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Ross Dowson, 1917-2002

[This is a slightly edited version of an article originally posted in March 2002 on the Marxmail list, www.marxmail.org]

by Richard Fidler

Ross Dowson, who died in February 2002, was the major personality in the Canadian Trotskyist movement from the early 1940s to 1974, when he left with a few collaborators to set up a group almost entirely devoted to working within the social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP).

Historically, in the small world of the international Trotskyist current, the Canadians were not entirely insignificant factors: Maurice Spector, the major journalist and theoretician of the Canadian CP in the 1920s, was James P. Cannon’s co-conspirator in smuggling Trotsky’s critique of the draft program of the Comintern out of the Soviet Union in 1928 and later served on the Political Committee of the Communist League of America (CLA) in the 1930s. Jack MacDonald, the CP’s general secretary in the 1920s, subsequently identified with the Trotskyist current; both he and Spector were associated with the Abern clique in the CLA (later the Socialist Workers Party). Earle Birney, one of Canada’s leading poets and novelists in the 20th century, was a prominent member of the Canadian group in the 1930s. His trajectory in the British and Canadian Trotskyist movement (in Britain he was active in the group led by C.L.R. James) is described in some detail in Elspeth Cameron’s biography of Birney. But no one was involved more closely, and for a longer period, with the Canadian Trotskyist movement than Ross Dowson.

By the late 1930s, the Canadian section of the nascent Fourth International was divided between a small group to which Dowson belonged and a group led by supporters of B.J. Field, an erstwhile U.S. Trotskyist leader who had fallen out with Cannon some years earlier. There was also a small group of Ukrainian-Canadian supporters of Trotsky. Birney, a supporter of Max Shachtman in the debate over defense of the USSR, dropped out in 1939, and the Canadian Trotskyist organizations were banned under the War Measures Act. Dowson played a key role in reassembling an organization, the Revolutionary Workers Party, near the close of the war. Other prominent leaders and members of the RWP included his brothers Murray and Hugh and his sisters Lois and Joyce. The RWP of the 1940s included some prominent leaders of the West Coast paper and wood workers’ unions and had substantial influence in and around the social-democratic CCF (Co-operative Commonwealth Federation), the NDP’s predecessor, in Toronto and Vancouver. An RWP member, Jean-Marie Bédard (Lois Dowson’s husband), was the Eastern Canadian head of the International Woodworkers of America; in the 1960s Bédard briefly served as president of the Quebec Socialist Party (PSQ).

The RWP’s main activity was the publication of a biweekly 8-page newspaper, Labor Challenge, with a readership that for some time numbered in the thousands. The group also contested elections, mainly at the municipal level where it would not be running against the CCF. In the late 1940s, Dowson achieved some notoriety when he came second, with almost 24,000 votes, in a Toronto mayoralty election.

The postwar period was a difficult one for the left in general and no less so for the Trotskyists, who were often harassed and in some cases driven out of their positions in the trade union movement. Most unsettling was the current’s difficulty in coming to grips intellectually with the postwar international situation, which hardly conformed to Trotsky’s prediction of proletarian anti-stalinist revolutionary upsurge under the banner of the Fourth International. The divisions that developed in the FI forces, and the subsequent international split, have been well documented. In Canada, U.S. SWP leader Jim Cannon’s "Open Letter" denouncing the International majority (mainly European) leadership, and calling for a split, had the effect of a bombshell. Several prominent leaders of the group, including Murray Dowson and Ross’s brother-in-law Joe Rosenthal, came out against Cannon. The already weakened RWP effectively disintegrated. The SWP leadership later sent a representative, Murry Weiss, to Canada to probe the situation here. Weiss wrote to New York that there was little left of the group, but seemed to think Dowson, who had initially hesitated to line up with Cannon—he had told SWP leader Farrell Dobbs the Open Letter was "an unprecedented and unjustifiable act" and asked "why your differences are not being expressed through other channels"—was one of the few left that they could work with.

