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The 1931 Communist Party Trial


On August 11, 1931, a joint force of officers from the RCMP, the Ontario Provincial Police, and the Toronto Police assembled in the Ontario provincial parliament buildings. They were addressed by OPP Commissioner Victor Williams. “Gentlemen,” he said, “We are going to strike a death blow at the Communist Party.”

The police raided the offices of the party and the homes of its leaders, confiscated all documents they could find, and arrested nine men: Tim Buck, Malcolm Bruce, Tom McEwen, Tom Hill, John Boychuck, Matthew Popowich, Sam Carr, Tom Cacic, and Michael Golinski. They were charged under Section 98 of the Criminal Code, a law originally passed as a response to the Winnipeg General Strike.

Two months later the first seven named were sentenced to five years in prison. Cacic received a two-year sentence, to be followed by deportation. Golinski was not convicted. The judge concluded his sentencing by declaring the Communist Party of Canada to be an illegal organization.

The following articles appeared in The Militant, the newspaper of the Communist League of America (Opposition). The authors were Maurice Spector and James Cannon, the co-founders of the North American Trotskyist movement, and Maurice Quarter, secretary of the Toronto branch of the CLA(O).

The Militant, August 29, 1931

Anti-Communist Arrests in Canada

Communist Party Leaders Seized and
Held by Dominion Authorities under Sedition Act

by Maurice Spector

Communism in Canada is to be subjected to its first major political trial. Proceeding on the instructions of the attorney-General of Ontario under section 98 of the Criminal Code, federal, provincial and city police officials combined forces August 12, to raid the party headquarters and effect the arrest of several leading members of the Central Committee. Among the comrades for whom warrants had been issued were Tim Buck, secretary of the Party; M. Bruce, editor of the Worker; T. Ewan, secretary of the Workers Unity League; John Boychuk, Tom Hill and Sam Carr. Bail has been set at $15,000 each. The September Assizes will determine whether the Communist party continues its semi-legal existence or is forced completely underground.

Originally enacted by order-in-council in 1919, the section in question was incorporated into the Criminal Code in 1927. It reads as follows: "Any association, organization, society or corporation whose professed purpose or one of whose professed purposes is to bring about any governmental, industrial, or economic change within Canada by use of force, violence or physical injury, or which teaches, advocates, advises or defends the use of force, violence, terrorism or physical injury to person or property, or threats of such injury, in order to accomplish such change, or for any other purpose, or which shall by any means prosecute or pursue such purpose or professed purpose, or shall so teach, advocate, advise or defend shall be an unlawful organization." Anyone convicted of being a member of, or defending such an organization or having its literature in his possession may suffer a penalty of twenty years imprisonment.

Canada in the Crisis

Governmental resort to section 98 marks the culminating point in a policy of sharpened police repression. Involved in the common crisis of world capitalists, economic conditions in the Dominion have grown progressively worse. Exports have suffered a catastrophic decline, multitudes of Western farmers are literally destitute, industrial unemployment has reached unprecedented dimensions. At the Federal elections that carried him into office, the millionaire leader of the Conservative party promised to "take such measures as will provide for the giving of work to every man and woman in this country prepared to work." But in the nature of things, the Bennett Government could as little solve the problems of capitalist anarchy as the preceding Liberal regime. Higher customs tariffs in a world of capitalist states all engaged in raising trade barriers, can only accentuate the general chaos. The Imperial Conference which Mr. Bennett sought to instruct resulted in mutual insults. The masterly stroke of a complete embargo on trade relations with the Soviet Union may possibly satisfy the Archbishop of Canterbury but scarcely contribute to industrial revival.

Meanwhile unemployed demonstrations throughout the country have shown the temper of the jobless victims of the system to be rising—they :have not always been ready to disperse submissively at the first threatening gesture of the police. Relief has been pitifully inadequate. To proposals for a system of social insurance Bennett replies that never, never, will he undermine the sturdy independence and pioneering spirit of Canadians with the infamous "dole." Fearing the radicalizing effect on the masses of starvation in its several degrees, the possessing classes view the approaching winter with uncertainty and uneasiness. Shortly before prorogation of Parliament, the Cabinet rushed through a bill in terms unparalleled since the War Measures Act conferring dictatorial powers "upon the governor-in-council [that is, itself] in respect to unemployment and farm relief; and for the maintenance of pence, order, and good government in all parts of Canada."

