A Socialist in the Alberta Legislature (1910)
Charlie O'Brien, a prominent member of the Socialist Party of
Canada, was a member of the Alberta Legislature for several years before
World War I. This account of one of his speeches in the House appeared in
an SPC newspaper (probably the Western Clarion) in 1910.
The Proletarian in Politics:
The Socialist Position
As defended by C. M. O’Brien, M. L. A. in the Alberta
by F. Blake
The first session of the second Legislature of the Province of Alberta
was unique, and its record will become historically valuable to the
student of the changing order of society, inasmuch that, for the first
time, the interests of the working class were directly represented.
The man elected to become the first mouthpiece of the wage-slaves of
Alberta was Comrade C. M. O’Brien, who was elected in the Rocky Mountains
riding. He was not returned on promises – such as are handed out by the
candidates of those parties, who by their very nature are pledged to
uphold the rule of Capital – not by promises of good roads or bridges, not
even on a policy of government-owned elevators, so that the hardworking,
deserving farmer might escape the voracious maws of greedy corporations.
Not on any of these was Comrade O’Brien elected. The platform upon which
he stood, which he presented to the electorate of the constituency for
approval or rejection was the Platform of the Socialist Party of Canada,
his electioneering literature was the Manifesto of the Party and its
official organ, The Western Clarion. When I told O’Brien that I was
preparing this leaflet he said: "Tell them to read the Manifesto, that
contains most of it".
With the exception of The Ledger, the organ of the miners, the
Western Clarion was also the only paper which published a true
account of this comrade’s efforts in the House.
That Comrade O’Brien is now a member of the Legislature and the fact
that he took part in the great debate over the Alberta and Great Waterways
Railway Co.’s deal with the government is sufficient evidence that his
methods of electioneering and the platform upon which he stood, were
eminently satisfactory to those who were its judges.
On March 1st the debate on the Great Waterways deal having
lasted several days, Comrade O’Brien caught the Speaker’s eye and
proceeded to define his position as below:
"Mr. Speaker, for several days past I have been listening to this
debate, not with interest, but with a good deal of forbearance. We have
heard a great deal about this agreement between the government and the
Alberta & Great Waterways Railway Co., and, I suppose, will hear a great
deal more. To most members here this appears to be a matter of great
importance, in fact, one has said that ‘This is the most momentous
question in the history of the Legislature’. If that be so, then, sir, I
can only say that from the workers’ point of view this Legislature has
not justified its existence.
"Throughout this discussion, the interests of the employees, the men
who will actually build the road, have been completely ignored. The
Opposition, who so loudly proclaim that they speak in the interests of
the public have clearly shown in whose interests they are working by the
fact that they have never once criticized the few clauses in the
agreement relating to the conditions of employment of the workers, which
are so indefinite as to be almost meaningless. The government, too, has
told us that they are working in the interests of the people, but in the
face of these clauses it is easy to see that neither side consider the
working class as being a part of the people or the public.
"Consciously or unconsciously, every member here is representing
definite material interests, the interests of the C.P.R., the C.N.R.,
the A.G. & W.R. and other corporations are being carefully watched. I,
too, am representing material interests. I am here to voice the
interests of those who are slaves to the rule of capital.
"We do not care whether the government guarantees $20,000, $40,000,
or $100,000 per mile. True, it all comes from my class, but when it has
once been taken from us, and is in your possession, it matters not to us
how you spend it or divide it among yourselves, our mission is to stop
you from getting it. What we want you to do is to have this and other
roads built as speedily as possible, the quicker this and all other
countries are developed the better for us, as we will be taking them
over in the near future.
"In order to be understood, Mr. Speaker, it must be remembered that I
represent a distinct political party, very different to any other party
in this country. This Party – the Socialist Party of Canada – has a
Platform and Manifesto very different to that adopted by any other
party. Nothing in this platform or manifesto has been used by either
Liberal or Conservative, for the very sufficient reason that it contains
nothing they could use.
"If it is my privilege, sir, I feel it is my duty to clearly define
my position in this House, so that the members may know in what relation
I stand to them and they to me. To do so will not be speaking directly
to the question under discussion, but that has already taken a very wide
range, from growing onions in the month of February near the North Pole,
down to Kansas City in the south, thence east to New York City, where
they evidently had a good time, and I don’t think I could very well get
beyond that range.
"Before my election, I was and I am now, one of the national
organizers for the Socialist Party of Canada, whose mission it is to
point out the inevitable ultimate collapse of this present commercial
system, and to seek to establish in its place a system whereby the man
who produces shall receive the full product of his toil, or its
equivalent, and where production shall be for USE instead of for PROFIT,
and where every man, if he would enjoy, shall first produce; therefore,
as one of its organizers I am authorised and empowered to speak on its
"There was a time when slavery did not exist, but that period of
human development is so far in the dim distance that it leaves very
little historic trace; but by piecing together such knowledge as we have
of that period, with what we know of the races still living in a
primitive state, we attain such knowledge as is possible of that time.
