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Tim Nelson: Max Shachtman and Trotskyism

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shachtman cannonThis article concerns a series of debates between members of the Trotskyist movement during the Second World War. At this point in time, the movement itself was very small. The Fourth International, launched in 1938 had at most a few thousand members, most of whom were members of small, isolated sects without much roots in the working class movement. The outstanding member of the international was, naturally, Leon Trotsky. Leader of the 1917 Revolution, former President of the Petrograd Soviet and founder of the Red Army; Trotsky was driven out of the Russian Communist Party leadership, the Communist Party itself, and eventually the Soviet Union altogether by a counterrevolutionary coup led by Joseph Stalin, who Trotsky labelled the “gravedigger of the revolution”. The debate continues as to the exact date and, more importantly the causes, of the revolution’s degeneration; but emerging from the Civil War of 1918-21, the working class in Russia was largely a spent force. In order to defeat the White armies and invaders from capitalist states, the Bolsheviks adopted increasingly autocratic measures to maintain their control. The cities became weakened by famine and war, and many workers were forced to return to the countryside to avoid starvation. The organs of workers’ democracy- the Soviets, trade unions, factory committees- became hollow shells, incorporated into the state bureaucracy, or disappeared completely. In these conditions, the structures of the Communist Party played an increasingly dominant role, and the democratic rule of the working class was substituted for by party officials. The Communist Party which emerged from the civil war in 1921 was not the one that led the revolution in October 1917. Where previously it had been a mass revolutionary party rooted in the industrial working class and its factory committees, it increasingly became an organ of state management and control. Just as in the Red Army Trotsky recruited “specialists”- former Tsarist officers- to lead the army, so the Communist Party increasingly recruited its own kinds of specialists to administer the state. Being the ruling party, the Communist Party attracted all kinds of opportunists- social climbers, former Tsarist bureaucrats, charlatans and cynics from the middle classes- who due to their increasingly powerful position in society became a social layer over and above the working class. At the head of this bureaucracy was Communist Party General Secretary Joseph Stalin, who led this new social layer in driving out of power all the old Bolsheviks and establishing a bureaucratic dictatorship. Once exiled, Trotsky and his small group of followers were often focussed on how to explain this course of events, and a key question in that debate was how best to describe the bureaucracy which had seized political power.


Stalinism, of course, was not restricted to being a Russian phenomenon. The Comintern, or Third International, established by the Russian Communist Party and affiliated to by Communist parties across the world; often reflected the degeneration the Russian party, which was naturally not the partner. In 1924, the President of the Comintern, Grigory Zinoviev, began a process of “Bolshevisation” where the Communist parties were induced to establish top-down, monolithic party structures similar to those of the Russian party in power. In many cases, such as in Germany, this involved uprooting the party’s native democratic structures. This process of bureaucratisation continued apace once Stalin was brought into power. By the time Trotsky was exiled in 1929, therefore, the international Communist movement was bureaucratised, authoritarian, and slavishly following orders from Moscow. Trotsky’s supporters, and those of other Bolshevik leaders removed by Stalin, were driven out of the parties. Despite this, the Communist parties in many countries still enjoyed a large base of membership and support in the working class, and attracted some of the best militants. The Trotskyists, therefore, were largely consigned to isolation- any space there was to the left of social democracy was largely taken up by a political tendency irreconcilably hostile to them.


This is the context in which debates within the Trotskyist movement in the late 1930s and early 1940s should be viewed. These were not debates inside mass working class parties on the verge of leading a revolution, but rather between small groups of isolated Marxists, increasingly sidelined in the movement, largely unnoticed by the class. Much of their debates focussed upon analyses of events over which they had very little influence. However, this is not to say that the discussions amongst Trotskyists in this period were irrelevant, or that they are not informative for us today. The magnitude of the topics being discussed was enormous- the class nature of the Soviet Union, the position socialists should take on the question of the Second World War, the nature of imperialism. The events of the 1930s and 1940s in many ways shaped the world we live in today, and it is unsurprising therefore that political discussions among revolutionaries at that point in time in many ways laid the groundwork for the direction the Trotskyist movement has taken since. Many mistakes, which have since been repeated many times over, have their roots in the course Trotskyism embarked upon in the early 1940s. The largest organisation affiliated to the Fourth International was the US Socialist Workers Party, which Trotsky gave a large part of his attention. Despite being small, given the size and militancy of the American working class movement at the time; the SWP had played a critical role in some areas during the heightened class struggle of the 1930s, most notably in the Minneapolis Teamster rebellion of 1934. It also numbered in its leadership some talented revolutionaries. This party, only ten months old and numbering at most two thousand members, was split almost down the middle over questions raised by the Second World War concerning the nature of the Soviet Union. At the head of this party the leadership was similarly divided.


The SWP was led by three major figures- James P. Cannon, James Burnham, and Max Shachtman. Cannon, the leader of the party, was born in 1890 in Kansas. He began as an organiser for the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World and a member of the Socialist Party of America, before he broke, along with the rest of that party’s left wing, to form the Communist Party of the USA. He was a leading proponent of the Bolshevisation driven by Zinoviev. He, along with Shachtman, was expelled from the party in 1928 for supporting Trotsky, and together they formed the Communist League, forerunner of the SWP. By the outbreak of the Second World War, Cannon was the foremost member of the SWP. He had a reputation for being a talented organiser, public speaker and agitator, with a keen understanding of the trade union movement. He had been active in the Minneapolis Teamster rebellion, where he had built up a significant base. He also, however, had a reputation for an authoritarian style and factional mentality, which would often drive out or slander opponents rather than win them politically. He ran the SWP’s central office in New York. He had also adopted Trotsky’s unfortunate habit of denouncing people who disagreed with him as Stalinist agents. Max Shachtman was a Polish Jew who immigrated to New York with his family as a small child in 1905. He became youth organiser for the Communist Party in Chicago, and part of a grouping associated with Cannon in the mid-1920s. After their expulsion, Shachtman became American Trotskyism’s most talented journalist and orator. Fluent in several languages, Shachtman was often regarded as the SWP’s expert on international questions and was a translator of Trotsky’s writings. While Cannon’s base in the party was among its trade unionists, particularly in Minneapolis; Shachtman, with his sharp wit and skills as a writer and speaker, built a base among the party’s youth, particularly in his native Bronx. Although the divisions between Cannon and Shachtman were quickly going to dominate the factional struggles in the SWP, the first open challenge to the “official” party line came, not from Shachtman, but another leading member, James Burnham. While Cannon and Shachtman were both professional revolutionaries from working class backgrounds, Burnham was an academic at New York University, educated at Princeton, and born to a privileged family in Chicago. It was Burnham’s revision of Trotsky’s theory of Russian being a degenerated workers’ state which initiated the faction fight. His views have often been discredited retrospectively due to his dramatic shift to the right shortly after this period- he eventually became an intellectual for the conservative movement, renouncing Marxism altogether. In 1937, Burnham began to argue that the Soviet bureaucracy had become a new exploiting class, as opposed to being a “parasitic caste” within the degenerated workers’ state, as Trotsky and his supporters in the United States led by Cannon maintained. This system was not a degenerated workers’ state, but “bureaucratic collectivism”. These ideas began to resonate with many in the Socialist Workers Party, and gained support from Max Shachtman.