In explanation of this measure Bennett declared that "we will take such action as in the judgment of the executive of this country ... will free this country of those who have proved unworthy of our Canadian citizenship." He referred to the Immigration Act as already enabling the denaturalization of a naturalized citizen, and of course his subsequent deportation. His relief proposal amounted to a scheme of public works, road construction, etc., to which the registered unemployed will be drafted to work at such wage-rates as the government sees fit. It is a choice between a form of industrial conscription at the lowest possible standard of living or outright starvation. In plain words, the Government gave notice that every manifestation of class consciousness, every attempt to bring home the responsibility for the crisis on capitalism, every movement of industrial or political opposition in the working class to the measures of the government, will be met with censorship, suppression, imprisonment and deportation. And the Communists, as the militant leaven, are to be singled out especially.

Police Terror in Toronto

The Ontario provincial authorities have quickly taken their cue. Not that their action will be entirely a new departure. Ever since the advent of General Draper to the police administration in Toronto, so-called civil liberties have been conspicuous by their absence. Draper proceeded to give the most convincing ocular demonstration of Lenin’s thesis that bourgeois democracy is a sham and a lie. 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. A few pacifists and professors uttered a feeble protest for free speech in the name of "British justice." The "labor leaders" and social-democrats either maintained a cowardly silence or warned the police that their methods would only create more Bolshevism. But the capitalist press with few exceptions virulently urged a holy war of "Christendom" against "Soviet dumping." The pillars of Business and Finance, including the Chief Justice of the Province, gave Draper’s faith and works their heartiest approval. Liberalism could only emit its odor of decay.

The latest stage of the persecution of the party is by far the most serious, since it attempts to place the Communist program itself under indictment. Upon the comrades selected by circumstance to represent our doctrine rests therefore a great responsibility, to utilize the occasion despite the technical difficulties of court procedure, as a forum from which to appeal to the working class. It is capitalism that must be placed under indictment. The Communists must show that they have no interests separate and apart from the rest of the workers. If they are on trial at this moment, it is for no "advocacy of force or violence" but because they are leaders in the immediate struggles of the workers against unemployment, against wage-cuts, against capitalist militarism, for the defence of the Soviet Union, for freedom of speech and assembly, etc., and because in the course of these struggles the Communists must expose the mechanism of capitalist exploitation and the class-character of the State.

The Communists make no secret of their aims. Our program is dictated by an objective consideration of the motive forces of history and capitalist society. We are well aware that the government regards the use of "force and violence," whether for the prosecution of war or the suppression of strikes, as its exclusive monopoly. The "democratic" state is the executive of the capitalist class and an organ of exploitation and coercion of the proletariat. If bourgeois democracy is based on consent, it is the "consent" of the victim who has been stunned or drugged. But constitutional problems are in the first place questions of power and legal institutions change with the social structure. The Communists do not "create" revolutionary situations; they only organize the workers to reap the advantage. Revolutionary explosions must occur when the contradiction between the character of the property relations and the mode of production of a given society becomes unbearable. In this sense it is true that on a world scale capitalist economy is ripe for social revolution. But the workers’ conquest of political power is not a simultaneous act. It is fought out in national forms. Not only is a thorough-going social and political crisis and the sufficient degree of demoralization of the ruling class necessary, but a majority of the workers at least must have accepted Communist leadership.

A Trial Out of the Past

The Attorney-General must know as well as we do that the party in Canada cannot yet boast such a following and that there is no immediate revolutionary crisis. If there were such, he must further know that the methods of a jury trial would by mutual consent be altogether inadequate. He has apparently not learned, however, that he cannot for a long time hope to stem the tide of revolutionary agitation, propaganda and organization by proscribing the revolutionists. Bismarck’s anti-socialist legislation failed ultimately to prevent the expansion of the social democracy, and in our day, the Communist movement. Attorney General Price may not have heard of the trial, following the revolution of 1905, of 52 delegates to the Workers Council of St. Petersburg. They were arrested and tried under section 101 and 102 of the Czarist Criminal Code as having "attended and participated ... in an association which knowingly set itself the purpose of violently overthrowing the legally established form of government of Russia and replacing it with a democratic republic." The proportions are different but the example is instructive. The 52 were condemned to long term of imprisonment and Siberian exile. With what results?

There can be no question of the position that every class-conscious worker must take up towards this trial—absolute, militant, intransigent struggle against the forces of reaction. The workers must organize in a broad united front, whatever their political or industrial affiliation, to protest against the wave of terror which the capitalist authorities have let loose against the militants of their class. Every ounce of energy must be thrown into the defense of the comrades and the right of the party to continue above ground.

We Communists of the Left Opposition have serious internal differences with the Centrist leadership of the party touching policy and principle. We do not minimize the importance of these differences for a correct revolutionary Marxian development of the party, but that cannot deter us from rallying to the party in every crisis and emergency and for a united struggle against the reaction. We ask today as before to be re-instated in our membership rights and we are prepared to submit our differences to be resolved by the processes of party democracy.

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