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A Party of A New Type
The Socialist Party of Canada and
the Birth of Canadian Communism

by Ian Angus

Author’s Note: An earlier version of this paper was presented at the Marxism 2005 conference in Toronto in May 2005, and posed on the Socialist History Project website shortly afterwards. This version, which was published in Marxism: A Socialist Annual, Volume 4 (2006), entirely replaces that essay. It incorporates a substantial amount of additional material and draws new conclusions about the SPC-CPC debates in 1921.

Comments, criticisms and suggestions for further research will be gratefully received: please email me at ian@socialisthistory.ca.

A Party of a New Type:
The Socialist Party of Canada
and the Birth of Canadian Communism

by Ian Angus

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 the workers, and 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]

1921 was a watershed year for the left in Canada, a year when everything changed.[2]

At the beginning of that year, the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC) was the best known Marxist organization in the country. Its twice-monthly magazine was widely read, and its public meetings were well attended. During 1921, an SPC candidate came within a few hundred votes of being elected to Parliament. The Communist movement, on the other hand, was geographically scattered and politically divided. Worse, it made a principle of operating in secret “underground” groups, and so was isolated from the rest of the left and from the labour movement as a whole.

By early 1922, a majority of SPC members had joined the new Workers Party of Canada, which was Communist in all but name. The Workers Party became the largest left political organization in Canada, while the Socialist Party was reduced to a fraction of its previous size and influence.

The change also ended a longstanding geographic division in the Canadian left. At the beginning of 1921 Winnipeg was the only place where both the Socialist Party and the Communist groups had significant forces. Elsewhere, the Communists were concentrated in Ontario and Quebec, while most SPC members were in the western provinces. When the Workers Party was founded in February 1922, it announced the event with a headline that read: “The Workers Party Convention Unites the Militant Workers of Canada – East and West”.

The Socialist Party had condemned the Second International, an international organization of socialist parties, for admitting reformists. It had been among the minority of the world’s socialist parties that opposed World War, and it had strongly supported the Russian revolution. It had even called for a new, revolutionary International. Once a Third International actually existed, it would have seemed logical for the SPC to combine with the Communist groups in Central Canada to build a pan-Canadian section of the new International.

This paper discusses why that did not happen: how the Communists won over the SPC’s membership, and why many of the best known leaders of the Socialist Party, people with impeccable credentials as Marxists and as leaders of the revolutionary left, rejected Bolshevism and the new Communist Party. It is a story of success and of failure: the success was of a new revolutionary movement, and the failure of a generation of Marxists who did not understand how to use their theory as a basis for active participation in real movements for social change, and not just as a means to analyze society.

Two Kinds of Party

The Socialist Party of Canada proudly declared itself a party of revolutionary socialism. This meant that it stood for the abolition of capitalism, nothing more and nothing less.

We do not stand for the reform of any institution under capitalism — not even the criminal code. Our activities have always been directed towards the complete overthrow of capitalism, and to that end we have concentrated our attention upon the education of our fellow men who are engaged in wealth production and who are exploited in the process.[3]

Despite that firm statement, the SPC had not always rejected reforms. Prior to World War I, the SPC’s official Platform included a clause promising to supporting legislation that would “advance the interests of the working class and aid the workers in their class struggle against capitalism.” SPC members who were elected to the B.C. Legislature supported a variety of measures that improved working conditions in the province.

But that clause was deleted from the Platform in 1915. Western Clarion editor Bill Pritchard defended the deletion on the grounds that the clause was “a bulwark for reform” that had been inserted in the platform by “serious minded old women, reformers of the English and Stubbs type,” who went on to operate as “hacks and reformers of capitalism”.[4]

In part, the change reflected the idea that support for anything less than the full socialist program was a betrayal of principle. In debate with the more reform-oriented Social Democratic Party of Canada, Pritchard argued that reforms are simply attempts to patch up and prolong capitalism, and that any program that included reforms “seeks to do the work of the master’s political henchmen.”[5]

