Forwarded from Joe Auciello (review of Brownmiller book)
lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Tue Apr 10 12:33:15 MDT 2001
RETHINKING REDBAITING: THE SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY AND THE WOMENS
BY JOE AUCIELLO
Susan Brownmiller's new book, In Our Time (Dial Press, 1999, $24.95),
subtitled Memoir of a Revolution, is memoir as history, chronicling the
American women's movement since the 1960s. Brownmiller, a long-time
journalist and author of the controversial Against Our Will: Men, Women and
Rape, writes of her own and other women's experience in the feminist
movement. In fact, she spoke to "more than two hundred leading activists
across the country in order to capture their stories and voices." The book
retains that tone of informal dialogue. Readers will feel like they are
listening in to conversations as Brownmiller reminisces with friends over a
cup of coffee about feminist politics and history.
Her book, in other words, is not scholarly or definitive, but it is
informative and thorough. The perspective of a participant is its singular
quality. In addition to explaining what happened at a particular meeting,
conference, or rally, Brownmiller is especially good at recreating what the
experience felt like and what she and her friends thought. It's a point of
view largely absent from Ruth Rosen's account of the same period in The
World Split Open (Viking, 2000, $34.95). So, if In Our Time is not the last
word, it is an essential one.
SINGLING OUT ONE ASPECT OF THE BOOK
The book deserves a full-length review [a thoughtful one by Rosalyn
Baxandall and Linda Gordon appears in The Nation, July 3, 2000], but here I
will focus on only one small part of it, her treatment of the Socialist
Workers Party (SWP) in the 1970s, a time when I was a member of that
organization. Her criticism of the SWP's methods of functioning in the
women's movement has elements of truth from which there is much to learn,
even if the author's intentions are less than friendly.
Brownmiller raises some familiar objections about the SWP's work with the
Women's National Abortion Action Coalition, or WONAAC. The SWP and the
Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), Brownmiller writes, "leaped headlong into
our midst, seeing 'masses in motion' who needed their guidance. [They] were
like sheepdogs whenever they sensed 'masses in motion.' Big public rallies
where they could sell The Militant, the SWP paper, were their idea of
revolution heaven. They were determined to get the 'living-room feminists'
into the streets."
Brownmiller continues with a harsher accusation: "WONAAC's effectiveness
was seriously undercut by its ties to the SWP. Whenever the hardworking,
disciplined Trots moved into a group, they voted in blocs and tried to
recruit for their party. They were accused of trying to take over the
movement in a score of cities and college towns, and I don't doubt that
they wanted to and would have if they could, but Women's Liberation was
simply too amorphous, unstructured, and volatile for an SWP putsch" (pp.
For readers not politically involved in those years, what must be recalled
is how significant these feuds were for the participants. We felt the
stakes were terribly high. At issue was not merely this or that demand for
a demonstration, or even a difference in political tactics. For us in the
SWP, the real issue was whether we would be able to build a political
organization that could lead the American working class and its allies to a
triumphant socialist revolution that would redirect the course of world
history. Many feminists felt similarly, that is, that the women's
liberation movement was a revolutionary force with the power to shape the
direction of modern life.
We set for ourselves the most daunting of tasks, and there was no time to
waste. The revolutionary opportunity, we believed, was not too far off. We
were not foolish enough to predict a date, but we were convinced we would
see revolutionary change in our lifetime, that is, before we college
students reached middle age. These hopes were encouraged by our political
leaders. SWP national organization secretary Jack Barnes, in a 1970 speech
to a Socialist Activists and Educational Conference, predicted, "...there
will be no reversal of this radicalization before the working masses of
this country have had a chance to take power away from the American
capitalist rulers... the important thing for us to see is that this
radicalization will not be reversed until we have had our chance."
(emphasis in original). Barnes' speech, "The New Radicalization and the
Revolutionary Party," was published in 1971 in the Pathfinder Press book,
Towards an American Socialist Revolution, which became a basic text for new
SWP and YSA members.
