Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

April 5, 2012

A review of volume two of Barry Sheppard’s memoir

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism,socialism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 5:40 pm

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.


  1. Excellent review. One small bone to pick, however, regards the narrative about the Boston struggle. As I recall Workers World’s rendition was completely the opposite: that its route or the previously planned route had been arrived at openly and that it was Democratic Party politicians with the aid of SWP leaders who consulted behind the scenes and split the march while it was going on based on an exaggerated and timid evaluation of the tactical situation. Of course this has to also be evaluated in connection with the decision to “call off” a mass protest on the same basis shortly thereafter. Remember, even “moderates” like King were not inclined to walk away from a fight. Sam Marcy wrote a series of articles on this in Workers World newspaper at the time, but I’ve not been able to locate them online.

    Having said that, there is no question that the activity of the SWP then is a far cry from its sectarian isolation today. Moreover, the work of rank and file SWPers in this anti-racist struggle is something they can and should be proud of, as can the members of the other groups involved, including Workers World which is certainly not perfect either. As none other than Tom Hayden put it in connection with the anti-war movement, “the hard working Trotskyist foot soldiers of the movement” performed incalculably valuable work in building the struggle during that era.

    Comment by Tom Cod — April 5, 2012 @ 6:35 pm

  2. Barry Sheppard’s two volume history of the Socialist Workers Party, from the 1960’s through the 1980’s is an important work. He should be commended for taking up this task, and for admitting his own culpability in the decline of the SWP. I would like to have seen more discussion on the industrial turn of the 1970’s. Louis, in his review mentions members being discouraged from training for more skilled jobs. This was an uneven policy. In Seattle members were given crash courses, I believe as electricians, to qualify for employment at Boeing, and in New York as pipefitters in order to be hired at the Brooklyn Ship Yard. All the rest of us were under intense peer pressure not to take any classes to upgrade our skills.

    Barry and nearly all other former members of the SWP overlook the party abandoning Marx’s theory of the reserve army of the unemployed. This was done by trashing native born low income workers, the unemployed and under employed in private conversations. Of course nothing of this was mentioned in the party press or internal documents. I remember instances of those applying at work places that were extremely competitive to being hired, and then being blamed if they were not part of the small minority of applicants, some times as few as 3 out of a hundred, who were hired. Such an attitude was a turn to the right.

    I remember an instance in Salt Lake City, when a member who was being considered as the SWP candidate for Congress was offered an in house apprenticeship as a welder. He was told he had a choice, the apprenticeship or being the congressional candidate. He turned town the apprenticeship, and was a very effective congressional candidate. He should never have been but in such a position.

    While Barry claims that the SWP never gave support to the Khomeni regime in Iran, they attacked every group that challenged Khomeni. I remember a member who was expelled for being overheard criticizing Khomeni to a contact after a public Militant Forum.

    I agree with Louis, that members of any Socialist group should have the time and the freedom to have normal personal lives. This includes the right to continue one’s education, whether it be graduate school, skills training or apprenticeships. I’ll take up some of Louis’ other points in a later posting.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — April 5, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

  3. My understanding of the Boston struggle, it was the NAACP that called off the march. It was argued that with the major anti racist organization not participating to have continued with the march would have been substitutionism. I wasn’t there, or even a member at the time, so I’ll defer to those of you who were actually in Boston at the time..

    Comment by Ken Morgan — April 5, 2012 @ 7:00 pm

  4. Ken writes: “This was done by trashing native born low income workers, the unemployed and under employed in private conversations. Of course nothing of this was mentioned in the party press or internal documents.”

    Is it possible this came to you in a dream?

    Of all the charges I have heard hurled at the door of the SWP, this is a new one to me. If that were true, why do you suppose the party made such a concerted effort to work with garment and meat-packing workers? In other words, this is simply not credible.

    Memoirs can be fun and interesting, but should be taken with a certain grain of salt, especially since the SWP is not inclined to answer such things, and since the lion’s share of former members who leave the SWP (or any other organization that requires a personal commitment) in an unhappy state tend to date the “degeneration” to the time *they* left. There have been a lot of them lately, with corresponding attachments in the way of reviews, most detailing party history of decades ago. In the case of Sheppard’s entry, Volume Two, the events described begin 39 years ago and end 24 years ago.

    I joined the YSA in 1974. I’m not sure I would have paid much attention to someone airing grievances, even if some of them may have be justified, from a memoir detailing inter-party affairs and disputes from 1935 to 1950.

    I recently attended a party event in NYC that drew 370 attendees. The place didn’t look all that dead to me. But what would I know, I am almost 60 and am half-dead myself.

    Comment by davr r — April 5, 2012 @ 7:48 pm

  5. I cannot recall exactly the origin of the split surrounding that particular Boston march, but I can add something. On the day of the march I remember that Fred Halstead was at the front of the NSCAR (National Student Coalition Against Racism) contingent. I believe that contingent was supported by the Boston NAACP, and Tom Atkins who was the Boston NAACP branch president. The NAACP supported NSCAR’s position because I believe it suspected/realized that Workers World wanted to provoke a confrontation with the cops and the NAACP wanted no part of that.

    On the day of the march the two contingents assembled at different locations and proceeded toward the rally site. When the NSCAR contingent turned a corner, we saw the other contingent, which was led by Sen. Owens and included the WWP people. (I recall that Jon Kifner, the New York Times reporter who covered the Boston busing struggle, was walking along at the front of the Owens contingent – suggesting that the Owens contingent was the official one.) At any rate, I remember Owens raised his arms like he was parting the Red Sea, and the two contingents stopped and faced off. Owens demanded to know what our contingent was and Fred told him it was NSCAR. Both contingents then proceeded to the rally site.

