Marxist Unionists and Student Radicals of the 1950s
By John Riddell
One day during the Ontario provincial election campaign of 1959, I took the streetcar after high school to Toronto’s Cabbagetown to canvass my poll for the CCF (Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, predecessor of the NDP).
Cabbagetown was then a poor working-class district, where the CCF faced an uphill struggle; it was running Tom MacAuley, head of the Steelworkers local in United Steel Wares, the major factory in that part of town.
During my canvass, I ran into Joe Rosenblatt, whom I had met several times before at antinuclear events, where he was selling the Trotskyist newspaper, the Workers Vanguard. He offered to help me canvass, so we’d have time to talk over coffee afterwards.
Joe and I were worlds apart: he, a self-educated worker in his twentie—employed at USW along with a number of other Vanguard supporters—and I an over-confident High-Schooler with no experience in the workers’ movement or a working-class milieu. I wanted to learn more about Joe’s world, and I found out that he already knew a great deal about mine.
Joe supported the anti-nuclear movement, in which I was active, and like me he strongly backed its radical wing, which favored unilateral disarmament by the NATO powers. But he had no patience with my philosophical pacifism, and startled me by arguing that the only way to “ban the bomb” was to disarm our capitalist rulers.
Joe was also active, like me, in the efforts to merge the CCF into a new party—which was in 1961 to give birth to the NDP. He described how he and his comrades were working to make the New Party a real labor party, not a coalition of liberal-minded individuals, and to endow it with a socialist program. He urged me to join with the Vanguard comrades in building a left wing of the New Party movement.
Trotskyists in the Unions
I soon found that Joe’s group, the Socialist Educational League (SEL), was made up of about 15 comrades—mostly factory workers, active in their unions and in the New Party movement. (In those days, public-sector unionism was almost non-existent.)
The SEL had been formed after the Trotskyists’ expulsion in the early 1950s from the CCF. After those expulsions, the socialist left in the CCF was very weak. But SEL members were active in the unions’ Political Action Committees, which had been set up to support the CCF. A couple of the SELers were delegates to the Toronto Labor Council. Many of them had been recruited from the factory milieu; others had gone to work there because that was the natural arena for revolutionaries. They sold me James P. Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party, which explained all that very well. Among the comrades from that time still active are George Bryant, Ernie Tate, and Alan Harris (now in Britain).
The SEL also put out a monthly newspaper, maintained a bookstore, ran the yearly campaigns of its leader Ross Dowson for the Toronto mayoralty (vigorous efforts, with door-to-door distribution of up to 40,000 leaflets), sent yearly “Trailblazing Tours” doing door-to-door work and visiting socialists in workers’ neighborhoods across Canada, maintained a full-time bookstore, and held a weekly public forum.
The SEL was then the only activist group to the left of the Stalinist CP. A few years earlier, in the mid-1950s, the SEL had been quite isolated politically. Its members worked energetically to link up with other forces. Demonized by the Stalinists, feared and excluded by the CCF brass, and hounded by McCarthy-era anti-Communism, they sought allies where they could, and even worked with the Quakers for a time. “At one point, they were the only people who would talk to us,” one veteran recently told me.
That had changed after the Khrushchev denunciation of Stalin and the Hungarian revolution of 1956. The Canadian Stalinist movement had fractured, and the SEL had been able to open up discussions with the dissident CPers. The SEL organized a broad public meeting together with leading ex-CPers, and then printed up the transcript in a widely circulated 5-cent pamphlet. Ross Dowson became secretary of the Toronto Committee to Free Morton Sobell (a victim of the U.S. McCarthyite witchhunt)—the first time Trotskyists had been accepted into a committee that also included the CP. The SEL held a well-attended and prestigious forum on Revolution and Literature, addressed by ex-CPer Annette Rubenstein.
The most promising element in the ex-CP milieu was the Québécois group led by Henri Gagnon. The relationship was helped along by the SEL’s sensitivity to the Quebec national question, dating from the anti-conscription fight 15 years earlier. In 1958, two leading comrades of the SEL moved to Montreal to work with the Gagnon forces.
In the United States, the SEL’s cothinkers of the Socialist Workers Party took part in a similar regroupment effort that culminated in 1958 in a united-front electoral ticket in New York State. The joint ticket included SWPers alongside prominent ex-members of the CP. In Vancouver, the Canadian Trotskyists recruited CP founder Malcolm Bruce and other prominent party members. Efforts in Montreal were unsuccessful, however, and in Toronto most of the ex-CP forces headed out of politics. But by the time I met Joe Rosenblatt, new openings emerged: the New Party movement and the challenge of defending the Cuban Revolution.
The New Party and the Cuban Revolution
The year 1959 was not a time of militant struggles by the working class in the Toronto area. But these two issues—labor’s effort to build a new political party, and the inspiration of the Cuban revolution—gripped the imagination of many working people. SEL members campaigned in their workplaces with some success to build the new party and defend Cuba. Indeed, they scored a minor breakthrough among Toronto’s Teamsters, recruiting about a dozen of them in 1961-62.
The SEL was active on many other issues. It conducted active education for women’s rights, supported the Black freedom struggle in the U.S., and struggles for colonial liberation in Algeria and Vietnam. It also collaborated with Milton Acorn, Al Purdy, and other socialist poets—a story worth telling separately. (Joe Rosenblatt, I soon learned, was himself a poet, and was soon to make his reputation in this arena.)
Winning Over Radical Students
But it was among youth that the SEL, known from 1961 as the League for Socialist Action (LSA), made its breakthrough. This was surprising, given that most student radicals (and they were still only a small handful) were then quite hostile to Marxism. SEL/LSA members spent a lot of time seeking contacts among student radicals, at first with little success. The student peace movement was decidedly pacifist, counting on persuasion and moral witness to bring about negotiated disarmament. It refused to defend Cuba against U.S. attacks. Socialist groups were absent from the campuses, and the student NDP was conventional in politics. The LSA’s call to make the New Party a genuine labor party was strange and alien to most student radicals.
But in talking to radical students about the working class, the LSA had a very convincing argument. LSA comrades were themselves of the working class, and spoke of its struggles with authority. The LSA’s wealth of practical experience in the labor movement was immensely attractive. The LSA was a foretaste of the revolutionary working-class movement many of the young radicals aspired to build. The LSA’s orientation to build its forces in industrial unions turned out to be an ideal base from which to link up with revolutionary-minded students and to win significant members of that new generation to revolutionary socialism.
—Socialist Voice, (Canada), November 23, 2004