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Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83

July 8, 2012

By John Riddell. Part 2 of a review of Barry Sheppard’s history of the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.).

The first part of this article contended that the U.S. SWP’s attempt during the 1976-83 period to turn outward toward unity with other revolutionary currents cannot be blamed for its subsequent retreat into self-absorbed isolation. To be sure, the outward turn was partial, flawed, and inconsistent. But a much more ominous development was under way.

As Barry Sheppard documents in his book on the SWP’s decline,1 the outward turn was undercut from the outset by simultaneous moves in the opposite direction. The outward and inward turns occurred at the same time, confusing party members then and confounding historians of the SWP to this day.

A two-way turn

This pattern was evident in the party’s presidential campaign in 1976. While revealing the party’s growing influence in the broader left milieu, presidential candidate Peter Camejo tells us that the campaign was marred by the leadership’s behind-the-scenes efforts to limit the scope and diminish the authority of his work. Camejo attributes this to fears of “the non-sectarian manner of my approach.”2

Sheppard’s account shows that the same reflex afflicted other positive initiatives by the SWP during this period. For example:

  • In 1977–78, even as the SWP campaigned to dissolve factions in the Fourth International (FI), SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes was pushing its representatives in the FI secretariat to take clearly factional moves (Sheppard 2012, 132–37).
  • In 1979, at a FI world congress marked by broad general agreement, Barnes insisted that the SWP present its own a separate minority resolution on Nicaragua. This divided vote was then utilized, Sheppard says, to suggest, without foundation, that the European FI leaders lacked commitment to the Nicaraguan revolution. (194–95)
  • The party campaign to implant members in unionized industrial workplaces originally had three goals: members were to become integrated into the workforce, carry out trade union work, and draw workmates to the socialist movement. But as the union movement was forced into retreat, the first two tasks were downplayed. The third goal was converted into “talking socialism,” meaning, mainly, selling socialist literature – an intensely isolating experience, Sheppard says. (268–69) Party policies were now justified in terms not of present conditions but by a prediction of a future upsurge. Members thus lost the capacity to judge policies on the basis of experience, an essential feature of democratic centralism.
  • After the Nicaraguan victory in 1979, the SWP began to talk up the prospects for a “new International” including Cuban Communists and other revolutionary forces. But within a year, party leaders started employing this perspective as a tool to discredit the FI and other revolutionary currents who had a different analysis of the Cuban leadership. (298–99) The “new International” concept was increasingly used just to burnish the party logo, rather than to take steps toward revolutionary convergence.
  • The SWP supported the political course of the revolutionary Nicaraguan leadership, even turning a blind eye to its failings. But when the U.S. made war on Nicaragua, the party decided not to commit forces to help lead the ensuing anti-war movement – not even in unions where the potential was real and the SWP had significant strength. (265)

Long after 1983, when the inward turn had triumphed, the SWP took major outward-looking initiatives on questions where most socialist currents defaulted. Among these efforts were: engagement with revolutionary Burkina Faso (1983–87); support of Cuba’s role in resisting the apartheid invasion of Angola (1987–89); publication of documents of Cuba’s attempts to combat Stalinist bureaucratization (“rectification”) (late 1980s); and publication of several books of writings by Nelson Mandela (1986-93), highlighting in particular his relationship with revolutionary Cuba. The Communist International publishing project (1983–93), for which I was responsible, pointed in the same direction. The SWP did important work in several major union struggles; in 1989–91, SWP employees at Eastern Airlines were deeply engaged in the strike that led to the company’s shutdown. The SWP continued active defense of the Cuban revolution.

The SWP was turning sharply in two opposite directions at the same time. No wonder its membership was confused and criticism was paralyzed.

The source of Barnes’s authority

Sheppard recounts the growth during those years of a “cult” around Barnes, and considers this the decisive factor in the party’s demise. In 1978, Sheppard warned some other leadership members, including Barnes, that Barnes was becoming a “one-man band.” Sheppard did not gain enough support to press the issue. (136–37, 208–9) But even had Sheppard won a majority for his views, he could not have successfully overturned the Barnes leadership on such grounds. The members would have perceived such a move as a malevolent palace coup.

Sheppard’s companion Caroline Lund, herself a respected party leader, told him at the time, “we have been taught that political questions [are] paramount,” pointing out that Sheppard had no political disagreements. Sheppard now says that the cult around Barnes posed a challenge so urgent that “the organizational question was paramount.” (301) There is truth in this, but outside the leadership core, it did not became clear until much later, when the process could no longer be reversed.

So why did Barnes prevail? He retained the trust of the great majority of party members because he seemed to be spearheading the party’s outward initiatives. As for the negative internal developments, most members were unaware of them, disregarded them, or accepted them as part of the package. There was a more profound motivation: many members felt that the outward turn, even if flawed, would bring the party into a healthy milieu of struggle in which the symptoms of narrowness and isolation could be more readily countered.

