Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 11, 2012

Trotskyist postmortems on a dead party

Filed under: sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:28 pm

From its height of influence and membership in the mid-70s to its long steady decline into a workerist cult of around a hundred aging members, the American SWP—regarded by Leon Trotsky as the flagship of his movement—is worthy of study in the same manner as a dead body on CSI or Quincy, ME, two television shows that appeal to those of a morbid personality. In my role as forensic pathologist of the Marxist dead, I have rendered my own findings on many occasions.

Despite having said pretty much all that I wanted to say about this political equivalent of the Hindenburg crash, I will add a few words now prompted by contributions from Gus Horowitz, a former leader of the SWP, and John Riddell, a Canadian whose party (League for Socialist Action/League Socialiste Ouvrière) tailed the SWP into oblivion.

Gus started blogging at http://gushorowitz.wordpress.com/ in February of this year and I will be commenting on his June 24th article On the Formation of the Jack Barnes Cult in the SWP. John began blogging at http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/ in June 2008. His 2-part discussion (part 1, part 2) of the recently published volume 2 of Barry Sheppard’s memoir also provides food for thought. Another resource worth bookmarking is SWP History: 1960-1988, a joint project of Barry Sheppard and Gus Horowitz.

As should be no surprise to those who have been following my articles on the SWP over the years, I am partial to Peter Camejo’s analysis contained in Against Sectarianism. After reading it in 1983, I immediately joined Peter in trying to forge a new left based on his approach, which departed from “Leninist” norms (Barry Sheppard believed that Peter eventually departed from Marxism as well, a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere.)

I should add that my perspective differs not only from Riddell, Horowitz and Sheppard’s methodologically; I had a different existential relationship to the party as well. I was never on full-time and always had a day job as a computer programmer that put me in close proximity with people who had very little interest in politics. This meant, for better or for worse, that I was less likely to dive headfirst into the “turn toward industry”, if for no other reasons than self-interest. After a decade or so of developing a career (such as it was), I was not that eager to start all over as a machinist or welder, etc. The SWP helped me resolve that contradiction in late 1978 when it announced that members should eschew such skilled trades since they isolated us from the most oppressed workers. As someone who had spent a morning as a very unskilled spot welder, this was a road I decided not to travel.

Turning to Gus’s article on cult formation first, there is an emphasis on group psychology, a focus that is shared by Paul LeBlanc, another ex-member who has written extensively on the collapse of the SWP. Gus writes:

A leader, once he or she accepts the sense of mission that Jack spoke of, also bears the same kind of self-imposed psychological burden. Yet the leader is compelled to accept that responsibility, to take it upon his or her shoulders. The leader who “totally absorbs” that “fateful responsibility” must surely live with the keen feeling that he or she is a special person, a person on whom the fate of humanity at least partially depends. No wonder, then, that there is a serious risk of megalomania in such circumstances, a feeling that one is indispensable, a feeling that everything one does has special, fateful importance.

It is worth mentioning that megalomania is a fairly common feature of both Trotskyist and Maoist sects, as anybody familiar with Bob Avakian’s RCP can attest. It stems from the conviction that the group somehow possesses a “program” that has “revolutionary continuity” going back to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Unlike parties that are rooted in the mass movement where leadership is earned on the basis of successful struggles (like Fidel Castro or Ho Chi Minh, for example), small propaganda groups like the SWP and the RCP have a different criterion. The leader is someone who has such a brilliant mind that they can interpret social reality through the prism of Marxism unerringly. They become much more like clerical authorities who issue edicts rather than active agents of social change.

The SWP was not always like that. Barnes’s predecessors were veterans of the mass movement who became leaders based on what they could do. For example, James P. Cannon made his mark defending victims of repression, especially the Wobblies. His successor Farrell Dobbs was a leader of the Teamsters when it was a militant union. Barnes, unlike Cannon or Dobbs, had a much more modest record in the mass movement. Furthermore, when the mass movements of the 1960s went into a steep decline, Barnes’s role as defender of the faith became more and more pronounced. As a symptom of the changes the party was going through, hundreds were expelled because they refused to accept the party leader’s rejection of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This was of course just the excuse. The main reason for the expulsions was that the mostly veteran dissidents stood in the way of consolidating a cult around Jack Barnes.

I thought that Gus’s description of the party was useful, if a bit limited in perspective:

There was another factor compounding this personal dynamic. It was the group dynamic and our peculiar life style. As a general rule, the leaders and most of the members of the SWP were extraordinarily active, many spending six or seven days per week in one project or another. Few of us had our own families, careers or professions. We thought of ourselves as footloose rebels, for the most part, tied neither to job nor location. Our entire lives revolved around the party. Our friends, our manners, our speech, our way of doing things were all shaped by our way of life in the group. The group dynamic was part of an all-encompassing atmosphere.

