When the decline began
Q. When do you think the Communist Party ceased to have an impact on Canadian political life?
I think it began with the start of the Cold War, but really impacted after the exposure of Stalin's crimes. It took another big drop in the Gorbachev period and after the break-up of the Soviet Union. Each of these contributed to a change in people's attitude towards the Communist Party. Belief in its lofty goals (many of which, it turned out, were used for false and fraudulent ends) dwindled rapidly and disappeared. All of it left a lot of confusion and questioning in the minds of honest, progressive-thinking Canadians.
About Party and prestige
Q. I'm going to come at this from a different angle. The Party did at one time have the attitude of labeling the CCF as social-fascist, then, a little later, of critical support for the NDP. But it was always hoping that eventually the workers in the CCF would be won over, that, I guess as Lenin predicted, the more knowledge they got, the more naturally they would become Communist. A number of those on the left who weren't members of the Party had a high regard for it because of its discipline, because they thought democratic centralism was a good idea, and they probably were impressed by some aspects of vanguardism. So if the Party didn't create prestige for itself but was accorded some prestige by friends on the left, how do you explain that phenomenon?
Well, I know that in France and in some other countries in Europe many leading artists, writers and scientists favoured the Party because of its lofty ideals. And many of them did indeed think there was a need for a disciplined party that knew what its goal was. Yet at the same time the Party's dogmatism and sectarianism worked against that. Indeed, the whole idea of a vanguard party, in my view, is wrong. The Trotskyists too called themselves the vanguard party. And the social democrats have always considered themselves the vanguard party, even though they didn't use the term; they have always felt that they were the ones who were going to lead the people to a better society and pooh-poohed the pretensions of the Communists, the Trotskyists, and the others.
So it still comes back to how the Communists saw themselves. If they were supposed to be the true carriers of scientific socialism, the onus was on them to find the ways, effective ways, of bringing together all those who were willing to fight against capitalism, rather than contribute to dividing them by a confrontational approach. When the Communists, prior to and even after the war, talked about a united front with the social democrats, in many cases it was tongue-in-cheek. When they talked about a "united front from below," in their minds it was a tactic wherein they would have little to do with the leaders but hoped that they would be able to win over their rank and file to their side. I think that most rank-and-file members of the Party sincerely believed in the tactic, but I also believe that there was a lot of cynicism about it in the leadership.
A matter of method
Q. If we could touch on that matter of socialism for a second. Capitalism is not universal in its methodology or its application. There are various forms of capital that, especially today, compete for world dominance. Initially there was only the one situation where a country evolved its particular form of socialism, while the period after World War I was marked by the lack of success of other advocates of socialism — in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. Only one model developed, without comparators, for a number of years. Had there been more success following World War I, we might have had a diversity of models to pick from and perhaps more success. From as far back as 1903, as you say, there have been bitter debates about this in the socialist microcosm, as it were. But because there was no sort of stage where these models could develop more fully, by having governments, we won't know.
There is, of course, the fact that in many cases the subjective factor came into these debates. The differences were genuine, there were real debates on policy, tactics, and so on, yet in retrospect they ought to have found ways of differing while still fighting the class enemy, ways of fighting the class enemy together.
Now, I know that's somewhat idealistic and is easier said than done. But I believe everyone on the Left didn't really try hard enough to get consensus. Regrettably, there were a lot of power struggles among the Parties and within each Party, as well as within the international Communist movement, each faction or group claiming it had the right policies and the others were wrong, off the track, or off the "line." One could liken it to a dispute within a family; sometimes there can be serious, even violent, differences, but for the sake of maintaining the family unit, its members do stick together. This may not be the best analogy, but the fact is that for all these Parties and groups and factions on the Left, the main enemy was capitalism.
Very often, each side, and sometimes there were three sides, of the left wing, made the other side the enemy, as Stalin did, when for a time, prior to 1935, he got the Parties to consider the social democrats worse than, or at best equal to, the class enemy. The Social Democrats, of course, were no better in their attitude to the Communists. That is what I meant when I said that the split on the Left was one of history's great tragedies. The irony is that the right pro-capitalist groups have often been divided on all kinds of issues, but they always managed to be united and act in unison in opposing socialism or any socialist ideas.
Was collapse inevitable?
Q. Do you think the collapse of the Communist movement was inevitable, and if so, why?
Historically speaking, yes. Because the non-democratic, overly bureaucratic nature of the regime led to the point where it no longer had the support of the people; it couldn't function, couldn't grow, just as eventually it wasn't able to in the Soviet Union.
For decades, the Communist parties took their direction from the Comintern (the 21 Points) and subsequently from the Soviet leaders in Moscow, and were subjected to their errors and non-democratic methods. They also became subjects of Stalin's foreign policy. For example, the successes of the united front between the Socialists and Communists in France and Italy were suddenly cut short by Stalin, because his foreign policy changed, and the Communist Parties in both countries (and others) were made to go back to their previous policy of working alone. The Canadian Party likewise was very subservient to the Soviet Union. As a result, no criticism of the Soviet Union was tolerated, which had its repercussions. And this was extended to the ethnic organizations controlled by the Party.
Moscow's hold very powerful
Q. Could anything have been done to prevent that?
I don't think so. Because any effort to change-things would have been resisted and denounced by Moscow. That's why the leaders of the Party always did what Moscow would approve and resisted anything they thought the leaders in Moscow might disapprove of. And Kashtan was the best example of that. After 1968, leading members of the Party like Nelson Clarke and Norman Brudy, for example, were squeezed out of the leadership because they were critical of the Party's policies and of the Soviet Union, as were those who challenged the Party's policies earlier, in 1956.
