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The Toronto Anti-Fascist Strike, 1933

Originally published in Labor Challenge, July 14, 1975

A Hidden Chapter in Labor History

by Ian Angus

"The cloak, dress and fur trades were at a standstill yesterday, as strikes, threatened strikes and the great demonstration of anti-Hitlerism emptied the workrooms along Spadina Avenue; and, as expressed by one of he marchers, ‘some of us may be more to the Left than others, but the main thing is solidarity.’" (The Globe, July 12, 1933)

The "great demonstration of anti-Hitlerism," held in Toronto on July 11, 1933, has been completely ignored by labor historians of all stripes. This despite the fact that it was the largest workers’ action in the 15 years following the Winnipeg General Strike; that it provides an excellent example, unique in North America and probably unique for the entire world, of a genuine united front action against fascism; and that it marked an important step in the fight for workers’ rights in Canada.

The capitalist press in 1933 had no difficulty in seeing the importance of the demonstration. The extreme Tory Telegram devoted several major articles and two editorials to "exposing" the role of the "reds" in the strike and demonstration. Its editors declared:

"Nothing could more surely alienate Canadian sympathy from Jewish citizens, and nothing is more calculated to persuade Torontonians that Hitler was right, than the presence in the Toronto demonstration of banners carrying such slogans as ‘Victory under the banner of Lenin and Trotsky,’ ‘We demand the abolition of Section 98,’ and ‘Hands off the Young Communist League.’"

The Telegram called for the immediate arrest of everyone carrying such banners.

The workers’ movement in Canada did not face fascism as an immediate threat in 1933, but heavy repression was a daily fact of life. In Toronto there was a virtual police dictatorship against the left. Police Chief Draper declared his determination to stop any public meeting of the "reds." Owners of halls who rented to communists lost their licenses. Speakers were arrested and beaten, open-air meetings were broken up by club-wielding police.

In 1931 eight central leaders of the Communist Party were arrested and convicted, under Section 98, originally passed to help crush the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The Communist Party was outlawed in Ontario.

While the main object of the repression was the Communist Party, the largest political organization on the left, the government’s aim was to stop all radical labor activity. After the trial of the CP leaders in 1931, for example, the chief government prosecutor announced that the ban on the CP should also apply to such figures as Maurice Spector and Jack MacDonald. Spector had been expelled from the Communist party in 1928 as a Trotskyist; MacDonald, expelled from the CP in 1930, was to join Spector in 1932 in the building of the Toronto branch of the International Left Opposition.


In response to these attacks on democratic rights, the CP could have rallied wide support in the labor movement. There is no doubt at all, with the growing labor radicalization and militancy of the 1930s, that the party could have mobilized a broad defense which would have defeated and reversed the government attack.

But the Communist International, from 1928 to 1935, was on a suicidal ultraleft binge. The Leninist policy of building united fronts—action alliances around commonly-agreed-on demands with any group that wished to participate —was replaced by the Stalinist policy of "united front from below." Under this policy, which was in fact no united front at all, the CPs would unite only with people who accepted their leadership. All who rejected CP leadership were condemned as "social fascists."

Instead of working for a united defense of democratic rights, the CP tried to break the government attack on its own. In Toronto it tried to break the ban on meetings single-handedly, holding its own rallies and demonstrations, which were invariably broken up. When the party did appeal for united action, it always did so in terms which precluded support from anyone but those who agreed with its Stalinist policies.

The CP isolated itself in the labor movement further by urging its followers to break with the "social-fascist" unions, to set up "revolutionary" unions. The Trade Union Educational League, formed in the 1920s to fight for class struggle policies inside the reformist unions, was converted into (and mis-named) the Workers Unity League, The WUL was a separate labor federation, led by the CP and composed of so-called industrial unions. This policy of dual unionism, condemned by Lenin and by the Communist Party of Canada at its founding conference, became the rule around the world when Stalin came to dominate the Communist International.

In Canada these sectarian policies seriously weakened the defense of workers’ rights. In Germany the same policies led to disaster. The refusal of the Communist party of Germany to unite with the Social Democrats against Hitler weakened, divided and confused the German working class — and the Nazis came to power virtually unopposed in 1933.

