Steve Longstaff, a longstanding member of the Socialist Labour League, Australian section of the International Committee of the Fourth International, died August 14, 1990 after a long struggle against asbestos-induced cancer. He was 63 years old. Steve Longstaff joined the SLL in 1979, at the age of 53, after many years of activity in the labor movement, including nearly two decades as an auto worker at the Ford Broadmeadows plant near Melbourne, where he was shop steward, vice president and Victoria state president of the Vehicle Builders Union.
The Socialist Labour League conducted a powerful and inspiring memorial service for Comrade Longstaff on August 17, 1990. The following is the oration delivered at the memorial service by SLL National Secretary Nick Beams, who spoke on the significance of his life and contribution to the Trotskyist movement.
To his daughters, Karen, Alica and Diane, let me say you have lost a father. We have lost a cherished comrade.
The significance of Comrade Steve’s life is the significance of the program of Trotskyism for which he fought in his last years from the time he joined the party in 1979.
Comrade Steve’s life can only be understood in relationship to the experiences through which he passed, that is, the experiences of the international working class.
He was born in 1926. That was the year of the great betrayal of the British general strike by the leaders of the TUC. He grew up in the period of the Depression as fascism spread over Europe. Then, as he became a teenager, the world was plunged into the second imperialist war in a generation.
Fascism, unemployment and imperialist war—these were the products of the betrayals of the working class by the Second (social democratic) and Third (Stalinist) Internationals. In 1938, on the eve of the second imperialist holocaust, the Fourth International was founded by Leon Trotsky to resolve this crisis of proletarian leadership.
As they plunged the world into war, the ruling classes feared that they would be overturned by socialist revolution.
These fears were well founded. From 1943 onwards there was a massive upsurge in the working class internationally and a deepening struggle in the colonial countries to throw off the yoke of imperialist domination.
And the bourgeoisie had no possibility of suppressing this upsurge with armed force. I well remember discussing with Comrade Steve the type of rebellion which had developed in the American forces at the end of the war and how it would have been impossible for the bourgeoisie to utilize them against an uprising of the working class.
The ruling class was only able to remain in the saddle because of the betrayals carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, the reformist parties and the trade union bureaucracy.
Under the agreements of Yalta, Potsdam and Teheran, the Soviet bureaucracy agreed to the restoration of capitalism in Western Europe in return for the domination, at least temporarily, of the buffer zone in Eastern Europe.
This was the political basis of the postwar equilibrium of capitalism which gave rise to another period of reformist and bureaucratic domination of the workers movement as Steve passed into adulthood.
Against the opportunists who attempted to subordinate the Trotskyist movement to this restabilization, who maintained that the postwar boom was some kind of ‘new world reality’ in which revolution had been wiped off the historical agenda, the International Committee of the Fourth International carried forward the program of Trotskyism.
Trotsky always explained that it is the program which builds the party, that great ideas of Marxism, no matter what obstacles are placed in their path, will find their way and win for themselves the resources to be implemented.
The great liberating ideas of Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International found Comrade Steve and he joined the party in 1979. This was at an age, 53 years old, when others would be looking to go out to pasture, to settle down. Not Comrade Steve.
He joined our party wholly and completely and it was inseparable from his life. He was, from the time of joining the ranks of the Fourth International, a party man through and through. He well understood and lived by the words of Trotsky who said that for a revolutionary to give himself entirely to the party signified finding himself.
Comrade Steve was able to find himself. In the analysis of the Trotskyist movement, he was able to understand the experiences through which he, and the rest of his generation, had passed.
He was able to understand that the problems which he had confronted were the outcome of the treachery of the leadership of the old workers’ organizations and that the only way forward for the working class lay in the resolution of the crisis of revolutionary leadership.
Comrade Steve never wavered from this struggle. It was this that made him such a firm rock in the split in the International Committee and the Socialist Labour League in 1985-86.
All comrades and friends of Steve have their particular images of him, some particular incident that stands out.
