by Dayne Goodwin
September 27, 2011
Alan Wald wraps his review of the recently published memoirs of Peter Camejo and Les Evans, two leaders of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party from the 1960s into the beginning of the 1980s, into an essay on ‘what went wrong’ with the SWP [“A Winter’s Tale Told in Memoirs,” in Against the Current magazine July-August 2011]. The ‘what went wrong with the SWP’ discussion is most important to those of us grew up politically under SWP tutelage and who continue to be politically active with a socialist perspective, aware that there will be no socialist revolution without creation of an effective revolutionary organization.
Almost twenty years ago Alan summarized and evaluated the SWP experience in a presentation to the 1993 Solidarity educational conference titled “The End of American Trotskyism?.” This presentation was published in three parts in successive issues of Against the Current magazine in 1994 and 1995 (part 1 in ATC 53 September/October 1994; part 2 in ATC 54 January/February 1995; part 3 in ATC 55 March/April 1995) and it was also published as the last chapter in the book “Trotskyism in the United States: Historical Essays and Reconsiderations” put together by Wald and Paul LeBlanc (published in 1996 by Humanities Press International).
I am sympathetic with the brief foundational statement Alan made in this earlier article:
“The goal of socialist political cadres must be the development of a broad and democratically functioning team leadership, based on an organization institutionalizing multiple tendencies and pluralism, that balances out strengths and weaknesses in order to sustain a movement diachronically as well as synchronically.”
My version of the statement would be different: “The goal of socialist political cadres must be the development of a broad team leadership working together in a democratically functioning organization, practically united in strategic perspective and tactical projects, allowing multiple tendencies and pluralism, thus balancing out strengths and weaknesses over time and in different places.”
In his current article, Alan indulges in a more passionate review of ‘what went wrong.’ He balances this more personal view of the latter ’60s to early ’80s SWP experience with what I consider to be appropriate deference to the continuing work of Paul LeBlanc and to the work of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency of which LeBlanc was a central leader. The FIT published the monthly Bulletin in Defense of Marxism (for over a decade and then less frequently until 1999) and three books/collections of documents on the SWP experience. LeBlanc’s review of the Camejo and Evans’ memoirs “Making Sense of Trotskyism in the United States. Two Memoirs” is available at (prior to its publication in Revolutionary History magazine) .
MY EXPERIENCE WITH THE YOUNG SOCIALIST ALLIANCE AND SOCIALIST WORKERS PARTY
I was recruited to the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in the spring of 1969 in Logan, Utah by Sterne McMullen who had arrived in Utah in the fall of 1968 fresh from the battle for Telegraph Avenue and several years experience in the Oakland/Berkeley YSA/SWP. Sterne had been hired on the faculty of the English department at Utah State University with a three year contract running through the spring of 1971. Sterne was a great admirer of Peter Camejo and after reading the text of Peter’s speech on “How to make a revolution in the United States” in the May 30, 1969 issue of The Militant, I became a Camejo enthusiast too.
At nearly 23, I was a bit older than the growing number of young activists being recruited to the YSA from campuses around the country. From high school in Utah I had entered the School of International Service at American University in Washington, D.C. on a full-ride scholarship. Going to AU was not the result of clear career aspirations and I didn’t even know that the SIS was dedicated primarily to turning out career Foreign Service Officers for the State Department. My major motivation was to get far away from the stifling cultural climate of the Utah-hegemonic LDS (Mormon) church in which I had grown up. Politically I hadn’t yet seriously questioned the right-wing Republicanism of that culture and I proudly sported my Goldwater for President button during Freshman orientation in the fall of 1964.
Three years later I walked away from the SIS program as an opponent of the Vietnam war and U.S. foreign policy in general. I had benefited too much from the good liberal arts education and a solid introduction to the realities of world politics. Simply being a young college student in D.C. in those years had radicalized me but with friends from rural Utah getting drafted and going to Vietnam I also had influences like a 1965 letter from my year-older friend Cordell Nyman who wrote from Nam that “Everything the government is saying about Vietnam is a lie. These people don’t want us here, were not helping them. We’re just killing lots of people and fucking up their country.”
Other intense experiences contributed to my political about-face. Brainy fellow student Ted Joffe took me into his confidence as he used our professors’ connections with the State and Defense departments to bamboozle staffers and secretaries and get access to classified documents for his intensive study of Vietnam (i.e. he had a large map of Vietnam covering most of his dorm room ceiling). In early January of 1965 when we all turned in our end-of-first-semester mandatory research papers, Ted’s methods resulted in an SIS scandal. Far more unsettling to me was Ted’s thesis that the Johnson administration had been preparing for major military intervention into Vietnam all during the election campaign against ‘warmonger’ Goldwater and that the military escalation would begin at the first available pretext following Johnson’s inauguration.
Another experience was spending the summer of 1965 in Pakistan, primarily in the Peshawar area, where I had the opportunity to meet and spend time with U.S. diplomatic personnel and I watched a war break out between India and Pakistan. This experience led me into an educational focus on South Asia during my junior year but it also was the particular precipitant to my departure from AU. Because of my personal experiences in Pakistan, including hanging out with young military personnel at the ‘secret’ airbase near Peshawar (from which CIA U2 pilot Francis Gary Powers departed on his famous failed flight in 1960), I knew that the SIS faculty expert on South Asia, Donald Heimsath, was misleading students about U.S. policy in South Asia.
I returned to Logan and joined the very small but growing radical circles engaged in antiwar and civil rights activism, not sure what to do about the military draft to which I was now exposed. I worked odd jobs from picking fruit to both blue collar and white collar work at the University, a secondary consideration to my main concerns of radical activism, keeping up with what was going on around the world, and trying to figure out what to do with my life. In the spring of 1968 I was back in D.C. as three of us drove out to spend weeks participating in the Poor Peoples March on Washington.
