Peter Campbell: Roads to Revolution: Canadian Marxists and the Search for Socialism, 1910-1940
Third Annual Robert S. Kenny Prize Lecture, May 1, 2001
There is perhaps no more cited statement by Karl Marx than his assertion that the emancipation of the working classes must be achieved by the working classes themselves. My interest, over the course of the last fifteen years or so, has been to explore what this statement meant to Canadian socialists active on the Canadian left in the first half of the twentieth century. I set out to explore their interpretations of Marx's statement, to attempt to discover how Marx's most important idea succeeded or failed in a Canadian context.
I soon discovered that the task was rather more complicated than I had anticipated. It seemed self-evident enough. I thought, naively as it turns out, that Marxism could be understood in terms of theory and practice. I found instead interpretations of Canadian Marxism that seemed to me overly biased by political considerations. Ross Johnson, in his 1975 study of the Marxian Socialist tradition in British Columbia, comes to the conclusion that what he calls the "Marxist phase" of the BC left ended in 1925, thereby slighting the role Marxism played in the BC Communist Party. Phyllis Clarke, in her 1977 thesis entitled "Application of Marxist Thought to Canada," cites lack of evidence for her decision to ignore Marxists who became Trotskyists, supported the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, or joined other small Marxist parties. This argument, and her mistaken assertion that the Marxist movement in Canada was characterized by "the almost complete absence of intellectuals," are politically motivated dismissals of Marxist ideas and thinkers who were not part of the Communist tradition.
While not all historians of the Canadian left collapse the meaning of Marxism into party ideologies, I found this to be the general trend, and I was increasingly struck by the extent to which Marxism as theory and practice almost disappears from view in much of the existing literature. While not attempting to downplay or distort the importance of party allegiance, I sought out individuals who did not seem to fit comfortably, after the labour revolt of 1919, in either the social democratic or MarxistBLeninist camps. I sought out socialists who were forced to seek a third way in order to cling to their belief in the self-emancipation of the working class. I searched for individuals who were trying to communicate to the Canadian working class their own understanding of Marxism and how they went about trying to put their ideas into practice.
The title of today's talk is perhaps misleading. The roads to revolution I want to talk about are not left ideologies, or types of party organization, but rather paths that must be taken, irrespective of ideology or methodology, if socialism is to be realized. I want to argue that by studying the lives of the relatively obscure figures I write about in my book, that we can come to a number of crucial realizations about the way forward. I want to argue that these Canadians, who I have called Marxists of the third way, were alive, indeed much more alive than we are, to the crucial issues in any attempt to create a socialist society.
What do I mean by the third way? First of all, let me assure you that it has no connection with Tony Blair's third way, market socialism, or the current social democratic illusion that it is possible to have a market economy without also having a market society. Second, it is a complete misnomer, in the sense that I'm really talking about Marxists of the first way, adherents of the First International who believed in the self-emancipation of the working class. The term third way refers to the effort to maintain the first way in a political culture polarized between social democracy and Marxism-Leninism. That polarization, which I have already alluded to, hinders as well as advances our understanding of the history of Marxism in a Canadian context. Today I want to take your attention away from party and ideology to focus on Marxism as theory and practice, to think about the ways in which the Marxists I am about to talk about have helped to advance our understanding of the roads we need to take in order to move forward with the socialist movement.
What I would like to do today is to give your four vignettes, one of from the lives of each of the four socialists I wrote about in my book. Each of these vignettes will, I hope, demonstrate a different element in the picture of Canadian Marxism. I will begin with Ernest Winch, who was born in Essex, England on 22 March 1879. Winch's father was a master bricklayer, and young Ernest learned his father's trade. In 1899 he went to Australia, worked in the outback, but soon went back to England. In 1903 he went back to Australia, then shortly afterwards went back to England. In 1905 he married Linda Marian Hendy, born in Australia but raised in England. Winch moved to Canada in 1909, following the death of an infant son in 1906, the birth of his son Harold in 1907, and his daughter Eileen in 1908. He began the study of socialism in 1910, and joined the SDP in 1911. By 1913 he was the provincial secretary of the SDP in BC. By the summer of 1917 Winch was the secretary and business agent of the ILA's Auxiliary. In July 1918 he became president of the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council.
