On the Formation of the Jack Barnes Cult in the SWP

[This essay was originally written a few years ago as part of the concluding section of the memoirs of my time in the SWP. But since the memoirs are only partially completed at this point, I have decided to release this essay now as a standalone piece.

In the earlier part of my memoirs I stress mostly the positive achievements of the SWP up through the early and mid-1970s. I also include what I see as mostly a positive assessment of Jack Barnes during that period, although I do try to show some of his flaws, to show him in that earlier period as the progenitor of the very serious future problems that developed.

This essay is not meant to examine all the reasons for the decline and degeneration of the SWP, only to take up one specific peculiarity: the formation of a cult around Jack Barnes. The events leading up to this point have been well described by Barry Sheppard, in the recently published Volume II of his The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988. This volume, entitled Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988, covers the relevant background.

I believe that the party would inevitably have suffered greatly during the 1980s and beyond, due to the long lasting decline in the radicalization, a longer period of political conservatism than any in the past 150 years or more. This would have been compounded by political mistakes and built-in weaknesses. There might have been a possibility to recover and grow once again, however, had not a cult emerged at the top, centered around Jack Barnes. The development of such a cult was not unavoidable. Nor did it result from political errors. It depended on certain personality flaws and organizational weaknesses, as well as a skewed way of life and self-perception. I hope the essay below will help to explain that awful dynamic.

– Gus Horowitz, June 2012]

___________________________________________________________________________________________________________

“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”[1] These opening words of the Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International, were fundamental to all of our political beliefs. By “crisis of leadership” we meant the revolutionary party. It was our contention that revolutionary crises had developed many times in many countries during the twentieth century, only to fail because of the absence of leadership. The workers followed the Communist or Social Democratic parties, misleaders who brought the masses down to defeat.

In the mid-1970s we in the SWP were at our height. Prospects looked so good to us. We thought we had the correct revolutionary ideas, the ideas that could provide leadership and victory for the working class. But we were well aware that we were not the party that was needed. We were far too few in number and had very slender roots in the working class as a whole. We saw ourselves, rather, as the nucleus of the party that was needed, of the party that would develop into a mass revolutionary party. This concept was part of our blood and bone throughout the years.

Yet, there was more to it than that. Jack Barnes expressed these feelings eloquently in a major talk he gave in 1970, at the first of the many national SWP gatherings held at Oberlin, Ohio during the summer.

“But if we absorb one thing,” he said, “we should absorb this: we 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…

“We’re engaged in what is the greatest adventure in the history of humanity. We have on our shoulders a more fateful responsibility than we can totally absorb, because of what the stakes are in this struggle. But we are not yet socialist humans…as people who are reared, marked and marred by this brutalizing, dehumanizing society, we have come to the consciousness of what we can accomplish to open the door to a truly human society. And that is our glory.”[2]

I remember how inspired I was when I heard Jack deliver those lines, and I think many others of my comrades felt the same way. It was as if we were driven by a mission, a historically important mission.

It was so easy for our critics to disparage or ridicule these views. But if revolutionaries take their ideas seriously, as they must and as we did, they must necessarily see their activities as immensely important. If you don’t believe that, James P. Cannon once said, you are in the wrong business.

Jack, however, stressed something more than the usual importance that serious people should give to the main focus of their activities. He insisted that, “we have on our shoulders a more fateful responsibility than we can totally absorb…”

The psychological burden of having the fate of the world resting on one’s own shoulders is enormous to bear. “What if I make a mistake? What if I don’t measure up? The consequences could be terrible.” Thoughts like these, whether one is aware of it or not, must surely have run through our minds, at least subconsciously. Not surprisingly this kind of pressure, even if it is self-imposed, will cause most people to seek to shift responsibility onto someone else, onto a stronger person, onto someone who seems supremely confident, onto the leader of the group. A price is paid, however, for that psychological relief: it must inevitably cause at least some degree of psychological dependence on the leader.

There is, I believe, a type of authoritarian/submissive dynamic at work here, akin in some respects to the dynamic at work in some religious groups. One’s focus at first is not on the group or the leader, but on the doctrine. One submits to the doctrine, to the force of history, to the authority of the great historical figures of the past. Over time, however, there is, at least in part, a transference of psychological submission from the doctrine and history to the current group and its current leader.

Paul LeBlanc, in his book, Trotskyism in the United States, presents a very perceptive review of this dynamic at work, quoting and summarizing from Freud.

“The functioning of some SWP members, responding to the powerful personality and tremendous authority that Barnes assumed, brings to mind Freud’s insights on group psychology: ‘the individual gives up his ego-ideal [i.e., individual sense of right and wrong, duty, and guilt] and substitutes for it the group-ideal as embodied in the leader.’ The authority of the leader (in the minds of at least many members) becomes essential for the cohesion of the group, and the approval of the leader, or a sense of oneness with the leader, becomes a deep-felt need that is bound up with one’s own sense of self-worth. The member of the group enjoys ‘a feeling of triumph’ when his or her thinking coincides with this leader’s judgments, and is vulnerable to ‘delusions of inferiority and self-depreciation’ whenever inner doubts arise about the leader’s authority.”[3]

This aspect of group psychology presents a fertile environment in which one person can emerge as the predominant figure in the group, as someone who cannot be challenged. Of course, one should not take Freud’s perceptions in too sweeping a fashion. The problems he points to need not necessarily come to fruition. Other circumstances are required.

A leader, once he or she accepts the sense of mission that Jack spoke of, also bears the same kind of self-imposed psychological burden. Yet the leader is compelled to accept that responsibility, to take it upon his or her shoulders. The leader who “totally absorbs” that “fateful responsibility” must surely live with the keen feeling that he or she is a special person, a person on whom the fate of humanity at least partially depends. No wonder, then, that there is a serious risk of megalomania in such circumstances, a feeling that one is indispensable, a feeling that everything one does has special, fateful importance.

Picture the scene: an apartment in Brussels in the mid-1970s. It is the eve of a United Secretariat meeting, the top-most body of our international organization. The meeting is expected to last perhaps two days. It is not a particularly important meeting, but then again, all of these meetings do have some importance. I am there as our European-based representative. So too, I think, is Ed Shaw. Jack Barnes has come over for the meeting from New York, perhaps Mary-Alice Waters or Barry Sheppard as well. But Joe Hansen is not present; the meeting just isn’t that important.

We are all having a good time, talking politics, drinking, making jokes and banter. If Barry had been present we would be eagerly anticipating boeuf bourguignon or some other gourmet treat. (Many SWPers were good cooks. It was one of the ways we could indulge ourselves on the meager subsidies we lived on.)

Then the phone call comes from the USA. It is for Jack, a personal call. He takes it in the other room. A few minutes later he comes back, his face ashen. Someone in his close family has died, I surmise, perhaps his father.

I wondered what Jack would do. I expected him to leave. But he didn’t. He kept right on with the meeting. It was his duty. Jack was torn by his decision. I later heard him mutter under his breath, “I should have gone back,” or words to that effect.

One reads about this in wartime. A general loses his son, a soldier loses his brother, but they go on, at least some of them can go on, despite the shock and loss. It is wartime, after all. Other lives really are at stake. And some generals really are indispensable. Jack’s war, however, was mostly in his own imagination.

Jack had clearly come to feel overly self-important by this time. As the years went by, he also came to feel, more and more, that he could comport himself differently. At meetings, he would speak longer and more often than others, much more so than he had done in the past. He would take more time off, would increasingly work at home rather than at the headquarters. He would even – unheard of in earlier years – have a working lunch or dinner at party expense. First a little, thence to more, he sampled all that corrupting store.[4] In later years his comportment became an international scandal.

Jack must have thought that he could behave differently because he was, after all, a special person, a person imbued with a unique historical responsibility. The rules of ordinary egalitarian conduct did not apply to one such as him, the indispensable leader.

Jack Barnes did not start out that way. I knew him well for twenty years. For most of the time I knew him he seemed quite normal and he lived a modest life style. But over time the psychological pressures took their toll on him, just as on the rest of us.

There was another factor compounding this personal dynamic. It was the group dynamic and our peculiar life style. As a general rule, the leaders and most of the members of the SWP were extraordinarily active, many spending six or seven days per week in one project or another. Few of us had our own families, careers or professions. We thought of ourselves as footloose rebels, for the most part, tied neither to job nor location. Our entire lives revolved around the party. Our friends, our manners, our speech, our way of doing things were all shaped by our way of life in the group. The group dynamic was part of an all-encompassing atmosphere.

The world of the group so dominated the life of the members that most of us found it difficult to develop or maintain friends or even normal non-political personal associations with people outside the organization. Even long-time family relations turned awkward in many cases. To leave the organization, even to become a non-conformist within the organization – to risk being shunned – posed serious psychological issues.

It was tragically ironic: the very bonds of collegial comradeship, which made us feel so strong when we confronted the ruling class or our political opponents, weakened our resolve as independent individuals in relationship to our own group. This was true of the leaders as well as the general members. Actually it was probably truer of the leaders than the members and was one of the reasons why no major figure in the younger party leadership stood up against the deleterious trends that developed.

Under such pressures many small aspiring revolutionary groups like ours degenerate into cults or sects. This was true not only of the world Trotskyist movement, but for many other small groups of various political persuasions.

That sad fate, however, is not foreordained. Ordinarily, in a period of mass action, there are strong countervailing pressures. The focus of the group is outward. The members are working all the time with others outside the group. There is a real live movement to temper the strains. The group is not entirely closed in on itself. The group’s ideas are being put to the test continually by events outside of itself. There is room to revise mistaken ideas, to take back false steps. We in the SWP were becoming like that in the high point of our activity in the anti-Vietnam-War movement and in the other social protest movements of that period.

But in a period of decline, there is an insular environment, a sort of hothouse atmosphere in which negative features can more easily take root and flourish. This is what started to happen to the SWP in the 1950s. Some of the party’s branch units started to behave a bit like cults or sects, particularly the units in Buffalo and Milwaukee, to some extent the branch in Seattle. The local party leader started to become the center of attention and the font of all wisdom.

At the party center in the 1950s, however, we had Farrell Dobbs and the leadership team around him. Farrell had immense moral authority and stature in the party, yet he was one of the least self-centered persons one could ever know. He had been a nationally famous Teamsters strike leader in the 1930s. Had he pursued union officialdom as a career – and he had many offers to do so – he might well have gone on to hold high union office on a national level. He chose instead to give it all up for party work and a prison term for his ideas as well. In the party he seemed completely untainted by egotism, a blessing that few party members fully appreciated. He deliberately set about building a team leadership, not an individual leadership. His personality, I now believe, was essential to the party’s survival through the downturn of the 1950s. The unhealthy trends that developed in some party branches never predominated on a national scale.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, a much different type of person was as the center. Jack Barnes had earned his spot as leader of the party. He was very talented. In some respects he had a sharper political mind than Farrell Dobbs. His mind was as quick and his way of thinking as deep as any of the older party leaders, at least I thought so. He certainly had the loyalty and backing of the party members. But he lacked the moral stature, the psychological equilibrium and the sense of his own human frailty that are also essential in a top-level political leader.

