Update on the SWP

Jose G. Perez jgperez at SPAMfreepcmail.com
Mon Sep 6 00:27:06 MDT 1999


    Having recently strayed across a bunch of my former comrades in the
Socialist Workers Party, a once-dynamic group of nearly 2000 of the best
activists to come out of the struggles of the 1960s and early '70s, (though
undoubtedly with countless political weaknesses) I decided to look at the
party, as reflected in the Militant, its newspaper, to probe whether my
impressions of the remaining comrades (contained in the post, Ghosts of the
SWP past/Llover sobre mojado) had been off-base. Fortunately there are 5
years' worth of Militant articles available through a gopher site, which
made my little project fairly easy.

    Now, having invested 15 years already in the SWP, people should
understand that I wasn't about to undertake the heavy, in-depth research of
a historian seeking to make the SWP his life's work. But I've given it a few
hours over a couple of weeks, reading and thinking, and this is what I got
out of it.

    Mostly I give short shrift to "political" issues. Arguing with someone
about the current class character of a state that, in fact, has ceased to
exist altogether starts going into the realm of metaphysics if not religion,
and I'm just not inclined to go there.

    The very latest Militant, posted on the gopher site, confirms what the
SWPers that I ran into a couple of weeks ago were doing in Atlanta. They
were having a national trade union conference, meetings of all seven
national fractions. According to the Militant, 150 people attended, which
would mean an average of 20/fraction. They discussed, as a top priority,
placing Jack Barnes's "Capitalism's world disorder" in bookstores and
selling it to coworkers.

    The conference came a couple of weeks after the annual  bash at Oberlin,
a week-long (but this year cut back to three) event that the SWP has been
holding since about 1970 or 1971. This year 460 people attended, about the
same as the 450 who attended the previous year's Active Workers Conference
which (for the first time, as far as I know) wasn't at Oberlin but was held
in Pittsburgh. The attendance  represents roughly a 25% decline since the
1995 convention where, with more than 600 in attendance, the SWP reaffirmed
its long-standing position that East Germany was a Worker's State and never
mind that East Germany wasn't a state at all any more. The idea that the
State in the part of Germany that used to be the GDR had a different class
character than the self-same State had in the rest of Germany was challenged
in pre-convention discussion, according to the Militant. These challenges
were discussed on the convention floor and rebuffed, though we aren't told
whether a vote was taken on the specific issue and if so, what it was.
(Among the proofs of the correctness of the SWP position offered by the
Militant: Cuba. Cuba is still building socialism, but since everybody knows
you CAN'T build socialism in one country, therefore there must be other
workers' states. QED.)

    There is a fair amount of information in the Oberlin and Trade Union
article about the current state of the party. For example, there's
tremendous excitement projected in the Militant about the role of
"supporters," (ex members) who have been elevated to the category of an
"auxiliary organization" together with the Young Socialists. These
supporters are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping the party's
national apparatus going, including a national sustainer system that has
pledges totaling $200,000 from about 250 people, about $800 each, which
translates into about $15 a week. More than 60 new pledges were obtained at
Oberlin to reach that total. My guess is that at least as many of those
already pledging attended the conference as those who had yet to be talked
into it, which would mean of the 460 people there, at least a fourth would
have been ex-members.

     It all sounds great, until you do a search on the gopher for "Barnes"
and "Oberlin," which will bring up most of the articles from previous years.
In 1997, the goal for contributions from active supporters was $200,000.

    Compare that to contributions by SWP members to the National Office,
which, the Militant says, have fallen to an average of $9.26 per capita.
That's just a hair above $480/year, or $240,000, if the party has 500
members left. Of course, members also pay for the upkeep of their branches,
which isn't included there. Part of the problem is that there are fewer
members in the branches. The example of Miami, which moved from a larger,
more expensive office to less costly digs is singled out for praise.

    The big change since a couple of years ago is that the party's
supporters have taken on functions which, in the past, would have been done
by members working full-time in the print shop. Most of the pre-press work
for every Pathfinder book being reprinted is now done by non-member
volunteers using scanners and desktop publishing technology. It isn't
surprising that ex-SWPers would have been attracted computers, the Internet
and technology, and would seek to capitalize on it for the benefit of the
Marxist movement (shades of Louis!). I suspect many also feel less
conflicted working on reprints of the "classics" than, say, explaining the
bifurcated class character of the German state to their coworkers -- or even
to themselves.

    What is striking, however, is how the party has to be drug along. The
100+ volunteers working on the Pathfinder digitization program, of course,
immediately organized themselves by email and a web site. It is all the more
significant, therefore, the Militant, the SWP, the YS --none of them-- have
a web site. Because, clearly, within reach is the necessary expertise --and
quite probably the financing, too-- for such an undertaking. Coming out of
Oberlin that will change, but HOW it is changing is one more demonstration
that the worker-Bolshevik "vanguard" is being dragged into the XXI century
by its "centrist" supporters (for more on the "centrism" of the SWP's
supporters, read to the end!).

    www.themilitant.com now takes you to a simple under construction sign.
At some point in September, it is slated to go live. The site is being done
and maintained by Peter Link, an ex member who has also been the one
responsible for the gopher site.

