From The New International, Vol. X No. 8, August 1944, pp. 265–269.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.
Leon Trotsky’s name will be forever linked with the Russian Revolution, not of course as a Russian revolution but as the beginning of the international socialist revolution in Russia. He fought for this revolution with pen and sword, from his study and from his armored train in the Red Army. Between the start of his fight, under Czarism, and its end, under Stalinism, there is a continuous line, the line flowing from Trotsky’s great contribution to Marxism, the theory of the permanent revolution.
Except for the first period of the Bolshevik revolution, when the theory was not – and could not be! – attacked, it might be said that all of Trotsky’s literary-political activity revolved around the elaboration of his theory, and its defense from critics. Which critics? The guide in choosing the objects of his polemics was not always their prominence or importance, the extent of the front along which they attacked Trotsky’s views, the weightiness of their criticism. Wherever Trotsky was given an opportunity to elucidate his views, to expand upon them from a new angle, to fortify them in a new way, he seized upon it. The critic did not need to be Stalin or Radek. Even if he was so obscure, and his criticism so trivial or absurd, that the mere mention of his name by Trotsky sufficed to save him from oblivion, Trotsky did not for that reason disdain to deal with him. Ample evidence of this is to be found throughout Trotsky’s writings. The evidence relates not only to polemics about his theory of the permanent revolution but more generally to any of the important views he held.
Similarly with those who were his students and his followers in every country. One example is The New International, which, month in and month out, from its first issue onward, emulated Trotsky by its systematic defense of the principles and program of Marxism against all critics, honest or mendacious, big or small, partial or total. It is, after all, only by this method that the Marxian movement can maintain theoretical alertness, preserve its pre-eminence over all other currents in the working class, and imbue its followers with informed confidence, in contrast to the blind faith, nurtured ignorance or confusion, and slick demagogy that hold together other movements.
What is said above applies not only to debate of Marxists with non- or anti-Marxists, but to discussions within the Marxian movement itself. There we have too often heard that a discussion is a “luxury.” It is as much a luxury to the movement as the circulation of the blood is a luxury to the human body.
In the 1939–40 discussion in the Socialist Workers Party, Trotsky repeatedly challenged the then opposition (now the Workers Party) to debate first and foremost the question of the class character of the Soviet Union, he taking, as is well known, the standpoint that Russia is a degenerated workers’ state. It goes without saying that he did not for a moment consider it a “closed question” precluding all discussion, although it is no less true that on this question his own position was firm and aggressive. For reasons that were then, and often since, advanced, the opposition did not wish to debate on this ground.
If the writer may speak personally for a moment: I not only did not wish to debate the view that Russia was still a workers’ state, but I could not if I would. Like so many other members of the opposition (and not a few of the majority!), I had developed some doubts (as an otherwise dull commentator correctly observed) on the correctness of our traditional position, without being able to say to myself, and therefore to others, that this position was fundamentally false and that an alternative position had to replace it. Inasmuch as only a dilettante, but not a serious politician, can be “skeptical toward all theories,” or engage in a dispute on the basis of “doubts,” let alone make them a polemical platform, it was manifestly impossible for me, and not me alone, to take up Trotsky’s challenge.
Doubts are a bridge you cannot stand on for long. Either you go back to the old views or move on to new ones. Along with several other comrades who sought to probe the question seriously, thoroughly and in an unclouded atmosphere, I helped work out, in 1940–41, a critique of Trotsky’s theory of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state. We arrived at an analysis and conclusions of our own, summed up in the phrase “bureaucratic collectivism,” a new class, exploitive state in Russia which is neither bourgeois nor proletarian but is basically different from any other class regime preceding or contemporary with it.
We proceeded to set forth our views in dozens of articles in our press. Stalin’s assassin deprived Trotsky of the opportunity, which he would undoubtedly have taken, to subject these views to criticism. But the “official” Trotskyist press, The Militant and the Fourth International? For three years it maintained complete silence. It did not, you see, deign to reply, unless a reply means repeating that we are “petty bourgeois,” “counter-revolutionists,” “enemies of the Soviet Union,” “renegades from Marxism,” “common thieves” and the like – “arguments” which had failed to convince us when they originally appeared in the Daily Worker.
