Main ISR Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

International Socialist Review, Winter 1958


A Growing Trend


From International Socialist Review, Vol.19 No.1, Winter 1958, pp.2, 30-31.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


A change in the outlook of an important section of the American radical movement, under way since 1956, seems to us to have reached significant proportions. It is the growth of independent thought among circles long regarded as at least influenced by Stalinism, tolerant of it, or even in some cases under its direct discipline.

Khrushchev’s admissions at the Twentieth Congress of some of Stalin’s crimes started the process. Sincere socialists, who up to then had identified Stalinism and socialism or who had felt that Stalinism must at least be included among the forces favoring socialism, began to check the cause of their error and to study the real nature of the movement that had made a cult of the paranoiac dictator. This has resulted in some reassessments of far-reaching import and more appear to be in store.

The shift has already had important practical consequences, one of the most encouraging being the demonstration in the November elections of the capacity of various tendencies to unite behind socialist candidates despite considerable differences over platform.

Howard Fast’s book The Naked God [1], which reached us too late for review in this issue, is the most articulate and deep-going expression to date of the turn.

We do not see how any one can read this devastating exposure of Stalinism in practice, even Communist party members who still think Stalin had his good points, without responding emotionally to the resolution of the author to speak the truth no matter how ugly or what the cost in personal agony. But from the intellectual point of view, the book has even greater impact, for it records the end of Howard Fast as a “front” figure of the Communist party and his beginning as an independent political thinker.

Unlike the all too many intellectuals who have mistaken Stalinism for socialism and then, upon seeing the hideous side of Stalinism, recoiled from socialism to become defenders of capitalism, Fast remains firmly anti-capitalist and pro-socialist. Similarly he refuses to turn his back on the Soviet Union, remaining a defender of the principle of planned economy. He has declared himself a partisan of the Soviet workers who want to get rid of Stalinism and re-establish proletarian democracy. This partisanship extends to Eastern Europe, emphatically including the workers of Hungary who revolted against the Stalinist regime imposed upon them.

Fast thinks little of the possibility of reforming the Communist party:

“The thin hope that the Party could possibly become humanized under the keen and devastating blows of observant and capable writers, plying their age-old task of speaking their piece with no hold barred, was utterly and finally shattered when Trotsky and the men around him were defeated, exiled and murdered.”

In The Naked God, Fast makes no attempt to examine the economic and social roots of Stalinism. His immediate need is to cleanse himself of the filth in which he found himself, and the personal story he tells is directed above all, it appears to us, to those for whom he holds the warmest respect and affection, the rank and file members of the Communist party. Fast is undoubtedly keenly alive to what these comrades can best appreciate at the moment. But for those ready or willing to probe deeper, the author indicates where they can find material of interest:

“The secret report [of Khrushchev] is central. For years Trotsky was the devil’s own name, and no Communist was permitted to read him, much less quote him. But a few weeks before writing this, I opened Leon Trotsky’s book, The Revolution Betrayed. I had not looked at it for almost twenty years, but its words rang with the terrible timeliness of a commentary on the Khrushchev report written today. Yet the book was published in 1937.

“I care little at this point about denunciations by Communists, but I feel impelled to suggest that the right to challenge me be earned. I defy Communists to read the secret report again, fully, carefully, and then to balance against it Trotsky’s Revolution Betrayed – and having done so, to refute me. As for those who will not read the evidence, their minds are locked and the Party has had its way with them.”

If Howard Fast were an isolated figure, his declaration of intellectual independence would still have great significance, for he is a novelist of integrity loved by millions. But he happens to be expressing the mood of revolt apparent in the entire cultural periphery of the Communist party. The Naked God is not just the cry of an American novelist, it is the voice of the writers who were in the forefront of the Hungarian Revolution and the Polish October.

Fast says what any number of intellectuals in the Soviet Union wish they could say now and which they most certainly will say, perhaps even more eloquently, at the first opportunity. In political context, the document belongs to the developing political revolution in the Soviet sphere and as word of it spreads there it is bound to have its effect on coming events. On the American radical scene its effect, of course, will be much more immediate.

