Below is a letter from a new member of the Twin Cities branch of Socialist Action.
I hope to describe some of the experiences that eventually led me to resign from the Socialist Workers Party/Young Socialists and to join Socialist Action. My intent is that it will be useful for others who may have some of the same questions and concerns that I did, whether they are in the SWP/YS or not.
I joined the YS almost four years ago, and joined the SWP, five months later. When I joined the SWP, I agreed to look for an industrial job, after I graduated from college, in one of the SWP’s targeted unions/workplaces. I eventually dropped out of school, after I got a non-target job working on an assembly line. After I was laid off from that job, I moved and got my first SWP targeted job.
I had not done any organized political work on the first job I had, so this was my first opportunity to see firsthand how the SWP functioned in the unions and industry. I had read the series of books about the Teamsters by Farrell Dobbs, which describes how SWP members led workers and functioned during the 1930s Teamster strikes in Minneapolis. My belief was that the SWP was attempting to do the same things in the unions today.
However, I quickly learned that this wasn’t the case. There were a few things that I noticed. First of all, it appeared that the SWP focused, almost exclusively, on selling the party’s paper, The Militant, and Pathfinder Press books.
Secondly, I noticed that members did not really relate to their coworkers’ day-to-day concerns and struggles; we only spoke abstractly about socialism and “how things should be.” As a part of this, I realized that the SWP members avoided talking about the union bureaucracy and officials, to the detriment of their coworkers. I ultimately concluded that the SWP was refusing to try to lead workers, unlike the party had done in the 1930s.
Much of the discussion at the meetings I had with the other SWP members who worked at the same factory centered on selling The Militant and Pathfinder books to coworkers. I was told to look at every opportunity as a chance to sell either a paper or book (or both).
For example, I remember a discussion in a party meeting about another SWP member’s workplace, where there was some tension over wages. The main discussion surrounding this was not on what the SWP could do to further or lead this struggle, but on how this meant we should be sure to have a sale at the plant-gate, where workers exited and entered the plant, because this would be a great opportunity to sell and talk to workers.
I felt that, although it is important for workers to read books and the paper, that the SWP focused on this too much, to the exclusion of leading and to the point of ignoring what other discussion was possible, if it didn’t help sell something.
On the issue of talking to coworkers: the types of discussion that one was told to attempt could be divided into three categories: discussions about socialism (often focusing on Cuba, basic socialist theory, or the party’s position on different questions), abstract demands (for example, “health insurance should be free” or “the union should demand that the company end the two-tier wage system,” which often leads to discussions on socialism) and trying to convince coworkers to go to Militant labor forums, picket lines, etc.
This discussion (aside from the union solidarity/event work) was never connected to any proposed actions or a perspective, which bothered me. It appeared as if we were simply saying these things to see who we could attract to our ideas and events.
This was similar to the way that SWP members were told to deal with the issue of the union bureaucracy. We were told to avoid getting into conversations about the bureaucracy with coworkers and to focus on the company instead.
This is partially correct-one does not want to focus on the union bureaucracy to the point of forgetting the company (but one must deal with the bureaucracy effectively to deal with the company effectively).
I remember a conversation I had with one of my coworkers while driving her to a picket line that I had persuaded her to visit. She had never been in a union before and asked me why she should join the union. I explained the purposes of unions, how they worked, etc. to her, but at some point, I was at a loss. I felt that I should tell her about the bureaucracy and how it needed to be fought, but this was discouraged in the SWP.
I finally told her something very vague. This was one of the hardest things to deal with because there was a lot of discussion about the union (and how it had betrayed workers) in the plant I worked at, and we were handicapped by the SWP’s policy. We refused to put forward a perspective to deal with the bureaucracy in our union; we simply refused to talk about them.
As I wrote above, I ultimately concluded that all of these problems were symptoms of the SWP’s apparent refusal to attempt to lead workers. I did not understand why the SWP had changed, however.
After I didn’t get adequate answers from reading Pathfinder books and asking questions, I decided to look elsewhere (I was also prompted by my realization, after an ex-YS member joined Solidarity, that there were more groups out there than just the SWP, ISO, SL and the Stalinists, as I had thought).
I thought that I would look for some answers on the Internet. There was a considerable amount of material on the SWP’s repudiation of the theory of permanent revolution and Trotskyism in the early 1980s. I found this material very interesting because it seemed to connect with many of the concerns I had about some of the political positions and actions of the SWP.
For example, I was concerned about the SWP convention sending greetings to the North Korean Workers’ Party, its almost completely non-critical stance towards Cuba, and the SWP’s position on Nelson Mandela and the ANC.
I began to question some SWP members about some of these issues and read some material to learn more about the theory of permanent revolution (which I had never heard of), but I still had unanswered questions about the SWP’s trade-union work.
Then, I found the YSA’s website and was intrigued, not only by its description of the SWP’s repudiation of Trotskyism but its criticism of the SWP’s work in industry. So I decided to write to Socialist Action.
Over a few months, I learned about the circumstances that led the SWP to repudiate many of the main ideas of Trotskyism in the early 1980s, and the fight led by members of the SWP (who included many of the present members of Socialist Action) to prevent this repudiation.
I learned about how the SWP adapted to the Cubans and the Nicaraguan Revolution, abandoning the concept of the permanent revolution in order to do this. I learned about how the SWP, discouraged about the noncombativity of the U.S. working class, rejected the Transitional Program.
After considering what I was told by SA members, reading and questioning SWP members, I decided that I agreed with SA more than the SWP. I decided to resign from the SWP because the undemocratic methods and rules that had been instituted during the same period prevented me, to a large extent, from trying to convince others in the SWP of my opinions, and I decided to join SA.
Although I sometimes regret not remaining in the SWP and fighting for the perspectives I believe in, I think that I made the right decision.
I hope that other members of the SWP, who may also be wondering about the same things I did, will also get a chance to learn about the history and degeneration of the SWP. Perhaps some of them will reach the same conclusions I did.