Party should be. But unlike
Harrington, he was strongly in favour of change. He wrote:
Concerning the position of the Party, Comrade
Harrington says: “Still, as a matter of actual fact, Marxism, as we
interpret and expound it, is a method of understanding social
institutions, their development or decay, and if therefore our
position was sound in the past, it must be equally so as long as we
maintain it, theoretically or practically."
Marxism, as I understand it, is something
more than the foregoing. It is also the application of the foregoing
for the purpose of organizing the working class for the capture of
It is important to note that in this debate no
one was saying that socialists should abstain from the class struggle or
from participation in mass movements; people on both sides played
prominent roles in the labour movement. The issue was what the SPC as a
party should do. As Kavanagh wrote:
The terms of the Third International demand
that as a party we do many things which have hitherto been done by
party members on their own initiative. If we, as a party, expect
ever to attain power on behalf of the working class, it is necessary
that we be a disciplined organization.
William Moriarty, Secretary of the SPC in
Toronto, posed the question bluntly: “Our educational policy has, no
doubt, been of value, but during these stirring times should not our
policy be to make rebels and not philosophers?”
Moriarty’s question went straight to the heart of the debate – but it
also illustrates how polarized the debate was. Polemical exaggeration
made it difficult for the two sides to work together, and hastened the
day when the party would split.
National and Colonial Liberation
A related issue focused on condition eight, which
[T]o support every liberation movement in the
colonies not only in words but in deeds, to demand that the
imperialists of its country be driven out of these colonies, to
instill in the hearts of the workers of its country a truly
fraternal attitude toward the laboring people in the colonies and
toward the oppressed nations. . .
This argument is ABC for most socialists today,
but in 1921 it was a new idea for most of the left. The socialist
revolution was supposed to begin in advanced capitalist countries; what
did revolts in “backward” colonial countries have to do with it? As a
contribution from Winnipeg Local Number 3 stated, “to support all
liberation movements in the colonies is a policy of bourgeois
nationalism, and is not the business of Revolutionary Socialism.”
Harrington held the same view:
The emancipation of the wage slave from his
bondage is our game, and colonial liberation movements are . . .
folly without an overthrow of capitalism. I cannot see how colonies
can be liberated and to what advantage if capitalism still rules.
Kavanagh strongly disagreed:
The revolts now in progress in India, Egypt
and Ireland take the form of civil wars between the peoples of those
countries and the British State. . . In civil war, neutrality does
not exist. Communists in those countries have no choice. They are
compelled to become part of the rebel forces, whilst at the same
time carrying on propaganda for a socialist revolution. Every
success of a revolting colony against the Imperialist State weakens
the power of that State. A weakened state is a prerequisite to a
Despite this strong statement, another of
Kavanagh’s articles showed that he failed to fully appreciate the
implications of the Comintern's position on colonies and oppressed
nationalities. Harrington warned that condition eight would require the
SPC to “call for support to Quebec nationalists and, much more to the
point, the Boer secessionist movement in South Africa.” That, he said,
would be “political idiocy”.
Instead of defending Quebec’s right to
self-determination, Kavanagh responded by denying that such support
would be required. He wrote: “There is a vast difference between the
Quebec and Boer secessionist movements and those in the other
Kavanagh was not alone in failing to support
Quebec. The entire Canadian left, English and French, considered Quebec
nationalism to be reactionary. Only decades later did revolutionary
socialists rethink this issue.
Communist Movement Unites
In a sense, the debate in the Socialist Party was
artificial. They were discussing whether to join the Communist
International, when the International was already organizing in Canada.
There were locals of the two competing US Communist Parties in Ontario,
Quebec and Manitoba. In fact, Fred Kaplan, whose motion in the Winnipeg
SPC local initiated the discussion, was secretly a member of the
underground Winnipeg branch of the Communist Party of America.
There was little or no communication or
coordination between the various Communist groups in Canada until March
1921, when the International’s Pan American Agency sent a representative
to Canada with instructions to merge the groups into a single party.
Caleb Harrison, who used the pseudonym Atwood, visited Winnipeg,
Montreal and Toronto, establishing the first links between the Canadian
groups. The result was the secret Unity Convention that founded the
Communist Party of Canada in Guelph, Ontario, on May 23, 1921.
The program adopted by that meeting made a
particular point of contrasting the Communists’ interventionist approach
to the labour movement, with the SPC’s abstentionism.