In little isolated Logan, Utah I was ‘overdetermined’ into radical prominence, participating in the production of two ‘underground’ newspapers (“The Pot” in 1967-68 and “Genesis” in 1968-69) and helping to organize an SDS chapter in the summer and fall of 1968. I was involved with the Peace and Freedom Party election campaign in the fall of 1968 when Sterne aggressively made his presence known with large ads in the USU student newspaper for the Halstead/Boutelle SWP presidential campaign and several public educational talks held at his house. Sterne was the first person I met who proudly said that he was a Marxist, a revolutionary socialist.
Building the SWP in Logan, Utah
I took leadership in welcoming Sterne into the radical community in Logan. I learned that Sterne had come to Logan against the wishes of SWP leadership who wanted him to stay where there was an existing SWP branch. Sterne rationalized accepting the teaching job at USU as an opportunity to spread support for workers revolution into the vast western hinterlands. Sterne’s pioneering spirit resonated with me and significantly modeled that even as a member of the SWP you could keep your own counsel about life choices.
The growth of the movements for social change, the success of the YSA and SWP in those years, and our accomplishments in building a strong Logan YSA and a regional antiwar coalition solidified my commitment to the politics of the SWP. In August 1971 Sterne moved to Denver to join the SWP branch there. By late August I was looking forward to functioning as ‘organizer’ of the relatively large and confident Logan YSA when I was unhappily bludgeoned by telephone calls from YSA regional organizer Steve Bloom and from Dave Frankel in the national office in NYC. They told me that there was a political emergency in the California Bay area and that the SWP/YSA needed me to move there to help out. They both answered my repeated requests for an explanation of this urgent situation with ‘this can’t be discussed over the telephone.’ Against my strong opposition to moving they argued that if I was ‘a serious revolutionary’ I must go to California immediately.
I was living on a minimal income, working as a cook at “The Aggie Grill” (named to appeal to the Utah State University “Aggie” campus community), and had no means to get to California. Then a USU student from California who was a member of the Logan YSA said he was willing to drive his pickup out to the Bay Area and I decided to go.
Although I had read through some of the 1971 SWP pre-convention printed discussion and was aware of the “For a Proletarian Orientation” tendency, i did not see them as a danger to the party. I understood that the organization of dissenting tendencies was not unusual. The PO tendency was a small minority, maybe ten percent, clearly out of step with the vast majority of the SWP.
But I had not gone to the convention and must have missed a combative atmosphere. Upon arriving in California, it came as a shock to me to find that I was among some fifty young campus-oriented antiwar activist YSAers from all around the country who had been dispatched to Oakland-Berkeley to numerically overwhelm the PO-tendency supporters who were in the majority in the YSA there. So this was the “emergency situation?” Many among us were not pleased and proud of being used in this organizational maneuver. While most were eager to demonstrate their loyalty to the party, I also associated with those who complained that we were crudely expected to be simple “hand-raisers” for the party-line majority.
The Northern California Peace Action Coalition
I was assigned by the SWP/YSA to work on the staff of the Northern California Peace Action Coalition; I was to work on finances and fundraising. The first day I reported to work at the NCPAC office in San Francisco I was given a car and directed to drive out to a psychologist’s home in Sausalito to pick up a large donation. It was explained that the CEO of Security National Bank, Pete Stark, had arranged to make easy loans of one to three thousand dollars to the antiwar movement simply on the signature of ‘middle-class liberals’ with a decent income. NCPAC would pay back the loans from the large collection at the next demonstration. The huge April 24 demonstration of the previous spring (where I had sold large numbers of Militants) had been financed this way and I was told that it had worked out well.
As the Sausalito psychologist signed the papers taking ultimate responsibility to pay back a loan of $2,000 which would be given to NCPAC by Security National Bank, he asked for and got my assurance that the antiwar movement would definitely pay back the loan. The next day I took my first call from an angry April 24 donor who wanted to know when we were going to pay back the $3,000 loan we had secured on his name. More troubling, I found a list of dozens of unpaid April 24 loans in a drawer in ‘my’ desk. Some of the other staffers told me not to worry about ‘ripping off the liberals’ but I thought that attitude was a big mistake that would probably blow up in our faces. I was gradually shifted into doing other aspects of the antiwar work.
Later I was contacting people seeking organizational sponsors for the fall antiwar conference we were organizing (which we expected to endorse our call for a demonstration on November 7). When I talked with “Popeye” Jackson of the United Prisoners Union he said they would be happy to endorse the conference if UPU could put on a workshop. I thought that was a reasonable request but told Popeye I would check with other organizers and call him back.
I was upset when NCPAC director Roger Rudenstein told me that ‘we can’t have a workshop on every issue under the sun.’ George Jackson had been killed at San Quentin a few weeks earlier. The Attica uprising had just been drowned in blood. The prisoners movement was on the front page of the The Militant. I was sure that Roger was making a political mistake, but what should I do about it?
Working at NCPAC was somewhat like working at a regular job – although for a minimal ‘volunteer stipend’ of $40 a week that didn’t always get paid in full. I had been assigned to work on the NCPAC staff and report to Roger by the same SWP/YSA which had made Roger the director of NCPAC – but NCPAC was a separate antiwar organization. How should I go about questioning Roger’s decision?
The previous summer I had been at the SWP’s inaugural Oberlin conference. I attended the two-session educational by Farrell Dobbs on ‘the organizational principles of the party.’ This educational was mainly a historical narrative of the party’s experience with dissenting minorities. Dobbs strongly drove two lessons into my head: 1) every faction that has opposed the party’s line and leadership has been exposed as petit-bourgeois and happily gotten rid of, 2) the first step in the development of these petit-bourgeois heresies is for a disgruntled member to start grumbling to another member. A major emphasis of the latest revision of the party’s proletarian behavior code was that upstanding members only bring up political disagreements during the appropriate period of preconvention discussion and they do not otherwise privately communicate with other individual members about their political disagreements.
I learned that there would be a NCPAC staff meeting in a few days. I asked around and was told that the entire NCPAC staff of around thirty people were all members of the SWP and/or YSA. Carefully not discussing my concern with anyone ahead of time, at the meeting I got the floor at an appropriate moment and asked ‘what is the proper procedure for disputing a decision made by Roger’? ‘What was the theory of NCPAC’s organizational structure and decision-making process’?
