Barry Sheppard's "The Sixties: a political memoir"


Posted to on April 24, 2005


Although--as soon will be obvious--I have many problems with Barry Sheppard's "The Party," I can recommend it without reservation as essential reading for anybody trying to understand revolutionary politics over the past half-century or so. Volume one, which is titled "The Sixties: a political memoir," is now available from Haymarket books, the publishing arm of the International Socialist Organization:


Barry was a member of the Socialist Workers Party in the United States from 1959 until 1988, when he was expelled like hundreds of others had already been in the course of the party's degeneration. Although Sheppard understandably looks fondly on this Golden Age of the SWP (not by coincidence when he was second in command), others such as myself, Peter Camejo and literary scholar Alan Wald believe that the party was flawed all along by sectarian conceptions.


To give Barry his due, there is no question that the SWP was very good at what it did. If your goal is to create a "Marxist-Leninist" vanguard party, then his memoir will have useful hints about how such a formation can be constructed. With its combination of Trotskyist politics, stringent demands on time and financial contributions from the membership, and finely-honed organizational skills, the SWP blazed across the 1960s horizon until it burned out like a shooting star in the 1980s.


The SWP had a particularly strong relationship to Leon Trotsky. Unlike some of the European intellectuals who had been drawn to the Fourth International, American party leader James P. Cannon embodied the sort of proletarian no-nonsense spirit that pervades Sheppard's memoir. From Cannon to Farrell Dobbs, who Sheppard's memoir is dedicated to, you get a feeling that these are people who are not to be trifled with. With their single-mindedness of purpose and their plain talk, these party leaders made a young recruit like Sheppard in the late 1950s or a Louis Proyect in the late 1960s feel that we had made the right decision. The rest of the left smacked of petty-bourgeois dilettantism by contrast.


The down side of all this, however, is that the internal life of the party was often devoid of self-reflection. Readings tended to be narrowly restricted to the "Marxist classics," which consisted of works like Trotsky's "History of the Russian Revolution" or James P. Cannon's party-building tracts. It would be very unusual for a party activist to spend (or waste) much time reading Mariategui, Gramsci, Paul Sweezy or any others outside of the fold. This is not to speak of scholars such as Neil Harding, whose 2-volume study of Lenin might have alerted a party member that we were going about things all wrong.


Although Barry Sheppard's preface warns that "the project of building a nucleus of socialists that have as their objective the eventual formation of a mass revolutionary socialist party cannot be a repeat or replica of the SWP in 'the Sixties,'" he seems committed to the idea of getting such a nucleus done right down the road. I have argued elsewhere that any notion of constructing a nucleus in terms understood by James P. Cannon or Farrell Dobbs is an exercise in futility. Since volume two of Barry's memoir will address the thorny questions of why the SWP imploded, I will defer responding to his implicit ideas about party-building until they are made explicit.


In some ways, Sheppard's volume one is a straightforward history of the SWP in the period from 1960 to 1973. It reads very much as if Sheppard had sat down with old copies of the Militant newspaper and party resolutions and reconstructed a narrative. Since Sheppard himself was the quintessential organization man, it should come as no surprise that he devotes very little space to his personal affairs. A triangle with two women in the party is discussed in a paragraph or two. Its main importance is explaining a change of assignment made under the pressure of competing loves. Managing his love life meant that he had to cut down his working day to 8 hours from the usual 12! Such diversions were unacceptable.


Two of the major struggles taken up by Sheppard are the black liberation and antiwar movements. Despite the fact that the SWP was a relatively minor player in the black struggle, Sheppard's memoir has eye-opening accounts of how the party and key black leaders interacted with each other. Malcolm X was probably the best known of them but Robert F. Williams also had an important relationship to the party.


Sheppard's material complements research done by Timothy Tyson in "Radio Free Dixie: Robert F. Williams & the Roots of Black Power." Put briefly, Williams was a WWII veteran who launched an NAACP chapter in Monroe County, North Carolina in 1957. When the local KKK began terrorizing Blacks, Williams organized self-defense squads. He also worked with the local Lumbee Indians who sent the Klan packing one night with war whoops and shots fired into the air.


After the cops falsely accused Williams of kidnapping a couple of Klansmen, the SWP worked with other groups to spirit him out of the country. Eventually, the charges against Williams were dropped. Sheppard writes:


"Some of those in the North, including SWP members and our Canadian co-thinkers, knew him from pro-Cuba and other activities formed a modern underground railroad that brought him to Canada and from there to Cuba, where he was given political asylum. We helped set up the Committee to Aid the Monroe Defendants, which got out the truth about what happened in Monroe, and we began organizing the legal and public defense of the accused. After several years the frame-up was defeated and Williams eventually returned home, becoming active in Black rights struggles in Detroit.


