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The U.S. SWP attempts an outward turn (1976–83)

July 5, 2012

By John Riddell. Part 1 of a two-part article. Part 2 is available here. The second volume of Barry Sheppard’s history of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) provides us at last with a foundation of fact and analysis for discussion of the party’s unexpected and deep decline in the 1980s and after.1

The SWP, the main expression of Trotskyism in the U.S. since 1928, grew in the 1960s and 1970s to become the country’s most vigorous and effective Marxist organization. Subsequently, it withdrew from the stage of working-class politics and dwindled to a small, self-absorbed remnant with a harsh, undemocratic political culture.

The SWP set an example of what revolutionary socialism could achieve in the teeth of imperialist rule – and also of how quickly these gains could be dissipated. The party’s demise was a setback for all U.S. socialists.

Sheppard’s volumes are the first systematic attempt to present SWP history during this period, and, as Paul Le Blanc writes, they “will stand as an essential account” not only of the party but of its times. What makes these volumes unique, Le Blanc adds, “is their focus on the effort to build, and the ultimate disastrous failure in building, a genuinely revolutionary socialist party in the United States in the twentieth century.”

I will discuss only one aspect of Sheppard’s account: his explanation of the SWP’s downfall.

Three causes of decline

Sheppard offers three explanations, based on objective conditions, the party leadership, and political policy.

The objective context for the SWP’s decline, Sheppard says, was “the political retreat of the American working class beginning at the end of the 1970s,” which has continued since that time. The social movements (feminism, Black liberation, etc.) where the party had flourished declined. The party shifted its emphasis to the trade unions, but there too the radicalization peaked in 1978, to be followed by a sweeping retreat. “It would have been tough sledding for the party, even with the best leadership,” Sheppard says (p. 321; page references are to his second volume).

Yet other socialist organizations survived and even grew under these conditions. Sheppard cites the gains made by the International Socialist Organization in those years. (330)

Sheppard therefore turns his second cause: the emergence of SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes in the late 1970s as “the [party’s] sole initiator of policy and the supreme arbiter in any discussion.” (210) Barnes’s dictatorial role “blocked correction of political errors” and the “degeneration of the party’s organizational practices.” As a result, “the organizational question was paramount;” the rise of the “Barnes cult” in the mid-1970s was “the fundamental cause of the degeneration. (301, 322)

SWP leader George Breitman cautioned against such reasoning in 1967: “Personal factors play a part in every organizational crisis and split…. To leading participants,… personal factors may appear to be the only cause of a split, or the main cause. But that is rarely the case.”2

Sheppard may well agree, because he cites a third cause of the collapse, rooted in policy: the SWP’s move away from traditional Trotskyist views on the theory of permanent revolution and related issues. This began, Sheppard says, with adoption of “an uncritical attitude to the Cuban leadership,” and went on to embrace the view that Lenin had been right, against Trotsky, on disputed issues of Russian revolutionary strategy before 1917. Ultimately, in 1983, the party dropped the theoretical framework of “permanent revolution” altogether. Sheppard rightly points out that these moves reduced the ideological gap between the SWP and the Cuban revolutionary leadership. (280–83)

In Sheppard’s view, this shift formed part of Barnes’s “hell-bent drive now to break with the SWP’s theoretical past” as part of a campaign to “remake the SWP from top to bottom, under his exclusive control and leadership.” (285)

Appraisals of Sheppard’s new book by other actors in the SWP drama of those years – Paul Le Blanc, Malik Miah, and Lynn Henderson – agree with Sheppard that the Cuba/permanent revolution issue was crucially important and that the SWP’s shift on these issues had a disastrous impact. (Collections of comment on the Sheppard book can be found at Links and at SWP History 1960-1988.)

A dissenting note is struck by Peter Boyle, then a member of the SWP’s sister organization in Australia and now co-convener of Socialist Alliance in that country. Boyle concurs on the importance of the SWP’s break with many aspects of Trotskyist tradition, but considers this a step forward, not backward. I agree with Boyle’s approach on this point.3

An unconvincing diagnosis

Regardless of one’s views on Cuba and its Communist leadership, there is a problem with Sheppard’s analysis. The SWP’s efforts at convergence with the Cuban Communist current represented a turn outwards, toward linking up with revolutionaries outside the party and building an organization broader than the historic SWP. By contrast, the party’s actual trajectory under Barnes has been in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.

Indeed, the orientation to Cuba stood as a barrier to the SWP’s later inward focus. When the SWP praised the revolutionary credentials of the Cuban leaders, it provided a basis for SWP members to challenge actions of the party’s own leading bodies by reference to Cuban positions. Sheppard provides an example. When the Soviet government invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the SWP initially applauded this move, while the Cubans expressed reservations. It was nearly certain that, in time, some SWP party members would have noted the discrepancy and voiced the Cuban point of view. The pressure of the Cuban view, Sheppard says, contributed to the SWP leadership’s abrupt decision in mid-1980 to drop its support for the invasion. (216–18)

Support for “Cuban revolutionary Marxism” was thus a barrier to the emergence of what Sheppard calls a “Barnes cult.” It therefore comes as no surprise that as the SWP retreated into self-involved isolation, it quietly dumped its support for Cuba’s revolutionary international policies, adopting views placing it at the sectarian extreme of the Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist spectrum. (See appendix, “The SWP Today”) Sheppard notes one example of this turnabout on Cuba: the SWP’s “break … with the Cuban leadership and people” in the case of Elian González.4 (324–25)

Where would the “convergence with Cuba” orientation have taken the SWP in the absence of this sectarian turn? As Malik Miah points out, the evolution of the SWP’s Australian co-thinkers, the Democratic Socialist Party, is instructive; maintaining their general alignment with Cuba’s international policy, they sought to build a broad anti-capitalist regroupment, which became today’s Socialist Alliance. Expelled SWP leader Peter Camejo and his co-thinkers evolved in a similar direction, as did expelled SWP supporters in Canada.

Origins of the Cuba debate

The dispute over Cuba in the SWP leadership, Sheppard reports, originated in 1978, when Breitman – a widely respected veteran party leader – proposed that the party “abandon our characterization of the Castro leadership as revolutionary and instead call it centrist.” Centrist, in this context, meant vacillating between Stalinism and revolution. (278)

Breitman based his proposal on “internal changes in Cuba in a Stalinist direction in the 1970s,” such as the introduction of “Soviet-style bureaucratic economic planning,” the introduction of ranks in the Cuban army, and a ban on factions in the Cuban Communist Party. (279) The majority in the SWP leadership opposed Breitman’s proposed change in evaluation. The debate was taken to the membership, and the majority was sustained by the 1981 convention, although the Breitman current won five delegates.

It may be helpful to summarize what motivated me and many others at the time in supporting the majority position.

