Nat Weinstein—An Oral History
Part VII: Expulsion from the Socialist Workers Party
Jack Barnes, SWP National Leader
The SWP branch in San Francisco was a good branch, considering the quality of the party membership. I rubbed Jack Barnes, national secretary of the SWP, the wrong way and he rubbed me the wrong way from the beginning. It put me on guard against him and at the same time I recognized his talent. He was a very talented guy, and I saw him in action at one of the first big antiwar conferences in Washington, DC—in 1965, I believe. The leaders of the dominant group were Stalinists: young Stalinist kids, red diaper babies like my kids. Two were sons of the lawyer from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union here in San Francisco, Vincent Hallinan. One of them is district attorney in San Francisco. He was one of the leaders of the Stalinist faction that nominated the antiwar convention. We opposed it. Barnes organized the party’s intervention. He was a smartass son of a bitch and he knew how to do it. I played a key role at one point, because they had gone off from the central positions that we were advancing (for mass, independent, non-exclusive, street demonstrations not aligned with the Democratic or any bourgeois Party) and they got into secondary and tertiary questions of organizational things where the political thing was central.
I said, “You’re missing out. The way to win over these people is on the politics, not on various organizational maneuvers. That’s the way to win them over. Hit them hard on politics! They don’t agree with us and we’ll be very unpopular at first, but we can win them over.”
Barnes agreed. He supported it. He said, “Okay, talk to these kids and tell them how to approach the subject.” They followed my advice on how to deal with it. They heard what I said in discussion. Of course, Barnes was a tactician; first class. A stellar tactician. Good tacticians, often, are also what we used to call “operators.” You have to be an operator to be a good tactician. I’m not a good tactician because I’m not an operator. I’m good when it comes to the politics, the tactics, but in dealing with opponents, I’m not as good as he was.
For example, during the antiwar movement, I sat in on all the planning of the leadership caucus of our intervention in the demonstration. I saw Barnes in action: He was a very talented guy. I was impressed. He did things that I considered to reflect his methodology, which I didn’t agree with, which led to what he did later to us.
The question of permanent revolution came up in debate in the SWP over Nicaragua. The party leadership maintained that the Nicaraguan government was a workers’ and farmers’ government. We rejected that notion because they included bourgeois figures in their government. They were minor figures, but I gave the example in Trotsky’s writings on the Spanish Revolution, when there were only two bourgeois, relatively unknown bourgeois lawyers who were part of the popular front. Trotsky said, “You say they’re unimportant, they’re two relatively unknown figures, it’s mostly workers or farmers that are in this Popular Front. Well, then, why do you have these two figures? The only reason you have them is telling the ruling class that this is a democratic revolution against fascism and the question of socialist revolution will not come up.”
The ruling class understands what the politics of communists and socialists are. It’s not as if they don’t understand it! They understand it better than some socialists! They know what is dangerous and what isn’t.
So, anyway, I gave that example as one of the examples. He may be a priest and he’s not a prominent figure, but he’s a defender of capitalism. That’s why they have him. He could be a supporter, but why in government? He doesn’t play any governmental role, but the Sandinistas had control. And of course, they were for land to the peasants until they took power, and the day they took power, they abandoned the slogan of “land to the peasants.” That was my argument.
A member of the SWP majority was a very talented intellectual kid by the name of Steve Clark. He wrote several polemics against me (and I against the position of the SWP majority). I think the title of his response to me was “Why Nat Weinstein Doesn’t Understand Permanent Revolution.” He was “defending” permanent revolution against me.
This took place in a pre-convention discussion, which was three months long. The convention was at Oberlin, and that’s where they trashed permanent revolution, rejected it. Two days after the convention, they had an expanded political committee meeting. I was on the national committee and was invited to that meeting, but I had to return; there was a plane strike, so we went home by car. We wouldn’t cross the picket line, even though it was an emergency. We couldn’t do it, especially in a convention.
