By Barry Sheppard
In his review of both volumes of my political memoir about my time in the SWP (Posted Here), Peter has a long section justifying the Democratic Socialist Party’s position on various subjects. (Like Peter, I’ll just refer to the Australian SWP which later became the DSP as just the DSP, for clarity. When I refer to the SWP, I mean the U.S. SWP.)
Since Peter’s piece is a review of my book, one could get the impression that Peter is answering criticisms I made of the DSP in it.
While I do talk about the DSP a fair amount in both volumes, in only one place do I criticize the DSP, and that occurs in the second volume, in the chapter on Afghanistan in the late 1970s and 1980s. A point in that chapter centered on the initial support both the SWP and the DSP gave to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The SWP subsequently came to the conclusion that this was an error. In contrast, the “Australians….held fast to the wrong position of supporting the ill-fated Soviet invasion,” I wrote. That sentence is the sum total of criticisms of the DSP contained either volume.
In subsequent years other differences have developed between myself and the DSP. Although I did not discuss these differences in my book, Peter has opened the subject in his essay. So, I will outline a few major ones.
When the DSP broke with the Fourth International in the mid-1980s, it publicly took the position that Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism was wrong and an obstacle to reaching agreements with “new forces.” In particular, the Trotskyist position that the ruling bureaucracy in the Soviet bloc and China could not be reformed but that a new proletarian revolution was necessary, was rejected. This was the most egregious aspect of the DSP’s break with Trotsky. In these years, the DSP began to orient to Gorbachev’s reforms in the USSR, and, at different times, sought to fuse with the two Stalinist parties in Australia. These efforts at fusion came to naught. In this orientation to Gorbachev and rejection of Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism they were joined by Peter Camejo, who was working closely with the DSP at the time in its regroupment efforts with the Stalinists.
A terminological revision, resulting from this line, was the adoption by the DSP of the term “socialist states” in regard to the USSR, Eastern Europe and China. It is an oxymoron in itself, and could only possibly be applied to a dictatorship of the proletariat in an international situation where capitalism had been defeated and the workers’ state was “withering away.” Socialism never existed in these countries or anywhere else in the world. They were saddled with monstrous bureaucracies and bloated state apparatuses, which were certainly not “withering away.” The use of the term “socialist states” was an adaptation to forces which were themselves Stalinist (since the Stalinists long claimed they had achieved socialism), or revolutionaries who did not understand Stalinism and rejected Trotsky’s analysis of it such as the Cuban leaders.
In discarding Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism the DSP was ill prepared to understand the collapse of the Soviet bloc and its return to capitalism, and China’s similar evolution. What had happened was what Trotsky predicted would happen if the workers failed to overthrow the Stalinist bureaucracies: “The political prognosis [for the USSR] has an alternative character: either the bureaucracy, becoming ever more the organ of the world bourgeoisie in the workers’ state, will overthrow the new forms of property and plunge the country back to capitalism; or the working class will crush the bureaucracy and open the way to socialism.”
After the collapse of the USSR, Peter Camejo, unlike the DSP, rejected his earlier view that Trotsky’s analysis was wrong.
Camejo went back and re-read Trotsky, especially “The Revolution Betrayed,” and came to the conclusion that Trotsky was completely correct about Stalinism. Camejo and I had long discussions from time to time as he read the book. When there was a public forum on what caused the collapse of the USSR with speakers from various points of view, Camejo was one of those scheduled to speak. He couldn’t make the meeting, and I substituted for him at his request.
The DSP first broke with Trotsky when Barnes did. But the DSP went much further. Barnes never broke with Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism.
The second major difference I have with the DSP was when it publicly attacked the SWP’s analysis in the 1960s of Black Nationalism in the U.S. and our relations with Malcolm X. The DSP came to the conclusion that the Spartacists and Freedom Socialists had the correct analysis of the oppression of Blacks. The DSP rejected the SWP’s analysis, based on the lessons taught U.S. communists by the Bolsheviks, specifically both Lenin and Trotsky, that African Americans constitute an oppressed nationality. The DSP asserted that we were wrong to root our participation in the Black struggle in the right of Black people to self-determination. Moreover, the DSP at the same time (I believe this was in the early 2000s) came to the conclusion that that native Australians were not an oppressed nationality and they also had no right to self-determination.
Another difference was the DSP’s rejection of the SWP’s historic analysis of the Cuban revolution, and with it, the development of the concept of the workers’ and peasants’ government the SWP had developed in relation to the Chinese as well as Cuban revolutions.
A related deviation was an over-emphasis on the military in analyzing the class nature of states in developing worker and peasant revolutions. Thus when the attempted coup against Chavez in Venezuela failed in 2002, the DSP claimed that a “workers and peasants state” had been formed. Leaving aside the confusion in this formulation of a two-class state, this runs directly against what Chavez himself emphasizes, that a capitalist state and largely capitalist economy still exist in Venezuela, and that the masses must be further mobilized against it.
