Max Shachtman

Submitted by martin on 24 August, 2018 - 7:19 Author: Sean Matgamna

Max Shachtman was one of the founding members of the US Trotskyist movement in 1928, and from then through to 1940 was the foremost writer and polemicist, after Trotsky, of the Trotskyist movement worldwide. He had been an activist in the US Communist Party since he joined it at the age of 17 in 1921.

Shachtman led the wing of the Trotskyist movement which in 1939-40 argued (against Trotsky and Cannon) that the concept of "defence of the USSR" could not be applied to Stalin's war attempting to conquer Finland. After the Trotskyists split in April 1940 he led the "Heterodox" wing of the Trotskyist movement.

In old age (from about 1960: he died in 1972) Shachtman sank into wheeler-dealer politicking with trade union leaders and Democratic Party people, but we believe his earlier writing (he wrote almost nothing in his last years) remain vital contributions to Marxist politics.

From the Introduction to The Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 1

The author of most of the material in this volume is Max Shachtman. His texts champion the Russian Revolution and revolutionary socialist politics with incomparable verve.

Through most of the 1930s Max Shachtman had played a role second only to Trotsky in propagating revolutionary Marxism. But by the time he died in 1972 he had moved far from such politics. Sometime in the later 1950s Shachtman became convinced that revolutionary politics in the USA were not "operational" in the foreseeable future.

Like the Workers Party, which he and others founded in 1940 after breaking with Trotsky over Russia, and its successor the Independent Socialist League, Shachtman believed it to be his duty to help the American working class develop a mass political party, of the sort the British Labour Party then was, but with better politics. In 1958 the ISL liquidated itself into the tiny Socialist Party, and soon Shachtman and his friends controlled that party. The Democratic Party, since Roosevelt, had had the active support of most of the trade union movement. Soon the Socialist Party was working in the broad Democratic Party for a strategy devised by Shachtman: they would take the American working class a giant stride forward in politics, by transforming the Democratic Party into a labour-controlled party, in effect a Labour Party. How? The racist southern Democrats, whose affiliation to the Democratic Party dated back to the Civil War, would be hived off.

Shachtman became a sort of operational Fabian,working-class working behind the scenes to manipulate developments in the trade unions and the Democratic Party in the direction he thought would best serve the next stage of working-class development on the road to a socialist consciousness. In this guise of American Fabian, Shachtman helped organise the civil rights movement. He had at the beginning described this Democratic Party realignment strategy as "foul and discreditable work", but necessary. In pursuit of an "opening to the right" which dominated the labour movement, he himself moved on to the right wing's political terrain.

How much was initially a pedagogical adaptation, I do not know. He worked with the existing trade union leaders, whom he had once justly described as agents of the ruling class - the labour lieutenants of capital. In an exact replication of the fate of the USA's "Right Communist" grouping of the 1930s, headed by Jay Lovestone, many of Shachtman's supporters became part of the trade union bureaucracy. Shachtman ceased to believe in a "Third Camp" of the working class and oppressed people throughout the world, and opted - like the "orthodox" Trotskyists, only on the other side - for one of the two great camps in the world. He chose the camp led by the USA.

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

In the post-war world where the USSR was the second great global power, recognition that the USA and Western Europe - advanced capitalism - was the more progressive of the contending camps, the one which gave richer possibilities, greater freedom, more for socialists to build on, was, I believe, a necessary part of the restoration of Marxist balance to socialist politics. It was a pre-requisite for the reconstruction of Marxism after the systematic destruction of concepts over a whole period. That destruction began with the early 1920s conversion of Bolshevik civil-war exigencies into revolutionary law and culminated in the final ideological convulsions of Trotsky.

