A Life in Politics
by B. Ross Ashley
I was born in 1946, in Connecticut, the son of a clock-factory worker and the Florida gentry lady he'd met while he was in the Army. Dad was a watchmaker/clockmaker/repairman who served as a tailgunner in B-26s in the Mediterranean theatre during WWII; he met Mom when he was training in Florida. She was the middle daughter of a “quality” family of former slaveholders.
I grew up in first Connecticut and then Florida; we moved down there when Dad decided to try to establish his own business. He started a watch-repair shop in a small Central Florida town that never really got off the ground, and he went to work in jewellery stores thereafter. We moved around Northeast Florida a lot.
I developed a sense of the injustice of segregation from my reading, and from some association with the worst elements in junior high and high school ... the class bullies tended to be associated with Kluxer families, or at least boast of such associations. Mom's folks would look down their noses at them, even while holding their own racist views.
In 1964, I got into the University of Florida on a combination of National Defense Act loans and small scholarships. I was going to be an aerospace engineer and help Mankind get to the stars. (I read a lot of science fiction in those days, and still do.) During my first term, a friend from high school was circulating a petition to get tenure for an associate professor who'd worked out his contract; he'd been a faculty sponsor of the Student Group for Equal Rights, and the suspicion was that his lack of academic advancement at Florida was because of his political views. One thing led to another over the course of the term, and I was a member of Gainesville Chapter of SDS and the Southern Student Organizing Committee by the following Spring. I incidentally flunked calculus and had to give up my engineering career ... I switched majors to Political Science, with vague thoughts of law school.
The Vietnam War was starting to heat up, and I got involved with Gainesville Chapter's antiwar actions as well as the Student Group for Equal Rights and the Student Committee on Academic Freedom. Over the next couple of years my political views took me into the IWW, and then I switched majors again into the Philosophy department, where I met a Canadian assistant professor named Bob Fenn who taught a Marxist philosophy course. In twelve weeks we read excerpts from Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Luxemburg, and finally Trotsky. Trotsky made the most sense to me ... if I remember correctly we read the Permanent Revolution articles he wrote with Parvus.
In the fall of 1967, I was heavily involved with the Gainesville contingents to the March on the Pentagon, to the point that when I got back to campus I discovered I was failing the term and becoming draftable. I knew that there was no point to going into the Army to organise without a solid party behind me on the outside; I knew that SDS and the IWW were not that party, and I was developing disagreements with their anarcho-syndicalist political perspectives anyway. So I made up my mind that I had to leave. I got hold of a copy of the first edition of the Manual for Draft-Age Immigrants to Canada, and took off in December.
By March of 1968 I was a landed immigrant in the Big Smoke, Toronto, the largest city I'd ever lived in. I fell in easily with a group of fellow exiles centred around Tom and Becky Kane, Jesse Dean, Bob and Chita Dewart, Azel Beckner, etc; we organised a self-help/political group called the Union of American Exiles, with the practical aim of centralising the temporary-housing-for-newbies effort the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme was not very good at, and also the political aim of providing a united voice for the exile community in re: US politics etc. We were more successful at the former than the latter, I must say. At one point in the fall of 1968 we were finding crash space for 50 exiles a week, some with families. The volume increased as the opposition to the war increased back home.
We were a volunteer organisation; the Students Administrative Council at U of T provided us with office space in their little building at 44 St. George street, and we had somebody in there working the telephones 18 hours a day. (I met my ex there; she was volunteering on the phones when I walked in after work one day, and the next Spring we were married in the meeting room at 44.)
I got involved peripherally in the petition effort to get landed status for a dangerous subversive ex-leader of the Spartacist League, Bob S., in 1969. I forget the details, but the RCMP was trying to get him deported; the effort finally succeeded, and Bob and I became friends ... he and “Fields” recruited me into their new political group, the Labor Action Committee. The committee's position was explicitly Trotskyist, without any affiliation to the international currents that then existed ... we're talking about 1970. I got an intensive grounding in Trotskyism from Bob, whose own political history stretched from the YPSL through the Spartacists and the Workers' League to this new group. I was working for a publishing company at the time and tried to organise the staff into the OPEIU, unsuccessfully. About that time my first marriage broke up.
In the summer of 1972, we heard of the deepening split within the ICFI between the Socialist Labour League and the Organisation Communiste Internationaliste. I was the only member of the LAC who could get a passport at the time, so I headed off to Paris to attend the preconference the Lambertistes had organised to re-think the structure of the IC. I attended as an observer, to begin with; by the end of the preconference I was pretty much convinced that the comrades were on the right course. The preconference essentially decided that the leadership crisis of the Fourth International in 1950-53 had effectively killed the International as a centralised group; none of the successor groups really adequately represented the historic continuity of the FI, since none of them was really capable of democratic centralism; the International existed at that point solely as a programme, and was in need of reconstruction; it was our task as Trotskyists to attempt to rebuild it, through open and honest discussion with all those willing to admit the errors of the past 20 years.
