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The Socialist Workers Party Today

A Balance Sheet of Degeneration

by Frank Lovell and Paul Le Blanc (1988)

The organizational unity of revolutionary socialists is a necessary goal in the effort to advance the struggles of the working class. Many have understandably expressed dismay over the fragmentation of the Fourth Internationalist movement in the United States—with the initial split in the Socialist Workers Party brought about through a bureaucratic purge in the 1982-84 period, and subsequently with the inability of those driven out of the SWP to form a common organization.

The Fourth Internationalist Tendency has maintained a distinctive position on the problem of revolutionary socialist unity here in this country. Central to this position is the continued seriousness with which we view the past, present, and future of the Socialist Workers Party, which was once one of the foremost representatives of world Trotskyism but which, under the leadership of its national secretary Jack Barnes, has now become an opponent of the Trotskyist program. Our attitude to the SWP—how we judge it as a revolutionary factor and what we think are the prospects of reforming it—colors our relations with other tendencies in the Fourth Internationalist movement in this country, and with the United Secretariat of the Fourth International itself. So it is useful to draw a balance sheet at this juncture on the degeneration of the SWP and the destructive influence of the Barnes faction in the FI.

Origins of Disunity

Following the 1981 SWP convention, two oppositional currents formed in the party's National Committee. One was represented by Frank Lovell and Steve Bloom, the other by Nat Weinstein and Lynn Henderson. Both opposed the challenge that the Barnes leadership was posing—through its uncritical adaptation to the weaknesses of Castroism—to the revolutionary Marxist program which had guided the party from the time of its founding. In particular, the Barnes leadership had adopted untenable positions against Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution as well as in regard to events in Iran (failing to oppose the reactionary Khomeini regime) and Poland (opposing acts of revolutionary solidarity with the Polish workers against the Jaruzelski dictatorship). Both NC oppositional tendencies also criticized the sectarian and abstentionist trend of the Barnes leadership in regard to the labor movement and social struggles in the United States. And both opposed the Barnes group's gross violations of party democracy.

On the other hand, there were differences between these two tendencies—especially on how to evaluate the Nicaraguan revolution, but also on how to relate to the nuclear freeze movement, and on the question of how to propagandize within the union movement for a labor party in the U.S. Rather than merging into a common tendency, therefore, these two currents in the SWP National Committee maintained their distinct identities, agreeing to work together in a united oppositional bloc on the positions they held in common.

A more fundamental difference also existed: Divergent evaluations of the SWP and how the struggle should be waged within it. The analysis of the Fourth Internationalist Caucus (FIC), which Lovell and Bloom represented in the SWP's National Committee, was explained by George Breitman after the infamous January 1984 purge in which many loyal oppositionists were expelled from the party. Drawing attention to the attitude of the Left Opposition led by Trotsky in the USSR in the late 1920s and of the Left Opposition in the U.S. to the American Communist Party in the years 1928-31, Breitman argued that the efforts of the FIC to fight for political and programmatic clarification and to reform the party had been justified, and that this approach should be maintained even after the clique-style purges from the SWP.

The Weinstein/Henderson tendency sharply disagreed and when all of us were kicked out we soon went our separate ways. They had concluded that the SWP had already been destroyed as a revolutionary organization. Impatient with the struggle for programmatic clarification, they were determined to launch a new Trotskyist party. The FIC insisted that a more serious approach toward program was required. This difference between our two currents remains unresolved.

The present-day existence of two separate groups-the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (F.I.T.) and Socialist Action—has its roots in this divergence. Impatience and insufficient concern for serious programmatic clarity also contributed to the later split in Socialist Action, which resulted in some of its members regrouping with non-Trotskyist forces to form a third group, Solidarity. The hallmark of the current which established the F.I.T., on the other hand, has been a patient commitment to carrying through to the end the struggle against Barnesism—defending, clarifying, and further developing the program of revolutionary Marxism.

First Declaration

We made our position clear within the SWP National Committee (or tried to) from the first public attack on Trotskyism by the Barnes faction. This attack came in veiled form in an article signed by Doug Jenness, the editor of International Socialist Review (ISR), “How Lenin Saw the Russian Revolution” (Nov. 1981).

In a letter to the SWP National Committee (Dec. 23,1981) Bloom/Lovell defined three political tendencies in the NC: the majority tendency (Barnesites); ours (FIC); and a third represented by Weinstein/Henderson. This was a programmatic statement differentiating the FIC from the others on five major issues of the time: 1) solidarity with the political revolution in Poland against the Stalinist bureaucracy; 2) the analysis of events in Iran; 3) the need for a free and open discussion within the party on Leninism; 4) Castroism and the Fourth International; 5) U.S. working class radicalization and work in the unions and other mass organizations (text in Bulletin IDOM No. 3, Feb. 1984).

Relations with the FI

On January 30-31, 1982, Bloom and Lovell met with United Secretariat representatives in Montreal. The purpose of these meetings was to explore the extent of political agreement in documents of the FI and those of FIC on Poland, Iran, Castroism, and Leninism.

Immediately following these meetings, the United Secretariat members also met with Barnes and Barry Sheppard from the SWP majority. The result of that meeting was never reported to us by any of the participants on either side.

The Barnes faction continued its attacks, open and veiled, on the FI majority leadership. The June 1982 ISR carried an article by Doug Jenness, “Our Political Continuity with Bolshevism,” an attack on Ernest Mandel's defense of Trotskyism which had appeared in the April issue of ISR.