And it was really difficult to shake off the hold Moscow had on the Party, indeed on all the Parties. For example, when I was in Prague, this question came up in a conversation I had with the representative of the Italian Party on the magazine. He said to me: "Look, John, our leaders — our top leaders, Togliatti before and Berlinguer now and others — would go to Moscow and talk to the Russian leaders behind closed doors. And they'd tell them what, in their opinion, they were .doing wrong, what they considered harmful, or what policies wouldn't go over in Italy. But they would simply ignore us and keep on doing what they thought was right. So we were put in the awkward and unenviable position: if we criticized them, we'd be joining the anti-Soviet bandwagon; if we didn't, we were tarred with their brush." That is why, he explained, the Italian and Spanish Parties eventually broke away from the Moscow line and established what became known as "Euro-Communism," much to the chagrin of Moscow and the hard-liners in other parties, like the Canadian Party's Kashtan.
More negative than positive
Q. Do you think, overall, the Party's negative features outweighed its contributions?
That's difficult to say. I liken it somewhat to the fact that the Soviet people did a lot of wonderful things in spite of Stalin. There were some great things done here by the Communists who were in the trade unions and in all kinds of movements. Great things were done in the name of the Communist Party for Canada and its people. But overall, I think there were too many negative features. And they are the chief reason why the Party didn't succeed.
During the defeat of fascism, in which the Soviet Union played a decisive part, and in the first few years after the war, there was a euphoria, an upsurge in the Communist Party and the left-wing movement; in many countries Communists were elected to office, including a few in Canada. But that didn't last long. There was the Gouzenko affair and its aftermath, the start of the Cold War and the McCarthy period. In many instances the capitalist media told the truth about matters the Communist movement wanted suppressed and were therefore very successful in painting a negative picture of the Communist Party and its sectarian, dogmatic methods — methods that were not readily acceptable to most Canadians.
Start with where people are
I believe you have to start from where the people are. You can't impose your policies without regard to what people are ready to accept. That's why those who in their views are to the left of the NDP, for example, should be very tactful about how they criticize the NDP. It should be done in a way that does not alienate those people who are supporting the NDP. I'm not saying they should not criticize the NDP. It's how they do it.
Through all history, the Communists were always very critical of the Social Democrats, but in a way that was very negative and subjective. The classic example was in Germany before Hitler. Both the Communists and the Social Democrats allowed the fight between themselves to supersede the fight against fascism. Trotsky, while in exile, spoke out against these tactics and denounced their intransigence on more than one occasion. And he was right.
But this same negative attitude to the Social Democrats still persists today, even among some of those on the Left who broke with the Communist Party. Again, I don't want to be misunderstood: I'm not saying that Bob Rae and his government, for example, should not have been criticized. He certainly deserved criticism for many of the things he did, and didn't do. But it should have been done in a way that convinces and wins over the NDP members, including Rae's supporters, rather than alienating them.
My attitude to the Party today
Q. How would you describe your attitude to the Communist Party of Canada as it exists today? Would you say it is supportive, sympathetic, indifferent or hostile?
Regrettably, somewhere between indifferent and hostile, because, from what I've seen of their activities and program, I think they have learned nothing, or almost nothing, from the events that have taken place. They're still as sectarian, dogmatic and rigid in their attitude as the Party always was.
Lessons for the future
Q. What do you see as the true value and best outcome of this interview survey?
My main hope is that the young people of the future who want to study Marxism, who want to see a strong, viable left-wing pro-socialist movement, will hear or read these interviews and draw lessons from them. What form that future will take is hard to say, but I do know that some new thinking will be required to achieve it. I think it is very important to have a record of the way different people thought about the Party, how it affected them, how it influenced their lives.
The Communist movement in Canada, despite all its negative aspects, did have many positive effects on the history of the labour movement, and on the history of Canada generally. Especially the role played by of the hundreds of rank-and-file members and supporters of the Party, including those in the ethnic organizations. They also left a legacy. Their children and grandchildren were imbued with many of the ideas and ideals of the movement, which they are now passing on in the various institutions and communities to which they belong, as well as to their children and grandchildren.
Marx's theories still valid
Q. Let's deal with another aspect — scientific socialism. If indeed Marxism is a social science, one should be able to look at any given situation with a set of analytical tools one has been given and be able to objectively assess the variables and predict an outcome. What are the positive and negative aspects of Marxism? And is the application I've just mentioned one of them?
I think that most of what Marx and Engels projected in their time — the theory especially — is still valid. Certainly the principles they adopted for the fight against the capitalist system still apply.
We were told that Lenin adapted Marxism to the age of imperialism. Well, aside from the mistakes he made in doing so and the even greater mistakes his successors made in trying to apply his theories, the fact is that the world has changed greatly since Lenin's time. The age of imperialism is now the age of the transnational corporations, which ignore entire governments and nations to achieve their goals. Many things have changed, including the character of the working class. In the 1920s and 1930s, for example, the Party was able to put out a leaflet "to the workers" and it would speak in almost the same language to the ditch-digger and the carpenter, except perhaps the photoengraver or the railway engineer, who were then the elite of the working class. Today you can't talk about workers in the same way. Only a small percentage of the population, for example, is engaged in manufacturing. There are many more categories of workers.
I think that the Left generally — this includes the Communists and the NDP — are not sufficiently taking into account the big changes that are now taking place in the world — the new technological and communication revolutions and their impact on society — and are therefore not changing with the times.
I haven't got the answers, of course, but I am convinced that future Marxists and students of scientific socialism will have to do some serious new thinking about the nature of the capitalist world today — the global corporate system. It will require new approaches, new ways of talking to people, new ways of projecting and interpreting Marxist principles for today's times.
[ Continued ... ]
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