The “we” and “our” mentioned above, of course, tended to be the full-timers who socialized with each other and whose “lives revolved around the party”. Speaking for myself and many of the ordinary rank-and-filers I knew over the years, this was not the case for us at all. We had a lot invested in the party but we had our own careers and personal lives. Frankly, the SWP would have been a lot better off if it had fewer full-timers in the 60s and 70s and made them take jobs from time to time just to put them in touch with regular folks. I would have loved to see Jack Barnes working at Met Life in the 1960s. If there is anything to cure megalomania, it was working at such a place.

My attitude toward the “brass” in the SWP could best be described as tolerance. Except for Peter Camejo, I found them cold and imperious almost without exception. I should add that the women were far more approachable. I always had a soft spot for Caroline Lund (Sheppard’s partner who died tragically of Lou Gehrig’s disease a few years ago) and Kipp Dawson. As long as the brass made the right political decisions, I could put up with them. But when they began to err in a stupid sectarian direction in the late 70s, I found it pretty easy to jump ship. Who needed assholes barking orders at you to do something that made no sense? Not me. Man overboard.

I must state at this point that I am not quite sure where Sheppard, Horowitz, and Riddell stand on the party-building methodology questions that I have written about over the years. I was a bit disappointed that Barry did not spend more time dealing with how a new movement can be built today but I am certainly grateful to him for chronicling the SWP’s history from the early 60s until his departure.

The first part of John Riddell’s reaction to Barry’s book is titled “The U.S. SWP attempts an outward turn (1976–83)”. As opposed to Barry and Lynn Henderson, who regard the break with Trotskyism as key to the SWP’s degeneration, John thinks that this was a necessary first step even if carried out incorrectly:

Regardless of one’s views on Cuba and its Communist leadership, there is a problem with Sheppard’s analysis. The SWP’s efforts at convergence with the Cuban Communist current represented a turn outwards, toward linking up with revolutionaries outside the party and building an organization broader than the historic SWP. By contrast, the party’s actual trajectory under Barnes has been in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.

There is something to be said for this, I suppose. Camejo was gung-ho for becoming “more Cuban” but when he advocated a joint mayoral campaign with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in New York (a true Fidelista current) against Koch in 1981, he was hammered by Jack Barnes and his lieutenants. It was one thing for the Militant to flatter the Cuban  leadership; it was another for the SWP to actually become more like the Cuban Communist Party in terms of being less sectarian.

I tend to disagree, however, with Riddell’s championing of Fidel Castro’s take on Allende’s Popular Unity government:

The authors [a reference to a Camejo/Les Evens article in 1972] compare the Allende regime to that of F.D. Roosevelt in the U.S. – that is, to an instrument of the capitalist class in taming and blocking the workers’ struggle. They also liken it to Stalinist popular frontism after 1935, which subordinated workers’ struggles to “alliances with ‘peace-loving’ imperialists.”

Inevitably, the SWP’s opposition to the UP government hindered efforts to defend it against the impending U.S.-sponsored coup. The Cuban government’s approach of critical support, by contrast, enabled its government to take energetic measures to defend Chile, while making suggestions on how Chilean workers should prepare for the coming confrontation.

In my own study of Allende’s record, I regard many of his measures to be quite audacious but in the final analysis considered him to be an obstacle to a revolution in Chile. Riddell believes that having the correct position on Allende is essential for appreciating  Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution and those modeled on it in Bolivia and Ecuador.

In September 2007, I wrote a review of Patricio Guzmán’s documentary on the Chilean socialist martyr that was premiering that month. Just by coincidence, I took up the Allende-Chavez analogy:

Despite both coming to power through the ballot, there are significant differences between Allende and Hugo Chavéz. First of all, Chavéz was a military officer himself with broad connections to leftist officers, perhaps the most striking characteristic of Venezuelan politics where an Air Force general is described by Richard Gott in “Shadow of the Liberator” as having “Trotskyist” politics. By contrast, Air Force officers in the US tend to be followers of the Christian Right.

But more importantly, the primary ideological inspiration for Chavéz’s movement is revolutionary socialism rather than 1930s style popular frontism. According to Gott, a number of Chavéz’s primary influences were Marxists to the left of the CP. In declaring for a 21st century socialism, Chavéz has made repeated references to the failure of Soviet socialism in terms that reflect the influences of the Trotskyist movement. Of course, as is always the case with Chavéz, he makes up his own mind based on what he thinks is right. This includes his willingness to stand up to the bourgeois parties in Venezuela, unlike Allende who kept making concession after concession to the Christian Democrats who were plotting his overthrow. To show that he was deferential to their interests, he kept bringing military men into his cabinet and even put Pinochet in charge of public security not 6 months before Pinochet overthrew his government.

