McKAY, COLIN CAMPBELL, seafarer, writer, journalist, and socialist intellectual; b. 17 Oct. 1876 in Shelburne, N.S., eldest son of Winslow Colin Campbell McKay and Sarah Rebecca Dexter Harris; d. unmarried 11 Feb. 1939 in Ottawa.
Colin McKay’s paternal great-grandfather, Donald McKay, a native of Scotland, settled in Shelburne in 1816. His grandfather, Colin Campbell McKay, was a master shipwright in that community, as was his father, Winslow, who would found the shipbuilding firm W. C. McKay and Son in 1908. Young Colin was a product of the south shore of Nova Scotia and the age of sail, both of which featured prominently in many of the romantic short stories he later published in such periodicals as McClure’s Magazine, Ainslee’s, and Adventure, as well as in the more sober, factual reports that he wrote for journals ranging from the Canadian Fisherman to the Dalhousie Review.
In 1891 McKay, then only 15 years old, left home to become a merchant seaman. He liked the mariner’s lifestyle, which suited his adventurous temperament and afforded him a degree of independence that few land-based workers of that era enjoyed. “I served my time in sail,” he would reminisce in Adventure in 1913, “but being rather restless did not follow the sea steadily, and never got beyond mate of a sailing vessel or second mate of a passenger liner.” McKay returned often to Shelburne for family visits and lived intermittently in ports on both sides of the Atlantic, but he established no permanent residence of his own before settling in Ottawa during the early 1930s.
During his spells ashore McKay worked as a writer and journalist, and from the late 1890s onwards he paid increasing attention to his life’s great passion: the creation of a working-class culture characterized by scientific enlightenment, Christian compassion, and a deep sensitivity to history. “The working class must develop a new philosophy of life, a new culture,” he would write in the Eastern Labor News in 1913. For him this entailed a critical integration of the sociological findings of Herbert Spencer (above all, the young, radical Spencer who wrote Social statics) and the historical materialism of Karl Marx, with Das Kapital and the Communist manifesto being the key texts. McKay also valued the anthropological insights of Lewis Henry Morgan and, especially in the 1930s, the philosophical works of Peter Joseph Dietzgen. The author of at least 952 articles published over almost five decades, McKay would rank along with Toronto-based socialist Thomas Phillips Thompson as one of the most prolific and influential Canadian labour writers of his time.
Between roughly 1896 and 1904 McKay overwintered in Montreal. He regarded the city, with its anonymous streets and dank factories, as the embodiment of a capitalist system that affronted his moral sensibilities and his belief in an enlightened, humane society. A regular contributor to the Montreal Daily Herald, McKay became, much like tavern owner Charles McKiernan*, someone who acted on behalf of the city’s working class. In the winter of 1898–99 he founded Canada’s Democracy, a short-lived newspaper that took up the cause of 39 unionized cigar makers discharged by Joseph-Misäel Fortier, a manufacturer already notorious for his maltreatment of child labourers. This fiery, muckraking crusade resulted in a charge of defamatory libel against McKay, and after his conviction in November 1899 at a trial presided over by justice Jonathan Saxton Campbell Würtele*, he served three months in prison. His record of activism helped propel him two years later into a leadership position in the Canadian Socialist League, the country’s first home-grown interprovincial socialist organization. He also was elected president of the city’s Economic Association.
After further seafaring and itinerant journalism, McKay secured a job in 1910 as a journalist at the Saint John Standard. Over the next four years he drew on what he had learned during his deep immersion in Marxist and Spencerian theory and produced, in a variety of publications, a series of fascinating articles about working-class culture and socialism; he described his ideas as a “science of social evolution.” He also became an organizer in Saint John’s labour movement [see James Edmund Tighe] and a radical in politics. Although McKay came from a staunchly Conservative family, he had once been a supporter of Liberal leader Sir Wilfrid Laurier*; however, he had long ago given up on the two major parties, and by 1913 he had joined the Socialist Party of Canada.
During World War I McKay, who strongly identified with Great Britain, served as an officer aboard the St George, a Royal Navy hospital ship stationed in the English Channel. On 18 Sept. 1915 he risked his life to rescue a soldier who had attempted to commit suicide by drowning. After the war McKay resumed his journalistic career and worked in Halifax, Paris, Saint John, Quebec City, Montreal, and finally Ottawa, while writing for such publications as the Canadian Railroad Employees’ Monthly in the 1920s and the Canadian Unionist in the 1930s.
A typical McKay analysis would take a concrete issue, such as the collapse of the wheat economy, and then contextualize it within decades-long or even centuries-long patterns of human development. His writings on the Great Depression probed the limitations of utopian solutions to the crisis; in 1930, for example, he wrote scathingly in the Canadian Unionist that Communist Party manifestoes were issued “as if they were messages from heaven endowed with the power of suddenly converting the workers to a full understanding of the need for social revolution.” He believed that socialism, “a natural product,” needed to “pass through the phases of infancy and youth in order to attain a mature development.” Although he drew upon Spencer and Marx more explicitly than most labour intellectuals of his era, McKay was not unusual in searching for a class-based democratic alternative to the existing order. At one time convinced that a radical Christianity held the key to working-class emancipation, by the 1930s he had come to place his faith in industrial unionism and, somewhat hesitantly, the newly established Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, led by James Shaver Woodsworth*. McKay hoped that, with the help of Marxists such as himself, the CCF would overcome what he saw as its predilection for muddle-headed eclecticism and moderate reformist solutions and realize the importance of educating workers in socialism.
A self-taught theorist who kept a day job as a journalist while often working long into the night to absorb recent works in social science and philosophy, Colin McKay was a brilliant synthesizer and an exponent of a form of socialism that was founded upon social-evolutionary theory. In his many articles and in his steadfast commitment to labour and leftist movements, he demonstrated that within the life-threatening and soul-deadening world of capitalism it is possible to reason, and to live, differently. A bachelor whom the Ottawa Evening Journal eulogized as a “lone wolf” who had “lived on his own spiritual and intellectual resources, content with his own company and the companionship of his books,” McKay had no descendants, but he left an intellectual legacy that influences radicals to this day.
There is no comprehensive list of Colin Campbell McKay’s publications, but two collections of his writings exist: For a working-class culture in Canada: a selection of Colin McKay’s writings on sociology and political economy, 1897–1939, ed. Ian McKay, researched and intro. Lewis Jackson and Ian McKay (St John’s, 1996); and Windjammers & Bluenose sailors: stories of the sea, comp. Lewis Jackson and Ian McKay (Lockeport, N.S., 1993).
Eastern Labor News (Moncton, N.B.), 8 Nov. 1913. Ottawa Evening Journal, 14 Feb. 1939. “The camp-fire: a meeting-place for readers, writers and adventurers,” Adventure (New York), 6, no.2 (June 1913): 2016–17. Peter Campbell, Canadian Marxists and the search for a third way (Montreal and Kingston, Ont., 1999). Ian McKay, “Of Karl Marx and the Bluenose: Colin Campbell McKay and the legacy of maritime socialism,” Acadiensis, 27 (1997–98), no.2: 3–25; Reasoning otherwise: leftists and the people’s enlightenment in Canada, 1890–1920 (Toronto, 2008). Ian McKay and Lewis Jackson, “Colin Campbell McKay of Nova Scotia,” in [C. C. McKay], For a working-class culture in Canada ….