The Fall of the U.S. SWP

by Mary Scully on August 9, 2012

My assessment of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) degeneration differs from that of Barry Sheppard, Gus Horowitz, and other commentators in important aspects, particularly the role Sheppard played. Most of my 11 years (early 1970 through 1980) in the Young Socialist Alliance (the SWP’s young group) and SWP were spent in the New York City (NYC) branches and my experience is colored by proximity to the national office and national leaders. I don’t know how to present my evaluation without making it a personal narrative; I don’t do this to inflate my importance in the story.

An Apprenticeship
I came to NYC in 1970 when the YSA and party were experiencing a huge rush of recruits they were not organized to handle. They soon moved from a single, unmanageable branch to three NYC branches. I had moved to NYC from Minneapolis to get involved in women’s liberation and immediately became active in organizing for the August 26, 1970, Women’s March for Equality.

On August 26, 1970, women activists led thousands in a march for equality on the fiftieth anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment. Conceived by Betty Friedan, this march on New York’s Fifth Avenue was a turning point for the women’s movement as it gave the movement the recognition and legitimacy that activists needed. Source: Marcia Cohen, The Sisterhood: The True Story Behind the Women’s Movement (1988)

My run-ins with the party began right after August 26.

Although I had been centrally involved in the march and am part of its history, the party moved in some of their key personnel to take over women’s liberation work and without explanation simply moved me out of the work by not including me or notifying me of meetings. Though I badgered the branch organizer for an assignment, I didn’t understand what was going on and simply continued my political work at New York University (NYU) where I worked as a secretary. I organized antiwar meetings and protests, Palestinian defense forums, organized a women’s liberation committee, and carried on abortion rights work. My speeches at NYU and in the women’s abortion campaign were on T.V. and radio and I was more than once interviewed on the radio with Gloria Steinem but I was unable to get the organizer to assign me to an area of work.

To mollify me, the organizer (Ken Shilman) created a new post (a shameful sui generis in the history of the world revolutionary movement) and assigned me as branch social director to organize parties. In 1973, when the branch financial director was asked to relocate across country, Shilman asked me to take the position temporarily until he could find a permanent replacement.

It turns out I was something of a whiz at the job and reorganized branch finances top to bottom. According to the national finance director, I was one of the best financial organizers in the country and the best at explaining finances to the membership. What I understood was the integration between political goals and financial functioning as well as the financial relationship between the party and membership in a voluntary organization. My performance was such that it would not have been easy for Shilman to remove me and put me back organizing dance parties. I had gone a few years unable to get an assignment but now had become a branch leader.

During those dry years, I did what every working class woman does: I internalized the judgment of the leadership and assumed they discerned no talent in me useful to the party because I had none. But I was committed to socialism and decided to contribute the little I could to building the movement.

The SWP’s Class Dichotomies
It’s not in vogue and often disparaged to speak of class in the SWP but it was and remains the elephant in the room. Most of the young people coming to the movement were privileged and middle-class which has a class psychology quite distinct from that of the working class. The former are entitled, confident, competitive, self-assertive, and self-promoting relative to the working class. The latter (especially women) are diffident, inept and loath to self-promotion, uncertain of their abilities, and reluctant to put themselves forward since the ethos of the class is not to get too big for one’s britches. So it was not easy for working class recruits to adapt to the environment of the SWP which was overwhelmingly middle-class and cocky, including the younger national leadership. Regrettably, the competitive ethos of the middle-class prevailed–particularly in the manner of leadership selection and development.

Leadership Selection
It was entirely evident that the process of becoming a leader was to be chosen by the current leadership and groomed. I don’t know when this process began but I do know how it became corrupted.

I think leadership development is an essential concern in organizations and I don’t think it should be left to chance. But that does not mean selecting people in your own image or those you think compliant and grooming them as parrots and hand-raisers or enforcers. Because that means the less confident, more diffident or even more independent members get lost in the shuffle. It means the process of apprenticeship and learning how to think for yourself are preempted. It means sycophancy is rewarded and people become indebted for their falsely attained stature in the party. And it means phony leaders are created since on some level, many of those selected and groomed must realize how little they know, how unable they are to think a problem through, or defend a position without being told what to say. Or else, they get an inflated sense of their abilities which also ill-serves the revolution.

But the greatest offense of all is that working-class people who initially lack confidence often develop as effective leaders and organizers. Class society is based on belittling workers, women, and minorities but the socialist movement considers them transformative and revolutionary agents in society. Our leadership methods must reflect that conviction to encourage the more diffident, and prevent demoralization and resignations.

