Joseph Hansen

Burnham’s Attorney Carries On

(February 1941)

Source: Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 2, February 1941, pp. 59–63.
Transcription/Editing/HTML Markup: 2006 by Einde O’Callaghan.
Public Domain: Joseph Hansen Internet Archive 2006; This work is completely free. In any reproduction, we ask that you cite this Internet address and the publishing information above.

It will surprise no one who has followed the political degeneration of Max Shachtman since the outbreak of World War II to learn that he has now reached the stage where he denies that the Soviet Union is a workers’ state. This position was implicit in his demand at the outbreak of war that the Socialist Workers Party should revise its program of defense of the Soviet Union. It was thus characterized by Trotsky, who explained Shachtman’s demand for revision of the pro.gram as flowing from James Burnham’s conception that the Soviet Union is not a workers’ state. In order that the party might understand all the steps of Shachtman’s betrayal of Marxism, Trotsky analyzed Shachtman’s relationship with Burnham, beginning with the bloc they formed against dialectical materialism. Shachtman’s dependence upon Burnham on the question of the USSR, according to Trotsky, was due to his lack of a scientific method of analysis and to his leaving out a “trifle: his class position.”

Shachtman stormed with indignation, swore that he saw no necessary connection between method (dialectical materialism) and politics except in the “last analysis” and that if he were given a similar opportunity once more to form a philosophical bloc with Burnham he would “do it again and again tomorrow.” As for the defense of the USSR, that too, in Shachtman’s estimation, was related to the class structure of the Soviet Union only in the “last analysis.” The proletarian majority in the Socialist Workers Party who under the leadership of Trotsky gave battle to Burnham and his attorneys predicted that Burnham’s views on the Soviet Union would inevitably come into the open. This prediction has now been fulfilled. Approximately a half year after Burnham deserted the working class camp for the camp of the bourgeoisie, Shachtman has advanced Burnham’s views on the nature of the Soviet Union. In the December issue of the New International, the magazine which formerly was the property of the Socialist Workers Party but which the petty bourgeois opposition stole when they split from the Fourth International, Shachtman has published a treatise on property. As a result of his study he declares the socialized property established by the October revolution is now the property not of the workers’ :state but that a new exploiting class hitherto unknown to history has come to power in the Soviet Union on the basis of the “ownership” of this property.

For a full and ruthless characterization of this latest development in Shachtman’s political degeneration it is only necessary to quote Shachtman himself before he became a renegade:

“Outraged by the brutality of the reactionary usurpers, by their blood purges, by their political expropriation of the toilers, by their totalitarian regime, more than one class conscious worker and revolutionary militant has concluded that nothing is left of the Russian revolution, that there are no more grounds for defending the Soviet Union in a war than for defending any capitalist state. The professional confusionists of the various ultra-leftist grouplets prey upon these honest reactions to Stalinism and try to goad the workers into a reactionary position. Some of these philosophers of ignorance and superficiality prescribe a position of neutrality in a war between the Soviet Union and Germany; others, less timid, call for the strategy of defeatism in the Soviet Union. 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 New International, January 1938, p. 11)

The above characterization represented Shachtman’s considered opinion before he entered into the orbit of James Burnham. Now Shachtman has furnished us with Shachtman as an example of how a revolutionary militant can succumb to the “philosophers of igndrance and superficiality,” grow “less timid” and end up as a “professional confusionist” – denying the Soviet Union “any claim whatsoever to being a workers’ state,” thus reflecting the “vacillations of the petty bourgeoisie.” In his latest article on Russia, Shachtman revises his position on the Soviet Union back to the year 1933. He thus furnishes us in addition a living proof that one’s “agreement or disagreement on the more abstract doctrines of dialectical materialism” not only affects “today’s and tomorrow’s concrete political issues” but in the “last analysis” those of yesterday as well.

Shachtman’s article reveals complete abandonment not only of the Marxist method but of the Marxist concepts of the class and the state. He presents absolutely nothing new on the development of the USSR, no new data, no further concretization whatsoever of our knowledge of the real relations – Shachtman admits he has nothing to add to Trotsky’s “studies.” He confines himself to juggling abstractions hatched in his own brain, denies what he affirms, contradicts himself at every turn, reveals his sterility, sheds a few sentimental tears, speaks disconnectedly – indeed his whole article bears the aura of the petty bourgeois gone completely mad and become intent on proving it.

