Penetrating but unsound



The second 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. By Al Richardson.


I welcome the publication of The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Volume One; a sort of library in itself. It is a handy compendium of the sweep of Max Shachtman's journalism, and of his co-thinkers. Always penetrating, often witty, and never without interest, Shachtman was a very gifted revolutionary journalist. But he was no theoretician. This puts him well ahead of James P Cannon, who was neither, but journalism is what it is, and not theory. The book is full of empirical observations about the USSR, that are often quite unexceptional in themselves, but it has no explanation of the regime's inner dynamics, nor any enduring projections of its future course of development.

"Shachtmanism" does not answer any of the fundamental questions about the position of this society within the historical development of human institutions. Why, if this was an entirely new form of class society, did it fail to endure? Why did it need to exploit its population by means of the wages system, an essentially capitalist mechanism? Why was it so dynamic, if hugely wasteful, during its period of primitive accumulation, but so stagnant thereafter? Why, to far greater extent than any other known extreme form of dictatorship, did its state have to monopolise the whole structure of society above the basic family unit? Why did it develop as it did, and fall as it did?

My second methodological point is that after 80 years of debate about definitions and labels that ought to be applied to the USSR, I feel that we have run into a dead end, and that the method is no longer of the slightest use to us. None of the definitions - workers' state, degenerated workers' state, socialism, bureaucratic collectivism, managerialism, etc. - had any value at all either for identifying the cause of the system's malaise, or for predicting the imminence of its collapse. A far better approach would be to identify its inner workings, and to investigate just how the phenomenon developed. If we were not such lazy thinkers we should have already realised this, since placing nice neat labels and categories upon phenomena might well be the last word when studying inert minerals or biological specimens, but it is a poor guide to the dialectical development of societies, which are in constant change. Trotsky, it should be remembered, analysed the USSR as it developed, changing his definitions accordingly, from Thermidor to Bonapartism, bureaucratic centrism, degenerated workers' state, etc.

My own preference among all these definitions - and they all contain a certain amount of truth, but because of this fall equally under Occam's razor - is contained in the preface I wrote to In Defence of the Russian Revolution and an article in the Lanka Guardian1. But basically I think that the whole method of fighting over which label should be stuck on the ex-USSR is like an abandoned tin mine, worked out and exhausted.

My third methodological objection is that this label, like many of the others, does not meet the programmatic criteria of Marxism. As a definition, bureaucratic collectivism2 (like pure "state capitalism") can lead to three entirely different programmatic conclusions. If it is a higher form of society than capitalism, then we should support it against capitalism. If it is more backward, we can either oppose it, or support it against imperialist colonialism. If it is a historical sideline, or dead end, then we do not have to take an overall programmatic stance. Amusingly, at different times in his political career (and for entirely extraneous reasons) Shachtman drew all three conclusions, and he was not above tampering with his own work later to remove the glaring contradictions that this involved.

Now if an analysis can have three opposing conclusions for action drawn from it, even if it were true, it would not be of the slightest use to us. The fact is, however, that Marxism's programmatic conclusions develop logically from its analysis, and are embedded in it. They are never tacked on as an afterthought at the end. Marxists never develop theories merely in order to cross out one form of words and substitute another. If an analysis does not lead to different conclusions for action, it is a wasteful, purely academic exercise.

The glimmerings of a way out of this impasse might lie in grasping why the left in Britain found it so necessary to expend so much energy for so long fighting over such labels in the first place, which I believe can only be explained by its marginalisation within the working class. Once the Socialist Review Group made "state capitalism" its fetish, or badge of identification, and then grew to become the SWP, the largest organisation among professional and student circles, those who wanted to compete with it on its own ground were obliged to debate in terms of what they in turn thought about the USSR, counterposing their own different definitions to it. I can remember the IMG and the SLL/WRP writing pamphlet after pamphlet for 20 years defending their analysis of the USSR as a workers' state for no other reason than to compete for the student youth.

The USSR is now no more, and the states formed in imitation of it are following its pattern of development. As British Stalinism retreats into its last redoubt, academe, the SWP is now becoming soft on it, too. So why not fight for a hearing elsewhere?


  1. Republished in What Next?
  2. It is interesting that Shachtman had barely developed his ideas before four different groups of his co-thinkers appeared over here, those of Rose Selner and Charlie Orwell, Bert Atkinson, Bob Armstrong and Mattie Merrigan and Shirley Lerner, all of whose theories of "bureaucratic collectivism" differed markedly from each other!