Reply to John Riddell’s Review of My Book, Part Three, By Barry Sheppard

By Barry Sheppard

Part Three of Three.

In this part of my reply I take issue with John’s assertion in his review of my second volume that I was wrong to include The SWP majority’s rejection of Trotskyism as part and parcel of its decline. In this John is in agreement with Peter Boyle, as he states, so this is an answer to both.

In my second volume I make the case that the SWP’s rejection of the theory of permanent revolution was wrong. John asserts, “Indeed, the course of events raised questions regarding the theory of permanent revolution on which we had based most of our wrong positions.”

Among the positions John thinks we were wrong about and the Cuban leadership was right concerned the Allende regime in Chile, which I have taken up in Parts One and Two of my reply.

Another he lists was “Cuba’s role in Africa (including its armed defense of the MPLA government in Angola at the latter’s request).” This is garbled. Cuban troops defended Angola against South African invasions twice, which the SWP supported, not opposed. I hope John is not implying that we should have politically supported the MPLA government, which rapidly displayed its completely bourgeois character, and which subsequently made its peace with imperialism.

John says the Cubans were right about the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and we were wrong before Barnes changed his position in the early 1980s to give uncritical support to the ANC. It is true that before then, we had based our position on the theory of permanent revolution. Applying that theory, we supported the democratic anti-apartheid struggle of the Black working class and peasantry, and the other democratic tasks the workers and peasant would take in overthrowing the apartheid regime, leading in a permanent or uninterrupted way to overthrowing capitalism, establishing a workers state and beginning the socialist revolution.

Our criticism of the ANC was that while it advanced a revolutionary democratic program, the Freedom Charter, it limited itself to that. While supporting the ANC’s fight against apartheid, we outlined the next steps. What actually happened? An important victory was registered in the abolition of apartheid, but the ANC abandoned the Freedom Charter. In doing so not only was no path toward socialism charted, the basic needs of the masses were abandoned. The result is the present ANC government, which is an anti-working class and bourgeois government. The outcome has been a disaster for the Black majority. It’s quite odd that John singles out South Africa to attack me.

There is no question that if the ANC had launched a struggle for the Freedom Charter, which went quite far in challenging capitalist interests, this would have put the ANC and worker and peasant masses on a direct collision course with the white capitalist class, which could only have been settled by civil war. If the revolutionary side won, that would have opened the way to socialist revolution.

The contrast with what happened with the Cuban revolution could not be clearer. The July 26 Movement’s program, contained in Castro’s “History Will Absolve Me” speech, was, like the Freedom Charter, a revolutionary democratic one. But in Cuba the Castroists began to implement it, which led to increasing conflict with the native capitalists and imperialism, and the leadership not only did not back down but mobilized the masses in intensifying struggle culminating in socialist revolution. That is, the process in Cuba followed the outline of permanent revolution, forming a bridge between the democratic and socialist revolution. The opposite course was taken by the ANC, with disastrous results for the masses.

John also says the Cuban’s were right and we were wrong about the dynamics of the Nicaraguan revolution. That’s inaccurate, as can be seen in my chapters on Nicaragua, where these dynamics are outlined in detail from original SWP sources. Where the SWP later went wrong was not to recognize that the revolution had been defeated by 1984-86.

John states, “Regardless of one’s views on Cuba and its Communist leadership, there is a problem with Sheppard’s analysis. The SWP’s efforts at convergence with the Cuban Communist current represented a turn outwards, toward linking up with revolutionaries outside the party and building an organization broader than the historic SWP. By contrast, the party’s actual trajectory under Barnes has been in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, isolation, and self-absorption.”
And, “The SWP was turning sharply in two opposite directions at the same time. No wonder its membership was confused and criticism was paralyzed.”

Let us recall what the actual turn was in 1979-1980. It was to the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions. Our theory of permanent revolution helped us understand these revolutions; it in no way hindered our understanding of them or our embrace of them. We saw them as beginning as anti-imperialist revolutionary democratic revolutions that had the potential of becoming socialist revolutions in a permanent, uninterrupted manner. In fact, this represented the consciousness of the main leaders in both countries, initially.

We made important contact with both revolutions and their leaders. We set up a bureau in Managua to report on the revolution there. This was complimented by many trips to Nicaragua by many comrades in addition to those who staffed the bureau. We likewise had good relations with the Grenadian leadership, some of whom came to one of our Oberlin conferences. We had much better relations with both revolutions than any other tendency in the U.S. The theory of permanent revolution was not an obstacle at all.

The Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions looked to the Cuban revolution, and vice versa. The Cubans, I believe, coined the phrase “three giants rising up in the Caribbean.” We saw this development as opening the possibility of reconfiguring revolutionary communist internationalism, which the SWP and Fourth International should become part of. There was no need to give up the theory of permanent revolution, let alone all of Trotskyism, to do that, any more than it was in our becoming part of the supporters of the Cuban revolution earlier, which also opened new possibilities for the SWP and Fourth International.

The error the SWP leadership made was not to recognize that this perspective was no longer viable once these revolutions were defeated. Keeping repeating the slogan for a “new international” became a mantra devoid of meaning and content.

In other words, the convergence with the Cubans, Nicaraguans and Grenadians was real, based on real revolutions, not on theories. When those revolutions were defeated, that opportunity ended.

Barnes’ abandonment of Trotskyism brought us no nearer to the Cuban leadership. In fact the Cuban leadership is in need of some Trotskyism. Abandoning Trotskyism had nothing to do with “converging with the Cuban leadership,” and there was no such convergence or even a hint of it after Barnes rejected Trotskyism.

Abandoning Trotskyism had everything to do with smashing the historical SWP in the consciousness of its remaining cadres in the U.S. and those who looked to it internationally in what became its satellite Communist Leagues.

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One Response to Reply to John Riddell’s Review of My Book, Part Three, By Barry Sheppard

  1. David Altman says:

    Obviously one does not have to be a “Trotskyist” to be a revolutionary, and the SWP was right to orient toward the revolutionaries in Nicaragua and Grenada. That said I don’t think there was any effort by the SWP to make the writings of Trotsky more widely available in those countries. Trotsky’s writings on the Russian Civil war were particularly apropos in the case of Nicaragua.

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