Friday, June 20, 2014

‘A New World Order for Living Well’

Evo Morales’ message of global solidarity

Address at the opening of the Group of 77 Special Summit



The Summit of the Group of 77 plus China, marking the alliance’s 50th anniversary, closed in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, on June 15 with the adoption of a Declaration containing 242 articles, entitled “For a New World Order for Living Well.”

The Summit set a record for high-level participation, with the presence of 13 presidents, 4 prime ministers, 5 vice-presidents and 8 foreign ministers among the delegates of the 104 countries in attendance out of the 133 of the global South that now make up the Group of 77 plus China (also known as G77+China). The Plurinational State of Bolivia is chairing the alliance this year, and its president Evo Morales hosted the Summit.

The choice of Santa Cruz as the venue had particular significance in Bolivia. In 2008, this eastern lowland city, with a population of predominantly European origin, was in violent rebellion against the Morales government and Bolivia’s new constitution, which for the first time in the country’s history had recognized the 34 distinct languages and the national rights of Bolivia’s indigenous peoples who make up a majority of the population. Sharing the platform with Morales at the Summit’s opening ceremony this month were leaders of that separatist uprising — a striking manifestation of the degree to which the Bolivian government, led by Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism, has since then established its hegemony throughout the country.

There are two different but complementary dimensions to the adopted Declaration, writes Katu Arkonada, a Bolivian of Basque origin, in Rebelión. The first, focused on reform of institutions, sets out sustainable development objectives to replace the United Nations’ Millenium Goals. It points to the need for an approach integrating economic, social and environmental strategies that promote sovereign control of natural resources in harmony with nature and “Mother Earth.” The document’s proposals for confronting the challenge of climate change are particularly notable — not least because they would, if implemented, mark a significant departure from current international practices, including by many G77 member states.

The second dimension of the Declaration is addressed to the construction of “that other possible world, a world of sovereignty for the global South, free of all forms of colonialism and imperialism.” It calls for a radical reconfiguration of international political and financial institutions to correspond to the geopolitical realities of an emerging multipolar world “based on the principles of respect for sovereignty, independence, equality, unconditionality, non-interference in the internal affairs of states and mutual benefit.”

The Group of 77 plus China is a very heterogeneous group of countries and governments. While many were once colonized and all are to varying degrees subject to domination by imperialism as a system still hegemonized by the United States, they have mixed records (to say the least) when it comes to confronting imperialism. The group even includes now some emerging imperialist states such as China (and soon Russia if it accepts the Summit invitation to join). A few, such as Brazil, have been characterized by some analysts as “sub-imperialist,” although that concept is the subject of varied interpretations.[1] Bolivia itself has not hesitated to participate with other G77 members in the military occupation of Haiti following the 2004 overthrow of the progressive government of Jean-Bertrand Aristide by France, the USA and Canada.[2]

However, the radical anti-imperialist and ecological content of the Declaration, as well as many speeches at the Santa Cruz Summit, reflected the input of Evo Morales and his government, who have played a leadership role in drawing international attention to the mortal danger to the global environment posed by capitalism and the imperialist plunder of renewable and non-renewable natural resources. Morales set the tone in his remarkable opening speech to the Summit, published below — a clarion call to the peoples and governments of the world for a coordinated anti-capitalist response to the combined threats of economic, social and environmental catastrophe now looming as never before.

The Summit was preceded by a mass meeting of Bolivian social movements with the presidents of some Latin American countries, among them Raúl Castro (Cuba), Nicolás Maduro (Venezuela), Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (the new president of El Salvador), as well as personalities such as Guatemalan indigenous leader Rigoberta Menchu and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Evo Morales told the huge crowd that if the imperialist aggression against the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela were to continue, Venezuela and Latin America could become a “second Vietnam for the United States.”

I have edited slightly the official and hastily issued English translation of Morales’ Summit address to correspond more closely to the original Spanish transcription. The Spanish phrase Vivir Bien (Living Well), which recurs throughout Morales’ address, refers to the Andean concept of living in harmony with the community and nature, ensuring the sufficient means to live well without always seeking more and thereby depleting the resources of the planet.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

For a Global Brotherhood Among the Peoples

Evo Morales Ayma

President of the Plurinational State of Bolivia and pro-tempore President of the Group of 77 plus China


Fifty years ago, great leaders raised the flags of the anticolonial struggle and decided to join with their peoples in a march along the path of sovereignty and independence.

The world superpowers and transnationals were competing for control of territories and natural resources in order to continue expanding at the cost of impoverishing the peoples of the South.

In that context, on June 15, 1964, at the conclusion of an UNCTAD[3] meeting, 77 countries from the South (we are now 133 plus China) met to enhance their trade bargaining capacities, by acting in a bloc to advance their collective interests while respecting their individual sovereign decisions.

