The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party Index  |  Main Document Index  |  ETOL Home Page


The Meaning of the Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party

by Frank Lovell

Introduction to In Defense of American Trotskyism: The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party 1979-1983, edited by Sarah Lovell, published by the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, 1992

Socialism has been the goal of the working class political movement since the time of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Essential aspects of their political program can be found in the Communist Manifesto, which still has considerable relevance for our own time. And with this program they helped to establish the short-lived International Workingmen's Association, the First International, to promote and advance the self-organization of workers in various countries, including the United States.

Socialist theory, like reality itself, has continued to evolve. The program of revolutionary Marxism in the twentieth century has come to be based not only on the perspectives of Marx and Engels but also on those of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, especially with the rich lessons of the Russian Revolution. After Lenin died, it fell to Trotsky to further develop Marxism—to explain, for example, such new phenomena as the rise of Stalinism in the USSR, the triumphant rise of fascism in Germany, and the coming of the Second World War.

In opposition to the Social Democratic reformism of the Second International and the Stalinist bureaucratic corruption of the Third (or Communist) International, Trotsky played the central role in establishing a Fourth International in the 1930s to defend and develop revolutionary Marxism throughout the world. Because of this, the revolutionary Marxist perspective has often been known as Trotskyism. In the United States, the Socialist Workers Party was established in 1938 on the basis of this Trotskyist program.

This volume consists of selected documents mostly produced by a political tendency that was organized in the Socialist Workers Party during the 1980s to defend and advance the traditional perspectives of Trotskyism. This political tendency began to develop in the party leadership in 1979, when the first signs of doubts among central leaders about Trotskyism appeared. It waged a struggle inside the SWP until the expulsion of its adherents in 1984, when they established a new group called the Fourth Internationalist Tendency. Later aspects of the struggle against this development are dealt with in the other two volumes in the series entitled In Defense ofAmerican Trotskyism.

The authors of the documents in this volume were all prominent members of the SWP, including veteran members of the party's National Committee, supposedly the highest governing body between conventions. They represented the established and stabilizing sector of the party as it absorbed and sought to assimilate the newly radicalized youth of the 1960s generation who were attracted to socialist ideals by the example of the Cuban revolution and through participation in the movements of social protest in those years. Some of the more politically knowledgeable SWP members from the 1960s radicalization also joined the struggle in defense of Trotskyism and eventually emerged as leaders of it.

The purpose in recording this ideological struggle is not only for historical accuracy but to draw the lessons of this experience that will be useful in helping to assemble a Marxist vanguard of the working class in the United States. The first such lesson must be that constant education and reeducation is essential to the political survival of a Marxist party, and this requires open inquiry and discussion by the entire membership.

It is a curious fact that the victims of the anti-Trotsky purge in the SWP were unaware, at the start, of an organized effort by the central leaders in control of the party apparatus to revise essential aspects of the party's program and organizational structure. Some sensed as early as 1979 that a change in attitude toward the basic tenets of Trotskyism was occurring. But exactly what this change was and where it was leading was not easily identified. This is surely a sign of the unhealthy condition of the party at the time.

More than a decade later the apostate leaders of the SWP finally publicly acknowledge that they had “decided to terminate their [fraternal] affiliation ... to the Fourth International,” and that they “for some time already ... no longer considered themselves Trotskyist and were separate from the world Trotskyist movement and its various competing parties and international groupings” (the Militant, May 17, 1991, pp. 9, 10).

George Breitman, a prominent party leader—widely known for his work on Malcolm X and as the editor of Leon Trotsky's writings—was the first to detect the problem and try to explain it. It may be conjectured that Breitman benefited from his meticulous study of Malcolm's rapid political development in 1964-65, and especially from his in-depth knowledge of Trotsky's perspectives. His 40-year training in the Trotskyist movement as student and teacher of Marxist methodology resulted in Breitman being better equipped than others in 1979 to detect subtle ideological shifts in the SWP leadership.

The problem in the SWP in 1979, as later revealed, had two sides: programmatic and organizational. While Breitman did not immediately connect the two, he was the first to expose them. The programmatic revisionism consisted of a misunderstanding and false interpretation of the Castro regime in Cuba as being comparable to the early Soviet government under Lenin and Trotsky. The organizational deviation was more insidious, taking the form of new and ill-defined “loyalty standards” of party membership. Breitman's arguments on both issues constitute the first two documents in this collection, made public here for the first time. They will probably be more convincing to former SWP members and to the ranks of the Trotskyist movement today than a decade ago, before Breitman's expulsion from the SWP.

Circumstances of the Struggle

Everything that could happen inside the SWP after the 1981 convention, the last where organized opposition to the entrenched leadership could be voiced, developed under the intimidating campaign slogans of “revolutionary intransigence” and “party loyalty.” The meanings attached to these slogans and the manner of their acceptance by the SWP membership will not be completely revealed by the documents of the opposition in this volume, but their repressive effects are easily detected.

1. Political Issues of the Time

The opposition struggle, as documented here, tackled all political and organizational questions directly confronting the SWP (and tangentially the labor unions and the general radical movement as well) in the years 1981-1983. These questions included the following:

* the political character of the Castro regime in Cuba, and its influence in the revolutionary working class movement of the 1970s and 1980s;

* U.S. intervention in Central America and the Caribbean;

* the shifting political situation in the U.S.;

* the prospects of a labor party here, and the need to explain why the union movement should launch such a party;

* the meaning of the revolution in Poland against the Stalinist bureaucracy;

* the aborted revolution in Iran;

* the political importance of the women's liberation movement;

* the struggles for Black self-determination and independent political expression;

* the historical significance of the “workers' and farmers' government” concept, and its relevance to revolutionary governments in the post-World War II era;

* the pernicious and pervasive influence of Stalinist ideology in the labor and radical movements worldwide.

Readers will judge how well the opposition dealt with each of these issues on the basis of the documentary evidence.

Discussion and debate on all such matters was filtered through a heavy screen of organizational suppression. Democratic expression in the SWP became a central issue, which in the end came down to a question of the essential character of the working class political party necessary for the overturn of capitalist rule in the U.S. Would it be a democratic centralist party in the Leninist sense or a top-down command party copied from the Cuban model?

2. SWP Factional History

Those oppositionists expelled from the SWP who went on to build the Fourth Internationalist Tendency did not abandon their struggle to reform the party until 1990, after the SWP formally broke its ties with the Fourth International. Publication of this material at the conclusion of our ideological struggle with the Castroist tendency in the SWP is characteristic of Trotskyism in the U.S. We have traditionally recorded the vicissitudes of factional struggles since the founding of the Communist Party in this country in 1920. In this way the revolutionary movement continues its own education.

In 1944 The History of American Trotskyism, by James P. Cannon, founder of the Trotskyist movement, was published. This book records the early years and ends with the founding of the Socialist Workers Party.

All available documents of the first two conventions of the SWP were published in 1982 in the volume titled The Founding of the Socialist Workers Party: minutes and resolutions 1938-39, edited and annotated by George Breitman. This SWP incunabula records fundamental changes on some decisive political issues held by the Trotskyist movement prior to that period of regroupment and reevaluation.

The SWP faced its first grave crisis at the start of World War II when its basic principles were challenged and its organizational structure attacked by two of its prominent leaders, Max Shachtman and James Burnham, representing 40 percent of the membership. The challenge was met by Trotsky and Cannon, and the documents of that debate were published in 1942 and 1943 in two volumes: In Defense of Marxism by Trotsky and The Struggle for a Proletarian Party by Cannon.

Again in 1945, in the wake of World War II, the program and perspectives of the SWP were challenged by a narrower sector of the party led by Felix Morrow and Albert Goldman, both party functionaries and victims of wartime repression. They had recently been released from federal prison along with other party leaders. Documents of the debates with the Morrow/Goldman faction are included in two volumes on party history, Cannon's writings and speeches: one titled The Socialist Workers Party in World War II, published in 1975; and the other titled The Struggle for Socialism in the “American Century”, published in 1977.

The major crisis of the SWP in the early postwar years came in 1953 in the midst of the Cold War and a repressive domestic “red scare” that came to be known as “McCarthyism.” In this crisis the move to “junk the old Trotskyism” was led by Bert Cochran and George Clarke, two veterans of the early years of American Trotskyism and leaders of the “young generation” in the 1930s. In 1953 they expressed the mood and sentiments of a highly valued segment of the party, militant workers recruited during the rise of the CIO union movement who had been staunch opponents of the imperialist war as union activists. The documents of that struggle are brought together in one volume, Speeches to the Party by Cannon, published in 1973.

In this instance Cannon was the organizer and leader of the struggle, though Farrell Dobbs had by then become SWP national chairman. Shortly thereafter Cannon participated actively in the 1954 party convention when the fight with the “Cochranites” was already hardly more than a memory. The reason for this was a wrong evaluation of McCarthyism and a faulty projection of political trends by the leading comrades in the SWP national office following the 1953 party split. The campaign against McCarthyism, not the split, occupied the attention of the party.

The political resolution that was submitted to the convention by the National Committee was redrafted at the convention, and this second version was referred to the incoming Political Committee for further amendments in light of the convention discussion. After that it was directed to the incoming National Committee for more discussion and final approval at a future plenum of the committee. This procedure was designed to educate and reorient the entire party, leaders and members. At the conclusion of the convention Cannon offered the following recommendation:

The discussion in the party ranks should aim to define our error precisely—not to exaggerate, but to see just what it was—a mistake of tempo, a mistake of urgency, a mixing up of our slogans in such a way that it wasn't quite clear whether it was a campaign of propaganda, or of agitation, or of action, or of all three rolled together. [ Speeches to the Party, p. 201]

He refrained from direct intervention in leadership problems from the time of that convention until his death in 1974. In the mid-1950s the party leadership was altered somewhat when Dobbs was joined in the national center by Tom Kerry, who became national organization secretary. At the same time, Cannon continued to offer advice occasionally to the Dobbs-Kerry leadership team that assumed responsibility for the party's development from 1954 to 1972. Documentation of party history for this 18-year period has not yet been brought together and published. However, suggestions from Cannon in 1966 and 1967 on the organizational and political problems of the SWP at that juncture were published in 1986 in a pamphlet titled Don't Strangle the Party (three letters and a talk by Cannon), introduced by George Breitman and reproduced in another volume of this series.

Useful documentation of party history from the Cuban revolution in 1959 to the Eleventh World Congress of the Fourth International in 1979 is available in two books by Joseph Hansen, secretary to Trotsky and a central leader of the SWP from World War II until his death in 1979: Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution (the Trotskyist View), edited by Hansen and published in 1978; and The Leninist Strategy of Party Building, published posthumously in 1979.