So, sitting in some church basement or in the back room of a left-wing
bookstore, we weren't arguing about whether the speaker's list for an
upcoming rally should have more liberals or more radicals. Through a
fine-spun chain of reasoning, our secondary arguments were linked to deeply
principled issues and to the fate of humanity itself. In this state of mind
disagreement is dangerous and compromise is contemptible. To its credit the
SWP was never caught up in "the end is near" scenario that afflicted so
many in the New Left and some variants of the Trotskyist movement, but we
too, more than we realized then, were swept up in the apocalyptic spirit of
Therefore, when accusations about "taking over the movement" were first
raised some thirty years ago, we in the SWP countered with accusations of
our own. We called these charges "red-baiting," the silencing of people
within a group or exclusion of them from a group because the accused were
socialists or communists. Ruth Rosen, in The World Split Open, carefully
documents the FBI's extensive spying and infiltration of the women's
movement, driven in part, by many feminists' cooperation with groups like
the SWP and the Communist Party. FBI agents were certainly among those who
raised or encouraged accusations of red-baiting. The divisiveness and
in-fighting that resulted was exactly what the FBI wanted.
RED-BAITING -- A WEAPON USED TO OBSCURE POLITICAL ISSUES
So, concern about red-baiting was not some invention of overly sensitive
Marxists. It was a real weapon used in the McCarthy era (the late 1940s and
the '50s) with terrible results to purge the organized labor movement, not
just of Communist Party members, but of all radicals. The "red scare" was
still being used, especially in the early years of the civil rights,
antiwar, feminist, and gay rights movements to divide and hobble political
organizations. Those social struggles benefited from the participation of
radicals, including Socialist Workers Party members, and resistance to
red-baiting strengthened those movements.
In 1971 the SWP adopted a resolution, "Towards a Mass Feminist Movement,"
which reads remarkably well despite the passage of three decades. It
included the following assessment of red-baiting: "Supporters of...
anti-mass-action tendencies have, in many cases, used red-baiting attacks
against the SWP to obscure the real political disagreements they have with
the SWP and other supporters of a mass-action perspective. Instead of
taking up the political differences involved, they picture SWP women as
socialist dupes of the 'male-dominated' left, coming in to 'infiltrate' and
'take over' the feminist movement.
"Such charges are echoes, within the feminist movement, of the charges of
the reactionaries during the McCarthy era. The purpose of the red-baiting
is to try to avoid discussion of the real political issues... by branding
[those who raise] them as 'Reds' or 'Trots'."
SWP ADVOCATED A MASS-ACTION PERSPECTIVE
I still find that the political logic of this resolution was right, but
Brownmiller's book leads me to some rethinking of these issues. The
apprehension and misunderstanding directed against women in the SWP who
worked in the feminist movement was a real problem, but it was a problem we
exacerbated by our own style and methods of functioning. To work more
effectively, we needed to adapt our methods instead of doggedly insisting
on our right to alienate ourselves.
However, it does not seem that Brownmiller and like-minded feminists tried
very hard to understand the women she likens to "sheepdogs." In the first
place, it is surprising to hear Brownmiller talk of SWP women trying to
"take over" the feminist movement or stage some "putsch." As far as I know,
no one in the SWP, male or female, ever spoke or thought that way. During
the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s, women in the Socialist Workers
Party and Young Socialist Alliance got involved in the feminist movement
because they were stirred by it and wanted to advance feminist goals. They
were, in other words, sincere supporters of women's liberation. They also
believed that mass mobilization for feminist demands was the most effective
means of advancing the struggle.
Had the SWP opposed feminism, the women I knew, and many of the men, would
have opposed the SWP. We all (or almost all -- for there were disagreements
in the SWP about the role of women's liberation within Marxist theory) saw
ourselves, not as invaders or self-serving schemers, but as supporters and
builders of the feminist movement. That is why Brownmiller can, with
accuracy, describe SWP members as "hardworking" within the women's movement.
The SWP did, of course, have a point of view, a mass-action perspective,
which put it at odds with women who held different points of view, such as
working in the Democratic Party or building self-contained communes, etc.
The purpose of big public rallies was hardly to sell our newspaper
(although we certainly did try to spread our ideas that way), but to make
women's issues more visible, public, and powerful. We advocated a strategy
which we hoped would best advance the cause of women's liberation.
BUT SWP METHODS OF FUNCTIONING WERE A PROBLEM
The SWP did assign women members to work in the feminist movement in what
was called a "fraction," which included a "fraction leader." If, for
instance, a women's coalition meeting was scheduled for a Friday, the
fraction would meet before then to
determine its tactics. If unforeseen developments occurred in the coalition
meeting, the SWP women would take their cue from the fraction leader,
speaking in support of the same points and voting as a bloc. To do
otherwise in the SWP would be considered a violation of "party discipline"
and could subject the offender to censure or expulsion.
