Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

July 18, 2010

Barry Sheppard, Peter Camejo, and the role of the revolutionary party

Filed under: revolutionary organizing,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 7:53 pm

Unless you are a member of the tiny SWP (reported to be about 125 members) or part of their formal supporter’s network, made up mostly of burned out ex-members, you will agree that the collapse of this once powerful left group is of Hindenburgian dimensions. Such a spectacular fall has been the subject of books and articles, both on and off the Internet. I have probably written about 150 pages on the topic including some material that was transformed into a chapter in a comic book memoir done in collaboration with the sorely missed Harvey Pekar.

My memoir is played mostly for laughs, but it shares the analysis found in Peter Camejo’s “North Star” and the article on democratic centralism by Joaquin Bustelo posted to this blog yesterday, namely that Marxist-Leninist “vanguardism” is to blame. There is something in this party-building cookbook dating back to the early 1920s that leads to sect and cult formation. It led not only to the collapse of the SWP but literally hundreds of other Trotskyist and Maoist groups that once dominated the political scene in the 60s and 70s. From the ex-Maoist perspective, Max Elbaum’s “Revolution in the Air” covers a lot of the same terrain.

Les Evans, a leader of the SWP until his expulsion in the early 80s and editor of Peter’s memoir, bases his explanation of the demise of the SWP on the earlier traditions of “the god that failed”. In other words, it is Marxism itself to blame rather than a misapplication. Of course, there is an odd disjunction between Evans’s fear of the revolutionary party assuming totalitarian control of American society and the SWP’s self-destruction. If the SWP had 25,000 members and was growing rapidly, then his updated version of Arthur Koestler might make sense. But one senses that if the SWP had ever achieved such proportions, Les Evans—always the avid careerist—would have remained a member.

Volume one of Barry Sheppard’s memoir, that covers the period from 1960 to 1973, appeared in 2005, amounting to an official history of the SWP along the same lines as the self-vindicating “History of American Trotskyism” by party founder James P. Cannon. Now, after five years, volume two has still not appeared. If it is never written, that would be understandable since the period covered would include some truly traumatic material. The organization that Barry put nearly 30 years into building has turned into a bizarre cult around Jack Barnes, the man who purged Sheppard, Camejo and Evans.

Leaving aside the psychological pain this would entail, there is also the problem of how to explain the downfall. One assumes that given Barry’s critique of Peter’s memoir that he will adopt some sort of bad seed analysis that was broadly accepted by the older generation of SWP leaders who went into opposition against Barnes in the early 80s. Rather than a structural analysis, it stresses Barnes’s character flaws that were exacerbated by a decline of the mass movement in the post-Vietnam war era.  Frank Lovell, a courageous and principled SWP dissident who took on Barnes and who died in 1998, put it this way:

Some SWP members who were closely associated with Barnes became suspicious of him and thought they detected signs of psychosis in the early 1980s. It was clear at that time that he had serious character defects, but it was not until the end of the decade that his pontifications on events of the day indicated a break with reality. At precisely what point the cult complex became the general characteristic of the SWP is not easily determined, but the degenerative process paralleled the decline in party membership and the gradual shrinking of its periphery. Throughout the decade of the 1980s its influence in the radical movement, especially among Latin American support groups and within the so-called anti-imperialist movement, gradually dried up.

In other words, if the SWP had a leader who was not psychotic, like Barry Sheppard perhaps, it would have had a different fate. Of course, the more interesting question is why Trotskyism keeps breeding such nutty leaders. The American SWP and the British Socialist Labor League were defenders of “orthodox” Trotskyism against the dicey liquidationist tendencies of the “Pabloite” Ernest Mandel wing of the Fourth International in the 1950s and both ended up with madmen at the helm. In the case of the SLL, you had Gerry Healy—a sexual predator who accused friend and foe alike of being CIA agents.

But craziness was not limited to the Cannonite wing of the FI. In Latin America, you had one J. Posadas (nee Homero Rómulo Cristalli Frasnelli) who advocated a preemptive nuclear strike against the USA by the USSR and who believed that UFO sightings confirmed the existence of a higher civilization—communist, to be sure—on other planets.

Trotskyism does not have a monopoly on bizarre cult formations if you’ve ever come in contact with Robert Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party or any number of tiny “Marxist-Leninist” groups seeking to emulate Lenin’s party in the same way that a mental patient declares that he is Napoleon Bonaparte.

Barry Sheppard’s review would surely be of interest to the members of the ISO whose Haymarket Press has published both his and Peter’s memoir. When Barry spoke at the Brecht Forum in NYC in 2005, I ran into some ISO members who told me that they were studying the SWP carefully both in terms of its successes and as a cautionary tale of what to avoid. Barry had clearly earned their respect, as had Peter Camejo who had been a keynote speaker at their conferences and who worked closely with their members in the Green Party.

