Harry Frankel

A Defamer of Marxism

(May 1944)

From Fourth International, Vol.5 No.5, May 1944, pp.149-152.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Proofread by Chris Clayton (July 2006).

The New Course, by Leon Trotsky;
The Struggle for the New Course, by Max Shachtman
New International Publishing Co., New York. 1944. Cloth $2.00, paper $1.50.

The collection of articles entitled The New Course was Trotsky’s opening gun in the struggle against the Stalinist bureaucracy. In 1923, the year of the writing of these articles, the Russian Bolshevik Party was passing through a profound internal crisis. It was not the first struggle inside the Bolshevik Party which had grown and developed through many previous internal disputes over questions of program, strategy, and tactics. The 1923 conflict, however, differed from all the previous ones in culminating in the triumph, not of the proletarian-Leninist tendency, but the Stalinist tendency of capitulation to alien class influences that were pressing heavily upon the party. After 1923 the European revolutionary wave began to recede, leaving as a deposit moods of pessimism, exhaustion and despair which enveloped the proletarian vanguard and which found their expression through the weakest section of the party. It was in this atmosphere that the Stalinist vise began to close upon the Bolshevik Party, squeezing out its democratic life and transforming it into an instrument of the narrow, opportunist, and eventually counter-revolutionary clique of Stalin.

It was this growing bureaucratization of the party against which Trotsky took up the cudgels in 1923. With The New Course, he began his fight, lasting almost two decades, against the degeneration of the first workers’ state.

A new edition of this famous series of articles has been put on sale by Max Shachtman who deserted Trotskyism and broke with the Trotskyist movement in 1940. Attached to Trotsky’s 112 page classic, there is a 128 page “explanatory” document by Shachtman. We have here another instance of that common, current black-market device, the tie-in sale, which compels a buyer to purchase inferior, shoddy or worthless goods in order to obtain the articles he really desires. In order to get beef these days a working class housewife is often obliged to buy tripe as well. Trotsky’s essays supply Marxist insight and are a matchless example of consistent and principled polemic; Shachtman’s essay is the antipode: it is tripe.

One reads occasionally in the Stalinist, or Social Democratic press that there are “two Trotskyist papers” or “two wings” of the Trotskyist movement in this country. This deliberate misrepresentation is akin to references often made in the bourgeois press to “two kinds of communism.” In reality, of course, there is only one “kind of communism” just as there is only one party in this country which teaches and applies the program of Trotskyism. Trotsky himself made sure in his lifetime that there would be no confusion on this point.

Trotsky’s Own Estimate

On more than one occasion he took the opportunity to explain what he thought of Shachtman’s politics and program. “Our old Mensheviks were real heroes in comparison with them,” he wrote of the Shachtmanites. After the split with the petty bourgeois opposition led by Burnham and Shachtman, Trotsky took particular pains to clarify his attitude toward these people. He wrote:

“Only the other day Shachtman referred to himself in the press as a ‘Trotskyist!’ If this be Trotskyism, then I, at least am no Trotskyist ... Had conscious agents of the class enemy operated through Shachtman, they could not have advised him to do anything different from what he himself has perpetrated.”

No one can deny Shachtman the right to abandon Trotsky’s ideas, any more than ex-colleague Burnham could be denied the right to abandon the Socialist movement, after he together with Shachtman split with American Trotskyism. The “right” of betrayal and renegacy has always been freely exercised by petty bourgeois intellectuals, particularly in periods of reaction. But then, they should not masquerade, like Shachtman, in the trappings of Trotskyism while propagating the polar opposite of the program of Trotskyism.

Lenin pointed out that the enemies and opponents of the great Marxist teachers have invariably sought after their death to “emasculate and vulgarize the real essence of their revolutionary theories and to blunt their revolutionary edge.” Shachtman is merely another recruit to this legion of emasculators, vulgarizers and falsifiers.

With typical impudence, Shachtman, pretends that Trotsky’s class analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state “is not even a decisively important part” of Trotskyism. This is like saying that a man could function without a heart.

In addition, Shachtman states:

“Our criticism of Trotsky’s later theory of the ‘workers state’ introduces into it an indispensable correction. Far from ‘demolishing’ Trotskyism, it eliminates from it a distorting element of contradiction and restores its essential harmony and continuity.” (Op. cit., p.344.)

