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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Talking Socialism: The SWP and The Turn

This post assumes the reader has knowledge or an interest in the demise of the once significant Socialist Workers Party, in the United States. I'll begin with a newpaper article from a leftist publication.

The way the SWP went about the "turn" could be  termed "Gidget Goes to Garment." Under the slogan of "talking socialism," industrialized SWPers have functioned more like YSAers running a campus election campaign. ,,,,,,,,,,,,, Barnes has seen to it that the old-timers-who remember a bit about the need to patiently win authority as workers and militant unionists-will not get in the way.

 Harry DeBoer, one of the "Minneapolis 18" tried and imprisoned under the Smith Act, objected to "talking socialism" and quoted a 1941 SWP plenum report by James P. Cannon: "Comrades were cautioned ...[to] be careful, integrate themselves, get some training in their trade, some
standing as mechanics, workmen, etc. ... If you conduct yourself in such a way that you get bounced out before you really get in, you cannot carry on any fruitful trade union work" ("The Party's Sectarian Trade Union Policy" by Harry DeBoer et aI., SWP Discussion Bulletin Vol. 37, No. 23, July 1981). That was it for DeBoer in Barnes' party; it was all over but the shouting. 

The SWP insists that the hair-raising story of what happened at the Jim Walter Brookwood mine No. 4 in Alabama was not a correct application of the "talking socialism" policy. We suggest our readers draw their own conclusions from Political Committee reporter Ken Shilman's "Report on the
National Miners Fraction" (Party Organizer Vol. 4. No. I, April 1980):

"We did not collectively sit down, carefully size up the situation we found
ourselves in, and figure out how to help the union win this battle. If we had
started there, I think that after only two weeks in the mine (my emphasis-KM)when we did not
know a lot about the struggles. and had not had time to win respect for ourselves
as unionists or as political people, much less establish ourselves as socialists-we
would have decided not to sign grievances. write articles. or sell the Militant
in the bars around the mine....

"When two comrades. Sara and Ellen, got hired at Brookwood in June. 1979.
we walked into a war taking place between Jim Walter mining company
and the UMWA. Jim Walter was out to destroy the local. ...

"By writing the kind of Militant article we did. quoting extensively from a
closed union meeting and signing it with the names of comrades who had barely
started work. we set into motion an entire train of events....

"That issue of the Militant gave the company and its right-wing agents the
handle they needed. The red scare and violence that followed our sales of the
Militant changed the relationship of forces dramaticallv.... What the company
had thus far failed to do with its attacks on women's rights and other tactics. it pulled off with anticommunism-it divided the union...."Our actions also led to serious victimization. Comrades are familiar with the violence directed against our comrades that eventually forced us to decide that
Sara and Ellen should not continue work at the mine.

The above article is from the July 23, 1982 issue of Workers Vanguard, the journal of the Spartacist League. While I am not nor have ever been a supporter of the Sparts, one doesn't need to be a supporter of the SL to  recognize the validity of this article.

The situation for the SWP in the mines in northern Alabama, was even worse than described in the article. For example the car one of the women mentioned in the article was destroyed in the company parking lot, as the result of a fire bomb, while she was working underground in the mine. A few months later two SWP members were attacked and beaten by a mob of coal miners, nearby while attempting to sell the SWP paper The Militant on the side of a road.

Most post mortems of the SWP concentrate on the effects of the turn to industry as one of  the causes of the downfall of the SWP. I would argue, it wasn't the turn itself, as much as how it was implemented.

Prior to the 1960's generation of SWP members discovering the working class, who in reality, already existed, the general accepted strategy, was to wait until acquiring a certain amount of competence on the job, and getting to know one's co workers, before coming out as a full blown, revolutionary socialist.. This was the strategy adopted by a previous generation, as well as other left groups.

Coming out too soon as open Socialists wasn't the only problem, with the SWP implementation of the turn to industry. There were those of us who wanted to upgrade and gain new skills, by taking classes at what was then called Vocational Technical colleges. In most states these schools are now part of the community college system. With the exceptions of New York and Seattle, members were discouraged from taking industrial skills classes, such as welding, electricity, and machine repair, because, "we want to stay with the unskilled workers." Ironically a national leader Barry Sheppard, who supported this foolhardy policy, in the late 1980's found it necessary to take a welding class to become employable. Do as I say and not as I do?

In my own case, I had been accepted for a free machinist training program. Of course completion of a six week course doesn't qualify one as a Machinist, but at that time, employers, including an aircraft plant nearby, were hiring graduates of this training program. I was subjected to severe peer group pressure not to enter this program. Some time later I found that two members, part of the branch "in crowd" entered the same program, one getting my abandoned opening, and were almost immediately hired at the aforementioned aircraft plant, organized by the United Auto Workers. I suppose it wouldn't be stretching things to say, my "comrades" scabbed on me.

The late Tony Cliff leader of the International Socialists and later Socialist Workers Party (no relation to the SWP in the US) in Britain, noticed the disturbing trend, that instead of leftist cadre influencing their co-workers in a leftward direction, they were being influenced by their co- workers in a rightward direction. The same thing happened in the US. Part of the problem was that the industries targeted by the SWP for entry, Rail, Mining, Air Craft Manufacturing. Steel, and later Utilities, as a result of union contracts, provided a pay and benefits package significantly higher than received by the majority of the workforce. This had a conservatizing effect on the workers in those industries.

One of the basic tenets of Marxism, is the existence of a reserve army of the unemployed. This simply means that for most part a labor surplus, of involuntarily unemployed workers is endemic to the capitalist system. The membership of the SWP, including those who were later to become dissidents, unofficially, never saying so publicly, took the position that unemployment and underemployment are the results of individual short comings. How does this differ from the right wing argument, that no matter how high the unemployment rate, there's plenty of jobs to go around? To those of you who ask "who said this?" To answer that question would require the reading of the membership lists of the branches I was in.

I remember bringing up the subject of "low paid workers, and was told, "if they're low paid, they need to get better jobs!" This is a right wing position, pure and simple. Another former member during the 1990's actually was able to have a one on one conversation with SWP leader Jack Barnes, himself. When he suggested to Barnes an orientation toward lower paid workers, true victims of capitalism, Barnes responded, "we don't orient toward the lumpen proletariat." News flash: Big difference between low paid workers and the lumps (lumpen elements).

What is missing in all the post mortems of the SWP is that the turn to industry, was an unmitigated disaster to many of us, especially those with a genuine working class background. We knew you couldn't go jumping around from job to job, and upgrading skills was a must. We only hear from those who were able to find decent paying long term jobs, or from those who found jobs, and were able to save enough to go on to graduate school or to get a second major to complement the Under Water Basket Weaving type degrees, that most of the college educated members held. Like they say, history is written by the winners.

I hear from many former members, that they have no regrets having been in the SWP. This is not a sentiment I share.

For further reading:

The two volume history, The Party, by Barry Sheppard
The Fall of the US SWP, Mary Scully, available
What Happened to the SWP (US), by Dayne Goodwin


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