Sean Matgamna starts a series on misunderstandings, misrepresentations and lies about the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, AWL.
AWL is “Shachtmanite”
Yes and no. AWL started as a “Cannonite” organisation, that is, an organisation with politics in the broad spectrum of the post-Trotsky “orthodox” Trotskyists, the opposites to the “Shachtmanite”, “heterodox” strand of Trotskyism after 1940. Specifically AWL identified with the Cannonites in the 1953 split in the Fourth International between “Pabloites” and Cannonites.
There is a distinct AWL — or, to take the name of the first of the series of organisations preceding AWL, Workers’ Fight — tradition. We were not “converted” to “Shachtmanism”: we evolved towards convergence with the main politics of the Shachtman organisation of the 1940s, the Workers’ Party, while retaining some disagreements with their critique of the “orthodox Trotskyist” positions (for example, on their refusal to support China against Japan during World War 2, and on their rejection of the so-named “Proletarian Military Policy”).
James P Cannon: an activist in the pre-World War 1 IWW and Socialist Party, he was one of the early leaders of the US Communist Party and the founder of the US Trotskyist movement, in 1928. He hated, and taught many activists to hate, Stalinism, and after 1953 tried to pull “orthodox” Trotskyism to a more independent stance. But between 1940 and 1950 he helped create iron shackles of prejudice tying “orthodox” Trotskyism to axiomatic “defence” of the USSR.
Max Shachtman: one of Cannon’s first comrades in the foundation of US Trotskyism, he became a leading writer of the Trotskyist movement — foremost after Trotsky in Trotsky’s lifetime, unequalled after 1940 as he helped formulate the “heterodox” strand of later Trotskyism. His collapse, in old age, into US Democratic Party machine politics, cannot undo the contribution from his times of vigour.
What then is “Shachtmanism”?
Broadly, one of the two basic strands emanating from the Trotskyism of Trotsky’s time. But there were a number of distinct “Shachtmanisms” between the 1940 split in the US Trotskyist movement and the Fourth International, and Shachtman’s death in 1972.
First, the Shachtmanism of between 1940 and 1947-8. In this period the “Shachtmanites” — not only Max Shachtman himself — developed a distinct strand of Trotskyism characterised by several points.
i. Rejection of the thesis, central to the “orthodox” Trotskyists’ world-view, that the USSR was a “degenerated workers’ state”. Rejection of “defencism” towards the USSR, that is of being unconditionally (if sometimes critically) on the side of Russia in foreign policy, including military “foreign policy”. Identification of a Russian imperialism, and unqualified opposition to it and to the “orthodox” Trotskyists’ identification of the conquests of the Russian army with “victories” for the October 1917 revolution. This stance was summed in the notion of a “Third Camp” between the US and Russian imperialist blocs — a camp of independent working-class politics. The term “Third Camp” came from Trotsky, referring to the working class in relation to late-1930s world politics.
ii. Plainly branding such events as Mao’s victory in China (finalised in 1949, but clear from autumn 1948) as “reactionary”, in contrast to the “orthodox” Trotskyists who saw them as historically progressive and as part of the working-class revolution, spreading across the world in a “deformed” way. Some strands of the “orthodox” — the Pablo/Mandel Fourth International — hailed Mao as a political legatee of Trotsky and not Stalin. The “Shachtmanites” maintained Trotsky’s view from August 1940 that the leaders of the Stalinist parties were “not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule... Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR”.
iii. Assertion that — despite the Shachtmanites’ disagreement with Trotsky in 1939-40 — they and not the “orthodox” Trotskyists continued and developed what had been “Trotskyism” at Trotsky’s death.
iv. Assertion that a revolutionary party at the head of the working class was an irreplaceable precondition for working-class revolution — specifically, in the mid 40s, in Europe — in contrast to the “orthodox” Trotskyists who fudged the issue but in practice acted as if they believed that the European workers’ revolution could occur, somehow, despite the absence of sizeable revolutionary Marxist parties and the presence and often dominance of Stalinist and social-democratic organisations.
