Barry Sheppard reviews Peter Camejo's `North Star -- A Memoir'

North Star – A Memoir
By Peter Camejo
Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2010

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Review by Barry Sheppard

[Posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]

July 8, 2010 -- North Star – A Memoir by Peter Camejo, who was an important figure in the radicalisation of “the Sixties” and beyond, up to his untimely death in 2008, should be read by veterans of the socialist movement and wider social causes. It also should be read by new activists thirsty for understanding of previous struggles in order to better equip themselves for present and future battles.

Also, the book is a good read. The first chapter is set in 1979, out of chronological order from the rest of the book. It explains how the CIA attempted to get Peter arrested in Colombia, on a leg of a speaking tour in South America. If he had been imprisoned there it is possible that he would have been “disappeared”. Without giving away the story, Peter escaped this fate through an unlikely intervention, quite a tale in itself.

As Peter explains, the two of us met each other in college, collaborated and then joined the Socialist Workers Party at the same meeting in Boston in November 1959. I was 22 and Peter 20. We became leaders of the party’s associated youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance. In 1960 and 1961 a dispute over the Cuban Revolution broke out in the SWP and YSA. The majority in both groups supported the revolution and its leadership (with criticisms). Peter and I supported the majority position, and became its primary spokespersons in the YSA. As a result, I became the national chairperson and Peter the national secretary of the YSA and we moved to New York. Soon, along with others from a new generation, we joined with people from older generations in the leadership of the SWP.

Peter left the SWP in 1981. After that he remained active in promoting various attempts to rebuild the US left culminating in his running as the Green Party candidate for governor of California in 2002 and 2003, and then as independent candidate Ralph Nader’s running mate in the presidential election of 2004.

Political threads

His experiences as a leader of the YSA and SWP, and his subsequent activities, form a major part of his memoir. In this review I will concentrate on this aspect of his memoir. There are three political threads that run through the book. One is that social change comes about through the action of masses of people. Related is the theme that attempts to circumvent mass action by the activities of small groups engaging in what they think of as “exemplary” actions of a few are an obstacle to social change. Two variants of this viewpoint are ultraleftism and sectarian abstention. The third theme is the need to break from the stranglehold of the parties of “money”, as Peter puts it, the Democrats and Republicans.

Peter’s experiences as a leader in the anti-Vietnam-War movement are vividly portrayed. One is his speaking before a crowd of 100,000 on the Boston Common as a spokesperson of the Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam as part of the 1969 Vietnam Moratorium. There is a gripping account from a political opponent from the Democratic Party describing how Peter was by far the best received speaker of the day. In fact, Peter was the best public speaker of our generation in the SWP and YSA, and, I think, of the youth radicalisation as a whole.

Peter had moved from New York to Berkeley, California, in late 1965, at the request of the SWP and YSA. The San Francisco Bay Area had become a centre of the new student movement, and the University of California at Berkeley especially so. Peter enrolled in the university, and quickly rose as a leader of the antiwar movement and the student movement in general there.

He outlines three different perspectives that emerged in the antiwar movement. One was that the movement should orient toward the Democratic Party. The Communist Party put forward this perspective, but also would endorse mass actions especially during periods between elections. Another was associated with the national leaders of the Students for a Democratic Society, who, while calling for the first massive action in 1965, had subsequently turned their backs on mass action and increasingly championed small vanguard actions and then minority violence. The third approach, which we supported, was to further mass actions in the streets independent of both capitalist parties.

To do this, we focused on building broad antiwar formations around the “single issue” of opposition to the war. All, regardless of their political views on other questions, were welcome to join. Within such coalitions, Peter explains, we argued for taking an “Out now!” position, calling for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam. It took some years before “Out now!” became the widely accepted goal of antiwar demonstrations.

Another key point we raised was non-exclusion. While independent of the Democrats and Republicans, we argued, the antiwar movement would welcome politicians from those parties who were against the war, on the principle that the movement had to be non-exclusionary. In practice, there were very few such politicians. It was on this basis that the large antiwar demonstrations that reached into the hundreds of thousands were organised.

An aspect of our approach was to build antiwar committees both locally and nationally by putting decision making in the hands of the activists themselves. Votes would be taken by the assembled activists after open debate. Most often our mass action perspective would carry the day, which led many others with opposing perspectives to charge that we had mechanical majorities of our own members at such meetings. But we never became anywhere near that large, although we did grow substantially during this period. Our arguments simply made sense to the majority of antiwar activists. This approach also raised the self-confidence of the participants, who became more dedicated to building the mass actions as a result.

Peter concludes that the SWP played a crucial and positive role in the antiwar movement. Peter himself was an important part of that effort.

Mass action

There is a riveting chapter on what became known as “the battle of Telegraph Avenue”. This street abutted the Cal campus. In May-June 1968 there was a massive student-worker uprising in France that galvanised the world. Our young French co-thinkers played an important part in these events. We organised support meetings and picket demonstrations in solidarity. In Berkeley, Peter met with other campus leaders to organise a big meeting on Telegraph Avenue. The SWP and YSA reached out to involve other organisations, but Peter was recognised as the main leader of the event.

The rally was set for June 28. The Berkeley City Council voted down the organisers’ request to shut down a short stretch of the avenue next to the campus for the event. So there was agreement that the participants would stay on the sidewalks. Monitors were stationed to help keep the crowd on the sidewalks. But then the police attacked.

The students fought back as best they could. The next days and nights were marked by increased police violence, all of the city of Berkeley was placed on night-time curfew, and mass meetings of the young people who fought against these violations of their rights to free speech and assembly. Finally, the city backed down and allowed the rally to proceed on Telegraph Avenue on July 4.

Peter’s account of how this victory was won makes for exciting reading, but more important are the lessons to be drawn. There was a big difference between the physical showdown between the mass of student protesters and the cops, and the actions of violence -- even bombings -- carried out by small groups believing they were “sparking” the mass movement. In contrast to such futile “offensive” actions, the protesters of Telegraph Avenue were defending their fundamental rights. All of their decisions were made at mass meetings after open debate. Their most important decision was to defy the city authorities by going forward to hold a rally on July 4, come what may. They knew that this could mean a violent confrontation with the police. They had already suffered casualties, and understood what this could mean. It was this resolve that forced the city council to back down.

An important aspect of the leadership of the SWP and YSA and Peter himself was to reach out to the citizens of Berkeley, the fight for public opinion. Initially, this was against the students. But through careful tactics aimed at bringing the truth of the situation to the public, that the city authorities were trampling on rights guaranteed in the US constitution, the mood in the city swung over to support them. The over-reaction of the police, by attacking bystanders and even people in their homes, was a factor. Police always go too far in such situations, but this truth had to made widely known.

In every way, Peter’s leadership was geared toward mass mobilisation and mass action.

Twin parties of money

The third thread that runs through the book from beginning to end is the need to break from the Democratic and Republican parties. This was an aspect of our insistence that the antiwar movement be focused on independent mass actions in the streets not subordinate in any way to the twin parties of “money”. It was projected in the small example set by SWP election campaigns, from the first one Peter and I participated in, Farrell Dobb’s 1960 presidential campaign with Myra Tanner Weiss as his running mate, through Peter’s own campaigns for mayor of Berkeley, US senator from Massachuset and his 1976 campaign for president with running mate Willie May Reid. After he left the SWP, Peter supported the independent campaigns of the Green Party, including Ralph Nader’s 2000 run for president, Peter’s own campaigns for governor of California in 2002 and 2003, and as independent Ralph Nader’s running mate in 2004.

Peter’s last battle was to keep the Green Party independent from the Democrats, a fight which he lost at the national level as is well documented in the book, although some local Green Party groups do maintain their independence.

Green Party

A comment is in order here. There are some splinters of the Trotskyist movement who have attacked Peter’s support of independent Green Party election campaigns. Their argument is that the Greens are not a socialist party, nor do they have a base in the trade unions. These groups (including the rump which still uses the SWP name), say they would vote for a Labor Party if the trade unions organised one, claiming that it would be a workers’ party. They point to Lenin’s position in 1919 that the newly formed British Communist Party should vote for the Labour Party.

They leave out that Lenin also said that the British Labour Party was a bourgeois party through and through, and an imperialist party to boot. He urged the young CP to vote for this imperialist capitalist party anyway, to reach out to the British workers whose trade unions had created it. The weird logic of the sectarian argument ends up urging a vote for the Labour Party of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, while opposing a vote for the anti-imperialist, pro-working class Ralph Nader. It is true that the US Green Party is a petty bourgeois (and thus bourgeois) party, but it is not a party of the big bourgeoisie nor is it an imperialist party. Unfortunately, on a national level it is now on a slippery slope towards supporting the imperialist Democratic Party. In many countries, the Greens have already gone over to finance capital.

A bright spot Peter points to was the 2000 campaign of Nader for president on the Green Party ticket. Tens of thousands packed Nader rallies in many cities, more than those of the two capitalist parties. These rallies were mainly young. A central aspect, evident in the shouts and applause of these young people, was their identification with the big anti-globalisation demonstration in Seattle the year before. A new movement had appeared, inexperienced, new to radical ideas, but moving in an anti-capitalist direction – and full of the energy and enthusiasm of youth. Peter doesn’t mention this background to the Nader campaign, but this must be an oversight.

We both were present at the Oakland, California, Nader rally and saw these anti-globalisation young people firsthand. Nader reacted to the shouts of the crowd, absorbing their energy, and his speech became more and more radical, which furthered the excitement of the audience.

This anti-globalisation movement was cut short by the chauvinism and warmongering whipped up by the Bush administration, the Congress to a person, and press after 9/11. The movement continued elsewhere, but was silenced in the US. This was the major factor in the success of the subsequent Democratic Party anti-Nader campaign that reached into the Green Party itself. Figures like Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Medea Benjamin and Michael Moore capitulated. Not content with only their ideological campaign, the Democrats launched a series of despicable dirty tricks to keep the Nader-Camejo ticket off the ballot. This part of Peter’s book graphically explains the obstacles we face in breaking the two-party stranglehold.