Instead, the grooming method was rampant, created an atmosphere of competitiveness, and fostered careerism in a movement based on egalitarianism. It was thoroughly corrupt and was part of the process of degeneration. I don’t think it means holding promising recruits back so much as it means paying attention and encouraging the development of all members. With an egalitarian approach to leadership development, rancor and hostilities are less likely to poison relations between leaders and ranks, democracy is fostered. Most importantly, when you take rebels and turn them into hand-raisers you’ve made them useless as revolutionists.

Financial and Political Mismanagement
In 1975, I was asked to join the full-time staff of a civil rights group formed by the party in defense of busing for desegregation. I was to be the financial organizer and fund-raiser. The SWP has extensive experience with fund-raising as a result of the anti-Vietnam War, civil rights, women’s movements, as well as civil liberties campaigns (like the SWP’s PRDF suit vs. the U.S. government). A good share of large donations come from wealthy liberals who are politically astute and well know and respect the SWP. This group of people were confused about busing because of the opposition as they saw it, between the white working class and Blacks–and they were not contributing money.

This was a political factor that needed evaluation.

But as financial organizer, I was excluded from all political meetings between the party officers and staff members. They would return from meetings at the party headquarters without apprising me of political discussions and order me to call donors to ask for loans if they would not give donations, knowing full well we would probably not be able to repay them. I insisted first, that I be included in all political discussions of the work and secondly, told them in no uncertain terms that I would not raise fraudulent loans. It was a felony for which I could serve jail time and it was politically short-sighted by playing people for fools who were not money-bags but political people who had to be respected as such.

These two disputes went on for several weeks without resolution. I would ask donors for loans but only after explaining we did not know when or if we would ever be able to repay them. Some donors were so floored by the candor they gave donations instead. But the staff members continued to exclude me and order me to raise fraudulent loans.

Barry Sheppard, editor of The Militant newspaper, 1964

I knew Barry Sheppard had dealt with this same problem in the anti-war movement and as a former financial director of the SWP understood the integration of politics and finances so I phoned him at the national office to meet with all of us to set the matter right. He agreed and we all gathered at his office. For the entire hour of this meeting, he lectured me with vituperation on doing what I was ordered to do without questioning. I listened to him aghast because I knew he, better than anyone, understood the danger I would put myself and the party in by complying.

I resigned immediately from that position deeply troubled about the leadership and future of the party.

Coincidentally, at that time I went to live in the town house of George Weissman, an older member of the SWP who as a widower remarried a woman living in New Hampshire. He edited for Pathfinder Press and spent one week per month in NYC and the rest of the time in New Hampshire. In the meanwhile, I paid nominal rent and cared for his home which very often included hosting foreign guests like Hugo Blanco, Ernest Mandel, Louis Sinclair, Leah Tsemel, Marguerite Bonnet, Seva Volkov, and others. George was from a middle-class background, married originally into great wealth and I was quite wary he would display toward me the haughty relations I witnessed in the party. On the contrary, he was very egalitarian. He had the regrettable habit however of reading at the table while we were dining. I consider meals a social grace and this habit was not acceptable at all to me. So to his immense chagrin at first, I hammered him with questions about the history of the movement which I was considering leaving. He responded to my interrogations with stories that indicated the party’s past was very different from what I was experiencing.

What he described was what I had thought I had joined–a working class party–and I realized that a corruption had taken place, a usurpation of proletarian norms in conduct and atmosphere. Recruited out of Harvard in the generation of the 1930s, George was very aware of dichotomies between working class and middle-class members and we often discussed this phenomenon.

It was these discussions that kept me in the SWP hoping to be part of changing its rancid environment.

After leaving the civil rights staff, I became involved in branch-building again in the Manhattan Chelsea branch. The women’s movement had been railroaded into the Democratic Party, the Vietnam War had ended, and there was a general lull in political activity. Dozens of members who had been immersed in antiwar activity came back to the branches off kilter and slightly disoriented. The party needed to evaluate where it was and where it was going but with a leadership so self-isolated from the membership and with local leaderships often indentured to them, they were little aware of the problems in the branches or what the focus of collective work should be.

This was the era of the “community branches” where larger units broke into smaller ones.

Whatever the intentions of the national leadership (which they never explained), many local units thought this signaled a turn to community organizing. Although the Communist Party engaged in community organizing to reformist purpose, it is at odds with the method of the transitional program and not the way we do things for many political reasons.

The leadership was floundering, unable to acknowledge they were lost, and unwilling to collaborate with the membership. I believe the turn to industry was a get-rich-quick scheme and a blundering attempt to get out of the malaise and confusion the leadership felt.