That was the majority’s way of breaking from Trotskyism. But they can’t break because they own the property rights! By capturing the SWP, they captured the heritage of the SWP, which was all the Trotsky publications that we had a copyright to. My copyright became theirs. Well, that’s democratic centralism. You can’t say anything about that except to point out that they’re in a contradiction, a political contradiction. They never said Trotsky was a criminal, that he was counterrevolutionary. They just said his theory of permanent revolution was wrong, was proven wrong, and they gave the example of Cuba to prove it. You know, I don’t think they ever even tried to prove it, come to think of it. Just before they had rejected permanent revolution they made a big thing about the “Three Giants”—Nicaragua, Grenada, and Cuba. They weren’t three giants. Grenada went down and so did Nicaragua. They gave up: no more socialism, even now.
Factions and tendencies forming
You have a right to form factions in the SWP, tendencies and factions. A tendency is a group that has a difference over a theoretical question. It could have a difference over the permanent revolution, for example, and not form a faction. That is, it’s just an ideological difference that they wanted to discuss and discuss it in an organized way with the party at the appropriate times. You could discuss any question if you’re on a committee—a national committee, or a political committee.
You have to be on the national committee to be on the political committee. You could discuss any question there, including party positions, but you can’t have an organized discussion in between conventions except during the three-month period prior to a convention. Conventions are every two years. They could be earlier; you can have special conventions. We had a convention from the beginning every two years. Sometimes we were a little earlier, sometimes a little later.
They postponed the convention in 1983. They rejected permanent revolution at the one in late 1981, so the only time we could debate them was in the 1983 convention, which they postponed by a year—not a month, not two months—one year. Now, that was an indication that something was afoot. Why are they postponing the convention? Maybe we’re not going to be around in 1984—and we weren’t, as it turned out. We were expelled. So, on what basis did they do this?
Well, we raised the question. We formed a bloc, the two tendencies. Ours was called the Trotskyist Tendency. The other was called the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (FIT). That tendency broke strictly around the question of permanent revolution—they defended permanent revolution, as we did. They were close to Barnes and disagreed with us on our criticism of Barnes’ trade union policy. They supported his policy on the unions, which we rejected—it was very sectarian. Frank Lovell, who was a good friend of mine, was part of that tendency, as was George Breitman, who was also a pretty important figure in the SWP. Steve Bloom was their tactical leader, the youth leader. Breitman was their ideological leader: He’d lay down the ideological and political line.
Tom Kerry supported our position; he was a member of our tendency, the Trotskyist Tendency. The other National Committee member was Lynn Henderson who’s still a close friend of mine, a comrade. Lynn Henderson and I debated the leaders of the SWP at a convention on the question. He took up the trade union question; I took up the question of permanent revolution.
The transitional program
We broke originally over the question of the policies in unions. They were for forming labor party clubs all over the country, wherever we had a strong presence in the unions—which was not very strong anywhere. They had a proletarianization policy of the student youth, the new recruits, by sending them all mechanically into the union. Not: “Go get a job, try to get a job in this union or that union.” They picked five unions, five industrial unions in the country and asked all members of the party to join these five unions even though they already had jobs. It was a crash campaign to get the party into the unions. I was for the idea of getting comrades into the unions, but I was not in favor of the way they were doing it. They went into the union like they were going into a campus! They organized around socialist principles. They had a policy that they called “Talking Socialism.” In other words, the idea being that we get known in the unions as advocating socialism, not participating in the struggles of workers at their level of consciousness! That was a rejection of the transitional program.
The strength of our politics is that they’re easy to understand. The workers have to be prepared psychologically; their level of consciousness has to reach the point where certain proposals seem credible and other proposals do not. The Transitional Method means that you have to recognize and assess the level of consciousness of workers and decide what slogans can mobilize workers for action and lead them to a higher level of understanding.
