Review: Invaluable history, important lessons from Barry Sheppard

Malik Miah.
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 Malik Miah

June 12, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- I’ve known Barry Sheppard as a comrade and friend for more than 40 years. I joined the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in 1969 as a high school student in Detroit. I joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1970 and met Barry at the SWP’s national conference that year. I later moved to New York in 1971 to join the staff of the YSA’s national office. I soon became head of the YSA’s work among Black youth.

Barry and I first worked closely during the desegregation of Boston public schools in 1974-75 when I moved to Boston to head our participation in the campaign against the racist opposition. It was then I became a member of the SWP’s National Committee (NC) and Political Committee (PC).

But our closest collaboration began in 1981 when I moved back to New York after serving three years as the party’s central leader in Chicago where I was the district organiser and later a leader of our fraction in the United Steel Workers union (USWA). My return to the PC came as I began several years of work as one of the SWP’s representatives to the Fourth International (FI) in Paris, where Barry and I served on the FI’s main leadership bodies. We made many trips together to attend meetings and discussions in the United Secretariat of the FI and in European sections of the FI.

I also served as a staff writer and editor of the Militant, the SWP’s weekly newspaper.

So much of what Barry writes in his second volume on the rise and decline of the SWP I know both as a member and leader of the SWP in the 1970s and 1980s. I was suspended/expelled from the SWP in 1989, over differences on trade union policy.

In general agreement

In 2005 the first volume of Barry’s political memoir appeared: The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, The Sixties, A Political Memoir. It covers the exciting years of “The Sixties” and youth and Black radicalisation, in which major political developments such as the civil rights revolution and the Vietnam anti-war movements led to big advances for the working class and poor. It also led to an ongoing counter reaction from the ruling class.

The second volume, The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988, A Political Memoir, was recently published. It covers the period of political degeneration and isolation of the SWP (“the party”) that played a disproportionate role in many of the big events of “The Sixties.”

It is important to read the two volumes together. The sweep of post-World War II history that the SWP and YSA functioned in is central to understanding how a small group of dedicated revolutionary socialists can play an important role in history.

I’m in general agreement with the analysis presented by Barry in both volumes. I will not summarise each section but will discuss key points in the book based on my experiences, observations and hindsight analysis.

In my view, the SWP’s decisions, initiated by national secretary Jack Barnes, to gradually break with the party’s history and traditions made it easier for Barnes to convince the party majority to purge its ranks of long-time leaders and accelerate the SWP’s degeneration. This process culminated with a rejection of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and the transitional method of the founding document of the Fourth International, The Transitional Program, both rooted in the experience of the Russian Revolution and the Communist International in Lenin’s time.

The reasons given for the break with the historical positions of the SWP were ostensibly generalisations made of real struggles and revolutions we all supported, including the revolutions in Nicaragua, Grenada and Iran in 1979. Domestically, there were important fightback struggles in the unions in the 1970s that led us to believe we were on the eve of a political radicalisation of the working class and its unions, which we characterised as the industrial unions moving to “center stage”. This led us to project a “turn to industry” in 1978, to get a majority of our members into the industrial unions.

If these developments had not happened, coming on the heels of the mass movements in the 1960s, it would have been difficult for “one man” centralisation to consolidate as it did. At the same time, there is no doubt in my mind that the seeds of Barnes plans were hatched secretly before these developments.

Because our analysis of events between 1978-81 didn’t work out as we had hoped, as Barry explains, the wrong analysis of the political period (international and domestic) and the failure to correct it—in particular the fact that the US working class was not moving to centre stage — underlined the fundamental error in breaking with the past practice of the SWP and Trotskyism.

This is not to say that it was incorrect to reconsider Trotsky’s views in light of the Nicaraguan, Grenadian and Iranian revolutions. We had always rooted our analysis in previous decades based on new events. Marxism is not a static ideology. We had found that the Marxism known as Trotskyism represented the best tool to understand new mass struggles and determine our stance and policies.

In my view, a policy in the unions adopted by Barnes under the prognosis of a political radicalisation of the working class was more significant than the rejection of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. The discussion on theory should be done in a calm manner. Barnes’ new orientation in the unions soon resulted in practice in the rejection of the entire past trade union policies of the SWP. The new trade union policy became abstentionism from struggles in the labour movement and retreat into abstract socialist propaganda – the hallmarks of an isolated sect.

Ironically it was the failure of Barnes’ analysis to justify a break with our past that accelerated his drive to push his goal of one-man rule and drive out all opposition currents and leaders, including those like Barry and myself who had agreed with his politics in 1978-81. When facts on the ground showed the party’s analysis was wrong, we expected a change in course. That’s how the SWP had operated throughout our history.

Barnes evolution to cult figure

Jack Barnes’ decision (secretly implemented) to become a cult or one-man leader began before the turn to industry or his new political positions on Trotsky, the Fourth International, Cuba and many other issues, as Barry explains.

How could this be done without those in the leadership not seeing it? The SWP central leadership had always operated as a team with back and forth discussions that were then taken to the general membership for final decision.

For myself, I expected corrections to eventually be made. This is how it occurred during the Boston desegregation fight that I helped lead for the party. For example, I initially disagreed with the PC’s conclusion in 1976 that the National Student Coalition Against Racism (NSCAR) should be wound down. There were no threats or fear in those discussions in contrast to what occurred a few years later.

In a political organisation with members dedicated to the cause of socialism and revolution, it required major political events and analysis to justify the break with the past. Jack Barnes used sophistry concerning the revolutions in 1979, combined with organisational top-down purges, to consolidate his control. He then demanded personal loyalty from everyone still in the party or face disciplinary retaliation.