Trotskyists for United Front

The International Left Opposition, led on a world scale by Leon Trotsky, warned repeatedly that Stalin’s sectarian, ultraleft policies would lead to the destruction of the workers’ movement in Germany and other countries. In 1933, for example, the Clara Zetkin branch of the Canadian Labor Defense League, the CP’s "non-partisan" defense organization, was expelled for favoring affiliation of the Trotskyist Spartacus Youth Clubs.

While the CP learned nothing from the victory of Hitler, important sections of the labor movement did. The Trotskyist movement began to get a hearing. Largely on the initiative of the Toronto branch of the International Left Opposition, the Jewish trade unions of the city, primarily centered in the garment trades, formed a united front Anti-Fascist Conference in April 1933. Maurice Spector, elected to the executive of the Conference, became its principal spokesman, speaking for it at rallies held in April and on May Day.

A parallel Conference of English-speaking unionists was less successful, because it was dominated by the Communist party’s sectarian politics. The CP almost destroyed it by their insistence on condemning equally both fascism and "social-fascism" (that is, the entire leadership of the labor movement!) and by their efforts to avoid collaborating with Trotskyists — they voted to expel Spector from the English Conference, even though he was the elected representative of the Jewish unions.

Eventually, however, working class dismay at the victory of Hitler forced even the Communist Party to participate in the united front for a few months. Similar pressures operated on the conservative leaders of such unions as the Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. These pressures, combined with astute maneuvering by the Trotskyists, made possible the great strike and demonstration of July 11, 1933. Some 25,000 workers took part—over two percent of Toronto’s population at the time! According to The Globe, more than 100 organizations participated.

An eyewitness report of the demonstration accompanies this article.

Other Opposition

In addition to the Stalinists and the labor leaders, the united front against fascism faced another serious opponent—the "official" representatives of the Jewish community in Toronto. The League for Defense of Jewish Rights, headed by Rabbi Samuel Sachs, denounced the July 11 demonstration in vigorous terms. The LDJR, which described itself as uniting 75 organizations "not against Nazism or Fascism but against the Hitler anti-Semitic program," objected to the demonstration’s blanket condemnation of fascism. Sachs condemned the demonstration as being infiltrated, inspired and controlled by subversive elements — he particularly objected to banners calling for an end to political repression in Canada. Sachs's statement was given considerable publicity in the Toronto dailies.

Maurice Spector replied to Sachs’s attack in a statement which was published in the July 13 Telegram:

"In yesterday’s edition of The Telegram there is a statement by Rabbi Sachs in which he dissociates himself from the strike and demonstration against Hitlerism organized under the auspices of the joint action council of the Jewish Trade Unions and Anti-Fascist United Front.

"That makes our dissociation mutual. The militant workers organizations responsible for yesterday’s impressive turnout had nothing to do with the Massey Hall meeting called by the friends and allies of the reverend gentleman a few weeks ago and which was graced with semi-official patronage.

"We are well aware that soft and apologetic Jews, monied Jews and all those anxious to make an exclusive club, will find a demonstration such as ours naturally distasteful. These people are merely agitated over the anti-Semitic feature of Hitlerism, Mussolini, and apparently Pilsudski. The Jewish workers, however, protest not only against the pogroms but against the whole system of tyrannical and labor-hating Fascism, of which German anti-Semitism is but a single link."

Spector’s statement, not surprisingly, did not satisfy the Telegram, which reiterated its call for the arrest of people taking part in such "demonstrations of disloyalty."

Lasting Achievements

Under the impact of the Communist Party’s sectarianism , and the conservatism of the labor leadership, the Toronto anti-fascist united front soon broke up. But though it was short-lived, it produced lasting achievements for the entire working class.

First, it provided a model of united front action for others to follow. Organized around the single issue of opposition to fascism, it welcomed all who agreed on that issue from the Communist Party to social-democratic labor leaders, from the Left Opposition to working class Zionist groups.

Within the united front framework, each group was free to put forward its own program and raise its own slogans. The Left Opposition, for example, sought to relate the issue of fascism in Germany to the fight against repression in Canada, calling for repeal of Section 98, for release of the imprisoned Communist leaders, and so on.

The 1933 demonstration also provided a fine example of how to defeat police repression. Unlike the Communist party’s single-handed and suicidal confrontations with the Toronto police, this was a united action, drawing in the widest possible layers of the working class. Unlike the CP, which had made it almost a matter of principle not to apply for police permits for their rallies, the Trotskyist initiators of this action went out of their way to ensure that the police had no legal pretext to use against the marchers.

