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Letter on “Loyalty and Party Membership”

by George Breitman

To the National Committee

Dear Comrades:

At the May plenum I criticized certain aspects of the Control Commission report on the Houston investigation, which the NC members received when the plenum began, and I asked permission to withhold my vote until I could see the final draft of this report, as revised after the plenum discussion. In July, shortly before the final draft was published in Party Organizer (Vol. 4, No. 2, July 1980), when the minutes of the plenum also were being completed, I received a copy of the minor changes made in the Control Commission report. Simultaneously, Comrade Betsey Stone informed me that my vote was to be not on the Control Commission's Houston report, on which the plenum had not voted, but on the oral report, “Loyalty and Party Membership,” which she had given on May 27 and which the plenum had adopted, and on the three PC motions denying the appeals of three Houston ex-members. While she provided me with a copy of the revised Control Commission report, on which I was not supposed to vote, she did not provide me with a written version of her oral report, on which I was supposed to vote. (The latter was printed later in the same Party Organizer cited above.) Since I could not remember clearly what had been in the Stone oral report six or seven weeks before, and had no idea of how much of it had been revised in the final draft, I abstained on this motion. Since I think the Control Commission report contained some serious errors, I voted against the three motions to deny the appeals of the former Houston members. My votes are explained below.

1. The party's policy against the use of illegal drugs, which some comrades call “universal” or “absolute,” does not allow for exceptions. If the three Houston appellants had used such drugs, they should have been expelled, and there would be no basis for appeal. But they were not expelled for using drugs. They were expelled for not giving the party information about violations by other members of the drug policy and other security measures. Is our position on that also “universal” or “absolute”? Do we require automatic expulsion in all cases where comrades knowingly withhold information about other members' violations of the drug or other security measures? I don't think that we did before the Houston case, the Control Commission report and the Stone report adopted by the plenum. I think that the plenum's adoption of the Stone report means that we now have such an automatic expulsion policy for the withholding of information, but I think that before the Houston case there probably were many members who did not clearly understand what their duty was in regard to other members' violations of the drug policy and did not know that they would be expelled for not performing this duty. The Stone report itself differentiates between the educational aspects emphasized before the Houston case and those emphasized since the Houston case: “Most of the discussions we've had in the party up to now have focused primarily on why the use of illegal drugs by party members should be incompatible with membership. The Control Commission report and this one [“Loyalty and Party Membership”] focused on something different—what it means for an individual member to decide that he or she will not implement this collective decision of the membership” (p. 21). But since the Houston case occurred before the differently focused Control Commission and Stone reports, the appeals should not have been rejected on the basis of a position not presented or voted on until after the appeals had been lodged. One can argue that the new and differently focused position is implicit in the party's traditional practice, which I think is true. But it can't be denied that it is a new position in a formal sense, and members should not be subjected to the severest disciplinary measure at our command merely because they did not comply with a position that had not yet been adopted.

2. The Houston branch executive committee, in its report recommending the expulsion of four comrades, said (to use the Control Commission's wording) that “the four comrades had failed to contact the branch about the dangers to the party because they had functioned in the party as a clique which had in many instances refused to work through the democratically constituted branch bodies.” That was a very bad thing for the executive committee to do. Cliquism is a serious charge to make against comrades. Its introduction at this point could only tend to prejudice the members against the defendants and to taint the trial. If the executive committee did not raise this question in the “many instances” when the alleged cliquism was manifested, it should have refrained from raising it at this trial. I hope that on further reflection the members of the executive committee will realize this, too. Unfortunately, the Control Commission, instead of explaining to them and to all the other comrades reading this report that they had made a mistake, waffles back and forth, ending up with a weak endorsement: “it was not necessarily incorrect” (p. 17).

3. The final draft of the Control Commission report says: “Two of the comrades who appealed argued that their violation of party discipline should be excused because of problems and demoralization they felt had existed in the Houston branch for a long time. During the trial and in our interviews, several comrades raised similar arguments. The Control Commission did not see it as our job to evaluate the general political situation in the Houston branch, past or present. We did conclude that nothing was raised about the history of the branch that would excuse the disloyal behavior of the comrades. In fact, we felt such behavior should not be excused on any account. It is incompatible with membership in the revolutionary party” (p. 16). It seems to me that when “several comrades” (not just the two appellants) raise the argument that long-existing problems and demoralization in the branch were responsible to some degree for the violations of discipline, then it certainly is the “job” of the Control Commission to evaluate the truth or falsity of this claim, which of course would not “excuse” the violations but might shed light on the cause of the violations beyond the asserted disloyalty of the defendants and might influence the severity of the disciplinary measures taken against them. I do not argue at all that the Houston branch leadership was responsible in any way for the violations of discipline by the defendants, since I know nothing about the conditions claimed by them, least of all from the Control Commission report. It seems to me that the Control Commission was derelict on this point, and that its misconception about its “job” was linked to its moral indignation against the asserted disloyalty of the defendants.