People often date the turn to industry as beginning in 1978 but in fact, it began earlier. And as members began to get better paying jobs, the national office began putting the screws on to significantly increase weekly voluntary sustainer payments. One thing I well understood from finances and which Sheppard suggests in his book is that these donations are voluntary, that the party has no right to intrude into people’s private finances and dictate what they should give because it creates rancor and resentment. But now the national leadership began relentless bullying, ordering everyone to pay $40 per week.

I watched this in alarm because I knew it would compel people to leave and I also knew the national leadership knew better.

Undemocratic Meddling
When I joined the Chelsea branch, one of the new community branches, it was not functioning. I am a branch-builder and became key to involving others in getting it up on its feet and its institutions (such as public forums) functioning.

My leadership style is to spend a lot of time talking and listening to people, to find out who they are, what they’re interested in, what rankles them, what inspires them. It was my ability to work with people that made me effective as a branch-builder (and why Shilman made me social director). In the period leading up to the SWP convention (1976?), the branch organizer notified me the national office had given each NYC branch a slate of members working in the party print shop who they wanted elected delegates for the convention. The organizer wanted me to help promote those names in the branch.

I was notably missing from the slate although I was a central branch leader and an obvious candidate.

Despite the awkwardness this placed me in, I told the organizer this was completely unacceptable. The national leadership had no right whatsoever to impose any kind of slate on the branches, especially a slate of people that played no role in the branches and who were unknown to most of us. I spoke to others in the NYC branches to oppose this maneuver but none were willing to stand up against it. I was fully aware that if I chose to singly and openly thwart it, I would be expelled. So although I refused to go along with it, I did not assail it before the membership. I was elected a delegate despite this repugnant maneuver–along with several print shop workers. This leadership maneuver was intended to control delegate selection and not to address the isolation of print shop workers from the work of the party or to integrate them into participation at conventions.

Elitist Behavior
In the entire time I was in NYC, I seldom saw the national leadership. They did not participate in local events (or national ones for that matter) either of the social movements or of the party, such as election campaigns. In fact, they isolated themselves from the local membership in a way I thought peculiar and elitist. On one rare occasion Jack Barnes and Mary-Alice Waters attended a party I held in Weissman’s home so members could meet Hugo Blanco. They stood the entire hour they were there looking dour, speaking to no one, including Blanco, making everyone uncomfortable but grateful when they left.

Peter Camejo was different in that regard, perhaps because he was single at the time. I met him through anti-war work at NYU when we both spoke at rallies. I recall in early 1971 he told me that Jack Barnes was the “American Lenin” and as such “needs to be protected”. The country was barely out of the McCarthy era politically so this was an astonishing judgement and indicates not just how imminent they must have judged the revolution but what an inflated respect they had for Barnes.

Jack Barnes at the 1972 SWP convention.

As I previously described, Weissman was an egalitarian man and those who stayed in his home as guests all ate together, often cooking for each other–as befits a socialist household. Somewhere around 1977, Barnes and Waters broke up and he took up with a companion who was a friend of mine. Barnes asked Weissman to stay at his home while they looked for a new apartment. Weissman agreed and informed me that Barnes requested I absent myself from dining while he and his companion were eating. I was floored and insulted by the request since it flew in the face of the egalitarianism I had so respected in George.

I believe it indicates the blinded and inflated judgement of Barnes was shared by older as well as younger national leaders–although such imperious behavior should have sent up red alerts. Such hyperbolic esteem must have gone straight to the head of a man already prone to narcissism and megalomania.

I did encounter Barnes and his companion in the kitchen I paid rent on and cleaned and in every instance this man who went straight from graduate student to full-time functionary lectured me (who has worked and helped support my family since I was 13) on how to be a proletarian.

Isolation and Leadership
I don’t believe the corruption of the SWP was entirely due to the class origins of the young leadership, although I do believe they introduced the methods of that class into the atmosphere of the party. I think an equally compelling problem was their isolation from politics. Outside of their Cuba defense work and party-building work in the early to mid-1960s, most appeared to have very little connection to not just the working class and the social movements but to the members of the party.

In my several decades of political activism, my observation is that a revolutionary spirit cannot sustain such isolation, whatever the cause. Under Barnes, they chose to live a hermetically sealed and elitist political life, unable to even sustain conversation with the ranks. They selected and groomed compliant people as leaders, people who owed them something–like deference. They bullied and intimidated the rest so that people were reluctant to even ask questions. When they did begin to reject the political program of Marxism, the membership was browbeaten and trained in obedience and those who stood up to them easily isolated and expelled.

