- Category: Ideas and Arguments
- Published on Monday, 15 December 2014
- Written by Tim Nelson
Bill Crane’s response Max Shachtman and the Origins of ‘Socialism from Below' was a very useful response to my own article on Shachtman. He rightly points out the often ignored link between Shachtman’s theory and practice and the International Socialist tradition which both Bill and I identify with. Bill suggests that I concentrated on “Shachtman as a Trotskyist” and his aim was to focus upon “Shachtman as an International Socialist”. It was not my intention to omit Shachtman’s contribution to the IS tradition, and the article was in fact intended to help reintroduce him to it. I therefore agree with many of the points Bill raises in his article, however I also believe he omits or underplays some important aspects of Shachtman’s politics that also contributed to our shared tradition, which narrows his analysis in some ways.
Bill is absolutely correct to point out that much of the International Socialist analysis of state capitalism is rooted in Shachtman’s critique of Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers’ state. It was fundamental in concentrating the IS on the working class as the agent for revolutionary change by challenging the orthodox Trotskyist concept that the Soviet bureaucracy could introduce revolution from above. He also highlights the role of T. N. Vance in developing the theory of the permanent arms economy (another key pillar of the IS tradition), something I was completely unaware of until I read Bill’s response. The importance of the idea of socialism from below in Shachtman’s theory was something I did attempt to highlight in my article:
There were many important aspects of Shachtman’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.
However, while Bill is absolutely correct to highlight Shachtman’s contribution to both the concept of socialism from below and the International Socialist tradition, he omits an important aspect of this which I attempted to raise in my article, which is how this concept impacted upon his ideas concerning revolutionary organisation and practice. This was a running theme which originated in his rejection of Cannon’s model of the revolutionary party, and was also a central pillar of the early International Socialist’s critique of the methods of orthodox Trotskyists. In fact, I would go further and argue that the abandonment of this aspect of the IS tradition has played a crucial role in the degeneration of organisations which adhere to it, and has in many ways contributed to their recent crises.
The early International Socialists argued the orthodox Trotskyist movement’s abandonment of the concept of socialism from below was not just displayed in its theory of the degenerated workers state and the idea that socialist or workers’ economies could be introduced by a bureaucratic movement “from above”. It was also displayed in the methods they employed within the working class movement. This was directly related to Trotsky’s catastrophist theory, which believed that the next proletarian revolution was imminent, and therefore the primary role of the revolutionary organisation, however small or lacking in roots in the working class, was to challenge the existing leadership of the working class – the trade union bureaucracy, the social democrats, and the Stalinist parties – for leadership of the movement. The idea that the revolutionary situation was imminent led many Trotskyists to believe that the working class were “objectively” revolutionary, and therefore the only thing holding them back was the duplicitous role of its leaders. This is often referred to as the idea of the “crisis of leadership”, and the early International Socialists argued it led the orthodox Trotskyists to top-down methods of organisation and a tendency to focus on leadership struggles within the movement. The focus, they argued, should be on the rank and file of the working class, most of whom were reformist, not revolutionary, and on winning them to revolutionary arguments. The small Trotskyist sects as they existed were not the revolutionary vanguard party in embryo; it would be formed out of the working class through struggle. This vanguard did not yet exist. The British International Socialist Peter Sedgwick referred to these problems in his article The Pretenders:
Socialists who think and act in these terms may be justly called The Pretenders. The throne of working-class leadership is, on this view, held by a usurper of some kind, of doubtful authenticity and probably bastard petty-bourgeois stock. If the true heir, equipped with the right royal birthmarks of “clarity,” “scientific Socialism,” “Socialist humanism” or whatever, were to occupy his lawful place, all would be well with the movement. The typical behaviour of a Pretender is to try to discredit the credentials of the usurping King (by means, e.g., of close scrutinies of Comintern history, or of plausible scandal-mongering) and to establish his own authority, particularly by tracing a connection of lineage between himself and, e.g., Keir Hardie, William Morris, Rosa Luxemburg, John MacLean or Leon Trotsky.
Pretenders are so pre-occupied with the problem of Kingship (or leadership as they insist on calling it) that they seldom bother to find out the attitudes of their prospective subjects, the working class of this country. Or rather, if they do draw upon the opinions of workers, they do so in such a way as to add to the lustre of their own particular claim to royalty.
This top down approach to the movement was reflected in the party model adopted by most Trotskyist organisations. The “Bolshevisation model” was adopted by the Communist parties in a period of time when the international revolutionary movement was receding, and the Soviet state had become increasingly more isolated, and as a result, more authoritarian and bureaucratised. In the course of the civil war the Russian Communist Party had itself adopted top-down and bureaucratic methods. Factions in the Russian Communist Party were banned from 1921, and democratic discussion was increasingly curtailed. The native democratic structures of many international Communist parties were uprooted during Bolshevisation, advocated by Zinoviev, which many referred to as the “Russian model”. While Bill may be correct in arguing that many US Communists supported these measures due to the existence of constant factional battles within their party, it does not change the fact that this was a major break with the democratic principles by which the Communist movement had conducted itself historically. It began the process, which the Stalinists ultimately completed, of transforming it from a democratic working class movement to a bureaucratised authoritarian one. Democratic expression was curtailed, and the central organs of the party became increasingly dominant. Emphasis was placed on centralisation and discipline. Cannon’s uncritical acceptance of this model was a serious problem in the Trotskyist movement, which led to split after split in many of its sections.
