Max Shachtman


A Contribution to an International Discussion:

The Nature of the Stalinist Parties

Their Class Roots, Political Role and Basic Aim

(March 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 3, March 1947, pp. 69–74.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

The “Russian question” is not merely a Russian question. It is directly and inextricably related to the question of the Stalinist parties throughout the capitalist world. A false theory on Stalinist Russia is, of course a very serious matter. But the Fourth International no longer has any cadres in Russia; it has no movement there. Whatever practical actions we engage in on the basis of our respective theories cannot as yet have a direct and immediate effect upon the development of the class struggle in Russia. In many of the capitalist countries, the Fourth International does have a movement and cadres, even if weak ones. In these countries the practical actions in which it engages can have an effect upon the course of the class struggle. Without setting up an insurmountable wall between the problem of Stalinist Russia and the problem of the Stalinist parties abroad, it is nevertheless a fact that our policy with regard to the Stalinist parties abroad can and does have a more direct and immediate effect. A mistaken policy in this regard, especially when based on a mistake in theory (that is, on a mistake in basic generalization) can be disastrous, and that within a very short space of time.

The authors of the Socialist Workers Party Statement go out of their way to exaggerate the differences between their party and ours in a whole series of questions. To read their document in full and to believe it can easily produce the absurd impression that there is not one point of political similarity of any consequence between the two parties. In some cases the most trifling tactical differences, perfectly normal and multitudinous in any living revolutionary organization, are inflated all out of proportion to their importance in order to strengthen “the case” that the Cannonites seek to make out for an utter incompatibility between the two organization in every conceivable field of party thought and party action. It is their method. And it would be futile to legislate or exhort against it.

There is one point of difference, however, whose magnitude and depth they do not exaggerate. It is the point that comes under the heading, Our Divergent Evaluations of the Stalinist Parties. The point is not a small one and the difference is not a small one. Let us say at the very outset that it is still possible to reconcile the differences in the form of practical agreements in the struggle against Stalinism in one field or another. But it is no longer possible to reconcile the divergent evaluations of the Stalinist parties. If this is true, it follows that the area in which even practical agreements in the struggle against Stalinism can be made will continue to narrow as the divergence on the fundamental evaluation grows deeper. No attempt should be made to reconcile these evaluations! Every Marxist must choose between the fundamental line developed by the SWP and the fundamental line developed by us.

A Disastrous Evaluation

What is the Cannonite evaluation of Stalinism in the capitalist countries, of the Stalinist parties? We quote it exactly and in full:

“We evaluate the Stalinist parties in capitalist countries as working class parties led by treacherous leaders, similar to the Social-Democratic traitors. We understand, of course, that the Social-Democrats are agents of their respective native capitalisms, whereas the Stalinist bureaucrats are agents of the Kremlin oligarchy. But they have this in common: they cannot fight for workers’ power, nor do they wish to take power except as agencies of capitalism and usually in coalition with its direct representatives.”

That is the whole of the evaluation. Almost every single word in it is wrong or misleading. It constitutes a theoretical disaster guaranteed to produce only political disasters. At best, it can only nullify any attempt to carry on a serious struggle against Stalinism. At worst, it condemns the revolutionary movement to the fatal role of a shapeless tail of Stalinism. That is our charge and we will seek to demonstrate it.

With what do the Cannonites charge us in turn? They write:

“The Workers Party, however, has embraced the Burnhamistic thesis that the Stalinists can lead the working masses to power in the capitalist countries – in order to do what? Establish a Stalinist totalitarian state, a replica of the USSR.”

Let us not dwell upon the falsification which is customary in this case and which is as usual compounded of equal parts of ignorance and malice. The “Burnhamistic thesis” is precisely that the Stalinists can not lead the working masses to power in the capitalist countries, and in this respect we unhesitatingly express complete agreement with Burnham – and with the Socialist Workers Party. The “Burnhamistic thesis” is ridiculous, not because of this contention but because of its argument that Stalinism or fascism leads the new “managerial class” to power. But let us leave the unfortunate Burnham, whom the Cannonites introduce into every discussion out of habit, and proceed to examine the real differences.

Position of the Workers Party

The evaluation of the Cannonites has already been quoted in full. We will counterpose to it the evaluation developed by the Workers Party. The first rounded presentation of its position, developed from the traditional view of the Trotskyist movement, is contained in our party’s 1942 resolution on the national question in Europe. It is preceded by an emphasis on the need “to combat mercilessly” the imperialists and their agents inside the ranks of the underground national revolutionary movements in Europe. This section is concluded with the emphatic statement that “the struggle against the imperialists and their ideologists is a sine qua non to the healthy and progressive development of the national movements in Europe.” Then follows the section on The Threat of Stalinism. The Socialist Workers Party Statement quotes from this section at some length. We hope the reader will bear with us if we quote it in full:

