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Ross Dowson, 1917-2002

Remarks of Barry Weisleder on behalf of Socialist Action, to a meeting celebrating the Life of Ross Dowson, June 8, 2002 in Toronto.

It is my pleasure to bring revolutionary greetings to this wonderful event on behalf of Socialist Action, Fourth Internationalists in the Canadian state. We owe a great debt of thanks to the organizers of this occasion, and it is an honour to be part of it.

Was it somehow indicative that Ross Dowson was born in 1917? Though Ross played no role in starting the great Russian Revolution, he contributed a lifetime of activism and leadership to the advancement of its principles—the principles of working class political independence, national liberation, and workers’ power in this country and beyond.

Ross Dowson was a Canadian revolutionary and a world revolutionist. He participated in the leadership of the Fourth International, the organizational continuity of the politics of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky in the 20th and 21st centuries. I suspect Ross took some pleasure, despite his infirmity, in personally outliving the rule of the Russian Stalinist bureaucracy, grave diggers of the World Revolution. And I strongly suspect he would have experienced great happiness at the news that Trotskyist parties took over 10% of the vote in the first round of the recent French presidential elections.

Ross Dowson was a working class political leader. He was our link to the pre- and post-World War II working class radicalization in this country. He was a prominent figure in mass politics who would not put his personal career or comfort ahead of working class principles, as he understood them. Ross was an unbreakable strand in the red thread of revolutionary continuity. That red thread has become considerably thinner with his departure.

Other recent losses have taken a great toll too. The death of our dear comrade, Socialist Action leader and veteran auto worker activist Joe Flexer occurred less than two years ago. Before that, the socialist movement suffered the loss of Fred Callahan, Vern and Anne Olsen, Mike Mill, Andre Bekerman, and a bit earlier, Ruth and Reg Bullock. A somewhat younger layer of veteran radicals is getting thinner too, marked by the recent passing of Bret Smiley, Francois Moreau and Arnie Mintz.

But we know that the memory of these comrades won’t disappear. Their contributions live on in the work that we do, especially in the building of a political instrument for workers’ power.

Shakespeare speaks of the seven ages of man. I knew Ross Dowson only in three phases of his life.

In the late 1960s I was a high school student rights activist who became acquainted with the League for Socialist Action through the movement against the war in Vietnam, and in the NDP. When I attended LSA public forums at 1 Cumberland Street, and later at Queen Street West, I encountered Ross as a speaker. I was struck by the power of his expression, his self-confidence in his ideas, and his quick wit. To me he seemed a bit crusty, and I feared ever being on the receiving end of his sharp tongue. But as part of a new radical social movement that was composed almost entirely of youth, and cut off from the previous radical generation by cold war media and a conservative high school curriculum, I was inspired to meet a generation of revolutionary workers, of which Ross Dowson was a leading example. I discovered that there were Marxists over the age of forty, even over fifty.

Ross was a vigorous and dedicated revolutionist, showing the way forward to a new generation. He also knew how to break the ice. At one Vanguard Forum I attended, Ross turned to the young anti-war activists in the crowd and said that he too was first drawn into the socialist movement by war—he flashed a smile—"the Spanish Civil War".

On another such occasion I approached him for a detail about a subject. He suggested I write it down. I confessed that I didn’t have a pen. Ross said, "A revolutionary without a pen is like a soldier without a sword." Then he told me that Trotsky’s early nick-name was "the pen". This led me to read Trotsky’s autobiography, My Life. In this way Ross opened doors to knowledge and action. And I never again went to a meeting without a pen.

As I became involved in the Trotskyist movement in the early 1970s, the LSA was going through a wrenching split. The split was a reflection of differences in the Fourth International between the European-based majority, which in my opinion was somewhat ultra-left, and the U.S.-based minority, which I thought was too conservative. Ross Dowson led a third current inside the LSA, which over-adapted to Canadian nationalism and worked exclusively inside the NDP. Ross’ tendency left the LSA in 1974 and constituted the Socialist League, later known as the Forward Group. This was the second period in which I encountered Ross. He and his co-thinkers frequently distributed their press at demonstrations and gatherings of the labour movement and the NDP.

What struck me about Ross in this period, on reflection, is that regardless of our political differences, his conduct was always marked by the most courteous behaviour and reasoned argument. He had no time for personal attacks or gossip. He shunned demagogy. He remained the working class socialist politician, always anticipating new opportunities for struggle, and victory around the corner.

The third phase of my acquaintance was the period following the onset of his illness. Ross was dependent on others to care for him and to transport him to events. Though his voice was slowed, then virtually stilled, his eyes still sparkled with interest in the political world around him. I was honoured to learn that he listened with interest when Lois read to Ross my account of an FI World Congress which I attended seven years ago. We in Socialist Action were always honoured by the presence of Ross, in his big wheel chair, at SA meetings. This included the one we held following the death of FI leader Ernest Mandel also in 1995. Ross was a regular participant at Toronto SA’s Annual May Day Celebrations in the 1990s. Elizabeth Byce, our May Day chairperson, would announce the presence of Ross Dowson. This was usually followed by a standing ovation from many of the 200 workers gathered at the event.

I want to take this opportunity to pay a special tribute to a comrade and friend who deserves much more than my feeble words can offer. She was uniquely responsible for the care and comfort of Ross in his declining years. Her love and dedication to him enriched his whole life, I’m sure—particularly when he could no longer fend for himself. Everyone knows I’m speaking of Lois Bedard. A person couldn’t have a better sister or comrade.

Shortly I will have to leave this event to catch a flight to Vancouver where I will attend the 23rd Constitutional Convention of the Canadian Labour Congress. I am a delegate representing the Toronto Substitute Teachers of District 12 OSSTF. My bargaining unit re-elected me President last Wednesday following a tough battle with a right wing group led by a former Trotskyist. I am taking with me to Vancouver a pamphlet which expresses to me part of the enduring revolutionary contribution of Ross Dowson.

It is titled The Power and the Dilemma of the Trade Unions. In this 1967 publication, Ross explained the class nature of our society, the power of the state, the contradictions of the labour bureaucracy, the new sources of working class militancy, and the necessity of a break with capitalist rule.

He wrote,

"The winning of the trade unions to a class struggle orientation depends on two interrelated factors: (1) the development of a programme that logically arises out of the experiences of the rank and file, that reflects their needs and present level of understanding and takes them forward, united in anti-capitalist struggle; (2) the bringing together of the necessary forces to give this programme life, to adapt it to specific conditions, to effectively disseminate it, to explain it, to defend it—and to integrate these forces as a leadership that will not only challenge the old leadership but will prove its superiority and replace it."

"The militants, the new generation coming into the work force have the responsibility, they have the opportunity, of preparing themselves to move out, to develop the necessary programme and build the necessary leadership that can lead the struggles of the Canadian workers to their socialist revolution."

That’s what Ross Dowson believed. That’s what he tried to do. Those who would honour Ross Dowson, I submit, can do no better than to build the party of workers’ self-emancipation, the party of the future socialist revolution, here and now.

I’m sure Ross Dowson would echo Joe Hill: Don’t mourn. Organize!

Organize in the NDP. Organize in the Labour movement, amongst the growing legion of anti-capitalist youth, women, environmentalists, oppressed minorities and the poor.

Keep the flame of Ross Dowson alive. Keep revolutionary Marxism alive. Keep hope alive.

Long live international working class solidarity!

Long live the Fourth International!

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