Yet not only we, but all those interested in Trotsky’s views, especially those who supported them, had a right to expect an objective reply to our point of view from the SWP spokesmen. Our theory is the first serious attempt to present a rounded analysis of the Stalinist state from the Marxian standpoint, which, while basing itself in many respects on the invaluable contributions of Trotsky, is at the same time a criticism of Trotsky’s conclusion. Our theory, furthermore, is a unique contribution to the question and not a rehash of old, refuted and discredited doctrines. We do not contend that it cannot be successfully disputed, only that it has not been. The SWP did not even make an attempt to do so.
When we finally published the first English edition of Trotsky’s classic, written in 1923, The New Course, and added to it, as is our custom, an essay by the editor, it explained to the new reader the historical circumstances of the work, its significance in the light of subsequent events, plus a critical re-examination of Trotsky’s later theory of the “workers’ state.” We felt that the SWP would now have to reply. Some of us thought it would assign a responsible, theoretically and politically equipped spokesman, to review the book as it deserves to be reviewed. Others thought that at most it would assign the job to some unschooled lad equipped with an advanced case of psittacosis and a penchant for abuse. Obviously, some of us were wrong. Under the characteristically restrained title, A Defamer of Marxism, a review of the book appeared at last in the May 1944 issue of the Fourth International, over the signature of Harry Frankel. This is, as we shall see, the literal equivalent of saying: Since the soup is too hot to handle, we might as well spit in it.
Frankel wastes only a few indifferent words on the section of the book written by Trotsky. He concedes, it is true, that The New Course is “beef,” whereas “Shachtman’s essay is the antipode: it is tripe.” But he leaves the impression in the few sentences he devotes to The New Course that it is merely an initial, immature and dated effort by Trotsky. This is in the order of things.
Trotsky’s The New Course is even more timely today than when it was first written. It is one of his most durable works. It is a classic socialist statement on workers’ democracy. It is perhaps the clearest exposition ever written of what democracy means in a centralized, revolutionary proletarian party. It is, of course, a specific analysis of the problem of a specific party, after it has taken power, in a specific country and under specific conditions. This does not detract from its general applicability. That Trotsky says there about party democracy, about a free and vibrant internal life, about the role of tradition and the need of constantly enriching it, about critical and independent party thought, about Leninism, about discussions and how they should be conducted, about loyalty in discussion and in leadership, about the relations between leaders and ranks, between “young” and “old,” about bureaucratism and conservatism, about factions and groupings, and a dozen other vital problems of any revolutionary party – amounts to an annihilating criticism of the inner-party regime of the SWP today, of its leaders and their methods. Frankel’s silence on all this, his generally deprecatory remarks, are in the order of things. Had he spoken commendatorily and at length about the ideas Trotsky puts forward in The New Course, he could only have brought a wry smile to the lips of every thinking member of the SWP.
Perhaps we do him an injustice. Perhaps he is so eager to work on the tripe that he has no time for the beef. The tripe he divides into five important parts. He deals with the parentage of our theory; the question of its significance in the “whole of Trotskyism”; the question of the roots of class rule; the question of the historical place of the Stalin bureaucracy; the question of the analogy between Russia and a trade union. If we pursue him through his often dreary and never bright abuse, it is because the task, though thankless, is not without profit.
Today, Burnham writes from the standpoint of an avowed enemy of Marxism, while Shachtman espouses the former position of Burnham, who in turn borrowed it from Bruno. Today, Shachtman even adduces as his main “proof of the existence of a new class the argument adduced originally by Bruno, namely, Stalin’s purges and frame-up trials of 1936–38. A modest disciple never fails gratefully to acknowledge his teacher. Shachtman ungraciously ignores his true preceptors: Burnham and Bruno.
Burnham’s theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” (borrowed from Bruno) is now coolly offered as an “indispensable correction” to Trotskyism.
About Burnham, our readers know something, and so, presumably, does Frankel. But who is this sinister Bruno? All we know of him is that just before the war he wrote a big book in France on the “bureaucratization of the world.” This book we never read. Neither did Frankel. The only thing he knows about Bruno, about whose views he speaks with such impressive familiarity, is the reference to it made by Trotsky in 1939 in a few sentences. It takes a high grade of impertinence or transoceanic vision, one of which Frankel certainly possesses, to speak with such assuredness about views elaborated in a book you have neither seen nor read, and about which all you know is a dozen paraphrasing sentences written by a critic.
