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Coming Into Contact
with the Trotskyist Movement

By Ken Hiebert

Part One

Trotskyists were active in Vancouver from the late '20s on and so it's not surprising that I heard about the Trotskyist movement before I had any direct contact with it. And what I heard wasn't good.

In the fall of 1963 I began to study at the University of British Columbia. I stayed in a private home off campus. My landlord was a seafarer and had been a member of the Canadian Seaman's Union, the union crushed by the Seamen's International Union in collusion with the Canadian government. (See the documentary film Betrayed, by Elaine Briere).

One evening in conversation my landlord told me about Trotskyites. He said it could be anybody, even an army officer. The Trotskyites would work day and night to further their political goals. The Trotskyites wanted to destroy everything and start over again. (This idea had some appeal for me at the time). They'd work with a good union to destroy a bad and with a bad union to destroy a good. This wasn't the last time I came into contact with a union militant whose personal impression of a Trotskyist co-worker was laced with anti-Trotskyist views picked up from a Stalinist or social-democrat.

During the school year of '65-'66 I joined the NDP club on campus. Here I didn't hear much good about Trotskyists either. One person told me that once a young person started talking to them, they would talk ceaselessly, wearing down the resistance of the listener. Another described them as "the Jehovah's Witnesses of the left."

A few fragments about Trotskyists came through news media. I recall news in a daily paper about the expulsion of some "socialists" from the NDP. And The Ubyssey, the student newspaper at UBC, carried an account of a memorial meeting for the poet Red Lane, held at the Trotskyist meeting hall. The reporter noted a banner on the wall that said, "Win the NDP to Socialism."

I learned later that poetry readings were a regular feature of the Friday evening Vanguard Forum. A cynic might ask if the poets were so isolated that they had to hang out with Trotskyists. Or maybe the Trotskyists were so isolated they had to hang out with poets. I think the poets and the Trotskyist activists recognized in each other kindred spirits. And it didn't hurt that poets and Trotskyists had been at the center of the Allan Gardens free speech fight in Toronto.

While I became active in the NDP I was also responding to the war in Vietnam. I was reading a publication that I came across in the UBC bookstore, The Minority of One. I was a great admirer of Bertrand Russell and his name appeared as one of the sponsors of this magazine alongside Albert Schweitzer and other notables. I went so far as to order a pamphlet on Vietnam for circulation.

The magazine was infrequent, maybe a monthly. I recall reading it with great interest and forming a negative view of the U.S. and it policies. But in the month in between, relying on the other media, I would return to a more sympathetic view of the U.S. I can't say how long this oscillation went on.

I was told that Trotskyists dominated the UBC Vietnam Day Committee. So I went to a leader of the NDP club (later a cabinet minister in the BC NDP government of '72 to '75). I told him that since there were likely more NDP'ers than Trotskyists at UBC, we could take over the committee. His response? "Yes, but who will do all the work?" I had no idea how much work went into organizing any political activity.

I've never kept a diary, so I'm guessing at the order of the events which brought me into contact with actual Trotskyists.

In the '65-'66 school year Tommy Douglas spoke at UBC. As I entered the meeting I received a leaflet from a Trotskyist active in the Vietnam committee. It started with a quote from Tommy Douglas, speaking in the House of Commons, opposing the U. S. war in Vietnam. As an ardent supporter of the NDP, and aware that there was little support in the Canadian population for an anti-war position, I reacted against this leaflet. I regarded it as a dirty trick played by the Trotskyists.

I think most fair-minded people would I agree that I was unreasonable and unfair to the Trotskyists. I am sure that these activists would have been exasperated had they known my reaction. But anyone who enters politics and expects that people will be reasonable and fair will often be disappointed.

I recall that Phil Cournoyer sold me a pamphlet by George Novack, Who Will Change the World. This pamphlet argued for the centrality of the working class in changing the world. I rejected much of what I read. I thought it strained to explain world events based on a conflict between two figures in the Russian Revolution, Stalin and Trotsky.

