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Max Shachtman and the origins of 'socialism from below'

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Recent discussions within the British left and elsewhere have had a major impact on the way we think about democracy and the socialist struggle. It is not completely clear any more what terms such as “Leninism”, “democratic centralism” and even “leadership” in the context of a socialist organisation actually mean, how they operate in a context far removed from late Tsarist Russia. Should we eventually figure out what things like “Leninism” mean, it is still far from clear whether it is an effective or desirable method of organisation for revolutionaries.

Tim Nelson’s article “Max Shachtman and Trotskyism” is important in the regard that I’m talking about. Shachtman, one of the early leaders of American Trotskyism, has long been a figure neglected by the left. This is in part of course due to his trajectory: Shachtman at the end of his life was a renegade who embraced the American war in Vietnam and the Democratic Party as a willing prisoner of the US labour bureaucracy.

Yet his eventual fate as a right winger should not be the lens through which we read his entire career. Shachtman is a fascinating figure who combined a brilliant record as an organiser and speaker for socialism from below with a prolific and creative revolutionary mind that was unafraid to question the sacred cows of developing Trotskyist dogma, and also a deeply unfortunate past as a consummate factionalist and sectarian which he was ultimately unable to break from. His life and writings in my view conditioned much of the subsequent development of “the IS tradition”, and the fact that this tradition is in question today makes it imperative to go back to Shachtman, an unfortunately neglected figure in the current history of that tradition.

My response to Tim’s article will try to emphasise this part of his legacy – Shachtman as an International Socialist – rather than the part which Tim concentrates on, Shachtman as a Trotskyist, even as a renegade from Trotskyism. At the same time, Tim’s account of his break from Trotskyism, particularly the background of the faction fight with the American SWP majority led by James Cannon with Trotsky’s advice, contains a number of errors which in my view gives Shachtman, Cannon and Trotsky short shrift as revolutionary Marxists in what was essentially the same movement. I’ll try to elaborate on these towards the end of my piece to set the record straight.

Shachtman and the origins of International Socialism

It is clear to anyone who has examined the history of the tendency of International Socialism that the key ideas motivating it originate in America, in the split of Shachtman and the SWP minority from Cannon and the majority. Central to this was a dispute over the nature of the USSR’s conquests in Poland, the Baltic States and Finland, in collaboration with Nazi Germany. Trotskyists had previously argued for the defence of the Soviet Union against imperialist assault, and argued that national defence of Stalinism by the Soviet working class would be progressive. But how could Trotskyists understand a situation in which the Soviet Union was the aggressor in a conflict that was, to all appearances, typically imperialist?

Trotsky, basing himself on his previous analysis of the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state”, insisted that these conquests were progressive in that they abolished capitalism and laid the basis for a new socialist system by extending the USSR’s forms of collective property. He compared them to France’s conquests on the European continent during the Napoleonic wars, which abolished serfdom and laid the basis for capitalist social relations. Supported by Cannon and the SWP majority, Trotsky argued for a policy whose natural consequence was to urge Polish and Finnish workers to collaborate in the reconquest of their countries by Russian imperialism.

Shachtman and the SWP minority vociferously disagreed. In his view, the “bureaucratic methods” of Stalinist conquest could never, as Trotsky claimed, give an “impulse” to socialist revolution:

The bureaucratic bourgeois revolution – that I know of. I know of Napoleon’s “revolution from above” in Poland over a hundred years ago. I know of Alexander’s emancipation of the serfs “from above” – out of fear of peasant uprisings. I know of Bismarck’s “revolution from above”… But the bureaucratic proletarian revolution – that I do not know of and I do not believe in it. I do not believe that it took place in Poland even for a day – or that it is taking place or is about to take place in Finland…