What becomes especially clear from reading Brownmiller's book is the
estranging effect this mode of functioning had on any number of women's
liberation activists. Yes, red-baiting was a ploy used by some women in an
effort to duck real debate and discussion. But this ploy received a far
more favorable hearing because the SWP, due to its behavior, did appear
different, suspicious, and strange.
Women in a feminist organization of course felt they were members of that
group first; they felt a primary loyalty to it. Naturally enough, they
wanted to protect their group from any political conniving or sabotage.
They would not want their agenda hijacked by a forceful, well-organized
To many female activists, SWP women must have seemed different -- they
were, by definition, loyal first to the SWP. If they tried to downplay or
hide their party affiliation, then the eventual discovery and revelation
would make the SWPers seem even more suspicious and sinister. It was a soil
in which red-baiting thrived. Fears of manipulation could easily follow as
feminist activists would wonder about the motives of the SWPers. By always
acting as a bloc within every level of the feminist movement, we in the SWP
unintentionally heightened levels of doubt and mistrust and alienated
ourselves. We helped to turn sisters into skeptics and skeptics into
Our functioning ("democratic centralist norms," as we called it) was a
means to an end, a way of advocating our positions, speaking strongly in
one clear, unified voice. Too often, in real life, our functioning worked
against us. An overly rigid spirit of centralism infused all of our work
and was frequently misapplied. Discipline and cohesion were required to
promote a perspective on the national level, whether in the SWP newspaper,
in electoral campaigns, or in national coalition gatherings that determined
policy. But through force of habit this discipline was mechanically
transferred -- whether it made sense or not -- to regional and local level
If, let's say, there were twenty women activists in a room, and ten were
from the SWP, you could pretty much guess how the meeting would turn out
before it even began. You would know, before the first words were spoken,
what the results would most likely be. The SWPers needed to convince only
one woman in the room in order to obtain a majority. If you were a woman
whose point of view differed from the SWP's, then in this meeting nothing
you said would have any effect. You could not, by definition, alter the
SWP's position or change the opinion of any of its members. (SWPers would
talk among themselves later in their closed fraction meetings and perhaps
then they might reassess a decision). Even if you did change an SWPer's
mind, it would make no difference. All of the women in the SWP would do as
their fraction leader bade them. And this is what we called "democracy."
To anyone not a member of or friendly to the SWP, this method of
functioning looked like a set-up or an effort "to take over the movement."
Women who felt this way would leave the groups or coalitions they could not
influence, and the SWP would, without intending it, take over themselves.
Experiences like these created a negative ripple effect throughout the
That is why Brownmiller says SWP women "were accused of trying to take over
the movement in a score of cities and college towns." We appeared to others
as factionalists rather than supporters. Our method of functioning, which
we thought would help to build the women's movement and other protest
movements, actually worked against us.
Of course, our problems were not entirely of our own making. In addition to
the disagreements any political grouping will have, federal agents,
following COINTELPRO directives, would create unnecessary conflict and
widen any divisions that did exist. Ruth Rosen reports, "The FBI believed,
as did many activists, that the Socialist Workers' Party was trying to
infiltrate and influence the movement." No doubt federal agents and
informants did all they could to exacerbate any possible tension,
suspicion, and political division. A movement consumed by in-fighting would
obviously be less of a "threat... to the internal security of the United
States," in J. Edgar Hoover's words (Rosen, p. 245).
A MORE FLEXIBLE APPROACH WAS NEEDED
In retrospect, what we needed to do was relax our discipline, especially
when working in city or campus feminist organizations or coalitions. The
SWP, like any other organization, did need to establish its own point of
view on women's liberation and other political issues, but we did not need
to micro manage the membership. Particularly on the local level, we did not
need a floor whip in meetings to make sure all of our members said the
right things and voted the right way. It would have been enough to
establish a general political line to be applied nationally and allowed a
great deal of flexibility in carrying it out locally.
What I am advocating would not always be easy for a political organization
like the SWP, that presented only one position to the public. Members would
be able to disagree in meetings about specific tactics and initiatives.
