Don't strangle the party


By George Breitman

On April 8, 1983, a membership meeting of the Bay Area District of the Socialist Workers Party (from branches in San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose) was held in San Jose to hear a report on the latest three in a series of expulsions being engineered by the SWP “central leadership team” headed by Jack Barnes. During the discussion period, Asher Harer, a veteran party member from San Francisco, made some comments about the newly-announced “organizational norm” prohibiting SWP members from communicating with members of other branches under pain of expulsion. Harer said that if James P. Cannon, the principal founder of the SWP, were alive today, he could not exist in the SWP. Cannon often communicated directly with members in other branches, on all sorts of questions, and Harer said he had a file of Cannon letters to prove it.

Harer was answered by Clifton DeBerry, a member of the national Control Commission, a former member of the National Committee, and a former presidential candidate, who said: “If James P. Cannon wrote such letters today, he would be expelled.” DeBerry added that the SWP is a “more disciplined” party today than in Cannon’s time. Some NC members who supported the new norms were also present, but none differentiated themselves from what DeBerry had said.

DeBerry’s remarks were not repeated in written form, then or later, but they were very revealing. For more than a year the SWP leadership had been accusing oppositionists in the NC of violating the party’s organizational principles (“norms”), which the leadership allegedly was trying to maintain and defend. And now DeBerry had blurted out the truth: Even the founder of the party would have been ousted as “undisciplined” if he had lived to 1983 and tried to function in accord with the organizational norms that prevailed in the party from its founding in 1938 to his death in 1974. Since these norms had never been changed in Cannon’s time, or later, they were being violated all right—not by the oppositionists but by the leadership itself, which was reinterpreting them and giving them a new content without ever formally discussing or formally changing them.

In the following year the SWP leadership expelled all known or suspected oppositionists, dissidents, or critics. The real reason they were expelled was that they had political differences with or doubts about the leadership’s new orientation toward Castroism and away from Trotskyism, and that the leadership was afraid to debate this orientation with them in front of the SWP membership. The ostensible reason given by the leadership was that the expelled members had in various ways violated the party’s traditional organizational principles, especially the 1965 resolution on “The Organizational Character of the Socialist Workers Party.”

The present pamphlet consists of three letters and the text of a talk by Cannon in 1966 and 1967, which prove conclusively that Cannon did not share the current SWP leadership’s interpretation of the 1965 resolution. The real tradition of the SWP on democratic centralism is different than the present leadership makes it out to be. Like Trotsky, Cannon is a witness against the revisionist political and organizational policies of the Barnes group.

Cannon was 75 years old and living in Los Angeles in 1965. He was national chairman of the party but no longer responsible for its day-to-day activity, which was handled by the Political Committee and national secretary Farrell Dobbs from the party center in New York. When the PC decided to submit a resolution on organizational principles to the 1965 convention, it chose a committee of Dobbs, George Novack, and Cannon to prepare a draft. Dobbs wrote it and Novack edited it. A copy was sent to Cannon, who sent it back without comment. He thought the draft was poorly written and too ambiguous on certain key points, but did not undertake to amend or redraft it. He did not attend the 1965 convention, which adopted the resolution by a vote of 51 to 8.

In 1968 Cannon discontinued direct correspondence with the party center in New York. But before that happened, he wrote and said some things in 1966 and 1967 which showed that he disagreed with PC members who were interpreting the 1965 resolution as a signal to “tighten” or “centralize” the party, which he believed could only damage it, perhaps fatally.


Cannon’s letter of February 8, 1966, had the following background: Arne Swabeck, a party founder and NC member, had been trying for seven years to convert the SWP from Trotskyism to Maoism. Despite repeated efforts before and during SWP national conventions in 1959, 1961, 1963, and 1965, his small group made little headway among the members. lncreasingly he and his group began to ignore the normal channels for discussion in the party, and to communicate their ideas to selected members by mail. This led to demands by Larry Trainor, an NC member in Boston, for disciplinary action against Swabeck and his ally in the NC, Richard Fraser. Through a circular letter for the PC Tom Kerry announced that the matter would be taken up at a plenum of the NC to be held at the end of February.

