Third part of an article of which the previous parts appeared in Workers' Liberty 62 and "orkers' Liberty 66.
What attitude should be taken towards the Communist Parties ?
Cliff’s final prong was that bureaucratic collectivism disorientated revolutionaries in their dealings with Stalinist Communist Parties, especially those in the West after the war. This did not appear in the original article — it is grafted onto the revised version. Shachtman had written:
“Stalinism is a reactionary, totalitarian, anti-bourgeois and anti-proletarian current in the labor movement but not of the labor movement... where, as is the general rule nowadays, the militants are not yet strong enough to fight for the leadership directly; where the fight for control of the labor movement is, in effect, between the reformists and the Stalinists, it would be absurd for the militants to proclaim their ‘neutrality’ and fatal for them to support the Stalinists. Without any hesitation, they should follow the general line, inside the labor movement, of supporting the reformist officialdom against the Stalinist officialdom. In other words, where it is not yet possible to win the unions for the leadership of revolutionary militants, we forthrightly prefer the leadership of reformists who aim in their own way to maintain a labor movement, to the leadership of the Stalinist totalitarians who aim to exterminate it... while the revolutionists are not the equal of the reformists and the reformists are not the equal of the revolutionists, the two are now necessary and proper allies against Stalinism. The scores have to be settled with reformism — those will be settled on a working class basis and in a working class way, and not under the leadership or in alliance with totalitarian reaction.”(1)
Cliff claimed that if this policy was followed in the West, it would strengthen right-wing social democracy and would not prise rank and file Communist workers from their leaders. Duncan Hallas had argued in 1951 that it was not the programme or leadership but rather the composition of a party which determined its class character(2). For Hallas, therefore, Communist Parties were workers’ parties, and revolutionaries should utilise the tactic of the united front towards them. This political assessment of the Stalinist parties, was actually worse than the harder, Cannonite section of the “orthodox” Trotskyist movement. Shachtman argued that the Communist Parties were more than just agents of Russian foreign policy (a common conception amongst Trotskyists); they also sought to set up identical regimes to the USSR if they gained power. This was borne out by the experience of Eastern Europe and China, and later confirmed in Cuba and Vietnam. Therefore the usual policy of the united front did not mechanically apply to Stalinists. The originator of this assessment, Shachtman showed, was Trotsky himself, in one of his last articles:
“The predominating type among the present ‘Communist’ bureaucrats is the political careerist, and in consequence the polar opposite of the revolutionist. Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule.”(3)
It is true that Trotsky had argued earlier in 1940 that the SWP should critically support the Communist candidate in the presidential elections (in the absence of a genuine workers’ candidate), but even more “orthodox” American Trotskyists like James P Cannon were opposed to doing so. Of course Trotsky was trying to address the real problem that the Communists had tens of thousands of members in the US in 1940, a figure that had shrunk considerably by 1950. Shachtman’s hostile attitude towards the Stalinists did not stop his group from calling for a Socialist Party-Communist Party-CGT government in France (because the Stalinists were not on the verge of taking power). His Stalinophobia did not extend very far in 1950, as he debated Earl Browder, the former CP leader who been expelled from the party in mid forties. This was the debate where he turned to Browder, in the course of discussing the number of ex-Communist leaders who had been killed by the GPU, and joked, that “there, but for an accident of geography, sits a corpse”!
The crucial test was the attitude taken towards the McCarthyite witch-hunt. From the outset of the anti-red drive in 1946, the Workers’ Party opposed it categorically, distinguishing between the leaders of the CP and the rank and file members, and argued for a independent political fight by the working class and its organisations against Stalinist influence. And its propaganda for socialist democracy was a legitimate and principled line to distinguish itself from Stalinism. One of the few serious reasons given for the dissolution of the ISL into the Socialist Party in 1958 was that a new pole of attraction was needed to regroup the left, including those ex-members of the American Communist Party who had left in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin in 1956. This, together with the fracturing of CPs along national lines (as well as their decline on membership), was clearly a material factor to be taken into account when dealing with these organisations. Yet Cliff presented Shachtman as holding to the same attitude towards the Communist Parties regardless of circumstances.
