Barbara Gregorich and Phil Passen were members of the US Socialist Workers Party from 1965-72, and key figures in the Proletarian Orientation tendency within the SWP and then in the Class Struggle League 1972-74. While maintaining their anti-capitalist views, Barbara became a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry and Phil is a musician on the hammered dulcimer. In the interview below they talk about growing up in 1950s America, the winds of change of the 1960s, their politicisation and activity in that era, their involvement in the US SWP an how and why they began questioning its politics and organisational methods, how they came to a parting of the ways with it, their subsequent political activity, the decline of the left and the fate of the original new social movements of that era, and their assessment of politics in the United States today.
Philip Ferguson: Could you tell me a bit about your backgrounds? What was it like growing up in the States in the 1950s and early 1960s?
Barbara Gregorich: I grew up in a small town in Ohio. My mother and father worked in my uncle’s bar as bar tenders until I was ten, then my father worked as a millwright in a steel mill and my mother worked at home. One of my uncles had a dairy farm less than half a mile from our house, and I spent much of my time there, with my cousins. I loved being outdoors and helping with milking and other farm chores. After I graduated from high school I attended Kent State University, which was maybe 35 miles away. I graduated with a degree in American Literature and also one in American History. I received an MA degree from the University of Wisconsin, in Literature, and I did post graduate work at Harvard, in the History of American Civilization.
I worked as an Instructor of English at Kent State University and Cuyahoga Community College while living in Cleveland, Ohio. Then Phil and I moved to Boston and I worked as a typesetter, first for a small job shop, then at the Boston Globe. We moved to Chicago, Illinois, and I worked as a typesetter for the Chicago Tribune, then as a postal letter carrier for the U.S. Post Office. I had always wanted to be either a baseball player or a writer. Baseball is closed to women, so I became a writer. In 1979 I went freelance, which I’ve been to this day.
What it was like growing up in the States during the 1950s and 1960s is an interesting question, because of course one doesn’t think, “I’m growing up in the ’50s . . . and now I’ve transitioned to the ’60s!” But a person is definitely aware of the characteristics of the decade he/she grows up in, if not at the moment, then in retrospect, or in contrast to the next decade. Living in the 1950s, I was aware that I didn’t like many things about society. I hated fashion, especially as it applied to girls and women. I hated petticoats and crinolines, the latter “required” for the felted poodle skirts fashion of my junior-high years. I hated popcorn socks and pencil skirts and I refused to put my hair in curlers: torture!
What I wanted to wear was t-shirts and jeans, clothes I could function in. I also wondered why my fellow students flocked to and embraced each fashion that came along. I can’t say that I was aware of politics when in junior and senior high, but standing in the early 1960s and looking back on the 1950s, I felt that it was a very conservative, unquestioning decade, and I was glad to be out of it.
Compared to the ’50s, the 1960s were a blast a fresh air, with people my age questioning what was right and wrong in society, and acting to make changes.
Phil Passen: I grew up in a small town in Michigan. My father, whose father had been a bricklayer who died from a fall on the job, owned a children’s clothing store in Monroe, Michigan, a small town between Detroit and Toledo. My mother’s parents had died when she was an infant, and she was raised by an aunt and uncle. I don’t know what their class background was, but I assume skilled workers or lower petty-bourgeois. My parents declared bankruptcy in 1960, and lost the store and our house primarily because of medical expenses for my mom’s various illnesses. I remember that this was the first time I thought about anything political, even though I didn’t realize at the time that it was a political question. But I wondered how medical expenses could be so great that they could cost people something they had worked so very hard for. My father was an Eisenhower Republican, and my mother was a Stevenson Democrat, and none of that made any sense to me.
I remember a palpable difference between the ’50s and ’60s. At some point early in the ’60s I realized that the stodgy, uninteresting, unexciting coat-and -tie atmosphere of the ’50s was gone — replaced by rock and roll, the Beatles and Stones, Bob Dylan, beats, greasers, art films, and an air of excitement. Hard to explain, but I remember feeling the change very strongly. And in the background, at least for me, but something I was very conscious of, was the Civil Rights Movement. I knew something was different.
Phil F: What made you first begin to question the existing state of things?
Phil P: Unquestionably, what made me begin to question was the civil rights movement. I was only seven when the Supreme Court made the Brown vs. the Board of Education decision, and eight when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, but as the sit-ins and freedom rides progressed, these mid-50’s milestones were extensively written about. All these elements of the civil rights struggle awakened me to the systemic racism in the US. Getting involved in the movement was an idea still foreign to me, but I knew which side I was on.
Barbara G: The very first thing that made me question the existing state of things was the role that girls and women were supposed to play. That’s what happened first in my life: I noticed that I was expected to play a role that I had no interest in playing, and no intention of playing. Following very closely upon that observation, chronologically, were the lunch-counter sit-ins organized by black students in the South. These demonstrations for civil rights spread rapidly and were televised on the nightly news. I was in high school at the time the 1960 sit-ins started. The sight of people standing up for their rights inspired me greatly, making it immediately clear that the society I lived in was riddled from top to bottom with hypocrisy.
The U.S. was not the land of equality. Yet all the politicians continued to mouth then, as they do now, that we are the land of equality — denying that when you do not have the right to drink from a water fountain or be served a cup of coffee, to say nothing of having a decent-paying job, you are not enjoying any sort of equality whatsoever. You are the victim of a system that practices inequality, while preaching that it does the opposite. And the third thing, chronologically, that made me question the existing state of things was the war in Vietnam. I felt that the US had no right to tell the Vietnamese that they couldn’t be communist. I was not yet political when I thought this. I thought it because I believed it was just: a kind of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” philosophy.
Phil F: Could you tell us about the position of women, black, Chicano and gay Americans at the time?
Barbara G: By “at the time” I’m assuming you mean at the time I entered college and began thinking politically: the early Sixties.
When men were drafted into the army for World War II, women entered the factories. There the camaraderie of the workplace, the sudden opportunity to produce socially necessary goods (albeit war goods), the realization that they were exploited as workers and needed trade unions — these all served to move women out of the confines of the home and into the work force. But when the war ended, women were pushed out of their jobs and back into the home. Throughout the 1950s, they seemed to accept this re-confinement. But as the ’50s were ending, women began to protest. At colleges across the country, young women wanted their ideas and their participation in events taken seriously. They also wanted equal job opportunities and equal pay.
Black Americans and Latino Americans such as Chicanos and Puerto Ricans (among others) also had a taste of better-paying jobs and more integration into the workforce during World War II. And, like women, they experienced the “last-hired, first-fired” reality of capitalism, which pits segments of the working class against one another. Black Americans in particular, having fought in the war, objected long and loud against their oppression, particularly in the South. I mentioned this in regard to the sit-ins. Political leaders such as Malcolm X and Martin Luther King articulated the gross injustices and inequalities experienced by Black people, and organized demonstrations against these injustices. African-Americans were in the forefront of the protests of the late 50s and early 60s, and I think all other groups were influenced by the words and actions of Malcolm, King, and organizations such as the Black Panther Party.
Chicanos were exploited as migratory workers, forced to work long hours in the fields at horribly low wages, with no safety conditions at all and no health care. The media seldom mentioned them — but that began to change when Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962. Then the average American citizen began to hear about and read about the contributions of Chicanos to American history and their role in the economy at the time. To see people in struggle, to hear them describe their jobs and conditions, to hear them talk about justice and equality — all of these movements influenced one another and inspired people who wanted to build a society free of poverty, racism, sexism, and war.
Women, Blacks, and Chicanos were looked upon as inferior to white males. But gay and lesbian people were looked upon as “sick” — in need of a medical cure for their “illness” of homosexuality. Thus coming out was very dangerous. Almost every one of the 50 states defined same-sex acts as criminal acts, subject to prosecution and imprisonment, in some cases up to 20 years. And it was then considered a sport for straight men to beat up gay men. This attitude still exists, and the Orlando massacre is an example of gay hatred carried to its extreme. Despite the danger of coming out, brave gays and lesbians did come out, and rebelled against their oppressors in the 1969 Stonewall Riots. That open rebellion helped put the gay liberation movement and its demands into people’s consciousness.
Phil P: What I would add to Barb’s answer is that although the US is still a highly segregated society, it was even more so in the ’50s and ’60s. Though African-Americans, whites, and to some extent Latinos, worked together in industrial jobs, they had virtually nothing to do with each other outside work. Schools in the south and in urban areas in the north were segregated, and in small towns such as the ones I grew up in, where there were only one or two schools per age group, white, Latino, and African-American almost never socialized together, even when they were on the same athletic teams. I would say that until the civil rights movement started to mobilize in the mid ’50s, most whites in the US never considered the status of African-Americans or thought about racism at all. It was the civil rights movement which, besides bringing racism and the fight against it into the consciousness of whites in the US, paved the way for the lessening of segregation and the creation of opportunities for people from different ethnic backgrounds to have increased social interaction.
