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Manitoba History: Review: A. Ross McCormack, Reformers, Rebels and Revolutionaries: The Western Canadian Radical Movement, 1899-1919

by Glen Makahonuk

Manitoba History, Number 1, 1981

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make it available here as a free, public service.

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Very little had been written about the Western Canadian radical movement prior to the 1970s. Since then there has been a significant growth in both the published and unpublished works on the Canadian labour and radical movements. A major reason for the change from the standard interest in constitutional, political, and economic history to working class history seems to be the realization that the common people have made an important contribution in producing the material and philosophical outlook of a nation. Reformers, Rebels, and Revolutionaries is one of the most recent and best works to reflect this change.

Using a wide variety of primary and secondary sources, Ross McCormack, a professor of History at the University of Winnipeg, has taken a major step in developing a model to analyze the complex nature of the origin and growth of the Western Canadian radical movement. In setting up his model he argues that radicalism arose from both the appalling working and living conditions that the workers were subjected to, and the “immigrants workers’ cultural baggage.” Because of these circumstances the radical movement had a unique fermentation in that it contained three basic groups distinguished by their ideologies, tactics, or constituencies.

The first group was comprised of the labourites, trade unionists, and reformers who were concerned with the immediate amelioration of the evils of the capitalist system. Most of these people were British immigrants who came from a well established trade union movement and had realized that ‘bread and butter’ issues were of prime concern. Furthermore because of their belief in an orderly political system, they depended both on collective bargaining and on political action: registering votes, running candidates, and founding reformist and labour parties like the Manitoba Labour Party. The political process, they believed, could bring about reforms such as labour standards legislation, unemployment insurance, old age pensions, public health regulations, and workmen’s compensation law. Their major area of concentration was in the cities, particularly Winnipeg.

The second group incorporated the militant industrial unionists such as the Industrial Workers of the World, the One Big Union, direct actionists, and industrial rebels who believed in industrial syndicalism. The syndicalists were not entirely in favour of the political process and advocated that militant industrial unionism using the general strike as a weapon could bring about proletarian emancipation and the administration of a new socialist society. This alternative appealed to the same constituency in western Canada as that of western American Wobblies, i.e. the blanket-stiffs who were usually immigrants and unskilled, itinerant workers such as loggers, harvesters, longshoremen and miners.

The third group, the Marxist revolutionaries who mainly found their support in British Columbia among the miners, loggers and the Eastern European immigrants, believed that the evils of industrial capitalism could neither be reformed as the labourites wanted nor replaced by syndicalism as the rebels propagandised, and thus it had to be destroyed by revolution. Working-class education and militant political class action would be used to bring about the destruction of capitalism and the introduction of socialism. The Socialist Party of Canada and the Social Democratic Party of Canada were in the forefront in promoting Marxist theory and pre-paring the proletariat for the revolution.

With all three groups vying for the support of the Western Canadian working class, it seemed unlikely that a western hegemony could be established. The syndicalist concept and the One Big Union, however, emerged in the forefront in 1919. Why? McCormack provides an interesting analysis in his last two chapters. In short, because of the conscription crisis, the drastic increase in the cost of living, the outcome of the Western Labour Conference, the failure of the electoral process, and the need to establish more powerful organizations both the labourites and the Marxists seemed prepared to modify their original positions. In fact, they saw the general strike as an effective tactic not only in fights over ‘bread and butter’ issues, but also as a viable form of political protest.

At the same time, nonetheless, he also explains how the failure of the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 marked the end of industrial syndicalism as a viable means for bringing about the emancipation of the proletariat. Most workers became disillusioned with militant industrial unionism and revolutionary doctrines. The vast majority of the workers were quick to return to labourism, while a few were still willing to remain rebels or enter the ranks of the newly formed Communist Party. Labourism seemed appropriate because it could be accommodated within the new social conditions of the 1920s.

McCormack’s thorough research and skilful use of the sources adds a substantial amount of evidence about the origin and growth of radicalism, and the various organizations that expressed it on the working class in the period 1899-1919. For anybody who is interested in this topic, Reformers, Rebels, and Revolutionaries must be read.

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