“The most exploited section of the working class”: The Canadian Communist Party, International Communism, Nationality, and Racial Equality in the Interwar Period

Oleksa Drachewych

This blog post is published in conjunction with a workshop on Transnational Leftism that the Wilson Institute for Canadian History and Oleksa Drachewych are currently organizing and accepting applications for. Based around issues relating to the Comintern and National, Colonial, and Racial Questions, the Wilson Institute invites all that are interested to submit a paper/panel proposal by March 31, 2017. Click here for more information. 

A handful of leftists formed the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) on a farm in Guelph in May 1921. The Party promptly joined the Communist International (Comintern), the Soviet Union’s apparatus to guide the left and promote a single line for Communist ideology. The goal of the Comintern was to spread Communist revolution throughout the world. Related to this end, it promoted colonial liberation and combated imperialism, and eventually, fascism. As the Comintern became aware of local conditions in some key areas throughout the world, it considered racial equality and international Communism set itself to support the oppressed nationalities and races of the world.

The CPC followed suit and had several good reasons to do so. The Party had a significant population of Finnish and Ukrainian immigrants as members and developed language sections of the party specifically for their needs. The Party membership was so tilted to these ethnic groups that the Comintern frequently urged the CPC to increase its number of English and French Canadian members. The CPC expanded its consideration of foreign labour to defend the rights of Asian workers in British Columbia. It also initiated a campaign to defend foreign workers during strikes, citing that many of them were at risk of deportation if caught agitating for their labour rights.

Courting French Canadians, however, was always a primary concern for the Party. For much of the 1920s, it struggled to make headway into Quebec. Language was a key issue. It had no French-language items to offer French Canadian workers. At one point, the Comintern intervened, instructing the French Communist Party to send some of its materials to Canada.

Canadian Communist Leaders, 1941. Wikimedia Commons. 

The French Canadian issue became related to a sore spot in the relationship between the Comintern and some CPC members. With the Comintern defining Canada as an imperialist nation at the end of the 1920s, some CPC members extended the Comintern’s National and Colonial Theses to French Canadians and began calling for self-determination of French Canadians. The Comintern admonished the CPC for this position. During the Second World War, these CPC members, with some new followers, revived their claims. Despite the disagreement in tactics between Moscow and the CPC, the Party did have a rather clear position on French Canada. To the CPC, they were the “most exploited section of the working class in Canada.”

Indigenous peoples, however, barely registered to the CPC during the interwar period. The Comintern never pressed the CPC on indigenous peoples either. It was not until 1937, at the Eighth Party Convention, that indigenous peoples were given any attention by the Party. The Party vaguely called for government assistance and equal rights for indigenous peoples. In 1943, it, now through its public face, the Labour-Progressive Party (LPP), had a similar statement regarding Metis people.

One of the major debates in the history of the Comintern revolves around whether a Comintern line existed and, more crucially, whether individual Parties were completely subservient to Moscow. My research suggests neither was the case, at least with regards to anti-imperialism, nationality or racial equality. The Comintern had general platforms, but with regional variation and individual Parties had some ability to develop their own positions or tactics. The Canadian situation suggests that racial equality was of limited concern to the Party, but internationally, the interwar CPC was an example of the Party lagging behind on the International Communism’s commitment to racial equality. Here, both a comparative perspective and a transnational perspective is helpful in unearthing divergences in Party development, the limitations of Moscow’s reach, and also in determining both Moscow’s influence and where individual Communists in certain countries were responsible for certain tactics.

In 1922, interested communists developed the “Theses on the Negro Question,” aimed to support black workers throughout the world. Aside from perhaps the United States, the Comintern’s focus on racial issues played out most significantly in South Africa. With the election of the Labour-National Pact Government in the general election of 1924, the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) shifted its attention to black African workers. The Party sought to defend their rights, while also maintaining strong support for white workers, uniting all workers as a single working class movement.

Beginning in 1927, the Comintern intervened. Coupled with the desire to extend self-determination to African Americans, the Comintern declared that the CPSA should promote racial self-determination in South Africa, developing the “Native Republic Thesis.” This thesis tied South African independence to racial equality, with emphasis placed on ameliorating the plight of the black African working class. A strong segment of the Party felt that the Native Republic Thesis misread the South African situation. It placed anti-imperialism front and center, despite, CPSA Party leader, Sidney Bunting feeling that the only nationalism that existed in South Africa was Afrikaaner nationalism. Some members felt that the Native Republic Thesis could be a legitimate policy in the future, but in 1928, it was premature, and would only guarantee racial strife between white and black African workers, undoing the work the CPSA had done since 1925 in building up a broad party base. The Comintern supported a handful of South African Communists who were willing to support the Thesis and by 1931, firmly had control of the Party, muting any dissention. The Native Republic Thesis was the primary concern of the CPSA until the mid-1930s when the Party advanced a more general programme of worker unity with a condemnation of anti-imperialism.

Equally as radical was the platform that the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) proclaimed. The Comintern had no fully formed platform for indigenous peoples as it did with black workers, but it was aware of their situation. For example, in Latin America, the Comintern attempted to promote a “Native Republic Thesis”-type platform for Latin American “Indians.”

In Australia, the Comintern pressed the CPA to challenge the White Australia Policy. As a result, the CPA protested Australia’s immigration policies and aimed to protect foreign workers. In 1931, believed to be at the urging of Moscow, the Party began to consider the plight of Aboriginal peoples in Australia. The greatest impetus, however, came from individual CPA members. Tom Wright of the CPA developed a full platform in 1939, the “New Deal for Aborigines”, which called for inviolable reserves, full autonomy and control of their territories, the end to religious contact and the development of a consistent nationwide Aboriginal policy. The CPA widely advertised this “New Deal” and it also extended similar demands for Melanesian workers in New Guinea and in Queensland. These positions became the precursor for the CPA’s support for Aboriginal rights later in the twentieth century.

What these different examples show, and they are merely a snapshot of the bigger picture, is that the Comintern had a general commitment to racial equality, but the tactics varied wildly based on region. Moscow interfered with Party tactics if necessary and urged parties to consider important issues. Comparatively, just as it is important to note the severity of interference in South Africa and the suggestion of the Comintern to consider immigration in Australia or French Canadians in Canada, it is equally curious that Moscow made no mention of indigenous peoples in Canada, when they were considering them elsewhere. Here, the need for further transnational and comparative studies of the Comintern and international Communism can be helpful in illuminating more about its tactics, Moscow’s reach and the left’s influence on many prominent anti-imperial, national and racial equality movements later in the Twentieth Century.


Oleksa Drachewych is a PhD Candidate at McMaster University in the Department of History. His research focuses on the Comintern and Racial Equality, Self-Determination of Nations and Anti-Imperialism in British Dominions in the interwar period. He also specializes in interwar Soviet foreign policy. He has published several book reviews in Canadian Slavonic Papers, Revolutionary Russia and elsewhere. He is one of the organizers of Transnational Leftism, a workshop to be held at the L.R. Wilson Institute for Canadian History in September 2017.

Title Image: Cover Image of a 1920 issue of Communist International Magazine (No. 9). Wikimedia Commons.

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