It is possible to consider here only a few issues out of the host Shachtman’s article raises. We do not have the space, no matter how instructive it might prove, to follow Shachtman everywhere in his “garden of theory” as he digs and delves with “critical cultivation” among Burnham’s turnips and horse-radishes, “re-planting” the little professorial cabbage plants, “also weeding out,” and at odd moments circling about with a butterfly net. The question of the class character of the USSR was discussed in all its aspects by the Fourth International over a period of years with various ultra-left groups and individuals; these discussions together with the writings of Comrade Trotsky in the recent struggle with the petty bourgeois opposition provide a wealth of material to which we refer the reader who wishes a more thorough and ample reply to Shachtman. [1]

Shachtman “Interprets” Trotsky

Shachtman bases his argument on a deduction he makes from Trotsky’s article The USSR in War, published in the New International of November 1939. Trotsky in this article analyzed the thoughts of those who believe a new class has developed in the Soviet Union and showed their ultimate and absurd conclusion. “Historical experience bears witness,” Trotsky declared, “in the opinion of certain rationalizers, that one cannot entertain hope in the proletariat.” He then outlines the beliefs of these “rationalizers” that the proletariat was incapable of averting the world war despite the existence of the material pre-requisites for socialism, that the proletariat failed to make the revolution in a series of countries when the opportunity offered, that they failed to avert the second imperialist war, and hence are congenitally incapable of ruling.

“If this conception is adopted,” wrote Trotsky, “that is, if it is acknowledged that the proletariat does not have the forces to accomplish the socialist revolution, then the urgent task of the statification of the productive forces will obviously be accomplished by someone else. By whom? By a new bureaucracy, which will replace the decayed bourgeoisie as a new ruling class on a world scale. That is how the question is beginning to be posed by those ‘leftists’ who do not rest content with debating over words.”

Trotsky then carried to the end the historic alternative which the rationalisers and “leftists” posed and showed that if we accept their views, then the prospect of socialist revolution must be renounced. Trotsky asks whether there are any objective data which would compel us to renounce this prospect, does not see any, declares that no such data exist, and concludes that the Stalinist bureaucracy is therefore not the first stage of a new exploiting society, but “an abhorrent relapse in the process of transforming bourgeois society into a socialist society,” that it is a relapse in the direction of restoration of bourgeois society in Russia.

Here is how Shachtman distorts Trotsky:

“In The USSR in War Trotsky declared it theoretically possible – we repeat: not probable, but nevertheless theoretically possible – 1, for the property forms and relations now existing in the Soviet Union to continue existing and yet represent not a workers’ state but a new exploiting society; and 2, for the bureaucracy now existing in the Soviet Union to become a new exploiting and ruling class without changing the property forms and relations it now rests upon. To allow such a theoretical possibility, does not eliminate the revolutionary perspectives, but it does destroy, at one blow, so to speak, the theoretical basis for our past characterization of Russia as a workers’ state.” (The New International, December 1940, pp. 196–7)

The theoretical basis for our calling the Soviet Union a workers’ state, let us recall, was the smashing of bourgeois forms of property and the establishment of socialist forms. We can admit the theoretical possibility of the estimate of the “rationalizers” proving correct, but that does not destroy today, our “past” characterization of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state. Something more substantial is needed than a theory posed by these people, who hold that bureaucratism will sweep the world and establish a new historically necessary bureaucratic class.