So that is the proposal, for example, of the slogan of “shorter hours with no reduction in pay,” to meet the problem of unemployment. At another stage, a higher level of understanding of the masses would make applicable the slogan of “nationalize the factories under workers’ control;” they would just occupy the factories and operate them under workers’ control whether the government liked it or not. Part of the proposal is nationalization, running an election campaign and proposing, “If we get elected, that’s what we’ll do.”
We’d try to lead the masses in the direction of socialist revolution; it’s a simple as that. It’s not complicated, really. The slogans were all there in the transitional program written by Trotsky [The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International1, 1938], but it’s just a consolidation of the politics of the Bolsheviks. Everything that Trotsky wrote in what is called the transitional program is the politics advocated by the Bolsheviks in the course of the Russian Revolution. It worked! The revolution was made using the transitional method. It makes sense.
We don’t write about nationalization of industry, although, when industries are marching and shutting down, that’s a logical demand. But the workers are not ready for that yet—you raise that now and you look like you’re off the wall. A more transitional slogan like a “class struggle” strategy as against “class collaboration” is better. Understanding that the interests of workers and employers are opposed. What’s good for workers is bad for employers, and what’s good for employers is bad for workers. It’s as simple as that.
You’ve got to lead the workers to raise a slogan that meets the task that’s before the workers at the moment, that has a logic of its own. If they accept that slogan, then that leads to a higher slogan. Then they get to see that that’s not enough. They have to go further. That’s the way it works.
What you do in the unions depends on what the problems of the unions are. Like if we were in the United Auto Workers union, now, we would have been part of the Soldiers of Solidarity, the grouping of rank-and-file trade unionists that were opposed to the contract and had a class struggle policy! They were quoted in the New York Times using the terms “class” and “class struggle” and so on. But you know, we tried to talk to workers in the language workers understand.
The Fourth Internationalist Tendency and our tendency were about equal in size. The majority of the San Francisco branch supported our Trotskyist Tendency. They had a minority in San Francisco with an old-timer, and a couple of comrades in Oakland and Berkeley.
We had a joint meeting. We formed a bloc. They wouldn’t unite with us. We proposed a common tendency. At this point, when the SWP cancelled the convention, I said, “What we need is a faction. This is not a postponement.” The FIT said it was a postponement to the convention.
I said, “It’s not the postponement. It’s the cancellation of the convention. We may not be here in 1984 for the convention.”
I don’t think they even set a time at first, but they postponed it and they said in ’83 they were going to have an educational conference, not a convention. It was at the educational conference that we were expelled, and we were expelled for this.
I proposed that the two tendencies in the bloc form a faction. Between us we had maybe 125 to 150 people. Steve Bloom reported to the convention that he had dissolved the bloc. They asked him: “Why did you dissolve the bloc?” He wouldn’t tell them, because he figured if he told them, they would expel us because we proposed forming a faction. Factions were legal in the SWP constitution. You can form a faction at any time. You don’t need anybody’s permission.
So they were afraid, because Barnes, the SWP National Secretary, introduced what became known as the “New Norm.” It was an eight-dollar bulletin, spelled out “Re-Establish the Norm.” Of course, it’s not mimeographed. He printed it on a big printing press. It raised the question about making factions illegal—because they always lead to splits, was the rationale, and therefore we can’t have any more splits. That’s absurd, because it produced a split! See? They expelled us: That’s a split!
They expelled us. Why? Because we wouldn’t tell them why we formed the faction! We were asked at the meeting of the National Committee, at the Educational Conference, at the very end. At the plenum, the first question point on the agenda was about dissolution of the bloc, and we were asked to explain it. The FIT wouldn’t tell them. Saying that we proposed a faction and that they dissolved it meant that the National Committee and Barnes would expel us and then they would be the ones who fingered us and got us expelled. See? So they couldn’t do that.
