Socialist Action, Fall 1999
by Barry Weisleder
A leading figure of Trotskyism in English Canada in the 1970s and early 1980’s, writer and Marxist theoretician Bret Smiley passed away on February 5, 1999 in Toronto. He succumbed to a five month struggle with lymphoma cancer, ironically after recovering from years of alcoholism and isolation, and three years into a new career as a carpenter and cabinetmaker in Edmonton, Alberta.
Bret was born in Calgary, Alberta on November 9, 1950. He and his family were frequently on the move across the country. Bret’s father, Donald V. Smiley, a much-published professor of political science, worked initially in a wide variety of teaching and public service positions. Thus, Bret went to schools in Ottawa, Burlington, and Regina, only to complete high school in Vancouver, British Columbia. He enrolled at the University of British Columbia, but academic completion of his first year was discarded in favour of intense involvement in the newly emerging student movement. Bret participated in a student sit-in and takeover of the UBC Faculty Club (where his father happened to be a member), protesting its restrictive membership policy. In 1967 Bret was one of over 100 students arrested at a free speech sit-in at nearby Simon Fraser University.
Bret moved to Toronto in 1969 or 1970, where he plunged into the radical student movement and eventually into the left wing of the labour-based New Democratic Party. The co-op house he shared with close friends on Hepbourne Street, in downtown Toronto’s west end, became renown as a meeting place and organizing centre for left wing NDP and labour activists.
It was here, according to a former house-mate, that Bret became an avid reader of New Left Review, and other Marxist, including specifically Trotskyist, literature. Ernest Mandel’s classic essay, "The Leninist Concept of Organization", made a profound impression on Bret.
An extremely articulate speaker with a powerfully synthetic intellect, Bret moved into positions of leadership in the left-wing nationalist Waffle movement of the NDP. At the same time he played an important role as educator and organizer of a regroupment of mostly young radical socialists inside the Waffle, the NDP Youth and among activists at the University of Toronto campus. In 1972 Bret joined the League for Socialist Action, section of the Fourth International in the Canadian state, and participated in the leadership of a minority tendency which was expelled from the LSA in 1973. Together with a core of student activists (Old Mole group) and Waffle veterans (the Red Circle), the ex-LSA militants founded the Revolutionary Marxist Group in the Summer of that year.
Bret served on the Political Committee of the RMG, and on the Editorial Board of its nearly monthly newspaper the Old Mole. The RMG was marked by very vigorous internal debates over orientation, but also by a high level of internal democracy. Bret was a leading partisan internal debater, but also a spokesperson for the organization as a whole. He was an RMG candidate for federal Parliament in 1974, and helped to lead its international solidarity, anti-social cutbacks, strike support, and anti-racism campaigns. Bret was a prolific and skilled polemicist, and wrote extensively on questions of socialist strategy, the nature of the Canadian state and society, the Quebec national question, the NDP, the Labour movement, the student movement, other social struggles, as well as on international politics and strategic issues.
The RMG, and its Quebec-based counterpart the Groupe Marxiste Revolutionnaire, achieved the status of sympathizing organizations of the F.I. in the mid-1970s. Bret represented the RMG at the World Congress of the F.I., and served on the International Executive Committee of the global Trotskyist movement.
In 1977, the LSA, RMG and GMR fused to form the Revolutionary Workers’ League/Ligue Ouvrière Revolutionnaire. Within two years, the fusion was in a state of unraveling over issues of work place orientation, NDP and governmental policy, and general strategy. In 1981 Bret was part of an exodus of a number of veteran leaders and activists from the RWL. He moved from Toronto to Hamilton, 50 kilometers west, and worked for more than a year in the coke plant at Stelco’s steel mill. He then transferred far north-west to Edmonton, Alberta, where he lived for the next 17 years in political and personal isolation from his comrades.
In this period Bret stepped up his efforts to learn to play guitar, wanting very much to establish himself as a musician. Rhythm and blues was his favourite genre, but since his youth he greatly admired the folk stylings of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Gordon Lightfoot. Sadly, many hours of practice on the guitar brought on tendinitis. Still he launched a band that performed occasionally on weekends. But one day his vehicle was burglarized and all the equipment was stolen. It was a very demoralizing blow to Bret. His subsequent work as an unskilled labourer (mostly furniture moving, truck driving and roofing jobs), did not alleviate or decelerate the downward spiral. Poverty, alcoholism, and physical decline proceeded to take a high toll on his health.
But in recent years Bret found the will and the means to change his circumstances. For the first time in his life he studied to acquire a skilled trade, and he went on to work on a number of large construction projects. Then tragically, in September 1998, he was diagnosed with lung cancer, originating from the lymph gland.
Bret decided in the Fall to re-establish contact with his family and old friends in Toronto. Three times over the past five months Bret met with this writer, and Joe Flexer, both currently Socialist Action editorial board members. We enjoyed numerous telephone conversations.
Bret told us, perhaps self-protectively, that he was "no longer a Marxist". But the keen interest he displayed in our analysis of the political situation and in our practical activity, particularly inside the labour movement, seemed to refute the claim. Bret’s mother informed me that he wanted to write a history of the RMG and the broader socialist movement in which he participated. She also revealed that, after looking up many of his old friends in Toronto last Fall, Bret expressed his disappointment that several had abandoned revolutionary political activism for a rather different ‘lifestyle’.
My last conversation with Bret Smiley occurred on February 2. He called to apologize for not being able to visit my home, where he wanted to explore my political archives in search of his writings from decades past on the Quebec national question and other issues. Bret said he was physically exhausted and unable to leave his sister’s house, where he stayed during what proved to be his last visit to Toronto. "I don’t think I’ll be doing any literary work", he lamented.
Later that day he was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Toronto’s west end, where he died three days later. Apparently unbeknownst even to Bret, the cancer was too widespread for treatment. To the witness of family members at his bedside, it rapidly shut down all his bodily functions, one by one. The last CAT scan revealed three tumors in his brain He is survived by his mother Gweneth, and sisters Rhondda, Alison, Judy, Pat and Carol, to whom our sympathies go.
Despite the many years of lost contact, Bret will be remembered for his energy, charisma, and intellectual prowess. He played a seminal role in rejuvenating Canadian Trotskyism, linking it to and drawing sustenance from the youth radicalization of the 1960s and 70s, and stimulating a wide range of very interesting and useful debates on revolutionary strategy and programme.
His passing away at so young an age has shocked all who knew him. It serves as a poignant reminder of how important it is that we fight for what we believe, in the short time we have. The legacy of the brilliant, brash young radical lives on. We will be further inspired by the example of Bret Smiley’s legendary ability to energize and politically propel forward a generation of revolutionary socialists who continue the struggle today, and tomorrow.
Copyright South Branch Publishing. All