It wasn’t just major political changes that happened. The long-time tradition of the SWP that national officers be nominated, elected or re-elected after national conventions was also stopped at the last convention held before the purges of oppositionists in 1983-1984. When I asked Jack why we didn’t go through this formality since no one was challenging his position, he said it was not necessary and it would imply disagreement within the leadership.

Because Barry, I and others agreed with the changes in political analysis, we saw the organisational changes as secondary to the political evolution. Only later—too late in Barry's and my case—did we understand that there was a direct connection between the organisational degeneration and the changes in the party’s program and principles.

The story and lessons of SWP history are not just for those of us who joined, built the party and eventually left by suspension, expulsion or resignation. It has broader lessons for all those who believe in the radical and revolutionary vision first explained by Marx and Engels in the 19th century and later put into revolutionary action by Lenin, Trotsky and the other Bolshevik leaders of the 1917 Russian Revolution. While many former comrades reject the need for a Leninist-type party today, the ideas and theories of Marx, Lenin and the Communist International of 1919-1922 are still necessary to study and follow.

Barry makes clear that he still stands by his revolutionary Marxist views and believes that those ideas and the need to build a revolutionary vanguard party are as valid today as when he first joined the SWP in 1959.

I believe the worldwide crisis of the capitalist system that began in 2007 represents a massive attack on the working class”, he explains in the introduction to the second volume. “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 build a conscious Marxist party out of it 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.”

Three important lessons

There are three integrated stories in the two volumes:

First, is the events themselves. Barry describes powerful mass struggles—some he observed, others as a participant—at home and abroad. The SWP was involved in many of these struggles as supporters and in some cases as leaders.

As a political party formed in 1938, during the major social upheaval and massive resistance to capital in the 1930s, the SWP had leaders forged in struggle. The SWP’s central leader, James P. Cannon, had his origins in the Wobblies [Industrial Workers of the World, IWW], the left wing of the Socialist Party, and was a founding leader of the Communist Party in 1919. Many of the SWP leaders had been trade union leaders and participated in the auto sit down strikes, longshore organising, building the Teamsters Union and fighting against racist discrimination.

The SWP was also a founder of the Fourth International. The party founders understood that no socialist party could function simply as a national organisation. Internationalism, collaborating with co-thinkers around the world, was key to building the SWP.

After World War II, as Barry explains, the SWP survived the period of the red scare and McCarthyism. Its number one goal was survival. Yet in the 1950s the SWP was able to maintain its program and when opportunities developed after the Cuban revolution in 1959 and the student racialisation of the 1960s, it was able to turn to these events and recruit a new generation of revolutionary leaders. This included Barry Sheppard and Jack Barnes

Second, is the story of the political debates within the SWP, YSA and Fourth International That is, even though the SWP was engaged in the real political events of the day, it also had a lively internal political debate about the meaning of the wars, revolutions and mass movements regarding its program. Was the program of Marxism as understood and advanced by previous generations still valid? Should it be changed? This debate occurred with tendency and factional fights in the 1930s, ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s and 1970s.

Third, is an explanation of how the SWP declined, degenerated and why. This aspect of the two volumes may seem less important to the reader who can easily identify with the big events (Iran, Nicaragua, Grenada, Poland and other democratic revolutions) discussed in the book but who has not been a member of a socialist organisation. In some ways this discussion of the rise, fall and decline of the SWP leadership and program, and the creation of a cult of personality, is the most important one for a new generation of Marxist and revolutionary activists and leaders. Much of volume two discusses how this happened and its lessons.

Some may argue that the formation of a cult (whether you agree that it is one or not) was irrelevant because of the rejection of Trotsky’s views and the Fourth International. Barry correctly argues that the cult (started in secret) began before the new political positions were formulated by Barnes. I believe that a cult can arise even if none of those new political positions were taken. It would have been harder, however, to convince a majority of the leaders and members to accept such a radical revision without facing a bigger internal fight.

Volume 1: Origins, upsurge and response

In volume one Barry explains how the SWP was formed in the context of the upsurge in the 1930s in response to the deep crisis of US and world capitalism. The founders of the party had been leaders of the Communist Party formed after the 1917 Russian Revolution. The big divide in the communist movement after Lenin’s death concerned maintaining the principles of the Bolsheviks or moving toward consolidation of a reactionary clique led by Stalin. Leon Trotsky, the second-most important leader of the Bolsheviks, defended its revolutionary program.

Trotsky was forced out of the leadership by Stalin in the interests of the ruling bureaucratic caste. He led the Left Opposition in the Communist Party and Communist International. Supporters of the Left Opposition were labelled by Stalin as “Trotskyites” and were also driven out of the movement. In the US, Cannon and other leaders of the CP who questioned the Stalin-led Comintern group were expelled for "Trotskyism” in 1928. They were shunned by their former comrades and friends. They formed the Communist League of America in 1928 to continue building a revolutionary party.

The ideas of Trotsky (revolutionary Marxism) were denounced by the Soviet bureaucracy as ultraleft and anti-Leninist. They dredged up pre-1917 debates over strategy between Lenin and Trotsky. Stalin’s campaign was to tar Trotsky as an opponent of the Bolsheviks and he called his supporters “Trotskyites” as a smear.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, as Barry explains in a long footnote, was the essence of the strategy first developed by Marx and Engels of the workers and peasants taking power in a democratic revolution and moving to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat (i.e., a workers’ state). The differences between Lenin and Trotsky weren’t over the leading role of workers and peasants in the democratic revolution. It was over how quickly the workers and peasants should move to put power in their hands alone. Trotsky said the revolution must do so as soon as possible (that is, not retreat under imperialist and counter-revolutionary assaults) to consolidate the democratic revolution and begin the socialist one.

