Jose and the Living Dead
Jose G. Perez
jgperez at SPAMfreepcmail.com
Mon Sep 6 21:29:40 MDT 1999
Jon Flanders wrote:
>>The problems of the SWP have a lot more to do with the mis-estimation of
>>the collapse of the Soviet Union than all of the horror stories about
>>mistreatment I have heard here.
I'm sure I remember your name from my old SWP days, but I can't "place" you.
It sounds like from the problem that you are concerned with, post-1990, that
you must be a more recent emigre from the world where U.S. Imperialism lost
the Cold War than many of the rest of us. I don't know if anyone else feels
this way, but I'd be interested in hearing about more adventures and
misadventures of the SWP in the 80s and early 90s.
In addition, there's obviously been a narrowing of the central
leadership core, as it existed in the early 1980s. In particular, I'd like
to know the circumstances under which Barry (and Caroline?), Larry Seigle
and Malik Miah (clearly, I thought, the outstanding leader of my generation
of SWPers) left. Jack, Barry and M-A --in that order-- were the core around
which the leadership functioned. I can't imagine Barry leaving without it
causing tremendous turmoil. Malik, Joel Britton, Doug Jenness, Larry Seigle,
Cindy Jaquith, Steve Clark and perhaps one or two others, composed the rest
of the starting team.
Mac Warren was very prominent for a few years but in reality he was no
different from people like me who also figured in the leadership for a few
years, and, frankly, mattered little individually. We complemented and
rounded out the central team, but were not part of it.
In my particular case, I got to be a full NCer and therefore a member of
the PC because of my language skills, my specific area of expertise --Cuba
and Latin America-- which were really due to the accident of my birth,
because of the specific moment in world history, and because of the specific
moment in the SWP's history. As it says on the door of the Church of God,
the Utterly Uncaring, "I got here through a series of accidents, I guess --
Just like everybody else." (I hope I remembered it right!)
Mac Warren and others belonged to what we might call "operations" --
finances, logistics, personnel, whereas I belonged to a layer of writers and
intellectuals --for that is what we were mostly, without thereby trying to
give myself any airs, there were scores more intellectuals worthier of the
name that we were in the SWP. The intellectuals as a group (and those who
were like us in the "rank and file," like Louis), have, as far as I can
tell, been lost almost completely. Les Evans, Tony Thomas, Fred Murphy,
Ernie Harsh, Fred Feldman, Linda Jenness, Caroline Lund, Dick Roberts, Andy
Rose and probably a dozen or more that I've forgotten, are nearly all gone.
Does it strike party members that --save for Harry Ring-- there is no longer
anything in the Militant written in an imaginative or different way? God I
remember how hard Larry and Malik and Andy Rose -- despite the limitations
of the human material they were working with -- tried to make me into a
half-decent writer. If socialist revolution is the neatest thing since
sliced bread --and it is-- why do the pages of the Militant read like the
moral equivalent of Microsoft DOS documentation circa 1991?
But I digress. It is true that there's a fair bit of almost completely
bashing" on this list. That should not stop serious people from soberly
assessing the negative and positive aspects of our experiences and
I believe, for example, that the SWP in the early 70s, there was movement in
the direction of becoming the kind of broad, socialist party that is called
for by the situation in the United States, not that it was there by a long
shot. By "broad" I don't mean programmatically watered down. But I'm
thinking of the very conscious effort at that time to speak in an everyday
language, to relate to people's real interests and concerns, to become a
more comfortable place for working people with kids, to become part of the
life of working class organizations and communities. The outstanding
representative of this motion was Peter Camejo, as he proved in his 1996
I believe that the turn to industry was based on schematic thinking. Instead
of looking at reality as it was, we looked into our crystal balls. and saw,
of course, what we wanted to see, big class battles, and in the period
immediately ahead. Of course this wasn't the first time anyone in the
communist movement made such a mistake. The "American Theses" of the 1946
convention were just as schematic, or more, and the growing disconnect
between their perspectives, combined with the very different post WWII
period, led to the confused and confusing debate with the Cochranites and
that split. It wasn't until shortly after the split that the party
leadership, by now handed over to Dobbs, abandoned the immediate
perspectives in the U.S. outlined in Cannon's "theses."