These arguments came to the surface as a result of Trotsky’s analysis of the Soviet Union being applied to new circumstances- the outbreak of the Second World War and the Nazi-Soviet Pact in 1939. Many in the Trotskyist movement felt that these new developments revealed weaknesses in Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR, and it would need to be revised.

The Degenerated Workers’ State

Trotsky maintained that even after the bureaucratic coup, the Soviet Union remained in essence a workers’ state. The coup led by Stalin had removed the political power of the state from the workers and put it in the hands of the bureaucracy. Where previously the state had been under the control of the control of democratic workers’ institutions- Soviets, factory committees and unions- it was now under the control of the party bureaucracy. The bureaucracy, Trotsky argued, was a privileged sector of Russian society. Relative to workers and peasants in the USSR, the party bureaucrats’ pay and conditions were extremely favourable. However, they gained this position not due to control of the means of production and exchange as a ruling class would, but as a result of a parasitic relationship with the masses. Its privileged position, however, was gained as a result of it holding political power. While the bureaucracy had overturned the democratic organs of the workers’ state and installed a dictatorship, it had not fundamentally altered the economic basis of society. In this regard, Trotsky argued, the Stalinist regime was akin to a Bonapartist dictatorship. The dictatorships of the first and third Napoleon in the nineteenth century were brought to power by military coups which seized political power but did not fundamentally alter the property relations in society. Private property remained in place and capitalism was preserved. This was analogous with the Soviet Union under Stalin. While the bureaucracy had seized political power, the nationalised property forms established by the 1917 workers’ revolution remained in place, and were in fact maintained and defended by the Stalinist bureaucracy.
On this basis, Trotsky maintained that the Soviet Union was more progressive than the capitalist countries. He argued that the nature of a society was not determined by who held political power, but by its property relations. The basis of capitalism was private property. Under capitalism, the means of production and exchange were controlled by the bourgeoisie. The basis of the workers’ state, unlike all other previous societies, was state-owned property. The means of production and exchange in the USSR remained state-controlled, and therefore it remained in essence a workers’ state. Trotsky pointed out that in capitalist societies there were many different forms of political rule. During the 1930s, the United States and France were bourgeois democratic republics, the British Empire was a constitutional monarchy, Germany and Italy were fascist dictatorships. There had been capitalist states which were absolute monarchies and Bonapartist dictatorships. At various points, the political control of the state may not be directly in the hands of the bourgeoisie; however, the society remains capitalist as the means of production and exchange remain in the hands of the bourgeoisie. The same laws apply to the workers’ state. Political power may at certain points not be directly in the hands of the workers, but so long as the means of production and exchange remained state controlled, the society remained a workers’ state. It was the seizure of political power by a privileged minority which made the Soviet Union a degenerated workers’ state. Due to the working class coming to power in a backward society which had not fully developed along capitalist lines, and the failure of the revolution to initiate others in developed capitalist states such as Germany; the Russian workers’ state became isolated and was unable to maintain its democratic workers’ institutions independently. During the “War Communism” of the Civil War which was maintained between 1918 and 1921, and the introduction and development of the New Economic Policy from 1921 to 1928, a bureaucracy in the form of the Communist Party apparatus developed to manage Russia’s backward economy and administration. The coup which drove Trotsky and his allies from power and installed Stalin at the head of the Soviet state was just the final stage of this bureaucracy seizing political power. Hence, the USSR was a workers’ state which, due to the backwardness of Russia’s economy and the revolution’s isolation, became bureaucratically degenerated. The bureaucracy, however, remained a parasitic caste; over and above the working class and the peasantry but not an independent exploiting class in its own right.
Trotsky did, however, argue that this situation was unsustainable for any extended period of time. The bureaucracy’s position as a parasitic caste resting upon the state control of property was precarious, as it, rather than carrying out an “historic mission” as other ruling classes have done, was instead the product of a protracted crisis in capitalism and a stalled workers’ revolution. It was an historic anomaly, not a new stage in human social development; and as such would not last. Trotsky allowed for three possibilities to emerge:
  1. 1) 1) There would be a counterrevolution, most likely imposed by capitalist imperialism from the outside, given that the native Russian bourgeoisie had been completely expropriated. This counterrevolution would reverse all the victories of the Russian workers’ revolution and reintroduce private property.
  1. 2) 2) The working class would regain control of the state, most likely as a result of workers’ revolutions seizing power in more developed capitalist countries in Europe.
  1. 3) 3) The bureaucracy would develop into a new ruling class.
It was the first possibility which led Trotsky to argue that the Soviet Union had to be defended against imperialism, and it was this assertion being challenged at the beginning of the Second World War which initiated the factional struggle in the American Socialist Workers Party. Trotsky maintained that the USSR, despite the bureaucratic degeneration of the state, remained more progressive than capitalism due to the state ownership of property. A victory for imperialism would mean a reversal of the victories of the Russian Revolution and an imposition of private property. Therefore, while revolutionary socialists should fight for the working class to take back control of the state and oppose all reactionary elements of the bureaucracy’s policies by agitating for independent working class action; the Soviet Union must be defended against imperialism, particularly if there were to be war. The second possibility, that the working class would regain political control of the state, was obviously the most desirable. How Trotsky believed this could occur changed over time. Originally, Trotsky argued that a revolution would not be necessary to remove the bureaucracy and restore the working class to political power. Given that the USSR remained a workers’ state, and the only issue was control over political power, the working class could re-establish its rule through reform. However, a few years before the faction fight started, Trotsky accepted that, due to the authoritarian nature of the bureaucracy’s rule, a revolution would be necessary. This revolution, however, would be a political revolution, as it would not fundamentally effect the property relations of the USSR. One of these three possibilities was inevitable due to the precarious and temporary nature of the Soviet bureaucracy’s rule, and the fact that capitalism as a whole was in the latter stages of its final crisis. Either an international workers’ revolution would occur, or the ruling class would be forced to maintain its power through increasingly authoritarian methods. The outcome of this on an international level would have a direct impact on the course of development of the Soviet Union. This catastrophist analysis would inform the “orthodox” Trotskyist analysis throughout the Second World War and long after.

