Book Review: REVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISM IN THE 1950s & ’60s (Vols. 1 & 2) by Ernest Tate

Ernest Tate’s new two-volume memoir, Revolutionary Activism In The 1950s and ‘60s, is a significant accomplishment. In recounting the savor and substance of daily life devoted to the socialist cause, it not only offers a fascinating account of revolutionary militancy in mostly backward times, it sets a discomfiting example for weekend activists, armchair revolutionaries, academic Marxists, and veterans of the political upsurge of the 1960s who retreated into private life following the end of the Vietnam war.

It will surprise few that Tate’s preference for the Trotskyist version of revolutionary politics lies at sharp variance to all other political currents: He needn’t mention that he’s no monarchist; bourgeois democracy provides an antagonistic arena in which to exercise his political rights. Not only the Right, but liberal and left-reformists encountered in labour politics and social democratic parties, capricious celebrity intellectuals, fickle allies from the perpetually warring, sectarian left, and the plain old ornery, corrupt, self-serving characters one meets at every turn in life – are all adversaries in Tate’s struggle.

His largely-unheralded David/Goliath relationship with the political world defines the socialist struggle itself. Tate, and the tiny handful of Trotskyist women and men whose efforts he shares, are extreme rarities: eschewing bourgeois ambition, the sack-cloth-and-ashes of religious piety, the charitable pretensions of the privileged, and the feeble moralizing of (in Trotsky’s words) “apostles of slavery and submission,” they seek to “elaborate the morality of insurrection.” Their goals embrace neither glamour, elitism, celebrity nor wealth, and, in bourgeois terms, their stories – unless they can be sensationalized as “criminal” – are unworthy of the telling. Consequently, they are doomed never to be featured on the cover of People Magazine.

But for the politically-conscious, his story is of substantial interest. Tate describes decades of struggle in an exhaustive manner: The daily grind invariably consists of stop-gap opposition to the relentless assault of reaction in all its forms. Socialist activism is a thankless task: Only occasionally do socialists taste victory. We like to think we had a decisive hand in ending the Vietnam war, although many are they who would dispute our importance. But whatever our relative practical impact in the 1960s and ‘70s, socialist triumph lies in our accruing experience of movement building in preparation for the next opportunity, for the great, spontaneous political upsurge forever waiting in the wings.

Therein lies the great value of this book. Socialist forces are so small that, unlike capital’s – which daily remind us of their manipulative supremacy with advertising and propaganda – it’s nearly impossible to transcend a defensive role that can only react rather than act. So, with one eye on history, we try to channel manifestations of rebellious energy into constructive forms, warning of the temptations, pitfalls and enemies that previous experience has thrown in our path. In society’s laboratory, we would be the scientists, observing, noting, learning and cajoling intransigent elements into agents of genuine systemic change.

Thus, Ernest Tate provides a well-written, surprisingly-gripping account of some twenty plus years of life on the front lines of the socialist cause. With fellow comrades, he crosses Canada in a dilapidated truck jerry-rigged as living quarters, dodging police harassment, living sparsely off the proceeds from sale of socialist newspapers and pamphlets to an indifferent populace, at the behest of the Toronto leadership’s overly-optimistic vision of nation-wide “movement building.” He describes the dominance of Ross Dowson, whose eccentric leadership of Canadian Trotskyism included running for Toronto mayor (running openly as a Trotskyist, Dowson got over 20% of the vote in 1949 – how times have changed!) and whose long-simmering nationalist sympathies, expressed in viewing Canada as a U.S. colony, led him to fatally split the Canadian Trotskyist forces in the late 1970s.

He recounts the protracted agony of the Fourth International’s ambivalent endorsement of guerrilla warfare in Bolivia and Argentina – and its tragic and bloody failure. And for those who hunger for the frisson of celebrity memoir, Tate describes a roller-coaster ride of collaboration with Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, and Vanessa Redgrave in the British antiwar movement (even sharing an office with Rush To Judgement’s conspiracy author, Mark Lane, ground-breaking nemesis of the Warren Commission’s report on the murder of JFK). Along with his life-companion, the equally-committed Jess MacKenzie, Tate works with many Fourth International luminaries, including Joe Hansen, Earnest Mandel and Tariq Ali. He also tells the heroic story of Trotskyist Vern Olson, founder of Canada’s Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and his grueling navigation through the shifting sands of the Cuban leadership.