In addition, three volumes of party resolutions and political reports by party leaders during the decade of the 1970s are available: Towards an American Socialist Revolution (a strategy for the 1970s), published in 1971; Prospects for Socialism in America, published in 1976; The Changing Face of U.S. Politics, published in 1981.

So there is no dearth of source material for future historians of Trotskyism in the United States. What we provide here is some of the hidden evidence of duplicity by the SWP leadership in the 1980s and the political disorientation of the party at that time. But this does not furnish answers to the most obvious questions: How was it possible for a small group of centrally situated functionaries to usurp control of the party apparatus without the elected National Committee being fully aware of what was happening? What prompted these people to carry out an operation of this kind, which seemed to contradict their past training and behavior? Why did the opposition fail to win a majority for democratic safeguards in the party?

3. Underlying Questions

We were not primarily concerned with these kinds of questions during our struggle in the SWP following the 1981 convention. But they were always with us, somewhere in the background. As oppositionists inside the National Committee and within the Political Committee and Political Bureau in New York we were constantly reminded of organizational faults and abuses.

In all matters we tried to reach our audience of around twelve hundred devoted SWP members. We were forced to speak to them through the organizational structure and functioning apparatus of the party which in 1982 and 1983 imposed severe limits on critical discussion among party members. Consequently, whatever ideas, proposals, or suggestions we made were rarely reported by us directly to membership meetings. Members received their political information, education, and instructions mostly in branch meetings of the party which were organized and dominated by the “duly elected executive committees” and the branch organizers. In this way our direct audience was restricted to members and alternate members of the National Committee, numbering less than 100 (83 in 1979), all of whom had been screened and selected by the 1981 convention, where several “unreliables” were eliminated by the secret faction of “central leaders.”

Examples galore of this kind of manipulative operation can be found in the union movement. The Stalinist parties are also prime examples of bureaucratically run organizations. But such schematic organizational structures as were erected in the SWP by a small group in control of the party apparatus in 1982 would have been unbelievable when the party was founded in 1938. What happened to this party in the forty-five years of its existence?

Bureaucratism certainly was well understood by the founders of American Trotskyism, for they had been through it in the old AFL craft unions and later in the Communist Party until their expulsion in 1928. When they came to the founding convention of the SWP ten years later they knew even more about this malevolent phenomenon, having only recently been expelled from the “all-inclusive” Socialist Party of Norman Thomas.

So they tried to insure that the democratic rights of the membership would always be protected, minority expression always guaranteed, and organized factions always recognized. (See The Founding of the Socialist Workers Party, Minutes and Resolutions 1938-39 , edited by George Breitman and published in 1982.) And during the history of the party further steps were taken to promote democratic procedures: the creation of a control commission independent of the National Committee, and the practice of electing a nominating commission for the selection of candidates for the National Committee at party conventions. Of course, they could not guarantee that all barricades against bureaucratic practices would forever remain in place, and that dry rot would not crumble them. What did happen to the democratic safeguards? When did they begin to weaken? At what point were they scrapped? What were the causes? This is what the pursuit of those questions that troubled us in 1981 and 1982 must now attempt to discover.

4. Where the Discussion Failed

Before proceeding to these questions, it should be asked why they weren't addressed in the discussion in 1982 and 1983. The reason is the skewed character of the discussion itself, which was one-sided, devoid of an open debate in which the full membership of the party had an opportunity to participate as in all previous struggles over fundamental principles. In this case the opposition was muzzled and confrontation excluded. The membership heard only the leadership's revised version of the party's program, which was palmed off as a continuation of the old.

Open debate and direct face-to-face confrontation by representatives of opposing political positions is the indispensable condition of discovery. How can participants in an open discussion learn, for instance, why and how the leadership of a revolution in a semicolonial country loses influence? The discussion must reveal what social forces are at work and how they find expression. This information cannot be revealed by talk. It must be transmitted by someone who has discovered it either by observation or participation in events, or through study of documents. Without this most talk is irrelevant. But the open confrontation of opposing views can sometimes be essential to shedding light on such questions, even though debates among radicals are often cluttered with irrelevant facts and theories.

Not very much can be learned by analogy or precept. Lenin said, “We [Bolsheviks] have always proclaimed and repeated this elementary truth of Marxism that the victory of socialism requires the joint efforts of workers in a number of advanced countries.” The fact that the revolution which succeeded in 1917 in backward Russia failed in industrial Germany in 1919 does not explain why the revolutionary government in Nicaragua was overturned in 1990. Comparison of historic events may be helpful. But to explain recent events in Nicaragua requires accurate knowledge of the situation there—combined with the critical evaluation that is facilitated by democratic discussion.

Open debate in a revolutionary organization will often reveal logical fallacy, historical ignorance, or lack of factual information. It may also reveal what bearing the shifting political moods or impending social crises (real or imagined) have on a debate over the principles of Marxism in a small group of revolutionary-minded individuals. Sometimes the participants discover what class interests are represented in the debate. None of this was possible in the SWP in 1981.

In all previous debates—those ideological struggles in the SWP already listed—the major political issues were fully clarified, and the underlying class antagonism was clearly revealed in the course of the ideological struggle. Not so this time. In this respect the small group of “central leaders” clustered around SWP national secretary Jack Barnes was unique, as was our struggle against their usurpation of the party's organizational apparatus and abandonment of its revolutionary Marxist program. Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of the Socialist Workers Party. Now we can look at the reasons.

It is important, however, to recognize and take into account two misleading illusions. One is that there was some “fatal flaw” in the very foundations of American Trotskyism, a flaw whose existence is proved by the triumph of the Barnes leadership. Such a mistaken observation is not new. The revolutionary organizational continuity of American Trotskyism, running from the late 1920s to the beginning of the 1980s, survived much longer than most other revolutionary currents. We have learned to view the larger context.

In 1939 Trotsky commented:

We are similar to a group who attempt to climb a mountain and who must suffer again and again a downfall of stone, snow, etc....We cannot withdraw from the general historic current—from the general constellation of the forces....

We are in a small boat in a tremendous current. There are five or ten boats and one goes down and we say it was due to bad helmsmanship. But that was not the reason. It was because the current was too strong. [ Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1938-39, pp. 252, 253]

Related to this is the other illusion: that the problem suddenly came into existence in 1979, when the Barnes leadership lost confidence in the relevance of Trotskyism. It is certainly the case that 1979 was a decisive year, but it is impossible to understand how such a transformation of the SWP could have taken place in the 1980s unless we look for the reasons of its decline in the earlier periods of its history.

Roots of Crisis:

The Aftermath of World War II

World War II did not bring on the destruction of the capitalist system and the victorious proletarian revolution that Trotsky had confidently predicted at the time of his assassination in 1940, when the war was already nearing the end of its first year. It dragged on for another five, and the continent of Europe and large parts of Africa and Asia were laid waste. Revolutionary uprisings did occur—in India during the war, in Europe (Italy, Yugoslavia, Greece) at the close of the war, and shortly thereafter in Asia (China, Korea, Indonesia, Indochina), and on the African shores of the Mediterranean in Algeria, and in Kenya and Ghana. Revolutionary ferment would soon become evident in Latin America.

There were countervailing tendencies, too. Since the declarations of peace at the close of the Second World War, down to the present time (the recent mobilization of troops in the Persian Gulf comes to mind), the world has scarcely known a moment of peace or a time without war. But what remained at the end of the conflagration in 1945 was the terrifying might of the armies of U.S. imperialism and the military forces of Stalinism. Soon both deployed the terrorism of the atom bomb. Both were conscious counterrevolutionary forces, each in its own way.

1. The Times We Live In: the 20th Century

In the fall of 1949, when political reaction was riding high in the U.S. and the working class was quiescent, James P. Cannon gave a retrospective report at a public meeting in New York City on the uneven development of the class struggle in this century, titled “The Trend of the Twentieth Century” (which can be found in the collection of his speeches published in 1971, Speeches for Socialism).

The century had begun with optimistic predictions of the betterment of all humanity under the influence of capitalism and new industrial advances. But in the century's first quarter World War I shattered the illusion of universal progress. Then the 1917 October revolution in Russia introduced a new force in world history: the organized working class exercising state power. Thus began the worldwide struggle between the forces of capitalism and socialism. But the revolutionary tide, which spread to Germany and some countries in Eastern Europe, was pushed back to the borders of old Russia. Capitalism regained a measure of stability, the Soviets were isolated in the world of capitalist nations, and the propagandists of the free enterprise system again found their voices.

At the beginning of the century's second quarter, 1925, the prevailing sentiment was not much different than at the start of the century: capitalism means prosperity. But this illusion was again destroyed by the Great Depression in 1929. The Second World War followed.

Cannon summarized the political situation in the U.S. as the first half century drew to a close: “The terrible experiences of Stalinism and fascism, and the Second World War, and all that led to them and followed from them, changed many things, disappointed many expectations, and raised new problems for theoretical investigation.” Capitalist pundits were again at work painting rosy pictures of “The American Century.” But all was not brightness for them. Capitalism was not secure. This was the eve of the Korean war, and the beginning of the Chinese revolution.

Looking to the second half of the century, Cannon foresaw that humankind would do away with the system that threatens its survival with wars, atom bombs, and bacterial poisons. “That is the supreme task assigned by history to the twentieth century, and it will be accomplished,” he said. “The first half of the twentieth century saw the beginning of the necessary social transformation of the world. The second half of the twentieth century will see it carried through to a triumphant conclusion. Socialism will win the world and change the world, and make it safe for peace and freedom.”

Yet in the two decades that followed, the force that Marxists knew must bring about socialism—the working class -was hardly a revolutionary factor in advanced industrial countries such as the United States. Thus the questions that weighed heavily on the social consciousness and political understanding of the radicalized youth of the 1960s generation were these: were the revolutionary Marxist predictions justified? what were their chances of fulfillment? how can we be sure? what must we do?

The final decade of the 20th century is witness to the economic crisis of capitalism worldwide, the massive buildup of arms in the Middle East, and the U.S. war in the Persian Gulf, as well as the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and economic chaos in the Soviet Union—in all, an incredibly fluid situation despite U.S. claims to have created “a new world order.” It is a situation prepared by economic and political events of the previous four decades. But in the United States, the 1950s seemed a static period for those who looked for motion among the organized workers who had been an insurgent force in previous years.

Nonetheless, in 1949 the Chinese revolution rolled on to victory, inspiring and assisting revolutionary struggles throughout Southeast Asia. Revolutionary stirrings were also increasing in Africa and Latin America. Undoubtedly these struggles of colored peoples of other continents influenced and encouraged Blacks in the U.S. to demand rights long denied. The civil rights movement launched in 1955, led by Martin Luther King, Jr., took its nonviolent tactics from earlier struggles in India.