There was in that period a distinctly millenarian cast to the politics of the “Cannonite” orthodox Trotskyists, as this writer has demonstrated in detail elsewhere, in the book The Fate of the Russian Revolution. The single most startling example: the delirious assertion when the Russian Army was advancing during World War Two that it was somehow “Trotsky’s Red Army”, though it was in every respect Stalin’s “Red” Army.
The “heterodox” Trotskyists counterposed to this millenarianism an attempt at rational working-class socialist politics where the Marxist conception of the relationship between ends (socialism, workers’ power) and means (working-class organisation, working-class revolution) was maintained.
v. The “Shachtmanites” developed the view that the USSR was a distinct form of class society, “bureaucratic collectivism”. Most AWL people would accept that; there are also people in AWL who consider “state capitalism” a better conceptualisation of the Stalinist USSR, though they are not in agreement with the Workers’ Party’s “state capitalists”, CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya.
Shachtman — as distinct from another minority in the Workers’ Party, Joseph Carter and Hal Draper — maintained until about 1947 that Russia’s bureaucratic collectivism was a singular, episodic, “accidental”, unique freak of history. In that view he parallelled Trotsky’s later versions of the “degenerated workers’ state” thesis, which rested heavily (see In Defence of Marxism) on the notion that Stalinist Russia could not survive for more than “a few years or even a few months” — that it would very quickly be superseded either by a new working-class revolution or a bourgeois counter-revolution.
(In the long term here, history has pronounced for Trotsky and for the pre-1947 Shachtman, who held to Trotsky’s views on the unviability of Stalinism despite their differences on theoretical designation. Trotsky was utterly wrong on his timescale — “a few years or even a few months”, but in a much longer time-frame, he is proved by the collapse of Stalinism to be right about its inability to compete with advanced capitalism. See “Afghanistan and the shape of the 20th century”, www.workersliberty.org/wl2-2.)
What was the second “Shachtmanism”?
From about 1947 there was general agreement among the “bureaucratic collectivists” in the Workers’ Party that Russia and its empire loomed before humankind as a great threat — showing humanity a barbarous future unless the working-class revolution was made soon.
The Workers’ Party (renamed ISL in early 1949) continued to see capitalism as mortally ill — even in the years of the great post-1950 expansion of capitalism in the two-thirds of the world (including its most advanced areas) outside the Stalinist realm.
It retreated from some of the ideas central to the 1940s Workers’ Party and to Trotsky’s Trotskyism, and began to sink into a sort of “economism”, in which the working-class movement in the USA came more and more, over time, to be accepted as it was.
See for example the 1953 speech by Max Shachtman on the 25th anniversary of US Trotskyism, in which he assessed what remained viable from the Trotskyism of a different age and a different world, the pre-World-War-2 world. It is a magnificent statement of the true centrality of the working class in the Marxist conception of socialism, but simultaneously a notable shift from the Leninist idea of the prior centrality of the Marxist struggle to transform the ideas and consciousness of the working class. It was not an abandonment of that Leninist idea, but nonetheless a significant defocusing.
Layers of the ISL came to be absorbed into the trade unions and the trade union bureaucracy, especially the UAW.
And the Third “Shachtmanism”?
That came after the dissolution of the ISL into the Socialist Party in late 1958. Shachtman separated from others who maintained the Marxist “Third Camp” position — Hal Draper, Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, etc. — and came to accept US liberal capitalism and imperialism as the only viable alternative to Stalinism. Stalinism, we should remember, was still expanding into new areas until some years after Max Shachtman’s death.
Shachtman turned to work in the US Democratic Party. At first he had the perspective of splitting off from that party such elements as the “Dixiecrats” — Southern racists whose connection with the Democratic Party went back to the Civil War of the 1860s — and thereby creating an American “Labor Party” controlled by the unions.
That was, or might have been, a concretisation of the long-term commitment of the US Trotskyists, from the late 1930s, to work for the development of an American party structured and linked to the unions like the British Labour Party, but — so they would strive to ensure — with better, socialist and Marxist, politics.
