The pilots who weathered the storm

In the first of a series of critical responses to The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, recently published by Phoenix Press and Workers’ Liberty, Alan Johnson (senior lecturer in Social Sciences at Edge Hill University College) argues that the book can play an invaluable role in restoring democracy to the heart of Marxism and help lay to rest the theoretical confusions of post-Trotsky Trotskyism. Alan Johnson is writing a political biography of Hal Draper.


“However well-intentioned Marxists are nowadays about the need to value democracy the latter simply cannot play a significant theoretical role in the class analysis of politics.” (Gregor McLennan, 1989:114).

“The iron dictatorship exercised by the Stalinist police administrative apparatus over the Soviet proletariat was not incompatible with the preservation of the proletarian nature of the state itself — any more than... the fascist dictatorship exercised over the bourgeois class were with the preservation of the nature of the capitalist state.” (Perry Anderson, 1983).

“Stalinism is a social system based on the state ownership of the decisive means of production and the uncontrolled domination of the state machine by the bureaucracy, not by the working people. The state owns industry and an uncontrolled bureaucracy ‘owns’ the state. Socialism, on the other hand, is the collective ownership of the decisive means of production under the democratic control of the working people themselves. The vast difference is the existence of democracy for the mass of people.

“This is so because of the very nature of the working class as a class. Unlike the bourgeoisie, which is by nature a property owning class, it does not develop its economic and social power within the womb of the old society. The bourgeoisie could do this under feudalism because its social power is expressed in the first place through its ownership of the private property on which the wealth of society rests. The working class, which owns no property, can ‘own’ and control the means of production only through a political intermediary, the state. And it can ‘own’ and control the state only through democratic participation. Without democracy statification points not to socialism but to what we know as Stalinism. Democracy, therefore, is not merely of sentimental or moral value for the Marxists, nor is it merely a preference. It designates the only way in which the rule of the working class can exist in political actuality.”
(Hal Draper, 1950:242).

Can Marxism be democratic ?

Can Marxists be democrats? Few today would disagree with Vasily Grossman’s novel and meditation on Stalin’s Gulag, Forever Flowing, in which lurking somewhere behind the, “crazed eyes; smashed kidneys; a skull pierced by a bullet; rotting infected, gangrenous toes; and scurvy racked corpses in log-cabin, dugout morgues,” stands the figure of Marx. (1986:69). Should we not then double, treble the guard over Marx’s tomb, never mind Stalin’s ?

These questions would trouble Marxists more if we took measure of how comprehensively anti-Stalinist Marxism was pulled into the orbit of Stalinism itself. The Fate of the Russian Revolution critically reappropriates the writings of one tradition which did nurture Marxism’s democratic roots in the face of Stalinism: the Workers Party-Independent Socialist League (1940-1958).

Sean Matgamna’s introductory essay contains a clear and provocative critical analysis of Trotsky’s evolving views about the fate of the revolution from his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1929, to his murder at the hands of a GPU agent in 1940. Matgamna argues there are “two Trotskys” to be found in these writings, producing two very different Trotskyisms after 1940 the WP-ISL being a development of one strand of Trotsky’s thought. For Matgamna the WP-ISL is, “the lineal defence, elaboration and continuation of Trotsky’s ideas, that is of unfalsified Marxism, as they really were and as they really were developing at Trotsky’s death. These writings are a precious part of the heritage of revolutionary socialism: in the post-Stalinist world they are no small part of the seed from which an unfalsified socialism will be reborn.” (p.147).

To root democracy as theoretically and practically indispensable to Marxism and the socialist project the WP-ISL had first to break from some of the defining theoretical assumptions of the mainstream Trotskyist tradition. The debate on the “Russian Question” in the American Trotskyist movement in 1939-40 produced, on the part of the minority who opposed Trotsky, and who would go on to form the Workers Party, one of the most important bodies of writing in twentieth century Marxism. “The Dead Sea Scrolls of twentieth century Marxism,” Matgamna claims. We can now do these people the honour of critically reading their arguments directly and not through the distorting myths and slanders thrown up by the orthodox Trotskyist tradition at the time. This process is well advanced in America, thanks to the work of Peter Drucker and others. British readers whose knowledge of the “Shachtmanites” is limited to In Defence of Marxism will be surprised at what they find if they can put down the pearls and garlic and look.