Cannon’s letter was addressed to the supporters of the NC majority tendency (which excluded the supporters of the Swabeck and Fraser-Clara Kaye tendencies, etc.). Cannon tried to convince the majority that political discussion and education were the answer to the minority tendencies, not disciplinary action. “There is absolutely no party law or precedent for such action,” he said, “and we will run into all kinds of trouble in the party ranks, and the International, if we try this kind of experiment for the first time…It would be too bad if the SWP suddenly decided to get tougher than the Communist Party [of the 1920s] and try to enforce a nonexistent law—which can’t be enforced without creating all kinds of discontent and disruption.” (Emphasis added)

This was written five months after the adoption of the 1965 resolution. It demonstrates that Cannon saw nothing in that resolution that could be cited as “party law or precedent” for the kind of disciplinary action taken by the Barnes leadership in the 1980s.

The February 1966 meeting of the NC found Cannon’s arguments convincing. They did not want to conduct, for “the first time” in the party’s history, the experiment of trying to enforce “a nonexistent law.” So the whole question was dropped—until after Cannon’s death.


Cannon’s September 6, 1966, talk was one of “my last speeches before I fell into retirement, so to speak,” he said shortly before his death. It was given to a Labor Day weekend educational conference at a camp near San Francisco, and it was obviously intended primarily for members of the SWP and YSA, rather than for the general public. The form of this talk was that of a discussion about the history of the SWP and the FI, which Cannon used to express his thinking about the problems facing the SWP in 1966, its strengths and weaknesses, the pressures it was feeling, and the lessons from the past that it could learn for the present and the future. Although the talk was couched mainly in historical terms, experienced listeners understood that Cannon was saying, “I think we have some serious problems now and we’d better think about how to handle them.” The SWP leadership never printed this talk (which was transcribed from a taped recording and edited by Evelyn Sell 18 years later, after her expulsion from the SWP as an oppositionist, and was printed in the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, No 14, December 1984).

Cannon’s main concern here was that some SWP and YSA leaders were not sufficiently resisting and opposing the harmful influences of the “New Left” to which they were subjected in the antiwar and student movements. Some “younger comrades”, he said quite openly, gave him the impression that they had not fully assimilated the cardinal principle of internationalism. His stress on the SWP as “revolutionary continuators” was directed not only against the New Left but against those in the SWP and YSA who disregarded this factor or thought it insignificant. His demand for polemics with opponent tendencies (“the mark of a revolutionary party”) stemmed from his conviction that there was a reluctance among SWP and YSA leaders to openly explain their differences with the New Left. Similarly with most of the talk—it was not just a criticism of the New Left but of party and YSA members who he thought were defaulting on the theoretical and educational struggle against New Leftism.

But Cannon did not fail also to raise the questions about party democracy that had been on his mind during the previous two or more years. He began by touching on the “flexible democracy” that had enabled the party to survive historically: “We never tried to settle differences of opinion by suppression. Free discussion—not every day in the week but at stated regular times, with full guarantees for the minority—is a necessary condition for the health and strength of an organization such as ours.” It never occurred to him to add that any of this had been superseded by the 1965 resolution.

Continuing, he noted that factionalism can get out of hand or become unprincipled. “But on the other hand,” he said, “if a party can live year after year without any factional disturbances, it may not be a sign of health—it may be a sign that the party’s asleep; that it’s not a real live party. In a live party you have differences, differences of appraisal, and so on. But that’s a sign of life.” The present SWP leaders hardly ever say things like that any more; and even when they do, they mean something different than Cannon meant.


In 1966 some SWP members raised the question of codifying parts of the 1965 resolution through amendments to the party’s constitution at the next national convention. A PC-appointed constitution committee (Reba Hansen, Harry Ring, Jean Simon [Tussey]) began, in consultation with national organization secretary Ed Shaw, to consider proposed changes for the constitution, including one to alter the way the national Control Commission was elected and functioned.

In his response (reprinted from Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, No 8, June 1984) Cannon was quite disturbed by this proposal, especially because he saw it as part of a dangerous trend: “As far as I can see all the new moves and proposals to monkey with the Constitution which has served the party so well in the past, with the aim of ‘tightening’ centralization, represent a trend in the wrong direction at the present time. The party (and the YSA) is too ‘tight’ already, and if we go much further along this line we can run the risk of strangling the party to death.”

