Socialist Workers Party (US)

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The Socialist Workers Party is a small communist political party in the United States.



The Socialist Workers Party, founded in 1938, traces its origins back to the former Communist League of America. The CLA had been founded in 1928 by members of the Communist Party USA expelled for supporting Russian Communist leader Leon Trotsky against Josef Stalin. In 1934, the Communist League of America merged with the American Workers Party led by A.J. Muste, forming the Workers Party of America. The member of that organization, in turn, joined the Socialist Party of America in 1936. The Socialist Party soon expelled the former Workers Party members, along with others recruited to their Trotskyist politics.

Those expelled founded the Socialist Workers Party, combining the names of the Workers Party and the Socialist Party. The new party participated in founding the Fourth International.

The SWP's best known leader was James Patrick Cannon, a former member of the Industrial Workers of the World and former head of the International Labor Defense. Another prominent leader was Max Shachtman until a split between the two men in 1940.

The 1940 split in the SWP followed an internal factional debate over the party's internal regime, the class nature of the Russian state, and Marxist philosophy among other quetions. The SWP was to experience many other factional conflicts and splits in its history, but this was the largest, and it foreshadowed many features of those to come.

The majority faction, led by Cannon, supported Trotsky's position that the USSR remained a "workers' state" and should be supported in any war with capitalist states, despite their opposition to the regime headed by Josef Stalin. The minority faction, led by Shachtman, held that the USSR should not be supported in its war with Finland. One of its leaders, James Burnham held, in addition, that the USSR had degenerated so far that it deserved no defense whatsoever. Like this debate, most later factional disputes within the SWP also centered on different attitudes towards revolutions in other countries.

The opposition faction alleged that Cannon's leadership of the SWP was "bureaucratic conservative" and demanded the right to its own publications to express its views outside the party. The majority faction said this was contrary to Lenin's concept of democratic centralism, and that disagreements and the SWP should be debated only internally. Similar disagreements over the SWP's internal regime have surfaced in most later faction fights, with most later opposition factions raising similar demands and accusations. Despite this, most of these later factions claimed political descent from Cannon and the SWP majority, not from earlier opposition factions and splitoff parties.

The minority faction led by Shachtman eventually split away and formed the Workers Party, taking roughly 40% of the party's membership as well as its youth organization, the Young People's Socialist League.

The SWP opposed U.S. entry into World War II, arguing that the U.S. would be conducting an "imperialist war" for redivison of the world's colonies and spheres of influence, not a war for democracy against fascism. It experienced some difficulty as a result.

First, the SWP's main base of influence in the labor unions came under attack. This was its place in the International Brotherhood of Teamsters in the upper Midwest, especially Minneapolis. A number of members of the SWP had been prominent in leading the [1934 Minneapolis Teamster strike and mid-30s organization of Midwest intercity trucking (|the)] and held leadership positions in a number of locals. The Minneapolis local's newspaper agitated against U.S. entry into the war. Teamsters International President Daniel Tobin launched an effort to dislodge them from these positions, and with the aid of employers and government agencies, he was successful.

A number of members were imprisoned under the Smith Act of 1941, including J. P. Cannon (see Smith Act Trials). Those imprisoned included the main national leaders of the SWP and those members most prominent in the Midwest Teamsters.

However the party put into practice the so-called Proletarian Military Policy of opposing the war politically while arguing that their members of military age, which meant most of the membership, should go with their class into the military and attempt to transform the imperialist war into a civil war while fighting the Nazis. Although the members of the SWP kept a deliberately low profile during the war years the marine fraction of the party lost a number of its members while sailing in the extremely perilous convoys to Murmansk in an attempt to contact revolutionaries in Russia.

As a consequence of the repression they experienced during the war the SWP was quite cautious in its campaigning during this period. That many of their members were in the armed forces also had a detrimental effect on their ability to exploit the opportunities that existed. However in contrast to the rival Workers' Party of Max Shachtman they were unadventurous. One campaign that they did launch that seems to have failed due to a lack of energy on the part of the SWP was its campaign for a Labor Party. Problems caused as a result of the imprisonment of experienced leaders and the enlistment in the armed forces of many others mean that during the war years the editorship of The Militant passed through a number of hands.

The SWP was active in supporting those labor strikes that occurred despite the wartime "no-strike pledge", and in supporting protests against racist discrimination during the war, such as A. Philip Randolph's March on Washington Movement. The U.S. Postal Service refused to mail some issues of The Militant and threatened to cancel its third-class mailing permit, citing objections to its articles opposing racist discrimination.


