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A Prairie Marxist's Memoir

From young communist to senior citizen fighting for health rights. At 95, Ben Swankey tells his story.

By Tom Sandborn 24 Nov 2008 |

Tyee contributing editor Tom Sandborn focuses on labour and health issues.

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  • What's New: Memoirs of a Socialist Idealist
  • Ben Swankey
  • Trafford Publishing (2008)

"The mounted police swept from the alley in which they had been hiding, charging into the crowd, swinging their long clubs indiscriminately at men, women and children, clubbing anyone within reach. The foot police charged in from another alley, using their clubs in the same way."

It was Aug. 1, 1931, and one of the appalled witnesses when the Vancouver Police Department cut through a peaceful protest rally at the Cambie Street Grounds was Ben Swankey, a prairie boy who had recently hitchhiked to the coast looking for work.

Within weeks, on the day he turned 18, the son of Eastern European immigrants made a decision that shaped the rest of his life. Like many members of his Depression-reared generation, Swankey turned to Marxism as a way of understanding the economic and social chaos that surrounded him and as a source of solutions. He climbed the stairs off East Hastings to the offices of the Young Communist League and tried to join.

His first attempt foundered on his reluctance to endorse the rules and constitution of the Communist-party-sponsored group without reading the material first. But he had soon read enough to sign on in good conscience.

And that, as Frost would say, made all the difference. It also presaged the tension between Swankey the true believer and Swankey the independent intellectual that persisted over the decades.

What's New is Swankey's self-published account of his 59 years of Communist Party activism and what followed, years that saw him arrested three times and interned during the early years of WW II (although, as he proudly notes, he was never found guilty in any court). He worked as bartender, road construction labourer, organizer, salesman, journalist, editor, author, lecturer and researcher. He helped found an influential civic political group in Vancouver. And well into his 80s, he agitated for seniors' and health care rights.

Between Lenin and Lennon

One of the highlights of this text is the detailed account of the mid-Depression On to Ottawa Trek that saw unemployed workers travel across the country to petition Ottawa for a sane response to the crisis, only to be attacked and stopped by the RCMP in Regina.

The Trek is the subject of Swankey's 1977 book Work and Wages! The self taught worker-scholar wrote and published widely during his career, producing seven books and uncounted pamphlets, columns, news items and research papers. Like George Orwell, Swankey could legitimately claim that most of what he wrote was "against fascism and for democratic socialism." This is a book that calls to mind the line from Lennon (the Beatle, not the Bolshevik): "A working class hero is something to be." It is, and Ben Swankey still is at 95.

Written with his grandchildren in mind, Swankey's book charts his political life on the Canadian left, including the thankless task of leading a CP-front political party in Cold War Alberta, and many years later, in 1968, Swankey's role in founding Vancouver's influential left civic formation, the Committee (now Coalition) of Progressive Electors. He details his involvement in organizing resistance to the provincial government cuts to social services and union rights in the Solidarity fight-backs in 1983 and his involvement with seniors' rights, Canadian sovereignty and peace organizations into the new century. It records his long and heartfelt love affair with his second wife Hantzi and his political partnership with fellow COPE founder Harry Rankin.

Although confined to a nursing home, Swankey continues to be a keen observer of the labour movement and what he calls "progressive social movements." At the book launch event for What's New, he also spoke eloquently of the importance of women's leadership in the new century.

The book reflects his ongoing anguish about the mistakes he and his comrades made in being insufficiently critical of the Soviet Union. Canadian Communists, like their fellow believers around the world, made hideous errors of judgment as the Marxist dream of justice morphed into a blood stained nightmare. They were far too willing to take political direction from the Soviets, most notably in rationalizing the Hitler-Stalin Pact and ignoring the show trials of the 1930s.

Musical politics

Yet the party and its membership played an often crucial and positive role in fighting for stronger unions and many of the reforms like medicare and unemployment insurance that generations of Canadians learned to take for granted.

As a new crisis of capitalism looms and those reforms, like the union rights Swankey did so much to promote, are increasingly threatened, it is valuable to be reminded of what life was like without them and just how much blood and tears went into winning them the first time round.

On a local level, Swankey's COPE chronicles are an excellent source for anyone who has watched with sorrow or bemusement over the past half decade as the civic party achieved its first majority at city hall, then was deeply wounded by internal struggles and desertions to form a new centre-left competitor, and earlier this month helped anchor the left-of-centre coalition that swept the pro-business NPA party out of power.

But if this is a book about politics, it is also a book about art -- about the role that music and poetry played in Swankey's life and the life of the movement he served. Some of his earliest and most positive memories of his growing up in hard-scrabble Saskatchewan are his learning to play the banjo and the joys of local dances. One of his comrades interned with him in the 1940s was worker-poet Joe Wallace, whose prison verses are reproduced in What's New. Swankey remembers fighting right-wing thugs who tried to attack a Pete Seeger concert in Cold War Alberta. He joined the crowd that gathered at the Peace Arch in 1952 to listen to American singer and communist Paul Robson, blocked from entering Canada, sing a concert for the Mine Mill Union from a flat bed just over the border and within hearing distance of British Columbians.

In What's New, Swankey celebrates the "love of music" he shares with his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. I found myself thinking about Swankey when I took my granddaughter to a Workers' Cabaret, sponsored by the Vancouver and District Labour Council. He was on my mind not only because the VDLC was one of the many union organizations he worked for during his career as a labour journalist, but because the quality of the working class music and poetry on offer that night demonstrated that the glory days of resistance art are not necessarily behind us in the '30s or the folk song revivals of the '60s. The Labour Council's Bill Saunders has brought together, under VDLC sponsorship, some of the most exciting live performance available these days, and the cabaret was one resonant example of that success.

Held at the Zawa café on Commercial Drive earlier this fall, the cabaret featured a wide variety of musical and poetic forms from slam poetry to bluegrass ensemble to classic folk singer with a guitar.

Vancouver's gifted carpenter-poet-scholar Kate Braid read her extraordinary work poems together with music from singer-songwriter carpenter Phil Vernon, whose tribute to the men who fell to their deaths building one of Vancouver's downtown office towers, "Murder," has to be one of the best protest songs ever to come out of B.C. The Gram Partisans, an amiably aging and talented bluegrass ensemble made up of retired trade unionists, sang the stirring picket line anthem "You Will Not Stand Alone" and "The Ballad of Rachel Corrie," a poignant tribute to the young activist killed protecting Palestinian homes from being bull dozed.

Finally, Trevor Groves, a slam poet and refinery worker, delivered a set that ranged from the ribald and hilarious "Give Them the Pickle," to the tender and sorrowful "popielniczka," a meditation in verse on the Taser death of Robert Dziekanski, the bewildered Polish immigrant who died on the floor of the Vancouver airport customs area, shocked into submission and then to death by the RCMP last year.

The self-critical intellectual

What the cabaret's wildly disparate line up had in common was a commitment to unions as self-defense organizations for working people and a shared commitment to excellent live performance. I found myself wishing Swankey could have been there to savour it.

He doesn't get out much anymore, but you have to think he was there in spirit. What's New represents a final statement from that spirit. Even now, Swankey is not content to mouth simple left wing pieties, not even the ones most precious to him. His book is luminous with intelligence and self-critical reflection, exciting in its account of true life adventures and tender in its tributes to the wife and other comrades he loved over the decades.

This is a book for anyone who values what the labour movement has won in the last seven decades in Canada, and for anyone who recognizes we may have to fight again some of the same old battles.