Indeed, according to the Globe, this was "the first parade of its kind permitted by the authorities in the past 12 years…" and "no more than a bakers’ dozen policemen were to be seen on the entire route." This was not because the police approved of the demonstration — it was because they were not prepared to take on the labor movement in a full-scale confrontation.

The 1933 demonstration did not bring an end to police repression of the left in Toronto—but it was an important step. The police ban on public meetings was effectively broken—a month later the Left Opposition was holding open-air meetings in parks which attracted as many as 1,500 to hear MacDonald and Spector speak. The united front against fascism in Germany had won an important victory for workers’ rights in Canada.

An Eyewitness Report

This article originally appeared in the August 5, 1933 issue of the U.S. Trotskyist newspaper, The Militant. It was datelined "Toronto, Canada" and signed "B.B."

No action on the part of workers in Canada since the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 carries such tremendous significance as the mass parade and demonstration against Fascism which took place in Toronto on July 11th. For the first time in fifteen years working class solidarity found expression in a monster parade involving about 10,000 workers belonging to trade unions and political organizations.

The United Front Committee had issued a call for the 2-hour strike and demonstration to begin at 3 o’clock on the afternoon of July 11th. An hour before that time large numbers of workers had already begun to assemble in Wellington Park in the heart of the clothing trades district. When 3 o’clock came, workers were pouring into the park by the hundreds; whole factories marching down together or hurrying to the assembly point by street car were seen everywhere.

A spirit of enthusiasm pervaded the scene as the workers, freed from the drudgery of the factories, cheered each newly-arrived group, cheered their class brothers and sisters who this afternoon were joining hands in a mass protest against the bloody rule of Hitler in Germany and capitalist reaction all over the world.

By 3:45 P.M. when the first section of the parade moved off, the park was a sea of humanity—more than that—a host of workers taking up battle against a common enemy. Ten thousand workers, three hundred banners, all raising the voice of proletarian struggle against the murderous regime of Fascism.

The parade moved off from Wellington Park through the clothing district on to University Ave., and past the parliamentary buildings to assemble en masse in Queen’s Park. In the front ranks were the workers of the Amalgamated Clothing workers, some 1400, followed by the ILGWU, the Industrial Unions and other unions affiliated. Then came other mass organizations, the auxiliaries of the party, the Y.C.L. and finally the International Left Opposition, under whose banner marched the Toronto branch of the Left Opposition, the Spartacus Youth Club, the Under Kamf Club — as well as a body of about 60 unorganized workers brought out on strike by the Left Opposition. The last banner in the parade, the parting shot, was "Forward to Victory Under the Banner of Lenin and Trotsky."

As the revolutionary organizations left Wellington Park, the strains of the Internationale rose above the throng—sung with a spirit that is characteristic only of proletarians on parade.

In Queen’s Park, the throngs created a scene unique in the history of the Toronto working class. Here the 10,000 paraders were greeted by a crowd of about 15,000, many of whom were workers anxious to participate in the demonstration while others came only to see what was going to happen. It was a glorious spectacle. A closely packed crowd with banners waving overhead, mirroring all the phrases of the class struggle.

It was the class struggle and not a Jewish nationalist protest such as the elite of Toronto’s Jewry had staged in Massey Hall in collaboration with the city bourgeoisie. The united front of workers aroused proletarians and bourgeois alike to a realization of the strength of a working class protest based on working class unity. The demonstration aroused the hopes and adoration of multitudes of workers and aroused the fury of the bourgeoisie — to which the latest police campaign against the marchers testifies.

Taking up their stand at the base of the 48th Highlanders Monument, a speaker from each organization addressed the crowd. When the L.O. contingent arrived, Charles Green of the Left Poale Zion, chairman of the Jewish Workers United Front Committee, was speaking. In the tumult it was impossible to hear him unless you were close at hand.

When he finished, our comrade, Maurice Spector, took the stand. Comrade Spector, flanked on either side by a trio of cops, opened with a tribute to the united front of the marchers for breaking through the police ban on meetings and raising the strong arm of the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. He urged the marchers to continue the struggle for free speech and assembly, for the repeal of Section 98 and for the release of the eight leaders of the Communist Party of Canada who were now serving long terms in Kingston Penitentiary.

