Jim Higgins

The Fate of the Russian Revolution


From Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2, 1999, pp. 275–79.
Transcribed by Alun Morgan for the Revolutionary History Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Sean Matgamna (ed.),
The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, Volume 1
Phoenix Press, London 1998, pp603, £16.99

WHEN, in 1957, I became a Trotskyist, one of the great joys of this rather lonely allegiance was that a great treasure-house of quality political writing opened up for study. Although there was nothing like the sheer volume of material that appeared in the late 1960s and 1970s, there were, nevertheless, the key texts of Trotsky and the publications of American Trotskyism in both its Cannonite and Shachtmanite manifestations. One particularly valuable cache was the back issues of the American Trotskyists’ New International. From 1934 to 1958, this excellent journal appeared, setting a standard for its rivals to aspire to but seldom to achieve. Much of the credit for the quality of the New International was due to Max Shachtman, who for most of those years was the main guiding hand behind the magazine. Shachtman was a revolutionary man for all seasons, a fine orator, witty, eloquent, penetrating and very funny, sometimes savagely so; all qualities that were equally in evidence in his writing. In the 1930s, he was, after Trotsky, held in the highest esteem in the international movement, where he helped in developing the sections and preparing the way for the foundation of the Fourth International. Trotsky certainly thought very highly of him, appointing him his literary executor, and making strenuous efforts to avoid the split in the US Socialist Workers Party in 1940.

There was, as one might assume, another side to all this, and, as Bob Pitt has observed in a recent issue of What Next?, Shachtman was, despite his manifest talents, a bit of a smart arse. In this, of course, his smart arsery was of the same character as your run-of-the-mill group gurus, where the leader’s stranglehold on the dialectic enables him to pontificate on all questions, even if it does sound like piffle. With Shachtman, the piffle always sounded plausible, and often the speed of the pen deceived the unwary.

I met him only once, when, in pursuit of material for his never-written magnum opus on the Comintern, he visited these shores in the early 1960s. He was staying with Jock Haston, and several of us were invited to meet him. He was something of a patrician figure, given to making his statements as if in papal infallibility mode, and I gained the distinct impression that contact with the hem of his garment might prove efficacious for any troublesome skin conditions one might be enduring. He was, however, graciously pleased to relieve me of my incomplete file of Labour Monthly.

This is the Max Shachtman whose writing on the Russian question forms the overwhelming bulk of the volume here under review. In a way, this is unfortunate, because whilst bureaucratic collectivism might have been a useful defining theory for the Workers Party/Independent Socialist League, it was one of the least attractive or interesting parts of that organisation’s life, and was certainly the main factor impelling, or allowing, Shachtman finally to make his peace with American imperialism.

The theory had its first outing in America in the SWP in 1937, propounded by James Burnham and Joe Carter. C.L.R. James, whose opinion of bureaucratic collectivism was not high, referred to it as ‘Carter’s little liver pill’. There is some evidence to suggest that it was an adaptation of Bruno Rizzi’s theory, and, despite strenuous denials by the WP/ISL, the jury is still out on this question. Shachtman, who was a co-factionalist with Burnham and Carter, did not adopt the theory himself until late in 1940, after they had all been expelled from the SWP. This makes it seem rather unfair that all subscribers to bureaucratic collectivism are now called ‘Shachtmanites’ rather than ‘Burnham-Carterites’. This may be explained by the fact that Burnham defected to the right in 1940, whilst Shachtman spent nearly 20 years more or less attached to a revolutionary outlook before he, too, followed the well-worn path. Carter, probably the real originator, was not an easy read, and the few articles he did write have all the charm of a bare-faced fletton. So, Shachtmanism it is, and perhaps there is some justice in that, for they deserve one another.

As a theory, bureaucratic centralism tells us that Russian Stalinism represented a new ruling class based on the super-exploitation of slaves. The birth and evolution of this class is not charted, and seems to be based on anecdotal evidence, a fine and justified moral outrage at the crimes of Stalinism, and a desire to produce something to replace the inadequate ‘workers’ state’ theory of Trotsky. It is also quite possibly the case that Shachtman’s late conversion represented a need to have a central defining theory to set him apart from Cannon’s SWP, which already had the franchise on Soviet defencism. Like all of these theories, it was a bit of a mix and match, and Shachtman spent years patching here and extending there, and gradually squeezing out any revolutionary content from the original.

One of the more bizarre aspects of Shachtmanism is the rôle it ascribes to the Communist parties. It suggests that, as capitalism grew up within the interstices of the feudal system, so the Communist parties were a bureaucratic collective class-in-waiting. In pursuit of this particular thesis, Shachtman engaged in a strange debate with Theodore Draper in the pages of the New International in which he claimed that the American Socialist Party left of 1912 was quite different from the left of 1917. If this sounds dangerously like the debates of the mediaeval schoolmen on whether the late J.C. of Bethlehem was of the same stuff or similar stuff to God, there is definitely a whiff of that kind of incense in the air. That left of 1917 was, of course the main element that went into the foundation of the American Communist Party. Within that party, amongst others, were Max Shachtman and his mentor James P. Cannon, struggling manfully in one factional alignment or another to convince Zinoviev that they were the men to lead the American section of the Comintern. Between 1922 and 1928, in all his activity as a second-rank leader of the party, Shachtman managed to avoid turning into a new ruling class. We do not know, of course, what nocturnal anguish he endured in his struggles to resist this transformation, especially when the moon was full.

