Joseph Hansen

A Defamer of Trotsky

(November 1942)

Source: Fourth International, Vol.3 No.11, November 1942, pp.341-345.
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.

The August number of the New International, organ of the petty-bourgeois opposition which split from the Fourth International in 1940, features an article by Max Shachtman entitled, Trotsky’s Struggle Against Stalinism. Ostensibly written to praise Trotsky, the article actually defames him. It continues the attempts of the former allies of James Burn-ham to assign to Trotsky a place in history that will accrue to their advantage. Their previous attempts have been answered in our press. [1]

In defending Trotsky and his memory we are not merely exposing sniveling petty-bourgeois renegades. That is the least of our concerns. Our concern is to protect the name and teachings of Leon Trotsky. If Trotsky were alive today there is little doubt how he would answer his present defamers. The larger part of their temerity arises solely from the fact that his voice has been .silenced. Doubly incumbent upon his disciples is it, therefore, to ward off these light-fingered gentlemen who would despoil the priceless revolutionary treasure which Trotsky bequeathed us.

Shachtman’s article, written “On the Second Anniversary of the Assassination,” is directed ironically enough against “self-styled friends of the cause Trotsky represented” who do not understand how the Stalinist bureaucracy came into power in view of Trotsky’s outstanding position of authority following the October revolution. This is a subject worthy of analysis; more than a few articles in our press have been devoted to this theme. But Shachtman is interested neither in defending Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism, with which he disagrees, nor in attacking the “self-styled friends” with whom he belongs. The article is designed with a different end in view. It is an obeisance before the icon which our self-styled friend has carved out of Trotsky. It is intended to spread the impression that he is somehow still friendly toward Trotskyism; at the same time the article is intended to belittle Trotsky in favor of the genius of Max Shachtman.

Our modest friend first attempts to belittle Trotsky by assuming that the Russian revolution has been “finally destroyed.” Trotsky waged implacable war against this assumption. Shachtman fails to mention that! Thereby he deliberately creates the impression that the Old Man’s mind was a trifle befuddled in his later years, since presumably he was incapable of grasping what has happened to the Soviet Union whereas Shachtman saw through it all with no more effort than might be required in skimming through the articles of such disillusioned petty-bourgeois intellectuals as Eastman, Hook, Lyons, Souvarine and Professor Burnham who reached a similar position well in advance of this critic of Trotsky.

Secondly he attempts to belitttle Trotsky by indicating that the Old Man was wrong in his estimate of Shachtman and his role as Burnham’s attorney, whereas the gifted critic, who sees farther and deeper than Trotsky, was right then and is right now. Trotsky noted this tendency in his opponent in 1940 when he wrote,

“In a word, during the space of two or three weeks Shachtman has discovered that I make mistakes ninety-nine times out of a hundred, especially where Shachtman himself happens to become involved.”

These words probe the heart of the latest article, providing the key to understanding why our mental wonder finds it necessary to continue his defamation of Trotsky.

We quote from Shachtman’s article:

“And, with all the errors in judgment that he (Trotsky) made – and they were more numerous and often much more serious and harmful to the cause than some of his newly-acquired idolaters are willing to admit, since they believe that he must be presented not merely as a revolutionary genius but as an infallible archangel – his methods and the considerations of his dilettante or muddleheaded critics.” (The typographical error – if such it is – occurs in the original.)

What errors of Trotsky are referred to by our infallible theoretician who is not so impressed with Trotsky’s infallibility? The ones Trotsky acknowledged, such as his August 1912 bloc against Lenin? Scarcely. Trotsky himself called Shachtman’s attention to this error, asking him not to repeat in 1940 the error made in 1912. Does he refer to the “errors” invented by the Stalinists? Obviously not; the article is directed against Stalinism. Only .one conclusion is possible, the benevolent corrector of Trotsky’s errors is referring to Trotsky’s “numerous” “serious and harmful” errors in relation to one Shachtman; that is, the “errors” of which our self-styled friend is unable to speak without either acknowledging his betrayal of Marxism and trying to make up for the past by returning to the program of Trotskyism or else, if he continues to adhere to his present program, destroying: the last pretense on his part of any connection with Trotskyism. Our bold critic quails before the horns of this dilemma. To touch them would reveal his defamation of Trotsky.

“Self-Styled Friends ...”

