A short history of Canadian Impossibilism, with selections from the press of the Socialist Party of Canada and the One Big Union, 1906-1938
The Impossibilists was first published in 1995, by Red Lion Press. It is copyright 1995 by the author, and republished here with his permission.
About the author: Larry Gambone writes: “I grew up on Vancouver Island, went to Simon Fraser University, joined the new left student movement there in the 1960’s. I was also involved, at one point or another, with the Young Socialists, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the environmental movement, the Youth International Party and the IWW. Through my activism I became interested in the history of the revolutionary socialist and anarchist movements and began to do research and engage in self-publishing, which I continue to do until this very day. I am sympathetic to councilism, libertarian socialism and the sane varieties of anarchism, am a trade union member and work as a cleaner in a hospital.”
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
by Larry Gambone (Red Lion Press 1995)
Table of Contents
Articles from the SPC and OBU press
The Impossibilists were not unique to Western Canada. (1) The Socialist Labor Party and its affiliates in Australia and Scotland held similar beliefs. So too, the Socialist Party of Great Britain. The left-wing factions of German and Dutch Social Democracy, like the Canadian Impossibilists, expressed a militant and resolutely anti-statist socialism. Then there was the Australian OBU, the IWW, the French CGT and a host of other revolutionary syndicalist unions. These groups, suppressed and pushed aside like their Canadian counterparts, represent a path not taken by the world’s labor movements.
The socialist movement in British Columbia was divided into five small groups at the turn of the century. One of these was the Socialist Labour Party which had formed a branch in Vancouver in 1898. E.T. Kingsley, a former member of the American SLP, was a powerhouse of militant socialism in Nanaimo. While not directly involved, the Western Federation of miners was also influential, as it espoused socialism since forming its first local in British Columbia in 1895. Some of these small groups of radicals came together in 1901 to form the BC Socialist Party, whose model was the Socialist Party USA.
A number of Nanaimo coal miners found the new party too weak-kneed and so formed the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The Nanaimo radicals succeeded in making their influence felt within the BCSP and in 1903 the party adopted a revolutionary platform. One year later the name, Socialist Party of Canada was formally adopted. (2) Reformists still remained within the new organization, many of them not leaving until 1907, when a split-off from the SPC created the Social Democratic Party. This group became the SPC’s chief rival on the left.
The SPC’s first ten years could be called its parliamentary period. Paradoxically, the Impossibilists thought the ballot box not very useful as a means to emancipate labor and considered parliamentary activity more as a propaganda effort. They did not specify how the revolution was to occur for this process was left up to the workers themselves. The main role of socialists was to educate. Nonetheless, three Socialists were elected to the BC legislature from the cities of Nanaimo, Victoria and New Westminster and the party found itself in an enviable position. The election left them holding the balance of power between the Liberals and the Conservatives and they were able to extract a number of important reforms, such as the eight-hour day for the miners.
This happy situation was not to last. In the 1911 election the SPC outdistanced the Liberal Party in all areas of BC except Vancouver. However, this was a Pyrrhic victory, since the Tories were returned to office with a landslide and the Socialists lost their bargaining power. The Impossibilists new weak position of chattering on the sidelines exacerbated the contradiction of claiming to be simultaneously revolutionary and a parliamentary party.
Electioneering became a thorny issue and a reformist tendency arose causing a membership drift toward the Social Democrats. Many people thought that if you were going to be a parliamentary socialist you may as well go the whole route and propose reforms. To make life worse for Impossibilism, the party expelled their veteran parliamentarian, “Big Jim” Hawthornthwaite, on the grounds he was speculating in coal properties.
Matters went from bad to worse. In the 1916 election not a single Socialist was elected. Again schisms occurred as members joined the reformists. Attacks by loyal party members against the “renegades” and the responding counter attacks became increasingly vitriolic. The Socialist Party of Canada was disintegrating. (3)
The War gave rise to many changes. Since the SPC was one of the few workers’ parties to oppose the World War, they naturally found themselves leading demonstrations against conscription. For the Impossibilists the real enemy was at home, not across the Atlantic, and the capitulation of the other labor parties and trade unions to the war frenzy seemed to justify the SPC’s refusal to join the Socialist International. At first, the organization suffered, members were arrested for sedition and some pro-war Socialists turned in their membership cards. The party journal, the Western Clarion was banned by the federal government in 1918. The Red Flag replaced the Clarion in 1919, but it too was suppressed. Only in 1920 could the Impossibilists cease worrying about police raids and government harassment.
