Apartment-Owners of the World, Unite

by Harry on August 1, 2007

From a friend of Scott’s (update — and, now I know who it is, of mine!), this. All our friends (mine and Scott’s) who suffered at Barnes’s hands, spit now.



Scott McLemee 08.01.07 at 11:37 pm

His greatest moment of glory was, of course, purging James Kutcher. This was in the early 1980s, right after Barnes had published his incisive work Anything Fidel Castro Says Is Just Okay By Me (should probably check that citation, but such was the gist of it). Kutcher wanted to stick to the old-time anti-Stalinism that he’d defended through thick and thin for ages, so naturally he had to go.

From an account circulated at the time:

In New York City, Jimmy Kutcher, the party’s “legless veteran,” who successfully fought the McCarthyite witch-hunt in the 1950s when they tried to fire him from his job in the Veteran’s Administration for his socialist ideas, fell victim to the Barnes witch-hunt and was recently expelled from the party. Jimmy was falsely accused of striking a woman comrade with his case – actually Jimmy, since he lost both his legs in World War II, has been in the habit of giving people a light tap to let them know that he is behind them and trying to get by. The woman comrade denied that Jimmy had struck her. The branch rushed to trial though while Jimmy was out of town and not present to defend himself. They settled there for a censure, then demanded that Jimmy come in for an interrogation. Frightened, he requested a copy of the report made against him. This was promised, but the promise was never kept. While trying to reach an agreement on this matter, Jimmy was expelled for allegedly refusing to meet with the trial body.

This sort of thing happened to dozens of people who had been in the party for decades. Didn’t think it was possible to feel any more contempt for the timeserving mediocrity than I already did, but history is full of little surprises.


Christopher Phelps 08.02.07 at 3:32 am

Marx speaks of primitive accumulation. In essence, this is theft–the enclosures in Britain, etc. I think of the expulsions of the old Trotskyists who had put their lifetime of dues payments and paper sales and donations of family trusts into the party as primitive accumulation, and this apartment sale is simply the realized appreciated value of the primitive accumulation. Live well in your dotage, Jack Barnes, because if materialism is incorrect and there is an afterlife, yours will be roasting over a particularly hot bed of coals.

Sorry, Harry, you brought it out in me.


nick s 08.02.07 at 5:27 am

I see that the new owners regarded ‘a wall of bookshelves’ as part of the apartment’s ‘funky style’, to be replaced with ‘a nice music system’. Mr Obemann does look rather young, though: probably not into this whole reading thing.


Chris Bertram 08.02.07 at 6:56 am

I’d almost erased those bastards from my memory. Thank goodness they didn’t have an actual Cheka-style security service at their disposal.

Nice line in the report:

“Unlike most people in six-room lofts, Mr. Barnes once met with Kim Il-sung, the late North Korean president.”


Chris Bertram 08.02.07 at 7:01 am

I mentioned this to my partner, whose response was “So they didn’t make the ‘turn to industry’ then?”.

(Those who moved in the wrong circles will know that the “turn to industry” was the Maoist-style policy, pushed by the SWP in the FI (circa 1980) of sending middle-class cadres into industrial jobs.)


tbelcher 08.02.07 at 9:19 am

jaysus, are you all ex-SWP-ers??


Scott McLemee 08.02.07 at 10:50 am

Actually the party did have a “turn.” It handled this very badly, moving party members out of one industry and into another depending on the latest Barnes brainstorm. You’d look at the paper and think, “There’s comrade so-and-so, who at last report was in auto. Looks like he’s a meatpacker now.”

Barnes, who became a full-time party functionary right after college, never led a strike, or even been in a union. Some of the old-timers he threw out had come into the movement while working in the great Minneapolis teamsters strike. It was grotesque.


Scott McLemee 08.02.07 at 10:59 am

Sorry Chris, didn’t pick up that your partner was asking if Jack and Mary-Alice had made the turn. Reaching a plant gate at starting time would be too hard. Hell, they couldn’t show up on schedule for an editorial meeting at their own party’s newspaper.


Chris Bertram 08.02.07 at 1:22 pm

In the UK, of course, the “turn” became the policy at the same time as wholesale deindustrialization. Apart from episodes like the Cowley fiasco (“Red Steph” etc) it mostly involved people leaving perfectly good jobs in sectors like hospitals and schools (where perhaps they had been shop steward or whatever) and turning themselves into train drivers or bus conductors. I did meet one leading pro-SWP-faction member years later though, on a flight to New York. He had both made the turn and gone transatlantic and was working in the garment industry somewhere in New Jersey.


