The Western Socialist
Vol. 28 - No. 220
No. 2, 1961
pages 12-15

The Compassionate Scribe

A book introducing historical data on working class struggles in Canada is bound to be of interest to socialists: there are far too few efforts of this kind. Such a work has just been issued by Dorothy G. Steeves and a copy was received with more than a little pleasure, though tempered by the knowledge that its contents, dating from the turn of the century and centered in British Columbia, are mainly biographical, being linked with the activities of E. E. Winch, a member of the B. C. legislature from 1933 until he died in 1957, and the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, the organization he represented. The book is entitled "The Compassionate Rebel" and is subtitled "Ernest E. Winch and His Times."

Mrs. Steeves, it should be mentioned, was also for some years a CCF member of the B. C. legislature and has been for many years a staunch supporter of the CCF. This explains the loving if sometimes mildly critical care with which she fondles all things CCF, though there is evident a strong desire to treat its opponents with consideration.

Although her outline dates back only some 60 years, Mrs. Steeves found "that a great many valuable records of B. C.'s early labor and socialist history are no longer available or difficult to locate," and she appeals to all who have letters, papers or documents of any kind pertaining to social or political history to give them to an appropriate library or collection of archives where they can be preserved and made available to posterity. Her difficulties in this regard account for the sketchiness in her treatment of the earlier years.

B. C. is still primarily a mining and logging province, but trade union activity over the years has done much to cut away the worst of the hardships formerly suffered by the workers. Sixty years ago the lot of the miners and loggers was harsh and brutal. Their working conditions were dangerous and their living conditions wretched. The employers, as employers always do when not restrained, rode roughshod over the needs and demands of the workers and settled for nothing but the most ruthless exploitation, fully supported by the provincial government and the daily press. This situation brought bitter resistence and Mrs. Steeves gives many accounts of the resulting strikes, turmoil and police repression. Even the jails into which the strikers were thrown were vile places: "the food was disgusting and the blankets filthy and lousy."


Out of these conditions emerged the Socialist Party of B. C., which "became the founding movement of the Socialist Party of Canada" and gained the support of the trade unions, particularly the miners' groups scattered through the province. "In 1906 the B. C. Trade Union Convention passed a resolution recommending to the working class throughout the province the careful study and investigation of the Socialist Party of Canada and urged 'the earnest study of the principles and program of socialism as we believe that in the accomplishment of its aims lies the only true and permanent solution of the labor problem.'"

The Socialist Party also fell heir to two members of the B. C. legislature who had been elected as Labor candidates, a situation somewhat tempered by the inclusion in its membership of a number of Marxian students who fought steadily, on the platform and in the Party's newly-established journal The Western Clarion, to keep the revolutionary viewpoint to the fore. The strenuous times brought out strenuous language and the pages of the Clarion often blistered with denunciations of capitalism, its institutions and upholders, an example being its description of the flag of capitalism as "dripping with the blood of wage-slaves, sacrificed on the altar of profit that a master class may rule and revel in the stolen products of labor." Even the trade union journal of the day, the B. C. Federationist, had a "virile socialist outlook."

Many of the propagandists of the old S. P. of C. are mentioned in Mrs. Steeves's book but strangely there is no mention of D. C. McKenzie who was surely one of the Party's outstanding members. McKenzie was for a time secretary of the Party and editor of the Clarion and many of the Clarion's finest and most virile writings came from his pen. One of his articles, "Stupidus and Sapiens," first published in the Clarion in 1911, has been reprinted many times. "The Manifesto of the S. P. of C." of which there were five editions plus a revised edition published in recent years as "The Socialist Manifesto," was another of his writings, as also was the Preface to its Fourth Edition always a favorite with this writer. It was published during the First World War and the following is a paragraph:

"Another illusion that has been dispelled is that of the strength of the European Social-Democracies, arising out of their opportunist mode of propaganda. These parties have waged their campaign upon the political issues of the day, thus aligning themselves with that section of the Socialist movement which would sacrifice sound principles to immediate successes. They have numbered their adherents by the million, and have educated them not at all. They have sown the wind—they are reaping the whirlwind. In conflict with them for a generation are those who would sacrifice immediate successes to sound principles, who have been content to be fewer in numbers if clearer in understanding, who have given transient political issues the 'go-by' and have harped upon the Social Revolution, who have expounded Economics and the Class Struggle, when the others were shouting against taxes and tariffs, who have earned for themselves the name of 'impossiblist,' and have been content therewith. The war has justified them. Where there are any 'impossiblists' or 'near - impossiblists' in Europe, they have stood firm. The `practical socialists' are cutting one another's throats in the trenches."


The old S. P. of C. maintained a remarkable level of clarity in its spoken and written propaganda — while at the same time being pulled all ways by its trade union and other members who were less interested in socialism than they were in immediate measures of amelioration. The Manifesto carried these brave words: "Understanding the futility of reform and the danger of compromise (the Party) stands square with science and practical experience, wasting not its time and energy on mere effects but dealing with root causes." Yet the Party, in B. C. and throughout the country, fell victim finally to the pressure of reformism within its ranks, more particularly the waves of reformism that followed the war, given strong impetus by the Russian Revolution and the campaigning of its Communist off-shoot. The Party as a revolutionary force declined rapidly in the 1920s and passed from the scene with the demise of the Clarion in 1925.

