Why the movement collapsed
Q. Let us deal with some analytical questions. Why, in your opinion, did the international Communist movement generally, and the Party in Canada specifically, collapse ?
In my view, it goes hack quite far I would say to Lenin's time. I believe that most of what Marx said was very applicable in his time. And that most of the theoretical postulates of Marxism are still valid today. Lenin undertook to adapt or, as we were told, "creatively adapt" Marxism to the "era of imperialism." But in doing so, I think he went overboard in many areas. For example, he made the "dictatorship of the proletariat" one of the main theoretical and tactical pillars of the Third International and thereby of the Communist Parties. Essentially it meant doing away with the democratic content of socialism.
It is interesting to note that Marx and Engels used the term only once and never made it an important point in any of their writings. Robert Laxer, who was for a time a leading Party member in Toronto, dealt with this very effectively in the manuscript of a book he is currently writing:
"Marx was not the first to describe capitalists as the new ruling class to which he contrasted a possible new proletarian ruling class, a concept which issued from the French workers in the revolution in 1848. Marx then posed the dictatorship of the proletariat in contrast to that of the dictatorship of the big industrialists. And he used the terms 'government' and 'dictatorship' without much distinction and somewhat offhandedly. He disregards at that stage the immaturity of democracy or universal suffrage, whether those who had dictated or the government had received their power by democratic means. The term 'democracy' appears neither in the U.S. Constitution nor in the Bill or Declaration of Human Rights in the U.S. or France. And this vagueness in Marxist formulation, which was the product of the immature status of democracy or universal suffrage, has been a source of fierce debate in the socialist movement and of much horror practiced in Leninist Communism, falsely attributed to Marx."
Dictatorship by whom?
When Marx used the term "dictatorship of the proletariat," he meant it in the sense of a dictatorship of the "have-nots" as opposed to the then existing dictatorship of the "haves." But the way Lenin applied it after the Revolution in 1917, and even more so the way Stalin applied it after he came to power, it was not a dictatorship of the proletariat but a dictatorship of the Party. And not even of the Party but of the elite of the Party, its top leadership. The irony is that prior to and during the revolution the Bolsheviks advanced the slogan "All Power to the Soviets," which meant the rule of the local and regional councils, but as soon as they consolidated their power it was the Party that took over.
Nor did Lenin's advancement of "democratic centralism" as another pillar of Communist Party practice meet the historic test, because there was always more centralism than democracy. The input of the people below, the rank and file, was always very weak or non-existent in the Communist movement. Moreover, when the Third International was formed under Lenin's leadership, it established the famed 21 Points, which each party that wanted to join had to accept and abide by. While this was done with the aim of bringing unity to the new Communist movement, in effect it also meant that all the Parties had to submit to the leadership of the Russian Communists, who dominated the International.
I recall this vividly, because as a teen-ager I was very interested in politics, especially the Communist movement. But these Russian leaders, including Lenin, made many errors. For one thing, they were mistakenly convinced that the time was ripe for a world revolution. They believed that the Russian Revolution would before long be followed by a revolution in Germany and perhaps Hungary, and then quickly spread elsewhere. It was a purely subjective conclusion, not based on any hard evidence. I read with avid interest each issue of Inprecor, the 'monthly bulletin of the Communist International, and noticed that although international leaders like Ercoli of Italy, Thaelmann of Germany, and Thorez of France played an important part, the Russian leaders, Lenin, Trotsky, Bukharin, Zinoviev, Manuilsky and others, dominated the scene. And because under the 21 Points the Communist parties had to follow the Comintern directives, this often led to some pretty negative features in many countries, including Canada.
People had little say
Another factor was that in the Soviet Union the people down below had very little input in running the country. Increasingly, the direction for everything always came from the top, especially under Stalin, when bureaucracy reached its extreme limits and proved the truth of Lord Acton's observation that "All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."
In the early years after the revolution there were efforts to observe some semblance of democracy within the Party. For example, a manager of the factory and a worker on the factory floor could both be members of the Party. In the factory they had one kind of relationship, but at the Party branch meeting they were supposed to be equal, with each having the right to criticize the other freely. In the beginning that right was observed, but very soon after it got to the point where, if a rank-and-file Party member criticized the manager of the factory, the latter had many ways of getting even with the former and usually did. More and more, the managers of factories, chairmen of collective farms and especially the Party leaders at each level surrounded themselves with yes-men and toadies who did their bidding. As a result, there developed a hierarchy of power cliques that extended from the smallest village to the Politburo to the supreme leader.
In my view, the main weakness in the "socialism" that was instituted in Soviet Russia and in the Communist movement throughout the world was the lack of democracy. It was the Achilles' heel of what they called "real socialism," but in actuality was anything but real.
Another big factor in the failure of Soviet-style socialism was the so-called national question, which I touched on earlier. With the gradual denigration of national cultures, what was once a tsarist "prison-house of nations," eventually became a Soviet empire, in which the Russian language was dominant and the dogma of Marxism-Leninism ruled.