On 2 August 1918 the one-day general strike to protest the shooting of Ginger Goodwin occurred. In the most famous incident, a mob of anti-labour returned soldiers ransacked the Labour Temple and forced Victor Midgley to kiss the flag. The following day, 3 August 1918, the returned soldiers marched on the Longshoremen's Hall, and demanded that seven prominent labour leaders, including Winch, leave the city. A.J. Devereaux, who spoke for the returned soldiers, argued that the strike leaders did not have the support of the rank and file workers. This was a common tactic at the time, to embarrass labour leaders for not being as democratic as they claimed to be. Winch did not buy it, stating that he had been elected to do the job and he planned to do it. If the workers did not like what he was doing, they could replace him. The VTLC then held new elections, and the executive was returned.
What we see in this vignette is the classic conundrum of what I have called third way Marxists - how to foster the movement toward the self-emancipation of the working class while at the same time working to prevent that movement from being destroyed by more powerful forces. In his response, Winch echoed Marx and Engels to the effect that socialists were attempting to create a society based on the administration of things, not people. Winch hoped that labour would soon dispense with leaders and "substitute officials and representatives who shall execute instructions and not define policy." Until that happened, however, labour leaders needed some capacity to interpret what was in the best interests of the working class, otherwise the workers would be left largely defenseless in their struggle with the powerful forces arrayed against them.
William Arthur Pritchard was born in Salford, England on 3 April 1888. His father was a miner and factory worker who helped to organize the miners of Vancouver Island, and who sat on the Dominion Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of Canada. Pritchard was raised in the Plymouth Brethren faith; at a young age he learned to question religious hierarchy and authority, and to believe that each person should be his or her own leader. He evinced all his life what R.J. Helmstadter calls the Acommitment to the moral priority of the individual conscience," and was equally dismissive of the authority of the church establishments, reformist trade union leaders, and capitalists. Pritchard joined the SPC one week after coming to Canada in the spring of 1911. He served as editor of the Western Clarion from 1914 to 1917, then worked in a sawmill and on the waterfront. He traveled to Winnipeg during the strike, and was arrested in Calgary after leaving Winnipeg. During his trial Pritchard spoke for two days. The speech is instructive, because in it Pritchard does not locate himself in terms of the European or North American left. He sees himself in the tradition of Giordano Bruno and Galileo, men unjustly punished for their ideas, men left alone to face the unrestrained power of church and state. We hearken back when reading Pritchard's speech to his religious upbringing, to the importance placed on the individual conscience. We tend to forget, in identifying Pritchard's speech as a classic Canadian defense of the working class, that it is also a classic defense of the persecuted individual.
In this age of communities and identities, we tend to forget the importance of the individual conscience. We tend to forget that near the end of The Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels state that "The free development of each is the condition for the free development of all." Socialism from below, that is, the self-emancipation of the working class, is an individual as well as a collective struggle. It involves a million human engagements with a million human realities. We need parties, or movements, or perhaps Sam Gindin's structured movement, but we must also not forget that there is no substitute for personal courage, no way to replace the principled voice in the cacophony of compromise.
Robert Boyd Russell was born in Glasgow, Scotland on 31 October 1888. He grew up listening to his father, a socialist, debate politics with two of his uncles, who were Presbyterian ministers. Employed in the Glasgow shipyards as a machinist, the young Russell was a member of the Independent Labour Party. He came to Canada in 1911, and shortly afterwards married Margaret Ritchie Hampton. He joined the SPC in 1914, after a brief stint in the SDP. By February 1913 he was vice-president of Local #122 of the Machinists Union, and in the fall of 1915 he was elected to the executive board of Section #1 of the IAM. In January 1918 he became a delegate from IAM Local #122 to the WTLC. A key figure at the Western Labour Conference of March 1919, and the most important strike leader during the WGS, Russell was imprisoned in December 1919, and released in December 1920. In the 1920s he was the leading organizer and spokesperson for the One Big Union, which was struggling to survive in the face of attacks by the state, the AFL-TLCC, and the Communist Party.
Rather than talking about Russell's involvement in the WGS, I want to talk about the early 1930s, which for intents and purposes represented the One Big Union's last chance to become a force on the Canadian left. In Winnipeg in the early 1930s Bob Russell was attempting to fight against job losses in the railway shops of Winnipeg. He was attempting to call for work sharing, for the employed workers to see their commonality of interests with the workers who were losing their jobs. Russell was attempting to keep splits from occurring, the same thing he was trying to do during the First World War. At that time, Russell was attempting to ally the skilled and unskilled workers by appealing to Marx's argument that the basis of all wages is the rates paid to the lowest-paid workers.