During the past 50 years, these countries went beyond their statements and promoted resolutions at the United Nations and joint action in favor of development underpinned by South-South cooperation, a new world economic order, a responsible approach to climate change, and economic relations based on preferential treatment.

In this journey the struggle for decolonization as well as for the peoples’ self-determination and sovereignty over their natural resources must be highlighted.

Notwithstanding these efforts and struggles for equality and justice for the world’s peoples, the hierarchies and inequalities in the world have increased.

Today, 10 countries in the world control 40% of the world’s total wealth and 15 transnational corporations control 50% of global output.

Today, as 100 years ago, acting in the name of the free market and democracy, a handful of imperial powers invades countries, blocks trade, imposes prices on the rest of the world, chokes national economies, plots against progressive governments and resorts to espionage against the inhabitants of this planet.

A tiny elite of countries and transnational corporations controls, in an authoritarian fashion, the destinies of the world, its economies and its natural resources.

The economic and social inequality between regions, between countries, between social classes and between individuals has grown outrageously.

About 0.1% of the world’s population owns 20% of humanity’s assets. In 1920, a business manager in the United States made 20 times the wage of a worker, but today he is paid 331 times that wage.

This unfair concentration of wealth and predatory destruction of nature are also generating a structural crisis that is becoming unsustainable over time.

It is indeed a structural crisis. It impacts every component of capitalist development. In other words, it is a mutually reinforcing crisis affecting international finance, energy, climate, water, food, institutions and values. It is a crisis inherent to capitalist civilization.

The financial crisis was prompted by the greedy pursuit of profits from financial capital that led to profound international financial speculation, a practice that favored certain groups, transnational corporations or power centers that amassed great wealth.

The financial bubbles that generate speculative gains eventually burst, and in the process they plunged into poverty the workers who had received cheap credit, the middle-class savings-account holders who had trusted their deposits to greedy speculators. The latter overnight went bankrupt or took their capital to other countries, thus leading entire nations into bankruptcy.

We are also faced with an energy crisis that is driven by excessive consumption in developed countries, pollution from energy sources and the energy hoarding practices of the transnational corporations.

Parallel with this, we witness a global reduction in reserves and high costs of oil and gas development, while productive capacity drops due to the gradual depletion of fossil fuels and global climate change.

The climate crisis is caused by the anarchy of capitalist production, with consumption levels and unharnessed industrialization that have resulted in excessive emissions of polluting gases that in turn have led to global warming and natural disasters affecting the entire world.

For more than 15,000 years prior to the era of capitalist industrialization, greenhouse gases did not amount to more than 250 parts per million molecules in the atmosphere.

Since the 19th century, and in particular in the 20th and 21st centuries, thanks to the actions of predatory capitalism, this count has risen to 400 ppm, and global warming has become an irreversible process along with weather disasters the primary impacts of which are felt in the poorest and most vulnerable countries of the South, and in particular the island nations, as a result of the thawing of the glaciers.

In turn, global warming is generating a water supply crisis that is compounded by privatization, depletion of sources and commercialization of fresh water. As a consequence, the number of people without access to potable water is growing apace.

The water shortage in many parts of the planet is leading to armed conflicts and wars that further aggravate the lack of availability of this non-renewable resource.

The world population is growing while food production is dropping, and these trends are leading to a food crisis.

Add to these issues the reduction of food-producing lands, the imbalances between urban and rural areas, the monopoly exercised by transnational corporations over the marketing of seeds and agricultural inputs, and the speculation in food prices.

The imperial model of concentration and speculation has also caused an institutional crisis that is characterized by an unequal and unjust distribution of power in the world in particular within the UN system, the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization.

As a result of all these developments, peoples’ social rights are endangered. The promise of equality and justice for the whole world becomes more and more remote and nature itself is threatened with extinction.

We have reached a limit, and global action is urgently needed to save society, humanity and Mother Earth.

Bolivia has started to take steps to address these issues. Up to 2005, Bolivia applied a neoliberal policy that resulted in concentration of wealth, social inequality and poverty, increasing marginalization, discrimination and social exclusion.

In Bolivia, the historic struggles waged by social movements, in particular the indigenous peasant movement, have allowed us to initiate a Democratic and Cultural Revolution, through the ballot box and without the use of violence. This revolution is rooting out exclusion, exploitation, hunger and hatred, and it is rebuilding the path of balance, complementarity, and consensus with its own identity, Vivir Bien.

Beginning in 2006, the Bolivian government introduced a new economic and social policy, enshrined in a new community-based socioeconomic and productive model, the pillars of which are nationalization of natural resources, recovery of the economic surplus for the benefit of all Bolivians, redistribution of the wealth, and active participation of the State in the economy.

In 2006, the Bolivian government and people made their most significant political, economic and social decision: nationalization of the country’s hydrocarbons, the central axis of our revolution. The state thereby participates in and controls the ownership of our hydrocarbons and processes our natural gas.

