Workers’ Leader, Educator, and Revolutionist
Socialist Voice, December 24, 1979
More than 130 Comrades, fellow workers and family members gathered in the Vancouver headquarters of the Revolutionary Workers League on December 2 in a farewell tribute to Reg Bullock, a long lime trade unionist and Trotskyist leader who died November 20.
Published on these pages are extensive excerpts from the keynote speeches. Robert Simms is organizer of the Vancouver branch of the RWL. Art Young represented the RWL’s Political Committee. [Phil Courneyeur provided much of the historical and biographical material used in these talks.]
If Reg Bullock were alive today, his heart would beat a little faster every time he picked up a newspaper and read about what is going on in Iran. He would be angry at the lies the media are spreading but he would be inspired by the millions of his Iranian brothers and sisters who are demonstrating their resolve to U.S. imperialism.
Reg was born in England in 1905. His working-class family emigrated to Canada when he was four, settling in Edmonton where his father became a transit worker.
Reg got his first real taste of the bosses’ justice when his father was blacklisted for union activity. The family was forced to move to Vancouver.
Reg became what the Industrial Workers of the World, the Wobblies, called a footloose rebel.
He quit school when he was 13, figuring that he’d already seen the best the school system had to offer and it just wasn’t good enough.
He began his footloose days by stowing away on a ship bound for Australia to visit an uncle.
When he got back, he started an apprenticeship in the shipyards—the Wallace shipyards, later to become Burrard Drydock. There he learned the trade of plater, bending and cutting the steel plates for ships’ hulls.
He worked there as a member of the Marine and Boilermakers Union for most of the time between 1919 and 1948. It was in the Boilermakers Union that Reg came into contact with socialists.
And it was in the Boilermakers that he formed his opinions on how to do socialist trade-union work.
Reg joined the union in 1919, the year of the Winnipeg general strike. In the ten-day general strike in Vancouver in support of the Winnipeg strikers, the Boilmakers stayed out the longest.
Many of the Boilermakers were members of the Socialist Party of Canada. They were Marxists. During the 1920s and ‘30s, the Boilermakers was one of the most progressive unions. The old SP militants imbued the members with some basic class-struggle traditions. Reg summed it up with a phrase: "Every worker a shop steward." That meant that the workers learned to make the boss live up to the contract by frequently taking collective action.
The Boilermakers was one of the very few unions to maintain its contract throughout the Depression. Its members refused to take any wage cuts.
Reg was proud of the fact that during all of World War II, he never worked any overtime. He also helped other workers fight the no-strike pledge.
There were some bad times. Shipbuilding declined during the 1920s, and of course there was the Depression.
To make his daily bread during the layoffs, Reg engaged in some rum running down the U.S. West Coast during Prohibition there. He was also good at games of chance, card games. He could earn enough to live on from the pot.
Reg was able to live by his wits. But such a lifestyle forces one to look out for oneself, it pushes individualism to the extreme. Reg lived by and for the collective action of the working class. He put his faith in the workers’ fight for a better world.
Reg played on these short stints of extracurricular activities in his past to project an image as a bit of a rascal. But the image takes a beating if you look at his record of loyalty to the cause of the working class.
Becomes a Marxist
In 1936-37, Reg was the full-time provincial organizer for the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). Part of his job was raising funds for his own subsistence.
There was a Marxist left wing in the B.C. CCF at the time, a left wing that organized the study of Capital and other basic works. Reg became a serious Marxist around this time. He encountered the Trotskyist movement toward the end of the 1930s and began to buy their press regularly.
During the war, the Trotskyists were forced underground and their paper was banned under the War Measures Act. The group in Vancouver was dispersed.
In late 1944 or early ‘45, Ross Dowson (on an army leave) and his brother Murray Dowson made a trip to Vancouver to pull together a Trotskyist nucleus here. Reg and his companion Ruth went to those meetings and made their decision to devote their lives to building a world party of socialist revolution. They soon began to play a central role in organizing the Trotskyist forces in Vancouver. In the CCF they formed support clubs for the newspaper Labor Challenge and in 1946 they helped relaunch an independent Trotskyist party, the Revolutionary Workers Party.
