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Letter in support of the U.S. SWP’s current course

July 10, 2012

When the concluding volume of Barry Sheppard’s history of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party was published recently, it set loose a vigorous debate including many contributions that defended the SWP’s current record. To my knowledge, this is the first extensive exchange between critics and supporters of the SWP in at least three decades. I am reposting here a lengthy and forceful letter in support of the SWP’s positions posted on this site by Ernesto. Other comments will be found following “The SWP Attempts an Outward Turn” and “Causes of a Socialist Collapse,” on this website, and on the blog of Gus Horowitz. — John Riddell.

Letter from Ernesto:

Hi John!

I’m glad that we have been able to engage in this exchange with a sense of proportion and mutual respect. I do feel those qualities are of immense importance in any kind of political exchange, specially among those who strive to be engaged “by any means necessary” in the organized and collective struggle to end all forms of explotaition and oppresion.

Now that you have published the second part of your article reviewing Barry Sheppard’s history of the SWP, I think the political points have become even more clearly spelled out, in the sense of showing us, even more than before, the different political perspectives involved.

In the second paragraph of part 2, you write commenting on Barry Sheppards documentation (or at least how you interepret it):

“..  the outward turn was undercut from the outset by simultaneous moves in the opposite direction. The outward and inward turns occurred at the same time, confusing party members then and confounding historians of the SWP to this day.”

I must admit one difficulty for me (though I’m not an historian), while trying to read memories and histories of how different people who once belonged to the SWP describe the partys “demise”.

I have found that different people not only give different political explanations of why they left a movement they once were a part of building “by any means necessary” during an important preceding period of their lives, but also that different people judge the “demise” of the SWP quite often according the the year or period they left that organization, sometimes even before  –  and they usually do that long after the fact.

Guarding all proportions, and I think this exchange and other interventions  have reflected this, I understand the publication of this books and others as a political act, attempting to draw lessons for the political present and future, according to the actual prespective of the author/s involved.

As I commented before on Gus Horowitz blog, those were seventeen years of unprecedented political uppheavals, exemplified by such events as: the downfall of the workers and farmers government in Nicaragua and its global consequences, the accelerating and stratifying pressures bearing down upon the workers and opressed of the world, the Wall Street crash of 1987 and what it showed about the growing disorder and destabilizing future of capitalism, the collapse of the bureaucratic apparatuse in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in 1989-1991, the first war on Iraq and the growing, social, economic polarization and tendencies toward Bonapartism and incipient facism in the capitalist “democracies”, the war in Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 90s, the Special Period in Cuba and so on, the list could be a lot longer.

Yet all those mould-shattering events didn’t fall from the sky. In all its changing features, those important facets of a downward curve of capitalist development have been with us since at least the end of the 60s and beginning of the 70s.

What were the necessary adjustments, adaptions, reorientations and turns an international revolutionary movement would have to make, who had fought for its right to pass on the accumulated revolutionary experience of the modern proletariat since at least 1848, against all odds and intervening according to the best of its abilities and posibilities in the radicalyzing and revolutionary openings of the preceding decades?

You write a couple of paragraphs later listing some “alarm bells in the minds of knowledgeable party members”:

“1. In 1979 the SWP leadership convinced the Fourth International to call on its sections in every capitalist country in the world, regardless of the state of our forces or of local conditions, to send our members to work in industry. (196) This pronouncement violated the very principle for which the SWP had successfully campaigned in the International since 1969, namely that tactics had to grow out of national conditions and be determined by national sections, rather than being dictated on a continental or world basis.”

The facts remain though, John, and they are stubborn things. The turn to industry was democratically discussed and adopted by a majority at the world congress of the Fourth International in 1979, based on a then common understanding of the changing patterns of working class resistance to a developing world capitalist crisis, in all its different national, social, economic manifestations and the  growing need for those who wanted to be a part of the working class  and revolutionary vanguard in formation to make a radical political turn to the industrial working class.

One could argue, as a lot of individuals and political forces do nowadays in retrospect and some did back then, that the “projections” and the analysis was wrong from the beginning, one-sided, insufficient and so on.

But then you still have to show how it was wrong and you still have to tell what you think the revolutionary movement should have done instead, in a practical, organized way that has some continuity with your revolutionary positions today. You still have to spell your current politics out. Its just not enough to write:

“the SWP leadership convinced the Fourth International to call on its sections in every capitalist country in the world, regardless (my emphasis) of the state of our forces or of local conditions, to send our members to work in industry.”

Not long after 1979, the fundamental issue of the turn and all its political, organizational and personal consequences did become a struggle of a fundamental nature inside the SWP and the Fourth International. And a majority in the leadership of the FI came to believe, as they do to this very day, it was a destructive, disorganizing mistake.