The decade of the 1950s ended with the victory of the Cuban revolution and the first rumblings of the student revolt in the United States. In the 1960s Black nationalism gained popularity through its most authentic representative, Malcolm X. The Vietnam war generated an antiwar movement, organized mainly by students, which promised to change the established political rules in the U.S. The women's liberation movement broke out of its discussion-circle existence and won popular recognition. A general youth radicalization had a deep social and cultural impact and brought about profound changes in the political climate. Corruption in government and financial scandals also undermined confidence in politics-as-usual. In 1974 a U.S. president was forced to resign for the first time in the history of the country. There were growing expectations that positive social changes were on the agenda.

Yet the more astute U.S. capitalists, recognizing the erosion of economic stability in the 1970s, concluded that there had to be a reversal of the “expectation of rising entitlements” among growing sectors of the population. In the wake of two decades of political turmoil, the governing bodies of the nation—the Congress, the courts, the two-party system that controls the presidency—moved to the right. The 1980 presidential election brought the organized political right wing to power. The planned onslaught by the employing class against the living standards of the working class and the poor began in earnest. A primary target was the established union movement (AFL-CIO), which was quickly put to rout. Mopping-up operations continued throughout the decade and extend into the 1990s.

2. The Decline of Radicalism in the 1950s

What happened to the radical movement during these times of great social, economic, and political change? It changed, too, and in profound ways. The main focus here, however, is on the Socialist Workers Party and its unique development and decline.

The future of the SWP at the end of World War II was determined by events in the United States. This is true even though much of the attention of the party for the past half century has been centered on events abroad because that was where the action was, and where we thought real history was being made.

During the war, the SWP had continued to recruit and train young people for future class struggle actions. And this continued into the mid-1950s. Some of that levy of talented wartime and postwar recruits remained to become prominent party builders—Evelyn Sell, Catarino Garza, Nat Weinstein, Lynn Henderson, Ed Shaw, Fred Halstead, Al Hansen, and others of their generation who sustained the SWP in the “dry period” of the 1950s.

This was the heyday of McCarthyism, when the SWP as well as the radical movement generally suffered from the witch-hunt against radicals and other critics of the government. The Communist Party was the exposed target and suffered the most losses of membership, partly because its class-collaborationist politics during World War II left it vulnerable, and many of its top leaders scurried into underground hideouts.

The SWP openly defended its socialist goals and fought for legality. The Dobbs-Kerry leadership followed a basic strategy of political openness and aggressive defense of the party's democratic rights. Farrell Dobbs was the SWP candidate for president of the U.S. in 1948, 1952, 1956, and 1960. Despite all efforts to expose the source of reaction, the witch-hunt and oppressive political climate took a heavy toll.

During this time the generation of SWP recruits of the 1940s was different from others that assumed responsibilities of leadership. They were never forced to take charge of the organization as a whole. Their political training and activity were always under the control and direction of an older generation. And for the most part they were satisfied with that relationship. In the generational progression of party leaders, this group became the left-out generation, one of the accidents of history.

At the 1954 convention of the SWP the central leadership of the party was finally and formally transferred to the generation that had joined the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s and was educated and trained in the method of Trotsky and Cannon. These new leaders in 1954 were Farrell Dobbs, Murry Weiss, Joseph Hansen, Tom Kerry, and others such as George Weissman, George Novack, and George Breitman, who took on heavy loads as health and circumstance dictated. They directed the day-to-day activity of the party and were responsible for analyzing the ever-shifting national and international political situation, and for adjusting the strategic line of the small and increasingly isolated party to major developments at home and abroad.

3. Repression and Retreat

In this period of repression the SWP, like other radical organizations, suffered serious membership losses. This was combined with heavy infiltration by government agents, exposed later in the SWP lawsuit against the FBI (see Nelson Blackstock, ed., Cointelpro: The FBI's Secret War on Political Freedom, published in 1975, and Margaret Jayko, ed., FBI on Trial: The Victory in the Socialist Workers Party Suit Against Government Spying, published in 1988).

The party leadership, keenly aware of the problems it faced, took all necessary precautions, which included careful editing of official correspondence and internal documents. The idea was to keep the organization intact during the worst years of reaction and prepare for a better political climate. The Dobbs-Kerry team managed to accomplish this, but in the process the National Committee as a consulting and advisory institution of the party fell into disuse. Part of the reason was the inactivity of many party branches. Consultation among NC members and critical advice to the Political Committee and the secretariat in the national center gradually became limited to infrequent meetings of the National Committee when called by the PC.

In this way the National Committee became hardly more than a rubber stamp for its subordinate committee, the PC. This relationship was not introduced by the “new leadership” in 1972. By that time it was already in place. It was a product of the earlier period, the witch-hunt of the 1950s and the routinism of the 1960s. As a matter of past practice the PC was entrusted with directing the day-to-day operations of the party, as is its purpose and responsibility. But in the line of duty it had taken to formulating policy without further consultation with the National Committee except in plenary sessions. The emergency practices of the oppressive 1950s were carried over into the 1960s, and extended into the 1970s.

Disagreements that developed within the NC were smoothed over and remained unresolved. The leaders in the national office made decisions by consensus and discouraged any general discussion within the ranks of the party about the correctness of their decisions or the best way of implementing them.

This sufficed to keep the organization together, mainly because the political and organizational decisions that were made, and transmitted to the party membership through the party publications, were generally correct. But this method tended to have a stultifying effect. It discouraged political initiative and debate, especially when employed as a defense against all hostile social pressures weighing on the party at the time.

This is what Cannon referred to in his 1966 talk on the survival of the SWP. “If a party can live year after year without any factional disturbances,” he said, “it may not be a sign of health—it may be a sign that the party's asleep, that it's not a real party.”

4. Movements of Social Protest and New Recruits

The first signs of political awakening came with the Montgomery bus boycott movement in 1955, the new phase of the long struggle of Black people in the South against the Jim Crow system and for civil rights. The SWP was in the forefront of support for this movement from the first day. And from then on the SWP began to gain new members, but slowly. In 1960, the SWP had only 466 members, and the newly organized Young Socialist Alliance had 115, with some overlap in memberships.

The recovery of radical political parties was slow throughout the 1960s, even though thousands of youth radicalized and fought police repression in the streets against racism, war, military conscription, and for new social values. The SWP was better organized and made more headway than other left-wing groups, beginning with the advent of the Cuban revolution in 1959. But growth remained painfully slow throughout the decade and for as long as the Cold War lasted. The reason is twofold: heavy government surveillance and the relative quiescence of the organized labor movement.

Between 1960 and 1976 the FBI used 1,300 informers in its investigation and disruption of the SWP, at a cost of $1,680,592. In 1969 the total SWP membership was only slightly more than at the beginning of the decade, 488. The number of FBI informers that infiltrated the organization averaged about 10 percent of the total membership during the 1960s. The YSA, however, although also heavily infiltrated, was able to grow from 115 members to 678 in the same period.

The growth of the youth organization resulted in significant changes in the party, with the influx of an important new layer of members. One of the most impressive was Jack Barnes, a recent college graduate who was inspired by the Cuban revolution and attracted to the Trotskyist movement because of the prominence of the SWP in the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. Barnes joined the YSA in 1961 and became its national chairman in 1965. He developed his skills as an organizer and began to educate himself as a Marxist politician in that capacity. He would become national secretary of the SWP in 1972. Throughout those years, from 1961 to 1972, the SWP and YSA were preoccupied with such things as defense of the Cuban revolution, the anti-Vietnam war movement, the rise of Black nationalism and antiracist struggles, women's liberation, and campus protests. These were the things that fed the radicalization of student youth in the 1960s and early 1970s.

The union movement attracted little attention. The radical student movement saw nothing happening there, and young activists had little connection with it except, in some instances, through parents whose “mainstream” values and interests were rejected. There were exceptions. Some students sought to identify with and become part of the working class largely because they had learned from their studies that the working class is the only social force capable of overthrowing the capitalist system. Such people found their way into the YSA and SWP, but they were a small minority. When they attempted to explain that the party should turn its attention to the unions, their organizational suggestions often did not fit the reality of the class struggle at the moment. They were opposed by their peers, accused of seeking to divert limited forces from the campuses “where the action is” and into the unions “where nothing is happening.” They got neither sympathy nor support from the Dobbs-Kerry leadership.

By the mid-1960s, coinciding with the student radicalization, the central leaders of the SWP, conscious of their age and chronic health problems, began a rather systematic search for “replacement leaders.” They turned their attention to the new generation of recruits that began entering the YSA and SWP. Jack Barnes was selected as a possible replacement leader by the Dobbs-Kerry leadership team in 1967 because of his outstanding performance as national chairman of the Young Socialist Alliance, his ability to cultivate a pupil/teacher relationship between himself and the top party leaders, and his talent for organizational maneuver among the aspiring youth leaders. Barnes quickly became a favorite of both Dobbs and Kerry. They coached him and promoted his fortunes. Both were pleased with their efforts and the results, at first. Kerry later had second thoughts, as documented in this volume.

5. The Coming Generation: Jubilant Times and Bad Habits

Barnes, as leader of student and youth work, played a central role in directing the SWP's participation in the anti-Vietnam war struggle. As the antiwar movement gained momentum, the YSA became the most able organizing force within the student wing of the movement. And the YSA grew commensurately with the expansion of the student activism of the 1965-1975 decade, when the U.S. government was forced to withdraw troops from Vietnam. (See Fred Halstead's Out Now! A Participant's Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War.)

These were jubilant times for Trotskyists in the U.S. and for the radical community generally. But some bad habits and self-defeating organizational practices were acquired by the students who were revelling in their first organized social protest demonstrations and wanted the world to know that they were the originators of something new. Their entrance into the YSA profoundly affected some of these radicalizing students; it also had an impact on their newfound political home. The YSA tried to teach the young protesters that they were part of a rich working class tradition. The new recruits brought into the YSA a youthful enthusiasm, but also a measure of foolish braggadocio. The YSA adapted well to the needs of campus youth.

The organization soon had many chapters around the country, many on college campuses. The members moved frequently from one campus to another, and one city to another. YSA chapters ceased to be stable organizational units. They had a very large and rapid membership turnover. Organizational stability was maintained by the YSA national office in New York. Local organizers depended almost entirely on this center for information about what was going on around the country, where the next big demonstration would be held, and how it would be organized. This was the central activity, “the action.” Political education suffered, even though the YSA leaders stressed the need for labor studies and the value of Marxian scientific socialism, and seriously tried to educate themselves.

Before long the YSA, which at first maintained some organizational independence from the SWP, began transferring members into the party to swell its ranks and to train a new layer of “young party leaders.” Some took assignments on the weekly newspaper the Militant, and others joined the small staffs of International Socialist Review, edited by Tom Kerry, and Intercontinental Press, produced by Joseph Hansen. Other YSA members joined SWP branches with the idea of becoming branch organizers, bringing with them their experience as organizers and activists in the antiwar movement.

