US SWP degeneration

LouPaulsen LouPaulsen at
Sun Nov 24 03:13:15 MST 2002

----- Original Message -----
From: "Philip Ferguson" <plf13 at>

> 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.

Thus far, this is entirely correct.

> 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
> start-point.

But I just don't find this convincing in the least.  Of course this is
partly because I have an alternative account in hand, which I will get to,
and which some of you will anticipate; but even if I didn't, even if I were
a complete stranger to the history of left politics in the U.S. and were
approaching it only as a social scientist, I would say: how can you adduce
'Zinovievism' as a predictor of 'degeneration', when, according to Proyect,
practically every significant socialist party in the world since 1923 has
been 'Zinovievist'!  All the parties of the Fourth International, including
the SWP-US in particular, were presumably 'Zinovievist' from the moment of
their formation,.  Well, how can something which is invariant explain
variation?  Haven't there been parties which experienced success, which have
not degenerated, or degenerated less, or less rapidly, despite their
supposed 'Zinovievism'?

Of course, you can come along and say 'well, people started parties with
good intentions, and they started out okay, but then they all degenerated,
and this is because they were Zinovievist.  If only they had not been
Zinovievist, they would never have degenerated!'    However, the phenomenon
of 'degeneration' did not come into existence only in 1923!  The parties of
the Second International, which I hope nobody will charge with Zinovievism,
experienced degeneration long before 'Zinovievism' supposedly came into

I would think that it makes more sense to argue that there are pressures
toward 'degeneration' of revolutionary socialist parties at all times under
the conditions of global capitalist domination, but particularly at times
when the class struggle is at an ebb.  In other words, I would argue that a
materialist explanation of 'degeneration' - that is, that the real situation
of the international working class is reflected in the organization and
politics of socialist parties - works much better than idealist or
organizational-sociological explanations which explain 'degeneration' only
on the basis of phenomena internal to parties.  (A full theory would include
an interaction term.)

Those of you who wish to put the theory of "Zinovievist degeneration" on a
sound footing are going to have to do a few things:  first, you have to
define 'Zinovievism' more rigorously, so that you can objectively
distinguish 'Zinovievist' from 'non-Zinovievist' parties, or quantify the
amount of a party's 'Zinovievism' at a particular point in time.  Second,
you have to develop this concept of 'degeneration' a bit more: are you
talking about conversion into an irrelevant sect, or what?  and which is the
defining aspect, the bad politics and irrelevance, or the organizational
disease?  Third, you have to show some kind of systematic covariation: that
the more 'Zinovievist' parties experienced more 'degeneration', of course
controlling for other variables that might also promote 'degeneration'.

Until you do this, I have the right to consider 'Zinovievism' merely a
convenient stick for beating parties which have experienced some kind of
political failure: 'See how you have degenerated!  Well, this is because of
your Zinovievism, you gang of Zinovievists, you!' *whack whack*

All right, now, let's get back to the history of the decline of the SWP-US
in particular.  One point of criticism which I have to make here, Philip, is
that there is a whole lot of discussion here of purely organizational
phenomena, but very little attention to political questions along the lines
of program (when did the SWP-US's program start to go bad?) and class
character (when did the SWP-US cease to be a party of the advanced elements
of the working class?), which, of course, are interlocking questions.  Or,
in other terms, when you write:

> 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.

I would argue that the question of whether the SWP-US was "an historically
healthy current" really IS the fundamental one, but it has to be addressed
in terms that go beyond 'Zinovievist' features that were shared with all
existing parties at the time.  Over the period 1940 to 1980, what kind of
'current' did the SWP-US represent at different times?  With what other
'currents' in the world struggle did it affiliate, and when, and with what
'currents' did it disassociate itself?  What was its major political line?
How did it try to attract people, and what kinds of people, what classes,
were in fact attracted by its line?  And when did the SWP's 'current' cease
to be 'historically healthy', THAT IS, when did it cease to function as the
representative and defender of the most revolutionary trend in the global
struggle of the workers and the oppressed (assuming you think it ever did
so)?  I predict that this is going to be a sensitive question for people who
were in the leadership of the SWP-US during this period, and I predict that
there will be a lot of responses along the lines of "of course our public
politics during the period when I was in the leadership were entirely
correct and healthy - it was just that there were these organizational flaws
which later developed into full-scale degeneration."  And yet, you know,
some people might disagree about whether the public politics of the
organization were REALLY all that correct.

Now, in all this discussion of the various factions of the SWP-US with whom
the leadership did battle over the years ------

> 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).

----- I notice that there is a tendency which does not get mentioned,
namely, the Marcy/Copeland tendency, who left the SWP-US in 1960 to form the
Workers World Party, and presented to the world, upon this occasion, their
own critique of the SWP's "degeneration", which they believed to have begun
before 1948 and which they saw as being so well advanced by 1960 that there
was no point even staying in the SWP and trying to fight for a revolutionary
line any more.  Their critique was not based on the organizational behavior
of the national leadership.  Rather, they saw the SWP as having succumbed to
the pressures and temptations of the Cold War anti-Communist attack - to the
pressure to disassociate itself from defense of the Soviet Union, the
workers' states in Eastern Europe, and the Chinese and Korean revolutions,
coupled of course with the government's purging of communists from the trade
unions, and the temptation to shelter itself in a petty-bourgeois liberal
anti-Stalinist niche.  In their view, the SWP had precisely ceased to be a
"historically healthy current", and only degeneration lay in store for it.

Even if I were not a member of WWP myself, I think I would find the
following argument convincing: "If a small tendency leaves a larger party
and presents a critique of its degeneration and an alternative political
approach; and if, 43 years later, the once-smaller tendency has grown
considerably in influence, considered both relatively and absolutely, on the
basis of this approach; whereas the larger party is now generally recognized
by just about everyone to have really degenerated; then the critique
originally presented by this tendency deserves to be given serious
consideration in any discussion of the party's degeneration."

Respectfully submitted,

Lou Paulsen
member, WWP, Chicago

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