Facing up to Stalin's strength: how “Third Camp” socialists developed their assessments

In 1940 the US Trotskyist movement split, primarily over its attitude to the 1939-40 Russian invasion of Finland. The split would prove far-reaching.

The minority, led by Max Shachtman, which denounced Russia’s war in Finland as reactionary, soon moved to reject the idea that Stalinist Russia was any sort of workers’ state, and develop policy for a working-class “Third Camp” to confront both capitalism and Stalinism.

The majority stuck to the formula that the Stalinist USSR was a “degenerated workers’ state”, and over the next decade was dragged by its adherence to that formula into claiming that Stalinism had created new “workers’ states” (though “deformed” ones) across vast areas of the world.

The “Third Camp” tradition faded in the 1960s, but its ideas are more and more relevant in a world where the old majority views would commit revolutionary socialists to the idea that North Korea and Cuba are the world’s last bulwarks of (“deformed”) workers’ rule.

Mike Wood has spent some years researching the evolution of the Workers Party, the group formed by Shachtman and his comrades after the 1940 split. This is the first of a series of articles reporting the results of his research.


Between 1941 and 1946 the internal life of the Workers Party was dominated by a debate between the majority and a minority led by C L R James (who also used the pen-name JR Johnson).

Trotsky’s estimate had been that capitalism was in a condition of hopeless collapse, and that the Second World War would end with revolutions, as the First World War had done, or fascist-type counter-revolutions. The Transitional Program of the Fourth International, The Death Agony of Capitalism (1938), had been written with that in mind.

In the first few years of its existence the Workers Party accepted that perspective. By early 1943 the tide of war was shifting and the possible shape of its end was emerging. The USSR had gone on the offensive in the Battle of Stalingrad; the USA had scored victories in the Pacific since the battle of Midway in June 1942; the British army was pushing back German troops in North Africa; and in Yugoslavia the Titoist Partisans had begun to reconquer some areas from the Nazis (Republic of Bihac, November 1942).

The Workers Party began to reassess. Over time the majority decided that socialist revolution was not an immediate possibility. National and democratic revolution, against the old colonial powers, German fascism, or the Soviet Union, was first on the order of the day. Out of that might emerge socialist revolution, but only when the working-class movement, shattered by fascism and Stalinism, had had time to regroup and rearm.

In early 1943 the WP National Committee passed a motion that argued:

“Between the present day and the day the masses rise up against the beneficiaries of the war, a considerable period of time will in all probability elapse... This being so, the most important fact to record in the world today is the yearnings of the vast majority of the peoples of this globe that may be summed up in the phrase: national independence, national freedom from foreign rule and oppression”. [emphasis in original]

This resolution had in mind national struggles in Europe and anti-colonial struggles elsewhere.

Shachtman later wrote: “this resolution, more than any other political document of our movement in years, is a collective product of the leadership.” Amendments had been submitted by: “Ernie [Erber], Joe [Carter], Al [Glotzer], Manny [Garrett], Dave [Ernest McKinney] and a number of others, including Allen [Martin Abern]”.

The 1940 majority of the Trotskyists, those who had argued along with Trotsky that Russia could not quite be opposed in Finland, were organised in the SWP (Socialist Workers Party). The SWP responded that talk of national liberation was merely sidelining the proletariat into fighting for bourgeois goals. Its stance was sustained by self-delusion about the Russian army being underneath it all “Trotsky’s Red Army”, and about the allegedly proletarian “class meaning of the Soviet victories”. (The SWP would sober up a bit from that self-delusion in 1946-7, before slipping back into gross self-delusions about Stalinism after 1948).

Inside the WP, in April 1943 C L R James argued that the epoch was one of revolution and that the first slogan should be a Socialist United States of Europe. Even though the working class had been atomised, the situation was revolutionary: “the more reactionary the steps imperialism takes, the greater the degradation it imposes upon Europe, the more concrete will become the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe.” Other members of the Johnson faction described the NC position as “revisionist”.

James agreed with the WP majority that the USSR was an exploitative class society, not a workers’ state; but he called it “state capitalist”, and in his version that meant it was the furthest-developed version of a capitalism crashing into inevitable collapse worldwide.

Al Glotzer, a collaborator of Shachtman since the 1920s, replied that James’ proposals were “unreal”. James was correct, Glotzer argued, in saying that the objective conditions were ripe for socialism; but James had ignored the subjective factor, i.e. the state of the working class movements of Europe. The task of revolutionary socialists was to rebuild the working-class movement defeated and dismantled by fascism and Stalinism. That required engaging in the movements for national liberation and democracy.