From the first open attacks on Trotskyism by the Barnes faction at the NC plenum immediately following the August 1981 party convention in Oberlin, the Bloom/Lovell/Breitman tendency sought agreement with the Barnes faction to hold an open ideological debate within the party over Leninism/ Trotskyism. But this was rejected by the Barnesites, who proceeded instead to impose new organizational “norms” to outlaw any discussion or dissent. They thereby prevented an open political debate.

Having been denied political expression within the SWP, we sought support from the FI leadership and urged them to organize an ideological struggle in defense of Trotskyism against Barnesite revisionism, in all sections of the International. We have not yet succeeded in getting this long overdue ideological struggle organized. The FI majority has consistently criticized the organizational abuses of Barnes and his allies in the International. But the politics underlying these abuses have yet to be thoroughly explored and exposed.

SWP Purges Exposed

After the bureaucratic purges of SWP members, the United Secretariat published an International Internal Information Bulletin in several languages, “The Organizational Situation in the Socialist Workers Party (USA).” The English edition appeared as International Viewpoint, Special Issue, February 1984. It was a 30-page compilation of SWP and FI documents, including a useful “chronology of events 1981-1984.” It also included a brief one-page introduction by the United Secretariat Bureau, which listed and summarized the conclusions of a series of resolutions adopted by the world movement condemning the bureaucratic organizational practices of the SWP leadership, beginning in 1982. The bureau summary said, “the USec passed another resolution 26-29 January 1984 which noted the new wave of expulsions, reaffirmed its position of October 1983, and explained why it had established political relations with Socialist Action within this framework.” (This international bulletin was withheld from SWP members by the Barnes faction, as noted in Bulletin IDOM No. 7, May 1984.)

These were not the last such resolutions. In 1985, “The World Congress rules that, as long as S.A. and F.I.T. are not collectively reintegrated into the SWP, the entire organized membership of S.A. and F.I.T. will be considered as full members of the FI, with all the rights and duties prescribed by its statutes, and within the limitations imposed by reactionary U.S. legislation” (Bulletin IDOM No. 16, March 1985).

None of this explained why the SWP had abandoned Marxism, or what this betrayal by the SWP leadership means to the future of the international revolutionary movement.

F.I.T.'s Critique of Barnesism

We have subjected the political degeneration of the Barnes group in the SWP to continuous analysis from the first unmistakable evidence of their deviation from Marxism beginning with their repudiation of permanent revolution in 1981. The record of this ideological challenge is in Bulletin IDOM which published in issue No. 1 (December 1983) the text of our draft resolution for the SWP National Committee plenum of August 6, 1983, “Resolving the International Crisis of Revolutionary Leadership Today.” Every issue of the Bulletin for the past four years has dealt with some aspect of the political degeneration of this current. We did such a thorough job in this respect that one of our members decided a year or so ago that we had concluded our ideological campaign against the Barnesites, that there was nothing more to say about their politics, and that we ought to turn our attention to other matters. He left the F.I.T. and joined Socialist Action. But nearly everyone else in F.I.T. thought more remains to be said about this pernicious tendency in the general radical movement. What is the anti-Trotskyist pressure that drives the Barnesites away from Marxism. What is its source?

We began at the 1981 SWP convention with an analysis of the Castroist current and its influence on the “revolutionists of action” in Nicaragua, Grenada, El Salvador, and elsewhere in the Caribbean and in Central America. The unfolding struggles in each of these countries, locked in mortal conflict with U.S. imperialism, led us to the conclusion that “Castroism,” as a political tendency, is an adaptation to Stalinism in exchange for material support to Cuba tendered by the Soviet bureaucracy.

We then had to explain how the Trotskyist-educated SWP leadership could succumb to this adaptation to Stalinism.

Mistaken Expectations

The levy of new recruits that joined the SWP in the early 1960s, among whom Jack Barnes became recognized as the leader—first in the youth (Young Socialist Alliance) and later in the party—were campus radicals with few exceptions. They were oriented and motivated by antagonistic feelings toward bourgeois society in general and the seemingly insane war in Vietnam in particular. They shared these feelings with other radicalizing youth, of their generation, most of whom were drawn into the anticommunist “New Left” or the counterculturalist segment of the radicalization. Those who joined the SWP were attracted by the revolutionary tradition of Trotskyism in the U.S. and became convinced that the experienced cadres of the SWP were capable of helping them learn how to organize massive protests against the particular war at the time in Southeast Asia, and perhaps later against other evils of capitalism, leading ultimately to the overthrow of this unjust system—as had most recently happened in Cuba. The 1959 Cuban revolution profoundly influenced the radicalization of the 1960s in the U.S.

When U.S. military intervention in Vietnam failed in 1975 the great mass of antiwar protesters celebrated their victory. They felt they had prevailed, finally, after a decade of intensive agitation. At last the youth of this country were free of the fear of being drafted and shipped to the slaughter.

By this time the “young leaders” of the SWP were responsible for the overall strategy and day-to-day activity of the party. Under the direction of Barnes, who became SWP national secretary in 1972, they proceeded cautiously, consulting with Farrell Dobbs in party politics and with Joseph Hansen in the analysis of international events and relations within the FI. This relationship between the “old guard” and the new leaders ended abruptly in 1979, though not because of any deliberate decision. Dobbs was in retirement, and Hansen died January 18 of that year. When revolutionary uprisings triumphed in Nicaragua, Iran, and Grenada a few months later, the new crop of SWP leaders were in control and on their own.