    At the rally, however, members of WWP were pissed and tried to pick a fight with Fred. One of them snatched from Fred’s hands leaflets he was distributing. He then jammed them back into Fred’s face, bloodying Fred’s lip in the process. Me and a couple of others stepped forward to defend Fred and the WWPers drew back. There was no fistfight but there were several “We’ll see you later”-type comments and looks from the WWPers.

    Comment by Baxter Smith — April 5, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  6. Memoirs can be fun and interesting, but should be taken with a certain grain of salt, especially since the SWP is not inclined to answer such things, and since the lion’s share of former members who leave the SWP (or any other organization that requires a personal commitment) in an unhappy state tend to date the “degeneration” to the time *they* left.

    Barry Sheppard was not just “anybody”. He was a leader of the SWP before Jack joined. Also, he did not leave. He was driven out as anybody can figure out. How the fuck do you bring someone up on charges for using the woman’s restroom at Oberlin accidentally? This is prima facie evidence that the SWP had become a nuthouse.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 5, 2012 @ 7:51 pm

  7. I think it’s true, as the post points out, that the SWP’s degeneration politically (and in effect organizationally) started before Barnes ascendancy. In Lynn Henderson’s piece on Vol. 2 of Barry’s memoir he mentions that the effects of isolation and removal from traditions of mass resistance had the party looking inward. No doubt American intellectual traditions had something to do with it also.

    I’m just starting Bryan Palmer’s first volume on Cannon. Palmer wrote a very good piece on Harry Braverman for the Jan 1999 Monthly Review: Before Braverman: Harry Frankel and the American Workers’s Movement.

    Comment by Rick — April 5, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  8. Dave writes:” Is it possible this came to you in a dream?” Dave, I know this is hard for you to believe, but there were then and now, workers making less than those working in unionized garment and meat cutting plants. In fact, in inflation adjusted dollars, Meat Packing paid more in the 1970’s than now. I recall you writing on another site, I believe Splintered Sunrise that all workers are making $36,000-$60,000 per year. This will come as quite a shock to those of us making less than this prior to the 2008 crash.

    The SWP of the 1970’s and early 1980’s judged members, not on their commitment to building a better world, but on their job hunting expertise. I wonder if this changed in 1982, when after mass lay offs in manufacturing, when the SWP Steel fraction was reduced from 120 to 14?

    As for me personally, I did get a job in a coal mine in eastern Utah, 2 months after leaving Barnestown. In the midst of a very conservative workforce, I refrained from “talking Socialism”, and did my job until layed off in 1983.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — April 5, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

  9. Ken, I have no idea what you are talking about.

    Comment by davr r — April 5, 2012 @ 8:06 pm

  10. And I would say, Ken, you made the right decision.

    “As for me personally, I did get a job in a coal mine in eastern Utah, 2 months after leaving Barnestown. In the midst of a very conservative workforce, I refrained from “talking Socialism”, and did my job until layed off in 1983.”

    Comment by davr r — April 5, 2012 @ 8:10 pm

  11. My apologies, Ken. I re-read your comment and I think what you were saying is that the SWP did not orientate to minimum wage workers. That is true, although there was hardly any prejudice against them as fellow workers, which is how I read your post originally. My bad. But you’re right, the party most certainly did organize itself in union shops for the reasons I would hope we all would understand.

    Comment by davr r — April 5, 2012 @ 8:19 pm

  12. As someone who has met many former members of the SWP, many who were and are still good socialists, including the Sheppard Brothers who I have a great respect for, I would have to agree more along the lines Lynn’s article in some aspects.

    But the roots of the political and organizational degeneration can be traced back to, if not before but certainly at the death of comrade Trotsky, who had written a whole book on the problems of the SWP “In Defence of Marxism” and many other reasons; especially in relationship to “Uncle Joe” Cannon’s role and interference in the British section and his Zinoviev type of methods, the role of the SWP in the assassination of comrade Trotsky and its amateurish protection of him and being guilty of gross irresponsibility to say the least and finally their role and outlook after the war within and with the whole of the 4th International.

    see http://www.marxist.com/the-origins-of-the-collapse-of-the-fourth-international.htm

    And if that was not enough for sure its landmark and anti-Marxist worldview, when Socialist Workers Party in the United States adopted its resolution on ‘Israel and the Arab Revolution’ in August of 1971, concerning Israel and Zionism which establishes the new doctrine that the whole Jewish people of Israel — not just the rulers or capitalists of the country — are oppressors and must be considered enemies.

    Rojo Rojito


    Comment by Cort Greene — April 5, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

  13. There is a tiny marsupial in Australia with outsized testicles—–if it were human size, it would be like having 2 watermelons between its legs.
    Pete and Barnes had mega size egos. Translated into testicles, they too would have walked around like that marsupial.
    Barry had the least ego problems————far and away. While Pete and Barnes saw the SWP as their stages, Barry put the Party first. In that regard, he
    stood far higher then the other two.
    Pete was excellent “outside the office.” Jack was an office creature. But Barry could do both. He could help the Party organizationally as well as function
    effectively outside.
    This stresses the question of how the Kerry-Dobbs leadership could be so dim-witted as to turn over the Party lock, stock and barrel to Barnes. At the first
    sign that Jack was going to exclude Pete and Barry, that was the red light. Jack bamboozled Tom Kerry…………….and many others———-with his gift for
    sleezy and sneaky behavior.
    But there was a much earlier red light—————-Jack’s clique building operation, dating back to the early ’60’s.