But can’t it be assumed that the sentences in which Trotsky sums up the views of one of the “parents” of our theory are adequate? We are ready to do so. According to Trotsky’s summary, Bruno seems to hold the theory that “bureaucratic collectivism” or the bureaucratic state is a new, unprecedented exploitive social order, with a new ruling class, which exists not only in Russia but also in Germany and in a less developed form in “New Deal” America, and is, in a word, sweeping the world. According to this theory, there is no class difference between the German-U.S. type of state and the Russian type. As is known, Burnham’s latest theory is similar, apparently, to Bruno’s.
What, however, has such a theory to do with ours? In every article we have written on the subject, in the official resolution of our party, we have repeatedly emphasized the unique class character of the Russian state, its fundamental difference not only from a workers’ state, but from all the bourgeois states, be they fascist or democratic. Time and again we have polemized against the theory that Russia and Germany, for example, have the same class state or social system or ruling class – against those who, like Burnham and Macdonald, held that both countries were “bureaucratic-collectivist,” as well as against those who held that both were capitalist. Our party has formally rejected both these standpoints. If our cavalier is aware of these facts, he is practising a fraud on his readers by concealing them. If he is unaware of them, he is practising a fraud on his readers by dealing with matters he is ignorant of. Take your choice.
In The New Course, Trotsky lays the greatest stress on loyalty in discussion, on the importance of an honest presentation of your opponent’s views, on the reprehensibility of amalgamating one view with views that are essentially alien to it. No wonder Frankel thinks so little of the book!
Where does our theory have its roots? Primarily in the writings of Trotsky! More accurately, in the resolving of the two basic, irreconcilable theories about Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state” which are to be found in Trotsky’s writings. For a long time Trotsky rightly based his theory that Russia is a degenerated workers’ state on the view that, to one degree or another, in one form or another, the Soviet proletariat still retained political power, that it could yet submit its bureaucracy to its control, that it could regenerate the state by means of a profound reform. Indeed, Trotsky repeated that the proof of the working class character of the Soviet states lies in the fact that the regime could still be changed by reform. This theory he later abandoned, substituting the point of view that, although the proletariat had lost all semblance of political power and control, and an uncontrolled, counter-revolutionary bureaucracy had complete possession of the state power, and that it could not be removed save by means of a violent revolution, the state was nevertheless proletarian by virtue of the existence of state property. Only Trotsky’s immense authority in the movement made possible the acceptance by it of a theory which, up to that time, had never been held by any Marxist.
In numerous articles we have pointed out the contradiction between the two theories. We have pointed out how Trotsky abandoned the one for the other without so much as a link between them. We have showed how Trotsky was compelled to abandon his original theory because events refuted the essential predictions about Russia’s evolution which he based on it. The voluminous quotations we have adduced from Trotsky’s writings are simply irrefutable. Enough of them are again cited in our essay on The New Course. Frankel does not even hint at their existence (we are making the audacious assumption that he actually read the book). With consummate native skill, he plays dumb on this point. And not on this point alone.
This is not all. Frankel knows – and if he does not know, why does he venture to blacken so much innocent white paper? – that our press, the present writer in particular, has called attention to the fact that the first man (so far as we know) in the Trotskyist movement who put forward the theory that the Stalinist bureaucracy is a new ruling class, based on a new “property form,” was neither Shachtman, Burnham, nor, God help us, the mysterious Bruno, but Christian Rakovsky. More than a decade ago, Rakovsky, next to Trotsky the outstanding leader of the Opposition, presented this view in a theoretical document of his own, which was circulated throughout the Russian Opposition. Trotsky, although he obviously did not share this view, printed it in the organ of the Russian Opposition without comment and certainly without denunciation – he was not made of the same stern and intransigent stuff as his eminent theoretical successor, Frankel. There is enough evidence, moreover, in letters of Oppositionist exiles and in the testimony of A. Ciliga, that Rakovsky’s theory was shared by a considerable number of Russian Trotskyists. Poor devils! They had no Frankel to explain to them that they were “defamers of Marxism,” purveyors of tripe, and belonged, as he so delicately puts it, to the “legion of emasculators, vulgarizers and falsifiers” of Trotskyism.