It was certainly a workers party. The Vancouver branch members were almost all trade unionists, with concentrations in the Boilermakers, Steelworkers, and wood unions.
Today the Revolutionary Workers League, successor to the RWP, is making a turn to industry. Many of its members recruited from the student movement are getting jobs in basic industry to be part of the struggles developing there.
Well, Reg led a turn to the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) in 1948. He applied all of his previous experience to leading the young party members in the union.
That fall there was a big opening for our movement in the IWA. The Stalinists, who completely dominated the leadership of the IWA, were faced with an intense red-baiting campaign launched against them by the Social-Democratic leadership of the Canadian Congress of Labor. They responded by leading a move to disaffiliate the IWA from the CCL.
The Trotskyists went into the IWA to provide class-struggle leadership.
Our movement opposed any form of red-baiting. We worked to unite the union against the bosses and the right-wing McCarthyite offensive. At the same time, we opposed the Stalinists’ decision to form a separate union excluding their critics. The Trotskyists were instrumental in building a large rank-and-file caucus, preventing the split in the IWA from going any deeper than the Stalinists themselves. And we fought not only the red-baiting but the Stalinists’ misleadership on policy issues—their support of the no-strike pledge, and the collaboration with the Liberal Party that they advocated and practiced. These Stalinist practices had helped to expose the union to the divisive red-baiting campaign.
One large union in wood was preserved. But 1948 was not 1979. The great postwar labor upsurge plummeted rapidly. The workers, weary and economically weaker after ten years of depression and six years of war, saw their living standards begin to steadily rise for the first time in a decade and a half. They turned inward; illusions in capitalist prosperity grew. The Cold War witch hunt was launched against radicals. Twenty years of relative prosperity and shrinking of the political left began.
The Trotskyists lost most of the ground they had won earlier.
Reg was 43 when he unhesitatingly gave up his long seniority in the Boilermakers and his tradesman’s rates (three times a green chain worker’s rate) to take a job in the IWA. Reg’s tiny pension was only a fraction of what it would have been if he had stayed in the Boilermakers.
But Reg never felt he had made a sacrifice. He didn’t begrudge the party. He explained that the party would have sacrificed if it had passed up an opportunity like that.
I met Reg in 1969 when I came to Vancouver only a couple of months after joining the Young Socialists. One of the first things I remember is a socialist summer school held in Ruth and Reg’s back yard. I think the subject was a history of the B.C. labor movement. Reg was an effective educator, even to one who was as green as I was. He understood how important education was for the youth.
He would take a parcel of ideas, of a size that new members could grasp, arrange them logically and then use everyday, vivid examples to illustrate each point. He used to get very worked up with his examples. He was an enthusiastic storyteller and thus he was effective.
His vast experience in the labor movement gave him a wealth of material. Whenever he explained dialectical materialism, he would give a favorite example close to everybody’s experience—money. He would explain how money changed its function in various parts of the process of capital circulation, and the various forms it had taken in history.
That would get him to the other big contribution he made in his last years, Finances. Reg was not just the treasurer. He was the guardian and exponent of the norms of financing a Bolshevik party—and the political commitment needed to be an effective financier of the revolution.
He could not tolerate shoddy treatment and neglect of party equipment and tools—the mimeograph machine, the mailing lists and the headquarters. This was not just the concern of a skilled tradesman over his tools.
He railed against people who mumbled when they spoke. He devised and wrote a manual on public speaking for party members. This was not just the high standards he learned from the orators of the Socialist Party in the Boilermakers.
Reg battled against all sloppy attitudes for two political reasons. He knew that sloppiness in organizational tasks, even the smallest, would carry over eventually into sloppiness in defining political positions. The organizational and political are intertwined.
On the job, workers are prevented from producing quality products. What counts for the boss is maximizing profits and speed-up. Reg knew that workers, who understand how big a job it is to get rid of the capitalist class, will not pay much attention to a party that has sloppy methods. They won’t join a party that’s built like a DC-10 or a Pinto.