The Platform change also reflected the view that nothing socialists did could hasten the revolution. The main leaders of the SPC believed that socialism was inevitable, and the working class would some day take power solely as a result of the contradictions of capitalism, not in response to any agitation by socialists. The only meaningful contribution socialists could make was to educate workers in the principles of Marxism, so that they would be ready for the revolution when it came. “When the slaves are educated and conditions are ripe, they will take action,” was how one disillusioned member summarized the party’s perspective.[6]

Many socialists were active in unions and other movements, but they engaged in such activity as individuals, not as party members; the party deliberately refrained from offering tactical or strategic advice. For example, although SPC members initiated the One Big Union in 1919, the party itself declined to say whether workers should support it, because “the comparative merits of various forms of industrial organizations did not come within the field of S.P. of C. activity.”[7]

By contrast, the Communist International (Comintern) aimed to be a worldwide organization of what we today call activists – people who participate in and lead movements for social change. In a famous passage, Lenin wrote that a revolutionary party must aim for every member to be: “a tribune of the people, able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it takes place, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects.”[8]

The Bolsheviks saw the revolutionary party itself as a factor in social change, not just a passive observer or educator. They aimed to build a party that took part in workers’ struggles as an organization, to educate the participants in action, and in the process to build an organization of experienced revolutionary militants that could eventually lead the struggle for power. To be a party of education, or party of action – this was the core issue in the debate that preoccupied the Socialist Party throughout 1921.

Debating the Third International

The debate was triggered by the Second Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow in 1920. That meeting adopted the "Conditions for Admission to the Communist International", a document that became known as the "21 Conditions" or "21 Points". Designed to exclude reformists and centrists, it set out political requirements for any party that wanted to join the new International, including:

The party must conduct consistent communist propaganda and agitation in line with the program of the International.

The party must support colonial liberation movements, especially those directed against its “own” imperialists.

The party must carry out systematic and persistent activity in trade unions and other workers’ organizations.[9]

The Congress ended on August 7, 1920, and by early fall the "21 Conditions" had been printed and distributed internationally. They were discussed and debated in every group or party that considered itself revolutionary, including the Socialist Party of Canada.

On Wednesday October 13, 1920, Winnipeg Local Number 3 of the SPC met to discuss “the advisability of the Party joining the Moscow (Third) International.” Party member Fred Kaplan proposed that the SPC join the Third International right away. That motion failed, but his follow-up proposal, that the Dominion Executive Committee should hold a party-wide referendum on the question, was “passed with an almost unanimous vote.”[10]

The Vancouver-based party executive delayed action on this for over two months, blaming the press of work caused by a provincial election. Finally, on January 1, 1921, the party magazine, Western Clarion, published the "Conditions for Admission to the Communist International" as a front page article, and announced the opening of a party-wide discussion on the issue. Locals were encouraged to hold meetings to discuss it, and the pages of Western Clarion were opened to discussion and debate. The paper promised a referendum on the issue, but did not set a date.

From then until the fall, almost every issue of the Western Clarion carried long articles for or against joining the Third International. Articles were submitted by most of the party’s leaders and many rank and file members, and intense discussions took place in the party’s locals.

Fred Kaplan opened the written debate. In his view, the issue was straightforward:

Only Socialists who present the true facts of the class struggle, and who seek to advance that class struggle, ought to be allowed to have the platform of a Party calling itself revolutionary. If these individuals do seek to advance the class struggle it can be done only by solidifying the ranks of the workers the world over. Their duty is then to vote in favor of joining the International. If they do not, and if they form the majority of the party, then certainly the party cannot call itself Marxian, for Marx calls upon the workers to unite internationally.[11]

Similarly, Nova Scotia socialist Roscoe Fillmore wrote:

After following as closely as possible under existing conditions the work of the Bolsheviki in Russia, and the program and principles of the Third International, I am prepared to endorse them wholeheartedly. They are the only body of workers today who constitute a real international – the only considerable group of workers who are consciously and intelligently carrying on the class struggle. That’s what counts.[12]

But that was not enough for other party members, in particular for Jack Harrington and Bill Pritchard, two of the party’s best known theoreticians and educators. Throughout the year of debate, they were the strongest and most vocal opponents of affiliation.

Pritchard and Harrington had long and credible records as Marxist theoreticians and educators. They were deeply committed to the working class movement; Pritchard, for example, was jailed for his role in the Winnipeg General Strike. They were sincere partisans of the Russian revolution. But accepting the International's "Conditions for Admission" would require a profound change in the party’s activities, and they were convinced that the SPC’s “education only” policy was correct.

Harrington made this point explicitly in his first contribution to the debate.

It is by this program – these eighteen points, we are bound if we apply for admission. The first question for us to decide then is: How far do these eighteen points coincide with our program and manifesto: and to what extent are we prepared to change, or modify these declarations, should it be necessary. Our activities to date have been governed by the principles of what has become generally known as the Marxian philosophy. Our understanding of this has led us to maintain a strictly educational program. . . . In accepting the eighteen points, we would have to change this position, and indulge in all manner of tactics which heretofore we have looked upon as, to say the least, futile.[13]

He discussed several of the "Conditions for Admission", showing that they ran counter to the SPC’s policy of devoting all of its efforts to Marxist education. Referring to the requirement that the party work to get reformists out of leadership positions in the labour movement, he wrote:

Such activity would immediately involve us in a series of bitter struggles that would hamper and in the end nullify our educational work . . . [I]t would use up all the precious time and energy, at present limited enough, for the work we are engaged in.[14]

This debate divided the SPC’s Vancouver-based leadership team, pitting Pritchard and Harrington against long standing comrades, most notably Jack Kavanagh, who was the former president of the B.C. Federation of Labour and a frequent speaker at the party’s weekly public meetings. Like Harrington, he recognized that the issue was what kind of party the Socialist Party should be. But unlike Harrington, he was strongly in favour of change. He wrote:

Concerning the position of the Party, Comrade Harrington says: “Still, as a matter of actual fact, Marxism, as we interpret and expound it, is a method of understanding social institutions, their development or decay, and if therefore our position was sound in the past, it must be equally so as long as we maintain it, theoretically or practically."

Marxism, as I understand it, is something more than the foregoing. It is also the application of the foregoing for the purpose of organizing the working class for the capture of political power.[15]

It is important to note that in this debate no one was saying that socialists should abstain from the class struggle or from participation in mass movements; people on both sides played prominent roles in the labour movement. The issue was what the SPC as a party should do. As Kavanagh wrote:

The terms of the Third International demand that as a party we do many things which have hitherto been done by party members on their own initiative. If we, as a party, expect ever to attain power on behalf of the working class, it is necessary that we be a disciplined organization.[16]

William Moriarty, Secretary of the SPC in Toronto, posed the question bluntly: “Our educational policy has, no doubt, been of value, but during these stirring times should not our policy be to make rebels and not philosophers?”[17] Moriarty’s question went straight to the heart of the debate – but it also illustrates how polarized the debate was. Polemical exaggeration made it difficult for the two sides to work together, and hastened the day when the party would split.

National and Colonial Liberation

A related issue focused on condition eight, which required Communists:

[T]o support every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds, to demand that the imperialists of its country be driven out of these colonies, to instill in the hearts of the workers of its country a truly fraternal attitude toward the laboring people in the colonies and toward the oppressed nations. . .[18]

This argument is ABC for most socialists today, but in 1921 it was a new idea for most of the left. The socialist revolution was supposed to begin in advanced capitalist countries; what did revolts in “backward” colonial countries have to do with it? As a contribution from Winnipeg Local Number 3 stated, “to support all liberation movements in the colonies is a policy of bourgeois nationalism, and is not the business of Revolutionary Socialism.”[19]

Harrington held the same view:

The emancipation of the wage slave from his bondage is our game, and colonial liberation movements are . . . folly without an overthrow of capitalism. I cannot see how colonies can be liberated and to what advantage if capitalism still rules.[20]

Kavanagh strongly disagreed:

