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Making sense of Trotskyism in the United States: Two memoirs

[This review-essay was written for and is scheduled to appear in the British journal Revolutionary History, which has granted permission to circulate it on-line. Please include this acknowledgement when sharing it. The text is from Labor Standard.]

North Star, A Memoir (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010)
By Peter Camejo
364 pages with index

Outsider’s Reverie, A Memoir (Los Angeles: Boryana Books, 2010)
By Leslie Evans
438 pages with index.

By Paul Le Blanc

October 1, 2010 -- The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of the United States was for a number of years the largest and strongest section of the Fourth International — both of which were formally established in 1938, both representing the revolutionary socialist perspectives associated with Leon Trotsky. Rooted in opposition to Stalinism in the early Communist movement, the U.S. Trotskyists worked closely with Trotsky in building the Fourth International, the global network of small revolutionary groups adhering to the original “Bolshevik-Leninist” perspectives. They also played a heroic role in U.S. class struggles of the 1930s, and their reputation among many was as unyielding partisans of workers’ democracy and Trotsky’s revolutionary Marxist orientation. Yet in the non-revolutionary aridity of 1950s America, their ranks dwindled down to handfuls of stalwarts, perhaps 400 aging members, in a handful of cities.

The memoirs of Peter Camejo and Leslie Evans were produced by two of the most talented of the “1960s generation” rebels who flowed into and revitalized the SWP. Camejo (joining in 1959) was perhaps the best known activist leader of the party in the 1960s and 1970s, and Evans (who joined in 1961) was perhaps its most capable writer, editor and educator of that same “youth” layer. Both basically turned away from Trotskyism, quite consciously, during the 1980s. What is strange is that the SWP as a whole absolutely did the same thing — expelling or driving out all those not inclined to go along with the transition to its own esoteric variety of Castroism. Yet to their credit, neither Camejo nor Evans were able to remain inside the newly-revised version of the SWP, and their stories each in their own way reveal much about the “how” and the “why” of this development. What each has to say, however, goes beyond the specifics of that experience. Larger questions emerge regarding the nature of activism and social change, the validity of Marxism, the possibility and/or need of socialism.

Camejo was writing his autobiography in a race with terminal cancer — which he almost won. Evans helped edit this book and prepare it for publication, and he was consequently inspired to write his own autobiography. But the two books are dramatically different in more than one way. Camejo focuses much more on social movements and struggles, all motivated by a never-ending opposition to the injustices of capitalism. Evans focuses much, much more on political ideas as well as internal life and conflicts within the SWP — and far more than Camejo he has made his peace with the status quo, settling into a niche very much to the right of his fellow memoirist. Camejo rejects the old Trotskyism because he sees it as an obstacle to revolution — Evans rejects it in large measure because he has decided that revolution itself is a bad thing, although this break was neither simple nor easy for him:

In 1983 I may have begun to have doubts about Lenin and Marxism, but a lifetime of personal and political loyalties didn’t die easily or quickly. Part of it was habit, part loyalty to my fellow expellees. Then there were the dead to whom you had to answer. Trotskyism, like most religions, had its many martyrs, who inspired belief and dedication by their example. There was Trotsky himself, assassinated by Stalin’s agent in Mexico in 1940. His son, Leon Sedov, was murdered in a Swiss hospital in 1938 by Russian doctors secretly working for the KGB. There were the Old Bolsheviks, most of Lenin’s Central Committee, shot in the back of the head in the basements of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison, where the cells were conveniently supplied with floor drains. And the countless anonymous victims I had become familiar with from the movement’s literature: The Trotskyist prisoners at the Vorkuta labor camp in Siberia, marched in groups to the firing squads in 1937 singing the Internationale, and the hundreds of Chinese Trotskyists shot by the Maoists in 1952, it was said after having their tongues cut out so they couldn’t shout any last protests. A few of them were jailed instead and remained there until after Mao’s death. (Evans, 312)

In his own fashion, Evans seeks to remain true to this tradition — by writing as honest an account as he can, and certainly respectful of the finest in the old traditions that he has turned away from. As such, his memoir is a treasure trove for those seeking to understand at least some of the dynamics of the SWP in its years of growth and decline while Evans was a member. Yet it is hardly the kind of book one would hand to a young activist to help her or him carry on the revolutionary struggle for a better world, a struggle Evans now rejects.

Camejo also seeks to remain true to his earlier commitments — in his own fashion. But its thrust and spirit make it an ideal volume for young activists. He tells us:

The battles in which small groups of Trotskyists fought against Stalinism will go down in history as heroic. Trotskyists were murdered in tremendous numbers in Russia and were persecuted in other countries as well. They faced enormous hostility from the huge mass base of the Communist parties, but also endured attacks from pro-capitalist forces.

As an instrument to revive the mass world movement for social justice, however, I think that Trotskyism had historical, internal, sectarian limits that blocked it from being able to become a critical force for social change. But during the early 1970s I can see in my diary that I still thought it was possible that the Trotskyist movement would gradually, and with occasional opportunities for explosive growth, come to replace the influence of the Stalinists and social democrats. (Camejo, 115–116)

Both books give a vibrant sense of the perceptions and realities that made “believers” of Evans, Camejo, and many other activists of that time.

Glory days

An almost “glowing” chapter in Evans’s memoir deals with the amazing year 1968. His focus is global, involving a blend of triumph and tragedy: the dramatic surge in the Vietnamese liberation struggle; the decision of President Johnson not to seek re–election due to anti-war pressure; the quest for “socialism with a human face” in Czechoslovakia associated with the “Prague Spring”—and the repressive Soviet invasion a few months later; the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. as he was coming to the aid of striking sanitation workers, followed by enraged urban uprisings in black communities throughout the nation; militant student strikes throughout the United States; the May-June student and workers upsurge in France that almost toppled the De Gaulle regime; the mass student struggles in Mexico, violently repressed by the regime; and the militant protests in Chicago during the Democratic Party convention. All of this gave life to what had often been abstract assertions of revolutionary internationalism. “The afterglow of 1968,” he writes, “radiated for several years, raising spirits and hopes.” (Evans, 194)

Camejo’s account puts us in the thick of the battle. He tells us about tactics and strategy of the late 1960s and early ’70s — the remarkable “Battle for Telegraph Avenue” in the radicalizing Berkeley of 1968, the People’s Park confrontation, defense campaigns and electoral campaigns, all in the context of a sustained analysis of capitalism, state repression, imperialism, etc. that he held as much at the time of writing as at the earlier time of doing. A richly detailed chapter is devoted to the movement to end the Vietnam war, in which Camejo describes and defends the basic SWP strategy.

Although less detailed, Evans’s account is also positive. He describes the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC) in which the SWP was a leading force — in competition with the seemingly more radical Peoples Coalition for Peace and Justice (PCPJ, backed by diverse elements that included the Communist Party, an increasingly ultraleft SDS, some radical pacifists, etc.). He notes that what “NPAC had going for it [was] a clear focus on the war, based on mass peaceful legal demonstrations, and the SWP cadres, who were generally tough dedicated people embedded in the leadership of real antiwar groups in a dozen major cities.” When NPAC “called for national demonstrations in Washington and San Francisco for April 24, 1971, PCPJ backed a week of civil disobedience and disruptions in Washington beginning May 1.”

Far more than the May Day actions, April 24 was building all over the country, and then came under attack from conservative newspaper columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, who published an attack warning of “Trotskyite Communists … [who] were running NPAC,” and lamenting that “what makes all this significant is that the Trotskyists are not the few bedraggled malcontents of a generation ago but the most dynamic, most effective organization on the American far left.” Les Evans comments: “I cite this to show how the government and much of the mainstream press viewed us in those years, and how we viewed ourselves. We had come from the few hundred ‘bedraggled malcontents’ I had joined in 1961 to become generals of the antiwar army.” Indeed, 800,000 in Washington and at least 250,000 in San Francisco mobilized — in contrast to the 16,000 drawn to PCPJ’s more “radical” but disparate action on May 1. (Evans, 209–210)

The fact that both Evans and Camejo are quite prepared to critically examine and reject much of what they and the SWP did gives weight to the fact that both present a very positive account of the U.S. Trotskyists’ role in helping build the mass movement that contributed to ending the U.S. war in Vietnam — peaceful, legal, broad-based mass actions focused on a central demand: bring the troops home now. Their great respect for certain figures in the older generation is also enhanced by the fact that they now disagree with much of what these figures stood for.

Among the electoral campaigns run by the SWP — which were always educational campaigns to get out socialist ideas and help build social movements and struggles — the most dynamic by far was the Presidential candidacy of Peter Camejo and his running-mate Willie Mae Reid. More than most other candidates, Camejo was able to generate energy and enthusiasm, sometimes break into the mass media, and get out the socialist message. The SWP membership, he suggests, “sensed that, unlike the other party speakers, there was something unique in my presentations that attracted new people to the SWP. However, most people did not realize that it was the nonsectarian manner of my approach — they just thought it was because I was a good speaker, a sort of political stand-up comic who used a lot of humor to illustrate points and keep the audience entertained.” (Camejo, 129–130)

The combined size of the SWP and its youth group the Young Socialist Alliance, by 1976, exceeded 2000 people — mostly in their 20s and 30s, with tremendous energy and commitment. There was a substantial weekly newspaper, The Militant, a monthly theoretical/political magazine, the International Socialist Review (which Evans edited in its most successful phase), plus the international weekly Intercontinental Press edited by Trotsky’s former secretary Joe Hansen. There was also Pathfinder Press, a publishing house producing a remarkable array of books and popular pamphlets, largely overseen by George Breitman, another veteran of the movement, whose Malcolm X Speaks made the speeches of Malcolm X available to millions, and who made excellent editions of Trotsky’s writings available throughout the English-speaking world. The SWP also boasted a substantial three-story national headquarters, a chain of combined offices/book stores/forum halls (with weekly forums) in a growing number of cities, maintained by an impressive corps of paid staff and many, many more hardworking volunteer activists.

What happened?

How could something so good go so wrong? Looming large in both accounts is the figure of Jack Barnes. The rise of Barnes cannot be understood without reviewing some history about, and tracing some tensions within, the U.S. Trotskyist “old guard.” Evans gives considerable attention to such matters.

Back in 1953, the semi-retired founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon — now living on the West Coast, surrounded by like-minded comrades there, and in touch with veteran comrades around the country — pressured the new national leadership of union veterans Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry, into a brutal factional dispute with a significant layer of comrades, led by Bert Cochran. The Cochran group, favoring a dramatic curtailment of open SWP activities in the McCarthyite anti-communist atmosphere generated by the Cold War, had aligned itself with the leadership of the Fourth International headed by Michel Pablo, who was calling for Trotskyists around the world to fold their banners in order to carry out a “deep entry” into Communist and social democratic movements and organizations. Cannon would have none of this — pressuring a reluctant Dobbs and Kerry onto a course of struggle and split. Working closely with Cannon in this were a dynamic husband and wife team, Murray Weiss and Myra Tanner Weiss. Once the integrity of the SWP was preserved, and particularly with Stalinism’s crisis generated by the Khrushchev revelations of Stalin’s crimes, the couple pushed forward (with apparent support from Cannon) in outward-reaching regroupment efforts on the Left. In the process, they developed a substantial influence among recently recruited younger comrades who were involved in forming a new youth group in the late 1950s, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA).

Believing that they were the rightful leaders of the SWP, Dobbs and Kerry deeply resented Cannon’s interventions, and had a profound antipathy toward the “Weissites” (Murray, Myra, and anyone associated with them). But “Weissites” were not the only forces involved in building up the YSA. Clusters of young comrades around Tim Wohlforth and James Robertson and new recruits Peter Camejo and Barry Sheppard were also helping lead the newly-formed Young Socialist Alliance. Dobbs and Kerry, seeking to “tighten up” the party regime, increasingly worked to sideline and marginalize the “Weissites” — and when Wohlforth and Robertson moved into increasingly vociferous opposition (around issues of the Cuban Revolution and the reunification of the Fourth International), they found themselves marginalized and finally expelled (going on to form, respectively, the Workers League associated with Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labor League in Britain, and the Spartacist League). This left Camejo and Sheppard, but in the radical stirrings of the early 1960s new forces were increasingly drawn in. “The real standout was Jack Barnes, a Carleton College graduate who joined the YSA and SWP in Minneapolis,” according to Camejo. “Jack helped recruit a group of very capable leaders into the YSA, including Carleton classmates Larry Seigle, Dan Styron, and Mary-Alice Waters; while at graduate school at Northwestern, Jack brought in brothers Joel and Jon Britton, Lew Jones, and several more from the Chicago area.” (Camejo, 37)

Evans adds nuance and detail. Initially, Barnes was not an impressive speaker. “When I first heard him in 1963 he was halting and difficult to follow. Oscar Coover [an older party veteran], who had heard him give a talk in Los Angeles after I had moved to San Francisco, said to me afterwards, ‘How can the national office send us somebody like that? He has no idea how to speak, and the way he waves that stump of his around would put anybody off.’ Jack did have the habit when speaking of slapping his left elbow where the arm ended [due to a birth defect] with his right hand for emphasis.” While he never lost that mannerism, Barnes soon matured as a speaker. By the 1965 YSA convention, “Barnes emerged as the central leader of the YSA, the most authoritative and assured speaker on the major resolutions on the floor. When it was over, a brief plenum of the newly elected National Committee was called before we all left for home. It was held in a small unheated room. Outside, snow was falling and the temperature inside was near freezing. We were all standing, wearing our overcoats and breathing out white clouds of chill vapor. It made me think of the Bolshevik high command at the Smolny Institute in St. Petersburg during the October Revolution.” It was in this setting that Barnes — nominating himself — was overwhelmingly selected as national chairman of the YSA.” (Evans, 178, 157)