  • The Breitman proposal implied that the Cuban Communists, as “centrists,” were political opponents, and that we would try to build our own party in Cuba – a radical shift from our longstanding policy of support to the Cuban CP.
  • We were well aware of Stalinist influence in Cuba, but did not consider ourselves well placed to judge its extent or prescribe an alternative. It seemed best to address the dangers, as before, by publicizing the alternative standpoints of Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky, which the SWP did energetically.
  • There was a countervailing tendency, which Sheppard calls Cuba’s “revolutionary and internationalist foreign policy.” (279) Over time, this policy seemed likely to lead Cubans themselves to challenge internal Stalinist dangers, as actually happened in the 1980s.
  • During the mid and late 1970s, on repeated occasions, we had found SWP policies to be wrong and the Cubans to be right on major world issues: among them, the Allende government in Chile, Cuba’s role in Africa (including its armed defense of the MPLA government in Angola at the latter’s request), the Non-Aligned movement, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, dynamics of the Nicaraguan revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Cuban thinking also helped us understand the upheavals in Grenada (1979) and Burkina Faso (1983). There were also points of difference, such as on the Solidarność movement in Poland and the character of the Soviet leadership, where we stood our ground. Yet we could not but wonder why we had been so frequently wrong.
  • Based on this track record, to assert that the SWP was more Marxist or more revolutionary than the Cuban leadership seemed mere gringo arrogance. Indeed, the course of events raised questions regarding the theory of permanent revolution on which we had based most of our wrong positions. Something seemed wrong with the way we were using this theory – or perhaps with the theory itself.

In this context, the position advocated by Barnes and the majority leadership was not “shock therapy”; most members viewed it as a logical deduction from the SWP’s experience.

The lessons of Chile

An important factor in our assessment of Cuba was the experience of Chile under President Salvador Allende (1970–73). Sheppard’s chapter on Chile, while making many important points, evades a central issue that became crucially important when Latin American popular struggles began to advance in the late 1990s and after: Should revolutionaries have given critical support to the Popular Unity (UP) and to the UP government headed by Allende, or should they have opposed it?5

This is the aspect of Sheppard’s book that has the greatest urgency for us today, and it demands close attention.

Let us consult the SWP’s position at the time. A lengthy 1972 article by Peter Camejo and Les Evans analyzed statements by Fidel Castro during his 1971 visit to Chile. Castro was correct to point out “the progressive nature of the UP’s reforms,” Camejo and Evans said. They also considered the Cuban leader correct in affirming that Allende’s election did not bring working people to power and that a revolutionary confrontation still lay ahead. The Cuban leader was wrong, they continued, to suggest that the masses had a stake in supporting the UP government. “Castro urges support to precisely those who prevent the mobilization of the masses,” the authors said; revolutionists should support the government’s progressive measures but not the government itself.6

The authors compare the Allende regime to that of F.D. Roosevelt in the U.S. – that is, to an instrument of the capitalist class in taming and blocking the workers’ struggle. They also liken it to Stalinist popular frontism after 1935, which subordinated workers’ struggles to “alliances with ‘peace-loving’ imperialists.”7

Inevitably, the SWP’s opposition to the UP government hindered efforts to defend it against the impending U.S.-sponsored coup. The Cuban government’s approach of critical support, by contrast, enabled its government to take energetic measures to defend Chile, while making suggestions on how Chilean workers should prepare for the coming confrontation.

From a Marxist point of view, there was no principled barrier to the Cuban approach. Chile was not an imperialist country like the U.S., Britain, and France, but rather one oppressed by imperialism, and its sovereignty was under attack by CIA subversion. In such conditions, the program of Trotskyism envisages the possibility of an anti-imperialist united front that could include bourgeois forces.8

After Allende’s brutal overthrow by forces directed by U.S. imperialism, the SWP threw itself into activity for the coup’s victims. It soon began to rethink its approach to the Allende regime. In 1982 it printed a large collection of Castro’s speeches during his 1971 Chile visit.9 As Sheppard reports, the introduction to this book, by Elizabeth Stone, reaffirmed the core of the party’s analysis during 1970–73. (21) Yet Stone also reviewed Castro’s statements in detail and praised them as representing a revolutionary course. Members were left to resolve this contradiction on their own. Like many others, I considered publication of the 1982 book to mark a change in the party’s position.

Seventeen years later, in 1999, the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela opened a period in which left forces took governmental office in many Latin American countries. Although these regimes varied enormously in quality, some of them maintained strong ties to the mass movements that had thrust them into power and also joined in close alliance with Cuba. By this time, the SWP had repented of its support for Cuban policies; it strongly opposed both the Venezuelan, Bolivian, and Nicaraguan governments and their alliance with Cuba.

The SWP’s 1982 book on Chile, despite its ambiguity, pointed toward a more constructive policy.

Theoretical innovation

Far from being a “break with the past history of the SWP in all aspects,” the evolution of its Cuba position was consistent with the party’s innovative record during its boom years in the 1960s:

  • The SWP’s much-praised role in spearheading the anti-Vietnam war movement, focused on winning mass worker support for the single demand of immediate U.S. withdrawal, was strikingly different from the anti-war policy of Marxism in the Russian revolution era.
  • The SWP embraced the revolutionary Black nationalism of Malcolm X while he was still in the Nation of Islam. Through study of the mass Black upsurge, the party renewed and deepened the insights of Trotsky in the 1930s on Black nationalism.
  • The SWP welcomed unreservedly the emergence of women’s liberation – a multi-class feminism that lacked the working-class framework advocated by Marxists in the Lenin/Clara Zetkin era.
  • The party’s 1961 position on Cuba, although explained in terms of “permanent revolution,” recognized the uniqueness of this upheaval and of its leadership, which was neither Stalinist nor Trotskyist but revolutionary to the core.

On all these questions, the SWP stood apart from all other Marxist currents of the time. Its policy in the 1960s can be considered as one of regroupment with social movements. SWP members thought in terms of political principle and programmatic continuity, to be sure, but the party’s record displayed a measure of empiricism and a good deal of theoretical innovation.

The attempted outward turn

The SWP’s positive appreciation of Cuban policy was just one element in a broader effort to turn outwards and link up with other revolutionary currents and radicalizing working people.10 The most important of these moves was the campaign to unify the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), in which Sheppard himself played a leading role. A longstanding faction fight was brought to an end, and all concerned agreed that the SWP had been right on the key point at issue. Vigorous efforts were made to unify rival FI groupings worldwide. (125–34)

In 1976, the campaign of SWP presidential candidate Peter Camejo won unprecedentedly wide support from left currents; in turn, the SWP backed the candidates of the Chicano Raza Unida Party and also General Baker of the Maoist Communist Labor Party. (118–19)

SWP conferences now were graced by many new guests and observers: from Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, South Africa; from international Trotskyist currents led by Pierre Lambert and by Lutte Ouvrière; from U.S. groupings of Maoist and “state capitalist” persuasion. Relations were opened up even with the De Leonist Socialist Labor Party.

In the labour movement, SWP members worked hard in the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign of Ed Sadlowski in 1977 and the victorious mineworkers battle of 1978. The party sensed the beginning of a workers’ radicalization and launched a campaign to get the majority of its members into the industrial unions where the opportunities seemed to be concentrated.

In 1977, the party had 1,760 members; combined with its youth movement, its forces numbered 3,000. How could the SWP utilize its new strength and reputation to qualitatively broaden its reach? After 1979, the party began to talk of a revolutionary convergence not only with Cuban forces but with those in Nicaragua, Grenada, and El Salvador.