From 1940 to 1948, the Workers Party thought of itself as a Trotskyist organisation, dedicated to the Fourth International, and, apart from the Russian question, broadly adhering to the ideas of the movement. It was more open and tolerant than most Trotskyist groups, but until 1948 it followed the debates within the Fourth International, and attempted to contribute to the discussion. Whatever their differences with the SWP, they were as concerned with creating an international leadership for the coming struggles. Perhaps it is the case that because they were unorthodox they were more aware of the way that postwar reality invalidated so many of Trotsky’s predictions. With the expansion of Stalinism into Eastern Europe, it was imperative, they thought, that the International rectify its mistaken line on Russia so that the workers could be given a clear and unequivocal lead. The condition of the Fourth International in the immediate post-1945 period, in the light of what it saw as its prospects, would have made a cat laugh, that is if the cat didn’t have more pressing matters in mind. Shachtman attended the 1948 congress of the Fourth International, he found the rhetoric of Michel Pablo empty and dispiriting, and the International, at whose founding in 1938 he had presided, a shell whose past had been based on hopes, and whose future was nostalgia for the past. Not only that, Shachtman’s own brand of Trotskyism made little impression on anyone. He returned to the US disappointed, and within a short time the Workers Party had not only broken with the Fourth International, but had changed its name to the Independent Socialist League, a recognition that a party of a couple of hundred people was a contradiction in terms.

Nevertheless, those first few years of the Workers Party were their best. In the 1940 split, they had taken slightly less than half the membership of the SWP, perhaps 400 people. They were, in the main, young and middle-class, but they were exceptionally dedicated. During the war, when engineering plants had many vacancies, they became factory workers, joining the union and fighting for leadership on the shop floor. Hal Draper, an archetypal intellectual, was one of those who became a factory worker. Unfortunately, when the war ended, the arms factories closed down and demobbed soldiers took the jobs that were available. Once again, they were commenting from the outside, and the slow but steady attrition of the members began.

For Shachtman, the non-revolutionary character of the postwar working class and the strength of Stalinism internationally inevitability impelled him to the right. If Stalinism was the barbaric antithesis of Socialism, and revolutionary Socialists just could not be heard, then Socialists should support those structures within capitalism that enabled workers to organise and better their conditions. By 1949, he was floating the idea of supporting trade union candidates in the Democratic Party.

By 1958, the ISL still had enough of its old spirit for there to be a faction fight when Hal Draper led the opposition to dissolving the ISL into the American Socialist Party. It was to no avail, the organisation had outlived its time, and having signed the humiliating dissolution statement demanded by the Socialist Party, Shachtman took his followers into the palsied embrace of Norman Thomas. One of the great paradoxes of all this is that the leaders of the Socialist Party were even more tired than the ISL, and within a short time Shachtman and his camarilla were in control of the organisation, and remorselessly driving it to the right. In the end, poor Shachtman was a caricature of his former self. Gradually he broke with his old comrades of many years’ standing. He supported the Bay of Pigs landing, he backed Johnson over Vietnam, backed Humphries for US President, and then refused to back McGovern against Nixon, and finally, in 1972, he died some years after his demise as a Socialist.

The Fate of the Russian Revolution is subtitled Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, and, it has to be said, not all of it needed finding, but for those interested in the history of the Trotskyist movement, there is plenty to satisfy their appetite. Apart from the reprints from Labour Action and New International, there are Workers Party conference documents and internal bulletins, with contributions by such luminaries as C.L.R. James and Hal Draper.

Sean Matgamna not only edited this volume, he also provides us with an introduction which aims to set the historical material in an overall context, both in relation to Trotsky and Trotskyism, and also to the Leninist tradition. The need for such an attempt rests in the fact that nobody in the ISL ever took the trouble to produce a coherent text on the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, not its origin, dynamic, political economy, or its laws of motion. Shachtman published a collection of his articles, under the title The Bureaucratic Revolution, in which he tinkered a little with the original texts to prove that from 1940 he had always been an opponent of the ‘evil empire’. Hal Draper put out another collection of articles, An Introduction to Independent Socialism, but all his major works were devoted to other more valuable tasks. I regret to say that Sean has not rectified the omissions of more talented Shachtmanites. I did, however, notice in Sean’s acknowledgements at the front of the volume, where he thanks Martin Thomas for help in editing the draft of part two of the Introduction to just a tenth of its original length. Now part two in the final text is 69 pages long, I counted them, and if you will just multiply that number by 10 you will realise that Martin deserves a heartfelt vote of thanks from all of us for his selfless endeavours. Now there’s a man I would be happy to go to the barricades with any day.

The Russian question certainly has its place in any examination of the life of the WP/ISL, but it really was much more than that. For 20 years, against great odds, an organisation was maintained that vigorously preached the message that Socialism is an expansion of, not an alternative to, democracy. And from all the evidence, that idea also informed the practice of the organisation, which puts it one up on practically every other group extant today. If you asked Alan Thornett whether that spirit of fair play that characterised the ISL has somehow trickled down to the Alliance for Workers Liberty, I’ll bet a modest sum that the enamel would fall off his teeth and steam come out of his ears before he was able to reply.

I believe that for young comrades coming into the movement, an altogether more valuable and entertaining book from the WP/ISL archive, a selection that would faithfully cover the whole of the Shachtmanite canon, would have yielded something of much greater interest. The point of this volume, I suspect, is not for the edification of the young, or indeed the not-so-young. Its purpose is to add a certain theoretical respectability to Sean’s own organisational needs. He has attached himself to a tradition that had some good ideas, but not on the Russian question, and some very good people. It really is no good reinventing the wheel if it was a small inadequate one that only moved to the right, and was, in any case, irreparably smashed with the fall of the Berlin wall.

Last updated on 12 May 2021