Ideas & Debates
IDEAS & DEBATES
Canadian Trotskyism and the Legacy of James P. Cannon
July 27, 2018
photo James Patrick Cannon, SWP (Socialist Workers Party) local New York
Revolutionary socialists in Canada and the United States began organizing a revolutionary workers’ party around the same time. This occurred in the wake of World War I. The new organizations adopted the name Communist Party, in solidarity with the leading force in the Russian Revolution and in support of the leaders of the world’s first workers’ state, the Soviet Union. In Canada many members of the new party came from the Socialist Party of Canada and from the Social Democratic Party of Canada. In the United States, many of them came out of the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs and from the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, like James P. Cannon, who was a Wobbly before he became a Bolshevik. There were many internal tendencies and factions inside the new CPs, until Moscow stamped out internal democracy and required affiliates to the Comintern to expel all opponents of Joseph Stalin. In the USSR, many of Stalin’s political opponents were not just expelled or exiled; they were murdered. Historians say that Stalin killed more Communists than Adolf Hitler did.
Founding leaders of the Communist Party of Canada were Jack MacDonald and Maurice Spector. They worked closely with the leaders of the CP USA, like James P. Cannon and William Z. Foster. Spector and Cannon were delegates to the Sixth Congress of the Communist International in Moscow in 1928.
Spector accidentally got hold of a copy of Trotsky’s “Critique of the Draft Programme of the Communist International,” which criticized the position of Nikolai Bukharin and Joseph Stalin. It especially exposed the anti-Marxist theory of “socialism in one country.” This critique became a basis of the International Left Opposition. In a truly prophetic statement, Trotsky warned that if the Communist International adopted socialism in one country, it would inevitably lead to the nationalist and reformist degeneration of every Communist Party in the world. His prediction—which was ridiculed by the Stalinists at the time—was proved correct. Cannon reported what happened on that fateful occasion:
Through some slip-up in the apparatus in Moscow, which was supposed to be airtight, this document of Trotsky came into the translating room of the Comintern. It fell into the hopper, where they had a dozen or more translators and stenographers with nothing else to do. They picked up Trotsky’s document, translated it and distributed it to the heads of the delegations and the members of the program commission. So, lo and behold, it was laid in my lap, translated into English! Maurice Spector, a delegate from the Canadian party, and in somewhat the same frame of mind as myself, was also on the program commission and he got a copy. We let the caucus meetings and the Congress sessions go to the devil while we read and studied this document. Then I knew what I had to do, and so did he. Our doubts had been resolved. It was as clear as daylight that Marxist truth was on the side of Trotsky. We had a compact there and then—Spector and I—that we would come back home and begin a struggle under the banner of Trotskyism. (1)
Here’s some background on MacDonald and Spector. Jack MacDonald (nicknamed “Moscow Jack” Macdonald) was born February 2, 1888, in Falkirk, Scotland. He was a founding member of the Communist Party of Canada. He was party chairman from 1921 to 1923, and national secretary from 1923 to 1929.
MacDonald received a scholarship to attend high school, but economic necessity forced him into patternmaking, the same occupation as his father. His imagination was “fired by the revolutionary events of 1905 in Russia.” He joined and later became president (1910–12) of the Falkirk Pattern Makers Association, a member of the British Socialist Party and a member of the Scottish Social Democratic Federation. He immigrated to Toronto in 1912, where he became involved in the local left.
MacDonald supported the expulsion of Maurice Spector for Trotskyism in 1928. Later, he tried to play a balancing role between Tim Buck’s Stalinist faction and the party majority headed by Finnish, Ukrainian and Jewish groups of which J.B. Salsberg was a notable figure. Macdonald failed and was expelled from the party in 1931, accused of being a Lovestoneite (that is, a supporter of Nikolai Bukharin’s Right Opposition). MacDonald, however, maintained that he was trying to play an independent role. MacDonald went on to reconcile with Spector and joined the Toronto branch of the International Left Opposition (Trotskyist) Canada in 1932.
