Socialist and Peoples' History

The US SWP in Decline -- Review of Barry Sheppard

Barry Sheppard, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party Volume 2: Interregnum, Decline and Collapse, 1973-1988, A Political Memoir (London: Resistance Books, n.d. [2012]), 349pp., $18.

by Joe Auciello

            Today’s generation of young revolutionary activists, whatever their current political allegiance, can hardly be faulted if they are largely indifferent to and ignorant of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of the USA.  In the lifetime of this generation, the SWP has made itself irrelevant – and worse – to current social struggles by adopting positions that are sectarian, foolish, or even bizarre.  Overall, the SWP has succeeded in creating a special and unenviable niche for itself: They are an isolated group on the sidelines of politics who self-righteously condemn today’s radical movements as insufficiently “communist.” 

            It was not always this way and never had to be.  In previous decades the SWP participated in, was shaped by, and to some extent led political movements as they arose and developed.  The SWP was one of the strongest sections of the Fourth International when it was founded in 1938. It remained an important force despite two major blows, one in 1940 when a debate over the nature of the USSR and the attitude to be taken when it entered a war led to a major split, and the second in 1953 when a tendency led by Bert Cochran and George Clark split, urging the dissolution of Trotskyist parties. The SWP majority were a major force of orthodox Trotskyism, playing an important role in defending the view that the Soviet Union was a bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state, and opposing Michel Pablo’s line, though after some hesitations.[1] During the Cold War and the anti-communist witchhunt, there was limited prospect for growth. The organization was somewhat isolated. Recruitment was reduced to a handful and the generation of members from the 1930s and 1940s aged.  Also, the federal government and local police agencies recruited informers, infiltrated, and disrupted the SWP and other left organizations. What changed it was the Cuban Revolution, which was viewed by a large part of the Trotskyist movement as something different from the Stalinist revolutions from above. The SWP played an important role in defence of the revolution, setting up Fair Play for Cuba Committees.

The SWP also seriously supported the Civil RIghts movement and participated in it.  Also, the SWP defended and promoted the ideas of Malcolm X and Black nationalism.  The latter point is especially significant.  Unfortunately, the SWP had most of its members in the North, while much of the civil rights struggle was concentrated in the South.   Between 1959 and 1963, the SWP also played an important role in fighting for the reunification of the Fourth International, leading to the Unification Congress of 1963.

As a result, in the 1960s and the first years of the 1970s SWP membership grew again.  In 1960 the Young Socialist Alliance was set up with about 130 members. By the early 1970s the SWP and the YSA together had over 2000 members. In the decades of the 1960s and into the 1970s alone, the party accomplished important work in the antiwar movement, and in the struggles for women’s liberation, Black rights, including the 1970s desegregation battle in Boston, and the gay rights movement.  The SWP took the initiative to sue the federal government for violation of the party’s democratic rights and ultimately won an important victory for the entire left.  The SWPwas an internationalist organization that supported revolutions in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Grenada, and did its best to limit the ability of Democratic and Republican presidents alike to crush these revolutionary movements who were bold enough to think they could determine their own fate, without the permission of Washington.

            How this vital and growing socialist organization, in Sheppard’s words,“degenerated to the point where it is now considered irrelevant, even a joke” is the central question that Barry Sheppard, who was one of the core leaders during the SWP’s rise and fall, attempts to answer here, in this second volume of a two volume book.           

Barry Sheppard was an important member, a leader of the SWP for a long time, and a friend and a close ally of National Secretary Jack Barnes before he too was forced to leave the SWP. His memoirs therefore present a detailed, graphic insider’s account. In this review, we will be looking at his account of the organizational malfunctioning and the split.

Sheppard accurately notes the limitations of his effort; his work does not “purport to be a comprehensive history of the SWP from 1960 through 1988…”  Sheppard was a member of the SWP’s Political Committee and National Committee, so it is not surprising that a good deal of his emphasis centers on these leading bodies.  What receives much less attention is the day-to-day life of hundreds of members in the party branches throughout the country.

Though this work will be eagerly read by veterans of the SWP debacle, the emerging generation of new, anti-capitalist fighters is reallythe book’s primary audience.  Unlike other prominent SWP leaders who have written of their experiences, Sheppard still counts himself a revolutionary socialist in the best tradition of the SWP.  He explains that tradition, chapter by chapter, highlighting the big social issues of the day, and shows how the party’s programmatic heritage was transformed into its opposite.

At the outset, Sheppard writes: “One theme of this volume is that the collapse of the SWP was not inevitable.  As the radicalization of ‘The Sixties’ receded, the objective situation made it increasingly difficult for a small Marxist organization to grow.  But with a more correct orientation the SWP could have survived and remained an important force on the left.”  He further defines his outlook when he states, “The rebuilding of a revolutionary socialist party is an urgent necessity…”  Overall, despite errors and debatable points, Sheppard has succeeded in writing a work that contributes to understanding the SWP, its strengths and failures.  Through such an understanding this generation will be better able to build the kind of organization that can succeed in creating a more humane and just world.