To return to Peter Boyle’s review. He claims “Barry proposes three main reasons for the degeneration of the SWP.” He lists these as 1) the objective situation; 2) “The SWP’s 1981 abandonment of Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution”; and 3) the rise of the cult around Jack Barnes. This is not an accurate summation of the thesis I develop in my book.
What I explain is that the fundamental cause of the degeneration of the SWP was the degeneration of the leadership of the SWP into a cult. This began in the mid 1970s, predating both the political degeneration and the long turn for the worse in the objective situation internationally and nationally beginning in the 1980s. The developing formation of the cult made it impossible for the SWP to make the necessary political corrections in the face of the worsening objective situation, I explain. It was also at the heart of the complete break with the entire history of the SWP, organizationally, theoretically and politically, which included but was not limited to the break with Trotskyism (not only the theory of permanent revolution). The most debilitating aspect of this break with the historical SWP was the rejection of our previous analysis and practice in the trade unions spanning decades, and even reaching back to the orientation to the labor movement of the predecessors of the SWP. It was this break that had the greatest destructive effect on the SWP. It was in the labor movement that the new SWP under the Barnes cult first developed the sectarianism and abstentionism that soon spread to the SWP’s orientation to all the mass movements.
Peter doesn’t take up this central aspect of my second volume. Peter says that, “In 1979 [actually in 1978 — BS] the SWP adopted a ‘turn to industry,’ a tactic that subsequently hardened into a permanent workerist schema…”
It was not the turn to industry in 1978 that led to the SWP’s abstentionism, but the subsequent perversion of the original 1978 report outlining the turn. As I explain in a separate chapter, the turn to industry was a necessary step for the SWP. It wasn’t the turn to get a majority of our members into industry that was wrong, it was how it was carried out.
It is also wrong to characterize the present politics of the SWP as “workerist.” That term applies to those who reduce the broader class struggle, which encompasses all the oppressed, to the workers’ immediate struggle with the capitalists “on the shop floor.” In fact, as I explain in my book, the SWP turned its back on immediate shop floor issues and union politics beginning in the 1980s, and retreated into a circle-the-wagons policy of abstention from those struggles that spread to other areas of the mass movement. The correct term is not “workerism” but “abstentionism.”
If the SWP were to become workerist now, that would actually be a step forward from their present abstentionism. At least they would then become involved in shop floor issues.
Peter says of the objective situation since the 1980s: “many political memoirs of people who radicalized in the West in ‘the sixties’ look at its passing with a sense of nostalgia, regret and failure. Nothing since then lives up to their memory of those times of hope and revolutionary expectations. Radical politics since the 1980s seems like one long miserable slog.
“The retreats in the face of the global capitalist neoliberal offensive are real, and I understand the emotional response, but I don’t share their generational disappointment.
“The past three and a half decades have been difficult, but the era of war and revolutions didn’t end in the seventies. There were revolutionary upsurges in Nicaragua, Iran and Grenada in 1979, and later in Venezuela and Bolivia. The capitalist triumphalism after the fall of the Soviet Union and the bureaucratic regimes in Eastern Europe proved short-lived.”
Since my book is a political memoir, and since Peter’s essay is a review of my book, one can only assume he is referring to me.
I don’t look back at the period of “The Sixties,” which my entire first volume is about, with “nostalgia, regret and failure.” This was a time of great accomplishments that changed the United States deeply. In this period of radicalization and struggle the Socialist Workers Party and the Young Socialist Alliance played an exemplary role. One of the important lessons I make in my first volume is how a revolutionary socialist organization with a correct program, strategy and tactics can make a big difference. No “nostalgia” or “regret” or “sense of failure” in what I wrote.
What I write about concerning the objective situation internationally and in the U.S. is a factual, clear-headed facing of the real situation. Unlike what we in the SWP in 1978 thought was going to happen, the working class in the U.S. moved to the right politically and did not radicalize. The unions adopted ever more conciliatory stances to capital, and the unions have drastically shrunk in size and influence, not only “retreated,” unless Peter is referring to a disorderly retreat known as a “rout.”
Yes there were revolutions in Nicaragua, Iran and Grenada (and Afghanistan and Poland, which Peter doesn’t mention). These made important advances, which I document at length if succinctly. But in the end they all failed. These failures represented big blows to the working people internationally and in the U.S., and weighed down on the SWP.
The collapse of the Soviet Union is treated cavalierly by Peter — “the capitalist triumphalism was short-lived.”
The collapse of the Soviet workers’ state was a huge blow to the workers of the world (and of course to the Soviet workers). It drastically changed the world class relation of forces in favor of the capitalists to the detriment of the workers, both materially and ideologically. The capitalist neoliberal offensive was furthered ideologically by the discrediting of socialism among the broad masses. This has had a profound impact in the U.S.
With the disappearance of the Soviet bloc, imperialism was emboldened. The imperialists might not have dared launch the first Gulf War if the Soviet Union had not been crumbling. The years of harsh sanctions against Iraq and the second war against it and the invasion of Afghanistan, countries bordering the old USSR, would have been fiercely opposed by the Kremlin and might not have happened. The Palestinians would never have been forced to accept the deals the White House foisted on them, if the Soviet Union still existed to back them up, however poorly and hesitantly it previously did.