Mrs. Steeves records the decline of the S. P. of C. in untroubled terms. To her, apparently, this was no working class setback but rather the preparatory background to the great humanitarian movement of which she became a part in later years, the CCF. The old Marxians were grand people, no doubt, rugged fighters who perhaps filled a need at a time, but they could not be very helpful today; and Mrs. Steeves, as one who lives in other times and has seen another light, has difficulty mentioning them without the aid of such noted attachments as "doctrinaire," "dogmatic," "simon-pure gospellers" and so on, no doubt reaching a literary first in her reference to the "tendency of extreme doctrinaire socialism to roll itself up into an impregnable cocoon." In this she falls victim to a kind of activity popular amongst opponents of working class theory, who rarely use Marx's name without the aid of such handy substitutes for discussion as "jargon," "outmoded," and "discredited." She could learn better lessons elsewhere.

With the passing of the S. P. of C. the main body of its membership became apathetic and inactive or found their way into the Communist Party and the other reform groups that finally merged with the CCF. Mrs. Steeves, although she speaks briefly of The Western Socialist, does not mention that the "doctrinaires," centered in Winnipeg, reconstituted the Party. This occurred in 1931, the one difference being that they became, if anything, even more "dogmatic" by adopting the Declaration of Principles of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, regarding it as a clearer and more concise statement of Party views than had been the Platform of the old S. P. of C. She does mention at some length the existence at about the same time of a group calling itself the "S. P. of C. (B. C. Section)", which came much closer to her own viewpoint. This organization ignored its Winnipeg namesake and soon found sufficient scope for its socialist pretensions in the CCF, where it vanished.


"The Compassionate Rebel" is primarily biographical, most of it dealing with the activities of E. E. Winch during his many years in the B. C. legislature. He is mentioned as having been part of the early years of workers' struggles. He held a number of trade union positions. He was a member of the Social - democratic Party, then of the Socialist Party, in neither of which was he active. To Mrs. Steeves he was a raging rip-snorter of the old school, but "the practical, rather than the theoretical or bookish socialist." He liked his socialism boiling hot and well diluted. He reached his stride with the rise of Laborism.

Winch entered the B. C. parliament in 1933 and at once plunged into an awesome maze of non-socialist affairs that kept him engaged for the rest of his life. He became a do-gooder. His heart wrung in all directions. He sponsored not only the types of legislation usually favored by reformers: his field was wider. He supported legal status for chiropracters and drugless physicians, legislative investigation of cures for cancer and arthritis, the segregation of criminals into age groups, medical care for drug addicts, more humane traps for fur-bearing animals, improved public parks and improved quarters for bears in such parks.

He established an Association for the Scientific Treatment of Delinquency. He was a member of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and founded a branch in New Westminster. He was the originator and president of the Association for the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals. He became known as the "Minister of the Institutions" due to the intense interest and study he gave to B.C.'s jails, hospitals, asylums, etc., upon which he was ever ready to discourse statistically and lengthily.

He had boundless time and energy for all causes that enabled him to peck and scratch at the unhappy by-products of modern society. He could produce pages of patiently-collected figures on defective health and delinquency among children. He could travel from end to end of the province and even beyond its borders to gather the material needed to support his causes.

Yet of the source of these evils and what to do about it he had little to say; and when the Second World War came, bringing horror to Europe and greater horror beneath two mushroom clouds over Japan, he said that he "knew nothing about international affairs and was not going to enter into controversy."

Mrs. Steeves, who was also a member of the legislature at the time, had more to say and it was noted in The Western Socialist of January 1940 that she roused the hostility of the house when she said, among other things, "That word 'empire' is connected with a history of horror and slaughter." Unhappily, this utterance was among the isolated glimmerings of clarity within the CCF, which tried first to face all ways at once then fell in line with the requirements of the ruling class.

Ernest Winch was the ideal reformer. He threw himself so thoroughly into the things held dear to organizations like the CCF that Mrs. Steeves, with yearnings akin to his, treats him with the greatest consideration. Noting some of his failings she is the compassionate scribe passing gently, almost affectionately, over these failings. His increasing neglect, as the years went by, in the use of the burning socialist passages he learned in his earlier years, is noted but does not seem to be significant to her. Winch was always the passionate rebel aiming at a new society and doing what he could for his kind along the way.


How far Winch had strayed from whatever socialist analytical powers he may once have held is indicated by his comment, made during a visit to England in 1951, that after six postwar years of reform carried out by the Labor Government "the working people of England felt for the first time that the country was really theirs." These six years were the years of government-imposed austerity and brought so little to the British workers that 1951 was also the year they handed the country over to the Conservatives and have insisted that the Conservatives hold on to it through two elections since. A recent issue of the Manchester Guardian Weekly (Dec. 22) shows a picture of a London bus conductor, his wife and child and two friends helping with the Christmas decorations in their one room home. One worker's share of England is still exceedingly small.

There is need neither to admire nor further the works of Winch. Such works succeed mainly in raising hopes that are later shattered. Mrs. Steeves and those who think like her must some time come to realize that capitalism can create more anguish in a day than the legions of Winches can cope with in a generation. That their efforts contribute nothing to socialism may be seen in its rejection by the British Labor Party and parties like it, including the looming New Party, completely capitalist in outlook and about to absorb the CCF. Those who want socialism must work for it. The other kind of activity simmers down simply to more humane bear traps for the workers.

J. M.