The revolts now in progress in India, Egypt and Ireland take the form of civil wars between the peoples of those countries and the British State. . . In civil war, neutrality does not exist. Communists in those countries have no choice. They are compelled to become part of the rebel forces, whilst at the same time carrying on propaganda for a socialist revolution. Every success of a revolting colony against the Imperialist State weakens the power of that State. A weakened state is a prerequisite to a proletarian revolution.[21]

Despite this strong statement, another of Kavanagh’s articles showed that he failed to fully appreciate the implications of the Comintern's position on colonies and oppressed nationalities. Harrington warned that condition eight would require the SPC to “call for support to Quebec nationalists and, much more to the point, the Boer secessionist movement in South Africa.” That, he said, would be “political idiocy”.[22]

Instead of defending Quebec’s right to self-determination, Kavanagh responded by denying that such support would be required. He wrote: “There is a vast difference between the Quebec and Boer secessionist movements and those in the other dependencies.”[23]

Kavanagh was not alone in failing to support Quebec. The entire Canadian left, English and French, considered Quebec nationalism to be reactionary. Only decades later did revolutionary socialists rethink this issue.

Communist Movement Unites

In a sense, the debate in the Socialist Party was artificial. They were discussing whether to join the Communist International, when the International was already organizing in Canada. There were locals of the two competing US Communist Parties in Ontario, Quebec and Manitoba. In fact, Fred Kaplan, whose motion in the Winnipeg SPC local initiated the discussion, was secretly a member of the underground Winnipeg branch of the Communist Party of America. [24]

There was little or no communication or coordination between the various Communist groups in Canada until March 1921, when the International’s Pan American Agency sent a representative to Canada with instructions to merge the groups into a single party. Caleb Harrison, who used the pseudonym Atwood, visited Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto, establishing the first links between the Canadian groups. The result was the secret Unity Convention that founded the Communist Party of Canada in Guelph, Ontario, on May 23, 1921.

The program adopted by that meeting made a particular point of contrasting the Communists’ interventionist approach to the labour movement, with the SPC’s abstentionism.

The socialist parties of Canada have not hitherto understood the real importance of the role of trade unions in the preparation of the proletarian revolution . . . Socialist propaganda in the trade unions was carried on not under the direction of a Socialist Party but by individuals and very loosely connected groups and this propaganda was not infrequently of an academic character. The necessity not only for organized party propaganda but also for active participation in the every day struggle of the laboring masses with the aim of directing that struggle into revolutionary channels was not clearly grasped.[25]

Unfortunately, this insight into the Socialist Party’s weakness was combined with policies that isolated the Communists from potential allies, and gave ammunition to their opponents in the Socialist Party. Those opponents wrote several very effective articles ridiculing the new Communist Party’s determination to be an “illegal” and “underground” organization. When the first issue of The Communist was published, the newspaper of the newly united Communist Party contained no names of writers or editors, and no address, not even the city in which it was published. The Western Clarion’s review of the new paper was headed “The ‘Safety First’ Communists,” suggesting that the Communists were afraid to publicly defend their views. The editors had particular fun with a quote from The Communist Manifesto that appeared in the underground party’s newspaper:

"The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions." Now these people admire that statement. They say that Marx and Engels "sum up proudly" by declaring it. Marx and Engels said it. They endorse it. But who are they? . . . .[T]hese people, while endorsing what Marx and Engels wrote and signed, fail to sign the endorsation. They have chosen in this paragraph the very best quotation in all Marxian literature, illustrative of their own nervous condition.[26]

In the next issue of the Western Clarion, William Pritchard dismissed the underground group as “sewer-pipe revolutionists” and “our friends of the rat-hole persuasion (by choice).”