The “Russian Question” and Democratic Marxism: Trotsky’s Shirt of Nessus In 1941 Joseph Carter pointed out that the dispute within American Trotskyism about the fate of the Russian Revolution, “has already revealed confusion and uncertainty on fundamental concepts of Marxism which far transcends in importance the ‘Russian question’ itself’.” (1941:216). One fundamental concept at stake was democracy: could a workers’ state exist without workers’ political power? Or was the nationalisation of property a sufficient condition for the establishment of a workers’ state? The differing answers given would divide anti-Stalinist Marxism for the next half century.

Trotsky initially held that the meaning and significance of a “nationalised economy” derived from the fact that the working class held political power. Or, at least, from the fact that the “locum” of workers’ power was, for now, a genuine workers’ party. The state remained a “workers’ state” because of, “the rule of the Party, the internal cohesion of the proletarian vanguard, the conscious discipline of the administrators, trade union functionaries, members of the shop nuclei, etc.” For Trotsky analogies with the bourgeois revolution could be misleading because:

“ general the productive forces, upon a basis of private property and competition, have been working out their own destiny. In contrast to this the property relations which issued from the socialist revolution are indivisibly bound up with the new state as their repository. The predominance of socialist over petty-bourgeois tendencies is guaranteed not by the automatism of economy — we are still far from that — but by political measures taken by the dictatorship. The character of the economy as a whole thus depends upon the character of the state power” (Trotsky, in 1998:550, emphasis added).

As long as there was hope that the working class could bring the bureaucracy under its control again — this was a reform perspective — it was still reasonable to call the USSR, in this strictly limited sense, a “workers’ state”. The “locum” was a temporary layer, balancing between the class forces which would settle the fate of the revolution. For Trotsky only two possibilities were admitted, either backwards to the restoration of private property or forwards to the restoration of proletarian political power and socialism. The possibility of a exploitative class society based on collectivised property was accepted theoretically but effectively denied by Trotsky as a practical possibility.

In fact, as Joseph Carter pointed out:

“Trotsky’s prognoses were refuted by history...Contrary to Trotsky’s predictions the destruction of the Bolshevik Party did not mean the end of state property and planning; Russia did not travel the road of Thermidorean, capitalist restoration. On the contrary, the Stalinist counter-revolution took a new hitherto unknown path, the road of bureaucratic absolutism.” (1941: 217).

Later, when faced with a strengthening of state property and the destruction of the political power of the working class, Trotsky faced a dilemma:

“...either to maintain his old criteria and affirm that Russia is no longer a ‘workers’ state’ or to revise completely the Marxist conception of the workers’ state. He chose the latter course and thereby abandoned the Marxist view... He now affirmed that it was the state-owned character of property which determined the socialist character of property which determined the socialist character of the economy and the proletarian nature of the state.” (Carter, 1941:217).

In other words, Trotsky reversed the relationship of politics and economics in his theory. Now, because property was nationalised, and because nationalised property was inherently progressive, the state remained a workers’ state, progressive against capitalism, to be unconditionally defended in war. The working class, fantastically, remained the ruling class, but its rule was expressed through, congealed in, the nationalised property. This was a theoretical disaster of the first magnitude. As Matgamna has it, Trotsky had put on his own Shirt of Nessus. In the legend the shirt was soaked by Deineira with the poisonous blood of the centaur Nessus and placed on the back of her husband Heracles, causing his death. So excruciating was the pain the shirt caused him, Heracles had himself burnt on a funeral pyre. Matgamna argues that the result of Trotsky’s new theory was a self-immolation until all that was left was a wizened “critic” of Stalinism, fundamentally on its side and in its orbit. The problem was, argues Matgamna:

“ its fully extended form the doctrine of the ‘locum’ implied that the workers could rule as abstract historical subjects, in “high theory”, even where as living people, in practice, they were beasts of burden exploited by a privileged autocracy.” (Matgamna, 1998:110).

