Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 8, 2021

Ernie Tate’s “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”

Filed under: biography,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 7:14 pm

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, Volume One, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernie Tate
268 pages. Resistance Books. $15.00

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s, Volume Two, Canada 1955-1965
By Ernie Tate
394 pages. Resistance Books. $20.00

Exactly four years ago, as my wife and I were in the final week of our vacation in South Beach, we were pleasantly surprised to hear a female voice with a distinctly Scottish burr piping up just behind us on the sidewalk as we were going out for breakfast. “Is that Lou?” The distinctly Scottish burr belonged to Jess MacKenzie, the long-time partner of Ernie Tate, a veteran of the Trotskyist movement who had the audacity like me to vacation in a spot that in our youth would have been regarded as a decadent bourgeois swamp.

It turned out that Ernie and Jess were staying in a hotel right next to the apartment building where we had paid for a month-long sublet. I had run into Ernie and Jess at Left Forums once or twice and knew him as a Marxmail subscriber but beyond that mostly by reputation. In 1967, not long after I had joined the Socialist Workers Party in New York, members were still buzzing about how Ernie had been beaten up by Gerry Healy’s goons in London while selling a pamphlet critical of the cult leader outside one of their meetings. Since that incident loomed large in my mind even after decades had passed, I introduced my wife to him as the guy who Gerry Healy’s goons had beaten up. This prompted Ernie to remark genially but firmly that he preferred to be described as a leader of the British antiwar movement.

After enjoying dinner with Ernie and Jess that evening, I offered to bring my camcorder over to their hotel room where I would interview them. A decade ago I had begun an oral history project of Trotskyist veterans and Ernie’s reflections on a career as a revolutionary was one that deserved to be recorded, as did Jess’s.

As the camera rolled, the stories I heard from them transfixed me. Over the years I have learned that the lives led by people on the far left are often far more adventurous and dramatic than any novelist could concoct if for no other reason than their Sisyphean quality.

The son of an impoverished Protestant family in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Ernie dropped out of school when he was thirteen years old. Since his only hope for the future was factory work, he was relieved to find a job at a spinning mill where he would find himself in the sort of dead-end, low wage job that was at the heart of the textile-based industrial revolution of the British isles a century earlier.

In a much more low-budget vacation than the one he took in South Beach, a twenty year old Ernie went to Paris in the summer of 1954 to stay at a hostel. When he went out on the street one morning, he ran into an immense parade of trade unionists and Communists carrying banners with red flags and hammer-and-sickles. Dien Bien Phu had just fallen to General Giap and the French left was out on the streets celebrating. Ernie said that this was a transformative moment. As a young worker, he identified with the Vietnamese and the French workers even if he had no clear idea what socialism meant. He was sure, however, that the Soviet Union was on the right side of history.

Jess had her own amazing stories to tell, the most memorable of them involving her role in transporting money on Robert Williams’s behalf to his followers in the USA. When she was in Cuba as part of a delegation organized by the Canadian Fair Play for Cuba Committee, she had come into contact with the NAACP leader who had fled trumped-up charges of kidnapping a white couple. Williams’s real crime was to organize armed self-defense squads against KKK terror in North Carolina. Given the American Trotskyist campaign to defend Williams, he felt confidence enough in Jess to entrust her with substantial sums. Of course, given the high security alerts around Williams, she was taking a chance that she too might have ended up on J. Edgar Hoover’s enemies list.

A year or so later I learned that the stories Ernie related to me that day came to him with surprising fluency because at the time he was immersed in the research that would culminate in the publication of a two-volume memoir titled “Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s”, one that is filled with such tales and, as I am sure Ernie would admit, of a Sisyphean character. For us, as it was for Max Horkheimer who put it memorably, “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.”

That being said, 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.

Trying to escape the brutal poverty in Belfast, Ernie immigrated to Toronto, Canada in 1955 where he ran into Ross Dowson at the Labour Bookstore that was the headquarters for the tiny Trotskyist movement in Canada. Dowson was something of a hair shirt, leading a monk-like existence at the bookstore, where he hoped to replenish a movement that had been hollowed out by the witch-hunt. He lived in a tiny apartment in the back of the bookstore that did not even have a shower or bath. Over the years when he became a full-timer for the party, Ernie learned that Dowson was determined to make everybody live by his norms, even when it posed risks to their health and morale.

Of course, when you are young and full of enthusiasm for the imminent victory of the socialist revolution (Ernie thought that the revolution would take place no later than 1960), you are willing to make all sorts of sacrifices. For Ernie and a small cadre of adventurers, this meant going on newspaper and literature sales campaigns across Canada in rickety vans, one of which was a converted poultry truck that retained a fowl odor (pun intended) no matter how many scrubbings with strong disinfectants had been applied.

After a decade in the Canadian party, Ernie accepted an assignment to move to London where he would try to establish a Trotskyist party. Like the Americans whose orientation had a major influence on the Canadians, this meant placing a major emphasis on building the Vietnam antiwar movement and recruiting activists who had become radicalized through the protests. That was how I became a member of the American movement myself. After learning that the SWP was spearheading the antiwar movement, I decided that this was where I belonged.

