Coal Mine, Glace Bay, 1930. Via wikimedia commons.
Coal Mine, Glace Bay, 1930. Via Wikimedia Commons.

Almost a decade ago, now, sat in the living room of my former master’s supervisor, overlooking Grand Lake in Nova Scotia, I sat down and scribbled down the idea of the industrial frontier. It became a central motif in my MA thesis – a comparative study of working class politics in Cape Breton and South Wales (a slightly clumsy work, now that I go back to it) – and I’ve carried it forward into my subsequent work, albeit more in the background. The idea, to quote my much ignored first article “Miners on the Margins”, was that

The industrial frontier is a region – most prominently [though not exclusively] a coalfield – which is removed from the influences of a metropolitan centre and which therefore constructs its own identity, its own cultural forms, and its own institutions. The industrial frontier is, though, semi-autonomous because it is subjected to external demands, namely the industrial capitalist system which many on the industrial frontier fought against. In this sense, then, the industrial frontier is also an identity which the people of the frontier made and remade generation after generation. It is a source for anti-hegemonic culture but which is dependent on external markets in order for it to survive as an industrial region.

This was back when my Marxist tendencies were much blunter and in your face. But the idea remains true. What Dai Smith refers to as the ‘World of South Wales’, what Zimmern thought of as ‘American Wales’, and what I see as an ‘industrial frontier’ amount to the same thing, a region distinctive enough to warrant being studied independently of others. To put it baldly: South Wales not south Wales.

Since that time, my focus has been on one half of my original comparative, but I’ve been itching to get back to studying Cape Breton’s history and the history of Nova Scotia more generally. So today’s blogpost is the first step along that road. A working out, if you will, of how to extend and develop the comparative now that I’m not a fresh faced master’s student, but something else entirely. But where to begin?

In the summer of 1936, just as the Communist Party in South Wales was celebrating its great triumph – the election of Arthur Horner as President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation – the Communist Party in Nova Scotia faced its greatest challenge, the resignation of James Bryson McLachlan. Big Jim McLachlan, an acolyte of Keir Hardie, was the leading figure in the Communist Party in Eastern Canada, occupying a similar role to Arthur Horner or Bill Paynter. A miner by profession, he took a major role in the development of working-class newspapers initially on the Maritime Labor Herald (for which he was editor shortly before its demise in 1926) and subsequently on the Nova Scotia Miner, which he edited from its establishment in 1929 until 1936. Much of McLachlan’s career has been set out by David Frank and John Manley and it is not my intention to reiterate their findings here, but rather to follow the fortunes of the CP following McLachlan’s departure.

The differences between what was going on in South Wales and what was happening in Nova Scotia could not be more stark. The turn away from the Third Period of class against class and the depiction of the Labour Party as social fascists transformed the fortunes of the CP in the region. From a membership nadir of around 300 in 1931, the district had grown to over 1000 by 1939. But in Nova Scotia, the party wallowed. In December 1935 it had little more than 70 members on paper and few of them were active. The Popular Front era provided some momentum – a report for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Canada noted that the Nova Scotia provincial committee had doubled in size by May 1936. But then McLachlan left, shattering confidence in the CP in its Nova Scotia heartland of Sydney and Glace Bay (both within the Cape Breton Island coalfield). Members began to fall away.

The fragility of the Communist Party was exacerbated by the complexity of its local membership: Canadians of British descent filled the ranks of some branches, new migrants from Hungary and Poland filled the ranks of others. They rarely interacted with each other, often conducted their business in different languages, and reflected different traditions of left-wing organisation and political activity. In Halifax, the provincial capital, the party also struggled to engage with what it then thought of as the ‘colonial question’, namely rights for black Nova Scotians. In other words, the CP in the province, based as it was within coal mining and steel making circles, had to navigate a form of union politics that derived largely from British practice and a form of political organisation that was, on some levels, antagonistic. It was a circle that the South Wales District of the British Communist Party often had to contend with too.

What I mean is this: in mining areas, the Lodge occupied the central position in political and industrial activity. Although the Labour Party subsequently developed its independence, the relationship between the industrial solution to socialism and the political solution to socialism was extremely strong. As it was in Nova Scotia, British Columbia, and other parts of Canada that absorbed the British model of trade union organisation. For Communists, and fellow travellers, who were active in trade unions, therefore, it was easy to say that union work was party work and nothing more needed to be done. Those who did party work through the auspices of the party were those who tended to be less active in trades unions or willingly accepted the role of apparatchik. It’s one of the reasons why historians such as Nina Fishman and Hywel Francis have written about Hornerism – deviations from the strict party line that made sense to members of the South Wales Miners’ Federation. Squared circles. J. B. McLachlan may not have an -ism, but he certainly followed the same sort of tactics.

Given how small the Communist Party was in Nova Scotia, why bother looking at it at all? The period was, after all, an era of Liberal ascendancy at the provincial level and at the federal level, but for a short period between 1930-1935 when the Conservatives governed federally under R. B. Bennett. Well, the inadequacy of the Nova Scotian Left is of considerable interest. Before the establishment of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in the province in 1932, there had been various attempts at forging a Labour Party through unity between farmers and workers. The most successful group was the Independent Labour Party which had four MLAs between 1920 and 1925, and a sole MLA between 1928 and 1933. Three came from Cape Breton, the other from Cumberland County.  The CCF (later the New Democratic Party or NDP) did not win its first seat on the Nova Scotian mainland until 1981 – it was predominantly the party of the Cape Breton Left up until that point.

All of this matters because Nova Scotians are rarely encouraged to acknowledge their radical history. Mainstream history, dominated by what Ian McKay refers to as ‘the quest of the folk’, and metropolitan ambivalence to the province, points to Nova Scotia’s relative conservatism and willingness to wallow in a manufactured ‘tartanism’. Not quite Tartan Tories, but getting there. But flip all that on its head and you find a very different kind of Nova Scotia, one that is very similar to South Wales in lots of ways. A multicultural harbour-orientated city, a radical coalfield, rugby-playing miners, a tradition of adult education and nonconformity, and a place on the periphery of the Atlantic now but much less so in the past. It’s easy to think of your own “milltir sgwar” as unique, but it rarely is. As I wrote all those years ago:

The labour movement in Cape Breton and South Wales [I’ve restored the capital S removed by the then editors of Llafur] was not a political expression alone, it was a cultural expression born from the experiences of life for the worker on the industrial frontier. […] The spirit of ongoing struggle against adversity might well be something we need to recapture for the twenty-first century inhabitants of [either] coalfield.

I’ll end with this thought then. There have been many novel attempts at comparative history in recent years, from Leighton James’s comparison between South Wales and the Ruhr, to Daniel Williams’s efforts at relating Welsh nationalism to Pan-Africanism and American Civil Rights, to Simon Brooks’s reflections on Welsh liberal-nationalism and the liberal-nationalisms of central Europe, and it is a very useful and exciting field. I hope that whatever emerges from this return to an old project offers a different kind of voice to that debate. That’s always been my intention! I’ll leave you, for now, with a song, taken from the Maritime Labor Herald. Off you go to the Picket Line.