Max Armstrong, 1883-1970
(See the notes at the end for corrections of some factual errors.)
Labor Challenge, February 9, 1970
Pioneer Socialist Max Armstrong
Max Armstrong, an historic figure of the Canadian labor and socialist
movement, died on January 30 at the age of 86, following a rapid decline
in health over the past year.
Armstrong was a member of the founding executive committee of the
Communist party of Canada, together with Jack MacDonald, Maurice Spector,
Tim Buck and Malcolm Bruce. [See Note 1—SHP] When
Spector, the CP’s leading theoretician, was expelled in 1928 for
supporting Leon Trotsky in his fight against the Stalinization of the
Communist International, to be joined shortly after by the CP executive
secretary MacDonald, Max Armstrong had already uneasily withdrawn from
activity. But he, too, as did Bruce later, came to identify himself with
At the time of his death, Armstrong was a lifetime honorary member of
the New Democratic Party and, as a Marxian socialist, a member of the
League for Socialist Action.
Armstrong emigrated to Canada from Glasgow, Scotland, in 1907. He
became a member of the International Association of Machinists while
working in the Montreal CPR Angus Shops. Cotton’s Weekly convinced
him of the case for socialism and he joined the Social Democratic Party of
Canada in 1912.
He was a vigorous opponent of Canada’s involvement in World War I and
became known as one of the SDP’s most popular and effective street corner
speakers. The Russian revolution and the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky
convinced him of the need for a revolutionary socialist party and he
became a leading participant in all the activities that led to the
founding of the CP in 1921. Shortly afterward, he moved to Montreal where
he was active in the Montreal Labour party which affiliated to the CCF
when it was founded in 1933.
When World War II came to a close he was on the staff of the Textile
Workers union and active in Toronto municipal politics as a CCF candidate.
It was the postwar revolutionary upsurge in France and Italy, betrayed by
the Communist parties, and its continued rise across the colonial world
that led Armstrong to join with the Canadian associates of the Trotskyist
A memorial meeting for Max Armstrong will be held in Toronto on Friday,
February 6, 8 p.m., at 334 Queen St. W. The next issue of Labor
Challenge will contain an appreciation of Max Armstrong by Ross
Dowson, executive secretary of the League for Socialist Action/ Ligue
Labor Challenge, February 23, 1970
Tribute to Max Armstrong,
An exemplary working class militant
The following is based on a speech delivered by Ross Dowson at the
Vanguard Forum in Toronto on February 6th in commemoration of Maxwell
Armstrong who died in Toronto on January 30.
The death of Maxwell Armstrong snapped the last living link between the
new generation of revolutionaries coming to and already joined in the
League for Socialist Action/ Ligue Socialiste Ouvričre
and their predecessors who launched the revolutionary socialist vanguard
movement in Canada.
Max was one of a valiant group of men and women who, under the
inspiration and lessons of the great Russian revolution in 1917, led by
Lenin and Trotsky, prepared and actually organized the first Leninist or
Bolshevik formation on Canadian soil—the early Communist party. Max was
one of that core which included Jack MacDonald, who became the organizer
and chairman of the new formation, Maurice Spector who became the party’s
leading theoretician and journalist, Malcolm Bruce, William Moriarty,
Florence Custance, Jack Kavanagh and Tim Buck. The Stalinist bureaucracy
which rose on top of the isolated Soviet state and transformed the parties
of the Communist International into pawns in its diplomatic maneuvers
found Tim Buck as its agent in the Canadian party. The rest who remained
active in the struggle found their way to Trotskyism.
[See Note 2—SHP]
Spector, along with James P. Cannon of the U.S. party, first rallied to
Trotsky’s side in 1928. They were shortly joined by MacDonald. Following
World War II Armstrong, who had drifted off but never out of the working
class movement, found his way back and along with Malcolm Bruce joined the
forces of Canadian Trotskyism. Kavanagh, who had gone to Australia in the
early twenties, played a leading role in the building of the Trotskyist
Max Armstrong was a tireless propagandist of the Marxist outlook all
his adult life. As soon as he grasped these basic ideas he joined in the
struggle to build an organization capable of realizing working class
power. This became the focal point of his entire life.
Max came to Canada in 1907 from Glasgow, Scotland at the age of 23
years—a lace maker by trade. Contrary to all the capitalist propaganda
that socialism is an alien idea brought into Canada by foreigners, Max
became a socialist on the basis of the experiences he gained in this
country at the turn of the century. He became a unionist while working in
the Angus shops in Montreal and a convinced socialist by reading the
Quebec-published Cotton’s Weekly.