By this time, Evans notes, “Jack’s standing had risen enormously, from a branch leader in Chicago to the effective head of the party. Farrell Dobbs didn’t hand over the post of national secretary until 1972 but it was already clear that Jack and his inner circle were the heirs of the generation of the 1930s. The handful of middle-generation recruits from the late forties and the 1950s, such as Fred Halstead, Dick Garza, Ed Shaw, and Bob Himmel, were subordinate.” Yet there were disturbing early signs. An angry dissident from the Bloomington, Indiana YSA told Evans and his then-wife Kipp Dawson about Barnes’s heavy-handedness toward those differing with him, adding: “Jack Barnes is the Stalin of the SWP.…The older comrades are desperate for successors so they blind themselves to it but Barnes is building a machine just like Stalin did. He undermines anyone who isn’t part of his clique and gets them out of the way. He doesn’t want recruits who know anything, nobody who was ever in any other socialist organization. All he wants is empty vessels he can fill up with his picture of himself as another Lenin.” Evans and Dawson decided to reserve judgment. By the late 1960s, Evans observed, “Barnes himself adapted publicly to the standards of conduct of the older generation of party leaders, tough but fair. Still, there were differences and warning signs in private. Unlike any of the older group, Jack routinely said vicious things about people to anyone who happened to be around, which I took as a technique to keep people in line as you knew he would pillory you out of your hearing if you displeased him.” (Evans, 178, 151,227)

The national party leadership — in the minds of some of the new comrades — tended to be ranked in a particular way: “Joseph Hansen and George Breitman were theoreticians, the highest superlative, while Tom Kerry and Farrell Dobbs were at best politicians, able to carry out policy but not to formulate it. George Novack ranked lower still, an educator.” All were in their 60s, more or less . There was the need for…a Barnes. Even the way he wielded his half-arm “was something of a defiant pose, saying to the world that he was unyielding and wouldn’t concede an inch to a physical obstacle. He was the same in politics, hard, ruthless, and unyielding. That was what attracted us to him. The SWP as it existed at the 1963 convention seemed an impossibly weak instrument to rouse and mobilize the millions it would take to turn out the men of property who owned the country. Barnes meant to build a different kind of organization, as hard and mean as himself.” More than this, “there was a clear strong intelligence that rarely sounded like sloganeering or the tendency in many of the older comrades to approach every new situation with a set of fixed dead categories into which everything had to be shoveled. He looked always at the places where a small group could intervene in a situation to shape it. He was hard, which is what attracted us to him, but he seemed to also be fair. I was surprised at his patience in waiting five more years to assume the title of national secretary when he already carried its authority. He would wait seven years after that, until most of the older generation were dead, before making a decisive move to impose his own vision on the party.” It was clear to those who were watching that there was a Barnes machine, “a group within the younger leadership, most importantly the Carleton people and a few he had picked up in Chicago, who were his base and who were almost always favored in the distribution of important assignments.” (Evans, 158, 143,178–179)

The new leadership layer worked hand-in-glove with the old, in the 1969–1974 transition period, around a fierce dispute within the Fourth International which began over whether Trotskyists in Latin America should support a continental strategy of guerrilla warfare or adhere to the traditional “Leninist strategy of Party building” rooted in the struggles of the working class — but soon encompassing a multiplicity of related issues. By the mid-1970s, SWPers felt, with some justification, that they had more or less won this dispute — but the taste of victory, and the certainty that theirs was the correct understanding of global reality, soured by 1979–80 as the Iranian Revolution that they had supported took an unexpected turn to reactionary Islamic fundamentalism, and as the Sandinista struggle in Nicaragua, which they insisted was about to collapse because it followed the wrong strategy, was swept to victory.

Disorientation and disaster

The SWP actually began to flounder after the end of the Vietnam war. The question of questions was how to integrate the work of the party with the realities of the U.S. working class. With Barnes and his machine firmly in place, and the old guard moving (or being moved) increasingly to the sidelines, there was a decision to break up large SWP branches and create smaller community branches — which badly flopped. The decision to shift to working-class struggles was hardly unreasonable, however, although neither Camejo nor Evans give attention to dramatic stirrings in the United Mine Workers (the struggles and triumph of Miners for Democracy), the United Steel Workers (the militant campaign of dissident Ed Sadlowski), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (where Teamsters for Democracy was making headway), the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers (where a militant Tony Mazzocchi was becoming a force in the national leadership and beginning to agitate for a labor party), or the dramatic upsurge in organizing and struggle among service workers and government employees. What they are alert to, however, is how the “turn to industry” was increasingly bungled. Camejo puts it this way:

The SWP gradually separated itself from all political activity, rendering the membership passive. Finding union jobs in auto, steel, or another industry allowed some members to maintain the illusion they were doing something political. But the SWP leadership went so far as to dictate that members should not be teachers, work for a library, or take any sort of “middle class” job, and there was not to be any more student movement work. This disconnect from reality led to internal conflict, factionalism, and expulsions, until the SWP was reduced to a sect, a cult around Barnes. (Camejo, 176)

While comrades were deployed in industrial jobs, the new party leadership seemed to have little understanding about how the SWP could relate to the actual problems and struggles of workers in the industrial workplaces. Evans along with some other comrades took a job as an iron ore miner on the desolate Minnesota iron range — which was hit badly in the 1980s by lay-offs brought on by an economic restructuring that led to what some economists called the “de-industrialization of America.” A party branch meeting was set to discuss what the comrades’ response should be. The branch organizer — in touch with the national office — “proposed that the party members at the next meeting of Local 1938…call for having a Nicaragua slide show.” A loyal comrade named Anne Teasdale, “still disbelieving that this could really be the whole of the party’s anti-layoff strategy, spoke up. ‘Don’t we have something to say about what is happening here on the Range, the unemployment, what people are supposed to do about it.?’ She was met with rage.” One leading member accused her of “lowering our international banner” and failing to support revolutions in Central America and the Caribbean. “Others chimed in.” (Evans, 289)

This relates to another key factor that Evans emphasizes, coming into play beginning in 1978. “Jack had had a revelation about Fidel Castro hardly less searing than Saint Paul’s on the road to Damascus….Barnes said he was electrified by suddenly understanding that the Cubans had a strategy to intervene to promote revolutions.” Struggles in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Grenada, etc. provided proof that Cuba was becoming the fount of world revolution. He adds: “It was clear that Jack was determined to make a turn toward Havana and that Joe Hansen was on the outs with the party’s younger inner circle.” Hansen died in at the beginning of 1979 — but Michael Baumann, who had been working closely with Hansen on Intercontinental Press, told Evans that “Joe didn’t agree with Jack on anything by the time he died.” Camejo reported to Evans shortly before his own death in 2008 that Hansen had approached him in the late 1970s with a proposal to form a bloc against Barnes. “Barnes is completely unacceptable. You can’t treat people like that,” he said. “Peter added that he was frightened and quickly ended the discussion.”(Evans, 253–254, 256)

Evans was disturbed by the “whispering campaign without a vote or documents,” utilized by the Barnes machine to “overturn forty or fifty years and turn the orthodox into outcasts,” recognizing: “This was going to be bad.” His next comment is revealing: “It was clear that Jack’s basic motivation in his whole current political shift was to seek the approval of Havana, which had close ties with Moscow, where Trotsky was a demonic figure. But I was still reluctant to break with the party’s favorable assessment of the Cuban government on its home turf.” Aside from hoping that Barnes might be right, there was another reason for not challenging the reorientation. “There were two small opposition groups in the party that had done that, and become very isolated as a result. One was composed of Tom Kerry’s supporters, led by Nat Weinstein in San Francisco and Lynn Henderson in Minneapolis. The other was based in New York, led by George Breitman, trade unionist Frank Lovell, and Steve Bloom. I thought Weinstein was hopelessly dogmatic and sterile. I was friends with Breitman and held him in high esteem, but didn’t agree with him that the Cuban state was an undemocratic dictatorship though with an anti-imperialist and anticapitalist character.” (Evans, 279)

A new party leadership school was established, with the students handpicked and the classes taught by Barnes and trusted lieutenants. “The first graduates began giving classes and internal speeches saying Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution was an ultraleft mistake and that his claim to have reached agreement with Lenin in April 1917 on the aims of the Russian Revolution was not true,” according to Evans. At the 1981 SWP convention, 42% of the National Committee, mostly seasoned and somewhat critical-minded comrades in their 30s and 40s, were replaced by little-known younger “hards.” He comments: “The purge list included Dick Roberts, the party’s only economist; Jeff Mackler, a leader of the teachers union; Ray Markey, president of the New York librarians union; Kipp Dawson, Syd Stapleton and Lew Jones, all important leaders in the antiwar work; and myself….Most of us concluded that the change of line being hinted at in the corridors was going public soon and the New York leadership wanted to strip potential critics of the status as National Committee members before any discussion began. We still thought there would be a discussion.” In fact, the regularly scheduled national convention which was to occur in 1983 was cancelled in order to block the discussion, with expulsions already in full-swing. (Evans, 277–278, 303).*

Over the next several years, Barnes’s SWP engineered splits in other sections of the Fourth International, creating small groups of co-thinkers who would sell The Militant in their respective countries, uncritically praising Fidel, Cuba and (for a time) the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. By 1990 they formally announced what had been true for several years — their abandonment of the Fourth International, in preparation for a new “communist international” that would be created (they were sure) by Cuban and Central American revolutionaries. Camejo, who had little problem with supporting Fidelistas and Sandinistas, was too opposed to sectarianism, and too popular among activists, to be trusted by the Barnes machine — and special, quite successful efforts were made in 1982 to put him outside of the SWP. He comments:

The Barnes cult added a distinctive twist. They decided to refer to themselves publicly as “communist,” which they do to this day. In the world of political sects this is a conscious effort to remain isolated. It assures their few followers that they stand alone, that they will prove right and everyone else wrong. The cult leader has mystical inherent knowledge that no one else is able to attain except by becoming a follower. (Camejo, 176)

In the course of the 1980s and ’90s, the SWP devolved into a small and isolated entity — with little connection to the social struggles of its time. Its international collaborators fared no better. But the sad tale cries out for explanations. How could this have happened? What explains the degeneration? It cannot be laid simply at the feet of Jack Barnes. For Marxists, the “evil genius” theory just won’t do.

Original sin?

For Camejo, the methodology of Barnes was rooted in a sectarian quality inherent in Trotskyism itself — which then caused him to carry out the quest for relevance in a hopelessly sectarian manner — changing one rigid “orthodoxy” (a Trotskyism distinct from the revolutionary Trotsky) for another (a Castroism distinct from the revolutionary Fidel). The crisis arose in the organization as early as 1970, in Camejo’s opinion, with the choice facing the SWP being either to go “forward, evolving into an organization connected with the realities of the national and international living struggles of real people; or inward, self-isolating from realities because those realities did not correspond to a preconceived idea ordained as the unchangeable truth.” (114, 115)

Camejo was transformed by the international work he did in Latin America in the late 1970s. Sent by the SWP to Nicaragua in 1979, he was able to see a mass, popular revolution up close and personal. He describes a young militant of the newly victorious FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front), addressing the laboring poor in a Managua barrio:

 

As he spoke it dawned on me. The way he communicated, the message he gave, was what I had always tried to say; but he used only clear, understandable words about his message built on the living history of Nicaragua and the consciousness of the workers and their families who were listening.

He explained how Nicaragua belongs to its own people. How rich foreigners had come and taken their country from them but that they were the people who worked and created the wealth of their nation. They had the right to run it and to decide what should be done. He spoke about the homeless children in the streets and how under the U.S.-backed dictatorship nothing was done for them. He described in detail how the FSLN was trying to solve each problem. That it would take time. That Nicaragua was still in danger of foreign intervention. To never forget those who gave their lives so that Nicaragua could be a free nation. At each mention of the departed, the crowd shouted, “Presente,” to affirm that the missing ones were still with them, here. At every meeting of the Sandinistas, regardless where it was held, someone would read off the names of people from that block, school, or union who had given their lives for freedom. Everyone at the meeting would shout “Presente.”

My mind began to race. Of course this young man was not going to use terms that would lead to confusion; he would place these issues in the culture, history, and language of his people. It dawned on me — that is why this movement had won. They didn’t name their newspaper after some term from European history; they didn’t speak of “socialism” or “Marxism.” While the rest of the left of the 1960s and ‘70s was in decline throughout Latin America, caught up in the rhetoric of European Marxism and the influence of Stalinism, the FSLN had delivered a great victory for freedom. (Camejo, 170–171)

Camejo describes this experience as a “tipping point” for him, and while the SWP leadership was willing to place Fidelista and Sandinista certainties into its “program” (chucking the erstwhile Trotskyist certainties), it seemed incapable of emulating the example of being connected with living struggle. In one of the book’s few glaring errors, however, Camejo incorrectly characterizes the position of the Fourth International majority, led by Ernest Mandel, as being hypercritical and even hostile to the Sandinistas — which might strengthen his point, if true, but whose inaccuracy throws the overarching point into question. (There are some who would criticize the pro-Sandinista attitude of both the Fourth International majority and of Camejo as a betrayal of the Trotskyist program — which might cause him to say: “See, that’s what I’m talking about.”)