We do not hesitate for a moment to say that this or that element of our theory as a whole is taken from numerous other sources, including, if you please, Burnham (the Burnham of 1937–38, of course, and not the Burnham of 1940 or today). If our critics derive satisfaction from this readily-made acknowledgment, it is either because they do not know anything about the “alien” origins and components of the entire theoretical system of Marxism, or because they do not care. For the construction of our theory, for its synthesis, for the ideas of others and of our own incorporated into it, for the manner in which they are incorporated and interlinked, we and we alone are responsible.
“With typical impudence,” says Frankel, to whom impudence of any kind is as foreign as a bad odor to a sty, “Shachtman pretends that Trotsky’s class analysis of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state ‘is not even a decisively important part’ of Trotskyism. This is like saying that a man could function without a heart.”
We thus learn for the first time, but from an authority, that the “heart” of Trotskyism is the theory of the “degenerated workers’ state.” Which of the two theories Trotsky held on this subject is the “heart” of Trotskyism, the authority does not say. After all, what does it matter?
In our own confused way, we have always thought that the “heart” of Trotskyism is the theory of the permanent revolution and the struggle for it. Frankel, we regretfully record, has not changed our opinion. For if the theory that Stalinist Russia is still a degenerated workers’ state is the “heart” of Trotskyism, then obviously Trotskyism was without a heart, and consequently non-existent, before the Russian Revolution and during the early years of the revolution. It seems equally obvious that if Russia should tomorrow cease to be a “degenerated workers’ state,” either by virtue of its regeneration or its transformation into a capitalist state, the “heart” of Trotskyism would thereby be removed, leaving only a lifeless carcass which Frankel would not consider worthy of decent burial. To put it differently, the restoration of the Russian revolution to full life would produce the instantaneous death of Trotskyism. Or, to strain fairness toward our inimitable dialectician to the groaning point, if the “degenerated workers’ state” were replaced by a revolutionary workers’ state, Trotskyism would have a new “heart” grated into it, its old one being removed to a bottle of formaldehyde labelled: “This was the heart of Trotskyism when Russia was a degenerated workers’ state. Remove only in case of similar contingency. – Dr. Frankel, H.S.”
Only one other thing need be said about this nightmarish idiocy.
We consider ourselves Trotskyists because we are partisans of the theory of the permanent revolution, because Trotsky incarnated the tradition and principles of revolutionary Marxism, of socialist internationalism, above all in a period when these principles were being trampled under every foot. We are not idolaters, precisely because we are Trotskyists. We know how easy it is, as Lenin used to say sardonically to “swear by God,” and we have only pitying contempt for those who substitute the quotation for the living idea, worshipful parrotry for critical thought. We are Trotskyists, but we do not “swear by God.” But if it can truly be demonstrated that the very “heart” of Trotskyism is the belief that Russia today is a “degenerated workers’ state” and that all the other organs and limbs of Trotskyism live from the bloom pumped to them by this heart, then the present writer, at least, would promptly cease calling himself a Trotskyism At the same time, however, he would have to conclude that Trotskyism and Marxism are not reconcilable. Fortunately, no such conclusion is indicated, or necessary, or possible.
We come now to the third of Frankel’s five points. Here we must admonish the reader. He must resolve in advance not to laugh himself sick. On this he must be firm, for Frankel offers more temptations than the unforewarned reader can possibly resist.
The reader is surely acquainted with the point: An analogy is made between the bureaucratized trade unions, with their bourgeois-minded leaders, and bureaucratized Russia. “Just as trade unions have become corrupted and degenerated, losing their internal democracy and giving up militant struggle in defense of the interests of the membership, just so, the Soviet Union, subject to far more enormous pressures, has been altered,” writes Frankel. But the degenerated workers’ state and the degenerated trade union remain class organizations and a struggle must be conducted to reform [!] them and to defend them against the capitalists.”
(According to Trotsky, the “degenerated workers’ state” cannot be reformed; according to the heart specialist, it can and must be reformed. Frankel does not know the difference between revolution and reform, but in every other respect he is an authority on Trotskyism and above all on what lies at its heart.)
