[Marxism] The revolutionary heritage of the 60s turmoil: review of Barry Sheppard's memoir of US SWP
ffeldman at bellatlantic.net
Mon May 9 21:05:59 MDT 2005
The revolutionary heritage of the '60s turmoil
The Party: The Socialist Workers Party, 1960-1988, a Political Memoir.
Volume 1: The Sixties
By Barry Sheppard
354 pages, $29.95
REVIEW BY FRED FELDMAN
How has the Cuban Revolution helped those trying to forge a
revolutionary party and movement in the United States? What was the role
of the Black struggle and Black nationalism in the radicalisation in the
US? Who was Malcolm X and how did his revolutionary ideas impact on
politics? What is the role of women's liberation and gay liberation in
the struggle for social progress?
How did a small revolutionary party contribute to the struggle to force
US imperialism out of Vietnam? How was a movement of millions built to
end that war? How can revolutionaries effectively rally popular support
against efforts to repress them legally or by extra-legal violence? How
did a couple of hundred stubborn but ageing activists, having held their
group together through the McCarthy witch-hunt, participate in building
an activist revolutionary organisation that peaked at about 1600 members
in the early 1970s?
These are only a few of the issues taken up in Barry Sheppard's
extraordinary and indispensable memoir of the US Socialist Workers
Party's participation in the turmoil of the 1960s. This is the first of
two volumes, the second of which will describe the problems that
accumulated in the 1970s and culminated in a counter-revolution in the
1980s. The party leaders lost heart, rejected the revolutionary
perspective that had been strengthened by the struggles of the 1960s,
purged the membership of all who disagreed, and settled down to a
routine existence as a small, inward-turned sect. Today, the SWP is
uninvolved and even hostile to most of the manifestations of class
struggle taking place beyond its heavily guarded borders.
I am not exactly an above-the-battle reviewer. Joining the Socialist
Workers Party's youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), in
1964, I was a member until 1999. I went through a lot of the experiences
that Sheppard describes in this volume, and was similarly inspired and
formed as a rebel by them. In addition, along with Gus Horowitz and
Caroline Lund, I was a co-editor of this vitally needed contribution to
the history of the revolutionary movement. I consider myself an
unreconstructed 1960s revolutionary, and the events Sheppard describes
made me the person I am.
Sheppard describes his evolution from a young dissident in elementary
school to the developments in the late 1950s that led him to the SWP.
>From the early 1960s to the mid-1980s, he was part of the group's top
national leadership. He is now a frequent contributor to the journal
The book is full of vivid portrayals of party leaders and others. An
important chapter is devoted to the revolutionary Black leader Malcolm X
and his evolution from a separatist religious leader with a strong
revolutionary thrust to a revolutionary internationalist leader of the
Black "nation within a nation" in the US and spokesperson for the
A running theme is the defence of the movement against repressive
attacks, whether a gang of counter-revolutionary Cubans attacking a
meeting in defence of Cuba in Boston, the organisation of broad protests
against the murder of a YSA member by a commie-hating racist in Detroit
or many other instances. These culminated, in the wake of the exposure
of the Nixon administration's role in the Watergate burglary, with a
suit against the federal government, which helped sharply push back FBI
disruption efforts against the movement.
United action is the theme of these comments - reaching out to everyone
who can be won to participate in the fight, without prejudice or
imposing our views on others. This is also a theme of the book's many
rich chapters on the struggle against the war. Sheppard provides
detailed and vivid pictures of experiences that demonstrated the
centrality of mass action, the importance of united-front action open to
all who were ready to act against the war, and the importance of
resisting the efforts of the liberals to channel the fight onto the axis
of capitalist politics.
However, Sheppard's portrayal of the anti-war movement highlights
something that is sometimes forgotten or insufficiently remembered
today. It takes more than correct tactics on the part of anti-war
activists to defeat an imperialist war, especially in the homeland of
the main aggressor. The Vietnam War of US imperialism was not defeated
just by the Vietnamese, though their colossal revolutionary effort was
decisive. Nor was it just a combination of the Vietnamese Revolution
with the anti-war movement.
