(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.]