Invaluable history, important lessons from US leftist

June 24, 2012

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
345 pages

Malik Miah

The first volume of former United States Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader Barry Sheppard’s political memoir The Party covered the exciting years of “the '60s”.

Published in 2005, it reflected on the decade's youth and Black radicalisation. Major political developments, such as the civil rights and 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, subtitled “Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988”, covers the period of political degeneration and isolation of the SWP (“the party”), a revolutionary socialist group that played a disproportionately large role in many of the big events of the '60s.

It is important to read the two volumes together.

I have known Sheppard as a comrade, collaborator and friend for more than 40 years. Much of what he writes on the rise and decline of the SWP, I know as a member and leader of the SWP in the '70s and '80s.

Initiated by Jack Barnes, who became national secretary in 1972, the party gradually broke with its history and traditions. This 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 Russian revolutionary leader Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and the transitional method of the founding document of the Trotskyist Fourth International (FI), The Transitional Program. Both are rooted in the experience of the Russian revolution and the Communist International in Lenin’s time.

It also culminated in the rejection of the entire past trade union policies of the SWP.

Attacks on Trotskyism (I do not mean the views of dozens of sects that self-identify as “Trotskyists”) are, in my view, attacks on Marxism. One can disagree with strategies and tactics, but to declare that Trotsky, the Russian Left Opposition to Stalin he lead and later the FI are ultra-leftist obstacles to building a revolutionary movement, is a retreat from the lessons learned after the Russian revolution.

Those lessons are what led to the creation of the SWP and allowed it to analyse, understand and participate in the mass movements of the '60s and '70s.

There are three integrated stories in the two volumes.

First, is the events themselves. Sheppard describes powerful mass struggles he observed or took part in, at home and abroad. The SWP was involved in many of these struggles.

Second, is the story of the political debates within the SWP and Fourth International.

Sheppard 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, over guerilla warfare as a tactic or strategy.

Most of the FI concluded 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. The SWP leaders and co-thinkers in other countries disagreed.

Sheppard, who was a central leader in the political fight, explains how it led to a near split in the FI. But the failures of the strategy as it was implemented made clear that guerrilla war as a continent-wide strategy was an error.

Eventually, the majority rejected the strategy and the two factions dissolved. Sheppard 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.

Third, is an explanation of how the SWP declined and degenerated. This aspect of the two volumes may seem less important to the reader who can easily identify with the big historical events discussed in the book, but who has not been a member of a socialist group.

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 around Jack Barnes, is the most important one for a new generation of Marxist and revolutionary activists.

The party leaders, after militant struggles by steel, rail, auto and mine workers during the '70s, decided in 1978 to carry out a “turn” to convince a majority of our members to get jobs in basic industry.

We 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.

We likened our orientation to wearing “three hats.” One “hat” was to be active trade unionists. Another was to become integrated with the work force, 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 industrial workers was on the horizon. But that did not happen. The error was to not recognise this and adjust the party's 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. This was broken by then-president Ronald Reagan when he fired all the strikers.

The failure of the union movement to respond aggressively to Reagan's attack opened the door to employers using replacement scab workers in strikes across all industries, concessions to the bosses and other defeats across the labour movement.

The response of SWP leaders was to insist a working class radicalisation was still happening in the face of reality. When members in workplaces said that was not the case, they were shot down, shunned or forced out of the group.

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

The aim of functioning as union activists was thrown out. It was viewed as interfering with socialist propaganda and could lead to adaptation to the union bureaucracy. So we abstained from union politics.

Learning about the industry, the job and building roots among the workforce was redefined as a "fraction having roots not individuals". This absurd concept meant changing jobs so frequently that it undermined the influence of the SWP in factories.

One Swedish FI leader called it functioning like “revolutionary grasshoppers”.

The turn to industry was correct. The problem was how it was carried out. In my view, the policy in the unions adopted by Barnes was more significant than the rejection of Trotskyism.

The new trade union policy became to abstain from struggles in the labour movement and then in all mass movements. The party retreated into abstract socialist propaganda ― the hallmarks of an isolated sect.

The rejection of the historic program and practice of the SWP was made possible by the consolidation of a cult around Jack Barnes.

Sheppard explains this did not happen instantly. It was a process: “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.”

Sheppard first suspected the cult was developing while assigned to Europe in the mid-1970s. When Sheppard confronted Barnes about his suspicions in early 1978, Barnes threatened him with expulsion.

Sheppard explains that the fear of being expelled after spending your political life in the SWP was why many long-time members, such as Sheppard, did not stand up to the new policies and one-man rule.

Barnes eventually destroyed the party's broader leaders and most of the ranks in consolidating his cult.

I believe Sheppard explains clearly that the move toward a cult began before the major political changes of long-held SWP positions. However, I believe the only way the cult could be consolidated among the membership in a political group such as 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 that is decisive in characterising the SWP’s politics today.

There is a lot to learn about the political movements of the 1960s and '70s in Barry’s two volume memoir. There is a lot to study about how a small revolutionary group can play a disproportionately large 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 about why mechanisms need to be in place to prevent the type of takeover that occurred in the SWP. For those reasons, you should read the book.

[Both volumes of Sheppard's memoir can be found at Resistance Books. Green Left Weekly #923 contained a review of this book by Socialist Alliance national secretary Peter Boyle, presenting a different view of the cause of the SWP's degeneration and the role of its historic program. A further view can be found in a review by veteran US socialist and former SWP member Paul Le Blanc.]

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