***

Within an hour of posting this article, I came across a Greg Grandin review of a new book on Allende  that is unfortunately behind the London Review’s paywall. I submit the final paragraph:

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez drew a different lesson from the defeat of the Popular Unity government. Soon after he was elected president in 1998, before coming out as a confrontationalist, indeed before he even identified himself as a socialist, Chávez began to compare himself to Allende. Wealthy Venezuelans were mobilising against even the mildest economic reforms, as their Chilean predecessors had done, taking to the streets, banging their pots and pans, attacking the government through their family-owned TV stations and newspapers, beating a path to the US embassy to complain, and taking money from Washington to fund their anti-government activities. In response, Chávez began to talk about 1973. ‘Like Allende, we are pacifists,’ he said of his supporters, including those in the military. ‘And like Allende, we are democrats. Unlike Allende, we are armed.’ The situation got worse and worse, culminating in the coup of April 2002 which, though unsuccessful, looked very like the coup against Allende. Chávez found himself trapped in the national palace speaking to Castro on the phone, telling him he was ready to die for the cause. Ever the pragmatist, Castro urged him to live to fight another day: ‘Don’t do what Allende did!’

***

Riddell’s second part is titled Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83. Most of it makes sense, as far as it goes. Like Sheppard and Horowitz, there is an implicit thesis in the article that the problems of the SWP coincide with the emergence of Barnes as a central leader:

Previous generations of the party leadership, under James P. Cannon (1928–53) and Farrell Dobbs (1953–72), had indeed been diverse in outlook and experience. The Barnes generation, however, was much more uniform in outlook – in part, because the leadership had been trained mostly as full-time staffers in the party apparatus rather than in the field of struggle.

In its prime, the SWP was distinguished from other Marxist currents by its commitment to working-class and social movements and its capacity to learn and improvise on the basis of experience in action. During the last three decades, these special features have faded from view, and the party now resembles much more closely the general run of small inward-turned Marxist groups.

Although it is difficult to argue with the proposition that Barnes destroyed the SWP, I tend to differ from Sheppard, Horowitz and Riddell in rejecting the notion of some kind of Golden Age in which James P. Cannon or Farrell Dobbs held dominion. I believe that the methodology of the SWP was flawed from the outset. In its less lethal permutations, such as the Tony Cliff or Ted Grant variety or the SWP of the early 1970s, you end up with a “healthy” group but one that is destined to hit a glass ceiling because of its self-imposed “vanguardist” assumptions. In a nutshell, the group sees itself as the nucleus of the future revolutionary party no matter how much lip-service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period, etc. In its more lethal versions, you end up with Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes where megalomania rules supreme.

Although I have referred to my analysis of “Zinovievist” party-building conceptions accepted at face value by James P. Cannon to the point of becoming a crushing bore, I would like to conclude with an excerpt from the article  where I first laid out this thesis:

The process of transforming the American movement into a caricature of Lenin’s party took a number of years and it was the authority of the Comintern that made this transformation possible. After all, if the Russians tell us to have “democratic centralism”, they must know what they’re talking about. They do have state power.

The first organizational expression of the American Communist movement showed its roots in the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs. The party was organized on the basis of branches rather than cells, as the Comintern dictated. Another feature of the American Communist movement that was distinct from what is commonly known as “democratic centralism” was the open debates that various factions took part in. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace all the divisions within the American movement, suffice it to say that they tended to reflect very real differences about the character of the movement–whether it should orient to the more radicalized foreign language speaking workers, or develop roots in the English speaking sector of the class. The Comintern, needless to say, used all of its power to shape the direction of American revolutionary politics despite Zinoviev’s open admission in 1924 that “We know England so little, almost as little as America.”

The Fourth National Convention of the Communist Party was held in Chicago, Illinois in August, 1925. This convention was inspired by the Bolshevization World Congress of the Comintern that was held in 1924. The American delegates came to the United States with the understanding that their party would adopt more stringent organizational norms in line with Zinoviev’s directives. To give you a sense of the importance of the language question, the proceedings of the convention report that there were 6,410 Finnish members as opposed to 2,282 English speaking members.

