Max Shachtman


Pre-War Perspectives
and Post-War Realities

An Analysis of the Politics of the Fourth International

(December 1945)

Source: The New International, Vol. XI, No. 9, December 1945, pp. 275–279.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

The questions we posed in the September New International have not remained unanswered. Our questions dealt with the theory that Stalinist Russia is a “degenerated workers’ state,” the theory set forth by Trotsky, and now thoroughly sterilized by the spokesmen of the Socialist Workers Party.

We quoted from a few of the declarations Trotsky had made before the war. He said repeatedly: If a successful socialist revolution does not follow on the heels of the war, it will make no difference whether the Stalinist regime gains a military victory or suffers a military defeat – “imperialism will sweep away the regime which issued from the October Revolution”; and “the inner social contradictions of the Soviet Union must be crushed, not only might, but must, lead to a bourgeois Bonapartist counter-revolution”; and “no military victory can save the inheritance of the October Revolution”; and “without the interference of the October Revolution, the social bases of the Soviet Union must be crushed, not only in the case of defeat, but also in the case of victory.”

No ambiguity, is there? No possibility of misunderstanding? One would think so. We simply asked the SWP people to say: Have events confirmed or refuted the analysis and predictions which Trotsky made in inseparable connection with his theory? If confirmed, how? If refuted, why? In any case, please answer.

An Embarrassing Predicament

Past experience with attempts to get the Cannonites to discuss the position which outstandingly distinguishes them in the revolutionary movement have not been encouraging. Being incorrigible optimists, we made the new attempt. In this case, patience has been rewarded by more than itself. We received not one answer to our questions, but two. Better than that. The two are not only not identical – thus sparing us the monotony of reiteration – but different, and not merely different, but different to the point of being mutually exclusive. Let whoever wishes to do so speak henceforth about the SWP as a monolithic party. Here, in any case, is living evidence of the fact that it not only permits the public avowal and defense of two different positions, but of mutually antagonistic positions, both of which bear the official stamp! We for our part never asked for that much. The most rabid democrat could not ask for more.

The first official answer is given by the leaflet of the party himself, in a speech delivered on the occasion of the 28th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution (Militant, Nov. 17, of 1945). We note first of all that Cannon does not once question the significance of Trotsky’s prediction or its inseparable connection with Trotsky’s theory. We note that he goes further – he reiterates the prediction. We note finally that he reiterates also the theory that Russia is still a degenerated workers’ state which every worker should defend against imperialism.

Cannon Ventures Forth

At first blush, this would seem to be impossible. The prediction said so plainly, didn’t it, that if the war ends without a successful socialist revolution, the Russian workers’ state, in any form, is done for. If Russia is defeated, the Stalin regime and nationalized property (the basis, so called, of the working-class character of the Russian state) will be wiped out. If Russia is victorious, then in the absence of the revolution, the “inner social contradictions not only might but must, lead to a bourgeois Bonapartist counter-revolution.” The revolution – it is hard but necessary to say – did not come; Russia was not defeated but victorious; the bourgeois counter-revolution did not come; private property has not been restored in Russia, nationalized property remains supreme. How does Cannon get over these not inconsiderable obstacles? By a leap which makes the nursery cow’s jump over the moon look like a stroll through the meadow. Here is his salto mortale described in his own words:

Trotsky predicted that the fate of the Soviet Union would be decided in the war. That remains our firm conviction. Only we disagree with some people who carelessly think that the war is over. The war has only passed through one stage and is now in the process of regroupment and reorganization for the second. The war is not over, and the revolution which we said would issue from the war in Europe, is not taken off the agenda. It has only been delayed and postponed, primarily for lack of leadership, for lack of a sufficiently strong revolutionary party.

