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Robert Simms, 1946-2007

Robert Simms, a long-time activist in the revolutionary socialist movement in Canada, died in Montreal on December 3, 2007. Below are three tributes to Robert:

Remembering Robert Simms

By Ian Angus

[In preparation for the Toronto memorial meeting for Robert Simms, one of  organizers asked me about Robert’s early years in the revolutionary movement. This is the text of my email in response. —IA]

I could say that I recruited Robert Simms to the Young Socialists, but it would be more accurate to say that he recruited himself. One day, during the winter of 1968-69 I was sitting at the regular YS noon-time literature table at Carleton University, when a young man in a wheelchair rolled up. "Hi," he said, "my name is Robert Simms. I want to join the Young Socialists."

Such things never happened -- usually we would meet someone who was interested in socialism, and then spend weeks or even months convincing them about our program and organization. But here was a total stranger, asking to be admitted right away! He explained that he had been reading about socialism, including some of the Marxist classics, and had concluded that he was a revolutionary socialist and should join a revolutionary socialist organization.

He joined the YS shortly after that, and played an important role in our campus work for the rest of that school year, including running for Student Council vice-president on the YS slate. He was also active in our antiwar work, both on and off campus.

I remember him as a voracious reader, going through our books and pamphlets at top speed. And he was a debater -- intense discussions about Marxism were a staple part of life in the Ottawa YS, and Robert joined in wholeheartedly from the beginning.

As far as I can remember, Robert moved to Vancouver just a few months later, at the end of the school year. Part of the reason was to get away from the snow, which made it difficult for him to get around -- although Robert rarely let any physical barriers slow him down.

Robert and I were both active in the League for Socialist Action and the Revolutionary Workers League during the 1970s, and worked together on a number of projects, particularly on Marxist education and history. He was one of the strongest supporters of my research on the history of the Marxist left in Canada.

In the late seventies, when he was organizer of the Vancouver branch, he proposed that the RWL should make publishing my history of the early years of the Communist Party a priority for the country-wide movement. He was the prime mover behind the "Reg Bullock Publishing Fund," which was created in honor of a long-time leader of the Trotskyist movement in B.C., and which actually paid for publishing the first edition of Canadian Bolsheviks. More than that -- he and Barbara Stewart did the painstaking work of manually compiling the book's index, no small task in those pre-computer days.

Robert was one of the people who came to revolutionary socialism during the radical upsurge of the 1960s -- and he was one who then devoted his whole life to the cause of workers' emancipation. Though our political paths diverged in recent years, I have always thought of him as a comrade whose life was an inspiration to us all.

I Remember Robert Simms

by Jeff White

I knew Robert Simms since we were both 13-year-old nerds, before either of us developed a leftist political consciousness. We were in the same class all the way through high school in Ottawa, and he was one of my closest friends. We took Greek together, the two of us meeting every morning at 8 a.m. with the very dedicated teacher who taught us "off the timetable". Back then, everyone called him Bob (he only became Robert after he had joined the Young Socialists, in order to distinguish himself from another comrade with a similar-sounding name).

Robert was smart as a whip; in school we used to rib him because he seemed to be able to get consistently high grades with little apparent effort. We'd play chess for hours, and he was very good. He was a polymath, graduating with honours in Chemistry, Physics, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, French, Latin, Greek, and English. He was an Ontario Scholar (back in the days when that really meant something), a "City of Ottawa Honour Student", and he won a graduation prize for "general proficiency."

I was among the privileged few to be taken for joy rides in his two-seater sports car, and to go boating and water-skiing at his family's cottage.

I lost touch with Robert after high school; he went to Brigham Young University and I went to Queen's in Kingston, Ontario. A couple of years later I heard through a mutual friend that Robert had been seriously injured in a motor vehicle accident in Iraq and was permanently wheelchair-bound. At that time I was a member of the Young Socialists, having gone through a process of radicalization similar to that of many others of my generation. I had no idea that Robert was experiencing the same process, and I was pleasantly surprised when I heard a few years later that the organization had recruited this guy in Ottawa (I lived in Toronto by then) named Robert Simms. We had each independently come to Marxism through our own experiences and self-education.

Robert was an intellectual, with a clever mind and a keen memory. He immersed himself in the classic writings of Marxism, Leninism, and Trotskyism, and enthusiastically participated in socialist educational projects, both as a student and as a teacher. He had a playful sense of humour and a love for the nuance of language; he and I would sometimes engage in extended punning contests, sometimes involving two or three different languages. During the short time he lived in Toronto, we spent an evening together playing the Japanese board game of Go, at which he was quite proficient.

I was saddened to hear of his death. I will always remember him as that gangly teenager with the ready smile and the pithy observations about life, the universe, and Greek participles.

Toronto meeting celebrates life of Robert Simms

‘A soldier’ for 38 years as a cadre and leader of the communist movement

By Beverly Bernardo

[From The Militant, February 11, 2008]

More than 100 people attended a January 19 meeting here at the Steelworkers Hall to celebrate the life of Robert Simms, a cadre and leader of the communist movement in Canada for 38 years. Simms died in Toronto on December 3, at the age of 61.

Members, supporters, and friends of the Communist League in Canada; the Socialist Workers Party, sister organization of the CL in the United States; and the Young Socialists came from cities across North America to celebrate Simms’ many political contributions. The Communist League in the United Kingdom sent a representative to the meeting. Others who had worked with Simms over his four decades of political activity also came. Among those who attended were Robert’s brothers Brian and Laurie, his sister Karen, and two other family members.

During the reception prior to the meeting, participants looked at an attractive photo display depicting Simms’s involvement in world politics, and read binders containing some 30 messages sent to the meeting. A delicious dinner and a party followed the program.