Trotsky’s strategy was proven correct in the heat of the 1917 revolution and Lenin in his famous “April Thesis" came to the same conclusion as Trotsky. The orientation to establish a workers’ and peasants’ government and the establishment of a workers’ state was the agreed upon objective of all Bolsheviks as can be seen in the documents on the issue written and adopted by the Comintern in 1919-22.

It is only after Stalin and his cronies took power that the ideas of Lenin and Trotsky of 1917 were denounced as “Trotskyism”. Supporters of Trotsky later proudly took that name to defend revolutionary Marxist theories and program.

Jack Barnes, who took over the SWP entirely in the late 1970s, knew breaking with Trotskyism made it easier to isolate new members from the SWP’s past. He sold this by asserting the SWP’s past wasn’t relevant for today. He built his cult of personality around his “leadership” as the greatest Marxist since Lenin.

Attacks on Trotskyism (I do not mean the views of dozens of sects that self-identify as “Trotskyists”) are in fact, in my view, attacks on Marxism. One can disagree with strategies and tactics, but to declare that Trotsky, the Left Opposition and later the Fourth International are all ultra-leftists and an obstacle to building a revolutionary party and movement, is a retreat from the lessons learned after the Russian Revolution. Those lessons are what led to the creation of the SWP and how it was able to analyse, understand and participate in everything elaborated in Barry‘s two volumes.

The Cuban Revolution is a good example. The SWP was able to identify with and strongly back that revolution even though it was led by revolutionaries not of the Trotskyist world view. Fidel Castro broke from the Cuban CP to build the July 26 Movement and carried through a radical democratic program soon after taking power. The July 26 Movement’s practice followed the direction revolutions must go to defeat capitalist rule and establish government and state power of the oppressed and exploited. A popular revolutionary regime was first formed. Under threats from US imperialism the July 26 leaders established a workers’ and peasants’ government with large segments of the economy still under capitalist control. As the counterrevolution picked up steam, the Castro leadership moved to expropriate the old ruling class. The SWP recognised that these actions moved Cuba from an unstable workers’ and peasants’ government to a workers’ state with deformations—meaning it lacked clear structural elements of democratic control.

This analysis of the SWP and the Fourth International of Cuba was in line with the Marxist (Trotskyist) theory of uninterrupted or permanent revolution as first successfully carried out in Russia in 1917.

The SWP program is why it could understand the dynamics of the Cuban revolution. It also helped us understand the failed workers’ and peasants’ government in Algeria in the 1960s, where the Ben Bella-led workers’ and peasants’ government stopped short of expropriating the capitalist class. A counterrevolution soon overthrew that regime.

The Transitional Program

Another tool that the SWP learned from Trotsky and the Bolsheviks was the concept and method of the "Transitional Program”. This approach was incorporated into the founding document of the Fourth International drafted by Trotsky. It explained the relationship between immediate, democratic, transitional and socialist demands. Such demands arise from the living class struggle itself. They point to the need for the workers and their allies to take power. Otherwise such demands, even if won in part, will be eroded if not overthrown by the capitalist class. There is no possibility of the working class winning power if it only fights for pure socialist demands.

These ideas were practiced by the SWP as Barry shows in the Black, feminist, anti-war and other social movements of the1960s and 1970s. These were largely based on democratic demands, which began to take on a transitional character, that is, they pointed in the direction of socialism.

One important area of the class struggle is the fight for democratic rights. The SWP made an important contribution to this fight during its whole history, especially in defence cases against government oppression of ourselves or others. A special role was played by the SWP’s lawsuit against government spying, disruption and other dirty tricks against us and by implication the broader movements for social change after the Watergate affair exposed massive government abuse by the Nixon administration. This lawsuit won wide support on the left and democratic-minded individuals and organisations. It lasted from 1973 until we won our case in 1986.

The SWP considered its understanding of the transitional program developed by Lenin, Trotsky and the Comintern as key to doing its political work. It was not separate from its actions.

Barry describes a major factional struggle in the FI that lasted for seven years. The debate began in 1969 around the lessons of the Cuban revolution. It was over guerilla warfare as a tactic and strategy. The majority of the FI came to the conclusion that the tactic of guerrilla war should be elevated into a continental strategy to be followed by the FI sections in all of Latin America no matter the specific objective circumstances in each country. (Barry notes how the same method was being urged for Europe under the strategy of a "new mass vanguard" and for others parts of the world). The SWP leaders and its co-thinkers in other countries disagreed. Barry, who was a central leader of the political fight in the FI, explains how that faction fight led to a near split in the FI. But the failures of that strategy as it was implemented made clear that guerrilla war as a continent-wide strategy was an error. Eventually, the majority rejected that strategy. The two factions dissolved and began to collaborate. Barry and his companion Caroline Lund worked in the Paris centre with others from both former factions to help heal the near-split and rebuild the leadership.

That political debate within the FI was based on agreement with the theory of permanent revolution, the Transitional Program and other principles of the movement. The differences were on application of those ideas and principles.

Iranian and Nicaraguan revolutions

Barry describes in detail the radical events in Iran after the fall of the Shah in 1979. He went to Iran together with a former majority supporter to discuss with the two groups of Iranian revolutionaries how to unify in the context of the revolutionary developments in Iran. The differences between the groups narrowed in the unfolding democratic revolution. The unity was made possible because there was broad agreement on the big issues of program and strategy--showing how big events tend to supersede old differences and forge new determination as occurred in Russia after the February 1917 revolution. Later this would change as the clerical wing of the mass upsurge took full control of the revolutionary process, and short-circuited it. Counterrevolution was the result.