Contrary to the neoliberal prescription that economic growth ought to be based on external market demand (“export or die”), our new model has relied on a combination of exports with a domestic market growth that is primarily driven by income-redistribution policies, successive increases in the national minimum wage, annual salary increases in excess of the inflation rate, cross subsidies and conditional cash transfers to the neediest.

As a consequence, the Bolivian GDP has increased from $9.0 billion to over $30.0 billion over the past eight years.

Our nationalized hydrocarbons, economic growth and cost austerity policy have helped the country generate budget surpluses for eight years in a row, in sharp contrast with the recurrent budget deficits experienced by Bolivia for more than 66 years.

When we took over the country’s administration, the ratio between the wealthiest and poorest Bolivians was 128 fold. This ratio has been cut down to 46 fold. Bolivia now is one of the top six countries in our region with the best income distribution.

It has been shown that the peoples have options and that we can overcome the fate imposed by colonialism and neoliberalism.

These achievements produced in such a short span are attributable to the social and political awareness of the Bolivian people.

We have recovered our nation for all of us. Ours was a nation that had been alienated by the neoliberal model, a nation that lived under the old and evil system of political parties, a nation that was ruled from abroad, as if we were a colony.

We are no longer an unviable country as we were described by the international financial institutions. We are no longer an ungovernable country as the US empire would have us believe.

Today, the Bolivian people have recovered their dignity and pride, and we believe in our strength, our destiny and ourselves.

I want to tell the entire world in the most humble terms that the only wise architects who can change their future are the peoples themselves.

Therefore, we intend to build another world, and several tasks have been designed to establish the society of Vivir Bien.

First: We must move from sustainable development to comprehensive development [desarrollo integral] so that we can live well and in harmony and balance with Mother Earth.

We need to construct a vision that is different from the western capitalist development model. We must move from the sustainable development paradigm to the Bien Vivir comprehensive development approach that seeks not only a balance among human beings, but also a balance and harmony with our Mother Earth.

No development model can be sustainable if production destroys Mother Earth as a source of life and our own existence. No economy can be long lasting if it generates inequalities and exclusions.

No progress is just and desirable if the well-being of some is at the expense of the exploitation and impoverishment of others.

Vivir Bien Comprehensive Development means providing well-being for everyone, without exclusions. It means respect for the diversity of economies of our societies. It means respect for local knowledges. It means respect for Mother Earth and its biodiversity as a source of nurture for future generations.

Vivir Bien Comprehensive Development also means production to satisfy actual needs, and not to expand profits infinitely.

It means distributing wealth and healing the wounds caused by inequality, rather than widening injustice.

It means combining modern science with the age-old technological wisdom held by the indigenous, native and peasant peoples who interact respectfully with nature.

It means listening to the people, rather than the financial markets.

It means placing Nature at the core of life and regarding the human being as just another creature of Nature.

The Vivir Bien Comprehensive Development model of respect for Mother Earth is not an ecologist economy for poor countries alone, while the rich nations expand inequality and destroy Nature.

Comprehensive development is only viable if applied worldwide, if the states, in conjunction with their respective peoples, exercise control over all of their energy resources.

We need technologies, investments, production and credits, as well as companies and markets, but we shall not subordinate them to the dictatorship of profits and luxury. Instead, we must place them at the service of the peoples to satisfy their needs and to expand our common goods and services.

Second: Sovereignty exercised over natural resources and strategic areas.

Countries that have raw materials should and can take sovereign control over production and processing of those materials.

Nationalization of strategic companies and areas can help the state take over the management of production, exercise sovereign control over its wealth, embark on a planning process that leads to the processing of raw materials, and distribute the profit among its people.

Exercising sovereignty over natural resources and strategic areas does not mean isolation from global markets; rather, it means connecting to those markets for the benefit of our countries, and not for the benefit of a few private owners. Sovereignty over natural resources and strategic areas does not mean preventing foreign capital and technologies from participating. It means subordinating these investments and technologies to the needs of each country.

Third: Well-being for everyone and the provision of basic services as a human right

The worst tyranny faced by humankind is allowing basic services to be under the control of transnational corporations. This practice subjugates humanity to the specific interests and commercial aims of a minority who become rich and powerful at the expense of the life and security of other persons.

This is why we claim that basic services are inherent to the human condition. How can a human being live without potable water, electrical energy or communications? If human rights are to make us all equal, this equality can only be realized through universal access to basic services. Our need for water, like our need for light and communications, makes us all equal.

The resolution of social inequities requires that both international law and the national legislation of each country define basic services (such as water, power supply, communications and basic health care) as a fundamental human right of every individual.

This means that states have a legal obligation to secure the universal provision of basic services, irrespective of costs or profits.

Fourth: Emancipation from the existing international financial system and construction of a new financial architecture

We propose that we free ourselves from the international financial yoke by building a new financial system that prioritizes the requirements of the productive operations in the countries of the South, within the context of comprehensive development.

