Origins of the International Socialists
by Abbie Bakan and Philip Murton
Originally published in Marxism: A Socialist Annual, Volume 4 (2006). Posted on the Socialist History Project website by permission of the authors. For information on purchasing or subscribing to Marxism, write PO Box 339, Station E, Toronto ON M6H 4E3
The International Socialists (IS) was founded at a meeting held in Toronto in February of 1975. In the more than three decades that have followed, the left and the workers’ movement in Canada have experienced many ups and downs, successes and failures. The IS has been a part of that experience, and the period of its modest, early beginnings was a moment of tremendous change for the left.
Those who were to become the initial organizers of the IS in Canada came together originally as a study group of students and a few workers who were attracted to, and met each other in, the Ontario Waffle Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada (MISC). The Waffle was originally a left wing caucus of the NDP, active from 1969 to 1974, that expressed a serious effort to form an effective left alternative to social democracy in Canada. The origins of the IS are inextricably linked to the rise and fall of the Waffle both inside and outside the NDP.
The study group that was to become the International Socialists formed in the period 1974-1976. This was at the peak of a period of tremendous confidence for the workers’ movement and the left. In Canada, it was two years after the 1972 Quebec General Strike — the largest general strike in Canada’s history to that date — and marked the high point of a decade of rising militancy. As Paul Kellogg has described it:
But these were also years of frustration. It was a period when the NDP had propped up a Liberal minority federal government under Pierre Elliot Trudeau, elected in October of 1972. The employers’ offensive was launched in 1975 with the wage controls policy of the federal Liberal government, supported by NDP provincial governments in BC and Saskatchewan. Trade union leaders supported the NDP and halted rank and file militancy — most starkly in BC — and laid the ground for a vicious employers’ offensive that would ultimately reverse the tide of workers’ gains.
Those active in the Waffle at the time did not know that the spirit of radicalism that inspired them — among tens of thousands — was like a wave on a beach. And in 1974-76 the tide was beginning to ebb. The Waffle, a left alternative to the NDP, expressed the high point of this wave. But its leadership was not able to carry it forward and navigate the changing political climate.
Instead, once the Waffle left the NDP, the leadership expected the NDP to collapse and the Waffle to grow and take its place. Jim and Bob Laxer, leading figures in the Waffle, were committed to "an independent socialist Canada". Canada was understood to be a dependency of the US, and it was expected that only a socialist movement based in the working class could free Canada from the grip of US imperialism.
This was an analysis that the members of the study group agreed with in broad strokes. There was, however, a frustration that the socialist side of the perspective was being marginalized, dulling the radical edge of the Waffle’s politics as soon as the organization was independent of the NDP. The International Socialists was formed in an effort to take a revolutionary socialist path, veering left from social democracy and left nationalism.
Waffle and the NDP
The Waffle came together shortly before the 1969 NDP federal convention. Its manifesto, The Waffle Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada, was supported by about one-third of the votes at that Convention. The name "Waffle" originates from the comment of an unidentified supporter, in response to the claim that this group of NDPers were prone to "waffle": "If we’re going to waffle, I’d rather waffle to the left than waffle to the right."
The Waffle was very much affected by the left of the period. The formative events included: the rise of a "New Left", which was seen as an alternative to social democracy and to the pro-Moscow Communist Party (CP); the "Quiet Revolution" in Quebec; the movement against the war in Vietnam; and the growing influence of the women’s liberation movement. Also, there was a rise of Canadian nationalism on the left in English Canada, as Kari Levitt’s Silent Surrender became a particularly influential book. This coincided with a rise in nationalism from above, within the Canadian state. In 1968, a federal task force on foreign ownership had an important impact. It was led by Mel Watkins, a professor of economics at the University of Toronto who would later emerge as a leading figure in the Waffle.
The locus for this new radicalization at the time was the New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was formed in 1961 as a joint project of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC). The party, while attracting the interests of trade unionists and left activists, had not yet made a significant breakthrough in Canadian politics. Broadly, the Waffle was an attempt to bring some of these progressive forces together in hopes of revitalizing the NDP.
Some quotations from The Manifesto express the character of the new movement:
Further statements from The Manifesto indicate the analysis:
The Waffle, however, also encompassed analytical contradictions. While defending "Canada" as an undifferentiated national entity against the supposed threat of American domination, it was also unambiguous in asserting that Quebec was an oppressed nation.
