Review by David Whitehouse
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This review appeared in issue #42, July-August 2005, of the bimonthly magazine International Socialist Review.
By David Whitehouse
The American Socialist Workers Party (SWP) experienced periods of significant growth and influence during the 1930s and the 1960s. This book is a valuable first-hand account by Barry Sheppard, one of the party's central leaders during the second period.
The SWP's roots go back to the late 1920s, when James P. Cannon and other members of the American communist movement followed Leon Trotsky in his attempt to uphold the Bolshevik tradition of workers' power "from below" against the increasingly authoritarian practice of Stalin.
Within a few years, this group-whose small membership nevertheless included seasoned worker-militants, some with experience going back to the Wobblies-played a leading role in the Teamsters organizing drive in Minneapolis that sparked a citywide general strike in 1934.
Later, the Trotskyists, in a brief alliance with the Communist Party (CP), helped lead the sit-down strikes of 1936-1937.
These roots in struggle help explain why the party became a target of anticommunist attacks in the 1940s and 1950s-and also why it was able to weather the period of McCarthyism to re-emerge and play a significant role in the radicalization of the 1960s.
These roots also help explain why the group that Barry Sheppard joined in the late 1950s still upheld central planks of Bolshevism that seemed, for a time at least, archaic to the New Left that was to arise in the next few years.
Sheppard wrote the book to reaffirm the main points of revolutionary socialism for a new generation, beginning with, "[T]he capitalist system itself is&the fundamental problem hindering human progress, and even threatening the survival of humanity."
The alternative, socialism, can only be won through mass independent, working-class activity, and for this, a party is necessary:
One key point of continuity between the SWP and past revolutionary parties was its use of a newspaper-in the SWP's case, the weekly Militant, edited by Sheppard in the mid-1960s-which often carried first-hand movement reports that couldn't be found anywhere else.
Readers should be forewarned about what this book isn't. It's not a history of the 1960s, although many of the decade's key events fly past as Sheppard tells his story. As a memoir, The Party is a first-hand testimony of a witness and participant.
As a result, historical priorities are skewed according to whether Sheppard and the SWP were directly involved. Malcolm X, for instance, gets prominent treatment, while Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Black Panthers do not.
At the same time, the SWP's direct connection to Malcolm-who repeatedly spoke on their platforms and gave them exclusive interviews-allows Sheppard to fill in some of history's missing pieces.
This includes the point that as Malcolm groped toward becoming a mass political leader in 1964-1965, following his break with the Nation of Islam, he did not have an organization that could pull off a nationwide speaking tour.
As a result, in the weeks before his assassination, Malcolm discussed having the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA)-the SWP's youth group in which Sheppard was a prominent leader-take up sponsorship of a tour.
Likewise, readers may know that Robert F. Williams was a militant leader of the NAACP in Monroe, N.C., who had to flee the country in 1961 to avoid trumped-up kidnapping charges. But most won't realize that it was an SWP network that helped Williams get first to Canada and then to Cuba.
Sheppard does not tell these tales to show that that SWP's performance in antiracist struggles was perfect. He admits that the party was too tentative in important cases where it should have jumped in, including the "freedom rides" of the early 1960s:
The question occurred to Malcolm X as well:
At its best, the SWP's practice is a model for how to be involved in struggles that are bigger than the party while building the party to lead future struggles.
Sheppard outlines three principles that the SWP/YSA used to help build an effective antiwar movement. First, the movement should rely on mass action instead of lobbying capitalist, pro-war parties such as the Democrats. Second, the movement should be built around a simple and definitive call for "U.S. troops out now." And third, the movement should be non-exclusionary-all those who support the central demand, including revolutionaries, should be allowed to participate.
Sheppard shows how these crucial principles have to be fought for, as activists in today's anti-occupation movement know from their own experience.
In the 1960s, these commitments helped the YSA build the Student Mobilization Committee (SMC) into a force that could put tens (and sometimes hundreds) of thousands onto the street to oppose the war-especially in those times when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), for internal reasons, was not up to the task.
But the SWP's movement playbook should not be taken as the final word. Their insistence on a single-issue focus in the SMC carried with it a hidden corollary that those who looked for a synthesis of radical causes would have to join the YSA.
But the 1960s radicalization was so broad-and McCarthyism so recent-that existing socialist groups couldn't come close being adequate vehicles for the leftward movement of masses of young people. The middle ground between single issues and socialist conclusions would be filled by broader, looser groupings such as SDS.
The YSA held back from direct participation in SDS, perhaps because they saw it as a rival to the YSA. But Sheppard also implies that the YSA stayed out because the politics of SDS were murky and increasingly affected by new sectarian forms of Maoism.
But wouldn't this be all the more reason to jump in and contend for leadership on the strength of ideas that come closer to the real Marxist tradition? Revolutions are made by people whose ideas start out murky, but only if they have the chance to clarify them.
Followers of the ISR's politics will find other minor and major points on which to disagree with Sheppard. One is on whether the Cuban Revolution produced socialism. Sheppard says yes, although he admits that the revolution "lacked&instruments of popular rule."
Another point would be how much the U.S. working class stirred into action at the end of the 1960s. The great postal strike of 1970, and the Teamster and United auto Workers wildcat strikes of the early 1970s, are missing from Sheppard's account. Strike activity actually reached its highest peak since the postwar strike wave of the 1940s, and offered new chances for political radicalism to mix with workplace militancy.
But such points certainly don't nullify the book's main value, which is to show a group of revolutionaries struggling to adapt Marxist politics to help win new battles. This makes the experience of the SWP of the 1960s something that's worth looking at today.