by Joan Campana
Joan Newbigging, a central leader of the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL) and former editor of Socialist Voice, died in Montreal on July 31 following a four-year fight with cancer. She was 43 years old. A 20-year veteran of the workers movement, Newbigging played a leading role in the building of a pan-Canadian socialist workers party.
Newbigging was also an avid participant in and leader of the new feminist movement that arose in Canada in the late 1960s. She co-authored the brief presented by the League for Socialist Action (LSA—a predecessor organization of the RWL) to a 1968 government commission investigating the status of women. She participated in the very first Ontario feminist groups and activities.
Over the years she played a central role in the abortion rights struggle. She also led in the fight of women to work in jobs traditionally reserved for men.
Beginning with the 1968 government hearings on women, Newbigging wrote on most of the central developments and discussions in the women’s liberation movement in Socialist Voice and its predecessors Workers Vanguard and Labor Challenge.
But she was not only a leader on issues of particular concern to women. A member of the LSA Central Committee since the late 1960s, she played a central role in shaping the party as it evolved from a tiny band of socialists who had survived the period of reaction and anti-communist witch-hunt in English Canada in the 1950s into the party that turned confidently toward winning a broad layer of youth, women, and Quebec nationalist fighters who emerged in the 1960s. She made a particularly important contribution in working to forge a team of younger party leaders through a crucial process of leadership transition in the 1970s.
Unification of revolutionaries
As the radicalization of the working class deepened simultaneously across English Canada and Quebec in the 1970s, a more firm basis was laid for building a united, multinational, and pan-Canadian revolutionary party. Newbigging was at the very center of the team of LSA leaders who pressed toward unity of the LSA with the young revolutionary leaders who had formed the Revolutionary Marxist Group in English Canada and the Groupe marxiste révolutionnaire in Quebec. Along with the Young Socialists, the three groups fused in 1977 to form the Revolutionary Workers League.
Newbigging continued as an elected member of the RWL Central Committee until her death. She also served as a member of the Political Committee until her illness forced her to withdraw earlier this year.
She was one of the first central RWL leaders to implement the party decision to place a majority of its members in industrial jobs. She worked alternately in a meatpacking plant, a sawmill, a plywood mill, and on the railroad.
As part of the party’s efforts to strengthen its work in Quebec and accelerate the building of a genuinely pan-Canadian party, Newbigging moved from Vancouver to Montreal in March, 1981. While learning to speak French, she became editor of Socialist Voice in May, 1982. In 1983 she joined the editorial board of New International, the theoretical journal published jointly by leaders of the RWL and the Socialist Workers Party in the U.S.
In the last year of her life, Newbigging made one of her most important contributions in helping lead RWL discussions on strategy for the coming pan-Canadian revolution. She prepared a number of reports on the deep crisis facing working farmers and on the alliance needed between them and the working class in their common fight to replace the exploitative capitalist system.
Born in Perth, Scotland in 1942, Newbigging lived in Malaysia as a child. Educated in Britain, she came to Canada in 1964. She joined the Toronto Young Socialist Forum a few months later and the League for Socialist Action in 1965. Her earliest political activities included participation in the anti-Vietnam-War movement and the New Democratic Party.
Newbigging was a committed internationalist. A trip to revolutionary Cuba in 1966 established her life-long support for the revolutions in Central America and the Caribbean. In 1983 she visited revolutionary Grenada and she was planning a trip to Nicaragua shortly before her death. She understood fully the importance of carefully studying the lessons of these revolutions for all those serious about thinking through the key questions of working-class strategy in their own countries.
Typical of her commitment to the exploited and oppressed internationally, one of her last major contributions was to organize the pan-Canadian tour of striking British coal miner Steve Shukla in the fall of 1984. As a leader of the Fourth International, the world party to which the RWL belongs, she recognized the importance of solidarity with that historic battle.
The Fourth International also benefited from Newbigging’s experience when it prepared its first major document on women’s liberation in the 1970s.
Her unbroken dedication to the struggle for a world free from exploitation and oppression, her objectivity, and her calm strength were and remain an inspiration for all her many friends and comrades.
By Lynda Little
TORONTO—Eighty friends and comrades gathered here on August 25 to celebrate the life and work of Joan Newbigging. Newbigging was a central leader of the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL) and before it of the League for Socialist Action (LSA). She was also the former editor of Socialist Voice. After a four-year battle with cancer, Newbigging, 43, died in Montreal on July 31.
