Sunday, May 15, 2005

Review: Canadian Bolsheviks

(Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party of Canada, Second Edition by Ian Angus. Victoria, BC: Trafford Press, 2004 (first edition published in 1981))

Whenever I dip into material related to revolutionary Marxist political parties and their history, I find it a bit bewildering -- sometimes it gets my blood racing, sometimes it's depressing, but it is almost always has a feel of the strange and exotic.

I think that reaction has to do with how I have encountered such parties in the course of my own political activities. I've had lots of positive experience with working with and talking to members of such parties, but there have been enough odd or unpleasant encounters that, when juxtaposed with the steep ratio of "how seriously they take themselves" to "how much influence they actually have among oppressed and exploited people in North America," I'm often left somewhat perplexed and dubious.

My experience includes reading their newspapers, some of which are so laden with jargon and rhetoric that I have trouble believing they are at all useful as outreach tools. Also, I went to a couple of meetings of one such party when I was an undergrad; while the lecture I attended by one of the major party intellectuals from England was pretty good, the presentation and discussion lead on a separate occasion by a local party leader was pretty ridiculous. That party did and does some solid organizing, but I was not tempted to join. And there have been a couple of individuals I have dealt with whose ways of doing politics are stuck in the worst of the Old Left mode. Their actions have included doing things like deliberately disregarding the decision of a non-party group to which they belonged with respect to who would be speaking at an event so that the speakers were more reflective of their party's political line; thinking that problems can be solved by shouting and yelling in meetings; and subverting group process in ways that are unnecessarily and deliberately nasty and vindictive to those with whom they disagree. Which is not to say that such behaviour is unique to those coming from a strict Old Left approach to politics, nor that more than a minority of such folks engage in it. But even so, I still have to say that the most blatant and unpleasant examples of such behaviour, in the experience of myself and of some good friends, have been from a minority of people rooted in that tradition.

A good summary of the relevance of these groups to the current political context is given in the introductory editorial of the new revolutionary journal, Upping The Anti:

Unfortunately, much of today’s “Marxist” left is stuck in the defence of static party lines, deploying pre-packaged “revolutionary” theory with just enough politics to be able to reproduce their own organizations. Each party remains the bastion of its own brand of absolute truth, each has failed to adequately grasp the new conditions with which we are faced, and each has by and large refused to grapple with and make the necessary political innovations to learn from the enriching critiques of (and contributions to) Marxism made by feminist, anarchist, anti-racist, and queer movements.


But at the same time, being broadly dismissive of revolutionary Marxist parties is unwise. They exist in a certain way in the context of the North America of the early twenty-first century, but their roles in struggle have been much different in different times and places. There have been times and places where they have been broadly based, and intimately and radically responsive to the aspirations of oppressed and exploited people. I know people who have been involved in anti-colonial struggles in which the Communist Party or related organizations have played an important role, and I know people who are Communists themselves who have given tirelessly for decades to the trade unions to which they belong. Privileged leftists such as yours truly aren't doing ourselves any favour by not showing adequate respect for the role that such parties even today sometimes play in struggles on the ground, both in a large scale way in some other regions of the world and in some very narrow and specific struggles in North America.

As well, many decades ago, the Communist Party of Canada, while never in the same league as the CPs of, say, Germany or Indonesia at various points, was a more broadly important presence in struggles in Canada. Canadian Bolsheviks is a history of the first fifteen years or so of the CPC. It begins with a bit of pre-Communist history of Marxist parties in Canada, and goes from the first attempts to found a Communist Party until about 1935. I don't know many specifics about the politics of the author -- he's obviously a Marxist, and his sympathies seem to be Trotskyist, but he claims not to be trying to follow the line of any particular party or organization and I have no reason to disbelieve that.

The party was started by a group of radicals with years of experience in the union movement and in various pre-existing Marxist formations, particularly the Socialst Party of North America. When they initially formed the CPC, many seemed to be attached to ideas of separation and revolutionary purity, which their Russian comrades convinced them were a mistake. Many in the party were also initially attached to the idea that being illegal (which was the case for a brief period at the very beginning, as well as at various later points) was a mark of radicalness, and were attached to remaining "illegal" even after that was no longer strictly true, in the very earliest years. This was a kind of radical chic that the Russian Bolsheviks seemed to find peculiar and amusing, and talked their Canadian (and U.S.) counterparts out of. After a brief, initial period of getting oriented, the party enthusiastically engaged in work within the unions and other working-class organizations, and in supporting the immediate struggles of workers while striving for revolutionary change.

What the author characterizes as the "destruction" of that initial party, along with its intellectual vibrancy and practical radicalism, occurred in connection with the changes in the party internationally and in the Soviet Union -- the rise of the power of the bureaucracy and the loss of power by the people who had actually been leading militants in the October Revolution of 1917. The parties in individual countries gradually lost their independence to the Kremlin, and a number of abrupt and important doctrinal shifts occurred in response not to the actual conditions on the ground in Canada but in response to Moscow's foreign policy needs. By the end of the '20s most of the initial leaders from the Canadian party had quit or been kicked out, and Tim Buck had conslidated his leadership (which he held fron that time until his death in 1973). Between 1929 and 1931, as much as 75% of the party's membership left.

This book is particularly keen on attacking Buck, both for his devotion to the Stalinist party line no matter how illogical its zigzags might have been over the years, and because the documentary record now shows that he seems to have made a lot of self-serving stuff up in the work that he himself did to write the party's history.

I'm not well enough versed in the history of either the CPC or the Soviet Union to have a firm line of my own in terms of the viscious doctrinal and personal disputes that wracked the party in the mid- to late-'20s. My own inclination is to place the start of the problems even earlier than Angus does, and see the counter-revolution as beginning when the Russian party centralized control away from the soviets (worker collectives) in 1917, but I don't know the history well enough to really defend that position and I'm not interested in knowing it well enough to do so. But some of the general principles that this book advances seem sound to me: what is needed are radicals who are true to their principles, who are willing and able to be ruthlessly intellectually honest about what's going on and what needs to be done rather than follow a party line unthinkingly, and who are actively engaged where ordinary people are at rather than separating themselves into some kind of radical elite. I might interpret those lessons a bit differently than the author, I suppose. Moreover, I think there is a lesson in the book beyond what the author intends about the dangers of hierarchy and authority to genuinely radical political action.

I can understand if fellow activists are not particularly interested in using their valuable time to read about small-time infighting that happened seven or eight decades ago, but I would encourage them to read this book anyway. The history of resistance to oppression and exploitation is not just about climactic struggles and heroic victories; it is also about the strange paths that our movements have followed, the surges of momentum and the doldrums, the brilliantly inspired shifts and the erosion into pettiness and irrelevance. If those of us of a more anti-authoritarian and anti-statist temperment think we have better ways of doing things, it can't hurt us to know what has and hasn't worked in what has gone before.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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