Trotskyist postmortems on a dead party

By Louis Proyect

Published in

[July 11, 2012]

From its height of influence and membership in the mid-70s to its long steady decline into a workerist cult of around a hundred aging members, the American SWP—regarded by Leon Trotsky as the flagship of his movement—is worthy of study in the same manner as a dead body on CSI or Quincy, ME, two television shows that appeal to those of a morbid personality. In my role as forensic pathologist of the Marxist dead, I have rendered my own findings on many occasions.

Despite having said pretty much all that I wanted to say about this political equivalent of the Hindenburg crash, I will add a few words now prompted by contributions from Gus Horowitz, a former leader of the SWP, and John Riddell, a Canadian whose party (League for Socialist Action/League Socialiste Ouvrière) tailed the SWP into oblivion.

Gus started blogging at in February of this year and I will be commenting on his June 24th article On the Formation of the Jack Barnes Cult in the SWP. John began blogging at in June 2008. His 2-part discussion (part 1, part 2) of the recently published volume 2 of Barry Sheppard’s memoir also provides food for thought. Another resource worth bookmarking is SWP History: 1960-1988, a joint project of Barry Sheppard and Gus Horowitz.

As should be no surprise to those who have been following my articles on the SWP over the years, I am partial to Peter Camejo’s analysis contained in Against Sectarianism. After reading it in 1983, I immediately joined Peter in trying to forge a new left based on his approach, which departed from “Leninist” norms (Barry Sheppard believed that Peter eventually departed from Marxism as well, a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere.)

I should add that my perspective differs not only from Riddell, Horowitz and Sheppard’s methodologically; I had a different existential relationship to the party as well. I was never on full-time and always had a day job as a computer programmer that put me in close proximity with people who had very little interest in politics. This meant, for better or for worse, that I was less likely to dive headfirst into the “turn toward industry”, if for no other reasons than self-interest. After a decade or so of developing a career (such as it was), I was not that eager to start all over as a machinist or welder, etc. The SWP helped me resolve that contradiction in late 1978 when it announced that members should eschew such skilled trades since they isolated us from the most oppressed workers. As someone who had spent a morning as a very unskilled spot welder, this was a road I decided not to travel.

Turning to Gus’s article on cult formation first, there is an emphasis on group psychology, a focus that is shared by Paul LeBlanc, another ex-member who has written extensively on the collapse of the SWP. Gus writes:

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.

It is worth mentioning that megalomania is a fairly common feature of both Trotskyist and Maoist sects, as anybody familiar with Bob Avakian’s RCP can attest. It stems from the conviction that the group somehow possesses a “program” that has “revolutionary continuity” going back to Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Unlike parties that are rooted in the mass movement where leadership is earned on the basis of successful struggles (like Fidel Castro or Ho Chi Minh, for example), small propaganda groups like the SWP and the RCP have a different criterion. The leader is someone who has such a brilliant mind that they can interpret social reality through the prism of Marxism unerringly. They become much more like clerical authorities who issue edicts rather than active agents of social change.

The SWP was not always like that. Barnes’s predecessors were veterans of the mass movement who became leaders based on what they could do. For example, James P. Cannon made his mark defending victims of repression, especially the Wobblies. His successor Farrell Dobbs was a leader of the Teamsters when it was a militant union. Barnes, unlike Cannon or Dobbs, had a much more modest record in the mass movement. Furthermore, when the mass movements of the 1960s went into a steep decline, Barnes’s role as defender of the faith became more and more pronounced. As a symptom of the changes the party was going through, hundreds were expelled because they refused to accept the party leader’s rejection of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This was of course just the excuse. The main reason for the expulsions was that the mostly veteran dissidents stood in the way of consolidating a cult around Jack Barnes.

