Max Shachtman

The Nature of the Russian State

Bureaucratic Collectivism and the Marxist Tradition

(April 1947)

From The New International, Vol. XIII No. 4, April 1947, pp. 99–105.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

The theory that Russia is neither a capitalist nor a workers’ state but rather a bureaucratic collectivist state meets an initial resistance from all Marxists, with some of whom it is prolonged more than with others. This is perfectly natural and understandable. Our party adopted this theory only after a long and thoroughgoing discussion. We have no right to complain when others move at an even slower pace, or even if they refuse to move in our direction at all.

Those who resist our theory base themselves upon their understanding of the teaching of Marx. In a well known passage in his Critique of Political Economy, Marx wrote:

The bourgeois relations of production are the last antagonistic form of the social process of production-antagonistic not in the sense of individual antagonism, but of one arising from conditions surrounding the life of individuals in society; at the same time the productive forces developing in the womb of bourgeois society create the material conditions for the solution of that antagonism. This social formation constitutes, therefore, the closing chapter of the prehistoric stage of human society.

If capitalist society is the last antagonistic form of the social process of production and if it creates the material conditions for the solution of this antagonism by the socialist society which is to be established by the working class – it is legitimate to ask what part is played in this Marxian system by our theory of the bureaucratic collectivist state? According to our theory, bureaucratic collectivism not only is not socialism but does not represent a workers’ state of any kind. At the same time, we hold, it is not a capitalist state. Finally, by characterizing bureaucratic collectivism as a reactionary, exploitive, and therefore also an antagonistic society, it is implied that capitalism may not be the last antagonistic social formation. Paraphrasing Trotsky, the Socialist Workers Party Statement thereupon declares that our theory “would signify that not the workers but a new bureaucratic class was destined to displace dying capitalism.” It then charges that “Shachtman ... intervened and interposed a new class between the capitalists and the proletariat, thus reducing Marxism to utopian levels.”

The questions raised are serious and weighty. There is no doubt whatsoever that they involve an appraisal of the whole question of the collapse of capitalism and the future of socialism-and thus of the future of mankind itself. Such questions deserve thought and the most objective discussion, not on the low level of ignorance and demagogy to which the problem is so often depressed but on the heights to which Marxism necessarily raises it. On these heights, it is possible to examine carefully and then to re-establish clearly the theoretical tradition of Marxism. This requires patient and earnest study, scrupulous objectivity and the application of the Marxist method itself.

“In broad outlines,” wrote Marx in the sentence immediately preceding the passage already quoted from the Critique, “we can designate the Asiatic, the ancient, the feudal, and the modern bourgeois methods of production as so many epochs in the progress of the economic formation of society.” (My emphasis – M.S.)

“In broad outlines,” but only in broad outlines! Like many such statements by Marx, this must not be construed in the rigid, dogmatic, mechanical sense against which Marx himself found it necessary to admonish his followers time and time again. It must not be construed as an absolute truth.

Marx indicates here the “principal epochs in the economic formation of society,” listing them, as he writes elsewhere, “in the order in which they were determining factors in the course of history.” Marx would be the first one to reject the idea that every people in the world passed and had to pass from primitive communism through all the stages he indicated, one following in inexorable succession after the other, and ending, after the collapse of capitalism, in the classless communist society of the future. Such a mechanical interpretation of Marx, although not uncommon among Marxists, has nothing in common with Marxism.

No “Iron Pattern” of Social Orders

Like everyone else acquainted with the history of society. Marx knew that there were stages in the development of communities, peoples and nations which could not be fitted into any pattern of iron succession. Where, in such a pattern, would we fit those “highly developed but historically unripe forms of society in which the highest economic forms are to be found, such as cooperation, advanced division of labor, etc., and yet there is no money in existence, e.g., Peru,” about which Marx wrote (Critique of Political Economy, p. 296)?

Where, in this iron pattern, would we fit the regime of Mehemet Ali, the viceroy of Egypt in the early nineteenth century who was the sole owner of the land and the sole “industrialist,” from whom all had to buy – a regime referred to in one of the works of Karl Kautsky? Where in this iron pattern would we fit anyone of a dozen of the antique Oriental regimes which Marx himself placed in a special, exceptional category? The list can be easily extended.

