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Canadian Bolsheviks:
A Review by Ross Dowson

This review appeared in the Summer 1982 issue of the newspaper Forward. Four initial  paragraphs, that do not deal with Canadian Bolsheviks, have been omitted. The Socialist History Project thanks John Darling for providing the text.

Critique of Book on Socialist History

by Ross Dowson

(...) With the publication of this book, titled "Canadian Bolsheviks" by Ian Angus, regardless of its shortcomings, new and valuable information is now available on the history of the first and formative years of the Communist Party. It was the struggle against the Stalinization of its pioneer forces related in these pages, that saw its decisive transformation from a building force into its opposite, a devourer and destroyer of revolutionary cadre.

Part I of Angus' three-part book presents what it would seem only proper to have headlined with the word Revolution. It outlines a revolution which would appear to have developed across Canada but was inexplicably overlooked, not only by the leading socialist militants of the day but by all subsequent commentators on the period—until discovered by Angus.

It is generally agreed that the Communist Party was launched in 1921. But Angus in the course of his painstaking research came across what he claims to be an earlier—The First Communist Party. It turns out to be substantially the Socialist Party of North America which he notes "never had more than 100 members organized in three or four locals in Southern Ontario." Elsewhere he even speculates "as to whether the SPNA as a whole participated in the creation of the new party or whether its forces divided." He notes that "neither the CP's own historians, nor the major academic studies of the party mention it at all."

But it seems clear that the exciting tale that Angus pulls together from capitalist "newspaper reports and other fragmentary sources" is about one of what must have been many somewhat similar responses across the country to the inspiration of the Russian Revolution, elemental and of a generally immature, ultra-leftist character, with little if any influence on subsequent developments. That is why the 1921 events which coalesced key elements from the main socialist groupings across the country can alone be correctly called the foundation or formation of the Communist Party. One would think that the author of what appears, not as an agitational tract but as a serious work of historical analysis and who professes to be a Marxist, would himself be puzzled as to why such contemporary socialist leaders as Spector and MacDonald gave no weight to what he baptizes the First Communist Party.

But as we continue to read Part I we find this highly speculative episode is but a piece of a whole—a sort of prelude to how Angus evaluates the Labour Revolt of 1919—the Western Labour Conference and the great Winnipeg General Strike -- and then the next period, which he labels Counterrevolution.

What was the overall significance of the period in which the Winnipeg General Strike was the centrepiece? "Historians may argue whether a socialist revolution was possible in Canada in 1919," but historian Angus, having posed the question, backs off with the words, "there is no doubt that this was the greatest social crisis Canada has yet seen."

There have been innumerable books, pamphlets and essays on the Winnipeg General Strike written from every viewpoint on the political spectrum. While it was a general strike for very modest demands, it has a cherished placed in the annals of Canadian labour, and particularly for socialists, because certain aspects which appeared in very nascent forms prefigure their concepts of the struggle for and the development of a new egalitarian social order. But no analysis that this writer is acquainted with, other than those of the Right, upon which Angus strangely falls back on, project his view that it was a revolution—that failed.

Angus quotes the charge by the Winnipeg business community, which organized the Citizen's Committee to mobilize intervention and strikebreaking by the Right; that: "This is not a strike at all, in the ordinary sense of the term—it is Revolution. It is a serious attempt to overturn British institutions in this Western Country and to supplant them with the Russian Bolshevik system of Soviet Rule."

Angus raps the knuckles of the editorial writers and speechmakers of the Liberal and Conservative politicians, but not for what one would expect: "The spokesmen of the ruling class deliberately overstated the amount of conscious planning involved in the supposed Bolshevik plot." But certainly Angus can't be charged with doing so. He castigates the Socialist Party, whose forces were quite small in Winnipeg and according to historian Martin Robin "were barely represented" on any of the bodies at the head of the struggles, "with total lack of anything even resembling a revolutionary strategy... in this situation the SPCers could only support the Christian radicals who urged the workers to remain passive. There was no serious effort to coordinate in the various cities," he charges, "no effort to involve the strikers in decision making on a regular basis, no effort to extend the Strike Committee's authority. Above all there was no preparation for the clash with the state that would inevitably come."

If "the spokesmen of the ruling class deliberately overstated the amount of conscious planning," nonetheless, he continues, "their statements show a clear understanding of the dynamics of the crisis." In summing up the chapter Angus states "the labor revolt of 1919 showed the possibility of a transition to socialism that would result from a revolutionary crisis in which the working class would suddenly rebel against the established order. Such a rebellion actually occurred in a chaotic and unconscious fashion, in 1919."

After this exaggerated, even false picture of the dynamics of the immediate post World War I situation in Canada, it becomes clear how Angus can open the next period with the heading "Counterrevolution," buttressed with what he considers to be a relevant quote from a 1935 writing by Trotsky. It reads: "Who ever understands history even slightly knows that every revolution has provoked a subsequent counter-revolution..."