I thought that Gus’s description of the party was useful, if a bit limited in perspective:

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 “we” and “our” mentioned above, of course, tended to be the full-timers who socialized with each other and whose “lives revolved around the party”. Speaking for myself and many of the ordinary rank-and-filers I knew over the years, this was not the case for us at all. We had a lot invested in the party but we had our own careers and personal lives. Frankly, the SWP would have been a lot better off if it had fewer full-timers in the 60s and 70s and made them take jobs from time to time just to put them in touch with regular folks. I would have loved to see Jack Barnes working at Met Life in the 1960s. If there is anything to cure megalomania, it was working at such a place.

My attitude toward the “brass” in the SWP could best be described as tolerance. Except for Peter Camejo, I found them cold and imperious almost without exception. I should add that the women were far more approachable. I always had a soft spot for Caroline Lund (Sheppard’s partner who died tragically of Lou Gehrig’s disease a few years ago) and Kipp Dawson. As long as the brass made the right political decisions, I could put up with them. But when they began to err in a stupid sectarian direction in the late 70s, I found it pretty easy to jump ship. Who needed assholes barking orders at you to do something that made no sense? Not me. Man overboard.

I must state at this point that I am not quite sure where Sheppard, Horowitz, and Riddell stand on the party-building methodology questions that I have written about over the years. I was a bit disappointed that Barry did not spend more time dealing with how a new movement can be built today but I am certainly grateful to him for chronicling the SWP’s history from the early 60s until his departure.

The first part of John Riddell’s reaction to Barry’s book is titled “The U.S. SWP attempts an outward turn (1976–83)”. As opposed to Barry and Lynn Henderson, who regard the break with Trotskyism as key to the SWP’s degeneration, John thinks that this was a necessary first step even if carried out incorrectly:

Regardless of one’s views on Cuba and its Communist leadership, there is a problem with Sheppard’s analysis. The SWP’s efforts at convergence with the Cuban Communist current represented a turn outwards, toward linking up with revolutionaries outside the party and building an organization broader than the historic SWP. By contrast, the party’s actual trajectory under Barnes has been in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.

There is something to be said for this, I suppose. Camejo was gung-ho for becoming “more Cuban” but when he advocated a joint mayoral campaign with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party in New York (a true Fidelista current) against Koch in 1981, he was hammered by Jack Barnes and his lieutenants. It was one thing for the Militant to flatter the Cuban leadership; it was another for the SWP to actually become more like the Cuban Communist Party in terms of being less sectarian.

I tend to disagree, however, with Riddell’s championing of Fidel Castro’s take on Allende’s Popular Unity government:

The authors [a reference to a Camejo/Les Evens article in 1972] compare the Allende regime to that of F.D. Roosevelt in the U.S. – that is, to an instrument of the capitalist class in taming and blocking the workers’ struggle. They also liken it to Stalinist popular frontism after 1935, which subordinated workers’ struggles to “alliances with ‘peace-loving’ imperialists.”

Inevitably, the SWP’s opposition to the UP government hindered efforts to defend it against the impending U.S.-sponsored coup. The Cuban government’s approach of critical support, by contrast, enabled its government to take energetic measures to defend Chile, while making suggestions on how Chilean workers should prepare for the coming confrontation.

In my own study of Allende’s record, I regard many of his measures to be quite audacious but in the final analysis considered him to be an obstacle to a revolution in Chile. Riddell believes that having the correct position on Allende is essential for appreciating Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution and those modeled on it in Bolivia and Ecuador.

In September 2007, I wrote a review of Patricio Guzmán’s documentary on the Chilean socialist martyr that was premiering that month. Just by coincidence, I took up the Allende-Chavez analogy:

Despite both coming to power through the ballot, there are significant differences between Allende and Hugo Chavéz. First of all, Chavéz was a military officer himself with broad connections to leftist officers, perhaps the most striking characteristic of Venezuelan politics where an Air Force general is described by Richard Gott in “Shadow of the Liberator” as having “Trotskyist” politics. By contrast, Air Force officers in the US tend to be followers of the Christian Right.

