On a question from Philip Ferguson
Jose G. Perez
jg_perez at bellsouth.net
Wed Nov 27 11:16:10 MST 2002
I hope Philip does not take offense that I tell the list he wrote me a
personal off-list note asking why the harsh tone of my reply on the
Kirk-Kaye tendency, and that I respond publicly. I know Philip has also been
taken aback by responses like those of Fred Feldman and Dick Fidler. I hope
Philip does not view this note as evidence of animus towards him personally;
I bear him none
whatsoever, quite the contrary. But this is political, nor personal.
My post wasn't meant to be hostile, it was meant to be flat and cold.
That's because the initial drafts of my response to Phil --after I peeled
myself of the ceiling-- were scathing, white hot with rage. I knew it would
be a mistake to post that, so I rewrote it, several times, calming it down,
trying to take any personal animus out of it. I could not, however, make it
a friendly or jocular response, as may have been the case in the past, even
when I've criticized Phil for a his tendency to apolitical Barnes-bashing,
gossip and rumor mongering.
The reason I couldn't is what Fred Feldman said: There's a war on.
In connection with antiwar work, I've been rereading a bunch of the
SWP's old antiwar and student movement material, including Fred Halstead's
book, "Out Now." And I am convinced, as are many people on this list and
elsewhere, that this is the
well from which we must largely --not exclusively, but, yes, mainly-- draw
And Philip, what you were doing was, in effect, pissing in that well. A
political defense of Kirk-Kaye at *THIS* moment requires a much more
vigorous response because of the political situation. The young leaders of
the new antiwar movement on the campuses are thirsty both for a broader
political perspective and tactical approaches that can maximize their
effectiveness. Some of them here in Atlanta follow this list. They need to
understand, since it has been raised, that the politics of the Kirk-Kaye
tendency were sectarian lunacy.
And I believe it is ALSO necessary to reaffirm, whatever its problems on
other issues, and despite what I now consider weaknesses is some aspects of
this work (our work, really, for I was also involved) that the SWP of the
Vietnam era was RIGHT in its overall programmatic, strategic and tactical
approach in the antiwar movement, and every other sect, group, current,
formation and tendency on the American Left at the time that I can remember
One of the things that I'm eternally grateful for having learned in the SWP,
although the party leadership did not always in my view carry it out
correctly, is to subordinate *organizational* issues to *political* ones.
And that applies with tremendous force right now vis-a-vis the SWP's
approach in the antiwar movement, for the lessons of that are very
applicable to today's antiwar movement, and because the US drive towards war
on Iraq is at the center of world politics today. (Obviouly, the *tactics*
can't be copied cookie-cutter fashion.)
Point one, and this is important, though it may seem obvious. The SWP --like
Che and Cuba-- understood the centrality of the Vietnam war, and that this
had to be reflected in our practical activity. The US War in Vietnam was the
central overriding issue of world politics and US politics from 1965 until
As soon as imperialism escalated to taking over directly the waging of the
war, and the antiwar movement began to take off, the SWP and YSA comrades
were in there helping to build it, and along a principled axis of
self-determination for the Vietnamese people, and promoting a tactical
approach that could --and eventually did-- win over the majority of the
American people, "poisoned" (from the point of view of imperialism) the pool
of young people from which Johnson and Nixon had to draw cannon fodder, and
that, together with the heroic resistance of the Vietnamese people, so
competely demoralized the US army in the field that it destroyed its
effectiveness as a combat force. "If you keep drafting us," I think it was
Student Mobilization Committee leader and YSAer Deby Bustin who said at one
of the marches on Washington, "you're not going to win the war, you're going
to lose your army." And that is exactly what happened.
Without hundreds of thousands of American troops to back them up, and
despite mountains of military equipment and supplies and financing, the
pupper regime collapse a couple of years after the U.S. ground withdrawal.
The Vietnamese people won, the peoples of the world won, and in that
victory, the working people and youth of the United States through their
antiwar movement made a material difference.
The SWP basically pulled out all stops and in effect, assigned everyone to
antiwar work on an emergency, mobilization basis by mid-1965. And it stayed
on that footing for 7-1/2 years. The SWP was not a perfect formation,
I'm sure looking back we'll find countless things that could have been done
differently, but the plain fact is, nobody did it better, more consistently,
through upturns and downturns with a dogged persistence that won the
admiration even of many critics, but, more importantly that was what the
political situation required of American revolutionaries.