I repeat, I do not believe in the bureaucratic proletarian (socialist) revolution. I do not mean by this merely that I “have no faith” in it – no one in our movement has. I mean that I do not consider it possible. I reject the concept not out of “sentimental” reasons or a Tolstoyan “faith in the people” but because I believe it to be scientifically correct to repeat with Marx that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself. The bourgeois revolution, for a series of historical and social reasons, could be made and was made by other classes and social strata; the bourgeoisie could be liberated from feudal rule and establish its social dictatorship under the aegis of other social groups. But the proletarian revolution cannot be made by others than the proletariat acting as a mass; therein, among other things, it is distinguished from all preceding revolutions. No one else can free it – not even for a day.1

All of what we call International Socialism flows from this basic presumption. We do not recognise “the bureaucratic proletarian revolution” in any form. Socialism comes from the action of the working class or it does not come at all. Following from this, we do not recognise as legitimate the claim of any side in an imperialist conflict to act as a liberator, however red one side may paint itself. Such are the origins of the International Socialist tradition.2

It has long been acknowledged that Tony Cliff’s theory of state capitalism, for instance, did not simply occur to him.3 One of its unacknowledged predecessors was the work Shachtman had done – not only in firmly breaking with the idea that Russia represented any kind of workers’ state, but also in many of the individual features of bureaucratic rule he defined that would make it over into Cliff’s analysis.4 Furthermore, the first theory of state capitalism from within the Trotskyist movement was developed by CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya as members of the Workers’ Party, though they would later return to the SWP.

This influence extends to other aspects of “the IS tradition” that some readers will be familiar with. One of the other parts of the infamous triad of IS theory, the permanent arms economy, has its origins in the work of TN Vance, an economist who wrote about the “permanent war economy” of arms competition as the source of capitalist stability in a series of articles for New International in 1950.5

Both currents of IS politics in Britain and America, then, recognised early on that Trotsky’s predictions that the war would bring an end to Stalinism, and a wave of revolutions containing the potential to overthrow capitalism worldwide, had been falsified. Therefore both came out of the crisis of post-war Trotskyism seeking Marxist solutions to the problem of capitalism’s newfound stability in the West, and the expansion of Stalinism in the East. By and large the rest of the Trotskyists failed to recognise the crisis of their movement. Clinging to the words of Trotsky in his last days rather than the revolutionary Marxist spirit he offered them in led Trotskyists very quickly into a number of dead-ends, including the liquidationism of Michel Pablo and the catastrophism of Gerry Healy. Some of these persist among Trotskyist groups to this day.

In any case, my point is this: if we continue to claim the heritage of “the IS tradition”, then we must recognise that the said tradition includes the contributions of the British trend led by Cliff and the American trend initially led by Shachtman. Though these trends had quite different solutions, the problems they attempted to solve were the same. The IS tradition in both places can be characterised as a brand of politics that attempted to revise Trotskyism creatively in light of the changing world situation, and using the methods of classical Marxism, at the root of which is the assumption of socialism from below – that the liberation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. When we ask what of the IS tradition remains relevant, it is this method of inquiry rather than a set of writings or suppositions that provides our key.

Some corrections on the split in the American SWP

Reading Tim’s article would seem to give one the idea of the split in the American SWP as fairly clear-cut: on the one side we have James Cannon, a former Bolsheviser and early disciple of Zinoviev, backed by Trotsky, who slandered the SWP minority as “petty bourgeois” and even as Stalinist agents, while on the other side you have Shachtman and his followers, who stood for a revision of Trotskyist dogmas and party democracy. This is a simplistic reading of the history that does violence to both sides, and hence cannot facilitate a better understanding of the origins of our tradition in the split from orthodox Trotskyism.

Shachtman (left) and Cannon (right)

I will try to set the record straight through a description of the roles of Cannon, Trotsky and Shachtman in turn, before I recount some of the important history of the separate American groups.

Cannon’s role

James Cannon as a leader in the early American Communist Party was a supporter of the policy of Bolshevisation, which established the dominance of the Comintern over the party’s affairs and thus paved the way for Stalinism.

