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Toronto socialism in the 1940s: A reminiscence

December 14, 2017

Allan Goldstein

Allan Goldstein, a lifelong friend of the socialist movement, died in Toronto December 6, 2017, at the age of 88. Some years ago, he granted me an interview on his memories of the socialist movement in which he was active in his teenage years. I have transcribed it from cassette tape and provided some explanatory details in footnotes. — John Riddell

Allan Goldstein: When I encountered the socialist movement, I was in Harbord Collegiate and was interested in politics. Upstairs of where I lived on Grey St. there was a couple, the Midaniks; the husband, Bill, supported the CCF [Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor of the New Democratic Party]. His brother [J.Sydney Midanik] was also a CCFer, ran for the CCF at one point, and became a trustee and later the chairman of the Board of Education. I was impressed by what Midanik said about the CCF and politics in general.

Through school at Harbord, I encountered someone who belonged to a CCF youth group, which used to meet at a grand house on Palmerston Blvd. owned by the Essers—Joan and her brother Percy—who did actually run for the CCF when he got out of the army. He ran poorly; it was Joe Salsberg of the Communist party who the seat in the provincial legislature.

I was good friends with Raymond Creed, who was sympathetic to the Stalinists, and we used to argue until the wee hours of the morning. This was in 1945; I was 16.

Barrie Goodie used to come to these meetings at the Esser house as well, as did Hugh Dowson and Vic Hugh—they were at the upper edge of the CCF youth group’s age limit; they were well into their twenties.[1] Either Hugh or Vic suggested I come to meetings of the Trotskyist group. I went with my sister to a public forum that was held every couple of weeks, perhaps weekly. The group formed the RWP (Revolutionary Workers Party) at that time.[2] We never got a membership card, but you were accepted as a member and went to the meetings.

Dowson-for-Mayor-c1947We always looked at the CCF as a lot better than the established political parties, and as Social Democrats they were well-meaning, but they didn’t seem to have the answer that the world required. While revolutionary socialism impressed me. I never felt antagonistic to the CCF. I always voted for the CCF and later the NDP throughout my long life. I thought it was a natural progression, and my sister [Geraldine] felt the same way.

The youth group was disbanded and they were happy to see the Trotskyists go. I don’t know how much of a ripple the formation of the RWP caused. There was always a more radical fringe to the CCF, and the establishment regarded these people as more of a burden than a help to the party.

I went to meetings regularly, both internal and public meetings. I remember selling subscriptions to the paper [Labor Challenge]. I did a little work around the RWP office, a rented room on King Street. I never wrote for the paper except perhaps a solicited letter to the editor.

I brought Barrie Goodie down. He was a Zionist, born out west in Saskatchewan. I met him in Harbord in grade 9. He had wide interests, wrote poetry, and was busy trying to get through high school. We had a debates club in the school, but after a while it was disbanded. The teacher wanted us to debate whether to build the St. Lawrence Seaway. We thought that was very funny. There were a few Stalinists around and a staunch CCFer, and we wanted to discuss the Russian revolution. So after a bit of that the administration just announced that the club was disbanded.

We ran for the student council in our last year. We wanted to disband the cadet corps. We made a big stink about the racist use of the term “n….r brown” (referring to a color) in a newspaper. We were soon called down to the principal’s office, who arbitrarily announced that we were no longer candidates. We were concerned to pass our year, so we didn’t make a great fuss about it.

When I got to university I had one, two, or sometimes three part-time jobs and didn’t have the time for political activity. Perhaps I had lost some of my ardour. My sister had a boyfriend now, and we just dropped away.

In Harbord we argued mostly about Stalin and what was going on in Russia. And about Leon Trotsky, whom the Stalin supporters considered a renegade and fascist. These were students associated with the United Jewish People’s Order (UJPO);[3] Harbord was majority Jewish at that time.

UJPO was busy trying to recruit one of the black students, and actually succeeded for a time, which they thought a great achievement. This was a time before the Civil Rights movement, when race relations was not a big issue for the general public or the CCF. But there were actions around some lynchings in the south, and the RWP held meetings on that.