Bad Times

The brief four-year period from 1975 to 1979 was not an inspiring time for that generation of campus radicals which was then ten years out of college. Many became disillusioned with radicalism and adjusted their life-styles to the prevailing bourgeois norms of capitalism under the Carter administration. The radical movement tended to stagnate, occupied mainly with regroupments and organizational experiments. The social democrats and Stalinists both recorded some numerical growth in these years, recruiting members in the lower rungs of the union bureaucracy and among graduate students and newcomers to university faculties. But there was no qualitative change in either the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) or the Communist Party.

For the SWP it was a time of testing—for the “young leaders” and for the broader layer of new recruits to the party. They were without experience in the mass movement except in the politics and mechanics of mobilizing antiwar demonstrations. And what was learned in this activity was not easily transferred to protest actions in Black communities or to the education and recruitment of union members and other workers.

The successful 1976 SWP presidential campaign brought 700 new recruits into the party, but few remained. The party leadership busied itself with reorganization of the branch structure, systematizing colonization in selected industries such as rail, steel, coal, and auto. Later they would experiment with a system of national union fractions that in many essential functions began to supersede the necessary responsibilities of party branches, in such areas as literature sales, financial contributions to the national organization, and union tactics at the local level. The main emphasis within the party shifted gradually from external to internal work, i.e., the attention of members was directed more to party life and developing leadership within the party, and less toward the problems of the working class and especially the problems of the union movement in those years.

The party gradually became more centralized than it had previously been. Over time all major decisions came to be made by the national office in New York, with little or no prior consultation among members in branches and union fractions across the country. Rank-and-file party members were assigned to sell the party press at their places of work. Literature sales, combined with weekly financial pledges, became the standard measure of worth in the organization. Those who failed to sell the Militant every week or could not maintain a high weekly sustainer contribution were treated as second-class citizens. Party membership began to decline. The SWP was becoming unattractive to young rebels.

What Went Wrong?

The reasons for this distorted development, which took a relatively short time to manifest itself, are complex—conditioned mainly by the student composition of the recruits to the SWP from the 1960s generation. They were a majority in the party in the 1970s, and the Barnes leadership was drawn from their ranks. They had not received the necessary education, and were ill-equipped to understand and explain the specific social and economic problems of U.S capitalism in the 1970s. Many quickly discarded the youthful hopes they may have had that the working class would replace the radicalized student youth of the previous decade and challenge the arrogance and stupidity of the ruling class. They began to feel betrayed by the working class, and tried to make up excuses for the militant segment of the class (Blacks, women, Hispanics and other minorities, and unrepresented youth in the unions) to explain to themselves why these oppressed sectors had failed to radicalize as predicted. They could not see or sense the ferment within the union movement and were oblivious to the tempo of the new stage of working class radicalization. They lost confidence in the working class's ability to challenge and replace the capitalist rulers in this country in the foreseeable future.

The disillusionment of the Barnes group with the industrial working class in the U.S. coincided with a series of revolutionary uprisings in the colonial and semicolonial world, and the seizure of power in 1979 by revolutionary forces in Nicaragua, Grenada, and Iran. As Barnes and the close circle of personal followers around him turned away, in disappointment, from prospects of revolutionary struggle in the U.S., they were captivated by the glowing promise of revolution elsewhere. These exotic prospects were made more alluring by the geographic proximity of Cuba, Grenada, and Nicaragua. If Iran was far away this simply added a worldwide dimension to the anti-imperialist struggles in our own backyard. The SWP could not become an integral part of this revolutionary process in the Caribbean and Central America, but at least it could identify with the process and in its own way begin to emulate it.

In Search of a Leader

At this point the Barnes group began to question, among themselves, the previous SWP analysis of the revolutionary process in Nicaragua, and in the semicolonial world as a whole. Why were Trotskyists not in the leaderships of these revolutions or even part of the leadership? Could this be entirely due to the individuals involved? Or does it demonstrate that we have all been misled by Trotsky? The party leaders reminded themselves that even they had endorsed Joseph Hansen's critical evaluation of the Castro regime in Cuba on the eve of victory in Nicaragua, yet the Sandinistas were encouraged and inspired by the Cuban revolution and by Fidel Castro, who had become an avowed opponent of Trotskyism.

Their conclusion was implicit in their questions, and they were uninterested in which came first. Either way, they had convinced themselves by the time of the 1981 SWP convention that Trotskyism was flawed and that those who want to understand the post-World War II revolutionary process must learn from Castro and other “revolutionists of action.” The necessary corollary to this proposition is the fallacy of Trotskyism. The Barnes group embarked enthusiastically on their new project, hoping to forge an alliance with Castro. This transformed political thinking of the SWP leadership ought, according to all past traditions of the party, to have set the stage for a rich and rewarding debate within the ranks over the theory and practice of revolutionary politics. It would surely have reviewed Marxist history since the organization of the Bolshevik faction under Lenin in the Russian Social Democratic Party at the beginning of this century. The history of American Trotskyism is replete with examples of how such discussions are prepared and conducted: the 1935 struggle against the sectarian attitudes and methods of Hugo Oehler in the Communist League of America, the 1939-40 struggle in the SWP against the opportunism of Burnham/Shachtman, the 1946 struggle against the capitulation of Morrow/Goldman, and the 1953 struggle against the liquidationist tendency of Cochran/Clarke/Bartell. Each of these reviewed revolutionary history, but all were also directly concerned with the immediate problems of the revolutionary movement at that particular juncture in history. The struggle in each instance was to decide “what must be done now.”

