Barry Sheppard's SWP histories an 'eye-opener' for young socialist activist

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

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

[For more reviews of Barry Sheppard's books, visit HERE and]

By Daniel Lopez

July 2, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/ -- Unlike many of the reviewers of Barry Sheppard’s political autobiography in two volumes, I am not a veteran of the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP) or Trotskyism. I became involved in revolutionary Marxist politics in 2002, in the Australian group Socialist Alternative. I met Barry for the first time in 2013, when I was fortunate to billet him for the duration of our Marxism 2013 conference, at which he spoke.

Most, but not all, of the members of Socialist Alternative have their intellectual heritage in the International Socialist Tendency (IST), founded by Tony Cliff. However, we are not members of the IST: our founding members were expelled from the "official" local franchise in the early 1990s. Despite this, for most of our existence we had thought of ourselves as an IST group. In the last year this has changed: we have taken a major step forward by merging successfully with another Australian group, the Revolutionary Socialist Party, whose politics are much closer to those of the US SWP. We are also in very serious and promising unity discussions with the Socialist Alliance, another group which represents the traditions of the US SWP. This has not meant that we have dropped the analyses and positions associated historically with the IST, nor has it meant that the comrades from the RSP have been required to change their views where they differ from those of the IST. Rather we have decided, very clearly, that these positions and analyses should not constitute the boundaries of our group. Interested readers can find more about this on our website.

I am not mentioning this just to wave a lonely antipodean flag, but rather to explain that Barry’s books have a different significance for me and for many other members of Socialist Alternative. Our successful unification with the comrades from the RSP has, in a sense, opened up a whole world of experience in revolutionary organising to which many of us, especially the younger generation of members recruited since the early 2000s, had previously not paid a great deal of attention. It is not as though we had strong opinions either way about the US SWP or its sister groups in Australia; it is rather that we had felt "comfortable" with our IST identity. Our touchstone for most questions about revolutionary organising was the experience and tradition of the UK SWP.

So, reading Barry’s account of the SWP during its healthy period in the 1960s and 1970s was an eye-opener. It is difficult to choose examples but the account of Fred Halstead, the SWP’s presidential candidate speaking out against war to GIs in Vietnam in 1968, was outstanding. His positive reception is testament to the rapid collapse that was then taking place in the US war machine. Similarly, his account of the “Bussing War” in Boston is captivating and inspiring reading. This struggle, which began in 1974, saw the SWP play a leading role in defending black students who were being bussed to predominantly white schools under a federal court desegregation order. The SWP, in conjunction with other groups from the black community and the left, mobilised literally thousands of people, black and white, to defend the rights of black students and to defy racists who were organising in threatening numbers to defend de facto segregation.

Clearly, these accounts help to give the reader a sense of US radical history. But more importantly, they demonstrate what a socialist organisation at its best can do. The SWP had an admirable commitment to mass mobilisation that allowed it to eschew the worst elitist mistakes of the New Left or Maoists. Similarly, the SWP was unflinching when it was necessary to take a stand. One thing that Barry’s account drives home is that tactics and strategies in campaigns and movements need to be developed concretely, with a sensitive appraisal of the balance of forces. There is no perfect recipe or blueprint for struggles. Thus some readers may find problematic some of the assessments made or positions taken by the SWP. But this is not the point: the enduring lesson is that the high level of politics and debate in the SWP, combined with its members’ commitment to activism, allowed it to thrash out strategies in a rapidly changing environment, implement them and grow significantly at the same time. This is crucial; too often radicals take a cookie-cutter approach to struggles, failing to keep pace with a changing world.

This, of course, will contribute to the experience of socialist militants who are active in campaigns and movements today. But beyond this, the SWP’s organising methods and traditions are worth heeding. For example, the Young Socialist Alliance was not just an adjunct to the SWP or a different brand name but a distinct yet affiliated organisation. It had its own democratic structure, controlled its own finances and maintained its own membership. Of course, it was standard for the YSA to make its decisions in conjunction with the adult party, and YSA members would eventually "graduate" to join the SWP. But having a separate youth organisation allowed new socialists to gain experience and to learn how to fight without feeling overawed by the greater experience and authority of older members.

Similarly, the SWP’s institutionalised democracy, in its healthy days, is an example from which many proponents of an over-the-top “democratic centralism” could learn. Organisers and leadership committees were elected by the branches for which they were responsible. Comrades whose tendencies and factions differed from those of the party enjoyed rights and extensive opportunities to air their views. Indeed, it seems that small forests were levelled by the volumes of discussion produced by the SWP in the lead-up to its internal conventions.

Finally, the idea of developing a collective leadership in a party, in the style of Farrell Dobbs, as opposed to "star leadership" by one figurehead, is something to which we should pay attention.

Again, none of these is a recipe. There is no single organisational model appropriate at all times, but understanding alternative approaches to organisation and how they were successful, can help us avoid reifying our own structures and norms.

