From time to time I had opinion pieces published on the “op ed” pages of the Guelph Mercury and the Kitchener-Waterloo Record. The Record pieces were from the days when I was president of the Waterloo Regional Labour Council. That was in the late 80s and early 90s. It wasn’t a digital world back then and most have been lost. This column was published in the Record on Sep 04 1991. The Berlin Wall had been knocked over. Glasnost, Perestroika and Gorbachev were running the Soviet Union. The editors asked me to give my perspective on the fall of international communism.
For over a hundred years, people around the globe have dreamed of a better way of life under a socialist society. This dream was shared by workers in the industrialized countries and peasants in the developing countries – not all of them of course, just a few million.
Canada and Canadians were not immune to the dream. Since the Communist Party of Canada was founded in a Guelph barn in 1921, thousands of Canadians came to see it as the ship that would make their dream a reality. Many stuck with it all their lives. Many more sailed on it temporarily and then moved on to other goals. I sailed on that ship for about 10 years.
Now that the Soviet Union is falling apart and its Communist party publicly and finally disgraced, was I fooled? No. I joined it, and left it, with my eyes and mind wide open. Nobody had to trick the passengers into boarding the ship of fools.
Now that the Canadian party has finally lost its limited credibility, should I have regrets about wasted years? Obviously not. The choices we make in life shape our future. My choices brought me to where I am today, married to my best friend, with three sons and a daughter that I wouldn’t trade for the world, and president of the finest labour council in the country. Regretting the past is a denial of the present. It makes no sense.
I met many good people during those years, these people we used to call comrades. Now they are brothers and sisters, friends. As in most organisations, of course, I met many others that I wouldn’t cross the street to talk to, even in those days. But by and large, they were, and still are, the type of people who would stand outside in freezing weather helping to organise unions. We would go to picket lines. We would stand up to racists. We would fight against war. We would debate political events and political theory.
We didn’t do all this because we were part of an international conspiracy. We weren’t agents of a foreign power. We didn’t want to undermine unions or destroy Canada. We did it because we love Canada and we want to make it a better place to live. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union kept getting in the way.
Whenever we tried to explain party policies about Canada, disarmament, racism, sexism, Quebec, or whatever, we would be asked questions about the Soviet Union. We defended it because we thought it was part of the family, the misunderstood cousin everyone like to beat up. This wasn’t something I was really comfortable doing but it was part of the act and it had to be folded into the performance.
Things eventually reached the point where I didn’t really want to defend a foreign country when my intentions were to defend Canadian workers. So I packed up my membership in 1984 and set sail for reality – or at least the version of reality that is shared by social democrats around the world.
Now, seven years later, millions of Soviets are also packing up their memberships and setting sail for reality. We can’t be clear yet about the reality they have set their sight on. Mikhail Gorbachev is cautiously tacking towards some social democratic ports. Boris Yeltsin wants to go full steam ahead into the free market. The Soviet people can now make up their own minds. They have survived the storm and have the right to make their choices freely and independently.
We cannot deny their experiences, but neither should we deny our own. Their Soviet Union was not my Soviet Union. Theirs was a hard reality, a bitter experience of hunger and poverty. Mine was an idea that had no real existence, an alternative to unemployment, poverty and militarism in my own country. Several years ago, this Soviet Union ceased to exist for me, replaced by more rational ideas, achievable goals and a realistic alternative.
There is one idea that still has currency, which I can’t let go, and which is validated by the Soviet experience. This is the idea that working people have a right to be treated with dignity. We have a right to a decent life.
This is the basic idea that kept the Soviets alive while they fought the Czar, Hitler and the state apparatus. It is also the basic idea that keeps Canadian trade unionists moving forward.
It is an idea that has fuelled a dream.
This dream didn’t die when the nightmare ended. We still need controls on foreign investment. We still need a Canadian energy policy. We still need a public television network. We still need plant closure legislation. Native Canadians must still fight for their rights. Canadian women must still fight for equality. Unemployed Canadians must still fight for jobs. Our children must still fight for a meaningful education. Our sick must still fight for universal health care. Our elderly must still fight for dignity. Workers must still fight for justice.
No, the dream didn’t die when the nightmare ended. It just became a whole lot clearer.