And gay people in the ’50s and ’60s were largely invisible, not only to most “straight” people in the US, but even, in large numbers, to other gay people. The repression of gay people by all social institutions and the inescapable stigma associated with being gay led gay people to remain in the closet, ever fearful of what might happen to them if they revealed their sexual preference. The Civil Rights movement changed the consciousness in the US about racism. The women’s liberation movement, which was prompted by the experiences of women working during WW II; by technological advances which freed women from the drudgery of household labor; and by advertisers’ assaults on working people to buy, buy, buy the plethora of newly available consumer goods, changed the consciousness in the US about the status of women. And the Stonewall Uprising and ensuing gay liberation movement changed the consciousness in the US about the status of gay people.
Phil F: What do you think brought about the radicalisation of that era? In other words, why the sixties?
Barbara G: I’m not sure, but I think it was largely a result of the aftermaths of World War II, the Cold War, and possibly the growing influence of mass media in the daily lives of people. The demands of Black Americans for social justice, for equality, increased as a result of World War II: they fought, they died, they were expected to accept all of this and remain without voting rights, with menial jobs, living in slums, and ignored by mass media or, if focused on, then treated in a comic and demeaning manner. They and their children refused to wait any longer for any false “gradual” granting of rights.
The period after WWII and into the ’60s was better economically for large segments of the population. Members of the working class could afford to buy homes, for example, and send their kids to college. What was the point of all of this “betterment” of economic conditions and educational opportunities if the end result was that young men were drafted out of high school and while in college and sent off to the other side of the world to fight yet another (after Korea) war? The future seemed to hold nothing but more wars around the world: wars conducted at the whim of the government. While, at the same time, the government and media were inundating us with talk of “the free world” and “democracy” versus “communism.” Young people immediately see hypocrisy for what it is, see double standards, see injustice — and in most cases, they rebel against it.
The rebellions aren’t always political, but this time they were, and I think that’s because of the example of the Black struggle. The counter sit-ins, the bus rides, the voter registration drives, all of them in the South, where peaceful demonstrators were dragged off buses, beaten up, jailed, had police dogs attack them. This was all covered by television: we saw these things happening every day. As we saw the war in Vietnam happening every day. We saw horrible injustices, both national and international. The political, social, and cultural climate of the country began to change due to the clash between two realities: the text-book myth that we were a country in which everyone was equal, and the visual evidence that force was used to quell those who tried to assert their right to equality. The June 1964 murders of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi (James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner) particularly horrified everybody who wasn’t a racist, and the inability or unwillingness of the government to bring the murderers to justice spoke louder than words about whose side the government was on.
Another factor that led to the radicalization was the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and the subsequent construction of a society in which people’s basic needs for food, water, shelter, transportation, and employment were addressed and solved with the intentions of eliminating poverty, joblessness, providing free health care. So many of the leaders of the early 1960s radicalization in the US had been powerfully influenced by the example of what was happening in Cuba.
Phil P: In addition to Barb’s thoughts, I would add that the radical upsurge in the ’60s was the political manifestation of the ennui and alienation of the ’50s that was expressed in developments such as the beat movement, the growth of bikers’ clubs,and the advent of rock and roll. I think these trends reflected the disaffection of young people across class lines, but mostly initially in the working class, with the mind-numbing strictures and burgeoning consumerism of the ’50s.
As imperialist nations sought to strengthen and reaffirm their foothold in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, and to increase their exploitation of the resources of those regions for the new consumer economies in the imperialist countries, the colonial world exploded in rebellion. In addition to the Cuban revolution, the anti-imperialist, anti-colonialist, and bourgeois nationalist movements throughout the African continent, Southeast Asia, and Latin America triggered in the US support movements and an awakening awareness, especially maong students, of the role of imperialism, and of the United States as the major imperialist power.
Phil F: How did you come to get involved in left-wing politics and why did you join the SWP?
Barbara G: In 1964, on the campus of Kent State University, where I was a student, I met John McCann, an older student who was active in the civil rights movement and the beginnings of the antiwar movement. John was in contact with the Cleveland, Ohio, branch of the Socialist Workers Party, though he wasn’t yet a member. He introduced me to socialist politics and gave me copies of The Militant.
1964 was a presidential election year and the SWP ran the slate of Clifton DeBerry and Ed Shaw: DeBerry was an Afro-American worker and Shaw was a printer. I was impressed with the fact that a political party was putting forth a black candidate for president, and also that both candidates were from the working class. I read their statements and comments in The Militant and agreed with their demands. When DeBerry argued that the [US] troops should be withdrawn from Vietnam and sent to Mississippi to protect black Americans and civil rights workers, I thought it made sense. The purpose of governments, I thought, was to work for the collective good of the people who formed those governments: to assure a better life for everyone within that country. So the idea of sending US troops into the South in order to stop the lynchings, the other murders, the attacks on bodies and homes and schools and churches, — to protect the rights of citizens to assemble, to vote, to enter public buildings, to drink water from public fountains, and so forth — seemed to me to be the right idea of what government was supposed to do. It was supposed to protect and improve the common welfare of citizens — not send its citizens across the world to rain terror on another country. I was attracted to what I saw as the underlying assumptions behind this demand of withdrawing the troops from Vietnam and sending them to Mississippi: that a government must work for the welfare of the citizens.
I had studied the US Civil War, and I knew that after the war ended and the Republicans stationed federal troops in the South in order to protect the rights of black men, women, and children, that black participation in and contribution to the building of a better society flourished. Black men (women did not have the right to vote) were elected to various offices and worked to pass laws and build institutions that would help educate the former slaves, provide them with jobs, integrate them into society, and protect their rights. When, in 1877, Reconstruction ended (as an accommodation to the former slave owners and other whites), the former Confederate leaders wasted no time in once again subjugating black people to terror and repression, depriving them of their right to vote and confiscating the lion’s share of the crops they grew. So: I was for sending troops into Mississippi to enforce the law.
Not only that, but I was attracted to the name, Socialist Workers Party. The “social” made me think of communal, collective, public, which is what governments should be concerned with. The “workers” also appealed to me because my father was a millwright in a steel mill, my grandfather had been a crane operator in a steel mill, and all of the people my mother and father knew and associated with were workers. I had no doubt that workers could do a better job of running the government than could non-workers.
Naturally I’m not saying that I joined the SWP because I liked its name! But I am saying that all the vibes — sensations, energy — that I felt emanating from the SWP at that time resonated with my limited political consciousness. I loved the SWP literature tables, full of books on the Russian Revolution, on the black struggle in the US, on the colonial struggles around the world. There was a wealth of information in these books, and I was eager to read them all. In addition, I could see that the SWP was active in the black struggle, that it supported the Cuban revolution, that it knew about and reported on working class struggles — the SWP provided an analysis of what was happening in the world, why it was happening, and what could be done about it. The SWP was active in social struggles: it didn’t just talk, it acted.
I graduated from Kent State University in the summer of 1964 and went to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, where there was a very small chapter of the Young Socialist Alliance. I joined the YSA there and after I moved to Cleveland in 1965, joined the SWP.
Phil P: When I graduated from high school in 1964 I was essentially apolitical, even though I was aware of the civil rights movement, and, as I have said, knew which side I was on in that struggle. But I had really given no though to the Vietnam war or political or social issues in general.
Almost immediately when I arrived on campus at Western Reserve University in Cleveland, I saw civil rights demonstrations, mostly organized by CORE with the support of the YSA, and anti-war demonstrations, organized by anti-war committees spearheaded by the YSA. I quickly became active in the Civil Rights movement, and in fact went on organizing drives to the south with CORE and SNCC. YSA and SWP members were active in Civil Rights support activities and SWP members John McCann, Don Smith, and Eric Reinthaler soon began recruiting me to the YSA. They essentially gave me a crash course in Marxism and the responsibility of capitalism for racism and imperialist war. I saw that the YSA and SWP were the “best builders” of the anti-war movement, but that was not the reason I joined the YSA and SWP. I joined because in the ferment of political activity and education I quickly became convinced that a socialist revolution was necessary to destroy the evils of capitalism and that a Trotskyist party was necessary to lead the working class in the making of the revolution.
Here’s a funny, and somewhat sad, anecdote about my radicalization. In the early ’80s Barb and I learned from my father that in the mid ’60s he had written to Dr. Benjamin Spock, who was active in SANE and the “Peace” movement in Cleveland, blaming Spock for my becoming a radical and dropping out of college after only one semester. Spock wrote back to the effect that, “I don’t know Phil well, but he seems like a fine young man who is standing up for what he believes in. If there is a problem, Mr. Passen, it is not with Phil, but with you.” My parents ripped up and threw away the several Dr. Spock books they still had from when my brother and sister and I were infants, and maintained a hatred of Spock for the rest of their lives.
Phil F: What was the political mood in the States at the time? I know there was a massive left milieu, especially in terms of young people, but what about the wider population, especially the working class? How much were they affected by the political radicalisation of that period?
