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Louis Proyect on Barry Sheppard's book

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  • bobgould987
    Louis Proyect s preliminary comments on Barry Sheppard s history of the US SWP have prompted some discussion on Marxmail.
    Message 1 of 6 , Apr 18 11:00 PM
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      Louis Proyect's preliminary comments on Barry Sheppard's history of
      the US SWP have prompted some discussion on Marxmail.
      http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/maillist.html

      -------------------

      I'll have much more to say about Barry Sheppard's memoir that arrived
      in the mail today, but there are a couple of observations I want to
      make right now.

      To begin with, the book is strikingly shallow when it comes to
      describing personalities. I am not sure this is because Barry lacks
      the literary ability to render personalities or because he would
      consider that an obstacle to getting across his political analysis.

      It is obvious first and foremost when it comes to the lack of any sort
      of deeper analysis of his own personality. For example, he mentions
      getting married when he is at MIT, but has nothing to say about
      falling in love or anything about his wife other than that she was
      from a Jewish family and used a picket sign as a weapon against
      Harvard counter-demonstrators. Since the book is mostly a narrative
      about political developments from the 50s to the 70s, I suppose that
      he lacked room to fit in something like this even though it would have
      made for a more appealing book. You certainly get this dimension in
      Tim Wolforth's memoir. (Tim is about Barry's age and they were both
      leaders of different wings of the Trotskyist movement.)

      It is more glaring when Barry talks about obviously very colorful
      personalities like Peter Camejo and Myra Tanner Weiss. I remember an
      afternoon spent with Junius Scales about 6 years ago. Junius, who died
      a couple of years ago, was the author of "Cause at Heart", a memoir of
      his life in the CPUSA and a great book. After Junius got out of prison
      for a Smith Act violation, he went to work for the NY Times as a
      proofreader where he met Myra's brother who was working in the same
      department. Eventually he met and befriended Myra as well. Junius told
      me about a Christmas Party he attended once where somebody with a
      mischievous spirit introduced her to a top British Labor Party
      parliamentarian. He said that within five minutes they going at each
      other hammer and tongs. Myra was apparently a very colorful and
      outspoken character. In Barry's book, she is little more than a
      footnote--somebody who gets mentioned because she was supposedly
      involved with a clique that stood in the way of the urgent need to
      build the party.

      In a footnote to his discussion of Myra Tanner Weiss, Barry deals with
      the Cochranites who he dismisses in these pithy terms: "The assessment
      that the Cochranites were giving up on building a revolutionary party
      certainly appeared to have been confirmed in life." I am afraid that
      Barry does not realize that the Cochranites were interested only in
      building a genuine revolutionary party, not a toy model. When they
      realized that this path was cut off to them due to circumstances
      beyond their control, they ceased publication of the American
      Socialist and disbanded the Socialist Union in 1959.

      I found it interesting that--according to Sheppard--after the John
      Gates group had been purged from the CPUSA, it was left with only 5000
      members. Presumably a large number of the 15000 who left were
      sympathetic to Gates. These were the people that the Cochranites were
      interested in talking to. Gates wrote for the American Socialist, as
      did Joseph Starobin, another purged CP'er.

      It would have been virtually impossible for these ex-CP'ers to join
      the SWP because the Trotskyists put impossible ideological obstacles
      in their path, including giving up their cherished notions about the
      Good War. The Cochranites tried to act as a catalyst in creating a
      large left party in the USA that put divisive ideological questions in
      the past. As long as you agreed on the need to build the civil rights
      movement, backed independent election campaigns and supported
      democracy in the USSR, who cared what position you took on WWII?

      I will have much more to say about this when I find time to offer some
      more comprehensive comments on part one of Sheppard's memoir. Although
      it is primarily concerned with the now defunct American Trotskyist
      movement, it poses questions that are of critical importance today as
      the left moves fitfully forward to unify itself and break with
      sectarianism.

      Louis Proyect
      Marxism list: www.marxmail.org
    • bobgould987
      By Bob Gould Autobiography can be treacherous territory. The temptation in political memoirs and autobiography is to present one s own actions, and close
      Message 2 of 6 , Apr 18 11:01 PM
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        By Bob Gould

        Autobiography can be treacherous territory. The temptation in
        political memoirs and autobiography is to present one's own actions,
        and close associates with whom one hasn't fallen out, in the best
        possible light. Conversely, the actions and views of opponents, and
        former associates who have parted company, are likely to be presented
        in the worst possible light.

