Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 9 No. 3
PUBLISHED by the International Socialists Organization’s Haymarket Books, Barry Sheppard’s The Party is essential reading for anybody trying to understand revolutionary politics over the past half-century or so and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in particular. Sheppard felt the need to rectify false impressions of the party first of all conveyed by the party itself today, which has basically abandoned all of its past political traditions and has evolved into a small and discredited sect. His book will also correct the somewhat distorted portrait found in Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air, an otherwise irreproachable history of the Maoist movement. If one formed an impression of the SWP based solely on Elbaum’s book, it would be that of a group with a lot less influence that it actually had.
Barry Sheppard was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States from 1959 until 1988, when he was expelled like hundreds of others before him during the party’s degeneration. With an adroit approach to the mass movement and a high level of commitment from its membership, the SWP blazed across the 1960s horizon until it burned out like a shooting star in the 1980s.
The SWP had a particularly strong relationship to Leon Trotsky. Unlike some of the European intellectuals who had been drawn to the Fourth International, American party leader James P. Cannon embodied the sort of proletarian no-nonsense spirit that pervades Sheppard’s memoir. From Cannon to Farrell Dobbs, to whom Sheppard’s memoir is dedicated, you get a feeling that these are people who are not to be trifled with. With their single-mindedness of purpose and their plain talk, these party leaders made a young recruit feel that we had made the right decision. The rest of the left seemed to smack of petit-bourgeois dilettantism by contrast.
The down side of all this, however, is that the internal life of the party was often devoid of self-reflection. Readings tended to be narrowly restricted to the ‘Marxist classics’, which consisted of works like Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution or James P. Cannon’s party-building tracts. It would be very unusual for a party activist to spend (or waste) much time reading Mariategui, Gramsci, Paul Sweezy or any others outside of the fold. This is not to speak of scholars such as Neil Harding, whose two-volume study of Lenin might have alerted a party member that we were going about things all wrong.
Although Barry Sheppard’s preface warns that ‘the project of building a nucleus of socialists that have as their objective the eventual formation of a mass revolutionary socialist party cannot be a repeat or replica of the SWP in “the Sixties”’, his goal would seem to be clearing the ground for the reconstruction of such a nucleus tomorrow. Whether it is correct to think in terms of a nucleus is, of course, an important issue facing both Sheppard or anybody else trying to move forward from the debacles of the 1980s, Max Elbaum included. In my own opinion, such a concept will have to be discarded, but since volume two of Barry’s memoir will specifically address the question of the SWP’s implosion, it makes sense to defer discussion of that topic until that volume has been published.
In some ways, Sheppard’s volume one is a straightforward history of the SWP in the period from 1960 to 1973. It reads very much as if Sheppard had sat down with old copies of the Militant newspaper and party resolutions and reconstructed a narrative. Although Sheppard has a dry writing style (and is somewhat dry in his personal demeanour), the book is highly dramatic. As a highly capable editor who was responsible for editing the Militant at a time when it captivated readers such as Malcolm X, Sheppard knows how to select the best material from this mountain of documents. He also does not waste a single word. One will find oneself turning pages in eager anticipation of what happens next in his life and in the life of the organisation.
Two of the major struggles taken up by Sheppard are the black liberation and anti-war movements. Despite the fact that the SWP was a relatively minor player in the black struggle, Sheppard’s memoir has eye-opening accounts of how the party and key black leaders interacted with each other. Malcolm X was probably the best known of them, but Robert F. Williams also had an important relationship to the party.
Sheppard’s material complements research done by Timothy Tyson in Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Put briefly, Williams was a Second World War veteran who launched an NAACP chapter in Monroe County, North Carolina in 1957. When the local KKK began terrorising blacks, Williams organised self-defence squads. He also worked with the local Lumbee Indians who sent the Klan packing one night with war whoops and shots fired into the air.
After the cops falsely accused Williams of kidnapping a couple of Klansmen, the SWP worked with other groups to spirit him out of the country. Eventually, the charges against Williams were dropped. Sheppard writes:
Some of those in the North, including SWP members and our Canadian co-thinkers, who knew him from pro-Cuba and other activities formed a modern underground railroad that brought him to Canada and from there to Cuba, where he was given political asylum. We helped set up the Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants, which got out the truth about what happened in Monroe, and we began organizing the legal and public defense of the accused. After several years the frame-up was defeated and Williams eventually returned home, becoming active in black rights struggles in Detroit.
