Remembering the Turmoil of 1919

By Levine, Allan | Winnipeg Free Press, January 4, 2019 | Go to article overview

Remembering the Turmoil of 1919


Levine, Allan, Winnipeg Free Press


Some years stand out in the history of the 20th century more than others. Among them are 1914, when the First World War began; 1939 and 1945, the start and end of the Second World War; and 1968, for the conflict within the United States about the Vietnam War and the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy.

So, too, it was a century ago in 1919, a year of turmoil and confrontation in Winnipeg and Canada, and the rest of the western world.

In Europe and North America, there was a decisive showdown between capital andlabour, and manager and worker. It was a clash between the unregulated world of the 19th century, in which labour was a commodity to be exploited, to the more modern, complex world of the early 20th century, when workers not only questioned their place in society, but also demanded change. The end of the First World War, with its severe economic dislocation and social upheaval, as soldiers came home only to find their jobs taken by women and foreigners, exacerbated the situation.

Adding to this was the Bolshevik-led Revolution in Russia in October 1917, with its initial promise for a glorious Communist future. Vladimir Lenin’s success in eliminating capitalism and establishing a so-called “dictatorship of the proletariat” loomed large.

Everywhere there was panic and fear about the imminent revolution. Few events in the 20th century frightened the ruling classes in western Europe and North America as much as the Russian Revolution did. Bolsheviks were atheists and free thinkers. They had “wild eyes,” “long, bushy hair” and wore “tattered clothes.” They denied God and held a bomb in one hand and a dagger in the other; they advocated “free love” and were intent on destroying everything sacred in western society. Their every move occupied the “peacemakers” at the Paris treaty talks at the end of the First World War.

Winston Churchill, Britain’s secretary of state for war in early 1919, reaffirmed in a speech in London what everyone else was thinking. “Of all the tyrannies in history,” he declared, “the Bolshevik tyranny is the worst, the most destructive, the most degrading.” He held this view for the rest of his days.

Communists in Germany, Austria and Hungary had attempted, with limited success, to emulate Lenin and Leon Trotsky in a revolutionary takeover. Radicals in France and Italy were also active. In an open letter, Lenin wrote to American workers in August 1918, urging them “to revolt against (their) rulers.” Then, at the Third International Congress (also called the Comintern) convened by Lenin in March 1919, it was declared in a manifesto that “the aim of the International Communist Party is to overthrow it and raise in its place the structure of the socialist order.”

That same month, labourites and socialists from Winnipeg and across the country met in Calgary to advocate for the establishment of the One Big Union, or O. …

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