The policy of Bolshevisation in the American CP, however, was more contradictory in its origins than Tim describes. The situation in the party at the time of its implementation was one of near gang warfare between two factions, one led by Cannon and William Z Foster and the other led by Charles Ruthenberg and Jay Lovestone. Though the differences between these groups had originated in an important dispute over orientation on American organised labour, which Cannon and Foster pushed for, versus immigrant workers, where Ruthenberg and Lovestone had their base, by the mid-1920s this situation had degenerated into an extremely fractious and personalised situation of permanent factionalism that completely paralysed the party. The promise of Bolshevisation, and its support by Cannon and much of the CP’s rank and file, was that it promised to end the situation of permanent factionalism, whatever the consequences.6

During this time in the CP, Cannon was a self-proclaimed “Cominternist” who believed that the directions of Moscow were ultimately correct on all matters of importance. To the end of his life he professed admiration for Zinoviev, and though from time to time he admitted mistakes in application, his method of doing politics from then on was thoroughly Zinovievite.7 This was obviously on display in the split with Shachtman, who had been one of his initial followers in the foundation of American Trotskyism.

This recognition should not prevent us from seeing the strengths of Cannon as a premier agitator and populariser of socialism in the American context. At the same time, his methods of organisation were inherited from the degeneration of the Comintern, and to this was added a tendency toward dogmatism, a strict reliance on Trotsky’s word to guide his politics after 1929.

Trotsky’s role

Tim criticises Trotsky in the split of the SWP for characterising Shachtman’s opposition as petty bourgeois, and for referring to “Stalinist agents in our midst” as the source of the dispute. To me this seems a somewhat misguided criticism. Trotsky was not particularly well known for taking a conciliatory tone in his public polemics, and this case is a particularly sorry example that made the already acrimonious climate in the party hard to cool down. However, Shachtman gave as good as he got in these polemics, pointing out repeatedly that this was the same slander directed at the Left Opposition by the Stalinists.

In addition, although Trotsky does darkly refer to “Stalinist agents working in our midst” in one of his letters to the majority of the SWP’s national committee, this was from the perspective of possible agents working on both sides to split the party and hence weaken the Trotskyist movement of which the American section was the largest component part. It would not be realistic of us to deny him that suspicion, as GPU agents had indeed infiltrated different national sections of the Trotskyist movement; one of them was to murder him less than a year after he wrote the above. But nowhere does he accuse Shachtman, Burnham, Abern or any of the opposition comrades of being Stalinist agents.8

Though he was, in my point of view, on the wrong side of the argument in this case, his perspective was one of trying to win the majority of opposition comrades to his point of view, and to avoid unnecessarily splitting the organisation, thus giving him a far more ambivalent role. He urged Cannon and the majority to avoid a split, writing:

I believe that the implacable ideological fight should go parallel with very cautious and wise organizational tactics. You have not the slightest interest in a split, even if the opposition should become, accidentally, a majority at the next convention. You have not the slightest reason to give the heterogeneous and unbalanced army of the opposition a pretext for a split. Even as an eventual minority, you should in my opinion remain disciplined and loyal towards the party as a whole. It is extremely important for the     education in genuine party patriotism, about the necessity of which Cannon wrote me one time very correctly.

Trotsky also counselled the majority of the SWP to make a number of concessions to the minority, including the right to continue its appeals to party cadre through internal bulletins and even public discussions.9 Cannon’s Zinovievite splitting tactics, however, carried the day.

Shachtman’s role

Finally, what do we say about Shachtman’s participation in the process that was to lead him out of the SWP and eventually to the source of the IS tradition? Here, again, I think the real history is more complicated than Tim allows for.