From that starting point, Shachtman got drawn into dirty Democratic Party machine politics. The Workers’ Party and ISL had propagandised for a “democratic foreign policy” for the USA — for the USA to support and aid democratic and progressive forces across the world, explaining that this was a way to cut across the typical Stalinist exploitation of democratic and social issues on the road to establishing the totalitarian dictatorship of a new exploitative ruling class. Now Shachtman came to identify aspects of the actual foreign policy of the US state as fulfilling those objectives.
In his ensuing “critical support” for US foreign policy, Shachtman and his co-thinkers only parallelled the long-held position of the “orthodox” Trotskyists who gave “critical support” (often not spending much effort on the “critical” side) to Russian and Chinese foreign policy.
Shachtman is notorious on the kitsch left for having supported the US-backed anti-Castroite invasion of Cuba in the spring of 1961 and for backing the US in Vietnam. His reasoning was that the victory of Stalinist totalitarianism — or, in Cuba, its consolidation — would destroy all prospects for the existence of real working-class movements in such places, as well as all civil and human rights. A capitalist regime — even an authoritarian, as distinct from totalitarian, capitalist regime — kept open the possibilities of a working-class movement, working-class action, and the development of working-class socialist politics.
Plainly a lot of this argument was true, and far better than the approach of the “orthodox” Trotskyists — and, over Vietnam, the Cliffite “state-capitalists” — of seeing only “colonial revolution” or “anti-imperialism” in Stalinist-led movements, ignoring Stalinism and the consequences for the working class of its consolidation of state power.
But the actions and attitudes his new stance led him to were politically suicidal for “Third Camp” socialism, or for any form of working-class socialism. He tied himself to the chariot-wheels of US imperialism, and turned his politics into mere camouflage and decoration and prettification of US liberal imperialism.
Over Vietnam, he maintained his pro-US attitude beyond the point at which US intervention had narrowed down to a savage, mechanical attempt to beat down the Stalinist-led people of Vietnam and Cambodia and Laos, even if that meant “bombing them into the Stone Age” (as it did). The later Shachtman has been identified as one of the inspirers of what came to be called the neo-conservatives — and that there are at least parallels is indisputable.
In his own way Shachtman opted for a variant of the fantasy politics of the “orthodox” Trotskyists in the 1940s (and until the collapse of Stalinism), when they wove delusory nonsense about working-class socialist revolution around the terrible realities of Stalinist imperialism, and, in countries like China, Vietnam, and Cuba, around Stalinist social rule.
So which is your “Shachtmanism”?
Of these three “Shachtmanisms”, AWL shares most of the first (1940-8), a large part of the second (1948 to 1958 or 1960), and for practical purposes none of the final one.
Even if we can see the sense Shachtman saw in what he initially set out to do in the Democratic Party, and even if in his concern for the consequences of Stalinist victory in Vietnam, Shachtman was right against the forerunners at the time of AWL, with the politics of this last phase of Shachtman’s life AWL has nothing in common. That Shachtman we repudiate.
Then why bother with Shachtman?
For almost twenty years after Trotsky’s death, Shachtman was not a renegade but the opposite: the chief continuator of the politics of Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. He was the main writer of the “heterodox” Trotskyists in their best period. His work has permanent value.
Shachtman’s “renegade” reputation was created after Trotsky’s savage polemics in their dispute about “defending” the USSR in the USSR-Finnish war of winter 1939-40 — among people, the “orthodox” Trotskyists, who were moving quickly and directly towards the same relationship to the Stalinists that Shachtman in his degenerate old age had to US imperialism.
Didn’t Trotsky tear Shachtman to pieces?
Again, the answer is yes and no. Yes, Trotsky wrote devastating polemics and condemned Shachtman, so to speak, thesis and practice. No, that is not the end of it.
Trotsky’s polemics against Shachtman and his co-thinkers from 1939-40 are enshrined in a selection, “In Defence of Marxism”, which was made in late 1942 by those who had backed Trotsky, but in fact often with their own variants of the idea that Russia was a “degenerated workers’ state”.
