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Another view of J. B. McLachlan

In the years since Canadian Bolsheviks was first published in 1981, historians  —notably David Frank and John Manley — have done a great deal of research on the Cape Breton miners' struggles of the 1920s and 1930, drawing on material that was not available 25 years ago. In the following paper, Carleton University student Doug Nesbitt draws on their work to present a different perspective on the activities on  Nova Scotia miners' leader J. B. McLachlan.. — Ian Angus

See also J.B. McLachlan Resigns from the Communist Party.

J. B. McLachlan, The Communist Party
of Canada and the United Front

by Doug Nesbitt

Although the Communist Party of Canada had tremendous influence among miners in Cape Breton during the 1920s and 1930s, the rise of dual unionism among miners was not the result of the party’s policy of "red unions". The CPC’s influence in Cape Breton derived largely from the work and reputation of J.B. McLachlan, who had been involved in miners’ struggles for decades. McLachlan maintained a principled position in support of the rank-and-file and the Leninist conception of the united front. As the CPC began to follow the sharp changes in the Communist International’s line after the mid-1920s, McLachlan came into conflict with the CPC, and eventually resigned in 1936, marking the demise of Communist influence in Cape Breton.

Prior to the formation of the Communist Party of Canada, the socialist movement had already established deep roots in Cape Breton, largely through the Socialist Party of Canada. In 1909, when District 26 of the United Mine Workers of America was formed, J.B. McLachlan and other SPC members were elected as executive officers.[1] In 1911, Alex McKinnon, was voted in to the Nova Scotia legislature representing a riding in Cape Breton, claiming "the honour of being the first socialist candidate for any legislature east of Saskatchewan."[2]

Following the formation of the Communist Party of Canada in May 1921, the SPC split over the question of whether or not to join. By January 1922 most of the SPC’s membership had joined the CPC.[3] Sometime in early 1922 McLachlan joined the CPC, having met Tim Buck in June 1921, and contributed to the CPC’s newspaper, The Worker, in May 1922.[4]

McLachlan joined the CPC in a period quite different from the late 1910s. "[T]he Communist International had reached the conclusion that the tide of revolution was receding and the collapse of capitalism in other countries was not imminent. Communist parties around the world were instructed to undertake the long hard work of preparing the working class for future struggles."[5] This conclusion was in stark contrast to the sectarian attitude towards trade unions by many of the newly formed communist parties. Regarding this attitude towards trade unions and working class organizations in general, Leon Trotsky wrote in 1921,

      A purely mechanical conception of the proletarian revolution — which proceeds solely from the fact that capitalist economy continues to decay — has led certain groups of comrades to construe theories which are false to the core: the false theory of an initiating minority which by its heroism shatters "the wall of universal passivity" among the proletariat.[6]

Lenin had already sought to combat the same problem in his pamphlet "Left-Wing" Communism: An Infantile Disorder, which, according to Ian Angus, proved crucial in shaping the trade union policy of Canadian Communists.[7] Rather than acting as an elite vanguard acting on behalf of the working class, the CPC sought to build a mass party and adopted the program of working within existing unions rather than forming "red" unions as had happened in other countries. However, working within mainstream unions did not mean abandoning debate and trying to convince non-revolutionary workers of the necessity of socialism. Nor did it mean passivity in the face of the union bureaucracy.[8]

McLachlan had already operated by these principles for quite some time. With support from the CPC, McLachlan countered the temptation in 1922 to split District 26 of the UMWA and form a red union. Wages for miners, steelworkers and any British Empire Steel Corporation employees were cut by a third in January 1922. The union headquarters refused to strike on the grounds of insufficient funds, so a slow-down was authorized, as opposed to a strike. McLachlan and Dan Livingstone, another CPC member, were the minority left-wing members of the District 26 executive, and with the aide of the CPC they began to build a left-wing campaign within District 26. In June 1922, the CPC’s work paid off. Delegates voted for a left-wing majority of nominations to the executive, which later led to a left-wing sweep of the executive.[9] At the same convention, the rank-and-file voted to affiliate with the Comintern’s Red International of Labour Unions, much to the anger of John L. Lewis, president of the UMWA.

