Max Shachtman


A Stupendous Bureaucracy

(September 1934)

From New International, Vol.1 No.3, September 1934, pp.78-80.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

ALMOST a quarter of a century ago appeared the first edition of Die Soziologie des Parteiwesens in der modernen Demokratie – “investigations into the inexorable tendencies of group life” by the Italian professor Roberto Michels which were the first serious study of bureaucratism in the European labor movement. Then still in his “radical socialist” period, Michels traced the stratification of an upper crust in the trade unions and the social democracy in particular, with so much painstaking talent and instructive results that one is more than repaid by a second reading.

Pyramiding the social democratic structure from the broad mass of voters, through the party membership, attendance at party branch meetings, up to the officials and finally the narrow group of all-powerful party committees, and adorning his thesis with an imposing mass of data, he sought to establish a “universal law of development” of his own called the “iron law of oligarchy”. According to Michels, the triumph of oligarchy is organically inherent in every form of democracy and operates most relentlessly in every workers’ organization.

“Every workers’ party,” his views were once summed up, “is a mighty oligarchy standing upon piteous democratic feet ... The mass – it too organically and forever – is incapable of ruling. It is completely amorphous and indifferent, always needs somebody to distribute its work for it, must constantly be led. It asks for this leadership, and the opinion that it is in a position to influence its leaders in any way, is nothing but a wretched deception or self-deception. The whole history of the labor movement is a perpetually recurrent assault of the democratic waves upon the cliffs of oligarchy, being shattered against these cliffs, a new assault, etc., without end. An endless struggle of the democratic opposition against the oligarchy, a conversion of the democracy into oligarchy, a fusion with the oligarchy, the rise of a new democratic opposition, etc.”

For all the glaring defects apparent in Michel’s fatalistic sociology, his study was and remains invaluable for an understanding of the phenomenon of bureaucratism in the labor movement. And in order to combat effectively what is injurious and fatal in bureaucratism, it is necessary to understand it. Such an understanding will, furthermore, make it possible to grasp some of its unique and ordinarily less comprehensible forms in the present-day Stalinist parties.

In his penetrating examination into the causes of the opportunist decay of the social democracy, its collapse in the World War, G. Zinoviev presented his readers in 1916 with the shocking information that on the eve of the war the German social democracy with an approximate membership of a million and the trade unions with three times that number, employed between them 4,010 officials. “In the hands! of these upper 4,000 is accumulated the power in the party and the trade unions. Upon them depend all the affairs. They hold in their hands the whole powerful apparatus of the press, the organization, the relief funds, the whole election apparatus, etc.” (Der Krieg und die Krise des Sozialismus, p.511.)

The post-war period so extended the influence, numbers and power of the German social democracy that the 1914 figures paled by comparison. The omnipotence of the highest instances of the party bureaucracy was mightily assured throughout the ranks by the enormous increase of posts at its disposal for distribution to lesser officials. The latter (not every individual, to be sure, but as a group), to preserve themselves in office, served as the channels through which the real party leadership exercized its power in the ranks.

The available posts, according to the detailed study made a few years ago, were occupied by party members falling into the following categories:

“1. Those who are directly dependent [upon the party chiefs], among them the employees of the party, the trade unions, the auxiliary organizations and the economic enterprises; 2. those who are indirectly, but in part just as much dependent: who occupy positions in the state apparatus, the municipalities, the social-political bodies, etc., and 3. those whom we can call expectant candidates for high class sinecures. Among these we must again distinguish between those who already have such functions which offer them quick prospects of cornering a post and those who ‘hope’ to make a career for themselves. Without doubt the number of the latter is very high.” (Rudolf Feistmann, Der SPD-Apparat, Roten Aufbau, Vol.II, No.8, Berlin.)

Among the posts occupied by deserving social democrats, Feistmann listed: two-thirds of the police chiefs of Prussia, members of the Reichstag, numerous Landtags and municipal boards, members of the Board of Directors of the Coke syndicate, the match syndicate, the Reichsbank, the federal railways, the Federal Health Council, the Senate of the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Akademie, several banks, etc., etc. His final results, he tabulated as follows, without counting the “expectant candidates”:

Party and trade unions


Auxiliary organizations


Economic enterprises




Social-political bodies, representatives


Social-political bodies, officials and employees (ap.)


Teachers’ organization


Prussian administration


Administration of other provinces


Party schools, etc.


