MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—SWP
The SWP—A Strangled Party
from Spartacist, No. 37-38, Summer 1986
Source: Spartacist, No. 37-38, Summer 1986
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman.
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2007. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.
The American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) decisively shed the formal ideological connection to its once revolutionary past when National Secretary Jack Barnes explicitly denounced the Trotskyist program of permanent revolution in a speech at the convention of the party’s youth organization on 31 December 1982. In the months preceding and following this speech, Barnes and his gang of fellow epigones ruthlessly purged the SWP of all opponents of the new line, including virtually every remaining long-time member of the party (see “Barnes-town, U.S.A.,” Workers Vanguard No. 320, 31 December 1982). The expelled oppositionists eventually constituted themselves into three separate organizations—Socialist Action (SA), Socialist Unity (SU) and the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (FIT)—with the older cadre tending to group around the FIT.
In February 1986 the FIT and SU (which latter has since merged with some Shachtmanite remnants to form a new reformist outfit dubbed “Solidarity”) co-published the pamphlet, “Don’t Strangle the Party.” The pamphlet contains three letters and a speech by SWP founding leader James P. Cannon, all from his last years, plus an introduction by FIT leader George Breitman. Breitman’s introduction purports to show, among other things, that the SWP’s organizational practice remained unchanged from the founding of American Trotskyism in 1928 until far past Cannon’s death in 1974—until Jack Barnes and his friends suddenly changed the rules in 1980.
During our preparation of this review of the FIT/SU pamphlet, we were saddened to learn of the death of George Breitman on April 19. In bringing out Cannon’s last known thoughts, feelings and opinions on a question with which he was pre-eminently familiar—the prerequisites for building a revolutionary Marxist party—comrade Breitman performed another valuable service for the Marxist movement.
De mortuis nil nisi bonum. Yet Breitman’s view of the Barnes clique as a sudden aberration in a party with an otherwise unbroken revolutionary continuity is flat out wrong: the SWP is today a fundamentally reformist party and the roots of its degeneration go back much further than Breitman could admit or understand. The SWP opted for class collaborationism over class struggle 20 years ago when it subordinated a revolutionary program in order to build a popular-frontist coalition against the Vietnam War. The party’s departure from erstwhile working-class politics began around 1960, using the Cuban Revolution as a springboard.
Cold War Stagnation
The rapid degeneration of the once revolutionary SWP, going through centrism into reformism, necessarily had an evolution. The party had endured more than a decade of stagnation and isolation during the postwar McCarthy era. Concomitant with the emergence of the U.S. as the pre-eminent capitalist world power, the SWP recruited a substantial layer of proletarian militants, including many black workers, and then lost the bulk of them with the onset of the witchhunt. In the 1950s, the aging SWP cadre, seeing their role reduced essentially to a holding operation in the citadel of world imperialism, no doubt thought life was passing them by, as did the Cochranite wing which split from the party in 1953. The SWP correctly adopted a perspective of regroupment following the crisis in the Stalinist movement (the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the Khrushchev revelations) and achieved some gains. But a tendency to “get rich quick” schemes led to opportunist bulges. In early 1957 the party adopted a fully principled and comprehensive 12-point program for regroupment, but this program remained a dead letter. Failing to find elements moving to the left out of the Communist Party (CP), the SWP briefly flirted with the rightward-moving Gatesite wing of the CP and then courted the National Guardian and the New York remnants of the Progressive Party with a “United Socialist Ticket” in the 1958 elections.
The SWP in the postwar period no longer understood the world very well. As the Second World War approached, Trotsky had understood the urgency of the crisis of revolutionary leadership. He correctly foresaw that world war would bring social convulsions and the possibility for proletarian revolutions, as the first inter-imperialist war had led to the Russian October. In 1938 the Trotskyists founded the Fourth International and Trotsky sought to gear its nascent sections up for the challenge. Trotsky predicted that successful proletarian revolutions against capitalism would also sweep away Stalinism, itself a product of a global stalemate between the isolated Soviet Union and world imperialism after the defeat, particularly in Germany, of the revolutionary wave.
However, the mainly tiny sections of the FI were in effect militarily defeated. Under conditions of great repression, the groups fragmented to carry out diverging policies, some of them quite heroic. Insulated in the U.S. from the carnage in Europe and the colonial countries, the SWP emerged from the war with its cadre intact. But internationally, virtually all the young and older cadres were killed by war and by fascist and Stalinist repression. Those would-be Trotskyists who after the war became the impressionistic leadership of the decimated FI were mainly youth who had learned their “Trotskyism” from books. Trotsky, himself murdered, did not live to see the restabilization of capitalism in Western Europe—with the active complicity of the Stalinist and other reformist parties whose participation in “national” governments was required to restabilize bourgeois rule in Italy and Greece and, to a lesser extent, in France and even Britain.
In exchange, in the countries of Eastern Europe where the smashing of the Nazi occupation by the Soviet Red Army had left rather a vacuum of power, the Russians retained control; a series of deformed workers states ensued by social transformations from the top down. Something different occurred in Yugoslavia when Tito’s guerrilla bands (and later Mao’s peasant army in China) brought about a deformed social revolution. In Yugoslavia and China, national Stalinist formations made revolutions in the interests of their own survival despite Moscow’s counterrevolutionary line. In the absence of the proletariat in its own right as a contender for power, these revolutions have confirmed in the negative the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution, in that they were unable to establish any “middle” course or petty-bourgeois state—deformed workers states were consolidated.
In the postwar period, the SWP retreated into an increasingly formal “orthodoxy.” They had a hard time for a couple of years trying to figure out how the deformed workers states in Eastern Europe had been created. The SWP and FI were disoriented by Tito’s revolution, the first break in the formerly apparently monolithic Stalinist “camp”—the American party was quick to hail the Titoists as “left centrists.” On the other hand the SWP took until 1955 to categorize Mao’s China as a deformed workers state. That the party made opposite, symmetrical errors over these two qualitatively identical revolutions was a telling measure of its disorientation.
Then in 1959 Cannon himself was led into a brief flirtation with the Chinese regime which he had labeled Stalinist four years earlier. Cannon, along with several other Los Angeles National Committee (NC) members including Arne Swabeck, submitted resolutions on the question of the Chinese peasant communes in opposition to the Political Committee (PC) majority of Farrell Dobbs and Murry Weiss. The Los Angeles resolutions came but a hair’s breadth from declaring workers democracy to be alive and well in China. Cannon pulled back and Swabeck’s position was smashed at a subsequent NC plenum. In this case, and in general, restorative forces (usually seen as Cannon) operated and the party program was kept within nominally orthodox limits. But over Cuba this restorative “spring” snapped.
In the case of both China and Yugoslavia the SWP eventually came to the correct position that the states which issued out of the revolutions were structurally identical to the end-product of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution, where workers democracy had been usurped by a bureaucratic political counterrevolution. Trotskyists fight for the program of political revolution against the nationalistic bureaucratic caste. This was a program which Trotsky had laid out as necessary to open the road to socialist development in the case of the degenerated USSR:
“In any case, the bureaucracy can be removed only by a revolutionary force. And, as always, there will be fewer victims the more bold and decisive is the attack. To prepare this and stand at the head of the masses in a favorable historic situation—that is the task of the Soviet section of the Fourth International
“The revolution which the bureaucracy is preparing against itself will not be social, like the October revolution of 1917. It is not a question this time of changing the economic foundations of society, of replacing certain forms of property with other forms
“It is not a question of substituting one ruling clique for another, but of changing the very methods of administering the economy and guiding the culture of the country. Bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy. A restoration of the right of criticism, and a genuine freedom of elections, are necessary conditions for the further development of the country. This assumes a revival of freedom of Soviet parties, beginning with the party of Bolsheviks, and a resurrection of the trade unions. The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags. Expensive playthings—palaces of the Soviets, new theaters, show-off subways—will be crowded out in favor of workers’ dwellings. ‘Bourgeois norms of distribution’ will be confined within the limits of strict necessity, and, in step with the growth of social wealth, will give way to socialist equality. Ranks will be immediately abolished. The tinsel of decorations will go into the melting pot. The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains. And, finally, foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.”
—Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, 1936
Cuba—The Acid Test
By 1960 the SWP was looking for something, and they found it in Cuba. Dropping the qualitative distinction between a deformed workers state and a healthy workers state, the SWP dropped its program on the need for a Trotskyist party leading the working class, in response to the Cuban Revolution, where a petty-bourgeois guerrilla formation overthrew the U.S.-supported Batista regime and nationalized large sections of the economy under imperialist pressure. The SWP took the fact that a social revolution had occurred in Cuba to mean that the Cuban leadership was on a par with that of the Bolshevik Revolution. Morris Stein spoke for a whole layer of the SWP when he proclaimed, at the 1961 convention, that the Cuban Revolution was the greatest thing since the Russian October. Hooray, they said, we’ve lived to see it. However much the FIT wants to deny it, they were part of an SWP which began to abandon Trotskyism in 1960, two decades before Barnes and his gang dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.
In January 1961 the SWP NC adopted Joseph Hansen’s “Theses on the Cuban Revolution” which declared that Cuba had “entered the transitional phase of a workers state, although one lacking as yet the forms of democratic proletarian rule.” These theses were adopted following the explicit objections made in the document, “The Cuban Revolution and Marxist Theory,” which three leaders of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA)—Shane Mage, Jim Robertson and Tim Wohlforth—had submitted in August 1960 to oppose the party’s tendency to characterize Cuba as a “workers state.” It was at this plenum that the Revolutionary Tendency (RT—forerunner of the Spartacist League) was formed out of the opposition of Mage, Robertson and Wohlforth to the SWP’s liquidationism over Cuba.
The RT’s resolution, “The Cuban Revolution,” submitted to the 1961 YSA Convention, was in sharp counterposition to the SWP majority not only in its analysis of the emerging deformed workers state in Cuba, and the necessity to oppose the growing bureaucratism, but fundamentally on the role of Trotskyists:
“The full victory of every modern revolution, the Cuban revolution included, requires the emergence in a leading role of a mass revolutionary-Marxist party. The small Trotskyist groups, in Cuba and elsewhere, have a vital role as the nucleus of such parties. They can fill this role only if they continually preserve their political independence and ability to act, and if they avoid the peril of yielding to non-Marxist and non-proletarian leaderships their own ideological responsibilities and the historic mission of the working class.”
The minority’s warning applied no less to the SWP itself. In abandoning the fight for a revolutionary Trotskyist party in Cuba, the SWP was well down the road to its own liquidation as a revolutionary instrument: a party whose leadership looked to alien class forces “only 90 miles away” didn’t have a very good prognosis.
The SWP Adopts Breitman’s Black Nationalism
Lenin described centrists as “revolutionaries in word and reformists in deed”—a good capsule description of the SWP in the early 1960s. The SWP’s rightward-moving centrism expressed itself not just over Cuba, but domestically as well. The Southern civil rights movement offered an excellent opportunity for the SWP to break out of isolation and intersect a new generation of plebeian black militants. Since 1955 there had been an ongoing discussion in the SWP on orientation to the civil rights movement. The two poles of the discussion were George Breitman, who advocated the demand of “self-determination” for the black masses, and Richard Kirk (Dick Fraser) who put forward a program of revolutionary integrationism. Throughout the 1950s the party continued to intervene in the struggle against black oppression with an integrationist perspective. Though the 1957 convention resolution, “The Class Struggle Road to Negro Equality,” envisioned support to separatist demands “if they should reflect the mass will,” it was adopted by the convention with significant reservations expressed on this question. But by 1963 the SWP leadership was ready to fully embrace Breitman’s long-standing support to black nationalism, with the concomitant policy of abstention from the civil rights struggle—they were ready to become sideline cheerleaders for black radicals who would supposedly acquire revolutionary consciousness without the intervention of a revolutionary party. Richard Kirk was in fullblown opposition to the SWP leadership by this time, and his tendency, which otherwise advocated a weird brand of sectoralist politics, submitted a resolution to the 1963 convention upholding the program of revolutionary integrationism. The RT supported the Kirk resolution with the following statement:
“I. Our support to the basic line of the 1963 Kirk-Kaye resolution, ‘Revolutionary Integration,’ is centered upon the following proposition:
“The Negro people are not a nation; rather they are an oppressed race-color caste, in the main comprising the most exploited layer of the American working class. From this condition the consequence has come that the Negro struggle for freedom has had, historically, the aim of integration into an equalitarian society.
“II. Our minority is most concerned with the political conclusions stemming from the theoretical failures of the P.C.’s draft, ‘Freedom Now.’ This concern found expression in the recent individual discussion article, ‘For Black Trotskyism.’ The systematic abstentionism and the accompanying attitude of acquiescence which accepts as inevitable that ‘ours is a white party,’ are most profound threats to the revolutionary capacity of the party on the American scene.”
The RT’s one-page amendment to the perspectives document at the 1963 convention was dismissed by the SWP leadership as ridiculous and wildly adventuristic because it demanded the party initiate modest trade-union work in a few carefully chosen places and seek some involvement in the mass civil rights struggles in the South:
“As regards the South today, we are witnessing from afar a great mass struggle for equality. Our separation from this arena is intolerable. The party should be prepared to expend significant material resources in overcoming our isolation from Southern struggles. In helping to build a revolutionary movement in the South, our forces should work directly with and through the developing left-wing formations in the movement there. A successful outcome to our action would lead to an historic breakthrough for the Trotskyist movement. Expressed organizationally, it would mean the creation of several party branches in the South for the first time—for example, in Atlanta, Birmingham or New Orleans.”
Kirk had lost favor with the SWP leadership when he fought against the party’s adoption in 1955, under Breitman’s urging, of the slogan, “Federal Troops to Mississippi.” Not only did this slogan pose a fundamental revision of the Marxist understanding of the nature of the bourgeois state, but it prompted the party to support Eisenhower’s introduction of federal troops into Little Rock in 1957—the end result of which was the crushing of local black self-defense efforts. The policy of painting U.S. imperialist troops as reliable defenders of black people had engendered significant opposition within the party in the 1950s, but by 1964 the party adopted the grotesque campaign slogan, “Withdraw the Troops from Viet Nam and Send Them to Mississippi!” And this wasn’t the only sign that in the SWP’s mind the bourgeois state was no longer an instrument of class oppression. Following the November 1963 Kennedy assassination, SWP party administrator Farrell Dobbs sent a sniveling telegram of condolence to the widow of the imperialist chief who ordered the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba!
Despite the SWP’s deepening reformist practice, the party remained committed to some kind of formal Trotskyism on paper. The leadership had the able services of Joseph Hansen to cover over the deviations with numerous caveats and paragraphs of ritual orthodoxy. Hansen was careful—you had to read between the lines to see the real line. This was important because it allowed the older cadre to carry out their opportunist appetites while still maintaining—often sincerely—the formal adherence to the revolutionary principles of their youth.