Peter writes that in 1984 he made a “major political mistake” in supporting the campaign by Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party presidential primaries. A detail that Peter omits was that after Jackson lost, Peter supported the Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in the general election. After Peter left the SWP in 1981, I hadn’t had contact with him. In 1984, I happened to be walking by a Mondale street rally in New York, and ran into Peter, who handed me a vote Mondale leaflet. This seemed to me at the time to validate charges by the SWP leadership that Peter had moved way to the right.

Later, Peter and I talked about this. He said he wrongly supported the Mondale campaign as part of his tactic of trying to work within Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition in hopes that it would lead to a mass break with the Democrats. Peter writes, “This error on my part lasted until I came to my senses and realized that, with few exceptions, the Rainbow Coalition was just another name for keeping progressives in the Democratic Party.”

An important appendix is a short essay on the origins of the two-party system, going back to the foundations of the United States, and up through the Civil War and beyond. He shows that in fact the present Republican and Democratic parties emerged from a single party, the Republicans, after the Civil War. This appendix should be reprinted as a pamphlet for the new generations who will become radicalised in the future.

There is a chapter on how Peter became a stockbroker, and how he helped set up a firm, Progressive Assets Management. The idea was that Peter would invest money for those who didn’t want to invest in firms doing business in apartheid South Africa, polluters and so forth. There was an element of self-deception in this undertaking, as the control of the economy by financial capital makes it virtually impossible to know where investments go, except for some start-ups like solar power firms. This chapter is interesting, however, in explaining the obstacles the powers that be put in the way of Peter’s progressive projects. His outline of how workers’ pension funds are controlled by capital is revealing.

`Profound difference'

When my companion, Caroline Lund, and I reconnected with Peter it was after we had left the SWP some years earlier. We had moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. It was in the early 1990s when we first talked. In discussing what had happened to the SWP, Peter said that the fundamental question was that the program of the SWP was wrong. Since this theme is a major one in his book book, and since I disagree with him, I will take this up in some detail, both to disclose my bias and to explain Peter’s views in the latter part of his life more clearly.

Peter told me this disagreement represented a “profound difference” between us. I agree.

Peter writes, “With the rapid growth of the SWP and YSA during the antiwar movement, an ideological crisis had manifested itself within the SWP. The older, primarily worker-based segment of the party had grown concerned that the SWP would be changed by its newer members, most of whom were middle class youth. Many of the older members opposed our support for what they saw as contemporary issues, such as gay liberation, and in general were nervous that the SWP might abandon its roots in Trotskyism and begin to alter its ‘program.’”

This is wrong on several counts. A minor distortion is the assertion that our newer members “were middle class youth”. Most of our recruits in this period had come from the campuses, were students. Students come from all classes, from the bourgeoisie like Peter, from “middle class” families (working farmers, small businesspeople, lawyers, self-employed and so forth) and from blue- and white-collar workers. After the Second World War, there was an explosion in education which drew in millions from working-class families. Most of our recruits came from this latter section which was the majority among students, but we recruited from all these backgrounds.

To Peter’s main point. The “worker-based” older cadre had come to grips with analysing the Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions prior to the radicalisation of “the Sixties” but which greatly influenced our generation. These revolutions had come to power under Stalinist leaderships, something which our program had deemed extremely unlikely. The SWP modified its program accordingly. A new challenge was the Cuban Revolution, unfolding as Peter and I joined the SWP, which was led by non-Stalinist but not socialist forces (they became socialists in the course of the revolution). Our program was further modified as we embraced the Cuban Revolution, an important context of the youth radicalisation.

Our fundamental strategy and tactics in the antiwar movement (well explained by Peter) were first developed by the “older, primarily worker-based” party leadership, and which the younger leaders then also helped shape. It was the older comrades who developed the party’s positive appreciation of Black nationalism against the opposition of almost all other socialist tendencies, and developed a far-reaching program for the Black liberation movement. It was younger leaders who analysed the worldwide youth revolt, developed a new program in relation to it, with enthusiastic support of the older comrades. The same was true of the new women’s liberation movement. The younger members and leaders had the full support of the older comrades in all of these “contemporary” issues.

Opposition to our embracing of the new issues of the 1960s radicalisation did develop in the party and YSA. This came not from the older comrades (with one or two exceptions) but from a small minority of the newer members, who did charge that the party was abandoning its program. This was a reflection among our student recruits of outside forces, especially the national leadership of the Students for Democratic Society, who did turn their backs on the youth radicalisation in a “workerist” direction. This small minority of our student youth was soundly defeated in the SWP and YSA.

There was some opposition to our fully embracing the gay liberation movement from some older comrades and some younger ones, too. This had nothing to do with fearing for our program, but was an expression of prejudice, pure and simple, in the wider working class at the time.

These examples and others refute Peter’s assertion, and a later one that the party’s program was “rigid”.

Peter makes some correct generalisations: “Not only is a political program an evolving concept, but it requires continuous discussion and debate in order for it to be effective. And it must, most important of all, be tested against reality. In other words, the program of an organization trying to bring justice to the world must be a process rooted primarily in the living mass struggles of the people.”

But his next sentence reads, “It is not a written document put together by intelligent people in the past.”

Marxist written documents “from the past”, beginning with the Communist Manifesto, are essential to understand the present and to effectively intervene in it. The “living mass struggles” of the present grow out of those of the past. The written programmatic documents of Marxism are rich with the lessons of these past struggles. They do show development of course, since they reflect changing reality, but they also provide continuity. Neither reality nor Marxist theory (program is another word for theory) is always just coming into existence independent of the past.

Peter’s own history attests to this. Peter didn’t invent the need to break with the Democrats and Republicans. He learned this from the program of the Socialist Workers Party. His book has a chapter on Stalinism. He was taught to understand Stalinism by the SWP, which based its understanding on the programmatic work done by Trotsky. When Peter and I joined the SWP the two larger socialist groups, the Communist Party and the Socialist Party, rejected the need to break with the Democrats and rejected Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism. The “single issue” and mass action perspective of the SWP in the antiwar movement was an adaptation of the united front tactic developed by the early Communist International, codified in “written documents”. What Peter learned about Malcolm X from the SWP was developed from “written documents” of the Bolsheviks on the national question. And so forth.

Peter’s position appears to reject the basic program of Marxism. He writes that Marx was right on many things. “Marx said human history can be understood like any other scientific process”, he says. He goes on to list other positive aspects of Marx’s thought. “Marx raised the idea that humans can transcend the brutality, violence, and abuse that have characterized most of human society for at least the past few thousand years. He laid out a view that attempted to tie society’s past evolution to how it might evolve in the future.”

Marx wasn’t the first to raise that society can transcend the present order. All socialists before Marx believed this, and were devoted to the cause of the working people and the oppressed. Marx’s unique contribution was his program of how this will (not “might”) come about. He didn’t “attempt” to do so, he did so. His program in its essence is that the modern working class that capitalism has produced is in an irreconcilable class struggle with the capitalists, and will lead all the oppressed in a revolution that will overthrow capitalist rule and take state power. It will use that state power to build over time a society without classes. To accomplish this historical task, the working class will have to develop consciousness of itself as a class and form a political party (or parties).

Peter nowhere affirms Marx’s program, and appears to reject it by omission. That is, he rejects much more than the SWP’s program. In the place of program and theory he presents an agnostic view: “The science of social change is permanently evolving. We will learn what works – that is what is ‘true’ – by the inevitable conflict of ideas and by testing those ideas against reality”. What “works” is what is “true” – a restatement of American pragmatism. We don’t yet know what “works”, including Marx’s program, Peter seems to be saying.

Third American Revolution

Peter believes, as do Marxists, that a Third American Revolution is on the historical agenda. An important part of his book is devoted to the idea that this revolution will be an extension of the first two, the War of Independence and the Civil War, which centred on the fight to extend democracy. “I am convinced the struggle will appear as a fight for democracy and will develop around very concrete issues of a defensive nature”, he writes. In the mid-1970s, as he was first developing his new ideas, Peter told me that the coming revolution will be fought around democratic demands, “not class demands”. Peter’s view is reflected in the title of his book, North Star. He took this term from the name of the abolitionist newspaper published by the great former slave Frederick Douglas in the fight against slavery.

Democratic demands will be very important, including the unfinished democratic tasks from the first two revolutions such as ending the continued oppression of Blacks. But so will the specific class demands of the workers, including the need for them to take state power, or there will be no revolution. The Third American Revolution will be a proletarian revolution for socialism.

The first two American Revolutions consolidated the rule of the capitalist class. The Civil War clinched this by overthrowing and expropriating the slave owning class. In class terms, the Third will overthrow the capitalist class and consolidate the rule of the working class through the formation of a democratic workers’ state and the expropriation of the capitalist class. The workers’ state will gradually move toward the withering away of all classes and the state itself.

Peter is right that we should assimilate the democratic victories of the War for Independence and the Civil War and identify with their leaders. But our American revolutionary heritage goes beyond that. We identify with the suffragettes, the decades-long battles against Jim Crow, and their many leaders including Susan B. Anthony, W.E.B DuBois, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. The first stirrings of the labour movement in the later 1880s, the Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party, the formation of the Communist Party and the SWP are also part of our heritage, as is the great labour upsurge of the 1930s. These movements threw up leaders we seek to emulate, too – and they put class demands at the centre of the coming revolution. Malcolm X was moving toward socialism when he was gunned down. Martin Luther King saw at the end of his life that it was necessary to begin fighting for economic, working-class demands – he was assassinated assisting striking Black sanitation workers.

Our generation of “the Sixties” also developed leaders and organisations of women, gays, youth, Blacks, Chicanos, socialists and more, who combined democratic and working class demands.

