"Fighting for the Everyday Interests of Winnipeg Workers": Jacob Penner, Martin Forkin and the Communist Party in Winnipeg Politics, 1930-1935

Article excerpt

During the 1930s, Winnipeg municipal political campaigns were about more than streets and sewers. Political parties espousing radically different conceptions of society competed for the votes of Winnipeg residents. This article examines the early years of the aldermanic careers of two Communist Party of Canada (CPC) aldermen in Winnipeg. Jacob Penner and Martin Forkin were elected in the early 1930s and served on Winnipeg's City Council for several decades, leaving a significant political legacy in the city. Their election came at a significant moment for the CPC, a time when economic depression led many Canadians to consider radical political alternatives. Penner and Forkin's first years in office illuminate interesting elements of Manitoban and communist history. In Winnipeg, and particularly the North End, a working-class neighbourhood with a large immigrant population, a significant number of people were drawn to the radical politics of Penner, Forkin, and other communists. Second, Winnipeg, which was also a hotbed of labour politics, proves an intriguing setting to examine conflict and cooperation between different parties on the political left. Finally, the election of Penner and Forkin and the politics they espoused while on City Council is interesting because of what it says about the Communist Party during the Third Period, a controversial era in communist history.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 sparked considerable interest within the Canadian left, although it was not until 1921, when a secret meeting was held in Guelph, Ontario, that the Communist Party of Canada was born. The founding members of the CPC came from a range of traditions and parties including the Socialist Party of Canada (such as Jacob Penner) and the Socialist Labour Party and from radical unions such as the International Workers of the World or the One Big Union. A legal version of the party, the Workers' Party of Canada, was launched a year later and existed until 1924, when the CPC was legalized.

Like communist parties around the world, the CPC belonged to, and took direction from, the Comintern, a body made up of the world's communist parties, but dominated by the Soviet Union. (1) In 1928, the Comintern adopted a new position, known commonly as the Third Period. The CPC followed the policy closely, adopting it officially in 1929. It would last until 1935. This was a time when communists believed that it was necessary to "bolshevize" themselves and prepare for an imminent proletarian revolution. (2) Many Party members who did not accept the new turn, or were supporters of Leon Trotsky, were purged from the CPC. One of the significant results was that, whereas the CPC had once forged alliances with likeminded political parties and labour unions, it was now called to sever ties with non-communists. Often, this resulted in attacks against other parties on the political Left, who were deemed by the communists to be "social fascists" who duped the working class.

Several historians have criticized the Communist party during this period, arguing that it lost its connection to the masses and became bound up with internal disputes. Ian Angus, for example, proposes that the Party's disdain for all possible allies and its "go-it-alone" policy led to massive defeats. He goes on to describe the Party as being "suicidally ultra-leftist" and disconnected from the working class. (3) Bryan Palmer also critiques Third Period communism in Canada, arguing that while there are positives to be found in the communist work among the unemployed, "these were years that set the stage for the acceptance of the irrational, for blind faith in the 'line', however far removed from Canadian reality it might have been." (4) Angus, Palmer, and others have interpreted the Third Period as a time when the Communist Party lost its connection to the Canadian working class.

In his article, "Canadian Communists, Revolutionary Unionism and the 'Third Period': The Workers' Unity League, 1929-1935," John Manley rejects the idea that the Communist Party became isolated from the working class during the Third Period or put dogmatic purity ahead of the needs of Canadian workers. …