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Who or what killed the US SWP?

Barry Sheppard (right, holding banner pole with Sylvia Weinstein) at an anti-war march in New York in 1966.
The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume I: The Sixties, a Political Memoir by Barry Sheppard, Resistance Books (Sydney), 2005, 354 pages.

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

[For more discussion of the US SWP, click HERE.]

Review by Peter Boyle

May 16, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- In the 1960s and 1970s, the US Socialist Workers Party was one of the most promising socialist organisations in any imperialist country. It had survived the conservatism and isolation of the 1950s to play a significant role in building many progressive movements, particularly the fight against the Vietnam war.

And yet, beginning in the 1980s the SWP degenerated, shrinking from several thousand active and engaged members to a tiny cult-like sect with no involvement in any real struggles.

So, like many others who were significantly politically influenced by the SWP, I have looked forward to the second volume of Barry Sheppard’s political memoir of his experiences as a central leader of that party from 1960 to 1988.

His first volume covered 1960-1973, the period when the SWP emerged from isolation to play a key role in the mass radicalisation of those years. The second continues the account if the SWP’s political interventions and describes and tries to explain the party’s degeneration. It is a valuable contribution towards an explanation of what happened, but in my view more remains to be said, from different perspectives.

Three causes

Barry proposes three main reasons for the degeneration of the SWP:

1. The “long period without a new radicalisation” since the end of the 1970s. This period of class retreat “weighed down on all socialist organisations, including the SWP,” Barry argues. “It would have been tough sledding for the party even with the best leadership.”

2. The SWP’s 1981 abandonment of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which Barry calls “a fundamental aspect of our program”. This, he argues, was part of an “blatantly opportunistic” attempt to link up with the leaderships of the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions. He argues that the programmatic revision required an assault on the party’s democratic norms to silence those who disagreed, and it also led to the SWP’s increasing abstention from mass movements.

3. The rise of a leadership cult around SWP national secretary Jack Barnes in the mid-1970s was the “fundamental cause of this degeneration” and it would be “naive to think that the membership itself could resist this juggernaut”. It could only have been stopped by the Political Committee. Barry, a member of that committee, says he first realised in 1978 that a leadership cult was developing around Barnes, but did not act out of fear of being expelled from the party and ostracised. He apologises for his role in supporting Barnes in the political purges that devastated the SWP in the 1980s.

My main argument is that Barry has incorrectly rejected the SWP’s positive break from Trotskyism, and failed to see the importance of its later retreat from this positive outward motion to inwardness, idealism and programmatic fetishism – entrenched by systematic abstention from the actual class struggle.


Life after the 'Sixties'

Many political memoirs of people who radicalised in the West in “the Sixties” look at its passing with a sense of nostalgia, regret and failure. Nothing since then lives up to their memory of those times of hope and revolutionary expectations. Radical politics since the 1980s seems like one long miserable slog.

The retreats in the face of the global capitalist neoliberal offensive are real, and I understand the emotional response, but I don’t share their generational disappointment.

The past three and a half decades have been difficult, but the era of war and revolutions didn’t end in the seventies. There were revolutionary upsurges in Nicaragua, Iran and Grenada in 1979, and later in Venezuela and Bolivia. The capitalist triumphalism

after the fall of the Soviet Union and the bureaucratic regimes in Eastern Europe proved short-lived. We’ve seen movements against capitalist globalisation, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and climate change, the growing response to the global economic crisis, the Occupy movement, and the Arab Spring.

There has been more than enough political work to do in these “slow years” and new generations have come into struggle. Even in the most difficult times there are opportunities for engagement and chances to win new working-class militants to socialist movement.

The SWP degenerated in this period, but other socialist currents in the US and elsewhere have avoided its errors and have grown in political understanding and effectiveness.

SWP and the DSP

I joined the youth group associated with the Australian Socialist Workers Party (later renamed the Democratic Socialist Party, referred from now on as the DSP) in 1974. I remember one of the Australian veterans of “the Sixties” saying that he expected a

world revolution within the next 10 years. I thought, “He’s hopeful.” I could already see once-radical student leaders putting on suits and ties. And while there were large demonstrations around various issues, the various social movements all seemed to be led by the same core of activists like me, moving from one meeting to the next.

But I threw myself wholeheartedly into building the socialist movement through the DSP, mainly on the basis that it appeared the most engaged and serious of the left groups I had come across.

The DSP was strongly influenced by the US SWP in the 1970s and early 1980s. Barry Sheppard was the first leader of the SWP to visit Australia in 1969 and by all accounts he gave good and encouraging advice, but avoided telling us what to do. In volume 1 of his memoir, Barry says that some comrades in Australia asked him to intervene in an internal debate about whether they should to start building a revolutionary party along the lines of the US SWP in Australia. He declined:

I explained that experience had made the SWP very wary of jumping into internal disputes among groups in other countries. They were disappointed, but knew I agreed with them on the necessity of building a party in Australia.

Through the 1970s, SWP leaders often visited Australia, and DSP attended conferences and political schools in the US. We generally got along, although there was a cultural gap: the SWP leaders thought we were too informal and hippie-ish, while we felt they acted superior and dressed like Mormons!

We also became members of the internal faction that SWP led in the Fourth International (FI). The faction officially dissolved in 1979, but factional attitudes and activity unfortunately continued. In Barry’s second volume he cites several examples of this continuing factionalism which he witnessed in his international assignment in the late 1970s to the FI’s United Secretariat based in Paris.

