About Kashtan's election
Q. I'm interested in the process of how William Kashtan was selected as Party leader after Leslie Morris's death. You were on the National Executive Committee at the time. Who would have been the other contenders? And who supported which potential leader?
After Morris died there was quite a dilemma about whom to put up for leadership. Buck proposed Nigel Morgan. But there weren't very many others who could be considered. George Harris was mentioned, but he had been a member of the RCMP at one time, so it was thought this could be against him. I think he would have been a fairly good leader. Harry Hunter was also mentioned, but he was considered rather weak ideologically. Most of us, in private conservation, thought that while Morgan had charisma, was a good public speaker and presented a good image, he would have been just a flunky for Buck. He would simply have done Buck's bidding, and we knew how much Buck wanted to be in control. He had been the Party Secretary for over 40 years. Indeed, he used to talk about how he was competing with Maurice Thorez of France as to who would be Party secretary longer. And he had been very reluctant to give up the position to Morris. After Morris died, he couldn't very well propose to be secretary again, although later we learned that Moscow had wanted him back, obviously because he had proven to be very trustworthy and amenable. So Morgan was the other nominee. Finally, to the regret of many of us later, we all backed Kashtan rather than have Morgan. And to our surprise, when the election took place, Buck cast the lone vote for Morgan.
Moscow not pleased
So Kashtan was elected. And here's a strange sidelight on this event. On one of my trips to the Soviet Union soon after that, Sergei Molochkov, one of the staff members of the Central Committee, asked me: "How come you guys picked a Jew to be the secretary?" And I replied, "Well, it was unanimous, or almost unanimous. Only one person voted against it." And he said, "You should have picked Nigel Morgan, or even Tim Buck, if necessary." He told me how they tried hard to get Tim Buck to go back as general secretary. But it didn't work, of course. That kind of floored me a bit, I must say.
Kashtan became secretary not long after I took on the job as editor of the Canadian Tribune. And as editor, I very quickly found out what kind of leader he was. He insisted on having everything done exactly the way he wanted it. No independent thinking was tolerated.
There were several leading members who rebelled against his leadership, Nelson Clarke and Norman Brudy, for example. I did it in my own way on the Tribune. Rae Murphy and Tom Morris were real mavericks who frequently challenged Kashtan in the National Executive. But Kashtan asserted himself very effectively as a hard-liner and used his position to ride roughshod over any efforts (and there were many) to challenge some of his policies.
Q. So, in a sense, when Kashtan was initially chosen he was not really a compromise candidate, but the alternative to Tim Buck, asserting his control in a different manner. You say there were some challenges to his style in the early days. Would you say the Czechoslovak events put an end to those challenges? Do you think that's what was used to consolidate his control here in Canada?
Oh, yes. When Stanley Ryerson, Rae Murphy and I resigned from the Central Committee at that 1968 meeting, to all intents and purposes it meant that we resigned from the Party, although I didn't resign formally until later, when I came back from Czechoslovakia. Actually, after that meeting I no longer considered myself a member of the Party. Nor did Ryerson or Murphy, I am sure.
Kashtan's control of finances
There's another important factor that had a bearing on Kashtan's leadership. Through all the years Buck was Secretary, and even during Morris's brief term, Kashtan was always the Party Treasurer. He held the purse strings, so to speak, and was very hush-hush about it. His close aides in this work through all the years were Bill Sydney, Misha Cohen and Oscar Kogan. Sometimes only two of them, sometimes all three. Sydney especially was his right-hand man in handling the finances. Not only, as I said, was everything hush-hush, but nobody ever got a financial report at conventions or even at Central Committee meetings. Buck knew what was happening, of course; he left everything to Kashtan, who kept him informed of what he felt Buck had to know. When Morris became Secretary, he wanted little or nothing to do with the' finances; he too left it all to Kashtan, even more than Buck did.
Things were brought to a head just before the split in 1956, when Harry Binder was brought into the Toronto office from Montreal for a while. He was the first to raise a whole series of questions: What is the state of finances? Who's controlling them'? Do the Central Committee members know, or is it just Kashtan and a few others? He challenged the entire set-up and said that the Party finances should be open to members of the Central Committee at least, if not to the convention. But Binder left after the split. Interestingly, when Kashtan took over as secretary he didn't appoint a treasurer; he continued to control the purse strings, along with the same two or three individuals. So he had total control of the Party's ideological, administrative and financial affairs. Rae Murphy and Tom Morris did raise some questions about it, but he managed to keep the finances pretty well under his control.
Morris was obvious choice
Q. There is the matter of how Leslie Morris was picked to be general secretary. I understand that Buck's health was in question, or he was led to believe that he wasn't as well as he might have liked to have been. And then it was decided that he would step down. Had Morris always been groomed to be General Secretary? Or was he the logical choice? Or how was he selected?
I don't think he was groomed, because until 1956 Stewart Smith had pretensions to the leadership, and there may have been others. But I'm quite sure that even before 1956, if it had come to a choice between the two of them, let's say in case of Buck's death, the majority of members would have preferred Morris over Smith. Who else was there? Before that there was Sam Carr, but he was out of the picture after the Gouzenko affair and the passport forgery fiasco.
Incidentally, I learned recently from Krawchuk that when Carr was in hiding in the United States during the war, he asked Moscow if he could go to stay in the Soviet Union, but they refused. They offered instead to send him to China, but he wouldn't buy that. In retrospect, of course, had he gone to the Soviet Union, he likely wouldn't have been alive for very long after that, because of what Stalin was doing. But he did come back, faced the music, so to speak, and served a term in jail.
