Spartacist Canada No. 164
Class-Struggle Defense in Capitalist Canada
From Winnipeg 1919 to Montreal 1970
The Partisan Defense Committee’s annual Holiday Appeal benefits held in December in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver raised more than $10,000 (U.S.) after expenses. These funds go toward providing monthly stipends and holiday gifts to class-war prisoners and their families, an expression of proletarian solidarity and material support. The case of death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal was central to the Holiday Appeal benefits (see article, page 4).
We also honoured 15 other class-war prisoners including American Indian Movement activist Leonard Peltier and the eight MOVE members, now in their 32nd year of prison for the “crime” of having survived a massive cop assault on their Philadelphia home in 1978. For more on the Holiday Appeals and the class-war prisoners see “Supporting the Class-War Prisoners” (Workers Vanguard No. 951, 29 January).
A highlight of the December 11 Toronto benefit was a speech by Trotskyist League spokesman Andrew Shilling on the history of class-struggle defense by Marxist revolutionaries in Canada which we print below, slightly edited for publication.
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We’ve heard it reiterated in a number of ways this evening: the Partisan Defense Committee “champions cases and causes in the interest of the whole of the working people.” This sounds like a very simple phrase, almost common sense for any person who’s on the side of the working class. But, actually, what these words express is what Leon Trotsky called “the dearly bought lessons of the past.” These are lessons learned by the generations of those who came before us and often paid a very high price. The principles of class-struggle defense as we know them today combine the program of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, the world’s first successful socialist revolution, with the best militant traditions of workers struggle in North America going back to the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, the IWW.
I want to talk tonight about a few—a very few—examples of defense cases that we and our Marxist predecessors have had to take up in this country. The capitalist class in Canada is like any other in its basic purpose: making profit through savage exploitation of the working class. But each national gang of capitalist exploiters also has its own special characteristics. Canadian capitalism arose from the bones of genocide, the virtual extermination of the pre-existing aboriginal societies.
The hanging of heroic Métis fighter Louis Riel in November 1885 by the “Father of Confederation,” John A. Macdonald, underlines that from the start, the rule of Canadian capitalism has been shaped by racism. It has also been shaped by a specific bigotry against the French population centred in Quebec. The bloody suppression of the Patriote Rebellion of 1837-38 was followed by the execution of 17 of its leaders. Our opposition to the Canadian state today is underscored by our advocacy of an independent Quebec, which would remove the national question as an obstacle to united workers struggle, opening the road to smashing the chains of capitalist rule in both English Canada and Quebec.
I mentioned the 1917 October Revolution, which rose up out of the carnage of the first imperialist world war, and which sparked an explosion of class struggle around the world. In Canada, the high point of these post-1917 struggles was the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919. The rulers responded to that struggle by launching a ferocious manhunt, jailing and deporting foreign-born Communists, anarchists, militant unionists, anybody else who could be labelled a “dangerous foreigner.”
The early Communist Party, founded and led by Maurice Spector and “Moscow Jack” MacDonald (now, he was Scottish, so the term “Moscow Jack” was a political name), took up a ceaseless defense of the class fighters persecuted by the Canadian rulers. Following the lead of James P. Cannon’s International Labor Defense in the U.S., they set up the Canadian Labor Defense League in 1925. The CLDL’s founding statement vowed to:
“provide means for the defense and support of workers, regardless of their political or industrial affiliations, race, color or nationality, who are indicted and prosecuted on account of their activity in the Labour movement.”
That’s pretty much what we say today. For a closer look at this history, I urge people to read Canadian Bolsheviks by Ian Angus, which is available on our literature table. Aside from the chapters on the proud history of the early Canadian communists, this book also explains the impact of the rise to power in the Soviet Union of a nationalist bureaucracy headed by Joseph Stalin starting in 1923-24. The Stalinists abandoned the program of internationalist, revolutionary Marxism that animated the Russian Revolution of 1917. In Canada, this led to the expulsion of many founding party leaders, including Spector in 1928 and MacDonald in 1931. Both became leaders of the Canadian Trotskyists, joining the International Left Opposition to continue the struggle for new October Revolutions.