        Cannon's "History of American Trotskyism", which contains a lot of
        intrinsically interesting material, suffers from the above
        temptations, and then there are bizarre pieces of hagiography such as
        Joe Hansen's piece, "How the Trotskyists Went to Jail", which Dwight
        McDonald sent up so effectively in his "Memoirs of a Revolutionist".

        Bearing such problems in mind, Barry Sheppard's memoir isn't so bad.
        He at least makes some attempt to describe the views of people he'd
        fallen out with, or factional opponents.

        Unlike John Percy in his recent memoir, Sheppard doesn't engage in
        deliberate, broad-sweep falsification. He just has difficulty thinking
        outside the mindset of his own views and actions in and on past disputes.

        I've just been re-reading Guy Williams's account of the early years of
        the YSA (probably written by Tim Wohlforth) and that pamphlet, despite
        its polemical assault on the SWP, gives a much more rounded account of
        the initial development of the YSA than Sheppard's rather self-serving
        version.

        Like Louis Proyect, I was curious when Sheppard mentioned a first
        wife, only to have her disappear from the narrative, with Caroline
        appearing later as his companion without introduction or explanation.
        This is not a non-political interest in the detail of Sheppard's life.
        We're talking about a time when social behaviour dramatically changed,
        mainly for the better but not without conflict, tension and human
        drama. It was a time when women and gay people began to assert greater
        personal and political independence. Few of us led perfect lives in
        any of these areas (how could we?) but reconciling the personal and
        the political was an important part of those times.

        The genre of autobiography, even political autobiography, faces these
        problems constantly, as I'm well as a result of my own attempts at
        autobiographical writing. I don't suggest that it's easy to strike the
        right balance in these areas, and to achieve an approach that will
        appeal to a broader audience.

        Here in Australia we have examples of biography and autobiography on
        both extremes of these problems. In my view, Hall Greenland's "Red
        Hot" a biography of Nick Origlass, achieves the considerable
        distinction of being a major political biography of Australia's most
        significant Trotskyist leader, and of being accessible to the reader
        and containing a useful account of changing social arrangements as
        they affected the lives of the main participants.

        By way of contrast, Denis Freney's autobiography, "A Map of Days" and
        John Percy's joint autobiography of himself and his brother are almost
        devoid of humour unless the joke is on someone else, and crammed with
        demonising of opponents, combined with hagiography of Percy and his
        chosen associates.

        John Percy's extraordinary hagiography of his late brother, Jim, is
        right up there with Joe Hansen's gee-whiz, euphoric "How the
        Trotskyists Went to Jail".

        On that level, as Percy unfortunately demonstrates, Sheppard could
        have done a lot worse.
      • Nick Fredman
        ... devoid of humour unless the joke is on someone else, and crammed with demonising of opponents, combined with hagiography of Percy and his chosen associates
        Message 3 of 6 , Apr 18 11:19 PM
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          Bob Gould wrote:

          >John Percy's joint autobiography of himself and his brother are almost
          devoid of humour unless the joke is on someone else, and crammed with
          demonising of opponents, combined with hagiography of Percy and his
          chosen associates

          Maybe one day Bob'll actually supply some evidence on how falsified
          and dreadful Percy's book is, rather than endlessly repeating these
          claims in strident language - or is he more interested in trying to
          divert attention from the fairly substantial evidence in this book
          about how you acquired your little business empire?
          --
        • chen9692000
          ... I understood we were on a promise to the effect that Bob was writing an extended review. His first post on the book refers to an incident in Canberra in
          Message 4 of 6 , Apr 19 1:13 AM
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            --- In GreenLeft_discussion@yahoogroups.com, Nick Fredman
            <srcsra@s...> wrote:

            > Maybe one day Bob'll actually supply some evidence on how falsified
            > and dreadful Percy's book is, rather than endlessly repeating these
            > claims in strident language - or is he more interested in trying to
            > divert attention from the fairly substantial evidence in this book
            > about how you acquired your little business empire?

