Jim Higgins

Max Shachtman and His Left

(Spring 1995)

From Revolutionary History, Vol. 5 No. 3, Spring 1995, pp. 209–213.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Peter Drucker
Max Shachtman and His Left: A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the ‘American Century’
Humanities Press, New Jersey 1994, pp. 346

THE NEWS today is that Joe Slovo is dead. Given the state of his health, this is not surprising. What is surprising is that the current General Secretary of the South African Communist Party and the ex-Chief of Staff of the ANC’s armed wing should receive such gushing obituaries from all sides of the South African press. The most knuckle-abraded hairy back is apparently grief-stricken at the death of this sweet-natured, nay saintly, old Stalinist hack. Of course, one does not unnecessarily speak ill of the dead. At the same time, it is not necessary to suppress one’s criticisms because one’s political foes have the good grace to shuffle off this mortal coil before they can add to their crimes.

These thoughts are occasioned by reading Peter Drucker’s book on Max Shachtman. First, it is necessary to say that Drucker is a member of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (that is the lot we used to blow raspberries at and call ‘Pabloite’; nowadays we cannot be bothered with them at all, and call them ‘Mandelistas’), and one would not expect such a partisan to take as his subject a man who came to the conclusion that the Fourth International was a farce, and that its leading cadres were actually beyond a joke. Despite this, Shachtman did make some seriously funny remarks about them. Here, for those unfamiliar with his distinctive style, is an example; his comments about Michel Pablo’s report of 10 years of the Fourth International at its Second World Congress in 1948:

‘The only claim to distinction the report could make is that it was one of the most lamentable performances in the history of the movement. For carefully scraped-out emptiness, it remained unexcelled by any of its rivals at other sessions.

‘To be sure, the reporter took care to refer to the reactionary character of the Stalinist and reformist parties; he noted with pride that the centrist organisations had not become mass movements, whereas the Fourth International, in the face of great difficulties, had not disappeared; he did not forget to dwell loudly on his unshattered faith in the working class, his confidence in Socialism, and his conviction that the Fourth International would overcome all obstacles — including, presumably, such reports as he was delivering.

‘It is debatable if the speech, sodden with cheerless commonplaces, would have been appropriate even at some anniversary celebration in a mountain village. Its suitability as a report of the Executive Committee to a congress was not debatable. Consequently, it was not debated — not at all, not by anyone, and not for a single moment ...’

This may give something of the flavour of Shachtman doing what came naturally, and what he was good at. In his debates and polemics, Shachtman took no prisoners. His enemies, one might even say victims, were pinned to the floor, and had the tops of the heads removed, the better to indicate the total absence of grey matter. At his best, he really took some beating. In the pre-war Trotskyist movement, he was, after Trotsky, probably the outstanding personality. Certainly, Trotsky thought highly of him, and at the height of the faction fight in the US Trotskyist movement in 1940, he made every effort to retain Shachtman, and even after the movement split, he kept him on as his literary executor. His magazine, the New International, was certainly the best of all the Trotskyist theoretical magazines, and is still well worth reading.

As a debater, Shachtman was in the top rank, and like all good debaters, he was well prepared to the point where he was primed to produce a seemingly off-the-cuff bon mot of great appositeness and brilliance. His debate in March 1950 with Earl Browder, the ex-General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA, is a case in point. Although expelled from the CPUSA, Browder still defended Stalinism and the Soviet Union. When it came to the final rebuttal, Shachtman said:

‘Suppose Browder’s Stalino-Socialists were successful in establishing their Socialism in this country ... who would be the first to go? Who would be the first to get the GPU bullet in the base of his skull? Who would be the first to be denounced in the obituary articles as a counter-revolutionary mad dog, a viper, a restorationist, a wrecker ...?

‘Rajk was the General Secretary of the Hungarian Communist Party, and was shot, hanged or garrotted. Kostov was the General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party. And when I thought of them, I thought of the former Secretary of the American Communist Party, and I said to myself: There, but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse.’

At this point, Shachtman turned dramatically and pointed at the shaken and ashen-faced Browder. One almost, but not quite, feels sorry for Browder.