Once elected in mid-August 1922, the new left-wing leadership, which included McLachlan, called for a strike. Twelve thousand miners responded, including maintenance staff who kept the mines dry. Over a thousand soldiers arrived in Cape Breton to protect BESCO’s property. The strike ended in three weeks when the union membership voted to accept an eighteen percent wage cut, as opposed to the 33 percent cut put forward eight months earlier.[11]

Meanwhile, as McLachlan and the left were elected to the leadership of District 26, John L. Lewis, "was carefully consolidating his control of the union and grooming his own image as a business-minded union leader."[12] Lewis was committed to the sanctity of the contract and peace between labour and capital. After becoming UMWA president in 1919, Lewis and his allies quickly came into conflict with McLachlan. McLachlan was cautious and asked Lewis how the UMWA would respond to the affiliation, while also noting that the RILU opposed dual unionism and the policies of the One Big Union and the Industrial Workers of the World.[13] The response, though, was not positive.

After an international board meeting of the union in Indianapolis, the union’s vice president denounced the RILU and threatened District 26 "to withdraw its application," or else "the district would be suspended and the international union would assume direct control of local affairs."[14] The democratic will of the union membership was trampled, but the left leadership withdrew its application to the RILU, mindful of Lewis’ iron-fisted treatment of rebellious districts elsewhere in North America. That the CPC did not make a stand regarding the RILU is proof that McLachlan and the party were operating a united front policy based on the interests of the rank-and-file, where "[t]he big issue was winning the UMW to a class struggle program, not formal ties with the RILU."[15]

McLachlan and Lewis came into conflict again in 1923 over a communist-led organizing drive of Besco’s Sydney steelworks. McLachlan and the district’s left-wing executive defied "an explicit order from UMWA international president John L. Lewis not to break its contract with Besco by calling a miners’ sympathy strike."[16] Historian John Manley has portrayed the sympathy strike as "the perils of excessive militancy,"[17] yet fails to note that the sympathy strike was made possible after miners and their families were attacked by provincial police at Whitney Pier.[18] Lewis responded to the illegal sympathy strike by suspending the district charter and the "red" executive, including McLachlan. The government also arrested McLachlan and Livingstone. Charges against Livingstone were dropped, but McLachlan was convicted of seditious libel and sentenced to two years in prison.[19] It must also be noted that the charter was revoked only days before the district executive election, which, McLachlan believed he would win.[20]

McLachlan and the CPC in Cape Breton may have overplayed their hand. In the same appeal to Cape Breton miners for a sympathy strike, McLachlan had called for a Canada-wide general strike.[21] This never happened, and without support, the combined power of the state, John L. Lewis and Besco fell upon steelworkers and District 26’s executive, leaving the strikes in complete defeat.

Not surprisingly, many resented Lewis and his newly hand-picked executive led by Silby Barrett. Some workers responded by seeking to withdraw from the union, and this led to the establishment of several One Big Union locals. However, the CPC and McLachlan refused to be drawn into dual unionism, though according to Manley he "flirted with the idea of allying with the OBU to split the UMWA."[22] In contrast to Manley, David Frank argues that although McLachlan supported an OBU drive to organize unrepresented steelworkers, he opposed the splitting of the UMWA. And though he even spoke on the same platform as OBU organizers, McLachlan wrote, "We can fight better from within than from without."[23] Therefore, McLachlan and the CPC maintained a united front policy in the trade unions, identical to that argued by Lenin and Trotsky a few years earlier. By pursuing such a strategy, the CPC managed to help rebuild the rank and file and the left within District 26. After the district’s charter was restored, another left-wing executive was elected in August 1924. Communists were elected to key positions, including President, Vice-President and Secretary-Treasurer.[24] The new red executive even won the endorsement of 100 percent strikes, which would leave Besco responsible for the maintenance of the mines.[25] By remaining in the UMWA, and resisting the formation of a "red" union, the CPC had helped return District 26 into the hands of the left.

