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
345 pages.

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.

Three causes

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.

Revolutionary continuity?

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.]


"Sheppard says it would be naive to think that the membership itself could resist this juggernaut. It could have been stopped only by the Political Committee leadership group."
This really begs the question: what sort of organisation is it where the membership cannot resist a takeover by a cult of personality?

In my limited experience, which doesn't include anything nearly so bad as Sheppard's, the answer lies in an hierarchical structure of decision making where the general membership is not included in the most important discussions about the direction of the organisation.

It doesn't matter how much formal democracy the group has, if the decisionmaking discussions aren't accessible, it remains purely formal.

My more extended thoughts on this topic a couple of years ago are available here.

A left 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. The criticism which the DSP developed of its Trotskyist heritage (http://links.org.au/node/480) hinged around this understanding of the character of a left sect.

But we also need to understand why probably most left organisations today (perhaps more so in the rich imperialist countries) have to some degree or another sect-like tendencies or are outright sects. This is because of the left's relative isolation from the actual struggles against capitalist oppressions.

There are many groups espousing adherence to Marx's revolutionary socialism which nurse this or that shibboleth and protect it with an arrogance to the outside world and unjustified internal rigidity, dogmatism and over-centralisation. However, to the extent that these groups persist with a sustained and reasonably constructive engagement in the class struggle they can break out from their sect-like character.

On the other had if they invent some theoretical justification for consistently abstaining from constructive engagement in the actual class struggle that they confront (at whatever level it is), then they entrench their sectarian course and organisational character.

I argued in my review of Barry Sheppard's two-volume memoir that the US SWP did embark on such a process in the 1960s and 1970s, but, that it subsequently retreated from that course and degenerated into a small and increasingly ridiculous political sect.

I received a surprise phone call from the late Peter Camejo (one of the central leaders of the US SWP in the 1960s and 1970s) a few months before he passed away in 2008. We started by talking about what which of his writings we were publishing and using here in Australia but we then went on to discussing politics in the US.

Camejo then summed up the situation of the left in the US like this. He said that he had tried very hard to cohere a left in the Greens in the US but thought that after their defeat by the right in that party the forces he had brought together through that struggle just did not have the energy to carry on the fight. They were just exhausted by the struggle, he said, as had happened over time to much of the 60s generation of the left. Camejo added that if there was any serious left organisation remaining in the US then it probably was the ISO and that he was prepared to work with the ISO even though he thought they were hanging on to a mistaken position on the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions as their main shibboleth.

We agreed on the importance of the new revolutionary developments in Latin America but also that this should not be turned into an ideological "river of blood" between socialists with our view on those developments and revolutionary leaderships and groups like the ISO (US).

I agree with Camejo's approach on this. If following Marx, one sees the socialist movement not as some idealist or utopian project but rather as a movement of the working class, then one has to be prepared to work with the forces at hand.

So I am arguing against making some organisational prescriptiveness as an equivalent "river of blood" or, you could say, shibboleth, in the name of rejection of sectarianism. I am not supporting the over-centralised and anti-democratic structures that have commonly been imposed in the name of "Leninism" in many revolutionary socialist groups. But I don't see organisational forms as the main source of the problem. Indeed there are Maoist or former Maoist groups with even more militarised organisational forms in their deeply entrenched heritage that have and are transcending their past and becoming real leaders of significant revolutionary movements.

Both the sectarian and opportunist distortions in the left have a material basis and we need to understand the dynamics to do our but to create effective vehicles to advance the socialist movement. At the same time capitalist oppressions forces people into resistance and some of them seek to organise not just against particular oppressions or instances of oppression but against the system itself.

The task for socialists, informed by the ideas of Marx, should be to link up with those people.

Earlier today I was watching the moving speeches (http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=0ctEQqlf2xw) of the young US war veterans as the threw away their medals in a powerful ceremony in the great anti-war protest against the NATO Summit in Chicago. It was apowerful moment, I felt choked with tears. I felt respect for the activists and the organisations (warts and all) that built this mobilisation. I don't know who they are but I would be proud to work with these people in a common organisation, as comrades.

OK, left unity easy to say and hard to achieve, but it is what we should work for. We should reject both abstention from the movements and abstention from serious organisation for socialism.

Peter Boyle

Peter, I generally agree with you. But I think sometimes the historical search for the "material basis" for the errors of small groups is a bit of a mystification. Small groups don't necessarily reflect the ebb and flow of class forces; they can be caught in little eddies of their own creation.

When someone can say with a straight face that an organisation was taken over by a small clique and the membership had not a chance of stopping it, you have to wonder what sort of organisation that was, how the members or the leadership let it get that way.

The fact that the Barnes group consolidated its power in the mid 70s not the mid 60s or mid 80s certainly says a lot about the "material basis" in history for this process. The fact that the SWP membership seems to have been profoundly unable to do anything to stop it (despite the reservations of a Sheppard, or the opposition of a Camejo) is a separate issue, isn't it?

Peter puts forward a case which tends to indicate an approach which says that the organisational methods of the left are not important, and neither are the politics generally important. It tends to say, all that is important is that the left get together.

Ben puts forward a case which tends to agree with Peter's approach on the politics of the left get together are not that important. But then he says that the organisational and leadership methods are not helpful, and it is these that need to be changed.

What many on the left say, and the RET agrees with them, is that the politics are of paramount importance while attempting "left unity". I think this is generally the reason why the rest of the left does not wish to join our SA at this stage. I don't pretend to be able to speak for the RSP, but the RSP have seen from the inside what the politics of a left unity project as envisioned by us are, and they tried to make the case that the politics were not sharp enough. I argued against them at the time, but I now believe I was generally wrong to do so. SAlt, Solidarity, the CPA and others appear to think that joining SA, even as affiliates, would not allow them to put forward their interpretation of politics, and that they would have to campaign under the basis of old DSP politics.

To a large extent, this is an unfounded concern, as they would not have to agree to, or campaign on, old DSP politics. But to some extent, they would have to agree to the current SA's approach to left unity - which tends to say that just getting together is important - and organisation and politics can just be thrown together and worked out as we go along - even if it takes ten, twenty or thirty years. In my view this means that in the meantime we in SA campaign constantly on a minimum program - something which social democrats can agree with, as they are the most conservative grouping within our SA.

Ben's view tends toward an anti-leadership, anarchist-leaning approach. Peter's approach maintains that leadership is important, a view that I support. But it is not the leadership that is the issue with our SA - in my view the issue is that the politics are not sufficiently socialist for a party which states that it's aim is socialism. To begin to correct this, I think we need to form and build Marxist currents within SA.

Adam Baker

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