It would also be of interest to the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia, a group that has been moving cautiously away from Cannonite orthodoxy so much so that they endured a split not too long ago by members who would go on to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party led by John Percy. Percy and his late brother Jim were founding members of a group that worked closely with the American SWP and who would agree with Barry that the problems of the SWP have nothing to do with its Cannoite roots. Indeed, it is those roots that must be returned to, which for Jim Percy and Barry Sheppard amount to something like the Garden of Eden legend. Before the leaders of the DSP and the SWP ate from the forbidden fruit of anti-Leninist liquidationism, everything was good. Now it is bad.

Barry begins by defending the older Trotskyist cadre against Peter’s charge that they were nervous about the party’s drift in the 1960s and 70s. Peter wrote:

Many of the older members opposed our support for what they saw as contemporary issues, such as gay liberation, and in general were nervous that the SWP might abandon its roots in Trotskyism and begin to alter its ‘program.’

Barry rejects the idea that the older, working class leaders of the SWP were nervous about the middle-class youth who had come into its ranks. In their defense, he points to their embrace of Malcolm X, the Cuban Revolution and many other struggles of the 1960s that were unlike the 1930s trade union struggles they participated in.

To an extent this is true, but Barry must have forgotten how the entire party leadership—including him—saw the “turn toward industry” as the end of a detour. In the late 1970s, some stirrings in the trade union movement that Farrell Dobbs always referred to as “heat lightning” were taken as a green light to reorient the party toward its historic roots. The 1960s social struggles would not be abandoned—thank goodness—they would just be conducted through the trade union movement. In other words, the older SWP leadership did not have a hostile attitude toward Black Nationalism, etc. as was the case with the Spartacist League. That is true enough. It had only decided that they would be fighting for these causes in a new arena, this despite the fact that the trade union movement as a movement was practically non-existent.

Barry is also troubled by Peter’s understanding of program, something that is put in scare quotes for a good reason in the quotation above. Barry explains his differences with Peter this way:

Peter makes some correct generalizations: “Not only is a political program an evolving concept, but it requires continuous discussion and debate in order for it to be effective. And it must, most important of all, be tested against reality. In other words, the program of an organization trying to bring justice to the world must be a process rooted primarily in the living mass struggles of the people.” But his next sentence reads, “It is not a written document put together by intelligent people in the past.”

Marxist written documents “from the past,” beginning with the Communist Manifesto, are essential to understand the present and to effectively intervene in it. The “living mass struggles” of the present grow out of those of the past. The written programmatic documents of Marxism are rich with the lessons of these past struggles. They do show development of course, since they reflect changing reality, but they also provide continuity. Neither reality nor Marxist theory (program is another word for theory) is always just coming into existence independent of the past.

Well, Barry is simply wrong—that is, at least if he is trying to define how program was understood in the SWP when we were both members. It was not another word for theory, nor was it understood as literature like the Communist Manifesto being “useful” for understanding the present.

Instead, the program was synonymous with a virtual encyclopedia of historical and international positions that people were recruited to. If you were around an SWP headquarters in the 1960s and 70s when young people were joining by the dozens each month, you clearly understood that program of the SWP rested on these foundation stones:

1. Permanent revolution: Trotsky’s belief that only socialism could fulfill the tasks of the colonial revolution in the epoch of imperialism.

2. The USSR as “degenerated workers state”, with such ancillary categories as “deformed” and “healthy”. One might feel as if you had wandered into a clinic when you heard such terms bandied about.

3. A ton of other positions that flowed from these, including what position to take on the internecine struggles in Angola, the character of the FLN in Algeria, the Kronstadt revolt, etc. Once you had developed the ability to articulate a forceful defense of the party positions on such questions in public, you were a cadre.

Peter came to the conclusion after many years that such “programmatic” considerations were not only unnecessary but also harmful. In my discussions with him in the early 80s, he stressed over and over the need to focus like a laser beam on the problems facing us in the American class struggle and to develop an idiom that would be understood by the American people. Indeed, this is the reason he did not get involved in the futile attempts by Frank Lovell et al to defend the SWP “program” against Jack Barnes’s supposed Castroite deviations (sigh, if that were only the case.) When I told him in one of our initial phone calls that I was upset about the rejection of permanent revolution, he said, “Louis, of course you are right to be upset. Trotsky was correct. But the issue is Trotskyism, not Trotsky.”

Rather than come to terms with Peter’s party-building ideas that have been articulated in various places in “North Star” and in articles like “Against Sectarianism” and “Return to Materialism”, Barry sets himself up as the defender of Marxism against Peter, who is portrayed as some kind of pragmatist. While Barry’s tone is not as vitriolic as James P. Cannon’s or Leon Trotsky, one cannot escape feeling that he is reenacting the Shachtman-Burnham fight.

