An Analysis: The Political and Organizational Degeneration of the SWP
A Critique of Barry Sheppard’s Political Memoir
The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988
Volume 2: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988
A Political Memoir
By Barry Sheppard
P.O. Box 62732
London, SW2 9CQ
The second volume of The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988; A Political Memoir by Barry Sheppard has just been published. The first volume covered the period of the sixties radicalization 1960-1973. This volume deals with what Sheppard entitles Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988. It is an important book. Sheppard was a member of the party from 1959 until his resignation\expulsion in 1988. Barry Sheppard was a prominent member of the central leadership around the party’s longtime National Secretary Jack Barnes. He is exceptional in surviving that experience yet defending today the founding program of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and the Fourth International—that is, defending Marxism-Leninism.
Sheppard now concludes that the Barnes regime from 1980 on carried out actions that brought about the rapid degeneration of the party “transforming it into the opposite” of what it had been. He confesses his culpability in this process, writing, “I was a willing participant and supporter of every destructive organizational measure taken against the minority currents in the SWP from 1980 through the mass expulsions of 1983. These included the many trials against individuals that extended beyond the minority members.”
Many devoted and talented political activists went through the trauma of the SWP’s degeneration. Some were expelled, some became demoralized and resigned, others just drifted away. For many, what happened and how it happened remains a political mystery. Others were completely disoriented by the experience. Today, Internet blogs contain more than a few bitter and confused ex-SWPers, some looking for vengeance, others intent on justifying their own actions or inactions. A few have abandoned Marxism; others even reject materialist philosophy, adopting various forms of religious and mystical thinking. Another sector falsely wishes to trace the roots of the Barnes regime degeneration back to James P. Cannon1 and even Lenin and Trotsky. What is required more than ever today is a political analysis of what occurred with the SWP. In the second part of this book Sheppard presents his explanation for the degeneration of the SWP.
Sheppard gives us an insider’s look, often in horrific detail, to the organizational degeneration carried out under Barnes’s direction. In this he is uniquely qualified, functioning for most of the period as Barnes chief organizational enforcer. Expressing what I believe is sincere regret; he details the pressure that led him personally, step by step, into playing this role. Where Sheppard’s account comes up short is explaining the political degeneration of Barnes and subsequently the SWP.
Sheppard’s explanation for the root cause of the SWP degeneration essentially stands on two legs. One, the development of a personality cult around Jack Barnes, and two the mistaken belief by Barnes that we were on the verge of a widespread political radicalization of the working class. As an explanation of the SWP’s political degeneration this two-legged stool is not believable.
It is certainly true that Barnes and the SWP itself began to acquire certain cult characteristics. But how and why did this emerge? Sheppard’s narrative implies that the source was a sudden (and essentially unexplained) personality change in Jack Barnes. For years prior to this Barnes’s functioning as described by Sheppard was hardly that of a cult leader. “One of Jack’s strengths as a leader had been his ability to bring together the older and younger leaders... His accomplishment was to include people from different generations in developing political policy. Among the younger leaders he played the same role. He encouraged different comrades to bring their ideas into our discussions. We all felt we could freely raise our opinions, hash them out, and come to generally common positions. Different comrades had different strengths, and would contribute accordingly, as well as take on assignments where their strengths could be put to best use. Jack helped coordinate all this.”
Then, as Sheppard describes it, over a short period of time everything changed. Barnes inexplicably began functioning as a “star,” as a “one man band” and morphed into a cult leader. In Sheppard’s description: “The nature of the cult around Jack Barnes was twofold. He became the sole initiator of policy, and the supreme arbiter in any discussion. The obvious result was a growing fear among other leaders of freely expressing their views, else they be deemed ‘wrong.’ An aspect of this development was the increasing use of ‘trials of members.’” And finally in his concluding chapter Sheppard writes: “The fundamental cause of the degeneration was the rise of the Barnes cult in the mid-1970’s, which predates the political degeneration.” This analysis and sequence is exactly wrong.
The rise of the so-called “Barnes cult” was not the result of some new personality shift but a fundamental change in his political views. Somewhere around 1978, maybe not all at once but over a relatively short period of time, Barnes came to a series of sweeping new political conclusions and positions. I have heard all kinds of stories about Barnes’s so-called “epiphany” during his 1978 sojourn to California and it is useless speculating on exactly what happened there. But I think that Gus Horowitz’s observations as reported by Sheppard in chapter fourteen are perceptive. “When Jack did return, Gus told me, he was ‘like a man on a mission.’ During his sojourn to and from California he had some kind of epiphany, like Saul on the road to Damascus, and had seen the light illuminating the road forward for the SWP.”
Among Barnes’s new political conclusions and positions (“the light illuminating the road forward”) were the following: Barnes rejected Trotsky’s characterization of the Soviet Stalinist bureaucracy as “counter revolutionary through and through.” He concluded that Trotsky’s warning of capitalist restoration through the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union was outdated and wrong. Barnes became convinced that new events, the Cuban revolution and its emerging extension (Nicaragua and Grenada—“The Three Giants Rising Out of the Sea”) could and would push the Soviet bureaucracy in a progressive and even revolutionary direction—that the Stalinist bureaucracy was reformable after all. Barnes began to believe that the Soviet bureaucracy was no longer in a position to betray revolutions. Wasn’t it supporting Cuba? (Remember here, we are talking about the decrepit Brezhnev regime, which as Trotsky foresaw was already moving at somewhere near the speed of light to becoming “the transmission belt for the reintroduction of capitalism” into the Soviet Union, a development that Barnes was blind to and which took him completely by surprise.) Barnes, of course, also had to reject the call for political revolution in the Soviet Union as embodied in the Transitional Program. In this he was comfortable in adopting false positions that the Castro leadership already held.
