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Manitoba History: Review: Doug Smith, Joe Zuken: Citizen and Socialist

by James Naylor
Department of History, Brandon University

Number 21, Spring 1991

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

Please direct all inquiries to webmaster@mhs.mb.ca.

Doug Smith, Joe Zuken: Citizen and Socialist, Toronto: James Lorimer, 1990. 258pp. ISBN 1-55028-305-7.

Growing up in Winnipeg, I always appreciated the vague sense of danger and notoriety of living in a city with a Communist on City Council. The rhetorical excesses which greeted Joe Zuken’s campaign for mayor in 1979 on the part of right-wing political commentators such as Fred Cleverley and Peter Warren (and, indeed, as Doug Smith documents, from NDPers Alf Skowron and J. Frank Syms) drew from a cultural reservoir of cold wars, atomic spies and iron curtains. Even today, Zuken’s success and persistence in municipal politics remains a poorly understood anomaly. While Zuken continued to win elections, his Communist Party slid close to oblivion and the bland uniformity of civic administrations was only occasionally punctuated by the eccentricities of otherwise unexceptional pro-development mayors such as Winnipeg’s own Stephen Juba.

Doug Smith organized Zuken’s campaign in 1979 and makes little effort to hide his respect and admiration for the subject of his book. Yet, despite a tendency to lapse into eulogy, Smith is far from uncritical in his assessment of Zuken’s political choices. The Communist Party [CP] offered few attractions to younger socialists of the 1960s and 1970s. New leftists assailed Zuken’s party for its social conservatism, its undemocratic heritage, and its servility to Stalin and his heirs in the Soviet Union; more often they just ignored it as irrelevant to their struggles. In keeping with such an assessment, Smith himself “did not harbour warm views towards the Communist Party of Canada” (p. 1). Yet Zuken clearly did. As members deserted the CP in waves following Khrushchev’s revelation of Stalin’s crimes, the 1956 invasion of Hungary and the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968, Zuken clung tenaciously to a party which appeared a political liability in an era of anti-Communism and one which gave him little support or guidance in his career on the School Board or on City Council. Smith was drawn to this study by a compelling political mystery: “Why had someone who was so uncompromising in his principles, so intellectually rigorous and courageous in his opinions, remain a lifelong member of the Communist Party?” (p. 3)

The answer to this question lies deep in the immigrant, working-class, North End of Winnipeg. Indeed, it was the ability of radicals, including the Communists, to build secure bases in such communities in the 1920s and 1930s which has fascinated socialist historians, journalists, and documentary film makers whose generation could claim no parallel achievements. Zuken’s childhood experiences testify to the rich product of Jewish and radical cultures which swirled around him. The victory of the Russian Revolution validated his parents’ struggle against the oppression, exploitation and anti-semitism of Czarist Russia and fuelled a faith in the possibilities of political action and human progress in the new world. Mutuality based on kinship, old world village connections, and a loyalty to the North End as a whole sustained such a faith in the face of the acquisitive individualism preached and practised by the city’s industrial and political leaders. This community allegiance had its roots in the division of the city on the basis of class, and the resulting social explosion of the 1919 General Strike. There seems to be little ground here for David Bercuson’s recent assertion in the latest edition of Confrontation at Winnipeg that “[t]here is only the most slender thread connecting the strike to the rise of the CCF (or the Communist Party of Canada, for that matter).” The fierce loyalty Zuken exhibited to the North End throughout his life was formed by the political world which grew out of such an epic battle. Those who moved to the South End “were regarded as being almost traitors and foreigners” (p. 11).

Zuken’s primary influences, however, were more specifically Jewish. The decision to send young Joseph to the I.L. Peretz School meant that he would be shaped by an ascendant secular radicalism which chose Yiddish over Hebrew, the language of the masses over that of an intellectual elite. In few other places in Winnipeg in 1925 could Zuken get away with submitting an essay entitled “Lenin Lives” to his teachers. In homes throughout the North End, the ideas of Communists, reformist socialists, anarchists, Labour Zionists and others were appraised and debated. A wider socialist culture could be sampled in a range of political events, including regular soap box orations in Market Square. This was an extraordinary education.