The socialist parties of Canada have not
hitherto understood the real importance of the role of trade unions
in the preparation of the proletarian revolution . . . Socialist
propaganda in the trade unions was carried on not under the
direction of a Socialist Party but by individuals and very loosely
connected groups and this propaganda was not infrequently of an
academic character. The necessity not only for organized party
propaganda but also for active participation in the every day
struggle of the laboring masses with the aim of directing that
struggle into revolutionary channels was not clearly grasped.
Unfortunately, this insight into the Socialist
Party’s weakness was combined with policies that isolated the Communists
from potential allies, and gave ammunition to their opponents in the
Socialist Party. Those opponents wrote several very effective articles
ridiculing the new Communist Party’s determination to be an “illegal”
and “underground” organization. When the first issue of The Communist
was published, the newspaper of the newly united Communist Party
contained no names of writers or editors, and no address, not even the
city in which it was published. The Western Clarion’s review of
the new paper was headed “The ‘Safety First’ Communists,” suggesting
that the Communists were afraid to publicly defend their views. The
editors had particular fun with a quote from The Communist Manifesto
that appeared in the underground party’s newspaper:
"The Communists disdain to conceal their
views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained
only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions."
Now these people admire that statement. They say that Marx and
Engels "sum up proudly" by declaring it. Marx and Engels said it.
They endorse it. But who are they? . . . .[T]hese people, while
endorsing what Marx and Engels wrote and signed, fail to sign the
endorsation. They have chosen in this paragraph the very best
quotation in all Marxian literature, illustrative of their own
In the next issue of the Western Clarion,
William Pritchard dismissed the underground group as “sewer-pipe
revolutionists” and “our friends of the rat-hole persuasion (by
Our Torontonian terrors (if Toronto be their
place of abode) have evidently decided that the time may, or will,
come when the progressive proletarian movement will be forced
underground. Ergo, let us dig our burrows now and become secretive.
And furthermore, let us announce the fact that we are to become
secret. Tut! Tut!
Pritchard’s sarcasm hit home. The Canadian
Communists were already realizing, as party Chairman Maurice Spector
later wrote, that being “underground” left them in danger of being
“wholly left behind in the organization of the left elements of the
Canadian Labor movement which were beginning to stir.”
Being underground and “illegal” stood in the way of attracting the SPC
members who ought to have been their allies. One member who was in
favour of affiliation insisted that he did not mean “the Toronto secret
outfit,” which, he was sure, had “no connection with the Third
And a pro-Comintern SPC branch responded to a letter that encouraged
them to join the Communist Party, with the quite reasonable objection
that they had received no information about the underground group, and
had never met anyone who admitted to be a member.
The Third Congress of the Communist
International, held in Moscow in the summer of 1921, discussed the
“undergroundism” of the US and Canadian Communist Parties, and came down
firmly against it. The International’s Executive Committee later summed
up the decision in a letter to the Canadian Communists:
Although illegal work proves an excellent
teacher of communist discipline and education, it threatens to
isolate the party from the working masses. Without a connection to
the working masses the party becomes a head without a body, a
General Staff without troops. The constant endeavor of an illegal
communist party should be to avail itself of every opportunity for
the creation of a legal organization, controlled by the illegal
party, which would enable it to get in touch with the working
The Communist Party of Canada accepted the Third
Congress’s advice enthusiastically. In August it launched a public
newspaper, Workers Guard, and began making plans to form a
“legal” party. Public communist groups, using various names, were
established in several cities during the fall.
But what was to be done about the
pro-International forces in the Socialist Party?
Splitting the SPC
Two of the delegates to the May 1921 Unity
Convention were William Moriarty and Jack Kavanagh, the most prominent
advocates of affiliation in the SPC debate.
The convention gave them an opportunity to discuss strategy and to plan
their next steps. Their conclusions were summarized in the second issue
of the new party’s official newspaper:
The leading intellectuals of the S.P. of C.
have been discussing Bolshevism back and forth now for two years,
sometimes with a little intelligence, mostly stupidly. The
party-paper has been carrying on an interminable debate for and
against affiliation with the Comintern, and apparently it is the
intention to obtain a literary contribution on the subject from each
of its members before moving — and then maybe. . . .
[The SPC] apparently does not believe in
conventions. It believes in “education” and “study classes” as the
sum-total of political activity. It believes in sitting on the
fence. And chewing the cud of “socialist philosophy”. . . .
For or against the Communist International!
For or against the Proletarian Dictatorship! For or against
proletarian mass-action! There is no convenient half-way house. The
Communist Party calls upon every honest worker in the S.P. of C. to
abandon those cowardly pedants and centrists who are in control of
the party-organ and to line up with the Canadian section of the
As this passage shows, by mid-1921 the Communists
had given up on winning over the SPC as an organization. The goal now
was to win over the largest possible number of SPC members, and then to
take those members out of the SPC and into the Communist Party. The
delegates from Winnipeg and Vancouver returned home with that objective.