Barry’s description of the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution is similar. Again the differences in the FI over guerrilla warfare as a strategy were superseded by events. There was a basic agreement on the significance of the Sandinistas [FSLN] taking power.

But differences over the SWP’s new line on the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions soon emerged in the FI and the party itself. This new line began with altering our view of the Cuban revolution from critical support to uncritical agreement. In a few years our understanding of what a workers’ and farmers’ government meant from a theoretical point of view was altered, giving it a populist meaning with confusing and muddled terminology (“popular revolutionary dictatorship”). It began to be interpreted in the direction of the concept of the two-stage theory that the Stalinist opponents of Trotsky first articulated years earlier, although the majority stopped short of going that far. At the time, this was not clear since most in the SWP and FI fully supported the direction the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions were taking.

The question became for many of us who agreed with the leadership’s new analysis but balked at the new terminology: was it an overreaction and slippery use of language? Or was it tied to a move to dump long held programmatic positions for other reasons?

It is important to recognise that the debates within the Trotskyist movement were also occurring in other socialist tendencies with different traditions.

The turn to industry

The biggest change for the SWP came in the late-1970s when our analyses of the political period came into conflict with reality. All leaders including those of the minorities agreed that the working class and its unions were moving toward the centre of US politics.

We all knew that our social composition had to change. Most new members had come out of the student radicalisation. As a result, as they graduated they tended to get jobs as teachers, social workers, health-care workers and other similar occupations. We had large fractions in those unions, but were much weaker in basic industry.

The party leadership, after militant struggles by steel workers, rail workers, auto workers and miners in the 1970s, decided we should carry out a “turn” to convince a majority of our members to get jobs in basic industry. The 1978 National Committee report by Jack Barnes on the “turn”, as Barry notes, said the turn would not mean smaller or weaker fractions in the white-collar unions where we had built a strong presence.

At that NC meeting we likened our orientation to wearing “three hats”. One “hat” our members would wear would be to become known as trade unionists, actively participating in trade union politics. Another task would be to become part and parcel of the workforce in our plants, making friends and establishing relations with other workers and becoming known as good workers. The third “hat” was to become known over time as socialists who had broader ideas about national and world politics.

The premise was that a political radicalisation of the unions and workers was on the horizon. But that did not happen. The error of the party leadership was not to recognise that reality and adjust its analysis and activity. The 1980s was not a period of working-class radicalisation. Instead it was the beginning of a right-wing onslaught against labour, starting with the air traffic controllers’ strike that was broken by President Ronald Reagan when he fired all the strikers. The failure of the AFL-CIO and labour movement to respond aggressively against Reagan's action opened the door to the employers using replacement scab workers in strikes across all industries, two-tier contracts, concessions to the bosses and other defeats in all sectors of the labour movement.

At Barnes’ insistence, we succeeded in foisting on the Fourth International at its 1979 World Congress a worldwide turn to industry for all sections, under the projection that there was a worldwide political radicalisation of the working class about to happen. This projection was ridiculous, as was the idea that all sections, no matter what their size or experience, no matter what their concrete situation, had to adopt this same tactic. It was the same error that the FI majority made in 1969 in projecting rural guerrilla war as the strategy for all Latin American sections–except we trumped that error by insisting not on a single tactic for a continent, but for the whole world.

The response of the SWP leadership for the US was to double down on the view that a working-class radicalisation was still happening in the face of reality. When comrades in the workplace said that wasn’t the case, they were shunned or forced out of the organisation.

This did not happen overnight. It was done by emphasising one of the three hats—“talking socialism”, which became predominant.

The second hat, functioning as union leaders, was thrown out. It was viewed as interfering with socialist propaganda and could lead to adaptation to the union bureaucracy. So we became abstentionist regarding union politics.

The third hat, learning about the industry, the job and building roots among fellow workers was redefined as a "fraction having roots not individuals". This absurd concept meant comrades changing jobs so frequently that it undermined the influence of the SWP in factories. One Swedish FI leader called it functioning like “revolutionary grasshoppers”. This hat too, was abandoned.

I remember the change happening fairly rapidly since I was a leader of our steel fraction in Chicago. I emphasised all three hats. When a comrade of a former minority tendency called the talking socialism policy abstentionist from workplace life, I reminded him that we did wear all three hats in Chicago.

What I learned later is my view of the turn as outlined in the 1978 report was no longer Jack’s view.

As Barry explains, when I moved back to New York at the 1981 Oberlin national convention, Jack Barnes decided to prevent the leaders of fractions from being elected. Fractions electing their leaderships were something I had pushed and was agreed upon by our trade union leadership in the other fractions. I thought then it was a temporary setback, not knowing that Jack had other ideas.

In fact, Barnes never explicitly said during the first two years of the turn our tactics and policies developed over 50 years in the unions were wrong for the new political period. He never said they were wrong, only that those times were different. He always said we had to be more flexible. It was only after the two minorities were pushed out/expelled that the full rejection of our previous history was elaborated. The break with the Fourth International too came later. Considering the SWP was a founding party of the FI and previous leaders educated us that internationalism was the key to building a revolutionary nucleus, the transformation of the SWP under Barnes to an isolated sect was complete.

The Barnes cult

Barry describes the creation of a one-man band and cult, which he explains did not happen instantly. It was a process. Barry explains:

Political cults revolve around individuals, in my use of the term. These are not all alike. The cult of Stalin and Mao grew out of the needs of a social layer, the ruling bureaucracy... Cults in small socialist groups are not based on such material interests. Although certain privileges can develop in the later stages, such groups play no role in the economy, or control vast resources.