"Three of the Freedom Riders who had gone to Monroe and aided the defense effort in New York joined the YSA and SWP, among them Ken Shilman, who became a party leader. Shilman had watched television coverage of the assaults on the first three Freedom Rides, and decided then and there to be on the next ride to the South. [Shilman died of cancer in 1989.]


"Freedom Rides occurred even as far North as Maryland, a border state, where many segregationist policies existed. Fred Feldman, who joined the SWP later [and Marxmail much later] and became a leading member of our writing staffs, was arrested seven times on these Maryland Freedom Rides."


Reading Sheppard's account of the antiwar movement will remind veterans (and familiarize newcomers) of the depth and breadth of activity in this country. Chicano members of the SWP were intimately involved in helping to found the Chicano Moratorium, which reached deep into the heart of the community. In June 1970, the Los Angeles cops attacked a rally organized by the Chicano Moratorium and killed an LA Times reporter named Ruben Salazar, who was shot point-blank in the head by a gas grenade. Sheppard describes these tumultuous events:


Just after the police riot started, other sheriffs had arrested Corky Gonzales [Gonzalez died recently] as he was driving to the rally to speak. He and a group were in an open truck on their way from Denver. A group of Chicanos crowded into the back of an open truck was "suspicious," the sheriff said. So they stopped the truck, and then arrested the group on "suspicion of armed bank robbery." While these phony charges didn't stick, the cops got what they wanted -- to disrupt the rally by preventing speakers from getting to it.


According to the sheriff's department, "Hundreds of provocative acts were committed by known dissidents who came to the location to incite and foment trouble." This was his excuse for the murder of Salazar and the police riot. While not very convincing, the cover story showed that his men were looking for dissidents like Corky Gonzales.


I was alone in the SWP National Office that day, so it was I who got the telephone call from Lew Jones, who was in L.A. to help organize our response. He gave me a rundown on the days events, and we planned out how we would get coverage for The Militant, and what proposals he would make to the Los Angeles branch for participation in protests against the police riot and murders.


Sheppard frequently alludes to the difficulties encountered by the SWP in the antiwar movement, which are reduced to a matter of political differences over mass action versus an orientation to the Democratic Party, and other less critical questions. While it is correct that the CPUSA created huge problems for the movement by constantly trying to sidetrack it into electoral politics, the SWP was hampered by the sort of "democratic centralist" muscle that could also push things forward. It was a double-edged sword. For honest independents that were by no means partial to the Democratic Party, the SWP could often appear as a monolithic presence totally indifferent to their wishes.


The aforementioned Lew Jones, who resigned from the SWP in the 1980s after becoming disaffected by growing sectarianism, now feels that the party was often heavy-handed in the way that it took advantage of bloc voting. In an interview with author Tom Wells in the essential "The War Within: America's Battle Over Vietnam," Jones offers a somewhat different assessment of the 1968 split in the Student Mobilization Committee from Sheppard. For Sheppard, it was as simple as this: "The radical pacifists joined with the DuBois [CPUSA youth group] and others in order to scuttle the SMC as an antiwar organization. In part, this was a reflection of the rising pressures of electoral politics in a presidential year."


Lew Jones, who was one of our floor leaders at this conference, admitted to Wells that the SWP's approach was "greatly insensitive". He added, "You're dealing with forces coming into political motion for the first time, and you want to broaden out the movement, you don't want to scare them away. And the SWP's heavy-handedness sometimes had that effect."


While Sheppard's account of the positive relationships between the SWP and figures such as Robert F. Williams and Malcolm X is inspiring, he does not really come to grips with a problem that dogged the SWP throughout the period covered in volume one of his memoirs. Despite the party's correct understanding of the dynamics of Black liberation, African-Americans never really joined the party in significant numbers. Furthermore, when they were members, they often felt vulnerable to charges that they were in a "white party."


When I was in NYC in the late 1960s, a group of Black and Latino working class youth who had recently joined the Young Socialist Alliance--our youth group--was raising the idea of starting a chapter in Harlem that would effectively be free of white members. They felt that it would be a lot easier to recruit new Black and Latino members that way. A couple of the more seasoned and "orthodox" Black members of the party came down heavily on them invoking Lenin's polemics against the Jewish Bund's demand that it be free to operate as a separate group in the Russian Social Democracy.


While I would prefer to deal with organizational questions at greater length when I have had a chance to review volume two of Sheppard's memoir, it would be useful at this point to indicate that the party's understanding of the need for a racially and nationally united party was too unbending, as was the case with its participation in the antiwar movement.