    Comment by Ralph Levitt — April 5, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

  14. I agree that memoirs can be of interest, but Barry’s book is so tendentious and self-serving, and so full of omissions, that, despite the welcome self-criticism in his final chapter, I found it unsatisfying. In addition, it needed an editor and a proofreader because it is riddled with typos and glaring malapropisms (e.g., “disbursed” instead of “dispersed”), and utterly lacking in standard publishing style. He neglects to state what his own position was in many circumstances, often attributing positions and distasteful actions to “the majority” (as if he weren’t a key member of it). He tends to blame Jack Barnes for the cult the party became (and, in fact, was becoming well before he became aware of it), saying Jack had an “epiphany” during a trip to California, like Saul on the road to Damascus. Just what the “epiphany” was he never makes clear. Worse, he tends to blame bad apple Barnes while ignoring the fact that the party membership itself approved of the antidemocratic expulsions of dozens of their “comrades,” some of them devoted and admirable revolutionaries (such as George Breitman and George Weissman). But the membership as a whole in a revolutionary party should take responsibility for its actions and not cower out of fear of expulsion or act like the hand-raisers they were. Barry really was a conspirator with Barnes, who, like most ex-SWPers, blames Barnes for everything. That is ridiculous, since Barnes had to be enabled by the rest of the top leadership and by the party as a whole, Barry especially. His collaboration for ten years after suspecting Jack wanted to get rid of him, before he finally resigned after being humiliated and having to work for $4+/hour (!), is amazing to me. It reads like those old CP members who just couldn’t let go of the faith. Barry doesn’t mention the Dobbs organization resolution of the mid-1960s that the party held up as brilliant gospel, but in truth contributed to the dictatorial regime that came later, with the help of Barry and the rest of the top leadership. Barry’s book shows that the Trotskyists are no different from the rest of the left, particularly the Stalinists. God help us if they should ever take power. A lot of us, judging from the mistreatment of longtime and devoted comrades in their own organization, would probably go the way of Stalin’s victims. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that the bolshevik/Trotskyist/Leninist form of organization (“vanguard party,” “democratic centralism,” and all that) is the true source of the sectarianism, cultism, and all-round irrelevance of most far left groups.
    I can only wonder why I, for one (being out of the party since seeing the handwriting on the wall in 1973 following the party’s adoption of Barry’s wretched Memorandum upholding a heterodominant view of homosexuality, not only consigning gay lib to near weightlessness, but reaffirming that homosexuality might be a sickness–a position neither the bourgeoisie nor any leftist grouplet today espouses, to my knowledge), knew from day one that the “turn to industry” was misguided and stupid, based on a crazy overestimation of the supposed radicalization of the “proletariat,” yet supposedly experienced proles in the top leadership and among the party flock failed to see through this at the time. Like lemmings, they jumped through all kinds of hoops at the bid and beckon of the PC. So, I got out about two years before the real degeneration began, according to Barry’s timeline.
    The one thing I agreed with him (and with Louis) on was the abuse he was subjected to for using the women’s toilet. Imagine that an unnamed female “comrade” not only finked on him but accused him of threatening her! This was really one bunch of losers and nut cases.

    Comment by David Thorstad — April 5, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

  15. “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.”

    I would be unequivocal and eliminate the word “Perhaps”. This is a major problem that keeps getting recycled on the left as currently on display within Occupy. For an interesting fictional insight into this phenomenon, and the inevitable social exclusivity that invariably ensues, consider Ma Jian’s novel, “Beijing Coma”: http://amleft.blogspot.com/2010_02_01_archive.html

    Comment by Richard Estes — April 5, 2012 @ 11:02 pm

  16. The most basic problem is these organizations are exclusive rather than inclusive both politically and organizationally.

    Laughingfish fleshed out what this looks like today in a brilliant comment (see: http://links.org.au/node/2686) that parallels what Louis has written here:
    “How much time are we talking? Let’s say there’s the meeting from 7-9:30. 2.5 hours. Then let’s hang out for another 1.5 hours at the bar and eat and talk politics. I’m a big fan. Maybe there was a fraction meeting before or after the meeting, there’s .5 hours. Then let’s go be part of a movment so I’ll join the antiwar movement and go to their meeting 2.5 hours, make some flyers or print or give them out that week 1.5 hours and go to one protest that week 3 hours. Now at the antiwar movement and the protest I want to make a good intervention so I want to read that paper and talk about how to be good socialists with some other socialists so there is 1 + 1 hours. Oh hey we should do a paper sale too. There’s 2 hours. Oh wait, we should all do 2 paper sales a week, so lets add on another 2 hours. We also should do a study group, now there is 2 hours for a study group and another 2 hours for reading. That’s a pretty average week and I was a pretty active socialist who would do things like register the room and meet the speaker and sometimes even meet with people I knew to talk about socialism. So let’s add another 2 hours for miscellaneous for those dedicated high achievers.

    “Now what are we at?

    “We’re at 21 hours a week of political activity. Now let’s add to that 20 hours a week for a part time job and 30 hours a week to be full time student. Now we’ve got a student trying to learn things who is looking at a 71 hour week and they better not forget to study, lower their grades, and fuck up that scholorship.

    “Alternately, let’s look at a working class person who works 40 hours a week and who spends 1.5X5 = 7 hours a week commuting. Now they are looking at a 68.5 hour week. And how many working class people work more than one job? How many work doubles and pick up extra shifts all the time?”

    Hijacking a small, exclusive club is easy; hijacking a large, inclusive group is much harder. Look at Occupy.

    Comment by Binh — April 6, 2012 @ 5:03 am

  17. In other words, it’s unfortunate the SWP didn’t apply its non-exclusion policy to itself.

    Comment by Binh — April 6, 2012 @ 5:26 am

  18. Jack Barnes is a symptom not the disease.

    I saw a close friend have their life and family relations severely upended by this cult.

    Comment by purple — April 6, 2012 @ 9:37 am

  19. The example previously mentioned “typical” week of an activist in a Socialist organization isn’t that typical year round. Fortunately, I may add.Yes, it does occur.to often. I find it ironic that the same people who complain about the time requirements of a Socialist organization have no problem with the 5 hour long meetings of some Occupy General Assemblies in reaching “consensus.” In Portland this has been a factor in discouraging working class participation. On the Marxmail discussion list an activist with Occupy in Cincinnati describes several weekly 3-5 hour meetings.