The SWP didn’t have to look hard to find cothinkers for their revisionism on Cuba: they entered into negotiations to reunify with the International Secretariat (IS), which was led by one Michel Pablo. By 1951 Pablo, a leader of the devastated Fourth International (FI), had reacted to the postwar overturns of capitalism in Eastern Europe by claiming that the imminence of World War III would “force” the Stalinist parties to play a generally revolutionary role. Pablo’s line demanded liquidationist conclusions: Trotskyist nuclei should dissolve into the Stalinist parties and become left pressure groups. This perspective of “deep entry” into the Stalinist parties led to the destruction of the FI.
From afar and in the face of an escalating witchhunt which hindered full international collaboration (it was a U.S. felony, for example, for an American Communist or ex-Communist to apply for a passport), Cannon had originally acquiesced to Pablo’s blatant, and in some cases suicidal, revisionism. Only when the Cochran-Clarke faction emerged in support of Pablo in the U.S. did Cannon take up the fight. Yet Cannon had great difficulty in getting the central SWP cadre to go along with him against Cochran-Clarke. The New York leadership of Dobbs, Kerry, Hansen and Morris Stein only belatedly came over to Cannon and Los Angeles SWP leader Murry Weiss, and the internal disputes in the SWP of the mid-1950s reflected the reality of this heavily nuanced bloc.
Cannon’s SWP did eventually raise the banner of orthodox Trotskyism, aligning itself with the former majority of the French Parti Communiste Internationaliste and with Gerry Healy’s faction in the fragmented British Trotskyist movement to form the “International Committee of the Fourth International” (IC). But in the case of the Cuban Revolution the SWP adopted the fundamental premise of Pabloism and opted for looking toward some other, non-Leninist, non-proletarian force, to make the revolution. The SWP’s line converged with that of Pablo. The RT opposed reunification and was in general political agreement with the IC majority led by Gerry Healy, who at that time espoused at least a literary defense of orthodox Trotskyism (see especially the 1961 document “The World Prospect for Socialism” of Healy’s Socialist Labour League). The SWP voted for reunification with the Pabloites in 1963, giving birth to the United Secretariat (USec) which explicitly espoused a petty-bourgeois, guerrilla “road to socialism” in the colonial countries. The RT’s resolution on the world movement, “Toward the Rebirth of the Fourth International,” submitted to the SWP’s 1963 convention, upheld the Leninist road:
“Experience since the Second World War has demonstrated that peasant-based guerrilla warfare under petit-bourgeois leadership can in itself lead to nothing more than an anti-working-class bureaucratic regime. The creation of such regimes has come about under the conditions of decay of imperialism, the demoralization and disorientation caused by Stalinist betrayals, and the absence of revolutionary Marxist leadership of the working class. Colonial revolution can have an unequivocally progressive significance only under such leadership of the revolutionary proletariat. For Trotskyists to incorporate into their strategy revisionism on the proletarian leadership in the revolution is a profound negation of Marxism-Leninism no matter what pious wish may be concurrently expressed for ‘building revolutionary Marxist parties in colonial countries.’ Marxists must resolutely oppose any adventurist acceptance of the peasant-guerrilla road to socialism—historically akin to the Social Revolutionary program on tactics that Lenin fought. This alternative would be a suicidal course for the socialist goals of the movement, and perhaps physically for the adventurers.”
The Purge of the RT
The RT’s fight against the SWP leadership’s precipitous surrender of a working-class perspective occurred at a time when the SWP was seething with internal oppositions. We have already mentioned the Kirk-Kaye tendency, but there were others, totaling perhaps a third of the SWP’s membership. Some were dissident branches, others were national tendencies but they all had one thing in common: in a few years they would find themselves outside of the SWP. In the early 1960s it certainly wasn’t excluded in advance that the RT could win over a chunk of the cadre. Despite the leadership’s right-centrism, the SWP had not lost all of its revolutionary juices. At the same time, the RT had few illusions on how long they would be allowed to carry out the fight inside the party. The tired, aging Dobbs was growing increasingly irritable at the presence of critics, and he had the majority.
The RT was dealt a real blow when the miserable Tim Wohlforth, acting as Gerry Healy’s tool, provoked an unprincipled split in the tendency in 1962. Evidently the despicable Healy thought he still had a chance to keep the SWP in the IC, so he ordered the RT majority to recant their view that the SWP had become centrist. (Healy demanded the recantation despite his own July 1962 polemic against the SWP, “Trotskyism Betrayed.”) When the majority of the RT refused, Wohlforth and his partner Philips split from the RT. This was a crime on two counts: it not only demoralized and drove away some tendency supporters, it also made the RT look like a bunch of unserious, juvenile, professional factionalists in the eyes of many SWP members.
Wohlforth’s next service to Dobbs was to falsely accuse the RT of having a “split perspective” by selectively quoting from intra-tendency discussion drafts in a document submitted to the SWP internal bulletin. Dobbs, annoyed by the RT’s having managed to elect two delegates to the 1963 convention, found Wohlforth’s frame-up useful as a pretext. After a farcical Control Commission “investigation”—which only one elected member of the Control Commission, a hard majorityite, participated in—the outcome was hardly in doubt. In December 1963, five leaders of the RT were expelled for having a “hostile and disloyal attitude” toward the SWP. Dobbs summed up the majority’s own attitude in his arrogant declaration to the New York branch that “the majority is the party.”
Dobbs’ purge of the RT had been preceded by numerous other organizational abuses—the bureaucratic removal of the YSA leadership, provocative factional raids into minority tendency meetings, and the like, all documented in the Spartacist League’s Marxist Bulletin No. 4, Parts I and II. The RT consciously and deliberately abided by the then-existing SWP organizational rules, forcing Dobbs to change the statutes in order to justify his purge. Thus our abiding by the formal organizational rules pushed the Dobbsite majority to bring the rules into line with the evolving new rightward-moving political practices.
The 1965 Organizational Resolution
According to Breitman’s introduction, “the PC decided to submit a resolution on organizational principles to the 1965 convention....” But the PC didn’t just “decide” out of the blue: the National Committee authorized the drafting of this resolution in the same motion which expelled the leading RTers. The resolution (“The Organizational Character of the Socialist Workers Party”) was discussed and voted by the 1965 convention on the same agenda point which denied the expelled RT members even the right to appeal their expulsion. Fully one-third of the content of the 1965 organizational resolution is taken up with an explicit ex post facto justification of the RT’s expulsion. Breitman ignores these overwhelming facts. The SWP leadership decided to codify its bureaucratic treatment of the RT: this is what organizationally consummated the strangling of the party.
Stripped of the jumbles of paragraphs taken here and there from past SWP organizational resolutions, Dobbs’ document amounted to the destruction of the rights of any minority. Opposition to the majority line was equated with “disloyalty” to the party. In essence, the 1965 rules boil down to the following syllogism: (1) factions are permitted in the SWP; (2) factionalists are disloyal people; (3) disloyal people are expelled from the SWP. Needless to say, this document was to prove quite useful to Dobbs’ successors.
A party dedicated to proletarian revolution must demand discipline in action from its members as well as provide a fully democratic internal life. This allows cohesiveness while insuring that the organization’s line and tactics can be adjusted, in the light of past experience, to new situations. But when the party abandons a revolutionary program—as the SWP did around 1960—then the coupling between the two components of democratic centralism changes as well. When Dobbs purged the RT, it meant the eclipse of internal democracy by unbridled centralism. Indeed, the SWP after 1965 had tighter rules than the Bolsheviks during the Civil War.
