Spartacist Canada No. 162
From the Archives of Marxism
September 1939: Canadian Trotskyists Against Imperialist War
Seventy years ago, on September 3, 1939, the second interimperialist World War began as the governments of Britain and France, led by Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier respectively, declared war on Hitler’s Germany after the latter’s invasion of Poland. The Canadian government of Mackenzie King officially entered the war a week later. It had already invoked the draconian War Measures Act and other repressive legislation in order to suppress dissent at home.
The first victim of this crackdown was the Socialist Workers League (SWL), Canadian section of the Trotskyist Fourth International. Defying the patriotic fervour whipped up by the government and its labour lackeys, the small Canadian Trotskyist group stood alone in denouncing the war and calling for class struggle against the capitalist warmongers. The September issue of its paper Socialist Action was suppressed, while the police prevented an SWL public meeting in Toronto and arrested SWL supporter Frank Watson for his antiwar speech to a street-corner rally. The first person charged under the government’s Defence of Canada Regulations, Watson was sentenced to a year in jail.
The Trotskyists then issued their paper in mimeographed form, distributing it clandestinely. The first mimeographed Socialist Action, datelined “Montreal, Sept., 1939,” appeared just after Canada’s entry into the war. Its editorial, which we reprint below, pointed to the example of Lenin’s Bolshevik Party which, standing firm against the orgy of patriotism that accompanied World War I, led the workers of tsarist Russia to power in the October 1917 socialist revolution.
The Trotskyists’ clear statement of revolutionary opposition to our “own” imperialist bourgeoisie stood in sharp contrast to the social-democratic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF—predecessor of the NDP) and the Stalinist Communist Party (CP) of Tim Buck and Stewart Smith. The CCF voted in parliament to support the war, while the CP initially took an even more fervent prowar stance in its paper the Clarion. A few weeks later—belatedly catching up to Stalin’s foreign policy, which had produced a “non-aggression pact” with Germany—the CP did an about-face and opposed the war. Then when Hitler’s armies invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, the CP flipped again, supporting the King government and its war effort and calling for no-strike pledges in the unions.
While the CP followed the twists and turns of its bureaucratic masters in Moscow, the Trotskyists maintained a consistently revolutionary stance against the capitalist ruling class. At the same time, they called for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union against imperialism, despite the crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy. As the Canadian Fourth Internationalists wrote in a 1938 statement, issued while they worked as a revolutionary opposition in the CCF:
“The foreign policies of its totalitarian regime have only succeeded in weakening the international position of Russia. The Moscow Trials, the unceasing purges, the execution of the builders of the Russian Revolution and the leading men in every walk of life, including the general staff of the army, have emboldened its imperialist enemies. But despite the absolutist character of the regime, the socialized basis of economy established through the great October revolution of 1917, still remains. It is therefore the duty of all socialists to defend these gains against imperialist attack, while recognizing that the Stalinist leadership itself weakens and endangers this defence.”
—“Bulletin on War” issued by the Socialist Policy Group, 15 April 1938
In reprinting the Socialist Voice editorial, we note a mistaken formulation, that capitalism “IS fascism.” The triumph of fascism in Germany meant the crushing of all workers organizations and, later, the unparalleled horrors of the Holocaust. As the editorial elsewhere makes clear, the issue was not whether the imperialist regimes in the war were fascist or “democratic,” but that their purpose was to further their own interests against rivals abroad, over the corpses of tens of millions. As Trotsky put it in “War and the Fourth International” (1934), “A modern war between the great powers does not signify a conflict between democracy and fascism but a struggle of two imperialisms for the redivision of the world.”
We have taken the text below from a facsimile reproduction on the rossdowson.com website. Editing has been limited to correcting typographical errors and standardizing punctuation.
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War Is Here—What Now?
Workers of Canada! Today, as in 1914, you have been betrayed into another useless world-slaughter.
Once more the Canadian capitalists, the high-salaried generals, the profiteering politicians, the hired press, the jingoists of all stripes are pouring out their lying propaganda, pretending that this too is “a war to save democracy,” a war to end war, “a just war.”
Once more the treacherous labor-leaders, the fake-Christian persons, the well paid old men in universities, the bourgeois women’s clubs, are joining in the hue and cry to get Canadian workers to die that they may keep their jobs and their profits.
Once more the social-democrats go over to the camp of the workers’ enemy. The CCF leaders support the war or take refuge in useless individualistic pacifism. This time they are joined in treachery by the bogus “communists,” the Stewart Smiths and other paid mouthpieces of the arch-traitor Stalin. Deserted by him they have become the chief defenders of the new imperialist war in the ranks of the workers.
