Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 7, 2011

Behind the collapse of the SWP: a reply to Alan Wald

Filed under: sectarianism,socialism — louisproyect @ 10:24 pm

In the latest issue of Against the Current, a nominally independent magazine that reflects the viewpoint of Solidarity, there is a long (11,562 words) article by Alan Wald on two recent memoirs by former SWP leaders. Since Wald attempts his own post-mortem report on Leon Trotsky’s favorite party that differs from those offered by memoirists Les Evans and Peter Camejo, it is understandable why the article is so long. Ever since I began writing about this topic on the Internet, I probably have devoted something close to 100,000 words. Since this party had an enormous grip on the psyche of its younger members like Wald and me, and since its decline was so precipitous, there is a natural tendency for former members to go on at length. And when those people are writers, who are either professionals like Wald or patzers like me, you can expect buckets and buckets of prose.

Unlike Wald, me, and Les Evans, Peter Camejo was not a writer. Before I present my own analysis of why the SWP turned into a cult, I’d like to say something about Wald’s contemptuous attitude toward Camejo. Since Camejo is dead, he does not have the opportunity to defend himself.

Wald sneers that Camejo’s memoir “North Star” contains no “revelations of new political plans regarding ‘what is to be done.’” What an implicit admission that the reviewer had no idea of what the book was about. Camejo’s main objective in his post-SWP evolution was exactly to avoid such prescriptions. What was Wald expecting? An entry in the appendix titled “A Transitional Program for the 21st century”?

Following this revelation that there were no revelations in “North Star”, Wald goes all Spartacist on us by claiming: “Camejo champions familiar clichés of the populist Left.” Since Wald is a trained academic with more articles in his CV than spots on a leopard, one might have expected him to cite an example of such “clichés”. When I want to belittle someone, I try to quote the person. This is something I learned from reading Lenin, who liked to hoist people on their own petards. What clichés is Wald referring to, I wonder? If Wald wanted to substantiate this charge, he might have referred to the Avocado Declaration, arguably Peter’s most important written programmatic statement, that includes the following commentary on the New Deal:

One quite popular myth is that Franklin Delano Roosevelt was pro labor. Continuing the policies of Woodrow Wilson who oversaw a reign of anti-union terror, including black listing and deporting immigrant labor organizers, FDR’s administration sabotaged union drives every step of the way. When workers overcame their bosses’ resistance and began winning strikes, FDR turned on them and gave the green light for repression after police killed ten striking steel workers in 1937. As FDR said himself, “I’m the best friend the profit system ever had.” After WWII Truman used the new Taft Hartley Anti-Labor Act to break national strikes more than a dozen times.

I could be wrong, but this is exactly the sort of thing I read in a much longer version in Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step”. I really can’t go any further in trying to read Alan Wald’s mind but in the future he should at least try to provide an example of someone’s deviation from Marxism when he sits down to write his next hatchet job. I should add that Barry Sheppard did exactly the same thing in his own review of Camejo’s memoir, which accuses Peter of rejecting “the basic program of Marxism.” A few sentences later he explains that this was the conclusion he drew from the fact that “Peter nowhere affirms Marx’s program”. You might as well accuse me of rejecting sexual intercourse because I never affirm on my blog that I favor it.

In the early 80s Peter once told me that he regretted not having resigned from the SWP a year after he joined. After reading Sheppard, one can understand why. And after reading Wald, maybe that explains why he never joined Solidarity.

Perhaps seeking to settle old scores, Wald identifies the 1971 convention of the SWP as the root of its degeneration. At that convention, the SWP majority went full-blast at a minority that included Wald and that had submitted a document titled “For a Proletarian Orientation”. The minority was referred to as FAPO or PO in the ranks of the majority.

As someone who had a fairly major role in the Boston branch speaking for the SWP majority, I want to offer my own take on the fight.

