Cannon and Shachtman: The other history of American Trotskyism

Submitted by Anon on 4 November, 2006 - 5:05

Cassius: Stoop then, and wash. How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted o'er
In states yet unborn and in accents yet unknown.
Julius Caesar

The photograph on this front page of Workers’ Liberty shows James P Cannon and Max Shachtman standing under the sign of the two angels (at the entrance to a cul-de-sac!). It was taken at the time of the founding conference of the Fourth International, in Paris, September 1938. It neatly, if unwittingly, pictures the two Trotskyist leaders in the role they would play in the “narrative” of its own origin promulgated by post-Trotsky “Orthodox Trotskyism”.

In this mythic tale Shachtman played the role of the bad angel, Lucifer, the once-luminous lieutenant who rose in revolt against Trotsky, and against “the programme of the Fourth International”; and who was driven out of the ‘official’ Trotskyist movement to live a life of apostasy, sin, renegacy. Cannon was cast as the faithful Archangel, the Gabriel of Trotskyism, the incorruptible warrior for Trotsky and the working-class, the paragon of loyalty to "The Programme of the Fourth International."

Cannon wrote that story! Cannon cast Shachtman in the role of Lucifer and himself in the role of Gabriel, the bad and the good angels of Trotsky and Trotskyism.

Cannon did more than anybody to shape post-Trotsky “Trotskyism”.

His books, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party and The History of American Trotskyism and the misleadingly one-sided selection of articles by Trotsky published as In Defense of Marxism (1942) and inspired by Cannon are the founding texts of “post-Trotsky Trotskyism”. They are the New Testament of post-Trotsky “Trotskyism”.

Cannon and those he influenced shaped also the “Trotsky” of post-Trotsky Trotskyism. The “Trotsky” that has been presented to a vast world wide audience in Isaac Deutscher’s The Prophet Outcast — Trotsky the tragic Soviet leader unjustly cast out, the unbending and unwavering Soviet patriot who “defended the Soviet Union” up until he ceased to draw breath.

There is a great deal more myth than truth in that picture.

The truth in it is that there was indeed a bitter faction-fight in the American Trotskyist organisation, the SWP, on whether the Fourth International should continue to be for the “unconditional defense of the USSR in all circumstances”. That meant siding with the USSR. irrespective of the policies it pursued and “despite Stalin”.

The faction-fight was triggered by the Russian-Nazi invasion of Poland, and Russia’s subsequent invasion of Finland.

Poland had been overrun by Germany and the USSR. in a series of lightning actions. Germany invaded Poland on the 1 September 1939; the USSR invaded on the 17th. The war was over before the end of September. Politically it was soon a fait accompli. On 30 November, Finland was invaded, after rejecting of Russian demands for the ceding of certain Finnish territories. The Finns resisted, at first with unexpected success. The war dragged on for nearly four months before the Finns were willing to concede enough to placate Stalin.

The section of the American Trotskyist organisation led by Shachtman (about half the membership and its youth organisation) refused to side with the USSR against Finland.

Trotsky roundly denounced Russia’s invasion of Finland, as he had denounced the invasion of Poland. However, he argued that the invasion of Finland could not be taken as an isolated incident, in relation to which policy could be grounded solely on the local issues between the USSR and Finland. It had to be seen as an incident in the unfolding world war. In that war, in the last reckoning, the Trotskyists should be for the defense of the USSR, whilst simultaneously working for a working-class revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy.

The factional dispute in the American party, was fuelled also by conflict over the “Cannon régime” there.

Contrary to the too-neat story that is told (by Isaac Deutscher amongst others) this did not take the form of a discussion about the class nature of the USSR, between Trotsky and people who said that the USSR was a new and distinct form of exploitative class society. Shachtman, and a very big majority of those on his side in the faction-fight, still agreed with Trotsky that the USSR was a “degenerated workers’ state”. Only a small handful of the opposition thought Russia was not a degenerated workers’ state, and they remained silent.

Insofar as there can be said to have been a discussion on the class character of the USSR. in 1939-40, it was conducted by Trotsky himself. Trotsky himself expounded both views, while pro tem rejecting one of them!

Trotsky argued against one Bruno Rizzi. Rizzi said nothing new (and politically was an advocate of fascist-Stalinist unity to create a new “progressive” form of class society which he called “bureaucratic collectivism). Trotsky used Rizzi as a convenient polemical sparring-partner. (In The USSR in War September 1939). Trotsky presented the case for considering the USSR as a new form of class society. He accepted, for the first time, that the USSR, as it was, under its current Stalinist leaders, without a further, anti-Stalinist counter-revolution, might have to be reconceptualised as a new and historically distinct form of exploitative class society, “bureaucratic collectivism”. This was a major break with the point of view he had hitherto defended.