The Shirt of Nessus and the Russian invasion of Poland and Finland

In his concrete assessments which tracked the degeneration of Russia, Trotsky did register the self-making of the bureaucracy as a new exploitative ruling class. However he left these observations at odds with his theory rather than allowing them to be the basis of a necessary theoretical development, not least because he expected the Stalinist bureaucracy to last only a matter of months or even weeks. At the end of his life, the tension internal to his thought (between his concrete descriptions of a regime which differed from fascism “only in its more unbridled savagery,” and his theory of a “progressive workers’ state”) grew into a mix of wholly contradictory and incompatible frameworks. When Russia invaded Poland and Finland in 1939-40, Trotsky, tragically, would fade out his concrete assessments and be guided by his workers’ state theory, in effect supporting the invasions. Worse, Trotsky insisted that the Stalinist invasion of Poland, “gave an impulse to the socialist revolution through bureaucratic methods.” (1998:574). In Finland, he insisted the “Red” Army was giving, “a tremendous impulse to the class struggle in its sharpest form,” the Kremlin being, “forced to provoke a social revolutionary movement.” This was all nonsense. Nothing of the sort was happening in Poland or Finland.

Henceforth “orthodox” Trotskyists would be left trying to reason within the terms of Trotsky’s prior “revolt against reason” and would project locums within locums, endowing these with the qualities of the revolutionary proletariat. Thus, in Michael Lowy’s (1981) account of the “proletarian socialist revolutions” of Tito, Mao and Ho, he sees not militarised petty-bourgeois Stalinist formations, embryos of the new exploitative ruling class but, fantastically, parties which, “acted as ‘representatives’ of the proletariat,” nothing less than, “the political and programmatic expression of the proletariat by virtue of their adherence to the historical interests of the working class (abolition of capitalism etc.).” (Lowy, 1981:214).

Or take Alan Woods, theoretician of Militant writing in 1980 to defend the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. He saw not the national rights of the Afghans, nor the necessarily totalitarian dictatorship brought by the invaders, but only that, “the Russian bureaucracy is defending new, fundamentally progressive, social relations.” (quoted in O’Mahony, 1985: 27).

These are the fruits of a totalitarian economism which Trotsky incubated with his contribution to the 1939-40 debate. It left Marxism as a rigid economic necesitarianism and orthodox Trotskyism as a, “critical adjunct of the full-blown Stalinist empires,” now embraced as a distorted expression of “The World Revolution” and, “valued above the lives and liberties of the workers.” As Matgamna has put it, basic Marxist ideas were stood on their head until the mainstream of revolutionary socialism, “regressed back behind the political level attained in 1848 at the dawn of Marxism.” (1998:143).

Democracy and the birth of the Third camp

Hal Draper wrote that it was in the resistance to Trotsky in the 1940 split that, “[the] Third Camp was born and raised.” (Draper, 1963:8). Max Shachtman, the political leader of the minority, replied to Trotsky: “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 proletarian revolution cannot be made by others than the proletariat acting... No one else can free it — not even for a day.” (1998:575-6).

In Shachtman’s critique of Trotsky one can see “The Road Not Taken” by revolutionary Marxism in the second half of the twentieth century1. It was Joseph Carter who first and most fully grasped that Trotsky’s theory involved, “an important methodological error ...[a failure] to give adequate recognition to the decisive, qualitative difference between proletarian and bourgeois rule.” In clarifying the roots and the consequences of this, “grievous theoretical error” (1998:275), Carter and Shachtman, later Draper, Jack Brad, Julius Jacobson and others established the rudimentary framework of a democratic Marxist alternative. Carter pointed out the, “key distinction between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie” (in 1998:277):

“The rule of the proletariat cannot express itself in private ownership of capital, but only in its ‘ownership’ of the state in whose hands is concentrated all the decisive economic power. Hence its social power lies in its political power. In bourgeois society the two can be and are divorced; in the proletarian state, they are inseparable... from this... it follows in reality what does not follow in Trotsky’s analysis. The proletariat’s relations to property, to the new, collectivist property, are indivisibly bound up with its relations to the state, that is, to political power.” (in 1998:277-9).

Therefore, the “correct and decisive” criteria of a workers’ state is that the working class hold political power. The bourgeoisie can own and control the means of production without political power. The working class, by contrast, “differs from all others in history above all in the fact that it can conquer and rule only in its own name.” “Proletarian Bonapartism” is therefore a theoretical and practical impossibility. The failure to understand the, “decisive, qualitative difference between proletarian and bourgeois rule” was expressed at four levels.

