Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 15, 2015

My days in Houston on assignment for the Socialist Workers Party

Filed under: Kevin Coogan,Texas,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 4:34 pm

In the May 4th issue of the Militant, there’s a peculiar article but probably not that much more peculiar than many that have appeared there in recent years, as the tiny cult enters its death throes.

Titled “SWP’s 45 years of rich political history in Texas”, it gives the impression that the party is stronger than ever even though the article is basically a farewell to Texas:

“We can join in increasing labor resistance today,” Warshell said, “like the strike by Steelworkers in area oil refineries and widespread proletarian struggles against police brutality. There are new openings for communists today to build our movement and recruit.

“We’re leaving Houston and closing the branch here,” he said, “but as the class struggle deepens and the party grows, we will be back.”

Increasing labor resistance and leaving Houston? How do these two things go together? Who knows? Who cares?

The SWP once did have a remarkable presence in Houston and the rest of Texas that is referred to briefly:

The SWP and Young Socialist Alliance in Texas grew out of the fight against Washington’s war against Vietnam in the 1960s, said Joel Britton, an SWP leader from Oakland, California. Party branches were built in both Houston and Austin.

As a result of the party’s growing public presence, it became a target of the Ku Klux Klan, as were Black rights’ fighters, anti-war activists, and KPFT, the local Pacifica radio station.

“Houston’s KKK operated with true impunity, tied in with the police force, the sheriff’s department,” and other parts of the so-called justice system, Britton said.

“One of the high points in the fight against Klan attacks was when Debbie Leonard, SWP candidate for mayor in 1971, debated a top Klan leader — not once but twice,” Britton said.

But most of the article is the standard recitation of the party’s “turn to industry” that in fact has left it not only incapable of continuing in Texas but has sealed its doom everywhere else. In a normal organization, there would be feedback mechanisms to allow it to reverse course but in this bizarre cult that is led by someone more than a bit tetched, there is no turning back.

I arrived in Houston in the winter of 1973 in order to help organize a faction fight against a sizable minority in the branch that supported the Ernest Mandel-led wing of the Fourth International that supported guerrilla warfare in Latin America. After a year or so in Houston, the sixties radicalization began to disappear before our very eyes as we scrambled around for new sources of recruitment. It was around this time when I began to feel more and more alienated from the party and its stifling peer pressure both socially and politically that the thoughts of dropping out began to take shape. I only regret that I hung around for another four years.

In any case, you will see the pages from my unpublished memoir about the time I spent in Houston. As is always the case, I am free to post this material under the provisions of fair use legislation, plus rights afforded me as the copyrighted author of the text and the full permission of the artist to circulate the memoir.

Houston1 Houston2 Houston3 Houston4 Houston5 Houston6 Houston7 Houston8 Houston9 Houston10 Houston11 Houston12 Houston13 Houston14 Houston15 Houston16 Houston17 Houston18 Houston19 Houston20 Houston21 Houston22


  1. Interesting trip down memory lane, Louis. I think we must have been in a different faction fight. The fellow you describe as a dissident who used to frequent Debbie’s dancing was actually an undercover cop. He later ran over and killed two elderly people and got off . . . a dead giveaway for the uncertain.

    Comment by Mark Lause — May 15, 2015 @ 5:29 pm

  2. The SWP’s staging such a faction fight among the rank and file over goings on half a world away was itself an example of dorky grandiose posturing and political ineptitude worthy of a religious sect of pretentious busybodies and psuedo-experts. Interesting that no one else on the American left was concerned with this, if they’d even heard of it. No, they were more wrapped up with stuff like Watergate. In actuality, what was called for in that situation was maybe a couple articles and editorials in the Militant expressing our concerns about this adventurism while expressing the need for solidarity, but keeping the focus on building the progressive movement here in the U.S., not having a faction fight with foreign sects about it particularly among a young and politically naive rank and file. The whole thing was pathetic and drove people away. Like WTF are these clowns? Sad, because yes, the SWP had done good work in building the anti-war movement and the struggle against racism as in Houston. Thus I think that the US government and the ruling class through COINTELPRO and otherwise encouraged these kind of fights as a way of demoralizing and isolating the group as they had with the Black Panthers.