    If the Democratic Centralist model is an impediment to growth of Socialist organizations, then why haven’t groups like the Socialist Party, Solidarity, or Committees of Correspondence, surpassed groups like the International Socialist Organization or the 1970’s SWP in membership and influence? Why haven’t those of you who call for a different type of organization launched a founding convention? Do you claim that Occupy is a multi tendency Socialist organization? Is it a multi tendency organization that you want, or liquidation of all Left groups? I ask these questions, because I’m a bit confused as to what you’re calling for,

    A factor that never comes up, when discussing the decline of the SWP, is the subjective factor of those of us who came of age in the 1960’s. I mention this because I find the younger leftists, younger compared to me, who came of age in the 1990’s and later to be less competitive and much more pleasant as human beings, then those who radicalized in the 1960’s. This is not to say that the current generation of younger Leftists are asshole free, but proportionally less so than 30-40 years ago.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — April 6, 2012 @ 11:29 am

  20. I have only just started reading Barry’s book which arrived here two days ago
    I will put up my view when I have finished

    Comment by Mike Calvert — April 6, 2012 @ 1:45 pm

  21. If the Democratic Centralist model is an impediment to growth of Socialist organizations, then why haven’t groups like the Socialist Party, Solidarity, or Committees of Correspondence, surpassed groups like the International Socialist Organization or the 1970′s SWP in membership and influence?

    That model is not an impediment to growth. It is instead an impediment to gaining mass influence. No group coming out of the Fourth International model ever got much past a couple of thousand members due to a self-imposed glass ceiling that consisted of a program far more exclusive than ever considered by Marx (look at the Communist Manifesto) or the German Social Democracy’s Erfurt Program or Lenin’s attempt to adapt the Erfurt Program to Russian conditions. We need a movement that obligates people to oppose the Democrats, not share the same analysis of the class nature of the former Soviet Union–or Cuba for that matter.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 6, 2012 @ 3:03 pm

  22. #12 may know the Sheppard brothers but is obviously is wrapped up in a Healyite like view of things when he talks about the “role” of the SWP in Trotsky’s assassination. No, that is pure demagogic bullshit fabricated by that sectarian bully and political bandit Gerry Healy and his stooges as part of the “Security and the Fourth International” slander campaign. Moreover, the SWP never decided all the Israeli-or rather Jewish people residing in Palestine-were enemies. Rather it, like most of the progressive movement, calls for a secular society not based on religion or ethnicity.

    Comment by Tom Cod — April 6, 2012 @ 8:00 pm

  23. sorry, apparently #12 is an adherent of the late Ted Grant, someone whose legacy I respect. I’m surprised to learn that the leader of The Militant Tendency in Labor would be obsessed with deconstructing sectarian faction fights of the “Fourth International”. Seems I read in an obit of Grant how he was unremitting in mocking and belittling “the sects” as clowns. While it had it surely was not perfect the building of Militant in Britain was an excellent example of building a mass marxist movement in an effective, non-sectarian way.

    Comment by Tom Cod — April 6, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

  24. As louis mentioned, there is no mutual exclusion between democratic centralism and a mass party (here i differ decisively with the POV expressed in #14). Just as there is nothing mutually exclusive between there being comrades who maintain “their own work and social life” and those who are able and willing to devote more time – you can’t have a mass party without the former. My only criterion would be that those that do commit more time also have a greater share in its leadership – that is the real essence of “democratic centralism”, and is exactly what is democratic about it, and is justified by the fact that the revolutionary proletarian party is *not* the “embryo” of the future communist society, and therefore “from each according to their ability” is not equivalent to “to each according to their need”, in this case, the need for political power within the organization. So the party as a whole will be successive socialized layers opening out to a general party-friendly “social periphery”.

    The real problem is not that democratic centralism itself inherently produces the demented sect result, but that it does not specify a means against the *bureaucratic* degeneration of those with “more ability”, e.g., with the time and energy per above who will therefore be in the leadership of the party. *That* is the even larger problem we have yet to conceive of a solution to in advance, and that will inevitably face us even when we succeed in creating a mass party. The demented sect is simply the case of “premature degeneration” without having even reached the mass party stage, much less state power. It appears to be the fate of any party trend that fails to become a mass party in 20-30 years, as with postwar Trotskyism. In this case the specification to avoid this is obvious: become a mass party.

    But how to avoid it at the mass party stage and beyond? By the mass party taking power of course – but beyond? I don’t have the magical solution, but I do think we need to think it through, seriously, well in advance. I believe this pertains to the theory of the socialist state (see Lenin’s State and Revolution); Here I suspect that the organizational criteria pertaining to the party do not pertain to the socialist state: the state must literally extend to the entire working class, and become the first “mass state” in human history, absorbing the revolutionary party within it.

    So the concept of the revolutionary proletarian party must be projected all the way to power and beyond.

    Interestingly enough there is precedent for this in the history of modern bourgeois revolutions, and odd as this may sound, the case of the U.S. in the late 18th – early 19th century is the closest petit-bourgeois approximation to a “mass state”, in this case of armed white male settlers organized into militias swarming over the North American continent. It all came to a bloody end as slavers and capitalists directed them into a mutual slaughter, but we still live under its formal constitution. But it may be that the permanent active armament of the entire working class will be the best guard against bureaucratic usurpation.

    Hence I am a 2nd Amendment supporter…of the part that talks about “well regulated militias”, only I’d change that to “self-regulating militias”.

    Comment by matthewrusso9 — April 6, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

  25. TC wrote: “While it had it surely was not perfect the building of Militant in Britain was an excellent example of building a mass marxist movement in an effective, non-sectarian way.”

