A letter to the May 1 1994 Memorial Meeting for Ruth Bullock
by Phil Courneyeur
Dear friends and comrades of Ruth Bullock:
Ruth enjoyed her life of struggle, commitment, and swimming against the stream. She wouldnít have it any other way and she tried to communicate that approach to those around her. I hope that your celebration of her life today will touch that element of her spirit and that many of you will come forward to talk about the times you shared with her.
My first memories of Ruth take me back in time to the mid-fifties and stretch across four decades. I last visited her in December 1992, but we corresponded almost until she died. In 1957, not long after Russian tanks had put down the Hungarian workersí uprising, R & R came to our family home on Tenth Avenue in Burnabyóit must have been a sub drive because what occurred was not a usual Sunday visit. My uncle Ron Irvine, perennial CCF candidate and son of William Irvine, was also there and the afternoon became a long, give-and-take discussion of international issues, ranging from the Russian October to Budapest, Stalinism, Trotsky, the Canadian CP... I didnít know then, but that was the beginning of a lifelong attachment and comradeship with Ruth. She was like no other woman I had known. She didnít talk as much as my uncle, or Reg, or my father. But they all had trouble with her. One or two comments from Ruth seemed to be enough to settle a point, turn the discussion to another topic - move it on a bit. Making sense!
Within a couple of years I had joined the CCF and was active in the Edmonds Club in Burnaby. In the 1958-59 period the CCF and labor left were convulsed with the fight to resist and then reverse the Winnipeg Declaration, a 1958 federal convention resolution that overturned the Regina Manifesto of 1933 that committed the party to an anticapitalist mandate. Meetings took place in Vancouver, Burnaby, Nanaimo, Victoria .... It seemed that Ruth got to them all, along with the Workers Vanguard. She always spoke out, and she always took time to talk issues over with me.
Two big events occurred in the 1959-61 period that completely shook up the left wing of that time, one international, the other Canadian.
On January 1, 1959 came the utterly uplifting news of the Fidelista victory in Cuba. Over the next 18 months or so, Cuba moved to center-stage of world politics as we witnessed the unfolding of the first socialist revolution in the western hemisphere.
Here in Canada the staleness of McCarthyism was lifting and the difficult birth of the NDP got under way. The prevailing mood in the CCF leftwing was opposed to the New Party idea. Once again meetings were held up and down the province, New Party Clubs were formed, and there was Ruth. In the thick of it all. And she was present, too, as a leader and doer in all the initial efforts to bring together partisans of the Cuban Revolution, efforts that led to the formation of a Vancouver Chapter of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
Soon, invited by Ruth, I found myself attending meetings of and then joining a group that held forums usually in Hastings Auditorium. This was the public expression of the Vancouver Branch II of the Canadian Section of the Fourth International. Later we took the name Socialist Information Centre when a permanent home was found on the north side of Hastings in the 800 block. Ruth was its main leader, or branch organizer. Other leaders included her companion and husband Reg Bullock and Malcolm Bruce who had been a long-standing leader of the Communist Party of Canada and was later won over to an anti-Stalinist course. In 1961 the group carried out a public fusion with the Toronto Socialist Action League to launch the League for Socialist Action. Ruth was its key spokesperson in Western Canada, signing the founding pamphlet along with Ross Dowson and Malcolm Bruce. This organization was known because we were the partisans of revolutionary Cuba and because we championed, unlike much of the old left, the launching of the NDP as a labor party.
In following years we worked closely in the building of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee and especially in fighting to block the 1963 purge of Trotskyists and Cuba supporters from the NDP. We were both allowed to address the NDP Provincial convention, seven minutes each to make our appeals. The outcome was very telling. According to the Provincial Party constitution, a two-thirds vote of convention delegates was needed to uphold an expulsion. More than a third of the delegates voted "no" to Ruth and my expulsions. So, technically, we should have been reinstated. But Alex Mcdonald, a clever lawyer who later became B.C. Attorney General, got the mike and explained the problem away. The "will" of the assembly was clear, he stressed. Surely a "formality" in the constitution should not be allowed to stand in the way. No way. "So much for THEIR DEMOCRACY and OURS," Ruth remarked to me as we left the convention floor to meet up with other expelled comrades and supporters.