Today there are no objective facts, nothing new, especially in Shachtman’s article, which would lead us to believe them correct. Shachtman seems to believe that the mere act of posing a theoretical possibility destroys the basis for all past characterizations of a given phenomenon. Trotsky ... “advanced a theoretical possibility which fundamentally negated his theory ... of the class character of the Soviet state,” says Shachtman. According to this theory Shachtman would need do no more than pose the theoretical possibility of his reapplying for membership in the Socialist Workers Party in order to destroy the theoretical basis for Trotsky’s characterization of him as a sophist who has betrayed Marxism. This is to endow theoretical abstractions, or in Shachtman’s case, sophistry, with undue powers. If Shachtman still believes the posing of abstractions concocted in his own head is of such efficacy, let him pose the theoretical possibility of the moon developing into green cheese. He will have a hard time convincing the astronomers that his mere posing of the possibility thereby destroys the theoretical basis for their past scientific characterization of the moon even though he uses as “evidence” that some great astronomer in ridiculing the medicine men who did believe it had taken their assumption, shown the alternative: belief in science or witchcraft, and developed the alternatives to their conclusion.

A Shyster Analyzes Property Relations

In his section on Property Forms and Property Relations Shachtman informs us that the state “is not owned like a pair of socks or a factory; it is controlled.” We, however, can imagine a condition where socks and especially factories could be controlled without being “owned.” We even have a slogan calling for workers’ control of the factories while they are still owned by the bourgeoisie. Shachtman’s point could have more happily been illustrated with the case of The New International which was owned by the Socialist Workers Party but controlled by Shachtman, Burnham, and Abern. However, they utilized their position of trust to bring about a change in “property relations.” In brief they filched the magazine. This did not give rise on our part to a desire to call them a new exploiting class hitherto unknown in history – sneak-thievery is very old in history – we simply characterized it as the act of an opposition with petty bourgeois social roots.

Shachtman’s point is that “In the Soviet Union the proletariat is master of property only if he is master of the state which is its repository. That mastery alone can distinguish it as the ruling class.” Having lost this mastery, the proletariat is no longer ruling class, concludes Shachtman, and therefore the “property relations established by the Bolshevik revolution” have been destroyed. This is Shachtman’s case for his theory that a new type of society has come into being in the Soviet Union. He approaches the whole question as if it were a question of a petty theft in a bourgeois society. This man “owned” the article, another gained control of it, possession is nine points of the law, and so the first man lost ownership and the second one became master of the property.

But in presenting this viewpoint, Shachtman completely forgot that he had written about Soviet property relations before:

“Class rule is based upon property relations,” declared Shachtman in 1938. “Bourgeois class rule, the bourgeois state, is based upon private ownership, appropriation and accumulation. The political superstructure of the bourgeois class state may vary: democratic republic, monarchy, fascist dictatorship. When the bourgeois can no longer rule directly politically, and the working class is still too weak to take power, a Bonapartist military dictatorship may arise which seeks to raise itself ‘above the classes,’ to ‘mediate’ between them. But it continues to rule over a bourgeois state (even though, as in Germany it has politically expropriated the bourgeoisie and its parties), because it has left bourgeois property relations more or less intact.

“The October revolution abolished bourgeois property relations in the decisive spheres of economic life. By centralizing the means of production in the hands of the state, it created new property relations. The counter-revolutionary bureaucracy, although it has destroyed the political rule of the proletariat, has not yet been able to restore capitalist property relations by abolishing those established by the revolution. This great reality determines, for Marxists, the character of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state, bureaucratically degenerated, it is true, usurped and therefore crucially imperiled by the Bonapartists, but still fundamentally a workers’ state. This great remaining conquest of the revolution determines, in turn, our defense of the Soviet Union from imperialist attack and from its Bonapartist sappers at home.” (The New International, January 1938, p. 11)

In this same article quoted above, Shachtman defined the economic foundations established by the October revolution as “nationalized property, planning, the monopoly of foreign trade.” Thus in the “decisive spheres of economic life” he established the basic differences between bourgeois property relations and socialist property relations which make it possible for Marxists to term the state based upon the latter a workers’ state.

Now, however, Shachtman in his latest article tells us that “what is crucial are not the property FORMS, i.e. nationalized property, whose existence cannot be denied, but precisely the relations of the various social groups in the Soviet Union to this property, i. e., property relations!” It is not necessary to ask the read to come to a full stop at this point. He is certain to come to a stop without a request from anyone. Why in the devil, the reader cannot help asking, has Shachtman suddenly dragged in “property forms”? What is Shachtman’s distinction between property relations and property forms? Shachtman does not say. He rests his entire case on the “distinction,” but keeps the distinction itself in his pocket. Let him produce it in public!

