The “Report on the Russian question” which follows was a speech delivered by Max Shachtman to the New York membership meeting of the US Trotskyist movement, the Socialist Workers’ Party, on 15 October 1939.
Part 1: the dispute in the party
In order to have a clear understanding of the present dispute, it is necessary to start with an account of how it originated and developed. It might have been possible to dispense with this aspect of the question if Comrade Cannon had not presented a completely distorted version of it.
Our differences did not develop out of thin air nor as a result of an arbitrary whim on the part of any comrade. It can, therefore, be understood only by a knowledge of the actual circumstances in which it arose.
The question now in dispute originated in reality at our last convention. As will be seen later, it is important to bear this date in mind.
As you know, prior to the convention and during its sessions we had no specific Russian discussion or special resolution. Formally the question was dealt with only to the extent that it was referred to in the program of transitional demands which the convention formally adopted. Apparently nobody deemed it necessary to raise the Russian question in the manner in which it had been discussed in the past.
However, it was raised in a new form, at least in one of its aspects, during the discussion on the international report which I delivered. Comrade Johnson in his speech dwelt on the question of our attitude towards Stalin’s policy and towards the Red Army in the event of an encroachment upon or an invasion of Poland, the Baltic countries, and other lands adjacent to the Soviet Union. This question was assuming an urgent character because of the negotiations between Stalin and England and France. Stalin was demanding that he be given the right to “guarantee” the Baltic countries and Poland from German attack. I emphasize the fact that this was at the time of the Soviet alliance with France and what appeared to be an impending al1iance with Anglo-French imperialism, that is to say, with the “democracies.”
Comrade Garter was the only delegate who took up the discussion on this point, and I referred to it in my summary, As I recall it, I said that it would be necessary to consider the question seriously, especially as it became increasingly pertinent, because the masses in Russia’s border states undoubtedly looked with the greatest suspicion, fear and hostility upon Stalin’s proposal to “guarantee them from aggression”. Nobody else took the floor on this point. I don’t know whether Cannon was disinterested in the question or did not consider it important at the time, but he did not say a word about it, either privately or on the convention floor.
Nothing came of this matter in any concrete form at the convention or immediately afterward because the issue was still somewhat vague. It was still in the realm of secret and obscure diplomatic discussion in the European capitals and chancelleries. In any case, it had not taken on such concrete form as to require from us an answer or perhaps even to make it possible for us to give that answer. But at least one important thing to bear in mind is that the very fact that it was raised at that time is sufficient by itself to dispose of the slanderous falsehood new disseminated by Cannon, and repeated in the internal bulletin by Goldman, that our resolution and standpoint implied a rejection of Stalin’s policy only because he is linked with fascist imperialism , and an acceptance of the policy if he had been linked with the democratic bandits. The question, I repeat, was first raised in the period of Stalin’s alliance with French imperialism, and if we did not present a concrete resolution it then it was only because it had not yet assumed concrete form.
It was only after the Stalin-Hitler pact was signed and the invasion of Poland had passed from the realm of possibility and speculation into the realm of living reality that the question assumed the most urgent importance and actuality. It is not correct that everybody took the events in his stride. The fact is all the leading comrades were greatly disturbed. At the August 22 meeting of the Political Committee, I moved, “That the next meeting of the P.C. begin with a discussion of our estimate of the Stalin-Hitler pact as related to our evaluation of the Soviet State and the perspectives of the future.” Nobody argued that there is nothing new in the situation. Nobody proposed a mere reaffirmation of our old line, My motion was carried unanimously, as a matter of course, so to speak. So that the record is given in full and no wrong impressions created among you, I point out that Comrade Cannon was not present at this meeting. His supporters were not so intransigent on the question then as they are now.