“The seizure of control of these movements by the organized Stalinists – not the sacrificing rank-and-file militant, but the organized bureaucratic clique – can be no less disastrous for the future of the struggle for national and socialist freedom. A victory over the German oppressor which brought the Stalinist bureaucracy to power would open up the road to a new totalitarian slavery for the just-liberated people. To realize this truth it is only necessary to look at the national oppression and disfranchisement suffered by numerous non-Russian peoples under the totalitarian rule of the Great-Russian autocracy. The revolutionary Marxists must be tireless in their explanations to the workers of the real significance of Stalinism. The idea that because the Stalinists are strong and influential, and not yet completely discredited among the workers, it is correct revolutionary policy to raise the slogan of ‘Let the Communist Party take power,’ is based on a complete misunderstanding of what appears to be a similar slogan raised by the Bolsheviks in Russia in the middle of 1917. When the Bolsheviks called for a Menshevik-Social Revolutionary government (by their slogan of ‘Down with the Ten Capitalist Ministers’), it was on the basis of the belief that such a government would be a democratic (i.e., a bourgeois-democratic) government, which would allow such democratic political rights to the workers and all other parties, the Bolsheviks included, that the Bolsheviks could sincerely pledge themselves not to resort to violence against that government but confine themselves to persuading the masses propagandistically, utilizing their normal democratic rights. To supply such a tactic to the Stalinists would be absurd. A social-reformist regime is a bourgeois-democratic regime, more or less. A Stalinist regime, call it ‘proletarian’ or anything else, is unmistakably a totalitarian, anti-democratic regime. From all experience, the conclusion flows with unquestionable certainty that whatever such a regime may hold in store for the bourgeoisie, its first action would be the utilization of state power for the promptest possible physical extirpation of the revolutionary proletarian elements, to be followed immediately, if not accompanied, by the destruction of all democratic and independent working class organizations and institutions. The revolutionary Marxists must seek to organize the firmest and bitterest proletarian resistance to the seizure of power by the Stalinists in the present national movements as well as to the seizure of state power by Stalinist reaction. The triumph of Stalinism can only result in the gutting of the movement for national freedom or proletarian socialism.

“It is not enough, however, to resist the deleterious and reactionary tendencies represented by imperialism, social-imperialism and Stalinism. The revolutionary Marxists must elaborate their own positive program in the ranks of the nationalist movement.” (The New International, Feb. 1943, pp. 41f.)

On the Nature of Social Democracy

The Statement of the Socialist Workers Party does not even pretend to give any arguments against the validity of what is set forth in this section. It does not bother to disprove our contention or to confirm its own. It labels our point of view “Burnhamistic” and party members are expected to ask no further questions. To this “argument” it adds something, to be sure. But what it adds is not an argument, only an abusive and disloyal commentary of the type which has become so depressingly familiar in the polemical literature issued against us by the Stalinists. It is worth quoting as a typical example of the polemical level to which the Socialist Workers Party leadership has sunk:

“Note, also, how in common with all vulgar anti-Stalinists, the Workers Party in its resolution idealizes, in a manner completely foreign to our tradition and practice, the Social-Democratic scoundrels – how in its lyricism about the ‘democracy’ of the Social-Democrats, it forgets the bloody deeds and hangman’s work of Noske and Scheidemann, Kerensky, or the Spanish Social-Democratic People’s Fronters. ‘Democracy’ is here torn out of its historic context and its connection with the development of class relations and the class struggle, and is presented as some sort of supra-historical factor existing in time and space, standing above the class struggle.”

Can you imagine a more compact mixture of the pathetic, the demagogic, and the vicious, all neatly jammed into two sentences? What is “completely foreign to our tradition and practice” and altogether native to the tradition and practice of “Third Period” Stalinism is this wretched, ignorant demagogy.

The Social-Democrats are not real democrats. Make a note of that and don’t forget it! In it there have been a hundred Noskes and Scheidemanns guilty of bloody deeds and hangman’s work. Make a note of that and don’t forget it! Very well, we have made a note and we solemnly swear not to forget. May we now be permitted – we ask the Socialist Workers Party, as we asked Manuilsky and the other Comintern theorists of “Social-Fascism” in 1931 and 1932 – to pose these questions:

Does Social-Democracy, including its treacherous bureaucratic leadership (to be repeated ten times just to prove how radical you are) strive to establish a totalitarian regime? Is the existence of the Social-Democracy, of social reformism, including its bureaucratic and treacherous leadership (repeat ten more times so as to leave no doubt of your radicalism in the minds of the phrasemongers) compatible or incompatible with a totalitarian regime? Is it not ABC for every Marxist and, in general, for every serious person except the insane theorists of “Social-Fascism” that Social-Democracy rests upon and can exist only under the conditions of bourgeois democracy? Is it not ABC for every Marxist that “a social-reformist regime is a bourgeois democratic regime, more or less,” including “the bloody deeds and hangman’s work” which are a characteristic of bourgeois-democratic regimes but which does not prevent Marxists – in contrast to “Third-Period” Stalinists (and other phrasemongers) from making the fundamental political distinction between bourgeois democracy and bourgeois totalitarianism? And is it not ABC for Marxists that they are able to propose and even to realize a united front with the Social-Democrats, including their ten-times-accursed and treacherous leaders, only because the Social-Democracy can be compelled to fight for bourgeois democracy and all that that implies for the working class, even though they fight for it in their own lamentable, social-reformist and ineffectual way? And, finally, is it not a little disgraceful to hear self-styled Marxists refer to a simple summary of these ABC ideas in the style of the Third Period as “lyricism about the ‘democracy’ of the Social-Democrats?”

As for the second sentence in the commentary, you can only shrug your shoulders. It could have been written only by people convinced to their bones that the reader is an incurable numbskull who cannot remember what was written in the paragraph that preceded it. We write repeatedly about a bourgeois democratic government, about a bourgeois democratic regime. This is quoted very faithfully. What is the comment made? That “‘democracy’ here is torn out of its historical context and its connection with the development of class relations,” that democracy “is presented as some sort of supra-historical factor existing in time and space, standing above the class struggle.” What can you do? It is their method.