Loosening discipline would inevitably mean that some members might try and
take advantage of an opportunity to reraise in public political
disagreements that had been settled in private, that is, during the SWP's
internal preconvention discussion that preceded a vote to determine the
organization's political line. But these problems would have been
outweighed by the gains we could have made in working with other activists
in the feminist movement.
The movements in which we worked, and the SWP itself, would have been more
cohesive and more effective if every activist knew that discussion had a
real opportunity to influence opinion and change minds. Democracy within
city and campus feminist groups would have been strengthened if votes by a
significant bloc were not preordained before the meeting even convened. The
tendency to red-baiting would have been lessened. In short, we needed to
move away from the idea of intervening in another group and move toward the
reality of collaborating with it. We might have lost some decisions this
way, but ultimately we would have gained influence if our perspectives
turned out, in the long run, to be right.
Let me emphasize, for the sake of clarity, that a national organization
like the Socialist Workers Party did need to establish its own political
line, positions that would be expressed in its press, in its election
campaigns, and in its overall political work. In national gatherings of
coalitions, like WONAAC, or in organizations like NOW, the SWP did need to
intervene with a clear line and push for its perspective. Had the SWP
failed to do so, other organizations on the left would have, with results
that would have been worse overall for the women's liberation movement. But
the kind of functioning necessary on a national level, became, for us, the
only way to function on any level.
Had I raised these points thirty or so years ago, my coworkers in the
socialist movement probably would have accused me of going soft on
red-baiting and capitulating to people who employed underhanded methods. My
concern, though, is less with the few antagonists who knowingly used scare
tactics and slander. I am more concerned with the people who all too easily
could be (and often were) hoodwinked by the real factionalists who used
red-baiting to short-circuit political discussion and useful disagreement.
It's simply unwise to give a stick to someone who wants to hit you.
LESS TIGHT DISCIPLINE WOULD HAVE BENEFITED SWP
Further, loosening SWP discipline in our work in other organizations would
have had a beneficial effect within the SWP and YSA themselves, where
centralism was strung too tightly. For all the political procedures that
safeguarded democracy, the internal atmosphere was such that a different
opinion was regarded as incipient disloyalty. The "good" members either
held no questions or differences or restricted them to behind-the-scenes
discussions with the leaders. Only the "troublemakers" actually spoke up.
This was a method of behavior and an atmosphere that undermined the
democratic procedures embodied in the statutes of the SWP. Democracy
eventually came to be for show, rather than for real.
By 1979, even in the preconvention discussion of the SWP, one member could
not collaborate with another in presenting a document to the party without
facing accusations of factionalism and disloyalty. Of course, by that date
the older generation of SWP leaders like Cannon, Dunne, Dobbs, and Hansen
had died or had withdrawn from political activity. A few years later even
"an exchange of correspondence" would be banned from SWP discussions --
only documents written expressly for the bulletins would be allowed.
According to SWP leaders, resolutions contrary to the leadership's platform
could only be written by isolated individuals. Of course, in real life, few
members could write the kind of comprehensive document that was typically
composed by an entire political committee. The result was to further
"strangle the party." (See the pamphlet, "Don't Strangle the Party," with
writings on this subject by James P. Cannon, the main founder of the SWP
and leading spokesperson for American Trotskyism from 1929 until his death
in 1974). Additional repressive measures were instituted. At the conclusion
of the 1981 convention, the party leadership instructed the leaders of
minority tendencies to turn over the names of their supporters.
We needed, within our organization and without, a greater tolerance for
questioning, disagreeing, and arguing. We needed to appreciate difference
of opinion as the healthy and normal behavior of loyal members, and of
activists in movements for social change. We needed to realize that the
external functioning of a political organization like the SWP reflected and
influenced its internal functioning, as well. We needed, in other words,
the maturity and wisdom and patience to make democracy real.
So, by the end of this essay we have come some way from Susan Brownmiller's
account of the feminist movement, but it's hardly a surprise. When threads
are interwoven, pulling on one unravels another and leads to the next.
Doubtlessly, the opinions expressed here will be controversial. Some
activists will have different memories of these issues and times. Others
may question the political conclusions that have been drawn. Perhaps this
essay will encourage the airing of those thoughts and opinions.
In any case, readers' recollections and understanding of the women's
liberation movement will be greatly aided by a careful reading of In Our
Time and The World Split Open.
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