The fight to destroy Jim Crow segregation in the South did not stop for
the war. It won as the war was escalating. In the course of this
struggle, the Black population rose up in cities across the US. Black
political parties began to emerge that challenged the power structure.
This was the era of the Black caucuses in the United Auto Workers and
the victorious Miners for Democracy movement in the coalfields, and the
United Farm Workers revolt of the oppressed Mexicano and Chicano farm
workers. And of the mass protests of Chicanos (descendants of Mexican
immigrants and of those who had lived in the areas of what is now the
south-west United States stolen from Mexico in the 1848 war).
The women's movement began fighting for abortion rights and equal
employment opportunities. And gays rose up to effectively take control
of New York's West Village from the cops, who had oppressed them for
decades, in the great Stonewall rebellion of 1969. This was not a period
of mass anti-war demonstrations alone, but a period of general social
unrest that challenged the capitalist structure.
And the struggles that decided the Vietnam battle did not take place in
Vietnam and the US in isolation. Sheppard describes the SWP's
participation and support for a revolutionary upsurge in France,
fighters in India and Czechoslovakia, Palestine - all part of the world
upheaval that helped push back imperialism. Sheppard travelled the world
as a representative of the party, meeting with fighters in Japan, Sri
Lanka (then Ceylon), and other countries.
Barry Sheppard gives a flavour for the wide-ranging debates that were
normal in the SWP - on issues ranging from Black nationalism and the
Cuban Revolution to guerrilla warfare in Latin America. The SWP was a
programmatic party (an ideological current that had arisen out of the
clash in the Communist International between the rising Stalinist
bureaucracy and the International Left Opposition led by Trotsky), and
one joined because you had come to agree with basic elements of that
But especially relative to other organisations on the US left - the
Communist Party, Students for a Democratic Society, Progressive Labor,
the Black Panther Party, etc. - the SWP was a party with basic
democratic procedures and wide-ranging freedom of discussion. The image
of an unending atmosphere of repression portrayed by split-offs who had
failed to convince a majority or even a large minority is belied by the
scope of the discussion bulletin and many other facts.
I personally think the programmatic party-ideological tendency type of
party, imposed on generations of revolutionists as a result of the
reactionary victory of the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia and the
Communist International, began to become outmoded with the victory of
the Cuban Revolution, and even more so with the substantial
disintegration of the Stalinist bureaucracies and parties.
But exactly what will replace it is not that clear yet, at least to me,
but will probably begin to be resolved in practice - as happened in Cuba
and has been taking shape in Venezuela - before it is resolved in theory
Barry Sheppard's story is an inspiring look back at a revolutionary
organisation - the SWP of the 1960s - that threw itself into struggles
day-in and day-out, that explained revolutionary ideas to everyone it
could reach, and that instilled in its members a revolutionary
perspective about the future of the US and the US working class and
Since the SWP has become a defeated and isolated sect in the subsequent
years, this is a vitally important salvaging of an important part of our
revolutionary heritage that was in danger of being lost.
The book is enriched by an 18-page section of photographs. There are
three indexes - for names of people, names of organisations, and
"events, ideas, and topics" that should make the volume pretty easy to
Back in the 1950s, historian Theodore Draper had this to say about the
letters collected in James P. Cannon's The First Ten Years of American
"Unlike other Communist leaders of his generation, Jim Cannon wanted to
remember. This portion of his life still lives for him because he has
not killed it within himself."
I think Sheppard has earned the same accolade for this re-conquest of a
revolutionary period and a small revolutionary organisation. Every
revolutionary, every anti-war activist, every fighter for human rights,
democracy and socialism needs to study this book.
>From Green Left Weekly, May 11, 2005.
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