But I did learn something from this pamphlet. Novack explained how the activity and discussions among a small number of people can later have a much bigger impact. He cited the Petofi Circle, a group of dissenting intellectuals in Hungary before the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. This helped me to see a perspective for my own political activity as part of a small group of student radicals.

Also about this time there was a militant union struggle at Lenkurt Electric in Burnaby, the neighbouring city to Vancouver. Some union leaders were arrested and sent to prison. I attended a meeting to protest this at the Hillcrest Hall. The Hillcrest Hall was one of the meeting halls surviving from the days of the CCF, the forerunner to the NDP. The CCF had been more of a grassroots organization.

I remember nothing of what was said from the podium. But I do recall two contributions from the floor. An older man, Fred McNeill, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, denounced the failings of the labour movement and explained that it all went back to the Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939. I wasn't too impressed. A friend who attended the meeting with me explained that this person was a Trotskyist.

I was favourably impressed by the contribution of Al Engler, who introduced himself as a member of the League for Socialist Action. He was on topic and made practical proposals as to how to proceed. What they were I can't recall, but I left that meeting perhaps more open to hearing what the LSA had to say.

Nevertheless, I was much more attracted to the New Left. My first knowledge of the New Left was an article which appeared on the front page of the Vancouver Province. It was a reprint from the New York Times, reporting the growth of a new student left in the U.S. I found this much more appealing than the "old left" organizations such as the Communist Party and the Trotskyists.

In the U.S. the central organization of the New Left was Students for a Democratic Society. In Canada it was the Student Union for Peace Action which had evolved out of the Canadian University Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. SUPA had a catalogue of pamphlets and I ordered the whole catalogue and read it.

Midsummer of '66 I left a summer job in northern B. C. and was back in Vancouver looking for work. A member of the League for Socialist Action offered me a ride out to his work place, Anaconda Copper, in Britannia Beach, outside Vancouver. Three members of the LSA worked there. I hired on as an underground labourer and I stayed there during the week in one of the bunkhouses. In the evening, with time on my hands, I would climb a long stairs to the power house where one of the LSA members was on duty. We talked politics.

About this time I sent in an application form to become a member of SUPA, but I did not hear back from them. Somewhat in despair, and with some hesitation, I decided to join the Young Socialists, the youth group associated with the League for Socialist Action. I was directed to go to Vanguard Books. The person I found there was a leader of the LSA.

When I declared my intent the first words that came out of his mouth were, "Well, we support the NDP."

Part Two

I was not happy to hear this, as my low opinion of the NDP was one of the things that propelled me toward the Trotskyists. I remember the provincial election of 1966. I worked for an NDP candidate in the West End of Vancouver. In a pep talk for his campaign workers he told us of a man who was denied help by the welfare office in getting a new set of false teeth. He ended his talk with the words, "This election is about Charlie's false teeth."

This speech did not go down well with a young person who was engaged with all that was happening in the world, from Vietnam to the black struggle in the U. S. The candidate seemed oblivious to all this.

Looking back, I may also have been influenced by the fact that I was a young person with a full set of my own teeth.

Nevertheless, I overcame my hesitation and joined the Young Socialists in January of 1967. Another factor made my joining somewhat hesitant. I feared that the organization would put an intellectual straitjacket on me. This was a reasonable fear in that some left organizations do promote intellectual conformity. But his was not what I found in the Young Socialists. I found the intellectual life quite engaging. And I'm not the first person to find that a study of Marxism opened up a whole new world.

Just one example. About 1968 the International Socialist Review published an article by Rosa Luxembourg on Russian poetry, Luxembourg on Korelenko. If you can find this piece, I'm happy to recommend it.

Win the NDP to Socialism

The Young Socialists were deeply involved in the Young New Democrats. When I joined there was an regular item on our agenda for reports from the individuals clubs of the YND. (Richmond and Vancouver East come to mind.) Anti-war work was another regular agenda item.) Young Socialist Forum, our magazine, had started out as the official publication of the B.C. YND.

