The fate of Max Shachtman: a critical assessment

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

"The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflict to oblige humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas. This method is as old as bourgeois society, or more exactly, as class society in general. No one is obligated to become a Marxist; no one is obligated to swear by Lenin’s name. But the whole of the politics of these two titans of revolutionary thought was directed towards this, that the fetishism of two camps would give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends." — Leon Trotsky

Max Shachtman is to the post-Trotsky neo-Trotskyist movement what Trotsky was to the official "Communist" movement: the great heretic, the arch traitor — Lucifer.

Shachtman was one of those leaders of the American Communist Party who, with James P Cannon and Martin Abern, broke with the Stalinised Comintern in 1928 and declared for Trotsky. For the next dozen years he expounded Trotsky’s politics. Probably he was the world’s leading voice for those politics after Trotsky himself. He championed the Russian Revolution and revolutionary socialist politics with verve, conviction and commitment. He condemned, denounced and dissected Stalinism.

Shachtman broke with Trotsky in 1940, a few months before his death, in a dispute which started over the Russian invasions of Poland and Finland in late 1939.

In August 1939 the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact freed Hitler’s hands for war. On 1 September 1939 the Nazi army invaded Poland. On 17 September the Russian army invaded Poland from the East, by agreement with the Nazis, and took control of a large part of the country. In November the USSR gave Finland an ultimatum to surrender certain strategic parts of its territory to the USSR or go to war. This had been agreed with the Nazis (as had the Russian occupation of the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia). The Finns decided to fight. Instead of an easy victory, Stalin got a war. The war ended on 13 March 1940 with Finland ceding territory to Stalin.

Trotsky, who thought that Russia’s embroilment in World War Two was imminent, was for the unconditional defence of the USSR. Shachtman wanted the defeat of the Soviet Union in Finland, though in general still advocating its defence "against imperialism". The debate which ensued became mixed up with organisational grievances inside the American Trotskyist movement, which split in April 1940.

The positions taken in that debate, on the eve of Trotsky’s death, shaped and warped the entire future of the mainstream Trotskyist movement. It was about drawing up the balance sheet on Stalinism. Trotsky himself had produced a new balance-sheet, The USSR in War, in September 1939 (and defended it in Again and Once More on the Nature of the USSR — October 1939). For the first time he accepted the theoretical possibility that the USSR was a new form of exploitative class society, "bureaucratic collectivism". Trotsky’s arguments against considering it bureaucratic collectivist "for now" indicate his trend of thought:

"Scientifically and politically — and now purely terminologically — the question poses itself as follows: does the bureaucracy represent a temporary growth on a social organism or has this growth already become transformed into a historically indispensable organ?…

"The historical alternative, carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin regime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin regime is the first stage of a new exploiting society [which is to supersede capitalism]… But are there such incontrovertible or even impressive objective data as would compel us today to renounce the prospect of the socialist revolution? That is the whole question…

"Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarch the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall? Posing this question clearly should alone in our opinion restrain the comrades from terminological experimentation and overhasty generalisations…" [1]

After Trotsky’s death, those who had been on his side in the 1940 split continued to maintain, for decades, even when the USSR after 1944 had expanded into a vast new empire, that it was not necessary to change the framework in which the USSR was viewed. For over 30 years a large bulk of Trotsky’s writings on the USSR during 1939-40 remained unrepublished. The unbalanced and misleading collection In Defence of Marxism, published in December 1942 by the SWP-USA, would train generations in bowdlerised "orthodox Trotskyism". It contained Trotsky’s polemics against Shachtman from late 1939 and early 1940. But from this, "Trotsky’s last word on Russia", were excluded both Trotsky’s contemporaneous articles on the USSR, and articles from the last six months of his life — in one of which Trotsky described the leaders of the Stalinist parties outside the USSR as aspirants to the role of a privileged Stalinist bureaucracy ("The Comintern and the GPU", 17 August 1940). Trotsky’s "orthodox" followers ignored the empirical and temporal tests Trotsky had set up for finally reassessing the USSR because they rejected the conclusion that flowed inescapably from them — that the whole workers’ state thesis was now untenable. Instead, they reluctantly accepted the idea — "for now" — of progressive Stalinism.