Building inspectors etc.


Economic enterprises which cannot be estimated (ap.)



Grand total:


Well over a quarter of a million posts!

While it should be borne in mind that these 300,000 rested upon a party membership of more than a million, a trade union membership of several million, and an electorate of more than ten million, it was nevertheless a tremendous weapon for the preservation of the party leadership and its conservative policies. This was further facilitated, to be sure, by the fact that the leadership, besides having the “responsibility” for maintaining a multitude of respectable institutions, was so closely interwoven with the whole capitalist state machinery that it not only served as its prop but was in a position to operate it for its own ends – at all events, up to two years ago.

The German social democracy is only the most striking example of this phenomenon in the sphere of reformist organizations throughout the world. Disregarding the Soviet Union, it is possible to say that the official Communist party in the United States is the outstanding, that is, the worst example, of a similar development in the sphere of Stalinist organizations. Documentary material which facilitated Feistmann’s calculations of the SPD is of course not available in the case of the American Stalinists. But a study will make possible an adequate approximation of the state of affairs here. The figures are of course drastically reduced, as compared with Germany, but not disproportionate to the organization considered. If the bureaucracy of the Stalinist party does not number hundreds of thousands, neither are its supporters counted by the millions.

The American Stalinist party is one of the top-heaviest labor organizations in the world. The number of its institutions and offices does not grow at the same speed as the growth of its membership and influence, but at a far more rapid pace; at times the former remains stable, or even advances while the latter declines. At all times, the best and the worst, the latter shows a turnover which produces a ceaseless change in its composition. The tremendous turnover in party membership is one of the most important features of the Stalinist bureaucracy.

“We have had in the past two years, innumerable resolutions, speeches and articles about fluctuations of membership, and) fine suggestions on how to overcome them. But these things have remained on paper – and the fluctuation today is as high as seventy-five percent. Many of these are old members. In the last registration we found that only 3,000 members were in the party before 1930.” (Party Organizer, Sept.-Oct. 1932.)

Accepting the official membership figures for 1932, this means that less than one-fourth of the membership had been in the party for as long as two years; the other 10,000 members were practically raw material.

These new elements – six, twelve, eighteen months in the party – do not get an opportunity in so short a period to absorb the fundamental teachings of Communism (assuming for the moment that even six years of Stalinism could give them these teachings!). Especially in recent years, the first and last principle they learn is unquestioning obedience to the party leadership which they can neither elect nor recall.

“We have lots of elements of bureaucracy among our leading comrades ... They feel that all comrades ‘below’ them must show great respect and honor to them, accept their opinion and shortcomings as the last and final word; on every subject. This dignity and artificial importance repels the proletarian rank and file of the party.” (Party Organiser, March 1931.)

Because of the speed with which the new recruit leaves the party, there is not to be found in it any more or less stable mass of workers out of which a consistent, organized opposition to the bureaucracy might crystallize. Any leadership may be appointed or removed, any policy may be set down or changed from above, and it will meet with no resistance in the lower ranks. That is, no organised resistance; an obstreperous or inquiring individual is either bribed or bludgeoned into silence, or promptly expelled to prevent others from being “infected” with his ideas.

The apparent contradiction between the outrageously false policies and bankruptcy of the leadership, and its “unanimous” acceptance by the membership, is “dialectically resolved” as follows: The highhanded regime of the leadership and its disastrous policies drive the eager converts to Communism out of the party; this fluctuation in turn makes it impossible for a force to crystallize in the ranks capable of changing either the leadership or its course. Periodically the contradiction reappears, not at a higher, but at a lower level ...

The membership fluctuates and is weak; the apparatus is powerful, beyond the control of the ranks, and extraordinarily numerous. For in addition to other iniquities inflicted upon it, the comparatively small circle of members and sympathizers is obliged to carry a disproportionately vast officialdom.

“We have in our [New York] district,” says the Party Organiser, Feb. 1931, “over 100 different mass organizations.” (In the last three years the number has increased considerably, and with it, the number of posts at the disposal of the central party secretariat.) In the Sept.-Oct. 1931 issue of the same periodical, it says: “The resolution adopted at the New York district plenum states that ‘there exists a far-reaching bureaucratization of the party apparatus ... A similar resolution was adopted at the beginning of August by the Chicago party organization.”,

Just what this means in more concrete terms may be seen from. a partial list of the party and party-controlled organizations which are staffed exclusively by party members, who thus constitute the full-time party apparatus. While the list confines itself to New. York, it should be remembered that this is the decisive political and organizational center of the Stalinists.

