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Canadian Trotskyists
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 living costs.

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 possible.

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.


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