Revisionism vs. Marxism

What to do? Barnes and his group decided this for the SWP in 1981, without consulting the party. In fact they lied to the party, claiming at the convention that year that they in no way questioned the validity of Trotskyism. They waited until after the convention to announce their repudiation of Trotskyism, and then only to their newly elected, largely handpicked, National Committee. By reaching their decision in the way they did, and by imposing it on the ranks of the party without benefit of debate and open struggle over conflicting ideas and methods of understanding, the Barnesites deprived the SWP (including themselves and their personal followers) of the opportunity to prepare for coming struggles. Those who champion a set of ideas—especially if poorly conceived—must be prepared as well as possible to defend them. This is one of the advantages of factional struggles in the Marxist movement, as explained many times by Cannon. In 1953 he said, “Factional struggles in the party of revolutionists are justified only by serious differences of opinion over principles and policy, and should be conducted with the most scrupulous honesty. For it is only by an honest presentation of one's own position, as well as the position of the opponent, that the issues can be clarified and the youth can learn. That was Lenin's method. That was Trotsky's method. And it has been our method, the method by which we have assembled and educated our cadres for twenty-five years.”

This is not the method of the Barnesites, partly because they never had an opportunity to learn its value. During the 30 years from 1953 to 1983 there were moments when the Trotskyist movement dozed, times when there seemed such tranquility and unanimity of opinion in the SWP that Cannon cautioned it might be a sign of sleepiness. The truth is there was never unanimity of thought, neither in the ranks of the party nor in the National Committee. But during the 1960s and 1970s dissenters were quickly isolated and either left the party or were forced out before the social pressures that produce cleavages at different junctures could be thoroughly analyzed and explained for the education and reeducation of the entire membership. Frequent nuances among top leaders were reconciled or compromised by consensus.

The exception was the ideological struggle within the International from 1968 to 1978 over the role of guerrilla warfare in Latin America. This is recorded in the 1979 Pathfinder publication, The Leninist Strategy of Party Building by Joseph Hansen, which appeared shortly after his death earlier that year. This struggle as it developed was reported to the SWP membership but it was not one in which the membership directly participated. It is true that Barnes was a major participant, but he contributed more to the organizational side of the struggle than the ideological core.

When the Barnesites finally revised their opinions about Trotskyism and discarded the Marxist method of social analysis they did so in the same way as all previous revisionists in the Marxist movement have done or tried to do: by organizing a faction before they announced their program. Like the Stalinists before them they began by falsifying the history of Bolshevism, claiming to discover the fatal flaw of Trotskyism in what Barnes called the “weaknesses in Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution” (“Their Trotsky and Ours,” New International, Fall 1983).

Also like the Stalinists, they stifled all discussion in the party and expelled the opposition to preclude debate. They then falsified the reason for the expulsions and tried to ignore the arguments of the opposition even within the councils of the FI, where they still pretend to be loyal organizational supporters while working feverishly to destroy the sections of the world movement wherever possible.

How the F.I.T. Characterized Barnesism

Shortly after the founding conference of F.I.T. in February 1984 we adopted the programmatic document that defines our tendency. The “Platform of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency,” published in Bulletin IDOM No. 5, April 1984, stated unequivocally our attitude to the SWP: “Even if we are forced to remain outside the party, we will do what we can to build, defend, and strengthen it. We are not trying to create a rival party or a separate organization in competition with the SWP. In addition to attempting to convince the party to change its wrong perspectives, we have asked to work with the SWP in such areas as the 1984 election campaign, publication projects, sales of the Militant, and defense cases.”

We characterized the political and programmatic deviation of the Barnes group as adaptation to Castroism, at the same time that Castro was adapting his political orientation and governmental policies to Stalinism. “Instead of learning from and utilizing the strengths of Castroism in their efforts to establish ties with the Cubans, the SWP central leadership has adapted to that current's weaknesses, and is progressively abandoning our Trotskyist program,” we said. “Such an approach cannot succeed and will ultimately lead to political bankruptcy.”

We had no illusions that the Barnes tendency, then in full control of the party, was capable of reforming itself. For them, there was no turning back at that late date. We did, however, look closely for the cleavages and divisions that we thought were bound to develop among them, and between them and the party rank and file. In Bulletin IDOM No. 22, Sept. 1985, George Breitman called attention to “divergences in the SWP leadership team” which broke through the closed circle and finally into the pages of the Militant and Intercontinental Press, which at the time was still published and a valuable SWP asset. But such altercations did not foreshadow any serious programmatic difference among the Barnesites. In this instance what was involved was routine apocalyptic reporting on Reagan's embargo of Nicaragua. Barnes did not hesitate to publicly embarrass Cindy Jaquith and Doug Jenness, editors respectively of the publications in question and among his most loyal personal supporters, to make a necessary political correction. The group was becoming a “Castro” cult with Barnes the acknowledged infallible interpreter and chief disciple. Yet it is highly questionable whether Fidel Castro and the other militants who made the Cuban revolution would have felt comfortable in such an organization.

A Test of the Membership

We thought the SWP's August 1985 convention would be a crucial test for the party membership, and wrote accordingly. We noted that the leadership had failed to make room on the convention agenda for “the single most important question facing the party at this time—what to do about the decision of the 1985 world congress of the Fourth International, which upheld the appeal of the expelled party members, and demanded by an overwhelming vote that we be readmitted to the SWP with full membership rights and responsibilities.” We said, “The SWP convention, as the highest body of the party, has the responsibility to act on this question.”

We were well aware that the preconvention discussion in the party had been throttled. The number of discussion articles fell from 239 (921 pages) in 1981 (the last time a normal SWP preconvention discussion was allowed) to only 53 (223 pages) for the August 1985 convention. We knew also that the convention delegates had been carefully selected, awarded loyalty badges as a token of recognition by the “leadership” (which in the SWP consists formally of all NC members and many full-time functionaries, who do not have to stand for election as regular delegates, but influence the convention in their capacity as “fraternal delegates“).

