Statue of Norman Bethune in Montreal. Source:
Jeangagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Above the shattered mountain tops,
Last night, rose low and wild and red,
Reflecting back from her illumined shield,
The blood bespattered faces of the dead.

To that pale disc, we raise our clenched fists,
And to those nameless dead our vows renew,
“Comrades, who fought for freedom and the future world,
Who died for us, we will remember you.”

Norman Bethune, 1937

After numerous statues of John. A MacDonald, Queen Victoria and others have been defaced and torn down, the conservative press has launched a vicious campaign to bring down monuments and statues of Canadian doctor and communist Norman Bethune. Here we examine the hypocrisy and lies of the Canadian rightwing, and the real history of Norman Bethune and what he stood for.

Right-wing hypocrisy & cancel culture

Following the death of George Floyd and the subsequent mass movement against racism in the US, there has been a ruthless critique of all things reactionary in capitalism’s history. One aspect of this explosion of pent-up anger was the tearing down or defacing statues that celebrate some of the most revolting figures throughout modern history. From a Bristol statue of the 17th century slave-trader Edward Colston, to statues commemorating Confederate generals in the American south, workers and youth have shown their disgust of capitalism by tearing these down. 

In Canada, there have been numerous public statues that have been defaced and that people have asked to be removed. Monuments to Edward Cornwallis, Alexis Carrel, and, most notably, John A. MacDonald, have all inspired disgust and contempt from workers and particularly the youth who abhor the racism and genocide that the likes of MacDonald excelled at. As a direct outcome of the movement, some of these statues have been ripped down. 

For example, the John A. MacDonald statue in Montreal was toppled by protesters last August. It is not surprising that MacDonald was the first “victim” of the movement against racism and oppression in Canada. MacDonald was the one of the architects of the brutal treatment of Indigenous peoples by the federal government. His contempt for Indigenous peoples was summed up when he said, “The executions of the Indians ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”  

However, as always when voices are raised against racism and oppression, the rightwing feels itself attacked and lashes out. In response to the mass anger directed towards reactionary statues, the voices of Canadian conservatism have raised a hue and cry over a supposed “attack on history”. For these ladies and gentlemen, any attack on statues is an attack on our history and “our culture”. They say that the leftwing wants to bury the past so as to forget it and its deplorable events such as slavery, racism, oppression and genocide. In short, they claim that we want to forge history so as to make it conform to our ideals and beliefs.

This response from the rightwing is because the outcry over reactionary statues such as MacDonald or Christopher Columbus is not really about statues or rewriting history, but about the corrupt capitalist system that champions these monsters. The rightwing justifiably feels itself attacked because people are questioning the very system that the rightwing defends unapologetically: capitalism.

In their counterattack, the Canadian rightwing needed to find a target, a statue that is against their ideals and their morals and on which they can spew their vitriol and hatred. This target was not hard to find: the famous communist doctor, Norman Bethune. 

In an article entitled “Cancel Culture and the Case of Maoist ‘Martyr’ Dr. Norman Bethune,” the National Post, a mouthpiece for the Canadian ruling class, has demanded that the numerous statues of Norman Bethune be torn down. The author says that 

In a world of cancel culture, where a statue can be pulled down for the failure to achieve 2021 standards in 1867, it seems a bit odd to be honouring a man who learned to love communism in Stalin’s Soviet Union and died serving a country [China] now accused of genocide.

Later, the author lets slip the real reason for the not-so-sudden outrage over Bethune’s statues:

Nothing personal against Bethune, who does seem to have been an interesting character dedicated to righting wrongs. But that’s not what’s supposed to matter any more. Under cancel culture, we don’t judge people by their beliefs, attitudes or actions in relation to the times they lived, but the degree to which their activities fit within current benchmarks. Sir John A. Macdonald is no longer a visionary leader who played a crucial role in creating an independent Canada, but a racist ideologue who persecuted Indigenous peoples while holding colonialist beliefs. His statues are vandalized, his name torn from schools, his very existence treated as an embarrassment for which to beg forgiveness. 