He also abandoned the concept of workers and farmer’s government as first developed by the Bolsheviks and laid out in the Transitional Program. He concluded that Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution was fatally flawed and could be no part of the SWP’s program. He revived the concept of “democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants” which historically Lenin had discarded. Barnes concluded that Lenin and Trotsky indeed had serious differences on all of these question and Lenin’s conceptions had been superior to Trotsky’s. All of these were a reversal of the party’s positions held since its founding.
Barnes also concluded that the SWP’s positions on the Cuban revolution were wrong. He concluded that the Castro team had always been revolutionary Marxist and the Cuban revolution experience was not an exception but the new model to be followed. This was a rejection of the SWP’s historic position as documented in Hansen’s Dynamics of the Cuban Revolution. Finally, all of this led Barnes to conclude that the SWP had to distance itself from any future identification with Trotsky, Trotskyism and the Fourth International. At some point Mary-Alice Waters joined Barnes in these political views and the two constituted what was in fact a secret faction.
Having reached such sweeping political conclusions, which in reality represented a substantial rejection of the historic program of the SWP and the Fourth International, Barnes had to decide what to do—how to proceed. He concluded, not illogically, that he had little chance of reshaping the party in this completely new political direction by openly presenting his views and engaging in a democratic political discussion of them. He consciously chose a different course—again maybe not all at once, but over a relatively short period of time. This political transformation of the SWP he believed, would not succeed unless “he became the sole initiator of policy, and the supreme arbiter in any discussion,” at least for an extended period of time. And the imposition of his new role and status required creating an atmosphere of political fear and intimidation in the party. Barnes deliberately avoided expressing or debating his new views openly in the party but instead opted for changing the party through organizational intimidation and expulsions.
Convinced that the Soviet bureaucracy rather than being completely reactionary, could be moved in a revolutionary direction by the struggles breaking out especially in the underdeveloped world, he began to search for a way to introduce that fundamentally false position into the party. Barnes saw the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as both confirmation of his new views and an opportunity for doing such.
I remember that January 1980 National Committee plenum and how the Barnes coterie was primed to characterize the invasion as a progressive world-changing event. How more than once it was proclaimed that, “for the first time since Lenin the Red Army was being deployed in a revolutionary way.” I don’t think Barnes himself used this phrase but he didn’t take his distance from it either. In addition the Cubans had supported the Soviet intervention into Czechoslovakia and he wanted to move the party towards a more completely uncritical stance toward the Castro leadership. Then the Cubans, to their everlasting and courageous credit, took their distance from the Afghan invasion. They had neither been warned nor consulted about the invasion and Fidel was extremely angry and felt Cuba had been sandbagged by the Soviet leadership as in the “Cuban missile crisis.” Cuba, while not publicly criticizing the invasion, avoided any support or justification of it while privately expressing strong criticisms—criticisms that became widely known. Barnes, who viewed the Cubans as the leaders of the new emerging “New International” that made the Fourth International irrelevant, did not want to get caught on the wrong side of that question so he abruptly reversed himself—and thus the party.
In this, one of his first overtly “cult” like actions, Barnes alone without any prior consultation was solely responsible for both formulating the January position to support the invasion and its sudden reversal in August. Sheppard decries Barnes’s “sandbagging” of the entire NC (National Committee) and Caroline Lund who was assigned to defend the first position. Barnes had no choice. He couldn’t reveal and explain his real motivation for supporting, then abruptly not supporting, the invasion. Not without starting to reveal the entirely new direction he surreptitiously intended to take the party on a whole series of fundamental political positions. If he was to succeed, Barnes knew he needed the ability and “freedom” to move and maneuver in whatever direction he felt was needed without the necessity of accounting or explaining to anyone.
In one sense the “sandbagging” was positive for Barnes. It stepped up the atmosphere of political intimidation he needed. Some already absorbed the message that you couldn’t question Barnes without dire consequences, but not yet all. Peter Camejo apparently had not got the message when he requested a special Political Committee meeting in which he “strongly rejected” not the decisions but how the decisions had been made—that was his political death warrant. Sheppard on the other hand had already gotten the message from Barnes’s threat to expel him back in 1978 when in a private meeting he questioned Barnes new style of functioning. Sheppard describes how out of fear of being expelled he kept quiet despite agreeing with Peter. This demonstrates how effective Barnes’s policy of intimidation was already becoming.
Were there “cult” aspects to Barnes’ new methods of functioning? Obviously yes, but they were politically motivated and driven. They were not the results of a suddenly acquired megalomania. Barnes probably imagined himself as the young Lenin having to move the party away from the Plekhanov generation even if it required some tough measures. In the long run, he no doubt told himself, it would all be justified.
But there was another aspect of “cultism” that applied to the party as a whole. The party had been given a new lease on life by the 1960’s youth radicalization. A whole new layer of young, committed revolutionary cadre had revitalized the party. But the party could not completely escape the effects of its long isolation from the working class and a working class radicalization. Its long existence as a tiny cadre organization was taking its toll. It acquired a certain insolated, ingrown character. Especially after the mass Vietnam antiwar movement had run its course, the party began taking on some aspects of counter-culturalism. Through no fault of their own, comrades’ political and social lives tended to exist almost exclusively within the confines of party membership. To some extent the party functioned as a sheltering home, shielding members from the alienating and demoralizing nature of American capitalist society.
