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What Socialists Learned from the Winnipeg General Strike

By Ian Angus

A talk presented at the Marxism 2004 Conference in Toronto May 6-9, in a session marking the 85th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike.

Copyright © 2004 Ian Angus. All rights reserved.

I want to discuss the lessons that revolutionary socialists drew from their experience in the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919, lessons I believe are still very relevant today.

Canadian mythology holds that this is a peaceful country. There’s no class struggle here, we never had a revolution, we don’t even have much violent crime. In Canada the classic liberal values prevail. The Canadian way is discussion, compromise and mutual respect. We have evolution, not revolution. We don’t fight, we have Royal Commissions.

Many academic historians take that as an article of faith.

But such historians face a problem. If Canada is such a peaceful place, how can they explain the revolts, rebellions, uprisings and pitched battles that dot our history? How can they explain Mackenzie, Papineau, Riel, Poundmaker, and other rebels whose actions have disrupted the peaceful flow of Canadian development?

The process of explaining away these inconvenient exceptions has generally taken place in two stages.

  1. At the time of the event, and for some time after, the rebels are portrayed as criminals, often as insane criminals, who deserve to be punished. At the very least, they should be expelled from Canada, because they obviously are not true Canadians. Their rebellion was defeated, and that’s a very good thing indeed.
  2. Later, when the events are safely distant, historians re-interpret the rebellion as the result of unfortunate misunderstandings. And they conclude that once calmer heads prevailed, the experience eventually led to the advancement of the liberal values of discussion, compromise and mutual respect.

We’ve seen this pattern again and again.

William Lyon Mackenzie was exiled from Canada for leading a rebellion. Today he is revered as a founder of Canadian democracy, as "Toronto’s first mayor."

Louis Riel was exiled, then hanged. Today he’s described as a "father of Confederation" and his rebellion is said to have been part of Canada’s evolution to responsible government.

The same thing has happened with the Winnipeg General Strike.

  1. At the time, and for years afterwards, it was portrayed as an attempted Bolshevik coup, led by foreign agitators. Its leaders were arrested, and many were deported, even though they were Canadian citizens. Strikers were shot in the streets.
  2. More recently, the history of the Winnipeg General Strike has been rewritten by social democrats, who describe the strike as just an attempt to win collective bargaining, and a step in the evolution of liberal Canada. For example, an account of the strike published by the BC Federation of Labour concludes by saying that as a result of this experience, strike leader J. S. Woodsworth went on to found the CCF, which later became the NDP. It concludes: "And in 1969, 50 years after the Winnipeg General Strike, Manitoba elected an NDP government. The workers had won at last."

This is typical of most writing on the Winnipeg General Strike in the past 30 years or so. The strikers were misunderstood heroes and the government response was reactionary and repressive, but only because it didn’t understand.

But glory be! Despite those unfortunate misunderstandings, the strike led to the creation of the CCF, which led to the NDP, the ultimate party of discussion, compromise and mutual respect.

And then victory! The election of Ed Schreyer as premier of Manitoba, a man whose politics were so very unradical that Trudeau later appointed him Governor General!

Unfortunately for the social democratic interpretation, 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.

Toward a New Kind of Party

Far from leading directly to Canadian social democracy, the strikes of 1919 led a majority of Canadian socialists to recognize the need for a new kind of party. Here’s how they described it in 1921:

"It will be a party of action, seeking contact with the workers, a party in which the theorists and doctrinaires as such will find small place, a party of the workers, and with them in their daily struggles against capitalist oppression, seeking always to build up a united front of the working class for Industrial Freedom and Emancipation from wage slavery." (The Workers Guard, December 17, 1921)

That view—that revolutionaries must participate in the struggles of workers and the oppressed—is today almost universally accepted in the revolutionary left, at least in words.

But it was not a common view in the socialist movement in Canada or elsewhere in the world a century ago. Left wing organizations typically treated political action and economic action as separate, unrelated activities. Socialists promoted socialism, which meant organizing educational programs and running in elections, while unions and other organizations dealt with day-to-day issues.

Lenin’s widow, Nadezhda Krupskaya, described in her Reminiscences of Lenin how Lenin and his comrades in Russia tried to link Marxist theory to the everyday experiences of the workers.

"The method of agitation based on the workers' everyday needs struck deep root in our Party work. I did not fully appreciate how efficacious this method was until years later, when, living In France as a political emigrant, I observed how, during the great strike of the postal workers in Paris, the French Socialist Party stood completely aloof from it. It was the business of the trade unions, they said. In their opinion the business of a party was only political struggle. They had no clear idea whatever about the necessity of combining the economic with the political struggle."

There were notable exceptions, but that was the general approach of almost all socialist groups before World War I. Not just in the large parliamentary parties, but also in most of the parties and groups that considered themselves to be revolutionary. They talked about socialism, they held classes and gave lectures and wrote articles about Marxism—but they abstained from the real struggles of the working class.

The Socialist Party of Canada

In Canada, that approach was exemplified by the Socialist Party of Canada. Before the war, it was by far the dominant party on the left in western Canada, with about 3,000 members in the four western provinces.

The SPC viewed itself as a revolutionary Marxist organization. It prided itself on its doctrinal purity. It was for socialism, and nothing less. The SPC even refused to join the Second International, on the grounds that the British Labor Party was a member.

The party's leading spokesman, E.T Kingsley, argued that the conflicts between employers and workers were not part of the class struggle at all-they were mere "commodity struggles," disputes over the division of wealth in capitalist society, and hence of no interest to socialists.

Now this was not a unanimous view in the SPC. Many of the party’s leaders were also union activists ad even union leaders, and obviously believed that labor struggles were important. But even for them there was a disconnect between their political views and their activity as militant unionists.