The American party had its own dissident minority that the new “Bolshevization” policy could be used as a cudgel against. This minority was led by one Ludwig Lore, who was the main demon of the American movement as Leon Trotsky was in the Soviet movement. The Majority Resolution laid down the law against Lore:

“We also endorse fully and pledge our most active support to the Comintern and Parity Commission decisions providing for the liquidation of Loreism in our Party. We demand that the Party be united in a uncompromising struggle against this dangerous right wing tendency. We pledge our fullest support to the whole Comintern program for Bolshevizing our Party, including a militant fight against the right wing, the organization of the Party on the basis of shop nuclei, and the raising of the theoretical level of our membership.”

This is quite a mouthful. They are going to liquidate a dangerous right wing tendency and reconstitute the party on the basis of factory cells all in one fell swoop. And “the raising of the theoretical level of our membership” can mean only one thing. They are going to get politically indoctrinated by the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin faction in order to destroy all of its opponents wherever they appear.

Poor Ludwig Lore was in a political fight with other leading Communists about how to relate to the Lafollette Farmer-Labor Party. This third party was an expression of American populism and it was not clear which direction it was going. The disagreements over how to approach it are similar to the sorts of disagreements that crop up today about how to regard, for example, the Nader presidential campaign.

So Lore found himself in a bitter dispute about a purely American political question. What he didn’t figure out, however, was that he had no business being open-minded about Trotsky while this dispute was going on. Lore had befriended Trotsky during a visit to the USSR in 1917 and retained warm feelings toward him, just as the French Communist Boris Souvarine did. Not surprisingly, Lore had very little use for Zinoviev. On one occasion, according to Theodore Draper, Lore told Zinoviev to his face that his information about the American labor movement was questionable. Considering Zinoviev’s track record in Germany, this hardly comes as a surprise.

What really got his name in the Comintern’s little black book, however, was his caustic observations about the infamous “Bolshevization” World Congress of March, 1924:

“The Third International changes its tactics, nay, even its methods, every day, and if need be, even oftener. It utterly disregards its own guiding principles, crushes today the these it adopted only yesterday, and adapts itself in every country to new situations which may offer themselves. The Communist International is, therefore, opportunistic in its methods to the most extreme degree, but since it keeps in its mind the one and only revolutionary aim, the reformist method works for the revolution and thus loses its opportunistic character.”

This was just what the Comintern would not tolerate at this point, an independent thinker. Lore was doomed.

The “Resolution on Bolshevization of the Party” spells out how the American Communists would turn over a new leaf and get tough with all the right-wing elements in the party. “…the task of Bolshevization presents itself concretely to our Party as the task of completely overwhelming the organizational and ideological remnants of our social-democratic inheritance, of eradicating Loreism, of making out of the Party a functioning organism of revolutionary proletarian leadership.” And so Lore was expelled at this convention.

The party was re-organized on the basis of factory cells and a rigid set of organizational principles were adopted. For example, it stipulated that “Wherever three or more members, regardless of their nationality or present federation membership, are found to be working in the same shop, they shall be organized into a shop nucleus. The nucleus collects the Party dues and takes over all the functions of a Party unit.” What strikes one immediately is that there is absolutely no consideration in the resolution about whether or not a factory-based party unit makes political sense. It is simply a mechanical transposition of Comintern rules, which in themselves are based on an undialectical understanding of Lenin’s party.

The expulsion of Lore and the new organizational guidelines was adopted unanimously by the delegates, including two men who would go on to found American Trotskyism: James P. Cannon and Vincent Ray Dunne. Cannon and Dunne are regarded as saints by all of the Trotskyist sects, but nobody has ever tried to explain why Cannon and Dunne could have cast their votes for such abysmal resolutions. There really is only one explanation: their understanding of Bolshevism came from Zinoviev rather than Lenin.

Cannon’s myopia on these sorts of questions stayed with him through his entire life. In his “First Ten Years of American Communism”, he describes Lore as someone who never “felt really at home in the Comintern” and who never became an “all-out communist in the sense that the rest of us did.” That says more about Cannon than it does about Lore. Who could really feel at home in the Comintern? This bureaucratic monstrosity had replaced the heads of the German Communist Party 3 times in 3 years. It had intruded in the affairs of the German Communist Party as well, coming up with the wrong strategy on a consistent basis. Those who “felt at home” in the Comintern after 1924, as James P. Cannon did, would never really be able to get to the bottom of the problem. Furthermore, Cannon himself took the organizational principles of the 1925 Communist Party convention and used them as the basis for American Trotskyism as well.

Zinoviev was responsible for not only ostracizing Trotsky in the Russian party, but Lore in the American party as well. Zinoviev was a master of casting people into Menshevik hell. Cannon himself was plenty good at this as well. Over and over again in American Trotskyist history, there were others who were to face ostracism just like Lore. Schachtman in the 1930s, Cochran in the 1950s and Camejo in the 1980s. In every case, the current party leadership was defending the long-term historical interests of the proletariat while the dissident were reflecting petty-bourgeois Menshevik influences. What garbage.