The approach that Camejo criticizes is reflected in a comment Farrell Dobbs made to him: “The program has been developed. Our job is to implement it.” Evans reports a similar comment from Barnes (before his Fidelista revelation): “ appropriately notes that this is “contrary to the essence of Marx’ writings about the materialist basis of science and how it applies to economic and social relations. Science is a process, not a discovery or revelation by a genius. Not only is a political program an evolving concept, but it also requires continuous discussion and debate in order for it to be effective. And it must, most important of all, be tested against reality.” (Camejo, 115; Evans, 226)

Such an open and critical-minded approach can also be found — explicitly stated — in the writings of George Breitman and Joe Hansen, regardless of whether one agrees with some of their conclusions. But Evans reports on some similar stirrings from U.S. Trotskyist patriarch James P. Cannon in 1964–65. “The party is too ingrown,” he said. “It has become intolerant of differences of opinion. It doesn’t work with real people in the world. All of its activities are self-generated — Militant sales drives, election campaigns for our own candidates, forums in our own hall of ourselves talking to ourselves. This isn’t a way to build a live organization. If this goes on much longer the party will cease to exist.” He went on: “I haven’t said anything publicly in the party because I haven’t seen an issue where these sectarian tendencies could be corrected and I didn’t want to undermine Farrell and Tom. But now there is one.”

Evans continues: “Here Jim produced a pamphlet called The Triple Revolution written by the futurist Robert Theobald and published by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara. The three revolutions supposed to be taking place in the world were in the growth of atomic weaponry, in struggles for human rights, but mainly in automation, leading, Theobald argued, to massive structural unemployment in the near term.” Cannon asked Evans to take up these issues and to write about them in the party on his behalf. (Evans, 154)

 

When it became known to Barnes that Evans was moving in this direction, he let it be known that such a thing would not be welcome — but also Evans concluded, after some investigation, that Theobald and Cannon were wrong, and he dropped the matter. Cannon himself — satisfied that the SWP’s energetic engagement with building the antiwar movement was shifting the party in an outward-moving direction — set the Triple Revolution discussion aside, without repudiating its importance.

What is clear is that the “original sin” that Camejo perceives — while identifying a genuine problem — is overstated and by itself inadequate in explaining the SWP disaster.

 

Les Evans reaches for a different variant of “original sin” to help explain the SWP disaster — Leninism. To make this case, he offers a set of authoritarian quotations from Lenin’s Collected Works from the civil war period of 1918–1920 and concludes:

The general pattern internationally was that most of the FI sections that had sided with Cannon and the SWP in the 1953 split were of the hard party type, while those led by the Europeans were looser, as a legacy of having been committed to deep entry in larger left parties in the 1950s. The hard parties with their super centralist structures more often than not ended up with a mad captain at the helm, sailing ahead with seeming unanimity among the ranks until they hit the iceberg. Witness Healy in England, Moreno in Argentina, or the still long surviving cult around Pierre Lambert in France. This centralist and ideologically intolerant structure seemed to produce the same result not only for little parties but for national states both great and small, as witness Stalinist Russia, Enver Hoxha’s Albania, Mao’s China, and Ceausescu’s Romania to name a few. In the case of the state rulers the Trotskyists attributed everything to the virus of Stalinism, which in turn they explained by the economic privileges of the party bureaucracy in an economy of scarcity. This neatly exempted them from any charge of similarity. Yet the same totalitarian virus decimated the various Trotskyist parties in the 1970s and 1980s, at least those of the hard Leninist sort. Draw your own conclusion." (294)

There is much scholarship that would need to be confronted and refuted (or reinterpreted) to make this interpretation of Lenin stick. The desperate and often disastrous “emergency measures” of the Bolsheviks during the civil war period and its immediate aftermath do not provide a fair characterization of Leninist organizational principles as they actually developed from 1902 to 1917. What passed for good “Leninism” under Stalin and his disciples (or under Barnes and other sectarian cultists) is another matter. The fact remains, what Evans tells us about the organizational perspectives of Cannon, and of the SWP during the period of Cannon’s leadership, does not harmonize well with his generalization — or with any notion of Leninism á la Cannon leading to the Barnes disaster.

In a conversation in Cannon’s home in the early 1960s, Evans commented on a dissident in the YSA, suggesting “we would be better off if we could get him out.” Cannon asked: “Does he do anything for the movement?” Evans conceded that, yes, he “Marxist Economic Theory, which was not yet available in an English translation.” Cannon responded sternly, “Well, that is something. The party is a voluntary organization. You can’t hire and fire in the party. If you lose an experienced person you can’t go out on the street and hire a replacement. You have to conserve what you have.” (Evans, 162) Or consider his description of the 1963 national convention of the SWP:

I now had my first chance to observe how party discussions and internal democracy worked. Mimeographed internal bulletins began to arrive from New York. All party members were permitted to write their views, to be printed in the bulletin during the preconvention period and, if it involved a resolution, to be put up for a vote at the coming convention. This was an internal discussion, however; all party members were expected to present the majority line when speaking to nonmembers.

There were some factions that were spread as minorities within several branches, and two that controlled their branches outright. The first type included a group around Jim Robertson and Tim Wohlforth, who dismissed the Cuban Revolution as an authoritarian nationalist event and who were opposed to the reunification with the International Secretariat. Another faction supported Arne Swabeck, one of the original founders of the movement, who lived in Los Angeles and had become convinced that Mao Zedong represented a true socialist tendency.

There was a small group in Detroit who thought the Soviet Union was some kind of new capitalist state as contrasted with the party majority position that it was defined by the nationalized property and only the bureaucratic government needed to be removed. The two factions that had their whole branch behind them were in Seattle, led by Dick Fraser and Clara Kaye, who championed “revolutionary integration” for the black movement and opposed any support of black nationalism, and in Milwaukee, led by James Bolton, who had a pro-Maoist position similar to that of Swabeck. Articles defending and opposing these variegated viewpoints filled many thick mimeographed bulletins. Also there were a few very long, almost incomprehensible, articles larded with abstruse organic and early computer analogies signed by a single individual, Lynn Marcus. When I asked about him I was told his real name was Lyndon La Rouche and his party name was an immodest contraction based on Lenin and Marx... I had spoken before the branch that spring to propose that the militant black nationalism of the Muslims was a progressive force that should be supported despite their strident antiwhite rhetoric. This was met with general skepticism. I felt vindicated when the main party resolution, titled “Freedom Now,” written by George Breitman in Detroit, called for support to black nationalism and the Nation of Islam. (130–131)

At the same time, Evans was struck by “the heat of the majority supporters’ hostility to all the minority tendencies,” and this would culminate — finally — in an organizational tightening under the Dobbs/Kerry regime as part of the leadership transition to the Barnes regime. Yet he notes that Cannon had disagreements with “the tightening up process that Jack Barnes had been shepherding through the national structure.” (131, 234) After Cannon’s death, Evans was assigned to go through his papers in order to help compose and edit new volumes of his writings. His comments, again, give the sense of a different Leninism than is described in the sweeping generalization:

Reading over fifty years of Cannon’s letters several things struck me. In the early sixties in Los Angeles I had seen that he held meetings of the local National Committee members and outraged New York by sending in policy proposals in the name of the Los Angeles NC group, like a dual Political Committee. I always assumed that dated only from his somewhat early retirement to Los Angeles in 1950. Not so. In 1936 the Trotskyists had dissolved their organization to join the Socialist Party with the aim of connecting with a developing left wing. During most of 1937 Cannon lived in California, and from there he repeatedly upstaged the elected leadership of his group in New York, mailing out counterproposals to theirs to the faction national committee. This wouldn’t have been tolerated for a minute in the Barnes-led SWP. Sharp exchanges took place openly between leaders of the Cannon faction without hiding them from other tendencies in the Trotskyist group. Another thing that struck me was Cannon’s attitude toward former factional opponents. A surprising number of his close associates and even friends had earlier been bitter enemies: Sylvia Bleeker and Morris Lewitt, Joseph Hansen, and Art Sharon were all members of the Shachtman faction or, worse yet, part of the clique around Martin Abern, one of the three original Trotskyist leaders, infamous for his onionskin copies of leadership documents that went out regularly to his select list.

Cannon’s two closest friends seemed to be Ray Dunne in Minneapolis, who had always been a Cannonite, but the other was Joseph Vanzler, party name John G. Wright, who was described in a May 1933 letter to Cannon from George Clarke as “the vanguard of the freaks” and a supporter of the B. J. Field minority . . . . All of these people became part of the party’s central leadership without prejudice over their former alignments. No such thing ever happened under Barnes. Anyone who opposed him was forever marked and generally quickly expelled. (Evans, 233)

At one point, a Barnes loyalist threatened Evans around pursuing the Triple Revolution thesis with the comment: “The Political Committee has had a meeting about that and has ruled that it is prohibited to discuss it. Cannon is completely out of line to try to raise it and if he pursues it any further he will be expelled. You had better shut up about it.” While Evans learned from a more seasoned comrade that “no one was going to expel Jim Cannon from the SWP,” he concluded that this meant “Barnes didn’t have the power to do everything he might want to do.” (Evans, 156) More, it suggests a qualitative difference between the Leninism of Cannon’s party and that of the Barnes regime.

Digging deeper

If “the inherent sectarianism of the Trotskyist program” and “the inherent authoritarianism of Leninist organizational principles” do not provide the answer to the question of the qualitative change in the SWP, where can we look?

For any Marxist group that wishes to bring about revolutionary change, one obvious question — if one is a Marxist — is “what is its relationship with the organized working class?” Camejo comments:

Unions, which at one point had organized 33 percent of American labor, had shrunk to just 12 percent. No major political opposition appeared. Yes, there were many defensive struggles as the industrial unions were weakened by corporate and governmental attacks, which had stepped up under Reagan. But labor had no labor party or any kind of effective defense strategy. By the early 1980s the industrial working class and its unions had been in a sharp decline for two obvious, interconnected reasons. First was the growth of globalization; second was the union capitulation to the Democratic Party. At every level the unions, pushed by the Democratic Party, were capitulating, supposedly a necessary step for U.S. corporations to be competitive in the global economy. (173)

The world had changed in important ways, and the SWP leadership — with few and marginal exceptions — didn’t see it coming. Indeed, it might have made sense if the SWP had actually looked more carefully and thoughtfully at the dynamics of “Triple Revolution” that Jim Cannon vainly pointed to. The automation and computerization discussed in that document did not bring mass unemployment in the immediate term, but they did contribute to the steady erosion of the industrial working-class base that had been the source of traditional union power — and these developing technologies were very much related to what came to be tagged “globalization.” (The so-called “revolutions” in human rights and in weaponry also moved in slower and more complex — but no less transformative — ways.)

One must also give attention to the “great divide” represented by the Second World War, which brought into being a very different world than the one framing the perspectives of Lenin, Trotsky, and their comrades. Young SWP and YSA members — reading the “classic” texts that had been written in qualitatively different contexts, and themselves having come into adulthood and consciousness in very different social-cultural contexts — could not easily grasp the actual meaning of what Lenin or Trotsky might be saying. But they did not know that. This naturally contributed to a stilted understanding of the texts, contributing to flattened and simplistic applications, and to growing disorientation.

Related to this, the vanguard layers of the working class — at least in the United States — had been nurtured by a labor radical subculture from the post–Civil War era of the 1860s down to the 1940s. The cadres of the early SWP had been shaped by and were an integral part of that labor radical subculture. But the class-conscious working-class layers were fragmented and eroded by the profound economic, political, cultural, social, and economic changes of the post–World War II period — whose components included a fierce and stultifying Cold War anti-Communism, an unprecedented relative prosperity, working-class suburbanization, transformations in an increasingly conformist mass popular culture, and more. The subculture of the radicalized sections of the labor movement, and those radicalized sections of the labor movement themselves, were no longer a vibrant reality as young members flowed into the SWP and YSA in the 1960s and early ’70s.

In Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder, Lenin emphasizes that efforts by would-be revolutionaries to maintain “iron discipline” if their Marxism and organization are not actually rooted in vanguard layers of the working class and intimately connected with mass struggles, “inevitably fall flat and end up in phrase-mongering and clowning.” One might say that this is precisely the essence of the “Barnesism” emerging from the accounts of Camejo and Evans.

Some left critics may be inclined to see Barnes’s adaptation to the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutionaries as the opposite of “ultraleftism” (instead reflecting a submission to “the conservative elements of those national programs”), which gets into analyses of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions that are beyond the scope of this review. But Lenin’s decisive point — that no “Leninism” is possible if there is a disconnect between would-be revolutionaries and the actualities of working-class life and struggle — points up the fatal problem that faced and finally overwhelmed the SWP. The lack of possibility for democratic correction, due to the deepening authoritarianism and cultism represented by the Barnes regime, sealed its fate. Perhaps all this was not inevitable — but that is the way it happened.*

Aftermath

In reaction to their experiences in the Trotskyist movement, the two authors went down different pathways.

Evans participated in two efforts to pick up some of the political pieces after the mass expulsions from the SWP — helping to found, in turn, Socialist Action and Solidarity, both of which still exist as fairly small groups. Before the end of the 1980s, he had given up on socialist activism and — essentially — on socialism and Marxism altogether. Acquiring additional skills and knowledge upon returning to university life, he went on to play an impressive role as a web journalist for the International Institute associated with University of California Los Angeles, as well as a staff member with the World Health Organization and the World Bank (of all things). Also he and his wife have been quite active in their local neighborhood committee’s highly focused efforts to protect their own community in South Los Angeles, contending with “gang crime, illegal dumping, graffiti vandals, drug houses, and abandoned buildings.” Evans seems defensive about this, and goes on the offensive: “For Trotskyists all politics is global. If it doesn’t involve a foreign war for which imperialism can be excoriated, or a union-busting multinational corporation, it is hardly worth talking about.” (Evans, 399) There is an element of truth to this — but it is not totally true, in my opinion.

