Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Barry Sheppard: A Wasted Life

Like many elderly people, Barry Sheppard has written his memoirs (here and here).

My grandfather did the same, though unless you share his passion for lumber mill technology from 1910 through 1940, it will not long detain you. My mother also wrote a memoir--she is a much better writer than either my grandfather or Mr. Sheppard, and while her life was unusual, it isn't significant. I once read the reminiscences of a very modestly successful businessman--also insignificant, but spellbindingly written. Only a few in this genre have more than sentimental value--Sam Walton's ghostwritten effort comes to mind. With all of these books--whether significant or not--my closing thoughts are usually this was a life well lived.

But not so with Mr. Sheppard's opus, to which my reaction is pathetic. Instead of admiration, I feel sorry for him.


It's not for technical reasons. Mr. Sheppard is a capable, if pedestrian, writer. The book is not uneventful--Mr. Sheppard did interesting things, including two round-the-world trips back when such were relatively rare. And it certainly isn't for lack of detail--quite the opposite. Indeed, it comes in two volumes, and I must now admit that I haven't read the second one. I have read the comprehensive review here.

Instead, unlike most memoirists, Mr. Sheppard suffers from a very weird form of megalomania. It's not that he exaggerates his own abilities, but he hugely overstates the importance of his work. His goal, after all, is to overthrow the existing world order and replace it with something different. He is simply delusional. His delusions result in a boring book, and a life's work utterly devoid of wisdom, moral purpose, or meaning.

Mr. Sheppard, born in New Jersey in 1937, graduated with a degree in mathematics from MIT. There he met Peter Camejo, a fellow student, and together they gravitated toward Trotskyism. Mr. Sheppard played a lead role in the founding of the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA) in 1960, and then advanced to a leadership role in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He became National Organization Secretary (sort of like senior vice president) of the SWP in 1970. The SWP was loosely aligned with the world Trotskyist movement, called the Fourth International, and Mr. Sheppard represented the Party at the International headquarters in Brussels for several years.

A key indicator of the book's weakness is that nearly all the references in the bibliography are from The Militant, or from other publications of the SWP, or related organizations. In other words, Mr. Sheppard reads only what he or his colleagues have themselves written. There is no critical distance, no contrary opinion, indeed, no knowledge whatsoever. He's spent his entire life inside an echo chamber. This leads to some wacko statements that are just assumed to be self-evident. For example, on a visit to Calcutta in 1969, he writes

In Calcutta in Bengal on the east coast of India, there was even more poverty and worse living conditions than in Bombay. I met Silan Banerjee, the leader of the group there, and we traveled around the city by taxi. I was astounded when we went around a huge traffic circle around a park, the centerpiece of which was a statue of Queen Victoria seated on her throne. There she was in all her regal splendor in the midst of so much squalor for which the British were responsible.
Now how are the British responsible for the squalor in Calcutta? Was Calcutta a fabulously wealthy city prior to the British arrival? Hardly--it was the British that founded the city in the 18th Century. People moved there for the same reasons people move to cities today--for jobs and opportunities. Kolkata, as it's now known, has 14 million inhabitants. Further, 1969 was more than 20 years after independence. If the Indians wanted to tear down Queen Victoria's statue, they had plenty of opportunities to do so. The fact that she still sits there, in front of Victoria Memorial Hall, says something about the Indian view of the British. It is obvious that Mr. Sheppard never read anything, nor did he even talk to anybody before forming his silly opinion.

The whole book is like that--a mile wide and an inch deep--full of ill-considered opinions about which Mr. Sheppard knows nothing.

Mr. Sheppard clearly believes his own propaganda. Indeed, he must be guided by the Holy Spirit or something, because in the entire first volume it is impossible for him to make an important mistake. We read about the Schactmanites, and the Burnhamites, and the Cochranites, the Swabeck group, the Robertsonites and the Wohlforthites, not to mention the Weiss clique. Those are just factions within the SWP. In the larger Left were various splinters of SDS, the Progressive Labor Party, and the Communist Party (known collectively as "opponents.") Through all this hubbub and turmoil, Mr. Sheppard keeps a firm hold on the Truth. To him and his close friends, and to them alone, is True Revolutionary Doctrine revealed.

And indeed, that is the whole purpose of the memoir. Younger comrades are supposed to read these words and learn how Truth was maintained for twenty five years in the SWP.

Unlike with my ancestors, there is no sentimental purpose. And unlike Mr. Walton, Sheppard accomplished precisely nothing. And that's what makes it so pathetic. Here's a guy who actually believes he's got a stranglehold on Truth, but over his entire career has absolutely nothing to show for it. There is no mass political movement. The organization to which he has dedicated his life is today irrelevant (he bitterly refers to it as a cult). The Fourth International is in disarray. At no time and in no place has Trotskyism ever been an important actor on the world stage. It's a total waste.

Few of us lead important lives. Mr. Sheppard has led an unimportant life, though he thinks he's made some huge contribution. He hasn't. The guy's a loser. But that's not the worst of it. He writes
The paper [Boston Globe] wrote, the SWP “flies Vietcong flags and roots for a Cong victory in Vietnam.” The first of these assertions was generally not true, but the second one certainly was — and we were now far from alone in this opinion among opponents of the war.
And that's just it. The SWP and the YSA were never anti-war. They were very much pro-war, but just for the other side. For twenty years, Mr. Sheppard and the Party supported the Vietcong and the Khmer Rouge. I don't blame Mr. Sheppard for the killing fields--he's not important enough to bear any responsibility. I don't even blame Jane Fonda. But how can one go through a long life and say I supported the organization responsible for the mass slaughter of two million innocent people. In my own little way, I helped that organization win their war. Is this something to be proud of?

I pity Mr. Sheppard. What a wasted life.

Update: You can download the first volume of Mr. Sheppard's book in pdf format here for free. Don't worry--it's legal. The second volume is not for free and is overpriced, which is why I haven't read it yet. I do wish both books were available on Kindle (I would pay for that).

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