June 23, 1909, is the date that the Canadian socialist David Lewis declared as his birthday to immigration officials in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when his family arrived in Canada in 1921.
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According to some biographers, he actually was born when the “first winter snows” reached his Belarusian shtetl of Svisloch, which would suggest an autumn birthday. But June 23 became his birthdate of record.
Communism no, socialism very much so
Lewis was born as David Loisz, the son of Moishe Loisz and the former Rose Lazarovitch. Moishe was a member of the Jewish Labor Bund, which was prominent in Svisloch, the rare shtetl with actual industry in it, in its case a tanning factory.
The Bund was socialistic, and called for the overthrow of the czar, so it was regarded as illegal and subversive, but its ideology was not extremist, and it preached for compromise if that’s what it would take to maintain Jewish unity. This is the atmosphere in which David Lewis was raised: moderation would remain his approach throughout life.
Lewis lived through the Bolshevik revolution, and he continued to be sympathetic to its initial goals, even as he became a staunch anti-communist. For him, democracy was no less important than socialism.
The Loisz family left the Russian empire during the Polish-Soviet War, when the Jews of Svisloch found themselves being battered by both sides, as their town changed hands back and forth. Finally, in May of 1921, Moishe sailed to Montreal, where he had a brother-in-law with a clothing factory. Within three months, he was able to call for the family to join him.
David taught himself English by reading Charles Dickens with a Yiddish-English dictionary in hand. He attended Fairmount Public School, and later, the Baron Byng High School, where so many of Montreal’s Jewish immigrants studied.
It was there that he met Sophie Carson, from a more established – and religiously observant – Jewish family. She later became his wife, despite her father’s objections to the atheistic newcomer.
Tact no, frankness very much so
In 1927, Lewis entered McGill University, in Montreal, where he studied liberal arts and also law. He did so well that in 1932, he was offered a Rhodes Scholarship for study at Oxford University. He was one of the first Jews to receive the plum fellowship, which he got even though he told one of his interviewers that if he were to become prime minister, the first thing he would do would be to nationalize the Canadian Pacific Railroad. The interviewer was the Canadian Pacific’s chairman.
At Oxford, Lewis became involved in the campus Labour Club and the Oxford Union debating society, earning himself a reputation as “the most powerful socialist debater in the place,” in the words of Michael Foot, years later the head of Britain’s Labour Party.
Labour leaders tried to convince Lewis to remain in Britain, where they saw a bright political future for him, but he decided to return to Canada.There, he took a leading role in transforming a provincial party from Canada’s west, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, into a national political body that was both social-democratic and democratic socialist.
In 1961, the CFF was succeeded by the New Democratic Party, which was based on a merger of the country’s socialist and labor movements.
In his non-dogmatic way, Lewis convinced the party to give up its blanket anti-capitalist approach for a more nuanced opposition to “monopoly capitalism.” Capitalists, he said, could be in the party “if they behaved.”
It was under Lewis’ leadership that the NDP had its greatest electoral success, in 1972, which put it in a position to prop up a government headed by Pierre Trudeau. When the coalition fell, two years later, the party fell from 25 seats in parliament to 16, and he resigned his position as party head. With an exception of two years, he had served in parliament from 1962 to 1974.
David Lewis died on May 13, 1981, in Ottawa.
Three of Lewis’ children, Stephen, Michael and Janet Solberg, have all held positions in the NDP. Stephen’s son Avram, a broadcaster, is married to political activist Naomi Klein. Janet’s twin sister, Nina Libeskind, is the business partner and wife of architect Daniel Libeskind.