Ross Dowson never wrote a comprehensive account of these early experiences, nor has anyone else. However, he worked strenuously to reconstitute the Canadian section of the FI, first through the Socialist Education League, based largely in Toronto, then through the League for Socialist Action (LSA), which was formally constituted in 1961 as a fusion of the SEL with the Vancouver-based Socialist Information Centre led by such well-known figures in the labour and left movements as Ruth and Reg Bullock. During the 1950s and early 1960s, the organization’s monthly newspaper, The Workers Vanguard, sponsored an annual "trail-blazing" tour in which several members would travel across the country in a truck selling subscriptions, contacting left-wing activists and reporting on their activities. These contacts later proved invaluable when the League came to establish branches in many cities during the Sixties and Seventies.

In 1963, Dowson spent several months in Europe helping to prepare the way for the reunification that year of the main forces of world Trotskyism. He later travelled to Algeria where Pablo was a prominent advisor of President Ben Bella, and helped initiate solidarity actions in Canada with the newly independent nation.

During the 1960s the LSA attracted new members among young people radicalized by the Cuban revolution, the Vietnam war and the developing women’s liberation movement. The group was instrumental in founding and sustaining the Fair Play for Cuba Committee in Canada and helped to build and lead a mass movement against the complicity of the Canadian government in the U.S. war in Vietnam. The LSA brief to the federal government’s Royal Commission on the Status of Women, in 1968, addressed most of the issues and demands that were soon to predominate in the feminist movement.

Until the mid-1960s, the LSA was confined to English Canada. With the formation of its Quebec counterpart, the Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière, in 1964, the united organization (now the LSA/LSO) began attempting to analyze the Quebec national question and nationalist movement from a Marxist perspective. A consistent supporter of Quebec’s right to self-determination, in 1970 it began actively supporting Quebec independence from the Canadian state.

Ross Dowson, as the organization’s national secretary, was at the heart of all these developments. A skilled lithographer and printer by training, he spent almost his entire working life as a full-time paid staffer (at times the only one) for the organization. The prototype, of course, was Cannon’s "professional revolutionary," who lives only for "the movement"—the movement being equated as often as not in this conception with the tiny far-left group. It was the model he offered to the young people who came into the group, with all its strengths (commitment, dedication, professionalism) but also its weaknesses: the focus on building the revolutionary "party," the exotic lifestyle, the physical separation from the life experiences of most working people, etc., with the consequent tendencies toward exclusivism, sectarianism and even cultism.

Unlike many people in such positions, however, Dowson, while personally an ascetic with a self-imposed daily routine, was anything but routinist in his approach to politics. He read widely, had opinions on everything, and was quick to spot new developments and to attempt to steer the group’s meagre cadres to take advantage of openings for "party-building." For the new generation of recruits in the Sixties and early Seventies, he was our major link to the older generation of class-struggle militants and Marxists who had built the labour and socialist movements in previous decades.

A resolute internationalist, Dowson’s greatest strength was his understanding that revolutionary cadres had to be rooted in the conditions of their own country and class. As he often said, we "are confronted with a working class movement which has already taken on structured form," and Marxists had an obligation to participate in that movement as it was structured. In Canada, this meant adopting a consistent "orientation" to the mass social democracy, the CCF-NDP. Dowson expressed this as follows in one of his major "line" documents:

      "Our orientation to the NDP, our projection as a socialist caucus, with the aim of winning the NDP to a socialist policy, makes us much more attractive and more capable of winning such forces [vanguard workers] to our side. The merits of our orientation from this viewpoint, which stand completely apart from what forces we may or may not actually have in the NDP at any given moment, must not be overlooked. Our NDP orientation places our forces—small, and involved as they are in what is largely education work of a somewhat academic character—in their proper perspective. It projects in broad lines the direction and possibilities of the struggle in the whole next period, thus heightening immensely our attractivity."

As many Marxists—not just in Canada—can testify, this understanding of the dialectical relationship between a Marxist vanguard and a mass reformist party is a difficult position to maintain and implement in practice. As Dowson put it, in the document cited above,

      "Our CCF-NDP orientation and its effective application has been the hardest fought position in the history of the movement, established against trends of centrist conciliationism and liquidationism into the NDP, sectarian opposition to the party, and in more recent years spontaneist and adventurist hostility to it, leading to defection from the revolutionary vanguard itself."

Dowson and his supporters often had difficulty in even describing this approach in clear language; attempts to generalize it in winged phrases (the NDP is "in the way and on the way," it is the "touchstone of class politics," etc.) often did more to confuse than to elucidate this "orientation." In practice, although the League did address its political message to the mass of working people influenced by and sympathetic to the NDP, the organization’s own activity was usually centred on participating in and building mass movements independent of or peripheral to the social-democracy.