In 1967, I was elected organizer of the Vancouver League for Socialist Action, a task that then included managing Vanguard Books on 1208 Granville Street. We were recruiting at a good pace, especially from the antiwar movement and on the campus. Managing the store on top of the organizing work became impossible and Ruth saw the problem. But she also came up with an ideal solution, proposing herself as fulltime book store manager, the best thing that ever happened to the radical book trade in Vancouver back then. She loved that job and stuck with it until the organization had to close down the store in the late seventies. It was her project, her space, and a place that brought her closer to young people, especially young women. Being a lover of books helped too.
Often Ruth would decide that I needed a night off, a break, and perhaps even a stiff scotch at the False Creek Manor fireplace, as the North Van cabin was affectionately known. So after work we would set off, almost always taking the long way home around Stanley Park, a brief walk on the beach. What a marvel. She knew the names of birds, trees, plants, shrubs and went at these walks with a vitality that made me think it was her first time on the beach. Then on to the bridge and home, and as ever, the fireplace. There we would talk, sometimes with Reg joining in, sometimes not. It was there, that Ruth would choose to raise problems, sore points, emerging differences. She always tried to back me as party organizer. Her advice helped to resolve many a problem; and perhaps more importantly to anticipate and avoid them. Why did Ruth take this approach? You see, she had been there; she had her stint as organizer and knew how easy it was to waste them. Her option was to back us up and I donít doubt that others later had that same kind of support and genuine comradeship.
Ruth believed in young people and used her energies in the movement to pass on by word, and mostly by deed, lessons, especially the kind you wonít find in books and pamphlets. She especially related to young women. I know that some of you are at the celebration and will speak to that.
Ruth was a party woman and a movement builder. This focus did not block her from making and keeping a wide range of friends, allies, and collaborators in other frameworks.
Let me just mention one friend of Ruthís from the fifties and sixties, Annette T. Rubenstein, a U.S. literary scholar and marxist educator, author of The Great Tradition in English Literature. Annette did not share our Trotskyist outlook, but greatly valued her get-togethers with Ruth. Whenever she would be on a speaking tour that would take her to the west coast from New York, Annette would get in touch with Ruth and see whether it would be practical to bring her up to Vancouver from Seattle or Portland. And often it was, at least for a Friday night forum. Time to chat with Ruth was always a must, usually over tea and biscuits at Stanley Park. They didnít talk tea-and-biscuits. Novels, criticism, politics, womenís liberation. They learned from each other and I felt most fortunate for being included in these get-togethers on occasion. Ruth felt than Annette needed to catch up with what young women were saying and that her critical essays needed a dose of gender to round out her class analysis. I hope the UBC archive has at least some of the letters they exchanged.
I left Vancouver in 1970, returning only for short visits except for a brief stint in 1971. We maintained contact usually through short letters and an occasional phone call. I left the RWL in the early 80s and Ruth left it a few years later, but we were moving in different directions. We both accepted that we had "some differences", but that the ideas and commitments than united us would be, in the long run, more significant that those that separated us organizationally. I moved towards the Nicaraguan FSLN, finally moving to Nicaragua and becoming a citizen and FSLN militante. Ruth left the RWL because she remained convinced that Trotskyís theory of permanent revolution is key to understanding and acting on world politics. She wrote me about this and explained her sympathy for the Bulletin in Defence of Marxism group in the United States.
More recent letters showed her continuing, keen interest in the Nicaraguan revolution and the FSLN. She was a consistent financial supporter of Canadian Action for Nicaragua, an FSLN support group, and of Tools for Peace.
Following our defeat in February 1990 elections she wrote me a brief note and later called. She made a point to register her agreement that the FSLN did not try to use the army to hold on to power. The problem was political she stressed, and we had to brace ourselves for a long retreat. And that is what we are doing.
On one of my last visits with Ruth before moving to Nicaragua, Ruth went through some of her books and items from the old days. She came up with Regís Fourth International pin and asked me to accept it as an expression of ongoing comradeship. It is small and fashioned like many of the union pins from the 1940sóbuilt to last. Engraved on its surface is the number four across the hammer and sickle of the October Revolution. The Nicaraguan FSLN has a different, red-and-black emblem, but itís only the banner thatís different. The struggle is the same. The pin Ruth gave me will always be my most precious possession, a mine of memories, lessons, ideas, commitments: the embrace of an outstanding woman rebel-revolutionist. Join me now and letís affirm together, for and with Ruth, in the words of Che: Hasta La Victoria Siempre, Ever Onwards To Victory!
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