But more importantly, the primary ideological inspiration for Chavéz’s movement is revolutionary socialism rather than 1930s style popular frontism. According to Gott, a number of Chavéz’s primary influences were Marxists to the left of the CP. In declaring for a 21st century socialism, Chavéz has made repeated references to the failure of Soviet socialism in terms that reflect the influences of the Trotskyist movement. Of course, as is always the case with Chavéz, he makes up his own mind based on what he thinks is right. This includes his willingness to stand up to the bourgeois parties in Venezuela, unlike Allende who kept making concession after concession to the Christian Democrats who were plotting his overthrow. To show that he was deferential to their interests, he kept bringing military men into his cabinet and even put Pinochet in charge of public security not 6 months before Pinochet overthrew his government.


Within an hour of posting this article, I came across a Greg Grandin review of a new book on Allende that is unfortunately behind the London Review’s paywall. I submit the final paragraph:

In Venezuela, Hugo Chávez drew a different lesson from the defeat of the Popular Unity government. Soon after he was elected president in 1998, before coming out as a confrontationalist, indeed before he even identified himself as a socialist, Chávez began to compare himself to Allende. Wealthy Venezuelans were mobilising against even the mildest economic reforms, as their Chilean predecessors had done, taking to the streets, banging their pots and pans, attacking the government through their family-owned TV stations and newspapers, beating a path to the US embassy to complain, and taking money from Washington to fund their anti-government activities. In response, Chávez began to talk about 1973. ‘Like Allende, we are pacifists,’ he said of his supporters, including those in the military. ‘And like Allende, we are democrats. Unlike Allende, we are armed.’ The situation got worse and worse, culminating in the coup of April 2002 which, though unsuccessful, looked very like the coup against Allende. Chávez found himself trapped in the national palace speaking to Castro on the phone, telling him he was ready to die for the cause. Ever the pragmatist, Castro urged him to live to fight another day: ‘Don’t do what Allende did!’


Riddell’s second part is titled Causes of a socialist collapse: The U.S. SWP 1976–83. Most of it makes sense, as far as it goes. Like Sheppard and Horowitz, there is an implicit thesis in the article that the problems of the SWP coincide with the emergence of Barnes as a central leader:

Previous generations of the party leadership, under James P. Cannon (1928–53) and Farrell Dobbs (1953–72), had indeed been diverse in outlook and experience. The Barnes generation, however, was much more uniform in outlook – in part, because the leadership had been trained mostly as full-time staffers in the party apparatus rather than in the field of struggle.

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

Although it is difficult to argue with the proposition that Barnes destroyed the SWP, I tend to differ from Sheppard, Horowitz and Riddell in rejecting the notion of some kind of Golden Age in which James P. Cannon or Farrell Dobbs held dominion. I believe that the methodology of the SWP was flawed from the outset. In its less lethal permutations, such as the Tony Cliff or Ted Grant variety or the SWP of the early 1970s, you end up with a “healthy” group but one that is destined to hit a glass ceiling because of its self-imposed “vanguardist” assumptions. In a nutshell, the group sees itself as the nucleus of the future revolutionary party no matter how much lip-service is given to fusing with other groups during a prerevolutionary period, etc. In its more lethal versions, you end up with Gerry Healy or Jack Barnes where megalomania rules supreme.

Although I have referred to my analysis of “Zinovievist” party-building conceptions accepted at face value by James P. Cannon to the point of becoming a crushing bore, I would like to conclude with an excerpt from the article where I first laid out this thesis:

The process of transforming the American movement into a caricature of Lenin’s party took a number of years and it was the authority of the Comintern that made this transformation possible. After all, if the Russians tell us to have “democratic centralism”, they must know what they’re talking about. They do have state power.

