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These comments should deal with the SWP in the period under discussion, 1960-1988. They may include analysis or the recounting of experiences that may shed light on the SWP during that period.

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11 Responses to Comments from Readers

  1. Mary Scully says:

    The degeneration of the SWP: elitism, megalomania, & the reign of bullies

    My assessment of the SWP’s degeneration differs from Barry Sheppard, Gus Horowitz, and other commentators in important aspects, particularly the role Sheppard played. Most of my 11 years (early 1970 through 1980) in the YSA and SWP were spent in the New York City branches and my experience is colored by proximity to the national office and national leaders. I don’t know how to present my evaluation without making it a personal narrative; I don’t do this to inflate my importance in the story.

    An apprenticeship
    I came to NYC in 1970 when the YSA and party were experiencing a huge rush of recruits they were not organized to handle. They soon moved from a single, unmanageable branch to three NYC branches. I had moved to NYC from Minneapolis to get involved in women’s liberation and immediately became active in organizing for the August 26, 1970, Women’s March for Equality. My run-ins with the party began right after August 26th. Although I had been centrally involved in the march and am part of its history, the party moved in some of their key personnel to take over women’s liberation work and without explanation simply moved me out of the work by not including me or notifying me of meetings. Though I badgered the branch organizer for an assignment, I didn’t understand what was going on and simply continued my political work at NYU where I worked as a secretary. I organized antiwar meetings and protests, Palestinian defense forums, organized a women’s liberation committee and carried on abortion rights work. My speeches at NYU and in the women’s abortion campaign were on TV and radio and I was more than once interviewed on radio with Gloria Steinem but I was unable to get the organizer to assign me to an area of work. To mollify me, the organizer (Ken Shilman) created a new post (a shameful sui generis in the history of the world revolutionary movement) and assigned me as branch social director to organize parties. In 1973, when the branch financial director was asked to relocate across country, Shilman asked me to take the position temporarily until he could find a permanent replacement. It turns out I was something of a whiz at the job and reorganized branch finances top to bottom. According to the national finance director, I was one of the best financial organizers in the country and the best at explaining finances to the membership. What I understood was the integration between political goals and financial functioning as well as the financial relationship between the party and membership in a voluntary organization. My performance was such that it would not have been easy for Shilman to remove me and put me back organizing dance parties. I had gone a few years unable to get an assignment but now had become a branch leader. During those dry years, I did what every working class woman does; I internalized the judgment of the leadership and assumed they discerned no talent in me useful to the party because I had none. But I was committed to socialism and decided to contribute the little I could to building the movement.

    Class dichotomies in the SWP
    It’s not in vogue and often disparaged to speak of class in the SWP but it was and remains the elephant in the room. Most of the young people coming to the movement were privileged and middle-class which has a class psychology quite distinct from that of the working class. The former are entitled, confident, competitive, self-assertive, and self-promoting relative to the working class. The latter (especially women) are diffident, inept and loath to self-promotion, uncertain of their abilities, and reluctant to put themselves forward since the ethos of the class is not to get too big for one’s britches. So it was not easy for working class recruits to adapt to the environment of the SWP which was overwhelmingly middle-class and cocky, including the younger national leadership. Regrettably, the competitive ethos of the middle-class prevailed–particularly in the manner of leadership selection and development.

    Leadership selection in the SWP
    It was entirely evident that the process of becoming a leader was to be chosen by the current leadership and groomed. I don’t know when this process began but I do know how it became corrupted. I think leadership development is an essential concern in organizations and I don’t think it should be left to chance. But that does not mean selecting people in your own image or those you think compliant and grooming them as parrots and hand-raisers or enforcers. Because that means the less confident, more diffident or even more independent members get lost in the shuffle. It means the process of apprenticeship and learning how to think for yourself are preempted. It means sycophancy is rewarded and people become indebted for their falsely attained stature in the party. And it means phony leaders are created since on some level, many of those selected and groomed must realize how little they know, how unable they are to think a problem through, or defend a position without being told what to say. Or else, they get an inflated sense of their abilities which also ill-serves the revolution. But the greatest offense of all is that working class people who initially lack confidence often develop as effective leaders and organizers. Class society is based on belittling workers, women, and minorities but the socialist movement considers them transformative and revolutionary agents in society. Our leadership methods must reflect that conviction to encourage the more diffident, and prevent demoralization and resignations. Instead, the grooming method was rampant, created an atmosphere of competitiveness, and fostered careerism in a movement based on egalitarianism. It was thoroughly corrupt and was part of the process of degeneration. I don’t think it means holding promising recruits back so much as it means paying attention and encouraging the development of all members. With an egalitarian approach to leadership development, rancor and hostilities are less likely to poison relations between leaders and ranks, democracy is fostered. Most importantly, when you take rebels and turn them into hand-raisers you’ve made them useless as revolutionists.

    Financial and political mismanagement
    In 1975, I was asked to join the full-time staff of a civil rights group formed by the party in defense of busing for desegregation. I was to be the financial organizer and fund-raiser. The SWP has extensive experience with fund raising as a result of the anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s movements, as well as civil liberties campaigns (like the SWP’s PRDF suit vs. the US government). A good share of large donations come from wealthy liberals who are politically astute and well know and respect the SWP. This group of people were confused about busing because of the opposition as they saw it, between the white working class and Blacks–and they were not contributing money. This was a political factor that needed evaluation. But as financial organizer, I was excluded from all political meetings between the party officers and staff members. They would return from meetings at the party headquarters without apprising me of political discussions and order me to call donors to ask for loans if they would not give donations, knowing full well we would probably not be able to repay them. I insisted first, that I be included in all political discussions of the work and secondly, told them in no uncertain terms that I would not raise fraudulent loans. It was a felony for which I could serve jail time and it was politically short-sighted by playing people for fools who were not money-bags but political people who had to be respected as such. These two disputes went on for several weeks without resolution. I would ask donors for loans but only after explaining we did not know when or if we would ever be able to repay them. Some donors were so floored by the candor they gave donations instead. But the staff members continued to exclude me and order me to raise fraudulent loans. I knew Barry Sheppard had dealt with this same problem in the antiwar movement and as a former financial director of the SWP understood the integration of politics and finances so I phoned him at the national office to meet with all of us to set the matter right. He agreed and we all gathered at his office. For the entire hour of this meeting, he lectured me with vituperation on doing what I was ordered to do without questioning. I listened to him aghast because I knew he, better than anyone, understood the danger I would put myself and the party in by complying. I resigned immediately from that position deeply troubled about the leadership and future of the party.

    Coincidentally, at that time I went to live in the town house of George Weissman, an older member of the SWP who as a widower remarried a woman living in New Hampshire. He edited for Pathfinder Press and spent one week per month in NYC and the rest of the time in NH. In the meanwhile, I paid nominal rent and cared for his home which very often included hosting foreign guests like Hugo Blanco, Ernest Mandel, Louis Sinclair, Leah Tsemel, Marguerite Bonnet, Seva Volkov, and others. George was from a middle-class background, married originally into great wealth and I was quite wary he would display toward me the haughty relations I witnessed in the party. On the contrary, he was very egalitarian. He had the regrettable habit however of reading at the table while we were dining. I consider meals a social grace and this habit was not acceptable at all to me. So to his immense chagrin at first, I hammered him with questions about the history of the movement which I was considering leaving. He responded to my interrogations with stories that indicated the party’s past was very different from what I was experiencing. What he described was what I had thought I had joined–a working class party–and I realized that a corruption had taken place, a usurpation of proletarian norms in conduct and atmosphere. Recruited out of Harvard in the generation of the 1930s, George was very aware of dichotomies between working class and middle-class members and we often discussed this phenomenon. It was these discussions that kept me in the SWP hoping to be part of changing it’s rancid environment.