Q. On that last point, about Russian chauvinism. It has been said that Russians are extremely xenophobic and that now, with no Soviet Union, there is a resurgence of this concept that the Slavic soul has to be purified by going through all of these trials and tribulations. This is what some nationalists have expressed to me. And that's an interesting point in history. But why is it different? What sets the Russians apart in the psychological make-up of the culture that would appear to give them this right to ordain their own supremacy?
I'm not sure, but it likely goes back to the Russian empire and the way Russians dominated the area for centuries. It's much the same as with China. The Chinese leaders also play down the minorities, regard them as second-rate, as with Tibet, for example. The English, too, during the long period of the British Empire, revealed some of these characteristics: towards India, Ireland and their many colonies. I don't think it is inherent biologically, it's a result of a certain historical development.
Q. You mentioned how the Parties had to follow the directives of the Comintem and its 21 Points. From the accounts of the early history of the Party in Canada that I can recall, the Comintern's will was imposed on it from the very beginning. One of them, as the Canadian Party was endeavouring to formulate its position, was whether Canada was a nation or a colony and whether it was a colony of Britain or the United States. And where in that milieu did Quebec fit? Until about 1925 there was some fairly serious debate in the Canadian Party around these concepts, after which the Comintern apparently intervened and said: this is how we view your country and this is the theory that you should take. The other intervention that followed soon after was the so-called "Bolshevization" of the Party, wherein the various ethnic sections were no longer affiliated to the Party by virtue of their own existence; membership had to be on an individual basis. In retrospect, that may have been a mistake. Can I get your comment on either or both of these?
In those early years the Comintern imposed a variety of policies and tactics on the Party, policies and tactics that were essentially foreign and did not originate from within the Party. One side effect was that these gave the Party a "foreign" image. It was bad enough that in the eyes of most ordinary Canadians the Party was made up largely of Ukrainians, Finns and Jews which it was but this was intensified by some of the things the Party did.
Let me cite some examples. When I was a young teenager and a member of the YCL, during some of my first days in Toronto, in the late fall of 1930, I recall that an order came from the Comintern to "industrialize" the Party, to turn it more to industry. That rather than just have so-called territorial clubs there should be industrial or factory clubs. The idea was that Party members who worked in factories should try to recruit and set up such clubs, but also, where possible, the Party should send members into the factories to recruit others and form such clubs. The YCL in Toronto took this directive to heart and ordered a couple of its members to get a job in the York Knitting Mills factory at Queen and Ossington. The conditions in the factory were very bad, of course, wages were very low and the hours long.
There certainly was a need for a union. But our two YCL members were "revolutionaries in a hurry." Instead of working there for several months and gradually getting to know the workers and the conditions better, they got a few of the young people worked up about the low wages and poor conditions, which wasn't difficult to do, and opted for an early strike. They put out a leaflet that described the poor wages and terrible working conditions and called on the workers to come out on strike. But at the bottom of the leaflet they wound up with the slogan, "For a Soviet Canada!"
Even as a young and naοve teenager, I knew that was not a very bright thing to do.
More on Soviet influence
Another example. When Lenin School graduates like Sam Carr and John Weir returned from Moscow, they were very gung-ho. They had also picked up a lot of Soviet ideas and customs, like Russian revolutionary songs. And they began teaching some of these to the YCL members at campfires and at social gatherings. Some of them were sung in the original Russian, some were translated, and some were sung in both versions. One of them comes to mind. The translated version went:
Incidentally, that first verse was originally a Civil War song that said, "Trotsky's Red Army brings victory," but that was not mentioned. And where the translated words in that song say, "Lenin's Red army brings victory," the original Russian words were, Krasnaia armiia vsekh sil'nei (The Red Army is strongest of them all). In retrospect, one can't help wondering what a young Canadian who came to one of those socials and listened to those songs one who was not Ukrainian, Russian or Jewish, and not seized with revolutionary fervour as we were, but just interested in socialist ideas what he or she thought of it, what impression it left. It's no wonder that not many members were recruited.
Yet another example of Soviet influence (and "foreign" in the eyes of most Canadians) was the way in the early 1930s the Party organized branches of the Young Pioneers for children. It was all Soviet-style: the same red neckerchiefs, the same upraised-arm salute, the same slogan "Always Ready," from the Russian bud' gotov. In some cases these things were done on instructions from the Comintern, but in many cases it was simply Canadian Party leaders copying what the Russians were doing.
All this was part of what gave the Party a foreign image, as were all the stories about Moscow gold, which, we were told by the Party leaders, was capitalist propaganda. Much later, of course, while I was still a member, I learned that a great deal of the Party's work was funded by Moscow. I recall how immediately after the war, in 1945 and 1946, there was a big campaign to raise funds for launching the Daily Tribune. Funds were collected from all over Canada, and many people gave generously. But there was no way they could have collected as much money as was needed to start that paper. The Party claimed publicly that they did, but not all the sources of the funds were given. It was all hidden, of course, not only from the public at large but from the Party members as well.
There was much talk in those early years about world revolution, because there was much talk about it by the leaders of the Comintern. The concept of world revolution being relatively imminent was prevalent for quite some time. Buck used to say, in his speeches throughout the 1930s and even after the war, that there could be a revolution within 10 or 15 years. Sam Carr, while delivering greetings from the Party to a Ukrainian Labour-Farmer Temple Association convention in 1931, told the delegates that they were heading for a Soviet Canada within a decade or so.
