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1958: My Search for Socialism

August 12, 2019

A Memoir (Part One)

By John Riddell: I hear many negative comments from socialist friends these days about “Stalinism” or “Trotskyism.” The terms are not easy to evaluate. They relate to history, to the Russian revolution and its contradictory legacy, to events now almost a century in the past.

John 1958-2

John Riddell, 1958

Well, I come from those long-ago times. My engagement with socialism 60 years ago hinged on evaluating the rival claims of Stalinist and Trotskyist movements. So let me recount how the world looked to me back in 1958, the year that I became a socialist activist. I invite readers to form their own opinion on the present-date relevance or non-relevance of this long-ago debate.

My story begins in Toronto, two months after my sixteenth birthday.

A Disquieting May Day Celebration

On the evening of May 1, 1958, I headed off to my first socialist political rally – a May Day celebration in Toronto. It was organized by the Moscow-aligned Communist Party, then called the Labour-Progressive Party (LPP), a name it dropped the next year. When I arrived, scores of people were filing into the handsome Ukrainian Farmer Labour Temple at 300 Bathurst Street. A young man stood outside with an armful of papers, calling out “Have a Workers’ Vanguard for May Day.”


See also Part 2: Encounter with the Trotskyist Movement


A tall burly man accosted the newspaper guy, yelling “Fascist! Trotskyite!” while pummeling him with blows, seizing his papers, and pushing him away. As his bruised victim limped away, the attacker – a marshal for the event, it seemed – shouted that Trotskyites were Fascist counterrevolutionaries who tried to wreck the Soviet economy in the 1930s.

Tim Buck-2

Tim Buck (1891-1973)

Waiting outside, I met up with my longtime friend Richard Fidler and a couple of other buddies from my high school. We entered the building and took balcony seats among a crowd of close to 1,000. The program started with stirring songs of the Russian revolution performed by the magnificent Shevchenko Chorus. Then Communist leader Tim Buck took the podium and gave a wide-ranging appeal for broad unity in the cause of peace and progress.

As the program ended, my friends and I pressed our way to the front and asked the chairperson, Edna Ryerson, if we could speak to Tim Buck. She went backstage to ask him, and he soon came out to talk to us in the now empty auditorium. With all the brashness of youth, we challenged Buck to explain the LPP’s condemnation of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.

We were just kids – 15 and 16 years old at the time – totally unknown to the organizers. Still, Buck received us politely, and we had a respectful exchange. Buck maintained that the uprising in October 1956 had resulted from a counterrevolutionary plot organized by fascists. The Soviet armed forces had acted rightly, he said, in forcibly suppressing it and supporting installation of a pro-Moscow regime.

We contested Buck’s version of events, referring to press reports of a broad popular uprising for democratization. As we parted from Buck, our skepticism was plain to see. He did not try to set up ongoing contact.

Imre Nagy-2

Imre Nagy (1896-1958)

As I headed home, it struck me that Buck’s attitude to the insurgent Hungarians was similar to the words and actions of the guard who had attacked the newspaper guy. Although Buck had been forceful in his condemnation of the Hungarian insurgency, I knew that his party, the LPP, had recently admitted it had been wrong in denying the crimes of Soviet leader Josef Stalin in the 1930s. Perhaps they were wrong about Hungary as well.

Two months later, I learned that the pro-Moscow authorities in Hungary had executed Imre Nagy, the communist leader who headed the Hungarian government during the uprising. His crime was to have denounced the Soviet armed intervention back in 1956. I noted at the time his brave refusal to recant.

Christian Socialism and the CCF

The late 1950s were a low point for socialist activity among young people in Toronto. Neither I nor any of my friends were in contact with any socialists. Our radicalism grew from personal reflection on the social injustice before our eyes, and in my case the main inspiration was religious.

Shortly after the 1958 May Day meeting, I typed a 3,000-word essay on “The Aims of Socialism” for a single reader, a young pen-pal in Jamaica.

“Socialism is a fulfillment of Christ’s moral commands,” I wrote. “An application of Christian principle to capitalism would bring about its utter downfall! … Socialism would eliminate the glaring contrast between religious principle and economic practice that makes such a mockery of the Christian religion today.” I still have a tattered carbon copy of the essay. It now strikes me as unoriginal and not fully developed, although enlivened by my personal confidence and strong conviction.

(The letter’s recipient, Carlyle Dunkley, died in Jamaica in 2017 after a distinguished career in the Jamaican trade union movement and the left-wing People’s National Party.)

I gravitated to the Quakers, who impressed me as left-wing social activists. Richard and I attended the Toronto lectures of Rev. Donald Soper, then a left-wing stalwart of the Labour Party in Britain. Richard checked out the Unitarian congregation, where many leftists were to be found. I was influenced by writings of British Labour Party left-wingers, and particularly by those of Victor Gollancz, a  British Christian socialist.

I still have a scrap of paper on which that I once retyped a passage by Gollancz expressing empathy with Jewish victims of the Holocaust. His comments were a revelation: I then had no contact with the Toronto Jewish community, and Hitler’s mass slaughter of Jews was rarely mentioned publicly or in my family circle.

Richard and I were attracted to the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), predecessor of today’s New Democratic Party, which counted Christian socialism among its founding components. In contrast to the relatively tiny Communist movement, the CCF was a mass party with significant union support. Its voting base was in western Canada, but it had active constituency clubs across Toronto.

But how to make contact? Richard Fidler and I took the bull by the horns. We made our way to “Woodsworth House,” the CCF headquarters on Jarvis Street, and told the first person we saw that we wanted to join the party. Momentarily confused by this unexpected request, the staffer finally accepted our membership dues and signed us up.