Summing up the lessons of the SWP debacle, Sheppard rightly concludes that, “… the organizational question was paramount.”  Every single error of the party leadership could have been recognized, evaluated, and corrected if the established norms and procedures of party democracy had been allowed to function.  Instead, over time, they were uprooted and destroyed.  The Barnes clique initiated one mistake after another including sectarian methods in the unions, abstentionist practices, miseducation of the membership, and abandoning the party’s programmatic heritage. Though none of these were fruitful, even in the short-term, none were necessarily fatal.  A self-active membership, using the mechanism of discussion and dissent, would have been able to collaborate collectively, even in tendencies and factions, and could have re-set the party on the right path.  A healthy leadership that respected its members could have learned from them, supporters and critics alike, and used their collective experience to make proper readjustments in strategy and tactics.

Instead, in the name of democracy, the Barnes gang cynically silenced the membership and created a fearful climate of unquestioning acceptance and obedience.  Internal life in the SWP became a Catch-22 world.Tendencies and factions were allowed to exist as long as they did not function, but if they did not function, they did not exist.  Members were forbidden to express opinions contrary to the party line except in ever narrowing areas.  Members were forbidden to write to each other, speak to each other, or telephone each other.  SWP members within the Young Socialist Alliance were forbidden to raise dissenting opinions and were required to speak in favor of policies they opposed.  Even disagreements within the National Committee could not be expressed to the party as a whole.The 1983 convention was canceled, so, of course, the written and oral discussion preceding conventions was forbidden.   When the minority members of the National Committee announced the formation of a common bloc, they were suspended for being a secret faction. Overall, members dropped out in droves, and trials and expulsions became routine.

The trial of Clevinger in Catch-22 captured the surreal experience of the SWP at this time:  “Yossarian had done his best to warn [Clevinger] the night before.  ‘You haven’t got a chance, kid,’ he told him glumly.  ‘They hate Jews.’

‘But I’m not Jewish,’ answered Clevinger.

‘It will make no difference, Yossarian promised, and Yossarian was right.  “They’re after everybody.’”

The strangling of party democracy, which continued even after the minority groups were expelled in the 1980s, was the fatal flaw, the one which has taken the life out of the SWP and left it a shell of its former self.

An increasingly undemocratic and intolerant climate in the organization as a whole and in the branches was not objectionable solely on moral grounds.  Factionalism and the hunt for internal “enemies” became, as it was intended, a prohibition on thinking.  When problems arose in applying the majority line, those problems could not be recognized and examined – much less solved – for fear of giving ammunition to the “opponents” in the opposition groups. 

So, “loyal” members had to deny and distort reality to fit the officially approved positions and to prevent troublesome questions.   This was a method akin to madness that crippled the branches in two ways: (1) many members simply dropped out rather than risk personal attack for speaking sensibly, (2) errors were reinforced, and the defense of mistakes and nonsense became a test of loyalty and a prerequisite for branch leadership.  Thus, factionalism killed functioning.  The culture of fear and conformity which the Barnes clique artificially created and whipped up succeeded in maintaining control.

Consider one example.  In 1980 the Boston branch of the SWP participated in a congressional election in a district north of the city that included a General Electric plant where the party had chosen to concentrate its members.  The entire branch was mobilized for some weeks to build a kick-off campaign rally.  On the day of the event, no one showed up: not one worker, not one supporter, not one contact.  Only SWP members attended. 

At the branch meeting the next day, this fiasco was presented as a victory, albeit a modest one.  After all, “we were able to hand out thousands of leaflets,” (“Why A Machinist Is Running For Congress”); “we made lots of contacts and got to talk with many co-workers.”  Also, “several contacts said they wanted to attend but were unable to make it that day.”  No one disagreed with this fanciful presentation.   No one suggested that the supposed contacts were expressing politeness rather than interest.  More importantly, no one suggested something might be wrong with the party position regarding the pace and depth of the working-class radicalization.  To do so would put a member at some risk and would call into question that person’s loyalty to the party.  Opening up a line of questioning would be giving aid and comfort to the minority groups who might raise even more pointed questions or even raise criticisms.  Thus, silence.

This is the kind of functioning that took place week after week in branches all across the country.  It destroyed the confidence of the membership and made them passive and accepting when a revolutionary organization needs members who are active and reflective. 