    Comment by Sue Sponte — May 15, 2015 @ 10:03 pm

  3. Hare Krishna brawling with SWP over control over the spot in front of Piggly Wiggly. You can’t make this stuff up! Hilarious!

    Comment by Peter Myers — May 16, 2015 @ 1:21 am

  4. As Stan Mack used to say in his real-life Village Voice comics, I guarantee that this happened.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 16, 2015 @ 1:56 am

  5. I don’t in the least doubt that the government encouraged and intensified such fights, but what inspired the opposition of 1973-74 was less guerrilla warfare and Latin America than what to do in the U.S. The strategy remained an American version of the Red University from May-June 1968 in France. Every year we adopted line documents anticipating another blowout like May 1970. After a while, a minority developed that began to have serious doubts that the party leadership would be able to figure this out and make whatever necessary adjustments would be needed. There was a general agreement that people who were getting out of college or not in college should try to get jobs that held some possibilities of doing political work. When you get beyond that, dissidents tended to be all over the map. At its best, though, the European strategic perspectives for building a broad left front had great appeal, largely because it would have some American applications, particularly in breaking down the sectarian features of life in the SWP. As we poked and prodded on that front, we little knew just how sensitive that nerve would prove to be.

    Comment by Mark Lause — May 16, 2015 @ 3:51 am

  6. At last we see a bit of your graphic memoir. Is there any chance of seeing the rest of it? Or do we have to wait for the deadheads obstructing it to shuffle off this mortal coil. It looked pretty good on my screen. Maybe that will turn out to be the best place for it.

    Comment by Peter Byrne — May 16, 2015 @ 8:49 am

  7. Wow! Talk about kiss and tell… can we get access to Debby’s version of these events?

    Still, wonderful drawings and narrative. Certainly of publishable quality in book form.

    Although Mark and I were in different oppositional political tendencies in 1973-4, his recollection of the history and general framework of the dispute is the same as mine.

    Comment by Alan Wald — May 16, 2015 @ 3:55 pm

  8. I should mention that I wasn’t trying to write a definitive history of the fights in the SWP or the FI but simply to tell an entertaining story. Harvey Pekar insisted that I write something with a focus on jokes and human interest. If I was writing something in the vein of Peter Camejo, the first thing I would have done is interviewed Mark Lause to get his take on things. I should mention that I regard Mark as one of the deepest thinkers on the American left and value his opinions highly.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 16, 2015 @ 4:03 pm

  9. Thank you, Louis. You are too kind. I am looking forward to more of the memoir.

    Comment by Mark Lause — May 16, 2015 @ 5:25 pm

  10. “I should mention that I wasn’t trying to write a definitive history of the fights in the SWP or the FI but simply to tell an entertaining story. Harvey Pekar insisted that I write something with a focus on jokes and human interest.”

    These excerpts from the memoir are much more than an entertaining story. It is very engaging and, from our vantage point, poignant. Perhaps, Pekar understood that a focus on jokes and human interest would drive home the inescapable political aspects of your experience more powerfully than a straight exposition ever could.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 17, 2015 @ 12:58 am

  11. On Larry Trainor and the International Majority. For one thing he never was in the POT and he opposed the IT/IMT from the start. Anyone who attended Party discussions in Boston and spoke with him can confirm this. He have criticisms of the dis-interest of the leadership in sending a modest amount of youth into unions jobs on a reasonable basis, not a ‘turn’ mentality.

    Comment by David Walsh — May 18, 2015 @ 4:38 pm

  12. I can’t really recall ever meeting anybody in the dreaded IMT, the POT, the Communist Tendency or anywhere else in the SWP who ever proposed a “turn” the way the party finally defined a “turn.” While I can’t recall the details, I think that Trainor played little role in 1973-74 but differed from the IMT over Latin America and Europe rather than with the IT over the U.S., though he viewed us as engaged in an opportunistic bloc with the Europeans.

