Winnipeg's First General Strike

(by Libertas Brammel)

Introduction by A. Ross McCormack

Most Canadians know that a massive general strike was fought in Winnipeg in 1919, and a few realize that a similar dispute, although of smaller proportions, occurred in the same city a year earlier. Thus, when in 1902 The Voice published serially a novel written by an author calling himself "Libertas Brammel," the organ of the Winnipeg trades council preserved for posterity an eerily prophetic vision of class tensions in the city. [1]  Set in 1960 Winnipeg, The Great Tribulation chronicles, "the greatest strike Canada had ever known."

The parallels between the actual 1919 general strike and the 1960 fictional strike are quite remarkable. [2] "Thousands of the unemployed stalk about our streets," Philip Murray, Libertas' hero, tells twenty thousand of his followers; and "in spite of our efforts wages drop lower and lower." Falling real wages caused by war‑time inflation and surplus in labour market caused by returning soldiers substantially contributed to the polarization of Winnipeg society in 1919. As a reflection of Libertas' internationalism, the Great Strike of 1960 begins on 1 May when "factory hands, mechanics, clerks, printers and street railway employees, and all others" leave their jobs. On 15 May 1919 nearly 25,000 workers, including factory hands, mechanics, clerks, printers and street railway employees, disrupted Winnipeg's economy by striking. In The Great Tribulation the strikers are peaceable and meet at "a great auditorium on McDermot Avenue." To maintain peace among their followers in 1919, strike leaders held rallies at Victoria Park, near the end of McDermot Avenue. At the head of his rebellious workers, Libertas placed Philip Murray and a small “central committee" of strike leaders constituted from several representative groups. The actual general strike was directed by a "central strike committee" of fifteen nominated by a much larger organization. Opposed to Philip Murray and his comrades is "the syndicate of twelve," self‑made merchants, manufacturers and railway magnates committed to the economic pre‑eminence of Winnipeg. In 1919 the Committee of One Thousand represented a nouveau riche elite which had prospered as a result of the city's commercial domination of the prairies.

Who was the remarkably prescient Libertas? I do not know in any specific way. To date my efforts to determine his identity, through searches in The Voice and Winnipeg directories, have been unsuccessful. I can make, however, some reasonable guesses about his background. Judging from a good deal of internal evidence, such as allusions and idiom, Libertas was probably an Anglican who had recently emigrated from Britain. And judging from his literacy and erudition, probably an artisan. Climbing farther out on the limb, his apparently short stay in the city which suggests tramping reinforces my impression of artisanal status. I hope publication of The Great Tribulation will lead to further inquiries into its provenance and Libertas' identity.

In the mean time, The Great Tribulation should not be considered only an historical curiosity; rather it is an important historical document, however faulty or incomplete. Indeed the novel provides illuminating glimpses of working‑class aspirations and attitudes. Some of these are familiar, for instance the ideological ambivalence reflected in the debates between Philip Murray and his friend David Paynter, but other insights that Libertas offers are new. Perhaps most important The Great Tribulation reflects the vitality and eclecticism of the autodidactic tradition in the labour movement, a significant though unexplored dimension of working‑class culture.

Increasing literacy was a prominent dimension of British working‑class culture during the nineteenth century. An essential of the Victorian self-improvement ethic, the ability to read and write became associated with security and status. As a result, especially after 1850 mass appeal newspapers, tracts, manuals and novels proliferated to meet a growing popular demand for the printed word. And many self‑educated workers, inspired by a strong "desire to participate in English literary culture," explored their experience in poetry and prose, which was usually published in newspapers. [3] A well‑founded tradition of literacy, then, was part of the cultural baggage of the British workers who migrated to western Canada at the turn of the century. This heritage was evident when immigrants from the United Kingdom took a leading role in the foundation and direction of every labour newspaper in the West. In 1903 it was estimated that "nine out of ten" of the Western Clarion's readers had recently arrived from Britain. [4] The Voice of Winnipeg typified the phenomenon. Established in 1894 by Arthur Puttee and other English trade-unionists, the paper was always newsy and literate, but at times its pages shone with an erudition and literary grace which reflected tremendous working‑class pride and accomplishment. [5]

Working‑class authors, such as Libertas, who explored the experience of the masses in industrial society were inspired by two complementary, though different, literary traditions. The industrial novelists, the best of whom was Dickens, portrayed the squalor and degradation of the northern slums and denounced the human price of progress. Nevertheless these middle‑class authors believed implicitly in the perfectibility of industrial capitalism. Class conflict represented a failure produced by irresponsible employer and wicked workers; "Strikes, mass demonstrations or any expression of working‑class solidarity," P.J. Keating argues, "are naturally condemned." [6] In Hard Times one of Dickens' most attractive characters in the novel dies as a result of union solidarity. By the last quarter of the century this attitude began to change under the impact of French naturalism and progressivism. Through carefully observed treatments of the brutality of working‑class life, slum novelists, such as Arthur Morrison, severely indicted modem society. [7]

The second influential literary tradition was explicitly political. The product of working‑class authors, a few nineteenth‑century English novels encouraged class conflict. Even though the tradition was a minor one, it manifested two periods of vitality, periods which significantly coincided with social polarization. Fiction was an important dimension of Chartist propaganda. Leaders of the movement, such as Ernest Jones and Thomas Martin Wheeler, wrote novels which used melodrama and moralizing to promote dissatisfaction and solidarity among workers. [8] This tradition became dormant during years of class accommodation at mid‑century but revived in the turbulent nineties. In A More Excellent Way, Constance Howell's hero is an advocate of socialism. The ultimate expression of the political school was Robert Tressell's Ragged Trousered Philanthropists; even though his belaboured didacticism obscured any artistic merit, the novel had a tremendous popular impact. [9]  Libertas was part of this tradition.