    This was not so at all. Militant was one of the most sectarian currents I’ve ever come across. They refused to work with other people on the left persistently, they shunned developments like the women’s liberation movement and pretty much everything else that took place outside the narrow confines of the British Labour Party. They essentially relied on setting up front groups of their own. They also adapted politically to social democracy – for instance, they failed miserably to oppose the British war in the South Atlantic, opposed calling for the withdrawal of the british forces both from the South Atlantic and from Ireland, they promoted the idea that the road to socialism in Britain was through a left-Labour government that would nationalise the top 200 companies, and they had a soft line on the cops. In Liverpool, where they were briefly then dominant element on the city council (albeit as Labour councillors) in the early 1980s, they issued redundancy notices to several thousand council workers and their head honcho there, Derek Hatton, was the kind of spiv you usually read about in gritty English novels. (He went off into PR or consultancy afterwards I think),.

    In the end the Militant tendency fell apart because they were dependent on toleration by the Labour leadership. Once the Labour Party leaders decided to get rid of them, that was it. One bunch of them left and set up the Socialist Party, which today is about one-twentieth the size Militant claimed in the early 1980s and the other bunch put their heads down and managed to survive, with one or two hundred people still beavering away in the capitalist Labour Party.

    Grant’s dismissal of the rest of the left as “the sects” was a sign of his and his group’s own sectarianism. It was used to innoculate the average Militant member from having anything to do with every other left group in Britain. It was also a cover for Militant’s political adaptation to Labourism, Anyone who criticised this would be ignored as part of the “petty bourgeois” elements of “the sects”. The “sects” were sects, in the Grant lexicon, by virtue of not being as totally immersed in the LP as Militant.


    Comment by Admin — April 7, 2012 @ 1:11 am

  26. @ 24: the anarchists in Catalonia in 1936-37 were such a mass state.

    Comment by Tom Cod — April 7, 2012 @ 4:20 pm

  27. I’m not sure that this is really the place to response to Phil’s ignorant attack on the Militant tendency, which amounts to gathering together every half-remembered sectarian jibe from the British left of the 1980s, some of which are based on twisted half truths and some of which are simply false, but it is perhaps worth unpicking the term “sectarian”. Militant was indeed highly “sectarian” in the colloquial sense in which that term is often used – it was always very dismissive of other revolutionary socialist groups, generally regarding them as akin to a plague of locusts. As an attitude this was on the whole regrettable, but it was not without its positive effects in so far as it reflected on ongoing orientation towards the labour movement and working class rather than towards the “left” milieu. Militant was not however “sectarian” in the more important sense – it was capable of working in a long term and collaborative way with others in the unions and in the Labour Party. The 47 Liverpool Councillors, after all, included only 11 Militant members.

    The Socialist Party, as Militant is now called, does not have the same attitude of blanket hostility to “the sects”

    Which brings me onto another point: Many of the things that are taken for granted by American contributors to discussions like this are simply bewildering to Europeans. For instance, all the discussion of the lack of an independent social life allowed to members of cadre organisations, or the listing of the hours and hours which must be devoted to political work, or the stories of people being forced to get particular jobs, or posted from city to city. None of this has any resonance at all for anyone who, for instance, has a background in the socialist left in Britain or in Ireland. The main socialist left currents there are the Socialist Party (CWI) and the SWP (IST) and neither of those groups goes in for extreme hyperactivism of the sort the US SWP seemed to demand even in its healthier days. No “turns to industry”, no ordering people to move cities, no assumption that you are in a position to do 20 hours of political work every week. Much the same can be said of the smaller currents based in that part of the world, and also of the USFI.

    It’s like reading about an alien civilization sometimes here.

    Comment by Mark P — April 7, 2012 @ 6:05 pm

  28. This may apply to the CWI and the IST but my guess is that the Lambertists and the Healyites were more like the American SWP.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 7, 2012 @ 6:29 pm

  29. Ken: I find it ironic that the same people who complain about the time requirements of a Socialist organization have no problem with the 5 hour long meetings of some Occupy General Assemblies in reaching “consensus.”

    I find it ironic that you attribute things to me that I never said or advocated. I quit going to General Assemblies at OWS back in September 2011. I guess some comrades are slow learners.

    If the Democratic Centralist model is an impediment to growth of Socialist organizations, then why haven’t groups like the Socialist Party, Solidarity, or Committees of Correspondence, surpassed groups like the International Socialist Organization or the 1970′s SWP in membership and influence? Why haven’t those of you who call for a different type of organization launched a founding convention? Do you claim that Occupy is a multi tendency Socialist organization? Is it a multi tendency organization that you want, or liquidation of all Left groups? I ask these questions, because I’m a bit confused as to what you’re calling for,

    Democratic centralism is a different question from multi vs. single-tendency organizing. Please don’t conflate the two if you wish to have a productive discussion.

    Comment by Binh — April 7, 2012 @ 8:44 pm

  30. Louis, you are probably correct about the Healyites, but it’s nearly 30 years since they imploded and for at least a couple of decades before that they were pariahs on the British left. They haven’t left a cultural influence behind on other currents. I don’t know anything about the Lambertiste’s organisational culture, as they aren’t a visible presence in Britain or Ireland.

    The part that throws me when I hear Americans discuss these sort of issues in the light of the SWP experience, isn’t the SWP’s decline but the demands it apparently made on its members during its healthy period. An active member in good standing with one of the main British Trotskyist groups would be someone who goes to a weekly branch meeting (2 hrs), does a regular branch activity (2 hrs) and then probably does something like go to a campaign meeting or a union meeting (2 hrs). That would be the norm. In fact, most groups would be delighted if they got 6 hours a week out of every activist. They can certainly find endless work to fill the hours of someone who is very enthusiastic, but that’s not the norm and there certainly isn’t pressure on people to adopt unsustainable routines. This is true pretty much across the board, from the two big groups down through the many and various smaller ones. The notion that a political group should control its members working and social lives simply doesn’t exist. If the SWP or Socialist Party leadership tried to start ordering rank and file members to move cities or give up their jobs this would be regarded as complete insanity.

