Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83 – By John Riddell

Part 2 of a review of Barry Sheppard’s history of the Socialist Workers Party (U.S.).

Published in

The first part of this article contended that the U.S. SWP’s attempt during the 1976-83 period to turn outward toward unity with other revolutionary currents cannot be blamed for its subsequent retreat into self-absorbed isolation. To be sure, the outward turn was partial, flawed, and inconsistent. But a much more ominous development was under way.

As Barry Sheppard documents in his book on the SWP’s decline,1 the outward turn was undercut from the outset by simultaneous moves in the opposite direction. The outward and inward turns occurred at the same time, confusing party members then and confounding historians of the SWP to this day.

A two-way turn

This pattern was evident in the party’s presidential campaign in 1976. While revealing the party’s growing influence in the broader left milieu, presidential candidate Peter Camejo tells us that the campaign was marred by the leadership’s behind-the-scenes efforts to limit the scope and diminish the authority of his work. Camejo attributes this to fears of “the non-sectarian manner of my approach.”2

Sheppard’s account shows that the same reflex afflicted other positive initiatives by the SWP during this period. For example:

  • In 1977–78, even as the SWP campaigned to dissolve factions in the Fourth International (FI), SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes was pushing its representatives in the FI secretariat to take clearly factional moves (Sheppard 2012, 132–37).
  • In 1979, at a FI world congress marked by broad general agreement, Barnes insisted that the SWP present its own a separate minority resolution on Nicaragua. This divided vote was then utilized, Sheppard says, to suggest, without foundation, that the European FI leaders lacked commitment to the Nicaraguan revolution. (194–95)
  • The party campaign to implant members in unionized industrial workplaces originally had three goals: members were to become integrated into the workforce, carry out trade union work, and draw workmates to the socialist movement. But as the union movement was forced into retreat, the first two tasks were downplayed. The third goal was converted into “talking socialism,” meaning, mainly, selling socialist literature – an intensely isolating experience, Sheppard says. (268–69) Party policies were now justified in terms not of present conditions but by a prediction of a future upsurge. Members thus lost the capacity to judge policies on the basis of experience, an essential feature of democratic centralism.
  • After the Nicaraguan victory in 1979, the SWP began to talk up the prospects for a “new International” including Cuban Communists and other revolutionary forces. But within a year, party leaders started employing this perspective as a tool to discredit the FI and other revolutionary currents who had a different analysis of the Cuban leadership. (298–99) The “new International” concept was increasingly used just to burnish the party logo, rather than to take steps toward revolutionary convergence.
  • The SWP supported the political course of the revolutionary Nicaraguan leadership, even turning a blind eye to its failings. But when the U.S. made war on Nicaragua, the party decided not to commit forces to help lead the ensuing anti-war movement – not even in unions where the potential was real and the SWP had significant strength. (265)

Long after 1983, when the inward turn had triumphed, the SWP took major outward-looking initiatives on questions where most socialist currents defaulted. Among these efforts were: engagement with revolutionary Burkina Faso (1983–87); support of Cuba’s role in resisting the apartheid invasion of Angola (1987–89); publication of documents of Cuba’s attempts to combat Stalinist bureaucratization (“rectification”) (late 1980s); and publication of several books of writings by Nelson Mandela (1986-93), highlighting in particular his relationship with revolutionary Cuba. The Communist International publishing project (1983–93), for which I was responsible, pointed in the same direction. The SWP did important work in several major union struggles; in 1989–91, SWP employees at Eastern Airlines were deeply engaged in the strike that led to the company’s shutdown. The SWP continued active defense of the Cuban revolution.

The SWP was turning sharply in two opposite directions at the same time. No wonder its membership was confused and criticism was paralyzed.

