Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 22, 2015

The Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party shuts down

Filed under: Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

On May 15, 2015 I reported on my time in the Houston branch of the SWP that had just been closed down by the leadership in NY. If you could map the decline of the SWP in an Excel spreadsheet bar chart since the time I left 36 years ago, it would look like a Michael Roberts falling rate of profit graphic. If some vulgar Marxists predicate the growth of the radical movement as an inverse function of the FROP, this is about as good an argument against vulgarity I can think of.

A comrade who tracks the implosion of the SWP a lot closer than me reported the latest branch going under on the Yahoo group I set up just to allow former members to wisecrack and gossip about the cult. This time it was Boston. He gleaned its departure from its absence in the Militant newspaper’s directory of local distributors, which is a guide to where party branches exist. It is too soon to say whether there will be a report on its closing in the Militant as there was for the Houston branch but you can be sure that for old-timers in the party, a qualitatively bigger hole has been left in political terms. The Houston branch existed for 45 years while the Boston branch dates back to the 1920s before there was an SWP. That’s nearly a century.

Its most famous member in Boston in the early period was Doctor Antoinette Konikow, a pioneer birth control advocate at the time. She was typical of the pioneering members of James P. Cannon’s faction of the CP that agreed with Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism. Her background, like Arnie Swabeck’s, reads like a CV for the American left.

As it turns out, I was a member of both of these defunct branches. I moved from NY to Boston in early 1970 and then down to Houston in 1973. Boston was both a more interesting place than Houston politically and even more so culturally. I imagine that if I had been asked to transfer to Cleveland or Detroit in 1970 rather than Boston, I would have dropped out of the SWP a lot earlier. In fact by the end of 1969 I was ready to quit because I felt alienated from a group that seemed overloaded with student government types. They might have talked about the class struggle but their behavior reminded me more of the people who ran for class president in high school, especially Jack Barnes’s classmates from Carleton College that was about as distant from Bard College culturally as Norman Rockwell was from Jackson Pollack.

The minute I hit Boston, I fell in love with the city. It had a huge energy from the student movement and was very groovy as well. I lived in Cambridge and spent my Saturday afternoons in Harvard Square shopping for books or records. But the best thing of all was having Peter Camejo as a branch organizer, the guy who influenced me politically more than any person I ever knew. So you can blame him for my errant ways.

The excerpt about Boston from my graphic memoir that is printed below falls under the rights afforded me under established Fair Use provisions.

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  1. In addition to the three branches of the SWP that have closed in the last year (Houston, Omaha and Boston), two member of the National Committee have just up and died. There are so many obituaries in The Militant these days it reads like the Weekly People circa 1968.

    Comment by John B. — December 22, 2015 @ 10:22 pm

  2. The Cochranites were not giving up politics for the “good life”. The McCarthy witch hunt drove many out of unions. And US workers in the 1950s accepted the “red scare.” They no longer had a perspective in their unions. (PS I attended the founding meeting of the Cochranites, though I remained a SWP member until I was kicked out in the 60s with the Wohlforth tendency.

    Comment by Earl Gilman — December 22, 2015 @ 10:43 pm

  3. How can you discuss the social movements of the 1960’s, whether in relation to the SWP or more generally, without even mentioning any aspect of the Black liberation movement? You do manage to mention “reports of militant auto workers out in Michigan like the Dodge Revolutionary [Union] Movement (DRUM)”, but without even hinting that DRUM was an organization of Black workers and was associated with similar Revolutionary Union Movement organizations in other auto factories, as well as with the League of Revolutionary Black Workers!

    Comment by Roger Abrams — December 23, 2015 @ 4:50 am

  4. Speaking of the SWP, here’s the opening of a recent article in the Militant that some have noted, the link should be over my username.

    December 7, 2015

    Jew-hatred, attacks on free speech threat to working class

    Left and liberal groups on campuses and elsewhere have carried out a series of thuggish actions aimed at crushing free speech and debate, combined with-not-so subtle anti-Semitism, justified in the name of support for the Palestinian struggle…

    Later on the article says:

    “Seeking to cut off debate, some at the rally chanted, ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine must be free,’ which was also chanted at the University of Minnesota disruption. The slogan is taken from a speech by Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

    ‘Palestine is ours, from the river to the sea and from the south to the north. There will be no concession on an inch of land,’ he said in December 2012 in Gaza City.”

    Ho-hum, I heard some chant this in New York City prior to December 2012, the slogan predates some Hamas leader using it, as a quick look at Wikipedia ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestinian_nationalism#From_the_river_to_the_sea ) would show. The article also contains various other smears, innuendoes, and falsehoods.