Alarm bells

Nonetheless, at least three developments between 1979 and 1983 should have rung alarm bells in the minds of knowledgeable party members:

  1. In 1979 the SWP leadership convinced the Fourth International to call on its sections in every capitalist country in the world, regardless of the state of our forces or of local conditions, to send our members to work in industry. (196) This pronouncement violated the very principle for which the SWP had successfully campaigned in the International since 1969, namely that tactics had to grow out of national conditions and be determined by national sections, rather than being dictated on a continental or world basis.3 It contradicted the conception of internationalism for which the SWP had struggled since its inception in 1928.4 The call provided a platform on which the factional battle was relaunched wherever the SWP had influence. (196–97) In the years that followed, the SWP’s allied organizations in other countries came to function as if they were units of the U.S. party, giving up their independent publications. In some cases these groups were born from from SWP-encouraged splits or defections from FI sections. The “global industrial turn” led thus ultimately to the dissolution of internationalism.
  2. Between 1981 and 1983, the majority SWP leadership moved to suppress discussion of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, an aspect of the party’s theoretical heritage that its leaders were increasingly calling into question.5 (280–85) The minority current loyal to this concept was prevented from expressing its view either internally or in the public press, even though they spoke for the party’s longstanding position. In 1983, the convention, at which they had been promised a hearing, was cancelled, and they were driven from the movement. In Sheppard’s opinion, this purge was “the death-knell of the SWP.” (287–88) An open discussion of these differences would have heightened the party’s reputation and made it a more attractive force for revolutionary regroupment. The party should have opened its publications to such a debate and invited contributions from all potential participants in a “new International.” The party should have encouraged members who held the traditional view to debate the issue publicly while continuing as loyal party members. The rejection of this path put the lie to the SWP’s claim to be working for revolutionary convergence.
  3. Rather than expelling the minority wholesale, the party leadership initially subjected them in 1982–83 to a process of attrition through disciplinary expulsions initiated by the local branches. (210–11) Often the charges concerned forming an “unauthorized grouping” as, for example, by inviting some members over for supper. “This broadened to frowning upon any informal get-togethers,” Sheppard says. The goal was “to instil fear among members of informal political discussions.” (210–11) This intimidation was highly effective. The constant buzz of political chatter among members – ideas, criticisms, experiences – died away, strangling the party’s internal life.

As a guest from the SWP’s Canadian sister organization, I was present at a meeting of the New York branch in 1983 where Barnes announced that, henceforth, the right to form an internal tendency consisted exclusively in electing delegates to represent a minority resolution that had received support in preconvention voting. Members no longer had the right to discuss or collaborate in writing a resolution, unless asked to do so by the Political Committee. Dissident or minority tendencies were thereby outlawed. As far as I know, Barnes’s edict was not published, however. That was not necessary; the ban on informal discussion had already been codified and enforced through the wave of expulsions.6

Seeds of decline

The minority of SWP members who disagreed with the position on Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution being presented in the SWP press resisted these developments as best they could. Sheppard says correctly that dissenting comrades in the majority should have formed a bloc with the minority in defense of party democracy. But this did not happen. Many majority comrades, including Sheppard and Malik Miah, did go into opposition, but only later, by ones and twos, when they could be readily isolated and driven out of the party.

This outcome must surely reflect underlying problems. It will not do to say merely Barnes was to blame; deeper causes contributed to his emergence as “sole initiator of policy and supreme arbiter in any discussion.” (210) Specifically, some of the SWP’s strong points were exaggerated to the point that they became crucial weaknesses, obstructing a response to the danger signs.

Consider, for example, the following statement, quoted in a thoughtful article by Gus Horowitz from a speech Barnes gave in 1970:

[W]e are not simply a component of the mass revolutionary party. We are 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 in this country…7

Certainly it is positive to remind members of the historic importance of their party and of their own personal contribution. But the “essential component” concept approaches equating the party with the historic interests of the working class – leaving the struggles, organizations, historic memory, and activist cadres of the working class out of the picture. By this logic, anything that seems to build the party’s apparatus, resources, and reach can seem to acquire the force of historic necessity, regardless of the consequences for the party’s implantation in workers’ struggles or for the broader movement.

Significantly, when the SWP charted a course toward revolutionary convergence, it did not modify this conception of its own historic uniqueness. Sheppard’s account does not reveal any significant moves to link up with other currents in the U.S. who shared its view of Nicaragua, Grenada, and Cuba.8 The fault here lay in underestimating the implications of the emergence of revolutionary currents wielding governmental power who stood outside the Trotskyist tradition.