I realise that my reaffirmation of Marx’s view of the dynamic of class struggle under capitalism and its outcome is a minority one within the broad progressive movement and even among socialist organisations, and that many readers of Peter’s book will agree with him. This is quite true today, in the aftermath of the disintegration of the Soviet bloc, the feebleness of the labour movement in the face of the capitalist offensive, and the shrinking of and divisions within the socialist movement.

All this is not say that Peter does not accept many Marxist concepts. He applies an analysis of the conflicting class forces (and fractions of classes) that have created the two-party system to great effect in his appendix on the subject. But he does not do so in relation to capitalism today and the question of what class forces will accomplish the Third American Revolution he looks forward to. We have to wait and see what “works”.

There has been a degeneration of the SWP, signs of which appeared in the 1970s, and which accelerated after 1980. Peter attributes this to Trotskyism itself, which inevitably produces sectarianism, splits and cults. He points to undoubted true examples. But there are glaring contradictions to his view. If the SWP was always inflicted with these diseases (since it undoubtedly was Trotskyist), there was no degeneration, only a continuation. The SWP that Peter and I joined was not sectarian. It certainly was not a cult of an individual. Its leadership team was composed of very independent and strong individuals, such as James P. Cannon, Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry, Murry and Myra Weiss, George Novack, Evelyn Reed, Karolyn Kerry, Joe Hansen and many others. The European Trotskyist parties on the whole were not sectarian or cults, and aren’t to this day.

The picture of the SWP and his participation in it and the movements of the radicalisation of “the Sixties” Peter outlines are positive, overall. He clearly enjoyed those days and regards them as a high point of his life. This stands in contrast to many who left the SWP and have become bitter about their own youth.


I’ve taken the space to explain my differences with Peter because they are fundamental, but in spite of these differences we remained friends. I supported Peter’s attempts to further the struggle against the parties of “money” in the 1990s and 2000s, which he explains in his book. The 2000 Nader campaign, and his own election campaigns for governor stand out. One instance I particularly remember was in his 2002 campaign. Peter had championed the cause of the undocumented workers vigorously in this campaign, as he did before and after. My companion Caroline Lund and I joined a long march of 500 such workers in Santa Rosa, north of San Francisco, on a cold day, which ended up in a spirited rally addressed by Peter in Spanish.

From time to time Peter would telephone me to get my opinion during these campaigns. He also would call me to check my memory of events as he was writing the book. There are factual errors that crept in, probably because he was pressed for time and did not have the opportunity to consult the written record, but most do not affect the thrust of the book. One, however, should be corrected, as it misrepresents the views of an important figure in the Marxist movement, Ernest Mandel.

During the first days of the Nicaraguan revolution, a current of the Trotskyist movement relatively strong in Latin America led by Nahuel Moreno, which had split from the Fourth International, had formed an armed column called the Simon Bolivar Brigade. The Simon Bolivar Brigade entered the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua, which was demographically and geographically separate from most of the country, and attempted to set up local governments there. The Sandinista leadership of the revolution was concerned, of course, and moved to expel them.

Peter writes that Mandel, a central leader of the Fourth International in Europe, supported the Simon Bolivar Brigade. I was part of the FI leadership in Paris at the time, and know this is not true. The whole of the FI repudiated Moreno’s adventure. A close friend of Mandel’s in Mexico, Manuel, who was also a leader of our group there, was dispatched to Nicaragua to explain our position. It is possible that Peter confused something that had occurred years earlier during the Portuguese revolution when there was a temporary political agreement between Mandel and Moreno.

However, the false picture Peter presents of Mandel’s and other European leaders’ view of the Nicaraguan revolution extends beyond the Simon Bolivar Brigade. These leaders wholehearted supported the revolution, and sent many delegations to Nicaragua to learn about it first hand and returned to build solidarity in their countries. Peter also claims that at the November 1979 World Congress of the FI, the majority of the European leaders expressed hostility to the Sandinistas. There were two resolutions on Nicaragua presented to the congress, but both were in support of the revolution, while having a theoretical difference.

I wish Peter had checked with me on this, because I am sure that if he had he would have realised that his memory of these events was faulty.

Peter’s honesty and selfless devotion to working people and all the oppressed marked his entire conscious life, and these qualities shine through the book. When my companion, Caroline Lund, was dying ofALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in 2006, we held a big party for people to say goodbye to her. Peter was there, and a photo of him, Caroline and myself was taken, which I treasure and still keep. At that party Peter did not yet know of the cancer that was developing in his body, and which would take his life. Peter also spoke at Caroline’s memorial meeting, and noted that she was a very kind person. This was one of Peter’s personal qualities, too.

[Barry Sheppard was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party for 28 years, and a central leader for most of that time. He is the author of The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988 -- A Political Memoir.]

North Star: A Tribute to Peter Camejo

By Louis Proyect

Book Review

ed. Louis Proyect's tribute is based on his own experience and recollection as well as his reading of Peter Camejo's unfinished memoir published posthumously, North Star: a Memoir, Haymarket Books, 2010, ISBN 978-1931859-92-9.

(Swans - July 12, 2010) In November 1969, I was ready to drop out of the Socialist Workers Party in New York City just two years after I joined. Although I had no political disagreements, I felt alienated from the organization. I was in a kind of limbo that most people with regular jobs experienced. Unless you were a student at a place like Columbia University where all the action was going on or a full-timer with a sense of mission about being a "professional revolutionary" in Leninist terms, it was easy to feel like a fifth wheel.

Just before I had steeled myself to turn in my resignation and become a "sell-out" to bourgeois society, the organizer called me into his office to ask me to take on an important assignment. The Boston branch was out of step with the rest of the party and required reinforcing with "solid" people who would work with the organizer Peter Camejo to "turn things around." Feeling a sense of validation that had escaped me before, I said yes on the spot. This would be my introduction to a comrade who I can describe as one of the major influences on my political evolution over the past 30 years. It was thus with a keen sense of anticipation that I turned to his posthumous memoir North Star, a book that not only captures his winning personality but also the ideas that transformed me.

Before moving up to Boston, I knew Peter only by reputation. Apparently, he was one of the few Socialist Workers Party (SWP) members who had won a following among the broad left, especially in Berkeley where his leadership in the Telegraph Avenue struggle of June 1968 had helped to cement his reputation. After the cops had attacked a rally in support of the French strikers, the movement mounted a counter-attack to defend the constitutionally protected right to protest. Although there was a considerable amount of violence, Peter played an important role in making it clear that the cops were responsible and not the protesters. His description of the confrontation would be especially useful to young people today grappling with the problems of black block machismo that have served to muddle the message of anti-globalization protests.

After seeing the power of a united left in the battle of Telegraph Avenue that included the Black Panther Party, the Peace and Freedom Party, and thousands of unaffiliated radicals and progressives, Peter began to think about how "out of touch" the left, and Trotskyism in particular, was with "the reality of what it would take to build a mass current for social justice." He found himself becoming more and more aware of how detached it was from American realities:

We were so disconnected from our own history that to join our organization and remain active, a member had to become interested in and invested in the internal factional struggles of socialism in Russia and Europe. This was important but couldn't serve as the framework for a mass movement for social change.

He doubted that a single party member could name the first candidate of the Liberty Party, the original third party in American history formed to oppose slavery. It was also unlikely that any had ever read Frederick Douglass's newspaper "The North Star" that would eventually become a symbol of the kind of broad left that Peter sought to build.

When I arrived in Boston, it was understood immediately that I and a few other imported members were there to take Peter's side in a bitter factional struggle over the anti-war movement. Larry Trainor, a veteran of the 1930s movement who had recruited Peter to the SWP in 1959 and who was suspicious of the "middle class" peace movement, had influence over a layer of young leaders in the branch. They had adapted to the Maoist wing of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) led by Jared Israel that was "colonizing" the hospital workers union where the "real action" was. Ironically, it was exactly this kind of senseless colonization strategy adopted by the SWP majority in the 1970s that would lead to Peter's resignation, my own, and that of hundreds of others.

Before long he had convinced most of Trainor's supporters that the antiwar movement was not only in the interests of the SWP as a way to gain new members but also in the interests of the Vietnamese who needed a powerful mass movement to force the withdrawal of American troops.

Although Peter says nothing about this faction fight in a memoir understandably devoted mostly to events not taking place in the smoke-filled rooms of the SWP, it had a major impact on my own political education. He had a way of bringing political clarity to discussions that would serve as a guideline to others, including me. One debate in particular will remain with me forever, so much so that it is recounted in my own memoir scheduled for publication in 2011 by the grace of Random House.

In early 1970 a fight broke out at a branch meeting over whether to support the Shea Bill. James Shea, a 31-year-old state legislator, proposed that Massachusetts authorize residents to refuse combat duty in undeclared wars. Larry Trainor's supporters denounced the bill as sowing illusions in the possibility of stopping the war through legislation rather than the direct action of a working class that had not yet showed any kind of real militancy.

Peter replied to this in a way that I had never heard from an SWP leader. He explained that Lenin used to stay up late at night studying the repressive Czarist law codes to look for loopholes that workers could exploit to go on strike legally. Like Lenin, we had to take advantage of any and every law in order to advance the class struggle. If the ruling class was divided over the war, including a politician at the lower ranks like James Shea, we want to deepen that division, not stand aside from it with our arms folded.

Peter's grasp of both the true history of our movement and his ability to connect that understanding with the concrete problems of the mass movement stunned me. When a vote was taken, the branch voted in favor of supporting the Shea Bill.

In a tragic aftermath of this controversy that was probably missed by most party members, James Shea became despondent after the bill was declared unconstitutional. On May 8th, he locked himself in his bedroom and shot himself in the head with a pistol. He died immediately.

The debate in the Boston branch spilled out to the rest of the party and became the focus of the 1971 SWP convention. Peter organized the discussion in the Boston branch by assigning supporters of the majority position to speak about different aspects of the debate. He decided to have me explain the relevance of the "Cochranite" fight of the early 1950s to the 1971 divisions in the party.

