The Demise of Trotskyism in the U.S.:
Reflections on Barry Sheppard's The Party

by Jan Garrett

Last modified: May 30, 2006

Comments in a constructive spirit--one aimed at deeper understanding or correction of possible factual errors--will be gratefully considered.

The book under discussion is Barry Sheppard, The Party. A Political Memoir: The Sixties, Vol. 1, April 2006, 20. It is distributed by Haymarket Books in the U.S., although published in Australia by Resistance Books.

1. Sheppard's The Party, Volume 1
2. The SWP after 1975
3. The Campaign Party and the Dampening of Creativity
4. Questions about Revolutionary Faith
5. What Can We Learn from George Lakoff about These Events?

Volume I of Barry Sheppard's The Party

Barry Sheppard was national chairman of the Young Socialist Alliance when I spent 1963-64 in New York City. Sheppard was also in the Socialist Workers Party leadership from about that time through much of the 1980's.

The first volume of his memoir goes through about 1973. The part of it devoted to 1963-64 corresponds closely with other accounts of the New York YSA-SWP scene as well as life inside the YSA national leadership and the staff of The Militant, the SWP weekly newspaper. The rest of it is largely faithful to the experience of other YSA locals and SWP branches in, e.g., Detroit or Minneapolis.

It is a memoir, but Sheppard provides historical information and political analysis to help younger people today make sense of it. This information and analysis covers, among other things, the black freedom movement, the Cuban Revolution, the antiwar struggle during the Vietnam war period, the youth radicalization of the 1960's, relationships between American radicals and international events, and contests among radical tendencies for influence in and recruits from the larger movements for social change. His book is not so much of a memoir that his personal story takes space away from the political events in which the SWP-YSA were involved. This is not impossible since he was so much in the middle of it.

I once heard Boston College sociologist Charles Derber make a distinction-- he did not claim originality for it, but I do not recall his source--between "making a life," understood in the traditional sense where family and a conventional career play a central role, and "making history." He added that it is very difficult to do both well. During the period covered by Sheppard's first volume, surely, the emphasis for the main characters was on making history.

The book has an interesting perspective on the very inner workings of the SWP leadership centered in New York and the Fourth International leadership centered in Brussels, since Sheppard worked closely with both. It is quite easy to read, although it's not hard to find a few places where an editor's hand might have improved the expression. The theory required to understand it (e.g., who were the Shachtmanites and how did their view of the USSR differ from Trotsky's and the SWP's? What is a workers' and farmers' government and how does it differ from a workers' state?) will be familiar to most people who have spent time in or around Trotskyist groups.

The second volume (promised but not yet published, apparently) will be . . . At first I wrote, "less inspirational." I'm afraid that's an understatement. The second volume will have to explain what happened to the SWP since the glory days of the 1960's and early '70's, to the point where, by the radicalization of the 1990's, it seemed to stand on the sidelines. It seems to have rapidly followed a trajectory analogous to that of the Socialist Labor Party between the early 1900's and the 1960's, when the SLP became a dogmatic sect and mere shadow of its former self. (Other analogies will be employed below.)

The SWP after 1975

Since initially drafting the preceding remarks I've read two online accounts of this later period, Frank Lovell's The Meaning of the Struggle inside the Socialist Workers Party, his introduction to the collection, In Defense of American Trotskyism: The Struggle Inside the Socialist Workers Party 1979-1983, edited by Sarah Lovell, published in 1992, and Paul LeBlanc. Reflections on the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (2000). I knew the Lovells well in the period 1963-69, most of which time I lived in Detroit.

Lovell tells a story that would surprise one who had experience of the SWP in the early 1960's, before Jack Barnes came into its central leadership, or even in the next several years (during the exciting period of Malcolm X's last year and the antiwar movement of the late 1960's, when the YSA and SWP were most effective) and then lost track of it. Along with Sheppard and others, Barnes deserves some credit for the movement's effectiveness. But the story of the period after 1975 is can only be described as a tragedy, when one considers the magnitude of the transformation of the Socialist Workers Party, under the leadership of Barnes, especially after 1978, when it became a Castroist ideological grouping. This involved the deliberate abandonment of the rich heritage of Trotsky and the American Trotskyist movement that had guided the movement into the sixties and continued to be effective into the early 1970's.