Cannon’s views on Zinoviev were those of a student toward a influential professor. In “The First Ten Years of American Communism”, Cannon pays tribute to the dreadful Zinoviev: “As far as I know, Zinoviev did not have any special favorites in the American party. The lasting personal memory I have of him is of his patient and friendly efforts in 1925 to convince both factions of the necessity of party peace and cooperation, summed up in his words to Foster which I have mentioned before: ‘Frieden ist besser.’ (‘Peace is Better’).”

What a stunning misunderstanding of the events of 1924-1925. Zinoviev had broken the back of the German Communist Party and the Soviet party and now was doing everything he could to destroy any independent voices in the American party. Zinoviev himself would soon be a victim of the same process. Yesterday’s Bolshevik would become the Menshevik of 1926 and 1927.

The sectarian and rigidity of the Comintern party-building model are still upheld by the Trotskyists and other “Marxist-Leninists” of today. If these groups were as critical of their own history and ideas as they were of the ruling class, much improvement could obtain. This is not something to be hoped for. Those of us who prefer to think for ourselves must create our own organizational and political solutions, just as Lenin did in turn-of-the-century Russian. Any effort which falls short of this will not produce the outcome we so desperately need: the abolition of the capitalist system and the development of socialism.

32 Comments »

  1. “… assholes barking orders at you to do something that made no sense?”

    Probably what a job at Met Life in the 1960s was like.

    Comment by Binh — July 11, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

  2. To tell you the truth, the SWP was a lot more hierarchical than Met Life. Of course it did not pay as well.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 11, 2012 @ 6:11 pm

  3. “…no matter how much lip-service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period…”

    When was the last fusion of this type? Early-mid 1990s? They spend more time attacking other revolutionary trends than trying to forge links with them.

    Comment by Binh — July 11, 2012 @ 6:12 pm

  4. First off, Trotskyist and Maoists have no monopoly on megalomania, as anyone who has dealt with Anarchists and anti vanguardists Marxists, can attest to. I also shared Louis’ frustrtion against the ban on SWP members taking classes to upgrade their industrial related skills, unless you happened to live in the greater New York area(pipe fitting classes) or Seattle (electrical classes).. Of all the post mortems on the SWP, I have yet to see anyone mention that rather than the SWP cadre pulling their fellow workers to the left, the opposite happened. The SWP’ers were pulled to the right. This was reflected by the trashing of unemployed and underemployed workers by SWP members in conversations.

    This current discussion of a new form of party building isn’t new. I remember first hearing of this in the 1970′s from former members of the Communist Party, and various Maoists and Trotskyist groups. This was the project that the now defunct New American Movement embarked on, until they mergerd with the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee to form Democratic Socialists of America.

    There are other who seem to think the key to successful party building, is uncritical support for the Cuban leadership, while ignoring domestic issues such as poverty, homelessness, and unemployment. I’m a bit confused as how revolutionary organizations that came to power by way of armed struggle are a model for the US Left.

    The big issue around the 1981 convention was the call of the SWP leadership calling for a “new international” around the Cuban Communist Party, the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and the New Jewel Movement in Grenada. Everyone except me seems to forget there was another group mentioned in 1981. The Vietnamese Communist Party.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — July 11, 2012 @ 6:56 pm

  5. All the problems with building a mass revolutionary party in the U.S. stem from the fact that there has not been, and still is not, a mass social base for such a party in the imperialist heartland. The deterioration of the economic position of the U.S. in the world economy may lead to the development of such a base through the proletarianization of much of the middle class — including the labor aristocracy — and the awakening of those who are already at least semi-proletarian from their belief that the “American dream” will be realized for themselves or their children.

    In the meantime, a major task for those who want to see the decline of the U.S. Empire lead to an internationalist, socialist, and not a nationalist, fascist, response from the radicalized masses is to constantly fight against any belief in the moral, ethical, or other superiority of the United States. A closely related task, of course, is to try to guide the partial struggles of the poor and near-poor that are developing into anti-capitalist channels, and not into any defense of the privileged position U.S. workers, et al., have had in the past vis-a-vis most of the world population.

