Max Shachtman

A Letter to a Comrade

On Some Aspects
of the Russian Question

(September 1941)

From Labor Action, Vol. 5 No. 35, 1 September 1941, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

We publish herewith another excerpt from a letter on revolutionary policy in the present stage of the war, with special reference to the Soviet Union. The author puts forward the position of the Workers Party, although in dealing with the question of the class character of the Soviet Union he presents a separate point of view which, with others, is now under a pre-convention discussion in the party – Ed.


That alone is what I meant by the paragraph in my New International article of a few months ago, which has been so unwarrantedly quoted by some of the defensist comrades. Were the character of the war to change as indicated, then you could easily see that the arguments about the Stalinist alliance with imperialism referred to in the preceding point would not and could not apply. From the point of view of the Soviet Union, even under Stalin, the OBJECTIVE consequences of the war could not and would not be the same as they are now. Revolutionary defensism in such circumstances would not in any way involve, support of imperialism or subordinate the interests of the workers in one country to the interests of the international proletariat. Under such circumstances the greater likelihood is, in fact it is almost a certainty, that mobilization of the working class of any country for revolutionary defense of the Soviet Union would be and could only be directed against the bourgeoisie of that working class. I don’t think that should be hard to understand. Yet contrast such a situation with the obvious facts of the present situation. To anyone for whom “defense of the Soviet Union” is not a collection of religious words, but a concrete problem of revolutionary politics, the difference, as the French say, leaps to the eyes.

4. What about the workers in the Soviet Union? What about the defense of nationalized property? Nationalised property is not an abstraction any more than democracy is an abstraction. Nationalized property under the regime of Soviet democracy, that was a revolutionary workers’ state. The nationalized property with the regime of the anti-Soviet autocracy, whether you call it a degenerated workers’ state or bureaucratic collectivism, is certainly not equivalent to a revolutionary workers’ state. On the basis of this very same nationalized property, in fact during the very period when this property was consolidated and expanded enormously at the expense of bourgeois property, the proletarian and revolutionary movements in Russia were all but completely destroyed and the international proletarian movement frightfully undermined.

As you know, I consider nationalized property in the Soviet Union a historically superior form of property than any form of private property in history. But I do not attribute to it what Marx would call a supra-historical significance any more, for example, than I would attribute such a significance to democracy. Is it worth defending? That depends on concrete circumstances and not upon an evaluation of nationalized property in and of itself. It is dangerous to argue by analogy because people can easily demonstrate that analogous situations are not identical situations. Yet to argue by analogy is often illuminating. In the Spanish civil war there were elements of imperialist war and we pointed them out. But, we said, the war is DECISIVELY between bourgeois democracy and fascism; and given the fact that the proletariat was not ready to take power in its own name, we supported bourgeois democracy as against fascism – critically, to be sure. In the same manner, in a social war between world capitalism and the Soviet Union. I would be a revolutionary, i.e., a critical defensist in Russia, because I do not want to see world imperialism get a new lease on life by reducing the non-capitalist Soviet Union to a capitalist colony.

What Do We Tell the Workers?

Isn’t the nationalized property at stake In the present war too? Of course it is. But isn’t the working class movement in the United States, its rights and institutions, and in England too, also at stake in the present war? That is, if Hitler conquers the United States, would not that mean that in addition to the crushing of American imperialism, the working class movement and the more or less democratic basis upon which it can exist and progress, would also be destroyed? Of course it would. Yet, we are not defensists in the United States because, however important the role this element plays, it does not alter the .decisively imperialist and reactionary character of the war. But at the same time, even in the United States, we do not take a completely negative position. Without becoming defensists, or even flirting with defensism, we fight right in the midst of the imperialist war itself for the interests and rights of the working class. We fight to defend that which is worth defending,

In the present situation in Russia, I would apply much the same policy. Would I tell the Russian workers not to fight the war? That advice is meaningless or stupid. I could not and do not tell them that in the United States. Do I tell them in Russia not to obey their officers? Of course not. I’m not an anarchist. In Russia and anywhere else the workers and especially the soldiers will obey their superiors until they have accumulated the organized power ... not to obey if they so desire. In the Soviet Union now what would I fight for? You understand, of course, that “fighting for” anything in the Soviet Union today is, so far as our movement is concerned, a work of “patient enlightenment,” as Lenin used to put it. I would say to the workers, organise and mobilize your strength to re-establish the Soviets, in the cities, in the army and on the land; to re-establish your trade unions; to take power again; to drive out the bureaucrats. Demand even now the diminution and eventual abolition of all bureaucratic privileges. Demand the release of all the revolutionary opponents of Stalin who were imprisoned. Demand the right of self-determination for the Ukraine. (I notice that the Cannonites have dropped this slogan out of the program of action for Russia.) And so on.

What About the Peace Slogan?

