Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 13, 2017

The death agony of the Socialist Workers Party

Filed under: cults,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 9:02 pm


Jack Barnes

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:

Recognition of Israel key for toilers in Mideast

 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.


  1. In this case, it cannot be said a la Hemingway that “the sun also rises”! More appropriate would be Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.”

    Felipe Stuart

    Comment by Felipe — February 13, 2017 @ 9:24 pm

  2. excellent post…I recall the SWP from my radical youth along with the SLP…..thanx for giving me some fine memories….chuq

    Comment by lobotero — February 13, 2017 @ 9:32 pm

  3. When we started the Philadelphia Marxist School in 1984 there were various old lefties who gave us some support. Some in the form of money from an old crypto CPer who was a big lawyer. We had two old SWPers around the school. They had been stranded without a party when the SWP kicked them out. Herb Lewin had given his life the the party, and was one of the finest communists I have ever known. He had been fired from Westinghouse right after WWII for being a security risk. The UE, lead by the CP, when out on strike until he was rehired. This may have been the only successful political strike of the McCarthy era. His picture, on the ground and being beaten by 8 mounted police, is on the cover of Labor’s Untold Story published by the UE. His lawyer, Dave Cohen, who was close to the CP went on to be a great progressive city council person in his old age. Herb was an occasional pain in the butt and every now and then tried to disrupt the functioning of the school, as in his opinion it was lead by Stalinists. But we loved him, and he was a good man, and as I said, a good communist. The SWP must have been at some point a worthy organization to have produced him.

    Comment by Bert Schultz — February 13, 2017 @ 10:25 pm

  4. Wow, Barnes looks awful, ill and depressed. He must have received a diagnosis of Stage 4 Trotskyism

    Comment by Peter Myers — February 13, 2017 @ 10:28 pm

  5. “…average age of 55….” More like 65. The youngest member that I’m aware of is about 43 and I don’t think they’ve recruited a single person in the last 10 years who’s stuck around for any length of time.

    You’ve barely plumbed the depths of their current nuttiness, such as their tail-ending and adaptation to the “Donald Trump movement,” leading to such gems as this one from the Feb. 13 issue of The Militant (also by über-hack Naomi Craine), which while correctly opposing Trump’s Muslim ban, manages to ATTACK THE AIRPORT PROTESTS:

    “….Demonstration organizers see the actions as part of a broader war against the legitimacy of Trump’s presidency, falsely portrayed by many as fascist. Many of the signs and chants at the protests targeted the Trump administration as “illegitimate” and portrayed the president and those who voted for him as “deplorables” and racist bigots — often in very crude terms…..”

    Imagine that – calling the “legitimate” President of the United States a racist bigot!

    The Feb. 6 issue of The Militant wrote of the January 21 Women’s Marches, which brought millions of people into the streets in opposition to Donald Trump’s agenda:

    “….The day after the Trump inauguration, several hundred thousand people took part in a bourgeois “Women’s March on Washington” happening organized by political forces bitterly disappointed that Hillary Clinton had not been elected. The Bernie Sanders “Our Revolution” group, the Communist Party and numerous others promoted the action as part of resuscitating the Democratic Party with a more progressive veneer and fighting “Trumpism.” Similar rallies took place in many U.S. cities and around the world.

    “The action was called the day after the November election by people who had expected they would be celebrating the ascendancy of the first woman president.

    “Far from signaling the rise of a new women’s movement, the rally weakened the fight for women’s rights. It wasn’t organized around any concrete demands. It wasn’t aimed at spurring state-by-state battles to defend a woman’s right to choose abortion against continuing attacks. It drew few unionists or African-Americans…..”

    Even a big section of the SWP’s periphery and supporters – former members who remember its leadership role in the antiwar movement of the ’60s – couldn’t swallow this. Judging by my Facebook feed, they enthusiastically participated.

    You call the Spartacist League as nutty and irrelevant as the SWP. I don’t disagree, but give the Sparts their due – at least they’re consistent and quite principled in their own way, which you can’t say about the Barnesites. Since the SWP and SL share a common method if not exactly the same politics a merger of their forces might make sense. The resulting organization of 150 geriatric dead-enders standing behind card tables would shake the bourgeoisie to its foundations!

