Max Shachtman

After Two Years of War with Germany

Notes on Russia in the War

(July 1943)

From The New International, Vol. IX No. 7, July 1943, pp. 205–209.
An abridged version copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty book The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, vol. 1.
Additional transcription by Einde O’Callaghan – [indicated by square brackets].
Marked up by A. Forse & Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Workers’ Liberty notes that ‘we have restored deletions and changes – all of them small and of a copy-editing function – made by Shachtman when he republished this article in his book The Bureaucratic Revolution’.

General Prince Alexander Vassilivich Suvorov was a military figure of great renown who served throughout Europe under the Empress Catherine and, after her, under the Emperor Paul, in the latter half of the eighteenth century. He carried the banner of Czarist reaction to the Danube and threatened the power of the Turks. He fought the Napoleonic armies as far West and South as Italy, and learned Milanese remember that the day Suvorov’s troops marched into their city marked the death of the Cisalpine Republic.

At the head of a greatly superior army of Russians and Cossacks, he defeated the Poles under Poniatowski and Tadeusz Kosciuszko in 1792, and opened the way for the second partition of Poland next year between Catherine and Frederick William of Prussia. In 1794, when Poland rose in insurrection under the banner of Kosciuszko, who had entered Cracow, proclaimed national independence, and then forced the besieging troops of the Prussian monarch to withdraw, Catherine again sent Suvorov into the field. He emerged triumphant with the capture of Warsaw, which inaugurated the third partition of Poland the following year and its effectual extinction as a nation.

Czarist Russia was the principal pillar of European reaction, the staunchest support of all the black forces that sought to stem the tide of revolutionary Jacobinism set in motion all over the continent by the Great French Revolution. Prince Suvorov was one of the ablest and most odious representatives of this reaction. He even came to be its symbol. The French counter-revolution in 1799 marched through Britanny and Normandy with the royalists shouting: “Long live Suvorov! Down with the Republic!” It was a name with a record and a meaning that it retains to the present day.

These recollections are evoked by the reports that the Order of Suvorov has now been established in Stalinist Russia, sometimes called, out of pure nostalgia (there is no other reason), the “workers’ state.” The Order of Suvorov, First Class, “may be awarded only to a commander of an army on the front, his chief of staff or departmental heads who have annihilated numerically superior enemy forces or accomplished breakthroughs on major fronts. The Second Class of the Order is given to corps or divisional commanders and the Third Class to lower officers.” There is now also an Order of Kutuzov, contemporary of Suvorov, and no less devoted a servant of Czarist despotism. Both of them and others of their kind adorn the breasts of any number of Stalin’s marshals and generals.

It is a sign of the times in Russia, and not the first one, and far from the most important one. The old Red Army, which triumphed over the forces of all the imperialist powers sent against it, is gone, and gone of course is the socialist democratism, the internationalism, and the revolutionary spirit with which it was imbued from the start. Only people who do not think twice about how they are insulting the memory of the great founder of that army can refer to the Bonapartist levies that replaced it as “Trotsky’s Red Army.” All the old grades and ranks which the Bolshevik Revolution abolished have been restored and new ones added. The comradely relationship between commandant and rank-and-file has been replaced by the hierarchical relationship between an officer corps and a disfranchised serf-in-uniform that prevails in all imperialist armies. Special guards’ brigades and divisions have been created in direct imitation, not of the Red Guards of the revolution, but of the Praetorian Guards regiments set up by Czar Peter the Great. Officers are now prohibited from mingling with the ranks or maintaining an atmosphere of equality with them. Bristling with vulgar decorations, officers from the rank of platoon commander upward are now provided with flunkies, each one has an “orderly” who “takes his meals to his officer, makes tea for him and polishes his boots.” A system of exclusive officers’ clubs has been set up, thus formally acknowledging what was yesterday a thinly-disguised reality. Trotsky’s Red Army knew no officers – the very name was done away with – and no permanent ranks, that is, no officers’ corps.

The canonization of Suvorov in the Stalinist army is not altogether inappropriate. Suvorov and his army were the banner-bearers of the counter-revolution of their time. If Stalin harks back to the reaction of yesterday, it is because he represents the reaction of today. It is possible that under the name of Suvorov, the Stalinist army will win its battles; the proletariat will not. It is a class that differs from all others in history above all in the fact that it can conquer and rule only in its own name, and thereby put an end to all rule. In this statement there is not an ounce of sentimentality or abstract idealism; it is a profound and profoundly important social truth.