I prepared a report that gave some background on Bert Cochran and his followers who were organized as the Socialist Union. These were almost exclusively industrial workers of the sort that Larry Trainor doted on. According to the official SWP version, the Cochranites had become bought off by post-WWII prosperity and lost their militancy. The lesson of the Cochranites was that factory work would not necessarily prevent accommodating yourself to the system. Years later when I ran into Sol Dollinger, a Socialist Union veteran then in his 80s, I discovered that the official version was untrue. Most had remained active in the radical movement, trying in their own way to implement the non-sectarian vision that came to Peter after the battle of Telegraph Avenue.

Ironically, a teenaged Peter Camejo came into contact with the Cochranite group in the 1950s but did not really understand what they were about by his own admission. This good-natured, self-deprecating, and whimsical account should be sufficient to motivate the serious reader to read North Star without delay:

At fourteen I told my mom I was a socialist. She told me to go out and play. I asked permission to go from our home in Great Neck in Long Island to New York City to attend a meeting of the Socialist Union. To my amazement, as I look back, my mother said it was okay but that I had to be back by 10 pm. I traveled alone on the Long Island Rail Road to my first meeting. I'd imagined that it would be in a huge hall with red banners or something along those lines. As it turned out I was the first person to show up, so I sat and waited. Only about fifteen people came. I later learned that the Socialist Union, led by Bert Cochran, had broken off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1953. They were very nice to me. I couldn't understand anything they were talking about but I could tell they supported the poor and were in favor of equality. The small size of the meeting didn't turn me off. On the contrary, I thought, I need to find a way to help because the socialists are so outnumbered.

It is too bad that Peter was a bit too young to understand what the Socialist Union was about because if he had he might have been spared a losing battle fought with the SWP leadership over the years. Ten years ago I scanned many articles from Bert Cochran's magazine The American Socialist and posted them to the Marxism Internet Archives. They were as much of a revelation as Frederick Douglass's newspaper was to Peter, who read every issue of North Star on microfilm from the UC Berkeley library in the early 1980s.

In 1955 Bert Cochran gave a speech announcing the launching of American Socialist that set down an orientation very similar to the one that Peter would embrace later on. Peter spoke about being "so disconnected from our own history that to join our organization and remain active, a member had to become interested in and invested in the internal factional struggles of socialism in Russia and Europe," while Cochran put it this way:

If I may be permitted to draw my own design of the consensus that I believe has been achieved, I would state as the first proposition that the day of organizing a radical movement in this country as a branch office of the Russian concern is over; and thank God! And that is true whether it is a branch office that gets its instructions from Stalin or Khrushchev or Lenin or Trotsky. This country is too big, too diversified, too self-sufficient and self-confident, it has too many people, it has too powerful a tradition of its own to tolerate a radicalism whose source of inspiration or whose hidden allegiances reside abroad. We can be friends of socialist achievements wherever they take place, and we can practice international labor solidarity on behalf of a common cause without surrendering the dignity of our independence and without losing our bearings that socialism in this country, as in all major countries, will only be won as a manifestation of its own national will.

Since so much of North Star is related to Peter's relationships with people other than on narrow political consideration (his list of people described as friends would put most Facebook lists to shame), it behooves me to say some words about my personal contacts with him.

When he discovered that I was a squash player, he made time to play with me at the Cambridge YMCA whenever his busy schedule permitted. Peter was an avid athlete who was proud of competing in the yachting races in the 1960 Olympics. This was a welcome break from the monastic existence he was living in the slums of the Lower East Side of Manhattan on $40 per week. In some ways squash was as much of an aristocrat's game as yachting, even though it originated in a British debtor's prison in the early 1800s. Deeply competitive but a step slower than me, Peter was lucky to win one out of four games. That did not prevent him from seeking me out for matches at Oberlin College in the 1970s at yearly gatherings of the Trotskyist tribe. I always noted to myself that when we chatted after the games were finished, party business never came up. I had the feeling that he saw me as a welcome break from the shoptalk that dominated life among the apparatus.

In 1973 I left for Houston, Texas, once again on a party assignment to wage factional warfare against a minority that had formed around support for urban guerrilla warfare in Latin America as well as the Larry Trainor workerist orientation, an odd combination to say the least. While we were in a majority in the USA, we were in a minority in the world Trotskyist movement that under economist Ernest Mandel's leadership had staked everything on a group in Argentina that routinely carried out hijackings and kidnappings.

Peter had a new assignment as well, doing "international work" to line up groups against Mandel's line. The passages in North Star that deal with this work are like something out of an Eric Ambler novel, including narrow escapes from the security forces in Argentina and Colombia that could have led to torture or death in the most extreme outcome.

Eventually, Peter ended up in Sandinista Nicaragua where a guerrilla band had taken power in defiance of the "classical Marxism" of the SWP but not exactly in conformity with Ernest Mandel's guerrilla warfare strategy. The key to victory in Nicaragua, just as had been the case in Cuba under Fidel Castro, was a fusion between armed detachments and the broader mass movement. Ironically, despite the infatuation of the Mandel-led groups with guerrilla warfare, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was viewed initially as lacking in revolutionary credentials. The European Trotskyists even lent their support to an armed band called the Simon Bolivar Brigade that was trying -- senselessly -- to overthrow the FSLN. They took their cue from Nahuel Moreno, an Argentine Trotskyist who had formerly been allied with the SWP against Mandel and his Guevarist allies in Argentina who hated Moreno. As they say, you can't keep track of revolutionary politics without a scorecard.

Nicaragua had a profound impact on Peter, helping to clarify thoughts that had been with him since the days of Telegraph Avenue. Seeing the FSLN in operation was an enormous contrast to the petty sectarian politics of the SWP, especially the example of a young organizer who understood how to relate to ordinary working people of the Managua slums. Peter writes:

The FSLN gathered people together for block meetings by setting a tire on fire as a way to let everyone on the block know that a meeting was about to happen. One day I came across such a meeting by accident. I can't remember who was with me but we decided to stay. A young man, probably no more than twenty-four, stood on a box and began speaking to the whole neighborhood that had come out to listen.

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 and 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.

I thought about the United States -- the great traditions of our struggles for justice, our symbols, our language -- and how disconnected the left was from that reality. I am not sure if it was on that night or another that I had the concrete thought, "We need a paper called the North Star," the greatest symbol of our nation's struggle for freedom. I remember keeping these thoughts to myself. I didn't talk to Fred about it. Possibly I told Gloria, I can't remember. But etched in my memory forever is that block meeting with the fire in the middle of street and some unknown youth changing my life.

Just around the time that Peter was experiencing this epiphany, I was finishing up my career in the SWP, such as it was. I had moved to Kansas City in 1978 under instructions to get a factory job as part of the "turn toward industry." After a Chaplinesque adventure as a spot welder, I decided to return to private life. A year or so later Peter went through a similar experience as a garment worker in NY and found himself on a collision course with the SWP leadership that viewed this kind of missionary work as more important than opposing Reagan's war on Central America and other more urgent forms of struggle.

After spending an extended period in Venezuela with his family, he returned to the USA in order to implement his vision of the North Star that was influenced by the Sandinista experience as well as the best traditions of the American class struggle, from Frederick Douglass to Eugene V. Debs. Peter died much too young from lymphoma on September 13, 2008, leaving the final chapter of his memoir uncompleted. It is up to our generation to help finish that chapter through our commitment to the living struggle for social justice that kept Peter active every single day of his life.

Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist
July 18, 2010

Unless you are a member of the tiny SWP (reported to be about 125 members) or part of their formal supporter’s network, made up mostly of burned out ex-members, you will agree that the collapse of this once powerful left group is of Hindenburgian dimensions. Such a spectacular fall has been the subject of books and articles, both on and off the Internet. I have probably written about 150 pages on the topic including some material that was transformed into a chapter in a comic book memoir done in collaboration with the sorely missed Harvey Pekar.

My memoir is played mostly for laughs, but it shares the analysis found in Peter Camejo’s “North Star” and the article on democratic centralism by Joaquin Bustelo posted to this blog yesterday, namely that Marxist-Leninist “vanguardism” is to blame. There is something in this party-building cookbook dating back to the early 1920s that leads to sect and cult formation. It led not only to the collapse of the SWP but literally hundreds of other Trotskyist and Maoist groups that once dominated the political scene in the 60s and 70s. From the ex-Maoist perspective, Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air” covers a lot of the same terrain.

Les Evans, a leader of the SWP until his expulsion in the early 80s and editor of Peter’s memoir, bases his explanation of the demise of the SWP on the earlier traditions of “the god that failed”. In other words, it is Marxism itself to blame rather than a misapplication. Of course, there is an odd disjunction between Evans’s fear of the revolutionary party assuming totalitarian control of American society and the SWP’s self-destruction. If the SWP had 25,000 members and was growing rapidly, then his updated version of Arthur Koestler might make sense. But one senses that if the SWP had ever achieved such proportions, Les Evans—always the avid careerist—would have remained a member.

Volume one of Barry Sheppard’s memoir, that covers the period from 1960 to 1973, appeared in 2005, amounting to an official history of the SWP along the same lines as the self-vindicating “History of American Trotskyism” by party founder James P. Cannon. Now, after five years, volume two has still not appeared. If it is never written, that would be understandable since the period covered would include some truly traumatic material. The organization that Barry put nearly 30 years into building has turned into a bizarre cult around Jack Barnes, the man who purged Sheppard, Camejo and Evans.

Leaving aside the psychological pain this would entail, there is also the problem of how to explain the downfall. One assumes that given Barry’s critique of Peter’s memoir that he will adopt some sort of bad seed analysis that was broadly accepted by the older generation of SWP leaders who went into opposition against Barnes in the early 80s. Rather than a structural analysis, it stresses Barnes’s character flaws that were exacerbated by a decline of the mass movement in the post-Vietnam war era. Frank Lovell, a courageous and principled SWP dissident who took on Barnes and who died in 1998, put it this way:

Some SWP members who were closely associated with Barnes became suspicious of him and thought they detected signs of psychosis in the early 1980s. It was clear at that time that he had serious character defects, but it was not until the end of the decade that his pontifications on events of the day indicated a break with reality. At precisely what point the cult complex became the general characteristic of the SWP is not easily determined, but the degenerative process paralleled the decline in party membership and the gradual shrinking of its periphery. Throughout the decade of the 1980s its influence in the radical movement, especially among Latin American support groups and within the so-called anti-imperialist movement, gradually dried up.

