Trotskyism and Stalinism in World War 2

By Steve Bloom

Review of The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 2: The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism — Debates, essays and confrontations, Edited and with an introduction by Sean Matgamna (798 pp., Workers’ Liberty, London).


An examination of Trotskyism as a historical current during World War II, in particular how its appreciation of Stalinism evolved under the impact of events, is certainly a worthwhile and useful project. Despite the trend among many young people today who believe that they can derive an adequate revolutionary ideology strictly from their own experience, I am among those who continue to insist that a study of history is essential. It’s a conviction I share with Sean Matgamna, editor of this volume. And any examination of history which begins with verse from Yeats is designed to warm my heart. So we were off to a good start.Unfortunately, as I proceeded to read Matgamna’s introduction I soon realized that this specific historical survey lacks the key element of objectivity which is essential if we want our study to produce the most useful result. The editor discovers exactly what he expected to discover (it seems clear) when he began compiling documents: One wing of the Trotskyist movement, whom he dubs the “Orthodox” led by James P. Cannon, whatever it might have done right, was bureaucratic, narrow-minded, unable to creatively develop Marxist theory (simply repeating by rote formulas developed by Trotsky before his death), and thereby wound up in a political blind alley. The “Heterodox” wing of the movement led by Max Shachtman, on the other hand, whatever it might have done wrong, was intelligent, creative, thoroughly imbued with a democratic spirit, and committed 100 percent to both Marxist thought and working-class liberation.

Here’s a sample:

“The history of that time is told usually by supporters of the Orthodox. It is told, when it deals with the Shachtmanites, as if the Heterodox were aberrant and the Orthodox were balanced, properly pro-USSR but adequately anti-Stalinist. Pretty much the opposite is true. The Orthodox went prolifically haywire after June 1941. In important respects they ceased to be Trotskyists at all, as that term had been understood before June 1941” (p. 110).

And later on the same page:

“The story of the Orthodox Trotskyists told in this introduction and in the documents in this book is one of political confusion, bewilderment, inadequacy, and defeat. Of a small political tendency being overwhelmed by events and, despite its revolutionary, working-class, anti-Stalinist best intentions, magnetised by the Stalinist USSR as it conquered and consolidated a great European empire. Of a small political tribe that got lost trying, half-blind, to work its way through the murderous maze of mid 20th century history.”

In the present review I will challenge this picture on a number of levels:

1) When I joined the party built by Cannon, the US Socialist Workers Party, in 1968, it was an organization filled with dynamic and critical thinkers. I will name only one of these individuals here, George Breitman, who is still well-known far beyond the circles of US Trotskyism because of his ground-breaking work in understanding the development of Malcolm X and Black Nationalism in the USA from a revolutionary-Marxist point of view. But there were many others. This tiny party was able to translate the revolutionary concept of a “united front” in such a creative way that it nurtured and then lead a mass “Out Now” wing of the anti-Vietnam war movement, a wing which played a key role in ending the war as an overwhelming majority of the US population came to adopt its point of view. The SWP of that era brought a similar kind of creative thought to other questions, such as the relationship of women’s emancipation to socialist revolution.

How did such a party grow from the roots of Cannonism, if the roots of Cannonism were as decayed as this book suggests to us? It would seem inexplicable.

2) My own balance sheet on the history of the SWP that I joined is, nevertheless, extremely critical. Interestingly, many of the points where I would express a critical judgment are similar to questions that Sean Matgamna, and the “Heterodox” authors whose articles and comments he collects, also raise. The primary difference is that I insist we must nuance our critique by a) understanding the historical context in which the US SWP may have made particular mistakes and b) adequately balancing the points on which we are critical with the positive realities of party history. These things Matgamna fails to do.

To cite one example of an area where I would tend to agree with the criticisms of the Cannon tradition contained in this volume, the political discussions I experienced as a party member were far too-often shaped by the philosophy of “stick bending” (that is, they were designed to engineer a particular result) rather than by the search for a comprehensive and balanced appreciation of social realities. Genuine theoretical education was never a priority, though some did occasionally take place. I have often expressed the thought that “theory” in the SWP was mostly taught in order to convince us about what to think, rather than educate us about how to think.