The feature that most distinctly stamps that period of human freedom
from that of to-day is the fact that at that early time property was
non-existent in the true sense of the word.
"Personal possessions these primitive people had, but as the natural
resources of the earth were free of access to all, they were, therefore,
the property of none, for owning property is not so much the assertion
or claim of the individual or individuals to ownership as it is the
exclusion of all others from it. Natural resources were not always
property, for property is merely a character imposed by definite
conditions, the few claiming ownership and excluding the non-owners
except on conditions laid down by those self-styled owners, and those
conditions always spell slavery in some form for the non-owners."
At this point, J. W. Woolf (Lib.) rose to a point of order, claiming
that O’Brien was not speaking to the question, but giving a lecture on
Attorney-General Cross thought that the Hon. member for Rocky Mountains
was leading up to the question, and it was natural that he should wish to
define his position as a member of the House.
R. . Bennett (Con.) wished to know if the Hon. Attorney General had
also become a discipline of Marx; he asked that question as he had seen a
set of Marx’s Capital in the Attorney General’s office.
Attorney General Cross: I have read a good deal of Marx’s writings, and
I can assure the Hon. junior member for Calgary that a close study of them
would do him no harm.
J. R. Boyle (Lib.) thought that O’Brien was leading up to the question
– and – M. McKenzie (Lib.) thought that they would all like to hear the
Hon. member for Rocky Mountains lecture on Socialism, but that was neither
the time nor the place for it.
The Speaker ruled that the Hon. member for Rocky Mountains must speak
closer to the question.
O’Brien said it was very difficult for him to know where the Speaker
was drawing the line, and proceeded:
"If we trace the growth and development of property we find it has
taken on different forms or characters, at different times. At one time
communistic property predominated, out of that grew private property and
out of private property has grown capitalist property.
Every social system has had for its foundation property endowed with
some peculiar characteristic; to remove that characteristic from
property is to remove the foundation from that social system, in that
way we account for the destruction of previous civilizations and social
systems. The present social system has for its foundation property
endowed with the peculiar characteristic of capital. To remove the
characteristic of capital from property is to remove its foundations.
"Every member of the assembly, Liberal, Conservative or Independent
(I do not know what this independent means; he may be Independent of the
Liberals or the Conservatives, or even both, but he is not independent
of the rule of capital). I say every member of this assembly, except
myself, was elected to defend and uphold the present social system, to
defend its foundation – capital, and therefore to justify the capitalist
class in their ownership of all the essential means of wealth
"We Socialists have in our platform ‘The transformation of capitalist
property into the collective property of the working class"; so, Mr.
Speaker, it is easy to see that the interests represented by the other
members of this assembly are absolutely opposed to the interests I
represent, and vice versa. True, we are all interested in having good
weather in Sunny Alberta, in being free from pestilence, disease and
natural calamities, but economically and politically we are enemies.
"We Socialists do not blame individuals for social conditions, for we
believe the individual to be a creature of social conditions, no matter
how much he or she may subjectively raise himself or herself above those
conditions. I have no ill-will for individuals capitalists or
representatives of capitalists, and when I refer to individuals, I do so
only because I believe them to be the expression or personification of
definite class interests. The social system that the other Hon. members
of this assembly were elected to defend had a great historic mission to
perform, and we believe that it has about completed that mission.
"When capitalism came upon the scene of human development, it found
the workers for the most part an ignorant, voiceless, peasant horde. It
leaves them an organized proletarian army, industrially intelligent, and
becoming politically intelligent. It found them working individually and
with little co-ordination. It has made them work collectively and
scientifically. It has abolished their individuality and reduced their
labor to a social average, levelling their differences until today the
humble ploughman is a skilled laborer by comparison with the weaver who
tends the loom, who has become so mechanical in action that he is indeed
but a mere part of that machine. In short, it has unified the working
"It found the means and methods of production crude, scattered and
ill-ordered, the private property of individuals, very often of
individuals who themselves took part in production. It leaves them
practically one gigantic machine of wealth production, orderly, highly
productive, economical of labor, closely inter-related, the collective
property of a class wholly unnecessary to production. A class whose
sudden extinction would not affect the speed of one wheel or the heat of
"It found the earth large, with communications difficult, divided
into nations knowing little or nothing of one another, with prairies
unpopulated, forests untrod, mountains unscaled. It has brought the ends
of the earth within speaking distances of one another, has ploughed the
prairies, hewed down the forests, tunnelled the mountains, explored all
regions, developed all resources. It has largely broken down all
boundaries, except on maps. It found the human family divided into
several classes, third, fourth, fifth and even sixth estates. It has
ruthlessly abolished all estates, although in the early part of its
development it produced a middle class of its own; but, as it grows
older it just as ruthlessly destroys that middle class – the child of
its own womb. It has brought the human family into two distinct classes.
