I always say this but it’s true, there are
so many things
I don’t understand,
I don’t mean steak tartare,
I mean irony, corpses, how to not
see yourself everywhere in comparison.
How to see instead what’s there.
— Anne Carson
My sweeping experiment with life on the left began when I was nineteen and living in a student commune in Ottawa. Moon House was a dilapidated three-storey detached brick building with a leaky roof, an oil furnace that often broke down, and rickety wooden steps that led to an unlatched front door at the corner of Laurier Avenue West and Percy Street. On still, snowy nights, we could hear the bells of the Peace Tower, less than two kilometres to the northeast.
I moved to Moon House in summer 1970, after my boyfriend headed to Toronto to help invent new Canadian theatre. Anything seemed possible that year, and everything was political: sex, art, education, clothes, hair, our frenetic attempts to revolutionize a nation. On my own, I was entirely free to dive headlong into social activism in Ottawa, which had become a hub of turmoil. In October, only one month after I moved into the commune, the FLQ kidnapped the British diplomat James Cross and Quebec’s deputy premier, Pierre Laporte. Pierre Trudeau deployed the armed forces and invoked the War Measures Act to confront what he described as a state of “apprehended insurrection.” Within forty-eight hours, more than 250 prominent labour leaders, artists, and intellectuals were arrested. Habeas corpus was suspended in Canada for the first time since the Second World War, when members of the Communist Party had been accused of spying for the Soviet Union. On the evening of October 17, a Saturday, Pierre Laporte’s body was discovered in the trunk of an abandoned car. An autopsy later revealed that he had been strangled.
The following morning, a small group from Moon House and other left-wing cadres gathered on Parliament Hill. We were there to protest the War Measures Act and to fight for an independent Canada, one based on the theories of Karl Marx and the models of the Russian and Chinese revolutions. Marx and Engels, Lenin and Mao were our heroes. Fittingly, my new boyfriend had recently given me a red-jacketed three-volume set of Das Kapital, which I still keep on my bookshelf (although I found the writing impenetrable, and still do).
After a two-hour demonstration, our little group returned to Moon House, where a couple of lumpy mattresses served as sofas, a chipped overhead light kept the living room bright, and a stereo with enormous speakers provided the musical backdrop to our heroic dreamlike adventures. But my favourite room was the kitchen, with its faded green linoleum floor and yellowed Formica table, ready at a moment’s notice for communal meals or political meetings. It was there that we debated the relative merits of socialism and Communism, along with the preparedness of the Canadian working class to capture state power during an armed insurrection. Once we even voted in our own Central Committee, composed of those sitting around the table.
On Saturday nights, while discussing the inevitability of a fast-approaching revolution, we played Risk. As we rolled the dice and moved our tiny wooden armies around the board, we pondered the true meaning of dialectical materialism. We talked about Stalin’s Red Army and how it had defeated the Nazis on the Eastern Front.
Back then, I knew very little about the German-Soviet non-aggression pact of 1939 and certainly nothing about the two decades of military and industrial cooperation between the countries before that. What I did believe was that the Great Patriotic War, as the Russians call it, rescued the world from fascism. To my young mind, that fact alone made supporting Communism a just and true cause. Like my Risk-playing comrades who gathered at Moon House, I saw no reason why the people’s revolution couldn’t be imitated in Canada.
Despite the slapdash nature of our commune, I loved the life. Day and night, comrades wandered into Moon House without invitation or bothering to knock. New arrivals led to all-night discussions about how we — with the proletariat fighting by our side — would overthrow the Liberal government and take back the country from the imperialist multinational corporations that were ruining things. We smoked marijuana and drank beer while singing along to Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, and Jefferson Airplane. Most mornings, when I would head to class, there’d be at least one person splayed across a mattress, sound asleep on the living room floor.
No one inside Moon House was a stickler for private property or what we considered bourgeois or, worse, petit bourgeois habits. There were no rules. Rent was less than $400 a month for the lot of us; we each chipped in seven bucks a week for groceries. I was never certain whom we counted on as our allies in the monumental struggle against capitalism. None of us claimed any connection with unions or elected politicians at any level of government. We certainly had no military inclinations. Like the impressionable actor Charlie, in John le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl, we lacked practical experience. Still, our bold ideas circulated like cigarette smoke in the Château Lafayette, the tavern we frequented in the ByWard Market. And, like Charlie, many of us carried the baggage of a troubled adolescence. We were rebelling against our parents and the smallness of their conventional lives, which seemed mean and futile from the vantage point of our freewheeling setup.