The Counter-Revolutionary Revolutionists

It is now possible to see much more clearly and fully what we saw incompletely and unclearly at the beginning of the war when we first rejected the slogan of “unconditional defense of the Soviet Union.” The analysis of the problem of Stalinist Russia made by Trotsky in his last years, an analysis in irreconcilable conflict with one he had made originally, collapsed under the test of events. The Cannonites, who are less interested in critical Marxian analysis and re-analysis than in iconology, deem it sufficient to say their beads over and over again. But Marxism is not and never was a fully completed dogma, but a developing science.

Trotsky assigned to Stalinism, to the Stalinist bureaucracy, the role of undermining the economic foundations of the workers’ state. By gradually de-nationalizing the means of production and exchange, loosening the monopoly of foreign trade, Stalinism would pave the way for the restoration of private property and capitalism. Indeed, it would not even survive this restoration, for that social act would be carried out by the forces of the Right Wing toward which the Stalinist Center leaned and repeatedly capitulated, and by which it would be crushed.

Nothing of the sort occurred. It was the Right Wing that was crushed by the Stalinist bureaucracy, and not the other way around. State property was not de-nationalized but, contrariwise, was more securely concentrated in the hands of the state and vastly expanded.

A year before World War II broke out, Trotsky found it possible to assert that the Right Wing, which the old analysis had described as the wing of capitalist restoration, represented a Left danger to the bureaucracy. The assertion was altogether abrupt, never motivated, not prepared by anything Trotsky had written previously, and to this day remains unexplained by the bead-sayers. It is nevertheless an assertion of first-rate significance, [which we have dealt with elsewhere].

As late as 1938, that is, in the same year, Trotsky not only saw an important fascist wing in the Stalinist bureaucracy (i.e., a capitalist wing), but declared that the political pendulum has swung more strongly “to the side of the right, the bourgeois wing of the bureaucracy and its allies throughout the land. From them, i.e., from the Right, we can expect ever more determined attempts in the next period to revise the socialist character of the USSR and bring it closer in pattern to ‘Western civilization’ in its fascist form.” If by the “socialist character of the USSR” Trotsky was referring primarily to state-owned property – and he was – the last five years have not revealed a single sign of attempts by the bureaucracy or any important section to “revise” it, much less “ever more determined attempts,” in the sense of restoring private property.

Again, it is the contrary that has happened. One can scrutinize most closely the serious political press, and even the often interesting summaries of the Russian press in the periodicals of the bead-sayers, but not a solitary concrete reference will be found to even the beginnings of a trend in the bureaucracy toward de-statification of property, toward the restoration of private property. A prediction which continues to be so completely refuted by events should be discarded, and if the analysis on which it was based is not discarded outright, it at least demands critical reexamination. That is what we have sought to do in these pages on several occasions, without encountering any comment from the Cannonites. They continue to say their beads.

Upon the invasion of Poland, the Baltic countries and Finland, and the division of imperialist booty between Hitler and Stalin, we watched closely for the possibility, even the likelihood, that Stalin would maintain private property in the occupied territories. That attitude was based not only on the experience of the Spanish Civil War, in which the Stalinists were the most ardent defenders of private property, but on the old analysis, according to which the social role of the bureaucracy was to abolish, or to prepare the abolition of, nationalized property. We were profoundly wrong. After a slight delay, the bureaucracy established the same property relations in the occupied countries as in Russia itself. On this point, Trotsky was unmistakably right. But his statement that the bureaucracy would most probably nationalize property in the occupied territories only deepened the contradictions in his fundamental theory of Stalinist Russia as a workers’ state.

In the course of the dispute which led to the split in the Fourth International, Trotsky developed his point of view on the “degenerated workers’ state” to the stage of a “counter-revolutionary workers’ state.” We know, he said, of the existence of “two completely counter-revolutionary workers’ internationals. These critics have apparently forgotten this ‘category’. The trade unions of France, Great Britain, the United States and other countries support completely the counter-revolutionary politics of their bourgeoisie. This does not prevent us from labeling them trade unions, from supporting their progressive steps and from defending them against the bourgeoisie. Why is it impossible to employ the same method with the counter-revolutionary workers’ state?”

But the difference, even from the standpoint of Trotsky‘s fundamental theory, or rather precisely from that standpoint, is irreconcilable. We are warranted in placing the label “counter-revolutionary” over the reformist organizations in the capitalist countries not because they are for socialism by “bureaucratic methods,” but just because they are against the socialist revolution, and have given ample evidence of their opposition to it with rifle and machine gun in hand. They are counter-revolutionary because, at bottom, they base themselves upon and defend the capitalist social order and the capitalist property relations on which it stands.

