Barry Sheppard’s memoir


An interested, critical review of The Party

Bob Gould

The Party. The Socialist Workers Party, 1960-1988. Volume 1: The Sixties, A Political Memoir, Resistance Books, Sydney, 2005

This is a book of considerable interest on the history of the revolutionary socialist movement, and it’s of particular interest to me because Barry Sheppard and I crossed paths at an important time. As well, the US SWP, of which he was a leading figure, had some influence on my political development and a lot of influence on the evolution of the revolutionary socialist movement in Australia.

Sheppard’s memoir has the same name as Trevor Griffith’s interesting and illuminating play, The Party, essentially a playwright’s portrait of Gerry Healy.

I find in reading Sheppard’s memoir that we are roughly the same age. We were both born in the awful year, 1937, which Victor Serge dubbed “midnight in the century”.

I’m interested to read that Sheppard subscribed to Dorothy Day’s US Catholic Worker, as part of his political development, which I also subscribed to from Australia as a young leftward-moving Catholic in the labour movement.

Sheppard is in a pretty unusual position for someone of our generation, as he met both Max Shachtman and James P. Cannon in the course of his political development. He started out in the socialist movement as a supporter of Shachtman’s bureaucratic collectivist theory of the nature of the USSR. He shares that unusual experience with Tim Wohlforth, James Robertson and probably Fred Mazelis.

His description of his political formation in the US is interesting. Larry Trainor, the working-class Trotskyist in Boston, who was one of his mentors, gave him C.L.R. James’s World Revolution 1917-36 to read. That book also had some influence on me.

Sheppard’s description of the evolution of the US Young Socialist Alliance, of which he was a founding member, parallels, from his point of view, the experience of the pseudonymous Workers League person (possibly Fred Mazelis) who wrote a pamphlet, The YSA: How it Began on the early years of the YSA. (Another interesting account of the same period is the memoir, Fragments of the Century of the left-wing Social Democrat, the late Michael Harrington.)

I used to have that pamphlet, but I seem to have lost it. It doesn’t seem to be on the web, and if anyone on Marxmail knows how I can get hold of a copy of it, I’d be grateful for the advice.

Sheppard’s book is a straight up and down account of his political experiences, and the evolution of the SWP in the first 10 years or so of his involvement. There’s very little in it that Jack Barnes and the modern US SWP could object to as a history of their current, and it will be interesting to see how they react.

Sheppard describes the factional alignments in the SWP. He rapidly became a Farrell Dobbs supporter, rather than a supporter of Murry and Myra Tanner Weiss, or even an adherent of James P. Cannon in the period of his retirement.

He even gently chides Cannon for incipient factionalism against the leadership of the SWP after Cannon retired to California. He strongly defends the 1965 organisational resolution of the SWP that put almost impossible constraints on the formation of factions unless allowed by the leadership, saying it was a product of the fact that the younger members wanted a campaigning party that wasn’t held back by a continuing stew of discussion.

He tends to dismiss Cannon’s very public, although late in the piece, misgivings. Cannon pleaded for tolerance of discussion inside the SWP in three letters and a talk, later published with an introduction by SWP veteran George Breitman as Don’t Strangle the Party.

In the subsequent evolution of the US SWP, the very stringent, Zinovievist rules of organisation adopted in 1965 turned out to be a structural form that accelerated the transformation of the US SWP, the Australian DSP and the New Zealand Socialist Action League into the monochrome sects that they have become.

As a participant, Sheppard defends this militarise-the-party resolution vehemently, and it was within that framework that he became an international political operator and enforcer on behalf of the Barnes leadership of the SWP until he fell out with Barnes in the last couple of years of his membership of the SWP.

It will be interesting to see how Sheppard handles the degeneration of the US SWP in his second volume. He was a vigorous participant in the elimination of all the oppositions in the US SWP up to his own departure.

Sheppard’s book is quite absorbing. It’s a bit on the dry side, almost laconic, a bit like Sheppard himself, but it’s relatively calm and careful, unlike the hysterical memoir written by John Percy on the history of Australian DSP current, which was launched simultaneously with Sheppard’s book at the Asia-Pacific Solidarity conference over Easter 2005. Sheppard’s book is not entirely objective, but it’s his memoir, and it’s naive to automatically expect total objectivity from a participant.