Except for me, that is. Unlike those who complained of their parents’ traditional marriages, morals, and insistence on money as the defining measure of a person’s worth, I was a red diaper baby. My father, Harry Vine, had worked full-time for the Communist Party in Montreal, before and during the Second World War. I knew the Soviet Union’s New Economic Policy had failed, and I knew how Stalin had betrayed members of Lenin’s original Bolshevik Central Committee, which led to the executions of Zinoviev, Kamenev, and Trotsky. I had heard about the show trials and the purges.
Like many Jews born after the Second World War, I wanted to fit in, to assimilate rather than stand apart. But my father was an eccentric outsider to the Jews of Windsor, Ontario, where I was born. Our family fit in neither with the tightly knit conservative community nor with the broader population, a wide spectrum of English and French Canadians and recent immigrants from southern Europe. And although my father was no longer a member of the Communist Party, many of our relatives remained loyal. My mother’s brother and his wife, for example, would exuberantly describe their frequent Moscow-sponsored group excursions back to the Soviet Union.
I was riveted by the theatrical guerrilla tactics of the student radicals, and aligning myself with them was one way to somehow connect with my family’s past. At the same time, it was a means of disguising my unusual political roots. Many of us on the New Left came from immigrant Jewish families, and we aspired to join the WASPish world of post-secondary education. We were upwardly mobile even as we eschewed middle-class values and Jewish traditions.
At Moon House, I often spoke about my father’s history with the Communist Party, but I never mentioned my family’s tragic war‑torn past in what is now Belarus. Perhaps that’s because my father’s stories — about the pogroms that ravaged the shtetl of Nesvicz, where, for centuries, our ancestors had lived an unimposing, traditional religious life — didn’t always add up. For one thing, why had he and most of his family left the Pale of Settlement just as Lenin’s socialist state was transforming tsarist Russia? Wasn’t the worst for Russian Jews finally over?
Then there was my mother’s side of the family. As early as I can remember, they would meet on Sunday afternoons at Belle Isle, a large urban park in the Detroit River. While unloading picnic baskets filled with smoked salmon, cream cheese, bagels, and apple cakes, the Cousins’ Club, as we called it, would compare and contrast Soviet and Chinese Communism. The women were always clothed in colourfully patterned cotton housedresses and nylon stockings rolled down over their laced oxfords. The men wore straw boaters and smoked cigars. They would all talk of the epic struggles of Communist governments in Eastern Europe and how Brezhnev was handling the Americans during the Cold War. Even the 1956 invasion of Hungary had not diminished their enthusiasm for the Soviet government.
Presiding over those Sunday afternoons was the éminence grise, my father. The cousins handled him with kid gloves, listening intently to his every word. They knew he’d abandoned the party, but his reputation as a heavyweight back in Montreal, including being a comrade of the Communist MP Fred Rose, was all it took to ensure his place at the centre of things. This was a man who had forsaken, in the 1930s, his ultra-conservative religious upbringing. He had found himself a cold-water flat above a left-wing printing press off the Main on Rachel Street — a commune where unmarried couples bunked together. He had demonstrated against Maurice Duplessis, a champion of Catholic education, a pernicious anti-Communist who brought in the notorious Padlock Law, and an iron-fisted union buster. During Yom Kippur, he paraded with his comrades in front of the neighbourhood synagogue, eating meat and cheese sandwiches, while those inside were fasting.
Even when I would return home to Windsor, I couldn’t connect my new-found leftist politics to the Bolsheviks of Belle Isle. In fact, it took decades for me to really learn from those colourful characters, who seemed quaint and out of touch, speaking only Yiddish to each other and focusing on Soviet politics while disregarding the struggles in America. I didn’t recognize how fascinating and exotic they were and how connected their stories were to the ideological underpinnings that I shared with my Moon House comrades. I didn’t consider why they were clinging to their adolescent dreams about Communism — contrary to all evidence — or realize that my generation was basking in similar illusions.