(i) Property and power in the bourgeois and proletarian revolution

The relation of the juridical and the socio-economic in the determination of the class content of the state power is different in the proletarian as compared to the bourgeois revolution. Trotsky in the 1939-40 debate thinks of property forms and property relations (social relations) as one and the same thing. This is in Alan Woods mind as he, critically to be sure, supports the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. But property forms, i.e., nationalised property were a secondary factor. Property relations, i.e., the relations of the various groups in Russia to this property, were primary. The mere fact of nationalised property forms does not establish what the property relations are. What establishes that is the relationship of people to the state to which all property belongs. To define property relations in terms of property forms is, for a Marxist, to reverse the order of categorial priority, to replace social relations with a juridical illusion and to substitute an economism for a rounded Marxist judgement. The consequences are disastrous for one’s ability as a Marxist to theoretically ground democracy. For when the bureaucracy conquered state power the property relations established by October were, by definition, destroyed. To imagine that the property relations of October were somehow, mystically, congealed in the property forms of October, held there, intact, as long as capitalism was not restored, was a fatal error, a juridical illusion.

In the words of Max Shachtman, “Where property is state-owned, control of the state is control of society as a whole.” What is decisive is who controls the state: the working class or the bureaucracy. The workers lost political power to a counter-revolutionary bureaucracy which made itself into a new ruling class, based on the nationalised property.

(ii) Bonapartism and class in the bourgeois and proletarian revolution

While the Bonapartist regime which rules over the bourgeoisie, depriving it of direct political power has to rule in the interests of the bourgeoisie, despite itself, the regime which emerged to rule in Russia, in that act, made itself, as a new ruling class, in and for itself. As Max Shachtman argued:

“Where a similar division of labour under capitalism does not transform the economic or political agents of the ruling class into a new does tend to create a new class in a state reposing on collectivised property, that is in a state which is itself the repository of all social property.” (283).

Likewise Joseph Carter:

“Trotsky defended his new position, that the Stalinist state is a workers state though the working class has no political power by citing the bourgeois Bonapartist regime. The analogy would be valid only if the political expropriation of the working class had been accompanied by the strengthening of its economic and social power, its domination over society. Such was the case under all Bonapartist regimes: the political expropriation of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by... the strengthening of its economic and social power... But what does the evidence show as regards Russia? Simply this: that the working class has been deprived of all economic and social as well as political power. The strengthening of state property and planning, which allegedly signifies the social rule of the proletariat, resulted in the increased economic, social and political oppression of the working class. Here is a process which is the exact opposite of what occurs under Bonapartism!”

(iii) The Conscious and the Unconscious in the Bourgeois and Proletarian revolution

The role of conscious planning and deliberative self-controlling political action is profoundly different in the proletarian revolution as compared to the bourgeois revolution. Max Shachtman pointed out that,

“The bourgeois revolution need not necessarily be carried out by the bourgeoisie itself, that is, by the bourgeoisie as a class. The bourgeois revolution need not necessarily bring the bourgeoisie to political power... For the bourgeoisie it suffices that its economic system predominates.” (in 1998: 372-3).

The proletarian revolution however must begin with the proletariat raising itself to the position of ruling class. The first step is to, “win the battle of democracy,” as Marx said. The economic system is not “its” unless it has secured these political victories. This victory cannot be the accidental or automatic “unfolding” of a “world revolutionary process” carried through by forces other than the working class — totalitarian forces at that. The proletarian revolution, “cannot but be a conscious revolution, purposeful, planned, prepared, organised, timed. It does not have the automatic character of the bourgeois revolution.” (Shachtman, in 1998: 373).

(iv) The necessity of a democratic and plural polity in the bourgeois and proletarian revolution

Democracy and its indispensability for working-class rule is the heart of the Third Camp’s analysis of Stalinism and its view of Marxism and the socialist project. As Shachtman put it, “consciousness and plan imply a self-active, aware, participating, deciding proletariat, which implies in turn a dying out of coercion and bureaucratism.” (in 1998:374). Planning, the encroachment of a new social logic, is absolutely impossible without untrammelled democracy, civil liberties, a culture of pluralism, with maximum space for initiative from below, and for accountability of the government representatives.

