Early shifts in allegiance
Q. Joe Knight, who helped to get your father off on a suspended sentence and "exiled" to B.C. I heard that at one time he was a speaker and an organizer for the One Big Union in Northern Ontario. He went to Cobalt, I understand, and helped to convince people they should join the OBU rather than remain in the Western Federation of Miners. Apparently there was a lot of crossover between the various radical organizations in that era. A person would be, say, a member of the Socialist Party of Canada and then leave and become a sort of organizer for the One Big Union. It seems, in retrospect, almost like flirtation, waiting for the good idea to come along. Or was it more consistency and just that the next vehicle was a better expression of the people's aspirations? What caused these shifts in allegiance? Can I get you to comment on that?
Really, I only know a bit from what I read or heard from different people. I know that before the Party was formed in 1921 and especially before 1928, there was more of this crossover. My father, for example, was a member of the Social Democratic Party but also carried a card from the IWW (the International Workers of the World). I think there was more of an acceptance of people crossing over or working together. But when the Communist Party came into being, and especially after the Comintern took more of a hand in directing things, it put an end to all that. Any flirtation with any other group or union was frowned upon and actually forbidden.
A one-sided view
Q. I'd like to come back to something we discussed earlier. Even though you were young, you were politically cognizant, active, and read a lot. What do you recall about the Stalin-Trotsky debates in the international context as far as getting news of those? And in the Canadian context, were both positions thoroughly discussed, or did one hear only a one-sided interpretation of what was going on?
Oh, it was definitely one-sided. As I said, I read Inprecor, the Communist International periodical, regularly through the late 1920s and into the late 1930s. And I accepted everything in it as gospel. When the series of Moscow trials were reported verbatim, even though it was startling to learn that leaders like Bukharin or Zinoviev had "confessed" to these horrible crimes, I accepted it. It was not until after the exposure of Stalin that I realized there was something fundamentally wrong, and later, after I lived for two years in Czechoslovakia, I found out what it was. But until then, yes, I just accepted what the leaders told us, especially after a lifetime of following them and looking to them for guidance, as if they were oracles. I didn't begin to question things until much later.
It was a gradual erosion, a gradual process of disillusionment, not only because of what was happening in the Soviet Union, but also because of the methods that were used by the Party leaders. I told you earlier about how, on the Party's orders, I wasn't sent to Ukraine. The important thing is that, regardless of whether I should or shouldn't have gone, it was done without my even knowing about it, without my being consulted. Or the fact that the Party leaders decided arbitrarily and suddenly that I should no longer be National Secretary of the Youth Section of the ULFTA. Again, without discussing it with me beforehand, without taking into account that I had spent two years getting to know that organization, but, most important, ignoring the fact that this was a cultural organization with its own constitution and the right to make its own decisions. And there were many other incidents like that.
That is the way the Party leaders dealt with people, and even more ruthlessly if they questioned or opposed Party policy. It was largely this lack of democracy, this lack of a humane approach to people working for the same cause that began to erode my dedication to the Party, my faith in the Party. I began to realize that there was something wrong.
Q. You say that reading Bukharin had been an early influence on you, and yet you accepted his confession as an act of faith. How did you reconcile what you had read of his ideas with the trial? Did you have any internal anguish over that?
Yes. Not anguish so much, perhaps, as shock and bewilderment about how he and the others could have "gone off the rails," so to speak. That is the way it was presented to us, of course. It was presented as a betrayal, as part of the "onslaught of imperialism," and they "confessed" to being agents of imperialism. It was a blind and unthinking acceptance of what Stalin and his prosecutor Vyshinsky said about them. That was our weakness, of course, in not questioning enough what was said and done. It was difficult to comprehend, so you went on "faith": you either accepted that and stayed with the Party or you didn't and left the Party, as some did. I stayed in retrospect, to my regret.
Q. With the denunciation of Trotsky, some people did leave the Party. Because Bukharin did have some intellectual and ideological stature, even though perhaps not as much as Trotsky, were there people in the Party who became disillusioned after his trial and left?