Starting on page 375 of the book Matgamna includes a persuasive article by Eugene Shays and Dan Shelton, documenting the manner in which the SWP’s weekly paper, The Militant, from May 1945 to June 1946, presented a severely distorted picture of the USSR and the role of the Red Army in the final stages and aftermath of the war, by being selective about what “facts” it chose to report and what facts it ignored. As I read this presentation I was reminded of nothing so much as the distorted coverage of events in the world by the same newspaper, most notably with regard to Cuba and Iran, that was offered to us during the 1980s as the Jack Barnes leadership of the SWP made its uncritical turn toward Castroism. This, too, was accomplished through a process of extremely selective reporting.

And yet the outcomes of these two experiences were totally different. The leadership of the SWP in the 1940s did not abandon its opposition to Stalinism or the call for political revolution in the USSR, whatever distortions there might have been in the reality as portrayed by the Militant at any given moment. By the time I joined, members of the party were being well-schooled in a history of Stalinism that included all of the facts and atrocities that the paper overlooked in 1945-46 (assuming Shays and Shelton are to be believed and I have no reason to doubt the veracity of their survey). So at some point a correction was made.

In the 1980s, on the other hand, the leadership of the party just continued stampeding over the cliff. It never reassessed where its errors were taking it, or taking the organization. The difference between a party which makes mistakes and then makes a correction, and a party which makes mistakes and then continues stampeding over the cliff, is day and night. Yet the editor of this volume treats these two things as if they were identical.

Any objective reader will conclude, correctly I would say, from the documentary evidence collected in this book, that the Cannon leadership was struggling with a substantial contradiction during the period in question. It had a certain expectation about what would happen during and as a result of the war, flowing from predictions made by Trotsky before the war began — that the Stalinist dictatorship could not possibly survive and would soon be overthrown either by a revived world revolution or a triumphant capitalist restoration. But something totally different was actually happening. As a result of the war the Stalinist dictatorship emerged with its power even more deeply entrenched.

Unlike Matgamna, however, I do not see this contradiction, or the resulting theoretical struggles of the “Orthodox,” as an indictment of Cannon or his leadership. I consider these things to be part of the normal process by which genuine revolutionaries figure out how to orient themselves in a world that often confounds our expectations. If we think about it for a moment, this was, actually, the same kind of process that the Bolsheviks went through in figuring out how to make the Russian Revolution in 1917. The Bolshevik party leadership was totally disoriented from February to April of that year, precisely because there was a disconnect between the revolutionary process as it was unfolding and their previous theories about how it ought to unfold. It was not until April that the party, thanks to Lenin, was able to reconcile this difficulty and set itself on a genuinely revolutionary course. Why is the Cannon leadership (less capable than the Bolsheviks, it is no slight on them to say so) not permitted to struggle in a similar way with a similar difficulty?

Allow me to cite another historical example that seems relevant. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels begin with a declaration: “There is a specter haunting Europe, the specter of communism.” Arguably, no Marxist has ever made a more erroneous prediction. Trotsky’s incorrect prognosis about the impossibility of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR surviving the second world war pales by comparison. What’s more, Marx and Engels proceeded for the rest of their lives guided by this false expectation.

My personal measure of anyone’s revolutionary character or theoretical ability is, therefore, not based on whether they understood everything clearly and completely, from the very first moment that they began to write or think about a particular social process. It is, rather, based on whether they a) demonstrate a capacity to struggle with the reality in question — in particular with the relationship of that reality to their own theories about it — and come out with a better understanding at the end of their struggle; or b) manage to make meaningful contributions to building a revolutionary movement, and developing a revolutionary ideology, despite specific errors, even major errors. If I draw a balance sheet of the Cannon leadership of the SWP using this criterion it will, at the very least, have as much on the positive side of the ledger as there is on the negative side — even during the period of the second world war (or, perhaps, it would be better to say “especially” during that period since it happens to be the historical moment which concerns us in the present conversation).

3) This takes us to an appreciation of the dialectic, in particular of contradiction. It’s a key question if we are considering the differences between the “Orthodox” and the “Heterodox” during this time. Throughout the book, as I was reading, I was struck by how much I still agreed with the arguments presented by the “Orthodox” authors, even while I could see and acknowledge their mistakes as pointed out by the “Heterodox.” The reason for this is simple: Each side was getting a piece of the picture right, and a piece of it wrong.

