Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 6, 2021

Ernie Tate, ¡presente!

Filed under: obituary — louisproyect @ 11:25 pm

Last night at around 10pm I got a phone call from Jess McKenzie informing me that her husband Ernie Tate had finally succumbed to cancer of the pancreas, something Ernie had revealed to me about six months earlier. I counted Ernie and Jess as two of my closest friends and political confidantes and his passing has affected me deeply.

My first encounter with Ernie was in the early 2000s, when he showed up as a Marxmail subscriber. His name was familiar to me because when I joined the SWP in 1967, a defense campaign in England had been organized after Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten him up as he was selling a pamphlet critical of Healy outside one of their meetings. For me, almost like a word association game, the name Ernie Tate always summoned up this incident—until he smiled and said that he had put it behind him. Unlike me, Ernie did not hold a grudge even, according to Ian Birchall, having “some positive things to say about Healy’s SLL.”

Oddly enough, it was his calm and sunny disposition that was matched to my own surly nature that have complemented us over the years. Early on, Ernie asked me if I could post a 14,000 word article he wrote about “Changes in Russia” on my website. This was long before people began blogging, something that didn’t seem to interest Ernie. All his energy went into a two-volume memoir “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s.” on his lifetime in the trade union and revolutionary movement that is one of the best to come out of the Trotskyist movement. More about this book to follow.

Not long after Ernie subscribed to Marxmail, he invited me to meet with him at a Left Forum in New York to go over this and that. The Marxism list was well-known (and even notorious) as a forum for those trying to understand the wreckage of the SWP and its affiliated sects so I had a feeling that he wanted to compare his experience with my own. The conversation revealed that Ernie had left the Canadian section of the FI because of its “workerist” turn that was inspired by the American SWP. Keep in mind that Ernie had been a blue-collar worker since the early 50s so he was in a better position to evaluate the “colonization” project. He described a fumbling, amateurish operation that recruited not a single worker and led to an exodus from the party. It was our common understanding of this experience that led to our close political bonding, but there was much more to it than that.

In December 2011, my wife and I were walking out of the monthlong rental in Miami Beach, when I heard a woman’s voice in a distinctly Scottish burr about a dozen feet away: “Ernie, isn’t that Lou?” Just by coincidence, Ernie and Jess were staying for about the same length of time at a hotel close to where we were staying. We had dinner several times and really enjoyed the warmth and wisdom both radiated, especially my wife who does not share my surliness unless you get on her wrong side. I had ideas about doing a video when I was down there, mostly about the area’s history and to interview a former mayor who spent time in prison for taking bribes. But the only record I have of my trip was an interview I did with Ernie that was a very short version of his 2-volume memoir. It is shown above.

His story was spell-binding. Born in 1934, he was a working-class Irish Protestant kid from Belfast who took a vacation in Paris in 1954 just after the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu. The powerful demonstrations celebrating the victory organized by the CP were such an inspiration to him that he decided on the spot to become a communist.

Jess joined the movement in 1964 and before long found herself on a trip to Cuba that would put her in touch with Robert Williams, the NAACP leader who had organized a militia to defend African-Americans against Klan terror. She found herself functioning as a courier between Williams and his comrades in the U.S.

These were just two of the high points of this couple’s extraordinary voyage through the revolutionary left. Unlike the academic left, they lived the type of life that Max Horkheimer described “a revolutionary career does not lead to banquets and honorary titles, interesting research and professorial wages. It leads to misery, disgrace, ingratitude, prison and a voyage into the unknown, illuminated by only an almost superhuman belief.” Well, that does sound a bit too grim, doesn’t it? In fact, most of the time it was loads of fun. Whenever the topic of time travel comes up in idle chatter, I always say that if I could return to any year in the past, it would be 1968.

Much of Ernie’s memoir can be described as a joy ride through history. As I related to him midway through reading it, it reminded me—despite myself—of the good times I enjoyed when I was out on the streets selling socialist newspapers. There’s very few pleasures, including a room facing the ocean on South Beach, that can compete with the ones you experience as a committed revolutionary secure in the knowledge that you are part of a movement challenging a capitalist class that is a threat to the survival of humanity and all life on earth.

I loved Ernie as an older and wiser brother and will miss him dearly. My condolences to Jess, who is a formidable revolutionary in her own right. As our generation wends its way into the inevitable fate that awaits us, it is reassuring to know that there is a legacy that is being left behind in works like “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s & 60s.” And, keep your eyes out for this, for comic relief I will soon be serializing the graphic novel I did with Harvey Pekar called “The Unrepentant Marxist”.


  1. A fine tribute to your friend and comrade. Truth is there aren’t all that many good people on the left or anywhere else. So when we meet one, it give us hope and makes us happy.

    Comment by Michael Daniel Yates — February 7, 2021 @ 1:39 am

  2. Thanks for this tribute to an old comrade and friend, and a fine human being who dedicated his life to the betterment of us all. Ernie’s death was a great loss.

    Comment by Frank Rooney — February 7, 2021 @ 3:06 am

  3. Thanks! This strikes me as an excellent and accurate depiction of Ernie, as I recall him. I only met him in the late 1980s at a conference in New York commemorating the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Fourth International. After that we schmoozed several times at the ISO summer conferences in Chicago and e-mailed. My estimation of him grew higher as I saw how much he had deepened his thinking rather than staying in old ruts. I sent this tribute to Jess Mackenzie, his partner: “Whenever I was in Ernie’s presence, he acted cordial and gracious, and I had the impression that he could even be chipper in the hardest of times. But I also sensed an aura of total devotion to socialism, the capacity for calmness in a crisis, decisiveness, and a readiness to fight alongside the rest of us that will forever be burned in my memory. This surely comes through in his magnifident memoirs. Yes, like most of us he had sloughed off the worn-out skin of some earlier political illusions and misjudgments over the years, but to the end he remained faithful to the bone of his revolutionary socialist convictions.”

    Comment by Alan Wald — February 7, 2021 @ 4:12 pm

  4. Ah, sad to hear but a joy to remember. I knew Ernie and Jess well in Toronto in the 70s, 80s, 90s…with their love of dogs and indispensability a la Brecht: “Those who struggle all their lives: they are the indispensable ones.” And their energy and inspiration continue to spark us on. Hugs and all my condolences to Jess,
    Katharine B.

    Comment by Katharine B — February 7, 2021 @ 7:48 pm

  5. May he rest in peace with the saints in light.

    Comment by Kurt T Hill — February 8, 2021 @ 7:28 pm

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