The Socialist Workers Party: Recollections
glevy at acnet.pratt.edu
glevy at acnet.pratt.edu
Fri Sep 22 14:31:19 MDT 1995
I have been very busy lately and haven't had an opportunity until now to
comment on the thread that Louis P. began. I joined the Young Socialist
Alliance (YSA) in September, 1970 (as I was beginning my sophomore year
in High School) and later (in 1974) joined the SWP. I remained a member
of the SWP until February, 1980. As I haven't told my story in a "public
forum" before, this provides an opportunity for me to do so.
As I said, I joined the YSA in 1970 in New London, Connecticut. At the
time, the YSA was a exciting place to be -- especially given the role of
the YSA/SWP in the anti-Vietnam war movement. In New London, I was
isolated politically. The YSA was the first group I ever joined, as I am
by nature rather anti-social and anti-organizational. While in the
YSA/SWP, I gained a reputation as a "maverick" in the sense that I
demanded convincing from the Party leadership (and didn't, contrary to
Cannon's understanding) simply accept the political judgment of the
leadership. I can't remember how many times I was the only one to speak
against and vote against a motion. As I was quite active, I was tolerated
as a kind of "eccentric."
Beginning in 1979 (?), I began to question the judgment of the leadership
(initially over the question of Castroism and Cuba, being generally
supportive of George Breitman). A number of seemingly unrelated events
led me to reaccess the nature of the SWP.
1) the SWP changed its position on the student movement and dissolved the
YSA (this was tied to the SWP's "turn to industry").
2) the SWP changed its position on Castro (from being a "centrist" to a
"revolutionary" who should be [essentially] uncritically supported).
3) the SWP changed its position on the Ogaden War (switching sides from
supporting Somolia to Ethiopia).
By themselves, these events weren't very troubling. What *was* very
troubling was to see how all of the branch members were called into a
meeting to emerge a few minutes later supporting a completely different
political position. It was really quite amazing. Comrades who would have
argued for days in defense of one position, accepted an opposing position
after just a few minutes conversation. Something, I thought, was
*seriously* wrong with that process.
I believe it all goes back to James P. Cannon. In a number of places, he
stressed the need for the ranks, in between conventions, to simply accept
the political judgment of the elected leadership (because they had more
"facts"). There was a very odd dialectic between the ranks and the
leadership in the SWP. On the one hand, members were given a large amount
of democratic rights (in the pre-convention period). Although, there were
some major violations of democratic rights (which I spoke out against at
the time), for the most part the process *appeared* democratic. On the
other hand [I decided], the actual process was far from being democratic
since the "democratic" process was more a show where members were given an
opportunity to stand up and echo the leadership line. In other words,
there was a formal democratic mechanism, but because the ranks simply
accepted [and were encouraged to accept] the leadership line, it was
really a pretense of democracy and a farce.
In the post-convention period, "party discipline" forbade me talking
about these doubts and concerns to anyone. The SWP was big on party
discipline and would expell a comrade in a moment if that person was seen
in the presence of *others* who were smoking a joint.
It was a very insular life. The party ranks were frankly isolated from
the outside world and had very few friends outside of the SWP. This was
not the case with me, because I was in a number of different social
milieus where I learned from and listened to non-party members
(unthinkable!). I remember one branch meeting [Lower Manhattan], in
particular, where this issue came up. There was a proposal to expell
someone for being a "Workers' League spy" [the evidence was very weak],
without offering him a right to a trial [if he was in the WL, it was
reasoned, he couldn't be in the SWP and, therefore, had no rights], *and*
for all party members to cease *all* [including social] contact with that
person. Well ... I took the floor and argued against the motion. I said,
in part, that the idea that we couldn't talk to that person socially was
"crazy." I will never forget what happened next. The Sales Director took
the floor and explained that party members have no reason to talk to
someone if he/she wasn't a member/sympathizer/or "contact." He said: "What
are you going to talk about, the weather?." I looked around the room --
everyone agreed with what he had said [they must *all* be crazy and/or
I made the "turn to industry" in 1978, first working at Ford's Metuchen
[NJ] Assembly Plant and then the General Motors Assembly Division plant in
Linden [NJ] (1979-1984). Unlike Louis, that made me a "worker Bolshevik."
The last draw: In February, 1980, I was finishing a 90 day probation at
GM. At the time, the SWP had the policy that you were not to talk *any*
politics while on probation. A number of comrades at Linden were
finishing their probationary period at the same time.
The setting: a "faction meeting" of the SWP members at Linden. Attending
also was a leader [Sam Manuel, whom I knew since High School). Anyway,
there was a proposal that we sell "Militants" in front of the factory
gates on our 91st day. I said -- that's crazy. Our co-workers don't even
know we are political. We should, at least, take a week to talk to them
about our politics before we sold the Party newspaper in front of the
plant [a radical suggestion]. Sam Manuel then gave a talk about how some
party members [me] were really trying to "sabotage" the turn to industry
and were "petty-bourgeois." I looked around the room -- all agreed with
him [these people are crazy too].
I couldn't take it anymore. I walked into the branch organizers office
the next day and resigned [writing a letter of resignation that stated
that I was resigning for political reasons].
I can't say I ever regretted that decision, although, it was one of the
hardest ones that I ever made. I quite literally grew up in the YSA/SWP.
In coming months, when I passed party members on the street, they would
pass me by and refuse to say "hi" or even nod their heads. It was only
after I resigned that I realized the cult nature of the SWP.
I have a lot of fond memories of my years in the SWP. I did a lot of
important political stuff, learned a lot, and met some really sharp
people. Yet, the SWP was [increasingly, with the decline of the student
radicalization], a mere shell lacking an essential ingredient -- an
educated and critical membership.
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