Three of the Freedom Riders who had gone to Monroe and aided the defense effort in New York joined the YSA and SWP, among them Ken Shilman, who became a party leader. Shilman had watched television coverage of the assaults on the first three Freedom Rides, and decided then and there to be on the next ride to the South. [Shilman died of cancer in 1989.]
Freedom Rides occurred even as far north as Maryland, a border state, where many segregationist policies existed. Fred Feldman, who joined the SWP later [and Marxmail much later] and became a leading member of our writing staffs, was arrested seven times on these Maryland Freedom Rides.
Reading Sheppard’s account of the anti-war movement will remind veterans of and familiarise newcomers with the depth and breadth of activity in this country. Chicano members of the SWP were intimately involved in helping to found the Chicano Moratorium, which reached deep into the heart of the community. In June 1970, the Los Angeles cops attacked a rally organised by the Chicano Moratorium and killed an LA Times reporter named Ruben Salazar, who was shot point-blank in the head by a gas grenade. Sheppard describes these tumultuous events:
Just after the police riot started, other sheriffs had arrested Corky Gonzales [Gonzalez died recently] as he was driving to the rally to speak. He and a group were in an open truck on their way from Denver. A group of Chicanos crowded into the back of an open truck was ‘suspicious’, the sheriff said. So they stopped the truck, and then arrested the group on ‘suspicion of armed bank robbery’. While these phony charges didn’t stick, the cops got what they wanted – to disrupt the rally by preventing speakers from getting to it.
According to the sheriff’s department: ‘Hundreds of provocative acts were committed by known dissidents who came to the location to incite and foment trouble.’ This was his excuse for the murder of Salazar and the police riot. While not very convincing, the cover story showed that his men were looking for dissidents like Corky Gonzales.
I was alone in the SWP National Office that day, so it was I who got the telephone call from Lew Jones, who was in LA to help organize our response. He gave me a rundown on the days events, and we planned out how we would get coverage for the Militant, and what proposals he would make to the Los Angeles branch for participation in protests against the police riot and murders.
Sheppard frequently alludes to the difficulties encountered by the SWP in the anti-war movement, which are reduced to a matter of political differences over mass action versus an orientation to the Democratic Party, and other less critical questions. While it is correct that the Communist Party of the USA created huge problems for the movement by constantly trying to side-track it into electoral politics, the SWP was hampered by the sort of ‘democratic centralist’ muscle that could also push things forward. It was a double-edged sword. For honest independents who were by no means partial to the Democratic Party, the SWP could often appear as a monolithic presence totally indifferent to their wishes.
The aforementioned Lew Jones, who resigned from the SWP in the 1980s after becoming disaffected by growing sectarianism, now feels that the party was often heavy-handed in the way that it took advantage of bloc voting. In an interview with author Tom Wells in the essential The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, Jones offers a somewhat different assessment of the split in 1968 in the Student Mobilization Committee from Sheppard. For Sheppard, it was as simple as this: ‘The radical pacifists joined with the DuBois [CPUSA youth group] and others in order to scuttle the SMC as an anti-war organization. In part, this was a reflection of the rising pressures of electoral politics in a presidential year.’
Lew Jones, who was one of the party’s floor leaders at this conference, admitted to Wells that the SWP’s approach was ‘greatly insensitive’. He added: ‘You’re dealing with forces coming into political motion for the first time, and you want to broaden out the movement, you don’t want to scare them away. And the SWP’s heavy-handedness sometimes had that effect.’
While Sheppard’s account of the positive relationships between the SWP and figures such as Robert F. Williams and Malcolm X is inspiring, he does not really come to grips with a problem that dogged the SWP throughout the period covered in volume one of his memoirs. Despite the party’s correct understanding of the dynamics of black liberation, African-Americans never really joined the party in significant numbers. Furthermore, when they were members, they often felt vulnerable to charges that they were in a ‘white party’.
