John Riddell on the US SWP: Part 1, SWP attempts an outward turn (1976–83)

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In 1976, the campaign of SWP presidential candidate Peter Camejo won unprecedentedly wide support from left currents.
The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume I: The Sixties, a Political Memoir by Barry Sheppard, Resistance Books (Sydney), 2005, 354 pages.

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

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

By John Riddell

Part 1 of a two-part article. Part 2 is available here.

July 5, 2012 --, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- The second volume of Barry Sheppard’s history of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP) provides us at last with a foundation of fact and analysis for discussion of the party’s unexpected and deep decline in the 1980s and after.1

The SWP, the main expression of Trotskyism in the U.S. since 1928, grew in the 1960s and 1970s to become the country’s most vigorous and effective Marxist organization. Subsequently, it withdrew from the stage of working-class politics and dwindled to a small, self-absorbed remnant with a harsh, undemocratic political culture.

The SWP set an example of what revolutionary socialism could achieve in the teeth of imperialist rule – and also of how quickly these gains could be dissipated. The party’s demise was a setback for all U.S. socialists.

Sheppard’s volumes are the first systematic attempt to present SWP history during this period, and, as Paul Le Blanc writes, they “will stand as an essential account” not only of the party but of its times. What makes these volumes unique, Le Blanc adds, “is their focus on the effort to build, and the ultimate disastrous failure in building, a genuinely revolutionary socialist party in the United States in the twentieth century.”

I will discuss only one aspect of Sheppard’s account: his explanation of the SWP’s downfall.

Three causes of decline

Sheppard offers three explanations, based on objective conditions, the party leadership, and political policy.

The objective context for the SWP’s decline, Sheppard says, was “the political retreat of the American working class beginning at the end of the 1970s,” which has continued since that time. The social movements (feminism, Black liberation, etc.) where the party had flourished declined. The party shifted its emphasis to the trade unions, but there too the radicalization peaked in 1978, to be followed by a sweeping retreat. “It would have been tough sledding for the party, even with the best leadership,” Sheppard says (p. 321; page references are to his second volume).

Yet other socialist organizations survived and even grew under these conditions. Sheppard cites the gains made by the International Socialist Organization in those years. (330)

Sheppard therefore turns his second cause: the emergence of SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes in the late 1970s as “the [party’s] sole initiator of policy and the supreme arbiter in any discussion.” (210) Barnes’s dictatorial role “blocked correction of political errors” and the “degeneration of the party’s organizational practices.” As a result, “the organizational question was paramount;” the rise of the “Barnes cult” in the mid-1970s was “the fundamental cause of the degeneration. (301, 322)

SWP leader George Breitman cautioned against such reasoning in 1967: “Personal factors play a part in every organizational crisis and split…. To leading participants,… personal factors may appear to be the only cause of a split, or the main cause. But that is rarely the case.”2

Sheppard may well agree, because he cites a third cause of the collapse, rooted in policy: the SWP’s move away from traditional Trotskyist views on the theory of permanent revolution and related issues. This began, Sheppard says, with adoption of “an uncritical attitude to the Cuban leadership,” and went on to embrace the view that Lenin had been right, against Trotsky, on disputed issues of Russian revolutionary strategy before 1917. Ultimately, in 1983, the party dropped the theoretical framework of “permanent revolution” altogether. Sheppard rightly points out that these moves reduced the ideological gap between the SWP and the Cuban revolutionary leadership. (280–83)

In Sheppard’s view, this shift formed part of Barnes’s “hell-bent drive now to break with the SWP’s theoretical past” as part of a campaign to “remake the SWP from top to bottom, under his exclusive control and leadership.” (285)

Appraisals of Sheppard’s new book by other actors in the SWP drama of those years – Paul Le Blanc, Malik Miah, and Lynn Henderson – agree with Sheppard that the Cuba/permanent revolution issue was crucially important and that the SWP’s shift on these issues had a disastrous impact. (Collections of comment on the Sheppard book can be found at Links International Journal of Socialst Renewal and at SWP History 1960-1988.)

