Bert Whyte, Champagne and Meatballs: Adventures of a Canadian Communist.
ON THE SURFACE, Bert Whyte does not seem like the typical communist. A cigar-smoking ladies-man who enjoyed the bourgeois pleasure of high class Rideau Hotel shaves while undercover, Whyte was also a committed communist who not only contributed to the party's work in Canada, but also spent many years in China and the Soviet Union as a foreign correspondent. Champagne and Meatballs, written by Whyte with an introduction by Larry Hannant, brings us a deeply personal look at what it meant to be a communist from the 1930s through the 1960s.
Whyte begins his memoirs with a lengthy recollection of growing up in small-town Ontario. Interestingly, this is the story of how someone from a British background came to the Communist Party, a party primarily composed of Finns, Ukrainians, and other eastern European immigrants. The Whytes were not rich, but they were better off than many of those who would eventually turn to the Communist Party. Whyte's father worked as a skilled labourer in several Ontarian mines. Whyte himself spent stints employed in the mining industry, interspersed with periods riding the rails across Canada. Whyte does not seem to have had much of a political education prior to joining the Communist Party, at least not one that he deems worthy of his memoirs. He learned about the communists after riding the rails to Vancouver and was eventually recruited while working at the Noranda mine by a Ukrainian who simply asked, "You wanna join the Party?" (163) Whyte explains that he thought the CCF was not about to be "doing anything very revolutionary" and that the IWW was "either grey-headed or bald." (163) Yet while Whyte dismisses other parties on the left, he does not put forward any ideological justification for joining the Communist Party other than its revolutionary nature. This is indicative of the rest of the book. Unlike other communist memoirs, there is very little discussion of ideology or politics in Whyte's writing.
Particularly interesting from a historian's perspective is Whyte's discussion of his underground organizing activities while the Communist Party was illegal. Whyte gives us a detailed depiction of what life was like as an organizer. Posing as a salesman, Whyte travelled throughout eastern Ontario. He relates the story of how he blended into society, joining the YMCA'S bridge club, befriending a vehemently anti-communist Catholic newspaper editor, and getting his haircut at the Chateau Laurier. (178) This is not the typical image one has of an underground communist organizer.
While in Ottawa, Whyte began to publish the Clarion newspaper twice monthly, hiding the illegal publication, among other places, in books in the public library. (179) After Germany attacked the Soviet Union and the communists supported the war effort, Whyte joined the army and had a successful military career. (187-236) Whyte's postwar career provides an illuminating glimpse into communist history as he discusses life as a communist during the postwar years, particularly as a Labour-Progressive Party organizer in Toronto, a city where several communists held elected office. (237-40)
One of the strengths of this book is a series of letters written by Whyte to his wife while stationed in China as a columnist for the Canadian Tribune, providing insight into the life of post-revolutionary 1960s China. Whyte describes the challenges of being one of few foreigners in China at the time and his personal interest in witnessing the development of a Communist state. Whyte was particularly interested in personal stories--although these stories, he admitted, were not what the Canadian Tribune was most interested in reporting. (295) His letters often focus on these personal moments in the midst of post-revolutionary fervour, whether it is buying pants or watching Chinese take an escalator for the first time. (306) Hannant did well to include these letters in this book.
Hannant's introduction stands out in this work, tying together the story of Whyte's life and filling in many of the gaps that are apparent in Whyte's own narrative. This introduction, drawn largely from RCMP surveillance files and Whyte's manuscript, sets Whyte's largely personal story within the framework of broader communist history. Furthermore, Hannant extends the story beyond the 1960s (where Whyte ends his narrative) until Whyte's death 20 years later. Indeed, Hannant's introduction was essential to providing a context for the memoirs that followed.
Bert Whyte writes in an entertaining, conversational fashion. His prose is eminently readable, a consequence, perhaps, of the many years he spent as a journalist. Whyte is comfortable as a storyteller. Often this leads to interesting anecdotes that illuminate his points, although at times his stories diverted the book onto tangents, particularly regarding his love life.
Peculiarly, it seems that many significant moments are barely mentioned in the work. Some of these are personal--his second marriage for example was deemed to warrant no more than a paragraph. (249) More interestingly, however, Whyte does not linger on either the Soviet-German non-aggression pact (177) or the reversal of policy in 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. (186) Both are afforded a paragraph. Other significant moments in Communist history, such as de-Stalinization, or the crushing of Hungary in 1956, are not mentioned at all.
These events had significant repercussions for the Communist Party, yet have been omitted from Whyte's work. It would have been interesting to read what Whyte, who remained a loyal communist till his death, thought during these moments of crisis or his impression of the resulting party turmoil. Perhaps he just did not want to delve into controversial issues that had caused so much turmoil within the party. Yet Whyte does not seem like the type of writer keen on shying away from controversy. Rather, he seems more interested in presenting his personal narrative rather than a narrative of his political party. The choice is understandable. It is, however, unfortunate from a historian's perspective, that Whyte did not address these political issues in greater detail. Larry Hannant relates the story, gleaned from RCMP surveillance, of how, when the cPc was seeking someone to write a biography of Leslie Morris, Whyte wanted to write about Morris as "a man and a Communist ... [to] tell ordinary Canadians what a leading Canadian Communist was like." (10) Whyte never got his chance. The party leadership had a different idea for the project, an ideological biography to serve political purposes. When it came to writing his own memoirs, however, Whyte made sure to seize the opportunity, focusing on himself as 'a man and a Communist' rather than merely as a communist functionary.
While the weakness in Whyte's work is the omission of significant political moments and ideas, his intimately personal narrative helps take us beyond the official story of the Communist Party or the dry lines of RCMP surveillance files. It infuses life and personality into the party, recognizing the colourful personalities that contributed to the Party and its work. And it gives recognition to the importance of these personal narratives in creating a party that, at first glance, can seem monolithic.
Canadian Mennonite University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2012|
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