Over the past ten years there has been a good deal of discussion in this magazine about the ideas of Max Shachtman.
Shachtman was in the 1940s the foremost critic of Trotsky's view of Stalinism in the USSR, and together with his comrades in the Workers' Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL), developed a distinctive analysis of the Stalinist Russia, which they called "bureaucratic collectivism". Unfortunately most socialists in Britain are most likely to approach Shachtman through the prism of Tony Cliff's essay, 'The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: a Critique', which appears as an appendix to his State Capitalism in Russia (1988), and in his selected works, Neither Washington nor Moscow (1982).1
Cliff's critique pulled no punches: "The theory of bureaucratic collectivism is supra-historical, negative and abstract. It does not define the economic laws of motion of the system, explain its inherent contradictions and the motivation of the class struggle. It is completely arbitrary. Hence it does not give a perspective, nor can it serve as a basis for a strategy for socialists." In short, "The only two constant elements in the theory have been: first, the conclusion that in any concrete conditions, Stalinist Russia must not be defended (no matter that concrete conditions change all the time); second, that the name of the Stalinist regime is Bureaucratic Collectivism." (1988: 353, 337)
What's wrong with Cliff's critique? It claimed to deal with the essence of bureaucratic collectivism and appeared to provide a panoramic analysis of all the new class theories from their infancy. However on closer inspection it pasted together criticisms from both Trotsky and his epigones, smeared the parentage of bureaucratic collectivism, and by means of highly selective quotation completely misrepresented what the WP/ISL actually wrote about the USSR. In fact it is not a scholarly work at all; a comparison of the original version with the later editions indicates that Cliff never bothered to really investigate the views of his opponents in the first place, and despite close contact with them during the 1950s, never bothered to deepen or develop his understanding of their position as it evolved. In doing so he buried important questions under a torrent of abuse. 'The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: a Critique' is a work of slander, political debris which aborts more serious engagement with Shachtman.
What are the origins of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism?
Shachtman had written against his detractors that, "In the New Course, Trotsky lays great stress on loyalty in discussion, on the honest presentation of your opponents' views, on the reprehensibility of amalgamating one view with views that are essentially alien to it."2
Cliff's original critique included a section on Bruno Rizzi, largely retained in his edited version, together with a long section on James Burnham, which was later omitted. Here Cliff really outdid orthodox Trotskyism by smearing the origins of bureaucratic collectivism with the parentage of these two wicked fairies.
Cliff invested Rizzi with great authority, claiming that: "The first writer to coin this term (Bureaucratic Collectivism) was the Italian Marxist, Bruno R, in his book La Bureaucratisation du Monde (Paris 1939). The same term was adopted and the idea developed (without acknowledgement of the work of Bruno R) by the American socialist, Max Shachtman." (1988: 333) When he first wrote about Rizzi in the late forties, one thing Cliff had done which Shachtman and others had been unable to do in 1939, was to read a copy of the book (in French). Cliff was confident enough to argue that, "on the characterisation, description, and analysis of Bureaucratic Collectivism as such - as a social order - they [Shachtman and Rizzi] are in entire agreement." (1988: 339) He seemed to substantiate this with quotations, which sounded like the views developed by the Workers' Party. Who was Bruno Rizzi? He had been around the Italian Communist Party and retained some acquaintance with opposition currents after Mussolini's ascent to power. He was a shoe salesman, which allowed him to travel outside of fascist Italy, and remained a loyal supporter of the Stalin regime until 1935. By 1937 he had read Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed, and written a paraphrase of it, which he published himself. By 1938 Rizzi came into contact with Trotskyists in France and in England, and through them learned of the debates within the movement over the class nature of the USSR. Some members of the anti-Stalinist left in Paris were suspicious of him because of his ability to travel freely, although no evidence has been found that he was a police spy.3
In 1938/39, Rizzi wrote a series of letters to Trotsky, and completed the first part of his book, La Bureaucratisation du Monde, which dealt with the USSR, in March 1939. The second part, dealing with Italian fascism, was prepared by October 1939, but never published, whilst part three, dealing with the USA, and the appendices, were written in May 1939. Having failed to secure a publisher Rizzi printed the first and third parts himself in August 1939. The book contained a number of anti-semitic passages and for this reason the French authorities brought a prosecution against him in January 1940. Stocks of the book were impounded - hence its rarity. However Trotsky received his copy early in September 1939, and referred to it in 'The USSR in War', during the dispute in the American Socialist Workers' Party (SWP). Rizzi was for Trotsky only the latest to hold the view that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a new ruling class: he had criticised earlier exponents of that opinion such as Urbahns and Laurat, for nearly a decade. Rizzi's theory was that history was flowing towards collectivism, ending in Communism, as the state became more involved in economic activity. These tendencies were present not only in the USSR, but in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and New Deal America. However in his view the working class was unable to take power (in Russia Rizzi thought they had been reduced to slaves). Instead the state bureaucracies were the bearers of progress because of their control of nationalised property. Rizzi's predominant conclusion was that the proletariat still had a "very important task to accomplish; to acknowledge Herr Hitler and Mr Mussolini as the grave-diggers of international capitalism... and to help them in their task"(!) (1985: 13) Happy to justify Hitler's racism, Rizzi argued that British and French workers should force their own capitalists into conceding living space and raw materials to Germany and Italy. His book was in fact a "socialist" rationale for fascism.
What of the accusation made by Cliff and others, that both Shachtman and, more closely, James Burnham plagiarised Rizzi's work? According to Adam Westoby's investigations, "the accusation is unproven, and unlikely to be true." (1985: 25) In fact Rizzi borrowed much of his analysis of the USSR from critics of Stalinism such as Yvan Craipeau, Burnham and Joseph Carter in 1937 from within the Trotskyist movement. He fused it with the praise heaped on bureaucracies by Fabians like the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw.
Typically, Cliff made a fetish out of their use of the same name-tag to produce an amalgam of Rizzi and Shachtman. This smear failed to distinguish the very different theory of bureaucratic collectivism held by the members of the WP/ISL from Rizzi's views. In fact, on the level of theory, by equating nationalised property with progress Rizzi's analysis (if not his conclusions) came closer to "orthodox" Trotskyism than to Cliff's intended target, Shachtman.