The Marxist method is one of following the development of productive relations in their origin, development and decay. In his polemic against Proudhon, Marx accused that petty bourgeois of doing exactly what Shachtman is now doing with the concept “property.”

“The deficiency of the book (Proudhon’s What Is Property?) is indicated by its very title. The question was so falsely formulated that it could not be answered correctly. Ancient ‘property relations’ were swallowed up by feudal property relations and these by ‘bourgeois’ property relations. Thus history itself had practised its criticism upon past property relations. What Proudhon was actually dealing with was modern bourgeois property as it exists today. The question of what this is could only have been answered by a critical analysis of ‘political economy,’ embracing these property relations as a whole, not in. their legal expression as voluntary relations but in their real form, that is, as relations of production. But as he entangled the whole of these economic relations in the general juristic conception of ‘property,’ Proudhon could not get beyond the answer which Brissot, in a similar work, had already, before 1789, given in the same words: ‘Property is theft.’” (Letter to Schweitzer, published in the International Publishers edition of the Poverty of Philosophy, by Karl Marx, p. 165–6)

In his preface to the Critique of Political Economy, Marx develops this conception further:

“At a certain stage of their development, the material forces of production in society come in conflict with the existing relations of production, or – what is but a legal expression for the same thing – with the property relations within which they had been at work before. From forms of development of the forces of production these relations turn into their fetters. Then comes the period of social revolution. With the change of the economic foundation the entire immense superstructure is more or less rapidly transformed. In considering such transformations the distinction should always be made between the material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science, and the legal, political, religious, aesthetic or philosophic – in short, ideological forms in which men become conscious of this conflict and fight it out.” (Critique of Political Economy, p. 12)

If Shachtman were a Marxist, then he would try to prove his case by showing how the “material transformation of the economic conditions of production which can be determined with the precision of natural science” brought into being a new exploiting society in the USSR. We must conclude with Marx (Poverty of Philosophy, p. 130) that

“To try to give a definition of property as of an independent relation, a category apart – an abstract, an eternal idea – can be nothing but an illusion of metaphysics of jurisprudence.”

“Widening” the Definition of Class

In place of trying to show how the “material transformation of the economic conditions of production” inexorably gave rise to a new class, as a Marxist would have done, Shachtman converts the Stalinist bureaucracy into a class through the simple expedient of widening the definition of class. Engels’ definition of a class, argues Shachtman, was wider than Trotsky’s. Engels “qualified” the merchants as a class; Shachtman as a consistent follower of Engels believes he has full right to call the Stalinist bureaucracy a class. In short Shachtman calls up the shade of Engels to confound Trotsky and to prove that Shachtman conforms more strictly to Marxism than Trotsky. This is in line with the whole tendency of the petty bourgeois “Workers” Party to belittle Trotsky, to reduce him to a harmless icon.

In reality there is not the slightest difference in Trotsky’s and Engels’ conceptions of what constitutes a class. Trotsky, like Lenin, Engels, and Marx, considered the merchants a class, a historically necessary class which played a progressive role and which constituted a necessary stage in the development of the productive forces. There could be no disagreement on that score. But what do the merchants as a class have in common with the Stalinist bureaucracy? Is the Stalinist bureaucracy a historically necessary class as was the merchant class? Shachtman admits that it is not. (He thereby uses the term “class” in a non-Marxist sense, incidentally.) Why the reference to the merchant class?

“Classes are but an empty word, unless we know what are the elements on which they are based, such as wage-labor, capital, etc. These imply, in their turn, exchange, division of labor, prices, etc. Capital, e.g., does not mean anything without wage-labor, value, money, prices, etc.” (Critique of Political Economy, p. 292)

What concrete elements do the merchant class and the Stalinist bureaucracy have in common which makes it possible to equate one with the other? Shachtman is completely silent. He gives us an empty word and through widening the emptiness tries to establish an exploiting class hitherto unknown in history.