Camejo was unable to give up on the radical activism that animated most of his life. He joined together in the mid-1980s with a short-lived “non-sectarian” left-wing group called the North Star Network, made up of former SWPers and other radicals. The group ended up getting involved in Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition — which he considers “a major political mistake” since it became “just another name for keeping progressives in the Democratic Party.” (Camejo, 180–181) One of the appendices of his book contains an analytical critique entitled “The Origins of the Two-Party System.” He also established ties with a breakaway from the Communist Party, Committees of Correspondence, and with a Maoist-influenced group called Line of March — but concluded that intertwined vestiges of Stalinism and reformism hindered both from becoming effective left-wing forces.

For a time, thanks to considerable expertise on the capitalist economy, he worked very successfully for the investment firm of Merrill Lynch. From there he branched out into helping left-leaning people make “socially responsible” investments, and also with raising substantial amounts of money — through his business and financial contacts — for such things as fighting AIDS, job creation, immigrant rights, unionization, and protection of the environment. He became perhaps the most dynamic — and one of the most radical — figures in the Green Party of California, running for Governor and then becoming Ralph Nader’s Vice-Presidential running mate in 2004. While raising questions about using the word socialism, and insisting that Marx should not be treated uncritically as a deity, he continued to embrace the socialist goal (preferring the term “economic democracy”) and a broadly Marxist analytical framework.

Both Camejo and Evans appear to have ended up with wives whom they have loved and who love them, children, grandchildren, and interesting personal experiences, some of which are discussed or alluded to in their books. And both felt a need to share their reflections about U.S. Trotskyism with readers whom they knew would be mostly on the Left — which is our good fortune.

[Thanks to various friends for feedback and help in making corrections, especially those around the on-line journal Labor Standard.]

Notes

*For details and documentation on the struggle in the SWP and the expulsion campaign, and an analysis of its background, context and meaning, see: In Defense of American Trotskyism: The Struggle Insider the Socialist Workers Party, 1979-1983, edited by Sarah Lovell (with an essay by Frank Lovell) in 1991, available at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit.htm; and In Defense of American Trotskyism: Revolutionary Principles and Working-Class Democracy, edited (with a major essay) by the present author in 1992, available at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit/revprinindex.htm).

*Among other books shedding light on the story of the U.S. SWP explored in Camejo and Evans are the following: Fred Halstead, Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War (New York: Monad/Pathfinder, 1978); Tim Wohlforth, The Prophet’s Children: Travels on the American Left (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1994); George Breitman, Paul Le Blanc, and Alan Wald, Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations (Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, 1996); Paul Le Blanc and Thomas Barrett, eds., Revolutionary Labor Socialist: The Life, Ideas, and Comrades of Frank Lovell (Union City, NJ: Smyrna Press, 2000); Anthony Marcus, ed., Malcolm X and the Third American Revolutions: The Writings of George Breitman (Amherst, NY: Humanity Books, 2005); Barry Sheppard, The Party, A Political Memoir: The Socialist Workers Party, 1960-1988, Vol. 1 (Chippendale, Australia: Resistance Books, 2005). Sheppard is currently working on the concluding volume of his important memoir.

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More on the SWP, Peter Camejo

http://solidarity-us.org/current/node/3317

A Winter's Tale Told in Memoirs

Alan Wald

THIS ESSAY IS dedicated to the memory of George Breitman (1916-86), who taught me never to take anyone's word for it.

THE SOCIALIST WORKERS (SWP), now a curious sidebar in the history of radicalism, is a linear descendant of the political movement initiated in the United States by pro-Bolshevik followers of Leon Trotsky on the eve of the Great Depression.(1) For 45 years, until the mid-1970s, the movement associated with the SWP was at the crossroads of the Far Left.

Although smaller in numbers than the Communist Party, and often the Socialist Party, the SWP enjoyed a moral authority, political acuity and signal professionalism that brought it disproportionate influence in the union movement and Marxist culture that lasted for decades. Today, few young activists in factories, the community or on campuses have even heard of the SWP.

What happened to this flawed but in many ways vibrant and inspiring organization? By 2011, the SWP has changed its political line domestically and internationally more often than Lady Gaga switches outfits at a performance. (The analogy is particularly apt inasmuch as Gaga’s costumes become more outrageous as the evening goes on.) At the least, the SWP is an organization that can no longer be filed under “T” for “Trotskyism”; the letter should in all probability be “C” for “Cults (Political).”

Jack Whittier Barnes (b. 1940), the Party’s national secretary, inhaled a version of Cannonism in the 1960s and exhaled a version of Castroism in the late 1970s. This alone would not be critical. But Barnes, whose style is more Wall Street Chairman of the Board than revolutionary firebrand, had the skill to mesmerize consecutive circles of talmidim — members of the SWP Political Committee and National Committee — to replicate their supervisor’s every gesture.

Except for a few old-timers in 1981, leaders of the SWP exhibited no dissent, and mostly genuine zeal, as they embraced an optimistic perspective of permanent student radicalization (1971), sterile orthodox “Leninist-Trotskyism” (1973), a “turn to the working class” (1976-79), a “turn within the turn” (1981), and increasing ruptures with Trotskyist theories and affiliations (most explicit in 1982 and 1990). At this point, CEO Barnes is nearly the sole survivor at the top, having beguiled budding new layers of SWP junior executives to purge their predecessors through procedures that would give even the appellation “Kangaroo Court” a bad name.

Two Recent Books

There are surely valid reasons for questioning the SWP’s earlier, pre-1970s, internal life from the point of view of permitting wide-ranging democratic debate.(2) But the two recent memoirs, Outsider’s Reverie and North Star, by SWP veterans Leslie Evans (b. 1942) and Peter Camejo (1939-2008), indicate a creeping crescendo to bizarre authoritarianism after Barnes consolidated his reign in 1972.(3)

This was not accomplished single-handedly. For the years immediately before and decades after, the varying individuals backed by Barnes for leadership positions in the SWP more and more operated as a political aristocracy and secret society, a “Bolshevik” version of the Skull and Bones. There are surely unique and particular facets of the rise and fall of the SWP, but the reader familiar with the history of other political organizations (not all of them Left-wing) will be tempted to quote Mark Twain: “History doesn’t repeat itself but it does rhyme.”(4)

The narratives by Evans and Camejo also indicate that the group finally went over the edge in some qualitative way during the 1980s. One gets the sense that the SWP has become a creepy sect claiming to be “communist” but operationally suggestive of the Church of Scientology. This is certainly the impression communicated by the online postings of former members.(5)

There are also two more widely-read sources, the only instances of significant public exposure granted in the media to the SWP of late. The first is a 2007 amusing piece of journalism in the New York Observer, “Communists Capitalize on Village Sale,” describing the $1.8 million purchase by the vice president of SONY BMG Music Entertainment of a Manhattan loft belonging to Party leaders Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters. The article mentions Barnes’ admiration for the late despot Kim Il-sung.(6)

The second is a 2009 widely-reviewed book, Said Sayrafiedeh’s When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir of a Political Childhood.(7) The author, the disillusioned son of two long-time SWP cadres, claims that there was a cover-up regarding his sexual abuse by an older member. If only one-tenth of Sayrafiedeh’s overall portrait of the dismal and deluded lives of rank-and-filers is true, North Korea may serve not only as a template for Barnes’ personal leadership aspirations but also as a fitting index of the brand of “socialism” experienced by recent SWPers.

The depictions of the SWP in all these sources show a sea-change from the portraits available in scholarly books treating the record of Trotskyism in its first decades. They also contradict the sober and flattering report published in The Nation in 1975 by Walter and Miriam Schneir in connection with the SWP’s impressive lawsuit against illegal police surveillance and harassment.(8) What is being drowned out in this historical “rhyme” of the recent SWP, a blend of Creflo Dollar Ministries for its top guns and a vintage 1900 sweatshop for believers, is an honorable political past.

What Was Trotskyism?

A distinctive stance of the Trotskyists was that the Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule resulted from a necessary 1917 revolutionary upheaval that underwent a harsh bureaucratization in the 1920s — a defeat without, however, a complete reversal of the revolution. The Communist League of America (CLA) was founded in 1928 as a public faction of the Third International to promote corrective policies. In 1934, the CLA merged with A. J. Muste’s American Workers Party to create the Workers Party of the United States. In 1936, the Trotskyists entered the Socialist Party to become the “Appeal Group.”

By this time, Trotskyists aimed to elaborate a full-blown alternative vision of Marxism to Stalinism and social democracy. The new élan was expounded perhaps most colorfully in a declaration of cultural and intellectual autonomy called “Manifesto: Toward a Free Revolutionary Art.”(9)

In 1938, the same year that the SWP came into existence, a Fourth International that united followers of Trotsky worldwide was announced. In 1940, the new party and its youth group (the Young Peoples Socialist League/Fourth International), totaling nearly 2,000 members, split just about in half due to organizational and political divergences.

After that time, the organization retaining the name SWP was customarily referred to as “Cannonite” in recognition of the authority of its principal leader, James P. Cannon (1890-1974).(10) In the post of national secretary, Cannon guided the SWP until his retirement in California in 1953, after which his title was national chairman emeritus.

The political ambitions of the SWP in the Cannon years were mostly overshadowed by the commanding position of the Communist Party (CPUSA) on the Left. Suddenly, in 1956, the CPUSA’s influence, already weakened by the Cold War and McCarthyism, was shattered by the revelations of Stalin’s abuses in Nikita Khrushchev’s “Secret Speech” to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

It seemed, then, that a new radicalization would give the SWP a “second chance” to realize its revolutionary Marxist strategy. With the CPUSA under a cloud there might be a larger hearing for Trotsky’s method and set of positions based on “The Transitional Program” adopted by the founding congress of the Fourth International.(11)

A Second Chance

What happened to that second chance and that historic program is to an extent recounted in the two autobiographical books that inspired this essay. Evans, who grew up in Los Angeles as something of an autodidact, was a thoughtful and conscientious writer, editor, and China specialist for the SWP, and a founder of Against the Current (new series) in 1986. Camejo, the U.S.-born son of wealthy Venezuelans and a student at MIT, was a hilarious and inspiring public speaker. He was the SWP presidential nominee in 1976, and, after 2002, a frequent candidate for office of the Green Party.

The two authors are strikingly dissimilar in backgrounds, personalities, and especially their post-SWP political trajectories. Evans is no longer a Marxist and has evolved toward mainstream politics, a fascination with the paranormal, and intense neighborhood activism. Camejo died a militant fighter for fundamental social change, putting in years leading the North Star Network, then building the Rainbow Coalition and Committees of Correspondence.

Both, however, tell a similarly sad “Winter’s Tale” that narrates the betrayal of idealistic individuals (i.e. themselves) by Barnes, a graduate student in economics who gained control of the SWP when the Cannon-era leaders were stepping aside. On the other hand, these books present much more than a report on the mid-20th century SWP. Included are the authors’ pre-SWP adventures and later careers (at the UCLA International Institute for Evans and the Merrill Lynch Group for Camejo). Readers who want to learn about the full contents, too extensive to be fairly recapitulated in this essay, are referred to the excellent blow-by-blow summary available online by Paul Le Blanc, an informed historian of the SWP.(12)

It might be noted at the outset that these two books may be outstanding as historical sources but not for revelations of new political plans regarding “what is to be done.” Both authors accepted and then rejected the peculiar construal of “Leninism” promoted by the SWP, a narrow interpretation of a fertile if paradoxical legacy long criticized by Marxists in the  pages of Against the Current and elsewhere.(13)

Evans and Camejo are articulate and impassioned advocates of their own political conclusions about the desirability of and strategy for social transformation, and these are also quite different from what appears in the pages of this journal. Evans now endorses standard challenges to revolutionary thought, and Camejo champions familiar clichés of the populist Left. There is little point in rehashing established differences of opinion about reform versus revolution, the strategy of rank-and-file labor caucuses, and so on. Instead, this essay will to try to move the conversation forward with observations about what exactly is achieved as well as still missing in these memoirs.

Why devote any time and energy at all to analyzing the evolution of what has become a deteriorating sect? Surely the future for the Left is not behind us. But the point of any such journey into the past is not that knowledge of this political history will set us free; rather, knowledge increases wisdom that might assist the building of a new socialist presence incorporating worthy essentials of Trotskyism.

To be sure, the perpetual small size of organized revolutionary movements is worrisome to anyone aspiring to change a society of millions; the SWP reached a membership of a few thousand only at certain moments. Yet the ideas for which a movement stands are what count in the long run. Commitment to abolitionism, social security and feminism were also once derided as the preoccupations of a nutty minority who were marginal to the American “mainstream.”

The Rise of the SWP

A few notes about the SWP’s early history, prior to the years narrated by the memoirs of Evans and Camejo, remind us that dedicated small groups with compelling ideas can constructively advance Left movements and political strategy.

In 1934, Trotskyist cadres directed a strike of Teamsters in Minneapolis. This led to the organization of over-the-road drivers and was pivotal in the development of industrial unionism. In 1936, Trotskyism aroused many of the editors of and contributors to the pro-Communist New York journal Partisan Review to embark on a new course. The revamped magazine after 1937 blended revolutionary Marxist politics and Modernist sensibilities to become the most eminent literary magazine in the country.

In the 1940s, the SWP navigated the perilous waters of an inter-imperialist war in which there were no good choices.(14) With socialist transformation an out-of-reach objective at that moment, the SWP formulated the “proletarian military policy,” a practical orientation that combined revolutionary internationalist politics with participation in the armed battle to stop fascism.(15)

Postwar, the SWP went on the offensive in the labor movement and also endorsed a memorable statement of Marxist politics in regard to African Americans that was penned by C. L. R. James.(16) In the 1950s the SWP fought the good fight against McCarthyism and U.S. Cold War foreign policy. But its eyes were wide open concerning the inhumanity of expanding Stalinist dictatorships as the Party championed the workers’ uprisings in East Germany and Hungary.

