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 (www.socialisthistory.ca) 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, LeftTurn.ca, 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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.