at the Outbreak of War (1940)
Responding to the outbreak of World War II, the Fourth International
held an Emergency Conference "somewhere in the Western Hemisphere," May
19-26, 1940. The Conference adopted a manifesto entitled Imperialist War
and the Proletarian Revolution, the last major political statement written
by Leon Trotsky before his assassination in August 1940.
The following is the text of the Canadian report to the Conference. The
"Grant Defense Committee," mentioned in the text was set up to defend a
member of the SWL who was the first Canadian to be arrested for opposing
the war. He was convicted and served a year in prison.
The Canadian Section and the War
(An Organizational Report)
In the name of the Socialist Workers League, Canadian section of the
Fourth International, we warmly greet the Emergency Conference of the FI,
and in the spirit of revolutionary working class solidarity, salute the
gathered representatives of our other sections.
Eight months of the war in Canada—the only country in the Americas
actively involved in the second imperialist war has yet failed to stir up
the Canadian people to patriotic fervour. While it would be too optimistic
to say that there is widespread antipathy to the war as yet, a
conservative estimate would be to say that there is an extreme apathy to
the war. In this respect the present war begins where the last one left
off, a factor of tremendous significance to us.
The fact of the war has had one immediate effect on our league.
Suddenly we found ourselves as the only political grouping opposed to the
war. The various degrees of opposition expressed by other groups does not
change this fact.
The Socialist Workers League has held its cadres together, has
functioned effectively even under conditions of illegality and increasing
repressions, and has remained true to the Bolshevik-Leninist program of
the Fourth International, unimpressed by the petty-bourgeois clamor for a
revision of Marxism. Despite our limited forces we are fully conscious of
the mandatory task of breaking out of isolation, growing beyond our
present role of propagandists. We strive to reach into the nethermost
layers of workers and farmers so as to be in a position to assume
leadership in the inevitable storm tomorrow, when the sullen passivity of
the masses makes a 180 degree turn in the direction of mass opposition to
the war and to the regime responsible for it. It is not excluded, indeed it
is more than likely, that the present intensification of the fighting
overseas, marking the real beginning of the war and its prosecution in
earnest, will be accompanied by an intensification of patriotism and
sharper repressions. This, however, will be only a phase. To facilitate
tomorrow’s developments in our direction, we seek to make our antiwar
position and activity felt throughout the country.
Factors in the situation
The present situation is influenced by the following factors: 1) the
sharp rise in the cost of living; 2) the heavy war taxes placed on the
people; 3) the ruthless order-in-council government by decree, which has
robbed the people of their democratic rights; 4) the certain knowledge
that this war can do nothing for them.
The war began just as Canada was emerging from the 1938-39 recession.
Increased industrial activity was just being felt by the trade unions.
This trend was improved by domestic war orders in the ensuing months. The
result has been to prod the trade unions into activity with some measure
of success. Better organized labor experienced 5 percent to 8 percent
increases, which still is considerably behind the 15 percent rise in
The farmer, too, was disappointed in his expectations of prosperity.
The Allied policy of purchasing grain from those markets accessible to
Germany, together with a measure of price-increase control kept the
Canadian wheat prices down to very moderate increases.
The farmer was perhaps able to pay off some debts, but on the whole
remains in his prewar state of poverty as the slightly improved price
level of wheat was more than offset by the price increase of other
commodities which he must purchase. The beginning of the war found the
farmer in severe economic straits. He was loaded down with huge debts
which consumed the fruit of his produce and kept him in a state of
semi-starvation. Since then, price increases of the goods he must purchase
have far outstripped the modest rise in agricultural prices. Instead of
the war improving his situation as was expected initially, his position
will steadily worsen. The West will remain a seething cauldron of
discontent, and tremendous revolutionary energy is being stored up on the
prairies. As in the last war, so in the present, the West will prove
itself a courageous fighter against finance capital, and possibly the
opening spark in the impending explosion.
In the period ahead, therefore, the trouble zones will be in the
economic spheres, viz., continuing rising costs and further crushing
taxation on the backs of the poor. The government has already indicated
its intention of saddling the costs of the war on the masses. 61 percent
of the first war budget is to be raised by indirect taxation, that is, on
household commodities, etc.
Changes in the economy
In this respect it is necessary to take into consideration the major
changes that the Canadian economy has experienced since the last war. In
1914, mining and manufacturing played an insignificant role in relation to
agriculture. In the quarter of a century that has elapsed, wheat has been
challenged as the major staple production in Canada. Most important of all
has been the rapid advance of mining. Today there are some 190 mines in
comparison with 50 a quarter of a century ago. Total mineral production
for 1939 reached 470.2 millions, an all-time high for this country. Of
this, 339.5 millions was in the metals and 130.7 millions in the non-metallics
such as coal, petroleum, etc. The proletariat in this industry number some
100,000, a substantial portion of the population with the inclusion of
families. If the CIO is to challenge the union movement successfully, it
must penetrate this vast field, perhaps the most difficult fortress for
labour to penetrate. While the West will remain a most important base for
operation, the East will play an infinitely greater role in the mass
upsurges that will come. The concentration of the proletariat since 1914
in a comparatively few areas dictates the arena of our activity.