That certainly wasn’t the historic norm—before 1963 a disciplined minority such as the RT could easily have been tolerated and in fact become part of a new generation of party leadership. The Trotskyist movement in the U.S. had a long experience with internal oppositions, uneven to be sure, but nothing like the later monolithic conception of Dobbs. The “textbook” case was the 1939-1940 fight with the Shachtmanites, who wanted to abandon the military defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state. This was a fight on fundamental principles; but despite the positions of the minority, Cannon did not move organizationally until the political issues were fully brought out and the minority had de facto split. At other times the leadership had been hard, as in 1935 with the uncontrollable Oehlerites who issued their own bulletin and refused to stop fighting again after the party had made its decision to enter the Socialist Party’s emerging left wing. In the mid-1940s on the other hand, in the case of the Goldman-Morrow group, the SWP leadership was very soft. Morrow was given a second chance to mend his ways even after he was caught openly giving verbal reports of SWP PC meetings to the Shachtmanites at a time when they were a significant opponent organization to the SWP.
Party case law, and its codification into resolutions, developed in the course of struggle, with the ups and downs of a living revolutionary movement. But the bottom line was that at each juncture, the party sought revolutionary solutions to the disputes—i.e., it stuck to its program. Centrally, it saw its task as constructing the revolutionary vanguard in the light of essential international and domestic experience. In that regard Cannon, as he points out repeatedly in the letters reprinted in “Don’t Strangle the Party,” had a great advantage—he was able to directly benefit from the example of the Bolshevik Revolution and from the internationalism of the Comintern in Lenin’s time, as well as his later collaboration with Trotsky.
The material assembled in “Don’t Strangle the Party” helps to round out Cannon’s literary legacy and it sheds some light on what has been a very shadowy matter—friction in the preceding period between Cannon and Farrell Dobbs. Dobbs took over the day-to-day administration of the SWP when Cannon moved to Los Angeles in 1952. Cannon was rumored to be unhappy with the SWP’s trajectory under Dobbs, who moved only very late to join the fight against the Pabloite revisionism of Cochran-Clarke. In the following period Cannon reportedly gave backhanded support to the grouping around Murry Weiss as against Dobbs and Tom Kerry. But by 1965, by Breitman’s account, Cannon didn’t even bother to raise his objections to the important, Dobbs-authored organizational resolution; by 1968 he had stopped writing to the party center at all.
Breitman buttresses his argument that the 1965 resolution meant no fundamental change in party democracy chiefly by what Cannon didn’t say on the subject. But Cannon in his later years of semi-retirement got pretty shaky politically (e.g., his early support for Swabeck on China) and in 1965 he was 75 years old. This dimension has to be taken into account when discussing a resolution to which, by Breitman’s own account, Cannon basically only acquiesced. While Cannon stood by, objecting once in a while as these letters show, the party he had led from its founding degenerated into a reformist, and correspondingly bureaucratic, shell.
Into the Abyss
In 1965, the rising ferment over the escalating U.S. imperialist military involvement in Vietnam presented the SWP leadership with the “mass movement” which would provide a full outlet for their accumulated reformist appetites. The SWP’s definitive overt leap from centrism to reformism came around the November 1965 antiwar conference in Washington, D.C., where the SWP attempted an (unsuccessful) organizational grab. In doing so, the SWP threw overboard the last remnants of class-struggle opposition to the war in favor of the reformist lie that a classless peace movement could stop the imperialist intervention in Vietnam. Richard Kirk, then still a member of the SWP NC, condemned the SWP’s wretched role at the November conference in a letter to the PC dated 13 December 1965:
“Here the party and youth carried on an unprincipled, disruptive and politically reformist struggle against the entire left wing of the antiwar movement. They disrupted the conference around tertiary organizational demands and ended in isolation and national disgrace. They established an indelible and deserved record for political conservatism and dead-end factionalism.”
Kirk had copies of his letter sent to his supporters on and off the NC, as well as to several majority supporters, including Larry Trainor. For this violation of “committee discipline” (which Cannon called a “non-existent law”) Kirk was censured by the February 1966 NC plenum. Breitman says in his preface that the “whole question” of discipline was “dropped” at this plenum. But Kirk’s criticisms, unlike Swabeck’s, cut too close to the SWP’s actual reformist practice. After the censure of Kirk the SWP leadership opened up an “investigation” of the entire Kirk-Kaye tendency, sending the bully Asher Harer to Seattle where the Fraserites had the majority. This action precipitated the resignation of the entire tendency.
It is clear that Dobbs felt much earlier that taking political disputes outside the NC was a violation of “normal party procedures” warranting disciplinary action. In early 1962—four years before Cannon opposed disciplining Arne Swabeck—Dobbs went after Tim Wohlforth for violating this norm. This was before Wohlforth split the RT, and he was the only minorityite on the Political Committee. When the RT submitted a document signed by Wohlforth and another member of the NC, plus ten other well-known comrades, Wohlforth was treated to a real browbeating by Dobbs, as recorded in the minutes of the 11 April 1962 PC meeting.
The whole notion of “committee discipline” is hardly new, as Cannon notes in his 8 February 1966 letter. In the early American CP it was mostly honored in the breach. But breach of such a norm cannot become the occasion for disciplinary action in a revolutionary party, which must allow for free political discourse between its leading members and the rank and file if the party convention is to make an informed decision on the disputed issues. We note that even Stalin’s guilt-ridden defense in Pravda did not invoke “committee discipline” against the Central Committee members who signed the Left Opposition’s “Platform of the 46” in October 1923.
The SWP’s qualitative descent into reformism occurred alongside the emergence of a new leadership configuration. Cannon was “promoted” to advisory status in 1965, and his agent Carl Feingold was eliminated forthwith. The Dobbs-Kerry leadership which had been administering the party since 1952 didn’t last much longer—they were old and tired. The intermediate layer—40-year-olds like Nat Weinstein, Ed Shaw and Clifton DeBerry—were mediocre at very best. And the SWP had purged their layer of revolutionary-minded youth when they booted out the RT. So they were pretty much stuck with Barnes, Barry Sheppard, Doug and Linda Jenness, Larry Seigle, Mary-Alice Waters, Peter Camejo, et al. These were political animals of quite another sort—unlike even the lackluster 40-year-olds who at least had some experience with the old SWP and its trade-union work, the Barnesites had no organic connection to the party’s revolutionary past. They had come to the SWP during the period of its centrist degeneration and were recruited from the petty-bourgeois student milieu. Further, their first taste of power came during the RT fight when Dobbs seized control of the YSA, and Barnes, Sheppard and Camejo were dropped into the youth leadership. The Barnes clique certainly didn’t learn Trotskyist politics—but Dobbs did give them the tools to “deal” with oppositionists.