We must incorporate and enhance banks of the South that support industrial development projects, reinforce regional and domestic markets, and promote trade among our countries, but on the basis of complementarity and solidarity.

We also need to promote sovereign regulation over the global financial transactions that threaten the stability of our national economies.

We must design an international mechanism for restructuring our debts, which serve to reinforce the dependence of the peoples of the South and strangle their development possibilities.

We must replace international financial institutions such as the IMF with other entities that provide for a better and broader participation of the countries of the South in their decision-making structures that are currently in the grip of imperial powers.

We also need to define limits to gains from speculation and to excessive accumulation of wealth.

Fifth: Build a major economic, scientific, technological and cultural partnership among the members of the Group of 77 plus China

After centuries under colonial rule, transfers of wealth to imperial metropolises and impoverishment of our economies, the countries of the South have begun to regain decisive importance in the performance of the world economy.

Asia, Africa and Latin America are not only home to 77% of the world’s population, but they also account for nearly 43% of the world economy. And this importance is on the rise. The peoples of the South are the future of the world.

Immediate actions must be taken to reinforce and plan this inescapable global trend.

We need to expand trade among the countries of the South. We also need to gear our productive operations to the requirements of other economies in the South on the basis of complementarity of needs and capacities.

We need to implement technology transfer programs among the countries of the South. Not every country acting on its own can achieve the technological sovereignty and leadership that are critical for a new global economy based on justice.

Science must be an asset of humanity as a whole. Science must be placed at the service of everyone’s well-being, without exclusions or hegemonies. A decent future for all the peoples around the world will require integration for liberation, rather than cooperation for domination.

To discharge these worthy tasks to the benefit of the peoples of the world, we have invited Russia and other foreign countries that are our brothers in needs and commitments to join the Group of 77.

Our Group of 77 alliance does not have an institution of its own to give effect to the approaches, statements and action plans of our countries. For this reason, Bolivia proposes that an Institute For Decolonization and South-South Co-operation be established.

This institute will be charged with provision of technical assistance to the countries of the South, as well as further implementation of the proposals made by the Group of 77 plus China.

The institute will also supply technical and capacity-building assistance for development and self-determination, and it will help conduct research projects. We propose that this institute be headquartered in Bolivia.

Sixth: Eradicate hunger among the world’s peoples

It is imperative that hunger be eradicated and that the human right to food be fully exercised and enforced.

Food production must be prioritized with the involvement of small growers and indigenous peasant communities that hold age-old knowledge in regard to this activity.

To be successful in hunger eradication, the countries of the South must lay down the conditions for democratic and equitable access to land ownership, so that monopolies over this resource are not allowed to persist in the form of latifundia. However, fragmentation into small and unproductive plots must not be encouraged either.

Food sovereignty and security must be enhanced through access to healthy foods for the benefit of the people.

The monopoly held by transnational corporations over the supply of farm inputs must be eliminated as a way to foster food security and sovereignty.

Each country must make sure that the supply of the basic food staples consumed by its people is secured by enhancing productive, cultural and environmental practices, and by promoting people-to-people exchanges on the basis of solidarity. Governments have an obligation to ensure the supply of power, the availability of road connections and access to water and organic fertilizers.

Seventh: Strengthen the sovereignty of states free from foreign interference, intervention and/or espionage

Within the framework of the United Nations, a new institutional structure must be promoted in support of a New World Order for Vivir Bien.

The institutions that emerged after World War II, including the United Nations, are in need of a thorough reform today.

International agencies that promote peace, eliminate global hegemonism and advance equality among states are required.

For this reason, the UN Security Council must be abolished. Rather than fostering peace among nations, this body has promoted wars and invasions by imperial powers in their quest for the natural resources available in the invaded countries. Instead of a Security Council, today we have an insecurity council of imperial wars.

No country, no institution and no interest can justify the invasion of one country by another. The sovereignty of states and the internal resolution of the conflicts that exist in any country are the foundation of peace and of the United Nations.

I stand here to denounce the unjust economic blockade imposed on Cuba and the aggressive and illegal policies pursued by the US government against Venezuela, including a legislative initiative offered at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee designed to apply sanctions to that country to the detriment of its sovereignty and political independence, a clear breach of the principles and purposes of the UN Charter.

These forms of persecution and internationally driven coups are the traits of modern colonialism, the colonial practices of our era.

These are our times, the times of the South. We must be able to overcome and heal the wounds caused by fratricidal wars stirred by foreign capitalist interests. We must strengthen our integration schemes in support of our peaceful coexistence, our development and our faith in shared values, such as justice.

Only by standing together will we be able to give decent lives to our peoples.

Eighth: Democratic renewal of our states

The era of empires, colonial hierarchies and financial oligarchies is coming to an end. Everywhere we look, we see peoples around the world calling for their right to play their leading role in history.