Again, this destructive situation was well understood at the time.  One example can be cited: As a member of the Twin Cities branch, David Riehle, wrote to the SWP Political Committee in response to his expulsion, “A cadre organization of revolutionary workers that can meet the tests of struggle that will be posed in the course of the American revolution can be composed only of self-reliant, independent-minded, contentious, and combative individuals… These are not the kinds of people you are going to keep or attract.  By pursuing the methods you are currently using, you will end up with an illusory and complacent ‘homogeneity."  How well this phrase describes the SWP of today!

Instead of encouraging members to discuss their experiences in the class struggle with candor and thoughtfulness, the screws were turned even tighter.  In responding to the party’s minority groupings, the Barnes clique borrowed pages from “The Richard M. Nixon Handbook of Dirty Tricks.”  Secret government, deception, an ‘Enemies List,‘ and abuse of power, all became the new norm.In fairness, SWP hatchet-men and women did not break in to apartments, but, then, they did not need to.  Lack of cooperation was grounds for expulsion.

So, throughout the country, Barnes’ agents used their secret list of loyal and long-time members who held or who were suspected of holding an unauthorized thought, and, one by one, they knocked on the doors of their victims (who were compelled to allow them entrance). Thus, they carried out their investigations and taped interrogations.It is refreshing to read that party veteran George Weissman “was different – when he saw us at his door he told us to ‘go to hell’ and slammed it shut.” 

The triumph was short-lived.  For refusing to condemn a minority reporter’s comments at the December 1983 California SWP convention, a conference Weissman had obviously not attended, a month later he and some one hundred minority supporters, sympathizers, or personal friends were expelled en masse.  No trial was held, so no defense could be offered.  The names of these undemocratically expelled members were laterpublished in an internal bulletin as the “List of Splitters.”

It made no difference that Weissman had not, due to illness, participated in or voted the “wrong way” at the 1981 convention.  It was enough that he might have done so or might do so in the future.  Suspicion alone was sufficient grounds to throw out one of the founders of the SWP.

A small but not untypical error does appear in Sheppard’s overall account of this particularly vicious chain of events.  He incorrectly summarizes the minority reporter’s remarks at the California SWP convention and attributes to him a position he did not hold.  Shepparddoes accuratelypoint out that in August 1983 the leaders of the two minority tendencies formed a bloc at a National Committee meeting (a document in defense of democratic rights within the SWP was a central point).  “For this, these four comrades were suspended for forming an “unauthorized faction,” a prelude to their expulsion.

Sheppard goes on to say that some minority supporters “had decided that they had to leave the SWP, a completely understandable position.  One of their supporters in the San Francisco branch expressed as much.”  Supposedly then, Barnes’ hatchet-wielding agents were challenging the minority supporters “to repudiate the alleged split sentiment…”  If true, a least a fig-leaf of legitimacy would have justified and thus covered the indecent act – but it was not true.  The minority reporter had not called for a split but had called for unity.  He urged the SWP members to work collaboratively with the newly formed Socialist Action in several important and immediate political projects.

Thus, the Barnes clique violated the democratic rights of the membership even more severely than Sheppard recalls.  At the time, of course, in an increasingly bizarre and brutish internal atmosphere - what Sheppard correctly refers to as “the introduction of an atmosphere of terrorization of the membership” - the Barnes gang accused the minorities of carrying out the very crimes the majority leaders themselves were eagerly committing.     

This clarification only underscores the overall correct conclusions that Sheppard presents: “The majority had broken with democratic centralism.”He could have added, “And, to deliberately confuse and mislead the membership, we leaders lied about it.”

In this context, Sheppard’s further conclusion is the decisive one: “… I should have fought against the organizational degeneration.  I ought to have made a bloc with the minorities in defense of party democracy while holding my own political positions.”

This is the vital lesson which is essential and enduring.  To repeat, the life-and-death question for the party was proletarian democracy.  Sheppard (and some other majority leaders and supporters) eventually came to understand this fact, but they recognized it too late.

This, too, is part of the tragedy of the degeneration of the SWP.  Sheppard’s overall purpose – to preserve the positive lessons of the SWP and analyze the negative ones – is commendable, but it is not new.  The minority tendencies that emerged in the party had the exact same purpose.  Even more to the point, most of these important lessons were the very ones put into practice by generations of SWP leaders and inherited by the Barnes team.


For all that party democracy has been the central topic here, Sheppard’s book itself is more focused on the major political issues, party campaigns, and analysis of revolutionary victories and defeats in South and Central America, Europe, Iran, and Afghanistan.  A good deal of what is valuable in this volume can be found in his recounting and explanation of these world-altering events.  Sheppard is not wrong to bring to bear the benefits of hindsight.

Still, objection can be made to some of Sheppard’s assertions.  He writes, “The 1979 revolutions in Nicaragua and Grenada broke the isolation of the Cuban revolution, with the establishment of workers’ and peasants’ governments.”  These revolutions “could be seen broadly speaking as an emerging ‘Castroist’ current.

