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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.