The people making the selection had by then — in fact after some hesitation (see “The Fate of the Russian Revolution”) — decided to embark on full-hearted and often ludicrous support for “Trotsky’s Red Army” after the tide of war had turned for Russia at Stalingrad, and when the USSR was the ally of the USA and Britain. The selection was one-sided. It omitted all Trotsky’s articles for the general public on the USSR’s invasions of Poland and Finland, in which he condemned those invasions fiercely. It gives, and was chosen to give, an entirely false picture of Trotsky’s final views on Russia and Stalinism.
For example, Cannon’s position was initially that the Russian invasion of Poland and Finland was nobody’s business to judge except those who made the decision to invade, thinking it was useful for the “defence of the USSR”. “Defencism” for Cannon then meant accepting, or suspending comment on, the bureaucracy’s judgement on such matters.
The same foolishness would lead Cannon, from his jail cell in mid 1944, to denounce those who condemned Stalin and his army for stopping their advance on Nazi-occupied Warsaw for six weeks and thus leaving to be massacred by the Nazis the heroic Polish insurgents who had risen on the assumption that Stalin’s army was only days from entering Warsaw. The time to move on Warsaw was for Russia to decide, Cannon insisted, and for “defencists” to accept and “defend”.
Other central supporters in the SWP-USA of Trotsky against Shachtman at the time, such as Albert Goldman, held that wherever the “Red” Army went, there was a sort of “workers’ revolution” that should be supported.
Such ideas came to dominate the camp of the “orthodox” Trotskyists after Trotsky’s death, in August 1940. The story according to which the “orthodox” were the true revolutionaries, and the “heterodox” were “renegades”, needs to be tested against the political events of the 1940s, and not just by projection from selected polemics of Trotsky before those events.
And Trotsky refuted “Bureaucratic Collectivism”...
In 1939 Shachtman wrote that Trotsky was right “99%” of the time, but not on Finland and “defencism”. Trotsky responded: “The proportion of my mistakes is in reality considerably greater”. That was surely true; and it was Trotsky telling his “supporters” that they should not follow him blindly, that they should learn to think for themselves.
Trotsky did denounce and, so to speak, damn Shachtman — who was then his co-thinker on the thesis that Russia remained a “degenerated workers’ state” — because Shachtman broke ranks on Finland and unconditional “defencism”.
That denunciation is often taken as a denunciation of the idea later adopted by Shachtman, that the USSR was not a “degenerated workers’ state” but a new exploitative class society, “bureaucratic collectivism”. But in September 1939 Trotsky wrote in the article “The USSR in War” (it is in the collection “In Defence of Marxism”) that if the Stalinist form of society survived and spread then Russia would have to be “reconceptualised”. Russia, as it was, without any bourgeois counter-revolution or further “degeneration” of the autocracy, would have to be seen as a new form of class society.
Thus he conceded in principle almost everything to those who said it was already a form of exploitative class society (either entirely new and previously unknown — “bureaucratic collectivism” — or a new version of capitalism — “state capitalism”).
“Some comrades”, Trotsky wrote in his next article, “Again and Once More on the Nature of the USSR”, “evidently were surprised that I spoke in my [first] article of the system of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ as a theoretical possibility. They discovered in this even a complete revision of Marxism. This is an apparent misunderstanding...” In other words, he insisted that a “bureaucratic collectivist” analysis of Stalinism was not necessarily “revisionist” in any sense other than the good one of making necessary revisions of outmoded analysis.
That did not stop his supporters in 1939 — who were entirely silent on the political questions then, leaving it to Trotsky to deal with those while Cannon dealt with the “organisational questions” — from later insisting that the idea that Russia was a “degenerated workers’ state” was part of the basic “programme” of Trotskyism, and any departure from it was “revisionist” and renegacy.
So Trotsky was just wrong?
Trotsky, in his polemics, compared the “degenerated workers’ state” position which he defended, explicitly only pro tem, to the position of Lenin and the Bolsheviks on the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” perspective for the Russian Revolution which they had elaborated in 1905 and held to until their “April conference” in 1917, where Lenin won the Bolsheviks — against the resistance of his closest co-workers, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, and others — to the perspective of working-class power and socialist revolution which had hitherto been the “permanent revolution” of Trotsky.