This, too, is typical of genuine revolutionaries. No matter how right we may be at any particular moment, we are never quite as right as we imagine ourselves to be. The ideal image of the brilliant cadre guided by the shining light of revolutionary theory has little in common with the way things actually work, at least most of the time — even for the most brilliant and educated of revolutionary cadres. Most of the time we are all dealing with one contradiction in our thinking or another. Our actions are full of contradictions, as are our justifications for those actions — because the world itself is full of contradictions. When we are able to achieve a satisfactory resolution of the resulting difficulties it is only through a process of struggling with these multiple levels of contradiction over a more or less extended period: a messy process, full of false starts, partial understandings, and imprecise formulations. The best revolutionary cadre are those who understand that this is what they are required to deal with, who dedicate themselves to engaging with it nonetheless in a systematic and rigorous way in order to improve their individual (and our collective) understanding, and who are always honest with themselves as they do so whenever reality, or some other human being, reveals new truths that they had not previously seen or fully understood.

Let’s consider one question in particular from this point of view, which is central in the present narrative: Was the conquest of territory during the second world war by the Red Army an act of self-defense by the USSR (the “Orthodox” view) or an act of imperial conquest (the perspective militantly defended by the “Heterodox,” using the word “imperial” not in it’s traditional Leninist sense of “the highest stage of capitalism” but in its more generic sense that includes imperialisms going back to the days of ancient Rome and even before). It should be obvious, from our vantage point today, that there was at least a bit of both things involved. If that’s true then even posing the question in “either/or” terms, as it was posed by both the “Orthodox” and the “Heterodox” during the war itself, will inevitably generate an assessment which is simultaneously true and false. The same can be said regarding another key issue debated during this period: whether the nationalizations carried out under the auspices of the Red Army in Eastern Europe had a socialist content. To me it’s obvious that the right answer is both “yes” and “no.”

A dialectician can accept such contradictory realities and attempt to relate to them in an intelligent and nuanced way. I will therefore express my belief that the “Orthodox” viewpoint, which at least embraced the idea of dialectical thought even if its practice was not always what it should have been, was a better choice during and after the war than the “Heterodox” view, which insisted that questions of method were irrelevant to politics.

The arguments of the “Heterodox,” as accurately represented in this book, sought pure and clean definitions of a messy and contradictory world. They consistently started from theoretical abstractions about what a “socialist” revolution ought to look like — comparing political events, as they actually developed in life, to these theoretical projections and finding the world to be inadequate.

The truth is, however, that the real world will never measure up to our theories, precisely because our theories are, by definition, abstractions from reality and can never fully capture the richness of life itself. It’s far more accurate, then, to say that our theories will never measure up to the world they are attempting to describe. If we consider the “bourgeois-democratic” revolution based on our theories, for example, there was never a real “bourgeois-democratic” revolution either. True, Shachtman is able to effectively explain why this is not an obstacle to recognizing the bourgeois-democratic revolution: because the bourgeoisie can hold economic power without holding political power. All it requires from the new state is to clear away the feudal barriers to bourgeois economic development. But the working class cannot hold economic power without also holding political power. Thus the question of who holds political power is central to the socialist revolution.

And I agree with this distinction. I can assert, nonetheless, that there will never be a “socialist revolution” that is as pure as the “Heterodox” argument insists we must have before we allow ourselves to call it by that name. This, I think, is the main reason why I am still inclined to consider myself part of the “Orthodox” tradition, even though I try to see and acknowledge at least some of the errors and problems of that tradition in addition to its merits.

4) This book represents a continuation of the time-honored Trotskyist practice of attempting to defend some particular current of Trotskyist thought, whatever that current happens to be, as the “true” continuation of Trotskyist thought by demonstrating that a different current is or was an imposter — or worse, a betrayer.
It’s time for all wings of the Trotskyist movement to abandon this approach, which has prevailed in our ranks since we began splintering into smaller and smaller collectives, defined by narrower and narrower ideologies, even before Trotsky’s death. The process has produced a collection of tiny warring grouplets rather than a movement.