The book’s biases are, however, not allowed to prevent at least some account of the views of people or currents with which Sheppard had been in conflict. It’s not as comprehensive on the development of the Vietnam antiwar movement as Fred Halsted’s book, Out Now, but as a memoir it doesn’t have to be.

As a revolutionary socialist and secretary of the Vietnam Action Committee in Australia, I used to follow pretty carefully the lead of the US SWP through the Bring the Troops Home Now newsletter and later material.

In Australia we weren’t quite as legalistic as the US SWP and we didn’t completely avoid all acts of civil disobedience, as the US SWP tended to do. Nevertheless, we closely followed the general lead of the US SWP in the antiwar movement, and the impact of this in Australia, in my view, was almost entirely positive.

We had, in Australia, however, a considerable advantage for our agitation in the fact that, broadly speaking, the whole of the official labour movement, particularly the courageous Labor Party parliamentary leader Arthur Calwell, strongly opposed sending Australian troops to Vietnam, and called for their withdrawal. The fact that some of us, particularly me, had a bit of a niche in the Labor Party was of great advantage to us, an advantage not shared by the US SWP.

The useful influence on us of the US SWP was considerable when our contact was entirely through SWP literature, and we were trying to do something similar in Australia. When our contact with the US SWP became more direct, however, with Barry Sheppard’s visit to Australia in 1969, the situation changed.

When Sheppard arrived here on a kind of fact-finding mission on behalf of the US SWP leadership, it clearly emerged later that he was casing the joint, politically speaking. While paying ritual obeisance to the proposition that the SWP didn’t interfere too much, it’s absolutely clear from the references to Australia and New Zealand in his book that the objective was to find likely types who would model themselves totally on the US SWP and push aside unassimilable old Trotskyists such as Bob Gould and Hector MacNeill, who were perceived as standing in the way of the US SWP’s political project.

At that stage, the US SWP’s aim was clearly to establish organisations in English-speaking countries in its own rather authoritarian, ultra-Cannonist image, and which would also bow to the leadership of the mother party, the US SWP. For a while that worked in Australia, but it came to grief later, with the sharpest possible personal conflict for hegemony between Jack Barnes in the US and Jim Percy in Australia.

Sheppard writes of his 1965 visit:

“I had written to Bob Gould, the only Australian who had recent contact with the Fourth International, and I was expecting him to meet me. I was looking around the airport waiting room for someone who looked like they were looking around for someone. I noticed that there was a group of hippie-ish young people who seemed to be milling around. When all the other passengers had left, I was alone with them. Finally, I walked over to a young man with a red beard and asked him if he was looking for Barry Sheppard, and he was. They thought I was CIA or something, what with my suit and short hair.

“What I found was a very pleasant surprise. These young people had organised a youth group called Resistance. Resistance was in the thick of the antiwar movement Australia.

“One of the first things these young comrades did was provide me with some warm clothes.

“I was invited to a conference held in their headquarters and bookshop, which were quite impressive. It wasn’t just for members, but included a lot of young people and their group, and the room was packed. They gave reports on their political work. I gave a report that covered the antiwar and Black power movements in the United States, the Socialist Workers Party, the Fourth International, and the World Congress.

“The main leaders of Resistance were brothers, John and Jim Percy. It was Jim Percy, with his red beard, that I had approached at the airport. The Percy brothers were in a group called the International Marxist League, along with Gould. The Percy brothers were attracted to the SWP’s party-building perspective, and had been in a struggle with Gould over the direction of the group. In a private meeting, they asked me to intercede, backing them against Gould. I told them that as I had just gotten to know them and Gould, I thought it would be wrong for me to do that. I explained that experience had made the SWP very wary of jumping into internal disputes among groups in other countries. They were disappointed, but knew I agreed with them on necessity of building a party in Australia.

“The result was the beginning of a close relationship between the American SWP and the party they went on to build. They had to break with Gould to do it.

“In Brussels, the Bureau was also in contact with a person in Wellington, New Zealand, by the name of Hector MacNeill. I had thought that Australia and New Zealand were pretty close, but found they are 1500 miles apart when I flew to Wellington. I stayed with Hector and his wife in their small home. I remember that they had a whole lot of butter on their table, and we ate a lot of lamb, both of which were cheap in Zealand.

