Paul le Blanc reviews The two Trotskyisms

With the publication of two fat volumes of documents under the heading “The Fate of the Russian Revolution,” under the editorship of Sean Matgamna, the Workers’ Liberty current in Britain has performed a genuine service for scholars and activists.

Something of Value

In a sense, we are presented with three books in the guise of two, with the editor producing introductions of 156 pages in the first volume and 125 pages (including timeline and glossary) in the second. This “book” of 281 pages advances a line of argument that champions the perspectives of Max Shachtman, a U.S. associate of Leon Trotsky who broke with him in 1940.

Just out is the 790-page second installment – The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism (London: Workers Liberty, 2015), dealing with the contending views within the U.S. Trotskyist movement 1940s – specifically, those aligned with Trotsky and James P. Cannon in the Socialist Workers Party, and those aligned with Shachtman in what became (for a while) the Workers Party.

The previous volume is actually entitled The Fate of the Russian Revolution (London: Phoenix Press, 1998), basically presenting the views of Shachtman and the current he led during the 1940s, and early 1950s. A “slimmer” volume, it weighs in at slightly over 600 pages. It was actually published as Volume 1 of “Lost Texts of Critical Marxism,” an overarching banner that seems to have been dropped.

There are some who, for whatever reasons, do not think there is much (or any) importance to such history, and have expressed the view that the publication of these volumes is ridiculous. It is certainly true that poring through old left-wing documents from the 1930s and 1940s is not something that most people are inclined (or in a position) to do. But to deny that there is anything useful to learn from such excavations and explorations is inconsistent with a serious attitude toward the discipline of history, as well as toward political theory, not to mention Marxism. What’s more, the materials by Shachtman and his comrades are packed with interesting ideas, useful information, and sometimes delicious humor. For some of us, at least, they are well worth looking at.

There are others who complain that the two volumes are skewed to favor the Shachtmanite orientation, and they certainly are. But there is hardly anything wrong with that, because the very purpose of these works is to make the case for the Shachtman orientation. If Sean Matagmna didn’t feel a passion for this perspective – which he advocates in the very capable polemic that constitutes the “third book” – these volumes would never have been produced at all.

The Trotskyist Approach

Writing a capable polemic does not necessarily mean writing a persuasive polemic. For example, I am not persuaded that the ideas and the very nature of Shachtman’s Trotskyist opponents – James P. Cannon and others in the Socialist Workers Party – are adequately characterized or dealt with either by Shachtman or Matgamna. It can certainly be argued that, over the long haul, their organization held up better than that of Shachtman, their political orientation proved in some ways less disastrous (avoiding Shachtman’s Cold War anti-Communism of the 1960s – instead organizing an effective movement against the U.S. war in Vietnam), and their theoretical orientation continues to have much to recommend it.

It is this last point that I want to focus on in the remainder of these comments. As the framework, we must naturally turn our attention to the analysis Shachtman contended with – that developed by Trotsky. As Matgamna correctly emphasizes: “Trotsky constantly rethought, reconceptualized, readjusted his thinking on the USSR as on other issues.” This is amply demonstrated in Thomas M. Twiss’s remarkable new study, Trotsky and the Problem of Soviet Bureaucracy (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), which traces the evolution of Trotsky’s analyses and theorizations from the early 1920s to the mid-1930s, replete with brilliant insights blended with false starts, misperceptions compelling subsequent corrections, and the evolution of a deepening understanding of complex realities. The culmination was the 1936-37 classic The Revolution Betrayed.