The international capitalist class, with interests in all lands, on the
one hand, and the international working class, on the other, with a
common interest the world over.
"The modern class struggle is a struggle between masters and slaves
for ownership of the means of production, for they who own that which I
must have access to in order to live are my masters, and I am their
slave. The capitalists are struggling to retain their ownership and
mastery, that they may hold us in slavery. We slaves are struggling to
break the rule of capital and secure freedom by obtaining ownership. We
believe that the slavery of the past and present, with all its evil
effects, was necessary to fit us to individually enjoy what we will
collectively produce; we believe all the ages of chattel slavery were
necessary to pave the way to make possible feudal society, also, that
all the ages of feudal serfdom were necessary to pave the way and make
possible capitalism; but in a few generations the rule of capital has
not only paved the way and made possible, but it has brought us to the
very threshold of a new social order – The CO-OPERATIVE COMMONWEALTH –
and, Mr. Speaker, I am proud to be its first representative in this
legislative assembly of Alberta.
"Having defined my position in this House, Mr. Speaker, I want now to
deal for a few moments with the question directly before the House. One
honorable member severely criticized the agreement because it provides
that prairie loam may be used for ballast instead of gravel or stone. My
reason for criticizing it is because, although it contains certain
clauses in relation to the employees, they are so indefinite that, as I
said before, they are to the average lay mind, almost meaningless, for
the wording is such that it requires a brain trained to the solving of
legal intricacies to make anything out of it at all; how then are the
workers going to understand them? Just imagine, Mr. Speaker, a laborer
in the construction camp trying to wade through that mass of legal
phrases, vainly trying to find out what wages the government has said he
should receive, but that appears to be the beauty of it – it looks big
and means nothing.
"Now, Mr. Speaker, in place of this mass of jargon, I have drawn up a
few clauses here which are simple and clear in language, and state
definitely what is meant. I would like to be able to get this before the
House, either in the shape of a motion or as an amendment to the
original motion. I have already asked several members to second this for
me, one of whom, during his election campaign signed an affidavit that
he would support any or all labor legislation that was brought before
the house, but he, with the others, refused to second this amendment,
being afraid, I suppose, that they might incur the anger of their
masters by so doing.
"Mr. W. R. Clark, president of the Alberta and Great Waterways
Railway, has sent a letter to the government saying that as it appears
some of the members are not satisfied with the terms of the agreement,
he is willing, as a concession, to construct the first fifty miles of
the road without drawing any money for it until the line is completed.
The government has brought in an amendment to the amendment to the
motion asking the House to accept this concession, and further that the
sum of $1,000,000 of the contract money be retained for five years after
the completion of the road as a guarantee of equipment and operation.
This amendment brought in by the Hon. member for Cardston (J. W. Woolf)
is in effect a motion to open the amendment. I shall probably vote for
that amendment to open the contract in order to introduce the amendment
which I have framed.
"I would like to say a few words in regard to railway construction
camps, Mr. Speaker. We have been told that contractors experience
difficulty in getting all the men they require. I am not going to
contradict that statement, but I want to say that the conditions the
workers live under at these camps makes me wonder how they get as many
men as they do. The workers do not go to the railway construction camps
to work for pleasure, indeed the conditions at the majority of these
camps are such that men will not work in them until they are absolutely
forced to by economic necessity. As a matter of fact these construction
camps are a last resort to men who have any sense of decency and
respectability. My object in trying to get an amendment before the House
is not so much that it will make the condition of the workers better,
for I realize that I can do nothing, and I don’t suppose for a moment
that you will accept it in its present form, if you accept it at all you
will probably mutilate it to such an extent that its usefulness will be
lost, but it will have this effect, that the Hon. members who sit here
will go on record as being either for or against the workers.
"If I have followed the speeches correctly, Mr. Speaker, and I think
I have, it appears to me that the government has neglected the C. P. R.
and helped others who may become dangerous competitors. The Attorney
General has described the squabble as a family quarrel, and his
definition appears to me to be the right one. I must confess I had never
regarded the Hon. Attorney General as a prophet, but he must have had a
prophetic vision when he said that, for I have no doubt that when it
comes to a show down between the interests of the capitalist class and
the working class, the ‘family’ will forget all the little troubles they
have had between themselves and stand pat against the working class.