The only man who could hold a candle to Shachtman in the US movement was James P. Cannon (this is not strictly accurate, as C.L.R. James was also a member of the Socialist Workers Party after 1938, and he was certainly Shachtman’s intellectual equal, although he did not dispute with him until much later). Indeed, throughout their troubled relationship, Cannon and Shachtman often held, or hurled, candles, clubs and brickbats at one another. Cannon was no theoretician, even if he did give the impression that a native worker, such as himself, embodied theory in a special proletarian sixth sense. He was, however, a good organiser, with a wide experience of the working class movement and a good agitational style both in speech and the written word, if prone to fits of depression, which caused him to take unsanctioned leave of absence to do some in-depth research into bottles of whiskey. Shachtman, on the other hand, took to theory and theorising like a duck to water. He spoke several languages, and was genuinely interested in the international struggle. Cannon’s dream of internationalism, one felt, would have been satisfied by a very big congress of the Communist International in which he won all the votes. Together, though, the Cannon-Shachtman alliance was a formidable combination, and whenever it was operating, the SWP did reasonably well. Reasonably well is, of course, a relative term; the only time that they made a small breakthrough past the thousand member barrier, naturally enough, they had a split.

The 1940 split is the one that Cannon celebrated in his abysmal volume The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (incidentally, one of the better articles in it is James Burnham’s Science and Style, which, if you can bring yourself to forgive his grievous failure to believe in dialectics and his subsequent escapades, is quite refreshing after all that internal bulletin-type prose). With the benefit of 20–20 hindsight, a split on whether or not to support the Russian drive for the Karelian Isthmus seems pretty footling, particularly in the light of how recent events have proved all those years of self-indulgent prattling on the class nature of Russia to be as useful as origami or macramé. Shachtman took about 500 with him, mainly the youth and intellectuals, so having virtually no workers, he naturally called it the Workers Party.

The theory of bureaucratic collectivism, which became Shachtman’s political compass, and which eventually led him so far from home, was developed at about this time by Joe Carter, a long time adherent of Shachtman in the New York SWP. C.L.R. James, who was not above the odd sly dig on occasion, characterised the theory as ‘Carter’s little liver pill’. In the beginning, Shachtman took the view that bureaucratic collectivism was more progressive than monopoly capitalism. As the years wore on, he changed his mind on this one, and who is to blame him for that? However, when he came to reprint this article in his collection The Bureaucratic Revolution, he edited this same text to suggest that he had always been of the view that Russia was the absolute pits. For that he was condemned by Tony Cliff, a man who knows a thing or two about text tampering (as the careful reader of the first and second editions of his Rosa Luxemburg will be able to attest).

Whatever the sociological insights the theory of bureaucratic collectivism may have given, it was something of a poisoned chalice for Shachtman and his co-thinkers. The brave slogan ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism’ eventually gave way to Washington before Moscow at all times, and International Socialism nowhere. In the bitter dregs of his days, he ended up supporting the viciously right wing Democratic Senator Henry ‘Scoop’ Jackson, a cold warrior of the nuclear persuasion.

It was a long day’s journey into night: from opposing Walter Reuther in the UAW to supporting him; from principled opposition to Social Democracy to complete assimilation into its bosom; from unremitting struggle against the labour fakirs to collaboration with George Meany and Jay Lovestone. And so on to solidarity with the swine who mounted the Bay of Pigs invasion. The anti-Vietnam War movement found Shachtman on the other side, the only man who was able to see a nascent bureaucratic collectivist in the underfed form of a chap in a lampshade hat and a pair of pyjamas.

Max Shachtman was larger than life, he was funny, he was witty, he was very intelligent, and, if he took the trouble, he could write exceptionally well and persuasively. He was boisterous and scandalous, and held court amongst his admiring followers. For hundreds of young people, he was the guru, the man who gave intellectual coherence to their lives, and enlisted them into his causes. It is part of the tragedy of his life that as his causes changed, his followers gradually fell away, and virtually nothing was left except the cold comfort of the labour fakirs, the machine politicians, and the sclerotic charms of the Socialist Party. Peter Drucker details all of the main events in Shachtman’s life, and, as I have indicated earlier, he seems to me to be overly concerned to justify the various twists and turns and the final betrayal. All I can say is that Max Shachtman at the height of his powers would have reduced his later, much diminished self to tatters, and we all would have felt the better for it.

Last updated on 9 May 2021