All hell broke loose. One of the older NCPAC leaders challenged me to explain what I thought the organizational structure should be. I said I wasn’t sure but that I would be satisfied with democratic centralism. She responded ‘that’s what all the ultralefts say.’ Afterward I learned that there was one staffer who did media work who was not in the SWP/YSA, I was damned for embarrassing the SWP in front of a non-member.
A meeting was set up for me to discuss my concerns about the prisoners workshop issue with Roger and other NCPAC leaders. I felt vindicated when Roger’s initial decision was reversed. I was invited to a meeting with Roger and the organizers of the San Francisco and Oakland/Berkeley SWP branches to discuss my organizational questions. Roger explained that he did not have an explicit organizational theory for the functioning of the antiwar coalition itself or comprehensively even for it’s relationship with the SWP, he was just trying to replicate the way they had done things in the first largely SWP-administered antiwar coalition office in New York City. No one seemed confident to answer my questions and I was told that sometime in the coming months the party’s national antiwar director Ed Shaw would come to town and I could meet with him and ask him my questions.
To put my criticisms in perspective, NCPAC and the national umbrella NPAC were doing a tremendously effective job of building the antiwar movement. The huge spring 1971 mobilizations turned out to be the peak of the anti-Vietnam War movement. Fred Feldman and other SWP members who were the hardest working segment of the local coalition succeeded in making the rally at the November 7 demonstration of “only” about 70,000 the first major Bay Area antiwar rally that wasn’t disrupted by an ultraleft takeover of the stage. SWP rally speaker Stephanie Coontz was excellent but it was the right-on Bring All The Troops Home Now!/Out Now! politics she expressed that aroused the crowd.
In the NCPAC office I had gotten to know Celia Stodola, Alan Wald’s companion, who was doing labor outreach work for NCPAC. I wanted to learn more about “FAPO” and their views so I made a point of ignoring the signals to shun these ‘dissidents’ and developed a friendly relationship with Celia and then with Alan. I learned that the PO supporters called us new arrivals “the Lenin levy,” comparing us to the mass recruitment campaign ‘in honor of comrade Lenin’ of several hundred thousand new members engineered by Stalin in the three months following Lenin’s death (which nearly doubled the size of the CPSU ). Being seriously compared to “the Lenin Levy” was not justified but I couldn’t deny that it had some traction metaphorically.
My prior experience with the SWP had left me in awe of this amazing organization. Besides Sterne, I had only met Les Evans and Kipp Dawson (when they came to Logan in summer 1969) until going to that first 1970 Oberlin conference where I listened to the impressive series of evening talks by Barry Sheppard, Peter Camejo, George Breitman, Derrick Morrison, Mary-Alice Waters and Jack Barnes. Then there were classes taught by people with a lifetime of revolutionary experience like Farrell Dobbs, Frank Lovell and George Novack. In other classes or workshops, I saw younger party leaders like Caroline Lund and Betsy Stone in action. It took strong motivation five months later to drive through winter blizzards to get to the YSA convention in New York City. The YSA leaders were clearly in training but their awkwardness hadn’t dented my absolute confidence in the SWP.
Resignation from the SWP
Considering how I was coerced into moving to the Bay Area, and some of my experiences there, I began losing confidence in the organizational functioning of the SWP/YSA. I had made up my mind to carry through on my commitment to build the November 7, 1971 demonstration and then resign from the YSA. My two-sentence written resignation simply said that I had decided to resign and that I was not prepared to be “a disciplined member”. I also resigned because I had made up my mind to return to Utah and I was dubious that I could amicably get the SWP/YSA to ratify and accept my decision. After several months of volunteer stipend income, living on food stamps and barely able to pay rent, I was really broke. I needed a job, found work at Monarch Steel in Oakland and started to save up some money.
I stayed in Oakland for a few months and then rented an apartment in Berkeley. Initially I stayed away from the SWP/YSA but enjoyed occasionally running into individual members. One member saw me reading Intercontinental Press at a laundromat and was surprised that I seemed to be reading it from cover to cover. ‘Nobody does that,’ he said. I continued studying revolutionary politics, at first using the public library then paying for a library card at UCBerkeley and patronizing local bookstores including the SWP’s “Granma Books.” I attended radical events, including some SWP forums, with mixed feelings about no longer selling The Militant since I had been good at it. My support for the general political views of the SWP/YSA was stronger than ever, reinforced through interactions before and after November 7 with the vibrant left-wing political topography in the Bay area.
In April 1972 Sterne and Kathy visited in the Bay Area from Denver and we went to the national antiwar demonstration in Los Angeles together. Sterne was hankering to return to California so at the end of the summer Sterne and Kathy moved into my Berkeley apartment and I moved back to Logan. Once back in Logan among old friends and comrades, I rejoined the YSA. My view that the SWP was the best revolutionary socialist organization in the U.S. was now coupled with private skepticism about the party’s organizational methods. This organizational skepticism was reinforced by the panoply of experiences I had as an indigenous local member involved with an eventually larger number of members coming from SWP branches elsewhere as we established an SWP branch in Salt Lake City in fall 1976. National leaders of the SWP tried to make us believe they were asking for our advice and consulting with us as they implemented decisions about the organization of the new branch that had been made in New York City months before.
Among the political developments that led to the establishment of an SWP branch in Salt Lake City was a side-effect of the SWP’s suit against the FBI for political harassment and repressing freedom of speech. One batch of pre-trial disclosure documents accidentally included a few pages of CIA documents which indicated the CIA had illegally been involved in domestic spying on activists at three U.S. universities. I remember that one of the three was Brown in Rhode Island, and one was Utah State University.
I was roused by a phone call early one January 1976 morning from a local Logan Herald-Journal daily newspaper reporter. She asked me how I felt about being spied on by the CIA. I didn’t know what she was talking about; I said that I had just awakened and would call her back. I called the national office in New York and learned that the SWP had held a news conference the day before revealing the CIA documents. They hadn’t bothered to tell any of us in Logan.