Marx found himself obliged on more than one occasion to protest against all the absolutist constructions placed upon his materialist conception of history both by uninformed friends and uninformed adversaries. It is not without interest that many of his protests referred not only to interpretations made by Russian writers but to the way they applied Marx’s ideas (as they interpreted them) to Russia. One of the most valuable and instructive documents of Marxism is a letter by Marx, unfortunately not widely known, to a Russian Populist acquaintance, “Nikolai–On” (N.F. Danielson). In the letter Marx deals with an article written by another and very well known Russian Populist, N.K. Mikhailovsky, who attributed to Marx that very mechanistic schema of social development which Marxists have always had to contend against, and which we must now seek to eliminate from the Trotskyist movement as well. The length of the quotation, as the attentive reader can see, will be more than justified by the appropriateness of its contents:

Now what application to Russia could my critic draw from my historical outline? Only this: if Russia tries to become a capitalist nation, in imitation of the nations of Western Europe, and in recent years she has taken a great deal of pains in this respect, she will not succeed without first having transformed a good part of her peasants into proletarians; and after that, once brought into the lap of the capitalist regime, she will be subject to its inexorable laws, like other profane nations. That is all. But this is too much for my critic. He absolutely must needs metamorphose my outline of the genesis of capitalism in Western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course, fatally imposed upon all peoples, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed, in order to arrive finally at that economic formation which insures with the greatest of productive power of social labor the most complete development of man. But I beg his pardon. He does me too much honor and too much shame at the same time. Let us take one example. In different passages of Capital, I have made allusion to the fate which overtook the plebeians of ancient Rome.

Originally, they were free peasants tilling, every man for himself, their own piece of land. In the course of Roman history, they were expropriated. The same movement which separated them from their means of production and of subsistence, implied not only the formation of large landed properties but also the formation of large monetary capitals. Thus, one fine day, there were on the one hand free men stripped of everything save their labor power, and on the other, for exploiting this labor, the holders of all acquired wealth. What happened? The Roman proletariat became not a wage-earning worker, but an indolent mob, more abject than the former “poor whites” in the southern lands of the United States; and by their side was unfolded not a capitalist but a slave mode of production. Hence, strikingly analogical events, occurring however, in different historical environments, led to entirely dissimilar results.

By studying each of these evolutions separately, and then comparing them, one will easily find the key to these phenomena but one will never succeed with the master-key of a historico-philosophlcal theory whose supreme virtue consists in being suprahistorical. (The New International, November 1934, pp. 110f.)

Engels, writing to the same Danielson on February 24, 1893, added: “I subscribe completely to the letter of our author [Marx] ...”

Views of Engels and Mehring

Like Marx himself, his great co-worker found more than one occasion to protest against the vulgarization of the materialist conception of history worked out by the two founders of scientific socialism. Mehring, reading from the Berlin Vorw√§rts (October 5, 1890), quotes from an article in which Engels found it necessary, not for the first time and not for the last time, to correct bourgeois misinterpreters of Marx’s concept, in the hope that it would be better understood by Marx’s followers:

The materialistic method is transformed into its opposite when it is employed not as a guide to the study of history, but as a finished stencil in accordance with which one accurately cuts the historical facts.

To this declaration of Engels, Mehring himself adds:

Historical materialism is no closed system crowned with an ultimate truth; it is a scientific method for the investigation of human development.

Is not the attempt to cut the fact of Stalinist society into “a finished stencil,” in which there is room only for capitalist state or workers’ state, a perfect example of the transformation of Marx’s materialistic method into what it is not and cannot be?

The view that Marxism presents an absolute schema of an iron succession of social orders which holds good for all peoples and all times; which excludes any intermediate stages, any leaps over stages, any retrogression into previous stages or any bastard social formations distinguished from the “principal epochs in the economic formation of society”; and which by the same token also excludes – and that absolutely – any unique social formation interposed between capitalism and a workers’ state or between a workers’ state and socialism (as, for example, the social reality which we have in the form of the Russian bureaucratic collectivist state) – that is a view that does Marx u too much honor and too much shame at the same time.” Such a view necessarily converts Marx’s “outline of the genesis of capitalism in western Europe into a historico-philosophical theory of the general course, fatally imposed upon all peoples, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed.” Marx’s materialist conception of history in no way “rules out” in advance, by theoretical interdiction, as it were, our theory of bureaucratic collectivism.

That theory was arrived at “by studying each of these evolutions separately, and then comparing them,” in order to “find the key” to the unique phenomenon of Stalinist society. When Marx wrote that “one will never succeed” in understanding such a social phenomenon as faces us in Russia today by means of “the master-key of a historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical,” it is as if he foresaw the hopeless dilemma, the growing confusion and political impotence of those who seek to force-fit Stalinist Russia into an iron pattern for which Marx bears no responsibility. To those who charge us with a “revision of Marxism,” we win not retort that it is they who are revising Marxism. It suffices to reply that only those who do not understand Marx’s materialist conception of history and Marx’s method can attribute to him such an absolutist theoretical absurdity.