A professional revolutionary, using professional methods. That’s the Bolshevik model Reg taught us.
Reg could get impatient with those who didn’t learn seriousness in all things quickly enough.
Reg didn’t live by politics alone. He was an expert on British Columbia, on its backwoods and trails, and he was a student of the Native people of B.C. He spent a lot of time learning from them and fighting for their political cause. He was a good wood carver, often using Native designs.
He was a lover of cats, and he and Ruth offered room at the inn for every lonely cat in the neighborhood.
He was a lover of doggerel. He had a vigorous sense of humor, and he often crafted it into verse to show to his workmates and comrades.
(The publishing project we’re going to describe later this evening to honor Reg does not include publishing an anthology of his doggerel. Reg would understand.)
Two things usually came through in his verse. One is his hatred and contempt for the capitalist politicians, the labor fakers, or just some pompous ass who got under his skin. The other is his confidence in the working class and its ability to fulfill its historic mission.
That’s what kept Reg a leader of the party for 35 years, through some of its toughest times. He never ever lost confidence in his fellow toilers.
Even when they lowered their sights in the Fifties and Sixties, Reg had his eyes on the horizon. He saw what was coming.
Just three weeks ago, on the 100th anniversary of Trotsky’s birth, we played a recording here of a speech Trotsky delivered on the founding of the Fourth International in 1938. Trotsky said in part:
Those words were written for the worker Bolsheviks like Reg. They went straight to his heart around the time they were written and he lived by them to his very last day.
Our meeting tonight is a celebration—a celebration of Reg Bullock’s long years of activity in and commitment to the working class struggle for socialist liberation. To celebrate his life is to ask what we can learn from his work and achievements.
Long before Reg was fully won to the Fourth International he was deeply involved in working-class struggles in British Columbia. The terrible catastrophes of fascist reaction in Europe and Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union, followed by the slaughter of a long imperialist war, sealed Reg’s understanding of the need to build a mass party of socialist revolution.
From those grim days to the present Reg never lost his burning conviction and he never pulled back from the struggle.
Most of his activity in the party spanned a period known among us as "the long detour," a protracted period of more than 20 years following the late 1940s in which the working class in the advanced capitalist countries remained relatively quiescent and subservient to procapitalist politicians.
Those were days of swimming against the stream. Reg proved to be a powerful swimmer with great stamina. While many fell by the wayside in discouragement, Reg pursued his work until the end, only 12 days ago.
And happily, too, he lived to see a major reversal in the worldwide relationship of class forces. He lived to feel the surge of the tide behind and with us. Great victories such as the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions—heralded something that will vindicate the commitment and conviction of revolutionists like Reg. He lived to see the beginnings of a major radicalization of workers in the heartland of imperialism, the United States and Canada. The long detour that shaped many of Reg’s political experiences is drawing to a close as the world revolution advances in all corners of the globe.
Reg stuck it out. He proved his ability, not just as an educator but as an active participant in our leadership, to bring his many and varied experiences to bear.
This is an aspect of his contribution we will sorely miss—especially in the period we are now entering, building a party of industrial workers actively involved in labor struggles and the fight for effective political action by the labor movement.
Reg was a professional revolutionist. Until his retirement in the early 1970s he worked as a shipyard worker. But for him that was secondary to his professional work—his ceaseless activity among his workmates, in the union, the Vancouver labor council, the New Democratic Party, and in numerous other organizations to spread our program, recruit to our ranks, and educate our cadres.
Reg served on our pan-Canadian Central Committee for more than 30 years. The measure of his leadership is found both in the role he played in helping the movement to undertake sharp turns in its work at critical junctures and in his methodical and persistent attention to the details and routines of party work.
Reg played a key role at several important turning points. I want to speak of two of them. They coincided with a period when many present-day leaders of the RWL first came into contact with the Trotskyists.
The Cuban revolution and the ferment around the formation of the NDP brought a new layer of youth into political activity. New interest in socialist ideas and Marxism was evident. But the Trotskyists on the West Coast could not meet these challenges and openings without a struggle with sectarian and conservative currents in their own ranks.