The education is also, of course, the stuff of nostalgia.

It is easy to forget the adversity of life in the North End, particularly during the ravages of the Depression. Yet the 1930s reinforced the community solidarity already evident and affirmed radical assessments of capitalism and capitalists. Zuken was drawn, in this period, to theatre and to the CP’s cultural appendage, the Progressive Arts Club. The socialist realist plays which were produced testified to the enthusiasm of the participants and the artistic dilemmas of political theatre. In the mid-1930s, this evolved into the New Theatre Movement with the participation of many of the best dramatic artists in the country. The Winnipeg company won at the Dominion Drama Festival of 1939. It is hard not to agree with Zuken that this was no “lost generation” (p. 29).

World War II forced Zuken to shift the focus of his activities. The prosecutions of Communists and other dissidents under the Defence of Canada Regulations drew Zuken into full time legal work. Although providing a useful insight into the fate of civil liberties in Canada during the war, the real focus of the second half of the book is on Zuken’s participation in electoral politics. From 1942 to 1962 he sat on the School Board and subsequently, until his retirement from municipal politics in 1983, on City Council. There is much here that is of interest. As a journalist, Smith is particularly interested in the role of the press as perpetrators of cold war ideology; the Free Press and Tribune are easy targets. What is perhaps more notable, however, is the failure of the Cold War to dissuade North Enders from voting for the CP. While the party’s representation would never top that of the late 1930s, the CP was consistently represented on the School Board and on City Council. Too often our view of the 1950s is shaped by images of popular media which repeatedly warned of the “Red Peril.” It is far more difficult to gauge the reception of this message. Certainly Zuken’s North End ward exhibited a great deal of resistance by re-electing a CPer; no doubt there was a continuum of responses to anti-communism throughout the city. Unfortunately, we learn little more from Smith about the North End and its evolution once Zuken takes his place on the wider stage of council chambers and court rooms.

While the Communist Party maintained its representation in municipal politics, it would be difficult to argue that there was anything distinctively “communist” in Zuken’s practice as a lawyer, school trustee or alderman. As a lawyer he attracted clients who otherwise had little access to legal services and fought for the establishment of a state-operated legal aid service. On the school board, Zuke championed kindergartens and fought bigotry. And on city council, he challenged the agenda of the corporate developers. All of this represents a commendable, and consistently liberal, record. His long-time CCF/NDP colleague, Lawrie Cherniack, was moved to comment that “Ulf you had a tape of all of his speeches, you would not find anything which would identify him as a Communist, or even a leftist” (p. 253).

So why remain a member of the party? For Smith this is a personal question, an occasion to explore Zuken’s personal loyalties to his family, his class and his community. There is certainly much to this. At the same time the question of why the party allowed Zuken to remain a member reveals much about the evolution of the CP. To some extent, this was opportunism. Zuken was a respected public figure; there was little to be gained by jettisoning him. At the same time, Zuken’s political activity was not very far out of step with what the party had become, or what many wished it to become. After years in its periphery, Zuken had only joined the CP in its most conservative phase in the middle of the Second World War. The rise of fascism in the 1930s, and the Nazi attack on the USSR in 1941, had prompted the CP to abandon its own agenda for socialism in favour of as broad an anti-fascist alliance as possible. In its most extreme form, or “Browderism” in the United States, led the CP to abandon its own independent organization in favour of building a political pressure group within the two-party system. While the Canadian party never went quite as far, it did favour voting for the Liberal Party and stood, for a while, solidly to the right of the CCF before resuming its place, as Smith notes, only slightly to its left. In its quest for respectability, for instance, the CP declared it “Puts Canada First” and the Toronto party marched, in the 1950s, to put a wreath on a monument to Sir John A. Macdonald.