    Branch building
    After leaving the civil rights staff, I became involved in branch building again in the Manhattan Chelsea branch. The women’s movement had been railroaded into the Democratic Party, the Vietnam War had ended and there was a general lull in political activity. Dozens of members who had been immersed in antiwar activity came back to the branches off kilter and slightly disoriented. The party needed to evaluate where it was and where it was going but with a leadership so self-isolated from the membership and with local leaderships often indentured to them, they were little aware of the problems in the branches or what the focus of collective work should be. This was the era of the “community branches” where larger units broke into smaller ones. Whatever the intentions of the national leadership (which they never explained), many local units thought this signaled a turn to community organizing. Although the CP engaged in community organizing to reformist purpose, it is at odds with the method of the transitional program and not the way we do things for many political reasons. The leadership was floundering, unable to acknowledge they were lost, and unwilling to collaborate with the membership. I believe the turn to industry was a get-rich-quick scheme and a blundering attempt to get out of the malaise and confusion the leadership felt.

    People often date the turn to industry as beginning in 1978 but in fact, it began earlier. And as members began to get better paying jobs, the national office began putting the screws on to significantly increase weekly voluntary sustainer payments. One thing I well understood from finances and which Sheppard suggests in his book is that these donations are voluntary, that the party has no right to intrude into people’s private finances and dictate what they should give because it creates rancor and resentment. But now the the national leadership began relentless bullying, ordering everyone to pay $40 per week. I watched this in alarm because I knew it would compel people to leave and I also knew the national leadership knew better.

    Undemocratic meddling
    When I joined the Chelsea branch, one of the new community branches, it was not functioning. I am a branch builder and became key to involving others in getting it up on it’s feet and it’s institutions (such as public forums) functioning. My leadership style is to spend a lot of time talking and listening to people, to find out who they are, what they’re interested in, what rankles them, what inspires them. It was my ability to work with people that made me effective as a branch builder (and why Shilman made me social director). In the period leading up to the SWP convention (1976?), the branch organizer notified me the national office had given each NYC branch a slate of members working in the party print shop who they wanted elected delegates for the convention. The organizer wanted me to help promote those names in the branch. I was notably missing from the slate although I was a central branch leader and an obvious candidate. Despite the awkwardness this placed me in, I told the organizer this was completely unacceptable. The national leadership had no right whatsoever to impose any kind of slate on the branches, especially a slate of people that played no role in the branches and who were unknown to most of us. I spoke to others in the NYC branches to oppose this maneuver but none were willing to stand up against it. I was fully aware that if I chose to singly and openly thwart it, I would be expelled. So although I refused to go along with it, I did not assail it before the membership. I was elected a delegate despite this repugnant maneuver–along with several print shop workers. This leadership maneuver was intended to control delegate selection and not to address the isolation of print shop workers from the work of the party or to integrate them into participation at conventions.

    Elitist behavior
    In the entire time I was in NYC, I seldom saw the national leadership. They did not participate in local events (or national ones for that matter) either of the social movements or of the party, such as election campaigns. In fact, they isolated themselves from the local membership in a way I thought peculiar and elitist. On one rare occasion Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters attended a party I held in Weissman’s home so members could meet Hugo Blanco. They stood the entire hour they were there looking dour, speaking to no one, including Blanco, making everyone uncomfortable but grateful when they left. Camejo was different in that regard, perhaps because he was single at the time. I met him through antiwar work at NYU when we both spoke at rallies. I recall in early 1971 he told me that Jack Barnes was the “American Lenin” and as such “needs to be protected”. The country was barely out of the McCarthy era politically so this was an astonishing judgement and indicates not just how imminent they must have judged the revolution but what an inflated respect they had for Barnes. As I previously described, Weissman was an egalitarian man and those who stayed in his home as guests all ate together, often cooking for each other–as befits a socialist household. Somewhere around 1977, Barnes and Waters broke up and he took up with a companion who was a friend of mine. Barnes asked Weissman to stay at his home while they looked for a new apartment. Weissman agreed and informed me that Barnes requested I absent myself from dining while he and his companion were eating. I was floored and insulted by the request since it flew in the face of the egalitarianism I had so respected in George. I believe it indicates the blinded and inflated judgement of Barnes was shared by older as well as younger national leaders–though such imperious behavior should have sent up red alerts. Such hyperbolic esteem must have gone straight to the head of a man already prone to narcissism and megalomania. I did encounter Barnes and his companion in the kitchen I paid rent on and cleaned and in every instance this man who went straight from graduate student to full-time functionary lectured me (who has worked and helped support my family since I was 13) on how to be a proletarian.

    Isolation and leadership
    I don’t believe the corruption of the SWP was entirely due to the class origins of the young leadership though I do believe they introduced the methods of that class into the atmosphere of the party. I think an equally compelling problem was their isolation from politics. Outside of their Cuba defense work and party building work in the early to mid 1960s, most appeared to have very little connection to not just the working class and the social movements but to the members of the party. In my several decades of political activism, my observation is that a revolutionary spirit cannot sustain such isolation, whatever the cause. Under Barnes, they chose to live a hermetically sealed and elitist political life, unable to even sustain conversation with the ranks. They selected and groomed compliant people as leaders, people who owed them something–like deference. They bullied and intimidated the rest so that people were reluctant to even ask questions. When they did begin to reject the political program of Marxism, the membership was brow-beaten and trained in obedience and those who stood up to them easily isolated and expelled.

    Coming to grips with the SWP’s degeneration
    Sheppard says he did not stand up for fear of being shunned. I well know how it feels to be vilified as a sectarian and shunned as a pariah for standing up against the entry of the FIT into Solidarity. But that is not an acceptable defense for failing to defend the party. I think the case I have presented shows his culpability and responsibility go back long before 1978 and the “epiphany” moment of Jack Barnes. Without the role Sheppard (and others) played as enforcer of undemocratic and coercive norms in the party Barnes could not have pulled off his coup. I can’t offer any redemption to Sheppard because that is a religious concept alien to Marxism but I can offer advice and that is to face up to the poisonous atmosphere in the party during all of the 1970s, to examine it, to identify it’s sources, and educate about its anti-proletarian methods. I also have argued to deaf ears for nearly 25 years now that this degeneration of the SWP has analogs in socialist groups in every country and in every political current. The problem is considerably more significant in scope than the paltry narcissism of Barnes or the failings of Sheppard. These political processes need to be examined as the early Comintern did concerning the Second International to come to grips with the politics of this epoch and to find a way out of the malaise of the revolutionary movement.

    Postscript
    As a postscript, I made the turn to industry in Boston in 1978 and resigned from the party in December 1980 after I was brought up on charges of putting my personal life before my political life. I had requested a time change for the work fraction meeting so I could work overtime to buy a car since I was on the second shift and forced to be at bus stops and walk alone at midnight. I had also refused to sell the Militant at work since I was being threatened verbally and physically for being friendly with Black coworkers. It may sound melodramatic but I felt I was choosing my class over a party that didn’t stand a chance in hell of transforming society. I have remained active in the trade union, women’s, antiwar, immigrant rights, socialist (such as it is), disability rights, and other movements. My grounding in Marxism rooted in the SWP experience has proven invaluable in every area of political work.