Had we said that it was because we formed a faction, that we proposed forming a faction, the FIT would have been expelled for not reporting. So you could have argued that we should be principled, but you see that doesn’t stand up. We’d go down in history as having helped the majority with the expulsion of a tendency with whom we closely agreed.
I said, “Let them expel us! They can’t do it, because there’s nothing in the constitution that says you can’t form a faction!” The “new norms” doesn’t change the constitution! That’s just a document that’s passed by the majority; that’s not a constitution. The constitution says you have a right to form faction—tendencies and factions are legal. You don’t need anybody’s permission. Of course, once you form a faction, you have to report it. But if you didn’t report it, then they have a case. But we didn’t form a faction, because the other tendency split. They voted against it. I think the meeting was in my house. I could hear it in another room, and we could hear them arguing with Steve, trying to convince him that we should form a faction, but he was adamant. He wouldn’t do that. He came there without any intention of listening to us.
So they dissolved and we won the majority at the founding convention of Socialist Action afterwards. They were forced to reestablish a relationship with us because we were expelled.
What do we do? Well, we propose a convention.
They had no choice but to go along with it, but they didn’t send their comrades. We made a concession to them. We gave them equal numbers of delegates. That was a concession on my part. Otherwise, they wouldn’t come to the convention. We wanted them to formally be there and with a vote representing the comrades that left. But they lost some of their own comrades. So we won them over! We said, “We’ve got to form a public faction of the SWP.” Then we said: “That wouldn’t work; you’re in the United States.
The current state of things
If we had the kind of party that we had before the split in the SWP and before Barnes, if we had the party we had in the days of Cannon and Farrell Dobbs and Tom Kerry, when they were the leadership of the party, they’d be right in the middle of these Soldiers of Solidarity in the United Auto Workers.
The Soldiers of Solidarity, and the Future of the Union, and Factory Rats are the three main groups that were formed during this UAW fight. They got at least a third of the vote in opposition to the contract. That’s a considerable force!
This crisis is just the beginning of the next Great Depression and this one’s going to be far more intense and severe and widespread and wide-ranging. It’s going to combine financial, monetary (the dollar is sinking), and a crisis of oil production— all three at the same time. That’s how you get a formula for revolution; that’s what it is, once it gets going. I can’t see any way the capitalist class can stop it; that they can save themselves.
You can’t get the understanding of internationalism just by reading books, as well as observing events in the world. It’s easy for educated workers—what we call the “vanguard” or “advanced workers,” “thinking workers”—to understand what’s happening in the world because they just extrapolate from their own experience. Solidarity is something that you learn from practical experience: It’s not just an idea that you get from reading a book. It just makes sense.
There’s the examples of American history: “We all hang together or we’ll all hang separately.” You’ve got that and you’ve got Tom Paine and you’ve got Thomas Jefferson and all of the wonderful words of every revolutionary document, including the American Revolution, the Civil War, and so on. Abraham Lincoln and all that—So all those things are a part of it and my internationalism doesn’t come from my experience. What experience did I have? Well, everybody who goes abroad learns something. Everything that we are is a result of a life experience; it’s not just this, that, or the other thing. It’s all of it put together. Of course, there’s a focus to everybody’s life.
The bourgeois mindset
What makes people do what they do? It’s not easy to figure out. There’s lots of variables that make him do it. I get all twisted up trying to explain in my article why workers voted for a cut in wages during the UAW strike, when it’s against their class interests. There’s a number of explanations, one of the most important being: They were taking the buy-out. A lot of workers took the buy-out. Probably more than a third of the UAW membership took the buy-out. They’re not the same people that they were. They’ve got a lot more to lose than they had to lose in 1934, or even in 1956.
Of course, it’s not over. Now that they’ve established a new contract, it’s going to be a transient one—a big flood of workers leaving and new workers they hired at half-wages, at non-union wages.
