The revitalisation and collapse of the US SWP – By Doug Lorimer

By Doug Lorimer

Published in Direct Action (Australia)

[The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, volume I: The Sixties, A Political Memoir, by Barry Sheppard, Sydney: Resistance Books, 2005, 354 pages including index, with a rich collection of photographs.

The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, volume II: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988, A Political Memoir, by Barry Sheppard, London: Resistance Books, 2012, 345 pages including index.]

Barry Sheppard was a member of the US Socialist Workers Party for 28 years, from 1960 to 1988, and a central leader for most of that time. The Party is a two-volume recounting of Sheppard’s involvement in the SWP, which was formed in 1938 by the followers of exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky. After Lenin’s death in 1924, Trotsky led the defence of the 1917 Russian Revolution’s goals of soviet democracy and commitment to a liberating revolution worldwide against the establishment of a bureaucratic dictatorship under Josef Stalin with its nationalist “socialism-in-one-country” orientation.

Expelled Communist Party activists, the founders of the SWP, first formed the Communist League of America in 1928. While far smaller than the Communist Party and the largely reformist Socialist Party, the US ranks of the Trotskyists grew amid the labour radicalisation generated by the Great Depression. By 1935 — after playing an outstanding role in various labour struggles, especially in the Minneapolis general strike — they were able to merge with other radical labour forces to form the Workers Party of the United States.

This was soon followed by a decision to enter the Socialist Party in order to link up with that party’s growing left wing, although they were soon driven out (along with much of the broader left wing) by the SP reformist leadership. The newly formed SWP played a key role with Trotsky in the formation of the Fourth International, linking up with like-minded Trotskyist groups around the world.

Revitalisation

The first volume of Sheppard’s political memoir covers the period of the 1960s youth radicalisation, which as he notes at the end of the volume had a “massive impact on the SWP. Coming out of the witch-hunt years [of the 1950s], the SWP had become smaller in numbers, and older. Of course, it had recruited young people throughout those years, but not many and, usually, not for long. The process that led to the foundation of the Young Socialist Alliance in 1960 — even with only about 130 members — situated the SWP to participate effectively in the youth radicalization which was just beginning.

“The recruitment and training of young people saved the SWP as a revolutionary organization at that point. Revolutionary socialist organizations generally do not last long in unfavorable times, and the SWP had been running out of time. The new layer of young people, and the opportunities provided to intervene in real struggles, gave the organization another lease on life. The older generation, that came out of the labor radicalization of the 1930s which was renewed for a time after World War II, was able to pass the torch on to the new generation.

“The older leaders — especially Farrell Dobbs — understood that this process, in order to succeed, had to go all the way to replacing the older central leadership with a new one from the new generation. He sought to accomplish this in a phased way, while the older leaders were still around to train the new leadership. The transition in leadership was essentially completed by the end of the 1960s. Thus the SWP was in good shape to face the challenges of the next decades — or so we thought …”

Perhaps the SWP’s most profound accomplishment during this period was its central role in the creation of the massive and powerful anti-war movement, through persistent united front efforts, which proved capable of helping to end the US war in Vietnam. The details of that story were told in Fred Halstead’s book Out Now!: A Participant’s Account of the Movement Against the Vietnam War — though Sheppard adds additional details and insights about this heroic achievement.

The ‘turn to industry’

The second volume covers the period of the ebbing of the 1960s radicalisation and the SWP’s political degeneration into an “abstentionist sect, walling itself from the wider class struggle and the rest, shrinking by 1988 to less than 50 per cent in size from its high point in 1976-1978”, a trend that has continued in the decades since.

In early 1978 the new leadership headed by Jack Barnes, Barry Sheppard and Mary-Alice Waters that had been nurtured by Farrell Dobbs and the older leaders of the SWP decided on a “turn to industry”. This involved a drive rapidly to colonise the majority of the SWP’s 1700 members, mostly recruited out of the youth radicalisation, into “blue-collar” jobs. As Sheppard notes, this “turn” was based on a “a prediction that a political radicalization — not only a radicalization on economic issues — of the working class was in the immediate offing”. This was rationalised with the claim that industrial (i.e. the blue-collar section) of the US working class had moved “to the center-stage” of US politics and that if the SWP did not rapidly colonise the majority of its members into this section of the working class, the SWP would become politically disoriented.

Sheppard points out: “It was a mistake on our part to project a political radicalization and then base our policy as if it had happened. In politics, mistakes are bound to happen. But it is important for mistakes to be corrected in a timely fashion or the mistake will more and more distort policy. We were guilty of wishful thinking and all the leadership, including two minority groups [in the SWP formed on other issues] clung to the myth of a developing political radicalization of the working class while evidence to the contrary continued to mount …

“I believe that the distortions in our policy in the workplace and unions”, which included a decision to apply the “turn to industry” to the student-based YSA and to abandon work among teachers and other non-blue-collar unions, “were the result of Jack Barnes’ reaction to the reality as he personally saw it ?

“A correction was needed. First of all, in our analysis of the political reality, and flowing from that our policy. But Jack Barnes had so identified his own personal prestige with this analysis and policy that he could not pull back.”

The Barnes cult

This poses the question: why was preservation of Jack Barnes’ personal prestige so crucial to the functioning of the SWP’s leadership? Sheppard explains that a cult had begun to emerge around Barnes. “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. It was Jack’s positive role in the previous period that earned his authority. Gradually, this authority was abused until it became a negative and destructive force that wrecked the party ? there began an erosion of the collective leadership in the [SWP] Political Committee in the mid-1970s. Jack began to become the ‘star.’ This took many years to develop ? The Political Committee had turned into its opposite, from a collective leadership into a cult around an individual ‘star.’

“One characteristic of this cult was that all political initiative had become the sole prerogative of Jack Barnes ? Another characteristic was that Jack Barnes began functioning as the supreme arbiter when there were differences in the Political Committee ?

“As the years went by, the ‘star’ system of leadership became more exacerbated and entrenched , including special treatment and perquisites for the top leader, special standards that applied to Jack Barnes and some around him, and not to the ordinary members.” In the concluding chapter, Sheppard provides details on the material corruption of Barnes and his few intimate associates in recent years.

Barry Sheppard has performed a great service to activists and historians of the US left by providing a coherent account of the SWP as it became revitalised in the 1960s, as well as its self-destruction in the early 1980s. Unlike many others, he has done this without regret and without abandoning his commitment to revolutionary politics. As he explains in the introduction to the second volume: “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 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.”

Direct Action — May 19, 2012

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