Another concept that proved dangerous, when applied in an exaggerated and one-sided way, was that of the party’s efforts to achieve “homogeneity.” The authoritative presentation of this concept is found in the SWP’s 1965 resolution on its organizational principles. Arguing against both Stalinist monolithism and a regime of permanent, tight-knit factions, the text states:

We are guided by the Leninist concept of relative internal homogeneity based on the loyal adherence to the party’s program and principles and the voluntary acceptance of its discipline…. Ample room is provided for the expression of dissident views, even major ones of serious import. The right to organize tendencies and factions is guaranteed.9

On the face of it, there is nothing objectionable here. The obligation of loyalty is common to all voluntary workers’ organizations; the right to organized expression of minority views is assured. Yet something is missing: a recognition of the importance of diversity, that is, for the membership to reflect the different struggles, social layers, outlooks, and currents of thought within the workers’ movement.

Previous generations of the party leadership, under James P. Cannon (1928–53) and Farrell Dobbs (1953–72), had indeed been diverse in outlook and experience. The Barnes generation, however, was much more uniform in outlook – in part, because the leadership had been trained mostly as full-time staffers in the party apparatus rather than in the field of struggle.10 Leaders of my generation considered this uniformity an advance. In fact, it was a step backward. The search for consensus around leadership proposals was enormously overdone and came to lock all members in its grip, deterring expression of dissent.

When unmistakable danger signs appeared, members who harboured doubts kept silent, because of a habit of consent, a desire to give the leadership the benefit of the doubt, and a fear of isolation within the party ranks.

Sheppard speaks to this issue with regard to the SWP policy on transferring members from one branch to another, from one industry to another, and from one workplace to another. “Such transfers are needed from time to time,” he says, but around 1980 they became much more frequent. The constant switching around deprived members of the time required to get rooted in their workplace, “to get to know fellow workers, … to understand the politics of the local union, and to get a feel of the range of views” in the workplace. (268)

Let us add: revolutionary political activity always disrupts of comrades’ personal lives to some extent, but the disruption should not be heightened unnecessarily. When driven to an extreme, the switching around deprives members of the steadying influence of deep roots in the working class and of the personal equilibrium needed to express independent views and raise objections in a party discussion.

Regression to the mean

In its prime, the SWP was distinguished from other Marxist currents by its commitment to working-class and social movements and its capacity to learn and improvise on the basis of experience in action. During the last three decades, these special features have faded from view, and the party now resembles much more closely the general run of small inward-turned Marxist groups.

This process can be described by the term “regression to the mean.” In statistics, that term describes the tendency of “outliers” – facts or observations that are substantially different from the average – to shift over time towards the average. In Marxist politics, it means that a small group that achieves excellence in one or another respect will tend to lose these characteristics over time, unless its strong points are reinforced through immersion in broad social struggles.

The “mean” – that is, the profile of the average small Marxist group – includes these features:

  • A conviction that the small group, and it alone, represents the historic interests of the working class.
  • A high ideological fence separating members from the ideas and discussions of the broader Marxist movement.
  • A hostile relationship to other Marxist currents.
  • A haughty attitude to social movements: the group’s interventions, when they occur, focus on self-promotion and recruitment.
  • An internal discipline aimed not at fending off blows of the class enemy but at restricting discussion and keeping the members in line.
  • A conservative approach to Marxist doctrine, aptly summarized by Marx in 1868: “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’ not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.”

A Faustian bargain

The driving force behind Marxist “regression to the mean” is that these inward-turned features equip the small group to survive with minimum effort in a hostile environment.

By hewing to these norms, the SWP has made an adaptation to the conditions of an extended working-class retreat. Features that could have exposed it to the hazards and challenges of socialist regroupment, class-struggle engagement, and revolutionary party-building have been eliminated; features that it shares with inward-turned Marxist groups have been developed and exaggerated.

The SWP’s inward turn insulated it from the influences of 30 years of working-class retreat, sealed it off from the ideas of other left currents, safeguarded it against internal differentiation and debate, and made the membership a pliant and disciplined instrument of leadership policy. Something has been achieved: the party has survived as an organization. The price has been its near-disappearance from the stage of working-class politics.

Jack Barnes has been the main exponent of this small-group model; he has also become its prisoner. He has fallen silent on the political concepts that established his authority;11 he has lost his once-considerable reputation among Marxists internationally; he has succumbed, with his party, to political paralysis.

The SWP has effectively abandoned its past, turning away from the pre-1980 experiences it previously treasured. It has surrendered its traditions of internal democracy.12

Once so different from other small Marxist groups, the SWP has come to more closely resemble the profile of this category as a whole. It thus shares in the common tragedy of these currents: characteristics that insulate the group against disruptive influences also render it incapable of contributing positively to broad working-class struggle and to building a revolutionary party.

References

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.

2. Sheppard, vol. 2, p. 288. Peter Camejo, North Star: A Memoir, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010, pp. 129–30, 134–35.