    Comment by Red Snapper — July 11, 2012 @ 7:24 pm

  6. Yes, I recall how snotty and rightie the SWP leadership was by the early 1990s, and their dismissal of those of us who were underemployed quite well. I never could figure out why so many of their cadre were so unrelentingly nasty, but that was how it went. I was a member/supporter of the IMT and the Grant people for many years, though, because it seemed to me that their work in Militant in Liverpool indicated they were a little more serious then anyone else on the Trotskyite end of things were. But I’m sure there’s another side to that tale as well.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux Perez — July 11, 2012 @ 7:36 pm

  7. True, Avakian is a central figure in the RCP organization but Carl Dix and Sunsara Taylor’s writings bear the attention of the concerned Marxis nor should Avakian be ignored.

    Comment by Doug — July 11, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

  8. ban on taking industrial classes to improve job skills? that’s a new one on me. I recall back in the early 70s, a bunch of SWPers taking iron worker classes through the union.

    Comment by Tom Cod — July 11, 2012 @ 10:11 pm

  9. @ Michael Perez: I think you’ve got the British SWP mixed up with the American SWP whose supporters in Britain by the 1990s would have been a small and obscure group, probably known as the Communist League, that one would not have been running into at too many Ted Grant type events.

    Comment by Tom Cod — July 11, 2012 @ 10:14 pm

  10. #8. Tom that was early 70′s, before I joined. That attitutude changed by 1978. There were some exceptions, usually granted toward those part of the “in crowd” in SWP society. Sheppard himself took a welding class in the late 80′s, something that he would opposed someone like me doing 10 years earlier.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — July 11, 2012 @ 10:52 pm

  11. @ Ken: yeah I took welding myself years later in the 80s when I was living out on my own. Also, the whole in-group clique mentality you referred to, something that also infected oppositional groups within and without the SWP, was something that drove people away. The idea that Barnes & Sheppard were the only ones that barked orders or directed abuse and invective at people simply isn’t true, although they certainly played a key role in setting the tone for the culture. That’s something that needs to be acknowledged in all these exhaustive dissections of the Socialist Workers Party

    Comment by Tom Cod — July 11, 2012 @ 11:16 pm

  12. @Tom: I also wonder about the human factor, not just among the SWP leadership, but also among rank and file members. For most of us born in the 1940′s and early 1950′s high shool was a very stratified and caste group experience. To those of us who weren’t honor students, or part of the in crowd, it was a miserable experience. The SWP reminded me of high school of the 1960′s, with all the various cliques and in crowd groupings at the local level. In contrast I notice that the young activists of the late nineties and current period are much better human beings than most of our contemporaries who came of age during the 60′s and 70′s. I suppose it’s possible they act pleasant around me due to deference to my age, and when I’m not looking are going after each other with axe handles and knives. Naw, I don’t think so.

    This is not to say that everyone back then were assholes. Just that on a per capita basis, they were way over represented.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — July 12, 2012 @ 12:06 am

  13. Ken, you hit the nail on the head. Thanks.

    Comment by Tom Cod — July 12, 2012 @ 1:21 am

  14. Ken, you are about the only Vietnam Vet I can recall ever running into who was in the SWP, although there were renowned people like Howard Petrick and Joe Miles who were in the army during that period. I think most of the Vietnam Vets I ran into were in Maoist type groups, but mostly the anti-war vets were not into any particular sect. Gerhard G. from Workers World was an acquaintance of mine in my post-SWP days in the later 70s who used to give us slide shows on campus of pictures he had taken in Vietnam.

    Comment by Tom Cod — July 12, 2012 @ 1:27 am

  15. Tom, while I met a couple of Trotskyists, one from Workers League, and another ex Spart who were in the Navy off the coast, every Leftist Vietnam vet, with one exception, who served in the Army or Marines in country were all in Maoist organizations. The common explanation was because of the Maoist initiated Vietnam Veterans Against the War. While that played a part, I think there was more to it than that. A major Maoist figure from that era, by coincidence, “friended” me several hours ago on facebook. I’ll aks him his thoughts. I remember one Navy veteran in Workers World, I think Andy S. In 1981 or 1982,who wrote a review of the movie, “An Officer and a Gentleman”, as “An Officer and a Pig.” This would make for an interesting discussion on another venue.

    I met so many Leftist Navy veterans who claimed to have led a mutiny, that I’ve taken an oath that if I ever meet a Leftist Navy veteran from the Vietnam War ear, who DOESN’t claim to have led a mutiny, I will take him to the nearest bar and buy him a drink.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — July 12, 2012 @ 4:03 am

  16. Ken, did you happen to know Jeff Sharlet who helped publish Vietnam GI (along with Thomas Barton)? He was around the Trot milieu but never joined up.