The Outbreak of the Second World War

Trotsky’s theory was to come up against serious challenges at the outbreak of the Second World War, particularly from members of the American Socialist Workers Party. For several years, the Stalinist bureaucracy had been pursuing a foreign policy of attempting to build an alliance with liberal democracies such as France and Britain against Nazi Germany. This took the form, through the Comintern, of the strategy of the Popular Front. Communist parties in Western democracies were instructed to pursue alliances with “progressive” capitalists and prop up their governments. However, in 1939 this policy was completely reversed. The Soviet Union entered into an alliance, not with the liberal democratic imperialisms, but with Nazi Germany. While Trotsky had allowed for the possibility that the Soviet Union may enter into a non-aggression pact with Germany (although remaining opposed to such a policy), he did not expect the Soviet Union to enter into an active military alliance with the Nazis- yet this is exactly what the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 entailed. Stalin’s Red Army invaded Poland from the east, while the Wehrmacht invaded from the west. The Red Army went on to invade Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Finland; while Nazi Germany invaded Denmark and Norway. The USSR had become a junior partner in a military alliance with Nazi Germany. The Trotskyists all agreed that this was a war between two imperialist blocs, however many began to argue that the Soviet Union’s role as a part of one of these blocs, to the point of waging wars of conquest, raised serious questions as to the nature of that state.
Trotsky’s argument that the Soviet Union should be supported in the event of a war rested upon the argument that it was more progressive than capitalist states due to its state-owned property forms. This analysis came under attack as a result of the Nazi-Soviet Pact for two reasons. Firstly, the Soviet Union’s alliance with Nazi Germany meant that it had become engaged in predatory wars of conquest against smaller nations. Secondly, the property relations in these nations after conquest did not fit with Trotsky’s argument that its role was progressive. Trotsky’s position was that a workers’ state, in order to survive in a hostile world of capitalism and imperialism, will be forced to enter into all sorts of temporary alliances with capitalist and imperialist states. Which states it should be in alliance with is a matter of pragmatism as much as principle. That the USSR had entered into an alliance with Nazi German imperialism as opposed to French democratic imperialism did not make it any less of a workers’ state. This does not mean that Trotsky was not critical of the alliance, or believed that an alliance with fascism was justified political. However, such an alliance did not alter the progressive nature of the Soviet economy. The Kremlin’s foreign policy, like most actions of the Stalinist bureaucracy, was very likely to be reactionary, and should be criticised; but the progressive basis of the Soviet Union- the nationalised property forms established by the Russian Revolution must still be defended. The character of a war, furthermore, was determined by the property forms of the states involved.
Max Shachtman, however, argued that while the nature of a war is not divorced from its social and economic basis, this is not the sole, or even the main, determining factor. The political nature of the state could often be the primary factor in determining the nature of a war. It was therefore necessary to determine the degree to which the Soviet Union’s political regime- the Stalinist bureaucracy- had degenerated. The Stalinist regime, despite being based upon nationalised property, had degenerated to the point that it was perfectly capable of conducting revolutionary wars, even against capitalist states such as Finland and Poland. He maintained that while in all capitalist societies the political regime, whatever form it may take, was dedicated to preserving capitalist property relations; the Soviet bureaucracy was dedicated to undermining the economic basis if the USSR- nationalised property. The bureaucracy, which was responsible for the war, had only reactionary social and political interests. While Shachtman agreed that the Soviet Union, like any country, should be defeated against imperialist attack, the invasions of Poland, the Baltic states and Finland were not wars of defence against imperialism, but reactionary invasions in alliance with it. He referred to them as wars of “bureaucratic expansion and subjugation of other peoples”. They could not be called progressive in any real sense of the term. The invasions did not heighten the class consciousness of the working class in any of the occupied countries, and in fact weakened it. The workers of those countries were likely to be driven to supporting their own ruling classes, with nationalist politics encouraged and sympathy for the Russian Revolution, and socialism as a whole, undermined. Furthermore, by entering into an alliance with Nazi Germany, imperialism was strengthened. Although Trotsky opposed the alliance with Nazi Germany and the invasions, he maintained that the Soviet bureaucracy was still playing a revolutionary role in the occupied countries. The nationalised property forms of the Soviet Union were replicated in the parts of Poland which the Soviet Union had occupied. In Finland, he even talked of the Red Army expropriating the landlords and handing property over to workers’ control. Shachtman maintained that although nationalisation had occurred in Poland and Finland, it had not been imposed in the Baltic states. This suggested that the nationalisation was not brought about as a result of the “irresistible form of state property in the Soviet Union”, but rather as a weapon of the bureaucracy to seize power from the native ruling class. The ruling classes in the Baltic states were willing to share power with the Soviet bureaucracy, and therefore private property was allowed to remain. While there was no evidence of “workers’ control” in Finland, as claimed by Trotsky, there had been an attempt in Poland, in cities such as Vilna, after the bourgeoisie had fled, to establish a Soviet; which was crushed by the Red Army.
Shachtman claimed that the Soviet Union was in fact engaged in a form of imperialism. This was dismissed by Trotsky’s supporters, who argued that imperialism was the product of finance capitalism- the exportation and investment ofcapital to countries with underdeveloped economies. Shachtman pointed out, just as Lenin did, that this definition of imperialism applied to modern, capitalist imperialism; but many other forms of class society had also engaged in imperialist wars which did not fit this very specific definition. Any state which seeks to use force to subjugate another society and exploit its population, or wages war with another state for the “right” to do so, is engaged in an imperialist war. Many slave-based or feudal societies engaged in imperialist wars. It is therefore not impossible that a war of “bureaucratic expansionism” could be classified as an imperialist war. In alliance with Nazi Germany, the Soviet bureaucracy was forcibly subjugating the people of Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, in order to plunder their resources. This could only be described as imperialism, even if it was not the imperialism of a capitalist state. On this basis, Trotskyists could not continue to call for the defence of the Soviet Union in the imperialist war, as this would essentially amount to the support of one imperialist camp- that of Germany- in which the Soviet Union was a junior partner. Since the First World War revolutionary socialists had argued that they should call for the defeat of their own state in any imperialist war and refuse to support it. However, since the Soviet Union was a workers’ state, Trotskyists believed that workers should support it, however critical they may be of its leadership. They should continue with the policy of “revolutionary defeatism” in imperialist countries. This, for Shachtman, was incoherent. Even if, as Trotsky’s supporters argued, the Soviet Union was not imperialist itself, and was just acting in alliance with imperialism; it followed that its victory would be a victory for one imperialist camp over another. If the Soviet Union was under attack from imperialism it should be defended- when its victory meant victory for imperialism, defeatism should be applied as much to it as to any other state.
At the roots of this debate were alternative conceptions of socialism, and how to bring it about. It appeared that Trotsky was arguing that a workers’ state could be established in countries such as Poland and Finland not by workers themselves through revolution, but on their behalf, even against their wishes, by the Red Army and the bureaucracy. The Stalinists, who Trotsky had denounced as counterrevolutionary, were now carrying out revolutionary measures. Just as the bourgeois revolution in Europe had, in many cases, been imposed “from above” by Napoleon’s armies, so the proletarian revolution was being spread at the point of Red Army bayonets. The designation of the USSR as a workers’ state, even a degenerated one, suggested that the defining feature of such a state was not workers control over the economy and the state, and therefore over their own lives, but instead the state ownership of property. Not only did this mean that a workers’ state could exist which was in no way, shape or form a workers’ democracy; the belief that the Soviet Union established similar states in Eastern Europe meant that a workers’ state could be established entirely without the participation of workers- a workers’ revolutionary government could be established without a workers’ revolution. This got to the distinction between what Hal Draper (an American Shachtmanite) referred to as the “two souls of socialism”: socialism from above and socialism from below. Draper argued that it was this division, as opposed to the one between reform and revolution, or any other, which was the key division between socialists. Marxists argue that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. What unites those who believe that socialism can be introduced through acts of parliament, or on the back of a Soviet tank, is that both deny the agency of the working class, and place the liberation of the proletariat in the hands of a minority who will carry out the “revolution” and implement socialism on their behalf. Such a method is doomed to failure because it is in the very act of liberating themselves through self-activity that the working class becomes liberated. What Trotsky displayed during the debates over the occupation of Poland, the Baltic states and Finland was that he had been pulled by notions that revolution could be introduced from above.

The Faction Fight

Leon Trotsky was murdered in 1940 by a Stalinist agent. The debate about the class nature of the Soviet Union within the US Socialist Workers Party only began in 1937, and really only started in earnest in 1939. We therefore only have some writings from Trotsky early on to discern his position on these issues. The debate, however, continued after his death, and his position was maintained by many of his followers; the foremost of which was James P. Cannon. Trotsky’s intervention in the faction fight in the SWP while he was still alive can at best be described as unhelpful. The Nazi-Soviet Pact came as an enormous shock to the Trotskyist movement. In response to arguments from Burnham, Shachtman and others- that his theory needed to be revised in light of recent events- Trotsky responded with a detailed article The USSR In War, in which he responded to many of the issues highlighted above, and to the argument that the Soviet Union should be described as “bureaucratic collectivist” (which will be discussed further below). It was in this article that Trotsky suggested that the Stalinist bureaucracy was in fact carrying out a progressive role in the occupied territories of Eastern Poland. Another conclusion, which surprised many of his followers, was that unless the Second World War, which was by far the greatest crisis capitalism had ever produced, sparked a socialist revolution, then it would instead bring about a new era of totalitarianism. This may suggest that socialism was unachievable, and the working class incapable of carrying out its “historic mission”. This line of argument suggested that unless Trotsky’s analysis was correct, then the very future of the idea of socialism was obsolete. This intervention led to a deepening of factional divisions in the SWP, rather than an alleviation of them. Trotsky’s methods during the faction fight were often viewed as unhelpful even by some of those in the Majority who supported his position. He repeatedly referred to the Minority supporters as “petty bourgeois”, and pointed out that the Majority was supported by most of the industrial workers in the party. This labelling of the Minority was exactly the same accusation levelled at the Left Opposition by the Stalinists, and it essentially implied that the other side of the faction fight was a class enemy. He also warned of “Stalinist agents working in our midst”, implying that these were the source of the internal dispute.
Trotsky had gained a reputation both in the Russian Communist Party before his expulsion, and in the Russian Social Democratic movement before the revolution, as ineffective in internal political disputes. His attitude was considered by many to be high-handed, arrogant and at points authoritarian in style. He would mercilessly, and effectively, tear apart opponents’ positions, leaving them little consolation in defeat. This style was problematic when he was on the correct side of the argument, when he was wrong it was disastrous. Trotsky’s approach was not helped by his chief supporter in the American party, Cannon. Cannon’s leadership style was authoritarian and deeply factional. He, like many in the American socialist movement, came up in a violent and polarised political culture. Working class activists could expect to face violence and oppression from the state and employers, either through the police and the National Guard, or through privately hired thugs. The labour movement itself was heavily infected with violence and intrigue, and radical socialist meetings were as likely to be broken up by supporters of union leaderships or Stalinist goons as by the police. Such an environment was not conducive to a healthy democratic culture, and Cannon was a product of his environment. The Trotskyist movement internationally had also been deeply affected by the legacy of authoritarian practices in the Russian Communist Party and the Comintern. Although Trotsky was driven out of the Communist Party in 1927, the degeneration of democracy in the Soviet state and within the party had begun long before that. As well as clamping down, often violently, on opposition outside the party, democracy was also suppressed within the party itself. Factions within the party were banned in 1921, and the party was increasingly intolerant of dissent. Such top down structures were imposed upon parties affiliated to the Comintern by Zinoviev’s “Bolshevisation” drive. Many of these policies were either tacitly or openly supported by Trotsky. Cannon was a major supporter of Bolshevisation in the US Communist Party, and an admirer of Zinoviev. While the Trotskyists rejected many of the undemocratic practices of the Stalinists, they inherited many others from the Russian Communist Party.
A special convention of the Socialist Workers Party was held in April 1940. The Majority won every vote by 55 to 34. Shachtman claimed that, despite this, the Minority had support of at least half the party, including the majority of the youth. Condemning the party leadership’s undemocratic practices, the Minority split to form the Workers Party. Sherman Stanley, long time associate of Trotsky and supporter of the Minority faction, summed up the faction fight, and the reaction of the international Trotskyist movement to some of the most momentous events in modern history:
The war broke out and we did nothing. The Old Man did nothing. One of the most important events in our epoch took place, and we were asleep. And we stayed asleep.