Yet Cliff and his apostles (and, for example, Revolutionary History magazine) continue to argue that Shachtman's ideas parallel Rizzi's, even when the details of his real views have been known for some time. For example, Pierre Naville wrote about Rizzi in Le Contrat Social in 1958, and Hal Draper visited him that year, and a debate took place in the New Leader with the sociologist Daniel Bell in 1959. Later, following eulogies about Rizzi at the time of his death in 1977 from luminaries in the Italian Socialist Party, the journal Telos also promoted a positive assessment, before Ernie Haberkern called them to account in his review of Westoby's book in 1985. This and other publications by Haberkern since leave any honest commentator in no doubt of the gulf separating Shachtman from Rizzi.
As a former leading member of the American SWP, the case of Burnham is slightly different. There is no doubting Burnham's place in the development of a critique of Trotsky's analysis, in particular his criticism of the argument that nationalised property was a sufficient condition for characterising Russia as a workers' state, and his view that Trotsky's theory opened up the "possibility" of a bureaucratic road to socialism (a view vindicated by the assessments of the spread of Stalinism made by "orthodox" Trotskyists in the forties). He also played his role in the 1939-40 split in the SWP, during which his long held differences with Marxism (for example, in philosophy) began to unravel in his politics. By 1939 Burnham was breaking from revolutionary socialism; he deserted the Workers' Party almost immediately it was formed in 1940. The views he developed in The Managerial Revolution (1941) were a long way from his earlier conceptions and the New International carried its own vehement attacks on Burnham from the beginning.
Much of the substance of Cliff's assault on Burnham was common to wider sections of the left by the late '40s, including socialists like George Orwell. Many of Burnham's predictions were shallow; like Rizzi he argued that the tendencies which were most pronounced in Russia were also true of Nazi Germany, Italy and the USA. Most importantly, he had given up on the working class as the agent of social change. Believing he had glimpsed the decline of capitalism, he made arguments for what he saw as its "managerial" (actually fascist) successor, only later to recoil as a conservative defender of American imperialism against Russian totalitarianism. Cliff's critique of Burnham is, in hindsight, rather mild - but had little to do with Shachtman. Nowhere did Cliff demonstrate their identity, asserting it only in a short footnote. No documentary evidence has been produced since - at best there are the reminiscences of old and ex-comrades who lived at the time.
On the matter of who invented the term, "bureaucratic collectivism", Cliff was wrong again. The term was used before the First World War by British Marxists and by critics of socialism such as Belloc. Perhaps Rizzi was the first to apply the name-tag to Stalinism, but even if this were true it lacks any great significance. Trotsky himself had used Rizzi as a mask for an alternative perspective on Stalinism that he had been tentatively developing during 1939 - the memoirs of Jean van Heijenhoort attest to his preoccupation with the question during that summer, although Trotsky drew back from this in the last year of his life. However, the originator of the new class theory was probably Christian Rakovsky, a leader of the Russian opposition to Stalinism second only to Trotsky, who wrote a number of articles from 1928, some of them published in the Bulletin of the Opposition, on the dangers of the bureaucracy developing into a class.
Shachtman did not invent the position, and lagged behind Burnham and Carter who originated it in the USA. But Cliff was not interested in engaging with a position different from his own, even if it had entirely respectable roots within the movement.4
What was Cliff's method?
When Cliff edited his critique of bureaucratic collectivism, what he was prepared to reprint in 1968 amounted to about half the original. He probably thought he had done enough to slay the dragon, yet the discarded passages, dealing with his musings on philosophy, reveal more clearly the errors of his methodology. Cliff had since 1947 characterised Stalinist Russia as "state capitalist", and evaluated other name-tags against this label. But at the deeper level, the theory - and particularly the manner in which Cliff 'proved' that the social relations in Russia were "state capitalist" -revealed that the confusion of Stalinised "Marxism" was not confined to those who persisted with the "workers' state" name-tag. His approach was clear from his discussion of the inevitability of socialism. Shachtman had argued that those who believed socialism was inevitable had, by ruling out the possibility of developments other than socialism, undermined the necessity of actually fighting for socialism.
Cliff raised the hue and cry of revisionism and quoted Plekhanov approvingly that, "...history shows that even fatalism was not always a hindrance to energetic, practical action; on the contrary, in certain epochs it was a psychologically necessary basis for such action", witness the English Puritans and the followers of Mohammed. Cliff had in fact misunderstood the essential difference between the fight for socialism and other previous revolutions in history. He wrote: "After feudal society, capitalism was inevitable. No other social system could take its place.
This did not make the rising bourgeoisie any less active in its fight against feudalism... As there is no other system than socialism that can drive forward the productive forces, and as the proletariat exists so long as social production exists, the fight for socialism is inevitable and its victory is inevitable." (1949: 18)
Cliff exhibited the crudest of "determinism" derived from Stalinism. He confused two distinct elements: the fightback which workers put up against their exploitation under capitalism (which is inevitable); and the victory of socialism, which is not a foregone conclusion. He deliberately downplayed Shachtman's real point: the exceptionally conscious character of the socialist revolution. For Shachtman, as for Marx and Trotsky, the working class (unlike other previous classes) had to make its own revolution, and had to understand the meaning of its fight in order to lay the basis for self-conscious (i.e. democratic) working class rule, and wider universal human emancipation. This was part of the rationale for revolutionaries organising themselves as a party, together with combating the ruling ideas of the epoch. However. Cliff, writing at the end of the '40s, defined consciousness as basically "accidental" in this fight, despite his protestations of its "big role", and of the need to avoid "complacency".