In spite of, or maybe because of this oppression, membership increased rapidly. The Russian Revolution was an impetus and no doubt the party gained support from the resulting radicalization. In January 1918 the BC Federation of Labor formed the Federated Labour Party which drew away most of the parliamentary-oriented Socialists and a new group of younger men and women rose to prominence. (4)
The failure of revolutionary parliamentary tactics, the rapid growth of anarcho-syndicalism in Europe and South America, the example of the IWW and the SPC’s long-held criticisms of conservative craft unionism created a climate for the growth of a revolutionary union current within Impossibilism. The new party leaders, Bill Pritchard, Victor Midgley, Ernest Winch and Jack Kavanagh were all for the new approach. Soon the syndicalist orientation became predominant. (5)
How great a change this was can be seen by the fact that in 1911 the Western Clarion attacked the concept of a general strike and the Vancouver local of the party refused to give any assistance to the beleaguered striking coal miners, since “political action” was the only way forward.
Shortly after this trend appeared, a wave of radicalism swept across the labour movement of Western Canada. The most dramatic event was the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 and for radical workers the most hopeful was the formation of the One Big Union Movement. The OBU was a child of Impossibilism, most of the important leaders were members of the SPC and the rival Social Democrats had few representatives of importance. The Preamble and Constitution were written by Socialists as were other influential documents of the movement. They created a distinctly Western-Canadian form of syndicalism, strongly influenced by its SPC origins. The OBU grew like a mushroom overnight taking in most of organized labour west of Ontario. But in three years the OBU had lost most of its support.
By 1921 the SPC was again in trouble. With its major activity, the OBU going into steep decline, the party too began to suffer. A major headache was the Communist tendency. The party initially viewed the Russian Revolution favorably, albeit skeptical as to the extent that Socialism could be achieved in such a backward country. The question of affiliation to the Comintern was raised by pro-Bolshevik elements, and this caused serious disruption within the party. Many members were hostile toward the Comintern’s infamous “21 Demands” of affiliation, which gave the Russian Party virtual carte blanche control of all the others. Many Socialists, including most of the revolutionary unionists and direct-actionists, mesmerized by the apparent success of the October Revolution, ignored the authoritarian nature of Bolshevism and left the party to form the new Communist movement.
Party members also sloughed off to the right as the various local Labour Parties gained increasing support at the polls. (6) The SPC was shattered, attacked by left, right and centre. Small discussion groups continued in a number of cities, but in 1925 the Western Clarion had to cease publication due to lack of support. Six years later, in 1931, some former members gathered in Winnipeg and tried to re-establish the SPC. This new party adhered to the positions of the SPGB and had a completely parliamentary orientation. They were never able to compete with the CCF or the Communist Party and soon withered into the tiny group which still exists today.
While the parent died, the child lived on for another thirty-one years. Since the OBU was to continue much of the Impossibilist legacy, it is necessary to discuss further the origins and history of this organization. In Western Canada there had been a long history of struggle with the Canadian branches of the AFL unions for autonomy, internal democracy and amalgamation of craft locals into industrial unions. This helped to set the stage for the OBU. There had also been the stirring example of the IWW, active in British Columbia in the years prior to WWI. By 1918 dissatisfaction had reached the breaking point, for motions presented at the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC) to endorse industrial unionism, demand the release of war resisters, end conscription and Allied intervention in Russia were all turned down.
After this defeat, the BC Federation of Labour, under SPC tutelage, called a meeting of all Western trade unionists with the intention of hammering out proposals for the next TLC Convention. The Western militants gathered in Calgary March 1919 with the representatives of 258 unions. Secession was not on the agenda, but the delegates passed a motion to sever all ties with the AFL “Internationals” and form an independent industrial union. Other proposals adopted included: an organization plan called the “One Big Union’, an endorsement of socialism (as understood by the SPC), a request for a Canada-wide referendum on the need for industrial unions, support for “soviets” and a general strike for the six hour day. On June 11, 1919, the Preamble and Constitution of the One Big Union was adopted and the movement to counteract the conservative American unions was officially launched. Within less than a year the OBU had 101 locals and 41,500 members—almost the entire union membership of Western Canada. More than half of these were in British Columbia where the largest group of OBU supporters were the Lumber Workers.
The isolation in Western Canada was to be the downfall of the OBU. With a strong base in the East, the TLC was in a good position to launch a counter-attack against the radicals. The AFL sent money and hot-shot organizers. Then the Canadian government got involved, ruling that the “Internationals” owned the contracts in the OBU chartered locals of the former American unions. Employers blacklisted OBU workers and would hire only TLC men. The recent Winnipeg General Strike was fresh in everyone’s mind and the OBU was blamed for the this as well. Hysteria about radicalism in any form, especially syndicalism which was misrepresented as Bolshevism, was whipped up by the newspapers. The OBU was soon in deep trouble.