Our Torontonian terrors (if Toronto be their place of abode) have evidently decided that the time may, or will, come when the progressive proletarian movement will be forced underground. Ergo, let us dig our burrows now and become secretive. And furthermore, let us announce the fact that we are to become secret. Tut! Tut![27]

Pritchard’s sarcasm hit home. The Canadian Communists were already realizing, as party Chairman Maurice Spector later wrote, that being “underground” left them in danger of being “wholly left behind in the organization of the left elements of the Canadian Labor movement which were beginning to stir.”[28] Being underground and “illegal” stood in the way of attracting the SPC members who ought to have been their allies. One member who was in favour of affiliation insisted that he did not mean “the Toronto secret outfit,” which, he was sure, had “no connection with the Third International.”[29] And a pro-Comintern SPC branch responded to a letter that encouraged them to join the Communist Party, with the quite reasonable objection that they had received no information about the underground group, and had never met anyone who admitted to be a member.[30]

The Third Congress of the Communist International, held in Moscow in the summer of 1921, discussed the “undergroundism” of the US and Canadian Communist Parties, and came down firmly against it. The International’s Executive Committee later summed up the decision in a letter to the Canadian Communists:

Although illegal work proves an excellent teacher of communist discipline and education, it threatens to isolate the party from the working masses. Without a connection to the working masses the party becomes a head without a body, a General Staff without troops. The constant endeavor of an illegal communist party should be to avail itself of every opportunity for the creation of a legal organization, controlled by the illegal party, which would enable it to get in touch with the working masses.[31]

The Communist Party of Canada accepted the Third Congress’s advice enthusiastically. In August it launched a public newspaper, Workers Guard, and began making plans to form a “legal” party. Public communist groups, using various names, were established in several cities during the fall.

But what was to be done about the pro-International forces in the Socialist Party?

Splitting the SPC

Two of the delegates to the May 1921 Unity Convention were William Moriarty and Jack Kavanagh, the most prominent advocates of affiliation in the SPC debate.[32] The convention gave them an opportunity to discuss strategy and to plan their next steps. Their conclusions were summarized in the second issue of the new party’s official newspaper:

The leading intellectuals of the S.P. of C. have been discussing Bolshevism back and forth now for two years, sometimes with a little intelligence, mostly stupidly. The party-paper has been carrying on an interminable debate for and against affiliation with the Comintern, and apparently it is the intention to obtain a literary contribution on the subject from each of its members before moving — and then maybe. . . .

[The SPC] apparently does not believe in conventions. It believes in “education” and “study classes” as the sum-total of political activity. It believes in sitting on the fence. And chewing the cud of “socialist philosophy”. . . .

For or against the Communist International! For or against the Proletarian Dictatorship! For or against proletarian mass-action! There is no convenient half-way house. The Communist Party calls upon every honest worker in the S.P. of C. to abandon those cowardly pedants and centrists who are in control of the party-organ and to line up with the Canadian section of the Communist International.[33]

As this passage shows, by mid-1921 the Communists had given up on winning over the SPC as an organization. The goal now was to win over the largest possible number of SPC members, and then to take those members out of the SPC and into the Communist Party. The delegates from Winnipeg and Vancouver returned home with that objective. To help in Vancouver, where the Communists had no organization outside of the SPC, the party executive asked the Comintern’s Pan American Agency to send a representative from the US, “to force the development of the illegal movement in the far west, and the disruption of the SPC.”[34]

On September 30, the Communist Party sent a letter to Socialist Party locals across Canada:

Comrades – We have watched with interest the discussion which has been carried on during the last few months in your official organ.

The discussion shows that there is a large proportion of your membership who feel that the interests of the revolutionary movement demand international unity of the working class.

While we realize that all important questions of policy require careful consideration, we feel that ample time has been taken in this case for every viewpoint to be expressed, and for every member to take a definite stand.

Comrades: The time has come for action. We appeal to you to demand a Party Convention at once to settle this vital question. Should this demand not be complied with, we hereby instruct all militants to leave the S.P. of C. and align themselves with the International of the World Revolution through the Communist Party of Canada.[35]

The battle was now joined – the literary debate in the pages of the Western Clarion slowed to a halt, while the two factions organized their forces for the coming showdown.

The first major skirmish took place in Winnipeg, when the Socialist Party nominated One Big Union leader Bob Russell to run in the federal election in north Winnipeg. As Russell told the story ten years later, Fred Kaplan, Matthew Popowich and two other leaders of the underground Communist Party secretly offered to support him in the election – but only on certain terms. Their support was conditional on Russell signing a written agreement to let them write all of his speeches and election literature, and, if elected, to pay them $1,000.00 a year.[36]

The editor of the One Big Union Bulletin later wrote that this proved the Communists were corrupt. A more reasonable interpretation is that the Communists proposed the agreement to ensure that Russell promoted a revolutionary program on the hustings and in Parliament, and that the $1,000.00, ostensibly paid to four individuals, was actually a way of channeling part of Russell’s income as an MP to the underground (and thus unmentionable in a written agreement) Communist Party.