MacDonald and Spector sided with Martin Abern and Max Shachtman in a dispute within the Communist League of America in the early 1930s. The split emerged in the late 1930s, this time over the question of the class nature of the Soviet Union. MacDonald sided with Shachtman in his split from the International in 1940. MacDonald died of a sudden heart attack on November 7, 1941.
Maurice Spector (1898–August 1, 1968) was chairman of the Communist Party of Canada and editor of its newspaper, The Worker, for much of the 1920s. Spector was born in the Russian Empire and immigrated to Canada with his family as an infant. He graduated from Queen’s University and practiced labor law in Toronto when he wasn’t employed in political positions.
Spector was influenced by Trotsky’s work “The Bolsheviki and World Peace,” which was published in The Toronto Mail and Empire in January 1918, and by Social Democratic Party of Canada (SDP) Dominion Secretary Isaac Bainbridge, who introduced him to Lenin’s writings and inspired him to join the SDP. Spector worked with the left wing of the Canadian SDP and eventually left to form the Communist Party of Canada.
Spector was a founder of the Canadian Trotskyist movement, which was first constituted as a branch of the Communist League of America in 1929. In 1932 he cofounded, with Jack MacDonald, the International Left Opposition (Trotskyist) of Canada, a section of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. Spector moved to New York City in 1936 and became a leading member of the Trotskyist movement there. He presented the International Report at the founding convention of the Socialist Workers Party at the end of 1938 but dropped out of the party in 1939. He joined the Socialist Party of America shortly after leaving the SWP in 1939 and remained on its executive body until 1958.
In the 1930s and early 1940s, the Canadian and American Trotskyists developed and implemented a common concept of the revolutionary party—partly in rejecting the bureaucratic and repressive methods of the Stalinist parties, and largely by embracing the approach of the previous revolutionary Marxist movement.
So, who personified the link between that early generation and our modern Canadian movement? Ross Dowson. Dowson was born September 4, 1917, the third in a family of seven children in a working-class family in Weston, Ontario, then a suburb of Toronto. His father was a printer, an atheist and an anarchist sympathizer, and his mother was a stenographer.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Dowson’s older brother, Murray, joined the Workers’ Party of Canada, a Trotskyist organization, while a student at York Memorial Collegiate Institute, and he brought Ross along to meetings. The pair set up the York Memorial High School Spartacus Club. The younger Dowson joined the party and declared to his mother at the age of 17 that he intended to spend his life as a professional revolutionary.
Dowson joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Youth Movement (CCYM), the youth wing of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in 1938, and was expelled for his radical ideas.
The Canadian Trotskyist movement collapsed at the beginning of World War II. MacDonald and Spector had already left. The leader at the time the war broke out was Earle Birney. He dropped out to focus on being a poet and because he disagreed with the Trotskyist position on the war. The movement suffered a further blow when Ottawa declared the Socialist Workers League (as the Workers Party was now called) illegal under the Defence of Canada Regulations.
Ross and Murray Dowson remained with the group as it went underground. Dowson joined the Canadian Army in 1942 and rose to the rank of second lieutenant. He recruited two other soldiers to the Trotskyist movement and organized a successful strike for better pay by soldiers who had been assigned to lay train tracks in southern Ontario. Dowson was discharged from the army in December 1944.
Dowson was elected secretary of the Socialist Workers League in October 1944, and reorganized the movement, founding the Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP) with Dowson as national secretary and editor of its newspaper Labour Challenge.
Dowson ran for mayor of Toronto nine times in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. He campaigned openly as a Trotskyist under the slogan “Vote Dowson, Vote for a Labor Mayor, Vote for the Trotskyist Candidate” and garnered 11% of the vote in the 1948 mayoral election and over 20% of the vote in 1949. Former NDP MP Olivia Chow got 23% of the vote for mayor in 2014 on a rather inferior program.
The RWP declined, however, due to the pressures of the Cold War. Its members joined the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) as a group known internally as The Club but continued to operate the Toronto Labor Bookstore on Yonge Street, run by Dowson. There they held meetings and organized their activities. To save money, Dowson lived in the bookstore.