Like Cannon, Shachtman’s political practice and thought was forged in the crucible of the constant faction fights of the early American CP. He was a master factional strategist who had locked horns with Cannon once before, in the “defencist” controversy when the SWP was formed out of the Socialist Party in 1936-7, and had been on the same side as Cannon in faction fights within the CP and the Trotskyist organisations. Though he stood on the basis of party democracy and openness in 1939, as the leader of his own organisation afterwards he could be just as ruthless as Cannon in repressing dissent.10 During the 1939 split, he also demanded against all precedent the minority’s right to separate publications and internal bulletins, which Trotsky rightly criticised as anti-democratic. Shachtman was every bit as eager for a split as Cannon – he just happened to be on the losing side in this one.

Though Cannon comes out with the worst record in the 1939 split, I don’t think it can be fairly said that either side was substantially more democratic or principled than the other. Though Shachtman’s opposition was closer to being correct on the nature of the Soviet Union, the real consequences of this were not visible until after the war. Here is where we get into the complicated subject of dividing “our tradition” from “Trotskyism” as such.

American IS politics and American Trotskyism

In sum, then, the split by Shachtman and many of the SWP’s best cadre with Cannon and the majority of the party was a messy affair. And if that is the case, there are some necessary questions that should be asked about the roots of the tradition. In the late 1940s through to the 50s, our tendency was still very much in the process of formation, and boundaries between it and what came to be called “orthodox Trotskyism” were not always so clear.

This was particularly the case in America. Though the Workers Party only carried a minority of the organisation in the split, it left with most of the young cadre who had joined after SWP left the Socialist Party in 1936 (the Young People’s Socialist League or YPSLs) as well as SWP’s theoretical journal, New International. The WP continued to consider itself part of the Fourth International and hence of Trotskyism, taking part in the international discussions of the movement.

The 1939 split did not prevent collaboration between the WP and the SWP. During the war, their policies were mostly similar, both taking a stand against the CP-backed no-strike pledge by the AFL and CIO. Cadres of both groups, including Cannon, who was jailed, faced prosecution for labour activity under the Smith Act, and both conducted intensive propaganda against segregation in the armed forces from within and without. This was despite the SWP’s adherence to the bizarre “proletarian military policy” gleaned from Trotsky’s last writings that called for management of the anti-fascist war by the labour unions.

As late as 1947, the reunion of the SWP and the WP was a serious prospect, though negotiations ultimately failed most likely because it was against the factional instincts of both Cannon and Shachtman. But the divisions that would later cause the groups to go completely separate ways were not fully established until the late 1940s.

Shachtman’s view of Stalinist Russia as a non-capitalist society in which the ruling bureaucracy could ruthlessly oppress the working class and suffocate any independent initiative or resistance had something to do with this. He took an increasingly sectarian line toward the CP, which in his view was the embryo of a future Stalinist ruling class rather than a reformist part of the workers’ movement – here Cannon had the right of it.11 This culminated in a particularly nasty conflict in the United Auto Workers when Shachtman’s influence helped preserve the right wing Reuther leadership as against the CP-backed left alliance, which was subsequently purged from the union during McCarthyism.

If the CP, as Cannon wrote later, died as a revolutionary force when it effectively abandoned working and hoping for a workers’ revolution in the United States and ‘became a pressure group cheering squad for the Stalinist bureaucracy in Russia’, the trend of Shachtman showed the converse. He allowed his genuine hatred of Stalinism to determine his politics and his role on the left. As time went on, his ‘vulgar Stalinophobia’ (Trotsky’s term) increasingly became a justification for and supplement to a stance that embraced accommodation with the labour bureaucracy and US imperialism, which could be seen as objectively allies in a point of view that saw Stalinism as the greatest threat to the working-class movement.

The WP, as with the rest of the American left, grew smaller and smaller under the impact of the prosperous decade of the 1950s and the anti-Communist assault launched by McCarthy. Unlike many in the Trotskyist movement, its leadership was realistic enough to recognise the rightward shift in politics by the end of the 1940s, dropping the grandiose title of “Workers’ Party” and renaming itself the Independent Socialist League. Shachtman’s right wing trajectory resulted in the 1959 fusion with the Socialist Party, then at the end of its long decline, and finally a shift towards “realignment” of the left within the Democratic Party.

