Monday, February 29, 2016

Whither the SWP?

In the former incarnation of this blog I frequently dubbed the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) as the Stupid Workers Party. The title seemed to fit at the time (late 1990s). I have since sworn off such language because it is uncivil and precludes conversation.

Beyond that, it simply isn't true. The SWP is wrong and often incoherent, but they are not stupid. Quite the contrary.

For example, their 2016 presidential candidate, Alyson Kennedy, has filed excellent reports in The Militant on the mine workers' struggles in the coal fields (see, e.g., here,  here, and here). This is because she has actually worked as a coal miner and knows something about it. And then she's honest. Which doesn't mean I agree with her. Likewise Brian Williams, The Militant's economics reporter, is at least competent, avoiding the jargon and the howlers that afflict most far-Left publications (though he's often mistaken).

So they're not stupid, but they have been singularly unsuccessful. The Party's Boston branch was recently closed, likely for lack of comrades. And similarly for branches in Houston and Des Moines. The hall in Omaha is no more--the branch has either been closed or merged with the whatever-exists in nearby Lincoln. Not counting Lincoln there are now only 10 branches--the fewest number in my memory. Supposing 15 comrades per branch, and then adding another 20 for the national office, one gets a grand total of 170 comrades, most of whom are over 60. And this is a vanguard Party?

So clearly something has to change. I think the Party has been looking for a new role--something distinctive and important that's in tune with the times. This searching is what often renders them incoherent. They run new ideas up the flagpole to see how well they fly.

I discern three emerging themes:

1. They take their paper's masthead very seriously: "published in the interests of working people." This has a number of counter-intuitive consequences.
  • They rightly dismiss environmentalism as not in the interests of workers. And they are correct to do so--the Greenies ultimately claim that everybody will have to lower their standard of living in order to save the planet. The Solidarity grouplet has gone furthest with this, adopting an explicitly Luddite program. Socialist Action is also flying the Green banner, similarly demanding Poverty for Everybody Now! I summarize a lot of this here. The SWP consistently rejects any pro-poverty platform.
  • The Party has come out in support of Israel. There is no doubt that workers in that state--both Jewish and Palestinian--are better off as Israeli citizens. Indeed, even Palestinian workers in the territories are better off because of the existence of Israel--it's an obvious market for their products.
  • Finally and most recently, the Party understands the importance of the rule of law. In response to Justice Scalia's death, they wrote  
    Scalia was hated by most liberals and leftists for his socially conservative views, but more importantly because he argued the court should base its rulings strictly on the Constitution, rejecting “outcome-driven” decisions that amount to decreeing laws from the bench. 
    But it’s in the interest of the working class that the court uphold the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights and subsequent amendments won in struggle that are protections of the people against the government. 
    In his dissent on last year’s ruling legalizing gay marriage, Scalia pointed to the narrowness of the class background of the justices, writing they are “only nine men and women, all of them successful lawyers who studied at Harvard or Yale Law School.” 
    The justices are all Catholic or Jewish, he pointed out. “Not a single evangelical Christian (a group that comprises about one quarter of Americans), or even a Protestant of any denomination. … Eight of them grew up in east- and west-coast States.”
However much The Militant sounds like Republicans, there is no question but that the Constitution protects the rights of working people against the depredations of any elite. I think The Militant has made the case very eloquently, and I agree with them totally. Consistency with their masthead demands that they say no less.
2. An abiding hatred of the Democratic Party. I came by my own anti-Democrat credentials as a member of the SWP, despite growing up in an upper-middle class, liberal household. (My mother lionized FDR.) I'm remain as proud today as ever that I've never voted for a Democrat (beyond some municipal elections). In that sense I'm still a "Trotskyist."

But the SWP is realizing that the Democrats are no longer their primary competitor. More and more workers are gravitating toward the Republican Party. Or as I think of it, productive people (workers and capitalists alike) tend to be Republicans, while the parasites (dependent on government largesse) remain with the Democrats. Accordingly, the Party has to address workers where they are at.

That explains why the Party is adopting some positions similar to Republicans, though in no way are they becoming Republicans. Other grouplets, meanwhile, are talking to the Sanders crowd, made up almost exclusively of parasites. They're still defining themselves relative to the Democrats.

3. The Party remains committed to socialism; how could it be otherwise for the Socialist Workers Party. In particular they're avid supporters of the Cuban "revolution." But this is where the incoherence starts: how can you champion the rule of law on the one hand, and yet support the semi-feudal, nepotistic, ridiculous government in Havana? Scalia and Castro don't mix very well.

Even worse, the Party is still carrying water for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, aka North Korea. They defend them even in their most recent issue. And in April, 2015, the Party continued it's annual practice of sending fraternal greetings.
The Socialist Workers Party and Young Socialists send internationalist greetings on the occasion of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s April 15 national holiday. We pledge our unconditional solidarity with the struggle to reunify Korea, partitioned in 1945 at the hands of Washington and Moscow.
So much for constitutional rights. And so much for those who claim that Jack Barnes is becoming a Republican. However much it leavens the loaf with a few Republican issues, at the end of the day the Party remains committed to its totalitarian principles.

So will any of this result in an organizational turnaround? Count me skeptical, and not only because the masses aren't going to march for Kim Jong-Un. But if you take socialism out of the mix, then they become no different from any other Republican interest group. So they are condemned to eternal and self-limiting incoherence.

That aside, the Party has gotten too small and too old to be effective anymore. Gram and Gramps will not be able to recruit a younger generation of activists. They've already aged into retirement, and soon they will pass from the scene entirely.

Further Reading:


  1. The current membership of the SWP is more in the neighborhood of 90. In addition, the party has about 200 "organized supporters" (all former members) who have varying levels of commitment. Attendance at national gatherings has been around 300 for a number of years (& this includes their handful of supporters in other countries). You're right to assume that the SWP is going nowhere - it has recruited very few members recently, and the members it has are dying at an increasing pace.

    Given that the SWP is evolving toward your Republican politics, have you considered applying to rejoin? You obviously miss your old comrades.

    1. They're not very Republican, what still backing Castro and Kim Jong-un. But you are right--I do miss my comrades. They were good friends back in the day, and I think they'd be good friends now. But they'd have to change their name before I'd consider rejoining. I might suggest the Republican Workers Party.

      All I know is what I read in The Militant. So I appreciate news that you pass my way from on the ground. Thanks.