Who, or what, killed the US Socialist Workers Party?
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), 2011
In the 1960s and 1970s, the United States Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was one of the most promising socialist organisations in any imperialist country.
Formed in the 1930s, it survived the isolating conservatism of the '50s to play a key role in building many progressive movements, particularly the fight against the Vietnam War.
But by the 1980s, the SWP was degenerating. It shrunk from several thousand active and engaged members to a tiny cult-like sect with no involvement in real struggles.
Barry Sheppard was an SWP leader from 1960 to 1988. The first volume of his memoir covered 1960-1973, during which the SWP emerged from isolation to play a key role in the mass radicalisation of those years.
The second volume continues the account of the SWP's political interventions. It also describes and tries to explain the party’s degeneration.
Sheppard proposes three main reasons for the degeneration of the SWP:
First, the “long period without a new radicalisation” since the end of the 1970s. This period of class retreat “weighed down on all socialist organisations, including the SWP”, Sheppard says. “It would have been tough sledding for the party even with the best leadership.”
The SWP's 1981 abandonment of Leon Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution, which Barry calls “a fundamental aspect of our program”. This, he says, was part of a “blatantly opportunistic” bid to link up with the leaderships of the Cuban, Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions.
He says the programmatic revision required an assault on the party’s democratic norms to silence those who disagreed, and it led to the SWP’s increasing abstention from mass movements.
Third, the rise of a leadership cult around SWP national secretary Jack Barnes in the mid-1970s was the fundamental cause of this degeneration. Sheppard says it would be naïve to think that the membership itself could resist this juggernaut. It could have been stopped only by the Political Committee leadership group.
Sheppard, a member of that committee, says he first realised in 1978 that a leadership cult was developing around Barnes. But he did not act for fear of being expelled from the party in which he was active for most of his adult life.
He apologises for his role in supporting Barnes in the political purges that devastated the SWP in the 1980s.
Life after the '60s
The past three-and-a-half decades have been difficult, but the era of war and revolutions didn't end in the 1970s. There were revolutionary upsurges in Nicaragua, Iran and Grenada in 1979, and later in Venezuela and Bolivia.
The capitalist triumphalism after the fall of the Soviet Union and the bureaucratic regimes in Eastern Europe proved short-lived. We’ve seen movements against capitalist globalisation and imperialist wars, the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring.
There has been more than enough political work to do in these “slow years” and new generations have come into the struggle. Even in the most difficult times, there are opportunities for engagement and chances to win new working-class militants to the socialist movement.
Other socialist currents in the US and elsewhere have avoided the SWP's errors and grown in political understanding and effectiveness.
SWP and the DSP
The party I was involved in, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) in Australia, which merged into the Socialist Alliance in 2010, was strongly influenced by the US SWP in the '70s and early '80s.
Sheppard was the first SWP leader to visit Australia in 1969. In Volume I of The Party, Sheppard says some comrades in Australia asked him to intervene in an internal debate about whether to start building a revolutionary party along the lines of the US SWP.
He declined, saying experience had taught the SWP to be wary of taking sides in internal disputes in other parties.
Through the '70s, SWP leaders often visited Australia, and DSP attended conferences and political schools in the US.
We also joined the internal faction that SWP led in the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI). This faction officially dissolved in 1979, but the factionalism continued.
Over time, we found the SWP was moving away from giving friendly advice and increasingly issuing what seemed like papal edicts.
So in the mid-80s we broke free, rejecting its attempts to treat us as a satellite and to foster a secret faction in our group.
At the same time, we began our break from the sectarian heritage of the Trotskyist movement. We made a serious effort to learn from the real revolutionary leaderships emerging around the world. We rejected the claim of many Trotskyists that only they were “real revolutionaries”.
We came to understand that many parties that had actually led revolutions regarded Trotskyists as ultra-left and sectarian, and that was an accurate assessment of the Trotskyist groups they had experience with.