Whatever their intentions, it was a remarkably stupid maneuver, one that the Toronto-based national leadership of the Communist Party disavowed in conversations with traveling SPC speaker Frank Cassidy.[37] The proposal alienated Russell and intensified the already bitter factional strife in the SPC. Russell showed the proposed agreement to the provincial executive of the Socialist Party, which promptly placed Kaplan on trial for forming “a political compromise with persons outside the party”, in violation of SPC rules. After being found guilty and suspended for six months, he resigned from the party.[38]

Meanwhile, the Workers Alliance (the “legal” face of the underground Communist Party in Winnipeg) nominated Jacob Penner to run against Russell in north Winnipeg. After the election, which Russell lost by just 715 votes, Popowich said that the Workers Alliance ran because Russell had refused to support the program of the Third International, and bragged that Penner’s campaign was responsible for Russell’s defeat.[39] Similarly, the Western Clarion said that the Workers Alliance “entered this election in order to defeat R.B. Russell, and they succeeded.”[40]

That was not literally true: Penner received only 565 votes, not enough to make up the difference. However, a united effort of both parties, or even an independent Communist campaign of critical support to Russell, might have produced the first ever election of a declared Marxist to Parliament. A year later, such united front tactics were widely adopted by the Communist Party; but in the fall of 1921, it was still hobbled by the sectarianism of the underground.

The November 16 issue of Western Clarion announced that the Dominion Executive of the SPC had finally called for a national referendum on whether the Party should unconditionally accept the "21 Conditions". In the same week, the Communist newspaper Workers Guard called on socialist and labour groups to meet in Toronto on December 11, to lay the groundwork for a Workers Party of Canada.

Early in December, the Winnipeg local of the SPC voted 25 to 11 to sever its connections with the Dominion Executive Committee, and joined the Workers Party. Two Lettish (Latvian speaking) SPC locals in Manitoba did the same.

In Vancouver, discussion at the referendum meeting was so heated (according to a police spy) that Pritchard and Kavanagh nearly came to blows.[41] When affiliation was defeated by 37 to 24, the minority immediately left the SPC and formed a branch of the Workers Party. Four of them, including Jack Kavanagh, issued a statement headed "The Parting of the Ways":

Those whom we have hitherto looked upon as revolutionary Marxists refuse to accept the task which the International Communist movement has laid before them.

To them the academy is preferable to work among the masses. In the academy let them stay. That is the real position of the party — an academic institution: not a political party of the working class. . . .

To us the road is clear. We will go forward with the revolutionary workers of the Third International. The road is hard, but the goal is worth all of the hardships of the task before us. Let the slogan of the Communist Manifesto become a reality: “Workers of all countries unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains.”[42]

The December 11 meeting in Toronto adopted a draft program, called for a national convention  in February, and elected the Provisional Organizing Committee of the Workers Party of Canada. On December 22, the committee assigned Fred Peel, Florence Custance and William Moriarty to prepare an appeal calling on the left wing of the SPC to join the Workers Party.[43]

“A split is now inevitable,” they wrote. “The educationists will reorganize and continue their philosophical readings. But you – the Left Wingers, who stand out clearly and strongly for the Third, what will you do?” The Appeal branded the SPC as “an educational sect . . . out of touch with the masses of the workers”, and urged the left wing to join the Workers Party in building “a strong party of struggle”.[44]

The same committee meeting finalized plans for party chair Jack MacDonald to travel west on a speaking and organizing tour. In city after city he convinced SPC members and even entire locals to come over to the Workers Party. By early January, Winnipeg claimed that the combination of the former Workers Alliance with the majority of former SPC members resulted in an organization with “over 300 members, including 83 English in Central Branch.”[45] On January 21, Workers Guard announced two new branches, of 31 members in Saskatoon and another of 50 in Edmonton.