  2. Mary Scully says:

    Your regrettable grouping of articles into those deemed “articles” and those deemed “comments” shows the administrators of this site have learned little from the SWP experience and they should consider carefully studying my “comments”.

  3. Ben Courtice says:

    In the 1990s, Australia’s DSP (who had historical links to the US SWP, broken in the 1980s) also had some of those same problems of the leadership selecting and grooming the new leaders. I don’t think the “middle” class vs working class differences were so pronounced in Australia (we’d just had nearly 20 years of free tertiary education which allowed a bit more social mobility). There was also much more scope for women to become leaders than what Mary describes, although it wasn’t perfect in that regard either.

    But the notion that confident young people could be groomed to become the new leaders did instil a competitive atmosphere counter to the egalitarian “we are all leaders” mentality that I prefer. It also meant that a fair number of sycophants and overconfident fools did, over the years, find themselves in positions of responsibility they were not able to live up to.

    Thanks for sharing those experiences.

  4. Linda J Loew says:

    Due to some stubborn inability to get my posting entered correctly two weeks ago, circumstances afford me the chance to update this contribution with some profound developments on the political stage: I have just witnessed and participated in another critical uprising of our class: tens of thousands of Chicago teachers and their allies have been fighting an historic battle with our class enemy, and have made some significant gains. Chief among these gains is the organizing and political education of the ranks themselves. This was a case of an objective situation ripe for struggle combining with a conscious leadership, which sharpened and honed its skills in battle and came out ahead. The leadership has won new respect, sees this strike as just the beginning in the fight to defend public education, and is preparing for fights to come.
    Former comrades, still active as members of other left groups (most notably Solidarity and the ISO,) as well as several independent activists and supporters were engaged in and helped to lead this battle. It is no coincidence that in the weeks, months, and year leading up to this strike, both organizations I noted held classes on the lessons of Dobbs’ Teamster Rebellion, urging their own members and supporters to read about and study this extraordinary strike. Dobbs’ volumes were invaluable to me during my own 1980 strike experience which I describe in Barry’s book. And, they remain valuable tools today. It is precisely this conscious leadership that makes the current Chicago teachers struggle so different from other recent union contract negotiations in almost every other major U.S. city. Not only did they not roll over and play dead, they did not rely on nor urge their members to look to the politicians of either party; they educated and mobilized their own ranks to stand up and exert their own power! There is also no question that the Chicago teachers and public sector workers in general (witness Madison and cities and communities throughout the U.S.) have become front and center in the class struggle of our time.
    I did not imagine when I first chipped in my two cents toward Barry’s second volume that they would play such a role in a broader and necessary discussion of the party life and practice during the days I went through my strike experience in Dallas. Indeed, in 1979-1980, when those events were unfolding, I did not see the SWP at the crossroads between remaining an important and leading force among revolutionary socialists in the U.S. or degenerating into a grouping that has largely abstained from, and been irrelevant to, most important working class developments. I believed that other local leaders in my branch at the time, as well as in the national steel fraction and Party national office, had responded somewhat strangely to my request for support and guidance during the strike. But, I believed that the comrades around me were at least somewhat enthusiastic about the role I was able to play, straight off probation at that, and the people I was bringing around our movement. I had not yet connected the dots: in retrospect, I see that the lukewarm response I was receiving from the broader party forces, beginning to be reflected in my own branch leadership, was part of the Party’s turning away from fight backs of the organized working class, even vigorous ones with clear potential for solid work as open socialists.

    I see Barry’s book as a central part of the discussion to connect those dots. Reviewing our history is a vital part of learning the lessons, avoiding critical mistakes, and relating successfully to the growing response of working and young people to the austerity measures flowing from capitalism’s crisis today.

    What I first wrote about my strike experiences seems valid today. It confirms the wisdom of embracing the fight back of workers in such an opportunity on the job and in a union setting such as this was. This is especially true when we are so fortunately positioned to both contribute skills as organizers, as well as gain experience.

    As U.S. workers are suffering these deep assaults to our standard of living, as well as our right to bargain collectively, many are more inclined (to one degree or another) to see the system itself as responsible for the assaults. A growing number of them are less inclined to trust politicians of either major party to solve the problem. The crisis we face calls out for the kind of leadership we could have once provided. Nevertheless, a conscious leadership has stepped up and is filling this void.
    Today, and with hindsight (this should have been in sharper focus in the 70’s and 80’s,) we see that the workers under assault include the very crucial sector of public workers who are in the cross hairs of the current attack. As I indicated earlier, these workers include some deeply rooted former comrades. The Chicago Teachers Union is emerging from a fight for its life and the very life of public education in the U.S. This battle, the first Chicago teachers’ strike in 25 years, was watched by and received solidarity from across the nation and world. Many of us, including myself in AFSCME, have had an opportunity to not only build solidarity with the teachers in their showdown with Mayor Emanuel and the Board of Ed, but to actively talk about the very structure of society with our co-workers and fellow union members.
    People are angry about the blows to public education. These cutbacks are being suffered in disproportionate ways by minorities and working class youth. These blows were part of a broader effort to break teachers unions in the process. The Rahm administration and the local unelected Board of Ed underestimated who they were dealing with. In addition to some significant gains that would have been impossible to achieve without striking, thousands have learned about the necessity of fighting back, about solidarity, and about the nature of the system. The current struggle continues to feed off the energy and lessons of the Wisconsin uprising last year. Despite the devastating defeats for the ranks, the outpouring of our Wisconsin sisters and brothers is still talked about across the nation, and especially in our sister state of Illinois.
    There is only one place to stand in this ongoing fight: squarely in it, and as active as one is able to be. Revolutionary socialists cannot be on the sidelines, criticizing shortcomings in the fight back or its leadership. It would have been wrong in 1980 and it is wrong today! They must be participants, learning alongside other fighters, making friends, winning respect, and raising consciousness. This was true throughout the history of the SWP I knew best, and was recruited to. I am proud of my own short role in it. In fact, I remember a very sound lesson from one of the many classes we held for members: that mass struggles and the influx of new members and leaders will assure healthy and democratic discussions in the party, and ultimately, act as a corrective on a mistaken path, policy or program. With its increasing irrelevance and abstention from most of the big fight backs today, it will be for a new generation of leaders emerging to learn the lessons and consolidate them for a revolutionary leadership to come.

    I’d like also to solidarize across the years and miles with a comrade I did not know well but came to respect and admire during the last couple of years of her life and greatly miss now, Caroline Lund. Despite her strength and commitment, as a well-respected unionist among her many co-workers and friends, as well as an athlete, and animal lover, she was taken down by the ruthless Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS.) I am no stranger to ALS, having also lost a loved one to it, a year before Caroline’s passing.
    The appendix in Barry’s book is a very fitting testimony to Caroline, her many years as a dedicated and effective revolutionary fighter. He describes Caroline’s work at NUMMI and as an independent activist leader in her UAW local, at times allied to a caucus within the local, but for the most part as an independent leader and activist, conducting a principled and vigorous fight virtually unassisted by co-thinkers except for a couple of friends and loved ones. This account helps to crystallize many of the key tenets of Barry’s book. In order to play a leading role in our class, we must be a part of it in a day-to-day, year-in-and year-out sense. To me, this means having friends on the job, relating to people personally and in conversations about ideas and what’s going on in the work place. This also ends up meaning to be willing to put one’s energies where one’s mouth is. It seems to me that Caroline adjusted her role to the situation as it evolved and stayed true to her principles throughout. Few struggles unfold to a precise blueprint, and if we can’t work and be active in a living, breathing struggle, what good will we be when the class struggle heats up even further? Even making mistakes, admitting them, and moving on, seems better than to be on the side lines, only commenting on the overall change of system that will be needed. Getting one’s feet wet, taking risks, gaining respect and building relationships with others: these are all what Caroline did while helping to win partial victories and raise consciousness in the process.

