By CHUCK CAIRNS
Workers’ Voice (WV) is a new organization that is trying to rebuild the revolutionary socialist left in the United States and around the word, and they have my enthusiastic support. Let me explain why.[i]
The Socialist Workers Party
I first became interested in socialist politics in the late 1950s; I was in my late twenties and a student of linguistics at Columbia University. I became active in the Ban the Bomb movement and SANE in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and I was an active supporter of the burgeoning civil rights movement. The success of the Cuban revolution in 1959 triggered revolutionary enthusiasm among many of my friends and me, and we built an active chapter of “Fair Play for Cuba” at Columbia University.
After some friends introduced me to Marxist ideas, it became obvious to me that all the crises and upheavals that were spurring our organizing stemmed from the capitalist system; accordingly, I began exploring socialist organizations. I discovered the Young Socialist Alliance, the youth group of the Socialist Workers Party,[ii] which was starting up around then; they had far and away the most rational and attractive political program and range of activity of all the left groups, so I enthusiastically joined the YSA (I forget the exact year). I have considered myself a Trotskyist ever since.
I started my academic career in 1966 as an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, where we (including Helen, whom I married while in Texas) were active in the antiwar and the socialist movements. We later took jobs at Queens College, in New York City, in 1971, where we remained members of the SWP until late 1978, when the party began its sad decline into the bizarre sectarianism that characterizes it today. They were implementing a “turn to industry,” whereby members were supposed to take jobs in industry. To remain in the party, Helen and I were expected to take jobs in industry, which would mean abandoning our academic careers. At the same time, the SWP was becoming mysteriously hostile to open discussion among members, and it was getting stranger and stranger in other ways as well. It seemed like a good time for us to leave.
I have maintained a subscription to The Militant since about 1966, and we keep up with the SWP’s public face. While I find a great deal of value in the SWP’s publications, I am dismayed by some of their positions and by their abstention from vigorous social and political struggle. I am saddened to conclude that the SWP has abandoned its proud tradition as a leading voice in the revolutionary socialist movement.[iii]
The current juncture: Time for a regroupment
The collapse of the Stalinist and Maoist currents resulting from the reintroduction of capitalism in Russia and China means that significant barriers to the healthy development of revolutionary socialism have been removed. The world should have been our oyster. However, the withdrawal of the SWP from the field of battle has resulted in substantial missed opportunities. A regroupment of revolutionary forces is clearly called for.
Barry Sheppard, writing 10 years ago in Volume 2 of his political memoir, “The Party,” says it well (page 7). After making the point “… that the collapse of the SWP was not inevitable,” he goes on to say:
As the radicalization of “The Sixties” receded, the objective situation made it increasingly difficult for a small Marxist organization to grow. But with a more correct orientation the SWP could have survived and remain an important force on the left. It would have been able to play a role in building a revolutionary alternative in the wake of the greatest crisis of the capitalist system since the Great Depression, beginning in 2007. Without the SWP, rebuilding the socialist movement in the United States has been made more difficult. The decline of the left in general following the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the restoration of capitalism in China has meant that no other organization is up to the task. The discredited Communist Party is no longer the obstacle it once was, clearing the field. There are other revolutionary groups and individuals, and perhaps a new beginning can come out of them.
The attempts at regroupment that WV and other groups are attempting to create offer promising attempts at the “new beginning” that Sheppard hopes for. WV comrades are exploring existing groups who also call for revolutionary socialism and/or who proclaim adherence to the basic tenets of the Marxist left, including especially Trotskyist thought.[iv] At the same time, they are agitating wherever they can to build support for struggles of workers and the oppressed around the world, as a perusal of their newsletter makes clear.
My revolutionary optimism, never far below the surface, is given a significant boost by witnessing activities of WV and their colleagues in sister organizations. I support WV with enthusiasm and no reservations. They are attempting a monumental task, which is certainly not for the faint of heart, and they have limited experience and small numbers; nevertheless, I have confidence that these comrades can learn from their inevitable errors and can make significant contributions to the struggle to end the world of capitalist and imperialist domination and move our species toward a democratic, socialist world.
Top illustration: “Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.” (Soviet poster, 1919)
[i] I give short shrift to the larger question why I am not only a socialist, but a revolutionary socialist at that. That will require an entirely different essay. I assume an orientation toward revolutionary socialism in this essay.
[ii] Note that the SWP uses The Militant as its website.
[iii] I nevertheless feel that the SWP press, new and old, including both The Militant and material at Pathfinder Press, can teach valuable lessons to revolutionary socialists; we would do well to keep up with this literature and analyze it critically, for both its abundant gems and its all-too-puzzling junk. Revolutionary socialists can also learn a lot from the online archives of The Militant, going back to the founding of the Trotskyist movement in the United States; the SWP performed a valuable service to the working class by mounting that archive. Revolutionary socialists should also read Barry Sheppard’s valuable two-volume work, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, volumes 1 and 2. Sheppard was a central leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the 1960’s when the party was in its healthiest period, until his dismissal in the early 1980’s when the party was well into its decline. These two volumes are an insightful and thorough political memoir that chronicles and incisively analyzes the fall of the SWP from its heyday in the 1960’s. There are valuable lessons there about what to emulate and what to avoid for revolutionary socialists. I strongly recommend that WV organize study groups around these volumes.
[iv] One of their recent projects was to build support for the Revolutionary Socialist Organizing Conference, on June 2, 3, 2022.