The Socialist Workers Party in the Sixties and Beyond
by Paul Le Blanc
The Party: The Socialist Workers Party, 1960–1988, a Political Memoir, Volume 1: The Sixties, by Barry Sheppard. Melbourne, Australia: Resistance Books, 2005, 354 pages including indexes; distributed in the United States by Haymarket Books, P.O. Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618 (order from: www.haymarketbooks.org). Paperback, $16.00.
Today’s realities continue to
reflect class, racial, and gender oppression, cultural and environmental
degradation, antidemocratic and imperialist violence. Such things continue to
spawn shock, disillusionment, anger, protest, resistance. There has been a
resurgence of radicalization among layers of the population in the
Actually, Sheppard’s memoir begins
in the mid-1950s and concludes in 1973, the first of two volumes corresponding
to his own involvement, which ended in 1988, in the U.S. Socialist Workers
Party (SWP), associated with the revolutionary perspectives of Leon Trotsky. These
perspectives included Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which saw
worker-led democratic revolution spilling over into socialist revolution; an
unyielding revolutionary internationalism; and a rejection of the bureaucratic
dictatorship represented by the Stalin regime in the
What the SWP Did
Sheppard’s contribution is unique in its focus on the remarkable rise of the SWP in the 1960s and early 1970s. Born out of fierce factional conflicts in the Stalinized Communist Party of the 1920s and in the reformist Socialist Party of the 1930s, and after hopeful glory days of the 1930s and ’40s, the SWP had become a shell of itself by the 1950s, thanks to an unprecedented capitalist prosperity and a stifling climate of Cold War anti-Communism in the wake of World War II. From 1960 to 1973, however, the SWP and its youth group the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) grew from about 400 to about 3,000 cadres. They became a significant force in a number of initiatives:
In this last initiative, one can
find a number of key elements of the SWP’s success. The period of the Vietnam war was the first time in
In contrast, the SWP called for a
movement with a single focus—immediate, unconditional
Some Personal Recollections
This brought a significant layer of new left and antiwar activists (including the present author) into the SWP by 1973, which is basically when this first volume of Sheppard’s memoir ends.
The SWP and YSA were organizationally and politically far more serious than anything I had participated in previously. I received an incomparable and multifaceted education within them. One facet of this was simply practical, resulting from a variety of internal assignments (branch secretary, forum series director, literature sales director, bookstore director, financial director, branch organizer, as well as executive committee member) that taught me the nuts and bolts of maintaining a very active political organization in which a diverse number of individuals had to work together to accomplish a great deal.
As an electoral candidate and as a participant in a number of election campaign committees, I gained valuable experience in explaining socialist ideas to many different kinds of people. And I participated in party fractions that were active in “mass work”: opposing the U.S. war in Vietnam; protesting the U.S.-sponsored coup in Chile and working to defend Latin American political prisoners; building support for struggles of the farm workers, teachers, mine workers, and other unions; undertaking civil liberties efforts and opposing the death penalty; participating in student protests against tuition hikes; struggling for abortion rights and the Equal Rights Amendment for women; campaigning against South African apartheid and against racism here at home; and protesting against the dangers of nuclear power.
While it was not possible for me personally, at any given moment, to be involved in everything that needed to be done to bring about a better world, by being part of an organization in which all phases of activity were democratically and collectively evaluated and decided upon, I could be involved in far more activity—all of which was interrelated and part of a unified revolutionary, socialist, practical orientation—than would otherwise have been possible.
A sense of revolutionary continuity that came, in part, from having several generations of activists in a single organization. There were time-tested perspectives and norms, a rich pool of knowledge and political experience. Some of the older comrades seemed simply to be glad that they could still be part of a revolutionary movement that was being regenerated by an influx of young activists, whom they embraced with a perhaps too uncritical affection. Others seemed concerned that older revolutionary virtues of their own youth would be lost unless they (sometimes rigidly and imperiously) provided firm guidance, undergirded with long lectures and occasionally punctuated with fierce reprimands. But many of the veteran cadres maintained a balance, relating to the newer forces on a basis of genuine equality—patiently sharing their own knowledge, seeking to learn from new experience, encouraging the full development of the young comrades while frankly putting forward their own thinking on perspectives and directions for the SWP. On the whole, all these older comrades had considerable prestige among the younger layers.