Coming to Grips with the SWP’s Degeneration
Sheppard says he did not stand up for fear of being shunned. I well know how it feels to be vilified as a sectarian and shunned as a pariah for standing up against the entry of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency into Solidarity. But that is not an acceptable defense for failing to defend the party. I think the case I have presented shows his culpability and responsibility go back long before 1978 and the “epiphany” moment of Jack Barnes. Without the role Sheppard (and others) played as enforcer of undemocratic and coercive norms in the party Barnes could not have pulled off his coup.

I can’t offer any redemption to Sheppard because that is a religious concept alien to Marxism but I can offer advice and that is to face up to the poisonous atmosphere in the party during all of the 1970s, to examine it, to identify its sources, and educate about its anti-proletarian methods. I also have argued to deaf ears for nearly 25 years now that this degeneration of the SWP has analogs in socialist groups in every country and in every political current. The problem is considerably more significant in scope than the paltry narcissism of Barnes or the failings of Sheppard. These political processes need to be examined as the early Communist International did concerning its predecessor, the Second International, to come to grips with the politics of this epoch and to find a way out of the malaise of the revolutionary movement.

As a postscript, I made the turn to industry in Boston in 1978 and resigned from the party in December 1980 after I was brought up on charges of putting my personal life before my political life. I had requested a time change for the work fraction meeting so I could work overtime to buy a car since I was on the second shift and forced to be at bus stops and walk alone at midnight. I had also refused to sell the Militant at work since I was being threatened verbally and physically for being friendly with Black coworkers.

It may sound melodramatic but I felt I was choosing my class over a party that didn’t stand a chance in hell of transforming society. I have remained active in the trade union, women’s, antiwar, immigrant rights, socialist (such as it is), disability rights, and other movements.

My grounding in Marxism rooted in the SWP experience has proven invaluable in every area of political work.

{ 36 comments… read them below or add one }

David Berger August 9, 2012 at 11:52 am

An honest assessment of a party that was a piece of shit by the mid-60s. Barnes was no accident as the party has never rid itself of its stalinist past.

David Berger


Tony August 9, 2012 at 12:22 pm

That’s a rather silly pov you have, David. ‘Stalinist past’? How did you come up with such bs? I mean Joe Hansen was practically the first ‘revolutionary tourist’ in my opinion, along with more than just several other SWPers who went down to Mexico to hang around the great man. How does that translate into being ‘Stalinists’ for you?


David Berger August 9, 2012 at 12:49 pm

There is nothing silly about my POV. The SWP retained a basically stalinist notion of party functioning. I am somewhat aware of the history of American Trotskyism. Shactman and Cannon first encountered Trotsky’s notion at a Comintern conference around 1928!


Tony August 9, 2012 at 1:16 pm

It is not so much that the SWP had a ‘stalinist’ method of party functioning. It really did not that much. The SWP was very open about its commie politics whereas the Stalinist CP often hid themselves like they were in secret cells in the ’50s or like during WW2 in Nazi Germany. In the better branches, the atmosphere was quite tolerant of member differences, too.

Some of the SWP idea of ‘democratic centralism’ did often times have elements of that mentality though TRUE, and that was really hardened when the party heavies focused on things like having a candidate member class of wannabe cadre, who had to submit themselves to being conformists to get in, etc. The situation got worse when differences became part of an internal caste set up by clique leaderships , with some folk seen as ‘leading comrades’ and others as not.

The idea of a ‘combat party’ being constructed in times of non combat was very faulty, but not so much ‘Stalinist’ as just Leninist.


David Berger August 9, 2012 at 1:21 pm

You are missing Comrade Scully’s point. Every paragraph she wrote, practically, shows the SWP functioning a bureacratic top-down manner which reeks of stalinist methodology.


Tony August 9, 2012 at 5:08 pm

No, Dave, you are missing the understanding of what Comrade Scully was saying here. This is your interpretation of the SWP back then… ‘An honest assessment of a party that was a piece of shit by the mid-60s.’ David, that is not her opinion nor mine at all.

To the contrary of your opinion, I and Scully both saw the SWP as doing me things quite above and beyond the rest of what the herd of other marxist groups was doing. Her problem was with a leadership group that increasingly went astray in ordering rank and file comrades around as if they were mere pawns to play with. It was not with building the women’s movement and antiwar movement which the SWP was doing in pretty outstanding manner though it turned away form doing that.

