Clement the Commie

Clement the Commie

Somehow or another Communism emerged as the most-debated topic in Canadian politics last week, partially as the result of a slow summer news cycle, but partially as a way to reopen old wounds in a country that has never established a clear consensus on its historic relationship with the Red Menace.

As I wrote in my Thursday HuffPo article, last Tuesday Ezra Levant, the bombastic conservative host of Sun TV’s flagship program, got into major tweet war with Stephen Wicary, the outgoing web editor of the Globe and Mail. Wicary’s wife had recently taken employment with a Cuban-based charity, and, dutiful husband that he was, Wicracy agreed to accompany her.

Outrageous! said Ezra. There is nothing more morally repugnant than a journalist from a free society voluntarily emigrating to one of the most repressive societies on the globe. Clearly, Wicary must have been too blinded by his own leftism and Castro-love to even appreciate what a world-class hypocrite he was being.

For all of Ezra’s obvious bluster, there were some kernels of wisdom buried in his analysis. Moving to Cuba is an odd life decision by almost any standard, and in practice, most members of the Canadian press establishment do hold the traditional wishy-washy apologetically left-wing views on the Castro regime. Yet Wicary himself was a largely obscure blogger who mostly just rounded up links and rarely shared his opinions (let alone his opinions on Cuba) in print. For all we know he simply loves his wife more than he hates Communism.

In any case, all the Ezra-led Twitter flack eventually prompted Wicary to attempt a distraction. As long as you’re hunting reds, said Wicary, why don’t you go after Harper’s treasury board minister, Tony Clement? After all, didn’t he just finish spending 2.5 million bucks on a memorial for the most famous commie in Canadian history?

Dr. Norman Bethune (1890-1939) was an accomplished Canadian tuberculosis surgeon, who like many otherwise intelligent men in the early 20th century, was gradually seduced by the promises of Soviet Communism. After a visit to the USSR in the early 1930s, he returned to Canada believing he had seen the future, and officially pledged himself to the Marxist cause. Traveling to civil war-plagued Spain and China, Bethune defected from his home country and spent the rest of his life using his considerable medical talents to aid Communist partisans on the battlefield, helping guarantee many victories in the process. By the time he died, he had become an open and intimate confident of Mao Tse-Tung himself, and was was commemorated in all manner of official regime propaganda as a model humanitarian, model defector, and model Communist.

As is often the case with unapologetically political émigrés, Bethune’s legacy was not received quite as joyously in his home country as it was in the Communist world, Canada being then busily embroiled in the Red scares of the early Cold War. Only when Pierre Trudeau’s government formally recognized Red China in 1970 did Bethune’s reputation slowly begin to improve, and gain appeal beyond a small circle of loyal Canadian Marxists. With the People’s Republic now a nominal ally, there was no real reason to not celebrate his efforts in securing and perpetuating the literal health of the Maoist regime; indeed, if anything, doing so became an overt way to strengthen the burgeoning Sino-Canadian alliance. In 1977 a statue was erected in Montreal and in 1990 he was given his own Canadian stamp — almost certainly the nation’s first Communist defector to ever gain such honours.

Anyway, this is a long way of suggesting that the Norman Bethune Memorial House National Historic Site that Tony Clement opened last Wednesday isn’t completely without precedent, though it certainly represents the highest-ever government subsidized celebration of the man. Presided over by a delegation of Chinese dignitaries, and with Minister Clement literally wheeled in on a rickshaw, the the pageantry was hardly ambiguous in its attempts to curry favor with the modern-day heirs of the Communist tyrant Bethune himself had been so enamoured.

It did, however, put Clement in a bit of a difficult spot with the base, especially with Wicary-Cubagate being such a hot issue with right-wingers at the moment.

Seeking to defend himself, the Minister struck back at Wicary, tweeting “My point was to celebrate things other than [Bethune’s] communism. You chose to live in a communist country. Big difference.”

As far as excuses go, it was pretty weak. Unlikely Wicary, after all, we know Bethune explicitly emigrated live in a Communist country because he loved Communism more than Canada. Anything else the man did with his life was very much about serving his political objectives first and foremost, and honouring his legacy will always be as morally problematic as it would be to honour, say, a heroically brave military surgeon tending to government forces in Syria right now.

In any case, we’ve now come full circle, with Ezra Levant now devoting long portions of his show to the denunciation of our soft-on-Communism Conservative government, while the original Wicary case is largely forgotten.

