Understanding the Dictatorship of the Proletariat: The Canadian Left and the Moment of Socialist Possibility in 1919

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IN THE AFTERMATH of World War I the dictatorship of the proletariat became a key principle feeding the labour revolt of 1919. (1) In the late winter and spring of that year the concept became influential on the Canadian left, leading to its adoption at the convention of the British Columbia Federation of Labor in Calgary, Alberta on 10-12 Mardi 1919, and the Western Labor Conference held 13-15 March 1919. Eighty-seven delegates at the BC Fed convention, and more than 230 delegates at the Western Labor Conference, failed to register a single protest against adopting Resolution #5, which advocated accepting the principle of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Endorsing the dictatorship of the proletariat was part of radical western labours revolt against eastern Canadian dominance of the Canadian Trades and Labor Congress (TLCC), which had corne to a head at the annual convention of the TLCC in Quebec City in September 1918. (2)

Far from being a minor storyline in a much bigger plot, the endorsement of the dictatorship of the proletariat at the March 1919 western labour conferences advances our understanding of one of the central debates in Canadian labour history. The dictatorship of the proletariat is one of the "international conjunctures" that Gregory S. Kealey identifies as demonstrating "that 1919 was an international event ... which knew no national limits." (3) Kealey is right --the dictatorship of the proletariat was debated nationally--but the historical record also reveals that it was a debate of greater significance and intensity in western Canada than in eastern Canada. David Bercuson is right--western labour was more radical. Indeed, Bercuson himself writes that the Socialist Party of Canada "called for the elimination of capitalism and its replacement by the dictatorship of the proletariat." (4) What Bercuson does not acknowledge is that advocacy of the dictatorship of the proletariat went far beyond the confines of the Socialist Party of Canada, and his own observation confirms Kealey's argument that the labour revolt of 1919 was inspired by revolutionary ideas emanating from Russia, Western Europe, and the United States. (5) If we are to fully appreciate the moment of 1919, we must see more than wages and working conditions, and we must surmount what Bryan Palmer calls Bercuson's "impatience with doctrinal questions and theoretical debates on the left." (6)

The labour revolt of 1919 was a moment of putting ideas into action, as well as a moment of demands for better wages and working conditions. The dictatorship of the proletariat was one of those ideas, and we must return to the meanings the principle had at the moment of 1919. As Hal Draper points out, with the rise of Stalin in the mid-1920s the term became "a code word for a species of totalitarian dictatorship, and hence devoid of any independent theoretical interest." (7) By then, the dictatorship of the proletariat had become a mockery of Marx's original conception of it and a major source of division, not unity, on the Canadian left. To make the dictatorship of the proletariat once again a principle of "independent theoretical interest" is to return to a time when it represented, not the death knell of socialist possibility, but socialist possibility itself.

At first glance, the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat seems an unlikely candidate to demonstrate the revolutionary intent of the Canadian left. In his exhaustive and ground-breaking work, Hal Draper discovers that Marx and Engels used the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" on only twelve occasions in more than 40 volumes of work. It appears in three periods 1850-52,1871-75, and again in 1890-93, when it was used by Engels following Marx's death. (8) Draper insists on our complete understanding of one fundamental point, that for Marx the term "dictatorship of the proletariat" meant nothing more, and nothing less, than a workers' state, variously described by Marx as the "rule," the "political ascendancy" or the "sway" of the proletariat. …