The tour’s climax was a meeting in Vancouver on Sunday, January 22, attended by some 2,000 people. MacDonald, who was known as one of the most effective labour orators in Toronto, made a sensitive but hard hitting appeal to Socialist Party members:

The speaker realized that it was hard for the S.P. of C. comrades to make up their minds. It was hard for old-timers like [George] Armstrong to break with the S.P. and natural that they should feel a little sympathy and affection for the party they had struggled with for the last 18 years. But at this stage of the struggle they must rise above questions of party. . . .

“We must cease to be theorists, Mr. Chairman, and become realists. I do not want to decry or belittle the educational work that has been done; but if we believe that the revolution depends on a thorough understanding of the Marxian theory, etc., by the working class, then we may take it for granted that the working class will remain slaves for all eternity.”. . .

As to the educationalists, however, there would be work for them to do in the new party – to teach economics, etc. But the emancipation of the working class would be the work of the working class itself. . . .[46]

Following the speech, which was repeatedly interrupted by applause, MacDonald and Kavanagh took a train to Toronto, to prepare for the founding convention of the Workers Party of Canada. That meeting, held February 17-20, brought former Socialist Party members into the party in a very public way. Jack Kavanagh was named chairman of the meeting, and gave the opening address. In view of the difficulties and cost of travel, the 16 delegates from west of Ontario were given two votes each. And, as we have already noted, the party’s new newspaper, The Worker, stressed the unity of Communists “East and West” in a banner headline.

End of the Socialist Party

The formation of the Workers Party of Canada marked the real birth of communism as an open and influential political current in the Canadian working class. Its rapid growth was remarkable: by August 1922 it had over 4,000 members, many times more than the Socialist Party had had since before the War.[47] The B.C. section alone grew from the initial 24 members to 439 members a year later.[48]

The Communists had made more than a few mistakes, and their sectarian policies undoubtedly alienated many potential supporters in the SPC. But they rapidly jettisoned those policies in 1921-22, and on the fundamental issue of building a “party of action . . . a party of the workers, and with them in their daily struggles against capitalist oppression”,[49] they were solidly in tune with the needs of the day.

The Socialist Party eventually reported that a majority of 18 had voted in favour of joining the Third International, but since “several times that number” had walked out to join the Workers Party before the referendum was complete, “the membership obviously stands opposed to affiliation.”[50] It was a pyrrhic victory for the Harrington-Pritchard leadership: the party they still headed was less than half its previous size, and was heading towards oblivion. As the Workers Party grew, the SPC’s membership fell, until the Party finally dissolved in 1925.

In the final issue of the Western Clarion, a long standing member reflected that “the process of decline seems to date from the party’s rejection of the Twenty-one Points”. Harrington admitted that after 1921: “Support fell away, and we became a sort of suspended animation in working class life, good old has-beens, having served a good purpose, but no longer 'en rapport' as it were.”[51]

Harrington, Pritchard and their co-thinkers are nearly forgotten today, but in their time they were important Marxist leaders, deeply committed to the working class movement. They could have been major assets to the new Communist Party. But they held fast to a brand of “Marxism” that was abstract and passive, at a time when global changes had put concrete action on the order of the day for revolutionaries. They were fatalists when working people around the world were moving consciously to take control of their destinies.

As Jack Kavanagh said, Marxism is not just a theory or a method of analyzing social change. It is the application of theory and analysis “for the purpose of organizing the working class for the capture of political power.” Because the SPC leaders never accepted this premise, their theory and analysis were irrelevant to the lives of the working people whose cause they sincerely supported.[52]

A majority of the Marxist left rejected their approach, and the Canadian Communist movement was born.


[1]The Workers Guard, December 17, 1921

[2] An earlier version of this paper was posted on the Socialist History Project website in June 2005, It has been rewritten to incorporate additional research and new conclusions. Peter Campbell, John Riddell and Lis Angus generously provided many useful comments and suggestions, but they bear no responsibility for any errors of fact or judgment that remain the final product.