The Canadian Commonwealth Federation finds itself nationally torn in
two between the existing Coldwell leadership which supports the war
"economically" and the overwhelming sections of the membership which
support Woodsworth’s pacifist position. This struggle was reflected in the
elections, and the social-patriotism of the parliamentary fraction of the
Canadian social democracy undoubtedly confused and checked the trend of
the masses towards labor politics, the CCF vote remaining stationary. The
struggle itself, however, was an inevitable development, and has
tremendous significance for us. The situation is in sharp contrast to the
1914 socialist betrayals, when the masses themselves were swept into the
war on the waves of patriotism inundating the world of that time.
Relation to the CCF
The SWL must recognize the CCF as a factor of major importance in its
road to the masses. It must recognize the tremendous possibilities of
antiwar sentiment within it. It must make every effort to criticize
bitterly the social-patriotism of Coldwell and to expose the hopeless
pacifism of Woodsworth. At the present stage of the war it will be
advisable to cooperate with the Woodsworth tendency in an effort to deepen
the rift against social-patriotism, at the same time clearly indicating
the limitations of its pacifist program. In this respect, valuable work
has already been done with the youth (CCYM-Cooperative Commonwealth Youth
Movement) who are bitterly opposed to the war and seek support against the
Coldwell leadership. Fractions should be reinforced in every locality to
keep pace with the growing developments. We can find no better legal front
with fruitful opportunities for genuine antiwar work than inside the CCF.
It bears repeating; we must penetrate it everywhere and as deeply as
The Stalinist party
The Communist Party continues to disintegrate. The mass petty-bourgeois
following attracted to its ranks during the popular front days, was
sloughed off with the Hitler-Stalin pact, and the subsequent correlated
change in Comintern politics, in line with the Kremlin’s foreign policy.
These remained the democratic patriots they were and left the CP. The
largest section of the CP membership is composed of European immigrants.
The language sections built the CP and remain its backbone today. In the
preceding years, considerable portions were lost, in particular, its
Finnish section. The Polish campaign has further disintegrated this
following. Further adventures by the Kremlin in the present European
holocaust can only continue this process.
The growing police repressions, and illegalization in Ontario may check
this tendency somewhat by lending fictitious prestige to bankrupt
Stalinism as the champion of the oppressed. Certainly its ranks have been
tightened in preparation for illegal existence. But its chances of
becoming a serious factor in Canadian politics have been considerably
harmed by the new turn. This is a second field of operations which the SWL
must enter in a serious way. The war has, unfortunately, checked the
possibility of reaching the Stalinists by way of our public platform. It
is therefore necessary to direct our propaganda more vigorously with the
printed word and in personal contact.
Possibilities have never appeared brighter for the Canadian section of
the Fourth International. We have faced the first test with complete
success; our ranks have held firm. Defections were few and of no great
importance. Our work has not only continued but has actually intensified
since the war began. The mandatory work of penetrating the mass
organizations is being conducted vigorously. Some "legal" educational work
has been begun with success. Our national contacts have been maintained
and strengthened. Socialist Action has been published regularly.
Leaflets have been distributed on every important occasion. A full-time
organizer has been maintained at the center and a part-time organizer in
the field. The Grant Defense Committee has conducted an admirable campaign
and is now negotiating with the Civil Liberties Union for affiliation. The
Grant case has been of great importance in putting us in the forefront of
defense work and antiwar work. An entire avenue of contacts has been
opened to us through this work. Our international ties are as strong as
ever and have been reinforced by special channels. We have experienced no
casualties since Comrade Grant’s arrest, despite these manifold activities
and a rigorous police dictatorship.
There has been a steady improvement in the composition of the league
(80 percent proletarian at the outbreak of the war and since then we have
shed off a few weak-kneed petty bourgeois elements) as our unemployed
comrades are finding places again in industry. This may be only a seasonal
economic upturn, usual in the spring, or may be more protracted, but it
places our members in better relation to the trade union movement, as they
will be able to enter steel, railway shipping; etc. for fruitful work.
Our transitional program retains its former validity and the slogans:
"For a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government; Expropriate the Fifty Big Shots;
Workers’ Control of Production; Food and Plenty, not Guns and Bombers;
Bread, not Aeroplanes;" were used in connection with our election
propaganda. Though unable to participate in the elections directly,
several leaflet distributions were effected locally and nationally,
advancing a program built around the above slogans. We intend to press
this program forward even more vigorously, and in conjunction with our
antiwar activity as a whole.
The economic struggle of the masses will be the first and most
important step in the overthrow of capitalism. This is the most essential
aspect of revolutionary defeatism. If we are alert to every developing
mood of the workers and farmers, we shall be able to exert a maximum of
influence in a correct revolutionary direction.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All