As a political light-weight whose sympathies lie with the Trotskyist world-view, I find that Tate’s level of commitment makes me squirm more than a little. His choices seem filled with conviction, straightforward in a way that mine – those of a relatively privileged Canadian worker – were not. Ernie hails from the poorest Shankhill Road area of Belfast, a veritable cauldron of political oppression: British rule openly acknowledges its class nature – he’s a slave among slaves; his prospects for upward mobility are statistically nil and any success requires egregious moral compromise with corrupt power. He recounts a life of universal poverty in which paying your rent two weeks in a row invites a visit from police inquiring where you got the money.

But Tate’s Belfast neighbors don’t become revolutionaries despite limitless provocation. Why not? Tate doesn’t much consider the question, nor provide an answer.

Finished school at fourteen, Tate distinguishes himself by independent reading of classic and radical literature. He doesn’t dwell on the alchemy of his political growth, but it seems to spring from generosity, clear-headedness and absence of personal rancor. He has a straightforward grasp of the necessity of human progress and welcomes the opportunity to play a conscious, productive role.

Ernest Tate typifies the working class kid whom the system would happily exploit from “can’t see in the mornin’ till can’t see at night,” except that his unique perspective – originating from the arcane depths of unusual intelligence and independence of mind – furnishes an escape. Virtually alone among his peers, he steps outside of prescribed working class limitations, travels half-way around the world, happily assumes leadership roles as labor union militant, and displays an internationalist vision – despite being barely twenty years old. Through it all, he maintains an almost self-effacing simplicity of demeanor and purpose that might be termed “saintly” if socialists embraced such concepts.

Living poor – often in poverty – Tate’s single-minded devotion to socialist revolution is unmarred by intellectual posturing, subservience to a leader, or cultish illusions. His Trotskyist milieu is a group of thoughtful, educated iconoclasts who look beyond personal concerns to see – and respond to – the system’s most pernicious manifestations: war, misogyny, racism, colonialism, and exploitation. There is no choice, for people like Tate, about how conscious human beings should react to the massive misery and injustice of the world. And while you may quibble with details of how he/they confronted these problems, the ethical and intellectual rigor of his activity – compared to our cynical media pundits, ineffectual and corrupt political leaders, and those who choose to vote for their hypocritical charades – is nothing short of noble.

Along with “saintly,” I’m sure Tate would reject the term “noble” – its aristocratic connotations preclude common usage in socialist circles. But its common meaning – “possession of admirable qualities such as honesty, generosity, courage” – really applies to Tate and the people who fight for human liberation from the material scourges listed above.

I’m not counting myself among the virtuous, here. Although politically-active during the 1970s, I chose a dubious career and the self-indulgence of a personal life that, these days, few can afford to experience. Having grown up in the right-wing somnolence of small-town Canada’s so-called “boom” years, with lots of food, lots of educational and career opportunities, and a tantalizing counter-culture of personal growth, existential angst, sexual liberation, psychedelic drugs, and unprecedented consumer choices that happily diverted much of my generation away from hum-drum socialist politics, my progress towards socialist consciousness was marked by – to put it charitably – lots of pseudo-philosophical dilly-dallying and procrastination. But not Tate. He was there from the beginning.

Tate has made an indelible contribution to the history of the struggle for socialism in Canada and the U.K. Although I don’t know Tate personally, I’m proud to reveal that, for a few years, both he and I participated in the same tiny socialist organization – one whose impact is relatively unknown to the wider world and (of course!) debated years later even within our narrow community. Looking back at the statistical rarity of our common sympathy, a cynic might ask “What’s the motive?”, or “Why Ernie Tate?”, or even “Why anybody?”

But while the psychology behind the arcane “life-style” choice of the socialist militant is worth exploring, I’m proud to concur with Ernest Tate on this central point: the question should not be “Why him?”, but “Why not everyone?”

About Doug Williams

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