The 21st century must be the century of the peoples, the workers, the farmers, the indigenous communities, the youth and the women. In other words, it must be the century of the oppressed.

The realization of the peoples’ leading role requires that democracy be renewed and strengthened. We must supplement electoral democracy with participatory and community-based democracy.

We must move away from limited parliamentary and party-based governance and into the social governance of democracy.

This means that the decision-making process in any state must take into consideration its parliamentary deliberations, but also the deliberations by the social movements that incorporate the life-giving energy of our peoples.

The renovation of democracy in this century also requires that political action represents a full and permanent service to life. This service constitutes an ethical, humane and moral commitment to our peoples, to the humblest masses.

For this purpose, we must reinstate the codes of our ancestors: no robar, no mentir, no ser flujo y no ser adulón [do not steal, do not lie, do not be weak and do not flatter].

Democracy also means distribution of wealth and expansion of the common goods shared by society.

Democracy means subordination of rulers to the decisions of the ruled.

Democracy is not a personal benefit vested in the rulers, nor is it abuse of power. Democracy means serving the people with love and self-sacrifice. Democracy means dedication of time, knowledge, effort and even life itself in the pursuit of the well-being of the peoples and humanity.

Ninth: A new world rising from the south for the whole of humanity

The time has come for the nations of the South.

In the past, we were colonized and enslaved. Our stolen labour built empires in the North.

Today, with every step we take for our liberation, the empires grow decadent and begin to crumble.

However, our liberation is not only the emancipation of the peoples of the South. Our liberation is also for the whole of humanity. We are not fighting to dominate anyone. We are fighting to ensure that no one becomes dominated.

Only we can save the source of life and society: Mother Earth. Our planet is under a death threat from the greed of predatory and insane capitalism.

Today, another world is not only possible, it is indispensable.

Today, another world is indispensable because, otherwise, no world will be possible.

And that other world of equality, complementarity and organic coexistence with Mother Earth can only emerge from the thousands of languages, colours and cultures existing in brotherhood and sisterhood among the Peoples of the South.

Santa Cruz, 14 June 2014

[1] For a recent discussion of this concept, see Raúl Zibechi, Brasil Potencia, now available in English.

[2] A common error of G77 members is to equate anti-imperialist solidarity with political support of member governments. A glaring example was provided by Bolivia’s parliament immediately after the Summit, when it awarded a human rights medal to the President of Sri Lanka, whose government is notorious for waging a genocidal war against the country’s minority Tamil nation — strange conduct indeed by Bolivia’s “Plurinational Legislative Assembly.”

[3] United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Learning from our history: Ernie Tate’s memoir of his early years


Photo by David Carrington

Ernie Tate and Jess MacKenzie

[The two volumes reviewed below were launched at a meeting attended by about 70 persons in Toronto on June 11, sponsored by the Centre for Social Justice and Socialist Project. The meeting, introduced by Greg Albo, was chaired by Carolyn Egan of the United Steelworkers and the Toronto & York Region Labour Council.

[Among the speakers were Bryan Palmer, the prominent labour historian; Chris Schenk, recently retired Research Director of the Ontario Federation of Labour; myself; and the author, Ernie Tate. The following is an expanded version of my presentation.]

Richard Fidler

* * *

Revolutionary Activism in the 1950s and 60s: Ernest Tate, a Memoir

Volume 1, Canada 1955-65. London: Resistance Books, 2014, 268 pp., C$15.00.

Volume 2, Britain 1965-70. London: Resistance Books, 2014, 395 pp., C$21.00.

I will start with an anecdote that is not included in Ernest Tate’s two-volume account. I mention it because it was one of the first occasions when I encountered “Ernie,” as all of us came to know him.

In July 1960 a young man was caught by the police in the middle of the night painting “Ban the Bomb” in big letters on three sides of a demonstration fallout shelter erected at the corner of College Street and University Avenue in Toronto. It was the height of the Cold War. The Diefenbaker government was under pressure from the Pentagon and the opposition Liberals (headed by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lester Pearson) to arm the Bomarc missiles it had installed north of Toronto and Montréal, under the Norad agreement, with nuclear warheads. Meanwhile, the government had erected this fallout shelter as part of a general effort to foster the illusion that somehow we could survive a nuclear holocaust.

The newspapers reported that the slogan-painter was Ernest Tate, a 26-year old stationary engineer. When he told the magistrate he would do the same thing again if given the opportunity, Tate was ordered to pay $35 for the cost of painting over the slogans and fined $15 or two days in jail for malicious damage.

At the time, as a high-school student in Toronto, I was active in the ban-the-bomb movement. Reading the news reports, I recognized a kindred soul. Soon afterward, I was fortunate to meet Ernie and we have been close friends and comrades ever since.