Peter’s position appears to reject the basic program of Marxism. He writes that Marx was right on many things. “Marx said human history can be understood like any other scientific process,” he says. He goes on to list other positive aspects of Marx’s thought. “Marx raised the idea that humans can transcend the brutality, violence, and abuse that have characterized most of human society for at least the past few thousand years. He laid out a view that attempted to tie society’s past evolution to how it might evolve in the future.”

Peter nowhere affirms Marx’s program, and appears to reject it by omission. That is, he rejects much more than the SWP’s program. In the place of program and theory he presents an agnostic view: “The science of social change is permanently evolving. We will learn what works – that is what is ‘true’ – by the inevitable conflict of ideas and by testing those ideas against reality.” What “works” is what is “true” – a restatement of American pragmatism. We don’t yet know what “works,” including Marx’s program, Peter seems to be saying.

Well, thank goodness Peter did not “affirm” Marx’s program. That was not the kind of book he intended to write. On the idea that “the science of social change is permanently evolving”, one can only demand that Barry offer proof that somehow Peter’s politics reflected a departure from Marxism. At least when Cannon and Trotsky were flaying James Burham and Max Shachtman, they could at least point out how they had adapted to liberal public opinion on Stalin and the looming world war. They could also document Burnham’s open embrace of non-Marxist philosophy. But to turn “North Star” into something like “The Managerial Revolution” is rather silly.

In Peter’s case, all you have is a declared need to test ideas against reality. Now Barry is welcome to interpret this as philosophical pragmatism, but I see it as a useful reminder to avoid the screwball hothouse atmosphere of groups like the SWP that believed that the late 1970s—the era of trade union decline, disco, cocaine, and student apathy—was ushering in a period of mounting class struggle that would lead to a bid for power. It was the disjunction between the reality of American society and the SWP’s millenarian posturing that finally led me to resign in 1978. My only regret is that it took me so long to wake up to reality. That, of course, is a common complaint of former cult members.

Finally I will say a few words about Barry’s reference to Peter’s allegation that Ernest Mandel and other European Trotskyists backed the Simon Bolivar Brigade in Sandinista Nicaragua, a sectarian formation loyal to Nahuel Moreno, a former ally of the SWP. Barry presents solid evidence that this was not the case. Barry has no explanation for why Peter might have made such an allegation other than the fact that he was ill with cancer when writing the book and very likely had a memory lapse.

I can understand how illness and old age can weaken one’s memory and intellectual powers. I am 65 myself with declining eyesight.

One can only wonder if Barry has been coping with declining memory as well, given his characterization of how Peter found himself outside the SWP. In his review, he states, “Peter left the SWP in 1981.” Now, for most people this means that he left voluntarily as was the case for most people back then, including me.

But in another account, he writes:

In 1981 Peter went on a visit to Venezuela. While he was absent, a meeting of the SWP national committee was held. At that meeting, we were told that Peter had resigned from the party. I didn’t find out until some years later, after I had left the SWP, that this was an outright lie, orchestrated by Barnes, who had always been jealous of Peter’s popularity with the party membership. Over the next years in the 1980s, most of the central leaders were forced out.

This doesn’t sound much like “leaving” in my estimation. But I won’t hold that against Barry. I will only assume that he meant to write something more like this in his review and simply forgot what really happened. My only hope is that he can summon up the energy and the courage to finish volume two of his memoir. The debate over party-building is of intense interest to young activists everywhere and his views are essential to this debate, even if they are wrong.


  1. This review is quite enlightening and, knowing Louis for the dedicated socialist that he is and has been, I believe him when he says at the end, “The debate over party-building is of intense interest to young activists everywhere. . .”
    However, the rather impish parting shot about how Barry Sheppard’s view are essential to this debate “even if they are wrong” seems unnecessarily petty and actually appears to be dismissive. As one who does have “intense interest” in the issue of party-building and who neither has any grudges nor alliance with members or non-members of the former SWP (what we see today is indeed not the same), I am most attracted to forceful, accurate, and scientific exchanges of views. Claiming someone to be “wrong” simply because they have different recollections, especially before he actually has the chance to complete those views is, let’s just say, not so endearing.

    That said, Louis’ contribution here is one of the better voices I have heard on the history of a party in which I participated extensively. I was very young and very new to organized socialist politics at the very time that so much of what has been described in Barry’s, Peter’s, and Louis’ accounts of the Socialist Workers Party. I grew up politically during this time and was very dedicated to this “program” of positions and concepts. I was intrigued by every analysis and new position and many oftentimes I felt them to be strong applications of what I had learned as a budding Marxist. It was only around the time I decided to leave that I began to develop a more mature appreciation of the organizational question, but by that time, I felt the need to move on and to engage in what I considered was “rethinking my place in the revolutionary struggle.” This historical accounting of the period in which I spent most of what I believe were my best years, provides me a better perspective and has helped me to understand what seems to have “gone wrong” and to help with what I believe we need to get right.

