How an organisation becomes a cult by Patrick Scott

By Patrick Scott

This article was first published January 24, 2013 on the Socialist Resistance web site and can be found here: How an organisation becomes a cult


DCF 1.0Barry Sheppard’s The Socialist Workers Party 1960-88 (Volume 2: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-88) reviewed by Patrick Scott.

When reading the political memoirs of bourgeois politicians, or opportunist or sectarian figures in the workers’ movement the truth very often takes a back seat. Accordingly the past is not to be studied in order to learn any lessons from it, rather it is to be reinvented in order to preserve the infallibility of the author. This is most definitely not the case with Barry Sheppard. Once a central leader of the US Socialist Workers Party (US SWP) and Fourth International he and his partner Caroline Lund resigned from the party in 1988 in protest against its political degeneration and increasingly sectarian and cultist behaviour under the leadership of Jack Barnes (pictured). Even though for many years he went along with this political degeneration and has to take partial responsibility, to his credit Sheppard fully accepts his misdeeds and does not try excuse himself in any way. Taken as a whole the two volumes of Sheppard’s political memoirs represent a history of the US SWP and of the proletarian class struggle in both the US and the world generally over three decades as seen through the eyes of a participant.

To briefly summarise Volume 1, dealing with the 1960s and early 1970s. Amongst many things Sheppard takes us through the Cuban revolution, the black civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam War movement, and the growth of the women’s and lesbian and gay movements. The US SWP certainly did not get everything right in this period. But it was definitely a revolutionary organisation that actively intervened in a broadly positive way into the class struggle and the major political and social movements that arose though struggle. At the time the party was also the largest revolutionary organisation on the US left with well over a thousand members. How therefore can we square this with the burnt out shell of a sect that the US SWP and its satellite organisations (sometimes referred to as the Pathfinder Tendency) have become today?

To return to Volume 2. Sheppard deals with the internal factional struggle inside the Fourth International in the 1970s in which the US SWP leadership played a prominent role as part of an international minority against the majority leadership. The factional struggle was triggered by the opposition of the US SWP leadership and others to the disastrous line of prolonged rural guerrilla warfare throughout Latin America adopted by the Fourth International at its 1969 World Congress. Though initially focussed on Latin America the factional struggle spread to other areas including Europe before both the majority and minority factions dissolved in 1978 when the Fourth International majority made a full self-criticism on Latin America. In all this the US SWP saw itself as the defender of Trotskyist orthodoxy against the Fourth International majority. The Fourth International had grown substantially as a consequence of the post 1968 political radicalisation and it would probably be fair to say that the majority was much more influenced by this post 1968 generation and therefore more open to new ideas. Not that being open to new ideas is in and of itself a bad thing but clearly some of these ideas such as those that informed the guerrillaist turn in Latin America were not only wrong but often disastrous in their implementation.

Permanent revolution repudiated

Within a decade though all this had changed in a way that few could have foreseen in advance. In the early 1980s it was the ‘orthodox Trotskyist’ leadership of the US SWP that repudiated the programme of permanent revolution as originally put forward by Trotsky in favour of Lenin’s pre 1917 formulation of the Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry. In doing so they regurgitated many old slanders from the Stalinists and others concerning Trotsky’s so called underestimation of the peasantry. At the time their rationale was that permanent revolution was a sectarian obstacle to building a new revolutionary international with the ‘three jewels’ of the Caribbean; namely the Communist Party of Cuba, the FSLN of Nicaragua, and the New Jewel Movement of Grenada. Not surprisingly many US SWP members opposed the new line against permanent revolution but in due course all were bureaucratically expelled. However as Sheppard points out this line of building a new international was already virtually redundant by the mid-1980s. Firstly the New Jewel Movement imploded into internecine warfare culminating in the murder of Maurice Bishop in 1983, and latterly the increasingly rightwards trajectory of the FSLN in power. Accompanying this was also the so called turn to industry which in practise led to the vast majority of members who could not or would not get industrial jobs being eventually hounded out of the organisation. Not only that but many members who did get industrial jobs also left because of its sectarian practise, including for example its position of forbidding members from standing for elected positions in trade unions.

