Max Shachtman was one of the two most prominent spokespersons and representatives of the Trotskyist movement in the United States from the late 20s to the early 60s. The other was James P. Cannon. But Shachtman is best known for his role in splitting the Trotskyist movement at the beginning of World War II.
While academic historians and journalists routinely dismiss opponents of Roosevelt’s New Deal and especially Roosevelt’s war policy as “appeasers”, “isolationists”, profascists or simply crackpots, at the time the most outspoken and most effective opposition to the administration came from the left.
The socialist and communist parties newly revived by the catastrophe of the Great Depression, the militants of the new industrial unions of the CIO, the leaders of the campaign for civil rights for African Americans, and even many left liberals saw the New Deal as merely an attempt to save a bankrupt capitalism by making the minimum reforms necessary to head off revolt. And the war preparations of that same regime were seen by the same forces as a sinister attempt to divert the growing anticapitalist revolt into a bloody and demoralizing repetition of World War I.
The Trotskyists, while never numerous, enjoyed considerable influence on the left because they combined a fierce commitment to revolution with a contemptuous dismissal of the cant and brutality of the Stalin regime as well as its obvious attempts to come to terms with the capitalist states at the same time that it was liquidating not only the gains made by the October Revolution but the revolutionaries themselves. Shachtman’s literary and polemical talents greatly aided in this cause. His exposé of the Moscow trials being one of the highlights of the campaign against that witch-hunt of the leaders of the October Revolution.
The Hitler-Stalin pact of 1939 confounded all political tendencies but it was devastating for the Trotskyist movement. Trotsky himself had anticipated such an alliance of the Stalin regime with one or the other of the power blocs. Whether it was the axis or the allies Stalin chose would be determined by considerations of the moment; not principle. But Trotsky also expected this alliance to be accompanied by major concessions to capitalism whichever ally Stalin chose. The Hitler-Stalin pact, however, was accompanied by an aggressive campaign against the capitalist class in Poland and attempts to do the same in Finland.
The question then became do we, the Trotskyists, support this regime which is expropriating the capitalist class and incorporating new areas into the new collectivist order or not. Is it still in some sense “our side.” Shachtman put himself at the head of those who opted for a “Third Camp” of the working class and the oppressed in general against both the old capitalist states and the new exploiting class that was contending for power.
Shachtman himself was not the innovator or leader in these developments. The long-time Trotskyist Joseph Carter and the leader of the Socialist youth that had joined the Trotskyists, Hal Draper, were bolder theoretically and Shachtman tended to trail along after them. But his prestige as a leading spokesperson for the Trotskyist movement in the US and abroad forced people to take this new movement seriously. And besides, Shachtman was always a brilliant polemicist and popularizer and his forceful personality made him a formidable opponent.
During World War II and the McCarthy period the adherents of this “Third Camp” tendency played a prominent role out of all proportion to their numbers in the trade union, civil rights, civil liberties and antiwar movements. Especially during World War II, when the liberals along with the Communist Party and its periphery became uncritical apologists for the Roosevelt administration and its assaults on trade union independence and civil rights, assaults which laid the groundwork for the McCarthy period that was to come, Shachtman and his supporters were among the few effective forces of dissent. 
There is, unfortunately, a sad footnote to Shachtman’s career. Beginning in the 50s he began to move to the right in response to the discouraging climate of the Cold War. He ended up a Cold Warrior and apologist for the Meany wing of the AFL-CIO. But that should not diminish the value of his earlier contributions.
1. Nelson Lichtenstein’s Labor’s War at Home is the only detailed and serious account of this important and largely suppressed history that I know of.
Last updated on 13.4.2005