Cliff also assailed Shachtman with the familiar orthodox Trotskyist insult that he had abandoned dialectics by adopting bureaucratic collectivism, but gave this argument a novel twist. He deduced the nature of Stalinist Russia straight from the laws of dialectics: capitalism was the negation of feudalism; capitalism was the unity of wage labour and capital, "the existence of each of which is dependent on the existence of the other"; as capitalism developed, from free competition to monopoly, and then to state capitalism; so the polar opposites came into conflict until the working class triumphed over the capitalists, "the negation of the negation". (1949: 20) For Cliff, bureaucratic collectivism cannot fit into this schema, it is impossible in Marxist theory because of his version of dialectics (straight from the Short Course). Instead, during this "transition period", "today all the exploiters are compelled to use more and more elements of the socialist future, such as planning, etc., in defence of their interests, is only a sign of the historical obsoleteness of capitalism" (1949: 22-23). The sub-text here (with shades of Ted Grant) is that Russia can only be socialist or some form of capitalism - the structure of logic will permit nothing else.
Overall Cliff substituted logic-chopping for the study of real relations in Russia. His mistake recalled precisely the error Marx had in mind when he wrote to Danielson that, "My critic must needs metamorphose my outline of the genesis of capitalism in western Europe into a historic-philosophical theory of the general course, fatally imposed on all peoples, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed... He does me too much honour and too much shame at the same time... but one will never succeed with the master-key of a historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical." [My emphasis]
How should Marxists proceed to analyse different class societies in history? An originator of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, Joseph Carter, addressed this question when he wrote, against CLR James' theory of state capitalism: "The process of accumulation is then consciously directed through the state, and the state alone. It is this 'specific manner' in which the factors of production are united, this specific way in which surplus is extracted from the working class, that differentiates bureaucratic collectivism from capitalism." Carter was only paraphrasing the master-key Marx identified to understand different epochs in human history, "The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relationship between rulers and ruled".5
What determines the place of any regime in history?
In his original document, Cliff wrote that, "Not one of the proponents of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism tries to pose the question of what the place of this bureaucracy is in the general chain of historical development, what is its function, what is the relation between its function and the function of the bourgeoisie." (1949: 5-6) His answer, that it was ultimately the development of the productive forces which determined the place of any regime in history, merely echoed Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed. This was a commonplace within the movement and not disputed by Shachtman or anyone else. But the weight of much of Cliff's criticism, and the argument in the Nature of Stalinist Russia (1948), was that the bureaucracy was progressive because it had developed the productive forces.
Cliff made a parallel in his original document between Nazi Germany, which he defined as "a state capitalist cartel", and Stalinist Russia, which was "a state capitalist trust". He later discussed the development of capitalism as far as "state capitalism (of lower or higher form - cartel or trust)". (1949: 17, 20) The impression was that Russia represented the highest, most concentrated form of capitalism. Stalinism was the wave of the future, the destiny of advanced capitalism.
Elsewhere in the same document, he retained this positive evaluation, but this time placing the bureaucracy at a primitive stage in the development of capitalism. He claimed his earlier study proved "that the average income per occupied person in Russia on the eve of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy was the same as existed in Britain a century before the industrial revolution". His conclusion: "Post-October Russia stood before the fulfilment of the historic mission of the bourgeoisie, which Lenin summed up in two postulates: 'increase in the productive forces of social labour and the socialisation of labour'." (1988: 351) His point was that the Stalinist bureaucracy became a "capitalist" class because Russian capitalism had not come to maturity before the 1917 revolution. The bureaucracy "bridged the gap" in the country's development - "it personified the accumulation of capital".
Cliff's tunnel-visioned version of history made all societies pass through the same stages of development and pass automatically from one to the other under the lash of the development of the productive forces. He must have glanced at the Communist Manifesto and imagined Marx chanting the mantra: "the country that is more developed shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future." However, for all his apparent orthodoxy, he never could decide on whether the Stalinist bureaucracy represented the highest stage of capitalism, or its birth pangs. No doubt Cliff would shriek about the unity of opposites, but even the over-burdened dialectic would find it difficult to carry the weight of such confusion. He was subject to the same kind of ambiguities of which he was to accuse Shachtman!
Cliff quoted selectively to "show" how incoherent bureaucratic collectivism was on the place of Stalinism in history. In 1941, Shachtman had written that: "From the standpoint of socialism, the bureaucratic collectivist state is a reactionary social order; in relation to the capitalist world, it is on an historically more progressive plane." Later he characterised Stalinism as "the new barbarism". Shachtman's characterisation of "progressiveness", because of the existence of nationalised property, was a vestige of Trotsky, which would be consciously removed later as the theory developed. In 1949, the renamed ISL proclaimed that: "Stalinist nationalisation is in no sense at all a prerequisite for the socialization of the means of production; nor does it 'prepare the way' for the latter... Stalinist nationalization therefore is in no sense progressive... This is the only criterion for the category of 'progressiveness' in today's world, and means: that is 'progressive' which is a prerequisite for, or does lead in fact lead to, the establishment of socialist democracy."
Shachtman himself wrote a satisfactory rejoinder to his original view of nationalised property: "There is no private ownership of property under Stalinism, it is true, and the development of the productive forces is likewise a fact... A concrete foundation is essential to a good home, just like the nationalisation of the means of production and distribution is essential to the construction of a socialist society. But on the same foundation of concrete can be built a prison (in fact the foundations of most prisons are supposed to be stronger than of most homes). Very few people, however, speak of prisons as 'imperfect homes' the way the Stalinist states are sometimes called, by affable apologists"6.
Notes for part 1
1. I have used for reference the version in State Capitalism in Russia, (1988) which is widely available. According to the notes in his books, the article originally appeared as a duplicated document in 1948 and was reprinted in IS(1) 32, Spring 1968. In the introduction to Hallas (ed) The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists (1971:1), it says that no copy of the original could be found and so the 1968 IS article was reprinted. Hallas later claimed the document was first published in 1952, (IS(2) 9, Summer 1980: 129). The references in the original version suggest it was finished in 1949, which is the dating I have used when quoting from it. The 1968 version was revised using Shachtman's The Bureaucratic Revolution (1962). Cliff's critique of Shachtman, despite superficial appearances, relied heavily on orthodox Trotskyism. The most relevant sources are: Harry Frankel, 'A Defamer of Marxism', Fourth International, May 1944; and 'Revolutionary Marxism or Petty-Bourgeois Revisionism', IB of the SWP, Vol VIII, No10, August 1946.
