Orthodox Trotskyism reshaped Trotsky’s ideas

By Ed Maltby

Paul Le Blanc’s review of The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism: Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 2 (Solidarity388) is a thoughtful and detailed piece.

Le Blanc defends The Two Trotskyisms against some on the left who deride the book as pointless obsessing over long-ago spats. He is right to do it: such complaints remind one of Homer Simpson, who, warned that he’s late for English class, sneers “Pff! English, who needs that? I’m never going to England!”

The truth is that the two Fate of the Russian Revolution books are about the Trotskyist movement as it is right now. They are not just scholarly works about distant, long-ago arguments — they trace the development of patterns of thought and behaviour that shape how our movement thinks and works today. In particular, they look at the development of what Workers’ Liberty has called “apparatus Marxism”.

Le Blanc focuses his review on the 1940s dispute over the class character of the USSR, and weighing the merits of “Third Camp”, views that see the USSR as a new form of class society, be it capitalist or something else, against the “Orthodox” view of the USSR as still a “workers’ state”, albeit degenerated. Le Blanc’s deals with the subject matter in a tone of ecumenical and scholarly tact. But there can be no mistaking that he means to defend Cannon against Shachtman, and enlists “state-capitalist” theorist Tony Cliff to help him out. For Le Blanc, Cannon’s approach — which is to say, Trotsky’s approach — “continues to have much to recommend it”. And whereas the survival of the Cannon group vindicates Cannon’s ideas, the disintegration of the Shachtman group (and Shachtman’s personal rightward lurch in later life) offer proof of the weakness of the “Third Camp” tradition.

The first thing to reply to Le Blanc, and this is a key theme of the book, is this: Cannon’s 1940s politics on the “degenerated workers’ state” were not the same as Trotsky’s 1939-40 politics. Cannon travelled, in less than a year after Trotsky’s death, far from Trotsky’s position. Le Blanc accepts Matgamna’s contention that “Trotsky constantly rethought, reconceptualised, readjusted his thinking on the USSR” through the 1930s, but he says this process of analysis “culminated” in Trotsky’s book, The Revolution Betrayed, written in 1935-6 and published in spring 1937. But Trotsky’s 1937 book was far from his final word.

After its publication Trotsky continued to shift his emphasis, contradict his previous writings, and speculate as to whether or not the USSR should be considered a new form of class society. In an April 1939 article Trotsky urgently raised the slogan of an independent Ukraine. He pointed to, but refused to draw, the logical conclusion: that the USSR’s behaviour in Ukraine should be called imperialist. In his September 1939 article The USSR in War, Trotsky remarked that to give the USSR bureaucracy the label of a new ruling class would be a “purely verbal” change. The distance between Trotsky’s view and the view of the Soviet bureaucracy as a new class, was narrowing. Trotsky resisted taking the final step. Why?

It seems that foremost in Trotsky’s mind was this: when the expected crisis of the Soviet regime came, the Trotskyists in Russia must be ready to lead the fight against capitalist restoration, and turn this into a struggle for workers’ power. They must not say, “a plague on both your houses — bureaucrat and capitalist alike”. He resisted any theoretical expression that might lull the Trotskyists into sectarian abstention from an expected struggle. Calling the USSR a new class society might be reasonable in theory, but it might be premature and it might encourage dangerous conclusions.

Trotsky’s concerns, and his method, were rooted in the changing situation of 1939, and his attempt to chart a course for the global revolutionary movement through the hard months before as he saw, new choices were bound to emerge. After Trotsky died (on 21 August 1940), the Cannon leadership flash-froze his writings into a dogma, and in so doing changed their dynamic, content, and meaning.

For Cannon, and for the majority of the post-Trotsky Trotskyist movement, “defence of the Soviet Union” changed from a perspective that assumed the imminent collapse of the USSR, into a timeless moral obligation on socialists to laud the sole characteristic that gave Stalin’s regime (otherwise described by Trotsky as differing from fascism “only in its more unbridled savagery”) its “proletarian character”, that is, nationalised industry.