Also, the Waffle’s politics were different from many of those in the New Left, in the importance given to the role of trade unions and the working class:
Several events in 1971 were central to the Waffle’s influence. Most significantly, in April of that year, Jim Laxer ran as the Waffle candidate for the leadership of the federal NDP against the establishment candidate, David Lewis. In a surprising outcome, Jim Laxer earned almost 40 percent of the vote on a fourth ballot. A key feature of this campaign was the Waffle’s support for Quebec’s right to self-determination. The position was supported as a democratic right, up to and including the right to form an independent Quebec state.
The Waffle was also expanding its influence in the labour movement. It was active in supporting several significant strikes, including Texpack and Artistic Woodwork that were fighting strike-breaking companies, and led by unions linked to the Council of Canadian Unions (CCU). In January 1971, the Waffle sponsored a conference in Windsor, Ontario, challenging the Auto Pact. The Waffle leadership maintained this was a corporate trade deal harmful to Canadian workers. The conference attracted several hundred trade unionists from the international United Auto Workers (UAW). The Waffle’s activities in the trade union movement began to provoke the ire of Dennis McDermott of the United Automotive Workers (UAW).
In the spring of 1971, the Ontario provincial election saw the NDP drop by one seat and Bill Davis’ Progressive Conservatives increase the party’s majority. One Waffle candidate, Steve Penner, almost won a seat in the Toronto riding of Dovercourt. By early 1972, the Ontario NDP was looking for a scapegoat.
Expulsion from the NDP
The Provincial Council meeting of the Waffle in March 1972 was presented with a resolution from the NDP leadership, calling for the Waffle’s expulsion. This was backed by many of the trade union delegates. The council determined to set up a committee to prepare a statement outlining the responsibilities and obligation of NDP members.
From March until the next council meeting in June 1972 in Orillia, the Waffle was on the defensive. Its members were forced to argue for their right to exist as a left current within the NDP. The trade union leadership was particularly insistent about the need to dissolve the Waffle. Lynn Williams, for example, Director of District 6 of the United Steel Workers of America (USWA), played a central role in carrying the hard line. Stephen Lewis, Ontario NDP leader, also went on the attack: "I too wish to fight for a free Canada but without the Waffle forever an encumbrance around my neck." The Waffle was seen as too radical, and potentially too "confusing" to voters, especially when the dominant strategy was to show that the NDP was a moderate party capable of "responsible governance."
At the June Council meeting, a "compromise" resolution from the Toronto Riverdale riding gave the NDP leadership the "means to deal with the Waffle". This resolution had the same effect as the executive motion, though the language used was less harsh. The resolution demanded that the Waffle disband as an organized group within the NDP. It stated categorically that "The present structure and behaviour of the Waffle cannot continue." The resolution was passed by a vote of 217 to 88 at the Ontario NDP June provincial council meeting held in Orillia, Ontario.
Explaining the Attack
There are two important reasons for the Ontario NDP actions in forcing the Waffle to either liquidate or face expulsion. First, the NDP officialdom was, and remains, dedicated primarily to gaining seats in the federal and provincial Parliaments. The quest for electability was challenged by a vibrant left wing that was committed to social activism, rank and file trade union struggle, and to the creation of a climate of political debate to the left of the NDP brass.
A second key element in the attack on the Waffle stemmed from the trade union full time bureaucracy, the backbone of the NDP leadership. The Waffle succeeded in gaining some support from activists in the major trade unions, particularly the UAW and the United Steelworkers of America (USWA), who were prepared to act independently of the bureaucratic union leadership. In this period of the 1970s, unions saw a rapid growth of contract rejections and rising rank and file confidence. The Waffle’s left nationalist analysis was misplaced, presuming that the bureaucratic character of the unions was specific to those with US links. But the call for democracy and militancy fell on welcoming ears among a wide layer of labour activists. It was the Waffle’s orientation to rank and file workers that worried union officials like McDermott of UAW and Williams of USWA.
The Waffle called a special conference in August 1972 to discuss its future. There were two strategic positions on offer: either to form a new independent organization outside the NDP, or to "stay and fight" by remaining in some form inside the NDP. The former orientation was supported by Jim Laxer, his father Robert Laxer, and most of the Waffle leadership. They argued for an orientation to leave aside the battles inside the NDP to a later date when the NDP might become radicalized. The suggestion at the time was not to build an alternative political party or run in elections, but to build a movement, the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada (MISC).
