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Manitoba History: Jack Houston’s Editorials in the OBU Bulletin, 1919-1921

by Peter Campbell (Queen’s University, Kingston) with editorials compiled by C. Stuart Houston (Saskatoon, SK)

Number 72, Spring-Summer 2013

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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John D. Houston belonged to a much-maligned generation of Canadian socialists. Banished to the fringes of Canadian political culture when considered at all, even the best known among them are now most likely to be remembered for doctrinaire intransigence and thoughts on race and gender that stand condemned before the judges of a more enlightened age. Yesterday’s men and women, they were blinkered anachronisms, lost in a world of hairsplitting theoretical debates. Characterized as oblivious to the national context and its leading issues, they were but passing blips on the radar screen of Canadian political life.

John D. “Jack” Houston (1856–1921) came to Winnipeg in 1905. During the First World War, he made munitions at Montreal. In August 1919, he was the founding editor of the One Big Union Bulletin until being forced to step down in poor health prior to his death at St. Boniface. He was interred in Elmwood Cemetery.
Source: C. Stuart Houston

Be that as it may, Canadian socialist John Houston was a man known from coast to coast in this country, his editorials read by thousands of Canadian working-class men and women who trusted him to give them the “straight goods.” The straight goods included unstinting attacks on the existing trade union movement dominated by the American Federation of Labor and its craft orientation. Canadian Marxists like Houston were convinced they had a deeper understanding than the “professional surface skimmers” of the mainstream labour movement, and it was their life’s purpose to reveal the truth to a misled Canadian working class. John Houston was part of a generation with its own vocabulary, its own rough egalitarianism, and its own blunt analysis of the world’s problems and how to fix them.

Having moved to Winnipeg in 1905, Houston was already well known and respected enough by 1908 to run as a Socialist Party of Canada candidate in the federal election of that year. Although of Anglo-Celtic background, and thereby fitting the stereotype of SPC members, Houston enjoyed widespread support from Winnipeg’s “ethnic” communities. Campaign meetings addressed by Houston included speakers of Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Ruthenian, and German. Jewish support came not just from individuals making campaign donations, but also from the Workmen’s Circle, which endorsed Houston’s candidacy by telling the working class of Winnipeg that “a vote for J. D. Houston will be a vote for themselves.” On election day Houston finished third behind the Liberal and Conservative candidates, yet polled an impressive 2,000 votes. Houston’s strength was in the north end of Winnipeg, indicating strong support from the “ethnic” communities and from skilled machinists of Anglo-Celtic origin who worked at the Canadian Pacific Railway’s Weston yards and shops.

After 1908 not a great deal is known about Houston, except that he worked as an organizer for the Socialist Party of Canada. As the First World War approached he left Winnipeg for Toronto and then Montreal, where he spent the First World War years. Houston made a name for himself on the Montreal left as a keen debater and someone quite willing to incorporate new ways of thinking into his more firmly held Marxist principles. The respect in which Houston was held was revealed in the summer of 1919 when he was asked to return to Winnipeg to take over the editorship of the One Big Union Bulletin. In the wake of the Winnipeg General Strike, with prominent strike leaders such as R. B. Russell on trial and then incarcerated, Houston became the leading voice in the country for the One Big Union and the cause of industrial unionism.

While editorship of the OBU Bulletin alone establishes Houston’s importance, he needs to be recognized for an equally significant contribution. Beginning on 24 April 1920 Houston published a series of articles entitled “The Stage Setting of the O. B. U.” in the Bulletin. Frank Woodward, who succeeded Houston as editor of the Bulletin, called it “the first attempt of its kind to write the history of Canada from the viewpoint of the class-conscious worker.” It may never be possible to definitively state that John Houston was Canada’s first labour historian, but he was certainly among the first to write an account of the rise of Canadian labour from the period of initial contact with Aboriginal Peoples to his own day.

Houston’s labour history of Canada evinces many of the major strengths and weaknesses of the Marxist analysis of his generation. His approach is teleological, presenting historical evolution as leading inexorably to the formation of the One Big Union, the demise of craft unionism, and the relegating of the American Federation of Labor to the dustbin of history. To a 21st century reader Houston’s determinism is off-putting, if not offensive, the relic of a long-gone world view to be condemned and forgotten. That sentiment is compounded when Houston applies a teleological approach to Aboriginal Peoples, accepting the widespread belief of his time that it is the fate of Aboriginal Peoples “to perish from the face of the earth.”