The 1930s, like today, witnessed a growing economic crisis, as the anarchy of capitalist production for profit led to mass unemployment and general social dislocation of workers and people who were already poor and oppressed. In fear of organized discontent, the rulers launched a ferocious campaign of anti-communist repression. In 1931, on September 29, the RCMP put a bloody end to a Communist-led coal strike by murdering three miners in cold blood, in broad daylight on the main street of Estevan, Saskatchewan. Just weeks earlier, on August 11, a joint force of the RCMP, Ontario Provincial Police, and Toronto cops raided the offices of the Communist Party and the homes of its leaders, arresting nine people, including party leader Tim Buck. Ottawa charged them under Section 98 of the Criminal Code with “seditious conspiracy” and being members and officers of an “unlawful organization.” Most of the Communist Party defendants received five-year prison terms for “subversion.”
In the same spirit of non-sectarian defense we stand on today, one of the earliest campaigns of the Trotskyists in Canada was the fight to defend the leaders of the Communist Party, the party from which they had just been expelled. In an article for the U.S. Trotskyist paper, the Militant (29 August 1931), Maurice Spector wrote:
“There can be no question of the position that every class-conscious worker must take up towards this trial—absolute, militant, intransigent struggle against the forces of reaction. The workers must organize in a broad united front, whatever their political or industrial affiliation, to protest against the wave of terror which the capitalist authorities have let loose against the militants of their class.”
Class-Struggle Defense in World War II
Eight years later, with the outbreak of World War II in 1939, it was the Trotskyists’ turn to be targeted by the ruling class. They defied the government’s efforts to whip up patriotic fervour by publicly agitating in street corner rallies against the war effort. The Socialist Workers League, as the Trotskyists were called, was declared illegal, and one of its leaders imprisoned. In our newspaper Spartacist Canada (No. 162, Fall 2009), we republished an editorial from the clandestine paper that the Trotskyists put out in September 1939 after their legal newspaper, Socialist Voice, had been suppressed. Just as Lenin’s Bolsheviks did in 1914, our comrades stood firm, defying the patriotic fervour whipped up by the government. They called for revolutionary defeatism against the imperialist powers—Germany, France, the United States, Britain, Canada, Japan—while unconditionally defending the USSR against imperialist attack.
A key test of class-struggle defense arose later in the war with the government’s order to round up 22,000 Canadians of Japanese descent. Their property was seized and they were declared “enemy aliens.” Thousands of men, women, children, old people, the sick, with little more than the clothes on their backs, were forced into internment camps from the B.C. interior to as far east as Ontario. At every stage of their torment, the Japanese Canadians stood virtually alone. Trade-union misleaders on the West Coast actively whipped up racist hysteria against them. The CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation), predecessors of today’s NDP, made its contribution to the great “war for democracy” by having party member Grant MacNeil serve on the advisory board to the B.C. Security Commission, which oversaw the concentration camps. The now-Stalinist Communist Party, which was avidly supporting Canada’s war effort, despicably applauded the round-up of the Japanese Canadians, just as it later hailed the atomic incineration of Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In sharp contrast, our comrades denounced the rulers’ racist persecution of the Japanese Canadians. Their own press banned, the Trotskyists continued to distribute the Militant, the paper of the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party in the U.S., which exposed the racist lies and atrocities against Japanese Americans. At the war’s end, they also raised their voices against Ottawa’s preparations to deport 10,000 Japanese Canadians to war-ravaged Japan. Writing in their paper, Labor Challenge, the Trotskyists said:
“The mass compulsory forced exodus of the Japanese Canadians from the West Coast finds a parallel in modern times only in the slave labor trek of the peoples of Europe into Hitler’s industrial war machine....
“Canadian capitalism stands self-indicted. Another War Crime stains its bloody hands.”