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Shachtman broke with Trotsky in April 1940. In December 1940 he argued that the USSR was in fact a new form of class society, what he would eventually call "bureaucratic collectivism". He went through a range of versions of this theory in the 1940s, for a while calling the USSR bureaucratic collectivist and progressive, then eventually settling for the view that it was barbarism, the alternative to capitalism and its historical successor if the working class did not make a socialist revolution in time. In the epoch of vast capitalist expansion that followed World War Two that conclusion made no sense. The Stalinist state monopoly systems were no more than a backward historical parallel to capitalism in a number of relatively underdeveloped countries. The idea that the backward USSR showed the USA its own future was preposterous even in 1939/40.

Yet Shachtman never made the necessary rectification to the views on this that (from a different angle) he shared with the Trotsky of 1940. He talked of the Stalinist state monopoly systems as the successor to declining capitalism. In this he paralleled the official Trotskyist movement, which took decades properly to register and understand the post-war revival of capitalism.

After 1940 Shachtman’s name came, to most of those educated in the neo-Trotsky tradition, to symbolise renegacy. For the two decades after 1940 this depended on either outright and malicious libel and slander or benighted ignorance, or both. In the ’40s and ’50s Shachtman’s organisations, the Workers Party (1940-49) and the Independent Socialist League (1949-58), maintained a militant activity, producing a literature that was the living continuation of Trotsky’s ideas and of his trajectory at the time he died. The Fate of the Russian Revolution… contains abundant evidence for this statement. Shachtman’s bureaucratic collectivist thesis was an explicit working through of the logic of Trotsky’s most developed ideas of 1939/40.

Yet, by the time he died in 1972 Max Shachtman had indeed moved far from revolutionary politics. His political fate is important and instructive.

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Like the SWP USA at the end of the ’30s, the Workers Party and its successor the Independent Socialist League, believed it to be their duty to help the American working class develop a mass political party, of the sort the British Labour Party then was, but with better politics. Sometime in the mid or late 1950s Shachtman became convinced that revolutionary politics in the USA were not "operational" in the foreseeable future. In 1958 the ISL liquidated itself into the tiny Socialist Party, and not long after Shachtman and his friends controlled that party.

Soon the Socialist Party was working in the broad Democratic Party for a strategy devised by Shachtman: they would take the American working class a giant stride forward in politics, by transforming the Democratic Party into a labour-controlled party, in effect a Labour Party. How? The Democratic Party, since Roosevelt, had had the active support of most of the trade union movement. The racist southern Democrats, whose affiliation to the Democratic Party dated back to the Civil War, could be hived off, as could the party’s big bourgeois element.

Shachtman then became a sort of Fabian, working behind the scenes to manipulate developments in the trade unions and the Democratic Party in the direction he thought would best serve the next stage of working class development on the road to a socialist consciousness. In this guise of American Fabian, Shachtman helped organise the black civil rights movement of the early 1960s.

He had at the beginning described his Democratic Party realignment strategy as "foul and discreditable work", but necessary. In pursuit of an "opening to the right" which dominated the labour movement, he himself moved onto the right wing’s political terrain. How much this was initially a pedagogical adaptation, I do not know. He worked with the existing trade union leaders, whom he had once justly described as agents of the ruling class — the labour lieutenants of capital.

In an exact replication of the fate of the USA’s "Right Communist" (Jay Lovestone), grouping of the 1930s, many of Shachtman’s supporters became part of the trade union bureaucracy. Shachtman ceased to believe in a "Third Camp" of the working class and oppressed people throughout the world, and opted — like the "orthodox" Trotskyists, only on the other side — for one of the two great camps in the world. He chose the camp led by the USA.