In late 1969, I met with the SWP organizer in NYC to discuss the possibility of resigning from the group. Although I agreed with the party politically, I felt a general sense of alienation. The organizer, a closeted gay man named Charles Bolduc, came up with a counter-proposal. He urged me to take an assignment to transfer up to Boston and help shore up the SWP majority that was being led by Peter Camejo, the branch organizer. I suppose, looking back in retrospect that I made a Camejo-like mistake in not following through on my decision to drop out.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that the minority in the branch that would organize itself as the FAPO tendency at the next convention was workerist to the core. I had been first exposed to workerist ideas at the New School in 1967, shortly before joining the SWP. A friend from Bard College had become a supporter of the Progressive Labor Party that would go on to constitute itself as the leadership of the Worker-Student Alliance in SDS. Back in 1967, SDS and the PLP were very formidable groups and I had every reason to take them seriously, enough so to go to a “meet the PLP” meeting at Jake Rosen’s apartment in Washington Heights. In hushed tones, my friend told me that Jake was a carpenter. For young radicals wet behind the ears, the fact that someone was a carpenter gave him credibility that a computer programmer or a librarian could never have.

I have vivid recollections of listening to Jake Rosen, as he lay stretched out on his living room sofa picking out the lint from between his toes, telling us over and over that the working class was the only class that could overthrow the bosses and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat. I was not bowled over, even though I had a hard time arguing against a proletarian membership. How could anybody who claimed to be a Marxist? Of course, the real question was not about the goal but how to get there.

Not much later, I joined the SWP because the antiwar movement was more important to me than anything. Whatever accusations could be hurled at the SWP, indifference to the need for mass demonstrations was not one of them. But Jake Rosen’s words stuck with me. How would the SWP reach the workers?

A month or two after I joined the party, I discussed this question with Bob DesVerney, a brilliant African-American intellectual who was the author of “Why White Radicals Are Incapable of Understanding Black Nationalism,” a smoking hot polemic against the CP, the SP and other opponents of Black nationalism.

He told me, “The way the SWP will recruit workers is by recruiting lots and lots of students”. That was his provocative way of saying that workers will be attracted to a movement that is getting things done, not because of some professed allegiance to the working class.

About a year later, after I had transferred up to Boston, I witnessed a confirmation of what Bob had been talking about. We had just recruited a guy named John McNamara to the Young Socialist Alliance who had decided to join after hearing Peter Camejo speak on how to make a revolution in the USA. John knew about Camejo from his speech to the rally at Boston Commons on Moratorium Day and liked what he heard.

John had shoulder length blond hair and a beard but was not a student at Boston University despite his appearance. He was in fact a longshoreman and a “Southie”, a denizen of South Boston, the tough and at times racist Irish stronghold.

John went to Oberlin that year for the first conference the SWP ever held there. One night I spotted John sitting in the lobby of the student union building with two large books on his lap. Unlike most SWP’ers, I was always interested in talking to people, especially new members who were as alienated as I had been in my first few months. “Hey, John,” I asked, “what are you reading?” He looked up at me and told me that one book was Marx’s Capital, volume one, and the other was a dictionary that he was using to look up words he didn’t know. John was a high-school dropout so this was not a surprise.

Unlike the FAPO supporters in Boston, John was a real worker. A year before I got up to Boston, the SWP youth had washed their hands of the antiwar movement and had gotten jobs in hospitals where they could hobnob with the PLP/SDS members who were on a colonizing drive.

After Camejo came up to Boston, he persuaded most young people in the branch who were sitting on the fence ideologically on the “workerism” question to commit themselves to the majority orientation. As is the case so often in politics, actions speak louder than words. When you can mobilize 50,000 people into the streets of Boston, that tends to vindicate your ideas.

Not long after John joined, he dropped out. He probably did not feel comfortable around the arrogant student government types in Boston who learned to function from Jack Barnes’s lieutenants and dominated the SWP and YSA. As someone who had been working in an office for a few years, my reality was almost as different from the full-timers as John’s. But at least I had the political understanding to put my discomfort aside.

In 1973, I was asked to take an assignment in Houston where my polemical skills would be deployed against a new threat to the party leadership. Many of the former members of FAPO had organized a new tendency called the IT (Internationalist Tendency) that retained the workerist orientation of FAPO but combined it with the urban guerrilla orientation of the European Trotskyist movement.

The SWP was in an alliance with a group in Argentina led by Nahuel Moreno that we were told was just like us, an orthodox, mass-action oriented party. The Europeans supported a group that was hijacking meat trucks and dispensing the goods to poor people. In my presentation to the branch, I had a good time mocking the guerrillas and their supporters in the branch.

Within two years, the SWP and Moreno had fallen out like rival gang lords on “The Sopranos”. And just a few years after that, the guerrilla movement in Nicaragua had taken power using some of the same adventurist tactics that the majority had derided in Argentina.

Peter Camejo once told me that he had a funny encounter with a Sandinista leader in Nicaragua when he learned that Peter was high up in the Fourth International (this was before the SWP had split with the FI, I believe). The Sandinista clasped his shoulders and told Peter how grateful he was for the support the Trotskyist movement had given the FSLN. Peter was puzzled. He couldn’t remember any kind of material aid. In fact, the SWP had initially been hostile to the FSLN. It turned out, Peter said with a chuckle, that he was talking about the European Trotskyists who had raised some money for machine guns or something like that.

Not long after this encounter, the SWP had become the FSLN’s biggest boosters. And not long after that, it would implement the program of the FAPO, going much further in its workerism than any minority member of the Boston branch would have dreamed possible.

And throughout all these dizzying changes, the one thing that remained consistent was a belief that anybody who challenged the leadership’s wisdom was a petty-bourgeois element who needed either to be convinced of the error of his or her ways or given the boot. This was just as true of the minority leaders as the majority. Larry Trainor, an old-timer in the SWP who trained the young leaders who wrote the FAPO document, would have been just as vicious had he been running the SWP.

I say this as someone who became very close to a couple of the surviving Cochranites who had been ostracized in the same way that FAPO had been in the 1970s. Cynthia Cochran told me about the time that Farrell Dobbs had visited her husband Burt in 1953 to tell him that his days were numbered. She felt sick for days afterwards. And in my conversations with Sol Dollinger, I came to realize how disgusting the charge of “petty-bourgeois” could be. In 1953 most of the Cochranites, including Sol, were autoworkers. When Cannon decided to get rid of them, he accused them of being “embourgeoisified” workers who had gotten disoriented by post-WWII prosperity and high wages.

Furthermore, this is the same crap that was thrown at Max Shachtman and his grouping by Trotsky.

And when you really get down to it, this was the method of the Comintern long before Stalin took over. (For a complete discussion of how this destructive methodology took root, read my article on the Comintern and the German CP.)

Alan Wald believes that this kind of bad behavior was introduced into the party in 1971:

Nevertheless, in the process of the internal political struggle in 1971, the crucial changes occurred that created the new paradigms for handling disputes and precedents for organizational control; the positive traditions of the SWP were shown to be subject to the expedient aims of the new leadership. In other words, the 1971 convention was a “test run.” The patterns it set would be more fully enacted when Barnes and his circle went on to change policies and expel organized oppositions in 1974 and 1982-3, and target other individuals, such as Camejo, along the way and afterwards.

One wonders how things would have turned out if someone a bit less batty than Jack Barnes had been running the SWP, someone maybe like Alex Callinicos. What would have happened? My guess is that the SWP would very possibly become as large a group as the British SWP, experiencing both influence and the hostility directed toward it from independents who resent its bullheaded style of “intervention” in the mass movement.

In reality, there is a spectrum of possibilities for such “democratic centralist” groups that extends from the fairly normal like the British SWP to the lunatic fringe that includes the Spartacist League and the American SWP. At either end of the spectrum, you are faced with the reality that such groups are not the proper vehicles for organizing a massive assault on the capitalist system.

To focus on the American SWP’s transformation into a cult, you are missing the real problem. If you want to understand why the conditions for such a transformation existed long before 1971, there is no better place to go than the remarks that Morris Stein, James P. Cannon’s top lieutenant, made to the 1944 convention:

We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery. We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.