    My 1980 experience was on a smaller scale in many ways. Yet, in a few short weeks, I was catapulted to a position of respect among a whole layer of workers who I had not previously known. Many of them had not really known each other. The Gardner Denver workers on strike in Dallas in the winter of 1980 did not know about or weigh in on the “working class being in retreat.” They were angry, joining hands, and seeking allies in their fight for decent wages, benefits, and dignity on the job. Standing with them was THE place to be. What Barry says in Chapter 30, p.310, rings very true to me to this day: referring to white P-9 workers from Minnesota, visiting Pittsburgh and meeting NAACP members for the first time: “Struggle brings the exploited and oppressed together.” This was certainly true during my Dallas strike experience, as it is true in the public schools and neighborhoods of Chicago today. Before that 1980 Dallas strike, black and white workers seldom spoke personally, even in lunch breaks, and each held fairly stereotyped notions of the others. During the strike, they realized rapidly how much they had in common. This realization began to break down at least some of their long standing prejudices. It remained an important legacy of the short strike long after the picket signs were laid down.

    One more comment about that same Chapter 30, entitled “I Leave the Leadership.” While one might hope that a reassignment to “the field” or out of the “national office” or “center” would not occur for unstated or manipulative motives, I believe another essential lesson also emerges: national leadership, besides needing to be a team, something Barry reinforces many times, must also be out there in the trenches of the very class it aspires to lead. This seems so obvious, yet the damage that occurs when it is not, seems to have become a central part of the leadership crisis. You cannot just analyze working people and their attitudes, inclinations, and struggles, by reading about them or observing them from afar. You must be among them, and indeed, one of them. If you stop listening to and building your activities around the very people who are steeped in this life, this work, these jobs, how can you not lose touch? Elementary perhaps, but I think very true. Caroline and Barry ultimately became a genuine part of those activities, in their lives, jobs, and interactions. I salute that and its portrayal in the book.

  5. During the long faction fight in the Fourth International, 1969 through 1976, over the projection that the sections of the FI initiate rural guerrilla war throughout Latin America, there were tragic defeats of dedicated comrades who attempted to implement that strategy.

    One group, the Revolutionary Workers Party (Combat) of Argentina made a modification, forming the Revolutionary Army of the People (ERP in its Spanish initials) to initiate urban guerrilla war. The military dictatorship succeeded in smashing this attempt, and in so doing carried out war crimes. One of the worst atrocities was the murder of ERP prisoners at the Trelew airport.

    Now some of the murderers have finally faced justice. The following report is by the Cuban press agency, Prensa Latina. – Barry Sheppard, with thanks to Walter Lippmann.

    ————————-

    Life sentence for Perpetrators of Trelew Slaying in Argentina

    Buenos Aires, Sep 18 (Prensa Latina) Attorney Carolina Varsky asked today life imprisonment for four former members of the Argentina”s Navy accused as perpetrators of the Slaughter of Trelew, which occurred 40 years ago and where 16 political prisoners were killed.

    Varsky, who represents families of victims of the tragic event of August 22, 1972 in the Almirante Zar base, Chubut Province, requested the maximum sentence for Ruben Paccagnini, Luis Sosa, Emilio Del Real and Carlos Marandino for crimes against humanity.

    Meanwhile, she demanded two years in prison for Jorge Bautista, accused of covering up.

    The complainant also requested the federal judge Rawson, Hugo Sastre, to investigate the doctor Lisandro Ivan Lois for alleged covering up.

    Also, requesting USA the deportation of officer Roberto Bravo, whose extradition was denied, and who according to witnesses and other evidence collected in the case, was one of the Navy officers who fired machine guns against the 19 political prisoners.

    Three of them, Ricardo Haidar, Alberto Camps and María Antonia Berger, miraculously survived despite receiving grace shots and denied in statements made just after the slaughter.

    According to the dictatorship of Alexander Lanusse and the Navy, the killing of prisoners occurred when a prisoner grabbed a gun to a guard and opened fire in an alleged attempt to escape again.

    That argument was denied by the survivors, who were kidnapped and reported as disappeared during the last military dictatorship.

    The 19 youths who were shot on August 22 had agreed to surrender, secured and in the presence of a judge and journalists a week before, after participating in a failed prison break, during which six other prisoners managed to complete the flight and reach Chile.

    The trial for the Slaughter of Trelew, which came yesterday in its final stages, will continue Tuesday with closing arguments of the complaint by the Human Rights Secretariat of the Nation.

  6. Joaquin Bustelo (Jose G. Perez) says:

    Barry recently wrote me about this blog urging me to contribute, since I’ve written extensively about a number of the issues Barry takes up in his book.

    In my view, what was at the root of the SWP’s degeneration (and not just the SWP’s) was not the “cult of personality” but the *cult of the organization.* By the time I left the SWP in 1985, I held views close to those I still hold, though not nearly as thought through. That came in the year 2000, around the Elián González case and the Militant’s scandalous position on the boy’s rescue. Discussing that case, my friend Walter Lippman put it in precisely that way: the real underlying problem with the SWP (and not just the SWP) was the cult of the organization.

    Seven years ago, in the framework of a discussion in the socialist organization Solidarity, I wrote a discussion bulletin article (that I immediately made public) on this point: “Critical comments on Democratic Centralism.”

    It was “pegged” to a sentence or two from a platform that some comrades had submitted, but in reality that was only a pretext to present this idea: Lenin was not a “Leninist.” Another ex-SWP’er, Louis Proyect, has been kind enough to make it available on the web site of his Marxism mailing list, and can be downloaded from this URL: link

  7. This was originally written in 2006 in response to some questions on the US Marxmail list run by Louis Proyect. I re-post it here due to the current issues in the British SWP and as another example where a scandal involving alleged sexual misconduct was attempted to be hushed up by a “democratic centralist leadership”. The SWP referred to in this passage is the US SWP which is known as the Communist League in Britain. Jack Barnes is the “Jack” referred to regularly here – he remains the National Secretary of the US Socialist Workers Party. The events described herein happened in 1996-97 in Chicago, IL. Please feel free to share with anyone you think may find this of interest.

    “Mark and Me” by Tami Peterson

    Given a few comments that came up in discussion regarding the Mark Curtis case and Phil’s suggestion that I detail what happened I will relay my experiences with the Mark Curtis prostitution charges that resulted in my expulsion from the SWP.

    First, a short background for those of you who don’t know me. I was one of the founding members of the new youth organisation, the Young Socialists at the age of 16 in 1994 which replaced the old YSA which had been disbanded in 1992 due to lack of young people. There was a genuine increase in numbers of youth which led to the formation of the YS in 94-95.