The Logan YSA did a good job of scandalizing the CIA spying and getting visibility in the regional news media centered in Salt Lake City. We were able to recruit several leading Salt Lake activists to the YSA, including Harry Baker who had been a well-known Maoist, a veteran of SDS and the Progressive Labor Party. I moved to Salt Lake, helped to set up a Salt Lake YSA and worked closely with Harry who en passant damaged my confidence that the SWP was always politically right-on if not always organizationally right-on. I had to agree with Harry that the SWP’s position then that there was no justification for particular support to any one of the three rebel movements in Angola versus the others (among the MPLA, FNLA, UNITA) was mistaken, the Cuban-supported MPLA was clearly preferable.
The “Turn” Toward Community Branches
The organization of the Salt Lake SWP branch during 1976 came at about the peak of ‘the sixties’ radicalization in U.S. politics. Revolutionary socialist organizations had been growing throughout the 1960s era of civil rights and radical upsurge, the Vietnam war, and then the U.S. government was further weakened and discredited by the Watergate and related scandals and exposes. The SWP leadership expected ongoing dynamic growth. Establishment of the Salt Lake Branch was part of a new “turn” of establishing many more branches, breaking up large branches in major cities into several smaller branches, and projecting an era of expansion based on proliferating and growing community-based branches.
Instead the SWP stopped growing. By 1978 we were making another ‘turn’ aimed at ‘immediately organizing to get a large majority of the membership of the SWP into industry and the industrial trade unions’, seeing the way forward based on deeper proletarianization of the membership. In order to become a truly communist party of “worker-bolsheviks” it was necessary that practically every member get a blue-collar job in an industry organized by certain key industrial unions. Concentrating on this primary goal, the SWP turned inward, started shrinking and began to consolidate into fewer branches.
It was challenging for the largely college-recruited latter-’70s SWP to attempt to become rooted in blue-collar unions. The SWP leadership motivated the turn by claiming party members must rush into the unions or get left behind by the fast-approaching industrial workers’ revolutionary upsurge. Sterne had moved back to Salt Lake and found work as a machinist. In a late night conversation with visiting party leader and house guest Fred Halstead, Sterne said that he hadn’t seen any sign of a revolutionary workers upsurge. Fred told Sterne that the ‘turn to industry’ had an unspoken goal of getting at least hundreds of SWP members into good paying union jobs which would increase party income.
Meanwhile the brigades of SWP members who weren’t just leaving the party and were rushing into industrial workplaces, were taking casualties as many became disillusioned and discouraged. Sterne and I kept discussing whether or not the SWP was being led astray, becoming hopelessly isolated and sectarian.
My experience in the SWP had convinced me that there was no possibility for rank-and-file bottom-up democratic reformation of SWP policies and perspectives. At the 1979 SWP convention I was sitting on the lawn outside the convention center at Oberlin University talking with Alan Wald when Jack Barnes walked by and gave me a fraternizing-with-the-enemy scowl. Alan and I were agreeing that it had been absurd in 1971 to try to force every SWP member, including those rooted in industrial unions, to become a student or worker at a college campus – especially now that we were engaged in a 180-degree turn to leave the campus and get into industrial unions. Both of these turns had cost the SWP the loss of members who were politically dedicated but not prepared to fundamentally change their lives. It would have been better to encourage those who were able and willing to lead in implementing a turn, treat them as praiseworthy and exemplary, but not drive out those who weren’t prepared to change their lives at each party turn.
The 1981 Convention of the SWP
To a rank-and-file member, the 1981 convention gave some signs of hopeful change. The SWP had been embarassed by its obviously sectarian and workerist abstention from the first national ‘U.S. Out of Central America’ demonstration earlier in the spring. This large and successful antiwar and solidarity mobilization ended up being led primarily by the Workers World Party as the SWP condemned the demonstration in advance for not having major labor union involvement and not being sufficiently proletarian. Afterward there was an extremely unusual self-criticism in The Militant. As far as I know, the 1981 SWP convention was unique in inviting other revolutionary socialist organizations to be involved. Both the WWP and the Communist Workers Party tabled inside the convention grounds. There was a WWP speaker at the major convention rally.
On the other hand, Peter Camejo was nowhere to be seen. I was among many asking where he was all during the 1981 SWP convention. At the previous, August 1979 convention he had been tumultously welcomed as a conquering hero bringing news from the front, from the triumph in Nicaragua and the coming revolution in El Salvador. Now we were told that he had resigned from the party and ‘returned to his family’s bourgeois roots’. Unbelievable, what a shock! But explanations from every source I could explore were all the same. Peter had decided to leave the party and make money.
At the 1981 convention there were two minority tendencies challenging SWP leadership perspectives on key issues. I was impressed especially by the Lovell-Bloom tendency’s criticisms and suggestions on basic tactical issues and by the Weinstein-Henderson tendency’s defense of the historic Trotskyist strategic perspective of permanent revolution. Mary-Alice Waters’ organizational report said that the SWP had ‘bent the stick too far’ in requiring every member to be an industrial worker. She said that it had been a mistake to make Militant bookstores into party-line bookstores. The earlier model of the SWP’s “Granma” bookstore in Berkeley as a general radical left bookstore and gathering place should be rehabilitated and spread across the country. The party was going to reverse course and again actively participate in the political issues and life of activists and the left generally.
The party’s commitment to this step back from sectarian isolation lasted only a few months and then it was full steam ahead on the course of a steadily shrinking party of “worker-Bolsheviks.” I learned that ‘behind the scene’ the SWP leadership was being narrowed to exclude anyone not fully supporting Jack Barnes’ perspective of blue-collar industrialization combined with an effort to be seen as pro-Cuban Communists and not as Trotskyists. The stream of members walking away from the party became a river of hundreds.
MY Final Resignation from the Party
I resigned from the SWP in the summer of 1982. I remained a sympathizer, making a regular financial contribution, attending forums and reading the party publications. I was wondering what would happen at the 1983 SWP convention as the two 1981 minority tendencies had apparently united and intended to fight to change the course of the SWP. About the time that preconvention discussion would have begun in the spring of 1983, it was announced that the convention had been canceled. The party that had maintained regular conventions during WWII and the incarceration of its central leadership, supposedly had to postpone the constitutionally mandated 1983 convention because of a lawsuit from an expelled former member in Los Angeles.
