From: Louis Proyect  Subject:

Ross Dowson (from Hunter's list) 

Date: Sun, 03 Mar 2002 07:16:12 -0800

I don't know if anyone on the list knew Ross Dowson. I first met him in the mid seventies when he helped run a socialist bookstore on Gerrard Street in Toronto. I attended a few of their Friday night educationals before drifiting off.

This obituary appears today on the oped page of the Toronto Star.

Since his problems in the LSA, Ross (until his stroke) and his remaining followers were in and out of the NDP in Ontario. Some of his original group that I still hear of are in the Socialist Caucus now.



Mar. 3, 01:00 EDT

We just don't learn from history Thomas Walkom

A MAN named Ross Dowson died last month. I didn't know Dowson. But he was a Toronto figure whose adult life spanned the insanity known as the Cold War and whose fate and obsessions have eerie echoes today in the post-Sept. 11 world.

Dowson probably would have called himself a socialist and a revolutionary. Indeed, at one point, he demanded (and received) a printed apology from The Star when it referred to him as an "ex" radical.

Others called him a Trotskyist. In the post-Soviet era, it is a word that seems almost quaint. But in the years just after World War II, when the Soviet Union was still an ally, when communism had followers in Toronto and when the epic battles between those two figures of the Bolshevik revolution - Joseph Stalin and Leon Trotsky - were still of recent memory, it was a word treated with more respect.

In 1948, the then 30-year-old Dowson took his first of many runs at the mayor's office in Toronto. As candidate of the Revolutionary Workers' Party, he did surprisingly well, picking up 11 per cent of the vote. The next year, he did even better, winning almost 20 per cent.

But the drumbeats of the Cold War made it difficult, not only for the Moscow-aligned Communist Party of Canada but for small-c communists like Dowson who had no truck with the Soviet Union.

Dowson kept running for mayor; he kept losing. He ran twice for a seat in the Commons, both times against cabinet ministers. Not surprisingly, both times he lost.

Trotskyism never swept Canada. At its peak, Dowson's League for Socialist Action (successor to the Revolutionary Workers' Party) said it had 200 to 300 members nationwide.

That was probably an exaggeration. Dowson once testified he used numerous pseudonyms in his newsletters to suggest that his movement had more members than it did.

Still, the league's size and apparent ineffectiveness didn't stop Dowson from becoming a target of the RCMP. In 1972, the Mounties embarked on a secret operation to break up the League for Socialist Action and destroy the credibility of both Dowson and another failed Trotskyist mayoralty candidate named John Riddell.

Under the code name Operation Checkmate, the Mounties circulated fabricated medical reports to league members, alleging that Riddell was under psychiatric care and subject to violent outbursts. Their aim, it later came out, was to sow suspicion and dissension within a group that was already no stranger to paranoia.

And it worked. The group disintegrated in mutual recriminations; Dowson lost his job.

An Ontario Provincial Police investigation into the matter later concluded that the Mounties had been waging a secret war against Dowson and his Trotskyists since 1960 and that these actions involved "at least the apparent commission of crime ... by the RCMP security service."

What followed was a 13-year attempt by Dowson to bring his persecutors to book.

Yet at almost every turn, he was thwarted by the state. In 1980, Roy McMurtry, then Ontario's attorney-general (now the province's chief justice) intervened to prevent Dowson and Riddell from laying charges against the Mounties, arguing that such a prosecution was not in the public interest - and that anyway, the two would almost certainly never win.

It took three years of appeals before the Supreme Court of Canada overturned McMurtry and said Dowson had the right to lay charges.

McMurtry may have been incorrect in law. But he certainly knew his province's judiciary. In 1985, 13 years after the RCMP dirty tricks incident, all of Dowson's charges against the Mounties were thrown out by lower courts.

He couldn't even win in small claims court.

Ironically, Dowson's ultimately futile efforts won him support among those who had no truck with Trotskyism (Trotsky himself had never been finicky about dispensing rough justice). Dowson's case became, briefly, a cause célèbre for civil libertarians. Lawyer Clayton Ruby called it "shameful" that the state could persecute a private individual with such impunity.

"This is not only wrong," Ruby told The Star in 1986, "but it is one that would come back to haunt our society."

Prophetic words. Though much was made about the Mounties' dirty tricks campaigns (a new spy agency, the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, was constructed to take over their counter-espionage role), few permanent lessons were learned.

All it took was a new threat - this time from Islamic terrorists rather than alleged Moscow subversives - to cause the federal government to, once again, go overboard in giving police and courts extraordinary powers.

I don't know how much Dowson followed the post-Sept. 11 events. He suffered a debilitating stroke in 1989.

But if he had, this Cold War veteran probably would have found the last few months familiar - public hysteria, a tough new security law, governments determined to do what they want without observing the niceties.

Louis Proyect, [EMAIL PROTECTED] on 03/03/2002 Marxism list: