Whether you agree or don’t agree with Barry Sheppard’s analysis of the decline and eventual collapse of the Socialist Workers Party, volume two of his memoir titled Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988 is must reading. As one of the more important groups on the American left since its founding by James P. Cannon in the 1920s as a faction of the CP to its transformation into a bizarre cult around Jack Barnes having little in common with its past, it is worth studying both as a positive and negative example.
Seen as official history, Sheppard’s book has none of the missionary zeal of James P. Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism. This is almost inevitable given the sorry state of the group called the SWP today. Instead of using the history as some kind of peg to hang organizational and political lessons from, Sheppard lets the facts speak for themselves. Although he is unsparing when it comes to Barnes’s role in destroying the SWP, he is always fair and dispassionate. Considering the hair-raising account of how he was driven first from the leadership and then from the party itself, Sheppard’s tone is remarkably detached.
Back in the 1980s, when I paid much closer attention to the SWP, I was always eager to hear the latest gossip—especially who had left the party voluntarily or not. I can remember the shock I felt when I learned in 1988 that Barry had been expelled for using a restroom designated for women at a summertime national gathering of the faithful at Oberlin University. How in the world does a top leader of a party who had been a member for 29 years get booted out for such a trivial offense? The Cochranite faction had been expelled in the 1950s for supposedly boycotting a party celebration of the founding of the Trotskyist movement as a current independent from the CP but one could never imagine James P. Cannon putting Harry Braverman on trial for using a woman’s restroom. As they say, farce follows tragedy.
As it turns out, the restroom incident was the climax of a long-running vendetta against Barry Sheppard going back to 1978 when he told Jack Barnes that he was concerned about how he was turning the political committee into a “one-man band”. Interestingly enough, Barry had shared his concerns a few weeks earlier with Mary-Alice Waters, who had just broken up with Barnes. Waters, who would eventually become a secondary cult figure beneath Barnes, admitted that Barry and Caroline Lund, his long-time companion and party leader, had been treated in an “untoward” manner by Barnes.
Barnes’s reaction to Sheppard’s concerns was to tell him that “I can’t imagine the SWP without you or Mary-Alice”, an obvious threat that they were dispensable. This, I should add, was long before the massive expulsions of the early 80s and just around the time that many people in the SWP—including me—began to feel that something was wrong, even if we couldn’t put our finger on it at the time.
Although I had viewed Barry in the past as being cut from the same cloth as Jack, I now realize how wrong I was. Like Peter Camejo, he took some significant risks in challenging the sectarian turn of the SWP but unlike Peter (or Bert Cochran) never considered starting a new organization. From 1978 to his resignation in 1988 (he was not actually expelled for the restroom incident), he did everything in his power to reverse the suicidal “turn” of the SWP except form an open faction that he knew would result in his expulsion. In explaining his refusal to go “all the way” and in even being complicit in the SWP’s transformation into a sect, Barry explains the power of “shunning” in such groups:
I had devoted my life to building and leading the SWP. The prospect of being out of it was terrifying and inconceivable. I knew I would be shunned by my former comrades and closest friends, as well as by the membership at large that had looked up to me as a central leader and teacher for decades. Under this pressure, I now see, I did everything I could to please Jack in the (vain) hope I would be spared the axe.
Barry adds that shunning is not limited to the SWP. Religious groups like the Catholic Church were the first to adopt it. Furthermore, other left groups have used the practice as well, as his quote from Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism bears out:
A wall of ostracism separated us from the party members…We were cut off from our old associations without having new ones to go to. There was no organization we might join, where new friends and co-workers might be found … We lived in those first days under a form of pressure which is in many respects the most terrific that can be brought to bear against a human – social ostracism from people of one’s own kind.
A few comments are in order here that perhaps Barry hadn’t considered. To begin with, this dilemma was faced primarily by those with a far greater investment in the group than the average rank-and-filer like me. When I decided to resign in late 1978, the last thing I was worried about was losing “friends”. I had already been shunned by most of the party for failing to carry out the “turn” on a personal level. The organizer of the Kansas City branch had bet my best friend $5 that I would not be able to get a job in industry. When I heard about that, I felt like a piece of shit. The slightest additional affront to my political dignity was enough to persuade me to resign.