Lenin’s “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” had had an entirely adequate appreciation of the bourgeoisie vis-a-vis an anti-Tsarist bourgeois-democratic revolution. It had understood that the bourgeoisie was tied to the Tsarist autocracy, and a bourgeois-democratic revolution would have to be made by the proletariat and the peasants. It had not understood, as Trotsky had understood, that in this revolution the proletariat could not be its co-equal maker together with the revolutionary peasants, but would take the leading role. Once in power, it could and would not confine itself to bourgeois-democratic transformations, but would act on its own working-class interests. It would form a workers’ government.
In 1939 Trotsky argued that his version of “degenerated workers’ state” fully grasped the realities of Russia. It surely did. Trotsky pointed out that “the Soviet oligarchy possesses all the vices of the old ruling classes” and enjoyed “omnipotence”. All the theorists of the bureaucracy as a ruling class based themselves on Trotsky’s concrete analysis. He also argued that the working-class programme which the Trotskyist Fourth International advocated was entirely adequate to the task of overthrowing the bureaucracy. irrespective of whether it was a fully-formed ruling class of a distinct class society or still had to be seen as “an excrescence” attached to the degenerated conquests of the October Revolution. That too was true.
“Let us concede for the moment that the bureaucracy is a new ‘class” and that the present regime in the USSR is a special system of class exploitation. What new political conclusions follow from these definitions?... Nothing different...”
Trotsky insisted on all this in his polemics with Shachtman and his co-thinkers, thus differentiating himself decidedly from those of his supporters who would consider defining Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state” to be a “programmatic” principle.
How were the ambiguities filled out after 1940?
Trotsky’s analogy with Lenin, the Bolshevik Party, their “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, and that theory’s relationship with Trotsky’s “permanent revolution” (which was no more, but also no less, than a sharper and clearer version of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” taken to its logical and historically concrete conclusions) was tragically inexact.
What if Lenin had died in exile in 1917, before he had had a chance to bury the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” and arm the Bolshevik Party for an immediate struggle for workers’ power? The Bolshevik Party would have gone through 1917 as only a critical supporter of the bourgeois-democratic forces that held power after Tsarism was overthrown.
Trotsky died in August 1940, leaving his followers — whose political confusion on Stalinism in 1939-40 he had chosen to ignore, but nonetheless criticised severely by the deed of substituting himself for the leaders of the SWP-USA in fighting the opposition in the SWP on the political questions — with the equivalent of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, namely the “degenerated workers’ state”.
He had indicated how and when revision of that position in the direction of defining the USSR as a distinct form of exploitative class society would be necessary. His arguments at the end — that the USSR could not survive the war, that it would be overthrow by either the working class or the bourgeoisie, and that if it did survive it would have to be reconceptualised — was ignored. His premiss that, with the regime likely to fall in “a few years or even a few months”, it was too soon to decide that the autocracy was a form of new ruling class, was pushed aside.
His self-proclaimed “disciples” took Stalinist Russia’s survival in the war as evidence that it was, for sure, a workers’ state, “in transition to socialism”. They talked in their press about the workers in the USSR fighting the war because they had “something to defend”. They idiotically pretended that Stalin’s plundering, raping, totalitarian army was somehow, despite the Stalinist regime, “Trotsky’s Red Army”.
They went through most of the war with, above the editorial slot in the chief “orthodox” Trotskyist publication in the world, The Militant (USA), a quotation from Trotsky proclaiming “the USSR” to be “the main fortress of the world proletariat” — a quotation from 1931. Mutatis mutandis, they did what Lenin’s “chief disciples”, Zinoviev, Kamenev, Stalin, etc. would have done with Lenin’s “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” had Lenin died in exile at the beginning of 1917.
When Trotsky pointed to the empirical evidence of the supposed survival of “conquests of October” in the nationalised property in the USSR and in the plan (the bureaucrats’ plan which Trotsky proposed to replace with a working-class plan), the view of those institutions as “working-class” in origin but now held by the bureaucracy had some factual and historical truth.
When he argued that the bureaucracy was a historical “excrescence”, attaching itself to the “degenerated” workers’ revolution; that it had no organic and necessary role in the system of social production in the USSR; and that, on the contrary, the bureaucracy disarrayed the economic system — there was truth to that.