    Comment by John B. — February 13, 2017 @ 11:19 pm

  6. As regards the picture of Jack Barnes at the top of this post, as the Wicked Witch said to Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz: “You cursed brat! Look what you’ve done! I’m melting! melting! Oh, what a world! What a world! Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness? Oooooh, look out! I’m going! Oooooh! Ooooooh!”

    Comment by John B. — February 13, 2017 @ 11:38 pm

  7. Whether the Sparts or SWP or RCP there is a permanent maximum leader. These leaders sit in their offices everyday and read the N.Y. Times, but it is doubtful if they even know real workers. I believe “leaders’ have to go back to the ranks once and a while…not just write articles but get out and sell their paper to workers door to door.

    Comment by Earl Gilman — February 14, 2017 @ 12:24 am

  8. Neither the Mad King nor the Little Princess have ever done a day’s work in the real world. I’m continuously bemused how this pair of petty-bourgeois parasites bang on and on about the “middle class left” when they are the epitome of this. The outfit goes on because it is the means for keeping Barnes and Waters in their privileged lifestyle – both in material terms and also in psychological terms: they obviously love bossing around the 70 or 80 remaining manual workers in the cult. At the same time, you can’t have a cult and cult leaders without having enablers. The enablers are the saddest species of all. Both victim of the cult and the very people who make the cult possible. And forever lorded over by the Mad King and the LIttle Princess. What miserable people and what miserable lives.

    Comment by Phil F — February 14, 2017 @ 1:14 am

  9. Barnes is 77 this year.

    Comment by Phil F — February 14, 2017 @ 1:15 am

  10. Indeed the SWP did have a useful role in the 1960s and earlier, but their ‘line change’ led to their degeneration, as they expelled many working class cadre. Jack Barnes was a product of Carlton College, along with many other SWP leaders. The problem with “Leninism’ in the present context is that it becomes another name for the ‘small group mentality’ that Lenin himself warned against. Trotsky used to make feuding Trotskyist groups unite. Even Lenin worked with the Mensheviks for 12 years in conditions far worse than we have it… until WWI.

    This is why we need a ‘refoundation’ and left unity, not increased sectarianism.

    Comment by Greg gibbs — February 14, 2017 @ 1:32 am

  11. @ #4 “Wow, Barnes looks awful, ill and depressed.”

    I first thought, when I saw that hideous picture of Barnes, of Proyect’s feature “Separated at Birth” — remembering the image of murdered agent Alexander Litvinenko laying fatally stricken by Polonium-210 in a London hospital bed:


    There’s certainly a common cowardly thread running through all the megalomaniac machinations of cats like Stalin, Barnes & Putin — albeit Barnes in the end had less of an impact than a grain of sand entering the atmosphere of Pluto in the overall history of our solar system.

    Comment by Karl Friedrich — February 14, 2017 @ 1:52 am

  12. Great. Now do one on those crackpots at the SEP, with their head cultist David North.

    Comment by Dr. Pagoda (@OLDDEADWHITEMEN) — February 14, 2017 @ 5:30 am

  13. It’s worse than that, the article you reference was written to oppose-from the right-the Obama administration’s refusal to veto the UN resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlements on the West Bank. This in the context of their tailing after Trump. But as someone who was schooled in the Horowitz/Buch analysis of Palestine as basic SWP doctrine as a high school activist back in the day, and more generally as a progressive person, I was completely stunned. Not to trivialize what happened with the Social Democrats in 1914, this was such a moment for me with the SWP, that I have always been inclined, as a former member, to apologize for.

    Comment by Tom Cod — February 14, 2017 @ 6:37 am

  14. Why was my comment removed here?

    Comment by Dr. Pagoda (@OLDDEADWHITEMEN) — February 14, 2017 @ 9:01 am

  15. What do you think the likelihood is that all along J.Barnes has intended to ruin the SWP from within?
    Carlton college isn’t exactly the most leftwing college in the US.