For Ernie, this meant working closely with the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation that had established a Vietnam International War Crimes Tribunal. For a public anxious to learn about the origins and nature of an imperialist war that sought to turn the clock back to before 1954, this was in effect a European version of the teach-ins taking place in the USA. It was Ernie’s chance to turn the tide of history back to that summer when he was radicalized by the mass celebrations in the streets of Paris. A new victory would take place in the 1970s, finally establishing the right of Vietnamese to determine their own destiny.

Working with Bertrand Russell meant working with Ralph Schoenman, who was Russell’s secretary and who spoke in his name. At the time many people had a suspicion that given Russell’s advanced years it meant that directives issued in his name were actually traceable to Schoenman who some regarded as a Svengali taking advantage of a nonagenarian. Ernie makes a convincing case that Russell was intimately involved in the workings of the Tribunal and spoke entirely for himself even if he was forced sometimes by old age and infirmity to keep a low public profile.

The portraits of Russell and Schoenman are carefully etched in the memoir, the former coming across as a moral exemplar committed totally to the liberation of the Vietnamese people and the latter a force of nature confronting all sorts of obstacles standing in the way of the Tribunal. Reading Tate is a reminder of how difficult it was in the early years of the antiwar movement to establish the legitimacy of a war crimes tribunal. Charles De Gaulle, despite his reputation for being a thorn in Uncle Sam’s side, was hostile to it as was the Swedish government. As Schoenman was storming heaven and earth to establish its right to exist against elite resistance, he had to face all sorts of internal problems some of which were of his own doing. Prickly personalities serving on the tribunal were frequently at each other’s throats, including Jean Paul-Sartre who was all too ready to take offense even when it seemed that he was someone most prone to giving it.

As a kind of moderating influence, Isaac Deutscher’s role was indispensable. As one of the most respected Marxist scholars in the world and a journalist whose insights were respected universally, his background in the internecine struggles of the Trotskyist movement prepared him for resolving disputes within the tribunal, often conferring with Ernie Tate on how to deal with what appeared to be intractable problems.

In the course of consulting with Deutscher, a friendship developed. Despite having established himself as a revolutionary organizer and activist with a good command of his movement’s theory, Ernie was always aware of his working-class roots and somewhat capable of being intimidated by the intellectuals his work with the tribunal brought him into contact with. In my favorite passage in the memoir, he recounts a discussion with Deutscher that conveys in a few words the tension that often exists on the left between the intellectual and the worker-activist:

I remember once when he made a few disparaging comments in my company about the Fourth International, that I took to be a questioning of its very existence and which got my back up a little, I faced him directly on the issue, sort of poking fun at what he was saying. I posed a hypothetical situation to him, that of an imaginary apolitical young worker, who after reading a Deutscher book, for example, might become convinced of the need for socialism and shows up on Deutscher’s doorstep to ask him advice about what he, the young worker, should do to help bring about this fundamental change. For me, I said, I wouldn’t hesitate a moment because from what I knew from history, without their own organization, workers won’t get anywhere and I would tell the young worker to join my group as the first step in trying to build such an organization which could help lead workers in transforming society. What would you tell the young worker? I asked him, and I knew I was appealing to his background as an active revolutionary leader, of which I knew he felt proud. Momentarily, he looked a little bit non-plussed, probably thinking that I had a bit of a nerve challenging him like that, but he came back, surprisingly, saying he would recommend the same thing. Better that than nothing, he said, in a sort of backhanded compliment.

After his work with the tribunal was finished, Ernie turned his attention to the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign whose most prominent spokesman was Tariq Ali. Ernie’s memoir makes an interesting contrast with Ali’s “Street Fighting Man: an autobiography of the Sixties”, a very lively memoir that unsurprisingly puts the celebrated author in the foreground.

Perhaps because of his humble background, Ernie chose to downplay his own role and personality. You will find very little of the self-regard that goes into most autobiographies by veterans of the Trotskyist movement that was most egregiously on display in Irving Howe’s “A margin of hope: An intellectual autobiography”. For Ernie Tate, the real interest is in the personalities he encountered over a fifty-year career in the movement, for whom he retains considerable affection even when they were driving him a little crazy.

For someone like me or for veterans of the broader socialist movement, the memoir will be richly rewarding since it is a beautifully written and deeply thoughtful account of the revolutionary life. With his dry sense of humor and a perfect grasp of the psychology of his subjects, reading Ernie Tate delivers the pleasure that will never be found in fiction, especially in a period of history when the novelist is trained at places like the University of Iowa writers workshop to focus on personal and family matters.

For young people coming around the radical movement today who are trying to figure out what to do next in a period of deepening reaction, the memoir is a reassuring testimony to how a mass movement can erupt when a people has decided that it can no longer endure existing conditions. If the mid-50s had the advantage of an actually existing socialism in Russia, China and Eastern Europe, we are in a period that lacking such “liberated territories” at least leads to the conclusion that capitalism no longer has the ability to satisfy the basic needs of millions—perhaps billions—of people demanding their place in the sun. For them, just as was the case for Ernie Tate in 1954, the need for revolution is more urgent than ever.

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