Revolutionary activism in the ’50s & ’60s

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By BARRY WEISLEDER

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s — Ernest Tate, A Memoir,” Resistance Books, London. Vol. 1, Canada 1955-1965, 274 pages; Vol. 2, Britain 1965-1970, 402 pages.

I’m very excited about the two-volume work that Ernest Tate produced, with considerable help from his life partner Jess Mackenzie. Although I have been involved in radical politics for 45 years, compared to Ernie, I’m a late-comer. Yet my passion about “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s” is real because I find that it is not only about the past; it is very much about the present.

For revolutionary socialists in the Canadian state today, this is our prologue. It describes the application of the political method known as Marxism. The legacy of the Socialist Education League and the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere, as recounted particularly in Vol. 1, represents the framework and the guide to the present program and practice of Socialist Action/Ligue pour l’Action socialiste. Vol. 2 deals mostly with Ernie’s political activity in Britain.

Ernie’s modesty leads him to describe his work as a memoir. It is that, but it’s much more than that. It is rich in political lessons that apply to today’s circumstances and issues. In my view it is a kind of textbook for revolutionary party building, particularly in tough times. The present decade and the 1950s have that in common. It certainly helps that the writing is very accessible and unpretentious. The narrative is fast-paced, compelling, and yet a breezy account of world historic events and prominent personalities.

Ernie wouldn’t have met the Trotskyists, the anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialists in Toronto, in the mid-1950s, or perhaps at all, if he had not stumbled upon the Toronto Labour Bookstore on Yonge Street, just north of Wellesley. That’s where curiosity encountered revolutionary political leadership. Ross Dowson, the store manager, had been the socialist candidate for mayor who won tens of thousands of votes in the 1940s. It’s a good thing that the socialists had a bookstore, to nurture scritical thinking, to attract new supporters, and to organize their ranks.

Of course, that required an organization. It was called The Club. The bland name was a concession to anti-communist hysteria, fanned by the mass media. Meetings of The Club, the tiny Trotskyist party, took place in the store basement. Once he was invited to attend, Ernie noticed the business-like conduct of party membership meetings, the routine collection of dues, and the serious attention paid to internal education, offering new members an opportunity to learn how to speak in public.

Public forums were held elsewhere, on a regular basis, usually in a union hall—even if the seating exceeded the need. Forums featured speakers like Helen Sobell (wife of Morton Sobell of the famous Rosenberg case). That forum promoted the Sobell Defense Committee, with the involvement of members of the Labour Progressive Party. That was the name adopted by the Communist Party of Canada after it was made illegal under the War Measures Act.

In the 1950s, world nuclear annihilation seemed imminent. Tensions ran very high. The conflict between the imperialist powers and the Stalinist-led workers’ states was pervasive. And to many, it seemed destined to be permanent. That reality had a huge impact on working-class politics.

On the one hand, the repressive anti-communist atmosphere in the West caused some socialist tendencies to make concessions to imperialism. They embraced “third camp” politics, supported by the theory of state capitalism. That theory taught neutrality in the conflict between Washington and Moscow, between Washington and Vietnam, and between Washington and Cuba. In other words, it condoned hostility, or at least indifference, to the colonial revolution, and to the defense of the gains of the October Revolution.

On the other hand, the Cold War led some socialist groups to adapt to Stalinism. It led them to become apologists for the ruling bureaucracies in Moscow, or Beijing, or Hanoi.

Inside the Fourth International (FI), a number of national sections decided to “enter” the Communist Party in their own countries, or in some cases, to “enter” the Socialist Party. The specific form of “entry,” entryism sui generis, meant dissolving the public face of the organization—for the long term. It was not at all like doing some work in those parties, while continuing to be openly active outside of them.

Some Trotskyist leaders predicted “centuries of deformed workers’ states.” They saw the CPs as the place to be, for the long run, in order to defend those states and the working class against imperialism. It took 10 to 20 years to break FI sections from this extreme tactic.

Meanwhile, differences over concessions to Stalinism, and differences over the authority of the FI leadership to dictate tactics to national sections, what American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon decried as “Cominternism,” caused a split in the FI It lasted from 1953 to 1964.

The Cuban socialist revolution did much to heal the split. Cuba demonstrated that the colonial revolution could smash the imperialist stranglehold by going socialist, by bringing the workers and farmers to power, by defying the two-stage reformist schema dictated by Moscow to its satellite parties. Ernie and his comrades were at the forefront of explaining the key concept underlying the liberation of Cuba—Leon Trotsky’s strategy of Permanent Revolution. Although it is mentioned only in passing in the book, Permanent Revolution today retains its central importance. The LSA and the FI heralded the new rise of world revolution and seized the opportunity to advance party building in that period.

The book reports the fight against racial discrimination at the Palais Royale, on Lakeshore Blvd. in Toronto. It refers to solidarity with the restaurant sit-ins in the U.S. and Canada, and identifies with the Black voter registration campaign led by the Freedom Riders in the Deep South. Ernie describes the Ban the Bomb campaign, and the early days of the Vietnam anti-war movement in North America and Europe.

All of these campaigns, and many more, succeeded because they brought together people of different views who could agree on one issue, like opposition to a war. They also practiced the principle of non-exclusion. That meant that the campaign was open to all groups and individuals, and that participating groups would enjoy equal rights to speak at the major events of the campaign.

