Barry Sheppard's
The Party
The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988
A Political Memoir

Volume 1: The Sixties


Review by Chris Brooks

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The following review appeared in issue #369 (July-August, 2005) of the ezine International Viewpoint, the monthly English-language magazine of the Fourth International. Chris Brooks is part of the International Viewpoint editorial team.

How US Revolutionaries Navigated Through the 1960s

By Chris Brooks

This well-written and wide-ranging volume of Barry Sheppard's memoir of revolutionaries in the United States can be warmly recommended to readers of International Viewpoint.

This volume follows the struggles and successes of Sheppard and the US socialist organizations from the challenging years of the 1950s through to 1973, when the socialist left had been strengthened by a new generation of activists.

Sheppard's memoirs are partisan of, and sympathetic to, the two organizations Sheppard was an active member of: Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) and then of Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), which had been founded as the American section of the Fourth International in 1938. [1] The SWP and its members had survived isolation, government disruption and systematic victimization through the 1950s. In the 1960s, activists like Sheppard built a revolutionary alternative to the Communist Party and Social Democratic movements in the United States, both of which aimed to channel progressive activists towards the Democratic Party.

Sheppard's memoir explains how and why the Fourth Internationalists worked in defense of the black struggle, the Cuban revolution and the Vietnamese revolution. By helping the Young Socialist Alliance to energize a new generation, the revolutionaries made a historic contribution towards ending the war in Vietnam.

Above all, Sheppard's book is a history of the SWP's leadership transition. Through the 1960s, the central leaders of the SWP were mostly activists who had joined the movement in the 1930s and 1940s. This highly qualified leadership team was starting to age and saw the opportunity to bring in a new layer of leaders, including Sheppard.

The old revolutionary generation helped the new one to understand the centrality of international collaboration in the struggle to end the war in Vietnam. Seasoned leaders like Joseph Hansen, George Breitman and Farrell Dobbs helped younger leaders to navigate through the largest radicalization in US history and a deep global radicalization. Sheppard's book covers all of this material rapidly, directly and intensively. [2]

This book also gives an excellent flavor of the internal realities of the SWP: its strong organization coherence; the reluctance of aging SWP founder James P. Cannon to withdraw from his leadership role; the tendency of some branches to develop into fiefdoms; the strong apparatus (at one point, something like a fifth of SWP members worked for the party); and the power of its political committee. [3]

Sheppard's account attempts to be both a memoir and a history. He was a supporter of the Fourth International, which publishes International Viewpoint, and eventually one of its leaders. He held a number of central leadership roles until the 1980s, when those organizations withdrew from the Fourth International. However, this book is much more a history than a memoir: Sheppard's personal motivations, feelings and relationships are skipped over quickly but since this book covers an immense scope with such excellence, any criticisms we could make should not detract from the value of this book.

It should also be noted that this opening volume of Sheppard's book is deeply partisan of the SWP and the approach of its leadership committees. The net effect of this is to present the SWP as basically without internal, subjective problems by the time the book closes, in 1973. This accelerates the pace of the book, simplifies a complex history and reflects the opinions of its publishers, the DSP of Australia. However, this gives the book its weakness.

This simplification is unfortunate, especially because the SWP at this time was leading a minority tendency of opinion in the Fourth International. Both viewpoints in the debate were partially correct, but Sheppard's weak account of some disagreements makes the opinions of those that the SWP disagrees with impossible to understand. In particular, some comments concerning FI leaders such as Ernest Mandel, Tariq Ali and some leading comrades in France would have been better to have made in more detail, or not to have been made at all.

However, the general picture of a healthy SWP co-habiting with a sickening FI certainly conceals a number of developing tensions inside the SWP: In the discussions for the SWP's 1973 convention, a group of SWP members found themselves disagreeing with the monolithic SWP leadership on some issues (and, in fact, agreeing with the majority viewpoint in the Fourth International). These comrades had detected an adaptation by the SWP to more cautious political positions which offered the opportunity of larger mobilizations on a lower political basis (those comrades claimed that 'Victory to the Vietnamese Revolution' was replaced by 'Bring the troops home now', 'Free Abortion on Demand' became 'Repeal all abortion laws') and detected a less challenging approach towards the trade union leaderships. Those comrades were purged the following year by Sheppard and his then-colleagues in the SWP's leadership.

Some readers will hope that this book will show them the roots of the SWP's political crisis in the 1980s, which led to the SWP's re-orientation towards the Cuban bureaucracy, the wrong-headed expulsion and exclusion of members who maintained solidarity with the FI, and its final withdrawal from the FI. This crisis ripens in the second volume of Sheppard's book, but the origins are signaled.


[1] Despite reactionary legislation in 1941 which forced the SWP to disaffiliate from the FI, the party was a strong supporter of the world movement until the 1980s. In the 1980s the leadership of the SWP adapted increasingly to the Cuban Communist Party. It withdrew from the FI formally in 1990.

[2] For a more extensive outline of the SWP's policies during this period readers can refer to a series of books, sadly no longer available from the SWP's Pathfinder Press: Towards an American Socialist Revolution [1971]; A revolutionary strategy for the 1970s [1972]; Feminism and Socialism [1972]; and Black Liberation & Socialism [1974].

[3] SWP leaders Frank Lovell discussed some of these issues in the open half of an introduction he wrote to a series of books on the later crisis in the SWP. (

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