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Fanning the flames

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IWW May Day demonstration in Portland, Oregon, 2006. Photo from Flickr.

“Hey, where’s the Russian flag?”

Windsor’s Labour Day march, 1957, and I was three years old. Marchers carried flags of Canada, England, the United States. I rambunctiously blurted out the question above as my parents tried to hush me up. I had no idea there was a Cold War. In my child’s mind, Russia helped win the war against the bad Nazis. “We were Russian! Weren’t we the good guys, too? Wasn’t the flag with the hammer and sickle a good flag?”

That was my first pronouncement on politics.

Not those Wallaces

Politics, music and cabbage were the staples of my growing years in an industrial working-class family. Politics meant left-wing politics. My father came from that part of Belarus occupied by Poland, a conservative-nationalist foreign power. In 1927, age 17, he emigrated to Canada to avoid inductment into the Polish army.

He arrived just in time for the Great Depression. Immigration officials looked at the name in his passport – Wolodya Wolosievicz and promptly changed it to Walter Wallace. Years later we found amusement receiving mailed invitations to join the Wallace Clan Society and search for our roots.

Pop rode the rails, finally finding work in the north, Ontario’s lumber and mine camps. He told me stories of running with his mates from RCMP officers who would round up the unemployed, line them up against the wall and choose every fourth man to send into labour camps, imprison, run out of town, or deport as “undesirable aliens.”

Mom is Canadian-born with parents from Ukraine. My grandfather was a miner caught up in just trying to survive. Mom’s folks were pioneers of the Ukrainian Labour and Farmer Temple Association (ULFTA), union supporters. They settled in South Porcupine. In 1933, after my grandfather was blacklisted for trying to organize a union, they packed up the kids and returned to the Soviet Union.

My grandparents were part of that Canadian/American contingent seeking opportunities in a land that was supposed to be the worker’s state. The Soviet Union opened its doors and they worked in Siberia. By 1938 a change in the Stalinist party line forced them to leave. My grandparents journeyed to Poland. As the dogs of war sounded, my mother and her sister were allowed to return to Canada. She never saw her parents again.

With 30 dollars in her purse, Mom eventually returned to South Porcupine. At 17, she worked in boarding houses, making $13.00 a week, working 14 hours a day, six days a week. She often recounted raucous tales of that period, of hard times, poverty, inability to purchase any luxuries, the blood of union organizers run down by police. At “Red” Croatian Hall in Schumacher she met my dad.

Windsor days

My folks came to Windsor in 1943. Windsor promised jobs in the auto factories, working on the line, getting a chance to save some money, buying a house and making sure their kids could get through university and never have to work in a factory.

My childhood memories are filled with visits to Windsor’s Ukrainian Labour Temple and the Russian-Canadian Federation hall located in the working-class district of town in the shadow of Windsor’s Ford Motor plant. The Ukrainian hall was the place workers secretly met to organize the United Auto Workers. It was a place that protected a community in which ethnicity and social class were interlocked. It was quietly defensive; suspicious of the predominantly WASP power structure. WASP meant English, English meant upper middle class. Their “ways” were different from ours.

The community had other fears. To outsiders the Ukrainian Labour Temple was the “Red Hall,” a den of subversives and spies. In the early stages of World War II it was closed down by the government. Members lived through the anti-radical, anti-foreign hysteria of the 1920s and ’30s and saw it renewed withthe rise of McCarthyism. A number of years ago, when I presided over the closing of this grand old place, one of its original members gave me a book published in 1930, an “Almanac” of Canada’s ULFTA between 1918 and 1929. Inside the yellowed pages were pictures of my grandparents. There, too, pictures of my mother, aunt and uncles as part of the children’s mandolin orchestra. He commented, “Now, a lot of people called us Communists, but we weren’t!” I noticed the small red hammer and sickle on the cover of the book.

The truth was that the early Ukranian Labour Farmer Temple Association had organizational ties to the Communist Party at leadership levels, and they were sympathetic to the Soviet Union. But these Windsor Ukrainians were committed supporters of the CCF/NDP. They went out of their way to be loyal Canadian citizens. Over the stage hung an old photograph of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, to the sides huge portraits of Ukrainian national poets Taras Shevchenko and Ivan Franko. Anti-communist hysteria fuelled the fear that their sons and daughters could become victims of this political plague. They called themselves “progressives” in contradistinction to the nationalist, right-wing Ukrainian organizations.