The Trotskyists advocated legal, peaceful mass action. They didn’t discourage letter writing and the lobbying of bourgeois politicians. But they actively promoted proletarian methods of struggle: demonstrations, sit-ins, teach-ins, mass picketing, and strikes.

The aim was to encourage broad participation and to empower the participants to create a movement capable of winning a majority, and winning its demands. And they were very successful—in tearing down overt forms of racial discrimination, helping to end the war in Vietnam, winning the right of women to choose abortion, putting gay liberation on the political agenda, and targeting industrial polluters to clean up the mess they made. We in Socialist Action try to follow their example.

Like our political predecessors, we are strong proponents of the united front, which is essential to covering new ground and defending past progress. The labour movement is beset by many problems that impede the efforts of working people to defend our past gains, much less to build a just society. The question is: how can we work to remove the obstacles to progress?

Decades of labour concessions, and mis-education of the ranks by the proponents of business unionism, have entrenched bureaucratic roadblocks to change and fostered worker passivity. Radical initiatives from below, self-organization of the ranks, from the bottom-up, is necessary. This is precisely what militants of the SEL and the LSA did.

As Ernie recounts, they fought repression in the unions. They campaigned against exclusion from the Ironworkers’ union of SEL leader Paddy Stanton. They proposed class-struggle policies. They fought for significant improvements in wages and conditions of work, and for the right of union members to set bargaining demands and to vote on tentative agreements.

They launched the “Forward With Democracy” caucus in the Teamsters union. They pushed the fight for the 44-hour week. They built the “No Reprisals Defense Fund.” They ran candidates in union elections on a class-struggle platform.

This brings us to the issue of independent working class political action. The first task for class-conscious workers is to break the majority of our fellow workers from supporting the bosses’ parties. That entails building a political party based on the union movement, a party within which socialists fight for a Workers’ Agenda of democratic, defensive and transitional demands. The only mass party in North America that is based on the unions is the New Democratic Party, in English Canada.

That meant opposing the LPP’s line for “anti-monopoly coalitions,” i.e. giving backhanded support to the Liberal Party. SEL comrades got the United Electrical Workers’ Union, then led by Stalinists, to support the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation instead of “progressive” Liberals.

Of course, the bureaucrats who dominate the NDP today, who are virtually the same officials who dominate the unions, wish to impede the socialists, even to exclude us if conditions permit. The leaders of the CCF, the NDP’s predecessor party, expelled Trotskyists in the 1950s. The NDP brass did the same in the ’60s. But that did not alter the orientation of the SEL or of the LSA to the labour party. They continued to build activist groupings. They launched a Left Caucus, then a Socialist Caucus. They fought successfully to win support for public ownership of the resource sector, for the extension of public health care, for NDP opposition to the war in Vietnam, and to end Canada’s involvement in NATO.

The Trotskyists urged the CCF and the NDP to compete in city elections, to quash the myth that city elections are non-class and non-partisan affairs. And when Labour and its party did not contest city elections, the Trotskyists did so whenever they could.

You can readily see how closely Socialist Action patterns its activity on that of the SEL and the LSA. We founded and play a leading role in the NDP Socialist Caucus. The SC has much to show for its work. Together with many allies, it won the NDP to a “Canada Out of Afghanistan” policy. It defended the reference to socialism in the NDP constitution, and pushed many party policies to the left. It is the most consistent force for democracy in the party.

Finally, I want to discuss the need for building the revolutionary party on an international scale. Capitalism is global. So must be the efforts of the working class to resist and overcome the capitalist system of exploitation and oppression. In the wake of the dissolution of the First International, the capitulation of the Second International to imperialist war, and destruction of the Third International by Stalinism, Canadian socialist workers helped to found the Fourth International in 1938.

The predecessors of SA worked to build the FI in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s. That included participating in important debates, sometimes aligned in tendencies and factions. It also meant working closely with American comrades, with the U.S. Socialist Workers’ Party, prior to its break with Trotskyism in the 1980s. Socialist Action Canada today works closely with SA-USA, the inheritor of the best traditions of the SWP.

I mentioned earlier that the FI experienced sharp debates in the 1950s and 60s over how to relate to Stalinist parties. In the 1960s and 70s the debates centred on the merits of urban and rural guerrilla warfare, with tragic results for our party in Argentina, reminiscent of the tragedy that befell Che Guevara in Bolivia. Today, there are sharp disagreements in the F.I. over revolutionary party building, that is, over the Leninist concept of organization. There is precedent for this kind of dispute, which underscores another benefit of the book.

In the 1960s, Ken Coates, a leader of the Labour Party left wing and a member of the FI group in Britain, the International Marxist Group, saw it more as a vehicle for building a “broad left” current in the Labour Party, rather than to pursue the work in the Labour Party primarily to build a revolutionary party outside of it. The latter is the approach of SA-Canada, to build an open and independent revolutionary party, and it was the approach of Ernie and his comrades in Britain in the late ’60s.

The book isn’t perfect. It has little to say about the national question. It contains a few minor errors of chronology and typing. But for the most part, the book faithfully presents a method of politics that has proven it can change the world for the better.

For that reason I encourage everyone to buy and to read the two volumes. Read it not just because it’s a good story well told and a history that you will not find anywhere else, but primarily because you want to change the world today. We are indebted to Ernie and Jess for the wonderful work they’ve done. I say to all who read this review: if you agree with the message of these fine books, you should join Socialist Action. Together we will make a better world, and better sooner than later.

Photo: Vancouver, B.C. protest against U.S. and Canadian involvement in Vietnam War in 1968.