The last angry idealist becomes a political power

Peter C. Newman January 26 1963

The last angry idealist becomes a political power

Peter C. Newman January 26 1963

The last angry idealist becomes a political power




ONE OF THE FEW SURFRISES in the 25th parliament is the emergence of David Lewis as a major political figure. Although he served a long and honorable apprenticeship as the CCF's chief backstairs adviser. Lewis has been regarded, even in his own party, as unlikely to achieve the easy camaraderie which successful Canadian politicians must display.

There is still an uncomfortable intensity about him, but its once sinister effect has almost disappeared since he was elected in Toronto’s York-South riding last June. Lewis remains an angry man. dedicated to overthrowing the values that Canadian society now lives by, but he’s become more of a reformer than a conspirator.

Officially, Lewis is the NDP’s deputy house leader and financial critic. In fact, his power within the NDP rivals that of its leader, Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier, who has not been altogether comfortable in his federal reincarnation. As the toughest intellect in Canadian socialism and its main personal link with organized labor, Lewis is the final influence on Douglas and all NDP policies.

In Ottawa, Lewis has demonstrated that he has an instinct for the exercise of political power. Inside the sometimes stormy NDP caucus he oozes into a position to make decisions on most issues — a useful trait in a movement which specializes in endless idealistic speculation.

In the House of Commons, Lewis has become a star performer among the tiny group of NDP MPs. Only Douglas Fisher, the powerhouse from Port Arthur, is accorded more attention when he rises to speak. Lewis' maiden address to the Commons was an impressive diagnosis of Canada’s contemporary malaise. “I listened to the leader of the opposition, I listened to the leader of the government, and I felt sad for my country,” Lewis began. "I thought of the problems which beset our Canadian people, problems of human insecurity at home and abroad, problems created by automation which throws men off their jobs at the same time that it promises unprecedented progress, problems arising from a changing pattern of world trade and changing patterns of political and economic power, problems concerning our national unity and the strains put on it by the times in which we live, problems touching the integrity and development of the spiritual and cultural life of Canada, threatened by the onslaught of distorted values sent over the airways by the studios to the south, problems of nuclear destruction, of peace and war, of simple human survival. 1 thought of all these problems, and I felt desperately sad because the speeches of the leaders in this house overwhelmed and drowned those problems of life and death in a flood of irrelevant banalities and petty political prattle.”

Despite the recent softening in his attitude toward the revolutionary tactics of socialism. Lewis is still profoundly convinced that our society must undergo some fundamental changes. “Anyone looking at Canadian society free from the shibboleths of traditional capitalist values,” he says, “is bound to detest its social injustices and inequalities. Most people are sorrowful but they don't get mad about it.

I do.

Lewis was born in Poland fifty-four years ago. the son of a Jewish leather-worker who was severely persecuted for his strong anticommunism. The family fled to Montreal in 1921. where young David completed public and high schools in six years. After getting a B.A. from McGill he was nominated for the 1932 Quebec Rhodes scholarship. When the examining board asked him about his ambition, he replied that he wanted to head a socialist

government in Canada. Sir Edward Beatty, the president of the CPR, was one of the examiners. He asked Lewis: “What would be your first act?” Lewis snapped back: "I’d nationalize the CPR.” He won the scholarship anyway and became the first Canadian to head the Oxford Union. During the 1930s he participated in U. K. hunger marches, became a disciple of Stafford (Tipps, and spent one summer (under a false name) as courier for a socialist anti-Hitler group in Berlin.


Lewis returned to Canada in 1937 and became national secretary of the CCF, a job that he held for the next dozen years. In that time, his salary was gradually moved up from $100 to $325 per month and “What does David think?” became one of the most urgent questions wherever CCFers met to thrash out their problems. He ran in four federal elections without success. A strong believer in the European idea that labor should have a direct political voice, he w'as the main force behind the eventual amalgamation of the CCF with the ( anadian Labor Congress. He so impressed Tommy Douglas that one of the conditions which the Saskatchewan premier laid down before he would agree to run for the leadership of the new party was that Lewis would be a federal candidate. (“I believe Premier Douglas is the best political leader in the country. I believe I’m the second best," Lewis declared at the time.)

A talk with Lewis is a stimulating experience. These are some samples from a recent interview :

On Social Credit: “The most immoral political movement in Canada’s history.”

On Réal Caouette: “He isn't hindered by knowledge, principles or consistency.”

On Lester Pearson: “He was a statesman before he became a politician. But now he’s a politician, pure and simple — and not always so pure.”

On other parties stealing NDPI CCF policies: “To the Liberals, social security is an illegitimate child; to the Conservatives, a foundling.”

On the House of Commons: “A game is played. There's not enough anger: not enough indignation.”

On the Liberal party: “They still have an arrogance which suggests that to keep them out of office is an affront against God.”