Arthur Young, an RWL Central Committee member who worked with Newbigging for 20 years, chaired the evening. He quoted Oliver Tambo, president of the African National Congress: "Our people want freedom now. They’ve lost all patience with the idea that their freedom can be put off, even for one instant. They consider that the purpose of life is to devote it to the struggle for the liberation of our country and they have therefore abandoned all fear of death. For them today the words ‘to live’ mean exactly the same thing as the words ‘to be free’."
"That is the spirit of the South African struggle today," Young said. "And that is also the spirit in which Joan lived her very rich and full life and why tonight is a celebration of her life." The evening before, 40 people held a similar celebration of Newbigging’s life in Montreal.
Young described the "turning point" in Newbigging’s life when she joined the Toronto Young Socialist Alliance and the LSA in 1965. "She brought with her a unique combination of energy and determination, maturity and objectivity."
"Joan did not believe in half measures. She made an unreserved commitment," said Ernie Tate, a former longtime RWL leader. When she got involved, he explained, "we were actively building support for the Cuban revolution. Joan threw herself into this work and in May 1965 visited Cuba under the sponsorship of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.
"It was her ability to be inspired by events in the class struggle that showed the way forward for humanity that I remember most about Joan. There was a joy about her that was totally infectious."
A feminist leader
Joan Campana, the current editor of Socialist Voice, recalled Newbigging as a leader of the Canadian women’s liberation movement. "Joan participated in the very first feminist groups and activities. She became a leader of the abortion rights struggle and a pioneer in women’s fight to work non-traditional jobs.
"Through her experiences and through study, she concluded that our liberation could only be fully realized in a revolutionary struggle to overturn the very roots of oppression and exploitation—the capitalist system itself. That’s why she dedicated herself to building the Revolutionary Workers League."
Campana also described the leadership Newbigging had shown, "when our party decided to organize to have a majority of its members get jobs in industry and participate as revolutionary workers in the industrial unions. She worked on the railroad, in meatpacking, and in a sawmill."
One of the younger comrades she inspired was Carole Caron, a leader of the Revolutionary Youth Committee in Montreal. Caron described her experience working with Newbigging on the initial steps toward launching a pan-Canadian youth organization in solidarity with the RWL.
"My collaboration with Joan helped me to better understand that the real divisions within capitalism are not between young people and old, between Quebec and English Canada, or between women and men, but between the class of workers and their allies on the one side, and the class of the bosses on the other.
"Joan helped me to see more clearly what unites us, reinforcing what we have in common through the struggle against capitalism, rather than focusing on what divides us. She taught me to be more objective and to respect our revolutionary continuity."
Representing the British section of the Fourth International at the meeting was Connie Harris, a 44-year veteran of the British workers movement and a leader of the International. She described how impressed she was by the "enthusiasm, confidence, and ability" of Joan and the other young leaders she met while living in Canada for a time in the 1960s.
This was the period when the LSA made a transition in leadership from the veterans who had held the party together during the difficult days of the 1950s to a new generation of fighters including Newbigging.
Harris was also impressed with Newbigging’s deep commitment to the international workers’ movement. "Despite the stage of Joan’s illness, she took on the task of convening the Canadian tour of a striking British coal miner last year, responding enthusiastically to this big upheaval in the class struggle in Britain."
Mary-Alice Waters, co-chairperson of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States and also a leader of the Fourth International, spoke about Joan’s role as a leader of the Fourth International.
"She also brought something very particular to the process of building our party in the United States." Describing tasks the RWL and SWP carry out in common—from educational gatherings to common trade union fractions in North American-wide unions—Waters stressed "the importance of this work in the internationalist education of the Socialist Workers Party. We live inside the United States, inside the belly of the beast.
"Breaking our isolation, cutting through the isolation that our movement and the working class in the United States face because of the strength of U.S. imperialism, is absolutely crucial to the capacity to build a proletarian, internationalist party in the United States.
"The collaboration we have received over the years from the comrades in English Canada and Quebec in this process has been indispensable in helping to keep us from drowning in the imperialist arrogance of the United States, in helping us learn other cultures and other languages, both literally and figuratively. And it’s in that sense that Joan contributed enormously over the years.
"Joan had tremendous capacities. But there was nothing unique about her. What she did as a leader was not something that she was born with. She learned it, just like everyone else learns it. And that’s exactly what she tried to do, to encourage everyone to do and learn as she had."