That the Stalinist bureaucracy (and the state it completely dominates) is counter-revolutionary, needs no elaborate demonstration. That is, it opposes the proletarian socialist revolution, whose triumph would mean the end of Stalinism and its power. But its similarity with the bourgeois labor organizations in the capitalist countries goes no further. The Stalinist state is not only not a defender of bourgeois property and not based upon it, but has destroyed it with all the thoroughness at its command inside of Russia, and, as we now see, even outside of Russia, provided it had the power to do so. Its work in the occupied countries shows this sufficiently.

Just what was the nature and significance of this work? The Stalinist state, represented physically by its armed forces (the Russian army and the GPU) occupied a number of capitalist countries, and proceeded to expropriate the bourgeois proprietors, nationalize property under the control of the Stalinists, thus abolishing capitalist property and capitalist property relations. The transformation it effected in the occupied countries is not less than a social revolution. To say that the masses of workers and peasants effected this social change is an exaggeration, to say the least. It was carried out, and in the most thorough manner, by the Stalinist bureaucracy.

Trotsky does not characterize the transformation any differently. He speaks of the Stalinist expropriations of the bourgeoisie as “social revolutionary measures, carried out via bureaucratic military means”; and elsewhere remarks: “This measure, revolutionary in character – ‘the expropriation of the expropriators’ – is in this case achieved in a military-bureaucratic fashion.”

What is the class character of this social revolution? By Trotsky‘s criterion, it must be characterized as a proletarian, socialist revolution, whether carried out “bureaucratically” or “militarily” or not.

We are able without difficulty to grasp the concept (it is more than that; it is a reality too often repeated in our time) of a counter-revolutionary labor organization, for example, the Second International, which fights to maintain capitalist society and fights against the inauguration of a socialist society. The concept of a counter-revolutionary workers’ state which accomplishes a socialist revolution; which establishes thereby a workers’ state without the working class and against the working class (Stalin converts the workers, wrote Trotsky, “into his own semi-slaves”); which makes the socialist revolution, establishes a workers’ state and “degenerates” it all at the same time – there is a concept which, as Trotsky wrote, “did not disturb our dialectic,” but which certainly destroys a number of fundamental teachings of Marxism, dialectical materialism included.

It would now be necessary to teach that there are not only counter-revolutionary opponents of the socialist revolution, but also counter-revolutionary proponents of the socialist (bureaucratic, to be sure, but from a class point of view, socialist) revolution. It would be necessary to modify the theory that the overthrow of capitalism and the laying of the foundations of socialism can be the work only of the proletariat, by adding that the same task can be accomplished, “via bureaucratic military means,” without the proletariat and against it. The Marxian dialectic has often been abused in the revolutionary movement, as is known. But it has never been invoked in justification of a more fantastic theory than the one to which Trotsky was driven in presenting us with the counter-revolutionary socialist revolutionists.

The Stalinist bureaucracy did indeed carry through a social revolution in the occupied countries. A social revolution means a change in class rule. What class was put into power in the Baltic countries? The proletariat? If this is so, someone should bring it the good tidings to console it for the bitter memories of totalitarian enslavement it enjoyed while it “ruled” under Stalin. The new class that was really brought to power by the Russian army, the GPU, and its Bonapartist plebiscite, was the Russian bureaucracy, and the social regime it established, against capitalism but not less oppressive and exploitive of the masses than the latter, is best characterized as bureaucratic collectivism. Such a regime cannot exist without nationalized, or more accurately, state property; far from undermining it or weakening it, much less replacing it with private property, the new bureaucracy bases itself upon it, draws its sustenance and power from it, and employs it as the economic basis indispensable to the savage exploitation of the masses over whom it rules.

The Morale of the Russian Army

[The bead-sayers demanded of us throughout the dispute in the SWP that we discuss the “fundamental question,” the question of the class character of Russia. At that time such a discussion was not possible and could not be fruitful; moreover, the traditional position of the Trotskyist movement was not being challenged. However, they find that such a discussion is entirely superfluous right now, at a time when the traditional position is being challenged, and challenged in a thoroughgoing manner. More bluntly, having accustomed themselves during the original dispute to letting Trotsky do all their political fighting for them, and confining themselves exclusively to the internal organizational plane on which their talents show to best advantage, they are now at a loss to engage in serious theoretical debate on the question. Where they are compelled to deal with it at all, they prefer to do so indirectly and on a sufficiently vulgar plane.

What is a vulgar plane? Let us take an example.]