“We must end our semi-sectarian existence,” the SWP leadership proclaimed. No one knew just how this was to be done, but members sensed that something more ambitious was needed than simply recruiting to the party.

As it happened, the SWP misjudged the conjuncture: the 1977–78 labour struggles did not launch a workers’ radicalization; instead they were followed by a winding down of the whole cycle of upheaval and struggle begun two decades earlier by the Black civil rights movement and by a shift to the right in U.S. politics.

The opportunities did not unfold as we hoped, and – as we shall see in Part 2 of this article – the SWP leadership itself betrayed the outward turn.

In both its achievements and its errors, the SWP’s failed outward turn holds lessons, for Marxists attempting today to achieve anti-capitalist and revolutionary unity.

The party’s efforts have been criticized as delusional, a capitulation to Castroism, and an abandonment of Leninist party-building. These points are certainly worth discussion. But regardless of one’s views on Cuba, there are no grounds to consider the attempted outward turn as responsible for the SWP’s subsequent sectarian retreat. Indeed, the SWP’s attempted outward turn corresponds well with the concerns and efforts of Marxist currents today in many parts of the world.

Appendix: The SWP today

The U.S. Socialist Workers Party today has fewer than 100 members, about 5% of its peak membership in the 1970s. This figure, however, understates the party’s resources. About 150 former members participate in the work of the SWP’s publishing house, Pathfinder Press. The party is well financed. The SWP reports attendance of 300-400 at its major conferences and rallies. Its newspaper, The Militant, lists “distributors” in 15 cities.

The SWP continues its activity in defense of Cuba; here its record compares well with that of some larger U.S. socialist groups. However, the SWP disagrees sharply with Cuba’s international policy. Thus the SWP has denounced the ALBA alliance, to which Cuba is deeply committed.11

As Sheppard notes, the SWP now consistently takes “positions opposite from what the broader left movement holds,” which has resulted in a “general shift to the right” in the party’s political line. For example, the SWP denounced demonstrations in 2004 against the Iraq war; it has embraced arguments put forward by apologists for the Zionist state; it is hostile to the movement for climate justice. (324–26) These stands go together with programmatic “maximalism” – that is, frequently focusing on the final goal of workers’ power or that of a revolutionary party rather than on immediate and transitional demands arising from current struggles.

The Militant reports on many strikes and struggles against oppression but does not indicate any ongoing involvement in such movements by SWP members. A large portion of the SWP members work in unionized industry, but there is no trace of this in the Militant, which does not reflect engagement by members in union work or shop-floor activism.

Former members report a continuing climate of severe disciplinary harassment of members for minor supposed offenses.

The SWP still represents significant human and political resources, but these assets are locked inside a strongbox to which no one can find the key.

Part 2 of this article discusses the inadequacies of the attempted “outward turn” and the causes of SWP decline.

Notes

1. The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume II: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988, a Political Memoir, by Barry Sheppard, Resistance Books (London), 2012, 345 pages.

See also: The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume I: The Sixties, a Political Memoir, by Barry Sheppard, Resistance Books (Sydney), 2005, 354 pages.

Both volumes can be ordered from Bolerium Books, 2141 Mission Street, suite 300, San Francisco CA 94110; phone 1-800-326-6353. Volume 2 is $15, and a set of both volumes is $25; shipping is an additional $3.50 in the US and Canada; $6 for other countries. Volume I can also be ordered from Resistance Books (Australia). Volume 1 (without photos) can be downloaded for free from: barrysheppardbook.com. Thanks to Paul Le Blanc for this information.

2. George Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970, p. 10.

3. From 1972 to 1977, as Executive Secretary of the League for Socialist Action in Canada, I collaborated closely with Barnes, Sheppard, and other SWP leaders. In 1983, I began work with Pathfinder Press, the publishing house associated with the SWP, to publish documents of the Communist International in Lenin’s time. I soon moved to New York, joined the SWP, was elected for a term on its National Committee, and acted for a time as Pathfinder’s editorial director. After I left the Pathfinder office in 1993, I continued collaboration with the publisher until 2004, when the SWP and Pathfinder broke off relations with me because of my vocal support for Iraqi self-determination.

4. In 2000, a young Cuban boy, Elián González, was kidnapped by counter-revolutionary relatives in Miami. The Cuban people and government campaigned for the U.S. government to return him to his father in Cuba. The U.S. government, after initially resisting, finally complied; the SWP denounced Washington for doing so.

5. Barry Sheppard permitted me to review the first draft of this and other chapters of his second volume and made some changes that reflect my suggestions.

6. Peter Camejo and Les Evans, “Chile: Reformism in Crisis,” in International Socialist Review, February 1972, pp. 10–11, 35–38.

7. Camejo and Evans, pp. 11, 36.

8. See the discussions of revolution in colonial and semi-colonial countries in the Second, Baku, and Fourth Communist International congresses.

9. Fred Feldman, ed., Fidel Castro on Chile, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1982.

10. The SWP had made many previous efforts at socialist regroupment. Among those that were widely known among the party membership:

  • Fusion with the American Workers Party in 1934.
  • Fusion with much of the left wing of the Socialist Party in 1937.
  • Attempted fusion with the Workers Party (led by Max Shachtman) in 1946, resulting in a fusion with the current led by C.L.R. James 1947.
  • Collaboration by the Fourth International with currents supporting the Yugoslav government of Josip Broz Tito after 1948.
  • Regroupment effort with forces breaking with the Communist Party 1956–58.
  • Fusion with left wing of Shactmanite youth to form the Young Socialist Alliance in 1959.
  • Reunification with the majority “International Secretariat” wing of the Fourth International 1963.

11. See editorial by The Militant, July 27, 2009.

17 Comments
  1. Tom Cod permalink

    On Chile I remember Sheppard’s attitude very well. I was a 20 year old member of the DC branch in Sept 1973 when the entire membership was called in to hear Sheppard who was on tour for this purpose, give a presentation about the “Barzman Letter”, a scandal contrived by Barnes and Sheppard to demonize internal opponents and those among European trotskyists who disagreed with them. It was a petty scandal worthy of Kenneth Starr that served to trivialize the political discussion and divert it away from serious political issues. At the close of his presentation I asked him about the coup in Chile which had occurred a couple days before which he cavalierly dismissed almost with a wave of the hand as a defeat. What kind of priorities does that reflect? and what kind of sheep like membership would tolerate it? It was at this point that I stopped taking the SWP seriously until much to my amazement I was pleasantly surprised to see them step up to the plate in support of the struggles in Central America in the early 80s as I had written them off as a right social-democratic sect that covered for imperialism.

  2. Tom Cod permalink

    I agree with Riddell and Boyle as well, the turn to Cuba and Central America was healthy. Breaking with hidebound dogmas and seeking to think for oneselves is crucial to breaking with sectarianism and the cult mentatility and is essential for developing political viability. Sadly, the SWP did this too much on paper, while actually rigidifying into an ossified sectarian organization along the lines of the Socialist Labor Party.