If Lovell is right, in fact, the SWP became a personality cult around Barnes himself. The machinations, recounted by Lovell, by which the party was transformed from a democratic centralist organization into a personality cult are eerily reminiscent of the way Stalinism corrupted the Bolshevik leadership. In the end, the Barnes group seems to have expelled, often on trumped up charges, all the more or less independent-minded SWPers who still considered themselves Trotskyists. This included a substantial number of leaders who had come to revolutionary socialism in the 1930's and 1940's, like Lovell himself, George Breitman, and Tom Kerry. Many of them regrouped for a period in the Fourth Internationalist Tendency, whose history is told by Paul LeBlanc.

In the second, as yet unpublished, volume of Sheppard's memoir, Sheppard will have to give his own account of the period between 1973 and the end of his own association with the SWP in 1988. We end the first volume of The Party in the early 1970's with Sheppard still working very closely with Barnes in the active national leadership of the SWP. I gather from Lovell's account that Sheppard continued to collaborate with Barnes well into 1980's, including the time of the expulsion of those who still considered themselves Trotskyists. Perhaps he had some qualms about it and was insufficiently enthusiastic about the developing shape of the Barnes regime, since he himself was expelled himself in 1988.

From LeBlanc's story of the Fourth Internationalist Tendency (FIT), for which Frank Lovell was apparently the first SWPer to see the need and of which he was a founder, I have learned a number of things. At its height it contained about 200 members, concentrated in a few locations (especially the New York City area), and published high-quality reflections on the current political situation and analyses of what was happening to the SWP. They continued, despite the advancing age and poor health of some of their most astute and experienced members, to be active politically. Yet by the time of LeBlanc's writing in 2000 the FIT had disintegrated.

I had inadvertently heard about the FIT in the 1980's and then learned that it had decided to relate toward the SWP as the founders of American Trotskyism had related to the American Communist Party in the period immediately after their expulsion in 1928 by a leadership who had become aligned with the Stalinist leadership of the Soviet Union. Its members would ask to rejoin the party while not concealing their desire to reform it, on the premise that genuine revolutionaries were still to be found in the international movement with which the larger group was associated (Third International in the earlier case, Fourth International in the later case) and that there was some hope of reforming the larger (American) group, by getting it to abandon its erroneous positions and methods.

The FIT finally abandoned the analogous approach to the SWP when, in 1990, the Barnes-controlled SWP announced its permanent disassociation from the international Trotskyist movement (known as the Fourth International).

Even in the 1980's, to find out that the FIT was approaching the SWP (already much reduced in size in comparison to its post-1960's peak in the early 1970's) as the first American Trotskyists had approached the much larger American Communist Party in the period 1928-33 indicated poor prospects for a group that hoped to assist in developing a mass party of the American workers' revolution.

LeBlanc chronicles the life and eventual dissolution of the FIT. His account seems to confirm the lack of any promisingly large--even a couple thousand members would be "promisingly large" in the context--American Trotskyist group in the new millennium. For further confirmation of the current state, more fragmented than ever, of American Trotskyism, see the Tree of U.S. Trotskyist Organizations provided at the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism Online.

While it lasted, in the last decades of the 20th century, the small Fourth Internationalist Tendency continued, in spite of everything, to retain their faith in the ultimate goals of revolutionary Trotskyist Marxism. They had their reasons for maintaining that capitalism must be replaced through the action of the U.S. working class, even though this conviction in the revolutionary potential of the main body of U.S. workers has little direct empirical evidence in its favor. They would argue that most groups that radicalize to the left in the United States-including, for instance, blacks and immigrant laborers--are in fact parts of the working class and that American workers in general continue to suffer from the "economic laws" of capitalism itself (of which the story of Wal-Mart, provides ample evidence). But the most important argument appears to be one of necessity: only the revolutionary action of the main section of the class whose labor makes the U.S. economy function can enable the disarming of the ruling elite whose control of the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons makes them a threat to human survival. For anyone who has followed global political developments over the last decade and retained a sense of loyalty to humanity and the planet, this last argument has bite. But--