Following the war the SWP and the Fourth International both expected that there would be a wave of revolutionary struggles such as accompanied the end of the previous war. Indeed, revolutions did occur in countries including Yugoslavia, Albania, Vietnam, and China, to name only those which resulted in the overthrow of capitalism, but contrary to Trotskyist expectations they were headed by Moscow-oriented "Stalinist" parties.

In the United States, the largest strike wave in U.S. history - involving over 5 million workers - occurred with the end of the war and the wartime pledge made by many union leaders not to strike for the duration. (This did not mean there were not many strikes during wartime - there were many wildcat strikes during this period, as well as strikes officially called by the United Mine Workers of America. There were also protests by GIs demanding rapid demobilization after the end of the war, sometimes called the going-home movement). SWP participation in this upsurge led to a brief period of rapid growth for the SWP immediately after the war.

The end of the war also saw the reorganisation of the FI in which process the SWP played a major role. As part of this process, moves were made to heal the breach with Max Shachtman's supporters in the Workers Party (WP) and for the two groups to fuse. This eventually came to nothing. However some members of the SWP around Felix Morrow and Goldman grew dissatisfied with what they saw as the SWP's ultra-leftist attitude towards revolutionary policies. Eventually they were to leave the SWP in a state of demoralisation and some joined the WP.

On the other hand a faction within the WP called the Johnson-Forrest tendency, CLR James (known as Johnson) and Raya Dunayevskaya (Forrest), were impatient of the caution of the WP and considered that the situation could rapidly become pre-revolutionary. This led them to decamp from the WP and rejoin the SWP in 1947. This tendency had moved further away from the 'orthodox Trotskyism' of the SWP, which made for an uncomfortable presence. For example, they continued to hold the position that the USSR was a state capitalist society. By 1951, their presence in the SWP was ever more anomalous, especially as and most left. Dunayevskaya and her supporters eventually formed the News and Letters Committees in 1955 after splitting with CLR James, who was deported from the USA.

Cold War

The brief postwar wave of labor unrest gave way to the conservatism of the 1950s, the housebreaking of previously radical labor unions, and the anticommunist witch-hunt. The growing civil rights movement, which continued uninterrupted out of WWII, could not fully offset these trends, and the SWP experienced a period of decline and isolation.

The party has also had a number of splits over these years. One such split saw the departure of the Pabloite faction of Bert Cochran and Clarke who formed the Socialist Union which lasted until 1959. This 1953 opposition supported the positions of Michel Pablo the Secretary of the Fourth International.

The next, smaller split was that of Sam Marcy's Global Class War faction which had called within the SWP for support of Henry Wallace's Progressive Party Presidential run in 1948 and regarded Mao Tse-Tung as a revolutionary leader. This faction ended up leaving the SWP in 1958 after supporting the suppression of the Hungarian Rising of 1956 contrary to the position held by most with Trotskyist tendencies. They went on to form the Workers' World Party.

Meanwhile throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s the remaining membership of the SWP clung to its firmly held beliefs and grew older. Consequently the party membership shrank over these years from a post war high in 1948 until the tide began to turn in the early 1960s. The 1959 Revolution in Cuba however signalled a change in political direction for the SWP as it embarked on solidarity work through the Fair Play for Cuba Committee. The result was a small accretion of youth to the party's ranks and in the same period long time SWP leader Murry Weiss won another group of youth from the Shachtmanites as they joined the SPUSA. Many of the new recruits, however, were drawn from the student movement, unlike those who had led the party since the 1930s, and as a result the internal culture of the party began to change.


Despite such growing signs of an end to the isolation which the group had endured during the McCarthyite period, it experienced a new split in the early 1960s. A factional situation developed in the SWP that saw a number of small oppositional groups develop. One of the key issues was the Cuban Revolution and the SWP's response to it. Cannon and other SWP leaders such as Joseph Hansen saw Cuba as qualitatively different from the Stalinist states of Eastern Europe. Their analysis brought them closer to the International Secretariat of the Fourth International from which the SWP had split in 1953. The SWP attempted to negotiate a reunification of the ISFI and the International Committee of the Fourth International leading to the creation in 1963 of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Several sections of the ICFI, including Gerry Healy's Socialist Labor League rejected the merger and turned against the SWP leadership working with opponents within the party.

The most important faction opposing the SWP leadership's new line was the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) led by James Robertson and Tim Wohlforth which rejected the SWP's "capitulation" to Pabloism and opposed joining the USFI. They were critical of the Castro government, arguing variously that Cuba it remained a capitalist state or that it was a bureaucratized, Stalinist-style workers state. However, a split developed within this faction however between groups headed by the two men. Nonetheless both the RT and the Reorganised Minority Tendency split to form the Spartacist (see Spartacist League), and the American Committee for the Fourth International (see Socialist Equality Party), respectively with the latter becoming aligned with Healy's SLL.