Proof that Shachtman has an ulterior end in view when he praises Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism is likewise furnished by the complete absence of a single reference in his article to the petty-bourgeois character of Stalinism. It is not accidental that the article suffers a lapse in this respect.

Perhaps Trotsky’s greatest single contribution to Marxism was his analysis of that variety of petty-bourgeois politics called Stalinism. The Marxist struggle against petty-bourgeois tendencies goes back to the youth of Marx and Engels when they battled the Hegelians, the Utopians and Proudhon. All the great Marxists since then have familiarized themselves with those early struggles as well as those that followed, with the Bakuninists, anarchists, Blanquists, then the revisionists of Marxism such as Bernstein. The struggle against petty-bourgeois tendencies runs like a guiding thread throughout the entire development of Marxism. But Trotsky analyzed in addition the old phenomena in an entirely new manifestation – petty-bourgeois politics in power in a workers’ state in imperialist encirclement. His brilliant development of the theory of permanent revolution in his early days in a sense constituted only preparatory work for his crowning achievement – the Marxist analysis of Stalinism. Trotsky, in brief, could be considered something of an authority on the characteristics of petty-bourgeois politics and groups which manifest the disease.

Our theoretician, however, does not so much as breathe the word “petty-bourgeois” in his entire article, either in referring to Stalinism or in referring to the, “self-styled friends.” Not because he has not heard the word before. Trotsky himself attempted to familiarize his relentless critic with the word and its meaning in 1939-40. In fact Trotsky’s final struggle as the leader of world Marxism against petty-bourgeois politics was not only against the Stalinist variety but more particularly against a recurrence of the old classic variety in the faction of Burnham-Shachtman and company.

The struggle with Burnham-Shachtman and company occurred mainly over the question on which Trotsky made his greatest theoretical contribution. Trotsky maintained that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers’ state which must be defended unconditionally against imperialist attack. Burnham rejected this viewpoint – it was at the time of the imperialist howl over the invasion of Finland – and called into question Trotsky’s analytical abilities. The critic who blesses us with pearls of wisdom about Trotsky’s errors defended Burnham’s right to his erroneous views although he himself did not agree with them, he said. Today, however, he has openly reached Burnham’s position of 1939-40.

That is why there is a ludicrous note in the article when it attacks “self-styled friends of the cause Trotsky represented.” It reminds us that our intransigent revolutionary genius once joined with the anti-Marxist Burnham to write an article against just such petty-bourgeois “friends” of Trotskyism as Shachtman is today, an article entitled Intellectuals in Retreat. Trotsky criticized Shachtman severely for agreeing with Burnham in this article to evade the question of the Marxist method of analysis, reminding him that these petty-bourgeois “friends” could not properly be answered from the Marxist viewpoint unless one exposed their method of analysis, that is, their rejection of dialectical materialism. Our critic’s present article is constructed on the same framework as Intellectuals in Retreat – minus Burnham’s professorial decorations and Burnham’s vigor. But far from heeding Trotsky’s admonition, this errorless being who reproves the Old Man’s errors has softened his criticism of the intellectual “friends” still further. Like “petty-bourgeois” the words “dialectical materialism” are exorcised. Now everything is reduced to miscomprehension of the magic touchstone that “Proper timing is connected inseparably with proper focusing.” Brilliant genius indeed that can demonstrate the hollowness of Trotsky’s advice by reducing the fundamental error of these “self-styled friends” to a question of amateur photography!

At one time Shachtman represented the revolutionary socialist movement, as it has developed in accordance with the theory and practice taught by Leon Trotsky, as an outstanding journalist. Many radicals may have hoped with Trotsky, when Shachtman was preparing to desert the Fourth International, that “Upon reaching a certain point Shachtman will ... pull himself together and begin the upward climb again.” Trotsky’s defamer, however, actuated by forces far greater than he could control, plunged without stopping. Today he stands outside the Fourth International; he is condemned and despised by every genuine representative of Trotsky’s ideas, his following consists of no more than a miserable remnant of the petty-bourgeois group who stampeded behind bellwether Burnham into the “third camp.” His political stock-in-trade consists now of nothing but defamation of Trotsky. A recapitulation of Trotsky’s struggle with the petty-bourgeois opposition in the light of events which have transpired since then will show what depths Shachtman has reached.