ALAN’S EXPERIENCE WITH THE PROLETARIAN ORIENTATION TENDENCY AND THE DEGENERATION OF THE SWP
Alan Wald and I kept in infrequent contact with occasional snail mail. When Alan was expelled from the SWP during the purges of 1983 – 1984 I was among those on his mailing list to receive a typewritten blow-by-blow account of what happened. Despite being relatively isolated from the nationwide SWP as a sympathizing non-member in Utah, I belatedly heard of a mounting number of trials and expulsions of SWP members around the country – some well known life-long members. Then in the year following the cancellation of the 1983 SWP convention, the expulsions became a Stalinist-style purge of apparently every known dissenter and independent thinker in the party. The actual circumstances of many trials and expulsions were outrageous, clearly just pretexts for getting rid of targeted individual members.
It is apparent that Alan was shocked by the party’s treatment of the PO tendency in 1971. Obviously referring to himself, Alan says “For novices, joining a political opposition tendency in the SWP was something of a bungee jump. I had no idea that Barnes and others…would see the debate as a first class opportunity to hone their skills in knife fighting.” I agree with Alan that the SWP’s treatment of the 1971 Proletarian Orientation tendency was a precursor manifestation of overdone centralism and disinterest in encouraging a democratic, egalitarian and inclusive internal party life. It was the first dramatic manifestation of the fundamental organizational direction of the new Barnes leadership (later the Internationalist tendency of 1974 was brusquely expelled). I don’t think that the treatment of the PO minority was unprecedented.
In Barry Sheppard’s 2006 memoir “The Party, Volume 1 The Sixties” he discusses the fact that when he got involved in the SWP at the end of the 1950s and through much of the 1960s there was a troublesome minority called the “Weissites” after Murray and Myra Tanner Weiss. When I got involved a decade later, the Weissites were gone and never mentioned to me. I wasn’t at all sympathetic to the early-1960s James Robertson and Tim Wohlforth minorities I did learn about but I was curious to learn much later that Myra Tanner Weiss, the SWP’s three-time candidate for Vice President of the U.S. in 1952, 1956 and 1960, had objected to their treatment by the party. It wasn’t until Salt Lake born Myra Tanner Weiss died in the fall of 1997 and the Salt Lake Solidarity Branch, at my initiative , held a political memorial for her that I started to learn about the Weissites and the internal state of the SWP in the decade before my time.
My initiative for a memorial was based on hearing about one organized by the Los Angeles Solidarity branch and on my friendship with Myra’s peace activist niece Deb Sawyer who lives in Salt Lake. Through Deb we were able to involve Myra’s surviving siblings in the Salt Lake memorial. I got to know Edmond Kovacs who came to Utah from Los Angeles and spoke at the memorial. I had known Edmond as “Theodore Edwards” who had played a significant educational leadership role in the SWP. He had been a close and longtime friend and comrade of Myra’s and he gave me a sympathetic account of ‘the Weissites’ and some written material about their experiences in the SWP. Peter Camejo says in his 1995 essay “Return to Materialism”: “At the time I joined the SWP in the late 1950s there was a loose grouping in the SWP that the Dobbs leadership referred to as “petty bourgeois” and that was eventually driven out, called the Weissites (named after Murry Wiess a leader of the SWP).”
“Democratic centralism,” the organizational theory of revolutionary socialist parties attempting to follow the model of Lenin and the Bolsheviks, can be more or less democratic and more or less centralized over a spectrum of possibility (and should be able to appropriately adjust to conjunctural conditions). It seems to me that even the founders of the SWP were not fully aware of the democratic Lenin that Paul LeBlanc explicates in his 1993 book Lenin and the Revolutionary Party [Humanities Press International]. Lenin became seriously ill and died so soon after the Bolshevik revolution that it was Zinoviev and then Stalin who defined democratic centralism in practice for revolutionaries around the world. I’ve learned that Trotsky had to restrain James P. Cannon from more brutal centralism in the Shachtman split of 1940. Cannon protested “Don’t strangle the party” in response to the Dobbs-Kerry tightening of party centralism in the mid-1960s. The succeeding Barnes’ leadership moved further toward the very centralized and undemocratic end of the spectrum. Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry were certainly party ‘hards’ in the sense which Les Evans describes Barnes in his memoir , yet in November 1979 Kerry was protesting against the excessive centralization of the Barnes’ regime “If Ever You Surrender Your Right to Criticize, You’re Dead!”.
There was much about the SWP that was encouraging and positive, for me most basically the opportunity to promote an anti-Stalinist revolutionary socialism. By 1977 I had participated in five straight national SWP conventions and conferences, five straight national YSA conventions, and two YSA national committee meetings in New York City. From what I knew, I considered the SWP to be by far the most effective revolutionary socialist organization, but it was clear to me that the SWP was a centrally-controlled top-down relatively undemocratic organization and that the Barnes leadership would not tolerate opposition tendencies. When it became evident that the SWP was in crisis at the end of the 1970s, I had no confidence that there could be any democratic resolution of the crisis coming from outside the existing Barnes leadership. What was desperately needed in the late 1970s and early 1980s was a thoroughly open and democratic party discussion of ‘what is to be done’ even if it eventuated in a change of the current party leadership. The 1981 SWP convention gave me some hope that this might still be possible. Jack Barnes chose to close that possibility. I stopped supporting the SWP in 1984 as it was becoming a sectarian cult around Barnes.
I don’t agree with Alan’s description of the SWP’s 1971 perspective as predicting “a permanent deepening and spread of the 1960s student radicalization as the premise for its strategy.” My understanding is that, as George Breitman explained at the 1970 Oberlin conference, the SWP leadership saw the radicalization of minorities, youth, students and others as the beginning of a coming general working class radicalization. In his critique of Alan’s article, Louis Proyect quotes the brilliant SWP National Committee member Robert DesVerney (“Robert Vernon’) explaining to young Louis in the latter 1960s that “The way the SWP will recruit workers is by recruiting lots and lots of students”.