2. Shachtman (1944: 267), 'An Epigone of Trotsky', New International, August and October 1944.
3. Most of the background is in Rizzi (1985), The Bureaucratisation of the World, translated by Adam Westoby. James M. Fenwick first reviewed the book in the New International in 'The Mysterious Bruno R', in September 1948. See Haberkern's review of Rizzi in Telos, No66, Winter 1985-86, and Haberkern and Lipow (eds), (1996), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism: Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism.
4. Van Heijenhoort, With Trotsky in Exile, (1978: 141). Some of Rakovsky's work is in Fagan (ed.), (1980), Christian Rakovsky: Selected Writings on Opposition in the USSR 1923-30.
5. Carter, 'Aspects of Marxian Economics', New International, April 1942. Marx, Capital, Volume III (1971: 791).
6. ISL 'Capitalism, Stalinism and the War', New International, April (1949: 121-122), in Matgamna Fate of the Russian Revolution (1998: 492). Shachtman, 'Freedom in Equality', Labor Action, 18th November (1957: 8).
II: Was Stalinism the new barbarism?
By the late forties Shachtman came to the conclusion that Stalinism was 'the new barbarism'. Cliff understood that there were two meanings of the term 'barbarism'; the first sense meant a description of the period since 1917, given the belatedness of the socialist revolution, in which humanity had been subjected to the horrors of fascism, depression and war. Shachtman described Stalinism as 'totalitarian or bureaucratic collectivism, a regime of modern barbarism, modern slavery, permanent police terror and super-exploitation', echoing Trotsky's verdict in 1939 that, 'Fascism on one hand, and the degeneration of the Soviet state on the other outline the social and political forms of neo-barbarism'. Cliff didn't dispute this use of the word, but directed his fire at another meaning, which made barbarism a particular stage in history:
'When Marx spoke of the 'common ruin of the contending classes' - as in Rome after slave society disintegrated - it was associated with a general decline of the productive forces. The Stalinist regime, with its dynamic development of the productive forces, certainly does not fit this description. Barbarism in Marx's concept meant the death of the embryo of the future in the womb of the old society. The embryo of socialism in the body of capitalism is social, collective, large scale production, and associated with it, the working class. The Stalinist regime not only did not weaken these elements, but spurred them on.' (1988: 342).
The quotation is further confirmation that Cliff agreed with 'orthodox' Trotskyism that the Stalinist bureaucracy was progressive, or at least the most progressive development of capitalism - its highest stage, because it developed the productive forces. He was miffed with Shachtman largely because Shachtman moved away from that view. But what did Shachtman really mean? He did not deny some development of the productive forces, nor the potential of the Russian working class. He was trying to fit bureaucratic collectivism into the broad epochal schema laid down by Marx, but remained within the parameters laid down by Trotsky in 1939: Stalinism was either part of the epoch of the transition to socialism inaugurated by the 1917 revolution; or it represented the collapse of civilisation (i.e. barbarism).1
Perhaps Shachtman was ultimately mistaken in conceiving of Stalinism as the new barbarism. But he was at least conscious of the origin of this error (if not the error itself). In his perspective, 'The first thing to grasp about Stalinism is that world capitalism is at the end of its rope. It shows all the classical signs of decay and disintegration in addition to those special signs which are its own distinctive contribution.' He added however, that 'Stalinism rose to solve a social crisis, in its own way, which other existing social forces could not or would not solve in the way that is appropriate to them'. It was his faulty analysis of capitalism, rather than of Stalinism, that was largely responsible for these errors on the place of Stalinism in history. Nevertheless, Shachtman exhibited great insight into how to formulate an answer:
'Trotsky himself once derided as 'pseudo-Marxism' the point of view which confines itself to historical mechanisms, formal analogies, converting historical epochs into a logical succession of inflexible social categories (feudalism, capitalism, socialism, autocracy, bourgeois republic, dictatorship of the proletariat...) Marxists, especially those educated by Lenin and Trotsky will readily admit that classes and nations can leap forward in history, can leap over stages, can be hurled backwards along the main line of historical development. But in speaking of Stalinist Russia they will obdurately refuse to acknowledge that history 'permits' sideleaps, mongrel social formations, unique contributions. Leap forward ? Yes ! Thrust backward ? Yes ! Leap sideways ? No ! - that is strictly prohibited by the party statutes!' 2
It might be reasonable to argue that the WP/ISL tradition was not especially coherent or lucid about the place of Stalinism in history, although neither were other theorists, including Cliff. Shachtman alluded briefly to Marx's comments on the so-called Asiatic mode of production, in which a state bureaucracy exploited the mass of peasants by extracting a tribute. Such a system, far from being an historical aberration, actually turns out to be the main line of development before capitalism, and is essential to any Marxist explanation of Ancient Egypt, India and China, as well as the pre-Hispanic Mayan, Inca and Aztec empires. A more fruitful parallel than barbarism would have been these oriental despotisms or tributary societies, in which the state played the role of surplus extraction, and formed the locus of the ruling class. Stalinism represented a comparable phenomenon alongside capitalism in the modern world, in countries where an indigenous capitalist class was either weak or pretty well non-existent. 3
The substance of Cliff's criticism is also sheer nonsense, contrasting Shachtman's inconsistencies with 'Marx's and Engels' analysis of capitalism, [where] the fundamentals - the place of capitalism in history, its internal contradictions, etc - remained constant from their earliest tackling of the problem until the end of their lives.' (1949: 10) They were studying a social formation that had existed for centuries and a society about which bourgeois writers had already produced mountains of material, both theoretical and empirical, on which they could build. For Trotsky and his followers the situation was completely different: the phenomenon had only just evolved, and studies of its nature and development were still extremely limited. Nor is it true that Marx's and Engels' conception of capitalism was born fully formed - witness their developing understanding of surplus value and the distinction between labour and labour-power. Cliff preferred the safety of familiar words and the illusion of ideological rectitude to the search for the real contradictions and movement of Stalinism.
What is the historical function of the the Stalinist bureaucracy?
