Origins of Canadian Pabloism

From Trotskyism to Reformism

Origins of Canadian Pabloism

By Arnold Michaels and Murray Smith

[First printed in Spartacist Canada #4, February 1976]

Until recently, the reformist League for Socialist Action (LSA), the “official” section of the international rotten bloc known as the “United” Secretariat, was the only visible ostensibly Trotskyist organization in Canada. Today, there are at least six organizations in this country which claim continuity with the Trotskyist tradition. An understanding of the reasons for this proliferation of revisionist pseudo-Trotskyist tendencies must proceed from an historical analysis of the degeneration of Trotsky’s Fourth International (FI) in the post- WWIl period. The Spartacist League of the United States (SL/US) undertook such an analysis in “Genesis or Pabloism” (Spartacist, Fall 1972). The unique characteristics of Pabloist degeneration within the Canadian movement have yet to be fully explored. in particular its liquidationist orientation toward the social-democratic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). This policy had its roots in the late 1930’s but did not become definitive until over a decade later.

The degeneration of the FI was politically codified in the documents of the Third World Congress in 1951 which carried the line of liquidationism propounded by Michel Pablo. Under the impact of extreme isolation and unexpected developments (in particlilar the’ post-war Stalinist expansion into Eastern Europe and the Chinese and Yugoslav Revolutions), the international leadership, headed by Pablo, developed an objectivist perspective on the development of world revolution, a perspective which effectively obviated the role of the Trotskyist vanguard and the class-conscious proletariat in the revolutionary process. Progralnrnatically, Pablo’s view took the form of a liquidationist or adaptationist “orientation” toward the existing reformist workers parties. the Communists and the social democrats. According to Pablo’s schema, these parties could, under the pressure of the masses and the impact or objective developments (such as a new world war), transform themselves into “adequate instruments” for the revolutionary seizure of power by the proletariat.

Believing that the Western Communist Parties (CP’s) and even centrist currents developing within the social-democratic parties could follow in the steps of the Yugoslav and Chinese CP’s in “roughly outlining a revolutionary orientation, ” the Pabloist current redefined the role of Trotskyists as one of pressuring the proletariat’s existing leaderships to the left. The Pabloists remained inattentive to the exceptional conditions under which the Yugoslav and Chinese Stalinists were able to lead essentially petty-bourgeois mass movements in the destruction of the bourgeois state (conditions including the extreme decay and decadence of the bourgeoisie in those countries, pressures from world imperialism and the absence or extreme weakness of a revolutionary vanguard) and failed to draw the necessary programmatic conclusion that the deformed workers states issuing from these revolutions required proletarian political revolutions under Trotskyist leadership to oust the ruling bureaucracies in order to set them on the road to socialism.

The liquidationist adaptation to Stalinism was thus accompanied by an increasingly soft line toward all of the bureaucratically-deformed workers states, with the Pabloists effectively abandoning the program of political revolution in any of these states. This is the meaning of Pablo’s hypothesis that the future promised “centuries of deformed workers states, ” a projection which revealed both a fundamental pessimism concerning the capacity of the working class as a revolutionary force and of the Trotskyist movement to resolve the crisis of revolutionary leadership, and a completely non-Marxist understanding of the unstable nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy.


While Pablo was successful in winning a few adherents in the Canadian section of the FI, the section’s

majority supported the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in its belated opposition to Pablo in 1953. The SWP, together with the Healy tendency of the British section and the LambertBleibtreu group of the French, formed the central core of the anti-Pablo opposition in the Fl. All of these organizations, however, evinced serious tendencies toward parochialism and their struggle against Pablo was consequently flawed by their failure to wage it on an international scale, and not merely against Pablo’s supporters in their own countries.

The struggle was also flawed theoretically inasmuch as their critique of the Pabloist line relied too heavily on a reassertion of Trotskyist orthodoxy on the question of Stalinism, overlooking for the most part the methodological. programmatic and strategic premises underlying the Pabloist perspective which were to survive even after the Pabloists had made a partial rectification of their “Stalinophile excesses. ” Thus the Pabloist perspective of “deep entry” (entrism “sui generis”-entry “of a unique type”) into the CP’s was denounced, but its application in relation to the social democracy was largely overlooked.

By fighting the Pabloists primarily on the terrain of anti-Stalinism, the SWP was able to win the support of groups which were in other respects politically closer to the Pabloists on the question of entrism. The Canadian section majority falls squarely into this category (as does the Moreno tendency in Argentina and the Healy tendency in Britain, at least in the early 1950′ s).