    Comment by Manuel Barrera, PhD — July 18, 2010 @ 9:04 pm

  2. I think there is/was a real difference in political approach between Sheppard and Camejo. It’s reflected in the split in the Australian DSP that Louis referred to.

    Although no bridges (that I am aware of) have been burnt between Sheppard and the majority of the former DSP (now mostly members of the Socialist Alliance), it’s pretty clear that Sheppard feels more sympathy with the minority group, now the Revolutionary Socialist Party (www.rsp.org.au). In other words, the majority broadly supported Camejo’s view, while the minority broadly supported Sheppard’s.

    Summarised like that, of course, the disagreement doesn’t sound all that serious, does it?

    There is, however, one curious side effect – volume one of Sheppard’s memoir was published by Resistance Books – a publishing arm of the now-split DSP! While I’m sure they would be happy to publish volume two as well, it’s not so clear that Sheppard himself would be happy about the arrangement…

    Sheppard’s memoir can be obtained via http://www.barrysheppardbook.com/

    I’m on the Camejoist side of the dispute, to the extent that the dispute actually exists.

    Comment by Alan B — July 18, 2010 @ 11:29 pm

  3. “one can only demand that Barry offer proof that somehow Peter’s politics reflected a departure from Marxism”

    How about when he helped found a bourgeois political party?

    Or when he rejected proletarian revolution?

    Of course in reality from the very beginning he never had any more to with Marx than the “Marxists” of the SWP. The closest Camejo came to Marx was having his tendency mentioned in the Communist Manifesto under the heading “Petty-Bourgeois Socialism.”

    Comment by The Idiot — July 19, 2010 @ 7:00 am

  4. I’d heard of the oddness that was Juan Posadas from the weirdness hunters over at “Fortean Times” magazine…what’s truly interesting is that this interest in UFOs and other paranormal phenomena came from the Marxist Left; most of the time the political groups that mention those topics are Nazis or other far-Right groups following the bizarre traditions of Julius Evola, Miguel Serrano, and other esoteric writers. Usually a UFO cult believes that they are in contact (either psychically or technologically) with the aliens, but this New Age claptrap doesn’t jibe with any variant of Marxism.


    As for the (post-Vietnam) 1970s being a possible time for revolutionary change, the Weather Underground Organization was still agitating for an uprising after 1975 through their publications “Prairie Fire” and “Oswatomie”, and the “May 19th” faction continued the WUO bombing tradition until 1985. With that precedent, anybody in a group like the SWP would assume that changes were coming.

    Comment by Strelnikov — July 19, 2010 @ 10:40 am

  5. Shepard –
    In 1981 Peter went on a visit to Venezuela. While he was absent, a meeting of the SWP national committee was held. At that meeting, we were told that Peter had resigned from the party. I didn’t find out until some years later, after I had left the SWP, that this was an outright lie, orchestrated by Barnes, who had always been jealous of Peter’s popularity with the party membership. Over the next years in the 1980s, most of the central leaders were forced out.

    why did it take “some years later” to investigate why a long-time central leader, one who was personally recruited by Shepard himself, just got up one day and resigned? Why didn’t Shepard immediately contact Peter and investigate? Why was he so willing to accept a most outlandish claim, and what does that say about his leadership qualities?

    Comment by Dennis Brasky — July 19, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

  6. Stalin attacked Lenin for being too prone to polemic and splitting i.e. for being to resolute in his defence of marxism and why, because Stalin was an organisational fetishist. The problem with this piece is that the writer attacks Trotsky, who was correct in his resolute defence of marxism and the programme against the Schatmanites who then felt obliged to split rather than uphold that programme. That is an exemplary way of proceeding. He could so easily have opportunistically abandoned the struggle for marxism in favour of a quiet life and keeping the organisation he had so painstakingly built together. It may even have saved his life.

    The problem with the post-war Trotskyist movement was that in the new conditions it quickly degenerated adopting a very stalinist perspective on organisation even while some of the cults and sects formally upheld Trotskyist positions. Nowadays, in Britain at least, most of the sects are Gramscian which simply means they have adopted Stalinist theory to go along with their stalinist practices. They show absolutely no concern for developing marxism, its method or its programme and care only for their own self-serving propaganda grouplets.

    As the article by Joaqim seems to say, there is no kind of organisation that cannot degenerate. Terms like democratic centralism if properly understood and not fetishised may help you to recognise from the outside when degeneration has taken place but rarely help when you are on the inside of a cult. Brilliantly he points out that at certain points the only organisational form that Marx and Engels had for the promotion of Marxism and its programme was their friendship having abandoned several previous organisations as unfit for purpose along the way.