    Comment by Adelson — December 23, 2015 @ 10:42 am

  5. Roger, this memoir was not a general history of the radical movement. It was in fact a departure from the typical memoir with a purview for Harvey Pekar’s readers. After all, it was supposed to be coming out under his name, not mine.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 23, 2015 @ 12:35 pm

  6. “The Working Class is at Center Stage, ” “US Imperialism Lost the Cold War,” “Yugoslavia Still Exists,” “Islamism Peaked in 1979,” “There is No Zionist Movement Today.” Those who do not grasp these essential truths of Jack Barnes Thought have no understanding of dialectics. And are petty bourgeois leftists.

    Comment by John B. — December 23, 2015 @ 1:49 pm

  7. Are you saying, Louis, that the relationship between the SWP and the various parts of the Black movement — a movement that was under constant violent attack by the state — was a far less important issue for you, Camejo and the SWP during the period when you were in Boston than was the SWP’s relationship with the gay and women’s movements and with the abstract multi-racial industrial working class — a class in which the sharp racial divisions were manifested in, inter alia, the formation of DRUM and other factory-based RUM’s, and of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers? If that was the case, then that very lack of attention to the Black liberation struggle should be more worthy of acknowledgement in your little memoir than all the (white) ethnicities by which you identify the various characters you mention.

    Comment by Roger Abrams — December 23, 2015 @ 4:42 pm

  8. To repeat myself, the memoir is focused on things I had direct involvement with. It deals, for example, with the KKK in Houston and my work in Nicaragua with the FSLN. If you want to read a memoir that covers the SWP’s intervention in various movements, I recommend Barry Sheppard’s “The Party”.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 23, 2015 @ 4:52 pm

  9. The first of about 40 times I was invited over to Larry Trainor’s home was in the fall of 1963, before I was in either the SWP or the YSA. I had attended a forum the Friday before and met Larry and we hit it off right away. He knew off my father as the SWP had over the years several comrades working in the Lynn GE (riverworks) local 201 that the UE organized and my father worked with both the leadership and rank and file in GE as well as other organizational drives like United Shoe machinery corp. this of course is before the split with the CIO and the formation of the IUE. We discussed many things that night but eventually got around to the trade union movement, at the time I was going to night school at BU and working for the Teamsters heavy haulers delivering wall board and cement etcetera to construction sites during the day. I remember he asked me what my outlook was and how I would proceed given the current state of affairs. I told him I thought the bureaucrats of the CIO were in accommodation mode and were becoming more conservative and less combative almost daily. I thought a struggle would emerge between the rank and file and the bureaucrats over maintaining the standard of living and improving real wages which the AFL-CIO was unwilling and unable to lead. I remember stating to Larry that I thought real opportunities existed in the auto plants, in the Steel Workers, and closer to home in the Lynn where UE lost a very close NLRB election in 1961. Larry didn’t disagree with that strategy but pointed out another dynamic that I had not considered. Larry’s thesis was that manufacturing jobs were on the wane and that trend would continue and the next wave of union organization would be among service workers especially transportation, hospital, food, and government workers. He stressed that this sector would not only continue to grow but would encompass a lot of women and minority workers who would come in to that situation with sub-standard wages and conditions. Larry continued that while service workers were not at the point of production; with holding service at the delivery point is a powerful weapon. As it turned out Larry was prescient. This conversation was the genesis of our future work in trying to organizing hospital workers at Mass. General, which we considered the key hospital in Boston and this is 1963 long before PL was a factor, we had the idea and acted on it first and had several comrades working in Mass General by 1966 including me. The problem was not PL but the abject horror of the union running a campaign led by Communists. I later spent the last 25 years of my working life at Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) almost all of the time I was on the local executive board, the negotiating committee and the grievance committee and we were able to secure the best wages and benefits packages in all of ATU. Larry also felt it was critically important for student youth entering our ranks to become workers or thoroughly identify with the working class before joining the SWP and in this he was correct again. The differences between Larry and Camejo are the same differences that many of the POT had with Barnes namely, Barnes and his clique nee cult, of which Peter Camejo was a toady, did not believe the working class could carry out its historic mission, emancipate itself, and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat. The Barnesites did not identify with the working class. They were looking for an alternative road to socialism a road the Pabloite 4th International first sought with Titoism, Maoism, Ben Bella, and Ceylon (Da Silva). Barnes followed along with Castro, guerilla warfare, Black nationalism, Grenada, Sandinistas, feminists, and homosexuals. It was Marxism represented firstly by Larry against a left pragmatism represented in Boston by Camejo this left pragmatism covered by a patina of orthodoxy, becomes a substitute philosophy for Marxism among petty bourgeois Barnesites who at best operate on the fringes of the workers movement. Camejo was a modern day Father Gapon thrown up by events and the fact that he was charismatic and a fine speaker but walking around on stilts. Camejo and Barnes actually believed that the 60’s radicalization was the deepest, broadest, biggest, radicalization of the century and furthermore the most threatening to the ruling class. The Barnesites listed the anti war movement, the Black and Chicano movement, feminism, and abortion rights as proof positive of their deepest, broadest theory. The working class was not mentioned nor its relative quiescence, nor the lack of class consciousness among workers. The class struggle became past tense. During the 1971 SWP convention debates Camejo and Barnes indicated that the coming socialist revolution would be made by some amalgam of Black and Chicano militant, feminists, homosexuals, and people that marched in anti war demonstrations. At the 1971 SWP convention Barnes carried the day 90% for the majority 10% for the POT. Barnes then decided to drive the POT out of the SWP and was quite successful after a couple of years. It was only a matter of time until Barnes consolidated his cult and long ago destroyed not only the Boston branch but the SWP in its entirety what is left is a smattering of political zombies that can best serve the workers movement by disappearing. Larry and I were fundamentally correct and Camejo, Barnes and you were wrong and that includes the Shea bill. At least you belatedly broke with Barnes good for you but it seems you remain some sort of left pragmatist, too bad.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — December 23, 2015 @ 10:03 pm