CENTRAL ORGANIZATIONS (with their district, local, and frequently foreign-language departments) : Communist Party, Young Communist League, Trade Union Unity League, International Labor Defense, International Workers Order, Friends of the Soviet Union, Workers International Relief, Workers Ex-Servicemen’s League, Unemployed Councils, League Against War and Fascism, National Students League, City Council of Associated Workers Clubs, United Council of Workingclass Women, John Reed Clubs, League of Struggle for Negro Rights, National Committee to Aid Victims of German Fascism, Labor Sports Union, Anti-Imperialist League, Labor Research Association, National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, Chinese Anti-Imperialist Alliance, Icor, National Textile Workers Union, Needle Trades Workers Industrial Union, Marine Workers Industrial Union, Steel and Metal Workers Union, National Furniture Workers Union, Food Workers Industrial Union, World Tourists, etc., etc, (In addition, two or three very generously staffed institutions which special conditions suggest leaving unnamed.)

PERIODICALS: Daily Worker, Morning Freiheit, Ukrainian Daily News, Daily Panvor, Unità Operaia, The Labor Defender, Labor Unity, Hunger Fighter, Novy Mir, Fight, Young Worker, Needle Worker, Food Worker, Furniture Worker, Marine Worker, The Communist, Der Hammer (Yiddish), Der Hammer (German), Amerikas Zihnas, Uus Ilm, Laisve, Student Review, New Masses, New Theater, Liberator, Party Organiser, Rank and File Federationist, New Pioneer, Empros, Communist International (English edition), Ny Tid, Soviet Russia Today, etc.

CULTURAL AND SKMI-CULTURAL ORGANIZATIONS: Workers School (of New York, of Harlem, of Brooklyn), Workers Bookshops, International Publishers, Workers Library Publishers, Pen and Hammer, Artef, Garrison Films, Freiheit Gesangs Verein, Freiheit Mandolin Orchestra, Workers Music League, Film and Photo League, Jewish Workers University, etc.

CENTERS AND INSTITUTIONS: Workers Center, Camp Nitgedaiget, Camp Unity, Ukrainian Labor Home, Golden’s Bridge Colony Workers Cooperative Colony (apartment buildings), Finnish Workers Hall, Czechoslovak Workers House, Scandinavian Hall, Amalgamated Rank and File Center, Italian Workers Center, Spanish Workers Center, Hungarian Workers Home, Camp Kin-derland, Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, etc.

LOCAL UNIONS AND MISCELLANEOUS: United Shoe and Leather Workers Union, Educational Workers Club, Custom Tailoring Workers Industrial Union, Transport Workers Union, Nurses and Hospital Workers League, Curtain and Drapery Workers Union, Relief Workers League, Alteration Painters Union, Office Workers Union, Unemployed Teachers Association, China and Glass Decorators Independent Union, Silk Screen Process Workers League, Taxi Drivers Union, Sign and Advertizing Art Workers Union, Anti-Fascist Action, Laundry Workers; Industrial Union, Smoking Pipe Workers Industrial Union, Building Maintenance Union, Independent Carpenters Union, Tobacco Workers Industrial Union, Jewelry Workers Industrial Union, etc., etc., etc.

If we apply the criteria employed by Feistmann – again omitting the not inconsiderable number of “expectant candidates” – the number of party members employed in the totality of these organizations, from the humblest clerical workers down to the Gen-Sec of the party himself, will be found to reach an enormous figure. Some of the institutions listed have no more than one paid official; the Marine Workers Industrial Union, with its 250 members locally, will have eight; the New Masses will be staffed with ten; the Morning Freiheit with well over fifty; the Bronx cooperative apartments – a big business institution with all the big business practises and malpractises – has an even more imposing personnel.

A careful approximation would yield a total of about 1,000 party members in New York City occupying posts for which they are directly or indirectly (and not very indirectly, either!) dependent upon the good will of the central party leadership – 1,000 out of about 3,000 party members in the city!

They constitute the bureaucratic caste, appointed and removable only from above, which dominates the party’s ranks. Whatever may be the character of this or that individual, as a group they are the obedient henchmen of the party secretariat which is, in turn, appointed by and responsible to the Stalin secretariat alone. They guarantee an unimpeded and unmolested continuity of Stalinist policy and Stalinist sovereignty. Divorced from the ranks, in the truest sense of the term, they rule over the membership, by actual intimidation if necessary.

