Socialist Action, Spring-Summer 1996
by Barry Weisleder
On November 5, over fifty people gathered at the Steelworkers’ Hall in downtown Toronto to pay tribute to the life of Fred Callahan. He had passed away on October 20, after 23 years of activism in Steelworkers’ Local 6540, and a lifetime as a self-educated revolutionary worker.
Fred grew up on the north coast of Newfoundland. He learned from the small boat fishers how the merchants grew rich by exploiting them, and how William Coker tried unsuccessfully to end merchant control by organizing a fisher-run co-operative. Fred also learned about the Russian Revolution, how the workers in Russia settled accounts with their exploiters and set out to build a new world based on equality and co-operation. He dedicated himself to those ideals.
Like most class conscious Newfoundlanders, Fred Callahan opposed Confederation with Canada. But in 1949, just months after the referenda, he went west looking for work. It was in Vancouver, in the early 1950s, that Fred first met up with the revolutionary socialist movement. Inspired by the politics of Leon Trotsky, he joined with those dedicated to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism and removal of the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union which had betrayed the revolution.
In the consumer society of post-war, late capitalism, comrade Fred was a rarity. He saw through the superficial. He refused to be browbeaten by the cold war propaganda of the bosses and their state. Fred knew that working class deserved better than crumbs off the banquet table of Capital. He also knew that, sooner or later, even the crumbs would be clawed back by a system rooted in crisis.
To the end, Fred was justly proud of his Newfoundland heritage and he despised those who sold out his country. But he didn’t stop there. Fred championed the cause of every oppressed people the world over: Quebec, Ireland, Vietnam and Cuba included. He was a true internationalist.
For that reason he devoted much of his adult life to the building of the global revolutionary movement. His last conversation with me was about the death last July of Ernest Mandel, central leader of the Fourth International, and concerning the world congress of the FI held a month earlier. He discussed with friends some writings of mine on these matters, even as he wrestled with the pain of his affliction and faced his own mortality.
Fred Callahan belonged to the group led by Ross Dowson which quit the League for Socialist Action in the early 1970s over political differences concerning the NDP and Canadian nationalism. Fred left Dowson’s Forward Group a few years later, but continued to support the good works of the Trotskyist left.
He rarely missed a Socialist Action May Day celebration in Toronto. He never missed a Labour Day parade, until illness prevented him last September.
Fred was a soldier of the working class and of the International. Shop steward, local union president, organizer, railway worker, auto worker, and finally, metal cabinet fabricator. He was a teacher who never scolded. He was a mentor: never judgemental, ever patient and abiding.
When I first encountered the revolutionary movement, in the late 1960s in Toronto, I noticed the small but sturdy group of worker Bolsheviks of the LSA—those who had weathered the storms of McCarthyism and Stalinism in the workers’ movement.
Fred Callahan was a shining example of that precious cadre. Unbowed, rebellious workers who reached out to us, the long-haired, presumptuous, insolent youth of the sixties. They made us feel welcome. Together we marched against the war in Vietnam, against nuclear weaponry, for women’s rights, for independent working class political action. You could talk to Fred Callahan about what you thought and did, and despite the fact that his wisdom and experience surpassed anything that our book-learning had attained, he fostered a profound sense of mutual respect and equality.
That layer of revolutionary workers which radicalized in the 1940s and 1950s is thinning now. The loss of Fred is a terrible blow. Another bright red thread is cut.
But the power of his example can never be extinguished. The force of his ideas draws us closer, rededicated to the task to which Fred Callahan devoted his life - the total emancipation of the working class, and the construction of a workers’ party equal to the task of leadership.
All who knew Fred Callahan will understand how much we will miss the mischievous twinkle in his eye, his infectious laughter, his wonderful stories, his patient and attentive interest, his courteous manner, his self-deprecating smile.
We will build on your legacy, Fred, but we will never replace you, and never forget you.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All