The US SWP leader who made the biggest impression on us was Peter Camejo, who visited us both when he was in the SWP and after he was kicked out – a development that Barry describes in his book. Camejo encouraged us to see Marxism not as a dogma but as a broad guide to understanding the dynamics of capitalism and a tool for action to change the system. That approach deeply influenced the evolution of the DSP’s thinking.

Political life in the DSP in the 1970s and early 1980s was strongly influenced by the US SWP. Every new issue of the SWP internal bulletin tended to spark the same debates and controversies in the Australia. For example, in his second volume, Barry mentions the big fuss about “exclusive social functions” and the fact that some comrades were expelled from the SWP for this “crime”. A similar controversy occurred in the DSP, but no one was expelled.

Over time, we found the SWP was moving away from giving friendly advice, and increasingly issuing what seemed like papal edicts. So in the mid-1980s, we broke free, rejecting its attempts to treat us as a satellite and to foster a secret faction in our organisation.

At the same time, we began our break from the sectarian heritage of the Trotskyist movement. We made a serious effort to learn from the real revolutionary leaderships that were emerging around the world, and we rejected the claim of many Trotskyists that only they were “real revolutionaries” and “real Marxists”. We came to understand that many parties that had actually led revolutions regarded Trotskyists as ultraleft and sectarian – and that was an accurate assessment of the Trotskyist groups they had experience with.

In a report adopted by the DSP National Committee in October 1984, national secretary Jim Percy summarised our evaluation of Trotskyism. In the past, he said, we had argued the followers of Juan Posada, Gerry Healy, Pierre Lambert and Nahuel Moreno weren’t the “real” Trotskyists but sectarian aberrations from “genuine” Trotskyism.

But here we have a big problem: The overwhelming majority of those in the world today who regard themselves as Trotskyists are not among those we have regarded as the "real" Trotskyists; they are not members of the Fourth International.

And the Trotskyists outside the Fourth International regard those in it in the same way — as "fake" Trotskyists. Considerable time has and is spent by all these people debating who are the "real" Trotskyists, fighting over who are the "real" political heirs of Trotsky, and denouncing other Trotskyists as "revisionists", "betrayers" etc.

An extraplanetary observer, looking at this phenomenon from outside, totally objectively, would think there’s something wrong with the bunch as a whole, would think that something bad has happened with this lot.

We concluded that the Trotskyist movement, which didn’t have a mass base anywhere, was left with only its distinct program to justify its existence. And because of this, it developed a strong tendency to spend a lot of time in an endless elaboration of the written program. We called this “programmatic fetishism.”

Of course this isn’t only a Trotskyist problem: many Maoist groups have similar problems. But our criticism targeted the problems in our own heritage. In 1985 we left the Fourth International but we continued to collaborate with groups and individuals in the FI on a respectful bilateral basis, as we do with a much wider range of left parties around the world. This is an approach that works much better to advance the socialist movement today.

In the United States, from a somewhat different starting point, the SWP leadership was also moving away from the narrow Trotskyist tradition. In my opinion that was a natural development of the SWP’s strong engagement in struggle in the 1960s and 1970s, and a positive attempt to reach out to new revolutionary currents. It was also a major contributor to the considerable internal authority held by the Barnes leadership.

Barry explains:

… the cult that developed around Jack Barnes… didn’t occur all at once, but over a period of years. Jack was a talented leader of the the SWP youth in the period of the radicalization of ‘The Sixties’. He emerged from that period as the recognised central figure among the other younger leaders, including myself, as well as among the older leaders of the party. It was Jack’s positive role in the previous period that turned into its opposite. From a positive force building the SWP, it became a negative and destructive force that wrecked the party.

The problem was not, as Barry argues, that the party moved away from Trotskyism, but that the Barnes leadership reversed course. Instead of continuing to reach out to new revolutionary forces, it turned inward. At some point, the US SWP leadership abandoned any real attempt to reach out to, critically engage with and learn from the Cuban and other revolutionary currents.

The revolutions of 1979

Most of Barry’s accounts of the good political interventions by the SWP are in volume I but there are also some accounts in volume II. His account of the SWP’s support for Iranian socialists who intervened in the 1979 popular overthrow against the CIA-installed regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Barry was sent to Iran together with other comrades from the FI and his eyewitness accounts of this visit capture the revolutionary spirit of the time. This was a revolutionary development that could have taken Iran to an altogether different place than it is today.

The heroic, if short-lived, intervention by the Iranian comrades who set up the Hezb-e Kargaran-e Socialist (HKS, Socialist Workers Party) deserves to be studied.

Also in volume II are accounts of the SWP’s approach to the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions, though Barry had less direct involvement in these. The SWP took a lead in arguing against the more sectarian responses to these revolutions by others in the Trotskyist movement.

In his memoir North Star (Haymarket Books, 2010) Peter Camejo says a major turning point occurred when the SWP abandoned serious solidarity with the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutions as part of deepening the “turn to industry”. Camejo says the SWP leadership was hostile to his proposals that the party learn from actual revolutionary leaderships in these countries and study US working-class histories as a source of ideas and inspiration to advance the struggle today.