To be specific about the cult around Jack Barnes in the SWP, It should be first noted, that it didn’t occur all at once, but over a period of years. Jack was a talented leader of the SWP youth in the period of the radicalization of “The Sixties”. He emerged from that period as the recognized central figure among the other younger leaders, including myself, as well as among the older leaders of the party. It was Jack’s positive role in the previous period that earned his authority. Gradually, this authority was abused, until it turned into its opposite. From a positive force building the SWP, it became a negative and destructive force that wrecked the party.

I remember this very well. My first dealings with Jack Barnes were all positive. He encouraged me. When I questioned a position, he did not attack me but welcomed my input, explaining that discussion of various views was the party tradition.

Later after the turn, and our decision to break with Trotsky’s views and move away from other party traditions, I noticed a change. Comrades who disagreed were criticised behind their back. Barry, who had interviewed Malcolm X in the 1960s together with Jack, was not mentioned by Jack in a speech that referred to that interview at a Pittsburgh educational conference with Barry in attendance. He made it appear that the interview was his alone. I was there and asked Jack about it later, and he wouldn’t comment.

The industrial turn policy as outlined in the 1978 report was agreed to by the entire central leadership, including those who later questioned the shift on Cuba, Nicaragua and many other issues. I was at those NC meetings too. I gave reports on the policy at later meetings and to the United Secretariat meetings in Paris and other countries.

We all were told that the turn to industry was rooted in our history. In fact, we studied the books on our work in the unions by Farrell Dobbs, Tom Kerry and Frank Lovell, the longtime trade union secretary of the party. The classes on the turn were rooted in our history, but soon our practice wasn’t.

When Barnes decided to emphasise “talking socialism”, it meant moving away from our origins. He never said that openly. He never explicitly said that his own 1978 report was wrong. He just jettisoned it in practice.

I had learned from George Breitman and other founders of the party that differences would always arise in the leadership, mistakes would happen, but corrections would be made as facts proved one side or the other right or wrong.

I assumed the same would happen with the trade union question. In fact, I gave the report at the 1979 NC meeting about the turn and refuted the charge of an FI leader at the meeting who challenged how we were implementing the policy and our call on all sections of the FI to carry out the turn the way we were doing it. He specifically challenged our frequent movement of comrades from one factory to another before roots could be established.

(Barry tells the story of Linda Loew, who was told to leave her job in the middle of a union fight back and take the position of party organiser. She was against that proposal.)

At the Oberlin convention in 1981, Jack reversed a decision made by leaders of our national trade union work that included me that our union fractions were ready to elect their own leaderships. Fractions electing their leaderships was something I had pushed. I thought then Jack’s reversal of this decision of our trade union leaders was a temporary setback, not knowing that Jack had other ideas.

I voted against the PC decision and requested the right to explain why in the forthcoming PC minutes. Before the minutes came out Jack meet with me to convince me to change my vote. He said the elected leaders of the party had to decide leadership posts. I reluctantly agreed to drop my objection. This was a typical method of Barnes. He would take you out to a local restaurant and convince you his position was correct for the party as a whole. He always stressed any differences were over emphasis not policy. And if events proved otherwise, corrections would be made.

I should have known Jack would not forget my stance when I later opposed an arbitrary decision of the PC to overturn the decision of the machinists’ fraction I headed in the airlines. After moving to San Francisco and getting a job at United Airlines and leading our IAM fraction there for some years, I found out that trying to carry out the longtime SWP union policy led me to being suspended/expelled in 1989.

The formation of a cult around Barnes was a gradual process that Barry first suspected while assigned to Europe in the mid-1970s. When Barry confronted Jack about his suspicions in early 1978, Jack threatened him with expulsion. It was then that Jack began his underground personal swipes against Barry.

Barry explains that the fear of being expelled after spending your political life in the SWP is why many longtime members, like Barry, did not stand up to the new policies and one-man rule.

I believe that the only way the cult could later be consolidated in the membership in a political organisation like the SWP was to reject the party’s historic program and activity.

Did Barnes always plan to run the SWP himself without democratic checks? Who knows? But once the old guard of the 1930s and ‘40s generations retired or were in their final years in the 1970s, its likely Barnes decided that he wanted to ensure his total control of the party. He couldn’t do so by simply declaring all the old political positions and programs of the SWP were wrong. He began by chipping away at the SWP’s heritage and program. Once he got agreement on each step by the majority of leaders, he moved to throw out those who challenged him. This salami tactic was used over and over until almost the entire leadership cadre and most of the ranks accumulated in the 1960s and 1970s were out.

The two minorities at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s were led by longtime leaders of the SWP. The Breitman grouping first questioned the SWP’s 100 per cent turn to Cuba without criticisms. It violated our longtime position. Because of the victories of the 1979 Nicaragua and Grenada revolutions, it was easy for the leadership to justify this shift without saying the old position was wrong immediately.

The Weinstein-Henderson group likewise had roots in trade union work. Their criticism of Barnes’ tactics in the unions reaffirmed our traditional orientation. Again it was easy to say they looked to the past. I agreed with that even though I believed we had not jettisoned our old positions. I saw it as a generational difference. Both minorities came to agree on reaffirming our long practice in the unions against the new propagandistic abstentionism.

I would add that even if there had been a political radicalisation of the working class, our historic methods of work in the unions based on the Transitional Program and a great deal of accumulated practice would have been the correct road. The minorities, based on this more realistic policy, did come to see that working-class politics was going in the opposite direction.

By the time the minorities were being pushed out, when the differences seemed wider, it was too late.