Nonetheless, we watched carefully for signs of membership reaction to bureaucratic practices in the party which were intensified on the eve of the convention. The New York branch held a trial of Keith Mann, in absentia, and expelled him. Keith had been the only party member in the country to present a counterplatform to that of the party leadership for the SWP's pre-world congress convention in January 1985. His expulsion was not designed to encourage outspoken criticism from others at the August convention, but members of a voluntary organization have many ways of expressing dissatisfaction and disagreement. Some leave quietly.

Shortly after the 1985 SWP convention, Tom Barrett, a former SWP member, appealed to others who had left the party (Bulletin IDOM No. 23, Oct. 1985). He said, “The F.I.T. has taken on a dual task—or rather, a single task with two aspects: we are fighting to return the SWP to revolutionary Marxism, through patient explanation, in publications, in international debates, and we are intervening in the class struggle, attempting to show in action what the Trotskyist program means. This single task is building the revolutionary party. To the hundreds of former party members who still believe in socialist revolution I make this appeal: fight for the program to which you were recruited! Join the F.I.T.!”

We were not then overly sanguine about the prospects for reforming the SWP. The more likely development, it seemed to us at the time, was that the Barnesites would retain their organizational grip on the slowly disintegrating SWP while continuing to inject their revisionist poison into the veins of the Fourth International. In an announcement that a meeting of the F.I.T. Organizing Committee in Cleveland had discussed new perspectives, Stuart Brown said, “there was general agreement that with the conclusion of the most recent preconvention discussion in the SWP it would be appropriate for the F.I.T. to make a number of shifts. Rather than continue concentrating almost exclusively on the very specific discussion we have been trying to have with the leadership and membership of the SWP, we will now undertake a broader, more comprehensive analysis of the U.S. and international class struggles. This will be reflected in the kinds of articles which will be featured in future issues of the Bulletin IDOM.” A thoroughgoing analysis of Barnesite revisionism in collaboration with the majority leadership of the FI was anticipated.

The Barnesite Image

It is more than four years since the SWP purges. Our attitude to the SWP now is determined by the rate of disintegration and degeneration of the party. Its gradual disintegration cannot be measured solely by its numerical decline, but this is a factor. The court decision in the SWP case against the U.S. attorney general found, based on trial testimony, that party membership in 1981 was 1,250 nationwide. “The annual budget of the SWP is around $1.5 million,” it said.

By the time of the postponed national convention in August 1984 (after the general membership purge and “reregistration“) the official count had declined to 826; and one year later, at the 1985 “constitutional convention,” it was down to 780. There was also report of a decline in income and talk of “budget revision,” but no exact amounts were revealed to delegates at either of these conventions.

At the SWP education conferences in 1986 and 1987 efforts were made to stem the tide of membership losses, to find ways to compensate for this trend and reverse it if possible. The SWP launched a “summer campaign” to bring potential recruits to the 1986 conference, the hope being that new Militant readers, young workers, minority youth especially, and others could be brought to Oberlin for a week of intensive indoctrination. The character of the conference was changed from that of previous years to accommodate these new unspoiled potential recruits.

Exactly how these projected changes in the nature of the reports and discussions at the industrial fraction meetings were to be implemented was not readily apparent to some members who had regularly attended the annual party gatherings for more than a decade. But there was a very serious effort by the top leadership of the party to reach new people. A special subcommittee of the PC was chosen to approve requests for reduced fees at the conference in order to insure the widest attendance possible. They talked about redesigning the classes and discussion so as to “open up” the conference, and to “build on” the regional education conferences that had been held in the spring of that year. This special effort to devise new recruiting techniques brought no immediate overall results. Party dropouts continued to exceed recruits. But in the course of these efforts enough young people—students for the most part—were attracted to warrant revitalizing the YSA.

When the 1987 national education conference was held the party leadership announced that the membership decline had finally been halted, that new recruits about equaled dropouts. But it was obvious that the party was smaller, and at this conference transfer arrangements were made to relocate a large part of the party membership. This had often been done in the past, but this time eight branches were abandoned: Albany, Dallas, Louisville, New Orleans, Denver, Cincinnati, Tidewater, Toledo.

The True Gauge

The degeneration of the SWP must be measured by the headlong abandonment of the program and method of revolutionary Marxism, not by fluctuations in numbers of members or even in terms of momentary political influence (presently invisible).

In 1981 the party leadership, prior to the August convention, claimed to be the continuators of the Marxist tradition of Lenin and Trotsky. But after they quietly purged nearly all suspected Trotskyists from the new National Committee at that convention, they came out with a slight revision in what they claimed to stand for. They still claimed to be the continuators of the Marxist tradition, but with a major omission—Trotsky. This was the sure sign of political degeneration in the leadership circles, not only because of their easy abandonment of Marxism but also because of their cynical denial and transparent after-the-fact cover-up attempts.

To what extent and in what forms this would affect the SWP membership could not be surmised in 1981. But it was clear after the 1985 convention that the party, during the four-year interval, had changed drastically. By this time the membership was unable to challenge what some among them perceived to be ineffective activity in the unions and other areas of party work. The vast majority, however, was indifferent to programmatic questions. The composition of the party had changed numerically as the above-cited statistics show (from 1,250 members in 1981 to 780 in 1985, a 38 percent decline), but that is only part of the story. A few new recruits partially replaced the large number of dropouts, and these new recruits had been indoctrinated against fundamental Marxist tenets as a result of the anti-Trotsky campaign of the Barnesites.

