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Impossibilism in Canada

This month we begin a series of articles on socialist ideas and organisation in other parts of the English-speaking world

The first political party in Canada claiming to be socialist was the Socialist Labor Party, an offshoot of the Socialist Labor Party of America. The Canadian SLP was formed in 1896 and was thoroughly reformist, as was a breakaway United Socialist Labor Party of British Columbia, founded in 1899. During 1898, former members of the SLP, together with supporters of  John Ruskin’s “Christian Socialists” and a number of Canadian Fabians, founded the Canadian Socialist League. It soon made rapid progress; but it was a loose federation of locals (branches) and, like the SLP, was a reformist organisation.

In the summer of 1901, members of the Canadian Socialist League, together with some former SLPers, founded the Socialist Party of British Columbia. Its Platform contained a long list of reforms and palliatives. In 1902, a Socialist Party of Manitoba was formed; and in 1905, a Socialist Party of Ontario too. Both advocated reforms, as did a Socialist Party of the Yukon founded some time later.

Early in 1902 (it may even have been late in 1901), members of the Socialist Party of British Columbia, mainly from Nanaimo on Vancouver Island, who objected to the SPBC’s reform platform, resigned and, shortly after, formed the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada. Its members included Eugene T. Kingsley (a former member of the Socialist Labor Party of America who had fallen out with Daniel De Leon), Parker Williams, and James Pritchard (a former member of the British Social Democratic Federation who had, at one time, worked in the Ermen and Engels textile mill). The Revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada was different from all the other aforementioned parties: its sole object was the abolition of capitalism and the wages system - and no immediate demands or reforms. On December 1, 1902, a writ for a by-election was issued for North Nanaimo. Parker Williams contested on behalf of the RSP on an anti-reformist platform, He received 155 votes against 263 for the Conservative candidate. Some old-time Canadian socialists have claimed that Parker Williams was the world’s first revolutionary socialist parliamentary candidate, and the Revolutionary Socialist Party of Canada the world’s first genuine anti-reformist, “Impossibilist” political party. It probably had about 60 members.

The Vancouver local of the SPC, circa 1913

During the latter part of 1902, members of the SPBC and the RSP came together to discuss the re-merger of the two parties, a new constitution, the scrapping of the SPBC’s reformist policy, and the adoption of a new, anti-reformist Platform. A convention of the new united Socialist Party of British Columbia, held on September 8, 1903, confirmed this action in a resolution, carried unanimously, that the party “absolutely opposed” the introduction of palliatives or immediate demands, and stood “firmly upon the one issue of the abolition of the present system of wage slavery for all political organisation”. A new Platform was drawn up which stated that labour produces all wealth; that the capitalists own the means of production, and are the masters; that as long as the capitalists remain in possession of the reins of government, the state will be used to defend their property; that the interest of the working class lies in freeing itself from capitalist exploitation by the abolition of the wages system, and that there is an irrepressible conflict, a class struggle, between the capitalist and the worker. The Socialist Party of British Columbia, therefore, called upon all workers to organise under its banner “with the object of conquering the public powers for the purpose of setting up and enforcing the economic program of the working class”. The SPBC called upon the workers to establish “as speedily as possible production for use instead of profit”. The Western Clarion of October 8, 1903, claimed that the SPBC “stands upon the clearest and most uncompromising platform in the world”. This was more than six months before the formation of the Socialist Party of Great Britain.

Between the beginning of 1903 and the latter part of 1904, there was considerable pressure, mainly by the socialist parties of central and eastern Canada, to form an all-Dominion Socialist Party. The Socialist Party of British Columbia was less enthusiastic, however, as it had increased in size and influence; it also had three of its members elected to the British Columbia Legislature. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1905 all the various parties united into one Socialist Party of Canada and, despite the obvious reformism of at least two of them, the new party accepted the anti-reformist Platform of the former Socialist Party of British Columbia. But the SPC had created problems for itself.

For more than a decade, the problem of reform versus revolution bedevilled the Socialist Party of Canada. The party was a revolutionary, “Impossibilist”, organisation, yet had many social democratic reformers within its ranks. Over the years, however, the majority of them either resigned or were expelled from the SPC. The Socialist Party of Canada’s official view on unions appeared to be monolithic, but in fact it contained a fairly broad range of views. The official SPC policy was that unions were products of capitalism, struggling against its inevitable effects. Some members were particularly critical of the American-controlled craft unions which dominated the labour movement at the beginning of the last century. Nevertheless, almost all members of the SPC were also members of unions and some became prominent union leaders.

Most immigrants to Canada came from Europe but as early as 1880 there were Asian workers in Canada, mainly in British Columbia and the west of the country. Hostility towards them occurred almost immediately, and there were riots against them for two decades. Many trade unionists objected to Asian workers, as they generally were prepared to accept lower wages than European workers. Reactions by members of the Socialist Party were mixed. The reformers and social democrats tended to be anti-Asian and racist; the revolutionaries, the “Impossibilists”, were generally anti-racist and argued that all workers, from Europe and Asia, were “all slaves together”. In April 1911 the Socialist Standard publicly dissociated itself from the anti-Asian stand taken by some SPC members:
“The Socialist Party of Great Britain is not identical with the Socialist Party of Canada. We are not sufficiently informed to be in a position to discuss in detail the action of their members on local Governing bodies, but remembering that the interests of the workers are the same the world over, we do not hesitate to condemn such actions as the advocacy, by members of the Socialist Party of Canada, of the exclusion of our Asiatic fellow-workers from British Columbia”.

As the reformists either resigned, or were expelled, from the SPC, the party was then able to declare unequivocally that it looked upon all workers equally, irrespective of their origins.

Some members of the Socialist Party of Canada, particularly former supporters of East and Central European social democratic parties, proposed that the SPC affiliate to the “International Socialist Bureau”, that is the Second International. The SPC, however, refused to affiliate, stating that the ISB admitted to membership non-socialist bodies such as the British Labour Party. The SPC never joined the Second International, which collapsed at the beginning of the war in 1914.

Socialists in Canada soon found themselves persecuted by the state. As early as 1903 the police prevented members of the Socialist Party of Manitoba from holding meetings in Winnipeg. In 1908, in Toronto, the police used clubs “in brutal Russian Cossack style”, to break up Socialist Party meetings. The party declared its “determination to fight for the right of free speech on the Toronto streets”. Meetings in Vancouver were broken up by the police. SPC and IWW speakers were arrested for refusing to move and a number were jailed for refusing to pay fines. The Salvation Army, however, was not subject to such harassment.

By 1911, the Socialist Party of Canada had rid itself of many social democrats and reformists, but a number of members in Toronto, influenced by a member of the SPGB living in the city at the time, Moses Baritz, did not consider that the SPC had moved away from reformism, in that part of Canada, fast enough. The entire Toronto local, therefore, resigned from the SPC and formed the Socialist Party of North America, which adopted the object and declaration of principles of the SPGB. The SPNA, however, did not grow and it dissolved after a few years with its members, or at least some of them, rejoining the Socialist Party of Canada, feeling that their original differences with the party did not justify a separate socialist party in Canada. In 1915  the SPC officially adopted the SPGB’s Socialism and Religion pamphlet as its own policy on religion.

(Next month: developments in Canada after the War broke out in 1914)

PETER E NEWELL