Review by Ernest Tate
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This review appeared in issue #8, November-December, 2005 of Relay, a magazine of the Socialist Project in Canada. The Socialist Project is a new organization that comes out of a socialist regroupment experience in 2001 in Ontario. It is comprised mainly of independent Marxists. For more information, see www.socialistproject.ca
Barry Sheppard's The Sixties
By ERNEST TATE
These days, it is commonplace on television and in the movies when accounts of "the sixties" are portrayed, the political radicalism of the period is often down-played and represented only in terms of the rise of cultural anarchism and "personal" liberation. Although changes in popular culture were important features of those times, they are not by any means the whole story, not by a long shot, as Barry Sheppard's memoir reminds us.
The period Sheppard writes about saw one of the deepest radicalizations in American history, which curtailed the American ruling class' ability to manage its war in Vietnam. Tens of thousands of people, especially youth, questioned the very existence of capitalism itself. Hostility towards racism and against all public expressions of prejudice, the widespread acceptance today of women's equality and gay rights, first developed wide-spread support then are now part of the political fabric of society. Part of neo-liberalism's agenda is to roll back the progress that resulted from those times. The absence in popular culture of representations of the intense political struggles of that period, often led by socialists, is part of the process of trying to make us forget our own history.
The author, a socialist, is active in California and is a regular contributor to the Australian Democratic Socialist Party journal, Green Left Weekly. A leader of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP), he was also editor of its weekly, The Militant. He left the SWP in 1988.
The book can be read on several levels such as a socialist explanation of the times or as primarily an inside look at the functioning of the SWP from 1959 until 1973, or how it formulated its policies around its intervention in the tumultuous events of those years, when the group went through a rapid expansion to become a major force on the American left. The SWP has its origins in the 1928 purges of the world's Communist Parties by Stalin of the followers of Leon Trotsky, who had challenged the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution. The party was founded by James P. Cannon, in the hope it would displace the American Communist Party as an effective force in American politics. Cannon had been a leader of the International Workers of the World before the First World War and was a leader of the early Socialist Party, from which he led a split to help found the early American Communist Party.
At the time Sheppard joined the SWP in the 1950s, the party was led by Farrell Dobbs, who has an important place in American labour history as the leader of the Teamsters during the city wide strikes in Minneapolis in 1934. Dobbs left the Teamsters to become a full-time national leader of the SWP, a remarkable step for someone who could have easily been a national leader of Teamsters, with all the privilege and recognition such a career move would have brought. Dobbs was a mentor to Sheppard in later years. He discusses Dobbs' approach to accomplishing a transition in the SWP's leadership after Cannon re-located to the West Coast, where he still exercised strong personal influence in the party, sometimes in ways which undercut Dobbs' position as the new party leader. This was not generally known in the organization at that time. For Dobbs, the collective functioning of the leadership and the injection of new blood into it was an absolute priority. The process of including the representatives of the new generation, who had come into the party at the end of the fifties -- and of which Sheppard was a part -- was handled by Dobbs in a conscious and systematic manner as part of the proper functioning of a socialist organization. The book is dedicated to Dobbs' memory.
A key question raised by the book is what kind of organization is required by working people to bring about socialism and how are such organizations defined, especially in light of the experience of the SWP's later evolution and decline? The SWP of today is virtually unrecognizable from what it was in the Sixties. It is hostile to the movement against the war in Iraq, for example and has withdrawn from any serious engagement with the rest of the left, which it dismisses as being "middleclass". The SWP in Sheppard's book stands as a sharp condemnation of what the SWP has become. Sheppard is now working on the second volume of his memoirs, where he will take up the reasons why he thinks this happened, which will cover the period from1973 to 1988, when he left the group.
Born in 1937, Sheppard was at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a partial scholarship studying mathematics when he became a socialist and politically active. He was part of the new, younger radical generation who was moving towards socialism as the anti-communist witch-hunt was subsiding in the fifties. I first met Barry in the late 1950s, in New York shortly after the founding of the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth organization of the SWP. I was an active supporter of SWP during those years and belonged to the League for Socialist Action (LSA), its organization of co-thinkers in Canada.