That moment arrived when a plenum report to the branch in November laid down the law: comrades would no longer be taking “skilled” jobs as machinists or welders. We had to be among the most down-trodden workers in textile and meatpacking plants, etc. Since I had just completed an arduous course—at least for a 33 year old computer programmer—in lathes and milling machines at a local high school (good enough for an instructor to recommend me to Bendix, the largest factory in town), I decided to resign. As I put it to my friend (a machinist at the time, now a highly skilled programmer at Cisco), I felt like I was in the back seat of a car barreling down the highway at 80 miles an hour with nobody in the driver’s seat.
Probably an additional 500 members of the SWP would resign, just as I had. The “turn” was just not worth it. If there were real political benefits to working in industry, you wouldn’t have to pressure members to get industrial jobs. For these comrades, being in the SWP at the time was much like being “shunned”. You felt like you didn’t belong. So a decision to quit came relatively easy.
Perhaps the kind of party we need allows members to have their own social life and family ties. I would go so far as to assert that the “turn” was doomed from the start because it did not allow ordinary working people to participate in party affairs on their own terms. Most of the young SWP’ers who went into industry were treated cordially and listened to respectfully but when it came to recruitment, every worker fully understood that membership norms prevented them from having any kind of life outside the party. That is a guarantee that the party would remain largely composed of college youth, even if they were temporarily employed in industry. Every single member of the Kansas City branch who was in industry in 1978 has resigned and is now working in the kinds of jobs that a college education would qualify them for.
Additionally, while alluding to religious groups, Barry does not connect the dotted lines. As should be obvious to the critical thinker, one of the main problems with groups like the SWP is that they incorporate the mindset of the religious sect. Instead of trying to defend the True Faith based on the interpretation of scripture, you have Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky serving as prophets meant to be interpreted in the correct fashion. In place of a pope, you have Great Leaders who are entrusted with preserving the “revolutionary continuity” going back to Marx. In most instances, such a methodology simply imposes a glass ceiling on small propaganda groups whose particular interpretation of Marx and the lesser gods may not be acceptable to the broader left. But when the group has a psychopath in charge, like Barnes or a Gerry Healy, the end result is a catastrophic implosion.
The best thing, of course, is to abandon this model—something I will say more about presently. But in the meantime I want to single out some of the more fascinating and instructive passages in Sheppard’s book.
Keeping in mind that the SWP began to withdraw from the mass movement in 1977 during the early stages of the turn, there’s not much grist for the mill. But in one exceptional chapter that deals with the “The Boston Busing War”, Barry reminds the reader of what the SWP was capable of in its prime.
In 1974, after a federal judge ruled that Boston had to desegregate its schools, a viciously racist campaign against busing began under the command of Louise Day Hicks, a Democratic Party City Councilperson. Despite its past embrace of Black Nationalism, the SWP understood that this fight against Jim Crow style racism was worth supporting and threw its considerable resources into building the struggle, working closely with the city’s NAACP—an organization long regarded as hopelessly accommodationist and middle-class. The Black community’s more radical activists understood the urgency of the cause, as demonstrated by the U. of Massachusetts’s Ujima Society’s call for a protest.
Although Barry’s chief goal is to shed light on historical events, there is some food for thought on more recent problems involving the black bloc. Although the autonomist tactic had not been invented at this point, the Marxists in Workers World Party felt the need to “radicalize” people through confrontations with the cops.
State Senator Owen came late to the teach-in but told [SWP leader Maceo] Dixon in private that the march route, which had been negotiated with the police, would be secretly changed, so as to lead to a confrontation with the police.
The march had been advertised as a peaceful mass action. Owens and YAWF [the WWP’s youth group] were attempting to dupe the great majority of those coming to the march into a fight with the police, without their knowledge or consent. This secret plan was contemptuous of the demonstrators. YAWF knew it could never get approval of the overwhelming majority of protestors for such a confrontation, so it plotted to trick them into it.
Sheppard’s discussion of how the SWP’s mass action strategy effectively trumped such ultraleftism is worth studying by today’s activists. Although I look back at my membership in the SWP mostly with regret, I have to admit that my views on mass action versus adventurism were largely shaped by my experience in the antiwar movement. In its heyday, the SWP was an exemplar of mass action. Through its words and its deeds, it helped to influence an entire generation of activists. That, of course, is what makes its eventual self-isolation so sad.
Since he was assigned to international work through most of the late 70s and early 80s, a majority of the chapters are devoted to revolutionary movements in Iran, Nicaragua, Grenada and elsewhere. The chapters on Iran are particularly gripping since they also deal with an issue that still bedevils the left, namely how Marxists should relate to Islamic movements.