The Campaign Party and the Dampening of Creativity

Frank Lovell makes the case that events that eventually produced the degeneration of the SWP under Barnes' leadership go back to the 1960's, even before the significant growth of the SWP as a result of the late 1960's radicalization. (Actually he traces them back to apparently reasonable adjustments made by the central party leadership in the 1950's when the party was struggling to survive and to cope with the reactionary political environment of that period, but I will say no more about that here.) An organizational resolution of 1965, around the time Barnes moved into leadership of the SWP, subtly tightened the discipline of the movement and transformed the party into a "campaign party." It operated that way during the late 1960's. The Party's national chairman emeritus James P. Cannon (also one of the original American Trotskyists with experience going back to the pre-World War I Industrial Workers of the World and the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs) worried from retirement that the apparently modest changes in organizational norms might stifle needed creativity. Most members were completely unaware of Cannon's concerns at the time, but some of them sensed the consequences of this subtle shift during the next period without being able to put their fingers on the cause. The forms and much of the substance of internal democracy were after all still there. As Sheppard notes in his book, during pre-convention discussions in the early 1970's, the sheer volume of debate published in internal discussion bulletins was prodigious. Still, the continuous campaign atmosphere discouraged much creative thinking that did not have clear practical goals in mind. This may well have had stifling effects on critical thinking about more concrete political questions.

Questions about Revolutionary Faith

When I use questions in what follows, I do so in most cases because I don't know the answers, not because I have answers that I am holding back.

What if, for a moment, one relaxes the conviction that the revolutionary program and revolutionary faith--broadly shared by both Barry Sheppard and Frank Lovell--must be right and asks some background questions?

1) Where is all of this going? What kind of society exactly should be pursued by those who favor social justice, as I believe the SWP really did in the 1960's and 1970's and many non-Trotskyists of all ages today do? Do we have a clear idea of what a "socialist" -- or a truly social justice-sensitive -- society would be like? Don't people have to start addressing those issues -- and go beyond slogans -- if they are going to responsibly project a challenge to today's morally illegitimate rulers and want to win allies in the struggle? Are the workers' councils that appeared briefly in the Revolutions of 1905, 1917, 1956, and so forth adequate models today for a lasting, stable, justice-respecting popular democracy?

2) Traditionally, i.e., when Marxism was formulated in the 19th century, it anticipated a society of material abundance based on technological progress -- even though Marx was already aware of the ecological problems caused by capitalist industry (as shown by John Bellamy Foster's excellent study, Marx's Ecology). These projections require rethinking, given our awareness of the magnitude of ecological problems like global warming, species extinction on a massive scale, etc.-- created by 125 additional years of aggressive capitalism, addiction to fossil fuels, and imperialist war.

3) Already in the 18th century, a century before Marx, British philosopher David Hume in his Treatise on Human Nature made a persuasive case that ideas of property-based justice, although human inventions, could not be avoided by human beings in "middling" material conditions. Hume had in mind a condition between (1) such abject poverty that human survival is in jeopardy and (2) such abundance that everyone can reach what is needed merely by extending one's hand. Modern socialists originally concluded that abolition of private property was possible because the development of industry under capitalist was so expanding the productive forces that condition (2) could soon be approximated.

4) Of course, socialists are able to distinguish between personal property and capital (property in the means of production), but if a future society is to preserve the former and not the latter, how is a complex economy to function without it so as to respond to the needs and at least the reasonable wishes of the large human population the planet now has?

5) Responsible progressives and radicals must face facts that suggest the extreme difficulty of doing away with most institutions of property: Socialists have traditionally underestimated or downplayed the extent to which property law is intertwined with our culture. Property law is not a recent phenomenon, a product of the bourgeois or capitalist period that dates roughly from, say, 1600. In fact, most of ancient Roman civil law--and we still have massive documentation of Roman law-- is a law of property, not only property in slaves. Preoccupation with property played a central role in social organization from classical times onward in Europe. Moral and political philosophy has long accommodated this concern. This partly explains why there have been few egalitarians among philosophers prior to the 19th century. Human rights themselves, to use the current vocabulary without which social justice issues today cannot be effectively formulated, were first formulated in terms of property rights.

What can we learn from George Lakoff about these events?

Marxist philosophy has long claimed to be "materialist," but when Marxists focus on political struggles so much that they ignore philosophical discoveries compatible with the sciences of the human, social, and natural world, they risk missing important insights. One of the most important discoveries -- not yet fully appreciated even among academics working in related areas today -- concerns the nature of human thought and its relation to our embodied existence and the micro-societies (families) in which most of us spend our earliest years.

Two key studies in this area are George Lakoff, Moral Politics (2nd ed., 2002), and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (1999). In Moral Politics Lakoff discusses at length two family moral models, Strict Father Family and Nurturant Parent Family. He also relates them to humanly conceived political and social programs and convincingly argues that the latter are fundamentally metaphorical projections from the family models with which virtually every person is familiar. His achievement is not limited to elaborating this point. He goes deeper to establish the metaphorical nature of most elements of our abstract thought, including our moral and political judgments. (For longer introductions to Lakoff's thinking see my Lakoff Links and Embodied Reason pages.)

