Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Review: Canadian Communism

(Norman Penner. Canadian Communism: The Stalin Years and Beyond. Toronto: Methuen Publications, 1988.)

This is a history of the Communist Party of Canada from its founding until the early '80s, with some comparative material on the history of the parties in the United States and Great Britain.

The author was or is a Professor of Political Science at York University. His father was an openly Communist city councillor in Winnipeg for 25 years, and the author himself was also a member of the Communist Party of Canada. In fact, he was a member of its National Committee in the late '50s when Nikitia Kruschev and the Soviet leadership revealed to high ranking, tightly controlled party circles some of the horrible crimes committed under Stalin. Noone in the Canadian party was important enough to get any of the actual information straight from the source, but the whole affair sent shockwaves through the international Communist movement which set in motion vigorous debates that resulted in most parties in the West being seriously fractured. Many people ended up leaving the party in Canada, including the parents of participant in my social movement history project Mel Lehan, as well as Norman Penner.

The book focuses on the earlier history of the party, and contains much less detail on its activities in the '60s and '70s. As the subtitle indicates, its primary focus is the origin, the events, and the impacts of the Stalinist era on the Canadian party. I suspect, as with all history, a complete understanding of the party requires reading much more than a single book; nonetheless, I think this is a useful one to read if such understanding is your goal.

Though this is not quite the position of the author, the book confirmed for me that where there is a rigid hierarchy, that hierarchy will result in oppression sooner or later. Beyond that, it will result in dumb decisions. Histories of the Communist movement are always a bizarre read, almost soap-operatic at times. There have definitely been moments when the Communist Party really did voice the needs of ordinary people in a direct and radical way. For example, Communist organizers played a huge role in jump-starting the growth of industrial unions in Canada in the '30s and '40s, and workers continue to benefit from that work today. But there have been other times when the positions stated and the actions taken seem counter-intuitive at best and ridiculous at worst. Penner attributes the worst of this to the fact that, after the mid-'20s, the Party was forced at times to respond more to the foreign policy needs of the Soviet Union than it was to the local needs arising out of the experiences of working people. Often enough, a correspondence between those things was at least plausible, or at least they were not mutually exclusive; at others, they seemed to diverge significantly. Though I can understand how an argument could be made for some of them, things like the absolutely vicious sectarianism against everyone and everything else on the Left that reached its most absurd in the early '30s, the two abrupt reversals on the analysis of World War II in its first couple of years, the slavish devotion to cooperation with the Liberal Party in the mid-'40s to the extent of exerting effort to suppress workers' struggles, and the advocacy of extending the deprivation of certain civil rights from Japanese-Canadians beyond the end World War II are but a few examples.

I do not at all mean to adopt a simplistic "Communist = evildoer" position, of course. Beyond the historically important struggles that CPs have contributed to in Canada and around the world, I have worked with Communists in the community and I have a lot of respect for their contributions to the labour and social justice movements in the here-and-now. Any horrific outcome or oppressive organizational attribute that can legitimately be associated with Communist parties at some point in their history can just as legitimately be linked to those who have most vigorously opposed both Communism as a form of economic organization and the broader struggles for social justice and liberation that have found their expression in countless ways under many names throughout history.

At the same time, the history of the CP in Canada and around the world should make people seeking social justice and liberation very critical and self-critical with respect how we organize ourselves into collective entities. We need to ask ourselves when mass organizations are really necessary, and when small, autonomous affinity groups might be a more radical alternative. When is something akin to "party discipline" a legitimate infringement on personal liberty in the service of a greater liberation, and when is it just another form of domination? We need to grapple with what the phrase "participatory democracy" can really mean, and figure out ways to experiment with it. We often have trouble making our own relatively small groups functionally effective and pro-actively anti-oppressive, and I think we often don't give such work a high enough priority. After all, if we can't figure out how to create structures that at least make serious attempts at combining effectiveness with inclusive, equitable, empowering participation, who are we to make sweeping statements about how the rest of society should transform itself?

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

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