At the time in the 1980s many of us thought the rejection of permanent revolution was an adaptation to Stalinism that would lead to the US SWP moving in an opportunist direction. We were wrong as the exact opposite has happened. For all the bluster from Jack Barnes and others about breaking with past sectarian shibboleths, it has in fact become increasingly sectarian, abstentionist and divorced from reality over the last three decades. As one example of its increasingly bizarre politics it now actively opposes Palestine solidarity activists who call for a boycott of Israeli goods on the grounds that this is being anti-Semitic! Where once the SWP was the only serious force on the revolutionary left in the US, today it is an irrelevant sect. Although he perhaps might not put this as sharply as I would all this is covered by Sheppard in the final chapters of the book.

Minority representation

There are a number of issues that I feel though that Sheppard could perhaps been a bit more reflective and self-critical about. Firstly concerning the expulsion of the Internationalist Tendency (supporters of the Fourth International Majority) from the US SWP in the 1970s. He defends its expulsion on the grounds that it functioned as a faction with its own discipline over and above that of the US SWP, this may or may not have been true. However at the same time he accepts that the US SWP made an error by failing to give the Internationalist Tendency minority representation on its National Committee. But surely it should be a norm in revolutionary proletarian organisations that minorities are given representation on leadership bodies. If they were not deemed worthy of representation as a minority on its leadership bodies why then should the members of the Internationalist Tendency feel any loyalty to the US SWP as an organisation? Certainly as far as I am aware during that period co thinkers of the US SWP were always given representation on leadership bodies in sections of the Fourth International where they were a minority, such as in Britain.

Secondly, perhaps Sheppard could have attempted some analysis at how mini bureaucracies can develop within revolutionary organisations. Normally when we think of bureaucracy we think of the labour or trade union bureaucracy or a bureaucratised workers state, in other words the bureaucracy as an irreformably counterrevolutionary layer. Revolutionary organisations can and do build up apparatuses with full-timers and necessarily so. The danger is that the organisation creates an entrenched layer of full time leaders, separate from the working class, who feel they have a divine right to lead the organisation, and who accordingly use bureaucratic methods (expulsion of oppositionists etc) to maintain control. This is bureaucratisation of a qualitatively lesser order to that of the labour or Stalinist bureaucracy as we are certainly not talking about class traitors or anything like the same degree of privileges, but nevertheless it is very real and can be highly destructive.

Finally, I have no idea what his current position is regarding this Sheppard could also have said something about Mark Curtis. Curtis was a US SWP member convicted and imprisoned in 1988 for the sexual assault of a young woman. Unless one can seriously entertain the idea that the state would concoct a frame up where the key prosecution witnesses were a young woman of fifteen and her eleven year old brother than it should be quite clear that Curtis was guilty as charged. The US SWP though claimed otherwise and launched a campaign to free Curtis on the grounds that his conviction was a frame up. To their discredit many individuals and organisations on the US and international left were suckered into endorsing this campaign, though some endorsers recanted once they became familiar with the facts of the case. At the time of writing in Britain we are witnessing the possible implosion of the British SWP over allegations of rape or sexual assault or harassment by a leading member of that organisation. If we can learn anything from Mark Curtis it is the fact that men who see themselves as revolutionaries can in some instances be guilty of extreme misogyny up to and including violence against women.

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One Response to How an organisation becomes a cult by Patrick Scott

  1. David Rowlands says:

    The author writes, “Unless one can seriously entertain the idea that the state would concoct a frame up where the key prosecution witnesses were a young woman of fifteen and her eleven year old brother than it should be quite clear that Curtis was guilty as charged.”

    You’re kidding, right? I think that a ruling class that had no problem (until the very recent past) executing minors, including mentally ill and mentally challenged minors, would have no problem concocting a frame using the testimony of juveniles.

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