Lakoff's Moral Politics can help us understand revolutionary socialist organizations. The kind of society favored by socialists and "progressives" of all kinds, as well as many who consider themselves liberals (not neo-liberals, of course), is one that generally fits the Nurturant Parent model as described by Lakoff. But Lakoff's analysis is not limited to the use of these two models (themselves articulated largely in terms of metaphors so common that people typically forget that they are metaphors). He goes beyond them to analyze variations on the basic theme he has discovered.

One of the ways in which he adds nuance to his basic schema is the distinction between means and ends. What happens when people try to promote a "nurturant parent" society by forming organizations that themselves thoroughly reflect nurturant parent norms, in other words, organizations in which the means try to duplicate the ends. Such organizations try to live their own "truths," even though they exist within a society in many ways hostile to nurturant parent values. Unitarian Universalist congregations are sometimes good examples of this phenomenon. But they are of limited effectiveness --their social justice program is vague, their openness and tolerance for diversity finds room even for members whose political philosophy is neo-liberal, their degree of commitment to their own group is often incapable of generating energetic, coordinated action and their financial pledges are low (on a per capita basis), partly because the values associated with efficient organization and discipline are secondary in the set of Nurturant Parent values.

A revolutionary socialist group, on the other hand, may combine Nurturant Parent values, which govern its conception of the goal, with Strict Parent values (the norms of discipline, self-sacrifice, and efficiency associated with getting results), which govern the means. For a revolutionary socialist movement at its most dynamic, the Nurturant Parent values associated with the end (egalitarianism, mutual respect, encouragement of internal communication, dialogue and cooperative problem-solving) exists in healthy ("dialectical") tension with organizational methods designed to actually move the world in the direction to which the group aspires. The NP values in the goals react positively upon the group's organizational life, saving it from rigidity and loss of ability, within limits, to model the goal.

(The following occasionally happens. A person becomes inactive in or drops out of a revolutionary group in which he was once an enthusiastic participant. At the same time, or shortly thereafter, he comes to the realization that whereas he once saw the group as representing to some extent, in embryo as it were, the higher moral and social values it proposed to bring about "after the revolution," he now no longer sees the group in the same light. In other words, he loses faith in the possibility of the goal at the same time that he loses faith in those with whom he had meant to cooperate to produce it.)

In any case, the nuanced combination of Strict Parent means with Nurturant Parent ends can be a very effective combination, as it was in the YSA-SWP during the period described in Barry Sheppard's first volume. But it is a combination subject to its own "contradictions," which the group may not handle in the way most likely to ensure the continuation of the project for which the organization was first created.

What happened in the SWP? Perhaps this. The immediate goal of efficiency (together with the exhaustion of the radicalization of the 1960's that provided a fertile environment for a still-principled revolutionary group as late as the early 1970's) moved its "Strict Parent" culture toward what Lakoff calls the "Abusive Father" model. The organization's somewhat Strict Parent internal life was no longer linked in healthy tension with the Nurturant Parent values that originally described its ultimate goals. The result was the establishment of a small but real "bureaucratic caste" that tightly controlled the membership and itself was tightly controlled by the Leader. (Lovell explains how this bureaucratic caste could emerge, given the SWP's significant financial assets by the late 1970's.)

Note: I don't think the previous Lakoff-inspired explanation invalidates Lovell's generational and contextual explanation--indeed, it partly borrows from Lovell's explanation. Nor does it invalidate the materialist aspect of Lovell's account of how the emergence of the Barnes bureaucracy was possible. Particular historical events require particular explanations, and multiple causes are involved.

There is, of course, no organizational life without "contradictions." An "organism," whether it is a human being or a nation-state or a political movement, is always what it is in terms of its relationships with its past (its social DNA) and its present social environment, as well as the way it relates its means to its ends.

Survival is never guaranteed. In fact passing away, sooner or later, is inevitable. To endure over time an organization and a person must constantly reinvent and redefine themselves, but what makes some humans more interesting than others and some organizations more memorable than others is that, for awhile, they achieve an ongoing creative balance between their heritage, their goals, and the social and natural environment from which they draw their energies and occasionally the new insights that enable them to flourish and make their mark.