The article ends with the following rhetorical questions:

… if Macdonald can be disowned by his home town of Kingston, which is busy finding ways to dissociate itself from Canada’s first prime minister, how can Ottawa promote greater glorification of a figure who served a regime now accused of genocide, forced labour, re-education camps and the arbitrary detention of innocent Canadians over a dispute involving a Chinese billionaire’s daughter?

The National Post sums up the right wing’s argument thus: the left wants to “cancel” John A. MacDonald because he was responsible for genocide, colonialism, and general bigotry on part of the Canadian state, but refuse to denounce Dr. Bethune for serving as a doctor in the Chinese war against Japanese invasion on the side of the Chinese Communist Party. But this is an argument riddled with holes from start to finish. 

Norman Bethune was an idealist who served as a doctor for wounded soldiers in the middle of a devastating war for Chinese national liberation, and died over a decade before the Maoist regime took power and consolidated itself in the 1950s. One would have to be utterly daft to make Bethune responsible for the later crimes of the Stalinist regime. On the other hand, John A. MacDonald was directly responsible for the crimes and atrocities that the Canadian state committed against the Indigenous peoples of Canada, including forced migrations and intentional starvation of thousands. One cannot even begin to equate the two!

Yet this is not the first time that Bethune came under fire from the right-wing press. In 2012, the Toronto Sun stated in an article called “End the Norman Bethune Buffoonery”: 

Self-interest is the motivation of the present Chinese regime, be it selling body parts of people executed for crimes, or even the body parts of dissidents… Or selling unwanted girl babies to foreigners willing to pay, or kidnapping and imprisoning expatriots [sic] from neighbouring countries.

This is hardly “helping humanity.”

Bethune was not in China to help humanity, but to help Mao’s communist army.

It was not sick people he tended, but wounded communist soldiers.

Here we hear the same dull melody played on the conservative’s untuned fiddle: the Chinese regime was bad, so Bethune must be held accountable! These “arguments” are really just shameless red baiting, where anything a communist does is inherently evil and malicious. According to the Toronto Sun and National Post, unlike every other army throughout history, communist soldiers didn’t have the right to medical care. Hypocrisy knows no bounds for these people!

These attacks by the right-wing media on Bethune clearly merit a genuine look into his life and legacy: who was Norman Bethune and what did he stand for?

Life and times of Norman Bethune: a revolutionary martyr

Bethune on his graduation in 1922.
Source: Public domain

Norman Bethune was born in Gravenhurst, Ontario, in 1890. Norman studied physiology and medicine at the University of Toronto, until the outbreak of World War One in 1914. Bethune served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer on the Western Front from 1914-1915, when he was injured by shrapnel and sent back to Canada by 1916. 

Bethune’s early years as a doctor are notably devoid of politics. Neither communism nor socialism piqued his interest, and he focused mainly on medicine. He studied in Scotland and specialized in children’s diseases, and eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan. However, while living in America in 1926 Bethune contracted a serious case of tuberculosis and was hospitalized. His experience with tuberculosis had serious political consequences later in his life.

From 1928 to 1936, Bethune moved to Montreal where he became a surgeon specializing in thoracic surgery. During this period, he was known not only for his gifted abilities as a surgeon, but also his terrible anger in the operating room. Often he would become irritated with clumsy tools and break them in a fit. Later, he would re-invent the tool and improve them.

However, Bethune was greatly disturbed by the way in which medicine was treated in Canada. He saw that the most vulnerable in society often succumbed to preventable diseases while the rich had no problems at all being treated. Bethune must be given credit as one of the first doctors in Canada to fight for socialized medicine in the early 1930s. Bethune wrote in a pamphlet that “We set ourselves in practice, all smug and satisfied, like tailor shops. We patch an arm, a leg, the way a tailor patches an old coat. We’re not practicing medicine, really, we’re carrying on a cash-and-carry trade. I’ll tell you what’s needed: A new medical concept of universal health protection, a new concept of the function of a doctor.” 