And it wasn't done through bureaucratic measures, expulsions, impositions,
diktats from commissars or anything else like that. It was led, a display of
political leadership of extremely high caliber, of getting the comrades to
*understand* the world historic stakes, to absorb it down to the marrow of
our bones, to understand the strategic perspective, to translate that to the
level of slogans, tactics and even to the level of motivating us to take a
bucket and a brush and do one more paste up of posters for the upcoming
action at 10:30 PM after the branch meeting.
And just as all that was getting going, Comrade Kirk wages one last heroic
battle -- against the party's perspectives in the antiwar movement. The
of world politics, single issue, mass action, he didn't get any of it. And
the historical fact is, that as soon as the rumble really started in the
antiwar movement, and the shit hit the fan over strategy, tactics and
orientation, Kirk-Kaye & Co. WALKED OUT OF THE SWP.
I don't say that. THEY say it, the title of their split statement is "Why
We Left the Socialist Workers Party". They weren't expelled. They left.
They claim, of course, that they were badly mistreated. I don't know of a
single minority ever in the history of the SWP, which I know in a fair
amount of detail, nor in the history of any other revolutionary group that
adhered to the "Leninist Party" model descended from the Comintern that ever
claimed differently. I don't put that down to bad faith on the part of
minorities or simple bloody-minded brutality on the part of majorities, but
I suspect it has to do with the essential character of these propaganda
nuclei or leagues. One interesting phenomenon in the SWP is that the charges
of mistreatment are often voiced by the very same comrades who a few years
earlier had been in the majority and denying similar charges by the previous
minority. And very often they pointed to the exemplary treatment of the
previous-expelled minority in contrast to how shabbily they have been dealt
with. It is worth analyzing and thinking about what it is about the SWP-type
organization that produces this sort of pattern. There is more here than
simply very, very naughty leaders or extreme carelessness in drafting
In the case of Kirk Kaye, however, they also present a political
justification for why they were leaving, in a separate section of
the document. They say it was the SWP's turn towards antiwar work and its
policy that resulted in it being impossible for the two sides to remain in
the same party. So let us examine in more detail what was the SWP policy,
what Kirk-Kaye counterposed to it, and what history shows about the results
of the two policies.
Form their split document:
"THE LAST STRUGGLE -- OVER ANTI-WAR POLICY
"The policy of the SWP leadership in the anti-war movement brought our
differences to the breaking point."
To the SWP policy -- building a non-exclusionary mass action movement in the
streets, Kirk-Kaye counterposed the following:
"Vanguard elements of the anti-war movement feel their isolation from the
working class to be a basic weakness of the movement ....
"Revolutionary Marxists should help them find the correct road to political
unity by demonstrating the necessity of independent anti-capitalist politics
that connect the war to the other evils of the system. Political ventures
short of such a program are doomed to eventual capitulation to the
Democratic Party and other forms of class collaboration politics."
".... The notion that simply more activism and more protesters can end the
war is an essentially pacifist proposition. This unrealistic and
anti-political approach is a dangerous conservative barrier to the political
development of the antiwar movement."
What did history show? Did the "political venture" embarked on by the SWP
wind up in "eventual capitulation to the Democratic Party" as it was
"doomed" to do because it didn't include the "necessity of independent
politics that connect the war to the other evils of the system"? Did "more
activism and more protesters" turn out to be an "unrealistic and
History, the further development of the movement, bore out the SWP's
analysis, strategy and tactics. "More activism and more protesters" turned
out to be a completely REALISTIC approach far, far beyond the wildest
imaginings on anyone initially involved.
On the other hand, groups with approaches similar to Kirk-Kaye were a dime a
dozen in the U.S. in the 60's and the early 70's. Everybody through you
could wave a magic wand, adopt a few stirring resolutions at a conference,
and thereby magically transform the antiwar movement into the next best
thing to a Leninist vanguard. It was hogwash, it wasn't true, it couldn't be
done, all of them tried it, none succeeded.
The antiwar movement was what it was, an *antiwar* movement, for
objective political reasons far, far beyond the control of any radical group
or all the radical groups put together. The SWP understood that, and helped
develop a strategic approach and that would maximize its impact on the
international class struggle and American society.
Contrary to claims by its critics, the SWP did, both in antiwar work through
coalitions, and in its own name, make the connections between the war and
"other evils of the system." One form this took were contingents organized
for the antiwar demonstrations. There were Black contingents, Chicano and
Latino contingents, lesbian and gay contingents, women's contingents, labor
contingents, GI and veterans contingents. The reason why the SWP pushed for
the formation of such contingents was *precisely* because there was a
connection, and this was a way of bringing it out. The connections were made
repeatedly by speakers at rallies, teach-ins and conferences.