In particular, the role of the Hezb-e Kargaran Sosialist (Farsi for Socialist Workers Party) is closely examined. The HKS was strongly influenced by the American SWP, a natural outcome of many of its members having become part of the party’s periphery when they were students in the U.S. The Mossadeqhist and Maoist-led Confederation of Iranian Students was in the forefront of protests everywhere, even if it was not above trying to drive Trotskyists out of the movement, sometimes resorting to violence.
The HKS was led by Babak Zahraie, an extraordinarily courageous and principled young man probably best known for his debate with Minister of Finance Abolhassan Bani-Sadr in April 1979 (Bani-Sadr would eventually become Prime Minister.) Bani-Sadr had challenged the Marxists in Iran to debate him and only the HKS took up the challenge since the rest of the left had decided to accommodate itself to the Islamic Republic in one manner or another—at least for the time being until the great repression began.
The debate was watched by 22 million Iranians and was covered by the two major Iranian newspapers. Reporting for the Militant, Gerry Foley noted:
The favorite formula of the Muslim politicians is that the Islamic Republic means national independence. Zahraie demolished that point by showing how the Barzagan government is doing nothing to combat the wrecking of the economy by the big imperialist corporations. He contrasted this passivity with the bold moves the Castro leadership took in Cuba to break the power of the imperialists and rebuild the economy…
As was the case in 1979, the most pressing political task in Iran today is to build a working-class movement that is capable of challenging undemocratic and state-capitalist cleric rule. Back in 1979 the SWP was capable of providing some useful guidance to a fledgling group like the HKS. Today it has nothing to show for its “internationalism” except satellite “Communist Leagues” that sell the Militant newspaper even in non-English-speaking countries.
One of the games that ex-SWP’ers like to play, especially those of us who feel burned by the experience, is to read the Militant online and try to figure out who is in disfavor with Jack Barnes. If you see that someone prominent no longer writes for the paper nor has their name mentioned, we speculate on the meaning as was the fashion with Stalin photographs on May Day. Who was in the photo? Who had disappeared from view? How close were they to the tyrant?
Toward the end of his career in the SWP, Barry became like one of these cold war epoch figures. But instead of being sent to a gulag, his fate was to take a series of assignments that represented demotions. One of them was becoming branch organizer in New York City, which was analogous to the Senior Vice President of Marketing at General Motors being asked to take over a dealership in New Jersey.
In chapter thirty, titled “I Leave the Leadership”, Barry describes taking the assignment of NY organizer as knowing “that it was in part intended to keep me out of the National Office, as was the previous assignment [of branch organizer] to San Francisco.” Ironically, the work that Barry did in New York was something that he should have been proud of, even though it was a demotion. Showing utter fearlessness and a devotion to his revolutionary principles, he defied the idiocies of the turn and made the New York local an oasis within the SWP’s arid landscape. Although no bodily risk was ever involved in his work there, I could not help but think of Ralph Levitt’s description of Barry in a comment on my blog:
At a rally (in NYC or DC) a PLer confronted Barry, trying to pick a fight. The PLer was much bigger but Barry didn’t back down an inch (Barry didn’t know it but there were several of nearby and to his rear—we were ready to jump in.). Barry showed a lot of guts.
Barry’s account offers an alternative route that the SWP could have taken:
I found the New York branch to be in bad shape, desultory and demoralized. Wendy Lyons was the Newark branch organizer, which had been in a common district with the New York branch shortly before I got there. Wendy and Olga were both upset. They felt they had been under attack from Ken Shilman, the previous district organizer. Shilman had moved to the Bay Area, and subsequently resigned from the SWP. After Caroline and I left the party in 1988, I visited the Bay Area and talked to Ken, who told me he had been under attack by Craig Gannon in the National Office. At the time (1983), it appeared to me that the pressure against Wendy and Olga was that they were not being aggressive enough in driving out members who failed to get industrial jobs. The pressure was obviously coming from Jack Barnes through both Gannon and Shilman.
I sought to reverse all of this, an indication I was becoming critical of the way the turn was being carried out. I quickly established good relations with Lyons and Rodriguez. I began to resist the forced-march character of the turn to industry, and both branches started to breathe easier. The spirit of the Newark branch was pretty good. I met with the New York branch executive committee to discuss the malaise in the branch, which was still our largest with nearly 100 members. The nine members of the executive committee including myself divided up the branch membership, with the task of personally discussing one on one with each member how they viewed the branch and their role.