The banner I mentioned earlier, “Win the NDP to Socialism,” was still on the wall when I joined. In all the time that I have been associated with the Trotskyist movement I never met anyone who believed that the NDP as a party could be won to socialism. For me, the banner was an attempt to express a policy toward the NDP. That is to welcome it's founding (in 1961), to participate in it, and to advocate socialist policies to party members and to others who supported the party.

I will leave the merit of this policy for others to discuss. It will be addressed in documents carried on this website. I accepted the policy and understood it as meaning that we hoped to win over that section of the working class that had broken with the Liberal and Conservatives to support a labour-based party.

But I think the slogan was weak. People have a right to take our slogans at face value. They shouldn't have to search for a subtle explanation of a slogan we put forward. It should be easy to understand and mean just what it says.

I don't recall when the banner came down.

The War

You could find more than one example of the U. S. invading other countries in the 50's and 60's. But I had little awareness of this. Until the Vietnam War, for me, the most recent example of one country invading another was Hungary. I remember being in grade nine when a social studies teacher told us that Russia had for centuries been seeking a warm water port, for example through the Black Sea. I immediately piped up, "What about Hungary?" If you don't see a logical connection between these two issues, I don't blame you. But it says something about the political opinions at that time. TV ads at the time showed a blot spreading over the earth. We were told that communism was advancing at so many square miles a day.

It came as a shock to many people to see the U.S. seeking to impose its will on another country by force. A movement rose up to oppose this. But the fear of communism meant that this movement started very much as a minority.

The war was like a broken bone in the body politic. The pain and distress reached even those who thousands of miles away.

I don't know what has been written about the anti-war movement in Canada. Much has been written about the movement in the U. S. I'm happy to recommend the one book I read, Out Now!, by Fred Halstead.

I got involved early in '66. One Trotskyist activist told an anti-war meeting that we would see tens of thousands of people marching in the streets of the U. S. This struck me as highly unlikely, something that he might believe based on his attachment to some unrealistic Marxist dogma. So I remember the moment on March 26 of that year when I was part of a large march ending up at the courthouse in Vancouver. On the outside of the Vancouver Hotel there was a changing message sign that flashed news items. It announced that 10,000 people had marched in New York. I was amazed.

The anti-war movement was at the center of Trotskyist political activity and also a source of new members.

Women's Liberation

It wasn't until I joined the Young Socialists that I received an education on this question. Educational presentations were a regular part of our weekly meetings. And early in 1967 a comrade made a presentation based on “The Longest Revolution,” an article by Juliet Mitchell appearing in New Left Review. It was this same comrade who encouraged me to read the Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing. I also read Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex.

As well as educating our own members, the Young Socialists made a presentation to the 1967 Royal Commission on the Status of Women. The LSA did the same.

I'm not the person to make a pronouncement as to how far women have come in the last 40 years and how much further there is to go. But I do recall stories that came my way.

I was told that the Meatcutters Union, which represented workers in the meat departments of large supermarkets, had a lower rate of pay assigned to a "female clerk." One woman comrade told me that her employer, the Vancouver General Hospital, demanded that she bring in her marriage certificate. Apparently they didn't wish to employ someone "living in sin."

Another comrade went to the Vancouver Vocational Institute to apply for training as a printer. She told me they just laughed at her and said that no one would hire her. And before the women's liberation movement, they could get away with that.

My own understanding of the situation of women (or more accurately lack of understanding) is probably representative of the time. I recall standing in the Buchanan Building at UBC reading a plaque which outlined enrollment in the Arts Faculty. Men outnumbered women about 2 to 1. It didn't occur to me that there was anything wrong with this. I merely thought that this made dating more difficult.

What seemed normal in 1966 now seems strange. And what we now take for granted would have seemed beyond imagination for many people forty years ago.

[To be continued]

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