  3. David Altman permalink

    Ditto what Tom says in his second comment. At the time of the big struggle in the SWP 1981-83 I agreed with the leadership against the minorities, especially on its orientation toward Cuba & Central America. I was so bothered, though, by the cancellation of the ’83 convention & the expulsion of the dissidents, that I left in March of ’84. Sad to see what’s become of the SWP.

  4. John R writes: “The SWP’s efforts at convergence with the Cuban Communist current represented a turn outwards, toward linking up with revolutionaries outside the party and building an organization broader than the historic SWP. By contrast, the party’s actual trajectory under Barnes has been in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.”

    I think this misunderstands that particular turn and that John also misunderstands the turn to industry.

    The outward period was the building of branches in local working class communities. Yet that didn’t last very long. Indeed, the end of that coincided with the ‘turn’ to the industrial working class and the Cuba.

    There is no mysterious contradiction about turns outwards while the actual trajectory was inwards. The two things were two sides of the same coin. The ‘turn to industry’ was the kind of ‘turn’ that only someone in an office with zero contact (or understanding) of the working class could dream up. ‘Talking socialism on the job’ and having an internal life – I’m not simply talking the well-established lack of democracy but also norms that were made for young footloose individuals without family commitments – alien to workers indicate that ‘the turn’ was not a *real* turn to workers. It was a caricature. And it probably had more to do with establishing the unbridled dominance of the office leaders who remained in the office than it did with anything else.

    Likewise the turn to Cuba. This was more about establishing what was special and distinctive about the office leaders than any real reaching out to the Cubans. Has Barnes ever even been to Cuba since 1960? Waters goes and speaks at book fairs and academic conferences. It’s not like they ever established an actual relationship with the Cuban CP. They wanted the veil of the Cuban CP, a sort of pseudo-relationship, not a real relationship with it., just as they wanted the veneer of a relationship with the working class, a pseudo-relationship.

    That’s why far form their *actual* trajectory being in contradiction to any outwards turn, the actual trajectory was simply a reflection of what BarnesWaters Clark were actually about.

    And, of course, no-one serious about political engagement and base-building in the working class moves their members around to new cities and new jobs every year or two. That was designed to ensure no members ever built a real base in any workplaces.

    The reason for this is not some unique evil embodied in Jack Barnes. It’s a fairly logical consequence of the pursuit of the Zinoviev model of party-building, especially when you ignore the objective conditions. In that sense, Barnes himself is the monkey rather than the organ-grinder.

    Philip Ferguson

    http://rdln.wordpress.com/

    http://theirishrevolution.wordpress.com/

  5. Stansfield Smith permalink

    I recall being in the YSA for a few years in the late 70s. There was this attitude instilled in members that other left groups and tendencies were “political opponents,” something no supporter or critic of the present SWP seems to challenge. Our only political opponent is the imperialist ruling class. To see it any other way is simply self-isolating sectarianism.
    Another view shared by SWPers and its ex-SWP critics is that stalinism is “counter-revolutionary through and through.” Yet stalinism is also said to be a petty bourgeois layer. Marx and Lenin never said the petty bourgeoisie was counter-revolutionary through and through. Not even the national bourgeoisie in oppressed countries is counter-revolutionary through and through.
    We should also look at the political direction of the SWPers expelled since about 1980. About 95% moved to the right, not to the left. Probably most became politically inactive, which shows they were not serious revolutionaries in the first place. A number joined groups to the right like the ISO, or joined other misnamed Trotskyist groups that were even more sectarian than the SWP was in the early-mid 1980s.

  6. Ernesto Oleinik permalink

    “It has been reported that I was seriously ill–it was another man; dying–it was another man; dead–the other man again…As far as I can see, nothing remains to be reported, except that I have become a foreigner. When you hear it, don’t you believe it. And don’t take the trouble to deny it. Merely just raise the American flag on our house in Hartford and let it talk.
    Mark Twain – Letter to Frank E. Bliss, 11/4/1897

    “The SWP set an example of what revolutionary socialism could achieve in the teeth of imperialist rule – and also of how quickly these gains could be dissipated. The party’s demise was a setback for all U.S. socialists.”
    John Riddell 2012

    Hi John!
    I take the opportunity to respond to your earlier invitation on Gus Horowitz blog. To begin with: I do not have the opportunity right now of reading the second volume by Barry Sheppard on the SWP. My words will therefore reflect my personal understanding of some of the political points you raise in your review. I want to start with quoting through a part of my first comment on Gus Horowitz blog:

    “I do see the SWP and the human and political tradition it embodies internationally TODAY as “the essential component that embodies in living cadres today the programmatic conquests that are essential for molding the kind of revolutionary workers party that can win the socialist victory..”

    Im glad that some the underlying political directions/perspectives have become more spelled out and and presented in a clear-cut manner, by people commenting on your review.It says quite clearly:

    “The reason for this is not some unique evil embodied in Jack Barnes. It’s a fairly logical consequence of the pursuit of the Zinoviev model of party-building, especially when you ignore the objective conditions. In that sense, Barnes himself is the monkey rather than the organ-grinder.”(Admin)

    I would like to start by quoting one paragraph in your review:

    “Support for “Cuban revolutionary Marxism” was thus a barrier to the emergence of what Sheppard calls a “Barnes cult.” It therefore comes as no surprise that as the SWP retreated into self-involved isolation, it quietly dumped its support for Cuba’s revolutionary international policies, adopting views placing it at the sectarian extreme of the Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist spectrum. (See appendix, “The SWP Today”) Sheppard notes one example of this turnabout on Cuba: the SWP’s “break … with the Cuban leadership and people” in the case of Elian González.4 (324–25)”

    I did remember quite vividly the discussion on the case of Elian Gonzales, the letters sent to the Militant, the posting by Jose G. Perez – if Im not mistaken – and a response by Steve Clarke in the Militant that casted some light on what I felt were the more fundamental aspects of what was and still is at stake in defending democratic and workers rights.

    The article: “2 class views: Did U.S. win cold war? Are workers doing OK? ” can be read in its entirety at http://www.themilitant.com/2000/6420/642058.html.

    I wanted to quote this:
    “A large number of letters–many supportive, some critical–arrived in response to that editorial and the front-page banner headline in the same issue: “INS assault in Miami strikes blow to the working class.” For two weeks in a row, the editor set aside a full page for letters discussing the April 22 SWAT-style assault in Miami, the fight for Elián González’s immediate return to Cuba, and unconditional defense of Cuba’s sovereignty. An article in last week’s issue joined the question on a number of these matters.

    When events of this scope pose issues so sharply, debates around them usually register more fundamental questions of political orientation and strategy. Differing assessments of the outcome of the Cold War between U.S. imperialism and the Soviet Union and other workers states; the stability of the U.S. capitalist system; the conditions under which growing numbers of toilers live and work; shifts in the combativity and political attitudes of layers of workers and farmers; confidence in the proletariat’s ability, its future, and its very character–all these and more come up for debate.”