Marx and Engels traced the rise of the merchant form of capital with great precision, even in its most primitive stages in antiquity, showed that it was inevitable and necessary at a certain stage in the development of capital, and that it developed inevitably and necessarily into a higher form, industrial capital. In speaking of the dominating role of merchant capital in the eighteenth century, Marx and Engels even declared:

“Compared with the manufacturers, and above all with the craftsmen, they (the merchants) were certainly big bourgeois; compared with the merchants and industrialists of the next period they remain petty bourgeois, cf. Adam Smith.” (The German Ideology, p. 56)

The reason the merchants can be called a class in the Marxist sense is clear: They constituted the first historical form, and at a later stage, the dominant form of the bourgeois class.

In the very next sentences following the passage from Engels which Shachtman quotes from the Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, Engels in the conscientious fashion that characterized the founders of scientific socialism, indicates that the merchant class was indispensable to the development of the bourgeoisie, and he indicates very briefly how it was indispensable. (It is not necessary to dwell on this since the Marxist classics are rich in material on the merchant class. They developed commodity production, money, exchange, accelerated the movement of capital, increased the division of labor, etc.) Shachtman, however, as is his custom, finds the analogy with the merchant class no longer serviceable and immediately drops it. It is clear why he does this. It is manifestly absurd to maintain that the Stalinist bureaucracy plays the progressive role the rising merchant class played in the development of the productive forces in its day. Shachtman discreetly shifts into a field in which he is more secure: sophistry. Through a play on words he attempts to prove that the Stalinist bureaucracy is a historically necessary class. He quotes Trotsky:

“If the Bonapartist riffraff is a class this means that it is not an abortion but a viable child of history. If its marauding parasitism is ‘exploitation’ in the scientific sense of the term, this means that the bureaucracy possesses a historical future as the ruling class indispensable to the given system of economy.” (Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR, The New International, February, 1940, p. 14)

Trotsky is here repeating in different words what he had already said in his article, The USSR in War:

Scientifically and politically – and not purely terminologically – the question poses itself as follows: does the bureaucracy represent a temporary growth on a social organism or has this growth already become transformed into an historically indispensable organ? Social excrescences can be the product of an accidental’ (i.e. temporary and extraordinary) enmeshing of historical circumstances. A social organ (and such is every class, including an exploiting class) can take shape only as a result of the deeply rooted inner needs of production itself. If we do not answer this question, then the entire controversy will degenerate into sterile toying with words.” (The New International, November, 1939, p. 326)

Trotsky is begging the question, declaims Shachtman, because “the question is precisely: what is the given system of economy? For the given system – the property relations established by the counter-revolution – the Stalinist bureaucracy is the indispensable ruling class.” There is Shachtman in all his tattered cleverness – right at the very moment when we expect him to show how the new class is a historically indispensable organ, how it took shape as a result of the deeply rooted inner needs of production itself, and from that how it deserves to be qualified as a “class” Shachtman is gone with the wind, and what a wind!

Prove there is a new class? It is a question of the system of economy, responds Shachtman.

Prove there is a new economy? It is a question of the property relations, responds Shachtman.

Prove there are new property relations? It is a question of Trotsky having posed an absolutely new theoretical possibility in the future development of society, responds Shachtman.

And he accuses Leon Trotsky of begging the question!

It is only necessary to add that Shachtman himself begs the question when he admits that his new class is not a viable or indispensable ruling class “in the same sense as the historical capitalist class,” that is, it is not a class in the Marxist sense of the term, and then declares “we may and do speak of it as a ruling class.”

Why Shachtman Invented a New Class

In describing the characteristics of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Trotskyists from the very beginning have pointed out that it represents the tendency toward “revival of all the old crap” in the Soviet Union, that is, the tendency to revival of capitalism due to the economic level of Russia being behind that of the leading capitalist nations. In all spheres, the Stalinist bureaucracy represents the influence of the surrounding capitalist states upon the isolated workers’ state. The tendency of the Stalinist bureaucracy is toward restoration of bourgeois forms of production – not toward the establishment of hitherto unknown property forms. Trotsky has traced this bourgeois influence in the fields of culture, art, science, family life – all the relations prevailing in the USSR, and especially the economic – with great exactitude. He established beyond all doubt in the minds of the most advanced workers that in the face of the Stalinist bureaucracy they see the hideous face of international bourgeois reaction as refracted in the Soviet Union.