Before rushing to condemn, it is well to remember that in Houston’s day not just “white” people, but many Aboriginal people themselves, believed that they belonged to a “dying race.” In an age in which Canada’s Aboriginal People were treated as mere impediments to the spread of the British Commonwealth’s civilizing mission to the world, Houston had no illusions about what had happened in Canada, satirically noting: “The Indians being savages and barbarians, had never learned the virtues of civilization, among which was the paramount virtue of getting the best of one’s neighbor through lying, cheating and stealing.” Academic critics of Socialist Party members have signally failed to recognize and understand their satire, taking their comments on “race” at face value, and failing to appreciate the incisive critiques of racism that flowed from their pens. Houston also comments on slavery in Canada, beating by almost a century most Canadians of our own day who still do not realize that the peculiar institution existed in this country.

We can also choose to be critical of Houston’s brief look at the Knights of Labor, in which he makes the exaggerated claim that the organization’s membership ran into “a good many millions.” More importantly, it might be argued, is his regard for the organization’s efforts to unite men and women, black and white, skilled and unskilled. This effort, Houston writes, “filled the perspective,” a powerfully evocative turn of phrase that I do not feel competent to accurately interpret. It is, perhaps, Houston’s version of “dreaming of what might be,” but in a sense an even more powerful evocation of the age-old longing for freedom and equality.

Yet as keen a commentator on working-class organization as Houston was, his working-class history of Canada in some ways features an even more insightful analysis of the rise of the Canadian capitalist class. Houston bases his analysis of Canadian business on what he calls “bush culture.” The Canadian self-made man started out on the farm, then moved to the country town, where he created a “pecuniary-politico enterprise” in which real estate speculation served as the driving force of local patriotism and civic pride. To Houston, this enterprise “is a sort of offensive and defensive alliance in which each is a strategist for his own particular pocket and all stand together against the enemy, the stranger.”

Winnipeg in 1919 was a small city, or “overgrown town” in Houston’s schema, a city characterized by the same offensive and defensive alliance whose values had emerged from the bush culture. During the Winnipeg General Strike, Houston writes: “The bush culture was appealed to and the full draught of its reactionary principles was fully honored. The old alliance between the government, the law, the business man, the church and the press were all fully availed of.” It was during the strike that bush culture was most fully realized, brought on by a set of values that allowed Canadian capitalists to get “something for nothing from the wealth created by the labor of the foreign immigrant.”

Houston puts paid to the claim now widespread in Canadian academic circles that the Winnipeg General Strike had nothing to do with the One Big Union, noting that “the causes which produced the Winnipeg strike were inseparably linked up with the origin of the O. B. U.” Houston writes: “Many of the most enthusiastic supporters of the O. B. U. up to the development of the enmity to the workers as shown in the strike, refused to budge out of the old internationals.” Houston had a keen appreciation of the crucial roll the strike played in transforming the dream of one big union into a flesh and blood festival of possibility in the streets of Winnipeg. It was the strike, Houston reminds us, that made many initial opponents of the One Big Union change their minds and take the plunge.

John Houston’s articles in the One Big Union Bulletin cannot be dismissed as the amateur ramblings of a misguided maverick, because it is our own past and its meanings that we are dismissing. We get so bound up in the posturing of political rights and lefts that we forget that the Canadians of John Houston’s generation, their politics notwithstanding, experienced the same weather, technology, big ideas and events of the day. When John Houston writes that “the Canadian people know more about railroading than they know of anything else,” I can only add that my God-fearing, politically conservative grandparents might have agreed. They even shared a moral economy with Houston, and in their Scottish Protestant antipathy to waste and corruption would have nodded in agreement that the “C. P. R. made us a nation; it bankrupted us forever.”