When radicalization surged in the early 1960s, the SWP like most Left groups benefitted from a tide of activism that lifted all boats. Nevertheless the SWP, still “Cannonite” but now led by Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry and Murray Weiss, made exceptional use of several of the new openings.

A critical factor was the political experience of veterans of the 1930s and 1940s, salt-of-the-earth type people who had built unions, served in the military, and produced skillful writings on labor history, Black politics, philosophy and political theory. Some of these were deeply embedded in local labor and anti-racist struggles in places such as Detroit, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Others were willing to relocate to New York to staff coalitions (such as the Fair Play for Cuba Committee) and the SWP national office.

Always a magnet for talented workers and intellectuals (some of whom, like Harry Braverman and Bert Cochran, broke away to write classics of the Left such as Labor and Monopoly Capital [1974] and Labor and Communism [1977]), the SWP cadre formulated and implemented a cogent perspective for a new generation of rebels.

Hundreds of young people, in their teens and twenties with astonishing levels of energy and commitment, were thus drawn to the SWP’s youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). They fervently acquired a revolutionary internationalist outlook but were trained to translate long-term aspirations into a sane set of practical activities, ones appealing to people not yet fully radicalized nor as privileged in background as many of the new recruits from schools such as Carleton College, MIT and Northwestern University.

The SWP strategy included running socialist electoral candidates, independent of the major political parties, whose activities were subordinate to movement-building. The crowning achievement was the SWP’s approach to building a massive anti-Vietnam War campaign, including dissident GIs, that made full use of constitutional rights and welcomed any ally who supported “Bring the Troops Home Now” or “Out Now.” These slogans were judged to be “transitional demands” that addressed the population at its current level of consciousness while also aiding self-determination for Vietnam, the weakening of imperialism, and a growing awareness of the power of mass action.(17)

Old and New Radicalisms

The SWP had its detractors, especially due to its reliance on a sometimes mechanically-deployed democratic centralism in the mass movements, and not every SWP intervention on the ground was carried out in a flawless manner. But the YSA and SWP got many things right at a time when it was not easy.

As the later 1960s heated up, the New Left was torn apart. The ever-present lure of “lesser evil” politics drew many activists back into the dead-end electoralism of the Democratic Party. Others sought shortcuts through elitist violent action; made foolish declarations of allegiance to dictatorships in China, North Vietnam, and Albania (!); and indulged in ultraleft fantasies of orthodox “Leninist” and “proletarian” purity.

The SWP affirmed the right of self-defense against racists; the necessity of militant mobilization of the majority to change society; the understanding of socialist democracy as an extension and completion of existing, hard-earned political freedoms; a clear distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism; the centrality of uninhibited expression of diverse ideas (“workers’ democracy”) to building social movements; and the obligation to defend anti-colonial and anti-imperialist rebellions without abandoning one’s critical faculties.

The SWP in the 1960s was burdened by its own orthodox carry-overs from a bygone era. This included an inflated notion of itself as a Leninist “vanguard party,” and the admirable, if erroneous, conviction that the people of the Soviet Union would free themselves of police-state rule while retaining the USSR’s nationalized property relations. But the SWP of those years seemed to be equally interested in learning from new movements as shown by its sincere embrace of Malcolm X, welcoming attitude toward the Cuban Revolution and socialist-feminism, and adoption of the “Red University” strategy promoted by students in Belgrade and Paris.

The SWP stood on the cusp of a potentially fruitful blend of old and new radicalisms expressed in more advanced form by its international co-thinkers in the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec, with which the SWP had fraternal relations), especially in France (the Revolutionary Communist League), England (the International Marxist Group), and Mexico (the Revolutionary Workers Party).

On the negative side, the SWP was rightly treated with some political suspicion in the USec due to its record in the 1950s as an ally of Gerry Healey’s Socialist Labor League in England (which evolved into a dangerous lunatic outfit) and Pierre Lambert’s International Communist Party in France (later the International Communist Organization, and likewise a sectarian horror). Yet the SWP turned out to be in advance of many of the USec leaders, some of whom had in their own troubled past associations with Michel Pablo, on subjects such as Women’s Liberation and the danger of adaptation to the disastrous guerrilla warfare practices in several Latin American countries.(18)

Above all, the SWP in the United States, free of the blinders of Stalinism and liberalism, opened the door for new members to a world of thought-provoking ideas and an understanding of what SWP educator George Novack referred to as “the long view of history.”(19) Not only did the personal lives of older members embody class struggles of many decades, but their bookshelves were lined with fascinating volumes. What better way to learn than through a combination of theory and practice?

A new recruit was encouraged to start with the classics of Marxism and labor history. Then, unless one was cowed by ideological Rottweilers (such deviation detectives can be found in every political and religious group), the intellectually curious could move on to broader understandings of Marxism by reading the Frankfurt School, Gramsci, Lukacs, and British Marxist historians.

Communists seemed to be fixated on hootenannies and historical novels by Howard Fast, while phobic about reading Arthur Koestler, Hannah Arendt and Ralph Ellison. The SWP tradition forcefully eschewed the judging of culture by political criteria; one could be a socialist activist with unfettered access to the full breadth of modern thought in literature, art and music.

For a small number of SWP members, the icing on the Marxist cultural cake in the late 1960s and 1970s was found in the luminous pages of New Left Review. There one encountered the very best in contemporary Trotskyist thought — Ernest Mandel, Isaac Deutscher, Tariq Ali, Perry Anderson, Sheila Rowbotham, Terry Eagleton, Michael Löwy — side-by-side with the creative Marxism generated by Fredric Jameson, Louis Althusser, Ellen Wood, Juliet Mitchell, and many more.(20)

To be sure, one could pass through the SWP’s open door to Marxist culture in different ways, according to the needs and desires of the particular personalities who joined. On the one hand, there was an orthodoxy in the SWP about “dialectical materialism” and a partisan take on a series of legendary factional struggles in Trotskyism, often involving theories connected with the experience of the Russian Revolution.

Cannon’s writings on these matters, often a compelling read, were elevated to the secular script of U.S. Trotskyism. If one aspired to move forward up the ladder to salaried posts and leadership positions, which brought modest perks of movement wages, status as an insider, and the deference (sometimes approaching groupie-like awe) of some rank-and-filers, one needed to at least publically assent to SWP teachings. Others could operate without restraint in exploring and discussing heterodox ideas about history, philosophy, anthropology and so forth.

The Crucible of Crisis

Frequently, after the founders die, a movement becomes a pale imitation of itself. That is not true for the SWP, which has now morphed into a scary, if harmless, aberration known for its fabulous real estate deals and round-the-clock trials of baffled members. How could the SWPers allow the makeover to go as far as it did?

When one looks back, after-the-fact, to the onset of schizophrenia, political or otherwise, one searches out the early signs and stages. “Barnesism” evolved through a series of decisions, not just one, but opinions differ about where to start and how to periodize the stages.

Evans mentions some disquieting events in the 1960s involving the treatment of “The Weiss Group,” but he and Camejo are most disparaging of Barnesism in the late 1970s, when they were cast out of the leadership. For me, in contrast to Evans and Camejo, the whole sequence of transformation comes together most coherently if one gives special consideration to the events of 1971, airbrushed in both books. At that time there was a sizeable membership revolt expressly against the emergent Barnes machine.

The date and historical circumstance of this multi-generational rebellion are imperative for any complete rethinking of the post-1960s process. Evans and Camejo eventually conclude, from opposing angles, that the ideology of Trotskyism is itself largely responsible for the SWP debacle. That’s not much more useful than concluding that the ideology of Catholicism is to blame for pedophile priests.

Most Marxist critics of the SWP cite two other factors: 1) The failure of the radicalization to continue unfolding after 1975, which prolonged the SWP’s isolation from the working class and its culture, ensuring that the leadership would be handed over to students with no proletarian experience; and 2) Barnes’ 1978-79 misreading of the dynamics of the Nicaraguan Revolution, instigating his leap to Castroism sui generis as the fulcrum of a new political strategy. (Camejo also shares Barnes’ uncritical assessment of the Cuban Communist Party, but draws different practical conclusions.)

In 1971, however, this perfect storm did not yet obtain: “Objective conditions” were still very favorable to SWP growth; the transition from a working class to an inexperienced student leadership was far from complete; and orthodox Trotskyist theories about “permanent revolution” and the necessity of a Transitional Program were in place, at least on paper.

Nevertheless, in the process of the internal political struggle in 1971, the crucial changes occurred that created the new paradigms for handling disputes and precedents for organizational control; the positive traditions of the SWP were shown to be subject to the expedient aims of the new leadership. In other words, the 1971 convention was a “test run.” The patterns it set would be more fully enacted when Barnes and his circle went on to change policies and expel organized oppositions in 1974 and 1982-3, and target other individuals, such as Camejo, along the way and afterwards.

Putting historical proportion aside, imagine trying to assess the 1927 expulsion of Trotsky from the Communist Party of the USSR without consideration of the 1921 ban on factions, one that Trotsky himself supported. While material conditions and programmatic alterations are necessary factors in understanding the whole SWP process, they are also insufficient. A closer look at 1971 reminds us that greater attention must be paid to the internal culture of the SWP as an incubator of later developments. Yet culture is unlike political documents and quantifiable data; a discussion of this matter is tricky.

Rethinking 1971

The 1971 SWP convention was hyper-factionalized compared to the one in 1969. In 1971, an enthusiastic and overwhelming majority ratified a political analysis presented on behalf of the Political Committee by Barnes that predicted a permanent deepening and spread of the 1960s student radicalization as the premise for its strategy.(21) An opposition, nearly 10% of the membership and calling itself “The Proletarian Orientation Tendency” (P.O.), proposed a reorientation to working-class concerns and encouraged the industrial colonization of non-student members.

Each side believed zealously that it was out to “save” the SWP. Unfortunately, what occurred was not a reasoned debate on these subjects. Barnes and his allies went on the offensive, alleging that the real policy of the opposition was “economist” (adapting to the prejudice of backward workers) and opposed to the new mass movements (hence bending to the ultraleft workerism of rival Left groups). The opposition, in turn, was quick to see Barnes’ supporters as specimens of instantaneous group-think, and a few P.O. supporters even imagined (erroneously) that they were taking the part of Cannon in a re-runs of earlier disputes with Max Shachtman in 1939-40 and Bert Cochran in 1953-54.

Why such a warfare mentality on both sides? The answer is that almost everyone understood even before the pre-convention discussion that the P.O. represented a layer of members who were distrustful of Barnes, his personal circle, and his methods. The documents meant exactly what they said, that the historic proletarian orientation (i.e. a top priority on labor activities; the encouragement of available members to join industrial unions) of the SWP was disintegrating, but there was a motivation for putting forward an organized tendency around this idea.

P.O. supporters thought that Barnes was promoting friends and followers into top positions in the organization, mostly individuals who had moved directly from the university campus to the SWP apparatus. The P.O. feared that the result would be an immediate change in SWP leadership from Dobbs and Kerry to Barnes and his allies. This would largely bypass the more seasoned, relatively diverse layer of individuals with experience going back to the late 1940s and 1950s.

The P.O., adhering to the view that debate over political program takes precedence over organizational grievances, did not attack Barnes and his circle by name. But the P.O.’s call for a return to the earlier tradition, with its working-class orientation and hallowed place for union activists, made the same point.

The P.O., however, was loose, decentralized, heterogeneous and unfinished; it was a sincere political tendency, not a disguised faction, and was not designed to compete with the startling degree of homogenization and organizational clout exhibited by the SWP Political Committee.

One small but visible strand within the P.O. opposition was inspired by Larry Trainor (1905-1975) in Boston. Trainor was a classic Old School “Cannonite” who idealized the working class and probably thought that all students, Barnes especially, should “take a bath in the proletariat” to be cleansed of their middle-class backgrounds. Most of the opposition had never seen the legendary Trainor and did not share that view, but three of the four authors of the major P.O. documents emerged under Trainor’s tutelage.

More common with the non-Trainorites among the P.O. adherents was the feeling that a mechanistic formula for campus work was being imposed by a super-centralizing National Office. In the Bay Area, it seemed that SWP and YSA organizers, instead of evolving from local leaders of campus and community-based struggles, were transplanted from the center and constantly on the phone to New York for guidance.

In the Oakland/Berkeley branch the P.O. supporters were mostly young people in their early twenties, including the SWP/YSA activists in the Third World movements, who identified with rebel students throughout the world. Probably unlike Trainor et al, they felt a growing attraction to the French JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth) for its spontaneity and dissenting behavior, and its increasingly aggressive attempts to link up with unions and working-class youth in 1968. Barnes was seen as milking the campuses for whatever they were worth to accumulate newly-radicalized “soldiers” for deployment in his increasingly conformist political machine.

What united the P.O., however, was a belief that class composition was central to a socialist organization and pivotal to recruiting more people of color. The P.O. also imagined that an increased presence in local union struggles would be a counter-weight to the increasing bureaucracy in the New York SWP National Office, ultimately laying the groundwork for socialist participation in the rank-and-file labor rebellions about to come.

We thought that within a few years, by the mid-1970s, the SWP might have the political allegiance of hundreds of experienced, multinational activists in auto, steel, transport, public workers’ unions, AFSCME, and so on, which would create an organization of “real people” (not ex-students masquerading as “worker Bolsheviks”) that would surely be a magnet for outstanding cultural workers and scholars as well.

In the framework of P.O.’s vision, a call to send available cadres into unions was an expansive activity, a way to extend and deepen the SWP’s reach. I see it now as a cobbled blend of traditional Cannonism with the up-and-coming ideas in the USec about a “new mass vanguard.” Barnes, already cultivating the view (perhaps with some help from Farrell Dobbs) of SWP members as troops in his army, could only treat such a proposal as a diversion, an abandonment of a strategy that was providing quick returns on an investment.(22)

 No doubt there were more subtle ways of signing on to Barnes’ perspective, which was endorsed nearly unanimously by the national leadership and ninety per cent of the membership. Some of the written contributions on behalf of the SWP majority were thoughtful and compelling arguments to think creatively. Still, in debates on the branch floor, where passions ran high, P.O. supporters were sometimes called “racist” and “reactionary.”

