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Bolshevik Tendency statement on Howard Keylor 9th December 2018

I am speaking on behalf of the Bolshevik Tendency—the group that Howard played a central
role in for well over 30 years. During his long life Howard has done a lot of things, but he is,
above all, a political person. His political views evolved as his understanding developed over
time, but his commitment to fighting for the exploited and downtrodden and advocating a
revolutionary social transformation has never changed.

Howard is an incurable optimist who has always operated on the basis that a good example can
be contagious, given the right set of circumstances. He has never been afraid to “call things by
their right names” and “speak the truth to the masses, however bitter it might be.” Howard
never curried favor or made political decisions on the basis of wanting to advance his career or
get a pat on the head or avoid getting into "trouble." This attribute is unfortunately rather
unusual in leftist politics.

Howard learned long ago that those who look for shortcuts soon end up trimming their
program and stretching the truth and before too long idealistic young subjective revolutionaries
can end up in places they could never have imagined when they started out.

As a very young man in the U.S. Army at the end of World War Two, Howard witnessed first-
hand the hatred and contempt the officer corps had for the enlisted men, and intuitively
understood how this reflected the structural inequalities of the larger capitalist social order.
Inspired by a vision of the socialist future, he enlisted in the Communist Party as soon as he got
out of the army. He did so because he saw the CP as the vehicle by which hunger, war, racism,
exploitation and oppression could be ended.

Howard, who was from a plebeian “hillbilly” background, had enrolled in pre-meds, but some
CP talent spotter instead rerouted him into the working class, and he ended up in the ILWU. He
stayed in the party throughout the McCarthy period, and was important enough to attract
interest from the FBI. But he was never entirely comfortable in the Stalinist movement and
always tended to be a bit of a leftist deviant. By the early 1960s, with three girls to bring up, he
left the CP although he remained politically active in the union.

Then one day in the 1970s he bought a second-hand copy of Isaac Deutscher's The Prophet
Armed, and stayed up all night reading it. Eureka! He immediately grasped that many things he
had never liked about the CP's line and doubts he had about the Kremlin’s foreign policy had
their roots in the Stalin-Trotsky fight during the 1920s. Before long he figured out that the
Spartacist League was the real continuity of Trotskyist politics and linked up with them.

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In 1974, when Howard came around the SL, it was a very dynamic organization with a healthy
appetite for revolutionary work in the unions. Howard was instrumental in launching the
Militant Caucus in the ILWU which, within a few years, recorded some impressive successes.
But at the same time the top leadership of the SL began to show signs of significant political
degeneration. In 1981 this process intersected Howard’s trade union work rather dramatically
during the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike. The SL policy had been to agitate for mass
solidarity union pickets to shut down the San Francisco airport. The idea was that if this
happened it might be a springboard for launching a general strike. Howard, a member of the
Local 10 Exec Board, was ideally situated to head up this work. He arranged for PATCO reps to
speak to Local 10 and other unions, and was invited by PATCO to sit in on their strike strategy
meetings. And then the SL leadership suddenly announced an internal policy, not to be publicly
advertised, of ignoring the union boycott of the struck airports: "Fly, Fly, Fly" was their new

Howard was caught by surprise. A lot of people in and around the SL had a queasy feeling about
this, but only Howard, his wife Uschi and a youth member, Lisa, had the political courage to
openly object. Howard has always been a stand-up guy; he was never the type to “adjust” his
principles under pressure. The SL leadership became very hostile and had him pushed out of
the Militant Caucus.

Howard continued his work in the union and began publishing the Militant Longshoreman.
Before long he and Uschi had found some co-thinkers and launched a competing organization—
initially known as the “External Tendency,” today the “Bolshevik Tendency.”

The 1984 11-day anti-apartheid cargo boycott was probably the most outstanding single
accomplishment in Howard’s storied union career. The SL reacted bitterly, and scandalously
attempted to wreck the action, slandering the militants who carried it out as “scabs.” There are
at least a few comrades here today who were down on Pier 80 that night and remember what

The SL leadership launched a vicious slander campaign against Howard; they called him a “rat,”
an “aspiring bureaucrat” and lots of other ugly things. Some who drank the Jimstown Kool Aid
still engage in this sort of stuff—alleging that Howard and his comrades are "alright with
crossing picket lines" among other things. Cynical leftists can get pretty nasty. But the fact that
some people are still so anxious to malign Howard’s record and the politics he stands for, is, in a
perverse way, a sort of tribute. Lenin observed that old revolutionaries are often celebrated

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and turned into harmless icons by their enemies. Howard hasn’t been—he is still considered
too dangerous.

Howard's exemplary work in the ILWU provides a model for future revolutionary activists. He
was able to achieve what he did because, over the years, his fellow union members learned
that he was honest, serious, steady and sensible. He was able to explain things, sometimes
complicated things like the need for socialist revolution, in ways that made sense. He was also
able to work with people on particular projects with whom he had very serious differences.
Workers, including those who did not agree with his politics, respected him because they knew
that he was absolutely sincere and that he could be trusted to do what he said he would.

Howard understood that without revolutionary organization the working people are only
material for exploitation, and recognized that the essential task is therefore to build a viable
revolutionary organization rooted in the working class—something much easier said than done.

Howard always had a knack for picking up on whatever possibilities existed at a particular
moment to push things forward. The 1984 longshore boycott, which began with a discussion
between Howard, Uschi and Bob Mandel around a kitchen table, was ultimately ended by a
federal injunction. At that point the united front that carried it out split and Howard’s erstwhile
partners folded, while he defiantly helped organize a picket line to keep the pier closed. After
an hour, and several arrests, the picket line was dispersed and the boycott was over. But it
made a lasting impact. It showed what labor, led by class-conscious militants, was capable of. It
was deeply appreciated by black trade unionists in South Africa. Years later, after apartheid was
formally ended, Nelson Mandela came to the Bay Area and saluted the longshore militants who
had made it happen.

Howard has often remarked that the older he gets the more profoundly convinced he becomes
of the validity of the Trotskyist program and the vital importance of struggling to build an
organizational vehicle to advance it. Like all great revolutionaries, Howard is motivated by
concerns that go far beyond his own immediate personal interests. His life spent participating in
a struggle vastly larger than himself has not negated his individuality, but fulfilled it. His
devotion to fight on behalf of all the "wretched of the earth" has lifted him up and sustained
him and made him the person he is—a working class hero who is among the very finest human
beings who walks this earth. He fought the good fight, and never flinched. He put all his
strength and all his ability into the class struggle, and he has made a difference. We in the
Bolshevik Tendency are proud to be able to call Howard Keylor our comrade.

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