The "stay and fight" group argued that the Waffle should stay in the Ontario NDP and challenge the bureaucratic hold of the NDP leadership. They proposed that the Waffle strategy should be "to fight for a revolt of the riding associations." They quite correctly identified the threat that the Waffle had become to the trade union leadership. The possibility of an activist left wing in the NDP with important connections with the rank and file of unions would, it was claimed, undermine the relationship between the NDP leadership and the labour brass. They maintained that the Waffle outside the NDP would "reduce us to a sterile sect isolated from the existing mass constituency for socialism" (namely the NDP). They also spoke of the need to "expose the nature of the bureaucratic structure of the NDP which co-opts class struggle into purely parliamentary channels."
Coming after months of internal fights in the NDP, the leadership strategy to build a new current independent of the party had considerable appeal, inspiring a fresh start. The "stay and fight" current was influenced by orthodox Trotskyism. The tactic of entry — working inside the NDP as a distinctly socialist current with a view of division at a later point — was elevated to a fixed principle. The wave of working class radicalization that had in fact formed the Waffle, and was now well to the left of the NDP, was below the radar screen. The decision to leave the NDP was adopted by a vote of 213-113. In December 1972, Waffle-MISC was formed as an independent organization outside of the Ontario NDP. At the Ontario NDP Convention that same month, those remaining in the NDP attempted to challenge the NDP leadership without much success.
The Waffle was a relatively large and non-sectarian group in the NDP, and it offered tremendous promise. It was the most important left wing force in and around the NDP for a generation, unmatched until the emergence of the New Politics Initiative (NPI) in 2001. But a profound lack of political clarity led the Waffle first to stumble, and then to crash, when it came to taking the next steps in building a viable socialist organization in Canada.
Marx Out of the Closet
The Ontario Waffle Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada held a convention in Toronto in December of 1973. This was the first Waffle meeting attended for many who were to become the original founders of the IS in Canada. It was addressed by Jim Laxer, who gave a confident presentation on the need for a radical left alternative to the social democratic NDP. The NDP was considered doomed. "It’s time", he announced, "for us to take Marx out of the closet." This is when discussion began about founding a new political party, with bold plans to replace the NDP as an electoral force.
The Waffle soon committed itself to forming a new socialist party that could attract masses of ordinary people in Canada — workers, women, the poor — and build a genuine alternative to capitalism. There was a very active labour caucus, where some influential rank and file workers from the Steelworkers, the United Auto Workers (today the Canadian Auto Workers), nurses and teachers played an active role. The trade union work was led by Robert Laxer, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) and formerly a leader of the Communist Party of Canada.
The new Waffle soon attracted young people and workers influenced by the climate of radical change and looking for a sane left alternative to capitalism and social democracy. But for many of those who wanted to become involved in this exciting project, the Waffle was a difficult organization to join and an even harder one to influence. Modeled on the structures of the NDP, the Waffle formally had local neighbourhood constituencies and elected representatives. It was unclear, however, exactly how decisions were made. Many members of the Waffle had never actually left the NDP, rendering leadership accountability and membership input very far from transparent. And for those who were young and angry at capitalism, it was very difficult to participate in a meaningful way. In practice, there was an inner circle that directed the path of the Waffle. Jim and Bob Laxer and those close to them — personally and politically — were the most influential. Friends and family of the Laxers seemed to shape every change of policy or direction, every educational activity, every speaker, and every agenda item at every meeting. Informally, this circle was referred to rather unaffectionately as the "family compact".
Among those who would eventually found the International Socialists in Canada, the majority were undergraduate students at York University in Toronto and members of the Waffle (MISC). These were young activists and intellectuals, highly engaged in debates on the left. They participated in university classes taught by Marxist professors, some of whom were members of the Waffle. These students were excited by the prospect of building a new party for socialism. They formed the York University Waffle and organized regular weekly discussions.
Members of the York Waffle and some similarly frustrated members of the labour caucus came together in 1974 to form a discussion circle committed to a socialist alternative. They had a structure of weekly meetings organized around common readings, sharing articles and trying to discuss constructive means to ensure that the Waffle survived and grew to meet the potential of the radical climate.