Like the working class itself, as a revolutionary political force, the "Third Camp" existed only as a potential, as something to be won, worked for, propagandised about, wrought in the class struggle. Shachtman had insisted on that against those who felt impelled to stand, with however critical a demeanour, in Stalinism’s camp. After the crushing of the Hungarian rising by Russian tanks in 1956, increasingly Shachtman gave up on it. He accepted liberal capitalism as a "lesser evil", while continuing to counterpose such things as "a democratic US foreign policy" to the dominant one. He believed that the imposition of Stalinist regimes, which would stifle and destroy the labour movement and democratic freedoms won over decades and centuries, as Stalinism did everywhere it ruled, was to be resisted everywhere, on pain of death for the labour movement — resisted, even in alliance with liberal bourgeois and American imperialist forces.

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In the post-war world, where the USSR was the second great global power, recognition that the USA and Western Europe — advanced capitalism — was the more progressive of the contending camps, the one which gave richer possibilities, greater freedom, more for socialists to build on, was, I believe, a necessary part of the restoration of Marxist balance to socialist politics. It was a pre-requisite for the reconstruction of Marxism after the systematic destruction of its concepts over a long period.

That destruction began with the early 1920s conversion of Bolshevik civil-war exigencies into revolutionary law and culminated in the final ideological convulsions of Trotsky on the class character of the USSR and then of the neo-Trotskyists. But reconciliation with capitalism in the manner of Shachtman in his last years was no necessary part of it.

Marx was able to analyse the progressive work of British rule in India while also opposing it; Lenin could write, "Can anyone in his senses deny that Bismarckian Germany and her social laws are "better" than Germany before 1848?... Did the German Social Democrats ... vote for Bismarck’s reforms on these grounds?"

For Marx, for Lenin, and for the classical Marxists, to recognise something as "objectively" progressive did not at all necessarily entail supporting it or endorsing it politically; their task, as they saw it, was to educate, organise and mobilise the working class and to help it to utilise its opportunities — not to promote progress in general in abstraction from the class struggle.

The idea of defending bourgeois liberty against Stalinism did not necessarily imply surrender of working-class independence, or demand of revolutionary socialists that they should commit hara-kiri for its sake.

Shachtman drew conclusions he had never drawn in the fight against fascism. He joined the democratic capitalist camp. At the time (1961) of the CIA-backed Cuban émigré invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Shachtman thought that a Stalinist Cuba, where no real labour movement could exist, was the greater evil, and backed the invaders. He broke with those of his comrades, Hal Draper and Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, and others who would continue to stand on Workers Party and ISL third camp politics.

Shachtman’s hopes for the development of the Democratic Party into a party controlled by the labour movement came to nothing. President Lyndon B Johnson’s America got drawn deeper and deeper into war in Indochina — a war of mechanised slaughter wreaked from the air indiscriminately on Vietnam and Cambodia. Shachtman believed that only behind the bulwark against Stalinism which the USA thus provided could the forces that would resist Stalinism on the basis of progressive politics and democracy be given a chance to emerge. He backed the USA.

Max Shachtman died of a heart attack on 4 November 1972, as the USA was preparing to "bomb Cambodia into the Stone Age" — which it did, leaving the ultra-Stalinist Khmer Rouge as murdering kings of the ruins. The folly of relying on US imperialism against Stalinism could not have been more horribly proven. At his end Shachtman stood as a negative example of the need for the politics he had defended for four decades — independent, socialist, working class politics. Yet his earlier writings continue to stand as an immensely valuable positive embodiment of such politics.