The 1950s were a very difficult period for revolutionists. The government, the police, the courts, the media, and the labor lieutenants of the ruling class all took the opportunity presented by the decline in activity of the workers to intimidate anyone who tried to raise socialist ideas. The witch-hunt exerted enormous pressures. Dozens of members could not withstand the isolation. They left the party.
In order to keep in touch with a politicized workers milieu, the Trotskyists gave up their independent party in the early 1950s and joined the CCF to build a left wing. But this, too, took its toll. Most of the Trotskyists on the West Coast became accustomed to activity within the CCF left wing—which by the end of the decade was an aging and sectarian milieu. They were buried in it without a public face.
The struggle to break loose from this milieu and orient to the new ferment in the NDP and among the pro-Cuba youth eventually led to a split among the B.C. Trotskyists.
Reg and Ruth played a key role in turning the party outwards through the Socialist Information Center and later the League for Socialist Action. The LSA, founded in 1961, quickly won new forces within the NDP and among youth attracted to the work of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. That’s when I and many others were won to the movement.
While they struggled to build the LSA as a public organization, Reg and Ruth had to fight a sectarian opposition to our orientation toward building a class struggle left wing in the NDP. This struggle eventually led a range of comrades headed by Malcolm Bruce to break from the LSA in Vancouver.
During these struggles, however, new forces were won to our ranks, and the basis was laid for the effective leadership we gave to the movement against the Vietnam war a few years later.
During this time Reg and Ruth were also active in the left wing of the NDP. As a "reward" for their effective work, they were placed high up on the honor roll of socialists undemocratically expelled—in their case, in the 1962-63 witch-hunt in the B.C. NDP.
The right-wing leadership of the NDP were not the only people worried by their work in the labor party. The U.S. State Department got into the act two years later by slapping a ban on Ruth and Reg from visiting the United States. Reg had been invited to speak about the NDP in Seattle, but he never made it. He was stopped at the border.
Reg was also active in the early 1960s in defending the Cuban revolution and in building the Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC). His energy and devotion to the Cuban cause won recognition not only among our ranks but in broader circles. In 1964 he was invited to Cuba as a guest of the government, representing the FPCC.
Continuity of leadership
The early 1960s saw an influx of youth into our movement. New problems of leadership—including the challenge of building a youth movement—were posed.
Reg was an active party builder through this period, as he had been in the hardest days. But he was more. He was a key link in the continuity of our leadership.
Not many comrades proved able to stick it out. Toward the end of the 1950s, only seven comrades in B.C. agreed to relaunch a public Trotskyist organization. Of those, Reg and Ruth were the only ones who had helped to found the Vancouver branch of the party in 1946. And by the end of the 1960s, of the original seven comrades only Ruth and Reg remained in our growing movement.
What is this continuity? Why is it important?
The Marxist program is a living thing. Much of it is embodied in resolutions of our movement and in books. But this is not the entirety of our program; the program is not a jar of pickles, to be preserved on the shelf untouched until the right moment. The program has to be applied to new events, it must be constantly enriched. Otherwise it becomes a dogma.
In responding to new challenges, the role of experienced comrades is critical. They are able to draw on a fund of knowledge and experience that no one else has. The human link is essential also in transmitting the lessons of earlier experiences to new generations in the party.
This is a difficult question. It’s one many sections of the Fourth International including our own have had trouble with.
Reg was conscious of the special role he and Ruth played in the leadership team because of their continuity. He understood the importance of this question; and it shaped much of what he did in the later years of his life. As in everything else, Reg led through the example he set.
He oriented consciously to the youth—young workers and students. He strove to move them into leadership roles. And he consciously sought to push ahead a process of leadership transition. Reg anticipated that this transition would eventually place him and others of his generation in a less central role.
This was not easy for him and not without some bumps on the road. But Reg learned how to make room for younger leaders, because he knew it was politically important. What is impressive on this score is how well Reg, together with Ruth, succeeded in this project.
There is another aspect of Reg’s life we can learn from.
