Celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Communist movement in Canada

by Barry Weisleder

It is important to emphasize the context in which the Canadian communist movement arose.  The launch occurred at a tiny convention held in secret on a farm near Guelph, Ontario on May 23, 1921.  The new party was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and its militants did many great things in the early years.  But the young Soviet Union was besieged by hostile imperialist armies.  Russia suffered enormously from its isolation and economic backwardness.  A bureaucratic party elite, represented by Joseph Stalin, seized control.  It curtailed workers’ democracy, crushed socialist opposition and adopted a new programme that over-adapted to capitalist rule outside the USSR.  The perspective of world revolution was replaced with the false utopia of ‘socialism in one country’.  Permanent revolution (that is, the need for a workers’-led revolution to lead the social transformation, especially in the poor countries) was supplanted by the old, discredited Menshevik notion of revolution by stages.  The ‘stages theory’ relies on an alliance with the liberal or nationalist bourgeoisie.  Under Stalin, socialist democracy was replaced by bureaucratic tyranny, accompanied by elite privilege, false propaganda, show trials, torture and the assassination of political opponents.

The degeneration of the Stalinist-dominated Communist International gave rise to the International Left Opposition in 1930, and the formation of the Fourth International in 1938.  Leon Trotsky, a co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution, played a leading role in the preservation of revolutionary Marxism, and its further development. Trotsky’s analysis of the phenomena of Stalinism and of fascism in the 20th century was particularly significant.

So, what about the grand-daddy of the radical left, the Communist Party, today?  Sadly, the CP is reformist and Canadian nationalist to the core.  It strives for a multi-class or ‘popular front’ government.  The popular front, as opposed to the workers’ united front, subordinates workers’ parties to capitalist parties in the pursuit of power. In Canada, the popular front idea includes the “progressive wing” of the Liberal Party.  It incorporates the mistaken view, also held by CPC-ML, that Canadian nationalism is progressive.  While the CP admits that the Canadian state is an imperialist power in its own right (after all, it’s hard to ignore the role of giant Canadian banks, mining corporations and the Canadian military as part of NATO), the Stalinists are still pining for an alliance with a wing of the Liberal Party.  The CP supported the power bid by the combination of Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Quebecois in December 2008.  In fact, the CP wanted to be part of it.  Stephen Harper killed their dream by proroguing Parliament, twice, and winning the election in May 2011.

The CP is a shell of its storied past.  It is both unwilling and unable to account for the sad legacy of Stalinist sexism, homophobia, treachery and political repression.  It supported the crushing by the Soviet Union of the workers’ rebellion in Hungary in 1956, and in Czechoslovakia in 1968.  The Cuban Stalinists opposed Fidel Castro, Che Guevara and the Cuban insurgency up to the last weeks in 1958, switching to support only when it appeared that the Cuban revolutionaries were about to win.  The League for Socialist Action played a leading role in establishing the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, an anti-imperialist united front – which the Stalinists in Canada and Cuba sought to undermine and vilify.  A chapter in the book “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s”, by Ernie Tate, describes this episode well.  Today, Socialist Action belongs to the Canadian Network on Cuba, a solidarity network founded in 2002.  SA joined in 2017.  For four years the CP and its front organizations blocked the membership of SA in the Canadian Network on Cuba.  It took an intervention by the Cubans to remedy the situation.

The Communist Party, like several other organizations on the Canadian left, is generally hostile to collaboration with competing leftist parties – unless it takes the form of an alliance that they dominate.  The Venezuela Solidarity Coalition in Toronto is an exception. But Palestine solidarity and the annual May Day celebrations confirm this pattern of sectarianism.  The Labour May Day Coalition, in which SA participates, enjoys a multitude of union and socialist endorsements. It hosts an annual online or in-person event to which hundreds are drawn.  But the CP’s May Day Committee holds a separate gathering that excludes speaking rights to all but its fellow-travelers.

Another example of CP sectarianism is its attitude towards the labour-based New Democratic Party.  The NDP is not a socialist party.  It never has been and likely it never will be socialist.  But it is the only mass, labour-based political party in North America.  It represents a working class break with the parties of big business, a step towards independent working class political action.  By the way, in the United States, where there is no labour party, the CP-USA usually backs the big business Democratic Party; it supported Joe Biden for President. It does not fight to build a labour party. 

