Category Archives: History

The Trial of Thomas Hardy: A Forgotten Chapter in the Working Class Fight for Democratic Rights

by Ian Angus
November 5, 2009, is the 215th anniversary of the acquittal of Thomas Hardy on charges of High Treason. Hardy is nearly forgotten today, but for decades workers and democrats in England celebrated November 5 every year as the anniversary of a major victory, a triumph over a powerful state that had deployed immense resources to crush working class organizations and suppress popular demands for democratic rights. Continue reading

Socialist Voice Editor Translates Proceedings of Fourth Comintern Congress

In October, John Riddell, co-editor of Socialist Voice, completed a draft translation of the proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. This ambitious effort (more than 500,000 words) will make all of the resolutions, speeches, and debates from that important 1922 meeting, together with full explanatory annotation, available in English for the first time. The work, which Riddell is preparing in collaboration with the London-based journal Historical Materialism, is planned for publication in 2010. Continue reading

Why Washington Hates Iran

The following is the Introduction to Why Washington Hates Iran: A Political Memoir of the Revolution That Shook the Middle East, a Socialist Voice pamphlet published this week by South Branch Publications. The author, Barry Sheppard, was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party for 28 years, and a central leader of the party for most of that time. Continue reading

COMINTERN: Revolutionary Internationalism in Lenin’s Time

COMINTERN: Revolutionary Internationalism in Lenin’s Time. (PDF: 697 KB)
A new Socialist Voice pamphlet, by John Riddell

Nine articles on the program and history of the Communist International

Socialism’s Great Divide • From Zimmerwald to Moscow • Building Revolutionary Parties • Colonized Peoples Take the Lead • Reaching Out to the Peasantry • For Women’s Liberation • For Class Struggle Trade Unions • Initiatives for Unity in Struggle • From Lenin To Stalin

PLUS The Russian Revolution and National Freedom:
How the Early Soviet Government Defended the Rights of Russia’s Oppressed Peoples

Available now on our DOWNLOAD page

Review: A People’s History Of Science

Clifford D. Conner: A People’s History Of Science: Miners, Midwives, and “Low Mechanicks. Nation Books, New York. 544 Pages.

reviewed by James Haywood

“The scholars’ role will receive less attention here because traditional histories of science have done a more-than-adequate job of explicating it; the purpose of a people’s history of science is to direct the spotlight toward the generally under-appreciated artisans, for a change.” (p281)

Clifford Conner reclaims science for the working people. Chapter by chapter he analyzes and refutes myths, lies and distortions about science. From ancient nomads in Asia to clock makers in 16th Century Europe, Conner describes the role of working people as true creators and advancers of science, and demonstrates that the so-called “Great Men” and thinkers of science, so acclaimed in bourgeois circles, built on the empirical work of artisans, sailors and simple peasants.

Conner was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States, and was heavily involved in the anti-Vietnam War movement. A strong trade unionist with a long list of jobs from all different industries, in fact on his website he admits, “career stability was not my strong suit.” He has since retired from formal employment and writes about history full-time.

Throughout the book, accepted theories and assumptions about great scientific advances are dismantled and exposed. For example, the racist theory of the “Greek Miracle” of the sixth Century B.C.E. is looked at in detail, and the likes of Plato and Aristotle are exposed as scientific reactionaries whose approach to nature was thoroughly anti-materialist.

Similarly chapters on the “Scientific Revolution” expose the ways in which sexist male scientific elites suppressed the work of ‘old women’ apothecaries, whose medical practices were vastly superior to their own.

Conner argues that the “Great Men of Science” owed most, if not all, their fame and theories to ordinary workers, artisans and farmers whose constant use of nature in their work that created the understanding of the environment, seas, forces, chemicals and space that created what we today consider as science. Some of the famed ‘Great Men’ borrowed this knowledge and created great formulae and theorems, others out-and-out robbed workers and artisans of their creations. But Conner also pays homage to the many inventor artisans whom are lost in history due to their illiteracy and/or the snobbishness of literate scholars.

The book’s strength is undoubtedly rooted in an enormous amount of research. There are pages of footnotes and references for every chapter. One need only look at the 25-odd pages of the bibliography to understand the extent of the work that Connor has put into this book.

But another great strength of this book is that, in the last few chapters, it moves from being a well researched history of science into a handbook that workers and Marxists can use to understand the world around them.

Conner shows that science will not by itself solve problems imminent in the capitalist system such as poverty and starvation. He points to the “Green Revolution” as a major example of this in practice. Between 1970-1990, “…while per capita food supplies rose almost 8 percent, the number of hungry people also went up, by 19 percent…..[It was not] increased population that made for more hungry people. The total food available per person actually increased.”

I recommend this book to all those who wish to advance the interests of the working class. It does more than correct history. Conner eloquently shows that, as Goethe wrote, “in the beginning was the deed.” It is the act of doing, of action, that creates and tests theories and ideas. The many (mainly women) herbalists in small ‘backward’ tribes who knew more cures for illnesses than the ‘advanced’ colonialists did not necessarily know more theory than the European elites, but by their actions they were creating real science.

For me personally, A People’s History of Science confirms that Marxism is also a science, that you can have the best theory in the world, but revolution is an act, not a formula. As Che Guevara said, “To be a revolutionary doctor… there must first be a revolution.”

1907: The Birth of Socialism’s Great Divide

By John Riddell

For socialists, this month marks a significant anniversary.

One hundred years ago, a congress of the Second — or Socialist — International took a bold stand in the struggle against capitalist war. The congress pointed the way toward the Russian revolution of 1917 and provided an enduring guide for socialists’ anti-war activity.

Founded in 1889, the Second International united mass socialist and labour parties, mostly in Europe.

The 1907 congress, which met in Stuttgart, Germany, on August 18-24, revealed a divide in the International between those aiming for capitalism’s overthrow and the “opportunists” — those who sought to adapt to the existing order.

The congress took place at the dawn of the epoch of modern imperialism. Europe was teetering on the edge of war between rival great-power alliances. A revolutionary upsurge in Russia in 1905 had inspired mass strikes and demonstrations across Europe. In such conditions, how was the International’s longstanding opposition to militarism and colonialism to be applied?

As the 884 congress delegates from 25 countries began their work, the International’s principles were challenged from within. A majority of the congress’s Commission on Colonialism asked the congress not to “reject in principle every colonial policy” as colonization “could be a force for civilization.”

Defenders of this resolution claimed that Europe needed colonial possessions for prosperity. When German Marxist Karl Kautsky proposed that “backward peoples” be approached in a “friendly manner”, with an offer of tools and assistance, he was mocked by Netherlands delegate Hendrick Van Kol, speaking for the commission majority.

“They will kill us or even eat us,” Van Kol said. “Therefore we must go there with weapons in hand, even if Kautsky calls that imperialism.”

V.I. Lenin

After heated debate, the congress rejected this racist position, resolving instead that “the civilizing mission that capitalist society claims to serve is no more than a veil for its lust for conquest and exploitation.” But the close vote (127 to 108) showed that imperialism was, in Lenin’s words, “infecting the proletariat with colonial chauvinism.”

There was a similar debate on immigration. Some US delegates wanted the International to endorse bans against immigration of workers from China and Japan, who were, they said, acting as “unconscious strikebreakers.” US delegate Morris Hillquit said that Chinese and other workers of the “yellow race” have “lagged too far behind to be organized [in unions].”

Kato Tokijiro of Japan commented acidly that US delegates were “clearly being influenced by the so-called Yellow Peril”—the racist fear of Asian domination.

US socialist Julius Hammer noted that Japanese and Chinese workers were learning fast how to fight capitalism and “could be very effectively organised.” He argued, “All legal restrictions on immigration must be rejected.”

The congress made no concessions to Hillquit’s racism, but neither did it adopt Hammer’s call for open borders.

Similar debates cropped up regarding women’s oppression. In the women’s suffrage commission, an influential current favoured giving priority to winning the right to vote for men. Rejecting this view, the congress insisted that the right-to-vote campaign must be “simultaneous” (for both genders) and “universal.”

On the decisive question of the great powers’ drive to war, a tense debate extended through six days.

All agreed to condemn war as “part of the very nature of capitalism”, oppose “naval and land armaments”, and, if war seems imminent, exert “every effort in order to prevent its outbreak.”

But what did “every effort” mean, concretely? Delegates from France, led by Jean Jaurès, pressed the congress to commit to mass strikes and insurrections against a threatened war. German socialists, led by August Bebel, said such a stand would endanger their party’s legal status, and, anyway, tactics could not be dictated in advance.

Rosa Luxemburg

An acrimonious deadlock was broken thanks to an initiative of a small group of revolutionary socialists, led by Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin.

Luxemburg called on delegates to learn from the lesson of the 1905 Russian revolution. This upsurge “did not merely result from the Russo-Japanese war, it has also served to put an end to it.” The anti-war resolution must project a struggle not merely to prevent war but to utilize the war crisis to promote revolution, she said.

Luxemburg’s proposal projected radical action, pleasing Jaurès, while obeying Bebel’s injunction not to decree tactics. And a wording was found that did not endanger the German party’s legality.

“In case war should break out,” the unanimously adopted resolution read, it is socialists’ duty “to intervene for its speedy termination and to strive with all their power to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to rouse the masses and thereby hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.”

Yet as the Bolsheviks later noted, the International’s stand was “ambiguous and contradictory” on a key point. Both Bebel and Jaurès were pledged to loyalty to the homeland in “defensive” wars — a valid position in countries fighting for national liberation, but not for the imperialist powers like France and Germany. The resolution neither supported nor condemned this concept. The “defensive war” excuse was used by socialist leaderships, in 1914, to rally support behind the war efforts of their respective capitalist rulers—with disastrous results.

Lenin hailed the resolution for its “firm determination to fight to the end.” But he also warned that the congress as a whole “brought into sharp contrast the opportunist and revolutionary wings within the International.”

Over the following decade, war and revolution led to a decisive break between these the two wings, whose divergent courses still represent alternative roads for progressive struggles today.

The revolutionary wing led by Luxemburg, Lenin, and their co-thinkers held to the anti-war policy of Stuttgart until revolutions in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918 brought the First World War to an abrupt end.

A century after the 1907 congress, the socialist positions voiced there on war, colonialism, and oppression retain their importance, and provide a basis for building many fronts of resistance around the world.

The quotations from the congress in this article are from “Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International,” ed. John Riddell, published by Pathfinder Press. Another version of this article is being published this month by the UK newspaper Socialist Worker.

Related reading: V.I. Lenin: The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart.

How Women’s Oppression Began—and How It Will End

By Suzanne Weiss

Based on a talk given to the Socialism 2007 conference in Toronto, April 28, 2007.

When I think about the course of my life, I am struck by how much things have changed for me—and for all women—over the course of the last half century. Through the explosive struggles in the 1960s and 1970s, women won more freedom to choose our life paths. We gained access to contraception and abortion. Our lives were no longer defined solely by marriage and children. Many women decided they had a right to a full education and to a career. Now, in some countries, including Canada, women can even marry other women!