It is fine to champion the good work and political insights that any specific current of Trotskyism may have achieved. Each of us who continues to identify with a particular Trotskyist tradition should, however, simultaneously acknowledge that whatever current we identify with also suffered from significant limitations, that other currents carried out useful political work and developed important theoretical insights too. None of us has ever had a monopoly on truth and virtue. None of us was immune from serious errors.

Further, I will personally insist that it’s time for us to relativize the Trotskyist tradition itself. There was a period of history when we could reasonably envision the rebirth of a global revolutionary movement based on the Trotskyist experience. But as the 21st century continues to develop in ways that no Trotskyist could have imagined as recently as the 1980s, that prospect becomes increasingly remote. It nevertheless remains the framework for Matgamna as he compiles this volume. At the very beginning of his introduction he asserts:

“During most of the 20th century, and the 21st century so far, revolutionary-socialist politics has been some form of Trotskyism. . . .
There is no other authentic Marxist-communist tradition. . . .
A revived revolutionary socialist movement will have to learn from the Trotskyist tradition” (p. 3).

I do, of course, agree that there are essential lessons which Trotskyist history and ideology can offer to the future development of revolutionary ideas. There are also, however, aspects of our historic ideology which are now outmoded and bypassed by the passage of the 20th century, baggage that we need to leave behind. A discussion about which is which should give considerable weight to insights developed by other genuinely revolutionary currents that have emerged as a result of the 20th-century experience. Some of these have roots in the Maoist movement, some in national-liberation struggles, some in guerrilla warfare and the Cuban revolution, some coming out of an anarchist tradition, some based on ecofeminist or indigenous-centric ideologies, etc.

“A revived revolutionary socialist movement will have to learn from” each of these, and probably others that I have not mentioned, in addition to Trotskyism. There is an arrogance in the belief that Trotskyism somehow has a privileged place in this process. All we should be seeking or expecting is an equal place. If we are as correct in our historical conclusions as we believe we are — or even if we just come close — an equal place with others ought to be sufficient. And I would argue that even a hint of Trotskyist arrogance will get in our way if our goal is to gain a hearing for the lessons we can in fact contribute to “a revived revolutionary socialist movement” as such a thing begins to pull itself together. We need to be as respectful of other peoples’ histories as we are asking them to be of ours.

Our current sowed dragons teeth, but we harvested a warren of competing sects. Most of those who are still engaged in one or another of these sects continue to look at Trotskyism (their version of Trotskyism, of course) as the continuation of a revolutionary ideology that can lead humanity into the future. I do understand the reason for this self-image, and I am not totally unsympathetic to it. But it remains essential for us, at the same time, to acknowledge that for the rest of humanity, and therefore in particular for most young people radicalizing today, there’s not much reason to look at our current and see the same thing that we see when we look at ourselves. Our achievements are insufficient, important as they may still be. Yet this is the audience we have to reach, and in a massive way. To do so we will have to approach that audience with some sense of modesty and with a more objective image of ourselves, appealing to their experiences at least as much as to our own.

5) Sean Matgamna’s claims to objectivity are dubious, as already noted. In his introduction to the book he writes:

“This volume tries to provide a broader political picture by presenting in their own words the different sides of every dispute it covers. Of course, even then selection can serve to distort. All I can offer the reader is assurance that I have not knowingly held back anything that would change the picture my selection paints” (p. 109).

The word “knowingly” provides an escape hatch in the last sentence. But let’s leave this aside, accept as true that Matgamna managed to include representative arguments on different sides of every dispute. There remain other ways to distort the picture — such as writing a long introduction, instructing readers about how they ought to interpret or understand the arguments that are presented by both sides. It is also striking that in the final 143 pages of the book (Chapter 13 titled “The working class is central” and a final collection of “essays”) “Orthodox” ideas are represented by just two pieces, both by Trotsky, taking up a total of 7 pages. The remaining 136 pages are given over to seven contributions by three different authors presenting the “Heterodox” viewpoint. You will have a hard time convincing me that this is a good way to offer readers a balanced conversation.