In other words, if the SWP had a leader who was not psychotic, like Barry Sheppard perhaps, it would have had a different fate. Of course, the more interesting question is why Trotskyism keeps breeding such nutty leaders. The American SWP and the British Socialist Labor League were defenders of “orthodox” Trotskyism against the dicey liquidationist tendencies of the “Pabloite” Ernest Mandel wing of the Fourth International in the 1950s and both ended up with madmen at the helm. In the case of the SLL, you had Gerry Healy—a sexual predator who accused friend and foe alike of being CIA agents.

But craziness was not limited to the Cannonite wing of the FI. In Latin America, you had one J. Posadas (nee Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli) who advocated a preemptive nuclear strike against the USA by the USSR and who believed that UFO sightings confirmed the existence of a higher civilization—communist, to be sure—on other planets.

Trotskyism does not have a monopoly on bizarre cult formations if you’ve ever come in contact with Robert Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party or any number of tiny “Marxist-Leninist” groups seeking to emulate Lenin’s party in the same way that a mental patient declares that he is Napoleon Bonaparte.

Barry Sheppard’s review would surely be of interest to the members of the ISO whose Haymarket Press has published both his and Peter’s memoir. When Barry spoke at the Brecht Forum in NYC in 2005, I ran into some ISO members who told me that they were studying the SWP carefully both in terms of its successes and as a cautionary tale of what to avoid. Barry had clearly earned their respect, as had Peter Camejo who had been a keynote speaker at their conferences and who worked closely with their members in the Green Party.

It would also be of interest to the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia, a group that has been moving cautiously away from Cannonite orthodoxy so much so that they endured a split not too long ago by members who would go on to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party led by John Percy. Percy and his late brother Jim were founding members of a group that worked closely with the American SWP and who would agree with Barry that the problems of the SWP have nothing to do with its Cannoite roots. Indeed, it is those roots that must be returned to, who for Jim Percy and Barry Sheppard amount to something like the Garden of Eden legend. Before the leaders of the DSP and the SWP ate from the forbidden fruit of anti-Leninist liquidationism, everything was good. Now it is bad.

Barry begins by defending the older Trotskyist cadre against Peter’s charge that they were nervous about the party’s drift in the 1960s and 70s. Peter wrote:

Many of the older members opposed our support for what they saw as contemporary issues, such as gay liberation, and in general were nervous that the SWP might abandon its roots in Trotskyism and begin to alter its ‘program.’

Barry rejects the idea that the older, working class leaders of the SWP were nervous about the middle-class youth who had come into its ranks. In their defense, he points to their embrace of Malcolm X, the Cuban Revolution and many other struggles of the 1960s that were unlike the 1930s trade union struggles they participated in.

To an extent this is true, but Barry must have forgotten how the entire party leadership—including him—saw the “turn toward industry” as the end of a detour. In the late 1970s, some stirrings in the trade union movement that Farrell Dobbs always referred to as “heat lightning” were taken as a green light to reorient the party toward its historic roots. The 1960s social struggles would not be abandoned—thank goodness—they would just be conducted through the trade union movement. In other words, the older SWP leadership did not have a hostile attitude toward Black Nationalism, etc. as was the case with the Spartacist League. That is true enough. It had only decided that they would be fighting for these causes in a new arena, this despite the fact that the trade union movement as a movement was practically non-existent.

Barry is also troubled by Peter’s understanding of program, something that is put in scare quotes for a good reason in the quotation above. Barry explains his differences with Peter this way:

Peter makes some correct generalizations: “Not only is a political program an evolving concept, but it requires continuous discussion and debate in order for it to be effective. And it must, most important of all, be tested against reality. In other words, the program of an organization trying to bring justice to the world must be a process rooted primarily in the living mass struggles of the people.” But his next sentence reads, “It is not a written document put together by intelligent people in the past.”

Marxist written documents “from the past,” beginning with the Communist Manifesto, are essential to understand the present and to effectively intervene in it. The “living mass struggles” of the present grow out of those of the past. The written programmatic documents of Marxism are rich with the lessons of these past struggles. They do show development of course, since they reflect changing reality, but they also provide continuity. Neither reality nor Marxist theory (program is another word for theory) is always just coming into existence independent of the past.

Well, Barry is simply wrong—that is, at least if he is trying to define how program was understood in the SWP when we were both members. It was not another word for theory, nor was it understood as literature like the Communist Manifesto being “useful” for understanding the present.

Instead, the program was synonymous with a virtual encyclopedia of historical and international positions that people were recruited to. If you were around an SWP headquarters in the 1960s and 70s when young people were joining by the dozens each month, you clearly understood that program of the SWP rested on these foundation stones:

1. Permanent revolution: Trotsky’s belief that only socialism could fulfill the tasks of the colonial revolution in the epoch of imperialism.

2. The USSR as “degenerated workers state”, with such ancillary categories as “deformed” and “healthy”. One might feel as if you had wandered into a clinic when you heard such terms bandied about.

3. A ton of other positions that flowed from these, including what position to take on the internecine struggles in Angola, the character of the FLN in Algeria, the Kronstadt revolt, etc. Once you had developed the ability to articulate a forceful defense of the party positions on such questions in public, you were a cadre.

Peter came to the conclusion after many years that such “programmatic” considerations were not only unnecessary but also harmful. In my discussions with him in the early 80s, he stressed over and over the need to focus like a laser beam on the problems facing us in the American class struggle and to develop an idiom that would be understood by the American people. Indeed, this is the reason he did not get involved in the futile attempts by Frank Lovell et al to defend the SWP “program” against Jack Barnes’s supposed Castroite deviations (sigh, if that were only the case.) When I told him in one of our initial phone calls that I was upset about the rejection of permanent revolution, he said, “Louis, of course you are right to be upset. Trotsky was correct. But the issue is Trotskyism, not Trotsky.”

Rather than come to terms with Peter’s party-building ideas that have been articulated in various places in “North Star” and in articles like “Against Sectarianism” and “Return to Materialism”, Barry sets himself up as the defender of Marxism against Peter, who is portrayed as some kind of pragmatist. While Barry’s tone is not as vitriolic as James P. Cannon’s or Leon Trotsky, one cannot escape feeling that he is reenacting the Shachtman-Burnham fight.

Peter’s position appears to reject the basic program of Marxism. He writes that Marx was right on many things. “Marx said human history can be understood like any other scientific process,” he says. He goes on to list other positive aspects of Marx’s thought. “Marx raised the idea that humans can transcend the brutality, violence, and abuse that have characterized most of human society for at least the past few thousand years. He laid out a view that attempted to tie society’s past evolution to how it might evolve in the future.”

Peter nowhere affirms Marx’s program, and appears to reject it by omission. That is, he rejects much more than the SWP’s program. In the place of program and theory he presents an agnostic view: “The science of social change is permanently evolving. We will learn what works – that is what is ‘true’ – by the inevitable conflict of ideas and by testing those ideas against reality.” What “works” is what is “true” – a restatement of American pragmatism. We don’t yet know what “works,” including Marx’s program, Peter seems to be saying.

Well, thank goodness Peter did not “affirm” Marx’s program. That was not the kind of book he intended to write. On the idea that “the science of social change is permanently evolving”, one can only demand that Barry offer proof that somehow Peter’s politics reflected a departure from Marxism. At least when Cannon and Trotsky were flaying James Burham and Max Shachtman, they could at least point out how they had adapted to liberal public opinion on Stalin and the looming world war. They could also document Burnham’s open embrace of non-Marxist philosophy. But to turn “North Star” into something like “The Managerial Revolution” is rather silly.

In Peter’s case, all you have is a declared need to test ideas against reality. Now Barry is welcome to interpret this as philosophical pragmatism, but I see it as a useful reminder to avoid the screwball hothouse atmosphere of groups like the SWP that believed that the late 1970s—the era of trade union decline, disco, cocaine, and student apathy—was ushering in a period of mounting class struggle that would lead to a bid for power. It was the disjunction between the reality of American society and the SWP’s millenarian posturing that finally led me to resign in 1978. My only regret is that it took me so long to wake up to reality. That, of course, is a common complaint of former cult members.

Finally I will say a few words about Barry’s reference to Peter’s allegation that Ernest Mandel and other European Trotskyists backed the Simon Bolivar Brigade in Sandinista Nicaragua, a sectarian formation loyal to Nahuel Moreno, a former ally of the SWP. Barry presents solid evidence that this was not the case. Barry has no explanation for why Peter might have made such an allegation other than the fact that he was ill with cancer when writing the book and very likely had a memory lapse.

I can understand how illness and old age can weaken one’s memory and intellectual powers. I am 65 myself with declining eyesight.

One can only wonder if Barry has been coping with declining memory as well, given his characterization of how Peter found himself outside the SWP. In his review, he states, “Peter left the SWP in 1981.” Now, for most people this means that he left voluntarily as was the case for most people back then, including me.

But in another account, he writes:

In 1981 Peter went on a visit to Venezuela. While he was absent, a meeting of the SWP national committee was held. At that meeting, we were told that Peter had resigned from the party. I didn’t find out until some years later, after I had left the SWP, that this was an outright lie, orchestrated by Barnes, who had always been jealous of Peter’s popularity with the party membership. Over the next years in the 1980s, most of the central leaders were forced out.