In the 1960s, women broke the dress codes. We cut our hair short. We decided on the length of our skirts and the height of our shoes. We chose not to wear fashion hats or gloves. Business women began to wear pants to work.

Although the life of the country remains dominated by a small group of rich men, it is now common for a woman to be named to a corporate board, a cabinet, or even as Governor-General.

We now see women on TV as news anchors and interviewers. And we don’t look twice when we see a woman driving a bus or subway train.

Still oppressed

And yet after all this, women are still oppressed.

In the U.S., an Equal Rights Amendment to the constitution was overwhelmingly adopted by congress in 1971, guaranteeing that “Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied on account of sex.” But ratification was blocked by a well-financed campaign by right-wing forces.

The American Association of University Women reports that women now outnumber men on college campus, and get better grades than men. And, yet women earn 20 percent less than men at the same level and in the same field of work one year after college graduation. (Toronto Star, May 5, 2007)

Violence against women continues unchecked in Canada and the U.S. as well as across the globe. Women are apprehensive to walk alone in the evening or on a quiet street during the day. Even in the privacy of the nuclear family, many women live in a prison of brutality. According to a landmark Statistics Canada study in 1993, 60 percent of Canadian women have been victims of at least one act of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. Subsequent surveys have revealed little change in the situation. (Statistics Canada, “The Violence Against Women Survey, ” The Daily, November 18, 1993.)

Freedom for women to work outside the home is a gain, to be sure. But for most mothers, it is not a matter of choice. Gone are the days when a working-class family could be supported on a single income. And working women still carry the full load of domestic labour—a double working day. In British Columbia, for example, only 37 percent of women’s productive time is paid work. (BC Solutions Budget 2006, Budgeting for Women’s Equality)

Our society is based on the exploitation by a minority class of wealthy over a majority class of wage workers. Women face additional exploitation as a consequence of patriarchal relations that date back to the very beginnings of class society. The wealthy elite benefits from divisions along gender lines that allows them to pay lower salaries to women, or none at all.

Our society is based on the domination of men, and the maternal functions of women are used to justify women’s degradation and inequalities between the sexes.

Women have the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, but in many parts of Canada, there is no easy way to obtain an abortion

It is now accepted that we can raise children alone, without a husband. But the wages of working women in Canada are so low that in 2000, 56 percent of families headed by single mothers were living in poverty.

The crisis of health-care workers

I learned a lot about these problems during the last 10 years, working in the industry that provides care for elderly people. During these years, life has become more arduous for many women in Canada and the U.S.

These were the years of the Conservative government’s assault on health care in the context of neo-liberalism, which included downgrading employment conditions and denying workers the right to a union.

I met hundreds of support workers in long-term care facilities, in private homes, and in hospitals. They are mainly immigrants from the Philippines, South America, Africa, and Eastern Europe. Many receive the minimum wage or less. Most are women of colour who clean, cook, and care for the sick and infirm with no fixed hours.

These women also suffer the indignities of those with the wrong religion. For example, one Christian institution did not want a friend of mine who worked there to pray in their empty chapel—because she is Muslim.

These women often have no fixed places of work and receive no benefits. They take care of strangers during the day and then come home to their second, unpaid job—housework, cooking, raising their kids, and taking care of the seniors in their own family. Many of these are single mothers who cannot find adequate daycare. “How do you do it,” I often asked in awe. “What about your children?” A typical response was, “I set rules for my kids. I hope they follow them.”

These women do necessary, difficult, and highly skilled work with love and commitment, under demoralizing conditions. For this they are rewarded with brutal exploitation.

This happens because the care women provide is viewed as an extension of their caring function in the family—which has low prestige and no economic value in our society. It is evident that women’s housework and care giving is conceived as an inherent feature of the female make-up, and for that reason is also devalued.

The fabric of our society is based on profit, not human needs. Owners of industries, particularly in the needle trades and service industries, increase their revenues by underpaying women’s traditional skills. So, women are exploited—both as workers and as women.

When women were equal

Have women always been treated with disrespect and brutality? Has society always been dominated by the will of men? Can women ever win the dignity we deserve as human beings?

To answer these questions, it’s helpful to look at the role of women in history. What we find is that women were not always oppressed. In fact, women’s oppression has existed for less than one percent of human existence.

The study of pre-history shows that early human societies were organized much differently from our own. Frederick Engels takes this up in his book The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, first published in 1884. He says that when encountered by the European conquerors, the indigenous societies of North America, such as the Six Nations, produced the necessities of life through common effort, and every member was provided for on an equal basis. This early communist-type society had no coercive state apparatus, with armed men and police, to keep people subjugated. It was self-governing and democratic, and all the members were equals.

The U.S. Marxist Evelyn Reed wrote in Problems of Women’s Liberation that the “family unit as we know it today did not then exist. Tribal society was composed of a network of clans, each one consisting of social brothers and sisters. Under this kinship system, members owed their status not to wealth or inheritance but to their clan and tribal connections…. There was no such thing as the domination of one gender over the other, just as there was no such thing as the subjugation of a wealthy class over working mass.” (p. 23)

In the American colonies, a Jesuit missionary in the 1600s was reported to be stunned by the contrast between the greedy, money-crazy civilized society he had left in Europe and the generous spirit of the indigenous people among whom he had settled. He wrote:

“These savages know nothing of mine and thine, for it may be said that what belongs to one belongs to another…. They think it strange that someone should have more goods than others, and that those who have more should be more esteemed that those who have less.”

When the missionary asked an Iroquois why he was so fond of children which were not his own, he answered, “Thou hast no sense. You love only your own children; we love all the children of the tribe…We are all father and mother to them.” (p. 31)

Engels explained that “all societies have rested upon the twin pillars of production and procreation.” In ancient times, women were both the creators of new life and the leaders in producing the material necessities of life. As a result they became social leaders of their communities. They worked together, as a collective community of producers, and were not dispersed into separate households where each individual woman is encumbered with the same tasks for her individual children.

Men had honored roles as hunters and warriors, but women developed tools, skills, and techniques at the base of social progress. From food collecting they moved on to simple horticulture and then to agriculture. In her research Reed discovered that “out of the great variety of crafts women practiced, which included pot making, leather making, textile making, house building, etc., they developed the rudiments of botany, chemistry, medicine, and other branches of scientific knowledge.” Women acquired their leading place in primitive society not simply because they were the procreators of new life, but as a result of their leading role in production, and establishment of social life.

Survivals of this era still exist. When I was visiting the Zuni people in New Mexico a few years ago, a young man told me he lived in the home of his wife’s kin. If they ever separated, he would have to leave that home. Arrangements like this, symbolic of women’s principal role, lead to such societies being termed “matrilocal” as or “matrilineal.” Sometimes they are called “matriarchal” societies.

Of course, it is important to understand that matriarchal societies did not involve women dominating or oppressing men. Women did not maintain a female version of “patriarchy.” These societies in which division of labor between the sexes did not entail or require domination of one gender over the other.

Reed states that “It is hard to say which is most distressing to the powers that be: the fact that primitive society was collectivist, egalitarian, and democratic; or the fact that it was matriarchal, with women occupying influential and respected positions in the community.” This is in stark contrast to the subordinate and degraded position of women throughout history since the division of society into antagonistic classes.

When the earliest settlers came here from Europe, they were astonished that these so-called savages would make no important collective decisions without the agreement and consent of their women.

All adults in a clan community regarded themselves as the social parents of all children, providing for them equally. In their communal society, where the patriarchal family did not yet exist, knowing who was the biological father — or even mother — was unimportant.

The downfall of women

This view of the part played by women in history is quite different, Reed remarks, “from that of the Biblical Eve who, in the later patriarchal era, was made responsible for the ‘downfall of man.’… In reality, what occurred at that major turning point in social evolution was the downfall of woman.” (Problems of Women’s Liberation, p. 28)

This transition began with the changes in the structure of society and the breakdown of the original economic/social system based on communal ownership.

Its dissolution first began some 6,000-8,000 years ago in the Middle East with the introduction of large-scale agriculture and stock raising. This brought about the material surpluses required for a more efficient economy and a new mode of life.

Reed explains, that “farming requires groups of people stabilized around plots of ground, tilling the soil, raising livestock and engaging in village industries. The old sprawling tribal commune began to collapse: first into separate clan, then into separate farm families often called ‘extended families,’ and finally into the individual family which we call the ‘nuclear family.’ It was in the course of this process that the father-head of the family displaced the clan as the basic unit of society.” (Problems of Women’s Liberation, p. 32)

It was now possible to accumulate wealth in the form of permanent surpluses of foodstuffs. That not only provided a reserve for arduous years, it also made it possible for some members of society to live from the labour of others. It meant that anyone who could gain control over the product of others’ labour could live from this surplus.

However, a new economic system developed from this that undermined and destroyed the collectivist relations. Society divided into classes, including a privileged class that lived by the labour of others. Various forms of servitude arose including slavery. Wealth was seized by theft or war and thus passed into the hands of the male conquerors. A state arose to defend these arrangements.

Under these pressures, the old communal clan-based society gradually broke down and was replaced by a new system based on the exploitation of labour and the rule of the rich. The new rulers did not want to share out their wealth among matriarchal clans; they wanted to pass it on to their sons. Thus was born the patriarchal family.

Property was owned by the individual head of the family, the father, and handed down from father to son. The father lorded it over a family composed of junior men and below them, the women children and slaves. Interestingly, the Roman term “famulus” means domestic slave, and familia is the cumulative number of slaves belonging to one man. (Origin of the Family, p. 68)

With the rise of the system of private property, monogamous marriage, and the family, women were dispersed, each to become a solitary wife and mother in an individual home. Woman became not only powerless, but degraded.

“Monogamy was introduced for men of wealth to give him legal heirs who would take his name and inherit his property,” Reed says. Wives were severely disciplined and punished if they broke their marriage vows. Thus violence against women was instituted into law. “Hemmed in on all sides, women became household chattels whose function was to serve the husband, their lord and master.”

“The drastic social changes brought about by the patriarchy and the class institutions of the family, private property, and the state produced the historic downfall of the female sex.” (Problems of Womens Liberation, p.34)

Women’s liberation

During the last century, women—and working people as a whole—have made major gains against this oppression. But as we know, the battle has not been won.

Women still suffer from domestic servitude and sexual violence. Their role as chattels and sex slaves is promoted by modern sexism, relayed by media and marketing. Capitalism profits from this servitude and, as I have described, deepens it whenever possible.

Sometimes, the language of women’s liberation is used to attack women. Thus, in Afghanistan, thousands of women have been killed or victimized as a result of a Canadian-U.S. war waged on the pretext of liberating them in the “war on terrorism.” These same warmakers are also slow to come to the assistance of women who are brutalized in their own countries.

The capitalists justify their crusade by attacking Islam, including by branding it an “anti-woman” religion, as if women were not equally oppressed in societies whose dominant religion is Christianity, Judaism, or Hinduism.

