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Canadian Bolsheviks: an inspiring story

Paul Kellogg is editor of Socialist Worker, the bi-weekly newspaper of the International Socialists in Canada. This review is reprinted, with permission from the February 16, 2005 issue.

Fighting for socialism in the 1920s

Canadian Bolsheviks, reviewed by Paul Kellogg

In the early 1980s, building a revolutionary socialist organization in Canada seemed like a daunting task.

It was the era of Reagan, Thatcher and (by 1984) Mulroney. Right wing ideas seemed to be on the ascendancy and the working class was in retreat.

There was a further very large factor. The left of the NDP was dominated by quite big organizations whose roots were in the Stalinist states — looking either to Russia or China for guidance and support.

There were a few on the left who knew this was a dead-end. We knew that the Stalinist regimes in Russia and China had nothing to do with socialism. We knew that there could be no freedom for workers while a bureaucracy stole the products of their wealth, jailed those who dared to dissent, and presided over the most barbarous forms of oppression.

We knew that to really build a new left, we had to look back beyond the experience of Stalinism, and look instead to the early years of the Russian Revolution, and the great example of Leon Trotsky, Vladimir Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks whose party — by putting workers’ democracy at the centre of their politics — was able to overthrow capitalism in Russia, and for a few years build a new society that pointed in the direction of socialism.

The problem was, it seemed that in the sixty years since the heady days of 1917, 1918 and 1919, that hope had faded into the sidelines, and that revolutionary socialists in Canada had — except for brief moments — been confined to small groups, very marginal to the big struggles in the working class.

In that context, the publication in 1981 of Canadian Bolsheviks by Ian Angus was of real importance. Its re-publication in 2004 should be welcomed by all on the left.

Of all the many strengths of the book, one stood out for those of us in those years who were members of very small, marginal revolutionary socialist organizations. Canadian Bolsheviks told an inspiring story of a decade in which revolutionary socialists not only broke away from the margins of the struggle, but actually formed the largest viable left wing organization in the entire country.

From its founding in 1921 until its tragic faction fight and demise at the end of the decade, the first years of the Communist Party of Canada were an inspiration. The CP united some 4,000 militants, in every major city, in every major union across the country. Given the increase in population we have seen since then, it is the equivalent of the creation of a revolutionary socialist party today with in excess of 15,000 members.

That party was, as Angus describes, a "party of a new type". One of the great lessons of the Russian Revolution was the fact that socialists did not have to shun reforms in order to fight for revolution.

One of the main left groups before World War One, for instance "held itself aloof from the trade union movement" because that movement "only" fought for reforms, whereas the job of Marxists was to challenge capitalism as a whole.

The Russian Revolution changed that. The slogans that united the working class and the peasantry in that country were slogans for very simple reforms — bread, peace and land. But the Bolsheviks showed in practice that the only way to win these reforms was through revolution — all power to the workers’ councils.

This method was brilliantly simple and effective in the years immediately following World War One where millions — disgusted with the slaughter they had experienced in the trenches — stormed heaven and earth to challenge the capitalist system.

That wave receded, and the 1920s were a difficult one for socialists. In Canada, as Angus shows, with the exception of the miners on the East Coast, the working class was on the defensive.

But the Communist International used the same method — combining the fight for reforms with revolutionary organization — in the very simple but powerful idea of the United Front.

The CP in Canada applied this to great effect. They identified the key issues facing working people in the country — the fight for better wages, for stronger unions, for pensions, for social services, against racism, against sexism — and united with any who would fight on these issues, no matter what their politics. But at the same time, the CP put out its own publication (most importantly, a weekly paper), built its own meetings, and argued the need for revolution with those it was standing beside in the struggle for reforms.

This method remains the key to organizing a left wing in Canada today, and Angus documents the story skillfully and in great detail.

The last part of the book is important in another respect. It documents the sobering story of how the CP went tragically off course in the 1930s.

The Russian Revolution was central in inspiring a new generation of left wingers in the 1920s, and helping them establish a healthy, vibrant revolutionary socialist party. But when that revolution went into decline, its influence on the CP was disastrous.

Stalin’s rise to power represented the triumph of the state bureaucracy — a tiny minority of society — to power inside Russia. That new ruling bureaucracy inherited leadership of the CPs abroad, and saw them not as instruments of workers’ power, but as adjuncts of their foreign policy.

So through the 1930s and 1940s, every twist and turn in Russian foreign policy was copied by twists and turns in the policies of CPs abroad. Most horribly, this saw the CPs in Canada and elsewhere support the pact between Stalin and Hitler in 1939.

Read the book to see how this played out in the 1930s in Canada. Suffice it to say that the CP in the 1930s was no longer the revolutionary socialist organization it had been in the 1920s.

Angus shows that this did not happen without a big internal fight. Many thousands left the party in disgust and demoralization in the late 1920s. A tiny minority around first Maurice Spector (editor of the weekly paper in the 1920s) and later Jack MacDonald (the party’s leading working class militant) kept alive the real traditions of the 1920s. They set about the difficult work of refounding a revolutionary socialist current in Canada, difficult work which kept alive the ideas of real socialism in the decades that followed.

Today’s readers will have to appreciate the way in which the book reflects the era in which it was originally written. Revolutionary socialism was against the stream, and Stalinism dominated the far left.

This can at times make Angus’ judgment of the history of the CP after the 1920s seem quite polemical and harsh. He writes that it "was transformed, from a revolutionary party into a border guard for the Soviet Union".

This captures only one part of the reality of the CP. It was able to sustain itself for many decades after this transformation, in spite of its Stalinism, because it was also a "community of militants" — the largest party to the left of the NDP, and for many years with a real presence in the trade union movement. It became on this basis, a pole of attraction for many, in spite of its Stalinist roots.

But that is a small point. The re-publication of this book is an important event for today’s new left. There have been launches of the book in Vancouver and Toronto, and a third will be held February 23 in Ottawa (see ad page 10).

Canadian Bolsheviks should be purchased and read by everyone interested in building an effective revolutionary socialist movement in Canada today.

To order a copy, send $32 payable to "Bookmarks" and mail to Resistance Press, P.O. Box 339, Station E, Toronto ON M6H 4E3.

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