To help in Vancouver, where the Communists had no organization outside
of the SPC, the party executive asked the Comintern’s Pan American
Agency to send a representative from the US, “to force the development
of the illegal movement in the far west, and the disruption of the SPC.”
On September 30, the Communist Party sent a
letter to Socialist Party locals across Canada:
Comrades – We have watched with interest the
discussion which has been carried on during the last few months in
your official organ.
The discussion shows that there is a large
proportion of your membership who feel that the interests of the
revolutionary movement demand international unity of the working
While we realize that all important questions
of policy require careful consideration, we feel that ample time has
been taken in this case for every viewpoint to be expressed, and for
every member to take a definite stand.
Comrades: The time has come for action. We
appeal to you to demand a Party Convention at once to settle this
vital question. Should this demand not be complied with, we hereby
instruct all militants to leave the S.P. of C. and align themselves
with the International of the World Revolution through the Communist
Party of Canada.
The battle was now joined – the literary debate
in the pages of the Western Clarion slowed to a halt, while the
two factions organized their forces for the coming showdown.
The first major skirmish took place in Winnipeg,
when the Socialist Party nominated One Big Union leader Bob Russell to
run in the federal election in north Winnipeg. As Russell told the story
ten years later, Fred Kaplan, Matthew Popowich and two other leaders of
the underground Communist Party secretly offered to support him in the
election – but only on certain terms. Their support was conditional on
Russell signing a written agreement to let them write all of his
speeches and election literature, and, if elected, to pay them $1,000.00
The editor of the One Big Union Bulletin
later wrote that this proved the Communists were corrupt. A more
reasonable interpretation is that the Communists proposed the agreement
to ensure that Russell promoted a revolutionary program on the hustings
and in Parliament, and that the $1,000.00, ostensibly paid to four
individuals, was actually a way of channeling part of Russell’s income
as an MP to the underground (and thus unmentionable in a written
agreement) Communist Party.
Whatever their intentions, it was a remarkably
stupid maneuver, one that the Toronto-based national leadership of the
Communist Party disavowed in conversations with traveling SPC speaker
The proposal alienated Russell and intensified the already bitter
factional strife in the SPC. Russell showed the proposed agreement to
the provincial executive of the Socialist Party, which promptly placed
Kaplan on trial for forming “a political compromise with persons outside
the party”, in violation of SPC rules. After being found guilty and
suspended for six months, he resigned from the party.
Meanwhile, the Workers Alliance (the “legal” face
of the underground Communist Party in Winnipeg) nominated Jacob Penner
to run against Russell in north Winnipeg. After the election, which
Russell lost by just 715 votes, Popowich said that the Workers Alliance
ran because Russell had refused to support the program of the Third
International, and bragged that Penner’s campaign was responsible for
Similarly, the Western Clarion said that the Workers Alliance
“entered this election in order to defeat R.B. Russell, and they
That was not literally true: Penner received only
565 votes, not enough to make up the difference. However, a united
effort of both parties, or even an independent Communist campaign of
critical support to Russell, might have produced the first ever election
of a declared Marxist to Parliament. A year later, such united front
tactics were widely adopted by the Communist Party; but in the fall of
1921, it was still hobbled by the sectarianism of the underground.
The November 16 issue of Western Clarion
announced that the Dominion Executive of the SPC had finally called for
a national referendum on whether the Party should unconditionally accept
the "21 Conditions". In the same week, the Communist newspaper Workers
Guard called on socialist and labour groups to meet in Toronto on
December 11, to lay the groundwork for a Workers Party of Canada.
Early in December, the Winnipeg local of the SPC
voted 25 to 11 to sever its connections with the Dominion Executive
Committee, and joined the Workers Party. Two Lettish (Latvian speaking)
SPC locals in Manitoba did the same.
In Vancouver, discussion at the referendum
meeting was so heated (according to a police spy) that Pritchard and
Kavanagh nearly came to blows.
When affiliation was defeated by 37 to 24, the minority immediately left
the SPC and formed a branch of the Workers Party. Four of them,
including Jack Kavanagh, issued a statement headed "The Parting of the
Those whom we have hitherto looked upon as
revolutionary Marxists refuse to accept the task which the
International Communist movement has laid before them.
To them the academy is preferable to work
among the masses. In the academy let them stay. That is the real
position of the party — an academic institution: not a political
party of the working class. . . .
