Recalling U.S. Trotskyism in the 1960s

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

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); $16 paper.

BARRY SHEPPARD’S BOOK is a sustained exercise in retrieving memories of experiences associated with left-wing radicalism prevalent in the 1960s. This is undertaken particularly for the benefit of younger activists who have become engaged in the struggle for global justice in opposition to the corporate-military quest for “empire.” As he puts it:

“Those in the active core of this new movement are seeking to increase their understanding of the enemy they face, and are debating the strategies and tactics to use.  Many of them are naturally curious about the anti-Vietnam War movement, the Black struggle for civil rights and liberation, and the women’s movement.  This volume looks back at that time with an eye to the future.  Hopefully that past experience, both in the United States and internationally, will be of use to the new generation of fighters.”

This memoir actually begins in the mid-1950s and concludes in 1973, the first of two volumes corresponding to Sheppard’s 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 USSR.

The genre of left-wing political memoir (often by those who left the organizations they were writing about) has become especially distinctive since the 1950s, with a wave of autobiographies and historical accounts by erstwhile “insiders” from the Communist Party, and since the 1980s with a smaller wave of new left memoirs.

More recently, there have been valuable reminiscences from the Maoist movement with Max Elbaum’s Revolution in the Air (2002), and from the more sectarian fringe of the Trotskyist movement with Tim Wohlforth’s The Prophet’s Children (1996) — both quite useful sources of information and ideas.

SWP’s Accomplishments

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, due to an unprecedented capitalist prosperity and a stifling climate of Cold War anti-Communism in the wake of World War II.

From 1960 to the mid-’70s, however, the combined membership of the SWP and its youth group the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) grew from about 400 to about 3000 cadres. They became a significant force in a number of initiatives:

* Fair Play for Cuba Committees, organized to oppose aggressive policies by the U.S. government against Cuba after Fidel Castro and Che Guevara led the Cuban Revolution to triumph in 1959.

* Student Peace Union, which protested against the testing of atomic and hydrogen bombs and the threat to humanity posed by the possibility of nuclear war in the early 1960s.

* Civil rights and Black liberation movements, in activities ranging from eyewitness reporting on early challenges to Jim Crow in the South for the SWP’s newsweekly, The Militant, to honoring Black trade unionist E.D. Nixon (who played a pivotal role in the 1955-56 Montgomery Bus Boycott), to helping organize nationwide picketing of Woolworth’s stores in support of the 1960 Greensboro lunch-counter sit-ins, to rallying in defense of Robert F. Williams (militant president of the Monroe, North Carolina NAACP who advocated armed Black self-defense against the Ku Klux Klan). The SWP also played a special role in helping Malcolm X to convey his revolutionary nationalist perspectives more widely than would otherwise have been possible.

* Early stirrings of feminism’s “second wave” — from animated early discussion of Frederick Engels’ views on gender equality in pre-class societies and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, to involvement with the National Organization for Women and the abortion rights struggle (helping establish the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition). This was accompanied by the increasingly prominent involvement of women in the SWP and YSA at all levels.

* Socialist electoral challenges to capitalist politics-as-usual, sometimes joining with others on the Left to run left-wing candidates, sometimes running aggressive and colorful campaigns in the name of the SWP, and always using the campaigns, often quite effectively, to promote current social struggles and to win people to socialist ideas.

* The movement to end the war in Vietnam.

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 U.S. history when a majority of the population shifted from accepting the government’s war to opposing it.

Mass demonstrations involving hundreds of thousands and reflecting the thinking of millions were organized year after year, by such broad coalitions as the National Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam and the National Peace Action Coalition, posing a sharp challenge and a growing barrier to the power of pro-war politicians and policymakers.

Some in the antiwar movement (including the present author) had an illusion that the antiwar effort could be shifted onto a multi-issue course in order to transform it into a mass radical movement. We believed this would be able to usher in a more fundamental social and political change than “merely” U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam.

For some this was seen as taking place through the Democratic Party, for others it was seen as taking place well to the left of and against both the Democratic and Republican parties. In contrast, the SWP called for a movement with a single focus — immediate, unconditional U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam (translated into the popular slogan “Bring the Troops Home Now”), which was too radical for most Democratic Party liberals who preferred more equivocal slogans.

SWPers nonetheless labored tirelessly to build a non-exclusionary united front to organize peaceful, legal mass demonstrations around the “Out Now” position. The single-issue focus was linked to other various issues (Black liberation, women’s liberation, labor struggles, opposition to poverty, civil liberties, etc.) in speeches, flyers, and specific contingents in the mass demonstrations; but the demonstrations were open to all who agreed on the antiwar perspective, regardless of where they stood on other issues and of what political party they did or did not support.