But let us go back to the question itself and continue with the presentation of our own viewpoint. The Statement quotes from our editorial in The New International of August 1945 (p.&bsp;136), which states even more specifically our evaluation of the Stalinist parties which was finally incorporated, in greater detail in the Political Resolution adopted by the May 1946 convention of our party. We requote it at somewhat fuller length:

“The Stalinist Party in a country like the United States seeks to enslave the labor movement and the working class under a totalitarian regime, of which its own structure and procedure offers us a preview-model. It is not a socialist party. Yet, it is not a capitalist party, either. Its declarations in favor of capitalism have about as much meaning as Hitler’s declarations in favor of socialism. It is ready under certain conditions to hire itself out to capitalism, but only as agent of the totalitarian bureaucracy in Russia.

“However, it is increasingly clear that the Stalinists are not merely the agents of the bureaucratic ruling class of Russia. That conception is proving to be too narrow. The Stalinist bureaucracy in the capitalist countries has ambitions of its own. It dreams of one day taking power, and establishing itself as ruler of substantially the same bureaucratic despotism that its Russian colleagues enjoy. Wherever conditions are favorable, it does not hesitate to exploit the anti-capitalist sentiments of the masses – sentiments which are growing throughout the world – and to emphasize the superiority of collectivism over the anarchy of capitalist production. All this provided these anti-capitalist sentiments are not expressed in the independent class action of the proletariat aiming at socialist power, only if they can be subverted, distorted and frustrated under the domination of Stalinist reaction.”

The practical conclusions for revolutionary party policy that flow from this evaluation will be dealt with further on. For the moment, let us stick to the question of the evaluation. The view which is set forth in the question from our written position seems to us to be self-evident. World political developments confirm it anew every single day.

The Social-Democracy is a bourgeois (or, more accurately, a petty bourgeois) party of social reform. It is based upon the preservation of capitalist democracy. This is not because some capitalists have paid the party leadership to take this position. It is because, among other reasons, it holds to the view that bourgeois democracy can gradually evolve into social democracy. Hence, on the one side, it seeks in its own way to defend bourgeois democracy from fascist totalitarianism; thus, it is objectively bourgeois-democratic. Hence, on the other side, it defends bourgeois democracy from the revolutionary assaults of a socialist proletariat; thus, it is objectively counter-revolutionary. This is our Marxist theory. It is a justified generalization from a mountain of empirical evidence, and evidence continues to accumulate to confirm this generalization over and over again.

The Stalinist Parties in Capitalist Countries

This theory cannot be applied to the Stalinist parties in the capitalist countries. The Stalinist parties are indeed agents of the Kremlin oligarchy, no matter what country they function in. The interests and the fate of these Stalinist parties are inseparably intertwined with the interests and fate of the Russian bureaucracy. The Stalinist parties are everywhere based upon the power of the Russian bureaucracy, they serve this power, they are dependent upon it, and they cannot live without it.

With this charge the Cannonites are compelled to agree. But let us go further. The power of the Russian bureaucracy is based upon the continued existence of nationalized property in Russia. This basis brings the bureaucracy in fundamental opposition to the bourgeoisie all over the world, regardless of all temporary agreements, regardless even of their common antagonism to the socialist revolution. This was emphasized a thousand times by Trotsky and we continue to believe that it is entirely correct. But by the same token, the Stalinist parties in the capitalist countries, because they arc agents of the Kremlin oligarchy, are likewise in fundamental opposition to capitalism and the capitalist state. The fact of this fundamental opposition is not cancelled out but is in a sense underlined by what we have written, namely, that the Stalinist party “is ready under certain conditions to hire itself out to capitalism, but only as agent of the totalitarian bureaucracy in Russia.”

Here is where the significant and decisive difference begins between Social-Democracy and Stalinism. We refer to the Social-Democracy as the “labor lieutenants of capitalism,” as the “agents of the bourgeoisie in the ranks of the working class.” Understood scientifically, and not in a vulgar sense, these characterizations are absolutely correct. But they cannot be applied to the Stalinist parties. They are agents, inside the working class and inside the bourgeois governments, of the Russian social group (call it caste, call it class – for the moment it is beside the point) which is not capitalist and which does not rest on a capitalist foundation. As agents of this grouping and in the interests of preserving its power, the Stalinist parties can be and are “hired out” to the capitalist class. In payment, the Stalinists received government positions from which they can strengthen the international political power of the Russian bureaucracy and the Kremlin itself directly receives a “pro-Russian” or a “more pro-Russian” political orientation of the capitalist class or government in question. For this fair day’s pay, the Stalinists do a fair day’s work. We have a thousand examples in all countries of how, under these conditions, the Stalinists feverishly and cynically trample upon the interests of the working class and subject it to the arbitrary rule of the capitalist class. But above all, it is imperative to understand that this service to the capitalist class of a given country is only a function of their basic service to the Kremlin bureaucracy– only that and nothing more. They do not “give away” what they manage to gain control of; what they control is absolutely controlled and only “rented out” for specific price paid them, in return, by the bourgeoisie. They do not capitulate to the bourgeoisie; they trade with it. Social-Democracy is fundamentally based upon preserving capitalist society (in its democratic form, to be sure). Stalinism is not fundamentally based upon preserving capitalist society but upon preserving Stalinist society. Hence, the fundamental antagonism between Stalinism and Social Democracy.

This fundamental antagonism between the two, reflecting the fundamental antagonism between Stalinist and capitalist societies, was pointed out by Trotsky years and years ago:

“... It may be objected: If the present leading tendency in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union is Centrism, how can one explain the present sharp attitude against the Left social democracy which is itself nothing but centrism? This is no serious argument. Our Right (Bukharin, etc.) also, which, according to the opinion of the Centrists, is following the road to the restoration of capitalism, proclaims itself the irreconcilable enemy of the social democracy. Opportunism is always ready, when conditions demand it, to establish its reputation on a clamorous radicalism to be used in other countries. Naturally, this exportation of radicalism consists for the most part of words.

