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My Encounter with the Trotskyist Movement

August 14, 2019

Part Two of a Reminiscence, ‘1958: My Search for Socialists’

By John Riddell: Hearing of my misadventure with the LPP (Communist Party) bookstore, Richard Fidler tipped me off to the existence of an alternative Marxist outlet, the Toronto Labor Bookstore, at 81 Queen St. W., opposite what is now Toronto’s City Hall Square. As I entered, I recognized the person at the desk – Ross Dowson, whose photo had appeared in the daily press. He had run several times as a Trotskyist mayoralty candidate and had recently picked up a few percentage points of the vote in each of two federal by-elections.


See also Part 1 — 1958: My Search for Socialism


Ross Dowson-2

Ross Dowson (1917-2002)

Neatly dressed and slightly balding although still in his early forties, Dowson greeted me with enthusiasm, as if he’d been waiting years for this encounter. We started chatting. Soon the conversation turned to the 1939 Stalin-Hitler pact that ushered in World War 2. I gave the standard defense: the Soviet Union was forced to accept the treaty in order to win time and gain a geographical buffer to fend off a likely German attack.

Dowson countered by informing me that, after the pact, the official Communist movement abruptly cancelled their campaign in Canada and globally to unite progressive forces against fascism. Then he voiced an idea that was totally new to me and that I immediately found convincing. What the Soviet Union may have gained militarily through the pact, Dowson said, counted for little compared to the impact of alienation and disorientation caused among its millions of supporters worldwide.

Dowson talked of the tragic impact of mass repression in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. I was aware of that and had to agree. He showed me a photo montage of about 20 early Soviet Communist leaders showing that almost every one of Lenin’s leading collaborators had been killed by Stalin. That took me by surprise – yet, again, it tallied with what I already knew. “Stalin killed almost every surviving Bolshevik leader,” Dowson said.

He described the Soviet Union’s regression under Stalin from the liberating goals of the revolution, as in the abandonment of women’s right to choose on abortion. This rang a bell. Earlier that year, I had found a book in the public library by Nicholas Timasheff called The Great Retreat, which described this process in convincing detail.

Trotsky-2

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940)

Dowson often mentioned Leon Trotsky as the main leader in defending Lenin’s outlook against Stalin. As it happened, my father, who had died seven years earlier, had left in the family library a copy of Trotsky’s three-volume History of the Russian Revolution – published in 1934 by Victor Gollancz – a book that had won my respect.

In all he said, Dowson spoke as an unconditional supporter of the Soviet Union, proud of its achievements and scornful of its foes.

During our lengthy conversation, Dowson touched on a great many facts that I already knew, or at least was dimly aware of, and arranged them into a convincing pattern – an alternative interpretation of Stalin’s rule, Trotsky’s role, and Soviet reality.

A Socialist Library

At some point into the conversation, Dowson mentioned that the bookstore included a lending library. No charges, he assured me. I responded with enthusiasm. He called on an assistant to mind the store and took me back into a meeting hall that could seat around 60 people. At the back was a small lounge, with a coffee nook, surrounded by shelf after shelf of second-hand books, a couple of thousand volumes – the library!

The whole complex, which included offices downstairs, housed the Toronto branch of the Socialist Educational League (SEL). I asked how large its membership was. “Well, we have two branches of this size in Vancouver,” Dowson said. “We have public meetings here every Friday evening,” he added.[1]

Dowson also spoke of the Fourth International, a worldwide association of Trotskyist groups, which played a major role in my later activity.

I left with a book by Peter Fryer on the Hungarian revolution, Victor Serge’s From Lenin to Stalin, and James P. Cannon’s Socialism on Trial. I promised to attend the forums, and I did.

At the SEL forums I met Harry Paine, the man attacked at the May Day rally, a factory worker and union activist. After a fruitful life of labor and socialist activism, Harry died in Winnipeg in 2016 .[2]

On two occasions, I was disturbed by actions of Dowson’s associates. On one occasion, an SEL member, Pat Brain, leafleted a Model UN assembly with a statement denouncing the UN as an agency of imperialism. I could see their point, but it seemed more appropriate to aim our fire at the imperialist governments in the U.S. and Canada, and the Model UN was an ideal arena to do just that. The SEL did not press the point.