In the aftermath the Seattle branch also left to found the Freedom Socialist Party, after protesting the alleged suppression of internal democracy, as did Murray and Myra Tanner Weiss.

The SWP supported both the civil rights movement and the Black nationalist movement which grew during the 1960s. It particularly praised the militancy of Black nationalist leader Malcolm X, who in turn spoke at the SWP's public forums and gave an interview to Young Socialist magazine. After his assassination, the SWP had limited success in forming alliances with his followers and other Black nationalists. However, these movements were part of the radicalization of these years aiding the SWP's growth.

Like all left wing groups, but even more than most, the SWP grew during the 1960s and experienced a particularly brisk growth in the first years of the 1970s. Much of this was due to its central involvement in many of the campaigns and demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. The SWP advocated that the antiwar movement should call for the immediate withdrawal of all U.S. troops, and should primarily focus on organizing large, legal demonstrations for this demand. It was recognized by friend and foe alike as a major factor influencing the direction of the antiwar movement along these lines.

The SWP was also increasingly outspoken in its defence of the Cuban regime of Fidel Castro and its identification with that regime. A new leadership led by Jack Barnes (who became national secretary in 1972), made identification with Cuba an ever greater part of the politics of the SWP as throughout the 1970s.

The party also published many of Leon Trotsky's works in these years through their publishing house, Pathfinder Press. Not only were the better-known writings reprinted, many for the first time since the 1930s, but other more obscure articles and letters were collected and printed for a wider audience than they had when first distributed.

1970s and new leadership

The growth of labour militancy in the early 1970s had an impact on the SWP and currents developed within it urging a reorientation of the party towards this militancy. One such current was the Proletarian Orientation Tendency, which eventually dissolved itself.

Another tendency developed called the Internationalist Tendency (IT). The IT posed a greater challenge for the group's leadership, as it espoused the ideas of the European-based leadership of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International, including its advocacy of guerilla warfare as a "tactic on a continental scale" in Latin America. However, despite tensions between the SWP and USFI, when the former expelled the IT the latter refused to defend their allies. The IT would disintegrate over the next few months, some of its supporters finding their way back into the SWP.

This period was the peak of the SWP's growth and influence. The party continued its involvement in the movement against the war in Vietnam, which peaked in 1970-71. The SWP also supported Chicano nationalism, including the Raza Unida Party. It helped organize protests demanding legal abortion through the Women's National Abortion Action Coalition.

With the mid- to late 70s decline of these movements and the end of the 1960s-1970s youth radicalization, SWP membership and influence went into decline.

In 1978, the SWP leadership decided that the key task was for party members to make a turn to industry. This turn entailed party members getting jobs in blue collar industries in preparation for, the SWP leadership projected, increasing mass struggles. The 1977-78 coal miners' strike and developments like Steelworkers Fight Back were among the events pointed to in arguing for this change in policy. Party members sought to get jobs in the same workplaces in order to work as organized "fractions", doing "communist political work" as well as union activity.

As a result, many members were asked to move and change jobs, often out of established careers and into low paying jobs in small towns. Many of the older members with experience in trade unions resisted this 'colonization program', which upset their established routine in the unions, as did some of the younger members.

1980s and after

Opposition to the "turn to industry" developed within the SWP. This opposition was not homogenous and was itself beset by differences between different factions.

A key factor in the growing divisions within the SWP was the move by Jack Barnes, Mary-Alice Waters and others in the leadership away from the Trotskyist label. In 1982, Barnes gave a speech which was later published as Their Trotsky and Ours: Communist continuity today in which Barnes rejected Trotsky's theory of Permanent Revolution arguing that it failed to sufficiently distinguish between the democratic and socialist tasks of a workers' revolution. Barnes argued that anticapitalist revolutions typically began with a "workers' and farmers' government" which initially concentrated on bourgeois-democratic measures, and only later moved on to the abolition of capitalism.

Barnes also argued that the "Trotskyist" label unnecessarily distinguished revolutionaries in that tradition from revolutionaries of other origins, such as the Cuban Communist Party or the Sandinista National Liberation Front. He argued that the SWP had more in common with these organizations than with many groups calling themselves Trotskyist. The SWP has continued to publish numerous books by Trotsky and advocate a number of ideas commonly associated with Trotskyism, including Trotsky's analysis of Stalinism. Probably the change in the SWP's self-description has gathered far more widespread attention than the nuances of Marxist theory involved.

The opposition factions continued to support the theory of permanent revolution, and the Trotskyist label. While declaring their support to the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions, they were more critical of the Castroist and Sandinista leadership. Additionally, they continued to oppose the "turn to industry".