Phil P: The student -based antiwar movement was almost entirely divorced from the working class and trade union movement. One of the scarier experiences I had in political activity was in the fall of 1966, I think, when another SWP member and I were on a tour of Ohio, Pennsylvania, and upstate New York to build anti-war committees. In the steel mill town of Youngstown, Ohio, on the campus of Youngstown University, we were set upon by an angry crowd of white male students — perhaps a hundred — who shouted that their fathers were steelworkers and they were there to run us out of town. They chased us for several blocks. I think if they actually had wanted to catch and injure us, they easily could have. The working class was still largely actively anti-communist in that period. During the US Postal Strike in the spring of 1970, Barb and I were selling Militants in front of the main Post Office in downtown Cleveland when two African American postal workers threatened and chased us away. One of them pulled a knife on us.
I tried without success to get an antiwar resolution passed in my UAW local in 1969-70 and was told by the union leadership that I had better keep quiet.
The one section of the working class where the student movement might have had success linking up was among African-American workers. But the SWP-enforced single issue approach of the antiwar movement made that impossible. That was a huge opportunity missed. The large and for a time growing strength of African-American workers in the industrial unions was the force behind major industrial unions and sections of the AFL-CIO contributing to and supporting the Civil Rights movement and Civil Rights legislation. The official title and call for the massive 1963 March on Washington was for a March for Jobs and Freedom.
By 1971 antiwar sentiment in the US had become so deep that the working class was no longer overtly hostile, and a large number of union locals began passing antiwar resolutions. This was a result partially of the continuing visibility of the antiwar movement, but also of the growing casualty toll of the war and the radicalization of the GIs.
The one sector of the 1960s and ’70s radicalization, besides the civil rights movement, that made a significant connection with the trade unions was the women’s liberation movement. The founding convention of CLUW, the Coalition of Trade Union Women, in 1974, had an attendance of 3,500 women. This reflected not only the effect of the general radicalization but also the special oppression of women, and women’s reaction to the fact that opportunities outside the home were being denied to them. CLUW was, of course at odds with the official union organizations. The strength of the women’s liberation movement of the 60’s and early 70’s was its penetration into the working class, as well as its strong base among petty-bourgeois women. The movement won several major legislative victories and of course the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion.
Really, the most explosive events of the ’60s, reflecting the extreme frustration of the African-American community, were the mass urban ghetto rebellions (the bourgeois press and academics refer to them as “riots”) that occurred largely from 1964 – 1969. These of course reflected the mood of frustration with the lack of any results from the Civil Rights movement that affected the lives of the masses of African-Americans living in ghettoes, and the fact that neither Martin Luther King and the integrationist politics of the Civil Rights movement nor Malcolm X and the politics of the nationalist movement had made any real connection with the African-American masses. The Black Panther Party, especially in its early stages as a true community-based organization, had a chance of building a mass organization, but state repression, attacks, infiltration, entrapment, and murder of local Black Panther leaders succeeded in destroying the organization.
Barbara G: The working class was affected by the political radicalization of the period in some ways, and wasn’t at all affected in other ways. When I first demonstrated against the Vietnam War at Kent State University in 1965, there were perhaps ten of us marching in front of the liberal arts building. We were immediately surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of other students, mostly white males, who hooted, ranted, and threw things at us, calling us unpatriotic, commies, reds, anarchists . . . whatever words they happened to know. I’m surprised we got out of it alive. By 1970 the attitude at Kent State, as well as the attitude at hundreds of other campuses, was entirely different. In five short years students went from being pro-war to anti-war (in terms of Vietnam).
The working class moved in the same direction as did the students: from being pro-war to being anti-war, though this movement wasn’t as dramatically visible. Various trade unions passed resolutions against the war and marched in antiwar demonstrations under union banners: the longer the war continued, the more union contingents there were, with more marchers under each banner.
I think the white male part of the working class was most affected by the antiwar part of the political radicalization: not by the civil rights movement or the black struggle, not by the Chicano struggle, and definitely not by the women’s struggle. Black workers were definitely affected by the civil rights and black power struggles, and Chicano workers by the struggles of the National Farm Workers Association. Female workers were affected by the women’s liberation movement: they fought for equal pay for equal work, for industry-supported day care centers, for health benefits.
While I remember there being a rise in consciousness in the working class in regard to various political issues, I remember thinking at the time that these remained various un-connected political issues in their minds, not weapons the capitalist class used to divide and conquer, to control and intimidate and impoverish the working class. There was little if any rise in class consciousness: in the understanding that there is a capitalist class and a working class, and that the capitalist class usurps the wealth created by the working class.
There are many reasons for the lack of a class consciousness in the American working class. Certainly one cause is the trade union bureaucracy, which is anti-communist to the core, and which is tied to the Democratic Party, for whose candidates it pledges union funds. Another reason is the lack of a strong communist party of any kind in the US. This is unlike the situations in France and Italy and other European countries, where the existence of strong communist parties is part of the political reality, part of the consciousness of the working class. And, for the most part, the existing radical political parties did little to name capitalism as the economic system that created, exacerbated, and/or benefited from the horrors of war, unemployment, racism, sexism, and worldwide pollution and destruction of the natural world. They talked about the horrors, but not about capitalism. Class consciousness at the end of the radicalization was about the same as it had been at the beginning.
Phil F: Although initially I was a fairly uncritical fan of the US SWP and much of my initial political education came from their books and pamphlets, later on I became much more critical and had to rethink a lot of stuff. This made me interested in the various oppositions that had emerged in the organisation in the 1960s and early 1970s, people such as Richard Fraser, yourselves and others. I got the impression that the organisation was very top-down and rather Stalinist in its organisational practices – critical-minded people and minorities did not seem to be welcomed at all. What were your impressions and experiences at the time?
Barbara G: My very first impressions were that the SWP was a dynamic organization with knowledgeable, experienced people who were capable of organizing protests, strikes, and demonstrations of all kinds. That this was an organization that disseminated its knowledge and ideas to the public.
I hadn’t belonged to the organization for too long, maybe a year, two at the most, before I began to see that the National Office kept a very tight hold on what was happening in each branch. When Central Committee members such as Jack Barnes and others would go on “tours” of the branches, visiting each one, I saw that what they were doing was “lining up” people to vote their way. The terms “line up” and “lining up” were used by SWP members. My immediate reaction to this was that revolutionaries should be interested in “winning over” others to their ideas, not “lining them up”. The former connotes a kind of freedom, the latter a kind of locked-in existence.
I objected (silently) to the concept of lining up, because I saw that the way some comrades were lined up was by being offered positions as branch organizers, being put on sustainer, and so on. A person was “lined up” and that person was rewarded. A person who was not “lined up” was regarded with suspicion and even distrust. And sometimes such a person was totally ignored, as if he/she did not exist — as in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
It became evident not just to me, but to many others, that people with differences of any kind were seen as problems. Maybe even as enemies. Their opinions were not welcome. On the part of the national leadership, there was no desire, sign, or behavior of any kind that indicated opposing ideas and interpretations of events were welcome for discussion, as a way of better analyzing what was happening and what the SWP response should be.
Because I believed the SWP was the revolutionary organization that would lead the working class, I wanted to know more about the party’s history, to see if the controlling behavior I saw had always been the case. If not, when did it arise, and why? So I began to order all the internal discussion bulletins from the very first one to the most recent. When they arrived, I read them. I was very surprised, in a negative way, at how few documents there were . . . and at the mild nature of most of them. It was as if people who wrote documents were walking on eggshells, afraid of breaking them. Based on the documents, it seemed to me that comrades within the SWP did not speak their mind, did not argue for their positions. Was this good?
I thought it wasn’t. I was on the side of open discussion of any and all issues and positions (as long as this didn’t hinder the party from acting in a united matter — an unfounded fear, for I never saw a single incident of comrades not acting in a united matter when the SWP called an action).
From reading the documents, I saw that minorities were not treated as comrades who needed to be convinced and persuaded of the majority line, nor as comrades to be learned from (and the majority line changed). They were treated with ridicule and contempt, they were treated with great suspicion, as if it’s wrong, abnormal, disloyal, and untrustworthy to have an opinion that is different from that of the majority.
The working class has no need for organizational methods used by the ruling classes, no doubt from the days of Ramses through the Roman Empire through feudalism through today — methods which involve secret meetings, secret decisions, “lining up” people to take sides before a debate has begun or exhausted its course, slandering of people with opposing views, and so forth. The working class needs open debate, it needs to hear all the ideas, it needs to know who fought for which position, who did what when. I thought a revolutionary organization needed its own organizational methods, different from the cliques, cabals, and intrigue practiced by the ruling classes for millennia. The organizational practices of the SWP saddened me.
They angered me, too. During the occasions when I was nominated for a position of any kind in the Cleveland branch, I could see the leadership lining up people to not vote for me. On what grounds, I don’t know. When I was elected to the Executive Committee of the YSA, the other four members of the EC would often “forget” to tell me when there was an EC meeting. They would make references to decisions made at meetings and I would ask what meetings, and they said they called me and I didn’t show up. Sometimes they said they forgot to call me. My telephone had an answering machine and there were no messages from anybody on the EC: they didn’t call me.
And sometimes I would walk into the scheduled EC meeting and the other four members were sitting there. From their body language and facial expressions I inferred that they had already had the “real” meeting, discussing what they wanted to discuss, and that they would then hold a “sham” meeting with me present.
In 1969 Phil Passen and I submitted “On Sending Young Comrades into the Industrial Trade Unions,” a very mildly-worded document, just two pages long. The reaction to that was a few snide comments and sarcasm, but mostly “On Sending” was ignored.
At the party’s annual convention, the national leadership ridiculed us, mocked us, called us names. These were not constructive arguments designed to educate either us or the rest of the party. They were arguments designed to drive a wedge between those who held one set of views and those who held another, and to stigmatize and isolate the minority.
The leadership’s treatment of minorities was also a warning to everyone in the party: express a view contrary to ours, and you, too, will be treated as an outcast.
Around that time I began to wonder what democratic centralism really was: I no longer assumed it was what the SWP said it was. So I began to read the Collected Works of Lenin, paying particular attention to any article and situation which revealed how the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks argued and acted within and without the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Later, when we left the SWP and formed the Class Struggle League, I wrote what became our second public pamphlet, Leninism and Democratic Centralism (1974).
I hadn’t read that pamphlet in 42 years, but I just read it now, and, looking back on it after four decades, I am astounded at the difference between the living, breathing democratic centralism of the Bolsheviks and the death-grip centralism of the SWP. What Lenin stressed was not only the right to fight for one’s ideology, but, equally, the duty to fight for it — in writing, not behind the scenes.
Phil P: I have little to add to Barb’s answer. One thing I have regretted about our time in the SWP was that I, at least, did not pay more attention to minority viewpoints such as the Frasers. Part of the reason for this was that we were immersed in party activism, but in retrospect I think that I was just going with the flow of the general attitude n the party that minorities were not to be taken seriously. I don’t think I would have come to agree with the Frasers, for instance, but I think I should have had more respect for their ideas and their seriousness.
Phil F: Also, it seemed to me that the way in which they embraced the mass movements was wrong – instead of seeing themselves as the vanguard of the working class and therefore taking up racial and gender oppression so workers could really act as the universal class, for instance, they seemed to see themselves as an integral part of the new social movements, with class being more like one identity among others. They had this ‘best builder’ mentality and the idea that the more feminist or black nationalist someone was, the closer to socialism they must be. In reality I think this turned out to be proven completely wrong. People could be militant trade unionists, militant feminists, militant black nationalists without embracing any sort of transformative class politics. How did you come to be in opposition to the central leadership on these sorts of questions?
Barbara G: I agree with your observations and analysis on this. Even though we were young, with only a few years of experience in the SWP and the social movements of the 60s, we saw that the central leadership of the party was drifting away from or downright ignoring Marxism, the basic analysis on which revolutionary socialism stands. We had read the basic works of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Trotsky, had studied and discussed them within the party, and we saw that the national leadership appeared to be deviating from everything we had been taught. I will say that if we had not done any reading of this nature, we probably wouldn’t have noticed a thing. The difference between what was in the books and what was happening in action made us question who was right: Lenin? Or the current leadership?
Articles in The Militant covered various events, but usually covered them without providing a class analysis, without encouraging others to think about what was the root cause of all that was wrong. It was evident that the leadership either didn’t believe that or didn’t consider relevant the fact that class warfare exists — that the class that produces must take power and move the world forward. The world of course includes not only the working class, but the petty bourgeoisie, a class that has loudness and numbers but no fundamental social power: a class that must be won over to the working class, else it turns toward demagogues and fascism. We who came to be in opposition were for the winning of the petty bourgeois forces that were in motion, but we believed they couldn’t be won to the side of the working class unless they were won to Marxist analysis.
We saw that the leadership was deeply enamored of various movements without attempting to explain to them the causes of their oppression: without attempting to explain that racism, sexism, homophobia, low wages, hunger, poverty, and, above all, war, were weapons that the ruling class uses to divide, intimidate, weaken, and quell the working class. You are right: people could be and were militant trade unionists, feminists, black nationalists, and such, without ever coming to understand the class nature of society. Thus they remain fingers on a hand, never uniting into a fist.
So many young people, we thought, could have been won over to a revolutionary party if they saw a revolutionary party arguing for a short list of transitional demands such as Sliding Scale of Wages, Public Works, Factory Committees, and so on. I think that during mass demonstrations the SWP did include some of these demands on banners, but it felt as if the party did that just to show its presence: not at all to win people over to a Marxist party. It became evident, from things the national and local leaderships said on a daily basis, that the party wanted to be seen as the “best builders” of the antiwar movement and the women’s liberation movement and such, as you have pointed out.
Once this buzzword, “best builders” was introduced and then spread like wildfire throughout the branches, I remember thinking, “I thought I joined a Socialist Workers Party . . . not a Best Builders Party.” It seemed to us that talking like this — being the “best builders” — implied that was the be-all and end-all of the matter. That there wasn’t a socialist revolution to build for down the long road, but rather that the road was quite short, ending at some sort of stand where all would be judged on their carpentry skills, and the SWP would win some sort of award.
Another term that came from the leadership was “hegemony,” as in “We must win hegemony in the student movement”.
In Cleveland and elsewhere, comrades who were concerned about what appeared to be the dilution or abandonment of Marxism-Leninism by the SWP leadership began to speak up. When local party leaders would give reports to the branch, both in the YSA and SWP, and would say something like “We’ve got to be the best builders of the antiwar movement,” we would stand up and say, “We’ve got to be the best builders of the revolutionary party rooted in the working class.” They wouldn’t reply, though they would become visibly annoyed. When they would say, “We’ve got to win hegemony in the antiwar movement,” we would say something like, “We’ve got to talk about war as capitalist war, designed to conquer more territory for exploitation, more markets for exploitation, more resources for exploitation.”
For us, another indicator that something was wrong was that we were not countered when we spoke up. We wanted somebody to say something like, “You are wrong, Phil, you are wrong, Barb, we no longer need to build a revolutionary party rooted in the working class. The reason we no longer need to build such a party is . . . .” If they had answered us, two different ideologies would have become evident. But while we countered their statements, they never countered ours. What kind of ideological leadership is that? It isn’t. The leadership did not want to say what was wrong with Marxism-Leninism, or why the “old” program was no longer good. Like everybody who wants control, they didn’t want to defend one idea or another, because somewhere down the road they might be held accountable for the ideas they attacked, rejected, or abandoned. Instead, they wanted to wear the cloak of Trotskyism, the cloak of best builders, the cloak of hegemony, the cloak of every new unsubstantiated and undocumented idea that sprang up.
Some comrades could see that the wearing of all these cloaks wasn’t possible, that to wear some of them you had to discard others. Some could see that it was incumbent not only on a minority to clearly state its positions in document form, but equally incumbent on a majority to make clear the history of and ramifications of its ideas. Some could see this, but most could not. Or would not.
Phil P: I have nothing to add to Barb’s great answer on this.
Phil F: Who else was involved? For instance, I gather you were close to Larry Trainor, a veteran working class militant who gets very short shrift in ‘official’ SWP accounts of the period and also in Barry Sheppard’s history? Could you tell us something of the older worker-cadre to whom you folks were connected?
(At this point, Barbara suggested we start with Cleveland and then move on to Boston and the Proletarian Orientation current.)
Barbara G: We were and, at the same time, were not connected to the older worker-cadre in the SWP. ‘Were’ in the sense that we learned from them and listened to what they had to say and looked to them to correct what was happening in the SWP: the drift toward a classless ‘analysis’ of society and the role of the revolutionary vanguard. ‘Were not’ in that none of them wanted to be associated with ‘dissidents’ or engage in ideological struggle. At least not at that point.
In Cleveland the two worker-cadre comrades in the branch leadership were Jean Tussey and Herman Kirsch. Both were generous to new comrades, inviting them home for meals and discussions. Both gave branch educationals on working class struggles of the 1930s and 40s, such as the Toledo Auto-Lite Strike, the Minneapolis Teamsters Strike, the mass factory sit-downs of the 30s, and so on. Both recommended books to read, especially Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Both were also fierce guardians of SWP tradition and “rules and regulations” – my term, not theirs.
In one of your earlier questions I related that when I was a student at Kent State University and learned about the SWP and learned about its Cleveland branch, I was impressed by the group’s connections to the black struggle, to labor, to civil rights. Most of the credit for this goes to Jean and Herman: they were active in these struggles and in building the Cleveland branch.
I always felt that even though Jean and Herman were eager to accept new comrades into the branch and educate them on Marxism and revolutionary politics, they harbored distrust of those new comrades who did not immediately pass some sort of silent test of being able to be “lined up”. This is surmise on my part: they never said such a thing. But it seemed to me that, from the beginning, they treated some of us with suspicion.
Here’s an example. I hadn’t been in the SWP for more than a few months, three or four, when I was told I had to report to branch headquarters for a special meeting. I had no idea what about. I got there, and a committee of some sort met me. I don’t remember if it was the Executive Committee, or if it was some sort of specially-convened group. Jean Tussey led it. I was asked to sit down at the table, which I did. Jean then slid a black and white photo toward me and demanded: “Is this you?” I felt as if I were in a police lineup, what with not being informed what the meeting was about, being confronted by silent faces, and having a photo shoved in front of me.
I glanced at the photo and noticed several things: (1) it showed a demonstration in front of Cleveland City Hall; (2) the individuals demonstrating were members of the Workers World Party. I could tell this because I recognized one of them, and also because they were carrying Workers World signs; (3) a young woman in the photo, carrying one of the signs, looked a lot like me.
When I replied, “No, that isn’t me,” I was met with total silence. My impression was that the committee had never anticipated this reply, but had assumed the person was me and would then take steps to . . . censure me? expel me? I had no idea. I also remember thinking something like, So what if it is me, what is so horrific about marching with a sign that says the right thing, even though it’s a Workers World sign? I’m not saying that the thought of marching with some other Trotskyist party’s banner would have ever occurred to me, but when confronted with it like that, my immediate reaction was that even if I had done this, it hardly warranted being called in front of some sort of committee.
So. Did the committee believe me?
It called in somebody else, John McCann, and showed him the photo and asked him to state whether or not the person was me. John scoffed and stated emphatically that it was not me. So then I was dismissed from the meeting. Nothing was done. But I always had the feeling that they never believed me, and this was verified a few months later when, at a demonstration, Jean came up to me and said something like, “I saw that person who looks like you, and she isn’t you.”
I took that to mean that, until then, Jean strongly suspected that for some weird, crazy, totally unexplainable reason, I had decided to march with Workers World but refused to admit it. But now, at last, confronted with the actual person who looked like me, she realized that I had been telling the truth.
Later, when I was writing the CSL document on democratic centralism, I thought back on this incident and realized that the entire tone of that meeting was wrong. This was clearly a case where, if a young comrade had done wrong, she should have been approached and spoken to in a different manner, and educated on why what she had done was wrong. But this tone, toward somebody who had been in the party for just three or four months, was harsh. It was never meant to instruct, it was meant to punish.
Jean and Herman were enforcers of national committee policy. They were suspicious of any raising of differences. They immediately pounced on people who had any ideological differences.
Duncan Ferguson, on the other hand, behaved quite differently. You probably know that Duncan was a sculptor: his busts of Trotsky and of James P. Cannon are magnificent. Duncan joined the SWP in the late ’30s, I think. He was sent to Mexico to help Natalia Sedova. Later he was in charge of Pioneer Publishers and also of the International Socialist Review. Duncan was a member of the SWP Control Commission. During the 1960s he lived and taught in Cleveland. He, like Herman and Jean, welcomed young comrades into his home and talked to them about party history, about the black struggle, women’s rights, the antiwar movements, workers, students, trade unions, and so on. He suggested which Marxist literature to read, and discussed it with comrades chapter by chapter. You didn’t have to be around Duncan very long to see that he would not tolerate non-thinkers and sycophants. Particularly the latter.
Unlike with Herman and Jean, one never felt like an “other” or “dissident” with Duncan. He was not a watchdog of “rules and regulations”. I always thought that Duncan believed that comrades grew and developed by thinking about, discussing, and challenging ideas. Many comrades opened up to Duncan, expressing their concerns and frustrations over what was happening to the Cleveland branch: specifically, comrades who were active in the antiwar movement and the student movement, who were great organizers and public speakers, and were elected to branch leadership positions — but were replaced by leaders the national office sent in. I don’t know what, if anything, Duncan said to or advised these comrades to do, but although he was ill and didn’t participate in every branch meeting because of that, he was highly respected by all the “dissidents” in Cleveland.
Unlike Jean, Duncan started from a position of trust, not distrust. Duncan asked me if I would work as his secretary, and for about two years I did, meeting with him twice a week (Tuesdays and Fridays, I think) for two hours each time. He would dictate letters to me, I would take down what he said, then I’d go home and type it up, with carbon copies, and at the next meeting he would read the letters and then, if they didn’t require any corrections, he would sign them and mail them. I had taken dictation before, while working as a part-time secretary from a labor pool, but nobody I had taken dictation from ever came close to the perfection of Duncan’s dictating a letter. He would name each capital letter, each line break, each comma, semicolon, colon, each paragraph break, each white space between the end of the body of a letter and the signature. Unlike Humpty Dumpty (and certain party members), Duncan did not use words to mean what he chose them to mean. He knew what words meant and how they should be used. He said what he meant (not something parallel to what he meant, or something intersecting what he meant, or something obliterating what he meant). For those of us who felt that the words emanating from the national office — words such as hegemony and periphery and best builders — portended something other than their dictionary definition, Duncan represented a time when the SWP leadership didn’t blather or dissemble.
The letters I typed for Duncan were something I never discussed with anybody. Nobody. He told me they were not to be discussed, and he knew he could trust me. After I typed them, I put them out of my mind, and if I were asked a month later what they were about, I would never have remembered: the content was vanished from my memory. That was what Duncan wanted, and that is what I did. In relating this, I’m not saying that there was anything secret or volatile in the letters he wrote. There may have been: I don’t remember. But while I don’t remember the contents of the letters, I remember that they were frequent, twice a week, and that they were mostly to individuals (occasionally a committee) of the national leadership. He wrote a lot to Farrell Dobbs, probably more to him than to anybody else. I think that Farrell usually, if not always, answered Duncan. I never saw the replies, I only typed the outgoing letters from Duncan. I don’t know if other party members, such as Tom Kerry, answered Duncan’s letters.
I suspected that some of the incoming mail was acerbic. What made me think this was that Duncan’s replies were acerbic. Terse. Looking back on it, I think that some of Duncan’s letters were about party procedures, some about political positions, some about statements made by the younger leaders such as Jack Barnes. But, as I say, I can’t recall any individual letter or topic. He did keep all the carbon copies and incoming mail in a large file cabinet, and was able to find what he wanted instantly.
There always seemed to be a gap between Duncan and the other Cleveland branch leaders. They didn’t look at him in the same way they looked at us, but I think they excluded him from decisions. I recall that a couple of times he got very angry at a branch meeting if something came up that he felt he should have been consulted on, but wasn’t. I had the feeling that the national office, as well as the Cleveland leadership, ignored Duncan. But for those of us who joined a party that we felt could change the world, and found ourselves treated as “hostiles” from the very beginning, Duncan Ferguson represented an outlook that was not afraid of ideological exchanges or challenges, that was not afraid of differences.
Before I move to the Boston section of my reply, I want to also talk about Fred Ferguson (no relation to Duncan), because Fred was one of the significant others in “who else was involved.” I can’t remember when we first met Fred, though my guess is that it was some time between 1965 and 1967, at an SWP Convention. During those years Fred and Carole were living in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, Minnesota, and Fred was active in the International Typographical Union. During after-meetings socializing, we came to see that some of our questions about what was happening both outside and inside the party were questions Fred had also raised and thought about.
Fred became a firm supporter of and fighter for the first document we wrote, “On Sending Young Comrades into the Trade Unions,” and also for the Proletarian Orientation document. We spoke to Fred frequently and met with him at public and party events, and he was a big part of the PO tendency, a very dedicated party builder and ideological fighter. Although Fred belonged to a craft union, not an industrialized one, he was still a worker comrade and his experiences and views should have meant something to party members. But he, too, was viewed as a “problem”.
Fred was very active in building the PO and, later, working in the Class Struggle League. Like Duncan Ferguson, Fred Ferguson was intolerant of bullshit. I use the word bullshit in honor of Fred, who would have never used a more refined term. And Fred could make one laugh at the ridiculousness of the bullshit terms. Fred was precise in his work and accurate. He was generous in his donations to help put out literature, both in time and money. Several years after the Class Struggle League folded, Fred asked me if he could have all my SWP Internal Discussion bulletins, because he wanted to write a history of the SWP and all the tendencies and factions within it. An ambitious undertaking, for sure! I thought about it a week or two, then decided that the bulletins should go to Fred, so I shipped them to him, or maybe to his son’s house. I think Fred was living in Mexico at the time. Fred told me that when he was done with the bulletins, he would donate them to some place like the University of Wisconsin Library, which housed collections of The Militant. I don’t know if he ever did. But I know that Fred would be thrilled that the documents are now available online. I can hear him laughing at some of them.
Phil P: The only thing I have to add to this is to relate a bit about my time in the Los Angeles Branch of the SWP for about a year in 1968-9. I was transferred to the LA branch by the SWP National office and soon was assigned to help with Jim Cannon’s care. I lived with Cannon for about six months. I made sure he didn’t need anything during the night and I made his breakfast (usually a hard-boiled egg) in the morning. Cannon was very guarded in talking politics, at least with me, and I never had a serious political discussion with him. As far as I could tell, by 1968 Cannon was all but inactive in SWP affairs and even in discussions with older cadre.
The LA branch was different from the Cleveland branch in that the older cadre — Milt and Tybie Alvin, Oscar Coover, Leo Frumkin, and others, were clearly not energetic supporters of the Barnes leadership. They were not dissidents, at least not openly, but they were not spokespeople for the political line of the national leadership. That task was left to Joel Britton and others sent in to run the branch. I tried to initiate serious discussions with some of the older cadre, but they were quite wary. I had been transferred in by the national leadership, and they didn’t really know where I stood.
