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Canadian Bolsheviks:
A Review by Irving Abella

This  review of Canadian Bolsheviks and of the CPCs official history, was published in Canadian Dimension, August 1982. It is posted here with the author's permission.

Irving Abella is Shiff Professor of History  at York University.

Reds: The Official Canadian Versions

by Irving Abella


CANADIAN BOLSHEVIKS: THE EARLY YEARS OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF CANADA, Ian Angus, Vanguard Publications, pp. 404/$9.95 paper

From the moment of its birth at Fred Farley’s farm just outside Guelph, Ontario, on May 29, 1921, the Communist Party of Canada was determined to play a vital role in Canadian affairs. And for a time, it did —especially within this country’s trade union movement. Though one Canadian historian has recently suggested that the party never amounted to more than an "inconsequential sect," it was clearly more than that; it was however, far less important in the history of this country than either it or its enemies believed.

The story of communism in Canada is one that needs to be told. It is a story full of blood, of passion, of great victories and crushing defeats. It is a story of a handful of men and women who created an organization which within a decade had grown strong enough to control a labour union. The Worker’s Unity League, which at one time or another had a membership of some 35,000, was responsible for more than half the strikes in Canada during the depression years—including well over 100,000 workers. The party also played a key role in bringing the CIO to Canada and its members thoroughly dominated most of the country’s industrial unions in the late 0s and early 1940s. By the end of the war not only was the CPC deeply entrenched within the labour movement, but there was a communist in Parliament and a whole host of them in provincial assemblies, municipal councils and boards of education across the country. Within a few years however, the party was a lifeless corpse, its best people gone, its energy spent, its elected representatives sent packing, its future non-existent. The study of the rise and fall of the Communist Party of Canada is an intriguing one and well worth examining.

The worst possible place to begin this examination is with Canada’s Party of Socialism. This is the party’s own version of its history. And more than anything else I’ve ever read it underscores Theodore Draper’s observation some years ago that "the Communists themselves cannot write their own history." They can’t "face their own past truthfully," he said, and they certainly are unable to reconcile so many changes of line and leadership with the aura of infallibility. Their books, he said, tend to be so full of omissions and distortions that they are "practically useless, except as an example of what the party leadership would like the public to believe."

Reading this book reminded me of that old saw: "A camel is a horse put together by a committee." This book is an example of "democratic centralism" gone wild. It seems that almost everyone still in the party had a hand in writing it. The book, we are told, was "supervised" by a "History Commission" of six men—all party leaders. Two others, not on this commission, we learn, made "important contributions." Then the party’s Central Executive Committee had "extensive discussions" concerning the interpretations. In addition "many other members" contributed to the book. One is left wondering just what the author of record, the party’s archivist Gerry Van Houton, had left to do. Not much, I suspect.

Obviously this is not a book to be taken very seriously. It is really the party’s scrapbook, a litany of heroes and achievements in which every renegade, that is anyone who broke with the party no matter his or her contribution, has been assiduously exorcised or, when included, abused. In a communist state, observed one pundit, these men would have been liquidated physically. In a non-communist state, their liquidation takes a literary form. What can you make of a book about Canadian communism when the name Joseph Stalin does not appear—at all—in the first 200 pages which cover the party’s history to 1956. And when he is finally—and I sense, only reluctantly—introduced he is simply de-scribed as the "leader of the Soviet party and state from 1923 until...1953" who was guilty of violating "Leninist principles of party leadership." It’s not as if there were not enough room to include him since in these 200 pages Beckie Buhay is mentioned nine times, William Kardash seven times, Bill Kashtan six times, and William Moriarty five times. Even such party stalwarts as Joe L. Farby, Fred Shunamon, Mike Golinsky and Otto Kuusinen, who few people have ever heard of, rate a mention. Ironically, in a photograph of a mass rally at Maple Leaf Gardens in 1934 welcoming Tim Buck, the party leader, home from jail, a huge portrait of Stalin dominates the proceedings. Naturally, he is not identified.

All of this of course makes the book terribly lopsided and often incomprehensible. How can one understand the interminable struggles over Trotsky who is de-scribed as a "Russian petty-bourgeois nationalist," and with his followers who are noted for their "factionalism, deceitfulness and underhanded machinations," if no mention is made of Trotsky’s principal antagonist, Joe Stalin. Who are Trotsky and his supporters fighting? From this book, at least, one cannot tell.