A split in the Fourth International in 1953 had ramifications in the RWP and in Dowson’s own family. Ross Dowson and the majority of the group sided with the faction led by James P. Cannon and the Socialist Workers Party (United States). This faction formed the International Committee of the Fourth International, which opposed joining Stalinist parties. This episode reveals an aspect of Cannon’s concept of the revolutionary party, namely, that even when working deeply inside another working-class party like the CCF, the revolutionaries should not dissolve their program, strategy and separate identity.
By 1961, Dowson and his comrades joined the New Democratic Party (NDP) at its founding. In that year, the Trotskyist movement relaunched itself as the League for Socialist Action (LSA), with branches in Toronto and Vancouver and Dowson as national secretary.
Dowson was also editor of the LSA’s newspaper, which was first called Workers’ Vanguard and later Labour Challenge. The LSA grew during the student radicalization of the late 1960s. He helped shape the movement in Canada against the war in Indochina, devising the slogan “End Canada’s Complicity in the War in Vietnam.”
In 1963, Dowson played a role in reunifying the Fourth International when he went to Europe with Joseph Hansen to help negotiate a settlement between the American and Canadian groups on one side and the International Secretariat of the Fourth International led by Ernest Mandel, after Michel Pablo was ousted earlier in the decade. In 1964, the LSA developed a Quebec wing, the Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere (Workers’ Socialist League).
In the late 1960s, Canadian Marxist academics, under the influence of the then-predominant dependency theory, tended to view Canada as an economic colony of the United States. Dowson was influenced by this analysis, which inspired the Waffle movement in the NDP. Dowson moved toward a position that viewed Canadian nationalism as progressive against American imperialism, a position that put him in the minority in the LSA.
Dowson’s tendency was defeated at the LSA’s 1973 convention and, in early 1974, he and about 20 supporters left the LSA and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International to form the Socialist League. This group came to be known as the Forward Group after the name of its newspaper. By 1989, it had been reduced to a small group of friends around Dowson when he suffered a devastating stroke that left him unable to speak or write for the rest of his life.
Nonetheless, Cannon’s concept of the revolutionary party, as transmitted by Dowson, was rooted in the LSA/LSO. Application of the concept took a detour when the LSA fused with the RMG and GMR, which created the RWL in 1977. But it took flight again with the formation of Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’Action socialiste in 1994.
Cannon summarizes his concept of the party in a booklet published in 1966 called “The Vanguard Party”:
The vanguard party, guided by the methods of scientific socialism and totally dedicated to the welfare of the toiling masses and all victims of oppression, must always be in principled opposition to the guardians and institutions of class society. These traits can immunize it against the infections, and armour it against the pressures, of alien class influences. But the Leninist party must be, above all, a combat party intent on organizing the masses for effective action leading to the taking of power."
That overriding aim determines the character of the party and priority of its tasks. It cannot be a talking shop for aimless and endless debate. The purpose of its deliberations, discussions, and internal disputes is to arrive at decisions for action and systematic work. Neither can it be an infirmary for the care and cure of sick souls, nor itself a model of the future socialist society. It is a band of revolutionary fighters, ready, willing, and able to meet and defeat all enemies of the people and assist the masses in clearing the way to the new world.
Much of the New Left, imbued with an anarchistic or existentialist spirit, denigrate or dismiss professional leadership in a revolutionary movement. So do some disillusioned workers and ex-radicals, who have come to equate conscientious dedication to full-time leadership with bureaucratic domination and privilege. They fail to understand the interrelations between the masses, the revolutionary class, the party, and its leadership. Just as the revolutionary class leads the nation forward, so the vanguard party leads the class. However, the role of leadership does not stop there. The party itself needs leadership. It is impossible for a revolutionary party to provide correct leadership without the right sort of leaders. This leadership performs the same functions within the vanguard party as that party does for the working class.
Its cadres remain the backbone of the party, in periods of contraction as well as expansion. The vitality of such a party is certified by the capacity to extend and replenish its cadres and reproduce qualified leaders from one generation to another.