I was reminded of this incident when I approached the end of Ernie’s second volume. In a gripping chapter he describes the critical debate at the 9th world congress of the Fourth International, which he attended as a delegate, over the adopted proposal, supported by Ernest Mandel among many others, that all the FI sections in Latin America implement a continental tactic of rural-based guerrilla warfare in supposed emulation of the Cuban revolutionaries and Che Guevara’s ill-fated Bolivian experience. Ernie was in the minority that opposed this, arguing that revolutionaries in Latin America should determine their own tactics in light of the distinct and varied conditions of the class struggle in their respective countries.

But Ernie follows this account with a chapter on the disastrous attempt by the FI’s Argentine section, the PRT-Combatiente led by Roberto Santucho, to implement the g-war strategy, albeit in a predominantly urban context in that country. While critical, Ernie evinces an air of admiration for Santucho and his comrades and their bold adventurism — the kind of thing that would become known by our European comrades like the late Daniel Bensaïd as “initiatives in action,” bold attacks on institutions and individuals associated with the regime in the hope of stimulating mass consciousness and revolt. Was Santucho a “kindred soul” to the Ernie Tate of that audacious anti-bomb action of 1960?

‘A trove of movement history’

Stories like these — and there are many in these two volumes — bear out a point made by John Riddell in his review of Ernie’s account of his first 15 years in the Trotskyist “movement” (as we called it).[1] And that was the very positive impact that Ernie had on young radicals like us in a period when it was winning its first student members. As John puts it, “An experienced union activist, Tate also had an instinctive feel for and capacity to learn from the nascent social movements in which the student comrades worked…. What is more, Tate could speak in the idiom of radical youth….”

These books will have wide appeal to today’s radicalizing youth, bringing to them (as Derrick O’Keefe writes in his preface) a “trove of movement history” viewed through the lens of “a life lived in the struggle for a better world,” and now leavened by “an accumulation of experience and wisdom — more compassion, less dogma and better political judgment.”

These volumes highlight Ernie’s first decades as a political activist, from poverty-ridden Belfast to immigration to Canada, his initial encounter with a small group of socialists and his subsequent experiences in working with his comrades to build a revolutionary Marxist current rooted in the actuality of the workers movement of the day — in particular the trade unions and the CCF/NDP — but alert to new possibilities opened up by the crisis of Stalinism, the Cuban revolution and the youth radicalization of the Sixties. The second volume documents how he applied the lessons of these experiences in building a revolutionary Marxist group in Britain.

Here I want to draw particular attention to three aspects of Ernie’s experiences that I think are relevant to today’s young anticapitalists.

A coherent world view

The first is what he says about discovering Marxism and the Marxist movement. When he joined it in the mid-1950s, the Socialist Education League (SEL) was a very small organization, although it was part of a somewhat larger international current, the Fourth International. This put him in contact with a coherent body of ideas and the experience of an international tradition of struggle, independent and critical of Stalinism and Social-Democracy, and that carried forward the best traditions of revolutionary Marxism.

“… for me as a young person,” Ernie writes, “joining a socialist organization, no matter how small, was like at last awakening from a long sleep. Vague ideas and feelings I had about society that I had come to by myself now began to be integrated into a systematic historical and political outlook, a new understanding about the world and how society is organized and a conviction about the grim future of humanity if fundamental change did not take place. Above all, it gave a coherent expression to what had been a sense of injustice that I had until then been unable to articulate…. To this day I have always separated those two phases of my adult life: the period before and after joining the group….” (pp. 30-31)

A second feature of Ernie’s memoir is the emphasis he gives to international solidarity as a crucial ingredient of socialist politics.

Fully one fifth of the first volume is devoted to describing our efforts in building a united-front defense of the Cuban Revolution, including a long-overdue tribute to the work of Vern Olson in the leadership of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee.

Cuba solidarity

Our Cuba solidarity work involved far more than campaigning against the imperialist blockade around slogans like “Hands Off Cuba!,” important as that was. A major objective was to “get out the truth about Cuba” as a massive social upheaval led by new revolutionary forces influenced far more by anti-imperialism than by Stalinism. We translated and published dozens of speeches by its leaders, and accounts by Canadians who visited Cuba of how the revolution was unfolding. (The two pamphlets of this nature mentioned by Ernie are available on-line on the Socialist History Project web site.[2])

An offshoot of this work (not mentioned by Ernie) was our participation in the successful international campaign to save the life of Hugo Blanco, a young Trotskyist in Peru sentenced to death by a military court for his leadership of a peasant movement. Hugo, who will be 80 years old this year, is still an influential political activist known throughout Latin America, as I confirmed in recent months while residing in Bolivia.

Later, in Britain, as Ernie describes in his second volume, solidarity with Vietnam and opposition to the Labour government’s complicity in the US war occupied a major share of the activities of the revolutionary Marxists with whom Ernie was working to build a section of the Fourth International. From modest beginnings, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign grew exponentially, mounting demonstrations of tens and even hundreds of thousands.

