The 1919 Workers’ Revolt was National in Character

Gregory S. Kealey

In 1984, on the 75th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, Labour/Le Travail (L/LT) published the proceedings of a symposium held the previous year. The cover image we chose for that issue was “1919 MAJUS” by Biro Mihaly (1886–1948), the Hungarian revolutionary artist who was commemorating the new Hungarian Soviet led by Bela Kun.

The image reflected the central argument coming out of the symposium, that the events of the summer of 1919 in Canada were part of an international surge of working-class struggle that emerged from the embers of World War I and the inspiring sparks of the Bolshevik Revolution.

In my contribution to the L/LT issue, that examined the national contours of the 1919 strike wave, I wrote that “the revolt was national in character and that its seeds were not rooted in any unique regional fermentation. The radical ‘west’ and the conservative east have become sorry shibboleths of Canadian historiography. The foundations of our understanding of 1919 must be built on national and international conjunctures.”

I think it is fair to say that this has become the prevalent view of the events of 1919 and one that was much in evidence at the recent Winnipeg General Strike centennial conference held at the University of Winnipeg. These views have displaced the previous historiography that had stressed the uniqueness of Winnipeg in particular and the west in general as the loci of Canadian radicalism.

The events in Winnipeg and across the country in the spring and summer of 1919 arose from a plethora of economic, ideological, political, and social issues which were in turn simultaneously local, regional, national, and international. Our second image for the L/LT issue, for example, shows how the ideological, political and international combined in the propaganda work of the Socialist Party of Canada, many of whose leaders played prominent roles in Winnipeg and in the wave of Canada-wide general and general sympathetic strikes. This hand-painted banner promoting Trotsky’s Bolsheviki and World Peace is available today only because of the police raids and seizures that figured in the rising state repression of labour and the left in the aftermath of Bloody Saturday in Winnipeg on 21 June 1919.

Subsequent posts this week will explore specific components of the strike wave and explore the complex interplay of issues that figured in the general strikes (Amherst, Toronto) and general sympathetic strikes (Brandon, Calgary, Edmonton, Regina, Saskatoon, Vancouver, Victoria, etc.).

Our third image conveyed the national scope of the events of May–July 1919.

While 100 years separate us from the events of the workers’ revolt, they still remind us of the moments of intense class struggle that have arisen on numerous occasions in the history of capitalism. The forms of class struggle have changed as has the nature of capitalist exploitation, but 1919, like the 1880s, 1930s, and 1960s, all demonstrate the potential of new forms of resistance to capital.

Greg Kealey was the founding editor of Labour/ Le Travail. Emeritus Professor of History at the University of New Brunswick, his most recent book is Spying on Canadians: The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Security Service and the Origins of the Long Cold War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2017).

Further reading:

Kealey, Gregory S. “1919: The Canadian Labour Revolt.” Labour/ Le Travail, 13 (1984): 11–44.


Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Blog posts published before October  28, 2018 are licensed with a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 Canada License.

Please note: encourages comment and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments submitted under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.