A Crucial Issue

Every word here is false. The truth is that Trotsky devoted the main energies of the last period of his life to analyzing the various stages of the development of the Soviet Union. His study of the degeneration of the Stalin regime ranks among his greatest theoretical contributions to Marxist thought. Even a conscientious opponent will admit that it is an integral part of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution and of the Trotskyist program. He affirmed and reaffirmed this literally in scores of articles and books. Thus, in the programmatic document The Soviet Union and the Fourth International it is flatly stated:

“The condition for further successes is the correct evaluation of the world situation, including the class character of the Soviet Union. Along this line, the new [Fourth] International will be subjected to tests from the very “first days of its existence.”

Leon Trotsky properly attached crucial importance to the class nature of the Soviet Union. It is only necessary to recall that the entire struggle against the Burnham-Shachtman faction as well as their break with the Trotskyist movement revolved in the main around the question of the USSR.

Answering at that time the attempts of Burnham (supported by Shachtman) to smuggle into the program of the Fourth International the anti-Marxist motion that the regime of Stalinism represented the rule of a new exploiting class, Trotsky wrote that “the perspective of a non-worker and non-bourgeois society of exploitation, or ‘bureaucratic collectivism,’ is the perspective of complete defeat and the decline of the international proletariat, the perspective of the most profound historical pessimism.” (Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism, p.31.)

The revisionist theory that a new social formation can come to replace capitalism, concerns not only the USSR. Trotsky made this quite clear. He wrote: “It concerns the whole fate of the world proletariat and mankind.” And he asked:

“Have we the slightest right to induce ourselves by purely terminological experiments in a new historic conception which occurs to be in an absolute contradiction with our program, strategy and tactics?” (Loc. cit., pp.1-2.)

Burnham’s theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” (borrowed from Bruno) is now cooly offered as an “indispensable correction” to Trotskyism. Shachtman tries to palm off as a restoration of the “essential harmony and continuity (of Trotskyism)” what was flung back in Shachtman’s face by Trotsky himself as an absolute contradiction of “our program, strategy and tactics,” or, if you prefer, the “whole of Trotskyism.”

Small wonder that in 1940 Trotsky characterized Shachtman and his tendency as that of “ideological charlatanism,” “petty-bourgeois counterfeits of Marxism,” “outright theoretical betrayal.”

Let us review briefly the ABC of Marxism. Marxists view classes as the product of historical development, in other words, all classes have a past and a future, as well as .the present, Shachtman’s “new exploitive class” is, in Shachtman’s own words “without a past and without a future.” (Max Shachtman, The Struggle for the New Course, p.247.)

Lenin insisted that the roots of all class rule are to be found in the productive foundations of society. He said: “The rule of the class is determined only by the relationship to property.” To explain the rule of his “new class” Shachtman points not to the foundation but to the political superstructure. It thus turns out that Shachtman’s “indispensable correction” applies not only to Trotsky but to Lenin and Marx as well. But Shachtman simply forgets to mention such trifles.

“Wherein does the rule of the class (the proletariat) express itself?” asked Lenin. And he answered: “The rule of the proletariat expresses itself in the abolition of landed and capitalist property.” Not the introduction of nationalized property and planning but the abolition of the old property forms sufficed for Lenin.

How does Shachtman get around this? Very simply. He denies that his new class needs either to abolish previous property forms or institute new ones of its own.

Shachtman’s class that has no past and no future possesses for its “fundament” not property relations but the “ownership” of “political power.” Needless to add, this “ownership” in its turn has neither a past nor a future. Such tripe is, according to Shachtman, “the veriest commonplace of Marxism.”

A Petty Bourgeois Counterfeit

According to Marxists the historical justification for every ruling class is the ability under its particular system of exploitation to raise the development of productive forces of society as a whole to a new level. Does Shachtman grant this ability to Stalinism, i.e., his own “new exploitive class”?

What then remains of the Marxist conception of class?

The gist of Shachtman’s 128-page argument boils down to a representation of the crimes of Stalinism as the birthpangs that marked the rise of a new class to power. No more, no less. It is an elementary principle of Marxism that ruling classes rise in society through the operation of forces beyond the control of men’s consciousness, reason or will. The rise of new ruling classes can be retarded or facilitated but never prevented – until and unless these classes have exhausted their historic mission. In the light of this, what is Shachtman’s version of the evolution of the Soviet Union if not an attempt to supply an historical justification not for the ascendancy of a new class but actually for the abominations of the Kremlin?

