Jenness, Barnesites, Styron and the Question of Human Material

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Sun Apr 22 21:22:43 MDT 2001

In response to Guarnot and others, I'd like to widen this discussion
somewhat - ie beyond just dealing with the pathology of Barnesism.  But,
first, just to answer a small point:

>On a separate note--Philip Ferguson's post that initially mentioned Dan
>Styron also mentioned someone who had been a member of the "Gregorich/Passen
>opposition" in the US SWP. What was this opposition--or would it have been
>known by a different name?  (Granted, after a few decades, my memory may just
>be slipping).  Was that the Proletarian Orientation Tendency?

Yes, I think that's the one.  I gather that their actual name, ie the one
they used themselves, was For a Proletarian Orientation (FAPO), and that
maybe the central leadership called them POT.  As far as I can gather the
tendency included some older working class militants and some young
firebrand students or ex-students, like Gregorich (not sure of his first
name) and Barbara Passen.  They were driven out of the SWP around 1971 or
72 I think, and became the Leagues for Class Struggle, which subsequently
disintegrated and was also partly cannibalised by the Sparts (who did an
entry job on it).

Louis probably has a lot of the details as his early years in the SWP would
have coincided with the FAPO fight and it was probably his first factional
struggle in the organisation, although he would have been on the other side.

Now, onto the more substantial thing I wanted to try to start discussing.

Guarnot writes:

>Dan Styron was kind of like Peter Camejo without the flash.  He had the same
>kind of talent for explaining things clearly, patiently and, as Louis, said,
>lucidly.  But he was far more quiet and thus more readily approachable.  What
>Camejo could do in speaking before a large group, Dan Styron could do by
>talking to individuals.  He projected an air of sincerity--although I was not
>close to him, I remember him from my days in LA, and I remember the sense
>that he was the sort of person that made you think the SWP might actually be
>for real.  Of course, in the SWP, sincerity and decency could easily consign
>one to outcast status.

It is really the last two sentences that I would like to dveelop some sort
of discussion from.

One of the things that has most troubled and preoccupied me over the past
15 years is the question of human material.  My concern with this issue
began as I had to come to terms with the fact that the current I had been
first politically attracted to, basically that of the US SWP, was being
revealed to me as a cynical bunch of manoeuvrers, liars and hypocrites.
Basically, living in Britain in the early 80s I was part of the Faction, an
opposition grouping in the IMG (British section of the FI) which shared the
views of the American SWP.  I had previously been in the FI section in New
Zealand, which was completely dominated politically by the US SWP and we
blindly followed every move of the US organisation which we were taught was
the inheritor of the banner of Marxism, passed on through Lenin to Trotsky
and by Trotsky personally to the US SWP.

So it came as quite a shock to me to see the US SWP leadership up close
while living in Britain, and also get a close-up view of those who had been
their British lackeys in the 70s.  Frankly, I was just plain disgusted.
One of the things that I could stomach was that the US SWP leadership,
while promoting all kinds of secret factional activity in the IMG,
including paying money to people and giving them jobs in order to
facilitate their loyalty and their activity in the IMG, were busy purging
the bulk of the old, working class veterans of the US SWP itself.  In the
faction we were constantly encouraged to provoke the IMG leadership so we
could scream that our democratic rights as a faction were being infringed -
meanwhile the US SWP leadership was expelling people whose entire adult
lives had been devoted to the party, and kicking them out for such terrible
sins as writing letters to each other, organising a mere tendency, etc etc.
A number of things went on which I simply could not stomach and I left.
There was no way I was going to condone the purges in the US.

(As an aside I might add that it ill-becomes Jose, who I generally have a
certain amount of time and liking for, but who, sadly, went along with
these purges, to talk about anyone being obssessively anti-Barnes.)

At that point, about March or April 84, I began to be concerned about the
question of human material.  It was clear to me that the problem wasn't
simply a political line in the US SWP - people make mistakes all the time,
and mistakes can be remedied by honest people - but a level of real,
personal degeneration.  Moreover, it was hardly new.  It had been seen
before with people like Healy.  And I recalled Joe Hansen making a comment
about Healy in 'Intercontinental Press' that there was a level at which
Healy was beyond political analysis and was a subject for an analysis of
the affect of the last stages of the imperialist epoch of capitalist decay
on the human personality.

It also interested (and appalled) me to see who rose to the top in a number
of FI sections, especially the groups that I was most familiar with (which
tended to be those aligned with the US SWP).  In the NZ section, for
instance, there were a number of poeple in the leadership who could have
become national secretary.  One possibility was a guy called Keith Locke,
one of the original Trotskyists in NZ, who had gone to canada to join the
FI and gained experience there, coming back shortly after a NZ section
emerged.  Although I have major political differences with Keith these days
(he's now a Green MP), he was a most decent human being and full of
integrity.  At the other end of the spectrum was a revolting specimen
called Russell Johnson.  Johnson was a misogynistic, homophobic thug.  He
even violently assaulted another member of the leadership in front of a
room full of people, both members and non-members, and had to be dragged
It was Johnson, not Locke or anyone else, who took over as national
secretary.  Johnson remained national secretary through the 1970s and
1980s, becoming Barnes' chief minion in the Asia-Pacific area, until
finally some time in the early-mid 90s he was removed and the NZ Barnesite
group then brought in some kind of resoltion or guidelines about acceptable
relations between comrades.  Which was rather like locking the door after
the horse had not only bolted, but kicked down the stables.

The issue is, therefore, not only bad politics, or political mistakes -
Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg etc etc etc made political mistakes
but they didn't become cult-masters.  There is *also* the question of what
kind of human material is necessary to build a revolutionary movement and
revolutionary leaderships and what kind of mechanisms are necessary to
establish and preserve the moral integrity of a revolutionary movement.

Ultimately, my answer would be that only a highly politically-educated
membership, imbued with a culture of critical thinking and fearlessness, is
the guarantee against cultism and against inevitable political mistakes
being covered up and the covering up, over time, requiring increasingly
bureaucratic modes of operation.  Such modes of operation have a logic of
their own, a fact which many refugees from the sects  have not really comes
to term with yet.

For instance, it's all very nice that people like Jose, Barry Sheppard,
Malik Miah and so on have now parted company with Barnes.  But where were
they in the 1980s, when the purges were going on?  Barnes' project would
not have been possible without their support; in fact Sheppard was the #2
player in the whole thing.  So there is a certain amount of coming clean
that is required.  Given that literally hundreds upon hundreds of cadre
were destroyed, this is not an inconsequential question and a bit more
critical reflection on their own role in this process would not go amiss.

I think that people seriously interested in revolutionary politics and the
*liberation of humanity* have to be vitally concerned with the question of
human material.  Organisations led by the dysfunctional and dishonest may
well reach the stage of creating cults of several hundred members, but they
will never build anything serious.  However, they can get in the way of
those of us who actually do take seriously the cause of human emancipation
and want to create a better world and a better human being.  If we want a
free world then we have to act, to the maximum degree possible in the here
and now (even given all the constraints of capitalism) like *free people*
and not like some leftist variant of the office bully and sleaze.
Unfortunately a great deal of the far left groups, certainly in the
English-speaking world, are led by just this kind of loathsome human

Philip Ferguson

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