“As in Australia, I found that Hector had a group of youth around him interested in socialism. This wasn’t as big a group as in Australia, but they were campus leaders involved in the antiwar movement. I encouraged them to go in the direction of building an organisation. The main young leaders I met were the Fyson brothers, George and Hugh. They did go on to build an organisation, and had to break with MacNeill to do it. As was the case with the Australians, the New Zealand group developed close ties with the American SWP in the years following my trip. They would jokingly refer to me as the `father’ of their group.

“I flew back to Sydney for more discussions, and then headed back to the United States. At the immigration station, they were routinely checking the names of all passengers in a fat book. When they got to me, they evidently found me listed. I was hauled into a small room, all my belongings and papers were searched, and the papers were copied.

“I stayed in New York for the SWP convention, held in early September. I gave a report on the international political situation and the discussion that had begun in the Fourth International. After the convention, Caroline and I flew back to Brussels.”

It would be difficult to exaggerate how much the Zinovievist process, of which Sheppard himself had become part, became a powerful factor in the later transformation of all three groups, in the US, Australia and New Zealand, into the rather rigid sects that they now are.

It’s a mistake when reading history and memoir to impose on the past too much of what one now knows, or thinks one knows. That’s a mistake that’s obvious in current writing about the labour movement by DSP “historians” such as John Percy and Jim McIlroy.

Nevertheless, it strikes me that the difference in approach between myself and Sheppard are partly problems of the labour movements in our respective countries, which has culminated in the extravagant ultraleftism now advocated by Barry Sheppard, Caroline Lund and Malik Miah concerning the trade union movement.

I came in to the revolutionary socialist movement in the midst of a big fight between the left and right in the trade unions and the Labor Party for the future and soul of those movements, and I came into it from a family with deep roots in the Australian labour movement.

Those early experiences partly defined my approach to politics and they still do, to some extent. The experiences of Sheppard and the Percy brothers were quite different, and that shaped their approach.

That’s all, however, another story. The rather exotic situation of Sheppard and his two associates in the US being forced to have his book published by the Australian DSP underlines the vicissitudes that can befall one in the socialist movement.

Taken as a whole, Sheppard’s book adds quite a lot to our knowledge, and anyone interested in the history of the revolutionary socialist movement would do well to read it carefully, with the caveats, obviously, that I’ve just outlined.

I will take up my sharp disagreement with the political propositions on the trade unions and the labour movement, advanced by Sheppard, Lund and Miah, in another article. In the interim, anyone interested should read the article by Miah and Lund on these matters in the latest issue of Links.

In defence of the book

April 2, 2005

As a professional bookseller I’m a bit taken aback by Louis Proyect’s rather Ray Bradbury-like assault on the book.

Assorted bourgeois pundits have been predicting the demise of the book for many years now, and in fact book sales are still increasing.

Louis has a point about the web, up to a point. I was a rather late convert to the web, but I’ve tried to make up for that by collaborating with others in the development of the Ozleft website.

In practice, the web and books are often complementary. We’ve put up on Ozleft many recent and many old documents on the history of the labour and Marxist movements, and quite a number of these documents have now had thousands of hits.

While it’s not possible to easily tell how much of this material is downloaded, our impression is that many of the major documents are frequently downloaded, thereby turning them into a kind of rough-hewn book.

Despite my political disagreements with the DSP leadership, the DSP seems to me to strike a reasonable balance between having an energetic cyber-presence and publishing books and a newspaper in hard copy.

My disagreement with them concerns their attempt to confine serious tactical and political discussion to narrow circles, and in the age of the internet that’s clearly no longer possible, as they are beginning to learn because of the way even the most ostensibly internal discussions tend to creep into the public domain.

In defence of the book as serious, continuing part of the intellectual life of socialists and the rest of humanity, it’s difficult to take a computer to bed for reading and study before you go to sleep, and if you want to seriously study a topic you have to download the material and underline the bits that interest you. I think both the book and the internet have a bright future.

That brings us to the question of censorship. The ruling class and the major media interests have a vested interest in limiting what we see and read in any sphere, and conservative religious minorities sometimes try to limit access to the printed word in any form. Witness the moral panics in capitalist countries about various aspects of the net, and the ongoing censorship in countries like China, etc.

Socialists should be at the cutting edge of fighting unreasonable censorship in all its forms and in all media.