For me, moving away to attend university in Pierre Trudeau’s Ottawa was my entrée into a radical politics that mirrored my father’s most raucous Montreal performances. At the same time, it was the pathway to an unconventional, boundary-free life. Much of what we organized from Moon House exemplified a nonconformist radical-liberation world view, not unlike Tom Hayden’s in his “Letter to the New (Young) Left,” from 1961, in which he complained about “the endless repressions of free speech and thought” on campus and “the stifling paternalism that infects the students’ whole perception of what is real and possible.” Only through a “radicalism of style” could we truly “oppose delusions and be free.” We had to, as Hayden wrote, “change our life.”
And change we did. Over the five years I spent in Ottawa, I attended classes at Carleton, where I studied Marxist theory as well as Canadian literature, which I believed was an essential ingredient in the making of the revolution. I also joined the Waffle, the radical wing of the New Democratic Party, where I focused on Canadian nationalism and the struggle for economic independence from the United States. With my Moon House comrades, I tried to push the Waffle even further to the left — and as far as possible from the American unions that exerted influence on David Lewis, who became the leader of the NDP in April 1971.
The following spring, the Moon House cadre concocted a plan to demonstrate once more in front of Parliament Hill as Richard M. Nixon made an official state visit. Accompanied by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, the U.S. president was to meet with the prime minister and address Parliament. We prepared for days, with the tasks divided along gender lines. Our young men collected placards and nailed them to wooden sticks, while our young women painted slogans on the cardboard: “Down with U.S. Imperialism,” “Nixon Go Home,” and “U.S. out of Vietnam.” With high spirits, we were confident our demonstration would garner local and national media attention. If the police decided to charge, we believed we could outrun them. No one was frightened. This was Ottawa, and we counted on the general tolerance of the state not to hurt us.
We did get attention. On April 12, 1972, two days before the event, the New York Times wrote:
Plans for three hostile demonstrations during President Nixon’s 40-hour visit here have prompted extreme security measures by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. Only the barest outline of Mr. Nixon’s movements in and out of the capital were available today. . . . As of today, the committee against the Nixon visit of the Canadian Liberation Movement, a two-year-old organization that seeks the complete economic and political independence of Canada from the United States, has not attracted any outside support for its planned demonstrations.
On the night before we gathered, the top man from the Canadian Liberation Movement, which was based in Toronto, called to ask if I would hold the CLM banner high in front of Centre Block. At first, I was flattered and agreed, but I rang him back later that night to decline. I didn’t admire Chairman Gary Perly, who fashioned his cult-like behaviour after Chairman Mao and who liked to quote Stalin. I’d also heard rumours of how Perly locked “bourgeois” misbehaving members of the CLM in closets for days, not allowing them to wash. I didn’t want any part of an organization transfixed by his tyrannical rule. I feared that one day he would discover that I, too, was a “running dog of U.S. imperialism” or a “Zionist criminal.”
It rained and rained the day of the demonstration — a chilling north-country spring rain that later turned to ice pellets. But we were undaunted by the weather and arrived at Parliament Hill in droves. Like all demonstrations I’ve attended before and since, this one was thrilling. To my dying day, I’ll recall the powerful sense of being front and centre during a historic moment and, better still, the rush of linking arms with like-minded people singing protest songs and shouting slogans while sensing that change is possible.
My Moon House comrades went all out by waving our anti-war placards and shouting, “Nixon, go home!” Before departing Wellington Street, with clenched fists raised high, we sang the “Internationale.” Then, shivering and soaked to the bone, we dashed across the Ottawa River to the Rendez‑Vous, a rowdy tavern in Hull that remained open until three in the morning. We downed pitchers of beer, and few of us slept alone that night. Demonstrations are liberating, both politically and sexually. They release inhibitions and encourage ordinary people to believe they can muster the power to overturn governments: to be actors rather than passive bystanders of history. Regrettably, our efforts that day did not convince Nixon or Kissinger to pull out of Vietnam, nor did Canada immediately assume a tougher stand against U.S. economic domination.