How Marxists Answered Michels

Neither Marx nor Engels could foresee the actual course of the Russian proletarian revolution, or the historical circumstances under which it took place. They had no need and there were no grounds for speculative writing on the possibility of the degeneration of a proletarian revolution confined to a backward country or on the form that this degeneration might take. In our own century, the question of degeneration of the revolution and the forms of its degeneration has been posed more than once, even before 1917. Is a classless communist society even a possibility? Can the proletarian revolution produce anything more than a victory only for the revolutionists who lead it? Best known of those who contended that the socialists may be victorious, but socialism never, was Robert Michels. In face of the reality of the Stalinist degeneration, more than one “disillusioned” revolutionist and more than one turncoat have proclaimed that Michels’ theory has been confirmed by history.

How have Marxists dealt with such theories as Michels’? By the simple pious assertion that an anti-capitalist but non-socialist state is an absolute impossibility, that it is ruled out theoretically by Marxism? Let us see how the problem is discussed by so authoritative a Marxist as the late N.I. Bukharin in one of his best-known works which was written in the earliest period of the Bolshevik revolution and served as a textbook, so to speak, for a whole generation of Marxists.

Referring to Engels, Bukharin points out that in all past societies there were contending classes, and therefore a ruling class, because of the “insufficient evolution of the productive forces.”

... But communist society is a society with highly developed, increased productive forces. Consequently, it can have no economic basis for the creation of its peculiar ruling class. For – even assuming the power of the administrators to be stable, as does Michels – this power will be the power of specialists over machines, not over men. How could they, in fact, realize this power with regard to men? Michels neglects the fundamental decisive fact that each administratively dominant position has hitherto been an envelope for economic exploitation. This economic exploitation may not be subdivided. But there will not even exist a stable, close corporation, dominating the machines. for the fundamental basis for the formation of monopoly groups will disappear; what constitutes an eternal category in Michels’ presentation, namely, the “incompetence of the masses” will disappear, for this incompetence is by no means a necessary attribute of every system; it likewise is a product of the economic and technical conditions, expressing themselves in the general cultural being and in the educational conditions. We may state that in the society of the future there will be a colossal over-production of organizers. which will nullify the stability of the ruling groups. (N.I. Bukharin, Historical Materialism, p. 310)

This holds, however, and in our view it holds unassailably, for the communist society, one in which the productive forces have indeed been so highly developed and increased, and are available in such abundance, as to make even the highest level of the development of the productive forces attained by capitalism appear as miserably inadequate as it really is. But does it also hold for the transitional period that necessarily intervenes between the end of capitalism and the fuIi flowering of communism? Obviously not. On that score there is not and, of course, there cannot be any disagreement.

But the question of the transition period from capitalism to socialism, i.e., the period of the proletarian dictatorship, is far more difficult [continues Bukharin]. The working class achieves victory, although it is not and cannot be a unified mass. It attains victory while the productive forces are going down and the great masses are materially insecure. There will inevitably result a tendency to “degeneration,” i.e., the excretion of a leading stratum in the form of a class-germ. This tendency will be retarded by two opposing tendencies; first, by the growth of the productive forces; second, by the abolition of the educational monopoly. The increasing reproduction of technologists and of organizers in general, out of the working class itself, will undermine this possible new class alignment. The outcome of the struggle will depend on which tendencies turn out to be the stronger.” (N.I. Bukharin, Ibid., pp. 310f.)

Take note especially of the two very precise formulations of Bukharin. One: “there will inevitably result a tendency of degeneration, i.e., the excretion of a leading stratum in the form of a class-germ.” So far as we know, it occurred to nobody to denounce Bukharin as a “revisionist” for writing this, even though he wrote it long before so much as the outlines of the present Stalinist state could be visible. Bukharin is, of course, not referring to a new capitalist class that would be excreted when he writes of “a class-germ.” He is writing, let us remember, of Michels’ theory of a new bureaucratic class that would triumph as a result of the socialist revolution, and Bukharin does not hesitate to acknowledge – this almost thirty years ago! – that this is theoretically possible. Bukharin does not begin to deny that the formation of such a new class is possible. He acknowledges the tendency. He promptly adds two of the counteracting tendencies. And his conclusion? He does not even suggest, as the SWP Statement does, that the triumph of socialism is guaranteed by some abstraction, by some absolute force. Not for a minute! He concludes – this is his second formulation of importance to us – “The outcome of the struggle will depend on which tendencies turn out to be stronger.” Or, if we may formulate it in the way which excited so much horror in the “monists” of the Socialist Workers Party, “The question of the perspective of Stalinism cannot be resolved in a purely theoretical way. It can be resolved only in struggle.” The theoretical tradition of Marxism is represented in the manner in which Bukharin deals with the problem but not at all in the manner in which the SWP “monists” reject the “pluralism” which they ascribe to us.