In the early thirties, Russell realized that the split in the Winnipeg working class between the returned soldiers of Anglo-Saxon backgrounds and the 'foreigners' which had occurred at the end of the First World War was manifesting itself again. In an attempt to convey to these workers the commonality of their interests, he reminded them that, with the exception of the native people, they were all foreigners. I may wrong, but I suspect that there were few non-native Canadians of any identity who capable of this kind of insight. Bob Russell and his fellow socialists had their prejudices, but there was room for diversity in their one big union.
Arthur Mould was born the son of shoemaker, into a family of eight children, in Sawtry Huntingdonshire. Mould was a baker by trade, and grew to manhood in England working in various bakeries. He lived in Peterborough, Bradford, and then in Blackburn and Accrington in Lancashire. It was in Accrington, on 21 March 1904, that he married Alice Pollitt. He was a religious man, a Wesleyan Methodist, and from an early age espoused a kind of Christian socialism. He came to Canada in 1905, and worked as a labourer and insurance salesman. He moved with his family to London, Ontario in 1912 where he operated a roofing business. He became involved in local labour politics, the Independent Labour Party, and then the Canadian Labour Party. He broke with the CLP in 1927, led the Ontario Labour Party, then became a leading member of the small, but influential Ontario Socialist Party. For a time he supported the CCF, until the Labour Conference was expelled from the organization, at which time Mould became a supporter of the Communist Party. In 1943 he joined the Labour-Progressive Party.
What I want to talk about today is Arthur Mould's response to the Khrushchev revelations of 1956. The revelations of Stalin's brutality and control of the party split the Canadian Communist Party. In his response, Mould quite frankly acknowledged that he had been impressed by Stalin, and that the revelations were a shock to him. However, he would not accept the explanation of party leaders Tim Buck, William Kashtan, and Leslie Morris, that the blame should be placed on the 'cult of the individual' that had grown up around Stalin. What kind of Marxist explanation, Mould asked, places the blame for such atrocities on one individual? Mould insisted that the CPSU Central Committee must he held primarily responsible, but added, acknowledging his own complicity in the cult of the individual, that "we are all to blame."
Mould was as critical of the "oppositionists" in the party who were resigning as he was of the pro-Buck members of the party. To Mould, abandoning the party was not an option. The party was not the problem - the problem was that certain leaders had forgotten that they existed to serve the party and its cause, not the other way round. The party was a means, not an end, but it remained essential as long as the goal had not been realized. Mould takes us back to where we started, the self-emancipation of the working class. We need a vehicle, but that vehicle is only the product of the wills of its members.
I could not agree more with Peter Beilharz, who argues that if we want to go forward, we must choose to go back. I must also then agree with Virginia Woolf, who in To The Lighthouse observes that the dead are at our mercy. We have not been merciful. Rather than choosing to learn we have chosen to condemn. Pick any description of current attempts to unite the left and one will find the obligatory attack on Marx and Marxists. It is a way of establishing credibility these days with people in the new social movements, pointing out that we will have no truck with the Marxists of the past. What I have tried to convey to you today in these vignettes is that these Marxists still have things to teach us, lessons that can be learned from, no matter what our identity. They are lessons about self-emancipation, about remaining true to one's goals, about finding ways to be human.
The reason I'm here today is to ask you take these people seriously, and to realize that they are just the tip of the wonderful iceberg that is the lives of the Canadian left. If you are willing to keep an open mind, go where the sources lead you, not make assumptions about who believed what, or published where, and not be blinded or misled by identity, you will find a treasure trove of endlessly fascinating people. I want to end my talk by quoting from the frontispiece of my book, which comes from Kurt Vonnegut's novel Timequake:
I still quote Eugene Debs (1855-1926), late of Terre Haute, Indiana, five times the Socialist Party's candidate for President, in every speech: "While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it, while there is a soul in prison I am not free."
In recent years, I've found it prudent to say before quoting Debs that he is to be taken seriously. Otherwise many in the audience will start to laugh. They are being nice, not mean, knowing I like to be funny. But it is also a sign of these times that such a moving echo of the Sermon on the Mount can be perceived as outdated, wholly discredited horsecrap.
Which it is not.
It may be true, as we head into the twenty-first century, that we are more tolerant, more respectful of diversity, less racist, less sexist, more willing to listen, than were our socialist forbears. It is also true, however, that we cannot match their passion, their dedication, or their vision. Nor can we match their honesty. Bill Pritchard had a wish, that we remember him, not for what he did, but for what he tried to do. If we choose to learn, rather than choose to condemn, the theory and practice of Bill Pritchard and his generation of leftists have much to teach us. In taking them seriously, we begin to take ourselves seriously as well.