As late as 1954, SWP leader Murry Weiss could write of the Canadian section:

“I am convinced that Pabloism, that is real Pabloism, has taken a deep hold in the whole organization up there. They don’t fully realize it. They think they are all united in the work in the CCF. And they are, but on a Pabloite line I’m afraid. They have become infected with with this terrible disease of thinking that everything can be solved with fancy endless maneuver’s in the CCF, with ‘deep’ entry conceptions.”

– –International Cornmittee Documents, Vol. 3, Education for Socialists series

Despite this assessment, there is no evidence that the SWP attempted to wage a serious political struggle with the Canadians over the CCF line.

Canadian Pabloism, taking the form of a liquidationist deep-entry perspective toward the CCF, fully appeared only in 1951, but it had been nurtured by a series of previous errors in relation to the CCF, beginning in the late 1930’s. These earlier errors, which were understood as such by the International, can be attributed to the extreme historic weakness of the Canadian section’s leadership.

Despite the presence of some highly talented cadres like Maurice Spector and Jack Macdonald, both of whom had been central leaders of the Canadian CP, the Canadian Trotskyist movement (first as the Toronto branch of the Communist League of America and later as the Workers Party of Canada–WPC) was heavily reliant on the American section from its inception in 1928. An authentically revolutionary organization of great promise and with an impressive scope of activity in the 1930’s (though with only 250 members, the group was over-extended), the WPC was never able to congeal an authoritative leadership, due in part to the perennial instability of both Macdonald and Spector.

As part of the International Communist League’s (ICL) tactical orientation toward temporary shallow entry into the leftward-moving social democracies in order to win the left wings to Trotskyism, the WPC in 1936 began an entry into the CCF in British Columbia and in 1937 in Ontario.

The CCl was characterized later by the Canadian Trotskyists as “a petty-bourgeois Social Democratic party with some trade union support but deriving it’s main strength from the agrarian regions and from middle class elements in urban centers” (SWP International Information Bulletin, September 1946). While in terms of social base the early CCF resembled a two-class party like the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party (FLP), it differed in one important respect: program. While the FLP had a bourgeois-populist program, the CCF adopted a petty-bourgeois “socialist” rhetoric and program, and was correctly characterized as a social-demorcatic party. Thus it was principled to conceive of an entry into the CCF of the type carried out during the “French turn” period. (For a fuller social-historical analysis of the CCF, see “Canada’s New Democratic Party: Right- Wing Social Democracy” parts 1 and 2 Workers Vanguard, newspaper of the SL/US 15 and 29 March 1974.)

A heated dispute over the question of entry into the CCF split the WPC into pro- and anti-entry facations. The pro-entry faction won a small majority but cornprised little of the party’s central leadership. Spector, in fact, had made a bloc with A.J. Muste and Martin Abern in the Workers Party/U, S. to oppose entry into Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party (SP). Macdonald also faded from the leadership of the WPC following this tactical turn.

The entry tactic was seen by Trotsky and the international leadership as a short-term raiding operation on the social democracy in order to intersect developing left currents. The most spectacular success for the tactic was registered in the U.S, where the American Trotskyists were not only able to win over a large number of SP youth and trade unionists, but also to effectively destroy the social-democratic obstacle. The American Trotskyists were significantly strengthened following the split from the SP.

In Canada however, the entry was a failure. resulting in the ruination of the section. By late 1937, the ICL (forerunner of the FI) had to step in to re-establish the section after its partial disintegration. The reorganization of a much smaller group took pIace at a convention of the American Trotskyists in January 1938, although a split from the CCF was not carried out at this time.

Failure of this entry (which the section had attempted to carry out on a principled basis) can be traced to three main inter-related factors.

First, the organization had suffered a significant degree of decomposition even prior to the entry, namely, the splitting away of a large part of the organization, including key cadre, who had opposed the entry tactic. Secondly. the group’s leadership was, particularly following this split. extremely weak and inexperienced and was unable to give firm guidance in the execution of this intricate maneuver. And finally, the left wing of the CCF proved, following the onset of the entry, to be more ephemeral than it had appeared in 1936. In 1938 the FI instructed the Canadian comrades, organized by then as the Socialist Policy Group in the CCF, to carry out a “complete programmatic and political fight at or around the national fall convention of the CCF with a perspective of completing the experience within this declining reformist organization and re-establishing the Canadian section of the Fourth International” (Documents of the Fourth International). This directive was not followed; the British Columbia comrades remained in the CCF while the Ontario comrades were expelled (finding their way back in short order, however).