3. In 1969, the Fourth International adopted a strategy of rural guerrilla struggle in all countries of Latin America. The SWP led a minority that opposed the concept of a continent-wide policy and called for close attention to the specific conditions in each country. The 1979 FI world congress accepted the core of the SWP’s criticism.

4. See James P. Cannon’s speech, “Internationalism and the SWP,” which was well known to the party membership.

5. The term “permanent revolution” has been used by Marxists in many ways. In the SWP context of 1981–83, it related mainly to describing the path through which socialist revolution can be achieved in a country that has not experienced advanced capitalism.

6. As a guest at the gathering and non-member of the SWP, I felt it proper to keep silent. But I had another motivation as well. If I had spoken up, it would likely have meant the end of the Comintern publishing project, which I thought had the potential to popularize a political model more inclusive and democratic than that of the SWP. In addition, as a member and former leader of the Canadian sister organization, I felt an obligation to support those now carrying the burden of leadership, and they were aligned with the SWP majority. Inadequate as they may have been, my motivations give insight into the political culture at that time.

7. Quoted by Horowitz from Towards an American Socialist Revolution, by Jack Barnes et al., New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971, p. 125.

8. Sheppard does pass on an account by former SWP member David Walters of efforts in 1980 by Camejo, then working in New York’s garment industry, to unite the SWP with revolutionary currents among Caribbean and Central American workers in New York as a municipal “United Socialist Slate” in pending municipal elections. Others in the branch contended that Camejo was overestimating the potential for such a slate. The branch rejected Camejo’s proposal by a 70% majority. (288-290) Camejo’s de facto expulsion followed shortly thereafter.

9. The Organizational Character of the Socialist Workers Party, New York: SWP National Education Department, 1970, p. 12; see also The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume I: The Sixties, a Political Memoir, by Barry Sheppard, Resistance Books (Sydney), 2005, pp. 145-48.

10. The “turn to industry,” as originally formulated, sought to remedy this problem by deploying a higher proportion of the leadership off the full-time staff and onto the front lines of struggle. To that end, most branches gave up the post of full-time organizer. But the excessive national-office apparatus was not reduced, and experience in now-retreating industrial unions did not much affect the shape of the party leadership.

11. In the 1970s, Barnes was known for popularizing and elaborating the concept of a workers’ and farmers’ government, Lenin’s concept of the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants,” and the Cuban leadership’s stature as revolutionary Marxists; he also wrote an extensive critique of Trotsky’s views on permanent revolution. Most of this material is still in print, but the themes have disappeared from Barnes’s current writing.

12. For example, the only currently circulated Pathfinder book on the SWP’s history in the 1960s and 1970s is Fred Halstead’s Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the American Movement against the Vietnam War, a celebrated account of the party’s leading role in the movement against the Vietnam war. During the last nine years, in which the U.S. has been continually at war, the party newspaper, The Militant, has mentioned this book only infrequently and never with regard to its central theme of mass struggle against an imperialist war. See also the appendix on “The SWP today” in Part 1 of this article.

16 Comments
  1. David Keil permalink

    I agree with John’s comments on the question of homogeneity and on the need for a permanent informal political life within a socialist organization. In a project that requires scientific thinking, a diversity of hypotheses and opinions is natural and necessary.

    Furthermore, it seems to me that such a diversity is only possible if the organization refrains from establishing an official philosophy or theory, if the organization limits itself to political objectives. Then, possibly diverse theoretical perspectives, which will naturally emerge anyway in any group rooted in the working class, will have the opportunity to support a diversity of hypotheses as part of the analytical process. And discussion can focus on political program (the “resolved”), leaving the theoretical differences (the “whereas”) a subordinate part of the discussion not necessarily requiring divided votes.

    Barry was correct in placing a high priority on the organization question. The organizational freezing of an internal life enabled the sudden adoption of an unchallenged official theory in place of the FI’s theory of permanent revolution, and this was followed by what by any account was a political and organizational degeneration.

    Ironically, however, the adoption of an official theory (correct, in my opinion) of the socialist character of the democratic revolution set the stage for its negation in favor of an opposite official theory.

  2. David, I think the general point you make is insightful and worth discussing. You are saying that a revolutionary party need not have any commitment to Marxism. That depends on the circumstances, in my mind. But I do agree that the revolutionary party should not be committed to Trotsky’s views on permanent revolution, Tony Cliff’s views on state capitalism, Ted Grant’s views on nationalism, etc.

    That said, it’s important to get one’s facts straight about the present-day SWP. For example, the SWP was hostile to the movement against the second U.S. war on Iraq. Why was this? It did indeed flow from a theoretical conception of the development of countries oppressed by imperialism — but one far removed from the thinking of Jack Barnes’s “Their Trotsky and Ours” (1983), the article that questioned permanent revolution.

  3. Ernesto Oleinik permalink

    Hi John!

