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First family of the CCF-NDP « Douglas Fisher



First family of the CCF-NDP

As a generalization it’s true: There have been more books, and far more good books, about the CCF-NDP and about Social Credit than about the two older parties whose lines run back past Confederation.

The latest book on a party is perhaps the most fascinating of all. It’s Unfinished Journey; the Lewis Family, by Cameron Smith, a former editor at the Globe (Summerhill Press).

A reviewer of the particular book must curb an urge to rant that much of the content is extraneous and many CCF and NDP figures are either missing or skimmed. To do so, however, might scare off readers, and this account of the Lewis family, from great grandparents Maishe and Raisel, grandparents David and Sophie, parents Stephen and Michele, to their brood, is an imaginative entwining of our politics with one family’s lives over four generations. One sees a movie or series for the NFB from this raw material.
The story begins with a flashback (the book has many) to a summer day in 1920. A largely Jewish village, Svisloch in Western Russia awaits the Red Army of the Bolsheviks. It is driving west to Warsaw. Enter Maishe and Raisel Losz, parents of 11-year-old David, 9-year-old Charles and 7-year-old Doris.

Within two years the upheavals from the passage and the subsequent retreat of the Bolsheviks under Polish counter-attack would cause the emigration of the Losz family to Montreal, where a brother-in-law was in the needle trades.

Maishe Losz was a village leader in the Jewish Labor Bund, one of many revolutionary parties which were out to overthrow or democratize the empire of the czars.
Smith gives over 100 pages to the Bund, the political history of Russia, the Jewish “pale” of settlement, and the conceptions Maishe Losz held and which were taken forward by his son into our Canadian politics. These might be characterized as “parliamentary Marxism.” That is, an acceptance of Marxist class analysis with an exploited proletariat which demands social justice for all, the rooting of political action in the people.

The significance of the Bund’s ideas and values are crucial to understanding the political work and positions taken in Canada by the Lewis family. The essence of the Bund philosophy is reiterated in this family story so often it is worth quoting them. This is from one of Smith’s many “flashforwards.”

“ . . . a real revolutionary movement must have its roots in its own environment. It was a lesson that Maishe never put aside; when he came to Canada he brought it with him. David applied it coast to coast as national secretary for the CCF, hammering it relentlessly into the party psychology, and Stephen took it the next step, to individual ridings, honing and refining it still further.”

Another Bund idea was also vital to Maishe and David. bundists believed that:
“It is better to go along with the masses in a not totally correct direction than to separate oneself from them and remain a purist.” Smith states this was a “credo that David applied to Canadian politics, as did Stephen, and it has been at the heart of the most troubling internal debates within the CCF and the NDP. It is the point of difference between the ideological missionaries and power pragmatists, raising that most volatile of issues, compromise. It has dogged the party from beginning and it continues to this day.”

A lot of the detail of Russian politics, the revolutionary parties, and the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe 70 and 80 years ago seems superfluous. Also, the dramatic device of conversations (within quotes) in the European lives of Maishe and Raisel may bother some readers.

Whatever the disproportion of a third of the book given to the family’s pre-emigration period, it does rivet the Lewis themes of social justice and equality alongside a reverence for parliamentary democracy and respect for the electoral judgment of the people. It does explain the vigor David Lewis put into ridding left-wing politics and our trade unions of communists and why he and Stephen cleansed the NDP of the Waffle movement.
It also explains the lack of religiosity in the Lewis family. While ever aware of their Jewishness for them the “workers’ circles” of the Bund had replaced the synagogue.

Within 10 years of coming to Montreal David Lewis had mastered English, picked up some French, and so impressed McGill he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford. And he’d found the love of his life, the beautiful Sophie Carson. As the Depression fell over Canada the two of them were off to England. There he astounded Oxford as a debater and got to know everyone important in the British and Western European left.

In 1935 the couple returned to Canada to marry, as David took up the invitation of the CCF’s founding spirit, J.S. Woodworth, to be the national secretary of the party.
At once David became the central figure in the CCF’s organization, ideas and political strategies. And today, 55 years later, the Lewis family through David and Sophie’s two sons and one of their daughters remain the chief proprietors of the successor party, the NDP.

For all the detail, much of it weird or in odd sidebars, you come out of Unfinished Journey knowing everyone in a remarkable family.
At another time, this column will touch on important partisan roles which are oddly presented (e.g. T.C Douglas and Stanley Knowles) or not mentioned at all.