Rewriting labour's history.
by Stephen L. Endicott
University of Toronto Press, 2012
MY OLD FRIEND JACK SCOTT used to tell me that when he joined the Communist Party (CP) in Canada in the early 1930s he "didn't know Communism from rheumatism." Jack could spin a good tale. He regaled me with stories of how he and other CPers like Myer Klig and Fred Collins led epic class struggles. Many of the workers drawn to such conflicts knew even less about Communism than did Scott. Nonetheless, they were invariably schooled in the rough-and-tumble realities of class warfare.
Much of this happened in the Workers' Unity League. The WUL was the CP's trade union wing in what has come to be known as the Third Period (1929-1935). Revolution was around the corner. The leadership of the workers' movement had to reside unequivocally in the hands of those Marxists inspired by and loyal to the Soviet Union. Capitalism survived because of misleadership of the workers. Social democrats, derisively labelled "social fascists," were the main enemy. Labour fakirs at the head of reactionary unions (often, themselves, "social fascists") not only had to be exposed and attacked: the workers needed to be sprung from their clutches. Alexander Solomon Lozovsky, head of the Red International of Labor Unions, advised Communists to form dual unions, distinct from the reformist officialdoms of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).
This was heady stuff. Some of it needed saying. And while it was ultimately wrong, it contained enough that seemed right to make it attractive to many who were growing more and more hostile to capitalist crisis and the ravages of brutal workplace exploitation and debilitating unemployment. The Communist rhetoric of this era rightly accented the need for unvarnished struggle, designated "class against class." These were years in which Communists took uncompromising, principled stands against racism, especially in the United States "Jim Crow" South. Yet there was always an unwholesome sectarianism and often otherworldly character to these ostensibly revolutionary endeavours, however much they have appealed to subsequent generations of leftists. In the trade union sphere, the Third Period veered decidedly off the protracted path of Leninist practice in the 1920s, which advocated working patiently within conventional unions, educating the mass of workers in the need for class struggle politics.
Whatever the peculiar circumstances prevailing in Canada, and contributing to the impulse to create separate, Communist-led unions, the Communist International's changed orientation was decisive in the creation of the WUL. Moreover, when the Comintern position changed in 1934-35, stressing the Popular Frontist appetite for "labour unity" even if it might embrace cross-class political alliances and uncritical acceptance of working-class leaders in the political and economic fields who were willing to compromise too much, the fate of the separatist WUL was sealed. As it was wound down, Cape Breton's J.B. McLachlan protested the dismantling of his own dual union in the mining sector, resigning from the Communist Party in disgust. He was not alone.
Was the WUL, which at its height may well have attracted as many as 40,000 workers, a revolutionary union? Did Communist influence among workers extend more widely through the creation of this separate Red-led trade union centre than would have been likely had self-proclaimed revolutionary forces concentrated their efforts within AFL bodies? Such questions have nagged at the political meaning of studies of Canada's labour history for decades.
Now we have a well-researched, engagingly written account of important aspects of the story. Stephen L. Endicott canvasses WUL activities among previously studied furniture workers, chicken pluckers, seamstresses, and cloakmakers. He also digs deeper. Some of the book's most interesting and informative material looks at WUL enclaves of lumber workers and hard rock miners. Raising the Workers' Flag is an often stirring account of organizing the unorganized and the unemployed. Women and oppressed ethnic minorities were drawn into radical, union-led mobilizations. WUL campaigns and demands inevitably spearheaded much-needed class combativeness during the doldrums of the Great Depression. There is no doubt that Endicott's research extends our knowledge of militant struggles in the 1930s and deepens our appreciations of what the CP and the WUL contributed to them.
The book tells us less, however, about the workers who joined the WUL and far more about the Communists who led it. This is fine. Yet Endicott sidesteps a critically important aspect of this leadership: the Stalinization of the Communist International and the Canadian Communist Party. Commentators who voice criticisms of Stalinism, and the impact of the Communist International's convoluted shifts in "political line" during the years reaching from the 1920s into the 1940s, are manhandled (sometimes simply ignored) in his presentation. Anyone who insists that what happened in Canada reflected something other than a reasoned response to specific conditions, suggesting "subservience to Moscow," is guilty of following the same path as the Canadian security state, its counter-subversion squads, and its undercover agents (324).
The one-sided misrepresentations of the existing historiography on the WUL that appear in Endicott's study are important because they compromise his credibility and his capacity to extend our appreciation of the ultimate meaning of the Red-led unions he is studying. This skewed presentation of views contrasting with those of Endicott are possible only through his highly selective and partial reading of many publications, in which specific words are ripped out of a wider analytic and political contextualization. That the impact of Canadian Communism and the WUL might have been contradictory is a proposal Endicott can not entertain. This reduces nuanced historiography to caricature, sacrificing the believability of the arguments Endicott puts forward. And all of this lessens Endicott's serious engagement with the critical question of what kinds of lessons workers who joined the WUL learned.
Endicott wants us to look at the Workers' Unity League and its Communist leadership as heroic. It is, in our sad times, comfortable to see the past in this way. So much of the Left has been obliterated in our times; so much of the struggle and militancy of the labour movement has been siphoned away over the course of the last four decades of defeats. Yet it is possible to scrutinize the WUL more critically, appreciating that Endicott settles for too little. How different it all might have been! What if the leadership of the Comintern and its various parties and organizations of mass struggle had not succumbed to the subversion of the thought and practice of the revolutionary Left that stamped Stalinism one of the great tragedies of socialism's modern history? Perhaps the next history of the WUL, which we very much need to complement this provocative, partisan and passionate account, will give us a better sense of "revolutionary rheumatism" and the Canadian working class in the 1930s.
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|Title Annotation:||Raising the Workers' Flag: The Workers' Unity League of Canada, 1930-1936|
|Author:||Palmer, Bryan D.|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||May 1, 2014|
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