Quebec and the “October Crisis,” 1970
The next decade, the 1950s, saw the purge of reds of all kinds from the trade unions, often spearheaded by CCF leaders like the late David Lewis. In the 1960s and early 1970s, however, social struggles resurged, and again the capitalist rulers raised the fist of repression. Among those targeted and imprisoned was Dr. Henry Morgentaler whose heroic defiance of the courts eventually defeated the back-alley butchers and religious bigots, forcing the legalization of abortion in Canada in 1988. This was a victory for women’s rights that is today once again under siege.
Class-struggle defense was posed most sharply in Quebec during the “October Crisis” of 1970. The Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, who also extradited Leonard Peltier to his tormentors in the U.S., was seeking to crush a mass labour and social radicalization in Quebec, including growing support for Quebec independence. Ottawa seized on the kidnappings of two government officials, James Cross and Pierre Laporte, by the Front de Libération du Québec, or FLQ. Trudeau declared martial law and sent thousands of armed troops to occupy the streets of Montreal, rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of people.
Pierre Laporte, one of those held by the FLQ, was killed, and eventually the government made a deal with the FLQ for the release of the other, James Cross. The government then staged a series of show trials for “sedition” under the War Measures Act against people, including prominent union militants, who had exactly nothing to do with the kidnappings of Cross and Laporte. This sparked a new wave of anti-government protest, in the upshot of which nearly all the charges were thrown out. But the rulers’ vendetta against the FLQ continued, leading to several arrests over the next decade.
The FLQ was not a Marxist organization. It was a small handful of activists that espoused a version of leftist petty-bourgeois nationalism inspired by guerrilla national liberation movements that had been sweeping through Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa. The FLQ’s urban guerrilla tactics were ultimately ineffectual. Some of their targets were also random—they endangered the lives of innocent people, and this is something which Marxists condemn. For the most part, however, the FLQ targeted symbols of Canadian capitalism. From the standpoint of the working class such actions are manifestly not crimes.
In 1939, Leon Trotsky responded to the trial of Herschel Grynszpan, a Jewish youth, for shooting a Nazi official in Paris. In the article “For Grynszpan” he wrote:
“We Marxists consider the tactic of individual terror inexpedient in the tasks of the liberating struggle of the proletariat as well as oppressed nationalities. A single isolated hero cannot replace the masses. But we understand only too clearly the inevitability of such convulsive acts of despair and vengeance. All our emotions, all our sympathies are with the self-sacrificing avengers even though they have been unable to discover the correct road.”
The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste did not exist at the time of the 1970 October Crisis. But after our founding five years later, we had many occasions to address these events, tying them to our own defense of Quebec’s right to self-determination (see article, opposite). Our call to defend the arrested FLQers was deeply controversial, as ostensible “radicals”—swimming with the rightward political tide of the late 1970s—dropped defense of the FLQ like a hot potato. We excoriated the loyalty to the bourgeois state of our fake-Marxist opponents in an article bluntly headlined “FLQ Defense: Acid Test for the Left” (SC No. 34, March 1979).
The Trotskyist League’s fight for class-struggle defense flows from our Marxist outlook: class against class. The period we’re struggling in today is a bad one. The ruling class claims that the destruction of the Soviet Union proves “communism is dead.” Now, the impact of this historic defeat has demoralized millions of working people around the world. Unlike the situation faced by our forebears in the 1920s and 1930s, today even the most advanced workers do not in general identify their struggles with the liberating goals of socialism. But history shows there is no way to end the poverty, war and oppression endemic to the capitalist system short of the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with an egalitarian social system. To get there, we need to forge a Marxist vanguard party—one that defends all the oppressed and downtrodden in its fight for socialist revolution. In this struggle, we give a place of honour to the class-war prisoners past and present, who have been victimized for standing up to the barbaric capitalist system, accurately described by Marx as “dripping with blood from every pore.” Their fight is our fight.