The Barnesite Conspiracy
Early on the Barnesites had a sense of us vs. them regarding the older SWP cadre who retained at least a sentimental attachment to Trotskyism, albeit diluted. Joseph Hansen was the quintessential old-timer—he had been Trotsky’s personal secretary from 1937-1940 and the living link between Cannon and Trotsky. An able polemicist, Hansen was the SWP’s principal international spokesman during and after the 1963 reunification with the Pabloites (in this role he had earned the psychotic enmity of Gerry Healy who later waged an international slander campaign against Hansen as an “accomplice” to the assassination of Trotsky and an agent of the GPU, FBI, etc.). Hansen had a real base of support among the cadre he had trained on the staff of the SWP’s journal, Intercontinental Press. So Barnes & Co. simply eased the older cadre out of power by shunting them into “advisory” status on the party’s leading committees. By the mid-1970s, the Barnesites had secured control and the advisory bodies were dissolved. Later, the Barnesites would gloat over how easily and adroitly they eased out the old-timers. Mary-Alice Waters in a May 1985 report to the SWP NC enthused:
“Because of the strengths of the party leadership, we made it through the decade of the 1970s and into the 1980s before any section of older cadres tried to claim the mantle of age to justify refusal to be disciplined.... The split that came to a head in 1982-83 was, in part, a split we had prevented year after year throughout the 1970s as we made the transition.... When some individuals who left the party last year tried to turn it into an ‘old timers’ revolt, it was too late
—SWP Information Bulletin No. 2, June 1985, quoted in FIT’s Bulletin in Defense of Marxism No. 22, September 1985
Hansen’s death in early 1979 was very convenient for the Barnes clique: it rid them of a formidable potential internal opponent at a time when their leadership was more than a little vulnerable to attack. Party membership was on the wane—the antiwar movement from which the SWP had recruited significantly had long since petered out. Barnes’ forays into other areas had been a disaster. “Consistent feminism” hadn’t led to socialism—instead the SWP experienced the hardly unforeseeable redbaiting of its fraction in the bourgeois-feminist National Organization for Women. The much-vaunted “turn” to industry fared no better—it recruited next to no workers while simultaneously driving out many of the petty-bourgeois recruits from the 1960s and 1970s.
The Barnesite epigones moved into high gear in 1980: they were the “secret factionalists” and they certainly were part of a conspiracy. The FIT is right on that score. The inside story of the SWP in the early 1980s is certainly one of corridor gossip, the lining up of traitors, the marking of those who didn’t sneer at Trotsky in private. The Barnes gang engaged in provocations designed to push the old cadre into opposition—Doug Jenness’ Militant articles attacking Trotsky’s analysis of the Russian Revolution are an example. When Breitman, Steve Bloom, Frank Lovell, Nat Weinstein and Lynn Henderson timidly voiced their objections, Barnes & Co. framed them up and blackjacked them with the 1965 organizational rules—for which incidentally Breitman, Lovell and Weinstein had all voted. Those now grouped in the FIT, SU and SA were the victims of a calculated purge—it is very difficult to believe that the enormous, fine-print “List of Splitters” in the January 1984 Party Organizer hadn’t been drawn up long, long before. In classic Stalinist fashion, Barnes first purged, then submitted the planned line change to the remaining faithful hand-raisers.
The Two-Tier Conception of Party Membership
After reading “Don’t Strangle the Party” one would believe that in the period after Swabeck’s expulsion the SWP was virtually opposition free—until the Barnes gang suddenly decided to junk Trotskyism in 1980. But this is far from the case. The RT expulsion had not rid the SWP of all leftist elements and at least some of the recruits gained after 1965 believed that the SWP had something to do with revolutionary socialism.
In the early 1970s a myriad of often overlapping oppositions arose in the SWP—the Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT), the Leninist Faction (LF), the Communist Tendency, the Revolutionary Internationalist Tendency (RIT), the Internationalist Tendency (IT)—and none of them got the kid-gloves treatment reserved for old-time NCers like Arne Swabeck (see “Memories of a 1970s SWP Oppositionist,” page 30). All of these oppositions consisted for the most part of relatively newer members and they were viewed as unruly kids who were disloyal and didn’t belong in the party anyway.
Breitman and the FIT do not see the systematic brutalization of every SWP opposition after 1963. Implicit in both Cannon’s material and the Breitman introduction is the actual two-tier conception of party membership which operated in the SWP from 1960 to 1980. There was, in fact, one set of rules for those people with standing—those who had been around and on the NC for a while—and quite another set for the people who hadn’t. Among the mass of oppositions in the 1963 SWP the RT was singled out for expulsion because its fight for the historic revolutionary program of the SWP was an extreme embarrassment to Dobbs.
In 1974 the SWP expelled 115 members of the Internationalist Tendency from the party and the YSA— the largest “split” in the SWP since 1953. At the time, the SWP was embroiled in a desultory faction fight with the Mandel-led tendency in the USec. One of the hot issues was guerrilla warfare, one of the points of unity in 1963. The SWP had abandoned its brief pro-guerrilla enthusing in favor of abject social-democratic reformism, but Mandel remained a vicarious “guerrilla,” and the IT supported him. The United States government, in the form of the House Internal Security Subcommittee, targeted Mandel’s USec and the IT in particular as “terrorists.” To the Barnesites this was the kiss of death for the IT. The SWP’s “Watersuit” against the U.S. imperialist spy agencies’ decades-long surveillance of the SWP was then under way and the last thing Barnes wanted was a clot inside the SWP tainted with the suggestion of “terrorism.” So the IT was declared to be a “separate rival party” by PC diktat and summarily expelled—on the Fourth of July 1974! The SWP’s own internal bulletins on the purge (including a list of ITers’ pseudonyms) showed up in court as the showpiece of the SWP’s attempt to demonstrate its “respectability” before the bourgeoisie. The significance of this patriotic purge was not lost on the federal judge:
“There was never anything, in my view, beyond the most tenuous suggestion of a possible implication of violence in the United States. In view of the ouster of the minority faction, I believe that tenuous suggestion has been basically eliminated.”
The IT was offered up to the government by Barnes & Co. on the specious hope that the federal court would recognize the SWP’s right to practice its weird brand of reformism without the interference, infiltration and intrusion of the FBI. Years later the judge has yet to announce his verdict, but the verdict of history is clear: Barnes’ SWP is a party which the U.S. capitalist class has truly no reason to fear.
In the “Watersuit” trial, the SWP underscored its vindictive hatred for the remnants of the leftist IT when, in 1981, it slandered ex-ITer Hedda Garza as a government fink, based on an FBI claim that Garza had met privately with a government attorney. The SWP aggressively retailed this disgraceful lie in the Militant and tried to silence the few who protested inside the SWP by making the ludicrous claim that “district attorneys don’t lie.” The Spartacist League protested this gratuitous slander of a socialist comrade in our detailed press coverage of the “Watersuit” (see especially “Reformism on Trial,” Workers Vanguard No. 286, 31 July 1981). Our press documented the SWP’s reformist assurances that the party’s legalism was in no way “contravened” by anything Lenin or Trotsky might have written, the suggestions that Nicaraguan pluralism or even American “checks and balances” rather than the Russian Revolution were the SWP’s model, the vicious slander of Garza solely because she used to sometimes hang around with USec leaders. We protested the violation of SWP members’ rights, facilitated by the panicky incompetence of the SWP, which in a touching display of faith in the government handed over party members’ names and international comrades’ pseudonyms, then turned around and in response to demands for financial information claimed the party had destroyed its own financial records. We wrote that the “Watersuit” fully displayed not only the SWP’s quirky reformist politics but the organizational consequences of having driven out of party influence the experienced cadres who, despite the political erosion, would still have known how to competently administer a legal case. The same lack was evident again in the SWP’s initial public non-response to the dangerous Gelfand suit (where a Healyite agent appealed to the government to intervene in the SWP’s internal life to restore him to membership), which the SWP treated like a guilty secret until the SL press exposed the Healyites’ organization-busting gambit and called for anti-sectarian support to the SWP against Gelfand.
Cannon’s 1966 speech refers to the SWP’s “capacity to attract the young” as a sign of its vitality. But from 1963 on, the SWP under Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry (and later under Barnes & Co.) systematically purged those youth who thought they were joining some kind of revolutionary Trotskyist party. The Spartacist League won some of these elements out of the RIT, LF and IT on the basis of the Trotskyist program for which it had fought since its inception as the RT. By 1980 all that was left of the revolutionary SWP was its initials—and those few old-timers whom Barnes expelled when he repudiated Trotskyism.