    I’m a bit baffled as to where this cultural divergence comes from. Perhaps it’s the years the larger British groups spent in the Labour Party, where they were often recruiting people with some political experience and/or some settled ideas about what was and wasn’t a political parties business rather than only recruiting people who were very politically inexperienced and enthusiastic.

    Comment by Mark P — April 7, 2012 @ 9:15 pm

  31. Binh wrote: “Democratic centralism is a different question from multi vs. single-tendency organizing. Please don’t conflate the two if you wish to have a productive discussion”
    ” I find it ironic that you attribute things to me that I never said or advocated. I quit going to General Assemblies at OWS back in September 2011. I guess some comrades are slow learners.”

    Binh, please don’t be such a condescending double barreled asshole if you wish to have a productive discussion.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — April 7, 2012 @ 10:45 pm

  32. Mark P.: I agree, the US SWP is pretty bizarre to outsiders. BTW when I joined in 1972 there were some comrades who did put in maybe 6 hours a week on activities, if that, and no one thought the worse of them for it. There were other comrades who devoted considerably more time to the movement, but really, I think even the most committed members had time for friends and a social life outside the group. Sometime in the late ’70s the SWP began to go over to the “model” previously adopted by Healyites and Sparts. Naturally people started to burn out because of this forced march pace and quit, thereby increasing the pressure on the remaining members. It was a vicious cycle.

    Comment by David Altman — April 8, 2012 @ 12:31 am

  33. Ken, I fail to see how pointing out that you attributed things to me that I never advocated makes me a “condescending double barreled asshole.”

    Comment by Binh — April 8, 2012 @ 1:32 am

  34. I think the idea that groups “like the SWP”…by that I suspect Louis means every group that sees the development of a Leninist party as important to the development of a mass workers party…all of them…as something doomed to hit a ceiling of ‘several thousand members’. Maybe. I know both the SWP-UK and Militant hit above 8,000 members. A group like that in the US would be close to 20,000. Obviously it can be done. The Morenoists in Argentina also came close to the 10,000 mark. The PCI in France, the same. All episodic, but based on involvement in the class struggle. I think the whole number issue is quite beside the point. The issue, regardless of the size of a self-described Marxist current, is to what degree such a party/tendency/group can help develop a truly mass working class party. One where it merges itself with the class, and has the self-conscious understanding of it’s role in history, that toward socialist revolution and workers power. Small groups or large, it’s about developing the class, not the group, at the end of the say. A wider discussion, no doubt. I doubt such a party can develop without cadre steeled in the socialist organizations who *understand* this. It will not come about spontaneously, IMO.

    As I see it, the SWP is running in the opposite direction…one not only in terms of glorified political impotence, but one that is incestuously self-isolating with a grandiose view of *itself* as that party…all few hundred of them, growing ever older…belief that the vertical accumulation of cadre that will somehow build a ‘communist’ party to lead a revolution. I think this is the sad conclusion of Barry’s book in terms of this now dead SWP.


    Comment by tialsedov — April 8, 2012 @ 3:58 am

  35. David: The Morenoists in Argentina also came close to the 10,000 mark.

    Louis P.: Yes, I remember it well. He was so full of himself that he sent guerrillas to “liberate” Nicaragua from the “reformist” FSLN.

    The discussion is not just about numbers, David. It is about political sanity.

    David: I doubt such a party can develop without cadre steeled in the socialist organizations who *understand* this.

    Louis P.: Oh sure. Fidel Castro spent every free moment selling subscriptions to the newspaper of the Revolutionary Worker’s League when he was a law student–a sine qua non for toppling Batista.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 8, 2012 @ 12:28 pm

  36. David wrote:
    “The Morenoists in Argentina also came close to the 10,000 mark. The PCI in France, the same.”

    I was involved with the French JCR in Paris in 1967, and at that time the PCI had as many members as could fit into one small room. It even had at least one member who was still in a decades-long “deep entry” and had risen to top leadership of the Parti Socialiste Unifie (though he was trapped in this role, it was no longer a secret to many leftist activists) I doubt the PCI ever got much bigger. Maybe he was referring to the LCR, which grew out of the PCI and became the largest section of the Fourth International, I believe.
    I agree with Louis that numbers is beside the point. It is interesting, if sad, to see so much avoidance of personal culpability, including by Barry’ in his memoir, such a lack of self-criticism for party members’ own individual shortcomings and failure to challenge the inhumane behavior of their top leaders. In that, the SWP does not differ at all from any other “communist” group, including the CP under Stalin. The fact that some people in this discussion (as well as Barry himself) actually played a role in, or failed to protest, the expulsions of people like Breitman, Weissman, and Kutcher, not to mention dozens of others, and that they swallowed the nutty “turn to industry” and even changed their lives to go along with it, suggests either a deeply ingrained flaw in the highly centralized organizational form of “party building” or a kind of propensity for mass delusion. Nothing shows the failure of this approach to revolutionary organizing more than the fact that so many often intelligent people failed to use their critical faculties or to take personal responsibility for their actions, or their inaction.
    It seems that the human animal is capable at times of magnificent rebellion and protest, and these rebellions sometimes result in an improvement in humanity’s lot, even if it is not always permanent. But efforts to jump to the head of such rebellions, or to lead them in a desired direction, have not shown themselves to be very effective in the long run. On all sides, the history of the past century pretty much shows that the vanguard party concept does not work.

    Comment by David Thorstad — April 8, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  37. On all sides, the history of the past century pretty much shows that the vanguard party concept does not work.