The capitalists invoke “women’s rights” to attack women’s freedom of choice. For example, there are now moves to restrict women’s right to wear a hijab, or shawl in public spaces, which many progressive Islamic women wear not in submission but in defiance of imperialism. So we are back to reactionary dress codes that directly undermine the right of women to choice in such matters.

Women want an equal partnership with men in building a society where all human beings are valued. In this struggle, it will become more evident that the entrenched prejudice against women will not be eliminated until we remove the fundamental reason for its existence—the profit system (capitalism) and class society.


The Russian Revolution and National Freedom

How the early Soviet government led the struggle for liberation of Russia’s oppressed peoples

By John Riddell, co-editor, Socialist Voice.

When Bolivian President Evo Morales formally opened his country’s Constituent Assembly on August 6, 2006, he highlighted the aspirations of Bolivia’s indigenous majority as the central challenge before the gathering. The convening of the Assembly, he said, represented a “historic moment to refound our dearly beloved homeland Bolivia.” When Bolivia was created, in 1825-26, “the originary indigenous movements” who had fought for independence “were excluded,” and subsequently were discriminated against and looked down upon. But the “great day has arrived today … for the originary indigenous peoples.” (, Aug. 14, 2006)

During the preceding weeks, indigenous organizations had proposed sweeping measures to assure their rights, including guarantees for their languages, autonomy for indigenous regions, and respect for indigenous culture and political traditions.

This movement extends far beyond Bolivia. Massive struggles based on indigenous peoples have shaken Ecuador and Peru, and the reverberations are felt across the Western Hemisphere. Measures to empower indigenous minorities are among the most prestigious achievements of the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela.

At first glance, these indigenous struggles bear characteristic features of national movements, aimed at combating oppression, securing control of national communities, and protecting national culture. Yet indigenous peoples in Bolivia and elsewhere may not meet many of the objective criteria Marxists have often used to define a nation, such as a common language and a national territory, and they are not demanding a separate state. The response of Marxist currents to the national aspects of Latin America’s indigenous struggles has been varied, ranging from enthusiasm to a studied silence. Yet an ability to address the complexities of such struggles is surely the acid test of Marxism’s understanding of the national question today.

Such disarray among Marxists is all the more costly in today’s context of rising struggles for national freedom across Latin America and the Middle East today. The challenge is also posed in the imperialist heartlands, where we see a rise of struggles by oppressed minorities that bear more than a trace of national consciousness. For example, in 2006 the United States witnessed the strongest upsurge of working-class struggle in 60 years in the form of demonstrations and strikes for immigrant rights that were also, in part, an assertion of Latino identity. And the oppression of non-white and Muslim minorities in France has given birth to the provocatively named “Mouvement des Indigènes de la République.” (

The Marxist position on the national question was forged around well-documented debates on the independence movement of long-constituted nations such as Ireland and Poland. But the writings of Lenin and his contemporaries before 1917 have little to say about nationalities in emergence, that is, peoples in struggle who lack as yet many characteristic features of a nation. But precisely this type of struggle played a central role in the 1917 Russian revolution and the early years of the Soviet republic. In the course of their encounter with such movements, the Bolshevik Party’s policies toward national minorities evolved considerably. Sweeping practical measures were taken to assure the rights of national minorities whose existence was barely acknowledged prior to 1917.

The Bolsheviks’ policies do not indicate what course to adopt toward national struggles today, each of which has a specific character and set of complexities. Nonetheless, the Bolshevik experience is a useful reference point.

Pre-1917 Positions

The initial position of Russian Marxists on the national question was clear and sweeping. In 1903 the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP), adopted a program specifying the right of all nations in the Russian state to self-determination. The program also advocated regional self-rule based on the composition of the population and the right of the population to receive education in its own language and to use that language on the basis of equality in all local social and governmental institutions. (Jeremy Smith, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, 1917-23, London: Univ. of London, n.d., p. 14.)

In the decade that followed, the Bolshevik wing of the RSDLP became the first Marxist current internationally to recognize the importance of the liberation struggles then taking shape across the colonial world. Lenin wrote in 1913, “Hundreds of millions of people are awakening to life, light and freedom” in a movement that will “liberate both the peoples of Europe and the peoples of Asia.” (V.I. Lenin. Collected Works. Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1960-71. Vol. 19, pp. 99-100. Most quotations in this study can also be located by Internet search.)

Lenin also insisted on the distinction between the advanced capitalist countries, where “progressive bourgeois national movements came to an end long ago,” and the oppressed nations of Eastern Europe and the semi-colonial and colonial world. (CW 22:150-52) In the latter case, he called for defense of the right to self-determination and support of national liberation movements, in order to create a political foundation for unification in struggle of working people of all nationalities.


In the test of the Russian revolution, these and many other aspects of the Bolshevik’s pre-1917 positions proved to be a reliable guide. Some positions expressed before 1917, however, required modification.

For example, consider the definition of a nation provided in 1913 by Joseph Stalin: “A nation is a historically constituted, stable community of people, formed on the basis of a common language, territory, economic life, and psychological make-up manifested in a common culture.” (J.V. Stalin. Works, Moscow: FLPH, 1954. Vol. 2, p. 307) Stalin’s article was written in collaboration with Lenin and was viewed at the time as an expression of the Bolshevik position. His objective criteria are a good starting point for analysis, but they have sometimes been misused to justify denying national rights to indigenous and other peoples that appear not to pass the test.

In addition, Lenin stressed that his support for national self-determination “implies exclusively the right to independence in the political sense.” (CW 22:146) In 1913, he stated, “Fight against all national oppression? Yes, certainly. Fight for any kind of national development, for ‘national culture’ in general? Certainly not.” (CW 20:35) Lenin is sometimes quoted as being opposed to federalism as a form of state, although he also endorsed federation as a stepping stone to democratic integration of nations. (CW 22:146)

Such pre-1917 positions are sometimes applied today in order to justify opposition to the demands of national liberation movements. But they should be interpreted in the light of the way the Bolshevik position was applied in the decisive test of revolution.

The indigenous peoples of tsarist Russia

The oppressed peoples that made up the majority of the pre-1917 tsarist empire can be broadly divided into two categories.

On the western and southern margins of the empire lived many peoples—among them the Finns, Poles, Ukrainians, and Armenians—that met all of Stalin’s objective criteria of nationality. As nations, they possessed clearly defined historical and cultural traditions. It was these peoples that the pre-1917 Bolsheviks had chiefly in mind when they discussed the national question.

But there were also many peoples in Russia—in the Crimea, on the Volga, in the Caucasus, and in central and northeast Asia—that had been subjected to settler-based colonization similar to that experienced by the Palestinians, the Blacks of South Africa, and—in much more extreme form—the indigenous peoples of the Americas. These subjects of the Russian tsar, whom the Bolsheviks often spoke of as Russia’s “Eastern peoples,” had seen their lands seized, their livelihood destroyed, and their language and culture suppressed. They had suffered discrimination and exclusion from the dominant society.

When revolution broke out in 1917, these peoples, although varying widely in their level of social development, had not yet emerged as nationalities. The evolution of written national languages, cultures, and consciousness as distinct peoples was at an early stage. Most identified themselves primarily as Muslims. Assessed by Stalin’s criteria for nationhood, they did not make the grade. But in the crucible of revolution, national consciousness began to assert itself, provoking and stimulating demands for cultural autonomy, self-rule, and even national independence.

This fact itself is worth pondering. A revolution is, in Lenin’s phrase, a festival of the oppressed. Peoples long ground down into inarticulateness suddenly find inspiration, assert their identity, and cry out their grievances. We cannot predict the shape of freedom struggles that will emerge in a revolutionary upsurge.

The soviets take power

On November 15, 1917, one week after the workers and soldiers of Russia took power, the Soviet government decreed the “equality and sovereignty of the peoples of Russia” and the right of these peoples to self-determination up to and including independence. (John Riddell, ed. To See the Dawn [hereinafter cited as TSD]. New York: Pathfinder Press, 1983, p. 248) Subsequently, five nations on the western border, including Poland and Finland, asserted their independence, which the Soviet government recognized. Others opted to federate with the Russian Soviet republic.

But the matter did not stop there. The Soviet government invited each nation within Russia to hold a soviet congress to decide whether and on what basis to participate in its federal structure. National minorities were offered not only the ultimate right to separate but autonomous powers over language, education, and culture that gave expression to the right of self-determination. The government spelled out this policy in April 1918 with reference to Russia’s Eastern peoples in an article by Stalin, then its Commissar of Nationalities. These regions, he stated, must be “autonomous, that is have their own schools, courts, administrations, organs of power and social, political and cultural institutions,” with full rights to use the minority language “in all spheres of social and political activity.” (Smith, p. 24.)

This policy applied also to religious customs and traditions. Thus the Sharia—the Muslim common law—was recognized in traditionally Muslim territories as an integral part of the Soviet legal structure.

The Soviet government also endorsed the rights of the Muslim peoples to lands recently seized by Russian colonists, including when these lands had been utilized only seasonally by Muslim peasant nomads. It supported local initiatives to repossess such land in the North Caucasus and endorsed resettlement of Russian colonists in Turkestan as a means of restoring land seized by settlers after the defeat of an uprising of subject peoples in 1916.

It also worked to educate government personnel as to the social structure of the Eastern peoples. An appeal to Red Army personnel in 1920 urged that soldiers see the small independent producers and traders of these regions as allies, as toilers, not as profiteers. It noted that among these peoples, “a clear class differentiation has not yet taken place…. The producers have not yet been torn away from the means of production. Each handicraftsman … is also a merchant. Commerce … rests in the hands of millions of small traders, [each of whom] only has a penny’s worth of goods.” Given all this, “the rapid implementation of communism … nationalization of all trade … of handicraftsmen … is impossible.” This analysis is strikingly applicable to the conditions of the indigenous masses today in Bolivia and other Latin American countries. (TSD 307)

Promotion of national culture

With regard to the Eastern peoples, Soviet policy went far beyond support of land claims and autonomous governmental structures. The Soviet government supported the evolution into mature nationalities of peoples still only at the dawn of national consciousness. In this way, these peoples would be able to reach a cultural and political level that would facilitate their integration into Soviet society on a basis of equality.

The soviets therefore embarked on an ambitious program to promote national cultural development. Local experts were engaged to choose, for each ethnic group, the dialect best adapted to serving as the basis for a national language. Alphabets were devised for the mostly pre-literate peoples. Dictionaries and grammars were written and put to use in the publication of minority-language newspapers.

Education was started up in the minority languages, including within the Russian-speaking heartlands—in every locality where there were 25 students in the minority language group. By 1927, across the Soviet Union, more than 90% of students from minority nationalities were being educated in their own languages. The governments of autonomous republics were responsible for education in their national language beyond their own borders—a policy that bore some similarity to the Austro-Marxist program of “national-cultural autonomy” against which the Bolsheviks had argued prior to 1917.