“In some cases, two or three of the most developed comrades take upon themselves the right to make all decisions beforehand and monopolize the leadership among themselves. Under these conditions the remainder of the local comrades are either politically terrorized into silence or made to act the part of messenger boys for the ‘leadership’.” (Party Organiser, Feb. 1931.)

Should any kind of insurgency manifest itself in the party ranks, this bureaucracy is always available for flying squadrons to suppress, vote down or expel the recalcitrants. A classic example: “In shop nucleus No. 1, Section 2, New York, situated in a large leather goods factory, the following comrades were recently attached : Radwansky, editor of Novy Mir; Rose Pastor Stokes, employed in the W.I.R.; Rappoport, bookkeeper in the Freiheit; and Litwin, cashier in the Cooperative Restaurant. On the motion of Stokes, and with the help of these four functionaries, the organizer of the nucleus [a Lovestone suspect], who is at the same time the shop chairman, was, expelled from the party.” (Revolutionary Age, Dec. 1, 1929.)

Finally, it should be borne in mind that this bureaucracy, unlike any other that has ever existed in the labor movement, is bolstered up by a state power. It has behind it all the formal authority and prestige of the Soviet Union, to say nothing of more ponderable support. It has developed to a point where it is a self-perpetuating machine, part of an even bigger machine of the same type. It cannot be recast from within. It has immunized itself and the organization to which its bottom is irremovably glued, against the possibility of internal reform.

The problem of bureaucratism can neither be approached nor resolved from a subjective or abstract, that is, from a sub- or supra-social standpoint. A bureaucrat can no more be dismissed as a rude official than a bureaucracy can be set down as an evil in itself. The bureaucracy is the totality of officials or employees that staffs the apparatus and directly administers the affairs of a given institution. It can therefore be judged only in connection with this institution, its class basis, its class policies, its organizational structure and the milieu in which it functions.

When the revolutionary movement is in its infancy and its participation in the class struggle is as rare as its ranks are few, it can and does do without paid officials. As soon as it emerges from the initial formative stage, from pure discussion, and enters the arena of battle against the organized class foe, it realizes the imperative need of internal reorganization. The bourgeoisie has institutions, machinery, a press, spokesmen, writers, organizers, strategists, a general staff. To combat it effectively, the working class is compelled to bring out of its midst or to win over from other classes, those best qualified to organize its army, build its machinery, popularize its cause, plan and direct its battles. The larger grows the revolutionary and labor movement, the greater is its need of all kinds of auxiliary institutions and of all kinds of men and women to staff them – organizers, speakers, writers, secretaries, strategists, leaders, etc., etc. To set oneself against the building of such an apparatus and a body of qualified officials, is equivalent to loading the rising labor movement with stupid prejudices and with the backwardness of its own yesterday. It means fastening it to the Procrustean bed of its infancy and making it fit not by cutting off its legs but its head.

If a bureaucracy is considered not just as an abusive term, but as the officialdom which grows with the living movement of labor, it is patently indispensable. It makes for smooth routine, for system and efficiency in work, for planning and responsibility, for far-seeing supervision and centralization of effort.

It contains obvious dangers, as, alas! both reformism and Stalinism have showed: corruption, malfeasance, ossification, self-perpetuation, conservatism, usurpation. They are no more than the dangers inherent in the modern class struggle. The antidotes to these poisons go by the names of revolutionary class policy and workers’ democracy. Whoever yields on either score has contributed to the degeneration of his own officialdom.

The bureaucracies of the existing movements became corrupt and degenerated because they forsook Marxism and suppressed workers’ democracy. Now they play a reactionary role which makes necessary their elimination. “But this does not mean that the labor movement will be able to get along in the future without a large organizational apparatus, without a whole stratum of persons who stand specifically in the service of the proletarian organization,” Zinoviev wrote in his time. “Not back to those days when the labor movement was so weak that it could do without its own employees and officials, but forward to the day when the labor movement itself will be a new one, when the tempestuous mass movement of the proletariat subordinates this stratum of officials to itself, destroys routine, wipes away the bureaucratic rust, brings new people to the surface, breathes fighting courage into them, and fills them with new spirit!”


Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 17.11.2005