The people I knew at Harbord were negative toward Quebec and the anti-conscription movement [during World War 2]. The mayor of Montreal, Houde, was considered fascist. There was no sympathy among people I knew for that movement.

The great wave of postwar strikes did not touch us. People at Harbord were aspiring to become part of the middle class. Many of their parents were in the needle trades, but they were trying to get out of it, and a high percentage of the students went to university.

With the advent of the Cold War, the Stalinists that I knew remained very sympathetic to the Soviet Union, while the CCFers who had always been antagonistic to the Soviet Union felt vindicated. We in the revolutionary socialist movement felt the Soviet Union had to be defended, and that it was American and world imperialism that were responsible for conducting this campaign against it. The RWP position was that there wouldn’t be peace and an attempt to reconcile the Soviet Union and American imperialism was ridiculous.

The RWP held mayoralty campaigns; Ross Dowson ran for mayor.  I delivered leaflets door-to-door and outside certain meetings.

I went to branch meetings of about 10-15 people. Discussion was on a lot of practical problems: when the paper was going to come out, and who was going to write which article, and whether we were going to have a subscription drive. There were fund-raising drives. Usually, as part of the educational program, someone gave a talk on some subject. I remember best the talks of George Clarke [of the Socialist Workers’ Party]  — he was terrific both in branch and public meetings. He could make these ideas accessible, simple, and appealing. Ross was also very good, but not as good as George Clarke. Clarke came to Toronto after that woman that also came from the States.[4]

I also went to a SWP camp in Michigan when I was 16 or 17. I took the train, alone, and got off at about 4 a.m., and some American comrades gave me a lift to the camp. I enjoyed that camp; I was there a week or so.

We were very influenced by the Militant—a bigger paper, with more things going on and more active branches. There was political activity in what was then called Ceylon [Sri Lanka], where the Trotskyist party was very active and close to assuming power. In some ways I enjoyed reading the Militant more than Labor Challenge. It was the New York Times of the revolutionary movement. The Toronto group tried to get people to subscribe to Labor Challenge, not the Militant.

In branch discussions, most people supported Ross. I don’t remember serious disagreements with him at that time. There was a running disagreement with a member called Harry [Clairmont] who was pro-Zionist.[5] I got the feeling that Joe Rosenthal sniped at Ross from time to time, but Ross had a lot more prestige.[6] There was a girl called Stella, a friend of my sister’s, who later married Dick Whiteside, who was much older and a party member. I don’t remember any real disputes about ideological matters while I was there. The disagreements on practical matters were always small, and personalities came into play.

Perhaps two-thirds of the members were in unions. There was talk in meetings of how to raise issues at union meetings and get things into union publications, but there was never more than one member in any particular union, so their influence was limited.

There was dissatisfaction at the time over women being forced out of the work force. But I don’t remember this as an issue, and the recruitment emphasis was on male members.

A lot of members missed many meetings and, if they attended, had precious little to say. There was an inner core that kept things going. This inner core did not bring disagreements to the branch meeting, except around practical questions of achieving a certain result. The disagreements didn’t seem to be ideological. We heard about the majority and minority in the U.S. party, but that did not have its counterpart in Canada.

‘I have retained a belief in the core ideas’

The RWP grew, but not much. Perhaps there were a few more people around when I left than when I started. A marginal gain. We held some public meetings that were very well attended: 40-45 people was considered a big achievement. That was still on King St. Ross Dowson worked full-time and Murray too, when he came from Montreal. But Ross was the central figure. They had some spats, but these didn’t seem serious, and didn’t seem to involve different positions. Things functioned. Murray was well respected, but Ross was the leader.