The same principle applied to the Jewish minority, which had no national territory. A Jewish commission of the Soviet government administered hundreds of Yiddish-language schools scattered among several national republics. Many leaders of this body came from the Bund, a Jewish Socialist current that had advocated such structures, against Bolshevik objections, before 1917.

By 1924, publishing activity was under way in the Soviet Union in 25 different languages, rising to 44 in 1927.

Preferential hiring

The Soviet government strove to assure that each nationality was represented in local governmental organs in proportion to its size in the population as a whole. This policy was termed “korenizatsiia” — “indigenization” according to the Oxford dictionary, or “affirmative action” in modern idiom.

The Turkestan region of Central Asia provides a good test case, for there the soviets initially excluded Muslims from their ranks and turned a harsh face to the demands of the Muslim majority. In March 1918, the Soviet government called a halt to this policy, and when soviet elections were held in Turkestan the next month, 40% of those elected were Muslim. The proportion of Muslims in the local Communist Party membership rose from almost zero to 45% by the end of 1918. In 1919, the Communist Party central committee specified that candidates for government office could be nominated independently of the party by any Muslim workers’ organization.

One veteran of those days recalls that Lenin reacted angrily to information that all the soviets in Turkestan used the Russian language, saying, “All our talk about Soviet power will be hollow so long as the toilers of Turkestan do not speak in their native tongue in their institutions.” (Smith, p. 145)

By 1927, minority nationals predominated in the soviet executive bodies in their regions.

The Communist Party universities, a major source of new cadres for party and state, gave preference to candidates from minority peoples. By 1924 these peoples made up 50% of the overall student body, roughly equal to their weight in the population. But it took time to make good the imbalance in party membership. By 1927, Muslim peoples’ weight in the party membership had reached about half their proportion of the population as a whole.

Efforts were also made to speed economic development in territories of the Muslim peoples. They were encouraged to enter the working class, which in these territories had previously been almost entirely Russian in composition. Progress was rapid: by 1926 minority peoples made up a majority of the work force in Tadzhikistan, Turkmenistan, and Dagestan, and about 40% in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.

These achievements, of course, were possible only through the initiative and leadership of revolutionists from the minority nationalities themselves. With rare exceptions, there was no Bolshevik movement among the Muslim peoples prior to 1917. The leaders of this transformation came mainly from revolutionary nationalist movements—which many Marxists, then and now, disparagingly term “bourgeois.” The central leadership of the Communist Party repeatedly allied with these forces in order to overcome resistance to its policies toward Muslim peoples from within its own ranks. (For Lenin’s comments in 1920 on the terminological side of this question, see Riddell, ed. Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite. New York: Pathfinder, 1991. Vol. 1, p. 212 or Lenin, CW 31:241, or do an Internet search for “unanimous decision to speak of the national-revolutionary movement”)

Baku Congress

The Bolsheviks argued within the Communist International in support of their approach toward oppressed nationalities, and it was codified by resolutions of the Comintern’s Baku Congress of the Peoples of the East in 1920 and Second and Fourth World Congresses in 1920 and 1922. In his closing remarks to the Baku Congress, Gregory Zinoviev proposed an amended wording to the closing words of the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of all lands and oppressed peoples of the whole world, unite”—a concept that remains valid for our times. (TSD 219) And armed with this understanding, the International won support rapidly during those years across Asia.

The mood of these years is captured by Babayev, who attended the Congress of the Peoples of the East in Baku as a young Muslim Azerbaijani in 1920, serving as a guard. Interviewed many years later, he recalled that “when the call to prayer came, he found it natural to set aside his gun during devotions, after which he would ‘go back to defend with our blood the conference and the revolution.’ Inspired by the [conference’s] ‘declaration of holy war against the enemy of revolution,’ he explains, “thousands of people, convinced there was no contradiction between being a Bolshevik and a Muslim, joined the Bolshevik ranks.” (TSD 29-30)

The Muslim delegates also utilized the Baku congress to voice their concerns about chauvinist abuses by Soviet officials in the autonomous republics. A lengthy resolution on this topic was submitted by 21 delegates, representing a wide range of nationalities. In his closing remarks, Zinoviev promised energetic corrective action. After the congress ended, 27 delegates traveled to Moscow to meet with the Communist Party Political Bureau, which adopted a resolution drafted by Lenin. The resolution’s sweeping provisions included the decision to found the University of the Peoples of the East and instructions to rein in the authority of emissaries of the central government in autonomous regions.

Stalinist reversal

During the 1920s, a privileged bureaucratic caste arose in the Soviet Union, headed by Stalin, which showed increasing hostility to the rights of minority nationalities. This trend led Lenin, in his last months of activity, to launch a campaign to defend the rights of these peoples. (See “Lenin’s Final Fight,” Pathfinder Press, or do an Internet search for Nationalities or “Autonomisation”)

After Lenin’s death in 1924, the Stalinist forces gained control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union and the Soviet state apparatus. Soviet republics in Asia were subjected to bureaucratic centralization, chauvinist policies, hostility to minority language rights, and massive counterrevolutionary terror. Nonetheless, the gains of the Russian revolution in the domain of national rights were not wholly extinguished. In particular, the Asian Soviet republics retained enough strength to successfully assert their independence when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.


Lenin’s pre-1917 articles on self-determination provided the Bolsheviks with a foundation for their course during the revolution. But the Bolshevik approach to the struggle of the oppressed nationalities was radically enhanced by the experiences of the revolution itself. In the process, the Bolsheviks showed a capacity to ally with and learn from the most advanced fighters for national freedom. They set aside old schemas and allowed real social forces to shape their strategy, one that might today be called “unity through diversity.”

Today, in the midst of a new rise of liberation struggles in several continents, the policies of the Bolsheviks of Lenin’s time provide an example of how the working class can ally with oppressed peoples in common struggle. The unity of the working class depends on solidarity with oppressed peoples and sectors. The program of this struggle includes not just political self-determination for oppressed nationalities, but unconditional support for their struggle to win the political, cultural, and economic rights needed to achieve genuine equality. And that may well involve—as in the case of the indigenous peoples of Russia in the years following the 1917 revolution—positive measures to assist these peoples in developing their cultural and political potential as nationalities.

Further Reading

This study has drawn extensively on Jeremy Smith’s important work, The Bolsheviks and the National Question, which utilizes Soviet archives released after 1990. See also Dave Crouch, “The Bolsheviks and Islam,” in International Socialism no. 110.

In the Pathfinder Press series, “The Communist International in Lenin’s Time,” edited by John Riddell, see Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International for the pre-1917 discussion; To See the Dawn, for the Baku Congress; and Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite, for the Second World Congress.

A Unique Resource for Marxists in Canada; Socialist History Project Documents a Century of Struggle

By John Riddell

“Over the past 100 years, socialists in Canada and Québec have written a vast amount on the political issues they considered important, but virtually none of those writings are available today. The experiences, ideas, analyses, and insights of a century of socialism are in danger of being forgotten and lost forever.”

With those words, the Socialist History Project (SHP) was launched by Ian Angus, author of the path-breaking history of the early Communist Party, Canadian Bolsheviks. The main goal of the project, he said, was to recover key socialist articles, pamphlets, speeches, and documents from obscurity, and make them universally available on the World Wide Web.

That was in June 2004. A year and a half later, the SHP website has grown to include literally hundreds of documents. The expanding collection covers the years 1900 to 1980, including histories, reviews, reminiscences, and tributes, as well as a host of articles and statements written in the heat of the struggle. The project acknowledges donations and assistance from a wide range of individuals representing many divergent socialist currents.

While there is still much more to be added, the website has become a unique and valuable resource for socialists, documenting a century of Marxist insight into the key issues facing the working class and its allies in this country.

This is particularly important because the history of the Canadian left, especially after World War II, has not been well studied or reported, either by professional historians or by socialists themselves. And the mainstream media, when they mention the radicalism of the sixties and seventies at all, trivialize it as countercultural or adventurist or both. As a result, it has been all but impossible for the new generation of radicals to learn from the achievements (or the mistakes) of the past.

Two waves of revolutionary socialism

The online collection shows that there were two large waves of revolutionary socialism in Canada, two periods in which the Marxist left has won significant support and built significant organizations. The first began about 1901 and reached its peak in the 1920s with the formation and rapid growth of the of Communist Party of Canada. That promising beginning was cut short at the end of that decade by the triumph of Stalinism in the Communist International and the expulsion from the Communist movement of all those who supported the policies the International had followed when Lenin was alive.

The second wave began in 1960, with the creation of a stable, national Trotskyist organization, the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière, an organization of considerable political sophistication and a wide range of achievement. The LSA/LSO and its youth group, the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes, played a central role in the radicalization that swept Canada and Québec the 1960s and 1970s. The movement reached its greatest size and influence as the Revolutionary Workers League, product of the fusion of the LSA/LSO and two other groups in 1977.

But the RWL did not survive the ebb in radical activity and labor militancy in the early 1980s: it fell into decline and suffered several debilitating splits. Of the currents that came out of the RWL, Socialist Voice is the only one that today manages to maintain a regular Canada-based publication.

Today Marxism in Canada and Québec has entered a new wave of development. After an extended period of downturn, there are clear signs of revival of workers’ struggles internationally and, to a lesser extent, in Canada. Marxist forces, while still small, are well positioned to play a leading role in coming struggles.

It is those revolutionary forces – both individuals and groups – that will find the greatest benefit in the materials now made available through the Socialist History Project. While history never repeats itself exactly, many experiences and insights from the past are directly relevant today. Some examples:

LATIN AMERICAN SOLIDARITY: Supporters of the movements for change in Venezuela and Bolivia have much to learn from the campaigns led by socialists in the 1960s to explain and defend the Cuban revolution. The pamphlets produced by the Fair Play for Cuba Committee are particularly good examples of the ways to bring the truth about an anti-imperialist revolution to a Canadian audience.

THE NDP: In the 1970s, Canadian Marxists undertook an in-depth analysis of the “NDP problem” – what policy socialists should adopt towards this large pro-capitalist party with strong links to the labor movement. The issues they confronted then are still with us today, and reading SHP’s recently posted selection of documents from that debate may help us avoid political pitfalls and errors that have already been carefully examined.

QUEBEC: The greatest weakness of the revolutionary socialists in the first wave was their failure to understand the national oppression of Quebec and support Quebec’s right to self-determination. Documents on the SHP website show how socialists in the 1960s and 1970s decisively corrected that failing. In addition to documenting their political analysis of Quebec, the site features an impressive collection of articles that illustrate the role socialists played in defending Quebec when Trudeau imposed the War Measures Act in 1970. It also features two outstanding analyses of the growth of the revolutionary left in Quebec by Francois Moreau and Bernard Rioux, in both the original French text and in fine English translations by Richard Fidler.

And there is much more, including sections on the antiwar movement, women’s liberation, gay liberation, and First Nations.