    So what are you saying? That it is a mistake, for example, for the Greek working class to build a revolutionary socialist party that can coordinate its struggles nationwide and work toward the overthrow of a rotten system that forces a pensioner to kill himself in front of parliament to protest an austerity that would have forced him to dig through garbage cans for food? No thanks, I’ll stick with Lenin.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 8, 2012 @ 3:34 pm

  38. No, I wasn’t saying that. Whatever organization might help to overthrow a rotten system is worthwhile, though the way you put is is pretty abstract, at least applied to what is going in in Greece. Your choice between digging food out of garbage cans and building a revolutionary socialist party is a cute rhetorical either-or, but nothing more. I would think that if you still believe a bolshevik-type highly centralized party like Lenin’s is the way to go you would belong to one. Oh, none of those grouplets who claim to be that party have overcome the flaws that keep you from joining? If so, that makes my point. At a time when the capitalist system has been going through a prolonged, major crisis, there’s no sign of a vanguard party on the horizon. Proponents of a vanguard party resemble the pope telling the Brazilian Indians that they were “yearning for Christianity even before they knew it.” The vanguard party muscling its way into the leadership of rebellion (YAWF style), or knowing better than the masses what route to take and how to overthrow the system, may sound good in the abstract, but where has it worked except in a limited way? To me, the gospel preached by the SWP to the effect that Stalinism did not evolve out of Leninism seems flawed. The SWP’s own trajectory resembles the degeneration of the bolshevik party except for the fact that, mercifully, the SWP never came close to having state power. Any human endeavor tends to be messy, but the messiness cannot be blamed on an individual (whether Stalin or Barnes), but rather seems inherent in human activity. Obviously, rebellion is better than acquiescence in oppression, but that doesn’t mean that a bolshevik vanguard party is the solution.

    Comment by David Thorstad — April 8, 2012 @ 4:21 pm

  39. I don’t pretend to have an answer to this conundrum. I would note that efforts to “get rich quick” through building lowest-common-denominator type organizations have not been terribly successful either. Strictly by the electoral metric, for instance, the “new, improved” supposedly “more welcoming” NPA in France has been less successful than the old LCR.

    Comment by David Altman — April 8, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

  40. Strictly by the electoral metric, for instance, the “new, improved” supposedly “more welcoming” NPA in France has been less successful than the old LCR.

    The old LCR was practically defunct when unexpectedly the campaigns of Olivier Besancenot touched a nerve and led to a big recruitment. Unfortunately, the same lack of *professionalism* that led to the LCR’s decline led to many of the problems they face today. In its aversion to SWP type “bureaucracy”, the French Trotskyists failed to build a nationwide staff that could help build a serious fighting organization. I think it is much more worthwhile to study what the Socialist Alliance is doing in Australia since those comrades understand the need for professionalism, which is not the same thing as top-down, bureaucratic practices.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 8, 2012 @ 5:13 pm

  41. LP wrote: “The old LCR was practically defunct when unexpectedly the campaigns of Olivier Besancenot touched a nerve and led to a big recruitment. Unfortunately, the same lack of *professionalism* that led to the LCR’s decline led to many of the problems they face today. In its aversion to SWP type “bureaucracy”, the French Trotskyists failed to build a nationwide staff that could help build a serious fighting organization. I think it is much more worthwhile to study what the Socialist Alliance is doing in Australia since those comrades understand the need for professionalism, which is not the same thing as top-down, bureaucratic practices.”

    I’m a big fan of yours, Louis, so I’m disappointed to see such a flawed assessment of the LCR and NPA.

    1. It’s just wrong to say that the old LCR was “defunct” before the Besancenot campaigns in 2002 and 2007. Yes, the Besancenot campaigns were a master stroke, reflecting among other things the strong desire by the LCR leadership to hand the reins of the organization to the younger generation. But the success of those campaigns can’t be understood without understanding what the LCR had been able to achieve in the preceding period. Thanks to its deep involvement in the wave of protests and strikes that began in late 1995; thanks to its identification as a strong radical-Left pole of opposition to the Jospin PS-led “Plural Left” government in 1997-2002 (which included the LCR securing EU parliamentary representation in alliance with Lutte Ouvrière); and thanks to the way it plunged into the additional wave of radicalization and protest of the “anti-globalization” protests from 1999 onwards; the LCR actually had considerable wind in its sails at the time of the first Besancenot campaign in 2002. Very much contrary to what you say, the whole 1995-2002 period in fact saved the LCR from the moribund state it found itself in the early-mid 1990s. I should know: I was an active member of the LCR in Paris from 1992-1994 and then again from 1996-1999. The difference even between those two periods was striking; let alone the difference I then saw during frequent visits during the entire subsequent period leading up to the founding of the NPA in early 2009.

    2. To say that the NPA’s current problems are due to the unwillingness or “failure” of “the French Trotskyists […] to build a nationwide staff that could help build a serious fighting organization” just seems silly to me. I’m not even sure what this comment means. Do you honestly believe that if the NPA had a few more full-timers (à la US-SWP or Australian DSP in their heyday) it wouldn’t be going through its present difficulties? Such an analysis makes me wonder if you really have drawn the lessons of disasters like the SWP. Anti-capitalists (and the “Trotskyists” among them) in France, like the rest of us, are dealing with a very complicated political situation. It’s not clear to me how a “nationwide staff” (who? how big?) would be a magical solution. What exactly has led you to make this accusation of not understanding the need for “professionalism”, as if “professionalism” (again, whatever that means) were the solution to the NPA’s difficulties.

    For once, a revolutionary current succeeds in addressing itself to an audience of millions, precisely breaking through the glass ceiling you rightly observe and lament, and all you can do is hurl accusations of failure and provide politically meaningless solutions. What a letdown!

    Comment by Nathan Rao — April 8, 2012 @ 5:56 pm

  42. I should say I would be more than pleased if Nathan is right and I am wrong. My comments–I should add–do not come from direct observation but are based on Sebastian Budgen’s comments from a Left Forum in 2009. He was a member of the NPA at the time and is fairly astute.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 8, 2012 @ 5:59 pm

  43. To counterpose the July 29 Movement in Cuba, or the Sandinistas in Nicaragua to building a revolutionary organization in one’s respective country overlooks the fact that both these movements came to power through armed struggle. Does this analysis mean our only options are armed struggle or abstention?