Russell War Crimes Tribunal

Of particular interest is Ernie’s account of his work with the Bertrand Russell Foundation and with Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Trotsky, in setting up the Russell War Crimes Tribunal to expose the imperialist atrocities in Vietnam. Much of this fascinating history was new to me.[3]

Vietnam solidarity was, unfortunately, far down the list of priorities for most of the British left, including the far left, Ernie reports. Some argued that nothing meaningful could be done on the issue until the working class and the labour movement became involved — an insularity that our current would in the past label “imperialist economism.”

“I put it to them,” says Ernie, “that defending a third world country’s right to self-determination was the highest expression the class struggle in an imperialist country such as Britain could take.”

Solidarity with Cuba and Vietnam, in different ways, frontally challenged the Cold War mentality of a geopolitical bipolar opposition between imperialist “freedom” and soviet “totalitarianism.” And in fact Cuba and Vietnam benefited to varying degrees from the existence of a bloc of countries, led by the USSR, able to provide an alternative source of material support — crucial in the case of Cuba, more problematic in Vietnam owing in part to the negative ramifications of the Sino-Soviet dispute and the bureaucratic rivalries it engendered.

In today’s world, increasingly multipolar but still hegemonized by a single imperialist power, the USA, international solidarity is more complex and no single anti-imperialist (let alone socialist) struggle dominates the international political landscape. In countries like Iraq or Afghanistan the forces under attack from imperialism do not elicit our political support as the Cubans in particular did. If anything, however, this problematic points to the importance of infusing our solidarity with a clear understanding of the dynamics of imperialism in its current stage and the many ways in which it opposes even the more limited challenges to its domination by governments and social movements in Latin America and elsewhere.

Labour and the NDP

A third prominent feature of Ernie’s account, which runs like a leitmotiv through his first volume, concerns our work in the mass organizations created by working people in the course of their struggles. For the SEL, activity in the trade unions was of central importance, he explains, and “we believed that any organization that aspired to change society should have the bulk of its membership in them… even if we had little influence in the unions.”

As it happened, the Trotskyists in Toronto, later organized in the 1960s as the League for Socialist Action and by then beginning to recruit radicalized students, did get to play an influential role in a major labour struggle that developed unexpectedly in a corrupt union then under trusteeship, the Teamsters. Ernie devotes a fascinating chapter to describing the LSA’s participation in this prolonged experience of wildcat strikes and battles for internal union democracy. He estimates that up to 40 Teamsters joined the League at some point or another, although in the absence of a general rise of class struggle it proved hard to retain most of them.

Another aspect of the League’s “proletarian orientation,” often misrepresented by our critics in the left and the labour movement, had to do with our “orientation” to the social-democratic Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) and its successor the New Democratic Party (NDP). With some notable exceptions, this was largely propagandistic; the party leaders were quick to expel any members they identified as Trotskyists. But it provided an anchor for our politics. Our general approach was to look for ways in which to popularize our ideas by presenting them as specific proposals for adoption and action by the unions and their party in English Canada. This allowed us to address the political issues of the day in relation to the mass organizations and party of the working class[4] — a valuable antidote to the sectarian impulse inherent to any small propaganda group.

Like our work in the unions, we gained few recruits to our tendency from this approach, although here again there were exceptions: some of the early student recruits came from the New Democratic Youth in its formative years, with a later influx from our participation in the NDP’s left-wing “Waffle” caucus. At the same time, the NDP orientation in no way inhibited us from engagement in our own independent election campaigns municipally or in by-elections not contested by the NDP, as well as in unions like the Teamsters not affiliated to the party, or in a host of other activities.

Although Ernie frequently refers to the NDP orientation as an “entry tactic,” it differed from the “entrism sui generis” first advocated by the Fourth International in the early 1950s, a long-term submersion by Trotskyists in the existing Stalinist and Social Democratic parties. In fact, the SEL that Ernie joined in 1955 had been constituted to terminate an “entry” by the Trotskyists in the CCF that had resulted in the loss of some valuable cadres. And Ernie’s memoir recounts at length the efforts led by Ross Dowson to re-establish the public face and activities of the revolutionary Marxists — an approach that encountered considerable resistance in Vancouver, where the residual existence of an influential left wing in the CCF and NDP provided a comfortable milieu for the local Trotskyists.

Similarly, much of Ernie’s second volume describes his efforts to convince his British co-thinkers of their need to establish a publicly identified Marxist group and to supplement their work in the Labour party milieu with independent activities particularly in the antiwar movement.

The party project

Much of our activity during this period was of an educational nature: regular publication of a newspaper, the operation of bookstores, sponsorship of weekly public forums on issues of the day, as well as occasional cross-country tours to meet other socialists. In the absence of major class confrontations, most of our members were recruited individually as a result of their encounters with us through these activities.