They call their standard of living “middle class standard of living.” That doesn’t come from the workers. That comes from the bourgeoisie. It comes from the mass media. They talk about higher-paid workers as “middle class.” How much you earn doesn’t determine your class. The role that you play in the process of production determines your class, not how much money you get paid. So if workers have a strong union and you get double the pay that the non-union workers make, does that mean they’re middle class? That’s absurd!
Trotsky and Lenin
There are things I’ve changed my mind about in my life. I think that we were a little too rigid, I think, and I was too rigid. I was very rigid on the organizational principles. As soon as I detected a divergence, I was quick to catch it and to respond to it critically. I “had a nose” for it, as they say; I could smell it. My comments were introducing a subtle variation in our political orientation; it was more than a subtlety. It was a break from our understanding, the accepted understanding. Some breaks are justified, like Lenin’s concept of the organizational principles of the party, of the revolutionary party, democratic centralism, a disciplined organization.
Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution was similar to Lenin’s, but was different in some important respects. Rather than permanent revolution, Lenin’s view was summed up in the phrase “the democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants,” in which he saw a connection between the peasants, the revolutionary aspirations of the peasants for land. That’s the essence of a democratic revolution, which breaks the power of the old feudal class, the landlord class, and the role of the workers. Trotsky’s view was slightly different and Lenin, I think, came closer to Trotsky’s view in the April Thesis, when he didn’t call for a democratic dictatorship, but called for the dictatorship of the proletariat. See, that was the essence of Lenin’s April Theses, in April 1917.
That’s why Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks, in addition to other things. The Bolsheviks were playing a dynamic role, a leading role, and of course Trotsky was a leader of the 1905 Revolution, which was based on soviets. So here you have two great thinkers coming together based upon experience. Trotsky saw the value and he rejected Lenin’s organizational principles, but he saw it in action and he became convinced. Lenin saw in action that the workers in their soviets were playing the decisive role and he was the source of the inspiration for the slogan “All Power to the Soviets.” Of course, the soviets were workers’ councils. But then, as an expression of Lenin’s view, there were peasant soviets. The peasants followed the example, in the rural areas, of workers in the cities and they formed what were really democratic local organizations representing the interests of poor farmers. Poor and landless farmers. They called their formation a “soviet.”
It shows the predominant influence of the working class because of their role in society. Not because they’re smarter. Of course, you have to be a little more trained in writing and the formal educational skills, to be a worker. A mechanic has to know how to use a ruler. The peasants don’t need to use a ruler; they can “step off” to measure. They don’t need to use a ruler as a rule, using the two meanings of the same word. So that’s another manifestation of the dialectic. Of course, dialectic was originated by an idealist. Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel thought that the idea was the source of all reality and that concrete reality was only a reflection. Marx “turned Hegel onto his feet.” It’s not just a cute expression. It’s a very profound thought, and a lot of profound thoughts can be simplified like that and that’s a skill that I don’t have and some people have.
My wife, Sylvia
Sylvia was like that. Sylvia was a wonderful woman, and I didn’t really understand how wonderful she was until she died, unfortunately. I mean I knew she was great, but I didn’t realize how great she was. A very modest, unassuming person: Not like me. A good writer: Much better than I’ll ever be.
She was the one who popularized the slogan “It will be a great day when the schools get all the money they need and the Navy has to hold a bake sale to buy a ship.” She was one of the most articulate spokespersons for the women’s movement. There was a rally in Golden Gate Park organized by the National Organization for Women—our comrades in NOW were in the NOW leadership—and Sylvia was scheduled to speak, as was Mayor Willie Brown. Sylvia had just started her speech and he walked up and pushed her aside, gently. He said, “Sylvia, dear, I have to leave. Would you let me speak now?”—and cut her off. Just a few minutes after she started, she had the crowd cheering, and he came in and cut her off and stopped her. That was calculated. That’s why he was there. That’s my opinion.
