What we owe to Ernie Tate

Submitted by AWL on 16 February, 2021 - 6:42 Author: Martin Thomas
Ernie Tate

Ernie Tate, who died from cancer on 5 February at the age of 86, was once well-known among revolutionary socialists across the world as the central figure of “the Tate affair”.

Born and raised in Northern Ireland, he was an active Trotskyist from his early 20s, in Canada. He moved to London in 1965-9, and that was where the “Tate affair” happened, in 1966. Back in Canada, he quit the organised Trotskyist movement about 1980, but remained active on the broader left until his last years. I last met him in 2015, at a conference at the University of East Anglia. An obituary by John Riddell gives more of the story here.

The “Tate affair”? On 17 November 1966 he was selling a pamphlet published by the Socialist Workers Party USA (no relation to the SWP in Britain) outside a public meeting at Caxton Hall, London, of the Socialist Labour League, then Britain’s, indeed probably the world’s, biggest and most active revolutionary socialist group. He was beaten up by SLL members.

The SLL, led by Gerry Healy, had long been known for a bullying internal regime, and for high-pitched ranting against other groups. But even the SLL didn’t deny that it was a norm for groups to sell their literature at each others’ meetings.

In Britain even the Communist Party rarely used violence against left-wing political opponents. Generally, and certainly among those who considered themselves anti-Stalinist, free circulation of critical literature was the norm.

Tate was part of a small socialist collective, the International Group, British affiliate of the “United Secretariat of the Fourth International”. “United” meant it was a new alliance of the SWP-USA and its co-thinker groups, like the group Ernie Tate had joined in Canada, with the co-thinkers of figures like Ernest Mandel in Belgium and Pierre Frank and Alain Krivine in France. Before realigning with Mandel and the others, the SWP-USA had been linked to the SLL. They parted ways in the early 1960s, and the SWP-USA prompted Tate, and others like Alan Harris (who has also died recently), to move to London from Canada to help build the International Group (and win influence in it for specifically SWP-USA-type ideas).

Although the International Group was generally low-profile, with the help of the SWP-USA it launched an energetic and loud campaign against the attack on Tate. Healy’s SLL was not easily abashed, but it was pushed into organising a special conference which discussed the attack, circulating a voluminous bulletin to explain it to its members, and initiating libel cases against Peace News and the Socialist Leader.

Tate got a result. The SLL would degenerate much further before it collapsed and scattered in 1985, and its internal regime probably became even worse, but it never again used violence against other leftists selling literature at its public meetings.

In 1993, eight years after the Healy group dispersed, there was another incident similar to the “Tate affair”. British SWPers beat up Mark Sandell, a Workers’ Liberty activist, for circulating a petition outside the SWP’s summer school about the mobbing and bullying and exclusion of another Workers’ Liberty person.

We protested as Tate and his comrades did in 1966. Democratic norms had less grip on the broad left than they had had in 1966, and it was harder to get a response. Unlike the SLL in 1966, the SWP was able to stonewall, making no reply at all. But the protest “worked”. The SWP did nothing similar for 25 years after 1993, until in 2018 they trashed a Workers’ Liberty stall outside their summer school (but without injuring people).

We still need people with the courage and resilience to uphold democratic norms against bullying which Ernie Tate showed in 1966.

In 2016 the Labour left group Momentum held the first of its The World Transformed fringe events at Labour Party conference. As it opened, we turned up with a Workers’ Liberty stall in the street outside, and soon, as I remember, the Socialist Party arrived too. The event organisers “instructed” us that we must pack up and move away. We refused point-blank, and eventually they let it go. But they tried; and meanwhile the Morning Star was billed as a sponsor of the event, and on free distribution inside it.

The struggle continues.

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