Tim Buck reflects on the backdrop to founding a revolutionary party

By Tim Buck 

The rise and growth of capitalist industry in Canada was “welcomed even by those who came off worst from its corresponding mode of distribution.” Exploitation was intense. We laboured ten hours per day. Only a very small percentage of strategically placed workers in what we referred to at that time as “sheltered occupations” enjoyed the eight-hour day.

In spite of the hard conditions, the scourge of unemployment which accompanied seasonal work and the calculated discrimination against those immigrants who came to Canada from lands other than the British Isles or the United States, the labour movement was very weak. The aggregate membership of all the unions in Canada at the time of the outbreak of the First World War was less than 175,000. That small membership was divided between Canadian unions, Canadian locals of the United States unions, and Canadian locals of British unions. The national (Canadian) unions were divided into rival groups. In addition to those united in the Canadian Federation of Labour, there were Catholic Syndicates in Quebec initiated and led by the Roman Catholic Church, there were regional unions typified by “The Provincial Workmen’s Association” in Nova Scotia and there were a number of outright company unions, organized and operated in open collaboration with employers.

The United States unions operating in Canada constituted the majority and the very conservative Trades and Labour Congress, which was the subordinate Canadian organization of the American Federation of Labor, was recognized as the main center of the trade union movement. But the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), being at that time the vigorous banner-bearer of the idea of anarcho-syndicalism, exerted an influence far greater than the proportion of its numerical strength.

Division and regionalism in the trade union movement were paralleled by division and confusion in the sphere of political action. As Engels noted, “Immature class positions correspond to immature theories.” The truth of that thesis was illustrated vividly by the bewildering confusion of “half-baked” theories which characterized the political activities of the Canadian working class prior to the Great October Revolution.

There were several socialist parties and a large number of local “Labour Parties.” The latter were patterned in a general way upon the Independent Labour Party movement in the British Isles. In Canada these parties varied slightly from locality to locality. Some of them considered themselves “socialist,” but basic to all or them was their self-restriction to electoral action. With a few honorable exceptions their reformist leaders were unashamedly opportunist careerists.

Of the socialist organizations the one with the biggest membership was the Social-Democratic Party. Its membership was composed in the main of immigrant workers from Central and Eastern Europe. Its Jewish Federation was strongly entrenched among the workers in the clothing industry in Montreal and Toronto. Members of its Ukrainian, Polish and Croatian Federations were a militant influence among the workers in some sections of the coal and metal mining industry. Members of its Finnish Federation exercised strong influence in the logging industry, the metal-mining industry and a number of small communities in which immigrants from Finland constituted a substantial proportion of the population. But the Social-Democratic movement had arisen as a federation in which the various language sections had retained sovereign owners. Its language sections remained isolated from the general political life of the country, to a great extent even from each other.

The Socialist Party of Canada, usually referred to as the SPC, was smaller numerically than the SDP, but a large proportion of its members were Canadian-born or immigrants from the British Isles. A substantial number of them were trade union officers. A smaller but corresponding number of them were parliamentary candidates from time to time. A small number, mainly in mining areas, won elections. As a result of these distinctive features of its activity the public image of the Socialist Party of Canada was more widely known than that of the Social-Democrat Party and, generally, it was considered to be the most representative organized expression of the idea of socialism in Canada.

The SPC was a narrow party, limited by its own peculiar conception of Marxist orthodoxy; in which a mythology of “economic determinism” was predominant. A lot of what Engels described as “the most wonderful rubbish” derived from that distortion of Marxism. By their “free” interpretations of the materialist conception of history, members of both the Socialist Party of Canada and the Socialist Labor Party promised all but spontaneous disintegration and collapse of capitalism under the weight of its own contradictions.

Although a number of active members of the SPC were trade union officials, the party stood aloof from the struggle of the organized labour movement. The struggle for wages and economic gains in general was dismissed as “bargaining for hay and oats.” While members of the party were nominated as candidates in elections and a few of them were elected to provincial legislatures and municipal councils, the prevailing attitude to parliamentary action was brashly negative.

The other expression of the socialist movement which operated all over Canada at that time was composed of the Canadian locals of “The Socialist Labor Party,” headed then by the very sectarian, dogmatic but brilliant agitator Daniel De Leon. The SLP ignored the frontier. Its Canadian locals operated under the immediate direction of their central office in the United States. Some of their members joined the union at their place of work, but most of them refused point-blank to join, on the ground that the union was no more than “a class collaborating job trust.”

As an organization, the SLP was committed to the task of building the “Workers’ International Industrial Union,” the schematic structure of industrial organization that De Leon conceived of as the “economic arm” of the SLP when he broke with the IWW because it refused to support the idea of working-class political action: specifically, support of the SLP as its “political arm.” The SLP did not succeed in building an effective economic organization, even in those cities in which Central Councils of the WIIU were set up and functioned for some years.

The refusal of the leadership of the SPC to fight within the party for consistent Marxism, the equivocal attitude to Marxist principles which resulted from that, and the aloofness of the SPC as a party from the struggles of the organized labour movement finally impelled the members of its Toronto local to secede. In 1916 we adopted a new constitution which differed from that of the SPC mainly in three conditions of membership that it included. They were:

  • applicants for membership must serve a probationary period as candidates. During that period, they must attend the New Membership Classes regularly.
  • candidates must demonstrate an ability to explain surplus value, dialectical materialism and the class struggle, as a condition of promotion to full membership.
  • every member of the party must be a member of the union in [their] place of work.

Reflecting on our attitude to proletarian internationalism, we adopted the pretentious name “The Socialist Party of North America.” We did not attempt to extend our organization on a North American scale, but we held to and advocated the idea of united action by the workers of Canada and the United States.

The organizations referred to by name were but a few of the large number operating in Canada in 1917. They were proclaiming a bewildering variety of “solutions” for the problems confronting the working class. All of them were caught up in the turbulent ferment of working-class demands and the confused but irrepressible working-class militancy that had been generated by the radicalizing effects of the class contradictions highlighted and accentuated by the evils in Canada related to the first world imperialist war and the impact of the Great October Revolution. The effect of that had been like a thunder-clap. It stirred to action revolutionary workers everywhere in the country. It confounded the agents of the bourgeoisie and the other “traders in confusion” who, between them, had dominated the working-class movement in Canada until then.

The process was not even, of course. From their spontaneous demonstrations of joy at the victory of the socialist revolution, broad circles of workers and working farmers moved into action to aid it. Resolutions and collections of money in support of the revolution quickly became the order of the day. The first hint of overt hostile imperialist actions against the fledgling Soviet Republic was opposed by mass actions of working-class organizations all over the country. Along with support of the socialist revolution there developed a wave of turbulent growth of the trade unions and of political organizations, all developing in an atmosphere of unprecedented radicalization of the working class.

But while enthusiastic support for the October Revolution and agitation for a like change in the social system in Canada characterized the activities of the radicals, it did not bring about unity. The immediate result of the intense ferment stirring the working class was that all revolutionary and allegedly revolutionary organizations became stronger and more active. Step by step they advanced their activities until open defiance of the “War Measures Act,” under the authority of which the government had outlawed them, became common place. There was, particularly, an upsurge of support for anarcho-syndicalism. Objectively, the situation was such that a united left could have achieved important changes in the trade union movement, particularly in the organization of the workers in the basic industries and in the mass production industries. Instead of that, however, influential radicals stimulated secession movements [splits] and internecine warfare in the trade union movement.

The Western Labour Conference held in March 1919, adopted a resolution endorsing the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary character of the state through the transition from capitalism to communist society. Jack Kavanagh, the man who wrote that resolution and introduced it to the conference, was a militant revolutionary who proudly called himself a Marxist. He became a foundation member of the Workers’ Party of Canada when a branch was established in Vancouver two years later. But, in the Western Labour Conference and for a considerable period before it took place, his orientation was syndicalist. Syndicalism was the dominant and unchallenged trend of the conference as a whole. It became an organized attempt to split the trade union movement, to destroy the existing unions if possible, and replace them with a utopian “One Big Union.”

