Saturday, December 29, 2012

Is The SWP A Cult?

This is the second article inspired by Louis Proyect’s post entitled Cult Leaders Reward Themselves Handsomely. The title refers to the modern Socialist Workers Party (SWP), under the leadership of Jack Barnes. I think the SWP is frequently characterized as a cult--see also this article by Lynn Henderson  in Socialist Viewpoint, which even contains a section entitled On Cultism. In Socialist Action’s obituary for Gerry Foley, one finds the sentence, “[h]is departure from the SWP, which expelled Gerry retroactively, stemmed from his opposition to the bureaucratic and cult-like practices of SWP National Secretary Jack Barnes...” Finally, Mr. Proyect and others contributed to this discussion thread.

The word is used sloppily and one shouldn’t take it too seriously. Still, the question presents itself: Is the SWP a cult? And if not, then what is it?

When I think of “cult,” I think of Jonestown (Guyana), or the Branch Davidians, or perhaps Charles Manson-style wackiness. The Socialist Workers Party definitely does not fit that mold. My former Comrades are surely needy and I feel sorry for them, but they’re not certifiably insane.

According to Wikipedia:

The word cult in current popular usage usually refers to a new religious movement or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered abnormal or bizarre.

This description doesn’t fit the Party, either.

Because of the Pope, some Protestants refer to the Catholic Church as a cult. By this standard any organization under a single, all-powerful leader will qualify. Thus the examples above are cults, and if Jack Barnes is an “all-powerful leader,” then the SWP is also a cult. That appears to be Lynn Henderson’s argument.

But the Pope is not an all-powerful leader, infallibility notwithstanding. He is bound by Biblical teaching, along with the long history of the Church. He has no more power to ordain women than I do, nor can he single handedly change Church teachings on homosexuality. Such big decisions are reserved for Ecumenical Councils, such as Vatican II--these meet approximately every hundred years. The old saw--”the Church thinks in centuries”--is largely true. The Pope can’t lead it off a cliff, and hence in no way is it a cult.

Likewise, the Mormon church is frequently described as a cult. Certainly that was true in its early days--polygamy was an “abnormal or bizarre” practice. Founder Joseph Smith was arguably a cult figure, as was the church’s greatest leader, Brigham Young. But in abandoning polygamy in order to secure statehood for Utah, the Mormons sacrificed their cult. Today they have a system of governance that is at least as convoluted as the Catholic Church, and similarly bound by both text and tradition. No one person can inspire collective suicide.

These examples show that “cult” and “crackpot” are not synonyms. One can be the latter without belonging to the former.

So, in addition to “abnormal or bizarre” practices, we have a second criterion for a cult--namely the presence of a charismatic, all-powerful leader, who can lead the group off the rails if he so chooses. The SWP fails the “abnormal or bizarre” test. And I think it fails the “charismatic leader” test as well.

By jettisoning Trotskyism, the Party gave Jack more flexibility than he used to have. But Trotskyism, vague to begin with, isn’t much of an anchor anyway. Socialist Action, for example, seems to interpret it very flexibly. And despite partially rejecting its founding dogma, the Party is severely constrained by history. After all, The Militant has been published since 1928, and the Party can no more disown that than Catholics can the Bible.

This distinguishes Jack Barnes from real cult leaders, like Lyndon Larouche or Bob Avakian. Those grouplets report to no authority beyond their leader. Jack certainly has disproportionate influence, but more in the style of Gus Hall or the Pope, rather than like David Koresh.

So the SWP is not a cult. Then what is it?

The important answer to that question is old. The median age of Comrades must now be close to sixty. Jack himself is 72. This fact alone explains most of the changes that have happened in the Party. For 2012, the search term “Young Socialists” yields only four hits from The Militant website. Long gone are YS conventions and manifestos. Also vanished are the YS leaders. Samantha Kern left the group in about 2000. Jack Willey disappeared under mysterious circumstances in 2002. The staff writers for The Militant are mostly people I remember from my youth (including my former roommate).

Jack depends on regular, sustainer income. He can’t afford defections, but at the same time he needs a loyal, homogeneous organization (hence the expulsions). On the one hand Comrades need to feel that they are an Elite Group, members of the Anointed Vanguard Party, part of a continuous tradition that dates back to Leon Trotsky.

At the same time, this has to be very low-impact, feel-good socialism. No hard effort is demanded. Sub drives only require 3,000 subs--easy work for 400 Comrades. Gone are the days of arduous fraction work--retired folks won’t be getting union jobs in factories anyway. Pay your sustainer and sell a few subs, and you, too, can take credit for the Great Events Of Human History.

The religious analogy is the feel-good mega-churches, such as Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, Bobby Shuler’s Crystal Cathedral (Hour of Power), or Oral Roberts’ Expect A Miracle. Like the SWP, these crusades promise free unicorns for everybody in the sweet bye & bye, without imposing any real sacrifices in the here and now. All glory--no cross. Or, all vanguard party feel good stuff--no Trotsky.

Even if its not a cult, the Party isn’t a political organization anymore, either. It has effectively forfeited any claim to power. What it really is is a church--a feel-good church where Comrades go for fellowship and “prayer.” Prayer, in this context, means a ritual (the branch meeting) that connects the “parishioner” with the meaning and purpose of life.

The Party recently opened a new branch in Lincoln, Nebraska. This seems mysterious, especially since the word “meatpacking” isn’t even mentioned in the announcing article. But it is entirely consistent with the Party as a feel-good church for old people. Lincoln is a smallish city with a low cost of living and a low crime rate. It’s a great place for retired Comrades living on social security, who will then still have some pennies left over for a sustainer.

The “church’s” Bishop, Jack Barnes, issues his biannual sermons in the form of political documents, such as Capitalism’s Long Hot Winter Has Begun. I’ve read some of these books, including that one. They are well-written, entertaining, sentimental, and flattering--Rick Warren couldn’t do better. They emphasize the importance of the current moment--how close we are to a pre-revolutionary situation--though he’s always careful to say that future timing can’t be predicted. Comrades, with their deep, proletarian understanding of Marxist principles, will soon be thrust into powerful, leadership roles. The Rapture is near at hand. In the meantime, nobody really needs to do very much--just make sure the printing presses are well-oiled and the Party is well funded.

Amen, Comrade. Amen.

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