In this little socialist study group, comprised at its peak of about 13 people, there was a desperate thirst for political clarity. The members were committed to socialist education, and they read everything they could find. Weekly discussions, planned in advance with selected topics, readings and assignments to introduce the material, took place in a very organized manner. Discussions alternated between topics related to "programmatic" issues and others addressing broader themes. A discussion plan for the summer of 1974 read as follows:
In addition to weekly readings and discussions, the study group members were active in the Waffle, which was their first loyalty. They participated in strike solidarity organized by the Waffle—particularly the long and bitter strike at Artistic Woodwork. And the York Waffle members of the study group planned, edited and produced a mimeographed internal educational journal for the Ontario Waffle, first published in the fall of 1973, called Advance: For Independence and Socialism.
Political life within the Waffle was tense and frustrating. Members of the study group felt a need to be "underground" in the Waffle for fear of reprisals. Some notes introducing a discussion on how to move the Waffle forward are indicative of the experience:
But the orientation of the Waffle to the working class was welcome and celebrated. In the same notes:
July 1974 Federal Election
The turning point was the July 1974 federal election, when the Waffle ran several candidates, all in Ontario, on their own ticket for seats in Parliament: Jim Laxer in York West, the north west region of Toronto; Mary Campbell in London; and Bela Egyed in Ottawa. The campaigns produced results that were statistically unmeasureable, and the frustration among a wide layer of Waffle members was by now running high. The election literature that came off the presses with the Waffle endorsement, especially for the Toronto campaign, emphasized Canadian nationalism, full stop.
The study group members, among many other Wafflers, came to the view that the organization could not survive without a serious assessment and change of course. The members of the study group wrote a report assessing the election campaign in Toronto. This touched a nerve, and opened up a debate with considerable resonance among the Waffle membership. The statement maintained:
The document called for "a detailed, provincial-wide evaluation of the Waffle’s participation in the federal election", and for the regularly scheduled Provincial Council meeting in September to devote "a major portion" of its agenda to this discussion.
This 12 page, single spaced document, entitled "Lessons of the Toronto Waffle Election Campaign", was collectively crafted over weeks of discussion. There was considerable concern to pose a constructive debate, but this was accompanied by a sense of anxiety that the Waffle leadership’s response would be defensive and punitive. The document was strategically signed by two members only — Treat Hull and David McNally — hoping this would minimize the defensive and repressive response of the leadership that arose with every hint of debate. Unfortunately, the anticipation of the leadership’s response was confirmed, but it is not clear if the two-signature strategy served to minimize the vitriol that followed.
Analyzing the Waffle (MISC)
After months of participation in the Waffle, extensive study of the socialist tradition and detailed discussion and debate, the study group members concluded that the Waffle had only partially broken from its social democratic roots as a left current inside the NDP. The overwhelming intellectual project that defined the study group concerned revolutionary theory and organization. Lenin and Leninism were key issues of debate. The Waffle was attractive largely because it was rooted in the struggles of ordinary working people, and appealed to the broad population. But there was also a clear need for a strategy that was revolutionary, and Lenin’s theory and practice pointed in this direction. While attracted to many of Lenin’s original writings, the study group’s experiences with Leninists in Canada were universally distasteful. Members of the existing Leninist parties and organizations were seen to be hopelessly sectarian, and sported an attitude of self-proclaimed importance.
The study group concluded that the Waffle was a "centrist" formation, socialist and in fact Marxist in words, but in practice committed to reforming capitalism rather than to revolution. In coming to this analysis, an article by Leon Trotsky, written in 1934, was particularly helpful:
The study group members were influenced first and foremost by Marx. But there were other influences as well, including Mao Zedong, Franz Fanon, Paulo Freire, Jean-Paul Sartre, Herbert Marcuse, feminism and Canadian left nationalism. Two works proved to be particularly formative.
One was an article by Antonio Carlo, titled "Lenin on the Party", published in Telos: A Journal of Radical Social Theory. Carlo argued against the popular claim that Lenin’s notion of the party was universally elitist, demonstrating that the Bolsheviks’ organizational approaches changed with varying conditions in Tsarist and revolutionary Russia. This was an important theoretical and historical position, and proved very helpful in differentiating various interpretations of Lenin as they were applied to modern conditions.
