Joseph Hansen

Shachtman Takes Chair Vacated
by Professor Burnham

(28 December 1940)

Source: Socialist Appeal, Vol. 4 No. 52, 28 December 1940, p. 4.
Transcription/HTML Markup: 2019 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2020; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

The announcement of Max Shachtman in the December issue of his New International that he has been led “to abandon the position that Russia is a workers’ state,” will come as a surprise to no one who has followed the development of the petty bourgeois group to which he belongs. Shachtman has only-moved over to the position occupied by his ex-client, Professor Burnham, before the latter abandoned the camp of the working class for the camp of the bourgeoisie.

It will be recalled that Burnham for some years held the view that the Soviet Union is not a workers’ state. Nevertheless so long as the Franco-Soviet pact endured he found it possible to defend the Soviet Union unconditionally against imperialist attack. With the switch of Stalin into the orbit of Hitler, marked by the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Burnham found he could no longer defend the Soviet Union.

Like Burnham, Shachtman now finds that “developments in the world situation occasioned by the Second World War raises to the forefront once more, the Russian Question.” That is, in response to the pressure of the war-mongering imperialist bourgeoisie, he has decided that this is the time to revise all the carefully worked out analyses of the Soviet Union accomplished by the Fourth International in peacetime.

Like Burnham, Shachtman finds that “Russia’s role in the war on the side of German Imperialism only emphasizes fundamental trends inherent under Stalin’s Regime,” trends which Shachtman, however, unlike the more perspicacious Burnham, did not discover until after the war broke out. In this delay Shachtman again demonstrates his dependence upon Burnham as theoretician and underlines what was pointed out by Trotsky during the faction struggle with the petty bourgeois opposition, that Burnham was its ideological leader, Shachtman his attorney.

In promulgating his views on the class nature of the Soviet Union, Burnham was extremely cautious: “The ruling stratum of the Soviet Union does not constitute a crystallized bourgeois class in the traditional sense, nor can it be predicted with assurance whether its evolution in the future – even if unchecked – will be toward such crystallization.” Now that Burnham is no longer present to indicate to Shachtman some of the implications of his views, Shachtman finds it possible to plunge head over heels down the logical course of Burnham’s position, i.e., that there is an entirely new ruling class in the Soviet Union. “The old crap was revived – in a new, unprecedented, hitherto-unknown form, the rule of a new bureaucratic class.”

In arriving at Burnham’s position on the class nature of the USSR – “a new attempt at revising th0 class theory of the state” as Trotsky remarked of precisely this position in 1937 – Shachtman bases himself almost exclusively on Trotsky’s analyses of the Soviet Union. Just as J.R. Johnson considers: Trotsky “one of the most powerful agents of social dynamics who has lived in this or any other time” only to conclude that Trotsky was a political idiot, so Shachtman says of Trotsky that “Nobody has even approached him in the scope and depth of his contribution to understanding of the Soviet Union” only to conclude: “The traditional view of the (Fourth) International on the class character of the USSR rests upon a grievous theoretical error.” Trotsky, a Marxist on the level of Marx, Engels, Lenin, was unable to arrive at a correct determination of the class nature of the Soviet Union! Apparently Shachtman considers Trotsky a theoretical idiot.

Shachtman bolsters his arguments with numerous quotations from Trotsky’s works. It is only necessary to put these quotations back into their context however to see that each one of them refutes Shachtman at every turn. Even more damaging to Shachtman is the fact that Trotsky answered long ago every one of the arguments that are now brought out as something new by Shachtman. If one merely listed the points which Shachtman attempts to establish, a completely crushing answer could be given him simply by counterposing Trotsky’s previous answers to the revisionists who stood a few years ago where Shachtman stands now. Two articles alone of Trotsky’s written in 1937: Once Again: The USSR and its Defense, and Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State? published in Internal Bulletins Nos. 2 and 3 of the SWP answer every one of the essential arguments now raised in 1940 by Shachtman.

“The touchstone of a revolutionary political leader is the question of the state,” Trotsky remarked in his History of the Russian Revolution. Belatedly Shachtman has provided another remarkable demonstration of the importance of this dictum in working class politics.

In the January 1938 issue of The New International, Shachtman himself aptly characterized the stale dish he now serves up as an innovation:

“At bottom, the ultra-leftist position on the Soviet Union which denies it any claim whatsoever to being a workers’ state, reflects the vacillations of the petty-bourgeoisie, their inability to make a firm choice between the camps of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, of revolution and imperialism.”

The next logical step of Shachtman’s development in the wake of Burnham is, like his former client, to make a firm choice.


Last updated on: 13 November 2020