By Joe Yachimec
Johan Boyden is spreading the faith. He pauses from his walk, approaches the concrete stoop outside of Kerr Hall, where two young men in graffiti-print t-shirts and baseball caps are sitting. He hands them each a pamphlet. The young men look at each other, hot dogs frozen in mid-bite, and wait for someone to make the first move.
Boyden does. “Hi, I’m the Communist candidate in this riding,” he says. His hair is unruly beneath a red hat, and he’s tall enough to draw glances from passersby. He launches into an explanation of his platform in a quiet, firm voice.
“What about the military? What’s your position on the military?” Interrupts the boy on the right.
“We want to cut military spending by 50 per cent,” says Boyden. Young at 26, but already a veteran of two federal elections, he has the gentle persistence and utter conviction of a true believer. Oct. 10 will be the first time that he has run for provincial office.
The boys frown, cross their arms, try to hand the pamphlets back. “We’re in the army,” says the one on the left.
“You should increase military spending by 50 per cent,” says the one on the right. “We’re in the army,” says the one on the left, again. They don’t keep the pamphlets.
For Boyden, cutting military spending is a single facet of a party platform crowded with policies — improving social housing, eliminating racism, creating universal child care, keeping healthcare social, raising minimum wage to $15 an hour, passing the Mixed-Member Proportional voting system, lowering the voting age to 16 and eliminating tuition. Oh, and one more thing, Boyden says.
“We need a revolutionary movement to overthrow the capitalist system.”
Boyden is a Communist, dyed in the wool. Not an NDP mid-leftist, not a Nordic-style Democratic Socialist, not an Adbusters-reading vegan-shoes counterculturalist. A Communist. Communism doesn’t work by degrees; the foundations of the new system are built on the crater of the old. In fact, on its website, the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) opposes “reformist” policy changes, and instead wishes to foster revolutionary spirit.
“It would of course be preferable to take a peaceful route,” says Boyden. “If the people’s forces are strong enough, then there might be limited conflict and violence. I’m not saying none, but limited.”
All well and good, except to those who die. But there’s a greater problem: Communism failed. It’s been dead for 16 years. Following the collapse of the USSR in 1991, the international movement looks a bit like a wake. Of the countries in the world that still call themselves Communist, China is a law-of-the-jungle entrepreneur’s paradise, Cuba is floundering without Soviet help, and North Korea, Vietnam and Laos are third-world states of little to no international importance.
“Economists have little time for Marxism-Leninism, finding it inadequate both in theory and in practice,” says The Economist in an issue published earlier this year. “Russia itself has moved on. Even China, ostensibly still a major communist power, chose its own path to markets and modernity and is now beating capitalists at their own game.”
Or as the article asks more bluntly: “Is there any reason left to care about Soviet communism?” Modern Communists like Boyden are lost in the past, sleepwalking pallbearers for an idea dead since the Cold War, still mouthing along to a song that is no longer playing.
The basic philosophy of the CPC is based on the teachings of Marxism-Leninism, placing great importance on the overthrow of the Bourgeoisie (upper class) by the Proletariat (workers). Yet the party’s aims and beliefs are looking increasingly nostalgic: The CPC’s logo is decorated prominently with a sheaf of wheat and a gear — symbolic of the factory labourer and the farmer — the economic foundations of Canada when the CPC was formed in the 1920s. However, The gears have grown rust in recent years.
How much chance does a Communist party have of winning an election in Canada? Not much, Boyden admits, but, “It’s not about getting elected, it’s about the real issues.” There’s a deeper conflict in Boyden’s party participating in democracy though.
Marxist-Leninists believe in a “democratic dictatorship of the Proletariat.” Under the system, a one-party government replaces the democratic process; the all-controlling leaders are expected to make decisions that benefit the people. But in the USSR, Boyden’s archetype, this failed. Those who overthrew the old tyrants became the new tyrants, and the people were forgotten.
“Even though it no longer exists, I defend the Soviet Union,” Boyden says. “There were problems, but look at the achievements: major advances in women’s education, healthcare, electrifying the country, literacy, defeating Fascism, supporting anti-colonial struggles.”
Yes, there was electricity and running water, and education for the peasants. The price was costly, paid in millions upon millions of lives — lives ended by execution, by forced labour in Siberian prison camps and purposeful mass starvation. In the Ukraine, more than three million people starved in the Holodomor, or the “Hunger Plague,” as their food was taken away and exported to help defray the cost of Soviet industrialization. The life expectancy of a Ukrainian boy born in 1933 was seven. For a girl, it was 10.
Boyden disputes this last point, saying the famines have been exaggerated. Two girls approach Boyden as we talk, one short, one tall.
“We saw you at the debate,” the short one says to him. She brushes back a lock of brown hair, revealing a hoop earring. Her clothes look expensive.
They remember one of Boyden’s bon mots to Toronto Centre’s Progressive Conservative candidate, Pamela Taylor. “It was hilarious,” they say, and laugh while describing themselves laughing. “Seriously, though, her party is very dangerous,” he says. The girls nod, their eyes big. They start to discuss strategy for a coming debate, then notice me. Their eyes lock on my pad and pen.
“Who are you?” asks the short one.
“This is my journalist friend,” says Boyden. The short girl takes a small step backward.
“Er, is this on the record?” she says. I say no, drop my arms to my sides, and click my pen closed.
“Well, then no comment,” she says.
“We’ll talk about the debate a little later,” says Boyden, and the girls hurry away. We start walking towards Salad King.
In the restaurant, Boyden’s eyes scan around constantly, avoiding contact. He rattles off a laundry list of revolutions and attempted revolutions in Canada, then asks the waitress for a recommendation. We decide on Golden Curry, with chicken. He’s not vegetarian, something both I and the waitress ask him.
Boyden grew up in Northern British Columbia, in Prince George. “Prince George is a town that’s suffering from de-industrialization, and from racism against Aboriginals,” he says. “It’s the kind of town that you’ve got to figure out which side you’re on, which side of the blockade you’re on.” Boyden left Prince George, “around the time of the illegal Imperialist intervention in Iraq,” he says. He joined the Communist party in 2001.
That’s about as far as we get into the personal. Then it’s back to the Message: electoral reform, cutting military spending, eliminating poverty and racism. Issues that are easy to agree on.
All of this rhetoric, all of the campaigning and debating and postering and pamphleteering and talking, seems to point towards a single end: the creation of a social utopia. I ask Boyden about the idea.
“Utopia is an unscientific way of viewing the struggle. Utopianism is when you underestimate what you’re up against,” he says. “I view the other folks on the left as allies, but the Commu-nists have a different perspective. We see the ideal world as a place that can actually be won.” He scrapes the last bits of curry and rice onto his spoon with his chopsticks.
“The Utopians are people who don’t think that socialism can work,” he says.
He looks up, leans back from his plate and knits his fingers together. We’re getting off topic.
“Look, this isn’t the pressing question today.” We move back to the near future, of policy reform and intellectual debate, away from the long term, from guns, and molotov cocktails and show trials. We pay for our food, and leave.
Exiting the air-conditioned restaurant into the warm soup of the late afternoon is like being shot out of an airlock. Boyden turns towards Yonge Street, and tells me that William Lyon Mackenzie fought a battle with British-loyal militiamen here during the Upper Canada rebellion. He didn’t mention that the rebels surrendered almost instantly, or that Mackenzie’s rebellion lasted less than a week.
We say goodbye, and Boyden walks up Yonge Street, moving slowly into the past.