We concluded that the Trotskyist movement, which didn’t have a mass base anywhere, was left with only its distinct program to justify its existence. And because of this, it developed a strong tendency to spend a lot of time in an endless elaboration of the written program.
We called this programmatic fetishism. It wasn't just Trotskyists, many Maoist groups had similar problems.
In 1985, the DSP left the FI, collaborating with left parties from a range of traditions on a respectful bilateral basis. This is an approach that works much better to advance the socialist movement.
The SWP leadership was also moving away from the narrow Trotskyist tradition. This was a natural development of the SWP’s strong engagement in struggle in the '60s and '70s, and a positive bid to reach out to new revolutionary currents.
But it was also a big contributor to the considerable internal authority held by the Barnes leadership.
The problem was not, as Sheppard says, that the SWP moved away from Trotskyism, but Barnes reversed course. Instead of continuing to reach out to new revolutionary forces, it turned inward.
This switch around can be seen in how the SWP related to the revolutions of 1979.
Revolutions of 1979
Most of Sheppard's accounts of the SWP's good political interventions are in Volume I, but there are also some accounts in Volume II. His account of the SWP's support for Iranian socialists taking part in the 1979 popular overthrow against the CIA-installed regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi is noteworthy.
Sheppard went to Iran and his witness accounts of this visit capture the revolutionary spirit of the time.
Sheppard also recounts the SWP's approach to the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions, although he had less direct involvement in these. The SWP argued against the more sectarian responses to these revolutions from other groups in the Trotskyist movement.
Another former SWP leader Peter Camejo says in his 2010 memoir North Star that a key turning point occurred when the SWP abandoned serious solidarity with the Nicaraguan and Salvadoran revolutions as part of deepening the its "turn to industry".
SWP leaders were hostile to Camejo's proposals that the party learn from actual revolutionary leaderships in these countries and study US working-class histories as a source of ideas and inspiration to advance the struggle today.
SWP leaders set out to build a mini-international with their party at the centre, as Sheppard describes in Volume II.
The end result truly defies caricature. Today, a handful of grouplets in several countries distribute the newspaper of the US SWP. None has its own publication and all abstain from any effective engagement in the labour and other social movements.
It appeared to us that SWP leaders were mainly interested in using its declared loyalty to the Cuban revolution to prove its claim to “revolutionary continuity”.
This is pretentious rubbish and an insult to the political ideas of Karl Marx and all real revolutionary movements. There is no credentials committee that can issue certificates of “revolutionary continuity”.
Revolutionary parties and individuals get the political respect they have earned only in actual struggle. It's what you do, not what you say, that counts.
You don't win leadership through theoretically “perfecting” and “protecting” a program. You win political authority only through leading mass struggles in a way that empowers the working class.
A socialist party that develops a theoretical excuse for sustained political abstention is guaranteed to degenerate into a sect and abandon any real programmatic wisdom it may have acquired.
There have been socialist groups that recovered from some pretty whacky political positions simply because they were engaged in the real movements of their time.
The SWP did the opposite. It deepened its abstentionist practice and its programmatic positions have grown whackier.
In 1979, the SWP adopted a “turn to industry”, a push for members to get “blue collar” jobs. This tactic hardened into a permanent workerist schema.
Its members turned away from involvement in the progressive social and political struggles of the day, which were largely outside the framework of organised labour. The SWP's refusal to correct the error made degeneration inevitable.
The more disconnected a socialist group's ideas are from the actual class struggle, the more it has to rely on restrictions on dissent and discussion in its ranks to police the line. And the more it has to use patronage and manipulation to hold the leadership together.
In the end, being determines consciousness. An organisation's program and its internal culture adapts to its practice.
[A much longer version of this review can be found at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Both volumes of the momoir are available in Australia from Resistance Books (Australia).
Peter Boyle is a national co-convener of the Socialist Alliance in Australia. The views expressed are his own. A another view, read the review by US socialist and former SWP activist Paul Le Blanc. Barry Sheppard will write a response for a future issue of Green Left.]