But here too reality was somewhat different—as different from a counterrevolution as the events dealt with in the previous chapter differ from a revolution. Canada entered what has been called "the roaring twenties," the post war capitalist upturn, an expansion built on the forced industrialization of the war years and the rehabilitation of war-torn Europe—prosperity.

Angus quotes American socialist James P. Cannon's description of its impact on the U.S. Communists: "The prosperity sapped the confidence of the cadres in the revolutionary future. Prosecution inflicted wounds upon the party, but the drawn-out prosperity of the Twenties killed the soul." Angus stresses the demoralization of the Canadian party cadre by stating, without providing any source to back it up "that the (Canadian) party had been founded in the conviction that a mass revolutionary party could be built quickly, that proletarian revolution was on the order of the day." Yet, earlier he had occasion to note how the leaders of the Third International, including Lenin and Trotsky, saw the task of the American communists in their Thesis on Tactics in June-July 1921. While they addressed themselves to the situation in the U.S., it is clear they would have included Canada also where "the communists are still only on the threshold of the first stage of forming a Communist nucleus and establishing contact with the working masses."

Thus we see Angus' failure to even outline the concrete conditions that confronted the nascent Communist forces leads him to present a romantic, prone to ultra-left view of the post World War I period in Canada.

The central theme of Angus’ book is that the CP, within 10 years of its founding, degenerated. It became Stalinized. From a cadre gathering formation with the aim of making a vital contribution to the struggle to establish socialism in Canada, it was transformed into a political apologist or borderguard of the Soviet bureaucracy. It became a reformist movement of a new type.

The youthful Communist Party found within its own ranks and in its most able ideologue, the editor of both its paper and theoretical journal, Maurice Spector, together with its most popular and talented mass working class leader, Jack MacDonald, the forces to initiate the fight against Stalinist degeneration. The fact that Spector and MacDonald, unbroken by Tim Buck and Company’s campaign to drive them from the working class movement in an unprecedented campaign of lies and slanders, launched the Trotskyist movement as the early CP’s direct continuator, cannot but be a source of great satisfaction to all genuine Marxists.

Buck claimed in one of his reminiscences that until he had succeeded in expelling Spector and MacDonald and carrying out the Bolshevization (in reality the Stalinization) of the party, it had in its early and formative years been Trotskyist.

Quite the contrary, declares Angus. "Tempting as such a view of Spector and the Canadian party may be to supporters and opponents of Trotsky alike it has no foundation in fact." Spector, as editor of the Worker, he writes, failed to advance the positions of Trotsky and his Left Opposition. Nor did Spector or MacDonald, perhaps fearful of being brutally cut out of the party, merely evade the issues by perfunctory publication of reports of Comintern statements without comment, possibly stalling for more favorable times. "Under the leadership of Spector and MacDonald the Communist Party accepted and endorsed almost every important shift in Comintern policy following Lenin’s final stroke." What’s more, Angus writes, the party under their leadership "did not stop with the support of the Communist international’s line on international issues."

On top of that, Angus disapproves of historian William Rodney in Soldiers of the International (U of T., 1968), for stating that Spector in his analysis of the catastrophic defeat suffered by the German Communist Party in 1923, "became one of the Western Hemisphere’s first Trotskyites." "It is going too far to say" that, according to Angus. Theodore Draper in American Communism and Soviet Russia (Macmillan, 1960), however, goes even further. "In the entire Western hemisphere there was at this time (in the early twenties-RD) only one real Trotskyist – Maurice Spector…" And James P. Cannon, to whom some would give this place, himself defers to Spector. Spector later joined Cannon on the leading body of the U.S. Trotskyist movement in 1933 and immigrated to the U.S. in 1936 to become an editor of its theoretical journal until 1939 when he dropped away. Cannon recalls that Spector’s "open manifestation of sympathy for Trotsky… antedated mine by three years."

Spector and his new-found ally Cannon brought back from the Sixth World Congress of the Comintern Trotsky’s Draft Program of the CI: a criticism of fundamentals. It laid bare the source of the crisis in the CI and what was happening to Lenin’s party. Its cadre decimated and exhausted, was overwhelmed by a flood of careerists and opportunists who least of all wanted revolutionary forces looking to the Russian Revolution as the prototype through which they would realize their own hopes and aspirations; most of all they wanted peace, and forces abroad which they could hope would serve to neutralize world reaction threatening Soviet borders. This document revealed the unbridgeable gap between the conservative, counterrevolutionary national bureaucrats and the internationalist revolutionary tendencies in world communism.