Later, in 1969, I worked with him briefly in Europe during what were difficult times for him and his companion, Caroline Lund, when they were assigned by the SWP to work with the leadership of the Fourth International (FI). The FI was the main international organization to which most of those who called themselves, "Trotskyist", belonged. I had been in England since 1965, "loaned" to the FI by the LSA as part of our contribution to help overcome the division in the FI supporters in Britain. Jess MacKenzie and I helped get the International Marxist Group (IMG) established in 1968. (The book has a factual error, indicating that the IMG was already in existence before I got there.) I remember Barry being appalled - as were all my Canadian and American comrades who came to Europe at that time -- at the lack of organizational infrastructure in the FI. It seemed a very feeble organization. Few of the national sections had offices or staff. It would only be later that I realized that this issue was more complex than it first appeared and was a reflection mainly of how the groups viewed politics and not just a problem of resources.
Barry and Caroline arrived in Brussels, just as a heated debate erupted in the FI around the question of orienting the sections towards guerilla warfare in Latin America. Sheppard highlights the issues involved in that discussion and locates the problem of the heated atmosphere in the discussion, in the impatience of the youth, of whom many had been recently recruited to the organization, especially in France during the 1968 May events. Barry and Caroline felt socially and politically isolated. Six years later the FI formally corrected its mistake on Latin America, but by that time many sections, especially in Argentina had suffered severe repression.
Sheppard grew up in New Jersey and came to political consciousness in the 1950s, during Senator Joe McCarthy's witch-hunt. He conveys very well the oppressive atmosphere of those times when the witch-hunt was at the centre of politics. Socialists were isolated from their working class base. Militants in the unions were purged; the SWP-led opposition in the Maritime Union, for example, was crushed; many were black-listed and hounded out of the industry, never to work there again. Throughout the country, tens of thousands of people lost their jobs, especially teachers. The unions had been restructured by the government under the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 to render them less effective in opposing government policy.
Despite the reactionary character of those years, however, important changes in the fifties anticipated the radicalism of the next decade. More and more Americans publicly refused to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), in an open challenge to the witch-hunt. Conformity began to break down in culture with the appearance of the literature of the Beat Generation and in politics with the rise of the black struggle in the southern states. Moreover, a major blow to the U.S. ruling class took place at the end of the decade, not on the soil of the U.S., but a few miles off the coast of Florida in Cuba where the workers and peasants radicalized in reaction to U.S. intervention, leading to the overthrow of capitalism.
The book describes how the SWP made solidarity with Cuba against U.S. intervention, a priority, and organized a defense campaign. Before the U.S. government imposed its travel ban to Cuba, leaders of the party traveled there many time to gain an understanding of what was taking place. The party's paper, The Militant, became a major source of information for anyone wanting to find out the truth about the revolution. The SWP was behind the setting up of The Fair Play for Cuba Committee (FPCC), a defense organization endorsed by many American intellectuals. (A successful committee was also set up in Canada). Part of the media used the pretext of Lee Harvey Oswald's membership in the organization to try and witch-hunt the FPCC at the time of President Kennedy's assassination.
Sheppard stresses that the two primary factors which drove the radicalization of the Sixties, were the struggle of blacks against racism in the South, which began with lunch-counter sit-ins, later spreading to the North, especially to the black ghettoes, and the rise of the mass movement against the Vietnam War. These two mighty forces opened the door for the entry of other social movements onto the political stage, for example, the emergence of the Black Nationalist movement and the feminist movement. The SWP was the backbone of the campaign for abortion rights as the 1970s opened up, Sheppard points out. In California, the Chicano movement first appeared on the scene and as the Sixties came to a close, the birth of a new movement, never seen before in history, made its appearance, around the struggle by gays against sexual repression, homophobia and for democratic rights. It was with this latter phenomenon that the SWP had the most difficulty in coming to terms, even though it adopted a position of fully supporting it.
The SWP was one of the first groups on the left to support Malcolm X and explain the significance of the new movement of Black Nationalism for the left. For example, at a time when many on the left were super-critical of Malcolm X, The Militant printed many of his major speeches, becoming an invaluable source of analysis and information for the new radicalizing generation about the new movement he led. Sheppard initiated one of the last interviews given by Malcolm a few weeks before he was assassinated, where Malcolm sought to overcome characterizations in the capitalist media of him being a "racist" and explain his differences with the Nation of Islam, from which he had broken. It is clear that as Malcolm moved further and further away from the Nation of Islam, he began to modify his thinking to include all the oppressed in capitalist society and was even re-examining the idea of "black nationalism", and that after his trip to Africa, he was thinking of a more general strategy for black liberation.