    I joined the Salt Lake City branch of the SWP in 1994 as well, finally being accepted into membership after much hemming and hawing of the older comrades in the branch who didn’t know if they should take this 16 year-old seriously. I always thought the SWP in Utah when I joined were quite good, perhaps due to being somewhat isolated from the rest of the organisation! Pat G, Jesse S, and Nelson G were just a few who I truly admired and learned a great deal from.

    When I was transferred (I don’t know about comrades who were in the SWP in the past, but being transferred was something you were told to do and not something you could really reject without being looked down upon) to San Francisco, I noticed a marked difference in that there seemed to be trials of comrades rather regularly.

    In San Francisco I was charged for attempting to purchase whiskey in a shop because I was under age. The branch had a long discussion and decided to censure me – not the first time it would happen – but the PC and Jack personally intervened to overturn the branch decision claiming that I had not put the party at risk (which was the basis of the original charge, put forward by my friend and comrade at the time, Ved D. who I believe is now in the central leadership.)

    When I was transferred to Chicago in 1996 I began seriously working in industry, never spending more than a year in any one place. During 1996, Mark Curtis was paroled after serving 8 years of a 25 year sentence for rape. They specifically asked for him to be paroled to Chicago so he wouldn’t be victimised by the Iowa authorities. This was granted.

    Over the next year, I worked with Mark pretty intensively, as you do in the SWP. He was on the Executive Committee and National Committee meetings were held in Chicago because he couldn’t leave the area due to his status – he had to visit his parole officer every week. I worked with Mark in a garment shop and thus, I would say, knew him fairly well. He was quite an odd individual, which I put down to having been in prison so long – but for me he was a political hero and I had an affection for him as a friend and comrade.

    Mark was, however, very heavy-handed in his political activity – ie, he would guilt people and pressure them intensely to do political activity like sales, even if they simply weren’t available. Again I put this down to being in prison so long and wanting to prove himself to us as well a genuinely wanting to do as much activity as possible. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but there was a particularly heated exchange between he and I in the hall regarding schedules. I was trying to explain to him that I wasn’t available and he kept repeating the question of “are you going to be available?” in a way that indicated that eventually I’d answer the “right way” if he asked enough times. At this point I swore at him and told him to “get the hell off of my back” or something of that nature.

    After this, the branch charged me with indiscipline. The branch in Chicago voted to censure me. Again the Political Committee intervened and overturned the branch decision, this time in the opposite direction. Jack wrote a lengthy document on how my behaviour was unacceptable for a youth leader and it was precisely because I was a “leader” that I was to be suspended for one month from all contact and activity in the SWP.

    It is perhaps difficult for ex-comrades to imagine the type of complete isolation this causes for a comrade in the SWP today (and at that time). Your whole life is consumed by the party. Everyone you know is in the party or supporters of the party. Most of the time you live nowhere near your family, unless you are a new recruit and often your comrades are some of your co-workers – who suddenly cannot speak to you on the shop floor. You simply don’t know anyone outside of the SWP. It was looked down upon if your partner was not in the SWP (particularly depressing if you’re a young female comrade in an organisation of lots of older men!!!) While I was suspended I lost my job in the garment shop due to layoffs and was unable to get another job because all job hunting activity must be done through the party or you could seriously jeopardize your membership. I spent most of the month reading the entire work of James P. Cannon in a coffee shop in North Chicago.

    Upon returning from my suspension, I was obviously much less vocal about anything but it was obvious that many in the branch no longer considered me to be “leadership material”. At the time of course I agreed with them and given my level of self-esteem and serious depression at the time this is hardly surprising.

    One day at the garment shop, Mark didn’t show up to work. I remember having had some late meeting (as was usual) in the hall the night before. Now, we had decided as a branch that Mark was never to be left alone in the bookshop at night due to the possibility of vicitmization by the cops. This particular night, Mark and I were the last two comrades in the hall. I was waiting for him to finish up and he insisted that I go home and leave him to it. I objected, stating that I wasn’t allowed to leave him there by himself. He smiled and said, “Comrade, go get some sleep”. With that I left him there.

    The next day I was obviously worried sick when it turned out that not only was Mark not at work, but no one had heard from him. A younger comrade was sharing an apartment with him and hadn’t seen Mark either. We were certain he had been picked up by the police – how right we were.

    Later that day Mark called. He was at home. He said that he had been so exhausted the night before that he had fallen asleep or passed out while driving his car and had pulled into the front of the hospital where they must’ve towed his car for parking in the red zone because when he came out, it was gone. They had just released him from the hospital and he was now at home resting. I helped organize for comrades who were off work to take juice to his house, make sure he was ok and so forth. I remember speaking to him from the payphone at the garment shop and him telling me he was feeling a bit better.

    I believe it was the next evening that an emergency branch meeting was called. We were informed that Jack was personally flying in to give the report. I thought that it may have been good news, but this turned out to be way off track. A comrade named Danny gave the initial report with a flushed face. He had gone to the impound lot to pick up Mark’s car. The impound lot said they couldn’t turn the car over to him because it was being used in a police investigation for “solicitation of a prostitute”. Mark had lied. He had made up the whole thing. A big elaborate story to cover up seedy sexual activity – yes not the same as rape of course, but the story he used in his defence there was similarly complex and detailed. For me at least, it was the fact that he made up this elaborate story that threw the original case into doubt. All the while he sat in the back of the room, tears streaming down his face. He had admitted that he made it all up to the EC (Executive Committee) when confronted with the evidence. I was angry of course, but I did feel bad for him.

    Then Jack gave a report. All minutes of this meeting were to be destroyed. All EC minutes and PC (Political Committee) minutes discussing this were to be destroyed. Comrades were not to speak of this to any other comrades outside of the branch. The NC would be informed shortly. He made the prophetic proclamation that the story would eventually get out, maybe even by some in “this very room”. Prophesy fulfilled. He then went into detail about how prostitution was not the same as rape. That this in no way effected the original trial and charges against Mark. And besides, even well respected comrades like Tom Kerry used to solicit prostitutes on the shipping docks. We’re not against prostitution per se… and so forth. (Needless to say the young female comrades there at the time were largely unimpressed with this, though of course none of us said anything). If anyone asked about how Mark was we were supposed to say “I don’t know”, or change the subject.

    And that was that. It was only in October of that year (a few months later) that this came up again. A young comrade (Sarah) had told another comrade about the case in another branch and I came back from a fraction meeting (a grouping of all members of the party in the same industry) to find myself in the middle of a another trial. It was decided that this comrade had to be suspended for a month. Now I had been having a conversation with a comrade and friend of mine at the time (Meg N.) who was on the SWP NC. I had mentioned this and was surprised to find that the NC hadn’t yet been informed. I had thought that the NC had been told or wouldn’t have brought it up. In effect, I unintentionally broke discipline.

    When this other comrade (Sarah) was on trial, I got up in front of the branch and told them that this had happened with me. Charges were filed shortly thereafter against me and I was, perhaps unsurprisingly, expelled (largely on the fact that I had been charged previously for “indiscipline” and was at that time suspended for a month at the behest of Barnes and not the branch). They then brought charges against my partner at the time (Shoghi) for having known that I had spoken to Meg and not told the EC. This was followed by charges against another youth comrade (Cecilia) for a similar offense. Both were suspended for a month and Shoghi resigned the day after serving his full suspension. Cecilia later resigned as well. At this point nearly the whole YS branch was up on charges pertaining to the Mark Curtis fiasco.

    Also at this point Mark Curtis was still a full member of the SWP because he could only be expelled by the NC. He was charged and suspended indefinitely, but I was expelled well before Mark Curtis was.