It is not for nothing that Trotsky told Shachtman in 1940 that an attempt to revise the principled position of the Fourth International on the class nature of the USSR was a mockery of Marxism. In fact, according to Trotsky, to say that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a new exploitive class is to declare that the class struggle for socialism was only a Utopian dream. Here is what Trotsky wrote:

“The historic alternative carried to the end, is as follows: either the Stalin regime is an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society, or the Stalin regime is the first stage of a new exploiting society. If the second prognosis proves correct, then, of course, the bureaucracy will become a new exploiting class. However onerous the second perspective may be ... nothing else would remain except only to recognize that the Socialist program, based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, ended as a utopia.” (Loc. cit., p.9.)

A Typical Evasion

Shachtman’s choice of the 1923 writings of Trotsky as the springboard for his polemic against Trotsky’s position on the USSR is deliberate. The very date of the writing of these essays and the circumstances surrounding their publication precluded the possibility of their containing a fundamental analysis of the Stalinist degeneration in the Soviet Union. In 1923 Thermidor was still in the year of its birth. Lenin was still alive. The fate of the German revolution still hung in the balance. Moreover, the major political differences between the Stalinists and the Left Opposition had not yet ripened. Stalin had not yet promulgated the theory of socialism in one country, which was to form the crux of the epic struggle. The events of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 and the Anglo-Russian Committee were still in the future.

It is no slur upon the value of Trotsky’s 1923 writings to say that they do not contain a finished analysis of events which had not yet occurred at the time. Shachtman, however, finds The New Course indispensable for his purposes not for what it does say, but primarily for what it does not and could not of necessity say. Could Shachtman have published The Revolution Betrayed and attempted to refute it? Or perhaps the Soviet Union and the Fourth International, and attempted to refute that? He might at least have attempted to review In Defense of Marxism which contains the most finished and the most recent analysis of the Soviet Union made by Trotsky, and is, in addition, addressed in person to Shachtman and Co. Shachtman’s perspicacity, lamentably limited though it may be, extends at least far enough for him to foresee the consequences of such foolhardy enterprises. Discretion is indeed the better part of valor, for Shachtman.

The Trotskyist movement holds that the Soviet Union remains a degenerated workers state, basing that analysis upon the property forms of the Soviet Union: the existence of nationalized property and monopoly of foreign trade. This position is a line of demarcation between Trotskyism and all hostile and alien tendencies in the labor movement.

In order to give a picture of the Soviet Union to advanced workers, Trotskyists have often drawn an analogy between the first workers state and a trade union. Just as trade unions have become corrupted and degenerated, losing their internal democracy and giving up militant struggle in defense of the interests of the membership, just so, the Soviet Union, subject to far more enormous pressures, has been altered. But the degenerated workers state, and the degenerated trade union remain class organizations and a struggle must be conducted to reform them and to defend them against the capitalists. Shachtman discusses the trade union analogy only to abandon this time the Marxist position on trade unions. We quote Shachtman verbatim:

“The trade unions remain trade unions, no matter how bureaucratised they become, so long as they fight (ineptly or skillfully, reformistically or militantly) in the defense of the workers’ share of the national income, or at least against its diminution. Once they give up that fight, they may call themselves what they will, they may have ever so many workers in their ranks (as many company unions have), but they are no longer class organizations. John L. Lewis’ organization is still a trade union; Robert Ley’s is not.”

This point of view is clear, it is consistent, it is harmonious with the Shachtmanite point of view on the Soviet Union. It likewise happens to be the traditional position of the ultra-leftists. Lenin polemicised against it in The Infantile Disease of Left Wing Communism. It is precisely on this theory that the Stalinists constructed their thesis of “social fascism,” and their designation of the AFL as a “fascist” organization.

“The trade unions remain trade unions, no matter how bureaucratised they become, so long as they fight (ineptly or skillfully, reformistically or militantly) in the defense of the workers share of the national income or at least against its diminution.” But what of those unions that have abandoned the fight? What of those bureaucratized leaderships which have offered their cooperation to the war administration and fight for the diminution of the workers share of the national income? What of the Stalinist controlled unions? Shachtman’s answer is clear: “They are no longer class organizations.” By this criterion, the trade union movement of the United States (and not only the United States) has all but disappeared!

Notice the examples given: “John L. Lewis’ organization is still a trade union: Robert Ley’s is not.” A typical Shachtmanite evasion! In order to find an example of a union that is “still a union” Shachtman cites the one union which has conducted four general coal strikes in the midst of the war! Shachtman is willing to admit it is still a union. This generous fellow would give ice away at the North Pole. Somebody should inform him that any schoolchild would readily agree that the United Mine Workers is “still” a union, while the Nazi Labor Front is not. But the question remains: what is the Hod Carriers Union, which holds conventions every 99 years? Or the Stalinist-run UE, which fights for incentive pay, not against it? Or anyone of a dozen others.