You call what the SWP was doing in the antiwar and women’s movements ‘petite bourgeois’ though, which is contrary to anything she actually said about the politics that was going on back then within the SWP. Obviously, there was quite a bit more going on well organizationally than you credit the SWP with. When a top leadership was not being obstructionist and destructive, the SWP was able to do much with building huge demonstrations against US imperialism and also against backward laws discriminating against women.
Without those popular mobilizations, the US government would have kept us in a more backward culture mindset than we have even now today. Nothing ‘petite bourgeois’ about it at all.


David Berger August 10, 2012 at 12:06 am

Just to cut through a lot of crap, how do you explain the rise of Barnes? The most obvious explanation is the internal structure of the SWP, which it inheritied, basically, from the CP of the 20s.

And, for the record, the SWP didn’t “build[] huge demonstrations against US imperialism and also against backward laws discriminating against women.” There were active movements back then, the antiwar movement and the women’s movement of which the SWP was a part.

David Berger


Tony August 10, 2012 at 2:15 am

Well, I never meant to say that the SWP did it ALL in the antiwar and women’s movements, David. But what it did do back then is help create a mobilization of people, something that today’s socialist activists have utterly failed at even making the attempt at.

I explain the rise of Barnes not through believing that the SWP had a Stalinist form of organization, but simply because the national SWP leadership became completely disoriented by the TEMPORARY success its own strategy in these two movements had brought about. The strutters with big heads in the organization began to develop delusions of grandeur, quite a bit like some of the people here at NS have right now. They thought success wold just almost come to them AGAIN, simply by them being Big Cheeses. Reality no longer really had to be dealt with that much.

The rise of Barnes also occurred simply because the SWP abandoned the whole issue of building an anti-imperialist anti US military movement. So look what we have today? A total disaster of intelligent thought on the issues of War and Peace, throughout the entire Left and liberal communities. This current group of humanitarian Lefty imperialists comes about FOLLOWING a similar disorientation a couple of years back with the rise up of the ‘Save Darfur’ military interventionist liberals in the US and Britain. They were urging us all to help to create a Pentagon attack on Sudan! And our writers here on North Star in favor of using the Pentagon war machine now were totally clueless about that issue back then, too. And they are clueless about the need to mobilize against the Drug War, as well. They might even perhaps think that it needs to be expanded because drugs are evil like Assad perhaps? I think they just don;t think much about what they are doing, simply because like a lot of SWP comrades were with Barnes, many of our Lefties are just kind of DUMB spelled in capital letters here, David.


James August 14, 2012 at 1:21 am

In fact, the methods of organizing you decry as Stalinist are perpetuated by many Trotskyist sects, and have been for quite some time. I think it would be more appropriate to call these methods of organizing what they are – sectist, top down, etc. – instead of attempting to isolate Trotskyism from it.


Tony August 9, 2012 at 12:17 pm

This writing by Mary Scully is the absolute best analysis of how the SWP fell apart I have yet read. It is right on the mark in every aspect.

‘I did encounter Barnes and his companion in the kitchen I paid rent on and cleaned and in every instance this man who went straight from graduate student to full-time functionary lectured me (who has worked and helped support my family since I was 13) on how to be a proletarian.’

YES, I have had this sort of arrogance directed at me multiple times by SWP members and ex members alike. It really gets me how easily some big shots can talk down to other comrades telling them that they are not up to working class par, not working class, in outlook, lacking in understanding class analysis, and so on. I even once had an ex YSAer turned backwards once again to the extreme conservatism of his Seventh Day Adventist, Right Wing Republican family (associates of Barry Goldwater!), who kept lecturing me that I was not a good marxist because I wasn’t a big fan of Gramsci (like he had been) and didn’t realize how central to the marxist movement he was.

This guy was taking the bad habits of political arrogance he learned in the SWP milieu of he ’70s and then using them later in the ’90s even though he was now an extreme Right Winger jerk-off. He though himself the grand authority on all that was marxism, because he could spout off nonsense ALL MARXISTS MUST BELIEVE which he all attributed to being hte thought os Gramsci garnered from his own personal obsession with Gramsci!

Oh, one other thing. I really do feel for Mary Scully as her run ins with the SWP organizer clown, Ken Shilman, mirror my own time spent with this arrogant butthead. Egads! A movement full os such nuts like that guy was definitely going down fast. I can thank Ken for showing me it was time to depart this Confederacy/ Party of Clowns. I stepped off the train wreck that was the SWP then in Seattle mid ’70s, tried to work with other branches for more than a decade, and finally realized that they were simply never going to get it back together to any small degree even.


David Berger August 9, 2012 at 12:46 pm

If you read Mary Scully’s remarks closely, you can see that by the mid-60s, the SWP had abandoned any pretense of working inside the working class and was entirely immersed in the antiwar movement. When the 60s ended, and the Black movement and antiwar movement were gone, the SWP had no place to go. Their turn to the working class, ca. 1978, was not a result of thought-out politics but a desperate attempt to put out a fire by pouring gasoline on it.