The next meeting of the P.C. took place after I had left on my brief tour on the Pact. That was September 1. The second world war had to all intents and purposes broken out and we were faced with enormous tasks and responsibilities. Comrade Gould, who was acting for a week or two in my place, made a series of motions for an immediate plenum, the aim of which was to put the party on a war footing, on the alert, for speeding the preparations to qualify the party for its multiplied tasks. Some of his motions were perhaps not feasible — that is possible, But the general line of them was absolutely correct and in order. Everybody present was in favour of an immediate plenum. The difference revolved only around the date a week earlier or a week later.
But it is most interesting to note that everybody agreed to put the Russian question on the agenda, and that Comrade Burnham was unanimously assigned to make the report on this question!
Now Burnham’s position on the Russian question is no secret to the party, even less so to the P.C. It was as well known in the past as it is now. His editorial in the New lnternational, about which there has since been so much clamour, was already out. If the P.C. majority really and honestly thought there was nothing new in the situation, and if they really were ready to defend their old position without further ado, why in heaven’s name was Burnham assigned to make the report? It is entirely unprecedented in our movement to act in this way. If, for example, I am known as an avowed critic or opponent of the official party position on the trade union question, I would never be assigned by the Committee to report on this question to a plenum or a membership meeting. The Committee would assign a supporter of its position to report on it, and in a discussion I would be assigned to deliver a minority report. Why was a contrary procedure followed in the case of Burnham and the report on the Russian question?
The talk about our having created a crisis or a panic is completely absurd. In actuality it was these comrades who maintain that their political line is so clear, so unaltered, so uncompromising that they must have an organizational stranglehold on the N.C. and the P.C. — it was these comrades who showed themselves completely disoriented and incapable of giving the leadership they boast about. On precisely that question which they now claim marks the dividing line between the hard Bolshevik and the vacillating petty-bourgeois they demonstratively acknowledged their bankruptcy by failing to put forward one of their number to report and assigning it instead to Burnham. Again to keep the record accurate, Cannon was not present at the meeting.
Two days later, a special meeting was held to consider the question, this time with Cannon present. Although I was still on tour, I venture to speak from hearsay because his arguments were subsequently repeated upon my return. Cannon charged that the comrades were creating a panic for nothing, that they were hysterical, that there was nothing new in the situation. As for the plenum, he was against its immediate convocation for the above reasons and because, he said, it had to be prepared documentarily. Good. Two days later, at the September 5 meeting of the P.C., Burnham submitted his document on the character of the war and Russia’s role in it. Apart from this document, from my resolution, and Johnson’s statement, no other document was submitted for the plenum. Cannon submitted nothing, absolutely nothing, in the form of a resolution or thesis on the question, or for that matter on any other question on the agenda of the plenum; nor did anyone else. Was that because other comrades thought there really was nothing new in the situation? In my opinion, no. For on September 3, Cannon moved that Crux [Trotsky] be asked officially “to express himself on the Russian question in the light of recent events.” Furthermore, that Crux be familiarized with “the material submitted in the question” and that we “request his opinion before a decision is taken by the plenum.”
Now it seems to me that an obvious contradiction is present here. If there is nothing new in the situation, if all that is needed, as Cannon contended, is a reaffirmation of our previous position, then a decision of that kind could be taken without requesting Comrade Crux’s opinion and without making it dependant upon this opinion. The opinion would be, as it was, valuable, enlightening and important, it would be what you will, but yet it could not be of such a nature as to necessitate holding up a vote by us on the question.
The fact is that everybody was disturbed by the events and felt that the old line, even if correct, was not adequate. At the very least, something had to be added to it. And that was the only serious meaning contained in Cannon’s motions on Crux. It goes without saying that the request for Crux’s opinions was adopted unanimously. But I at least voted for the motion precisely because there was “something new” in the situation, and I was very anxious to read Crux’s analysis of it. Yet, I say that the motions were in conflict with Cannon’s views because at the very next meeting, on September 8, Cannon and his supporters came forward against a discussion of the Russian question — against any discussion. There is nothing particularly new in the situation, said Cannon, in the circular he sent out to the N.C. members commenting on Burnham’s resolution. A discussion at this time is a luxury we cannot afford, he said, in just those words. When Cannon says now that a discussion of a position such as Burnham put forward would be fruitful and educational, it simply does not square with his statements a month ago that a new discussion would be a luxury we cannot afford.
