Born in upstate New York in 1856, Eugene Thornton Kingsley was a driving force in British Columbia’s left politics for the first two decades of the twentieth century. And, though he is the subject of Able to Lead, he remains elusive. The result is not so much a biography or a full-fledged history but rather a series of faded snapshots accompanied by commentary.
It’s not for lack of effort by the authors. Ravi Malhotra, a disability rights and law professor, and Benjamin Isitt, a historian, have painstakingly combed through a prodigious amount of material to find their man: contemporary newspapers (including those that Kingsley edited and published), court documents, census references, intelligence reports, labour histories, and numerous other sources help describe his times.
The recurring problem in tracing Kingsley’s life, however, is that he was notoriously reticent about it and had few close friends whose accounts might have filled in some of the details. Malhotra and Isitt are forced to bridge the gaps with continual speculation, and they provide much more context — the harsh ableism of the day, internecine feuds in left politics, the rise of the security state — than narrative.
Kingsley was working in Montana as a railroad brakeman when, in 1890, he lost both his legs as he tried to couple two cars. Life for disabled workers in back then was grim; they and their families were largely abandoned to their fate. Many became unemployable, unable to meet harsh industrial production standards. Accommodations in the workplace, such as transfers to office duties, were rare. Laws and powerful employers stood in the way of winning negligence awards, as well, although Kingsley did sue the railway and may have won a small settlement (the records are practically non-existent).
Kingsley, in short, did not have a bright future ahead of him as he was recovering in a Missoula hospital. But, so the story goes, a friend lent him a copy of Karl Marx’s Capital “to beguile the weary hours” while he convalesced. His radical journey had begun.
After leaving hospital, equipped with two wooden prostheses and a cane, Kingsley separated from his family and moved to California. There he became an activist in the Socialist Labor Party of Daniel De Leon, who was known for “impossibilism” or “one-plank Marxism.”
Impossibilists believed that workers’ control of the means of production was the only political demand a principled socialist should make, and that all other progressive measures would simply make capitalism more palatable, pacifying the workers and delaying the arrival of socialism. Throughout his political career, Kingsley never wavered from his commitment to one-plank Marxism. He despised “palliative measures” and castigated the labour unions for engaging in “petty squabbles over the amount of rations that shall be measured out to the slaves, or the length of time they shall tug in harness for their stipend.”
Kingsley also believed that the overthrow of capitalism could be achieved through winning state power at the ballot box. More than a century later, it is perhaps too easy to smile at the notion that the ruling class would meekly turn over the means of production following an election night success for the workers. But Marx himself once described such a possibility, in a speech in Amsterdam in 1872: “You know that the institutions, mores, and traditions of various countries must be taken into consideration, and we do not deny that there are countries . . . where the workers can attain their goal by peaceful means.”
In California, Kingsley ran municipally and for Congress under the banner of the SLP; later he moved to Seattle. Eventually he fell out with De Leon over the labour union question and broke away with other dissidents to form the Revolutionary Socialist League in 1901.
But after being invited to Nanaimo the following year, to assist with socialist organizing, Kingsley took up residence there and lived in British Columbia for the rest of his life. His political experience, combined with a larger-than-life persona, fierce energy, formidable debating skills, and colourful rhetoric, led to his rapid rise in the province’s left politics.
Shortly after his arrival, he and his Marxist allies took over the relatively new Socialist Party of British Columbia. By the end of 1903, now in Vancouver, he became the managing editor of the party’s newspaper, the Western Clarion. Kingsley personally subsidized the publication, which brought him close to financial ruin.
In 1904, the SPBC became the Socialist Party of Canada. Kingsley sat on the party’s Dominion Executive Committee until 1908 and ran as an SPC candidate five times — three times for MLA and twice for MP. He had an enormous capacity for work, and he travelled thousands of miles under often arduous conditions (especially taxing for a double amputee) to deliver speeches.
But Kingsley and the SPC parted ways in spectacular fashion. At the outset of the First World War, he penned a maverick editorial in the Clarion, where he argued that Germany “should be exterminated the same as any other enemy.” His position was a serious breach of internationalist principles, and considerable outcry erupted within the party ranks.
Leaving his old political home, he went on to lead the Federated Labor Party, established by the British Columbia Federation of Labor in 1918, and wrote for its paper, the Federationist. Given his belief that “the principles of unionism and socialism are opposite therefore antagonistic,” he may simply have been looking for any port in a storm. Regardless, his provocative politics do not appear to have moderated, nor did his energy. In 1919, the federal press censor called him “an out-and-out red Bolshevik Socialist of pronounced literary capacity and unquestionably one of the most dangerous men in Canada.”
The polarizing Russian revolution of 1917 reframed and constricted the debates between reformers and revolutionaries. Kingsley, although sympathetic to the revolution, was no Bolshevik. Yet, as Malhotra and Isitt note, “to be a revolutionary non-Bolshevist was swiftly becoming nonsensical.” Politically homeless, Kingsley became a lonely figure. In 1926, he ran for federal office without any party’s backing and finished with a mere 527 votes. In 1929, he died of gas asphyxiation in a Vancouver rooming house. His erstwhile comrades held no public funeral or memorial.
Able to Lead, Malhotra and Isitt write, “applies a critical disability lens to the intellectual and political development of North American labour and society.” That is far too sweeping a claim. Kingsley surmounted terrible barriers to lead the life that he did, but the effect of his disability on his politics remains a matter of conjecture, and the effect of his politics on society was, in historical terms, short-lived. Despite its somewhat haphazard organization and frequent repetitiveness, however, the book provides a rich and lively account of a dynamic period in the history of the Canadian left — and tantalizing glimpses of an extraordinary man who lived in the thick of it.
John Baglow reads and writes in Ottawa.
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Heather Menzies Gabriola, British Columbia