I would also like to challenge Matgamna’s objectivity by looking closely at one question taken up in his introduction. He considers two texts representing the “Orthodox” viewpoint: a telegram sent by James P. Cannon to Stalin in July 1941 and a minimum program for Russia at war published by The Militant that same month. Here is some of what he has to say:

“Missing [from the program] only was the idea of a workers’ anti-Stalinist ‘political’ revolution. In its place was an appeal to Stalin to do what for Trotsky, and for Cannon up to that point, could only be done by that new working-class ‘political’ revolution.”

And further:

“It would have been less absurd to demand such a program from Winston Churchill or Franklin D. Roosevelt than to express it as ‘demands’ to Stalin.”

But this is a badly distorted picture of what was taking place. Only the telegram was addressed to Stalin. The minimum program was not addressed to Stalin but to “The Soviet Union” and the “Orthodox” made a distinction between “the Soviet Union” and its Stalinist leadership. By appealing to “the Soviet Union” the minimum program was, it seems clear, hoping to appeal to the the workers of the USSR, the force that was capable of carrying through a political revolution. Even more importantly, it was appealing to those workers in the USA and other nations who supported the USSR in the war. Here is the one single reference to the Stalinist bureaucracy contained in the minimum program itself: “Whether the Stalinist bureaucracy accepts or rejects this program, we shall defend the Soviet Union. But we insist that this minimum program is vital in order to strengthen immeasurably the fighting power of the Soviet Union.” In other words, the program stands as a call for action issued by Trotskyists, independently of any support or opposition to that call by the bureaucracy.

A telegram to Stalin, if it is intended as a genuine appeal for Stalin to act, is one thing. A telegram to Stalin, if it is a publicity stunt to get the attention of workers in the USA who believe Stalin represents the Russian Revolution (so the party could begin to discuss with them) is quite another. Matgamna quotes Cannon, explaining that the key task of the SWP at the time was, precisely, to reach an audience of Stalinist workers: “We should intensify our work among the Stalinists; try to reach them at all costs; fix the responsibility for the catastrophe of the Soviet Union where it really belongs – on the shoulders of Stalin and his gang; and try to win over every possible Stalinist worker to the movement of the Fourth International.” This orientation explains all of the so-called omissions and contradictions that Matgamna notes in the SWP’s public propaganda at the time. Who is the intended audience? What will they understand? That, rather than any change in the ideology or program of the SWP, dicatated what questions would be emphasized publicly at the start of the war. It is a tried and trusted political approach. Yet Matgamna misrepresents the SWP’s attempt to speak a language that the Stalinist workers might comprehend as a programmatic capitulation to Stalinism itself.

I would say that this is the most serious flaw in Matgamna’s approach. He seems incapable of looking at and considering the ideas and actions of the “Orthodox” from the point of view of the “Orthodox” themselves — something which is absolutely essential if we want to develop an objective historical assessment.

Let’s consider one more aspect of how this difficulty confuses Matgamna’s discussion of the telegram and the “minimum program.” He, along with the “Heterodox” spokespeople in the articles he has collected, rejects the “trade union analogy” — the idea that the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR could be likened to a bureaucratic trade union leadership except that it holds power at the level of the state rather than in a union. Matgamna is entitled to disagree with this conception of Stalinism and what it represented in the 1940s, of course. But if he is judging the actions of the Cannon wing of the movement he needs to keep in mind that its approach to the USSR was always guided by the trade union analogy. Thus, just as a revolutionary caucus in a union might put forward a program for a strike without directly attacking the bureaucratic leadership of the union — indeed, it might even make proposals to that bureaucratic leadership about how to conduct the strike as a way of indirectly attacking it, since the bureaucrats will never actually carry out a militant class-struggle policy and will therefore be exposed before the rank and file — so Cannon sent his telegram and the SWP conceived of and presented its program for the USSR in war. It was not with the expectation that Stalin would carry out the stated policy, but with precisely the opposite assumption: that Stalin would do no such thing, and that this might then create a bridge for the Trotskyist movement to begin a discussion about why not with workers who had illusions in Stalin, but who were also capable of understanding the value of the measures proposed by the party.