The Revolution Betrayed covered a broad array of economic, social, political, and cultural issues. Trotsky went on to argue that the Soviet state and society were fluid, transitional, and could not be defined by “finished social categories” such as capitalism or socialism. Capitalism was governed by profit-driven market relations, an accumulation process, inconsistent with the actual dynamics of the USSR. Socialism could not be reduced to a state-owned economy with top-down centralized planning in a single country, even one as large as the USSR – it required genuine democracy and global scope to be viable and consistent with a Marxist understanding of socialism. Instead, Trotsky offered this complex characterization:

The Soviet Union is a contradictory society halfway between capitalism and socialism, in which: (a) the productive forces are still far from adequate to give the state property a socialist character; (b) the tendency toward primitive accumulation created by want breaks out through innumerable pores of the planned economy; (c) norms of distribution preserving a bourgeois character lie at the basis of a new differentiation of society; (d) the economic growth, while slowly bettering the situation of the toilers, promotes a swift formation of privileged strata; (e) exploiting the social antagonisms, a bureaucracy has converted itself into an uncontrolled caste alien to socialism; (f) the social revolution, betrayed by the ruling party, still exists in property relations and in the consciousness of the toiling masses; (g) a further development of the accumulating contradictions can as well lead to socialism as back to capitalism; (h) on the road to capitalism the counterrevolution would have to break the resistance of the workers; (i) on the road to socialism the workers would have to overthrow the bureaucracy. In the last analysis, the question will be decided by a struggle of living social forces, both on the national and the world arena.

Trotsky believed that “only hypotheses are possible” regarding future developments beyond this transitional stage. One possibility was the eventual restoration of capitalism – which, in fact, is what finally happened. He had genuine hopes, however, that the struggles of “living social forces,” including in the Soviet Union, would move forward toward socialism in the foreseeable future.

Concluding that “the bureaucracy can be removed only by a revolutionary force,” Trotsky noted that “to prepare this and stand at the head of the masses in a favorable historic situation” would be “the task of the Soviet section of the Fourth International.” He admitted that “today it is still weak and driven underground,” but added that “the illegal existence of a party is not nonexistence.”

Problematical Developments

This key assumption was to become almost immediately problematical with the onset of what the late historian Vadim Rogovin termed “political genocide” – Stalin’s 1937-38 slaughter of old Bolsheviks, and of the majority of Trotskyists who were machine-gunned in the gulags. A case can be made that a failure to adequately factor this horrific fact into his subsequent analyses and theorizations introduced an element of unreality into what Trotsky had to say about the political revolution he advocated. But it is worth giving serious consideration, nonetheless, to what he meant by “political revolution.”

Believing that the political revolution he called for must not substitute one ruling clique with another, Trotsky insisted that “bureaucratic autocracy must give place to Soviet democracy,” and he offered details on what this would look like. Full freedom of speech and genuinely free elections, with not only a democratization of the Bolshevik party but also the freedom for other parties to exist in the re-democratized Soviets, would all be crucial, as would the revival of the trade unions. “The bringing of democracy into industry means a radical revision of plans in the interests of the toilers. Free discussion of economic problems will decrease the overhead expense of bureaucratic mistakes and zigzags.” Bureaucratic privileges and high-budget “show-off” projects would make way for a more equitable sharing of the social wealth, with decent housing and other social needs being prioritized. “The youth will receive the opportunity to breathe freely, criticize, make mistakes, and grow up. Science and art will be freed of their chains.” And naturally, “foreign policy will return to the traditions of revolutionary internationalism.”

Trotsky believed that such a political revolution could free the nationalized, planned economy – flowing from the conquests of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 – from the authoritarian-bureaucratic stranglehold that would otherwise kill it. The Bolsheviks, had led the successful struggle to give all power to the soviets, the democratic workers’ councils, thereby creating a workers state, which had begun the transition from capitalism to socialism. The bureaucratically-degenerated workers’ state must be replaced by the re-establishment of a genuinely democratic workers state.

What Max Shachtman and others have insisted upon is that the loss of political power by the working class makes Trotsky’s insistent characterization of the USSR as any kind of a workers’ state incredibly problematical. Combine this with the physical elimination of the forces in the USSR that might have been capable of leading the political revolution for which Trotsky and his co-thinkers were calling, and we seem to have entered a theoretical and political cul-de-sac.

