Barnesite Dog and Pony Show

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Mon Feb 18 17:07:05 MST 2002

>>Actually, the "third turn" to industry began around 1998, when Barnes
decreed that a "sea-change" had occured in working-class politics.  By this
he meant that labor's long retreat was over, and that workers were becoming
more willing to fight back.  To take advantage of this sea change in
politics, the party *had* to get its cadre into 3 unions/industries that had
become neglected by the party: meatpacking, garment, and coal-mining.<<

>>I would like to hear more from comrades who lived through the "second
to industry in the early 1980s.  After a couple of years, did *anybody* dare
to suggest that the turn was a failed tactic?  It doesn't seem to me that
Barnes could have turned "the turn" into an article of faith on his own,
there must have been a whole group (clique?) culpable for this march of


    The original "turn" was NOT a turn to industry as such, but a turn to
working class communities and organizations generally including, certainly,
the unions but not exclusively the unions and absolutely not exclusively the
unions in basic industry.

    It followed a period during which the party, if I can be allowed to
caricature things, functioned essentially as the adult auxiliary of the
youth organization, the YSA, operating in the student millieu. Until the
beginning of 1973, the movement's attention was focused overwhelmingly on
the campuses and on the (somewhat) broader movements that grew out of the
youth radicalization, especially the antiwar movement in the 1966-1972

    With the Vietnam peace accords at the end of 1972, the political
situation changed radically. It allowed all sorts of "smaller" issues and
movements to emerge for the SWP without being overshadowed by an overriding
central issue/confrontation on a world scale, the Vietnam War.

    I think in broad terms the party's description of the changes brought
about in the country by the civil rights movement, the Black struggle, the
youth radicalization and the antiwar movement were right. It had radically
transformed U.S. society. And there were a significant number of local and
regional movements and struggles which branches, now freed from an
overwhelming focus on building the antiwar movement, began to take up. And
as it did so, the party itself began to make some contacts, began to take in
one recruit here directly, another one there, not through the YSA but
directly into the branch, something which had not happened for many years.

    A regroupment component was part of that turn, as was a turning away
from sectarian dogfighting in the FI, and on the left. One of its
outstanding moment was the 1976 Camejo-Reid presidential campaign, "the
biggest socialist campaign since Debs," and it was, too. Another was the
campaign in defence of school desegregation in Boston. It's last hurrah was
probably the Chicano-Latino conference against deportations in the fall of
1977 in Texas which Peter Camejo played the central role in initiating.

    A part of this turn was the community branch orientation which sought to
rather artificially generalize the specific accomplishments of a couple of
branches, notably the Lower East Side branch in New York and its involvement
in struggles around education. And flowing from that was a conscious
relaxation of norms of party membership to lower people's expectations that
new working class and community recruits would have the same level of
activism as those of us who came out of the student movement and still led
essentially a bohemian student lifestyle. All of this is codified in the
(original) prospects for socialism book, which was essentially where the
party stood in 1975.

    The actual turn to industry developed over the next couple of years, and
especially in 1977. As the economic crisis deepened and the ruling class
offensive it brought intensified, there was a downturn in community-based
struggles, but there seemed to be an uptick in economic, union fights, and
in movements towards making unions more combative in defense of worker's
interests. So the union work tended to gain greater weight, and
social/political issues and movements to recede. (I think history has shown
then that the perceptions about the unions were wrong; they were retreating
also and continued doing so for the next two decades, at least).

    At the Feb., 1978, NC plenum, the PC came in with a radical
recomendation, which was, essentially, to abandon the OLD turn and do a NEW
turn. This new turn was to subordinate everything else to getting the
majority of the leadership and membership of the party in basic industry --
steel, coal, auto, etc. This was based on a projection that the ruling class
would have no choice but to ever more sharply attack the rights and standard
of living of the core of the industrial proletariat, and that, within a
short time, this would lead to huge class battles. It was NOT a question of
becoming "proletarianized," but a political response to political
opportunities we believed would soon emerge.