The lessons to be learned are the (1) what happens when a “Marxist” group abandons the working class for petty-bourgeois activism and (2) the absolute poison of stalinist intraparty relationships and the stalinist version of democratic centralism.

David Berger


Tony August 9, 2012 at 1:07 pm

One problem with this pov, is that the antiwar movement was not really ‘gone’ though. The SWP had helped bring about the forced departure of US troops from SE Asia but the US military was still totally intact. So why was there a desire to stop at this point doing what had been successful for the SWP leadership and turn elsewhere? It was just pure stupidity to think that this issue of War and Peace was somehow won in the battle against the imperialist US capitalist class. And to retreat at that moment from driving forward to trying to dismantle the war machine????

The politics of the SWP and the Stalinist CP were totally different, though you act as if that was not the case, David.


David Berger August 9, 2012 at 1:18 pm

(1) After, say, 1972, the issue of war continued, but the antiwar movement was gone. There was no longer any mass basis for SWP/YSA functioning.

(2) I am enjoying reading stuff my people who are completely missing my point vis-a-vis stalinism and the SWP. Of course, the SWP represented a break, although not a complete one, with stalinist politics. Just as an example, the SWP led the fight for the demand for immediate withdrawal from Vietnam, while the CP was for negotiations. However, the internal functioning of the SWP, it is clear from post after post, book after book, basically aped the top-down, undemocratic functioning of a stalinist party. Barnes was no accident. He represents the SWP’s version of Avakian.


Tony August 9, 2012 at 5:16 pm

Certainly the new situation with the US withdrawal from SE Asia called for a new strategy about how the antiwar-anti militarism movement could continue to be built. But it should not have resulted in simply walking away from the big issue of demobilizing the military as the SWP leadership brass led the SWP into doing.

Your point 2 though, I agree much with. The degeneration occurred because too many SWP members simply had gotten disoriented from their work in the women’s and antiwar movement having been so successful up till then. Barnes convinced them that new grand successes were just around the corner if only only they became immediately big players in the union movement. Stupid stupid stupid though. The union movement was going backwards and not forwards at that time. There simply was no way that a small group of 2,000 could have braked that and set a union revolution in motion, simple because Barnes, the pompous ass thought it could be done by his grandiose self dictating.


Rey Saenz May 24, 2014 at 9:15 am

So you, and the SWP misleadership of the time thought ‘Mission Accomplished’ and grew delusions of self grandeur in 1973-1975, David….

‘1) After, say, 1972, the issue of war continued, but the antiwar movement was gone. There was no longer any mass basis for SWP/YSA functioning.’

Huh? Was the Pentagon done away with, David? Had US imperialism simply evaporated into thin air? The SWP began to run around like a group of chickens with its heads cut off. Why? Because they thought their success so far in organizing an antiwar movement was not big enough for such big and important people as lived in Manhattan HQ! They were going to make the Proletarian Revolution by ordering all troops into factory work!

It was absolute and total self delusion, and anybody who tried to ridicule this fantasy stuffit was quickly pushed out of the party.


Tom Cod August 15, 2012 at 3:13 am

Berger’s reference to “petty bourgois activism” of the 60s reflects an economist attitude that disparages these historic movements that we have been subjected to from the sects ad nauseum. It is a Marcusian like caricature of Marxism that Maoist jerks like PL and related trots sects bought into that was in large measure correctly interpreted at the time as reflecting a right wing hostility to these struggles, an evolution that LaRouche embodied to a T. No, at that conjuncture, the vanguard, or “tactical vanguard” as Mandel put it, was actually embodied by these struggles. Those with a dismissive attitude towards those movements had no real historically consciousness at all and were in reality advocating political retreat into ineffectual economism.

Needless to say this had nothing to do with the social revolutionary attitude of Lenin as reflected in What is to be Done and other works or to borrow a phrase from Bob Avakian it showed the “utter rightism” and capitulationism of the “economists”. If there was anything worse than Jack Barnes in every respect, it was the “trotskyism” of the ultra orthodox sects embodied by the likes of the Healyites who were nothing but a bunch of reactionaries.


David Berger August 15, 2012 at 11:09 am

The term “petty bourgeois,” while frequently used on the Left as a cursing term, has a validity for Marxists. It implies either a social class, the class intermediate between the bourgeiosie and the proletariat. As an adjective, it implies a viewpoint that reflects the social reality of that class.