    Im glad that we have been able to engage in this exchange with a sense of proportion and mutual respect. I do feel those qualities are of immense importance in any kind of political exchange, specially among those who strive to be engaged “by any means necessary” in the organized and collective struggle to end all forms of explotaition and oppresion….
    [The rest of this contribution has been moved to “Letter in Support of the U.S. SWP’s Current Course“.]

  4. Tim K permalink

    Some thoughts on the matter from someone not old enough to be politically active at the time, only being born in 1980. I also must admit that I’ve not had the chance to read Barry’s book yet, though I have read all the reviews posted online on the SWP history blog. http://swphistory.com/

    1. On democratic centralism: It seems to me that the SWP followed a flawed model of democratic centralism in which members were required not only to carry out the actions agreed upon by the majority, but also to argue in favor of the political line of the party, even if they disagreed with it.

    As Pham Binh points out in his review of Tony Cliff’s “Lenin: Building the Party”, nowhere does Lenin insist on unity of political position:

    “Lenin famously defined “democratic centralism” as “freedom of discussion, unity in action.” Cliff appropriately quotes Lenin on what this meant in practice:

    After the competent bodies have decided, all of us, as members of the party, must act as one man. A Bolshevik in Odessa must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing a Cadet’s name even if it sickens him. And a Menshevik in Moscow must cast into the ballot box a ballot paper bearing only the names of Social Democrats, even if his soul is yearning for the Cadets.

    Note what “freedom of discussion, unity in action” did not mean. It did not mean that the minority had to publicly champion the “line” or argument of the triumphant majority. “Unity in action” for a dissenting minority simply meant acting in concert with the majority, not singing their tune or arguing for their “line.” Nowhere did Lenin say “a Bolshevik in Odessa must argue with his workmates that supporting the Cadets is the way to go,” or “a Menshevik in Moscow must convince everyone he knows to vote Social Democrat even if his soul is yearning for the Cadets.” A line of action and a line of argument are two different things; “unity in action” did not mean unity in argument or political position.”
    http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/category/democratic-centralism/

    As the SWP degenerated, the ‘freedom of discussion ‘ was restricted by Barnes through the use of expulsions from the party. The ability of local sections of the party to carry out actions based on local conditions was also compromised. It was a flaw of the internal organization of the party that no rules existed to prevent the arbitrary expulsion of members.

    2. Another flaw in the internal structure of the party was the development of a bureaucratic caste atop the party, with material conditions far above that of average party member, and divorced from the actual day to day struggles of the working class. This appears to be what led to the ‘regression to the mean’ that John talks about, after the revolutionary upsurge of the 60s ebbed.

    3. The party was not adequately open to the cultural aspects of the revolutionary upsurge in the 60s, and this likely prevented the party from realizing even more growth during this period than it did. This is not to say that the growth of the party during the 60s radicalization was not impressive, though further growth would have enabled the party to better weather the subsequent downturn in political struggle.

    4. Despite the above-mentioned flaws in the party culture and structure, the SWP was the most revolutionary organization in the United States, and arguably in any advanced capitalist country, until the party degenerated beginning in the late 70s.

    5. The ‘outward turn of 1976-83 was a move in the right direction. Revolutionary socialists are always well advised to study and learn from actual revolutionary movements in other countries. I agree with John that the outward turn was not adequately carried through, and ultimately abandoned. Not working to build a mass antiwar movement against US intervention in Nicaragua seems to be a big mistake.

    I would argue though that the failure of the ‘turn to industry’ and the response of the leadership to this failure can help to explain the failure of the outward turn.

    6. The turn to industry was a disaster. I’m not in a position to say whether or not it made sense for some comrades to take up positions in industry; however the forced march quality of the turn created resistance from the membership, with members either dropping out or being outright expelled. Also, the policy of abstinence from union struggles is not revolutionary, as it does nothing to help to build the capacities of the working class to resist the capitalists.

    It appears to me from my distant vantage point that Jack Barnes was worried that he would be held to account for errors in judgement around the turn to industry that had precipitated a decline in the membership of the party. Lest we forget that Barnes entire work history was bound up with the party. This was not likely to get him very many job interviews if he were cast out into the wider capitalist society. If Barnes lost his employment with the party, he could have impoverished himself.

    Barnes response to the failure of the turn to industry was to refuse to admit failure, to continue to insist that a radicalization among the industrial working class was imminent, to call for a doubling down of the turn to industry, and to expel those who opposed his views. Barnes wanted to get everyone out of the party who opposed his views and might call him to account for his failures.

