Tyler Wentzell

Oct 14, 2022

Not for King or Country

Edward Cecil-Smith, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War

University of Toronto Press 2019

Over two decades before the hard lines of the Cold War were drawn in North America, and long before any accurate information about what was happening in the Soviet Union became available to the general public, communism appeared to many a viable alternative to the shortcomings of imperialism and of Western liberal capitalism. In an increasingly interconnected world whose old poles of geopolitical power were shifting, people everywhere grappled with the economic hardships of the Great Depression. It was an era of almost palpable disenchantment with existing paradigms and a global search for new ones. In North America, Canada found itself at the interface of two ideological spaces. On the one hand, it was part of the British world and was shaped by its institutions and political structures; on the other, it was exposed to the global appeal of communist ideas, either imported from Europe or home-grown. 

About 1700 Canadians were ready to risk their lives and go fight into a war that was not for their king, nor for their country, but in defense of an idea: the Civil War in Spain. This nominally Canadian unit – the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion –was coordinated by the Canadian Communist party and became part of the International Brigades in Spain. The volunteers that formed it joined the conflict despite the fact that the Canadian government was determined to keep Canada out of the war. 

Not for King or Country: Edward Cecil-Smith, the Communist Party of Canada, and the Spanish Civil War (U Toronto Press, 2019) tells the story of the Mackenzie-Papineau battalion through the fascinating biography of its commander, Edward Cecil-Smith. Born to missionary parents in China, Cecil-Smith gravitated towards left-wing radical politics in the 1920s, after his move to Canada, and joined the Communist Canadian party in 1931. His eventual involvement in the war in Spain was motivated not by traditional patriotism, but by a strong belief that global fascism had to be stopped.

Oana Godeanu-Kenworthy is Teaching Professor of American Studies at Miami University of Ohio. Her book, Between Empire and Republic: America in the Colonial Canadian Imagination, came out in 2022. Twitter: @OanaGodyKenw. Oana’s webpage.

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