We found indeed dissatisfaction and demoralization. We halted the pressure on members to go into industry who were not in a position to do so. The branch began to rally and do more outside work, including public forums, sales, and participation in antiwar actions.
The utter collapse of the SWP certainly is a negative example of what Plekhanov described as the role of the individual in history:
Thus, the personal qualities of leading people determine the individual features of historical events; and the accidental element, in the sense that we have indicated, always plays some role in the course of these events, the trend of which is determined in the last analysis by so-called general causes, i.e. actually by the development of productive forces and the mutual relations between men in the social-economic process of production. Casual phenomena and the personal qualities of celebrated people are ever so much more noticeable than deep-lying general causes.
So to put it bluntly, if Jack Barnes had been hit by a bus in 1978, the leadership of the SWP would have been taken up by Barry Sheppard who would have not gone “nutty”. Nobody can ever have the definitive word on what took place between Jack Barnes’s ears but clearly we are dealing with classical Trotskyist mania of the sort that befell Gerry Healy, Juan Posadas and other infamous characters.
One can easily imagine an SWP that would have 5000 members today, that could have been played a crucial role in the Iraq antiwar movement, and providing solidarity with the Occupy movement rather than writing ridiculous articles accusing it of being “petty bourgeois”. In other words, it might look a lot like the British SWP.
That being said, the chances of such a group emerging today are guarded at best. The ISO, a group that Barry openly admires, is following a methodology that is much closer to the SWP in its ascendancy but that methodology must be interrogated at this point in history. I had hopes that Barry would have taken up the James P. Cannon organizational principles at some point in his book, most assuredly to defend them, but his primary focus was on chronicling the SWP’s rise and fall—a fall that pretty much is blamed on Jack Barnes’s personal failings.
I want to conclude with some responses to general party-building questions in volume two of Barry’s memoir, fully understanding that they do not detract from its overall value. In chapter six, titled “Two Views of Internationalism”, he writes:
Cannon had learned from bitter experience the evils of what he termed “Cominternism” in the early years of the U.S. Communist Party (CP). He was a founding member of one of the two Communist parties that emerged from the left wing of the U.S. Socialist Party that supported the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent formation of the Communist International. These groups eventually succeeded in fusing to form a united Communist Party. This fusion was helped along by the leaders of the Communist International, who also had some sharp disagreements politically with the newly won comrades in the United States. But at no time did the leadership of the International at the time of Lenin and Trotsky ever order the U.S. groups what to do organizationally, or impose a political line upon them. In those days, it was understood that such methods ran counter to the goal of building real revolutionary parties with self-confident leaderships. Patient explanation and discussion was the rule. It was under the growing counter-revolution in the USSR led by Joseph Stalin that the Communist International over a period of years was turned into its opposite. From an international organization of democratic parties that largely decided their own affairs in pursuit of a worldwide socialist revolution, the parties of the Comintern were turned into lickspittle groups run by Moscow in pursuit of the current political line of the rising Soviet bureaucracy. Stalin’s new theory of promoting “socialism in one country” provided the justification for this transformation. More and more, the Kremlin dictated the policies and even the selection of leaders in every country.
In reality, “Cominternism” was a problem long before Stalin consolidated his grip on power. I have covered this in considerable detail in an article titled The Comintern and the German Communist Party and will now recapitulate a few points.
As my own research and Pierre Broue’s point out, the German Communist Party was certainly subject to methods that “ran counter to the goal of building real revolutionary parties with self-confident leaderships” when Lenin was still alive, and even more tellingly, when Leon Trotsky was in charge of international work second in command to Grigory Zinoviev.
The main agent of Comintern meddling was Bela Kun, an ultraleftist whose instructions to the German party led to disaster repeatedly. When Paul Levi wrote a stinging critique of Comintern interference and a defense of the United Front that Lenin would later embrace, he was expelled for violating “democratic centralism”. His removal was as illegitimate as any expulsion from the SWP in the early 80s.
Levi was replaced by Herman Brandler, who was far more pliable. In 1923 Brandler was summoned to the Kremlin where he was given marching orders to lead an insurrection timed to coincide with the anniversary of the Russian Revolution:
Quoting from my article:
At a Politburo meeting on August 23, 1923 Germany’s prospects were discussed. Trotsky was optimistic about victory and predicted that a showdown would occur in a matter of weeks. Zinvoiev was also optimistic, but was reluctant to commit to a timetable. Only Stalin voiced skepticism about an immanent uprising. A subcommittee was established to supervise the German revolution. Radek, who had only a year earlier made a batty proposal for an alliance with the ultraright, became the head of this group.