            I understood we were on a promise to the effect that Bob was writing
            an extended review. His first post on the book refers to an incident
            in Canberra in which he was arrested and in which John leaves open the
            idea of a child molesting charge. Pretty obviously Bob is reporting
            his first impressions and commenting on events in which he was
            directly involved. He doesn't like the book (big surprise there) but
            has promised to elaborate in some detail.

            Ed Lewis has also challenged the accuracy of John's account of the
            expulsions of the Left from the Victorian ALP. There were some
            exchanges on this but nothing too conclusive from an outsiders viewpoint.

            I can't see how Nick's further innuendo that Bob's business interests
            are a political issue is relevant. I suppose the book explains how
            the John acquired his lovely home in Glebe when he has hardly engaged
            in much wage labour, let alone petty bourgeois business enterprises,
            in his whole life.

            Shane
          • Nick Fredman
            Shane ... Well John didn t steal it from the movement. You re right though such stuff doesn t *directly* relate to the political issues involved (but does
            Message 5 of 6 , Apr 19 5:15 PM
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              Shane

              >I can't see how Nick's further innuendo that Bob's business interests
              >are a political issue is relevant. I suppose the book explains how
              >the John acquired his lovely home in Glebe when he has hardly engaged
              >in much wage labour, let alone petty bourgeois business enterprises,
              >in his whole life.

              Well John didn't steal it from the movement. You're right though such
              stuff doesn't *directly* relate to the political issues involved (but
              does indirectly, as I'll explain a bit below), and I regret raising a
              diversion.

              The main political/methodological issue I was raising, as I'm are
              Shane would be aware if he's read a few of my replies to Bob before,
              is the following. If there's any useful political point to raising a
              sharp polemic with someone, the polemiciser has a responsibility to
              do (at least) two things: to represent the the views of what is being
              polemicised against fairly, including with representative quotes and
              references so readers can judge for themselves, and to provide
              verifiable evidence if one is claiming there are serious errors of
              fact. I would hope Shane, as a professional intellectual, would agree
              with these fairly self-evident principles.

              Bob Gould and Ed George repeatedly violate these principle, as I have
              pointed out numerous times. In relation to John Percy's book they
              dispute the factual basis of a couple of incidents in 200+ pages, and
              on that meagre basis make a sweeping damnation on every aspect of the
              book. In his "review", Bob quotes a passage about a split, and his
              evidence that this is all rubbish is the statement "if you believe
              John Percy you believe in fairy tales". What a brilliant and
              well-supported argument.

              If he wants to write a review that actually refers to the substance
              of the book and supplies some evidence for his arguments, fine, but
              maybe he should spare us from his bombastic claims until then.

              Bob particularly seems to think he is some great authority on a whole
              host of issues, including building socialist organisations. Everyone
              is entitled to their opinion, but to realistically claim an authority
              in an area usually means doing something useful in that area. This is
              where Bob's history comes in: it's not been enlightening or
              productive in terms of building socialist organisations, including
              his destructive role in his split from Resistance, and his 10 years
              around the thuggish and clinically paranoid SLL sect. As I've said
              before, Bob is undoubtably widely read and a decent writer who can
              usefully share his knowledge with other socialists, despite his
              theoretical and political errors, but his role in debate and
              discussion would be a lot more useful if he toned down his arrogant
              pose as some great authority who has no need of the normal rules of
              argument and evidence.
              --
            • glparramatta
              ... An important correction, Nick. You mean Ed Lewis. Ed George is an insightful Marxist residing in Spain, who make excellent observations form there on the
              Message 6 of 6 , Apr 19 5:19 PM
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                --- In GreenLeft_discussion@yahoogroups.com, Nick Fredman
                <srcsra@s...> wrote:

                >
                > Bob Gould and Ed George repeatedly violate these principle, as I have
                > pointed out numerous times.

                An important correction, Nick. You mean Ed Lewis. Ed George is an
                insightful Marxist residing in Spain, who make excellent observations
                form there on the Marxism List.

                Ed Lewis on the other hand is a cyber entity DSP-baiter in the Ozleft
                orbit.

                Norm.
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