I could not figure out why I got the assignment to go to Los Angeles. Mostly likely the assignment was an attempt to break me away politically from John McCann and Barb. At a certain point it must have been obvious that that wasn’t going to work, and when I said that I was moving back to the Cleveland branch, nobody objected.
(Phil F: This next part deals with Boston and the beginnings of the Proletarian Orientation current.)
Barbara G: I was a member of the Boston branch of the SWP twice. The first was from 1966-67, when I was doing graduate work at Harvard. The second was from 1971-73, when Phil and I moved there from Cleveland.
When I first became part of the Boston branch I was amazed, relieved, and encouraged at what a different atmosphere prevailed. First, there seemed to be no barriers between the older, worker comrades such as Larry Trainor and the newer, usually college, comrades. Everyone seemed part of the same branch, working together. I never felt that I was looked upon as a “dissident” or viewed with distrust in any way. So right there I felt that the Boston branch might be more ‘normal’ than the Cleveland one in terms of treating all comrades the same. In addition, the Boston branch contained young working class comrades. That was inspiring.
Larry was a great educator of young and old alike. He gave countless classes on topics such as the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution, various aspects of the labor movement in the US. I remember thinking that Larry had really researched his talks, that he gave vivid examples, that he wanted comrades and sympathizers to absorb the lessons of his talks, and that he himself was present in everything he said: he passionately felt the things he was saying. Larry believed that the young students around the SWP had to learn to identify with the working class. This was a major reason for his educationals: to get new recruits to identify with the working class. His inspiring talks helped this process take place. He understood that “the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself”.
I think that Larry supported the Proletarian Orientation document. He certainly did not support the “new forces will lead the revolution” documents coming out of the National Office. Most of these documents were written by Jack Barnes.
It was from a Boston comrade that I first heard the term ‘Barnes clique’, probably back in 1966 or 1967. The same comrade informed me how many members of the SWP’s political committee actually went to Carleton College with Jack Barnes. I was horrified: clearly, Barnes was building the SWP, or at least its leadership, on the basis of personal loyalty to himself. Either that, or somehow no other area of the entire country was able to produce serious cadre capable of leading the SWP. Out of 200 million people, the only good ones apparently enrolled in Carleton College. My immediate thought was: Why doesn’t the older cadre of national leaders do something about this? But, for whatever reason, the older leadership such as Kerry, Dobbs, Novack, and others supported Barnes. As had the older leadership in Cleveland. Larry Trainor did not support Barnes.
Even though I’ve used the term ‘Barnes clique’ because that was the expression used to me, I never liked it. Nor did I like the ‘anti-Barnes’ expression, as in “Are you anti-Barnes?” It seemed to me that a better way to fight against Barnes’ ideas was to use expressions such as ‘the Barnes ideology’ or ‘Barnes’ positions’ or ‘Barnes’ direction’. Yes, one must be against the person who holds such anti-Marxist ideas and seek to replace his ideology — and him — with people who understand Marxism. But to emphasize that one is ‘anti-Barnes’ puts the cart before the horse, putting more emphasis on the person and less on the ideas. Being ‘anti-Barnes’ could carry the implication that if only Barnes were replaced with somebody else, all would be well. This is not the case: unless the ideology of the replacement were clear, unless the replacement won others over by fighting for his/her ideas . . . replacing Barnes could result in somebody with the same ideology. Or worse.
My reaction to ‘Barnes clique’ and ‘anti-Barnes’ goes back to one of the earlier questions you asked, in which I responded that I disapproved of the whole concept of ‘lining people up’ rather than winning them over. And it’s possible that those comrades who talked about being ‘anti-Barnes’ and against the ‘Barnes clique’ were perceived by other comrades — comrades who might have been won over — as being a clique whose only purpose was to replace Jack Barnes. They may have believed the struggle was not an ideological one, but a who’s-in-power one.
The fact they could ignore what we said in the Proletarian Orientation document, though, and praise the classless gobbledygook coming out of the national office — that mistake, that blindness — rests on them, not on anybody who spoke of being ‘anti-Barnes’.
In the struggle against the national leadership and its drift (sometimes its mad rush) away from a Marxist analysis, many comrades were drawn to and participated in what became the Proletarian Orientation tendency. Perhaps as much as 10 percent of the SWP were interested in and supportive of the PO tendency. I can’t mention all their names because I don’t remember them all, and because some people have left politics and might not want their names on the internet. The latter keeps me from naming many people. In addition to Phil and me and John McCann, I’ve mentioned Fred Ferguson. Bill and Beth Massey were also very active in helping form the PO tendency, as was Mike Tormey. Don Smith was very active, as was Ralph Levitt.
When Phil and I were in Boston from 1971-73, we met two comrades from the British IMG. They were in the States to do graduate work. These two comrades were stunned (there is no better word for it) by the fact that the SWP didn’t have a proletarian orientation. They immediately became sympathetic to the Proletarian Orientation tendency and became a very active part of it.
Phil F: How did you come to part company with the SWP – or them with you!?
Barbara G: We left the SWP to form the Class Struggle League. I don’t remember when this was, but I think maybe mid- to late 1972. I know that we were putting out Class Struggle while living in Boston and driving to NYC to have it printed once a month, and then we moved to the Chicago area in mid-1973.
The Proletarian Orientation tendency had the sympathy of maybe 10-15 percent of the SWP membership. Some of us felt we had moved beyond a tendency and now constituted a faction. We called ourselves the Leninist Faction. But the majority of the PO members (say maybe 50 out of a total of 80 people) wanted to remain a tendency, wanted to remain in the party and conduct a political struggle against the leadership — as a tendency, not as a faction. There was a division between the Midwest and the West Coast, with the West Coast people wanting to remain (they later formed the Internationalist Tendency within the SWP) and the Midwest people wanting to leave because we saw no way we could conduct a political struggle in an organization that didn’t practice democratic centralism. We felt we were already ostracized and that the leadership would soon manufacture charges against us in order to expel us. We saw no sense in waiting for that to happen. We left the organization. After we left, we heard that they officially expelled us.
Phil P: After the 1971 convention, we realized three things: the SWP was heading helter-skelter toward the abandonment of revolutionary politics; the leadership of the SWP was firmly entrenched in the hands of a clique around Jack Barnes which ruled in a Stalinist-like, bureaucratic manner; and there would be no opportunity for us (or anyone else) to fight inside the party for revolutionary ideas.
This is what I remember, with some help from reading archived issues of Workers Vanguard and Spartacist. The SL was orienting toward us and published several articles about the Leninist Faction and later the Class Struggle League. Their facts — numbers of people, dates, actions — seem correct, even if their political analysis is often skewed. We formed a faction with some comrades from the Proletarian Orientation tendency, including some who had already been won to the Spartacist League. (One of these comrades was Martha Phillips, who in 1992 was murdered in the Soviet Union.) We submitted a statement of the Leninist Faction, largely influenced by Martha and Dave Phillips and very Spartacist League-like in its politics, to the SWP in the spring of 1972. In August of 1972 we held a convention of the Leninist Faction in Ashtabula, Ohio (where I had graduated from high school). At that conference we rejected an orientation to the SL. I don’t remember whether we officially resigned from the SWP or just started independent activity as the Leninist Faction. In October of 1972 we were formally expelled from the SWP.
Phil F: Could you say a bit more about the Class Struggle League? How was this formed? What perspectives did it have? What sort of work did it do?
Barbara G: The CSL was formed through discussion among the comrades who wanted to leave and, once we left, with discussions with members of the Vanguard Newsletter, who had left the Spartacist League. After we left the SWP we also had discussions with the Spartacist League and with the Workers League, too. We had differences with both on the questions of Cuba, Black Nationalism, and democratic centralism. Our preference would have been to join another Trotskyist organization, but we felt that none of the existing ones we were familiar with practised democratic centralism as we understood it.
Our perspective was to orient toward the working class and build a Leninist party.
Once we left the SWP and formed CSL, our main work was putting out the monthly newspaper and selling it in front of factories and at places of working class struggle (strikes and picket lines and such) and at political demonstrations of various kinds.
Nobody in the CSL was interested in orienting to the SWP — that is, in addressing the SWP comrades in our newspaper. We all wanted to turn toward the working class. I don’t know if the view I’m about to express was shared by other CSL comrades, but I felt the SWP would die from its own practices, and that we didn’t have the time or energy to look back at it. Freedom of discussion is the oxygen that ideas and analyses need in order to live, and any organization that willingly ties a plastic bag over its head, sealing out the give and take of ideas, the heat of discussion, is an organization that will die of its own accord sooner or later.
