Last Thursday (March first) I went to a lecture hosted by the the Platypus Affiliated Society at Dalhousie. Platypus is an interesting formation: it’s very student driven, very academic and not at all action oriented. It lays no claims to being a party or even a real “organization” in the normal leftist sense of the word, instead trying to act as a sort of public forum for intellectual conversation on the left. The formation of a chapter of Platypus at Dalhousie is a really useful and exciting development given the lack of radical intellectual discussion on Halifax’s campuses.
The talk took the form of a sort of public interview with Tony Thomson and Herb Gamberg, two sociology professors who were actively involved in the New Communist Movement (NCM) in Halifax during the 1970s. Their involvement primarily took the form of membership in the Halifax Study Group – a group made up mostly of white academics who polemicized and generated analysis about the left in Halifax during the period. The group was mostly a constellation of sociology students orbiting around Gamberg – a much beloved professor, basketball enthusiast and leftist. The interview was moderated by Andony Melathopoulos, the driving force behind Platypus at Dal. I actually quite liked the format. Having an interviewer helped add a bit of much needed structure to the discussion and Andony did his best to try to push the interviewees to respond to the questions posed by the interviewer and the audience.
As a historian of the NCM (albeit in its American context) I actually found the talk quite frustrating. At its most basic level I found that I had no idea at all about the organizational realities of the NCM in Halifax after the talk. There was no discussion of what groups were active, what specific actions were undertaken, what the key local issues were, what the NCM’s relationship was with the emergent Black Power and civil rights movements in Halifax were, whether or not the groups active in Halifax involved themselves in electoral politics through interventions with the NDP or municipal politics or if any leaders of the local labour movement were at all involved in Marxist politics.
I also felt that Thomson’s interpretation of the New Left was old fashioned and historically inaccurate. He suggested that the New Left had collapsed in the early 1970s and activists seeking more serious political structures to opposed capitalism looked towards Marxist-Leninist thought as a guide. This of course ignores the vast amount of evidence that on both sides of the border leadership in the student New Left were speaking publicly about Marx, Lenin and Revolution as early as 1967 and that the collapse of SDS in the United States and the Canadian Union of Students in the north in 1969 and 1968 were in large part the result of conflict between liberal and social democratic students and their vanguardist leadership who had adopted Maoist politics and tried to foist it upon a membership who were not ready or willing to accept it. Pseudo-Leninist politics didn’t emerge after the collapse of the New Left, but rather helped contribute to the movement’s decline.
I felt that the cursory discussion of the history of 1960s movements was underdeveloped but in contrast there was an obsession with 1917 and its antecedents that made me feel like I was back in the 1970s. Well over half of the interview was spent discussing ultra-leftism (and of course Lenin’s definition of it), left-opportunism and the debates within Russian and German social democracy in the early 20th century. The old fashioned Leninist in me is definitely interested in these conversations, but given how little has been written or said about the NCM in Halifax I feel like this time could have been better spent sharing the details and lessons of the ’70s left rather than going into an in depth discussion of the second international.
I appreciated the talk, but I left seriously wondering what lessons I was to take from it. It wasn’t until questions from the audience that there was any mention of people of colour or women. (And Blackpower and Trotsyism never did come up) For a period which was essentially defined by infighting, factionalism and the deterioration of personal relationships there was remarkably little discussion of that aspect of the movement. When I asked about personal relationships and tone Thomson and Dr. Gamberg’s wife, Ruth, both expressed sincere regret about how they dealt with other people and other groups during the period, but Gamberg himself was surprising unrepentant about the tone taken in publications and meetings. This led Thomson to actually grow somewhat frustrated with his former teacher, arguing that they certainly could have disagreed with other groups on the left without using a tone which inevitably led to division and personal attacks. He also pointed out that Herb’s justification that counter-revolutionaries needed to be called the carpet was nonsensical because it wrongfully assumed that The Halifax Study group was itself contributing to some sort of revolutionary situation in the 1970s.
The picture of the NCM in Halifax as presented by the speakers was on the surface remarkably different from every other local instance of the NCM that I’ve studied: we are to believe that it wasn’t fractured and sectarian and nasty. It also doesn’t line up with the stories I’ve heard from other veterans of the movement in Halifax. Of course, if one reads between the lines it turns out that the story I heard Thursday night was the exact same as the story told by 90% of the groups from that period: every group but theirs was sectarian, left-opportunist, revisionist or ultra leftist and only they had the analytical and revolutionary heft to properly critique the situation and only they truly understood the working class. HSG, RCP, CCL, CLP or CQP: the acronyms change but the political line remains remarkably similar.
I don’t mean to villainize the speakers and I do want to emphasize that I thought it was an important talk, but it was at best a starting point. Our understanding of the New Communist Movement (in Halifax in particular, but North America in general) is still in its infancy and our only hope for writing useful histories of the period is for younger activists and scholars to take these sorts of interviews and synthesize them with the written historical record to try to create histories which move beyond recollection. The academic histories, the summations and the guides to action that historians and activists want and need can use event’s like the one on March 1st as raw material, but the open interview was on its own a limited resource.
For anyone interested in the event, the Playpus Society page for the event is a good read and includes a full audio file of the interview and a link to the only publication of the Halifax Study Group: “The New Infantalism: The New Communist Movement in Halifax.”