The Proletarian in Politics

The Socialist Position
As defended by C. M. O’Brien, M. L. A. in the Alberta Legislature

Written: 1910

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 behalf.

“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 Socialism.

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 production.

“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 class.

“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 one furnace.

“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 THROUGH.

“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 the contract.

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.