On the other hand, Fred Rose, the lone Communist elected to the House of Commons after the war, who was also arrested along with Carr and sentenced to six years, chose to be deported to Poland rather than serve his sentence. Much to his regret, it turned out, because when I saw him in Poland in 1950, he told me he wished he had chosen to serve his sentence and be in Canada after that.
Morris wasn't really groomed for the job, but he was the obvious choice. As to whether Buck stepped down voluntarily or was asked to step down, I don't know, because I wasn't in the leadership then. I believe that after 1956 the challenge came from within the National Executive; the majority felt that it was time for a change. After Morris did take over, however, there was a problem. I was on the National Executive then and recall how at one meeting, when Buck wasn't there, Morris told us that he found it difficult to do his job as secretary. He explained that Buck had been Secretary for so long, "ran the show" for so long, that he could not avoid sort of constantly "looking over his shoulder" and interfering, not directly but indirectly, with how he tried to do things. That's when we decided to send Buck to Moscow for a while, for a rest, then have him visit some of the parties in Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand.
A startling speech
That was the time, too, that at one Central Committee meeting Morris made that excellent "off-the-cuff' speech about the kind of party he thought was needed in Canada. He reviewed the many mistakes the Party had made and was making in its methods and policies, and at one point asked: "Is the kind of Party that was created by Lenin in 1903, in backward tsarist Russia, in illegal conditions, an underground Party with a military style of leadership and so on, the kind of Party we need in Canada? Should it not be more Canadian in its format and style, one that conforms with the way Canadians view political parties?"
He was, of course, raising the whole question of how the Canadian Party was in so many ways copying the Russian Party. And he cited some of the changes the Italian Party was making. Everybody at that meeting was very enthusiastic about the a new type of Party he projected. Buck was away at the time, but when he got back soon after that and heard about the speech, he severely criticized Morris for it, apparently in private first, then alluded to it at the Executive Committee meeting. Obviously, Moscow must have heard about it too, and didn't like it either. So Morris toned things down a bit after that. And of course he didn't last very long after that because of his cancer.
Q. Could Morris have won that battle if he had lived?
I don't think so, because Buck was very strongly against it. Mind you, I think it would have been a big battle, because Morris would have had many supporters. Another factor working against him was that Moscow's influence was still very strong. An example of that is what happened after the Ukrainian delegation made its report, how the Soviet Party tried to have it rejected or changed drastically; they fought on that issue viciously.
I often wonder what stand Leslie Morris would have taken on the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia had he lived and stayed on as leader. It's hard to say, really, because he had always been a faithful supporter of the Party's general line, but I think that in the end he would have favoured the Czechoslovak Party's line, because he was very much against the direction from Moscow and the Party's subservience to Moscow, even though he might not have put it in exactly those terms. He was very much against copying the Soviet party.
Copying the Soviet Party
Most of the parties copied the Soviet Party, but some copied it more than others. The Canadian Party was among the worst, with the exception perhaps of the East German. The Czechoslovak Party, before 1967-68, also copied the Soviet Union slavishly. For example, when Khrushchev brought in the new educational system in the Soviet Union, changing everything, the Czechs did exactly the same thing. Which was one of their tragic errors. The people were very much against it.
You must understand that Czechoslovakia had an educational system that was second to none in Europe. As a matter of fact, Jan Komensky (he was also known by his Latin name, Comenius) founded the school system of Bohemia, with its elementary and secondary schools and various small colleges, which worked very well. So well, in fact, that he was invited to England, where he founded the system they have had there since, and on which our public school system in Canada and the United States is based.
You can imagine how the people of Czechoslovakia felt when the Party suddenly abolished that system and brought in the new, untried Soviet system. One can imagine how the alumni of all those colleges must have felt. The irony is that not long after, the Soviet educational authorities found out that the new system wasn't working and reverted back to the old forms.
The Czechoslovak Party did many other silly and stupid things like that. For example, they changed the names of many streets in Czechoslovakia. Important streets that were there for centuries and figured in history, in novels and in the lives of the people —streets on which people were born and died, courted, made love and married — were summarily changed by party bureaucrats. Many of the streets were renamed after Russian party leaders. For example, a very important thoroughfare was named Zhdanov Avenue, after Andrei Zhdanov, one of Stalin's henchmen, and an important square was renamed October Revolution Square.
A silly change
I remember getting into a violent argument with a Russian in Prague over another silly change. The salutation Czechs have used over the centuries when meeting someone, or when parting, was "z Bohem" (literally, "with God"). In 1948, when the Communists seized power, they decided to change it to "cst praci" (literally, "glory to labour"). Many people, especially the old-timers, the senior citizens, resented this and didn't go along with it. Party members and supporters conformed, of course, as did others, even if they didn't agree, because you were suspect if you didn't. I argued that this was silly. After all, I said, "adieu" in French means "to God," and "goodbye" in English is a contraction of "God be with you," and similarly in many other languages. What would happen, I asked, if the Communist Party in France came to power and suddenly proposed to abolish "adieu"? There were so many other examples of how the Czechoslovak party tried to out-Soviet the Soviet Party.
This was one of the reasons for the rapid rise of the reform movement in 1967. When the Communists took power in Czechoslovakia in .1448, in what was essentially a bloodless coup, many people resented it. Nevertheless, it is said that anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of the population either supported the Communists or were at least willing to give them a chance. Yet over the next 20 years, by 1968, practically all of that support had eroded. Precisely because of the many stupid, undemocratic actions and policies of the Communists. That's why when the protests against the regime and calls for reform were started by writers and journalists in the summer of 1967, they were quickly joined by the rank-and-file members of the Party and soon after even by most of the Party's leadership.
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