While relatively well versed in the Marxist classics, Dowson was not given to theoretical disquisition. His writing style was laboured, characterized by an often amazingly complex sentence structure that piled subordinate clauses on top of each other. (As his editor I tried unsuccessfully for years to straighten out his prose, only to confront his unyielding conviction that I had misunderstood his thought!) He had great respect, verging in some cases on awe, for the new generation of scholars emerging on Canadian campuses in the late Sixties who were beginning to analyze the Canadian social formation from a Marxist perspective.

These academics, under the influence of the then-predominant dependency theory, tended to view Canada as a peripheral "de-industrializing" subordinate satellite of the United States, de-emphasizing or even denying its status as a (lesser) imperialist power in its own right. Dowson became enamoured with this approach and, when it became a prominent theme in a broad left opposition current that developed within the NDP in 1969-72, he began to adapt to it politically, developing a theory of a new, progressive Canadian nationalism in opposition to U.S. "domination" that should be embraced (albeit critically) by socialists as a radicalizing force. In the early 1970s, a bitter debate on these positions broke out in the Canadian Trotskyist movement, and Dowson soon found himself in a minority.

Shortly after his defeat at the League’s 1973 convention, Dowson’s supporters reconstituted themselves as the Labour Party Tendency, denouncing the majority’s "sectarianism" toward the NDP.

During this period the Fourth International was immersed in a factional division that had originated in the majority’s adaptation to a guerrilla-war orientation in Latin America. The Canadian section had already experienced splits as groups in both English Canada and Quebec within and around the League constituted their own organizations aligned with the FI majority, while the League itself (including Dowson) was aligned with the FI minority led by the U.S. SWP. At the 10th World Congress of the FI, in early 1974, these groups, the Revolutionary Marxist Group and Groupe marxiste révolutionnaire, were recognized by the International as sympathizing organizations in Canada. Dowson and about 20 supporters of his tendency chose the moment to leave the Canadian section. They established the Forward group, publishing a paper of that name for about ten years, and operated mainly in and around the NDP. The group functioned to some degree as a personal cult around Dowson.

Although at the time he cited the divisions in the Fourth International and among its Canadian supporters as his rationale, I believe Dowson’s decision to split was the result of a complex of factors. One was, quite simply, his difficulty in coming to terms with a transition in leadership to the new generation of youth who had come into the group in recent years. But in addition, Dowson was deeply disappointed by the lack of support for his positions from the SWP, which had always served as a political anchor for the Canadian section. He regarded his position on Canadian nationalism, and what he saw as its left-wing dynamic, as an original theoretical contribution, a subset, so to speak, of his views on the role of the NDP in the evolution of Canadian working class politics. When the SWP leaders made it clear to him, at the outset of that debate, that they were prepared to polemicize publicly against his position, he realized he was isolated internationally; the FI majority was equally hostile to Dowson’s position. From that point on, Dowson simply needed a pretext to split.

Although the major Trotskyist forces reunited in 1977, under the impetus of the FI majority’s self-criticism and correction of the guerrilla-war line, Dowson stood outside this regroupment, maintaining that the FI was finished as a meaningful international organization.

However, his rationale for leaving the League took a peculiar twist in the late 1970s, when a scandal erupted in Canada over disclosures of illegal activities by the country’s federal police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), directed at disrupting and destroying Quebec separatist organizations and left-wing "subversives" throughout the country. The LSA/LSO, like many other organizations, was a victim of these police dirty tricks. For example, the police had circulated anonymous letters to League members in 1973 attempting to exploit the political differences between Dowson and the majority leadership. At the time, these tactics had been perceived by all of us as an ineffectual police provocation and were given little attention.

Dowson now claimed that such police tactics had "destroyed" the Canadian Trotskyist movement. He sued the cops, but although the case was fought through the courts at all levels, he was unable to persuade the judges that there was any substance to his allegations of damage. Dowson’s suit was, however, successful in getting the RCMP to acknowledge their role in attempting to disrupt the League.

In 1988 Ross Dowson suffered a devastating stroke from which he never recovered. He spent his final years in an acute-care hospital. Ironically, a fellow inmate for some years was Earle Birney, who predeceased Dowson.

Richard Fidler
March 19, 2002

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