    Yes, confidence in the proletariats political and revolutionary future. So again I welcome the invitation to comment on your views of why the SWP “Subsequently, it withdrew from the stage of working-class politics and dwindled to a small, self-absorbed remnant with a harsh, undemocratic political culture.”

    You write a couple of paragraphs later:
    “Regardless of one’s views on Cuba and its Communist leadership, there is a problem with Sheppard’s analysis. The SWP’s efforts at convergence with the Cuban Communist current represented a turn outwards, toward linking up with revolutionaries outside the party and building an organization broader than the historic SWP. By contrast, the party’s actual trajectory under Barnes has been in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.”

    I agree with one thing: Yes the SWPs efforts represented a turn outwards and if I may say it, they still represent that.

    If I have one concrete memory to recall after a lot of years, its the respect, collaboration and give and take between members of the movement (I was a member of the Young Socialists during the Havana WFDY congress in 1997 and participated together with others in a meeting of the OCLAE in Havana in 1999) and all kinds of political forces and young people back then.

    If there was something that challenged my inexperince back then and some tendencies to turn inwards that I had, it was the practical leadership of the comrades from the SWP and YS.

    Yes, we argued forcefully for our communist politics and international point of view, we didnt hide them. I met some wonderfull people and I felt a bit richer, like the rest of us from that experience. We didnt have to see eye to eye on everything under the sun, but we argued with respect, self-confidence and at least we started to understand in our own ways, each of us, how convergence or divergence in class politics are aspects of a single process.

    We did it collectively. I do remember from years feeling a similar inspiration whenever I talked to comrades who participated in WFDYs festival in Venezuela in 2005 and other experiences.

    I remember the feeling I got when reading Mary Alice Waters intervention in Caracas in the 2007 and 2008 book fairs. Eventually her talks were published by Pathfinder Press and by Venezuelan publisher Monte Avila as the pamphlet: “Is Socialist Revolution in the U.S. Possible?
    – A Necessary Debate.”

    Again, arguing forcefully in a comradely way, not hiding yourself, your political identity – yes identity – challenging and being challenged. All these are aspects of trying to reach outwards, becoming more concrete. Doing things in a united-front manner and at the same time not forgetting what you are, were you came from and what you bring with you as a precondition to being able to learn from the give and take in the process.

    You speak of “narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption”. Well, I have to ask you: Isolation from whom, from what class forces in motion? Isolation from working-class militants engaged in struggle wherever it may be around the globe? Isolation from young people internationally trying to reach a revolutionary outlook?

    Doing its utmost to pass on the inmeasurable revolutionary experience of those who made and still are making the Cuban revolution? Collaborating with others to publish this living history of struggle in the Chinese language for example? Or taking with you the Communist Manifesto published by Pathfinder Press in arabic to meetings in Lebanon or Tahrir square?
    You may disagree with the content, the tone, the emphasis, the perspective and so on.

    But, IS trying to reach fighters from the factories and farms of the US to struggles around the world, with the message of working-class selfconfidence from within the belly of the beast, trying to awaken fighters to their own worth, not primarily to their different forms of explotation, is that what you mean by “self-absorption”?

    Or as Buddy Howard from Keokuk, Iowa wrote in his letter to the Militant:
    “I read where a subscriber was concerned that the Militant might be sleeping through the revolution, because they chose to have the 1,300 workers locked out by Crystal Sugar on the cover instead of “Occupy Wall St.”

    “I assure you it’s not the Militant that is sleeping through anything. Even the lame corporate media will cover the big events in New York or Oakland.”

    “The Militant realizes the workers of industry and the workers that feed the country are being slapped around by the kings of capitalism. Our families are being attacked and our benefits that we fought for for years are being destroyed.”

    “I plead with the Militant to keep covering struggles like the Crystal Sugar workers in North Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota; the Steelworkers in Pennsylvania; the Millworkers in Texas; the Longshoremen in Washington; the Steelworkers in Ohio; the Millworkers in Indiana; etc. etc. ”

    “These workers read about each other’s struggles in the Militant and then contact each other and share stories and take part in each other’s events, including the “occupy movement.”

    Now that sounds like how you would start a movement toward the working class taking power. ”

    From the fights against the organized brutality of the capitalist state and its police forces, from the fight of working farmers being dispossesed but fighting back, from the fight to free the FIVE to countless others in the dungeons of the “justice” system.

    I feel in my bones the Militant has become more and more during the last years and internationalist paper OF the working-class militants coming forward, not a paper FOR the working class or the picture some ideologue has in his/her mind of what the workers “can understand” (my words).

    At the same time a paper that combines education, keeping alive and making concrete the hard fought lessons of 150+ years of proletarian movements. If anything, the paper has become even sharper during the last couple of years. So, no John, we dont see I eye to eye on the question of “narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption”.

    Or as Steve Clarke wrote in the Militant article from March 28 “Today’s union fights: How we got here and the solidarity we must keep building”:

    “Contrary to Trumka and other labor misleaders, the way forward for workers and the unions is not to divert and dissipate workers’ time, energies, and resources through efforts to reelect President Obama and restore Democratic Party majorities in Congress, state legislatures, and city halls…

    ..What’s needed is for working people to hit the road and bring solidarity to actions by these embattled workers. Bring other working people with you—government workers and those working for a private boss; employed and unemployed; native born and immigrant; whatever your skin color or sex.

    …Join picket lines and rallies by locked-out workers in Metropolis, Illinois; Keokuk, Iowa; and Flatbush Gardens in Brooklyn, New York.

    Reach out to students and other young people.

    By doing so, we’re not only helping to spread solidarity and extend the lines of working-class resistance today. We’re also sowing the seeds of battles—fighting shoulder to shoulder—for many years to come.”

    Reach out, in and organized, disciplined, collective manner, bringing with you something and learning some other things from embattled fighters in the process.

    You write:
    “Where would the “convergence with Cuba” orientation have taken the SWP in the absence of this sectarian turn? As Malik Miah points out, the evolution of the SWP’s Australian co-thinkers, the Democratic Socialist Party, is instructive; maintaining their general alignment with Cuba’s international policy, they sought to build a broad anti-capitalist regroupment, which became today’s Socialist Alliance.”

    Well I thinks its good when this gets spelled out. I would say theres a political difference of a fundamental nature involved, different directions and perspectives embodied in fighting for a
    “broad anti-capitalist regroupment” or fighting to fuse with the vanguard militants coming to the fore in building a proletarian party.

    And when I say “party”, I try to give it the meaning once Joe Hansen used when discussing with the Revolutionary Tendency in 1961 on what it meant to embrace the revolutionary leadership of Cuba. An international class party.

    Not, undefined, international regroupments “in one country”, each adapting in its own ways – trough the mediations of social democracy, the “left” political culture or the “left of the left” pretensions, the union bureacracies in all its progressive shades – to the characteristics of their “own” nations, “their” states (including “well-fare” states).

    Well I dont think it was Jack Barnes or the SWP “regime” who invented the consequences deepening polarisation, the tendencies to all kinds of Bonapartisms (“left” and “right”), the social and economic pressures bulding up and underneath the surface of the imperialist “democracies” during at least the last 30 years.