    I recognize this is rather long-winded and suspect that people will have heard some of this already due to my releasing this anonymously a few years ago with the assistance of Dayne in Salt Lake. At that time I was still rather afraid of what people would think and so forth. Needless to say I have gotten beyond that, but it was a rather traumatic experience for someone whose whole world from the time they were 16-20 revolved around this organisation and its members. I’m only glad that I have been able to participate in left politics again. The SWP US destroys cadre and almost always guarantees that they won’t participate in left organisations ever again. It’s a pity that nearly all of the members of the YS when I was on its NC have left the organisation. There were 300 at our first meeting in Chicago. What a waste of potential.

    Comradely,

    Tami Peterson

    • Oddly enough, there is a novel that is based on the Mark Curtis debacle. Its title is WRESTLING WITH GABRIEL, by David Lynn, a professor at Kenyon College. I was not aware of this until I typed Curtis’ name into a NewsBank search engine.

  8. [Over the years, and especially ten to fourteen years ago, I wrote a lot about my experiences in the SWP, usually on the Marxism list moderated by Louis Proyect (who I had the extreme pleasure of spending some time with and sleeping on his couch while I was in NYC last weekend for a Solidarity National Committee meeting).

    [I am going to be posting some of them here, Most often, my posts were motivated by what someone else had written, although quite frequently I would go way, way beyond the subjects encompassed by the original post I was responding to. That’s just the way my mind works.

    [This was posted to the Marxism list –www.marxmail.org on February 18, 2002, and the original subject line was: “Re: Barnesite Dog and Pony Show.” The first couple of paragraphs are quotes from the Marxmailer I was responding to.]

    * * *

    >>Actually, the “third turn” to industry began around 1998, when Barnes
    decreed that a “sea-change” had occured in working-class politics. By this
    he meant that labor’s long retreat was over, and that workers were becoming
    more willing to fight back. To take advantage of this sea change in
    politics, the party *had* to get its cadre into 3 unions/industries that had
    become neglected by the party: meatpacking, garment, and coal-mining.<>I would like to hear more from comrades who lived through the “second
    turn”
    to industry in the early 1980s. After a couple of years, did *anybody* dare
    to suggest that the turn was a failed tactic? It doesn’t seem to me that
    Barnes could have turned “the turn” into an article of faith on his own,
    there must have been a whole group (clique?) culpable for this march of
    lemmings.<<

    Derrick,

    The original "turn" was NOT a turn to industry as such, but a turn to
    working class communities and organizations generally including, certainly,
    the unions but not exclusively the unions and absolutely not exclusively the
    unions in basic industry.

    It followed a period during which the party, if I can be allowed to
    caricature things, functioned essentially as the adult auxiliary of the
    youth organization, the YSA, operating in the student millieu. Until the
    beginning of 1973, the movement's attention was focused overwhelmingly on
    the campuses and on the (somewhat) broader movements that grew out of the
    youth radicalization, especially the antiwar movement in the 1966-1972
    period.

    With the Vietnam peace accords at the end of 1972, the political
    situation changed radically. It allowed all sorts of "smaller" issues and
    movements to emerge for the SWP without being overshadowed by an overriding
    central issue/confrontation on a world scale, the Vietnam War.

    I think in broad terms the party's description of the changes brought
    about in the country by the civil rights movement, the Black struggle, the
    youth radicalization and the antiwar movement were right. It had radically
    transformed U.S. society. And there were a significant number of local and
    regional movements and struggles which branches, now freed from an
    overwhelming focus on building the antiwar movement, began to take up. And
    as it did so, the party itself began to make some contacts, began to take in
    one recruit here directly, another one there, not through the YSA but
    directly into the branch, something which had not happened for many years.

    A regroupment component was part of that turn, as was a turning away
    from sectarian dogfighting in the FI, and on the left. One of its
    outstanding moment was the 1976 Camejo-Reid presidential campaign, "the
    biggest socialist campaign since Debs," and it was, too. Another was the
    campaign in defence of school desegregation in Boston. It's last hurrah was
    probably the Chicano-Latino conference against deportations in the fall of
    1977 in Texas which Peter Camejo played the central role in initiating.

    A part of this turn was the community branch orientation which sought to
    rather artificially generalize the specific accomplishments of a couple of
    branches, notably the Lower East Side branch in New York and its involvement
    in struggles around education. And flowing from that was a conscious
    relaxation of norms of party membership to lower people's expectations that
    new working class and community recruits would have the same level of
    activism as those of us who came out of the student movement and still led
    essentially a bohemian student lifestyle. All of this is codified in the
    (original) prospects for socialism book, which was essentially where the
    party stood in 1975.

    The actual turn to industry developed over the next couple of years, and
    especially in 1977. As the economic crisis deepened and the ruling class
    offensive it brought intensified, there was a downturn in community-based
    struggles, but there seemed to be an uptick in economic, union fights, and
    in movements towards making unions more combative in defense of worker's
    interests. So the union work tended to gain greater weight, and
    social/political issues and movements to recede. (I think history has shown
    then that the perceptions about the unions were wrong; they were retreating
    also and continued doing so for the next two decades, at least).

    At the Feb., 1978, NC plenum, the PC came in with a radical
    recomendation, which was, essentially, to abandon the OLD turn and do a NEW
    turn. This new turn was to subordinate everything else to getting the
    majority of the leadership and membership of the party in basic industry —
    steel, coal, auto, etc. This was based on a projection that the ruling class
    would have no choice but to ever more sharply attack the rights and standard
    of living of the core of the industrial proletariat, and that, within a
    short time, this would lead to huge class battles. It was NOT a question of
    becoming "proletarianized," but a political response to political
    opportunities we believed would soon emerge.

    No *specific* timetables were given, indeed, they were specifically
    disclaimed. But the whole tenor and tone was that the expectation that these
    battles could break out within a few months, and certainly would break out
    within a couple or three years. It was a specific, conjunctural assessment.
    This schema –for that is what it was– was received with a great amount of
    enthusiasm by the party leadership as a whole. We believed it because we
    WANTED to believe it. This was not then some obedient cult of handraisers.
    We drank the kool aid cheerfully, ethusiastically, and when the glass was
    empty, we went and got seconds. We did not take Jack's word for it, again,
    we believed it because it was what we WANTED to believe was really
    happening.

    Obviously, there were some deficiencies in the SWP leadership's way of
    approaching problems and projections that made it possible for this kind of
    error to be made. And to be honest, it was not the first time in the SWP's
    history that such giddy, triumphalist conclusions had been drawn. One was a
    Party Convention in the late 1940's at which Jim Cannon's "American Theses"
    were adopted. It was held under the banner of "On to the Party of 10,000."
    If only it had been so…

    An alternative explanation of what was going on in the country inn 1978
    was readily available, and indeed in various forms it was quite prevalent
    among those who thought about and wrote about these sorts of issues.

    The alternative explanation was, quite simply, that the radicalization
    of the 60's was winding down, as had the Debsian radicalization and the
    radicalization of the 30's before it. It was much more satisfying to think
    we were on the threshhold of an escalation of the radicalization, a second
    edition of the 1930s, but now corrected and amplified by the 1960s. That's
    what we wanted to happen so that is what we talked ourselves into believing
    was, in fact, happening. And based on this mistaken analysis, we then made
    the further mistake of basing our activity not on today's reality, but on
    what we expected the reality to be a year or two or three down the road. And
    this essentially immunized the line from any sort of reality check in the
    short run.

