Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The SPC and OBU

The establishment of the Socialist Party of Canada in January 1905 was the product of a merger between the Canadian Socialist League and the Socialist Party of British Columbia. Other provincial socialist parties later joined. The new party adopted a programme of uncompromising class struggle. The party platform described an "irrepressible conflict" between capitalist and worker which was "rapidly culminating in a struggle for possession of the reins of government." The party platform specified no immediate demands, but called on workers to unite under the party banner in order to achieve three goals:
1. The transformation, as rapidly as possible, of capitalist property in the means of wealth production (natural resources, factories, mills, railroads, etc) into the collective property of the working class.
2. The democratic organization and management of industry by the workers.
3. The establishment, as speedily as possible, of production for use instead of production for profit.
The party regarded its " impossiblist" position as the most revolutionary in the world and refused to join the Second International on the grounds that the International was a reformist body.
It is not generally recognized that the Socialist Party of Canada patterned itself after the Socialist Party of Great Britain, a sister "impossibilist" party formed in 1904. The SPGB was dedicated to "making socialists," and its Declaration of Principles was drawn from the writings of William Morris and the French Impossiblist Guesde. The SPGB provided some of the SPC's most famous speakers, including Moses Baritz and Adolphe Kohn.

The Socialist Party of Canada was small and carefully organized. Its members were well-informed and had been required to pass an examination in socialist principles before admission. Organized by means of constant correspondence with headquarters in Vancouver, the few thousand party members studied the writings of Marx and Engels and Liebknecht and Kautsky and others in weekly educational meetings of their locals.  The SPC's 'class-struggle college' on Pender Street in Vancouver, introduced members to the main currents of Marxist theory as they developed out of the First and Second Internationals." SPC 'worker-students,' were immersed in Marx's economic writings (reprints of Capital, Volume ! and Value, Price and Profit being the textbooks of choice) and other texts of the 19th-century.

The task of the socialist is to spread class knowledge. They rejected the mild reformism and broadly-based movements of less-committed revolutionaries. They were committed to a belief in the rationality of the workers, and to educate more and more workers until a self-organized, working-class majority was ready to take over the reins of power. The SPC prided itself on its openness — the picnics in Stanley Park were open, the speeches were open, even the business meetings were open, and anyone could ask questions about how the SPC operated.   Organizing an underground party went against the entire tradition of openness and education in the socialist movement. The Socialist Party of Canada was a national organization, but the Dominion Executive had never exerted any great authority.  It had, generally speaking, made pronouncements and published the paper, the Western Clarion, but each local organization had done pretty much as it wished. The Socialist Party of Canada provided an ideological and organizational rallying point, but the dispersed locals also exercised considerable autonomy in their activities.

 SPC members such as W.A. (Bill) Pritchard considered the Russian Revolution a bourgeois, not a socialist, revolution. But to an orthodox Marxist like Pritchard the bourgeois nature of the revolution still made it historically necessary, not some kind of mistake. He did not condemn Lenin — he simply pointed out that the level of productive forces in the Soviet Union would force him into the world market and into the capitalist system.  For Pritchard, the dictatorship over the proletariat, rather than the dictatorship of the proletariat, was a product of the conditions Lenin had to deal with.  Pritchard took the position that the Russian Revolution had failed because you could not build a socialist society on a "feudal dunghill".  Moscow came out, not with any advice, but with directives but for Bill Pritchard and others in the SPC, even if  they sympathised with the Russian Revolution, they were unwilling to submit the concept of the socialist revolution that they saw as more fitting for the Canadian conditions to the program of the Third International and refused to have the Russian model imposed.

Their tradition was about "making socialists" who were educated, organized, and prepared to implement fully a socialist society.  You can not create socialism without socialists.  The insistence by the SPC that workers understand precisely what they were talking about was fuelled by a desire that the workers themselves know exactly what was required of them.  How the socialist society would actually be created, and what character it would take was up to the workers themselves. The main purpose of a revolutionary party was not dictating tactics to the rank and file workers, it was pointing out to them the ways in which they were deceived by the capitalists. Workers must achieve their own emancipation. They need not look for some party leader to do it for them. If the workers are ever to be free, they must free themselves.. Revolution, when it came, would  be a social and cultural, not just a political, revolution. The socialist revolution would be accomplished by a working-class majority, educated in "proletarian science," organized as a party. The revolution had to happen, not only by the open conflict between worker and capitalist, but also in the minds of the workers. It is not the name of an organization nor its preamble, but the degree of working class knowledge possessed by its membership that determines whether or not it is a revolutionary body.

The official "impossiblism" of the SPC guaranteed the party's political purity and proletarian principles, but did not prevent the socialists from participating in non-revolutionary working-class struggles as well.  As it is usually understood, syndicalism implies the creation of worker-controlled economic structures within industry, opposition to the use of political parties and the political system as a means to further the workers'cause, and, finally, the withdrawal of labourers1 services in a great general strike which would topple the capitalist system. The Socialist Party of Canada rejected the idea that a socialist society could be created by workers' councils or soviets. The SPC did not regard the general strike as the ultimate weapon in the class struggle. They never promoted sabotage as did the Industrial Workers of the World. They sought, instead, to build an inclusive united working class movement as the next stage in the class struggle. They decided to reduce their emphasis upon political action, formerly their major weapon, because the new militancy of the union membership demanded new strategy—a better union movement. The militancy of western Canadian workers during the first two decades of the century culminated in 1919 in secessions from the Trades and Labor Congress of Canada and the American Federation of Labor, the establishment of the One Big Union, and a wave of strikes. Unions would confront the real rulers of society, the owning class, in another way. Socialist Party members understood that a shorter work week and the creation of a new union organization would not topple the capitalist system. But, as a first step, it would provide an example and a base of operations. The object was to continue the education of the worker, to secure badly-needed immediate improvements in working conditions, and, thus, through organization, to further the solidarity of the working class and to prevent premature violence. The workers' revolt  could begin on a regional basis, the socialist revolution must be national, continental, and, ultimately, world-wide.

The OBU was not expected to free the workers from wage slavery any more than the trade union were. There was no question of industrial vs. political as in the IWW 1908 schism. The two were complementary phases of the working class movement. The One Big Union and the general strike were limited weapons in a battle which was defensive as well as offensive.

In February 1919, Seattle workers wielded the general strike tactic, with 30,000 workers in 130 unions walking out for 5 days in sympathy with 38,000 shipyard workers. The city’s mayor, Ole Hanson, described the strike as an “attempted revolution”. A few months after, the Winnipeg general strike took place.  — he did not believe that a socialist society could be created by workers' councils, soviets, the unions, or a general strike. As in Seattle the authorities declared that the Winnipeg general strike was simply the first stage of a revolutionary conspiracy. The strikers, however, as in the case of Seattle sought only the right to collective bargaining and a wage increase. They were, indeed, committed to eventual revolution, but they did not see the One Big Union as an essential element for the Revolution. The evidence is overwhelming that the intent was not political revolution, and the great majority of Canadian workers, including most workers in Winnipeg, were not socialists in any meaningful sense. The strike did demonstrate, however, that the workers were capable of stepping into the breech, organizing, and performing the jobs usually done by the ruling class.  In essence, how the workers conducted themselves was the real lesson of the strike, not what actions they intended to take.  Pritchard's rousing speech to Vancouver workers sounded the appropriate defensive note: Their comrades were in the fight, and it was now a question of standing by them and, if necessary, going down with them—or, later, going down by themselves. His advice was: "If you are going to drown—drown splashing!" The working class must stand united, however ill-prepared their forces and however badly chosen the field.

The One Big Union would be broken by an alliance of the officials of the mainstream unions , the employers, the federal government and the Communist Party, although the OBU did continue to stagger on until the mid-1950s The Socialist Party of Canada also suffered from the rise and growing influence of the Communist Party and disbanded in 1925 but was later re-constituted in 1931.

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