“I think we were correct to orient toward this current.  The potential existed for a qualitative step forward in rebuilding a revolutionary socialist international.  We thought that the SWP and the Fourth International should embrace this perspective, and seek to build ties to this breakthrough.”

One minority group, Sheppard says, “rejected this orientation” while the other “didn’t see the potential” for revolutionary advance.  “Both tendencies were not enthusiastic about the opportunities these developments opened for the SWP and the Fourth International.”

This statement does not accurately reflect what the opposition groups believed.  In one of its defining documents (“Resolving the International Crisis of Revolutionary Leadership Today”), the Opposition Bloc explained, “The most important task we have in relationship to the Castroist current, and the revolutions it is leading, is to throw ourselves fully into the effort for solidarity and against imperialist intervention…  Through these kinds of activities, as well as through the successes our forces can score in leading the struggles of working people, we will put ourselves in the best position to learn from and emulate the strong side of the Castroists, as well as engaging these comrades in the necessary political discussion on the important points of programmatic difference which remain between us.  In this way we can pursue our perspective of convergence with these forces in a constructive and principled way.”

And, further, in a sharp rejection of the Barnes perspective: “But those in our ranks who today reject building the Fourth International as a correct organizational perspective present no serious or practical alternative.  They demand that we orient ourselves toward an as yet nonexistent ‘new mass Leninist International’ as if the only thing that was keeping this from coming into existence was our failure to embrace it.  Even more significantly, they insist that this requires renouncing our programmatic perspectives on permanent revolution and on the political revolution, along with a rejection of our current approach to the three sectors of the world revolution.”

During the preconvention discussion period, Sheppard chastised the minority groups for making these kinds of criticisms that, at the time,he said were “untrue,” including the criticism that the SWP was moving away from the Fourth International.  But the SWP remained within the Fourth International only long enough to damage it as much as possible.  Before the decade was out, the SWP initiated a series of splits in different sections throughout the world.

Moreover, what Sheppardand other Political Committee members thought and said was of no importance.  Sheppard reveals now what he would not say at the time:  “…all political initiative had become the sole prerogative of Jack Barnes.”

Throughout this book, though, it is clear that Sheppard has come to accept the validity of much of what he had criticized in the past, as he sums up his overall assessment in the concluding chapter.


Readers might be struck by a certain kind of reticence in this work.  The narrative is curiously lacking in flesh and blood human beings; other than Barnes, Sheppard and their companions, there are few people here.  Typically, in Sheppard’s explanation of a particular political issue, an interchangeable name of a Militant journalist is cited, followed by a quotation from that author’s article.  A justifiable focus on politics would not be inconsistent with a few sentences given to describe the people whose work is cited in different chapters – though it is also noteworthy that Militant writers did tend to sound alike, with any traces of personality expunged.  

  In these accounts two exceptions stand out.  The three pages given to Peter Camejo, the party leader best known to the public through the 1976 SWP presidential campaign, plus an account of an African American friend from the Pittsburgh branch of the SWP are revealing and both help to round out Sheppard’s more general and abstract analysis.  Even though the book “is not a personal memoir,” such observations as those cited here could have furthered the author’s political purpose.

The criticisms expressed above do not diminish the overall importance of this work.  The judgment expressed in a Socialist Action review (August 1986) for the first volumeof Sheppard’s memoir is even more true for the concluding one: It is “an insightful and instructive book that should be required reading for any young revolutionist who wants to learn from the successes and failures of the ‘Sixties Generation.’”

Sheppard’s account concretely illustrates the general point explained decades ago by SWP founder James P. Cannon: “The party itself needs leadership.  It is impossible for a revolutionary party to provide correct leadership without the right sort of leaders” who “are selected and sifted out by tests and trials in the mass movement, and in the internal controversies and sharp conflicts over the critical policy questions raised at every turn in the class struggle.” 

Taken together, Barry Sheppard’s two-volume history of the Socialist Workers Party outlines and clarifies the history that a new generation of militant fighters will need to carry forward if humanity is to succeed in creating a socialist future.

[1] This is not the place to discuss the vast debate over Pablo and “Pabloism”. But it is to be noted that the early aspects of what came to be called Pabloism were accepted by all the “Orthodox” – entry work, and the argument that war was likely and would radicalize the Stalinist CPs. The attempt to insist that deep entryism must be practiced even against the wishes of the national majority was a serious error and was responsible for the eventual reactions, though the SWP had hesitated before supporting the French majority. This resistance was to have some effect when the Fourth World Congress of the International drew back from the extreme logic of Pablo’s line, which in turn led to Clarke in USA, Mestre in France, Lawrence in UK and Dowson in Canada leaving the International altogether.