I quote Jack Barnes from the 1982 report “The Organizational Norms of a Proletarian Party”:

“The report on the turn was adopted unanimously by the NC at that 1978 plenum. Since then, as events and our experience have unfolded in ways we could not have guessed, we have adjusted, corrected, and continued to think out and advance the turn..”

“..We didn’t start out with a complete understanding of how things would unfold—not by a long shot. We made some projections that turned out to be wrong… Fortunately, they are counterbalanced by the statements and decisions that turned out to be correct. But even where we were wrong, there is an instructive side..”

“As I said, no one on the National Committee spoke against the turn to industry or voted against it in 1978. But saying that doesn’t settle the question. Because there are certain proposals that, if they are presented in a considered and reasonable way, hardly anyone in the leadership of a relatively experienced Marxist party will oppose. One such proposal is a timely campaign to proletarianize the party. One of the first books we all read when we join is Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party. And along with that many of us read Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism, about how the party must make a turn into the industrial working class to be ready for imperialist war, explosive developments and deepening polarization in the class struggle, and to withstand the pressures of bourgeois public opinion..”

“..But we’ve seen that the turn must be led. It is a turn. It does mean bending the stick. It does require that the leadership lead the way into industry, convince and inspire new layers to go in, and constantly review and learn from the experiences at each stage, and generalize them for the whole party, to lead the whole membership to make the turn. We must transform ourselves and the leading committees of our party, assess our experience, and come back to it over and over again, as the turn becomes a reality, and—above all—changes the party.”

“And as it does become real, disagreements begin to arise in the party. That is unavoidable. While the big majority is for the turn, not everyone is for all the various political and organizational consequences of the turn and how it works out in life. Not everyone draws the same balance sheet from our experiences and their effects on the party—or themselves. But the fact of such disagreements should not be surprising. They are built into the situation as a result of where we have come from, our experiences in the whole past period, and the character of the turn that must be made, which is not so much a single decision or set of decisions, but a course that deepens as it advances.”

“This is the challenge not just for the SWP but for every section in the whole Fourth International. If you are not willing to risk such disagreements then you can’t carry out the turn.”(1)

You continue:

“In the years that followed, the SWP’s allied organizations in other countries came to function as if they were units of the U.S. party, giving up their independent publications. In some cases these groups were born from from SWP-encouraged splits or defections from FI sections. The “global industrial turn” led thus ultimately to the dissolution of internationalism.”

I do believe this came to be the opinion of the majority of the leaderships and sections of the Fourth International, but you still have to prove this. How the SWP “encouraged splits and defections” and what was your own political part and opinion back then in relation to your current one.

You still have to prove how the “global industrial turn” led thus ultimately to the dissolution of internationalism.”, giving an objective and measured account of the political positions of the SWP and those comrades who were drawn to those positions internationally, through all the years of that political struggle.

You continue:

“Between 1981 and 1983, the majority SWP leadership moved to suppress discussion of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, an aspect of the party’s theoretical heritage that its leaders were increasingly calling into question.5 (280–85) The minority current loyal to this concept was prevented from expressing its view either internally or in the public press, even though they spoke for the party’s longstanding position. In 1983, the convention, at which they had been promised a hearing, was cancelled, and they were driven from the movement. In Sheppard’s opinion, this purge was “the death-knell of the SWP.” (287–88) An open discussion   of these differences would have heightened the party’s reputation and made it a more attractive force for revolutionary regroupment. The party should have opened its publications to such a debate and invited contributions from all potential participants in a “new International.” The party should have encouraged members who held the traditional view to debate the issue publicly while continuing as loyal party members. The rejection of this path put the lie to the SWP’s claim to be working for revolutionary convergence.”

If I remember correctly the first issue of New International magazine had an article from the Cuban communist Carlos Rafael Rodriguez and NI 3 had an article from Tomas Borge from the FSLN. Issue number 5 on the coming revolution in South Africa had contributions from FI leaders Ernest Mandel and Livio Maitan. I remember reading as a teenager the debate between Doug Jenness and Ernest Mandel on in an Education for Socialists titled “Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution”. This is how Mandel put it at the end of his article “In Defense of Permanent Revolution”:

“The reason we are provoking Comrade Jenness in this way is neither because of some hostility nor because of some desire to paint the devil on the wall, as a German proverb puts it. It is because it is the duty of the Fourth International, of all revolutionary Marxist cadres and activists, to pull the alarm signal, to solemnly warn that a scratch is about to turn gangrenous. Our polemic has only one goal: to save the Socialist Workers Party for revolutionary Marxism, for the American revolution, for the world revolution. But it will be saved only if it stops the march of some of its leaders towards a break with Trotskyism in time..”

So, how and in wich ways didnt the party open up its publications to contributions from “all potential participants in a “new International.”? I still feel you have to tell though what the defining political and class characteristics of those potential participants would be and how the party and its elected bodies should have regulated this discussion, mantaining not only the democratic rights of the minorities as well as the democratic rights of the party in its totality, permitting the pary to move forward in the process.