A “revolutionary democratic socialism for our time”

Demonised, the heresy within the heresy, the political significance of the WP-ISL has still not been gauged. Socialist Outlook, an orthodox Trotskysist group in Britain, refused to even take an advert for this collection of writings (without exception taken from his period as a revolutionary Marxist) by a founding figure of American Trotskyism. Amid the rubble of the “workers’ states” the contribution of the WP-ISL is deserving of critical attention and not just on the “Russian Question”. Hal Draper claimed nothing less than that he and his comrades had established the basis of, “a revolutionary democratic socialism for our time”:

“The political character of the ISL quickly broadened from this war position to a wide reinterpretation of the meaning of revolutionary socialism for our day. Reacting sharply against the bureaucratic concepts of both official Stalinism and official Trotskyism, it swung to a deepgoing emphasis on the integration of socialism and democracy in all aspects of politics. What was distinctive, however, was that this was accompanied by equally sharp opposition to the American establishment, to American imperialism, to capitalism and its political representatives here. What resulted was a unique combination of revolutionary opposition to both capitalism and Communism.” (1963a.:7) The great contribution of the Third Camp was to grasp that Stalinism did not represent progress but a new totalitarian exploitative social system and a contender with both capitalism and socialism. The WP-ISL gave itself the theoretical lens to see that, “the world social conflict is no longer a duel between capitalism and socialism; it has become a triangular struggle.” Moreover, argued Draper (1963a: 8-9) this: “...triangle of forces, contending for mastery in the world... is the source of the new and unprecedented ideological crisis of socialism today. This crisis is in the first place a crisis in the very meaning of socialism. What was needed was a socialist analysis which planted a firm fixed point — at the third vertex of the triangle so to speak — from which to carry on uncompromisingly the working class struggle against both of the rival exploitative systems contending for domination. This is the viewpoint the ISL worked out in the course of its eighteen and a half years of existence; and this is, in short, the heart of its ‘Independent Socialism’. It formulated a revolutionary democratic socialism for our time.”

Put Draper’s arguments for a “firm fixed point” for the Third Camp next to Mandel’s view that, “the Chinese Communist Party... was striving to destroy capitalism and therefore represented a fundamentally proletarian social force.” (1979:158). Look at that little word, “therefore,” and you see why the WP-ISL is so important.

In a world dominated by the Cold War between the two imperialist blocs the Third Camp was the inheritor of a democratic internationalist tradition. Before Stalinism Marxists had imagined the world as a zero-sum game: capitalism versus socialism. Actually it never was, but until an equally exploitative reactionary alternative proved to be capable of issuing from anti-capitalism that view was not, in practice, too harmful. After Stalinism it was a disastrous framework, theoretically and practically, not least in the implications for the place of democracy in Marxism. For there was now a three-cornered struggle for the world, not the duel of the Manifesto. Grasping that fact and renovating Marxism in light of it was one of the great contributions of the WP-ISL.

Whatever came after capitalism, it had been assumed, would be democratic. In the new world of the three-cornered struggle democracy was the condition for socialism. It had to be consciously fought for against an alternative totalitarian anti-capitalist force: Stalinism.

This new approach to democracy is only possible to elaborate fully once you grasp the nature of Stalinism as a social system and as an anti-capitalist and anti-proletarian force. Once grasped then:

“In no other era than this does the fight for democracy rise to such a pinnacle of importance for the forces of progress. No other movement in the history of the world is so driven to place the democratic goal so close to everything it strives for.” (Draper, 1953, in 1963a:65).

The Third Camp fundamentally recast the Marxists relationship to pluralism as the only possible polity in which the working class could exercise its rule. Its self-emancipatory drive, its self-controlling practice, requires pluralism. Socialism is, in that sense, scientifically and ethically inseparable from pluralism, democracy, and freedom. In 1952 Hal Draper wrote:

“This is the democratic heart of Marxism: for the first time in history it has become possible for the ‘lowest’ class to rule, that class on whose labor all the rest of society depends. For the first time, therefore, a new social order is possible in the interests of the most numerous class, whose rule by that token means the abolition of all class rule. It cannot substitute itself for the private rulers of property by itself gaining control of property; it can rule only through the collectivity, only democratically. Those who reject this as “visionary” are saying not only that socialism is impossible but that democracy is impossible.”

In the WP-ISL tradition democracy is established as scientifically necessary for workers’ rule and socialism in three senses.

First, an economic necessity for it is impossible to plan without democracy. The specific “mortal contradiction” of Stalinist society is not the same as capitalist society. It is that between the necessity of planning having abolished the only other possible economic regulator, the capitalist market, and the impossibility of planning having abolished the only possible basis of planning, democracy. The “fundamental contradiction” peculiar to Stalinist society is the absence of democracy in a statified society.

Second political necessity. Without democracy it is possible to get rid of the old capitalist class but only to put a new bureaucratic ruling class in its place.