Not only did Max find in Marxism the answer to the day to day problems
confronting himself and his class, but he firmly grasped the materialist
concept of history. Marx’s discovery of the objective laws governing the
development of the system of social relations rooted in the conditions of
the material forces of production fascinated the youthful Armstrong and he
became a profound student of the history of all peoples of all times—an
interest which he maintained and developed right up to his last days.
Max joined the Social Democratic Party of Canada in 1912 and soon
became known as one of its most effective street corner speakers and
lecturers. The outbreak of World War I found Max and a handful of his
comrades standing side by side with Debs, Leibknecht, Luxemburg, Lenin and
Trotsky, in opposition to the war. These Canadian internationalists
opposed the war with every strength at their command as the fumes of
chauvinism cut into their movement and finally isolated them.
The Russian Revolution became not only a source of great inspiration
for Max and his comrades but also a matter of most profound study. Max
joined with other revolutionists across the country in response to the
appeal of the Third International to gather the forces for the
organization of a Leninist or vanguard party here.
By 1920 Maurice Spector, Florence Custance, Max, and others in Toronto,
had organized what they called the Ontario Labour College. The
organization assumed this modest name because of the repressive
legislation, Section 98, passed by Ottawa to defeat the Winnipeg General
This group carried on a running struggle with the Socialist Party of
Canada, the Independent Labour Party, the Industrial Workers of the World
and the One Big Union, to win cadre. It established close working
relations with the United Communist party of the United States. It soon
fused forces with the Workers Educational Club [See Note
3—SHP] in which Jack MacDonald, a popular union militant, William
Moriarty and a Mrs. Knight were leading activists.
Then came the publication of the revolutionary socialist press. The
first issue appeared under the name Workers World. The second,
dated October 15, 1920, appeared and continued for the whole next period,
under the name Workers Guard. [See Note 4—SHP]
The first issue of Workers Guard carried as its lead article a
report of a meeting on unemployment held at Queen’s Park. While the list
of speakers was impressive, including Moriarty, MacDonald and James
Simpson who was later to become mayor of the city, considerable space was
devoted to Max Armstrong who, the reporter noted, "was in his usual form,
imperturbable and convincing." The same issue announced a special
week-long course to be given under the auspices of the Montreal Labour
College by Max Armstrong.
The Nov. 5 issue carried an editorial calling for the formation of a
workers party, the character of which was outlined in the subsequent Nov.
19 and 26 issues.
This party was founded by a conference of 51 delegates held in the
Labour Temple, Toronto, on December 11, 1920 with Jack MacDonald as
chairman. Max’s speech, as reported in the December 17 issue, was largely
an attack on illusions that the workers state in Canada could be
established by parliamentary means. This conference proved to be the first
major step towards the convention which was called by MacDonald in the
name of the provisional committee of the Workers Party of Canada and held
in a barn outside Guelph early in 1921. Max was chosen by his comrades to
be on the founding executive committee. [See Note 5—SHP]
After playing a leading role in the gathering of the cadre to make this
qualitative turning point in the development of the Canadian socialist
revolution, Max left the center for Montreal and dropped into relative
inactivity. He played no role in the titanic struggle led by Spector and
MacDonald against the Stalinization of the relatively inexperienced forces
that had rallied to what, became known as the Communist party, either in
the period when they sought to reform the party or when they gave up that
perspective and commenced the struggle anew under the banner of the
Workers Party and as part of the forces who had answered the call issued
by Trotsky for the formation of the Fourth International.
But Max never left the broad arena of the politicization of the
Canadian working class. He became active in the Montreal Labour party
which subsequently affiliated to the CCF when it was founded in 1933. The
end of World War II found him on the staff of the Textile Workers union
and active in Toronto municipal politics as a CCF candidate.
It was the postwar revolutionary upsurge, betrayed by the Communist
parties in Italy and France, and its continued sweep into the colonial
world that brought Max back into contact with the forces that had
continued the fight that he had earlier helped initiate.
It was Max’s profound confidence in the working class that caused him
to maintain his connections with the CCF and then the NDP which honored
him with a lifetime membership. But it was his knowledge that the Canadian
socialist revolution could never be won with such a primitive instrument
as, the reformist CCF and NDP, but required a Marxist-Leninist party, that
caused him to join the League for Socialist Action/ Ligue Socialiste Ouvrič