Wasn’t one of the driving forces of the turn to industry just that? Giving the party and its members, as party members, the political inspiration, encouraging them to take revolutionary politics into the working class, to debate, to challenge and being challenged, to educate and being educated by the actual experiences of a class that is stratified and divided in a million ways in capitalist society, but who becomes more united and conscious through collective struggle and study, in an organized way.

After quoting from a speech Jack Barnes gave in 1970 that appears partly quoted in an article by Gus Horowitz on his blog “..We are not simply a component of the mass revolutionary party. We are the essential component that embodies in living cadres today the programmatic conquests that are essential for molding the kind of revolutionary workers party that can win the socialist victory in this country…” you write:

“Certainly it is positive to remind members of the historic importance of their party and of their own personal contribution. But the “essential component” concept approaches equating the party with the historic interests of the working class – leaving the struggles, organizations, historic memory, and activist cadres of the working class out of the picture. By this logic, anything that seems to build the party’s apparatus, resources, and reach can seem to acquire the force of historic necessity, regardless of the consequences for the party’s implantation in workers’ struggles or for the broader movement.”

You can find the entire speech “The new Radicalization and the Revolutionary Party” in the april 1971 International Socialist Review so I went back to it and found it very instructive in getting a feel for both the continuity and the changes introduced by the passage of time in history and class politics, by the accumulation trough struggle of experience in the communist movement. Among other things it says:

“The fifth point, and in a way this may be the most important —at least it is one we should take special care to absorb, for it differentiates us from every other tendency that claims to be socialist or radical —is that there will be no reversal of this radicalization before the working masses of this country have had a chance to take power away from the American capitalist rulers. There will be ebbs and flows in the struggle, there will be class polarizations (my emphasis/Ernesto), there will be partial defeats and partial victories. There will be all sorts of stages, some rapid, others drawn out, as the ruling class uses different methods, up to and including the attempt to use fascism, to try to prevent the workers from winning power. But the important thing for us to see is that this radicalization will not be reversed until we have had our chance.”

You write further down (Im referring to your quotation of Jack Barnes, not mine):

“Significantly, when the SWP charted a course toward revolutionary convergence, it did not modify this conception of its own historic uniqueness.”

Well I agree, nor should they have modified that fundamental conception, in any other way than what is continually revealed – to this day – by the experience gained and generalized in a conscious way, as a combative PART of the industrial working class and its changing patterns of resistance and struggle on a world scale and through history.

Or as the founding document of our movement put it a long time ago:

“In what relation do the Communists stand to the proletarians as a whole? The Communists do not form a separate party opposed to the other working-class parties. They have no interests separate and apart from those of the proletariat as a whole. They do not set up any sectarian principles of their own, by which to shape and mould the proletarian movement..”

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”

“The Communists, therefore, are on the one hand, practically, the most advanced and resolute section of the working-class parties of every country, that section which pushes forward all others; on the other hand, theoretically, they have over the great mass of the proletariat the advantage of clearly understanding the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement.”

“The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

“The theoretical conclusions of the Communists are in no way based on ideas or principles that have been invented, or discovered, by this or that would-be universal reformer. They merely express, in general terms, actual relations springing from an existing class struggle, from a historical movement going on under our very eyes…”

It’s the struggle for that conception, as concretized in the struggle for a proletarian party through the decades, changing through the changing of circumstances and men/women, that I feel this exchange is all about. Its not about finding guarantees against the future degeneration of the revolutionary party – trough a selective reading of the past – its about assembling the forces for the party of the revolution. By necessity a world party, proletarian in leadership and composition.

You write under the heading “A Faustian bargain”:

“The driving force behind Marxist “regression to the mean” is that these inward-turned features equip the small group to survive with minimum effort in a hostile environment.”

“By hewing to these norms, the SWP has made an adaptation to the conditions of an extended working-class retreat. Features that could have exposed it to the hazards and challenges of socialist regroupment, class-struggle engagement, and revolutionary party-building have been eliminated; features that it shares with inward-turned Marxist groups have been developed and exaggerated.”

“The SWP’s inward turn insulated it from the influences of 30 years of working-class retreat, sealed it off from the ideas of other left currents, safeguarded it against internal differentiation and debate, and made the membership a pliant and disciplined instrument of leadership policy. Something has been achieved: the party has survived as an organization. The price has been its near-disappearance from the stage of working-class politics.”

You write that as a fact, long after the fact, John, but I cannot but feel the analysis is divorced from the real political lessons of those earlier struggles, separated from the real world challenges – trough retreats and advances, “hazards and challenges“ – of how independent working-class politics will find its expression, not in an ideological and fetishized way but in an organized, disciplined and combative communist perspective.