If you don’t understand that the antiwar movement of the 60s-70s was petty-bourgeois, then you don’t understand Marxism. Mandel’s notion of the “tactical vanguard” is ridiculous.

Re Wohforth, he embodied the worst kind of stalinist attitudes and, not surprisingly, has ended up as a social democrat. Other groups had a more enlightened approach to gay liberation and women’s liberation.

David Berger


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 15, 2012 at 11:23 am

So working-class GIs refusing combat and fragging their officers in Viet Nam is petty-bourgeois?


David Berger August 15, 2012 at 12:23 pm

Stop carping and trying to score points. If you’re a Marxist, you know what I mean by a petty-brougeois movement.

David Berger


Rey Saenz May 24, 2014 at 9:07 am

The way people like yourself use ‘petty bourgeois is akin to how Democrats Party voting clowns call Republican Fascists all the time and people who disagree on the internet with somebody or the other always call those that disagree with them ‘trolls’, David.


Aaron Aarons May 28, 2014 at 4:46 pm

The white component of the anti-war movement was largely petty-bourgeois in composition, although it certainly included a good number of proletarian or semi-proletarian whites. The Black, Latino and Native American movements, particularly their more militant sectors, were, of course, more proletarian, and those militant “people of color” were also anti-war activists.

What tends to be ignored by orthodox Marxists is that the majority of the white working class in the U.S. was materially, and acted politically as, a privileged labor aristocracy, so that, even when a majority of white workers eventually opposed the war, they did so because of the costs of the war to them, but they never became defeatists.


Tom Cod August 15, 2012 at 3:15 am

“the workers hate faggots, women’s libbers and McGovernites and so do we!”
-Tim Wohlforth, 1972


Aaron Aarons May 28, 2014 at 4:25 pm

Wohlforth was long out of the SWP by 1972, but I remember an argument among a few people at the YSA office in NYC in or around 1963, about whether gays should be allowed in the YSA and SWP — a position supported by those of us in the minority faction that later became the Spartacist League. I’m pretty sure that it was Barry Sheppard who snarled in response, “The working class hates gays.” (If he used a more hostile word than “gay”, I’ve blocked it out!) I heard a few months later that two young male supporters of the leadership were quietly forced out after they were caught “holding hands” in the YSA office where they were working.


Pham Binh of Occupy Wall Street, Class War Camp August 15, 2012 at 11:25 am

This is the best materialist analysis of where Jack Barnes came from, far better than what I have read from Horowitz, Le Blanc, or Sheppard. If Barnes hadn’t driven the SWP into the ground, I don’t think the ISO would be where it is today. Over the course of three decades they filled the vacuum created by the SWP’s “turn to industry.”


Tony August 15, 2012 at 12:13 pm

ISO has not filled any vacuum at all. It is where it has always been, active mainly in verbal polemics among the academic community. It is not doing anything political that really can be described as very significant.

And it was not Barnes alone that ‘drove the SWP’ into the ground. Many of his later ‘critics’ were there right alongside of him until their very end.


David Berger August 15, 2012 at 12:24 pm

If you were active in Occupy Wall Street in New York, you would know that trade unon members of ISO (Solidarity and SA) are very active as opposed to the SWP and every other sect, which are notable by their absence.

David Berger


Tony August 19, 2012 at 8:19 am

And they have accomplished just what, David, with all this supposed activism of theirs in New York? In Colorado I don’t believe that I have noticed their presence at all, though in Denver they may have sent their 5 or so people out into Occupy activities.


David Berger August 20, 2012 at 8:44 am

What we have done is to begin to build links between Occupy Wall Street and the labor movement. I’m sorry that from your mile-high vantage point you can’t see what’s going on in terms of building from the bottom. This is slow, patient work that can take years. It requires politics and patience. When the situation finally starts to explode in the US, links already built between the rank-and-file of labor and left-wing groups will be crucial.

David Berger


Rey Saenz May 24, 2014 at 9:04 am

Tony is absolutely right. In Colorado much of the local Occupy’s were actually dominated by Right Winger elements. And all this cheerleading about the supposed accomplishments of that ephemeral wave of confusion called ‘Occupy’ is always done by a few pin headed people in the bigger metro areas’ enclaves, who just like Jack Barnes himself, don’t ever have even the slightest clue to what goes on in other regions and social areas of the country than their own.

ISO hasn’t really done shit in the entire times of its existence. Hoping that they will ever see to try to organize a new antiwar movement in the US is not even worth trying to pray for. God him/herself couldn’t jump start this group into doing much of anything real..