The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism

As referred to above, challenges to Trotsky’s analysis of the Second World War brought into question his entire theory of the class nature of the Soviet Union. Trotsky’s argument that the USSR had to be defended, and all his justifications for the actions of the Red Army and the bureaucracy in Poland, Finland and the Baltic states; were based upon his assertion that the USSR was a degenerated workers’ state. It was the failure of its application to the events of 1939 which exposed this theory’s weaknesses. Shachtman argued that in Revolution Betrayed, which was Trotsky’s most thoroughgoing analysis of the USSR; Trotsky made a mistake when describing the Soviet Union’s property relations as those of a workers’ state. In the book, Trotsky uses the terms “property relations” and “property forms” interchangeably. The property form of the USSR was in fact state owned property, as the means of production and exchange were nationalised. However, what decide the class nature of a society are the property relations, the relationship every social group of every social group in the society to this property form. The social power of the bourgeoisie in capitalist society is derived from its private ownership of the means of production and exchange, which is defended by the bourgeoisie’s political control over the state. As already discussed above, this control over the state may be removed, with an authoritarian system such as Bonapartism or fascism put in place, but under these systems the property relations remain unaltered. However, the working class’s control over property in a workers’ state is inextricably linked to its control over property. The working class cannot develop its own property relations under capitalism, as the bourgeoisie did under feudalism. It can only do so after it has seized state power. The state is the working class organised as the working class- it is the ruling class by virtue of controlling the state, as it creates its own property relations by nationalising and collectivising the means of production and exchange. Hence, the proletariat’s social power is derived from its political power. In bourgeois society, the two may be separated, in a workers state they cannot be. Therefore, the working class can control property, and therefore be the ruling class, only if it controls the state. The USSR could only be called a workers’ state if the workers held state power. Therefore, with the seizure of state power by the bureaucracy in the Stalinist counterrevolution the Soviet Union ceased to be a workers’ state in any sense. The property form of the USSR was state ownership, but the state itself was now controlled by the bureaucracy. The bureaucracy therefore now controlled the means of production and exchange, not the working class. If one social group, the bureaucracy, had sole control over the means of production and exchange, this surely brought into question Trotsky’s insistence that it was not a ruling class?
In the course of the faction fight in the Socialist Workers Party, Shachtman adopted the theory that the Soviet Union, rather than being a degenerated workers’ state, was “bureaucratic collectivist”. With the isolation of the Russian Revolution due to its failure to spread internationally, a social crisis developed which could not be solved along capitalist lines, as the Russian bourgeoisie had essentially been eradicated as a class, along with private property, by the Russian Revolution. The isolation of the Russian working class and the backward nature of the Russian economy meant that there was no socialist solution to the crisis either. When there is no social force capable of bringing an end to a crisis, a new social force can emerge in order to solve it. The Stalinist bureaucracy filled this vacuum, developed into a new ruling class and established a new system of class exploitation. Of the bureaucracy, Shachtman wrote:
They have a common mode of life that distinguishes them from the working classes; they constitute a basic element of the Stalinist mode of production, that is, they organise and maintain the process of production; they determine, as Marx would put it, the conditions of production; they are, as a distinctive social grouping, the first and the principle beneficiaries of the process of production since their social position enables them to determine the distribution of the surplus product with far fewer restraints than the ruling class suffers under capitalism; they are the exclusive owners of the full machinery of the state, which exists solely for the purpose of preserving their monopolistic social power; and since the state, under Stalinism, owns all the means of production and distribution, the Stalinist ruling class, by virtue of its exclusive possession of this state power, enjoys a general and super-concentrated social power over the population such as no ruling class has ever had in the last thousand years.
This is a new form of class society precisely because, unlike previous class societies, in the system of bureaucratic collectivism the ruling class’ economic power is derived not from private property, but from state ownership.