    What happened to the SWP next is harder to explain, for I believe it was
    an unintended consequence. Throughout the whole period of the first turn,
    the party had continued to grow, albeit more slowly than before. Although
    its general outlook was that the radicalization was continuing to deepen,
    its day-to-day activities were grounded in immediate, palpable reality.

    The party had also grown more diverse, more mature (if only because so
    many of us campus hotshot firebrands were a little older) and, I believe,
    more easy going, less hyper-centralist, more democratic. Not yet in a huge,
    qualitative way, but the motion was there.

    But soon after voting to put all our eggs into the industrial turn
    basket,
    the party started to shrink. We began losing people who went into industry.
    Many times these were comrades who'd had all sorts of undemanding, low-paid
    clerical or even fast-food-type jobs –so they could devote all their energy
    to political tasks– and all of a sudden had much more substantial incomes,
    as well as much more demanding work. And despite all our affirmations to the
    contrary, there was damn little to do politically in industry. Sure you
    could "talk socialism" — shoot the shit — with your coworkers. But there
    was no motion or political activity. It was in many cases a
    depoliticization. It was also a matter of age. Many of us were getting into
    our late 20s or early 30s. People tend to settle down, that's a fact.

    This loss of cadre then made the formally adopted goal of getting a
    majority into industry more difficult to meet. Originally, the projection
    was to *inspire* the majority of comrades to get into industry. It was
    understood and expected that a substantial number of party members, and not
    just full-timers, but all sorts of other people would NOT necessarily go in
    right away, or maybe not at all. In a few years we'd be overwhelmingly
    working-class in composition, NOT from creating ersatz proles out of student
    cadre, but from recruitment in the big class battles that were just over the
    next hill.

    But as we lost people from the fractions, the pressure
    instensified on those not yet in industry to also get industrial jobs, and
    thus the party began to hemorrhage at both ends, both from those making the
    turn and those resisting it at a personal level, although there never was
    any political opposition to it. (To this day, I believe I am one of very few
    [at most!] SWPers of that generation that still view themselves as part of
    the communist or workers movement and considers the INDUSTRIAL turn to have
    been a complete catastrophe.)

    This led to the "proletarian norms" campaign. It may sound unthinkable
    to those who joined the SWP after, say, 1980, but until then the SWP did not
    enforce party discipline through charges, trials, expulsions and so on. What
    Cannon had said about the SWP decades earlier continued to be the case:
    convention after convention would come and go, and the control commission
    would have nothing to report. To the extent those formal provisions were
    used at all, it was in faction fights as a way of carrying out splits which
    were viewed as necessary and inevitable. This "reconquering of proletarian
    norms of functioning" translated into the nasty, intolerant, prosecutorial
    internal regime of today's SWP.

    There was another factor which played a central role in the SWP's
    political life in the first few years of the "industrial" turn. And that was
    a re-examination of the Cuban revolution, which, within a matter of months,
    became combined with the impact of the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions
    and the upsurge in revolutionary struggle in El Salvador.

    Although I was centrally involved in the Cuba and other discussions, I
    do not know where the decision to initiate the discussion came from in the
    first instance.

    At any rate, the Cuba discussion followed very closely on the heels
    of the decision to make the industrial turn, and became in effect a package
    deal, although I never succeeded in seeing the intimate connection between
    the two that others perceived. That discussion had been mooted by Jack in
    one-liners at a couple of leadership gatherings, and raised formally by him
    at the post-conference leadership meetings –whether plenum, expanded PC's
    or some other body, I no longer recall– at Oberlin in August of 1978. It
    then began to be thrashed out in the PC in the fall. The results of the
    initial discussions were presented by Jack in his speech to a rally at the
    YSA convention on the 20th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

    Those discussions SHOULD have prepared the party to play a central role
    in support and solidarity work for the Central American revolutions, but did
    not do so. Instead, after a couple of years, what really happened is that
    cheerleading and enthusing for the revolutions in Central America and the
    Caribbean became a substitute both for getting our hands dirty in the
    solidarity movement and confronting the problems the party was facing
    domestically. It became the opium of the cadre. We said things like that the
    "pressure" of "the ruling class offensive" was creating a "mariel boat
    lift" among "petty-bourgeois radicals," (who were entirely indistinguishable
    from ourselves in their background and general political trajectories). Our
    saving grace was the turn, proof of our proletarian mettle. Not for one
    second did we discuss that a retreat into workerist sectarianism was ALSO a
    way of getting out of the immediate battle line.

    In terms of the turn, it was, I assumed, something that must have
    bothered others as it did bother me. It was originally a specific,
    short-term maneuver in the military sense of the word, a redeployment of
    forces, motivated by specific, short-term projections of the course of the
    class struggle. It was not testable in a matter of months, but in a scale of
    a few years it certainly could be re-examined.

    This was dealt with by M-A, if memory serves, at a plenum and perhaps an
    Oberlin around 1981 or so. As revolutionaries often do, we had "telescoped"
    events, she explained. The tendency and direction of motion was exactly what
    we'd said in 1978, but the pace had been slower than we tended to assume,
    although the PC in its report had been careful to point out that no specific
    pace or timing was implied. And it was a wonderfully LUCKY break that
    things had been somewhat slower than we had imagined, giving us more time to
    prepare and root ourselves in industry, and now we had these wonderful
    comrades in power in Nicaragua and Grenada as well as Cuba and and blah blah
    blah.

    By the mid-80s, when I left, the party had become a "turn party" and the
    question of whether the turn had been correct or not no longer made sense, I
    don't believe, to most comrades. It would have been like asking comrades in
    1970 whether or not the party should be centrally involved in the antiwar
    movement, or asking comrades in Minneapolis in the 30's whether they should
    be involved in the Teamsters.

    The industrial turn had become, as we had projected in 1978, the
    "framework" for all of the party's work, except, of course, that there was
    nothing inside the framework. It had become an article of blind faith. Also
    by then the party had developed an additional front in its hemorrhage of
    cadre, those comrades who wanted to be active in Nicaragua solidarity work,
    i.e., the ones most sensitive to "pressure" from wanting to get involved in
    the real central issues in domestic and world politics at the time.

    And to top it off, part of the "turn" became a campaign to purge
    miscreants and misfits who differed with the majority on the exact
    formulation to use in expressing admiration for the accomplishments of the
    Cuban comrades and similar things. Jack in particular contributed to this
    discussion by placing it on such a high, abstract theoretical level (in his
    speech, "Their Trotsky and Ours") that I, for one, having been involved in
    discussing it in the PC, listening to it and interpreting it, kibbitzing
    during the editing, and working on the translation the edited text for
    publication, was never able to make heads or tails of it, except for it
    being an extremely long way of saying that small, minority radical groups
    have a tendency to attract people with a sectarian bent in general, and that
    Trotskyists in particular tended to use a sectarian misinterpretarion of
    permanent revolution to isolate themselves.

    I'm not sure what happened in the SWP in the late 80's. Even in the
    early 80s I was overwhelmingly focused on Cuba and Nicaragua, not what was
    going on in the SWP or the U.S. I had all sorts of twinges of misgivings,
    doubts and concerns about the party, a number of which grew out of my
    attending the leadership school in the first months of 1980, but never
    allowed myself to focus on them. The world revolution was on the upswing and
    would help overcome the mistakes, if they were such.