The source of Barnes’s authority

Sheppard recounts the growth during those years of a “cult” around Barnes, and considers this the decisive factor in the party’s demise. In 1978, Sheppard warned some other leadership members, including Barnes, that Barnes was becoming a “one-man band.” Sheppard did not gain enough support to press the issue. (136–37, 208–9) But even had Sheppard won a majority for his views, he could not have successfully overturned the Barnes leadership on such grounds. The members would have perceived such a move as a malevolent palace coup.

Sheppard’s companion Caroline Lund, herself a respected party leader, told him at the time, “we have been taught that political questions [are] paramount,” pointing out that Sheppard had no political disagreements. Sheppard now says that the cult around Barnes posed a challenge so urgent that “the organizational question was paramount.” (301) There is truth in this, but outside the leadership core, it did not became clear until much later, when the process could no longer be reversed.

So why did Barnes prevail? He retained the trust of the great majority of party members because he seemed to be spearheading the party’s outward initiatives. As for the negative internal developments, most members were unaware of them, disregarded them, or accepted them as part of the package. There was a more profound motivation: many members felt that the outward turn, even if flawed, would bring the party into a healthy milieu of struggle in which the symptoms of narrowness and isolation could be more readily countered.

Alarm bells

Nonetheless, at least three developments between 1979 and 1983 should have rung alarm bells in the minds of knowledgeable party members:

  1. In 1979 the SWP leadership convinced the Fourth International to call on its sections in every capitalist country in the world, regardless of the state of our forces or of local conditions, to send our members to work in industry. (196) This pronouncement violated the very principle for which the SWP had successfully campaigned in the International since 1969, namely that tactics had to grow out of national conditions and be determined by national sections, rather than being dictated on a continental or world basis.3 It contradicted the conception of internationalism for which the SWP had struggled since its inception in 1928.4 The call provided a platform on which the factional battle was relaunched wherever the SWP had influence. (196–97) In the years that followed, the SWP’s allied organizations in other countries came to function as if they were units of the U.S. party, giving up their independent publications. In some cases these groups were born from from SWP-encouraged splits or defections from FI sections. The “global industrial turn” led thus ultimately to the dissolution of internationalism.
  2. Between 1981 and 1983, the majority SWP leadership moved to suppress discussion of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, an aspect of the party’s theoretical heritage that its leaders were increasingly calling into question.5 (280–85) The minority current loyal to this concept was prevented from expressing its view either internally or in the public press, even though they spoke for the party’s longstanding position. In 1983, the convention, at which they had been promised a hearing, was cancelled, and they were driven from the movement. In Sheppard’s opinion, this purge was “the death-knell of the SWP.” (287–88) An open discussion of these differences would have heightened the party’s reputation and made it a more attractive force for revolutionary regroupment. The party should have opened its publications to such a debate and invited contributions from all potential participants in a “new International.” The party should have encouraged members who held the traditional view to debate the issue publicly while continuing as loyal party members. The rejection of this path put the lie to the SWP’s claim to be working for revolutionary convergence.
  3. Rather than expelling the minority wholesale, the party leadership initially subjected them in 1982–83 to a process of attrition through disciplinary expulsions initiated by the local branches. (210–11) Often the charges concerned forming an “unauthorized grouping” as, for example, by inviting some members over for supper. “This broadened to frowning upon any informal get-togethers,” Sheppard says. The goal was “to instil fear among members of informal political discussions.” (210–11) This intimidation was highly effective. The constant buzz of political chatter among members – ideas, criticisms, experiences – died away, strangling the party’s internal life.

As a guest from the SWP’s Canadian sister organization, I was present at a meeting of the New York branch in 1983 where Barnes announced that, henceforth, the right to form an internal tendency consisted exclusively in electing delegates to represent a minority resolution that had received support in preconvention voting. Members no longer had the right to discuss or collaborate in writing a resolution, unless asked to do so by the Political Committee. Dissident or minority tendencies were thereby outlawed. As far as I know, Barnes’s edict was not published, however. That was not necessary; the ban on informal discussion had already been codified and enforced through the wave of expulsions.6

Seeds of decline

The minority of SWP members who disagreed with the position on Cuba and the Nicaraguan revolution being presented in the SWP press resisted these developments as best they could. Sheppard says correctly that dissenting comrades in the majority should have formed a bloc with the minority in defense of party democracy. But this did not happen. Many majority comrades, including Sheppard and Malik Miah, did go into opposition, but only later, by ones and twos, when they could be readily isolated and driven out of the party.