    Comment by Hal — February 14, 2017 @ 11:44 am

  16. Check out this headline from the January 16 Militant: “Obama’s attacks on Israel boost Jew-hatred.”


    Comment by John B. — February 14, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

  17. Nothing was removed. First time posters need to be approved by me.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 14, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

  18. So I’m approved now? I thought it was because I made an anti-SEP comment, and the love of David North was moving around like a tidal wave.

    Comment by Dr. Pagoda (@OLDDEADWHITEMEN) — February 14, 2017 @ 8:24 pm

  19. Some comments from Facebook on the issue of The Militant that was pulped:

    “What is the penalty for not discarding the treif edition?…This kind of reminds me of the Great Soviet Encyclopedia when Beria went into disgrace in 1953, and readers were told to remove the pages on him and were given replacement pages on the Bering Strait to paste in instead…. I also like the way that it’s the same person who wrote the ‘before’ and ‘after’ pieces in the Militant….”

    Comment by John B. — February 15, 2017 @ 2:23 pm

  20. This is the go-to site on the internet for classic middle class cynicism, despair and disdain of workers by renegades from Marxism.

    Comment by jaysonbiggs — February 16, 2017 @ 5:49 am

  21. People who are politically burned out but who don’t know it.

    Comment by jaysonbiggs — February 16, 2017 @ 5:55 am

  22. If opposing the Zionist “right of return” amounts to being a renegade from Marxism, then call me a renegade from Marxism.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 16, 2017 @ 2:05 pm

  23. The hashtag #FreeNaomiCraine is now trending. Naomi–When they next send you out with a Militant sales team, blink twice if you need help!

    Comment by Alan Wald — February 16, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

  24. +1 to Louis’ comment.

    I started to think: What is that “right of return” based on? What are the premises and theoretical framework? It must be based ultimately on an idea of separating people out.

    Here is what Trotsky had to say on the debate:
    (((III. Question: In the Jewish circles you are considered to be an “assimilator”. What is your attitude towards assimilation?

    Answer: I do not understand why I should be considered as an “assimilator”. I do not know, generally, what kind of a meaning this word holds. I am, it is understood, opposed to Zionism and all such forms of self-isolation on the part of the Jewish workers. I call upon the Jewish workers of France to better acquaint themselves with the problems of French life and of the French working class. Without that it is difficult to participate in the working class movement of that country in which they are being exploited. As the Jewish proletariat is spread in different countries it is necessary for the Jewish worker, outside of his own language, to strive to know the language of other countries as a weapon in the class struggle. What has that to do with “assimilation?”)))

    Comment by Hal — February 18, 2017 @ 7:59 am

  25. I’m going to join the SWP (used to be in the SWSS) and I’m in my thirties…

    Comment by Ninnel — August 10, 2017 @ 12:01 pm

  26. btw, the La Rouche cult is finally collapsing.

    Comment by Peter Myers — August 10, 2017 @ 10:10 pm

  27. In my opinion, the SWP has passed the class line like an strike breaker and it is no longer a revolutionary party. As far as the right of nations for self determination is concerned, that right has been designated to the oppressed nationalities and not to an oppressor nation. I invite the comrades for rereading the Lenin’s article on ” right of nations for self determination “. The SWP In an apologitical manner and with an excuse of holocaust and also with the excuse of unifying Jewish and Arab working class, calls for the recognition of zionist setelleres of the state of Israel. If one supposes such a right to the oppressors, then why not one hold fhe same right to the British workers in Ireland or India or Malvinas Island or the right of oppressors in the colonies or the right of white people in South Africa. The other question which has been brought to the fore is the question of equating the criticism of Israel and zionism or zionist movement with that of antisemitism which is totally false and it is an attempt for historical falsification of both incidents. All revolutionaries have written on the question of jewish people and the way for their emancipation, which capitalizes on their joining to the social movements but not on religious grounds.

    Comment by Ebrahim Rahimi khamnei — March 11, 2021 @ 1:39 pm

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