A dissenting note is struck by Peter Boyle, then a member of the SWP’s sister organization in Australia and now co-convener of Socialist Alliance in that country. Boyle concurs on the importance of the SWP’s break with many aspects of Trotskyist tradition, but considers this a step forward, not backward. I agree with Boyle’s approach on this point.3

An unconvincing diagnosis

Regardless of one’s views on Cuba and its Communist leadership, there is a problem with Sheppard’s analysis. The SWP’s efforts at convergence with the Cuban Communist current represented a turn outwards, toward linking up with revolutionaries outside the party and building an organization broader than the historic SWP. By contrast, the party’s actual trajectory under Barnes has been in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.

Indeed, the orientation to Cuba stood as a barrier to the SWP’s later inward focus. When the SWP praised the revolutionary credentials of the Cuban leaders, it provided a basis for SWP members to challenge actions of the party’s own leading bodies by reference to Cuban positions. Sheppard provides an example. When the Soviet government invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the SWP initially applauded this move, while the Cubans expressed reservations. It was nearly certain that, in time, some SWP party members would have noted the discrepancy and voiced the Cuban point of view. The pressure of the Cuban view, Sheppard says, contributed to the SWP leadership’s abrupt decision in mid-1980 to drop its support for the invasion. (216–18)

Support for “Cuban revolutionary Marxism” was thus a barrier to the emergence of what Sheppard calls a “Barnes cult.” It therefore comes as no surprise that as the SWP retreated into self-involved isolation, it quietly dumped its support for Cuba’s revolutionary international policies, adopting views placing it at the sectarian extreme of the Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist spectrum. (See appendix, “The SWP Today”) Sheppard notes one example of this turnabout on Cuba: the SWP’s “break … with the Cuban leadership and people” in the case of Elian González.4 (324–25)

Where would the “convergence with Cuba” orientation have taken the SWP in the absence of this sectarian turn? As Malik Miah points out, the evolution of the SWP’s Australian co-thinkers, the Democratic Socialist Party, is instructive; maintaining their general alignment with Cuba’s international policy, they sought to build a broad anti-capitalist regroupment, which became today’s Socialist Alliance. Expelled SWP leader Peter Camejo and his co-thinkers evolved in a similar direction, as did expelled SWP supporters in Canada.

Origins of the Cuba debate

The dispute over Cuba in the SWP leadership, Sheppard reports, originated in 1978, when Breitman – a widely respected veteran party leader – proposed that the party “abandon our characterization of the Castro leadership as revolutionary and instead call it centrist.” Centrist, in this context, meant vacillating between Stalinism and revolution. (278)

Breitman based his proposal on “internal changes in Cuba in a Stalinist direction in the 1970s,” such as the introduction of “Soviet-style bureaucratic economic planning,” the introduction of ranks in the Cuban army, and a ban on factions in the Cuban Communist Party. (279) The majority in the SWP leadership opposed Breitman’s proposed change in evaluation. The debate was taken to the membership, and the majority was sustained by the 1981 convention, although the Breitman current won five delegates.

It may be helpful to summarize what motivated me and many others at the time in supporting the majority position.

  • The Breitman proposal implied that the Cuban Communists, as “centrists,” were political opponents, and that we would try to build our own party in Cuba – a radical shift from our longstanding policy of support to the Cuban CP.
  • We were well aware of Stalinist influence in Cuba, but did not consider ourselves well placed to judge its extent or prescribe an alternative. It seemed best to address the dangers, as before, by publicizing the alternative standpoints of Che Guevara and Leon Trotsky, which the SWP did energetically.
  • There was a countervailing tendency, which Sheppard calls Cuba’s “revolutionary and internationalist foreign policy.” (279) Over time, this policy seemed likely to lead Cubans themselves to challenge internal Stalinist dangers, as actually happened in the 1980s.
  • During the mid and late 1970s, on repeated occasions, we had found SWP policies to be wrong and the Cubans to be right on major world issues: among them, the Allende government in Chile, Cuba’s role in Africa (including its armed defense of the MPLA government in Angola at the latter’s request), the Non-Aligned movement, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, dynamics of the Nicaraguan revolution, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Cuban thinking also helped us understand the upheavals in Grenada (1979) and Burkina Faso (1983). There were also points of difference, such as on the Solidarność movement in Poland and the character of the Soviet leadership, where we stood our ground. Yet we could not but wonder why we had been so frequently wrong.
  • Based on this track record, to assert that the SWP was more Marxist or more revolutionary than the Cuban leadership seemed mere gringo arrogance. Indeed, the course of events raised questions regarding the theory of permanent revolution on which we had based most of our wrong positions. Something seemed wrong with the way we were using this theory – or perhaps with the theory itself.