I should mention that I discovered this quote in Alan Wald’s excellent essay in the book “Trotskyism in the USA”. You can get a used copy on Amazon.com for only $332.74. It is worth every penny.

When you bring together a character like Jack Barnes, who obviously had mental problems all along as great as Gerry Healy or any other notable Trotskyist megalomaniac, and the kind of bullheaded bravado encapsulated in Stein’s remarks, you have a formula for disaster. In the case of the SWP, this disaster began almost immediately after the 1960s radicalization came to an end. But if someone else less crazy than Barnes had been in charge, like Barry Sheppard (well, maybe not Barry), then the SWP would have muddled through the 70s, 80s and 90s until the present day running its sectarian campaigns, selling newspapers, and “intervening” in the mass movement.

But, comrades, something much more is needed. And the sooner the better.

23 Comments »

  1. Interesting that the first socialist meeting Camejo ever went to, as a teenager, was with the Cochranites! He only mentions this in passing in his memoir. Wonder if there was more to it than that. Did they keep in touch? His anti-sectarian views were very close to Cochran’s, and it’s tempting to think there was some cross-pollination going on there.

    Comment by Ismael — July 7, 2011 @ 11:04 pm

  2. I neglected to mention that when Peter was organizing the faction fight in Boston, he assigned me to write about the Cochranites, repeating the slander about “bourgeois” auto workers. This was a slap against “colonization”, etc. I doubt that Peter ever thought much about the Cochranites. I had a falling out with him in 1987 so I never had much of a chance to discuss this with him.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 7, 2011 @ 11:19 pm

  3. As the crisis deepens people will join (or not join) the various socialist organizations, including the SWP, which has not collapsed, based on what they see, hear and feel today, not on what this or that college professor says about the organization they were a member of 40 years ago. I joined the SWP in 1978 when I was twenty-one years old, remained a member for decades and generally had a good experience. At the time, when I first joined, I didn’t give a rat’s ass (and would not have given a rat’s ass) what anybody had to say about the alleged bad vibes rained down upon them in 1938.

    Comment by dave r — July 8, 2011 @ 12:37 am

  4. I just read Wald’s piece and didn’t see the malicious tone you attribute to it in his comments made in passing on Camejo’s book. In fact, Wald makes a point of eschewing such demonization as a problem inherent in factionalism being a reason why it should be avoided. No, I really don’t think Wald’s comments were intended to be interpreted in that light at all.

    Comment by Tom Cod — July 8, 2011 @ 3:01 am

  5. yikes,yet another lengthy piece on the degeneration of the SWP which takes a swipe at Cannon/Trotsky. Surely Trotsky/Cannon and old Morris Stein can’t be held responsible for the actions of Barnes and his crew?

    Comment by Damien — July 9, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

  6. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition etc….”

    As an active member for several years, I honestly don’t think this quote bears much relation to the general attitude of the (British) Socialist Workers Party in theory or practice. As for the American SWP, I don’t know enough to say. However, that’s exactly the problem: you continually conflate the American SWP with the British SWP, despite knowing fine well that they are completely separate organisations. That habit produces more smoke than light. If you want to criticise the British SWP then please feel free to do so, but do it on the basis of that party itself rather than always insisting on relating it to your own experiences in the American SWP.

    Comment by John — July 11, 2011 @ 1:21 am

  7. John you’ve misread the section before your quote. I’ve read this blog for a while and generally support the British SWP’s outlook and I don’t think Lou conflates the 2 SWP’S.

    “In reality, there is a spectrum of possibilities for such “democratic centralist” groups that extends from the fairly normal like the British SWP…”

    “To focus on the American SWP’s transformation…there is no better place to go than the remarks that Morris Stein, James P. Cannon’s top lieutenant, made to the 1944 convention: …”

    Comment by meltr — July 11, 2011 @ 2:06 am

  8. I’ve said this before – I’ll say it again: Alternatives to the Democrat Party are heading down the pike big time.

    Canary in cage: New Jersey. Stephen Sweeney, Senate President, sold out workers with support to Christy. Thousands of union members remember this. My wife being one of them. For years she refused to vote outside the Dems. Now she definitely will! Attribute that partly to my incompetence in the art of persuasion and partly to the required learning curve for workers to understand bourgeois politics. A prior comment here (Dave R.) rings true to me and these abstract historical arguments from before I was born (1952) , while being extremely important towards developing intellectual arguments, seem largely irrelevant to the class of people who have the interest and energy to become serious activists in the coming struggles.

