[Marxism] Re: "The SWP, USA, and its "turn to industry"

Ernest Tate mackenzie.tate at sympatico.ca
Mon Feb 27 13:50:44 MST 2006

<>      I've been following this thread with interest.  Subscribers 
might be interested in this excerp from my review of Barry Sheppard's 
book in the Nov/Dec., 2005 issue of "Relay", the magazine of the 
Socialist Project, (you can see the full review at: 
www.socialistproject.ca.).  I suggest the main problem we confronted 
then was essentially political and developed from a failure in 
analysis.  I also say this was connected to our conception of being the  
"nucleus of a revolutionary party" and how we viewed ourselves at that time.

Ernie Tate

From: Barry Sheppard's "The Sixties".

   ...Barry Sheppard's next volume will attempt to explain why the SWP 
since the period he covers, squandered all the promise and hopes of 
those times, to end up in the isolation it finds itself in today. As a 
contribution to a discussion of that balance sheet, I suggest a few 
critical errors began to creep into our way of thinking which set us on 
a wrong course.  Our main error was in political economy.  We developed 
a wrong assumption which postulated that as the Vietnam war ended, a 
major crises would be engendered in the American economy causing a 
concomitant rise in general class consciousness, in the "heavy 
battalions of the working class", as we used to say then.  A conviction 
in the revolutionary possibilities of the working class was fundamental 
to SWP thinking. We kept looking for the working class to enter the 
fray. But as Sheppard points out, the radicalization "did not reach a 
stage of a generalized radicalization of the working class... (and) this 
was the primary cause of the winding down of the radicalization."  
Workers, as an organized force were mainly absent.  The 1950's 
anti-communist campaign in the unions still had sufficient influence to 
make the workers very cautious;  in addition, the success of the 
government in pursuing domestic policies to keep the economy expanding, 
even if modestly, re-enforced this passivity. <>   

But in the very early seventies, inspired by some left developments in 
the Steelworkers and in the Mineworkers, the SWP began to look for 
opportunities where radical ideas might get a broader hearing and began, 
for the first time, to sell its weekly paper outside plant gates. The 
book records speculative discussion in the leadership about a possible 
rise in class consciousness.  However, when the war ended, instead of a 
major crisis, one of the longest expansions in the history of U.S. 
capitalism took place, with the working class still remaining relatively 
passive. <>    

The SWP had been looking to the kind of radicalization that had occurred 
in the 1930's with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organization 
(CIO).  It had failed to recognize the important changes which had taken 
place within U.S. capitalism, giving it more resiliency than many on the 
left thought was possible, and allowing the system to overcome what we 
thought were its inherent "contradictions".  Moreover, the inability of 
the SWP to see this and correct its mistake and to adjust its wrong 
analysis, meant the organization was unable to correct or modify its 
later, all-consuming, "industrial turn".  <>   

 Members were strongly encouraged to give up their jobs or school and go 
into the factories, a tactic driven forward by the leadership in such a 
single-minded manner as to virtually ensure many of the members would 
abandon the organization. After the members had been told by Jack Barnes 
that the "workers would march out of the plants under the red banner of 
Communism", trying to function as socialists in an atmosphere of a low 
level of class consciousness, was a shock. The leadership had set them 
an impossible task, and increasingly blamed them for the problems in 
implementing the new "turn". (I should enter a mea culpa here: I too 
supported the new orientation, but I later came to the conclusion that 
the way it was being implemented was extremely destructive.)  <>    

I think these problems were also compounded by the way we viewed 
ourselves as an organization. Over time, we began to change our 
definition of the organization.  When I joined, the leaders were clear 
that even though the word "party" was in the title of the SWP, it was 
not by any means a party, in the Marxist sense of that word, that is of 
being a mass working class party, or a party that had the support of an 
important part of the working class - the correct designation, in my 
opinion, of what constitutes a revolutionary party.  The SWP never got 
further - like all the groups on the left who want to lead the working 
class to socialism - than being a propaganda group. The major part of 
its energy was consumed in explaining complex ideas to small numbers of 
people.  In 1965, the SWP was very clear on that reality.  "We knew we 
were a small revolutionary propaganda group, not yet a real 
revolutionary party", Barry Sheppard says. (p 146)  <>    

However, as we moved into the 1970's, this concept of "propaganda group" 
became more and more blurred.  It began to be replaced with the notion 
that the SWP itself indeed was "the party", and that it was within the 
range of possibilities that it could win the working class directly to 
itself, instead of recognizing that such a party had yet to be built and 
would most likely be quite different from what the SWP was then.  <>   

 As I have mentioned earlier in this article, the SWP, for its size, had 
a large superstructure, and was greatly admired for this in the FI.  
This was comprised of an impressive headquarters in New York, which 
provided space for its print-shop and book publishing operation and 
offices for the staff for a weekly newspaper and its international and 
theoretical publications.  Its branches across the country each had full 
time organizers. At its peak, I estimate, it had around sixty people - 
not well paid - on staff. A major part of the SWP's resources were 
allocated to keeping the organization functioning.  I remember Joe 
Hansen, who had been Leon Trotsky's secretary in Mexico in the 1930s and 
then a central leader of the party, responsible for its international 
work, wryly commenting that they had an apparatus and facilities for an 
organization ten times its size.

<> Definitions such as "nucleus" or "embryo" as in "nucleus or embryo of 
a revolutionary party" started to be more and more used to describe the 
organization.  Throughout the book, Barry uses these terms to describe 
the SWP, but I question their usefulness. Ernest Mandel, for many years 
the main theoretician of the FI, also used these terms, but in a 
journalistic way,  perhaps to describe the reality of the FI at that 
time, in his 1983 address on "vanguard parties" at the University of 

 <>But how do we then deal with the conundrum of defining the various 
socialist groups on the left to determine, in advance, which of them 
will become a revolutionary party? When these terms are applied to 
political organizations, there is an implication of what will take place 
in the future. How do we know?  Surely, only history will determine 
which organization was "the nucleus" or "the embryo" of a revolutionary 
party, a qualification Mandel makes? In Marxist political economy, 
should there now be a new category of political organization? For those 
groups who call themselves "revolutionary", aren't they all simply 
propaganda groups, some more revolutionary than others? Are there 
objective criteria for determining what is a "nucleus" or "embryo" of a 
revolutionary party?  A group's programme and its relationship to the 
working class are very important, but surely it is what a socialist 
group does that has the most importance. 

Using such expressions as "nucleus" and "embryo", only cloud our 
thinking and are a form of self-delusion.  For those of us who were 
supporters of the SWP, our emphasis on building the organization and 
seeing "the party" as a solution to everything allowed political economy 
to become less and less important.  

The SWP has paid a heavy price for getting its politics - and I believe 
its organizational concepts --wrong.  Barry Sheppard has made an 
outstanding contribution to the discussion in the left about why this 
happened.  I look forward to his second volume.


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