Saturday, December 3, 2011

On Trembling States and Red Scares

Kramer, Reinhold and Tom Mitchell. 2010. When the State Trembled: How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Francis, Daniel. 2010. Seeing Reds: The Red Scare of 1918-19, Canada’s First War on Terror. Vancouver: Arsenal Pulp Press.

Reviewed by Peter Campbell
Socialist Studies / Études socialistes 
Spring/Fall 2011

It would be an understatement to say that the history of the Canadian left has lost its lustre; it would be an overstatement to say that its lustre has been restored by When the State Trembled and Seeing Reds. Nonetheless, the fortuitous publication of these two books in the same year raises the profile of a history whose lessons Canadians can ill afford to forget. 

When the State Trembled is a “local” history placed in national and international contexts, while Seeing Reds is a national and international treatment whose central event is that “local” strike in Winnipeg in 1919. The interplay of the local, national and international on the one hand, and of the two books themselves on the other, means that both works are well worth reading, and even more worth reading together.

The central argument of When the State Trembled will not be new to readers who have read Tom Mitchell’s work already published in Manitoba History, Prairie Forum, Left History and Labour/Le Travail. Readers will not be surprised to find that Kramer and Mitchell’s book is meticulously researched, its impact heightened by the acquisition through the Access to Information Act of the correspondence between A.J. Andrews and the acting Minister of Justice, Arthur Meighen. That said, it remains an intriguing perspective that brings fresh insight to our understanding of Winnipeg 1919, the idea that it is the victors who have been marginalized and forgotten. In their focus on A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee, Kramer and Mitchell produce what might be called social history from above. As they point out, in the Winnipeg story it is the defenders of the status quo who lurk in the shadows, the “revolutionaries” who are in plain view in the streets and parks of Winnipeg. Turning Marx’s famous aphorism in the Communist Manifesto on its head, Kramer and Mitchell argue that rather than the state managing the affairs of the bourgeoisie, in Winnipeg in 1919 the bourgeoisie was managing the affairs of the state. The case they make is compelling and convincing.

When the State Trembled reconstructs the history of the Citizens’ Committee of 1000, revealing both its Winnipeg roots in the Winnipeg Citizens’ Alliance and Citizens’ Committee of 100, and the direct and indirect influence of American citizens’ alliances in cities such as Minneapolis and San Diego. In doing so, Kramer and Mitchell reveal the extent to which the Citizens’ Committee of 1000 was a secret organization and also convincingly demonstrate that the line between citizens’ alliances and anti-labour vigilante organizations was blurred indeed. In outlining the genesis of the Citizens’ Committee, Kramer and Mitchell remove all doubt that the strikers of Winnipeg were in a war, a war for the hearts and minds of the citizens of Winnipeg and the country as a whole. The Citizens were in the business of creating a “fiction of disorder” that “provided a pretext for vigilante action, the manipulation of state power, the invasion of workers’ homes and labour temples, arrests, imprisonment, denial of bail, suspension of habeas corpus, and deportation” (174).

Yet Kramer and Mitchell refuse to reduce A.J. Andrews and the Citizens to blinkered reactionaries devoid of intelligence and insight. They demonstrate, in fact, that the Citizens were as quick to invoke the legacy of Magna Charta, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Hobbes, Locke and Adam Smith as Bill Pritchard and Bob Russell were to invoke Giordano Bruno, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Marx, Engels and Dietzgen. In their description of this war of moral authority, the reader will only be caught short by the surprising neglect of conscription, which does not even make its way into the index. Conscription was rife with meanings related to patriotism and the moral authority of the British connection that Andrews and the Citizens were so concerned the radicals were undermining, and the lack of treatment of the issue is a notable omission in an otherwise admirably comprehensive analysis.

In a sense, Daniel Francis follows the lead of Kramer and Mitchell in Seeing Reds, moving outward from the state to reveal the widespread anti-radical campaign that enlisted the movie industry, newspapers and magazines. Francis discusses filmmaker George Brownridge’s anti-Bolshevik film The Great Shadow, about “a Red plot to take over a trade union” made by the Adanac Producing Company, based in Trenton, Ontario. It was financed by the CPR and several other large companies and starred Tyrone Power Sr (79). Venerable Canadian magazines such as Saturday Night and Maclean’s, Francis demonstrates, played even more important roles in feeding the anti-Bolshevik hysteria that sanctioned the illegal and questionably legal actions of the Canadian government and its business allies.