To us the road is clear. We will go forward
with the revolutionary workers of the Third International. The road
is hard, but the goal is worth all of the hardships of the task
before us. Let the slogan of the Communist Manifesto become a
reality: “Workers of all countries unite, you have nothing to lose
but your chains.”
The December 11 meeting in Toronto adopted a
draft program, called for a national convention in February, and
elected the Provisional Organizing Committee of the Workers Party of
Canada. On December 22, the committee assigned Fred Peel, Florence
Custance and William Moriarty to prepare an appeal calling on the left
wing of the SPC to join the Workers Party.
“A split is now inevitable,” they wrote. “The
educationists will reorganize and continue their philosophical readings.
But you – the Left Wingers, who stand out clearly and strongly for the
Third, what will you do?” The Appeal branded the SPC as “an educational
sect . . . out of touch with the masses of the workers”, and urged the
left wing to join the Workers Party in building “a strong party of
The same committee meeting finalized plans for
party chair Jack MacDonald to travel west on a speaking and organizing
tour. In city after city he convinced SPC members and even entire locals
to come over to the Workers Party. By early January, Winnipeg claimed
that the combination of the former Workers Alliance with the majority of
former SPC members resulted in an organization with “over 300 members,
including 83 English in Central Branch.”
On January 21, Workers Guard announced two new branches, of 31 members
in Saskatoon and another of 50 in Edmonton.
The tour’s climax was a meeting in Vancouver on
Sunday, January 22, attended by some 2,000 people. MacDonald, who was
known as one of the most effective labour orators in Toronto, made a
sensitive but hard hitting appeal to Socialist Party members:
The speaker realized that it was hard for the
S.P. of C. comrades to make up their minds. It was hard for
old-timers like [George] Armstrong to break with the S.P. and
natural that they should feel a little sympathy and affection for
the party they had struggled with for the last 18 years. But at this
stage of the struggle they must rise above questions of party. . . .
“We must cease to be theorists, Mr. Chairman,
and become realists. I do not want to decry or belittle the
educational work that has been done; but if we believe that the
revolution depends on a thorough understanding of the Marxian
theory, etc., by the working class, then we may take it for granted
that the working class will remain slaves for all eternity.”. . .
As to the educationalists, however, there
would be work for them to do in the new party – to teach economics,
etc. But the emancipation of the working class would be the work of
the working class itself. . . .
Following the speech, which was repeatedly
interrupted by applause, MacDonald and Kavanagh took a train to Toronto,
to prepare for the founding convention of the Workers Party of Canada.
That meeting, held February 17-20, brought former Socialist Party
members into the party in a very public way. Jack Kavanagh was named
chairman of the meeting, and gave the opening address. In view of the
difficulties and cost of travel, the 16 delegates from west of Ontario
were given two votes each. And, as we have already noted, the party’s
new newspaper, The Worker, stressed the unity of Communists “East and
West” in a banner headline.
End of the Socialist Party
The formation of the Workers Party of Canada
marked the real birth of communism as an open and influential political
current in the Canadian working class. Its rapid growth was remarkable:
by August 1922 it had over 4,000 members, many times more than the
Socialist Party had had since before the War.
The B.C. section alone grew from the initial 24 members to 439 members a
The Communists had made more than a few mistakes,
and their sectarian policies undoubtedly alienated many potential
supporters in the SPC. But they rapidly jettisoned those policies in
1921-22, and on the fundamental issue of building a “party of action . .
. a party of the workers, and with them in their daily struggles against
they were solidly in tune with the needs of the day.
The Socialist Party eventually reported that a
majority of 18 had voted in favour of joining the Third International,
but since “several times that number” had walked out to join the Workers
Party before the referendum was complete, “the membership obviously
stands opposed to affiliation.”
It was a pyrrhic victory for the Harrington-Pritchard leadership: the
party they still headed was less than half its previous size, and was
heading towards oblivion. As the Workers Party grew, the SPC’s
membership fell, until the Party finally dissolved in 1925.
In the final issue of the Western Clarion,
a long standing member reflected that “the process of decline seems to
date from the party’s rejection of the Twenty-one Points”. Harrington
admitted that after 1921: “Support fell away, and we became a sort of
suspended animation in working class life, good old has-beens, having
served a good purpose, but no longer 'en rapport' as it were.”
Harrington, Pritchard and their co-thinkers are
nearly forgotten today, but in their time they were important Marxist
leaders, deeply committed to the working class movement. They could have
been major assets to the new Communist Party. But they held fast to a
brand of “Marxism” that was abstract and passive, at a time when global
changes had put concrete action on the order of the day for
revolutionaries. They were fatalists when working people around the
world were moving consciously to take control of their destinies.