By 1973, Moon House actually did have a connection, however limited, to state power: me. I was working as an assistant to Ed Broadbent in the House of Commons. Late one Saturday night, my comrade Ken Hansen and I entered Centre Block to compose a manifesto for a meeting of the Ottawa Waffle. There was next to no security in those days; the guard at the door recognized me and didn’t bother to ask for identification. In Broadbent’s office on the sixth floor, Ken and I composed a blunt and insulting document — about the difference between Communism and democratic socialism — that we aimed at Waffle members, most of whom were opponents of a one-party state.
It was long past midnight when we finished mimeographing copies on the Gestetner machine. Rather than return to Moon House, we pulled the cushions from the sofa, arranged them on the floor, and tried to catch some sleep in the shadow of the Peace Tower. Hours later, in a windowless classroom in the basement of Carleton’s Southam Hall, we took turns reading our manifesto aloud to a small group of students and professors. One member was so enraged that he pointed a pair of scissors in my face while shouting at Ken. It was the first time I felt ashamed of what I had done: pretending that I knew better than the audience.
On March 11, 2020, when the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, my Moon House friends and I decided to organize once more — this time for a happy hour on Zoom. There were a handful of us that first night: Friday the 13th. Since then, we’ve met every Friday without fail. It’s been a great comfort to be able to discuss everything from politics and literature to our children and grandchildren, particularly while we were isolating at home. My friends are intelligent, decent, hard-working people. Most have married, raised children, and secured good educations and well-paying jobs as educators, administrators, archivists, and researchers.
One member of the group, the lawyer Barbara Jackman, was appointed to the Order of Canada for her work helping immigrants. Another, Alvin Finkel, taught history at Athabasca University for thirty-six years and has published numerous books, including the popular History of the Canadian Peoples, which he co-authored. Richard Lochead worked at the National Archives for years, and Bruce Winer was until recently a vice-president at Carleton. Along with his partner, Lynn Murphy, a former ESL teacher, Bruce helped get the Zoom meetings going. The group has fluctuated in size from week to week, but some of our former comrades have not been able to join us, including Leo Panitch, who in many ways was the political conscience of Ottawa’s Waffle chapter before he went on to teach at York University, where he co-edited thirty-five volumes of the annual Socialist Register. (Sadly, Leo died of COVID‑19 in December 2020.) Others, including my Centre Block collaborator Ken Hansen, have chosen not to participate. (I fictionalized Hansen in my 2018 novel, Last Night of the World, and we haven’t spoken since.)
After a number of Zoom happy hours, the Friday night group decided to meet in person, in Renfrew County northwest of Ottawa. Over a summer weekend, we swam and dined on pizza and drank a little beer or wine. I enjoyed every minute of it. When I’m with my Moon House buddies, whether physically or virtually, it’s not that I feel young again; it’s that I feel at ease. They excuse my “bourgeois” excesses and smile indulgently when I apply red lipstick or wear pointy-toed, high-heeled shoes. None of the other friends I’ve made in the last fifty years are more tolerant of my quirks or failures, of my love of fashionable clothes and expensive restaurants.
But I also know that I sometimes annoy them with my repeated questions about why we were so eager to support the Soviet Union back in the 1970s. More precisely, why did we always come up with the same outrageous claim whenever someone asked us about the Hitler-Stalin pact? Our stock answer: Stalin was stalling for time before fighting the Nazis. In truth, Stalin eyed his deal with Hitler as a strategy to fend off intervention from the capitalist West. After signing the agreement in 1939, the Nazis and the Soviets divided Poland. The same year, the Red Army attacked Finland, and by June 1940, the Soviets had begun the occupation of more Baltic states. Stalin was content to divide Europe between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, and he was well aware of Hitler’s intentions for the Jews.
Even before 1939, Stalin’s multi-faceted agreements with the Germans accounted for planes, tanks, and compounds for chemical warfare. The Soviets excelled at reverse-engineering German products for their own purposes. In return, they supplied Germany with grain that was confiscated from the kulaks. Although Stalin starved millions of his own people during his crash course in industrialization, the Soviets continued to lag far behind German remilitarization. At the same time, Stalin’s purges of senior officers in the Red Army resulted in a lost generation of military leadership. In 1936 alone, during the Great Terror, nearly 1,000 of them were questioned, tortured, and executed. So when the Wehrmacht inevitably invaded in June 1941, the Red Army was almost devoid of strategists. Over the next eighteen months, until the Battle of Stalingrad ended in February 1943, millions of families like my own were executed by Nazi death squads, the Einsatzgruppen.
