Thursday, August 25, 2005

Review: The Strangest Dream

(Merrily Weisbord. The Strangest Dream: Canadian Communists, the Spy Trials, and the Cold War. Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys Limited, 1983.)

One of my social movement history interview participants belonged to the Communist Party of Canada off and on from 1942 until 1992. Beyond its importance in developing a general understanding of progressive movements in 20th century Canada, it is so I can adequately contextualize her story that a number of the books I've read in the last few months have been about communist movements in Canada. I've found as much material as I need on the Party before and during World War II; lots on the brief period when it was still broadly influential in the labour movement after the war; some but not enough on the state repression of the Party in the early Cold War; relatively little on its non-labour, post-war activities; and next to nothing that talks about what it was up to after Kruschev's revelations about Stalin had their devastating impact in 1956.

I obtained The Strangest Dream under the impression that it would be able to fill many of the remaining gaps in my knowledge. While it was not as useful in that regard as I had hoped, it was still worthwhile for me to read. The biggest chunk of new-to-me material focused on the "spy trials" that resulted when the defection of Igor Gouzenko, a clerk in the Soviet embassy in Ottawa, revealed the existence of Soviet information gathering networks in Canada, with the sole Communist Member of Parliament, Fred Rose, somehow involved; and when the British, American, and Canadian states decided to use this opportunity to generate a propaganda storm which distorted and exaggerated what was going on, in the service of kick-starting the Cold War internationally and trampling due process and civil liberties in the process.

Though much of the rest of the book was not factually new to me, it provided a different perspective than what I had seen before because it treated Montreal as the centre of its focus rather than Toronto. As well, in part because so much of it was based on interviews with former CPC members, the book paints a rich picture of what life in the Party was really like in the (mainly) Montreal of the '30s, '40s, and '50s. Even as they followed Stalin's zig-zagging party line, you can feel the idealistic passion and, eventually, the disillusionment of the militants Weisbord talked to. And getting a real feel for what it was like to be in that space is important, I think, because it can help us apply the lessons that can be learned from a more disconnected, intellectualized understanding of the Party's history to our own lives as people struggling for social change.

However, my search for material continues, and Elsie's chapter will remain incomplete for a little while longer.

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

2 comments:

Warwick said...

You're deranged.

Here's the most important thing you need to know about your "progressive" friends that the rest of us call communists:

They caused millions of people to "progress" to graves.

They enslaved several generations of people and terrorised them in a monstrous police state were paranoia was a defence mechanism to stave off the KGB informants.

To live under the tyranny of communism was not marketably better than life under the Nazis. They even managed to kill more people.

20th century’s greatest evils were the twin scourge of the Nazis and the Communists.

You would count yourself as a follower of Hitler. Why do you think the communists are any better?

Wake up.

Scott said...

Wake up yourself, buddy.

First of all, if you are interested in listening and thinking and having dialogue, here is a post that deals with the label "Communist" in some detail and here is a review of another book on the history of the CPC that also goes into more detail on my own take on the Party, which this post (contrary to what you seem to think) does not. Perhaps in the future I should link to them in any post that mentions Communists, so that rants such as yours can at least criticize my actual position instead of one you've made up for me.

Yes, of course the Communist regimes were awful and killed lots of people, though the vision of them propagated by rabid ideologues such as yourself tends to be a bit distorted in some ways. Nothing in my post says anything to the contrary. Yet in the real world, as opposed to the cartoon which you inhabit, the Party in Canada (a) never killed anyone, (b) was filled with people genuinely yearning towards justice, (c) did some useful things, and (d) did some pretty stupid things too. A great many of them left the Party when Stalin's crimes became known, though even those who stayed are not necessarily evil people. Which isn't to say I understand them -- I have trouble understanding the kind of submission to hierarchy that is part of belonging to _any_ political party, though it was certainly more stringent in the CPs. And I find it just as hard to understand belonging to parties like the Liberals and Conservatives which fit (c) and (d) above, have a very spotty record around (b) (particularly the Conservatives), and most definitely don't fit (a).

Moreover, in your sweeping statements about 20th century history, I would encourage you to take off your ideological blinders and think a bit about the millions of people that have been killed and continue to be killed by capitalism and the states which are integrated into it. Is their suffering any less worthy? It's great that you claim to oppose hierarchy and brutality and the creation of suffering, but it's probably best that you be consistent about it...an unsympathetic observer might think you deranged, otherwise.