As Barry explains, the atmosphere had changed once the opposition groups were expelled. Purges continued mainly over violations of so-called morality and made-up political justifications. This involved supporters of the majority, including longtime members and leaders of the organisation. It was not a surprise that Barry Sheppard and Caroline Lund, his longtime companion, decided in 1988 enough was enough and simply resigned. There were no others to join with to lead a fight to correct the party's decline. Barry and Caroline knew they would simply be expelled.

I didn’t see it that way at first. I thought I would be allowed to fight over the airline union issue. It would show the membership that internal democracy was still alive and outside critics were wrong. But as soon as I refused to follow the wrong analysis and policy for the airlines, I was suspended. There was no debate allowed in the San Francisco branch, national airline union fraction or even by the PC with me present. Members were told later that I violated national policy and was suspended. I lost all my rights, including entering the branch offices or speaking to anyone.

That’s why I then joined up with Barry, Carline and others who had left the SWP to try and get those questioning the changes to the party's traditions and program to build a new organisation since the Barnes controlled SWP was now a hardened cult and sect.

It is important to recognise that just because a group changes long-held positions does not mean a cult has formed or that all previous positions have been jettisoned. For example, the Australian Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) that I collaborated with also rejected Trotskyism but continued to build a revolutionary organisation. I disagreed with the DSP in its rejection of Trotsky’s defence of Marxism and the Transitional Program method. The DSP later had a factional fight among its longtime central leaders. Both groups rejected their previous Trotskyist heritage and principles. A split eventually happened on current tactics for Australia. But the internal debate did occur. The two groups that emerged from the split are activist organisations and led by democratically elected leaderships. They did not go into sectarian abstentionism as the SWP did.

I believe Barry explains clearly that the move toward a cult began before the major political changes of long-held SWP positions. It is wrong to say the changes of political and theoretical positions came first. That’s not how it happened. However, I believe that the only way the cult could later be consolidated in the membership in a political organisation like the SWP was to reject the party’s historic program and activity.

In the end, it was the rejection of the historic SWP’s program and practice as the result of the cult which is decisive in characterising the SWP’s politics today.

Read the book

There is a lot to learn about the political movements of the 1960s-’80s in Barry’s two-volume memoir. There is a lot to study about how a small revolutionary group can play a disproportionate role in big events with a correct understanding of politics and working class evolution.

And for those seeking to revitalise the left and socialist movement and program there is a lot to learn why mechanisms need to be in place to prevent the type of takeover that occurred in the SWP. Our downfall was to assume that all leaders played by the same rules and would abide by the practices that the party adopted in its documents.

I agree with Barry that the founding principles and program of the SWP and Fourth International, including their updating through the years as the class struggle developed, remain true today precisely because the working class has yet to have its day on a world scale.

Submitted by Tom Cod (not verified) on Thu, 06/14/2012 - 04:54


Your point here is well taken. In my experience with them, they came increasingly to operate in the mode of Jehovah's Witnesses, albeit as "communists" standing by the wayside with their paper and tracts. It was and is a completely rigid, formalistic and inept approach. How about establishing roots in the plant and the community, establishing relationships and conveying your views to others on that basis in a more natural and socially appropriate manner? Instead we have activists needlessly out themselves to everyone at the get-go, including the bosses, and then get hardened into that role to the point of becoming isolated sectarian ideologues divorced from struggle, who become viewed by the workers as mostly harmless cult crackpots who aren't really part of their social milieu at all.

Submitted by David Thorstad (not verified) on Fri, 06/15/2012 - 05:37


So, Malik was part of the problem, going along with all the bureaucratic and undemocratic crap that he, like Barry and others who stayed in the SWP till the bitter end, now blame Jack Barnes for. At least Malik uses "we" to repeat these culty developments, acknowledging his own collaboration in the process of degeneration. This review reads like those god that failed commentaries by former Communist Party members, even while in his case the god apparently still exists. Having just read Les(lie) Evans's own memoir, it is not only more interesting than Barry's, but it also does not elide issues that are not dealt with forthrightly by Barry, including his (and Malik's) own guilt for the SWP car crash. Barnes could not have implemented any of his policies without the support of others, including much of the membership as a whole. So much for democracy, honesty, and courage. All in all, Evans's memoir provides a better understanding of what went wrong in the SWP. Malik clung to hope that the politics would improve, and regarded organizational questions (euphemistic term for expulsion and violations of the rights of members) as "secondary." In my view, the organizational degeneration began already with Farrell Dobbs's organization resolution from the mid-1960s, held up as a brilliant gospel while I was in the party (I saw the writing on the wall much earlier, and quit in 1973).

I think Malik nailed some of the most salient points about his and Barry's experience in the SWP.

A part I wish Barry had explored more was the effects of the turn. The "why" is often less important that the results, which I think Malik sums up well. The social isolation of members transferring from one branch to another, the forces turning inward for friends, instead of their work mates, and the failure, on purpose, to integrate into both the social life of the workplace and the community from which it was based, destroyed the SWP as a proletarian organization. It was on this basis, in my experience, that reinforced the already developing base of sycophantic members of the Party during this period and, later after the Purge of the Opposition inside the SWP.

Secondly, a point made at a recent forum on the book in the SF Bay Area was raised by an ex-member. That the *actions* of Barry and those that supported Barnes into and then beyond the Purge in the early 1980s, resulted in more than just the consolidation of Barnes, et al., but it broke a tremendously long-lived revolutionary "thread" that ran from the early days of the IWW through the founding of the CP and then into the SWP.