Increasingly, commentators have looked with some envy on this period when the isolation of the CP’s earlier sectarian “revolutionary” period was overcome. Former CP notable Norman Penner, in his survey Canadian Communism: The Stalin Years and Beyond, criticizes the party for its lack of democracy and ongoing sectarianism toward the CCF/NDP, but has little to say about its abandonment of a distinctive view of socialism. In the United States one of the foremost historians of Communism, Maurice Isserman, chides the party for backing away (even in the uncertain manner it did) from the Browderist path and thereby reinforcing its own isolation on the eve of the McCarthyist onslaught. While Smith notes that the CP came to occupy a position only slightly (and inconsistently) to the left of the CCF/NDP, the periods he celebrates are those in which the CP abandoned its socialist goals during the period of the Popular Front (when the New Theatre had its widest appeal) and, to a lesser extent, the war, when socialism was definitively removed from the agenda. Certainly, by the 1950s Zuken had no socialist vision he articulated with any clarity, but neither did his party. The Soviet Union was not to be criticized, but neither was it to be emulated. The legacy of this, and of the CP’s unwillingness to seriously address its left-wing critics, added little to the development of radical thought in Canada.

It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the CP left Zuken alone. The task of formulating a vision of socialism in municipal politics is difficult (although interesting possibilities were revealed, for instance, in the Greater London Council before it was abolished by Margaret Thatcher), and the CP had little to contribute. Although Zuken maintained his base in the North End, the political sterility of the CP and of the period combined to take its toll. Zuken was very much a part of this process. In his commitment, in his doubts (which he mostly kept to himself), and in his political practice which differed little from the CCF/NDP, Zuken was not an atypical CPer. Smith’s attempt to paint him as fundamentally out of step with the Party, while containing an important element of truth, exaggerates his differences.

It is not surprising that Zuken would have emphasized these differences; being a life-long member of the CP requires some rationalizations. Zuken dismisses the party’s support of the Hitler-Stalin Pact (he was never, apparently, called on to defend it personally) and makes no mention, for instance, of the storm around the Soviet Union’s 1942 execution of Victor Atler and Henryk Erlich, two well-known Polish Jewish socialists, which caused a storm within the Jewish left in Canada. No doubt Zuken was asked his opinion at the time. Unfortunately, we do not yet know enough about local left-wing politics to evaluate more fully the CP’s practice in Winnipeg. While Zuken may have stood aloof from the more unpleasant aspects of the Party’s history, it cannot be argued he did much to keep alive the dynamic, pluralist radicalism of his youth.

I doubt whether Doug Smith would disagree with very much of this. This is an intelligent and well-written book, and Smith is well-aware of the contradictions and ambiguities of the Communist Party and of Zuken. He explores many of them with considerable nuance. Indeed, the attraction of Zuken’s 1979 mayoralty campaign can be seen in this light. I do not think it is entirely true that supporters were “attracted to Zuken not because he was, or was not, a Communist, but because of the reputation for personal integrity he had established in the city” (p. 237). Much of Zuken’s appeal came from a desire to connect with his Communist/North End/ immigrant tradition which had eluded civic reformers and the left. No less, of course, was the appeal of Zuken’s own qualities and of a reform programme in keeping with municipal reform movements across the country. The combination netted Zuken an impressive 24,650 votes in 1979.

This is a fascinating and frustrating book. As with the best of biographies, Smith has done his research and places his protagonist securely in his social and political surroundings. Secondary sources have been well tapped. Yet, I constantly wanted to know more about the North End; about the Peretz school; about the relationship between the CP, the United Jewish People’s Order and the rest of the Jewish community; about day-to-day relations between ordinary CPers and CCFers; and on and on. Perhaps this is a mark of success. Smith’s glimpse into Zuken’s world will, no doubt, inspire more interest in exploring Winnipeg’s working-class and immigrant communities since the General Strike.

Page revised: 11 April 2010

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