On September 12, at the first P.C. meeting to be held after my return from the speaking tour, there was a turnabout face. My motion on the plenum was carried without objection. I did not propose, as is stated, to call the plenum on the Russian question. The four points I proposed for an agenda — the war crisis, the work of the International, the Russian question, and the organization-press drive — were adopted virtually without discussion. Why? Because, I believe, among other things I reported that every N.C. member I spoke with on the road was also “panic-stricken”. Clarke and Solander in Detroit, comrades in Chicago, all were for an immediate plenum. In Minneapolis I signed a joint telegram with all the local N.C. members pointing out their readiness to come to a plenum almost immediately. There is not the slightest doubt that every responsible leading comrade outside New York felt that a plenum was urgently required to discuss the questions I mentioned.
In the middle of September the events precipitated the problem directly and concretely without waiting for us to get together a plenum. Stalin invaded Poland in alliance with Hitler. What was the party to say? What was its mouthpiece, the Appeal, to say? It is utter nonsense to argue that the membership of the party went blandly about its way, unmoved and uninterested in the events. They were intensely interested in the position the party would take on the invasion and there is not the slightest doubt in the world that the readers of the party press were equally interested. It was, of course, impossible for me to write in the Appeal on the basis of my personal opinion alone. I, therefore, called together all the available members of the staff and of the Political Committee. By its very nature the gathering could not be anything but informal. it could not adopt decisions on such a matter of policy and I announced both before and at the end of the meeting that I considered it a consultative body, that is to say, only the Political Committee could decide the line of our articles. After as through a discussion of the question as we could have under the circumstances it was generally agreed that an emergency meeting of the P.C. would have to be held to decide the question, if possible before the Appeal went to press.
That same evening, September 18, a special meeting was held. We were of the opinion that whatever the party’s basic estimate of the class nature of the Soviet State might be, a specific answer had to be given to the specific question. Comrade Burnham moved that the Appeal take the line that through its invasion of Poland the Red Army is participating integrally in the imperialist war, that is to say, that we condemn the invasion. That point of view was rejected by the majority of the Political Committee. Comrade Goldman presented the following motion: “Under the actual conditions prevailing in Poland, we approve of Stalin’s invasion of Poland as a measure of preventing Hitler from getting control of all of Poland and as a measure of defending the Soviet Union against Hitler. Between Hitler and Stalin, we prefer Stalin.” Comrade Goldman was the only one to vote for his motion. Yet his position was entirely consistent, consistent in particular with the traditional position of the party and the interpretation we had always placed upon it. But with his motion defeated, Goldman voted for the motion of Cannon.
And what was Cannon’s answer to the problem raised by the Polish invasion, the answer that the Political Committee adopted? Here is his motion in full: “The party press in its handling of Russia’s participation in the war in Poland shall do so from the point of view of the party’s fundamental analysis of the character of the Soviet State, and the role of Stalinism as laid down in the fundamental resolutions of the party’s foundation convention and the foundation congress of the Fourth International. The slogan of an independent Soviet Ukraine shall be defended as a policy wholly consistent with the fundamental line of defending the Soviet Union.”
Now I contend that this was no answer at all, or rather that it made possible a variety of answers. On the basis of this motion, a half dozen members of the Political Committee could write a half dozen different articles. We would repeat time and again that the Soviet Union is a workers’ state and that we are for its defence, but that did not answer the question uppermost in the minds of everybody: Do we support the invasion of Poland, or do we oppose it? Cannon categorically refused to give a reply to this question. His point of view was that it is purely a military question and that we were in no position to express ourselves affirmatively or negatively on it. Our task, said Cannon, is merely to explain. In support of this view, Gordon, for example, placed the invasion of Poland in the same category as the invasion of Belgium in 1914, and argued that there, too, we merely “explained” the invasion as an “episode” in the war as a whole but did not say that we were for it or against it. (It might be remarked parenthetically that even in this comparison Gordon was wrong because the internationalists did not hesitate even in the case of Belgium to condemn the invasion by Germany, even though the invasion of Poland by Stalin is not on the same footing.)