The SWP favored a "single issue" approach in this sense only: that no one
would be required to already understand and have an o.k. position on a
series of other questions to join the antiwar coalition. Catholic clergy
could join the antiwar movement without signing on to a pro-abortion-rights
stand. The flip side of this was *non-exclusion*. A woman's group would not
be excluded because defense of abortion rights was unpalatable to the
clergy, or because pacifists felt uncomfortable participating with people
who didn't have a moral commitment to non-violence.
There was, during the antiwar period, no basis for a regroupment or
refoundation of the American Left, because there was no
wide area of agreement or overlap between the currents on what to do next.
No one else shared the SWP's and YSA's approach to antiwar work. Or I should
say, rather, that no other organized tendency did. Thousands and thousands
of activists did share the SWP's and YSA's approach, and many joined the
YSA, usually as individuals, but sometimes as local groups and collectives.
If Fraser's perspective of a full anticapitalist program antiwar movement
had made any sense at all, some sort of regroupment would have been the
strategic perspective behind it. And quite simply that was not in the cards.
On the contrary, what we saw was a multiplication of all sorts of groups,
sectlets, collectives and other "Leninist" party and "pre-party" formations.
If the prospects for regroupment or refoundation today seem different, it is
precisely because *on the ground*, several different groups, and a much
larger layer of unaffiliated activists, "ex-radicals" except, of course,
that reality is showing they are not "ex" at all, share a largely congruent
approach to immediate antiwar tasks. Note that I say, "on the ground,"
meaning, in practice. It is as yet early days for this new antiwar movement,
which I'm sure *will* continue for a substantial period, because even if it
goes very well for imperialism in Iraq in the next few months --I don't
believe it will, I just raise it for argument's sake--, there will be more
bombing campaigns, invasions and occupations in other countries. And indeed,
Iraq is Chapter 2, Chapter 1 was Afghanistan.
It would be *ideal* to take this conjuncture and put these groups and many
of the independent activists in a common socialist organizational framework,
where the pressure will be to minimize and seek compromises on the
divergences that inevitably *will* arise, instead of having them emerge in
the form of divergences BETWEEN groups, which will tend to maximize and
exaggerate even the slightest differences, as these various groups vie for
"market share" among the radical students and other layers.
There was not, nor do I believe there could have been (because of the role
and strength of Stalinism and social democracy), any point during the
history of the antiwar movement when you could have said that. The Kirk-Kaye
perspective proved to be radically disconnected from reality.
That's the balance sheet on the Kirk-Kaye line versus the
Cannon-Dobbs-Kerry-Barnes-Sheppard line in the anti Vietnam war struggle.
You can nuance one or another point, change an adjective, add a sentence
here and delete one there, but any honest assessment is going to say: the
SWP was right, Kirk-Kaye were completely wrong.
So, Phil, that's the reason for all the heat. The *immediacy* and
*importance* of the anti Vietnam war experience for TODAY.
If you want to bring up all sorts of organizational issues about the fight
with the Oehlerites, and lard it over with some trivia and gossip, yes, I'll
probably bash you in the friendliest of fashions (If I remember right Fred
Feldman may have something to contribute to such a discussion, although
knowing his mood I'm sure he'd be disinclined to). I know quite apart from
your obsession with this sort of thing, you are also interested in, and
serious about a range of other issues and aspects of political activity,
where fruitful collaboration and dialogue has been possible in the past, and
I hope can continue to be in the future. But don't expect to take a few
potshots trying to discredit the "Barnesites" of the 60's and early 70's and
not have people jump all over you. On a question as big as the imperialist
war drive and how to fight it, politics overrides anything and everything
else. It just does.
That relationship between political and organizational quesitons is
something that's been at the core of the criticisms people have made of your
posts of this type on this list over the years, but you still don't seem to
get it, at least as far as "Barnesism" is concerned.
You've got to get over your resentment over the bad experience of the New
Zealand group, and even accepting that the NZ group was the most execrable
manifestation of the problems this current had developed by the mid-80s, you
cannot simply write off and take a dump all over everything the SWP ever
did. And, concretely for THIS moment, what the SWP of the Vietnam era
accomplished, and the lessons from that, are of overriding importance.
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