The Communists didn’t help either. Like revolutionary unions world-wide, the OBU was to suffer at their hands. Those individuals infatuated with Bolshevism formed the Workers Party in 1921 and many OBU people joined. The Communists and their supporters within the union began a campaign of disruption as they followed the Comintern’s orders of forcing the OBU members back into the AFL unions or destroying the organization outright. These disputes left a legacy of bitterness between the OBU and the Communists that never dissipated.
To make matter worse, in 1921 the Lumber Workers quit the OBU over a series of jurisdictional disputes and a personality clash. This was a very serious blow to the OBU which by 1923 was down to only 5000 members. Labor historians tend to leave the OBU at this point and mention in passing that the union hung around as a “ghost” for the next 33 years. The reality is somewhat different. By 1925 the membership had risen to 17,000 and grew slowly throughout the 1920’s to reach a maximum of 24,000 members. The year they joined the Canadian Labor Congress the membership stood at 12,000.
Impossibilism’s child had a rather ignominious death. When the AFL and CIO federations in Canada decided to unite to form the Canadian Labour Congress in 1956, the OBU announced that it intended to join its former enemies in the new federation. As a condition for joining, the OBU was to remain an autonomous union. However, the question of affiliation was delayed until the end of the unity conference and at that point the delegates voted to break up the OBU and place the members within the CLC locals. So ended the last functioning syndicalist union in North America.
Why should the Impossibilists matter today? Why should anyone wish to read an anthology of their writings culled from moldy eighty-year old newspapers? One of the most striking events of the Twentieth Century, an era not lacking in dramatic occurrences, has been the complete collapse of both Stalinist Communism and “socialism” in all its forms. But what has been thrown in history’s famous and overflowing dustbin is not Impossibilist socialism, but state capitalism. For several generations labor and “progressive intellectuals” put their faith in the state as a means to solve social problems. Few people now look to statism for solutions and therefore the “left” is in chaos.
The Impossibilists represented something different—they never endorsed “state socialism”, rather recoiling from it in horror. Socialism meant democratic control and ownership of production by the producers—the original “co-operative production” of Marx, Proudhon and Owen. Nor did they endorse another evil of the Twentieth Century, the notion of the “vanguard party”. For them socialism had to be the work of the vast majority of the population or not at all. Socialism was inseparable from democracy, and was in their eyes, its full realization. The role of socialists was to educate and not lead.
Sneered at as “out of date” by the snottily superior Bolshevik fellow-travelers and dismissed as simple-minded millenarians by labor bureaucrats, (and their academic apologists) the Impossibilist’s often libertarian message is more likely to be welcomed today than leftist demands for nationalization and state control. No doubt, the SPC and the OBU’s ever-present rhetoric of class war will be annoying to most contemporary readers, but it is necessary to keep in mind just how brutal the times were. Talk of class war was not a lot of hot air, in the mines and lumber camps a protracted and sometimes violent struggle ensued between workers and employers. (7)
The SPC and the OBU did not have all the answers by any means. (8) But what they represented was a tendency that evolved over forty years, the evolution of which was stopped by Bolshevism and Social Democracy. Who knows what might have resulted had this development not been cut short. This situation was repeated world wide, culminating in 1936 with the destruction of Spanish anarcho-syndicalism by the combined efforts of Fascism and Stalinism. The tragedy is, a libertarian labour movement was suppressed, its place taken by other currents which we now see to be historical dead ends.
1. Outside of the English speaking world “Impossibilist” has a different meaning—those who were anti-parliamentary and in favor of a transitional program and a vanguard party—the future Communists. [Return]
2. 1904 was also the year the Socialist Party of Great Britain (the SPGB or British Impossibilists) was born. Like the SPC they were influenced by the Socialist Labor Party. The Canadian Impossibilists also had influence on the development of the SPGB. [Return]
3. But the influence of the SPC had spread. In 1916 a group of dissident American socialists formed the World Socialist Party which became a companion party of the SPC. For several years the Western Clarion had a page reserved for the WSP. [Return]
4. Many of the leaders of the BC Federation of labor were ex-members of the SPC. [Return]
5. The pro-syndicalist SPC and OBU never completely adopted the anti-parliamentarism of anarcho-syndicalism. [Return]
6. Social Democracy was not to unite nationally until the founding of the CCF in 1932. Until then existed a number of different organizations often going under the name of the “Independent Labour Party” (Which should not be confused with its British namesake) [Return]
7. In 1912, a lengthy strike occurred in the coal mines of Vancouver Island. At one point a six hour gun battle took place between strikers and strike-breakers. The military was called in and many miners arrested. [Return]
8. Most readers would probably agree they have two answers for us today—1. beware of Statism in all its forms 2. Social change must be the work of the people themselves and not some self-proclaimed elite vanguard. [Return]
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All