    Comment by Mark Lause — May 18, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

  13. This is good stuff.

    Comment by purple — May 21, 2015 @ 3:46 pm

  14. […] when someone sent me a link to Paul Heideman’s FB Page where there were 108 (!?!?) comments about the excerpt from my comic book memoir that Heideman had linked to with this […]

    Pingback by A reply to the haters | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 28, 2015 @ 6:10 pm

  15. Actually it is a tad narcissistic….and very disappointing because of that indulgence. It comes across as a poor cousin of a Beat memoir. I mean: why choose such a narrative? It’s purely anecdotal, actually quite apolitical, name dropping and petulant. Don’t publish it, Louis…After all the puff and bluster you’ve spent on the issue of ‘the’ comic … I think you are better than this.

    Comment by denis olsen — May 29, 2015 @ 7:50 am

  16. The comic is still great. Glad we’re able to see parts of it. Your anti-hero status remains untarnished. Sorry you’re getting bullied on Facebook.

    Comment by aaron — May 29, 2015 @ 3:26 pm

  17. There’s nothing wrong with a little narcissism and frankly we should be suspicious of any movement in the Left which doesn’t allow for human frailty Look where celibacy and moral absolutism took the Catholic Church (and the SWP). In general, suppression is not a good thing, it’s a living lie that invites blackmail of all types and the worst sorts of power mad leaders. The insistence on moral absolutism is a significant part of why the Left can’t attract a mass following. People (“the masses”) don’t like being around this attitude even if they can’t articulate why.

    Putting it another way, self depreciating narcissism is one of the things that makes this comic funny.

    (ps anyone with a detailed facebook account should not be critiquing narcissism)

    Comment by purple — May 30, 2015 @ 6:50 am

  18. What’s wrong with Beat Memoirs? They were certainly as culturally pertinent as this is, intersecting with the Civil Rights struggle and early days of student radicalism.

    Comment by Sue Sponte — May 31, 2015 @ 8:32 pm

  19. […] the middle of May, I blogged an excerpt from an unpublished comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar in 2008. It covered my experience in […]

    Pingback by The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — June 5, 2015 @ 4:15 pm

  20. […] the middle of May, I blogged an excerpt from an unpublished comic book memoir I did with Harvey Pekar in 2008. It covered my experience in […]

    Pingback by The Topless Dancer, Slavery and the Origins of Capitalism » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names — June 6, 2015 @ 4:43 am

  21. I enjoyed this comic history 🙂

    I also think these type of rank and file remembrances of past struggles are an important contribution to history, Studs Terkel comes to mind also.

    Comment by jh — June 8, 2015 @ 5:23 am

  22. […] May 15, 2015 I reported on my time in the Houston branch of the SWP that had just been closed down by the leadership in NY. […]

    Pingback by The Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party shuts down | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — December 22, 2015 @ 9:09 pm

  23. Thanks much for this funny yet deep (in its own way) and concise story on the difficulties of radical politics in a real world of real people! I did a few such years in CT 15 years later, and appreciate the human dimension of some background from the time before me.

    Comment by Will Wilkin — June 6, 2016 @ 3:22 pm

  24. Showdown at the Piggly-Wiggly. Very “High Noon.” But how does it end?

    Debby abandons her child for the party, abandons her dancer job, and then gets thrown out for not ratting out another comrade who was suspected of smoking a joint. What a great story.

    Nerd typo notes: Mandel’s name misspelled in the first box. Also It should be “Managua,” “Nazi” (not “Naxi”) and 20s and not 220s.

    As I.F. Stone said, “Typos are worse than fascism.”

    Comment by Hylozoic Hedgehog — August 16, 2017 @ 12:30 am

  25. Harvey Pekar wrote the captions from the text I sent him. I am sure the typos weren’t in the snail mail I sent him. Unfortunately he died both because he was great and also because this meant that his wife torpedoed the memoir because she hated my politics.

    Comment by louisproyect — August 16, 2017 @ 12:40 am

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