“But the hostility of our Centrists and Right against the European social democracy is not entirely composed of words. We must not lose sight of the whole international situation and above all of the huge objective contradictions between the capitalist countries and the workers” states. The international social democracy supports the existing capitalist regime. Our internal opportunism, which grew up on the basis of the proletarian dictatorship, can only evolve on the side of capitalist relations. Despite the elements of dual power in the country and the Thermidorian tendencies in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the antagonism between the Soviet power and the bourgeois world remains a fact which can be denied or neglected only by “Left” sectarians, by anarchists and their like. The international social democracy, by its whole policy, is obliged to support the designs of their bourgeoisie against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. This alone creates the basis of a real, and not merely a verbal, hostility, despite the rapproachment of the political line.” (Crisis in the Right-Center Bloc, The New International, December 1941, pp. 315, 316; written by L. Trotsky in Alma Ata, November 1928.)

What Trotsky wrote then is ten times more correct today, even if in the different context of present social relations. It is true that the Social-Democratic leaders betray and that the Stalinist leaders betray. But it is not this commonplace which is in question or which requires primary emphasis here. What is important is that the Social Democracy betrays the proletariat in one way and for one basic reason, and that the Stalinist parties betray the proletariat in quite a different way and for quite a different basic reason. The two movements which Trotsky described as dissimilar as far back as 1928; the two movements which we characterize as dissimilar today; the two movements which the whole politically intelligent world sees as dissimilar every single day – the Cannonites call similar. Lack of understanding and blind factional passion can take you far off the road.

On the Workers” Parties Taking Power

The Cannonites, after quoting from our position, pretend a great horror (their horror at our “revisionism” is always nine-tenths pretense). They write: “Here we notice not only a rejection of our transitional slogan, ‘Let the Workers” Parties Take Power,’ worked out by Lenin in 1917 and vindicated in the revolutionary struggle; but, as is usual with the Workers Party, a break with half a dozen other major programmatic positions or evaluations.” Only one sentence on this point, and yet what a terrific body blow! Let us see on whom the blow has landed.

As is clear from the quoted section of our 1942 resolution, we reject the analogy between the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties in Russia in 1917 and the Social Democratic and Stalinist parties of today. The Cannonites presumably make the analogy, and if words mean anything, propose to follow the same policy toward the Social Democracy and the Stalinist parties today that Lenin advocated toward the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries in 1917. By and large the official Fourth International today holds the same view on this question as the Cannonites. Tragic superficiality! Tragic thoughtlessness!

The social-reformist parties of Russia in 1917, standing on the basis of the preservation of capitalist democracy (as usual, in their own way) were in a coalition government with the bourgeois parties and politicians. The reformist parties had the majority in the workers” and peasants” Soviets. At one stage of the struggle the Bolsheviks raised the slogan, “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” By means of this slogan the Bolsheviks sought to mobilize the masses for the purpose of driving the reformist leaders out of the coalition with the bourgeoisie or of forcing the bourgeoisie out of the coalition, thus placing the political power in the hands of the reformist parties. If the reformists refused to break with the bourgeoisie and take the responsibility for political power, this would have the effect of dispelling the illusions of the masses and of rallying them to the banner of the Bolsheviks. This is what actually happened. If, however, the reformists had broken the coalition with the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks would have been able to say: “Take full power! Replace all the bourgeois politicians in all the political institutions! While we have our own program, we are still a minority. Therefore, we demand that you carry out in the fullest and most radical way the program you yourselves have promised the masses you would put into effect if you were free from the veto of the bourgeoisie in a coalition government.” And so on and so forth. The Bolsheviks were profoundly convinced, and rightly so, that the reformists would not even carry out their own program, that they were so strongly wedded to bourgeois democracy they would not make any serious encroachments upon the economic and political power of the bourgeoisie. For that reason, the Bolsheviks were likewise deeply convinced that they could effectively show this to the masses on the basis of their own living experiences and thereby speed the movement to Bolshevism.

Now, if the Stalinist parties are similar to the Mensheviks, it would seem, would it not, that the revolutionary Marxists should apply to the former the same tactic today as the Bolsheviks applied in 1917, should raise the same slogan. But right at this point, where courage or consistency should be most evidenced, it is glaringly absent.

The Specific Examples

Example: After the liberation of Yugoslavia from German domination, a Tito-Subasitch government was established, that is, a coalition between the Stalinist party and the representatives of what remained of the bourgeois parties. Nowhere in the Cannonite press or in the press of the Fourth International in general did we read one word to suggest that the slogan of the Fourth Internationalists for Yugoslavia, addressed to the Stalinist party and its followers, was: “Down with the ten [or five or two or one or whatever there were] capitalist ministers!” If the Stalinist party is a “workers” party” or one “similar” to the Social-Democracy, why was not the slogan, “worked out by Lenin in 1917 and vindicated in the revolutionary struggle,” applied to Yugoslavia in 1945 or even suggested by the Cannonites? Nobody knows the answer to this question, least of all the Cannonites. A little later, without any suggestion whatsoever from the Cannonites, Tito, that is, the Stalinist party, did break the “coalition” with the bourgeoisie. Subasitch and his bourgeois friends were driven out of the government; some of them were driven out of the country itself; and many were driven out of mortal existence. The Stalinists in Yugoslavia, like Noske and Scheidemann, committed bloody deeds and hangman’s work – to the n-th power. But unlike the Social-Democrats, the Stalinists have practically destroyed all of the economic and political power of the bourgeoisie, destroyed also bourgeois democracy in any form, and have established what even a man with one eye in his head can recognize as a totalitarian regime. With the humility that is mandatory upon us when we face these masters of Leninist theory and tactics, we now ask the Cannonites: What is the Leninist slogan to raise in Tito Yugoslavia today? Since Stalinism is “similar” to Social-Democracy, what slogans would be raised in Yugoslavia under the Stalinist government that are “similar” to the slogans raised by us in England under the Labour Government? It is a pity, but answers to these questions we will not get. That we know.