I think Louis is over-reacting to Barry Sheppard’s use of the book as a medium. I say good on Sheppard and wait till my book comes out in due course. In the interim you can consult large chunks of it already on the web at Ozleft.

PS. Three years ago I wrote a major overview of the literature refuting the Australian reactionary Keith Windschuttle’s views on Aboriginal history.

The Melbourne journal, Labour Review, published by the Victorian Labour College, print 1000 copies of it, of which I bought 500 and sold about 400 (so far). Some months ago we put it up on Ozleft and since then we’ve had more than 1200 hits, but the hard copy sales have continued quite nicely in my ship, suggesting to me that the web and hard-copy book sales interact, to some extent.

Barry Sheppard at the Brecht Forum

June 1, 2005

The notice about Barry Sheppard speaking about his book at the Brecht Forum has been cross-posted on a number of left lists, suggesting that it’s a matter of some importance to Sheppard and his associates, particularly the Australian DSP, which published the book.

I’d rather like to be a fly on the wall at the Brecht Forum on June 10 so I could ask a few questions, and make a modest intervention from the floor, perhaps. But New York is a long way from Sydney and I’ll only be there in spirit.

When Sheppard’s book was launched in Sydney at Easter, few people had read it, but by now I’d imagine that a number of the interested people who’ve been in the Trotskyist movement have read it, so the discussion at the Brecht Forum may be quite well informed.

In the notice for the forum, mention is made of Sheppard’s collaboration with revolutionary socialists in other countries, including Australia.

This is a rather sore point with me because, despite the bland way he presents it, Sheppard came to Australia in 1969 as an intensive factional operator on behalf of the US SWP leadership to precipitate the establishment in Australia of an organisation modelled on the US SWP.

As one of those thrown aside in that rather brutal process I’m a bit cynical about Sheppard’s bland account.

As part of my reassessment of the experience of the Trotskyist movement, I’ve been moved in recent times to examine in some detail how the 1965 SWP organisational resolution, which Sheppard says was essentially the Farrel Dobbs resolution, influenced subsequent developments in the US SWP and its then satellites in Australia and New Zealand.

I’ll write a more comprehensive piece on this in the not-too-distant future concerning John Percy’s book on the Australian DSP, but my initial research has thrown up some strikingly parallel developments and processes.

In 1984 the Australian SWP expelled a small number of then supporters of the US SWP, and the process of their expulsion was documented at length in an International Information Bulletin. The expulsion process revolved around whether the pro-US-SWP dissidents were loyal to the leadership and still regarded the leadership of the Australian SWP (predecessor to the DSP) as the revolutionary leadership of the Australian working class.

Any doubts on that score were treated as deviation and the dissidents were summarily expelled.

This process had a slightly painful and macabre aspect, as one of those expelled had been the companion of the Maximum Leader of the Australian DSP (now deceased) since their high-school days. Presumably that person had considerable knowledge and some kind of balance sheet on the Australian SWP’s claim to be the Australian revolutionary leadership. The documents of this group of expulsions in Australia make fascinating reading.

Before, during and after those events in Australia, a series of oppositions were expelled by the Barnes leadership of the US SWP, also around the general question of loyalty to the leadership of the organisation, with the general idea (implicit also in the Australian expulsions) of ensuring homogeneity in the organisation.

Somewhat later, in the US SWP, FF was expelled in 1999 and I’ve seen the document of that expulsion, a lengthy speech delivered at Oberlin by Jack Barnes, also focussing on loyalty to the organisation and its leadership, and the need for homogeneity. After this speech FF was unanimously expelled.

There must be something in the Oberlin water. US SWP conferences appear to have been the site of many factional machinations in the Trotskyist movement of the English-speaking countries for the past 35 years.

Even more recently, the expulsion of LF from the Australian DSP in 2004 focussed on the same theme: loyalty and the need for homogeneity.

I understand that Barry Sheppard, who has written quite a useful and interesting book, will say it’s only the first volume, and he’ll deal with these difficult questions in the second volume.

As J.M. Keynes said: “in the long run we’re all dead”. Barry Sheppard’s book and John Percy’s book, published conjointly and simultaneously by the Australian DSP leadership, are Zinovievist, ultra-Cannonist, and as we now know from Barry Sheppard, Dobbsist, polemics in favour of building revolutionary organisations on the model of the US SWP in what Sheppard considers the golden years: the time he was a major leader of it.

