By Tom Sandborn
Nov 2008, TheTyee.ca
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
|Ben Swankey 1943|
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.
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.
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.
|Ben Swankey and Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs,|
editor of Swankey's memoirs