The Nature of Stalinism


Differences over the nature of the Soviet Union used to be one of the main dividing lines between socialists. There was, of course, the main division between those who considered the USSR to be a socialist society and those, like the Trotskyists, who believed that it was not. During the factional struggle which followed Lenin’s death, the Stalinists, supported by leading party theoretician, and eventual leader of the Right Opposition Nikolai Bukharin; developed the theory of “socialism in one country”. The Russian Revolution had failed to initiate workers’ revolutions in other countries and it looked unlikely that it would do so in the near future. This left the Soviet Union isolated as the world’s only workers’ state. Up until this point all revolutionary Marxists, from Marx through to Lenin, had believed that socialism was only possible on an international level. Capitalism was an international system and as a result the working class was also international. Capitalism is an aggressive economic system which constantly, and inevitably, attempts to expand into new markets and reorganise society along capitalist lines. Any non-capitalist society is likely to be a target for capitalism’s expansionism. Added to this, the logic of reaction means that any revolutionary state which is the product of the overthrow of the old system and aims to build a new one must be crushed, and the old regime reinstated, for fear that it will spread. Any national working class which attempts to build socialism in one country, therefore, will be isolated, and eventually defeated by international capitalism. Furthermore, any workers’ state which successfully manages to ward off reaction would have to survive in a capitalist world economy. The state would inevitably have to compete on an economic, diplomatic, and military level with capitalist states, stunting the conditions for the workers’ state to “wither away” as Engels had argued that it would, in the progression to communism. Bukharin argued that this theory no longer applied to the Soviet Union and they could proceed to establish communism in Russia alone, without the need for revolutions in other countries. Stalin and Bukharin were opposed in this by Trotsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev. It was the theory of socialism in one country as much as anything else which divided the Soviet Union’s supporters from other Marxists. The Stalinists maintained that the Soviet Union and, after the victory of the Red Army in 1945, its satellite states in Eastern Europe, were “actually existing socialism”. During the Second World War, and the Cold War which followed, this division between Stalinists and those who did not believe that the USSR was socialist was obviously necessary. It raised questions of the role of revolutionaries in “non-socialist” countries, if international revolution was no longer necessary, or even feasible. The Stalinist parties’ replication in miniature the Russian party in structure and mode of operation- being top-down, bureaucratic, authoritarian and intolerant of opposition, making them incompatible with those who looked for a democratic movement. Furthermore, Stalinism raised fundamental questions of what socialism actually was, and who it was really for. Was socialism the “socialism” of purges, forced collectivisation, one-party states and Stakhanovite managers? If it was not, the obvious question was posed- if the Soviet Union was not socialist, what exactly was it?

The working class movement at the time of this debate was overwhelmingly dominated by social democracy and Stalinism. Even in the United States, where there was not a mass social democratic party, social democratic ideas were strong within the trade union movement. Unfortunately, the majority of militants who were attracted to revolutionary politics tended to be drawn to the Stalinist Communist parties. Questions of how revolutionaries should relate to the bureaucracies, of the labour and Stalinist variety, and what relationship they should have with the Stalinist parties, were of particular importance. The Cannonites argued that the Stalinist Communist parties were for all intents and purposes reformist organisations similar to the traditional social democratic parties. Their membership was working class; however their leadership was rooted in the bureaucracy- both the trade union bureaucracy, and the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia. This stemmed from their analysis of the Soviet bureaucracy as being a parasitic appendage to the working class, as opposed to a separate class. Trotsky had in fact compared the Soviet state to a trade union leadership- it was reactionary, but in many instances its interests were aligned with that of the working class. Trotskyists should, therefore, relate to the Stalinist parties with the same united front approach that they used to relate to the social democrats. On many issues which effect the working class movement, for example, defence of the trade union movement, Stalinists have as much interest as the Trotskyists do. Revolutionaries should therefore seek to work with the Stalinist parties where they can, while retaining their own independence of organisation and criticism.
For a time after the split with the Socialist Workers Party Shachtman essentially agreed with this line, and even criticised the SWP for not implementing it consistently and in some cases supporting right wing trade union leaders against the Stalinists. However, he later shifted his position. He argued that while some workers may still have illusions in the Communist parties and the Soviet Union, they were fundamentally different from social democratic organisations. A social democratic government is essentially a bourgeois democratic government. If the Stalinists took power, however, they would establish a totalitarian regime. All totalitarian states, including that of the USSR and its satellites, use state power to crush working class organisations. The reason revolutionaries will form united fronts with social democrats is because they will fight for the rights working class organisations have within bourgeois democracy. The Stalinist parties, on the other hand, would remove those rights. Shachtman agreed that in the context of capitalist countries, Stalinist parties would be in direct opposition to the bourgeoisie. This, however, was not because the Stalinists were driven by the interests of the working class, but rather by those of the Soviet bureaucracy whose interests were based upon the existence and expansion of nationalised property relations. The Stalinist parties in capitalist countries were entirely dependent upon the Soviet bureaucracy, and therefore defended and advanced its interests. It was this which brought them into conflict with capitalism. While we may describe social democratic bureaucrats as agents of capitalism within the labour movement, this cannot be extended to the Stalinists, who rather are agents of the Soviet bureaucracy. They may, at points, support the interests of the bourgeoisie over that of the working class, but only if this furthered the interests of the bureaucracy in the USSR. The Stalinists were driven entirely by their own interests. As Trotsky argued soon before his death:
Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not revolutionary leaders but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aim of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule.
On this basis, Shachtman argued that revolutionaries should form blocs even with conservative trade union bureaucrats over forming alliances with the Stalinists. In doing so, revolutionaries would be working with those who had a vested interest in the democratic right to an independent labour movement, as opposed to working with those who sought to crush it. It was also more productive to work with anti-Stalinist workers, who were probably more likely to form part of a revolutionary movement than those already indoctrinated by Stalinism.