    No *specific* timetables were given, indeed, they were specifically
disclaimed. But the whole tenor and tone was that the expectation that these
battles could break out within a few months, and certainly would break out
within a couple or three years. It was a specific, conjunctural assessment.
This schema --for that is what it was-- was received with a great amount of
enthusiasm by the party leadership as a whole. We believed it because we
WANTED to believe it. This was not then some obedient cult of handraisers.
We drank the kool aid cheerfully, ethusiastically, and when the glass was
empty, we went and got seconds. We did not take Jack's word for it, again,
we believed it because it was what we WANTED to believe was really

    Obviously, there were some deficiencies in the SWP leadership's way of
approaching problems and projections that made it possible for this kind of
error to be made. And to be honest, it was not the first time in the SWP's
history that such giddy, triumphalist conclusions had been drawn. One was a
Party Convention in the late 1940's at which Jim Cannon's "American Theses"
were adopted. It was held under the banner of "On to the Party of 10,000."
If only it had been so...

    An alternative explanation of what was going on in the country inn 1978
was readily available, and indeed in various forms it was quite prevalent
among those who thought about and wrote about these sorts of issues.

    The alternative explanation was, quite simply, that the radicalization
of the 60's was winding down, as had the Debsian radicalization and the
radicalization of the 30's before it. It was much more satisfying to think
we were on the threshhold of an escalation of the radicalization, a second
edition of the 1930s, but now corrected and amplified by the 1960s. That's
what we wanted to happen so that is what we talked ourselves into believing
was, in fact, happening. And based on this mistaken analysis, we then made
the further mistake of basing our activity not on today's reality, but on
what we expected the reality to be a year or two or three down the road. And
this essentially immunized the line from any sort of reality check in the
short run.

    What happened to the SWP next is harder to explain, for I believe it was
an unintended consequence. Throughout the whole period of the first turn,
the party had continued to grow, albeit more slowly than before. Although
its general outlook was that the radicalization was continuing to deepen,
its day-to-day activities were grounded in immediate, palpable reality.

    The party had also grown more diverse, more mature (if only because so
many of us campus hotshot firebrands were a little older) and, I believe,
more easy going, less hyper-centralist, more democratic. Not yet in a huge,
qualitative way, but the motion was there.

    But soon after voting to put all our eggs into the industrial turn
the party started to shrink. We began losing people who went into industry.
Many times these were comrades who'd had all sorts of undemanding, low-paid
clerical or even fast-food-type jobs --so they could devote all their energy
to political tasks-- and all of a sudden had much more substantial incomes,
as well as much more demanding work. And despite all our affirmations to the
contrary, there was damn little to do politically in industry. Sure you
could "talk socialism" -- shoot the shit -- with your coworkers. But there
was no motion or political activity. It was in many cases a
depoliticization. It was also a matter of age. Many of us were getting into
our late 20s or early 30s. People tend to settle down, that's a fact.

    This loss of cadre then made the formally adopted goal of getting a
majority into industry more difficult to meet. Originally, the projection
was to *inspire* the majority of comrades to get into industry. It was
understood and expected that a substantial number of party members, and not
just full-timers, but all sorts of other people would NOT necessarily go in
right away, or maybe not at all. In a few years we'd be overwhelmingly
working-class in composition, NOT from creating ersatz proles out of student
cadre, but from recruitment in the big class battles that were just over the
next hill.

    But as we lost people from the fractions, the pressure
instensified on  those not yet in industry to also get industrial jobs, and
thus the party began to hemorrhage at both ends, both from those making the
turn and those resisting it at a personal level, although there never was
any political opposition to it. (To this day, I believe I am one of very few
[at most!] SWPers of that generation that still view themselves as part of
the communist or workers movement and considers the INDUSTRIAL turn to have
been a complete catastrophe.)

    This led to the "proletarian norms" campaign. It may sound unthinkable
to those who joined the SWP after, say, 1980, but until then the SWP did not
enforce party discipline through charges, trials, expulsions and so on. What
Cannon had said about the SWP decades earlier continued to be the case:
convention after convention would come and go, and the control commission
would have nothing to report. To the extent those formal provisions were
used at all, it was in faction fights as a way of carrying out splits which
were viewed as necessary and inevitable. This "reconquering of proletarian
norms of functioning" translated into the nasty, intolerant, prosecutorial
internal regime of today's SWP.