This slowly radicalized Bethune to the left, and eventually his curiosity brought him to the Soviet Union to attend a medical conference in Leningrad in 1935. On this much-criticized trip to the USSR, Bethune had first-hand experience working with Soviet doctors on tuberculosis patients. The Soviets by this time had eliminated tuberculosis in much of the country, reducing cases by 50 per cent, which made a great impact on Bethune. On returning back to Canada, Bethune immediately joined the Canadian Communist Party and began a speaking tour on his impression of the Soviet health system. This move cost him his career as a surgeon and he was universally denounced by the press and “public opinion”. However, this didn’t stop him from being on the front lines of the class struggle, as one biographer of his life points out:

One afternoon, while driving through Montreal, Bethune’s car became stuck in a traffic jam. Thinking there might have been an accident, Bethune left his car and went to see what was going on. What he found was a demonstration by the unemployed asking for milk, bread and jobs. As Bethune watched, a line of police on horseback charged the crowd, swinging clubs wildly. There was chaos. People fled in all directions, accompanied by the sound of sirens, screams, shouts and pounding horses hooves. Many were injured and bleeding. Bethune helped those he could, but he never forgot the violence of the police that afternoon. The demonstrators were the poor and unemployed people that he treated for free and tried to help. (John Wilson. “Righting Wrongs.”)

But Bethune didn’t stay long in Canada. At the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, he promptly volunteered as a doctor for the Republican forces. In his time in Spain, Bethune worked tirelessly to revolutionize the usage of blood transfusions on the battlefield. In fact, Bethune is credited with having developed the MASH system (Mobile Army Service Hospital), which saved countless lives in the struggle against Franco. In one article written by Bethune in 1937, he describes his typical work in Madrid:

Our night work is very eerie! We get a phone call for blood. Snatch up our packed bag, take two bottles… out of the refrigerator and with our armed guard off we go through the absolutely pitch dark streets and the guns and machine guns and rifle shots sound as if they were in the next block, although they are really a half mile away. Without lights we drive. Stop at the hospital and with a searchlight in our hands find our way into the cellar principally. All the operating rooms in the hospitals have been moved into the basement to avoid falling shrapnel, bricks and stones coming through the operating room ceiling. (Letter from DR. Bethune, “To the Committee in Aid of Spanish Democracy”, 1937)

However, Bethune soon went back to Canada to raise funds for the republican cause in Spain. Yet in 1938, when the war in Spain began looking like a lost cause, Bethune decided to make himself useful in another struggle, this time in China. 

By 1938, the Chinese Civil War was put on hold, when the Chinese Communist Party  and the Nationalist Kuomintang joined in a United Front against the Japanese invasion. Travelling a long and dangerous road through Hong Kong and slipping into Chinese controlled territory, Bethune and two other medical personnel finally met up with the Chinese forces. Bethune was asked if he would mind serving with the Communist forces in the far north, which he was delighted to do. 

In his work as a doctor with the Communist controlled 8th Route Army, Bethune became a personal friend of Mao Zedong. But again, his primary focus was not politics or theory, but rather medicine. He saved countless lives, both communist and nationalist. 

Far from the bloodthirsty psychopath that the National Post claims he was, Bethune was deeply disturbed by war and violence. In fact, Bethune was perplexed that so-called “democracies” such as Canada refused to send aid to China and help end the Japanese invasion. “Canada must help these people. They have fought for the salvation of China and the liberation of Asia,” Bethune wrote in 1938. “I can give no explanation to Mao Tse-Tung—I am ashamed [of Canada].”

However, in November of 1939, Bethune cut his finger on a bone during surgery, and the finger  later became infected. Despite falling ill to blood poisoning, Bethune was in the field until he died. In his last letter, he wrote: “I came back from the front yesterday. There was no good in being there. I couldn’t get out of bed or operate…useless for work. Vomiting on stretcher all day. High fever, over 40C… Can’t get to sleep, mentally very bright… I feel freely today. Pain over heart… Will see you tomorrow, I expect.” Bethune tragically died the next day.