The ex-socialist Max Eastman writes an article in Readers’ Digest containing emphatic assurances of his desire for a Russian victory and for American collaboration with Stalin. But, as he suggests by the title of his article, To Collaborate Successfully – We Must Face the Facts About Russia, Eastman is now a one hundred per cent imperialist patriot, but also an anti-Stalinist. We have nothing in common with his approach to the problem, with the purposes of his article, or with his political conclusions. That is not the point, however. The point is that on the whole the facts he gives about the regime and the vast concentration camp into which it has converted Russia, are commonplaces to the Marxist press and to informed people in general. The Stalin apologist, Professor Max Lerner, the new political writer of PM, sets out to answer Eastman, and he has one central refutation of the facts marshalled by the latter: “As I read Eastman on Russian poverty and the subjection of the people, I kept thinking: if these people are slaves, why do slaves fight so well.” (PM, July 1)

There it is, the whole crushing reply, just as it was written by the learned Professor Lerner, who never heard in all of history, ancient or contemporary, of nations of slaves fighting well, at least for a certain time.

Germany is not a nation of free men but of slaves. What would Professor Lerner say about the state of its morale? Has the state of the morale of the Japanese army, which so often fights till the last soldier is dead, come to the attention of the Professor? Or doesn’t he find time to read the public press?

The SWP prudently refuses to argue the theory that Russia is a workers’ state merely because the state, which is completely in the hands of a counter-revolutionary, totalitarian bureaucracy, owns the means of production and exchange, and utilizes that ownership exclusively for its own benefit and to the social and political detriment of the proletariat. It prefers to argue the theory indirectly, and essentially on the same plane as Lerner and other pro-Stalinist Liberals.

“Those who deny that the Soviet Union is a workers’ state,” says the resolution adopted by the last convention of the SWP, “cannot explain the unprecedented morale of the Soviet workers and peasants.” The same pathetic thought was repeated at a public meeting by the distinguished Marxian scholar who leads the party. If this has become the criterion, or at least important proof, of the proletarian character of the Russian state – or, lest we forget, of its “counter-revolutionary proletarian” character – then objectivity demands that Germany be included in the category of workers’ states of one kind or another, for there has thus far been no serious sign of a break in its “unprecedented morale.” Nor would it be possible to exclude Japan, and one or two other countries.

The “deniers” may not be able to explain the “unprecedented morale.” How do the “believers” explain it? We read: “Above all, the system of nationalized property provided the basis for the unprecedented morale of the Soviet workers and peasants. The Soviet masses have something to fight for. They fight for their factories, their land, their collective economy.”

Such good tidings should not be kept from the people either. The “Soviet” masses should be informed that the factories, the land, the economy in general, is theirs, belongs to them. On second thought, it is not at all necessary for the Cannonites to bring the Russian people this news. The Stalinists have been feeding this treacherous falsehood to the masses for years. Trotsky, however, repeatedly denounced it as a falsehood. In 1936, for example, he wrote:

The new constitution – wholly founded as we shall see, upon an identification of the bureaucracy with the state, and the state with the people – says “... the state property – that is, the possessions of the whole people.” This identification is the fundamental sophism of the official doctrine. (The Revolution Betrayed, page 236. Our emphasis.)

More of the same may be found in the chapter of Trotsky’s work devoted to social relations in Russia. But the quotation above will suffice to emphasize that the popular explanation of the “unprecedented morale” of the Russians is based directly upon what Trotsky rightly calls the “fundamental sophism” of the bureaucratic counter-revolution.

In the last issue of their magazine, the Cannonites strike a highly virtuous pose on the question of Russian morale. They compare their own writings and those of Souvarine to show that the predictions of the latter on the subject were wrong while their own were right. But that is not the only thing they “foresaw” and “forecast.” In their voluminous and violently contradictory writings on the subject can be found all sorts of mutually-exclusive predictions precisely on the question of Russian morale in wartime. They have a wide choice to draw upon. For example, in the May 1941 issue of the Fourth International, John G. Wright, their specialist on Russian questions, quotes with evident approval from an article by Freda Utley as follows:

This method of (repressive) government can be successful only where there is no threat from abroad. A dictator who lacks popular support dare not risk a war in which weapons would be placed in the hands of the subjects who might be more anxious to use them against him than against the foreign enemy.