At the core, James had a spontaneous conception of revolution — one of revolution as an automatic product of capitalist collapse, rather than a conscious effort by an organised and politically-aware working class.

James in turn said that the NC’s argument that socialism could only be achieved if a revolutionary party was first built was a “fantastic proposition”. Far from putting back the revolution Hitler had advanced it by heightening the internal contradictions of capitalism. “Today, not a year after the NC resolution [of 1943], all occupied Europe is poised for revolution.” Glotzer’s reply was suitably titled “Politics in the Stratosphere”.

Glotzer accused James of “wishful thinking”; of analysing the situation only from the “abstract historical plane” ; of an ultra-left view whereby the more degradation capitalism forces on the working class the more revolutionary the situation becomes.

In the WP’s magazine in September 1945 Shachtman, as editor, acknowledged that the WP had been wrong before the Second World War to argue the war could only end with socialist revolution or catastrophic counter-revolution. They had underestimated the strength of both the US and the USSR as imperialist powers.

Trotsky had claimed that the Second World War would destroy the Stalinist state either by capitalist overthrow or a new working-class revolution. However, the war had left the USSR stronger than ever, without the reintroduction of private property:

“Stalinist Russia remains in existence — certainly not weaker in world politics than before the war! No fundamental or even serious social change has occurred there, not change in the economic foundations or social structure — at least none that anyone has yet been able to point to and name and weigh. Property remains nationalised; the monopoly of foreign trade is more or less intact.”

The Soviet Union was pushing through nationalisations of property in the states which it now controlled in Eastern Europe. Stalinism was dynamically spreading as a social system rather than collapsing under the pressures of capitalism.

This assessment marked a large shift from what Shachtman had argued at the end of 1940 and in 1941, when he had first shifted from the view which he, along with Trotsky, had argued for many years: that the USSR, despite the Stalinist counter-revolution, and despite the need for a new working-class revolution there, was a “degenerated workers’ state”.

When he first proposed that the USSR was neither capitalist nor socialist, but a new type of exploitative society in which a collectivised economy was controlled by a bureaucratic dictatorship (“bureaucratic collectivism”), Shachtman still accepted a great deal of Trotsky’s analysis of the USSR. He maintained that the USSR was progressive compared to capitalism and under certain circumstances (though not those of World War Two) socialists should side with it in war with a capitalist state.

Joe Carter, another WP member, also described the USSR as “bureaucratic collectivist”, but saw it as a step backwards from capitalism. Shachtman agreed with Trotsky that the Soviet state was an isolated historical aberration, on the verge of collapsing into either a workers’ state or a capitalist state. Carter believed the new form of class society had more stability.

At the 1941 WP Convention Shachtman’s variant became the official position of the Workers Party on the nature of the USSR.

By the late 1940s Shachtman’s views had shifted. He was arguing that bureaucratic collectivism could survive and expand as a relatively stable class society. By 1947 he followed Carter in describing bureaucratic collectivism as a new “barbarism”, akin to fascism.

The shift was clear, but not debated much, directly, over the intervening period. Until their split from the WP in 1947 the James/ Johnson faction dominated discussion in the WP. For most party members outside of the Johnson faction the differences between Shachtman and Carter, seemingly matters of high theory, took a back seat to the dispute with James.

Another factor was that the 1941 debate between Shachtman and Carter had been bitter, and no-one wanted to renew the conflict without pressing need. At the 1946 WP Convention the successful international resolution, supported by Shachtman, contained the following statement:

“The resolution on the Russian question adopted by our party in 1941 deliberately ‘left the door open’ with regard to the possibility of again raising the slogan of defence of Russia... The party took the view that in examining a new social phenomenon that was still in the early process of formation, namely, bureaucratic collectivism... it did not have the right as a scientific Marxian organisation to set forth its position categorically on all aspects of the question of Stalinism and for all time... What is before us concretely is the development of Stalinist Russia as a fully fledged reactionary empire... In face of this reality, the Workers Party declares flatly that all talk of defence of Russian imperialism... is reactionary talk”.