There might have been members who would have split hairs that way who said, "Well, I go along with the criticism of Trotsky, but Bukharin, that's the last straw" but I wasn't aware of them. They were all lumped in our minds actually by Stalin and Vyshinsky as enemies of the Party, enemies of Communism. Trotsky, Zinoviev, Bukharin, and all the others were put into one bag, even though there were distinctions in the trials: they weren't all tried en masse, but rather in groups, gradually. No, I think most people just lumped them all together as enemies of the Party.
Both sides used propaganda
Q. This is more an observation than a question. In his book, Krawchuk writes: "It's well-known that after 1922 the Soviet Union had a network of propagandists and agitators like no other state in the history of civilization." I guess we can accept that. But I was surprised that it was used as it was, that because it had this network, they succeeded in brainwashing the people who were adherents of the ideology. I think that is how he meant it. But to compare it to the process of societal control under advanced capitalism, I think there is no comparison, because under advanced capitalism the control is far, far more sophisticated.
I think he overstated it for effect. He shouldn't have said "like no other state." Perhaps equal to, or almost equal to, the United States would have been better. But there's no question that Moscow did have a network bigger than that of any country outside the United States.
I don't know if you've ever read The Red Orchestra. It's a marvelous book. Stanley Ryerson recommended it to me years ago. It tells the story of Leopold Trepper, a dedicated Communist Jew in Poland, who during the war organized a radio network in Western Europe, mainly France and Belgium, to supply information for Moscow. His staff was made up of dedicated Communists, sympathizers and a few paid agents. He was very successful.
The book tells the gripping story of how he operated, how he had to evade the German army, which constantly sought to zero in on his portable broadcasting stations. All his messages to Moscow had to be sent every day by secret code to Moscow. It gives an example of how his superiors in Moscow, who had never been outside the Soviet Union, didn't understand the West and how that affected his efforts.
One of the rules Moscow imposed on the operation was that you had to report every single move you made that day, down to the tiniest detail. In one of these reports he told Moscow how he went to Hamburg, illegally of course, and came back. Following which he got a blast: "How come you didn't include an account of how you got a passport to go to Hamburg?" When he replied that one didn't need a passport within the country, they didn't believe him. You needed an internal passport to travel from city to city in the Soviet Union, so they assumed he was hiding something and threatened him.
He was also forbidden to make contact with the underground French Communist Party, which was a major player in the Resistance movement. When at one point, in a life-or-death emergency he just had to, and did, he got hell for it. They simply would not accept his explanations. Three times he was caught, jailed and nearly executed, but managed to escape.
After the war, Trepper went to Moscow, expecting to be recognized for his heroic efforts. Instead, he was put in jail by Stalin, where he spent the next 18 years. You see, he was Polish, and a Jew, and had been in contact with foreigners. After serving his 18-year term, Trepper returned to Poland only to find that anti-Semitism was so rampant that his sons had left and gone to London. Trepper joined them and died there. The Toronto Globe and Mail carried an item about his death at the time.
Tragedy of disunity
Q. With the CCF being formed in 1933 and the Party leadership imprisoned in Kingston, how well was the Party able to function? Did throwing the Communist leaders in jail help to kickstart the CCF? Did it retard the Party's work with the unemployed at all?
Actually, the jailing of the Communist leaders only spurred many people to greater activity in the Party. Within a short time a secondary layer of leaders developed, and they provided the leadership that was required. As for the CCF, its creation was part of the leftward swing of the people against the system. Unfortunately, it was also the time when the Communist Party began labeling the Social Democrats, the CCF leaders, as "social reformists" and even "social fascists," as being no better than the capitalists, that they were really helping capitalism to survive, etc.
This battle was a two-way street, of course. The CCF leaders were in turn attacking and denigrating the Communists. It was part of the world-wide struggle between the Social Democrats in the Second International and the Communist Parties in the Third International. Many workers at the time were very enthusiastic about the newly created CCF and could not understand this division in the Left. It wasn't at all helpful in the battle against capitalism.