This degenerative process would continue without countervailing forces impinging from outside and germinating within the party. At the 1987 national education conference in Oberlin one of the most striking facts was the absence of any discernible interest among those in attendance about the almost nonchalant disregard of the SWP constitution by those in control of the party. The constitution specifically provides for a national delegated convention at no more than two-year intervals. Conventions are preceded by discussion periods during which alert members express in writing and in oral debates in the branches their ideas and opinions on major political problems. Delegates are elected on the basis of this discussion and debate.

The convention is the highest party body where the membership, through its elected delegates, has an opportunity to chart the future course of the party. In contrast to this, the education conference (preferred by the Barnesites) is an annual gathering of party members and sympathizers where the leadership tells them what the party will be doing for the next few months, insofar as the pragmatic character of this leadership allows it to foretell what it will do.

One of the unexpected events at the 1987 education conference, with about 1,000 party members, sympathizers, and invited guests in attendance (which specifically excluded members of F.I.T. and Socialist Action), was a class on recent events in the Soviet Union. Since the theme of the conference was the overriding importance of the new Cuban “rectification,” this sideshow class on the anti-Stalinist upheaval in the Soviet Union wasn't staged to attract much attention. Several other classes were scheduled for the same time, but this one was packed with comrades sitting in the aisles and standing along the walls. That, of course, is evidence of the impact of world events on the SWP membership and testifies to the fact that this membership remains susceptible to outside political forces. We can expect any change of political climate in the U.S. to have repercussions inside the SWP.

At the main sessions of the conference the leading Barnesites (including Barnes) explained their basic political orientation: 1) Cuba is the center of socialist ideology and the inspiration of revolutionary action (some say Fidel is leading a political revolution against the incipient bureaucracy); 2) a Castroist political current (“our current“) is developing within the world working class movement, but as yet (wisely) has no organizational structure; 3) included in this current, besides the SWP, are comrades who remain members of the FI in Iceland, Sweden, Britain, New Zealand, and Australia; 4) these FI comrades (including the SWP) are not, properly speaking, part of any “Fidelista current,” which according to Castro himself does not exist; 5) the FI is in crisis and the task of “our current” within it is to cleanse the international movement of the old Trotskyist rubbish and false predictions.

Barnes, in his contributions, reiterated his previous contention that the theory of permanent revolution must be rejected, that the FI as presently constituted is an obstacle to further growth of the international revolutionary movement, that Trotskyism expresses an ultraleft bias. He listed among Trotsky's false predictions that the anti-Stalinist struggles in the Soviet Union would develop under FI aegis; that the mass following of the FI (which Trotsky promised in 1938 would come about in the next decade) obviously did not; and that the FI will become the party of world revolution. Barnes told his followers, “The new mass revolutionary movement won't recognize its origins in the FI, but in Marx/Engels/Lenin.” He disassociated himself from the anti-Trotskyist group in Australia (once Barnes's closest co-thinkers) by pointing to their ahistorical notion that the formation of the FI was a mistake from the beginning. In his opinion it didn't turn out the way it was supposed to, but in the 1930s it served to preserve the continuity of the Marxist movement. Barnes says preserving revolutionary continuity is a task today for “our current” in the FI which he hopes will be accomplished by transforming and replacing the FI with the “new international.” In his opinion the end result of the early struggle for Marxist continuity was the Cuban revolution, and out of this revolution is emerging the new leadership that will open the way for the struggle against Stalinism that Trotsky hoped would develop.

This hodgepodge of impressionistic theory and contrived rationalization is presented in oral reports, and left unpublished. It is passed along within the SWP in the form of “reports from the conference” and by word of mouth in informal discussions among party members, and in branch educationals. It reappears in various guises in the reports and discussions at plenums of the National Committee, in party publications, and in the pronouncements of SWP candidates in the general electoral arena, and in occasional public talks by party or YSA representatives.

Passing the Word

A few examples will suffice to show how the party line is disseminated, how it is fed into the so-called revolutionary continuity concept.

Inside the party organizational structure: At the December 1987 NC plenum Barnes lectured his followers on the need to further centralize and tighten up the work of the party, to increase party press sales, to “firm up” the turn to industry (meaning industrial fractions must raise sustainer contributions to the national office and sell more Militants on the job), and to publicize the mural painting in progress on the wall of the party's publishing house, Pathfinder Press, in New York. It was reported that party finances are “in shambles” and comrades from the outlying branches were urged to increase membership in the “Over 50 Clubs,” consisting of those self-sacrificing comrades who contribute more than $50 weekly to the national office. A low-key presidential campaign in 1988 was projected. The position on Cuba as the ideological center of world revolution was reaffirmed, and the FI was dismissed as “too narrow” and otherwise meaningless.

Using the party press: To begin the new year the Militant (Jan. 1,1988) ran an editorial on “60 years of the 'Militant,'” the purpose being to project the false impression that the weekly newspaper of that name remains essentially the same as when it was founded, and to boost sales.

Those slightly familiar with the Barnesite leadership and politics of the SWP will spot the lie. The Militant began proudly as a Trotskyist publication. It remained a Trotskyist publication for 53 years, until 1981. In 1981 it became an anti-Trotskyist publication and remains so.

