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Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is sharing with its readers a downloadable PDF version of the second volume of Barry Sheppard’s political memoirs The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume II: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988 which was originally published in 2012 by Resistance Books (UK). The first volume can be downloaded here . To order a hard copy version of the book, visit Resistance Books .
By Barry Sheppard
July 17, 2016 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal via Marxist Internet Archive — This is the second volume of a two-volume book. The first volume, which covered the period of the radicalization of “The Sixties,” 1960-1973, should be read in conjunction with the present volume. My main conclusion here is that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was transformed into its opposite in many essential ways from what I describe in the first volume.
The present volume is divided into two parts. The first part I call an “interregnum,” because it forms a bridge from the first volume to the second part of this one, and covers the period from 1973 through the end of 1979. In these years the SWP remained active in the broader class struggle at home and abroad. We took important initiatives, including launching a lawsuit against the government for its undemocratic “dirty tricks” against us and by implication against the wider movements for social justice. There was also an important intervention in a struggle to desegregate the public school system in Boston.
The SWP, together with other parties and leaders in the Fourth International, put a great deal of energy into a struggle to reverse the ultraleft course adopted by the International in 1969. This was described in Volume One. For a time the resulting factional struggle intensified, and then was resolved. The initiative for this resolution came from the other side, the leaders of the International Majority Tendency, through a “self-criticism” of the 1969 turn. Our position was vindicated, and opened the way for a rebuilding of the Fourth International, which my companion Caroline Lund and I were intimately involved with.
In 1978-1979, the SWP projected a course to widen its field of activity through a reorientation to the industrial work force and to embrace the revolutions in Nicaragua and Grenada, which we saw as extensions of the Cuban Revolution. In addition, we were deeply involved in the debates concerning the Portuguese revolution of 1974-1975 and the Afghani revolution that began in 1978. During the 1978-1979 revolution in Iran we worked with Iranian comrades to try to build a socialist alternative, a project I was involved with.
But also from the mid-1970s on, there were negative developments in the party leadership, which began to take shape in an incremental fashion. In the period covered by the second part of this volume, 1980-1988, these negative developments came to dominate. The result was an accelerating decline of the SWP both politically and organizationally. From the vibrant interventionist party of “The Sixties,” the SWP degenerated into an abstentionist sect, walling itself off from the wider class struggle and the rest of the left, shrinking by 1988 to less than 50 percent in size from its high point in 1976-1978. This trend has continued in the decades since.
The first chapter in Part Two concerns U.S. politics, and is a continuation of similar chapters in Part One. The second chapter discusses what I mean when I say the SWP became a cult. There is what may appear to be a digression, a discussion of defeats of revolutions in Afghanistan, Iran, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Poland. But these defeats weighed heavily on the SWP, and form part of the objective situation the party faced in the 1980s.
This book in two volumes is a political memoir about my time in the SWP beginning in November 1959. In July 1988, my companion Caroline Lund and I resigned from the SWP. I call it a political memoir of this nearly 30-year period for two reasons. One is that it is not a personal memoir. My personal life wasn’t much different from the hundreds of thousands of my generation radicalized in “The Sixties,” and doesn’t shed much light on what we were like as members of that generation that hasn’t been written about extensively elsewhere. I only refer to my personal life insofar as it affected my political life. The second reason is that these volumes don’t purport to be a comprehensive history of the SWP from 1960 through 1988, nor of the broader political context domestically or internationally. But because I was a central leader of the SWP for most of this time, and of the Fourth International for much of it, my political memoir touches on much of this history.
One theme of this volume is that the collapse of the SWP was not inevitable. As the radicalization of “The Sixties” receded, the objective situation made it increasingly difficult for a small Marxist organization to grow. But with a more correct orientation the SWP could have survived and remained an important force on the left. It would have been able to play a role in building a revolutionary alternative in the wake of the greatest crisis of the capitalist system since the Great Depression, beginning in 2007. Without the SWP, rebuilding the socialist movement in the United States has been made more difficult. The decline of the left in general following the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the restoration of capitalism in China has meant no other organization has been up to the task. The discredited Communist Party is no longer the obstacle it once was, clearing the field. There are other revolutionary socialist groups and individuals, and perhaps a new beginning can come out of them.
I believe the worldwide crisis of the capitalist system that began in 2007 represents a massive attack on the working class. The drive by the government and the corporations to make the working people bear the burden of this crisis will impel new forms of struggle and organizations to emerge. The rebuilding of a revolutionary socialist party is an urgent necessity to help lead this process as it unfolds. A new radicalization will develop, and we must coalesce a conscious Marxist party out of it and to lead it to victory.
I hope this political memoir will help in this process, both by preserving positive lessons and pointing to some things to avoid in the experience of the SWP. People from other traditions, new and old ones, will also contribute to this necessary rebirth.
Various people have read all or parts of this manuscript and made suggestions. For this volume, I would like to thank Jan Arnold, Steve Bloom, Bob Capistrano, Cliff Conner, Richard Fidler, Lynn Henderson, Paul LeBlanc, Linda Loew, Doug Lorimer, Malik Miah, John Percy, Jose Perez, John Riddell, Kateh Vafadari, David Walters, and Babak Zahraie. Gus Horowitz made especially helpful suggestions.
From their suggestions and criticisms I have made my own selection for incorporation into the book.
Special thanks to my editor, Mark Harris. Thanks also to the Holt Labor Library, and its librarians, Shannon Sheppard and David Walters.
The political views expressed here are mine, as are any errors. I expect that others, including those listed above, will present different experiences, express criticisms and alternative views. I hope my book will stimulate such discussion, and I welcome all such, however sharp. This too will be part of the process of rebuilding a revolutionary socialist party.
There has been a delay between the publication of the first volume and this one. The illness and death of my companion Caroline Lund (1944-2006) diverted my energy into caregiving and then grief for a period of years. This volume is weaker than it would otherwise have been if she had been able to participate in discussions with me about it, and help edit it. It is dedicated to her memory.
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