    My personal opinion is that Maoists became predominant in American revolutionary circles (including veterans) because they were seen as leading and aiding heroic struggles all over the Third World — Viet Nam, China, Cuba. The majority of people who became Marxists during that period looked to these governments for ideological guidance and found tremendous inspiration in the inhuman sacrifices they were willing to bear to fight imperialism and capitalism. Most vets who went way to the left respected the Vietnamese for their heroic opposition to the occupation; American forces deployed to Russia during the 1918-1921 civil war were infected with this same virus of respect for the “enemy” and were pulled out.

    Comment by Binh — July 12, 2012 @ 5:48 pm

  17. There may very well be a socialist revolution in this country in my lifetime, a very slim chance, from what I can see. But if there is, I dare say that it will NOT be led by socialists. At the very least, it will not be led by a existing socialist party. It seems to be ingrained in the DNA of anyone who gravitates to a socialist party that the single most important thing a socialist can and should do is to endlessly (and pointlessly) argue and debate “program” and historical and “theoretical” issues at the expense of everything else. They adapt to a mentality of paranoia and become wholly oriented to smoking out “tendencies” that are “unhealthy” in anticipation of the inevitable “split.” It becomes about exclusion, not inclusion. It’s a waste of fucking time, frankly. I know this is not a popular thing to say here, and I know it’s an opinion many will dismiss as “unscientific” or a thinly veiled call for “pragmatism,” but based on my experiences and reading, that’s what I see.

    Comment by David — July 12, 2012 @ 6:00 pm

  18. Binh writes: “My personal opinion is that Maoists became predominant in American revolutionary circles (including veterans) because they were seen as leading and aiding heroic struggles all over the Third World — Viet Nam, China, Cuba.”

    By whom were Maoists seen leading and aiding struggles in or of or by Viet Nam or Cuba? Were such people blind to the critical, if not hostile, attitude towards those countries coming from Mao’s China, which regarded them (correctly) as clients of the Soviet Union, while outrageously treating so-called ‘Soviet social-imperialism’ as a worse enemy than U.S. imperialism?

    Comment by Red Snapper — July 12, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

  19. The comment by David @17 is typical of the many comments that attack sectarianism, of just plain concern with principles, without being specific enough to provide a basis for a useful discussion.

    There are situations that call for ignoring important differences, but being in a party or propaganda group that fights for a political perspective is not one of them. It wouldn’t bother me to work, for instance, in anti-fascist defense or strike support with people who supported the anti-Soviet Mujahidin in Afghanistan, or who defend Israel’s “right to exist”, but I couldn’t imagine working with them in a group putting out general propaganda. (A group organizing debates and such is, perhaps, another matter.)

    And yes, David, pragmatism is an anti-revolutionary way of relating to the world.

    P.S. I have not been in any party or party-type formation in over 40 years, unless you want to count the rather amorphous Peace and Freedom Party in California, which I stopped being active in long before I left California. I joined it almost by accident when I walked into a meeting and found that they (the Alameda County branch, at least) were resisting imperialist pressure and siding with the Soviet Union over the shoot-down of KAL 007.

    Comment by Red Snapper — July 12, 2012 @ 9:37 pm

  20. That should be “or just plain concern with principles” in my first sentence above.

    Comment by Red Snapper — July 12, 2012 @ 9:39 pm

  21. Binh: While I heard of Jeff Sharlet, his death in 1969 was a few years before I radicalized. Even though I was anti war when I returned from Vietnam in 1969, I was an anti war conservative. I would tend to agree with your analysis on the attraction of Maoism to veterans. The Maoist were also more aware of the difficulties Vietnam veterans faced finding employment and getting the VA to come through with benefits. Workers World was also sensitive to these issues. The Trotskyist groups could have cared less. And yet I joined one. Sometimes I’m wrong. By way of explanation my critique of “Trotskyist groups” does not include the former International Socialists, The ISO wasn’t formed until 1977.

    Red Snapper: What you say is true, unless exposed to a Trotskyist perspective, most newly radicalizing veterans weren’t aware of these issues, until the “Three Worlds Theory” begin to gain credence among Maoist circles. Tariq Ali’s description of the SWP (US), in “Revolution in the Air”, by Max Elbaum, helps explain why Maoism was able to compete, at least for a while, with Trotskyism. Since you were in Alameda P&F instead of San Francisco, who were probably spared exposure to Kangasism. Were you still around at the conference dominated by the barefoot Jesus freaks?

    Comment by Ken Morgan — July 13, 2012 @ 12:26 am

  22. Red Snapper, Maoists in 1980 were very different than Maoists in 1970. You forget that the Black Panther Party at its height could have been considered Maoist.