Rakovsky Saw “Class of Rulers”

Marx wrote before the Russian Revolution, and Bukharin wrote before the Stalinist society appeared as an organized whole and even before Stalinism itself made its appearance. The Trotskyist opposition has been the eye-witness of the rise of Stalinism and has been the only one to make a serious analysis of it. Next to Trotsky, the late Christian Rakovsky was the outstanding leader of the Trotskyist movement. After expulsion from the party and exile, Rakovsky wrote many penetrating analyses of Russian society under Stalinism. Given the conditions of his existence in that period, many, if not most, of his studies are probably irretrievably lost. But we have sufficient indication of the trend taken by his analysis prior to his tragic capitulation. What this trend was, was reported. in its time, in the international Trotskyist press. Writing about The Life of the Exiled and Imprisoned Russian Opposition, N. Markin (Leon Sedoff) gave the following information:

Concerning the bureaucracy, Comrade Rakovsky writes: “Under our very eyes, there has been formed, and is still being formed, a large class of rulers which has its own interior groupings, multiplied by means of premeditated cooptation, direct or indirect (bureaucratic promotion, fictitious system of elections). The basic support of this original class is a sort, an original sort, of private property, namely, the possession of state power. The bureaucracy ‘possesses the state as private property,’ wrote Marx (Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Law).” (The Militant, December 1, 1930.)

There is, furthermore, ample evidence to show that Rakovsky’s view was supported by not a few of the Trotskyists exiled and imprisoned by Stalin. The whole of Rakovsky’s analysis is not at hand, neither are the whole of his conclusions; and it may well be that we shall never see them. But the trend of his analysis is sufficiently clear; the Stalinist bureaucracy is a new class based upon “an original sort of private property.”

It is a ruling class that derives its power from its complete domination of the state which owns all the means of production and exchange. Whatever may have been the thoughts which preceded or succeeded the section from Rakovsky’s manuscript which Markin quotes, it is plain enough that Rakovsky’s point of view is, if not identical with our own, at least analogous to it. Yet the publication of Rakovsky’s views as long ago as 1930 did not bring down upon his head any such puerile denunciations of “revisionism-as we hear today. Trotsky did not propose that the International would have to separate itself from Rakovsky because of his views on the new bureaucratic class in Russia; and no such proposal came from anyone else in the Trotskyist movement. It occurred to nobody to set up the new “criteria” for membership in the Trotskyist movement which the Cannonites have now set up.

How Trotsky Posed the Question

Finally, Trotsky himself. He held, of course, to the position that Stalinist Russia still represented a workers’ state, even if in degenerated form. He denied that Stalinist Russia represented either a capitalist state or a new social formation like bureaucratic collectivism. But he did not exclude the theoretical possibility that a bureaucratic collectivist state could come into existence.

At the very beginning of the war, on September 25, 1939, he warned: “Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?” Trotsky firmly expected the solution of the problem of Stalinism by means of the triumph of the revolutionary proletariat in direct connection with the crises of the world war. That is completely clear in his polemics against us in 1939–40. “If this war provokes, as we firmly believe, a proletarian revolution, it must inevitably lead to the overthrow of the bureaucracy in the USSR and regeneration of Soviet democracy on a far higher economic and cultural basis than in 1918. In that case, the question whether the Stalinist bureaucracy was ‘a class’ or a growth on the workers’ state will be automatically solved.” Further, he wrote, that “it is impossible to expect any other more favorable conditions” for the socialist revolution than the conditions offered by the experiences of our entire epoch and the current new war. But suppose the proletarian revolution does not triumph in connection with the war, and suppose the Stalinist bureaucracy maintains or even extends its power? Trotsky did not hesitate to pose this question too – and to give a tentative answer to it.

“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 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 reevaluating the world historical perspectives 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?”

