Proletarian Cromwell: Two Found Poems Offer Insights into One of Canada's Long-Forgotten Communist Labour Leaders

By Verzuh, Ron | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2017 | Go to article overview

Proletarian Cromwell: Two Found Poems Offer Insights into One of Canada's Long-Forgotten Communist Labour Leaders


Verzuh, Ron, Labour/Le Travail


The saga of my life among the mass. To the whole working class it should belong, Immortalised in proletarian song. 

HARVEY MURPHY, THE PUTATIVE AUTHOR of those boastful lines, once quipped that he was the "reddest rose in the garden of labour" and for some, though far from all, Canadian labour movement veterans of the 1930s and 1940s, this was an apt description of one of the most mercurial yet almost forgotten Communist labour leaders of the 20th century. (1) Alas, Murphy was no poetaster. (2) Instead, the authorship of the above lines, excerpted from one of two pseudo-biographical poems, belongs to Murphy's elder contemporary, the lifelong left-wing firebrand "Red Malcolm" Bruce. (3) Indeed, Bruce, a founding member of the Communist Party of Canada (CPC), penned some seemingly bitter criticisms of his youthful Red comrade. Then again, it could be argued that they were written in jest, that the poems were not so much an upbraiding as a jocular remembrance. As shall be shown, there is much in the poetry that could lead to such an interpretation, but evidence presented here also hints at some more serious personal and political motives for writing the verses.

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As historian Stephen L. Endicott notes, Murphy "was blessed with a confident, good opinion of himself and an ironic tongue," a perfect candidate for the Bruce lampooning in the mimicked voice of a man who would become "one of the most popular speakers for a generation of the radical left in Canada." (4) Endicott published short excerpts from the poems in 2012, adding his comments. However, as indicated here they merit publication in their entirety accompanied by a broader explanation of their existence. Not only do they offer a rare insider's view of the cataclysmic early years of the CPC, but also they offer insights into the labour and political events that occurred in the late 1920s and early 1930s. The poems highlight the "Wilde" activities that brought Murphy to the full attention of party leaders like Bruce but also the squads of police spies who would secretly report on both men for the next five decades.

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At the time the poems were written in 1932, much was about to unfold in the Communist world of the reddest rose and his Byronic biographer as the Great Depression momentarily shifted the public's mind to the possibility that Communism offered a way forward. Promoting that possibility were Bruce and seven other leaders of the CPC, including party general secretary Tim Buck. But in August 1931, they were arrested and by February 1932 they were serving five-year sentences in Kingston Penitentiary for sedition under Section 98 of the Canadian Criminal Code. (5) While in jail, Bruce set down his thoughts about Murphy in a long sarcastic poem entitled Wilde Harvie's Pilgrimage and a second shorter poem, Irish Chiefs and Scotch Traducers, apparently meant to serve as Murphy's fictional rebuttal. Typewritten manuscripts of the Bruce poems have been available for decades in university archives, in this case within the fonds of the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW), but seem to have gone largely unnoticed and possibly dismissed. (6) Aside from Endicott's effort to lift them from obscurity, historians do not appear to have seen the value of analyzing the poems and yet, as argued here, they help to illuminate the personalities of various CPC stalwarts associated with Murphy while also exposing the acerbic and at times caustic wit of the poems' radical author.

The unsigned poems (the author is identified only by a handwritten note) join a legacy of political poetry that flourished in the 1930s in both the United States and Canada. Canadian historian James Doyle, in his analysis of radical literature during that period, cites the political verse of Communists like Dorothy Livesay, Dawn Fraser, and Joe Wallace who frequently published in The Worker, edited by Bruce in the 1920s, and playwrights like Oscar Ryan who would co-author the play Eight Men Speak with its focus on the arrest and imprisonment of Bruce and the other Communist leaders. …

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