In Canada, the CP exhibits a strident hostility to the NDP.  Why?  It’s not just due to opposition to its reformist policies. After all, the CP is equally reformist.  Contrary to communist policy in the 1920s, which favoured the formation of a labour party in Canada, the CP is opposed to the existence of the NDP because it stands in the way of the CP’s dream of an alliance with left-Liberals.  The NDP occupies an electoral space that the CP would like to occupy, or to share with the Liberal-left.

In its programme, the CP calls for an “Anti-monopoly government, based on a parliamentary majority.”  That formulation embodies two big strategic errors.  Firstly, there is no section of the Canadian capitalist class that is “anti-monopoly”, because in the current epoch of monopoly capitalism that would entail being anti-capitalist. Capitalism and monopoly are inseparable. They go together like a horse and carriage.  Secondly, an anti-capitalist government that bases itself “on a parliamentary majority” is doomed to disaster, as we saw in Spain in 1936, in Indonesia in 1965, in Chile in 1972, and many other places.  An anti-capitalist government, that is, a Workers’ Government, may have members of Parliament. But it would need to base itself fundamentally on mass mobilizations of the working class.  It would have to cultivate and secure itself on institutions of workers’ power, on workers’ councils in work places and communities, not on “a parliamentary majority.”  Today’s CP does not call for a revolutionary break with the capitalist state.  Instead, it seeks a reform of the state and a gradual transition to socialism.  As all history teaches us, that road leads over a cliff to a deadly crash for the working class movement.

Due to its commitment to reform of the state, the CP is for the subordination of national liberation struggles by Indigenous people, Quebecois and Acadians to the preservation of Canadian confederation.  Revolutionary socialists, on the other hands, are for the break-up of the colonial setter state, the Canadian prison house of nations.  We are for a Red North America based on a free, voluntary association of workers’ states.

Related to the Stalinist concept of class collaboration and its ongoing search — in the enemy class camp — for lesser-evil partners.  That is the error of Campism. Campists divide the world into two camps:  the United States versus the rest of the world.  Campists, by reflex, support capitalist Russia and China; they back Turkey, Iran and other repressive capitalist regimes, simply because they are often in conflict with America’s rulers.  Revolutionary socialists defend self-determination for oppressed nations.  We support the right of Syria, Venezuela and Iran, for example, to get aid wherever they can to resist imperialist economic and military intervention. But revolutionaries give no political support to capitalist governments anywhere.  Socialists oppose Washington and Ottawa’s trade war with China because we oppose all inter-capitalist rivalries. We oppose cold wars becoming hot wars, and the existential danger of the nuclear annihilation of humanity.  We are for socialist revolution everywhere, except in Cuba where we support the revolutionary government there.  Revolutionary socialists oppose campism because it dulls the senses of the working class and breeds the subordination of workers to capitalist rule.

Another example of the CP’s reformism is its approach to the labour movement.  It does not seek to defeat the conservative union bureaucracy.  Rather it seeks to join it. How? By allying with slightly-left-of-center labour-fakers.  This was evident in the campaign of Hassan Husseini, a CP supporter who ran for president of the Canadian Labour Congress in 2014. He pulled out of the race at the last moment to support Hassan Yussuff who proved to be a right wing labour bureaucrat in office.

The Workers’ Action Movement, formed in 2015, is running a militant team of candidates for the top four positions in the CLC to be elected in June.  But don’t expect the CP to support WAM’s Labour Forward team.  They didn’t support the WAM candidates for leadership of the Ontario Federation of Labour who received up to 36 per cent of the votes at the OFL convention in 2019.  Our main goal is to build a movement, from the bottom up, to replace the labour and NDP bureaucracy and fight for a Workers’ Government.

Socialist Action stands firmly in the tradition of the founders of communism in Canada.  SA is not the only party that claims to be revolutionary Marxist, but, in our humble opinion, SA best represents the revolutionary continuity of the founders of Canadian communism who charted the path for the united front, for international solidarity and for genuine democracy in the workers’ movement.

If you agree, please join us.