In the month before he died, Simms participated in a Toronto conference to free the Cuban Five and traveled to New York for an international public meeting and celebration hosted by the SWP and the YS.

In addressing how Simms came to join the communist movement in the late 1960s, Jack Barnes, national secretary of the SWP, noted, “Robert wasn’t influenced primarily by what his generation did. Above all, he was inspired by the millions of Vietnamese battling against all odds—going back for decades—to eliminate the boot of foreigners on their necks. Their example and conduct in the struggle against U.S. imperialism inspired many—including women and members of oppressed nationalities such as Blacks in the U.S. and the Quebecois—to proudly say they were socialists and begin to act accordingly.”

‘A soldier’

At some point in the early 1970s, “Robert came to the conclusion that nothing on earth but organizing to fight and prevent the capitalist rulers from destroying humanity and destroying the earth was worthy in our time,” Barnes told those at the meeting. “If I had to pick one thing, I have absolutely no doubt how I would describe Robert. He was a soldier.”

Barnes spoke about the importance of the political fight that took place in 1972-74 in the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (LSA/LSO) over an adaptation to Canadian nationalism by some of its oldest leaders. At the time Simms was a member of the LSA/LSO, a predecessor of the CL.

“Fighting this adaptation was a question of life and death for Robert’s party,” he said. “The absolutely necessary clarification and split in the LSA/LSO made it possible for the party to take its place in carrying out the fusions that made the Communist League what it is today.”

John Steele, a leader of the CL in Canada and one of the meeting’s co-chairs, described how, after attending Brigham Young University in Utah for two years, Simms had traveled to Europe and the Middle East. While in Iraq, he was in a car accident that left him a paraplegic for the rest of his life. Simms’s father immediately flew to Iraq and arranged for him to be moved back to Canada.

After recovering, Simms attended Carleton University in Ottawa, where he became involved in protests against the Vietnam War. In 1969 he joined the Young Socialists and a year later the LSA/LSO.

Michel Prairie, the organizer of the CL’s executive committee, told the audience, “I first met the LSA/LSO in 1970 when the Pierre Trudeau government used the War Measures Act—sending in 2,000 troops and suspending civil liberties in Quebec—in an effort to stop the fight by the Quebecois against national oppression.” The LSO in Quebec ran Manon Léger for mayor, to campaign against this assault, Prairie said. More than 7,000 people voted for Léger, including Prairie.

At the same time in Vancouver, Robert and other LSA members were organizing large meetings with other groups to protest the War Measures Act and win support for the struggle by the Quebecois for their national rights.

In the early 1980s the Revolutionary Workers League, formed by a fusion of the LSA/LSO with three other revolutionary organizations, established a single political center in Montreal. Simms and his companion Joan Newbigging moved to Montreal in 1981 to help lead this process.

“Robert was part of the staff of our newspapers in 1985 when we fused Socialist Voice and Lutte ouvrière, with the same political content in both French and English,” Prairie said. “That year we also began publishing Pathfinder books and pamphlets in French.”

Fervent partisan of Cuban Revolution

“Robert was a fervent supporter of the Cuban Revolution,” Prairie said. “He saw it as an example of what workers and farmers could do here, in Canada.”

Simms was an active builder of seven meetings last year across Canada to promote Pathfinder’s book Our History Is Still Being Written: The Story of Three Chinese-Cuban Generals in the Cuban Revolution. More than 600 people attended these meetings, many of them coming to their first event about Cuba. “The Communist League and Young Socialists are looking forward to building more of these meetings on Our History Is Still Being Written this year,” Prairie concluded.

Mary-Alice Waters, the editor of the Marxist magazine New International and a member of the SWP National Committee, also highlighted Simms’s internationalism. She read from a message sent by Sean O’Donahue from the Table de Concertation Québec-Cuba paying tribute to Robert’s defense of the Cuban Revolution.

Waters, who co-chaired the meeting, pointed to a 1971 issue of the Young Socialist magazine in which Simms wrote the text for a cartoon history of British Columbia. In it, said Waters, Simms explained “that what upset the colonizers the most about Native people was their underdeveloped sense of private property. It’s done with humor and real historical insight.”

A citizen of time

“I got to know Robert well during the leadership school that the SWP organized from 1980 to 1986, as the party was making a turn to get a majority of its members into the industrial unions,” Waters said.

At the school, leaders of the international communist movement studied for a six-month period the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, the founders of the modern communist movement. A message received from Catharina Tirsén, on behalf of the Communist League in Sweden, described how immersed Robert became in these studies.

During a break from the school, Tirsén recounted, Simms “ran into comrades who asked him how everything was going. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘the Communist League just split,’ referring to the time frame he was in, when the organization of Marx and Engels had been dissolved in 1852.

“‘What?’ one of the comrades, who was living in the present, in the late 1980s, exclaimed with surprise. ‘The Communist League in Britain?’”

Steve Penner, a volunteer in the Pathfinder Print Project today, also spoke. He was executive secretary of the Communist League in Canada when Simms was assigned to lead the distribution of Pathfinder Books in 1988-91.

“Twice a year Robert would get in his car to travel across the country to sell Pathfinder books. These efforts led to Pathfinder accounts in some 200 bookstores in Canada,” Penner said.

Ben Joyce, a member of the Young Socialists national steering committee in New York, encouraged those present to look at the displays, “which depict the life of a real party person.” His “in-it-for-the-long-haul approach” is an example to follow in building the communist movement, Joyce said.

“Without any hesitation, any qualifications of any kind, we can truly recommend Robert as an example to be emulated and admired to all the generations coming forward, now and in the future,” said Jack Barnes in concluding his remarks.

In response to an appeal to contribute to a Robert Simms party-building fund, to continue the work of publishing Pathfinder books in French, participants at the meeting contributed more than $9,100.

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