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Impossibilism in Canada

The second, and concluding, article on socialist ideas and organisation in Canada. Next month we move on to the United States

On August 4, 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. The Great War had begun. Two days later, the Executive Committee of the Socialist Party of Canada issued its Manifesto to the Workers of Canada. It stated that, in the modern world, wars have their origin in the disputes of the international capitalist class “for markets in which to dispose of the stolen products of labour”, and that the anticipated struggle would be of no real interest to the international working class. The Manifesto ended with Marx’s words: “Workers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains: You have a World to gain”. Many of the Party’s members suffered repression for their opposition to the war in general and conscription in particular. The only war that the Socialist Party of Canada supported was the class war.

The war caused considerable problems for the SPC. The repression did not destroy the Party, but it seriously weakened it. The so-called October Revolution, the Bolshevik coup d’ėtat did not help either. As elsewhere, the workers in Canada did not really know what was happening in Russia. Officially, the SPC, and most of its propagandists, were aware that  a socialist revolution had not occurred in Russia, and that such a revolution was not possible. However, a quite considerable number of its (largely younger) members enthused over and, at least for a time, supported Bolshevism. Ultimately, some of them joined the Communist Party. Other members of the SPC were in favour of the party affiliating to the Communist International, the Comintern; but, as with the Second International previously, the Socialist Party of Canada refused to join. Furthermore, the party’s journal, the Western Clarion, was banned by the government in November 1918. The ban was not lifted until January, 1920. By this time, many members of the SPC were scattered all over Canada, as well as the United States and Australasia. Even travelling orator Charlie Lestor returned to England for a while.

The General Strike in Winnipeg, in May 1919, also had a traumatic effect on the Socialist Party of Canada. The strike began with the building and metal trades’ employers refusing to negotiate with the workers. By May 15, more than 25,000 men and women were on strike. Within a few days, thousands of workers throughout western Canada came out in sympathy The SPC as such was not responsible for the strike, although it supported the workers, and many of its members were actively involved and five of the eight jailed members of the strike committee – George Armstrong, Richard Bray, Richard Johns, Bill Pritchard and Robert Russell – were also members of the Socialist Party. Many members of the SPC, including Armstrong, Johns and Pritchard, were instrumental in forming, the same year, the anti-craft union,  One Big Union.

Nevertheless, as Jim Milne wrote in his unpublished History of the Socialist Party of Canada, “the Party had taken a battering”. Indeed, by 1922, its many enemies had largely destroyed the SPC. With the beginning of the postwar slump and the emergence of mass unemployment, most Canadian workers looked to reformist parties for their “salvation”. The Western Clarion ceased publication in July 1925. And the same year, the SPC also ceased to exist as a properly-organised political party. It seemed to be the end of the road for the socialist movement in Canada. But not quite.

A number of groups of former members of the old Socialist Party continued to meet; a “Proletarian Club” came into being in Vancouver, and a “Science Study Club” in Winnipeg. And in June, 1931 a number of former members of the SPC, including George Armstrong, and Alex Sheppard who had been living in Chicago, came together in Winnipeg and formed, or re-formed depending on various viewpoints, the Socialist Party of Canada. After some discussion, they decided to adopt the object and declaration of principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, rather than the old Platform as they felt that it was a better statement. The Party soon rented a hall, and started holding public meetings.

In Vancouver, in 1932, the Independent Labor Party, a reformist organisation, decided to change its name to the Socialist Party of Canada, despite the fact that it was aware of the existence of the genuine Socialist Party of Canada, based in Winnipeg. Because of its name, some ex-members of the original SPC decided to join the bogus Socialist party, as “entrist” revolutionaries. After a while the revolutionary group persuaded a majority of the Vancouver local of the spurious SPC to secede and become the Vancouver local of the Winnipeg-based Socialist Party of Canada. They even managed to take over the hall and furniture of the bogus SPC which, some time later, founded the British Columbia section of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and, much later, the New Democratic Party of Canada.

In October, 1933 the Socialist Party of Canada began publishing its official journal, the Western Socialist. Throughout the 1930s, the SPC came into conflict with the Communist Party, many of whose members attempted to attack and break up Socialist Party meetings, and it clarified its analysis of the Soviet Union as being not socialist or communist, but a dictatorial form of state capitalism.

In September 1939 war again broke out in Europe. As with the SPC in the first world war, the Socialist Party of Canada opposed the second. On September 3 1939, the day that Britain declared war on Germany, the Dominion Executive Committee published its manifesto “on the war”, in which it quoted clauses one, two, three and six of its principles, and then stated, as in 1914, that:
“The Socialist Party of Canada further declares that no interest is at stake in this conflict which justifies the shedding of a single drop of working class blood, and it extends its fraternal greetings to the workers of all countries and calls upon them to unite in the greater struggle for the establishment of socialism, a system of society in which the ever-increasing poverty, misery, terror and bloodshed of capitalism shall be forever banished from the earth.”

As the SPC heard rumours that the Canadian government intended to suppress the Western Socialist, it decided to move the journal to Boston in the United States, where it continued to be published throughout the war, In June, 1941, however, the Canadian government’s press censors banned the Western Socialist from the country because of anti-war statements in a number of articles.

Writing around 1969 in his History of the Socialist Party of Canada, Milne concluded:
“The party has carried on with the message of socialism through the years, exploring all avenues in spreading its views. Meetings indoors and outdoors have been held. Radio talks have been arranged. On rare occasions it has managed to be on television. It has contested elections, funds permitting, in Winnipeg, Vancouver and Victoria. It has steadily circulated the Socialist Standard and Western Socialist and published, including a sixth edition of the Manifesto of the SPC, the name changed to The Socialist Manifesto. It has also published many leaflets, a series of these during 1957 and 1959 being produced in hundreds of thousands . . . In recent years the head office was moved from Winnipeg to Victoria.”

Since then the Socialist Party of Canada has had its ups and downs, including the formation in the 1960s of a short-lived, breakaway World Socialist Party of Canada. Between 1968 and 1984 the SPC again published its own journal, Fulcrum, and in 1973 began the publication of a journal in French, Socialisme Mondial, 13 issues of which were produced in Montréal until 1980 when publication was transferred to Europe. The SPC’s current journal is Imagine (viewable on line)

PETER E NEWELL