The Degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)

The Degeneration of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)

Jack Barnes Longtime SWP ‘leader’ Socialist Workers Party’s political  degeneration  into a cult and collapse as a revolutionary marxist organization

I joined the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1961 in Boston, Massachusetts.

When I joined the SWP, the leadership was majority proletarian and real leaders of workers, who were part of the struggles of the working class in the 30s and 40s. It was truly a party of self think and self acting class conscious workers. Larry Trainor was the organizer of the Boston Branch. He was a printer and was a fine educator.

He gave a wonderful class on the party’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party, emphasizing the internal struggle with Shactman—Petty-Bourgeoisie opposition in 1940, to the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA).

When I became was a member of the Boston Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), my older brother Barry Sheppard, along with Peter Camejo, were the leaders of the Boston YSA. At that time, there was a battle in the party and the YSA over defense of the Cuban Revolution. Barry and Peter led the youth in the discussion in the Boston YSA and went on to lead the fight against the anti-Cuban leadership of the National YSA. They were both under the tutelage of Larry Trainor and were the first and last national leaders elected by the membership of the YSA.

From that point on, the leadership were nominally elected, but never tested in struggle, and in reality were chosen by the outgoing leadership of the youth in conjunction with the SWP.

As the party got older, more and more youth from the colleges became the leadership of the party. This reflected the shift of the party’s base from working class to petty-bourgeoisie composition. (I always felt more comfortable with the working class comrades in the SWP than the students recruited to the YSA.)

It was always Larry Trainor’s position that the youth should be encouraged to become workers before they joined the party. That they identify with the workers and their struggles and become part of the working class. (One of the lessons well learned from the Shactman fight.)  He was a minority in the SWP and students were recruited directly into the party from the YSA. With the advantage of hindsight, Larry was right on this issue.

In 1957, James P. Cannon, the founding leader of the SWP, gave a speech titled Socialism and Democracy, which foretold the struggles for workers’s democracy in the 60s. In that speech he stated the importance of workers democracy, in the concluding paragraph he stated:

Capitalism does not survive as a social system by its own strength, but by its influence within the workers’ movement, reflected and expressed by the labour aristocracy and the bureaucracy. So the fight for workers’ democracy is inseparable from the fight for socialism, and is the condition for its victory. Workers’ democracy is the only road to socialism, here in the United States and everywhere else, all the way from Moscow to Los Angeles, and from here to Budapest.

And yet, during the 60s and the 70s sections of the working class, that were fighting for union democracy were ignored. This fight for union democracy was, in reality, a fight against the degeneration of the unions into deformed unions, and the subsequent consolidation of power control of the unions by the trade union bureaucracy. This promising movement was defeated due to the absence of a class struggle leadership and the SWP membership not being part of the struggle. The concessions in the 1980s were a confirmation of this dynamic. The deformed unions are now codified by the government

The fight for democracy in the unions was ignored, because the party, by that time, had no orientation to them nor a base within the trade unions to be part of the struggle.

In a sense, the political revolution within the unions that Cannon predicted in the 50s and Barnes predicted would happen in the late 70s, was already defeated in the 60s and early 70s. (The 1978 coal miners strike signaled the last hurrah of this movement — not the beginning.)

During this whole period, the SWP was just recruiting students and encouraging them to get the best paying jobs as possible to give money to the party not to establish a base in the unions.

At that time there was a faction fight lead by comrade Ralph Levitt that called itself “For a Proletarian Orientation.” Larry Trainor was part of the tendency — but it had the  campus approach to the unions. I use “campus approach”, because they were trying to justify going into the unions based on a radicalization of the working class and ability to recruit from the workplace like we had been recruiting from the campuses, which was not the reality of the working class at that time.

By 1969, the party was majority students and it had consciously missed the opportunity to become part of the battle for workers’ democracy, within the unions, which took place in the 60’s and early 70’s. It was at this point that Jack Barnes became the leadership of the party, even though he was never tested in the class struggle.

A reflection of this party’s new orientation was George Breitman’s speech on the New Radicalization at the first Oberlin Educational Conference in 1969. His talk was a Candid—like reflection of the “radicalization” that was occurring. The current “radicalization” was described as the deepest, widest, broadest, radicalization since the thirties. In fact it was described as even more far going. It was not a Marxist analysis of the class struggle. It did not portray an accurate picture of the level of class consciousness or class struggle at that time. In fact many members of the SWP leadership thought the revolution would be made by the forces that marched in anti-war demonstrations and had lost the concept that only the working class can lead a socialist revolution.

A large majority of the party, isolated from the class, wanted to get into the gay liberation movement which tended towards counter culturalism. The newspaper of the SWP, The Militant, had an interventionist line, and reflected this mood. Most comrades thought that this was the position of the Party leadership. The leader of the party, Jack Barnes, provided no leadership on this tactical question other than to correct a previously position (his) against homosexuality and supported the democratic rights of homosexuals to be members of the SWP and their general democratic rights in society.

