I have been busy working on my ongoing project started as a series of posts titled Perspective. At the same time, I have been involved with a group of folks who were interested in writing and within that group I picked up writing pieces of my memoirs. My group has not met for a while and my incentive to continue with my memoirs has lost some of its juice. Recent posts in Partido prompted me to write a few more notes related to both.Partido is the name of a FaceBook group I believe was initiated by a comrade of my Trotskyist past, Les Evans. At least I remember receiving an e-mail from him inviting me to the group. Since then I have also been following the posts and the discussions in this group.
Besides scattered references to some articles by participants, I have also found another theme in Partido and it is about Jack Barnes, coining him as a "cult" leader. Jack Barnes is the Socialist Workers Party leader, a small leftist group. There were also several commentaries on Barry Sheppard's two volume book "TheParty: The Socialist Workers Party". Barry's book is a history of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), with a strong personal flavor of his particular experiences. Barry in his book, has reached the conclusion that Jack Barnes is a "cultist" and he has destroyed the SWP, supposedly the only revolutionary party that could lead the American "socialist revolution". He traces his claim to a couple decades before and in the particular behaviors of Jack Barnes. The culmination of Barnes morphing into a cult leader is Barry's expulsion (there were others too) from the SWP which in his mind is proof positive that Jack Barnes is a "cultist". His book is not devoid of interest. I am sure that some of his personal recollections are of some interest to participants of that period or somebody who wants to research about the history of a small party.
Since I was not a member of the SWP and without any direct experience of party members interactions I could not relate much to his recollections of the party internals and I skipped through much of it. The only section that I thought might be interesting was the chapter on Iran, which I was disappointed. I was looking for more details. I thought that it would have at least more coverage of his recollections of the meetings that he participated, the participants and his observations about the dynamics in the meetings. These were the fusion meetings of different Iranian Trotskyist groups. After all that is what he was there for, I believe that was his assignment. Cindy Jaquith was there for reporting about larger events in the streets and they are all in the pages of the Militant, and that by itself is lopsided enough. Was there anything said in those meetings that was of interest? Those are the pieces of information that would be lost with the loss of the participants.
Barry's view of "cultist" Jack Barnes is nothing new and is mostly a psychological withdrawal symptom of confusing a party with your shelter. Pretty much everyone or group in the left which has been expelled or split from an existing political party, files this charge that the party is being ruled by a cult, and the leftist groups are riddled with personality cults that have a lifetime ruler in the organization. The interesting discussion is not so much whether Barnes is a cult leader or not, he might be. The question is why there are so many splits and why there has never been any sizable Marxist organization in the U.S. Why is it so hard to build one? It is so hard to build one that it seems almost impossible, and it is easier to criticize an insignificant and immaterial organization like the SWP than building one. Don't kid yourself about the growth of the SWP during the anti-war movement of 60's and 70s. The period that according to Barry is the non-cultist period of the SWP. At the height of its growth the SWP had a couple thousand members. Compared to the dynamics of the situation and the mass movement, that size and the rate of growth was insignificant. The interesting question is why these leftist organizations are insignificant and they always have been? Why the SWP or for that matter any other leftist organization could not grow? Maybe cultism is not the cause but the symptom of the leftist atrophy.Let me tell you about a couple of my experiences where it could easily be interpreted that Jack Barnes is or is not a cultist.
I returned to the U.S. in the summer of 1988. At the time I was convinced that the idea of socialism in backward countries is purely ridiculous. My experiences in Iran had proved to me that there was no working class capable of carrying out this task, socialism, and building a leadership to be at the head of such a class is purely delusional. I had already rejected the ideas of Trotsky and delineated them in a document "Trotsky and the Fourth Internationalthe Evolution of Political Sectarianism". Those were some of my ideas at that time, I have learned a lot more since then. In any case, I was convinced that the idea of socialism, if it could have any application, it must be in the advanced countries and particularly in the U.S. I was convinced that I had to try and find a way to contribute to building a revolutionary party in the U.S. I had rejected Trotsky's ideas but was yet latching on to Lenin and Marx's theories. In hindsight, it was nothing but hopes of political desperation.I thought I needed to broaden my perspective and look at other leftist organizations. I went to their meetings and listened, and found nothing but pathetic ignorance. I did not want to go to the SWP meetings. I already knew what goes on there. A couple of years ago I had translated the above mentioned document and sent to the SWP headquarters and had asked them to publish it as my contribution to the discussion that Jack Barnes and Mary Alice Waters had initiated in the New International under the title "Their Trotsky and Ours…" In my mind, that was the only starting point with the SWP. As one of the leaders of a fraternal group I expected to receive a response, whether it would be published and if not why. I went to the SWP bookstore in Seattle hoping to find a familiar face. I ran into Mark Severs whom I knew from the time I was living in Boston in early 1970s. He immediately recognized me and we hit it off kidding each other like old acquaintances. We met a couple of times in the coffee shops and I began telling him about some of my ideas. Shortly afterwards I found out that Jack Barnes was going to be in town for some party function. I think it was through Mark that I found out about the event. I thought it would be a good test to meet Jack and see if there is any opening for talks at any level.