    To those of you opposed to the existence of a Leftist press whether in a digital or hard copy format, are you advocating that the ruling class press have a monopoy on news and analysis?

    I’m not criticizing the Nicaraguan and Cuban revolutionaries for adopting armed struggle. If they felt that was their only realistic option, they were the ones who were there, not me.

    While I haven’t gotten around to reading Lars Lih book, I have paid attention to the reviews of those of you who have. In none of those reviews as anyone made an effective case that Lenin was opposed to the existence of a revolutionary organization, be it Bolshevik or the RSDLP? Lenin was certainly not opposed to the existence of a Leftist press.

    Comment by Ken Morgan — April 8, 2012 @ 8:15 pm

  44. Ken, you are so confused about the issues under debate that I don’t see any point in responding to you. You should read Lars Lih. You will find it most edifying, I am sure.

    Comment by louisproyect — April 8, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

  45. LP wrote: “I should say I would be more than pleased if Nathan is right and I am wrong. My comments–I should add–do not come from direct observation but are based on Sebastian Budgen’s comments from a Left Forum in 2009. He was a member of the NPA at the time and is fairly astute.”

    Thanks for the reply, Louis. I don’t think Budgen would dispute that the LCR from 1995-2009 was in a vastly improved state compared to the doldrums of the first half of the 90s. Using your terminology, I would say that the LCR leadership realized it had hit a “glass ceiling” with the success of the 2007 presidential campaign, and indeed also that its success gave it new responsibilities that it couldn’t meet without breaking out of the mould of a traditional far-Left organization. Thus the launching of the process leading to the NPA in early 2009.

    I would also be surprised if Budgen saw the marginal Australian Socialist Alliance as a model for dealing with the present crisis of the NPA. The two projects really can’t be compared.

    While I still think it’s extremely simplistic to say that the NPA’s problems could be solved with an injection of full-timers, I agree there is merit in examining the shortcomings of the organizational culture and “apparatus” of the NPA, and indeed of the LCR as it existed in the period preceding the NPA. The NPA essentially inherited the (often ageing and approaching retirement age) full-timers of the LCR and doesn’t appear to have focused specific attention on building the kind of organizational and leadership structure required by a project of such size and ambition. I think that’s a problem any project of this sort will face, though, since it’s not an easy matter to find the people willing and able to become low-waged full-timers (especially in the present context of precarious employment, which makes it very difficult for people to temporarily leave their areas of employment without damaging or jettisoning entirely their “careers”; not to mention the present context of limited possibilities for radical breakthroughs, which would make such an act of employment hari-kiri more palatable).

    The problem just exacerbates the broader difficulty we will have bringing the younger generations into such organizations and positions. Then, of course, there’s the complex matter of how a team of full-timers would relate to the broader membership; and in the case of far too many far-Left groups (such as the US-SWP), my impression is that the apparatus played far too central and stifling of a role — let alone in larger “left-reformist” (for lack of a better term) organizations like Rifondazione Comunista, where the apparatus and the parliamentary caucus appear to have played a decisive role in liquidating the organizations by entering disastrous electoral and governmental alliances with rightward-moving formations of Social Democracy and the “centre-Left”.

    Anyway, for those who read French, Pierre Rousset has just posted a critical look at the “organizational culture” of the NPA on the ESSF website. Here’s the link:


    Comment by Nathan Rao — April 9, 2012 @ 11:36 pm

  46. @ 25: I don’t think Grant was referring to the rest of the Left when referring to “the sects”, but rather various doctrinaire groups embodied by the likes of Healy and Lambert. I know, for example, I wouldn’t characterize say, Tony Cliff, as a sectarian, although some folks are into inappropriately trashing him here. In any event, Militant was a mass movement that these other groups for the most part weren’t. Having said that, if they were implicated in firings and layoffs where they held public office, that is something that cannot be supported or defended.

    Comment by Tom Cod — April 14, 2012 @ 5:38 pm

  47. […] this: Like Be the first to like this. Comments (46) Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in […]

    Pingback by A review of volume two of Barry Sheppard’s memoir – By Louis Proyect | SWP History: 1960-1988 — July 7, 2012 @ 5:47 pm

  48. Although my comment does not directy apply to Barry’s book, I am making it here because I think Lou should access the links I list. The book in question is http://www.amazon.com/Why-Civil-Resistance-Works-Nonviolent/dp/0231156820/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1346269469&sr=1-1&keywords=why+civil+resistance+works+the+strategic+logic+of+nonviolent+conflict.

    If you prefer, you can see the author explain how she came about to analyze an enormous amount of data and the conclusions reached. You can see her presentation on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EHkzgDOMtYs.

    Erica Chenoweth is an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University and director of Wesleyan’s Program on Terrorism and Insurgency Research, which she established in 2008. Erica is currently a visiting scholar at CISAC and a visiting scholar at the Institute of International Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.

    Previously, she has held fellowships at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, UC-Berkeley, and the University of Maryland. She is currently an academic advisor at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict and serves as a board member of the International Security and Arms Control Section of the American Political Science Association.

    Erica is an internationally-recognized authority on terrorism, nonviolent resistance, and counterterrorism. Her three books include Why Democracy Encourages Terrorism (under contract with Columbia University Press); Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict (Columbia University Press, 2011) with Maria J. Stephan of the U.S. State Department; and Rethinking Violence: States and Non-State Actors in Conflict (MIT Press, 2010) with Adria Lawrence of Yale. The author of dozens of scholarly and popular articles, she hosts a blog called Rational Insurgent and is an occasional blogger at The Monkey Cage and Duck of Minerva

    Comment by Robert Gahtan — August 29, 2012 @ 7:53 pm

  49. […] The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, A Political Memoir, Volume 1: The Sixties, and Volume 2: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, […]

    Pingback by American Tribune » Blog Archive » Jewish Voices for Peace… — September 28, 2015 @ 12:03 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: