CONCLUSION: How It All Ended
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NEW YORK/PHILADELPHIA 1970 – APRIL 1973
Fraser's position as a captive of the Bavarians is also aptly reflected in the ambivalent terms of slander which "Fraserites" employ in their sly gossip respecting Marcus. The "over-the-hill" "new Plekhanov" – the favorite of the New York City branch of the Bavarian Yente – expresses Fraser's current self-estimation of himself as the "new young Lenin" not quite mature enough to break his leash from his teacher.
Lyndon LaRouche: On Menshevism in the Labor Committee
In March 1971, just two years after the founding national conference of the new National Caucus of SDS Labor Committees in Philadelphia, the organization teetered on the brink of collapse. That month approximately 50 members – an estimated one-third to one-half of the entire membership – quit the NCLC and launched the Socialist Labor Committee (SLC).1 The split occurred just two months after the group's third national conference ("Strategy for Socialism I"), which convened in New York from late December 1970 to 1 January 1971. The SLC's creation marked the culmination of a bitter factional dispute that began in late 1969 and intensified throughout 1970. Philadelphia's Steve Fraser led the minority faction – dubbed "the Bavarians" – against the majority group that became known as the Positive Political Tendency (PPT).2
On 27 February 1971 the NCLC expelled Fraser and his closest collaborators.3 The expulsions were ordered after a series of internal minority documents surfaced that showed that the Bavarian leadership had been secretly organizing its own parallel network in preparation for an anticipated split.4 The Fraser-led minority apparently began planning its exit strategy after it had been outvoted at the January conference by the majority faction, which now controlled all the top leadership posts.5 The expulsions only targeted specific individuals whose names had appeared in the documents. Other members sympathetic to the minority now had to decide whether or not they wanted to remain inside the organization or join the SLC. Even after the formal break, the NCLC and SLC still worked together to defend Fraser and Dick Borghmann in the infamous "Bomb Plot" case in Philadelphia. The charges against the two men would only be dropped sometime later in 1972, after Judge Edmund Spaeth ordered the government to reveal its undercover sources. Unwilling to comply, the prosecution abandoned the case.
The New York national conference vote, the expulsion order, and the creation of the SLC was the culmination of a series of increasingly sharp confrontations between the minority and majority factions that in October 1970 led Steve Fraser to dramatically resign from the National Committee, then the NCLC's highest ranking policy body.6 The strife inside the organization coalesced around a debate about the nature of the "Popular Front" that first surfaced around the time of the group's second national conference in early 1970. From the January-February 1970 Campaigner:
EDITOR'S NOTE: This editorial will be the last to appear under our old editorial procedure, which now requires revision on two counts. In developing this issue's editorial, as with previous issues, publication of the magazine was unduly delayed by editorial discussions between the New York and Philadelphia groups. This editorial, which covers a subject previously little-discussed in our ranks (the popular front), gave rise to some exceedingly useful thought and discussion, but delayed the publication for well over a month. The statement here published by no means represents our final thinking on the pop front, the antiwar movement, or the upcoming strike wave. The topics will be much further discussed at our upcoming Labor Committee conference to be held January 2&3. Secondly, our membership is now much broader than just New York and Philadelphia; our members in Seattle, Baltimore, Boston, Ithaca, etc. are rightly asking that they be formally included in our editorial policy discussions. (Emphasis added)7
A May-June 1970 Campaigner article further illuminated just how decentralized the Labor Committee really was:
The National Caucus of Labor Committees held its second general conference in New York City during the week-end of January 2-4, 1970. The main topic and purpose of this conference was the establishment of appropriate and rather over-due political and organizational forms. The point of these changes was to accomplish our transformation from a federation of semi-autonomous regional and local "chapters" into a national political organization.8
The complex debate between "Bavaria" and "New York" from late 1969 to February-March 1971 remains difficult to unravel. What is clear is the fact that the NCLC spent well over a year internally crippled by a tenebrous factional dispute. The bitter confrontation left a deep impression on the leadership group allied with LaRouche, as the crisis dramatically underscored just how much internal dissent and factional polemics could jeopardize the organization's very existence.
Whatever the precise mixture of political polemic and personal pique, the divisions inside the Labor Committee intensified throughout 1970.9 Minutes from the 24-25 October 1970 meeting of the National Committee, for example, include this exchange between "Bavarian" Howie Serota and LaRouche:
: I want some clarification on the word "abide" and what it means not to abide by an NC decision. Are we talking about democratic centralism – how an NC member with a minority position must behave to the outside world as if he is in agreement with the majority? If this is what Lyn means, then certainly the NCLC had no such policy – unless suddenly right now by fiat.
(LaRouche): Democratic centralism is a straw man. We don't have it. We have Carol's conference motion that when time permits, a referendum can be called. Howie is right about what democratic centralism is, but we don't have it.
: Lyn had not answered Howie's question which is a legitimate and extremely important one. Just to say we don't have democratic centralism, doesn't clarify the meaning of "abide." Now the NC under certain emergency situations is empowered to make decisions. And certainly the majority of the NC is free to pursue its decisions. But the minority is not obligated to pursue it, endorse, or even keep quiet about it. If Lyn is claiming otherwise, he'll find no resolution to support his claims.
: NC members can state their disagreements with the majority as private persons. They can express differences, but can in no way impede the majority from carrying out its decision. The minority can call a referendum, but while it's going on, the NC decision is binding. . . . . We cannot permit an NC member to ignore an NC decision until the results of a referendum are apparent. . .
Fraser replied: "It is my position that I don't feel obligated to support, defend, pursue, or even remain neutral or ignore an NC decision I disagree with. There has never been any such rule in the organization. It's not a crime, it never has been one, and you'll have a hard time convincing anyone it is." He then announced his formal resignation from the NC.
On 12 November 1970, LaRouche published his analysis of the dispute in an internal document entitled On Menshevism in the Labor Committee. It was written both in reaction to Fraser's resignation and as a factional statement aimed at the upcoming NCLC national conference. In Menshevism, the now 48-year-old LaRouche tellingly writes about his own fear of being deposed:
Fraser's position as a captive of the Bavarians is also aptly reflected in the ambivalent terms of slander which "Fraserites" employ in their sly gossip respecting Marcus. The "over-the-hill" "new Plekhanov" – the favorite of the New York City branch of the Bavarian Yente – expresses Fraser's current self-estimation of himself as the "new young Lenin" not quite mature enough to break his leash from his teacher. One appropriately senses something off-key in the image of the "master tactician" (who built that gigantic organization in Boston this spring), but Fraser precisely sees himself as the tactical genius who depends upon "Plekhanov" only for abstract theory.
Even since the CIPA-FUNY days, LaRouche's influence came from the power of his ideas as an interpreter of Marx and his agility as a political tactician. He could be a brilliant teacher and he unquestionably was the group's theoretical mentor as well as its founder. However LaRouche's charismatic influence remained rooted in his ideas and arguments and power to persuade. But as the year-long faction fight made abundantly clear, this did not give him political control over the Labor Committee. As a "theory guru," LaRouche deliberately built the Labor Committee based on a Luxemburg-like mass strike perspective that specifically rejected the Leninist party model he had spent years toiling under inside the SWP.10 The political critique of the NCLC as essentially an organization of left social democratic reformists made by organizations like the Workers League and Spartacist League centered in large part on the NCLC's overt rejection of the Leninist party model. Although it is an imperfect analogy, in this early period LaRouche can be viewed more as the founder and chairman of a university academic department, but with one huge exception: he lacked any guarantee of permanent tenure.
The year-long crisis obviously affected LaRouche deeply. During this same period, he grew even closer to a group of leftist Greek exiles inside an organization called Epanastasi, which had cadre in both New York and Europe.11 LaRouche cultivated Epanastasi members as part of his own special pocket project to build a new Labor Committee network inside Europe. "The Greeks," as they were known inside the Labor Committee, had virtually no experience in the American student radical movement. They had grown up in a very different political world largely shaped by the Greek Communist Party. Coming from a European Leninist tradition, the need for centralized control and disciplined leadership was almost second nature to them. Standing well outside the nexus of personal and social bonds that arose inside the NCLC during its early years in New York and Philadelphia, the Greeks owed their rise to leadership positions almost exclusively to LaRouche. Not surprisingly, in the years that followed they would prove some of his fiercest loyalists.
In 1972 one of the Labor Committee's most respected labor organizers named Jim Rumley attended a leftist conclave to speak about developing a long-range strike support organization. During his talk a group of bored Maoists began chanting "A single spark can start a prairie fire!" "Yes," he replied, "but not in monsoon season."
President Richard Nixon's overwhelming defeat of the left-liberal Democratic Party candidate George McGovern in the 1972 election showed just how deeply the United States had changed. The failure of one big protest march after another to stop the war, combined with reforms that gradually eliminated the military draft and the increasingly obvious intention of the U.S. government to exit Vietnam, accelerated the mass extinction of the species known as the "campus radical." Yet contrary to all expectations, the NCLC now grew at a remarkable rate. Steve Fraser's decision to quit the Labor Committee may even have been his single greatest contribution to the organization. No longer trapped inside a Hades-like world of near anarchy, the newly reconstituted Labor Committee clearly benefited from a more politically centralized leadership structure.
Yet there were deeper reasons for the group's remarkable recovery. The ongoing implosion of U.S. radicalism now led many dedicated "politicos" to actively seek out a more organized left formation committed to the "long haul," since it was clear that the political ebb tide wasn't about to end soon. The Socialist Workers Party and its Young Socialist Alliance remained the biggest and possibly best organized group on the American Left.12 Yet the SWP's main recruiting tactic – opposition to the Vietnam War – became more irrelevant with each passing day. Desperate to find new cadre, the SWP-YSA heavily invested its resources in recruiting from the broader counterculture in a way that left its older labor-oriented cadre feeling increasingly isolated and ignored.13 Yet the SWP's vigorous endorsement of radical identity politics, starting with black "self determination" and extending into the gay and women's liberation movements, eventually led many YSA-SWP sympathizers in the post-Vietnam era to shun organized Trotskyism for groups that not only catered to identity politics but centered on them.14
The two "pilot fish" Trotskyist sects that rode the SWP whale, the Workers League and the Spartacist League, also floundered. As the U.S. subsidiary of Gerry Healy's British-based Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP), the Workers League faithfully mirrored Healy's weird obsessions and never played a serious role in the larger Left.15 Although James Robertson's Spartacist League (SL) appeared far less cult-like, its caricature-like fidelity to its own purist brand of Trotskyism insured its marginalization.
The Labor Committee lucked out in other ways as well. Following the remarkable collapse of Progressive Labor, the most powerful brand of 1970s radicalism was a virulent strain of RYM II Maoism. American Maoism, however, largely remained a West Coast and Midwest phenomenon.16 As for the Communist Party, it stayed so wedded to a Popular Front strategy of supporting Democratic Party-endorsed peace candidates that it held little appeal for radicals. The massive defeat of George McGovern made the CP's strategy look even more ridiculous. Even if the CPUSA's "New Politics" strategic perspective was right, surely it made far more sense for New Left activists looking to the future to move directly into the reform wing of the Democratic Party, rather than labor in CPUSA leader Gus Hall's political Siberia.17 Finally, the decision of the RYM I/Weatherman crazies to go "underground" insured that they would remain a non-factor in above-ground politics.18 Under these conditions, more and more independent radicals began gravitating towards the Labor Committee, which now established new branches across the nation.
As it so happened, I was one of those new recruits.
"I WAS A TEENAGE MARXIST"
As a 15-year-old high-school sophomore from a politically liberal family, I became active in the Eugene McCarthy campaign in the spring of 1968 and worked at its Philadelphia headquarters. That June – while the Labor Committee jousted with the Action Faction at Columbia – I was in Coney Island working for the McCarthy slate in the upcoming New York Democratic primary.19 The campaign had organized a busload of volunteers from Philadelphia to aid the New York effort, so late one warm summer night I tumbled off the bus somewhere in the bowels of Brooklyn. Some of us then were introduced to a woman called Goldie, at whose apartment we would be staying. After we piled into her car, Goldie drove to Coney Island for a short tour and told us that members of the local Democratic Party machine were going out late at night and tearing down all our posters. At her apartment I was introduced to her husband, Sam. While Goldie and Sam watched the David Suskind show in the living room, we hunted for places to sleep. In one room I could not help but notice multiple copies of dusty old books, one of which explained just why the Rosenbergs were innocent. That week I canvassed vast high-rise apartment complexes. This was the first time that I can recall seeing a mezuzah on a front door. We ran the folk singer Theodore Bikel as our delegate and he actually won. The fact that he'd played in countless productions of Fiddler on the Roof probably didn't hurt.
A few weeks before the November 1968 election, I attended a Hubert Humphrey press conference at a Philadelphia hotel for my high-school paper. I can't remember a single word he said, but after the press conference ended I noticed a group of protesters a block or two away holding signs denouncing the Vietnam War. I decided to join them for a few minutes. While I stood there, the police let a few soldiers in military uniforms come right up to the demo to scream and threaten us. Three protesters who were crossing a nearby street were beaten and arrested by the cops for "violating restrictions on signs and areas of access." June now felt like a distant memory.