Expulsions and fear of expolusions
Barnes recognized this, and at least at that time saw the advantages of a membership whose entire political, social and even economic life centered around and was dependent on party membership. Barnes knew that expulsions and especially fear of expulsion were going to be useful and necessary tools in his planned political transformation of the party. Removal from party membership would be an almost unthinkably traumatic act. You would be shunned, isolated, and cast out into the cold of a hostile U.S. capitalist society.
I remember the atmosphere and my experiences when I went on tour before the 1981 convention to present our minority tendency’s position. I believe it was in Atlanta that I had lunch with a comrade with whom I had a personal friendship. She told me while literally trembling, “Please let’s not talk any politics.” She understood quite clearly that any sympathy for the minority position meant expulsion and she did not want the temptation of even being exposed to the minority’s arguments. In the Minneapolis branch during the pre-convention discussion a majority comrade made a particularly vicious and false factional remark. A long time leading branch member, Helen Scheer, despite consistently voting with the majority could not contain herself and jumped up and said: “That’s self-serving nonsense.” Minority supporter, Cynthia Burke, later asked Helen in private how she could go along with the majority line. She had a short one-sentence answer, “I don’t want to be expelled.
In Chapter 26—“The Turn Derails,” Sheppard has a lot of important information and excellent descriptions of Barnes’s disastrous trade union policies. But I don’t think his analysis of why Barnes adopted the abstentionist “talking socialism” strategy in the party’s “turn” to industry is correct. Sheppard almost exclusively attributes this self-isolating policy to the fundamental mistake of projecting a just-around-the-corner political radicalization of the working class. Under his scenario Barnes, in response to the escalating attacks on the working class, recognized that the unions were in retreat, but believed the working class was still undergoing a political radicalization. So, Barnes believed we had to pull back from union activities and politics and make our central focus in the unions socialist propaganda.
This wasn’t the primary motivation for Barnes’s policy. The “talking socialism” strategy wasn’t a “pull back” strategy but was imposed pretty much from the get go. Barnes recognized that comrades functioning and becoming active in the union were a potential threat to how he intended to transform the party. Being involved in the day-to-day problems, struggles and politics of the union was something that required comrades to think through their concrete situations and develop creative ways to apply our revolutionary program. It required comrades to think on their feet and develop collaborative, non-sectarian relations with non-SWP union members.
The party’s experience in the Vietnam antiwar movement was a rich and exemplary one in which we were able to have an historical impact way out of proportion to our size. But the strategy and tactics of our work in the antiwar movement could almost entirely be directed out from the center. The problems, opponents, and arguments comrades faced were pretty much the same wheather they were in Chicago, Boston or Los Angeles. The national office could work out our line and it could be discussed and effectively disseminated through our national antiwar fraction. Work in the trade unions is quite different.
The turn to industry
Barnes instinctively sensed that allowing the “turn” comrades to function in the trade unions would produce members with confidence to think and act independently, and develop a political base that wasn’t completely tied to the center. In chapter 26 Sheppard has a revealing account of comrade Linda Loew’s experience in the steelworker’s union while in the Dallas branch. He describes the exemplary work she was able to do in the union and a strike despite just being off probation. As a consequence of her union activities she acquired some authority with her fellow union members and was able to make several contacts for the party and sell not a few single copies and Militant subscriptions—a result not matched by many “talking socialist” comrades. Despite this, Barnes, through the branch leadership, was able to put the kibosh on her union activities. Sheppard quotes Linda on her conclusions from the experience: “In retrospect, it seems that the Party elsewhere was becoming preoccupied with internal organization questions.... But turning our face outward seemed always to have energizing and healthy ramifications, a sound posture in any period.... I sensed a shift that would not be good for the life and health of the Party.” Jack Barnes sure as hell knew he did not want a lot of Linda Loews in the party.
There were some things happening in the unions. But Barnes made damn sure comrades were kept as far away from them as possible and remained on the self-isolating, safe track of “talking socialism.” There was the large T.D.U. (Teamsters for a Democratic Union) movement, which the majority completely ignored. It was no accident that the teamsters did not become one of our targeted unions. There was the Labor Notes development, which we completely abstained from. I was a witness to the Hormel P-9 strike in Minnesota. This was a pivotal strike that captured nationwide attention. Despite the influence of Ray Rogers and his defeatist Corporate Campaign strategy, the outcome of the strike was not foreordained. The union membership was prepared to fight and had widespread support throughout the upper Midwest. In spite of having a large Twin Cities branch, the SWP largely abstained from direct involvement in strike support, limiting itself to socialist propaganda.
This was all part of a broader policy pushed by Barnes. His hostility and ridicule toward the comrades developing “roots” in the workplace and unions was not limited to the workplace and unions. It didn’t flow from the “plug in” theory Sheppard describes in chapter 26. Barnes made a point of transferring comrades from branch to branch, from city to city, from fraction to fraction and from industry to industry. The only long-term political relationship he wanted comrades to have was with the national office. He recognized that the branches most resistant to his plans for politically transforming the party were precisely those branches that had some continuity and roots, especially if they had some history and roots in trade union work—Minneapolis, San Francisco, LA, Boston. I remember a conversation with Barnes, before he wrote me off as a hopeless cause, in which he ridiculed the idea of “roots” by supposedly invoking the authority of Cannon. He said Cannon had told him that for comrades who had homes it would be a good thing if they burned down every few years. Is it any wonder that some healthy workers and union members began to see “talking socialism” SWPers as some kind of evangelistic-type weirdoes?
A widespread radicalization?
The second leg of Sheppard’s explanation, Barnes mistaken position that we were at the beginning of a widespread political radicalization also fails as a central cause for what happened with Barnes and the SWP. We all, majority and minorities to one degree or another, held this mistaken assessment. Does that conveniently mean that we were all somehow responsible for what happened with the SWP? No. Of course in the broadest sense, the rock bottom cause of what happened to the party was a function of our long isolation from the working class. However this does not mean the SWP degeneration was inevitable. Under the pressure of this long postponement of a working class upsurge, Barnes lost confidence in the party’s political program, and in a search for short cuts, adopted a whole series of new political positions, which in effect constituted an adaptation to Stalinism. He then moved surreptitiously to impose this new program on the party.
When I say Barnes made an adaptation to Stalinism I want to be clear in what I’m saying. Were Barnes, or even less those who came to agree with him, Stalinists? Absolutely not. The political essence of Stalinism is the willingness to sacrifice revolution to the continued privileges and material interest of a bureaucratic caste. Barnes sincerely wished to make revolutions in Cuba, in Nicaragua, Grenada, the United States and elsewhere. He succumbed to pressures he could not understand or deal with.
Another area in which Barnes adapted to Stalinist politics was around an entirely false interpretation of the concept “workers and farmers government” and how it applied to the unfolding Nicaraguan revolution. Barnes’s new concept of workers and farmers government was a central aspect of his break with Trotsky/Lenin, and the historical program of the SWP and Fourth International.
Workers and farmers governments
Where did the concept “workers and farmers government” originally come from? It first appeared in the agitation of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and was further developed by the Bolsheviks to deal with a very fortuitous situation following the successful 1917 revolution. Under the radicalizing impact of World War I and the successful Russian revolution, revolutionary uprisings of workers and farmers in a number of countries, including in colonial and semi-colonial areas, took place. Some of these were even able to seize governmental power. Not only were these uprisings not led by Leninist parties, they were also devoid of any clear socialist program.
You had a situation where revolutionary forces had smashed the existing capitalist government, seized governmental powers themselves and were presiding over an essentially capitalist state. What orientation was the new Soviet workers state to have toward this development? They of course embraced and supported these new worker and farmer governments. They also did everything they could to influence these revolutionaries of action to deepen the revolution, adopt a clear socialist program and move ahead to smash the remaining capitalist state.
They understood that such workers and farmers governments were an intrinsically unstable phenomenon. They recognized that time was not on the side of these worker and farmers governments. Either they moved ahead relatively quickly or the forces of reaction could consolidate and throw the revolution back. The longer the workers and peasants are held back from nationalizing the land and decisively smashing the capitalist state, the worse grows the relative position of the workers and peasants vis-à-vis the capitalists. A molecular process of reconstituting capitalist governmental power inevitably takes place beneath the surface by virtue of the still intact capitalist economic power.
This was the position of the Bolsheviks in power; this was the position presented in the Transitional Program2, the basic programmatic document adopted at the founding conference of the Fourth International; and this was the position defended by the Henderson/Weinstein minority tendency. This was the position that Barnes threw out. Instead, Barnes adopted many aspects of the subsequent Stalinist reformulation of workers and farmers government. A reformulation, which converted it into a bridge to the Stalinist concept of “two stage” revolution and popular frontism. Furthermore, Barnes did this without ever openly presenting his real views, and blocked any real discussion in the party over this sweeping programmatic reversal.
Specifically, with respect to Nicaragua, the FSLN (The Sandinista National Liberation Front) [Spanish: Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional, or FSLN] had yet to settle accounts with the capitalists in Nicaragua. They had yet to advance a program that would lead to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. They rejected nationalization of the land and despite the real measures in favor of workers and peasants imposed on the Nicaraguan capitalists, the FSLN stopped short of infringing on the principle of capitalist profits. This was justified in their view—the dominant FSLN view—because the national economy could only be reconstructed with the aid of the anti-Somoza bourgeoisie, and thus upon the foundation of a fundamentally capitalist economy. Speeches by FSLN leaders described a policy of following a middle course between private ownership and nationalization for an indefinite period ahead—a mixed economy for a prolonged period.
This of course was in no way comparable with Lenin’s New Economic Policy adopted by the Bolsheviks in 1921. In that case a conscious Marxist party with a clear communist program had decisively established the dictatorship of the proletariat—the capitalist state had been smashed and a workers’ state was clearly in place. The “mixed economy,” “pluralistic society” policy followed by the FSLN represented their conviction that it was tactically necessary to postpone the dictatorship of the proletariat in order not to alienate anti-Somoza elements of the national bourgeoisie and cut off the possibility of investments and aid from sectors of world capitalism. This policy presented a dire threat to the Nicaraguan revolution.
Barnes/Waters’ new concept of workers and farmers government was presented as if to imply that it was identical to the dictatorship of the proletariat; as if it were merely a popular designation of the already established dictatorship of the proletariat. Barnes/Waters asserted that the FSLN was “irreversibly on the road toward consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The Barnes/Waters majority supported and even embraced the idea of a prolonged mixed economy, not as a danger to the Nicaraguan revolution, but a positive characteristic. Where the workers and farmers government is conceived as a prolonged stage and thus is counter-posed to the dictatorship of the proletariat, it is transformed, as Trotsky put it in the Transitional Program, “from a bridge to socialist revolution into the chief barrier upon its path.”
Barnes/Waters projected the FSLN and even the “New Jewel” movement in Grenada as the new incarnation of the Castro led July 26th movement in the Cuban revolution. Tragically for the Nicaraguan revolution, nothing could have been further from the truth. And this truth was not difficult to discover. From their own political statements and speeches it was clear the leaders of the FSLN were following an entirely different political perspective and strategy than Castro’s July 26th movement.
