As most of my regular readers know, I was in the SWP from 1967 to 1978. Three years after leaving, I came into contact with Peter Camejo, a former leader who had broken with the party. His article “Against Sectarianism” had a profound impact on my thinking and I have tried to incorporate its lessons in nearly everything I write about the problem of party-building.
In 1991 I went to work for Columbia University and soon began writing about the phenomenon of Marxist sectarianism on various mailing lists hosted by the Spoons Collective and later on for Marxmail that was launched in 1998. From 1991 to the early 2000s, there was a steady decline in the SWP’s influence, so much so that I became persuaded that discussing it any longer on Marxmail was a waste of bandwidth. Some ex-members on Marxmail, who remained obsessed with the group as bitter adversaries or devoted sympathizers, ignored my advice to put it behind them and periodically started some thread about a group whose numbers and influence had dwindled to the vanishing point.
I had no other recourse except to create a mailing list on Yahoo in 2005 devoted to discussing the SWP. The whole purpose of creating the list was to shunt conversation away from Marxmail where 90 percent of the subscribers had little interest in it one way or the other, including myself at that point. The Yahoo list has twice as many subscribers as there are SWP members although I have no plans to make them go out and sell a book door-to-door based on my thoughts.
In the recent past, there have been such shocking developments with this sect-cult of probably around a hundred members with an average age of 55 or so that I have decided to file this report. I don’t think there is much point in trying to connect its paroxysms with the tasks facing the left today except maybe to indicate that “Leninism” can produce some remarkable pathologies.
On December 16, 2016, the equally nutty and irrelevant Spartacist League wrote a typical scandal item concerning the SWP’s newspaper that I almost regarded as a spoof. The Militant had sent out a notice to its subscribers to throw away its November 28 issue because it had the wrong line on the Donald Trump presidency.
I don’t remember any of Craine’s previous articles that anticipated the discarded November 28th item but I would guess that it was boilerplate analysis of the sort that had been run in the paper for a year or so, referring to itself as the true working class alternative to Sanders, Clinton and Trump. While any radical outside of the DSA orbit would likely see the need for a clean break with the Democrats, it was hard to take the SWP campaign seriously. But what would persuade Jack Barnes to authorize a letter to the Militant subscribers asking them to throw away the November 28 issue? Didn’t it enter his mind that this makes the group look rather batty? Apparently not.
This kind of instability has marked the party’s public record on a fairly consistent basis for the past decade or so and accelerated in the past few months. Poor Naomi Craine was once again taken to task in the issue dated February 13, 2017. In this instance, it was not about Trump but about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:
The article “Capitalist Rulers in Mideast Shift Allies While Toilers Face Catastrophe” in the Jan. 16 issue of the Militant concludes with a quote, with no comment, from former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki saying, “I tell you of the threat that surpasses terrorism which is the Zionist enemy. And we should all stand on one front against this threat.”
Any new reader would have to assume that Militant editors agree with the reactionary former Iraqi prime minister on “the Zionist enemy.”
Regular readers must have been surprised, since the quote is the opposite of the political line of previous Militant articles, the Socialist Workers Party’s program and its political course.
Al-Maliki’s statement fits with the view of the entire middle-class left in the United States, across Europe, and worldwide. Not to mention the Iraqi, Iranian, and many other bourgeois regimes across North Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia — all of whom demagogically posture as defenders of the dispossessed Palestinian people to bolster their own class rule. All of whom oppress and exploit the workers and farmers in those countries.
That is the opposite of the internationalist working-class course of the Socialist Workers Party. As the global capitalist crisis intensifies, the resurgence of Jew-hatred and attacks on Jews and synagogues is a reminder that the Holocaust and what led to it are not matters of “history.” They are growing realities of the brutal imperialist world order today.
Revolutionaries must press for recognition of the state of Israel, and for the right of Jews who wish to go there for refuge to do so. That’s also a political precondition to rebuilding a movement capable of advancing a successful fight for a Palestinian state, and for a contiguous, viable homeland for the Palestinian people.
Of all the gyrations found in The Militant, none is more bizarre and more reactionary than the open support for Israel. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to describe the party as Zionist. Not that it would excuse having such positions, one might expect the sect to provide some sort of analysis on how it came to reverse previously held positions. When I joined in 1967 just after the Six Day war, I was eager to break with the Zionism of my mother and father if for no other reason than Israel supporting the Vietnam war, a litmus test for me. In numerous books and articles by Peter Buch and Jon Rothschild, the SWP advocated the same position that it now describes as that of “the entire middle-class left”.
In keeping with the instability of the SWP, it continues selling books through Pathfinder Press that it would condemn as “Jew-hatred”. This includes Maxime Rodinson’s “Israel: A Colonial-Settler State?” that it describes as examining “the historical roots of the Zionist movement and how the State of Israel was formed as a colonial-settler state dispossessing the Palestinian people.” Or Gus Horowitz’s “Israel and the Arab Revolution” that consists of resolutions adopted by the SWP from 1970-1971, including one by Horowitz that states:
Our program for the Palestinian revolution and the Arab revolution as a whole includes support of full civil, cultural and religious rights for all nationalities in the Mideast, including the Israeli Jews. But, while we support the right of the Israeli Jews to pursue their national culture within the frame-work of a democratic Palestine, we are opposed to the Israeli state.
How can you take a group seriously that still sells literature that its newspaper would consider guilty of anti-Semitism? The answer is that you can’t. Compare what Horowitz wrote in 1971 with a report from the SWP convention held between January 14-16, 2017:
Revolutionaries must push for recognition of the right of Israel to exist, Clark said, including the right of return for Jews looking for refuge from persecution, as well as for recognition of a state for the dispossessed Palestinian people. This is the only way to open the space for working people who are Arab and Jewish to build solidarity and fight together against capitalist exploitation and imperialist oppression throughout the region.
You must ask yourself what sort of person would join a group that defends the “right of return” for Israel during a dramatic expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Or whose main activity consists of members going door-to-door peddling a book titled “Are They Rich Because They’re Smart?” that consists of transcriptions of speeches given by cult leader Jack Barnes between 1993 and 2009. This is a leader who humiliates Naomi Craine for writing articles that deviate 3 degrees from his own potted notion of the party line but who hasn’t written an article for the Militant in over 20 years or so.
The interesting question is whether Jack Barnes was nuts back in 1967 when I joined or became nuts in the same way that Gerry Healy or any number of other Trotskyist geniuses became crazy. When you see yourself as the avatar of Lenin or Trotsky destined to lead the world proletarian revolution, there are enormous gravitational forces that propel you in a megalomaniac direction.
I have heard an uncorroborated report from a former member that a national leader of the party was touring the country, talking to “Organized Supporters” in cities where they don’t have branches about the dire straits they find themselves in – shrinking membership, circulation of The Militant down, etc.
With the cash they have on hand from the multimillion dollar sale of the West Street headquarters, they should sputter along for some time. Then again, so did the Socialist Labor Party that closed its national office on September 1, 2008 after more than a century. The more likely cutoff date for the SWP will be when the last member dies of some geriatric illness like cancer or heart disease. That will happen sooner or later, just like the sun sets in the evening.