The “trade union analogy” has long been a favored argument of the defenders of the theory that Russia is a degenerated workers’ state. Following Trotsky, the present writer used the “analogy” more than once. Along with others, he accepted it uncritically from Trotsky. This acceptance was eased, so to speak, by the fact that the analogy has a long and worthy standing dating back to the earliest days of the Russian Revolution. But if it is traced back clearly to those days, it will be seen that the analogy was entirely legitimate in its time. It was not employed to prove that Russia was a workers’ state, however. It was employed to show why the workers’ state did not always operate as the ideal program indicated. Between the two uses of the analogy, there is a world of difference.
Whatever may have been our errors on this point in the past, they look like downright virtues in comparison with what Frankel does with it. We beg the reader to follow very closely. It would be a pity to miss any part of it.
“Shachtman discusses the trade union analogy only to abandon this time the Marxist position on trade unions,” says our relentless Spartan. Shachtman, it is clear, has left very little of Marxism, and Frankel has left very little of Shachtman. But even if there were less, it would still suffice for what follows.
Wherein lies this new “abandonment”? Read carefully the quotation from Shachtman which Frankel cites:
The trade unions remain trade unions, no matter how bureaucratized they become, as long as they fight (ineptly or skillfully, reformistically or militantly) in the defense of the workers’ share of the national income, or at least against its diminution. Once they give up that fight, they may call themselves what they will, they may have ever so many workers in their ranks (as many company unions have), but they are no longer class organizations. John L. Lewis’ organization is still a trade union; Robert Ley’s is not.
Now read just as carefully Frankel’s comment on this definition, part of which we ourselves emphasize:
This point of view is clear, it is consistent, it is harmonious with the Shachtmanite point of view on the Soviet Union. It likewise happens to be the traditional position of the ultra-leftists. Lenin polemicized against it in The Infantile Disease of Left-wing Communism. It is precisely on this theory that the Stalinists constructed their thesis of “social fascism,” and their designation of the AFL as a “fascist” organization.
What’s right is right; our view on the trade unions is clear, consistent and harmonious with our views on Russia. Everything else in this quotation, except for the spelling and punctuation, is – if we may be forgiven the abusiveness provoked by snarling, stubborn ignorance – wrong and stupid.
Frankel thinks I cited the Lewis union because it is “the one union which has conducted four general coal strikes in the midst of the war! ... This generous fellow would give ice away at the North Pole.” A heart specialist, a trade union expert, and a wit to boot. The fact is the United Mine Workers was cited by me not because it “conducted four general coal strikes in the midst of the war,” but because it is one of the most bureaucratically constructed, managed and controlled unions in the country, and yet is a proletarian organization. Our wit is persistent: “But the question remains: what is the Hod Carriers Union, which holds conventions every ninety-nine years? Or the Stalinist-run UE, which fights for incentive pay, not against it? Or anyone of a dozen others.”
The answer to these questions must be given, we fear. Frankel is old enough to be told the truth, at least in a whisper. The members of the Hod Carriers Union are among the highest-paid workers in the United States! The union leaders are despots, some are even said to be gangsters, grafters and corruptionists, some have made a mighty good thing for themselves out of unionism. But, by terroristic methods, if you will, by bureaucratic and reactionary methods, and with the aim of feathering their own nests, they work and must work “in the defense of the workers’ share of the national income, or at least against its diminution.” If they did not, the union would disappear and so would the very basis on which their autocratic power and privileges are built up. The Stalinist-led unions are, of course, somewhat different, but fundamentally the same. Take even incentive pay. The Stalinists put it forward, and are compelled to put it forward, as a means of increasing the workers’ income. We say that the incentive-pay system, while it would increase the income of some workers, or of all of them temporarily, would do so at the expense of the muscles and nerves of the workers, at the expense of their long-range interests, at the expense of the solidarity and fighting power of the union, etc., etc. How mortifying the thought that the ABC’s have to be explained to a Marxian theoretician of such height, breadth and weight!
Four times we read Frankel’s comment on our definition. But nowhere did we find a word to indicate how he defines a trade union, how he would distinguish even the most reactionary trade union from a company union or from Ley’s “Labor Front.” What standard would be employ? That it was originally formed by workers? That it is composed of workers? That it claims to speak for workers? What? What?