These new recruits entered the SWP as a group, many retaining membership in the YSA. They transformed the party differently than had other waves of recruits who had joined as individuals. On the other hand, the SWP had undergone a different kind of transformation of its own during the period of repression and retreat in the 1950s. The converging changes were bringing into being a qualitatively different organization.

Transition in the 1970s

The decade of the 1970s was not an easy one for radicalism in the U.S., despite the burgeoning antiwar movement and the emergence of an organized women's liberation movement in the decade's first half. The student radicalization was not destined to survive long after the end of the war in Vietnam. Serious problems for the SWP (and for the entire radical movement, including all varieties of Stalinism and Social Democracy) arose in 1975, announcing themselves in the many disguises that impatience and frustration can take. The radical movement did not prosper. As we now know, this was not the time for reckless organizational experimentation based on unfounded political projections about a new period of mass radicalization.

1. The “Young Leaders” Take Charge

At this juncture the “new leadership” of the 1960s generation, having built the Young Socialist Alliance as the SWP's youth section and having been selected and nurtured as replacements by the Dobbs-Kerry team at the party helm, was prepared to take over the controls of office. Of these new leaders Barnes was the unquestioned “central” one. He had gathered around himself Mary-Alice Waters, Doug Jenness, Larry Seigle, Barry Sheppard, Peter Camejo, and several others who aspired to become part of this circle and were always on the fringes of it.

“Three years ago Comrade Jack Barnes was elected to the post of National Organization Secretary,” Farrell Dobbs noted at the end of 1971.

Since then he has gradually been assuming the National Secretary's responsibilities, doing so with my encouragement and cooperation, as well as that of other leading comrades. The transition has now been completed, more or less, on a de facto basis. This was demonstrated when he functioned, in effect, as acting National Secretary at the last party convention. As the party is aware from that experience and others, he has shown that he can meet such responsibilities competently. This new stage of leadership transition should be made formal at the next plenum of the National Committee. At that time I propose to nominate Comrade Jack Barnes to replace me in the post of National Secretary.

This is how Jack Barnes became national secretary of the SWP.

Although he assumed this post in 1972, until 1980 Barnes consulted closely with Dobbs, his mentor, and thereby sought protection against those SWP members of the older generation who lacked confidence in what appeared to be an elite group. The party-building experience of these so-called “young” leaders was limited, and the newest recruits (a generation younger) sometimes observed that they were fast becoming middle-aged in habit and outlook.

Nothing changed as the old guard departed and their replacements settled into positions of control. Decisions seemed to be arrived at by consensus. For several years prior to the formal confirmation, the “replacement leaders” had been in the habit of caucusing before scheduled meetings of the Political Committee (to which some had been elected and others were often invited), and Barnes spoke for the group. Kerry occasionally complained that none of the “young leaders” except Barnes ever had much to say. He thought they didn't know what was under discussion, but they knew more than he realized.

2. Past Practices and Old Habits

The party leaders who spoke most authoritatively in PC meetings in the transition period in the early 1970s were Dobbs, Kerry, Breitman, Hansen, and Novack. They brought reports of work in the departments of the party apparatus (Pathfinder Press, the weekly newspaper, theoretical journals, fraternal ties with Trotskyists in other countries, the Black liberation movement in the U.S., the shifting political scene, etc.). Most of this was for the information of other PC members and for the record, to be transmitted to National Committee members not resident in New York.

The important decisions were all made in the administrative departments, approved by the administrative secretariat (later called the Political Bureau), and then brought to the Political Committee for approval. The National Committee continued to serve as a rubber stamp for its subcommittee.

In the 1970s this was the accepted practice, a far cry from what was envisioned in 1953 at the conclusion of the faction struggle with the Cochranite minority. At that time Cannon announced for the majority caucus:

The duty of this faction now is to say: “The task is finished; the faction is no longer needed, and the faction must be dissolved into the party.” The leadership of the party belongs henceforth to the cadre as a whole, assembled at this plenum [of the National Committee]. All problems, all questions for discussion, should be taken directly into the party branches. [ Speeches to the Party, pp. 191-192]

In less than twenty years none of this remained. No one proposed changing the routinism that had become a custom. There was no pressure from NC members in the branches, an increasingly larger proportion of whom were new and inexperienced. Likewise there was no pressure from branch organizers or the membership. With the influx of YSA members came a new practice of selecting branch organizers by appointment from New York instead of urging branch memberships to elect their local organizers from their own ranks.

This was a carryover from the organizational practice of the YSA, contrary to SWP tradition. The selection of branch organizers was now made by the national office of the party. This made the local organizer directly responsible to the national office instead of the branch membership.

The idea of “footloose rebels” was introduced as a membership norm. During the 1970s the practice of reassigning members to different (often newly established) branches was regularized. The great majority of party members attended the annual gatherings—either national conventions or educational conferences—at Oberlin College in Ohio; there many of them expected to be “moving on,” as they said, to another city instead of returning to their SWP branch of the previous year or two. Anyone who remained in a branch for longer than a few years was out of the swim of things, no longer footloose and suspected of not being much of a rebel.

The result was that the branches ceased to be political units of the party. Branches had become extensions of the SWP national office at 410 West Street in New York, where all political decisions were made, and the political life of the branches was limited to discovering ways to implement national office decisions. This is what Tom Kerry referred to in his 1979 declaration of war on the Barnesite bureaucracy when he denounced the “plenipotentiary from West Street” (Larry Seigle in this instance) at a meeting of the San Francisco branch, published in this volume as one of the documents of the struggle.

By this time the system of centralized control had long been in place and the local organizer and other branch functionaries, including members of the “duly elected” executive committee, had been selected by the national office and assigned to San Francisco to insure that all decisions made in New York would be properly and promptly implemented.

3. The Material Base of the SWP Bureaucracy

The kind of apparatus that developed in the SWP cannot exist without material means of support. A small radical group, trying to become a recognized political party of the working class, needs money for its publications, headquarters, and staff, and for its electoral campaigns and its coordinated efforts in the unions and other mass organizations. The Trotskyist movement managed as best it could in the years prior to 1970 by raising money from membership dues, special assessments, and contributions from sympathizers. Most of this money was raised through the branches, and the branches sometimes raised special funds for local campaigns and other activities.

After 1970, with the expansion of the party, new techniques of fund raising were introduced. Some of this was borrowed from experience in the antiwar movement, and large donations came from potential financial contributors who were interested in world peace, civil liberties, free democratic political expression, and other worthy causes. Student recruits to the YSA and SWP in this period sometimes had access to private wealth, and they were asked to make especially heavy contributions to the annual fund drives usually launched at the Oberlin gatherings. In addition, all members were requested to make weekly pledges to the “sustainer fund,” and those who contributed $50 or more weekly became an exemplary group, “the 50-and-over club.”

One of the most lucrative sources of party income is the party print shop. It became an established party institution in the early 1970s with a modern press and advanced cold type printing technology. Almost from the beginning this modern printing plant operated as a small business enterprise, soliciting customers wherever they could be found. With volunteer labor at minimum wages this shop prospered in the printing industry's highly competitive market.

All funds for the SWP are funneled through the national budget, collected and distributed by the national office of the party. On the basis of evidence submitted in the SWP lawsuit against the U.S. attorney general (and the FBI), the judge in the case found that as of 1981 the annual budget of the SWP was “about $1.5 million.” An income of this amount is sufficient to sustain a sizable organizational apparatus.

In 1981 the SWP membership was 1,250 nationwide. The YSA had between 500 and 600 members. Barnes's own estimate was that approximately 11 percent of the membership was working full time on the party payroll. This comes to about 150 workers and functionaries, all selected for their political reliability and ability to perform tasks required of them.

This was the material and numerical basis for the bureaucratic manipulation and deliberate deception of the party membership in the 1981 preconvention discussion. It explains how the small clique of “central leaders” was able to have the convention eliminate “unreliable” members from the National Committee simply by a word-of-mouth campaign against them.

When it was deemed necessary by the central leaders to eliminate a member of the National Committee, the word was passed to the trusted comrade picked to chair the nominating commission at the party convention. Others on the commission were primed to review in closed sessions of the commission all the faults and limitations of the targeted NC member. When the nominating commission's slate of candidates for the incoming National Committee was read to the convention delegates, the names of the “undesirables” were conspicuous by their omission—often to the surprise and dismay of the victims who had thought themselves in the good graces of the central leaders. Such was the fate of Les Evans, Jeff Mackler, Dick Roberts, and a number of other National Committee members from the 1960s generation who were removed to make way for younger, less experienced, more “reliable” personnel at the 1981 convention.

This is a partial explanation of how a deceitful leadership was able to trick uneducated and misinformed followers into believing that their affinity to Castroist politics was compatible with (and an extension of) their Trotskyist past. Such shenanigans are possible only with a passive membership, never with the politically alert membership which is essential to a viable revolutionary socialist party.

At the same time, if one is to understand the SWP's transformation, it is necessary to examine closely the political issues that were contested in the larger world.

The Great Leap Forward

Momentous events in 1979 sent shock waves through the unstable systems of international alliances. U.S. imperialism had suffered a stunning setback in Vietnam in 1975, and less than four years later came the uprisings and successful revolutions in Central America and the Caribbean. On top of this, the shah of Iran—the U.S. puppet and main pillar of imperialist support in the Middle East—was toppled by a popular uprising. All this impacted on the anti-imperialist movement of Western Europe and the U.S., profoundly affecting the Fourth International, including its U.S. sympathizing section, the SWP.

At the same time, capitalism's economic problems were generating a ruling class offensive in the advanced industrialized countries, designed to cut expensive social programs and drive down wages, at the expense of the living standards of the working class. This was clearly perceived by the SWP and the world movement of which it was part, although the expectations by some of a fast-approaching class struggle upsurge (of “the working class moving to center stage,” as it was put) turned out to be overly optimistic.

1. The Impact of World Events, and the Decisive Question

At its 30th national convention in August 1979, the SWP adopted a political resolution which directed “a large majority of the membership” (80 percent) to find industrial jobs and join industrial unions, the rationale being that a working class resurgence was gathering momentum. A reasonable general projection, this also had potential for being mishandled.

Barnes had been a leader of campus-focused youth work and an architect of the SWP's antiwar work during the Vietnam war, but that was the extent of his experience in the mass movement. When he undertook to “lead the party into industry,” he encountered barriers not listed in his operations manual and undreamed of in his world. He had acquired the title and authority of leadership in an organization that was programmed to transform the world. But an understanding of the real dynamics of working class life and pace of proletarian struggles, and the power to lead struggles that will actually challenge capitalism, do not automatically follow. This would be demonstrated by the disappointing results of the next few years—which helped to generate a recoiling inward, an abstentionist impulse which is criticized in some of the documents in this volume.