    I was a YSA’r from Indiana Univ. Joined SWP mid 70’s, dropped out after 3 years. My wife is 12 years younger and at the age of 46 missed out of the anti-war movement, listened to different music, in general has an entirely different life experience than mine. But she is radicalizing at her own pace because of the current economic crisis which is far deeper than folks my age can ever imagine.

    When I talk about my experiences, I can only imagine who weird it may sound to her, and probably the same way I felt when I was in college and listened to folks from the ’40’s recalling their experiences.

    Let’s not be tame and restrained. Let’s not repeat the mistakes made by the SWP. Let’s not focus on whether the ERA will be law while workers are burning flags, smoking dope, and chanting openly for NLF victory.

    If anything, we old radicals need to flame those flames and listen. Let’s be spontaneous and unjudgmental. Forget about giving them library cards with bib lists longer and more boring than an SWP pamphlet on feminism.

    Comment by Hugh B. — July 11, 2011 @ 9:19 am

  9. Nice to see Art Preis’s “Labor’s Giant Step” mentioned. An important book in understanding the disastrous consequences of Labor’s bureaucratic orientation to the Democratic Party.

    In your rundown of unprincipled political attacks within the SWP there are better examples than the Cochranites and Shachman-Burnham grouping. There were real political differences at the time. And:
    “…Furthermore, this is the same crap that was thrown at Max Shachtman and his grouping by Trotsky.” Considering Shachtman’s political trajectory just before and after leaving the SWP including Schachtmanite collaboration in the purging of communists in the UAW and position during the Vietnam War, Trotsky rightly smelled a rat.

    Comment by Rick Tudor — July 11, 2011 @ 2:31 pm

  10. Trotsky rightly smelled a rat.

    I have dealt with this elsewhere:

    Another key element of Trotskyist sectarianism is its tendency to turn every serious political fight into a conflict between worker and petty-bourgeoisie. Every challenge to party orthodoxy, unless the party leader himself mounts it, represents the influence of alien class influences into the proletarian vanguard. Every Trotskyist party in history has suffered from this crude sociological reductionism, but the American Trotskyists were the unchallenged masters of it.

    Soon after the split from the SP and the formation of the Socialist Workers Party, a fight broke out in the party over the character of the Soviet Union. Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and James Burnham led one faction based primarily in New York. It stated that the Soviet Union was no longer a worker’s state and it saw the economic system there as being in no way superior to capitalism. This opposition also seemed to be less willing to oppose US entry into WWII than the Cannon group, which stood on Zimmerwald “defeatist” orthodoxy.

    Shachtman and Abern were full-time party workers with backgrounds similar to Cannon’s. Burnham was a horse of a different color. He was an NYU philosophy professor who was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He reputedly would show up at party meetings in top hat and tails, since he was often on the way to the opera.

    Burnham became the paradigm of the whole opposition, despite the fact that Shachtman and Abern’s family backgrounds were identical to Cannon’s. Cannon and Trotsky tarred the whole opposition with the petty- bourgeois brush. They stated that the workers would resist war while the petty-bourgeois would welcome it. It was the immense pressure of the petty-bourgeois intelligentsia outside the SWP that served as a source for these alien class influences. Burnham was the “Typhoid Mary” of these petty-bourgeois germs.