    Polarisation Globally, between the exploiters and the exploited, among the exploiters and among the exploited themselves, among all kinds and shades of “intermediate” classes and so on.

    How all this social facts, material and class realities undergoing brutal changes, how all these things affect in any way the perspectives contending practically in the workers movement doesnt get much mention. We are presented with abstract poles though: Either you build up (With exactly whom, what forces?) broad anticapitalist formations like Socialist Alliance, Syriza, Antarsya, and the list could get really long OR you doom yourself to “narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.”

    On the debate on Cuba Im glad to read from you:

    “Breitman based his proposal on “internal changes in Cuba in a Stalinist direction in the 1970s,” such as the introduction of “Soviet-style bureaucratic economic planning,” the introduction of ranks in the Cuban army, and a ban on factions in the Cuban Communist Party. (279) The majority in the SWP leadership opposed Breitman’s proposed change in evaluation. The debate was taken to the membership, and the majority was sustained by the 1981 convention, although the Breitman current won five delegates.”

    “…In this context, the position advocated by Barnes and the majority leadership was not “shock therapy”; most members viewed it as a logical deduction from the SWP’s experience.”

    This was part as you write of:
    “The SWP’s positive appreciation of Cuban policy was just one element in a broader effort to turn outwards and link up with other revolutionary currents and radicalizing working people.10 The most important of these moves was the campaign to unify the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), in which Sheppard himself played a leading role. A longstanding faction fight was brought to an end, and all concerned agreed that the SWP had been right on the key point at issue. Vigorous efforts were made to unify rival FI groupings worldwide. (125–34)”

    Thereafter you write:
    “As it happened, the SWP misjudged the conjuncture: the 1977–78 labour struggles did not launch a workers’ radicalization; instead they were followed by a winding down of the whole cycle of upheaval and struggle begun two decades earlier by the Black civil rights movement and by a shift to the right in U.S. politics.

    The opportunities did not unfold as we hoped, and – as we shall see in Part 2 of this article – the SWP leadership itself betrayed the outward turn.”

    Well, I understand youre of the strong conviction by now that the SWP leadership “betrayed” the outward turn. You lived through those a lot of those years as a revolutionary and party man.

    But John, “winding down of the whole cycle of upheaval”? The WHOLE cycle?

    Had it anything to do with “hope” at all? The brutal retreat in the US, UK, Europe, Latin America for the working masses, battered from all sides, resisting, retreating, coming forward, retreating again, unlead, misled, abandoned to their own fate by social forces who integrated themselves even more closely to their respective capitalist states.

    The murder of Maurice Bishop and the occupation of Grenada, the destructive consequences of the Contras in Nicaragua, the stalemate in El Salvador, the eight year war that came down upon the Iranian revolution and so on.. During the 80s, 90s, and to this day.

    These were questions of struggle, right? Decided in struggle. Life or dead matters of class politics. Are you totally sure the turn and all its consequences was based primarily on a “hope” for an immediate (my word) radicalization of the working class?

    My comment is already to long and there are a lot of things I havent covered but this came to my mind while thinking about a lot of the commentaries who circulate today on the party, the SWP:

    “The revolutionary movement, under the best conditions, is a hard fight, and it wears out a lot of human material. Not for nothing has it been said a thousand times in the past: “The revolution is a devourer of men.” The movement in this, the richest and most conservative country in the world, is perhaps the most voracious of all.

    It is not easy to persist in the struggle, to hold on, to stay tough and fight it out year after year without victory; and even, in times such as the present, without tangible progress. That requires theoretical conviction and historical perspective as well as character. And, in addition to that, it requires association with others in a common party.

    The surest way to lose one’s fighting faith is to succumb to one’s immediate environment; to see things only as they are and not as they are changing and must change; to see only what is before one’s eyes and imagine that it is permanent..”

    “The revolutionary party can make mistakes, and has made them, but it is never wrong in the fight against grievance-mongers who try to blame the party for their own weaknesses, for their tiredness, their lack of vision, their impulse to quit and to capitulate. The party is not wrong now when it calls this tendency by its right name.

    People often act differently as individuals, and give different explanations for their actions, than when they act and speak as groups. When an individual gets tired and wants to quit, he usually says he is tired and he quits…

    …But when the same kind of people decide as a group to get out of the line of fire by getting out of the party, they need the cover of a faction and a “political” rationalisation. Any “political” explanation will do, and in any case it is pretty certain to be a phony explanation. That also has been going on for about 100 years.”

    “The party is the highest prize to the young trade unionist who becomes a revolutionist, the apple of his eye. But to the revolutionist who becomes transformed into a trade unionist – we have all seen this happen more than once – the party is no prize at all. The mere trade unionist, who thinks in terms of “union politics” and “power blocs” and little caucuses with little fakers to run for some little office, pushing one’s personal interest here and there – why should he belong to a revolutionary party? For such a person the party is a millstone around his neck, interfering with his success as a “practical” trade union politician. And in the present political situation in the country, it’s a danger – in the union, in the shop, and in life in general.”

    At the end of the conference, I gave a speech and I said to the young activists there: “You are the real men of destiny, for you alone represent the future.” In the 1946 convention theses we put the same concept.”
    James P Cannon – Defending Trade Unionists And Revolutionists – 1953

    I thank you for the opportunity to give my thoughts on your blog.

    /Ernesto

    PS: After reading your article I did find this posted on the SWP yahoo groups list:
    “There’s an interesting exchange in the comments section of Gus Horowitz’s new
    blog. Some current supporters of Jack Barnes (not Dave Rowlands) felt the need
    to come out of hiding and defend their leader in public”(Barnesoids Speak! – David Altman)

    Well Im not hiding and be it as it may: I suppose the devil and his grandma has many names, one of them being called Barnesoid.

  7. Ken Hiebert permalink

    John says, “Relations were opened up even with the De Leonist Socialist Labor Party.” There’s nothing wrong with this. There’s no reason we shouldn’t reach out to the SLP.
    I was at Oberlin when a leader of the SLP spoke to the large assembly. There was something that left me puzzled by the way he was presented. Looking back now I wonder what in fact was going on. Was this just a unity dance with the real goal of winning a few people from the SLP?

  8. In reply to Ernesto and Ken:

    Ernesto, your well-reasoned and powerful contribution challenges us all to put aside stereotypes of the SWP and search for common ground. It is significant that three other SWP supporters have written in the same vein to the blog of Gus Horowitz. I would like to pause for a moment and consider what you have said before proceeding. Meanwhile, my “Part 2″ will be published Sunday, which will speak to some points that you raise. Thanks for your initiative in raising these issues. In solidarity, John

    Ken, I am glad you recall, as I do, the SWP’s overture to the U.S. Socialist Labor Party (SLP). I feel now, as we all did then, that it was a positive move. It was all the more impressive given that the SLP did not have a good reputation among party members. It was a reminder that we must not write off anyone who sincerely works for socialism — a thought that all participants in the present SWP discussion should keep in mind. John

  9. Ernesto Oleinik permalink

    Hi John!
    I thank you for your answer. I wonder though: Did you refer now to my comment here on your blog or the the first response I wrote to you, in the “About” part of Guses blog?

