The 1930s

Just weeks before the collapse of stock prices on the New York exchange in October 1929, economists, business leaders and politicians were predicting permanent prosperity. Even as the losses mounted, some politicians continued to refuse to believe that the downturn would persist. Happy Days, to paraphrase a popular song of the 1930s, would soon be here again. But Happy Days remained elusive. In Canada and the United States, millions were unemployed. The prices earned by farmers in 1931 stood at half their 1926 levels. Social assistance was miserly at best. In 1932 some Canadian families received just $4 a week for food, when $7 was the minimum needed.

The depth of the misery dramatically intensified the challenge to capitalism from the political Left and Right. It was not, for instance, a leftist firebrand who warned in 1934 that big corporations were “employing the best brains to serve greed and selfish interest. People can only stand so much, and one of these days there will be a settlement.” The speaker, rather, was U.S. Senator Harry S. Truman. Just a decade later he would be the U.S. president.

In Canada and the U.S., the Great Depression helped to revive the fortunes of the Communist Parties. In the economic buoyancy of the 1920s, they had been marginal political players, preaching to the wind about the inevitable failure of capitalism. When the forecast failure did materialize in 1929, the Communist Party stock went in exactly the opposite direction to the financial stocks of investors.

Although they are often thought to dwell in lofty ivory towers, intellectuals were not blind to the human carnage wrought by the Depression. For instance, one of America’s top liberal academics of the post World War Two era, Richard Hofstadter, joined the Communist Party at Columbia University in New York in 1938. He explained in a letter to his brother-in-law: “My fundamental reason for joining is that I don't like capitalism and want to get rid of it.” Hofstadter would quit the party just four months later, but in 1939 he was still declaring that “I hate capitalism and everything that goes with it.” Herbert Norman would make similar statements to his brother.

Internationally, the collapse of capitalism had a dual impact. One result was to make the Soviet Union a new focus of interest and admiration. People curious to see socialism in practice – and many who also wanted to help build the socialist motherland – journeyed to the USSR. After such a visit, the American muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens captured the sense of hope embodied in that new society, saying “I’ve been over into the future, and it works.”

The 1930s produced yet another international political movement. Fascism in the 1920s was a system adored by the European elite because it could discipline combative workers and “make the trains run on time.” But until the Great Depression, fascism was isolated to Italy. In 1933, fascism took control in a second European country, and this was not a secondary one. When Adolf Hitler seized power in Germany in January 1933, many people understood that he represented a dangerous trend. Hitler openly proclaimed the end of democracy. One people, one leader, speaking with one voice. No tolerance for dissent. Soon there was pressure to bring neighboring countries under the banner of Nazism, and fraternal movements took to the streets even in countries like Britain that had deep democratic traditions. Canada too, had its admirers of Hitler. Some tried to take their politics to the streets. Others remained cosseted in boardrooms and government corridors.

Interrogated by the RCMP in 1952, Herbert Norman declared that “the most important impact” on him while he was a student at Cambridge University in the 1930s was Hitler. Fascism, he said, “generally shook me.” To leftists, the emergence of fascism was no surprise. Faced with the demise of the system that gave it wealth and power, the capitalist class would struggle to keep its privileges. So capitalist states would turn increasingly toward rule by force. That trend was evident in July 1936, when Spanish military officers led by General Francisco Franco launched a coup d’état to overthrow the elected government of their own country. Leftists worldwide rallied to preserve democracy in Spain. Over 40,000 volunteers from 70 countries traveled there, often laying down their lives to prevent another country from falling to fascism. From a distance, millions of people, including Herbert Norman, followed events in the civil war, alternately cheered by their comrades’ courage, appalled by the scale of fascist violence and stricken by guilt at remaining outside the fray.

Many Canadians, however, did not have to seek out Spain to encounter repressive violence. In Estevan and Regina, Saskatchewan, RCMP officers shot workers. City police in Vancouver and countless other cities clubbed protesters. The most unpopular prime minister of the 20th century, “Iron Heel” R.B. Bennett, used extraordinary legislation, Section 98 of the Criminal Code, to prosecute and jail leaders of the Communist Party. The Province of Quebec also got into the act. Its Padlock Law allowed police to shut down homes and businesses used to promote communism. In the United States, violent repression of striking workers in the auto and steel plants was the order of the day. Then, in 1940, the U.S. government passed the Smith Act, which made it a crime to belong to a party that advocated the violent overthrow of government. The Smith Act would become especially useful to jail communists in the Cold War years.

This section contains documents that speak to the 1930s. Many people who lived through the decade count themselves lucky to have survived, but those who did were still deeply scarred.

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