Books

A life in the public interest

WILLIAM IRVINE, THE LIFE OF A PRAIRIE RADICAL by Anthony Mardiros

David Lewis July 23 1979
Books

A life in the public interest

WILLIAM IRVINE, THE LIFE OF A PRAIRIE RADICAL by Anthony Mardiros

David Lewis July 23 1979

A life in the public interest

Books

WILLIAM IRVINE, THE LIFE OF A PRAIRIE RADICAL by Anthony Mardiros

(Lorimer, $19.95)

In his maiden speech as an MP in 1922, William Irvine drew attention to the new labor group of two in Parliament and said, no doubt with his usual twinkle, “... the Hon. Member for Cen-

tral Winnipeg, Mr. Woodsworth, is the leader of the labor group—and I am the group.” Then followed a memorable aphorism: “But even if we are small I should like to say, without any presumption whatsoever, that a small living seed, however small it may be, is greater than a dead trunk, however bulky it may be . . .” He was capable of throwing off arresting word pictures more easily than most of us can compose a simple description of a simple scene.

Irvine was philosophically a humanist and socially a lovable human being. He was a delightful companion, full of fun and laughter. He was also an intrepid fighter against injustice and inequality, which he equated with the capitalist system. To this struggle he dedicated all his talents, often at the expense of his personal and his family’s needs. As preacher, writer, editor, speaker, organizer and parliamentarian he was always concerned with the ills of society and possible remedies for them. He was a leading activist in the early Non-Partisan League in Alberta, in the Calgary labor movement and the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), and, with J.S. Woodsworth, was one of the founders of the CCF, the predecessor of the NDP.

Unfortunately, in this first biography of Irvine, Anthony Mardiros has an ideological axe to grind and he grinds it mercilessly—he obviously considers himself one of the few remaining true socialists. He is contemptuous of official CCF and NDP policies, which he thinks abandon the faith by accepting a mixed economy and favoring international organizations, such as NATO, dominated by the United States. To serve his purpose, he drags Irvine along as the major actor on his side of the argument. It is true that on some of the issues Mardiros singles out, Irvine was with the minority in the CCF as, for example, in his opposition to NATO or in his romantic belief that the U.S.S.R. was a champion of peace even after Stalin’s military take-over in Eastern Europe. But Irvine disliked factional intrigues. He argued for his position with vigor and passion, but when the argument was ended, he bore no ill will. Mardiros adopts an uncritical approach to his subject’s theories when, ip fact, Irvine was capable of entertaining, as Mardiros himself puts it, a “variety of ideas ... at any one time” and of changing them “quickly when necessary.”

In his pursuit of socialist heathens, Mardiros has added a special appendix on the League for Social Reconstruction (LSR), in which he loftily avers that “the LSR may have had a brief flowering of radicalism” but, of course, it didn’t

last—it couldn’t be the purveyor of radical ideas because it wasn’t Western. Historians who give the late Frank Underhill, Frank Scott, King Gordon, Graham Spry, Leonard Marsh and other members of the league any credit for their contribution to socialist thought and action in the Canada of the ’30s, had better see Mardiros—he’ll set them straight.

Perhaps the most revealing example of his myopic prejudices is the strikingly different treatment he accords Frank Underhill’s leaving the CCF to support the Liberal party and Hazen Argue’s defection in 1961. Mardiros is contemptuous of Underhill’s act but speaks sympathetically of Argue’s joining the Liberals, even though it is obvious that, unlike Underhill, Argue did so only to advance his personal fortunes: witness his quick appointment to the Senate when he failed to win a Commons seat. Why this outrageous contradiction? Obviously because Argue had mouthed left-wing phrases when competing with Tommy Douglas for the leadership of the New Democratic Party.

Unhappily the book is full of similar examples of tendentious interpretation of people and events. This is a pity, for Irvine’s meaningful life and admirable character deserve better.

David Lewis

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