* * * * *

As I was reading these documents I compiled pages of notes about other aspects of various questions in dispute between the “Orthodox” and the “Heterodox” during the period in question. It’s tempting to consider more of this material here, but there are too many issues and I have already written a very long review (though of a very long book, so I am not inclined to offer an apology). Let me therefore conclude by simply expressing a personal grievance that takes shape after reading Matgamna’s collection of documents, a grievance that I feel a need to get off my chest. We will also see that it’s more than just a personal grievance. It reveals something important about how not to understand this history.

One of the objections raised by Shachtman’s caucus against the leadership of the SWP during the 1939-40 faction fight was that Cannon and his followers refused to engage in a respectful debate — that is, one which puts a priority on each participant accurately representing and honestly considering the opposing viewpoint, acknowledging what might be correct and useful in that viewpoint even while continuing to disagree. Shachtman himself described the task this way in 1944: “a precondition of understanding is intelligent and loyal discussion” (p. 428). As noted in point 2 above I am, actually, sympathetic to this complaint, since my experience in the SWP decades later demonstrated to me that the party really did suffer from an acute deficiency in this regard.

Yet I note, on reading the multiple polemical contributions by Shachtman himself which appear in these pages, that his personal style is the most disrespectful to those he is debating of any I have encountered during my nearly half a century in the revolutionary movement. Anyone whom Shachtman disagrees with is the lowest form of life imaginable. He freely heaps scorn and ridicule upon them, obviously intoxicated by the brilliance of his own polemical wit (which is considerable), relying far too often on the clever turn of a phrase. I will limit myself to two examples, though many more could be cited:

“We come now to the third of Frankel’s five points. Here we must admonish the reader. He must resolve in advance not to laugh himself sick. On this he must be firm, for Frankel offers more temptations than the unforewarned reader can possibly resist” (p. 413).

“The new tactic, says the loudest of the party’s empty barrels, was made ‘some nine months ago [by] our committee.’ And ‘the discerning reader will have noticed that we conducted our propaganda in this spirit for a good many months.’ But since hellishly few readers are discerning, and since those that are would have needed a microscope; and since, after all, a turn in policy ought to be made for the information and guidance of every reader including those with less ‘discernment;’ and since the empty barrel has discerned that it requires little discernment to see through his dodges — he adds, ‘We propose now to incorporate this tactical prescription in our resolution, in order to make unambiguously clear to all the nature of our tactical adjustment and the reasons for it’” (pp. 492-93).

I find this style of polemic so off-putting that even when I agreed fully with Shachtman’s viewpoint, as in his defense of Leninism (“Did Stalinism grow organically out of Bolshevism?” p. 707), I found myself mostly wanting to look for what was valid in the position he was opposing. A current whose leader engages in this kind of debate has no right, I would like to suggest, to claim some superior commitment to the search for “understanding” through “intelligent and loyal discussion.” Shachtman, it seems clear, was seeking something else.

As noted, this observation about Shachtman’s polemical style makes an important point about how we should read and judge the entire collection of documents that Sean Matgamna has pulled together, in particular whether we can simply accept the claims of either side about itself, about those it was debating, or about the political issues at stake. Clearly not — though Matgamna seems to accept what the “Heterodox” say about such matters far too easily, while rigorously interrogating only what the “Orthodox” have to say. We need instead to look more closely and more critically at all of the participants (and also more charitably) — which reinforces the main point I hope readers will take away from the present review: As we consider this or any history of the revolutionary movement, although we do occasionally discover the great hero or the evil villain (Stalin himself springs instantly to mind), for the most part that is not what we should be looking for or expecting to find. For the most part we should expect, instead, to find complex human beings with strengths and weaknesses, making contributions to the struggle for human liberation at the same time as they are also making serious mistakes. Only rarely will one of these two things completely negate the other.

The best histories, written by the best historians, will reveal this kind of complex reality to us in new and surprising ways. Everyone who thinks they know something about the history of Trotskyism during World War II will probably find things they didn’t know if they read this book, or at least be reminded of things they had forgotten and are glad to have been reminded of. Still, we might have had a far more useful exploration of the relevant history had the editor not started out seeking to expound a tendentious viewpoint which elevates one side to the supreme good while reducing the other to the essence of error. The truth, I am both sorry and glad to report, is far more substantial and interesting than that.

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