An understanding of the successes and failures the previous generations of Marxists in Canada is essential to charting our course today. And that is good reason to support and use the growing library of materials available at the Socialist History website.

Spread the word!

* * * *

The Socialist History Project website is The site includes a full table of contents and a very useful “What’s New” page that offers brief explanations of the nature and significance of the online materials.

To be notified by email when new documents are added to the site, and to receive announcements of meetings and talks about the history of the left in Canada, send a blank email to When you receive a confirmation message, just hit “Reply” and “Send” and you’ll be on the list.

To donate or loan periodicals, pamphlets, leaflets, or documents to the Socialist History Project archives, email

How Revolutionary Socialists Opposed the Vietnam War

By Ian Angus

Ian Angus is Director of the Socialist History Project. This article is based on a talk he gave as part of a session on “Is Iraq the new Vietnam?” at an educational conference sponsored by the International Socialists in Ottawa, on February 5, 2005.

Until 1954, the area now organized as Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos was ruled by France and called Indochina. The League for the Independence of Vietnam, or Viet Minh, decisively defeated the French colonial power in 1954, but they were forced by the leaders of the Soviet Union and China to accept a compromise that divided their country into two parts, north and south.

This was supposed to be a temporary situation, leading to nationwide elections and unification in 1956. Instead, the United States threw its support behind a puppet South Vietnamese regime that refused to hold the 1956 elections, and that began to restore land and power to the landlords who had been ousted in the liberation war.

This led to widespread peasant uprisings and a renewal of guerrilla war in the southern part of Vietnam. The U.S. responded by sending combat troops, initially described as “advisors.” The first U.S. serviceman was killed in July 1959.

At about the same time, the peoples’ republic in the north of Vietnam began to aid the resistance in the south. In 1960, the various guerrilla groups united to form the National Liberation Front (NLF), which the imperialists dubbed “Viet Cong.”

Fifteen years later, thanks to the heroism and perseverance of the Vietnamese people and the massive mobilizations of an antiwar movement in the United States and around the world, U.S. imperialism suffered its first-ever military defeat.

The anti-Vietnam War movement was, in Fred Halstead’s words, “the most sustained and, except for Russia in 1905 and 1917, the most effective antiwar movement within any big power while the shooting was going on.” (Fred Halstead, Out Now, Pathfinder Press, 1978, p. 709)

This presentation focuses on the role played by revolutionary socialists, organized in the Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialist Alliance in the U.S. and in the League for Socialist Action and Young Socialists in Canada, in building and leading the antiwar movement. Of course we weren’t alone — indeed, the most important part of our strategy was to build a united movement including the broadest possible range of political views and currents — but no one can deny that the influence of the socialist movement was far greater than might have been expected from our limited numbers and resources.

Our commitment to the antiwar struggle was based on our political evaluation of the importance of the war. Here’s how we expressed that, in a resolution adopted by the Young Socialists/Ligue des Jeunes Socialistes in Canada in 1969:

“The war in Vietnam stands today as the central focus of the world confrontation between socialism and imperialism. The Vietnamese people have shown that the mighty imperialist military machine can be stopped in its tracks and thrown back by the struggle of a determined people. … Defense of the Vietnamese revolution stands as the paramount duty of every revolutionary today. Since the Vietnamese are struggling and defeating our common enemy, imperialism, proletarian internationalism demands that we do everything we can to aid them. It is this fundamental understanding that motivates our consistent defense of the Vietnamese revolution.”

Because we had that political view, we threw ourselves into the antiwar movement heart and soul. Again and again, our newspapers made the case against the war and for an antiwar movement. Our members were central organizers of every demonstration–postering, leafleting, speaking, marching, marshalling, you name it. We were prominent public figures and day-to-day backroom organizers. If it needed doing, we did it, and we organized everyone we knew to do it as well.

In the mid-1960’s the right-wing Toronto Telegram published a series of articles attacking the antiwar movement. The editors could think of no better way to smear the movement than to proclaim that it was organized and led by “Trotskyites.” It was a vicious, red-baiting attack—but it was also to some degree correct.

The Antiwar Movement is Born

In sharp contrast to the movement against the recent invasion of Iraq, the anti-Vietnam War movement did not emerge right away. I am not aware of any demonstrations against the Vietnam War in Canada or the United States prior to 1964, and there were no large protests before 1965. There were several reasons for that–the imperialist build-up in Vietnam was conducted secretly, with very little news coverage in North America; and the existing antiwar groups were weak and politically conservative. Socialist groups protested the war in Vietnam, but the demonstrations were small.

The first big antiwar demonstration was in Washington, DC, on April 17, 1965. 20,000 people took part in the largest demonstration of its kind in decades. By the end of the 1960’s, we were seeing demonstrations of a half million or more people in the United States. It reached the point where even rabidly pro-war politicians like Richard Nixon had to pose as peace candidates in order to get elected. And by the early 1970’s, it was clear that the combination of Vietnamese resistance and mass opposition at home had decisively defeated the United States.

My object tonight is not to offer a history of the antiwar movement, but rather to discuss some of the debates that confronted activists in Canada and the United States, the issues that ultimately determined the movement’s course.

Three options

There were many issues and debates that confronted the diverse forces protesting the war, but they consistently reflected disagreements between three political viewpoints: reformism, ultraleftism, and revolutionary socialism.

The reformists, most notably the Communist Parties, sought to pressure the warmakers to pull back and accept a compromise settlement with the liberation movement. In the U.S. they focused their efforts on influencing the Democratic Party. They promoted “peace”, not antiwar, candidates in elections. They consistently argued for “moderation” so as not to alienate the powers that be, and argued for slogans like “Negotiate with the NLF”, thus implicitly accepting that the imperialists had a right hold the Vietnamese people hostage to a negotiation process.

In Canada, the Communist Party promoted the illusory vision of an “independent foreign policy” for Canada, rather than focusing their fire on the very real complicity of the Canadian government in the war. It supported proposals to send Canadian soldiers to Vietnam as “peacekeepers.”

There were various ultraleft currents within the movement, ranging from those who promoted violent confrontations with police to those whose would try to center antiwar protests around such slogans as “Victory to the NLF” and such chants as “Ho Ho Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is going to win.”

There were obvious differences between the reformists and the ultralefts, but what they had in common was a lack of confidence that the majority of the population could be mobilized to stop the war. So they focused on trying to get the ruling class to change its mind – either by convincing the imperialists with reasonable arguments, or by scaring them with revolutionary rhetoric. (Some of the ultraleft left groups didn’t believe that the antiwar movement could contribute in any way to a Vietnamese victory—they only participated in the antiwar movement in order to recruit to their organizations.)

The revolutionary socialists, by contrast, had a class struggle perspective. Our goal was to mobilize mass working class action in the United States and internationally. We were convinced that such mobilizations would attract the ranks of the armed forces – the working class in uniform – to an antiwar perspective. We did not seek to persuade or scare the imperialists, but to make it impossible for them to continue the war.

These three positions remained central to all the debates in the movement for the years from 1965 on. The movement repeatedly split over these issues. Initially, the class struggle approach was supported only by the revolutionary socialist movement. To most, the idea of winning over the majority of the working class seemed a utopian dream. But more and more people became convinced of this possibility, and in the end, it happened.

The debate over the three visions was worked out around three central questions in the United States:

  • On slogans: “Withdraw Now” vs “Negotiate”
  • On program: “Single Issue” vs “Multi-Issue”
  • On tactics: “Mass Actions” vs “Vanguard Actions”

In Canada there was a fourth, related debate on whether we should focus our demands exclusively on the U.S., or expose and condemn Canada’s support for the war.

Withdraw Now or Negotiate

The slogan “Negotiate with the NLF”, which was supported by the Communist Party and others, had an obvious problem in political principle: it violated the Vietnamese right to self-determination. The Vietnamese might choose to negotiate, but it wasn’t appropriate for us to demand that they do so.

In contrast, “Withdraw now” said clearly that the U.S. had no right to be there; it also had strong appeal to people at home whose sons were fighting and dying. The slogan took various forms: it began as “Withdraw from Vietnam Now,” then evolved to “Bring the Troops Home Now,” and by the end of the sixties it was very simple and clear: “Out Now.”

By 1970, “withdraw the troops” now had majority support among working people in the United States. Nonetheless, the reformist wing of the movement was arguing for “Set the date to withdraw” as a more responsible demand.

Single Issue or Multi-Issue

The various coalitions and national coordinating committees repeatedly split over proposals to have the antiwar coalition campaign on issues other than the war, usually the draft, racism, and/or poverty. There were two central problems with this multi-issue proposal.

First, while everyone in the coalitions favored broad social change, there was no agreement on what changes were needed, or on how they should be brought about. Many were already in political organizations with specific views on just those questions.

Second, and more importantly, the most critical issue was to stop the U.S. war against Vietnam. “Broadening” the movement to include other issues would actually reduce its impact on the war, and limit our ability to win the majority to action on the Vietnam question.

This issue was debated again and again, but it was resolved in practice by the success of the antiwar movement and the complete failure of every attempt to build a multi-issue coalition.

Mass Action or Vanguard Action

When peaceful protest by half a million doesn’t budge Washington, what should the movement do next? For some, the answer was confrontation. “Shut down the government!” “Trash Chicago!” This meant actions by an elite, at most a few thousand at a time, that were easily outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the police. In the worst cases, these actions provided an excuse for brutal police attacks. They had no impact on the war. Worse, they demoralized most participants and gave credence to right-wing attacks on the right to legal protest. The message they sent to the population at large was that going to a protest was dangerous.

So what to do when peaceful protest by half a million doesn’t budge Washington, what next? The correct answer: after a big action, organize another big action.

Confronting Ottawa

The fourth debate was specific to Canada.

In 1965, as today, there were widespread illusions in Canada about this government’s role in world affairs. Ottawa’s posture as an “honest broker” and “peacemaker” in Vietnam or elsewhere in the world was widely believed. Some in the antiwar movement bought into that. They thought the movement should focus all its fire on the U.S., and that insofar as Canadian issues were raised, it should be in the form of urging the government to be a voice for peace, to act independently of the U.S., etc.

Like those in the U.S. who thought the movement should be reasonable and try to influence the Democratic Party, the reformist wing of the Canadian movement thought the goal should be to persuade Liberal politicians to be nice, and to avoid anything that might alienate them.

However, the fact was that the Canadian government had consistently acted as the U.S. representative on the International Control Commission, set up to “monitor” the 1954 Vietnam peace treaty. In addition, weapons and other war machinery were being manufactured in Canada for use by U.S. forces  in Vietnam.

From the very beginning, the revolutionary socialist wing of the Canadian antiwar movement argued that it was essential to expose and condemn Canada’s complicity in the war. “End Canada’s Complicity,” became a key demand in all of the demonstrations. That helped make the war and the antiwar movement relevant to Canadians. And it helped prevent the antiwar movement here from becoming a nationalist, anti-American campaign.

U.S. Troops: Enemies or Allies?

