This essay was written in 1976 by an undergraduate history student at the University of Toronto. The second paragraph says it is "the first account of any substance on the activities and ideas of the Trotskyists in Canada from Spector’s expulsion to the beginning of World War II," a largely accurate statement.
The author has given permission to post it on the Socialist History Website, but has asked that his name be withheld at this time.
Readers may also be interested in Trotskyism in Canada in the 1930s, two essays on the same topic by Ian Angus, also written in the mid-1970s.
In actual point of time the Trotskyist movement in Canada began in 1928 with the expulsion of Maurice Spector from the Communist Party of Canada (CPC). However, Trotskyism was not a new movement, a new doctrine in 1928 — it was merely a revival of the experience and ideas of the 1917 Russian Revolution and the early days of the Communist International. In the interim Stalin had triumphed in the Soviet Union and Stalinism was becoming rooted in the Canadian section and other sections of the Communist International. Because they pointed out and opposed the rise of bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, Trotsky and the Left Oppositionists (or anyone else who merely opposed Stalin) were expelled from the Soviet Communist Party and the various Communist Parties around the world.
This paper picks up from there and attempts to give the first account of any substance on the activities and ideas of the Trotskyists in Canada from Spector’s expulsion to the beginning of World War II.
Not only in the realm of ideas but also in leadership the Canadian Trotskyists represent a certain continuity from the early communist movement. The two key leaders of the CPC in the 1920s were Maurice Spector and Jack MacDonald, the leaders of the Trotskyists until about 1937. When the Workers’ Party of Canada (the first name of the CPC) was founded in 1922 Spector was party chairman and MacDonald was the secretary. Both men held these positions when they were expelled or suspended. In addition, three other early leaders of the CPC eventually joined the Trotskyist movement: Max Armstrong, Malcolm Bruce and Jack Kavanagh. Armstrong and Bruce did not join until after World War II and Kavanagh became a leader in Australia.
The Communist Party Expels Spector …
"After James P. Cannon and two other outstanding leaders in the United States had been expelled, I was asked to support the action of the United States party. I was asked for my views. I stated them."
Those are the words of Maurice Spector, quoted by The Globe, the first paper to report on the expulsion. Spector stated his views in a statement to the Political Committee of the CPC November 6. On November 11, 1928 the Central Executive Committee expelled the party’s chairman, the editor of its paper, The Worker, and its journal, Canadian Labor Monthly, and its only representative on the Executive Committee of the Comintern: Maurice Spector.
Within a few weeks of Spector’s expulsion about thirty members of the Communist Party and its youth group, the Young Communist League (YCL), had been expelled for refusing to endorse the attack on Trotskyism. Although opposing the expulsions and calling for inner party democracy was then enough to brand one a Trotskyist, not all the expelled were Trotskyists and they did not all join in building the Trotskyist movement.
(During the thirties, and later years, it was not uncommon for a member of the CPC and/or YCL to be expelled for "Trotskyism," yet not even know what it was. The expelled member would then try to find out what a Trotskyist was and often end up joining the Trotskyist movement.)
A number of the expelled who did become Trotskyists were active in the needle trades union and this continued to be an important area of activity for the movement. The first public meeting of the Opposition was held at the Standard Theatre in Toronto in February, 1929. Spector addressed an audience of about 350. The group would issue the occasional leaflet on important questions. For example, The Militant reports the Canadian Opposition issuing a four-page leaflet on the situation in the Soviet Union and the Comintern and Trotsky’s deportation from the U.S.S.R., in English, Jewish and Ukrainian. Although the leaflet was reported distributed in the "important centres of Canada," the Opposition was at the time confined to Toronto.
Communist League of America (Opposition)
Until 1934 the Trotskyists in Canada and the United States functioned as part of a single organization, the Communist League of America (Opposition) (CLA(O) ). The founding conference of this group was held May 17-19, 1929 and two delegates and one alternate delegate attended from Toronto. Spector gave a report on "The Crisis in the Communist International" and was one of seven members elected to the National Committee, the leadership body elected by the conference. The constitution of the Communist League describes the group’s purpose:
Meanwhile, the expulsions continued — and not only from the Party. In October, 1929 two Trotskyists, Maurice Quarter and Joe Silver, were purged from the Workers Sports Alliance. They were leaders of the Alliance at the time. Quarter reports, "all the non-Party members supported us till the end, and at first even the Party and YCL members refused to vote against us until threatened with disciplinary measures." Seventy-seven members of the YCL in Toronto were expelled for criticizing their leadership. CPC and YCL members who had joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU) were expelled simply for joining the union. The CPC was in a state of decline at the time; from 1929 to 1931 the number of dues-paying members dropped from 2876 to 1385. This was during the "third period," called into being by the Stalinists at the sixth congress of the Comintern in 1928.