As in the case of When the State Trembled, the storyline in Seeing Reds is well known, although Francis includes a number of digressions – on Wilfrid Laurier, the Canadian women’s movement, the Russian Civil War and the Irish Civil War, for example. As an author who writes, and writes well, for a general audience, Francis sees these digressions as an important element in his work. At times they are revealing, as in the case of Francis’ comparison of the Winnipeg General Strike to the Glasgow General Strike of January 1919 (136). Both general and academic readers will find that they enliven the work, although academic readers may be concerned at times that Francis presents these vignettes with few, if any, footnotes. As academics we are more willing to trust the reliability of information and ideas lacking footnotes in an author’s area of expertise, than to overlook a lack of footnotes in areas less familiar to the author.

At times, the essentially narrative approach Francis takes in Seeing Reds suffers from a lack of analytical rigour. The problem emerges in Francis’ critique of what has come to be known as the theory of “western exceptionalism” attributed to David Bercuson. Francis argues that the labour revolt was not a “western Canadian phenomenon” (120), claiming that eastern Canadian workers were just as “restive” and “militant” as western workers (122). The problem is that Bercuson’s argument is not based on a claim that eastern workers were less militant; his argument – and Bercuson is right on this point - is that they were less radical. As this is not the only example of Francis “dumbing down” the arguments of other historians, it leaves Seeing Reds a good read for both general and academic audiences, but at times the latter will be less convinced by the analysis than the former.

As seductive as it is for left-wing Canadian historians to believe that their socialist forebears were victims of Canada’s first “war on terror,” Francis’ claim must be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. Symbolically, it equates the attack on the World Trade Center and the Winnipeg General Strike; it equates socialists and labour leaders who resolutely opposed violence with suicide bombers. In short, the analogy Daniel Francis makes in Seeing Reds is tempting, but it is a temptation that Canadian labour historians may want to resist.

Both of these books raise critical issues that Canadian historians need to pursue in the years to come. Leading the way is a question that neither of these books answers: why were there so many more pro-labour returned soldiers in Winnipeg than in other Canadian cities? Is there a direct connection between the way demobilized soldiers languishing in England at the end of the First World War were returned to Canada, and the role they played once they got home? A second critical issue is the role of anti-Semitism, a topic both Jewish and non-Jewish historians have been dancing around for more than a generation. Daniel Francis’ observation that “anti-Semitism seems to have been subsumed under the broader fear of, and hostility toward, foreigners in general” is true and not true (99). Kramer and Mitchell argue that the Jewish radicals were “more aggravating” to the members of the Citizens’ Committee than were the Anglo-Celtic strike leaders (94). Can we not do better than “more aggravating?” As Kramer and Mitchell themselves point out, anti-Semitism was much in evidence in the Mounted Police (224). There is a book to be written, ideally co-authored by a non-Jewish historian and a Jewish historian who understands Yiddish.

Class, Edward Thompson famously stated almost two generations ago, is a relationship. In When the State Trembled authors Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell invoke Thompson’s legacy in their assertion that in 1919 “class was happening” in Winnipeg (12). While not denying that the Winnipeg General Strike took place on the level of a fight for better wages and working conditions, the authors convincingly argue that the bourgeois opponents of the strike also “correctly intuited the battle as one between capital’s freedom and the OBU’s wish to abolish capitalism” (25). By taking socialists and the One Big Union seriously, Kramer and Mitchell do not reduce the response of the Citizens’ Committee to misguided hysteria; what was irrational, they ask, about the Citizens and the state responding to what the radicals said they stood for and were willing to do? In Seeing Reds, Daniel Francis gives the leaders of the labour revolt their due, respecting their abilities and the challenge they embodied. He quite rightly concludes that the Reds “did pose a threat to the establishment”. The Red Scare, he argues, “was less an illogical outbreak of paranoia than it was a response by the power elite to a challenge to its hegemony” (240). Whatever the excesses and delusions of the state and bourgeois opponents of the strike, the labour revolt of 1919 was a moment of legitimate threat to the Canadian ruling class.

Thanks to Reinhold Kramer, Tom Mitchell and Daniel Francis we now have a much richer understanding of that moment, and students of the history of the Canadian left have been given renewed impetus to explore one of the defining moments of Canadian history.

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