So it was that from the late 1970s onward an unfortunate combination of circumstances worked like a cancer on the SWP: the decline of the radicalization; the party’s small size and relative isolation from mass action; weaknesses and flaws in our traditions; unacknowledged political mistakes; the abnormal way of life in the group; and the human frailty of the leaders. None of these factors, taken alone, would have been sufficient to decimate the organization. But in combination, they were deadly.

It is likely, I think, that the SWP would have declined terribly simply because of the circumstances in which it found itself. It might have recovered, however, once a new upturn came along. But the political and organizational weaknesses and flaws, and in particular the human frailties – what we liked to call “the role of the individual in history” – shaped and distorted the decline in such a way that the possibility for recovery and renewal became ever more distant.

The party, stricken on all fronts, turned into a grotesque caricature of its former self.

Footnotes

1. The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, New York 1973. P. 72
2. Towards an American Socialist Revolution, Pathfinder Press, New York 1971, p. 125
3. Trotskyism in the United States, Humanities Press, New Jersey, 1996, p. 205
4. Here I have stolen and modified a phrase from one of my favorite poems, Terence, this is stupid stuff, by A. E. Housman. Housman was making a rather different point, but he put it well.

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65 Responses to “On the Formation of the Jack Barnes Cult in the SWP”


  1. 1 Ralph Levitt July 4, 2012 at 1:58 am

    Humbug, Gus.
    Barnes was cult building starting in 1960.
    His contributions were minor in the ’60’s.
    Pete was doing an excellent job as the public face of the YSA.
    Barry was leading the organization in a professional manner.
    And Jack?
    He spent minimum time in the political and social movements. He
    did little to build the organization. He was an office creature, living
    his life in the office and at home. He was non-essential to the
    growth of the YSA.
    But he was outstanding in several areas.
    1). Clique building.
    2). Bamboozling the leaders and some members.
    3). Party wrecking.
    He build his clique————went to New York with an inflated
    narrative about his importance and——wrecked the SWP.
    He was not good until the mid ’70’s and then turned bad.
    No, no.
    He was bad from the start. And you, Gus, were bamboozled and
    evidently have remained—at least partly—bamboozled..
    Self justification for participation—for a while—in Jack’s wrecking
    operation.
    What did he contribute?
    I’ll answer that. He contributed his ego, his self confidence, his
    organizational shrewdness and his correct assessment of the
    weaknesses of his enemies—his future victims.
    Jack was the biggest disaster in the history of American Trotskyism
    and the architect of its destruction.

  2. 3 Ernesto Oleinik July 4, 2012 at 2:04 am

    “There might have been a possibility to recover and grow once again, however, had not a cult emerged at the top, centered around Jack Barnes. The development of such a cult was not unavoidable. Nor did it result from political errors. It depended on certain personality flaws and organizational weaknesses, as well as a skewed way of life and self-perception.”

    “First of all, what characterizes a proletarian revolutionary? No one is obliged to participate in a revolutionary party, but if he does participate, he considers the party seriously. If we dare to call the people for a revolutionary change of society, we carry a tremendous responsibility, which we must consider very seriously. And what is our theory, but merely the tools of our action? These tools are our Marxist theory because up to today we have not found better tools. A worker is not fantastic about tools – if they are the best tools he can get he is careful with them; he does not abandon them or demand fantastic non-existent tools.

    Burnham is an intellectual snob. He picks up one party, abandons it, takes up another. A worker cannot do this. If he enters a revolutionary party, addresses the people, calls them for action, it is the same as a general during a war – he must know where he is leading them. What would you think of a general who said he thought the guns were bad – that it would be better to wait for ten years until they had invented better guns, so everybody had better go home. That is the way Burnham reasons. So he abandoned the party. But the unemployed remain, and the war remains. These things cannot be postponed. Therefore it is only Burnham who has postponed his action.”
    Leon Trotsky 1940 “On the “Workers” Party”

    Hi Gus!

    My name is Ernesto and I wanted to leave some comments after reading some of your recollections from your experiences as a member and leader of the SWP from 1960 until 1980.

    Before my comments: A bit of personal history. I was myself a member of the Young Socialists and Communist League in Sweden from 1996 until 2000.

    Since then I havent been a member, but I am a regular reader of the Militant to this day and try to help out in every way I can and I have to add:

    I do see the SWP and the human and political tradition it embodies internationally TODAY as “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..”.

    I thought necessary to add that, so there is no misunderstanding.

    I have never met Jack Barnes or talked to him personally , even though Ive met others during the years I like to call comrades. But I do know that the SWP, the communist movement internationally its a part of, those comrades (including Jack) helped me change my life, inspired me and others and made me/us aware of some things you write about in a positive way.

    And Im talking about the SWP and the communist leaugues from the 90s until today. I suppose that is long after the SWP turned into a “grotesque caricature of its former self” according to you.

    Now to my question and comment. At the end of your article you write:

    “It is likely, I think, that the SWP would have declined terribly simply because of the circumstances in which it found itself. It might have recovered, however, once a new upturn came along. But the political and organizational weaknesses and flaws, and in particular the human frailties – what we liked to call “the role of the individual in history” – shaped and distorted the decline in such a way that the possibility for recovery and renewal became ever more distant.”

    I find that explanation very abstract. Not totally clear-cut. Actually, wrong, period. And its not primarily the theoretical explanation, since I suppose everyone who was a part of those times has one of their own. Its more the politics behind it, that I feel not spelled out.

    Correct me if Im wrong, but were you still a member and leader of the SWP when the turn to industry became the number one political campaign of the party in the US and soon throughout the Fourth International in 1978-79?

    What did you fight for as part of that leadership, what did you propose then, that has some politcal continuity to what you propose now?

    Didnt the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolution become ESSENTIAL soon after in reorienting the political work of the SWP and in putting some acute light on mutually opposed political perspectives inside the FI that had developed during the years before?

    If I have understood things correctly you didnt comtinue as a member after 1980. You are aware though, that the years after saw a political struggle of a fundamental nature, at least as I see it, that resulted in faction fights, splits, expulsions, breakups on all levels in the SWP and the FI itself.

    Werent those struggles fundamental aswell in giving some kind of political answer to the question of how the revolutionary nucleus could and should reach out to fellow combatants in the working class and revolutionaries engaged in revolutionaty struggles globally?

    You write: “It might have recovered, however, once a new upturn came along.” Wasnt the beginning of the 80s a revolutionary upturn? Wasnt it at the same time the beginning of a long, tortuous retreat for the labor movement in the imperialist countries? What does a revolutionary party until that upturn? And during the downturns?

    What should they have done instead in the mayority of the leadership of the SWP? Should THEY have retreated? You seem convinced the SWP might then have survived as a healthy revolutionary organization. But, What did you fight for then?

    How did other currents claiming to be communist, marxist, leninist or for that matter, the european sections of the FI, fare any “better” than the SWP? Did they become more proletarian in orientation, membership, leadership? Did they in any way contribute during those years in a fuller way to resolving that “crisis of leadership” OF the world working class?

    During over 30 years of uninterrupted upheaval and so on UNTIL TODAY, whats left of their own trotskyism? Did they develop in a more revolutionary direction? Is this about “errors”, “human frailties” or about something more fundamental: the revolutionary perspective in our age? Or if its really true that the “cycle” opened by the October revolution ended in defeat at the end of the 80, beginning of the 90s..

    Why all this psycological explanation of the “cult” around Jack Barnes without ever mentioning the contending forces, their program, more importantly their opposed patterns of collective action and even how its conceived, as shown in class-struggle practice during all these years.

    Personally I feel theres something else behind all this, no matter if you call it the “cult”, the “regime” and so on. Its the tradition, the perspective, the politics/organisation. Its not really about Barnes, its more about Cannon, Dobbs, Trotsky, Lenin and in essence, the continuity of the communist movement to this day.

    My comment is already to long and not very organized. Forgiveness for that. Wanted still to give you some of my thoughts, even if we dont know each other.

    “… al que le duele su dolor le dolerá sin descanso
    y al que le teme a la muerte la llevara sobre sus hombros”
    Federico García Lorca

    Ernesto
    Stockholm, Sweden

    • 4 John Riddell July 4, 2012 at 7:43 pm

      Dear Ernesto,

      I am very glad to see your response, and I salute you as a former member of the SWP/Communist Leagues who is continuing as a working-class activist. I agree with the point you make about Nicaragua and Grenada, and you could speak also about Cuba, where the SWP’s stand even today compares favourably with that of many Marxists in the U.S.

      I am in contact with a range of young former members of the SWP and CLs, and without exception they are talented and tireless contributors to the revolutionary movement. This surely tells us that the revolutionary spark is still alive in the SWP today.

      I must say, however, that the immense majority of those leaving the SWP/CLs drop out of political activity. I know of only about a dozen exceptions. This demands explanation.

      We must recognize that on many current issues the SWP’s positions are deeply disturbing and reflect a hostility to views generally held in the workers’ movement. In my own case, for example, I was expelled from the Canadian CL’s active supporters’ group for advocating self-determination for Iraq, at a time (2004) when the SWP/CLs had tacitly dropped that position. The Militant, as you may recall, was then talking about the unintended progressive consequences of U.S. occupation of Iraq.

      Similarly, the Militant now campaigns against radical opponents of the oppression of Palestinians, telling us that to speak of Israeli apartheid, the Palestinian right of return, etc., is anti-Semitic. More is at stake here than mere terminology. The governments of Canada and many other countries make the same assertion, as part of an attempt to illegalize Palestinian advocacy under “anti-hate” laws.

      We fight many battles for the right of free speech for Palestinian advocacy. I am immensely saddened that the SWP/CLs, whatever their intention, are objectively aligned with the imperialist states on this issue.

      Despite such regretful developments (and I could say much more), I think it is wrong to demonize the SWP. In fact, the overall trend of the SWP is to more and more resemble the general run of small inward-turned Marxist groups. I will have more to say on this shortly.

      I would be pleased to carry on this discussion with you further. You can contact me through my website, http://johnriddell.wordpress.com.

      In solidarity, John

      • 5 Ernesto Oleinik July 5, 2012 at 1:28 pm

        Hi John!

        I would very much like to give
        a political answer to your comment, since
        Im of the opinion the SWP and the communist movement
        around the world, is doing the opposite of what you describe as the

        “overall trend of the SWP is to more and more resemble the general run of small inward-turned Marxist groups”.

        I think they are reaching out..

        But Im no really sure how it works on your blog.
        Should I write my reply as a comment
        to one of your articles?

        /Ernesto

      • 6 gushorowitz July 5, 2012 at 2:22 pm

        You can write your reply as a comment

    • 7 anonymous July 4, 2012 at 7:44 pm

      Ernesto, it was a sincere pleasure to read your comment. I have no use for reading character assassinations and petty gossip about the movement and its leadership, something that has existed forever among bitter opponents who can never really answer the politics of the “barnes regime”. The same vulgarities were thrown around in the faction fight in 1940 about the “Cannon Clique”, and its funny how similar the tone and content of the attacks on the present day party and the musings of Shachtman and Burnham. Trotsky also called for a sort of turn to industry on the eve of World War Two, remarking that the petty bourgeois sections of the party who couldn’t recruit workers should be demoted to sympathizers.

      Its true that the SWP has in large part disappeared from the “left”, because thats not a real great place for communists to be. Meeting comrades and friends, and vanguard workers who’s lives have been profoundly changed by the solidarity from the party has been the best experience I’ve had in my life. Thank goodness the movement rescued me from all the prejudice and cynicism of middle class radicals.