This outcome must surely reflect underlying problems. It will not do to say merely Barnes was to blame; deeper causes contributed to his emergence as “sole initiator of policy and supreme arbiter in any discussion.” (210) Specifically, some of the SWP’s strong points were exaggerated to the point that they became crucial weaknesses, obstructing a response to the danger signs.

Consider, for example, the following statement, quoted in a thoughtful article by Gus Horowitz from a speech Barnes gave in 1970:

[W]e are not simply a component of the mass revolutionary party. We are the essential component that embodies in living cadres today the programmatic conquests that are essential for molding the kind of revolutionary workers party that can win the socialist victory in this country…7

Certainly it is positive to remind members of the historic importance of their party and of their own personal contribution. But the “essential component” concept approaches equating the party with the historic interests of the working class – leaving the struggles, organizations, historic memory, and activist cadres of the working class out of the picture. By this logic, anything that seems to build the party’s apparatus, resources, and reach can seem to acquire the force of historic necessity, regardless of the consequences for the party’s implantation in workers’ struggles or for the broader movement.

Significantly, when the SWP charted a course toward revolutionary convergence, it did not modify this conception of its own historic uniqueness. Sheppard’s account does not reveal any significant moves to link up with other currents in the U.S. who shared its view of Nicaragua, Grenada, and Cuba.8 The fault here lay in underestimating the implications of the emergence of revolutionary currents wielding governmental power who stood outside the Trotskyist tradition.

Another concept that proved dangerous, when applied in an exaggerated and one-sided way, was that of the party’s efforts to achieve “homogeneity.” The authoritative presentation of this concept is found in the SWP’s 1965 resolution on its organizational principles. Arguing against both Stalinist monolithism and a regime of permanent, tight-knit factions, the text states:

We are guided by the Leninist concept of relative internal homogeneity based on the loyal adherence to the party’s program and principles and the voluntary acceptance of its discipline…. Ample room is provided for the expression of dissident views, even major ones of serious import. The right to organize tendencies and factions is guaranteed.9

On the face of it, there is nothing objectionable here. The obligation of loyalty is common to all voluntary workers’ organizations; the right to organized expression of minority views is assured. Yet something is missing: a recognition of the importance of diversity, that is, for the membership to reflect the different struggles, social layers, outlooks, and currents of thought within the workers’ movement.

Previous generations of the party leadership, under James P. Cannon (1928–53) and Farrell Dobbs (1953–72), had indeed been diverse in outlook and experience. The Barnes generation, however, was much more uniform in outlook – in part, because the leadership had been trained mostly as full-time staffers in the party apparatus rather than in the field of struggle.10 Leaders of my generation considered this uniformity an advance. In fact, it was a step backward. The search for consensus around leadership proposals was enormously overdone and came to lock all members in its grip, deterring expression of dissent.

When unmistakable danger signs appeared, members who harboured doubts kept silent, because of a habit of consent, a desire to give the leadership the benefit of the doubt, and a fear of isolation within the party ranks.

Sheppard speaks to this issue with regard to the SWP policy on transferring members from one branch to another, from one industry to another, and from one workplace to another. “Such transfers are needed from time to time,” he says, but around 1980 they became much more frequent. The constant switching around deprived members of the time required to get rooted in their workplace, “to get to know fellow workers, … to understand the politics of the local union, and to get a feel of the range of views” in the workplace. (268)

Let us add: revolutionary political activity always disrupts of comrades’ personal lives to some extent, but the disruption should not be heightened unnecessarily. When driven to an extreme, the switching around deprives members of the steadying influence of deep roots in the working class and of the personal equilibrium needed to express independent views and raise objections in a party discussion.

