US SWP degeneration

Jose G. Perez jgperez at
Sun Nov 24 23:19:50 MST 2002

Philip Ferguson writes:

>>Dave, calm down!  I never made all that much of the 1965 Resolution.  It
basically codified what was already standard practice.  I precisely
mentioned the youth of 1959, the Weisses, the FSP (the Fraser tendency),
so I'm not sure what you are saying 'hogwash' to.<<

I believe the 1965 resolution was almost word for word the same as the
original one, except that where the original one said that people ought to
go into the unions or something like that, this one said "mass movement."

As it was presented to me, it was, and was meant, more as a guide to how to
function rather than a set of rules and regulations to abide by.

*  *  *

>>When these movements became too big to ignore, the SWP did a 180 degree
turn.  They just went where the pressure was and the chance for recruits, as
the party was dying off.  So this was essentially opportunistic.  Thus it
also made it quite easy to abandon this kind of work later on and retreat
into 'talking socialism on the job'.  Fraser makes the point that the
dominant idea in the majority leadership's head was that of the 'holding
operation', everything was just a 'holding operation' until the revival of
wages militancy/economistic trade unionism.<<

One problem with this theory is that the central leadership of the party
changed from 1965, when it purportedly abandoned abstentionism, to 1978,
when it went back to abstentionism once again. In 1965, the national
officers of the party were Cannon, Dobbs and Kerry. In 1978, they were
Waters, Barnes and Sheppard. As for the broader leadership, most of the
members of the NC that voted for the turn had not been members of the NC in
1965. Many had not yet joined the party in 1965. I'm not sure, but I *think*
probably the majority of party members from 1965 were no longer active in
1978. And the big majority of members in 1978 probably hadn't even finished
high school in 1965.

The turn was not some preconceived schema held close to the vest by some
machiavellian clique. The general idea that the party would orient to the
unions when there was a pickup in the labor movement was agreed to by
everyone. The party had been increasingly involved in union activities and
orienting towards building certain union fractions from 4 or 5 years before
the turn, and as a matter of general policy from 1975.

The 1978 turn grew out of the work of the previous 2-3 years, and it was the
leadership's response to the situation as they saw it. It was the wrong
response for various reasons and in various ways, but that is what it was.

As for the idea that the SWP only went into the antiwar movement when it
"became too big to ignore," see below.

>>Richard Fraser, btw, wrote quite a bit about the SWP's abstentionism form
the anti-Vietnam War movement when it began, their early abstentionism from
the civil rights movement and their hostility to any attempts to raise the
'woman question'.<<

I don't know the reason for Philip's continuing infatuation with the
Kirk-Kaye tendency (party names of Richard and Clara Fraser). This was
essentially a small branch in Seattle, which walked out of the SWP at the
end of 1965 and went on to found the Freedom Socialist Party, which
continues to exist even onto these days in that city, or at least so it
appears from their web site.

I think comrades will get a very revealing view of this tendency's politics
from their statement, "Why We Left the SWP". It is featured on their web

I'm going to examine in some detail a couple of the main parts of their

*  *  *

On the Black question, it denounces the SWP, but not for abstentionism:

"Our political group, known within the SWP as the Kirk-Kaye tendency, was
formalized at the 1957 convention of the party, when we opposed the
unprincipled adaptation of the SWP to the pacifist-reformist leadership of
the Negro struggle. Adulation of Dr. King replaced a revolutionary

At the time Dr. King had just come to prominence as the main public
spokesperson and visible leader of the Montgomery bus boycott, which
concluded in victory at the end of 1956 with a Supreme Court decision
striking down "separate but equal" on public transportation. Dr. King was
then involved in extending the same kinds of mass protest tactics that
resulted in victory in Montgomery to other aspects of segregation in other
parts of the South. The SWP's "unprincipled adaptation" was "adulation" for
the nascent civil rights movement represented by Dr. King.

According to the document, things got even worse in 1963. The Kirk-Kaye
tendency "particularly resisted ... the [SWP's] all-out support of Negro

"Our counter-resolution to the convention, 'Revolutionary Integration',
called on the SWP to permit its Negro cadre to intervene in the living
struggle for equality with a Marxist program.

"We developed our thesis that the Negro movement for equality is a unique
and central phenomenon of the class struggle in the United States,
integrally connected with the proletarian struggle for socialism."

The statement continues to lambast the SWP for adopting "the basically false
theory -- inherited from the Communist Party -- that the Negro Question in
the U. S. is only a variation of the National Question in Eastern Europe....

"The logic of the SWP's position on the Negro struggle led to a defacto
isolation of the party from the struggle, for black nationalism itself
stands aside from the main thrust of the Negro struggle -- the fight against

Following that, they then continue complaining about how at the 1965
convention, basically no one would listen to them. "We concluded from this
experience that the SWP had become a doctrinaire party, mired in a 'holding
operation', i.e. a prolonged state of suspension based on the assumption
that nothing significant can happen until the revival of the trade unions
and the emergence of a Labor Party."

This, of course, is what Kirk-Kaye wrote back at the end of 1965, when they
walked, and which Philip reflects above. I don't think many people familiar
with U.S. radical politics would describe the SWP's approach over the next
few years as typical of a "holding operation," just as I think very few
American socialists or radicals would posit today that "the fight against
segregation" was then or is now the "main thrust" of the Black struggle.

