This article, by a member of the Socialist Party of Canada, was written in response to Ian Angus’s May 2004 talk on the Winnipeg General Strike. Since that talk was based on arguments he originally made in Canadian Bolsheviks, we are including it with the reviews of that book. It is posted here with permission of the author.
by Adam Buick, Socialist Party of Canada
Ian Angus, author of Canadian Bolsheviks (just re-issued) and a latter-day Canadian Bolshevik himself, gave a talk in Toronto last May on "What Socialists Learned from the Winnipeg General Strike" of 1919 (the full text can be found at: http://www.socialisthistory.calfDocs/History/WinnipegStrike.htm).
In it he attacked the old Socialist Party of Canada for adopting a non-interventionist attitude towards the strike. According to him, instead of leaving the workers involved to plan and run the strike themselves, the SPC should have tried to turn it into the Bolshevik insurrection to seize power that the capitalist press of the time claimed it was.
Despite the press’s Red-scare-mongering, the Winnipeg General Strike was what it claimed to be: a strike to win collective bargaining rights with local employers. And it had not been organised by the SPC. There were a number of SPC members on the strike committee, but they were there as workers directly involved in the economic side of the class struggle alongside other workers who—the vast majority—were not socialists, and they were aware that without a majority of socialists socialism was not on the agenda and certainly couldn’t be the outcome of the strike. Given this situation, all a socialist party could do—and what the SPC did do—was to express and organise support while continuing its policy of "education for revolution".
This position was not to Angus’s liking. The SPC, he said, "failed to lead":
"While Socialist Party leaders played a central role in leading the Winnipeg Strike and in parallel strikes across the country, they did so as labor militants. The SPC as a party played a minimal role, and the strike wave had no political strategy. That was a critical weakness. A general strike by its very nature is a challenge to the established order ... But the leaders of the Winnipeg strike, including the socialists, failed to see the political implications of this. On the contrary, they did their utmost to confine the strike to simple questions of trade union rights and wages. They exerted every effort to avoid conflict with the government."
Given that the strike was in fact over "trade union rights and wages" this was the intelligent thing to have done. Any action to try to overthrow the government, as advocated today by armchair Bolsheviks like Angus, would have failed and resulted in widespread and senseless bloodshed. As it was, the government decided to use its superior power to make a stand in Winnipeg to try to stop the post-war labor unrest. They arrested 8 persons who they considered to be the strike’s organizers and put them on trial for seditious conspiracy, thus effectively breaking the strike. All 8, five of whom, were SPC members, were convicted and sent to prison.
According to Angus, "most of the leaders of the 1919 strike wave were not social democrats or liberals—they were revolutionary socialists. And the experience did not lead them to the CCF—it led them to build a new revolutionary party, the Communist Party of Canada."
This is not true, as far as the Winnipeg General Strike is concerned. None of the 8 singled out by the government and sent to prison joined the Communist Party. Nearly all of them tried to become Labor politicians and some of them succeeded, A. A. Heaps, for instance, becoming a federal MP for the CCF. Two later returned to the "education for revolution" policy of the old SPC, Armstrong (after a spell as an MLA) in the reconstituted SPC in 1931 and Pritchard (after a spell with the CCF) in the World Socialist Party of the US.
Angus also claims that by the end of 1921 a majority of members of the SPC had been won over to the idea of forming a Communist Party in Canada on Bolshevik lines. Certainly, most members of the SPC of the time were carried away (mistakenly, if understandably, in our view today) by the coming to power of the Bolsheviks in Russia, but were sufficiently clear-headed to reject, when it came to a vote, accepting the 21 conditions for affiliation to the Communist International. They took the view that while Bolshevism was appropriate for Russian conditions, it wasn’t for a developed capitalist country like Canada where a policy of "education for revolution" remained valid. The formation of the Communist Party—or Workers Party, as it was called—did contribute to the demise of the old SPC in 1925. But in 1931 a number of former SPC members and others reconstituted it as the present SPC, and without any illusions about Bolshevism in Russia not just in Canada.
The real lesson of the Winnipeg General Strike, which latter-day romantic Bolsheviks like Angus have yet to learn, was well stated by Pritchard in an article on the strike’s 50th anniversary in 1969:
"Strikes may result in changes and even so-called improvements but this is but superficial. This will continue until the workers in sufficient numbers free themselves from the concepts of this society, from ideas that bind them to the notion that the present is the only possible social system, and recognize that under this system ‘the more things change the more they remain the same’; that even now in their struggles over wages and conditions, like the character in ‘Alice in Wonderland’ they have to keep running in order to stay in the same place. But the Winnipeg Strike will go down in history as a magnificent example of working class solidarity and courage." (Western Socialist, No. 3, 1969).
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All