We wonder whether the concern Cannon expresses in his letter to Reba Hansen about “any possible proposal to weaken the constitutional provision about the absolute right of suspended or expelled members to appeal to the convention” reflected support to SWP PC member George Weissman’s fight to hear the RT’s appeal at the 1965 convention. Weissman’s motion to give the RT members time to present their case was only narrowly defeated by a vote of 32 to 24. In any case the attempt to uphold the RT’s formal rights to appeal in 1965 was a gesture. While every oppositional current in the SWP had opposed the expulsion, the majority of the cadre—including Weissman and Cannon—supported it. Weissman, who wrote a powerful protest against his own expulsion from the SWP, was a member of the FIT at the time of his death last year (see our obituary in Workers Vanguard No. 382, 28 June 1985).
Yet the letters and speech in “Don’t Strangle the Party” carry the clear implication that Cannon didn’t much like where the SWP was going in the mid-1960s. We mentioned earlier the rumored friction between Cannon and Dobbs. We have to say here that Dobbs and Tom Kerry, after groping around, groomed Barnes and his cohorts as their replacements. Breitman says nothing about that. Cannon’s last letters certainly strongly support our contention that the SWP’s renunciation of Trotskyism didn’t just fall from the skies in 1982. We recall that by the 1981 SWP convention Tom Kerry was screaming in impotent rage at Barnes and his crew of hacks. How much did Kerry reflect the views of his former partner, Dobbs? It’s hard to tell. In a democratic party the disputes are all in the internal bulletins. In the bureaucratic post-1963 SWP the real stuff of party internal life happened behind the scenes.
FIT—Blinded by Centrism
After their expulsions, the veteran comrades of the ex-SWP milieu found themselves unceremoniously ejected from the party’s public events and slandered as “disrupters.” Indignant at being deprived of their democratic rights as members of the socialist public, by a party to which many had devoted decades of service, the FIT protested publicly, including claiming that this was the first time in the SWP’s history that people had been excluded from its “public” events because of their political views. Yet the FIT knows different. Indeed, in the mid-70s, FIT leader Frank Lovell had prevented the SWP San Francisco branch from excluding Spartacists from a Militant Forum. Informed that the exclusion of Spartacists was standard SWP policy, Lovell retorted that after all his years of addressing democratically organized public meetings he wasn’t about to start excluding people now. This defense of workers democracy should be a source of pride for Lovell and the FIT, but instead they are constrained to forget it since the incident points clearly to the decisive break in the SWP’s revolutionary continuity having occurred much earlier than the FIT is willing to look. The FIT’s view that Barnes’ party remained the revolutionary SWP until very lately in fact plays into the hands of currents among the ex-SWP oppositionists like Alan Wald, who uses atrocities of Barnes’ party over two decades to buttress his case that Trotskyism itself has failed and should be dumped in favor of regroupments with “state capitalist” formations.
The omissions in Breitman’s introduction are not the result of cynicism or willful disingenuousness. Breitman and the FIT literally can’t see what happened to the SWP because they are blinded by their centrist politics. They long for a return to the SWP of the 1960s and 1970s, when their popular-frontist antiwar work garnered a wave of recruits and Joe Hansen wrote so beautifully, proving that the SWP’s support to Castro was consistent with this or that Comintern resolution. To anyone who at the time doubted the SWP’s attachment to Trotsky, the old-timers could proudly point to the party’s efforts in collecting, editing and publishing Trotsky’s and Cannon’s writings.
Breitman certainly deserves central credit in that effort, the results of which today educationally arm the members of the Spartacist tendency. Yet it was Breitman himself who proposed dropping the SWP’s designation as “Trotskyist” in a letter to the NC dated 6 April 1965:
“On the whole, the label ‘Trotskyist’ is a handicap, not an asset. To new people it gives the impression that we are some kind of cult, creating unnecessary obstacles to reaching them with our program, especially rebellious youth who are suspicious of cults.”
This proposal was a resurrection of one made by Cannon in 1951, but Cannon scrapped it during the Cochran-Clarke fight when the minority came out with the slogan, “Junk the Old Trotskyism.” Breitman was undoubtedly more comfortable with Cannon’s 1951 rightist flinch than with other thoughts of Cannon. Cannon never excluded the possibility that the American workers would bypass a reformist labor party dominated by the conservative trade-union tops and come directly to revolutionary consciousness in the heat of struggle. Such an idea is literally inconceivable to both today’s SWP and the FIT.
The FIT sees the crux of the problem in Barnes’ supposedly “new” orientation to Castroism, beginning in 1979. As we have shown, the SWP’s decisive adaptation to Castro began much earlier than that. But something did happen in 1979—the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua. This prompted Barnes to offer the idiotic thought that the SWP could make the big time internationally by cutting a deal with Managua. All that allegedly stood in the way was the old baggage of Trotskyism and its aged centrist supporters still in the SWP. And the Barnesites weren’t part of the “old guard” who tacitly understood, however wrongly, that the 1965 organizational rules wouldn’t be used against them.
Breitman’s failure to associate himself with a revolutionary program left him incapable of effectively combating the Barnesite epigones during his brief internal opposition, or even understanding his subsequent expulsion. His tragic end—kicked out of the party which he had loyally served for close to half a century—is reminiscent of others who, lacking a sufficient program, couldn’t understand what hit them. Leopold Trepper, the heroic Polish Communist who led the Soviet intelligence network in Nazi-occupied Belgium and France during World War II, spoke movingly as one of the many who saw the flame of Bolshevik Revolution smothered by Stalin:
“Today, the Trotskyites have a right to accuse those who once howled along with the wolves. Let them not forget, however, that they had the enormous advantage over us of having a coherent political system capable of replacing Stalinism. They had something to cling to in the midst of their profound distress at seeing the revolution betrayed. They did not ‘confess,’ for they knew that their confession would serve neither the party nor socialism.”
—The Great Game, 1977
Breitman noted that, in opposing disciplinary action against Swabeck, Cannon may have looked “a little farther ahead than most of the NC members.” Cannon also foretold the possibility that the SWP would not be capable of meeting its revolutionary obligations:
“We know that our party, as at present constituted, is not ordained. We are human, and therefore capable of error and of failure. But if we fail; if we ossify into sectarianism, or degenerate along the lines of opportunism, or succumb to the pressures of our times and let history pass us by—it would simply mean that others, picking up the program and taking hold of the thread of Marxist continuity, would have to create another party of the same type as the SWP.”
—“Concluding Speech at the May Plenum,” 31 May 1953
Cannon clung to the SWP through its degeneration, but the Revolutionary Tendency took hold of the thread of Marxist continuity, based on the heritage of Cannon and the revolutionary SWP. As opposed to the sentimental looking-back, with centrist blinders, of the FIT, we look forward with the confidence that we are the continuators of revolutionary Marxism in the United States, and internationally.
Memories of a 1960s SWP Oppositionist
While preparing our review of “Don’t Strangle the Party,” the Spartacist Editorial Board received the following letter from comrade Al Nelson, who was a young member of the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Comrade Nelson’s letter has been edited for publication.
When I joined the SWP in February 1962 the New York Organizer, Carl Feingold, cautioned me that I had a “major difference” with the SWP (the nature of the Cuban Revolution) and that of course I would not be expected to speak in public or do other work where Cuba was involved. This projected RT supporters as second-class members and implied an inability to abide by discipline. The SWP soon moved to keep known RT supporters in the youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), out of the SWP. When Dave K. was kept out of the SWP, the reason cited was that he was not “active enough.” Jim Robertson, a leader of the RT, was a member of the New York local Executive Committee later in 1962 and he objected to this policy.