He was merciless with the bourgeois professors who use their knowledge against the working class. But for that reason he valued knowledge all the more highly. He was always reading and studying. And true to form, he did it seriously, methodically. His range of interests was very wide—from Marxist economics and philosophy to public speaking to the history and culture of the Native people in British Columbia.
Reg was self-educated. Completely devoted to the cause of his class and to the party, he worked hard to put his knowledge at their service. That’s why he played such a big role over the years in our movement as an educator.
He educated himself in order to educate others.
What a refreshing contrast with the petty-bourgeois snobs of academe for whom knowledge is a means of personal advancement!
Reg broke with these pompous ignoramuses when he left school at 13. His patient devotion to educating others as well as himself is the example we should follow.
It is not possible to view Reg’s work separately from his more than 40-year companionship with Comrade Ruth.
They came to the movement together. Over the years they came to be known to comrades as "R and R."
Many of their achievements and contributions were only possible because of their joint collaboration. As much as possible they acted as a team within a broader team.
Both became, each in their own right and in different ways and capacities, leaders of the party both nationally and in Vancouver. R and R often found themselves in disagreement on this or that tactical question. Sometimes sparks flew. But on the big questions of how and where to lead the party, their collaboration proved extremely productive.
Our celebration of Reg’s contribution to the movement is at the same time a salute to our comrade Ruth.
Reg was a gifted and talented worker. Had he chosen other paths in life, "success" of one kind or another would have come his way.
But Reg had a different vision of the meaning of life; he found satisfaction in the struggle of his fellow workers to bring down the capitalist system.
Sometimes comrades refer to the sacrifices made for the party by this or that comrade. For Reg, party work was no sacrifice. There were hardships and deprivations. Yes, even cruel setbacks and disappointments. But that was all small stuff compared to the immense satisfaction gained in struggle and common work with other revolutionists.
That’s how Reg saw it. And that’s how it is for those of us educated in his tradition. Reg’s contribution has helped lay a good basis for us to go forward in the future to become a party of thousands upon thousands of revolutionary workers. And among them there will be many more Reg Bullocks, young rebel men and women, leaders of their class.
Reg Bullock’s comrades and friends sent a large number of messages to the meeting. They came from as far away as London, England and Tokyo, Japan. Among those sending messages were many leaders of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party; Ross Dowson, leader of the Forward group; Connie and Alan Harris, leaders of the Fourth International in Britain, and Anne and Verne Olsen, longtime activists in the struggle for socialism.
From Angus Macphee, president of the Pulp, Paper and Woodworkers of Canada:
From George Novack, long-time leader of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party and author of many books on Marxist philosophy:
A highlight of the meeting was the announcement that former comrades and friends of Reg Bullock have launched the Reg Bullock Publishing Fund. The purpose of the Fund is to help speed publication of a new book by Ian Angus entitled Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of Canadian Communism.
It is hoped to raise $8,000 across Canada in coming months from supporters of the revolutionary socialist movement. The money will help the publishers, Pathfinder Press, to cover the initial cost of typesetting, layout, and printing.
Friends and associates of Reg Bullock attending the meeting contributed more than $1,300 to launch the Fund. They are confident that they will soon boost this to their goal of raising $2,000 in British Columbia.
Ian Angus, a socialist historian who knew Reg Bullock for many years, is dedicating the book to Reg.
"The book is a major and invaluable addition to knowledge of our forerunners in the revolutionary socialist movement," writes Larry Nozacki, a shop steward in the Vancouver local of CUPW, in a letter to potential contributors to the Fund. "The early Communist Party gathered together some of the best militants of the period who were inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917. The young party grappled with many problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics relating to the trade unions, labour political parties, farmers, and the women’s movement. We can learn much from their experiences."
Socialist Voice has published excerpts from the book in recent issues, and will continue to do so in the new year.
Besides Nozacki, other trustees of the Reg Bullock Publishing Fund are Bruce Elphinstone, Elaine Bernard, and Hilda Thomas. Ruth Bullock is chairperson of the Fund and Harold Rittberg is treasurer.
Contributions should be sent to Reg Bullock Publishing Fund, [address deleted].
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All