The "third period," according to the Stalinist schema, was the final period of capitalism, the period of its immediately pending demise and its replacement by socialism. The tactics of the Communist Parties internationally were marked by ultraleftism, adventurism, sectarian "red" trade unions and opposition to the united front. This policy was in effect until about 1934.
The early thirties in Toronto were characterized by a climate of political reaction under the police administration of General Draper. "Open-air meetings were dispersed on every occasion by police clubs, speakers were cruelly man-handled and beaten. Hall owners were prevented from renting out their assembly halls by the fear of losing their license."This situation limited the activities of both the Trotskyists and Stalinists. For the former it meant directing most of their attention to the latter. This was not without its difficulties. For example, the representatives of the CLA(O) were barred from the federal election conference organized by the CPC. (However, Quarter attended the conference as the representative of his union local and was elected to the executive of the conference.) 
As part of the climate of political reaction that existed at the time, eight leaders of the CPC were arrested and convicted under Section 98 of the Criminal Code. The Trotskyists considered this an attack upon the whole working class and called for a united struggle against the reaction. Spector wrote in the Militant:
The Trotskyists participated in the conferences organized by the CPC to protest the attacks and to call for the repeal of Section 98, often assuming leading positions within the conferences.
By 1930 the CLA(O) began to receive a hearing in Montreal. Max Shachtman, a leader from the U.S., spoke there in June and July. At the second conference of the CLA(O) in October, 1931 a small branch from Montreal was represented.  Albert Glotzer, another American leader, spoke there in February, 1931. Glotzer reported that there was only one active member in Montreal at the time of his tour.
Glotzer also spoke in Toronto to an illegally-organized meeting attended by over 500 people. He reported twelve to fifteen members were in the Toronto branch but that "the branch as a whole is not active.... The branch rejected the political theses of the conference [of the CLA(O) in October] as well as its decisions."
An internal dispute had begun to develop in the Toronto branch some time in 1931. The National Committee considered this dispute the result of the stagnant condition of the branch caused by the "heavy defeats suffered by the Canadian Communist movement as a whole," the isolation of the branch and its failure to secure a national basis for the Left Opposition.
In addition, the heterogeneous composition of the branch and its failure to weld an homogenous working group produced a process of disintegration in the branch. In this situation "acrimonious personal quarrels" began to acquire a political content.
The National Committee was forced to intervene in the dispute. At its plenum in June, 1932 presentations were made by Spector and William Krehm, representing the two different tendencies. The National Committee decided to support "the political tendency represented by Comrade Spector," then a minority in the branch.
Earlier, in November, 1931, the leadership of the CLA(O) had publicly criticized the Toronto branch for not sending their delegates officially to the Workers’ Rights and Anti-Deportation Conference organized by the CPC. The Toronto branch reported, "Our branch, under the specific prevailing conditions, decided, for tactical reasons, not to ask affiliation to the conference directly as an organization, but our comrades are active in the conference..." The Militant, the official organ of the CLA(O), considered this a serious error:
The plenum considered this the outstanding error of the majority grouping. This grouping had begun with criticisms of Spector for not leading the branch at one time and developed from there. The plenum declared that "this group, by itself, lacks political stability and is not sufficiently serious in its attitude toward the League as a whole and its National Committee…"
It was decided that the branch should start on a new foundation and re-unite at once on the basis of the plenum resolution. Both Spector and Krehm pledged to support the decisions of the plenum. The plenum also decided to aim for "creating an autonomous Canadian movement on a national scale in the shortest possible time, and to accelerate steps toward it."
This was easier said than done and at its July 29, 1932 meeting the resident National Committee demanded, "that the comrades of both groups within two weeks of receipt of this decision definitely get together and make preparations to carry out the N.C. resolution as a preparatory step to the future work in Canada."
About this time Jack MacDonald joined the CLA(O). MacDonald was a founder and leader of the CPC and its secretary until his suspension in 1930. MacDonald appears to have been expelled because he blocked with and defended the right wing of the party against the Stalin faction. The right wing was expelled in 1929 and MacDonald was expelled in late 1930 following orders from Moscow. By May, 1932, MacDonald had joined the Trotskyist movement.
MacDonald sided with Spector’s tendency in the internal dispute in the Toronto branch. By October the two groups had still not re-united. About this time the Trotskyists slowly began to break out of their isolation. In the summer a series of classes in Marxism, directed by Spector, was launched. Attendance was reported at thirty-five to forty. MacDonald and Spector were asked to speak to various Workers Associations, forums, etc. Sales of the Militant tripled. Sales of Unser Kamf, the Jewish-language organ of the International Left Opposition, were increasing and the Unser Kamf Workers Club was about to form.
Spartacus Youth Club
About this time a Spartacus Youth Club was formed in Toronto. A number of Spartacus Youth Clubs had been formed in the U.S. and functioned as a youth group of the CLA(O). The Spartacus Youth Club (SYC) was a recruiting field for the adult movement and carried on activities of its own. Its membership included young members of the adult organization and people who were not members of the CLA(O).