One opposition group gathered around the Weinsteins on the West Coast, (with supporters elsewhere too), while a second group gathered around George Breitman and Frank Lovell. Together they formed an opposition bloc on the SWP's National Committee but in 1983 were defeated in the vote at the party's National Convention. Following the convention, the SWP leadership expelled some who would not pledge to abide by convention decisions; others quit.

The opposition factions, having split from the SWP, formed new organizations. The grouping around the Weinsteins forming the San Francisco-based Socialist Action. The Breitman-Lovell group, after a time, formed the Fourth Internationalist Tendency. Both groups described themselves as "public factions" of the SWP and set the task of recapturing the SWP to their understanding of Trotskyism. A group, mainly in Los Angeles, that had been close to Breitman but did not agree to orient toward the SWP belonged briefly to Socialist Action but left to join with descendants of the Schachtman organization in Los Angeles and Detroit in the "regroupment" organization Solidarity.

This was the most recent split or major faction fight in the SWP; the organization has experienced an unusually long period of internal peace since.

The Socialist Workers Party formally left the United Secretariat of the Fourth International in 1990 though it had been increasingly inactive in the Trotskyist movement since Barnes' 1982 speech. In the late 1980s, the SWP's supporters internationally reconstituted themselves in each country as under the name of the Communist League - either renaming national sections of the USFI or splitting from them. The SWP's international formation is sometimes referred to as the Pathfinder tendency as they each operate a Pathfinder Bookstore which sells the publications of the SWP's publishing arm, Pathfinder Press.

The Socialist Workers Party has run candidates for President since 1948; it received its greatest number of votes in 1976, when its candidate, Peter Camejo, received 90,310 votes. In 1986, the party won a lawsuit against the FBI as a result of years of spying by the FBI.

The SWP's most high profile and controversial campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s was its Mark Curtis Defense Committee, established after Curtis, an SWP activist and trade union organizer, was charged and convicted on burglary and rape charges in 1988. The party claimed that Curtis had been framed by police for his role in defending immigrant workers. Curtis was eventually paroled.

The party has declined to a membership of several hundred in recent years and, in 2003, sold its headquarters in New York City.

The SWP has continued the policies known as the "turn to industry" and unlike most far-left parties, a large majority of its members are industrial workers and rank-and-file trade union activists. It places a considerable priority on participation in, and solidarity work to aid, strikes and other labor disputes.

The SWP also places considerable priority on supporting Pathfinder Press, which publishes a large range of titles by revolutionary leaders including Malcolm X and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. In 2004, its presidential campaign achieved ballot access in 13 states and the District of Columbia, more than any other socialist candidates.

2004 Presidential Election

The Socialist Workers Party ran Roger Calero for President and Arrin Hawkins for Vice-President. It should be noted that both candidates were technically unqualified for the positions because Calero is not an American citizen and Hawkins is 29 years old, with the minimum age being 35. They received 11,947 votes in the Presidential Elections of 2004. They were on the ballot in 13 states and the District of Columbia, more than any other socialist candidates.
The SWP also ran several candidates for Congress.

SWP National Secretaries

Presidential candidates from 1948

Other leading members

See also: COINTELPRO, Other parties called the Socialist Workers Party, List of political parties in the United States List of Communist parties

External links

Further reading


  • The George Breitman Papers. Tamiment 169. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Online guide ( retrieved April 20, 2005.
  • The Frank Lovell Papers. Tamiment 204. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Online guide ( retrieved April 20, 2005.
  • The Max Shachtman Papers 1917-1969. Tamiment 103. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. Online guide ( retrieved April 20, 2005.
  • David Loeb Weiss Papers. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University.
  • Myra Tanner Weiss Papers. Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University.


  • Breitman, George and James P. Cannon Founding of the Socialist Workers Party. 395 pages. Anchor Foundation (September, 1982). ISBN 0913460915.
  • Halstead, Fred. Out Now!: A Participant's Account of the Movement in the United States Against the Vietnam War. 759 pages. Hardcover edition. Publisher: Anchor Foundation; Reprint edition. June 1, 1978. ISBN 0913460478.
  • Jayko, Margaret, editor. FBI on Trial: The Victory in the Socialist Workers Party Suit Against Government Spying. 260 pages. Pathfinder Press (NY) (September 1, 1988). ISBN 0873485297.
  • Sheppard, Barry. The Party: A Political Memoir of the Socialist Workers Party, 1960-1988. Volume 1: The Sixties. Resistance Books, Australia. 2005. ISBN 1876646500.
  • Wohlforth, Tim. The Prophet's Children: Travels on the American Left. 332 pages. Humanities Press Intl Inc (April 1, 1994). ISBN 0391038192.

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