The subsequent formation of the Socialist Workers League (SWL)in 1938 did not signify a complete break with the entrist perspective. Despite the directives of the International, an important part of the SWL’s work was in or even on behalfof the CCF. For example, the SWL participated in the organization of factory clubs for the CCF during WWII.

The fact that the entry was continued past 1938, against the FI’ s directives and at a time when the CCF was in decline, reflected a shift in orientation. The tactic of entry with a short-term perspective was being displaced by a permanent “semi-entrist” policy with no clear-cut objectives, contravening the FI’s instruction to “create a thorough line of demarcation between the reformists, centrists and themselves” (Documents of theFourth International).

These tendencies were accentuated during the war years both in reaction to government repression of the left and also due in no small measure to the failure of the SWP to maintain close surveillance on the work in Canada. As a strong section of the Fourth International in geographic proximity, it had a special responsibility for the Canadian section. But the SWP was succumbing to isolationism: “The American Trotskyists retreated into an isolation only partially forced upon them by the disintegration of the European sections under conditions of fascist triumph and illegalization” (“Genesis of Pabloism”).

The growing adaptation to social democracy was clearly revealed in the first issue of Labour Challenge (1 June 1945) in an article entitled “VOTE CCF’ which inferred that the CCF in power would be a “labour government,” a necessary stage on the path to socialism. The demand for a CCF government was, in fact, the focus of the overall program presented by Labour Challenge.

The CCF in 1946 was still a petty-bourgeois social-democratic party (with a working-class base which had grown since the late thirties) and it would have been conceivable, from the standpoint of Marxist principle, to give it critical electoral support. However, in 1946 the CCF stood on a record of wartime social chauvinism, having made a turn away from an anti-conscription position early in the war toward a stance favoring conscription.

In addition to this, it was very federated on the provincial level with farmers (who had moved considerably rightward since the radical “socialist” rhetoric of the thirties) as its overwhelming mainstay in certain areas. Thus, while it might have been correct to give critical support to the CCF in certain areas at certain times, it was a political mistake to call for a CCF vote on the national level in this period.


But the Canadian group’s “mistake” went beyond this. To begin with, its support to the CCF was not critical from the Leninist standpoint, but tended toward a stages theory of the road to socialism. Rather than conceiving of putting the CCF in power so that it would expose the falsity of its promises to the working class, the Canadian group saw a CCF government as a progressive step toward socialism, not as an obstacle that would have to be removed before genuine workers power could be achieved.

Trotskyists understand the “workers government” slogan as an algebraic formulation for the dictatorship of the proletariat. In departing from this transitional conception of the slogan, the by then centrist SWL took a basically reformist position on the role of the CCF in the struggle for socialism. The SWL was not consistent in this attitude; in fact, it tended in the forties to move from right to left to right on the question, ending finally with a hardened rightist orientation toward the social democracy.

One example of the rightist, strategic-entry policy in 1945 was the work of one SWL member who was so successful in integrating himself into the CCF that he won election to Parliament as a CCF candidate. This having been accomplished, the SWP prepared to send one of its leaders, George Clarke, to Ottawa to write the man’s speeches. But this ill-conceived venture soon fell apart when the new Member of Parliament dropped out of the SWL.


With the formation under Ross and Murray Dowson’s leadership of the Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP), the Canadian section made a brief left turn, empirically abandoning its tailing of the CCF. The impetus for the turn was the militant post-war strike wave of 1945-46.

In RWP propaganda. the slogan. “For a CCF Government,” was correctly replaced with “For a Workers and Farmers Government. ” The RWP boldly embarked on its own municipal election campaigns in 1947 and ’48, not as a milk-sop surrogate for the CCF’s failure to run. but in order to advance a revolutionary program. The 1948 RWP campaign for mayor in Toronto was endorsed by two important United Auto Workers locals and received 20 percent of the vote under the slogan, “Vote DOWSON. Vote for a Labour Mayor, Vote for the TROTSKYIST Candidate.” Eight years after the FI had urged a break from the CCF, it was finally made: “The hardened opportunist leadership of the CCF… excludes any possibility of converting the CCF into an instrument of social revolution” (Labour Challenge, mid-October, 1946).

But the old errors had never been analyzed from a Marxist standpoint and the RWP was not politically prepared for the growing anti-communism of the cold-war period which followed the ’45-46 strike wave. The old orientation began to creep back, with Dowson re-embracing the erroneous line he had put forward in 1942: “Political action of the Canadian workers has taken a reformist detour. Today’s expression of working-class independent political action is the CCF” (RWP Internal Bulletin, 1942).