    There was another factor which played a central role in the SWP's
political life in the first few years of the "industrial" turn. And that was
a re-examination of the Cuban revolution, which, within a matter of months,
became combined with the impact of the Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions
and the upsurge in revolutionary struggle in El Salvador.

    Although I was centrally involved in the Cuba and other discussions, I
do not know where the decision to initiate the discussion came from in the
first instance.

At any rate, the Cuba discussion followed very closely on the heels
of the decision to make the industrial turn, and became in effect a package
deal, although I never succeeded in seeing the intimate connection between
the two that others perceived. That discussion had been mooted by Jack in
one-liners at a couple of leadership gatherings, and raised formally by him
at the post-conference leadership meetings --whether plenum, expanded PC's
or some other body, I no longer recall-- at Oberlin in August of 1978. It
then began to be thrashed out in the PC in the fall. The results of the
initial discussions were presented by Jack in his speech to a rally at the
YSA convention on the 20th anniversary of the Cuban revolution.

    Those discussions SHOULD have prepared the party to play a central role
in support and solidarity work for the Central American revolutions, but did
not do so. Instead, after a couple of years, what really happened is that
cheerleading and enthusing for the revolutions in Central America and the
Caribbean became a substitute both for getting our hands dirty in the
solidarity movement and confronting the problems the party was facing
domestically. It became the opium of the cadre. We said things like that the
"pressure" of  "the ruling class offensive" was creating a "mariel boat
lift" among "petty-bourgeois radicals," (who were entirely indistinguishable
from ourselves in  their background and general political trajectories). Our
saving grace was the turn, proof of our proletarian mettle. Not for one
second did we discuss that a retreat into workerist sectarianism was ALSO a
way of getting out of the immediate battle line.

    In terms of the turn, it was, I assumed, something that must have
bothered others as it did bother me. It was originally a specific,
short-term maneuver in the military sense of the word, a redeployment of
forces, motivated by specific, short-term projections of the course of the
class struggle. It was not testable in a matter of months, but in a scale of
a few years it certainly could be re-examined.

    This was dealt with by M-A, if memory serves, at a plenum and perhaps an
Oberlin around 1981 or so. As revolutionaries often do, we had "telescoped"
events, she explained. The tendency and direction of motion was exactly what
we'd said in 1978, but the pace had been slower than we tended to assume,
although the PC in its report had been careful to point out that no specific
pace or timing was implied. And it was a wonderfully LUCKY break that
things had been somewhat slower than we had imagined, giving us more time to
prepare and root ourselves in industry, and now we had these wonderful
comrades in power in Nicaragua and Grenada as well as Cuba and and blah blah

    By the mid-80s, when I left, the party had become a "turn party" and the
question of whether the turn had been correct or not no longer made sense, I
don't believe, to most comrades. It would have been like asking comrades in
1970 whether or not the party should be centrally involved in the antiwar
movement, or asking comrades in Minneapolis in the 30's whether they should
be involved in  the Teamsters.

    The industrial turn had become, as we had projected in 1978, the
"framework" for all of the party's work, except, of course, that there was
nothing inside the framework. It had become an article of blind faith. Also
by then the party had developed an additional front in its hemorrhage of
cadre, those comrades who wanted to be active in Nicaragua solidarity work,
i.e., the ones most sensitive to "pressure" from wanting to get involved in
the real central issues in domestic and world politics at the time.

    And to top it off, part of the "turn" became a campaign to purge
miscreants and misfits who differed with the majority on the exact
formulation to use in expressing admiration for the accomplishments of the
Cuban comrades and similar things. Jack in particular contributed to this
discussion by placing it on such a high, abstract theoretical level (in his
speech, "Their Trotsky and Ours") that I, for one, having been involved in
discussing it in the PC, listening to it and interpreting it, kibbitzing
during the editing, and working on the translation the edited text for
publication, was never able to make heads or tails of it, except for it
being an extremely long way of saying that small, minority radical groups
have a tendency to attract people with a sectarian bent in general, and that
Trotskyists in particular tended to use a sectarian misinterpretarion of
permanent revolution to isolate themselves.