I voted for the report, and flew home to Toronto ready to argue the points with Bob and the others; they accepted the positions right away, as that was what Bob had been saying for a couple of years.
The comrades of the OCI put us in touch with the Montreal group, the Groupe socialiste des travailleurs; we became their Toronto cell after a short unity discussion. The disparity in membership was thus rather the reverse of that in the LSA/LSO; our Canadian membership was overwhelmingly Quebecois and Francophone, with at our largest point 10 of us in Toronto. Our new comrades' presence in the union movement in Montreal was impressive to us; we had members in the Alliance des professeurs at UQAM, and in the Syndicat d'entretien de la CTCUM (the Montreal Urban Community Transit Commission garage-workers' union), in leadership roles.
In Toronto our union membership was myself in the Service Employees, local 204, as a hospital worker, and Bob in the printers until he started his own shop. Our main field of work proved to be the NDP. We involved ourselves in the Wafffle Movement nationalism debate, during its last stages; we allied with the comrades of the LSA in the Left Caucus which persisted after the Waffle dissolved itself; we helped run a couple of campaigns for City Council, particularly Chris Toutounis's in Riverdale, and we eventually got one of our comrades nominated as the NDP candidate in a Provincial campaign in the Don Mills constituency, where we managed to increase the party's vote on what we considered to be a solid working-class platform.
Over the years we recruited about 15 people into the Toronto cell, but only reached a membership of some 9 or 10 at any one time. We picked up members of the OSSTF, the Steelworkers, and the NDP, and even one or two people who had radiated from the LSA, but were never able to gain much of a periphery outside our own ranks.
By 1979 I had had enough, and decided that I needed a rest from intensive politics. I parted from the GST/SWG on a friendly basis. I maintained my membership in the NDP and even participated in a couple of campaigns in the Beaches area, but after the Rae government's betrayal of the workers' organisations in the late 80s I let my membership lapse, and concentrated on union activism. I was a shop steward for two separate terms of 5 years each, and a member of the local's executive council for 4 years.
Meanwhile, the Organising Committee had had its short-lived union with the Moreno tendency, and the GST/SWG fell apart. The Montreal comrades mostly dissolved into the NPD, or so I have heard. The Toronto cell dissolved. The OCRFI after the early 80s decided that it had in fact rebuilt the FI, which struck me then and still strikes me as premature, to say the least. I gather from what I have been able to read that some of the comrades in Paris agreed with that position, more or less, particularly the late Stephane Just, polemicist extraordinaire, and Claude Bernard and Pierre Broue; one after another they were expelled from the OCI.
The key ideas of the OCRFI current in the decade of the 1970s were probably derived from this trio of thinkers, rather than Lambert himself. About all they have kept is a healthy stalinophobia and a dedication to the political independence of the working class. I still do associate myself with the political positions of what now calls itself the refounded International, in that sense; but I am an ally, not a member. Suffice it to say that I still agree with the positions comrade Just outlined in Defense du trotskysme I and Defense du trotskysme II, back in 1968-69:
“La IV° Internationale se reconstruira, les partis de la IV° Internationale se construiront, pour autant que seront associés, en une lutte commune, les militants et travailleurs qui rompent avec le stalinisme et les organisations traditionnelles, qu'autant que les organisations du C.I. et le C.I. interviendront dans la crise du stalinisme et des organisations traditionnelles pour faire mûrir ces crises et leur donner une issue positive. Mais là non plus il n'y a pas de solution miracle. Il faut répondre aux problèmes de la lutte des classes. La grève générale de mai-juin 68 en France, le processus de révolution politique en Tchécoslovaquie, réaffirment que les prolétariats des pays économiquement développés, et en premier lieu le prolétariat européen, sont au centre de la lutte des classes mondiale; les luttes des prolétariats des pays économiquement arriérés en reçoivent une nouvelle impulsion et ont du même coup de nouvelles et grandioses possibilités. Les tâches de reconstruction de la IV° Internationale sont inséparables des perspectives d'organisation et de combat que le C.I. ouvrira aux travailleurs, à la jeunesse, aux militants qui sont aux prises avec l'impérialisme et la bureaucratie du Kremlin, son appareil international, les bureaucraties réformistes et syndicales.”
For the original, see the Marxist Internet Archive — search on Stephane Just.
Of course, since that time, the IC has imploded, Stalinism has finally consummated its betrayal of the Revolution in its homeland, and a new generation of workers have grown up. But the fundamental tasks of the Revolution remain to be accomplished, and the stark contrast of possible outcomes remains. We are still faced, more than ever, with Rosa Luxemburg's alternatives: socialisme ou barbarie.
So I find myself in an anti-war movement, again, as I did at the start of my political life; and comrade Barry W. has brought me back into the NDP. I'm now acting as the Socialists Caucus webmaster. We build from what we find, eh, comrades?
Yours in the
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