Q. Did you expect, then, that sometime by the end of the 1930s or by the early 1940s we would indeed have a Soviet Canada? And how, functioning with that premise, did that affect your style of work?
Well, we believed it, so we were on a high. And because we believed it, it was something inspiring, something to look forward to, ignoring the fact that most people did not share our beliefs. Moreover, while there was general talk about the fact that imperialism brings war, none of the Party leaders predicted the world war that came by the end of the decade (although Trotsky did warn as early as 1934-35 that war was imminent). Instead, there was talk about the world going Communist. Indeed, Stalin's right-hand man, Molotov, declared at one point that "All roads lead to communism."
At the time, I believed this, because I wanted it to be true. I came into the movement inspired with this idea of socialism, of a world socialist revolution, of Communism. The Soviet Union to me was an example of a new world, not knowing what was really going on there. Let me say, however, that had there been real democracy after the 1917 revolution, the Soviet Union could have been an example of a better society. Even with its difficulties and many of its negative features, the Soviet Union was, in its earlier years, an inspiration to many, especially the people in the colonial world, a hope that they could raise their standard of living. Although at first we regarded talk about the lack of democracy there as "bourgeois propaganda," it gradually became more and more evident that in fact it was a dictatorship.
What kind of democracy?
I know that in the Party we used to make the point that "bourgeois democracy" wasn't really democracy. But I believe it was wrong to take that approach. It was right to point to the many flaws in our Western style of democracy, but we should also have pointed out its merits, especially as compared with other regimes, including that of the Soviet Union. When you look at the rights and freedoms that do exist, like the Magna Carta and the right of habeas corpus, as flawed and as false as much of our democracy is, much of it is also genuine and certainly superior to what exists elsewhere. I believe this is yet another reason why the Soviet Union didn't succeed in winning over more people than it did and why eventually it lost most of its support.
It is true that some of the Soviet Union's achievements in the earlier years and during and immediately following the war attracted and won over many of the world's cultural leaders. But that eroded totally after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, when Stalin's crimes were exposed and people found out that most of the negative things that had been reported about the Soviet Union by the capitalist media were not just right-wing propaganda. That's why there was such a big let-down.
On capitalist propaganda
Q. You have mentioned the capitalist press and its role, but ant I getting from you that it was more the subjective things the failure to implement this or the misinterpretation of that that caused the collapse, rather than all of the capitalist propaganda against the Soviet Union, the arms race and the capitalist efforts to undermine the Soviet Union. How would you factor these as far as relative influence is concerned?
They were both at play. There is no question that the capitalist media played a big role. Before the Cold War they succeeded in portraying many aspects of the Soviet regime in a negative light, much of which many people considered propaganda: the fact that the Soviet Union was a closed society; that Soviet people couldn't readily leave their country; that foreigners were suspect and under constant surveillance; the closed society aspect of it essentially the lack of democracy.
In retrospect, the Soviet military played a very strong role, too, even though we weren't fully aware of it, as does the military in every country. And of course there was the role of Stalin. He dominated and controlled everything: Soviet foreign policy, the Comintern, even the policies of the Communist Parties in the different countries. Earlier I mentioned how in the 1930s, Stalin and the Comintern ordered the Parties to step up their attacks on the social democrats, calling them "social fascists" and labeling them as handmaidens of capitalism.
This is not to say that there shouldn't have been any criticism of the social democrats and the Second International. But what was done was done in such a blatant and vicious way. When the CCF was founded in Canada, the Communist Party immediately attacked it and its leaders. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Comintern established the World Federation of Trade Unions, a centre for the Communist-led unions that the Parties were directed to create as an opposition to trade unions led largely led the social democrats and left-liberal elements. In Canada, the Workers' Unity League coordinated this task. The WUL did some good things, organizing the unorganized workers, leading the struggles of the unemployed, etc. But a great deal of enmity and disunity was also created within the working class in the process. I think that, historically speaking, it was more a negative than a positive factor.
Lack of democracy
Yes, the capitalist propaganda against the Soviet Union and the Communist movement was very strong and played an important role, but I still think that the lack of democracy was the main factor in th*failure of the Soviet regime. This was proven later during the 1968 events in Czechoslovakia. The Action Program put out by the Party at that time had as its main features such concepts as: freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of the press, the right to travel. This is what people in all the Communist countries wanted. When the ordinary Russians heard about the Action Program (via the grapevine and the samizdat), they were very hopeful. But had it gone through, it would have been very infectious. That's why the Soviet leaders had to stop it.
Democracy also includes the right to organize and belong to trade unions and freedom for trade unions. We were always told that the workers in the Soviet Union were free, that they ran the country. But it soon became clear that this was not so, that the workers there didn't have the right to strike and really had little or no say in running their economy, much less their country.
Most people know that the word soviet in Russian means council. Yet the Party leaders used to talk about a Soviet Canada, which was stupid, since it only added to the "foreign" image many Canadians had of the Party.
[ Continued ... ]
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All