Preliminary reactions to "Revolution in the Air"

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Tue Aug 6 12:52:24 MDT 2002

Peter Frase wrote:
>My question is this: why was anti-revisionism a growth industry in the
>1970s, while US Trotskyism was beginning its long death spiral? No amount
>of hand-waving at "ultra-leftism" can dismiss this fact--surely it can't
>all have been Jack Barnes' fault. I tend to agree with Max that it was
>because the New Communist Movement combined some very good ideas with some
>admittedly very bad ones.

At a certain point the role of the individual in history kicks in. While it
was not all Barnes's fault in the sense of a conspiracy, it is in the
nature of such "vanguard" Trotskyist formations to invest an enormous
amount of power in the party boss who is seen as some kind of pope. Just as
Pope John Paul II represents the living continuity with St. Paul, so does a
Trotskyist headman represent living continuity with Marx and Engels. He has
tremendous authority. When the person in charge has two feet on the ground,
things don't tend to go haywire as rapidly--although this is the inevitable
fate in my opinion. With Barnes, you had a rather fractured personality by
some accounts. If you read Paul LeBlanc's account of the SWP's downfall in
the book co-written by Alan Wald, the psychological factors play an
important role. He says:

"The impact of Barnes in the SWP is a reflection not of Leninist principles
or the tradition of Cannon, but of basic human psychological dynamics. The
functioning of some SWP members, responding to the powerful personality and
tremendous authority that Barnes assumed, brings to mind Freud's insights
on group psychology: 'the individual gives up his ego-ideal [i.e.,
individual sense of right and wrong, duty, and guilt] and substitutes for
it the group-ideal as embodied in the leader.' The authority of the leader
(in the minds of at least many members) becomes essential for the cohesion
of the group, and the approval of the leader, or a sense of oneness with
the leader, becomes a deep-felt need that is bound up with one's own sense
of self- worth. The member of the group enjoys 'a feeling of triumph' when
his or her thinking coincide with this leader's judgments, and is
vulnerable to 'delusions of inferiority and self-deprecation' whenever
inner doubts arise about the leader's authority. Indeed, 'opposition' is
perceived to be 'as good as separation' from the group and is 'therefore
anxiously avoided.' The compelling 'group ideal' that Barnes symbolized for
such members involved a powerful mix of strongly held values, accumulated
theoretical wisdom, and hopes for the future triumph of socialism. His
authority flowed from the continuity that he seemed to represent with
previous revolutionary generations."

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