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Progressive Heritage

Interview with James Doyle

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How did you come to write this book?

I’ve always been interested in forgotten or neglected literary works. After publishing in 1995 a book about Canadian and American writers who worked within countercultures of artistic and political dissent in the 1890s, I became curious about how this tradition of dissent may have been continued by twentieth century Canadian writers. This led me to writers who were influenced by various kinds of anti-capitalist ideologies and movements, including Marxism-Leninism. From research into the backfiles of newspapers and literary magazines published by the Communist Party of Canada, and from book-length literary works published by the Party or by writers and publishers sympathetic to Marxism, I discovered a substantial literary subculture stretching from the founding of the CPC in 1921 into the late twentieth century. In the United States, literary scholars have been vigorously recording and evaluating the left-wing literary history and biography of that country, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union. But in Canada, most of the politically radical subculture has been ignored by literary scholars. The authors of the Literary History of Canada, for instance, which was originally published in 1965 and has been updated several times, suggest that the only writers and works really worthy of consideration are those who have supported prevailing liberal and individualist political and social assumptions. I hope that my book might help redress the balance, and encourage more research in this field.

Who are some of the writers your book deals with?

My research turned up mostly writers who have been completely overlooked or forgotten, but it focused on some prominent people, too. Dorothy Livesay, A.M. Klein, Earle Birney, Milton Acorn, Ted Allan and George Ryga were Marxist Communists in their early careers, and continued to write politically radical works influenced by Marxism even after they had moved beyond their youthful beliefs. But there has been a tendency to ignore the Marxist writings of these authors, or to pretend that their early political opinions had no influence on their mature writings.

Who are some of the overlooked or forgotten writers?

Perhaps the “grand old man” of Canadian literary Communism is the poet Joe Wallace, who joined the Party shortly after it was founded in 1921, and remained loyal until he died in 1975. Joe was famous in the Soviet Union as well as the Soviet bloc of Europe, and China. He was repeatedly invited to writers’ congresses as a guest of honour in those countries, but he was almost completely unknown in Canada. His poetry was rather old fashioned in form and technique, and very ideological, but even Northrop Frye - who had little patience with Marxist ideas - praised it. Then there is Dyson Carter, whose 1955 novel Fatherless Sons dealt with the struggles between workers and capitalists in a Northern Ontario mining town. He also was a lifelong Party member, and his four serious novels and many works of non-fiction were widely read in eastern Europe, although they were almost completely ignored in Canada. The Quebecois Jean-Jules Richard was a member of the Party in the 1940s and 1950s, and his 1956 novel Le Feu dans l’amiante about the 1949 strike in Asbestos, Quebec, is one of the most impressive novels of labour struggle I’ve ever read. I would also mention Margaret Fairly, a Communist Party member from the 1930s until her death in 1968. Her 1960 edition of the Selected Writings of William Lyon Mackenzie is still the definitive anthology of the writings of an important nineteenth-century Canadian journalist and politician. Fairly was a brilliant editor, literary critic, and essayist, but she was almost always judged by her political affiliations rather than by her substantial efforts to preserve and encourage the Canadian literary heritage.

Why should Communist-inspired Canadian literature be considered important?

There is a prevalent belief in the twenty-first century, buttressed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, that Marxism-Leninism and other forms of socialism either represent a completely invalid line of historical development, or have become obsolete in the new world order where the so-called “free market” reigns supreme in politics, economics, and culture. I have been frequently disturbed by the arrogant attitudes of historians and critics toward a politically radical literary tradition which they obviously know nothing about. At the very least, this tradition is an ineradicable part of our cultural history, which we can never understand completely as long as we allow literary works to be condemned on the grounds that the ideologies they express don’t conform to the beliefs of the self-appointed authorities.

Are there Marxist Communist writers still active in Canada in the twenty-first century?

The old 1921 Party continues to exist, but it ceased to have much political and cultural influence after the 1960s. All the writers I’ve mentioned are either dead or literarily inactive. A lot of good younger novelists, poets, and dramatists writing from a Marxist perspective emerged in the 1960s and 1970s, although most of them didn’t join the Party. Some of these people are still around, and still producing politically radical writing, but there don’t seem to be many younger writers - say, under age fifty - writing now in an explicitly Marxist idiom. And I think that’s unfortunate. As Northrop Frye said in his review of Joe Wallace’s poetry, it’s important to keep the tone of genuine anger and contempt at hypocrisy alive, no matter where it comes from or from what motives it is uttered. The Marxist Communists, whatever else they may have achieved, were very good at expressing anger and contempt at the hypocrisy of capitalism.