The 1979 convention also paid attention to the international arena, with a resolution that asserted: “The revolutionary character of the Castro leadership has once again been demonstrated by Cuba's response to the events in Nicaragua.” This was the question first raised by Breitman more than a year earlier: were Castro's politics revolutionary or centrist? Joseph Hansen, before his death, had also begun to raise questions about Cuba (for example, see “Two Interpretations of the Cuban Revolution,” in Revolutionary Cuba Today, the Record of a Discussion, an SWP Education for Socialists bulletin dated July 1980, especially pp. 134-135, discussing “dangerous developments in Cuba “).

For Barnes, however, there was no doubt about the revolutionary quality of Fidel's leadership, and about a future convergence of the Cuban leaders and the SWP—or, as he put it in late 1978 in a speech to the YSA, “the role of working class struggle in this country and the role Trotskyists will be playing in it is going to spark some new thinking in Cuba.” ( “Twenty Years of the Cuban Revolution,” in Selected Speeches of Fidel Castro, Education for Socialists bulletin dated April 1979, p. 10)

Yet the 1979 resolution was ambiguous, deliberately so. Having hailed the “revolutionary character” of Cuban foreign policy, it went on to say: “The internationalist and anti-imperialist policies of the Castro leadership coexist with the contradictions and errors that have limited Castroism as a revolutionary current from its inception.” The resolution in this form, an omnibus 38-page document, was adopted by a vote of 121 to 1. In retrospect it is now clear that the die was cast at this convention. Thereafter the Barnes leadership would give its own interpretation to whatever was decided. Thus the politics and organizational structure of the SWP was squeezed into the Cuban mold. This explains a future headline of the Militant (July 26, 1991) that the “Cuban revolution helped forge the SWP.” In the story that followed, Mary-Alice Waters commented that the party's task was “to help working people see emulating the Cuban revolution as the way forward for humanity.”

2. Historical Turning Point

In other respects the year 1979 marked a turning point in SWP history. At the 11th World Congress of the Fourth International, held that year, the SWP was represented by a large contingent of fraternal delegates who cast consultative votes in support of the majority positions of the United Secretariat on four major documents: the world political situation; events in Latin America (exclusive of the Nicaraguan revolution, which was debated separately); the crisis in capitalist Europe; and the struggle for women's liberation.

Jack Barnes, SWP national secretary, supplemented the report on the world political situation with a lengthy explanation of the central importance of “the turn to industry and the tasks of the Fourth International” in which he lectured the congress on proper methods of “proletarianizing” the sections throughout the world. Mary-Alice Waters, another SWP “central leader,” reported for the United Secretariat on “socialist revolution and the struggle for women's liberation.” On these questions both Barnes and Waters spoke in support of and as representatives of the majority point of view on the United Secretariat.

On two other matters the SWP delegation expressed peevish reservations, disassociating itself from the work of the congress. Barnes presented a minority position on Nicaragua, “Theses on the Nicaraguan Revolution.” Barry Sheppard, ranked a “central leader” at that time, argued for a counter-resolution on socialism and democracy. In both instances the differences between minority and majority positions were blurred.

The “Theses on the Nicaraguan Revolution” presented by Barnes contained the following characterization of the new government in Nicaragua:

...the Sandinista-led regime in Nicaragua is neither definitively bourgeois nor proletarian at this time. It is a workers' and peasants' government, of the kind described in the Transitional Program as a “government independent of the bourgeoisie” and at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International as a government that is born out of the struggle of the masses, is supported by workers' bodies created by the most oppressed sections of the working masses.

Even though Barnes at this time was consciously moving away from the Fourth International and Trotskyism, he was careful to proclaim himself an orthodox Trotskyist while at the same time finding ways to differentiate his political position from that of the FI majority leadership on all new developments that related to the Castro regime. Within one year he was openly attacking the Fourth International's “semi-sectarian existence” and asserting that “we must continue to fight within the Fourth International to ... make a decisive turn towards this revolutionary current [in Nicaragua and Grenada] that is extending the Cuban revolution.” ( Proletarian Leadership in Power, What We Can Learn from Lenin, Castro, and the FSLN, Education for Socialists bulletin, December 1980, p. 31)

Likewise with the resolution submitted by Sheppard, “Socialism and Democracy.” It purported to be a minority position of the United Secretariat. It quoted long passages from the writings of Leon Trotsky. But it carefully excluded Trotsky from the list of leading Marxist theoreticians. The following is an example: “The Fourth International defends those fundamental contributions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and the revolutionary workers' movement.” Elsewhere it says:

The democratic norms toward which we aspire cannot be fully implemented under every concrete circumstance. For example, under conditions of civil war, or foreign military intervention—that is, military attempts by the former ruling class and its international allies to overthrow workers' power—the rules of war apply. Restrictions on the rights to political organization and, in some extreme cases, even on expression of opinions may well be necessary.

It is instructive to note how alien this is to the spirit of Bolshevism. “Contrary to the retrospective representations of it, the intellectual life of Bolsheviks at the very heaviest period of the civil war was boiling like a spring,” Trotsky recounted. “In all the corridors of the party and the state apparatus, including the army, discussion was raging about everything, and especially military problems. The policy of the leaders underwent a free and frequently a fierce criticism.” Making reference to “certain excessive military censorships,” Trotsky quoted a public article he himself, as head of the War Department, wrote in 1919:

I willingly acknowledge that the censorship has made a mountain of errors, and I consider it very necessary to show that respected personage [i.e., the censor] a more modest place. The censorship ought to defend military secrets ... and it has no business interfering with anything else. [ The Revolution Betrayed, p. 212]

The Fourth International majority's resolution on “Socialist Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat” was in line with this approach.

The implication of Sheppard's and the SWP's counterresolution is that the situation of Cuba, under the guns of U.S. imperialism, warrants restrictions on the expression of dissenting opinions. Such subtle nuances, having been documented, were quietly filed for future reference.

After the congress the SWP's attitude to the FI changed. During the following three years it stopped helping to build the FI and started organizing disruptive cliques and unprincipled factions in national sections wherever possible, in Australia, New Zealand, Iceland, Sweden, Britain, and France. This was the beginning of poorly conceived efforts to organize a “new international,” sustaining and extending the gains of the Cuban revolution.

In retrospect the conduct of the Barnesites at this initial stage of their anti-Trotsky campaign is reminiscent of Cannon's description of the Stalin faction in the Bolshevik party:

The Stalinists began their undermining work way back in 1922, before the death of Lenin. They organized a faction before they had announced their program, as opportunists and revisionists always do, and embarked on a vicious factional struggle against Trotsky on personal grounds. They fought with the dirty weapons of gossip and slander and organizational manipulation—the traditional method of all unprincipled opportunists and revisionists. [ Speeches to the Party, p. 116]

3. Fantasy

In light of all that happened in the succeeding decade, from 1979 to 1989, the naive assertion that the first successful revolution on the North American continent, even if confined to a small island off the Florida coast, had “initiated the American socialist revolution and revived the continuity of proletarian internationalism, practiced by the Bolsheviks who led the first workers' state” looms up as pure fantasy.

Yet we should also recognize that at the time of the Cuban revolution thirty years ago there were many thousands, perhaps millions, throughout the world who dared entertain genuinely inspired hopes akin to this. That was a time of euphoria. During the height of the anti-Vietnam war demonstrations in the late 1960s and early 1970s, student activists in the U.S. and Europe, and certainly the oppressed in Latin America, looked to Fidel Castro and Che Guevara as heroes, champions of a better world. And that was no mistake.

The youthful leaders of the Young Socialist Alliance, Barnes and his group, were products of these times and in some ways more precocious than other radicals of their generation. They were neither stupid nor vicious. They tried to learn the history of American Trotskyism and for many years considered themselves the best representatives of the Trotskyist tradition. The product of a different experience, however, they absorbed this tradition in their own fashion, capturing the gestures but not the essence of the veteran cadres of earlier times. Nonetheless, by 1979 they were established “central leaders” and seemed to think that whatever they might say had to be true.

Nineteen seventy-nine was when the Nicaraguan revolution overthrew the Somoza dictatorship and the uprising in Grenada kicked out Eric Gairy, the U.S. puppet there. The SWP leaders in their moment of enthusiasm failed to understand what had happened. These were big events in Central America and the Caribbean, but they did not occur under the direction of Castro's “international leadership,” contrary to what Barnes tried to lead his followers to believe at the time. This was his schematic reading of those developments, a misunderstanding of the historic process based on superficial Marxism ... combined with wish fulfillment.

A more sober reading shows that on May 1, 1980, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Maurice Bishop of Grenada, and Fidel Castro celebrated together in Havana the revolutionary victories that brought them to power in their respective countries, but the revolutionary process in each country was governed by separate and distinct circumstances and conditions of struggle, not a preconceived “Castroist plan.”

The special features of revolution in each of these countries, and the differences among them, were noted in political documents drafted by the SWP leadership, but they popularized the false notion that the struggle for workers' power throughout Latin America was happening under the aegis of the Cuban revolution. They entertained the hope that somehow all this would lead to a convergence of their minuscule group with the forces and influence of the Cuban government.

Theoreticians in the SWP went on to equate the Castroist “revolutionists of action” with the Russian Bolsheviks, and then projected that an alliance with these modern forces could create a new revolutionary international copied from the Third International of 1919 under the leadership of Lenin “and other Bolshevik leaders.”

In 1981 this imaginary prospect of the future, although not yet described in any detail, was enticingly dangled before the least experienced delegates to the SWP convention that year. This was not anything to be voted on, they were told, but something to think about. Definitely Castro was a revolutionary, not a centrist. The Breitman amendments which seemed to question “Fidel's revolutionary integrity” must be defeated.

4. Of Time and Temperance

The SWP in 1981 was not the same organization it started out to be in 1938. At age forty-three it approximated the age of its “central leaders,” who had then found themselves in control of its organizational apparatus, largely because of its weakened condition. Over the years the SWP had undergone several transformations, always seeking to advance its goal to help lead a working class government to power in the United States. These efforts were conditioned and mainly determined by the social pressures of the changing times. And, of course, over the years its organizing personnel and membership composition changed.

It would be wrong to imagine that before 1979 Jack Barnes and those who followed him were secret Castroists biding their time behind Trotskyist masks. The Barnesites came late to worship at the shrine of the Cuban revolution. In their youth they were inspired by it, yet they sought to understand it in terms of the key resolution adopted at the 1963 reunification congress of the Fourth International, The Dynamics of World Revolution Today.