It’s a shame that the incoming SWP leadership apparently didn’t assimilate and definitely did not stick with DesVerney’s understanding. Barnes’ increasingly workerist turn a decade later was partially rationalized with the claim that non-SWP radicals and leftists were all moving to the right and deserting the working class (they were comparable to counterrevolutionary Cuban ‘Marielistas’). As I recall, there was a written contribution to the 1981 SWP convention discussion by a “Rob” From Tucson criticizing the Barnes’ leadership argument that the industrial working class was radicalizing while every other social layer was moving to the right. Rob asked ‘Weren’t we always taught that workers will radicalize within a context of radicalizing allies outside the unionized working class, including among the middle class? That a working class radicalization will bring along middle class allies?’
I spent the summer of 1975 back in the Bay Area where Farrell Dobbs was working on his series of books on developments in the Teamsters union after the Trotskyist-led 1934 Minneapolis general strike, often researching and writing in the branch office. I heard second-hand scuttlebutt from a young Dobbs relative that inclines me to accept Peter’s comment in North Star that “the older, primarily worker-based segment of the party had grown concerned that the SWP would be changed by its newer members, most of whom were middle-class youth.”
Alan thinks that Barnes learned from older SWPers that “wavering was a trait of middle-class intellectuals, while certainty was the stance of he-man proletarians…Somehow, with no connection to the working class but aided by the support of Dobbs, Barnes acquired a mystique of proletarian authority…[that] had a special impact on the SWP members…because so many joining the YSA and SWP aspired to cast off middle and even upper-class backgrounds.” I think Alan here reveals a key to Barnes’ success in dominating and eventually achieving personal control of the SWP.
I think that Alan goes overboard in his retrospective condemnation of the SWP for its “peculiar construal of ‘Leninism.’” The SWP’s understanding of Leninism was as good as any of the other contemporary revolutionary socialist groups claiming a Leninist mantle. You can see typical references to the “vanguard” in Camejo’s 1970 “How to make a revolution in the U.S.” speech. Contrary to Alan’s statement, we did not think that the people of the Soviet Union “would” free themselves of police-state rule while retaining the USSR’s nationalized property relations. We hoped and worked for that outcome while well aware that Trotsky’s original explication of this view also included the possibility that the CPSU could lead the way to a restoration of capitalism.
I do agree with Alan that “Barnes in particular seemed to think that the Party could be played like a piano.” One of the Barnes recruits from Carleton College, Dave Wulp, once told me that Jack had a special ability to make an individual feel very important, to inspire, motivate and direct people by assuring them that they were playing a crucial role in the coming revolution. Barnes was clearly and steadily building a group around him that was reliably loyal, using all the perquisites of party leadership that Alan mentions. A favorite phrase of the Barnes group was that ‘you can’t suck strategy out of your thumb’ – you had to base strategy on objective reality. I observed Barnes’ becoming increasingly empowered to argue whatever he wanted, without fear of contradiction from within the SWP.
I agree with Alan that “the true forte of the Barnes Group was skill at taking advantage of a factional mentality, not political genius.” Certainly Jack Barnes gets the primary credit for the destruction of the SWP and the “outrage” for the expulsions of “George and Dorothea Breitman, George Weissman, Frank and Sarah Lovell, James Kutcher, Nat and Sylvia Weinstein, Jean Tussey, Asher and Ruth Harer, and so many more.” Because I thought that the mid-70s SWP had the potential to actually become a revolutionary party, I think that Barnes’ is accountable not only for an outrage but for a crime against the working class.
According to some writing by John Cox on Louis Proyect’s marxmail list a few years ago, by the latter 1990s Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters lived a very comfortable life style, apparently using SWP resources they had privatized. As I recall, Cox said that he had been a member of the SWP National Committee at that time (either that or the Political Committee) and they would routinely wait hours for Barnes to show up at scheduled meetings.
Alan did not know Peter Camejo
Louis Proyect’s critique of Alan’s article begins with a sharp defense of Peter Camejo against Alan’s criticism. I agree with Louis that Alan’s article presents a drastic underestimation and misunderstanding of Camejo. Alan does acknowledge that Peter was writing during his fatal illness and did not finish his memoir North Star but it seems in this article that Alan’s evaluation of Peter is based entirely on the text of North Star [Haymarket Books, 2010]. Although Alan never worked with Peter, anyone who knew of Peter knew that he was primarily an activist and speaker, not a writer – and certainly not an accomplished literary scholar like Alan.
I can understand Alan’s disappointment with the superficial treatment of Peter’s SWP experience in North Star. Alan seems to suspect that this may be the result of the failure to see problems “until one’s own ox is gored” – a syndrome Alan describes in the third part of his early ’90s essay. Actually it is the wonderful qualities Peter had in abundance that make North Star a book aimed primarily at encouraging activism among the many and not a lingering lament over old grievances with in-depth analysis of what went wrong and who was to blame. Peter as a political activist was always an inspiring optimist, accentuating the positive and encouraging mass action.
In his remembrance of fifty years working with Peter, Barry Sheppard says “Peter was the best public speaker of our generation in the SWP and YSA. In fact, he was among the best public speakers who emerged in the entire youth radicalization. He was equally fluent in both Spanish and English, having grown up in both the United States and Venezuela. He spoke without notes, and had the ability to explain ideas in terms wide audiences could grasp, and a quick wit. He communicated his enthusiasm to his listeners, who knew that he passionately believed in what he was saying.” (and see the remembrances by Claudette Begin and Jack Bloom in the same March-April 2009 issue of Against the Current magazine).
Peter comments in North Star that what was seen as his special rhetorical skill was simply his effort to avoid sectarian language and explain political points with easily understood everyday language and humor. “My popularity in the SWP was deceptive. The membership sensed that, unlike other party speakers, there was something unique in my presentations that attracted new people to the SWP. However, most people did not realize that it was the nonsectarian manner of my approach…” (p. 129)
I did have the opportunity to work with Peter over several decades. In late 1983, as a leader of the Central America Solidarity Coalition in Utah, I was wondering how our unfunded organization could get a knowledgeable, attractive and inexpensive speaker for our upcoming February 1984 conference. Somewhere ‘on the grapevine’ I heard that Peter Camejo was now living in the San Francisco Bay area. I was surprised that I was able to get his number from telephone directory assistance and Peter answered my first attempt at a phone call.