There it is, with all the sweeping simplicity that distinguishes true genius! The prediction? Nothing wrong with it – absolutely nothing. Whoever thinks otherwise is a careless thinker. The trouble with such people is, you see, that they believe the war is over. Well, it just isn’t. It has, you should understand, “only passed through one stage.” What stage? The stage of armed, military struggle, the stage which twice-harebrained, careless thinkers have up to now called the stage of “war,” but which must henceforward be called, among the careful thinkers of the SWP, by the simple name of “one stage.” Into what stage has it passed? Into the stage of the suspension of armed, military struggle, the stage which the thrice-ridiculous careless thinkers have up to now called the stage of “peace” or “imperialist peace,” but which shall henceforward be called by the careful thinkers by the name of “the process of regroupment and reorganization for the “second” stage. And the second stage? That cannot, it is clear, be called the resumption of the war, or the outbreak of a new war, since the war is not over in the first place. It cannot be called the Third World War, since the Second is not over (the Second, as a matter of fact, never existed – it was merely the continuation of the process of regroupment and reorganization which followed the First World War, which in turn is not over because it never came to an end).

All that is lacking is the names of the “some people who carelessly think that the war is over,” so that the several hundred million other people who today have a somewhat similar notion may be better able to guard against them. That we are among them appeals evident. But why should we be condemned to solitary confinement?

In the May 1945, Fourth International, theoretical organ of the SWP, we read that “On the continent of Europe the agony of the imperialist war is thus concluded; the agony of the imperialist ‘peace’ has begun.” Cannon, out of restraints imposed upon him by solidarity with his own party comrades, may content himself with calling the editor of the FI a careless thinker. We see no need of such restraint. We call him an idiot for saying that the war is over in Europe. He is doubly an idiot for not keeping quiet till November when he could have learned from a real authority that the war is not over.

In the October 1945, Fourth International, E.R. Frank writes that “The imperialist war in the Far East has ended.” He writes that “The United States emerges out of the second world war as the strongest military power on earth.” How can it emerge from a war when it is still submerged in the war which is not over? Careless thinker? No, not strong enough. Idiot!

In the November, 1945, Fourth International (the very eve of Cannon’s historic pronouncement!), William R. Warde writes that “The recently concluded war was a costly as well as risky enterprise for them.” What recently concluded war? Idiot!

All That as Been Demonstrated ...

The press of the SWP is obviously written and edited by idiots. Who is not an idiot? Who thinks carefully? Differ with him all you want, but the truth is the truth, and the answer is: Cannon. For this, he deserves special recognition. For example, couldn’t a sculptor be assigned the task of making a bust of the careful thinker to be set in a prominent place of honor in the headquarters of the SWP? Not an ordinary bust, but a gilded one, of course. It may be objected that such an exhibition is not compatible with the dignity and morality of a revolutionary proletarian movement, that it is loathsome Byzantine icon-worship, that it is typical of Stalinism, that no revolutionist would assent to such a spectacle, especially if he were himself the subject of the bust. Are these objections really so cogent? Besides, hasn’t the bust already been carved, gilded and placed? We ask the question with hypocritical innocence.

But enough! Let us try our luck with the second official answer, this time from the careless thinker who edits the Fourth International. His answer (November 1945) is not only different from Cannon’s, but, as we said above, exactly opposite in every respect but one: its studied disingenuousness. With E.R. Frank, the question is not as simple as it is with the careful thinker. He grants that the war is over; that the revolution did not triumph; that there has been no fundamental change in the Stalinist regime or in Russia; that Trotsky’s prediction did not materialize. Consequently? Consequently – nothing more need be said on the matter. Everything is about the same as it was, except, perhaps, that Shachtman is more wrong than ever. But let us give a more detailed, more connected quotation from Frank, so that nothing is torn out of context, despite the certainty, based on rueful experience, that our critic will never reciprocate:

But let us forcibly press the problem into Shachtman’s narrow framework. It is true that Trotsky thought that the Soviet Union would not survive the second world war if there was no proletarian revolution; that the Soviet Union would succumb to capitalism either through intervention from without or counter-revolution from within. It is also true that hostilities between the major powers, have for the moment ceased; that imperialism still rules on a world scale and that the Soviet Union still persists under the Stalinist regime. From this Shachtman draws the sweeping conclusion that “refuted ... in our opinion, is the entire theory [of the degenerated workers’ state] on which it [Trotsky’s above quoted opinion] is based.” How? Why? How does this follow? Argumentation must have some kind of internal logic. The fundamental alternative which Trotsky analyzed as facing the Soviet Union: forward toward socialism in alliance with the world proletariat or backward toward capitalism, remains the only possible historical alternative. If one attempts to refute it by interjecting between the proletariat and the capitalists a new bureaucratic class, one must declare that Marxism, the science of socialism based on the internal contradictions of capitalist society, has been proved in the light of experience, a utopia. That is where Shachtman’s “fresh thoughts” are leading him, if he wishes to be consistent.