As Jack Kavanagh said, Marxism is not just a
theory or a method of analyzing social change. It is the application of
theory and analysis “for the purpose of organizing the working class for
the capture of political power.” Because the SPC leaders never accepted
this premise, their theory and analysis were irrelevant to the lives of
the working people whose cause they sincerely supported.
A majority of the Marxist left rejected their
approach, and the Canadian Communist movement was born.
The Workers Guard,
December 17, 1921
An earlier version of this paper was posted on the Socialist
History Project website in June 2005, It has been rewritten to
incorporate additional research and new conclusions. Peter
Campbell, John Riddell and Lis Angus generously provided many
useful comments and suggestions, but they bear no responsibility
for any errors of fact or judgment that remain the final
Clarion, May 16, 1920
Clarion, September, 1915
Western Clarion, February, 1916
Western Clarion, August 1,
Western Clarion, May 1, 1920
V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 5 (Moscow:
1973), p. 423
For more detail, see the account of the three-day debate on the
21 Conditions, in John Riddell ed., Workers of the World and
Oppressed Peoples, Unite! (New York: 1991).
Western Clarion, January 16, 1921
Western Clarion, January 16, 1921
Western Clarion, February
Harrington wrote “eighteen points” because the last three had
not yet been published in the Western Clarion. Western
Clarion, February 1, 1921
Western Clarion, February 1, 1921
Western Clarion, March 16, 1921
Western Clarion, March 16, 1921
Clarion, April 11, 1921
Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 768
Western Clarion, March 1,
Western Clarion, February 1, 1921
Western Clarion, February 15, 1921
Western Clarion, March 16, 1921
Western Clarion, April 16, 1921. Kavanagh, a partisan of
the Irish independence struggle, was apparently unaware that the
Irish Marxist leader James Connolly supported the Boers’ fight
against the British empire.
In Winnipeg, in March 1921, a
Comintern representative met with “a member of the S.P., Kaplan
by name” who had
dues stamps from the Communist Party of America.
(Report of Organizer Atwood, Comintern Fonds, Reel K-271,
Library and Archives Canada.)
“Program of the Communist Party of
Canada”, The Communist, vol. 1, no. 1. June 1921
Western Clarion, June 1,
Western Clarion, July 16, 1921
Kenny Collection, Box 1. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library,
University of Toronto
Western Clarion, August 1,
Western Clarion, November 1, 1921
ECCI to Communist Party of Canada, December 28, 1921. Comintern
Fonds, Reel K-271
In Canadian Bolsheviks (2nd edition, p. 69), I speculated that the
delegate from SPC in western Canada may have been Fred Kaplan.
Documents that have since become available show that it was
Kavanagh. (See David Akers, “Rebel or Revolutionary? Jack
Kavanagh and the Early Years of the Communist Movement in
Vancouver, 1920-1925,” Labour/Le Travail 30, Fall 1992).
The Communist, no. 2. (July 1921)
Central Executive Committee Minutes, July 13, 1921. Comintern
Fonds, Reel K-271.
Quoted in Western Clarion, Nov. 1, 1921
Peter Campbell, Canadian Marxists and the Search for a Third
Way (Montreal: 1999), pp. 196-7.
“I had a long conversation with the boys in Toronto. Most of
those I spoke to were members of the Communist Party. . . . I
will say this for them, that they disapproved of the ‘tactics’
employed by Kaplan in Winnipeg, and roundly denounced such
methods of ‘securing control.’” (Western Clarion, March
Western Clarion, November 1, 1921
His comments were reported in the
Dec. 12, 1921 issues of The Globe and the Toronto Star.
Clarion, December 16, 1921
David Akers, “Rebel or Revolutionary?”, p. 33
B.C. Federationist, January 6, 1922
Provisional Organizing Committee Minutes, December 22, 1921.
Kenny Papers, Box 1.
B.C. Federationist, January 6, 1922
Provisional Organizing Committee Minutes, January 7, 1922. Kenny
Papers, Box 1. There was undoubtedly an element of revolutionary
optimism in this claim.
B.C. Federationist, January 27, 1922
Speaking in Vancouver in January 1922, Jack MacDonald estimated
the SPC’s 1921 membership at 350. B.C. Federationist,
January 27, 1922
The Worker, February 15, 1923
Workers Guard, December 17, 1921
Western Clarion, March 1, 1922
Western Clarion, July-August 1925