The Western Labour Conference was typical of the activities of the majority of radicals and revolutionary workers in Canada during that period. It illustrated vividly the correctness of Lenin’s warning that a revolutionary mood by itself is not enough. Each of the several organizations which declared that their fundamental aim was socialism sought to improve its own fortunes without any regard for the fortunes of the working-class movement as a whole. It was only as revolutionary workers learned enough about Lenin’s teachings, and as his influence became effective, that the relationship between the struggle to integrate Marxism with the broad working-class movement and the struggle to abolish capitalism was recognized. As realization of that inseparable relationship spread and was debated, and thinking workers began to understand its crucial significance for a serious revolutionary party, it brought about a revolutionary change in the consciousness and the organizations of the working-class movement in Canada.

The change was not immediate, of course; it required a systematic struggle which extended over several years. The weight of the past, the influence of anarcho-syndicalism and of opportunism, along with the various distortions of Marxism – all aggravated by the cunning tactics of entrenched leaders – prevented the revolutionary workers from advancing ideologically at a pace which corresponded to the upsurge of their mass activities.

A revealing light on the political level of working-class consciousness in Canada at that time is provided by the fact that nobody in the revolutionary movement knew Lenin’s works — or anything about them. The real first knowledge that we gained was by sifting grains of truth out from the mass of vicious lying propaganda about Lenin and the Maximalists [Bolsheviks] which appeared in the capitalist press during the October Revolution. Even those few grains of truth garnered by our reading “between the lines” inspired us with confidence in an incomparable revolutionary leader.

Some fragments of Lenin’s writings were published in the English language during the year following the October Revolution. The text of his Letter or American Workers became available in the winter of 1918-19. A limited number of copies of State and Revolution were secured from the United States in the spring of 1919.

Although we devoured those first morsels of Lenin’s teachings, the question, “For or Against Lenin?” became crucial in the left wing of the labour movement.

The actual base upon which Lenin “separated the wheat from the chaff” in Canada at that time was that of affiliation to the Third (Communist) International. Discussion became widespread and heated with publication of the Manifesto of the Founding Congress. Except for a very small left minority, the leaders of the socialist organizations opposed affiliation. In the early stage of the debate, they succeeded in confusing the majority of their members by a variety of arguments on the theme of “Bolshevism is a purely Russian phenomenon, it won’t work here.” The right wing of the movement started early in the debate to add, “we don’t want it here.” The result was to divert the attention of the majority of the members to a variety of local and national questions concerning what various individuals or groups considered to be “the interests of our organization,” instead of being focused on the requirements of the working class and the socialist revolution.

It was in that situation of political confusion that Lenin, figuratively, stepped onto the stage, took the initiative out of the hands of the right-wing opponents of action and gave it to those who wanted action — mainly in the rank and file. The instrument through which Lenin accomplished that indispensable change was his masterpiece The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky. As the thesis and the contents of that shattering indictment became known, the carefully fostered illusions about Kautsky and his complete personal integration with Marxism, which had been like blinkers over the eyes of the majority of the socialist rank and file, were stripped away. The Canadian right-wing leaders saw their rank-and-file support dissolve. From then on, the mask of pseudo-Marxism became less and less effective. Claimants to leadership were confronted by demands that they declare themselves unequivocally on questions of Marxism, particularly on its fundamental principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Through that process the sentiments of thousands of workers advanced. Instinctively but correctly, they had early recognized the Soviet Republic as our guarantee that the age-old dream of abolishing exploitation would be fulfilled. They were for the October Revolution and for Lenin. With Lenin’s help, the debate on affiliation to the Third (Communist) International developed into debate about what kind of party would be required.