All Shachtman has demonstrated, it appears to us, is that Trotsky thought the tempo of development would be a little faster than it has proven to be. No more. Shall we therefore overthrow his basic conception which has been vindicated by the whole course of events? Marx thought the proletarian revolution would follow fast on the heels of the bourgeois democratic revolutions of 1848. But events moved more slowly. That did not invalidate the basic conceptions of the Communist Manifesto, did it? Marx thought the proletarian revolution would begin in France and the Germans would follow. Instead, as we know, it was the Russians who began. Professorial pedants and petty-bourgeois philistines have adduced these “mistakes” time and again as proof positive of the bankruptcy of Marxism. But Marxists have shrugged their shoulders at such “arguments” and have remained unmoved even when the Further accusation was hurled at them that they had adopted a new “religion.”

And more and more and more of the same, until you begin to wonder whether he takes his opponent or his readers for numbskulls, or if the obvious third possibility isn’t the most likely one.

There are predictions and predictions. Trotsky’s prediction about the proletarian revolution and the Second World War has about as much in common with Marx’s prediction a hundred years ago as Frank’s argumentation has in common with any kind of logic, internal, external, transverse or transcendental.

What Is a Prediction?

Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and many others predicted, time and again, revolutions which either did not take place or, if they did, were not successful. What has that to do with our present discussion? What has that to do with the validation or invalidation of the “basic conceptions of the Communist Manifesto”? Or with “proof positive of the bankruptcy of Marxism”? Or with the abandonment of the perspective and fight for socialism, which Frank slyly (and slanderously) suggests is the conclusion we have drawn? Nothing! And where is the analogy with Trotsky’s specific prediction which, we like to assume, is under discussion? Nowhere! To prove this, it is fully necessary to construct an analogy.

Had Marx’s prediction a hundred years ago about the imminence of a socialist revolution been supplemented with the declaration: if this revolution does not take place at a certain time the military victory or defeat of a bourgeois state in a war with a feudal state would make no difference – we would have something analogous to Trotsky’s prediction.

If Marx had declared: In the absence of a proletarian victory at the end of such a war, either the victorious feudalists or the victorious bourgeoisie will inevitably destroy bourgeois private property and restore feudal property – we would have an analogy with Trotsky’s declaration.

If Marx had predicted: Should the war end without a proletarian victory, “the inner social contradictions of the bourgeois state not only might, but must, lead to a feudal counter-revolution” – we would have an analogy with Trotsky.

And if Marx had added: my prediction is inextricably connected with the theory from which I derive it, namely, the theory that the bourgeoisie is a passing phenomenon, a caste not a class, that it is in imminent conflict with bourgeois private property which it seeks to undermine in its historical capacity of agent of world feudalism, and this theory will be demonstrated definitely by the outcome of this war –then we would have an analogy with Trotsky.

And Now Comes E.R. Frank

Frank presents the matter as though we were engaged in some miserable carping over the date given in a prediction about proletarian revolution. We will not charge him with polemical dishonesty, but we have the right to protest against his hope that the reader is a fool. For who but a fool will believe that we, or anyone, could have more than a passing interest in an erroneous prediction of this kind, let alone base a theoretical conception upon it?

Something far more serious and profound is involved.

At the very beginning of the war, Trotsky showed how in intimately he linked his Russian theory with the outcome of the war. “Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position,” he wrote (In Defense of Marxism, p.14), “if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?” A few lines later, emphasizing that the outcome of the second world war will provide a test of “decisive significance for our appraisal of the modern epoch,” he wrote:

If contrary to all probabilities the October Revolution fails during the course of the present war, or immediately thereafter, to find its continuation in any of the advanced countries; and if on the contrary, the proletariat is thrown back and everywhere and on all fronts – then we should doubtless have to pose the question of revising our conception of the present epoch and its driving forces. In that case it would be a question not of slapping a copy book label on the USSR or the Stalinist gang but of re-evaluating the world historical perspective for the next decades if not centuries: Have we entered the epoch of social revolution and socialist society, or on the contrary the epoch of the declining society of totalitarian bureaucracy?