Phil P: After the August Leninist Faction convention, several LF comrades left to join the Spartacist League. In the meantime, we had been conducting discussions with Harry Turner and Hank Platsky of Vanguard Newsletter, who had approached us before the August convention. The Class Struggle League was formed through a fusion of the Leninist Faction and Vanguard Newsletter. The founding document of the CSL, “Theory, Tasks, and Tactics: the Program of the Class Struggle League”, reads to me today as though it was heavily influenced by, and reflects the politics of, Harry Turner and the Vanguard Newsletter group. I haven’t re-read it carefully, but many of the rigid formulations in opposition to Black Nationalism and Feminism, while correct from a class point of view, reflect a lack of any real involvement in or orientation to, and a sectarian, hands-off policy, that I would not espouse today.
Our perspective was to propagandize through a newspaper and pamphlets, to intervene in the struggles of the day, to build trade union caucuses, and to recruit and grow. Hah! We did publish the newspaper regularly, and three pamphlets. The first pamphlet was the founding document, the second was Lenin and Democratic Centralism, written by Barb, and the third was ITU: Union in Crisis, written primarily by Fred Ferguson and Barb. The second and third documents hold up quite well even today, I think.
In Chicago and other places where the CSL had comrades, except for New York, we were not able to intervene much in the movements of the day. We all had full-time jobs, and Barb, Fred and I, especially, were very busy putting out the paper monthly. Apparently, the New York CSL comrades were quite active, intervening in demonstrations and meetings, and in tailing the SL at various events. I’m not sure we knew this at the time, and I only say this now after reading Workers Vanguard articles from 1972 – 1975.
Phil F: How did the CSL come to an end?
Barbara G: Basically, we came to an end because we were very small in numbers and the task of putting out a monthly newspaper took all our time and all our efforts, and the political situation in the US changed after the withdrawal from Vietnam. Comrades quit or simply drifted away or joined another organization.
Phil P: By the end of 1973, our political isolation caused Barb and me to start thinking about what we wanted to do with the rest of our lives. We realized that we were not interested in the inward-directed factional politics and somewhat arcane discussions that seemed to be endemic to small groupings in the Trotskyist sphere. We both wanted to be politically active in a large, vibrant party where we could participate as activists and in political and theoretical learning and debate. But no such organization existed.
In February of 1974, Barb broke her leg, and most of our energy during the next several months was directed toward her healing and physical rehab. During this period we largely dropped out of CSL activities. I don’t remember whether we resigned from the CSL or just drifted away. The CSL continued, led by the grouping around Turner, into early 1975, and then dissolved. But we didn’t even follow that activity at the time. I know it now only from reading Wikipedia articles. The collection of Class Struggle copies at various libraries goes through March of 1975, but I know we weren’t involved at all in the CSL by then. I plan to go up to Northwestern some time in the next few months to read the issues of Class Struggle to see what I can learn about its end.
Phil F: A lot of left groups passed away in the 1970s and it seems to be that a lot of the ‘new social movements’ did to. A lot of leading figures drifted off into the establishment. For instance, John Lewis, who had been a trenchant critic of the Democrats when he was leading SNCC, ended up in the Democrats. Lots of feminists ended up in the political mainstream. The Chicano movement disappeared. The gay movement went from being a liberation movement to being an establishment-oriented community. Of course, lots of gains were won – the end of Jim Crow, Roe v Wade, the decriminalisation of homosexuality; but a lot of the changes also seem to have strengthened capitalism. It seems to me they got rid of forms of discrimination that had become historically obsolescent. The bottom line was that as long as capital can continue to exploit labour-power to the maximum, everything else is up for negotiation and change.
Barbara G: I agree. It’s easier and less expensive for the ruling class to rule by convincing people they are “free” and live in a “democracy” than it is to crush them under an iron heel. The Roman Empire eventually employed so many soldiers to repress others that it was impossible for the state to generate enough revenue to pay the army. Which isn’t to say that the present-day ruling class won’t go the route of brutal military rule of its citizens if it sees that as the only avenue that allows it to steal the value produced by workers, pocket that surplus value as profit, and control the population.
Phil P: I agree with your and Barb’s comments. I think the basic reasons for the evolution of a group or individual away from revolutionary politics are the failure to truly understand the class nature of society and the duel-to-the-death nature of the class struggle and/or the loss of faith in the ability of the working class to overthrow capitalism. Without that perspective and world view, people who genuinely want to fight for a better world try to find ways by which they can effect any kind of change for the better, or prevent any change for the worse, leading them to various non-class based reformist movements and organizations, or a complete capitulation and into the Democratic Party.
One thing that actually amazes and, in a way, saddens Barb and me is the obsession so many of our once-revolutionary friends have with electoral politics. Barb and I understand the sham of bourgeois elections. Our approach is that an election campaign may be — but does not have to be — an opportunity for a revolutionary party to propagandize and educate about the nature of capitalism and capitalist elections, either through running candidates of its own or through giving support or critical support to candidates of another working class organization, either a specifically anti-capitalist party or a mass party based in the working class and which does not function as a bourgeois party. We feel no compulsion to find a candidate we can support or to vote. We usually don’t vote. Yet so many ex-comrades seem to feel a compulsion to be involved in elections and to vote. So they support and vote for the Green Party or Bernie Sanders, neither of whom represents a working class party or a break with capitalism in any way. I understand that an election period presents an opportunity to talk politics and educate, and that many Sanders supporters and Green Party supporters may be open to revolutionary politics, but it is one thing to reach out to people to propagandize and educate, and another thing to convince yourself to vote for Bernie Sanders, a Democrat; or Jill Stein, whose base is largely petty-bourgeois radical and left -liberal with no orientation to the working class and no anti-capitalist perspective.
Phil F: You seem to have gotten on with your lives since the end of the Class Struggle League/s and led very interesting and productive lives too, without having abandoned the core ideals of your youth. Could you tell us about your lives and activities over the past three-four decades? How have you maintained those ideals, including through very difficult periods, especially when a lot of sixties radicals have abandoned them?
Barbara G: I can’t imagine any one growing up thinking, “I want to be a revolutionary when I grow up.” I certainly didn’t. I grew up wanting to be a baseball player or a writer. But when confronted by a world full of gross injustices of all kinds, I came to see that they stemmed from a common cause: a ruling class that exploited the labor of others and that consciously set different groups in society against one another. I became a revolutionary socialist out of a desire to help create a better world.
When social conditions changed during the 1970s and the Class Struggle League ended, I then turned to what it was I had always wanted to do — write. Little did I think I would end up writing about baseball, but baseball has been part of my life from my first memories, so the first novel I wrote was about a woman shortstop: She’s on First. I then wrote a nonfiction book on the 100-year history of women playing hardball in the US, 1883-1993. That book was Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball. I’ve also written two mystery novels, and Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. And I’ve written hundreds of educational books of various kinds. In addition to writing and baseball, I love travel, cooking, hiking, basketry, all kinds of drama (film, stage, novels), museums, and being with friends. Phil and I are both self-employed and thus get to spend most of our time together, and that pleasure makes all the other activities even more enjoyable.
The question of how people do or don’t maintain their ideals is one of those questions whose answers could go on forever. Some people turn into their opposites, going from espousing communism to espousing right-wing oppression and repression. When we talk about them, Phil and I sometimes characterize these people as being in a petty-bourgeois snit — the working class did not rise up and cast off its chains, thereby failing to do what they believed it would do. They are personally disappointed. And peeved. And so they decide to flip to the other side, just to show the working class that it can’t get away with disappointing them. Petty. Snitty. Self-aggrandizing.
But for the majority of radicals who abandon their ideals, it’s a matter of the stream we’re swimming against becoming too much to bear. The debris roaring down the stream becomes worse and worse: cluster bombs, drones, oil spills that pollute the world’s oceans and cause severe mutations in earth’s animals, vicious capitalist-spawned hatred of people with brown and black skin, bombing of cities, mass unemployment, crumbling infrastructures, abandoned factories, lack of decent and/or affordable housing, the list goes on and on. It’s as if one is swimming against a raging river and hurtling toward one are massive uprooted trees, garages, houses, entire building complexes. Some people feel they can stay alive only by getting out of the way. Others feel they can stay alive by swimming with the stream in one way or another. In order to do that, they start giving up their previous beliefs. They want to fit in, to blend in, and many of them want to do that fitting and blending with the people whom they want to support — the working class. They want to be liked. Step by step, they give up their former beliefs and adopt more socially palatable ones in order to fit in with those they genuinely care about. In a revolutionary period, some of these people will be won back. Others won’t. Once you start lying to yourself, you’re sliding down a steep slope — it’s difficult to return to bedrock.
One of the ways in which Phil and I have maintained our beliefs is that we totally understood what it was we were reading in Marxist literature and what it was we were fighting for. “The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.” This profound knowledge is not something we would abandon or cover over or doctor up or water down or obscure.
We talk to each other about events. We ask each other what position a revolutionary party would have on each important social and political question. When one isn’t a member of a political tendency, it’s much more difficult to analyze what is happening, what it means, and what the correct political position on each event or movement should be, because the daily or weekly interactions with other comrades, with newspaper articles, with discussion bulletins — all these things aren’t there. But, as I said, we talk to each other about these things, and talking and analyzing help keep our ideals and our knowledge alive.