The vanguard party cannot be proclaimed by sectarian fiat or be created overnight. Its leadership and membership are selected and sifted out by tests and trials in the mass movement, and in the internal controversies and sharp conflicts over the critical policy questions raised at every turn in the class struggle. It is not possible to step over, and even less possible to leap over, the preliminary stage in which the basic cadres of the party organize and reorganize themselves in preparation for, and in connection with, the larger job of organizing and winning over broad sections of the masses.
That compact summary bears close examination. I want to show how it has reverberated in our own experience of building Socialist Action in the Canadian state.
1. First of all, it says that our party is “in principled opposition to the institutions of class society.” So, for example, we don’t trust the state or the corporations, not even “fine” public corporations like Toronto Hydro and the CBC. We don’t try to reform the police; we want to disarm them. We don’t think socialism will come about through the capitalist state, but only by replacing it with a workers’ state based on workplace and community councils.
2. Ours is a combat party, training militants for the seizure of power. It is not a “talking shop for aimless and endless debate.” We are action-oriented. Like most working people, we want to see results—results we scrutinize closely to learn lessons for future action. Socialist Action is a party of bold and exciting ideas, but it is not a book club. I remember a young professional who joined us recently who said he found the atmosphere in SA intellectually stimulating. Well and good. But SA is not a literary society. We aim to put our ideas into practice. We expect active engagement on the part of members to do just that.
3. Ours is a working-class party. Our orientation is summed up in the slogan “Workers make the country run. Workers should run the country.” Even as a tiny minority, we are constantly seeking ways to influence masses of workers. That is the road to political power. It is why we work diligently in the unions and the NDP, without any illusions in reformism, just as our predecessors engaged in the workers’ organizations of yesteryear.
4. Only a party of professional revolutionaries can lead the masses to take power from the most centralized, the most intrusive and the most violent ruling class and state in the history of humanity. Just as Cannon decried “the New Left, imbued with an anarchistic or existentialist spirit” in his day, we encounter radicals today who elevate their individualism, who put their personal preferences ahead of the needs of the party. As any union member will tell you, a strike requires sacrifice. In a revolution, sacrifice can be a matter of life and death. In everyday life, most sacrifices are pretty small. Here is an example. Selling the revolutionary press is not every comrade’s cup of tea. The point, however, is this: if you cannot shoulder the task of distributing leaflets or selling socialist newspapers or buttons to workers at a public event, how are you going to summon the courage to speak the revolutionary truth to a hostile meeting, or defend a demonstration against violent cops or fascists? Life is about learning to overcome adversity, and revolutionary politics is certainly no exception to that rule.
5. The revolutionary party is not a hospital. Capitalism is an alienating and dehumanizing social system. It is not surprising that socialism attracts many victims and misfits of a hellish society. The socialist movement provides comfort, purpose and solidarity for the oppressed. But it cannot professionally treat the physical and mental ills of the outcast. It cannot substitute for the medicines and caregivers that we demand for all who are in need. Our job is to fight for social funding and workers’ control of the economy, not to open clinics, host drop-in centers or staff food banks.
6. The revolutionary party is not a model of the future socialist society. Karl Marx, whose 200th birthday we celebrated in May, addressed this issue in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. I refer you to the section titled “Critical-Utopian Socialism and Communism.” Marx and Engels write that the Utopians “want to improve the condition of every member of society, even that of the most favoured. Hence, they habitually appeal to society at large, without the distinction of class; nay, by preference, to the ruling class. For how can people when once they understand their (Utopian) system, fail to see in it the best possible plan of the best possible state of society? Hence, they reject all political, and especially all revolutionary action; they wish to attain their ends by peaceful means, necessarily doomed to failure, and by the force of example, to pave the way for the new social gospel.” Instead of an isolated model community, or a blueprint for change, we advance a program of demands the struggle for which will give shape to the future society in unpredictable ways.
7. The revolutionary party is not a charity. The Manifesto speaks to this issue in the section titled “Conservative or Bourgeois Socialism.” In exchange for a few crumbs of charity, the socialistic bourgeoisie “wants that the proletariat should remain within the bounds of the existing society but should cast away all its hateful ideas concerning the bourgeoisie.” Does this remind you of the Basic Income plan?
