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Ross Dowson Finally Rests

by Harry Paine

[From Socialist Studies Bulletin, No. 66, January-March 2002. Harry Paine is a political and cultural activist who resides in Winnipeg, Manitoba.]

There are few of us left who knew Ross Dowson from his earliest days of giving leadership to the post World War II Trotskyist movement. Comrades such as Paddy Stanton, Jerry Houle, Vernel Olson, Hugh and Murray Dowson, Pat Shultz have all gone and will be waiting for Ross in the place where old revolutionaries go.

Ross Dowson was not known as one of the giants of theoretical Marxism. His written contributions were mainly in the form of propagandistic articles, internal documents and a few pamphlets that were mainly guides to action.

In my opinion, his most important contribution to revolutionary thinking was his profound understanding of the transitional aspect of Socialism. Marxism was not a dry sectarian ivory tower philosophy to him, but a living tool that needed to be honed constantly and used in real life.

During the post-war radicalization, Dowson ran for Mayor of Toronto and garnered over 100,000 votes, prompting the Toronto press to run a screaming headline “100,000 in Toronto vote for Bloody Revolution.” In the 1950s he remained steadfast against McCarthyism and its Canadian counterparts on both the Right and within the labour movement. He fought against those Trotskyists who wanted to dismantle the Fourth International as they capitulated before the attacks of the extreme Right.

He was among the first to recognize the fundamental change that the emergence of the CCF as a mass working-class party from its previous agrarian populist roots would make in the future of Canada. His understanding and contributions to that discussion have guided generations of revolutionaries to this very day, in their orientation to the mass movements of the working class.

Ross was an inspiration to the many youth who came to revolutionary socialism in the sixties’ radicalization. At the same time he drew new strength from these youth and embraced the rapid growth and resulting legitimacy of Trotskyism throughout the world.

Ross Dowson, the person

For those of us who looked to him for leadership in the early years, he was often intimidating and set examples for us that were hard to live up to. There was another side to him that we only got glimpses of periodically, the human side.

The family ties of the Dowsons were very important to Ross. Even though there were wide differences of ideology between the siblings, his love for them all was obvious. He inherited his father’s love of books and the written word. He had little in the way of money and at Christmas he would go through his collection of magazines and cut out pictures that appealed to him and give them away as presents.

It seemed to me that he was most happy at the camp that had been donated to the movement as a retreat near Deseronto, Ontario. He often spent weeks there, living at his sister Lois’ cottage. That was where he was comfortable and carefree, hammering nails, chopping wood or just communing with the wonders of his natural surroundings.

Ross always maintained that to be a professional revolutionary was the highest of human achievements but, at the same time, he recognized that it was also necessary to be rounded as a person. Our ideas were hard enough for workers to accept without comrades having the appearance of being weird. That was his one conservative concession. He would listen intently to comrades’ accounts of their experiences, absorbing everything that he could and learning from them. They were his lifelines to the real world.

Ross Dowson, the Canadian internationalist

The fragmentation of the Trotskyist world movement in the 1970s was for him a source of dismay. The loss of so many of the youth who had been dynamic in the 1960s dealt a blow to the movement from which it would take years to recover.

He was struck down with a brain haemorrhage before the fall and breakup of the Soviet Union. He remained in an almost coma-like state since that time. We were denied his contribution to the post-Soviet discussions, which he would have entered into with renewed vigour.

In my last discussions with him he was questioning the importance of the Fourth International as a factor in the development of socialism in Canada. He was first and foremost the quintessential Canadian revolutionary. He very much supported the concept of a world movement but in the context of that period, with so much of the movement in disarray, the F.I. could be of little help in defining a global direction for Trotskyism.

There are many like me, scattered across this country who did not always agree with him but owe him greatly. He was a symbol of the lasting power of Trotskyism and its correctness. Over the last decade or so, when events made me waver in my resolve, it was the memory of Ross Dowson and what I learned from him that kept me going.

There is nobody better to whom the last words of Joe Hill are fitting: “Don’t mourn ... Organize.”

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