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Canadian Bolsheviks:  A Singularly Important Contribution

Bryan Palmer is Canada Research Chair in Canadian Studies at Trent University, and the author of James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left. He is a past President of the Canadian Committee on Labour History, and a frequent contributor to its journal, Labour/Le Travail.

Unforeseen circumstances prevented Bryan from speaking at the November 25 2004 meeting in Toronto that celebrated the launch of Canadian Bolsheviks, but he sent this statement to be read by the chair. It is posted here with his permission.

I was honoured to be asked by Ian Angus, to say a few words at this relaunching of his important book, Canadian Bolsheviks.

This is indeed a significant book, and one that it is great to see back in print. I have scrounged used book stores to get copies over the last years, because I keep giving them away to students and others who need the book.

When Canadian Bolsheviks first appeared in 1981 I was not researching or writing the history of Canadian communism. My field was more the history of the working class, and more narrowly, I was writing on the pre-communist years reaching from 1860 to 1920. But I picked up the book eagerly and read it with great glee. Because what it did was what needed doing.

Angus attended to the history of early communism by uncovering important strains of the revolutionary underground in the immediate post-World War I years, demonstrated how critically important communists were, even in the mainstream labour movement, in the early-to-mid 1920s, and showed how a once vibrant revolutionary vanguard, whatever its deficiencies and shortcomings, charted the rough waters of intervention in the class struggles of its time.

The passion and political engagement with which Angus handled this material, not to mention the rigor with which he pursued uncharted paths into the labyrinth of the underground years, put his book in a different category than previous scholarly writing, where a certain routinized academic sterility was commonplace.

More pointedly, Angus took the insights of a Left Opposition reading and translated them into an entirely new appreciation of important aspects of the history of Canadian communism in the 1925-1931 period.

Central to his project was a relentless peeling away of the mythologies that had been built up by Stalinist rewritings of history, and that exposed Tim Buck, for all his contributions, as not quite the larger than life figure that the cult of his personality had managed to sustain for decades. Angus showed that Buck was not the founding father of Canadian communism, but that other figures, such as Maurice Spector and Jack Macdonald, were very much his equals in the first decade of the movement. We still have to hear more of the roles paid by ethnic communists in the foreign-language sections, whose influence also rivalled that of Buck and other Toronto-based figures.

Finally, Angus also explored how the seemingly heroic 'Third Period' class against class activities of the Communist Party were in actually an ultraleft sectarian adventure that squandered years of revolutionary trade union work by communists, and that put various nails in the now Stalinized coffin of the Left Wing.

This was a book that in its researches and in its politics charted new approaches to the communist path, approaches that were meant to revitalize the revolutionary Left. When I put it down I knew that I had been educated in the best senses of the word.

Years later, my research has shifted gears, and I am actually writing on subjects Angus explored in his 1981 book. I value it even more.

When I want to check something about the Canadian communist movement in the 1920s, be it what Spector was up to or how the Canadian Party related to international developments, I go to Ian Angus's Canadian Bolsheviks.

And what strikes me is how singularly important Angus's contribution has been. For if we look to the historiography in the United States the New Left writing that criticized Theodore Draper never attained the status of Angus's survey of Canadian bolshevism. No US New Left text approaches Angus's in breadth and interpretive AND political clarity.

Draper remains the best source on US communism in the 1920s for precisely this reason, but his equivalents in Canada, William Rodney, for instance, do not occupy this pride of place because Angus has moved them back a notch or two.

I think far more needs to be done on this period in Canadian history, and I am currently writing an article on James Cannon, Maurice Spector, and the Founding of Canadian Trotskyism. In preparing that piece, which emerges out of my study of Cannon And The Origins Of The American Revolutionary Left, I both rely on Angus and offer some minor corrections, none of which alter significantly the original arguments and findings of Ian's book, but that flesh out some details and add, perhaps, new interpretive nuances.

Tonight, as Canadian Bolsheviks reappears, my hope is that it will galvanize serious scrutiny of the original years of North American communism, when a revolutionary Left made impressive inroads into the wider workers' movement, establishing a presence in the trade unions and entering the fray of class politics at many levels.

Today, we have no such revolutionary vanguard, and we need one desperately if we are to truly create the better world that so many think is not only necessary but possible. The past is not easily translatable into the present, let alone the future, but knowing what it was is a foundational premise on which to proceed.

Let's raise a glass to Ian Angus for what he did in 1981, and what his book can do for us now, and in the future.

Let's read it, let's extend its researches and arguments, and let's do what it was meant to have us do: use our heads to put our bodies into the work of recreating a revolutionary Left.

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