Catastrophism and Dogmatism

The problem which increasingly faced the Trotskyist movement throughout the 1940s was that Trotsky’s analysis and predictions did not fit events. For example, Trotsky argued that the Soviet bureaucratic regime was a temporary, unstable anomaly, thrown up as a result of the final crisis of capitalism not producing a workers’ revolution except in an economically backward society. He went on to argue that this accident of history would eventually collapse. Furthermore, unless there was a revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, the bourgeois democracies would be replaced by totalitarian dictatorships, the beginnings of which were being witnessed with the increase of authoritarianism and state control in the war time Western democracies. Such totalitarianism was the only way that capitalism could maintain itself in a time of such profound crisis. It became increasingly evident that this analysis was incorrect. Following the Second World War, both the Stalinist regime and Western capitalism entered a period of extended stability. Anglo-American imperialism did not descend into totalitarianism, and did not, as many Trotskyists expected, install dictatorships in those parts of Western Europe it occupied after the defeat of Nazi Germany. Far from being in its final crisis, capitalism in the 1950s and 1960s experienced a period of unprecedented boom. Trotsky was wrong. This in itself should neither be surprising, nor especially upsetting. Revolutionary predictions from Marx onwards usually have been incorrect, and all analyses in Marxist theory are subject to constant revision. However, the Trotskyists of the 1940s, led primarily by Cannon, had begun to treat Trotsky’s writings as scripture. When it was clear that the Second World War had not brought about the collapse either of the Stalinist bureaucracy or Western democracy, Cannon concluded that, rather than Trotsky having been wrong, the Second World War must not have ended.
This highlighted a serious problem with much of the Trotskyist movement which unfortunately has not gone away. The Cannonites had, as one of their main weapons in the factional struggle with Shachtman and his supporters, the writings of Trotsky to support their position. This became a tool in all subsequent debates within the SWP and the Fourth International. Trotsky’s analyses, rather than being subject to adaption, review and revision began to be regarded as dogma. Many of his theoretical and strategic positions, from his arguments regarding the trade union movement to defence of the Soviet Union, were based upon hostages of fortune- the final crisis of capitalism, the anomalous nature of the Soviet bureaucracy, the immediate revolutionary potential of the working class. Rather than correcting their approach when those theories proved inadequate, many in the Trotskyist movement tended to retreat even further into dogma, denying the reality of the situation as it did not fit the perspective. Some Trotskyist organisations continued for decades to argue that the final crisis of capitalism continued, and that the revolutionary situation was imminent. Some continue to argue this today. The idea that capitalism was in a perpetual state of ever worsening crisis and that revolution was round the corner, led many Trotskyists down the road of voluntarism and sectarianism. If the revolution was imminent, the key task for revolutionaries was to build the revolutionary party. Trotsky argued that the key ingredient that made the October 1917 revolution a success was the Bolshevik Party. Given the current leadership of the working class movement was dominated either by the social democrats or the Stalinists, the task to build a new revolutionary party was an urgent one. This theory led many Trotskyists down the road of abstract sect building in order to build an alternative, revolutionary leadership.


The Monolithic Party

Shachtman argued that, even more important than the differences over the nature of the Soviet Union were questions concerning the nature of the revolutionary party. Divisions over the USSR were not grounds to split the Trotskyist movement in the United States. However, the idea of “Leninism” which was held by the leadership of the SWP, especially by Cannon, made continued unity impossible. The Cannonites had adopted the model of a monolithic party from the legacy of “Bolshevisation”:
Monolithism, “a party hewn from one block” was the poison introduced into the Communist movement by the late Zinoviev, a revolutionist who had known better times- and better ideas. Under the guise of making the party firm and hard, it squeezed out of the party all that was revolutionary and life-giving. Under guise of preventing the revolutionary party from “degenerating into a sterile debating society”, it succeeded in wiping out all debate, all discussion, all thought, everything except blind and servile obedience to a bureaucratic autocracy [...]. Zinoviev’s “monolithism” was carried to its murderous conclusion by Stalinism.
The monolithic party model has since dominated most organisations in the Trotskyist tradition. This version of “democratic centralism” is that members of the party vote on the “line”, and once that has been agreed upon all discussion is then ended, and the decision implemented. Shachtman argued that while there should be unity in action, and the majority decision should be implemented by the whole party; minorities should continue to have the right to attempt to win people to their position, and openly argue their case. It was only through continuous debate that a revolutionary party could in any way be effective. Rather than seeing discussion and disagreement as a distraction from activity, it was an essential component of it:
We regard discussion of all questions, free criticism, debate of all problems of the working class movement, an indispensible and inseparable part of the very life of a revolutionary party. Without it a party cannot even live, let alone develop and grow powerful. And we mean not a discussion that is always confined within the four walls of the party, but a discussion before the eyes of the working class public as well. Only thus can members see how the revolutionary vanguard, which seeks their support, arrives at its ideas, why it persists in its ideas or why, in the contrary case, it modifies its ideas.
It is one of the most peculiar aspects of the monolithic interpretation of democratic centralism that it insists that internal debates within the revolutionary party should not and must not be known to people outside of the organisation. Lenin and others in the Bolshevik Party always insisted that discussion must be had in front of the class, that party members must actively attempt to engage non-members in debates currently being argued within the party, and that non-members should be encouraged to participate in such debates. The monolithic party model supported by Cannon and his supporters instead insisted upon secrecy and the hiding of differences from the rest of the movement, to the point that publicising such disagreements was a disciplinary offence. This, for Shachtman, was a grievous preach of the democratic process as it effectively cut discussion within the party off from exposure to working class people’s real experiences, ensuring political and tactical decisions were made in isolation. It also necessitated a dishonest approach to the class. If the party decided to change course, or rectified an error, no-one outside the party was informed as to why. Finally, it would act to stifle discussion within the party, as it limited a minority’s ability to argue its case to the organisation as a whole, particularly if the leadership restricted its access to internal avenues of communication and discourse. The monolithic model also imposed a top-down party structure, where decisions were made by the leading party organs, and fed down to the membership, rather than the other way around. It is highly unlikely that a fully democratic organisation in which dissent is encouraged and there is constant debate is going to be able to produce the sort of discipline demanded by a monolithic organisation. Such discipline is only likely to be able to be enforced “from above”. The top-down, monolithic model of democratic centralism was the consequence of the Russian Communist Party’s break with the idea that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. As the Communist Party increasingly substituted its own structures and activities for that of the working class, so the leading bodies of the party increasingly substituted for the members. The lack of democracy in the party was the direct consequence of its separation from the working class.
James P. Cannon, although one of the founders of American Trotskyism, in fact drew his views on party organisation and his methodology of dealing with minority tendencies, not from Trotsky, but from Grigory Zinoviev. Zinoviev was the President of the Comintern and therefore the chief arbiter of political disputes in the international Communist movement. By 1924 he was, along with Lev Kamenev, allied with Stalin against a minority tendency led by Trotsky which was opposing the increasing bureaucratisation of the Russian Communist Party and elements of the New Economic Policy. Zinoviev aimed to use his leadership of the Comintern to line the international Communist movement up against Trotsky, which he did at the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, later referred to as the “Bolshevisation Congress”. At this congress, the monolithic party model designed by Zinoviev, not Lenin, was adopted by all the Communist parties, including the US party. The congress adopted the Thesis of the Fifth Congress on Propaganda Activities of the Communist International and It’s Sections, which contained passages such as:
Struggles within the Communist International are at the same time ideological crises within the individual parties. Right and left political deviations, deviations from Marxism-Leninism, are connected with the class ideology of the proletariat.
Manifestations of crisis at the Second World Congress and after were precipitated by “left infantile sicknesses”, which were ideologically a deviation from Marxism-Leninism towards syndicalism. The present internal struggles in some communist parties, the beginnings of which coincided with the October defeat in Germany, are ideological repercussions of the survival of traditional social democratic ideas in the Communist parties. Bolshevisation in this context means the final ideological victory of Marxism-Leninism (or in other words Marxism in the period of imperialism and the epoch of proletarian revolution) over the “Marxism” of the Second International and the syndicalist remnants.
This was the blueprint for the ideological conformity of the monolithic “Leninist” party, drawn up by Zinoviev, in order to isolate oppositional elements who may have sided with Trotsky. Internal opposition in the Communist parties was either “left infantile sickness” or “Menshevism”. Only the views of the party centre and the Comintern were truly “Marxist-Leninist”. This model was adopted by the Communist Party of the USA at its Fourth National Convention in 1925. There existed at this time a minority tendency led by Ludwig Lore inside the American party, over the question of how to relate to the populist Farmer-Labor Party. This issue was, naturally, confined to the American party. Lore, however, also sympathised with Trotsky, and spoke out against Bolshevisation:
The Third International changes its tactics, nay, even its methods, every day, and if need be, even oftener. It utterly disregards its own guiding principles, crushes today the theses it adopted only yesterday, and adapts itself in every country to new situations which may offer themselves. The Communist International is, therefore, opportunistic in its methods to the most extreme degree, but since it keeps in its mind the one and only revolutionary aim, the reformist method works for the revolution and thus loses its opportunistic character.
This Menshevist element was expelled after the Convention. The party adopted a set of organisational principles drawn up in Moscow- based on the idea of factory branches. This Bolshevisation drive was led by Cannon, who delivered a speech supporting it:
If we examine closely the state of affairs within our party now, and for the five years that it has been in existence, we are bound to come to the conclusion, as did the Fifth Congress in regard to the International as a whole, that the internal conflicts and crises, as well as the mistakes made by the party in the field of its external activities, can be traced directly to ideological weakness, to the incomplete assimilation by the party of Marxism and Leninism. In other words it still carries with it the dead weight of the past and has not yet become a Bolshevik party.
The thesis on tactics of the Fifth Congress lays down five separate specifications which are the special features of a really Bolshevik party. One of them is the following:
“It (a Bolshevik party) must be a centralized party prohibiting factions, tendencies and groups. It must be a monolithic party hewn of one piece. ”
What shall we say of our party if we measure by this standard? From the very beginning, and even up to the present day, our party has been plagued with factions, tendencies and groups. At least one-half of the energy of the party has been expended in factional struggles, one after another. We have even grown into the habit of accepting this state of affairs as a normal condition. We have gone to the extent of putting a premium upon factionalism by giving factional representation in the important committees of the party.
Of course, this condition cannot be eliminated by formal decree. We cannot eliminate factions and factional struggles by declaring them undesirable. No, we shall make the first step toward eliminating factions, tendencies and groups, toward creating a monolithic party in the sense of the Fifth Congress declaration, only if at the beginning we recognize the basic cause of the condition, if we recognize that the existence in our party of factions, tendencies and groups runs directly counter to Leninism, to the Leninist conception of what a revolutionary proletarian party should be.
Cannon never repudiated his role in this, and continued to be guided by Zinovievism on organisational questions. He transplanted Zinovievism and the monolithic party model into the American Trotskyist movement. After Trotsky was murdered, and Shachtman was driven out of the SWP, Cannon became the preeminent member of the Fourth International, by virtue of heading up the largest of its sections. The organisational methods of Zinovievism came to dominate the Trotskyist movement internationally. This goes a long way to explaining the failure of the Trotskyists to adjust to the changing international situation after the Second World War. The analysis did not fit, yet to challenge the analysis was not permitted.