Yes, as you read John Houston’s articles you may be put off by his description of the League of Nations as a “misshapen abortion,” and his famous dismissal of labour leaders who cooperate with the government as “crooks.” You may feel the need to suppress a chuckle when you read him describing the One Big Union “steadily and consistently” forging ahead on its “historic class mission.” Needless to say, Houston’s prediction that the One Big Union would go on to “engulf” the craft unions did not come to pass. But if you keep an open mind, you may learn to appreciate the wonderful wit and satire of a Marxist generation that unerringly skewered the lies and hypocrisy of capitalist apologists. As Houston so incisively observes: “When you have no money it is very gratifying to know that the cost of living is coming down.” Enough said.

It may or may not be true that when John Houston was buried on 14 March 1921, in a snowstorm, the hundreds of mourners marched in the largest parade ever held in Winnipeg for a labour stalwart. We do know that mourners included “many women workers,” and no doubt Winnipeg’s “ethnic” working class was also well represented. John Houston fit the white, male, Anglo-Celtic stereotype of the Canadian Marxists of his generation, but his message reached much beyond this core constituency to a wider world. If we care to take a listen, it still has the power to reach into our own.

The following editorials by Jack Houston have been selected from the OBU Bulletin.

Saturday, 11 October 1919

It sometimes looks as if the working class culture, so far as propaganda is concerned, was being choked by big words. On the other hand, the scientists tell us that no one understands a question until he has learned the terms or language peculiar to that study, that is to say, that while one is getting the ideas he is also getting the terminology. Be that as it may there is such a thing as popularizing a science or making an easy introduction to it. This process is like stepping down a high voltage current to render it safe for light duty purposes. The terms Surplus Value, the Materialistic Conception of History and The Class Struggle in themselves, contained but small hints of the special meanings applied to them by the intellectuals of the working class movement. However, the terminology in which these principles of working class study were clothed was a stimulus to the studious, while the lazy and the careless, who would have only confused any question, were repelled from any consideration of the matters at issue. The once esoteric learning of the intellectuals is now, through a thousand channels, coming to be soundly apprehended by the rank and file of the workers.

The Class Struggle produces class consciousness. Loyalty is an inherited instinct, part of the native endowment, or human inheritance, which is the heritage of every human being. This loyalty must have some subject on which it may rest. In the savage group it was the consanguine family; during barbarism it rested on the gens, the tribe or the confederation of tribes. Since the advent of civilization the territorial division known as the state or nation has been its foundation. In the new culture, it goes out and rests on the class of workers alone, and finally when classes are abolished, the inherited loyalty will cover the whole human race. Loyalty involves its necessary component or opposite hatred or dislike of all outside its own class. At the present time no one can be called class conscious who had any vestige of loyalty to the nation or state. Such a one is a scissor-bill.

When Marx wrote on Surplus Value the prevailing handcraft notions of economics, made it possible that the new theory has spread so rapidly over the world and has brought the workers so sharply against its stern rule in so rude a manner that few illusions from the old handcraft culture have any chance of retaining their validity among the actual workers in the plants. The workers do the work and must be secured in their livelihood or they cannot perform their tasks. The owners take the product of labor because they are owners. The worker will be on the pay roll when the boss can make a profit but at any other time his only right is to starve to death. When he has any part of the pay left he has rights as a professor of wealth but, the moment his pay is all spent, he is a vagrant and a hobo with laws made and provided for his prompt and rigorous suppression. Should the workers in any particular number cease work and thus upset the social order, as is inevitable when capital (owners) is not receiving the profits that might be in sight for the time being, they must be imputed to be rebels against the social order and criminals both in fact and in law. The code as written may not so class them but the law as construed must so treat these recalcitrants. The worker who thinks that he possesses any rights, which come as a hold over from the codes of the days of the handicraft laws, is also a scissor-bill.