One of the first of these activities was the formation of the Student League of Canada at the University of Toronto. The Student League was formed at the same meeting that dissolved the Student League for Social Reconstruction, October 28, 1932. It published the first issue of its paper, The Spark, in November. At least four members of the Executive Committee of seven were or would be members of the SYC. The Student League was an organization of Marxists when it was formed. The first issue of The Spark contains an article on Germany from Trotsky’s writings.
By the time of the fourth issue of The Spark (February-March) the majority of the Student League supported the YCL and the Trotskyists had been defeated. Two members of the SYC remained on the executive. The Student League lay fallow for a year until November, 1934 when an attempt was made to transform it into a broad organization and the name of its paper changed to The Student.
In April, 1933 the SYC published the first issue of its paper, October Youth. The paper was mimeographed and about fifteen pages in length. In December, 1933 its name was changed to the Young Militant and it continued to come out for another year.
The first recruits to the SYC were from the YCL. No doubt the organizers of the SYC were themselves expelled from the YCL. The June-July, 1933 October Youth reports the expulsion of seven members of the YCL for Trotskyism. The activities of the SYC centered around the YCL, holding study classes and open forums, and distributing the Left Opposition press. By December, 1933 there were Spartacus Youth Clubs in Toronto, Mount Dennis and Montreal.
The Break Out of Isolation
According to a report of two years later the Toronto branch of the CLA(O) had eight or nine members in 1932. This was probably its low point in membership and probably included only the Spector group. In November-December the Toronto branch is reported to be "steadily increasing its membership." In November, 1932 the Toronto branch published the first issue of its newspaper, the Vanguard.
From this point the Trotskyist movement in Canada begins to break out of its isolation. The key reasons for this were the events in Germany and the Trotskyist response to these events. They called for a genuine united front of all workers organizations in Germany and warned of the imminent victory of fascism if this was not built. They criticized the German Communist Party for refusing to do so, for considering the German social-democrats (and all social-democrats) social-fascists and then for failing to recognize their errors after the triumph of Hitler. Also important in this regard was an application of the united front to Canada: the anti-fascist demonstration of July 11, 1933.
By February 1933 the internal dispute of the Toronto Branch had come to a conclusion. The Spector group reported to the National Committee that:
The "Roth-Krehm Group" is described as having "vanished into thin air" and to no longer function as a group. The Spector group (the Toronto organization) proposed to admit individuals from the other group "who have learned from events" on their individual merits. (The fate of William Krehm is unclear. In the fall of that year he is reported as a public spokesperson for the CLA(O) in Montreal.) By this time there were at least eighteen members in the Toronto organization.
During the first half of 1933 MacDonald and/or Spector spoke to audiences of 300 to 500 who had come to hear them put forward the position of the Left Opposition on the events in Germany. The attitude of the Stalinists was to attempt to disrupt some of these meetings.
In the spring the Trotskyists participated in the formation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Conference and the English-speaking Anti-Fascist Conference. Spector was on the Executive of the Jewish Conference and represented it on the Executive Committee of the English-speaking Conference. He also spoke as a representative of the Conference at mass meetings. The SYC participated in both Conferences and The Unser Kamf Workers Club participated in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Conference.
These two conferences, together with some trade unions, formed a Joint Council of Action, which organized a two hour general strike and demonstration against fascism in July 11. It was the largest workers’ action in Canada since the Winnipeg General Strike, involving 25,000 people and more than one hundred organizations. The Globe reported it was "the first parade of its kind permitted by the authorities in the past twelve years," playing an important role in defeating police repression in Toronto.
The Trotskyist contingent, which carried the banner, "Forward to Victory Under the Banner of Lenin and Trotsky," numbered 150 and included 60 workers from the Star Knitting Mills.
Both Spector and MacDonald spoke at the rally at Queens Park following the parade. In his speech Spector paid tribute to the marchers for breaking through the police ban on meetings and urged a continuation of the struggle for free speech and assembly and for repeal of Section 96 and release of the eight CPCers. He also spoke on the events in Germany.
The CPC participated in the action and in fact dominated the English-speaking conference, which voted to expel Spector even though he was the elected representative of the Jewish Conference. In any case, this united front action "dealt a crushing blow to the confused Stalinist theory of the "united front from below" " (a united front with the workers but not with their organizations or their leaders, in reality no united front at all).
About the beginning of 1933 Earle Birney joined the Trotskyist movement. Birney wrote a novel, Down the Long Table, based on his experiences in the Trotskyist movement so it is worthwhile to note his actual role in the movement. Birney began to study Marxism in the fall of 1932, first coming in contact with the YCL. At a party at the home of Harry Cassidy, Birney for the first time met some Trotskyists and decided to join forces with them. Since Birney was studying to finish off his Ph.D. it was decided he should not get very much involved in local action. In the spring Birney drove out to Vancouver, where he had a job teaching for the summer and where he was to organize a branch of the CLA(O). He was joined there by Sylvia Johnstone, a member of the SYC in Toronto.