In 1969 I attended my first SDS meeting, largely by accident. I had heard the Irish radical Bernadine Devlin speak a few weeks earlier and was impressed. I found out that another IRA supporter (one of Brendan Behan's brothers) was scheduled to speak at Temple University. It turned out that his talk was part of a larger SDS-sponsored shindig, whose featured speaker was RYM II's Noel Ignatin (Ignatiev). I remember him saying something about his recent visit to Mao's China and thinking that it was like hearing someone talking about his last trip to Jupiter. Behind me a fistfight broke out, ostensibly over two differing interpretations of a book by the historian John Hope Franklin. All that was missing from that meeting was a talking white rabbit wearing a waist coat, holding a watch, and inquiring about Alice.
That autumn I took a course on radical interpretations of American history at the office of Resistance, Philadelphia's leading antiwar group, which was supported by the Quaker American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). The class was taught by Thompson Bradley, a brilliant Swarthmore Russian professor who, in 1970, briefly joined the Labor Committee. I remember we read a remarkable range of books from sections of F.S.C. Northrop's Meeting of East and West to Carl Oglesby and Richard Schaull's Containment and Change.
In late 1969, I began work on a senior honors history thesis on Big Bill Haywood and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).20 Knowing that I needed to know more about socialism, in January 1970 I took a series of classes on "the early Marx" offered at a "Free University" held on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. The teacher was a Swarthmore College senior who was about to go off to the University of Michigan on a full graduate scholarship in anthropology. He was also a member of the Philadelphia Labor Committee. The course was remarkable for its intellectual depth. Besides seriously reading Marx for the first time, I also read Feuerbach's Principles of the Philosophy of the Future and writings by Emile Durkheim. To this day, I remember how dazzled I was reading the "Feuerbach" section of The German Ideology. I sought out other courses as well. I even lasted a few weeks at a Free University Marx 101 class sponsored by the local Philadelphia Communist Party and taught by James Dolsen, a tall, thin man with round glasses whom I had never heard of before. A spry 85 years old, Dolsen assigned Emile Burn's Introduction to Marxism, the revised version of a book first published in 1939. His class was so astonishingly simple-minded that I remember one very embarrassed CP member apologizing to me because I had asked Dolsen a fairly basic question about Marx's early writings that he simply didn't know how to answer.21
On 18 February 1970, five members of the Chicago Seven were convicted of crossing state lines with intent to riot. National demonstrations were called, including one outside Philadelphia's City Hall. I had planned to go into Center City anyway because I wanted to hear the well-known radical historian and longtime CP member Herbert Aptheker speak at Temple University on black history, yet another subject I felt I desperately needed to know much more about. The demonstration proved to be quite different from the talk-fest that I had anticipated. After we had assembled at City Hall, and without any advance notice, the front of the group began running. Not having a clue where we were going, I ran as well. As we rushed down North Broad Street, we were soon flanked by tactical police on horseback and by a group of plainclothes cops on foot egging us on. Suddenly the front of the demonstration arrived at what turned out to be the local Selective Service office. Someone threw a brick through the window, the cops acted like cops, and I ran like hell. Fortunately I got to Aptheker's talk sans concussion. In his presentation, Aptheker made a point to praise an old comrade who in 1919 had helped lead the left wing of the American Socialist Party out of that party in support of the Bolshevik Revolution. Everyone clapped and I realized they were clapping for none other than Jim Dolsen, who stood there beaming at the applause. That was the last Communist Party-sponsored gathering I attended.
I bumped into the Labor Committee yet again that same month when I attended a huge anti-war conference at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio. The conference was memorable for a few reasons. One was the fact that it turned out to be one of the last times Weatherman appeared in public. In between the plenary sessions, countless workshops were organized. As it so happened, one of the workshops was entitled something like "Socialist re-industrialization as a demand to stop the Vietnam War." Intrigued, I went. As fate would have it, the workshop was sponsored by the Labor Committee. About twelve people showed up. Our room being erroneously scheduled, we wound up in the hall talking about industrial reconversion from the war economy and the need to reach white union workers in particular who might otherwise be tempted to vote for George Wallace.22 As someone with a McCarthy campaign background, I looked for programmatic ideas that could resonate with the larger population and I was genuinely impressed with what I heard.
That spring, however, my political work centered on an American Friends Service Committee (AFSC)-sponsored project aimed at pressuring the huge Philadelphia-based insurance company INA to disinvest from apartheid South Africa. Having read G. William Domhoff's book Who Rules America? I thought the AFSC project offered a great opportunity both to oppose apartheid and to examine INA's board of directors in order to understand concretely just how the "ruling class" actually ruled. However on 29 April 1970, just as our first protests were getting under way, Nixon invaded Cambodia, Jackson and Kent State exploded, and a mass student strike swept the nation. A few of us from my high school walked out of class to attend a huge anti-war rally near Independence Hall. One of the rally's speakers turned out to be none other than "Lyn Marcus." As the rally ended, I was approached by the same Swarthmore student whose Marxist anthropology class I'd attended just a few months earlier and who had spotted me in the crowd. He invited me to drive back with him to Swarthmore, where LaRouche was scheduled to debate an economics professor there named Frederic Pryor.
After the debate ended around 10 p.m., we walked to Swarthmore's Student Union building. As Swarthmore was "on strike," there were banners and posters everywhere. LaRouche and Carol sat in the student lounge with dozens of students around them, most of us sitting on the floor. Both of them puffed on pipes throughout the night. At one point I thought I had caught LaRouche in a bizarre error when he mentioned the "four volumes" of Capital, only to discover that he counted Theories of Surplus Value as the work's fourth book. Around five in the morning, while the conversation was still going strong, we left and finally drove back Philadelphia. Although that night was remarkable, I still was not "converted," in part because the Philadelphia Labor Committee was increasingly crippled by the dispute with the Fraser minority and couldn't organize itself out of paper bag. When not working, I read leftist publications like the Guardian, Leviathan, and Monthly Review and attended anti-war marches as well as a huge Black-Panther-organized conclave held at Temple University on the 1970 Labor Day weekend.
In the spring of 1971, I began to attend Labor Committee events. Although I didn't understand its significance at the time, I became active just a few weeks after the Bavarian "split" early that March.23 The group I encountered struck me as anything but a "vanguard party," much less a proto-cult. It seemed decentralized, disorganized, more than a little clannish, and almost haphazard.24 I attended my first national conference ("Strategy for Socialism II") that Memorial Day weekend. It was held in a small space at the Beacon Hotel on New York's Upper West Side and it was the organization's first major gathering without the Bavarian minority. At night, I slept on a couch in the home of Ed and Nancy Spannaus, whose apartment on Cabrini Boulevard overlooked the George Washington Bridge. After I relocated to the New York area in the fall of 1971, I more and more saw myself as a loyal cadre, even though as a neophyte I knew all too well that there was a great deal that I simply didn't understand.