Many different qualities could be found among the younger members. There was a tremendous eagerness and vibrancy—sometimes a maddening “eager-beaver” enthusiasm and a youthful “we’re the greatest” arrogance about the SWP and YSA, which alienated unsympathetic outsiders. Some took to copying the mannerisms of the prestigious elders—talking sagely about “the way we do things” even if they had been members for only twelve months, speaking about experiences of bygone years (before they had been born) as if they had been participants, hewing sometimes rigidly (unlike many of the older comrades) to imperfectly assimilated orthodoxies. These jostled with the more rebellious spirits who saw no need to cease being outspoken mavericks simply because their rebelliousness had brought them into a revolutionary organization. This by itself guaranteed the flare-up of passionate, animated arguments—sometimes fed by one or another neurosis, and sometimes cohering around genuine political differences. There were also many who were more pragmatically inclined (sometimes interested in discussing ideas, sometimes not) who concentrated their energies more exclusively on working effectively in the mass movements and maintaining party institutions. Theories, party history, and critical ideas were judged in more practical terms of how they seemed to advance the party’s work in the here and now. The energies of all these young activists contributed to the movement’s dynamism in the 1970s.
Much energy was certainly needed for the seemingly endless succession of weekly branch meetings, educationals, fraction and committee meetings, sales of the party’s newspaper The Militant, forums, activities of the mass movements, and so on that formed a way of life for many of us, This made the SWP an especially demanding environment for normal working people, students serious about their formal education, and those with families. This very distinctive subculture helped to make us effective in the many activities, movements, and struggles that we engaged in. It also created a separate universe that often made it difficult for us to understand and relate to those outside of it. This could have a negative impact on members’ sense of perspective. Sometimes this made it possible for collectively-embraced notions to distort our understanding of complex realities, undermining our effectiveness in communicating to people. It also blunted our ability, sometimes, to anticipate possibilities and limitations in the dynamic political and social contexts of the larger society.
Failings and Decline
In the early 1970s, a transition
was initiated, resulting in the older central leadership layer, shaped by the
1930s and ’40s labor struggles, being replaced by a much younger layer of 1960s
activists, led by
Although the writings of Lenin, Trotsky, and U.S. Trotskyist founder James P. Cannon were avidly read, discussed, and internalized by the young activists, the context in which the revolutionary “teachers” from earlier decades had lived and the context in which the avid students of the 1960s lived were qualitatively different. The relationship of the new radicals to the rest of the working class, not to mention the culture and consciousness of both the actual proletariat and its would-be “vanguard” in the 1970s were far different from what was true in the early 1900s or the 1930s. A failure to comprehend the meaning of this ruptured continuity would contribute to the rise of a fatal disorientation that accelerated within the SWP as the 1970s flowed into the 1980s, culminating in fragmentation and implosion. For some disillusioned SWPers, responsibility for these outcomes was laid at the door of Lenin and/or Trotsky and/or Cannon. Some bitterly came to dismiss everything having to do with the SWP.
This failure, however, more or less
afflicted all Marxist-oriented organizations in the
The SWP that Barry Shepard
describes might have weathered the crisis of the late 1970s and ’80s—it would
seem to have contained qualities facilitating fruitful adaptation. It stands to
reason, therefore, that there were certain other qualities in the SWP, muted or
missing in volume 1 of Sheppard’s memoir, that
generated a far less positive outcome. This included a hothouse and
disruptively carried-out “industrialization” policy in the late 1970s, which
sent almost all cadres into factories regardless of personal, political, or
economic realities—an especially serious problem given the relative decline of
The SWP seems so incredibly good in this book—how could it have turned out so badly? There is hardly a glimmer of such negative possibilities in what Sheppard writes. But there is more than one reason why this limitation can be forgiven. First of all, Sheppard himself explicitly acknowledges these silences, and he promises to take up such matters in the upcoming volume that deals with the SWP’s decline. Second, this relatively uncritical account provides a sense of the mindset, at the time, of Sheppard and many other SWP comrades. And it also allows for a straightforward telling of a story that needs to be told.