  10. Michael, you need to understand that this is a memoir not a history of the SWP. The same point I made to Roger Abrams. I am not a “left pragmatist”. I am a Marxist. What you read in this comic book was what I thought at the time. In my view the faction fights in the SWP were always skewed by the failure to see the big picture. If I could have been transported back to Boston in 1971, I would have been in SDS trying to push for what Groucho Marx once called the sanity clause. SDS had the possibility of fostering the growth of a genuine revolutionary current in the USA but it was poisoned by Maoist sectarianism just the other side of the coin of Trotskyist sectarianism.

    Comment by louisproyect — December 23, 2015 @ 10:16 pm

  11. Louis, I thoroughly enjoyed this segment of your graphic memoir and your candor about your own experiences and memories. I remember MY one or two lasagne dinners at Larry and Gustie’s (that woman could TALK, and talk, and talk…). In the end I aligned myself with Peter although with some ambivalence and guilt. If I didn’t always agree with Larry, I respected him deeply, He was the real McCoy, a working class intellectual who stayed to true to his vision. Peter was bright but slick and narcissistic and at times he seemed to me a sort of pied piper figure whom I never entirely trusted. As for Mike Tormey, he still owes me an apology for spitting into that quart of ice cream at the apartment he shared with John B. and Mike K…

    Comment by Dick O. — December 24, 2015 @ 2:27 pm

  12. Barzman, Kelly, and I lived at 608 Franklin street in Cambridge for several years until I moved to Oakland Calif. in June of 1970. Completely do not recall any ice cream incident but if your ever in Florida stop by and I’ll buy you a half gallon of any flavor you might desire.

    Comment by Michael Tormey — December 24, 2015 @ 9:23 pm

  13. Thanks Mike! Best wishes…

    Comment by Dick O — December 24, 2015 @ 11:05 pm

  14. I’ve enjoyed these comix, it brings back memories from the anti-war movement in New York city. The SWP/YS(?) were all over the place…
    It’s interesting that you call the SWP a cult. Also, it seems pretty damning to me what you mentioned about the sexual hiearchy that existed, doesn’t that expose the whole Marxist, “new world” dream as a fraud?
    What happened to Herbert Mark? I wish I had been more like that, not paying any attention to politics or economics. I have to agree with him that it’s a complete and utter waste of time.

    Comment by George Balanchine — December 25, 2015 @ 5:11 am

  15. What exactly is wrong with a cushy life in suburbia ?

    No matter how working class one is in U.S., there is always somewhere else in the world much worse and much closer to the point of production. The meatpacking jobs in Nebraska are staffed by immigrants, who leave their families and travel thousand+ plus miles, because it a relatively good living for them. Likewise, I know slum dwellers in Manila who want to work in the galley of cruise ships but the waiting list is too long.

    The ‘move to industry’ was type of political celibacy as doomed by false piety as the celibacy of the Catholic Church.

    Comment by Jeff — December 27, 2015 @ 11:52 am

  16. Re:Jeff@#15: The cushy life in suburbia is based on the extraction of massive amounts of surplus from the labor of the great majority of those who labor, whether as wage laborers or as the laboring petty bourgeoisie (mainly peasants). While this material fact can be based on the concept of ‘value’, whether it is “wrong” or not is a question of ‘values’. And while the oppressed and exploited may compete to be less oppressed and exploited, very few of them cease to be net producers of surplus for the benefit of, among others, those enjoying “a cushy life in suburbia”.

    Comment by Roger Abrams — December 29, 2015 @ 3:28 pm

  17. Perhaps you will find this interesting:

    Comment by Hal — January 12, 2016 @ 7:42 pm

  18. […] The crowning irony is that the memorial meeting for Gary was held in Boston, where the SWP folded shop two years ago. You can read my obit for the Boston branch here. […]

    Pingback by Gary Cohen: the death of an SWP diehard | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 30, 2017 @ 6:32 pm

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