For an organization that had begun with just two people in July 1966 and had endured a remarkable series of trials and tribulations, the NCLC could count on some five or six hundred supporters nationwide by the early 1970s. By 1972, the Labor Committee radiated a new sense of growth, confidence in its political perspective, and belief in organizing possibilities. A remarkably high level of intellectual challenge infused the organization as members studied Trotsky's famous writings on Germany, Wilhelm Reich's The Mass Psychology of Fascism, and works by Kant, Hegel, Luxemburg and Marx, as well as poetry by Rimbaud and music by Beethoven. I even tried to wobble through Hegel's lectures on the history of philosophy. A great stress was put on advanced science as well, especially physics and the related issue of fusion power. The Labor Committee felt like anything but a stale leftist sect, much less a political cult in the making.
During this period, I regularly attended meetings at the group's New York office, which doubled as the organization's "national headquarters." The office was a first-floor walk-up in an old building located at 792 Amsterdam Avenue near 99th street. There was a small main room for the New York local meeting and an even smaller room that held banners, signs, the inevitable Gestetner duplicating machine, and the stencils that launched a thousand leaflets. LaRouche rarely came to these local gatherings, although I remember him occasionally attending. Most times the meetings coordinated assignments such as leafleting at places like transit barns. It was also the place to go to pick up the latest issue of New Solidarity or some hot-off-the-press internal document.
The meetings were laid back and sometimes funny. The first part usually would be devoted to some larger political discussion and then the head of the local would hustle up volunteers for leafleting and other "deployments." While I knew I wasn't going to volunteer to debate the "economic world liquidity crisis" with anybody anytime soon, even this slightly confused catechumen could give out leaflets to longshoremen at a dock on Manhattan's West Side or spend time selling New Solidarity on Fordham Road and the Grand Concourse in the Bronx.
As for LaRouche's more eccentric pronouncements, there was really no blood oath requirement to believe them. You didn't have to think that a catastrophic economic depression was looming to organize strike support networks, aid the Newark teachers, leaflet transit barns, or help build a new welfare rights organization. You didn't have to entirely buy into the idea that the counterculture was on the verge of becoming "Zero Growth" fascists to regard The Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich as a dubious neo-Malthusian.
Even if there was something mildly crackpot at times about LaRouche, his brilliance still seemed worth the price of admission. Besides, how did I really know that he was wrong about a looming "world liquidity crisis"? What did seem clear to me was that it was absurd to be a Marxist and believe that capitalism would never again encounter a major economic breakdown. It also made sense to me that capitalists would try to avoid such a crisis both by lowering living standards and looting the environment in a process that the Labor Committee (copying from both Marx and Rosa Luxemburg) dubbed "primitive accumulation." My decision to join the Labor Committee, then, was surprisingly easy and I felt privileged to have stumbled into such a remarkable organization filled with so many brilliant people.
If you took a snapshot of the NCLC in late March 1973, you might have been impressed by what you saw. On the last weekend of March, the organization helped launch the National Unemployed and Welfare Rights Organization (NUWRO) at a founding national convention held at Philadelphia's Temple University. Approximately 400 organizers attended the gathering, which was endorsed by groups like the Puerto Rican Socialist Party (PSP) and the New American Movement (NAM). By late March, the organization had established not just a national but a European and even a Latin American presence. The Labor Committee had its problems and LaRouche's doom-and-gloom predictions of imminent capitalist collapse had yet to come true. Yet for all its limitations, the Labor Committee had now emerged as an undeniable presence in the American Left.
Yet that last weekend in March arguably marked the last time that the "old" Labor Committee existed. Less than a week after the NUWRO convention, LaRouche suddenly launched the "Operation Mop-Up" physical attacks on the Communist Party, and everything began to change. As this critical period is documented in Smiling Man from a Dead Planet and other contributions to LaRouche Planet, there is no need to repeat the story. Here it is important to stress how much the attacks shocked many rank-and-file Labor Committee members themselves. No one knew about Mop-Up beforehand except for certain hand-picked cadre.25
LaRouche kept his plan secret for a very good reason. If there had been any larger open discussion, he would have encountered enormous resistance. Even if he somehow managed to obtain majority support for the policy – something I consider highly unlikely – the plan certainly would have been leaked to the CP and other leftist groups by dissident Labor Committee members, who would have considered the idea both morally wrong and politically insane.
Why, then, didn't I quit the Labor Committee in early April 1973?
Although I was 20 years old at the time, I think what happened to me may be emblematic of what happened to many older and far more experienced members who also stayed. To leave the Labor Committee meant not just exchanging one leftist sideshow-circus clique for another; it meant leaving "politics." "Politics" was much more than protesting the war and fighting the good fight. On a personal level, politics introduced me to worlds I had never dreamed of, ideas I would have never been exposed to, and remarkable people whom I otherwise never would have met. Above all, "politics" had an existential meaning inseparable from Marxism. One of Marxism's tremendous strengths was as a secular eschatology. The Oxford English Dictionary defines eschatology as a doctrine that concerns itself with "four last things, death, judgment, heaven and hell." As a secular eschatology, Marxism exerted its own deep metapolitical moral power, a power that made it almost impossible for someone like me to just flip a switch in my mind to the apolitical "off position." Instead of quitting and admitting that everything I believed in had somehow been deeply wrong, I froze. I simply could not accept the idea that the organization that I felt so privileged to join could suddenly – in fact almost overnight – become so completely unhinged. It simply didn't make sense. How could the leadership be that wrong?