But the revolutionary current he founded did not simply follow in his wake. Hal Draper, Joel Geier and many YPSL comrades who disagreed with Shachtman’s trajectory broke to form the Independent Socialist Clubs, which formed a centralised organisation, the International Socialists (IS) in 1968. Some of their cadres to this day continue that tradition as part of two organisations, the ISO and Solidarity, which emerged after the decline of the American IS in the late 1970s.

The SWP, like the WP, went through the crucible of the 1950s and ended up greatly diminished as a force, although it survived organisationally. It could still revive and made some key contributions to the workers’ and anti-war movements during the 1960s and 70s, but its organisational model remained thoroughly sectarian and Zinovievite. The ongoing struggle within the SWP after the departure of the older generation of leaders including Cannon, Farrell Dobbs and Joseph Hansen, ended with the seizure of power by a younger leadership under Jack Barnes, who had to expel most of the party in the early 1980s in order to complete their turn away from Trotskyism and toward uncritical admiration of Cuba and Latin American Stalinism. Like the cadre of the American IS group who continued on after Shachtman’s apostasy, many of the former cadres of the SWP remain an important part of the American revolutionary left in various organisations.


For those of us who have emerged out of the wreckage of the British SWP’s faction fights, the history of American Trotskyism and IS politics will contain much that is familiar, revealing and may teach us some lessons. This applies doubly so if we consider “the IS tradition”, whatever we may mean be this, to remain of value, in that the sources of that tradition are in America and bear rediscovery by British ISers, whatever our organisation.

In this history, Max Shachtman is a particularly fascinating figure who contains recognisably in his life and works much of the origins of our tradition.

The messiness of the split between Shachtman and Cannon in 1939 should also prompt us to make some important considerations on the origins and future of the IS tradition, especially in its relationship with Trotskyism. I hope this and other matters I outlined can be the subject of further discussion.


Notes and references

  1. Shachtman, “The Crisis in the American Party: An Open Letter to Comrade Trotsky”. Available at:
  2. This account is largely drawn from Joel Geier’s talk at Socialism 2014 in Chicago, “War and Revolutionary Socialism: The Second World War and the Origins of International Socialism”.
  3. See the relevant discussion in Ian Birchall’s biography, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (Bookmarks, 2009).
  4. Though Cliff subjected the analysis of bureaucratic collectivism to a withering critique, Shachtman’s writings on it remain of value, for example in The Struggle for the New Course (New International Publications, 1942). In any case both theories are in my view successive (and incomplete) approximations of the reality of Stalinism, Cliff’s owing a great deal to Shachtman’s theory, as Shachtman’s did to Trotsky’s analysis.
  5. TN Vance, “The Permanent War Economy”:
  6. This history is outlined at length in Joel Geier’s article, “Zinovievism and the Degeneration of World Communism”:
  7. Cannon’s own account of the period in question, which is well worth reading, is found in The First Ten Years of American Communism: Report of a Participant (Pathfinder, 1971).
  8. Trotsky, “Four Letters to the National Committee Majority,” in In Defense of Marxism:
  9. See the discussion in Feeley, Le Blanc and Twiss, Leon Trotsky and the Organizational Principles of the Revolutionary Party (Haymarket, 2014), pp. 95-97.
  10. The relevant chapter in Isserman’s If I Had a Hammer: The Death of the Old Left and the Birth of the New Left (University of Illinois, 1993) is particularly instructive about Shachtman’s sectarian tendencies. In particular, he used fusion of the Socialist Party and his Independent Socialist League in 1958 to smash dissent within the latter and cement a more anticommunist and right wing course than most of his followers were prepared for.
  11. This view is not necessarily implied by the theory of bureaucratic collectivism; there are comrades today in Solidarity and the ISO who hold this view yet reject Shachtman’s anti-Communism.