What truth is there in Angus’ claim that the newly formed Communist Party under Spector and MacDonald’s leadership, not only "accepted and endorsed almost every important shift in Comintern policy following Lenin’s final stroke" but "also conscientiously applied that line to Canadian conditions: every shift in CI policy had its Canadian expression"? In other words contrary to Buck’s contention that in the formative years of 1923-29 the CPC was unconsciously Trotskyist, according to Angus, it was Stalinist from the beginning. It had no heroic days.

Whatever his reasons may be, Angus stakes out this claim in Chapter 9—The Communist Party in Transition, 1923-29—where he fits the Canadian party onto a procrustean bed fabricated out of Comintern policies of the early Twenties, then only beginning to escalate into the even more horrendous expressions they took on into the Thirties and on into today.

This chapter is an elaborately contrived, contorted and completely false construction. The bed to be fitted to is formed by policies serving a conservative bureaucracy which besides attempting at any cost to preserve its own privileged positions seeks to justify to its defends as norms of the new society, its elimination of the democracy of the Soviet councils and its establishment of one party rule. The body Angus attempts to fit onto this bed is the democratic, self-confident but inexperienced revolutionary cadre seeking to root itself in the Canadian working class and forge a leadership to give direction to the struggle for socialist democracy.

Here Angus parallels, if not equates, what was a modification of the Canadian party’s position on the building of the Canadian Labour Party to the Comintern’s turn to the peasantry for support. He parallels the Canadian party’s shift to a conciliatory policy to A.R. Mosher and the All Canadian Congress of Labour which would shortly form a base for the CIO, to the Comintern’s policy on the Anglo-Russian Trade Union Unity Committee which served to cover up the treachery of the British trade union leadership during the 1926 General Strike. He ties the Comintern’s China policy of subservience to the national-bourgeois liberal-bourgeois Kuomintang and Chiang Kai-shek to some views expressed in a debate during the Canadian party’s first attempts to grapple with the nature of Canada’s political economy.

In reality the latter would appear to be the first substantial theoretical discussion in the party, one which went through several stages before it was terminated by the capitulation of the 1931 plenum to a Comintern directive that Canada has a developed capitalist economy of a classic mould, an independent capitalist class, and is an imperialist power in its own right. Angus notes historian Norman Penner’s comment in The Canadian Left that an early Buck contribution was "written outside the usual Communist frame of reference." He also quotes, in part, Spector’s last and only rounded contribution on this question appearing in the Jan.-Feb. 1928 issue of the party’s theoretical organ.

Spector gives nothing to any concept of collaboration with the Canadian capitalist class but, to obtain a real independence of Canada, calls for the struggle to be directed against the capitalist government of this country and for the establishment of a workers and farmers republic allied with the workers of the U.S. and Great Britain. However, Angus breaks off his quotation from this article, and thereby neglects to inform us, as did Penner’s reference, that Spector founded his position on a serious re-examination of Lenin’s Imperialism. He was convinced that Canada was one of those transitional forms of dependency "which are politically independent in form but are surrounded in reality with a fine network of financial and diplomatic bonds."

From an historical point of view, probably the most worthwhile contribution Angus makes is concentrated in the book’s last five or six chapters. Here Angus presents the fruit of an extremely patient and detailed examination of CP archives which were seized by the RCMP during Section 98 days, held illegally for years, and only recently turned over to the Ontario Public Archives. For all his ingenuity piecing this material together from 50-year-old documents, it appears that Angus did not find a person who lived through this experience and who was able to fill it out such as U.S. historian Draper found in James P. Cannon. Thus there are statements and observations made, several without reference to source or authority, that seem to be scarcely credible.

For instance, are Angus’ statements believable that the party’s most experienced and sophisticated trade unionist, Jack MacDonald "had welcomed the Third Period" (a period that Angus properly calls one of ‘suicidal ultra-leftism’) "as a correction to the Comintern’s rightward course in 1925-28"?

On the basis of what has been heretofore available and the facts he presents in this book, there seem to be no substantial grounds for Angus’ petulant and sweeping criticisms of the CP’s 1931 efforts to defend itself from government prosecution of its leadership under the witchhunt Section 98 of the Criminal Code.

Angus gives us little substantial insight into the relationship between the two founding leaders of the CP, both widely experienced, and though separated 10 years in age, both at the height of their powers. But certainly Spector’s criticism of MacDonald in his report to his U.S. co-thinkers, following the tremendous disappointment of his expulsion and its aftermath, which Angus reproduces without comment, would not and could not be Spector’s serious judgment. Angus takes it upon himself to make the unqualified statement that: "Late in 1927 or early in 1928 Spector came to the conclusion that the CPC’s political difficulties were MacDonald’s fault." If there is one thing certain, it is that Spector clearly understood where the real difficulties lay – in the Stalinization of the party, whose chief agent was Tim Buck.

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