      I’d much rather see these folks answer the politics in the resolution on the workers and farmers government and in their trotsky and ours. I’ll keep looking to see if they ever do. And the presumption that young people like myself (20) are repelled by the SWP of today is really untrue, though it is a challenge to recruit young people to the discipline of the movement, the space is open. All y’all do is gossip on the internet, go out and build a proletarian party if you wanna prove the SWP is wrong

  3. 8 RED DAVE July 5, 2012 at 3:03 am

    Looking at everything but the politics of the SWP.

  4. 9 John Riddell July 5, 2012 at 2:37 pm

    Ernesto, Over eight years, my website has said almost nothing about the SWP, although that will change now — I will publish a review of Barry Sheppard’s book in the coming days. You may want to comment on that.

    In the meantime, why not respond on Gus Horowitz’s list, which has a readership of those interested in SWP-related questions.

    John

  5. 10 Dennis Brasky July 5, 2012 at 3:00 pm

    Did the rot of the SWP begin with Barnes’ growing narcissism in the context of a downturn of the radicalization, or were the seeds of the rot already in place long before?

    Putting aside Louis Proyect’s interesting thesis as to Zinoviev’s influence on the Comintern as well as the Cochran expulsion, I recall classes when I joined (early 1970) on In Defense of Marxism and Struggle for a Proletarian Party where the central lesson hammered home was that political differences have to be dealt with politically. Organizational norms were clearly secondary and had to be superseded by a full discussion that would flush out and make clear the political differences so that the membership would fully understand and gain a greater understanding of the issues. Yet, when some leaders of the YSA in the early ‘60s disagreed with the party’s assessment of the nature of the Cuban Revolution, Farrell Dobbs boasted about solving this “problem” by graduating the dissident leaders out of the YSA – an organizational solution to a political disagreement.

    Again, organizational solutions were employed by the party leadership after the 1971 convention when branches and YSA locals in which a sizeable number of comrades supporting the Proletarian Orientation lived were flooded by leadership loyalists. The predominant sentiment at the time was to question the loyalty of the P.O. comrades, and thus many of us who supported the leadership sheepishly went along.

    The 1974 expulsion of the I.T. was a particularly egregious example of organizational devices used to deal with political dissent. As a member of the Chicago branch at the time, I was incensed at the provocative strategy of the I.T. There would be thirty minute-long debates on the reading of the minutes, their weekly sustainers would be twenty-five cents (and they would be months behind in payment!), and they would sell the British section’s newspaper rather than The Militant. It seemed that they wanted to be expelled so that they could claim to be victims of “the Barnes regime” and the party leadership gave them what they wanted. What role did this play as a precedent to the expulsions less than a decade later?

    We know what role was played by a section of the older leadership (Breitman) in opposing Barnes’ attempt to de-Trotskyize the party without any discussion and debate. I am curious as to what Gus did to oppose this process.

    • 11 gushorowitz July 5, 2012 at 5:48 pm

      In reply to Dennis Brasky’s comment. I hope to write something on why I left the SWP and also on my actions in relation to the expulsion of George Breitman and others.

      On the latter point, I ceased all activity in the SWP at the end of the summer 1980, so I was not involved with the expulsions, which occurred later. But there were some events in the 1978-80 period that I should describe.

      In his volume 2, Barry deals with the expulsion of the I.T. and of the inappropriate behavior of the SWP majority in this regard – behavior in which I share responsibility. There was a corruption of the role of the Control Commission, of which I was a leading participant.

  6. 12 Tom Cod July 5, 2012 at 5:05 pm

    I agree with Riddell’s attitude. Anonymous claims that the SWP has not turned into an inward looking sect, but then demonstrates exactly that attitude when he disparages involvement with what he characterizes as the “left” and the radical movement today. This abstentionism is a completely ineffectual attitude worthy of religious sects and is something Lenin opposed in “What is to be Done”. Occupy and the fight back in Wisconsin were most significant features of an upsurge in the class struggle recently that needed to be solidarized with and intervened in which the SWP did little of, except to pretentiously lecture at it from the sidelines and to counterpose themselves as a hallowed sect to the mass struggle, the hallmark of the sectarian mentality.

    • 13 David Altman July 5, 2012 at 5:29 pm

      During the events in Madison, WI of Feb.-Mar. last year the SWP did set up literature tables. It has no members in Wisconsin but sent people in from outside. “Lecturing on the sidelines” to be sure, but I would say they got a positive response, as did all the left groups who “intervened” there, including the Sparts and SEP.

      Two left groups that did play a positive role from the beginning, including initiating the occupation of the Capitol building, were the ISO and Solidarity, ironically because they had students at UW-Madison and those “petty-bourgeois” unions AFSCME and the Teaching Assistants Association.

      Unfortunately the left groups in Wisconsin were not sizable enough to divert the struggle away from the pro-Democratic Party debacle that it became.

    • 14 anonymous July 5, 2012 at 5:52 pm

      Thats untrue. Dozens of comrades around the country drove thousands of miles to attend the demonstrations in wisconsin, including fundraising to bring ten college students from upstate new york there, who also then went out of Madison to speak to the many more people who didn’t attend the demonstrations, as well as meet working farmers and tour their farms.

      If the SWP are abstentionist, why are they consistently the only socialist organization that makes any effort to participate in the fight at American Crystal, or Honeywell, or Keokuk, all of which are part of the beginning stages of a fightback against concession demands from the bosses and all of which are a lot more important than occupy from the point of view of the class struggle (Buddy Howard from Keokuk wrote a wonderful letter to the militant about this in particular: http://www.themilitant.com/2011/7547/754765.html)

      As a young person I spent a lot of time around occupy (too much), with a lot of patience, trying to learn whatever I could from people I met, but I found few people who wanted to make serious political decisions. I would set meetings with people to discuss attending a clinic defense, or visiting a picket line, really any sort of organized action we could participate in, and they would often be a half hour late and then want to discuss organizing a puppet show or something. Not to say anything negative about individuals, I used to be like that too, but I found that most occupies were essentially apolitical (many people at them often told me “I’m not political”).

      The SWP are present consistently at as many clinic defenses, marches for immigrant rights, lock outs, strikes, Cuba solidarity events, fights against police brutality, Trayvon Martin demos as are possible given the size of the movement. They participate every year in the Havana book fair, and attend many other events in Havana, always emphasizing the importance of the class struggle in the US as being part and parcel of the fight to free the cuban five. The YS is even a member of WFDY, an organization miles apart politically, but that opens up opportunities for them to meet fighters and learn from them. The sectarian accusation holds very little water.

      In my opinion, left groups usually can collaborate very well because their politics and orientation aren’t all that different, and they feel more comfortable around each other than going out and talking to workers, going door to door, going out for drinks, spending a few hours talking with people who will disagree but who can be won to revolutionary politics.

      • 15 Dennis Brasky July 5, 2012 at 8:14 pm

        July 4, 2004 – midtown Manhattan; 500,000 people marching against the Iraq War but under the banner of “Defeat Bush” which of course meant, Vote Democrat. All day long I could not spot one SWPer selling the Militant or handing out any literature. Finally I discovered the extent of the SWP’s presence – a Pathfinder table located on a side street! They had allowed the mass march to pass them by, literally and figuratively/politically by completely abstaining. The contrast between how the Party threw itself into successfully fighting to keep the anti Vietnam War movement out of the Democrats’ clutches, and this abject surrender and self-isolation, dressed up with purist and workerist claims about the “middle-class nature” of the movement (the same epithets that the Sparts and others aimed at us in the ‘60s/70s) was glaring. Unfortunately, this is but one of many such examples of their sect-like behavior over the past two-plus decades.

      • 16 David Altman July 5, 2012 at 8:14 pm

        Hey anon: I did note that the SWP sent people in from outside Wisconsin to relate to the Madison protests. This is to their credit; it’s not their fault they didn’t have members in Wisconsin when the struggle broke out.

        A friend of mine, a former member of the SWP who is a staffer for the Steelworkers Union, did comment to me that he thought the Militant’s coverage of recent labor struggles has been exemplary. Again, this is to the SWP’s credit, but it’s not that different from many little left groups over the years who oriented to “the workers” and sneered at us in the SWP for our immersion in “middle-class protest movements,” feminism, black nationalism, gay liberation and the like. All I say in reply is the famous statement of Lenin that the communist’s goal is not to be a trade-union secretary but a tribune of the people.

        I was enthusiastically involved in the implementation of the “Turn” in the late ’70s and remain an industrial worker to this day. I found that there was a disparity between our stated aim of relating to actual workers in the struggle and the reality of an increasingly inward-looking party life, constant demands that left little time to spend with actual workers or anybody outside our ranks. Perhaps things have changed in the intervening years but judging by things I’ve heard from former members I think not.

  7. 17 Richard July 5, 2012 at 9:55 pm

    Bravo, Comrade Anonymous! You are an inspiration. The task of building the revolutionary party has always been a task best suited for the young, the eager, and the hopeful. Good-luck to you.

  8. 18 John Riddell July 6, 2012 at 12:34 am

    Dear anonymous,

    I respect your loyalty to the SWP and hope that you continue to have positive experiences with the SWP in the future.

    You refer to the rich theoretical heritage of the SWP, referring to the resolution on the workers’ and farmers’ government and to Barnes’s book “Their Trotsky and Ours.” These are important resources: the challenge is to apply them creatively to today’s reality. How does the workers’ and farmers’ government apply to Greece today — and to Syriza’s campaign for a government of the left workers’ parties? What does “Their Trotsky and Ours” tell us about the role of national liberation in the class struggle of — say — Venezuela today, or Nepal? Here are themes that can be usefully developed by SWP members, and perhaps you can make a contribution.

    (By the way, you’ll find a great deal of current discussion on the workers’ and farmers’ government concept on my website, http://johnriddell.wordpress.com.)

    Certainly membership in the SWP can provide a precious opportunity to study our revolutionary heritage. Be sure to get yourself a copy of Fred Halstead’s Out Now, chronicling the proudest moment of the SWP in the 1960s, and then consider how its spirit can be applied to the permanent U.S. war we face today.

    I would also suggest that you read the Pathfinder book on Cuba’s Internationalist Foreign Policy 1975-80, in which Fidel lays down the principles of internationalism that Cuba still applies today. For a look at how the SWP responded to the rise of women’s liberation, see Feminism and Socialism, edited by Linda Jenness (still a party supporter). Regarding policy toward peoples oppressed by imperialism and toward Muslim anti-imperialists, see To See the Dawn, the record of the Comintern’s Baku congress.

    I have no quarrel with your pride in the SWP’s work, but the disparaging remarks you make about other socialist and revolutionary currents do not do you credit. The revolution will not be made by the SWP alone. We need a policy of united front, in which we seek areas of agreement and common work with those in the workers’ movement with whom we differ. Certainly the SWP should argue its views, but that is no reason to disparage activists with other views as “middle class radicals.”