Speech by FSLN Commander Tomas Borge October 10, 1980:
“We could have taken away all their (the Nicaraguan capitalists’) businesses and we would not have been overthrown; I’m sure of that. But what is more conducive to the economic development of the country is what is best for the Nicaraguan people. So when we talk about a mixed economy, we mean it; and when we talk about political pluralism, we mean it. This is not a short-term maneuver but our strategic approach....
“We are not going to violate these principles. But we are not going to let them decapitalize their businesses, because that means taking resources out of the country and destroying those enterprises. We want to see the development of private enterprise, private commerce, and private cultivation of the land. Furthermore, we have no interest in nationalizing the land. On the contrary, we are interested in expanding private ownership of the land. We think this should be basically in the form of cooperatives, but if there are also private enterprises involved in production, we want them to develop too.”
Daniel Ortega Interview, Le Monde, March 27, 1981:
“We hope to carry out a difficult task, i.e., maintain political pluralism and a mixed economy in a situation where the class struggle is reaching explosive dimensions. The main obstacle to our task, the reason for this polarization, is the lack of flexibility of the political representatives of the private sector. Everything is still possible, but it is important that this group, which does not represent the totality of all private industrialists, understand the revolution as a reality in which we can coexist. At this time, their attitude only stimulates the class struggle.”
FSLN Commander Jaime Wheelock, El Gran Desafio, 1983:
“It is important to understand that the socialist model is a solution for contradictions that only exist in developed capitalist countries... Even though we have socialist principles, we cannot effect the transformation of our society by socializing the means of production. This would not lead to socialism, rather, on the contrary, it could lead to the destruction and disarticulation of our society.”
Daniel Ortega interview with former California Governor Jerry Brown, New Perspectives, October 1984:
“The greatest favor we could perform for this (Reagan) administration would be if we were to define ourselves as a regime such as Cuba’s... We’re struggling to establish a regime that is of a democratic and pluralistic nature. We’re not imitating any country in particular, but we have sought the contribution of the experiences of other countries. Perhaps the Nicaraguan Revolution is something that can be compared to the Algerian Revolution. In the context of Latin America, we would see it as being close to what the Mexican process has been.”
Tomas Borge interview with the Nicaraguan magazine, Pensamiento Propio, July 1985:
“The geo-political context (in which our revolution developed) compelled us, independently of our own will, to develop political pluralism and a mixed economy. This tactic became transformed into a strategy, and today the mixed economy is neither an operational choice nor a camouflage. It is a strategy....
“But this has rendered the role of revolutionary leadership among the masses more difficult. Political pluralism, the mixed economy, and the general traits of our revolution tend to sow confusion among the masses. There is not—nor could there be—an ideological project as clearly defined as the one that existed in Cuba. Our project is muddled and complicated, and muddled projects sow confusion among the masses.”
Interview with Tomas Borge, New Left Review, July/August 1987:
“The bourgeoisie has not resigned itself to losing political power and is fighting with all its weapons—including economic weapons which threaten the very existence of the economy. It is no accident that the bourgeoisie has been given so many economic incentives, more even than the workers; we ourselves have been more attentive in giving the bourgeoisie economic opportunities than in responding to the demands of the working class. We have sacrificed the working class in favor of the economy as part of a strategic plan; but the bourgeoisie continues to resist, sometimes boycotting the economy for the sake of its political interests.”
Prominent leaders of the FSLN pledged time and again their commitment to mixed economy, and not as a “short term maneuver” but as their “strategic approach.” As early as 1981 in the La Monde interview Daniel Ortega assures the “political representatives of the private sector” that the revolution is one “in which we can coexist.” And then laments the fact that their inflexible “attitude only stimulates the class struggle.” Whether he’s conscious of it or not he’s requesting their cooperation in tamping down the “explosive” class struggle. Can you imagine Fidel at any stage in the evolution of the July 26th Movement making such a statement?
Perhaps most ironic is Daniel Ortega’s October 1984 quote in which he holds up the Algerian Revolution as the model for the Nicaraguan Revolution—the classic example in which a workers and farmers government was crushed precisely because it did not aggressively push ahead to a socialist conclusion.
In 1984, FSLN Minister of Defense Humberto Ortega in Le Volcan Nicaraguayen explained: “We cannot resolve at the same time the problems of national liberation and those of social liberation. We must first complete the stage of national independence and national liberation.”
Here we see workers and farmers government falsely used to justify the Stalinist concept of two-stage revolution. In his speech to the First Congress of the Cuban Communist Party, December 1975, Fidel describes quite differently the relationship between national liberation and social liberation:
“Yet, in the conditions of a country like Cuba, could the revolution limit itself simply to national liberation while maintaining a regime of capitalist exploitation? Or was it not necessary to move forward toward full social liberation as well?
“Imperialism could not even tolerate a revolution of national liberation in Cuba. From the time of the first Agrarian Reform Law, the United States began to organize a military operation against Cuba. They were even less disposed to tolerate socialism in our country. The simple idea that a victorious revolution in Cuba could provide an example for all Latin America frightened the Yankee ruling circles. But the Cuban nation had no other alternative. The people could not be stopped.
“Our national and our social liberation were inextricably bound up. Moving forward became a historic necessity. Standing still would have been an act of treason and cowardice that would have transformed us once again into a Yankee colony and wage slaves.”
Escalating organizational intimidation
Sheppard accurately describes the escalated campaign of charges, trials and expulsions orchestrated by Barnes through 1981-1983. One third of the party’s membership was eventually driven out. Then faced with the 1983 party convention and the prospects of pre-convention discussion, the secret faction violated the party’s constitution, which required that “National Conventions of the Party shall be held at least every two years,” by canceling the convention and in its place substituting an “educational” conference devoted to the Barnes/Waters’ political line. This was accomplished without a whimper of protest from the remaining majority membership.