The first organizational expression of the American Communist movement showed its roots in the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs. The party was organized on the basis of branches rather than cells, as the Comintern dictated. Another feature of the American Communist movement that was distinct from what is commonly known as “democratic centralism” was the open debates that various factions took part in. While it is beyond the scope of this article to trace all the divisions within the American movement, suffice it to say that they tended to reflect very real differences about the character of the movement–whether it should orient to the more radicalized foreign language speaking workers, or develop roots in the English speaking sector of the class. The Comintern, needless to say, used all of its power to shape the direction of American revolutionary politics despite Zinoviev’s open admission in 1924 that “We know England so little, almost as little as America.”

The Fourth National Convention of the Communist Party was held in Chicago, Illinois in August, 1925. This convention was inspired by the Bolshevization World Congress of the Comintern that was held in 1924. The American delegates came to the United States with the understanding that their party would adopt more stringent organizational norms in line with Zinoviev’s directives. To give you a sense of the importance of the language question, the proceedings of the convention report that there were 6,410 Finnish members as opposed to 2,282 English speaking members.

The American party had its own dissident minority that the new “Bolshevization” policy could be used as a cudgel against. This minority was led by one Ludwig Lore, who was the main demon of the American movement as Leon Trotsky was in the Soviet movement. The Majority Resolution laid down the law against Lore:

“We also endorse fully and pledge our most active support to the Comintern and Parity Commission decisions providing for the liquidation of Loreism in our Party. We demand that the Party be united in a uncompromising struggle against this dangerous right wing tendency. We pledge our fullest support to the whole Comintern program for Bolshevizing our Party, including a militant fight against the right wing, the organization of the Party on the basis of shop nuclei, and the raising of the theoretical level of our membership.”

This is quite a mouthful. They are going to liquidate a dangerous right wing tendency and reconstitute the party on the basis of factory cells all in one fell swoop. And “the raising of the theoretical level of our membership” can mean only one thing. They are going to get politically indoctrinated by the Zinoviev-Kamenev-Stalin faction in order to destroy all of its opponents wherever they appear.

Poor Ludwig Lore was in a political fight with other leading Communists about how to relate to the Lafollette Farmer-Labor Party. This third party was an expression of American populism and it was not clear which direction it was going. The disagreements over how to approach it are similar to the sorts of disagreements that crop up today about how to regard, for example, the Nader presidential campaign.

So Lore found himself in a bitter dispute about a purely American political question. What he didn’t figure out, however, was that he had no business being open-minded about Trotsky while this dispute was going on. Lore had befriended Trotsky during a visit to the USSR in 1917 and retained warm feelings toward him, just as the French Communist Boris Souvarine did. Not surprisingly, Lore had very little use for Zinoviev. On one occasion, according to Theodore Draper, Lore told Zinoviev to his face that his information about the American labor movement was questionable. Considering Zinoviev’s track record in Germany, this hardly comes as a surprise.

What really got his name in the Comintern’s little black book, however, was his caustic observations about the infamous “Bolshevization” World Congress of March, 1924:

“The Third International changes its tactics, nay, even its methods, every day, and if need be, even oftener. It utterly disregards its own guiding principles, crushes today the these it adopted only yesterday, and adapts itself in every country to new situations which may offer themselves. The Communist International is, therefore, opportunistic in its methods to the most extreme degree, but since it keeps in its mind the one and only revolutionary aim, the reformist method works for the revolution and thus loses its opportunistic character.”

This was just what the Comintern would not tolerate at this point, an independent thinker. Lore was doomed.

The “Resolution on Bolshevization of the Party” spells out how the American Communists would turn over a new leaf and get tough with all the right-wing elements in the party. “…the task of Bolshevization presents itself concretely to our Party as the task of completely overwhelming the organizational and ideological remnants of our social-democratic inheritance, of eradicating Loreism, of making out of the Party a functioning organism of revolutionary proletarian leadership.” And so Lore was expelled at this convention.

The party was re-organized on the basis of factory cells and a rigid set of organizational principles were adopted. For example, it stipulated that “Wherever three or more members, regardless of their nationality or present federation membership, are found to be working in the same shop, they shall be organized into a shop nucleus. The nucleus collects the Party dues and takes over all the functions of a Party unit.” What strikes one immediately is that there is absolutely no consideration in the resolution about whether or not a factory-based party unit makes political sense. It is simply a mechanical transposition of Comintern rules, which in themselves are based on an undialectical understanding of Lenin’s party.