Joe Rosenthal was a good artist, sincere and active, but not one of my favorite people. Ernest and devoted, he was a commercial artist by profession. Joyce, Joe’s wife, came to meetings with him, but it was Sonja, his sister, who was inseparable from him in political activity. She would never speak at a public meeting. There were few women in the group. There were Joyce and Lois Dowson, Stella Beber, who married Dick Whiteside; she died of cancer at an early age. I liked Murray, and found him competent and personable, but without the charisma of Ross. I was fond of Hugh Dowson as well, who was the least effective of the brothers in a party sense, but more human. He married a French-Canadian woman, Claire Lagacé. And I met Jean-Marie Bédard, a very competent person, but somehow I doubted his commitment to revolutionary socialist ideas.[7]

The active core in Toronto were the Dowsons, Ross and Murray; and Meyer Shapiro; and the two Rosenthals, Joe and his sister Sonja, and Vern Olson. Barry Brent, a close friend of mine, was more active in the party and for a longer period of time. In later years he treated it lightly, while I have retained a core belief in the ideas of the party.[8]

Notes by John Riddell

[1]. Hugh Dowson, brother of the RWP’s main leader, Ross, was a tool and die maker and lifelong union and socialist activist. Vic Hugh spent most of his working years in the B.F. Goodrich tire factory in New Toronto and was active in the Rubberworkers Union.

[2]. ‘Trotskyists’ refers to supporters of the worldwide movement founded by Leon Trotsky to defend revolutionary Marxism against Stalinism.  The Trotskyists in Canada had been driven underground when Canada entered World War 2, but in 1944 they launched a Canada-wide newspaper, Labor Challenge. Supporters of the paper were mostly active in the CCF left wing. In 1946, Labor Challenge supporters launched an independent group, the RWP (Revolutionary Workers Party), and many withdrew from the CCF.

[3]. The United Jewish People’s Order was associated in the 1940s with the Labour Progressive Party (LPP), known both earlier and later as the Communist Party of Canada. The UJPO later diverged politically from the CPC; it functions today as an independent association, with headquarters on Cranbrook Ave.

[4]. The Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the U.S. Trotskyist sister organization of the RWP, was a much stronger group than the RWP. The SWP had maintained a vigorous newspaper since 1928, the Militant, which had been able – with some difficulty – to maintain publication through the war. The pre-war Trotskyist organization in Canada, the Socialist Workers League, had been weakened by the shock of the war and wartime illegality. In the mid-1940s the SWP sent a woman journalist to help the group in Canada get its newspaper off the ground. She wrote a manual on publishing a revolutionary newspaper, which was circulated by the group in Canada and is available (along with her name) in the Trotskyism section of the National Archive in Ottawa. She was later replaced by George Clarke, a prominent SWP leader, who lived and worked with the Toronto group for a period in the late 1940s and also spent time in Montreal.

[5]. Harry Clairmont, born in Chemielnik, Poland, in 1907, moved to Canada in 1923. He was a longtime socialist and activist in the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. His papers are available in the Ontario Jewish Archives.

[6]. Born in Moldova in 1921, Joe Rosenthal arrived in Canada in 1927 and became a noted artist. His wife Joyce Rosenthal was co-founder of the Canadian Hemophiliac Society.

[7]. Joyce Rosenthal and Lois Bedard were sisters of the Dowson family that also included their brothers Murray, Ross, and Hugh. All of them maintained their revolutionary socialist convictions through their lives, although Murray was estranged politically from Ross from 1953 until about 1970. Joe Rosenthal, Joyce’s husband, left the Trotskyist movement in 1953. Jean-Marie Bédard was married in the late 1940s to Lois Bédard. He was a prominent figure in the Woodworkers’ union and in Quebec socialism of the 1960s and 1970s. Claire Leblanc was a longtime member of the Trotskyist movement through the 1960s.

[8]. Meyer Shapiro, a postal workers’ unionist and longtime delegate to the Toronto Labour Council, remained active in the movement through the 1960s. Vernal Olson (1923-1999), an activist in the United Electrical Worker in the late 1940s, later achieved prominence as the Chair of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (Canada) and a defender of the U.S. Black revolutionary activist Robert Williams. (See Ernest Tate: Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, volume 1.) Barry Brent played a leading role in the movement until the mid-1950s.

From → Canada, Remembrances

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