The inaugural 1988 editorial by its present anti-Trotskyist editors says, “Our first issue, dated Nov. 15, 1928, was published by communists committed to advancing the fight for a workers' and farmers' government in the United States as part of the worldwide struggle for socialism.” This is the truth as far as it goes. But it fails to mention the other part, the programmatic part, which is that the Militant was founded in the struggle against the perfidious Stalinist bureaucracy in the young workers' state, the Soviet Union, and in defense of the Marxist program and party of Lenin and Trotsky, who organized and led the victorious 1917 revolution in Russia and created the Communist International to organize revolutionary struggles in all nations of the world as the only means of achieving socialism.

In 1953 the Militant celebrated its 25th anniversary. George Breitman was editor at the time. On that occasion James P. Cannon, the founding editor, spoke about its original purpose and real meaning. His talk was titled “How we began and where we are going.” It was published in the November 9,1953, issue and should be read in contrast to the editorial policy that disgraces the pages of the Militant today. The following is a small sampling from Cannon's talk, restating what was said in the first issue. “The Stalinist program of socialism in one country is a revisionist betrayal of Marxism. The Trotskyist program of international revolution is realistic and right and [we] will support it at all costs, no matter how small our numbers may be, because we believe the program will carry us to victory in the end.

“We said we would support the program of international revolution as advanced by Trotsky, and on that rock we would build a new party in this country.”

The party that was built was the SWP, founded in 1938.

Where was the SWP going in 1953? Cannon believed that “the program, formulated by Trotsky in his lifetime—in the latter 11 years in direct collaboration with us—is the only program to organize the revolution and to lead it to definitive victory and the transition to socialism.” That is the difference in the Militant between then and now: the present editors use the paper to repudiate the Trotskyist program.

Speaking to the public: For an illustration of how the Barnesite program finds public expression we now go to radio station WERE in Cleveland, December 2, 1987. Marea Himelgrin, editor of the YSA newspaper, Young Socialist, is on the Joel Rose talk show. She was asked the usual questions about how socialism will work and why she thinks it is superior to capitalism. Her answers were reasonable and persuasive. When questions became specific she hewed to the Barnesite line. Where is there a socialist country that she can point to with pride? Cuba, she said. What about the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Europe? Marea thinks Cuba stands in contrast to a lot of backward steps that are being taken in the Soviet Union and China right now.

She said a big discussion has been going on in Cuba for the past two years about how to fight bureaucracy. This is how the trend toward capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union and China can be reversed. What about countries like Czechoslovakia and Poland? These are underdeveloped countries and to understand their problems we must look at their history.

Would it be possible to have a radio talk show under a socialist regime? Yes, in Cuba. But not in the Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. What about the U.S.; will workers here support socialism? And (a called-in question from a sympathetic listener) what can we do to establish socialism here? Marea said she thinks workers in this country will support her ideas because the Militant subscription campaign has gone well; and she has been encouraged by workers when she had a job in an auto plant and when she worked in a garment shop in St. Louis, and as a meatcutter in Minnesota. She said she had gone to Nicaragua in 1983 and believes the workers' and farmers' government there would be able to eliminate sexism and racism, give jobs to all, and begin to raise the standard of living if it were not for the U.S. war on the peoples of that country.

She failed to answer the question about what should be done to win socialism in this country, except by implication that it would help to make a trip to Nicaragua and see how the people there are fighting against great odds. Before more could be said, time ran out and Marea was off the air.

She made a generally favorable impression, and many listeners were undoubtedly anxious to hear what she would say about how to organize the struggle for socialism in this country. How do we get from here to there? The problem with this question for young comrades like Marea who have been educated almost entirely in the Barnes school of politics is that they never studied the Trotskyist Transitional Program (with capital “t” and “p” as Barnes says by way of denigration) and tried to master the Marxist method of social analysis.

Playing the Barnesite game in the FI: We have another example of Barnesism in action from London. On November 13,1987, the British section of the FI sponsored a debate between Ernest Mandel and Brian Grogan (leader of the Barnesite faction in Britain) on “Permanent Revolution vs. Communist Convergence.” This was unusual for the Barnesites because they avoid open debate where their ill-formed and largely nebulous program can be challenged. On this occasion they came off badly battered.

In order to keep their ranks intact they resorted to an organizational ploy in which they are more experienced and which better serves their factional disruption. Their excuse, in this instance, was that the editor of Socialist Action, the newspaper of the British section, had refused to run a big spread on the public meeting in London which launched Pathfinder/Pacific and Asia Publishers' distribution campaign for their new book, Che Guevara and the Cuban Revolution. (This book was published with the assistance of the Jose Marti Foreign Languages Publishing House of Havana, Cuba, so it has special meaning to the Barnesites.)

A meeting in New York on December 6 to celebrate the publication of this book was hailed in the Militant in a series of articles (Dec. 18,1987). In London the Barnesites pretended indignation that it wasn't accorded the same attention there. The Grogan faction announced that they would refuse to sell Socialist Action, or to participate in any way in the writing and production of the paper; and further, that they were withdrawing from all full-time positions in the party so as to remove any obstacle to the majority faction as the self-defined “unfettered leadership.”

The majority of the organization reacted by moving to expel the Groganites. This was the signal for Grogan's group to move out and set up their own headquarters and bookshop for the distribution of Pathfinder publications and other books handled by the Barnes network. They got prearranged help from Barnesites in Sweden and from “other visitors.”

Grogan pronounced the FI dead in Britain, and announced at the same time that he and his followers would remain within the organizational structure represented by the United Secretariat. [Later developments are discussed in “A Perversion of Internationalism: Founding Conference of the Communist League of Britain,” Bulletin IDOM No. 52.]

What Can F.I.T. Do?