Norman Bethune was not a great politician or labour leader. His speeches were vague when it came to socialism and communism, and he seemed to be largely aloof from the Stalinist movement in general. But, nevertheless, Bethune held a profound contempt and hatred for the corrupt and bankrupt capitalist system that brutalized, exploited and impoverished the vast majority of the human race. In this way, he was attracted to the largest “Marxist” parties such as the Communist Party of Canada, and had the honest intention of overthrowing capitalism and building a new society free from exploitation.

For Bethune, his commitment to communism was a means through which to fulfill his true priorities: socialized medicine and alleviating the working class of those preventable illnesses so common at the time. He dreamed of a society where medicine would be freely available to all and not simply another profit making scheme. While this was always his focus, Bethune refused to simply sit on the sidelines of the class struggle, and dove deep into the bloody mass of two wars against fascism and imperialism. 

It is true that Bethune had a soft spot for Mao and the struggle of the Chinese peasantry in their liberation from Japanese and Kuomintang oppression. This is hardly surprising. It must be remembered that the CCP played an incredibly progressive role in fighting the despicable Kuomintang armies of Chiang Kai-Chek, who was responsible for terrible atrocities against Communists, trade unionists, intellectuals and rebellious peasants, all while being supported by the United States and other “democracies” such as Canada. 

Dr. Norman Bethune, by Hung Liu, 2000, oil on canvas, 80 x 80. North Carolina Museum of Art

In spite of the great errors of Mao and the Stalinist CCP, the Chinese Revolution of 1949 was the second greatest event in human history, second only to the 1917 Russian Revolution. The CCP uprooted the millennia-old landlord oppression in the countryside and liberated the peasantry. They fought against the oppression of Chinese women and welcomed them into their ranks. The CCP unified China for the first time since the Qing dynasty, liberated itself from all foreign imperialism, and overthrew capitalism and put in place a planned economy. These are the noble goals that inspired millions to fight and die in that struggle, including Norman Bethune. This is the real reason that Bethune is denounced by the bourgeois press: he fought alongside the CCP and peasants that eventually overthrew capitalism in China.

At most, Bethune can be accused of being too politically passive, naively believing  Stalinist lies and instead focusing on technical medical techniques on the front lines. But he was still an honest revolutionary who sacrificed his profession, wealth, and eventually his life to overthrow the capitalist system that he so despised. Not only was Bethune a great doctor who is responsible for innovating life-saving techniques still in use today, but also a man willing to give his life for overthrowing capitalism. Without a doubt, Norman Bethune was indeed a great martyr of the world working class.

Statues and history

As seen above, there is zero factual evidence that Bethune was responsible for the crimes of Stalin, Mao, or even an active apologist for their crimes against the working class. It goes without saying that Bethune was not responsible for the crimes of the CCP today. In fact, Bethune was less of a political leader as he was an inspiration for class struggle and self sacrifice. His politics were limited to fighting fascism and capitalism, and creating a society in which medicine and science would flourish in the interests of the working class. 

Clearly, the Canadian ruling class is not offended by violence, as seen in its stalwart defense of the blood-covered John A. MacDonald. Rather, Bethune’s unacceptable crime was in siding decidedly with the working class and the oppressed against the capitalist system, and not only verbally but in his actions on the battlefield. Not only did Bethune speak against capitalism, but he gave his life in the struggle against the interests of the Canadian ruling class. For this, he has earned their hatred for all eternity.

More importantly, this is not simply a battle of lifeless statues, the likes of Bethune we need to defend. This is a battle of legacy and tradition that is expressed through public statues and monuments: shall we honour John A. MacDonald, the great leader of bourgeois Canadian expansion and genocide, or shall we remember the sacrifices of people such as Norman Bethune, someone who gave his life in the struggle of socialism? We will let the reader decide for themselves.