    Trotsky established the Fourth International by abandoning the Third as a corrupt Stalinist crap hole. It didn’t survive the post-war boom and the Stalinist pre-emption of the world revolution fragmenting as it did into sects chasing after various third world peasant and bourgeois movements and the odd rebellious Stalinist. During the decades of the Cold War these sects became not just centrist sects but well established bureaucratised sects. The fourth remains to be built and trotsky’s insights applied as part of the Marxist suite of hard-won theoretical tools. The Cold War is long over, the triumphalism turned out to be hollow, the death rattle of capitalism can be heard once again.

    Comment by David Ellis — July 19, 2010 @ 4:18 pm

  7. As the article by Joaqim seems to say, there is no kind of organisation that cannot degenerate.

    Actually, Joaquin is a strong supporter of the Cuban Communist Party.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 19, 2010 @ 4:19 pm

  8. #7 Hmmm. Well it’s true that there is one kind of organisation that cannot degenerate. The one that began degenerate.

    Comment by David Ellis — July 19, 2010 @ 8:00 pm

  9. In his memoir, Peter states the following: “The SWP allowed members to take leave of absence and be inactive for a period of time. So I reported to Olga Rodriguez [the organizer of the New York branch at the time] that I wanted to take a leave. Olga then reported in writing to the entire leadership of the SWP, clearly with Barnes’s complicity, that I had informed her of my resignation. This was not a misrepresentation of intent — I kept a diary at the time and wrote these things down.” This jibes with what Peter had told me in the early 1990s, as Louis’ quote from me indicates. When I wrote in my review that “Peter left the SWP in 1981” my purpose was to indicate the time Peter had been a member, from 1960 to 1981. Perhaps I should have quoted what Peter said above. Peter did get a raw deal in this instance, and in others which are indicated in his memoir, especially during his 1976 Presidential campaign, which I didn’t refer to in my review either. I note that Peter headlines his explanation with this: “I Depart from the Socialist Workers Party.” Would there have been less confusion if I had used the word “depart” instead of “leave”?

    Louis writes that the second volume of my political memoir has not appeared after five years. I note that the first volume took me five years to write. I have gone through a period of years of personal difficulties that prevented me from working much on the second volume, which Louis my not be aware of. My companion of decades, Caroline Lund, became ill with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) in the summer of 2005. ALS is a relentless degenerative disease that is always fatal. More and more my time and energy was devoted to her care, until it was 24/7. After he death in October 2006, I was overcome with grief and did not work on the book for a year. Gradually, I got back into it.

    Comment by Barry Sheppard — July 19, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

  10. I have now completed the first drafts of 17 chapters which cover 1973 through 1979, and the drafts of six chapters of the part which will cover 1980 to 1988. My target is to have all the first drafts done by the end of the year.

    In this second volume I will develop in some detail the degeneration of the SWP. My view of this process differs sharply from Peter’s and Louis’ (and the disparate views of many others). I want to wait until the second volume is published, and others have a chance to read it and make their comments on it, before I reply to others’ views.

    Barry Sheppard

    Comment by Barry Sheppard — July 19, 2010 @ 8:43 pm

  11. On a small issue, the attitude of the European Mandelites to the Sandinistas/ to the Simon Bolivar Brigade, Barry is right and Peter Camejo (and Louis) wrong.

    John Strawson, Mark Turnbull and I attended the first international meeting of the Leninist-Trotskyist Tendency of the FI in autumn 1979 (which later turned out to be, at least at its core in France, a Lambertiste entry operation) on behalf of the British element of the tendency. The meeting turned out to be attended by Lambert and Moreno, who put to the meeting the proposition that Moreno’s faction, the Lambertiste international and the LTT should constitute the “Parity Committee”, i.e. organise an immediate split in the FI. The pretext offered for this split was that the Bureau of the USFI had (a) given the names of Simon Bolivar Brigade members to the Sandinista police, and (b) instructed Fausto Amador of the LTT (who was wanted by the Sandinistas for ‘turning’ against the guerrilla struggle on the TV of the Somoza regime) to surrender himself to Sandinista justice. When the vote to split was passed, Strawson, Turnbull and I walked out and Strawson contacted Barry who was on the Bureau) and we went to Barry’s flat. Moreno’s and Amador’s allegations against the Bureau were exaggerated, but in terms of the *political* character of the Mandelites’ orientation to the Sandinistas – that they preferred to collaborate with the Sandinistas than with the Morenistas or Amador and his Central American cothinkers – not substantially false.