Regression to the mean

In its prime, the SWP was distinguished from other Marxist currents by its commitment to working-class and social movements and its capacity to learn and improvise on the basis of experience in action. During the last three decades, these special features have faded from view, and the party now resembles much more closely the general run of small inward-turned Marxist groups.

This process can be described by the term “regression to the mean.” In statistics, that term describes the tendency of “outliers” – facts or observations that are substantially different from the average – to shift over time towards the average. In Marxist politics, it means that a small group that achieves excellence in one or another respect will tend to lose these characteristics over time, unless its strong points are reinforced through immersion in broad social struggles.

The “mean” – that is, the profile of the average small Marxist group – includes these features:

  • A conviction that the small group, and it alone, represents the historic interests of the working class.
  • A high ideological fence separating members from the ideas and discussions of the broader Marxist movement.
  • A hostile relationship to other Marxist currents.
  • A haughty attitude to social movements: the group’s interventions, when they occur, focus on self-promotion and recruitment.
  • An internal discipline aimed not at fending off blows of the class enemy but at restricting discussion and keeping the members in line.
  • A conservative approach to Marxist doctrine, aptly summarized by Marx in 1868: “The sect sees the justification for its existence and its ‘point of honour’ not in what it has in common with the class movement but in the particular shibboleth which distinguishes it from it.”

A Faustian bargain

The driving force behind Marxist “regression to the mean” is that these inward-turned features equip the small group to survive with minimum effort in a hostile environment.

By hewing to these norms, the SWP has made an adaptation to the conditions of an extended working-class retreat. Features that could have exposed it to the hazards and challenges of socialist regroupment, class-struggle engagement, and revolutionary party-building have been eliminated; features that it shares with inward-turned Marxist groups have been developed and exaggerated.

The SWP’s inward turn insulated it from the influences of 30 years of working-class retreat, sealed it off from the ideas of other left currents, safeguarded it against internal differentiation and debate, and made the membership a pliant and disciplined instrument of leadership policy. Something has been achieved: the party has survived as an organization. The price has been its near-disappearance from the stage of working-class politics.

Jack Barnes has been the main exponent of this small-group model; he has also become its prisoner. He has fallen silent on the political concepts that established his authority;11 he has lost his once-considerable reputation among Marxists internationally; he has succumbed, with his party, to political paralysis.

The SWP has effectively abandoned its past, turning away from the pre-1980 experiences it previously treasured. It has surrendered its traditions of internal democracy.12

Once so different from other small Marxist groups, the SWP has come to more closely resemble the profile of this category as a whole. It thus shares in the common tragedy of these currents: characteristics that insulate the group against disruptive influences also render it incapable of contributing positively to broad working-class struggle and to building a revolutionary party.


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.

2. Sheppard, vol. 2, p. 288. Peter Camejo, North Star: A Memoir, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010, pp. 129–30, 134–35.

3. In 1969, the Fourth International adopted a strategy of rural guerrilla struggle in all countries of Latin America. The SWP led a minority that opposed the concept of a continent-wide policy and called for close attention to the specific conditions in each country. The 1979 FI world congress accepted the core of the SWP’s criticism.

4. See James P. Cannon’s speech, “Internationalism and the SWP,” which was well known to the party membership.

5. The term “permanent revolution” has been used by Marxists in many ways. In the SWP context of 1981–83, it related mainly to describing the path through which socialist revolution can be achieved in a country that has not experienced advanced capitalism.

