- Hurrah Revolutionaries: The Polish Canadian Communist Movement, 1918–1948 by Patryk Polec
Patryk Polec has written a very interesting book that tells many stories simultaneously. Hurrah Revolutionaries is about one part of the radical left in Canada during the first half of the twentieth century. It is also a history of Polish immigration to Canada, of Polish immigrants’ political, cultural and social lives, and of the changing relationship between nationalist identity and political ideology.
Polec’s specific focus within this ambitious project is the Polish Communist movement in Canada — first known as the Polish Workers’ and Farmers’ Association when it was first established in Winnipeg in 1931, and then as the Polish People’s Association in 1936 when the name was changed. Polec explores the internal workings of Polish Communists in Canada and highlights their priorities, strategies, and accomplishments, all while contextualizing Polish-Canadian Communist activism in terms of broader Canadian social and political history.
What Polec shows very clearly is how flexible and adaptable Polish communists were and how shrewdly they used traditional symbols of Polish patriotism and culture to ‘‘normalize’’ their movement and to thereby gain adherents. Polec thus provides us with a picture of a movement that at various points from the 1920s through to the early postwar years [End Page 392] was genuinely popular. In 1919 there were approximately 50,000 Poles in Canada, and just over a decade later this number had risen to 150,000. About 4,000 to 5,000 of these Polish Canadians were Communists in the late 1930s, making the Communists comparable in size to the two largest non-Communist Polish organizations that operated in Canada at the same time (the Federation of Polish Societies in Canada and the Polish Alliance of Canada). The popularity of Polish Communism is further reflected in the fact that members operated across Canada; no other group was quite so successful in establishing a national presence.
Highlighting the relative popularity of the Communists is perhaps Polec’s greatest contribution with this book. He provides a fresh perspective on what we know about Polish immigrant experiences in Canada by showing that Polish Communists were not always the pariahs of the Cold War era, and that Poles in Canada were never a homogenous collective. Instead, Polish radicals existed alongside conservative nationalist Polish-Catholic immigrants; before World War II Communism formed a legitimate choice for Polish immigrants. Polish nationalism, it seems, was not the only — or the most important — identity that Poles adopted.
Polec builds his argument through ten relatively short chapters. The first, ‘‘History, Politics, and ‘Deviant(?)’ Polish Canadians,’’ is perhaps the book’s weakest as it gives us too many disorganized bits and pieces of what comes next without making a central point. The subsequent chapters deliver a far more coherent and organized narrative. In chapters two and three, for instance, Polec details the history of Polish immigration to Canada. He demonstrates that the men and women who arrived from Poland in the 1920s and 1930s did not usually start out as Communists; instead, most were radicalized in their new country, particularly in the urban centres of Toronto, Montreal, and Winnipeg. Chapter four details the rise of Polish-Canadian radicals in the broader context of Canadian radicalism, and it also introduces Albert Morski, a member of the (illegal) Communist Party of Poland sent to work with Polish immigrants in Canada in 1935. According to Polec, Morski would become the most accomplished Polish-Canadian Communist. The most interesting parts of the book are arguably chapters five and six. Chapter five describes the Communists’ competition in the Polish-Canadian diaspora, while chapter six outlines the successful strategies that the Communists employed to win their share of supporters. The Communists were especially good at building a ‘‘red culture,’’ Polec argues convincingly in chapter eight, and at fostering a sense of community, culture, and belonging. Ideology, Polish Communists found, was best transmitted through picnics, Polish-language schools, outdoor festivals, sporting events, and dance groups.
In chapters nine and ten, Polec...