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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International, to be joined shortly after by the CP executive secretary MacDonald, Max Armstrong had already uneasily withdrawn from activity.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 Trotskyism.

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 Fourth International.

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 Socialiste Ouvričre.

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 forces there.

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 strike.

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 Ouvričre.

The rising radicalization of the youth was a great source of satisfaction for Max. Now well into his eighties, he enjoyed talking to youth who commenced to come around the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes. When his health took a sudden relapse last year and he was confined to a nursing home and then hospital he persistently expressed great impatience to return to these circles. He was "impatient to smell once again the aroma of the revolution," as he put it to one of his visiting comrades.

The Canadian revolutionary socialists dip their banner in tribute to Max Armstrong who died at 86 after an entire lifetime devoted to the cause of the Canadian and world socialist revolution. But they, do so only to raise it again on high, inspired and gratified to have known this man who embodied all that was best in the Canadian working class and confident as was he of the approaching victory of the Canadian socialist revolution.

Notes by Socialist History Project

  1. Armstrong was not a member of CPC’s founding Executive Committee, nor was Tim Buck. Both were elected to the Executive Committee of the Workers Party of Canada, founded on the CPC’s initiative in February 1922.
  2. Custance died in 1929. Moriarty became the main leader of the Lovestoneite movement in Canada.
  3. Actually Workers Educational Association.
  4. Here and below, the dates are wrong by one year. Workers Guard was launched in October 1921.
  5. The dates in this paragraph are wrong. The Labour Temple meeting was held December 11, 1921. The Workers Party was founded in Toronto in February 1922. The convention that was held "in a barn outside of Guelph early in 1921" was the founding of the underground Communist Party, not the Workers Party.

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