6. As a guest at the gathering and non-member of the SWP, I felt it proper to keep silent. But I had another motivation as well. If I had spoken up, it would likely have meant the end of the Comintern publishing project, which I thought had the potential to popularize a political model more inclusive and democratic than that of the SWP. In addition, as a member and former leader of the Canadian sister organization, I felt an obligation to support those now carrying the burden of leadership, and they were aligned with the SWP majority. Inadequate as they may have been, my motivations give insight into the political culture at that time.

7. Quoted by Horowitz from Towards an American Socialist Revolution, by Jack Barnes et al., New York: Pathfinder Press, 1971, p. 125.

8. Sheppard does pass on an account by former SWP member David Walters of efforts in 1980 by Camejo, then working in New York’s garment industry, to unite the SWP with revolutionary currents among Caribbean and Central American workers in New York as a municipal “United Socialist Slate” in pending municipal elections. Others in the branch contended that Camejo was overestimating the potential for such a slate. The branch rejected Camejo’s proposal by a 70% majority. (288-290) Camejo’s de facto expulsion followed shortly thereafter.

9. The Organizational Character of the Socialist Workers Party, New York: SWP National Education Department, 1970, p. 12; see also The Party, The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, Volume I: The Sixties, a Political Memoir, by Barry Sheppard, Resistance Books (Sydney), 2005, pp. 145-48.

10. The “turn to industry,” as originally formulated, sought to remedy this problem by deploying a higher proportion of the leadership off the full-time staff and onto the front lines of struggle. To that end, most branches gave up the post of full-time organizer. But the excessive national-office apparatus was not reduced, and experience in now-retreating industrial unions did not much affect the shape of the party leadership.

11. In the 1970s, Barnes was known for popularizing and elaborating the concept of a workers’ and farmers’ government, Lenin’s concept of the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants,” and the Cuban leadership’s stature as revolutionary Marxists; he also wrote an extensive critique of Trotsky’s views on permanent revolution. Most of this material is still in print, but the themes have disappeared from Barnes’s current writing.

12. For example, the only currently circulated Pathfinder book on the SWP’s history in the 1960s and 1970s is Fred Halstead’s Out Now: A Participant’s Account of the American Movement against the Vietnam War, a celebrated account of the party’s leading role in the movement against the Vietnam war. During the last nine years, in which the U.S. has been continually at war, the party newspaper, The Militant, has mentioned this book only infrequently and never with regard to its central theme of mass struggle against an imperialist war. See also the appendix on “The SWP today” in Part 1 of this article.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83 – By John Riddell

  1. Tom Cod says:

    In all fairness I would have to strongly disagree that the SWP somehow abstained from or cut back from defense of the Sandinista Revolution. While I was no longer a member by this point, I was active in this struggle in the Seattle area during the 1980s where my observations reflected something quite different from what is maintained by the above critique. In addition to the excellent-I would say best on the Left-coverage of these struggles in the Militant, the local SWPers played a very active role in building demonstrations against US intervention and the Contras. While it is true that they did not have hegemony, which was actually good for maintaining a broad diverse involvement in the struggle, they were one of the three main groups involved in building the movement, the others being Workers World and Irwin Silber’s “Line of March” group.

  2. Ken says:

    Geez, Tom, I wish what you said about Seattle was true in the Bay Area….the FSLN had taken power, the FMLN was supposedly on the march, but while I never received anything other than positive feedback from local leaders for working with the El Salvador solidarity group, there was definitely something missing from the “all in” attitude of a decade earlier….and at the national rail fraction meeting in ’81 there was, as I remember, almost no serious discussion of how we can support the struggles in Central America, though there was plenty of discussion of talking socialism on the job….

  3. Tom Cod says:

    @Ken: so the SWP didn’t involve itself in CISPES down there?

  4. David Altman says:

    In Milwaukee the SWP was part of a broad coalition of activists that supported the revolutions in Central America. This involved not only organizing demonstrations but providing material support, medical supplies and so forth to the Nicaraguan government. It was broadly respected by others in the movement for this work, even by people who weren’t otherwise sympathetic to the SWP.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s