Communist Anti-Fascism in Canada: Round One

Communists have always been anti-fascists. Despite serious missteps, before the Second World War it was Communists who led anti-fascist efforts all over the world, and it was the Soviet Union that ultimately destroyed fascism in Europe. Canada was no exception: from the late 1920s onwards, Communists led anti-fascist mobilizations and organizations across the country. This article is a brief but critical outline of the Communist Party of Canada’s anti-fascist efforts before the Second World War, with an eye towards how we can learn from both the successes and mistakes of previous anti-fascist work.

Anti-Fascism During the Third Period (1928-1934)

While fascism was a political reality in the late 1920s, it was still amorphous: it had only conquered power in Italy. In Canada it had not yet assumed a concrete organizational form. However, the Communist International, at the Sixth Comintern Congress in 1928, made anti-fascism one of its central political aims. Arguing that world capitalism was about to enter a period of crisis, which was later proven correct by the Great Depression, the Comintern stated that the bourgeoisie would respond to a capitalist crisis either through coalition with social democracy or through fascism, the latter of which it described as the “terrorist dictatorship of big capital.” However, social democracy and fascism were not considered to be opposites: “social democracy itself, often plays a Fascist role.”[1]

It was this formulation which led to the Comintern adopting the “social fascism” thesis, that social-democrats and other reformists were variants of fascism. A 1931 article in Pravda provides a more in depth argument:

Social democracy is carrying out the fascisation of the bourgeois state under the pretext of defending bourgeois democracy, as the alleged “lesser evil,” compared with fascism. The role of social-democracy, which in words comes out against fascism and which is praised in the press of the right wing and the Trotskyites as an opponent of fascism, must be ruthlessly exposed. There can be no compromise or bloc with the social democratic workers against fascism and social fascism.[2]

As such, it was the job of Communists to not only attack fascists but social-democrats as well. That is, Communist parties were to mercilessly attack the leadership of social-democratic organizations while forming a “united front from below” with their memberships as a means of winning them away from social-democratic politics.

In 1928 in Canada, social-democracy was still in its infancy. There were some social-democratic Members of Parliament like J.S. Woodsworth, and local labour parties, but there was no coherent social-democratic movement or organization in Canada like there was in most of Europe. While the Communist Party of Canada was quick to condemn these different reformist groups and individuals as “social fascist,” (a move that was made easier by the pre-existing enmity over the removal of many Communists from labour councils and the failure of the Canadian Labor Party) there was not a lot of time nor energy spent on combatting a non-existent social-democracy. Where the “social fascism” thesis did have the most effect in Canada was in providing justification for a “go-it-alone” approach to mass organization, leading to the creation of the Workers’ Unity League.

Somewhat ironically, the majority of the Communist Party’s anti-fascist work in the late 1920s and early 1930s was directed against repression from so-called Canadian “bourgeois democracy.” In 1929, the Toronto chief of police declared that he would smash the Communist Party: subsequently, Communist Party meetings and demonstrations were violently suppressed by the Toronto police. The Communist Party’s response was to initiate what it called the “battle for the streets” wherein it fought back, with force, against police attempts to crush its public presence. Despite its lack of success in the short term, the Party was growing quickly throughout Canada. In response, Prime Minister Bennett declared the Communist Party illegal in 1931, and arrested its leadership under Section 98 of the Criminal Code. Also in 1931 Workers Unity League organizers were killed during a strike in Estevan; during the early 1930s there were several instances of the Canadian state using force against striking radical workers. The Communist Party fought back through the Canadian Labor Defence League, a mass organization tasked with the legal defence of working-class organizers in Canada. This isn’t to say that all of the Communist Party’s anti-fascist work during the Third Period was directed at the bourgeois state in defense of civil liberties: there were also isolated clashes with nascent fascist forces, such as the Christie Pits Riot in Toronto in 1933.

While in retrospect it seems ridiculous that the Communist Party of Canada was not able to distinguish between bourgeois democracy and fascism, given the repression it faced in the late 1920s and early 1930s from a bourgeois democratic state, it is easy to see how the two became conflated in the minds of many Communists. The takeaway here is that the rights enjoyed in bourgeois democratic societies are always superficial: the Comintern was right to suggest that fascism was a response of the bourgeoisie to a crisis of capitalism. And while the “social-fascism” thesis was overly sectarian and fundamentally incorrect, it was widely received precisely because of the pre-existing animosity between Communists and social-democrats. Trotsky and Trotskyists are wrong to suggest that in the absence of the social-fascism line, Communists and social-democrats would have been able to work together to stop fascism.