He argued against making that reconceptualisation immediately. It would be ridiculous, he argued, to affix the label of a new form of class society on the USSR. only a year or two before it collapsed before the blows of invading armies, or was “regenerated” by a working-class revolution which would overthrow the Bureaucracy.

Essentially Trotsky argued that it was too soon to reconceptualise the USSR. He said that the practical test of the points in dispute, degenerated workers’ state or new form of class society, would be decided by the fate of the USSR in the world war.

More than that. Against his own supporters in the American SWP, who characteristically responded to the shift outlined by Trotsky in The USSR in War, with the cry that the very idea that the USSR could be a new form of class society was “anti-Marxist”. Trotsky responded that a theory that postulated Stalinism as a new form of class society, ‘Bureaucratic Collectivism’, if it made most sense of the reality, was entirely compatible with Marxism (Again and Once More on the Defense of the Soviet Union, October 1940). It was not, as his supporters had insisted, “anti-Marxist”.

Cannon and those he educated would insist for decades that the theories of Stalinism as Bureaucratic Collectivism developed by Shachtman and others was “revisionist”, “anti-Marxist” and “against the programme of the Fourth International”.

Toward those, Shachtman, Martin Abern (two of the three founders of the American Trotskyist movement, the other being Cannon) and others, who opposed him politically on the USSR. while sharing his theoretical position that it was a “degenerated workers’ state Trotsky was most violent in his polemic.

He said that Shachtman’s openly admitted “doubts”, about the characterisation of the USSR as a “degenerated workers’ state implied an irresponsible shift from his old position to… one that as yet was undeveloped. But so did the “doubts” of Trotsky himself, which he expressed in the speculations in The USSR in War.

Shachtman did, in December 1940, finally decide that the USSR was a distinct form of class society (see Is Russia a Workers’ State?, in Fate of the Russian Revolution). Trotsky was dead by then and could not comment.

After Trotsky’s death, Cannon and his comrades made Trotsky’s final position on these questions into a rigid dogma. Trotsky himself had insisted against Cannon’s friends that for a Marxist, if not for a dogmatist, all of these questions were subject to the test of experience. Cannon, as the most authoritative leader of the weak Fourth International insisted that opposition to Trotsky’s views as of August 20th, 1940, when Stalin’s assassin struck him down, was “anti-Trotskyist, “revisionist”, and “anti-Marxist” renegacy.

Cannon inspired the production of a one-sided, unrepresentative selection of Trotsky’s polemical writings on the USSR of 1939-40 in 1942. They created a “Trotsky” very different from the real Trotsky at the end. (Try reading Trotsky’s writings on the USSR in 1938, 1939, 1940, including thoseIn Defense of Marxism, sequentially. The Trotsky that emerges is very different from the “Trotsky” purveyed by Cannon and his friends for 30 years, during which Trotsky’s articles other than those in, In Defense of Marxism were unavailable, except in specialist libraries.)

They turned their account of the faction-fight of 1939-40 into a myth that glorified their own “orthodox Trotskyism” (which on key issues was anti-Trotsky. The “petty-bourgeois” bad angels led by Lucifer-Shachtman, had revolted, and the “orthodox” legions of Trotsky’s “best disciples” had routed them.

A personality cult was built around Cannon. (In the advertisement reproduced here (WL p. 5) the sad tale of the birth of “orthodox Trotskyism is graphically depicted. The three books that were the theoretical and political foundation stones of post-Trotsky Trotskyism are offered as one job lot, with Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism underneath two books by Cannon, The Struggle for the Proletarian Party and The History of American Trotskyism).

Cannon was, so he thought, doing the best he could to sustain “Trotskyism”. In fact he created a sectist “Trotskyism” which, although it preserved certain important elements of Marxist politics and Marxist culture, was rendered politically half blind and theoretically sterile.

The History of American Trotskyism, as the prelude to the story of the great faction fight at the end of Trotsky’s life, told in Cannon’s Struggle For a Proletarian Party and in, In Defence of Marxism, has had an influence all around the world wherever there are Trotskyists. The books have been used as political primers, and Cannon and his comrades as models and inspirations, by people new to politics and people possessing a lesser political culture than that of Cannon and his orthodox Trotskyism.

Max Shachtman’s other history of American Trotskyism should be made known too, as part of the work of refashioning a viable “Trotskyism” of the 21st century.

In their writings, and in some of their examples, critically assessed and assimilated, both Cannon and Shachtman still have a lot to contribute to that work.

Sean Matgamna