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It is only from the point of view of the so-called "Third Camp" — of the consistently independent working class politics which he did so much in his time to clarify and defend — that Shachtman can properly be evaluated or justly condemned. Those who opted for Stalinism, however critically, as a progressive anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist force, were Shachtman’s mirror image, only in the other "camp". Those who supported Vietnamese self-determination against the USA were right to do so, but many of us too blithely dismissed the concerns that led Shachtman to his "foul and discreditable" course because, in the last analysis, we accepted that Stalinism — the force, for now, fighting imperialism in Indo-China — was also progressively anti-capitalist. [2]

Nor were Shachtman’s machinations to find a road forwards for the mass labour movement necessarily discreditable. Even if one thinks the strategy for turning the Democratic Party into a labour party unlikely to succeed, or simply fantastic, and the techniques employed by Max Shachtman and his friends to help engineer it suicidal for socialists, it does not follow that dawdling in sectarian aloofness — still less doing that while basking in imaginary reflected glory from foreign Stalinist dictatorships — is thereby certified to be the best socialist politics. Shachtman’s efforts to avoid relegation to the role of passive propagandist have merit, even if one emphatically disagrees with his actions. Nonetheless, Shachtman at the end was deeply mired in conventional American dirty bourgeois politics.

The man who had with some justification denounced James P Cannon’s conception of the revolutionary party as owing too much to conventional American machine "boss" politics, died in the company of the real machine-politics Democratic Party "bosses". His section of the Socialist Party, keeping in step with the trade union bureaucracy, in effect supported Richard Nixon in the election that was held a week after Shachtman’s death.

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This end to Shachtman’s political life must for socialists cast a dark shadow on his memory. There are those eager to use it to discredit his ideas and his struggle in the ’40s and ’50s for rational revolutionary working-class politics — that is, to develop the real heritage of Trotsky. It is not so simple or straightforward. The position of Hal Draper and his comrades, their resistance to Shachtman’s course, and their break with him would alone shoot down the canard that Shachtman’s end was implied in his differences with Trotsky.

Shachtman, when he took himself into the camp of American imperialism, did not take his life’s work with him. He could not. Against his future self he had laid down immense barriers of passionate reason, unanswerable logic, truthful history, righteous contempt for turncoats and fainthearts and scorn for those who in middle age make peace with the capitalism on which in their braver youth they had declared war to the death. Shachtman’s "Third Camp" writings are the best commentary on, and the best condemnation of, Shachtman at the end. Those writings, and the writings of Shachtman’s comrades, are an important, indeed a unique part of the capital of revolutionary socialism — the defence, elaboration and continuation of unfalsified Marxism, that is, of Trotsky’s ideas as they really were and as they really were developing at his death. Shachtman’s 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 socialism will renew itself.

There are parallels. Lenin believed that the literary remains of George Plekhanov should be kept in print and studied by socialists. Plekhanov, one of the greatest and the first of Russian Marxists, had backed the Russian Tsar’s war in 1914-18. Lenin also advocated that the pre-World War One work of Karl Kautsky should be treated in the same way. So should Shachtman and his work.

Isn’t it to aggrandise Shachtman and his comrades too much to bracket them with Plekhanov and Kautsky? On the contrary, it is to risk understating their importance. Plekhanov and Kautsky were very talented and accomplished participants in a large school. The group of which Shachtman was the political leader and the outstanding writer were the rearguard of an overthrown and ruined political civilisation, which they worked to preserve and restore. It was a political world in which Stalinism fostered amnesia, charlatanism, spiritual darkness, a world in which socialism was eclipsed by vile fraudulence and the old socialist movement had been engulfed by political barbarism. Shachtman and his comrades kept alive Marxist method, culture, political memory, and the aspiration to working class liberty in that age of political barbarism. Even their nearest brothers and sisters, the "orthodox" Trotskyists, who, despite their faults and inadequacies, had great merit of their own, were infected and tainted by the forces dominant in the labour movement during the Stalinist dark age.