Miss Utley was expressing no more than the thoughts of Souvarine against which the June 1943 issue of Fourth International fumes with such hypocritical piety and pretensions of superiority. In 1941, Wright did not find himself called upon to fume, but only to quote with approval. On the next page (125) of the same issue, Wright, commenting on another article in the bourgeois press, summarizes the situation as follows:

The factor of morale is worst of all. The workers and peasants are no better than serfs. The cost of living is going up and wages down. Youth are now deprived of education. According to the Soviet press itself, the new decrees cut short the studies of some 600,000 students. Pupils in secondary schools have to pay 200 rubles per year, in universities and technical schools 400 rubles. This rule was applied even to pupils and students in their last year. In some provincial universities and technical colleges, eighty per cent were obliged to quit and seek employment. Boys of fourteen to seventeen were conscripted for labor. After one year’s training they are obliged to work for four years anywhere they are sent. In short, Russia is a volcano ready for revolt. (Our emphasis)

Before venturing upon another spree of pompous self-adulation, the editor of the Fourth International could do worse than read a file of his own periodical. It will help tighten a loose jaw.

The appraisal of morale in wartime is an exceedingly difficult and complicated matter. This is especially true in the totalitarian countries where truth is an outlaw, statistics a court tool, and super-censorship is king. The conventional explanation says too little and too much at the same time. Yet it is possible to make an objective appraisal which approximates the truth as closely as that can now be done.

Wide sections of the Russian people entertain an active hatred of their regime. The rest are divided between those who tolerate it in one way or another, and those who are fanatically enthusiastic in support of it, either out of self-interest or out of persistent indoctrination (above all, this holds true of the youth). But the invader holds out no hope whatsoever for relief from tyranny. The masses are ready to resist him with whatever weapons are at their disposal, as is the case in so many other countries.

The Russian people have almost always fought well against a foreign invader, even when the odds against them were much greater than they are now. They are fighting better and with more conviction against the Germans now than they did during the adventure against Finland, when indifference and even cynicism was the rule. The feeling of attachment to the soil is very strong throughout Russia, even among the working class, which is not many years removed from the land. They do not want their country overrun and ruled by a foreign oppressor. And this is no ordinary foreigner, but a fascist. For long years, from Lenin’s day through Stalin’s, the Russian people have learned to feel a horror and hatred of fascism. The record of fascism’s conquests in Europe has only deepened this feeling. Their feelings in this matter are more than justified, and correspond with the interests and ideals of the international proletariat. So, also, do the feelings of those British workers who support the war against Germany because they fear a victory of fascism which would destroy their national independence and above all their democratic rights and working class institutions. The British worker has postponed, so to speak, his settlement of accounts with his own rulers until he has removed the threat of the Nazi knife at his throat. So has the Russian worker.

The task of the revolutionary Marxists can be fulfilled only by taking these progressive sentiments into full account, while continuing their “patient enlightenment” of the masses as to the imperialist and reactionary nature of the war itself, the harmfulness of political support of the war and the war regimes, the need of breaking with imperialism and the ruling classes, the urgency of an independent, internationalist road for the proletariat of all countries.

Are the Russian masses fighting “in defense of nationalized property”? Of course they are! The British workers are fighting willy-nilly in defense of capitalist property. The Russian people have shown no sign of wanting the restoration of capitalism, with its bankers and industrial monopolists. That is all to the good, for otherwise they would be the poor dupes of world reaction. The road to freedom for Russia does not lead backward but forward.

Right now, the “defense of nationalized property” means the defense of the economic foundations of bureaucratic totalitarianism and imperialist expansion – that is the point. The bureaucracy is perfectly well aware of this fact, and that is why it keeps its economic base intact. That is why it fights for it with such tenacity, with such indifference as to what alliance it makes with what capitalist-imperialist powers at the expense of the working class, with such cruel disregard for the legions of cannon-fodder it hurls wastefully into the breach against the enemy. That is why it fights to extend its base – and thereby its social rule – to whatever other country, from Sinkiang to Poland, from Finland to Turkey, that it has the power to take from its enemy and to be granted as its share of imperialist booty by its allies.

The morale of the Russians is high. Meanwhile, however, they are paying heavily with their life’s blood for the rule of the bureaucracy and for the alliance with the capitalist imperialisms that were imposed on them. The older generation, which knows something about the great proletarian revolution, is too exhausted, on the whole, to carry out the task of liberation from the new despotism. The younger generation, again, on the whole, is for the time being fanaticized and blinded by the doctrines of the totalitarian regime. But it will learn, or re-learn. The war will teach it, and so will the social upheavals that the war accelerates. If proletarian revolution does not triumph, and thereby overturn the regime of the new autocrats, that is, if the rule of Stalin continues, it will make no difference to the masses whether Russia is victorious in the war or is defeated. Their work is as clearly cut out for them as is ours.

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