The largest and the most violent strike in Cape Breton during the 1920s occurred in March 1925, as Besco proposed a ten percent wage cut, and closed down its company stores which provided most of the food to the community. After three months, the strike was not going well. Lewis offered meagre financial support and let Besco use company official to maintain the mines, thus undermining the purpose of the 100% strike. Even more troublesome was the failure of the new "red" executive to offer any radical direction. McLachlan began to fear that the union would not survive the strike, opening the door for company unions, competition with the OBU, or both.[26]

The strike culminated on 11 June 1925, as company police fired on a crowd of several hundred near the New Waterford powerhouse.[27] One miner, William Davis, was killed and many others wounded. Miners responded by shutting down the power station, placing captured police and company officials in the town jail, looting company stores, and burning down Besco property.[28] Having attracted international attention, the Canadian government sent in the military which led to the quick suspension of the strike.[29] The miners were defeated, and Besco opened up an offensive with the aide of the new Conservative premier. The 1925 strike marked a rapid decline in union militancy and for several years, demoralization set in among union militants.

The battles waged by the Cape Breton coal miners in the 1920s occurred after the great labour upheavals of 1919 and 1920. In fact, labour radicalism in the rest of Canada had been dead for nearly five years when District 26 went on strike in March 1925. Union membership in Canada had collapsed from 380,000 in 1919 to just over 250,000 in 1921, and did not recover to 1919 levels until 1937.[30] By 1923, the downturn in class struggle had demoralized the Communist International and affected the CPC as well. Some members of the party were beginning to question the wisdom of the Leninist united front that was adhered in Cape Breton. As early as 1924, Tim Buck, for example, "raised the prospect of ditching the UMWA" after radicals in Alberta were forced to leave the UMWA and form the Mine Workers’ Union of Canada.[31]

This hostility to international unions also signalled a more fundamental change in the communist movement as a whole. Changes in the Soviet Union were leading to the bureaucratization and Stalinization of the Communist International. Lenin had died in early 1924 and Trotsky’s Left Opposition was isolated and censored. The Comintern began serving the interests of the Soviet bureaucracy rather than the international working class, and subsequently, the principle of working class internationalism was jettisoned in favour of defending the Soviet Union at all costs.[32] The CPC began to see "the American Federation of Labor as a tool of U.S. imperialism," and then helped form the nationalist All-Canadian Confederation of Labour in 1927.[33] This was the first serious breach of the united front policy in the CPC’s trade union work.

The qualitative change in the CPC occurred a year later in 1928 "when the Comintern abruptly abandoned its united front policy and practises...the new approach advocated dual unionism, a policy which had been resisted fiercely by both the American and Canadian Communist Parties from their earliest days."[34] Along with the new policies of the Comintern came the Stalinization of the party under Tim Buck, through a series of internal rows and purges. Though it is likely that McLachlan was present at the November 1928 Central Committee meeting which decided Maurice Spector’s fate in the party, he played virtually no role in the implementation of the Comintern’s new ultraleft turn, largely due to his relative isolation in Cape Breton.[35] However, when McLachlan saw the new CPC policy in action, he reacted with hostility.

In Cape Breton, rank and file activity was slowly recovering. In 1927 McLachlan helped lead a one day strike to protest the execution of the American anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti.[36] A year later, in the midst of the Comintern’s new policy of dual unionism, the CPC launched a new campaign to rebuild the rank and file within District 26 of the UMWA. However, "within weeks of launching the rank-and-file campaign...the party quietly changed its objectives from reform of the international union to its abandonment and linkage with the MWUC [Mine Workers’ Union of Canada]."[37] After several months, this first attempt at dual unionism failed miserably.