As for Vancouver, there were scattered forces as early as 1931. By September, 1933, Birney and Johnstone had succeeded in establishing a branch there. Their activities that summer consisted of distributing the Militant and the Vanguard and Trotskyist literature. Birney led a YCL study group until they found out he was a Trotskyist. The branch did not make any great headway during its first year, according to a report sent to Toronto by Birney, who was in Vancouver the next summer.
During the 1933-34 school term Birney was teaching at his old job in Salt Lake City. He joined the Communist Party there, was eventually expelled and set up a branch of the CLA(O). During 1934-35 he was in Europe, where he worked with the Trotskyist faction in the Independent Labour Party in England and interviewed Trotsky in Norway.
During the last few years he was in the Trotskyist movement Birney was one of the three key leaders in Canada. Birney left the movement in January, 1940 over disagreements with the Trotskyists' position on the War.
Down the Long Table is a novel and not an autobiography and therefore difficult to appreciate from a historical perspective. It is fiction based on fact in such a way that it is difficult to separate the two. Birney does not claim that it tells the truth about his experiences in the Trotskyist movement; we can look forward to that in his autobiography. Take for example the "hero" of the novel, Gordon Saunders, whose experiences are obviously based on Birney’s own life. Like Birney, Saunders’ first contact with the radical movement is with the YCL, who cast him off as a Trotskyist. ("Then there are Trotskyites?") Saunders meets his first Trotskyists at a party at the home of Professor Cathcart, who is "an economics prof mixed up with the League for Social Reconstruction." Saunders is soon won over and once summer comes he heads for Vancouver hopping boxcars, in true Great Depression style (not in his own car, like Birney), and once there stays in Hotel Universe, a flophouse for prostitutes (not the home of his mother) and attempts to organize the Vancouver branch. Except for Saunders’ work among the unemployed the novel henceforth is not based on Birney’s own experiences and nothing in the book faintly resembles Birney’s important contribution to building the Trotskyist movement during the next six years. Down the Long Table is fiction and it is the historian’s task to set the record straight.
The Militant in September, 1933 reported "some good news and some bad news" from Toronto. The "bad news" was that the Stalinist dominated Workers United Front Provincial Nomination Conference refused to seat the Trotskyist delegates. The "good news" was that ten times (30) as many delegates voted against the motion to exclude them as did in a similar situation several years ago.
About the same time fourteen members of the Clara Zetkin branch of the Canadian Labour Defence League in Toronto and three members of the Jewish branch in Montreal were expelled. The Toronto members were expelled for criticizing a CLDL pamphlet which contained an attack on the International Left Opposition. Those expelled considered it outside the bounds of the CLDL to make a political attack on organizations opposing the Stalinists. The Montreal members were expelled on no other charge than Trotskyism. Through the Vanguard the Trotskyists argued that, "The Defence League can successfully perform its defence work only if it is a non-partisan, mass organization, free from mechanical control by a faction" (i.e., the CPC).
Following the July 11 demonstration attendance at Trotskyist meetings in Toronto seems to have qualitatively increased. There were 1000 to 1500 people at two meetings organized in Earlscourt Park during August. The meetings dealt with the struggle for free speech and assembly and the program of the newly-formed Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).
In Montreal the public meetings of the CLA(O) during Autumn, 1933 were attracting from 100 to 300 people. The principal speaker of the Montreal branch was William Krehm. The Montreal Trotskyists faced harassment from the Stalinists in the form of attempts to disrupt their meetings, removing posters advertising their meetings, pickets at their meetings, physical attacks against individuals and of course exclusion or expulsion from Stalinist so-called united front conferences. The statement of the Montreal branch and SYC on their expulsion from the Anti-Fascist and Free Speech[!] Conference gives their position on the united front:
Towards a New International and a New Party
Hitherto the Trotskyists were attempting to reform the Communist International and the Communist Parties. Although expelled they considered themselves a faction struggling to put these organizations back on the correct revolutionary road. Following Hitler’s rise to power and then the endorsation by the Comintern of the whole previous Stalinist policy in Germany the Trotskyists set their sights on building a Fourth International and new revolutionary parties.
Naturally this meant a change in policy and activity for the Canadian Trotskyists. Public meetings attended by 700 people heard CLA(O) spokespersons explain the need for a new International. This change is exemplified by the turn made by the SYC. They went from a "loyal fraction" of the YCL to setting "itself the task of becoming the revolutionary youth organization." The SYC would now attempt to "establish nuclei of young workers in the factories" and do more extensive work among students. "Our main task will be to educate the young workers and lead them in their daily struggles." The change in name of the paper of the SYC from October Youth to Young Militant reflected this change in the nature of the SYC. The Trotskyists passed from the stage of criticism to that of independent leadership.