Phil P: I do sometimes think that we are a living contradiction to the idea that “being determines consciousness.” I remember when we reconnected with Bill Massey, who joined Workers World and then the Party for Socialism and Liberation. Bill is a fiercely dedicated working class communist, despite what we consider to be serious flaws in his and Beth’s political views. When we reconnected after many years and spent an evening talking politics, Bill asked how we could have maintained such hard communist politics after so many years out of any political activity, and with Barb’s occupation as a writer and mine as a production manager in a printing company.
I think the answer is the one Barb gave. Hatred of the evils of capitalism and the Marxist understanding of the cause of those evils and the way to abolish them — an understanding we developed through our political activity and study as members of the SWP in the ’60s and early ’70s — is embedded in our characters. And by constantly discussing with each other and analyzing social and political happenings we have maintained and sharpened our understanding of the ongoing class struggle.
As to our activities over the last several decades, we both remember and talk about a conversation we had while taking a walk sometime in 1976 or 1977. We were both still working in industrial jobs, Barb as a typesetter and me as a machinist. We realized that without a connection to political activity, these jobs were meaningless to us. Barb really wanted to be a writer, and I wanted to be an actor. We decided that one of us should get a full-time job that he or she might enjoy, or at least not hate, and the other should try to make a living at their chosen activity, Luckily for us, we decided that Barb had a better chance making a living as a writer than I did as an actor. Barb got a job writing filmstrips for an educational publisher and then about a year and a half later became a full-time freelance writer. I got a job selling scales to grocery stores and delis, and then for the printing company where I spent about twenty years, quickly moving from sales into customer service and production management. Through the years I auditioned without success for roles at many Chicago theaters. The only role I landed was to play a dead body, lying motionless under a couch, in full view of the audience, for the two-hour duration of the play!
Phil F: How do you see the political situation in the US at present? For instance, looking at Trump and Clinton, it seems to me that it’s a bit like 1964. A lot of people worked themselves up over Goldwater and voted for Johnson as some kind of ‘peace’ candidate – and he delivered the invasion of the Dominican Republic and massively escalated and made especially brutal the US war on Vietnam. It also seems to me that while Sanders – and even in a distorted way, Trump – reflect the alienation of a lot of people, including youth and blue-collar workers from ‘mainstream’ politics, Sanders is still a Democrat and the Democratic Party is the graveyard of leftists and that a lot of people who believe in Sanders are going to get burned. (NB: This part of the interview was conducted before the end of the Sanders’ campaign.)
Barbara G: The Trump-Clinton situation is a bit reminiscent of the Goldwater-Johnson one in that in both cases the more rabidly rightwing of the two candidates inspired (inspires) the oppressive forces in society and terrified (terrifies) the more liberal forces. In both cases the “saner” candidate will proceed with the needs of the ruling class. Johnson escalated the war in Vietnam, and Clinton will send armies to wherever the ruling class dictates. She will do so eagerly. While US citizens (who may be the least politically astute populace in the world because of their ignorance of the existence of classes and their blindness to the goals of communism) think that Hilary is the better choice, the rest of the world isn’t fooled. Already I’ve seen countless cartoons showing people from Africa, the Mideast, and elsewhere looking up at the sky and saying, as US bombs drop on them, “Look! Progress! We’re being bombed by a woman president!”
The US population is politically callow, believing in the “two party system” (a falsehood that’s drummed into each school child’s head) and believing that a citizen’s duty is to vote for one of the two candidates who stands a chance of winning. This of course plays right into the hands of the ruling class, because if people believe they must vote for either a Republican or a Democrat, and never any other candidate, then the ruling class can put forth two particularly horrible choices whenever it wants to, with the solid knowledge that the public will go along with choosing one of them. Thus the distance between the bourgeoisie’s candidates moves from miles, to feet, to inches as the two line-dance to the right every four years.
Phil P: Certainly Clinton in 2016 represents the same “lesser evil” trap that Johnson did in 1964. And while Johnson campaigned as a candidate who would not “send our boys into the mud and muck of Vietnam”, Clinton does not even pretend to oppose US military intervention. In fact she has been and continues to be an ardent hawk militarily. Still, many will vote for her because they are sure Trump will be the ruin of the country. As if it’s not already ruined. The fact is the US ruling class will do what it wants no matter who serves them as president. There are few real policy differences between Clinton’s program and Trump’s.
The one major difference is that Trump taps into and draws upon the horrible mean-spirited racism, anti-immigrant hatred, homophobia, and misogyny that characterizes so much of imperialist politics these days. While the bourgeois press attempts to pin this meanness on the white section of the working class, as in Brexit and the Trump campaign, the fact is that while sections of the white working class are certainly infected with this disease, the major sponsors of this sentiment are the imperialists and their lackeys in the IMF, World Bank, EU, and the bourgeois press. The unrelenting attacks on the working class carried out by these organizations and the capitalist class has created the impoverishment, desperation, and alienation at the root of this reaction. And the meanness cuts across class lines. Leading the charge are sections of the petty bourgeoisie, the bourgeoisie itself, and bourgeois politicians. Whether this sentiment will become the basis for a mass fascist or fascist-like movement remains to be seen, but the desire of the capitalist class is what will shape this direction, not the election of Trump. In fact, one could argue that Trump’s defeat will do more to incite right-wing reaction than his election. But, of course, that is not a reason to vote for Trump, any more than a perceived need to defeat him is a reason to vote for Clinton.
Phil F: Could you give us a list of ten political books that everyone serious about fundamental social change should read?
Barbara G: I haven’t read many political books after we left the Class Struggle League, so every title I’m going to list comes from what I read in the Sixties — but I believe the lessons in these books are highly relevant to those seeking fundamental social change. The titles are as follows:
1) The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx and Frederich Engels
2) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Frederich Engels
3) The Civil War in France, Karl Marx
4) The State and Revolution, Vladimir Lenin
5) The History of the Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky
6) The Revolution Betrayed, Leon Trotsky
7) The Transitional Programme for Socialist Revolution, Leon Trotsky
8) In Defence of Marxism, Leon Trotsky
9) The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, James P. Cannon
10) Labor’s Giant Step, Art Preis
Phil P: We haven’t read much political work since the ’70s. I think this is due to both our firm Marxist understanding and our not being in a political organization. Because of our Marxist understanding we don’t have much interest in or patience for non-Marxist analysis. And because we are not involved in a political organization we do not feel a strong need to to read current work or even reread classic works to carry on political discussion or argument. I sometimes think we should have much more interest in reading the political non-fiction that our “friends from politics” and/or current activists are reading. I do have at the top of my reading pile, ‘To the Masses’: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921, edited and translated by John Riddell. But we just prefer fiction. Of course fiction can certainly be political, and can evoke deep emotional response to society’s evils, but it is not the genre I would choose for the “ten political books that everyone serious about fundamental social change should read”. So this list consists of the books I remember as most influencing my political development and understanding:
1) The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels
2) The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels
3) What Is To Be Done, Lenin
4) The State and Revolution, Lenin
5) Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin
6) The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky
7) The Permanent Revolution, Trotsky
8) Their Morals and Ours, Trotsky
9) The Prophet Armed; The Prophet Unarmed; The Prophet Outcast, Deutscher
10) Malcolm X Speaks, Malcolm X
Phil F: Lastly, a chance to put in a plug for your own work. Phil, what’s your favourite book by Barbara? Barbara, what’s your favourite recording by Phil?
Barbara G: I never fail to smile when listening to Phil’s first CD, Swinging on a Gate, which is instrumentals only, hammered dulcimer and guitar. Part of me wants to say that’s my favorite, but no, my actual favorite is Tramp, Tramp, Tramp: Music of the Civil War on Hammered Dulcimer. This is my favorite not only because it’s a combination of both instrumentals and songs, but because in it Phil does something that I don’t think other Civil War albums do, and that is that he tells the story of the War in chronological order, starting with the tunes the North and South were singing in 1861, ending with what they were singing in 1865. So a listener gets not only very enjoyable music, but also a strong sense of the toll the War took (it remains the deadliest war in US history), the changing attitudes of the people, the intervention of black soldiers fighting for their own freedom, the hard-hearted exploitation of Irish immigrants as soldiers, and, finally, the war-weariness of the public.
Phil P: I love all Barb’s books. Her fiction and non-fiction, for children or adults, all demonstrate the seriousness with which she has developed her craft. She is a fine writer, and develops plot and character with great skill. My favorite of Barb’s books is her collection of poetry, Crossing the Skyway. Her poetry captures not only her skill as a writer, but also her humanity, her fierce hatred of the evils of capitalism, and her wonderful sense of humor. Here is one example, picked at random using Amazon’s “Surprise Me” feature.
So Be It
Sobeit is a word I hate,
hate its bowing to the will
sobeit of a supposed supreme
authority which always somehow
coincides sobeit with the will
of the actual ruling authority.
Sobeit brings to mind
sobeit brings to mind judges’
gavels slamming more
mutinous men into prison.
Sobeit conditions us to bend,
scrape, and acquiesce.
To which I say: nobeit.
(copyright Barbara Gregorich 2013)