Once recruited, a member would experience an intense level of activity internal to the organization, including the weekly membership meetings that were the norm. All members faced enormous demands on their time, and most of all the full-time staff who had to make do on subsistence salaries.

In a small group with such a demanding regime, personal differences can loom large. Ernie frequently references the difficulties he and many others encountered in dealing with Ross Dowson, the pre-eminent leader of our group who played an inordinate role as the most experienced member, with a remarkable capacity to recognize and take advantage of opportunities as they developed but who also played in many respects a very negative role, driving some fine comrades out of the movement. Such tensions were perhaps inevitable in a small, tightly disciplined group.

All of our activities were infused by the concept we all held then of party-building. That is, our objective was to build a “vanguard” organization of committed cadres who would, we hoped, be instrumental in helping lead the working class to triumph in a socialist revolution. We had an exalted conception of ourselves, reflected in the title of the SEL/LSA biweekly newspaper (which I edited for six years) — The Workers Vanguard, “more of a promise to the future than a reality,” says Ernie. And our small propaganda group was misconceived by Dowson and others as the “embryo” of a mass revolutionary party. “Only history would decide if that was the case,” Ernie aptly comments.

Our model was what we viewed as a “Leninist” party, emulating the party that had led the successful Russian Bolshevik revolution of 1917. We now know, thanks to the scholarship of Lars Lih and others,[5] that Lenin’s party was quite different from the reality of our cadre formation, which organizationally was modelled much more closely on US Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon’s conceptions. However, in the period covered by Ernie’s memoir, the leaders of the US Socialist Workers Party were a counsel of immense value to our relatively inexperienced membership, not least through the SWP’s diligent production of educational materials and activities that assisted us in developing our own grasp and application of Marxist theoretical conceptions.

Our goal was an audacious one, and ultimately — in a later period that Ernie just adumbrates in an Epilogue — proved a failure. A contemporary reader might well wonder, was it all worth it? Ernie shuns such introspection. “I have always been uneasy about retrospective judgments based upon hindsight,” he writes in the introduction to his second volume.

“Of course, we could have done things better and it’s easy to see now that some of our problems arose from failure to grasp the nature of the period we were living through, including a lack of a good appreciation of the resiliency of capitalism and its ability to survive crises, including an underestimation of the ruling class’s capacity to learn from such things…. But I have few regrets about all this. I was educated in the school that taught me to deal with mistakes as a normal part of trying to succeed, and that the worst mistake of all is to do nothing and allow oneself to retreat into sectarian isolation…. I feel we did the best we could with the hands that we were dealt. If we are going to be judged, then it should be done in comparison to what all the other socialist groups were doing at the same time.”

By that criterion, we acquitted ourselves well, as Ernie demonstrates convincingly in his account.

And with all due respect…

Like Ernie in his day, the great Peruvian Marxist José Carlos Mariátegui travelled in the early 1920s to Europe, where he participated in the founding of the Italian Communist Party and worked with such luminaries as Antonio Gramsci. While there, he fell in love with an Italian woman, Anna Chiappe. Returning to Peru, he famously told friends and the media that “I have come back with a wife and some ideas.”

Well, while in Britain Ernie fell in love with Jess MacKenzie. She returned to Canada with him in 1969 and they have been partners and collaborators politically and in life for almost 50 years now. As Ernie says, in his second volume, “The story I am writing here about those years in England is just as much hers as it is mine.”

As to the ideas, Revolutionary Activism has many. It is not a recipe book. Ernie does not touch on the mass movements that emerged in the mid-1960s — such as the Quebec labour and nationalist upsurge or the powerful second wave of feminism. Neverthless, his volumes provide us with a compelling account of how revolutionary socialists could work in and learn from the movements of their day when revolution in Canada, or Britain, was still a far-off dream.

Richard Fidler

[1] “Breaking a path for the sixties radicalization,”


[3] The Russell Tribunal became the inspiration for many such tribunals on other issues in following years. For example, the Permanent People’s Tribunal, an international tribunal independent of state authorities, has in recent decades held more than 40 such public hearings around the world invoking international human rights law and the UN declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to investigate and expose human rights atrocities committed by states and corporations. The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal session on the Canadian Mining Industry in Latin America, held in Montréal May 30-June 1, traces its origins to the Russell Tribunal of 1966. See the trilingual PPT Canada web site at

[4] We may have exaggerated somewhat in our characterization of the NDP as the Canadian “labour party.” Founded in 1961, in the anticommunist environment of the day, its component unions already heavily bureaucratized under the dual impact of capitalism’s postwar expansion and the constraints of the Fordist industrial relations regime, the party at no point managed to gain more than 15 percent of union members as affiliates, and notably very few in Quebec. See, for example, my article “The NDP, poised for power but to what effect?,”

[5] For a hyperlinked collection of Lih’s major studies, see