The SWP and Social Distancing: a Study in Abnormal Political Psychology

In this photograph, dated March 15, 2020, you will see a group of mostly senior citizens defying the call for social distancing. Who could they be? Rightwing Christian evangelists? Libertarians standing up for liberty?

Nope. Instead, you are looking at members of the Socialist Workers Party at a memorial meeting for one of their members who died last month. The Militant newspaper reported that more than sixty people were in attendance. That’s probably about half the membership, and 1,900 less than when I was a member back in the 1970s. What happened to all these people, including me? Most either drifted away or became victims of a purge in the early 1980s when they fought to preserve the party’s Trotskyist heritage. Over the past decade, the dropout rate accelerated mostly as a result of the party adopting increasingly peculiar positions. Of the remaining 100 or so, their activism mostly consists of going door to door like Jehovah’s Witnesses peddling the books and newspapers of what most would view as a cult.

Was there some sort of death-wish at work in this March 16th memorial meeting? If you are a typical member, there might be some relief in such an outcome. Many have jobs at Walmart despite college degrees and professional past. That in itself does not earn them brownie points with the long-time cult leadership that lives in Manhattan high-rises even more pricey than my own. Under social pressure, members must send in “blood money” to sustain the SWP. Such donations come from the paltry bonuses they receive at Walmart and other low-paying venues. Maybe, in the back of their minds, an end-run on a ventilator would be welcomed as euthanasia.

Like conspiracy-monger Peter Hitchens, the SWP sees the pandemic as a government plot to take away our liberties. The decision to have a gathering for a deceased member was implicitly a protest against “big government.” If you want to see an explicit call, however, you can turn to a bizarre Militant article titled “Morality of capitalist rulers reflected in shutdown of AA.” It defended the right of alcoholics to attend weekly meetings even if it cost their lives from COVID-19 rather than cirrhosis of the liver.

The SWP sees COVID-19 as an overblown threat. Their presidential candidate Alyson Kennedy referred to it as “a disease, with scientifically knowable causes, vaccines, and cures.”  Scientifically knowable vaccines and cures? You’d think that if the party had such knowledge, they’d share it with the world. Were they referring to Hydroxychloroquine? Who knows?

For those with a morbid curiosity like mine, you are probably aware that the SWP has echoed many of the Trump administration talking points since 2016. Although Trump has veered away from the kind of abject denialism he demonstrated a couple of months ago, the SWP tends to line up with his hard-core supporters now bitterly complaining about the president being a puppet of Anthony Fauci. The Christian right cheered the idea of making Easter the start of a back-to-work movement and, like The Militant, viewed social distancing regulations as an infringement on their constitutional rights.

This week, the New York Times reported on how “A ‘Liberty’ Rebellion in Idaho Threatens to Undermine Coronavirus Orders.” It seems that Ammon Bundy, who led the occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016, is up to his old tricks. Just as he regarded public ownership of Malheur as a violation of the constitutional right to turn it into ranchland, he now sees social-distancing decrees as another step toward tyranny. The Times reported:

Mr. Bundy said in an interview that a group in the Boise area was looking for a venue to host an Easter service this coming weekend with a potential crowd of 1,000 people. Mr. Bundy said a man in Twin Falls hoped to host communion in a park. And Mr. Bundy himself is now leading regular meetings with dozens of people to assess how to fight back against what he calls government overreach, including with a physical presence if necessary.

“I will be there, and I will bring as many people as I can,” he told those who attended the meeting he convened on March 26, a day after the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect. “We will form a legal defense for you. We will perform an active political defense for you. And we will also, if necessary, provide a physical defense for you, so that you can continue in your rights.”

Most people would regard Ammon Bundy as a self-styled fascist, but the SWP regarded him and his father as freedom-fighters. In their coverage of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge battles, they made him sound like Subcommandante Marcos in Chiapas. Bundy and his father Cliven had emerged as enemies of public ownership of western land in 2014. After a protracted legal struggle, the United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM) got the green light to order Cliven Bundy to pay over $1 million in grazing fees for incursions on federally owned land adjacent to his Nevada ranch. Cliven Bundy was hardly the kind of person the SWP would have backed in the past, given his assertion that “the negroes…abort their young children” and “put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton.”

Ammon, who owned a truck repair company, went up to Oregon in 2016 to build a movement in support of Dwight and Steven Hammond. These were father and son ranchers, convicted of lighting a fire on public adjacent to their ranch in 2012. Like Cliven Bundy, they did not believe that government ownership of public land was unconstitutional. After meeting both with federal authorities and Ammon Bundy, the Hammonds decided to cut their ties with him and the local militias he was trying to organize on their behalf. They hated the government but had little confidence in Bundy.