  9. 19 Manuel Barrera, PhD July 6, 2012 at 4:35 am

    Most of this discussion on the Party is, frankly, baloney. The problem with the turn was that it was “workerist” and unsuccessful. THAT was NOT the problem. Revolutionaries make mistakes, whole parties make mistakes. The problem was not the mistake;it was the refusal to learn from that mistake and, to compensate, take an even worse “turn” to idolatrous support of the Cuban leadership under the guise of “defense of the Cuban Revolution” which was even further worsened by blind support of the Sandinista leadership (I do have to say that it may have been unavoidable to see the treachery of the US CP and other stalinists in Grenada, I don’t think anyone saw that coming). All of these problems would still not have been so devastating if there had been more than a “one man band” leading the Party. In my view, Barnes was not a bad sort to begin with, but was allowed to become so by the ineffectual older leadership, his peers within the leadership and the relative novices that made up most of the Party during the crucial late 70’s to early 80’s. Some might argue that such a problem was inevitable because the social forces in society and the downturn in the labor movement, etc. made it inevitable. Others are opining, sometimes quite bitterly, that Jack was just an opportunist, sycophant, megalomaniac, or all of these. I don’t think those are accurate descriptions. I simply believe he was out of his league and tried to appear like he had it together; everybody let him do so regardless. I believe it is true that this kind of behavior was likely to go sour precisely because of the over-reliance on the theoretical and organizational notions of a “combat party” (I think that may be one of the real harmful effects of Trotsky’s assassination and the untimely gap in leadership continuity from which people like Cannon and his generation might have benefited).

    Some of these memories of the Turn are coming back to me; I never had a problem with taking the Turn. Indeed, when the Party wanted us to go be “any” industrial worker, I found a job, actually two (in Rail as a member of IAM and then onto the UTU). When “we” said we should go into Steel, I went and got hired in the largest one; in a coke plant at the top of Dante’s inferno on the ovens. It was those experiences that proved to me we were making a mistake; actually two mistakes. The first was thinking that “talking socialism” was a way to build the Party: I did it, talked interminably, got into some troubles with the bosses and even got co-workers to defend me. I sold papers on the job and was quite successful; my lunchroom was often strewn with the Militant and people would have all kinds of debates and discussions. It didn’t recruit anybody and, most important, there simply were no “struggles” that were beginning to become the next “class battles”; it was quite frustrating to gain the ire of foremen, solidarity of co-workers and see how it just didn’t “galvanize” anything (in a steel plant no less). The second mistake was that absent any real action on the “shop floor” we were systematically discouraged from engaging in the union because the union leaderships were so bad. I know this discouragement is real because I Actually Ignored It and Fought Against It joining in on committees, going to labor conferences, even bringing what I thought were opportunities to get elected on lower level committees (I played a role in the steelworkers1010 civil rights committee for an all too short time). We could’ve done more, but it was abundantly clear to me that “we” didn’t think it was good to do.I also have to say this discouragement to engage in our unions was not the only locus of abstentionism from potential movement activity. Participating in the Chicano movement was also often discouraged (won’t belabor how here).

    I don’t blame this frustration entirely on these problems, I began my own personal trajectory to leave the Party, but I have to say that it wasn’t inevitable that I would have left; I simply did because the inertia to stay was simply gone; I’m an activist and I have to, well, act.

    So, when I hear how the Party’s slide into abstentionism is just inevitable when the movement went into a downturn and now the SWP (it’s no longer “the Party” to me) is just lurking until the “big class battles” come along so that they can help become the nucleus of the necessary revolutionary leadership I have to say that I am . . . doubtful. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. I do not see the SWP overcoming this cyclical paradox. Unless, of course, they become that “revolutionary chicken” that will produce a duck egg that Malcolm spoke about. Indeed, I believe that their role is not only ineffectual; to engage in their “party-building” is in my view counterproductive because they offer no solutions but the obvious platitudes that when (not if) the revolutionary upturn does occur would eventually be proven correct; much like the proverbial broken clock that is correct every 12 hours.

  10. 20 Ralph Levitt July 6, 2012 at 10:06 am

    The SWP faced challenges over the years,
    The Smith Act convictions. The assassination of Leon Trotsky.
    It faced and survived those challenges.
    But it didn’t survive the Party wrecker-in-chief, Jack Barnes.
    Jack’s effectiveness was fueled by his ego, the size of a blimp, his
    enormous self confidence and his myth making.
    Jack presented the leaders in New York with his phony baloney narrative.
    He, Jack, had rebuilt the YSA and SWP in the midwest, taken things from
    a moribund state to vibrant growth.
    He had nothing to do with Detroit.
    He had nothing to do with Cleveland (but Don Smith from Bloomington did).
    He had nothing to do with Madison (but Gerry Foley from Bloomington did).
    He had little to do with Bloomington. His role in ’61 and ’62 was positive
    but minor. If Jack vaporized, Bloomington would have gone on.
    Let’s stick with Bloomington for it was there that Jack sharpened his
    wrecking skills.
    Founded by Ellen and George Shriver and assisted by Bev and Dave Wulp from Carleton, Bloomington was an assembly line turning out recruits—–
    Paulann Groninger, Bingham, Gerry Foley, Morgan, Polly Smith, Fender,
    Jack Marsh, Bill Groninger, Don Smith, Marcia Glenn, John Glenn, McNaughton, Tom Marsh, Joe Henry and others. In a later reflex, Richard
    Congress and Bill Banta. And the best was yet to come——by a lot.
    Jack wrecked it because it didn’t suit his ooals. He conducted a malicious whisper campaign in New York——Bloomington was adventurous, immature, reckless.
    The Cuba demo. This was a highlight of the YSA. Jack did his best to
    sweep it under the rug. He couldn’t make the demo disappear since it
    had been on national TV but he did his best.
    In fact that demo should have been an battle cry for the YSA.
    A handfull of YSAers marched into the jaws of violence and risked life
    and limb. (I’m not tooting my own horn—-I was arrested and jailed early
    on, to my great relief).
    Paulann and Polly led us into the mob in a way that had to remind us of
    Flint—-Genorra Johnson and the women’s auxiliary of the UAW. It had
    to be more violent and wilder in Bloomington. I recall—before the cops
    took me away—seeing Jack Marsh holding up his sign, undeterred by
    the attacks on him. He was like the tree standing by the water—-he would not be moved. (I hope he didn’t stick with Barnes—-I never learned—–
    what a terrific comrade).
    That demonstration should have been a battle anthem for the YSA.
    But Jack buried it and wrecked the Bloomington YSA. Helped him later
    when he wrecked the SWP————he had experience.
    Jack was———–ego, self-confidence, gossip, self aggrandizing legend, Party wrecker and general stinker. And he sold the leaders and members
    on his narrative.
    What a disaster!

  11. 21 Dennis Brasky July 6, 2012 at 1:11 pm

    I reflexively recoiled when the “turn” was announced in early 1978 at a plenum report. I come from a blue collar family/neighborhood, was already working on the railroad (because it paid better than the usual minimum wage jobs that many comrades had) and left it for a job in steel as part of our probe of Steelworkers Fightback. I sold at work-places twice a week, including the Southworks plant of US Steel (where Sadlowski had worked) and the main post office. I never saw any indication that a qualitative political change had taken place within the class along the lines predicted by the phrase, “American workers have never been so open to the ideas of revolutionary socialism in the twentieth century.” This was the same century as the Debs/IWW following, as well as the 1930s CP of 100,000 members.

    I asked a respected comrade who was heading up the steel intervention nationally (Steve Chase) what he thought about the turn, and he smirked and called it “a gimmick.” The party’s recruitment after the Vietnam War and Roe v. Wade had slowed to a trickle, busing never became the new mass movement. and the 1976 presidential campaign had come and gone. The leadership was looking for “greener pastures” and pulled a “working class radicalization” out of their hat. When that didn’t materialize, it became time to suck up to the Cuban leadership and ditch permanent rev.

    I actually recruited a young steelworker and his wife and brought a few co-workers to forums, but I knew that I had to drop out when I became too embarrassed to bring people around. Comrades now felt obliged to toss around four letter words to prove their proletarian status and one comrade actually got up at an all-city meeting and said that if a member is not willing to get into industry, they should be considered “a second-class comrade.” When no one in the Chicago leadership objected to this formulation, I left.

  12. 22 Richard July 6, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    @John R.: I agree that it’s not particularly useful to refer to, or disparage, as you say, other socialists as “middle-class radicals”, although it is really nothing new (your political generation was quite good at as well). And Anonymous is correct, I think, in stating that many of these comrades ARE more comfortable talking to each other than to workers on a picket line, which is, like it or not, a strength of the SWP today, as evidenced by a large number of site visits, good reporting and subscriptions sold. Likewise, in the same spirit, there is no reason to refer to, or disparage, partisans of the SWP, both members and sympathizers, as being cultists and members of a cult, which is also, unfortunately, in vogue these days.

  13. 23 David Altman July 6, 2012 at 3:32 pm

    Agreed that it’s not useful to refer to members of the SWP as “cultists,” although the SWP is a cult, or at best, a sect. This is demeaning to these individuals, who I’m sure are honest, well-meaning militants in their big majority. By the way, I truly appreciate the contributions by the SWP supporters here.

  14. 24 Anonymous July 6, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    I’m surprised that you called my criticisms of other organizations “disparaging”, considering that you don’t hesitate to describe the SWP as a cult. I find that to be a significant double standard. Not a soul in the movement, least of all Jack, would ever describe the party as “the” revolutionary party or anything close to that. It surprises me how divorced from reality you think everyone must be to be a part of the movement, its such a contrast to almost any experience I’ve had with anyone. The “turn” wasn’t only about what the party gains from being in industry, but avoiding how off its axis it could become were it not in industry. The only thing the SWP will ever proudly describe itself as now is a small piece of the vanguard of the working class, and its orientation is to build stronger ties with exactly that. The letter from Buddy (http://www.themilitant.com/2011/7547/754765.html) is just a small example of the success in that regard.

    I spent a lot of time with many groups, and the thing I found most unique about the SWP was the absolute lack of contempt, cynicism, or resentment towards workers in other parts of the country, and towards people who disagreed with major demands. No one was ever written off for how they felt when they first met the movement (including myself). I’m sorry if you found my comments about the left disparaging but they come from personal experience just like yours do. I can’t speak to decisions of the I was not a part of (or born for), but I can say that if they lead to the party as it is today, then mistakes and all thank goodness for them. By the way, the party in no way abstains from the “mass movement”, but there is no real mass movement today. I sometimes go to anti war demonstrations of 800 people where speakers call it the revival of the mass movement and feel like everyone there needs a reality check. But I guess I just missed it and its the SWP who are foolish by missing out on those (sometimes) in favor of doing “workerist” things like bringing their co-workers to meet other fighters and reaching out to vanguard workers to hear what they have to say and learn from it.

    Could you imagine if the SWP, at its size, threw itself fully into every leftist endeavor to stand in in place of the working class (bail out the people, answer, occupy etc…). There’s barely a moment left for those things as it is. they’d have to give up fractions and pickets and going door to door and election campaigns to spend time with people who won’t be won to their perspective, and are often openly hostile to it. So they orient instead with patience and excitement towards the working class, going everywhere as fellow workers who are feeling the crisis blow by blow shoulder to shoulder with others. The same way Trotsky appealed for the party to do over 70 years ago.

    I think this is the last time I’ll respond. I feel like I’m wasting my time, and I’ve showed poor restraint in responding at all, but my gut said this should be answered (by someone other than Dave, who I oughtta thank for wasting a lot more of his time than I have of mine).