Cliff on politics: “All that glisters is not gold’
Shachtman initially followed Trotsky in defining Russia as more progressive than capitalism, because of nationalised property, but later came to characterise Stalinism as barbarism. Cliff criticised Shachtman for failing to draw the requisite political conclusions from his sociological analyses. Again Cliff borrowed from the arsenal of orthodox Trotskyism, alluding to the dispute within the SWP in 1939-40, and to Shachtman’s failure to call for the defence of the USSR when Russia was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941.
Cliff never understood the 1939-40 dispute about Russia’s attack on Poland and Finland. Shachtman had then argued that socialists could not read off their attitude to wars simply from the character of the regimes involved — look, for example, at the wars between Italy and Ethiopia in 1934-35, or Japan and China in 1937 — but rather they had to analyse concretely the politics of the combatants involved, because (to paraphrase von Clausewitz), war is a continuation of politics by other means. Cliff parroted the catch-cry of inconsistency, but because the same argument could be thrown back at him, he took a very different attitude to the wars in Korea and Vietnam, which both involved, at least at the outset, a conflict between American imperialism and a backward Stalinist state. (In fact the political issue in these wars was really about national liberation not Stalinism.)
Cliff was well aware that for Shachtman the “defence” of the USSR was analogous to the struggle for colonial independence, i.e., relative to other considerations, and that the involvement of the USSR in the second world war was not primarily about the leading imperialists fighting together to get rid of nationalised property. The USSR entered the war in 1939 with imperial designs on parts of Eastern Europe, and became an integral partner on the Allied side against the Axis in another inter-imperialist conflict. The victory of Hitler’s rapacious imperialism would indeed have been a disaster for the workers of Europe, but the consequences of Russia’s expansion of empire after 1945 were hardly less oppressive. Shachtman had never said socialists had to support the USSR in every war with other imperialist powers, but he left the door open for its “defence” under certain circumstances. After the war, and given the further expansion of Stalinism, this door was firmly closed.
During the 1950s and 1960s, it is true that some members of the WP/ISL lost their political bearings and were drawn into what they saw as the lesser evil, of supporting democratic US imperialism against the USSR. For example, leaders such as Irving Howe left to form the journal Dissent. But to do so meant they had to break with the organisation, as indeed Shachtman effectively did when he dissolved the ISL into the Socialist Party in 1958. No doubt Cliff had in mind Shachtman’s muted left cover for the CIA-inspired Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and his support in later life for America’s war in Vietnam. But Shachtman’s personal evolution is not a verdict on the Third Camp tradition which he helped to develop, particularly as these errors were rightly criticised at the time by others in his tradition, who maintained their hostility to both US and Stalinist imperialism. The argument that bureaucratic collectivism was inherently unable to provide a perspective for socialists is not borne out by the record. Draper summed up this perspective in 1949:
“The basis for the disorientation of the proletarian forces consists in this: that these rival exploiting systems are not clearly recognised as enemies on an equal footing... It is on an analysis of the new conditions that the politics of Independent Socialism is founded — ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ — and it is on this that the socialist struggle against the war is based... We declare that, as in the first and second world wars, support for either camp amounts to a betrayal of the interests not only of socialism and the working class but humanity.”(4)
“Neither Washington nor Moscow” — the familiar catch-cry of Cliff’s publications for years and used before him by the Workers’ Party to sum up the relationship of the international working class to Western imperialism and Russian Stalinism. The “Third Camp” slogan was a synonym for independent working class politics. The WP/ISL adopted a “plague on both your houses” approach to all sides, including the USSR, during the second world war, concentrating on the “main enemy at home’, American imperialism. They analysed the spread of Stalinism into Eastern Europe under the control of the Red Army, and opposed it vigorously. They analysed the way in which both the labour movements and the capitalist classes in those countries were smashed, as they had been in Russia after 1928, and unlike the mainstream Trotskyists, harboured no illusions that these events were so-called “deformed workers’ revolutions which had taken place without and against the activity of the workers’ themselves. Later, they drew attention to the phoney nature of the “unions” in the Stalinist states, being rather instruments in the running of a system which allowed no normal, free trade unions. Their perspective, developed in the light of experiences in 1956, would have been more or less adequate during the period of the decline of Stalinism, including the war in Afghanistan, towards Solidarnosc and during the revolutions of 1989-91.