Only after this long campaign of intimidation, after which every remaining member could not help but know that any opposition to the Barnes/Waters’ line meant expulsion, did they feel safe in finally presenting their new political positions in writing. Without a prior party vote or even party discussion Barnes/Waters now quickly moved to publish in the New International, two articles completely reversing the core political program of the SWP since its founding. “Their Trotsky and Ours: Communist Continuity Today,” the Fall 1983 issue; under Jack Barnes’ name, “The Workers and Farmers’ Government: A Popular Revolutionary Dictatorship,” the Spring 1984 issue; under Mary-Alice Waters’ name.
Sheppard says very little about these two sweeping programmatic articles. He barely mentions the Waters article. “The Workers and Farmers’ Government: A Popular Revolutionary Dictatorship” is devoted to explaining and justifying the Barnes/Waters’ reformulated version of Workers’ and Farmers’ Government. In the opening sentences Waters proclaims that the historical task facing the working-class movement “is to establish a new kind of state power—a popular revolutionary dictatorship...” As far as I know, Waters introduces here an entirely new term (popular revolutionary dictatorship)—and to describe what? It is ambiguous whether it applies to a government or the class nature of the state. And the ambiguity is deliberate. “Popular revolutionary dictatorship” has certainly never before been used by Marxist/Leninists to describe the class nature of a state and state power. For revolutionary socialists the terms workers state, socialist state and state power based on the dictatorship of the proletariat have clear and established meanings. What then is a “popular revolutionary dictatorship;” and what lies behind the crafting of this new term?
Throughout the article Waters uses the term to confuse, obscure and blur the distinctions between the class character of state and government power—between the concept of a workers’ and farmers’ government and the concept of a workers’ state. Early on Waters asserts: “The October revolution established a popular revolutionary dictatorship of the workers and peasants.” What the October revolution established of course was the dictatorship of the proletariat and a workers state. So here Waters draws an equal sign between “popular revolutionary dictatorship of the workers and peasants” and a workers’ state—an equal sign between “popular revolutionary dictatorship of the workers and peasants” and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Cuba and Nicaragua
Towards the end of the article Waters tells us that in Nicaragua “a popular revolutionary dictatorship—a workers’ and peasants’ government—emerged from the victory over the Somozaist tyranny in July 1979.” While never explicitly making the claim, it suggests that the FSLN government is equivalent to the dictatorship of the proletariat and even that Nicaragua is a workers state. Attempting to cast the net of confusion even wider, Waters writes in another section of the article: “The workers’ and farmers’ governments in our own epoch are popular dictatorships of the revolutionary classes that have taken power.”
Barnes/Waters’ new concept of workers’ and farmers’ government was presented as if to imply that it was identical to the dictatorship of the proletariat; as if it were merely a popular designation of the already established dictatorship of the proletariat. All the machinations around this newly invented term “popular revolutionary dictatorship” in the Waters’ article amount to little more than ham-fisted prestidigitation in attempting to promote this idea.
Time and again Barnes/Waters and their surrogates asserted that the FSLN was “irreversibly on the road toward consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat.” Then plunging ahead even further, Barnes/Waters supported and even embraced the idea of a prolonged stage of “mixed economy.” They took the position that the FSLN workers’ and farmers’ government, presiding over an essentially capitalist state with a mixed economy for an extended period of time, presented no problems for the future of the revolution. For them the pace of the transition away from a capitalist economy to a workers state was not a decisive or particularly relevant issue.
Waters gives voice to this idea in discussing the Russian Revolution: “The decisive question was not the pace of the transition, but whose interests the new state power defended.” While commenting that in Cuba the process of transition “moved exceptionally fast to the expropriations of imperialist—and Cuban-owned—capitalist property in the summer and fall of 1960,” Waters sees no necessary connection between that pace and the Cuban workers’ and farmers’ government’s success in establishing the first and only workers’ state in the western hemisphere. To the contrary, Waters goes out of her way to stress the advantages of a slow pace in the transition.
Waters begins by “educating” us that the Bolsheviks recognized “that the transition from capitalism to socialism would take an entire historical epoch....” Of course they did. Lenin and Trotsky, and especially Trotsky in countering Stalin’s claim that a socialist society had been established in the Soviet Union, hammered this truth home to us time and time again. But what were they referring to was the transition from a workers’ state to a socialist society. This indeed would require an historical epoch, probably even for an advanced industrial society.
But that’s not the transition we are talking about in Nicaragua or 1959 Cuba. The transition faced there was not from a workers’ state to fully developed socialist society but from a petty-bourgeois workers’ and farmers’ government to a workers’ state. And the revolutions in Nicaragua and Cuba, under intense economic, political, and military attacks by a powerful U.S. imperialism, had something less than an “historical epoch” in which to make that transition if they were to survive.
Cuba, under the Castro leadership, in response to the increasingly heavy blows which American imperialism dealt the small republic, “moved exceptionally fast” to institute a thoroughgoing land reform, toppled capitalist property relations both foreign and domestic in the commanding sectors of industry, and began economic planning. As a result, in August-October 1960, we in the SWP recognized Cuba had become a workers’ state. The FSLN leadership in Nicaragua in response to the increasing blows of U.S. imperialism postponed these kinds of steps, clinging to the doctrine of prolonged mixed economy, and the revolution was overwhelmed and defeated.
