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Centennial of the Communist Movement in Canada

June 14, 2021

May 23, 1921 — May 23, 2021

The following talk was given at a webinar held on May 13, 2021, by Socialist Action (Canada).

By John Riddell: Ten days from today we will celebrate the centennial of the Communist movement in Canada. It was born on May 23, 1921, at a one-day conference of 22 delegates at Fred Farley’s farm close to Guelph, Ontario.

The founders of the Communist Party of Canada explained the significance of the new organization as follows:

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 workers, 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.[1]

Before the birth of Communism, Socialist forces in Canada were organized in three currents. The first of these – the Social Democratic Party of Canada (SDP) was based in Ontario and took inspiration from the Social Democratic parties in Europe. The SDP was oriented to electoral action. The party broke apart under the shock of the First World War.The Socialist Party of Canada, by contrast, was based in the Western Provinces, and was radical, labor based, and sectarian: a combination of militant unionists and abstract theoreticians.[2] As early as 1916, before the Russian revolution, the Socialist Party called for a new revolutionary International. But when the Communist International was founded in 1919, the Socialist Party refused to join.

Both the Social Democratic and Socialist parties in Canada had a strong following among immigrant workers from Europe but lacked support from francophones. They had a couple of thousand members each. But it was the third group, the much smaller Socialist Party of North America (SPNA), that led in fusing the revolutionary socialist forces into a Communist movement.

When Canada entered the First World War on Britain’s side in 1914, the government it launched a campaign of repression aimed at immigrant communities and at socialist, labor, and Left activists. Unions fell into decline. But beginning in 1917, there was a revival of workers’ struggles. Socialist groups began to grow. Opposition to Canada’s imperialist war became more widespread. Anti-war sentiment found expression in 1917 in massive protests against military conscription. Socialists also had many ties to the radical farmers’ movements that had sprung up before the war.

Among French-speaking Quebeckers, the anti-conscription movement came close to insurrection. The socialist movement, weak in Quebec, played no significant role in this movement. Nor did it engage in major solidarity efforts on behalf of the indigenous population, victimized by deprivation and forced assimilation. It was a half-century before revolutionary socialists of the League for Socialist Action/Ligue socialiste ouvrière published a major statement, in support of Indigenous land rights and sovereignty, Red Power in Canada, by Richard Fidler.

Meanwhile, socialists in Canada saw an inspiring light in the East. In February 1917 a worker-peasant uprising in Russia overthrew the czar who had forced a great many of them into emigration. The socialist press in Canada followed the Russian news closely, printing its first major analysis In June – an article by a Russian Marxist, Gregory Chicherin, then in exile in Britain. Six months later Chicherin was a member of the Bolshevik government in Petrograd.

‘A Bolt from the Blue’

As a radical labour bulletin in Winnipeg recalled five years later, the overthrow of tsarism “was the greatest stimulus the workers of the world have ever received.”[3] And here is how a Socialist Party member in Vancouver recalled his personal reaction when in October 1917 the Bolshevik Party led the establishment in Russia of a workers’ Soviet republic. The speaker is Malcolm Bruce:

It was like a bolt out of the blue, like a blinding light when the news came over of the overthrow of the [democratic] government by the Bolsheviks and the establishment of the Soviet Republic….. there was a great uplift amongst the working class. At last they saw that the working class rose in their might and took over the power of a powerful nation and they wondered if it couldn’t be done here…. Charlie Lestow, who was perhaps the greatest lecturer and propagandist they had in the Socialist Party of Canada, … said, “Malcolm, this is it! This is the beginning of the world revolution!”[4]

Many decades later, Malcom Bruce was a co-founder of the League for Socialist Action, the predecessor of today’s Socialist Action (Canada). Other participants in that foundation are with us at this forum. That’s a measure of how close we are, in human terms, to the foundation of revolutionary socialism in Canada.

In 1919 a group was formed that took the name Communist Party of Canada. It did not last and its existence has been all but forgotten.[5]

The pioneer revolutionary socialists of Canada were far from fully understanding Bolshevik politics. By and large, they were sectarian and ultraleft in orientation. The meaning of those terms is well displayed by a leaflet distributed by an early Communist group in June 1919 when workers in Toronto went out in a general strike. Communist support to the strike was faint indeed. “The Communist Party of Canada is not opposed to your strike,” it stated. The leaflet continued:

You machinists who made so many splendid guns, rifles, and arms for your masters to sell, why did you neglect to provide yourselves with them before you struck? If you had done that you would not be at the mercy of a gang of policemen…. The time is ripe for the battle for power; the workers will respond if you give the signal.[6]

Such sectarianism was a dead end. It took a major struggle to reorient the movement toward the politics of the Bolsheviks in Russia, and the lead in this process was taken by the Socialist Party of North America. With about one hundred members, it was by far the smallest socialist group, but in terms of policy it stood closer to the Russian Bolsheviks.

Revolutionary socialists in Canada got assistance from the Communist International (Comintern), which was launched in Moscow in March 1919. They were influenced by Lenin’s 1920 pamphlet on ‘Left-Wing’ Communism, by the resolutions of the Second Comintern Congress that year and its Third Congress in 1921, the first attended by a delegate from Canada, Joe Knight.[7]

The process was recalled a few years later by Florence Custance, a remarkable leader of the Communist Party and its work among women. Here’s how she described the transformation – and it’s worth quoting at length.