    Comment by ish — July 13, 2012 @ 1:12 am

  23. Red Snapper, I’m guessing where you and I part company is our respective definitions of “important differences.” Socialist parties, from what I’ve seen, revel in turning even the slightest of differences (regarding things that often shouldn’t even matter) into life-and-death battles for “perspective,” and the list of potential “differences” is apparently limitless. Which is one reason (not the only reason, of course) why “socialist” parties have spent nearly a century wading through an endless swamp of sectarian bullshit instead offering the working class a meaningful and viable political alternative. Instead of mattering.

    Comment by David — July 13, 2012 @ 7:21 pm

  24. David, as I’ve said elsewhere, I believe that one of the main reasons there has not been a mass working-class party in the U.S. is that the majority of the working class in the U.S. has been historically, and still is now, non-proletarian. Even many who worked hard and lived in poverty thought, often correctly, that their children would live middle-class lives even if they themselves wouldn’t. Moreover, their middle-class lifestyles have always depended on the ability of U.S. imperialism to suck wealth from the world, thus providing a material basis for their support for that Empire.

    Quite frankly, explanations for the failure of the left to win a mass following based on the failings of all these different leftists who all are supposedly sectarian are just philosophical idealism.

    Comment by Red Snapper — July 13, 2012 @ 7:57 pm

  25. I agree that the non-proletarian nature of the American working class is certainly another factor, a major one. But it is not “philosophical idealism” to expect “all these different leftists” to take a long, hard look in the mirror and accept some responsibility for their failings. They are not entitled to wag an elitist finger at the working class and dismiss their lack of political perspective with a lame “It’s not me, it’s you” excuse. Their failings are real.

    Comment by David — July 13, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  26. A correction in my post above; “lack of political perspective” should have been “lack of a socialist political consciousness.”

    Comment by David — July 13, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

  27. David, yes it is philosophical idealism to think you can create a more effective left by wagging an (anti-)elitist finger at other leftists. Sure, we should all take some responsibility for our failings, and some of us could do a better job of winning workers and others to socialist or anti-imperialist ideas, or of organizing limited struggles.

    But taking responsibility for the lack of a revolutionary working-class movement, or even a militantly reformist one, in the U.S. is absurd. Yes, if all the people in the U.S., working-class or not, who consider themselves socialists were to work harmoniously together to build a socialist movement, we would have a lot more than we have now. But that is no more possible than that all Christian sects will get together to win people to an agreed-upon definition of Christianity, or that all Muslims will come to agreement on the meaning of the Koran. In historical situations where such unity has apparently been achieved among Christians, Marxists or whatever, it is usually by suppressing heresy, and not by voluntary unification.

    Comment by Red Snapper — July 16, 2012 @ 6:56 am

  28. SWP was one of the more interesting and as far as I can tell benign cults. One of the best things about them was that their “turn-toward industry” initiative got a lot of upper and upper-middle class kids out of the sociology departments and into real blue-collar jobs, an experience they otherwise would never have had and one I suspect most would be grateful for. It would be interesting to read a profile on what other ex-members are doing.

    Comment by Markus (bard '90) — July 16, 2012 @ 3:19 pm

  29. The SWP cult did real damage to family relationships, even to those who were staunchly on the Left. Completely unnecessary.

    As for the turn towards industry, most of the workers who were being ‘colonized’ just found it wierd. Its a form of self oriented matrydom because in the end, if you have a college degree you can find something better than meatpacking and your co workers know it.

    Comment by purple — July 17, 2012 @ 7:48 am

  30. I’m not sure that I used the term “philosophical idealism” (in 24 and 27 above) exactly the way students of philosophy use it, but I meant it as the opposite of materialism, and not ‘idealism’ in the sense of striving for an ideal. Another word that might be appropriate is “voluntarism”, the idea that willing to do something can make it happen regardless of material conditions.

    Comment by Red Snapper — July 17, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

  31. [...] When I first ran across the British SWP on the Internet back in the early 90s, I never would have dreamed that they would have ended up with such a horrible scandal on their hands. I was impressed with both their theoretical prowess and with their work in the British antiwar movement. My only caveat is that their organizational model would prevent them from breaking through a glass ceiling imposed by their sectarian habits. I put it this way: [...]

    Pingback by Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — January 28, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

  32. [...] When I first ran across the British SWP on the Internet back in the early 90s, I never would have dreamed that they would have ended up with such a horrible scandal on their hands. I was impressed with both their theoretical prowess and with their work in the British antiwar movement. My only caveat was that their organizational model would prevent them from breaking through a glass ceiling imposed by their sectarian habits. I put it this way: [...]

    Pingback by Leninism is Finished: A Reply to Alex Callinicos — January 29, 2013 @ 12:52 am


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