The SWP also campaigned to stop the persecution of Robert Williams, the black militant NAACP leader from Monroe, North Carolina, who was forced to flee the U.S, under false accusations of kidnapping. A countrywide man-hunt was conducted by the FBI in the U.S. in cooperation with the RCMP, in such an inflammatory manner as to ensure he would be killed. Williams was helped out, in Canada, mainly by Verne Olsen, who was the head of the Fair Play for Cuba Committee, and his wife Ann Olsen, who gave Williams shelter and who, as Sheppard says, arranged "an underground railroad and brought him to Canada and from there to Cuba where he was given political asylum."
A major narrative in the book is a description of how the SWP developed its approach to the anti-war movement, which had exploded onto the scene in 1965 with a demonstration of 20,000 in Washington, organized by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The "largest student demonstration in US history up to that point", Sheppard says. Later, SDS, the largest student based radical organization in the country, would make an ultra-left turn and a colossal error by opposing the organizing of mass anti-war demonstrations.
In the beginning, the traditional peace groups, Sheppard explains, saw the Vietnam issue to be too radical and buckled under heat of anti-communism. He says this was a legacy of the lingering effects of McCarthyism which had also permeated the leadership of the AFL-CIO under George Meany who had declared that opposition to the war was unpatriotic, a policy it maintained over the course of the war.
It was the socialists, mainly the SWP and the CP, and other smaller groups who fought the government on the Vietnam War issue through the tactic of building coalitions to organize mass actions against the war whenever possible. While the book goes over some of the ground covered in Fred Halstead's important 1978 book, Out Now! A Participants Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War (Monad Press, 1987), it provides additional insights into the SWP's strategy as it sought to keep the movement focused on getting the troops out of Vietnam immediately. The book is worth reading for this alone. It also describes the struggle between the main groups in the coalition who sought to win over to their respective points of view, the mass of activists who were in neither of the left organizations, with the CP trying to influence the new movement into supporting electoral politics and, especially in election years, supporting the Democratic Party, under the theory of "lesser evil" politics. It's an argument which continues today in the movement against the war in Iraq.
The SWP's basic orientation in fighting to end the war was to try to build the broadest possible movement which would include all those who opposed the war, to keep the movement mass-based and independent of the capitalist parties and focused on bringing the troops home. The SWP saw this as the best way to defend the principle of self-determination for the people of Vietnam and end the war.
Over the decade, the mobilizations against the war would become larger and larger, involving millions. They were often preceded by large assemblies (which issued the call for them) with over 3500 activists in attendance, the great majority of whom did not belong to any of the political groups. Even though all the groups in the coalition were small organizations, including the SWP, which at its peak, had a maximum membership, in my estimation of around 2000, the power of the anti-war movement became such, it began to influence all sectors of society, causing even sections of the ruling class to question the wisdom of President Richard Nixon's policy of expanding the war. Sheppard mentions the SWP had a membership of fewer than 600 in 1959, about double what it had when I joined in 1955. By 1972, over 1,100 people attended its educational conference in Oberlin, Ill., and the next year, it held its largest convention ever, with more than 1400 in attendance.
Barry Sheppard's next volume will attempt to explain why the SWP, since the period he covers, squandered all the promise and hopes of those times, to end up in the isolation it finds itself in today. As a contribution to a discussion of that balance sheet, I suggest a few critical errors began to creep into our way of thinking which set us on a wrong course. Our main error was in political economy. We developed a wrong assumption which postulated that as the Vietnam war ended, a major crisis would be engendered in the American economy causing a concomitant rise in general class consciousness, in the "heavy battalions of the working class", as we used to say then. A conviction in the revolutionary possibilities of the working class was fundamental to SWP thinking. We kept looking for the working class to enter the fray. But as Sheppard points out, the radicalization "did not reach a stage of a generalized radicalization of the working class& (and) this was the primary cause of the winding down of the radicalization." Workers, as an organized force were mainly absent. The 1950's anti-communist campaign in the unions still had sufficient influence to make the workers very cautious; in addition, the success of the government in pursuing domestic policies to keep the economy expanding, even if modestly, re-enforced this passivity.