I learned that I was among a growing number of former SWP members getting in touch with Peter and asking “what happened to you, what happened to the party?” A loose network had formed called the “North Star Network” and I was able to get its first newsletter. Peter also sent me his analysis of what had happened to the SWP “Against Sectarianism: the evolution of the SWP, 1978 – 83”. It was the first credible and coherent overall explanation I had seen and I think it stands up very well.
Peter stayed in Salt Lake for several additional days beyond CASC’s two day February 1984 conference. We organized a meeting of already seven former SWP members in Salt Lake who wanted to learn about the North Star Network, what Peter was thinking and doing. Since the CASC conference had called for a spring demonstration, when Sterne (who had just returned to activism after a lengthy respite) learned about the new North Star Network organization he immediately proposed that we get to work making a North Star banner, honing our program and preparing leaflets we could use to recruit to the new revolutionary party. Peter demurred that his intent wasn’t for North Star Network to go into competition as the true revolutionary party.
Sterne challenged “then what good is North Star Network?”
Peter answered that “North Star Network is primarily a deprogramming center for victims of the SWP cult.”
As that dramatic statement which I quote exactly sunk in, Peter went on to suggest that we should just be activists in building progressive movements like the Central America solidarity movement and try to influence and educate younger activists to avoid the mistakes we had made. Much of Peter’s work through the North Star Network was teaching a few simple points:
- We needed to avoid left jargon and reach out to people with clear language and reference to our own U.S. working class history and culture
- We needed to become more ecumenical toward non-Trotskyist activists and leftists and realize that we had become adjusted to extremely sectarian attitudes toward “opponents”
- We needed to break from the fetishistic and philosophically idealist perspective that we were inheritors of “the correct” program; political program is developed, tested and affirmed in mass struggle
- There is no such thing as “the nucleus” of a revolutionary party because a revolutionary party is only created in the process of actual leadership of mass struggles of millions of people
- One of the worst manifestations of philosophically idealist sectarianism is the idea that if there is a political disagreement among revolutionary socialists then one view must be petit-bourgeois, because there can only be one truly proletarian, correct revolutionary working class view.
I had the opportunity for most of one and part of another day of Peter’s stay in Salt Lake to interrogate him at length about “how things worked” in the SWP and what had happened. Peter told me that through the sixties he had seen Jack Barnes, Barry Sheppard and himself as future leaders of the SWP. Peter felt that he was the most talented political leader of the three. Peter said that he saw Farrell Dobb’s choice of Jack Barnes as his successor as partly resulting from adaptation to the racism in U.S. society.
I realized that Peter came into the SWP with the attitude that his mission was to lead the SWP to the masses. His creative political perspective and public leadership style was needed for the SWP to break out of its sectarian isolation. Peter had often challenged what he saw as the SWP’s conventional practices with his new ideas, especially for electoral breakthroughs. Peter had wanted to explore electoral involvement with the Peace and Freedom Party in California, had suggested supporting Black Panther candidates in Democratic Party primaries – encouraging them to break from the Democrats and take an independent stance in the final election. He was in his element working with the La Raza Unida Party and as the SWP’s candidate for president of the U.S. in 1976 – but he was being constantly hemmed in and harassed by Jack Barnes who tarred Camejo as a free-lancer with dangerously unorthodox ideas. Around 1980 Barnes put the kibosh on Peter’s proposal for a New York City electoral alliance with the Puerto Rican Socialist Party.
Peter said that Jack Barnes controlled the SWP with a personal clique that was the large majority of the Political Committee. The Barnes’ clique lived in close proximity and frequently spent evenings socializing together. By the time a Political Committee meeting was held, they had already discussed and agreed on the decisions that would be made (the PC was the drive wheel which turned the National Committee and the Branch leaderships). In frustration, at one point Peter proposed at a PC meeting that the PC be reduced in size to the exact number of the Barnes clique. Peter said that Jack became apoplectically angry and in retrospect he thought that this was the point where Barnes determined to get Peter out of the party.
Peter’s close association with the revolutionary upsurges in Central America contributed to growing discouragement and dissatisfaction with the SWP. By the winter of 1980 – 81 several strands of motivation drove Peter to want to get away from daily SWP activity and responsibilities, one objective was to find time for a serious study of Lenin’s thinking. I am not sure of exact chronology but I think that Peter asked for an extended leave from the SWP in the summer of 1981. He was gone for a year or more, spending considerable time in Venezuela.
When Peter went to return to the SWP in 1982/83 he found that he had supposedly resigned over a year before. During the time when Peter was gone. Barnes had strengthened his personal control of the organization and Peter had been slandered and defamed to the point that party leaders did not want to take his side. Peter actually sat outside the door at one or more national committee meetings, asking to be allowed in to participate. I think that Peter Camejo was Jack Barnes’ most threatening potential competitor for leadership within the SWP and Peter was Jack’s first purge victim.
I joined the North Star Network and Peter was my primary political mentor for the next decade. At a North Star conference in the Bay Area, Peter introduced me to Jim Percy, leader of the Australian SWP which had worked closely with the U.S. SWP. Percy and Camejo had become political allies in opposition to Barnes’ “sectarian” course. My private conversation with Jim Percy convinced me that there was simply a convergence of political perspective on non-sectarian mass outreach and movement building and a shared appreciation of the growing importance of the Greens and the environmental movement. Peter also enjoyed pointing out that the Australian SWP had steadily grown for the last decade while the SWP in the U.S. had been steadily shrinking.
In 1986 Peter attended the founding conference of Solidarity and told me was very impressed and that if he wasn’t already responsible for North Star Network he would probably join Solidarity. Through North Star Peter had developed working alliances with several Maoist and former Maoist groups which had relatively strong support in the Bay Area. Peter joined them in supporting Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 Democratic primary campaigns and he supported the Rainbow Coalition through much of the 1980s, encouraging participants in the loose North Star Network to do the same. He also worked with the National Committee for Independent Political Action and longtime civil rights activists Anne Braden and Gwen Patton.