Of course the attraction, and for many radicals the romance, of the colonial revolution was so strong in those years that some in the SWP began to talk about “the colonial revolution as the center of the international revolution.” Cannon disputed this idea in 1964 in response to a previous speaker at the SWP's West Coast Vacation School. “It seems to me he should have said 'at the moment,'” Cannon said. “Because the colonial revolution can't disarm the American imperialists. Neither can the Soviet Union. They can only deter them. The only one who can disarm the American imperialists of their arsenal of death-dealing hydrogen and atomic bombs is the American working class.” ( Speeches for Socialism, p. 236) Barnes heard the message, and for the next fifteen years spoke as if he understood it.

When they approached middle age as the decade of the 1970s ended, the Barnes leadership became disillusioned with the prospect of proletarian revolution as a practical project in the United States and returned to the source of their youthful inspiration with the reverence of acolytes come to serve the mystical spirit of revolution and its material embodiment in the form of the Cuban Communist Party. On the road they discarded the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution and the Leninist concept of a democratic centralist party of the working class. They picked up pieces of Stalinist garb to hide their nakedness, wrapping themselves in old raiments of the monolithic party and the infallible leader.

It is not clear from the reports of the Barnesites exactly when they decided to organize the anti-Trotsky faction in the SWP. But by the end of the year 1981, the more astute sectors of the radical public had been alerted to the Castroist line, through covert attacks on “Trotskyism ” in the Militant and other party publications and the public speech by Barnes, “Their Trotsky and Ours,” at the December 1982 YSA convention in Chicago.

5. A Secret Operation: Trotsky Discarded

A layer of “secondary leaders” had been prepared for this and trained to peddle the new line at a “leadership training school” (that in fact turned out to be an anti-Trotsky school) which was formally launched at the January 6, 1980, plenum of the National Committee. The curriculum focused on “learning Leninism from Lenin.” Selected readings of Lenin's polemics against Trotsky were served up to demonstrate that Lenin's theory of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry guided the course of the October 1917 Russian Revolution, bringing the Bolsheviks to power. Consequently, Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution was irrelevant to the historic development, a false theory. A student body was selected and sequestered for “intensive study,” devoted mainly to learning to repeat discredited and half-forgotten Stalinist slanders such as “Trotsky underestimated the peasantry.” This was thought to be a profound observation by many SWP members in 1981.

The first class was graduated, and a second group enrolled at the school by the end of the year. Each succeeding class learned that Trotsky had played an important but limited role in the great Russian Revolution which occurred many years ago; the continuity of leadership was broken by the advent of Stalinism, and now a new revolution on the North American continent had restored the continuity of leadership and produced a new Bolshevik party called the Cuban Communist Party with a new leader—Fidel Castro.

The reason there was no rush at the 1981 convention on the part of the secret anti-Trotsky faction to reveal its intentions is because it wanted time to “educate” the entire membership through “Lenin classes,” a process which began in the party branches shortly after the convention. The need to organize a campaign within the party against the opposition members of the National Committee and prepare the party for the 1983-84 purge of all suspected Trotskyists may have extended this “educational” campaign, but did not alter it substantially. The operation as originally conceived was carried out according to plan, if not exactly on schedule. Care was taken not to reveal the plan before the deed was done.

The developments described above generated a sharp struggle that is documented by the materials in this volume and in the other volumes of this series entitled In Defense of American Trotskyism. The attentive reader can find much of value in these materials, which provide information and insights on a broad range of questions going far beyond the struggle inside the SWP. Rather than summarizing the documents or the struggle, it may be useful to close the present introduction with an indication of the outcome and lessons of this experience.

Outcome and Lessons

The life span of several generations is telescoped in party history, considering that a new generation of radical recruits enters the party with each succeeding decade. We speak of the decade of the 1930s, the rise of the modern industrial union movement. Then came the 1940s, the war years. The 1950s are called by some “the decade of the silent generation.” For the SWP and the radical movement in the U.S. these were difficult times. The 1960s are remembered by many as “the period of student radicalism.” The 1970s seemed to be a continuation, taking on new forms. And the 1980s, before the end of the decade, would bring the collapse of Stalinism in Eastern Europe and the complete disarray of U.S. radicals.

In the face of what has happened in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, and the effect of these developments on the Cuban economy combined with the ideological quandary of the Castroist political current, it is not surprising that the Barnesites finally decided at their 1990 SWP convention in Chicago (as opposed to their second convention of that year in Oberlin) to formalize their break with the Fourth International. Reality itself had undermined their capacity to wage a struggle inside the Fourth International for a new international that would be led by Fidel.

At first they made no public announcement of this action, only a letter of resignation from membership on the FI's International Executive Committee addressed to the United Secretariat. The letter was endorsed by scattered followers of the Barnesites in several other countries who also resigned from the IEC. Thus by implication, in typically disguised fashion, they indicate their intention to continue trying to build their ill-conceived Castroist “international.”

1. True Confessions

Finally, the Militant, in its May 17, 1991, issue, acknowledged to the public what had happened:

From 1979 on ... accelerating divergences marked the course and character, on the one hand, of the SWP, the Communist League in Canada, and others, and on the other hand, the leadership bodies of the Fourth International.

These differences centered above all on a political assessment of the revolutionary victories in Grenada and Nicaragua, and the character of the workers' and farmers' governments established through those victories; the historical importance and weight of the communist leadership in Cuba and its political trajectory; and the necessity for communist forces the world over to decisively turn toward building parties that are proletarian in composition and leadership as well as program and perspectives.

At the end of the 1980s the Socialist Workers Party and the Communist Leagues in Australia, Britain, Canada, Iceland, New Zealand, and Sweden each decided to terminate their affiliation, whether fraternal or statutory, to the Fourth International.

Through their political work, internationalist collaboration, and place within communist continuity and tradition, these parties had in reality for some time already become communist organizations that no longer considered themselves Trotskyist and were separate from the world Trotskyist movement and its various competing parties and international groupings....

Whatever the political fate of Barnes and his dwindling band of followers, it can be safely predicted that they must face it alone. Fidel Castro will not be there to console them. The “revolutionary convergence” they hoped for was unrealistic at the start and now is unimaginable.

2. From Vanguard to Cult

The Socialist Workers Party endured as a viable political organization longer than any other radical group in the United States. With its abandonment of revolutionary Marxist politics and its severance of all ties with the international revolutionary socialist movement, it might seem to be on its way to becoming a political sect like the Socialist Labor Party, but the character of its leadership dooms it to the sterility of a cult. There are cases of cultism in the U.S., though the classic example appeared in Britain: the degeneration of the Socialist Labour League into the pseudo-Trotskyist cult of Gerry Healy, which later took the name Workers Revolutionary Party. Cults are built around an individual. Due to his own scandalous behavior, Healy's group blew up shortly before he died. But the cult depends upon its leader and cannot survive otherwise. Cannon's description of the political cult applies in almost every detail to the SWP today:

A cult requires unthinking fools for the rank and file. But that is not all. In order for a cult to exist, it is not enough for a leader to have personal followers—every leader has personal influence more or less—but a cult leader has to be a cultist himself. He has to be a megalomaniac who gets revelations outside the realm of reality. A megalomaniacal cult leader is liable to jump in any direction at any time, and all the cultists automatically follow, as sheep follow the bellwether, even into the slaughterhouse. [ Speeches to the Party, pp. 184-185]

Some SWP members who were closely associated with Barnes became suspicious of him and thought they detected signs of psychosis in the early 1980s. It was clear at that time that he had serious character defects, but it was not until the end of the decade that his pontifications on events of the day indicated a break with reality. At precisely what point the cult complex became the general characteristic of the SWP is not easily determined, but the degenerative process paralleled the decline in party membership and the gradual shrinking of its periphery. Throughout the decade of the 1980s its influence in the radical movement, especially among Latin American support groups and within the so-called anti-imperialist movement, gradually dried up. This was due in large part to the increasingly hostile U.S. political climate and the eventual collapse of Stalinism at the end of the decade. But the failure of the Barnesite leadership to understand and try to rationally explain the debacle of “real existing socialism” in Poland, and later in the rest of Eastern Europe, imposed the cultist stamp on the party. Convincing evidence was provided in the pages of the Militant (Nov. 2, 1990) when the SWP national secretary journeyed to North Korea, making a pilgrimage to the land of Kim Il Sung, one of the few remaining copies of Stalinism after the collapse. Barnes appears as a messenger. He is reported to have told Kim in a one-hour interview that “it is capitalism, not communism, that is in crisis today.” The response, if any, remains unreported.

3. Seeking to Understand

It is easier to outline the sequence of events that gave rise to the repudiation of Trotskyism by the Barnes group than it is to explain the lessons inherent in this development. Essential to this task, to keeping one's balance while sorting through these peculiar problems, are a sense of history and identification with the lives and struggles of working people.

At the conclusion of the 1981 SWP convention, statements were made by the leaders of the political tendencies in the party at that time—Jack Barnes, Nat Weinstein, and George Breitman. The texts of these statements are published in this volume. Barnes attributed his success in winning a majority of the delegates to having started early to organize his forces. He made no reference to having organized a secret faction. His interest and understanding were limited to the goal of winning the struggle, without regard to the method of successfully building a socialist organization or achieving a socialist society.

When the four opposition leaders on the SWP National Committee were suspended from membership by the NC plenum at Oberlin in August 1983, we in the Fourth Internationalist Caucus thought that the party had fallen victim to the oppressive political climate in the U.S. in the post-World War II era, and that the mentality of the Barnes group was partly a reflection of the hostile social environment. We had been taught in the Trotskyist movement that the working class party and its leadership are conditioned by changing times, shifting political moods, and the culture upon which they are based.

One obvious lesson, we thought, from the emergence of an anti-Trotskyist faction inside the SWP was that the party as a whole had not properly understood the postwar world and had failed to prepare itself for such a catastrophe. This is why the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (FIT), soon after the purge of Trotskyists from the SWP, launched an ideological campaign in defense of Marxism against the political course of the Barnes group. We hoped to explain the social pressures that were driving them away from the working class movement, and draw useful lessons from their aberrant behavior.

4. The “Turn to the Working Class”

We have seen in the account offered above, and we've noted in the statements of the Barnesites themselves, that great weight was given to the SWP's “turn to the working class.” This would seem to contradict the notion that social pressures were driving them away from the working class movement. But it is extremely important to examine the nature of this “turn.”

When the Vietnam war ended in 1975, the party leadership had to take stock. In the course of the antiwar work, the SWP to a large extent had become a “single-issue” party, in the sense that the membership was conditioned to think in terms of concentrating all attention and effort on a single issue or campaign. In retrospect, one of the lessons of what subsequently happened is that the party leadership in the 1970s erred in not paying sufficient attention to the education of its new membership and potential leaders. This might have made a difference; but if so, the quality and method of education would have been decisive.