But in the very early seventies, inspired by some left developments in the Steelworkers and in the Mineworkers, the SWP began to look for opportunities where radical ideas might get a broader hearing and began, for the first time, to sell its weekly paper outside plant gates. The book records speculative discussion in the leadership about a possible rise in class consciousness. However, when the war ended, instead of a major crisis, one of the longest expansions in the history of U.S. capitalism took place, with the working class still remaining relatively passive.
The SWP had been looking to the kind of radicalization that had occurred in the 1930s with the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO). It had failed to recognize the important changes which had taken place within U.S. capitalism, giving it more resiliency than many on the left thought was possible, and allowing the system to overcome what we thought were its inherent "contradictions". Moreover, the inability of the SWP to see this and correct its mistake and to adjust its wrong analysis, meant the organization was unable to correct or modify its later, all-consuming, "industrial turn".
Members were strongly encouraged to give up their jobs or school and go into the factories, a tactic driven forward by the leadership in such a single-minded manner as to virtually ensure many of the members would abandon the organization. After the members had been told by Jack Barnes that the workers would march out of the plants under the red banner of Communism, trying to function as socialists in an atmosphere of a low level of class consciousness, was a shock. The leadership had set them an impossible task, and increasingly blamed them for the problems in implementing the new "turn". (I should enter a mea culpa here: I too supported the new orientation, but I later came to the conclusion that the way it was being implemented was extremely destructive.)
I think these problems were also compounded by the way we viewed ourselves as an organization. Over time, we began to change our definition of the organization. When I joined, the leaders were clear that even though the word "party" was in the title of the SWP, it was not by any means a party, in the Marxist sense of that word, that is of being a mass working class party, or a party that had the support of an important part of the working class - the correct designation, in my opinion, of what constitutes a revolutionary party. The SWP never got further - like all the groups on the left who want to lead the working class to socialism - than being a propaganda group. The major part of its energy was consumed in explaining complex ideas to small numbers of people. In 1965, the SWP was very clear on that reality. "We knew we were a small revolutionary propaganda group, not yet a real revolutionary party", Barry Sheppard says. (p 146)
However, as we moved into the 1970s, this concept of "propaganda group" became more and more blurred. It began to be replaced with the notion that the SWP itself indeed was "the party", and that it was within the range of possibilities that it could win the working class directly to itself, instead of recognizing that such a party had yet to be built and would most likely be quite different from what the SWP was then.
As I have mentioned earlier in this article, the SWP, for its size, had a large superstructure, and was greatly admired for this in the FI. This was comprised of an impressive headquarters in New York, which provided space for its printshop and book publishing operation and offices for the staff for a weekly newspaper and its international and theoretical publications. Its branches across the country each had full time organizers. At its peak, I estimate, it had around sixty people - not well paid - on staff. A major part of the SWP's resources were allocated to keeping the organization functioning. I remember Joe Hansen, who had been Leon Trotsky's secretary in Mexico in the 1930s and then a central leader of the party, responsible for its international work, wryly commenting that they had an apparatus and facilities for an organization ten times its size.
Definitions such as "nucleus" or "embryo" as in "nucleus or embryo of a revolutionary party" started to be more and more used to describe the organization. Throughout the book, Barry uses these terms to describe the SWP, but I question their usefulness. Ernest Mandel, for many years the main theoretician of the FI, also used these terms, but in a journalistic way, perhaps to describe the reality of the FI at that time, in his 1983 address on "vanguard parties" at the University of Manitoba.
But how do we then deal with the conundrum of defining the various socialist groups on the left to determine, in advance, which of them will become a revolutionary party? When these terms are applied to political organizations, there is an implication of what will take place in the future. How do we know? Surely, only history will determine which organization was "the nucleus" or "the embryo" of a revolutionary party, a qualification Mandel makes. In Marxist political economy, should there now be a new category of political organization? For those groups who call themselves "revolutionary", aren't they all simply propaganda groups, some more revolutionary than others? Are there objective criteria for determining what is a "nucleus" or "embryo" of a revolutionary party? A group's programme and its relationship to the working class are very important, but surely it is what a socialist group does that has the most importance. Using such expressions as "nucleus" and "embryo", only cloud our thinking and are a form of self-delusion. For those of us who were supporters of the SWP, our emphasis on building the organization and seeing "the party" as a solution to everything allowed political economy to become less and less important.
The SWP has paid a heavy price for getting its politics - and I believe its organizational concepts -- wrong. Barry Sheppard has made an outstanding contribution to the discussion in the left about why this happened. I look forward to his second volume.