Radicalism and Incapacity Struggles: The Political Lifetime of ET Kingsley

On October 15, 1890, Eugene T. Kingsley’s life changed dramatically and irrevocably. The political development of the North American working class would also change, even if Kingsley did not know his fate. He worked as a brakeman on the remote Spring Gulch line of the Northern Pacific Railroad (NPR) in rural Montana, which had just been incorporated into the United States as a state in November 1889.The transcontinental NPR line was not completed until 1883 by Helena. Kingsley, nearly thirty-four and a married father of two boys, was injured when he fell between two moving cars. He was taken to the NPR Hospital in Missoula and had his left leg amputated between the knee and hip and his right leg between the ankle and knee.

During his recovery at Missoula Hospital, Kingsley began reading the work of Karl Marx. Parallels between his own circumstances and the dangers of capitalism may have driven Kingsley to the left, but unfortunately there is little evidence of his political awakening.

What we do know is that Kingsley soon became an active member of the Socialist Labor Party (SLP), led by Curacao-born immigrant Daniel De Leon. Known for their rigid politics and relentless opposition to the capitalist system, the De Leonists had a profound influence on Kingsley’s political outlook and conceptual universe. The party was strongly committed to the complete transformation of the capitalist state, while showing an aversion to the day-to-day union battles, which Kingsley and his fellow De Leonist thinkers saw as hopelessly reformist.

Challenging story

Kingsley soon became busy speaking publicly on the street corners of San Francisco where he had emigrated after becoming estranged from his family. In due course he became a party organizer and ran for the US House of Representatives on the SLP ticket in 1896 and 1898 and ran communally in San Francisco and San Jose. His meandering personal and political paths led him first to Seattle, where he became active in the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), then to Vancouver Island in 1902, and finally to Vancouver, where he became the founder and leader of the Socialist Party of Canada (SPC), three times for the House of Commons and three times for the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Kingsley, one of the most prominent socialist intellectuals of his day, deserves scientific attention, apart from the insights so far. We hope this book serves to fill that void by shedding light on Kingsley’s contribution as well as people’s tenacious ability to rise above adversity and demonstrating the ability to lead in an environment that is systematically designed for people with disabilities is.

Historian Peter Campbell identifies Kingsley in the second sentence of his invaluable book Canadian Marxists and the Search for a Third Path, but chooses different characters for the four biographies that structure the work. This methodological choice is symptomatic of Kingsley’s general marginalization within the North American Left’s scholarship. He’s a character who often appears on stage just to get a cameo role when others are in the spotlight. The preponderance of Kingsley’s appearances in dozens of existing works on the history of labor and the left clearly demonstrates his essential contribution to the political landscape of turn-of-the-century North America – and thus the need for our study, which focuses on its atypical history and its eclectic political life.

Historian Ian McKay identifies Kingsley as “the central theoretician in the Socialist Party of Canada” and Ross McCormack identifies him as “the real founder” and a central ideological influence in the party, which first had significant influence in British Columbia and Canada Decade of the twentieth century. McCormack notes how Kingsley, known by his nickname The Old Man, published the SPC Western Clarion organ from 1903 to 1908 and continued to support the paper both physically and financially at enormous personal costs until 1912. He was also one of the SPC’s most popular speakers, traveling well into western Canada and occasionally beyond to advocate socialism and the abolition of capitalism, promoting what in some areas came to be known as the “British Columbia School” of Socialism. Political scientist Paul Fox describes Kingsley as “a brilliant public speaker and writer” and “a devoted Marxist” under whose “combative leadership” the Western Clarion “quickly became a resounding Marxist trumpet, launching revolutionary marches on over two thousand wage earners each week . “

Much of the history of the Canadian left has centered on the tradition of social democracy of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) / New Democratic Party or the official communist history of the Communist Party of Canada. The former Canadian left, or what McKay aptly calls the “first formation” of the early twentieth century, has received relatively little scientific attention. Yet, as McKay elegantly demonstrates, this first formation had a profound impact on Canadian culture in the early 20th century. One of his central ideas was that in social evolution, socialism would emerge from the self-destruction of capitalist monopolies. In this book, we provide a correction for the dominance of social democracy and communism in the Canadian left, and contribute to legal and disability history through a historical and legal analysis of a man’s political life.

Kingsley was one of the most influential left handicapped intellectuals in North American history. The story of this American-born radical and double amputee who mobilized socialist forces along the Pacific coast shows a clear and compelling contribution to political life in Canada and the United States during the era of capitalist consolidation. In addition to our treatment of this sociopolitical context, we consider the history of prosthetics and how this emerging technology gave men like Kingsley – who lived more than half of his life as a double amputee – the opportunity to fully participate in political life despite a problem surrounding the physically disabled imposed significant barriers in terms of physical abilities and expectations. We also use a critical reading of criminal offenses to understand the options and limitations for a worker who has lost his light in the face of Kingsley’s $ 85,000 lawsuit in Minnesota State Court.

Critical Theory of Disability

Kingsley left the Socialist Labor Party during a factional battle in 1900 and then played a role by leading dozens of socialists into a De Leonist faction, the Revolutionary Socialist League, in Seattle. In 1902, radical Canadian miners relocated him to Nanaimo, British Columbia, to form the now-forgotten but once influential Socialist Party of Canada. Kingsley soon moved to Vancouver and as editor of the SPC’s political organ, Western Clarion, he rallied workers against the horrors of the capitalist system and encouraged them to have confidence in their own talents and abilities in order to build a new society. We use critical disability theory, which we explain below, to examine how the racist and ableist immigration regime of the day shaped Kingsley’s ability to be radical.

When the First World War broke out, the national security state gained momentum. We show how Kingsley was affected by government surveillance of its activities while participating in some of the day’s major political events. Although now forgotten, he has commented on or participated in many political crises, including free speech struggles in San Francisco and Vancouver in the 1890s and 1900s; Race riots against Chinese, Japanese and South Asian immigrants on the streets of Vancouver in 1907; a bitter strike by miners on Vancouver Island in 1912-14; the controversial rejection of hundreds of Sikh, Muslim and Hindu immigrants who attempted to enter Canada on the Komagata Maru in 1914; the First World War and the conscription crisis; the eventual censorship and repression of dissidents like Kingsley and his comrades in the Socialist Party of Canada; and the famous 1919 Winnipeg General Strike and One Big Union.

One of our main goals in writing this book is to demonstrate how critical disability theory can shed light on Kingsley’s life and to help scholars better understand how amputees have made a significant contribution to public discourse. The lack of scientific evidence on Canada’s history of disabled people suggests that this work broke new ground in our knowledge of the experience and freedom of choice of double amputees at the turn of the 20th century. • •

This is an excerpt from Able to Lead: Disability, Radicalism, and the Political Life of ET Kingsley by Ravi Malhotra and Benjamin Isitt, UBC Press 2021.

Join the authors for a book launch on June 15th.

Ravi Malhotra is a professor at the University of Ottawa, Law School, Common Law Department, and Disability Rights Attorney. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaviMalh.

Benjamin Isitt is a historian and legal scholar based in Victoria, British Columbia. He is the author of From Victoria to Vladivostok: Canada’s Siberian Expedition, 1917-19 and Militant Minority: British Columbia Workers and the Rise of a New Left, 1948-1972.

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