    I'm not sure what happened in the SWP in the late 80's. Even in the
early 80s I was overwhelmingly focused on Cuba and Nicaragua, not what was
going on in the SWP or the U.S. I had all sorts of twinges of misgivings,
doubts and concerns about the party, a number of which grew out of my
attending the leadership school in the first months of 1980, but never
allowed myself to focus on them. The world revolution was on the upswing and
would help overcome the mistakes, if they were such.

    It was when I was down in Nicaragua for more than a year (mid-1984 until
Aug-1985), and being away from the comrades and the center that I had
functioned as part of for more than 12 years, since I was 20,  that the
distance, and the penchant of comrades in New York to put under my byline in
the Militant what they imagined I should have seen in Nicaragua rather than
what I had in fact seen, that led me to re-evaluate what the party was doing
and saying.

    I resigned from the SWP after Oberlin 1985, and returned to Nicaragua. I
left Nicaragua in 1988, convinced that the revolution was dead (and quite
thoroughly demoralized by that fact in the process.) I had only the most
sporadic contact with radical politics; and although within a year or so I
was again following general politics closely, I didn't make much of an
effort to keep up with the SWP until years later, in the mid 90s.

    I believe the "second turn" to industry, or rather the second campaign
for the turn to industry took place around 1990 or so, around the time of
the Gulf War and the beginning of the Third World War. I don't know
specifically what required this re-turn, but I imagine after a while as the
80's wore on, some new energy needed to be injected into the organization.

This was certainly true of the "third campaign" begun as you note in the
late 90s, at least insofar as it can be gleaned from the Militant and
contemporaneous accounts. In the early 90s the SWP had projected this
catastrophic economic crisis was breaking out, just as the country was
heading into the boom of the Clinton years. I know because I went to one or
a couple of SWP campaign rallies in 92, and was startled by Maceo Dixon's
apocalyptic statement about how "you know it's going to be really bad" and
similar. On the contrary, I rather expected the US to do well economically,
based on the opening of the markets in the former socialist bloc.

    I don't believe either the second or the third campaign have much to do

with the first industrial turn, or the much broader turn of the mid-1970s
that preceded it. In references I've seen in recent SWP documents and
speeches, the existence and nature of the original turn is covered up, as is
the actual origin and nature of the industrial turn. The impression you're
left is that there was one turn in the mid-70s. The fact that it was a
decision motivated as a short-term sharp redeployment on the basis of
projected events --big class battles-- in the next immediate period is
buried under a ton of banalities, generalities and --frankly-- non

It is not clear to me why this sleight of hand is being pulled, only that it
almost certainly is conscious, as the people doing it are, at the same time,
re-editing the old prospects for socialism book to take out, for example,
Barry's organization report to the 1975 convention where the nitty gritty of
the original turn is laid out, and so on. It is interesting that they should
feel threatened by documents that now have a purely historical significance,
but why that is, I do not know.

This things that comrades report here about the SWP's functioning in the
90's, of PC members being kept waiting for hours until Jack shows up for a
meeting and so on, did not happen, and would have been unthinkable inn the
70's, or even the early 80's. I wrote about how the leadership bodies
functioned in the mid and late 70's a couple of  years back, and won't
repeat that here. The central point is that, for all its faults, the SWP of
the 70s and of the 90s were radically different organizations. The one of
the 70's was hardly an ideal formation --for one thing, it gave birth to the
abomination we know today-- but there was a qualitative transformation, and
that transformation was the turn to industry launched at the February 1978

And not just the launching of the turn, but keeping at it, year after year,
despite the *overwhelming* evidence that the entire analysis it had been
based on was false, that the party was becoming weaker, not stronger, that
the membership was becoming less political, not moreso, without ever placing
before the leadership and membership the question of whether it had been the
right thing to do in the first place, that is what destroyed the SWP and the
promise it held out in the mid-70s of becoming a much broader party of
revolutionary socialists representing and speaking for the interests of
working people in the United States.


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