    I think it was rather cynical of you to say you “wish me well” with an organization you’d much rather I stayed away from, and then talk respectfully here while referring to me as a “barnseoid” on the gossip pages (which are filled with a bitterness no comrade would EVER invoke to discuss a former member, people are usually remembered for when they were helpful). You call me “cultist” by calling the party a cult, its demeaning either way. Like I said before, if you’ve got a better way than do it, you can’t recruit people to gossip and venom to build a party. The revolutionary party of the future won’t look anything like what exists today, but it will no doubt hold the memory and experience of the vanguard and the continuity of the communist movement.

  15. 25 David Altman July 6, 2012 at 8:33 pm

    One thing, anon, and I’ll let you go your way. You say no SWPer would ever speak about a former member with “bitterness,” but I find that hard to believe. I recall a speech by your leader (somebody else here can cite the chapter and verse) shortly after the big purges in the early ’80s where he commented that if he sees one of expelled members on the street, he just looks through them as if they don’t exist. There was a recent incident at the memorial meeting for Eva Chertov where Cliff Connor, a former member who had come to the meeting to show his respects for a departed comrade, was escorted out apparently because he was on someone’s shitlist. I knew Eva back in the day and respected her, whatever her affiliation. If I had been in New York at the time of her memorial meeting, I would have come too, and no doubt I would have been turfed out also.

    You say people are remembered for when they were helpful. Nice if the Militant could have remembered the “helpful” things Frank Lovell and George Breitman did for the SWP over many decades in the movement, but because they were on the outs with Jack Barnes when they died, nary a mention.

    These sort of things are reminiscent of Stalinism or zombie religious cults, not our revolutionary tradition. Today’s SWP is not a democratic organization. It is a one-man band run by an erratic individual who publicly humiliates members he has disagreements with (cf. Mahmoud Seyrafiezadeh). That’s why I say today’s SWP is a cult. Nonetheless, I respect your personal dedication. You may be a Barnesoid, but you’re not a cultist.

  16. 26 Richard July 6, 2012 at 9:01 pm

    Actually, David, there were obits in the Militant for both Lovell and Breitman, marking their death’s and recognizing their contributions. But leaving that aside, when one group of people thinks the SWP is an irrelevant cult, and another group of people doesn’t, well then, there just isn’t much room for a meeting of the minds, unfortunately. Especially when different authors date the “demise” during different decades. I know it’s cliche, but the time honored “time will tell” is about all anyone can say, and in the meantime we should all try to be respectful of each other, to the best of our abilities. It is remarkable, however, how much time, effort and ink is spent discussing the SWP, especially in the recent past. I’m not sure exactly what this means, other then to say that the party certainly was a powerful experience for just about everyone who experienced it, including those who are experiencing it now, such as our young, loyal and dedicated Anonymous. At one point in time we were all young, loyal and dedicated, just like him/her. What a tangled web we weave.

  17. 27 David Altman July 6, 2012 at 9:16 pm

    No mention of Frank Lovell in The Militant online in 1998, the year he died, or 1999. As the achives of The Militant don’t go back to 1986, the year Breitman died, I can’t verify that it didn’t mention him, but I think I would have remembered if it had.

  18. 28 Richard July 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    I’m almost certain of it – for both of them. Breitman for sure, cause I remember there was a big stink about something the Militant got wrong in the obit – his age I think.

  19. 29 Dennis Brasky July 6, 2012 at 10:22 pm

    Richard writes – “It is remarkable, however, how much time, effort and ink is spent discussing the SWP, especially in the recent past.” We’re certainly not discussing the ashes of today’s irrelevant SWP, but mourning the absence of an organization that with all its faults would be able to play a valuable and perhaps crucial role in today’s political scene had it not succumbed to political degeneration and cultism.

  20. 30 Manuel Barrera, PhD July 6, 2012 at 11:49 pm

    I speak to all of you here to echo Dennis’ point that “the absence of an organization with all its faults would . . .play a valuable . . .role in today’s political scene”. I believe Dennis is correct when he says this potential is the crucial problem that was created by the politics of mistakes and not learning from them. Recently, Tom Bias has initiated an effort to try to re-energize and rebuild from the “ashes” a group effort, formation, tendency–entity–of ex-members of the SWP and others in hopes of creating a left alliance that can work together in finding ways to build a conduit for new revolutionary leadership (I am being purposely qualifying about what to call this effort because none of us is ready completely to characterize what this effort will create). We believe that there exists among the remnants of the SWP–ex-members and even some of the currents attempting to uphold the Trotskyist tradition like SA and Solidarity–a potentially significant current if it could be coalesced and connected to emergent young radicals in the Occupy, solidarity, women’s, immigrant, Black liberation, environmental, anti-war, and anti-racist movements. If such a formation could be organized and conducted with the democratic principles for unity in action for the issues and struggles with which we all agree and the comradely debate and discussion on the issues with which we may disagree. We all know that this kind of organization has been missing and in itself would have the potential for providing a valuable example to young activists and fighters in the emerging movements. I would say we believe (though I don’t speak for “us”) that the growing international movements against austerity in Europe, the Quebec students, and in the Arab Spring uprisings are in need–if not seeking–a truly united left alliance among the workers and revolutionary youth of the United States. While I know that such an organized alliance could help many of the movements currently undergoing ferment, I think we all know that it is not enough. It would, however, be a valiant and necessary effort that people such as ourselves who see the necessity for revolutionary leadership have the capacity to do. If any of you believe this idea is worth trying and can give even the smallest amount of time and/or support, I would encourage you to join us. Tom Bias has created a listserv to begin our discussions. I encourage you to join it.

  21. 31 Tom Cod July 7, 2012 at 12:01 am

    SWPers would never talk bad shit about people? I remember that Dave Wulp guy,mentioned by Ralph L above, referring to us in the IT at the 1973 convention as “insects that hide under rocks” and the sadistical pleasure he got out of doing it, a comment worthy of Yagoda or Yezov: or Healy or LaRouche. Surprised to hear that he was actually an activist at some point and not always pathetic flunkie and a hack.

    • 32 David Altman July 7, 2012 at 2:07 am

      I don’t recall that particular statement, but I heard enough back in the day. I remember our old friend Ed Heisler tossed off a few bon mots as well. But you ITers could dish it out too :-).

    • 33 gushorowitz July 7, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      Tom, your post borders on the limits of what will be tolerated on this blog. Find a way to tone it down. You do a disservice to your own argument as well.

  22. 34 Richard July 7, 2012 at 1:41 am

    One more for the road. I doubt that whatever someone said at a gathering in 1983 or 1984 would have much relevance for our young Anon. This was thirty years before he/she joined and ten years before he/she was born. That would be like pressing someone who joined in 1969 to explain the utterances made at a national gathering in 1948 or 1949.

  23. 35 Richard July 7, 2012 at 1:50 am

    Say what you will, Dennis, but the SWP is in fact being discussed everywhere and at all times, on a least eight blogs that come to mind right off the top of my head and other places as well; books and detailed essays in the past two or three years by dozens of writers, reviewed by dozens more with notice of ever more new work in the pipeline, from all over the world, discussing both the past and present SWP. Quite frankly, I have never seen anything like it – especially in the past year.

  24. 36 Manuel Barrera, PhD July 7, 2012 at 3:50 am

    I’d like to spend a short space of time on the following comment by Ernesto: ” years after[1980] saw a political struggle [in the SWP] of a fundamental nature, at least as I see it, that resulted in faction fights, splits, expulsions, breakups on all levels in the SWP and the FI itself.

    Werent those struggles fundamental aswell in giving some kind of political answer to the question of how the revolutionary nucleus could and should reach out to fellow combatants in the working class and revolutionaries engaged in revolutionaty struggles globally?”

    Well, no. What, exactly, is instructive or meaningful about political struggles that result in faction fights, splits, expulsions, and breakups whose outcome is a generalized gutting of the very “revolutionary nucleus” one wants to build? Is it really the purpose of a revolutionary party to recruit as many radicalized people (as opposed only to workers) and then weed out the “undesirables” (or bend them to be some more “fantastic” tool)? Is this really a desired or healthy approach to revolutionary cadre-building? Or is it simply as Trotsky referred to theory (as quoted by Ernesto) that all and every recruit to the revolutionary movement is a desirable “tool” with which the workers’ movement must be “careful. . .because up to today we have not found better tools”? Are we as a conscious layer of the working class instead supposed to be “fantastic about tools” and “abandon [the undesirable tools] or demand fantastic non-existent tools”?

    It seems to me that there are several underlying issues at play here both in this discussion and the general one that has been all too devastating the stock in trade of the Trotskyist and broad revolutionary marxist movement. The first underlying issue is the seemingly tacit agreement all the respondents (so far) in this discussion seem to have with the above statement by Ernesto; no one has really taken issue with it. Indeed, one of us almost gratuitously “thanked” him for his contribution and was apparently glad that Ernesto’s apparent 4 total years of involvement in the YS/CL in Sweden was a “positive” one and apparently qualifies him to observe, after the historical fact, to counter an analysis of a period in revolutionary history for a party with which he admittedly has absolutely no familiarity in his actual experience and which, moreover, is so apparent by the quality of his ersatz penetrating “queries”.

    I am not so much troubled by the utter naivete of Ernesto’s intervention here as I am that no one seemed to want to take issue with him at the least on this very troubling view that faction fights and splits are apparently a good approach that a revolutionary party (“nucleus”) “could and should do”. It leads me to think that there does not seem to be much argument with that idea; an idea that I believe is and has proven to be an utter disaster not only for the development of a “revolutionary nucleus” but for the workers’ revolutionary movement as a whole never mind the devastating consequences that the ultimate expression of such factionalism and splitting created in the development of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

    To be sure, factional struggles have been a feature of the revolutionary movement since its inception; they have resulted in sharpened revolutionary ideas and the development of internationals not to mention revolutions. But I do not believe the revolutionary “instigators” of those factional struggles (e.g., Marx and the 1st International or Lenin–with Trotsky–and the 2nd International) “desired” those fights or fetishized them; they simply did not shy away from them and used them to build MASS parties or Mass movements not small “nuclei” (I seem to remember that “bolshevik” refers to a majority or greater part). I have observed the behavioral principle (born from Skinner, but wholly related to Marxism) that the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. Of course, the dialectical character of the class struggle requires that we find ways to overcome this principle if revolutions are to be made. However, one overcomes such a paradox by working actively (a) to understand such a trend and (b) systematically negating it by revolutionary action (what Malcolm X observed as a “revolutionary chicken” producing a duck egg).