Actually, in 1941 Shachtman had argued that nationalised property was inherently more progressive than private property and that if war were centrally defined by a threat to the nationalised property of the Soviet Union, then socialists should call for the defence of the Soviet Union in that war. It is not clear whether in 1946 Shachtman and his followers still accepted the 1941 analysis. Those who had agreed with Carter in 1941 (Carter himself was on his way out of politics by then) submitted a statement to the 1946 Convention which read:

“The 1941 resolution founded its ‘open door’ conclusion on a particular analysis of the Russian state which still remains in the resolution — an analysis which includes the concept that Russian bureaucratic collectivism, relatively speaking, is, in the words of the resolution, ‘a historically more progressive plane’ as compared with the capitalist world...

“It also remarks in passing that the 1941 thesis ‘has otherwise been confirmed so emphatically.’ Naturally we do not consider this parenthetical remark an endorsement by the convention of the disputed line.”

This statement accused Shachtman of adopting Carter’s conclusions without honestly squaring the different analyses involved. Shachtman’s response was a statement of his own that unfortunately clarified little:

“I no more share the point of view put forward by Carter in his resolution of 1941 than I did at that time... I do not consider that what is contained in the International Resolution, as far as I am concerned, is a going over to the position of the Carter resolution,”.

Perhaps Shachtman’s reluctance to openly admit his shift was because he’d previously argued that Carter’s position was essentially pro-capitalist and would lead to the degeneration of the WP as a revolutionary party. Associating himself with a position he had denounced in such terms was possibly too much for Shachtman to accomplish openly. The exact reasons for this rather peculiar approach to the debate on such a key question can only be speculated on.

In 1941 Shachtman largely agreed with Trotsky that the USSR was a brief and accidental aberration, not a stable social system. He also agreed with Trotsky that as a result of this it would not survive the Second World War. As he analysed events, stage by stage, his views had clearly shifted by 1945.

He attacked the orthodox Trotskyists who still clung to Trotsky’s formula of the degenerated workers’ state after the end of the Second World War. Trotsky had said the USSR would not survive the war. Shachtman took apart with relish SWP leader James P Cannon’s statement that: “we disagree with some people who carelessly think that the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage.” Shachtman’s response was:

“What stage? The stage of armed, military struggle, the stage which twice-harebrained, careless thinkers have up to now called the stage of ‘war’, but which must henceforward be called, among the careful thinkers of the SWP, by the simple name of ‘one stage’. Into what stage has it passed? Into the stage of the suspension of armed, military struggle, the stage which the thrice-ridiculous careless thinkers have up to now call the stage of ‘peace’.”

In 1946 Hal Draper suggested incorporating more explicitly into the WP’s documents ideas contained in “The death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International” — the founding document of the Fourth International, from 1938. Its ideas were still relevant and James should not be seen as their sole defender. Manny Garrett replied for the PC that the 1938 theses had been simply proven incorrect, and their omission from the majority’s document was deliberate.

It is frustrating for a historian studying the development of the Workers Party that so many of the crucial debates in which its ideas on Stalinism and its place in history were in fact developed mention those ideas only tangentially. There was little debate explicitly about the theory of bureaucratic collectivism in the 1940s WP.

Thus in May 1946 Stanley Plastrik wrote:

“I must say that this exclusive, or near exclusive, concern with Johnson is regrettable and a great disappointment... Many comrades, like myself, have recently come back from a long absence in the army. Many problems puzzled us about the party and its politics. Have they been answered? At best they have been briefly touched upon or raised. Instead the whole atmosphere has been dominated, the whole discussion cornered, by Johnson.”

Top of Plastrik’s list of questions that had not been discussed was the nature of Stalinist Russia. Over 500 pages of Internal Bulletins were issued by the WP in the run up to the crucial 1946 Convention, with the discussion almost entirely focussed on the dispute between James and the majority.

By accepting the idea that there would be a “democratic interlude” after World War Two, the WP shifted from Trotsky’s view of September 1939, plausible enough at the time, that: “The disintegration of capitalism has reached extreme limits, likewise the disintegration of the old ruling class. The further existence of this system is impossible”.

It registered that the USSR had survived the war intact and indeed strengthened, and so whatever system existed there was not as much of a brief aberration as previously thought.

Stalinism was an exploitative class society of some viability and durability, at least a short-term alternative to capitalism though not a progressive one, and not a freakish society about to collapse back into capitalism in the short term.

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Comments

CLR James is accused here of

CLR James is accused here of having a conception of revolution that ignores 'conscious effort by an organised and politically-aware working class'. Has the author read The Black Jacobins? Surely this claim can't stand scrutiny if so?