But reconciliation with capitalism in the manner of Shachtman in his last years was no necessary part of it, any more than it was for Karl Marx in The Communist Manifesto when he rejected the "reactionary socialists". Marx was able to analyse the progressive work of British rule in India while also opposing it; Lenin could write "Can anyone in his senses deny that Bismarckian Germany and her social laws are 'better' than Germany before 1848?... Did the German Social Democrats ... vote for Bismarck's reforms on these grounds?".

For Marx, for Lenin, and for the classical Marxists, to recognise something as "objectively" progressive did not at all necessarily entail supporting it or endorsing it politically; their task, as they saw it, was to educate, organise and mobilise the working class and to help it to utilise its opportunities - not to promote progress in general in abstraction from the class struggle. Thus the idea of defending even bourgeois liberty against Stalinism, which was an international extension of the tacit alliance revolutionaries might enter into with liberal bourgeois forces against threatening reaction, did not necessarily imply surrender of working-class independence, or demand of revolutionary socialists that they should commit hara-kiri for its sake.

Shachtman drew conclusions he had never drawn in the fight against fascism. He joined the democratic capitalist camp. At the time (1962) of the CIA-backed Cuban émigré invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs, Shachtman broke with those of his comrades, Hal Draper and Phyllis and Julius Jacobson, and others who would continue to stand on Workers Party and ISL politics. Shachtman thought that a Stalinist Cuba, where no real labour movement could exist, was the greater evil, and backed the invaders.

Shachtman's hopes for the development of the Democratic Party into a party controlled by the labour movement floundered as Lyndon B Johnson's America got drawn deeper and deeper into war in Indochina - a war of mechanised slaughter wreaked from the air indiscriminately on Vietnam and Cambodia. Shachtman believed that only behind the bulwark against Stalinism which the USA thus provided could the forces that would resist Stalinism on the basis of progressive politics and democracy be given a chance to emerge.

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

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

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

Nonetheless, Shachtman at the end was deeply mired in conventional American dirty bourgeois politics. The man who had with some justification denounced James P Cannon's conception of the revolutionary party as owing too much to conventional American machine "boss" politics, died in the company of the real machine-politics "bosses". His section of the Socialist Party in effect supported Richard Nixon in the election that was held a week after Shachtman's death.

This end to Shachtman's political life must for socialists cast a dark shadow on his memory. There are those eager to make sure it does, who use it to discredit his ideas and his struggle in the '40s and '50s for rational revolutionary working-class politics - that is, to develop the real heritage of Trotsky. It is not so simple or straightforward.

The position of Hal Draper and his comrades, their resistance to Shachtman's course, and their break with him would alone refute the canard that Shachtman's end was implied in his differences with Trotsky. Shachtman, when he took himself into the camp of American imperialism, did not take his life's work with him. He could not. Against his future self, he had laid down immense barriers of passionate reason, unanswerable logic, truthful history, righteous contempt for turncoats and faint-hearts and scorn for those who in middle age make peace with the capitalism on which in their braver youth they had declared war to the death.

Shachtman's "Third Camp" writings are the best commentary on, and the best condemnation of, Shachtman at the end. Those writings, and the writings of Shachtman's comrades, are an important, indeed a unique part of the capital of revolutionary socialism. Arguably - I would so argue - they are the lineal defence, elaboration and continuation of Trotsky's ideas, that is of unfalsified Marxism, as they really were and as they really were developing at Trotsky's death. These writings are a precious part of the heritage of revolutionary socialism: in the post-Stalinist world they are no small part of the seed from which an unfalsified socialism will be reborn. There are parallels.

Lenin advocated that the literary remains of George Plekhanov should be kept in print and studied by socialists. Plekhanov, one of the greatest and the first of Russian Marxists, had backed the Russian Tsar's war in 1914-18. Lenin also advocated that the pre-World War One work of Karl Kautsky should be treated in the same way. So should Shachtman and his work. Isn't it to aggrandise Shachtman and his comrades too much to bracket them with Plekhanov and Kautsky? On the contrary, it is to risk understating their importance.

Plekhanov and Kautsky were very talented and accomplished participants in a large school.