I believe that one of the greatest tragedies of this century is the fact that those on the left wing the people who wanted socialism, who wanted to replace capitalism were disunited, could not unite, from as far back as 1903 or from the founding of the Third International in 1919. As was proven later, that same split prevented them from stopping fascism early enough. And it continued to this day. This disunity also enabled capitalism to continue to carry out its agendaand to win all kinds of battles to date, even though eventually they are not likely to win the war.
Attempt to rehabilitate Stalin
Q. A couple more things. I was told by one of the leading Ukrainians I interviewed that at one point there was an attempt in the Canadian Party to restore Stalin, to say, okay, he did some horrible things, but he also did some good things. The Ukrainians would have none of it, and that was the end of it. Do you have any knowledge of when that happened and how it was dealt with?
Yes, it was when I was in the National Executive, while Kashtan was the leader of the Party and Brezhnev was in power in Moscow. It came in the form of a message from the CPSU, gently suggesting that there should be more of a balance in evaluating Stalin's role in history, etc. The executive was divided on the matter, but the proposal died after the leaders of all the various ethnic groups in the Party adamantly opposed the idea.
There probably would have been more support for the idea among some of the rank-and-file members. Many people I think my father would have been among them found it very difficult to write off Stalin or condemn him. Indeed, there is a publication called Northern Compass, that Mike Lucas puts out, which blatantly still reveres and praises Stalin and doesn't even want to consider any negative aspects of his regime. I saw an issue of this publication earlier this year and I understand it's still being published. So they must have some followers. They're very much like the Soviet Communists led by Ziuganov, who are totally uncritical of Stalin.
A noble cause betrayed
As I said earlier, the Soviet Union did many great things, but these were done in spite of Stalin. Most of the people in the Soviet Union, including most of the rank-and-file Party members, were sincere, genuinely dedicated to a better system of society. In criticizing the Party, I don't reject the great things that were done, and the ideals to which the entire membership and the entire Party aspired. In spite of the sectarian methods and dogmatic approaches that persisted within the Party and still persist among the few who are still in the Party even though I am no longer a member, I still believe in genuine socialism.
The goal of socialism was a noble cause, but it was betrayed by people who were primarily interested in power, people who distorted and besmirched that cause and used it to achieve their ends. I am confident that future generations will find ways to challenge the rule of global corporate capitalism. But it won't be done by the dogmatic and sectarian theories and methods of the past. That's why I talk about the need for a totally new approach by the Left today. How to challenge the capitalist system in the present new era is a big challenge that requires new theoretical study and new approaches.
Party's first secretary
Q. I was unaware, for example, that Tom Burpee was the first national secretary and that he was replaced by William Moriarty and then by Jack Macdonald. I always thought Macdonald was secretary from day one. What do you remember about Burpee and Moriarty?
Not much, really. After all, I was only about eight years old then. I did meet Tom Burpee a few times and I knew his wife, Helen, who lived to a ripe old age. She was Helen Sutcliffe originally.
Q. Krawchuk says that they were replaced or suggests they didn't have a stable leadership that was well versed in the Marxist theory of scientific socialism. But I don't know that we can say there ever was a leader who was well versed in the Marxist theory.
I agree, but I think it's relative. Macdonald and Buck probably had more knowledge of it than Burpee. And I was told that Moriarty was very bright.
Q. Of all of the leaders, would you say that Buck had the most knowledge of Marxist theory?
That is very doubtful. I was told that Maurice Spector had more theoretical background. And more education. That is why he was an effective editor. Buck was essentially self-taught. What he did have was a phenomenal memory. Whenever he prepared a speech, he would write it out by hand, and in the course of doing so would memorize it, retain all the facts. So when he delivered his speech he rarely had to refer to his notes, because he could remember them. I think he acquired his knowledge of Marxist theory from books that way before he became Party secretary. Macdonald also was a self-taught worker.
[ Continued ... ]
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All