Truth will out, even 35 years later
By Bob Gould
Barry Sheppard's two visits to Sydney in 1969
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."