The political instrumentality of The Great Tribulation is clear. Libertas' vision of society in polarized Winnipeg was simple and direct; good workers are exploited and oppressed by evil capitalists. He elaborated his vision in florid prose and melodramatic action which were designed to arouse his readers. "We have been shorn like sheep; we have been squeezed like lemons," cries Philip Murray; "we make everything for [the syndicate], toil for them day and night; they pay us little and charge us whatever they please for our own products." The legitimate and humane aspirations of the workers are opposed by a powerful and corrupt elite. To warn his readers against underestimating their opponents, Libertas portrayed employers as ruthless. "They can strike till doomsday before their pay will be increased as far as I am concerned," George Elliott, a department store magnate, tells the syndicate, "they're overpaid . . . Their food is too good; their labour is too light."

True to its purpose, The Great Tribulation advocates a solution to social inequality. Because there is a certain confusion to Libertas' thought reflecting Marxist, Darwinian and liberal influences, the burden of his political theme is at times obscure. Nonetheless one essential idea system persists throughout the novel, Christian Socialism. Inspired by progressives in the Church of England, Libertas believed that society could only be redeemed through a renewal of faith. [10] Divine will had originally ordained an egalitarian and co‑operative society. But because modern men and women had abandoned Christianity, they "are crushed and ground down to serve their unrighteous taskmasters." The co‑operative commonwealth can be restored through working‑class solidarity. The form which collective action must take, however, is unclear. Ironically Libertas recognized obvious tactical disadvantages in strikes. Implicitly he seems to prefer political action; it is probably significant that Philip Murray defiantly describes himself as a socialist. But if Libertas was uncertain about the form of working‑class action, he had no doubt about its moral content. "Fallen man has fallen so deep that he cannot be rescued except by the Almighty," David Paynter, the author's mouthpiece, explains. By imposing Christianity, the working‑class can redeem society. The promise of social harmony embodied in Libertas' hope is symbolized by the pure and noble love of Philip Murray for Enid Anstruther, daughter of the syndicate's leader, a love which ultimately ends the Great Strike.

Because Libertas' didactic purpose ultimately precluded artistic achievement, The Great Tribulation is a piece of bad literature. The novel is clearly derivative. To achieve character development and dramatic impact, he borrowed freely from popular fiction. Philip Murray is a highly conventional hero, of the people yet clearly separated from them by a superior idealism. Enid Anstruther's resurrection is a deus ex machina characteristic of Victorian melodrama. Two dimensional characterization, inadequate setting, an uncertain narrative all mar the novel, but one deficiency stands out. When Winnipeg's history necessitated that Libertas set his great strike in the future, he could have written an engaging and entertaining tale. He missed the opportunity. Unlike Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward there is no fantasy in the novel; instead of air cars and moving walk‑ways, Winnipegers of Libertas’ future continue to ride street cars. Had The Great Tribulation been better fiction, it would have been better propaganda.

In preparing this edition of The Great Tribulation for publication, I have corrected typographical errors which appeared in The Voice, standardized the punctuation and abridged Chapters IV, IX and XI.


[1] The Voice, 30 May ‑ 26 September 1902. [—> main text]

[2] David Jay Bercuson, Confrontation at Winnipeg: Labour, Industrial Relations, and the General Strike (Montreal 1974). [—> main text]

[3] J.F.C. Harrison, Learning and Living 1790‑1970: A Study in the History of the English Adult Education Movement (London 1961), 38‑89; Richard D. Altick, The English Common Reader: A Social History of the Mass Reading Public 1800‑1900 (Chicago 1957), 318‑364 and Martha Vicinus, The Industrial Muse: A Study of Nineteenth Century British Working‑Class Literature (London 1974), 140. [—> main text]

[4] Western Clarion, 31 July 1903. [—> main text]

[5] For a discussion of the impact of British immigration on the Canadian labour movement see A. Ross McCormack, "The British Working‑Class Immigration and Canadian Radicalism: The Case of Arthur Puttee," Canadian Ethnic Studies, 10 (1978). [—> main text]

[6] P.J. Keating, The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction (London 1971), 1‑30 and 121‑35. [—> main text]

[7] Ibid., 125‑98 and P.J. Keating, Working‑Class Stories of the 1890's (London 1971). [—> main text]

[8] Vicinus, Industrial Muse, 113‑35. [—> main text]

[9] Allan Sillitoe, “Introduction" to Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (London 1977), 7. [—> main text]

[10] K.S. Inglis, Churches and the Working Classes in Victorian England (London 1963), 259-­287. English historians are presently debating the importance of Christianity's influence on socialism. Stephen Yeo, "A New Life: The Religion of Socialism in Britain 1883‑1896," History Workshop, 4 (Autumn 1977), 5‑56 and Royden Harrison, "The Religion of Socialism," History Workshop, 5 (Spring 1978), 214‑7. [—> main text]

SOURCE: McCormack, A. Ross. Introduction: "The Great Tribulation: Winnipeg's First General Strike" [by "Libertas Brammel"], Labour / Le Travailleur [Canada], vol. 4, no. 4, 1979, pp. 187-191. Following the introduction is the text of the prophetic novel The Great Tribulation, written in 1902 under the nom de plume "Libertas Brammel"; pp. 191-209.

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