THE REASON WHY
For almost four decades the solution to the mystery of April 1973 has remained elusive. However in September 2012 an extraordinary new cache of documents surfaced that provide vital clues. Thanks to the work of two former Labor Committee members – Factnet's "socialist boomer" and "Editrix" – we now know that LaRouche pulled off his first extraordinary behind-the-scenes power play in mid-September 1972 and essentially broke any serious opposition to him from within the group's nominal top leadership body, the National Executive Committee (NEC).26
In July 1972, LaRouche learned that Carol, his long-time companion, had entered into a new relationship with a much younger Englishman named Chris White.27 A member of Tony Cliff's International Socialists (IS) group in London, White abandoned IS to join the Labor Committee. When LaRouche discovered what had happened, he became enraged. Not only did he live in Carol's apartment; her job as a math teacher was his main source of income. After Carol decided to move to London to live with White, LaRouche became even more apoplectic. We even have a series of letters that LaRouche wrote to Carol in London expressing his deep rage and pain.28 After returning from his own visit to Europe in mid-September, LaRouche pressed the NEC to "suspend" Carol from any political connections with the organization that she helped co-found in 1966. Instead of declaring this a personal matter between two adults, the NEC issued a 20 September 1972 statement supporting LaRouche's demand, a document whose public circulation was carefully controlled. Factnet's Editrix reports that the text
charged Carol with "political irresponsibility in defying the NEC's request that she not return to Europe to do political work," a crime that posed dangers more "dangerous and far-reaching" than breakaway leader Steve Fraser's actions in the Bavarian split. The NEC statement went on to say that Carol would have been allowed to "function fully as a NEC member" had she stayed in New York for some months longer, and insisted that "no one is attempting to legislate Carol's personal life." But Carol's "pattern of skepticism and resentment toward Marcus' development of a concrete perspective for Britain" could be "disastrous for our European work," the statement charged, because such an attitude threatened to "accommodate to ultra-democracy and the 'rights' of new members to 'make their own mistakes'" among our European recruits. Now the issue is no longer Carol's deleterious effect on Lyn's functioning, but on the tiny European (mostly German) membership, with whom she had been up until that point in little or no contact.
To underline its importance, the statement was sent out under unprecedented security, in numbered copies, to LC local executives only, with no Xeroxing allowed and all copies to be returned immediately to Ed Spannaus at his home address. "We can take no chances on this falling into the hands of our enemies, most especially the CPs," the statement warned. But it insisted that the person being protected was not Lyn, but Carol. "Any disregard of the above [security instructions] will be treated as a personal attack on Carol and a breach of organizational security," the statement said, before launching into its own extended attack on Carol as a political leader.29
On 8 September 1972 LaRouche turned 50 and it seems painfully obvious that he experienced a monumental mid-life crisis that fall. He had no other existence outside the Labor Committee, no real friends his own age, no outside source of income, and no marketable skills. In March 1971 he had been completely taken by surprise by Steve Fraser's decision to organize his own secret faction against the "new Plekhanov." Now little more than a year later, LaRouche was again stunned when Carol left him.
But how did LaRouche intimidate the NEC into rubber stamping an entirely personal decision that lacked any political content?
Carol said that LaRouche threatened to suspend his own membership or even resign from the organization if the NEC didn't bend to his will. For their part, the NEC members were LaRouche's loyalists; many of them traced their association with him back to the glory days of CIPA and Columbia and they had stood with him during the year-long confrontation with the Fraser minority faction. They knew only too well just how fragile the organization could become. Now their founder and mentor threatened to destroy the very organization that they had helped him build. Instead of calling LaRouche's bluff, they capitulated.30
Not unlike Steve Fraser, LaRouche now began constructing his own "parallel organization" inside the NCLC. Increasingly sure of his power after the NEC collapse, he turned to a leading Epanastasi member named "Gus Axios" to help implement his orders.31 He also talent-spotted other members whom he believed he could count on for unflinching personal loyalty. Most shocking of all, we know now that in early April 1973, when LaRouche launched the Labor Committee attacks on the Communist Party, he did so without ever bothering to inform the full NEC of his plan.32
And here, I think, we get to the heart of why I and so many other members froze. We believed that the policy had to have been sanctioned by the entire NEC and that it must have had some rational basis, even if we couldn't grasp it. The idea that the NCLC's highest deliberative policy body could itself be completely left in the dark on such a major policy decision was simply incomprehensible. Yet just as the NEC had secretly yielded to LaRouche's personal rage against Carol in September 1972, the group now capitulated to his new attack on the Communist Party in April 1973.33
Although it is impossible to know exactly what was in LaRouche's mind during the period that culminated in April 1973, I believe we can make a very educated guess. I personally believe LaRouche's deep fear of one day waking up and finding himself shunted aside as merely the "new Plekhanov" drove him to destroy the organization he founded, only to replace it with a simulacrum of itself. April 1973, then, marks the death of the old Labor Committee and the birth of a new cult with an increasingly elliptical relationship to reality.34
The demise of the old Labor Committee signals the conclusion to this study, which began with a close-up look at a small classroom in the hot summer of 1966. If you attended LaRouche's FUNY class that July, you would have heard the name "Karl Marx" quite a bit. LaRouche, after all, established himself as an interpreter of Marx's ideas. It seems apt, then, to conclude with one of Marx's best known remarks. Marx begins his famous book The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte with the observation that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. The history of the Labor Committee as tragedy began in July 1966 and ended in early April 1973. What replaced it still endures, but this time strictly as farce.
1 On the numbers, see a 12 May 1973 letter to the Daily World by two former NCLC members named Don Stevens and Alan Hart. For more on Stevens and Hart, see the appendix "The Mystery Man with One Hand" at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.HIABChapter6Appendix1MyronNeisloss.
2 The majority's term "the Bavarians" for the minority was a mocking reference to the Bavarian wing of the 19th century German Social Democracy, which was considered the right wing of the SPD in part because its members voted in the Bavarian Parliament.
3 The Socialist Labor Committee (SLC) publication Crisis gives the expulsion order as being issued on 27 February 1971.
4 For the details of how the documents were uncovered as well as on the larger crisis inside the NCLC, see the appendix "The 'Bavarians' Versus the 'PPT': Trying to Make Sense of the 1970-71 Faction Fight – Commentary and Texts" at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.HIABChapter6Appendix2Bavarians-PPT. in her talk on the early Labor Committee, Nancy Spannaus in her presentation on early LC history states that some 80 members of the organization left during the Bavarian split leaving the group with just 120 members nationwide.
To get a sense of the organization's growth, by December 1973 there were an estimated 800 to 1,000 people at the National Conference although it is hard to know for sure. (Also some of those who attended were not hard core "cadre.") The December 1973 conference, made famous by the Chris White "brainwashing" affair, may well mark the high point in the organization's ability to recruit serious potential cadre. My impression is that the group's recruiting largely then began to stagnate as it became more and more crazy and that by the late 1970s the first wave of defectors from the organization was underway, a process that only accelerated during the early 1980s. In May/June 1974, the organization did launch the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM) aimed at recruiting ghetto youth but RYM collapsed in about a year.
In a 1995 presentation on the history of the Labor Committee, Nancy Spannaus offers her own estimate. She states that the group's January 1973 conference had some 600 attendees, the May 1973 conference had 1,000 people, and the famous December-January Chris White conference had 1,300 participants. The first NCLC national conference that I attended in May 1971 (the first conference after the split with the Bavarians) took place at the Beacon Hotel in New York City over the Memorial Day weekend and may have had somewhere around 100-150 people by my guess. Whatever the exact numbers, the growth of the NCLC from the seeming devastating January 1971 national conference to the one in December 1973/January 1974 was remarkable.
