Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s: A Memoir
By Ernest Tate
Volume 1, Canada 1955-1965
Vol. 1: ISBN 978-0-902869-69-1; EAN: 9780902869691
Vol. 2: ISBN 978-0-902869-60-8; EAN: 9780902869608
Resistance Books, London, 2014
Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal readers can read an excerpt HERE. To order a copy, email email@example.com.
Review by Barry Sheppard
March 30, 2014 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal
-- European Trotskyists writing recently about this movement tend to give short
shrift to Trotskyism in North America, in the US and Canada. An example is An Impatient Life by French leader
Daniel Bensaid, who died this year.
While the US Socialist Workers Party has been covered in books published
by the SWP before its degeneration, and more recently in my own political
memoir about my time in the SWP from 1960 through 1988, the Canadian movement
has not received the attention it deserves.
This book by Ernie Tate, as I always knew him, sheds light on an
important decade of Canadian Trotskyism. And, since it has been published in
Britain, perhaps interested persons on “the continent” as the rest of Europe is
known popularly on the tight little island of England will take note.
The book begins with Ernie being born into the Protestant working class
in the British-controlled six counties of North Ireland. He had little
I had left school before my fourteenth birthday, the legal age at that
time for school leaving in Northern Ireland. Most of the young people in the
area I grew up – Protestant working class Shankill Road – terminated their
formal education at that age, or earlier if they could. In the whole time I
lived in Belfast, I had never known or met anyone who had gone to a secondary
school, never mind university. My family was the poorest of the poor. There was
a common joke around my neighborhood that had a lot of truth to it: “If anyone
around here paid their rent in two weeks in a row, the police would be visiting
to see where the money came from.”
He recounts how the Catholic working class was even worse off and
suffered extreme oppression at the hands of the Protestants.
He got his first job at 14. His experiences in various factory jobs in
the next years taught him a lot about the workings of capitalism, although it
would take being exposed to Marxism later that enabled him to understand it.
Some who come to Marxism but have never worked for capitalists find Marx’
explanation of value, surplus value and exploitation difficult and abstract,
but to Ernie it “clicked” and explained his concrete experience.
In the atmosphere of religious bigotry, Ernie also came to question
As a young worker, he became a voracious reader. When he was 20, he
emigrated to Canada in 1955, at first in hopes of winning an athletic
university scholarship based on his abilities as a runner:
By the time I had arrived in Canada, even though I was looking to get
myself involved in athletics, I considered myself an atheist and a communist,
not truly understanding what these terms meant. But I knew enough to be aware
that those in authority in our society hated the Soviet Union and Communists,
and seemed afraid of them. If that was the case, I thought to myself, I was on
the side of the Communists, more a form of iconoclasm on my part than anything
Early that summer he ran across the Toronto Labour Bookstore, run by
Ross Dowson, which was the headquarters of the clandestine small Trotskyist
[T]his would be my first exposure to socialist ideas and the beginning
of a life-long commitment to radical politics I have never regretted.
I have taken time to rapidly go over this story because it has a lesson.
Young thinking workers, even with limited formal education, can become radicalised,
and be open to socialism once they come in contact with socialists. This is
true in general. One outstanding example was the young Farrell Dobbs, who was
radicalised in the great 1934 Teamsters’ strike, and became a leader of it
before he found out the initiators of the strike were seasoned communists,
Trotskyists, whom he soon joined.
One thing I hadn’t been aware of that I learned from the book was that
shortly before Ernie arrived in Canada there had been a split among Trotskyists
there. This was part of a split in the Fourth International in 1953 that Michel
Pablo had engineered, resulting in a major split in the US Socialist Workers
Party, and in France, Britain and elsewhere.
The group that Ernie joined was indeed small, a few tens concentrated in
Toronto and Vancouver. It was also clandestine, having joined the Canadian
Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a social-democratic formation with some rural
populist roots. The Trotskyists were underground, because they were in danger
of being expelled by the CCF leadership if it discovered them, although the
group was able to carry out political work through the CCF. The most open
aspect of the operation was the Toronto Labour Bookstore, which also served
when closed as a meeting place for the group, which was called “The Club”.