Christopher Phelps 08.02.07 at 1:31 pm

I don’t think any of us were ever members of the SWP. But despite being a small, irrelevant sect even at its 1970s peak, the SWP had a certain presence on the left that made its insane course of the 1980s (already in evidence before) have effects that were felt by many young radicals just trying to figure things out at that point and wishing there were a healthy, rational, effective, and democratic socialist organization. So it assumed an importance that, in all retrospect, it didn’t deserve.


Christopher Phelps 08.02.07 at 1:40 pm

PS I’m speaking of me, Scott, and Harry, whose political histories I know. The others I can’t say: it appears Chris Bertram may have been in the Fourth International group in the U.K., which was not the SWP. (There SWP means a different grouping with its own features.)


Chris Bertram 08.02.07 at 1:49 pm

I was indeed (and engaged in bitter wrangling with the local faction that took orders from Barnes and MAW).


Christopher Phelps 08.02.07 at 1:52 pm

Well, then you were most immediately and adversely effected.

The “turn to industry” for Barnes and Walters probably meant looking west toward New Jersey during their morning exercises.

Turn to speculation, turn to real estate: it all turns to dust.


chris y 08.02.07 at 2:15 pm

I’ve heard it said, though I can’t back it up, that the faction around Barnes and Waters had been in the leadership of the Young Stalinist Communist League before suddenly converting to Trotskyism in the early 60s. When they went off on the adventures described above, there was a lot of speculation that they’d been sent on a wrecking mission all along.


Scott McLemee 08.02.07 at 2:25 pm

Barnes seems to have been a Republican as student. The speculation you heard probably derives from the slander campaign of Gerry Healey (revolutionary guru of the Redgraves) who accused the entire SWP leadership of being run by either the FBI or the KGB. Maybe both? Probably both. Anyway, it’s another egg from a real cuckoo’s nest.

Most of what Barnes did can best be put down to honest stupidity. Except about real estate, evidently.


chris y 08.02.07 at 2:37 pm

Scott, that’s a different rumour. I once went to a mass meeting where they rolled out some SWP super-heavy (?Hansen), Ernest Mandel and Guy Lambert to refute Healy. Although my chief recollection of it was the Pousadist picket outside, selling pamphlets denouncing an East German folk singer called Wolf Biermann, who had made some rather courageous statements about the regime. Happy days.


Cirkux 08.02.07 at 3:11 pm

For us non-american socialists perhaps someone would care to expand upon the background? Does this go back to general internal bickering of the left in the seventies or is it more recent?


Christopher Phelps 08.02.07 at 3:48 pm

I don’t think the YCL thing is true. I’ve never heard it before now, and I’ve read way, way, way too much on this question. (Those are hours I will never get back.)

The Barnes people were new leftists at Carleton College in Minnesota. Barnes himself was a business administration major, I believe, which now makes infinite sense. They were attracted to the Cuban Revolution and were won to the SWP because of its Fidelista politics. Back then, the early sixties, the SWP had a kind of critical edge to its support for Cuba, but the one constant in the Barnes grouping was to reduce that critical distance to zero and just stick to support for the Cuban state through thick and thin — from which follows the North Korea nonsense, a reflection of Cuban foreign policy.

The problem with conspiracy theories — i.e., let’s blame the CP — is that they don’t explain how a supposedly otherwise healthy party put those people in the leadership and followed their line. It would be so simple an explanation, but there is a much more logical one: the party was full of flaws and the Barnes grouping just condensed them and drew them out to one logical conclusion, purging the best elements along the way. Ego times power, plus a steady element of sectarian thinking: that is the arithmetic.


Christopher Phelps 08.02.07 at 4:11 pm

To answer the question about background, insofar as this matters at all, it traces to the anti-Stalinist Marxist left of the 1930s, which had many currents but sort of centered in Trotskyism, since Trotsky was in Mexico, nearby, and had the most prestige as a Red Army and Bolshevik leader who opposed Stalinism. Many New York intellectuals were attracted to Marxism of a dissident persuasion at this time. These trends are best described in Alan Wald’s *The New York Intellectuals* (though I might also mention, in hopes that it not be seen as self-serving, my book *Young Sidney Hook*, which also spends a lot of time recreating that intellectual mood and milieu).

In any event, the long and short of this is that out of those currents the Socialist Workers Party was created in 1938. The SWP soon suffered a major loss of heterogeneity when about half its membership (a majority of youth, a minority of adults) quit and formed a rival group, Max Shachtman’s Workers Party). But still the SWP had some important intellectuals in the 1940s — James T. Farrell, C. L. R. James — and some serious trade union composition.