The truth is that the SWP majority saw further and more clearly the actual
nature and dynamics of the Black struggle than the Kirk-Kaye tendency did
from its perch in Seattle. And while it is easy NOW to sort of giggle about
how little concrete information Trotsky had about the Black population in
the United States, as reflected in some of his questions in the discussions
on this issue in the late 1930s with SWP leaders, I think the correctness of
his overall position, which he tried to instill in the comrades in those
discussions, that the Black question had to be approached as a *national*
question, prepared the SWP to understand this ahead of many other groups.

As for the SWP's 1963 "abstentionism," a few facts need to be taken into
account. The SWP and YSA together had perhaps a handful of Black members, if
that. Neither the SWP nor YSA had any branches in the South, had never had
any, and quite likely the closest SWP member to the Mason-Dixon line lived
hundreds of miles away in some place like Cleveland or Detroit. It would
have been monstrously arrogant, bordering on chauvinism, for the SWP to have
parachuted people into the South at that point "to intervene in the living
struggle for equality with a Marxist program," never mind the kind of
"anti-separatist" rhetoric Kirk-Kaye advocated.

The plain fact is, as the FSP documents on its web site, that the Frasers
advocated a typically "vanguardist", more-revolutionary-than-thou stance
towards the most advanced expressions of the Black movement, not to mention
the almost Morenoist idea that having read a couple of articles by the
Frasers, the SWP was now ready to "intervene" in the southern civil rights
movement without having even a single member who lived in the South. Also
note that they advocated that "Negro cadre" be "allowed" to do the
intervention, at a time when the civil rights movement was still multiracial
and all sorts of people were getting beaten, jailed, shot and blown up. I'm
sure the comrades didn't mean it like it sounds, but the fact that they
could be so blind to how it sounds also tells you something.

*  *  *

Their critique of the SWP's alleged abstentionism on the antiwar movement
was cut from the same cloth.

"After standing aside from the anti-war movement during its critical
formative stage the SWP decided in mid-1965 to plunge in -- for an
organizational raid." I leave aside the Kirk-Kaye characterization that the
SWP "stood aside" earlier, although it is true the SWP qualitatively stepped
up antiwar activities in 1965.

The reason for this is that in February, Johnson sent in ground troops and
began bombing the north. All of a sudden protests started taking place in
cities and towns all over the country; there were teach-ins on many
campuses. SDS had already planned an antiwar march on Washington for April
17, and the SDS-projected march, where originally a couple of thousand
people were expected, became the focus of the the new movement. The real
antiwar movement began with those protests and that march of 20,000 people
on April 17, 1965, and the SWP participated in it from day one, and actually
before, as SDS had reached out to the YSA before the February escalation and
issuing the public call for the demonstration.

>From the beginning the SWP advocated building a movement focused around
visible public protests and the demand for immediate withdrawal, later
shortened to the admirable 6-letter, two-word slogan "Out Now!" When
Kirk-Kaye say that the party abstained from the antiwar movement, as best as
I can figure out they're referring to earlier protests sponsored by pacifist
groups and social democrats, at which there were often all sorts of
exclusionary policies, like that you could not carry your own banners or
distribute your own literature. Incredible as it may sound today, the
organizers of these events would sometimes publicly proclaim that
"communists" were not invited and so on.

The Kirk-Kaye split declaration was written right after an antiwar
conference during Thanksgiving in 1965, at which there was a huge brawl
between supporters of a single issue movement in the streets around
immediate withdrawal and those who wanted only a multi-issue movement with
demands for negotiations that would build a bridge towards Democratic party
politicians. However, the fight wasn't about the slogans or character of the
movement directly, but rather over the "thirteenth workshop," a meeting of
the independent, often partly or largely campus-based antiwar committees in
which SWP and YSA members were involved.

Kirk-Kaye's evaluation of this, which they say is what led them to walk out
of the party at that point, was totally negative. "We protested against the
single issue, anti-political policy of SWP and YSA which led them into the
presumptuous demand that the Thanksgiving NCC conference in Washington D.C.
center its deliberations around the party's peculiar and confusing
organizational proposals, rather than around questions of program and
principle.... We condemned their fearful refusal to proclaim clear support
to the National Liberation Front ....

"We advocated a proletarian anti-war policy that would solidarize the party
with the revolution in Vietnam, with working-class Negro youth who are the
key victims of the draft, and with the radical wing of the anti-war

You'll notice what is missing here is, quite simply, any strategy for, --or
even the perspective of-- building a mass antiwar movement. Yet by then
building the antiwar movement was the overriding, central priority for the
SWP and YSA.

But the SWP and YSA, along with a layer of radical pacifists, were the only
visible currents espousing these views. The most prominent organization
associated with the new movement, SDS, said what was needed was not more
antiwar marches, but grass roots community organizing to stop the seventh
war from now. The CP was a significant force, and it was more focused on
figuring out how to build a movement in support of the liberals in Congress
and "peace" candidates than one in the streets. And the CP at that point
dwarfed all the far-left groups, and I mean all of them put together. Social
Democratic currents based in the union bureaucracy similarly did not want an
independent antiwar movement. Kirk-Kaye were, in fact, adapting to these
other millieus and currents in and around the radical movement in their
critique of the SWP's strategic approach in the antiwar movement.

*  *  *

The Kirk Kaye tendency was simply a handful of comrades, one of the most
isolated branches of the SWP. Under the pressures of the 1950s it underwent
an evolution that differentiated it from the rest of the party and they
wound up with a hodge-podge of frankly off-the-wall positions. Their
judgement about the SWP's politics and its overall trajectory have to be
examined with a great deal of scepticism, especially since they were so
demonstrably mistaken about two of the main domestic issues they raised in
their split statement.


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