1. The petty-bourgeois opposition differed with Trotsky on the question of dialectical materialism. “Witch doctor Burnham,” as Trotsky called him, considered it a religion. As for Burnham’s attorney, Trotsky said the following:

“Precisely here begins Shachtman’s betrayal – not a mere mistake as I wished to believe last year; but it is now clear an outright theoretical betrayal. Following in the footsteps of Burnham, Shachtman teaches the young revolutionary party that ‘no one has yet demonstrated’ presumably that dialectical materialism affects the political activity of the party. ‘No one has yet demonstrated,’ in other words, that Marxism is of any use in the struggle of the proletariat.” (New International, March 1940)

Leon Trotsky warned the Fourth International, we repeat, that Shachtman by linking himself with Burnham in the way he did committed “outright theoretical betrayal.” The sole response of Burnham’s attorney to this date has been that he “would do it again and again tomorrow.” He has not publicly changed his position since the death of Trotsky despite the fact that Burnham has openly gone over to the camp of the class enemy. Are we right in concluding that this constitutes one of the “errors” of Trotsky to which Trotsky’s defamer still “following in the footsteps of Burnham” can only allude?

2. The petty-bourgeois opposition differed with Trotsky on the question of the class analysis of the Soviet Union. “Witch doctor Burnham” believed that a new exploiting class hitherto unknown to history stood at the head of the “former” workers’ state. However, in view of the fact that Abern, the Jim Farley of socialism, still affirmed belief the Soviet Union was a workers’ state and Burnham’s attorney wished more ‘leisure to think over the “problem,” Burnham abstained from advancing his full views publicly. Trotsky remarked:

“They permit themselves the luxury of differing on the fundamental question in order to solidarize on secondary questions. If this is Marxism and principled politics then I don’t know what unprincipled combinationism means.”

Trotsky said to Burnham:

“You draw your political conclusions from your sociological premise, even if you have temporarily slipped it into your brief case. Shachtman draws exactly the same political conclusions without a sociological premise; he adapts himself to you. Abern seeks to profit equally both from the hidden premise and the absence of a premise for his ‘organizational’ combinations. This is the real and not the diplomatic situation in the camp of the opposition. You proceed as an anti-Marxist; Shachtman and Abern as Platonic Marxists. Who is worse, it is not easy to determine.” (Fourth International, May 1940)

Who was right, Trotsky or the critic with an allergy to Trotsky’s “errors”? On deserting the petty-bourgeois group which he had stampeded out of the Fourth International, Burnham was honest enough to admit that Trotsky had been right in his analysis of Burnham’s real motivations. He opened his brief-case and produced a book, The Managerial Revolution, an elaboration of his fundamental position in the faction struggle. Burnham’s attorney thereupon adopted Burnham’s “sociological premise” in regard to the class nature of the Soviet Union as justification for the “political” conclusion rejecting unconditional defense of the Soviet Union. Are we right in concluding that the charge Shachtman engaged in “unprincipled combinationism” and acted as a “Platonic Marxist” likewise constitutes one of the “errors” to which Trotsky’s defamer can only allude?

3. The petty-bourgeois opposition differed with Trotsky on the key political question of the day, unconditional defense of the Soviet Union. They did so at first in a very shamefaced manner – if the Allies intervened they would leap to the defense, but in the war with Finland, etc., no. Trotsky probed their squirmings:

“The attempt of the conjunctural defeatists, i.e., the adventurers in defeatism, to extricate themselves from their difficulty by promising that in the event the Allies intervene they .will change their defeatist policy to a defensist one is a contemptible evasion.” (Fourth International, June 1940.)

“We are presented here with a rounded-out theory of defeatism ... But Shachtman can’t bring himself to say so.” Burnham even held – and his attorney backed him up – that by defending the Soviet Union the Fourth International gave “objective support” to Nazi Germany.

“Educated witch doctor Burnham’s reasoning on the theme that by defending the USSR we thereby defend Hitler,” remarked Trotsky, “is a neat little specimen of petty-bourgeois fat-headedness which seeks to force contradictory reality into the framework of a two-dimensional syllogism.”

