Dowson joined the Trotskyist movement as a teenager during the Great Depression. The Canadian Trotskyist movement collapsed at the beginning of World War II as leaders such as Jack MacDonald, Maurice Spector and Earle Birney dropped out due to factional disputes. Dowson reorganized the movement near the end of World War II with the founding of the Revolutionary Workers Party.
Dowson ran for mayor of Toronto several times in the 1940s, campaigning openly as a Trotskyist, and garnered over 20% of the vote in 1949. He ran for mayor a total of nine times in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s.
The RWP declined however due to the pressures of the Cold War and formally ended its activities in 1952 with its members joining the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation as an entrist faction. A split in the Fourth International in 1953 had ramifications in the RWP and in Dowson's own family. His brother Murray and brother-in-law Joe Rosenthal formed a pro-Pablo minority, and split from the RWP to form a Trotskyist tendency within the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF). It soon disappeared.
Ross Dowson ran for the Canadian House of Commons on two occasions. He was a candidate in a 1957 by-election in the rural riding of Hastings–Frontenac, in which the CCF decided not to run a candidate. Running under the "Labour" label, Dowson received only 266 votes in a two-way race against External Affairs minister Sidney Earle Smith. In the 1958 general election, Dowson was again a candidate in the Toronto riding of Broadview. He placed fourth with 477 votes. This time he ran as a "Socialist" candidate, despite the fact that the democratic socialist CCF also stood a candidate. Dowson also filed his nomination papers as a "Labour" canadidate against new Progressive Conservative leader Robert Stanfield in the 1967 Colchester–Hants by-election but withdrew when Elwood Smith entered the race as an Independent candidate with informal NDP backing.
By 1961, Dowson and his Trotskyist group had returned to an entrism policy towards social democracy and joined the New Democratic Party at its founding. In that year, the Trotskyist movement relaunched itself as the "League for Socialist Action", with branches in Toronto and Vancouver and Dowson as national secretary.
As well as being national secretary of first the RWP and then the LSA, Dowson was also editor of the group's newspaper, which was first called Vanguard and later Labour Challenge. The LSA grew during the student radicalization of the late 1960s, bringing youth into the movement.
In 1964, the LSA developed a Quebec counterpart, the Ligue Socialiste Ouvriere.
In the late 1960s, Canadian Marxist academics, under the influence of the then-predominant dependency theory, tended to view Canada as an economic colony of the United States. Dowson was influenced by this analysis, which also influenced the Waffle movement in the NDP. Dowson moved towards a position that held that Canadian nationalism was progressive against American imperialism, a view that put him in the minority in the LSA.
Dowson's faction was defeated at the LSA's 1973 convention and, in early 1974, he and about 20 supporters left the LSA and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International to form the Socialist League. This group came to be known as the "Forward Group" after the name of its newspaper. The group grew initially, but soon declined. By 1989, it had been reduced to a small group of friends around Dowson when he suffered a devastating stroke that left him unable to speak or write for the rest of his life.
Professionally, Dowson was a machinist as a youth and later a lithographer and printer by training, but spent almost his entire working life as a full-time paid staffer (at times the only one) for the organization. For the new generation of recruits in the Sixties and early Seventies, he was the major link to the older generation of class-struggle militants and Marxists who had built the labour and socialist movements in previous decades.
Dowson's brothers Hugh, Murray and his sisters Joyce (Dowson) Rosenthal and Lois (Dowson) Bdard were also active in the Trotskyist movement.
Dowson's niece, Anne Lagac Dowson, is a broadcaster and politician.
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