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. 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."
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.
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
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." 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
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.
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.
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. 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
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."
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. 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."
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."
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." Historian
John Manley has portrayed the sympathy strike as "the perils of excessive
militancy," yet fails to note that the sympathy
strike was made possible after miners and their families were attacked by
provincial police at Whitney Pier. 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. It must also be noted that the charter was
revoked only days before the district executive election, which, McLachlan
believed he would win.
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. 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." 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." 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. The new red executive even
won the endorsement of 100 percent strikes, which would leave Besco
responsible for the maintenance of the mines. 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.
The strike culminated on 11 June 1925, as company police fired on a
crowd of several hundred near the New Waterford powerhouse.
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. Having attracted
international attention, the Canadian government sent in the military
which led to the quick suspension of the strike.
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
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. 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.
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.
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. This was the
first serious breach of the united front policy in the CPC’s trade union
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." 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. 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.
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]." 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.
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.
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." 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
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." 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."
In a much bolder statement, John Manley concluded that "J.B. McLachlan
effectively left the party."
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.
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. 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.
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
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. 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.
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."
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. 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. 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.
 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.
 Ibid. p.104.
 Ian Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks. (Victoria,
BC: Trafford, 2004), p.73-4.
 David Frank, J.B. McLachlan. (Toronto:
James Lorimer & Co., 1999), p.250-1, 253.
 Ibid, p.252.
 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
 Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.100.
 See the chapter "Should Revolutionaries Work in
Reactionary Trade Unions?" in Lenin’s "Left-Wing Communism": An
 Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks,p.111.
 Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks,p.111-2.
 Frank, p.285.
 Ibid, p.270.
 Ibid, p.287.
 Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.113.
 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.
 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,
 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.
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.313.
 Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.79.
 Ibid, p.81.
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.363
 Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.81.
 Mackay, "The Maritimes: Expanding the Circle of
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.379-80.
 Charles Lipton, The Trade Union Movement of
Canada: 1827-1959. (Montreal: Canadian Social Pulications, 1967),
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.383.
 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.
 Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.122.
 Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.91., Frank,
J.B. McLachlan, p.387-8.
 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.
 Angus, Canadian Bolsheviks, p.160,
 William Rodney, Soldiers of the
International, (London: University of Toronto Press, 1968), p.116.
 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.
 Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.96.
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.444.
 Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.99-100.
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.446.
 Ibid, p.447.
 Ibid, p.448.
 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.
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.464.
 Manley, Preaching the Red Stuff, p.104-5.
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.470-1.
 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.
 Frank, J.B. McLachlan, p.498.
 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.
 Ibid, p.120.
 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.,
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.
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,
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).