While the refusal of some to be drafted got a lot of publicity, draft resistance actually had very little impact on the course of the war, and was peripheral to the antiwar movement. The Marxist wing of the U.S. antiwar movement focused its attention on the majority of draftees who didn’t leave. They viewed them as workers in uniform, and defended their rights, as citizens, to debate political issues and take part in protests.

Sentiment among the troops evolved in step with antiwar sentiment in the working-class communities to which they belonged. Antiwar coffee houses sprung up near military bases, and underground papers were passed around in barracks. Soldiers became frequent speakers at mass protests.

The impact of this movement on military morale cannot be overstated.

As early as mid-1969, an entire company of the 196th Light Infantry Brigade sat down on the battlefield, and a rifle company from the 1st Air Cavalry Division flatly refused—on television—to advance down a dangerous trail. Resistance among the ground troops grew into a massive and widespread “quasi-mutiny” by 1970 and 1971. Soldiers went on “search and avoid” missions, intentionally skirting clashes with the Vietnamese, and often holding three-day-long pot parties instead of fighting. By 1970, the U.S. Army had 65,643 deserters, roughly the equivalent of four infantry divisions.

In an article published in the Armed Forces Journal (June 7, 1971), Marine Colonel Robert D. Heinl Jr., wrote:

“By every conceivable indicator, our army that remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and noncommissioned officers.… Sedition, coupled with disaffection from within the ranks, and externally fomented with an audacity and intensity previously inconceivable, infest the Armed Services.…”

This remarkable situation was the direct result of the massive growth of antiwar sentiment in the American working class, especially among Black workers. Between 1965 and 1970, many unions, and almost all organizations in the black community, moved from supporting the war (or, at best, grudging acceptance) to active opposition. Opposition to the war played an important role in the explosion of many Black ghettos in U.S. cities into rebellion during the sixties and early seventies.


In the end, the Vietnamese people won. The world’s greatest imperialist power was defeated by the combination of heroic resistance in Vietnam, and an international movement that changed the political framework of the day, and American soldiers who refused to be cannon fodder. The workers at home actively opposed the war, and the workers in uniform were refusing to fight.

The Marxist left in the U.S. and Canada can be very proud of the role it played in that victory.

Vietnam, by 1975, was united and independent. The Vietnamese capitalists and landlords were driven from power. Their victory was a key factor in encouraging colonial revolts from Iran to Nicaragua. And it led to the Vietnam syndrome: for a quarter century the U.S. rulers were unable to launch a major military assault anywhere in the world.

Today, when imperialism is again trying to crush a third world country, the antiwar movement begins with a much more favorable relationship of forces, and with an arsenal of lessons on how such a fight can be won.

Vancouver, Toronto Meetings Celebrate New Edition of Canadian Bolsheviks

By Roger Annis

“In the years immediately following World War I, something unprecedented happened in the socialist left in Canada. The multiple quarrelling groups that had comprised the left until then shook themselves up and transformed themselves. The result was a new party that encompassed at least 80% of the members of its predecessor organizations. The Communist Party of Canada quickly became the largest and most influential group on the left everywhere in Canada, far outpacing all existing organizations and dominating militant labour politics in Canada in the 1920s.”

With those words, Ian Angus opened his presentations to two large and successful meetings, in Vancouver and Toronto, celebrating publication of a new edition of his book, Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist party of Canada.

Since it was published in 1981, Canadian Bolsheviks has been widely accepted as the definitive history of the first decade of the Communist Party of Canada. Unusually, for a book written from a revolutionary Marxist perspective, it is highly regarded by academic historians of the Canadian labour movement and often cited as a key source.

And it has educated countless Canadian radicals about the rich history of revolutionary socialism in this country. Although it has been out of print for several years, used copies continue to be read and re-read by activists seeking to connect with the revolutionary socialist tradition in Canada.

This year the Socialist History Project ( republished Canadian Bolsheviks. The initial response the new edition has been even more positive than the first time around.

That was clearly shown by the success of book celebrations held in Vancouver and Toronto in November. It’s hard to recall any socialist meetings in recent years that have been supported by such a broad range of sponsors, or that featured such open and fraternal discussion among groups and individuals representing many divergent opinions on the left.

Forty-eight copies of the book were sold at the two meetings—an impressive tally.


The 70 people who attended the Vancouver meeting on November 17 ranged from long-time socialist veterans to an impressive number of young people whose first political experiences were in the anti-Iraq-war movement. It was sponsored by International Socialists,, New Socialist Group, Rebuilding the Left, Seven Oaks Magazine, and Socialist Voice.

The chair, well-known author and activist Cynthia Flood, pointed out that the impact of the Russian Revolution on the Canadian left is not well-known to the new generation of radical youth, but the lessons of that tumultuous time are still relevant today. “We need some understanding of ‘then’, so we can face ‘now’,” she said. “That is why the reappearance of Ian Angus’ book is so welcome. It has come out of an expressed wish and desire on the part of many to have the book available again.”

In addition to Ian Angus, speakers included Dale McCartney, an editor of Seven Oaks magazine, Joey Hartman, vice-president of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, and Mark Leier, director of the Centre for Labour Studies at Simon Fraser University.

Many meetings that are attended by people from a wide range of Marxist groups end in sterile debates on obscure (to most people) points of history and theory. That wasn’t true of the Canadian Bolsheviks celebration in Vancouver. A friendly and lively discussion ended the formal meeting on a positive note, and it continued informally for more than an hour in a café down the street.

While in Vancouver, Angus was interviewed by The Republic, a local alternative newspaper, and on the Redeye show on Co-Op radio. He also spoke to a History Department seminar at Simon Fraser University, arranged by Mark Leier.


More than 60 people attended the Toronto meeting on November 25, sponsored by International Socialists, Marxist Institute, New Socialist Group, Socialist Action, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Project, and Socialist Voice. The sponsors and other Marxist groups participated in a literature sale offering a wide variety of socialist books, pamphlets, and periodicals.

The meeting was chaired by Socialist Voice editor John Riddell, and was addressed by Carolyn Egan of the International Socialists and Sam Gindin of Socialist Project. Egan, who is president of the Toronto Area Council of the United Steelworkers, described how the first edition of Canadian Bolsheviks shaped her own political thinking in the 1980s. Gindin, a long-time Canadian Auto Workers leader who now holds the Packer Chair of Social Justice at York University, described it as important contribution to rebuilding the left in Canada.

Noted labour historian Bryan Palmer was unable to attend, but he sent a statement that was read by John Riddell. Palmer described Canadian Bolsheviks as “a book that in its researches and in its politics charted new approaches to the communist path, approaches that were meant to revitalize the revolutionary Left. When I put it down I knew that I had been educated in the best senses of the word.”

And Palmer expressed the hope that its republication will “galvanize serious scrutiny of the original years of North American communism, when a revolutionary Left made impressive inroads into the wider workers’ movement, establishing a presence in the trade unions and entering the fray of class politics at many levels.”

Roots of Revolutionary Socialism

At both meetings, Ian Angus’s presentations focused on the roots of revolutionary socialism in Canada, explaining how Canada’s existing Marxist organizations were excited and transformed by the Russian Revolution in 1917: “When the Bolsheviks took power in November 1917, suddenly theory became reality – instead of just talking about a workers’ government that would end capitalism, the Russian revolutionaries were actually building it.”

The example of the Russian Bolsheviks, and their own experiences in the great Canadian labour upsurge of 1919, led Canadian Marxists to launch a “party of a new type” that sought to fuse the program of Marxism with the living struggles of workers across Canada, and to participate actively in the worldwide struggle for socialism.

Angus also highlighted some of the achievements of the Communist Party during the 1920s. It helped lead major strikes, fought for the rights of women and immigrant workers, and defended the unity of the working class during elections by working with other working class parties in the Canadian Labor Party.

He concluded: “Canadian Bolsheviks is about the birth and death of a revolutionary party. The early Communists didn’t make a revolution, but they did show that a genuine revolutionary party can be built in Canada. Their victories—and their mistakes and defeats—provide powerful lessons for us today.”

For over 80 years, socialists worldwide have looked to the Russian Revolution and the early Communist International for inspiration and insight. By making Canadian Bolsheviks generally available again, the Socialist History Project has made an important contribution to building the revolutionary movement in the 21st century.

The new edition of Canadian Bolsheviks can be purchased online in Canada from Chapters/Indigo or in the U.S. from Amazon.

The Vancouver talks were videotaped: they will be televised on December 18 on the WorkingTV program on Shaw Cable Channel 4 in the Vancouver area, and can be viewed on the Internet at the WorkingTV website.

Ian Angus is available to speak at a limited number of meetings in the coming months. If you are interested in organizing (or helping to organize) a meeting to discuss and promote Canadian Bolsheviks, e-mail him at

Recollections of the Late 1950s: How Marxists in the Unions Reached Out to Student Radicals

Editors’ Note: Marxists have always held that the industrial working class—workers in manufacturing, transportation, extractive, and communication industries that sustain the capitalist profit machine—has decisive strategic weight in the struggle for socialism. Most socialist tendencies in Canada, at one time or another, have carried out efforts to root their forces in the industrial working class and industrial unions.

As a contribution to understanding what can be achieved through such efforts, John Riddell recalls here the impact of his first encounter with the Canadian Trotskyists. This brief memoir was written as part of the preparations for “Against the Stream,” a history of Canadian Trotskyism from 1928 to 1961 that John is now preparing in collaboration with Ian Angus. –Roger Annis and John Riddell

By John Riddell

One day during the Ontario provincial election campaign of 1959, I took the streetcar after high school to Toronto’s Cabbagetown to canvass my poll for the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor of the NDP). Cabbagetown was then a poor working-class district, where the CCF faced an uphill struggle; it was running Tom MacAuley, head of the Steelworkers local in United Steel Wares, the major factory in that part of town.

During my canvass, I ran into Joe Rosenblatt, whom I had met several times before at antinuclear events, where he was selling the Trotskyist newspaper, the Workers Vanguard. He offered to help me canvass, so we’d have time to talk over coffee afterwards.

Joe and I were worlds apart: he, a self-educated worker in his twenties—employed at USW along with a number of other Vanguard supporters—and I an over-confident high-schooler with no experience in the workers’ movement or a working-class milieu. I wanted to learn more about Joe’s world, and I found out that he already knew a great deal about mine.

Joe supported the anti-nuclear movement, in which I was active, and like me he strongly backed its radical wing, which favored unilateral disarmament by the NATO powers. But he had no patience with my philosophical pacifism, and startled me by arguing that the only way to “ban the bomb” was to disarm our capitalist rulers.

Joe was also active, like me, in the efforts to merge the CCF into a new party—which was in 1961 to give birth the NDP. He described how he and his comrades were working to make the New Party a real labor party, not a coalition of liberal-minded individuals, and to endow it with a socialist program. He urged me to join with the Vanguard comrades in building a left wing of the New Party movement.