Pat Williams, a leader of the Socialist Action League (SAL) of New Zealand described how, although they had never met her personally, Joan became very familiar to the New Zealand comrades. This was especially true because of a 1983 report Newbigging gave on the struggle for abortion clinics in Canada. The report was carefully studied by comrades in New Zealand and other countries.
This was just one example of the collaboration between the SAL and the RWL, Williams explained. She stressed the importance of these links. "For us it means being part of and building the international communist organization, the Fourth International, being able to collaborate concretely to the best we can, given the distances involved."
Deb Shnookal, representing a group of communists who support the Fourth International in Australia, remarked on the appropriateness of the memorial fund being launched in Newbigging’s memory. The fund will be used to setup a new French-language Marxist bookstore in Montreal.
Shnookal outlined Newbigging’s understanding of the importance of the revolutionary literature distributed by Pathfinder Press. Explaining how the Australian comrades are now circulating this literature in the entire south Pacific, she concluded that, "The most appropriate commemoration of Joan’s life is to advance these common international projects."
In the Montreal meeting, Ronald Cameron of the Gauche socialiste (Socialist Left), a sympathizing organization of the Fourth International in Quebec, paid tribute to "the depth of Joan’s personal commitment. In reconfirming this commitment in the 1980s, maintaining her activity in spite of illness, comrade Joan Newbigging stands out very clearly as an example to political activists both in Quebec and Canada."
Both the Toronto and Montreal meetings also heard messages from people who knew or had worked with Newbigging in Canada or around the world. These included a telegram, from Ernest Mandel, a central leader of the Fourth International.
A life of revolutionary commitment
The final speaker was Michel Prairie, co-editor of New International and Nouvelle Internationale, two journals of Marxist theory and politics published jointly by leaders of the RWL and SWP. Prairie is also editor of Lutte ouvrière, the French-language equivalent of Socialist Voice.
"Joan Newbigging devoted almost her entire life to building a communist party in Canada. By far that is her principal contribution, the main heritage that she left us.
"Her life reads like a veritable history of the principal struggles of our class over 20 years. Through all these struggles, Joan became convinced that the only way to put a definitive end to capitalist oppression and exploitation was for those who truly produce the wealth in our society to take power from the hands of the big corporations and the banks."
Joan knew that called for building a revolutionary party. "To her, such a party had to truly reflect our class as it is. It had to be a pan-Canadian, multinational party, where young workers, women, and Quebecois played a central role."
In the mid-1970s, Prairie explained, there were three organizations that identified with the Fourth International in Canada—the LSA, the Revolutionary Marxist Group (RMG), and the Groupe marxiste révolutionnaire in Quebec.
"Joan played an essential rote in the fusion of these groups into the RWL in 1977," Prairie said. "She was delegated by the LSA leadership to sit on the joint LSA-RMG steering committee that led the fusion process in English Canada."
When the central office of the RWL moved from Toronto to Montreal in 1980, a move to help deepen the party’s pan-Canadian character, Newbigging "enthusiastically" accepted an assignment to come to Montreal.
"Comrades who were then living in Vancouver still remember how she would take advantage of the long traffic lineups leading into the sawmill where she worked to study French at the wheel of her car.
"Joan’s interest in learning French was political. She was convinced that it was essential for her and all English-speaking comrades to be able to communicate with Québecois revolutionaries and workers in their own language. "
Prairie explained Newbigging’s great satisfaction with the theme chosen for the first issue of Nouvelle Internationale. This issue contains a series of articles on the need for workers to forge an alliance with the other class of exploited producers in our society, the small farmers.
"Despite the illness that weakened her and forced her to retire from the Political Committee, Joan played an essential role in this discussion which the RWL Political Committee had opened up inside the party."
In concluding, Prairie quoted Fidel Castro who said that "there is no more noble task than being a revolutionary and devoting one’s life to the struggle for the emancipation of humanity." Prairie encouraged all present who agreed with that to join with the socialist youth committees and the RWL in building the revolutionary movement.
"That is exactly what Joan did with her life. And she did it totally, with no after-thoughts. She was thoroughly convinced of what she was doing. She knew that elsewhere in the world, in the factories of Cuba, in the shantytowns of South Africa, in the fields of Nicaragua, millions upon millions of men and women were doing the same thing as she was. They were making history."
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All