The Popular Front and Anti-Fascism (1934-1939)[3]

Hitler’s 1933 victory in Germany, his subsequent banning of the Communist Party of Germany, and aggression towards the Soviet Union, caused the international Communist movement to rethink its strategy. Within the Soviet state, Litvinov, People’s Commissar for Foreign Affairs, began seeking rapprochement with the West, chiefly France and Britain. Within the Comintern, which as of mid-1934 was under the leadership of Georgi Dimitrov, the Third Period line came under scrutiny. Initially articulated as a return to the united front of the 1920s, Dimitrov made working-class unity against fascism a priority for the Comintern. At the Seventh Comintern Congress, held in the summer of 1935, the international Communist movement defined fascism as “the open terrorist dictatorship of the most reactionary, most chauvinistic and most imperialist elements of finance capital”[4] and pushed for the creation of a proletarian united front alongside a “wide anti-fascist People’s Front,” in order to build a “fighting alliance between the proletariat… the laboring peasantry and the basic mass of the urban petty bourgeoisie.”[5] This was in sharp distinction to the earlier Third Period line.

While it was at the Seventh Comintern Congress that the politics of the Popular Front era became enshrined, overtures towards the Popular Front began in 1934 in Canada. The year previous, in 1933, Canadian social-democrats had finally formed a national party called the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Despite attacking the CCF viciously, in mid-1934 small unity overtures began to be made on the part of the Communist Party. In early 1934 the Communist Party had created the Canadian Youth League Against War and Fascism that contained both members of the Communist Party and the CCF. This laid the groundwork for the creation of the larger Canadian League Against War and Fascism (CLAWF), which had its opening congress on October 6 and 7, 1934 in Toronto. The CLAWF, which the CPC hoped would form the basis of the “anti-fascist People’s Front”, had gathered 315 delegates representing 203 organizations with a membership of 337,000; it was a significant gathering. It included the Communist Party, the CCF, bourgeois politicians, union leaders, church organizations, and others. Stating in its Manifesto that fascism was a product of war, and war itself a product of “monopolistic capitalism,” the CLAWF was to combat fascism through “arousing and organizing the masses … for active struggle against the war preparations and fascist tendencies of their own governments.”[6]

The CLAWF grew quickly. By December 1935 it now included in its fold organizations with a combined membership of over 500,000. It mainly engaged in solidarity work with the Spanish Republic, and also campaigned for the repeal of Section 98 of the Criminal Code. In 1936 the CLAWF again grew, serving as the basis for the launching of three other organizations: the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion which sent anti-fascist fighters to Spain, the Committee for the Aid of Spanish Democracy, and the Friends of the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion. In 1937 the CLAWF changed its name to the Canadian League for Peace and Democracy (CLPD) and organized a series of boycotts against Japanese goods, speaking tours for Chinese anti-fascists, support for Norman Bethune’s medical unit, and work against Duplessis’ padlock law. Activities in 1937 also included demonstrations against domestic fascist organizations, including a demonstration 10,000 strong against the founding congress of Adrien Arcand’s National Unity Party. By 1937, however, the CLAWF/CLPD had more-or-less reached its limit: membership began to decline and, in 1939, when the Communist Party was forced underground, the CLPD disbanded. While the CLAWF/CLPD was successful in building a mass movement against fascism, it was never able to truly mobilize the people it claimed to represent: the majority of its work was in the form of propaganda activities, and these were generally initiated by Communist Party members.