The degeneration of the SWP in the late 1970s and 1980s into an authoritarian sect renders these comments tragic. So, for the last part of this review, I will comment on this aspect of Barry’s books. As a disclaimer, I am not venturing these comments in order to be polemic or to promote the "correct" line. I do not believe anyone has a complete understanding of the phenomena of sectarianism. One review hosted on the blog makes the incisive comment that otherwise very intellectually productive Trotskyists have tended to neglect this issue. I agree. After reading Barry’s books, I sought out writings from the broad revolutionary Marxist tradition on sectarianism and was disappointed to find relatively little. And it should go without saying, this is an aporia. Perhaps the most frightening aspect of Barry’s account of the SWP’s degeneration is just how unaware most comrades were of its full extent, how unable they were to resist it, or worse, how complicit they were in it, thinking they were doing the right thing. In other words, the prospect of spending years of one’s life building a group only to see it degenerate into a farce is frightening .

I will not attempt to repeat Barry’s analysis for the SWP’s decline; rather, readers should consult his books. Instead, I want to sketch out a number of general points in response to the books and to the debate on

First, I reject that sectarianism is the necessary and inevitable conclusion or result of an incorrect program or a failure of analysis or application of Marxism. For example, in my view, the UK SWP, organised around the variant on Marxism developed by Cliff and his co-thinkers, was a healthy and very viable party which sank real roots into the working class and at times almost won a mass audience. Of course, it is not above criticism. For instance it had quite different stands on the "communist" countries, including Cuba, compared to those of the US SWP. It also participated on a different basis in movements of the oppressed and was more hesitant to contest bourgeois elections, to name just a few differences. I am not raising these issues to defend the UK SWP’s view on any of them, but rather to illustrate that on three quite important questions, the UK SWP’s view was narrower – for better or worse – than the US SWP’s. But despite this, the UK SWP remained a healthy and vital organisation much longer than the US SWP.

The other obvious argument against the view that sectarianism emerges from programmatic mistakes is that when Jack Barnes started to lead the US SWP’s degeneration, insofar as he advocated a political shift, it was towards a more "outward-looking" orientation, both in regards to the Central American revolutions and the "turn to industry" [meaning that mostly white-collar and student SWP members were required to get basic industrial jobs]. On the latter question, I found Barry’s argument convincing. It was not the turn in itself that was wrong but that it was carried out in an incoherent, autocratic and sectarian fashion. As Barry notes, Caroline Lund’s experience following her and Barry’s departure from the SWP demonstrates very well what a party of level-headed socialist union militants could achieve.

What, then, is the significance of political or programmatic positioning for a sect? Marx classically spoke about a sect requiring a shibboleth – a marker of its difference from the movement and class struggle. So the SWP’s political shifts in the late 1970s and 1980s should be understood primarily not in terms of their content but as shibboleths that Barnes used to entrench his authority as cult leader. So we are left, paradoxically, with political positions and orientations that are ostensibly more outward-looking being used to spearhead a turn towards sectarianism and abstentionism.

Second, while Barnes’ pathological psychology and undoubted talent as a manipulator were significant factors, it seems to me that this cannot be the main factor. After all, a properly functioning revolutionary organisation must have both mechanisms and the ability to remove leaders – no matter how important they seem to be – who are abusive, unprincipled or corrupt. No leader or central committee is infallible. Now, as Barry makes clear, the SWP did enjoy democratic constitutional mechanisms that theoretically empowered members. Indeed, their rules and constitution were considerably more liberal than those of the above-mentioned UK SWP in the same period. However, the US SWP was unable or unwilling to use its constitution against Barnes. Barnes, on the contrary, either successfully neutralised these checks on the leadership’s power or used the party’s rules against his opponents, progressively silencing and driving out critics.

One of the most depressing parts of Barry’s account is when the SWP started using "trials" and disciplinary hearings over the most minor or imagined infringements in order to persecute party members hysterically, expelling, suspending or simply driving them out. I found myself asking how serious Marxists could stand for this without raising hell.

So this raises the questions of a party’s democratic culture and its norms of operation. This is, as another reviewer has noted, a more amorphous concept, one that is difficult to discuss. Parties also tend to have their own norms that develop over time and are appropriate to their circumstances. If Barry’s account of the SWP reinforces one thing, it is that, in the words of US SWP leader James P. Cannon, we must avoid “strangling the party” at all costs. In other words, for a leadership to attempt to curtail or limit discussion of any political issue is potentially disastrous.

While he was staying with me, with a bluntness born of a few drinks, Barry made a comment that stuck in my mind: “If you can’t debate, you won’t mean shit in the class struggle.” If the organisational culture of a party stifles debate, it will not train revolutionaries but contemptible apparatchiks. It is especially important to be wary of attempts to silence discussion buttressed with moralistic injunctions to action. “We aren’t building a debating shop; we need to be outward looking!” is the standard formula. This line and others like it should be regarded with extreme suspicion whenever they are heard.