In the summer of 1933 some Ukrainian contacts of the CLA(O) established a Ukrainian workers club of some thirty members. A number of the members of this club joined the Toronto branch. The club put out a newspaper called Robitnychi Visty (Labour News) and published 63 issues from November, 1933 to July 28, 1936. By May, 1934 the club had contacts in every important city and rural area with a large Ukrainian population. Except for those members who were Toronto branch, the Ukrainian group operated pretty much separately from the branch, similar to the Ukrainians in the CPC at the time.[58a]
The Toronto branch itself was reorganized into four territorial groups. In Mount Dennis weekly forums addressed by MacDonald or Spector and classes in Marxism were held in addition to similar activities held downtown. The movement had grown considerably, thus the reorganization.  (*The February, 1934 Vanguard reports that in Montreal a "growing Spartacus Club and an active senior unit are already making their presence felt.")
Steps were taken toward the establishment of an autonomous section of the Canadian branches of the CLA(O). March 8, 1934 the National Committee passed the following motion:
The "Field Group"
About April-May 1934 half a dozen members of the Toronto branch and almost all of the Montreal branch split from the CLA(O) and joined the Organizing Committee for a Revolutionary Workers Party. This group was set up by B.J. Field, leader of the 1934 New York hotel workers’ strike and later a consulting economist to Wall Street brokerage firms, and a handful of his followers, following Field’s expulsion from the New York branch of the CLA(O) in February. Later the name was changed to the League for a Revolutionary Workers Party, known in Trotskyist literature as the "Fieldites" or "Field group".
Apparently the split in Canada did not have any substantial political grounds. From the point of view of the "official" Trotskyists the Field group were ultralefts. Earle Birney described them as very pure theoreticians who were not very much interested in action. The group in Canada published the paper, Workers Voice and their leader was William Krehm. They affiliated to the International Bureau of Revolutionary Socialist Parties (the London Bureau).[63a] In the fall of 1936 the Canadian Field group launched the Revolutionary Youth League, which published the paper Revolutionary Youth.[63b] Sometime later there were negotiations to fuse the two Trotskyist groups but these did not succeed.
According to Ross Dowson, the Fieldites were a "dogged and determined young group" and in the late 1930s the more active of the two Trotskyist groups in Toronto. "They thought they could somehow build a movement by substituting themselves for the working class." After about 1937 they were, "from the public’s point of view the Trotskyist movement." In his autobiography, Paul Jacobs, who was a member of the Field group in the U.S. (they did not meet with much success there), estimates there were fifteen to twenty members in the Toronto group. The Field group quietly passed out of existence about the beginning of World War II.
Shortly after the split of the Field group there were about thirty-seven members in the Toronto branch. The membership is reported to be "solidly-based proletarian" with about one-third in trade unions and a number in the unemployed movement. Despite its size the branch had a "large sympathetic following among the workers of this city." There were now two Spartacus Youth Clubs in Toronto, which circulated about 300 copies per month of their paper, Young Militant. Public meetings and study classes were being held continually. Plans to discuss the new revolutionary party and its program with such groups as the Socialist Party and the Jewish Left Socialist Party were being made, although the Trotskyists believed, "that in the main the new revolutionary party in Canada will be built up on the basis of direct recruitment rather than by negotiations with other groups." Prospects for building the Canadian section were reported to be excellent.
In Hamilton, public meetings attended by about 500 people were organized by "several contacts" there. A Hamilton branch was formed a few months later.
A branch of the CLA(O) was formed in Winnipeg through a speaking tour of the Max Shachtman in the Spring of 1934. Shachtman’s main meeting was attended by 350 people. The Winnipeg branch included two leaders of an unemployed movement and a "number of active Militants in the Ukrainian labor movement."
The Workers’ Party of Canada
By September, 1934 a separate Canadian Trotskyist organization, composed of the Canadian branches of the CLA(O), had been formed. Obviously with the future in mind it was named the Workers’ Party of Canada. That month the Vanguard, now "the official organ," printed the "Manifesto of the Workers’ Party of Canada," which contained the following "program of action":
This program, the Manifesto explained, was set up "for the purpose of mobilizing the masses in the struggle for control of production and conquest of power." To accomplish this, the Workers’ Party of Canada (WPC) would "cooperate with all political and industrial organizations of the working class in a united front on all specific issues of common interests in the struggle against capitalism." Elections and Parliaments were to be used for this purpose.
According to the Manifesto, the WPC would attempt to recruit the "valuable elements of the rank and file" of the CCF and CPC but expected new members to come in the majority from the "still politically and industrially unorganized masses."
By December the WPC had 250 members and branches in Montreal, Toronto (90 members), Hamilton, Winnipeg and Vancouver, and contacts in other towns. Most of these members had been members of the CPC and YCL. Circulation of the Vanguard stood at 1200 copies and for Robitnychi Visty, 500 copies. Plans to publish the Vanguard twice a month would be met by June.