To us it seemed that Barnes’ followers were combining a dreary version of “Bolshevization” with a hyped-up student orientation. The debate was overwhelmingly bipolar from Day One, both sides holding their positions like fixed bayonets. For novices, joining a political opposition tendency in the SWP was something of a bungee jump. I had no idea that Barnes and others aspiring to take over the leadership from the “Old Guard,” the veterans of the 1930s-50s era, would see the debate as a first class opportunity to hone their skills in knife fighting.

Nor was I aware that the P.O., which never thought in terms of winning a majority but only slowing down the march of the Barnes Group, lacked a strategy to prevent an escalation of the debate to an all-or-nothing crisis. This proved to be decisive as the P.O. let itself be maneuvered into presenting its miscellaneous texts (too many of which were quotations from old books and SWP documents) into a full-fledged counter-resolution, in order to have formal speaking time to defend itself.

Bitter Fruits of Factionalism

Following the convention, Barnes and his circle orchestrated a behind-the-scenes campaign to ostracize the opposition through sleazy organizational practices, including the denial of national committee representation, select removal of dissidents from the YSA, and the flooding of branches with supporters of the majority.

The belief was widespread among the younger members of Barnes’ allies and followers that those who voted in opposition, including Trainor, were a roadblock and dispensable, although several of the Old Guard members in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, privately made gestures of comradeship to individuals in the P.O.

In response to Barnes, a few of the initiators of the P.O. announced themselves a new “Leninist Faction.” Whether they had already been thinking along those ultraleft lines, or were mainly traumatized by Barnes’ capacity to demonize them, was never entirely clear; probably it was a bit of both. In hindsight, however, one can see that class composition was neither the sole cause of the disease starting to infect the SWP nor its automatic cure; a sectarian post-Lenin “Leninist” mentality that several of the P.O. supporters (those who next created “The Class Struggle League” or joined Vanguard Newsletter) shared with Barnes actually made them “Brothers and Sisters Under the Skin.”(23)

There is a tangled web of causes for behavior such as this, and the SWP must be treated a phenomenon of its times. My own “Winter’s Tale” is not a story about cynical leaders, mindless acolytes and innocent oppositionists, at least in the early years. In 1971 all paid the price of polemic, too busy scoring points to hear what others were saying.(24) Nor do I have any use for an “orthodox Trotskyist” theological exegesis that describes the SWP’s expulsion from a political Eden after succumbing to the temptations of programmatic revisionism.

A generous interpretation of what occurred in 1971 is that the SWP’s well-earned success in building the movement against the war in Vietnam was disorienting to its leaders in a predictable fashion. Victories, even very limited ones, have the capacity to beget overreaching ambition. The modest recruitment of student activists produced the hubris that the emerging SWP leadership had figured out a formula to break from its post-1940s isolation, once and for all. Budding leaders, not just Barnes, who was fully supported by the Old Guard, began to believe that the new SWP had wings.

Was There An Alternative?

Yet what ensued over the next decade was not predictable as the result of hubris, inasmuch as an overoptimistic perspective can be corrected with a truly representative and independent-thinking collective leadership. That failure of organizational culture constitutes much of the grounds for further discussion of the meaning of 1971 at this point — not a tedious rehash of why one line was “correct” and the other “incorrect.”

Barnes in particular seemed to think that the Party could be played like a piano: Just pick a political milieu key here and the right recruitment notes come out there. Like the proverbial man with a big hammer, every problem looked like a nail. His view of the SWP membership as the troops of a “Big Red Machine,” to be deployed by SWP generals, was clearly shared by others at the outset, although most eventually fell under its wheels.

The variant of “democratic centralism” that seemed to pay off in mass movement work was increasingly employed within the organization; in contrast to groups such as the LCR (France) and the International Marxist Group (Britain), the SWP Political Committee and National Committed faced the membership as a homogeneous block, and the majority of the SWP took the same approach to political minorities (who were doomed if they didn’t toe an increasingly impossible line).

This worked for a short time, and, even after flying too close to the sun produced repeated meltings, a core group of SWP “hards” continued to stick by its leader. Then the SWP turned to a desperate self-cannibalism to mask palpable failures; in the 1980s and 1990s many of these “hards” were expelled for minor infractions (such as not changing jobs on command) and others retreated from formal membership to a new category of SWP Supporters who gave money in return for periodic reports of inside information.

By 2011, Barnes has supervised this process of relentless shrinkage of membership (to fewer than 100 people) and political credibility (to zero) for 35 years. To read the current Militant is to see how the aging magician has turned the yawning emptiness of the SWP into perfunctory celebrations of imaginary victories. Surely there are fine people still drawn to the SWP, but integration into its subculture renders them mental and emotional prisoners of illusions as lethal as those befalling Shakepeare’s Leontes.

Was there a feasible alternative, a strategy by which the SWP might have retained its moral and political authority, and perhaps survived into the new millennium with a membership, say, the current size of the International Socialist Organization (ISO)?(25) There are too many “ifs” in any post facto scenario to stake a compelling claim on a particular strategy of retrospective redemption, although a proletarian orientation and diversity of views are certainly desirable.

Still, if one wished to defeat the ideas of Barnes in 1971, when the takeover by the Barnes Group was incomplete and radicalization still on the upswing, a better idea was required. Here it must be acknowledged that a major flaw in the P.O. opposition was that its idealization of the older SWP proletarian tradition was backward-looking.

Years later one might smugly point out that the 1960s student radicalization ended shortly after the 1971 convention, but no one predicted that at the time. The P.O. couldn’t provide a satisfactory analysis of how to understand the coming decade, partly because it remained too much in the framework of an outmoded form of politics.(26)

In the meantime, Barnes effectively tapped into a genuine optimism about new opportunities beyond traditional working-class venues in the coming period. The SWPers who supported him, young and old, believed that their future as a leading socialist group was as secure as an investment with Bernie Madoff seemed to be during the 1990s.

And the P.O. had other big problems for which it was unprepared. The Barnes group successfully shifted the grounds of discussion from political ideas to beliefs about one’s “real” motives— the claim that certain individuals were prejudiced against the new manifestations of radicalism, were anti-Party, and echoing political rivals of the SWP. I was personally unfamiliar with the “Trainorites” from Boston; for all I knew, they might have been axe murderers. Suddenly Barnes’ supporters were attributing outrageous oral statements to them, as well as to P.O. supporters in Texas, Cleveland and so on.

In the absence of any apparatus to investigate or double-check such allegations, what should one believe? Should one defend unknown allies on faith? Remain silent in the face of possible slanders? Respond in kind? Even in Oakland/Berkeley, where I had been YSA Organizer and actually lived in the apartment inside the SWP headquarters for a year, it was impossible to know the secret heart of every individual and the precise nature of his or her commitment to the SWP.

If the P.O. perspective won a small foothold of representation in the SWP’s leading committees (which I naively believed to be the norm for a sizable tendency), which members would be willing to uproot themselves from jobs and communities to operate out of a New York office? The more one is demonized by an organization, the less willing one becomes to turn one’s life upside down on its behalf.

Ralph Levitt was prominent from the case of the “Bloomington Three,” YSA members indicted under an anti-Communist law who might have landed in prison. Levitt had political smarts far above the rest of us and was a powerful speaker in the old school — crisp, disciplined and eloquent. But now he was working long hours in mass transit with shifts during many branch meeting times; we saw him less and less.

Bill Massey, employed in a warehouse, was an extraordinary activist, open-minded, and an all-around mensch. Surely Bill would do anything required, but no one saw him as a natural leader to the degree of Levitt, to whom he looked as well. And then there were a growing number of oppositionists in Oakland/Berkeley who seemed born to rant.

Edmond E. DiTullio was a Korean War veteran and one-time professor of Asian History turned bus driver. A self-proclaimed follower of Chinese Trotskyist Peng Shu Tse, Ed saw every motion at a branch meeting as a potential fire on which he might throw gasoline. Eventually Ed joined a microfaction that split. But Ed had a heart of gold and a complete identification with the working class.

Some additional P.O. supporters began to mouth extreme views about the SWP’s “degeneration” with a rage and arrogance that went beyond the logical dynamic of an opposition becoming the mirror image of the more out-of-control Barnes supporters. It gradually became evident that some of the P.O. adherents, including sadly an outstanding veteran auto worker, had developed ties to repellant political rivals of the SWP, such as the Workers League and Spartacist League. This development vindicated the worst accusations of the Majority, that the P.O. was disloyal and ultimately sectarian.(27)

The Man of the Apparatus

Novelist Raymond Chandler, a master of depicting lofty principles mired in the muck of opportunism, observed that “The tragedy of life…is not that the beautiful things die young, but that they grow old and mean.”(28) Whatever he was as an idealistic young radical on the campuses of Carleton and Northwestern, and in the early days of the YSA, Jack Barnes evinced such upsetting changes by age 30.

Unfortunately, this “Man of the Apparatus” remains gray in both Leslie Evans’ and Peter Camejo’s accounts. I have never been able to quite understand his persuasive powers and wish that these two books helped more. One can’t even determine the extent to which Barnes “seized” power, or like Gaius Julius Caesar, had power thrust upon him by those aspiring to escape responsibility (the party Old Guard?).

Evans, who provides many details about Barnes’ behavior, claims perhaps too simplistically that Barnes’ appeal from the outset was because “in politics, [he was] hard, ruthless, and unyielding. That was what attracted us to him….Barnes meant to build a different kind of organization, as hard and mean as himself.”(29)

I can only imagine that such an “attraction” was on the part of individuals fixated on a variant of the Maoist proverb that “A revolution is not a tea party.” Such types may have forsaken the sipping of tea in favor of chugging Barnes’ Homemade Brew, but, without knowing it, they drank from a poisoned chalice.

To what extent was the phenomenon of “Barnesism” due to collective thinking? Was Barnes simply barking orders from the top or was there real give-and-take with several of his Carleton classmates, such as Doug Jenness, Larry Siegel, and Mary-Alice Waters? To what extent were the gifted MIT recruits, Camejo, Barry Sheppard and Gus Horowitz, in the innermost sanctum? Neither memoir tells much about that aspect, although I expect that many individuals were complicit in political and organizational practices now too-readily attributed to Barnes alone.

As for the Old Guard, their time was running out; having either made their choice or accepted their fate, the investment in Barnes was as enormous as it was improvident. First they idealized the Barnes Group to the SWP membership, seeing only the sunny half of the half-truths of its purported achievements; then they adhered to this emotional outlay come what may. Into the late 1970s, Kerry and others defended their faith against contrary evidence by acquiescing in (or in some cases instigating?) the demonization of Barnes’ critics.

In 1971 Barnes lured most of the Old Guard, without a great deal of difficulty, into joining him in a fight against what some of us saw as the best of their own proletarian past. In 1973, he switched his approach and held out a chance for them to embrace a less savory segment of that same history by re-enacting the great 1953 battle against “Pabloism” that was allegedly reborn in the leadership of the USec. This blast-from-the-past was catnip to the Old Guard; none stood outside the grandiosely-named “Leninist-Trotskyist Faction” (LTF).

Only three years after the dissolution of the LTF, Barnes (substituting an ultra-sectarian Castroism for a mildly sectarian Trotskyism) launched his purge of the vast majority of the same Old Guard. This surely constitutes his immortal moment, his Lilliputian place in radical history. There is no need to go into detail as several books from the early 1990s have documented the events.(30) At this point I will channel the late Ed DiTullio by indulging in a two-sentence rant of my own:

How could the SWP Political Committee expel George and Dorothea Breitman, George Weissman, Frank and Sarah Lovell, James Kutcher, Nat and Sylvia Weinstein, Jean Tussey, Asher and Ruth Harer, and so many more? Barnes’ treatment of these women and men, who had devoted their lives to building the SWP that he hijacked, can only be compared to a hyena ripping to pieces an ensnared but living antelope.

The Uses of Autobiography

Evans and Camejo communicate some of the dynamics leading to this outrage, but there is an inestimable difference in the quality of the two books. Evans mostly displays fabulous literary gifts. Already in his days in the SWP, he had the skill to make a case in an unruffled and well thought-out fashion; the capacity to give the other side its due; and the ability to steer clear of heated prose and derision while making a contentious claim.

His greatest contribution in Outsider’s Reverie is that he places several of the pivotal thinkers (Hansen, Novack, Breitman) in their historical and institutional contexts, portraying them as warm-blooded personalities and not just the suppliers of ideas. Evans displays astonishing powers of observation that can be withering, but he is usually magnanimous. Small points of detail are worked in with relentless clarity. His reminiscences of editing the International Socialist Review (not to be confused with the ISO’s magazine today) after 1971 are a treat to read.

Camejo’s posthumous North Star was written during a fatal illness and is thus painful to criticize. He was working on the next-to-last chapter on September 12, 2008, and died of lymphoma on the 13th. But Camejo leaves on the cutting-room floor far too much of both SWP history and his personal life, surely more lively than reported here. What comes through are Peter’s humanity and priceless anecdotes, such as his report of “The Battle of Telegraph Avenue” in Berkeley from June 1968.

It’s sad that he has only five words to say about his Boston comrade Larry Trainor (“a printer of Irish descent”) and misspells the name as “Trainer.”(31) He barely mentions Trotsky, and James P. Cannon is absent from the index. Camejo never refers to the Fair Play for Cuba Committee or the defense of the Black militant Robert F. Williams. I had thought that Camejo’s political ideas emerged from a significant cross-fertilization with an Australian leader of the Democratic Socialist Party, and hoped to learn more, but the DSP’s historic leading figure Jim Percy is referenced only in a footnote.