[3] Western Clarion, May 16, 1920

[4] Western Clarion, September, 1915

[5] Western Clarion, February, 1916

[6] Western Clarion, August 1, 1921

[7] Western Clarion, May 1, 1920

[8] V.I. Lenin, Collected Works, vol. 5 (Moscow: 1973), p. 423

[9] For more detail, see the account of the three-day debate on the 21 Conditions, in John Riddell ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! (New York: 1991).

[10] Western Clarion, January 16, 1921

[11] Western Clarion, January 16, 1921

[12] Western Clarion, February 15, 1921

[13] Harrington wrote “eighteen points” because the last three had not yet been published in the Western Clarion. Western Clarion, February 1, 1921

[14] Western Clarion, February 1, 1921

[15] Western Clarion, March 16, 1921

[16] Western Clarion, March 16, 1921

[17] Western Clarion, April 11, 1921

[18] Riddell, Workers of the World, p. 768

[19] Western Clarion, March 1, 1921

[20] Western Clarion, February 1, 1921

[21] Western Clarion, February 15, 1921

[22] Western Clarion, March 16, 1921

[23] Western Clarion, April 16, 1921. Kavanagh, a partisan of the Irish independence struggle, was apparently unaware that the Irish Marxist leader James Connolly supported the Boers’ fight against the British empire.

[24] In Winnipeg, in March 1921, a Comintern representative met with “a member of the S.P., Kaplan by name” who had dues stamps from the Communist Party of America. (Report of Organizer Atwood, Comintern Fonds, Reel K-271, Library and Archives Canada.)

[25] “Program of the Communist Party of Canada”, The Communist, vol. 1, no. 1. June 1921

[26] Western Clarion, June 1, 1921

[27] Western Clarion, July 16, 1921

[28] Kenny Collection, Box 1. Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto

[29] Western Clarion, August 1, 1924

[30] Western Clarion, November 1, 1921

[31] ECCI to Communist Party of Canada, December 28, 1921. Comintern Fonds, Reel K-271

[32] In Canadian Bolsheviks (2nd edition, p. 69), I speculated that the delegate from SPC in western Canada may have been Fred Kaplan. Documents that have since become available show that it was Kavanagh. (See David Akers, “Rebel or Revolutionary? Jack Kavanagh and the Early Years of the Communist Movement in Vancouver, 1920-1925,” Labour/Le Travail 30, Fall 1992).

[33] The Communist, no. 2. (July 1921)

[34] Central Executive Committee Minutes, July 13, 1921. Comintern Fonds, Reel K-271.

[35] Quoted in Western Clarion, Nov. 1, 1921

[36] Peter Campbell, Canadian Marxists and the Search for a Third Way (Montreal: 1999), pp. 196-7.

[37] “I had a long conversation with the boys in Toronto. Most of those I spoke to were members of the Communist Party. . . . I will say this for them, that they disapproved of the ‘tactics’ employed by Kaplan in Winnipeg, and roundly denounced such methods of ‘securing control.’” (Western Clarion, March 16, 1922).

[38] Western Clarion, November 1, 1921

[39] His comments were reported in the Dec. 12, 1921 issues of The Globe and the Toronto Star.

[40] Western Clarion, December 16, 1921

[41] David Akers, “Rebel or Revolutionary?”, p. 33

[42] B.C. Federationist, January 6, 1922

[43] Provisional Organizing Committee Minutes, December 22, 1921. Kenny Papers, Box 1.

[44] B.C. Federationist, January 6, 1922

[45] Provisional Organizing Committee Minutes, January 7, 1922. Kenny Papers, Box 1. There was undoubtedly an element of revolutionary optimism in this claim.

[46] B.C. Federationist, January 27, 1922

[47] Speaking in Vancouver in January 1922, Jack MacDonald estimated the SPC’s 1921 membership at 350. B.C. Federationist, January 27, 1922

[48] The Worker, February 15, 1923

[49] Workers Guard, December 17, 1921

[50] Western Clarion, March 1, 1922

[51] Western Clarion, July-August 1925


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