Concomitant with this was fear of the United States, the main Cold War perpetrator of anti-Sovietism. Despite disasters and mistakes, these members believed the Soviet Union was a product of their own hands. It was a curious hybrid – pro-Soviet nationalism coupled with pro-Canadian nationalism.

“The Hall” was typical of all those Eastern European centres built in the 1920s. Upon entering you were immediately assailed by the pungent, sweet smell of cabbage soaked into the wood from a thousand banquets. In the smoke-filled dining-room basement, walls would sweat from the heat of the kitchen and the numbers of bodies. Members thunderously applauded struggling CCF/NDP candidates or listened to delegations from the U.S.S.R. They were hardworking women and men – strong hands, strong voices, strong opinions.

Learning by osmosis

I learned politics through osmosis, surrounded by these elders. Perhaps this is why my spouse refers to me as a man born out of time. “You,” she says, “were born 40 years old!” It was there that I learned to dance the hopak in the children’s dance troupe, performed my first accordion concert solo, first kissed a girl on New Year’s Eve, organized my first political meeting.

Politics fed my mind. Cabbage and perogies fed my stomach. It was music that fed my soul. It was considered a natural thing to break into song while doing work. Music filled my home. At age six I was asked to come down to the kitchen table where all important family decisions were made and was informed I was going to learn to play the accordion. That, too, was a natural thing for a kid in a Slavic working-class household back then. I took to it. Actually my father made me take to it with his Stakhanovite insistence on my practicing two hours a day, four hours a day on weekends. Little did I realize that, as a teenager in the 1960s, I would be considered a nerd. Other kids relished playing electric guitars – that great leveller of upwardly mobile, white, middle-class aspiration. I became a serious musician, classically trained on an instrument considered socially inferior.

This awareness of “being different” made me feel independent from my peers and I felt I was treated differently. I was fiercely proud and outspoken about my heritage, much to the consternation of Anglo teachers, some shaking their heads in disgust at the books I read. I felt the class and ethnic difference. My high school was surrounded by a WASP, upper-middle-class neighbourhood, the kids sons and daughters of professionals. Kids of higher-income families had better marks, ran student council, were more popular.

My youth rebellion was one of revelling in difference. I considered the kids dressed in hippie styles, smoking up, talking back to be poseurs. Better a rebellion of the brain, I thought. Those differences came out in debates and discussions during history classes. Belligerent classmates nicknamed me “Bolshevik.” Sometimes the overtones would become ugly. Hanging around with kids of Ukrainian heritage from the nationalist halls, I was labelled “a commie,” “a Jew” by their parents. They chastised me for speaking Russian instead of Ukrainian. In the ways of the personal dialectic that only stirred me to defend more strongly what I saw as my heritage.

I had already called myself a Socialist when, at age 13, I bought my first copy of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. My brain ached trying to understand what I considered to be boring analytical complexities in the political battles of 1848 that didn’t have much bearing on my present situation. Nevertheless, Marx and Marxism eventually became a life-long study, commitment and development.

In the ferment of the late sixties – the New Left, the Vietnam War, anti-colonial struggles, Left Canadian nationalism, the Waffle – my Marxism was the one interpreted by Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin and Mao. I walked to classes carrying my copy of Mao’s Little Red Book. I bought underground newspapers, pamphlets of every left-wing tendency from Canada and the U.S., spread them on the floor and read their messages, aching to join something larger than myself.

The whirl of the intellectual debate of the Left was absent from Windsor. Left politics meant, for the overwhelming part, the NDP. I found its message tame and was attracted to the Canadian Liberation Movement (CLM), its slogan for “Independence and Socialism” and denunciations of U.S. imperialism. As one of the lone Windsor members, I sold its books, hawked copies of New Canada, engaged in polemics with other leftists. It was my first experience in the necessary art of writing, printing leaflets, press releases, public speaking, booking meetings.