Cliff had given the bureaucracy the function of an historical surrogate for a normal bourgeois class, suggesting a view of its stability and longevity not shared by other theories. Shachtman had characterised the bureaucracy as a class without a past or future: it had arisen at a particular conjuncture after capitalism had been overthrown in 1917, but the failure of other socialist revolutions had left the USSR isolated. Shachtman borrowed this limited rationale from Trotsky, who had written, 'the historical justification for the very existence of the bureaucracy is lodged in the the fact that we are very far removed from socialist society'. As a class without a future, Shachtman wanted to distinguish it from other ruling classes in history of greater power and durability; the bureaucracy could not solve the social crisis any more than capitalism could: only the working class had this capacity. The historical development and limits of Stalinism were defined by the belatedness of the international socialist revolution.
Shachtman, having sloughed off Trotsky's name-tag in 1940, continued to apply the theory which Trotsky had developed in the late thirties. Joseph Carter and Hal Draper were more innovative, utilising Christian Rakovsky's insights and Trotsky's more critical political economy from the early thirties. Carter had understood the inherent limits of the system from the beginning, writing in 1937 that the 'progressive role' of the bureaucracy was exhausted and that 'economic disorder, dislocation and crises are now the rule rather than the exception'. Draper later developed the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, defining the driving force of the system as, 'the contradiction between (1) the absolute need of the economy to be planned, since in a statified economy only the Plan can perform the role in society which under capitalism is the function of the market and market relations; and (2) the impossibility of workably planning a modern complex society from the top down under conditions of bureaucratic totalitarianism.' This gave Stalinism a very definite lifespan, both in terms of its economic potential and its liability to social challenge:
To denominate Stalinism as a social system does not confer on it any determinate lease of life, nor any historical era of existence. History does not give social systems any uniform term: early tribalism must have lasted for unknown millennia; slavery for perhaps hundreds of centuries; the feudalism of the Middle Ages for over a thousand years. (If anything, the terms seem to be shrinking, logarithmically.) Unlike any previous system, bureaucratic collectivism had hardly appeared on the scene before it was shaken by economic and political convulsions. The revolution against Stalinism did not have to remain a vision for a couple of hundred years, as was true of the revolution against capitalism: it appeared in life in little more than a couple of decades - in Budapest, in East Germany, in Poland, at least.4
'State capitalism' seemed to bring a veneer of Marxological sophistication to the discussion, but in fact it was a substitute for thinking , especially as Cliff failed to prove that the bureaucracy was a capitalist class, only asserting that it must be an agent of capitalism. A Capital-like analysis was unnecessary given the structure of the USSR - its laws of motion were not disguised and hidden as under capitalism, because political and economic power were fused together. The request for complex economic laws of motion in societies other than capitalism, is a red herring. One could argue about the extent to which they developed this theory, or about its validity, but it is only possible to dismiss the WP/ISL tradition by ignoring a large quantity of the literature they produced for eighteen years.
What is the motive of exploitation in Bureaucratic Collectivist society ?
Having tried to establish their disorientation on the place of Stalinism in history, Cliff attacked Shachtman on the motive for exploitation in bureaucratic collectivism. In his revised version, he quoted Shachtman's comment that, 'In the Stalinist state, production is carried on and extended for the satisfaction of the needs of the bureaucracy, for the increasing of its wealth, its privileges, its power', forgetting again that this expression came from Trotsky. Cliff then sallied forth with the silly point, made nowhere by Shachtman or his co-thinkers, that: 'if the Bureaucratic Collectivist society is geared to the 'needs of the bureaucracy' - is not subordinated to capital accumulation - there is no reason why the rate of exploitation should not decrease in time, and as the productive forces in the modern world are dynamic - this will lead, will-nilly, to the 'withering away of exploitation''. (1988: 343-344)
No one in the WP/ISL tradition ever argued that exploitation would wither away under Stalinism - quite the opposite, they pointed to its viciousness in the USSR. If taken seriously, Cliff's view would preclude Marxists from explaining any society other than capitalism - except by reference to Marx's flippant comment about the size of the ruling class's stomachs - hardly adequate to explain the great ancient civilisations. It is also a methodological volte-face. In reality (and in Marx's theory), the mode of exploitation, or the mode of surplus extraction, is the determinant of classes. The motives of the ruling class are simply not the principal issue.
What are the class relations under Bureaucratic Collectivism ?
Cliff made another methodological twist when he argued that the character of the class struggle in any epoch, is 'dependent on the nature of the oppressed class itself: the position it has in the process of production, the relation between its members in this process, and the relation to the owners of the means of production. These are not determined by the mode of appropriation or mode of recruitment of the ruling class.' (1949: 1-2) Cliff cited the Spartan ruling class, the medieval clergy and the Mameluke period of 'Arab feudalism' as examples of ruling classes which collectively exploited the peasantry. His point was that, 'the big difference between the mode of appropriation and recruitment of the Russian bureaucracy and that of the bourgeoisie, in itself does not at all prove that Russia represents a non-capitalist society, a new class society of Bureaucratic Collectivism. To prove this, it is necessary to show that the nature of the toiling class - its conditions of living and struggle - is fundamentally different in Russia from... capitalism.' (1949: 2) Here Cliff is asserting that if the Russian workers are proletarians in the Marxist sense, then the mode of production can only be capitalism.
However the analogy doesn't make sense in this context: for one thing, the contrast between a society like Sparta, in which a ruling class collectively exploits the slave class, with a society like Athens in which a ruling class of landowners privately exploit their slaves, sounds like a better analogy for the relationship between capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism. During the middle ages, matters were different: the clergy were in fact a sub-section of a ruling class, whose main (private) landowners could inherit the family's property (i.e. land). The collective exploitation of peasantry on church land was only a supplement to, rather a dominant feature of that epoch. Also it is not clear that parts of the Middle East during the Mameluke period (1250-1517), where again a ruling class based on the state collectively exploited the peasantry, can be called 'Arab feudalism'. Cliff introduced examples which served only to muddle the issues, and rested his case on the false assumption that if the basic exploiting class was a peasantry, then it must be feudalism.
In reality, peasants were exploited in different ways in pre-capitalist class societies; by paying rent, by paying a tribute in tax or in kind, and also by compulsory military service. That these matters were of principal concern for peasants is witnessed by the extent of peasant revolts throughout the world, some facilitating the downfall of rulers and of whole civilisations. Cliff's point, that it makes no difference to the direct producers how the ruling class appropriate their product is simply wrong; he is more concerned with establishing by analogy that the Russian workers can only be exploited by a (state) capitalist ruling class, than engaging with Shachtman's real views.
What is the nature of the working class in Russia ?
If Cliff failed to make an impression on historical matters, then he certainly felt on stronger ground when he raised the question of the nature of the Russian workers. He had seen in the New International the term 'slave labour' used loosely for the Russian working class (Trotsky too had called them 'semi-slaves'). Shachtman, said Cliff, had tried to avoid the conclusion that the Russian workers were not real proletarians, but denied that a labour market existed in the USSR and claimed that slave labour was 'the basic factor of production'. Cliff recoiled in mock horror: '... if Shachtman is right and there is no proletariat in the Stalinist regime, Marxism as a method, as a guide for the proletariat as the subject of historical change, becomes superfluous, meaningless. To speak of Marxism in a society without a proletariat, is to make of Marxism a supra-historical theory.' (1988: 348-350) Instead Cliff argued that a labour market did exist in the USSR under Stalin, citing as proof that: 'the Russian worker, notwithstanding all restrictions, moves from one factory to another much more than the German worker, or for that matter, than any other worker in the whole world.' [and] ...'All the factories producing tanks and aeroplanes, machinery, etc, were run on wage labour.'
This is another blatant falsification. Far from denying the socialist potential of the working class in Russia, the WP/ISL went on arguing for it even after their American perspectives began to wither. For example, Max Martin wrote in 1957: '... if the Hungarian revolution has struck shattering blows at the myth of totalitarian invincibility and confirmed the Marxist analysis of Stalinism as a class society in general, it has also demonstrated once again the socialist view of the key role of the working class in the struggle against all oppression and as the bearer of the socialist emancipation of society'. Shachtman also gave a devastating answer to Cliff's spurious assertion:
'The modern Stalinist bureaucracy has to its credit the development of an industrial basis for the socialist reorganisation of Russian society... This development has been grossly overrated, for Russia is even today far behind the advanced countries of capitalism. The development is nonetheless unmistakeable. Its real achievement from the class point of view, however, is the shaping and maintaining of its own grave-digger... This grave-digger is the new Russian working class, which was to total, in the figures projected for the end of the third Five Year Plan (1942), some 32,000,000 wage and salary earners, with one-third or more in industry proper, and not counting at least 10,000,000 toilers in the slave camps. Even if these figures require some modification, it cannot make a serious difference. The change between 1913 and today, between 1917 and today, certainly between 1921 and today and even between 1928 and today, is, in this respect at least, of tremendous importance. What is more, the period of Stalinist rule has seen the formation of what we called the new type of working class - old and familiar to the main capitalist countries, but not to Russia. Schwarz provides all the necessary data on this score... Today the process of developing a modern working class without rural ties is all but completed in the Soviet Union.'5
Cliff was also wrong about a labour market in Russia. He confused the movement of labour with a market for the buying and selling of labour-power. But there was no market, if, as Cliff himself recognised, there were no capitalists to compete for workers, nor any reserve army of labour which Marx saw as fundamental to the operation of a labour market, nor indeed a monetary system which allowed for comparison of the 'commodities' produced (including of course the labour-power). When Russian workers might spend nearly as long queueing for bread as they spent at work earning the roubles to pay for it, this was indeed a very odd market system. Shachtman recognised that Russia had a modern industrial working class, divorced from ownership and control of the means of production, and therefore forced to work. But the form of exploitation was not the same as wage labour; the surplus was extracted by the state and the state rationed ('planned') its use, including distributing the means of consumption. Within this system, slave labour played an actual or potential role in coercing the proletariat to work. From this class structure, the workers derived their interest and their power to overturn the system and replace it with socialism: but what they lacked was the space to develop the self-conscious politics and the organisation to do so.
Part 3 of this article will deal with Cliff's arguments on the nature of the Communist Parties
Notes for part II
1. Trotsky, 'Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR', In Defense of Marxism, 3rd edition, (1990: 9, 31). Shachtman (1947), 'The Nature of the Russian State', New International, April 1947, (later reprinted as 'Stalinism and the Marxist Tradition' in Matgamna, (ed), The Fate of the Russian Revolution 1998).
2. Shachtman, 'The Russian Stalinist Social System', Labor Action, 10th May, (1954: 2); and Shachtman, '25 Years of the Russian Revolution', New International, November. (1942: 294) [My emphasis] The reference to Trotsky is found in Appendix I of, The History of the Russian Revolution, Vol 1, (1980: 264).
3. Draper took up these issues in the first volume of his Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution, (1977). For more recent contributions on this question, see Chris Wickham, in 'The Other Transition', Past and Present, 103 (1984), and 'The Uniqueness of the East', Journal of Peasant Studies, 12 (1985).
4. Trotsky, 'The Kirov Assassination', December 28th 1934, Writings of Leon Trotsky,1934-35, (1971: 118). Carter, 'The Class Nature of the Stalinist State', IB OCSPC No2, December, (1937: 10) Draper, 'Stalinist Imperialism and the Cold war Crisis', from Labor Action, May 10th 1954, reprinted in Draper (ed) Introduction to Independent Socialism, (1963: 102-103). Draper wrote this in 1967 and it was reprinted in a pamphlet, The Dynamics of Bureaucratic Collectivism, (1974: 45).
