For a Proletarian Orientation Tendency of 1970 and 1971

Mark Lause lause at
Sun Apr 22 21:29:52 MDT 2001

Guarnot at wrote:

> 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?

Others might answer this better, and I did not support the POT initially, but
I'll give it an honest stab.

The SWP/YSA adopted theses on "the Current Radicalization" after May 1970.
Actually, it did the usual number of organizational procedures.  It promulgated
the change of line before the convention, then got the YSA to adopt it, then the
SWP.  In any event, this described the existing student radicalization (and "the
Antiwar University") as leading rather inexorably to various kinds of radical
uses of the existing universities and colleges.  It said that this unprecedented
development represented the greatest radicalization in American history (this
works when people don't know much about earlier radical movements) that said the
existing student radicalization represented the greatest threat to the survival
of US capitalism because it would become broader and deeper, etc.  It was a
cheerleaders' approach and nothing more.

Various groups had severe reservations.  Interestingly, the POT emerged very
strongly where we had the best grasp on the state of the student movements,
places like Berkeley and Madison.  In part, this reflected the obvious failures
of our movement to recruit as many workingclass, black and Hispanic students as
were some other currents on the Left.  It also seemed to many that the SWP's
"tailing" of black nationalism, provided merely a white middle class excuse not
to formulate and address issues of direct concern as socialists.  Then, too, some
of the older adherents of the POT did articulate a kind of cultural mistrust of
student radicalism in general.  The basic document called "For a Proletarian

The POT was the first serious opposition the new Barnes leadership of the SWP
faced, and it did not do very well with it.  Essentially, they circled the wagons
and used automatic majorities to minimize the hearing the tendency got, used its
numbers to repeatedly overwhelm the opposition with misrepresentations of its
positions ("the same thing" "our opponents in the Workers League or the Sparts
say," etc., the POT was "not taking our line" in the internal discussion and
therefore disloyal, etc.).  It also "flooded" Berkley with newcomers to the party
(like me) and transferred the Madison comrades out to "centers".  They were
instructed/ordered after the convention not to discuss any of this ever with
anyone until the next preconvention period, etc.   The experience drove out of
the SWP and the YSA most of POT supporters and caused many of its original
leaders to abandon all hope of finding any kind of revolutionary democracy within
the party.

In fact, the crudity of the SWP's leadership led me to reconsider my own
positions by 1972.  Indeed, the SWP after the 1971 convention did a number of
things that argued rather persuasively that it did not have much of a clue as to
what the radicalization might or might not do. By May 1972, there had been no
repeat of May 1970 for two years and the mood on most campuses had already begun
to take a decided more conservative turn.  The SWP did not take advantage of its
campaign that year, which brought its politics in scores of new areas, too many
to organize AND maintain control over, so the party just chose to walk away from
the opportunities.  It chanted "Stop this man" with Nixon's picture and never
established any POLITICAL independence from the McGovernites, while it flatly
abstained from a fully supportable impeachment movement.  And the US Supreme
Court granted the "transitional demand" of abortion rights, leaving the party
with no position in the women's movement other than denouncing the multi issue
women's liberation circles.  Essentially, the course of the SWP leadership left
little room for much confidence on the part of a reasonable person with some ties
to the real world with its real radicalization outside the party.

Then the SWP sought to internationalize its "current radicalization" thesis in
its critique of the European perspectives document of the FI.  Bill Massey, John
Barzman, John and Jeanne Shaeffer, with a considerable number of other remaining
POT supporters began to move towards the formation of the Internationalist
Tendency early in 1973.  If memory serves, the letter announcing the formation of
the IT was initially read only in branches in which there were IT members. The
SWP leadership's treatment of the IT was no better than that of the POT, which
was actually worse than its sounds because the IT had some FI protection and
advice.  The purge of the IT cost the SWP/YSA about a tenth of its membership,
but over half of its trade unionists and almost all of its Vietnam Veterans.

However, this goes beyond the POT question.

I'm reading all these comments on how the SWP leadership did this or that in the
1990s or 1980s, and am rather surprised that anyone can be surprised, given what
it did in 1974 and earlier in pressuring the POT.  As one "majorityite" leader
explained to me in 1971 (the term is apt if clearly tendentious), the party's
goal was "to demoralize and drive our potential opponents out of revolutionary
politics entirely".  What happened to the POT foreshadowed what happened to the
IT, then to the smaller clusters of opposition that popped up thereafter, even to
the unfortunate individuals who crossed the wrong persons in charge of
something.  In part, of course, the question might be reduced to the human
material, but I think this is a bit too simplistic.  In hindsight, the SWP had a
slim chance to get much of anywhere through the late 1940s, but its formation of
the YSA gave it some shot at recovering itself when the Sixties got underway, and
it did just the right things on Vietnam, but it remained virtually absentionist
in the civil rights movement or in the scramble to mop up the cadres of the SDS,
if the truth be told.  However, it was a failure of the institution rather than
simply of leaders.

Mark Lause

Lause's Links - For History, Politics & Possibilities

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