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Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is sharing with its readers a downloadable PDF version of Barry Sheppard’s book The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume 1: The 60s which was originally published in 2005 by Resistance Books. To order a hard copy version of the book, visit Resistance Books . Links will also be posting Volume 2 in the coming days
By Barry Sheppard
July 11, 2016 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Marxist Internet Archive -- In the past few years, a new movement has emerged worldwide to challenge capitalist globalization and war, particularly the war on Iraq and the unending “war on terrorism” that Washington unleashed after September 11, 2001. The young activists in this movement are becoming aware that what they are fighting is the drive by the rich capitalist countries to preserve and extend their world domination economically, politically and militarily. It has also become increasingly clear to them that the US government, with bipartisan support, intends to assert unchallenged supremacy among the advanced capitalist countries, to establish, in effect, a new empire encompassing the entire globe.
Those in the active core of this new movement are seeking to increase their understanding of the enemy they face, and are debating the strategies and tactics to use. Many of them are naturally curious about the movements of the last wave of radicalism in the Sixties, especially the anti-Vietnam-War movement, the Black struggle for civil rights and liberation, and the women’s movement. This volume looks back at that time with an eye to the future. Hopefully that past experience, both in the United States and internationally, will be of use to the new generation of fighters.
Among these activists some will come to the conclusion that it is the capitalist system itself that is the fundamental problem hindering progress, and even threatening the survival of humanity. They will want to explore alternatives, to demand that “Another world is possible!” Many will be drawn to socialism and the need for a socialist revolution to overthrow capitalism.
I believed in the Sixties, and I still believe today, that the key to achieving the socialist objective is building a mass-based revolutionary socialist party. Of course conditions are not yet ripe for such a mass revolutionary party to take hold here. However, a basis can be prepared today by socialists joining together in the nucleus of such a party. They can participate as socialist builders of mass movements such as the antiwar movement, or antiracist struggles, or union fights for worker rights. Such movements point the way toward socialism. Socialists can educate themselves about the history and lessons of the working class movement, and publish and distribute literature about current struggles, connecting them with lessons from past victories and defeats. Their knowledge and experience can be very useful within the mass movements and win others to the ideas of socialism.
This book discusses the struggle to build such a nucleus of a revolutionary socialist party, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s — a period of deep radicalization in the United States and throughout the world.
Most of today’s young activists have probably never heard of the SWP or even seen its newspaper, The Militant. They do not usually run into the SWP at protest actions because the SWP of today generally abstains or is present only to sell its literature. Of those who have encountered the SWP many probably do not have a positive impression of the party. They may see it as an inconsequential ideological sect, one which cares little about or is even hostile to the struggles that inspire these activists.
Their impression is not wrong; but that is not the whole story. The SWP in the 1960s and 1970s was an important and influential group on the American left, with a great deal to admire and with a proud tradition of working class struggle going back to the 1930s.
I was a national leader of the SWP from the 1960s though the mid-1980s. I intend to discuss both the positive and negative aspects of that history. This volume, covering the 1960s and early 1970s, will relate the mostly positive experiences of that great radicalization. A second volume, covering the years 1973-1988 will take up the decline of the radicalization, which also saw the decline and finally the degeneration of the SWP.
Of course, the situation in the world and in the US today is very different from “The Sixties.” The USSR still existed then, which had both positive and negative effects on the struggle for socialism and national liberation. On the positive side, the existence of the Soviet bloc held in check Washington’s drive to dominate the world. The USSR also gave material support to national liberation struggles, however miserly and with strings attached. But it also was led by a brutal totalitarian bureaucratic elite that crushed the workers and peasants. Its policies worldwide set back the socialist movement. The struggle against Stalinism in the US and internationally necessarily forms a major part of this book.
Today, Stalinism is discredited, and is no longer the obstacle it was. The existence of a sole superpower intent on dominating the world is the new reality we face. In this new reality, the project of building a nucleus of socialists that have as their objective the eventual formation of a mass revolutionary socialist party cannot be a repeat or replica of the SWP in “The Sixties,” which was formed by that organization’s previous history and the circumstances it faced in the radicalization of the time.
Nevertheless, there are important lessons for the present and future in the experience of the SWP that are covered in this volume and will be in the next. I hope to convey those lessons to the new generation of today.
* * * * *
I call this book a “political memoir” for two reasons. First is to distinguish it from a personal memoir or autobiography. By necessity, I have included experiences from my personal life in order to give sense to the narrative, but I haven’t tried to tell my whole life history. My personal life was not unique. I was like hundreds of thousands of young people who radicalized in the Sixties. Relating the details wouldn’t add much to understanding this aspect of my generation that hasn’t already been written.
The second reason I use the term “political memoir” is that I have not attempted to write a history of the SWP. Many aspects of that history are left out or abbreviated. However, the fact that I was a central leader of the SWP for most of this time means that telling my own political story also covers much of that history.
The book is also not a history of world and national politics and the movements in which we participated. I do provide a rough sketch of this background; otherwise my story would be unintelligible. I have also left out, in the main, the cultural changes that marked those times, except where they impinged on revolutionary politics. For example, I don’t really take up the drug culture, the attempts to set up communes, what was referred to as the counter-culture, and the changes in popular music that affected so many young people at the time. I do discuss the sexual revolution and some other cultural aspects of the Sixties, but not to the degree that these subjects would deserve in a general history of the period.
In the period I cover, the changes in political and social consciousness also brought about changes in language. In the early 1960s, for example, most Black people called themselves Negroes. But with the development of Black consciousness, the terms Black or Afro-American gained preference, and the term Negro came to be discarded as a symbol of the subservience to whites which Black people were rejecting. Writing today, I use the preferred terms Black and African American in this book, except in quotations from earlier times.
Similarly, with the rise of feminism women challenged the sexist language commonly used in the past, as illustrated in terms such as “chairman” or “mankind.” So, in this book I try to use words like “chairperson” or “humanity” except when quoting from documents or speeches of that earlier time, or when a term such as “national chairman” was a person’s official title at the time, even if the person was female.
During the anticommunist witch-hunt of the 1950s and early 1960s, it was common for party members to use pseudonyms when they wrote articles or gave speeches. This was a precaution to protect their jobs, or for similar reasons. Later in the 1960s, however, as the witch-hunt was beaten back, most people no longer felt the need to use pseudonyms. In this book I generally use real names. But I do this only for comrades who have died, who were publicly known by their real names, or who have given me permission to do so.
I use two types of notes. Numbered endnotes refer to sources and are found at the back of the volume listed by chapter. Footnotes contain material of an analytical or historical character associated with the text. I hope that the reader will find these useful, but it may be convenient to skip over them at first rather than impede the flow of the narrative.
To continue reading, download the entire book in PDF format here.