Labour Rights in an Interregnum: The Ambiguous Legacy of J.S. Woodsworth

Document Type

Book Chapter

Publication Date


Source Publication

Human Welfare, Rights, and Social Activism: Rethinking the Legacy of J.S. Woodsworth. Toronto, ON: University of Toronto Press, 2010.


J.S. Woodsworth was a prominent Canadian socialist who was a member of the Canadian Parliament from 1921 to 1942 and a founder of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), the predecessor of the present New Democratic Party (NDP). This paper uses a Gramscian framework to explore his promotion of labour rights in the inter-war years, which I argue was an interregnum, a period when the hegemony of the old order was weakened. In this period, counter-hegemonic projects were launched to challenge the old order but, at the same time, so too were liberal passive revolutionary projects that aimed to restore the hegemony of capitalist relation by accommodating some of the demands of disgruntled workers, as well as coercive ones to restore order by force. J.S. Woodsworth strenuously fought against rising coercion and attempted to pursue a politics of amelioration in the hopes it would eventually lead toward socialism, but in the end it was the liberal counter-hegemonic project that was successful. I then examine the Woodsworth legacy for our time, a moment that I argue is also an interregnum, when the hegemony of the post-war order has been weakened, but because subordinated classes are weak, a counter-hegemonic project is not in the offing. Instead, we are witnessing an increase in coercion, on the one hand, and a weak politics of amelioration on the other.

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