Rhetoric, revolution and relief in 1919

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When the State Trembled

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 09/10/2010 (4439 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

When the State Trembled

How A.J. Andrews and the Citizens’ Committee Broke the Winnipeg General Strike

By Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell

Strikers overturn a streetcar.

University of Toronto Press, 464 pages, $35

Words possess power. In this impressive work of academic history, Reinhold Kramer and Tom Mitchell, a professor of English and an archivist respectively at Brandon University, argue convincingly that the spectre of revolution, raised rhetorically by those who feared it, was decisive in suppressing the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919.

Rather than focusing on the strikers, Kramer and Mitchell explore the opposition to the strike by the Citizens Committee of 1000 and in particular by prominent Winnipeg lawyer A.J. Andrews. A former mayor and Conservative party organizer, Andrews became the adviser and agent of Arthur Meighen, who was the acting minister of justice in 1919.

The authors collaborated previously on a book in 2002 concerning a murder trial and hanging in late 19th-century Brandon, and in 2008 Kramer published the first full biography of novelist Mordecai Richler.

“When the state trembled” is a phrase from Italian communist Antonio Gramsci, who pondered the success of liberal-democratic states in resisting working-class revolt after the First World War.

Like Gramsci, Kramer and Mitchell contend that in moments of profound social conflict, when the state and its various apparatuses hesitate in securing order, other agencies intervene and reveal the extensive bulwarks of capitalist power.

A.J. Andrews

In Winnipeg in 1919 that intervention came from the Citizens’ Committee of 1000 and Andrews. They perceived the general strike not as any mere labour dispute, but rather as a revolutionary threat to constituted authority, that is to the political and legal institutions of liberal democracy.

Defeating that threat — although requiring force to end the strike itself — also involved a battle of words to define just what was at stake. Kramer and Mitchell argue, “The best story would win.”

Andrews and the committee denied the strikers’ narrative, which condemned class inequalities and demanded higher wages and collective bargaining rights for workers. In response, they proclaimed their own identity as “citizens” — not capitalists or employers — and emphasized that class was a myth and that prominent Winnipeggers came from humble origins. Also they argued that the Constitution gave Canadians as individuals the right to enjoy the fruits of their own labour and to contract freely as citizens with others in seeking their best interests and those of their families.

According to this narrative, the six-week-long general strike, which disrupted essential services such as firefighting, policing and deliveries, deprived Winnipeggers of their rights of citizenship. When government failed, individuals possessed the right, indeed the responsibility, to band together to restore order. Or so the story went.

The citizen narrative had the power to change a strike into a potential revolution and to change the opponents of strikers into defenders of liberal democracy. And in these terms, Andrews pressed the federal and provincial governments to prosecute the strike leaders for sedition.

When they declined to do so, Andrews undertook a private criminal prosecution on the Crown’s behalf — at the expense of the federal government. The climax of Kramer and Mitchell’s book is the trial of strike leader R.B. Russell for seditious conspiracy.

When the State Trembled is serious academic scholarship, documented in 100 pages of citations. It is not a leisurely read, as the authors assess other scholarship, engage theoretical questions and digress occasionally into topics that could have been dispatched more economically. As well, the combination of a chronological and thematic organization results in some repetition.

But none of that diminishes the book’s importance. Kramer and Mitchell are to be applauded for revealing how power was exercised to defeat the Winnipeg General Strike.

David Burley is a senior scholar in the history department at the University of Winnipeg.

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