5 For example, the December 1970/January 1971 conference created what it called an "expanded National Committee." The new National Committee included LaRouche, Carol, Tony Papert, Ed and Nancy Spannaus, Leif Johnson, Zeke Boyd, Peter Rush, and Richard Sober. None were from the Fraser faction. See the 20 January 1971 New Solidarity for the list.
6 New York had its own National Executive Council (or NEC) at the time but it only directed local operations in the New York region. The National Committee still remained the NCLC's governing body.
7 The January-February 1970 Campaigner lists as its editorial board, Richard Borghmann, Vin Berg, Steve Fraser, L. Marcus, Paul Gallagher, Leif Johnson, and Ed Spannaus. Borghmann, Fraser, and Berg came from Philadelphia while Gallagher, Johnson, and Spannaus were from New York along with "L. Marcus."
8 This same Campaigner announced the Labor Committee's decision to create a "national newspaper" by merging the New York paper Solidarity and the Philadelphia paper Crisis into a new publication to be called New Solidarity, whose first issue was scheduled for June 1970.
9 During this period the Labor Committee issued an Internal Bulletin where members could publish their own political arguments in preparation for national conferences. In so doing, the Labor Committee copied the SWP which published its own Internal Bulletin, whose pages were open to proposals from all SWP members.
10 One expression of LaRouche's wariness of old socialist models can be seen in his long Campaigner essay "Centrism as a Social Phenomenon." LaRouche had worked professionally as a management consultant and in "Centrism" he draws on that background to critique the classic Old Left party bureaucratic model. For more on LaRouche's professional history, see Smiling Man from a Dead Planet. For attacks on the Labor Committee as not being "Leninist" by LaRouche's former comrades in both the Workers League and the Spartacist League, see the appendix "Shachtmanite Plot."
11 The Epanastasi network arose in response to the Greek Colonels' coup. For more on Epanastasi, see Smiling Man from a Dead Planet. LaRouche's interest in Epanastasi was evident in his speech to an anti-war rally in Philadelphia in May 1970 when he used his time to discuss the ties between the Nixon administration and the Greek Colonels.
12 Although the CPUSA may well have had more members, many of them were quite elderly and no longer active in party affairs.
13 The SWP even flirted with the idea of directing its core organizing efforts into the emerging gay liberation movement. For more on this period inside the SWP, see Barry Sheppard, The Party (Volume One) (Chicago: Resistance Books, 2005). In Volume 2 (120,123), Sheppard says that in 1976 there were 2500 SWP-YSA members and 3000 total in 1977, the high point. In his memoir of his years inside the SWP, Gus Horowitz reports that the SWP's national conference at Oberlin, Ohio, peaked at about 1,500 attendees, although he does not give a date for the conference. See http://gushorowitz.wordpress.com/2012/06/25/memories-of-my-years-in-the-socialist-workers-party-1960-1980/. Leslie Evens gives the SWP numbers as: 1969 – 500 at convention, 1971 – 791 at the convention, 1975 – 1125 at the convention 1977 – membership peaked at 1610; after that the membership began to decline. See Leslie Evans, Outsider's Reverie (Los Angeles: Boryana Books, 2009).
14 On the mid-70s decline of the SWP, see Tim Wohlforth, The Prophet's Children: Travels on the American Left (Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1994),
15 Besides Tim Wohlforth's The Prophet's Children, see my appendix on Healy and the Workers League in Smiling Man from a Dead Planet.
16 The most important Maoist circle in New York was the group associated with Irwin Silber at the Guardian. Silber's network represented the New York branch of the RYM II wing of SDS. The RYM I Weatherman wing tried to take the Guardian over and when that failed they created the Liberated Guardian to promote Weatherman politics. The Liberated Guardian (like the Weatherman-backed Berkeley Tribe) however, soon stopped publishing. As for Silber, he moved to the West Coast; in the late 1970s he became a leader of a new Maoist organization called Line of March, one of the smartest of all the "New Communist Movement" organizations.
17 Some Third World-oriented radicals joined the CP because of Cuban and Soviet support for liberation movements in Africa and Asia, particularly Angola. That said, the CPUSA was seen almost universally as hopelessly reformist and slavishly devoted to the Democratic Party. The CPUSA leadership further marginalized the "Eurocommunist" elements inside the party. See Dorothy Healy and Maurice Isserman, California Red (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).
18 In 1975 Weatherman tried to organize an above-ground support organization called the Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, but it went nowhere.
19 On this long-forgotten primary, see http://www.uncoveredpolitics.com/2012/06/18/time-capsule-a-pair-of-doves-prevail-in-new-york-primary/.
20 The IWW view of organizing the employed and unemployed was very close to what the Labor Committee advocated.
21 James H. Dolsen lived to be 103 and he died in Hawaii in 1988. In his late 90s he wrote his autobiography, Bucking the Ruling Class, the second edition of which appeared when he was 100 in 1985. More a glorified pamphlet and written in a hypnagogic style, it was almost certainly produced with the help of the Communist Party USA's International Publishers even though the pamphlet does not indicate the publisher.
Born on 30 November 1885, Dolsen was ten when Engels died. His roots were Dutch New York and his relatives fought on both sides of the American Revolution. His father became an alcoholic and he endured a very difficult childhood. Dolsen joined the Socialist Party in 1908 after a friend gave him a copy of Engels' Socialism, Utopian and Scientific. At the 30 August 1919 American Socialist Party convention, Dolsen and other left-wing delegates broke with the SP and joined the Communist Labor Party led by Alfred Wagenknecht, one of two new Communist groups. The other grouping, the Communist Party of the U.S., had been created by an SP faction expelled before the convention. It was led by Charles Ruthenberg. In 1921 the two factions united and became the Communist Party (then known as the Workers Party).
Dolsen was then talent-spotted by Soviet intelligence. In October 1926 he went to Moscow to join International Red Aid (IRA), headed by Elana Stasova, "who had been Lenin's private secretary for some years." After six weeks of training, he took the Trans-Siberian Railroad to China and stayed in China until 1931 and functioned as a secret courier. In 1931 he returned to Moscow. Two years later, Dolsen was sent to Berlin. To get there, he recalled, "I took a roundabout rail route through Hungary, Switzerland, and down the Rhone Valley to Paris and then a plane to the German capital." Although he was supposed to hand over the money and documents he was carrying and immediately leave, his contacts organized an elaborate dinner for him. He broke protocol and sat down to eat. As he did, they were all arrested. Being an American and pretending not to know German, Dolsen stuck to his cover story. Since Hitler did not want to antagonize America, he was released and took the next plane back to Moscow. Whether it was because he broke protocol or because he was arrested or both, Soviet intelligence decided he was damaged goods and he returned to America in 1934. Dolsen then spent most of his life in the Pittsburgh area, where he faced numerous government persecutions. He left Western Pennsylvania in the late 1950s and relocated to Philadelphia. In 1970, the same year of his Free University class, he returned to the Soviet Union on a visit with a group of elderly CP members. Guess what? He loved it.