The year 1920 witnessed an advance in the quality of our mass relationship to Lenin. The immediate reason for that was in the fact that publication of his writings in the English language was increased during that year and enabled those who studied to recognize the fundamental difference between Marxism as fought for by Lenin and Kautskyist rationalizations which most of us had accepted until then as “scientific socialism.”

The pamphlet [Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power] in which Lenin set forth his penetrating analysis of the popular vote cast in the elections to the Constituent Assembly exerted a powerful influence on Canadian socialists. The fact that it was such a frank analysis of the reality of the relationship of class forces, as well as that it showed concretely how absolutely correct Lenin’s judgment had been, was perhaps the most popularly recognized reason for its remarkable impact. But in the course or the intensive discussion of that pamphlet which developed, more and more revolutionary workers grasped the vital, and dynamic relationship between Lenin’s emphasis upon the following facts:

The Bolsheviks were victorious, first of all, because they had behind them the vast majority of the proletariat which included the most class-conscious, energetic and revolutionary sections, the real vanguard, of that advanced class.

An overwhelming superiority of forces at the decisive point at the decisive moment — this “law” of military success is also the law of political success, especially in that fierce, seething class war which is called revolution.

…we in spite of the furious resistance of the bureaucracy and the intelligentsia, despite sabotage, and so forth, were able with the aid of the central apparatus of state power to prove by deeds to the non-proletarian working people that the proletariat was their only reliably ally, friend and leader.

…state power in the hands of one class, the proletariat, can and must become an instrument for winning to the side of the proletariat the non-proletarian working masses, an instrument for winning those masses from the bourgeoisie and from the petty-bourgeois parties. (Lenin’s emphasis — T.B.)

Until then we had understood the dictatorship of the proletariat wholly in terms of its function after the victorious revolution, of preventing of suppressing attempts to restore capitalist class power. Now, in this pamphlet, Lenin explained another aspect of the dictatorship of the proletariat: namely, placing the authority, the power and the leadership of the state at the service of interests of the masses of people instead of at the service of the capitalist class. Furthermore, Lenin showed that, in the situation that existed in October, it was a decisive factor in the consolidation of working-class state power.

The theoretical concept, and the example, of the use of state power as a lever to bring non-proletarian masses to the side of the socialist revolution and isolate the opponents of proletarian state power introduced a whole new dimension into our understanding of Marxism.

Bit by bit workers defied the law which made possession [of Lenin’s writings] a crime. From discussions on the job, in semi-secret meetings and in union halls, we advanced to public lectures and round-table conferences without any concealment. Debate of those works was “the yeast which leavened the loaf” of our understanding. Canadian socialists had been “barking up the wrong tree.” We had been demanding that we be led to the socialist revolution by organizations which were ideologically and organizationally incapable of fulfilling that role, because they were the organized expressions of erroneous conceptions of what should be the role of a revolutionary party. Like a great light it dawned upon us that, for the Canadian working class to defeat capitalist reaction and achieve socialism, the revolutionary workers must be guided by a party of a new type — the organized expression of the collective will to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Instead of simply reflecting the moods of the masses, the revolutionary party must make it its task to advance always at the head the masses without ever allowing itself to get “too far out in front.” In place of the conception of Marxist orthodoxy which reduced Marxism to rigid dogma, the need was for a party which would, creatively, develop both its immediate tactics and its long-term application of Marxism in accord with the dynamics of the relationship between its revolutionary activities and the development of the working-class struggle. The level of this qualitative change in thinking of the left was not uniform everywhere in the country, because revolutionary workers were scattered in a great variety of organizations and the influence of the past, including organizational loyalties, was strong. But the conflict between advocates of affiliation [with the Third International] became recognized quickly as the conflict between opposing attitudes to the socialist revolution and to the Bolshevik Party. By the dialectics of debate, it evoked recognition of the historical necessity for the building of such a revolutionary party in Canada.

The idea of a party to meet the standards developed by the genius of Lenin was achieved by revolutionary Canadian workers and intellectuals under the direct inspiration of Lenin and the Bolshevik Party.

[Excerpted from Lenin and Canada, chapters 1 and 2]

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