At the same meeting I moved that the Committee “endorse the general line of the September 18 editorial” in the Appeal which I had written. Cannon and his supporters rejected the motion Cannon voting against it and the others abstaining. Why? For the simple reason that I condemned the invasion in the very mildest terms. I had characterized the reports that Stalin was moving to the aid of Hitler as a “sinister plan.” Cochrane took objection to this phrase. He motivated his abstention on the basis of it. He considered it too strong. The very next day the press carried reports of a statement made by Trotsky in Mexico condemning the invasion as shameful and criminal.
At the meeting we pointed out that the inadequate and evasive motion of Cannon would meet its first test twenty four hours later at the mass meeting which Goldman was scheduled to address and at which questions would undoubtedly be asked about the party’s attitude towards the invasion. But the Committee refused to take any steps to deal with this matter. The result was that when Goldman awoke the next day, September 19, he not only declared at a public meeting that there was a dispute in the party on the subject and that we were calling a plenum to settle it, but also that the Political Committee disagreed with Trotsky in condemning the invasion. And as you know, in the article which Cannon was assigned to write for the Appeal on the subject, he carefully refrained from characterising or condemning the invasion and confined himself merely to rejecting the Stalinist contention that the result of the invasion would be the liberation of the Ukrainians and the White Russians.
Finally we came to the P.C. meeting on the eve of the plenum. The document which we awaited from Comrade Crux had not arrived. We had the Burnham resolution on the subject, but the majority, which had insisted on the need of preparing material prior to the plenum, had no resolution whatsoever to offer. I could not subscribe entirely to the Burnham resolution, and I announced that I would offer one of my own on the invasion of Poland. When the question of reporters arose, Burnham announced that he would either write a different resolution or support one that would be introduced. This announcement occasioned no astonishment or criticism at that time. At the same meeting, confronted with the fact that the majority had no document at all to present to the plenum on the Russian question, Cannon presented the following motion as his resolution: “We reaffirm the basic analysis of the nature of the Soviet State and the role of Stalinism, and the political conclusions drawn from this analysis as laid down in the previous decisions of our party convention and the program of the Fourth International.” This was the sole contribution made by the majority.
To sum up, therefore, the Political Committee confined itself to a simple-reiteration of the traditional party position not as a basis for giving concrete answers to concrete questions, but as a substitute for these answers; that is, it failed and refused to give an answer to the specific questions posed by the events. To the extent that it tried to give one, it was false and spread confusion or else left matters hanging in the air. Cannon’s article in the Appeal is one example. Goldman’s speech at the New York mass meeting is another. If that is the meaning of revolutionary leadership on the issues of the day, I have nothing in common with it.
Now as to the actual contents of the dispute. One way of approaching the question is from the angle of the so called unprincipled bloc that we have formed. The argument runs about as follows: Burnham says that the Soviet Union is not a workers’ state. Shachtman says he does not raise this question. Consequently, the minority is a bloc and an unprincipled one. I regard the charge as unprincipled bunk. While I have not and do not raise the question of revising the party’s fundamental position on the nature of the Soviet State, I was and am ready to discuss the question. The fact is that I requested such a discussion and the minority supported me in this request. We proposed that the pages of the New International, our theoretical organ, be opened up for such a discussion. This was at first refused and granted only at the plenum. Why am I not in favour of centring the present discussion around that question here? Because I do not think it is necessary. In fact, under the circumstances I do not think it would be fruitful. The way in which the discussion has already been started indicates to me that it would only serve to obscure the real issue and dispute at hand. In what sense do I mean this? (Burnham is new being condemned for having withdrawn his document. But this withdrawal actually occurred on the basis of the advice of Comrade Crux and on my advice).