This doesn’t sound much like “leaving” in my estimation. But I won’t hold that against Barry. I will only assume that he meant to write something more like this in his review and simply forgot what really happened. My only hope is that he can summon up the energy and the courage to finish volume two of his memoir. The debate over party-building is of intense interest to young activists everywhere and his views are essential to this debate, even if they are wrong.…


Louis Proyect says: "...Marxist-Leninist “vanguardism” is to blame [for the collapse of the US SWP]. There is something in this party-building cookbook dating back to the early 1920s that leads to sect and cult formation. It led not only to the collapse of the SWP but literally hundreds of other Trotskyist and Maoist groups that once dominated the political scene in the 60s and 70s."

Undoubtedly many self proclaimed vanguard parties have gone off the rails. But I don't think the concept of "vanguardism" is of much use in understanding what went wrong with the SWP. I would assume that the SWP always thought of itself a vanguard party, but its practice changed markedly.

Furthermore, radical groups that don't follow this "party building cookbook" can also undergo sectarian degeneration, albeit with different specific features. Examples can be found in the anarchist movement (e.g. the "black block") and elsewhere.

The pressures on small left groups in a hostile capitalist environment can produce various forms of deterioration. Some lose their revolutionary spirit and adapt to capitalism. Other fall into sectarian isolation. I see a parallel between the degeneration of small socialist parties in a capitalist society and Trotsky's analysis of the degeneration of the Soviet Union, isolated in a capitalist world.

The degeneration of isolated socialist states can take different forms. China for example went through a phase of extreme voluntarism and ultraleftist rhetoric before turning to collaboration with imperialism and eventual capitalist restoration. Similarly the deterioration of left parties can produce various forms of sectarianism and opportunism.

But degeneration is not inevitable, either for states or parties. Cuba has survived as a relatively healthy socialist state despite incipient bureaucratic tendencies and some political errors by the leadership. Similarly many left parties in the capitalist world survive as relatively healthy organisations, despite their mistakes.

Political mistakes do not necessarily result in degeneration, though in some cases they do contribute to it.

The degeneration of the US SWP was not in my opinion due to the legacy of "Cannonism", as many people have argued. Nor was it due to the psychosis of one individual. Rather it was a result of some specific political errors made by the SWP in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the context of a downturn in struggle in the United States.

On the basis of speculative hopes of an upsurge of struggle by industrial workers, the SWP adopted a policy of sending the majority of its members into blue collar industrial jobs. When the upsurge failed to materialise, the policy was not re-assessed. Instead, the rationale was changed to one of safeguarding the party from the danger of “degeneration”, which would supposedly occur if it did not change its alleged “petty bourgeois composition”. White collar workers came to be considered as “petty bourgeois”. But the turn to industry, far from protecting the party from degeneration, contributed to the growing sectarianism of the SWP.

But why did the SWP leadership make those particular errors at that particular time? Why did the fear of “degeneration” due to “petty bourgeois composition” arise in the late seventies and early eighties? I won’t attempt to offer a complete explanation, but merely draw attention to a few contributing factors.

The context in which the degeneration occurred was a period of downturn in struggle in the US. The end of the Vietnam war meant the end of the mass anti-war movement. The US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 was a tremendous victory, both for the Vienamese people and the international anti-war movement. But the US ruling class immediately set about eroding this victory. They did so in a way that was not immediately obvious, and that created confusion and demoralisation in the broad layer of activists who had been radicalised by the Vietam war, and who had adopted a position of solidarity with third world struggles, without having a clear Marxist analysis.

Most of these activists did not make a clear differentiation between the genuinely revolutionary leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party and the Stalinist bureaucracy in Beijing, or the nationalist and racist Khmer Rouge movement led by Pol Pot in Cambodia. Soon after the US withdrawal from Indochina, the atrocities of the Pol Pot regime began to be exposed. The initial reaction of much of the left was skepticism towards bourgeois media reports, but it eventually became clear that the Khmer Rouge regime was indeed oppressive and murderous.

In addition, conflicts broke out on the Vietnam/Cambodia and Vietnam/China borders, culminating in the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia (which liberated the Cambodian people from Pol Pot) and the Chinese invasion of Vietnam.

These events were correctly analysed by the SWP. US imperialism had offered economic and other bribes to the Chinese Stalinist bureaucracy as a reward for attacking Vietnam, both directly and via its ally the Pol Pot regime. This situation did not confuse SWP members. But the fighting among three governments which had all been perceived as socialist or revolutionary did confuse and dishearten the broader radicalised layer.

In the late 1970s a series of new revolutionary upsurges occurred in third world countries - Afghanistan in 1978 and Iran, Nicaragua and Grenada in 1979. These developments made the SWP very optimistic. However the state of mind of the broader left in the US was much more confused and pessimistic. I have already mentioned the impact of the Vietnam/China/Cambodia conflict. In addition, most leftists did not share the SWP’s enthusiasm for the Iranian revolution, seeing it as merely the replacement of one dictatorship (that of the Shah) by another (that of Khomeini and his Islamic fundamentalist supporters). The SWP, with its emphasis on the crimes of US imperialism, was perceived by many on the left as downplaying the crimes of the Khomeini regime.

The SWP campaigned vigorously in support of the Iranian revolution, including by expressing solidarity with the students who took over the US embassy in Teheran in November 1979 and held US diplomats and embassy staff hostage for 444 days.

The students occupying the embassy were motivated by a justified anger at the role of US imperialism in Iran. However the prolonged holding of the hostages gave the US ruling class an opportunity to stir up chauvinism amongst the American people to fever pitch. The SWP courageously defended the embassy occupiers, but could do little to stem the tidal wave of US chauvinism. The political climate in the US moved to the right, resulting in the election of Reagan. The left was marginalised.

Meanwhile, beginning in 1978, the SWP had begun carrying out a “turn to industry”. This was justified with the prediction that the world economic situation would drive the ruling class to increasingly attack industrial workers, who would therefore become increasingly radical. The SWP (possibly influenced by a 110-day miners strike in 1977-78) came to the belief that the United States (and indeed the whole world) was headed for a big upsurge of industrial struggle.

This did not eventuate. The capitalists certainly escalated their attacks on workers (including industrial workers) but there was no mass upsurge in response. Instead the period that followed was one of defeats and retreats for the US working class.

The SWP’s misjudgement of the period led to a policy of encouraging “a large majority” of its members to get industrial jobs. While this was a mistake, it need not have been a disaster if corrected in time. But instead, the turn was “deepened”. It became virtually compulsory for SWP members to have jobs in basic industry.

Why did this happen? There are various ways of approaching this question. We could look at the psychological traits of Jack Barnes and other SWP leaders. However, while the role of individuals is important, I think it is more useful to focus on how national and international events impacted differently on the SWP and on the broader US left, and how this affected the SWP’s relation to the broad radical milieu.

The left in general was increasingly marginalised, and much of it was demoralised and confused. The SWP, by contrast, was very optimistic.

The SWP had a significantly different approach to Iran than most of the left. (See, for example, the articles “Iran: Why defenders of ‘democracy’ go wrong”, by David Frankel, Intercontinental Press, October 5, 1981, and “US left and the Iraq-Iran war”, by Cindy Jaquith, Intercontinental Press, May 14, 1984). While most of the left saw the Iranian revolution as an esssentially reactionary phenomenon, the SWP saw it as highly progressive. While most of the left saw the Khomeini regime as the main oppressor of the Iranian people, the SWP saw US imperialism as the main threat.

The Iranian revolution is a very complex topic, and in this article I will not try to evaluate whose view of the revolution was more correct*. I will merely note that the differences over Iran deepened the gulf between the SWP’s view of the world political situation and that of most American leftists.

Nicaragua was a different case, since most American leftists were very sympathetic to the revolution. However the SWP refused to work with them in any consistent way. Why was this?

I suspect that the differences over other issues - particularly Iran - led the SWP to have a very low opinion of the rest of the left, which was seen as having capitulated to imperialist propaganda against the Iranian revolution. This led to the SWP seeing its own members as the only reliable anti-imperialist campaigners. It came to see little value in working with other leftists around international issues, since they could not be relied on to remain firm in opposition to imperialism. Instead issues such as Nicaragua should be taken into the unions, which were supposedly on the verge of a mass upsurge.

Furthermore the turn to industry was creating a sociological difference between the SWP and most of the left. The SWP came to be composed mainly of people working in blue collar jobs, whereas most leftists were white collar workers or students. The existence of both sociological differences and political differences probably suggested to the SWP leadership - which was of course familiar with the writings of Trotsky and Cannon on the 1939-40 split in the SWP - that the sociological differences caused the political differences. Once they started thinking along these lines it became hard for them to contemplate abandoning the turn to industry, even when its original rationale - the expectation of a mass upsurge of industrial struggle - was proven false.

In some historical circumstances sociology is indeed relevant to explaining the development of political differences among leftists**. In this case however the SWP’s interpretation was mistaken. The confusion among leftists about Vietnam or Iran was not caused by the sociological position of the US left, but by the inherent complexity of these issues and the lack of a thorough understanding of Marxism amongst the broad radicalised layer.

The turn to industry had cut the SWP off sociologically from the bulk of those who had been radicalised by the Vietnam war. At the same time world events had somewhat demoralised this radical layer (though not irreversibly), and there had developed a growing gap between the SWP’s world view and that of most leftists.

The separation of the SWP from its potential support base and source of recruits among students and white collar workers was not compensated by a new radicalisation among blue collar workers. Thus the party was unable to recruit significantly and began to shrink rapidly. This created a favourable climate for the development of a “siege mentality” and the growth of sectarian attitudes. This was intensified by the expulsion of anyone who disagreed with any aspect of the leadership’s policy.

During the early eighties the SWP reassessed its theoretical view on revolution in the third world, changing from Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution to Lenin’s two-stage theory. However this change to a more correct theory was useless in the absence of a serious approach to building the broadest possible solidarity with third world revolutions. Subsequently the revolutions which had given SWP members a feeling of optimism suffered setbacks and defeats.