A member of the SWP during this period who had been tempted to stray from orthodoxy might have come across the early history of the Communist movement in the USA, when Blacks had much more autonomy.


Despite the separatist name, the African Blood Brotherhood was the instrument of Communist Party involvement in the black struggle in the early 1920s. The ABB [nothing in common with the more recent phenomenon!] editorialized in The Crusader: "Security for Poles and Serbs, Why not for Colored Nations?" They also called for a separate Black state in the United States and were strong supporters of the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916.


After joining the Communists, ABB leader Cyril Briggs began working closely with other Black members such as Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay, who would later become known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance.


The 1920 ABB convention defined resistance to the KKK, support for a united front of black organizations, and promotion of higher wages and better working conditions for black workers as paramount. While calling for "racial self respect," it also maintained that cooperation with "class-conscious white workers" was necessary. As the ABB drew closer to the Communist Party, nationalistic prejudices as such became less frequent. The Crusader, which was now the semiofficial organ of the ABB, declared that while the oppression of blacks was more severe, blacks and Jews shared a historic experience of persecution.


As opposed to Garvey's nationalist movement, the Marxists of the ABB did not view "Africa for the Africans" as an invitation to capitalist development. Briggs wrote, "Socialism and Communism [were] in practical application in Africa for centuries before they were even advanced as theories in the European world." Within a year or so, the ABB would have evolved into a full-fledged black Marxist organization. In "The Cry was Unity: Communists and African Americans 1917-1936," Mark Solomon describes the process:


"Briggs and the New Negro radicals who gravitated into the Communist orbit were staking out new ideological grounds on the black political landscape. Shortly after the 'Salvation' article, Briggs joined the Communist Party and resolved some of the article's ambiguities, softening (but not renouncing) the nationalist temperament. He and his ABB comrades now clearly advocated a historic shift in the objectives of the black freedom struggle from assimilation into the bourgeois order to a socialist transformation; in the class composition of black leadership from middle class to proletarian; and in the class character of African American alliances with whites, from bourgeois liberal to the working-class left."


Within two or three years, the Comintern began to lay down a much more narrow understanding of Communist Party organizational principles that would make semi-independent formations such as the ABB impossible. By the mid 1920s, Black members of the party were constantly being reminded of Lenin's abjurations to the Bund no matter how inapplicable that was to the American landscape. While the last thing I would recommend is setting down in granite how Blacks or other oppressed nationalities should organize themselves, it would seem to me that flexibility is needed if for no other reason that organizational principles should serve revolutionary goals and not some pristine notion of what Lenin did or did not do.


Despite his unstinting endorsement of the party-building wisdom of James P. Cannon and Farrell Dobbs, there are some dark clouds that occasionally crop up in Sheppard's memoir. We learn that James P. Cannon was not above forming cliques when the spirit moved him. In a footnote to chapter 34 titled "Farrell Dobbs and the Political Committee," we learn:


What I experienced in the early 1960s were attempts by Cannon to establish what amounted to a dual center in Los Angeles that challenged the authority of the Political Committee in New York.


One aspect of this was holding frequent meetings of the NC members residing in L. A. to discuss and adopt positions on national political questions and then using this leverage in the party as a whole. Later, these meetings included NC members from the San Francisco Bay Area as well.


What was involved was not comrades with opposing political views to the majority of the party getting together in a tendency or a faction, based on a common political position. Such political formations can be helpful in clarifying political debates.


But the meetings in L.A. had no political basis. Sometimes their proposals were helpful' sometimes not, but that was not the point. These meetings undercut the authority of the center in New York and cast doubts on its capabilities.


Farrell told me, probably in 1963, that Cannon "wouldn't get his dead hand off the steering wheel." After Peter Camejo moved to Berkeley, he was invited as a member of the NC to one of these meetings in Los Angeles.


Peter told the meeting why he didn't think it was right to have these meetings of a geographical subset of the National Committee. He said he was leaving the meeting, and wouldn't attend future ones. This put a stop to the practice.


Since Cannon has the reputation of being some kind of saint in circles still devoted to the memory of the SWP or efforts to recreate such a model, this is truly eye-opening stuff. While it is not as bad as discovering that the kindly Catholic priest in your local church was abusing altar boys, it comes close in Trotskyist terms.


Sheppard even faults Farrell Dobbs on the way he handled attempts to get the SWP to keep the Gay Liberation movement at arm's length. Even though Dobbs is described in the dedication as "Selfless, incorruptible, fair-minded and warm human being and friend," he comes across as practically Machiavellian when it comes to gays and the party.


