US SWP degeneration

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Sat Nov 23 20:50:49 MST 2002

I've found the recent posts from Jose and Dwayne very interesting.
Since there is also on this e-list a comrade who was a member of the PC
in New York in the mid-1990s, and who has shared some of his experiences
of that with me in the past - and has also written a document on the
degeneration of the outfit - I wonder if he would like to post something
on his experiences.  Reading Jose's post which mentioned PC meetings
starting sharply at 10am in the 1980s reminded me, for instance, about
what the comrade above had told me about the tardiness of PC meetings in
the 1990s, where often no-one knew if Barnes was even going to show up
and people could wait around for hours wondering.

Dwayne argues that the cause of the degeneration was that Barnes had
decided that keeping control in his hands was more important than
accountability for the fact that things had turned out differently from
leadership projections in the mid-late 1970s.  I think it is certainly
true that Barnes made this decision.  But that doesn't really explain
the degeneration.  The question immediately arises, How did he get away
with it?  There must have beenn already something quite awry with the
organisation - especially since Barnes was hand-picked and trained by
the old leadership.  It seems to me that this is precisely where Louis'
point about Zinovievism (which Jose seems to largely share) comes in.  I
can't see how you explain the degeneration without returning to that

The rot was there at the beginning, but took a long time, and a specific
set of circumstances, to really come to the surface and destroy the
organisation.  In the 1930s and much of the 1940s, the level of class
struggle meant that, even with the 1939-40 losses, the organisation was
growing quite substantially, was able to lead struggles and so on.  In
the 1950s, I would think that the Cold War made people in the
organisation huddle together rather closely and also go along with
things like the purge of the Cochranites.  When Cannon's overoptimistic
projections for the postwar period failed to materialise, it didn't
really matter coz he retired from daily leadership and the frustrations
of the organisation were diverted into a purge of the Cochranites.  So
the show was kept on the road and there was a leadership transition to
Dobbs/Kerry (who not only saw off the Cochranites, but spent the rest of
the 1950s manoeuvring against the Weisses and finally succeeded in
driving them out of the party in the early 1960s).

In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was still possible to grow and a
faithful membership could be cohered around the forward momentum, while
also being blooded with a series of purges (the Robertson and Wohlforth
groups, Swabeck, the Fraser tendency, the Proletarian Orientation group,
the IT and so on).

But when the objective situation changed in the 1970s and all the
dissidents had already been biffed out over the previous decade, things
got very sticky.  The underlying weaknesses of Zinovievism increasingly
came to the surface and Barnes ended up cannibalising his own
organisation, including many of his mentors and teachers and much of his
own political generation.

When his projections - especially the idea that the 1970s radicalisation
and new radicalisation of workers would not be brought to a halt without
the question of state power being posed - turned out to be as mistaken
as Cannon's postwar ones (and at least Cannon's projections were based
on the experiences of WW1, plus there were huge revolutions in the Third
World).  The wrongness of these mid-late 1970s projections would no
thave mattered so much in an organisation with a healthy political
culture.  Even the healthiest revolutionary group and leadership is
going to make mistakes, including some big ones, at one time or
another.  But in an historically healthy current, there would have been
corrective mechanisms.   In the SWP, however, there were none - or none
that had any chance of working.  Why?  Well, we come back to the
Zinovievism thing again.

This is not to deny that Barnes and his clique did not have some
specific features of their own.  Frank Lovell claimed he and other older
leaders noticed signs of psychosis in Barnes in the early 1980s, for
instance.  They also argued, and I would agree, that Barnes and his
clique really were an essentially petty-bourgeois layer with a
thoroughly petty-bourgeois attitude to the membership and so on.  But
again, this doesn't explain much more than their specific traits, coz
you'd still have to account for how they got to monopolise power if the
basic organisation and organisational model was healthy.  Moreover, we
know that this phenomena is a widespread one - Healy, Moreno, Posadas,
Barnes etc.

Barnes is probably the least important or successful of them - most of
the others actually built organisations with some base in the working
class before destroying them; Barnes leapt over the building in the
working class and just went straight to the destroying - presiding over
a massive loss of members in the decade after the turn, partly through
the wave of expulsions in 1983 and partly through creating an internal
culture that just drove out even most of his own faction (ie most of
those who had supported him in 1983).  Even his chief hatchet man, Barry
Sheppard, ended up getting the chop by the early 1990s.  And last year
even one of his most abject flunkeys, Doug Jenness, got the heave.  So
we are witnessing the advanced stage of the Madness of King Jack.  And
we can already see the big sign 'Jackstown'.

But the rot has to be traced historically.  And, after all, the layer of
veterans who got purged in 1983 had done quite a bit of purging in their
own time and they were actually the people largely responsible for the
1965 Organisational Resolution, the one that Cannon's "Don't strangle
the party" plea was most related to.

In an interview she gave shortly before her death, Myra Tanner Weiss
said that Cannon had told her in the late 1950s or early 1960s (I can't
recall which it was) that the SWP was not the party he had set out to
build.  At a subjective level, that may well have been true.  But I'd
say it turned out to be the party that was going to be built, unless
there had've been a successful challenge to Zinovievism much earlier on.

These recent contributions also drove me back to some files I hadn't
looked at for some time - Richard Fraser's recitation of national
committee and political committee functioning in the 1960s and early
1960s.  I'm up to my eyeballs trying to wrap up my PhD thesis at
present, and getting deeper and deeper into debt every day as well as
running out of the time limit, but I might try to throw in a few bits
and pieces from his account of the degree of monolithism and
anti-democracy that was already a pronounced feature of the US SWP forty
years ago.

Philip Ferguson

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