This thread that kept the ideas of revolutionary Marxism alive, both in theory and action, were *destroyed* by the Purge and dispersal of these comrades. Whether there was a cult or not in the SWP around Jack Barnes is secondary to this larger historical question.

David Walters

Submitted by Alan B (not verified) on Fri, 06/15/2012 - 17:00


While I agree with David that the 'thread' that 'kept the ideas of revolutionary Marxism alive, both in theory and action' was destroyed by the degeneration of the SWP, it was, thankfully, not the only such thread in the US. One of the few benefits of the monstrously fragmented left in the imperialist world is a certain level of redundancy, where the failure and collapse of any particular organisation merely opens up space for another one.

From the other side of the world, it looks like the ISO have filled up most of the space the SWP left.

In Australia, Socialist Alternative seems to have filled most of the space vacated by the old DSP from the late 90s onwards. In that case, of course, the main issue was the demise of the previous movements that the DSP related to, and SA's greater ability to respond to a quieter political environment on university campuses. Socialist Alternative's state cap gibberish was, if anything, an asset when the DSP was trying to peddle illusions in the Chavez reforms in Venezuela.

Technically inferior politics can be beneficial sometimes.

Submitted by Marce Cameron (not verified) on Tue, 06/19/2012 - 01:17


Alan B. writes in the final paragraph above: "The main issue was the demise of the previous movements that the DSP related to, and SA's greater ability to respond to a quieter political environment on university campuses".

I agree that the main issue was the demise of the left on campus from the late 1990s onwards. But it was compounded by the DSP majority's unrealistic hopes that the Socialist Alliance could become a viable new left party. This diverted attention away from what had traditionally been the DSP's priority, its youth wing Resistance. The beneficiary was Socialist Alternative, which emerged as the dominant far-left organisation on the campuses.

The DSP first became a tendency in SA then dissolved itself into its own front organisation after the other socialist groups had left the Alliance. Such was the desire to make SA 'the party we build today' even as its active core contracted to the DSP plus a relatively small number of committed unaffiliated members, that the DSP effectively became SA. That is, the transformation involved a change in identity, a make-over, rather than the emergence of the hoped-for new left party, which wasn't on the cards in Australian conditions.

This adds a curious footnote to the legacy of the US SWP and its sister parties in other countries. In my opinion the real achievement has nothing to do with SA: it has been to keep Green Left Weekly and LINKS going. I don't mean any disrespect to SA members and I wish them well in their endeavours. This is just my assessment of how things have turned out.

Marce Cameron

Submitted by Joe Auciello (not verified) on Tue, 06/19/2012 - 10:12


Before Barnes moved in the direction he did, he must have assessed the likely opposition. Dobbs would be quiet; Novack had no stomach for a fight; Breitman would speak out but was ill; Kerry did not have long to live; Weinstein was not in the first tier. Lovell was certainly a problem for Barnes, but the real threat to Barnes was Joseph Hansen, and with his death in 1979 the road was open to the sad and sordid spiral of bad to worse that developed in the SWP.

Submitted by Arthur Maglin (not verified) on Thu, 06/21/2012 - 10:23

In reply to by Joe Auciello (not verified)


I was around the SWP and the associated Young Socialist Alliance from 1960-1973. I wrote for its publications and personally knew and worked with all of its main leaders during this period. Here are some of my views on what happened to destroy the promising trends within the party.

In the 1960s, when Jack Barnes was moved in to the national headquarters to be groomed as heir apparent, the game of musical organizers began with people being moved from branch to branch of both the SWP and the YSA and then moved again. This served the purpose of preventing anyone else from doing what Jack had done in Chicago in building up a personally loyal following. Jack also arranged for many of his closest followers to be moved to the center from Chicago as
part of his successful campaign to duplicate in New York what he had already done in Chicago. How much of this was conscious and how much
of it was Jack's ego acting out below his own radar--who can say?

Somewhere on the net, Gus Horowitz recently wrote that the central leaders of the SWP would have to have been stupid to have knowingly selected someone like Barnes if he was already what he definitely
turned out to be later. Aside from the fact that even Lenin was often
a poor judge of character (Roman Malinovsky, Zinoviev, Kamenev, and,
of course, Stalin), the Barnes people were in that stage sturdy leadership patriots in a party that had come through a lot of overheated internal debate over the past decade or so (Cochran, Marcy, Weiss--as stand-in for Cannon, Robertson, Wohlforth, the Frasers, the Zelucks, Bolton, Swabeck and more). Barnes looked so reliable, why
look any deeper? Certainly, they must have thought, we can smooth out his rough edges and help him develop his talents as a party-builder. Unfortunately, they were the ones who became progressively smoothed.
Since all this was virtually invisible to the membership, who were
never seriously consulted about leadership issues in the party, no
corrective to small group judgments and maneuvering at the top was
possible. Party norms, anyone?

The analogy of the Old Bolsheviks and the rise of the initially innocuous and relatively unimpressive Stalin comes to mind--with all proportions guarded. Stalin was known as a close follower of whatever
he knew to be Lenin's current thinking until Lenin seemed to be no
longer a serious enough factor in party affairs. By that time, Stalin
had a big personal following and had won over many desperate and disoriented Old Bolsheviks--in most cases, only for a time. The
analogy with the SWP's evolution--again, all proportions guarded--
seems as if it can be taken quite far.