8. Our party is not a publishing house dedicated to the advancement of the careers of budding petty bourgeois journalists. An article written for our press instantly becomes a tool of our party. It is subject to whatever changes the editorial board deems necessary. The only choice the original writer has is whether to put her/his name to it, if there is to be a byline at all. I mention this petty issue because we had an experience with a young writer who wanted to have the final say on what was published, right down to matters of spelling, syntax and footnotes. We said, “No way, José.” SA is not your publicist or your platform. The writer is an agent of the party, not the other way around. So he quit, which was better sooner, because later it might have hurt our party over a more serious issue of political confidence.
9. The revolutionary party is not a mutual-admiration society. Fortunately, comrades in our party do like one another quite a lot. But the basis of our party is its program and strategy. It is not a social clique or a fan club that can be blown apart by the mere addition or subtraction of certain personalities. It is well known that the capitalist state interferes in radical parties, trying to play on personality differences in order to wreak havoc. We aim to make it as difficult as possible for the cops and the courts by sticking to our policies and principles, not personalities.
10. Selecting the leaders of the revolutionary party is a process that reflects the function of the party. The leaders must enjoy the political confidence of the party ranks—and they will—if they display the level of political depth, astuteness and dedication expected by serious workers. Beyond high school elections, political leadership is not a personality contest—thank goodness, or some of us wouldn’t get to the rank of corporal, myself included.
Finally, what is Cannon’s concept of party discipline? Democratic centralism distinguishes Marxists from reformists and parliamentary careerists. But should the emphasis be on democracy or on centralism? Cannon answered this question in correspondence that was published under the title “Don’t Strangle the Party.” Here is the backstory.
Arne Swabeck, an SWP founder and National Committee member, had been trying for seven years to convert the SWP from Trotskyism to Maoism. Despite repeated efforts before and during SWP national conventions in 1959, 1961, 1963 and 1965, his small group made little headway among the members. Increasingly he and his group began to ignore the normal channels for discussion in the party and to communicate their ideas to selected members by mail. This led to demands by Larry Trainor, a National Committee member in Boston, for disciplinary action against Swabeck and his ally in the NC, Richard Fraser. Through a circular letter for the Political Committee, Tom Kerry announced that the matter would be taken up at a plenum of the NC to be held at the end of February.
Cannon’s letter was addressed to the supporters of the NC majority tendency. Cannon tried to convince the majority that political discussion and education were the answer to the minority tendencies, not disciplinary action. “There is absolutely no party law or precedent for such action,” he said, “and we will run into all kinds of trouble in the party ranks, and the International, if we try this kind of experiment for the first time.... It would be too bad if the SWP suddenly decided to get tougher than the Communist Party [of the 1920s] and try to enforce a nonexistent law—which can’t be enforced without creating all kinds of discontent and disruption.”
This was written five months after the adoption of the 1965 Organization resolution. It demonstrates that Cannon saw nothing in that resolution that could be cited as “party law or precedent” for the kind of disciplinary action taken by the Jack Barnes SWP leadership in the 1980s.
The February 1966 meeting of the NC found Cannon’s arguments convincing. They did not want to conduct the experiment of trying to enforce “a nonexistent law.” So, the whole question was dropped—until after Cannon’s death.
Sadly, in the 1980s, the American SWP did degenerate, as did its counterpart in Canada. That is a subject for another article. But the fact is that Socialist Action is alive and well, in both countries, doing excellent political work. We have James P. Cannon and Ross Dowson to thank for that. And, hopefully, we have you who are gathered here today to help us build the revolutionary workers’ party that will play a leading role in the self-emancipation of the working class.
Think of what a joy it will be to put an end, once and for all, to a system based on exploitation and oppression that threatens the very survival of nature and humanity. Cannon’s conception of the revolutionary party is absolutely critical to our future victory.
1- The source of the quote is the History of American Trotskyism, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1944, pp. 49–50.