These stories seem fairly ridiculous in a lot of ways, I know, but there are still a couple legitimately serious themes underlying both.

How far does anyone have to go to prove his anti-totalitarian bona fides? Should the moral pretences of Communism make us more forgiving of its adherents than other backers of dictatorship? Can we separate positive humanitarian service from whatever regime that service takes place in?


  1. ThePsudo

    "It did, however, but Clement in a bit of a difficult spot" — Clearly should be "put" instead.

    It's odd how little I know about the Communist history of the world.

  2. PTBO

    The irony in this case is pretty awesome- though I think the memorial funding only really happened because it was in Clement's riding.

    I wouldn't really call Bethune a 'defector'- that's a term which is probably more properly applied to the Cold War era. I believe that Bethune always planned to return to Canada. Bethune just liked to be where the action was and on a practical note he was an arrogant blowhard that rubbed people the wrong way. That's part of the reason, people were happy to see him go to Spain (where his innovations saved thousands of anti-fascists soldiers lives) and serve with Canadian soldiers.

    But I understood that he pretty much wore his welcome in Spain relatively quickly and he moved in international medical volunteer work over to China.

    "we know Bethune explicitly emigrated live in a Communist country because he loved Communism more than Canada."

    Spain was not communist- it had a popular front government that was locked in civil war with Hitler backed fascist army officers.
    China was not really a communist country – it was again a civil war battlefield (between two authoritarian armies and the fascist Japanese Army)- the Communists only won 10 years after Bethune died.

    "Ezra Levant now devoting long portions of his show to the denunciation of our soft-on-Communism Conservative government, while the original Wicary case is largely forgotten."
    That include denouncing the Enbridge Pipieline that gets his Ethical Oil organization all hot and bothered?

  3. Zulu

    They weren't communist, nor were the Nationalist Chinese and Spanish sides really fascist. They were mostly conservative and and reactionary.

  4. thattimeimovedtochina

    The National Front received acknowledgement and support from the Soviets, so if one is going to refer to the Nationalists as "Hitler backed fascists" then it seems fair to refer to them as "Stalin backed socialists." George Orwell, a committed socialist, supported the Republicans initially, but changed his mind because in his mind they were merely a mask for Soviet expansion.

    Were all the people supporting the republican cause socialists? Certainly not, but neither were all those on the other side fascists. Franco himself was more of a military strongman than a fascist dictator. As one of my professors said "Franco didn't have the imagination to be a fascist." Obviously the new government didn't feel too much debt to the Germans, as they stayed neutral during WWII.

    I'm not saying Franco was a good leader or trying to defend the Nationalists, they did terrible things, but it's wrong to paint them as the bad guys while painting the Republicans as saintly defenders of freedom. I don't necessarily think this was your intention, but it is something that often happens.

    As for China, while it may not have been a communist country at the time, Bethune was living and working with the Communist forces, not those of the GMD or the Japanese, so I think it's fair to say that that was a reflection of his ideological outlook.

  5. Zulu

    Agreed. Both sides killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. The story of those killed by the Republicans is rarely told outside of Spain.

  6. Dryhad

    So why is it wrong to paint the Nationalists as the bad guys and the Republicans as the good guys? The only reason you seem to be offering is that some of them were communists. There probably aren't any wars with perfectly clear cut lines of right and wrong, but the Spanish Civil War comes about as close as you can ask. The good guys were communists, and the good guys lost.

  7. Zulu

    The good guys were NOT the Communists. In fact, it was the Communists that launched their own rebellion within the Republic, killing anarchist and liberal allies. The Stalinists in particular were "bad guys" because their only mission was the elimination of the Trotskyists that operated in Spain, not the revolution in Spain. Stalin didn't care less about the country. He charged exorbitant amount of money for weaponry, killed Spanish Communist leaders, and only wanted to lengthen the war to distract Germany so he could continue his own military build up.

    The only "good guys," if you can call them, were the moderates on both sides, who were lamentably driven to extremes because of the killing of conservative Prime Minister Sotelo, and the massacre of anarchist workers in Asturias.

  8. Guest

    When, if ever did Orwell NOT support the republicans? His issue was that Moscow was siding with the liberals to try to stamp out the more leftwing socialists and anarchists. (Moscow was operating on the premise that Spain needed to go through bourgeois democracy before socialism was possible). But as far as I know he remained a supporter of the effort, albeit a more cynical one, even after he returned to England, and he remained a socialist.