Another attempt was made in late 1929 to form a "red" union among the miners and to get them affiliated to the CPC’s new trade union centre, the Workers Unity League. The campaign coincided with the founding of a new rank and file paper, the Nova Scotia Miner.[38] However, at the founding convention of the CPC-led Mine Workers’ Industrial Union in March 1930, McLachlan, acting as convention chair, offered serious reservations. John Manley writes,

He supported the split, but refused to ignore popular opinion and the signs that broad support for the new union was lacking. He reminded his younger comrades that "we are not here to build a Communist Party" and proceeded to refuse the convention’s endorsement as MWIU President...on the grounds that he had only ever accepted union office when the rank-and-file voted him into it...Instead, after the convention fulfilled the pre-ordained decision to launch the MWIU as a WUL union, McLachlan quietly distanced himself from party activity.[39]

This indicates that McLachlan would follow the rank-and-file into a splitting of the union, but would not do so at the behest of political orders from the CPC or Comintern. McLachlan’s criticisms caused him to come into sharp conflict with Jim Barker, a party organizer sent to Cape Breton in November 1929. Following the expulsion of six miners from the UMWA for attending the MWIU convention, Barker called for a general strike. When McLachlan opposed the idea on the basis of the union’s weakness, "Barker went on to denounce the lethargic condition of the local party."[40] In response, McLachlan refused to run as a Communist candidate in the 1930 federal election and then withdrew as editor from the Nova Scotia Miner, effectively sinking it for an entire year.

McLachlan’s actions drew criticism from Toronto, where Tim Buck stated "Old Jim seems to have embarked on an open campaign against every Party decision."[41] According to David Frank, "The whole series of events brought McLachlan close to a break with the Communist Party. It was a constructive opposition, however, for McLachlan was not at this time in disagreement with the party’s general policy; what he most objected to was the disregard of local conditions."[42] In a much bolder statement, John Manley concluded that "J.B. McLachlan effectively left the party."[43]

Eventually the UMWA split in 1932, but not through the efforts of the CPC, but in the process of a rank and file revolt against a union leadership which was conducting secret negotiations with the employer.[44] The newly formed Amalgamated Mine Workers’ never affiliated with the Workers Unity League, and was never even the militant union McLachlan had hoped for — the AMW even outlawed "politics in the union" at its first convention.[45] The AMW ultimately proved incapable of offering leadership to the miners and through a series of missed opportunities, McLachlan began to see united action between the unions as essential if the class struggle was to advance.[46] McLachlan had followed the rank-and-file into building the AMW on the reasonable assessment that it would win over a decisive majority of miners and lead to a militant, democratic union free of John L. Lewis. Once this failed, McLachlan began to see the split as a barrier to united working class action.

The CPC’s 1928 policies of dual unionism and sectarianism "helped send a declining membership plummeting to an all-time low of 1300 members" in 1931.[47] Gradually, the CPC began to work with unions not affiliated with the WUL. McLachlan was also inspired by the prospects of unity among miners after solid third-place result in the 1935 federal election as a "United Front" candidate.[48]

In 1935, yet another change occurred in the CPC. A new policy of the "united front", more commonly known as the "popular front", was ordered by the Comintern. Leaders of the WUL called for a single united labour federation, where internal democracy and union militancy would play a central role. "These principles were similar to those of an earlier united-front appeal which McLachlan had advanced in 1922 and they remained central to his view of the united front in 1935."[49] However, in practice the united front of 1935 was quite different from that of 1922. McLachlan adhered to a united front with fraternal debate but unity in action. The CPC, McLachlan would soon find out, had abandoned the former aspect of the united front.