Thus, while Trotsky rejected the theory that Russia is a bureaucratic collectivist state, he did not, and as a Marxist he could not, rule out the possibility of a bureaucratic collectivist society on the basis of an a priori theory, or a “monistic concept” which we are now asked to believe is Marxism.

“We may have socialism, we may have Stalinism – who knows? Only the ‘concreteness of the events’ will show. In the theoretical sphere this is the most serious break possible with Marxist ideology.” That is how the SWP Statement presents our view and condemns it, all in the name of a muddle it calls monism. Why no equally derisive condemnation of Trotsky? He writes, so that anyone who reads may understand, that if, “contrary to all probabilities,” but not contrary to all possibilities) this, that, or the other thing does happen, or this, that, or the other thing does not happen (“the concreteness of the events will show!”); the Marxists, in undisciplined defiance of the interdiction by the Socialist Workers Party, will indeed have to pose the question: is it the epoch of socialism or the epoch of Stalinism? Different answers may be given to this question. Different conclusions may be drawn from those drawn by Trotsky or by us or by the Socialist Workers Party or by anyone else. Those are matters subject to the most objective and sober discussion. But it should be obvious that the way in which Trotsky approaches the problem is thoroughly Marxist, whereas the way in which the SWP approaches the problem is mechanistic and mystical (these are not mutually exclusive!) and utterly non-Marxist. The authors of the Statement are simply not at home in the theoretical tradition of Marxism.

Stalinist Russia can be understood only “by studying each of these evaluations separately and then comparing them.” To analyze it we need no “historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical.” We need only the “master-key” of historical materialism, not in the sense of a “closed system crowned with an ultimate truth,” but as a scientific method, as a guide to the study of the real history of the Stalinist state, as the method by which its social anatomy can be laid bare.


A Break with Marxism?

Our theory of the class character of the Stalinist state, we are admonished, represents a break with Marxism, because we hold that Russia is neither working class nor capitalist but bureaucratic collectivist. But that is not the worst of our crimes. According to the Cannonites, we continue to deepen our break with Marxism. In our 1941 resolution on the Russian question, we wrote – as they correctly quote – that “bureaucratic collectivism is a nationally-limited phenomenon, appearing in history in the course of a singular conjuncture of circumstances.” What has been added to this that makes our break with Marxism “deeper”? An analysis of the events that have occurred since 1941. The events represent an unforeseen and hitherto unanalyzed phenomenon, so far as Stalinism is concerned. They are a refutation, and a thorough one, of the predictions made by Trotsky on the basis of which the Cannonites continue to operate with an elevated disregard for reality.

Up to the outbreak of the Second World War, Stalinism represented a state that grew out of the proletarian state established by the Bolshevik revolution. It was a successor not to capitalism but to a revolutionary workers’ state. It represented a triumph not over a capitalist state but a triumph over the working class and its revolutionary state. We may disagree on a dozen different aspects of the problem of Stalinism, but there is no conceivable basis for a difference on this simple fact. We may disagree on the conclusions to draw from the fact that the Stalinist state replaced not a capitalist state but the state of Lenin and Trotsky, but on the fact itself there can be no disagreement.

What, however, is new in the development of Stalinism since the outbreak of the war? Some people prefer not to be troubled with or even reminded of the facts which the entire world, both bourgeois and proletarian, is thinking about and discussing. It upsets them. It is much more convenient and infinitely less disturbing to repeat over and over again what was said yesterday, mumbling the same ritualistic formulae like pious people saying their beads over and over again and always in the same order. The trouble is, whether we like it or not, there are new beads to account for. Stalinism has successfully extended its state control over new countries. The regime in such countries as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania is now identical in every respect with the regime of pre-war and post-war Stalinist Russia. In Yugoslavia, the Stalinists are in the process of establishing fundamentally the same type of state as exists in Stalinist Russia. In Poland, substantially the same holds true. In other Balkan countries where the Stalinists have gained domination, they are also engaged in establishing social regimes identical with the one that exists in Russia.

Stalinists Overthrow Bourgeoisie

The triumph of Stalinism in all these countries has not occurred in the same way and on the same basis as in Russia. In these countries Stalinism did not succeed a proletarian revolution. In these countries there was no revolutionary workers’ state for Stalinism to crush. In these countries Stalinism triumphed over a bourgeois state and over a subject, not a ruling, proletariat. It expropriated, both politically and economically, the bourgeoisie and the landowning classes, or else it is in the process of expropriating them, and nationalized their property. The idea that the bourgeoisie rules in any sense, be it economically, politically, socially or in any other way, is a grotesque absurdity. This absurdity may be swallowed by some ignorant people in the movement, but there is not a bourgeois in the entire world, let alone a bourgeois in these countries themselves; whom you could begin to convince that his class is still in power in any sense.