The international leadership was no longer capable of correctipg the Canadian section’s errors, having undergone a serious disorientation and then degeneration following the war. In fact. Pablo’s new international line encouraged the exploration of the deepest depths of the “CCF orientation”. In a 1950 letter the International Secretariat advised the Canadian section that the CCF entry it was preparing would be “something of a long duration” (quoted in Ross Dowson, CCF: Our Tasks and Perspectives). This instruction anticipated the line that Pablo would advance at the Tenth Plenum of the International Executive Committee in 1952. In countries where the hegemonic political tendency in the workers movement was social democracy. Pablo declared that the task was to enter the social-democratic parties ” …in order to remain there for a long time banking on the great possibility which exists of seeing these parties, placed under new conditions, develop centrist tendencies which will lead a whole stage of the radicalization of the massses and of the objective revolutionary process in their respective countries” (International Secretariat Documents, Vol. I, Education for Socialists series).

The general guidelines for these political entries, as outlined at the Austrian Commission of the Third World Congress in 1951, were directly counterposed to the Leninist-Trotskyist position on the question: “A. Not to come forward as Trotskyists with our full program. B. Not to push forward programmatic and principled questions… ” (quoted in “Genesis of Pabloism “). In periods of both full and partial entry over the last 25 years, Dowson and his heirs have never deviated from these guidelines in their CCF /NDP work.

While a 1951 RWP document which effectively heralded the dissolution of the RWP into the CCF noted that the CCF had no left wing, was declining, had a defunct youth movement and was moving rapidly to the right, the entry was made nonetheless. By the time the former RWPers were expelled from the CCF in 1955 (with the British Columbia section remaining inside), the group had defined itself completely as a left appendage of the CCF.


Today Ross Dowson, having departed from the LSA in early 1974 to form the Socialist League, accuses his ex-comrades of abandoning the historical position of Canadian ostensible Trotskyists toward the CCF/NDP in favor of a species of “ultra-left sectarianism. ” But while Dowson (with his long-term deep entry into the social democracy with a non-split perspective) has merely carried the historical practice of the LSA and its predecessors further along toward its logical conclusion in outright programmatic and organizational liquidation, the LSA orientation remains fundamentally no different.

As they have for over 20 years, the LSA affirms that its attitude toward the NDP is one of “unconditional” fraternal support. Although for the past two-and-a-half years, less of the LSA’s actual practice has taken place within the NDP than has been the historical norm, this is for purely conjunctural reasons stemming from the split during 1973-74 of most of the organization’s entrist fraction to either Dowson’s outfit or the centrist Revolutionary Marxist Group (RMG). In fact, as it moves closer to achieving unity with the Canadian adherents of the so-called “Organizing Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International” (an invitee to the LSA’ s last national convention, whose sole practice in English Canada is subterranean NDP work), the LSA is coming to place noticeably more emphasis on its work inside (and on behalf of) the social democracy.

For its part, the RMG (the central core of whose leadership came from an inchoate left-reformist caucus in the Ontario NDP known as the Red Circle) has not since the early days of its independent existence exhibited the classic orientation of Canadian Pabloism toward deep entry in the NDP. (The early days or the RMG were marked by NDP fraction work which did not differ qualitatively from that of the LSA).

Yet this fact does not reflect any break in the direction of Trotskyism. The RMG, in common with its European mentors in the “United” Secretariat majority of Ernest Mandel. Pierre Frank and Livio Maitan (all of whom trained under Pablo during the 1950’s and early 1960’s), has embraced the more “militant” orientation of mainstream international Pabloism today–adaptation toward the spontaneous movements of various socially peripheral sectors which comprise a so-called “broad vanguard” presumably able to politically lead struggles in its own name. Thus rather than programmatically liquidate into the social democracy, the Pabloists of the RMG prefer at this juncture to programmatically liquidate into various petty bourgeois/sectoralist/reformist “indepent mass movements” of women, blacks, gays, immigrants and natives.

What all Pablo’s latterday, unreconstructed offspring have in common is an explicit refusal to fight for the revolutionary Transitional Program in the course of their day-to-day work, and a rejection of the centrality of the class-conscious proletariat and its Leninist vanguard in the struggle for socialist revolution. The Spartacist tendency had its origins as a faction in the American Socialist Workers Party in the early 1960′ s which waged a struggle for these principles against the SWP’s rapid flight toward unprincipled reunification with the European Pabloists in 1963. Today the international Spartacist tendency, of which the Trotskyist League of Canada is a sympathizing section, carries forward this struggle to reforge the Fourth International on the program and principles of revolutionary Marxism.