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

Volume 1: The Sixties


Review by Tami Peterson

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This review appeared in the British newspaper Socialist Resistance.

By Tami Peterson

Barry Sheppard was a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party (US) for 28 years. In this well told and engrossing book, one is transported to the Sixties, not through the eyes of smug historians or lamenting liberals as so often is the case, but through the eyes of a revolutionary who was attempting to build a mass movement and at the same time, a party.

Sheppard's writing style allows one to envision the numerous demonstrations, situations and people that he meets as a result of his political work, including GIs in Vietnam, French students in '68 and many members and leaders of the Fourth International. It is through these stories one gets a sense of the human face of the left during the Sixties and the important political events that they helped to make and transform.

Despite the decline of the influence and importance of the SWP on the US left today, and arguably for quite some time, Sheppard tells about near ideal forms of organizing from participation in the anti-war and civil rights movements through to the discipline required to print a weekly publication to local branch finances and a strict internal democracy. He also points to failures and mistakes. In one example he tells of his regret at having had to ask two comrades to leave the organization for being openly gay in the period before the LGBT movement took off and led to a change in policy.

This is not to say that Barry's book concentrates for any great length on merely organizational aspects, but rather fills in the historical events with personal anecdotes that make this incredibly tumultuous time period live again. In the section of the book covering 1967-68, one is astounded by the world and local events, popping one after the other. Sheppard does an excellent job at conveying the electricity of the anticipation among those who were trying to change the world.

When he meets with Malcolm X in the Hotel Teresa in Harlem after his break with the Nation of Islam and weeks before his assassination he writes, "Malcolm was dressed immaculately, as always, but I noticed that the collar of his white shirt was frayed. Clearly he was having financial troubles since the break with the Nation". It is the smallest detail that evokes in the reader an amazing image of this unbroken revolutionary.

The book holds useful lessons for anti-war activists in particular. As is made clear from Barry's description, and in a telling contrast to the present, the SWP (US) participated in and helped to build mass demonstrations, often playing a role on leadership bodies while fighting for the broadest possible participation and supporting democratic voting in large groups at a time when every decision mattered. It is inspiring, to say the least, to read of 2,000 students at Berkeley in California democratically voting to continue an action at a spontaneous meeting.

These stories serve as a useful reminder on how mass organizing is done correctly and Sheppard's book should be a welcome addition to every revolutionary's library.


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