Review by Bob Gould
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This review appeared on the website Ozleft, described as "an independent forum of strategy, tactics, and history in the Australian left, green and labour movements."
Barry Sheppard's Memoir, The Party. An interested, Critical Review
By Bob Gould
This is a book of considerable interest on the history of the revolutionary socialist movement, and it's of particular interest to me because Barry Sheppard and I crossed paths at an important time. As well, the US SWP, of which he was a leading figure, had some influence on my political development and a lot of influence on the evolution of the revolutionary socialist movement in Australia.
Sheppard's memoir has the same name as Trevor Griffith's interesting and illuminating play, "The Party", essentially a playwright's portrait of Gerry Healy.
I find in reading Sheppard's memoir that we are roughly the same age. We were both born in the awful year, 1937, which Victor Serge dubbed "midnight in the century".
I'm interested to read that Sheppard subscribed to Dorothy Day's US "Catholic Worker", as part of his political development, which I also subscribed to from Australia as a young leftward moving Catholic in the labour movement.
Sheppard is in a pretty unusual position for someone of our generation, as he met both Max Shachtman and James P. Cannon in the course of his political development. He started out in the socialist movement as a supporter of Shachtman's state capitalist theory about the nature of the USSR. He shares that unusual experience with Tim Wohlforth, James Robertson and probably Fred Mazelis.
His description of his political formation in the US is interesting. Larry Trainor, the working-class Trotskyist in Boston, who was one of his mentors, gave him C.L.R. James's "World Revolution 1917-36" to read. That book also had some influence on me.
Sheppard's description of the evolution of the US Young Socialist Alliance, of which he was a founding member, parallels, from his point of view, the experience of the pseudonymous Workers League person (possibly Tim Wohlforth or Fred Mazelis) who wrote a pamphlet on the early years of the YSA. (Another interesting account of the same period is the memoir of the left-wing Social Democrat, the late Michael Harrington.)
I used to have that pamphlet, but I seem to have lost it. It doesn't seem to be on the web, and if anyone on Marxmail knows how I can get hold of a copy of it, I'd be grateful for the advice.
Sheppard's book is a straight up and down account of his political experiences, and the evolution of the SWP in the first 10 years or so of his involvement. There's very little in it that Jack Barnes and the modern US SWP could object to as a history of their current, and it will be interesting to see how they react.
Sheppard describes the factional alignments in the SWP. He rapidly became a Farrell Dobbs supporter, rather than a supporter of Murry and Myra Tanner Weiss, or even and adherent of James P. Cannon in the period of his retirement.
He even gently chides Cannon for incipient factionalism against the leadership of the SWP after Cannon retired to California. He strongly defends the 1965 organisational resolution of the SWP that put almost impossible constraints on the formation of factions unless allowed by the leadership, saying it was a product of the fact that the younger members wanted a campaigning party that wasn't held back by a continuing stew of discussion.
He tends to dismiss Cannon's very public, although late in the piece, misgivings. Cannon pleaded for tolerance of discussion inside the SWP in the well-known document, "Don't Strangle the Party".
In the subsequent evolution of the US SWP, the very stringent, Zinovievist rules of organisation adopted in 1965 turned out to be a structural form that accelerated the transformation of the US SWP, the Australian DSP and the New Zealand Socialist Action League into the
As a participant, Sheppard defends this militarise-the-party resolution vehemently, and it was within that framework that he became an international political operator and enforcer on behalf of the Barnes leadership of the SWP until he fell out with Barnes in the last couple of years of his membership of the SWP.
It will be interesting to see how Sheppard handles the degeneration of the US SWP in his second volume. He was a vigorous participant in the elimination of all the oppositions in the US SWP up to his own departure.
Sheppard's book is quite absorbing. It's a bit on the dry side, almost laconic, a bit like Sheppard himself, but it's relatively calm and careful, unlike the hysterical memoir written by John Percy on the history of Australian DSP current, which was launched simultaneously with Sheppard's book at the Asia-Pacific Solidarity conference over Easter. Sheppard's book is not entirely objective, but it's his memoir, and it's naive to automatically expect total objectivity from a participant.
The book's biases are, however, not allowed to prevent at least some account of the views of people or currents with which Sheppard had been in conflict. It's not as comprehensive on the development of the Vietnam antiwar movement as Fred Halstead's book, "Out Now", but as a memoir it doesn't have to be.
As a revolutionary socialist and secretary of the Vietnam Action Committee in Australia, I used to follow pretty carefully the lead of the US SWP through the "Bring the Troops Home Now" newsletter and later material.
In Australia we weren't quite as legalistic as the US SWP and we didn't completely avoid all acts of civil disobedience, as the US SWP tended to do. Nevertheless, we closely followed the general lead of the US SWP in the antiwar movement, and the impact of this in Australia, in my view, was almost entirely positive.
We had, in Australia, however, a considerable advantage for our
The useful influence on us of the US SWP was considerable when our contact was entirely through SWP literature, and we were trying to do something similar in Australia. When our contact with the US SWP became more direct, however, with Barry Sheppard's visit to Australia in 1969, the situation changed.