In this context, the position advocated by Barnes and the majority leadership was not “shock therapy”; most members viewed it as a logical deduction from the SWP’s experience.

The lessons of Chile

An important factor in our assessment of Cuba was the experience of Chile under President Salvador Allende (1970–73). Sheppard’s chapter on Chile, while making many important points, evades a central issue that became crucially important when Latin American popular struggles began to advance in the late 1990s and after: Should revolutionaries have given critical support to the Popular Unity (UP) and to the UP government headed by Allende, or should they have opposed it?5

This is the aspect of Sheppard’s book that has the greatest urgency for us today, and it demands close attention.

Let us consult the SWP’s position at the time. A lengthy 1972 article by Peter Camejo and Les Evans analyzed statements by Fidel Castro during his 1971 visit to Chile. Castro was correct to point out “the progressive nature of the UP’s reforms,” Camejo and Evans said. They also considered the Cuban leader correct in affirming that Allende’s election did not bring working people to power and that a revolutionary confrontation still lay ahead. The Cuban leader was wrong, they continued, to suggest that the masses had a stake in supporting the UP government. “Castro urges support to precisely those who prevent the mobilization of the masses,” the authors said; revolutionists should support the government’s progressive measures but not the government itself.6

The authors compare the Allende regime to that of F.D. Roosevelt in the U.S. – that is, to an instrument of the capitalist class in taming and blocking the workers’ struggle. They also liken it to Stalinist popular frontism after 1935, which subordinated workers’ struggles to “alliances with ‘peace-loving’ imperialists.”7

Inevitably, the SWP’s opposition to the UP government hindered efforts to defend it against the impending U.S.-sponsored coup. The Cuban government’s approach of critical support, by contrast, enabled its government to take energetic measures to defend Chile, while making suggestions on how Chilean workers should prepare for the coming confrontation.

From a Marxist point of view, there was no principled barrier to the Cuban approach. Chile was not an imperialist country like the U.S., Britain, and France, but rather one oppressed by imperialism, and its sovereignty was under attack by CIA subversion. In such conditions, the program of Trotskyism envisages the possibility of an anti-imperialist united front that could include bourgeois forces.8

After Allende’s brutal overthrow by forces directed by U.S. imperialism, the SWP threw itself into activity for the coup’s victims. It soon began to rethink its approach to the Allende regime. In 1982 it printed a large collection of Castro’s speeches during his 1971 Chile visit.9 As Sheppard reports, the introduction to this book, by Elizabeth Stone, reaffirmed the core of the party’s analysis during 1970–73. (21) Yet Stone also reviewed Castro’s statements in detail and praised them as representing a revolutionary course. Members were left to resolve this contradiction on their own. Like many others, I considered publication of the 1982 book to mark a change in the party’s position.

Seventeen years later, in 1999, the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela opened a period in which left forces took governmental office in many Latin American countries. Although these regimes varied enormously in quality, some of them maintained strong ties to the mass movements that had thrust them into power and also joined in close alliance with Cuba. By this time, the SWP had repented of its support for Cuban policies; it strongly opposed both the Venezuelan, Bolivian, and Nicaraguan governments and their alliance with Cuba.

The SWP’s 1982 book on Chile, despite its ambiguity, pointed toward a more constructive policy.