But all is not lost. In 1914 one small workers’ party, the party of Lenin and the Russian Bolsheviks, stood true to the principles of international socialism. Out of their struggle came the first Workers’ State and a new movement of world revolt which eventually stopped the war. In 1939, the same principles are guarded by an even stronger force, the Fourth International, with sections in twenty countries, proudly acknowledging the theoretical leadership of Leon Trotsky, Lenin’s co-leader in the great Russian Revolution.
In Canada, we of the Socialist Workers’ League sound the call to all socialists to join with us in building, under the banner of the Fourth International, the anti-war party. We proclaim the necessity of a Workers’ and Farmers’ Government in Canada to end Canadian participation in the Second World War and to prepare the way for socialism here in Canada in our time.
A War for Democracy?
Workers, this is not our war! The bosses lie; their new lackeys, the Stewart Smiths, lie; this is NOT “A WAR IN DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACY” (Clarion, Aug. 26). Even the limited democratic rights which the workers of Britain, France and Canada have secured by decades of struggle are gone now. Daladier months ago suspended the French parliament till 1942! Chamberlain rules by Cabinet decree and military law. In Canada we are already under the iron grip of the War Measures Act and other martial decrees which have wiped away the rights of free speech, press, and other organization. These liberties will never be restored by the rotting capitalist system.
The British and French empires are not democracies, but dictatorships over hundreds of millions of colonial serfs, black, brown and yellow. Their imperialist governments have gone to war because they want to stop rising German imperialism from grabbing back some of the spoils they took from it in the last World War; because they will lose profits if Germany extends her trade influence in Europe; and because they have no other way of ending mass unemployment and economic depression at home.
A War to Defend Poland?
THIS IS NOT A WAR TO “DEFEND THE INDEPENDENCE OF POLAND” (Clarion, Aug. 26; Globe & Mail, Aug. 28; etc.). The Polish masses have never had independence. They are ruled by reactionary landlords, anti-Soviet army generals, and the like, who have deprived the millions of Ukrainians and other minorities of democratic rights, massacred Jews, and outlawed long ago the Communist Party and other working-class organizations. The independence of the Polish people can be secured only by the successful overthrow of the capitalist rulers in both Poland and Germany by the united action of the Polish and German workers and peasants.
A War to End War?
THIS IS NOT A WAR TO “PRESERVE PEACE” (Clarion, Aug. 26) or “enforce peace,” or etc. Like the last World War, it will result only in another straitjacketing of the defeated powers by the conquerors, as at Versailles, and so on to a Third World War or to the entire collapse of civilization—UNLESS THE WORKING CLASS OF THE WORLD OVERTHROWS THE WARMAKERS AND THE CAPITALIST SYSTEM WHICH INEVITABLY BREEDS WAR.
A War to Stop Fascism?
Capitalism cannot stop fascism—it IS fascism. A victory for British-French imperialism might mean the end for Hitler but it will leave Germany (and probably Britain & France also) so broken and dismembered that the capitalists of each country will be compelled to set up fascist states everywhere to muzzle the wrath of war-torn workers. Fascism in Germany arose out of the last defeat of Germany. It will rise again unless the workers take power in Germany and are supported by the workers’ struggle for power in the other warring countries. Finally, the War has already brought Britain, France and Canada immeasurably nearer to fascism through the military dictatorships already set up in these countries. Fascism is capitalism in decay and can be ended only by socialism. We will not help the German masses to overthrow Hitlerism by murdering them in the armies of British IMPERIALISM.
How to Stop the War
Workers, do not under-rate your power! Without the mining of nickel and copper, the manufacturing of planes, or even simply without the means of transporting these death-dealing materials to the sea, Canadian capitalism can make no war profits, must fail to fuel the European furnace. Key strikes can hamper the war machine. Resistance to conscription, which occurred on a mass scale in Quebec in the last War, can be organized and extended across Canada. The Canadian people DO NOT WANT THIS WAR. They have had no voice in its declaration. They can be organized, on farm and in factory. A spark lighted here would be the signal for the resistance of our brothers in South Africa—whose reluctance to enter the war has already been shown—to our brothers in the other commonwealths and colonies, in the warring countries of Europe, in the United States—where Roosevelt daily prepares to drag more millions into war.
But resistance must be organized, must be led by an anti-war party which is also the party of socialism, which speaks with the voice of the masses.
WORKERS JOIN WITH US TO BUILD THAT PARTY.
WORKERS OF THE WORLD UNITE!
ONLY SOCIALISM CAN END WAR!
THE FIGHT FOR WORKING-CLASS FREEDOM IS THE FIGHT AGAINST IMPERIALIST WAR!