Meanwhile, the Trotskyists were extending their influence into the trade union field and the unemployed movement. The WPC had members in the building, clothing, shoe and metal workers’ unions.
During the "third period" the policy of the Stalinists was not to work in the old trade unions but to form new "revolutionary" unions. In Canada this gave rise to the Workers’ Unity League (WUL). The Trotskyists worked in both unions. They opposed the Stalinists’ policy of dual unionism and called for one union for all the workers in one industry and for the unification of the union movement. 
The Trotskyists’ strategy for the trade unions was to build a left-wing movement within the unions which would strive for leadership on a program of trade union democracy, organization of the unorganized, industrial unions rather than craft unions, trade union unity and improvement of the working conditions and living standards of the membership.
The WPC was particularly active in the needle trades unions. In the Dressmakers Union, which belonged to the WUL, they helped form and led the Progressive Unity Group, which opposed the bureaucratic policies of the union leadership. ( Following the seventh Congress of the Comintern the Stalinists reversed their trade union policy of the "third period" (but said it was the same) and soon began to liquidate the WUL.) Jack MacDonald was a delegate to the Toronto Trades and Labor Council but had little support on the council.
In December, 1934 the WPC was reported to control a considerable part of the leadership of the unemployed movement in Winnipeg and to have complete control of a new unemployed organization in Toronto. The latter was probably the Toronto Unemployed Union, whose significance in the overall unemployed movement is unknown. The Trotskyists proposed to organize the unemployed first on a local scale and then on a provincial and national scale, linking them up with the struggles of the employed workers. The basis for organization was to be around the immediate demands of the unemployed (abolish the "slave camps", etc.). The Trotskyists played a significant role among the unemployed in York Township, particularly in the York Township Workers Association, which led a strike of the Township relief workers in July, 1936. The WPC played a leadership role in Ward III of York Township.
After the seventh Congress of the Comintern the Communist Parties in various countries set up committees like the Canadian League Against War and Fascism. The Stalinists sought to involve in these committees the organizations a short time ago they had termed "social-fascists", reflecting their new line. The Canadian Trotskyists, although not wanted, participated in these committees as part of a left-wing minority. They criticized the Stalinists for spreading the idea that war could be eliminated and the rise of fascism prevented within the capitalist system and for supporting the League of Nations sanctions against Italy (The Trotskyists called for workers sanctions and active support to Ethiopia).
Articles in the Vanguard warning of the likelihood of another world war appear throughout the paper’s existence. In the case of imperialist war, the WPC advocated a policy of "revolutionary defeatism, the doctrine that the proletariat must direct its arms to the overthrow of its own ruling class," and defense of the Soviet Union.
Public meetings were held by the WPC, usually at the Labour Lyceum or Labour Temple Hall to put forward their ideas on the issues of the day. From reports in the Vanguard attendance at these meetings averaged about 500.
The Spartacus Youth Clubs, of which there were now four in Toronto, continued to carry on their activities. Sometime during the summer of 1935 the name was changed to Spartacus Youth League, probably reflecting a growth in size. The November 30, 1935 Vanguard reports the coming publication of three pamphlets by the Spartacus Youth League (SYL).
May Day 1934 saw the Trotskyists participate and then withdraw from the Stalinist-dominated May Day United Front Conference because it refused their proposal for representation of the main political currents on the May 1 platform. They then joined a May Day conference initiated by two left-wing Jewish groups and including a few trade unions. MacDonald chaired the May Day meeting and Spector was one of the speakers. The next May Day, "the fact that there were two Trotskyites in a neutral committee of 83 organizations was too much for the Communist element. The fled in anger and proceeded with their own arrangements." That May Day, 1935, there was a parade of 8,000 people in Toronto. Both Spector and MacDonald were among the speakers at the evening rally.
How did the WPC view Bennett’s New Deal, H.H. Stevens and Social Credit? With regard to Bennett’s New Deal they were in support of the "palliatives" such as unemployment relief and social insurance but pointed out that:
H.H. Stevens was called an "ignoramus" in economics and it was argued:
Social Credit was described as a "wild illusion deserving only the garbage can."
From Vancouver, Earle Birney reports in July, 1934 that he organized a group of twelve on a study-group basis. In September the Militant reported that the Vancouver branch had doubled its membership during the two previous months. In November, 1935 and eighteen-member branch of the Spartacus Youth League was formed. It was reported that the SYL branch was going to publish a paper named "Young Militant" beginning in December. About this time the Vancouver Trotskyists entered into the CCF. The Trotskyists managed to hold operating control of the Stanley Park club of the CCF for a long time and exerted a strong influence in the new Vancouver Centre club.
Meanwhile there are reports in the Vanguard during 1935-36 that the program of the WPC is receiving a hearing in Calgary and Saskatoon.