Even in this first volume, Sheppard
begins to introduce a critical note. While the SWP and YSA played a role in
early civil rights efforts of the late 1950s and ’60s, he suggests that it
would have been wise for them to become involved in the 1964 Freedom Summer
efforts of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). He is critical
of the SWP’s earlier homophobic tendencies (shared with most of the Left up to
the 1970s) and self-critically suggests that its pathbreaking reversal of this
failed to go far enough. While Sheppard never questions the centrality of the
working class as the force that must bring the socialist future into being, he
suggests that an overly optimistic notion predominated in the SWP leadership
regarding how soon class-conscious workers might be expected to play such a
role on the
In this book we get a sense of how
a relative handful of people—aging Trotskyist veterans and younger activists—utilized
certain basic organizational norms and political principles to build a dynamic
organization that made a real difference in the
Another valuable dimension of the
volume is Sheppard’s discussion of the Fourth International, the global
organizational network of revolutionary groups embracing a majority of the
world’s organized Trotskyists, to which the SWP adhered as a “sympathizing
section.” He gives interesting glimpses of some of his own rich experiences
with comrades in Europe,
This orthodoxy posited that all political organizing must facilitate two things: (1) the education and mobilization of masses of people, especially the working-class majority, to struggle for democratic and “immediate” social and economic advances, and (2) the building and strengthening of a revolutionary party capable of helping to lead masses of workers and their allies not only in struggles for democratic and immediate demands, but also for transitional demands leading towards socialism. Such an orientation also put the SWP at loggerheads with many other currents on the U.S. Left in the heady days of which Sheppard writes.
There are some errors that have crept into this text which should be corrected in future printings. Reference is made to the almost suicidally ultraleft Weatherman faction of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) arising a year before it actually came into being. Another incorrect reference is made to the Pentagon Papers as the source demonstrating that Presidents Johnson and Nixon, in contrast to their public statements of indifference, were quite concerned and upset by mass antiwar protests. This fact is revealed in numerous comments by their former aides and, for Nixon, also in the Watergate Transcripts—but not in the Pentagon Papers which (as Sheppard notes elsewhere in this volume) “documented the involvement of the United States from 1945 to mid-1968” in Vietnam, and “told the truth, in contrast to the lies the government spoonfed the public about the reasons for the war.”
There are, of course, also interpretations of events that are open to question. Having been in the New Left milieu about which the author writes from the outside, I think there are oversimplifications mixed with the insights—which may also be the case regarding the influence of the Communist Party, with which the SWP had been crossing swords for over three decades. Yet even if one might question certain judgments, they give a fairly accurate gauge of the kinds of judgments many SWPers made at the time. The text is also generously sprinkled with gems of bluntly-expressed wisdom, such as “Whenever capitalist politicians talk about ‘the national interest,’ take heed. They invariably mean the interests of the ruling rich.”
Some of the SWP’s history and personalities are conveyed, as well, with a generous sampling of photographs, and the volume is enhanced with three helpful indexes: one of names, one of organizations, and one of events, ideas and topics. While not pretending to be the final word on the history of American Trotskyism, Sheppard’s book tells a story worth telling. It is a valuable source for activists (and for scholars), and one looks forward to the continuation of the story in the next volume. Its publication will help to advance thinking and discussions that will inevitably be stirred by this first volume regarding the extent to which positive aspects of the SWP’s legacy might be utilized (and negative aspects avoided) in ways that will help activists transform the 21st century.
[A somewhat different version of this review will appear in Against the Current.]