Toward the end of 1955, a step forward was taken when The Club became
the Socialist Education League (SEL), which saw itself as part of the CCF. It
began to publish a monthly journal, The
Workers Vanguard, the same title as the paper put out in the 1930s by those
expelled from the Stalinised Communist Party for “Trotskyism”. During WWII, the
Trotskyists were outlawed and had to go underground. In the post-war labour
upsurge that swept Canada as well as the US, they were again able to emerge
publicly as the Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP), which published Labour Challenge.
The US SWP had helped train Ross Dowson as the editor, and so he became
the de facto editor of The Workers
Vanguard in 1955 as he was the only one qualified.
During the labour upsurge, the RWP made rapid gains in recruitment, and
even scored some impressive election results for a small group, receiving 11
per cent of the votes for mayor of Toronto and then 17 per cent the next year.
But this growth was short lived, as the anti-communist witch-hunt and the post-war
international capitalist economic boom took hold. In this period of retreat, it
was Ross Dowson who was the main leader and held the dwindling group together.
The SEL functioned almost as a branch of the US SWP, which was much more
seasoned and professional than the SEL, Ernie reports. The SWP also helped the
SEL to develop a cadre of people educated in Marxism. One aspect of this was a
few Canadian comrades were invited to attend a four-month cadre school the SWP
had set up at a camp the SWP owned, called Mountain Spring Camp. Ernie attended
one of these intensive sessions.
One of the threads running through the book is the gradual emergence of
more and more public activity by the SEL, in the CCF but also in other areas.
One of these was in the unions, and Ernie has two chapters on this important
work, especially in the Teamsters, where the SEL became, almost fortuitously at
first, part of a big Canadian Teamsters wildcat strike wave, and took on
leadership positions together with other militants. After a major strike was
lost in 1962, there was a period of lull, but by 1966, some time after the SEL
changed its name to League for Socialist Action (LSA), there was a renewed
Teamster upsurge, where the LSA members again came to the fore. As a result the
LSA attracted Teamster militants in this period.
Post-Stalin crisis in Canadian CP
There were other arenas of outward work that Ernie outlines. To back up
a bit to 1956, this year saw a crisis in the Stalinist Communist parties
throughout the world and in Canada. In the beginning of the year, Soviet
Premier Nikita Khrushchev gave his famous speech on the crimes of Stalin, which
rocked world Stalinism. About six months later came the Hungarian revolution,
and the spectacle of Soviet tanks crushing this great worker-led uprising for
socialist democracy. These events led to a crisis in the Labour Progressive
Party (LPP), as the Canadian CP was called then, a crisis “from which it would
never recover”, Ernie reports.
The SEL intervened in this crisis of the LPP, which led many to leave
and opened a process of regroupment the Trotskyists were part of. One
particularly interesting episode involved Ernie himself, that combined this
work with work in the CCF. Ernie was assigned to a CCF local, and became active
in its youth group, and soon became its organiser, while another SEL member,
Alan Harris, became chairperson.
(Alan was originally from England, and would later return there.
Caroline Lund and I worked with Alan and his companion Connie when we were
assigned to be SWP representatives to the Fourth International twice, once in
Brussels and later in Paris.)
There was another major event in 1956, in July, when Israel, Britain and
France invaded Egypt over its nationalisation of the Suez Canal. The SEL
comrades in the CCF youth organised a protest rally,
and in true ecumenical spirit that ran counter to the anti-Communist
mood of the adult [CCF] leadership, we invited the Young Communist League (YCL)
to come along. Very surprised to get the invite, they were very pleased to
The demonstration was a success, but then the CCF leadership expelled
the Trotskyists because they “had allowed Communists to participate. But
suddenly we were in touch with more CP youth than ever, an unexpected and
positive consequence of getting kicked out of the CCF youth.”
Another big event that the SEL participated in was a major discussion
that broke out in the unions in the late 1950s, which had endorsed the CCF,
about the need to establish a “new party” in the wake of a decline of the CCF.