Who was right in this key question? When the Nazi armies attacked, our intransigent hero, who is so bent on straightening Trotsky’s “deviations,” leaped – to the other side of the barricades. If the Old Man had lived what would he have said of this outright political betrayal? We can gain an idea from the sniveling cowardice with which Trotsky’s defamer dares only allude to this “error” of Trotsky.

4. The petty-bourgeois opposition differed with Trotsky on the question of unity of the Fourth International. When the Second World War broke out, they split the party. The record is so clear that it is impossible for them to squirm out of responsibility for this crime. Trotsky emphasized this:

“The discussion in the Socialist Workers Party of the United States was thorough and democratic. The preparations for the convention were carried out with absolute loyalty. The minority participated in the convention, recognizing thereby its legality and authoritativeness. The majority offered the minority all the necessary guarantees permitting it to conduct a struggle for its own views after the convention. The minority demanded a license to appeal to the masses over the head of the party. The majority naturally rejected this monstrous pretension ... The petty-bourgeois minority ... split from the proletarian majority on the basis of a struggle against revolutionary Marxism.” (Socialist Appeal, May 4, 1940)

In an internal bulletin, Trotsky’s viewpoint is further recorded:

“We have the fact that the minority split away from us, in spite of all the measures taken by the majority not to split. This signifies that their inner social feeling was such that it is impossible for them to go together with us. It is a petty-bourgeois tendency, not a proletarian.”

Are we right in concluding that this too constitutes one of Trotsky’s “errors” to which Trotsky’s defamer dares only allude?

5. On deserting the Fourth International, the petty-bourgeois opposition stole the theoretical organ of the Socialist Workers Party. Trotsky did not let this pass:

“The petty-bourgeois minority of the SWP split from the proletarian majority on the basis of a struggle against revolutionary Marxism. Burnham proclaimed dialectical materialism to be incompatible with his moth-eaten ‘science.’ Shachtman proclaimed revolutionary Marxism to be of no moment from the standpoint of ‘practical tasks.’ Abern hastened to hook up his little booth with the anti-Marxist bloc. And now these gentlemen label the magazine they filched from the party an ‘organ of revolutionary Marxism.’ What is this, if not ideological charlatanism?”

Shachtman never attempted to answer Trotsky’s charge that he had “filched” the theoretical organ of the SWP. Is this too one of the “errors” to which Trotsky’s defamer dares only allude?

6. Shachtman poses as a “real” Trotskyist in contradistinction to the genuine disciples of Trotsky whom he calls “epigones” and “newly-acquired idolaters.” Our clever shyster would never have dared such defamation during Trotsky’s lifetime. The Old Man’s death increased his boldness. Now he feels free to pass himself off as Honest John, the Old Man’s best friend even if the Old Man didn’t know it. But Trotsky himself drew a definitive class line between himself and this petty-bourgeois sharper.

“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. With the present ideas of Shachtman, not to mention Burnham, I have nothing in common. I used to collaborate actively with the New International, protesting in letters against Shachtman’s frivolous attitude toward theory and his unprincipled concessions to Burnham, the strutting petty-bourgeois pedant. But at the time both Burnham and Shachtman were kept in check by the party and the International. Today the pressure of petty-bourgeois democracy has unbridled them. Toward their new magazine my attitude can only be the same as toward all other petty-bourgeois counterfeits of Marxism. As for their ‘organizational methods’ and political ‘morality,’ these evoke in me nothing but contempt.

“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. He united with anti-Marxists to wage a struggle against Marxism. He helped fuse together a petty-bourgeois faction against the workers. He refrained from utilizing internal party democracy and from making an honest effort to convince the proletarian majority. He engineered a split under the conditions of a world war. To crown it all, he threw over this split the veil of a petty and dirty scandal, which seems especially designed to provide our enemies with ammunition. Such are these ‘democrats,’ such are their ‘morals’!” (Petty-Bourgeois Moralists and the Proletarian Party)

This was Leon Trotsky’s moral judgment of Shachtman. Are we right in assuming that this too constitutes one of the “errors” to which Trotsky’s defamer can only allude?