    Barnes push to get the FI to adopt the turn to industry on a global scale appears as though it was done to gain greater ideological acceptance for a policy that was not producing the desired results. The move to the ‘talking socialism’ strategy appears to be an attempt to boost recruitment in the midst of falling membership numbers — Barnes was undoubtedly trying to ensure that members who left or were expelled from the party were replaced by enough new blood in order to maintain the financial base upon which his leadership rested. While there were undoubtedly better ways of recruiting new members to the party — the IS increased its membership numbers during this period primarily through campus organizing — this would have required Barnes to admit that he was wrong on the turn.

    Even though Barnes is most associated with the outward turn in this period, it’s clear that Barnes did not allow the outward turn to triumph over the turn to industry, because again this would have possibly led to Barnes being held to account for the failure of the turn to industry,

    7. On the changes in policy regarding Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, the Transitional program, Cuba, the FI ect.

    It’s not clear to me that all these changes were necessary to undertake the outward turn.

    As regards Trotsky’s theory of permanant revolution: clearly there are problems with this theory, most notably its prescriptive nature. It’s not up to us to tell peoples in other countries how to carry out their revolutions. It’s only up to us to decide whether or not to engage in solidarity with popular revolutionary movements in other countries. It’s clear that in the global south, governments dedicated to disentangling their countries from imperialism have a progressive character at least until such time as their countries are free of imperialist domination.

    That said, I will defend independent working class action in an advanced capitalist country such as Canada. For instance, I opposed the coalition deal of late 2008-early 2009 between the Liberals and the NDP (and supported by the Bloc), and distributed John’s article arguing against said coalition outside the pro-coalition rally in Vancouver in December 2008.
    http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?p=349

    There is one aspect of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution that I absolutely agree with: that, so long as capitalism remains the dominant economic system, any existing workers states
    shall be at risk of reverting to capitalism. This means that Cuba faces the risk of the reintroduction of capitalism. The Cuban revolution can only become ‘permanent’ when capitalism is abolished worldwide.

    The Transitional Program seems basically sound, and I don’t think it was necessary to throw out in order to support the revolutionary movements in Central America and the Caribbean. Not telling peoples in other countries how to conduct their revolutions is not inconsistent with supporting the transitional program as it applies to our own country.

    On the uncritical support for the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions: While I don’t support telling other peoples how to conduct their revolutions, I also don’t support the kind of uncritical cheerleading that led to the equation of ‘worker’s and farmer’s governments’ with worker’s states. It’s this kind of uncritical cheerleading for the Cuban revolution that leaves us unable to recognize the trure nature of the recent economic reforms in Cuba, notably that they are a small step backwards for the revolution, albeit likely an unavoidable step.

    A further note on Cuba: I fully support the Cuban revolution, and i believe fully that Cuba is the best argument in favour of socialism available today. I just don’t see the point of being an uncritical cheerleader for Cuban (or Venezuelan and Bolivian) revolutions, to the point that we uncritically view every move by these governments as a step forwards for these revolutions.

    That said, criticisms of Cuba are far from our first priority as socialists; and when I hear others attack Cuba for a lack of multi-party democracy, my first response will be to defend the Cuban revolution in terms of the real positive outcomes it has produced, both for the Cuban people, and the natural environment.

  5. Richard permalink

    There is no doubt the SWP leadership and membership did not find in the industrial unions the prospects for recruitment that they thought they would find in the first few years (of the “turn”) and beyond, for reasons explained competently by Ernesto, but that does not negate the importance in regards to returning to the working-class when the political space to do so became available, which was the case, and has been the case, beginning in the mid to late 1970’s. That is to say such an approach is strategic, not tactical, for a revolutionary socialist party, and is based on the long-held understanding that a party must be in place before the explosions occur, not after or during. And I understand the let-down that must have come with the downturn of the mass movements of the 1960’s, although for those of us who are younger than your average blogger, that was not so much a problem as we were not directly involved. However, the opportunities to present the ideas of socialism and worker’s power are great today indeed, and have been since at least 2008. For instance, last year, 1,000 subscriptions to the Militant were sold in-between regular sub drives, mainly as a result of the serious uptick around Wisconsin and the docks on the west coast of the United States, a phenomenon that had not been experienced in decades. The fact remains, despite the criticisms, and nothing in this world is perfect, especially when it comes to organizations comprised of mere mortals, the SWP has reached out and talked to more workers and young people itching for a fight about the prospects for socialism in the past two weeks with the 2012 presidential campaign — in Iowa, at Con Edison, in Longview, at the NOW convention and in petitioning for ballot access in New Jersey — than any of us individual commentators put together have accomplished in the past ten years. And thus I do not believe your assessment that the SWP has retreated into the life of a self-absorbed sect stands up to the test of verifiable facts, which includes the huge contribution being made by Pathfinder Press.