The debate broke out into the open when the newly formed Canadian Labour
Congress (a product of the fusion of the industrial Congress of Labor and the
craft Trades and Labour Congress, much like the fusion in the US of the CIO and
AFL) at its convention in 1958 issued a call for a “new party”. This resulted
in 1961 in the birth of the union-based New Democratic Party, signalling a
beginning of a turn to the left from the previous witch-hunt period. The NDP
replaced the old CCF and became another arena of work for the revolutionary
Ernie devotes a long chapter on the Canadian Trotskyists and the Cuban
Revolution, which led to the SEL taking the initiative with others in setting
up the Canadian Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). SEL leader Verne Olson
became its chair. The Canadian FPCC lasted longer than the US committee of the
same name for various reasons, almost a decade in fact. Participation in this
work would lead to growth of the SEL and then LSA, as it coincided with the
emergence of a worldwide youth radicalisation.
Ernie details the initial scepticism of the SEL about the Cuban
revolution, dispelled as the revolution moved sharply in an anti-capitalist and
anti-imperialist direction, as well as problems, including with Stalinists in
Cuba. At the same time, they met with sympathy from many of the non-Stalinists
among the Cuban leadership and people.
At one point, they made a major blunder, which played into the
Stalinists hands. Joe Hansen, a leader of the US SWP, made a comradely and
pedagogical intervention into the matter, which helped the comrades correct
their mistake. I’ll leave it up to the book’s readers to delve into this
Ernie goes into detail about cross-country trips that lasted many
months, even six months, where a group of comrades would travel from Toronto to
Vancouver, selling subscriptions and other literature, living hand-to-mouth
from the proceeds of their sales.
Canada is quite long, going from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans, but
is not very wide in relation to population. These trips would cover some 2000
miles. I found these chapters interesting from the point of view of learning
about Canada. I have only been to Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal. I was also
interested in the fact that there were some individual sympathisers of the SEL scattered
across this vast distance.
These trips were a project of Ross Dowson, the central leader of the
group. He maintained that they were party-building enterprises. From Ernie’s
description, I can only conclude that they were failures in that regard. That
they were repeated a number of times with little or no lasting results
indicates a weakness in Ross’ concept of party building.
Dowson also maintained that they were useful in the cadre development of
those members who undertook them. This reflected an ascetic streak in Ross. He
himself lived very frugally, and seemed to think that hardship, which the
comrades suffered a lot of on these trips, was “character building”, which I
find is nonsense.
Throughout the book, it seemed to me that there were other weaknesses of
Ross’ approach. When confronted with political differences inside the groups,
he sometimes appeared to make these personal, and even urged those who had
differences to drop out of activity for a time.
Another chapter I found interesting is that Ernie in the late 1950s was
“on loan” to the US SWP in helping to found the Young Socialist Alliance. Much
of this information was new to me, including his first-hand experience at a
conference of the youth group of Independent Socialist League, followers of
former SWP leader Max Schactman, where it voted to follow the ISL into the
social democracy. Shachtman himself spoke at length at this gathering, although
he was far from being a youth. A minority rejected this move, and split. This
minority would become part of the formation of the YSA.
There are some small errors in the book, which should have been caught
in more careful editing. One was the claim that the First International was
formed by Marx and Engels in 1848. It was formed at the initiative of British
trade unionists in the 1860s – and Marx, who was living there in exile, became
a leader of it.
The SWP’s Mountain Spring Camp was in New Jersey, not Pennsylvania.
Ernie also gets the names of youth groups wrong in his discussion of the
formation of the YSA. The youth group of the ISL was the Young Socialist League
(YSL), not the Young Peoples Socialist League (YPSL), which was the youth group
of the social-democratic Socialist Party – Social Democratic Federation. The
majority of the YSL joined the YPSL after its convention.
Another is a garbled account of the US Progressive Labor Party, which
Ernie says emerged in the 1950s as part of the regroupment process in the US,
but which in reality was a Maoist formation that developed after the
Sino-Soviet split. It appears that Ernie confused the Progressive Labor Party
with the Canadian Labour Progressive Party.
But these errors and a few others are not germane to the content of the
I whole-heartedly recommend this first volume of Ernie’s memoir, and
look forward to the second.