Trotsky’s Judgment of Shachtman

Trotsky analyzed Shachtman’s position from the heights of theory right down to morals in the proletarian movement. His conclusions: “outright theoretical betrayal,” “unprincipled combinationism,” “rounded out defeatism,” “ideological charlatanism,” “petty-bourgeois counterfeits of Marxism,” as bad as “conscious agents of the class enemy.” This estimate of Shachtman and his associates, as we can see, did not result solely from differences over the question of the internal regime in the party as they tried to make out. On the contrary, it is based on differences over the mast fundamental questions of Marxism, the very questions on which Trotsky could speak with the greatest authority. No attempt to weaken the devastating effects of this judgment by implying mental softness in Trotsky’s last years can hope to succeed. Such an attempt is as futile as trying to evade the judgment by silence or sneaking allusions.

Nor need any petty-bourgeois sentimentalist feel that this conclusion derived from a bad personal attitude on the part of Trotsky toward the shining exemplar of petty-bourgeois politics. On the contrary. In political matters Trotsky was always a model of objectivity. Well known was his propensity to go far out of his way in the hope that a weak or failing comrade might be developed into a better revolutionary or at least saved to the movement. Trotsky sent an air mail letter to Shachtman:

“I believe that you are on the wrong side of the barricades, my dear friend. By your position you give courage to all the petty-bourgeois and anti-Marxist elements to fight our doctrine, our program and our tradition. I don’t hope to convince you with these lines but I do express the prognosis that if you refuse now to find a way towards collaboration with the Marxist wing against the petty-bourgeois revisionists, you will inevitably deplore for years and years the greatest error of your life.

“If I had the possibility I would immediately take an airplane to New York City in order to discuss with you for 48 or 72 hours uninterruptedly. I regret very much that you don’t feel in this situation the need to come here to discuss the question with me. Or do you? I should be happy ...”

This letter was signed in the warmest personal manner. As Shachtman knew thoroughly, the Old Man meant what he said to the bottom of his heart. But the self-styled friend did not even see fit to reply. This little incident reveals like a lancet this defamer’s real personal attitude toward Trotsky. Whatever grudge might have been involved in the faction struggle was wholly on the part of Shachtman. Not until Trotsky was assassinated did this self-styled friend begin writing honeyed articles of faint praise.

Indeed Shachtman’.s personal attitude is a large factor in his continued degeneration. By his refusal to draw the lessons of his error he only deepens and widens the chasm separating himself from the Fourth International. Trotsky observed this quality in his opponent.

“Comrade Shachtman’s latest article, An Open Letter to Leon Trotsky, is an alarming symptom. It reveals that Shachtman refuses to learn from discussion and persists instead in deepening his mistakes ...” (From a Scratch – to the Danger of Gangrene)

The gangrene is spreading. Since Trotsky’s death Burnham’s attorney has begun revising his estimate of the colonial countries and along with it their defense. This difference with Trotsky’s position we presume likewise comes under the category of Trotsky’s “errors” to which the defamer can only allude.

What started Shachtman on his downward plunge was his lack of understanding of dialectical materialism, the method of analysis of Marxism. The most he ever did was give lip-service to the foundation-stone of Marxism. His article Intellectuals in Retreat revealed that Shachtman did not know the ABC’s of dialectics. His combination with Burnham showed that instead of making himself an apprentice in dialectics he was seeking a substitute method in bourgeois philosophy. His present articles show that he clings to Burnham’s method. That is the basic reason for his failure to draw the lesson of the heroip defense of their state by the Soviet workers against the imperialist invader. That is why he so easily comes to such treacherous conclusions in his estimates of the colonial countries, China, India, etc. That is why he opposes Trotsky’s military policy which prepares the workers for the coming struggles in the military arena. That is why above all when he .speaks of Trotsky he makes no attempt to measure the profound differences of 1939-40 in the light of subsequent events.

The lack of dialectics in Shachtman’s method enabled Trotsky to observe of his opponent:

“Who was in the wrong and in what, not a word of this. There is no tradition. Yesterday is expunged from the calculations – and what is the reason for all this ? Because in the organism of the party Comrade Shachtman plays the role of a floating kidney.”

Our misunderstood genius objected to this severe characterization. But the record of subsequent events only confirms Trotsky’s estimate. Shachtman’s politics has become reduced to petty swindling – counterfeiting himself as a Trotskyist, while defaming the theoretical authority and political program of the greatest Marxist of our time.



1. See Trotsky’s Last Battle Against the Revisionists, by Joseph Hansen, Fourth International, November 1940; and On Some Critics of Trotsky, by Marc Loris, loc. cit., August 1942.