    /Ernesto

  10. Tom Cod permalink

    US lost the Cold War? C’mon, that’s living in a dream world. Even the paragraphs dealing with this issue in the Militant article recite the horrible setbacks workers suffered in the former socialist countries at that time.

  11. Tom Cod permalink

    @Ernesto: I’m not into demonizing the SWP either or turning Jack Barnes into some kind of ogre. I just don’t see this cult of personality stuff regarding him at all, but then again maybe I’m jaded to that based on having seen much worse examples of it elsewhere. I’ve been around a lot of bullies and bosses in my life, and if Barnes is one, he’s certainly a minor and run of the mill type. So yeah, this is whining about him actually is a diversion from political questions, the flip side of the leadership using organizational questions to deflect criticism and avoid political questions; “dissidents” doing it for the same reason. “Politics in Command” as Mao’s slogan goes. Having said that, it really does appear that the SWP has devolved into a self absorbed sect. How about a “French Turn” where they join with other activists in political regroupment and mass struggle? You can talk about Cuba all you want, but is the SLP mode what Cuba is about?

  12. Tom Cod permalink

    and of course Barnes has a disability.

  13. Dear Ernesto,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and also to other supporters of the SWP who have expressed their views on Gus Horowitz’s blog (www.gushorowitz.wordpress.com). This is the first such open exchange of views in at least thirty years between SWP supporters and socialists outside the SWP. All of us outside the SWP need to take notice and act accordingly. We need to consider whether this an accidental incident – ships passing in the night – or whether there is there a possibility of respectful discussion and collaboration between SWPers and non-SWPers.

    So our first task is to seek out common ground. And you have shown us in your letter where this common ground lies. Reporting on the work of SWP delegations at international conferences in Havana in 1997 and 1999, you say:

    “We argued forcefully for our communist politics and international point of view, we didn’t hide them. I met some wonderful people and I felt a bit richer, like the rest of us from that experience. We didn’t have to see eye to eye on everything under the sun, but we argued with respect, self-confidence and at least we started to understand in our own ways, each of us, how convergence or divergence in class politics are aspects of a single process.“

    What you are describing here is experience in a united front. In such a joint endeavour, a broad range of forces join in pursuit of a common goal, and each component retains its full freedom to express its own point of view. Such united front activity is the common ground within which working-class activists of many viewpoints and socialist currents can work together respectfully and constructively, while learning from each other. It is also the best arena for revolutionary Marxists demonstrate in life their leadership capabilities and the validity of their ideas.

    You also mention similar interventions at a youth festival and book fairs in Caracas. You could also have cited the work of the SWP and its sister organizations in Cuba solidarity groups and committees for the Cuban Five in different countries, where SWPers collaborate constructively with activists from socialist currents with which the SWP may strongly disagree on fundamental issues.

    We should note that all these activities take place in what we can call, in a loose sense, the internationalist work of the Cuban revolution. The Cuban comrades have always promoted united action by socialist and anti-imperialist currents, and the SWP interventions you describe take place in that framework. I think the Cuban approach is a good one, and we would do well to apply in our own countries. In addition, it would be useful to engage with other arenas of Cuba’s internationalist work, such as Cuba’s efforts for global environmental justice and its work for Latin American solidarity, which is structured around the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). I recognize that the SWP dispute the general thrust of Cuban policy in these arenas, but there should still be areas of common agreement and scope for constructive criticism.

    I believe that the united front approach is in the bones of SWP members. I notice this when I meet young people who have recently left the SWP. Yet I do not see this approach in the Militant. I meet SWP supporters at working-class events only if the action has a Cuban focus or if SWP supporters are staffing a literature table at the edge of a large action. Perhaps the Militant is overly modest about the SWP’s initiatives; is it perhaps involved in broad campaigns of which I am unaware?

    You mention the Crystal Sugar strike struggle, and I reviewed a few Militant articles on it. The SWP is doing a fine job reporting on this battle, on the basis of first-hand reportage; many comrades have travelled a long way to express support. What I do not see in these articles – and I may be overlooking something – is initiatives toward broader actions, support meetings, or collections on behalf of the strikers, carried out jointly by worker and socialist activists of different traditions. In my experience, on an important issue, even a single determined socialist can often initiate a broad, effective action.

    Anti-war work provides another example. The Militant speaks out forcefully against U.S. wars and militarism. But socialists have to do more in this area than make the record; they have to take practical initiatives toward united action. Why does the SWP not take part in broad anti-war coalitions? Some of these efforts are problematic, but, overall, the obstacles are not as great as those that faced us in the Vietnam war era. There are also useful things a party like the SWP can do on its own – a shop-floor petition, perhaps – which may carry moral weight. The apparent absence of reports on such work troubles me greatly (and was the issue that led to my estrangement from the SWP in 2004).

    The SWP feels strongly that its contribution to building a revolutionary party is unique and essential; it has quite a low opinion of other socialist currents. No one is asking the SWP to back away from these convictions. In fact, many other socialist groups have exactly the same opinion regarding their own particular heritage and the defects of their socialist rivals. The united-front approach enables each current to maintain its convictions and advocate its views freely, while contributing to a common goal.

    A united front is not a cartel of socialist groups. In fact, it may contain no socialist groups at all – as has often been my experience in the Toronto environmental justice movement. Years ago, when the SWP campaigned for mass action for U.S. troops out of Vietnam now, it was unable to win the consistent support of any socialist current on this point. But today there is substantial agreement among socialists as to a program of immediate demands for the working class. Also, the obstacle to united action posed by Stalinism and Social Democracy is greatly diminished. In the early stages of the Iraq war, for example, the range of forces favouring mass action for “out now” was quite large. True, there were political problems; they could have been more easily overcome if the SWP had not abstained.

    Overall, I think you may be overestimating the obstacles. You provide the following quotation:

    “The revolutionary movement, under the best conditions, is a hard fight, and it wears out a lot of human material. Not for nothing has it been said a thousand times in the past: ‘The revolution is a devourer of men.’ The movement in this, the richest and most conservative country in the world, is perhaps the most voracious of all.

    “It is not easy to persist in the struggle, to hold on, to stay tough and fight it out year after year without victory; and even, in times such as the present, without tangible progress. That requires theoretical conviction and historical perspective as well as character….

    “It is not easy to persist in the struggle, to hold on, to stay tough and fight it out year after year without victory; and even, in times such as the present, without tangible progress…”

    I do not understand this at all. These paragraphs describe a different planet than the one I know. This is a wonderful time in which to be a socialist. Socialism provides hope and direction in a society where there is so much despair. This is a time in which socialists are winning an increasing hearing, including among workers.

    But perhaps what your quotation is describing here the situation within the SWP itself. The party has been doggedly following a fixed course for thirty years without gaining ground – indeed, while suffering significant losses. If this is the case, then SWP members should consider alternative tactical approaches.

    Finally, you may wonder how I can write of the SWP in a positive spirit when I have just published an article that speaks of its decline in harsh terms. Well, I have kept my silence for eight years. My reason for speaking up is the publication of Barry Sheppard’s second volume on the history of the SWP. I recommend his books to you – volume 1 provides the only available account of the SWP in its prime, and it is available on line.