Third cultural necessity: democracy is the culture medium in which socialism, as a regulative idea, can be approached. Norman Geras has argued convincingly that the dynamics of self-emancipation requires, “liberal norms of political life.” (1994:98).

In 1962 Draper debated with a group of academics at the Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Santa Barbara. Arguing against the anti-democratic corporatism being developed there, Draper said of political democracy and the, “concerns of pluralism”:

“One of my central ideas in regard to democracy is that you cannot have any kind of democracy, none whatsoever, of any type or form, without the political freedom of people to enter into opposition uncontrolled as far as the government is concerned. That would make political democracy not the sole content of but the sine qua non of democracy.

“One of the essential characteristics of such a political democracy is the right of people to oppose and organise their opposition. Free speech, free assembly... come under that head. Free speech without the right to free organisation and opposition means nothing, its a fake, its not even free speech. And economic democracy, racial democracy, sexual democracy... do not exist, are not really any kind of democracy without these political rights. Political rights by the way refer to rights of a person in a state structure. And in a statified economy like Russia, where it is the state as an institution that controls everything — political democracy is, as a matter of fact, in the last analysis, all kinds of democracy because the state is the economic boss as well as the political boss.” (1962).

Karl Marx also appreciated the kind of political culture necessary for self-emancipation both within societies and socialist organisations:

“A country which, like old Athens, treats boot-lickers, parasites, toadies as exceptions from the general standard of reason, as public fools, is the country of independence and self-government. A people which... claims the right to think and utter the truth only for the court fool, can only be a people that is dependent and without identity.” (Marx, quoted in Gilbert, 1991:174)

What distinguished the WP-ISL conception of democracy from, for instance Hannah Arendt, is the insight that unless democracy overflows the narrowly political, and spills over into all life, not least the economic, then the individual enjoys a merely political emancipation and not that human emancipation in which “man must... in his individual life and individual relationships, become a species-being... must recognise his own forces as social forces, organise them and thus no longer separate social forces from himself in the form of political forces.” (Marx, in McLellan, 1995: 19-20).

When the WP-ISL rejected the analogy between the bourgeois and proletarian revolutions it broke Marxism decisively from economic neccesitarianism, or what Matgamna calls, “totalitarian economism.” Gregor McLennan has written of the falsity of defining, “the intrinsic value of a form of economic organisation” as something, “established prior to the specification of its framework of political institutions.” Such is exactly what Perry Anderson does at the beginning of this article. The nadir of this method can be seen in Ernest Mandel’s insistence that Pol Pot’s Kampuchea was a workers’ state:

“...where a radical agrarian revolution has occurred, where the existing bourgeoisie has lost state power and is no more a ruling class, where private property has been essentially suppressed, where the economy obviously does not operate any more on the bias of capitalist production and property relations and does not function any more according to the laws of motion of capitalism, a workers state has come into being, independently of the conditions under which this has occurred.” (quoted in Goodwin, 1979:110)

The Suicide of the ISL

I would make three criticisms of the book. First, Matgamna’s selection of texts perpetuates the idea that this was “Shachtman’s left”. There are 37 articles by Max Shachtman, four from James Burnham, three from Trotsky, two from Hal Draper and two from CLR James. The problem is not that Shachtman was not the political leader of the WP-ISL. He was. But Shachtman did little with the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Hal Draper did far more to elaborate the theory, in relation to Eastern Europe after the war, to the development of capitalism in the west and in grounding the theory within the categories of classical Marxism, in his book Karl Marx’s Theory of Revolution Volume 1.

The theory is often criticised as lacking a clear sense of either the laws of motion of bureaucratic collectivist society or its place in history. To the extent that there are responses to those questions within the tradition I think Draper did most to make them.