Damning the consequences

My strength was that I was outspoken – damn the consequences. Tactically it would get me into hot water. One of my proudest memories of that time (and to this day) was attending a huge meeting of trade-union activists who had come to hear then UAW president Leonard Woodcock speak. Dennis McDermott, head of the Canadian section, sat on the podium with him.

During the question-and-answer period I rose and asked Woodcock with all the piss and vinegar that a 17-year-old could muster, “Don’t you think it’s essential that Canadian workers have their own Canadian union rather than be represented by a so-called international union that is U.S.-dominated?” Murmers went through the crowd. “Who was this kid?” Woodcock deferred to a blustery, red-faced McDermott who lashed out at my “naivete.” From that moment on, the conservative element of Windsor’s UAW viewed me as a troublemaker. Heck, I was simply ten years ahead of my time, but it wasn’t until a new generation of CAW activists came to the fore that I would be accepted.

My parents’ fears increased with my activism. “Don’t put yourself in front,” my dad told me. “Vote with majority or when you see you have majority.” My mother was more blunt. “Politics won’t get you anywhere,” she would admonish. Politics was a cruel game in which too many self-seeking opportunists abounded. It could be personally hurtful. As the years passed, the political scars on my back stand as proof of their wisdom.

By the time I reached the University of Windsor, the core group of Left activists had disappeared. On my own I ran for student council and the senate, wrote a socialist column full of didactic invective for the student newspaper, ran for city council, leafletted factory gates. James Lockyer, then professor at the university, and I organized Canada’s first Leonard Peltier Defence Committee. I joined the international student community (Chinese, Malaysian, Indonesian and Arab students) and gained their friendship and trust. I sat through Chinese-language movies I could not understand. They were impressed, if confused. It was the first time any Caucasian student had ever approached them for support.

A bridge too far

I discovered a flair for street theatre. Two buddies from the student paper and I invented a fictional group. Calling ourselves the Provisional Canadian Committee of Canadians for a Canadian Canada (short name: The Provos), we pretended to be a bumbling revolutionary paramilitary group committed to destroying U.S. imperialism. It was Bob and Doug MacKenzie meets the Canadian Left. Dressed in lumberjack shirts and toques, we printed manifestos verging on the surreal. Our most infamous exploit, reported by the student newspaper, was marching to the middle of the bridge connecting Windsor to Detroit, flying the Canadian flag and announcing we would saw the bridge in half and watch the United States float off into the Gulf of Mexico. It was uproarious fun. Others didn’t see it that way. Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) members would “vehemently denounce” us, believing it a veiled attack upon them (it was). Others criticized us for anti-Americanism (we were). I discovered that the Left had little sense of humour. It did send me off on an interesting trajectory. Our pro-Irish Republican Army theme song sparked a growing interest and career in Celtic music.

I left the CLM in 1973, uncomfortable with its lessening commitment to socialism. Its nationalism was given a Maoist justification that the national question was the “principle contradiction,” while class struggle was a “secondary contradiction.” Serious study of Marx and Engels’ big books with no pictures led me to a forgotten gem of a text authored by that virulent Marxist opponent of Lenin, Left Menshevik Julius Martov.

Martov’s State and Socialist Revolution, was a reply to Lenin’s classic, State and Revolution. Socialism, Martov argued, could not be the work of any vanguard, of any minority, not even a working-class one. Democracy was indispensable. Lenin’s materialism was metaphysical, voluntarist. Working-class emancipation could only be self-emanicipation. I was thunderstruck. I could not deny the logic of Martov’s arguments. My cult of Lenin and Leninism came crashing down. Socialism could only be built by a majority who understood it, desired it and knew it was possible. It was a revelation and I was a new convert.

The only few who espoused these principles were remaining members of the minuscule Socialist Party of Canada. Socialism did not mean The Plan, state ownership. It meant common ownership. It meant abolition of capital and wage work. Didn’t the mere fact that the wage system existed in the U.S.S.R., China and Cuba reveal that these societies were just as exploitative as private capitalism?

My problem was political isolation, running a one-man party in town. I could influence people, but none willing to commit to building a movement. Those workers who were politically motivated were involved “in the only game in town” – the NDP. As long as I stayed in the SPC there was no one to work with. I joined “the only game in town.”