Nor is Stalin the only victim. Stanley Ryerson, for years the party’s leading theoretician and the man who according to some saved Tim Buck’s job in the 1956-7 imbroglio, is mentioned only when he broke with the party in 1968 over Czechoslovakia. There he is dismissed as an "opportunist." Nonetheless, he fares better than Joe Gershman, for 50 years one of the party’s most important ethnic spokesmen and editor of various communist newspapers. He is not mentioned at all. The list is as endless as it is artless. The heroes of this story are of course those who remained loyal to the party to the very end. Chief of these is the party’s present leader William Kashtan, a man apparently so unimpressive that he is only mentioned once in Tim Buck’s autobiography and even then his name is misspelled.

The analyses in this study are as predictable as they are silly. In the funnier parts of the book we learn, for example, that Drew Pearson brought the Cold War to Canada by "revealing" the existence of a Soviet spy ring in Ottawa; that Fred Rose was framed because he was "an obstacle to the unrestricted anti-labour, anti-communist activities of the RCMP;" that the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968 "to forestall an imminent imperialist takeover;" that Yuri Gagarin’s exploits in space represented the "triumphs of socialism" and that today’s Euro-communists are guilty of rejecting the "universal truths" of Marxism-Leninism. One reads in amazement as the party vainly attempts to explain away and rationalize the various tacks and sudden reversals in policy without once mentioning the real reason—orders from Moscow. And of course it has been this slavish adherence to the Soviet line which has lost the party credibility and support. Many Canadians resigned when they finally became convinced that the Communist Party of Canada was more concerned with serving the interests of the Soviet Union than the Canadian worker. The Canadian party has been one of the few in the Western world which has never ever deviated from a Moscow diktat. Even Tim Buck ruefully admitted in his autobiography that the Canadian party took positions it should not have because of Soviet pressure. And it is clear from this book that the sole function this truncated party can serve in Canada is to defend the Soviet Union. As we are told: "The existence of the Soviet Union strengthens the Communist Party, serves as the main guarantee of universal peace and creates the necessary condition for developing... the class struggle." Amen.

A much different—and more useful — book is Canadian Bolsheviks. This is also an authorized version of the party’s history. But the imprimatur for this book comes from the followers of Leon Trotsky. Its author Ian Angus, who denies that this is an "official history" of any kind, clearly has no use for the Communist Party of Canada. He calls it an "empty shell," one of the most servile of the world’s communist parties," its leaders "second-rate," its policies reactionary. What happened to turn the zealous, committed, revolutionary Communist Party of Canada of the 1920s into nothing more than "a border guard for the Soviet Union" is the thesis of this book.

Angus’ explanation is simple. The party was guilty of fratricide. Following the orders of Angus’ arch-villain, Joseph Stalin, a political hack by the name of Tim Buck cleansed the party of "its entire founding leadership," and most of its members. In removing these so-called Trotskyists the party, according to Angus, destroyed itself. No one was left to carry out the revolutionary goals of Marxism-Leninism. The heart—and mind—of the party had been removed. Only the second-string remained behind to carry on, and it was scarcely sufficient to stand up to the diabolic policies of Joe Stalin.

Though one can — and should — quibble with this simplistic argument, it is more difficult to dismiss Angus’ research. He has scoured archives and newspapers for bits of information which might help his story. And indeed—ignoring his analysis—his description of the origin and growth of the Communist Party in the 1920s is the best yet to appear. He tells us much that was not widely known before, and describes in great detail the internecine struggles that were a hallmark of the party’s first decade of existence. Although his story will not go down well with the authors of Canada’s Party of Socialism, of the two books Angus’ is by far the more believable. And with good reason. While the Communist Party consciously limited its research to only those pieces of evidence it could find in its archives—there is no mention in its study of such authors as Rodney, Penner, Adams and Avakumovic who have written about the party—Angus has consulted many sources, though he naturally uses them very selectively.

What both books have is an unflagging faith in Marxism-Leninism, however differently they interpret it. Applied "correctly" it can achieve untold wonders—alter the course of history, rebuild new and better societies and change the face of the world. That it has never worked anywhere is, of course, immaterial to the authors of these two studies. Their concern is with Canada. To Angus only the creation of a new Communist Party which is "genuinely revolutionary" and which is based on the ideas of Leon Trotsky can enhance the cause of the "proletarian revolution." His book, he argues, is a "contribution to [the] future" since it cautions today’s Marxists who are struggling to create a truly socialist Canada to avoid the past "mistakes and betrayals" of the party of Joe Stalin and Tim Buck. Contrarily, of course, the Communist Party maintains that only a study of its history can provide the "source of a new inspiration... to clearly illuminate the road to the socialistic future." Neither book shares the conviction that "God has failed." They just differ over what He is saying, who His prophets are and if the "chosen land" is really the USSR.

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