By the late 1980s, Peter had decided that the times weren’t propitious for continuing with the North Star Network and he allied particularly with Max Elbaum and activists from Frontline/Line of March to start publishing Crossroads magazine. When the CPUSA split in 1991 and about half of the CP supported the founding of Committees of Correspondence, Peter hoped this development might lead to cohering a new broad left organization that would be able to grow and influence masses of people. The founding conference of CoC at Berkeley in 1992 showed promise with several thousand participating in the politically open proceedings. In my opinion, the tragic death of former west coast CP leader Kendra Alexander in the spring of 1993 definitively put the balance of power in the CoC leadership in the hands of those ex-CPers who were not capable of breaking from their habitual reformism.
When the CoC endorsed Bill Clinton’s proposed “managed care” national health care reform in late 1993, I gave up on them several years before Peter did. Peter went from that project to focusing his political activism in the Green Party. Peter continued to influence and educate me but I stopped looking to him for direct personal political guidance. We communicated and collaborated on political campaigns and projects right up until his last rally speech, April 2008 in Salt Lake City.
I agree with Barry Sheppard that Peter took a more conservative public political stance during the 1980s and 1990s, particularly as he initially distanced himself from his experience with the SWP [read Barry’s review of North Star and a valuable discussion here]. At least every few years I would become an organizer/host for another of Peter’s visits and public events in Salt Lake. There were periods when he did not want to be publicly identified or introduced as a socialist. Of course, he was always a political activist working for revolutionary social change in what he judged to be the most effective way to reach masses of people. Peter never stopped thinking and working on ‘how to make a revolution in the U.S.’
Alan grossly shortchanges Peter to suggest that the sum of his post-SWP politics was to “champion[s] familiar cliches of the populist Left.” You can not read his important contribution to discussion going on inside the Australian Democratic Socialist Party in the mid-1990s without seeing that he continued to study and debate revolutionary socialist strategy – “Return to Materialism”. As Louis Proyect points out, Peter wasn’t spreading cliches when he fought for the Avocado Declaration within the Green Party (see also Peter’s comments in ATC and in Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate edited by Howie Hawkins, published by Haymarket Press in 2006).
Although Peter was at first cautious about it, in his last years he became proud to call himself a “watermelon green” – green on the outside, red on the inside. He found that revolutionary socialists were among his strongest allies. He worked closely with Todd Chretien and the International Socialist Organization and participated in the rise of the green left [see The Rise of the Green Left by Derek Wall, Pluto Press, 2010].
In his 1990s essay on the SWP, Alan identifies one of the most challenging problems in building an effective revolutionary socialist organization: “A big problem, of course, is that, in an ‘individualist’ culture, such as that which holds sway in advanced capitalist countries like the United States, very few individuals who achieve recognition for leadership talents are willing to subordinate their egos to a team, a problem that has implications for revolutionary practice as for other activities.” I think Alan is right that ultimately Jack Barnes was ‘a man of the apparatus,’ an organizational inside operator who needed to have control. As a human being and an activist, Peter was outgoing and sociable, happy with egalitarian give and take.
Peter concludes his 1983 initial analysis of what went wrong with the SWP using a quote from the same source as Paul LeBlanc uses at the beginning of his “Conclusion” to Lenin and the Revolutionary Party. It is from “Left Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder written by Lenin in the spring of 1920 in an effort to educate revolutionaries around the world. The section quoted is from “Part II: One of the fundamental conditions for the success of the Bolsheviks”:
“And first of all the question arises – how is the discipline of the revolutionary party of the proletariat maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced? First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its perseverance, self-sacrifice and heroism. Secondly, by its ability to link itself with, to keep in close touch with, and to a certain extent, if you like, to merge with the broadest masses of the working people – primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian labouring masses. Thirdly, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided that the broadest masses have been convinced from their own experience that they are correct. Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party that is really capable of being part of the advanced class, whose mission is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end in phrase-mongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge instantaneously. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by correct revolutionary theory, which, in turn, is not dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement.”
(emphasis in original)
- Major documents and books published by the FIT are available at http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit.htm, including the three volumes “In Defense of American Trotskyism:” “Rebuilding the Revolutionary Party,” (1990) http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit/rebuildindex.htm, “The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party, 1979-1983”, (1992) http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit/struggleindex.htm, and “Revolutionary Principles and Working-Class Democracy” (1992) http://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fit/revprinindex.htm ).
- In The Revolution Betrayed, Trotsky described “the Lenin levy” this way: “The political aim of this maneuver was to dissolve the revolutionary vanguard in raw human material without experience, without independence, and yet with the old habit of submitting to the authorities. The scheme was successful. By freeing the bureaucracy from the control of the proletarian vanguard, the ‘Leninist levy’ dealt a death blow to the party of Lenin” (pp. 97-98).
- I have been an organized sympathizer of Solidarity since shortly after its founding in 1986. In 1992 I became an at-large member and then participated in getting a Solidarity branch set up in Salt Lake in late 1995. During 1999 the Salt Lake Solidarity branch dissolved and I decided to become a sympathizer again. I remain a sympathizer now.
- Outsider’s Reverie by Leslie Evans, Boryana Books, Los Angeles, 2009
Louis Proyect’s review of Outsider’s Reverie
and see also:
Louis Proyect’s review of North Star
Steve Bloom’s severely edited response to Alan Wald’s original assessment of the SWP
One response to “What happened to the SWP (U.S.)?: Recent memoirs stir discussion”
Thank you so much for this incredibly interesting article. It’s stuff like this that is drawing me closer to Solidarity since leaving an organization that has an uncomfortable similarity to the SWP. Internal democracy should be about the ability to have open discussions within an organization. That is the essence of democracy for me, not just that you vote at some point during a meeting or convention. When the members of an organization are confronted by leaders of their organization for not adhering to some orthodoxy (that they are individually equipped to define) or dissuaded from even discussing things informally, then you know it is time to get out. Thanks again for writing this and for the existence of an organization committed to constructing a new radical left that truly understands and learns from the lessons of the past.