  6. Stansfield Smith permalink

    John Riddell above quotes a speech of Jack Barnes in 1970, “We are not simply a component of the mass revolutionary party. We are 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 in this country…” This was after Fidel Castro other followers of Jose Marti led a revolutionary struggle against Batista and overthrew capitalism in Cuba. It was after the rise and murder of Malcolm X, politically educated in the Nation of Islam. It was after the clearly anti-capitalist and revolutionary positions of Martin Luther King, expecially from 1967-68.
    Even the SWP, by 1970, in the case of Cuba and Malcolm X, by the SWP’s own admission, recognized that essential components of the revolutionary socialist tradition arise and exist outside of not just Trotskyism, but Marxism. Yet, while Cannon and others were the leaders of the SWP, the party still said in 1970, in spite of their own proof to the contrary, that they were “the essential component.”
    It seems evident that this in-grown and cultish character existed in the SWP before Jack Barnes became its leader. Obviously he and his followers took what was already a tendency in the party and made it the dominant one, but obviously it is a tendency they learned from it when they joined.
    And again, it must be addressed why about 95% of those who were expelled or left the Barnes SWP, instead of building a new revolutionary Marxist party, as Cannon did, have abandoned revolutonary marxism, either by becoming politically inactive or joining groups to the right of what the SWP was.

  7. David Altman permalink

    I think the big majority of the people who have left the SWP over the last 30 years are active on one level or another, usually not in “socialist” organizations, but some are. When you say “groups to the right of what the SWP was,” I don’t think that’s true. Socialist Action, Solidarity and the ISO are all revolutionary socialist groups – Define “right” and “left.”

    Ironically some of the ex-members who are the most politically disengaged are the ones who were the most enthusiastic supporters of Barnes back in the day.

  8. “The party campaign to implant members in unionized industrial workplaces originally had three goals: members were to become integrated into the workforce, carry out trade union work, and draw workmates to the socialist movement. But as the union movement was forced into retreat, the first two tasks were downplayed. The third goal was converted into ‘talking socialism,’ meaning, mainly, selling socialist literature…”

    Was this necessarily so? What about organizing defensive struggles, the kind of struggles that a period of retreat entails? I’m not clear whether the “talking socialism” or propagandism was a forced necessity or a political choice (perhaps an unconscious one)?

    • In response to Binh, the SWP did play a significant role in some labour struggles during the downturn, as I noted, but that was not the predominant tone.

      Barry Sheppard argues in his volume 2 that another kind of industrial turn was possible. See his chapter 24 and his appendix.

      In the early 1980s, I thought possibilities for trade union work were good, including around Nicaragua work. But, then, I was in Canada.

  9. H.A. Cox permalink

    Dave,
    ‘I don’t think that’s true. Socialist Action, Solidarity and the ISO are all revolutionary socialist groups – Define “right” and “left.”

    It is useless to get tied up in right or left socialist definitions. The differences between all the other left groups and the SWP is that the SWP views the key environment for a socialist party that wishes to make a SOCIALIST REVOLUTION is the Industrial working class. They need to be there regardless of the level of radicalization or expected radicalization. This is not the primary orientation of any of those other organizations. You can disagree with that orientation, but the industrial sector of the working class is the sector, organized and disciplined by capitalism, that is socially capable of overthrowing capitalism in the Imperialist countries. When I was in the Party, I was a ‘tribune of the people’ to that Industrial working class. The Turn was not something done just because of some expected radicalization, but because that is where a REVOLUTIONARY party must be regardless of the current level of radicalization. The SWP did not leave the trade union movement and the industrial working class because of the greener pastures of the social movement of of the 60s, it had been driven out of the trade union movement in the 50s. Had they not been driven out, the Party could have been even more effective in those social movements. (But that is a useless ‘what if”) In a real sense the Turn of 1978 was a re-turn. The reason the Party has declined in numbers is because Imperialism’s descent on the curve of capitalist development has been slower than anyone could have expected. Looks like that is changing now. Ernestos response is wonder of clarity on this issue. I go further in detail on the centrality of the Industral working class at Gus’s site in respnse to his contribution about the radicalization of the 60s.

  10. The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974:

    http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/american_left/barnes.htm

  11. Quite apart from whether it’s appropriate for revolutionists to invest almost all their forces in industrial unions today, the concentration of SWP members in this arena is useful to the workers’ movement as a whole, at least potentially. Other currents have limited forces in this arena, and there’s value in a division of labour.

    The question is: what is the SWP doing in these unions?

    The Militant does not reflect any shop-floor activism or sustained work in the unions. It does not give much attention to politics in the unions. It does not draw on the party’s forces in industry for insightful and objective portrayals of the thinking and feelings among industrial workers. There is no more talk of fractions in industrial unions. Writers are no longer identified by union affiliation. Yes, there are excellent reports on visits to picket lines and anti-racist demonstrations, but such work can also be done by students. The “industrial turn” has all but vanished from the SWP press.

    And yet we know that the “turn” continues. Able comrades sell literature and have political discussions. But this often fails to link up with the structures and struggles of the working class and does not find expression in sustained united-front work in workers’ organizations.