By the 1960s the SWP revived with the antiwar, student, women’s, and black liberation movements. And the particular apartment-sellers mentioned in the above news item came to power as a clique in the party in the 1970s and forced all its members to go into “proletarian” occupations, reducing its membership dramatically, purging virtually all the veterans remaining from the 1930s and 1940s, and making Castroism rather than Trotskyism its ideology.

So there is a kind of degeneration within the opposition at work here, a small-scale tragedy and travesty within a libertarian socialist revolutionary tradition that had once had serious intellectual cachet and heterodox politics, reduced to farcical economism, workerism, and dogma — all to the apparent enrichment of a tiny caste.

It is an obscenity that would be comical if hundreds of people’s dreams hadn’t been wrecked along the way.


Scott McLemee 08.02.07 at 4:37 pm

Thanks to Christopher for laying out the historical context. For a different estimate of the relationship between tragedy and farce, see Tariq Ali’s first novel, Redemption.

Barnes appears as the leader of a group called PISPAW (the Party of the International Socialist Proletariat something something) who dreams that a certain part of his body has morphed into a miniature version of Fidel.


Christopher Phelps 08.02.07 at 4:46 pm

Don’t forget the scene in Tariq Ali’s novel which Mary-Alice, making love to Jack, imagines that he is Fidel Castro and has an explosive orgasm.


harry b 08.02.07 at 6:43 pm

I don’t know why you lot are so down on the turn to industry. It seemed a really good idea to me if you had 60,000 or so cadre willing to do it, including a thousand or so with tremendous organising talent, and could concentrate them in particular growing industries with strong and growing union memberships…. Oh, now I see the problem.

There’s a lovely passage in Cannon’s History of American Trotskyism where, after describing the various wierdos he had to hang out with in and around the branches in the early 1930’s (CLA, I think, not yet SWP), he says something like this: “If, despite my unbelief, there is indeed an afterlife, I’ll be well treated in it, not because of anything I have done but because of all the people I’ve had to endure listening to”. Christopher’s comment in #2 above reminded me of it.

How can we get hold of Redemption?


Christopher Phelps 08.02.07 at 7:54 pm

I’ve got a copy if you want to borrow it, Harry, and your library doesn’t have it.

That is, presuming you weren’t reminded of that Cannon quote because I’m one of the people you’ve endured listening to — and rather because I mentioned the afterlife.


John Emerson 08.02.07 at 9:40 pm

Sadly, I always found the SWP to be by far the sanest and most effective of the factional groups I bumped into between 1967 and 1983. They were also the least irrelevant — like ANSWER today, they would do the nuts and bolts work on big demonstrations whose participants typically had no idea at all that the SWP existed. Just be being a nation-wide organization, however thinly, they had a big advantage.


David Altman 08.05.07 at 8:17 pm

I haven’t read your blog before now, but I’ve been following your comments here with interest. As some of you may know, there is a Yahoo group devoted exclusively to discussions of the SWP and Barnes, so you might like to drop in if you don’t have enough bile and bitterness in your life. A somewhat revised version of something I posted there:

Of course we all signed up to the SWP vountarily. We volunarily contributed huge amounts of our time, energy and money, and I for one don’t regret it a bit. What sticks in our craw is our former “leaders” not living up to the high standards they set for us, the “Outer Party.” I remember once telling a co-worker (this was 1982 or so) that I gave $50 a week to the Party. She was absolutely astounded, saying “that’s more than I spend every month on rent!” Of course, that wasn’t the least of it. In addition to the 48+ hours a week that I spent working at the time, I was expected to do at least two paper sales a week, one at a plant gate early in the morning, another Saturday. In addition 2-3 hours for branch meeting Sunday, plus innumerable hours in pointless fraction and committee meetings. Plus Saturday night Forum.

There was never any formal requirement that members get jobs in industry, but you were made to feel like a turd if you didn’t. If I had gotten exclusive seats at the Symphony (something Barnes and Waters are said to have done on occasion), I would have been looked at real funny. If I had bought a house or gotten married to someone “outside the movement” or had kids, or inherited some money and not given a sizeable chunk to the SWP, likewise I would have borne the mark of Cain.

But here we have two “leaders” who by several accounts work a maximum of 20 hours a week, who live live fairly comfortable lifestyles, at least in comparison to their minions, and have just made a sizeable profit on a real-estate deal. Our bitterness is understandable.

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