The second influential work was a collection of four articles published in a little book called Party and Class that was sold in a socialist book shop on Yonge Street. The authors were Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman and Leon Trotsky. The collection was published by Pluto Press for the International Socialists in the UK, predecessor of the Socialist Workers Party.
Chris Harman’s article, entitled similarly "Party and Class", stressed Lenin’s unique understanding that working class consciousness is uneven and changing. He argued that for Lenin, the revolutionary party was the organization of the advanced minority of the working class, but that this advanced minority was not static. It changed over time and circumstances. According to this view, revolutionaries are forced to be a minority when capitalist ideas are dominant in the working class, but the mass of the working class, with all its mixed consciousness, remains the prime audience for socialist ideas. Following Marx, the revolutionary potential of the working class is a characteristic of all working classes, regardless of their particular consciousness at any given moment in history. Changes in consciousness, however, sometimes rapid, sometimes gradual, including advances and retreats, are characteristic of class struggle.
Harman also outlined how social democratic parties depend upon the passivity of the working class, and look to elected parliamentary leaders as the key to social transformation. Inevitably, he wrote, social democratic parties appear to be formally democratic, but are in fact led in an elitist, top-down manner.
Harman stressed that a Leninist conception of the party drew a distinction between the revolutionary party and the mass of the working class, a distinction that was commonly blurred on the left, and created a tendency to "substitutionism".
Tony Cliff, in another article in the Party and Class collection, addressed this issue:
The clarity of these arguments was enormously refreshing. And beyond the content of the writings, there was an organization that was committed to this perspective. Members of the study group wrote to the publishers at "SW Litho" and tried to get someone’s attention. After months of unanswered correspondence, eventually there was some exchange of information. Canadian contacts were at the time mainly steered towards the IS in the US, which generated a story in itself.
From this point on, study group members started to read everything available that was written and published by the IS in Britain. It was a challenge to locate titles at the time, as distribution in Canada was limited. The experience of reading this material was like finding like-minded writers who had come to the same conclusions, but with a capacity to link the lessons of the revolutionary tradition in a non-dogmatic, informed manner to modern conditions. This capacity was virtually unknown in Canadian socialist literature at the time.
It was profoundly attractive to discover a tradition that was revolutionary, and identified with Lenin and the early Bolshevik Party in the first years of the Russian revolution, but that rejected without apology any adherence to Stalinism. There was no effort to defend the so-called socialist countries of the time — including Russia and China — as workers’ states, whether deformed or degenerated. The theory of Stalinism as a state capitalist counter-revolution against the early successes of the Russian working class was key to the approach.
Despite this identification with the writings of IS members in Britain, the roots of the IS were not in Europe. The IS in Canada emerged from the debates and developments in the Canadian workers’ movement and the Canadian left. Activists in Canada were very much on their own, and proceeded to develop theory and strategies within the Waffle. The hope was to steer a course to the left, and reverse the pattern of declining morale and loss of members that had characterized the Waffle experience since its break from the NDP.
Left Nationalism, Stalinism and the Popular Front
Once outside the NDP the leadership of the Waffle moved rapidly to the right. Though the slogan of the Waffle was "for independence and socialism", it was the former that was considered primary. The logic of left nationalism — a legacy that has haunted the Canadian left for decades — was clearly expressed in the Waffle’s early political degeneration.
In an article entitled "The Waffle and Alliances for Independence", published in Advance in April of 1974, Bob Laxer articulated the perspective. Canada was understood as a dependency of the US, and anti-imperialism therefore meant opposing US capital in Canada. All allies who opposed US imperialism in any way were expected inevitably to be drawn to a working class perspective that could only be implicitly socialist. Socialism, which was seen as public ownership, was expected to follow automatically from a nationalist perspective. There were two stages in this process: independence first and socialism second. It was considered a dangerous error to alter either the social content of the stages or the order of their occurrence. In Bob Laxer’s words:
At the time, it seemed obvious to young activists that Bob Laxer was influenced by Stalinism, though he claimed to have broken from it entirely. What was not known to most Wafflers then, but has since been documented by Jim Laxer in his autobiographical study, Red Diaper Baby: A Boyhood in the Age of McCarthyism, was that Bob Laxer was a leading paid organizer for the Communist Party at the height of Stalinism. The elder Laxer was a veteran of World War II, and an advocate of the CP’s popular front strategy. This was a perspective that subordinated all independent working class action to the nationalist policies of capitalist states around the world at the time.