I think that dynamic, changing and going forward, reaching out by going deeper into the proletariat, is more concretely and truthfully described in Jack Barnes political report to the fusion congress of the Communist League in the United Kingdom om June 1992 (it appears as the last chapter – Youth and the communist movement – in the Pathfinder Press book “Capitalism’s World Disorder”):

“Although workers place no independent class stamp on the initial manifestations of this radicalization, opportunities do start growing under these conditions for the working class to begin to act in its own interests. These changes are virtually invisible to those outside the working class, however. Only from within the factories and the unions are these changing opportunities evident. But this increasing space to practice politics in the working class and labor movement is the most important single political fact for the communist movement today.”

“The communist workers movement today has only one way to test whether our assessment of the political situation and what we are doing is right or wrong. It is not by polls or election results. The test for us is whether or not the space on the job and in the unions to discuss politics, to take initiatives, and to gain a hearing for the communist point of view stays open or begins to narrow in face of today’s rising class tensions and polarization. If we are right, then that space will not close down, but will instead open up, with whatever ebbs and flows.”

“As workers begin finding ways to fight back against the capitalist offensive, as waves of strikes and other struggles begin to accelerate, this political space will expand. The bourgeoisie cannot simply take back this space, nor can the liberals, the Stalinists, the social democrats, or the union officialdom. This space within the working class and unions can only be taken back by the bosses and their labor lieutenants through class battles in which big defeats are inflicted on the working class. Each advance and victory by workers in these battles, on the other hand, will expand that space and strengthen the prospects for independent working-class political action and organization.” (p 432-434)

And a couple of pages later, what goes to the political heart, what makes a true, concrete understanding of this uninterrupted communist history of the fight for a proletarian party, a necessity for the present preparation of the future:

“Young fighters are ultimately attracted to a class. Whether they know it or not initially, they are attracted to the social weight and potential strength of the working class, its struggles, and its organizations.”

“Youth must also be offered a tradition. Without a political tradition, there is no chance whatsoever of building a working-class movement. Moreover, young people have to find living carriers of that tradition, fighters whose experience draws from more than one generation of working-class struggle. Youth have to find others like themselves from previous generations whom they can join with in building a common movement.”

“Just being a radical, just being against the bourgeoisie, just negating bourgeois values is no more likely to lead somebody to communism than to fascism. We should think about the political implications of this fact. It is only finding the working-class movement, and finding the human beings who carry its tradition, that leads rebel youth in the direction of communism.”

“Communists sometimes underestimate, or even disparage, the importance of tradition. But we should never do so. Proletarian tradition is the opposite of maudlin sentimentality. We should never forget that revolutionists only have a tradition today because workers who came before us fought so hard, for so many decades to maintain it.” (p 441-442)

So I say that the rumours of the party’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Or if I may quote what I wrote to you in an earlier post:

“I do defend the SWP and the movements revolutionary perspective, and I feel deep inside me, in the gut, in my own life and past and present experiences, that I and others I know of and others I dont know of, wherever we are, are converging with the party and its unflinching course, in practice.”

“The party that is becoming, not the party that became. Let the class struggle judge, and everything that through collective, disciplined action, helps assemble the international vanguard that in daily life will subordinate all other considerations to the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

“I firmly believe history will absolve them.”

Ernesto, July 9, 2012


One Comment
  1. Brian. S permalink

    I’m glad someone has raised the issue of the way in which SWP-US policies were transmitted into other parts of the FI. The suggestion that the “turn to industry” was a considered and thought out strategic initiative by the 11th World Congress is not my impression. World Congresses by their nature have a lot on their plate, and I can’t recall exactly how this decision was consummated nor how much explicit deliberation was devoted to it. I certainly don’t remember it featuring prominently in the pre-congress discussion in the British section. In my view, it was basically a deal agreed to by Mandel as the price for reconciliation with the SWP-US and recementing the unity of the International. It was reinforced by Ernest’s concern over the decline or stagnation of the largest sections, and a fear that the “moment of 68” was slipping away. It was a “quick fix” mistakenly calculated to solve a deep set of strategic problems.
    It was fatally flawed because it substituted sociological reasoning for political judgement: the turn was to “industry” rather than the workers movement. I remember a painful discussion somewhere in the British section (Central Committee?) about whether the Post Office (where we had an embryonic but significant political nucleus) qualified as an “industry. I don’t know how this thorny issue was eventually resolved, but I fear not sensibly. (God knows how our important teachers group survived, but somewhow they seem to.) Given the open and uid character of the British labour movement, the results of this barren formula were mixed: some comrades went on to occupy senior trade union posts and make creditable contributions to the class struggle. But these were gains for the trade union movement, not the trotskyist movement. But for the most part the political impact was negligible.

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