Throughout the article Waters proclaims the decisive centrality of the workers and farmers taking government power. This becomes the Rosetta stone for judging everything. The FSLN leadership was deserving of absolute and uncritical acclaim because they had “a nose for power” as Waters puts it. While seizing governmental power from the bourgeoisie is certainly an admirable and indispensable step, and a positive respite from the course of Stalinized communist parties throughout the world, it is not the end step or culmination of establishing a workers’ state, but only the beginning.
Waters even more sweepingly makes workers’ and farmers’ government the universal road for all socialist revolutions. The SWP was among the earliest, most consistent, and most perceptive defenders of the evolving Cuban revolution. But we never projected its course as the universal model. Barnes/Waters do see it as the model—and not just for Latin America and underdeveloped countries. Barnes/Waters take their newly revised, distorted concept of workers’ and farmers’ government and make it the model for all socialist revolutions—past, present, and future. This includes the 1917 Russian revolution where Waters’ tell us: “The October revolution established a popular revolutionary dictatorship of the workers and peasants”—and this model, Waters asserts, will apply to all future socialist revolutions to come, even in the most advanced capitalist countries.
Waters concludes the article with a vision of numerous workers’ and farmers’ governments presiding for extended periods over “mixed” economies. “The advance,” she explains, “toward a world federation of workers’ and farmers’ republics is inseparable from the fight to build an international movement of the toilers of the world....”
Their Trotsky and ours
Sheppard also brushes off the significance of the long Barnes article, “Their Trotsky and Ours,” characterizing it as “somewhat garbled and self-contradictory.” I have to disagree. Whatever his limitations as a writer, “Their Trotsky and Ours” is not exactly garbled. Barnes is starkly clear in presenting a completely new political line. In the opening pages Barnes clearly describes the purpose of the article: “we have to clarify the relationship to our program of what is known in our movement as Trotsky’s theory or strategy of permanent revolution.” The article then immediately explains that permanent revolution has no relationship to “our program” but is in fact counter to it.
“Permanent revolution does not contribute today to arming either ourselves or other revolutionists to lead the working class and its allies to take power and use that power to advance the world socialist revolution.... It has been an obstacle in our movement to an objective reading of the masters of Marxism, in particular the writings of Lenin.”
Barnes hangs his attack on Trotsky and permanent revolution around the exact same claims made by Stalin in his attacks on Trotsky and the Left Opposition: That Trotsky underestimated the peasantry, and that Lenin’s pre-1917 algebraic formulation “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” constitutes deep and fundamental programmatic differences between Lenin and Trotsky—programmatic differences which persist right to the present.
Barnes also explains that these anti-Leninist ideas and anti-Leninist programmatic positions are not a recent development in the SWP but rather have infected the SWP and the Fourth International right from its birth. The 1928 program of the Left Opposition which directly led to the founding of the SWP and the Fourth International, while containing a powerful critique of the crystallizing Stalinist bureaucracy and its abandonment of internationalism, also contained, according to Barnes, anti-Leninist positions: “The document, however, also had significant leftist weaknesses, as we’ve seen. Our movement has been educated on those parts of the document as well.”
Barnes explains that this anti-Leninist content has only recently been discovered: “to my knowledge (not) anyone in the leadership of our movement has ever taken issue with those sections before. We have never pointed to them as contrary to our overall course, which they are. They are contrary to our programmatic continuity with Lenin, and contrary to the lessons from actual revolutions, led by proletarian revolutionists, since World War II.”
Somehow, the anti-Leninist content of the 1928 document, permanent revolution and the Transitional Program escaped the attention of Cannon, Dobbs, Hansen and everyone else in the SWP and the Fourth International only to be suddenly discovered and revealed by the Barnes/Waters secret faction 55 years later. Barnes warns that the party will be unable to carry out its revolutionary role, “unless we disentangle this central core of our political continuity from the leftist bias brought in by the erroneous side of Trotsky’s pre-1917 views, including those revived by Trotsky in the 1928 document.”
“We must recognize,” Barnes explains, “that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is not a correct generalization of the historic program and strategy of communism.” And, according to Barnes, what now makes it possible for us to recognize these “anti-Leninist,” “leftist” errors, is the party’s proletarian turn. “That is what we in the Socialist Workers Party have discovered over the past five years since we made our turn to industry, since we began becoming more proletarian, since we began to emerge from the semi-sectarian existence imposed on us by conditions in the 1950s and 1960s, and since we began following more closely the course of the revolutions and proletarian leaderships in Central America and the Caribbean.”
This provides a convenient dichotomy for the secret faction. It is only those who criticize and don’t understand the “talking socialism” turn to industry that cling to outmoded, outdated concepts of workers’ and farmers’ government and permanent revolution.
The test of theory is practice. It was the SWP, armed with the original concept of workers’ and farmers’ government and permanent revolution, which was able to most correctly analyze the Cuban revolution and the evolution of the Castro leadership, and become among the earliest and most effective defenders of the Cuban workers’ state. The Barnes/Waters faction, rejecting permanent revolution and applying their new distorted concept of workers’ and farmers’ government, consistently failed to understand the evolution of events in Nicaragua and the missteps of the FSLN, Sandinista leadership. On the contrary, it led them to support and encourage these errors.
At the conclusion of “Their Trotsky and Ours,” Barnes stresses and drives home to the Party the sweeping programmatic changes he is now imposing: “In some ways, the shift I am proposing is one of the biggest changes in our movement since we first emerged, more than half-a-century ago, as a distinct political current in world politics. Since that time, permanent revolution in all its meanings has been a guiding concept of our entire world movement, including the SWP.”
