The Life of the Party: Barry Sheppard, the SWP & the 1960s

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by Joe Auciello & Jeff Mackler / August 2006 issue of Socialist Action

Barry Sheppard, “The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, A Political Memoir,” Volume 1: The Sixties, (Resistance Books: Chippendale, Australia, 2005), 354 pp., $16.

At a certain point in a person’s life there comes a need for reflection and assessment. Socialist veteran Barry Sheppard developed that impulse into 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.”

But this volume will not only appeal to the young. An older generation, participants of that era, will find in this book a stirring reminiscence of the social rebellion and the political battles that formed the very center of their lives.

Sheppard was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) for three decades, from the 1960s to the early 1990s. The story of the SWP’s demise and Sheppard’s role in it is promised in the author’s sequel, or Volume II. The present volume steers clear of this tragic period.

During the time covered by this book, 1960-1973, Sheppard, as part of the SWP’s leadership team, contributed to the party as the editor of its newspaper, The Militant, as the SWP’s fraternal representative in Europe to the Fourth International (the world party founded by Leon Trotsky), and as its national organizational secretary.

In the 1980s, Sheppard had been a central player in the undemocratic expulsion and driving out from the SWP of close to 200 members. The majority of the expelled members, who had fought to retain the SWP’s Trotskyist tradition, formed Socialist Action at the end of 1983 and the Fourth Internationalist Tendency in 1984.

Sheppard himself was expelled from the SWP seven years later. Soon afterwards, and with profuse apologies for his past conduct, he joined Socialist Action—only to lead a bitter faction fight and split a year later. He immediately joined the Committees of Correspondence (a group that had broken from the Communist Party), and later joined a diffuse “socialist regroupment” formation called Solidarity.

By this time, the Barry Sheppard that is described in this personal memoir and mini-history had gone on to reject major portions of the revolutionary program of Trotskyism, which for 50 years had placed the SWP in the vanguard of revolutionary organizations. This was the SWP that first attracted Sheppard, along with an impressive layer of revolutionary-minded youth, to a party with a proud tradition going back to the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Sheppard’s book is distributed in the U.S. by supporters of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), whose members have organized a number of his speaking engagements to promote it.

As well as being close to the ISO, Sheppard has over the past several years been a supporter of the reformist Green Party and the electoral campaigns of former SWPer, now California Green Party candidate for governor, Peter Camejo. The Barry Sheppard whose political life and contributions are related in “The Party” would have then denied that the road to the construction of the future mass revolutionary party (which Sheppard still hails) would pass through the Greens or any other brand of middle-class radicalism.

“Important lessons” for the future

“The Party” successfully blends several genres, so that the sum is greater than its individual parts. Sheppard combines political history, personal memoir, and occasionally adds contemporary commentary—with the advantage of hindsight. His effort includes several succinct and highly valuable explanations of complex ideas that were hotly debated in the radical movement of his time.

Newcomers to revolutionary politics will appreciate his sharp expositions on the revolutionary nature of the Black nationalism of Malcolm X, the class nature of the former Soviet Union, and the importance of the Cuban Revolution.

Sheppard effectively relates how the SWP played a critical role in engaging the party ranks with the principled politics that made the SWP a major force in the united-front coalitions that mobilized millions against the war and, along with the courageous struggles of the Vietnamese people, forced the U.S. to withdraw. The SWP is perhaps best known for this effort, still a model for the construction of a politically independent struggle against imperialist war.

In his preface, Sheppard rightly stresses what is valuable in his book: “[T]here are important lessons for the present and future in the experience of the SWP·” These lessons would include how the SWP contributed to the protest movements of its time, especially the 10-year fight against the Vietnam War, and how the SWP functioned internally as a democratic and centralist organization.

Certain chapters in this work help put to rest old suspicions that have resurfaced as new polemics (see the review of Manning Marable’s “A Living Black History” in the March 2006 issue of Socialist Action). Various writers from across the political spectrum have viewed the SWP’s relationship with Malcolm X as exploitative and self-serving. These charges have been motivated more by misunderstanding and political bias than by an open-minded assessment of the factual evidence.

In a chapter on Malcolm X, Sheppard concisely outlines the turning points of Malcolm’s life and explains “the revolutionary response of the Socialist Workers Party to the rise of Black nationalism and the revolutionary development of Malcolm X.” “The Militant newspaper,” he points out, “when it did not print Malcolm’s talks and statements outright, “reported the content of his speeches honestly, in contrast to the daily press and most publications on the left.”

Malcolm spoke at three SWP forums and gave interviews to The Militant and The Young Socialist, newspaper of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). Shortly before his assassination, Malcolm agreed to a nationwide speaking tour sponsored by the YSA. Naturally, the YSA would attempt to gain the widest sponsorship possible for each speaking engagement, but, Sheppard states with justified pride, “Malcolm replied that even if only the YSA sponsored the speaking tour, it would be OK with him.”

In short, relations between the SWP/YSA and Malcolm X were characterized by mutual respect, deepening understanding, and cooperation, based on shared values and overlapping political goals.

Sheppard adds a personal note to the record of the SWP and Malcolm X. Writing with unabashed admiration, he concludes the chapter with a heartfelt and powerful statement: “Malcolm X was the greatest person I have ever met.”

Sheppard’s book, again, is a “personal memoir,” and therefore its range is not encyclopedic. The perspective of personal history is both its strength and weakness. Readers will encounter contemporary events and gain the insight of a participant but will, at the same time, be limited to what that one person actually saw and heard and what that person chose to report.

Party of professional revolutionaries

In the spring of 1969, as a member of an SWP delegation, Sheppard traveled to Italy to attend the Ninth World Congress of the Fourth International and in the summer toured through Asia to meet with like-minded Trotskyist comrades. Though this trip makes interesting reading for SWP members and FI supporters, it was hardly the typical experience of a Sixties radical, who was far from the professional revolutionary that Sheppard chose as his vocation.

The SWP was a party of professional revolutionaries and disciplined and dedicated comrades. Sheppard relates this well. His book explains the rise of the Socialist Workers Party into a significant force on the American left after long years of relative isolation during the McCarthy-era witch hunt.

The previous generation of SWPers, whose central leadership core had been imprisoned for 18 months as the first victims of the reactionary 1940 Smith Act, hailed from the great labor struggles of the 1930s. In 1934, the SWP (then called the Communist League of America) helped set the standard for class-struggle unionism by leading the historic Minneapolis Teamster strike, one of the three general strikes that paved the way for the formation of the CIO.

Sheppard’s book is laced with references to SWP founder James P. Cannon and to other central leaders of the SWP from the earlier generation. At times he goes into great detail to explain little known conflicts between Cannon and Farrell Dobbs, co-leader with Cannon of the SWP and the party’s first presidential candidate in 1948. Woven into these accounts is Sheppard’s negative assessment of the grouping in the party led by Murray Weiss.

Sheppard is often critical of Cannon’s close relations with the Weiss group. He states without equivocation that Cannon erred on several occasions by essentially promoting his trusted Weiss supporters at the expense of undermining the authority of the Dobbs leadership. He refers to still unpublished material written by Dobbs in this matter that would undoubtedly be of great interest to students of revolutionary politics and party-building.

The transition in leadership

Of even greater interest, however, are those internal party disputes that begin to provide an explanation for the demise of the SWP.

The transition from the leadership team of 1930s class-struggle fighters such as Cannon, Dobbs, and Tom Kerry to the youthful leadership of Sheppard and Jack Barnes, the present SWP national secretary, was not without conflict. Sheppard provides many of the details. But left out is an assessment of the effect on the SWP of a relatively rapid leadership transition necessitated by the inevitable aging of one generation and its replacement by another.

The old leadership had been tested in the mass struggles that built the CIO. They fought for revolutionary socialism against a mass Stalinized Communist Party and a ruling class that feared revolution was on its doorstep. It was replaced largely by a middle-class layer of college students—with some experience in the antiwar movement and other contemporary movements perhaps, but with no organic connection to the class-struggle battles that had forged the SWP’s program and practice.

The tiny layer of older SWPers who had been recruited in the relatively barren McCarthy era, during which time the SWP was reduced to a few hundred, was largely bypassed. This generation gap—the lack of experienced revolutionary leadership due to the long period of relative working-class quiescence—offers the beginnings of an explanation of why and how the SWP was fundamentally transformed into a grotesque caricature of its former self.

Today, the SWP stands in opposition to or essentially abstains from the very political movements that in the past it would have championed. Its erroneous political line and horrendous internal practices have reduced it to an irrelevant sect or cult.

Sheppard’s first volume is silent on this evolution, and painfully restricted to the highpoints of his experience. At a number of public presentations of his work, however, he has frankly admitted that he played an important role in facilitating the SWP’s demise.

Volume I is perhaps in the way of an apology of sorts; it contains short, sprinkled, and favorable references to a number of Sheppard’s former comrades who opposed his course inside the SWP and who he had previously held in contempt, if not expelled. Their names and a line or two about their contributions, mention of which is virtually banned in the SWP today, have been restored for the record, albeit far too late and with little import other than to assuage a conscience that had previously been but dimly present.

Sheppard now has largely retired from party-building work but hopefully not from his stated pledge to shed light on the disintegration of a party that thousands of youthful comrades and lifelong revolutionaries devoted their lives to. Others, however—more closely connected to the present struggle for socialist revolution—are eminently more qualified to take on this task. In time, they will step forward to unravel the tragedy of the SWP’s degeneration and thereby provide solid ground to avoid its repetition.

“The Party” can be obtained in the United States through Haymarket Books. Or send $21 to Socialist Action Books. (Our price includes shipping and handling. California residents, please add $1.35 sales tax.)

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