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

Volume 1: The Sixties


Review by Nick Fredman

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This review appeared on March 30, 2005 on the Marxism Mailing list (
The author is a member of the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia.

Re: Barry Sheppard's political memoir of the US SWP, 1960-88

By Nick Fredman

I've just finished Barry's book, and while as a political memoir it doesn't have the literary flair of Trotsky's My Life or Tariq Ali's Street Fighting Years, or the wry irony of Cannon's History of American Trotskyism, it does contain some fascinating insights into the upheavals of the period covered (1958-73), and a carefully argued and what appears to be balanced assessment of the role of the US SWP.

Unsurprisingly Bob Gould attacks Barry's unrepentant 'Zinovievism', citing the latter's support for an organizational resolution in 1965. It's always struck how the anti-'Zinovievest' brigade fetishise rules and organizational questions in explaining why some socialist groups have degenerated into sectarianism and/or cultism. This is a highly unmaterialist approach (the materialist approach would be to examine the social and political context the groups in question operate in and the political positions and practice of the groups in response), and usually asserted with little or no evidence. Barry by contrast provides substantial evidence that the SWP in the 1960s and early 1970s was highly democratic, with numerous tendencies and factions producing voluminous debates on many questions and being fairly represented on elected bodies, etc. It will be interesting therefore to see how Barry in his next volume (covering 1973-88) explains the SWP's later degeneration.

Other interesting aspects of the book shed some light for me on some issues for which the SWP has been criticized by others on the far left. Barry is quite clear that the SWP should have been more directly involved in the civil rights struggle in the South in the late 50s/early 60s, but he also describes solidarity actions they organized, links they had with some leading activists, positive coverage they gave the movement etc. Barry seems unrepentant that the SWP had a generally 'legalistic' approach to civil disobedience in the mass movement, but interestingly he also describes how after losing the vote on the nature of an anti-war action in New York in 1968, that sought to shut down army induction centres with mobile columns of protestors as had been done successfully in Berkeley, the SWP fully participated (even though their prediction that the demo would fail proved correct).

The first time I think I became aware of the US SWP was when I first read Tariq Ali's Street Fighting Years in 1988. Ali, describing meeting SWP members in 1969, is quite contemptuous, and sees the late 60s SWP as a bunch of robots and third-rate leftovers of the radicalization. Barry gives a lot of evidence to support his picture of a vibrant and growing movement, maybe a bit nerdy (check out those photos of 60s revolutionaries wearing *ties*) but politically far ahead of other left tendencies. Barry doesn't mention Ali's opinions, but he does describe how Ali opportunistically gave a fawning speech at a cultish, sectarian stunt organized by the Healyites in 1968, so maybe that's a little payback.


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