Does Frank know these passages? Certainly! For he quotes the passages that follow them immediately, but takes “scrupulous” care not to hint, much less to quote, Trotsky’s full thought. Trotsky indicated pretty clearly the conditions under which “we should doubtless have to pose the question of revising our conception of the present epoch and its driving forces.” In every way conceivable (and all their ways are a disgrace to the fine tradition of Marxian theoretical thought and debate), Frank and his friends are determined to prevent so much as a posing of the question, much less a discussion of it.

But whether there is “official” permission or not, the question is posed by events. Frank evidently believes it can be disposed of by brave bluster heavily dosed with demagoguery. “We don’t believe that the defeats of the working class are definitive,” he writes. “We don’t believe...” Who does? Names, please! “No one, in our opinion, has adduced sufficiently weighty evidence, however, to demonstrate that the working class has been historically defeated,” he writes. In whose opinion has sufficient evidence been adduced? Shachtman’s? The Workers Party’s? The German comrades’? It is possible, from the comparative immunity of one’s own editorial pages, to misrepresent an opponent’s position, to falsify and twist it, to distort it by ripping sentences out of context, as Frank does, for example, and not for the first time, with an ironical sentence taken from an article in The New International by our German comrade, Arlins. But falsification and distortion are “sufficiently weighty evidence” of only one thing: the polemical and political morals of those who resort to them.

From a posing of the question that Trotsky raised, there do not necessarily follow the hypothetical conclusions that he indicated in 1939, namely, the disappearance of the perspective of proletarian victory and socialism. Nothing of the sort! But such a perspective cannot be maintained by people who, consciously or not, have lost or are losing a profound inner conviction about socialism that comes only from a well-grounded analysis of the actual development of society. It cannot be maintained by people who, losing this conviction, seem to be pressing back their own inner doubts by shouting “consolatory” promises, theories, slogans. “We have not lost all; we still have the Soviet Union, and we cling to it.” (The word “cling,” used so often by the Cannonites in this connection, has a revealing significance!) “Our position and analysis has been confirmed and vindicated.” “The revolution is on the order of the day.” “The Red Army is bringing socialism to Europe.” “Germany is on the eve of the revolution – it has broken out in the concentration camps.” And more of the same. It is typical precisely of the petty bourgeois radical that he needs self-deceptions and consoling theories to bolster his fading convictions about socialism and the socialist perspective. Is it not, for example, to faint-hearted petty bourgeois radicalism, at least in part, that we owe the popularity in Russia to what Trotsky rightly called the “consoling doctrine” of “building socialism in a single country”?

Prospects and Perspectives

The prospects and perspectives of working class struggle are inherent in modern class society, be it in semi-feudal, capitalist or bureaucratic-collectivist form. The ruling classes have shown nothing more than the capacity to repress or delay the struggle of the proletariat for a certain period of time. They have shown a great capacity to disorient and demoralize the working class and its struggle for a certain period of time. But they cannot wipe out the working class without wiping out the very foundations of their own power, and therefore society itself. The working class, on the other hand, must struggle, leadership or no leadership, socialist theory or no socialist theory. It cannot resign itself to accepting exploitive class rule even if it wanted to do so, because society has reached the stage where the irrepressible urge to live – not to prosper, but just to live – demands the resistance of the masses. As we have put it many times, the condition for the existence of the working class is the struggle against the conditions of its existence.

The prospects and perspectives of the victorious proletarian revolution are based above all upon the fact that no other class in modern society – not the bourgeoisie, not the petty bourgeoisie, not the collectivist bureaucracy in power in Russia – no other class but the proletariat is capable of halting the inexorable trend to barbarism and of leading all the exploited and oppressed strata of the population out of the increasing economic and political chaos and agony they now endure. It has been proven again and again that under the rule of any other class there is no economic orderliness, no lasting peace, no social stability, no progress (quite the contrary!) toward abundance, democracy, freedom, equality. The proletarian revolution can disappear from the social agenda only if there is a complete atomization of society, that is, barbarism.