In the DSP, we pursued a different course. We carefully studied Marx, Lenin and Trotsky — and we also studied the experiences of Cuba, Nicaraguan and Grenada. We sent comrades to Nicaragua, Grenada and Cuba and to study the revolutionary processes. We built solidarity with these revolutionary struggle right through the 1980s. Later, we did the same with the Venezuelan and other revolutionary movements in Latin America, while rejecting the course of becoming uncritical cheerleaders for any revolutionary government or movement.

These efforts won two generations of post-sixties revolutionaries to the DSP. Today many of them are part of the leadership of the Socialist Alliance, the group that the DSP merged into in January 2010.

While we in the DSP continued building solidarity with and learning from living revolutions, the US SWP leadership was embarking on an opposite course. It was setting out to build a mini-international with their party at the centre, as Barry describes in his second volume. The end result truly defies caricature: today a handful of grouplets in several countries distribute the newspaper of the US SWP – none has its own publication – and all abstain from any effective engagement in the labour and other social movements.

Revolutionary continuity?

It appeared to us that the SWP leadership was mainly interested in using its declared loyalty to the Cuban revolution to prove its claim to “revolutionary continuity”.

This is pretentious rubbish and an insult to the political ideas of Karl Marx and all real revolutionary movements. There is no credentials committee that can issue certificates of “revolutionary continuity”. Revolutionary parties and individuals only get the political respect they have earned in actual struggle. It’s what you do, not what you say, that counts.

As the DSP concluded in 1984:

It’s a funny feature of the Trotskyist movement, almost a rule of thumb: The less achievements you have, the less is your humility.

Perhaps that’s so because once you get into the real world, once you start moving in the direction you want to go, you begin to understand how far you still have to go and the complications of politics, the difficulties of revolutionary politics.

That is, once you’ve started to take revolutionary struggle seriously, building a revolutionary party seriously and realising that it’s not a parlour game, you begin to estimate in a different light the achievements of others who’ve done far better than you.

All organisations purporting be socialist need to have modesty and humility commensurate with their development, commensurate to the degree of political authority and actual leadership they have won through struggle in the working class. You don’t win leadership through theoretically “perfecting” and “protecting” a program. You only win revolutionary political authority through leading mass struggles in a way that empowers the working class and leads to revolutionary conclusions.

As Lenin wrote in 1920, many people knew about the discipline and unity of the Bolshevik party, but few understood that those things could not be proclaimed artificially, but had to be won and developed through leading mass struggles.

First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism.

Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and—if you wish—merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people—primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people.

Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct.

Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved.

Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning.

A socialist party that develops a theoretical excuse for sustained political abstention is guaranteed to degenerate into a sect and to abandon any real programmatic wisdom it may have previously acquired. There have been socialist groups that recovered from some pretty whacky political positions simply because they have continued to engaged in the real movements of their time.

The SWP has done the opposite. It has deepened its abstentionist practice – and one result is that its programmatic positions have grown ever whackier.

In 1979 the SWP adopted a “turn to industry”, a tactic that subsequently hardened into a permanent workerist schema, in our opinion in the DSP. Its members, and the party as a whole, turned away from involvement in the progressive social and political struggles of the day, struggles which then were largely outside the framework of the organised labour movement. Its refusal to correct that error made degeneration inevitable.

The more disconnected a purportedly socialist organisation’s ideas are from the actual class struggle, the more it has to rely on restrictions on dissent and discussion within its ranks to police the line, and the more it has to use patronage and manipulation to maintain leadership solidarity.

In the end, being determines consciousness. An organisation’s program and its internal culture adapts to its practice.

The subjective factor and party democracy

I never met Jack Barnes so I am in poor position to make any comment on Barry’s assessment of the role of his personality in the degeneration of the SWP. But I have some observations which flow from my previous points, but many more unanswered questions.

One would expect that a party that was generally healthy, engaged and self-critical, as the SWP was in the 1960s and early 1970s by the accounts of Barry and others, would have been able to deal with a leader who sought to build a personality cult.

So why did the collective SWP leadership at that time fail to stand up Barnes? Did he simply tactically outwit them and pick off his challengers one by one, as Barry suggests?

If Barnes’ political authority was built up in the 1960s and 1970s, when the SWP was bigger, more engaged and open to learning from new experiences and the experiences of other revolutionaries (especially those who were leading revolutions), when did he start using it to go in the opposite direction?

And why was he able to do this?

Barry tells us he was kept in line by fear of expulsion, of ostracism from the party he had dedicated his life to building, and of shunning by his comrades. He also explains his silence by the fear of being humiliated for not presenting the “correct line” in internal meetings – he gives several examples of he and other leading members being humiliated in this way by Barnes.

But such fear can only have such intimidating power if having an over focus on the “correct” line or the “real” revolutionary program has somehow become a fundamental part of the organisation’s culture. Such a culture is the very antithesis of the “revolutionary continuity” that the SWP sect and its leader pretend to represent.

[Peter Boyle is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance in Australia. He was national secretary of the DSP when it merged into the Socialist Alliance in January 2010. The political opinions expressed in this review are his own and not those of the Socialist Alliance.]


The splits in the SWP

Does Cde. Sheppard go into any details about the expulsions of the comrades who formed Socialist Action and Socialist Organizer? I'd be interested; SO is now the American section of the FI - La Verite, of which International I am also a partisan. Cde. Lambert regarded the SWP as a revolutionary organisation, despite its errors and its reunion with USec, until it renounced permanent revolution.