Jim Laxer describes his father as an advocate of nationalist policies, more staunch even than the rest of the leadership of the Communist Party (called the Labour-Progressive Party, or LPP, in 1943, after being banned in 1940). Two years before Bob Laxer left the CP among the wave of resignations of 1956, he "presented a lengthy paper" arguing that the party "should make the struggle for Canadian independence the centerpiece of its orientation." Jim Laxer continues:
The overriding commitment to Canadian nationalism returned to shape the outcome of the debates in the Waffle. By the time of the federal election in July of 1974, the study group members had developed a collective view in support of the need for a revolutionary socialist party. They were keen to share this discussion among Waffle members generally. When the Waffle federal campaign literature was printed, the word "socialism" was almost absent from the Toronto materials. The climate of concern, and the felt need for an open assessment and debate, generated an atmosphere of considerable receptivity to new views and strategies. Even if many Wafflers did not necessarily agree with the need for a revolutionary party, they had criticisms of their own and were eager to have a full and democratic discussion. But this was not to be.
Ontario Waffle: Leadership Threats and Resignation
At the first Ontario Waffle Provincial Council meeting held after the federal election, on October 6, 1974, discussion opened with the announcement that the leadership of the Ontario Waffle, including several Provincial Executive members, had threatened to resign. The anticipated and scheduled agenda was not to be discussed. The leadership had apparently calculated the votes and expected to face a losing battle. An ad hoc steering committee was formed at this aborted Provincial Council meeting, which sent out a letter to Ontario Waffle members to explain what had transpired. As it provides a summary of the course of events, including a description of a September 14 Waffle Provincial Executive meeting that pre-figured the October Council meeting, it is worth quoting in some detail.
The letter from the ad hoc steering committee continues to describe in detail the pre-Council debate, and the steps taken to attempt to preserve some integrity in the organization in an acrimonious atmosphere. Ultimately a majority of delegates at the Provincial Council meeting voted to table a wide array of strategy documents by a vote of 30 to 26. This decision was taken "on the ground that this debate was just beginning and it should be brought back to every local group so that they could vote on strategy at the December Convention." The letter continues:
As a compromise, the majority of delegates, who opposed the Executive Report, agreed as an interim strategy to pass all of the Executive Report except Section 8. The Ottawa Waffle demanded that Section 8 be passed. The letter continues:
The Ontario Waffle — with Post Office BOX 339, Station E, Toronto, as its mailing address, was left in the hands of those who remained. This post office box remains the mailing address of the International Socialists today.
From the Waffle to the IS: 1975
By the following February, in 1975, when the Waffle had its next Ontario meeting, those who were still active voted to re-name the Waffle the Independent Socialists — a concession to a lingering commitment to left nationalism — later to be changed to the International Socialists. Between the October Provincial Council meeting and the Ontario Waffle general meeting in February, the study group, with the aim of dissolving itself, prepared and circulated two substantial documents. The goal was to structure a democratic debate within the Waffle about which way to turn. One document was entitled "Strategy for Waffle", and the other, the "Revolutionary Socialist Programme."
The "Strategy for Waffle" document stated:
As the "Revolutionary Socialist Programme" stated:
Other sections address the capitalist state, the ideological apparatus of the ruling class such as the media, the oppression of women, imperialism, the Canadian state, the crisis of capitalism in Canada, the NDP, Quebec, the trade unions, the Communist Party of Canada, the sectarian left, the revolutionary party, and internationalism.
Much of what was presented in this document written over 30 years ago is applicable today. Its basic premises display a certain degree of clarity that allowed those who adopted it to navigate numerous storms that other left groups, though much larger and more experienced at the time, could not survive. But the analysis of the Canadian state was flawed, a reflection of the left nationalist political economy that had dominated the NDP and the Waffle. As the "Programme" put it, "Canada is a country dominated by one of the world’s strongest imperialist powers — the United States — which exercises economic and military control over our nation." 
But the supporters of the "Programme" were also opposed to the Canadian ruling class. In a section sub-titled "The National Question in Canada", the Revolutionary Socialist Programme stated:
The International Socialists
The legacy of left nationalism proved much more weighty on other forces on the left. The challenges that lay before activists in the mid-1970s were myriad, and certainly beyond prediction. But for those who had a political compass — a way to figure out what was capitalism and what was socialism — the next months, years and decades were not only comprehensible but confirmed the necessity of a coherent and consistent Marxist perspective.