Example: After the Germans were driven out of Poland, a “coalition” government was established in that country between the Stalinist party, the pseudo-parties led and dominated by the Stalinist parties and Mikolajczyk’s Peasant Party. We do not know what slogans the Cannonites raised with regard to this “coalition” government. They did not tell us, and they told nobody else. On Poland they have maintained a silence which, if it is not a model of revolutionary politics, is a model of discretion. If no slogan was raised by the Cannonites, we must ask what slogan should have been raised for Poland or by Fourth Internationalists whom the Russian and Polish GPU neglected to murder? “Drive Mikolajczyk and company and all the other capitalist ministers out of the government?” Or some other slogan “similar” to the one “worked out by Lenin in 1917 and vindicated in the revolutionary struggle”? We have scrutinized the Fourth International press, the Cannonite press included, with the most fruitless care. To make sure, we read it all over again. But no such slogan was to be found and there was not even a suggestion of it. The absence of the slogan is bewildering and incomprehensible only for a moment, then everything becomes clear. The power of thought is greater than the power of words. So mighty is the thought of the Cannonite-Leninists that it communicated itself to the Polish Stalinists across thousands of miles of land and sea. Without hearing the slogan or seeing it on the banners of the Fourth International, the Stalinists have carried it out in life. They have broken the coalition with the bourgeois party. They have driven it out of one political institution after another and, in general, deprived it of all political power. For everyone they killed, they put ten in prison. They expropriated the landowners. They nationalized the property of the bourgeoisie. At the same time, to confirm the theory that they are an authentic although somewhat degenerated “workers’ party,” they destroyed every independent workers’ organization, every independent peasants’ organization and destroyed or rendered farcical every serious trace of a democratic right. As this is written, the gun-filled fist of the Russo-Polish GPU has just about achieved supreme power.

The Cannonites assure us that the Stalinist parties do not “wish to take power except as agencies of capitalism and usually in coalition with its direct representatives.” This is the last and only consolation left to the Polish bourgeoisie. It is a poor one, it is not their own, but it is better than nothing. The Polish Stalinists who, you see, have taken power only as “agencies of capitalism,” turned out to be less merciful enemies of the capitalists whose agents they are than the Cannonites. For from these Stalinists the capitalists have received not so much as a literary consolation.

What is all this about Poland? Bah! After all, it is nothing but the facts, if we must choose between the facts and our theory, we are, everybody should know, unterrified Marxists and we choose theory. We do not have our “evaluation” for nothing!

Example: The coalition government of the Stalinists in Bulgaria – apply everything that was said in the preceding example. The coalition government of the Stalinists in Rumania – apply everything that was said in the preceding example. The coalition government of the Stalinists in Hungary – apply everything that was said in the preceding example.

The political courage of the Cannonites has leaked right out of their “evaluation.” Not surprising! Their evaluation of the Stalinist parties is a cask without a bottom.

The courage they do not show in putting their evaluation into political practice in a whole series of “similar” cases is evidently reserved for charging us with an inconsistency. “For some unexplained reason,” they write, we “reversed” our position and accepted the “slogan of a Socialist-Communist – but not a Communist – government.” Charity dictates an acknowledgment that the explanation for our position in favor of the slogan for a Socialist-Communist government in France was not good enough for the Cannonites. With hopes for greater success, we will try again.

The Slogan of “CP-SP-CGT to Power!”

Our statement in support of the slogan of a “Socialist Party-Communist Party-CGT Government in France” was drawn up in January, 1946. The French government of the time was based upon a coalition of the conservative bourgeois party (MRP), the Socialist party and the Stalinist party. The bourgeois party represented a minority of the people as a whole and an infinitesimal minority of the decisive class in France, the proletariat. Between them, the Social-Democracy and the Stalinists not only had the overwhelming support of the proletariat but had even received a majority of the votes in the nation.

“The Social-Democrats,” said our resolution, “keep the proletariat tied to the bourgeoisie out of fear that a break with the latter would thrust them into an unwanted alliance with the Stalinists. The Stalinists keep the proletariat tied to the bourgeoisie out of an unwillingness to take power into their own hands even though they have the great majority of the proletariat behind them – an unwillingness dictated by the present interests of the Kremlin’s foreign policy and by the unfavorable relationship of forces which faces them in France and Europe in general; and by an inability to oust de Gaulle [read: the politically organized bourgeoisie] from control by means of a coalition with the reluctant Social Democracy alone.

“The first big step forward toward restoring the class independence of the French proletariat requires a radical break with the bourgeoisie and its political representatives, de Gaulle and MRP. This demands first of all, at the present time, the breaking of the existing coalition and the ousting of the de Gaulle government. Together, the Socialist party and the Stalinist party represent a majority not only of the proletariat but of the people as a whole. No other central political slogan is possible for the revolutionary Marxists, and none corresponds better to the needs of the situation than the slogan of a ‘Government of the Socialist Party-Communist Party-CGT.’”