The restoration of capitalism in China has also been a big blow to socialism.
I assume that Peter does not agree with Jack Barnes, who says that the U.S. lost the Cold War, but with Fidel Castro, who said the U.S. won it.
A key point is that from the end of the 1970s to the present we have not seen a period of radicalization in the United States. This is the longest such period in over a century.
Peter implies that I think that this objective situation precluded the survival of the SWP. I explicitly state the opposite.
Of course new struggles have emerged, including in Latin America and elsewhere, and we should embrace them. The class struggle continues. New resistance to the capitalist drive to make the workers pay for the new depression caused by their system is gradually developing, in Occupy in the U.S. and elsewhere. But these struggles are developing in a context of a previous period of big blows against our class, and from that starting point. Revolutionary optimism, of course – but with eyes wide open.
Peter’s explanation of why the DSP broke with Trotskyism is quite thin. He apparently is opposed to the theory of permanent revolution, but he doesn’t say what’s wrong with it. He doesn’t say what’s wrong with Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism. It’s not clear what the DSP thinks of Trotsky’s analysis of fascism, or of Trotskyism’s continued adherence to the strategic concepts that emerged from the first four congresses of the Communist International, including such things as the united front, the slogan of a workers’ government (or workers’ and peasants’ government) and much more. His main argument in his review comes down to Trotskyists care too much about program and fight a lot among themselves, and don’t have state power. He adds that the Maoists have similar problems.
But why stop with Trotskyist and Maoists? There are many small groups which consider themselves Marxists. Trotskyists and Maoists are a subset of them. A few in Australia are Socialist Alternative, the International Socialist Organization, Freedom Socialist, Revolutionary Socialist Party, a group that looks to the Barnes SWP, another that orients toward the Fourth International, and Socialist Alliance. They argue among themselves.
Peter says that the SWP originally moved in a positive direction when it rejected its Trotskyist past, but then “reversed course.” That is inaccurate. The SWP under Barnes never went back to the Trotskyism it once stood for.
He also doesn’t explain the contradiction between his position that the SWP in “The Sixties” and presumably before, played a positive role in the class struggle, yet was without question Trotskyist during that time.
Peter refers to the fact that the DSP “became members of the internal faction that the SWP led in the Fourth International (FI).” He doesn’t say what that faction took as its name: Leninist Trotskyist Faction. The ideas of both Bolshevik leaders were central to the politics of this faction.
This factional struggle took seven years to resolve. It was a major part of the life of the DSP as well as the SWP and the whole of the Fourth International. It resulted in splits in many sections, and almost split the FI itself. The issues involved were not trivial (in some cases actually involved life and death), and did not amount to programmatic splitting of hairs. That this struggle was resolved in a positive way is a tribute to the cadres of the FI from both sides.
In my two volumes, there are ten chapters about this factional struggle. Peter doesn’t mention what it was about, although the DSP was part of it. In fact, DSP leaders Jim Percy and Nita Keig joined myself and Caroline Lund as the former LTF comrades who moved to Paris to work with younger leaders from the other side to help rebuild the FI center following the dissolution of the factions.
Peter talks about how breaking with Trotskyism enabled the DSP to “reach out” to “new forces” and “learn from them.” John Riddell in his review of my book develops this theme more extensively, and I’ll take it up in a reply to him.
On the content of Trotskyism, Malik Miah has dealt extensively with that in his review, and I won’t repeat it here.
Finally, I want to say that there is much agreement between the DSP and myself, in spite of our disagreements. After the break between the DSP and the SWP in the early 1980s, my companion Caroline Lund and I lost touch with the DSP. Exacerbating this was our growing difficulties in the SWP and isolation, as I extensively explain in my second volume.
Later, we reconnected with both Peter Camejo and the DSP. We met Jim Percy, the DSP National Secretary, when he came through the United States after he had learned of his cancer. We had a dinner with him and Peter at our house. When Jim died too soon after, Peter asked me to go to Australia to represent us both at Jim’s memorial meetings.
I began to write for Green Left Weekly. Later I began to attend DSP conventions and the Asia Pacific Solidarity Conferences, and then Caroline did also. Our close comrade Malik Miah did likewise. We became close to the DSP leaders, including Peter Boyle, John Percy, Doug Lorimor, Lisa Macdonald, Kathy Newman, and so many others. I became the distributor of Links for North America when it was a printed magazine.
What we saw in the DSP was the opposite of what the SWP had become. The DSP continued to be actively engaged in the class struggle at home and abroad, in sharp contrast to the abstentionism of the SWP. We agreed with what the DSP was doing in practical political work – defense of trade unions, support for Aboriginal rights, women’s equality and gay rights, international solidarity – whatever our differences on important historical, theoretical and party-building issues. These become central when revolutionary situations emerge, which is why it is important to discuss and debate them in a comradely manner today.