Besides setting an illegal fire, the Hammonds were encroaching on the Malheur wildlife preserve for decades. They tore down fences in order to allow their cattle to damage the refuge’s protected marsh and wetland. According to Wikipedia, Dwight Hammond made death threats against refuge managers in 1986, 1988, 1991, and 1994. He was on record as warning one of them that “he was going to tear his head off and shit down his neck.” Try sending an email to a cop with these words and see how far that gets you.

Naturally, these were the kinds of people Ammon Bundy and his alt-right cohorts would stick up for, even if the Hammonds said no thanks. To defend the ranchers’ right to invade public land and destroy natural habitat, Bundy and company occupied the headquarters of the Malheur wildlife preserve. A year before the Oregon stand-off, CounterPunch author Christopher Ketcham took their measure in Harper’s magazine. A long-time defender of western public land, Ketcham was appalled by the BLM’s inability to remove Clive Bundy’s cattle from publicly owned land in Nevada, where Republican Party muscle prevailed. Ketcham wrote:

Bundy’s victory in April — which is to say the BLM’s abject defeat — proved to be an inspiration for like-minded Americans. On May 6, two hooded men driving a pickup truck with a masked license plate approached a BLM employee driving a load of horses and burros on a highway near Nephi, Utah. They pointed a pistol at him and held up a sign that said you need to die. The men fled, and were never caught. On June 8, Amanda and Jerad Miller, a young couple from Indiana who had joined Bundy’s militia, burst into a Las Vegas pizzeria and, at point-blank range, shot and killed two police officers who were eating lunch. The Millers draped the dead bodies with a yellow flag that said don’t tread on me and pinned a note to one of them that called the killings the beginning of a revolution. They continued on to Walmart, where they shot and killed a customer. Then, after she found herself surrounded by police, Amanda killed her husband and turned the gun on herself.

Did anybody writing for The Militant keep track of such coverage? If they did and chose to ignore it, you’d have to conclude that they had diminished capacity to distinguish good from evil. No amount of references to Karl Marx’s writings can compensate for that.

In November 2016, The Militant gloated over Ammon Bundy and the Hammond brothers’ ability to muscle into public land for which our taxes pay. Referring to a jury finding Ammon Bundy and his brother Ryan not guilty of conspiracy in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, they declared it a victory for workers, as if cattle despoiling virgin wilderness would hasten Bolshevik rule in the USA. As for the Hammonds, Donald Trump pardoned them in July 2018. Through this action, he was showing his deference to the Oregon Cattlemen’s Association and his Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, well-known revolutionaries.

The Militant was positively gleeful over Trump’s pardon. In an article titled “Oregon ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond freed!, cult member Seth Galinsky wrote:

In a victory for working people, President Donald Trump pardoned and freed Dwight Hammond, 76, and his son Steven Hammond July 10. The two Oregon ranchers had been imprisoned on frame-up charges of arson. “I’m so glad they are coming home,” retired ranch hand Merlin Rupp told the Militant by phone from Burns, Oregon. “They should never have been in prison for five minutes.”

While Leon Trotsky had the purest motives in founding the Fourth International in 1938, the results have been meager, if not appalling. Any number of politicians affiliated with the FI or its offshoots have gone off the deep end. The SWP’s Jack Barnes is not alone.

Before him, there was J. Posadas, who led the Latin American bureau in the 1950s. He believed that socialism would arise out of the ashes of nuclear war and that UFO sightings indicated that advanced societies on other planets existed. They no doubt have their version of socialism on Mars or Venus.

Then, there was Gerry Healy, a charismatic leader of the Trotskyist movement in England who recruited Vanessa Redgrave and other celebrities to his ranks. Healy had the brilliant idea of promoting the theories of Muammar Gaddafi in his press in exchange for substantial payoffs under the table, thereby anticipating the kind of “axis of resistance” politics now prevalent on the left. In 1985, his comrades expelled him for this and other misdeeds, including the sexual abuse of female members.

Leon Trotsky considered the SWP to be the most accomplished section of his international. It did have lots to be proud of, with Farrell Dobbs leading the Teamsters struggles in Twin Cities and younger members providing leadership in the Vietnam antiwar movement.

All such groups have a limited shelf-life, however. Some just trudge along, like the SWP in England, or the ISO in the USA until a Gerry Healy type depravity combined with Sandernista pressure led to its dissolution.

When young people survey such wreckage strewn across the political landscape, it is understandable why they embrace social democracy. It is undoubtedly true that this movement does not spawn batty cult leaders, but at the expense—I’m afraid—of accommodating itself to the capitalist status quo.

One can learn a lot from the writings of Leon Trotsky, but it is clear that the “Leninist” method creates a dynamic in which a “great leader” can drag a membership into all sorts of disasters. I am glad that I said goodbye to this movement in 1978 and avoided the experience of being exposed to COVID-19 in a memorial meeting. Like Ishmael, I departed with the verse from Job at the very end of Moby Dick: “and I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”

Louis Proyect blogged at and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.