The roots of both the top-down method of party democracy and the “crisis of leadership” approach to the working class movement are found in what Trotsky in his early criticism of Lenin referred to as “substitutionism”. This concept was picked up by Cliff in his early work, Trotsky on Substitutionism, in which he quoted Trotsky’s famous line:
…the organisation of the party substitutes itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee substitutes itself for the organisation; and finally the ‘dictator’ substitutes himself for the Central Committee.
The argument here was that a top-down method of relating to the class is intrinsically linked to a top-down structure of party organisation. Both these features of the Trotskyist movement could trace themselves to the degeneration of the Russian Revolution, and both therefore needed to be combated by revolutionaries.
It was this major difference over democracy which ultimately led to the split in the US Socialist Workers Party. All manner of differences on questions of the nature of the Soviet state could probably have existed in a united organisation, but the increasing differences on the question of democracy in the party and the working class movement, which became both exposed and accentuated by the faction fight, meant cohabitation was virtually impossible. The discussion of who was at fault for the split in the party is ultimately of minor importance (although I would argue that Bill is far too kind to Trotsky and Cannon on this question), compared to the key issue for revolutionaries is not the individual behaviour of the leaders of each faction, but what they were arguing for. In Shachtman’s case, he was advocating an open and public debate on the questions the SWP was wrestling with, while Cannon maintained that debates should remain internal. Bill refers to this demand of Shachtman’s as “unprecedented”, which may be the case but is of secondary importance to whether it was correct or not. Shachtman continued to argue for the right of the membership to open and a public debate on all questions, and this was implemented in the Workers Party, which he and his followers founded following the split.
Therefore, when we discuss the roots of our tradition in Shachtman, and the conflict between his faction and that of Cannon, it is important we do not lose sight of the link between the concept of socialism from below and the rejection of the organisational model that Cannon advocated. This important question was also central to the early IS rejection of orthodox Trotskyism. While Tony Cliff and a handful of others originally split with the orthodox Trotskyist organisation The Club over the question of state capitalism in Russia, it began to revise and to question much of the practice of that movement. The organisation they later founded, the International Socialists, put a premium on open and democratic debate, and rejected the ultra-centralism and bureaucratism of many other revolutionary organisations. This, along with its rejection of Stalinism and all other theories of socialism from above, led it to be one of the major far left beneficiaries of the movement in 1968 and the period of working class rank and file militancy in the early 1970s. By the late 1970s, however, as the working class movement receded and economic stagnation set in, the IS (which was soon to become the Socialist Workers Party), began to undertake a revision of its ideas concerning its organisational method. This was a long process that lasted throughout the 1980s and 1990s, where there was an increasing inclination to adopt orthodox model of “Leninism” which it had previously rejected.
In the 1970s it began to shut down many self-organised groups and factions, and increasingly began to look like the “monolithic” organisation that the IS had previously rejected. Factional disagreements began to take on the “winner takes all” aspect which characterised the US SWP under Cannon. When the “downturn”, which we now recognise as the first stage of the introduction of neoliberalism, set in in the 1980s the working class was under severe attack, and the SWP resolved to insulate itself from this by separating itself off from the wider left and emphasising the need for centralisation and discipline within the party in order to do so. The serious defeats of the 1980s led to the collapse of much of the left, and the severe weakening of working class organisations. In the early 1970s, the British IS had seen itself as one radical part of a wider movement, rooted in some small ways in the rank and file of the working class. By the 1990s, increasingly isolated and with these ties largely broken, the tendency was for the SWP to substitute itself for the left and the wider working class movement. It began to argue that an “upturn” was just around the corner, and there was a need to manoeuvre in preparation for this upturn. The necessity for a “tightly knit” “Leninist” organisation was emphasised to do so. The SWP began to take on some of the worst aspects of the orthodox Trotskyist tradition which it had originally rejected – substitutionism, dogmatism, catastrophism, and the monolithic party model. Ironically, those important features of the IS tradition- state capitalism, the permanent arms economy, deflected permanent revolution- which were key to their concept of socialism from below, and originated as drastic revisions of orthodox Trotskyist shibboleths, became shibboleths themselves. The revolutionary party became seen in part as a tool to preserve the tradition as a finished product, and a vehicle to deliver it to the masses; much like the orthodox Trotskyist “parties” which the IS used to criticise.
We should not ignore the importance of Shachtmanism to the IS tradition, but nor should we be selective about which parallels to use and which to ignore. Shachtman and his followers, just like Cliff and the IS, emerged out of the orthodox Trotskyist movement as they attempted to make sense of a world which no longer fitted into the outline of Trotsky, and they attempted to revise the shibboleths and dogmas which had become articles of faith for many. In order to do this both required the maximum amount of openness and democracy, and they therefore insisted upon it. I agree with Bill’s criticisms of the trajectory of Shachtman in his later years, but what should concern both of us more is the trajectory of our own tradition away from the democratic, iconoclastic, revolutionary principles on which it was founded, towards the dogmatism and conservatism that we see today.