    But Barry makes a major error, in my view. He blames the SWP’s decline, in part, on its political alignment with the Communist leadership in Cuba. I have tried to prove that this is a misimpression. I argue that SWP support for Cuban communism was (and is) the party’s strong point. I know you agree.

    Thank you again for your contribution.

    John

  14. Ernesto Oleinik permalink

    Hi John!

    Im thankful for your answer on such short notice and the opportunity given to clarify some political points and thoughts in a manner thats respectful, while at the same time forceful.

    First something of a more practical nature. You are aware that the Socialist Workers Party has just recently announced their candidates for President and Vice- President in the coming US presidential elections….

    [The full text of this lengthy comment by Ernesto has been transferred to "What is a united front: exchange on the U.S. SWP"]

  15. Ernesto Oleinik permalink

    Hi John!

    As I said before, thanks for answering on such short notice, since I imagine you have other things to do aswell. As the rest of us in this world of growing capitalist disorder.

    I hope you dont interpret my comments in a sense of wanting to have the last word. I have from the beginning talked from my personal point of view, at the same time recognizing that the “personal” aspect of things, even feelings and memories, do have a deep political and class meaning.

    Maybe I missed the fundamental points of your answer, but since you mentioned the united-front aproach in proletarian politics, I tried to give an answer according to my personal understanding, ability and perspective on how that aproach becomes an expression of a more concious fighting for independent working-class politics.

    Im alone responsible for the views presented, even the limitations of my arguments, in the sense of being too abstract, in the sense of maybe only giving what I personally consider the correct, revolutionary thrust and direction of the SWP in becoming. I dont feel I have the right to speak in the name of the movement, since Im not under its discipline and I dont do it trough its elected bodies or as an expression of its democratically agreed-upon policies.

    And I do firmly believe the SWP and communist leagues can speak for themselves, and speak for themselves primarily trough their actions on a day-to-day basis, week by week, 365 days a year as a disciplined and politically conscious part of the working-class vanguard in becoming.

    I believe as well, that vanguard judges the SWP or any other organization, day by day, in a million ways. In a million practical ways. As I understood you, fertile terrains are opening up, space is being broadened and mantained trough struggle. Now is the time to move on, keep reaching out, turn outwards.

    The thing is I believe thats exactly what the communist movement is trying to do internationally and the SWP in the US. I know we disagree on this fundamental point. Let history judge, let living history judge as embodied in human beings of flesh and blood, preparing to once again storm the heavens.

    I have no problem with you reposting my comments on your side, even though that may be a difficult task, since my written english is far from perfect. But I would like to ask you, if you as an experienced editor maybe could change the titles “Letter from a SWP suporter” and “Exchange with a SWP supporter”, the reason being a question of honesty and integrity, since for ME being a supporter has a meaning primarily as an organized supporter. That means a disciplined relationship to the party, in my personal opinion.

    I do defend the SWP and the movements revolutionary perspective, and I feel deep inside me, in the gut, in my own life and past and presemt experiences, that I and others I know of and others I dont know of, wherever we are, are converging with the party and its unflinching course, in practice.

    The party that is becoming, not the party that became. Let the class struggle judge, and everything that through collective, disciplined action, helps assemble the international vanguard that in daily life will subordinate all other considerations to the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat.

    I firmly believe history will absolve them.

    /Ernesto

  16. John Riddell writes in relation to the views in the late1970s/early 1980s of the Cuban leadership and the US SWP leadership and its supporters such as himself : “There were also points of difference, such as on the Solidarność movement in Poland and the character of the Soviet leadership, where we stood our ground.”

    I don’t think this is the case, John. The Barnesites adopted a very hostile attitude to left protests in defence of Solidarity union in Poland. They basically wouldn’t have any truck with such solidarity with Solidarnosc.

    This was soon accompanied by a shift in relation to the Soviet leadership and members of the Barnes cabal in New York became, shall we say, rather agnostic on the question of whether a political revolution was needed in the Soviet bloc. In fact, didn’t they suggest that a “political revolution” could actually take the form of a series of radical internal reforms?

    This took on a rather ridiculous dimension when Doug Jenness debated Ernest Mandel in Intercontinental Press on the issue of the Soviet economy. Jenness claimed that the Soviet economy actually had some serious dynamism in it. This was really quite extraordinary as, in reality, the Soviet economy was in such a schlerotic state that the bureaucracy had to bring in Gorbachev to administer some drastic reforms to try to inject some dynamism into it.

    The Jenness article was a good example of starting with a fixed political position (albeit the rigid position was actually a new one) and then trying to invent an argument and marshall some facts to make it look like it was a serious argument. Jenness simply made himself look, to put it mildly (and kindly), incredibly foolish.

    But ignoring reality and simply making stuff up was becoming a trademark of the Barnes operation, even as early as the beginning of the 1980s (and, of course, elsewhere comrades like Ralph Leavitt have noted that making stuff up long predated the early 1980s, but I’m only dealing with two specific things you mentioned from the early 1980s.

    As the 1980s progressed, this approach became more and more evident. Claims that the US lost the Cold War, that the working class was moving forward when it was patently in retreat, etc became par for the course. Friends of mine who left the IMG after having been in the Barnesite Faction told me that one of the last straws for them was that when the British miners were crushed by Thatcher in 1985, the line of the leadership of the Faction, parroting Barnes, was that the miners had won!

    My friends did not wish to enter the parallel universe where such nonsense was the received wisdom.

    I think you stayed way too long in the parallel universe John and that this is reflected in what you write. Although I’ve had some pretty strong words to say in the past about Barry Sheppard, reading about vol 2 and his reflections on his own role mean that I no longer have the same views of him. Although I’d still disagree with him politically on a number of things, I think the fact that he got out long before you has enabled him (and Gus Horowtiz) to be much more incisive about what they call “the cult of Jack Barnes” than you are about what you call the SWP There is no SWP mate; it was destroyed in the early-mid 1980s.

    What’s left in my view has a similar relationship to left-wing politics as the modern Catholic Church has to the early Christian communities.

    Philip Ferguson

    • Philip, you seem to be accusing me of not being a sufficient virulent SWP-hater. I plead guilty. The SWP is part of the socialist movement and deserves to be treated fraternally. Comrades leaving the SWP who stay in socialist politics, in my experience, have a high level of consciousness of Marxism, including on issues like united front and internal democracy where the SWP is weak. Where did they pick that up? I can only conclude that the spark of Marxism is still alive within the SWP, despite everything.

      Unfortunately, the loss of socialist forces in the SWP is very heavy. Many comrades leave, and of those leaving, most quit left politics entirely.

      As I wrote in my first article on this topic, “The SWP still represents significant human and political resources, but these assets are locked inside a strongbox to which no one can find the key.”

      As for the rest, you are picking at secondary points. Did the SWP capitulate to Stalinism? You must consider its entire trajectory. Why did the SWP fail the test of the movement against the Iraq war? Was that a capitulation to Stalinism? I’m afraid not; you’re barking up the wrong tree.

      John

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