    So, NO, faction fights are not the way to build a revolutionary nucleus even though such a nucleus must engage in them. A revolutionary nucleus builds by, well, being revolutionary and using the “tools that exist” and ALWAYS with an eye to the emerging or ongoing mass movement. YES, indeed a revolutionary nucleus must look outward at the very time that it “appears” they must look inward. The leaders of the SWP during WWII could simply have been “patient” and “talked socialism” during the jingoism and reaction that occurred in the nationalistic fervor to fight Nazism. Or, they could have actively opposed the war in the unions even if it meant being convicted of treason and receiving jail time. I, for one, am quite glad that Cannon,Dobbs, and their comrades, no matter how “imperfect” they may have been as “tools”, stood up to imperialism and accepted the consequences of their revolutionary actions. I am as glad of that as I am of Pete Seeger standing up to HUAC and Woodie Guthrie standing with him in the 50’s as I am glad that Rosa Parks got on the bus, and Martin spoke against the war or Malcolm against the Nation and all of those against the FBI even as they KNEW they would be ostracized, victimized . . . or martyred. We revolutionaries are not fools, so, we don’t challenge power for no reason. We are not narcissistic and argue for argument’s sake. But We Are Also Not Cowards. And We DO NOT talk “patiently to workers” unengaged while ignoring radicalized youth, proletarian or not, who decide they want to Stand Up. We Stand Up With Them primarily because we are revolutionary, but also because we know that the workers un-radicalized today will become radicalized tomorrow precisely on the very same bases as those radicalized youth are now. Trayvon Martin is a symbol of Black youth victimized by racism. But He is also a symbol of proletarian youth–among the most oppressed–victimized by the racism that is used to prevent workers, white, brown, and black, from uniting. The Occupy movement stood up for Trayvon’s parents and the Black community and a White youth got it all started by tweeting about it and getting it into the public consciousness. Can there be any better example of the utter connection between racism, class struggle, and proletarian consciousness in development? Actually, I am sure there are, but it is a good case in point to observe that had there not been an Occupy movement–a quite imperfect un”fantastic” tool of the mass, and workers’,movement–perhaps Trayvon’s murder would just have been a heart-wrenching article on Alternet and a source of “ain’t that a shame” commentary by the liberal media. Revolutionaries don’t abstain from such opportunities. But apparently revolutionary “vanguards” might.

    A second underlying issue this and other such conversations I have observed is one that eludes me for an answer, but I will describe it and hope others can help in elaborating. is there an equal sign between the role of workers in Europe, workers in Egypt, and workers in the United States? That is, when Trotsky observed that the status of world politics is ““is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat” we all instinctively know that the crisis referred here is the lack of a revolutionary party or parties in all parts of the world that are composed in their sum of the world proletariat. However, what I do not ever seem to get from discussions of this sort is the character of the proletariat and the relative social and political influences that different, let’s say, “components” of the proletariat may have not only on the proletariat as a whole, but on the world political situation and, to be sure, on the development of mass revolutionary parties in every and all countries. We all speak of how the “international party will be the human race”. But the international proletariat is broken up by capitalism into nations not just in geography but in thought and in its thinking.

    The fact of the matter is that every component of the proletariat has its different political weights and they tend to correspond to the social and economic weight that imperialism imbues to its governing economies and societies. This reality leads me to the question about the political weight and the political importance of the proletariats in the imperialist world; not in the elitist notion of “exceptionalism”, but in the sense whether there is strategic value in understanding how to influence the “exceptional”–complacent, dormant, slavish–imperialist-indoctrinated working classes of the imperialist countries.

    I know that the quick “easy” answers to this question involve discussions of the “national question”, self-determination, the revolutionary role of Black–and Brown–workers, etc. However, in just about any of the discussions on this issue, those “answers” always seem placed in subservience to the “historic role of the proletariat” as the proletariat and how the national question is important only in that respect. Indeed, a caricature–in my opinion–of the opposite view of this subservient view is the SWP’s line on the revolutionary role of Black workers. The subject is treated as if the Black community has remained essentially the same in relation to the working class as a whole since the 40’s and 50’s and the intervening years have not seen the “nationalizing” of the working class and the U.S. population as a whole into what will soon be a majority of people of color. The SWP seems to think that Black workers will get White workers to become revolutionary and seems to leave aside the role of immigrant workers (a large portion of whom are also enriching the Black community as well) as a relative side show to the “main” role of Black workers helping White workers. Yet, any scrutiny of the working class as it is now constituted will show that working people are even more “diverse” overall and “diverse” even among their “diversity”; Blacks are both “American” (born here, the sons and daughters of slaves) and immigrant, Latinos are no longer just “Mexican” (in truth, we never were) but are also composed of immigrant and “native-born” (with the smattering of native indigenous immigrants to boot), and Asians are rapidly becoming a major force in all their “diverse” nature (from Arabs and other southern Asians to the Chinese/southeast Asian to Indian subcontinent). Indeed, the notion of “Native American” is increasingly too broad a distinction when not only different nations in America exist, but how immigrants of every part of the world see themselves as indigenous in their own right. As has been observed by many, 2050 appears to be the date when it is likely White people–as U.S. born Whiteness is conceived–will no longer be a majority in this country.

    Hence, my question: Is there an equal sign between all the proletariats of the world and is there something needed here to improve our understanding about engaging in the world revolutionary process that perhaps the lessons of history, and historical Marxism, may not be sufficient requiring . . . elaboration?

  25. 37 Richard July 7, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    I don’t plan on being a regular here, although since I jumped into this thread, I am happy to ride it out. I have enjoyed the discussion. I do not know the Moderator’s position on posting articles, but I will post this one, and if he objects to article posting, I will refrain from doing so in the future. It is from the current issues of the Militant on the 2012 presidential campaign. I would encourage folks to read it carefully and be fair. This is hardly the work — the article nor the campaign — of an organization divorced from reality. It is really quite good, considering the challenges they face.

    http://www.themilitant.com/2012/7626/762601.html

  26. 38 Michael Tormey July 7, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Many of the students that theSWP recruited in the early 60’s and infact the whole decade of the 60’s and beyond carried with them into the workers movement some alien class philosophy. The kernel of this philosophy was get ahead, make something of yourself, be somebody. Jack Barnes was virulently so infected. with this philosophy. In the SWP make something of yourself and get ahead took the form of aspiring too leadership. That was the initial basis of Barnes building a clique out of the his sycophants from Carlton & Chicago. A showdown with a large dynamic YSA in Bloomington built largely independent of him and outside his control was inevitable. The Bloomington YSA was the first to articulate suspicions of Barnes and his clique. At first the differences were about tactics, strategies,organization, and character but more important was a deep political difference that Jack kept under wraps I will get to it in a moment.
    There is an intresting aside in Les Evans book where he mentions that Tom Morgan compares Barnes to Stalin this in 1964 during Tom’s time on the west coast doing Cabs work. Tom in those days was always the most extreme of Jack’s critics. At any rate there was a growing opposition to Barnes and his methods starting with Bloomington circa 1963.
    I feel a bit like Uncas the last of the Mohicans, as I am probably the last of the Trainorites, although no such group ever existed nor would Larry have anything to do with it if it did. However, the overriding poltical difference I had with Barnes and his clique was the same one that Trainor had namely we had an abiding faith that the overthrow of capitalism is the historic mission of the working class and faith in the working class to carry out its historic mission. Barnes and his retinue never had faith in the working class to carry out its historic mission. I remember Gus when he came back to Boston trying to proselytize Steve Chase and I that the Russian revolution might not be a model for the American revolution and that workers may not play the dominant role. We rebuffed him and he would not elaborate but that was right out of Jack Barnes. If you do not have faith in the working class to carry out its historic mission then you have to look for another road to travel to get to socialism. Barnes was fairly effective hiding this agendauntil Oberlin in 1970 and the following convention in 1971. Barnes program at Oberlin in 1970 was that the present radicalization was the biggest, broadest, deepest, radicalization of the century and furthermore was the most threatening to the ruling class and imbued it with a permanence and ever deepening quality. They listed the anti-war movement, Black movement, Chicano movement, feminism and abortion rights as proof of the greatness of the radicalization. The working class was not mentioned, nor its relative quiescence, nor the lack of class consciousness among the workers. It was against this backdrop the POT was formed. During the debates at the 1971 SWP convention Barnes and the majority believed the coming American revolution would be made by some amalgam of Black and Chicano militants, feminists, homosexuals, and people that marched in the anti war demonstations
    Barnes now began to consolidate power the goal of all authoritarians and we know to well where that led. Where there is no freedom of critism, no free play of ideas, the healthy process of collective thought is crowded out to make way for the reciprocal corruption of arbitrariness and subservience. Subservience to Jack meant disregard of the rights and opinions of others on one hand and the abdication of ones own intellect on the other. Gus and Barry abdicated there intellect and became servile toadies of Jack’s whim and all the cry baby crap and obfuscations and mea culpas do not help at this late date. At least embrace your culpability you were tools far to long.

    Mike Tormey Fort Pierce, Florida

    • 39 gushorowitz July 7, 2012 at 8:19 pm

      Mike,

      On this blog, please refrain from calling people “sycophants” and “servile toadies”. In the future, comments with that sort of personal defamation will be deleted.

      As for what I believed and stated in the 1960s and what the SWP leadership as a whole believed at that time about the 1960s radicalization, I urge you to place less reliance on your memory and more on the written texts from that period. See my 1970 article posted on this blog, Lessons of the 1960s Radicalization

    • 40 Tom Cod December 30, 2012 at 11:15 pm

      What’s troubling about these and similar views is the dismissive attitude towards the radical movements of the 60s they contain, as if these were of little consequence, instead of the historic struggles for social justice that even most school children today see them as. They were not some kind of frivolous bullshit that was a distraction from the real struggle of the proletariat. As Tormey concedes, the proletariat, or the traditional factory working class, was relatively quiescent during this period. That however was no basis for sitting out the 60s on the sidlelines based on idealist “faith” about proletarian revolution. The 60s were not the 30s. Get over it, this issue has nothing to do with Barnes, as he, or more correctly Brietman, and others reflected and ideologized a view and an attitude that was widely held on the Left. That is to their credit. If anything this analysis and practice did not go far enough, which is what attracted to me to Workers World and its attitude of “full solidarity” with these struggles after witnessing the faction fights of the SWP which, a million and a half words or not, were incredibly demoralizing and environment any healthy activist would want to get as far away from as possible.

      No, the struggles of the 60s were those for basic social justice, liberation and against imperialist war that merited the support of all working people and socialists as their ostensible political leaders. This is consistent with the views of Lenin in his screed against exactly this “economist” attitude in What is to be Done? Thus Tormey’s grievance appears to be not so much against Barnes, but the 60s more generally. While it might be unfair to characterize such views-that were the stock in trade of the SWP’s ultra orthodox opponents like the Healyiites and others- as “Archie Bunker Marxism”, this mentality gives credence the Marcusian view of the “first world” proletariat as *a conservative class* whose prejudices “orthodox marxism” reflects. Yes, many of the 60s activists were “middle class” OK, so what? so were many of the abolitionists. What was Lenin’s class background? It is to the credit that they did what they did. To exude bitterness and resentment wrapped up in marxist phraseology to disparage these struggles is misguided and unfair at best and miseducates the working class as well by pandering to their real or perceived prejudices instead of seeking to liberate them from this benighted condition.

  27. 41 John Riddell July 7, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    The discussion on the SWP initiated on this blog has overlapped onto my own website, in response to my article, “The U.S. SWP attempts an outward turn (1976–83).” http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/the-u-s-swp-attempts-an-outward-turn-1977-83/

    At this site you will find many contributions, including a lengthy and important post by Ernesto, who has also posted here.

    I have posted a reply to Ernesto, which also expresses my opinion on the exchange at the gushorowitz blog. My contribution begins:

    “Dear Ernesto,

    “Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and also to other supporters of the SWP who have expressed their views on Gus Horowitz’s blog (www.gushorowitz.wordpress.com). This is the first such open exchange of views in at least thirty years between SWP supporters and socialists outside the SWP. All of us outside the SWP need to take notice and act accordingly. We need to consider whether this an accidental incident – ships passing in the night – or whether there is there a possibility of respectful discussion and collaboration between SWPers and non-SWPers.