All this had nothing to do with Cannonism as a party building method. Rather it resulted from a combination of objective circumstances, mistaken judgements about the state of the class struggle, and mistaken decisions flowing from those mistaken judgements.

Another element of the SWP’s sectarianism was the policy that its members should refuse to take on leadership positions in the unions (even at the shop steward level). This was certainly not Cannon’s policy in the 1930s, when SWP members held leading positions in the Teamsters Union. It was a policy adopted by the SWP in the 1950s, at a time of retreat and witch-hunting in the unions. The continuation (or re-adoption?) of this policy at a time when the industrial working class was supposedly in a period of upsurge was illogical. Whatever the reason for this policy it was not the result of “Cannonism”.


* Iran

I think the SWP was correct in emphasising that the main task of US socialists was opposition to the role of US imperialism in Iran and the Middle East region as a whole.

In the first two or three years of the revolution, the SWP’s analysis of the situation in Iran was largely correct, though there was at times a tendency to downplay the reactionary character of the Khomeini wing of the regime, with criticism being focused on the pro-imperialist “liberals”.

In writing about the embassy seizure the SWP focused on solidarity with the occupiers (who were motivated by genuine anti-imperialists sentiments), without adequately analysing the motives of the Khomeini wing of the government, which planned and organised the occupation (See Dilip Hiro: “Iran under the Ayatollahs”, Routledge & Kegan Paul 1987, p 136-7).

The occupiers called themselves “Muslim students following the Imam’s [i.e. Khomeini’s] line”. The embassy seizure was a weapon used by Khomeini’s supporters against the “liberal” wing of the government, led at that time by the prime minister Mehdi Bazargan; but it was also a tactic used to help marginalise the left. The Khomeini faction used the occupation as a way of gaining credibility by appearing to be the most intransigent anti-imperialists, and thereby attracting radical youth and workers away from the left groups and into the network of pro-Khomeini organisations (the Revolutionary Guards, the Jihad for Reconstruction, the Mobilisation Corps of the Oppressed, etc).

However some articles in the US SWP magazine Intercontinental Press were unclear about the nature of these organisations. Some of the Iranian socialists interviewed by IP seemed to see the pro-Khomeini organisations such as the Revolutionary Guards, Jihad and Mobilisation Corps as inherently revolutionary (See for example “Interview with an Iranian Socialist”, Intercontinental Press, October 18, 1982). It is true that some members of these organisations did at times take progressive positions on certain issues and sometimes came into conflict with reactionary actions by the government. But fundamentally they were bourgeois organisations, loyal to the bourgeois Khomeini regime. They coopted radicalising youth into becoming supporters of this regime.

The SWP continued to talk about “the Iranian revolution” even after the elements of dual power which were created in 1979 had largely been suppressed or coopted by the bourgeois state. It argued as follows: “By attacking the rights of workers, peasants, oppressed nationalities, and women, the Iranian regime has dealt significant blows to the gains of the revolution. But it has not crushed the revolution, as can be seen by the massive mobilizations of Iranians today to defend their revolution from Iraqi attack”. (“The US left and the Iraq-Iran war”, IP, May 14, 1984)

The revolution may not have been “crushed”, but by 1984 it had been contained. The bourgeois government had been stabilised. The upsurge of worker and peasant struggles, while not totally ended, had been dampened down. This was partly a result of repression, but partly also the success of the regime in drawing radicalising youth into “Islamic” organisations loyal to the government.

Economically the revolution had begun to retreat. The threat to the property of the capitalists and landlords had begun to recede.

During the first year of the revolution a lot of capitalist enterprises had been expropriated. This continued at a slower pace for a couple of years. In the countryside peasant land seizures occurred. The reaction of local authorities varied - sometimes the peasants were repressed, sometimes not. A land reform law was introduced in an attempt to regulate the process.

But by the end of 1982 an “economic thermidor” had begun (Shaul Bakhash, “The Reign of the Ayatollahs”, Basic Books, 1986, p 211-216). The Council of Guardians issued a series of rulings defending private property. They declared the land reform law invalid. Government officials in 1983 began offering to return the nationalised enterprises to their former owners.

I am prepared to accept that “the Iranian revolution” had not been crushed, provided we are clear that what survived was a bourgeois revolution with a bourgeois leadership. But similarly it is arguable that the Iraqi revolution had not been crushed either. The Iraqi monarchy, overthrown in 1958, had not been restored. Land reform had not been reversed. The Iraqi oil industry, nationalised in 1972, remained under state ownership. The Saddam Hussein regime had the support of a section of the Iraqi population on the basis of its Arab nationalist ideology, despite its repression of the left.

Admittedly in the early 1980s the Iranian regime probably had more genuine popular support than Saddam’s regime, while the Iranian mass organisations probably had a greater degree of independence from the government than the Iraqi ones. But these were differences of degree, not kind.

Economically the two regimes were similar. Both governments had nationalised most of the foreign-owned industries operating in their countries. This is one reason why both were later included in George Bush’s “axis of evil”.

The SWP however saw Iran and Iraq as qualitatively different. This led it to support the Iranian regime’s attempts to overthrow the Saddam regime by sending Iranian troops into Iraqi territory (after the Iraqi army had been driven out of most of the Iranian territory it had captured). Intercontinental Press (October 18, 1982) published without criticism an interview with an Iranian socialist who opposed a call from the Tudeh (Communist) Party for the Iranian regime to offer a peace agreement.

The Iranian socialist seems to have assumed that the Iranian armed forces would be welcomed as liberators by the Iraqi masses. However the Iranian army had very limited success in capturing Iraqi territory. Of course this was partly due to imperialist aid to Iraq; but it was also because most Iraqis did not see the Iranian bourgeois army as an army of liberation. Dilip Hiro argues that: “...the Iranian invasion of Iraq aided Saddam Hussein at home: he could convincingly brand his opponents as traitors”. (“Iran under the Ayatollahs”, p 232) A public offer of peace would have been more threatening to Saddam than an Iranian invasion.

The war dragged on inconclusively until 1988. The US backed Iraq because it was worried that an Iranian victory would inspire radical Islamist movements in other Middle Eastern countries that might replace pro-imperialist regimes with relatively independent capitalist regimes.

At that time, Iraq was allied with pro-imperialist regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But this alliance was not set in stone, as the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait showed.

Iraq and Iran, both societies which had experienced bourgeois revolutions, had more in common with each other than either did with Kuwait or Saudi Arabia. The Iraq/Iran war undermined the gains of both revolutions. The Tudeh Party was correct to call for peace. Those Iranian socialists who opposed this demand were wrong. And the SWP was wrong to endorse the line of continuing the war.

** Politics and sociology

It should be noted that the practice of explaining political differences on the basis of sociological differences is not peculiar to Cannon and Trotsky. Lenin explained the betrayal by the social democratic parties by reference to the role of the bureaucracy and labor aristocracy, i.e. by the sociology of these parties.


All this had nothing to do with Cannonism as a party building method. Rather it resulted from a combination of objective circumstances, mistaken judgements about the state of the class struggle, and mistaken decisions flowing from those mistaken judgements.


This is true only as far as it goes. The workerist turn was clearly related to a change in the objective conditions. However, my differences with Barry and with the RSP *do* have to do with Cannonism. Barry Sheppard and John Percy (perhaps Barry less so) understand that the workerist turn was a mistake, but I don't think they understand the problems with Cannon's writings.


What we have here is, as Cool Hand Luke once said, is a failure to communicate. Hence, we have two debates going on at the same time: one on the specific failures of the SWP during the 1980's "turn to industry" which was caused by an incorrect appreciation of the changing nature of imperialism and its effects on the composition of the North American working classes; the other by a continuation of the debate between Cannon and CLR James on the role of the revolutionary party and its relationship to the masses.

Missing from the analysis of the first debate is the role played by the international faction fight between the Europeans and the North Americans and their Latin American allies Nahuel Moreno and Hugo Blanco, and its effect on the SWP's rejection of working with "the broad vanguard" as it was termed. As a member of the Canadian section at the time, I remember well how this turn would supposedly put an end to the petty bourgeois deviations which the Barnes-Hansen leadership found hiding behind every non-Cannonist rock: concepts of the broad vanguard found in Mandel's "The Lenninist Theory of Organisation", the support for "the armed party" concept in Latin America, etc.

The concept of the new working class, where technological change was restructuring the face of the North American proletariat, was seen by the SWP old guard to be part and parcel of these newfangled deviations from the Cannonist playbook.

Where Chris Slee and the many others in the "Leninist strategy of party building camp" (Cannonist) are wrong is where Peter Camejo and the many thousands of others who have rejected the Cannonist notions are right: that building the revolutionary movement of the masses is the raison d'etre of Marxist political practice. What Barry Sheppard and Chris Slee miss in their interpretations of the degeneration of the SWP and its inability to embrace alternative visions of how to act as the yeast in the fermentation of revolutionary milieus is precisely the point of the debate between James and Cannon. That is, if your aim to build the party above all, all become instrumentalist in achieving that aim. If on the other hand the aim is to help build and fortify the actual struggles of the working class by helping to clarify things for those in the struggle, the instrumentalist and manipulative approach has really no basis for existence, a la Marx in that famously obscure passage in the Manifesto where Communists have no party separate and apart from that of the proletariat.

This is the debate which Peter and many others have played out during their time in the Socialist Workers party. Surely Barry and Chris are still alert enough to recognize that when a person of Peter's stature and morality is expelled from a supposedly revolutionary organization, then the precepts of that organization must be brought under the microscope to see wherein lies the virus. Baccillus, thy name is Cannon.


Peter Camejo's main legacy is his ongoing attempt to break out of the Trotskyist straitjacket and move socialist politics forward. In attempting to do that I think he began to understand the chronic mistakes that bear down upon the socialist/Marxist left.

I think his 1992(?) comment to the DSP -- even if half cocked in places -- captures the essential mistake the Marxist left has made: an unrelenting idealism rather than a considered materialism.