In the Toronto municipal elections in January, 1934 the Trotskyists supported the candidates of the Stalinists’ election committee. In the provincial elections later that year they did not support the candidates of the CPC (or the CCF), but in the 1935 federal election called upon workers to vote for the candidates of the CCF and CPC. The WPC explained their support of these two parties in the federal election not because they considered these parties to represent "the basic revolutionary interests of the workers" (by this time they regarded the CPC as an "unprincipled agency that merely carries out the latest zig-zag of the Kremlin") but because they were "workers representatives."
For the Trotskyists, putting forward their own candidates was a question of temporary expedience, not of principle. They realized that running candidates "would provide a more favorable opportunity of bringing our political program and position before the masses." In December, 1936 the WPC contested their first elections. Then, the York Township branch ran two candidates in the municipal elections, W.S. Smith for Reeve and W. Butterworth for Deputy Reeve, Ward III. Both men were activists in the unemployed movement and Smith was endorsed by the membership of the Silverthorne branch of the York Township Workers Association. Smith received 2864 of the nearly 12,000 votes cast in a two-way race and Butterworth received 545 votes.
Entry into the CCF
More than any other factor international events determined the fate of the Trotskyists in Canada during the 1930s. Their analysis of the events in Germany was key to their break out of isolation in 1933. Then, starting sometime in 1936 the WPC began a process of decline and it was these same events that were responsible. In Germany and in Spain and the Soviet Union (the Moscow Trials), the workers suffered defeats. And a revolutionary movement, even with a correct analysis, cannot be built on defeats.
The decline led the WPC leadership to grasp upon the tactic of entry into the CCF as a solution to its problems. Actually, just such a tactic had been the subject of an on-going debate since the CCF was formed. Already the Trotskyists in Vancouver had entered the CCF and the Spartacus Youth League had entered the Cooperative Commonwealth Youth Movement, the youth group of the CCF. Following a lengthy discussion, the WPC voted "by an extremely small majority" to enter the CCF.
In this discussion the majority argued, while the minority disagreed, that there was a left wing with real possibilities in the CCF. In June, 1936 the Ontario provincial council, CCF expelled four affiliated groups (two clubs, a youth group and a workers association) and three members for participating in a joint May Day conference with the CPC and other groups. (The WPC withdrew from the conference because the Stalinists who controlled it would not allow the WPC to carry its political slogans.) These groups appear to be the only left wing of any significance in the CCF around this time. The minority also argued that "the experience of the SYL proved conclusively the non-existence of a field for revolutionary activity even in the youth section."
Ross Dowson, who was in the minority, believes the decision to enter the CCF was an artificial and mechanical one which did not reflect the real dynamic of the movement because "the active cadre, the ones upon whom the entry would have to fall were opposed." In his opinion the entry was an "action of defeat and despair, particularly on the part of MacDonald and the leaders of the movement at that time. They were looking for a way out of a dilemma. They themselves couldn’t get involved in the entry." In 1937 the WPC dissolved its organization and entered the CCF.
Once the entry had been carried out the top leadership dropped out of the movement. "The entry was thrown into the laps of less experienced comrades." The opponents of the entry did not really participate and many supporters of the entry "became disillusioned and dropped away." "Under these circumstances entry meant, in essence, liquidation of the movement." Dowson contends that the entry had no element of success and that the Trotskyists had little influence within the CCF.
The Socialist Policy Group
At the convention of the Socialist Workers Party (U.S. Trotskyists) over New Years, 1938, the Trotskyists functioning inside the CCF and the active nucleus of the minority who had opposed the entry were re-united for the formation of an open Socialist Policy Group (SPG) inside the CCF. The Trotskyists planned to strengthen their fraction in the CCF and prepare for a "complete programmatic and political fight" with the CCF leadership, leading to a split. The SPG was to be extended into a national tendency through the cooperation of the Trotskyists in Vancouver, Winnipeg and other centres. Plans were made to establish a bulletin to be used once an independent organization was formed. Any organizational attacks by the CCF leadership were to be answered "by energetic politicizing of the issues."
In 1938 this program was more or less carried out. Bulletins of the SPG, for CCF members only, appeared in April. The SPG was described as a:
Some members of the minority applied for membership in the CCF. Murray Dowson, for example, was rejected by the Provincial Executive when he applied.
In June the Provincial Council sent an open letter to the SPG demanding its dissolution. This was followed two weeks later by a letter demanding the dissolution of the SPG by July 12 and "that if no reply to that effect be received by July 21 (sic) that all known members of the Socialist Policy Group would be expelled," No action was taken against the SPG until shortly after their program appeared in the October issue of their bulletin. On November 16 ten of twelve members (two absent) charged with belonging to the SPG appeared before the Provincial Executive. The SPG asked to be examined as a group but the executive insisted on individual interrogation. Finally, the whole group present that night were expelled. SPG requests for an open trial were refused, as were the demands of the Humbercrest and Dovercourt CCF clubs for re-admission of the SPG.
In June the SPG began to call their bulletin Socialist Action, which continued to be published, although illegally, into the 1940s. From January 3, 1939 it was the official organ of the Socialist Workers League of Canada.