5. Martin, 'The Working class vs. The Totalitarian Myth', Labor Action, 13th May, (1957: 2). [My emphasis] Shachtman, 'A Valuable Aid for Understanding Russia', review of 'Labor in the Soviet Union' by Solomon Schwarz, New International, March-April, (1953:102). [My emphasis]
Attitude towards the Communist Parties
Cliff’s final prong was that bureaucratic collectivism disorientated revolutionaries in their dealings with Stalinist Communist Parties, especially those in the West after the war. This did not appear in the original article — it is grafted onto the revised version. Shachtman had written:
“Stalinism is a reactionary, totalitarian, anti-bourgeois and anti-proletarian current in the labor movement but not of the labor movement... where, as is the general rule nowadays, the militants are not yet strong enough to fight for the leadership directly; where the fight for control of the labor movement is, in effect, between the reformists and the Stalinists, it would be absurd for the militants to proclaim their ‘neutrality’ and fatal for them to support the Stalinists. Without any hesitation, they should follow the general line, inside the labor movement, of supporting the reformist officialdom against the Stalinist officialdom. In other words, where it is not yet possible to win the unions for the leadership of revolutionary militants, we forthrightly prefer the leadership of reformists who aim in their own way to maintain a labor movement, to the leadership of the Stalinist totalitarians who aim to exterminate it... while the revolutionists are not the equal of the reformists and the reformists are not the equal of the revolutionists, the two are now necessary and proper allies against Stalinism. The scores have to be settled with reformism — those will be settled on a working class basis and in a working class way, and not under the leadership or in alliance with totalitarian reaction.”(1)
Cliff claimed that if this policy was followed in the West, it would strengthen right-wing social democracy and would not prise rank and file Communist workers from their leaders. Duncan Hallas had argued in 1951 that it was not the programme or leadership but rather the composition of a party which determined its class character(2). For Hallas, therefore, Communist Parties were workers’ parties, and revolutionaries should utilise the tactic of the united front towards them. This political assessment of the Stalinist parties, was actually worse than the harder, Cannonite section of the “orthodox” Trotskyist movement. Shachtman argued that the Communist Parties were more than just agents of Russian foreign policy (a common conception amongst Trotskyists); they also sought to set up identical regimes to the USSR if they gained power. This was borne out by the experience of Eastern Europe and China, and later confirmed in Cuba and Vietnam. Therefore the usual policy of the united front did not mechanically apply to Stalinists. The originator of this assessment, Shachtman showed, was Trotsky himself, in one of his last articles:
“The predominating type among the present ‘Communist’ bureaucrats is the political careerist, and in consequence the polar opposite of the revolutionist. Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule.”(3)
It is true that Trotsky had argued earlier in 1940 that the SWP should critically support the Communist candidate in the presidential elections (in the absence of a genuine workers’ candidate), but even more “orthodox” American Trotskyists like James P Cannon were opposed to doing so. Of course Trotsky was trying to address the real problem that the Communists had tens of thousands of members in the US in 1940, a figure that had shrunk considerably by 1950. Shachtman’s hostile attitude towards the Stalinists did not stop his group from calling for a Socialist Party-Communist Party-CGT government in France (because the Stalinists were not on the verge of taking power). His Stalinophobia did not extend very far in 1950, as he debated Earl Browder, the former CP leader who been expelled from the party in mid forties. This was the debate where he turned to Browder, in the course of discussing the number of ex-Communist leaders who had been killed by the GPU, and joked, that “there, but for an accident of geography, sits a corpse”!
The crucial test was the attitude taken towards the McCarthyite witch-hunt. From the outset of the anti-red drive in 1946, the Workers’ Party opposed it categorically, distinguishing between the leaders of the CP and the rank and file members, and argued for a independent political fight by the working class and its organisations against Stalinist influence. And its propaganda for socialist democracy was a legitimate and principled line to distinguish itself from Stalinism. One of the few serious reasons given for the dissolution of the ISL into the Socialist Party in 1958 was that a new pole of attraction was needed to regroup the left, including those ex-members of the American Communist Party who had left in the wake of Khrushchev’s revelations about Stalin in 1956. This, together with the fracturing of CPs along national lines (as well as their decline on membership), was clearly a material factor to be taken into account when dealing with these organisations. Yet Cliff presented Shachtman as holding to the same attitude towards the Communist Parties regardless of circumstances.
Cliff on politics: “All that glisters is not gold’
Shachtman initially followed Trotsky in defining Russia as more progressive than capitalism, because of nationalised property, but later came to characterise Stalinism as barbarism. Cliff criticised Shachtman for failing to draw the requisite political conclusions from his sociological analyses. Again Cliff borrowed from the arsenal of orthodox Trotskyism, alluding to the dispute within the SWP in 1939-40, and to Shachtman’s failure to call for the defence of the USSR when Russia was attacked by Nazi Germany in 1941.
Cliff never understood the 1939-40 dispute about Russia’s attack on Poland and Finland. Shachtman had then argued that socialists could not read off their attitude to wars simply from the character of the regimes involved — look, for example, at the wars between Italy and Ethiopia in 1934-35, or Japan and China in 1937 — but rather they had to analyse concretely the politics of the combatants involved, because (to paraphrase von Clausewitz), war is a continuation of politics by other means. Cliff parroted the catch-cry of inconsistency, but because the same argument could be thrown back at him, he took a very different attitude to the wars in Korea and Vietnam, which both involved, at least at the outset, a conflict between American imperialism and a backward Stalinist state. (In fact the political issue in these wars was really about national liberation not Stalinism.)
Cliff was well aware that for Shachtman the “defence” of the USSR was analogous to the struggle for colonial independence, i.e., relative to other considerations, and that the involvement of the USSR in the second world war was not primarily about the leading imperialists fighting together to get rid of nationalised property. The USSR entered the war in 1939 with imperial designs on parts of Eastern Europe, and became an integral partner on the Allied side against the Axis in another inter-imperialist conflict. The victory of Hitler’s rapacious imperialism would indeed have been a disaster for the workers of Europe, but the consequences of Russia’s expansion of empire after 1945 were hardly less oppressive. Shachtman had never said socialists had to support the USSR in every war with other imperialist powers, but he left the door open for its “defence” under certain circumstances. After the war, and given the further expansion of Stalinism, this door was firmly closed.