And as some of you may know, back in 1971 some of us had already reached the conclusion that the FI only existed as a programme ... that there was no organisaton ready to take up the banner, wither USec, the ICFI, or the other sects and groupuscules. Our conclusion, however, was that it was necessary to reconstruct the FI. Today we recognise healthy, growing sections in a number of countries, not abstaining from the class struggle and the workers' organisations but working within them. We'll work with anybody in the workers' movement ready to stand with us for working-class political independence, against the class collaborationism on one hand and sectarian abstentionism on the other that have injured that movement so badly.

If this can be defined as sectarian, then somebody has rewritten the dictionary again while I was not looking.

Re The splits in the SWP

Chapter 28 in Volume two of Barry Sheppard's political memoir goes into this in some detail. The next chapter, titled "My culpability" follows on from this.

Volume 2, eh?

Okay, sooner or later I shall have to expend some of my limited pension income on a copy.

Sectarianism and sects are not the same thing

Sectarian is what an organization does in practice. The sect is an organizational form.

Political organizations can abstain from struggle and be sectarian -- like the Greek KKE is today in relation to SYRIZA -- without being sects. Conversely, a sect can take a non-sectarian approach and be deeply involved in building movements as the American Socialist Workers' Party was during its heyday and still be a sect, which I think explains why it did not grow to become a mass party or a party with mass influence in spite of extremely favorable conditions (massive political upheavals from 1955-1975), its own tremendous accomplishments in various movements, and the able leadership of Sheppard, Camejo, Barnes, and others.

It's important not to confuse or conflate the sect form and sectarian practice in these discussions.

Sectarianism and sects

In political struggle groups or individuals at various times can make errors either in a sectarian or opportunist direction. Sometimes this has significant political consequences and sometimes not. Sometimes this error is corrected and sometimes it just slips into the past. But my argument is that when a political group sets itself on a course of consistently abstaining from engaging and building the actual class struggles it confronts, it then slips into consistent sectarian politics that then gives it the character of a sect.

This is a materialist understanding of how political sects are constructed. If one the other hand, you start with some sort of arbitrary organisational definition of a sect (what rules it imposes on its members, how centralised it is, how much internal democracy it practices, etc) then this is an idealist approach to the question. And you can come up with arbitrary organisational prescriptions.

In political struggle the degree of centralism and discipline that is required various significantly from one situation or stage of development to another. The broadest and most open organisatonal forms are necessary as are, in certain circumstances, a military like discipline. But the conditions that require one form or another (and allow that form to be practiced with any degree of real political effectiveness) cannot be conjured up or assumed to be there at all times.

materialist vs. idealist view of the sect form

What about sects that consistently engage in struggles? They too are sects although they are not sectarian.

My definition of a sect is Marx's: a group that requires adherence to some sort of special doctrine as a requirement for membership. "The sect sees the justification for its existence and its 'point of honour' -- not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it." (

Is this an idealist approach or a materialist one?

Binh, I agree that a sect

Binh, I agree that a sect sees the justification for its existence and its "point of honour" -- not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it. The criticism which we developed of our Trotskyist heritage in the DSP ( around this understanding of the character of a left sect.

But having agreed on this, what one should do next is to use a materialist approach and understand why probably most left organisations today (perhaps more so in the rich imperialist countries) have to some degree or another sect-like tendencies or are outright sects. This is because of the left's relative isolation from the actual struggles against capitalist oppressions.

There are many groups espousing adherence to Marx's revolutionary socialism that nurse this or that shibboleth and protect it with an arrogance to the outside world and unjustified internal rigidity, dogmatism and over-centralisation. However, to the extent that these groups persist with a sustained and reasonably constructive engagement in the class struggle they can break out from their sect-like character.

I argue in my review of Barry Sheppard's two-volume memoir that the US SWP did embark on such a process in the 1960s and 1970s, but, that it retreated from that course and degenerated into a small and increasingly ridiculous sect.

I received a surprise phone call from the late Peter Camejo a few months before he passed away. We started by talking about what which of his writings we were publishing and using here in Australia but we then went on to discussing politics in the US.

Camejo then summed up the situation of the left in the US like this. He said that he had tried very hard to cohere a left in the Greens in the US but thought that after their defeat by the right in that party the forces he had brought together just did not have the energy to carry on the fight. They were just exhausted by the struggle, he said, like a lot of the the 60s generation of the left were. Camejo added that if there was any serious left organisation remaining in the US then it probably was the ISO and that he was prepared to work with the ISO even though he thought they were hanging on to a mistaken position on the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions as their main shibboleth.

We agreed on the importance of the new revolutionary developments in Latin America but also that this should not be turned into an ideological "river of blood" between socialists with our view on those developments and revolutionary leaderships and groups like the ISO (US).

I agree with Camejo's approach on this. If following Marx, one sees the socialist movement not as some idealist or utopian project but rather as a movement of the working class then one has to be prepared to work with the forces at hand.

So I am arguing against making some organisational prescriptiveness as an equivalent "river of blood" or, you could say, shibboleth, in the name of rejection of sectarianism. I am not supporting the over-centralised and anti-democratic structures that have commonly been imposed in the name of "Leninism" in many revolutionary socialist groups. But I don't see organisational forms as the main source of the problem. Indeed there are Maoist or former Maoist groups with even more militarised organisational forms in their deeply entrenched heritage that have and are transcending their past and becoming real leaders of significant revolutionary movements.