Dolsen concludes his autobiography with his poems, many of them published in the CP paper. From his 1957 "To the Sputnik": "Oh, Sputnik, triumph of man's skill/proclaim the need for Brotherhood!/Bind all mankind in iron will/to fight for Peace as all men should!" Here's a verse from "Perspective": "He jumped to his feet as a lightning flash/streaked through the sky and a thunder crash/jolted the heavy-laden clouds of rain/that fell in an endless splash on splash." From "Dump Reagan! End Reaganism!": "No longer shall we tolerate/regimes that advocate/such policies of racial hate/which would annihilate/our progress up to date." The chorus: "Reagan and Reaganism's got to go/for they are the deadly foe/as the working people know/Then we'll rebuild the world anew/with love and unity of view/with cakes and roses, too/That's what the working class will do."
This then was the individual the Philadelphia CP chose to teach a class on Marxism at Penn's Free/Alternative U. The Free U. catalog cover, by the way, was a partial spread-eagle black and white etching of a naked young woman with thick pubic hair lying in a field of grass.
22 The Labor Committee argument was influenced by the work of a Columbia professor named Seymour Melman.
23 I remember seeing Steve Fraser speak at a local political gathering for the Socialist Labor Committee and thinking "So that's what he looks like." I also remember buying a copy of Crisis.
24 At that time the core group was made up of Swarthmore students who had relocated to the area near Penn. The Philadelphia Labor Committee frequently held local meetings at Penn's Student Center.
25 Was the Labor Committee attack on the CPUSA part of some COINTELPRO plot? While I can't rule out this possibility, I find it highly unlikely that the FBI would organize a campaign of violence against the Communist Party, which had little political influence in 1973. Moreover, the Communist Party leadership was thoroughly penetrated by the FBI. Yet as far as I know, not a single Labor Committee member spent time in jail for the attacks.
My belief is that by the winter of 1972 LaRouche had begun seriously building his own parallel "organization within the organization" made up of select loyalists. If there were government agents inside the Labor Committee, surely they would be told to ingratiate themselves with LaRouche. If so, they may have partially contributed to LaRouche's success. If any of this really did happen, and there were some significant actual agents in the Labor Committee, their aid to LaRouche may have been an unexpected and unintended consequence of "just following orders" rather than part of some larger grand design by "sinister forces." Again, to know for sure, one would have to declassify FBI and other files. In fact, if there was some COINTELPRO-like policy, it more likely would have been to transform the NCLC itself from a leftist political organization into a political cult, as that is what actually happened.
26 See http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.TheMovementStillDependsOnMe. As for the NEC, it now emerged as the key leadership circle replacing the National Committee as the group's governing body in between national conventions. It should be recalled that as the NCLC grew, many NC members now lived in different parts of the country so practical considerations alone dictated that the NEC to take on more day-to-day administrative power.
27 LaRouche at the time was in Chicago where he and a delegation of NCLC members was forcefully expelled from a conference of a CP-front organization named TUAD. For more details, see Editrix's appendix to the LaRouche letters at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.TheMovementStillDependsOnMe. Also see chapter 13 of Smiling Man from a Dead Planet at http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.UnityNow9.
28 For the text of the letters, see http://laroucheplanet.info/pmwiki/pmwiki.php?n=Library.TheMovementStillDependsOnMe.
30 LaRouche's threat to leave the NCLC echoes the tactic that James Cannon employed to push his political perspective at a May 1953 SWP plenum at which he threatened to resign from the SWP. See Smiling Man from a Dead Planet, chapter 5, for more. LaRouche may have copied his tactics from Cannon, whom he admired as a working class leader.
31 "Gus Axios" was his party name. After his father died, on 21 October 1977, New Solidarity ran an obit that read in part:
Angelo Kalimtgis, American leader in the Greek anti-fascist resistance, lifetime socialist, and Labor Committee member for nine years, died of cancer.... [He] was born in Pennsylvania in 1914. As a child he returned to Greece, where he became part of the guerrilla movement against the Nazi occupation.
Kalimtgis's fight for democracy brought him into trouble with the British monarchists who took over Greece after the Nazis had been ousted, however. At that time he was jailed and tortured severely by these British animals. That treatment, plus the loss of one of his legs due to combat injury, undermined his health severely for the rest of his life.
In 1947 Kalimtgis returned to the United States, where he raised his family and devoted his energy and time to the battle for progress through his affiliation with the Communist Party USA. As soon as the Labor Committees were formed, Kalimtgis became an active member – distributing newspapers, contributing money and as much time as his health and profession as a shoemaker would permit.
According to a Communist Party file on him, Gus was born in Greece either in March 1947 or sometime in 1948. He was said to hate the Communist Party because he believed that he was betrayed by members of the Greek CP to the junta and just narrowly escaped. He was active in the Greek underground from 1967-68. His father was a shoemaker who spoke little English. Gus came to America around 1962 and grew up in Jamaica, Queens. He later became involved with the CP youth group "Advance" in its Lower East Side chapter. He returned to Greece in 1966 to study at the University of Thessaloniki. The CP file said that Gus later claimed that he had been arrested in Greece. He was always ready to go off and fight, even in Venezuela. A "super intellectual," Gus spent 1965-66 in the Du Bois Club. Gus and another Epanastasi member who would later become prominent inside the NCLC and whose party name was "Nick Syvriotis" worked for the American Committee for Democracy and Freedom in Greece from 1965-69. They created an ultra-left youth section known as "Resistance" which lasted from 1967-69. It was as leaders of Resistance that they first crossed paths with the NCLC. "Resistance" also attacked the Greek CP group "Democratia." [In fact, Nick and Gus were part of the group Epanastasi --the name means "freedom" in Greek-- but it is possible that they had helped organize an earlier formation called Resistance that later became part of Epanastasi.]
A well-informed former NCLC member (Factnet's "borismaglev") disputed at least part of the CP's claims:
Gus was born and raised in the US and had no special hatred of the CP any more than any other LC red diaper baby who participated in Mop Up. Gus was totally mesmerized by LaRouche and his ferocity during Mop Up was meant to make LaRouche happy, not to work out any particular "hatred of the CP." Nick was never a member of the Greek CP – he got close to CPUSA circles by way of being taken in and helped by Gus' family which was CPUSA/Greek Section.