The expulsion of Lore and the new organizational guidelines was adopted unanimously by the delegates, including two men who would go on to found American Trotskyism: James P. Cannon and Vincent Ray Dunne. Cannon and Dunne are regarded as saints by all of the Trotskyist sects, but nobody has ever tried to explain why Cannon and Dunne could have cast their votes for such abysmal resolutions. There really is only one explanation: their understanding of Bolshevism came from Zinoviev rather than Lenin.

Cannon’s myopia on these sorts of questions stayed with him through his entire life. In his “First Ten Years of American Communism”, he describes Lore as someone who never “felt really at home in the Comintern” and who never became an “all-out communist in the sense that the rest of us did.” That says more about Cannon than it does about Lore. Who could really feel at home in the Comintern? This bureaucratic monstrosity had replaced the heads of the German Communist Party 3 times in 3 years. It had intruded in the affairs of the German Communist Party as well, coming up with the wrong strategy on a consistent basis. Those who “felt at home” in the Comintern after 1924, as James P. Cannon did, would never really be able to get to the bottom of the problem. Furthermore, Cannon himself took the organizational principles of the 1925 Communist Party convention and used them as the basis for American Trotskyism as well.

Zinoviev was responsible for not only ostracizing Trotsky in the Russian party, but Lore in the American party as well. Zinoviev was a master of casting people into Menshevik hell. Cannon himself was plenty good at this as well. Over and over again in American Trotskyist history, there were others who were to face ostracism just like Lore. Schachtman in the 1930s, Cochran in the 1950s and Camejo in the 1980s. In every case, the current party leadership was defending the long-term historical interests of the proletariat while the dissident were reflecting petty-bourgeois Menshevik influences. What garbage.

Cannon’s views on Zinoviev were those of a student toward a influential professor. In “The First Ten Years of American Communism”, Cannon pays tribute to the dreadful Zinoviev: “As far as I know, Zinoviev did not have any special favorites in the American party. The lasting personal memory I have of him is of his patient and friendly efforts in 1925 to convince both factions of the necessity of party peace and cooperation, summed up in his words to Foster which I have mentioned before: ‘Frieden ist besser.’ (‘Peace is Better’).”

What a stunning misunderstanding of the events of 1924-1925. Zinoviev had broken the back of the German Communist Party and the Soviet party and now was doing everything he could to destroy any independent voices in the American party. Zinoviev himself would soon be a victim of the same process. Yesterday’s Bolshevik would become the Menshevik of 1926 and 1927.

The sectarian and rigidity of the Comintern party-building model are still upheld by the Trotskyists and other “Marxist-Leninists” of today. If these groups were as critical of their own history and ideas as they were of the ruling class, much improvement could obtain. This is not something to be hoped for. Those of us who prefer to think for ourselves must create our own organizational and political solutions, just as Lenin did in turn-of-the-century Russian. Any effort which falls short of this will not produce the outcome we so desperately need: the abolition of the capitalist system and the development of socialism.

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One Response to Trotskyist postmortems on a dead party

  1. John Riddell says:

    Hi Louis, Thanks for your article including your kind comments on my take on the SWP.

    Regarding Allende, I assume that all revolutionaries opposed at least major aspects of Allende’s course. The question was whether to express this view through critical support of the UP or flat-out opposition. This is an old question that comes under the general heading of united front. The problem with opposition is that it takes one right out of the defense efforts and the related discussions — and I submit that this essentially happened to the SWP during the Allende years in Chile.

    You say that Chavez is not like Allende and I agree. But by and large, currents that responded with outright opposition to the Allende regime have taken the same approach to Chavez as well. This is not surprising: their position is based on what they imagine to be a principle derived from popular-front positions responding to a very different situation in the imperialist heartlands.

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