There are, of course, many things wrong with Shachtman’s theories. His eventual position, that the Soviet Union was objectively more reactionary than Western capitalism led him to take a number of poor positions on questions facing the labour movement. While it could be debated as to what degree a totalitarian society, whatever the economic basis, is less beneficial to the working class than formal bourgeois democracy, it led him to push for the reformist Socialist Party, which he and his supporters had dissolved into, to support the Democratic Party. He later refused to condemn the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and opposed the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Vietnam. While his, and later Hal Draper’s, concept of “socialism from below” was absolutely correct, a broad brush application of this formula could too easily lead down the road of sectarianism, with the denunciation of everyone else as being “top-down”, “bureaucratic”, “just like the Stalinists”, etc.

However, it would be a pity for the left if we reject all that is good and useful from theories such as Shachtman’s because of the eventual positions he took, or certain problematic aspects of it. It has to be said that neither Shachtman or Cannon, or Trotsky for that matter, had the solution to the crisis that faced the revolutionary left in the 1930s and 1940s. In fact, it was arguably the failure of the Trotskyists to respond effectively to the events of the Second World War which led to many of the problems that revolutionary left has faced time and again since. There were many important aspects of Shactman’s theory which should not be ignored. His insistence that socialism could not be brought about by any other means than through the self-activity of the working class was absolutely essential in a period when any number of socialists were arguing that socialism, or workers’ states, were being introduced on the back of Soviet tanks. From the occupations of Eastern Europe in 1945, to the seizures of power by armed minorities in countries such as China and Cuba, through to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979; many socialists have time and again argued that socialism was being introduced “from above”. This has led many on the revolutionary left to seek all kinds of short cuts to socialism, which by-pass the rather boring necessity of convincing working class people that it’s a good idea. It can lead to any number of voluntaristic methods within the labour movement which view the working class as a passive mass in need of liberating by an enlightened minority. Shachtman in the 1940s, for all his faults, stood by the principle that the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.
Plus, he fucking hated Stalinists. You have to respect that.