4. I must admit that I feel disturbed about some of the atmosphere being created around these drug and drug-related trials. Some of the things being said and done reek of fanatical moralism, zealotry, sophistry, and crusading, and the sooner they are curbed the better off the party will be. Some comrades seem to regard our drug policy as the veritable key to the party's entire future—everything will come to total ruin unless we agree with the Houston leadership that expulsion and nothing but expulsion was the only conceivable punishment for the comrades who violated party discipline there. Others view it as some kind of test. One refrain at the May plenum was “Comrades, you are being tested.” I couldn't figure that out, since in a certain sense we are always being tested from the day we join the movement, and since I can't see anything special about the present situation so far as testing goes. But some comrades seem to see the drug policy as a test of their Bolshevikness, of their hardness as revolutionaries, and they don't want to be found wanting. In Houston I think there was a certain tendency to regard Debbie Leonard's revelations as a “dare,” and to act as though the comrades would be guilty of something if they did not respond to her dare—cowardice, I suppose, or political inadequacy. All this is compounded by an increasingly elastic and schematic use of the concepts of loyalty and disloyalty in recent years. Loyalty is something that comes from inside, as a result of rising political consciousness. It is not something that can be imposed or produced through motion, resolution, or administrative measure. When the SWP was founded, loyalty was not listed as one of the requirements for membership, although of course we always strive to deepen and strengthen the loyalty of new members and old. What we demanded, and what we still demand in our constitution, Article III, Section 1, is that people accept the program of the party and agree to submit to its discipline and engage actively in its work. If someone violates the discipline, he or she can be punished in various ways, from reprimand or censure up to expulsion. This is sufficient for dealing with drug cases and all other cases of deliberate violation of party policy; you don't need to muddle things up with an ever-widening interpretation of loyalty and disloyalty. When I came into the movement, and until recently, disloyalty was used in a narrow sense: a disloyal person was one who owed his or her allegiance and real loyalty to some group or agency or force hostile to the party. For example, a person who pretended to submit to our party's discipline but actually was operating under the discipline of a group outside of the party was manifestly disloyal. (The Oehlerites and Fieldites used to send such agents into the SWP in the 1930s, and others have done it since, as we know.) Where there was no other allegiance or actual loyalty to some other force, we would penalize members violating party discipline more or less severely, depending on the seriousness of the violations, but instead of branding them as disloyal we condemned them as undisciplined or irresponsible elements, whose undisciplined or irresponsible acts harmed the party and its revolutionary development. I think the drug and drug-related violations of discipline can best be handled in this way, rather than through an expanding use or misuse of the loyalty/disloyalty concept.

5. I abstained on the “Loyalty and Party Membership” report because I could not remember it well many weeks after the plenum and because I did not have a chance to see it in written form at the deadline for my withheld vote. But if I had had a chance to read it first, I certainly would have voted against it. I am not opposed to it for making clear that the party is serious about the drug policy and expects all members to cooperate in enforcing it from here on; I would have voted for it if that was all it did. But I strongly oppose the report because it also further stretches the concept of disloyalty to include new misdemeanors, sins, or crimes disapproved by zealots and schematists. “In fact,” this report says, “if a comrade disagrees with a position or policy adopted by the party it is disloyal not to express your opinion at the appropriate time and place so that the party can be assured the benefit of the thinking and experience of all comrades” (p. 20). I can't remember a more fatuous statement adopted by the NC in its entire history, and I resent having such stuff included in documents the NC is called to vote on. Most NC members, I believe, would repudiate such a statement in an atmosphere free of Apocalypse Next Thursday Unless the Houston Expulsions Are Sustained. I myself have expressed disagreements with positions adopted by the party, from its labor party position in 1938 to aspects of its policy on Cuba in 1979. But on some occasions I have not expressed my disagreement with one or another party position or policy. In such cases, I have withheld my opinion for various reasons—because while I disagreed with a position adopted, I was not sure about it and therefore tended to defer to the opinions of other comrades who knew more about the subject; or because while I was sure the position adopted was wrong, I did not have or see any alternative to propose; or because I felt, rightly or wrongly, that at that point there was little or no chance of my point of view being understood or accepted; or for other reasons. As I said, I have done this in the past, without anyone ever posing questions about my loyalty, and I intend to go on doing it, despite the NC's adoption of this deplorable report on “Loyalty and Party Membership.” I hope that the comrades responsible for that report will bring me up on charges of disloyalty so that the question can get further clarification.

August 19, 1980

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