In a brief letter to the Political Committee which arrived before his main document, Comrade Crux pointed out that in so far as the dispute was “terminological” no practical political question could be altered by changing the formula “workers’ state” to the formula “not workers’ state” or “bureaucratic caste” to “class”. He said, granted that it is not a workers’ state: granted that it is a class and not a caste. What change would then be introduced into our political conclusions? The opponents, as Crux pointed out, would have gained an “empty victory” and would not know what to do with it.
I do not begin to deny the importance even of the “terminological dispute” if only because we must strive for the strictest scientific accuracy in our characterizations. But under the circumstances, that is, of the need of answering the questions raised by the Polish invasion, such a dispute could very easily degenerate into a sterile and purely terminological discussion. That can already be seen by the manner in which the question has been presented. A workers’ state is defined as a social order based upon nationalized property. On that basis, many comrades conclude that the whole problem is exhausted. That being the definition of a workers’ state, the Soviet Union is a workers’ state. Thus we do not advance an inch.
Why would such a discussion be sterile at the moment? Because it would not and does not necessarily alter one’s political conclusions. Trotsky pointed that out and so do I. The political question is: Will you defend the Soviet Union? whereupon it must be asked What do we defend? The only remaining conquest of the Russian Revolution is nationalized property. Now there is not a soul in our party who stands for the denationalization of property in the Soviet Union — not Burnham, not Cannon, not Shachtman, not Johnson. The only question that can possibly be in dispute is — How do we defend nationalized property?
Let us take the question from another angle. The fundamental position of the party, no matter how often reiterated, does not provide us automatically with an answer to the concrete questions. For example, Goldman, Cannon, Trotsky, all proceed from the fundamental conception that the Soviet Union is a workers’ state. Yet Goldman approved the invasion, Cannon was indifferent to it, considering it a purely military question which we were incapable of judging, whereas Trotsky denounced the invasion. It was for such reasons that Burnham was, therefore, prevailed upon to withdraw his thesis from the present discussion, to withhold it for another and more suitable occasion and place, to confine the discussion of the questions that he and others have raised to the the theoretical organ of the party.
In this connection I was challenged by Cannon: Why don’t you propose to expel Burnham as a defeatist? I made a motion two or three years ago declaring defeatist views are incompatible with membership in the party, and Cannon supported me in that position. I do not propose such a motion now. Cannon says that I speak equally well on both sides of the question. By the same token, he can speak well on one side of the question at one time and be silent on it at another. Why doesn’t he propose the expulsion of the defeatists? But, it is argued, you make a bloc with Burnham against Cannon and Goldman, with whom you are in fundamental agreement. The argument is not valid.
In l925-26 the Sapronovist group of Democratic Centralists declared in its platform that the revolution was over. The Thermidor had triumphed. Russia was no longer a workers’ state. Yet when the opposition bloc was formed in 1926 by the Moscow and Leningrad groups, the Democratic Centralists entered into the bloc. If they broke from it later, it was on their initiative — “artificially”, said Trotsky, and not on his initiative. He opposed the break, as he pointed out in 1929 in a letter to one of the supporters of the Democratic Centralist group. If he joined with them in one bloc, it was because all supporters of the bloc jointly gave the right answers to the concrete questions before the party. In my opinion, that is what we have to do now. I could vote a hundred times over, just as Goldman does, for the “fundamental motion” of Cannon. So can Abern and Erber and others. But I cannot give the same answer to the problems that Goldman gave or that Cannon gave. And that makes it impossible for me and all others to join with the them just as it makes it mandatory for me and all others to join with these who give the same answer.
But does not that deprive you of a fundamental position from which to derive your policies? Not at all. There are fundamental criteria for a revolutionary Marxist which are just as valid now as they were a year ago and twenty five years ago, even before the Russian Revolution. The first is the fundamental and decisive character of the war in question, and we say that the decisive character of the present war is imperialist. And secondly our policies in all questions must be derived from the fundamental conception of the interests of the world socialist revolution, to which all other interests are subordinate and secondary.