When I was in NYC in the late 1960s, a group of black and Latino working-class youth who had recently joined the Young Socialist Alliance – our youth group – was raising the idea of starting a chapter in Harlem that would effectively be free of white members. They felt that it would be a lot easier to recruit new black and Latino members that way. A couple of the more seasoned and ‘orthodox’ black members of the party came down heavily on them, invoking Lenin’s polemics against the Jewish Bund’s demand that it be free to operate as a separate group in the Russian Social Democracy.
Despite his unstinting endorsement of the party-building wisdom of James P. Cannon and Farrell Dobbs, there are some dark clouds that occasionally crop up in Sheppard’s memoir. We learn that James P. Cannon was not above forming cliques when the spirit moved him. In a footnote to chapter 34 entitled Farrell Dobbs and the Political Committee, we learn:
What I experienced in the early 1960s were attempts by Cannon to establish what amounted to a dual center in Los Angeles that challenged the authority of the Political Committee in New York.
One aspect of this was holding frequent meetings of the NC members residing in LA to discuss and adopt positions on national political questions and then using this leverage in the party as a whole. Later, these meetings included NC members from the San Francisco Bay Area as well.
What was involved was not comrades with opposing political views to the majority of the party getting together in a tendency or a faction, based on a common political position. Such political formations can be helpful in clarifying political debates.
But the meetings in LA had no political basis. Sometimes their proposals were helpful, sometimes not, but that was not the point. These meetings undercut the authority of the center in New York and cast doubts on its capabilities.
Farrell told me, probably in 1963, that Cannon ‘wouldn’t get his dead hand off the steering wheel’. After Peter Camejo moved to Berkeley, he was invited as a member of the NC to one of these meetings in Los Angeles.
Peter told the meeting why he didn’t think it was right to have these meetings of a geographical subset of the National Committee. He said he was leaving the meeting, and wouldn’t attend future ones. This put a stop to the practice.
Since Cannon has the reputation of being some kind of saint in circles still devoted to the memory of the SWP or efforts to recreate such a model, this is truly eye-opening stuff. While it is not as bad as discovering that the kindly Catholic priest in your local church was abusing altar boys, it comes close in Trotskyist terms.
Sheppard even faults Farrell Dobbs for the way he handled attempts to get the SWP to keep the Gay Liberation Movement at arm’s length. Even though Dobbs is described in the dedication as ‘selfless, incorruptible, fair-minded and warm human being and friend’, he comes across as practically Machiavellian when it comes to gays and the party.
Basically, Sheppard accuses Dobbs of catering to the prejudices of his own brother Roland and Nat Weinstein, two long-time trade-union members of the party. Sheppard had prepared a line resolution for the 1973 convention on the gay movement that allowed local branches to ‘relate to concrete local activities and organizations’, but stopped short of projecting an ‘organized national party participation’. The resolution would also take no position on the ‘relative merits of homosexuality or heterosexuality’, which one supposes was an advance over the naked prejudices embodied in the party’s past, when open homosexuals were excluded from membership on the basis that they might be subject to blackmail. Sheppard did note that it is logically absurd to assume that open homosexuals would be afraid of blackmail.
Dobbs advised Sheppard to drop the reference to local branches acting on their own initiative. He didn’t want anything in the resolution that would raise the hackles of a ‘substantial layer of the party’ that agreed with his brother and Nat Weinstein. He was afraid of a split over the gay movement, even though the opposition in the party – in Dobbs’ words – was based ‘purely and simply on prejudice’.
Despite the criticisms I have made in this review, I want to reiterate the need for socialists to buy and read this book. It is essential reading for those of us trying to understand our history and to prepare for the future. Sheppard’s book reminds us of what a great joy there is in building the revolutionary movement, something that far exceeds any other pleasure found in bourgeois society. The fact that he can remain committed to transforming society as he approaches his seventies is also an inspiration. Finally, one has to salute the International Socialist Organization for publishing a book by a Marxist who fundamentally disagrees with them on the ‘Russian question’. Such open-mindedness bodes well for their own future on the left.
Updated by ETOL: 30.10.2011