It is not accurate to explain the degeneration of the SWP foremost as the product of a “Barnes Cult.” Barnes was not exactly a charismatic personality. At least I never thought so and I never met anyone who did. He was no great shakes as an orator and when he was willing to reveal his political positions he demonstrated little ability to clearly present them in written form. Barnes’ skills lay elsewhere, in psychologically evaluating and manipulating people without shrinking from a certain personal ruthlessness.
Sheppard stresses the organizational side of the SWP’s degeneration. This is perhaps understandable in that he was both a prominent facilitator of the Barnes’ intimidation and expulsion campaign and eventually a hapless victim of it. Sheppard criticizes himself for not opposing the Barnes’ organizational degeneration even though he continued to support the majority political positions. He says he should have formed a bloc with the minorities in defense of party democracy while still supporting the Barnes/Waters’ political program and call for the removal of Jack Barnes as National Secretary. There are a lot of illusions expressed here.
One thing that we were always taught in the healthy SWP was that political questions come first; organizational questions are secondary. This is true even for a memoir. The only way to have successfully prevented the Barnes degeneration was to confront him politically. To mobilize enough support in the membership so Barnes/Waters would be forced to defend their secret political program in an open democratic debate. Barnes knew he would have an extremely difficult time doing this, which is why he functioned organizationally the way he did. This is the course Nat Weinstein and I followed in forming the Henderson/Weinstein political tendency leading up to the 1981 convention. Sheppard himself eventually also recognized the false political line of Barnes/Waters but not until after he had been successfully politically exiled.
The degeneration of the SWP was the result of a secret faction (Barnes/Waters) whose calculated goal was to overthrow the fundamental program of the SWP and Fourth International. The programmatic strategy of this faction centered around two themes. One, revising and distorting the concept of workers’ and farmers’ governments as originally developed by the Bolsheviks and subsequently incorporated into the Transitional Program; and two, reviving Lenin’s discarded pre-1917 formula, Democratic Dictatorship of Workers and Peasants, to claim fundamental differences between Lenin and Trotsky which negated the validity of Permanent Revolution. Along with this they abandoned the concept of political revolution and rejected the position that Stalinism was “counter revolutionary through and through.” Finally, in practical political functioning they abandoned the method of the Transitional Program.
The Barnes/Waters’ program was and is a direct attack on Marxism-Leninism. An even more sweeping, more fundamental, and unfortunately more successful attack than that mounted by the notorious Burnham/Shachtman3 faction. The program of the Henderson/Weinstein tendency was nothing more than a direct political challenge to the Barnes/Waters’ revisionist program.
The minority platform of the Henderson/Weinstein tendency was defined by two documents presented in 1981—“The Transitional Program and Method: the Road Forward and the Trade Union Minority Report.” In this platform we objected to the misuse of the workers’ and farmers’ government label as a completely uncritical carte blanche to the FSLN leadership, its program and its every action. We objected to the use of the workers and farmers label to proclaim that Nicaragua was “irreversibly” on the road to a workers’ state. We objected to equating workers’ and farmers’ government with dictatorship of the proletariat. We foresaw and objected to Barnes’ rejection of permanent revolution, and we directly challenged him on this, which forced him at the 1981 party convention to blatantly lie to the party. We criticized the new sectarian “talk socialism” policy, which abandoned the party’s long and successful strategy in trade union work. We objected to the new sectarian policy abstaining from building the same kind of broad united front movement against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua and Central America as we had led in the Vietnam antiwar movement. We objected to the party’s abstention from united front actions and meetings in defense of Poland’s Solidarity movement. We objected to the misuse of the “turn” to force the YSA (Young Socialist Alliance—the youth group affiliated with the SWP) off the campuses and to abandon student work. And finally we objected to the Barnes/Waters’ faction driving the party away from the method of the Transitional Program.
As Sheppard correctly points out in his conclusion, despite the adverse objective situation the SWP faced with the continued postponement of a working class upsurge, its degeneration was not inevitable. But the successful intimidation campaign and mass expulsions succeeded in allowing for the political destruction of the SWP. While the SWP was not more than a nucleus of a potential mass revolutionary party, its elimination is a significant defeat for the American working class and the Fourth International. Any future upsurge of the working class will now have to face the much more difficult task of building such a party from scratch.
In this memoir Barry Sheppard chronicles the tragic degeneration of the SWP especially from the organizational side. In addition, the first half of volume 2 documents the political contributions made by the recent SWP before it went off the deep end—including its analysis of the revolutionary developments in Iran, participation in the Boston school busing struggle, and a summary of the party’s position on Israel and Palestine. It’s a needed reminder of just how valuable the healthy SWP was and what great loss has been its demise. Barry Sheppard’s memoir is a unique and valuable contribution to understanding what happened in the SWP by someone who, despite going through a horrific personal political journey, remains a revolutionary socialist.
—March 30, 2012
1 James Patrick “Jim” Cannon (February 11, 1890 – August 21, 1974) was an American Trotskyist and a founder and leader of the Socialist Workers Party.
2 The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International
The Mobilization of the Masses around Transitional Demands to Prepare the Conquest of Power — The Transitional Program, (1938)
Written by Leon Trotsky in 1938. Originally published in the May-June 1938 edition of Bulletin of the Opposition as a discussion document for the Founding Congress of the Fourth International (World Party of Socialist Revolution).
3 “Burnham allied with Max Shachtman in a faction fight over the position of the SWP’s majority faction, led by James P. Cannon and backed by Leon Trotsky, defending the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state against the incursions of imperialism. Shachtman and Burnham, especially after witnessing the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939 and the invasions of Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia by Joseph Stalin’s regime, as well as the Soviet invasion of Finland in November 1939, came to contend that the USSR was a new form of imperialistic class society and was thus not worthy of even critical support from the socialist movement.”