Karl Kautsky and labor parties: a memoir of Canada
By John Riddell. Karl Kautsky’s 1909 article “Sects or class parties,” posted here on Eric Blanc’s suggestion, awakened my memories of what I heard and learned when I encountered the Marxist movement in Canada in the late 1950s. I do not recall any mention of Kautsky’s article then, but Kautsky’s line of argument was part of the teachings of Marxism in Canada, as I received them.
Katusky’s entire exposition of how the workers’ movement evolved in a different way in “Anglo-Saxon countries,” as opposed to Continental Europe, figured in the oral tradition recounted to me then.
In 1962 my organization at the time, the League for Socialist Action, (LSA) published a 24-page collection of relevant quotations, Marx and Engels on the Labor Party, which we sold widely among left-wing workers across the country. Like Kautsky, the LSA went to Marx and Engels for quotations, using passages that, while different from those chosen by the German theorist, conveyed the same message.
I remember well how we hand-collated the pamphlet, a half-dozen comrades circling around a long trestle table, picking up pages from piles of a thousand sheets, and then hand-stitching with a long-necked stapler. The pamphlet itself is an artifact of bygone grass-roots printing techniques.
The type was banged out on stencils on long-carriage manual typewriter. Each line was typed twice, so as to achieve professional-looking justified copy. Then we carefully smoothed each stencil in turn on a mimeograph machine, inked the machine (just enough and not too much), printed the text, let the paper dry, turned the stack, then ran the opposite side with another stencil. Be careful not to mix up the stencils! Fortunately, we had just acquired an electric mimeo – high tech had arrived.
The country’s best expert at mimeograph technique, John Darling, has now retired from that trade but is still an active socialist in Toronto, still applying the pamphlet’s concepts, along with Hans Modlich, Ernie Tate, John Wilson, and other ex-LSA mimeo experts.
Veterans of that experience were among those who spearheaded efforts at the NDP’s April 2016 Edmonton convention on behalf of the Leap Manifesto.
Britain’s Labour Party
But how were Marx’s ideas on a labor party transmitted from Kautsky’s generation to mine?
Kautsky’s article defends the decision of the Socialist International of his time in accepting the affiliation of British Labour, a mass party that was working-class in composition but quite limited in its program and certainly not socialist. As shown by Eric’s introductory article, Kautsky argued that socialists should support British Labour and work within it, seeking to win it to their views, even as they built their own explicitly socialist current. This outlook was shared by Lenin and a wide range of Socialist currents at the time.
Five years after publication of Kautsky’s text, with the outbreak of World War 1, the Labour Party betrayed the principles of the Socialist International by rallying to support Britain’s rulers in a catastrophic imperialist war – as did Kautsky himself in Germany. The Labour leaders formed close ties with the British state, which made it inconceivable that the party could be won in its entirety to socialism. Similar betrayals took place in other warring countries, leading Lenin and other internationalists to call for a new International. Based on their platform and the example of the 1917 Russian revolution, the Third or Communist International (Comintern) was formed in 1919.
Across all Europe Social Democratic parties split, with hundreds of thousands of their members going to the new International. Britain was an exception, however – there the Communist movement was very small, while the Labour Party remained essentially intact. Among the small groups supporting the Comintern in Britain, however, the British Socialist Party (BSP) worked in the Labour Party and advocated that Communists there seek to affiliate to it.
This proposal was strongly opposed by many British Comintern supporters. But Lenin supported the BSP’s view in a famous chapter of his pamphlet, ‘Left-Wing’ Communism–an Infantile Disorder, written for distribution to delegates at the Second Comintern Congress, which convened in June 1920. The views of Lenin and the BSP were adopted at that congress and then applied by the British Communist Party in the years that followed.
The Second Congress approach was relevant to building broad working-class parties in other countries as well, including, notably, the United States. I will speak of developments in Canada, which I know best.
The labor party in Canada
No broad working-class party existed in Canada in the 1920s. However, significant segments of the working class were then seeking to create such a party, and Communists supported such efforts in both the U.S. and Canada. South of the border, the labour party movement soon receded. In Canada, however, the Communists took part for several years in a significant effort in this direction, called the Canadian Labor Party. This story is told in Ian Angus’s Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party in Canada. After the rise of Stalinism in the late 1920s, the Comintern and its Canadian affiliate cast aside Lenin’s labour party position.
Another strand of labor party advocacy in Canada, led by J.S. Woodsworth and inspired by the British Labour Party’s pro-capitalist policies, survived into the 1930s. These forces were the nucleus around which a social democratic formation, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), was formed in 1932, with significant farmer, worker, and socialist support.
The pro-Stalin Communist Party of Canada was hostile to the CCF, rejecting it initially for ultra-left reasons and later because the CCF obstructed the Stalinists’ quest for a broader coalition embracing “progressive” bourgeois forces. Lenin’s approach was applied to the CCF by significant socialist currents in British Columbia and Alberta, whose later history is recounted on this website in Felipe Cournoyer’s Cuban Palm Trees under the Lions Gate.
Canada’s Trotskyists, led by survivors of the early Comintern who applied its traditions, also played a role. For their activity in the newly formed CCF, see Ian Angus’s essays on Trotskyist movement in the 1930s. In 1961, they organized as the League for Socialist Action.
NDP and Quebec solidaire
The LSA labor party pamphlet was an intervention into a discussion among left-wing CCF supporters concerning the CCF’s pending merger into the new labor-based Social Democratic formation, the New Democratic Party (NDP), also formed in 1961. Socialist forces divided in their approach to the NDP along much the same lines as in the early days of the CCF.
In Quebec, labor party advocacy took an independent course. The labor movement was weak and persecuted; both the CCF and the Communist Party were hobbled by their hostility to Quebec nationalism. It was not until 2006 that a workers’ party was formed, Québec solidaire. In the 2014 elections its gained 8% of the vote.
During the years of neo-liberalism, the NDP has drifted to the right, sometimes taking stands more conservative than those of the historically predominant bourgeois party, the Liberals. However, the support won by the Leap Manifesto in the NDP’s recent federal convention, represents a significant revival of rank-and-file protest within the party.
Thus in Canada, and no doubt elsewhere, Kautsky’s “Sects or Class Parties” represents a link in a 150-year-old chain of Marxist thought on broad working-class political formations and the tactical and strategic challenge they present to the building of a revolutionary movement.