(Even though questions were begged about the relationship between the working class and the bureaucracy within production in the USSR, about the specifically bureaucratic form of the Stalinist-run economy, and about the autonomous role of the Stalinist bureaucracy in organising collectivisation and forced industrialisation after 1929).
When the Stalinist system replicated itself in the East European satellite states of Russia (Rumania, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary...) and Stalinist bureaucracies made Stalinist revolutions (Yugoslavia, Albania, China...) — thereby creating as much as “remained of the October Revolution”, but modelled not on the October Revolution but on fully-formed (fully “degenerated”) Stalinism — it could not be argued that the “working-class” character of nationalised property and plan was still true even of the USSR. The USSR had now to be seen in the adjusted perspective imposed by the creation of new Stalinist systems.
It came to be impossible on the facts — on the “empirical” facts of the economy, in which Trotsky had anchored so much of his reasoning — to hold to Trotsky’s theory of the degenerated workers’ state.
A new theory, named that of “deformed and degenerated workers’ states”, was elaborated, painfully, reluctantly, slowly, jerkily, and with wild leaps from one position to another. (For instance, the Second World Congress, early in 1948, defined the East European satellite states as police-state capitalist regimes — as regimes akin to Nazi capitalism, only with more state control over all society. Within a few months after the congress, when Stalin and Tito’s Yugoslavia fell out, the Fourth International was addressing the Bonapartist police-state capitalist dictator Josip Tito, as “comrade”.
Within a couple of years they had redefined all the satellite states as “workers’ states”, although the only change after early 1948 was an intensification of policestate terrorism against the peoples and the eruption of a suppurating official anti-semitism, disguised as “anti-Zionism”. (The ideological “product” is still with us, now a central idea in the “Trotskisant” left).
Shachtman and the Workers Party continued the letter and the trend of Trotsky's thought on Russian Stalinism. The "orthodox" Trotskyists, led at first by Cannon, stood Trotsky on his head.
That is a matter of fact, whether or not one approves of what Shachtman and his comrades made of Trotsky’s developing ideas, or thinks that the “orthodox” Trotskyists were right in radically revising Trotsky’s ideas to take account of the survival of Stalinism — i.e. of history’s rebuttal of the theory of the “degenerated workers’ state” elaborated by Trotsky, in which the Russian Stalinist system was seen as an unstable, historically accidental, historically unviable concatenation of incompatible elements.
The consistent extrapolator from the seeming defeat by history of Trotsky’s viewpoint was Isaac Deutscher, who after 1940 went from being a Trotskyist to being a Stalinist, albeit one who saw history, and the development of the USSR economy, “for now” under Stalin, as moving towards the democratisation and ultimate liquidation of Stalinism.
Isaac Deutscher became in effect a “Brandlerite”, an heir of the cluster of ex-Comintern organisations of the 1930s (named after the German communist Heinrich Brandler) who disagreed with Comintern policy in their own countries but on the USSR were Stalinists with moderate and loyal criticism. In fact Deutscher was to the right of the actual Heinrich Brandler, in that Deutscher supported the Russian suppression of the East German workers in 1953 and of the Hungarians in 1956, while Brandler, who lived to 1967, did not.
The “orthodox” Trotskyists were not consistent extrapolators, but people who for 50 years were pulled in different directions by their adherence to Trotsky’s criticism of Stalinism — and, for Russia, to Trotsky’s programme of a new workers’ revolution (“political revolution”, even if the post-Trotsky “orthodox” tended to give it a minimalist interpretation) — and a Deutscherite/Brandlerite attitude to “revolutionary” Stalinist states like Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, Cuba.
The “orthodox” Trotskyists remained revolutionaries, and had great political virtues as against Stalinism and reformism. Even when they proposed mere “reform” and not political revolution in Stalinist states (the Mandel-Pablo segment of “orthodox” Trotskyism held that position on China until 1968-9), the “reform” would have amounted to radical revolutionary transformation.
But the consistent continuators of Trotsky’s trend of thought were the Workers’ Party.