Theoretical innovation

Far from being a “break with the past history of the SWP in all aspects,” the evolution of its Cuba position was consistent with the party’s innovative record during its boom years in the 1960s:

  • The SWP’s much-praised role in spearheading the anti-Vietnam war movement, focused on winning mass worker support for the single demand of immediate U.S. withdrawal, was strikingly different from the anti-war policy of Marxism in the Russian revolution era.
  • The SWP embraced the revolutionary Black nationalism of Malcolm X while he was still in the Nation of Islam. Through study of the mass Black upsurge, the party renewed and deepened the insights of Trotsky in the 1930s on Black nationalism.
  • The SWP welcomed unreservedly the emergence of women’s liberation – a multi-class feminism that lacked the working-class framework advocated by Marxists in the Lenin/Clara Zetkin era.
  • The party’s 1961 position on Cuba, although explained in terms of “permanent revolution,” recognized the uniqueness of this upheaval and of its leadership, which was neither Stalinist nor Trotskyist but revolutionary to the core.

On all these questions, the SWP stood apart from all other Marxist currents of the time. Its policy in the 1960s can be considered as one of regroupment with social movements. SWP members thought in terms of political principle and programmatic continuity, to be sure, but the party’s record displayed a measure of empiricism and a good deal of theoretical innovation.

The attempted outward turn

The SWP’s positive appreciation of Cuban policy was just one element in a broader effort to turn outwards and link up with other revolutionary currents and radicalizing working people.10 The most important of these moves was the campaign to unify the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), in which Sheppard himself played a leading role. A longstanding faction fight was brought to an end, and all concerned agreed that the SWP had been right on the key point at issue. Vigorous efforts were made to unify rival FI groupings worldwide. (125–34)

In 1976, the campaign of SWP presidential candidate Peter Camejo won unprecedentedly wide support from left currents; in turn, the SWP backed the candidates of the Chicano Raza Unida Party and also General Baker of the Maoist Communist Labor Party. (118–19)

SWP conferences now were graced by many new guests and observers: from Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, South Africa; from international Trotskyist currents led by Pierre Lambert and by Lutte Ouvrière; from U.S. groupings of Maoist and “state capitalist” persuasion. Relations were opened up even with the De Leonist Socialist Labor Party.

In the labour movement, SWP members worked hard in the Steelworkers Fight Back campaign of Ed Sadlowski in 1977 and the victorious mineworkers battle of 1978. The party sensed the beginning of a workers’ radicalization and launched a campaign to get the majority of its members into the industrial unions where the opportunities seemed to be concentrated.

In 1977, the party had 1,760 members; combined with its youth movement, its forces numbered 3,000. How could the SWP utilize its new strength and reputation to qualitatively broaden its reach? After 1979, the party began to talk of a revolutionary convergence not only with Cuban forces but with those in Nicaragua, Grenada, and El Salvador.

“We must end our semi-sectarian existence,” the SWP leadership proclaimed. No one knew just how this was to be done, but members sensed that something more ambitious was needed than simply recruiting to the party.

As it happened, the SWP misjudged the conjuncture: the 1977–78 labour struggles did not launch a workers’ radicalization; instead they were followed by a winding down of the whole cycle of upheaval and struggle begun two decades earlier by the Black civil rights movement and by a shift to the right in U.S. politics.

The opportunities did not unfold as we hoped, and – as we shall see in Part 2 of this article – the SWP leadership itself betrayed the outward turn.

In both its achievements and its errors, the SWP’s failed outward turn holds lessons, for Marxists attempting today to achieve anti-capitalist and revolutionary unity.

The party’s efforts have been criticized as delusional, a capitulation to Castroism, and an abandonment of Leninist party-building. These points are certainly worth discussion. But regardless of one’s views on Cuba, there are no grounds to consider the attempted outward turn as responsible for the SWP’s subsequent sectarian retreat. Indeed, the SWP’s attempted outward turn corresponds well with the concerns and efforts of Marxist currents today in many parts of the world.

Appendix: The SWP today

The U.S. Socialist Workers Party today has fewer than 100 members, about 5% of its peak membership in the 1970s. This figure, however, understates the party’s resources. About 150 former members participate in the work of the SWP’s publishing house, Pathfinder Press. The party is well financed. The SWP reports attendance of 300-400 at its major conferences and rallies. Its newspaper, The Militant, lists “distributors” in 15 cities.