Communist infiltrates executive

I sallied forth to win members of the NDP to socialism thinking that reasoning minds would simply accept the logic of argument. At my first meeting, one party/union stalwart suggested I was a Communist infiltrator. Nevertheless, I was voted onto the riding association executive. It was plodding work. Time was spent fundraising to end election debts. Memberships were down, party activism was decreasing. The rump of the riding association met to consider another provincial electoral battle against the Liberal incumbent. I interrupted my graduate studies to run as a candidate. I was 22. So was my campaign manager. We went into battle with a take-no-prisoners approach. NDP headquarters would provide us with no funds, no direction, no workers. They considered me “too Left.” I canvassed most of the riding myself, concentrated on working-class neighbourhoods.

That experience was good. Others, humiliating. When Stephen Lewis, leader of the Ontario party visited Windsor for a press conference, he introduced me as “Glen Wallace,” then told reporters the party’s program demanding a $5.00 minimum wage (a central demand in my literature) was “unviable.” It was a monumental display of ignorance and condescension that left a bad taste in my mouth.

University graduation with a master’s in political science, the inevitable fact of earning an income. I kept my fingers in party work. Then I met my future spouse, Victoria Cross, in 1980 at Detroit’s Wayne State University campus. Politics became the source of discussion. She was deeply committed to Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee. Student council was preparing for debate concerning an announced march of the KKK and whether DSOC should support the slogan “Smash the Klan” or “Ban the Klan. I was for “smashing.” She was for “banning.”

Two years later we met again. I asked her out for a date. She was many things that I was not: a single mother, a Unitarian, her family WASP with deep roots in the U.S., American liberal politics and middle-class aspirations.

Meet the remnants

Victoria’s insights and compassion tempered my rough edges that all too often saw individuals as abstract representatives of class. She introduced me to the remnants of Detroit’s liberal-Left, former socialists and Communists, followers of Max Shachtman and Walter Reuther. I tried to dispel their starry-eyed idealization of Canada’s “labour party,” the NDP. I also witnessed the fratricidal personal infighting of the U.S. socialist Left.

When we married, Victoria moved a few miles and several light years from the U.S. Our marriage was the perfect clash of class aspiration and culture. As committed believers we set to push the politics of Windsor to the left.

Windsor was experiencing a new insurgency for organized labour spurred by the withdrawal of the Canadian Auto Workers from the international UAW. We tried forging a coalition linking community activists to the labour movement, away from mutual mistrust, explaining to activists in labour, anti-war, disarmament, women’s, workplace-safety, environment, anti-poverty and culture movements that their interests were the same.

Countless plots and events were initiated from our dining-room table. Each step took arm bending, frustrating hours of debate. Victoria fondly quotes Oscar Wilde that, “the problem with Socialism is that it takes too many evenings.”

We joked that Windsor was “the Petrograd of North America,” that we would make lists of those who would be sent to re-education camps and those allowed to carry the honey buckets after the revolution. Unexpectedly, I was named “Activist of the Year” by the Third World Resource Centre. I learned to sing Portuguese revolutionary songs for marine workers on strike in Leamington, listened to women workers singing their fados around campfires. They gave me a gift: the baseball bat that went through the windshield of the owner of the packing plant on a particularly nasty picket-line confrontation. They were impressed an “Anglo” would take the time to learn their songs. Toronto IWW members also presented me with a treasure: a red leather locket containing a pinch of IWW bard Joe Hill’s ashes, so he could keep singing forever. It would be my personal relic of the saint.

The personal was indeed political, exciting, but destructive when it all came to a crashing halt. I lost my job with Windsor Occupational Safety and Health in an ugly political infight. Victoria lost a brutal nomination battle for the federal NDP in Windsor-West. Money was tight, things looked grim and it all almost cost us our marriage in the process.

When retiring NDP leader Ed Broadbent visited Windsor for a special banquet, he announced that “We are all for the free market now.” “No we’re not!” I grumbled. I was livid. This, I maintained, signaled a complete surrender to neoliberalism. If this popular symbol of the party could espouse such as party belief then what was I fighting for?