When Barnes and the party leadership changed their position on going into the Gay Liberation Movement, it was disgusting to see such advocates of Gay Liberation on the Nation Committee, like Harry Ring, immediately turn, in lock step with Barnes, without an argument.  Not only Harry Ring, but the majority of the party membership, who had argued for intervention, changed their position on this question literally overnight when Barnes clicked his fingers. The whole episode was indicative of a non-thinking cult loyal to Jack Barnes. This was a sign that the Party had become a cult. (It was pointed out to me, at the time of the vote, by Comrade Ann Chester who was for intervening into the Gay Liberation Movement.)

During this whole period of the late 60s and 70s, comrades who were full timers, were the ones selected to the national committee and considered loyal to the leadership. The way the nominating commission was selected by Jack Barnes also required loyalty to Barnes in order to get on the national committee. (I do not know of a better system, but Barnes always got his supporters on the nominating commission, and although the meetings were supposed to be secret, Barnes was in daily kept aware with the nominating commission’s deliberations and who opposed his selection to the nominating commission.)

As Barnes said he wanted comrades “doing the work” to be in the leadership. This primarily meant students or people who identified with students—not comrades who identified with the working class. In fact, class consciousness was not not even considered. One other method used by Jack Barnes was to enlarge the Nation Committee to get his loyal supporters on the Nation Committee and then lower the number on Nation Committee to get rid of the older working class comrades, who had the confidence not to genuflect to Barnes, off the Nation Committee.

The next turning point was to go to minority communities and establish small branches. This attempt was an utter failure and lead to the beheading of the YSA. Under the slogan of “turning to minority branches” Barnes was able to manipulate the branch leaderships to his control. Jack Barnes had a campus or campaign approach to all work in the working class rather than the old approach of a long term commitment to minority or the working class. The underlying motive was to make less experienced comrades the leadership the new branches who were then made the local leadership when there was an eventual consolidation back to central branches.

Barnes had special comrades in each branch report to him on a daily basis and he knew you if you disagreed with him even though you did not.

The whole process led to those being in the party apparatus becoming ever more loyal disciples of Barnes, for they knew they would be sent packing if they were not. Thus, a non-thinking and non-self-acting leadership was born in the party. This led to the party’s demise. Through this whole process the SWP became a base on petty-bourgeoisie and no longer based on the working class and eventually no longer class bases in its politics. (The defeat of the struggles for democracy in the trade unions and the subsequent consolidation of power by the petty-bourgeois trade union bureaucracy was reflected in the party by the consolidation of the petty-bourgeois Barnes clique in the Socialist Workers Party.)

The students were recruited to the Party, but not to the working class. When the Party belatedly tried to make “The Turn” to the working class in 1976 and tried to become part of the struggle for union democracy, in general, and the steelworkers in particular, it was not at the beginning but at the end/defeat of this struggle.

The party leadership, estranged from the working class, believed that the working class was “so radical” that it was not necessary to have a base in the working class nor apply the method or the program of the Transition Program. That, just like the campus, workers would flock to the Party based on ideas rather than the realization necessity of class struggle.

Many comrades were lost to the movement as the reality of the state of consciousness didn’t meet the reality posed by Jack Barnes, etc., when they entered the job market.  The “turn” was made at a time that the democracy movement was on the decline and the comrades were not rooted and had not gained the respected on the jobs to supply the leadership necessary to move the movement forward. (If the Barnes leadership even had a clue of what to do next in the union.)

With the defeat of the Sadlowski campaign in the Steelworkers union and the subsequent co-opting of Sadlowski to the union bureaucracy, the Barnes secretly made a “turn to ‘talking socialism’,” instead of a transitional and long term approach to the membership of the working class. The party further isolated itself from the working class with a campus idealistic approach to the class. They almost got a few comrades killed in the Alabama coalfields and still they did not change their approach.

It was also a sign that the party was completely divorced from the class and no longer could correct itself–that there was no corrective class base amongst the ranks or the leadership. They immediately dropped the transitional approach and program, particularly permanent revolution and used the Stalinist errors of the Cubans and Nicaraguans as a justification and a bridge to dropping the program. They no longer saw the Cuban Revolution as an example of permanent revolution. They were incapable of correcting these positions even after the defeat of the Nicaraguan revolution.

The long term stabilization of capitalism, which lead to cooptation of the leadership of the mass movements and atomization of the working class and its allies, was the main force behind the degeneration of the SWP into a petty-bourgeois party. A class conscious leadership might have avoided this degeneration. But, the older leadership, in its quest to preserve the party, brought the youth into the party without a requirement of these new members to become a part of the class and to have confidence in the power of the class to transform society. The members had confidence in the party, but not the class. When the SWP finally went into industry the reality of the state of the class conciseness and combatively of the working class did not fit the Barnes outlook and politics. The SWP lost over half its members in a few years. Barnes never made a correction in his policy to reflect the actual state of consciousness of the working class.