The Materialistic Conception of History was presented to us from Marx and Engles [Engels] in a somewhat confused and inchoate form. The miracle of their presentation was, that, with the sources of information and the state of the social sciences so backward, their generalizations and their applications of the principle were so sound. Little wonder, however, that so many people found it impossible to make an interpretation of what was meant and that so much fog and confusion was the result. At first a socialist doctrine, it has come to pass that the bulk of the development along its lines has been made not by socialists, but by scientists seeking knowledge for itself. After Marx, Morgan made the first substantial contribution in his great work, Ancient Societies. Then came Lester F. Ward, followed by the whole school of archaeologists, ethnologists, psychologists and sociologists, all of whose contributions of any value have been made in this present century. The American Journal of Sociology, from time to time, contains the sum of the new discoveries. Europe has followed but tardily; Freud, the Austrian Alienist, has been a notable exception to the self-sufficiency of that effete continent, which was only beginning to discover the American school, when the war broke out and threw that continent back for decades. The proof that one understands the Materialist Conception of History is his ability to make the application of the principle to the numerous changes in the social world as they occur. The purpose of the theory is to enable its students to understand human behavior insofar as it can be called conduct. The beginning of wisdom in this regard is to be able to tell what is native endowment or heredity, and what is cultural, or the use and wont, or habituation. If one has not learned to make the discrimination, he also is a scissor-bill.


The philosophic anarchists have well defined ideals and a constructive philosophy of social life and while we may differ from these people, they at least are entitled to the respect which goes to all who hold steadfast to their opinions and ideals.

The word anarchist has come to carry an exceedingly ugly and sinister meaning, simply because it is applied, generally, to all those who refuse to submit to social control and who refuse to comply with the laws by which society enforces its conclusions.

The Citizens’ committee, always an illegal and law-breaking organization, is purely an anarchistic creation in the worse meaning of the term. It is there purely as an engine to incite to mob violence, and whenever the mob spirit is made to flame up to capacity, there are no limits to its activities. Battle, murder, and sudden death; evil speaking, lying and slandering; envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, are its fruits.

The press tells us, with apparent gusto, of the Sarnia and Windsor brand of this sinister bunch of moral degenerates at their hideous pastime, the Rev. Wm. Ivens being the subject of their regard. We apologize to the confessed anarchists for mentioning them in the same column with these Ontario human perverts.

Saturday, 1 November 1919

Man’s native endowment is a bundle of wants and certain capacities. The wants are stable, practicably unchangeable; the capacities by means of which he satisfies his wants or needs are subject to reflection and consideration; are, therefore, in constant flux and change and are dynamic.

As man’s technology improved production increased until a surplus was both a possibility and a fact. Then the egotistic of the “I” feelings came uppermost. Force and fraud were enthroned and the unsocial units of society became ruling classes; the worthy and useful units became slaves. The state became an institution, through which by force and fraud, the workers were ruled and governed and compelled to labor that their masters might enjoy, in dignified ease. The state being a class state and therefore, the political state, all political struggles and all class struggles have been for control of the state, or have been in resistance to the state.

Not so very long ago Prof. Veblen spoke of the possibility and the probability of a union of skilled technologists in the near future. In this issue mention is made of a federation of intellectuals now being attempted in France. Prof. Giddings of Columbia was interviewed a short time on the subject of middle class unions. Arthur Meighen is worried over occupational political action and over all the world hovers the horrible spectre of Bolshevism.

Dr. Veblen appears to have a few sane ideas on the union of the intellectual technicians. The union would be all right because it would be a job trust in which there were but a limited number of eligibles. It would be able to make the boss come across because there would be no one to replace them on strike. In time the specialized skill and efficiency could be acquired by those who are slightly less skilled, but to forestall this [the] union would make common cause with ordinary labor and the hold-up of the bosses would be effectual. Veblen thinks the results would be an overturning state.

Giddings, who is the Moses of the Sociologists, says that the American people are individualistic and that they could not agree, and says that no proletarian effort to establish class rule could succeed. Giddings also appears to believe in the state as some kind of a magical entity endowed with purpose and capable of forming designs.

The state as an institution which exists as a going concern. When it loses its character as an instrument to serve the particular interests of a class, it will no more be the state. In the meantime, classes with peculiar interest are going to form democratic parties and combinations to get control of the state so as to use it to serve their own ends. The recent elections have seen the farmers take such action, with such an object in view.

The Industrial Revolution has brought into play new forces and new parties and new fields for the display of political activities. The representatives in the legislature now stand for industrial interests rather than for the geographical constituencies that elected them. One man is a C.P.R. follower, another protects the German nickel interests, another takes the banks under his wing, while the grain speculators have a man Friday to watch over their special interests.