However, our resolution continues, support of this slogan without an understanding of what is involved and of how the slogan itself is to be employed, “would be worse than useless ... it would be a dangerous trap for the working class as a whole and for the Fourth Internationalists in particular. This slogan can and must be advanced by our party in France, but only if it is inseparably linked with and subordinated to a detailed and clearly explained program of transitional demands.” As examples of the demands which such a program should “prominently include” and around which our main agitation and propaganda must be centered, the resolution notes: nationalization “under the most democratic workers’ control of production”; the demand for the most democratic constitution for the Constituent Assembly, with special emphasis upon unrestricted guarantees of all democratic rights; a democratic people’s militia to replace an immediately demobilized army and all the special police and government spy services; the withdrawal of all French occupation forces from conquered territories, an immediate democratic peace and no indemnities or tribute burden; and other demands of the same order. Even after listing these demands, the resolution still found it necessary to emphasize that the slogan “undoubtedly carries with it grave risks,” to which the Fourth International cannot be blind and which it must not conceal or gloss over – that is, precisely those grave risks which the French Trotskyists, if they are not blind to them, nevertheless do conceal and gloss over.

“...The slogan is not the same, adapted to French conditions, as that put forward by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 in advocating a coalition government of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties. It is not the same, adapted to French conditions, as that put forward, originally by the Communist International and in our time by the Fourth International, in advocating a Labour Party government in England. In those cases, there were involved bourgeois or petty bourgeois democratic reformist workers’ (or workers’ and peasants’) parties. In France today, there is involved, so far as the Stalinist party is concerned, not a democratic but a totalitarian party operating as an instrument of the Kremlin and the GPU. Hence, we oppose any slogan which means lifting this counter-revolutionary totalitarian instrument into the position of state power in any country, or into the position where there is a clear threat of its use of the state police power for the extermination of the independent working class and revolutionary movements, as in Russia, as in Poland, as in Yugoslavia, etc.”

In the face of this analysis, which, it is perfectly obvious, is not at all the “reversal” of our evaluation of Stalinism which the Cannonites ascribe to us, how was it possible to advocate this slogan? This was the question posed by many of the leaders and members of our party. If the revolutionary Marxists must resist every attempt of Stalinism to come to power in the capitalist countries, how is this to be squared with support of a slogan which calls for them to establish a government together with the Social-Democracy? In reply to this question, our resolution pointed out that

“... a concrete and objective examination of the political situation and the relationship of forces in France today, and in Europe and the world in general, indicates that the totalitarian Stalinist party cannot and will not and does not seek to take state power in France in any way comparable to its seizure of power in Poland and Yugoslavia; and indicates further that in a coalition government with the Socialist Party and the CGT, the Stalinists could not and would not proceed, either in the field of economic life or of political power, in any way comparable to their procedure in Poland and Yugoslavia, inasmuch as such a course, extended to France, would not only precipitate civil war in the country but would bring infinitely closer the outbreak of the Third World War, both of which it is clearly the Kremlin’s policy to avert, at least in the next period.”

To us it seems that the subsequent developments in France have served to confirm this analysis, and to dispel the by no means unjustified doubts expressed by many of the opponents of the slogan in our party. To these comrades, we said at the time that it was only necessary for them to show by “a concrete and objective examination of the political situation and the relationship of forces in France today, and in Europe and the world in general” that support of the slogan signified that Stalinism would be brought to power in France in any way comparable to the power it was acquiring in Yugoslavia and Poland. If that had been demonstrated, there is no doubt that the overwhelming majority of our party would have rejected the slogan. If, instead, it supported the slogan, it was only upon the conviction that its proper use by the French Trotskyists would facilitate the disclosure to the French masses of the real, that is, the reactionary nature of Stalinism and thus help to loosen its hold upon the French masses. In other words, what was primarily involved in the discussion in our party over this slogan was not so much a dispute over the character of the Stalinist parties, as over the concrete analysis of the political situation in France and of the specific prospects of Stalinism. This is not to deny that in the discussion, as is usually the case in questions of this sort, there were no further implications that could be drawn from the respective positions. But that is another matter. It has no direct relation to the matter at hand – and that is the setting forth of the reasons why, given our evaluations of Stalinism, it was nevertheless possible for us to support the slogan of a Socialist Party-Communist Party-CGT government in France.

But suppose the concrete analysis sketched in our resolution proved to be incorrect? In that case, we would not have hesitated to say that our support of the slogan was a grave mistake. We would have had to say much more. The resolution itself posed that question and provided a tentative answer:

“If, contrary to this analysis, the Stalinists should now be on the verge of taking state power in France in their own name, or in the name of a coalition with the Socialist Party which would, along with the French bourgeoisie, which is in turn backed by Anglo-American imperialism, prove to be as impotent to prevent the consolidation of Stalinist state power as their equivalents have proved to be in Poland and Yugoslavia, then an altogether different conclusion would be dictated to the Fourth International. Then it would no longer be a question of raising or abandoning the slogan of a ‘Socialist Party-Communist Party-CGT Government.’ The Fourth International would then have to reconsider and revise fundamentally not only its whole European and international perspective, but also its whole concept of the character of our epoch. Nothing less than such a reconsideration would be mandatory to the Fourth International if it were confronted by the reality of the consolidation of Stalinist power on the European Atlantic, which would mean nothing else but the complete domination of Europe and Asia, at least most of Asia, by Stalinism.