As militant unionists, members of the Socialist Party won the leadership of the labor movement from Vancouver to Winnipeg in 1918 and 1919.

The March 1919 Western Labor Conference, which voted to create the One Big Union as a competitor for the very conservative Trades & Labour Congress, was dominated by Socialist Party members.

SPC Failed to Lead

But – and this is the key point – the Socialist Party as a party played little or no role. Was creation of the One Big Union a good idea? The SPC refused to take a stand, on the grounds that "the comparative merits of various forms of industrial activity do not come within the field of S.P. of C. activity."

Throughout the 1919 labor revolt, when general strikes were underway in a dozen or more cities from Vancouver BC to Amherst NS, the SPC’s weekly newspaper was largely devoted to the same routine expositions of Marxist theory it published before and after the strikes.

So, 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. If it is not to be a brief, symbolic act of protest, a general strike must raise, if only implicitly, the question of control of society. The bread and milk wagons carrying "By Permission of the Strike Committee" placards were symbolic of this.

Even more significant was the fact that the police voted to strike, and only remained on the job because the Strike Committee asked them to.

The strike radically undermined the ability of the ruling class to rule in Winnipeg. Basic day-to-day decisions about the functioning of the city were being made, at least in part, by the Strike Committee.

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.

Again and again they exhorted the workers to "Do Nothing," to stay off the streets, to avoid parades and demonstrations. The pro-strike parades that did take place were organized not by the Strike Committee but by veterans' organizations.

While the strike leaders urged calm, the capitalist class was preparing to attack—because they recognized what was at stake. The "Citizen's Committee of 1000" stated its view in no uncertain terms:

"This is not a strike at all, in the ordinary sense of the term—it is Revolution.
"It is a serious attempt to overturn British institutions in this Western country and to supplant them with the Russian Bolshevik system of Soviet rule.
"Winnipeg, as a plain matter of fact, is governed by the Central Strike Committee of the Trades and Labor Councils."

Similar statements appeared in almost every daily newspaper, and in the speeches of Liberal and Conservative politicians. The spokesmen of the ruling class deliberately overstated the amount of conscious planning involved in the supposed Bolshevik plot, but their statements show that they understood the dynamics of the crisis.

Revolutionary Strategy

The general strikes of 1919 exposed, as nothing else could, the Socialist Party's total lack of a revolutionary strategy—as a party, it didn’t even have a militant labor strategy. In the greatest social crisis Canada has yet seen, the Socialist Party was passive.

In Winnipeg, despite the strength of the SPC, Christian radicals and labour party leaders set the Strike Committee’s agenda and the strike’s tactics. There was no effort to involve the strikers in decision making on a regular basis, no effort to extend the Strike Committee's authority as a direct political challenge to the Citizens Committee of 1000.

Above all, there was no preparation for the clash with the state that would inevitably come, so the arrest of a small number of leaders effectively defeated the strike.

The labor revolt of 1919 raised entirely new questions for the Canadian left. The socialist movement had long restricted itself to educational activities, to "making socialists." The transition from capitalism to socialism was a matter for the far distant future. The assumption most socialists made was that their movement would grow until it encompassed a majority of the population, and then take power peacefully, through parliamentary means.

Now they saw the possibility of a transition to socialism that would result from a revolutionary crisis in which the working class would suddenly rebel against the established order. In Winnipeg, the ruling class demonstrated that it would not be passive in face of such a challenge to its power—it would not yield to the majority.

The Canadian left had never considered such matters. Raising them meant adopting a new approach to socialist politics—and that meant taking up the challenge issued by the Russian Bolsheviks and the Third International to build a new kind of party.

With a handful of exceptions, the revolutionists who had led the strikes of 1919 took that challenge seriously. By the end of 1919 there were underground communist groups in most Canadian cities, affiliated to one or other of the two competing Communist Parties in the United States.

In May 1921, the Canadian communist groups—including some that were working within the Socialist Party, united to form the Communist Party of Canada. By the end of 1921, a majority of the Socialist Party had been won over. The SPC itself went into rapid decline, eventually dissolving in 1925.

Two Lessons of 1919

The experience of 1919 taught Canadian revolutionaries two lessons:

First, that workers power is possible in this country—it existed, in embryonic form, in Winnipeg in 1919.

Second, that a new kind of party is needed to make that possibility real.

Joe Knight was a Socialist Party leader, a key organizer of the left-wing triumph in the western labour movement in 1918-1919, and a founder of the One Big Union. In 1921, he attended the congress of the Communist International in Moscow. I’d like to finish with an excerpt from the speech he gave there, which I think summarizes the real lessons of Winnipeg very well.

First, he explained the significance of the strike:

    "All the workers joined the strike, even government employees, postal and telegraph employees. They all participated in the big general rally and in the strike, which lasted seven weeks. A situation was created in which we were only one step away from taking power. Nothing was done in Winnipeg except by order of the strike committee. The strike committee was no less powerful than the state itself. Of course, Winnipeg is not all of Canada. But had the struggle in Winnipeg gripped all of Canada, it would certainly have led to the revolution. We had a reactionary state against us, and the masses did not follow us. The strike had to be broken off after most of our people had been thrown in jail."

And then he discussed the relationship between revolutionaries and mass organizations such as unions.

      "We must work from within, participate in their struggles, win their trust, and then seek to be elected by them to the most important positions in the movement. So I totally agree that we must go into the trade unions. And I will add that we in the trade unions must maintain as close a connection with the Communist party as possible, because its goal is not to be active as a political and industrial organization, but rather to build a great, unified revolutionary army of the workers of the world to overthrow capitalism."

The leaders of the 1919 strikes drew those lessons 85 years ago. Their insights are still valid today.

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