Both the sectarian and opportunist distortions in the left have a material basis and we need to understand the dynamics to do our but to create effective vehicles to advance the socialist movement. So just as I reject abstention from the movements and I reject abstention from serious organisation for socialism.

Earlier today I was watching the moving speeches ( of the young US war veterans as the threw away their medals in a powerful ceremony in the great anti-war protest against the NATO Summit in Chicago. It was apowerful moment, I felt choked with tears. I felt respect for the activists and the organisations (warts and all) that built this mobilisation. I don't know who they are but I would be proud to work with these people in a common organisation, as comrades. OK, left unity easy to say and hard to achieve, but it is what we should work for.

state of the American socialist left

I agree with your analysis and conclusions. Sects can and do change; sometimes they grow out of that form into something else, as you say. It is a persistent form because of the socialist left's separation from the workers' movement, which in America has been the case since at least the 1950s.

Thank you for sharing your last conversation with Camejo. He is one of my personal heroes, someone I look to for ideas and inspiration. I think he would be happy to learn that David Cobb learned from the mistake he made in 2004 by throttling the Nader-Camejo ticket: I think this bodes well for the Greens. Revolutionaries in the U.S. should be trying to figure out how to build stronger relationships with them because their ballot lines may be part of the basis for an American edition of SYRIZA. I wonder how he would feel about The North Star ( Occupy has confirmed a lot of the things he said in the 80s about the future of the left.

In terms of the ISO, I used to have the same assessment, having been a member for seven years ('99-'06) and a supporter for four ('07-'11). If they embarked on a two or four-year campaign to create a broad, inclusive anti-capitalist/socialist front/alliance/party there's no doubt in my mind they would exercise a lot of influence in whatever formation emerged from that process. Based on pieces like this (, I think the possibility of that happening is somewhere between zero and remote. This is a real shame and a major problem for us here because it means we are not working with existing organizations but with individuals scattered throughout the existing organizations, fragments of splinters, if you will.

I agree that organizational problems are not "the problem," and yes, some comrades from Maoist backgrounds are playing a tremendous role in initiatives like Occupied Wall Street Journal, Occupy Theory, and many others I'm not even aware of.

When I made a forceful call for serious regroupment efforts in December of 2011 in the context of Occupy ( some reassured me that such a call was unnecessary because the groups would "naturally" begin to move in this direction through joint work in Occupy working groups, particularly labor outreach. Sadly, this optimism has proven to be unwarranted. The Trotskyists, Stalinists, and Maoists generally remain in self-imposed isolation from one another and have no ongoing, collaborative working relationships, not to mention the chasm between them and Democratic Socialists of America, or revolutionary/class struggle anarchist types, which brings me to the veterans.

I recently met a union organizer who spent some time in Spain, is anti-capitalist, and really like the CNT. Turns out he was one of those veterans in Chicago -- I had no idea. I just thought he was your average anarchosyndicalist-minded union lefty type. When I was an ISO member, I did some political work with active-duty anti-war military personnel in '03-'05 and can attest to the fact that veterans and troops have moved very far to the left politically from angry liberalism/conservatism to radicalism. The last time troops threw their medals back was Dewey Canyon III ( organized by VVAW. There's no reason why socialists shouldn't be spearheading efforts to put Scott Olsen on the ballot against Democratic Mayor Jean Quan or Shamar Thomas against NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg (hypothetical examples).

The existing groups on the socialist left insulated themselves from the hostile environment and extremely unfavorable circumstances we operated in over the past three decades, but now circumstances are radically different, and this resistance to change, new initiatives, and experimentation is the major barrier we have to overcome if we hope to rise to the tasks Occupy put before us.

With Occupy, there's no reason why the organized socialist left in this country should be smaller than it was in 1898. Our ranks have barely grown even though the main chants at many or most of the demonstrations are explicitly revolutionary and anti-capitalist. This is a sign that the socialist left as a whole is deeply dysfunctional, and it's not going to change until we start doing something different. We run the risk of re-running the 1960s all over again; the revolutionary left became huge in those days, but it was also hugely divided, and that's a big reason why most of the groups that emerged in that period did not survive to see the rise of Occupy.

Our task now is not survival but how to make our movement relevant once more.

sectarianism 101

I suppose a narrow-minded person could call my friend Eric's position sectarian... on the other hand the collaborationist position the other person is much worse. Her group have abandoned any idea of building an independent working-class political organisation outside the Democratic Party ...

Being determines consciousness

"In the end, being determines consciousness. An organisation's program and it's internal culture adapt to it's practice." I couldn't agree more with this statement from the review.

What then do we make of our Socialist Alliance? We have no program, and the internal culture is more or less to get involved in movements to the detriment of party building. I agree that what you do is more important than what you say, but we have taken this to such an extreme that we have left behind program, theory and a vanguard party. It is doubtful that we now still adhere to Marxism, and even socialism itself can be seen as too "narrow" for the broad party.

Have we in SA continued the healthy traditions of the US SWP, or have we abandoned them?

They're doing their bit

"The end result truly defies caricature: today a handful of grouplets in several countries distribute the newspaper of the US SWP – none has its own publication – and all abstain from any effective engagement in the labour and other social movements."

I would describe the involvement of the handful of Australian comrades affiliated to the US SWP in Sydney, the Communist League, as "an effective engagement" in the Cuba solidarity movement. They have had a consistent involvement in the Australia-Cuba Friendship Society (Sydney)over many years and have initiated and taken the major responsibility for various important solidarity projects, such as the recent exhibition of one of the Cuban Five's political cartoons in Sydney. As one of the Sydney ACFS office-bearers I think I have a pretty good idea of their contribution.