“There are, however, altogether insufficient grounds for any such analysis and conclusion. Stalinism has not only not triumphed over Europe, but there are ample indications that its power and influence are receding from the immediate postwar peak and that the popular resistance to it is increasing. This is evident, in different degrees, not only in France and Italy, in Austria and Hungary, but even in occupied countries like Poland and Rumania.”

Our position on the use of the slogan in France thus in no wise contradicts our evaluation of the Stalinist parties. In any case, the use of that slogan in France was a purely tactical and incidental question. Let us repeat: It would only be necessary really to demonstrate that it is in conflict with our evaluation of the Stalinist parties for us to abandon it without hesitation.

The Programmatic Criteria of the Cannonites

At the conclusion of their Statement, the Cannonites set up three “rock-bottom programmatic criteria operating today to demarcate the revolutionary tendency from all forms and varieties of opportunism.” For the Cannonites these “new criteria are the knife with which the Fourth International is to be cut in two, thus effectively eliminating it as the revolutionary International and transforming it into a mere international Cannonite faction. As the corollary to their first criterion which deals with the evaluation of Russia, they list the evaluation of the Stalinist parties in the capitalist countries and the attitude toward these parties. What they mean by this should be clearly understood and properly appraised by revolutionary Marxists everywhere. It is, as they so correctly say, no minor question.

In their chapter on the Stalinist parties, this is how they characterize our position. What they place between parentheses is quoted from one or another document written by us.

“1. Trotsky’s evaluation of the Stalinist movement must be rejected. (‘The theory that the Stalinist parties like the traditional reformist organizations are agents of the capitalist class, that they “capitulate to the bourgeoisie,” is fundamentally false.’)

“2. The Stalinist parties seek state power in order to form Stalinist states, akin to the Soviet Union. (‘Stalinism is not merely the servant of Russian imperialism ... It seeks to establish in every capitalist country in which it functions the same social and political regime as prevails in Russia today.’)

“3. The Stalinist party is similar to the Nazi party. (‘... Fascism and Stalinism, while not identical, are symmetrical phenomena.’)

“4. Hence our established tactical approach to the Stalinists is no good and must be rejected. (‘The traditional policy of the revolutionary vanguard toward the labor-reformist movements [or bureaucracies] does not, therefore, apply to the Stalinist movements.’)”

Although not exact, this is nevertheless a good enough statement of our point of view. By clear implication, this point of view is rejected and the contrary point of view is maintained by the Cannonites. If the Fourth International persists in the Cannonite point of view on the Stalinist parties, its suicide is guaranteed. There is no need whatsoever to court this fate. We repeat that the Cannonite standpoint is based on a misunderstood “traditional policy,” upon ignorance of Trotsky’s real position, upon a gross failure to appraise correctly the evolution of Stalinist Russia and of the Stalinist parties in tile capitalist countries, and not least of all upon factional malice and blindness which has caused them literally to forget themselves. Unlike the Cannonites, we will not confine ourselves to mere assertion. We will demonstrate this, point by point, and demonstrate it to the hilt.

1. and 2. The Cannonites write that we reject Trotsky’s evaluation of the Stalinist movement. Strictly speaking, this is not correct. The Cannonite view must indeed be rejected, from start to finish. Trotsky’s view must be extended, amplified in the light of the recent real evolution, and deepened. We have already quoted what Trotsky wrote years ago in The Crisis of the Right-Center Bloc about the fundamental antagonism between Social-Democracy and the Stalinist parties. This basically correct view we have sought to develop in accordance with the development of the living forces. Any theory which holds that Stalinism “capitulates to the bourgeoisie” in the same sense as the Social-Democracy is false to the very bottom and can only disorient the Fourth International and those workers who follow it. It can only raise still higher the barrier that separates us from those workers who support the Stalinist parties and thereby only increase the numerous difficulties that already exist for our work of winning these workers away from Stalinism.

The Cannonites indignantly reject our view that Stalinism “seeks to establish in every capitalist country in which it functions the same social and political regime as prevails in Russia today” (and note that we say “seeks to establish,” and not “will succeed in establishing”). The Cannonites simply do not understand Trotsky’s point of view, let alone our own; they do not even know Trotsky’s point of view. Read carefully the following words:

“The predominating type among the present ‘Communist’ bureaucrats is the political careerist, and in consequence the polar opposite of the revolutionist. Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule.” (My emphasis – M.S.)

Who is guilty of uttering this gross Burnhamite-Shachtmanite-Satanic anti-Trotskyist blasphemy? Who is the author of these views which are almost word for word, and certainly thought for thought, the views of our party? Leon Trotsky! Not only was this written by Trotsky, but it may even be considered his final political testament, so far as the Stalinist parties in the capitalist countries are concerned. It was not written as an accidental phrase out of harmony with the text that surrounds it. It is contained in what is not only a lengthy but an obviously well-thought-out and weightily considered last judgment on the Stalinist parties. It is contained in the very last political article written by Trotsky before his assassination – it is dated August 17, 1940. There is no good excuse for not knowing this decisively significant passage. It is not in an unpublished manuscript. It was not only published but – it is hard to believe and yet it is true – published in the theoretical organ of the Socialist Workers Party, The Fourth International, November, 1940, where it can be found on page 149.

When we accept or reject Trotsky’s point of view on any question, we make at least a serious effort to find out what that point of view is. Is it not plain that the Cannonites have been talking all this time about “Trotsky’s evaluation of the Stalinist movement” without even knowing what Trotsky’s evaluation was? That they have charged us with rejecting an evaluation which is our own, and which they – and which only they – actually reject? Can you imagine a more humiliating position for the avowed followers – no, the only real followers! – of Trotsky to have placed themselves in by their aggressive ignorance and factional malice? We could continue with this by the page, but it is not necessary. All you need to do is to read over again our evaluation, the abuse and ridicule the Cannonites heap upon us, and then check the two against the last evaluation of the Stalinist parties made by Trotsky.

