[Marxism] RE: SWP and the turn to industry

Mark Lause MLause at cinci.rr.com
Sat Mar 4 08:16:23 MST 2006

I think the SWP/YSA recruited working class people but indirectly and
the nature of the organization made it impossible to hold most of what
they recruited for long.  The notion of a "petty bourgeois"
radicalization in the 1960s is a bit a myth.  

American higher education radically expanded after the GI Bill, etc.
This allowed for the selective removal from the blue collar work force
of most (if not all) of those discontented with how they were treated
there.  By the 1960s, almost everybody of high school age was actually
going to high school and about half of high school graduates went on to
college.  Notwithstanding the situation in other industrial societies,
by the time the SDS and other radical "youth" groups exploded in
membership, perhaps half of the "students" were broadly working class in
origins.  And they were people transition not simply because of age but
because they were moving from one part of the work force to another.  

Perhaps, they were also working class in their outlook, though in the
context of a wider American sensibility.  Workers in the U.S. have
always been more "individualist" and sought personalized solutions
rather than social or class solutions.  This was why many of us thought
that a more "proletarian orientation" for the Left generally would have
allowed us to do much better among students. 

A handful of working class people not from the college milieu were drawn
to the party around ideas, but they were never going to be cultivated
for leadership or to represent the organization in any serious way.

However, the group was so demanding that you ultimately faced the choice
of either staying in the party or getting a life.  This isn't unrelated
to the kinds of problems people face in really demanding jobs, btw.

Still, I still have problems with the terminology of a "cult" because
its both reductionistic and dismissive.  Reactionaries have always said
that organizations on the Left are cults of "True Believers."  The SWP
was a lot less like that most groups on the Left, and categorizing it as
a "cult"--at least in the period I knew it well--would put groups like
the Sparts, etc. even farther out there.  The joke about the CP has
always been that it's a family operation. 

The individuals I knew who joined the SWP did so because we believed a
higher good would come from it all.  Most of those who stayed because
they were personally resolute--well, maybe, "bullheaded" might be a
better term.  But it's not characteristic of people in a cult.

Again, individuals who are "joiners" can have attitudes to any
organization that resemble a "cult."  I've met some people--not just in
the SWP--who could center their lives around a chess club or a bowling
league.  That doesn't make the group a "cult."  Most organizations are
sponges for time and attention, and the size of the spounge--how much of
your time and attention they'll take--depends on the scale of purposes. 

I would suggest that the working world provides a more accurate and
honest model for what the SWP represented.  I mean particularly those
corporations that takes an active interest the lives of employees off
the job.  Since the 1980s (I suspect) demands for employee "loyalty"
under the rubric of "collegiality" and "professionalism" have risen,
even as job security, income and being taken seriously on the job have
declined.  In most places, the measure of "professional" is how much you
question management.  Organizations that define themselves as
"professional revolutionists" can certainly develop the same standards.
Certainly, the corporate model of employee governance works resembles
internal democracy about as well.

I've often said that, as a blue collar worker making the transition to
the white collar world, my experience in the SWP was invaluable.  For me
it was a kind of incidentally expensive, unpaid internship for making
that shift.  I never attend a meaningless meeting, or get motivated, or
made highly conscious of things, or much of anything else without
referencing what I encountered in the SWP.

It was less like a cult than a little corporation inspired by management
styles faddish from the 1970s onward, and redefining what "professional"
meant.  For an organization that sought to train "professional"
revolutionists what would be more logical?

Mark L.

More information about the Marxism mailing list