If instead of comparing Russia with a union, we would compare a union with Russia, then by Frankel’s standards, a union would still deserve the name: if the “union” bureaucracy had all the power, if it had an army and police at its disposal to oppress the members, if it could be removed from office only by violent insurrection, if it ran prisons for recalcitrant members, if it made an alliance with U.S. Steel for joint picket lines against Republic Steel, if we opposed the organization of the unorganized “against the seizures of new territories by the Kremlin” – Trotsky), if we favored the withdrawal, say, of its Negro members to form a separate union (“independence of the Ukraine” – Trotsky), and so forth. Ley’s “union” could easily fit into such a definition.
Disappointed by Frankel’s failure to define a union, we seek elsewhere. Perhaps the following definition will prove acceptable:
The character of such a workers’ organization as that of a trade union is determined by its relation to the distribution of the national income. The fact that Green & Co. defend private property in the means of production characterizes them as bourgeois. Should these gentlemen in addition defend the income of the bourgeoisie from the attacks on the part of the workers, should they conduct a struggle against strikes, against the raising of wages, against help to the unemployed, then we would have an organization of scabs and not a trade union. However, Green & Co., in order not to lose their base, must lead within certain limits the struggle of the workers for an increase – or at least against diminution – of their share in the national income. This objective symptom is sufficient in all important cases to permit us to draw a line of demarcation between the most reactionary trade union and an organization of scabs. Thus we are duty-bound not only to carry on work in the AFL, but to defend it from scabs, the Ku Klux Klan, and the like.
Is this the “traditional position of the ultra-leftists”? Is this what Lenin polemized against? Is this “precisely” the theory on which “the Stalinists constructed their thesis on ‘social-fascism’”? Is this clear? Is it consistent? Is it, too, “harmonious with Shachtman point of view on the Soviet Union?”
Doesn’t every one of Frankel’s strictures against Shachtman’s definition apply equally to this definition? Absolutely! No more, no less! Who is the author of this second definition? Shachtman? No! Shachtman is guilty only of having copied it, in some places word for word, in all places meaning for meaning. It is Trotsky who is guilty of writing it! Our “authority” will find it in the December 1937, Internal Bulletin of the Socialist Workers Party, No. 3, page 4.
Trotsky says you recognize the difference between a scab outfit and a union by the fact that the latter, even under Green & Co., “must lead within certain limits the struggle of the workers for an increase – or at least against diminution – of their share in the national income.”
Shachtman, frankly “plagiarizing” from Trotsky, says you recognize the difference between a fascist “front” and a union by the fact that the latter, even under Lewis & Co., “fight (ineptly or skillfully, reformistically or militantly) in the defense of the workers’ share of the national income, or at least against its diminution.”
The thought and even the language are identical, and not by accident, for both are dealing, Mr. Authority, with the ABC’s of Marxism; both are dealing, Mr. Trade Union Expert, with the ABC’s of trade unionism. And what does the Expert-Authority say about these definitions – not the stupid things about Lenin and social-fascism, but the unwittingly intelligent things? He says, let us remember, that “this point of view ... is harmonious with the Shachtmanite point of view on the Soviet Union.” Agreed! No complaint!
We could complain, however, if we were given to indignation over such things. If we were, then we might say: Have we really committed such unforgivable crimes that in a discussion of this importance you send against us a zero who does not know what the “heart” of Trotskyism is, where the roots of our theory lie, what the difference is between revolution and reform in Russia, or even what a common, ordinary trade union is – not even what Trotsky said it is – and who argues that Trotsky’s definition of a union is harmonious with Shachtman’s definition of Russia?
Inasmuch as indignation is really not called for here – pity is the more appropriate emotion – we do not make this complaint. It seems to us, however, that the membership of the SWP does have grounds for energetic complaint: Does our party have to discredit itself so ridiculously? Is this the only way we have of replying to the views of the Workers Party?
These questions will gain greater poignancy when we examine next month the last two points dealt with by the Authority. We fear he will not fare too well under the examination. We invited honest, sober and informed criticism of our position. Instead, we got Frankel. The fault is clearly not ours.
Last updated on 15 December 2015