May I ask by what criteria and on what basis, Peter, are you judging the effectiveness of these comrade's involvement in the Cuba solidarity movement? Could you do any better if your group had about six people?

The Socialist Alliance is just like every other left group in Australia: it cultivates a party pride and patriotism that blinds it to the achievements of others on the left and leads it to overestimate its own importance by on occasion denigrating the work of others, as Peter does here. All organisations do this and I'm not against left organisations, they all contribute something to the socialist cause. But it's ironic that a review that discusses the evils of sectarianism falls into the very same thing.

I'll wait till I've had a chance to read Barry's book before commenting on it. I enjoyed reading his first volume and have been looking forward to the second.

However, I'd like to offer an opinion on something else Peter wrote above: "A socialist party that develops a theoretical excuse for sustained political abstention is guaranteed to degenerate into a sect and to abandon any real programmatic wisdom it may have previously acquired."

That may well be true. But I'd point out that "engagement" doesn't necessarily further programmatic wisdom. An organisation can be very "engaged" and still have mistaken programmatic ideas. Sometimes the milieu of engagement influences the programmatic ideas of the group in ways that reflect the political shallowness of the milieu rather than the acquisition of programmatic wisdom. Yet engagement may also act as a healthy corrective of mistaken ideas.

Two people, or two parties, can go through the same experience and draw opposite conclusions. So the relationship between political engagement and programmatic wisdom is considerably more complicated than Peter makes out here. A socialist organisation could even develop a cult of engagement in the fervent hope that this might guard against the evils of sectarianism and programmatic fetishism, but this wouldn't guarantee correct programmatic ideas nor a practice free from sectarianism.

In the end revolutionary programmes develop out of a combination of theory and experience. Revolutionary experience has been somewhat lacking in Australia to date, but we can learn a lot from how other revolutions have been and are being made. At the programmatic level, we can learn a great deal more from past or present socialist revolution elsewhere than we can from the minutiae of engagement in Australian politics such as it exists today.

This is not an argument for socialists abstaining from such campaigns, but for recognising that the enrichment of a revolutionary programme (both on paper and in practice) adapted to Australian conditions awaits a revival of the class struggle here on a scale that would dwarf the background level we have become accustomed to during the past few decades.

Which is why I think the "old" DSP Programme is a good starting point for any serious discussion of a revolutionary programme for Australian conditions. After 20 years there are no doubt refinements that could be made. I don't understand why SA didn't take this document as the starting point rather than the relatively flimsy Socialism document it has invited members and non-members to discuss. Given that former members of the DSP dominate SA's national executive, why wasn't this document proposed as the starting point? Doesn't SA operate on the basis of majority rule? Or do the former DSP members in the leadership of SA no longer view the DSP Programme as reflecting their own views, even approximately?

Perhaps the idea is that SA, through a process of engagement in the class struggle, will gradually assimilate the programmatic lessons contained in the DSP Programme. Yet most of the content of the DSP Programme is drawn from big developments in the class struggle internationally such as the Paris Commune, the Russian Revolution, Stalinism and so on. Given this, the process of winning the relatively small numbers of people who are open to these to these programmatic perspectives is essentially pedagogical. No amount of engagement with the Australian class struggle as it exists today is going to convince anyone of why, for example, the bureaucratic degeneration of the Soviet Union does not mean that socialism has proven to be non-viable. That's not how Peter came to this view. He extracted it from other historical experiences on the basis of a theoretical framework elaborated by Leon Trotsky in the 1930s.

So why reinvent the wheel?

Marce Cameron

The DSP program and "Towards a Socialist Australia"

Marce says: "... I think the "old" DSP Programme is a good starting point for any serious discussion of a revolutionary programme for Australian conditions. After 20 years there are no doubt refinements that could be made. I don't understand why SA didn't take this document as the starting point rather than the relatively flimsy Socialism document it has invited members and non-members to discuss."

The DSP program is an excellent document. At some stage it may be useful for Socialist Alliance to adopt something like it.

But at present I think "Towards a Socialist Australia" is more useful, for two reasons:

1. It is shorter, and therefore likely to be read by more people, including campaign activists and trade unionists, as well as members of other left groups. For example, I think some of my workmates are likely read it, whereas they would probably not have read the DSP program.

2. It is written is such a way that (we hope) people from diverse ideological traditions (Trotskyists, Maoists and "state capitalists") can agree with it. This is important in terms of left unity. We need to show that it is possible to draft a program that can be agreed on by people from different traditions.

It is important to study, discuss and debate the lessons of history. But it is not essential to put everything in one document, called "the program". We can still encourage people to read Trotsky's writings on the degeneration of the Soviet Union, without having his analysis in the program.

Important for whom?

Thanks Chris. I have a few further questions based on your comments above.

You say that the DSP Programme is "an excellent document" (I agree). But for whom? Not for the DSP, obviously, because the DSP no longer exists. Not for SA, because SA doesn't have such a program, only this much shorter programmatic document that you're discussing and inviting others to discuss. You say it might be useful for SA to adopt something like the DSP programme "at some stage".

If this were to happen, wouldn't this bring us full circle, back to a party like the Democratic Socialist Party? If so, surely it would have been better to maintain the DSP - an organisation based on such a programme - instead of having to go through the process of "rediscovering" it down the track? And in the meantime, wouldn't more people be won to this programme if the DSP continued to exist, especially if it were a public organisation (it helps to be seen, heard and noticed)?