Saturday, 29 May 1920

Oh! Canada! Why, oh, why! Are you cursed with a free press: a press free to open its columns to editorial writers, who without taking the trouble to make inquiry into facts are, on some other writer’s misrepresentations, at one minute’s notice ready to tackle any subject on earth, in the heaven above or in the waters under the earth.

On May 21st the Free Press treats of the Soviet Labor Code. Now, some time ago the Bulletin had set out to publish the CODE in full, but our poor little four pages hadn’t the room, so, knowing that many of the workers of Winnipeg were reading the Labor Code in full in other radical publications, we passed up the CODE.

Here is one provision of the Code of which the Free Press says nothing: “All citizens able to work have the right to employment at their vocations.” In case no work can be found for him he is entitled to an unemployed benefit which must be equal to his regular wages.

What would Barrett or Tom Deacon think of a law drawn on that plan for Winnipeg? The Manitoba Employers Association would throw ten thousand cat fits before they would stand for any such Code.

Now, if the Soviet pays him the Soviet expects him to work and if there is no work at his trade they find him another job at a lower grade, but make up his wages to what he drew before, from the unemployment fund.

Then every man must have a month’s holidays at full wages.

Wages are fixed by the trades unions and approved by the Commissioner of Labor. If the bosses don’t agree, the government itself, elevated by the peasants and workers, fixes the scale. No boss ridden, government hand picked Robertson there.

The Free Press says a worker can’t quit his job. Yes, he can! But his reasons for quitting must be passed on by his shop committee. If the shop committee says No! He may appeal to the union. If the union says No! And he quits, he loses a weeks worth of wages and applies to the Bureau of Labor Distributions for another job. If he does not do that, why, he is treated as a gentleman and a bourgeois, that is, he has no vote and damned little to eat, but takes it out respect[a]bility.

Saturday, 10 April 1920

The curtain was rung down on the Winnipeg strike trials on Tuesday April 6th, so far as the action of the trial courts were concerned. There will be, we understand, an application to the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords in Great Britain, commonly known as Supreme Court of the Realms in the case of R. B. Russell.

The proceeding at the session of the court, held for the purpose of imposing sentence on the six convicted men was probably one unparalleled in a British Court of Justice. When asked if they had anything to say before the sentence should be pronounced on them, Johns, Armstrong and Bray spoke at some length. Their remarks, which we hope to publish in full in this and later issues, showed that the prisoners, themselves, were to say the least, unrepentant. All appeared to be making the best of the situation in which they found themselves and to be facing a year of “incommunicado” with courage. Ivens, Armstrong, Pritchard, Johns and Queen get a year each, while Bray takes the count for six months.

Much flood water will run under the arches of the bridges while the term of their sentence runs. With the Kaleidoscopic processes of society revealing radical changes in the social relations every day or two, who may dare to prophesy the kind of a world these men will step into on their release. Even the judge appeared to sense the changes that are about to come as indicated by his remarks. Judge Metcalfe evidently believes that enforcing the law, that is the law, had the defects of its qualities and the qualities of its defects, else why speak about these men or such means as these being elected to make the laws which a judge is bound to enforce.

Direct action, the sympathetic strike, or an organization built up with capacities to use these weapons, having been declared illegal, following the kinds of least resistance, it is inevitable that labor will use every force at its disposal to win seats in the coming Provincial elections. On this field too, the workers are faced by a tremendous handicap. The soul of democracy, representation by population is non-existent in the city of Winnipeg.

“Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and, since the days of Mackenzie and Papineau, Canadians have been asleep. This city, which should have, along with Brandon, one half of the members in the Manitoba Legislature, has been though force and fraud, deprived of one half of its legal and logistical representatives. The crime “stinks to high heaven” as the chaste and forcible language of the late Sir John A. McDonald would have put it.

But for all that. Let labor gird up its loins and make ready for the fray. The best we can get from this coming struggle will be the closing up of the ranks of labor, the forcing out into the open of every traitor and every skulker, and the discipline and experience to be had from organization and the winning of victories from an enemy that fights every foot of the ground and resorts to every wile and infamy that can be suggested by the devil, the father of all lies.

See also:

MHS Resources: Jack Houston’s Editorials in the OBU Bulletin, 1919-1921

Memorable Manitobans: John D. “Jack” Houston (1856-1921)

Page revised: 22 February 2017

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