When Sheppard arrived here on a kind of fact-finding mission on behalf of the US SWP leadership, it clearly emerged later that he was casing the joint, politically speaking. While paying ritual obeisance to the proposition that the SWP didn't interfere too much, it's absolutely clear from the references to Australia and New Zealand in his book that the objective was to find likely types who would model themselves totally on the US SWP and push aside unassimilable old Trotskyists such as Bob Gould and Hector MacNeill, who were perceived as standing in the way of the US SWP's political project.
At that stage, the US SWP's aim was clearly to establish organisations in English-speaking countries in its own rather authoritarian, ultra-Cannonist image, and which would also bow to the leadership of the mother party, the US SWP. For a while that worked in Australia, but it came to grief later, with the sharpest possible personal conflict for hegemony between Jack Barnes in the US and Jim Percy in Australia.
Sheppard writes of his 1965 visit: "I had written to Bob Gould, the only Australian who had recent contact with the Fourth International, and I was expecting him to meet me. I was looking around the airport waiting room for someone who looked like they were looking around for someone. I noticed that there was a group of hippie-ish young people who seemed to be milling around. When all the other passengers had left, I was alone with them. Finally, I walked ever to a young man with a red beard and asked him if he was looking for Barry Sheppard, and he was. They thought I was CIA or something, what with my suit and short hair.
"What I found was a very pleasant surprise. These young people had organised a youth group called Resistance. Resistance was in the thick of the antiwar movement Australia.
"One of the first things these young comrades did was provide me with some warm clothes.
"I was invited to a conference held in their headquarters and bookshop, which were quite impressive. It wasn't just for members, but included a lot of young people and their group, and the room was packed. They gave reports on their political work. I gave a report that covered the antiwar and Black power movements in the United States, the Socialist Workers Party, the Fourth International, and the World Congress.
"The main leaders of Resistance were brothers, John and Jim Percy. It was Jim Percy, with his red beard, that I had approached at the airport. The Percy brothers were in a group called the International Marxist League, along with Gould. The Percy brothers were attracted to the SWP's party-building perspective, and had been in a struggle with Gould over the direction of the group. In a private meeting, they asked me to intercede, backing them against Gould. I told them that as I had just gotten to know them and Gould, I thought it would be wrong for me to do that. I explained that experience had made the SWP very wary of jumping into internal disputes among groups in other countries. They were disappointed, but knew I agreed with them on necessity of building a party in Australia.
"The result was the beginning of a close relationship between the American SWP and the party they went on to build. They had to break with Gould to do it.
"In Brussels, the Bureau was also in contact with a person in Wellington, New Zealand, by the name of Hector MacNeill. I had thought that Australia and New Zealand were pretty close, but found they are 1500 miles apart when I flew to Wellington. I stayed with Hector and his wife in their small home. I remember that they had a whole lot of butter on their table, and we ate a lot of lamb, both of which were cheap in Zealand.
"As in Australia, I found that Hector had a group of youth around him interested in socialism. This wasn't as big a group as in Australia, but they were campus leaders involved in the antiwar movement. I encouraged them to go in the direction of building an organisation. The main young leaders I met were the Fyson brothers, George and Hugh. They did go on to build an organisation, and had to break with MacNeill to do it. As was the case with the Australians, the New Zealand group developed close ties with the American SWP in the years following my trip. They would jokingly refer to me as the 'father' of their group.
"I flew back to Sydney for more discussions, and then headed back to the United States. At the immigration station, they were routinely checking the names of all passengers in a fat book. When they got to me, they evidently found me listed. I was hauled into a small room, all my belongings and papers were searched, and the papers were copied.
"I stayed in New York for the SWP convention, held in early September. I gave a report on the international political situation and the discussion that had begun in the Fourth International. After the convention, Caroline and I flew back to Brussels."
It would be difficult to exaggerate how much the Zinovievist process, of which Sheppard himself had become part, became a powerful factor in the later transformation of all three groups, in the US, Australia and New Zealand, into the rather rigid sects that they now are.
It's a mistake when reading history and memoir to impose on the past too much of what one now knows, or thinks one knows. That's a mistake that's obvious in current writing about the labour movement by DSP "historians" such as John Percy and Jim McIlroy.
Nevertheless, it strikes me that the difference in approach between myself and Sheppard are partly problems of the labour movements in our respective countries, which has culminated in the extravagant ultraleftism now advocated by Barry Sheppard, Caroline Lund and Malik Miah concerning the trade union movement.
I came in to the revolutionary socialist movement in the midst of a big fight between the left and right in the trade unions and the Labor Party for the future and soul of those movements, and I came into it from a family with deep roots in the Australian labour movement.
Those early experiences partly defined my approach to politics and they still do, to some extent. The experiences of Sheppard and the Percy brothers were quite different, and that shaped their approach.
That's all, however, another story. The rather exotic situation of Sheppard and his two associates in the US being forced to have his book published by the Australian DSP underlines the vicissitudes that can befall one in the socialist movement.
Taken as a whole, Sheppard's book adds quite a lot to our knowledge, and anyone interested in the history of the revolutionary socialist movement would do well to read it carefully, with the caveats, obviously, that I've just outlined.
I will take up my sharp disagreement with the political propositions on the trade unions and the labour movement, advanced by Sheppard, Lund and Miah, in another article. In the interim, anyone interested should read the article by Miah and Lund on these matters in the latest issue of Links.