In 1979, Barnes was going to resign, but on his way to California to stay with Ray Sparrow, he had an “epiphany” and came back to New York and used his apparatus and loyal drones to operate the party print shop, the press and build its investments. And, in 1983, he expelled his opposition, rather than test his program and actions is a party convention.“Better fewer but better” (loyal cult members) became his slogan and this whole process led Jack Barnes, whose leadership abilities were never tested in any mass struggle, to blame the program, rather than to admit his reality was not the reality of the class. He did not understand the motor force of our program was class struggle and that it “didn’t work” without class struggle. The SWP got smaller until the Barnes cult wound up as the membership. (Lately, he sold the national headquarters for a $20 million windfall and his cult lives on despite its death as a revolutionary organization.)

When the dispute in the party led to a fight at the 1981 SWP Convention, the cult was all lined up, based upon the The Immediate Tasks of the Soviet Government by Lenin. They had used the Stalinist version found in the Selected Works to criticized us and then after the convention, changed and oppose the Party’s historical position on Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution. (See the non-Stalinist translation below)

           The SOVIETS AT WORK

The Rand School of Social Science, New York. First Published: Published on April 28, 1918 in Pravda No. 83 and Izvestia VTsIK No.85. Translated: Dr. Dubrovsky. Original Transcription: Roland Sheppard


The “Soviets at Work” is one of the most important documents which the Revolution in Russia has produced. It stands out not only for its incisive clearness but also because of its calm tone. While it is a piece of polemic literature, it is free from invective that marks most controversial writing. The present, the fifth edition, has been extensively revised with the help of Dr. Dubrovsky, and the resultant work is a much-improved translation. While there are deviations from the texts as published in the first four editions, these are in no way modifications of Lenin’s texts. They are in fact truer and clearer versions of the texts as originally published in Pravda. – The Rand School Of Social Science


The Problems of the Soviet Government

Thanks to the peace obtained—in spite of its oppressiveness and all its insecurity—the Russian Soviet Republic is enabled for a certain time to concentrate its efforts on the most important and most difficult side of the Socialist revolution, the problem of organization.

This problem is presented clearly and precisely to the masses in the fourth section of the resolution adopted at the extraordinary Congress of the Soviets held at Moscow on March 16, 1916, the section which urges self-discipline of the workers and a merciless struggle against chaos and disorganization.

The insecurity of the peace obtained by the Russian Soviet Republic is not determined, of course, by the fact that it is now considering the renewal of military activity. With the exception of the bourgeois counter-revolutionists and their aids (the Mensheviks, etc.) no sensible statesman thinks of such a renewal. The insecurity of the peace is determined by the fact that in the imperialistic nations bordering on the West and on the East of Russia and possessing enormous military power, the upper hand may at any moment be gained by the military party, which is tempted by the temporary weakness of Russia and incited by the anti-Socialist capitalists.

Under such conditions our real, and not assumed, guaranty of peace lies exclusively in the antagonisms among the various great powers. It is obvious that, in view of the weakness of such guaranty, our Socialist Soviet Republic is in an extremely precarious, undoubtedly critical international position. We must strain all our strength in order to utilize the respite granted to us by this situation to overcome the serious setbacks received by the whole social organism of Russia from the war, and to rehabilitate the economic resources of the country. Without such rehabilitation there can be no serious improvement in our ability to offer any kind of resistance.

It is also obvious that we will give valuable aid to a Socialist revolution in the West, delayed by a number of causes, only to the extent of our success in solving the organization problems confronting us.

A fundamental condition for the successful solution of our most urgent problems of organization is the complete comprehension by the political leaders of the people; i. e., by the members of the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) and then by all true representatives of the toiling masses, of the basic difference between the earlier bourgeois and the present Socialist revolution with respect to the problem under consideration.

Bourgeois and Socialist Revolutions Contrasted

The main task of the toiling masses in the bourgeois revolutions consisted in performing the negative, destructive work-the destruction of feudalism and the monarchy. The positive, constructive work of organizing a new society was the function of the propertied bourgeois minority of the population. And they accomplished this task, in spite of the resistance of the workers and the poorest peasants, with comparative ease, not only because the resistance of the exploited masses was then extremely weak on account of their unorganized state and their ignorance, but also because the fundamental organizing force of the anarchic capitalistic society is provided by the natural, extensive and intensive growth of the national and international market.

In every Socialist revolution, however, the main task of the proletariat, and of the poorest peasantry led by it—and, hence, also in the socialist revolution in Russia inaugurated by us on November 7, 1917— consists in the positive and constructive work of establishing an extremely complex and delicate net of newly organized relationships covering the systematic production and distribution of products which are necessary for the existence of tens of millions of people. The successful realization of such a revolution depends on the original historical creative work of the majority of the population, and first of all, of the majority of the toilers. The victory of the Socialist revolution will not be assured, unless the proletariat and the poorest peasantry manifests sufficient consciousness, idealism, self-sacrifice and persistence. With the creation of a new type of state, the Soviet, offering to the oppressed toiling masses the opportunity to participate actively in the free construction of a new society, we have solved only a small part of the difficult task. The main difficulty is in the economic domain: to raise the productivity of labor, to establish strict and uniform state accounting and control of production and distribution, and actually to socialize production.