The Cold War and Working-Class Politics in the Coal Mining Communities of the Crowsnest Pass, 1945-1958

By Langford, Tom; Frazer, Chris | Labour/Le Travail, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

The Cold War and Working-Class Politics in the Coal Mining Communities of the Crowsnest Pass, 1945-1958


Langford, Tom, Frazer, Chris, Labour/Le Travail


THIS IS A STUDY of working-class politics during the early years of the Cold War in Canada: we compare what transpired on either side of the British Columbia-Alberta border, in the Crowsnest Pass region of the Rocky Mountains. By the end of World War II, the coal mining communities straddling the Crowsnest Pass had produced a socialist workers' movement that seemed resilient and united, and that had strong ties to the communist movement. Our objective is to explain why the socialist workers' movement on the British Columbia (BC) side of the border proved to be much more resilient in the face of Cold War pressures than its companion movement in Alberta (AB). The study concludes that the difference in cross-border resilience was largely due to the successful pursuit of labour unity politics in the BC Crowsnest and to the collapse of a labour unity strategy in the Alberta Crowsnest. The Cold War represented the strengthening of reactionary elements within dominant social groups (locally and nationally), and open ed the door for aggressive attacks against militant working-class politics and left-wing movements. The comparative methodology and localized focus of our research demonstrates that such periods of intense struggle do not lead inevitably to the defeat of workers' movements. However, the success of leftist resistance to reactionary offensives depends, then, as now, on working-class unity around struggles, organizations, and public figures that enjoy widespread public sympathy and loyalty.

There is a significant body of scholarship on working-class politics in Canada during the Cold War. The key works, however, have concentrated on national or provincial events and on the political struggles within labour federations, major unions, and political parties. (1) While there are a few interesting memoirs of Cold War politics in Local Unions, there is an absence of detailed research on the ways that working-class politics in particular geographic locales were affected by the Cold War. (2) This type of study is necessary not only to recover the lived experiences of workers in different communities during these years, but also to explain how local processes influenced the character of working-class politics in the Cold War. Despite the omnipotence often attributed to the reactionary political forces of the early Cold War years, these forces were never mechanically superimposed on a given locale; rather they were mediated through local political forces and their impact was modified by the experience of particular working-class struggles. (3) As Doreen Massey asserts, the relative degree of influence of social processes operating on different spatial scales must be investigated rather than assumed, just as it is necessary to study the ways that "smaller scale processes operate in articulation with wider ones." The empirical and theoretical challenge confronting studies such as this one "is not only to assert the importance of the local level but to analyse its articulation into a spatially multifarious set of forces." (4)

In neglecting local processes and workers' lived experiences, scholars have necessarily disregarded the constituency branches of political parties and their relationships to local workers' movements. One consequence of this neglect is that generalizations about the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and Labour Progressive Party (LPP) during the early Cold War years continue to be replicated in the historical record without qualification or engagement with a range of evidence. A most unfortunate aspect of these generalizations is that political activists are characterized as if party affiliation tells us everything we need to know about them; no attention is paid to local circumstances or activists' strategic initiatives in those circumstances. For instance, some recent publications have carried on the tradition of harshly judging Communists in the early Cold War, even questioning whether they were legitimate socialists. …

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