    However, it is simply wrong to set up a dichotomy between some kind of intrinsically proletarian opposition to imperialist war and petty-bourgeois acceptance of it. The workers have shown themselves just as capable of bending to imperialist war propaganda as events surrounding the Gulf War show. The primarily petty-bourgeois based antiwar movement helped the Vietnamese achieve victory. It was not coal miners or steel workers who provided the shock-troops for the Central America solidarity movement of the 1980’s. It was lawyers, doctors, computer programmers, Maryknoll nuns, and aspiring circus clowns like the martyred Ben Linder who did. Furthermore, it would be interesting to do a rigorous class analysis of the Shachtman-Burnham-Abern opposition. Most of its rank- and-file members were probably Jewish working-class people who more than anybody would be susceptible to pro-war sentiment during this period. When the Nazis were repressing Jews throughout Europe, it’s no surprise that American Jews would end up supporting US participation in WWII.

    With Trotsky’s help, Cannon defeated the opposition. Burnham shifted to the right almost immediately and eventually became a columnist with William F. Buckley’s “National Review”. Shachtman remained a socialist until his final years, but like Lovestone who preceded him, eventually embraced a right-wing version of socialism that was largely indistinguishable from cold-war liberalism. Unreconstructed Trotskyists might point to the trajectory of Shachtman and Burnham and crow triumphantly, “See it was destined to happen! The middle-class will always betray socialism.”

    full: http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/organization/lenin_in_context.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — July 11, 2011 @ 2:36 pm

  11. “Cannon and Trotsky tarred the whole opposition with the petty- bourgeois brush. They stated that the workers would resist war while the petty-bourgeois would welcome it”

    This was not a -Workerist- view for Trotsky (and little more complex than the statement above) and in part goes back to WW1 when he and Lenin saw the Socialist and Social Democratic parties of Europe become patriotic supporters of their respective nations in leading their working classes into that inter-imperialist blood bath.

    Comment by Rick Tudor — July 11, 2011 @ 3:15 pm

  12. Rick, my problem with this schema is that for the past 45 years or so the vanguard of the antiwar movement in the US has come from the middle class rather than the working class. Shachtman’s evolution into a cold warrior did not reflect so much his class background but a susceptibility to cold war pressures that affected almost the entire left. During WWII, there was *no* difference between the SWP and Shachtman’s party with respect to the character of the war. There was no social patriotism from the Shachtmanites. Here’s an article from the Shachtmanite magazine in 1941 when war fever was at its peak. It urges workers to strike in favor of their class interests:

    Indeed, it has only begun. The attempt to suppress it violently in advance or to smother it with Judas-kisses, will, given the mood and needs of the American workers, be easier in the trying than in the succeeding. Success requires more brutal blows than the American bourgeoisie will be able to deliver in the next few months, at the very least, and a far more poisonous dose of imperialist patriotism and class collaboration than they have yet shot into the veins of the working class.

    The American bourgeoisie is strong and brutal and shrewd; it still has great wealth and resources. But is it resourceful enough to satisfy the growing appetite of the workers? Or is it strong enough to curb that appetite? Not in our opinion. The least that one must say is that it would most certainly be premature to declare American labor licked!

    The signs point to struggles ahead. Wartime may prove to be the biggest wartime the American proletariat has ever had in its fight against the enemy at home!

    full: http://www.marxists.org/archive/shachtma/1941/04/wartime.htm

    Comment by louisproyect — July 11, 2011 @ 3:25 pm

  13. I think Louis is essentially correct with his analysis of the class forces, or lack thereof, involved in the movement against the war in Vietnam and the solidarity movement around central America in the 1980’s, with the caveat that there was substantial union involvement associated with the latter. The only thing I would add is that in times of war — world war, that is — it is the workers of the world who suffer the most, both in terms of life lost, injury and economic ruination, and therefore can realistically be expected to come, with time, to be more uniform in opposing such ventures. The upper echelons of the middle-class, no to mention the members of the ruling-class, by virtue of individual wealth and connections, can often times shelter themselves and their families from such dire realities. This is especially true when world war, as is usually the case, or is always the case, is preceded by depression and attacks of democratic rights at home. And of course there is the basic Marxist premise, which we all agree on, that it is the working-class that has the power to stop war and, through the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat, prevent it from occurring in the first place.