When a union is involved in a strike against the bosses, all labor must rally to the defense, even though a bureaucracy dominates the particular union. People who advocate defeatism for the striking union are traitors to the labor movement. That is the role of Shachtman, who denies defense to the Soviet Union in its struggle against Nazi imperialism.

Among the primary results of the Nazi-Soviet war has been the elucidation of the attitude of the Soviet masses towards the state which emerged from the October revolution. Of the attitude of the Soviet workers and peasants to the Stalinist bureaucracy there can be no doubt. Stalin has betrayed their democratic hopes by making a prison house of the Soviet Union. He has betrayed their revolutionary aspirations by his continual abasement before world imperialism. The hatred of the masses for the Stalinist caste, so long expressed through the struggle of the advanced workers under the banner of the Trotskyist Left Opposition will break out into the open at the first decisive turn in the European situation.

But what of the attitude of the masses towards the Soviet state? The remarkable spirit and fighting energy, not only of the Red Army, but of the whole people, demonstrate their conviction that something important remains in the Soviet Union which must be defended; something which they feel belongs to them. The morale of the Red Army is the envy of the putrefying bourgeois military staffs everywhere. None of them can duplicate it because its secret lies in that event which they all hate so thoroughly; the October revolution of 1917.

Shachtman attempts to dismiss the morale of the Soviet peoples as of little significance. In 1940, during the Soviet-Finnish war, he was quite concerned about it. At that time, the Soviet workers, repelled by Stalin’s counter-revolutionary policy, by the spectacle of the friendship and collaboration between Stalin and Hitler, and more important, not yet actually feeling the pressure of the bourgeois military intervention against the first workers state, prosecuted the war with indifference. At that time, Shachtman, like any shyster lawyer, considered testimony relating to the morale of the Red Army to be perfectly admissible evidence as to the “character of the war.” He and his followers quoted derisively Trotsky’s prediction as to the morale of the Soviet people in the event of war. That forecast is well worth repeating now.

“Within the USSR war against imperialist intervention will undoubtedly provoke a veritable outburst of genuine fighting enthusiasm. All the contradictions and antagonisms will seem overcome, at any rate relegated to the background. The young generations of workers and peasants that emerged from the revolution will reveal on the field of battle a colossal dynamic power. Centralized industry, despite all its lacks and shortcomings, will reveal great superiority in serving war needs. The government of the USSR has undoubtedly created great stores of food supplies sufficient for the first period of war. The general staffs of the imperialist states clearly realize, of course, that in the Red Army they will meet a powerful adversary, the struggle with whom will require long intervals of time and a terrific straining of forces.”

These are the words at which Shachtman scoffed during the Finnish events. Where is the “genuine fighting enthusiasm?” he then taunted. Have you seen that spirit yet? The Soviet masses have given their answer.

During the factional struggle in the SWP in 1939-1940 Shachtman’s petty-bourgeois opposition insisted that its sole political point of difference with the majority of the party was over the unconditional defense of the Soviet Union. The class nature of the Soviet Union, they explained, was no concern of theirs “at the moment”, and was only dragged into the dispute by Trotsky for “factional, demagogic purposes.” “Is it not demagogy for Trotsky to direct polemics against Eastman and Hook, or Bruno instead of against our ideas?” claimed Burnham and Shachtman. Today, Burnham writes from the standpoint of an avowed enemy of Marxism, while Shachtman espouses the former position of Burnham, who in turn borrowed it from Bruno. Today Shachtman even adduces as his main “proof” of the existence of a new class the argument adduced originally by Bruno, namely, Stalin’s purges and frame-up trials of 1936-38. A modest disciple never fails gratefully to acknowledge his teacher. Shachtman ungraciously ignores his true preceptors: Burnham and Bruno.

Equipped with the compass of Marxism, Trotsky charted in the struggle of 1939-40 not only our own course, but the future course of the Shachtmanites. That is why he was able to write an annihilating answer to Shachtman’s “theoretical” document long before Shachtman set it down on paper! Trotsky’s writings In Defense of Marxism require no “corrections.” Trotsky’s characterizations of Shachtman as a “charlatan” and a “betrayer” are as true today as when Trotsky wrote them in 1940.


Last updated on 19.7.2006