Second I think Matgamna stretches too far the idea that Trotsky himself began the thinking about bureaucratic collectivism and is the “innovator”. In 1939 Trotsky did discuss Bruno Rizzi but his use/abuse of Rizzi was part and parcel of his bad, mis-educating work in the last years — a scary story to frighten the children — not his critical thinking. Hal Draper, who visited Rizzi in 1958, established that Rizzi’s book was impounded, but he did manage to get copies of to various VIPs such as Mussolini and Trotsky. With Trotsky, says Draper, he, “hit pay-dirt.” The fight over Finland was ongoing inside the SWP and Trotsky used Rizzi as ammunition to attack the minority. As Draper puts it, “Rizzi entered history when Trotsky whirled him around his head like a dead cat and let fly at the opposition.” “If not me then Bruno R!” was Trotsky’s message, as, “Rizzi’s function was to scare the theoretical daylights out of the opposition” by a few “tendentious sentences and vague claims,” says Draper. I can’t see how it is accurate to say, “Shachtman will... adopt the position Trotsky, wearing the mask of Bruno Rizzi, puts forward.” Trotsky only put forward a few sentences. Rizzi’s book was never available to the minority. The idea, universally accepted that they copied the theory from Rizzi is nonsense. It seems to me Matgamna is straining the “two Trotskys” idea beyond the point it can legitimately go here. Matgamna is right to say that ironically it was post-war orthodox Trotskyism which was “Rizzian” in that it saw Stalinism as historically progressive and deserving of socialists support, a step toward socialism, the lowest rung etc. Can one get a more fervent Rizzian than Ted Grant? But I doubt Trotsky ever seriously considered bureaucratic collectivism in the way Matgamna implies. All this is driven, I think, by Matgamna’s insistence that his is a Trotskyist critique of Trotsky.

Third, I think Matgamna is overly defensive about Shachtman’s trajectory in the 1950s and 1960s, when he moved sharply to the right. Matgamna says, “Shachtman’s machinations to find a road forwards for the mass labour movement were [not] necessarily discreditable.” This was better than, “dawdling in sectarian aloofness” — a comment, I suspect, on Draper’s opposition. But not the least of Shachtman’s “crimes” was that if the ISL could have held out a few more years it could have been floated off the beach by the rising tide of the new left. In fact the ISL youth group was anything but aloof and sectarian, and would have been extremely well placed to grow in the ‘60s, possibly even challenging the SDS. Instead it was left to Draper to hack out a Third Camp political tendency more or less from scratch, against Shachtman’s bitter opposition and amid the tumult of the sixties’ events. Let’s be blunt. Max Shachtman ended up, as Dave McReynolds said in an interview, “telling the kids to shut up” about the Vietnam War. Figures like Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Reagan’s representative at the UN, was in some real sense a (1960s vintage) “Shachtmanite”. Albert Shanker, the teachers’ union leader, when he backed the US arms build-up, was guided by the framework Shachtman built for him.

So how could this happen? Understandably many socialists recoil from the WP-ISL because they think Shachtman’s sorry fate was the inevitable outcome of the 1940 split, a stupid dogma which itself reveals the religiosity in the Trotskyist movement. There is no need for defensiveness. Though I can’t argue it out here, it did not happen because of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. The post-ISL trajectory of Hal Draper is enough to scotch that. Shachtman had to break from the “firm fixed point” of the Third Camp to back the West as lesser evil. The answer lies elsewhere and I think it is well summed up in a letter from a European Third Campist, Giacometti, replying, in some anger, to a panicky Michael Kidron of the British International Socialists, who had written that he was, in light of the ISL entry to the American Socialist Party, “disturbed at whatever vague association there has been between us.” Giacometti’s reply can be a guide today for answering those who reach for their crosses and rosaries at the mention of Shachtman’s name:

“As far as my association with the ISL is concerned, it has been anything but vague, and I am rather proud of it. All that I know about socialism, the ISL taught me, and if I am going to be of further use to the movement, it will be thanks to what I learned in the ISL. At present I am in disagreement with its policy, and I refuse to take further responsibility for it. You don’t have to take responsibility for it either. This is a simple problem. Shachtman’s present position with regard to the SP-SDF (and any foolishness that might derive from it in the future) in no way cancels out his merits in the battle for an independent revolutionary position at a particularly difficult time. Historically the ISL remains the organisation which has elaborated — since 1940, remember — the theoretical and practical foundations for a revolutionary socialist policy in our period; although many independent socialist movements do not refer to it, its work and its experience has been a decisive contribution to the formation of an independent socialist current in other countries. If the ISL is now dying of exhaustion, it may be because it has fought longer than most similar movements, at a time when the pressures were greater and the outlook not as hopeful.” (March 1, 1958)