Barry Sheppard and Malik Miah's view of the abstentionist line of the
SWP as essentially beginning with The Turn seems to me neglect a lot. The SWP was very slow to take a positive view of involvement in the feminist movement in the late 60s, notoriously slower about acknowledging the political validity of the gay and lesbian movement, too quick to exit the Vietnam antiwar movement before the war was
over, largely abstained from the growing women's, gay and lesbian, environmental, and anti-nuclear power movements in the 70s. Earlier in the 1960s it viewed the meteorically growing and politically diverse Students for a Democratic Society as a hostile political opponent tendency instead of a place to sometimes work within and sometimes a good group to work with. When New Left groupings ran explicitly socialist campaigns it wrote them off as "petty bourgeois" and not worthy of our critical support. When a substantial grouping of Progressive Labor in the mid-60s broke away because of their abandonment of their M2M antiwar group in our general direction, this promising development was totally ignored. The rise of the counter culture, a sociocultural phenomenon that questioned everything and thoroughly pervaded the political atmosphere of the time, went unmentioned and unaddressed until I finally succeeded in publishing some material in the party theoretical journal in the early 1970s.

To its credit, the SWP was deeply involved in support to the Hands Off Cuba, civil rights, black nationalist, black power, and antiwar movements in the 1960s, but a pattern of abstentionism on almost all other opportunites was well under way. Even Barry Sheppard now admits that we should have been involved more directly in the Southern civil rights movement. Finally, it should be mentioned that Cannon launched the so-called Weissite effort precisely because he saw the pattern of abstentionism already rearing its head in the 1950s and early 1960s.

All of this is not say that the question of abstentionism did not get
worse over time or that The Turn was not a big deal in this process.
My point about abstentionism is that it was a process already well
underway and cannot be used as a central explanation for the Barnes
takeover. I am sure it helped to produce an atmosphere in which the
Barnes coup was made possible since denying the reality of the world
around you can become a bad habit.


Submitted by Bob Lyons (not verified) on Fri, 06/22/2012 - 09:09

In reply to by Joe Auciello (not verified)


Joe might be right, theoretically, but part of the problem was Hansen himself.
The overarching context for the degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party was the faction fight within the International, and the reaction of the SWP leadership to it.

Joe Hansen was the SWP's pointman in that fight. It was his job to "harden up" the cadre which supported the SWP line, and to find ways of quashing the dissidents.

For example, in the Canadian section of the International, the League for Socialist Action/Young Socialists, Hansen played a most destructive role at the 1974 convention had in Toronto. The LSA/YS had just gone through a period of unprecedented growth. It had grown to over a thousand members and sympathizers, which on a per capita basis, actually made it larger than the SWP. It had established groups in such unlikely places as Blacks and Beaver Harbour amongst young fishers and fish plant workers. It had even won the leadership of the New Brunswick New Democratic party, the provincial wing of CAnadian social democracy.

In the midst of this growth and ferment, three tendencies emerged. One was around a young and untested leadership group headed by John Riddell, and including Ian Angus and Richard Fiddler. All these names should be familiar to readers of this site. This tendency the followed the SWP lead.

The second tendency was a group of relatively new members of the LSA, headed by Joe Flexer, Brett Simley (both now sadly deceased), Judy Rebick and Jackie Larkin. This tendency was under the influence of the FI majority. I was a supporter of this tendency.

The third tendency, headed by the historic leader of Canadian Trotskyism, Ross Dowson, was arguing for a greater place for an anti-imperialist approach, which bordered on Canadian nationalism, and a deep entry tactic in the NDP.

At the convention itself, marked by sharp polemical interventions by Comrades on all sides of the debates, Hansen's role was to support the SWP orientated leadership, and to find ways to defeat the FI tendency. This tendency began to pick up support from some of the uncommitted, mostly older delegates, who began to question some of the orientation of the majority.

When the organizational report was presented, and a counter organizational report was given by the FI tendency, and supported by sections of the Dowson tendency, Hansen convinced the young leadership group to call a halt to the convention, and in an effort to regain the momentum, declare that its opponents constituted a faction, thus closing the door to a real and substantive debates about the issue. It was the old, tried and true, "us vs. them" tactic perfected by Cannon and other in the history of internal struggles with the SWP.

The upshot of this sorry affair was the the poisoning of the atmosphere and personal relations among a group of particularly talented comrades. This atmosphere, which continued for years after the convention, and ended up with the present day sorry ragtag of scattered individuals calling itself the Communist League, contributed to the real dissolution of a potential team of major political leaders. Many of these comrades went on to distinguish themselves in fields outside politics. Dan Tappscott began an international renowned career as an inovater on the uses of the just emerging Internet; Alice Klein, a former editor of the Young Socialist, became a founder of an influential group of Metro newspaper; Kim Cameron became the Head for Special Projects for Microsoft; Mitch Podolak is the founder of three leading folk music festivals in Canada, and is the Artistic Director of Home Routes, a nationanwide network of house concerts for both folk and classical music; Ian Angus is a global leader in the ecosocialist movement; and John Riddell is one of the world's leading authorites on the first four congresses of the Third International, and the leading historian of Canadian communism.

What a waste of human political capital! By quashing dissent, by branding dissidents as disloyal and traitors, by using all means to purge and expell those voices who dared question the leadership, Joe Hansen and his cohorts managed to do the very thing they thought they were trying to stop: the degeneration of the SWP. For it was those who questioned, who demanded accountability by the leadership, who could have convinced the membership of the follies of the Barnesite clique; well, they were no longer there to do so. Thanks to Joe Hansen. And Barry Sheppard. And yes, to St. Peter Camjeo himself.

I write this not to open a debate about this or that aspect of the history of North American Trotskyism, but to suggest that there was not one or two things which caused the degeneration of the SWP. It was the misunderstanding and misapplication of the central tennents of democratic centeralism: the greatest loyalty is to the revolution, and those who are truly loyal, will speak their truth always. Democracy has a fundamental and pragmatic instrumentality.

Bob Lyons