    I wonder if the Political Committee has yet realized they've appointed a
non-member "centrist" as editor of the online edition of the Militant. I
also wonder if they realize the image of habitual "retreat and
procrastination" that they will project if the online Militant is
subordinated to the printed paper's weekly schedule. If some big event in
the class struggle happens on a Monday, the online edition of their
vanguard's newspaper is, of course, the first place class-conscious workers
would look for guidance. You can hardly be a campaigning, fighting voice for
working people on the web on a weekly schedule. People understand the
limitations of print -- but don't understand the routinism that would simply
transfer the weekly habit to a web site, despite the nigh-instantaneous
potential for response to events on the Internet.

    The rest of the news is no more encouraging. The branches are said by
the Militant to be mired in "the habits of retreat and procrastination that
have grown up over years." According to the Militant, the decision by the
Young Socialists to concentrate their forces in four cities to hold
socialist summer schools "posed a necessary crisis" for these branches.
This confirms the impression one gets from other Militant coverage that the
YS national membership barely reaches into three figures, if that. But if it
was a "necessary crisis" that the four lucky branches that got the infusion
of fresh forces went through, what's happening to the rest?

    There is, of course, a renewed campaign coming out of Oberlin to
strengthen the new/old same/different norms of proletarian functioning that
make the SWP so inhospitable for most working people. When will it strike
people inside the party that there's something odd, wrong when you've got
scores of people outside the organization willing to follow its leadership,
contribute substantial funds, and actively participate in its work, but
refusing to come in?

    Membership, however, has its privileges. In what is probably the single,
oddest passage from the 7000-word Oberlin report from the World where
Imperialism Lost the Cold War, Jack Barnes, now entering his fourth decade
as the SWP's central political leader --having outlasted Jim Cannon
(1929-1954) and Farrell Dobbs (1954-1969)-- is cited as responding to a
long-time party supporter who asked for guidance in his union work by
telling ex members to stay the hell away from the labor movement:

  Individuals who have left the revolutionary party and
attempt to carry out communist work in the labor movement
will invariably act as centrists, coming under alien-class
pressures. The party cannot counsel such individuals on a
course of conduct, because it cannot take responsibility for
such conduct outside its organized membership without
corrupting the trust it asks of fellow fighters who look to
the party.

    First, one wonders why the injunction is specifically cast in terms of
the union movement, and not all spheres of the mass movement or the class
struggle. Second, one wonders what the role of a VANGUARD party of "worker
Bolsheviks" is if it isn't precisely to "counsel" workers outside its ranks
on what it thinks should be done, and most especially in the labor movement.
Why "individuals" who have left the revolutionary party would be put in a
different category from all the other workers who are also not members is a
mystery to me. Finally, there is the gratuitous insult that former members
are, by their very nature, "centrists" which, of course, although cast in
terms of the unions can hardly be limited to that, for does centrism become
revolutionary provided it is practiced among students or farmers, or in
protests against cop brutality?

    Here is the portrait, then, of the SWP as it enters the new millennium,
nearly a decade after U.S. Imperialism "lost" the Cold War. World Capitalism
is in a profound crisis, so deep, in fact, it takes a weighty tome of
speeches by Jack Barnes to make the workers in America realize that's what's
going on. Selling this book is the central axis of the SWP's work. There's a
new vanguard emerging among the proletariat and its allies therefore the SWP
branches are in retreat, moving to smaller offices, their sustainers to the
N.O. are dropping, any infusion of new blood immediately sends them into a

    Essential to keeping the party together and especially its central
activity, publishing, is a dedicated cadre of two to three hundred ex
members. There's not a word said about re-recruiting them, not even a single
example cited of one rejoining. The party considers them all to be
centrists, Kautskys in waiting. The exes have got their own leaders and they
push and push to modernize the party, but the central leadership refuses to
take responsibility for what these ex-members make possible, such as the new
Militant web site, which, if intelligently done, could be a tremendous
visibility-raiser and morale-booster for the organization. What the SWP
leadership is doing instead is organizing the "third campaign" for the turn
to industry, looking at the crystal ball trying to guess just where to bet
its remaining human resources. After nearly a quarter century at this
particular craps table, it doesn't strike any of the leaders that maybe they
should try the slots, or the roulette table, never mind just picking up what
they have left and getting the hell out of the casino altogether.

    This is a group that could face a life-threatening crisis at any moment.
Its heavy dependence on its periphery, who are outside what would be the
normal life and discussions of a left political group, and thus less under
the influence of the "reality distortion fields" such groups often generate,
means that an unpopular position by the SWP in reaction to some political
development could immediately jeopardize a very large percentage of its
income. Moreover, this periphery is already organized, in a much leaner,
agile, horizontal way than the SWP itself, which has a heavy bureaucratic
apparatus, cumbersome formal, hierarchical internal discussions, and so on.

    Finally, this is a group that will inevitably face such a crisis,
because it has adopted and hangs on to a whole series of surreal positions
that have no relationship to the real world. It may well be that the
comrades will continue living in the World where Imperialism Lost the Cold
War for some time, even a long time, but sooner or later, the world where
imperialism won the Cold War, the real world, is going to shatter their
schemas, as it has for so many sects before them.


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