Shachtman’s article is conspicuous in only one respect aside from its theoretical absurdities: in place of the international bourgeoisie as the source of the evils we see in the Soviet Union, he substitutes a new exploiting class hitherto unknown to history. What does Shachtman gain by trying to thus establish a new ruling class in one country? No conclusion is possible except that he thereby tends to whitewash the bourgeoisie.

We are justified in drawing the conclusion that we have here a case of a development toward social-patriotism – a very subtle and perhaps unconscious form – but nevertheless a form of Social-patriotism.

Under the pressure of the war mongering bourgeoisie, who at any cost must whitewash themselves and, as in the last war, become again the immaculate champions of democracy, Shachtman constructed a new exploiting society and a new exploiting class out of the Stalinist bureaucracy. But in carrying out this not slight service for the bourgeoisie, Shachtman laid the basis for a subsequent shift to outright social patriotism. Why defend an exploiting society? In what way is this new exploiting society better in any respect than the present exploiting society of capitalism? On the contrary isn’t capitalism – democratic capitalism, naturally, naturally – better than a bureaucratic society like that outlined by Shachtman? In fabricating a new exploiting class, Shachtman has constructed nothing less than a bridge to outright social-patriotism.

We understand of course that it was only by sheer coincidence that at the precise time war broke out Shachtman rejected the slogan of defense of the Soviet Union. That it happens to be a coincidence which makes it possible to stand aloof when the bourgeoisie are howling for the blood of the Soviet Union is not Shachtman’s responsibility. He can’t help it if he was born under a lucky star!

It is likewise nothing but coincidence – if an unhappy coincidence – that in Shachtman’s party an outright social patriotic tendency has already risen which is daily gaining adherents and becoming more articulate.

Continuing Burnham’s tradition, this tendency bases itself on complete disavowal of Bolshevism. They say for instance: “We believe that the rejection of Bolshevism – openly and clearly – is a necessary condition for the construction” [2] of the party. For “construction” of the kind of party they want, they advocate “reading” the anarchist attacks on the Soviet Union and Benjamin Gitlow’s confession of how a one hundred percent Stalinist became converted to the benefits of capitalist democracy. In regard to the Soviet Union they declare: “Socialist totalitarianism is not better but on the contrary is worse than bourgeois democracy.” They emphasize these words themselves, as if completely conscious of their import.

This tendency in the Workers Party is not at all embarrassed that it advocates the same views as the case-hardened social patriots who betrayed the workers in the first world war: like Shachtman they feel that this is only a happy coincidence. It is only a “notion” they say, that “because a man shares one or several ideas with social patriots that therefore he does or must share all or most of them.”

These views are so obviously the logical continuation of Shachtman’s own views that it would seem he could not honestly refuse to open the columns of Labor Action and The New International to them. Can it be that the suspicion voiced by this grouping concerning Shachtman is correct, that he does not grant them their right to bring their views before the public only because he is interested in retaining organizational control of the party by any means?

Burnham went directly to the camp of the bourgeoisie. Shachtman has moved more hesitantly and with characteristic fanfare concerning his noble intentions. But the direction is the same as that of Burnham. Let the Workers Party opposition be patient, who want openly to advocate the views of the anarchists, renegades and social patriots. Shachtman will catch up – even outstrip – just give him a few more months to develop theoretically!



1. See the following articles in The New International: The USSR in War, November 1939; Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR, February 1940; A Petty-Bourgeois Opposition in the Socialist Workers Party, March 1940; From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene, March 1940; Balance Sheet of the Finnish Events, June 1940.

2. All quotations are from Defining a Tendency, mimeographed declaration of Joan Cornell, Martin Eden, Bert Edwards, Irving Ferry, Bud Gordon, Martin Lewis, Hal Mitchell, and Philip Sherman.


Last updated on: 3 October 2015