3. The Cannonites quote from one of our documents where we write that “fascism and Stalinism, while not identical, are symmetrical phenomena.” They do not comment on this sentence. Why not? Obviously because for them the mere reproduction of this thought is sufficient to revile and condemn it as a monstrosity which is made up of equal parts of Burnhamism, Shachtmanism and in general the work of the devil; and, as every genuine, undiluted Trotskyist knows, it has nothing – but absolutely nothing – in common with Trotskyism. Repetition is tedious but we have no choice. We must repeat what we said before. The Cannonites do not understand Trotsky’s point of view, let alone our own; they do not even know Trotsky’s point of view. Read carefully the following words:

“Stalinism and fascism, in spite of a deep difference in social functions, are symmetrical phenomena. In many of their features they show a deadly similarity.”

Where is the difference between these words and the thoughts contained so clearly in them, and the words quoted from our documents (and quoted with such disdain and contempt) by the Cannonites? There is none! Who is the author of these words? Leon Trotsky. Written in some unavailable manuscript? No, it appears in his great work, The Revolution Betrayed, and is to be found on page 278. Bitter joke: the Cannonites have published their own edition of The Revolution Betrayed. They try to sell it everywhere. They recommend it highly. But their leaders obviously have not read it.

4. The final point in the pitifully ignorant indictment of us points out that we say, as indeed we do, that the traditional policy of the revolutionary vanguard toward the reformist movements and even the reformist bureaucracies does not apply to the Stalinist movements. On the basis not of a haphazard, hand-to-mouth, empirical approach but on the basis of a thought-out and fundamental analysis of the Stalinist movement, our party has drawn a basic distinction between tile Stalinist bureaucracy and the reformist bureaucracy. Our practical policy, above all in the trade unions, has been guided by this fundamental analysis. We have not hesitated, as our general rule, to make blocs with the progressive reformists in the unions against the Stalinists, and not only with the progressive but even with the conservative bureaucrats. (We are speaking, of course, of all those cases where it was impossible for the revolutionists in the union to present their own independent candidates against both the Stalinists and the reformists.) We have set forth this policy, and the basic reasons for it, time and again in our press. For it, we have received only the malignant and contemptuous epithets of the Cannonites. In contrast, the latter have vacillated between one policy and another, because in reality their “evaluation” is as solid as a sucked-out egg. In the last few years in particular, the Cannonites (and this, unfortunately, is also true of the rest of the Fourth International) have been a ship without a rudder, sails or chart in the practical political struggle against Stalinism.

Now, impelled by factional animus against us, and in practice by a growing affinity, let it be said, for the Stalinists, they attack us for holding the position we have quoted. But we have not always been alone in holding this position. Read carefully the following words:

“... We must be very careful. If we allow ourselves to become confused and mixed up with the Stalinists, we will cut off our road of approach to the rank and file of the trade union movement, the anti-Stalinist rank and file, which, in my opinion, is a more important reservoir of the revolution than the Stalinist rank and file ...

“We must classify the Stalinists and the reactionary and ‘progressive’ patriotic labor fakers as simply two different varieties of enemies of the working class employing different methods because they have different bases under their feet. It brings us into a complicated problem in the trade union movement. It has been our general practice to combine in day-to-day trade union work with the progressives and even the conservative labor fakers against the Stalinists. We have been correct from this point of view, that while the conservatives and traditional labor skates are no better than the Stalinists, are no less betrayers in the long run, they have different bases of existence. The Stalinist base is the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. They are perfectly willing to disrupt a trade union in defense of the foreign policy of Stalin. The traditional labor fakers have no roots in Russia nor any support in its powerful bureaucracy. Their only base of existence is the trade union; if the union is not preserved they have no further existence as trade union leaders. That tends to make them, from self-interest, a little more loyal to the unions than the Stalinists. That is why we have been correct in most cases in combining with them as against the Stalinists in purely union affairs.”

We do not think that this analysis is as thoroughgoing as it might be; and even the conclusions are unnecessarily restricted. But the line it indicates, the orientation which it seeks to give the party – that is indubitably correct and for our purposes adequate. Who is the author of these words? Some member of the Workers Party, perhaps? It might well be, but in this case it is not. We have quoted from a speech delivered at the 1940 Chicago conference of the Socialist Workers Party by no less authoritative a party leader than James P. Cannon. The speech is not contained in a secret, unavailable manuscript. The stenographic record of the speech appears in the weekly organ of the Socialist Workers Party, The Socialist Appeal, of October 19, 1940. The Russian proverb reads, “Do not spit in the well from which you may have to drink.” The Cannonites need another version of this proverb: “Do not spit into the good clean well from which you once drank and from which you may find it necessary to drink again.”

They will have to drink from it again. The Fourth International as a whole will have to drink from it again and to understand why, and to understand thoroughly. Have to? Yes, if the Fourth International is to survive and grow as a genuinely Marxist international, if it is to escape the otherwise inescapable fate of a sickly shadow helplessly in the tow of Stalinism, the entire Fourth International must reconsider its evaluation not only of Stalinist Russia, but of the Stalinist parties in the capitalist countries. It must reorient itself and reorient every militant in the working class within reach of its voice.

Max Shachtman

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Last updated on 10 June 2017