After “a heated and bitter discussion,” Custance tells us, the party adopted a policy that “was a departure from the former strictly doctrinaire attitude”:

  • [This new policy] insisted upon the necessity of work in the trade unions and that work in this connection must be considered in the light of the class struggle activity and not merely a pure and simple wages question deserving only theoretical treatment.
  • It recognized the usefulness of the general strike in the process of revolutionary struggle….
  • It insisted that parliamentarism [–that is, conventional electoral activity–] had its limitations and that the class struggle could not be confined within [its] narrow scope.
  • And finally it recognized the need for armed insurrection, for the establishment of the workers power and rule.[8]

The final point on insurrection reflected a degree of misunderstanding of how workers’ power was achieved in Russia. See on my blog “Defensive Formulations and the Organization of Action,” which presents the comments of Custance’s U.S. comrade, James P. Cannon. Nonetheless, on the whole Custance gives us a remarkably condensed summary of the ways in which the Communist movement represented a new type of political party not previously found on Canada’s Left. Canada’s Communists saw the revolutionary party as part of an international proletarian army and a leading force in coordinated working-class action across the country.

The process of revolutionary regroupment was disrupted by a panicky attempt by the Ottawa government to illegalize the entire socialist left. All socialist meetings were banned, as was any public discussion conducted in a language spoken within Russia. A vast array of books were banned, including Plato’s Republic, along with supporters of the Kuomintang, the Chinese bourgeois nationalist movement led by Sun Yatsen.

There was a massive protest movement for free speech. Socialists in Canada, unable to hold meetings in their own name, attended those of rival political currents,  took control of them, and presented their views. Meanwhile the labor movement in Canada rose in 1919 in a massive upsurge of struggles, including the Winnipeg General Strike. The revolutionary left took leadership of labour west of Ontario and founded a radical labour federation called One Big Union. The experience of this great workers’ upsurge of 1919 attracted many new militants into the newly formed Communist Party.

The party’s founding convention in 1921 was harmonious and finished its business in a single day. But the newly fused party was largely limited to Ontario. To the west, revolutionary socialists were mainly organized by the Socialist Party, whose members had led the 1919 western labour upsurge. The western socialists opened a debate that lasted for a year after the founding convention. One by one, the Socialist Party local groups joined the Communist party. The Socialist Party collapsed; in 1925 it dissolved.

The new party’s spread to Quebec took an entirely different path. This important story not told in Ian Angus’s book or any other available sources. The following account is based on a recent interview with Angus.[9]

Birth of Communism in Quebec

The communist movement in Quebec was organized in Montreal late in 1921 by a remarkable worker activist named Albert Saint-Martin. His group was politically ultraleftist and thus similar to the approach of other Communist movements in North America at that time. But he had no contact with them and missed out on the Comintern’s evolution later that year toward support of a united front approach.

The following year, members of the Montreal group went to Toronto and established a relationship with the Communist Party, while maintaining their ultraleft criticisms. Once back in Montreal, they sent a letter to Moscow to the Soviet Commissar of foreign relations, Gregory Chicherin, asking for recognition as the Communist Party of Quebec. Saint-Martin and his comrades claimed that the Quebec party would be a genuine Communist organization, in contrast to what they viewed as the opportunist Communist Party of Canada. They sought recognition as a separate Quebec party not for nationalist reasons but as an expression of their ultra-leftist politics.

The Moscow Commissariat reacted with alarm, concerned that the Montreal initiative was compromising their foreign policy operations. The Commissariat asked the Communist Party of Canada for an explanation, and the party in Canada responded by sending a delegation to Montreal to meet the Quebec Communists. They organized a debate with Saint-Martin and his supporters. The outcome was that about half the Montreal group joined the Communist Party of Canada, while the other half stood firm with Saint-Martin in staying aloof. Saint-Martin went on to form the Université Ouvrière, which played an idiosyncratic but energetic role in Montreal workers’ movement.

The Université Ouvrière developed a focus on resisting the Catholic Church’s then oppressive domination of all spheres of francophone Quebec life, opposing the Catholic trade unions and staging scandalous protests outside Catholic churches. Saint-Martin came under fierce attack from rightist thugs and the Quebec government, which charged him with sedition and blasphemy and suppressed the Université Ouvrière in 1935.

Meanwhile, the early Communist Party applied the Comintern’s united-front policy by supporting and helping to sustain a pioneer working-class political party, Canadian Labour Party. Launched by Canada’s main trade union federation in 1917, the Labour party had modest success. The Communists joined the Labour party and played a leading role in it. The Labour party  declined during the unions’ retreat during the 1920s. Its remnants affiliated to the social-democratic CCF in 1935, which in turn merged into the NDP.

After a promising start, the Communist Party declined under the pressure of labour retreat in the mid- and late 1920s and the rise of Stalinism in the Communist International. It was left to dissident Communists to carry on, in various ways and various forms, the genuine heritage of the Russian revolution and the Communist Party of Lenin’s time, whose centennial we are celebrating today.


[1]. Ian Angus,  Canadian Bolsheviks, Vancouver: Trafford, 2004, p. 1.

[2]. Angus,  Bolsheviks, p. 71.

[3]. Angus, Bolsheviks, p. 18, quoting from the One Big Union Bulletin of April 22, 1922.

[4]. Angus,  Bolsheviks, pp. 18–19.

[5]. The first Communist Party of Canada is discussed in detail in Canadian Bolsheviks, pp. 25–46.

[6]. Angus,  Bolsheviks, p. 46.

[7]. For Knight’s speech to the Third Congress on the Winnipeg general strike and related questions, see John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, Leiden/Chicago: Brill/Haymarket, 2015, pp. 737–41.

[8]. Angus, Bolsheviks, pp. 22–3.

[9]. Information on Albert Saint-Martin and his organization is based on Angus’s research in the public archives. The French Wikipedia contains a short biography of Saint-Martin which omits mention of his relationship with the Communist Party of Canada. Wikipedia refers to a full-length biography by Claude Larivière (1979) without mentioning its title, which is Albert Saint-Martin: Militant d’avant-garde (1865-1947).

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