Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Jack Barnes' Next Book

A fun parlor game is to predict the title of Jack Barnes' next book.

Approximately every other year Mr. Barnes, National Secretary (CEO) of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) authors a book summarizing the Party's political position. These works are well-written, sentimental, and often completely detached from reality. An example is his 1998 opus US Imperialism Has Lost The Cold War.

The books typically evolve out of the annual Oberlin conferences. Every other year is a Party convention, and that easily turns into a book. In the off years, such as 2013, there is an educational confab--less likely to result in a tome.

The Active Workers Conference, held July 18-20 in Oberlin, Ohio, was a short three days. So the most probable outcome is that no book appears this year. Better to wait until after next year's convention. On the other hand, his last book came out in 2010, entitled Malcolm X, Black Liberation, and the Road to Workers Power

The books all have some things in common:
  • They put great weight on history. Every event is deeply meaningful and subject to dialectical, Marxist interpretation. This makes the books important.
  • They are very sentimental, invariably referring to something that happened back when comrades were young (e.g., Malcolm X). So the books are inspiring.
  • They make some odd-ball claim that sets the Party apart. For example, nobody else on the Left (or even the world) believes that the US lost the cold war. Thus the books inspire group solidarity.
So we can try to parse John Studer's report of the proceedings and see what best fits these three criteria. He devotes a paragraph to the Cuban Five, "five Cuban revolutionaries framed up and imprisoned in the United States for working to defend the revolution from paramilitary attacks organized from U.S. soil." This case (which I have not followed) will certainly be a focus for Party activity, so it's important, but it fails the inspiring and group solidarity tests.

Another aim of the conference was "to better prepare workers participating to carry out this course, grounded in a weekly rhythm of propaganda activity in workers’ neighborhoods." This means selling Militants and petitioning to get candidates on the ballot. This, also, is an activity, but not a theme for a book. Likewise, the Jacob Perasso burglary gets a mention, but I think it fails on all three counts.

Finally we get to the main theme of the conference--something really important.
While the capitalist ruling class and its government say there’s an economic recovery, Barnes said in his opening talk, there’s no relief for workers from high unemployment in the U.S. and elsewhere in the capitalist world. Many bosses are replacing fulltime with part-time and temporary workers.
And then at the end of the article we strike gold (emphasis mine):
During the conference summaries, Steve Clark described a debate over a statement he made in a class presentation that the unions today aren’t weak; they’re hamstrung by decades of class collaboration by the labor officialdom. There are millions of workers in the unions. The officials’ lament that the unions are “weak,” Clark said, is a rationalization for their refusal to organize workers into the labor movement and use union power — instead of subordinating workers and our unions to the bosses, their government, and the capitalist Democratic and Republican parties. 
Don’t think of the union as a “thing,” Barnes said in his summary remarks. The union is an activity, a movement. We are the union — that’s what communist workers need to remind ourselves and other workers. And when workers take hold of this powerful instrument to fight back against attacks by the bosses and their government, that lays the basis for further steps to organize a revolutionary social and political movement to advance the fight for workers power.`
There it is--an excellent title for a new book: We Are The Union. It will need a subtitle. It's a very inspiring idea, full of sentimental resonance to a bunch of old people who spent much of their lives in unions. Of course it has nothing to do with reality--nobody outside the Party will be able to take that slogan seriously. You have to be part of the in-group to appreciate it.

The second important theme comes from the other conference that many comrades attended, the VII Continental Conference In Solidarity With Cuba, held in Caracas, July 24-27. Cuba is probably the most sentimental issue around--Mr. Barnes and his life-long revolutionary companion, Mary-Alice Waters, joined the SWP in the early 1960s around support for Castro. We were all young back then.

But there are a couple of reasons why I don't think it will yield a new book. One is that it's already been done: Cuba and the Coming American Revolution was already published in 2007.

The second reason is more substantive, summarized by this excerpt from the article:
José Ángel Pérez of the Center for Study of the World Economy in Cuba gave a presentation on the economic measures being introduced in Cuba today. “Let me be clear, our economy is socialist. It’s not a mixed economy. It’s not state capitalist,” he began. “We’re not going back to capitalism.” 
The severe economic problems Cuba is addressing today are due to three factors, Pérez said — the U.S. economic war that adds billions to the cost of imports and deprives Cuba of essential products; the collapse of the Soviet bloc at the opening of the 1990s, abruptly wiping out 85 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade; and “our own errors.”
Put another way, the Party's sentimental attachment to Cuba is at great risk, for the country will inevitably go through some dramatic changes. The Castro regime will literally pass away, and what follows it is deeply uncertain. I don't think Mr. Barnes will put all his money on a collapsing horse.

As far as I can recall, The Militant has not published any significant analysis about the Cuban economy. There is nothing like the analytic article in Socialist Action, that I discussed here. The SWP is more tightly tied to the Castro regime than any other Trotskyist grouplet. Accordingly, they have commented on the island's economy only indirectly, such as by quoting a Cuban spokesman, as above.

So a book about Cuba, far from rallying the troops, may lead to some serious cognitive dissonance. The Revolution simply can't survive in anything like its current form--even Jack Barnes has to recognize that. But no reason to dwell on that for the annual feel-good session.

So here's my guess for Mr. Barnes' next book (assuming there is one). It will have a title similar to We Are The Union, it will contain a loving account of the Party's participation in unions all the way back to Farrell Dobbs and the Teamsters, and it will emphasize the crucial role that comrades will play in the future union movement.

If Mr. Barnes needs a ghost writer, I am available.

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