The group of which Shachtman was the political leader and the outstanding writer were the rearguard of an overthrown and ruined political civilisation, which they worked to preserve and restore. It was a political world in which Stalinism fostered amnesia, charlatanism, spiritual darkness, a world in which socialism was eclipsed by vile fraudulence and the old socialist movement had been engulfed by political barbarism. Shachtman and his comrades kept alive Marxist method, culture, political memory, and the aspiration to working-class liberty in that age of political barbarism. Even their nearest brothers and sisters, the "orthodox" Trotskyists, who, despite their faults and inadequacies, had great merit of their own, were infected and tainted by the forces dominant in the labour movement during the Stalinist dark age. Neither Plekhanov nor Kautsky was irreplaceable in his time: there were others as good or better and a large movement from which they could be expected to emerge. The work Shachtman and his friends did was irreplaceable in their time and place.

No-one else did it. They were part of no big school of thought. They had to resist the gravitational pull of the far more numerous forces of "official" Trotskyism, itself caught in the gravitational pull of "Communism", in order to do their work. Most who called themselves Trotskyists misrepresented them then, and have since tried to obliterate the memory of the work Shachtman and his comrades did. Making these writings accessible is a necessary part of rebuilding socialism in our time. Nor are the literary remains of Shachtman tainted, except in the eyes of those who want them to be tainted, by his political end: it was not in his power to taint them. As far as I know Shachtman made no serious attempt to repudiate his earlier work. The small prefaces he wrote in his later years to editions of Trotsky's books put out by the Ann Arbor Press - Terrorism and Communism and Problems of the Chinese Revolution - make criticisms of the Bolsheviks no more stringent, though one-sidedly put, than what he said (I think justly) in "The Mistakes of the Bolsheviks" in November 1943 (chapter 1 of this book).

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

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

That is especially so when that struggle against capitalism and for socialism is narrowed down to maintaining a small group of socialists now and preparing the future. Then especially, the sense of personal impermanence and weakening infects and saps the idea of an ongoing struggle. The desire to achieve something becomes seductive and warps and replaces the fresh, clean, young sense of what is necessary and worth striving to achieve, whatever the cost and however long the struggle. The long view and the overview give way to shorter, discrete, unintegrated views.

Impatience breeds opportunism and induces indifference to the seemingly less immediate concerns. The business of achieving a little bit now displaces the old goal, or pushes it beyond the horizon. So it must have been with Max Shachtman, who in addition saw the world threatened with engulfment by Stalinist barbarism.

Julius Jacobson, a long-time associate of Max Shachtman's before 1961, wrote in an obituary of Shachtman in New Politics that, by the end, it was an abuse of language to call him a socialist at all. Yet there is continuity, despite the waning and attrition of individuals. There is a movement, whether a great mass movement or a faltering and struggling cluster of little groups. There is an accumulation of texts and literature and ideas that, once created, once put into circulation, are independent of the mind and the personality in which they originated and of the fate of
that individual.

Though individuals backslide, grow old and tired, or cowardly or corrupt, they cannot always undo what they did, unwrite what they wrote, erase the criticisms they made of class society, dim the socialist vision they conjured up, even though it has now grown dim for them - nor can they snuff out the activities of those they won and inspired and set to work to win others to the old ideals. Capitalist society has at root not changed even if its old critic has.

And so it is with Max Shachtman, as with Karl Kautsky, as with George Plekhanov and many others. That it is so with Shachtman is of tremendous importance. For Shachtman with his comrades, bore, for almost two decades, the main burden of ensuring the continuity of socialism. They knew themselves to be the survivors of a subverted socialist civilisation that had almost vanished; and they knew that it could eventually be recreated by the will, energy and dedication of socialists like themselves, acting in accord with the inner logic of history and basing themselves on the struggles of the working class. In that sense, Max Shachtman remains a great force for socialism.

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