    How were the SWP forces utilized during the Occupy movement? It is easy to criticize the inexperience of many young activists, but more significant is that this movement saw a junction between youth and organized labour forces more significant than any seen in many years — in a context of an intense nation-wide civil liberties confrontation. What did SWP unionists do? The SWP did not even support the movement, and its intervention — judging from the Militant — did not amount to much more than paper sales.

    What about the last great junction of youth and union forces — the movement against the Iraq war? The SWP was hostile to the antiwar movement and did not take part in the efforts to mobilize opposition in the unions. The SWP took no note of the opposition to the war among the soldiers – the workers in uniform. The SWP did not speak of its great experience in this work in 1945 and again in the Vietnam era.

    And the previous junction around anti-globalization? A similar story.

    The SWP tries to counterpose the industrial working class to the “middle-class radicals” – an apolitical SWP term for all left-wing and socialist political currents, other than itself. But there is no such division in life; the movements of the “middle-class radicals” flow together with those of all segments of the working class. I fear that the SWP’s antagonism to the “middle-class radicals” translates in life into tendency to abstention from major expressions of working-class politics.

    That said, I do believe that the SWP forces in industry as an important resource of the socialist movement as a whole, and it would be good to hear more about what the SWP comrades are experiencing and doing.

  12. Ken Hiebert permalink

    I agree with John re the SWP forces in industry. While we could write a lengthy article on our disagreements, the experience of these comrades is irreplaceable. It was a political lesson for me when I learned that supporters of the Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist) had been able to contribute to the success of struggles in the post office. This is a group for which I have a very low regard, but I must recognize the role that their militants have played.

  13. David Altman permalink

    Someone on the Yahoo SWP List speculated that a majority of SWP members may no longer be in industry as they’ve retired. That may be why we no longer hear about SWP fractions.

  14. Reagarding this quote “We are 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 in this country” from a speech in 1970 … I remember from the 1980ies the discourse about “revolutionary continuity” — starting with the two volumes of the same titel by Farrell Dobbs — and the claim that only the SWP to have the unbroken continuited going back to Marx and Engels, and hence there would no way to ascend to revolutionary marxism than by learning from and being guided by the SWP.

    While feeling some pride of being part of that following, although a continent apart, I also questioned myself: where does that leave the Cuban revolutionists? And what about Marx and Engels? How could they discover the laws of movement of the capitalist society and class societies in general without having met the Political Committee of the SWP? Should it really be impossible today to make those scientific discoveries 150 years later? The telephone was invented by at least three people independently of each other because the time was ripe for it. Should it be impossible today to discover the laws of capitalism and of class struggle, absorbing the lessons of 200 years of revolutionary struggle without having been at an Socialist Educational Conference in Oberlin College?

    I just read Gus Horowitz’ article from where John Riddell quoted the above quote. I think this is the best explanation of the psychology resulting from overloading oneself with an historic responsability and hybris of uniqueness. Thanks to Gus.

    I also remember, and that was probably from a speech or talk by Jack Barnes, the observation that errors can easier be revovered when one is moving forward. The image of a person stumbling when storming forward and can easily regain her step as against stumbling when going backwards was graved into my memory.

    As to the “permanent revolution”, I agree largely with Jack Barnes that this theory did more harm than good, by allowing large parts of those people calling themselves “Trotskyites” (I am not one of those) to cherish Trotsky where he differed from Lenin, instead of seeing him as the necessary link to pass Lenin’s legacy to a younger generation. It lead too many people to an ultraleft and sectarian policy, disregarding the need to mobilized the peasantry on the side of the proletariat, disregarding democratic demands. Lenin explained that the working class is the leadership of the democratic revolution, but it can only be the leader by promoting the utmost democratism, the revolutionary goals of oppressed and exploited farmers and other petty bourgeois layers, including the demands for nationial sovereignty of oppressed nations.

    I just think that Jack’s sectarian and disruptive way did more harm than good. The title “Their Trotsky and Ours” is already drawing a sharp dividing line between “us and them”. “80% of those calling themselves are sectarian” — with such declarations of war one can’t be very convincing. Better would have been a patient policy of publications recounting the experiences of the Cuban and Russian revolutions, also the Chinese and Vietnamese, and of all revolutionary struggles instead of this head on confrontationist approach.

    Let me conclude by stating that I believe that theres is still some revolutionary substance in the SWP, it is just dried out like a seed waiting in the desert for a new fresh wave of class struggle watering it again and allowing it to bloom and flourish.

    • This claim that the “real” understanding of proletarian revolutionism can only be acquired via the SWP reminded me of the Christian Bible, where the author of the “Gospel according to St. John” lets Jesus say in chapter 14, verse 6: “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”
      http://www.bibleserver.com/text/KJV/John14

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