Memory, we all know, plays strange tricks, more than ever when performing in public. Camejo’s only comment on the political contributions of Belgian USec leader Ernest Mandel is the absurd claim that Mandel supported the disruptive antics of Argentinian Nahuel Moreno (a longtime SWP ally) in Nicaragua.(32) This obscures one of the great ironies in the battle between the USec and the SWP.

The USec majority, led by Mandel, adapted to the ultraleftism of the Cuban Revolution in the years when there was hope of a heresy from Stalinism; then, after being bombarded with unyielding condemnation by the SWP’s Joseph Hansen, the USec carried out a self-criticism of past positions in 1976. As soon as Hansen died in 1979, Barnes (and Camejo) openly reversed gears and adapted utterly to the Fidelismo that had been hammered by U.S. imperialism into a grim (and probably doomed) one-party dictatorship. “Correct” programs, it turns out, guarantee nothing when advocated by a monolithic apparatus.

In “Some Notes on Salvadore Dali,” George Orwell writes: “An autobiography is only to be trusted when it reveals something disgraceful. A man who gives a good account of himself is probably lying, since any life, when viewed from the inside is simply a series of defeats.”(33)

This seems too much to ask of any autobiographer, nor would sensational confessions regarding “The Secret Life of the SWP” be of value. Nevertheless, organizational culture requires a critical scrutiny. Until the dynamics of the kind of process that transformed the SWP are dissected in a convincing manner, efforts to build militant socialist organizations will continue to go nowhere on a political hamster wheel.

It is also unlikely that either Evans nor Camejo will be endorsed by other SWP veteran leaders (or members) as spokespersons of their own experiences, and some people mentioned in passing will no doubt find fault with what is said about them. Neither of these books presents documentation, in the sense of footnotes providing sources that can be checked. At the same time, both volumes have a signal virtue in comparison to writings by jaded ex-radicals who mock the idealism of their younger selves. Neither Evans nor Camejo write with a sneering condescension about their earlier decades of activism.

How Things Worked

Political commentators like to think of “Trotskyism” as a noun but it functions more like a verb, which is why so much of what one reads in mainstream publications on the subject is nonsensical. Even a specific political organization like the SWP must be defined as the sum total of the thousands of separate trajectories that comprise membership from the 1960s to the early 1980s.

Personally, my empathy was lost when both Evans and Camejo explained their most powerful ties to Trotskyism through references to the assassinated, murdered and martyred.(34) I recruited and helped to educate many individuals from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s, but I would have been doubtful of the sanity of any potential enrollee who saw martyrdom as the main attraction. The SWPers I knew found their socialist desire encapsulated in images of working people confidently marching into the future; for example, in Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo’s painting “The Fourth Estate” (1901), depicting striking workers moving toward the light.(35)

This question of “how things worked” in the SWP becomes especially vexing in regard to the expulsion of Camejo. Camejo was not known as an oppositionist to Barnes on any important political matter, but definitely represented a layer who wanted to leave the office for the streets and was closer to the looser spirit of the 1960s.

On occasion he made heretical comments, possibly even a short-lived call for an all-women’s political party. Peter’s humor oversimplified but was effective in large audiences: “Want to know what social class you’re in? Simple. Take a six-month vacation in resorts in the Carribean and pay with a check. If the check bounces, you’re a member of the working class.”(36) Yet Camejo’s connection to the more strait-laced Barnes Group put at his disposal an organization to which he could recruit and that afforded occasional muscle to get things done.

North Star is just too murky about the details leading to Camejo’s own exclusion from the SWP. Apparently there was a division among SWP members in regard to a Chicano conference on immigration in 1977, and Barnes, allegedly backed by Camejo’s old friends Sheppard and Horowitz, counterpoised Olga Rodriguez to Camejo to undermine his influence. Then, in 1980, following a period of time living in Nicargua and working in the New York garment industry, Camejo requested a leave of absence from this same  Rodriguez who, with Barnes’ complicity, submitted a false written document announcing Camejo’s resignation.

To get away with expelling Camejo, Barnes had to have exceptional authority so that his version of the facts would be accepted. Everyone knew Camejo and he was always approachable; one would think that many of his friends would at least phone him up and urge his return, and then be shocked to learn his version of events. After all, if Camejo could be ejected from membership in this fashion, anyone might be next. Yet there was no protest inside the SWP around Camejo’s expulsion, no evidence of curiosity about the event among his political collaborators of decades.

How was it possible to remain conveniently ignorant when the fact that Camejo was booted from the SWP was staring one in the face? Perhaps Camejo actively discouraged the needed curiosity when it might have made a difference. In North Star he reports that he regarded Barnes’ 1979 proposal for an industrial turn as “ultraleft” and “workerist” but voted for it partly “because I knew that if I were to vote against such a resolution there would be a campaign against me and an attempt to isolate me from the membership.”(37)

Did Camejo know the futility of dissent because he himself had participated in such campaigns against others who dissented earlier — going back to 1971? If so, it would have been pointless to raise a stink about his treatment, and he may not have actually wanted to get back in.

Building a Wall

One recalls that in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful World of Oz (1900), the Emerald City was green only for the reason that everyone in it had to put on tinted glasses. In the SWP, what had been required was not glasses but the building of a wall around Barnes, a barricade of compliant and deluded men and women who would raise no public questions and who would face the ranks of the SWP with uniform assent.

Evans reports the following statement by Barnes supporter Ken Shilman in 1981: “There’s a party within the party….The real party is in the inner core, who understand the centrality of the Cuban revolution and the anti-imperialist struggle.”(38) This suggests that the inner core, the party within the party, went back at least to the near-mystical switch in the assessment of Cuban Communism in 1979; but its origins are surely much earlier, and its structure and dynamics remain opaque.

It would be educative to have a thorough account that reveals how the wall around Barnes, the “real” party, was built; the creation of the source of trust mediating between the innermost group and the membership. As a new member, one subordinates oneself willingly to participants in the inner circle because one assumes their motives are the same, not imagining that other compulsions are at work in the decision-making process. But then it appears as if there might be an inner circle to the inner circle, each one smaller and more fiercely loyal to Barnes.

It also seems that by pledging fidelity to the “real” party some SWP leaders acquired a sense of entitlement; to go off the National Committee meant losing privileges. It was hard to make adjustment to being a regular member, and a remarkable number of individuals dropped out after demotion.

In reading about religious organizations and businesses, one learns that being an “insider” presents psychological perks that boost self-esteem due to special status. This sometimes affords sexual opportunities due to the “aphrodisiac” of perceived power and the extra openings for pursuit due to travel and fulltime work in the milieu of appreciative people.

If this was so in the SWP, we get none of that in the two memoirs. But perhaps a greater perk was that the SWP “elect” could play the role, in their imaginative lives, of steeled Bolshevik agitators, immune to and scornful of conventional behavior (families, long-term work and union obligations, and strong roots in communities were all discouraged), which offers its own satisfaction. Anyone past adolescence knows that seemingly “selfless” acts can be a mask for selfishness. These are just a few of the aspects of internal political culture that are very difficult to discuss, and probably unpleasant for any former SWP leader to confront. Sunlight, however, is the best disinfectant.

And what about factionalism, seemingly an indelible part of politics? What we may learn from these memoirs is that mature political activists, above all those leading organizations, should try to limit rather than exploit factionalism; the true forté of the Barnes Group was skill at taking advantage of a factional mentality, not political genius.

Every debater uses the technique of seizing upon quotations, distorting and overemphasizing what was really meant, with the object of bashing the other side to make a political point. Then there is the common use of “horror stories” about individuals; when the first information one receives about another member from a trusted source is that he or she is a “party wrecker,” “cadre killer,” “against the mass movements,” or “against the turn,” the means by which one processes all of that person’s subsequent behavior is tainted. If one can successfully attach a label (such as “petty-bourgeois”) to a person’s name, one might change the feeling of the membership toward him or her forever. (Radicals often joke about comrades who believed for years that “Renegade” was the literal first name of German socialist Karl Kautsy.)(39)

What happened in 1971, 1973, and 1978-83, the years covered by Evans and Camejo, is more specific than the above. The Barnes Group indulged in the conscious cultivation of the worst factional habits from the past of the SWP and the Marxist Left in general, with individuals in all tendencies and factions becoming tainted. Political differences were explained by the claim that an opponent’s political ideas in reality expressed an adaption to petty-bourgeois forces (which included the trade union bureaucracy and ultra-leftists) or even bourgeois pressure. One pre-interpreted an opposition’s political position by putting an unsavory label on it borrowed from Leninist and Trotskyist history — Shachtmanite, Abernite, “economist.”

In the case of Barnes, the simplistic idea that “political line” trumps all became a mechanism for subordination to the leader and his increasingly smaller inner circle. Signs of disagreement were taken as an incitement to splitting the party or at least disrupting urgent tasks. Those anxious to ingratiate themselves with leaders offered off-the-rack refutations of threatening points of view, many of which came directly from the SWP press, pamphlets, or leaders; one was never quite sure if the person defending (or opposing) the “line” with Marxist-Leninist citations had read any primary sources.

Perhaps the most extravagant belief that Barnes appropriated from the SWP (and no doubt Communist Party) past was the notion that wavering was a trait of middle-class intellectuals, while certainty was the stance of he-man proletarians. Somehow, with no connection to the working class but aided by the support of Dobbs, Barnes quickly acquired a mystique of proletarian authority through his absolutism, yet another element of the process requiring further explanation.

This appeal to proletarian authority may have had a special impact on the SWP members, not only because of the magnitude to SWP internal culture of the 1939-40 split between Cannon and the alleged “petty-bourgeois opposition” of Max Shachtman and James Burnham,(40) but also because so many joining the YSA and SWP aspired to cast off middle and even upper-class backgrounds.

Questions for Socialist Activists

Many aspects of the SWP experience raise questions for members of all socialist groups that require disciplined behavior to realize objectives, rely on guiding personalities to lead over the decades, and sometimes use centralized modes. The SWP is not unusual in that its written record combines much ideological certitude, indefensible today, along with plausible hypotheses, analyses and projections.

Faced with such a mixture in the socialist tradition, are Marxist politics going to be along the lines of a religious truth, involving the surrender to self-assured authority as a leap into the arms of faith; or to a scientific truth, supposedly provable to reason, with results confirmed by experiment or calculation? If we are to learn anything at all from our socialist predecessors — of all tendencies and factions — it is that ceaseless inner conflict, not certainty, is the fate of the revolutionary internationalist who seeks to advance theory and practice in the 21st century.

Some questions are beyond my ability to completely answer at this stage. Was the SWP an organization from which one can take what one wants, leaving the rest? Can anything from the SWP be retrofitted for yet a third chance or must it simply be remaindered (the conclusion of Camejo and Evans)?

There is also an ultimate question that must be periodically revisited. We still live in a culture where socialism is not part of the national dialogue, and many admirable veterans of the 1960s-1970s Far Left have adjusted their horizons to merely revitalizing social democracy, which to be sure would be a vast improvement over the present. Could our 1960s-70s bid for revolutionary internationalism have been merely a benign fantasy?

In answer to this, I can only ask Against the Current readers to look around the world, or at least at the economic catastrophe for the working people of the United States and the explosive yearning for the democracy in the Middle East. Some of us can still see Marx’s Old Mole hard at work.

In conclusion, one should remember that Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale has a happy ending. It is a play far more about self-delusion than manipulation; redemption comes through the acknowledgment of fallibility and complicity. But it’s rough going for Leontes, who fell under a central delusion years earlier that caused him to interpret so many subsequent events incorrectly. Even the Oracle of the Island of Delphos could not convince him that he was wrong. Only with the death of his son and wife does Leontes come to his senses.

One would hope that such dire events are not required before veterans of the SWP and similar organizations come to their own senses and recover elements that can still be a usable past. There is nothing discreditable in such acknowledgement. To join the SWP was to become a person with a mission, to become part of a special group of men and women who, against all odds, wanted to change society for the better; one felt a bit more in control of the universe. But that sense of purposefulness can detach itself from infatuation with a particular organization and individuals (no doubt idealized) to become the consequence of a more thoughtful understanding of history and existential meaning.

Marcel Proust put it just right in Within a Budding Grove (1919), Volume II of Remembrance of Things Past: “We don’t receive wisdom, we must discover it ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us."