In the wake of McLachlan’s impressive election results, the AMW and UMWA were talking about establishing a single union. McLachlan was confident that a more democratic, militant and autonomous District 26 would be created.[50] At first, the AMW and UMWA rank-and-file began discussions, and although not every agreement was to McLachlan’s liking, he believed a principled united front could be achieved. However, as time passed, it became obvious that the AMW would simply dissolve into the UMWA. McLachlan was furious that the CPC and WUL had not only abandoned the task of arguing for a principled merger, but had even praised John L. Lewis in the process.

McLachlan resigned from the CPC in June 1936. Ian Angus would write, quite unfairly, that McLachlan had not only led the AMW split from the UMWA, but quit the CPC in 1935 because he opposed the AMW-UMWA merger on sectarian grounds.[51] While the CPC did make profound turns, McLachlan remained rooted in the rank-and-file activity of the Cape Breton coal miners. When the left was purged from the UMWA’s leadership in 1923, McLachlan fought against splitting the union. Six years later, when the Stalinized CPC sought to split District 26, he refused to participate, arguing it had no rank-and-file support.

McLachlan did support the formation of the AMW on the grounds that it was part of a genuine rank-and-file revolt, and not the result of CPC or WUL meddling. When it became clear the AMW had failed to create a viable alternative, McLachlan began arguing for a merger long before the Popular Front was formalized; a merger made on the principles of union democracy, militancy and autonomy from John L. Lewis. When the CPC and WUL played an active role in undermining McLachlan’s efforts by pushing for the dissolution of the AMW into the UMWA, McLachlan left the party, sending a bitter letter of resignation to Tim Buck.

McLachlan’s relationship with the CPC between 1922 and 1935 can only be understood if his general isolation from internal party disputes and decision-making, and the specific events of the Cape Breton labour movement are taken into consideration. A close study reveals that McLachlan continually fought for a Leninist united front in the trade unions, but did so flexibly and not dogmatically. The formation of the AMW has generally been perceived as "Third Period" dual unionism, but as we have seen it was in fact the product of rank-and-file revolt. Actual CPC attempts at forming a "red" union in Cape Breton were opposed by McLachlan. Finally, when the CPC abandoned the principles of union democracy, militancy and autonomy during the Popular Front, McLachlan left the party.


[1] Frank, David, Nolan Reilly. "The Emergence and Growth of the Socialist Movement in the Maritimes, 1899-1916," Labour/Le Travail. V.30 (1979), p.102.

[2] Ibid. p.104.

[3] Ian Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks. (Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2004), p.73-4.

[4] David Frank, J.B. McLachlan. (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1999), p.250-1, 253.

[5] Ibid, p.252.

[6] Leon Trotsky, "The Main Lesson of the Third Congress." The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume One. (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972), p.295-6

[7] Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.100.

[8] See the chapter "Should Revolutionaries Work in Reactionary Trade Unions?" in Lenin’s "Left-Wing Communism": An Infantile Disorder.

[9] Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks,p.111.

[11] Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks,p.111-2.

[12] Frank, p.285.

[13] Ibid, p.270.

[14] Ibid, p.287.

[15] Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.113.

[16] John Manley, "Does the International Labour Movement Need Salvaging: Communism, Labourism and the Canadian Trade Unions, 1921-1928." Labour/Le Travail. Vol.41 (1998), p.169.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ian Mackay and Suzanne Morton, "The Maritimes: Expanding the Circle of Resistance." The Workers’ Revolt in Canada 1917-1925. Ed. Craig Heron. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998), p.73.

[19] David Frank, "Class and Region, Resistance and Accomodation." The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation. Ed. E.R. Forbes, D.A Muise. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997), p.246-7.

[20] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.313.

[21] Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.79.

[22] Ibid, p.81.

[23] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.363

[24] Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.81.

[25] Mackay, "The Maritimes: Expanding the Circle of Resistance." p.74.

[26] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.379-80.

[27] Charles Lipton, The Trade Union Movement of Canada: 1827-1959. (Montreal: Canadian Social Pulications, 1967), p.248.