Well, our line was “Down with the Democratic Party; they’re the enemy.” Of course, most of our opponents in NOW were Democrats. The leadership of NOW, the national leadership, was Democrats. The SWP and Barnes wouldn’t help our fraction in NOW when they were redbaited and expelled from NOW by the national leadership, who moved in on San Francisco through their agents because we were in leadership of the San Francisco chapter. Not formally, but we had leadership positions on the executive committee, so everybody looked to Sylvia and Carole Seligman as their leaders.
Sylvia also ran for the San Francisco School Board. She had ten thousand votes or something like that. We never got that many votes for mayor. I ran for mayor, once, but I didn’t get many votes, probably less than two thousand. I debated former San Francisco mayor Dianne Feinstein, who won the election. She was the president of the City Council.
I like to talk about Sylvia every chance I get. She was something special. She was a fighter! I found out that when she was young, she told me she was sort of a tomboy. She played baseball and so on. I once got into a fight with my landlord. He was a young Italian guy. We rented the apartment immediately after the war, in a three-story building. The landlord, on the ground floor, was originally an old Irish woman who was a sweet old lady. Then he bought it—a young man about my age and his wife—and they thought that they were barons. He tried to order us around. I went down to pay the rent—I think the rent was something like twenty-five dollars a month, and I gave him thirty dollars and I expected him to give me five dollars change.
I said, “I don’t have change.” In those days, we didn’t have a checking account. He wouldn’t give it to me! He said, “Well, I fixed something and I’m taking the five dollars.” He never said anything to me about it before.
I said, “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?” His wife started pushing me, and I pushed her back, and he said, “You struck my wife!”—and he leaped at me. He was a big guy! I’m pretty good with my fists, and I was fighting and the two of them were trying to get at me. Sylvia heard the commotion, and she came running down from the apartment upstairs and she leaped from around the fifth step from the ground onto the landlord’s wife’s back and pulled her off of me. And she got into the fight with me! That was Sylvia! That was a comrade; that was somebody special.
I never really told her how much I loved her. I feel bad about that.
I don’t know what that has to do with politics, but it gave me a chance to talk about Sylvia. We were “a perfect union,” as the founding fathers said about the United States. Almost perfect—she was perfect, I wasn’t.
Intellectual debate within the party
There’s a caliber, a quality, of the members of the SWP that I knew. I knew mostly the working class members, the trade unionists. They were all—almost all of them—what you could call “worker intellectuals.” They were people who liked to talk about poetry, liked to argue politics. It was also that they were very interested in ideas, not only ideas about socialism, but all ideas: science, poetry, culture, art, everything. They talked about everything, argued about everything, but the kind of argument that is fruitful and not necessarily antagonistic.
To the extent that I can be called an intellectual, I’m a worker who became what Lenin called an advanced worker. I didn’t go to school, so that qualifies me as a worker who is not an intellectual, no formal education.
There’s always a stage in the discussion where it’s civil relations, but then when the differences sharpen, the discussion becomes more serious, the moods change on both sides, and that’s the nature of human beings. It’s part of the promise and the curse of human nature. We’re animals, and we have self-preservation as a fundamental instinct, and but we’re also social animals, which means that we can’t survive as a species without a high degree of social consciousness. We are stronger because we work together and collaborate instead of fighting all the time, but we also fight all the time. They like to say about socialists—especially cynics who have been through the movement and see everything negatively—“You just have split after split after split after split! And then: splinters! Splits of splits, and so on.” That happens. It happens. It’s life; that’s the way it is.
This is the end of the 2007 interview with Nat. Nat went on in his political life after 1983 to help form and lead Socialist Action and then to edit and write for Socialist Viewpoint. He remained a committed revolutionary socialist until the end of his life May 9, 2014. He was 89-years-old.2
2 “Nat Weinstein—An Oral History,” parts I, II, and III can be found in Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 14, No. 5
“Nat Weinstein—An Oral History,” parts IV, V and VI can be found in Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 14, No. 6