Notes

  1. The SWP in the United States should not be confused with the Socialist Workers Party in Britain, far better known today. The latter dates back to a group organized in 1950 around the “state capitalist” theoretician and activist Tony Cliff, taking its current name around 1975.
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  2. This was the view of James P. Cannon, as documented in Don’t Strangle the Party (New York: Fourth Internationalist Tendency, 1986).
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  3. Both books are readily available through Amazon: Leslie Evans, Outsider’s Reverie: A Memoir (Los Angeles: Boryana Books, 2009), 438 pages, $18.95 paperback, and Peter Camejo, North Star: A Memoir (Chicago: Haymarket, 2010), 364 pages, $18 paperback.
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  4. Whether Mark Twain actually coined this phrase so often attributed to him is uncertain.
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  5. There are now several websites that include information of this type: http://www.marxmail.org/ and http://groups.yahoo.com/group/swp_usa.
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  6. The condo sale story appeared in the 10 July 2007 New York Observer, available on-line at: http://www.observer.com/2007/communists-capitalize-village-sale-get-1-87-m-loft. The story does not provide details about the fate of the money.
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  7. The book was reviewed on the Solidarity blog by Dianne Feeley: http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/2145.
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  8. “Square Target of the FBI” by Walter and Miriam Schneir, available at: http://www.thenation.com/authors/miriam-schneir.
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  9. This was published under the names Leon Trotsky and André Breton in 1938, and can be found at: http://www.generation-online.org/c/fcsurrealism1.htm. The document, stating that a revolutionary society should from the outset support “an anarchist regime of individual liberty” for intellectual and artistic work, is an example of how Trotskyism in the 1930s stood for genuine workers’ democracy, despite violations of such democracy in practice in the Civil War era by Lenin and Trotsky.
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  10. See the authoritative first volume of Cannon’s biography by Bryan Palmer, James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928 (Paperback edition, 2010).
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  11. The 1938 document is available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm.
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  12. Paul Le Blanc’s review essay for Labor Standard can be found at: http://www.laborstandard.org/New_Postings/Camejo_Evans_Review.htm.
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  13. For other perspectives and details that go beyond the focus of “A Winter’s Tale,” see also: A review by Joe Aucielo in Socialist Action: http://www.socialistaction.org/auciello50.htm; two reviews by Louis Proyect: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/north-star-a-tribute-to-peter-camejo/http://www.swans.com/library/art16/lproy59.html; and a review by Barry Sheppard: http://links.org.au/node/1783.
  14. On the current discussion about Lenin’s view of a revolutionary party, see the excellent review essay by Charles Post, “Party and Classes in Revolutionary Crises,” in the January-February 2011 issue of Against the Current, available at: http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/3119. A frequent commentator on new (and old) debates about the Leninist party is Louis Proyect; see the articles on his homepage: http://louisproyect.wordpress.com/. Paul Le Blanc is the author of several books and articles on the subject; see: http://paulleblanc.laroche.edu/.
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  15. See Ernest Mandel, The Meaning of the Second World War (London: Verso, 1986).
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  16. The policy was cogently defended by James P. Cannon in Socialism on Trial (1942), available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1941/socialism/index.htm.
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  17. J. Meyer [C. L. R. James], “The Revolutionary Answer to the Negro Problem,” report delivered to the thirteenth convention of the SWP in July 1948, available at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/james-clr/works/1948/07/meyer.htm.
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  18. The part played by the SWP in the antiwar movement has yet to be acknowledged by historians. Fortunately, Fred Halstead wrote a crucial work devoted to it, Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the Movement Against the Vietnam War (1978), and Barry Sheppard reviews the SWP record in The Party: Volume I (2005).
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  19. Pablo, a pseudonym for the Greek Trotskyist Michals N. Raptis, advocated long-term entryism in Communist and social democratic parties, as well as democratic centralism from above in the Fourth International.
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  20. See George Novack, Understanding History (New York: Pathfinder Press, Third Edition, 1980).
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  21. Personal disclosure: In early 1968 I left SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) to join the Antioch College chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance, and in September 1969 I joined the Oakland/Berkeley branch of the SWP. New Left Review, then as now, served as a beacon.
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  22. Every political document by an experienced author contains escape clauses, but the main line in this new thinking is clear in the material collected in Jack Barnes et al, Towards an American Socialist Revolution: A Strategy for the 1970s (New York: Pathfinder, 1971).
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  23. But he was also seeking total control by limiting activities to the one area, campus activism, where he had the most influence. See the following statement by Barnes: “…the party has to be politically homogeneous. It has to be a party with one program, a party that is active and disciplined. The party is politically homogeneous in two ways: first, through its program, which is the revolutionary politics of a party expressing the historical interests of the working class; second, there is the homogeneity that comes from common political experiences. Common experience over a certain period of time, common collective experience in struggle, is part of what makes a combat party homogeneous” (Barnes et al, Towards an American Socialist Revolution: A Strategy for the 1970s, 124). This may sound logical for a “combat party,” but turned out to be a formula for transforming independent-minded members into troops to be commanded by self-inflated generals.
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  24. I came to that conclusion not long after the experience, expressing it in a now obscure paper, unsigned and circulated in photocopy, around 1983, called “Fatalism Versus Critical Consciousness.” In later years, two of the P.O. leaders emerged as a talented musician and writer. Barnes’ supporters scattered in all directions, one long-time adherent eventually becoming a Tea Party leader. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Beren.
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  25. This is especially the case for the P.O. in regard to the ideas of George Breitman on “The Current Radicalization Compared with the Past,” some of which appear in Barnes et al, Towards an American Socialist Revolution, 83-105. Breitman made a number of erroneous projections, but was sincerely trying to grapple with a novel situation that merited an informed and respectful exchange; instead, he was regarded by the P.O. leadership as providing the rationale for Barnes’ adaptation to the late 1960s conjuncture.
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  26. Founded in 1977 as a split from the International Socialists, the ISO implemented a student orientation in the 1980s and grew substantially in the 1990s to become the largest Far Left socialist group in the United States, with roughly 1,000 members.
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  27. The P.O. documents mostly make for dull reading today. Although its proposals are milder than one might expect in regard to the emphasis on industrial colonization, they are also embarrassing in regard to obliviousness about the growing role of issues such as homophobia and heteronormativity, not to mention technology, environment, nationalism, religion, and so forth, in the coming decades.
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  28. None, so far as I know, were FBI and police agents; these universally lined up with the Barnes Group.The most notorious was Ed Heisler, a Barnes lieutenant. Years later the SWP’s newspaper The Militant would falsely accuse oppositionist Hedda Garza with being an FBI informant.
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  29. Raymond Chandler, The Long Goodbye (New York: Vintage, 1988), 329.
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  30. Evans, Outsider’s Reverie, 143.
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  31. See Paul Le Blanc, ed., In Defense of American Trotskyism: Rebuilding the Revolutionary Party (New York: Fourth Internationalist Tendency, 1990), and Sarah Lovell, ed., In Defense of American Trotskyism: The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party, 1979-1983 (New York: Fourth Internationalist Tendency, 1992).
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  32. Camejo, North Star, 27.
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  33. Ibid., 167.
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  34. George Orwell, As I Please (New York: David R. Godine, 2000), 156.
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  35. Evans, Outsider’s Reverie, 313; Camejo, North Star, 115.
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  36. The painting is featured in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film “1900.”
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  37. This quip was recalled in an article about various memories of Camejo: http://links.org.au/node/639.
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  38. Camejo, North Star, 174.
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  39. Evans, Outsider’s Reverie, 282.
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  40. Lenin wrote a famous polemic in 1918, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.
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  41. See James P. Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1943).
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July/August 201, ATC 153

 

* * * *

A reply to Alan Wald by Barry Sheppard

In the July/August issue of Against the Current there is an article by Alan Wald titled “SWP Memories, A Winter’s Tale.” The article purports to be a review of Peter Camejo’s memoir North Star and a book by Leslie Evans, Outsider’s Reverie. But it is not a review of either, except in the most superficial sense.

ATC has yet to review Peter Camejo’s important memoir. It should do so, but I for one am not holding my breath awaiting such a real review. This is because the main editors of ATC hate the SWP of “The Sixties,” while Camejo embraces it. I did write a review of Peter’s book, and am appending it below. Evan’s book is not worth reviewing, as it is full of errors and arguments to buttress his conversion to an opponent of Marxism and an adherent of mysticism and Zionism.

The thrust of Wald’s article is to present his view of what went wrong with the SWP. I welcome his contribution and hope that others will also present their views on this important topic. My own views are contained in my political memoir about my time in the SWP, from 1960 through 1988. The first volume of my memoir covers the period of 1960-1973, “The Sixties,” and has been published. My second volume will cover 1973 through 1988 and will be published this autumn.

Here I only want to take up a central theme in Wald’s article, his largely positive view of a small minority that developed in the SWP in 1971, called the Proletarian Orientation Tendency. This tendency arose in opposition to the SWP majority’s position that the social movements of “The Sixties” – including the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, the student movement, Black and Chicano nationalism, the women’s and gay movements and so forth were not “petty bourgeois” diversions from the struggle of the working class, but were part of the workers’ struggle which the workers’ movement and parties should champion. The majority’s views were codified in a resolution that was adopted by the SWP at its 1971 convention.

The minority presented its views in opposition to the majority’s in its resolution, “For a Proletarian Orientation,” which was soundly rejected by the SWP convention after a long and voluminous discussion both written and oral in the SWP branches.

Wald is light on presenting the POT position. He doesn’t discuss the main points of the POT resolution. I will do so here.

“For a Proletarian Orientation” spends three pages attacking Ernest Mandel’s important work in the 1950s and 1960s analyzing the big changes that took place in the composition of the working class internationally. It attacks the SWP for adopting Mandel’s analysis, a charge that was accurate. We did support Mandel’s analysis, as did the great majority of the Fourth International, but not Alan Wald and the POT he was part of.

The FAPO attack on Mandel is too long to quote here, but a few excerpts will give a feel for it:

“However, in the last several years Ernest Mandel has developed a theory which challenges these basic Marxist definitions [of the working class]. And the SWP leadership has neither criticized Mandel’s assertions nor analyzed the implications have for the strategy of the revolutionary party. In fact, our party has been following the logic of Mandel’s position without admitting it.”

As I’ve said, we did admit it.

“It is the implications of his analysis with regard to party strategy that Mandel fails to discuss, yet it is these implications that are the most dangerous part of his analysis. The logic of his position is clear. First, of his new ‘producers of surplus value’ – ‘laboratory assistants, scientific researchers, inventors, technologists, planners, project engineers, draftsmen, etc.,’ he asserts: ‘[They] can only enhance the impact of the working class and revolutionary organizations because they equip them with the knowledge that is indispensable for a relentless critique of bourgeois society, and even more for the successful taking over the means of production by the associated producers…’. Mandel is siding with the crassest anti-working-class petty bourgeois hacks who maintain that the workers are incapable of running the economy.”

“Mandel has an even softer spot for in his heart for the intelligencia-to-be, the students. He tells us that ‘…the student revolt can become a real vanguard of the working class as a whole, triggering a powerful revolutionary upsurge as it did this May [1968] in France.’ “ I note that all the POT leaders came from the student movement.

Having demolished Mandel, and revised the facts of what occurred in the greatest general strike in history up to then in France in 1968, the intrepid authors of FAPO turned their powerful minds to the charge that the SWP turned its back on the working class beginning in 1957.

They have long quotes from the struggle in 1953 which resulted in a major split in the SWP. At that time the leaders of the minority in the SWP included Bert Cochran and Mike Bartell (Milt Zaslow).

Their resolution states, under the headline “The SWP and the Tactical Turn, 1957-64” the following:

“As we have shown, the party majority fought the Cochran-Bartell ‘greener pastures’ scheme in 1953. Yet in the period from 1957-64, the SWP eventually came to accept the Bartell position on ’greener pastures’ without open acknowledgement of it….The period from 1957 to 1959 was called the ‘regroupment period.’ During these years the party’s main public activity was working with CPers, ex-CPers, and Bartell. This work centered around running a ‘united socialist election campaign’ to oppose the capitalist parties. In doing this the party hoped to attract and recruit ex-CPers and their fellow travelers who were shaken by the 20th Congress revelations [by then Soviet premier Khrushchev of Stalin’s crimes].

“Immediately after the Khrushchev revelations came the civil rights movement, the Cuban revolution, the anti-HUAC demonstrations, the Student Peace Unions, and so on. All of these presented the party with opportunities to intervene, propagandize, and recruit. All of these social movements, because they were mainly petty bourgeois in composition, led the party deeper and deeper into a petty bourgeois milieu.”

I’m not here going to refute FAPO, but I just can’t help noting that the millions of African Americans who were mobilized in the fight to abolish Jim Crow, these Black workers and sharecroppers, are dismissed as “petty bourgeois”! As are the largely working class ex-members of the CP.

Under the headline, “The SWP and Greener Pastures, 1965-71” our FAPO leaders, themselves fresh from the student movement, write, “By 1965, the party leadership no longer considered our basic task to be rooting ourselves in the working class….Instead, we were told, are told now, that the recruitment of students is the building of a bridge to the working class.” They quote, disapprovingly, of the SWP’s political resolution adopted in 1965, which stated that “Because of the exceptional opportunities [read ‘greener pastures’] open to us in the student movement a top priority must be given to this sphere of work.” The insert in brackets was by the FAPO authors.

They attack the student movement and anti-Vietnam-war movement as “petty bourgeois,” as well as the independent women’s movement. They leave out that these movements were objectively on the side of the world working class.

Who drafted this SWP resolution in 1965? Why none other than that famous petty bourgeois Farrell Dobbs! Dobbs is the real target of FAPO. Dobbs became the SWP National Secretary in 1953, and the party soon after began to go to hell according to FAPO. Wald leaves the impression that the POT’s main targets were Jack Barnes, myself, Mary-Alice Waters, Betsy Stone, Peter Camejo, Gus Horowitz, Caroline Lund, Doug Jenness, etc. etc. But the POT implied it was Farrell and the other leaders in 1957, which included James P. Cannon, Tom Kerry, Joe Hanson, Myra and Murry Weiss, and many other famous petty bourgeois who first led the SWP astray. We younger ones (who joined in 1959 and later) just took over where they left off on the road to perdition.

FAPO also takes to task Joe Hansen, George Breitman, Frank Lovell and others because they pointed to the opportunities among youth. It also attacks the SWP’s support of Black and Chicano nationalism, and an independent women’s movement. The only real work in support of Blacks, Chicanos and women is only in and through the trade unions, FAPO asserts. In one of the ironies of history, Jack Barnes in the 1980s adopted this same position, a fact I document in my second volume.

FAPO represented a current in the student movement at the time, especially the national leaders of the disintegrating Students for a Democratic Society, which rejected the social movements of “The Sixties” in favor of a crude “Marxism” that looked only to the struggles of the workers “at the point pf production.” To project it as a possible savior of the SWP is ridiculous.

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