    “So our first task is to seek out common ground. And you have shown us in your letter where this common ground lies….”

    For the rest of the article, see http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2012/07/05/the-u-s-swp-attempts-an-outward-turn-1977-83/#comment-706.

    • 42 Bob Lewis July 8, 2012 at 3:01 pm

      The volume of interest in the SWP since (and because of?) Barry’s second book is amazing. I think it would be interesting to generalize this discussion of ‘what went wrong” to include discussions with, and about what went wrong with the “New Communist Movement” of the 60’s and 70’s. I have been trying to read/re-read some documents from this movement which are online, trying to understand this movement. I’m not satisfied to maintain my 1970’s assessment that these were simply ultra-leftist cultists. Overall the NCM had more cadre than we did – I can’t help feeling we missed something in dismissing them so readily. Max Elbaum and Barry should work together to create a conference, or simply a blog, where the ex-SWP’ers and NCM supporters can begin to explore our common experiences. There is not much time left!

      Does anyone see any parallel between the SWP and the RCP? They have a more pronounced cult of personality around Avakian, but is it realy the same sort of phenomenon?

      Another question I have posed before on Louis’s Yahoo group: Why has no revolutionary party adopted the practice of term limits? 8 years as National Secretary and then you’re out! Would this work? Would you recommend this to any future Party that might evolve? The question of limiting the damage personal ambition can cause has never been dealt with well on the left in my opinion.

      • 43 Manuel Barrera, PhD July 8, 2012 at 3:53 pm

        I can only concur with Bob here. There is a rich contribution “we” can make to the current radicalization of youth throughout the world. However, we will only be able to do so if we find a way to become a veritable social-political force. Indeed, I believe that the greatest contribution we could ever make to the insurgent mass movement beginning to develop is if we can find a way to coalesce and show, by example, how we can honor our commitment to the struggle for a world socialist alternative to the war, plunder, hate, and impoverishment offered by capitalism. This “convergence” is a good thing for the “soul” but it is also strategically an important contribution that could have significant effect on every emerging movement of youth, women, the oppressed, and workers today.

      • 44 entdinglichung July 9, 2012 at 10:25 am

        today’s SWP and the RCP are playing in total different leagues, e.g. you can derive lots of useful information from the Militant (which has improved as a paper during the last 10-15 years) without sharing their positions on this or that topic while all publications of the RCP are centered on proclaiming Avakian as the Messiah, the Sparts are probably a kind of trotskyist-derived equivalent of the RCP (which has done some useful stuff during the 1990ies and even later e.g. in the campaign for Mumia’s life)

  28. 45 Michael Tormey July 8, 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Gus,
    As Shakespear so eloquently put it “A rose by any other name smells as sweet”. Remember it is always easier to keep your integrity than recover it! Looking forward to some of your future contributios.

  29. 46 Jeanne Corvan July 9, 2012 at 1:13 am

    I raise a simple question.

    What is the criteria for determining that a small (several hundred?) group that considers itself a revolutionary socialist party and whose history certainly shows that to have been a correct designation is now no longer that kind of organization. It is beyond the pall, defunct, never to be resurrected even if there is a mass radicalization, growth of militant politics within the working class, opportunities for small groups to discuss coming together on a common revolutionary platform. We know how Trotsky handled the decline and betrayal of a mass revolutionary party. How he stayed as part of the 3rd international but with constant criticism of its disastrous errors that affected the history of the working class. We also know that Stalin engaged in ruthless destruction of party members and acted as a dictator organizationally while politically moving away from a revolutionary program to the “socialism in one country” with class collaboration. Now for Trotsky, there clearly came a point of qualitative change where the party had ceased to be revolutionary and a call for a new International was made.

    Now of course small parties in the US have come and gone. Some, I remember the Socialist Labor Party, remained ossified in a distant past as the radicalization of the working class took different forms in the 1960’s. Or those that equated Nazism with Stalinism, or those that just faded away, or became so ultra- left (more and more ultra left as the years passed) as to be considered incapable of making any sensible statement about politics and the class struggle as it was unfolding – ever.

    I raise this because Richard, a young socialist has posted a link to an article from the Militant – a description of the program of the SWP candidates. I find that piece to be quite well written, not much jargon – which was always an issue and has become much worse, and clearly raises what a revolutionary running a campaign to get out the parties’ difference from all other parties would say. In fact, it is something that could be given out to anyone who is turned off by the Democrats and Republicans, has a rudimentary class sense (thanks to the Occupy movement) and is inclined to look to the working class as a potential powerful force. I say this because young militants are joining the SWP (though not the same level as the ISO – that many still consider to be revolutionary despite its position on the Soviet Union and Cuba)

    I raise this also because for a long time now on various sites, ex-SWP members have raised various personal incidents, articles in the Militant, privileges by lower and high level party leaders (though not on the level, say, of some Cuban leaders of the CP, ruthless actions by Jack Barnes (not opposed openly that we know of within the party since Barry’s time) and some serious political errors as evidence of the SWP’s total demise.

    So, what are the characteristic that signal the demise of a very small organization who is (or was) whose lineage can be traced back to the most militant communists that came out of European Marxism, the Russian Revolution, the U.S. socialist and trade union 19th and early 20th century militant working class and intellectuals in the U.S. and members of the Communist Party who broke with its program to join with others to form the U.S. section of the 4th international. A party that thru much of the 20th and 21st century has for the most part (with some serious political judgments (as seen in Militant articles) that were not admitted to but have not become a major programmatic line to my knowledge) continued to have the major program that differentiates it from the other radical tendencies. What is that criteria please?

    I ask this not to attack those who argue that the SWP is dead as a revolutionary organization nor to attack those who point to one or more articles that are consistent with what a small revolutionary organization would say at this conjuncture in US politics.

    Rather, I ask this for some clarity so we can have a political discussion.

    • 47 David Altman July 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm

      I don’t know that the SWP is “dead” as a revolutionary organization. In the current capitalist crisis it could recruit hundreds of new members and revitalize itself – stranger things have happened. Small sectarian groups like the SWP can often also put out very good socialist propaganda. A lot of people are attracted to the Socialist Equality Party’s World Socialist Web Site, for instance, because its analysis is well-written and often dead-on. Those of us who’ve been around awhile know how screwy and corrupt that outfit really is (I don’t think the SWP under Barnes is that rotten, by the way).

      One thing the younger supporters of the SWP who’ve contributed to this discussion keep bringing up, over and over again, is that it is a small organization and has to use its resources wisely, therefore it can’t be as involved in various social movements. Fair enough, but what these comrades should ask themselves is why the SWP is currently so tiny. It had 1700 members in 1977 and has less than 100 today – the most precipitous decline of any group on the US left. This is not due to state repression, or solely because of a decline in the class struggle. It is because of a conscious decision by the SWP leadership in the early ’80s, notably Jack Barnes, to 1) Purge the older leaders of the organization who disagreed with its perspectives and 2) Continue the “Bolshevization” of the organization by driving out hundreds of members who didn’t even disagree with Barnes (such as myself). Supposedly the SWP would be rebuilt on a new, more solid, more revolutionary basis. 30 years on and we are left with an SWP that is a pitiful remnant, smaller and less-influential than at any time since the founding of the US Trotskyist movement in 1928.

  30. 48 John Riddell July 9, 2012 at 2:51 am

    Some of the questions posed here are answered in part two of my review of Barry Sheppard’s SWP history: “Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83”

    “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….”

    For the full article, see http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2012/07/08/causes-of-a-socialist-collapse-the-u-s-swp-1976-83/

    John Riddell

  31. 49 Anonymous July 9, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    Not everyone won by the youth radicalization was going to be in it for the long haul, the same was true of the revolutionary intellectuals and students won to bolshevism in the depression. Of all, only George Novack remained a revolutionist when the smoke cleared, the rest all found their way out of politics at the critical moments.

    One thing I can tell is that the demands of party life in the 70’s were much fewer than those of today, it was easier to vacillate. Your job was your job. I’m guessing that even intervention in the mass movements that existed was carried out in an undisciplined way (though I know some comrades were expelled for breaking discipline in this way).

    But the point I made before was not that the party has to pick and choose, it was that its a non-decision. THERE IS NO MASS MOVEMENT TODAY. There is no anti-war movement, the only reason to go to a demo is because you support the demands and you might meet an open minded young person, but even that is unlikely. Comparisons to the party’s anti-war work in the past are irrelevant.

    As for Occupy, I’ll repeat my personal opinion that it is essentially apolitical, as are most of the “direct action” movements. I think its disoriented a lot of well meaning and even revolutionary minded young people. I also think it can be irresponsible and dangerous, such as the role occupy played in the longview fight, where activists refused to submit to the leadership and discipline of the union and came close to causing a dangerous situation for the port workers.

    It seems to me that hating Jack is just a stand-in for opposition to reading Lenin, opposition to “the turn”, and an opposition to dropping the theory of permanent revolution for the Worker’s and Farmer’s government slogan. Farrell supported the course as well, but if y’all disowned Farrell you’d have to answer the politics and not just resort to character assassination.

    The Party is small today, its not easy to be a member, but its more today the kind of Party I would want to join than at any time in its history. Its a party of worker-bolsheviks, its a memory bank for the history of our class and for its continuity. Its the kind of party that can open the world up to working people who meet it. Many former members agree with this perspective and are loyal to it. And as the party recruits today, its young workers who will be attracted to its course.

  32. 50 John Riddell July 9, 2012 at 8:11 pm

    Dear Anonymous–

    Quite apart from whether it’s appropriate for revolutionists to invest all their forces in industrial unions today, the concentration of SWP members in this arena is useful to the workers’ movement as a whole, at least potentially. Other currents have limited forces in this arena, and there’s value in a divisioon of labour.

    The question is: what is the SWP doing in these unions?

    The Militant does not reflect any shop-floor activism or sustained work in the unions. It does not draw on the party’s forces in industry for insightful and objective portrayals of the thinking and feelings among industrial workers. There is no more talk of fractions in industrial unions. Writers are no longer identified by union affiliation. Yes, there are excellent reports on visits to picket lines and anti-racist demonstrations, but such work can be done just as well by students. The “industrial turn” has all but vanished from the SWP press.

    And yet we know that the “turn” continues. How were the SWP forces utilized during the Occupy movement? It is easy to criticize the inexperience of many young activists, but more significant is that this movement saw a juncture between youth and organized labour forces more significant than any seen in many years — in a context of an intense nation-wide civil liberties confrontation. What did SWP unionists do? The SWP did not even support the movement, and its intervention — judging from the Militant — did not amount to much more than paper sales.

    What about the last great junction of youth and union forces — the movement against the Iraq war? The SWP was hostile to the antiwar movement and did not take part in the efforts to mobilize opposition in the unions. Most importantly, the SWP took no note of the opposition to the war among the soldiers. The SWP did not speak of its great experience in this work in 1945 and again in the Vietnam era.

    And the previous junction around anti-globalization? A similar story.

    As for the history of the SWP, very little is said — and no wonder, since the policies followed in the past were so different.