The prospects and perspectives of socialism are based above all upon the fact that the proletariat, once in power, cannot establish order and rationalize economic life without taking those political and economic measures which, in their full unfoldment, lead to the classless society of socialism.

For the revolutionary Marxist, these considerations are basic and sufficient. Too be sure, they are not really sufficient from the standpoint of assuring the final victory of socialism. That requires an effective revolutionary party, without which socialism is inconceivable. Effectiveness for the revolutionary party requires a careful, concrete understanding of the given period in which we function, the given situation, the actual relationship of forces, the actual trend of social and political development; and the working out of policies corresponding thereto. Without that, no real progress toward the socialist victory is possible. And that is precisely what is not only lacking in the SWP leadership, but what it resists with a rare combination of dogmatic and ignorant narrow-mindedness, intellectual barrenness and petty factional malice.

Attitude to the Germans

Take its attitude toward our German comrades. The latter have made a contribution to our arsenal of exceptional value especially in a period of the movement’s history which is characterized by such sad theoretical sterility. At least, that is the opinion of the present writer. One can differ, as the writer does, with a number of the points in the analysis and the conclusions of our German comrades. These differences remain within the field of Marxism. What is important, however, for anyone who reads the contributions of the German comrades, especially their work on Capitalist Barbarism, and reads it loyally and objectively, is their attempt to show the real, not the fictitious, revolutionary perspectives that are opened up before us not only in the very midst of the terrible decay of monopoly capitalism and the defects of the proletariat, but precisely because of this terrible decay. They derive the perspective for struggle and victory, what they call the “good luck” for the revolution, not from the desirability of socialism, let alone from self-intoxicating shibboleths, but from a concrete analysis of the social development. One can debate their analysis and conclusions to his heart’s content, provided he does it loyally and objectively. What do the Cannonites, Frank prominently among them, do with regard to the contribution of the German comrades, whose loyalty to the cause of the Fourth International is unquestionable, whose seriousness in theoretical and political questions is too well known to be disestablished by anyone? They attempt to suppress the views of the Germans: they confine their “discussion” of these views to malignant abuse of their authors as ... revisionists and ... “People’s Fronters”! (The Cannonites’ authority for such severe condemnation no doubt comes from their advice to the Warsaw revolutionists to place themselves at the disposal of the GPU executioners.)

The same attitude has been displayed by the Cannonites toward the theoretical and political contributions of our Workers Party. We saw this in the case of our resolution on the national question a few years ago, in which, for the first time in this country during the war, a concrete analysis and perspective for revolutionary struggle was elaborated, and the tasks of the revolutionary Marxists set forth. We saw it and still see it in the case of our theory of the Russian bureaucratic-collectivist state.

“Wringing Their Hands”

The Cannonites commit two gross offenses against Marxism: they refuse to submit their own theory and policies on Russia to a reexamination in the light of actual developments; and they refuse to engage in an objective discussion of our theory and policies on the basis of our real, not alleged, not misrepresented, not falsified, but real, position and in the light of the developments. The result is a ghastly miseducation and disorientation of their followers.

We have pointed out, many time and in unanswerable detail, that the Cannonite theory and politics on the Russian question suffered complete shipwreck during the war.

They started by being the “best soldiers” in the “Red” Army (our curiosity about what makes the counter-revolutionary Stalinist army “Red” – from Stalin’s standpoint, or Trotsky’s standpoint, or Cannon’s standpoint, or anybody’s standpoint – remains entirely unsatisfied). They advised the workers and peasants of Poland, Finland, Rumania, Iran and every other country that Stalin planned to seize, conquer and enslave, to work for the Russian army, to support it, to welcome it. They hailed every victory of the Stalinist army of counter-revolution, even to the point of maligning the Old Man by calling it “Trotsky’s Red Army.” They acclaimed this army as the advancing guard of socialism in Europe. They spoke continuously of the “objective revolutionary consequences” of Stalin’s expansion over Europe. (Yes, yes, dear friends, Gutenberg’s invention was a great and troublesome one, and we have before us what you wrote.)

