CUPE 2021 leaderboard

‘People’s history’ brought to life with voices from vibrant era


This is a wonderfully dense, rich, descriptive and analytical volume, certain to be unique in the appreciation and understanding of the Canadian Left. Emerita professor Ester Reiter deploys an amazing number of old photos, posters and assorted other materials documenting Yiddish-speakers through decades of activity. One appendix covers the history of the Canadian communists proper, but the more intriguing one describes the leading Jewish characters, offering in a paragraph or two an incisive view of their lives, activities and even personalities. So much of this world has slipped into the past and out of living memory, Reiter has done a great service in bringing it back to us.

More than that, A Future Without Hate or Need is largely a “people’s history,” social history from the bottom up. Perhaps it is the “warmth of the ghetto,” a once-familiar phrase, that makes this study of leaders and followers seem whole cloth. Too rarely do we see these kinds of precious, personal insights into the lives of activists outside of oral histories. Reiter’s personal knowledge of the subject, her pursuit of archives and, indeed, a fair amount of oral history, offer us character studies up close.

Of course, we find the familiar rise and fall of the Marxist-influenced, Canadian Left. Or rather, the rise, fall, rise, fall, rise and apparently final fall, at least of the sector involving those who speak Yid- dish as a first language — today a category largely made up of insular, religious, politically conservative Jews. The early optimism about Bolshevik Russia, the early waves of repression, the industrial militance of the 1930s, the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939- 41, wartime “unity” and postwar repression, the crises at the Khruschev Revelations of 1956 and the final fall of the Soviet Union — all this is here, not merely as “history” but in the lives of very specific participants. In the process, Reiter usefully references, describing where she does not analyze, several crucial points now often neglected.

The first is the Canadian Left as a function, even miniature, of the U.S. Left. Ironically, this misunderstanding may have been larger three or four generations ago, before the fairly rapid assimilation of the ethnic working-class sectors that had provided the most reliable membership of socialist and communist parties “down south.” In the Jewish world, the scale of the Left in greater New York was so great, its publications so large, and a certain drift of population back and forth from Montreal and elsewhere, that the stereotype had some validity. Then again, within the U.S. for the later 1930s, the Popular Front era of the Communist Party featured a membership more than half in New York, more lower-middle class than industrial-proletarian, and very disproportionately Jewish.

The second point is the influence of the Canadian Left all out of proportion to its actual membership, Party or affiliated organizations. As Reiter suggests in passing, the influence of the Jewish Left in the Canadian labour movement — not only those sec- tors heavily Jewish — was considerable, especially at the leadership level. The ability of the Jewish Left to rally large numbers of people against fascism offered peak moments in which even Jewish conservatives had to give ground, if only for a while. Lastly, the cultural and fraternal apparatus, the socialistic Workmen’s Circle and its Communist-linked counterpart, could be 10 times as large as Communist membership proper, and here, the material is richest for Reiter’s kind of study.

At the heart of much, though not nearly all, of this saga is the backdrop of Canadian anti-Semitism, a leitmotif of the Canadian Jewish experience, and a parallel reality to the industrial exploitation of Jewish working people. Large numbers of Canadian Jews enlisted themselves or were enlisted by their parents in a struggle for collective self-identity. Jewish radicals were at one with every moment of the class struggle and struggle against anti-Semitism. But they seem to have been themselves, most espe- cially when on the stage — even when the “stage” was a children’s summer camp, but also theatres of all kinds.

So much of history has been obscured by the Cold War and the passage of generations that we forget that left-leaning Jewish audiences could fill some of the largest auditoriums in Canada, during solidarity events of the Second World War. Or that Social Security, Canada-style, was urged by the communist milieu long before it was enacted by parliament, with a sturdy push of Left legislators. The power and depth of the anti-fascist movement reinforced an instinctive shift of the Jewish Left from a kind of insularity to an embrace of broader, democratic social themes, but without giving up the institutions and activities that made them so special.

The words of the reviewer cannot do justice to the pleasure of looking through these pages again and again. Here, the photos — some as curious as the phrase “Camp Kindervelt,” installed in a hill’s vegetation, 1927, or as amazing as shots of modern dancers, 1952, and not to mention the children’s activities — bring the story home. When we dive into the index of “People,” we learn that the author knew a handful of them personally, although she grew up in a parallel milieu in the United States. She obviously made a project of learning about their lives, long before she set herself to write this history.

The Yiddish-speaking community lasted longer in Canada than in the U.S., as many ethnic groups seem to have maintained their identity more effectively, at least before the pervasiveness of the mass media. But it is also true that the United Jewish People’s Order survived legally while its larger U.S. cousin, the Jewish People’s Fraternal Order, a branch of the International Workers Order, was forced out of existence during the McCarthy era. Thus Canadians had a more measured phase-out of generations and cultures. Even as most members and activists drifted out of the communist milieu proper, they kept their friends and extended family around left- wing ideas and activities. More importantly, they succeeded, very often, in bestowing a priceless gift to the future Left: their descendants.

This article appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of Canadian Dimension (Short Change).


Delivering Community Power CUPW 2022-2023

Browse the Archive