In the 1988 edition of The Power of Reason, LaRouche claims about Kalimtgis:
Costas himself came from a KGB family. His father had been an American citizen caught up in Greece during the Nazi occupation who had become a captain in the Greek resistance and lost a leg in the fighting which ensued. The KGB side of Costas was his mother, whose first husband had been a top official of the Greek Communist Party, and whose two brothers were high-ranking KGB officials, one operating out of the KGB center in Varna, Bulgaria, the other operating as a control agent in Soviet networks among Greek sailors. Costas had been trained as a KGB operative during studies in Greece, and in Bulgaria. (125)
Gus and Nick first met LaRouche in October 1968 when Nick was studying at CCNY and LaRouche was teaching his class on Marxist economics. For more on Epanastasi, see Smiling Man from a Dead Planet.
32 Although I first learned about this via Factnet, in 1975 Dan Jacobs reported this same information in his history of the Labor Committee for Critical Practice, the Fred Newman journal.
33 The NEC's last shred of resistance may have taken place at the infamous "Chris White brainwashing" conference in December 1973. I have heard a report that when some members of the NEC expressed reservations about what LaRouche said had occurred, LaRouche began to organize his own new NEC to replace them if he did not get his way.
34 For more on what happened, see Smiling Man from a Dead Planet for the period ending in the late 1970s and Dennis King's Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism for the 1980s.
Readers interested in comparative studies of leftist organizations degenerating into personality cults can examine studies of the Marlene Dixon organization by Janja Lalich; Tim Wohlforth's memoir of Gerry Healy and the Workers League; the work of former members of the Fred Newman-led International Workers Party; discussions of the Jack Barnes group's takeover of the Socialist Workers Party and other studies, especially Alexandra Stein's memoir Inside Out, which records her life in a truly bizarre Maoist cult.
Former SWP leader Gus Horowitz's perceptive discussion of what happened to Jack Barnes seems especially revealing of larger psychological patterns:
Jack had clearly come to feel overly self-important by this time. As the years went by, he also came to feel, more and more, that he could comport himself differently. At meetings, he would speak longer and more often than others, much more so than he had done in the past. He would take more time off, would increasingly work at home rather than at the headquarters. He would even – unheard of in earlier years – have a working lunch or dinner at party expense. "First a little, thence to more, he sampled all that corrupting store." In later years his comportment became an international scandal.
Jack must have thought that he could behave differently because he was, after all, a special person, a person imbued with a unique historical responsibility. The rules of ordinary egalitarian conduct did not apply to one such as him, the indispensable leader.
Jack Barnes did not start out that way. I knew him well for twenty years. For most of the time I knew him he seemed quite normal and he lived a modest life style. But over time the psychological pressures took their toll on him, just as on the rest of us.
There was another factor compounding this personal dynamic. It was the group dynamic and our peculiar life style. As a general rule, the leaders and most of the members of the SWP were extraordinarily active, many spending six or seven days per week in one project or another. Few of us had our own families, careers or professions. We thought of ourselves as footloose rebels, for the most part, tied neither to job nor location. Our entire lives revolved around the party. Our friends, our manners, our speech, our way of doing things were all shaped by our way of life in the group. The group dynamic was part of an all-encompassing atmosphere.
The world of the group so dominated the life of the members that most of us found it difficult to develop or maintain friends or even normal non-political personal associations with people outside the organization. Even long-time family relations turned awkward in many cases. To leave the organization, even to become a non-conformist within the organization – to risk being shunned – posed serious psychological issues.
It was tragically ironic: the very bonds of collegial comradeship, which made us feel so strong when we confronted the ruling class or our political opponents, weakened our resolve as independent individuals in relationship to our own group. This was true of the leaders as well as the general members. Actually it was probably truer of the leaders than the members and was one of the reasons why no major figure in the younger party leadership stood up against the deleterious trends that developed.
Under such pressures many small aspiring revolutionary groups like ours degenerate into cults or sects. This was true not only of the world Trotskyist movement, but for many other small groups of various political persuasions.
That sad fate, however, is not foreordained. Ordinarily, in a period of mass action, there are strong countervailing pressures. The focus of the group is outward. The members are working all the time with others outside the group. There is a real live movement to temper the strains. The group is not entirely closed in on itself. The group's ideas are being put to the test continually by events outside of itself. There is room to revise mistaken ideas, to take back false steps. We in the SWP were becoming like that in the high point of our activity in the anti-Vietnam-War movement and in the other social protest movements of that period.
But in a period of decline, there is an insular environment, a sort of hothouse atmosphere in which negative features can more easily take root and flourish. This is what started to happen to the SWP in the 1950s. Some of the party's branch units started to behave a bit like cults or sects, particularly the units in Buffalo and Milwaukee, to some extent the branch in Seattle. The local party leader started to become the center of attention and the font of all wisdom.
At the party center in the 1950s, however, we had Farrell Dobbs and the leadership team around him. Farrell had immense moral authority and stature in the party, yet he was one of the least self-centered persons one could ever know. He had been a nationally famous Teamsters strike leader in the 1930s. Had he pursued union officialdom as a career – and he had many offers to do so – he might well have gone on to hold high union office on a national level. He chose instead to give it all up for party work and a prison term for his ideas as well. In the party he seemed completely untainted by egotism, a blessing that few party members fully appreciated. He deliberately set about building a team leadership, not an individual leadership. His personality, I now believe, was essential to the party's survival through the downturn of the 1950s. The unhealthy trends that developed in some party branches never predominated on a national scale.
In the late 1970s and 1980s, however, a much different type of person was as the center. Jack Barnes had earned his spot as leader of the party. He was very talented. In some respects he had a sharper political mind than Farrell Dobbs. His mind was as quick and his way of thinking as deep as any of the older party leaders, at least I thought so. He certainly had the loyalty and backing of the party members. But he lacked the moral stature, the psychological equilibrium and the sense of his own human frailty that are also essential in a top-level political leader.
So it was that from the late 1970s onward an unfortunate combination of circumstances worked like a cancer on the SWP: the decline of the radicalization; the party's small size and relative isolation from mass action; weaknesses and flaws in our traditions; unacknowledged political mistakes; the abnormal way of life in the group; and the human frailty of the leaders. None of these factors, taken alone, would have been sufficient to decimate the organization. But in combination, they were deadly.
It is likely, I think, that the SWP would have declined terribly simply because of the circumstances in which it found itself. It might have recovered, however, once a new upturn came along. But the political and organizational weaknesses and flaws, and in particular the human frailties – what we liked to call "the role of the individual in history" – shaped and distorted the decline in such a way that the possibility for recovery and renewal became ever more distant.
The party, stricken on all fronts, turned into a grotesque caricature of its former self.