    As to why Peter Camejo might have believed otherwise – *later* a dispute arose between the Mandelites and the US SWP about the characterisation of the Sandinista regime and the ideas of “permanent revolution” and on the other side of the “workers’ and farmers’ government”. This dispute involved the Mandelites taking a very much more critical stance towards the Sandinistas than the US SWP did. In a sense, this later dispute recapitulated differences which had existed between the Mandelites and the US SWP in the earier 1970s over attitudes to the Cuban regime, Fatah, and the ANC. Camejo seems to have projected these earlier and later disputes onto the line actually taken in 1979 in relation to the SBB.

    IMO, while it is true that the line of the Morenistas, Lambertistes and of Amador was deeply sectarian, the subsequent evolution of the majority of the Sandinistas (and, for that matter, of Fatah and of the ANC) suggests that the Mandelites were at least half right to take an attitude of *critical* solidarity, as opposed to the “official communist” line of “don’t criticise the official movement” argued by the US SWP and its international supporters at the time.

    Comment by Mike Macnair — July 19, 2010 @ 9:07 pm

  12. I think the strength (as in foundation) of the Left is the power of the Labor Theory of Value to explain the central role of the working class, together with the writings of Marx and Engels. Within this context then, the question is – what do revolutionaries do in a time of non-revolution? By way of analogy, what do firemen do when there’s no fire? They train to prepare for the eventual day when they’re called to a fire. And how do firemen train? They start controlled fires and learn how to deal with it and put it out.

    By extension – revolutionaries, in a time of non-revolution – fight for reforms. They have a revolutionary program, and they have reformist demands.

    I was never in the SWP, and i don’t have personal experience with its internal life, but it seems to me Camejo was on to something. And I hope other comrades get on the bandwagon and fight for WC demands now during this crisis. I don’t think you want to wait that long for the next crisis.

    In Solidarity,

    Comment by Anon — July 19, 2010 @ 10:13 pm

  13. IMO, while it is true that the line of the Morenistas, Lambertistes and of Amador was deeply sectarian, the subsequent evolution of the majority of the Sandinistas (and, for that matter, of Fatah and of the ANC) suggests that the Mandelites were at least half right to take an attitude of *critical* solidarity, as opposed to the “official communist” line of “don’t criticise the official movement” argued by the US SWP and its international supporters at the time.

    You must not be familiar with the SWP’s evolution. By 1988, they were writing ultraleft denunciations of the FSLN for not following “the Cuban road”.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 19, 2010 @ 10:17 pm

  14. On the international level, [Trotsky] proved unable to understand the real efforts of communist minorities and he supported the Communist International in all its mistakes (activity within unions and parliament, “mass” parties, slogan of workers’ government, etc.). After he was expelled from Russia, he was totally unable to establish any sort of useful contact with revolutionary groups. He refused to question the validity of the notorious “first four congresses of the Communist International.” He was both a sectarian and an opportunist. He had an altogether administrative view of revolution. In France, for instance, he supported people who had neither proletarian ties nor revolutionary abilities, but were left-wing intellectuals. A list of all his political blunders would be amazing. Looking for a mass following, he urged his supporters to join socialist parties. He founded an International which had a program but no proletariat. He was always looking for a new magic device with which to go to the masses, and always failed.


    Comment by The Idiot — July 19, 2010 @ 10:59 pm

  15. So, comrade Idiot, are you a council communist?

    Comment by louisproyect — July 19, 2010 @ 11:53 pm

  16. Les Evans = “avid careerist.” How so? I don’t of course agree with Les’s current Zionist politics, but I really must take exception. Les dropped out of UCLA in the early ’60s just short of a degree to devote himself to the SWP. He spent many years existing on a pittance in New York as a full-timer for the party writing useful articles for Intercontinental Press, the ISR & editing for Pathfinder Press when he might have been making a lucrative career for himself. When Barnes, Jenness & co. set out to trash the SWP’s legacy, Les stuck his neck out and spoke against it when others kept quiet. For this he was tossed out of the organization that he had devoted 22 years of his life to. I should add that while he has renounced his previous politics he nonetheless wrote a very interesting and generally fair memoir of his times in the Trotskyist movement, “Outsider’s Reverie,” for which future historians should feel indebted.

    “Avid careerist?” What a scurrilous claim!

    Comment by John B. — July 20, 2010 @ 1:29 am

  17. Les Evans…yeah well. I’ll never forgot what he told me in 1967. He said that when he joined, he looked around him and decided he could work his way to the top in no time. There were lots of things that being a full-timer for the SWP could bring that a corporate job could not. It had what Bourdieu called intellectual capital.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 20, 2010 @ 2:10 am

  18. I’m in the IMT. I’m not speaking for them about why the SWP degenerated. I’m adding my own experience.

    The SWP had difficulty explaining reality, if it didn’t fit in its narrative. A big example is the downfall of Stalinism in East Europe, where they denied counterrevolution won. The USSR won the Cold War! Another example is their complete inability to explain events in Cambodia.