Neither Plekhanov nor Kautsky was irreplaceable. They were part of a large movement from which others as good or better could be expected to emerge. The work Shachtman and his friends did was irreplaceable in their time and place. No-one else did it. They were part of no big school of thought. They had to resist the gravitational pull of the more numerous forces of "official" Trotskyism, itself caught in the gravitational pull of "Communism", in order to do their work. Most who called themselves Trotskyists libelled and misrepresented them then, and have since tried to obliterate the memory of the work Shachtman and his comrades did. Making these writings accessible is a necessary part of rebuilding socialism in our time. As far as I know Shachtman made no serious attempt to repudiate his earlier work.

The small prefaces he wrote in his later years to editions of Trotsky’s books put out by the Ann Arbor Press — Terrorism and Communism and Problems of the Chinese Revolution — make criticisms of the Bolsheviks no more stringent, though one-sidedly put, than what he said (I think justly) in The Mistakes of the Bolsheviks in November 1943.

In the nature of things revolutionary politics is generally a young person’s game. Hope wells, reality is perceived raw, indignation is untempered by the sense of powerlessness and resignation; sensibility is uncalloused, raw human responses uncowed, courage naive and unchastened by fear of consequences or a sense of its own insufficiency.

Age and experience cow, make callous, teach resignation. They impress the painful cost of banging yourself against walls that for now may be impregnable, of pitting yourself against things that cannot soon be changed, of forgoing the sustaining and comforting community of the acquiescent; of living with a raw sharp awareness, like a nail in your shoe, that ours is a world of iniquity and intolerable injustice — the world which, yet, even when you struggle to change it, you must live in. The sense of powerlessness replaces the youthful idea that anything is possible. Vulnerability replaces the youthful sense of indestructibility.

The brutal foreshortening with age of personal time and perspective dims or blots out the longer perspective of a collective socialist struggle. That is especially so when that struggle against capitalism and for socialism is narrowed down to maintaining a small group of socialists now and preparing the future. Then especially, the sense of personal impermanence and weakening infects and saps the idea of an ongoing struggle.

The desire to achieve "something" becomes seductive and warps and replaces the fresh, clean, young sense of what is necessary and worth striving to achieve, whatever the cost and however long the struggle. The long view and the overview give way to shorter, discrete, unintegrated views. Impatience breeds opportunism and induces indifference to the seemingly less immediate concerns. The business of achieving a little bit now displaces the old goal, or pushes it beyond the horizon.

So it must have been with Max Shachtman, who in addition saw the world threatened with engulfment by Stalinist barbarism.

Julius Jacobson, a long-time associate of Max Shachtman’s before 1961, wrote in an obituary of Shachtman in New Politics that, by the end, it was an abuse of language to call him a socialist at all.

Yet there is continuity, despite the waning and attrition of individuals. There is a movement, whether a great mass movement or a faltering and struggling cluster of little groups. There is an accumulation of texts and literature and ideas that, once created, once put into circulation, are independent of the mind and the personality in which they originated and of the fate of that individual. Though individuals backslide, grow old and tired, or cowardly or corrupt, they cannot always undo what they did, unwrite what they wrote, erase the criticisms they made of class society, dim the socialist vision they conjured up, even though it has now grown dim for them — nor can they snuff out the activities of those they won and inspired and set to work to win others to the old ideals. Capitalist society has at root not changed even if its old critic has.

And so it is with Max Shachtman, as with Karl Kautsky, as with George Plekhanov and many others.

That it is so with Shachtman is of tremendous importance. For Shachtman with his comrades, after Trotsky’s death bore the main burden of ensuring the continuity of unfalsified Marxist socialism. They knew themselves to be the survivors of a subverted socialist civilisation that had almost vanished; and they knew that it could eventually be recreated by the will, energy and dedication of socialists like themselves, acting in accord with the inner logic of history and basing themselves on the struggles of the working class. In that sense, Max Shachtman remains a great force for socialism.

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The collection of articles by Shachtman and others in The Fate of the Russian Revolution… has a number of purposes. We aim to put into circulation certain key documents of revolutionary Marxism, long lost to anyone not prepared to rummage in libraries, and unavailable even in most good libraries. Without being too fanciful, and indulging in no more than a little permissible exaggeration, one could call these documents the Dead Sea Scrolls of 20th century revolutionary Marxism.