You say: "We need to show that it is possible to draft a program that can be agreed on by people from different traditions." Why? Unless you intend to water down the programme to the lowest common denominator, which merely obscures the differences without resolving them, what makes you think it IS possible to "draft a program that can be agreed on by people from different traditions"? The whole approach seems like wishful thinking to me.

I thought SA was all about getting away from the idea that we need to strive for programmatic agreement in the abstract, that is, by getting together and discussing the programme with socialists from different traditions. It was my understanding that SA thinks that programmatic agreement can only be achieved on the basis of common experience in the class struggle. Surely this is the only sound basis upon which to "show that it is possible to draft a program that can be agreed on by people from different traditions"?

The fact that your workmates might prefer to read something shorter is, surely, beside the point. That's nothing new, I assume. In the "old days" the answer was to encourage them to read Green Left Weekly, where some of the programmatic ideas were unpacked in bite-sized chunks.

If SA now sees the need to elaborate a programmatic document, why not start with that "excellent document", the DSP Programme? Initiate a process of discussion to update it where necessary, rather than starting from scratch, and change the title to "Programme of the Socialist Alliance Party". This alternative approach makes perfect sense given that SA's national leadership bodies are (as far as I'm aware) dominated by ex-DSP members, which presumably reflects the weight of these ex-DSP members in the organisation as a whole (or its active core).

This process would be more educational for the membership, as well as for non-members, than seeking agreement on a far more minimalist programmatic document that omits or fudges certain fundamental questions in order to appeal to the lowest common denominator.

Marce Cameron

On "programmatic agreement" and unity

Marce says: "You say: "We need to show that it is possible to draft a program that can be agreed on by people from different traditions." Why? Unless you intend to water down the programme to the lowest common denominator, which merely obscures the differences without resolving them, what makes you think it IS possible to "draft a program that can be agreed on by people from different traditions"? The whole approach seems like wishful thinking to me."

The purpose of having a program that can be agreed on by people from different traditions is to unite people from these traditions in a single party. The reason for doing this is to be able to campaign more effectively, to reach a broader audience for socialist ideas, and to recruit more people to a united socialist party.

Having such a program does not "obscure" the differences. For example, the fact that Cuba is not mentioned in "Towards a Socialist Australia" does not prevent Green Left from having articles on Cuba (such as those written by Marce). Nor does it prevent Green Left stalls from selling books on Cuba (e.g. my pamphlet "Cuba: How the Workers and Peasants Made the Revolution",

If we were able to unite with a socialist group holding a different analysis of Cuba, then discussion would continue in a range of forums, including the meetings, conferences and discussion bulletin of the united group, as well as in the newspaper.

Is this approach "wishful thinking"? Time will tell. I don't expect rapid success, but I think it is worth putting it forward.

Marce says: "I thought SA was all about getting away from the idea that we need to strive for programmatic agreement in the abstract, that is, by getting together and discussing the programme with socialists from different traditions. It was my understanding that SA thinks that programmatic agreement can only be achieved on the basis of common experience in the class struggle. Surely this is the only sound basis upon which to "show that it is possible to draft a program that can be agreed on by people from different traditions"?"

"Programmatic agreement" is not an all or nothing phenomenon. We can agree on some things and disagree on others. Towards a Socialist Australia attempts to summarise some ideas that are widely agreed on the left. It leaves out some other questions that are not agreed.

A combination of practical collaboration and comradely discussion may, over time, enable some of the differences to be overcome. If this happens, it will enable a more comprehensive program to be adopted in the future by the united party.

During the 1980s, the Democratic Socialist Party began to criticise the exaggerated importance placed by most Trotskyist groups on the written program. In doing so, we were echoing the words of Marx and Engels.

Karl Marx said: "Every step of real movement is more important than a dozen programs." (letter to Bracke, May 6, 1875; in Marx and Engels Selected Works, vol. 3, p. 11; Progress Publishers, Moscow 1970)

Similarly, Engels said: "In general, the official program of a party is of less importance than what the party does." (letter to Bebel, MESW, p. 35)

This does not mean that Marx and Engels thought program was unimportant. Marx's comment cited above appears in a covering letter to his well-known Critique of the Gotha Program. Marx thought it important to criticise mistakes in a program.

The Gotha program was intended as the program for a united German socialist party. Marx and Engels were in favour of steps toward unity, but felt it was premature to adopt a common program, given the extent of the differences. Marx recommended postponing the drafting of a common program "until it has been prepared for by a considerable period of common activity". (MESW, p. 11; his advice was not followed and the Gotha program was adopted at the unity congress).

Today in Australia we have "a dozen programs", but the socialist movement remains weak. The existence of "a dozen programs", each held by a particular socialist group, is part of the problem

We need to unite the left. Already there is a fair degree of "common activity" in various campaigns. Different left groups participate in the same demonstrations (for indigenous rights, gay rights, refugee rights, etc.) and on the same workers' picket lines. But cooperation is often undermined by organisational rivalries, which are justified by citing programmatic differences. We need to focus on what we have in common, which is more important than what divides us. Persuading the members of other left groups of this is not easy, but it is something we should aim to do.

"A" program is no guarantee

Whatever the merits of any one program -- such as the old DSP's -- it is no guarantee that the party that wrote it could not or would not become sectarian.