    Idiot: Posadas went on that bizzare path after prison torture. It’s not funny. The sadder part was his followers didn’t assess his condition.

    There is more to revolution than dressing in black and breaking windows.

    Comment by Renegade Eye — July 20, 2010 @ 4:14 am

  19. `The SWP had difficulty explaining reality’

    That I think is because they had a series of fixed positions the truth of which they had never really assimilated as opposed to a method despite the efforts of Trotsky to educate them in that method.

    The post-war boom, the huge expansion of Stalinist influence and the glacial nature of politics in the imperialist heartlands during the Cold War meant that the Fourth International didn’t just break up into sects and cults which come and go and zig and zag but were able to become a seris of self-serving bureaucratised sects, mimicking Stalinsim, for whom the organisation was everything and the politics nothing. On the basis of the prestige and identity afforded them by Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism they remained separate and distinct but in reality it was apolitical compromise all the way with classes and their interests that were other than proletarian.

    In Britain the degeneration of the FI fragments is finally finding its true political expression whereby even lip service to Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution has been entirely replaced by fidelity to the Gramscian `war of position’ which is the rationalisation of the Stalinist recipe for class compromise and popular frontism par excellence. It just goes to show that sectarianism and opportunism really do produce identical results.

    Comment by David Ellis — July 20, 2010 @ 10:44 am

  20. I’m not a council communist, just an idiot capable of understanding that the proletarian revolution is not guided by ideology or religious-like sects, but class interest. Knowing that I can accept contributions that help sharpen our understanding without turning the sources of those contributions into deities.

    Comment by The Idiot — July 20, 2010 @ 6:49 pm

  21. Why do you call yourself the idiot? Are you being ironic or are you really a retard?

    Comment by louisproyect — July 20, 2010 @ 6:51 pm

  22. Even an idiot is smart enough to see that you’re incapable of responding to political criticism with anything but ad hominems that are as offensive (“a retard,” really?) as they are pathetic.

    Comment by The Idiot — July 20, 2010 @ 8:45 pm

  23. Comrade idiot, it is impossible to have a debate with you because you write nothing except the need for proletarian revolution and communism. I am really not in the habit of trying to refute groups and individuals who profess such beliefs because they defy criticism. In fact they amount to nothing but your ideals, as in the Platonic sense. My politics are not conducted on such an ethereal level, comrade idiot.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 20, 2010 @ 8:52 pm

  24. I cite a number of facts which would tend to refute your characterization of Les Evans as an “avid careerist.” You reply with an anecdote. Okay.

    Comment by John B. — July 20, 2010 @ 11:01 pm

  25. Yes, your politics are conducted in the “real world,” aka pragmatism–the leading excuse for opportunism and class collaboration since 1895.

    Meanwhile: “….it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one. There is no doubt that during the further course of the revolution in Germany, the petty-bourgeois democrats will for the moment acquire a predominant influence.”

    While the middle class will “seek to ensnare the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented. Such a unity would be to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the proletariat.”

    “Although the German workers cannot come to power and achieve the realization of their class interests without passing through a protracted revolutionary development, this time they can at least be certain that the first act of the approaching revolutionary drama will coincide with the direct victory of their own class in France and will thereby be accelerated. But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty-bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle cry must be: The Revolution in Permanence.”

    Comment by The Idiot — July 21, 2010 @ 10:49 am

  26. Congratulations, comrade idiot. Your skill in copying and pasting from the Marxist Internet Archives sets you apart from all the dirty Mensheviks.

    Comment by louisproyect — July 21, 2010 @ 12:45 pm

  27. I have to admit, if I had known it was that easy all along I’d have just gone out and joined.

    Comment by Michael Hureaux — July 21, 2010 @ 6:43 pm

  28. Wow, what a great discussion (for the most part, nobody’s perfect). I was so glad to hear from Barry (my sincere condolences, Barry, I remember Caroline fondly)
    as well as others on what on the surface is a discussion about Barry and Peter’s differing takes on the history of the Party, but in many respects are truly about forging a revolutionary party with the advanced understanding of the conceptual pitfalls in copying “Russian” or “Cuban Roads” for a different country (USA), in a different world, and a different day. I cannot help thinking what a powerful organization we would have with people like Peter, Barry, Louis, Joaquín, Anon, and the rest of you (yes, including Idiot) . . .
    [although I must digress briefly to state that as a teacher and professor in special education, I am appalled at using such noms de plume as much as I am incensed at the use of epithets like “retard”; both are an insult to children and adults who struggle cognitively when what most people with “normal” cognition are really trying to do is accuse each other of being ignorant, which both of you have so strikingly displayed; it becomes neither of you]

    Regardless of the gnashing and thrashing about whether some of us are more “proletarian” in our orientation than others, is there really anyone here that believes any of us is going to engage in conscious class-collaboration with the bourgeoisie and imperialism? Are any of you arguing for supporting imperialist wars or national bourgeois regimes? Is there anyone who does not solidarize with the Cuban or Bolivaran revolutions even if some of us may have our critiques? More important, even if some of us may make political mistakes as we engage in the struggle, is it not possible for us to learn from those mistakes together and forge a stronger unity as we do? Have we not all learned the dangers of sectarianism from our collective experiences?