Tony August 19, 2012 at 8:29 am

Mary Scully’s memories of the total assholes that dominated much of the SWP leadership even in the best of times matches my own memories.

I must say, that here on North Star and also on marxism list, the ‘comrades’ who cheerlead the ‘leaders’ are much the same material of the SWP membership, both past and present. The marxist movement in the past attracted both the very best and the very worst. Unfortunately, I believe that the times of attracting good anti-capitalists into becoming marxist activists are pretty much over unless there is some sort of major revitalization beyond the present herd of passive dogma chewing cattle seen in our circles.

I never ever even thought to I could see war mongers in such numbers within marxist circles as is being seen these days. Most of them seem to specialize in chewing on their own cud more than anything else. I have yet to see any of them talk much about how the war machine is destroying the standards of the working class and that militarism is destroying our minds.


Rey Saenz May 24, 2014 at 8:56 am

Great analysis, Tony!

‘I must say, that here on North Star and also on marxism list, the ‘comrades’ who cheerlead the ‘leaders’ are much the same material of the SWP membership, both past and present.’

I couldn’t agree more! What a pathetic lot!

‘I never ever even thought to I could see war mongers in such numbers within marxist circles as is being seen these days.’

Horrible to see for anybody who ever joined the SWP because they once called themselves the best builders of the antiwar movement, and were, too. The leftovers of the SWP are mainly elderly cheerleaders for the pathetic concept of ‘humanitarian imperialism’ and make absolutely no effort at all to end the US war machine and its domination over US society.


Les Evenchick January 12, 2013 at 7:16 pm

I just saw this account from Mary and completely sympathsize with it even though i quit the YSA and SWP right after the 1967 SWP convention. Just a few quick points for now. I saw Jack Barnes as a danger ever since I heard him tell a group of YSA members in a hallway during a YSA convention “that the way to make a woman a Bolshevik was to take her to bed”. And the first move against Party internal democracy I saw was when the pre-convention discussion period was cut from 6 months to 3 months (a totally inadequate time for producing and circulating alternative proposals in the days before the internet). Then came the bureaucritic expulsion of the Separatist remnants at a YSA convention in violation of YSA rules. I had no idea what their politics were at the time. My first SWP convention at the end of 1963 seemed the most democratic thing I had ever seen but by 1967 it was clear things were changing. I was concerned that recruitment seemed oriented to the middle class activist students rather than students from working class backgrounds as I was. I talked to Harry Ring who was a national leader i had met at a previous convention and he confirmed by concerns. As a result I quit, believing that the sWP would not be able to build a mass working class Party. Another major concern had been that when SWP reps spoke at major rallies they never spoke about capitalism being the root cause of the Vietnam war. They did not help educate the masses listening about a socialist perspective. I discussed this with Dan Styron after the massive spring 1967 march and rally where only the speaker from the Puerto Rica Independence movement mentioned capitalism


Aaron Aarons May 28, 2014 at 11:45 pm

“Separatist remnants?” Do you mean “Spartacist remnants”? I was one of the latter, but was expelled by the NYC branch of the YSA in about June of ’64, having been expelled from the Party in February. At least in the case of the Party, they had at least a bit of an excuse for expelling me, because I was kind of incapable of acting as a disciplined member. But some of the specific charges against me were absurd. E.g., I went to a protest at Columbia University against the Queen of Greece without checking with the party first, even though I had checked in with the leading (only?) YSA member on that campus! And my expulsion from the YSA was basically because, IIRC, I would not sell the Militant and/or because I distributed Spartacist literature (probably nothing more than a leaflet by that time).

BTW, I’d prefer that nobody who remembers it use my full legal name here, since I don’t want it to turn up in search engines.


Les Evenchick May 29, 2014 at 12:49 am

AAron, When I was active in Boston from 1963-1967 I never heard of anyone needed permission to go to someone else’s protest. In fact I never saw any formal discipline of anyone. Of course comrades were occassionally criticized at branch meetings for stupid things they did. This was under the leadership of Larry Trainor, someone as well versed in Trotskyist practices as anyone in the SWP.


Gail May 10, 2014 at 8:34 pm

That anecdote about Barnes and who he didn’t want to dine at the same table with floored me. I never would have guessed.

I first encountered the YSA and SWP around 1969 and 1970 and I remember the name Mary Scully but can’t attach the name to a face.


Gail May 10, 2014 at 8:40 pm

I just discovered this thread now. I had recently started rereading a Pathfinder book, “Cosmetics, Fashion, and the Exploitation of Women”, remembered the split of the 1980s, and decided to look up SWP USA. I followed several articles and threads — what I found was fascinating. This one is especially interesting.


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