What 'Cannonism' tries to do is straddle that contradiction as it is essentially a modus operandi for survival in hard times. It's all about "revolutionary continuity" -- the culture of activism and the ideas of Marx.Its' the historical Red Edge/Red Mole approach always ferreting for openings while maintaining a core political essentialism.

It does not equate with what Jack Barnes constructed (or is it deconstructured?) but of course Trotskyism's penchant for that political perversity is far too common a phenomenon to be dismissed as an occasional side effect. You can see it at work even today within great swathes of the far left: an addiction for shibboleth and ideological discourse rather than real everyday struggle or a broad strategic engagement.

Peter's problem, I believe, is that while he saw the problem and understood its roots , he also failed to forge an alternative to it.

I think that's still our collective problem. This is still an ongoing project in a few countries. And in that regard , many more Marxists are in sync with Peter Camejo's ideas (and the challenge he posed) than was the case 10, 15, 20 years ago.

That said, I think the essential feature of Cannonism, its key property, is the business of sustaining activity. Our shared political problem (regardless of whether we see ourselves as Cannonist or not) are all those pressures that draw us toward inactivity and political passivity, even a preference for ideological chit chat rather than engagment with living struggles.

It has to be about returning to the struggle again and again -- and utiliziing whatever means we can forge to do that. I think Peter was loyal to that perspective.

The key Cannonist question is: what organisational form should that collective struggle take?


I have two brief comments. The first is concerning Louis Proyect's comment that I may not have the "courage" to write the second volume of my political memoir about my time in the SWP. He also questions why it has not appeared since it has been five years since the first volume was published. I note that the first volume took me five years to write. Perhaps Louis is unaware that a personal tragedy intervened which set my writing schedule back. In August 2005 my companion of many decades, Caroline Lund, became ill with what turned out to be ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease). ALS is a relentless degenerative disease that is always fatal. As her ALS developed, I became more and more her caregiver, until it became 24/7. She died in October 2006. After her death I was overwhelmed with grief. After some time, I was able to slowly get back to working on the book. I have completed the first drafts of 17 chapters, which is Part One of the book, covering 1973 through 1979. I have also written drafts of six chapters of Part Two, covering 1980-88. My target is to complete the first drafts of Part Two before the end of the year. This second volume will explain in some detail the evolution of the SWP in those years. Part of this explanation will document the degeneration of the party, from my point of view. At this time I am not in a position to engage anyone in polemics about this or other aspects of the SWP after 1973. After the book is published, and others have had a chance to read it, I will answer opposing views informed by what I document. In my review of Peter's book I note that he thinks the program of the SWP was always wrong. Louis says that Cannonism was the culprit. Both views logically lead to the conclusion that there was no degeneration of the SWP at all. I note that there are contradictory elements in Peter's book, and in Louis' initial review of my first volume. My explanation will affirm that there was a degeneration, and so will stand in sharp contrast to Peter and Louis.

The second point is minor, and concerns my paragraph about Peter "leaving" the SWP in 1981. My purpose was to bracket the time Peter was in the SWP, 1960 to 1981. Here is what Peter says in "North Star": "The SWP allowed members to take a leave of absence and be inactive for a period of time. So I reported to Olga Rodriguez [organizer of the New York branch of the SWP at the time] that I wanted to take a leave. Olga then reported in writing to the entire leadership of the SWP, clearly with Barne's complicity, that I had informed her of my resignation. This was not a misrepresentation of intent -- I kept a diary at the time and wrote these things down." This jibes with what Peter told me in the early 1990s, and with the quote from me in Louis' piece. There is no doubt that Peter got a raw deal in this instance, and in others which he writes about in his memoir, which I also didn't refer to in my review (but which will be included in my second volume). Peter headlines his statement, "I Depart from the Socialist Workers Party." Perhaps there would have been less confusion if I used the word "depart" instead of "leave."


Barry Sheppard: "In my review of Peter's book I note that he thinks the program of the SWP was always wrong. Louis says that Cannonism was the culprit. Both views logically lead to the conclusion that there was no degeneration of the SWP at all."

Uh, no they don't.

They imply that the seeds of the degeneration were there from a very early stage, if not the beginning.

I'm inclined to agree to some extent, in that sectarian isolation tends, over time, to be destructive, and programmatic errors that tend to reinforce and justify that isolation only make things worse.

Of course, the real causes of the sectarian isolation of the SWP were objective, but the subjective component was certainly there.

And, obviously, there was a real difference between the SWP in its comparatively healthy days and what it has since become. Destructive tendencies are still merely tendencies and aren't automatically expressed.


Barry: Louis says that Cannonism was the culprit.


Actually, the preferred term for me is Zinovievism. In my view, it is impossible to explain what happened to the SWP without looking at the early history of the Comintern, especially the 1924 "Bolshevization" conference that led to Cannon voting to expel Ludwig Lore--a support of Leon Trotsky--on trumped-up charges in the USA. Lore was the Peter Camejo of his day.


Louis' theory is still a bit too 'original sin' for my tastes. There were plenty of opportunities for the US (and, naturally, Australian) lefts to get their act together over the decades between 1924 or so and now. I don't think that what happened back then determined what the current state of the left in general, or the US SWP in particular, is like today.

The state of, for example, the Nepalese Maoists, is what I would point to to demonstrate my point. Whatever their own problems and limitations, they are a completely different phenomenon to the SWP. Something else, apart from their common roots in the Comintern, determined what would happen to them.

That said, I'm sympathetic to the reinterpretations of the history of the Bolsheviks provided by various recent writers. The received account certainly seems to be deficient.

And of course, 'Cannonism' was a particular set of practices, in a particular set of historical periods, in a particular set of countries, whose historical applicability is therefore something less than universal.

Whether or not is is useful in the US or Australia today is another discussion altogether. Apart from anything else, we would need to define what it means, and what the alternatives are.

And do so concretely, so that the question becomes: "What Is To Be Done?"


The debate on organisation is often very polarised, with people arguing for and against the idea of a "vanguard party". But things are not necessarily that simple.

For example, the history of the DSP since the 1980s includes two themes that may appear contradictory:

1. A strong emphasis on building the DSP as a cadre party with a revolutionary Marxist program. This theme can be found in numerous reports to DSP congresses, etc. The writings of Cannon were frequently quoted.

2. A willingness to participate in broader parties with a more limited program. Examples include:
* our participation in the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984-85;
* unity discussions with the Socialist Party of Australia (pro-Moscow Stalinists);
* unity discussions with the Communist Party of Australia, and participation in the CPA-initiated New Left Party project for a time;
* participation in some of the precursor oganisations of the Australian Greens;
* helping to initiate Socialist Alliance in 2001.

How did these two aspects of our party-building strategy - building a cadre organisation, and building a broader organisation - inter-relate?

In a report to the January 1992 DSP conference, Jim Percy explained it as follows: "One thing we've got to reaffirm about all of these moves that we made, from the Nuclear Disarmament Party to the Greens, is that they did not have as their aim the liquidation of a revolutionary organisation or the liquidation of a cadre party or saying this no longer mattered; that education, program, training, commitment, devotion, all of those things were now irrelevant providing we could just have 5000 members. On the contrary, they had as their aim increasing the number of revolutionary cadre, increasing the development of many, many more people who would have devotion, self-sacrifice and commitment, and be active in a revolutionary organisation.

"Our view was that if there was a broader formation of which we were a part then over time we would have, if the democratic conditions existed, the possibility of winning many, many more people to our views of what needed to be done - the building of a revolutionary cadre organisation that would more and more approximate the sort of party that we think is necessary, that we learned from the past is necessary." (Traditions, Lessons and Socialist Perspectives, New Course Publications, 1994, p. 105-106)

Our party-building tactics varied, depending on our perception of the opportunities for regroupment at a particular time. At certain stages, we concentrated on building the DSP as a Marxist cadre organisation. At other times we built, or attempted to build, broader organisations. In both cases our longer term aim was to build a much bigger revolutionary party.

In today's conditions, should we be trying to build a cadre party, or a broader party, or both?

For some years I was an advocate of doing both. While supporting Socialist Alliance as the main vehicle for public presentation of socialist politics, I advocated that the DSP should also continue to exist and have some public visibility. This was because I thought that SA was unable to carry out all the political and organisational tasks that needed to be done.

However, at the January 2010 congress the decision was taken to "merge" the DSP into Socialist Alliance. This meant that everything would be done through Socialist Alliance and nothing through the DSP.

I voted against this proposal, but it was carried by an overwhelming majority.

The comrades supporting the proposal argued that continuing with the DSP was not necessary, as all the tasks carried out through the DSP could be done equally well or better through SA. This included political education and cadre development.

While I disagreed with the decision at the time, I am prepared to test it out and see how it works. I don't think there is only one form of organisation that revolutionary socialists can and must use at all times.

For example, the July 26 Movement was, during the second half of the 1950s, the leading organisation of the Cuban revolution. It was not a Marxist party (though some of its key leaders, including Fidel Castro, Raul Castro, and Che Guevara, were Marxists).

The July 26 Movement played a key role in the democratic revolution. However, after the fall of Batista in January 1959, it soon split into socialist and anti-socialist factions. The socialist phase of the revolution was led by an alliance of 3 groups: the left wing of the July 26 Movement, the left wing of a smaller group called the Revolutionary Directorate, and the Popular Socialist Party. The latter was a Stalinist party, which had been shaken up by the revolution, but had not broken totally with Stalinism. Eventually these three groups united to form the Cuban Communist Party.

This example shows that we should not have a rigid schema about what a revolutionary organisation should look like. None of the 3 organisations which led the revolution conformed exactly to some ideal model of a Leninist party.

On the other hand, I don't think we should write off Cannon either. I think his writings contain some important insights into party building. The US SWP, guided by Cannon's ideas, seems to have done a reasonable job under difficult conditions for several decades prior to its degeneration. For example, it campaigned in defence of the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions inside the heartland of US imperialism.