    Comment by dave r — July 11, 2011 @ 3:29 pm

  14. True, until the continuation of the war in South East Asia was opposed by more or less the majority of Americans -the anti-war movement was led and consisted mostly of middle-class activists whether students, independents, religious or Marxist. Although the middle-class, as a class, supported the war. And the same can be said of every war or act of war since.

    And sometimes nothing can muddy a political discussion of differences more than throwing working class credentials on the table that supposedly trumps any other point of view. Hopefully when Marxists talk about the working class they’re talking about the social and economic class that leads to socialism, not what amount of hardscrabble lineage defines an individual’s class authenticity and gives them political authority in a party situation.

    Comment by Rick Tudor — July 11, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  15. Which class someone is born into is mostly irrelevant. When it comes to politics, what’s important is which class one adopts.

    Comment by dave r — July 11, 2011 @ 4:33 pm

  16. Trotsky and Cannon were talking about program. Abandoning Soviet defensism was a caving in to the political pressure of the pb milieu that was indeed far larger than the SWP. But these type of splits take years to play themselves out. In 1903, there was no huge programmatic difference between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks — those emerged over time. Certainly the WP had some correct positions vs. the SWP in the 1940s, but Shactman did wind up supporting the Bay of Pigs and the US in Vietnam. The SWP was losing its way in the 1950s — if Cochran had not been defeated it would have meant the end of the SWP as a Trotskyist organization. Cannon’s Speeches to the Party about that fight is a great book. Too bad the party fell apart a short time later becoming uncritical supporters of Castro and an auxiliary to the Dems in the anti-war movement.

    Comment by Hamilton Bohn — July 11, 2011 @ 5:51 pm

  17. If Cochran had not been defeated it would have meant the end of the SWP as a Trotskyist organization.

    Yeah, too bad he lost…

    Comment by louisproyect — July 11, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

  18. Louis Proyect appears to be saying that the SWP was wrecked because of a Barnesite cult of personality. In this sense Louis sounds a bit like Khruschev making his secret speech to the communist leaders. A more likely reason is, that the SWP simply did not know what to do with people, after it had recruited them.

    The party would run a campaign, and this would attract some people. These people then had to be educated in the Program, and then they had to go forth and convert new souls to the Program, testifying, selling newspapers, and so on. The Trotskyist party model was essentially military, reified and hierarchical. This, together with the “turn to industry” (affectionately known as the “brutal turn”) was sufficient to cause disaffection from most of a generation of intelligent activists.

    While a small remnant of fanatical, heroic cadres gradually exhausted and wasted themselves away in one soul-destroying job after another, the workerist party ideology increasingly began to resemble a Mormon religion.

    In summary, the party was destroyed, principally because it used people as tools – instead of affirming them in more fullfilling lives, where they could make their political contribution according to their own true nature. The SWP held out the promise of emancipating people. But people ended up being used.

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — July 11, 2011 @ 10:59 pm

  19. I found Party life to be devoid of joy and drudgery. Most of the leaders were self-important and humourless. It was actually worse than living in capitalism. Little martinets walking around shoving party rules in my face over the smallest acts of individualism, e.g. choosing what “fraction” activities I felt an affinity with. I felt frustrated and bolted. When I recently resubscribed I was soberly reminded that things had not changed: more news about their silly sub drives and boring anecdotes from folks they sold subs to. Really. How absurd. I sold subs and I did well because I was unafraid of forcing myself on people. It had little reflection of the mood of the class, rather it was sales technique.

    Comment by Hugh B. — July 13, 2011 @ 1:48 am

  20. Jurriaan — the party does not exist to help you fulfill yourself, unless that fulfillment specifically revolves around making a socialist revolution. The SWP fell apart not because it “used” people — any revolutionary party, or viable organization for that matter, uses people. The SWP of Barnes, used people up, because they had no interest in developing revolutionaries, just obedient cultists. It’s strange that some people on this list think that the antiwar movement in this country ended the Vietnam War. Gosh, I thought it was the Vietnamese that defeated bloody US imperialism, and their puppets, on the battle field. Anyway, the SWP’s turn to labor was just a cynical ploy. But industrial fractions are a necessity for any organization looking to make a proletarian revolution. And Louis, I must say you have become quite the anti-trotskyist.