Basically Sheppard accuses Dobbs of catering to the prejudices of his own brother Roland (who was on Marxmail briefly until our "petty bourgeois" politics drove him off) and Nat Weinstein (who is on Marxmail right now.) Sheppard had prepared a line resolution for the 1973 convention on the Gay movement that allowed local branches to "relate to concrete local activities and organizations" but stopped short of projecting an "organized national party participation." The resolution would also take no position on the "relative merits of homosexuality or heterosexuality," which one supposes was an advance over the naked prejudices embodied in the party's past, when open homosexuals were excluded from membership on the basis that they might be subject to blackmail. Sheppard did note that it is logically absurd to assume that open homosexuals would be afraid of blackmail.


Dobbs advised Sheppard to drop the reference to local branches acting on their own initiative. He didn't want anything in the resolution that would raise the hackles of a "substantial layer of the party" that agreed with his brother and Nat Weinstein. He was afraid of a split over the Gay movement, even though the opposition in the party--in Dobbs's words--was based "purely and simply on prejudice."


With all due respect to the late Farrell Dobbs and to Barry Sheppard, who regrets the decision because it cost some members, this cuts to the heart of what Lenin was all about. In "What is to be Done," Lenin argues against simple economism and for the Russian Social Democracy becoming the tribune of the people. Lenin wrote:


"Working-class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected unless they are trained, moreover, to respond from a Social-Democratic point of view and no other. The consciousness of the working masses cannot be genuine class-consciousness, unless the workers learn, from concrete, and above all from topical, political facts and events to observe every other social class in all the manifestations of its intellectual, ethical, and political life; unless they learn to apply in practice the materialist analysis and the materialist estimate of all aspects of the life and activity of all classes, strata, and groups of the population."


Although I had never considered this possibility before, it strikes me after reading Sheppard's discussion of the Gay Liberation resolution that this might have been the first symptom of the party's headlong decline into workerist sectarianism.


I want to conclude this article with a personal note on my own experience versus Barry Sheppard's, which are as different as night and day despite my political agreement with him during my own time in the SWP from 1967 to 1978. I was basically a rank-and-filer who never held a fulltime assignment in the party. From the time I joined the party to my final days, I was a computer programmer and often came to branch meetings in a business suit. Until the "turn toward industry," there was no special stigma attached to this, but afterwards I was made to feel unclean. My only redemption was getting a factory job and wearing windbreakers with a trade union logo.


In addition, I came from a different background than most party members. I identified with the beat generation and had absolutely no interest in radical politics as an undergraduate. My eyes opened only after taking a job for the welfare department in Harlem and facing the draft in 1967. That led me to join the party.


From the very beginning, I felt alienated from the leadership. They were nothing like the people I knew from Bard College or even my fellow workers at Metropolitan Life. They were utterly unconnected to the powerful cultural changes that were transforming American society and appeared and thought in very conventional terms, except for their revolutionary politics. It was agreement on this that persuaded me not to drop out a few months after joining. At my very first branch meeting, one of the young party leaders grabbed a flap of my new wide-wale gold corduroy bell-bottom trousers and commented: "Petty-bourgeois pants."


From 1967 until I dropped out, I always maintained a distance from the party. I never felt like I truly belonged. As long as there was forward growth in the party and a willingness on the part of the party brass to accept me on my own terms, I would remain a member and do what I could to build the organization. After 1977, growth slowed down to a trickle and membership review committees were constituted to monitor how well individual members were carrying out the turn. I was instructed by the chairman of my local committee to leave NYC and get out of computer programming. I was willing to comply, but warned if things did not work out, I'd come back to NYC unaffiliated. That didn't seem to bother anybody in the party leadership. Of course, my most important political work would lie in the future when the FSLN and the ANC were more than happy to utilize my programming skills and my ability to recruit volunteers on their behalf.


In 1975, just before this separation of the wheat from the chaff period began, I was invited by Barry Sheppard to come to NYC and work on a project to automate the Militant newspaper and Pathfinder Press.


In the evenings, I would take the subway up from Salomon Brothers to party headquarters where I would sit in on design sessions with 2 other programmers assigned to the project.


About 3 months into the project, Sheppard had returned from a trip to Brussels where he was representing the SWP at Fourth International executive committee meetings. As I spotted him striding into the 3rd floor offices with a big Cuban cigar in his mouth, I began to walk toward him to shake hands and fill him in on the progress we had been making.


After walking perhaps 10 feet in his direction, his secretary spotted me and literally jumped out of his chair to block my path. He told me that nobody spoke to Barry without an appointment. I was so shocked by his behavior and the power relationships it encapsulated that I began thinking right then about the need to separate myself from this crazy organization that was more hierarchical and more alienating than anything I had ever run into on Wall Street.