The SWP continues its activity in defense of Cuba; here its record compares well with that of some larger U.S. socialist groups. However, the SWP disagrees sharply with Cuba’s international policy. Thus the SWP has denounced the ALBA alliance, to which Cuba is deeply committed.11

As Sheppard notes, the SWP now consistently takes “positions opposite from what the broader left movement holds,” which has resulted in a “general shift to the right” in the party’s political line. For example, the SWP denounced demonstrations in 2004 against the Iraq war; it has embraced arguments put forward by apologists for the Zionist state; it is hostile to the movement for climate justice. (324–26) These stands go together with programmatic “maximalism” – that is, frequently focusing on the final goal of workers’ power or that of a revolutionary party rather than on immediate and transitional demands arising from current struggles.

The Militant reports on many strikes and struggles against oppression but does not indicate any ongoing involvement in such movements by SWP members. A large portion of the SWP members work in unionized industry, but there is no trace of this in the Militant, which does not reflect engagement by members in union work or shop-floor activism.

Former members report a continuing climate of severe disciplinary harassment of members for minor supposed offenses.

The SWP still represents significant human and political resources, but these assets are locked inside a strongbox to which no one can find the key.

[Part 2 of this article discusses the inadequacies of the attempted “outward turn” and the causes of SWP decline.]


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

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

Both volumes can be ordered from Bolerium Books, 2141 Mission Street, suite 300, San Francisco CA 94110; phone 1-800-326-6353. Volume 2 is $15, and a set of both volumes is $25; shipping is an additional $3.50 in the US and Canada; $6 for other countries. Volume I can also be ordered from Resistance Books (Australia). Volume 1 (without photos) can be downloaded for free from: Thanks to Paul Le Blanc for this information.

2. George Breitman, The Last Year of Malcolm X, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970, p. 10.

3. From 1972 to 1977, as Executive Secretary of the League for Socialist Action in Canada, I collaborated closely with Barnes, Sheppard, and other SWP leaders. In 1983, I began work with Pathfinder Press, the publishing house associated with the SWP, to publish documents of the Communist International in Lenin’s time. I soon moved to New York, joined the SWP, was elected for a term on its National Committee, and acted for a time as Pathfinder’s editorial director. After I left the Pathfinder office in 1993, I continued collaboration with the publisher until 2004, when the SWP and Pathfinder broke off relations with me because of my vocal support for Iraqi self-determination.

4. In 2000, a young Cuban boy, Elián González, was kidnapped by counter-revolutionary relatives in Miami. The Cuban people and government campaigned for the U.S. government to return him to his father in Cuba. The U.S. government, after initially resisting, finally complied; the SWP denounced Washington for doing so.

5. Barry Sheppard permitted me to review the first draft of this and other chapters of his second volume and made some changes that reflect my suggestions.

6. Peter Camejo and Les Evans, “Chile: Reformism in Crisis,” in International Socialist Review, February 1972, pp. 10–11, 35–38.

7. Camejo and Evans, pp. 11, 36.

8. See the discussions of revolution in colonial and semi-colonial countries in the Second, Baku, and Fourth Communist International congresses.

9. Fred Feldman, ed., Fidel Castro on Chile, New York: Pathfinder Press, 1982.

10. The SWP had made many previous efforts at socialist regroupment. Among those that were widely known among the party membership:

  • Fusion with the American Workers Party in 1934.
  • Fusion with much of the left wing of the Socialist Party in 1937.
  • Attempted fusion with the Workers Party (led by Max Shachtman) in 1946, resulting in a fusion with the current led by C.L.R. James 1947.
  • Collaboration by the Fourth International with currents supporting the Yugoslav government of Josip Broz Tito after 1948.
  • Regroupment effort with forces breaking with the Communist Party 1956–58.
  • Fusion with left wing of Shactmanite youth to form the Young Socialist Alliance in 1959.
  • Reunification with the majority “International Secretariat” wing of the Fourth International 1963.

11. See editorial by The Militant, July 27, 2009.