[28] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.383.

[29] Don Macgillivray, "Military Aid to the Civil Power: The Cape Breton Experience in the 1920s" The Consolidation of Capitalism 1896-1929. Ed. Michael S. Cross, Gregory S. Kealey (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983), p.135.

[30] Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.122.

[31] Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.91., Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.387-8.

[32] Ian Angus develops this argument at length in Part Two of Canadian Bolsheviks. Angus’ arguments are based on those developed in numerous works by Leon Trotsky.

[33] Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.160, 161-2.

[34] William Rodney, Soldiers of the International, (London: University of Toronto Press, 1968), p.116.

[35] This series of events is explained at length by Angus and Rodney. Regarding McLachlan’s role in the internal party struggle, see page 442-3 of David Frank’s J.B. McLachlan.

[36] Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.96.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.444.

[39] Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.99-100.

[40] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.446.

[41] Ibid, p.447.

[42] Ibid, p.448.

[43] John Manley, "Canadian Communism, Revolutionary Unionism, and the ‘Third Period’: The Workers Unity League, 1929-1935." Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. 1994 (5), p.173.

[44] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.464.

[45] Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.104-5.

[46] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.470-1.

[47] John Manley, "‘Communists Love Canada!’ The Communist Party of Canada, The "People" and the Popular Front, 1933-1939," Journal of Canadian Studies, 2001-02 36 (4), p.61.

[48] Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.498.

[49] David Frank and John Manley, "The Sad March to the Right: J.B. McLachlan’s Resignation from the Communist Party of Canada, 1936." Labour/Le Travail. Vol.30, (1992), p.118-9.

[50] Ibid, p.120.

[51] Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.257, 305.


Angus, Ian, Canadian Bolsheviks. (Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2004).

Frank, David, "Class and Region, Resistance and Accomodation." The Atlantic Provinces in Confederation. Ed. E.R. Forbes, D.A Muise. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

Frank, David, J.B. McLachlan. (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1999).

Frank, David and John Manley, "The Sad March to the Right: J.B. McLachlan’s Resignation from the Communist Party of Canada, 1936." Labour/Le Travail. 30 (1992).

Frank, David and Nolan Reilly. "The Emergence and Growth of the Socialist Movement in the Maritimes, 1899-1916," Labour/Le Travail. 30 (1979).

Lenin, Vladimir Ilich, "Left-wing" communism: an infantile disorder. (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1947).

Lipton, Charles, The Trade Union Movement of Canada: 1827-1959. (Montreal: Canadian Social Publications, 1967).

Macgillivray, Don, "Military Aid to the Civil Power: The Cape Breton Experience in the 1920s" The Consolidation of Capitalism 1896-1929. Ed. Michael S. Cross, Gregory S. Kealey (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1983).

Mackay, Ian and Suzanne Morton, "The Maritimes: Expanding the Circle of Resistance." The Workers’ Revolt in Canada 1917-1925. Ed. Craig Heron. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1998).

Manley, John, "Canadian Communism, Revolutionary Unionism, and the "Third Period": The Workers Unity League, 1929-1935." Journal of the Canadian Historical Association. 5 (1994)

Manley, John, ""Communists Love Canada!" The Communist Party of Canada, The "People" and the Popular Front, 1933-1939," Journal of Canadian Studies, 36/4 (2001-02).

Manley, John, "Does the International Labour Movement Need Salvaging: Communism, Labourism and the Canadian Trade Unions, 1921-1928." Labour/Le Travail. 41 (1998).

Manley, John, "Preaching the Red Stuff: J.B. McLachlan, Communism, and the Cape Breton Miners, 1922-1935." Labour/Le Travail. 30 (1992).

Rodney, William, Soldiers of the International, (London: University of Toronto Press, 1968).

Trotsky, Leon, "The Main Lesson of the Third Congress." The First Five Years of the Communist International, Volume One. (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1972).

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