From Socialist Voice, November 27, 1978. Part of the series of articles published under the heading "Voices from the past … Lessons for today." As a result of a typographical error, this article originally appeared under the title "Our 90 [sic] Years of Socialist Journalism."
Our 80 Years of Socialist Journalism
By Ian Angus
A socialist newspaper is the voice of the socialist movement. Without a voice you can’t build a movement. It is in that spirit that we publish Socialist Voice, and it is in that spirit that we will mark, next Spring, the 80th anniversary of socialist journalism in English Canada.
Citizen and Country, edited by one George Wrigley, wasn’t a Marxist newspaper, but it was the voice of a new movement, the Canadian Socialist League, formed in 1899. Wrigley and his associates were honestly committed to social change. That commitment led them to Marxism in a matter of two years or so. Citizen and Country became Canadian Socialist, and then, in 1904, Western Clarion, the voice of the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC).
The Clarion, published in Vancouver, brought Marxist politics every week to socialists in hundreds of cities and towns, places the mail could reach when organizers couldn’t. With the Clarion as its main organizer, the SPC grew to more than 3,000 members by the eve of World War I.
Shortly after the launching of the SPC, a young lawyer named W. U. Cotton, impressed by the phenomenal success of the socialist Appeal to Reason in the U.S. (it had over 300,000 subscribers in 1905), launched a similar weekly from Cowansville, Quebec. Cotton’s Weekly was idiosyncratic and personal in its first years. As well as publishing the SPC statement of principles in every issue, and a full page headed "Socialist Propaganda," Cotton always included a full page of attacks on the "demon rum" and calls for prohibition. It also, more positively, campaigned for women’s rights and suffrage, at a time when the SPC was silent on the issue.
In 1911 Cotton’s Weekly became the official organ of the Social-Democratic Party (SDP) a group which split from the SPC. The personal items were dropped—most notably the temperance campaign—and the circulation grew. In 1913 it sold over 30,000 copies a week! (Bear in mind that Canada’s population was less than half what it is today.)
In 1918, fearing the rising tide of working-class unrest, the Canadian government banned socialist newspapers. The Western Clarion and Canadian Forward (successor to Cotton’s Weekly) were among those suppressed.
But ideas can’t be stopped by government edict. The Clarion reappeared as Red Flag, and it and other newspapers with names such as The Soviet and The Searchlight helped spread the word. The main news they brought was of the Russian revolution: the writings of Leon Trotsky and V. I. Lenin filled many pages.
The radicals attracted to the Russian revolution fused in 1921 into the Canadian Communist Party: in August they began publishing Canada’s first communist newspaper.
The new paper (called first Workers World, then Workers Guard, and finally simply The Worker) was like its predecessors, but it was also very different.
They had emphasized general socialist propaganda and popularizations of Marxist theory: often current events were not mentioned at all. The Worker contained the general articles on socialism: but its emphasis was on action, on the class struggle.
Its editor, Maurice Spector, explained: "Only through their mass experiences with the Capitalist dictatorship in the every day struggle will the working class be rallied by its vanguard to the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship. The struggle for power will inevitably grow out of the struggle for bread."
Through the 1920s The Worker was the voice of the class struggle. It fought for the miners of Nova Scotia when Ottawa sent troops against them in 1923. It fought for a united front of all workers organizations. It defended women’s rights. (Feminists today may be surprised to know that The Worker favored repeal of the anti-abortion laws in the 1920s.)
Above all, The Worker built the party. That was what it was for, to build the movement for the overthrow of capitalism and the establishment of socialism, in Canada and around the world.
In the last issue of Socialist Voice, we described the decline of the Communist Party in the late. 1920s, its conversion from a revolutionary party into a Stalinist one. The same process affected The Worker. After Spector’s expulsion from the party in 1928, the paper went rapidly downhill, as its editors tried to translate Stalin’s policies into Canadian terms.
Meanwhile, the tradition of revolutionary journalism was kept alive by the small group of Trotskyists expelled with Spector. They collaborated with their cothinkers in the United States in the publication of The Militant. The first issue announced Spector’s expulsion, the next his appointment as associate editor of the newspaper. Over the next years The Militant regularly featured reports on the Canadian movement and on Canadian working-class politics. The Trotskyists in this country treated it as their own.
Selling The Militant was ultimately unsatisfactory. To build a movement here a periodical published here was needed. As soon as organizational and financial resources made possible, the Canadian group launched The Vanguard. Its first issue, dated Nov-Dec 1932, declared that "the fundamental problems of contemporary humanity flow from the dissolution of capitalist society and the development of, proletarian revolution." The Vanguard set about to hasten both processes.
The paper appeared sporadically at first, in a number of different formats, but as the movement grew, so did its voice. The Canadian Trotskyists constituted themselves as the Workers Party of Canada in July 1934 and began monthly publication of The Vanguard; a year later it became twice-monthly.
The Workers Party also published a twice-monthly Ukrainian newspaper, Labor News, and a youth magazine called first October Youth and then Young Militant.
In 1937 the majority of the Workers Party voted to work within the CCF, and The Vanguard ceased publication. But the break in continuity didn’t last long. Organized as the Socialist Policy Group (SPG) in the CCF, they launched a discussion bulletin, Socialist Action. When the SPG was expelled by the social democrats in late 1938, it adopted the name Socialist Workers League (SWL), and launched Socialist Action as a public newspaper.
The new organization was scarcely off the ground when war broke out. The War Measures Act made support of the policies of the SWL illegal: Socialist Action could not be published legally. It is a point of pride to the Canadian Trotskyist movement that it succeeded, with considerable difficulty, in publishing illegal issues of Socialist Action during the war. The mimeographed magazine was irregular, and its distribution was necessarily limited, but it did provide a voice for revolutionary socialist opposition to the war, while the war was being waged.
At the first opportunity, the Canadian Trotskyists regrouped their forces and launched a new public newspaper, Labor Challenge, in defiance of wartime censorship. The paper survived, and became the focus for the revolutionary socialist movement when the war ended.
After the war
The subsequent history of the revolutionary press is perhaps better known to many Socialist Voice readers. Labor Challenge continued publication into the 1950s. Then, after an interval in which the revolutionary Marxist left again concentrated its main efforts on work inside the CCF, became Workers Vanguard in 1955. That newspaper, first monthly, then twice-monthly, was published until the late sixties, when the Post Office passed regulations making it virtually impossible for a periodical published by a socialist organization to survive. Workers Vanguard ceased publication, to be replaced by a new Labor Challenge, organizationally and financially independent of any organization, but still advancing the politics of revolutionary Marxism.
The youth newspaper Young Socialist Forum, originally issued a magazine of the left-wing in New Democratic Youth in the early 1960s, faced the same reactionary postal legislation. It too gave way to an organizationally independent periodical that also presented revolutionary Marxist positions, Young Socialist.
Early in the 1970s new forces began to move toward the ideas of the international Trotskyist movement. In Canada a group of these young revolutionaries launched Old Mole (later The Militant) as a Trotskyist newspaper in 1972. For several years there were two newspapers in English Canada, both defending the policies of the Fourth International, competing with each other for readers.
As political events brought the papers closer and closer together in their analysis of the problems of Canadian society, the absurdity of publishing two separate papers became obvious. Early in 1977, as a preparatory step toward fusion, they began publishing in alternate weeks. In the summer of 1977 they fused, and Young Socialist added its strength to the combined publication. The result: Socialist Voice.
They have not been easy years. It has not been a steady upward climb by any means. But the tradition has continued, now, through almost nine decades. There is every possibility that, together, we can make the next decade a time of victory.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All