The working class upturn of which the Waffle was a part had peaked by 1975, and the beginning of a period of massive assaults on working class living standards and the left opened up. The attack on the Waffle within the NDP proved to be a political first strike against independent rank and file action in the trade unions, as later attacks took place in Saskatchewan and BC under NDP governments.
This opened the door to Trudeau’s 1975 wage and price controls policy, accompanied by a series of unprecedented assaults on trade union bargaining rights. The Waffle leadership saw their expulsion from the NDP as a result of their nationalist orientation. Actually it was the class content, independent rank and file trade union action, that posed the greatest threat to the trade union bureaucracy that was the backbone of the NDP.
By the time of the founding convention of the IS, on February 8-9, 1975, the numbers remaining were tiny — about 25 who were prepared to continue the project. When the first issue of the IS monthly newspaper, Workers’ Action, came off the presses, there were 12 who would sell the paper publicly.
The first 15 years of the IS (from 1975 to 1990) were a difficult time. There were many debates, as the ups and downs of the international and Canadian left faced the challenges of a new period. But in the end, the effort to concretize a general understanding of Marxism and apply it to the Canadian state and the workers’ movement shaped an organization of modest influence and stability as a new player on the left.
Issues that proved particularly challenging included figuring out how to relate to the working class with political ideas, and to do this not just through a mechanistic approach of "industrialization", of sending students to work in industry. The nature of Canadian imperialism, before, during and after, the free trade debates and the resurgence of left nationalism, were also subjects of debate. The oppression of Quebec and Native peoples, not just as abstract principles, but in the complex debates about the Canadian constitution forced the IS to take its commitment to being tribune of the oppressed seriously.
The organization suffered the inevitable bruises of a young movement, but it did not fall prey to a sense of life-threatening confusion or defending the indefensible, as did many other currents on the left. When the Vietnamese so-called socialist state expelled its Chinese citizens, the IS said the Vietnamese boat people were welcome in Canada while most of the rest of left denounced them as "petty bourgeois". The IS defended the 10 million strong Solidarnosc trade union movement in Poland, even when most of the rest of the left denounced it as the product of agents of the CIA and the Pope. And the IS did not succumb to the disarray and confusion that marked the rest of the left when the Berlin Wall fell and the Stalinist USSR collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
By 1990-1991, the IS had figured out many basic principles and positions as they applied to current conditions. But all this still was not enough to gain influence and to make a difference in the real world of Canadian politics. The organization had collectively developed habits necessary to survival in rough waters, holding together in the face of what often seemed to be nearly insurmountable, incredibly challenging difficulties. Years of being a small, largely irrelevant organization had left damaging scars. The survival of the IS came with a price — the price of an insular, sectarian style of operating. This was an accommodation to isolation and being marginal, turning what was a necessity into a virtue.
With Canada’s participation in the war on Iraq in 1990-91, the IS had to break with this tradition of small group sectarianism, or fail the test of imperialist war at home. The organization made it through, but again not without cost. Over time, from 1990 to the present, the organization moved more securely to new ground. The IS is now an organization that strives to build a revolutionary socialist alternative by forging not only a nucleus, or perhaps a catalyst, of a revolutionary party, but also by helping to build common actions and united coalitions to fight to build mass movements for change in the here and now.
The IS was started in 1975. But it was not really "founded" then. Many, many comrades have since joined and helped to truly found an organization that has come to be modestly respected in contributing to shaping the course of the left. In some small areas, sections or moments of struggle within the workers’ movement, there is a sense of being a little stronger when the IS presence is felt.
Throughout this period, the IS in Canada relied on the support of sister organizations in the IS tendency internationally, particularly the Socialist Workers Party in Britain. But the IS in Canada is not part of a new "International", nor has the IS ever been "instructed" about what to do or not to do. The direction taken has been mapped by the IS membership. What ever failures, and what ever small successes, have been experienced, rests on the shoulders of the comrades in the IS in Canada.
This is a story that stops, but doesn’t end. The tasks ahead remain far greater than anything that has been experienced to date. There remains a need to forge a mass, democratic, activist, creative force, a powerful organization that can play a role in influencing the working class, and over time, form the basis of a mass revolutionary party.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All