While in the 50's there was a correction, in the case of the turn, there has
never been a fundamental correction, as far as I know. From time to time the
SWP leadership has "reset the clock," recognizing retrospectively that the
previous years had been ones of quiescence, but that now, this time, for
sure, things are going to pick up. They've just done it again at Oberlin.
A "reality distortion field" began to surround the party following the turn.
The SWP failed to recognize that, although the ruling class offensive came
as predicted, not so the radicalization of the working class. The economic
depression, like that of the 30s, that the SWP promised periodically, most
recently through its election campaigns in the 90s has materialized instead
as the biggest U.S. boom (at least) since the post WWII prosperity. And
although the benefits of the boom have been much more concentrated in the
relatively better off layers of the population and especially the thin upper
crust than in the 50s and 60s, there's still a world of difference between
today's economic situation and that of a catastrophic depression. The SWP
has refused to recognize reality and draw the lessons of operating on the
basis of schemas instead of on the basis of what things were really like in
the real world.
The "turn" to Cuba, and then the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions,
became enveloped in the reality distortion field. In the Militant --and
despite what our own correspondents in Managua were trying to report-- the
Nicaraguan revolution went from strength to strength. Every advance --not
matter how modest-- was hailed as world historic; every setback, no matter
how severe, was brushed off or ignored. The impact of the war that
threatened to drown the revolution in blood and economic misery --AS IT
EVENTUALLY DID-- was minimized and covered up by an incessant chorus of
The SWP turned its back on the mass-action, united front approach that had
served it so well as a strategy in the defense of the Cuban and especially
the Vietnamese revolutions. It was out of date. It did not take into account
the powerful, armored divisions of the industrial proletariat which, at that
very moment, were mustering just over the next ridge in the class struggle.
When I first started seeing things in the Militant, which I used to read
sporadically, about how U.S. imperialism had won he cold war, I thought the
leadership was being too clever by half, emphasizing that the U.S. victory
would prove to be a pyrrhic one in the long run, but in a confusing way that
could be disorienting. Only little by little did I come to realize that the
SWP was not being clever, it was saying literally that, that U.S.
imperialism has lost the cold war, and not only believed it, but actually
lived in that world.
This is all a very long way of saying that when you say the big problem now
with the SWP is its position on Russia and Eastern Europe, which, in the
World where U.S. Imperialism lost the Cold War, are still workers states, I
would add that that might be true in an immediate, political sense, but it
doesn't get at the underlying issues which started with the schematic method
of basing today's tactics on tomorrow's projected reality, and on a growing
"reality distortion field" which surrounded the party and has now taken it
into its own, private world.
No better demonstration of this than the one you cite, the SWP's position on
the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, where nothing has happened since the
Berlin wall came down:
[From the latest Militant's report on the Oberlin Active Workers
"U.S. imperialism has lost the Cold War
"In his talk [at Oberlin], Jack Barnes reviewed the analysis of world
politics that the course of conduct of the SWP has been based
on over the last decade. At a time when bourgeois
spokespeople were proclaiming the "end of history" following
the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and
Eastern Europe, the party adopted a resolution in 1990
declaring that 'U.S. imperialism has lost the Cold War.'
"Capitalist relations cannot be reimposed on these workers
states, the resolution explained, short of a bloody defeat of
the working class by imperialist military might. Moreover,
the counterrevolutionary obstacle represented by the
bureaucratic regimes, which for decades had kept workers in
Eastern Europe and the USSR out of politics, had been
removed. Far from an expansion of liberal democracy, peace,
and prosperity, the approaching world capitalist depression
would increase conflicts and contradictions, and increase the
use of military threats and force by Washington and the other
imperialist powers. Almost a decade later, there is nothing
to take back from this analysis, Barnes said."
Some notable things. As a starting point the whole "course of conduct"
of the SWP is based on the imperialism LOST the cold war analysis. And at
the heart of that are the Eatern European/Soviet (and ex-Soviet) states.
First, that the proletarian conquests embodied in the nationalized
property forms --which I assume is what's meant here by worker's state, as
has been traditional in the SWP -- cannot be reversed "short of a bloody
defeat of the working class." Unstated is the syllogism: no bloody defeat,
therefore no capitalist restoration.
Second, what has been shattered has been "the counterrevolutionary
obstacle" of the "bureaucratic regimes," of the "Stalinist regimes in the
Soviet Union and Eastern Europe."