When I joined the YSA in the fall of 1961 there was a general policy of social ostracism toward minority supporters that extended to brand-new YSA members, who were lined up against the minority immediately—they were warned to avoid us. The leadership, especially the more factionally-crazed New York YSA leadership, tried as much as possible to prevent RT members from working in public arenas. We were criticized as “free agents” when we took part in pickets or demonstrations without “consultation” with the branch leadership. RT supporter Roger A. was eventually expelled in February 1964 for taking part in picketing the Greek Queen because, in so doing, he “consciously and arrogantly violate[d] party discipline.” Shirley Stoute, a black RT member, was forbidden to work in the civil rights movement in the South in the summer of 1962. She then received a personal invitation from SNCC leader James Forman, which the SWP could not refuse. Shirley and Steve Fox went to the South, followed by Pete Camejo and Ken Schulman specifically to spy on Shirley and report back to New York.
Shirley was eventually told to return to New York for a YSA National Committee (NC) plenum in September 1962. Then she was told that she could not return to the South and was under discipline not to reveal the reasons why to SNCC! She was merely to send for her belongings.
On 28 January 1963, in an obvious factional provocation, two young members of the majority “raided” a private RT discussion meeting. I made an informal protest the next day to the National Organization Secretary Tom Kerry, who seemed surprised. But the PC decided to cover for Carl Feingold, who had engineered the raid, and on 2 February 1963 passed a motion by Dobbs and Kerry endorsing Kerry’s statement at the New York branch meeting that the RT was violating party discussion procedures by having meetings at all before the formal pre-conference discussion period. Thus the majority leadership eliminated the distinction between private and party discussion. In response we wrote, “For the Right of Organized Tendencies to Exist Within the Party.”
Wohlforth published accusations against us as splitters in the party discussion bulletin in June 1963; two days later we replied to his lies with “Discipline and Truth,” submitting it just under the bulletin deadline. Nearly one-third of the SWP was in political opposition on the eve of the 1963 convention. Barry Sheppard, Camejo and others predicted gleefully that the ax would fall on the RT at the convention. We heard later that Myra Tanner Weiss warned Cannon not to expel us at the convention or she would go public. Tom Kerry denounced us on the floor of the convention for being “disloyal.” This was cited later as evidence of “suspicion” to warrant our expulsions. Robertson was kept off the National Committee and the Political Committee, which became basically majority bodies.
The Control Commission convened in August, following the convention, to investigate Wohlforth’s charges against us. All RT supporters in New York were called for tape-recorded interrogations. Robertson, Mage, White, Harper and Ireland were suspended by the PC in October and expelled at an NC plenum in December for “disloyal conduct” though no violations of discipline were alleged or proved.
On 9 January 1964, a plenum report centering on the expulsions was made to the New York branch. The report included some self-criticism on the public positions of the SWP when Kennedy was killed—these were called “errors in formulation.” The expulsions were described as a big step, aimed not only at the Robertson tendency. “Wild” branch meetings were cited. “Loyalty” to the party was now to be a prerequisite for party membership. The expulsions were intended to affirm what kind of party the SWP was. This internal situation was allowed to develop so long, the report said, because the SWP was just coming out of isolation—it had become lax. Now the party was making a turn; no more leaning over backwards. It was time to tighten up.
When Doug Gorden (Swabeckite) denounced the “frame-up charges” from the floor, Nat Weinstein, the New York organizer, said that the party would no longer permit the NC to be attacked in that way. He said this was a final warning and proposed that Doug be censured by the Executive Committee—reaffirming Dobbs’ statement that “the majority is the party.” Various minorities objected during the discussion. In his summary remarks Weinstein stated that this was an “information report” and that NC decisions could not be changed until the next convention.
On 20 February 1964, the first issue of Spartacist was sold outside the Thursday night New York branch meeting by Jim Robertson. It seemed that nearly everyone in the meeting was reading a copy. A furious Weinstein took the floor and stated that with the publication of Spartacist the Robertson group had become an “enemy of the party” and that no collaboration by any party member with Spartacist would be permitted, nor would any expression of sympathy for their ideas be tolerated (this “sympathy for ideas” clause was deleted from the later formal charges against the remaining RT supporters). Sympathizers of those expelled were to be viewed with suspicion and closely scrutinized. They would be “on trial.”
Weinstein’s report was put to a vote: 31 were for, 5 against (all RT supporters) and 6 abstained (that was the Weissites and Swabeck supporters). Following the vote Weinstein declared that he wanted to know why these comrades voted against, and said that there would be an investigation.
As I recall, this was a particularly hysterical meeting. After the meeting adjourned various comrades were screaming at each other. Fred Halstead was screaming at me, “If you don’t like it why don’t you just leave!” To which I and others would reply, “No! You’d like that. We intend to stay and continue to fight for our positions.”
In general, the tenor in the New York SWP branch meetings after the report on the December expulsions was “love it or leave it.” But we acted as model members, doing more than our share of the work, paying dues promptly, etc. It drove them mad.
On 25 February 1964 I and the other four RT supporters received a formal notice of charges based on our vote against Weinstein’s report. We were notified that the trial was set for March 2. The “trial” was conducted by an expanded New York branch Executive Committee composed entirely of majority supporters. On March 5 the conclusions of this all-majority “trial body” were reported to the branch by Nat Weinstein. He tried to insist that the expulsions were “absolutely not for ideas.” We expel people for acts, he claimed, and then cited three “acts”: the intra-tendency discussion document cited by Wohlforth; our vote against Weinstein’s report to the branch; the publication of attacks on the SWP (i.e., Spartacist) and the “approval” of this by the remaining RTers.
There were about 60 people at this meeting, a large turnout. The Weissites were particularly incensed. Myra Weiss gave an eloquent speech in defense of the right of organized tendencies to exist. She defended the publication of Spartacist, blamed the majority for the whole situation, and admitted that she had given her PC motion against RT expulsions (reprinted in Spartacist No. 1) to the leading RTers when they were still party members. She intended to vote “No” on Weinstein’s report. A number of majority speakers warned Myra to stay out of this and go back to the PC where she belonged.
Tim Wohlforth was at this meeting. He said he opposed expulsion for ideas—and then went on to declare that the RT’s ideas were “alien,” that we were “destroying Trotskyism,” and attacked us for accepting support for our democratic rights in the party from the Weissites and Swabeckites.
The vote to expel the five of us was: 44 for, 14 against with one abstention and one not voting. These expulsions cleaned the RT out of the SWP in New York. However, seven RTers including some of those just expelled from the SWP were still members of the New York YSA. Some of us were very visible active Spartacists and all of us were open supporters of Spartacist views. We worked with Progressive Labor (PL) and in the Congress of Racial Equality (rent strike work). RT member Shirley Stoute was on the YSA NC and a member of the SWP in Philadelphia.
This situation in the YSA wasn’t going to last long. But the dual membership was permitted by a provision (which Jim Robertson had opposed at the founding YSA Convention) that permitted YSAers to be members of “any adult socialist party.” Barry Sheppard was YSA national chairman and Peter Camejo was the national secretary. Jack Barnes was New York YSA Organizer. A lovely crew.
Their method of seeking our expulsion was very clumsy. On 2 May 1964 several of us were part of a joint defense guard with PL for a demonstration. The YSA was nominally taking part in this. Before the march Barry Sheppard approached three of us to carry YSA signs. We declined, stating that we already had assignments as Spartacist supporters on the defense guard. Several days later we received notification of charges that we had “deliberately violated discipline” by refusing assignments given out the morning of May 2 at a YSA meeting (not true). A trial before the NY YSA local was scheduled for May 30. In addition, as an NC member, I would be tried by the National Executive Committee (NEC) following the local trial. It was all very contrived—individual acts of indiscipline. Nothing to do with political purges in the SWP of course!