My strongest memory of him is at the conclusion of the SLL camp of 1985-86. This was at the height of the struggle against the renegades of the Workers Revolutionary Party and their supporters in the SLL who were out to liquidate the International Committee.
We fought a nine-day battle against them and defeated them, and I remember at the end of the camp saying goodbye to Steve as he prepared to return to Melbourne.
He had an expression of complete and utter confidence, an air of understanding of the decisive significance of this victory over the opportunists both for the party and the working class.
Comrade Steve always had a profound interest in theory—I remember discussing with him on several occasions aspects of Marx’s Capital, or writings on it.
He did not, however, write for our paper on theoretical questions. It is therefore particularly significant when he did. I would like to quote from an article he wrote shortly after the split because it had great importance for Comrade Steve.
The occasion was the attack by the WRP renegades on Lenin’s book What Is to Be Done? as they tried, completely unsuccessfully, to “bury” the International Committee.
Such is the great strength of this work, which elaborates the scientific foundations of Bolshevism, that even though it was written as far back as 1902 it still manages to set the opportunists jumping, while evoking the most powerful response from revolutionary workers like Comrade Steve.
In his article “In Defense of Lenin’s What Is to Be Done?” Comrade Steve wrote:
What Is to Be Done? is universally relevant to the urgent political task facing the party and the working class worldwide, in the establishment of sections of the ICFI.
Smith has not the slightest interest in building a party capable of carrying out the socialist revolution but along with his fellow renegades from Trotskyism is openly seeking a regroupment with any revisionist forces who will join them in attacking the ICFI.
Lenin’s conception of a fighting vanguard party of the proletariat and his contempt for renegades is graphically put in the following famous quote:
‘We are marching in a compact group along a precipitous and difficult path, firmly holding each other by the hand. We are surrounded on all sides by enemies, and we have to advance almost constantly under fire.
‘We have combined, by a freely adopted decision for the purpose of fighting the enemy, and not retreating into the neighboring marsh, the inhabitants of which, from the very outset, have reproached us with having separated ourselves into an exclusive group and with having chosen the path of struggle instead of the path of conciliation.
‘And now some among us begin to cry out: Let us go into the marsh! And when we begin to shame them they retort: What backward people you are! Are you not ashamed to deny us the liberty to invite you to take a better road.
‘Oh, yes, gentlemen! You are free to not only invite us, but to go wherever you will, even into the marsh.
‘In fact, we think that the marsh is your proper place, and we are prepared to render you every assistance to get there.
‘Only let go our hands, don’t clutch at us and don’t besmirch the grand word of freedom, for we too are ‘free’ to go where we please, free to fight not only against the marsh, but also against those who are turning towards the marsh.’
Comrade Steve lived by and fought for these principles. He did not live to see the victory of the Fourth International. But he was able to see the beginning of the new revolutionary period which has opened up, marked above all by the collapse of the Stalinist regimes and the expansion in the work of the International Committee which will lead to that victory.
Last February, Comrade David North, the national secretary of the Workers League, the American Trotskyist party, wrote to Comrade Steve on hearing of his illness and I would like to quote from this letter because I know Steve valued it extremely highly.
I am saddened to learn that you are seriously ill. Linda has told me that you are beginning chemotherapy, and as difficult as this is I am sure that you will fight as hard now as you have your entire life.
Linda told me of your reaction to the report of my visit to the Soviet Union. This visit was only possible because of the power of the communist ideals for which Trotsky fought and the determination with which revolutionary workers like yourself have defended these principles, in the face of the most ferocious opposition.
Steve, whatever the outcome of your illness, please understand that your contribution to the building of the Fourth International will live for all time. In your fight for Marxism, you have both represented and blazed a trail for the one great and unstoppable force upon which the entire future of mankind depends: the class-conscious international proletariat.
With the warmest revolutionary greetings from the entire membership of the Workers League,
Your comrade, David North
On behalf of the members of the Socialist Labour League, on behalf of our world party, the International Committee of the Fourth International, I say, farewell, Steve Longstaff: fighter, comrade, Trotskyist!