The CLAWF/CLPD was the largest of the Communist Party’s anti-fascist initiatives, but it was not the only one. As mentioned earlier, the Communist Party was also instrumental in organizing the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion, which fought on the Republican side during the Spanish Civil War as part of the International Brigades. First formed in 1936 out of Canadian volunteers in the Abraham Lincoln Battalion, over the course of the war the Mac Paps, as they came to be known, included 1,546 soldiers: the largest amount, proportionally, from any country other than France. In order to facilitate this undertaking, the Communist Party built a massive underground recruitment apparatus that was capable of getting volunteers into Spain despite participation in the Spanish Civil War having been declared illegal. In turn, the Communist Party also created the Friends of the Mackenzie Papineau Battalion to provide direct material support for the volunteers, as well as the more broadly based Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy, which worked in solidarity with the Spanish Republic. When Madrid fell to the fascists in mid-1938, the Mac Paps were quickly demobilized, returning to Canada in early 1939. And despite the Communist Party now having hundreds of members with anti-fascist combat training, the Party never put their skills to use in Canada.

Despite successes in building a mass movement against fascism, the Communist Party’s efforts were ultimately hamstrung by the political orientation of the Popular Front. Whereas in the previous period the Communist Party was unable to distinguish between bourgeois democracy and fascism, during the Popular Front the Communist Party “bent the stick” too far in the other direction, declaring themselves the champions of bourgeois democracy. The Communist Party openly argued that because fascism attacked bourgeois democracy it was their duty to defend it. To this end, the Communist Party abandoned much of its earlier radicalism, chiefly its understanding of the state as being a tool of the ruling class, its orientation towards the working class, and its goal of revolution. In short, the Popular Front marked the consolidation of revisionism within the Communist Party. By 1937, leading Communists had declared that at the present time the real fight was between fascism and democracy, not fascism and communism. The Communist Party was also willing to work with the Liberals as part of building what they called a “democratic front”: despite the Ontario Liberal Party under Mitch Hepburn overseeing persecution of Communists, Stewart Smith, a leading Communist in Toronto, was quoted as saying “it is not impossible that from the Liberal party may come powerful forces to help in the people’s fight to gain economic improvement and to save Canada from fascism.” Prime Minister McKenzie King, rather than pursuing a reactionary set of policies in defense of Canadian capitalism, even going as far as to flirt with fascism internationally, was seen to be torn between the fascism of the so-called “Hepburn-Duplessis Axis” and the broad people’s movement against fascism.

More than anything, during the Popular Front era, the Communist Party abandoned its communist politics in the hopes of being able to build a broad movement against fascism. But when the Munich Agreement was signed in 1938 between Hitler’s Germany and the Western powers, the limits of the Popular Front were exposed: deradicalization had not only not prevented rapprochement between fascism and bourgeois democracy, but it had also left the Communist Party in the difficult spot of now turning around and critiquing the same bourgeois democracy it had spent the past four years defending. Finally, when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was signed and Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, the contradictions of the Popular Front era were burst open: the Communist Party was effectively immobilized as many of its members enlisted in the army despite the Communist Party condemning the war, and the Communist Party itself went underground. All of the mass mobilization the Communist Party had done during the five years previous had been for nothing.

Lessons from History

What can be learned from the early history of the Communist Party of Canada’s anti-fascist work? First, while bourgeois democracy is not fundamentally democratic, there is a distinction between bourgeois democracy and fascism. Second, while bourgeois democracy is more favourable than fascism insofar as certain democratic rights are useful for organizing, this should not lead communists to uphold bourgeois democracy and abandon a critique of the state. Third, while mass mobilizations against fascism are good, important, and necessary, the orientation of these mobilizations and organizations should not be towards liberals and other political moderates across classes, but rather towards the working class. Communists should not moderate themselves in the face of resurgent fascism: communist politics are more relevant now than ever. And we should certainly not abandon our goal of revolution in order to build quick and opportunistic alliances: insofar as capitalism constantly reproduces the conditions necessary for the emergence of fascism, it is only through revolution and building socialism that we can ensure that fascism will finally be destroyed.


1 Programme of the Communist International.
2 Pravda, quoted in R. Black Fascism in Germany: Volume 2.
3 Due to the size of this article it is impossible to provide a thorough, detailed, and critical analysis of the Popular Front period in Canada. There is much more that needs to be said, here, but that would be the business of another article.
4 Georgi Dimitrov, The Fascist Offensive and the Tasks of the Communist International in the Fight for the Unity of the Working Class Against Fascism.
5 Ibid.
6 First Canadian Congress Against War and Fascism, October 6th and 7th, 1934.