During the 1950s and 1960s, it is true that some members of the WP/ISL lost their political bearings and were drawn into what they saw as the lesser evil, of supporting democratic US imperialism against the USSR. For example, leaders such as Irving Howe left to form the journal Dissent. But to do so meant they had to break with the organisation, as indeed Shachtman effectively did when he dissolved the ISL into the Socialist Party in 1958. No doubt Cliff had in mind Shachtman’s muted left cover for the CIA-inspired Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and his support in later life for America’s war in Vietnam. But Shachtman’s personal evolution is not a verdict on the Third Camp tradition which he helped to develop, particularly as these errors were rightly criticised at the time by others in his tradition, who maintained their hostility to both US and Stalinist imperialism. The argument that bureaucratic collectivism was inherently unable to provide a perspective for socialists is not borne out by the record. Draper summed up this perspective in 1949:
“The basis for the disorientation of the proletarian forces consists in this: that these rival exploiting systems are not clearly recognised as enemies on an equal footing... It is on an analysis of the new conditions that the politics of Independent Socialism is founded — ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow’ — and it is on this that the socialist struggle against the war is based... We declare that, as in the first and second world wars, support for either camp amounts to a betrayal of the interests not only of socialism and the working class but humanity.”(4)
“Neither Washington nor Moscow” — the familiar catch-cry of Cliff’s publications for years and used before him by the Workers’ Party to sum up the relationship of the international working class to Western imperialism and Russian Stalinism. The “Third Camp” slogan was a synonym for independent working class politics. The WP/ISL adopted a “plague on both your houses” approach to all sides, including the USSR, during the second world war, concentrating on the “main enemy at home’, American imperialism. They analysed the spread of Stalinism into Eastern Europe under the control of the Red Army, and opposed it vigorously. They analysed the way in which both the labour movements and the capitalist classes in those countries were smashed, as they had been in Russia after 1928, and unlike the mainstream Trotskyists, harboured no illusions that these events were so-called “deformed workers’ revolutions which had taken place without and against the activity of the workers’ themselves. Later, they drew attention to the phoney nature of the “unions” in the Stalinist states, being rather instruments in the running of a system which allowed no normal, free trade unions. Their perspective, developed in the light of experiences in 1956, would have been more or less adequate during the period of the decline of Stalinism, including the war in Afghanistan, towards Solidarnosc and during the revolutions of 1989-91.
“In the anti-Stalinist revolution, therefore, we vigorously support all tendencies, struggles and steps toward a revolutionary democratic opposition to the regime...
“The leading social force in the anti-Stalinist revolution, however, is the working class. The experience of both Hungary and Poland has shown that the revolutionary working class spontaneously organised its forces into Workers’ Councils as its revolutionary instrument against the state, and that these Workers’ Councils tended to assume the character of dual power challenging the old state or assuming its power after the shattering of the old state.”(5)
Why did Cliff slander Shachtman? Within the Trotskyist milieu he was accused by Grant of following “bureaucratic collectivism”, and this impression was buttressed by Draper in a friendly review of Cliff’s book in 1956: “We have often pointed out that the ‘state capitalist’ theory sometimes shades into versions which make it virtually identical with our own. This tends to happen where the ‘state capitalism’ which is seen in Russia is analyzed as being basically different from ‘private capitalism’ that it tends to take on the characteristics of a new social system, which is not the same as any other system, and which is labelled as hyphenated-capitalism only as a matter of terminological taste. Cliff’s analysis does not begin this way, but it tends to wind up so.”(6) This was over-generous: Cliff had contributed nothing original on the inner workings of Stalinism, but taken an attractive name-tag and turned it into an empty phrase.
Cliff slandered the views of Shachtman and his comrades because they were the main competitors of his “state capitalism” as the alternative to the workers’ state label. A combination of misrepresentation, oft repeated, together with a certain plagiarism all those years ago, served to rub out the real issues. The crowning glory of the British SWP, a 50-year tradition built around “state capitalism” is a sham, built on a mythology about bureaucratic collectivism. This theory was not without its problems, but they should be discussed honestly and on their merits. As a body of work, bureaucratic collectivism was a substantial contribution towards an understanding of the USSR, Eastern Europe and China in their formative years, and should be one of the reference points for those who want to revive and renew the real Marxist tradition.
Notes for part 3
1. Shachtman, “A Left-Wing of the Labour Movement ?”, New International, September 1949.
2. See Hallas, “The Stalinist Parties”, Socialist Review, July 1951, in Hallas (ed) 1971. Cannon wrote: “It has been our general practice to combine in general day-to-day trade union work with the progressives and even the conservative labor fakers against the Stalinists. We have been correct from this point of view, that while the conservatives and traditional labor skates are no better than the Stalinists, are no less betrayers in the long run, they have different bases of existence. The Stalinist base is the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. They are perfectly willing to disrupt a trade union in defense of the foreign policy of Stalin. The traditional labor fakers have no roots in Russia nor any support in its powerful bureaucracy. Their only base of existence is the trade union; if the union is not preserved they have no further existence as trade union leaders. That tends to make them, from self-interest, a little more loyal to the unions than the Stalinists. That is why we have been correct in most cases in combining with them as against the Stalinists in purely union affairs.” Cannon, 19th October 1940. Printed in Evans, L. (ed.), James P. Cannon: Writings and Speeches, 1940-43 — The Socialist Workers’ Party in World War II. (1975: 88-89).
3. Trotsky, ‘The Comintern and the GPU’, 17th August 1940. First published in Fourth International, November 1940. In Breitman (ed.) Writings 1939-40, (1973: 350-351).
4. ISL ‘Capitalism, Stalinism and the War’, New International, April (1949: 116, 126)
5. ISL Theses, Labor Action, 15th July (1957: 6-7)
6. For some proof of the connections between Cliff and the Shachtmanites, see the testimony of Ken Coates and Stan Newens in Workers’ Liberty, 18, February 1995. Draper (1956), Workers’ Liberty, No.49, September (1998: 43)
Other reading on Cliff, state capitalism and the SWP:
The Great Gadsby (an obituary of Cliff), Workers’ Liberty 64-5
Cliff’s state capitalism revisited, Workers’ Liberty 56.