“In the anti-Stalinist revolution, therefore, we vigorously support all tendencies, struggles and steps toward a revolutionary democratic opposition to the regime...
“The leading social force in the anti-Stalinist revolution, however, is the working class. The experience of both Hungary and Poland has shown that the revolutionary working class spontaneously organised its forces into Workers’ Councils as its revolutionary instrument against the state, and that these Workers’ Councils tended to assume the character of dual power challenging the old state or assuming its power after the shattering of the old state.”(5)
Why did Cliff slander Shachtman? Within the Trotskyist milieu he was accused by Grant of following “bureaucratic collectivism”, and this impression was buttressed by Draper in a friendly review of Cliff’s book in 1956: “We have often pointed out that the ‘state capitalist’ theory sometimes shades into versions which make it virtually identical with our own. This tends to happen where the ‘state capitalism’ which is seen in Russia is analyzed as being basically different from ‘private capitalism’ that it tends to take on the characteristics of a new social system, which is not the same as any other system, and which is labelled as hyphenated-capitalism only as a matter of terminological taste. Cliff’s analysis does not begin this way, but it tends to wind up so.”(6) This was over-generous: Cliff had contributed nothing original on the inner workings of Stalinism, but taken an attractive name-tag and turned it into an empty phrase.
Cliff slandered the views of Shachtman and his comrades because they were the main competitors of his “state capitalism” as the alternative to the workers’ state label. A combination of misrepresentation, oft repeated, together with a certain plagiarism all those years ago, served to rub out the real issues. The crowning glory of the British SWP, a 50-year tradition built around “state capitalism” is a sham, built on a mythology about bureaucratic collectivism. This theory was not without its problems, but they should be discussed honestly and on their merits. As a body of work, bureaucratic collectivism was a substantial contribution towards an understanding of the USSR, Eastern Europe and China in their formative years, and should be one of the reference points for those who want to revive and renew the real Marxist tradition.
1. Shachtman, “A Left-Wing of the Labour Movement ?”, New International, September 1949.
2. See Hallas, “The Stalinist Parties”, Socialist Review, July 1951, in Hallas (ed) 1971. Cannon wrote: “It has been our general practice to combine in general day-to-day trade union work with the progressives and even the conservative labor fakers against the Stalinists. We have been correct from this point of view, that while the conservatives and traditional labor skates are no better than the Stalinists, are no less betrayers in the long run, they have different bases of existence. The Stalinist base is the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. They are perfectly willing to disrupt a trade union in defense of the foreign policy of Stalin. The traditional labor fakers have no roots in Russia nor any support in its powerful bureaucracy. Their only base of existence is the trade union; if the union is not preserved they have no further existence as trade union leaders. That tends to make them, from self-interest, a little more loyal to the unions than the Stalinists. That is why we have been correct in most cases in combining with them as against the Stalinists in purely union affairs.” Cannon, 19th October 1940. Printed in Evans, L. (ed.), James P. Cannon: Writings and Speeches, 1940-43 — The Socialist Workers’ Party in World War II. (1975: 88-89).
3. Trotsky, ‘The Comintern and the GPU’, 17th August 1940. First published in Fourth International, November 1940. In Breitman (ed.) Writings 1939-40, (1973: 350-351).
4. ISL ‘Capitalism, Stalinism and the War’, New International, April (1949: 116, 126)
5. ISL Theses, Labor Action, 15th July (1957: 6-7)
6. For some proof of the connections between Cliff and the Shachtmanites, see the testimony of Ken Coates and Stan Newens in Workers’ Liberty, 18, February 1995. Draper (1956), Workers’ Liberty, No.49, September (1998: 43)
Other reading on Cliff, state capitalism and the SWP:
“The Great Gadsby” (an obituary of Cliff), Workers’ Liberty 64-5.
“Cliff’s state capitalism revisited”, Workers’ Liberty 56.