We polemized against all this with all our vigor, receiving only abuse for our troubles. So, to use the colorful expression of Frank, we shrugged our shoulders. We remembered the famous epigram of Sir Robert Walpole: “Today they are ringing the bells; tomorrow they will be wringing their hands.”

Tomorrow came. Their whole policy of “unconditional defense” was a success, was it not? Their “Red” army won, with or without the aid of the “best soldiers” and those they urged to be best soldiers. Their “objective revolutionary consequences” had all the opportunity they needed to manifest themselves in Europe. So – they stopped ringing the bells and began wringing their hands. To conceal their disaster, they worked out the formula-so delicate, so tender, so refined, so euphemistic! – that the slogan of “defense” of Stalinist Russia has now “receded into the background.” Why? In heaven’s name, why? Surely not because the war is over, for we know now, do we not, that the war is not over? Surely not because of a shift in the military situation, for were not we of the (don’t laugh!) “petty bourgeois opposition” learnedly instructed in 1939-40 that Marxists do not base their slogans on the shifts on the military map, but only on the map of the class struggle? Why, then, the “receding”?

And what has advanced to the foreground? Nothing less, it now appears, than the defense of the European revolution. Defense from what and whom, do you think? From “Trotsky’s Red Army”? From the “socialism” being brought to Europe at the point of the guns of the GPU (excuse! – of the “Red” Army)? Defense from the “objective revolutionary consequences” of Stalin’s progress? You may think so, but you are wrong. The European revolution must now be defended from the Stalinist counter-revolution, from the counter-revolutionary “Red” Army, that is, from the very forces whose victory “we” urged, in whose ranks “we” were to be the best soldiers, whose triumph over and subjugation of those peoples and countries who might now be contributing to the European Revolution “we” urged them to make possible. The European Revolution, that is, must now be defended from a threat which “our” policy helped (in its tiny way) to become big and serious.

One might be persuaded to write off the whole past, provided the present represented a step forward. But is the present position of the Cannonites a real advance? In the official resolution, reluctantly adopted under the pressure of the minority group, yes. But in the practice, no. One needs no more striking evidence of this than Cannon’s anniversary speech, which means more than a dozen reluctantly adopted resolutions. In the speech, there is not a word about the “defense” slogan having “receded into the background,” not even a hint at it. On the contrary, what with the emphasis on the war still being on, the defense of Russia is presented as urgently as ever. As for the defense of the European Revolution from Stalinist Russia, it is not in the foreground or in the background. Not a single thought, not one solitary word, is devoted to it in the entire speech. As for such demands as the independence of Poland, of the Baltic countries, or even the old traditional slogan of the independence of the Ukraine, not so much as a hint in the speech. There is good reason to believe that in the narrow factional interests of “deepening the split” with the Workers Party, and with the SWP minority group (Cannon’s speech was directed at them primarily!), of justifying the indefensible opposition to unity in the United States, this line will be presented even more belligerently in the future – and more disastrously.

As for our political line on Stalinist Russia in the war (our opposition to defensism), let our critics speak up clearly and in detail. Let them show, if they can, where our line disoriented workers on Stalinism, where it resulted in embellishing Stalinism, and its counter-revolutionary army. Let them show, if they can, where our line helped the reactionary enemies of Stalinism, or where it contributed to aligning the working class with these enemies. Let them show, if they can, how our opposition to defense of Stalinist Russia, adopted, we were told, under the pressure of the...bourgeoisie, led to the weakening, by so much as a hair’s breadth, of our class opposition to our own bourgeoisie and its imperialist war, to the weakening of our struggle against the labor lieutenants of the bourgeoisie. In other words, let our critics judge the political consequences of our line no less severely than their own. Naturally, if the correctness of the Cannonite line is to be proved, as Frank actually writes, black on white, by the fact that the SWP has recruited some new members – then the debate is over before it began. But neither we nor the Cannonites have yet won the debate on that ground. By this criterion, it is the Stalinists who have won (for the time being); it is their policy that has been “proved” correct.

Max Shachtman

Max Shachtman
Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 7 August 2018