This strategy, in fact, made the antiwar movement an increasingly effective force that helped limit the options of the war-makers, by mobilizing colossal demonstrations year after year. As the group that was most consistent in advancing this orientation, and as a quite effective and highly-disciplined party, SWP members became central leaders of the antiwar movement that helped bring an end to that bloody conflict.

Limitations and Crisis

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.

In the same period, 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 Carleton College graduate Jack Barnes and his second-in-command, Barry Sheppard, from Boston University and MIT. Such realities were part of a larger development in society and on the U.S. left, which Sheppard does not explore but which would have a profound impact.

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 contexts of revolutionary “teachers” from earlier decades and of their avid students 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 United States from the late 1970s through the late 1980s. Ironically, this occurred as influences from the 1960s radicalization permeated much of the U.S. population, and as negative impacts from the early manifestations of “globalization” created remarkable new openings for left-wing developments within the working class.

At the same time, many actual and potential activists who are structurally part of the working class have been more drawn to “identities” related to gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, etc., and to specific issues (war and militarism, human rights, ecological concerns, globalization, etc.)

It would prove far more difficult than many SWPers (and other revolutionaries, too) imagined to make such issues and identities integral parts of a coherent “proletarian orientation.”

The SWP that Barry Sheppard describes might have weathered this crisis — 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 this memoir, that generated a far less positive outcome.

This included a hot-house and disruptively implemented “industrialization” policy that sent almost all cadres into factories regardless of personal, political, or economic realities — an especially serious problem given the relative decline of U.S. industry in the 1980s.

It included a romantic fantasy that Fidel Castro’s Cuban Communist Party was about to forge a new revolutionary international — “necessitating” a rapid, top-down abandonment of Trotskyist theory.  It included a grotesque tightening of “party discipline” that drove hundreds of actual, incipient and potential dissidents out of the SWP (including a majority of its remaining veterans from the 1930s and ’40s) — a campaign which Sheppard helped to implement in its early stages, and of which he was a victim in its later stages.

What Went Wrong

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 U.S. political scene.

And while he clearly indicates his own preference for the leadership style and perspectives of Farrell Dobbs over the older and more seasoned Jim Cannon, he does draw attention — in his discussion of an initial tightening of organizational norms in 1965-66 — to Cannon’s prophetic warning to the Dobbs leadership (even more relevant for the Barnes leadership): “Don’t strangle the party.”

A Story Worth Telling

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 United States from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.

At the same time, while providing insights on the personalities and internal workings of U.S. Trotskyism in this period, Sheppard conscientiously seeks to connect the activities of the SWP to the larger historical contexts: the Cold War, the Hungarian uprising, the Algerian revolution, developments in the Middle East, the “thaw” in the USSR, the mass slaughter of leftists in Indonesia, the Vietnam conflict, the Cultural Revolution in China, the May-June 1968 student-worker rebellion in France, the ill-fated Prague spring that reached for “socialism with a human face,” and more.

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, India, and Sri Lanka.

He also begins a discussion (to be concluded in volume 2) of a sharp factional dispute in the Fourth International from the late 1960s to the mid-1970s. The issue was whether the world revolutionary breakthrough would be advanced by a continental strategy of rural guerrilla warfare in Latin America. Sheppard and other SWP leaders argued in the negative, insisting on the continued relevance of classical Leninist-Trotskyist orthodoxy.

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 put the SWP at loggerheads with many other currents on the U.S. as well as international Left in the heady days of which he writes. It is also interesting to note that SWP orthodoxy did not prevent Sheppard and his co-thinkers from being in the forefront of the Fourth International around the question of women’s liberation, not only theoretically but in emerging struggles.

In the United States, focal points involved the struggle for abortion rights, and later the struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment. Some European comrades — leaders of the Fourth International majority that rejected the SWP orientation — initially dismissed such things as “bourgeois feminism” that constituted a “diversion” from the class struggle and revolutionary politics.

“Soon, however, the power of the movement created an uprising in the ranks of women in the majority,” Sheppard notes, “and they were won over” on this important issue.

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 spoon- fed 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 in 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.”

Valuable Source for Activists

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, The Party tells a story worth telling. It is a valuable source for scholars and activists, 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.

The early 21st century in the United States is a time of big-money noise machines, media manipulation, and reality “deconstruction,” a time of right-wing and corporate-sponsored efforts to rewrite history in ways that obliterate memories of what really happened, a time of turning politics into a combined spectator sport and tawdry “reality” show in which any flashes of popular participation are dominated by a conservative agenda.

But our lived reality continues to reflect class, racial and gender oppression, cultural and environmental degradation, anti-democratic and imperialist violence. Such things continue to spawn shock, disillusionment, anger, protest, resistance.

Resurgent radicalization among layers of the population, including many who have come to political awareness since American capitalism’s much-heralded triumph over Communism, generates activists animated by a deepening commitment to the struggle for a better world. They will find in Barry Sheppard’s memoir a valuable resource.

ATC 117, July-August 2005