    It was when I was down in Nicaragua for more than a year (mid-1984 until
    Aug-1985), and being away from the comrades and the center that I had
    functioned as part of for more than 12 years, since I was 20, that the
    distance, and the penchant of comrades in New York to put under my byline in
    the Militant what they imagined I should have seen in Nicaragua rather than
    what I had in fact seen, that led me to re-evaluate what the party was doing
    and saying.

    I resigned from the SWP after Oberlin 1985, and returned to Nicaragua. I
    left Nicaragua in 1988, convinced that the revolution was dead (and quite
    thoroughly demoralized by that fact in the process.) I had only the most
    sporadic contact with radical politics; and although within a year or so I
    was again following general politics closely, I didn't make much of an
    effort to keep up with the SWP until years later, in the mid 90s.

    I believe the "second turn" to industry, or rather the second campaign
    for the turn to industry took place around 1990 or so, around the time of
    the Gulf War and the beginning of the Third World War. I don't know
    specifically what required this re-turn, but I imagine after a while as the
    80's wore on, some new energy needed to be injected into the organization.

    This was certainly true of the "third campaign" begun as you note in the
    late 90s, at least insofar as it can be gleaned from the Militant and
    contemporaneous accounts. In the early 90s the SWP had projected this
    catastrophic economic crisis was breaking out, just as the country was
    heading into the boom of the Clinton years. I know because I went to one or
    a couple of SWP campaign rallies in 92, and was startled by Maceo Dixon's
    apocalyptic statement about how "you know it's going to be really bad" and
    similar. On the contrary, I rather expected the US to do well economically,
    based on the opening of the markets in the former socialist bloc.

    I don't believe either the second or the third campaign have much to do

    with the first industrial turn, or the much broader turn of the mid-1970s
    that preceded it. In references I've seen in recent SWP documents and
    speeches, the existence and nature of the original turn is covered up, as is
    the actual origin and nature of the industrial turn. The impression you're
    left is that there was one turn in the mid-70s. The fact that it was a
    decision motivated as a short-term sharp redeployment on the basis of
    projected events –big class battles– in the next immediate period is
    buried under a ton of banalities, generalities and –frankly– non
    sequiturs.

    It is not clear to me why this sleight of hand is being pulled, only that it
    almost certainly is conscious, as the people doing it are, at the same time,
    re-editing the old prospects for socialism book to take out, for example,
    Barry's organization report to the 1975 convention where the nitty gritty of
    the original turn is laid out, and so on. It is interesting that they should
    feel threatened by documents that now have a purely historical significance,
    but why that is, I do not know.

    This things that comrades report here about the SWP's functioning in the
    90's, of PC members being kept waiting for hours until Jack shows up for a
    meeting and so on, did not happen, and would have been unthinkable inn the
    70's, or even the early 80's. I wrote about how the leadership bodies
    functioned in the mid and late 70's a couple of years back, and won't
    repeat that here. The central point is that, for all its faults, the SWP of
    the 70s and of the 90s were radically different organizations. The one of
    the 70's was hardly an ideal formation –for one thing, it gave birth to the
    abomination we know today– but there was a qualitative transformation, and
    that transformation was the turn to industry launched at the February 1978
    plenum.

    And not just the launching of the turn, but keeping at it, year after year,
    despite the *overwhelming* evidence that the entire analysis it had been
    based on was false, that the party was becoming weaker, not stronger, that
    the membership was becoming less political, not moreso, without ever placing
    before the leadership and membership the question of whether it had been the
    right thing to do in the first place, that is what destroyed the SWP and the
    promise it held out in the mid-70s of becoming a much broader party of
    revolutionary socialists representing and speaking for the interests of
    working people in the United States.

    José

  9. In the piece above, I say that “What happened to the SWP next is harder to explain, for I believe it was an unintended consequence.” I no longer believe that. I believe what Peter Camejo told me later, and I believe it is in his book, that from the very beginning Jack said among the top 4-6 party leaders that this would drive out of the party hundreds of people who shouldn’t have been in it..

  10. Tyrion Perkins says:

    I found Barry Sheppard’s 2 part History of the SWP fascinating, insightful, and in many ways inspiring. Much of what he covers shows the positive impact a well organised and educated left party can have on the broader political landscape.

    Having been part of a similar party in Australia from 1990-2003, it also reminded me of the positive impact that being part of such a party can have on your own life, and has been a big part of a number of recent influences that has compelled me to once again join such a group.

    Despite having heard of the decline through pamphlets printed by the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, Barry’s description of his experiences were somewhat jaw dropping to me. I went looking for others reactions and stories, so was glad to find this site full of debates and comments.

    Mary Scully’s account of her experiences were particularly shocking, and points to problematic norms of the way the Party functioned, that clearly had much earlier origins than the decline outlined in Barry’s second volume.

    That Ben Courtice could say similar things were happening in the Australian DSP, however, flies in the face of my 13 year experience. In a private email, I asked Ben what he was talking about, and he agreed that he had exaggerated the problem of members competing to be in the leadership. I think that he would agree with me that it was a very minor issue, limited to a couple of the larger branches, and nothing like what Mary describes of her experience in the SWP.

    Given that these problems have caused many to question the democratic centralist way of organisation, I would like to compare my experience with the DSP which was initially modelled on the US SWP to Mary’s experience, to show that using Cannon’s principles, the Party could function in a much healthier way.

    First of all, if a new member had a particular interest, they were encouraged to be part of that area of work. No one would ever be dropped from an area of work by not inviting them. There were always more assignments available than comrades, so no one would ever be left without one unless they actively avoided work. Anyone showing the slightest ability to lead or organise others, would be not just encouraged, but given extra responsibility, guidance, and if heading up an area, invited to branch executive discussions.

    Women in particular were encouraged, even if not particularly confident. I found myself on more than one occasion trying to get out of being elected to the branch leadership body after I had helped organise a forum or helped to guide discussion on something, and comrades would try their best to encourage me to overcome any doubts I had about my abilities. (Having been on execs for a couple of years, I knew that I would get stressed with the amount of responsibilities of an exec member when working full time, which points to a different sort of problem.)

    Mary says how the national leadership did not mix with branch members. In the DSP the National Office and Newspaper staff were very much part of the local branches in Sydney. They attended branch meetings, making contributions to discussion. They participated in branch activities such as selling the Party’s paper each week. We all mixed socially, and everyone was approachable, and I never noticed anyone acting as if they saw themselves above another comrade. Someone with experience and leadership that is tested over many years may be listened to with extra weight in a discussion only because their contributions had been proven in the past. Not only did the national leadership mix at meetings and social events, but they pitched in with everyday tasks like carrying stacks of chairs at a conference, or helping cook. I remember being impressed soon after joining, that I was introduced to the Party Secretary, Jim Percy, as he served food to me.

    Criticism of the leaderships’ proposals was not considered the heinous crime that it became in the SWP in the 1980s. Many members made various criticisms in printed discussion over the years. You would not do it lightly, as comrades would always rise to a political debate, so you had to be prepared to have your argument well thought out, but I never saw anyone pushed out of the party in 1990-2003 for this reason, although a few left of their own volition when the party as a whole did not support their proposals.

    This is not to say there were no problems: how to keep members active as they got older and wanted to have families seemed to be a main one, along with how to expand beyond a few hundred members. But the above story shows that a party such as the SWP could have had a much healthier atmosphere, using the same principles of organisation as spelt out in Cannon’s works.

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