  9. PTBO

    For a even more morally problematic humanitarian then check out John Rabe-

  10. Dryhad

    And here's me thinking we had moved past the "anything remotely connected to communism is automatically evil" phase when the Berlin Wall fell. Is there anywhere in this an exploration of what exactly is wrong or is it really just the old McCarthyist saw of using "red" as a substitute for an actual argument? I mean, the Spanish Civil War? How dare they oppose that shining beacon of democracy that was General Franco! Say what you will about Cuba and China, but can we please limit it to rational arguments rather than Cold War rhetoric?

  11. Jake_Ackers

    Communism aside the man defected. On top of the fact the country he defected to was trying to overthrow Canada. The man was a traitor end of story. What was his main accomplishment toward Canada that merited him a memorial? Nothing. He was only born in Canada. Wolverine did more for Canada than Bethune.

  12. Kento

    When did China try to overthrow Canada? This sounds like a fascinating story.

  13. Jake_Ackers

    China was communist. The Communists intent was to replace all governments with communist ones. Canada was part of the West. China didn't directly go and invade Canada nor did the Soviets directly invade the USA. But nonetheless there was movements and the sort.

    Either way my point is that China was viewed as a country who was a threat to Canada. And he defected to it. Maybe overthrow wasn't the best choice of words but China was definitely viewed as a threat as it still is today.

  14. Dan

    Once again, you people need to open a book, if you know what that is. Or are you even too lazy to use Google and Wikipedia? Bethune died in 1939, the People's Republic of China did not exist until after the Communists took over in 1949. So he didn't "defect" or choose to live in a communist country, because what we call Communist China didn't exist. Bethune was a surgeon who served just behind the front lines in areas where Mao's army was fighting against the Japanese. Had he lived to continue his work there into World War II he would have been hailed as a Canadian hero in his own lifetime, instead of when it became convenient for the Canadian government to do so in the 1970s as a foot in the door to promote trade with the Chinese.

  15. Jake_Ackers

    Communism aside he defected, that alone is a problem. Second, he went to China because he supported socialism/communism even though it wasn't Red China yet. Communism itself was the enemy of the West. Therefore he defected to the ideology, which meant he automatically was helping people who were viewed as a threat.

    People tend to forget the First Red Scare. Communism was viewed as a problem long before the Cold War. Having a group of people deem they control a country via a democratic process, even though they don't hold a majority of the vote is dangerous. Also the radical leftists opposed World War I, so it was viewed as a national security threat.

    Either way, without communism as an issue, he defected. With communism as an issue, he defected to communism which was viewed as a threat.

  16. Virgil

    I don't know much about him, but didn't the Chinese Communists basically have semi-independent areas of China they controlled pretty much from the fall of the Chinese Empire in 1905 up until 1949. In other words, didn't the Communists control bits of the country before they controlled the whole? In that case, it would seem that where Bethune went in China might explain the why.

    All that said, the communist experiment is one part of the 20th century that, I'm glad to say, no longer stirs romantic longings. It was a form of political fanaticism, and for the past few centuries (since 1789) political fanaticism has been the result of more blood shed than religious.

  17. Virgil

    sorry…meant to say..caused more blood to be shed than religious.

  18. Rolleyes

    It's funny. In France, as in most of Europe, if we chose to disregard the famous people who once had communist sympathies (long or not), we'd soon shred half of the great and interesting men in the 20th century, as well as put to oblivion half of what made the resistance to the nazis.

    Let's put it another way :
    How on earth did Bethune "defect" from his country, which was not involved in any of those two wars, none of which happening in a communist country yet ?

    Ok, so Bethune chose to side with the republicans, a villanious side since he should obviously not have sided with the leftist, democratically elected side, but with the military uprising, a clearly more canadian choice. Bethune objectively sided with Stalin, who somewhat supported the republicans, instead of choosing the side backed by Hitler. This would have led him, a few years later, to fight his own country, Canada, which as we all know sided with the Axis forces, after strong claims that it would never side with Stalin's USSR.

    The same way, siding with the chinese, communist ones, too, when they were being invaded by the Japanese, was clearly a dick move toward the future Canadian forces, which boldly fought side to side with Japan during WW2.

    What a traitor, that Bethune guy. Good thing Canada never followed his footsteps by siding with USSR or China at a certain time in history.

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