This said, the opposite extreme must also be avoided. I am not referring to quantity of debate but to the pressure-cooker culture of recrimination and polemic that can emerge in small groups. Often the intensity of polemic seems to be in inverse proportion to a group’s size. Sometimes intense debate is necessary and important; for example, if the situation urgently demands a response or if a party finds itself in political crisis. But we have to keep things in perspective.

Political purity on every question, past and present, is not the mark of a revolutionary and political differences are rarely – if ever – a signifier of hostile class pressure on the "proletarian" standing of a party. And additionally, as much as references to Bolshevism are hackneyed, let us remember that the Bolshevik party – even in conditions of illegality – enjoyed open debate. Leading Bolsheviks – Kamenev, Bukharin, Zinoviev and Stalin are notable examples – made extremely serious political mistakes at various points during 1917 and after. These issues were debated and corrected but not to the point of expulsions! And this was in the middle of a revolution.

But this raises a further question, which is my third point. Why can an intense atmosphere of “hyper-bolshevism” arise in relatively small groups operating in legal or mostly legal conditions? In my view, this tendency is inherent in any small group of radicals who are relatively separate from the mainstream. This tendency will be magnified the greater the gulf between the radicals’ views and mainstream politics. This takes many forms, from the benign to the downright dangerous. For example, any small revolutionary group will to some extent develop its own jargon and an internal culture. Members will make friends with each other and some serious members, especially those who are employed by the party, can end up living most of their lives in the party and in its activities.

If this is counter-balanced by the insistence that members be involved in unions and struggles and maintain a connection with "real" life, this culture need not develop into fully blown insularity. But it is important to be aware and critical of the potential for insularity in a small group. It should be viewed as a tendency to be opposed. After all, why did serious, capable and hard-headed revolutionaries allow themselves to be cowed by Jack Barnes? He found leverage against them in what they valued most: their commitment to the party. So once more, we see a paradox. A strength of an organisation – party commitment and loyalty – becomes a weakness that created the conditions for the development of sectarianism.

It would be a terrible mistake to conclude from this that we ought not build organisations or that party commitment is something to be frowned upon. Similarly, the fact that leadership can become anti-democratic should not lead us to semi-anarchist conclusions that oppose leadership in general. Leadership is, after all, a fact of life. And just because sectarian organisations champion certain political positions or orientations as shibboleths should not discourage us from taking hard-headed stands when it is necessary. We would not be Marxists if we did not know how to champion unpopular stands at times against the weight of public opinion.

Rather, we need to understand that there were a number of necessary but insufficient conditions that together led to the SWP’s degeneration. Drawing on Barry’s books, I have discussed three: a political shibboleth, undemocratic norms and an insular culture. Each of these, by itself, may have been overcome. To some extent, some of these issues are inevitable overheads that will emerge in tiny groups. But together, unchecked, quantity became quality, and what had only existed as a tendency towards sectarianism transformed the SWP into an authoritarian cult.

Again, this should not lead us to reject party building. This is why it was so important that Barry’s books detailed the best of the SWP as well – this is what we can achieve when we get it right. Moreover, no other viable method of building a revolutionary party has ever been devised or demonstrated. So, the best we can do to avoid repeating the degeneration of the SWP (and other sectarian misadventures) is to understand the pressures associated with building in a period when revolutionary or radical politics is still isolated from the workers’ movement and most of society.

The pressure towards sectarianism will, to some extent, be inevitable as we build small groups, just as a real pressure towards reformism or "economism" necessarily exists for a mass party that takes trade union work and parliamentary intervention seriously. This does not mean, however, that trade union work or intervening in parliament is inevitably reformist. Similarly, building a small group is not inevitably sectarian. But if it is undertaken without an understanding of the pressures involved, sectarianism can be the unintended result. This is why Barry’s books ought to be read by all serious socialist activists and why our movement needs to pay much more attention to this problem.

Finally, I thought I would end my comments on a note of optimism. Perhaps it is that I am still young, and that I have not lived through the defeats of the 20th century. But from here it looks as though the world we are entering is changing extremely rapidly. The capitalist economic system is entering ever greater crises. Mainstream politics is rapidly breaking down. Some countries like Greece or Egypt have already seen enormous upsurges of struggle and revolution. As yet, this has not created a big space for revolutionary Marxism. But we are significantly closer to finding that space than we were in the 1980s. Moreover, the crisis is far deeper in advanced Western countries today than it was in the late 1960s or 1970s. Ultimately, the only way Marxists will break out of isolation on the fringes of political life is when capitalism’s crisis and the class struggle push masses of people to look for a radical alternative.

That day is not yet upon us, but it seems much less distant today than it was in 1978.