Trotskyists in the Unions

I soon found that Joe’s group, the Socialist Educational League (SEL), was made up of about 15 comrades—mostly factory workers, active in their unions and in the New Party movement. (In those days, public-sector unionism was almost non-existent.)

The SEL had been formed after the Trotskyists’ expulsion in the early 1950s from the CCF. After those expulsions, the socialist left in the CCF was very weak. But SEL members were active in the unions’ Political Action Committees, which had been set up to support the CCF. A couple of the SELers were delegates to the Toronto Labor Council. Many of them had been recruited from the factory milieu; others had gone to work there because that was the natural arena for revolutionaries. They sold me James P. Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party, which explained all that very well. Among the comrades from that time still active are George Bryant, Ernie Tate, and Alan Harris (now in Britain).

The SEL also put out a monthly newspaper, maintained a bookstore, ran the yearly campaigns of its leader Ross Dowson for the Toronto mayoralty (vigorous efforts, with door-to-door distribution of up to 40,000 leaflets), sent yearly “Trailblazing Tours” doing door-to-door work and visiting socialists in workers’ neighborhoods across Canada, maintained a full-time bookstore, and held a weekly public forum.

Revolutionary Regroupment

The SEL was then the only activist group to the left of the Stalinist CP. A few years earlier, in the mid-1950s, the SEL had been quite isolated politically. Its members worked energetically to link up with other forces. Demonized by the Stalinists, feared and excluded by the CCF brass, and hounded by McCarthy-era anti-Communism, they sought allies where they could, and even worked with the Quakers for a time. “At one point, they were the only people who would talk to us,” one veteran recently told me.

That had changed after the Khrushchev denunciation of Stalin and the Hungarian revolution of 1956. The Canadian Stalinist movement had fractured, and the SEL had been able to open up discussions with the dissident CPers. The SEL organized a broad public meeting together with leading ex-CPers, and then printed up the transcript in a widely circulated 5¢ pamphlet. Ross Dowson became secretary of the Toronto Committee to Free Morton Sobell (a victim of the U.S. McCarthyite witchhunt)—the first time Trotskyists had been accepted into a committee that also included the CP. The SEL held a well-attended and prestigious forum on Revolution and Literature, addressed by ex-CPer Annette Rubenstein.

The most promising element in the ex-CP milieu was the Québécois group led by Henri Gagnon. The relationship was helped along by the SEL’s sensitivity to the Quebec national question, dating from the anti-conscription fight 15 years earlier. In 1958, two leading comrades of the SEL moved to Montreal to work with the Gagnon forces.

In the United States, the SEL’s cothinkers of the Socialist Workers Party took part in a similar regroupment effort that culminated in 1958 in a united-front electoral ticket in New York State. The joint ticket included SWPers alongside prominent ex-members of the CP. In Vancouver, the Canadian Trotskyists recruited CP founder Malcolm Bruce and other prominent party members. Efforts in Montreal were unsuccessful, however, and in Toronto most of the ex-CP forces headed out of politics. But by the time I met Joe Rosenblatt, new openings emerged: the New Party movement and the challenge of defending the Cuban Revolution.

The New Party and the Cuban Revolution

The year 1959 was not a time of militant struggles by the working class in the Toronto area. But these two issues—labor’s effort to build a new political party, and the inspiration of the Cuban revolution—gripped the imagination of many working people. SEL members campaigned in their workplaces with some success to build the new party and defend Cuba. Indeed, they scored a minor breakthrough among Toronto’s Teamsters, recruiting about a dozen of them in 1961-62.

The SEL was active on many other issues. It conducted active education for women’s rights, supported the Black freedom struggle in the U.S., and struggles for colonial liberation in Algeria and Vietnam. It also collaborated with Milton Acorn, Al Purdy, and other socialist poets—a story worth telling separately. (Joe Rosenblatt, I soon learned, was himself a poet, and was soon to make his reputation in this arena.)

Winning Over Radical Students

But it was among youth that the SEL, known from 1961 as the League for Socialist Action (LSA), made its breakthrough. This was surprising, given that most student radicals (and they were still only a small handful) were then quite hostile to Marxism. SEL/LSA members spent a lot of time seeking contacts among student radicals, at first with little success. The student peace movement was decidedly pacifist, counting on persuasion and moral witness to bring about negotiated disarmament. It refused to defend Cuba against U.S. attacks. Socialist groups were absent from the campuses, and the student NDP was conventional in politics. The LSA’s call to make the New Party a genuine labor party was strange and alien to most student radicals.

But in talking to radical students about the working class, the LSA had a very convincing argument. LSA comrades were themselves of the working class, and spoke of its struggles with authority. The LSA’s wealth of practical experience in the labor movement was immensely attractive. The LSA was a foretaste of the revolutionary working-class movement many of the young radicals aspired to build. The LSA’s orientation to build its forces in industrial unions turned out to be an ideal base from which to link up with revolutionary-minded students and to win significant members of that new generation to revolutionary socialism.

Canadian Bolsheviks: The Importance of Canadian Popular History

Editors’ noteCanadian Bolsheviks, Ian Angus’s pathbreaking classic on the early years of the Communist Party, is back in print! Join in celebrating its re-publication of Canadian Bolsheviks at book launches in Vancouver and Toronto:

Vancouver: Wednesday November 17, 7:30 pm, Little Mountain Learning Center, Main St., at 24th Ave. Speakers: Ian Angus, Cynthia Flood, Joey Hartman, Mark Leier, Dale McCartney. Sponsors: International Socialists,, New Socialist Group, Rebuilding the Left, Seven Oaks Magazine, Socialist Voice

Toronto: Thursday November 25, 7:30 pm, Portuguese Canadian Democratic Association Hall. 860-B College St. Speakers: Ian Angus, Carolyn Egan, Sam Gindin, Bryan Palmer, John Riddell. Sponsors: International Socialists, Marxist Institute, New Socialist Group, Socialist Action, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Project, Socialist Voice

For more information, go to the Socialist History website.

To introduce Canadian Bolsheviks to a new generation of readers, we republish an appreciation of this book by the Vancouver online weekly, Seven Oaks ( Reproduced with permission of Seven Oaks. —Roger Annis and John Riddell

By Dale McCartney

The field of popular history abounds with bad books. For every Zinn’s People’s History of the United States there are a hundred Pierre Berton celebrations of white people on Canada’s frontiers. When it comes to Canadian history especially, quality books are few and far between. The more narrow the category, the more rare the quality book. For the left in Canada, there are only a handful of quality histories widely available and written in an engaging style. Thankfully, this month the reissue of Canadian Bolsheviks, by Ian Angus, makes the list one title longer.

Angus’s book was originally published in 1981, and has been out of print for several years. This month, however, the book is being reissued, making Angus’s path-breaking study widely available once again. The book is an exploration of the earliest years of the Communist Party of Canada, written for both an academic and a popular audience. Angus writes of the party’s roots in the Canadian Socialist tradition, and chronicles its formation as well as its first decade.

Throughout he debunks myths and assesses victories and defeats for the party, illuminating a period in the history of the Canadian left that has received little treatment. When the book was first published, it filled an enormous gap in Canadian historiography, discussing a period and a group of people who had received far less attention than their place in Canadian history deserved.

As Angus is quick to point out, as well, the other works on the early party had been written by leaders of the party many years after the events. Angus carefully analyzes their memories, and finds many of them lacking. Tim Buck, the leader of the party throughout the Stalinist period and the primary source (before the publication of Canadian Bolsheviks) for its history, comes under particularly intense scrutiny. Angus illustrates how carefully constructed much of Buck’s history of the period was, and in the process demonstrates that his role has been considerably overestimated in the period before 1924.

On Wednesday, November 17, Seven Oaks is co-hosting an evening with Angus, launching the new release of the book and discussing the role of the Communist Party of Canada in its early years. Angus’s book fits well with our broader cultural mission. His approach to history, both in his interest in the history of resistance and in his accessible style, are traits we here at Seven Oaks hope to emulate in our own writing. We feel strongly that works like Canadian Bolsheviks contribute to a cultural discussion both within traditional wings of the left, as well as outside of those groups, that is absolutely necessary in this country.

An increasingly corporate media, coupled with a school system that largely ignores working class history, means that books like Angus’s and a vibrant discussion about them is more important today than ever. For that reason, we hope that our readers will join us next Wednesday night, at the Little Mountain Learning Centre in Vancouver (3957 Main Street, or Main and 24th Avenue) at 7:30pm. The event is not only an excellent chance to meet and talk with Angus, as well as other leaders in the study of working class history, but it is also an opportunity for a community discussion of the issues this history raises. We hope to see you there.

For more information on Canadian Bolsheviks or its author, Ian Angus, visit

Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party of Canada, published 2004 by The Socialist History Project, in association with Trafford Publishing.

Announcing the Socialist History Project



Documents, Essays and Reminiscences Now Available Online

Over the past 100 years, Canadian socialists have written a vast amount of material on the political issues they considered important, but virtually none of those writings are available today. The experiences, ideas, analyses and insights of a century of revolutionary socialism in Canada are in danger of being forgotten and lost forever.

The Socialist History Project, announced this month by South Branch Publishing, aims to recover that material and make it available on the web. The project, headed by Ian Angus, the author of the pathbreaking history of the early Communist Party, Canadian Bolsheviks, is not affiliated to any political organization.

Its website, devoted to “documenting the revolutionary socialist tradition in Canada” can be found at A limited selection of material is now on-line, but the project director says much more will be added in coming months.

“We aim to publish three types of material,” Angus says. “First, statements, reports and articles on key political issues and trends, written by revolutionary socialists over the past century. Second, essays by historians about the revolutionary left. And third, reminiscences and memoirs by participants in the socialist movement. “We think this material is important not just to historians and archivists, but to the new generation of radicalizing youth.”

The Socialist History Project is actively soliciting essays and reminiscences, as well as donations or loans of socialist periodicals, pamphlets, and documents, especially material from before 1980. For details, visit

For further information, e-mail

What Socialists Learned from the Winnipeg General Strike

Editors’ Note: Ian Angus is the author of Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party of Canada, first published in 1981. He gave the following talk at the Marxism 2004 Conference in Toronto May 6-9, in a session marking the 85th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike. We believe his conclusions are relevant to all those seeking a fighting response to the capitalist offensive against our rights at home and abroad. It is published here with his permission. Copyright © 2004 Ian Angus. All rights reserved.

By Ian Angus

I want to discuss the lessons that revolutionary socialists drew from their experience in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, lessons I believe are still very relevant today.

Canadian mythology holds that this is a peaceful country. There’s no class struggle here, we never had a revolution, we don’t even have much violent crime. In Canada the classic liberal values prevail. The Canadian way is discussion, compromise and mutual respect. We have evolution, not revolution. We don’t fight, we have Royal Commissions.

Many academic historians take that as an article of faith.

But such historians face a problem. If Canada is such a peaceful place, how can they explain the revolts, rebellions, uprisings and pitched battles that dot our history? How can they explain Mackenzie, Papineau, Riel, Poundmaker, and other rebels whose actions have disrupted the peaceful flow of Canadian development?