Richard began attending meetings of the East York CCF club, where he made good connections, including with the noted Black leader Stan Grizzle and family. My local CCF club, centred in Cabbagetown, was less active, but I got a lot of practical experience canvassing for the CCF in what was then called North America’s biggest Anglo-Saxon slum.

Some months later, Richard learned that our visit to Woodsworth House had so startled the CCF that they had launched an investigation to find out who we were and whether we had links to the Trotskyists. Of course, we had no such ties – at least, not yet.

The Pull of the Soviet Union

Increasingly, I was attracted more to Lenin than to Jesus. For me, the Russian revolution and the existence of the Soviet Union proved that – despite the misdeeds of Stalin, the Soviet dictator – there was a viable alternative to capitalism.

The reputation of the Soviet Union was high in the late 1950s. Its leadership were acknowledging the crimes and injustices of the Stalin era and seemed to be moving to correct them. That counted for a lot with me. Meanwhile, the Soviet economy was widely considered to be more dynamic and more capable of expanding production, than its counterpart in the West, thus demonstrating the potential of socialist planning.

The Soviets had won a powerful new ally in the People’s Republic of China; they advocated for colonial freedom. Popular living standards were reportedly rising quickly, although from a very low base. Science in the USSR was forging ahead, as reflected in its leadership role in global space science and exploration. The capitalist establishment had been visibly shaken by the Russia’s launching of the first space satellite, “Sputnik 1,” in October 1957.

Seeking to understand the dynamics of Soviet society, I searched for relevant books. That led me in mid-1958 to the little bookstore of the LPP, located in downtown Toronto near St. George and Dundas streets. The store offered several pamphlets by Lenin priced at 25 cents per copy or less. I became a regular customer, buying the pamphlets one by one and reading them with much underlining and annotation.

The day came when I had read them all. The remaining Lenin pamphlets cost 35 cents or more – more than I felt I could afford. I explained my dilemma to the salesclerk, who by now knew me well. He was unsympathetic.

“Do you have any suggestions on what I should do,” I asked. “Do you have a lending library?”

“Sorry, we don’t have that.”

“So I’ll just have to go elsewhere?” I asked.

“I guess so,” he said, showing no interest in my questions.

Stalin-2

Joseph Stalin (1878-1953)

I was offended. How often did they have a new teenage contact come banging on their door? I stalked out, never to return. Still, I got compensation. On a hunch, I slipped around to the back door and found a sizable pile of discarded books – novels by Howard Fast, the famous U.S. writer, and other Communist Party intellectuals who had quit after the Soviet revelations of Stalin’s crimes. I packed a dozen books into my bag and left with a sense of accomplishment.

I’m still amazed that no one around the LPP ever took an interest in me. Decades later, I learned that the very same year my later partner, Suzanne Weiss, had a similar experience, under similar circumstances, in Los Angeles (see pages 94-97 in her memoir, Holocaust to Resistance: My Journey, available October 2019.)

Yet my friend Richard had a better experience with the LPP, running into a student member of the LPP who tried without success to recruit him. Richard also checked out the leavings on the LPP bookstore’s table of remaindered books, picking up for a pittance a 13-volume set of Joseph Stalin’s works.

Richard and I carried out our search along separate paths, but we were headed in the same direction, and so had frequent encounters. We both got involved in the Model United Nations, an independent educational project in which high-school delegations sought to give voice to the positions of world powers and negotiate realistic compromises. That enabled us to meet a cross-section of progressive high-schoolers from across the city. But we did not encounter anyone engaged in a search for socialism similar to ours.

Representing the USSR in a High-School Forum

About a year after these events, in September 1959, my friends and I succeeded in winning the right to have our school represent the Soviet Union in the Model United Nations.

My high-school friends and I threw ourselves into this project with passion. When the Model UN organized an expedition to visit New York and tour the UN building, I set up a meeting of our team with a Soviet diplomatic representative there. We had a deep-going discussion of the Soviet proposals for nuclear disarmament, which we found persuasive. I noted that the diplomat who met with us was from Soviet Armenia – an Asian country – and was dark skinned. This was the first time I had ever met a person of colour exercising governmental authority. This encounter reinforced my impression that Canada could learn a lot from the Soviet Union.

Our team won a prize that year as the best high-school delegation to the Model UN “General Assembly” – the “Trivitt Trophy.” I felt vindicated. I had always been scornful of the school’s emphasis on its hockey and football teams, which had not won a trophy in many years. In fact, I was hostile to the school itself. I had long been at daggers’ points with the headmaster, W. Brock McMurray. But now he had to acknowledge our victory before an assembly of students and teachers. What’s more, in a sense it was a Soviet victory. When I passed by the school’s unimpressive trophy case, I would cast a proud glance at our “Soviet” trophy.

See Part Two: Encounter with the Trotskyist movement.

Other Reminiscences by John Riddell

From → Canada, Remembrances

3 Comments
  1. geoff1954 permalink

    Fascinating. I look forward to further installments.

  2. robertmcmaster0955 permalink

    That’s very moving John. This sort of writing is most valuable as it personalizes what is often dry. I will look forward to more. Oddly, your father taught my father at UofT in the early ’40s. In his memoirs my father mentions a Prof. Riddell teaching him history. R. Gerald Riddell. I now connect the dots. Also oddly, my good fortune in ‘going around back’ to find a treasure trove of reading material consolidated my commitment to revolutionary socialism and Trotskyism. This was a mountain of cast offs dumped out in the open on Bulwer lane behind the LSA/RWL HQ pending a decampment to Montreal. Some of that which I kept was subject of discussion a while ago but I got steeped in the early and mostly lost history of the Canadian movement.

  3. A touching and inspiring memoir, John. Thank you.

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