In 1935 the Workers Party of Canada was one of five organizations to sign a declaration calling for the formation of the Fourth International. When the Founding Conference of the Fourth International was held in September, 1938 there were no Canadian delegates in attendance but certain American delegates held mandates from Canada. The minutes of the conference list the approximate size of the Canadian section of the Fourth International (which became the Socialist Workers League) as 75 members.
The Socialist Workers League
In their "Program of Action" the Socialist Workers League (SWL) argues that it is necessary to create a bridge of action between the advanced crisis of capitalism and the backward political knowledge of the masses in this country." To accomplish this, they argue, a revolutionary party with a program of transitional demands is needed. In the trade unions, for example:
In this regard, the SWL would use demands such as "Rising wages for rising prices," "Cut hours not wages" and "Create jobs by reducing work hours."  With reference to the farmers, the "Program of Action" explains:
The SWL’s demands were, "For joint price committees of city workers and working farmers," "Farm machines and freighting at cost by workers’ control," "Farm products at cost to workers by farmer control" and "For a Militant farmer-labour party."122
In order to make the demands in the "Program of Action" realizable, the SWL recommended the workers expropriate "the fifty big shots of Canadian capital." To the smaller bosses the workers should say, "Pay trade union rates or give us your factories."
Immediately following their expulsion from the CCF the Trotskyists again entered the York Township elections, running William Butterworth for Deputy Reeve, Ward III, as in the December, 1936 elections. Butterworth’s election program centred around demands for a graduated income tax; better relief; abolition of relief labor; a sliding scale of working hours with no reduction in pay, to lessen unemployment; the right to vote for eighteen year-olds; a works program for housing; and an investigation into the water department. Butterworth received 402 votes (eleven percent of those cast).
During 1939 Carl Hichin and Tom Montague, both previously leading members of the CPC in their area, joined the SWL. Hichin was prairie organizer for the SWL and succeeded in establishing branches in Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Wiseton, Saskatchewan. Montague was chairman of the York Unemployed Union. The York unemployed, under the leadership of Montague and Butterworth, held a lengthy strike against a cut in relief pay. The strike included a demonstration of 2500 workers April 24, 1939.
Of course the big political issue was the war. The following quote from Socialist Action explains the position of the SWL:
The SWL stood "for strike, boycott and other forms of organized independent working class resistance to Canadian participation in the war." In September the SWL was declared illegal and Socialist Action was banned. The paper continued to publish but in mimeographed form and from Montreal.
On September 15, Frank Watson was arrested for making an anti-war speech at an open-air meeting in Toronto of the SWL and charged under Section 39 of the Defense of Canada Regulations covering statements "intended or likely to prejudice recruiting." Watson was convicted and sentenced to one year or six months and $300, thereby becoming the first victim of the regulations. Of the first cases reported, his sentence was reported to be the severest. The SWL organized a defense committee for Watson which received moral and financial support from various organizations and individuals across Canada and in the U.S. The Defense Committee unsuccessfully appealed Watson’s sentence and he was released after serving the six months.
The real task of the Trotskyists during the war was to keep their organization alive, against great odds. The organization, only recently re-united, was declared illegal. The leadership at the time was politically inexperienced and soon collapsed under the pressure of events The three top leaders all walked away from the movement. The task of keeping it alive fell to a handful of members, including Ross Dowson.
In 1942 connections were renewed with the Trotskyists in other centres, leading to a national conference in 1944 (the first one) and then to the formation of the Revolutionary Workers Party in 1946. Its successor today is the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere.
The Trotskyist movement was not an isolated phenomena of that phenomenal decade of the Great Depression. It is in terms of their ideas that the Trotskyists must be considered and those ideas had a past and have a future. Although the ideas and the movement were not a product of the Depression, the Depression still had its impact. The economic crisis caused a profound radicalization among people but at the same time produced a cynicism difficult for the Trotskyists to overcome. The Depression meant money was scarce and, though it may be ironic, money is needed to build a socialist movement. As the Vanguard warned in what turned out to be its last issue:
Spector and MacDonald were certainly capable leaders but they were "generals without an army," as the Stalinists not so fondly called them. However, they did not train any new leaders to replace them and perhaps that was the Trotskyist movement’s greatest obstacle in the 1930s. The Trotskyists played a significant role in bringing about the July 11, 1933 anti-fascist demonstration, which was one of the largest worker’s actions in Canadian labour history. The entry into the CCF was in every way a failure. Re-grouped as the SWL in late 1933, the movement was unable to consolidate itself before the outbreak of World War II.
As I have mentioned, it was international events, particularly the major defeats for workers in various countries, that determined the fate of the Canadian Trotskyists during the Depression. That was what Leon Trotsky explained to those two Canadians who interviewed him in Norway in 1935 for the Vanguard:
Finally, I must point out that Earl Birney was wrong when he wrote at the end of Down the Long Table:
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