It is now clear that meaningful political education must involve open discussion of current issues, confrontation of conflicting ideas, and the test of practical work in working class organizations. It would also have had to embrace a different concept of leadership attitude and responsibility than was transmitted. The failure to have adequately carried on such education profoundly affected the fortunes of the SWP as it faced the new challenges of the post-Vietnam period.

A plenum of the SWP National Committee convened May 1, 1975, to decide the new course of the party—a turn to the working class. In reporting on the resolution that was later adopted at the 1975 party convention, Barnes gave the following projection:

We're not talking about a narrow “union orientation.” We say we are at the beginning of the radicalization of the working class; we are talking about throwing forces into important openings—reacting as a campaign cadre party to struggles such as the antiracist struggle that unfolded in Boston. We're talking about the growing possibilities of penetrating the mass movement, of the mass movement changing in all its sectors, of applying the proletarian orientation of the party as spelled out in the 1965 organizational resolution and in Farrell's [Dobbs] explanation of it at the Socialist Activists and Educational Conference in 1970. We're talking about working to make this party and its leadership more Black, more Chicano, more Puerto Rican, more female, as well as more working class in composition. [ Prospects for Socialism in America, p. 115]

This fragment telescopes most of what the Barnes leadership, at that time in control of the party apparatus, hoped to accomplish. They were disappointed and in some ways disillusioned by what happened in the four years that followed.

When the ranks of the party, consisting almost entirely of ex-students and campus radicals, tried to join forces with the working class (in the several different sectors as directed), they discovered that it was nothing like they had imagined it to be. Consequently, the leadership began to make adjustments in their projections of what must be. They directed attention to the union movement, more specifically to particular unions where they reasoned something would happen or the more radical elements of the working class could be found.

While making these adjustments and issuing new directives to the membership, they tried to rationalize and justify what they were doing on the basis of the declared correctness of their original projections. They acted as if recognizing their mistakes and trying to better understand their problems would be a default of leadership.

Despite the quandary over what became commonly referred to in the SWP as “the turn” (and later “a turn within the turn “), the party continued to recruit, largely from campus connections and from other radical groups. In 1976 the SWP had 1,000 members and the YSA had 1,185, many with dual membership. Peter Camejo was the SWP's candidate for U.S. president that year, and the party recruited 700 new members during his campaign. Few remained. The party's decline and deterioration began in 1977, largely the result of the programmatic disorientation which took a definitive turn in 1979, with a 50 percent loss by the mid-1980s.

There was an increasingly extreme stress on “proletarianizing” the party, and yet the pace and quality of life of SWP members became increasingly alien to most members of the working class. SWP members in auto plants, for example, were urged to concentrate on selling the Militant and many did this so intensely and persistently that they had no time for union problems or for socializing with their fellow workers. They become oddities on the job.

Another paradox was the impact of Stalinism on a party that from its very beginning had been an uncompromising foe of Stalinism.

5. The Pervasive Influence of Stalinism

The U.S. policy of “communist containment” was enunciated in 1947, the so-called Truman Doctrine. This initiated the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Truman's “containment” soon revealed itself as a restatement of the expansionist policy of U.S. imperialism as European and American troops moved into Asian countries to crush colonial uprisings. The Cold War then assumed the aspect of Soviet diplomatic support and financial aid to revolutionary struggles. Thus in the wake of World War II the newly formed parties of national liberation and the awakened masses of oppressed peoples in the colonial and semicolonial world readily identified their struggles with the Soviet government and its policy of “peaceful coexistence.”

During the Cold War years, from 1947 until the collapse of Stalinist state power in Eastern Europe in 1989, the Soviet bureaucracy utilized the inevitable native revolts against foreign oppression in its diplomatic maneuvers among the major industrial powers and within the United Nations.

This testing of imperialist aggression against Soviet diplomacy, in confrontations over local uprisings and major world crises in Korea, Vietnam, most independent African states, Cuba, Central America, and other third world zones, had an insidious effect over the years on the political consciousness of the radical movement in the industrial countries, especially so in the U.S. The reason can be attributed in part to the absence of an aggressive and combative labor movement in these countries. And this was conditioned by the successful postwar restructuring of capitalism and steady improvement in the living standard of industrial workers, the organized sector of the working class. The trade union bureaucracy, including the Stalinists in Western Europe, helped stifle working class militancy.

The Communist parties in France and Italy were identified with and closely followed the foreign policy of the Soviet government, even though Stalin had dissolved the Communist International during the Second World War. They enjoyed mass popular support. They were in the leadership of major unions. Repeatedly during the 1950s and 1960s they won large blocks of parliamentary seats, and occasionally, when called upon, served in the ministries of bourgeois governments.

In Britain and the U.S. Communist parties were locked out of most unions and unable to attract a mass following. Communists and radicals were also hounded by anticommunist legislation and government spies in the U.S. Nevertheless, especially because of the substantial growth in Communist Party membership and influence in the 1930s and '40s, plus the influence of Soviet and Chinese Stalinism among third world revolutionaries in the 1950s and '60s, Stalinist ideological conceptions gradually penetrated and eventually became pervasive in the radical movements of English-speaking countries. This ideology adjusted easily and accommodated to all the “trendy” theories of social change that caught on during the youth radicalization of the 1960s—across the spectrum from urban guerrilla warfare enthusiasts to advocates of nonviolent resistance.

The bulk of those who radicalized in the anti-Vietnam war movement in the U.S. accepted, without debate or consideration of its political consequences, the fundamental Stalinist thesis of the need for and possibility of peaceful coexistence between the capitalist world and noncapitalist countries. These noncapitalist countries, where property was nationalized and production was planned by the state, as in the Soviet Union and China, were seen as “socialist” countries. Socialist society as envisioned by classical Marxist writers was seen as certainly desirable but unlikely to evolve in the near future. Meanwhile the “real existing socialism” as practiced in some countries of Eastern Europe, or China, as well as in Vietnam and Cuba, were seen as a model for the anti-imperialist struggle. This would be best suited to third world countries and their economies, it was felt—besides which, any other course might not receive support from the Soviet Union. The Cold War was perceived as a global struggle between the evil of capitalism and the virtue of socialism. Such mindless notions never gained currency in the Socialist Workers Party at the time. There was an entire theoretical arsenal—from the struggle of the Left Opposition in Russia, Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed and other important works, and more than forty years of political experience - that helped to arm the party's cadres. And yet the party leadership did not take sufficient cognizance of the general political moods that were affected by the lack of political understanding and the influence of Stalinist miseducation within the broader radical movement. Attention was centered on antiwar work.

Despite superficial educationals on the fundamentals of Marxism and the treachery of Stalinism, the pervasive influence of Stalinist conceptions in the larger radical milieu conditioned the party membership to ignore the fact that Castro and other “revolutionists of action” shared many of these Stalinist-inspired misconceptions and to accept the sweeping characterization of them as modern-day Bolsheviks, continuators of Leninism, and harbingers of the new Marxist international.

The disappointment of the SWP leadership with what it discovered after its turn to the working class conditioned its euphoric embrace in 1979 of the unexpected revolutionary events in Iran and in Nicaragua and Grenada. The U.S. working class was unprepared to lead revolutionary struggles or to flock to the banner of a small Trotskyist party. But it could be taught to follow the examples in Central America and the Caribbean. On the heels of this theoretical “breakthrough,” the discovery that Cuba is a “socialist society” appeared in the pages of the Militant. It became the inspirational model for “worker-Bolsheviks” in the U.S.

6. The Class Character of the Revolutionary Party

If the modern working class is destined to transform society, as Marx explained, then it must create its own political party within the framework of capitalist society to fulfill its historic mission. And that party must be working class in composition and subject to the control of its members. The Bolshevik party in tsarist Russia in 1917 proved to be such a party. Since then, aspiring revolutionists and millions of politically conscious workers have attempted to build parties in the image of the Russian model, but few have succeeded.

The closest approximation to the Russian model, under completely different historical conditions, may have been the Socialist Workers Party when it was founded in the U.S. in 1938. It was largely petty bourgeois in composition, but the leadership under Cannon was working class. These leaders had developed within the American Communist Party (a caricature of the Russian party), in opposition to bureaucratization and Stalinist control. Nearly all were workers, products of early 20th-century working class culture, and self-educated in the classics of Marxism.

In this respect, as in other ways typical of radical America, the SWP was different from the Russian model. At the time of the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik party, while it had a substantial working class membership, was led by Lenin and Trotsky, who were not workers. But they identified with the actual lives and needs and historic interests of the Russian working class. And they directed their great energies to creating a mass working class party of workers, responsive to the needs of the class and its natural political allies in the many nationalities of old Russia.

The essential common characteristic of the Bolshevik party and the pre-World War II SWP was the quality of leadership, its sensitivity to working class moods and sentiments, and its instinctive attachment to the political needs of the working class, which guaranteed that worker members would define the class character of the party.

During his last exile, while resident in Mexico, Trotsky collaborated closely with Cannon in preparing the founding of the Fourth International, the world party of socialism. He had known Cannon from the early days of the Communist International, and on October 3, 1937, he wrote to him:

I have remarked hundreds of times that the worker who remains unnoticed in the “normal” conditions of party life reveals remarkable qualities in a change of the situation when general formulas and fluent pens are not sufficient, where acquaintance with the life of workers and practical capacities are necessary. Under such conditions a gifted worker reveals a sureness of himself and reveals also his general political capabilities. [ Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1936-37, p. 475]

Trotsky went on to suggest that “it is absolutely necessary at the next convention to introduce in the local and central committees as many workers as possible.”

For the SWP in 1972, when Barnes became national secretary, Trotsky's long-forgotten suggestion was meaningless because there were then very few workers left in the party. It had become a party of students, petty-bourgeois radicals, a few older workers facing retirement, and functionaries. When the party leadership decided in 1975 to “turn to the working class,” the ranks were unprepared for the factory environment of assembly lines and blast furnaces in which some of them suddenly found themselves. They discovered that petty-bourgeois students cannot become part of the working class simply by putting on overalls and getting on a factory payroll, but few ever understood why. And their understanding was not enhanced by the leadership policy of shifting them around from job to job and city to city, as if they were back on campus selling socialist literature and preparing themselves for the next big street demonstration.

The insuperable task of proletarianizing the party at that juncture may be attributed in part to the long period of quiescence in the union movement, the close collaboration between union bureaucrats and employers, and the prevailing sense of class peace. But this is only part of the puzzle. There was a great deal more going on in the unions during the 1970s than the SWP leadership was aware of or cared about.

Dissatisfaction with union officials gave rise to many rank-and-file opposition groups, most notably in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. In 1976, 200 members of the Teamsters union met in convention to form an organized opposition to corrupt leadership. They called their organization Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Today, after fifteen years of persistent organizing and almost continuous warfare with gangs of armed thugs, TDU claims 10,000 members and is allied with other militants and oppositionists in the expectation of democratizing their union, electing a new leadership, and changing the character of the labor movement in this country.