In addition, some SEL members initially maintained that my schoolmates and I were wrong to oppose compulsory military training in the school. I recall a young worker named Joe Rosenblatt, an SEL member and later a widely known poet, explain that our actions were contrary to a position his organization had held on military education during World War 2. They had not opposed this at that time, on the grounds that workers would benefit from military training in the anti-capitalist struggle, but asked that it be placed under trade union control.[3] I insisted on the need to oppose all forms of militarism. SEL members soon relented. Evidently, they could learn as well as teach.

Efforts at Marxist Regroupment

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J.B. Salsberg (1902-1998)

When I encountered the pro-Moscow Communist movement in early 1958, it was reeling from the impact of a deep split following on the Soviet revelations on Stalin’s crimes two years earlier. Half the LPP (Communist Party) leadership and a good part of the membership left the party. The most prominent dissident leader was J.B. Salsberg, a central LPP leader and, until 1955, an LPP member of the Ontario legislature, representing the riding that included my school.

Salsberg’s revelations of anti-Jewish policies within the Soviet Union sparked the departure of most Jewish LPP members. Another group of prominent members left in Vancouver, including Malcolm Bruce, one of the party’s founding leaders. In Quebec, Henri Gagnon led a sizeable group of former LPP members with roots in the Francophone community.

When I contacted the LPP, I knew nothing of this, although the discarded books behind the LPP bookstore gave me a hint. But the Trotskyist Socialist Educational League (SEL), I learned, was deeply engaged in discussions for collaboration and possible unity with former LPP members in Toronto, Montreal, and Vancouver. This process, which they called “socialist regroupment,” clarified for me what the Trotskyists were aiming for. The goal was to unite diverse Marxist currents in a common movement around a joint program, just as happened in the Bolshevik movement in 1917.

As things turned out, such a socialist regroupment did happen in Vancouver, where Malcolm Bruce and some associates joined with the Trotskyists. More generally the process clarified the non-sectarian nature of the Trotskyist project.[4]

Meanwhile the much-reduced LPP was itself influenced by the regroupment process and began to retreat from its absolute bar against collaboration with Trotskyists. In 1959, in a historic first, an SEL representative was permitted to join an LPP-dominated coalition: the Toronto defense committee for Morton Sobell, a victim of the McCarthy witch-hunts. In the years that followed, labour and left-wing formations that had excluded communists were increasingly forced to drop such provisions.

As the 1960s opened, it was increasingly possible in Canada, for the first time in more than three decades, to form broad and inclusive united fronts for major campaigns such as the movement to end the Vietnam war.

Toward a New Party

Meanwhile, political shifts in 1958 opened a new epoch for working-class politics in Canada.

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Richard Fidler, 1959

Back in 1957, Richard Fidler and I had played a bit part in the electoral defeat of the federal Liberal party in the June 10 federal election. John G. Diefenbaker of the Conservative party became prime minister of a minority government. Seeking a workable majority, Diefenbaker soon called new elections and, on March 31, 1958, won an overwhelming majority. The CCF suffered a heavy blow. Its leader, M.J. Coldwell, lost his seat; the CCF parliamentary caucus was reduced to eight members.

The Trotskyists of the SEL supported the CCF while criticizing its program as too cautious. After the CCF defeat in the elections, the SEL newspaper, Worker’s Vanguard, noted soberly that the CCF’s survival was now in question. The Vanguard urged socialists to respond by accelerating the process of socialist regroupment. Such a regroupment did in fact take place, but along a quite different track. In late April, 1,600 delegates to a convention of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) voted unanimously to initiate a process of building “an effective alternative political force based on the needs of workers, farmers, and similar groups,” which would include the CCF.

A week after the CLC decision, I attended the LPP May Day rally. I do not recall any mention of the CLC initiative at that meeting.