We doubt if it will be asserted that in the countries conquered by Stalinism a classless socialist society exists. If the bourgeoisie is not in power in these countries, what class is in power? What class rules?

Let us lay aside for the moment the question of what class rules in these countries, so long as it is agreed that the bourgeoisie does not rule. The transference of social power from one class to another is the outstanding characteristic of a revolution (or a counter-revolution). Such a transfer of powel has taken place in these countries. Now, if we agree, as we must, that the rule of the bourgeoisie has been overturned in these countries; and if we agree further, as we must, the fact that the state established in these countries is substantially identical or is, at the very least, becoming identical with that which exists in Russia; and finally if we accept the Cannonite theory that Stalinist Russia represents a degenerated workers’ state – then the conclusion is absolutely inescapable: a workers’ state, partly degenerated or wholly degenerated or degenerated in any other way, has been established by Stalinism in the conquered countries of eastern Europe.

The conclusion would not necessarily alter the view that Stalinism is bureaucratic. That is granted. But it would necessarily destroy fundamentally the theory that Stalinism is counter-revolutionary – in the sense in which the Cannonites apply that term to Stalinism. For, in the narrow Cannonite concept. the term counter-revolutionary must be and is applied only to those social or political forces that are not merely antisocialist and anti-working class but – by that very token, as it were – also pro-capitalist; that is, those forces which work either subjectively or objectively for the preservation of bourgeois society and the rule of the bourgeoisie. How reconcile this with the fact that Stalinism has wiped out or is wiping out the class rule of the bourgeoisie? How reconcile it with the view – which follows relentlessly from the SWP definition – that Stalinism has established a workers’ state in bourgeois countries? If that altogether too much abused word “dialectics” were to be manipulated a thousand times more skillfully than it is, it could not extricate the SWP from its dilemma.

Unlike the Cannonites, we have sought to analyze the reality by means of the materialist method and to introduce those corrections or supplements into our theory which the reality demands of us. The Stalinist state is no longer confined to Russia. Bureaucratic collectivism has been established in other countries as a result of a triumph over the capitalist class, over the capitalist state of these countries. The pseudo-Marxist who contents himself, as Lenin once remarked contemptuously, with “swearing by God,” finds no need to concern himself with the problem because for him the problem simply does not exist. To the serious Marxist the problem of yesterday is posed today in a new form: what is the future of the Stalinist state, what is the perspective of Stalinism, in relation, on the one side to the future of capitalism and, on the other side, to the perspective of socialism?

We will not at this point set forth the analysis of this problem made by the Workers Party in its 1946 convention resolution. For the moment, we will only repeat one of the conclusions which the SWP Statement quotes:

The question of the perspective of Stalinism cannot be resolved in a purely theoretical way. It can be resolved only in struggle.

And again:

Whether or not Stalinism can triumph in the capitalist world cannot be denied absolutely in advance. To repeat, it is a question of struggle.

These sentences, which are nothing but simple ABC, at first evoke that sarcasm which the Cannonites express with such mastery. They write: “It is clear that our slogan, ‘Socialism or Barbarism: should now be amended to read: ‘Socialism, Bureaucratic Collectivism or Barbarism!’ ... This is a telling blow, and while we are reeling from it, stiffer blows are rained down upon us. Sarcasm is not their only strong point. Theory, philosophy – they are at home in these fields as well.

“Monism” Versus “Pluralism”

In 1946, by adopting the above-quoted resolution, the Workers Party rejected the heart of the Marxist system: its monistic concept. Marxism holds that we live in a world of law, not of pure chance. This is true not only of the natural world, but also of human society. Shachtman (as usual, in passing) substitutes for Marxism an idealistic philosophy of pluralism: We may have socialism, we may have Stalinism – who knows? Only the “concreteness of the events” will show. In the theoretical sphere this is the most serious break possible with Marxist ideology ... The perspective of the Trotskyist movement, based on Marx’s world outlook as embodied in the Communist Manifesto, is discarded by the Workers Party in favor of an idealistic “multiple factors” concept, which is far closer to “True Socialism” than to Marxism.