TDU is not a socialist organization. Its immediate aims are confined to winning membership control of the union and forcing the employers to comply with union standards of pay and working conditions. But TDU is a genuine working class organization, built by on-the-job workers for the most part, with an organizational structure which they created and control.

Creating a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class with the aim of establishing a new socialist society is very different and far more difficult than organizing a class struggle union movement. But the two are related and will eventually be connected. The vanguard political party cannot be created without men and women in its leadership who are the blood and soul of those in the front ranks of mass organizations like TDU.

The main reason the SWP could not find its way into the working class and transform a very large portion of its loyal and devoted membership at the time was the petty-bourgeois leadership, consisting of ex-students, alien to the working class and contemptuous of union reform groups like TDU. Such leaders could talk about “leading the party into industry” but lacked the will and class instinct to do it.

7. Problems of Leadership Transition

In the conclusion of his 1975 reminiscence of Cannon, George Breitman recalled Cannon's opinion on how the leading bodies of a revolutionary party should be selected.

Its essence was that the National Committee slate recommended to the convention should be the product of the delegates from the branches themselves rather than the choices of the outgoing National or Political Committees or of any of the central leaders, no matter how prestigious. [Les Evans, ed., James P Cannon As We Knew Him, p. 127]

We have noted that, because of the extraordinary historical circumstances, the central leaders of the Dobbs-Kerry period did not feel able to do this in regard to their own successors. Barnes quickly became the favorite of Dobbs and Kerry themselves, and he was coached, nurtured, and promoted by them. He was encouraged to develop his own leadership team, to which the older comrades were selflessly inclined to defer in order to facilitate a smoother transition.

This transition seemed reasonable as a means for ensuring the revolutionary continuity and continued growth of the party, but the results turned out differently than expected. In 1979 the Barnes group, having inherited the organizational apparatus of the SWP, addressed the self-imposed task of “Forging the Leadership of a Proletarian Party,” hoping in this way to generate steam to propel the party into the working class. This produced noise inside the party but little motion outside. The SWP had suffered a sharp decline in membership beginning in 1977. It dropped from 1,690 members to 885 in 1984. This was partly the result of the purge of Trotskyists, but other reasons had to do with the failure of the leadership to understand the political trend of the times or the mood of the workers.

The lesson here, I suppose, is that leaders in a working class organization can't be handpicked and bottle-fed.

8. Basic Guidelines

After the 1984 party convention Barnes took great pains to prepare a policy report and a form to be filled out by delegates to all future conventions and signed by the branch secretary. It must be added, however, that his attention also penetrated to deeper levels.

As time passed and the Barnesites secured a tighter and tighter grip on the party structure and life within it, they grew commensurately fonder of prescribing guidelines for proletarian conduct, including moral conduct.

As early as the 1977 convention they had adopted, after thorough discussion, a report on “Leninist Norms and Nonexclusive Party Social Affairs.” One conclusion of this was the following: “We are a centralized combat party and are attempting to forge a special type of instrument—the kind of organization that ... people are totally unaccustomed to when they join.” That was certainly true at the time. But it became more cruelly true later. An accumulation of precedents created norms of party conduct and an atmosphere that became increasingly strange to the uninitiated.

In 1989 the Political Committee issued for the benefit of party members “Control Commission Report and Related Materials on 1988 Oberlin Harassment Case.” This turned out to be the case of a party sympathizer who attended lectures at the 1988 Oberlin educational conference and was suspected of having some political disagreements. He was accused by a guest at the conference of having “entered a women's bathroom and stared at her in the shower.” On the basis of dubious evidence the Control Commission investigated and substantiated the charge. The Political Committee approved the Control Commission's report. The offender, protesting his innocence to the end, was dropped from the rolls of active supporters. Character witnesses later claimed the real offense was “political doubts” as revealed in the report of the Control Commission. This case appears to be part of a larger pattern.

In 1990 an SWP Information Bulletin titled “Leadership Lessons from 1988-90: Defending the Turn and the Party” reported that Barry Sheppard, a one-time prominent Barnesite, had developed serious differences with the Political Committee “not limited to particular questions facing the Pittsburgh branch, but rather tied to broader policy guidelines and their effect on the organization of party branches and union fractions.” But there had also been a “moral” breach at Oberlin— “using a women's bathroom in Burton Hall on the evening of Sunday, August 9 [1987],” an act that was upsetting to a woman participating in the Socialist Educational and Active Workers Conference. Sheppard was found guilty as charged, kicked out of the SWP leadership, and finally pushed out of the party.

Other official excursions into the realm of “proletarian morality,” catalogued and massively documented in SWP information bulletins, have involved: taking action against breast-feeding in an SWP branch headquarters; and prohibiting comrades from choosing not to invite other comrades they dislike to social gatherings in their own homes (specifically, not inviting certain branch “leaders” to one's own baby shower after those comrades have expressed hostility to the idea of revolutionaries having children). Also of special concern among SWP “central leaders” has been the question of whether it is reactionary for women to use cosmetics.

The Trotskyist movement has a serious interest in morality, as defined by Trotsky in this way:

The bourgeoisie, which far surpasses the proletariat in the completeness and irreconcilability of its class consciousness, is vitally interested in imposing its moral philosophy upon the exploited masses. It is exactly for this purpose that the concrete norms of the bourgeois catechism are concealed under moral abstractions patronized by religion, philosophy, or that hybrid which is called “common sense.” The appeal to abstract norms is not a disinterested philosophic mistake but a necessary element in the mechanics of class deception. The exposure of this deceit, which retains the tradition of thousands of years, is the first duty of proletarian revolutionists. [ Their Morals and Ours, p. 16]

It is clear that Trotsky had a different interest in morality than Barnes developed after abandoning revolutionary Marxist politics. Barnes simply used “norms of the bourgeois catechism” (with a pseudo-Leninist gloss) to cover his frame-ups and expulsions of real or imagined political opponents, and to create a general atmosphere in which “proletarian discipline” (i.e., members' acceptance of the central leadership's far-reaching authority over them) would eliminate the possibility of such opponents gaining a hearing. He is motivated to constantly weed out and renew the narrow circle of “leader” sycophants surrounding him.

The Trotskyist movement has always had a serious interest in selecting, renewing, and expanding the proletarian leadership of the vanguard Marxist party. We've already noted the concern of Cannon over this question. He discussed it in 1942 in this way:

At our convention in Chicago in 1938 when we founded the Socialist Workers Party, the slate brought before the convention ... rejected the candidacy [on the National Committee] of Comrade Breitman from New Jersey and put in his place another comrade, named Rosenberg, against the wishes of the New Jersey delegation. We made this error through lack of information and lack of knowledge of the two people and the haste of the last hour. Well, some of the comrades thought the world had come to an end because Breitman wasn't elected. But nothing happened. Breitman didn't make a big hullabaloo. He didn't go out to organize a Breitman for NC club. He just went back to work—that is all. And by the time the next convention rolled around, he replaced this unqualified comrade on the committee without any convulsion whatever. [ The Socialist Workers Party in World War II, p. 269]

It is clear that Cannon's interest in the selection of party leaders was different from what Barnes had in mind when he began reshuffling his National Committee and started “leading the party into industry.” Getting the party into industry was a good idea, but that required good leadership. And good leadership encourages and to a great degree depends upon the qualities that Lenin is said to have possessed: authority, energy, experience, versatility, and “talentedness” (as he himself put it in 1902). We understand that this is not 1902 and Lenin is not here. But those today who aspire to be working clans leaders can try to learn from Lenin's attitude to leadership and relations among party leaders, where all are never equal in experience or ability.

In his book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party, Paul Le Blanc relates a story to illustrate Lenin's attitude: When one leading Bolshevik sent him a note that included the comment “the Central Committee - c'est vous,” Lenin felt compelled to object, pointing out: “On organizational and personal questions I have been in a minority countless times. You yourself saw many instances when you were a Central Committee member.”

At the risk of banality, I think it may now be useful to suggest—to SWP members, ex-members, and others who may have had some experience with the party under the Barnes leadership—that activists in the radical movement will do best to rely on honesty, democracy, and education. This surely stands among the lessons that we in the Fourth Internationalist Tendency learned from our experiences as oppositionists in the SWP. We failed there in the short run, but we have gained through the long ideological struggle.

It is now clear that the Barnes schemes all failed, that his only success was in wrecking the party he pretended to serve. The terrible destructiveness did not automatically flow from questioning old orthodoxies nor even from making analytical or theoretical mistakes. Sometimes it is necessary to question “orthodoxies,” and mistakes can be corrected. But he was deceitful and manipulative in his effort to advance what he viewed as necessary changes, and this did great damage. One of the lessons has to be that honesty is the best policy, in revolutionary politics as in other socially conscious undertakings.

As for democracy, the opposition was strong for democratic practices in the SWP from the start of the struggle against the Barnesites, as the documents in this volume show above all else. We believed this was the only way to reach the membership. But if that had been our only objective, we would have to admit failure. We could only say that we tried. Beyond the struggle in the SWP, the opposition firmly believed that an independent working class organization which fails to involve its membership in the decision-making process cannot survive. This is especially true of the revolutionary working class party. If it cannot endure free and open criticism within its own ranks, surely it will never be able to defend its ideas and win new adherents when confronting criticism from its enemies outside.

Education is essential. The goal of the revolutionary movement since the development of scientific socialism has been to educate the working masses in order to create a new society of the free and equal. Education comes through experience, but its essence is the grasping of ideas. It is essential, to do this adequately, not to feel intimidated in questioning authority or—as Marx once put it— “doubting everything.” That is why democracy and education must go hand in hand. Whether in society at large or within the confines of a small organization that seeks to transform society, no progress is possible without the confrontation of opposites and their testing in practice.

In the continuing confrontation between all that Barnesism stands for and the former SWP opposition, the test of the opposition comes now in our ability to assemble the forces of Trotskyism in the U.S. and reconstitute a viable sympathizing section of the Fourth International.

As we move forward to the future, we continue to hear echoes of questions from the past. Could the destruction of the SWP have been avoided? Would a more adept and perceptive leadership of the SWP in the 1960s have better trained and prepared the radical youth of that decade for the crisis of the 1980s? Could a different kind of leadership have developed from the generation of the 1960s in the SWP?

Such questions always arise. And for that reason we must address them. But “The Answer” will remain unknown, because there is no answer. Speculation of this kind can occur only in the realm of imagination. The only available material evidence is the historical fact. The history of the SWP might have developed differently, but it did not. Our task is to understand the history and continue the struggle in defense of the principles upon which the SWP was founded.

July 12, 1991

The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party  |  Main Document Index  |  ETOL Home Page | Marxists’ Internet Archive