On the Degeneration of the SWP/U.S.

The following are reconstructions from notes of remarks made by two International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) supporters on 26 July at a conference on the “Legacy of Leon Trotsky and U.S. Trotskyism” at the Bronx campus of New York City’s Fordham University. A significant proportion of the 100-odd people at the event were former members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) who had been driven out in the early 1980s. The chronology of the SWP’s political degeneration was a central theme of the conference.

Previously published IBT materials which address various aspects of this question include: "The Revolutionary Betrayed" http://www.bolshevik.org/1917/no20trot.pdf; "Revolutionary Program vs. 'Historical Process'" http://www.bolshevik.org/1917/no5/no05roy.html) and "Permanent Revolution: Yesterday & Today" http://www.bolshevik.org/Pamphlets/PRG/PRYT01.html).

Remarks by Jason W. at a session entitled “Lessons of the SWP Experience: 1960-1980”:

I think the comrades presented an interesting analysis. I’m sure no one will be surprised that I take a very different view. By the late 1950s McCarthyism and the Cold War had already taken a toll on the SWP and the programmatic and theoretical weaknesses of the SWP were beginning to catch up with it.

The analysis of Cuba was one of the two big litmus tests of this. The SWP’s position was in fact Pabloite in methodology and led to a reconciliation between Ernest Mandel’s USec [United Secretariat] and the Dobbs-Kerry SWP.

Now the failure to recognize the Castro regime as Stalinist goes back to the weaknesses of the SWP’s analysis of the post World War II era: the belated and only partial understanding of the development of deformed workers’ states in China and Yugoslavia. And in that sense I think Cannon and his followers did not have perhaps as deep an understanding as Jock Haston [a leading British Trotskyist in the 1940s].

On the other hand, and here I’d respectfully disagree with Ted [Crawford, a representative of the British journal Revolutionary History], Cannon’s superiority was that he stuck it out, unlike Haston. And it’s infinitely to Cannon’s and his comrades’ credit that they stood against the current as well as they did for as long as they did.

That’s why you were able to have a tendency emerge within the SWP—the Revolutionary Tendency [RT]—that could fight to maintain and extend the revolutionary program. I think dismissing Jim Robertson and Shane Mage as unreconstructed Shachtmanites, as one of the panelists did, both ignores the understandings they brought from their prior experiences and also ignores the diverse backgrounds of other RT leaders like Geoff White or Shirley Stoute.

The RT fought the drift toward Pabloism on Cuba and just as critically fought against the domestic adaptation to Pabloism, the uncritical tailing of first the liberal civil rights movement and then black nationalism, by supporting the revolutionary integrationist position elaborated by Dick Fraser.

And if the comrades in this room are really concerned with understanding when and how the SWP degenerated, they owe it to themselves and to the future of American Trotskyism to investigate the 1963 struggle. Because in expelling the RT, the Dobbs-Kerry regime strangled the party. They changed the rules of factional struggle and in doing so they deprived the party of the means to self-correct. Other contemporary observers who did not politically support the RT still recognized that a fundamental shift occurred and protested the expulsions, like the Frasers and the Weisses.

You can’t judge the value of the RT’s struggle simply by looking at the Spartacist League today anymore than you can judge Cannon’s SWP by Jack Barnes and Mary Alice Waters.

Remarks by Sam T. at a session entitled “What Happened to the SWP?”:

I agree with Paul LeBlanc [one of the speakers on the panel] that the SWP's degeneration was not inevitable, but in looking at that degeneration, most of those expelled from the SWP in the early 80s are extremely reluctant to trace Jack Barnes’ open renunciation of Trotskyism to the SWP's earlier uncritical embrace of the Cuban Revolution, leading to its reunification with the Pabloites. This is just willful blindness.

Now one can say that to see the logical consequences of hailing Castro as an “unconscious Trotskyist” required some foresight at the time in the early 60s (and the IBT is descended from those who did have that foresight). After all, while acting as cheerleaders for the Cuban and Algerian leaderships and other non-Trotskyist and non-proletarian forces, they [the revisionist leaders of the SWP] still at least formally claimed to continue adhering to Trotskyism.

Similarly, when Stalin first proclaimed the theory of "socialism in one country," he never formally renounced the need for world revolution, and few outside the Trotskyist movement at that time recognized that the logic of the theory necessarily meant the betrayal of world revolution.

But decades later, understanding both positions no longer requires foresight, but hindsight—hindsight, and a willingness to look at the lessons of history with open eyes. So for those of you in this room who have not yet done so, I appeal to you to open your eyes.

Posted: 04 August 2008