"The government has told us, sir, that their railway policy was a
good thing, that it was the railway policy which had got the members
elected. I have been given to understand that it used to be somewhat
difficult to get candidates to stand for election, but the railway
policy must have altered this, for at the last convention the candidates
were so numerous that they almost scrapped between themselves to decide
who should be nominated.
"There are members here who have been bitterly called traitors by the
government, and they have just as bitterly replied that they may be
traitors to the Alberta and Great Waterways deal, but not to Liberalism.
They have told us a lot about the glories of Liberalism, its fathers,
and its workings in England. I can not see where Liberalism has done
much for the worker in England. At the present time in England there are
about 12,000,000 on the verge of starvation. Liberalism in Good Old
Britain? Yes, they are as liberal now as they have always been, liberal
in fleecing the workers. I have no hesitation in accepting the traitors’
views of this matter, for I firmly believe that if anything threatened
their united interests, this quarrel would be immediately hushed up and
they would all be good and firm friends once more.
"There have been governments, sir, which have been described as Dear
by those who wished to gain control of them, this one has been described
as Cheap, and I must say that they appear to be a CHEAP BUNCH ALL
"Much has been made, Mr. Speaker, of the offer of the ex-minister of
public works (Mr. W. H. Cushing) to build the road on the specifications
of the C. N. R. main line for $16,000 per mile, but throughout his
speech I did not hear one word as to how he would propose to treat the
employees. It may be possible to build the road for less than $20,000;
it may be possible to build the road for $12,000 per mile, but we all
know what that means; we know that the extra work to make it pay would
have to come from the hides of those who build the road.
"If this agreement is opened it should be possible to improve the
clauses relating to the workers, so I would like to know, Mr. Speaker,
if, providing I can obtain a seconder, it will be in order to introduce
a further amendment?"
Mr. Speaker: We already have a motion, an amendment, and an amendment
to the amendment. I can accept nothing further till the last amendment has
been disposed of.
O’Brien: I have no wish to try to mix it with the other amendments, Mr.
Speaker. The fact is, they wouldn’t mix. I will introduce it after the
last amendment is disposed of.
At this juncture another point of order was raised. O’Brien receiving
many suggestions and offers of help.
O’Brien: I fully realize, Mr. Speaker, that there is likely to be a
close vote on this question, consequently I can get plenty of offers of
help from both sides. I have not decided yet how I will vote. In
conclusion, sir, let me say again, that as a Socialist, I want to see
the country developed. The faster capitalism compresses its forces into
smaller and smaller space by being owned by fewer and fewer men, the
quicker will the class lines be drawn, with the result that the workers
will see that what is the masters’ interests cannot be in their
interests. Then, and not till then, will they organize on the political
field, standing shoulder to shoulder, presenting a solid front to their
enemy, whom they will overwhelm by sheer numbers – at the ballot;
electing men of their own class, whose interests are their interests to
fight for the common good of their class, determined to own the earth
and the means of production, that they who produce shall also enjoy."
The vote upon the government amendment to open the contract being
taken, the amendment carried by a vote of 23 to 15. O’Brien voting to open
O’Brien then moved a further amendment, seconded by Cote (Lesser Slave
Lake), which provides that the government endeavour to get the company to
pay a minimum rate of wages of $2.50 per day of 9 hours. This was carried
by acclamation – a division not being called for.
NOTE.– The amendment to open the agreement between the government and
the A. & G. W. Ry Co. was the only question upon which O’Brien voted in
the House in connection with this affair. Just previous to the next
division he said:
"I am asked to record a vote of lack of confidence in the government.
Why, of course, I have no confidence in this or any other government. I
know that governments are for the purpose of pacifying slaves, and
holding them in subjection while the masters take the largest possible
amount of the surplus values. How could I have confidence in a
government that would (just previous to dissolution) pass an eight-hour
law for coal miners, and then in less than six months after re-election
nullify a very important part of that law on a cheap pretext of a
possible scarcity of coal? But then, if I do as I am asked, record a
vote of lack of confidence in that government, I, by the same action,
vote confidence in this opposition. And who are they? They are just as
bad as the government, perhaps worse."
O’Brien concluded by saying: "I have no confidence in either of you,
and it does not matter to me which of you win. It is a fight between
political representatives of different corporations over surplus values
that have been and are to be stolen from my class. When I voted on the
last division I did so because I saw an opportunity to benefit a few of
my class, the laborers in the construction camp. There is no opportunity
to get anything for the workers on this vote, and I shall not vote. On
every vote where there is no opportunity to get something for my class,
I shall not vote. On every vote where there is no opportunity to get
anything for my class, I shall leave the House and refrain from voting.
The Attorney General has said that this is a family quarrel. Correct.
Between you be it!"
And O’Brien left the House.