The May issue of the Worker’s Vanguard noted that the CLC decision, although open-ended, “can mean a broad, genuine farmer-labor party on the forward march to a farmer-labor government.… A class party, a party of those who work in society, the overwhelming majority, the working farmer and the wage-labourer.”

A CCF national convention of July 23-25 fully endorsed the CLC initiative, initiating a joint process to build a new national party of labour, the CCF, and “liberally minded individuals.”

As a left-inclined CCF member, I greeted this decision, but the talk of recruiting “liberally minded” forces posed a question in my mind: would the new party be even more timid than the CCF?

The two socialist currents with which I was in contact had opposite reactions to this development.

The LPP opposed the trade union decision. They were against trade unions forming ties with a political party. Instead, it favoured formation of a broad people’s alliance that would include the LPP, the CCF, and a broad range of “progressive” forces. This sounded to me like an orientation to join with a left wing of the Liberals, a mainstream capitalist party.

I later learned that this call was an application of the Popular Front policy initiated by the Communist International back in 1935. In its prime, during the Second World War, the policy found expression in an LPP alignment with currents in the Liberals party.

The Trotskyist group, by contrast, hailed the CCF decision as a positive step toward building a more effective and potentially more radical party of the working class in Canada. They pointed out, however, that this was not at all the intention of the CCF and labour leaders that pushed through the motion. The Workers’ Vanguard quoted a statement by CCF President David Lewis that “labour leaders consider themselves strongly in favour not of a “labour party” as such but of a movement embracing all progressive groups.

According to the Vanguard, however, “A new liberal reform party just isn’t in the cards. This path leads not to a third party but into the Liberal party itself,” which is “more than strong enough to sweep [the labour leaders] back into its maw and, fat as they are, completely digest them.”

The new party, said the Vanguard, “must be based on the trade unions.” the party “requires a class struggle program that … leads in the direction of the establishment of a workers’ and farmers’ government in Ottawa and in the provinces.”

The Vanguard called on all socialists to join in building the New Party and winning it to a socialist program.

For me, the LPP position was repellent. As I saw it, politics in Canada were fully polarized between working-class forces and those serving the corporations. There were no significant progressive currents in the Liberal Party or elsewhere in the capitalist class. Nor had the LPP rallied significant forces in support of its proposal. Whatever the outcome of the New Party process, the concept of building a mass working-class party and struggling for a workers’ government seemed the right line of march.

This sealed my alignment with the Trotskyist movement. Although it was three years before I joined the Trotskyist SEL, I was committed to its basic positions on the Soviet Union and on working-class politics in Canada.

Later, during my 35 years of work publishing documents of the Communist International, I sought to show the continuity of these ideas with revolutionary Marxism in Lenin’s time. Today, as the New Democratic Party slides toward what may be yet another existential crisis, this strategic outlook still seems relevant.

Many of my friends and comrades today have quite a different orientation. I offer this recollection as a small step toward a necessary discussion.

Other Reminiscences by John Riddell

Notes

[1]. An outstanding portrayal of the Socialist Educational League in that period can be found in Ernest Tate, Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 1960 (London: Resistance Books, 2014). For an online selection of Ross Dowson’s articles, see the Ross Dowson Archive.

[2]. Ernest Tate’s Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, volume 1, London, includes an extensive description of Harry Paine’s role. In his final years, Harry was a member of Socialist Action, a successor organization of the Socialist Educational League.

[3]. Joe Rosenblatt later became a much-loved and much-published poet. He died in March this year. Joe also figures in Ernest Tate’s memoir, as well as in a short recollection on this blog.

[4]. Joe Salsberg went on to form the New Fraternal Jewish Association, which played an ongoing role in the Toronto Jewish left. Henri Gagnon was an active and respected leader in Quebec’s labour-nationalist upsurge in the 1960s, in the course of which he came again into contact with Trotskyists active in Quebec.

[5] Ross Dowson, “The New Labor Party,” in The Workers’ Vanguard, vol. 3, no. 19. (September 1958).

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