We want to provide an approach to the real history of Trotskyism, that is, of unfalsified Bolshevism and Marxism, and its post-Trotsky mutations; to give as comprehensive as possible an account of the "other Trotskyists" who continued along the basic lines indicated by Trotsky in The USSR in War (September 1939), and the trajectory of his concrete descriptions and political responses to the USSR, from The Theory of Degeneration (1933) to The Comintern and the GPU (1940). Trotsky’s concrete descriptions were often sharply in contradiction with this theoretic framework. We want to put these texts into the living stream of a reviving left, one of whose pre-requisites is a proper coming to terms with the experience of the Russian Revolution and its gravedigger, Stalin, and with its own real political history.

It is not a matter here of imagining that one can go and find and put on a tradition, like an old garment found in an attic. Revolutionary politics is not like that. It is not a Disney theme park where you can choose: today we are in the Wild West, or the Middle Ages, or the American or French Revolutions. Maoists in the 1960s and ’70s did that with various past periods of the Stalinist movement — adopting and mimicking the Third Period, the Northern Ireland Communist Party’s World War Two Unionist period, Popular Frontism... It does not work. Real political tradition is a living thing, made up of the ideas, the practice, the assumptions and the mutual relations of active militants.

Yet Shachtman’s texts are an irreplaceable element in the work of re-elaborating an adequate Trotskyist tradition.

It should not be thought that one has to take or leave the political legacy of the Workers Party and the ISL as a whole. Nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of those organisations. The Workers’ Party was not a "monolithic" party; nor are the organisations, like the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, of those who want to learn from it.

There are things to criticise and reject in that tradition. They got the overall perspective on Stalinism wrong. Shachtman’s later politics in part flowed from his basic incoherence on the place of the Stalinist state monopoly, "bureaucratic collectivist", systems in history — their relationship to capitalism. In the long view, after the collapse of the USSR, it is now plain that Trotsky, and then Shachtman until about 1947, were right to regard the Stalinist phenomenon as an aberration in the broad sweep of history. It is understandable that the spread of Stalinism after 1944 to a further sixth of the Earth should have led Shachtman to misunderstand Stalinism as permanent, durable and expanding. Nonetheless it is clear now that the Stalinist systems emerged as backward societies, broadly parallel to capitalism, not as capitalism’s successor. They were historical blind alleys.

The labour movement can learn a very great deal from the Workers Party and ISL texts about what living Marxism is — and is not.

* This article is from Workers' Liberty 48, June 1998, and is a revised version of a section of the introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, volume 1. By Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, C L R James, Leon Trotsky and others, with an introduction by Sean Matgamna. 608 pages. £16.99 post free. Buy online here.

[1] In a letter to Leon Trotsky on 8 November 1939, James P Cannon summarised the position he had put in a discussion in New York. "We explained that in our opinion Stalin could take the path of Napoleonic conquest not merely against small border states, but against the greatest imperialist powers, only on one condition: that the Soviet bureaucracy in reality represents a new triumphant class which is in harmony with its economic system and secure in its position at home, etc. If such really is the case, we certainly must revise everything we have said on the subject of the bureaucracy up to now, and admit at the same time that the regenerating revolution in the Soviet Union, along with proletarian revolution in the West, must be crossed off for a long time to come".

[2] For example, at the 1969 conference of the International Socialists (now SWP-GB), this writer, in a passion of incoherent anti-imperialism, and proper indignation against what the USA was doing in Vietnam, denounced the US political heirs of the Workers' Party/ ISL as "State Department socialists", because they did not go around shouting for "victory to the NLF". I thought of myself as being, and objectively probably was, on the hardest anti-Stalinist wing of that politically inchoate transitional organisation. But (I thought) the only "serious" anti-imperialism was that which sided unequivocally with those fighting the USA.

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