As the Stalinist system confounded Trotsky’s predictions by surviving the war and spread across the world, the label “degenerated” or “deformed” workers’ state came to be given to any state, at any time, whose leadership paid sufficient lip-service to the October Revolution and/or nationalised the economy. As Shachtman commented, this changed Lenin’s slogan from “Soviets plus electrification equals socialism” to “totalitarian prison for the workers plus nationalised property equals a degenerated workers’ state”.

The key protagonist in this view of the world ceased to be the working class, but had become the institution of nationalised property — a progressive force regardless of who brought it into being or defended it, be they Gadaffi, Castro, Mao, Tito, or even the Syrian Ba’thists and the Burmese junta. All would find themselves feted by “Orthodox” Trotskyists at some point in the post-war period and declared candidates for “unconditional defence”.

The gulf that separates the Orthodox and Heterodox Trotskyists is substantial, but it is not a boundary separating Trotsky’s position and something else; it is between two strands that both departed from Trotsky’s positions of the 1930s because new events made those positions inoperable.

Cannon’s departure from Trotsky’s positions defined “Trotskyism” for generations of revolutionaries. And not only in terms of his theory of nationalised property. The cultural shift in Cannon’s SWP also provided the model for the internal regime of most post-Trotsky Trotskyist organisations. Trotsky, had always accepted that if reality changed, so should the parameters of rational socialist debate. In 1934, he had written that “denying the proletarian character of the USSR is incompatible with membership in the Bolshevik-Leninists” (No compromise on the Russian question, 11 November 1934). But in 1939, after observing five years of subsequent developments, he would call it “a piece of monstrous nonsense to split with comrades who on the question of the sociological nature of the USSR have an opinion different from ours, insofar as they solidarise with us in regard to the political tasks.”

When Trotsky died, Cannon built his leadership around the prestige of being Trotsky’s legatee — rather as Peter, foremost disciple to Jesus, would become the first Pope. The tone was set by Cannon’s bizarre (and unsuccessful) bid to have Trotsky’s remains flown to New York for a memorial meeting held by the American group, the Socialist Workers’ Party.

The prestige of the Cannon leadership required that Trotsky’s writings be turned from the living documents into a source of scriptural authority, to be quoted from in order to support this or that position held by the leadership. In 1945, Felix Morrow summed up the changes: “Trotsky created an atmosphere of free exchange of ideas, of hospitality to attempts to find what is new in a situation… After his death, however, the Political Committee majority tended… to create a very different kind of atmosphere.” From here on in, as Matgamna puts it, “Marxism as a process of scientific investigation had come to an end”.

Insistence on the literal truth of all Trotsky’s predictions and formulas became a “matter of principle”. In November 1945, Cannon would declare that only “careless thinkers” could believe that the Second World War had ended; and he and his allies would defend that statement when challenged, rather than admitting it was an extravagance. Reconstruction of Europe using American money was declared “a theoretical impossibility”, as was the re-establishment of parliamentary democracies.

This was a different form of reasoning to what had come before, and a worse one. Le Blanc gives us an example of this kind of “Orthodox” reasoning when he quotes Cliff against Shachtman: “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”. Le Blanc summarises Cliff’s view: “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.”

There are, I think, three problems with this line of attack against Shachtman. The first is that Cliff is effectively saying that a line of enquiry should be rejected if it threatens to produce conclusions that clash with one’s existing prejudices. Saying “X can’t be true: it’s heretical!” is a good way of defending orthodoxy — but it is a poor way of figuring out the truth. Secondly, as Le Blanc in fact acknowledges, it does not follow that if you think that the USSR is an exploitative class society, more reactionary than capitalism, you must become a supporter of the capitalist camp. On the other hand, Cliff in the 1940s saw the USSR’s “state capitalism” as a higher form of capitalism, and more historically progressive than what existed in the west. Cliff was accommodating to the prevailing orthodoxy (a stance which the tendency he founded has since replaced by a “more-anti-Stalinist” one, but never officially revised). But does this mean that Cliff saw himself as on the side of the USSR as the “more progressive” camp? The third problem is, weren’t the Stalinist societies in fact more reactionary than capitalism? Were they not “worse” from a working-class point of view? Without exception, Stalinist societies liquidated the workers’ movement, reducing it to semi-slavery and destroying its basic organisations, which are the prerequisite for socialist culture and workers’ power.