The process of explaining away these inconvenient exceptions has generally taken place in two stages.

  1. At the time of the event, and for some time after, the rebels are portrayed as criminals, often as insane criminals, who deserve to be punished. At the very least, they should be expelled from Canada, because they obviously are not true Canadians. Their rebellion was defeated, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
  2. Later, when the events are safely distant, historians re-interpret the rebellion as the result of unfortunate misunderstandings. And they conclude that once calmer heads prevailed, the experience eventually led to the advancement of the liberal values of discussion, compromise and mutual respect.

We’ve seen this pattern again and again.

William Lyon Mackenzie was exiled from Canada for leading a rebellion. Today he is revered as a founder of Canadian democracy, as “Toronto’s first mayor.”

Louis Riel was exiled, then hanged. Today he’s described as a “father of Confederation” and his rebellion is said to have been part of Canada’s evolution to responsible government.

The same thing has happened with the Winnipeg General Strike.

  1. At the time, and for years afterwards, it was portrayed as an attempted Bolshevik coup, led by foreign agitators. Its leaders were arrested, and many were deported, even though they were Canadian citizens. Strikers were shot in the streets.
  2. More recently, the history of the Winnipeg General Strike has been rewritten by social democrats, who describe the strike as just an attempt to win collective bargaining, and a step in the evolution of liberal Canada. For example, an account of the strike published by the BC Federation of Labour concludes by saying that as a result of this experience, strike leader J.S. Woodsworth went on to found the CCF, which later became the NDP. It concludes: “And in 1969, 50 years after the Winnipeg General Strike, Manitoba elected an NDP government. The workers had won at last.”

This is typical of most writing on the Winnipeg General Strike in the past 30 years or so. The strikers were misunderstood heroes and the government response was reactionary and repressive, but only because it didn’t understand.

But glory be! Despite those unfortunate misunderstandings, the strike led to the creation of the CCF, which led to the NDP, the ultimate party of discussion, compromise and mutual respect.

And then victory! The election of Ed Schreyer as premier of Manitoba, a man whose politics were so very unradical that Trudeau later appointed him Governor General!

Unfortunately for the social democratic interpretation, most of the leaders of the 1919 strike wave were not social democrats or liberals – they were revolutionary socialists. And the experience did not lead them to the CCF – it led them to build a new revolutionary party, the Communist Party of Canada.

Toward a New Kind of Party

Far from leading directly to Canadian social democracy, the strikes of 1919 led a majority of Canadian socialists to recognize the need for a new kind of party. Here’s how they described it in 1921:

“It will be a party of action, seeking contact with the workers, a party in which the theorists and doctrinaires as such will find small place, a party of the workers, and with them in their daily struggles against capitalist oppression, seeking always to build up a united front of the working class for Industrial Freedom and Emancipation from wage slavery.” (The Workers Guard, December 17, 1921)

That view—that revolutionaries must participate in the struggles of workers and the oppressed—is today almost universally accepted in the revolutionary left, at least in words.

But it was not a common view in the socialist movement in Canada or elsewhere in the world a century ago. Left wing organizations typically treated political action and economic action as separate, unrelated activities. Socialists promoted socialism, which meant organizing educational programs and running in elections, while unions and other organizations dealt with day-to-day issues.

Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, described in her Reminiscences of Lenin how Lenin and his comrades in Russia tried to link Marxist theory to the everyday experiences of the workers.

“The method of agitation based on the workers’ everyday needs struck deep root in our Party work. I did not fully appreciate how efficacious this method was until years later, when, living In France as a political emigrant, I observed how, during the great strike of the postal workers in Paris, the French Socialist Party stood completely aloof from it. It was the business of the trade unions, they said. In their opinion the business of a party was only political struggle. They had no clear idea whatever about the necessity of combining the economic with the political struggle.”

There were notable exceptions, but that was the general approach of almost all socialist groups before World War I. Not just in the large parliamentary parties, but also in most of the parties and groups that considered themselves to be revolutionary. They talked about socialism, they held classes and gave lectures and wrote articles about Marxism—but they abstained from the real struggles of the working class.

The Socialist Party of Canada

In Canada, that approach was exemplified by the Socialist Party of Canada. Before the war, it was by far the dominant party on the left in western Canada, with about 3,000 members in the four western provinces.

The SPC viewed itself as a revolutionary Marxist organization. It prided itself on its doctrinal purity. It was for socialism, and nothing less. The SPC even refused to join the Second International, on the grounds that the British Labor Party was a member.

The party’s leading spokesman, E.T Kingsley, argued that the conflicts between employers and workers were not part of the class struggle at all-they were mere “commodity struggles,” disputes over the division of wealth in capitalist society, and hence of no interest to socialists.

Now this was not a unanimous view in the SPC. Many of the party’s leaders were also union activists ad even union leaders, and obviously believed that labor struggles were important. But even for them there was a disconnect between their political views and their activity as militant unionists.

As militant unionists, members of the Socialist Party won the leadership of the labor movement from Vancouver to Winnipeg in 1918 and 1919.

The March 1919 Western Labor Conference, which voted to create the One Big Union as a competitor for the very conservative Trades & Labour Congress, was dominated by Socialist Party members.

SPC Failed to Lead

But – and this is the key point – the Socialist Party as a party played little or no role. Was creation of the One Big Union a good idea? The SPC refused to take a stand, on the grounds that “the comparative merits of various forms of industrial activity do not come within the field of S.P. of C. activity.”

Throughout the 1919 labor revolt, when general strikes were underway in a dozen or more cities from Vancouver BC to Amherst NS, the SPC’s weekly newspaper was largely devoted to the same routine expositions of Marxist theory it published before and after the strikes.

So, while Socialist Party leaders played a central role in leading the Winnipeg Strike and in parallel strikes across the country, they did so as labor militants. The SPC as a party played a minimal role, and the strike wave had no political strategy. That was a critical weakness.

A general strike by its very nature is a challenge to the established order. If it is not to be a brief, symbolic act of protest, a general strike must raise, if only implicitly, the question of control of society. The bread and milk wagons carrying “By Permission of the Strike Committee” placards were symbolic of this.

Even more significant was the fact that the police voted to strike, and only remained on the job because the Strike Committee asked them to.

The strike radically undermined the ability of the ruling class to rule in Winnipeg. Basic day-to-day decisions about the functioning of the city were being made, at least in part, by the Strike Committee.

But the leaders of the Winnipeg strike, including the socialists, failed to see the political implications of this. On the contrary, they did their utmost to confine the strike to simple questions of trade union rights and wages. They exerted every effort to avoid conflict with the government.

Again and again they exhorted the workers to “Do Nothing,” to stay off the streets, to avoid parades and demonstrations. The pro-strike parades that did take place were organized not by the Strike Committee but by veterans’ organizations.

While the strike leaders urged calm, the capitalist class was preparing to attack—because they recognized what was at stake. The “Citizen’s Committee of 1000” stated its view in no uncertain terms:

This is not a strike at all, in the ordinary sense of the term—it is Revolution.

It is a serious attempt to overturn British institutions in this Western country and to supplant them with the Russian Bolshevik system of Soviet rule.

Winnipeg, as a plain matter of fact, is governed by the Central Strike Committee of the Trades and Labor Councils.

Similar statements appeared in almost every daily newspaper, and in the speeches of Liberal and Conservative politicians. The spokesmen of the ruling class deliberately overstated the amount of conscious planning involved in the supposed Bolshevik plot, but their statements show that they understood the dynamics of the crisis.

Revolutionary Strategy

The general strikes of 1919 exposed, as nothing else could, the Socialist Party’s total lack of a revolutionary strategy—as a party, it didn’t even have a militant labor strategy. In the greatest social crisis Canada has yet seen, the Socialist Party was passive.

In Winnipeg, despite the strength of the SPC, Christian radicals and labour party leaders set the Strike Committee’s agenda and the strike’s tactics. There was no effort to involve the strikers in decision making on a regular basis, no effort to extend the Strike Committee’s authority as a direct political challenge to the Citizens Committee of 1000.

Above all, there was no preparation for the clash with the state that would inevitably come, so the arrest of a small number of leaders effectively defeated the strike.

The labor revolt of 1919 raised entirely new questions for the Canadian left. The socialist movement had long restricted itself to educational activities, to “making socialists.” The transition from capitalism to socialism was a matter for the far distant future. The assumption most socialists made was that their movement would grow until it encompassed a majority of the population, and then take power peacefully, through parliamentary means.

Now they saw the possibility of a transition to socialism that would result from a revolutionary crisis in which the working class would suddenly rebel against the established order. In Winnipeg, the ruling class demonstrated that it would not be passive in face of such a challenge to its power—it would not yield to the majority.

The Canadian left had never considered such matters. Raising them meant adopting a new approach to socialist politics—and that meant taking up the challenge issued by the Russian Bolsheviks and the Third International to build a new kind of party.

With a handful of exceptions, the revolutionists who had led the strikes of 1919 took that challenge seriously. By the end of 1919 there were underground communist groups in most Canadian cities, affiliated to one or other of the two competing Communist Parties in the United States.

In May 1921, the Canadian communist groups—including some that were working within the Socialist Party, united to form the Communist Party of Canada. By the end of 1921, a majority of the Socialist Party had been won over. The SPC itself went into rapid decline, eventually dissolving in 1925.

Two Lessons of 1919

The experience of 1919 taught Canadian revolutionaries two lessons:

First, that workers power is possible in this country—it existed, in embryonic form, in Winnipeg in 1919.

Second, that a new kind of party is needed to make that possibility real.

Joe Knight was a Socialist Party leader, a key organizer of the left-wing triumph in the western labour movement in 1918-1919, and a founder of the One Big Union. In 1921, he attended the congress of the Communist International in Moscow. I’d like to finish with an excerpt from the speech he gave there, which I think summarizes the real lessons of Winnipeg very well.

First, he explained the significance of the strike:

“All the workers joined the strike, even government employees, postal and telegraph employees. They all participated in the big general rally and in the strike, which lasted seven weeks. A situation was created in which we were only one step away from taking power. Nothing was done in Winnipeg except by order of the strike committee. The strike committee was no less powerful than the state itself. Of course, Winnipeg is not all of Canada. But had the struggle in Winnipeg gripped all of Canada, it would certainly have led to the revolution. We had a reactionary state against us, and the masses did not follow us. The strike had to be broken off after most of our people had been thrown in jail.”

And then he discussed the relationship between revolutionaries and mass organizations such as unions.

“We must work from within, participate in their struggles, win their trust, and then seek to be elected by them to the most important positions in the movement. So I totally agree that we must go into the trade unions. And I will add that we in the trade unions must maintain as close a connection with the Communist party as possible, because its goal is not to be active as a political and industrial organization, but rather to build a great, unified revolutionary army of the workers of the world to overthrow capitalism.”

The leaders of the 1919 strikes drew those lessons 85 years ago. Their insights are still valid today.