There it is, word for word. The reader will just have to believe that it is not invented by us but simply quoted from the original. The cross of “True Socialists,” who have been dead and decently buried for a good century now, we will bear without too much murmur because it exerts not an ounce of weight upon our shoulders. As any reader who knows something about “True Socialism” is aware, the only reason it was thrown in was to impress the easily impressionable with a display of erudition which an impolite smile should suffice to dispose of. But what is said about “monism” in general and our “pluralism” in particular. that is a little too much. You avert your eyes in embarrassment at the spectacle that that section of the human race which in the revolutionary movement can sometimes make of itself. Where do the authors of the Statement get the courage to be so confident in their pugnacious illiteracy? Do they really think that there is nobody left in the world to laugh his head off at this pompous jabberwocky, this cool mauling of Big Words and Big Thoughts? It is positively painful to have to deal with such nonsense, which cannot even be termed philosophical mumbo-jumbo because it is just plain, ordinary, uninspired and very puerile mumbo-jumbo. But we have no choice in the matter.

What is the heart of the Marxist system? Its monistic concept. What is our most serious possible break with Marxist “ideology”? An idealistic philosophy of pluralism, which we have substituted for Marxism and, as usual, in passing. And just how have we substituted pluralism for Marxism? By saying that capitalism exists as a social reality; that socialism exists, if not yet as a reality, then, in any case, as a perspective; and – here is our sin – that Stalinism and bureaucratic collectivism exist both as a reality and as a perspective. To this we have added the other sinful thought: the perspective of Stalinism cannot be resolved in a purely theoretical way – it can be resolved only in struggle; it is wrong to deny absolutely in advance the possibility of the triumph of Stalinism in the capitalist world because that question can be decided only in the course of struggle.

That, you see, is the idealistic philosophy of pluralism. What, then, is monism, the heart of the Marxist system?

Engels’ Reply to Dühring

The development of Marxian thought has known its share of the “monism” that our authors are babbling about. Every real student of Marxism is acquainted with Frederick Engels’ polemical destruction of Eugen Dühring who – the truth is the truth – although also given to pompous phrasemongering, nevertheless stood intellectually a cubit above all ordinary phraseurs.

All-embracing being is one [wrote Dühring]. In its self-sufficiency it has nothing alongside of it or over it. To associate a second being with it would be to make it something that it is not, namely, a part or constituent of a more comprehensive whole. We extend, as it were, our unified thought like a framework, and nothing that should be comprised in this concept of unity can contain a duality within itself. Nor again can anything escape being subject to this concept of unity ...

To which Engels replied in a famous passage:

“If I include a shoe brush in the unity of mammals, this does not help it to get lacteal glands. The unity of being, that is, the question of whether its conception as a unity is correct, is therefore precisely what was to be proved, and when Herr Dühring assures us that he conceives being as a unity and not as twofold, he tells us nothing more than his own unauthoritative opinion.”

What is the monistic concept of Marxism? In the same Anti-Dühring Engels sets forth all there is to monism, in the fundamental sense, so far as Marxists are concerned:

The unity of the world does not consist in its being, although its being is a pre-condition of its unity, as it must certainly first be, before it can be one. Being, indeed, is always an open question beyond the point where our sphere of observation ends. The real unity of the world consists in its materiality, and this is proved not by a few juggling phrases, but by a long and tedious development of philosophy and nature science.

It is not necessary to read this passage more than once to understand that what the Cannonites have written is pretentious gibberish and nothing more. This is not a harsh but a very restrained judgment.

Let us amend this judgment – but only to show how restrained it really is. Let us try to surmount the insurmountable in order to see if any sense can be made out of the nonsense. In other words, are the Cannonites actually trying to say something and if so, what is it? By painstakingly piecing together some elements of the muddle, we may be able to find out what idea it is they are trying to convey.

Our “pluralism,” our “idealistic multiple factors concept” consists in the opinion that “we may have socialism, we may have Stalinism – who knows?” in addition to our opinion that what we actually have in most of the world is capitalism. As the Cannonites put it so devastatingly, we hold that the old “monism” should now be amended to read: “Socialism, Bureaucratic Collectivism or Barbarism.” Whoever says that more than one of these three is actually or theoretically possible in the course of the development of society, sets himself down as a pluralist. So far, so good.

And the monist – what does he say? He says, true monist that he is, true defender of the heart of the Marxist system that he is, true partisan of the perspective of the Trotskyist movement that he is, he says that he holds, without amendment, to “our slogan” and that slogan is (hold your breath, the lights are about to be turned on): “Socialism or Barbarism!”

Blinding light! Pluralism equals three and probably more than three. Monism equals – two. Anyone who does not understand this is an idiot, probably a congenital one. Anyone who disagrees with it, let him beware.