    Comment by Hamiltone Bohn — July 14, 2011 @ 2:25 am

  21. Hamiltone Bone, you articulate very well the ideology of the New Marxist Exploiting Class, which uses sympathy for the oppressed and discontent about the status quo in its climb to power. Of course a political party of any sort does not exist simply for the fullfillment of its members. Everybody can agree with that. But at the very least, you might expect that if you join a political party which accords with your beliefs, that this party affirms you in your identity and aids you to be a better human being and a better political actor. If the party merely exploits you, uses you and wears you out, it is not worth volunteering for that party. The basic problem of the SWP was that it was an anti-humanist and anti-human party; it always had an image of the “true revolutionary” (even if the model revolutionary changed across time) and people had to fit in with that. Human beings were merely tools for the party leaders in their grandiose class struggle schemes for more power. The SWP projected images of struggle, glory, liberation, self-sacrifice and philosophical profundity in order to attract idealistic volunteers who could be molded into cadres for the party machine. But in reality they raped the lives of these cadres. What is the point anyway of building a secretive, semi-legal party of bolshevik revolutionaries in a non-revolutionary era, where the vast majority of people are focused on public, democratic debates and discussions? Would you rather have had Peter Camejo or Stephanie Coontz or Alan Wald waste away their lives job-hopping from one soul-destroying factory job to another and selling copies of the Militant? Underlying the SWP model was a truly bizarre understanding of human development, and a bizarre, reified understanding of the relationship between the personal and the political. Personally, I do not accept the idea that the SWP was “healthy” in its “glory days” and in some year degenerated. It was *never* healthy to start off with. Jim Cannon was somebody who wanted to be somebody that he really wasn’t – no wonder he would get blind drunk at regular intervals. I can only express regret that self-styled “revolutionaries” cling, ultra-conservatively, to a badly understood tradition – which they aim to follow to the letter – when, in doing so, they strangle their own project, and their own lives!

    Comment by Jurriaan Bendien — July 18, 2011 @ 10:34 am

  22. […] I don’t agree with Alan’s description of the SWP’s 1971 perspective as predicting “a permanent deepening and spread of the 1960s student radicalization as the premise for its strategy.”  My understanding is that, as George Breitman explained at the 1970 Oberlin conference, the SWP leadership saw the radicalization of minorities, youth, students and others as the beginning of a coming general working class radicalization.  In his critique of Alan’s article, Louis Proyect quotes the brilliant SWP National Committee member Robert DesVerney (“Robert Vernon’) explaining to young Louis in the latter 1960s that “The way the SWP will recruit workers is by recruiting lots and lots of students“. […]

    Pingback by A response to Alan Wald’s article on the SWP « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 6, 2011 @ 4:07 pm

  23. Barnes’s REAL crime, his original sin was that he watered down Trotskyism and Marxism until ultimately they were no longer recognizable. Barnes made a vile mockery of the Trotskyist program. He turned Trotskyism into a namby-pamby narodnism (people power with some socialist flavoring) in the eyes radical students and thus lost them to the revolutionary cause.

    Barnes was able to get away with what he did because Dobbs/Kerry/Breitman et. al. were dog-tired of living in the SWP’s isolation for decades. They eagerly followed this Pied Piper of eccentric reformism in the vain hope that their years of hanging on by their fingernails to Trotskyist orthodoxy would suddenly bear fruit under Barnes’s grandiose and delusional schemes.

    Barnes personifies the watering down and eventual jettisoning of Trotskyism in the hopes of short-circuiting the infuriatingly slow historical process of building a revolutionary party. He was able to get away with it because the older cadres of the SWP were tired and desperate for some modicum of success via his get-rich-quick reformism. They gave him the reins of leadership, but Barnes drove their wagon into the ditch of history.

    Comment by Alexander Gorse — February 27, 2013 @ 7:23 am


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