Shachtman concluded that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a far more stable formation than Trotsky wanted to believe. Following James Burnham (who later became a right-wing ideologue, and whose importance Matgamna goes out of his way to minimize) and Joseph Carter, Shachtman concluded that what had crystallized was a new form of class society – unanticipated in Marxist theory. This new class society was tagged as bureaucratic-collectivism, which Shachtman saw as no better, no less exploitative, no more progressive than capitalism. Within two decades he partially followed Burnham’s trajectory, seeing this new tyranny as much worse, far more exploitative, far less progressive than capitalism. He then joined Cold War anti-Communists who saw the power of the capitalist United States (whose imperialist foreign policy Shachtman had been denouncing over four decades) as the strongest bulwark against the totalitarian menace.

In addition to Trotsky’s and Shachtman’s approaches, there is the alternate theoretical construct of “state capitalism” – that is, seeing what developed in the USSR as simply a new variant of capitalism, with the bureaucratic state functioning as the “capitalist” that extracts surplus-value from the still-exploited proletariat. Different variants of this theoretical approach were developed by the “council communists” associated with Anton Pannekoek, Otto Rühle, Paul Mattick, and others; by the Johnson-Forest Tendency and its successors associated with C.L.R. James and Raya Dunayevskaya; and by Tony Cliff and others associated with the International Socialists and British Socialist Workers Party.

In 1948 Cliff forecast Shachtman’s trajectory: “If the Stalinist regime denotes the decline of civilization, the reactionary negation of capitalism, then it is of course more reactionary than the latter. Capitalism has to be defended from Stalinist barbarism” (Tony Cliff, “The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: A Critique,” Selected Writings [London: Bookmarks, 2003], 160). Partisans of the state-capitalist theory, no less than those of the degenerated workers state perspective, have seen bureaucratic-collectivism as facilitating a fatal accommodation between would-be Marxist revolutionaries and actually-existing capitalism.

Scientific Socialism

Shachtman’s 1940s articulation of the theory of bureaucratic-collectivism, however, does not inevitably lead to an alignment with the foreign policy of U.S. imperialism. Among the partisans of the theory who did not abandon revolutionary politics are Julius and Phyllis Jacobson, Hal Draper, and others who produced the journal New Politics, various comrades associated with the U.S. group Solidarity, etc. No less important than the revolutionary honor of such partisans, however, is the theory’s value for what some of us call scientific socialism – a commitment to struggling for socialism that is grounded in a serious utilization of what are today the disciplines of history, economics, sociology and political science.

Bureaucratic-collectivism certainly has value as a descriptive term – the economy is collectivized (not a market economy) but is dominated and ruled by an authoritarian regime representing a privileged and powerful bureaucratic apparatus. But what Shachtman meant by “bureaucratic-collectivism” was more than that. The apparatus was seen as a socio-economic class, similar to the slave-owning patricians of ancient Rome, the hereditary aristocracy of feudal times, and the capitalists of our own day. Similarly, bureaucratic-collectivism was presented as a new form of class society. From our own historical vantage-point, the roughly fifty-year existence of this purportedly “new stage of class society” does suggest the possibility that Shachtman and his comrades were experiencing an optical illusion. As Trotsky argued, it was all much more transitory than they believed (although certainly less transitory than Trotsky himself had anticipated).

Marcel van der Linden, in his excellent survey of contending theories, Western Marxism and the Soviet Union (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2009), has noted that “it is perfectly clear that the Soviet society can hardly be explained in orthodox Marxist terms at all.” In examining the predominant theoretical variants – (1) degenerated workers state, (b) bureaucratic-collectivism, and (3) state capitalism – he concludes that a fully adequate analysis of the USSR has yet to be developed. He adds that this does “not mean to imply that the old theories are of no use whatever in further theoretical developments,” suggesting (correctly, in my opinion) that each approach has, in fact, proved capable of generating valuable insights and analyses.

To the extent that this is true, and that the materials in these volumes also provide valuable primary sources on the important history of U.S. and world Trotskyism, those committed to a truly scientific socialism in efforts to understand and change the world should see the publication of these volumes as a positive contribution.


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