The German revolution became the dominant theme of Russian politics from that moment on. Workers agreed to a wage freeze in order to help subsidize the German uprising. Women were asked at public meetings to donate their wedding rings and other valuables for the German cause. Revolutionary slogans were coined, like “German Steam Hammer and Soviet Bread will Conquer the World!”
There was only slight problem. The head of the German Communist Party was simply not up to the task of leading a revolution and was the first to admit it. This cautious, phlegmatic functionary was a former trade union official and bore all the characteristics of this breed. He had been implicated in the failed ultraleft uprising of 1921 and was not eager to go out on a limb again.
When Brandler got to Moscow, the Bolshevik leaders cornered him and pressured him into accepting their call for a revolutionary showdown. What was key in their calculations was the likelihood that a bold action by the Communist Party would inevitably galvanize the rest of the working class into action. Once again, an element of Blanquism had colored the thinking of the Bolshevik leaders. They assumed that the scenario that had occurred in Russia in 1917 would also occur in Germany. This was an unwarranted assumption that was fed by a combination of romanticism and despair. Romanticism about the prospects of a quick victory and despair over the USSR’s deepening isolation.
Brandler’s failure led to a deep crisis in the Soviet Communist Party. Zinoviev, like Jack Barnes in the 1980s, refused to admit his failure and decided instead to clamp down on dissident views in the world movement in the name of Bolshevization, a crude and mechanical attempt to impose the norms of Lenin’s party on other parties, including the Communist Party of the United States.
Again, quoting from my article:
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.
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’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.
Although I doubt that Peter Camejo ever paid any mind to these fairly obscure moments in American socialist history, it was their end-product that he sought to supersede when he launched the North Star Network in the early 80s. As Lynn Henderson, a former SWP leader and victim of Jack Barnes’s purges, put it in a review of volume two of Barry’s memoir put it: “Another sector, falsely wishes to trace the roots of the Barnes regime degeneration back to James P. Cannon and even Lenin and Trotsky.”
While I would not quite put it in this fashion, I would generally go along with the notion that the problems of the SWP go back to Cannon, and “even Lenin and Trotsky”. Unlike Henderson, however, I don’t think that the strategy and tactics of these revolutionary socialists was ever at fault. Indeed, when reading Barry’s memoir, both volume one and volume two, I was reminded of all the accomplishments of the SWP that were based on “mass action”, or what has sometimes been called “proletarian methods of struggle”.
What we have to get rid of, however, is the peculiar understanding of “Leninism” or “democratic centralism” that dates back to the early 1920s and that was adopted uncritically by all Comintern type parties, either during Lenin’s lifetime or under Trotsky’s Fourth International. They have spawned schism after schism and imposed glass ceilings on organizations that had the capacity to reach 5 million rather than 5 thousand.
In a time of deepening crisis, we have to become much more flexible in the way that we define a revolutionary movement. In James P. Cannon’s world, this meant using a certain interpretation of the “Russian questions” as a litmus test for recruits to the party. A much better litmus test would involve how you stand on the Democratic Party, the problem of bureaucracy in the trade union movement, immigrants’ rights and other issues that all socialists can agree with. When you stop and think about it, this kind of program is not that different from the one that Lenin considered back in 1899:
We think that the working-class party should define the demands made on this point more thoroughly and in greater detail; the party should demand: 1) an eight-hour working day; 2) prohibition of night-work and prohibition of the employment of children under 14 years of age; 3) uninterrupted rest periods, for every worker, of no less than 36 hours a week; 4) extension of factory legislation and the Factory Inspectorate to all branches of industry and agriculture, to government factories, to artisan establishments, and to handicraftsmen working at home; election, by the workers, of assistant inspectors having the same rights as the inspectors; 5) establishment of factory and rural courts for all branches of industry and agriculture, with judges elected from the employers and the workers in equal numbers; etc.
Considering the fact that our situation today is not that different than the one faced by Russian socialists a bit more than a century ago (geographical dispersion, lack of a common voice, etc.), perhaps it is a good idea to go back to the drawing board and come up with an approach more like the historical Russian social democracy rather than the distorted version that has been handed down to us over the ages.
A review of volume one is here.