He went on to discuss the victory of fascism, what a catastrophe it was for the German working class and the international revolutionary movement. Warning the workers that the Fascist victory in Germany presented the greatest danger to the continued existence of proletarian rule in the Soviet Union, comrade Spector urged them to maintain a solid fighting front against Fascism, to defeat Fascism and save the Soviet Union by the method of class struggle. He concluded with the ringing slogans: Down with Hitler! Long Live the Soviet Union! etc. A rousing cheer was the answer of the workers to comrade Spector’s remarks as he stepped off the monument. The cheering was reechoed as our comrades shouted Forward to Victory Under the Banner of Lenin and Trotsky.

By this time, several other speakers were being heard in various parts of the park. It was not long before comrade Jack MacDonald, also of the Left Opposition, took the stand. He warned the workers not to be led into believing that this demonstration alone would mark the victory of the struggle for free speech in Toronto; time and again he stressed the necessity for continuing militantly the struggle for free speech and assembly against the pernicious Section 98. He continued with an analysis of the German events, speaking in greater detail than had comrade Spector.

Sabotage of A.C.W. leaders

No account of this demonstration would be complete without a few remarks concerning the affiliated organizations of the united front. From the beginning we had to contend with the efforts of the Right wing reformist leaders to delay action and to give the conference a Jewish nationalist character.

Especially anxious to get around the ideas of a strike was Nesbitt, the spokesman of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Union. He raised all manner of objections, ranging from the demand that the Industrial Union be shut out of the conference to a request for postponement of the strike on the ground that the locals had not yet discussed the question. All sections of the conference opposed Nesbitt on the first point with the result that in the actual working out of the demonstration the Amalgamated was not a formal member of the conference. Instead a committee of the united front conference worked out the mechanics of the united front demonstration with a committee from the Amalgamated. A two week postponement, from June 27 to July 11, was granted to take away from the union leaders any excuse for nonparticipation.

Stalinist Stupidity

The sabotagist tactics of the Amalgamated Union leaders produced a counter obstacle in the ultimatist attitude assumed by the Stalinists. Frequently transgressing the boundaries of the united front by indulging in fierce attacks upon all and sundry, the Stalinists at first demanded as prerequisite for affiliation to the conference that the social democratic organizations admit their responsibility for the death of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Only that! Our comrades opposed this as did almost every other organization in the conference. The Left Opposition stated that while it was true that the social democrats, Noske and company, were responsible for the murder of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, a confession of guilt could not be demanded as a condition for affiliation to the conference. The Stalinists were swamped on this .issue.

Again, when the Amalgamated asked for the postponement of the strike, the Stalinists wanted to refuse the request and call the strike without the Amalgamated. This was a criminal position, for it would have played right into the hands of the Amalgamated leaders and shut out of the conference the largest union in the Jewish section of the united front.

When the request for postponement was carried against the Stalinists they went so far as to issue a special edition of the Kamf in which they naturally went out of their way to slander the Amalgamated but also made the Poale Zion and the Left Opposition targets for their lies and mudslinging. This edition of Kamf might have split the united front. The Amalgamated leaders at first attempted to seize upon it as a pretext for non-participation. It was only the skilful tactics of the Left Opposition and the Left Poale Zion that overcame the damage done by the Stalinists.

It is no exaggeration to say that had the conference followed the policies of the Stalinists there would have been no strike and demonstration. The two hour strike and demonstration also dealt a crushing blow to the confused Stalinist theory of the "united front from below." The success of the genuine united front was apparent to all.

Results of the Strike

What were the results and what conclusions can be drawn from the united front of the Toronto workers? The strike and demonstration is unique as the only working class protest of a mass nature that has taken place in Canada, and possibly in North America. The workers in this city have learned that Fascism is not a regime that is distinguished by its pogroms against Jews, but a regime that signifies the last efforts of decaying capitalism to save itself from the exploited masses. They have learned that fascism means destruction for the proletariat and that Fascism can only be fought by proletarian struggle.

Besides arousing the political consciousness of thousands of workers in a united front against Fascism, the demonstration has been a vindication of the policies and tactics of the Left Opposition.

Copyright South Branch Publishing. All Rights Reserved.