The F.I.T. has recognized from its inception that Barnes presents the most serious challenge to the existence of the Fl since 1953. We were convinced in 1981 that the Barnes tendency had embarked on a suicidal course, and we didn't think we had much chance of heading it off. But we tried.

In 1984 we were convinced that the Barnes clique in the leadership of the SWP had consciously and definitively rejected the basic philosophy and organizational methods of Marxism. We had no illusions of salvaging anything from this cynical cabal. After the 1985 SWP convention it was clear that the membership was trapped in a cult-like organizational structure in which one was either a demonstrative believer in the leader or excluded from full rights of membership. We had no illusions that this would change in the near future as a result of our propaganda efforts from outside the group. But we continued to believe that the SWP represented a viable political force in this country, and so we said that it remained a revolutionary party. What can we say about it now, four years later?

We know that the composition of the SWP is changing even as the leadership continues to discard what it considers the excess baggage of Trotskyism. And this membership is subject to all the pressures of political change in this country and throughout the world, as was shown in small ways at the 1987 education conference.

Another fact about the SWP that we must never forget is its Trotskyist heritage, which is also ours. However much the Barnesites may try to discard Trotskyism, they will never succeed until they have destroyed the SWP and obliterated its name from political memory. The other enemies of Trotskyism will not permit the Barnesites to do otherwise. But this is a complicated process still in the experimental stages. No one can tell how it will be affected by the coming crisis in the U.S., and by world events. All segments of the radical movement are bound to be affected, even the CP. The SWP membership will eventually be divided along new political lines. The F.I.T. must strive to be part of that process.

Even though the SWP is presently a small group it is well organized and an important part of the fragmented and largely demoralized radical movement in this country. It compares favorably with other radical groups, including social democrats and Stalinists. It may not be exactly correct to call the SWP a party any more because the leadership does not strive to project the image of a party. But as an organized political group it retains some revolutionary force largely because of its Trotskyist heritage. Our attitude to it must remain comradely because of our common heritage, and because of the potential within it for change in a revolutionary direction which we can help to bring about.

What can we do in this respect? Two things: first, continue to explain and expose Barnesism; secondly, analyze and explain and submit some answers to the problems of the working class in the U.S. today. These are generalizations, easier said than done. But if we try, we can expect to attract some others who can help us in this effort.

Within the International we have recognized from the beginning that Barnesism is a liquidationist current. This must be obvious to many others by now. The F.I.T. must try and explain how this liquidationist current arose because we know it better and have the good fortune to be able to study its antecedents and its political and social roots better than anyone else. In conjunction with this task we must continue to explain what Barnesism is in terms of its position on events in the Soviet Union, China, Eastern Europe, and above all Cuba (the so-called socialist countries). In this connection, many politically drowsy people are beginning to wake up and ask what socialism is supposed to be anyway and whatever happened to Marx.

Here again it is easy enough to say what ought to be done. The problem is how to do it, and do it. We must try to carry out our task within the FI. This is not easy because Barnes is threatening to split the organization. He claims to have no intention of terminating the SWP's status as a sympathizing organization of the FI, but he continues to chip away at the sections. He hopes to destroy the FI piecemeal. That is the meaning of recent events in Britain, earlier in Canada, here in the U.S. of course, and possibly in other sections that we don't know about.

One of the most difficult tasks is to prevent Barnes-provoked squabbles and splits in the FI. This will never be accomplished by debating organizational issues, by allowing ourselves to be sucked into arguments over how it happened that false charges are hurled in the heat of debate. Nothing is learned from such confrontations, and there is no way of resolving them until first the fundamental political questions at issue have been sorted out and clarified.

The overriding problem with the Barnesites is programmatic. We must keep the organizational [text missing from original] despite the political differences and other centrifugal forces within it, because it is here that the Barnesites can be cornered and forced to explain as best they can and try to defend in open debate their anti-Trotskyism. If we try in this way to smoke them out programmatically we may find others who will want to join us in this effort, and some may have ideas about how to do it that we haven't yet thought of.


The trajectory of the Barnes-led SWP does not inspire confidence that it can be won back to the Trotskyist program and to democratic functioning. But certain facts about the SWP cannot be disputed: 1) it remains a substantial force on the U.S. left; 2) elements remaining from its Trotskyist heritage plus the pressure of objective events continue to affect the thinking of some of its members in a manner inconsistent with the revisionist disorientation of the Barnes leadership; 3) as a “sympathizing group,” fraternally affiliated to the FI, it remains part of the broad Fourth Internationalist movement in the U.S. and internationally; 4) the political perspectives and policies of the Barnes leadership represent a sharp internal challenge to the programmatic and organizational integrity of the FI; 5) the objective factors which explain the course and perspectives of the Barnes leadership are factors which also affect other sectors of the revolutionary left in the U.S. and in the FI as a whole—which means that Barnesism has a capacity to make destructive inroads far beyond its current sphere of influence.

Because of such facts, the F.I.T. remains committed to politically confronting the challenge of Barnesism in the SWP and in the Fl. This is required as part of the struggle to rebuild the revolutionary Marxist movement in our own country as well as to safeguard and strengthen the Fourth International. The commitment to this is a distinguishing characteristic of the F.I.T. We seek to win other forces in the Fourth Internationalist movement, in the United States and throughout the world, to this struggle. A thoroughgoing political defeat of the Barnes leadership will eliminate an important obstacle to the growth of the revolutionary movement and will contribute to the political education and clarification which are a prerequisite of that growth. The process of programmatic clarification is also a necessary basis for a durable reunification of revolutionary socialist forces in the United States.

January 30, 1988

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