The Sixties As They Really Were

Editors’ Note: This review was originally published in the May 31 issue of Seven Oaks, a Vancouver-based magazine of politics, culture, and resistance.

Barry Sheppard, the author of The Party: A Political Memoir, will speak in Toronto, on June 23, at 7:30pm, at the Centre for Social Justice, 489 College Street, 3rd floor. The meeting is organized by the Socialist Project.

Ian Angus is the author of Canadian Bolsheviks: The Early Years of the Communist Party of Canada, and Director of the Socialist History Project.


Barry Sheppard. THE PARTY: A POLITICAL MEMOIR. The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988. Volume 1: The Sixties. Resistance Press, Australia, 2005. Distributed in North America by Haymarket Books. 354 pages: US$16.00

Reviewed by Ian Angus

If you believe the mainstream media, the Sixties were all about counterculture and hedonism. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Tune in, turn on, drop out. Don’t trust anyone over 30. Hippies, flower power and the summer of love.

There were dramatic shifts in popular culture in the Sixties, but they weren’t the whole story, or even the most important part of it. The Sixties were above all a period of intense political radicalization, a time when revolution swept the globe and millions of people fought for political and social change.

The people of Cuba threw out a U.S.-client dictator and began the first socialist revolution in the western hemisphere. The civil rights movement gained momentum in the southern U.S. and spread across the country, leading to massive rebellions in most major cities. Ottawa declared martial law in an unsuccessful attempt to crush the nationalist movement in Quebec. Czechoslovakia rose up against Stalinist tyranny. Student protests and a massive general strike brought France to the brink of revolution.

And the people of Vietnam, aided by an unprecedented antiwar movement in the United States itself, won a heroic war against the world’s most powerful imperialist power.

When the media does deal with the political side of the Sixties— usually as a brief montage in a nostalgia-driven made-for-TV movie—we get Martin Luther King saying “I have a dream,” but not the ghetto uprisings in Detroit, Watts and Harlem. We get the shooting of antiwar demonstrators at Kent State, but not the killing, just two weeks later, of black college students in Jackson, Mississippi. Malcolm X is mentioned, but his revolutionary, internationalist and anticapitalist ideas are hidden from sight.

A complete history of the Sixties remains to be written, but Barry Sheppard’s The Party: A Political Memoir makes a very strong start. It deserves to be read and studied by everyone who wants to understand the radicalization — and above all by everyone who wants to understand what lessons the Sixties can teach socialist organizers today. This is the Sixties as they really were, seen through the eyes of an active participant.

In 1959 Barry Sheppard, then a student at MIT, joined the Young Socialist Alliance, beginning a lifetime commitment to the cause of Marxism and socialism. During the period described in this book, he became a central leader of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), editor of its newspaper, and its representative at international events. He traveled widely, including accompanying the SWP’s 1968 presidential candidate to Vietnam, taking the party’s antiwar message to U.S. troops.

As an outline history of the Sixties, The Party: A Political Memoir is a powerful antidote to the media’s trivialization. But it is much more than that. It is an insider’s account of how a small socialist organization broke out of isolation to play a key role in the new radicalization, and in the process built the most effective revolutionary organization the U.S. had seen in decades. (By 1970, as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover wrote, the Young Socialist Alliance was “the largest and best organized youth group in left-wing radicalism.”)

Tiny and isolated at the end of the McCarthy witch-hunt era in the 1950s, the SWP and YSA understood and responded to the new radicalization better than any other political current in the United States. Despite very limited resources, it redirected all of its efforts into participation in the new movements for social change. Sheppard’s book provides invaluable insights into how that was done.

The radicalization of the Sixties in the United States, Sheppard writes, was driven by two engines — “the Black liberation struggle and the fight against the war in Vietnam.” Both won major victories— the war was stopped, and the Jim Crow system of legal segregation in the south was smashed. But eventually the radicalization stalled, and the mass movements for social change declined. Many writers have attributed that decline to errors made by left-wing groups at the time — if only they had adopted some other strategy, tactic or slogan, a revolution might have been possible.

Sheppard certainly doesn’t suggest that the SWP was error-free. As a party formed in the 1930s and badly battered in the witch-hunt years of the 1950s, it sometimes had difficulties in responding to new developments such as the gay movement. The Party: A Political Memoir honestly describes the mistakes the SWP made, some of which it corrected quickly, and others that Sheppard believes were not dealt with adequately.

At the same time, he avoids suggesting that revolutionary socialists could somehow have changed history by a subjective act of will. Ultimately, he writes, the radicalization declined because it “did not reach the stage of a generalized radicalization of the working class.” In the absence of the ultimate engine of social change, the radicalization could not move forward to revolution, and a retreat was inevitable.

Nonetheless, the Socialist Workers Party of the 1960s made impressive progress in building what an earlier generation of North American Communists termed a “party of a new type” — an organization simultaneously steeped in Marxist theory and deeply involved in practical activity; inspired by a vision of the ultimate goal of socialism and participating in day-to-day battles; focused on the working class as the key agent of social change and a partisan of all oppressed people, everywhere.

Barry Sheppard deserves great thanks for recording that experience, and for bringing the organizational and political lessons of that era to the attention of yet another generation of revolutionaries, in the 21st century.