This book is really about now

Author: 

Ed Strauss

Ed Strauss reviews The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism

The book is an amazing textbook. As a young student in the 1950s, I was reading some of the documents which are in the collection, I was coming in at the tail-end of some of these debates; but we had nothing like this.

We could read a few older documents, but we didn’t have much published in book form. I was in the Young Socialist League [YSL], the youth group linked to the Independent Socialist League of Max Shachtman and Hal Draper, in 1954-1958. By that time, the ISL had pretty much given up on recruiting, but the YSL was still recruiting.

There were still a lot of debates and discussions between the Orthodox and Third Camp Trotskyists, but not much real exchange. The matter was considered settled, though there were still polemics between the two points of view. In 1958, for example, it looked like there would be a war over Taiwan. The SWP [USA, no relation to the SWP-UK] had the idea that China was some kind of workers’ state and that Taiwan was just an agency of imperialism. They saw China as an anti-imperialist force, as if imperialism was only on one side, as if there are not in fact several imperialisms.

The book presents the material in such a way as to show the whole dialogue between the two sides — crudely, between Shachtman and Cannon — as it developed and, through the critical years, the development of the ideas of bureaucratic collectivism and the Third Camp theories. It keeps track, not just of Trotskyism, but of Marxism, of socialism. It covers a very key moment in the whole history of socialism. The book is beautiful because it shows you the evolution of the growing debates and divergences, chapter after chapter. It’s almost alive, in the way it develops. And it continued to develop until Shachtman stopped being Shachtman, politically, and the ISL broke up at the end of the 1950s.

Even then, core people like the Jacobsons and Hal Draper kept going. From 1964 there was the Independent Socialist Clubs. Even people like Michael Harrington didn’t follow Shachtman down his particular path when they went into the Socialist Party. Some people say: why are you publishing all this old, obscure stuff? But the issues here are not old, obscure stuff!

Back then, the Soviet Union was still a great totalitarian power and the world looked rather different. But now again there is controversy between the Third Camp, genuine socialist, side, and the so-called anti-imperialist camp, who in fact still are grouped around Russia, although it no longer even pretends to be socialist, and is overtly socially reactionary as well as authoritarian. Attitudes to Syria, Iran, Cuba, and China are shaped in the same way. You don’t want to say anything bad about Iran, because it might feed the warmongers.

In fact, the so-called “socialist camp” is still there. Quite broad layers of the left want to hold back with their criticisms for fear of feeding the Western warmongers or the Tories. Some don’t even want to criticise the trade union leadership too harshly, because that might feed the Tories.

This book gives us material to think about what socialism really is. Is it like it is in Venezuela, or at least was until the oil money ran out? Socialism has become a word that populists or reformists use, or even sometimes fascists, to mean just doling out some cash for a time.

This discussion is really important for our current situation, with the Corbyn movement. This is really a book about now. It’s not a book about then. I appreciate this book more now that I would have done then, in the 1950s. As Hal Draper had it, what’s at stake here is the genuine soul of socialism.

I am particularly impressed by the introduction to this volume by Sean Matgamna. It’s a book in itself. The introduction deals with the question of why, in spite of their superior ideas, the Third Camp socialists didn’t last the course.

The whole American left was under tremendous pressure in the 1950s. We’d had McCarthyism, and there was fear about. The Stalinists were still recruiting. The Orthodox Trotskyists, the SWP-USA, had a couple of splits in the 1950s, the Marcyites and the Cochranites. But the SWP had a living homeland, a living alternative. They had a place where their ideal had to some extent been fulfilled, the degenerated or deformed workers’ states..

We were Trotskyists, we supported uprisings, we supported workers’ power wherever it demonstrated itself, but it was suppressed by all the forces of established power. The SWP had another thing going for them. There was a kind of “anti-anti-Communism” growing up in the States, amongst the liberal, “progressive” left. Criticism of Russia or China might “aid the American warmongers”, so you don’t want to have too much discussion of the repression on that side. And we were talking about repression on both sides! So we came in for a lot of criticism. We advocated the alternative of workers’ power from below. There was no kind of first-campism, no adherence to the pro-US camp, on our side at that time. By then we were a much weaker force than the SWP, in terms of money and so on. There was a definite continuity, but it was weak.

The SWP were able to re-float through the movement for “Hands Off Cuba” after the 1959 revolution. We said “Hands Off Cuba” too, but not because we supported the Castro regime. Then the whole American Left mobilised around the Vietnam war and almost everyone seemed to support the Vietnamese Stalinists — “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh”.

The Orthodox were saying, this is a real socialist revolution going on in Vietnam, in a deformed way. And then they could associate themselves with it. We were against America’s pursuit of the war; but we refused to pretend that some happy socialist dreamland was going to come.

The introduction traces the debates over the nature of the Soviet Union from the 1930s to the 1950s, culminating in the rejection of the idea that Stalin’s USSR was any kind of workers’ state. There was no element of workers’ control or workers’ democracy, there was no possibility of creating workers’ liberty. If it’s just a matter of nationalised industry, then, well, capitalist states were nationalising industry. That didn’t make a workers’ state, because there was no kind of workers’ control. These were slave states. The “deformed workers’ states”, as the Stalinist states outside the USSR came to be called — what were they? States which deformed workers? Why did the Soviet Union collapse?

I don’t think it’s that the theory of bureaucratic collectivism was wrong. On its own terms, for the bureaucrats, the system of total suppression and control of all communications was a fine way to run a state for themselves. It is just that they were out-paced by the other imperialism. The American had more power, more money and so on. And then everything happened so rapidly, with a big bang where so much was sold off to oligarchs overnight. Free markets were introduced, and like before the workers were given no say or consideration. The introduction also shows that the problem with the Orthodox Trotskyists wasn’t just the degenerated workers’ state line, but their idea of organisation — their idea of what they called “Leninist” party discipline, meaning an ultra-centralised leadership having total control. We objected that workers needed a democratic organisation. No liberty without socialism, no socialism without liberty: that was one of our slogans, and continues to be today.


Ed Strauss was a member of the Young Socialist League, the youth group linked to the Independent Socialist League, in 1954-8, and has been active on the left in the USA and in Britain since then. He is now a member of Workers' Liberty.