My judgment found its confirmation in the “social contract” legislation of the Ontario NDP’s Bob Rae government. Windsor’s labour activists were overjoyed the night the NDP formed the Ontario government. I could not join the delirium. I spent too many hours working to elect an NDP candidate who knew nothing of politics. It was gut-wrenching. The party was heading in a direction I could not support and was completely powerless to halt.

Soon afterward, I left the NDP. I would no longer abide a party hierarchy that could not bring itself to speak the words “working class,” never mind “socialism.” I departed the realpolitik and self-defeating delusion of seeking the illusive support of the “middle class.” I would be unwilling to fight any further battles of Culloden for the Left in a party that never did proclaim itself as a party of or for the working class.

Scottish socialist John MacLean put it succinctly:

“The workers’ party that is of any use in my estimate is one that recognizes that the workers are robbed by the capitalists, and understands how that robbery takes place; and is one that is organized to prosecute the class struggle politically until socialism is attained.”

Using the terminology of the Hegelian dialectic, I would Leap to a Higher Ground.

Going back to music

The NDP was not the only game in town. I went back to music. In 1986, after a star-studded concert on the fiftieth anniversary of the Spanish Civil War, Pete Seeger cornered me. “You have an amazing talent,” he urged. “You can use it to bring people together.” It was a moment that changed my life.

In an era where music has become just another commodity for sale, created on an assembly line for large, interlocking corporate structures with songs that reinforced the atomization of individuals, independent voices were needed. I could sing of workers’ struggles, sing them their history.

William Morris stated that, “The business of Socialists is to make Socialists.” I would make socialists.

Lyrics of Ireland’s Andy Irvine gave me my theme:

Don’t let them ever fool you or take you by surprise,

The dirty smell of the politician and the man with the greed in his eyes.

One Big Union, that’s our plan and the IWW’s your only man,

The flames of discontent we’ll fan for the cause that never dies.

Culture has been overlooked by those engaged in political activity, considered separate, secondary, entertainment, an appendage, rather than an intrinsic part of human liberation. This artificially narrow view of working-class struggle forgot the idea expressed so vividly in James Oppenheim’s magnificent anthem of 1912: “It is bread we fight for, but we fight for roses too.”

As natural as a heart beat

Music is the moving spirit of every human being, as natural as a heart beat. Everyone can sing – perhaps not in key, but they can sing. Too often people have been told they can’t. I would help them find their own voice, just as the working class must find its own voice.

Getting workers to sing was hard work, especially that heavy phalanx of jacketed union members from industrial unions. At rallies I would cajole them, “C’mon you bunch of wankers … you sound like a bunch of Presbyterians! Join hands and contact the living!” Eventually they sang. It became easier. Music was expected. That was a victory.

Singing to OPSEU workers in the Ontario-wide strike, one woman approached me. “I never thought of myself as a worker before. But singing here with you and everybody else lets me know what it means to belong to a union.” Teaching the history of labour song at the CAW’s Educational Centre, a young worker came up excitedly. “When you talked and sang about workers working for wages, that we have our own history, suddenly I understand the way the world is set up!” People shared their histories, struggles, beliefs. They were speaking for themselves for the first time in a long time.

I’ve taken to heart the words of Ernst Fischer: “Art enables man to comprehend reality, and not only helps him to bear it, but increases his determination to make it. Art is itself a social reality. Society needs the artist, that supreme sorcerer, and it has a right to demand of him that he should be conscious of his social function.”

I would become the sorcerer. I would sing the message, not the drivel of personal angst.

The Industrial Workers of the World had it right. Capitalism has to be challenged in its totality. We must “Agitate, Educate, Organise.” Back in 1915, socialist educator Mary E. Marcy called it as a process whereby “class solidarity becomes a living thing.”

I am optimistic about the potential of the working class. The world moves and unfolds. Mine is a cynical optimism that sees slow, minutely small, painful movements become actual leaps in thought and action. The working class is not immovable. It is, as Marx knew, both the most conservative and the most revolutionary class. They have the most to gain or lose in any fundamental change. I find no room for the politics of despair. Like the Surrealists I look forward to the time when our dreams and reality become one. The so-called Impossible is possible.

I continue to study and act – a process of learning and unlearning. The Left has much to learn and relearn.

Len Wallace is a labour studies professor at the University of Windsor, as well as an accordionist and songwriter.


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