Almost a decade later, Jack Barnes opines, there's nothing to "take
back" from this analysis, by which he means nothing to ADD to this analysis.
Just think about it. In mid-1990, when the document was written, the Soviet
Union still existed. Czechoslovakia still existed. The German Democratic
Republic still existed (though its days were clearly numbered). The
capitalists sympathies and intentions of most Eastern European rulers and
aspiring rulers, including Yeltsin, were out in the open, but the
restoration of capitalism in those countries was another matter. That would
be "decided in struggle" -- or so we thought.
But on the eve of 2000, hasn't it been decided? The clearest example is,
of course East Germany, which has simply become part of capitalist West
Germany. One wonders if the disembodied platonic worker's state soul of the
late German Democratic Republic still haunts the Federal Republic, waiting
to be exorcised by a truly bloody defeat of the working class. [As it turns
out, it does. After having drafted this, but before posting it, I chanced
across a report of the 1995 SWP convention where the subject was debated and
the position that East Germany is still a workers state reaffirmed.]
And the class nature of the Russian state is just as unambiguous: the
"commanding heights" of the economy are in private hands, the state monopoly
of foreign trade has been dismantled, the country has been fully integrated
into the world market, central planning (such as it was) has been abolished,
"the invisible, hand of the market" runs the economy, and Moscow even boasts
that supreme achievement of bourgeois civilization, a casino for the filthy
rich (and the truly gullible), a stock market. The IMF and World Bank have
got their hands stuck up the Russian's state's rump so deep that Yeltsin's
voice has gone up two octaves since the hammer and sickle last flew over the
The economy has shrunk by about 50%, and, since the capitalist market
has administered the crisis, the results have been a catastrophe for working
people, and a virtual holocaust for the elderly and infirm, as confirmed by
the drop in life expectancy. Think about what it means that Russian life
expectancy has dropped by several years in one decade. What it means is that
millions of elderly people have died who otherwise would not have.
It is capitalism, and not just an economic crisis that killed them. For,
as chance would have it, the decline in Cuba's economy had also been around
50 per cent. (Now it is beginning to recover.) Yet Cuban health statistics
show no declines. And this despite the fact that the USSR had a much higher
standard of living to begin with --the 50% drop in Cuba took the island to a
much lower level than Russia.
The difference is in the socio-economic regimes: Russia is capitalist
and Cuba is socialist. And Cuba's socialism isn't the "really existing"
socialism of the old Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but a much truer
socialism based on solidarity, on guaranteeing to everyone in the country at
least the barest necessities, and on sharing the pain as equitably as
But in the never-never land where imperialism lost the cold war,
nothing's changed. The 1990 analysis of the crisis of the Soviet Workers
State was so good that nearly a decade later there's nothing more to be
said, even AFTER the class nature of the socio-economic regime had changed
qualitatively and the Soviet Union has disappeared altogether!
Now there is, an element of rationality, a grain of truth in the SWP's
position. And that is that the historic conquests of the Soviet workers and
of the world working class that were embodied in the Soviet and East
European workers states do not necessarily all disappear without a trace the
morning after the Polish or Czech cabinet or parliament vote to privatize
some industries and abolish the state monopoly in foreign trade. In Germany,
this took the form of "transfer payments" from the West to Eastern Germany
long past their fusion into a single state (or more exactly, capitalist
Germany's takeover of formerlyh socialist East Germany). In this sense, the
East German workers state, which was just an extension of the Soviet workers
state, "lives on" in the conquests of the working class that have not (yet!)
been reversed. But its quite another thing to say that the (now unified)
German state has a bifurcated class nature, bourgeois on one side of the old
border, proletarian on the other. Because it is either that that the
Militant is saying, or that --contrary to all historical experience and the
teaching of Marx, Lenin and especially Engels-- the state is not essentially
"bodies of armed men," but rather a disembodied essence, which attaches
itself to certain territories quite independently of their CURRENT
So I think that in analyzing the SWP's evolution, it is easy enough to
dismiss it today as a cult which is the expression of Jack Barnes's
fantasies, but in reality such analysis don't tell you anything. I think it
necessary to put aside such magical explanations, and look instead for the
roots of its decline in the policies the party has followed. As Louis points
out, that's one contribution we can make to preventing a future recurrence
of the same mistakes.
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