    Much has been made on this blog as in Marxmail about the inadequacy of bureaucratic centralism masquerading as “Leninism” and the argument has been made that we need a different kind of Party (organization)that truly upholds democratic principles both in its programmatic development and in its united action within the movements of the day. I am being convinced of this need, so, I wonder why we don’t do it?

    I understand several things: one, is that perhaps some of you are already “allied” with whatever flavor of revolutionary organization you have been able to accept. Second, I know that many of us are “old” with failing health or care for the health of those close to us. Hence, I know it’s not truly “our time” anymore (or so we might wish to believe). But we are not all old and we can still set an example; we can still stand up. We can still make a difference and not just bandying each other about in some perverse honing of “political weapons”. The Democrats and Republicans arguably have significantly deeper differences with each other than any of us on the at least non-stalinist left. The capitalist politicians never have a problem with unity in action when it comes to opposing the interests of the working class; they function as a single unit despite their open differences (at least to them). Why is it so impossible for those of us who stand for the interests of the working class to forge a unified party in a way that counts? On its best days, it is why I joined the Socialist Workers Party. Despite what I know now and how far the Party I knew has fallen, the promise it gave me remains as bright in me today as when I attended my first forum.

    Anon said, ” revolutionaries, in a time of non-revolution – fight for reforms. They have a revolutionary program, and they have reformist demands.” I resonate with this sentiment if by “reformist demands” she (or he) defines such demands as not directly posing the question of power, but if accomplished bring the working class closer to resolving that question. We are in a time of preparation and, if it takes the rest of our short lifetimes to stay in that mode of preparation, so be it. Knowing what we know now after all we have done, is there really anything better to do?

    Ever the Optimist,

    Comment by Manuel Barrera, PhD — July 22, 2010 @ 2:31 am

  29. I laughed at the bit about somebody’s scandalously “open embrace of non-Marxist philosophy”. (Recall only how Marx himself studied non-Marxist philosophy, etc.)

    Beneath all criticism, former SWP members have only their own wretched, essentially anonymous, sub-mediocre existences as punishment for the utterly forgettable non-event of their incorporated efforts.

    I met Sheppard once. His proof of the already achieved, but yet “deformed”, communist relations in Russia was that “they don’t have money there”. The convinction with which this veteran socialist held to such an utter falsity shook me. Is such stupidity really tenable over such long periods amongst partisan press-workers? Are “idiots” like this (and the one Proyect is so infantile in baiting) really privileged with publication on a regular basis? etc., etc.

    “Idiocy, thou alone art immortal.” –Gramsci

    Comment by maxwell clark — July 22, 2010 @ 4:36 pm

  30. The “disputes” are monumental, in that someone who is new to Socialism is likely to say “hell with them all”. But, since Socialism seems to be wrapped up in Intellectualism these days, that shouldnt bother the Vanguard.

    Comment by KDelphi — July 28, 2010 @ 2:47 am

  31. I have now completed the first drafts of 17 chapters which cover 1973 through 1979…

    17 chapters in 6 years is an awful lot of writing/analysis for such a brief period.

    Comment by Binh — May 18, 2011 @ 4:19 am

  32. […] Although it should come as no surprise to those who have been following my articles on the SWP over the years, I am partial to Peter Camejo’s analysis contained in Against Sectarianism. After reading it in 1983, I immediately joined Peter in trying to forge a new left based on his approach, which departed from “Leninist” norms (Barry Sheppard believed that Peter eventually departed from Marxism as well, a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere.) […]

    Pingback by Trotskyist postmortems on a dead party « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — July 11, 2012 @ 5:28 pm

  33. […] As should be no surprise to those who have been following my articles on the SWP over the years, I am partial to Peter Camejo’s analysis contained in Against Sectarianism. After reading it in 1983, I immediately joined Peter in trying to forge a new left based on his approach, which departed from “Leninist” norms (Barry Sheppard believed that Peter eventually departed from Marxism as well, a topic I’ve discussed elsewhere.) […]

    Pingback by Trotskyist postmortems on a dead party | SWP History: 1960-1988 — July 23, 2012 @ 12:56 pm

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