The pressures and the outlook then. The WP-ISL refused the comforting epochal illusions of the Fourth International, which looked at the creation of a totalitarian Stalinist empire and saw an “Unfolding World Revolution” to be defended against capitalism as a “fundamentally proletarian social force.” It also refused to create the kind of monolithic sect culture which can hold small groups together at the price of turning their brains to mush. It was an extremely democratic organisation formed in part in revolt against Cannon’s concept of the monolithic Bolshevik Party. Now add in the hammer blow of being a young organisation, which sent its members (those that weren’t drafted) into the factories and worked tremendously hard to put down roots in the working class being faced at war’s end with a quiescent and fearful working class, and the long years of boom, McCarthyism and Cold War, and the evolution of the WP-ISL is not so surprising. Hal Draper, in interviews, said, “The ISL decided to commit suicide” and, “1958 and the decision to liquidate was a decision to give up their politics.” Why? “Why does anyone give up their politics? This was at the end of a period of declining radicalism in which it was more and more difficult to retain your radical convictions, it was before the new upsurge in the 1960s but after a period in which the expectations that followed the war had not been born out, capitalism seemed to be stabilising itself, and so, people get tired, and simply cease fighting.” Draper’s was the sole vote against the dissolution of the ISL at the Convention of 1957. But that sole vote carried the soul of the WP with it.


The relationship between democracy, freedom and human emancipation was lost by orthodox Trotskyism. Thinking of the socialist revolution and the rule of the working class by analogy with the bourgeois revolution and the rule of the bourgeoisie was a theoretical Shirt of Nessus, hesitantly, provisionally, placed on a young and beleaguered movement by Trotsky, enthusiastically buttoned up and tucked by Deutscher, and then sold to a couple of generations of socialists by New Left Review. It was a theoretical disaster. The ever-lasting historical significance of the WP-ISL is that it worked its way out from under, readapting in the new conditions of their time the principles of classical Marxism that socialism is self-emancipation, that a workers’ state is impossible without workers’ democracy. Third Camp Marxism restored the relationship between democracy and socialism and, in the widest sense, freedom and socialism. It is a tradition with rich resources to offer those who wish to do the same.

Books cited in the text:

Anderson, Perry 1983, “Trotsky’s Interpretation of Stalinism”, New Left Review, 139.
Carter, Joseph, 1998 (1941), “Bureaucratic Collectivism”, in Matgamna, 1998.
Draper, Hal 1952, “Charity, Welfare and the Walls of Jerico”, Labor Action, July 7.
Draper, Hal 1962 Transcript of Debate at Centre for Study of Democratic Institutions, Santa Barbara, May 4, 1962.
Draper, Hal (editor) 1963a., Introduction to Independent Socialism, Berkeley, California: Independent Socialist Press.
Draper, Hal 1963b., Some Notes on the Discussion of Indian Defencism, University of California Branch, Socialist Party, Berkeley.
Draper, Hal (editor) 1966, Independent Socialism and War, Berkeley; Independent Socialist Press.
Draper, Hal 1967, “The Independent Socialist Outlook. Theses on the Struggle for the World in the present Epoch of Capitalism and Stalinism”, Forum, April.
Draper, Hal 1989, America as Overlord. From Yalta to Vietnam, Berkeley: Independent Socialist Press.
Draper, Hal 1992, Socialism From Below, New Jersey: Humanities Press.
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Goodwin, Peter 1979, “Razor-sharp factional minds — the F.I. debates Kampuchea”, International Socialism, second series, 5.
Grossman, Vasily 1986, Forever Flowing, London: Collins Harvill.
Mandel, Ernest 1979, Revolutionary Marxism Today, London: Verso.
McLennan, Gregor 1989, Marxism, Pluralism and Beyond. Classic Debates and New Departures, London: Polity.
Matgamna, Sean (editor) 1998, The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, Volume 1, London: Phoenix Press.
O’Mahony, John (Sean Matgamna) 1985, Afghanistan: USSR Troops Out Now ! The Socialist Case, London.
Shachtman, Max 1998 (1940), “The Crisis in the American party: An Open Letter in reply to Comrade Leon Trotsky”, in Matgamna, 1998.
Shachtman, Max 1998 (1940), “Is Russia a Workers State ?”, in Matgamna, 1998
Shachtman, Max 1998 (1944) “The Party that won victory: Lenin’s contribution to the revolution”, in Matgamna,1998.
Shachtman, Max 1962, The Bureaucratic Revolution, New York:Donald Press
Trotsky, Leon 1998 (1928) “Our Differences with the Democratic Centralists: Letter to Borodai”, in Matgamna, 1998.