When people at different times became disillusioned and left the Stalinist movement over many years, there were often disputes between such former members of the Communist Party about what was the right and honourable time to leave.

Humans being what they are, many ex-CP members idealised, and some still do, the party up to the time they left it. For them, that was the critical moment. To leave earlier was betrayal, to leave later was evidence of irretrievable Stalinism.

There’s a little of this kind of problem in discussions between former members and current members of the US SWP, and former and current members of the Trotskyist groups in Australia.

In my view, part of the problem lies in the political model adopted by the US SWP in the Dobbs resolution of 1965.

An entertaining aside on these issues is the fact that Sheppard will speak at the Brecht Forum, which is obviously some kind of public forum for socialists and Marxists. This reminds me of the Outlook forums conducted for a number of years by Outlook, a magazine run by former CPA members, about which John Percy expresses a jaundiced view in his history of the Australian DSP cum personal memoir.

Obviously, all-in multi-tendency public forums can be a good thing. Unfortunately, leaderships of Dobbsist organisations are alway chary of encouraging their members to participate in such forums with other socialists.

Someone at the Brecht Forum should ask Sheppard a direct question: what role does he think the 1965 Dobbs resolution played in the subsequent degeneration of the US SWP, the Socialist Action League of New Zealand and the Australian DSP and its predecessors?

What is his balance sheet, now, on the many expulsions and disperals from these organisations that were made possible by that resolution, and in which he was an enthusiastic participant during his many years in the leadership of the US SWP?

These question are independent of the generally useful character of Sheppard’s narrative of past events in the revolutionary socialist movement, although obviously Sheppard’s narrative is limited by his retrospective enthusiasm for things such as the 1965 resolution and the dispersal of the intractable old Trotskyists, like myself, in New Zealand and Australia.

Truth will out, even 35 years later. Barry Sheppard’s two visits to Sydney in 1969

July 18, 2005

Barry Sheppard’s account of the US SWP in the 1960s, in his book, The Party, while useful, is being treated just a little too reverently for my taste.

The reception Sheppard’s book is getting has a good side, in that it’s encouraging some of the youth in the socialist movement to look at the sixties again. His straighforward narrative of the development of the antiwar movement in the US is particularly valuable in this respect.

It’s a bit hard to get some of the youth to read about the history of the movement, and despite my criticisms of Barry Sheppard’s book I’ve drawn it to the attention of several student activists, as it happens members of the IS family of currents, because they were doing essays about the sixties, or studying that era, and they found Sheppard’s book very useful, particularly one comrade who was doing an essay for a university course about the antiwar movement in the 1960s.

The negative side of Sheppard’s book is the way he glamorises the philistine ultra-centralisation of the US SWP in the Farrell Dobbs-Jack Barnes era, in which he was a major participant.

In particular, Sheppard’s account of his global activities as chief overseas organiser and enforcer for the US SWP, in which he actually engaged energetically in setting up clones of the US SWP, and splitting groups to create those clones, is as phoney as the proverbial two-bob watch.

Sheppard’s account of his visit to Australia and New Zealand in 1969 is Dobbsist blandness and hypocrisy carried to a very high plane.

The reader with an educated eye should carefully compare Sheppard’s account of his visit to the antipodes (pp 242-243) with John Percy’s account (pp 130-132) in his history of the DSP, published simultaneously with Sheppard’s book.

Sheppard mentions returning to Australia for further talks after he had been to New Zealand, where he had advised the small Trotskyist group how to get rid of its initiator, the old Trotskyist and former member of the New Zealand Communist Party, Hector Macneill.

What prompted Sheppard to return to Australia? He had obviously been on the phone to New York, and clearly he was told to go back and have further discussions with the Percys. After all, the logical and cheaper plane route from New Zealand would have been on to Hawaii and then to the US mainland. Why was the trip back to Sydney necessary?

John Percy’s book doesn’t mention Sheppard’s return to Sydney, which is a dead giveaway, as the initial encounter with the US SWP assumes such historical importance in Percy’s mythmaking about the origins of the Australian DSP.

I don’t recall Sheppard’s second visit to Sydney. There were no large meetings for him then, and in fact I can’t remember the second visit at all. I was not involved in any discussions with Sheppard on his return visit and I now know the reason why.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been contacted by several people (who I don’t intend to name at this stage) who were in the Percy group at the time.

