The Politics of John W. Dafoe
and the Free Press

By Ramsay Cook, 1963

Reviewed in Western Socialist,
Nº 5, 1963,
Boston, USA

Book Review

The socialist is under no delusion as to the function of a city newspaper editor. In a broad sense he is the mouthpiece of national ruling class interests, and in particular he advocates the special interests of the capitalists in the area in which his paper operates. It is his job to so present his editorial data that it appears to be representative of the views and ideas of the local community and at the same time in the national interest. In other words he is a ruling class propagandist. Should there be any doubt on this score a read of Professor Ramsay Cook’s book, The Politics of John W. Dafoe and the Free Press, will help dispel it.

Did his job well

For 43 years Mr. Dafoe ably fulfilled his task. A Liberal in politics, he had served as editor on several eastern Conservative newspapers before settling into the editor’s chair at the Manitoba Free Press in Winnipeg in 1901. His predecessor, A. J. Magurn, had been fired by the owner, Mr. Clifford Sifton, for “failure to live up to his contracted obligation of ‘holding yourself to the advancement of the interest of the property’”. Dafoe soon received his working orders from Sifton. The latter regarded all of Manitoba and in fact all the western prairies as his paper’s constituency. The material and news articles “had to be written and arranged so as to best influence the reader. If this is done properly ‘the simple minded farmer will swallow it, and a great many people who are not farmers and who ought to know better’”. “The objective of a Party newspaper was to ‘get the public mind saturated with its views and ideas.’”(Sifton letters to staff members, 1901, pp. 15-16.)

The joining of the forces of Dafoe and Sifton paid off. For Sifton the “property” became an increasingly profitable enterprise and at the same time a powerful lever to advance the political careers of the Sifton family. For Dafoe came the opportunity to peddle his version of Liberal nationalism on domestic and international affairs. He was accomplished in the use of words and could build plausible editorials, though often based on false premises. His reputation soared. In fact it was said during his lifetime that “for the past generation now it has been generally true that what the Free Press thinks today, western Canada will think tomorrow and the intelligent part of eastern Canada will think a few years hence” (p. 285).

1919 General Strike

While debating the pros and cons of ruling class party politics Dafoe was masterful, calm and serene. But he lost his composure completely when the economic phase of the class struggle broke loose in full flood in Winnipeg in 1919. Roughly 35,000 workers of a population of 180,000 went on a sympathetic strike. The issue – collective bargaining, the right of workers to bargain as a group with their employer on matters of wages and working conditions. The railway workers were out. So were the milk and bakery workers. Restaurants and theatres closed. The civic workers, including all fire departments and a large majority of the police force, were out. Street cars and cabs stopped running. The building trades, metal trades and printing trades ceased work. Almost all industrial activity stopped. The Free Press itself was reduced to a single page, printed somewhere.

This was intolerable. The employers organized a “Citizens Committee of 1000” to break the strike. Dafoe, just returning from European post-war conferences, accepted their views. The Free Press had by this time gained a national reputation. In its reduced form, its readers were now treated to some of the most inflammatory language ever used by a newspaper in Canada against a class struggling for more livable conditions of labor. At the end of the first week of the six week strike Dafoe told his readers that the situation in Winnipeg “had developed into a potential social revolution whose Bolshevik leaders intended to divide the country between themselves”. As the weeks passed he became more violent and bitter. On June 7 he wrote, “Between the German Zeppelin policy and the cutting off of the food of infants and children there is no perceptible difference.” This in spite of the fact that an arrangement between the Mayor, the Citizens Committee and the Strike Committee had already been made to open restaurants, operate movies, supply hospitals, deliver milk and bread, etc. In his frothings Dafoe constantly referred to the strikers as “bohunks”, “aliens” and “foreigners”, although thousands had just returned from a stint of fighting overseas. He outdid himself to turn economic struggle into “a big Red scare”.

An international nationalist

On the international scene Dafoe’s views were just as unrealistic. He used gallons of printer’s ink sponsoring the Wilsonian “League of Nations” which – because of bitter trade rivalries among nations the socialist said would fall apart – actually did at the sound of the first bugle call in 1939. His pen worked overtime to build the British “Commonwealth of Nations” into a “steadying influence” to preserve world peace. This body has lost its potency, if it ever had any. Before he died in 1944 Dafoe foresaw another “League”, more streamlined than the original, and with much more power. Today, U Thant, secretary of the United Nations Organization, presents a sorry spectacle. He resembles a fireman with an extinguisher rushing from one hot spot to another in the cold war dampening the small fires which are erupting on a world wide scale. Nations disputing so violently cannot organize and unite for peace. The UN is ultimately doomed as was the League of Nations.

In human achievement, therefore, Dafoe batted zero. As a capitalist writer he hacked out a name for himself for his ability to lead blind workers and farmers up blind alleys. The naming of schools after him, the setting up of plaques and scrolls to his memory are his reward for a job well done. Mr. Bruce Hutchinson, Victoria newspaper editor and long time friend and admirer, tells us that in 1944 Dafoe’s views had changed “and matured in a fashion startling even to his close friends, but (the war was on) it was not time them to expound them” (Winnipeg Free Press, May 16, 1963). There is no evidence of this.

To make a living in present society all workers must sell their mental and physical energies to a capitalist. Like most workers the newspaper editor has something to sell. But unlike most workers the editor can only sell his energies successfully by adopting and advocating the views and opinions of his employer. To refuse is to be removed. On this basis the socialist holds no animosity to individual newspaper editors, but it is our job nevertheless to show that the modern newspaper is a powerful institution dedicated to maintaining the supremacy of the ruling class in society. This is not in the interest of the majority – rather a society of production to supply the needs of all is in order. We therefore support the view expressed by a writer in a socialist journal fifty years ago describing daily press editorial staff as “capitalist hacks and lickspittles”. Their writings should be looked at in such light by all workers.