How Marx and Engels Viewed Future

In their first program, Marx and Engels declared that capitalism was a historical society, that it had no basis for permanent existence, that its doom was inevitable, that it would be succeeded by barbarism or socialism. They left us very little of a detailed picture of what socialism would be or what barbarism would be, because they rejected the kind of utopian and unscientific thinking that would try to paint such a picture. As Engels said, “Being, indeed, is always an open question beyond the point where our sphere of observation ends.”

Our sphere of observation today is far more comprehensive than it was in the days of Marx and Engels. It includes the living phenomenon of Stalinism. Stalinism is precisely one of the forms of barbarism which has manifested itself in the course of the decay of a society which the proletariat has not yet succeeded in lifting onto a rational plane. Marx and Engels did not and could not foresee the Stalinist barbarism.

What they could not foresee, we have the duty to see and to analyze. What does this imposing babble about “monism” aim to convey? That Stalinism is not a social phenomenon? That Stalinism is not a reality? That Stalinism is not a material part of the world today? “The real unity of the world consists in its materiality,” said Engels. Stalinism is not socialism and it is not capitalism, but it is nevertheless a material part of the real (and therefore contradictory) unity of the world.

Can barbarism triumph over socialism? Of course it can! Is that triumph theoretically possible? Of course it is! If you deny this, you convert the scientific formula, “Barbarism or Socialism,” into mere soap-box agitation, and demagogical agitation at that. Can the question of the perspective (the prospects) of barbarism “be resolved in a purely theoretical way”? Can the question of the triumph of barbarism “be denied absolutely in advance”? Whoever tries to answer that question in a “purely theoretical way,” whoever tries to deny it “absolutely in advance,” reads himself out of the circles of scientific Marxist thought. He may well remain a socialist, he may well continue to favor the ideal of socialism, but he is no longer fighting for this ideal inasmuch as he has denied theoretically and absolutely and in advance the very possibility of any other development except socialism. By this denial, he no longer needs to fight for socialism. It will come of itself and its triumph is absolutely guaranteed.

The Struggle as Final Test

In the same sense, is it theoretically possible that bureaucratic collectivism – the Stalinist barbarism – can triumph over capitalism? Of course it is. Can this triumph be denied absolutely in advance? Not by Marxists! But far, far more important than this is our conclusion that the perspective (again, the prospects) of capitalism and socialism and Stalinism can be resolved only in struggle. How else? Whoever believes that the perspective is automatically guaranteed (one way or another) by some sort of mysterious natural process which unfolds without the decisive and determining intervention of the living struggle of the classes – there is the man who has rejected the heart of Marxism and committed the most serious break possible with Marxism. He belongs among those philosophers for whom Marx had such scorn because they only contemplate or analyze the world, but do nothing – or find no need to do anything – to change it. If he nevertheless calls himself a Marxist, he would do well to reflect on the teachings of the old masters on this vital point.

“The question if objective truth is possible to human thought,” Marx wrote in his famous second thesis on Feuerbach, “is not a theoretical but a practical question. In practice man must prove the truth, that is, the reality and force, the this-sidedness of his thought. The dispute as to the reality or unreality of a thought, which isolates itself from the praxis is a purely scholastic question.” (Appendix to Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach, etc., Vienna 1927, pp. 73f.)

The necessity or, if you like, the inevitability, of socialism is demonstrable only in “praxis,” that is, it is a matter that can be resolved only in the course of the class struggle.

“The empiricism of observation alone can never sufficiently prove necessity. Post hoc, but not proctor hoc (Enz, I, 84). This is so very correct that it does not follow from the constant rise of the morning sun that it will rise again tomorrow, and in actuality we know now that a moment will come when the morning sun does not rise. But the proof of necessity lies in human activity, in experiment, in labor; if I can do this post hoc, it becomes identical with the proctor hoc.” (Engels, Dialektik und Natur, Marx-Engels Archiv, Vol. II, p. 282)

It would be instructive to learn from our authors, who seem determined to make monism synonymous with mumbo-jumbo, just how, in their view, the perspective of Stalinism will be resolved. If it is not to be resolved, as we say, “only in struggle” (or, as the early Marxists would say, in praxis), then we must conclude that the fate of Stalinism will be resolved theoretically or by some other pure and simple thought processes. Alas, if the doom of Stalinism depended only. on the thought processes and in general upon the theoretical wisdom of the Cannonites, a bright future might well be guaranteed for it.

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Last updated on 27 May 2017