Wasn’t it unconscionable that we didn’t dig deeper? That we refused to see the crude self-interest, the imperial intentions, the disregard for the lives of the Russian people behind the layers of Soviet propaganda? Had we been curious, those of us from Eastern European families, especially, might have asked our parents or grandparents about what had happened in 1941 and earlier, during Stalin’s reign of terror. No matter how many times I’ve pressed the question, no one has come up with a convincing explanation for why we thought and acted the way we did. My questions don’t stop there, either. What were we expecting to happen in Canada? Class warfare? The Canadian people pitched against a U.S. invading force? Did we actually believe that Communism was a more humane form of government than democracy? Did we bother to draw a picture of what our lives would look like under a one-party system devoid of fair elections, a free press, and an independent judiciary?
When I look in the Zoom screen today, I can hardly see the person I was back then. It’s not just that I’ve aged. It’s that I understand how fallible we all are, how easy it is, for any of us, to fall under the spell of charismatic leaders, and how human it is to be wrong when you’re so certain you’re right. My friends and I behave more prudently now; our radicalism has faded. We’ve become solid citizens — sober-thinking and socially conservative — the kind of people our parents might have admired.
Tellingly, perhaps, it wasn’t until we reconnected over Zoom that Alvin Finkel and I discussed our Jewish backgrounds. I didn’t know, for example, that his parents were immigrants and that his first language was Yiddish. Although I don’t believe we were hiding our Jewishness when we were younger, we were definitely downplaying it in New Left circles — and among ourselves. Being Jewish just wasn’t part of the Canadian New Left’s image. It was cultural nationalism that scored high on our list of socialist goals, not diversity. Recently, Finkel described himself as being “starry-eyed” back then, and I must confess I was too. We were innocents, devoted to a cause, but unaware of the repercussions of our beliefs and actions.
Those Moon House days were also the cruellest days of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. military dropped thousands of bombs on the countryside; meanwhile, the Central Intelligence Agency meddled in South America and Africa. Young draft dodgers, frightened for their lives, were slipping across the border, and communes like ours were helping them. Public figures, everyone from Muhammad Ali to Jane Fonda, were protesting the conflict in Southeast Asia. Student sit‑ins at Columbia and Berkeley helped convince us that the United States was an undeniable source of evil. Without a hegemonic America, we were certain, the world would be a tidier, more peaceful place. It almost made sense that the Soviet Union supported Castro’s Cuba, Allende’s Chile, and Ortega’s Nicaragua — countries where, we believed, the downtrodden majority had thrown off the chains of capitalist oppression to create more egalitarian societies.
But over the years I grew anxious about what had happened to my family in Communist Russia. Even as I began to have misgivings, I desperately wanted to believe that the Soviets were in no way responsible for their demise. It took me a long time to regard Soviet-style Communism as I do now. “Unlike Marxism,” the American journalist Anne Applebaum has written, “the illiberal one-party state is not a philosophy. It is a mechanism for holding power, and it functions happily alongside many ideologies.” I now agree with Applebaum, but perhaps it was a short story by Nathan Englander that truly rearranged my politics and prompted all those questions I’ve been asking.
Originally published in 1999 and later adapted for the stage, “The Twenty-Seventh Man” takes place on August 12, 1952, the Night of the Murdered Poets, when thirteen writers were accused and executed for the crimes of “Jewish bourgeois nationalism,” espionage and treason. Englander’s version of events focuses on one lonely, unknown writer who finds himself in a prison cell with three famous Yiddish writers — all there because Stalin, paranoid and anti-Semitic, has decided to rid the Soviet Union of twenty-seven “rootless” cosmopolitans. Also in the cell is a party man, who for years supported the Kremlin through every twisted totalitarian dictum. It is only when it’s too late that the apologist realizes he’s been a fool.
Ian Ona Johnson
Oxford University Press, 2021
Basic Books, 2010
University of Toronto Press, 2010