My informants were all in the second echelon of the Percy group (the first echelon being Jim and John Percy). They all remember Jim and John Percy reporting to a meeting of their group on meetings with Sheppard during the return visit, and that the Percys reported that Sheppard had assured them of the support of the US SWP and Sheppard had given them considerable advice, straight from New York, on how to conduct the factional struggle against Gould and his supporters.

One of my informants commented that Sheppard’s assurance of US SWP support had considerable effect in stiffening up the morale of the Percy group for pushing ahead and precipitating a split with Gould and his supporters.

For 35 years the Percys and Sheppard have been peddling the bland myth, which everyone who has had experience with factional struggles in Marxist groups, particularly Cominternist groups such as the US SWP and the DSP, knows to be unlikely, that the US SWP didn’t interfere and that the Percys’ construction of a Dobbsist-Barnesist centralised outfit in Australia was a spontaneous development.

As I’ve said before, if you believe that story you might as well believe in the fairies at the bottom of the garden. What’s the point of peddling that myth when there are live human beings, quite a few of them in different countries, who know it’s rubbish?

In addition to this, revolutionaries in different countries who might be tempted now to take Sheppard’s bland and edited version of what the US SWP was like in what he considers its golden years, as a template for building a real revolutionary party, ought to consider that template carefully.

It appears that the US ISO is rather taken with Sheppard’s book. They ought to reflect on Sheppard’s account of the US SWP in light of their own experiences with the British SWP, and they ought to carefully consider whether they want to develop, in their own organisation an internal regime as institutionally rigidly homogeneous as the Dobbsist US SWP in the period of Sheppard’s “golden years”.

At the very least, Sheppard and Percy should come clean, even at this late stage, about what took place, and what advice was given on the second trip to Sydney, and Percy should explain why he left the second visit out of his book.

PS. Another person who was in the Percy group at the time Sheppard came to Australia, and had read my initial critiques of Percy’s book, looked me up recently and reminded me of something that I had more or less forgotten, but which is highly significant regarding this new information about Sheppard’s second visit to Sydney.

In his first visit, my then wife and I put Sheppard up in our house at Woolahra. In checking us out politically, Sheppard behaved rather like an emissary of the Stalinist Comintern (the most notorious example of this kind of thing was the Comintern emissary in Australia during the Third Period, Harry Wicks). Another analogy might be a cardinal legate of the Pope and the Catholic church, say in England, on the verge of schism. Another analogy might be a Dominican inquisitor, say, visiting the church in the Cathar heretic-infested province of Languedoc to root out heresy.

After he had attended the meeting we organised for him immediately after his arrival, Sheppard insisted that all the members of our Australian group meet him one-to-one. The comrade who jogged my memory about this stressed how bizarre this procedure appeared to him at the time. The comrade remembered having to sit downstairs, with others, in the living room waiting for the previous interviewee to come out before the next one went up to the bedroom where Sheppard was conducting his interviews. It was a bit, maybe, like Catholics waiting outside the confessional.

At the time, we were so impressed by the notion of the Fourth International that I and my supporters bought Sheppard’s cover story that his international tour was on behalf of the International as a whole, and that he wasn’t going to behave factionally in Australia.

In retrospect, we were extremely naive. In his prime Sheppard was a real operator and, in his North American Marxist salesman cum Mormon missionary persona, he was quite persuasive and impressive.

Even at the distance of 35 years, I’m still rather impressed, although just a little bitter, at the barefaced and effective way he carried off his international splitting operation directed at reducing rather ornery and independent revolutionary groups and individuals to clones of the Barnesite SWP.

PPS. John Percy gives a slightly inaccurate account, as he does about many other incidents, of the scene at the airport when we met Barry Sheppard. There was a group of us there to meet Sheppard, and apart from Jim Percy we weren’t particularly hairy. John Percy and Sheppard exaggerate our hairiness a bit.

It was only after the arrival lounge had emptied and only one man was left that I concluded that the man in the neat business suit had to be Barry Sheppard. We were all a bit dismayed and even a bit amused at the appearance of the Trotskyist emissary. I vividly remember saying to Jim Percy: “Go over and approach that bloke who looks like a Mormon missionary. He has to be Sheppard, he’s the only one left.”

Autobiography is treacherous territory

(April 19,2005)

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 Fred Mazelis) 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.





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