    “Workers’ and farmers’ government.” That has been SWP policy continually since 1922. Notably, the SWP makes no use of this concept today, except as a way of describing the long-range goal of socialist revolution. For the origin of this concept, see my website http://www.johnriddell.wordpress.com.

  33. 51 Richard July 9, 2012 at 9:07 pm

    Dear Comrade John: The involvement of some, mostly public sector unions in the OWS (a predominately middle-class outpouring expressing dismay at the seeming inability of the capitalist class to behave itself) was mainly done at the behest of the Democratic Party, into which the OWS has, for the most part, retired for the remainder of the summer. The strikes in the Dakotas, in Ohio, on the west coast, in Iowa and new ones elsewhere are, on the other hand, conducted by workers who are literally struggling to put food on the table, pay the rent and keep the unions they belong to from being completely busted. That explains why the SWP, a small party, relates to one at the expense of the other.

  34. 52 Dennis Brasky July 9, 2012 at 10:19 pm

    Dear Richard – We all appreciate the communist condescension and proletarian scorn for which you and the SWP super-Bolsheviks hold “middle-class” movements like OWS. I feel confident that, armed with this attitude, it’s only a matter of time – certainly sooner than later – that the SWP becomes a mass vanguard party of the American working class. Then the naysayers on this and other blogs will have to eat crow!

  35. 53 Richard July 10, 2012 at 1:46 am

    Dear Dennis: Referring to the OWS as “middle-class” is not pejorative, but rather a sociological description. Farmers are middle-class as well, and are, at the same time, important allies of the working-class, as are — and as will be — many other middle-class people, like small business owners and well-paid technicians and medical workers. I am middle-class myself, even a tad bit upper middle-class, but I wouldn’t want the party of my adopted class spending all it’s time talking to people like me, because people like me, generally speaking, will not go all the way unless lead by the workers in the mines, mills and factories.

    • 54 H A Cox July 10, 2012 at 1:59 pm

      John and Dennis

      ‘Referring to the OWS as “middle-class” is not pejorative, but rather a sociological description.’
      Richard’s reply pretty much sums up the differences between the SWP and all the other organizations. Their orientation is towards the middle class and that is their and your chosen environment for carrying out politics. Fine. There is nothing ‘apolitical’ about the term ‘middle class’ radicals. That is your chosen environment and go for it, but the pressures of being between tthe two great classes will show up in your politics. This is why a Leninist party is disciplined, as it is easy enough to make errors without the pressure of middle class Marxist.
      ‘The question is: what is the SWP doing in these unions?

      The Militant does not reflect any shop-floor activism or sustained work in the unions.’
      I find it difficult to believe that you do not know what the general policy toward the trade union movement has been: it was to be a tribune of the people in the working class, that is to bring revolutionary politics to the working class. Beyond that, its functions in the trade union movement are tactically determined by the existence of real struggles. It is not to be a shop-floor activist-they leave that to middle class radicals such as the ISO.

      ‘We all appreciate the communist condescension and proletarian scorn for which you and the SWP super-Bolsheviks hold “middle-class” movements like OWS.’
      Notice the hostility and anger directed towards a ‘moribund’ organization. And it is all about the turn, the chosen milieu. Most of the middle class radicals in Russia were with the Mensheviks, or buried in the trade union bureacracy. I think that disgruntled ex-swpers should ignore the SWP and do what anonymous sauggested:
      ‘All y’all do is gossip on the internet, go out and build a proletarian party if you wanna prove the SWP is wrong.’
      I think the differences are clear and you all should spend your time going out to build parties igonore the ‘sins’ of the SWP (as I am sure they are ignoring yours).

  36. 55 mtomas3 July 10, 2012 at 4:40 pm

    H A, I could not agree with you more. The catharsis involved in purging one’s anger at a moribund (no quotes) ex-revolutionary party should really be beyond us now. I hope each of you are thinking about how our potentially large force of Ex-SWP (and YSA) members might find our way to building a united revolutionary politics–the precursor to any mass revolutionary party. I am also glad for the contributions of current members or supporters of the SWP. Perhaps it will lead them to peer out into the real world. It’ really ok to step into union activity or other worker-led struggles. Indeed, it seems to be the message of the Harris-Deluca campaign. I promise you that if you truly are committed to the working class–“adopted” or actually a part of it–you won’t become a union bureaucrat or a backward reactionary thinker. Indeed, staying inside the cocoon of a small nucleus will surely lead you to reaction and/or self-aggrandizement much faster and more completely. After all, cocoons are for insects who become something much different in later life. We, on the other hand, are humans and all that analogy will do for us is cause us to shrivel and die.

    Or, to be plain, the more you DO, the more you actually get Done, comrades. Don’t be afraid to get out there. There are potential young comrades just beyond that information table 2 to 3 blocks away from those actions your leaders so patently abhor. And, most important, all those potential young revolutionary workers on which your eyes are fixed are more than likely initially going to be at those actions and will grow a consciousness beyond their anger at their plight within capitalism There and not on the shop floor. The workers of revolutionary Russia came to march for Bread, Peace, and Land. They marched against the murderousness of War and the repression against Democracy. The Cuban workers fought against dictatorship and were led by revolutionaries in arms, not with tool belts. Our “American” revolution will surely be different, but it will not be based on the politics of the small.

    I say all this not because I believe I am right and “you” are wrong; only because it’s ok if neither is so. What’s not ok is to come up with reasons to hide or pretend to be “out there” because you got invited to somebody’s barbeque to “talk union” and, oh yeah, socialism. No matter what Jack or anyone else wish to preach, the SWP is (still) not a religion. Don’t act like it is. Oh, as for friends and connections? You’ll find them. We’re all around you.

  37. 56 Richard July 10, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    It’s been a good discussion and a gone tone, all things considered, and I, for one, am more than happy to consider other opinions, and consider them in a serious manner. When all is said and done, however, I don’t believe the party’s strategic orientation is any different today than it has ever been, including in the 1960’s; that is to say the party has always maintained that it is the working-class that has the raw social power to change society in a fundamental way and for all time. What’s different is the topical conditions, i.e., the beginning of the end of a prolonged period of retreat, which will greatly aid the re-emergence of social struggles that have in the past involved more middle-class sections of the population as well. I would suggest a subscription to the Militant for those who no not have one. Alas, a quick read, over a reasonable amount of time ( a few weeks should do ‘er), will show conclusively that the party is not sitting anything out. In the past couple of years the huge increase in the amount of subscriptions sold and the number of Pathfinder titles sold on a monthly basis (more so in each case than in the past 25 years, and in the case of Pathfinder titles, ever), mostly to workers now engaged in a fight, will lay to rest the false notion that the party has retreated into a self-absorbed sect. And that is not to disparage, at least from my point of view, other people’s efforts, it’s just that sometimes if we run in different circles we sometimes do not take sufficient notice of one another. I’ll conclude my participation in this discussion with the observation that in the past two or three weeks alone — at Keokuk, at Con Edison, in the Dakotas, at Longview, in Fremont, Ohio, at the NOW convention, and in petitioning for ballot status in New Jersey, among other places — the SWP has reached out with the ideas of socialism to literally thousands of new people eager to hear an alternative. But we must break the habit of talking to only ourselves; there is a whole world out there that wasn’t even alive during the last, great upsurge, who are completely open to a way out of the abyss. And the way out of the abyss runs through the working-class, here and all over the world.

  38. 57 Richard July 10, 2012 at 9:37 pm

    And least anyone think the shit hasn’t hit the fan (and no-one here does), the city of Scranton, Pennsylvanian just slashed to wage of all it’s 450 city employees to minimum wage – 7.25 an hour.

  39. 58 louisproyect July 10, 2012 at 10:11 pm

    the SWP has reached out with the ideas of socialism to literally thousands of new people eager to hear an alternative.

    I think that all the sects perform a valuable function by selling their newspapers, distributing their tracts, running candidates, etc. As Sol Dollinger once said: “Frederick Engels wrote to an American that left sects perform a useful purpose. They keep alive socialist ideology in those periods where the class struggle is at a low ebb. For this reason I must respect the work of the SLP,SWP, CP and a dozen other sect groups. They all are serving a useful purpose.” (http://archives.econ.utah.edu/archives/marxism/1999w51/msg00038.html).

    In 1959 I first learned about socialism from letters written in the summertime in my hometown newspaper by Nathan Pressman, a member of the Socialist Labor Party who used to vacation in the Borscht Belt. Groups like the SLP and SWP perform yeoman service in this fashion, even if they are incapable of making a revolution.

  40. 59 Binh July 11, 2012 at 6:31 pm

    This is a tough, painful read full of insights.

    One thing that occurred to me while I was reading about Dobbs was that by the time he joined the SWP he was already a family man. Raising a family is a team effort, just as shoveling coal or leading a successful mass strike is. Cannon was also a family man at the time he joined the Socialist Party and IWW (I think).

    I think this has something to do with how the SWP ended up, which was by no means inevitable.

    Thank you for writing this Gus.

  41. 60 Dennis Tourish August 18, 2012 at 10:36 am

    I have just found this thread. Many of the issues raised here have come up repeatedly in other forums and about other organisations. I believe that virtually all Trotskyist inclined groups have cultic tendencies – I was myself a member of the Militant Tendency in Ireland for a number of years. May I take the liberty of pointing people to an article I wrote about cultism on the left derived from that experience, which may be of some interest? The full text can be accessed at:
    http://www.rickross.com/reference/general/general434.html

  42. 61 Lüko Willms September 30, 2016 at 8:25 am

    Excellent analysis: the personality of an individuum or of an organisation shrinks under the pressure of a self-assumed sense of indispensability.

    There is a beautiful choir in the “Lenin Requiem” composed by Hans Eisler on texts by Bertolt Brecht (see http://eislermusic.com/reviews/requiem.htm ), whose text is often quoted in obituaries of stalinists and goes like this:

    Those who are weak don’t fight.
    Those who are stronger might fight
    for an hour.
    Those who are stronger still might fight
    for many years.
    The strongest fight
    their whole life.
    They are the indispensable ones.

    Wonderful music, but the more I was singing it during my time in the trade union choir, the less I liked this distinction between indispensable and dispensable people. Also because it turns “fight” into an abstraction. It ignores that sometimes it is one singel act, one move by one individual which does the right thing in the decisive moment, and then vanishes againt in history. That act was indispensable.

    And the graveyards are full of indispensable people.

    A good leader has to prepare for her or him to be dispensable, i.e. replaceable, to be part of a leadership team which combines the individual strengths of its members and thus overcoming the individual weaknesses of each of them.

    What I hear about the erratic behaviour of Jack Barnes makes me think of Muammar Gaddafi, who in my perception would have preferred to be a fashion designer in Paris competing with this bizarre German Karl Lagerfeld, but was prisoner of his self-created myth of indispensability as supreme leader and arbiter in Libya.


  1. 1 Trotskyist postmortems on a dead party « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist Trackback on July 11, 2012 at 5:28 pm
  2. 2 Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83 | SWP History: 1960-1988 Trackback on July 13, 2012 at 1:48 am
  3. 3 Trotskyist postmortems on a dead party | SWP History: 1960-1988 Trackback on July 23, 2012 at 12:55 pm
  4. 4 The Fall of the U.S. SWP Trackback on August 9, 2012 at 2:47 pm

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