I went to the meeting that he was speaking, I purposely went late to catch him at the end of his talk. When I entered the meeting room my presence was noticeable as if someone enters a classroom already in session. I noticed an expression of surprise on Jack's face at the podium. I stood in a corner until Jack's talk was finished. I approached him, I did not need to introduce myself, he remembered me. I asked to meet with him for a brief discussion. At first he said that he is too busy and might not be able to. I insisted. After a brief consultation with some who appeared to be his assistants he agreed to a next day meeting during his lunch break. The next day I went to the meeting place and sat at a table with him. I presented the document to him and told him that I had sent it a long while ago and had not received any response from the leadership of the SWP. He said that he did not know anything about it, he would inquire and would let me know. I tried to emphasize about the benefits of a discussion. I told him that this is not a discussion with a passerby but this is the result of the experience of a section of the leadership of the Iranian party which has had a lengthy collaboration with the SWP. He said that he understands and he would let me know as soon as possible.
I never heard from Jack again, and Mark Severs did not return my calls. Was I, at that moment, any different from a person or group that Jack had expelled. In my opinion, no. He did not and does not want to discuss with me or for that matter with you and he has instructed his supporters not to have any contact with you and me. Is he a cult leader, maybe he is. That is the general disease of the left, but does it matter. If the "socialist revolution" in the U.S. is going to depend on whether Jack Barnes wants to have a discussion or not is pathetic. If and if "socialist revolution" was going to be a real potential it does not even depend on what Marx, Lenin and Trotsky had said. Do you think gravity depends on the Newton's discovery? So my advice to my comrades at the Partido is to get over it. If you know of a practical way to build a party that could lead a "socialist revolution" put that forward. You'll have a very hard time and the result will not be that much different than what Jack Barnes is leading. A few leftists rubbing shoulders is not a party. That is the experience of the last century. Here and there a few have been recruited but all the achievements have been miniscule compared to the turmoil that the U.S. and the world have gone through. Above all, our predictions and forecasts have come to null, do you need me to count them for you? Is there any area of politics that what we said and expected has come to anything near our expectations. Is that because Jack Barnes turned a cultist leader and the SWP is dead? The SWP is as dead today as 20 or 40 or 60 years ago, the difference is that it was your home then and it felt lively. I tell you it feels as lively to the present members of the SWP as it felt for you then. It was a shelter and it is a shelter, the difference is that you are not sheltered by it now. Get over it, the questions facing our world are much larger.I am not a theoretician but Let me say a few words about the party and its leadership and their relationship. Political parties are important and a party is first of all an idea, it does not matter if it is Marxist, Trotskyst or something else. It is the idea that you want to bring people around it and help to advance the idea. It is an idea that you are convinced of. The central task of the leadership is to develop the strategy to advance that idea. Leadership is the guardian of that strategy and has to continuously develop tactics to move the strategy forward. When a faction fight breaks out inside the party opposing the leadership, obviously the leaders have to deal with the question of faction fight. One of and I repeat one of the central question that a competent leadership group has to face is, does the faction help the strategy inside the party or outside the party. The leadership must have a clear vision and reason in either case. That is how one finds itself inside or outside of a party.
From the point of view of the perspective that I am developing, you Partidoers are the lucky dogs finding yourself outside the SWP. You only have to dust yourself off and think again.
This brings me to the next part of my post related to KamranNayeri's commentary on Barry's book. First of all I like to thank John Beadle for his post otherwise I would have missed knowing about Kamran's article and also thank Kamran's attempt to jot down some pieces of his memory about that time. It was interesting to read his views of the past. I would like to add to it some of my memories of those days. You will find them in my next post.