What about the indisputable fact that whereas the Cannon group survived until the 1980s (when it formally repudiated Trotskyism as it understood it), the Shachtman group fell apart? I think the short answer to this is that a doctrine which helps an organisation achieve success is not necessarily the same thing as a doctrine which is founded in truth or reason.

The 1950s were a period of McCarthyite reaction and small-c conservatism in the US labour movement. They were also a period of massive Stalinist expansion. The immense success of the USSR drew many of the world’s rebels, from national liberation movements to leftwing intellectuals of different stripes, into the orbit of the Soviet sphere. Sometimes these new satellites were more or less reluctant, like Jean-Paul Sartre. But whatever the misgivings, it was undeniable that the major antagonist of western capitalist imperialism in the postwar period was the Soviet Union with its colonies and clones.

Unwillingly, and with many misgivings and a more honourable record than most, the Cannon tendency was drawn into this orbit. And that sustained them politically. If you could view the expansion of the Stalinist system as in some sense a vindication of revolutionary politics, or a source of hope, then regardless of whatever criticisms you might make of it (and Cannon’s criticisms were trenchant and heartfelt), then that provided you with a morale-bolstering illusion. However bad things were at home: internationally, the “conquests of October” were on the march!

Moreover, SWP-USA had an internal regime which was that of a sect. But it also had the positive features of a sect — it inspired sacrifice and devotion which kept the group together. Eventually, the internal regime would, by Cannon’s own account, “strangle the party”, when a new “Castroite” leadership emerged around Jack Barnes. Cannon denounced the “strangling” in advance, but he had provided Barnes with the tools he needed.

The Shachtman current did not have such sheltering illusions, and, for both good and ill, they lacked the sectish character of the Cannon group. Their view of Stalinist rule as an expansion of anti-working-class slavery was accurate, but also profoundly demoralising. That it also swam against the stream of almost all left opinion produced difficulties. They were mistaken, perhaps understandably so, in their prediction that Stalinism was on the way to replace capitalism world-wide led Shachtman to back US imperialism against USSR imperialism. But Shachtman one of only a few of the leading figures in the Workers’ Party-ISL tendency taking that path. Most simply assimilated into the social democracy, often without clearly repudiating their revolutionary views.

Shachtman’s “fall” — his decision in 1962 to more-or-less support the CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba — is often used as a cautionary tale to warn off the curious. He made a fatal political mistake, probably born of profound demoralisation and exhaustion. But he didn’t abandon the camp of the working class. He became a left-wing fixer in the Socialist Party, later in the Democratic Party, and in the Civil Rights movement. Not the renegade of popular legend, and in some ways substantially to the left of, say, Corbyn. Moreover, as Matgamna points out, Shachtman “took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism”.

The Cannonites also made a big concession to imperialism — Soviet imperialism — and as early as 1941. In the Second World War, the Cannonite paper, The Militant, would reproduce material lifted from Stalinist propaganda outlets, and declare that Russian expansion across Eastern Europe would herald revolutions. Why should this loss of political independence count for less than Shachtman’s?

To the end of his life Cannon remained a working-class revolutionary. He saw himself, and was, a revolutionary opponent of Stalinism. But the doctrine that he taught relied on Stalinism as, at some level, the carrier of the fortunes of revolution. It would be translated into many different dialects throughout the history of “Orthodox” post-Trotsky Trotskyism, some much cruder than others. But the political edifice, the method that Cannon produced, and the style of organisation — where a heresy-hunting atmosphere propped up the authority of leaderships said to be in sole possession of the truth — has been a blight on the Trotskyist movement.

Le Blanc says that Cannon’s approach has much to recommend it: I find it hard to agree. The dogma of “degenerated” and “deformed” workers’ states seems today to be as much a freakish historical aberration as the social systems to which it was an ideological satellite: conceived in error, and maintained for reasons of sect prestige. Adaptations of it remain — the Cliffite groups around the world, for example, have much the same relation to hard-right political Islam as the Orthodox once had to the Soviet Union — but the theory itself has surely definitively failed the test of history.

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