Most of Cannon’s letter was an explanation of why the party would be better off if the Control Commission remained an “independent” or “separate” body elected by the national convention as a whole than it would be as a mere subcommittee of the NC. But he also seized the opportunity to assert the necessity to “practice what we preach” about existing constitutional provisions “to protect every party member against possible abuse of authority by the National Committee.” There was nothing ambiguous about his position:

“In the present political climate and with the present changing composition of the party, democratic centralism must be applied flexibly. At least ninety percent of the emphasis should be placed on the democratic side and not on any crackpot schemes to ‘streamline’ the party to the point where questions are unwelcomed and criticism and discussion stifled. That is a prescription to kill the party…”

Cannon clearly did not feel that the 1965 resolution justified or authorized the kind of undemocratic changes that the “centralizing” Barnes leadership made in the name of the 1965 document in the 1970s and 1980s. Cannon’s letter was effective—none of the proposals he warned against were recommended by the constitution committee or adopted at the 1967 convention.


The Arne Swabeck case came up again in 1967, when both an SWP national convention and an FI world congress were scheduled. By then Swabeck had lost all hope in the SWP and the FI. Instead of trying once more to convince their members, he publicly attacked the SWP’s policies in a letter to a hostile political group in England (the Healyites). For this deliberate violation of discipline, the PC asked the NC to suspend him from membership pending the coming convention.

Cannon had no sympathy whatever for Swabeck’s politics or organizational practices, but he felt it would be “awkward” to begin the preconvention and preworld congress discussions by suspending the one articulate critic of the party’s positions and actions. He therefore urged that Swabeck’s provocations be handled by publishing Swabeck’s letters together with a comprehensive political answer to them. This “subordination of disciplinary measures to the bigger aims of political education”—which he called a continuation of the party’s great tradition—had always served the party well in the past, he argued, and in the Swabeck case would “better serve the education of the new generation of the party and the consolidation of party opinion” than would the proposed suspension.

Most members of the NC disagreed with Cannon. They felt Swabeck’s violation of discipline was too flagrant to be ignored, and they felt that he already had been answered politically over and over again, so that disciplinary action in this case would not represent any rupture with the SWP’s great tradition. The NC suspended Swabeck, who continued to attack the SWP publicly, and soon after he was expelled. The differences in this case between the NC majority and Cannon were tactical, and it is possible to see the logic and merits in both their positions. But perhaps Cannon was looking a little farther ahead than most of the NC members.

Swabeck had so discredited himself, Cannon told the PC, that the immediate effect of the party’s reaction to the new provocation would not be very great whether he was suspended or not. “But the long range effect on the political education of the party, and its preparation to cope with old problems in new forms, can be very great indeed.” It is clear from this that Cannon was concerned with something bigger than the fate of Swabeck; that he was trying to alert the party to dangers that transcended the issue of whether or not to suspend Swabeck prior to the convention; that he feared mistakes on this issue could have damaging long range effects on the party, its political education, and its ability to fulfill its revolutionary mission.

The Swabeck case was soon forgotten, but the dangers that worried Cannon are worth recalling today, after the SWP leadership, in a brutal break with the party’s tradition of subordinating disciplinary measures to political discussion and clarification, expelled and in other ways drove out any and all members who were suspected of having oppositional views (whether they were articulate or not). The SWP leadership “justified” this purge by accusing the expellees of being disrupters and splitters who, “like Swabeck,” were outside the party only because of their own indiscipline and disloyalty. But everybody in the SWP knows that most of the expellees fought to remain in the party, unlike Swabeck, and are still fighting to be reinstated, also unlike Swabeck. Most members of the FI know this, too, because at their world congress in February 1985, they voted overwhelmingly to demand the reinstatement of the purged members. The fight for the SWP’s tradition continues, but the SWP leadership is fighting on the other side.

In May 1983, a month after the Harer-DeBerry exchange in San Jose, the NC held a plenum in New York where oppositionists contrasted Cannon’s positions on democratic centralism with those of the Barnes group. Barnes finally took the floor and said, “It looks as though we are going to have to rescue Cannon from these people the same way we rescued Trotsky from the sectarians.” Barnes had “rescued” Trotsky at a YSA convention on December 3l, 1982, in a talk entitied “Their Trotsky and Ours” (New International, Fall 1983). It was rather a unique kind of rescue since in this talk Barnes tried to demolish Trotsky and most of his work as sectarian and harmful. A similar “rescue” of Cannon would mean a wholesale re-evaluation of his work and his place in the history of the SWP and the FI. Even as Barnes uttered this promise or threat, a dossier was being compiled that would “prove” Cannon had been a “Stalinophobe” in the 1930s and 1940s, etc. Whether or not such material will be published, it stands to reason that the Barnes group will have to differentiate itself from Cannon and Cannonism more and more as it proceeds further away from them politically and organizationally. The antidote includes an objective reading of Cannon’s writings, of which there are fortunately many in print.

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