Before the trial I wrote up and mimeoed a “Trial Circular” which blew their case out of the water. This was distributed to the local members, many of whom were very new. It gave a history of the origins of the RT and the political expulsions from the SWP. It denounced the fraudulent charges against us as part of a continuing attempt to turn the YSA into an instrument of the SWP majority in violation of the historical norms of youth-party relations as described by the SWP itself (see Murry Weiss’ letter in Marxist Bulletin No. 7, “The Leninist Position on Youth-Party Relations”).
A number of new members objected to the proceedings and wanted to know if what was in the “Circular” was true. It wasn’t going over. Barnes got up and denounced the circular itself for claiming that the YSA was controlled by the SWP. He said the circular was a “fink” document and these people are “objective agents” of the FBI! Then the despicable Freddy Mazelis—Wohlforth’s lieutenant—came to the rescue of the majority leadership. He proceeded to offer a rationale for political expulsions, arguing that since we had major differences with the SWP and YSA there was no way we could be disciplined members of the YSA. The expulsions carried.
On 5 September 1964 we appealed to a YSA NC plenum. The plenum upheld our expulsions and furthermore expelled five other RTers including Shirley Stoute. The only “charges” against the five new expellees was their “support to Spartacist.” It was simply a summary political expulsion of a whole group. Shirley was criticized for going to Cuba “without permission”! Following the plenum Shirley had to return to Philadelphia, where Dobbs had instructed the SWP branch to put her on trial (the “charges” are in Spartacist No. 3). She was expelled. It bothers me that after all these years comrade Breitman cannot admit the truth: that the expulsions of the RT marked the crossroads for the SWP; that it was wrong to have gone along with all this crap. After all, in defending our tendency we defended Breitman’s rights too, then and in the future. The majority is not the party! Democratic centralism is the organizational method of the revolutionary (insurrectionary) party. It serves only the revolutionary program. And there’s the rub.
—Originally dated 18 March 1986
Memories of a 1970s Oppositionist
White preparing our review of “Don’t Strangle the Party,” the Spartacist Editorial Board received the following letter from comrade Sam H., a former member of the Leninist Faction of the Socialist Workers Party, now a supporter of the Spartacist League. Comrade Sam’s letter has been edited for publication.
I became a contact of the SWP in 1969 during my four-year hitch in the Air Force, and joined the Madison Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in June 1970, one month after I was discharged. My decision to join was based on reading Cannon’s Socialism on Trial, a selected works by Trotsky, and on my understanding of the Minneapolis Teamster strikes in 1934. The Madison YSA was a left-talking Mandelite [i.e., followers of United Secretariat leader Ernest Mandel] branch that was essentially led by the Proletarian Orientation Tendency (POT).
So while I thought I was joining the SWP of 1938 I began wondering why there were no trade-union fractions. Why was I one of the few union members in the local organization? I began pressing the branch leaders on this and one day I was led into one of their apartments to read the POT’s 1969 document, “On Sending Young Comrades into the Trade Unions.” I then realized that there was an impending faction fight inside the SWP and I quickly sided with the POT.
The 1971 SWP Convention turned out to be the POT’s only coordinated fight and I’m sorry I wasn’t there. The pre-conference discussion produced 30 or more bulletins and my most vivid memory from the returning Madison delegates was Barry Sheppard’s admonition at the end of the convention. The POT delegates were roundly defeated vote-wise. Since 1961 the party members functioned as a fraction within the youth so Sheppard’s admonition at the final Session was, “And there will be no wrecking job in the youth, comrades!”
Sheppard was calling POT supporters to task: they had better obey the party statutes or else. The POT challenged the party’s orientation but had no counterposed political program, so their intervention suffered dramatically. The POT essentially agreed with the SWP majority’s resolutions on the antiwar movement, black question, feminism, etc. So they were politically disarmed from engaging in political combat with the reformist Barnes clique.
The Mandelite POT was never a programmatically counterposed faction. They saw themselves as a dissident “tendency”—loyal, but with differences. I remember the first internal class I gave was on “democratic centralism.” The POT leaders who helped me to prepare this class were in political solidarity with the 1965 org rules [“The Organizational Character of the Socialist Workers Party”] and the RT expulsion. The Spartacist League (SL) was not in Madison at that time so I had never seen us in action before. I dutifully repeated the common SWP refrain that the “Robertsonites” were expelled for “double-recruiting” and the Madison YSA branch simply accepted this as orthodox SWP history.
The POT leaders never challenged these 1965 org rules so they were condemned to live under them. We actually believed that you only discuss major political questions for three months every two years (the pre-conference discussion period). We skirted this in Madison on a number of occasions but I remember attending branch meetings in Chicago where, whenever a well-intentioned POTer would raise tactical differences with the SWP’s wretched pacifist line on the Vietnam War, a majorityite hack would quickly take the floor and say, “This discussion is taking on the character of a pre-conference discussion and this is not the proper time nor place for this.” I heard this over and over again!
The bottom line is that the POT leadership thought we could bring the reformist SWP line to the working class and that would make a difference. So while bemoaning the Barnes leadership’s undemocratic functioning they never challenged the political program that the organizational abuses flowed from. The American POT was an example of the wretched Mandelites’ refusal to build any serious opposition to Barnes’ SWP.
How rotten the POT was became clear to me at the 1971 Houston YSA Convention. I was one of the few pro-POT delegates, elected by the Milwaukee YSA. The big issue at the convention was the removal of a POT YSAer from the youth National Committee. It was clear that this guy was being dumped because the Barnesites were starting to clean house in the youth. This was one of the rare periods that you could raise differences, but the POT was acting in complete accordance with Sheppard’s warning against monkeying around with the youth. Not only was I instructed not to raise political differences on the convention floor but I was also instructed not to fight the purge on the basis of the comrade’s political views. I was given the unenviable task of taking the floor and simply asserting that the Nominating Commission had not provided a convincing enough case that this comrade’s functioning had gone downhill. I did place the POT YSAer’s name in nomination and was later congratulated by POTers as being the first person to ever challenge a YSA nominating slate. I don’t know if that’s true; I certainly didn’t feel proud. I felt that we ducked the political fight on the right of minorities to exist and maintain their political views. Luckily for me the SL had a table up at the convention so I got to read Workers Vanguard and took home with me a collection of Marxist Bulletins. It was my first contact with the SL.
On the last day of the convention I did get to talk to a comrade from Boston who couldn’t help but notice how pissed off I was at the POT. This became my first contact with the developing Leninist Faction (LF) which I quickly joined. The history of the LF is well documented in Spartacist No. 21. My resignation letter from the LF (co-signed by Dave E., Pam E. and Tom T.) appeared in Workers Vanguard No. 14.
Reading “Don’t Strangle the Party” and thinking about this letter has certainly jogged my memory and put these events in a clearer light. In the POT we had to put up with discussion only three months every two years regardless of what was happening in the world. A tendency was a “temporary” formation that was supposed to disband after you got your ass kicked at a convention. Factions were disloyal. To be an oppositionist during this time you had to deal with a good dose of paranoia and get nothing but crap from the Barnes leadership. When I returned from the Houston YSA convention a Barnesite hack was virtually sitting on the doorstep ordering the local Executive Committee (all of whom were POT supporters) to pack their bags and leave town. Branches like Milwaukee were destroyed while Barnes supporters were moved around the country to achieve mechanical branch majorities.
—Originally dated 19 April 1986