Case in point: the US SWP.

In fact if the DSP had not made its late eighties turns it too would have entered dedicated secthood, I'm sure: its green/environment turn, its paper/GLW turn, its regroupment turn....yes, even its turn to fuse into the SA.

Even ye olde DSP program that Marce refers to only evolved as a document after 1983/84 out of chit chats between the DSP and the old SPA (now the Communist Party) with organisational fusion in mind.

As I pointed out elsewhere the SYA/Resistance/DSP began public life in 1970 with a six point list of aims. Lay down a few struggle years -- and notch up the discussions -- and you get more of course, more detail ..and more understanding.

That collective process of taking comrades from a list of six points to the here and now comprehension took time and depended on who was, and who might become, engaged in the party building project.

Similarly in my memory, a major rationale for the process of constructing 'a program' was to educate the membership -- just as Towards a Socialist Australia tries to do -- and cohese that membership -- just as Towards a a Socialist Australia tries to do. And TASA is a opening up of the process, a beginning exercise -- that is ten time more accessible than the old DSP document (which required some academic skills to digest).

Since I used to teach from it you get a feel for how unbearably dense it was.

In like mode for Resistance :What socialists stand for has served a few generations extremely well just as the very useful US SWP standard -- Socialism on Trial has served us even here in Australia.

But no erudite program is going to guarantee either an organisation's survival nor its health. That's precisely the sort of idealist thinking that leads down the slippery slope of sectarianism. Its' the quintessential problem with decades of Trotskyism: a programatic fetish shorn up by the celebration of difference.

I'm not suggesting that your collective POV and written down DIY means to an end isn't important -- but the complexity of what is required in struggle mode isn't as simple as defending a set piece from all comers -- esp a set piece you don't 'own'; that was bequeathed to you.

The irony of the US SWP tragedy is that no one has ever suggested that the US SWP sold out its program and became reformist or toadied up to the Democrats. So their program did what? Help to guarantee rev rev revolutionism -- but at a price. And what a price!

The other trap in regard to this is the ready obsession with 'revolutionary continuity' . Again a US SWP habit. This is reflected here with the oh so many references to a nostalgic past DSP. Sure there are lessons there in the past -- a rich experience of struggle and the like -- but to embrace 'continuity' as some sort of archetype that is born forward by those who are some how self ordained to read its meaning is surely another means to a sticky end.

Good example: Jack Barnes.

It's a idealist thinking to think that because what was done then is some how recyclable by dint of simply appealing to the past for your credentials.

I hold to the view, no matter what the form, that the James P. Cannon axiom that 'the problem of the party is the problem of the leadership of the party' is the key marker, and in that regard I think the DSP and then the SA have been served well.

In contrast the US SWP has been crippled because that in-house problem festered to gangrene.

When it comes down to the wire: what separates a party from either opportunism or sectarianism depends on how well that party's leadership is at telling the difference between the two while in the throws of everyday struggle.

My only preference is that --as the leadership of the DSP was so acutely aware (thanks in no small measure to the spectacle of worsening US SWP sectness) -- sectarianism is treated as the spectre it is that haunts us all.

Jesus, just look at the examples of European left at the present time...or Germany in the thirties.

sectarian programs... and structures

"The rise of a leadership cult around SWP national secretary Jack Barnes in the mid-1970s was the “fundamental cause of this degeneration” and it would be “naive to think that the membership itself could resist this juggernaut”. It could only have been stopped by the Political Committee. Barry, a member of that committee, says he first realised in 1978 that a leadership cult was developing around Barnes, but did not act out of fear of being expelled from the party and ostracised."

I think taht the conclusions Peter reaches, that the devotion to a doctrinal orthodoxy promoted the atmosphere described above, are useful.

I also think the structures adopted by such "Leninist" organisations deserve scrutiny. If a member of the central committee is afraid to speak out, that speaks to a cultist and doctrinaire orthodoxy. But if even the general membership are unable to resist, that is damning of the "democracy" of such an organisation.

My limited experience (relative to Sheppard's) was in the DSP. I think there were elements there, poorly grasped by many of the alumni of that organisation, that point in the same direction.

I wrote a blog post a while back exploring the issues.

I think that a model of building a party that is about erecting a leadership for the others to follow is mistaken. A structure where the key discussions informing decisions are private and kept within a tight central committee type group is run from the top down.

However much the membership have the right to vote on the issues, if they don't have a genuine involvement in the discussions that inform those decisions they will always be following the leaders.

I don't know any magically better formula, but recognising the problem is a good start.

Lenin's Answer

Lenin's answer to the question of leadership accountability and membership control over the party was a structurally simple one. In 1905, in the debate between the committee men and Lenin, and in the throes of the revolutionary upsurge, he proposed and it was later adopted that the leading centers of the party were to be based in the local, not national, party structures. This included the right of recall by the local party committee of its representatives to the higher party bodies.

While this structure was prone to police penetration, and in fact required a complete reorganization of the party after the reaction triumphed, nonetheless it seems to be a perfectly rational and logical structure in situations of legality such as exist throughout the advanced capitalist world.



Lenin's federalist deviation?

In the DSP I frequently heard such notions dismissed as "federalism". Personally, I think that's a far more accountable method, much better at reflecting the work and thinking of the party's membership. I'm pleased the Socialist Alliance has moved to organise its leadership bodies more in this way.

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