Would I raise the slogan of peace? One of our defensist comrades demanded that I answer why I do not raise the slogan now, whereas I did raise it during the Finnish invasion. the problem is a simple one. The peace slogan is not in and of itself a revolutionary or a defeatist slogan, even in a reactionary war. Not at all. The peace slogan should be raised by us under any situation ONLY when it means the revolutionary mobilization of the working class against the reactionary regime. Lenin was against the slogan up to 1917, because in that period it was a purely pacifist slogan. After the revolution, the situation was such that the slogan was revolutionary. But an even better example: We do not even raise the slogan of peace in the United States or England today. Why not? Because we are for the war? Of course not. But because the demand for peace, the slogan for peace, would under the concrete circumstances in England today play right into the hands of Hitler and the British ultra-reactionaries and would not mobilize the masses for revolutionary struggle. In the United States also, the peace slogan would not mobilize the masses for revolutionary struggle and would play right into the hands, not only of Hitler, but, more important, of the pacifist boneheads, the America-Firsters and all the other reactionary appeaser elements.

At a later stage the peace slogan may very well have revolutionary significance. But not now. So in Russia today. In the case of the Finnish invasion, the slogan of peace would have been a good slogan, not only for its revolutionary effects upon the Finnish proletariat, but because it would have been directed against the reactionary regime in alliance with Hitler. Right now, assuming you want .to look reality in the face, such a slogan would only play into the hands of those elements of the bureaucracy who undoubtedly aspire to a complete surrender and capitulation to Hitler. And I am not for that.

But I would like to raise this question, especially to the defensist comrades. The Stalinist alliance with Anglo-American imperialism is reactionary through and through, is it not? It means support of world imperialism, political and military, does it not? In my agitational and educational work among the Russian masses I would raise the slogan: break the reactionary imperialist alliance with London and Washington. The Cannonites, I am pretty sure, would not countenance this slogan, which is eminently correct. Would our defensists? I would like to hear from them on this score.

On the Question of Defeatism

Finally, it is necessary to have a little more clarity on the question of defeatism. You remember in the SWP dispute, the gifted Marxist, Cannon, explained to us that the Leninist theory of defeatism means that you PREFER the victory of the enemy to the victory of your own government. That is, you PREFER the defeat of your country by the enemy country, to the defeat of the enemy country by your country. Of course, Lenin never had such .an idea, but trifles like that never bothered Cannon in his theoretical flights. I personally think that so much confusion has been introduced in the concept of defeatism that I doubt if we would be losing too much if we dropped the word out of our vocabulary. However, be that as it may, let me try to specify what I mean by the content of this conception in the present situation.

I am NOT for throwing open the front, so that Hitler can march in. Not at all. For that matter, in a considerably different situation, and for somewhat different reasons, I am not for throwing open the front in England either. By defeatism in Russia, if I may still use that word, I aim at the defeat of the Stalinist counter-revolution by the Soviet working class. Right now, to talk realistically of revolutionary action which endangers the front is phrase-mongering, playing with formulae, and nothing more. If ever a situation called for “patient explanation,” it is the present situation in Russia. To the extent that anything can be done in Russia I would seek to direct the efforts of the internationalists at reconstituting the independence and the integrity of the proletariat. Then one of two things. This would either facilitate the development of a favorable revolutionary situation, or else would be facilitated by the development of such a situation; more accurately, the one would influence the other. After such an independent proletariat became strong enough to have an influence on the front and on the military operations, then, given the continued existence of the Stalin regime, you would have the beginning of the dual power in Russia. In that case, without yet becoming a defensist, while continuing to denounce Stalin’s reactionary war and reactionary war aims, I would try to appeal to the soldiers as Lenin did in 1917, not to engage in futile mutinies or riots or in any sporadic actions, to hold the front, so that the Germans do not break through and crush the proletarian elements of the dual power, and to speed the day when the Russian proletariat can crush the Stalinist elements or the dual power and change the war into a revolutionary war against imperialism.

Counteracting Moods of Desperation

I know that among certain comrades in the party, a tiny minority, I hope, there is what you might call a reactionary mood about the famous “Russian question.” In their fury at Stalin and Stalinism and the Stalinists, some comrades are seeking some magic formula which will “rid them of the Russian problem” – and of Stalinism. I am firmly in favor of resisting and counteracting such moods of desperation, because that is all they are. It is even reported to me that one comrade said that he is a “defeatist” in Russia, because, you see, if Russia is defeated, we won’t have the problem of Stalinism in the unions any more! I cannot, of course, vouch for the accuracy of this remark. But I hardly need say that I can understand such a point of view only as a result of a reaction provoked .by the hideousness of Stalinism and perhaps to a lesser degree by some extremist statements by defensists.

It is necessary to be on guard against such extreme reactions, because even the best comrades, once they start on that road, will sure as fate go to hell. I appeal, rather, for the calmest and most objective judgment of the problem. I don’t for a moment contend that it is a simple one. For the Stalinists, of course, it is simple. They don’t even have to think. Anything Stalin does automatically merits support. For the Cannonites, too, it is pretty simple. Any war that the “nationalized” property” fights against capitalism, they defend.

The present Soviet state, said Trotsky, is a terrible monstrosity. It was never thought of or conceived by Marx or Engels or Lenin or Trotsky himself. It is unprecedented and unique and full of startling surprises and innovations. I consider it the height of stupidity to be answered by a simple formula. For my part I am ready to leave that travesty on Marxian politics to the Cannonites.

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