As further evidence of the growing tendency toward independent thought, we would like to call attention to the November issue of the Monthly Review. First, the article by Joseph Clark, who recently resigned from the Communist party. This is the same article that appeared in England in Peter Fryer’s special edition of The Newsletter celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Clark has gone a long way since the Khrushchev report shook him out of his dogmatic slumber as a member of the staff of the Daily Worker. He is aware now of the “terrible, dark side of Soviet development,” of “the repressions, the awful penal camps, the frame-ups” and he is tortured over why he was “blind to most of the evils of Stalinism during the nearly three years I spent in the Soviet Union as Daily Worker correspondent.”

But he has not gone over to the side of capitalism. He is still “impressed by an economic system which not only exists without a stock exchange, but makes far more rapid progress in production than it did when it was blessed with one.”

He disagrees with Milovan Djilas’s position that a “new class” has come to power in the Soviet Union.

“A new bureaucracy? Yes. A degenerative process that set in as socialism was being built in a single, very backward country? Yes. The rise of Stalin to autocratic power and the ruthless deformation of socialist concepts of justice, morality, equality, and freedom? Yes.”

But not a “new class.”

Clark recognizes the brilliance of “Trotsky’s analysis of the rise of bureaucracy in Russia and his forecast of degeneration in the Soviet state,” but disagrees with Trotsky’s slogan calling for the overthrow of the bureaucratic caste. In Clark’s opinion this slogan would be justified only if a new exploiting class were in power in Russia. Clark would be correct in this if Trotsky had advocated a social revolution; but all Trotsky proposed was a political revolution.

The Stalinist slogan of “peaceful coexistence” is still attractive to Clark inasmuch as he does not distinguish it from the socialist struggle for peace.

He is, however, convinced that the industrial development of the Soviet Union provides “a basis for eliminating the Stalinist legacy.”

His position as a whole, as it has developed up to this point, thus clearly makes possible his participation in the struggle against capitalism and Stalinism and for socialism and the regeneration of the Soviet Union.

The editors of the Monthly Review also seem to have taken the plunge. In Forty Years Later, an assessment in the November issue of the Russian Revolution as it stands today, they admit that “The conflict between Soviet theory and Soviet practice is radical and far-reaching.” They underline the contrast between the ideals of socialism and the monopoly of power and privilege enjoyed by the Soviet bureaucracy.

“In short, the Soviet Union is a dictatorship, but not the dictatorship of the proletariat over the old exploiting classes of Marxian theory. Forty years after the Revolution, these classes have disappeared, and the proletariat obviously has no control over the government.”

They are disappointed that more has not been done to moderate the rigors of the dicata-torship. “In all that has happened since Stalin’s death we can find nothing to indicate that the Communist Party, or any of its contending factions, has changed in the slightest degree its view of the proper relation between the people and their leadership.” They think that “leading circles in the Soviet Union” may be “as blind to the needs of the future as the ruling classes of the capitalist countries.”

Editors Huberman and Sweezy then give clear notice of what they are prepared to do:

“If this turns out to be so – and the next few years will almost certainly provide the answer – we shall have to abandon once and for all the optimistic theory of a smooth transition to socialist democracy in the Soviet bloc. In the meantime, we had better get busy and study the implications of an entrenched dictatorship operating within the enormously dynamic framework of a socialist economy.”

In the study of these implications,

“The Trotskyites have come closest to denning the problem correctly, but their solution (an anti-bureaucratic revolution of the Soviet masses) is part wishful thinking and part sheer revolutionary romanticism.”

The Monthly Review editors hope for a process of democratization such as occurred in nineteenth century England when the British masses “gradually wrested an incomplete but nonetheless real democracy from what had originally been an extremely narrow and brutal class dictatorship.”

This is not a finished position.

“We are quite frank to admit that all this is in the nature of tentative suggestions which will need a good deal more thought and testing before they can be accepted as elements of a usable theory.”

What is most significant about the new position taken by the Monthly Review is that it narrows the area of possible political collaboration with the Stalinist bureaucracy while at the same time widening the area of possible collaboration with revolutionary socialists who have broken completely with Stalinism while remaining firm supporters of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union.

The Socialist Workers party, for example, does not exclude struggling for reforms in the Soviet Union; it regards them as by-products of revolutionary struggle, but nothing in its program prohibits it from collaborating with people who believe that the Soviet “masses are not going to revolt” but who also believe that the Soviet masses are capable of pressing forward like the British masses of the nineteenth century. A coalition favoring a modern Chartist movement in Russia would be excellent. Whether such a movement turned out to be “gradualist” or “revolutionary” could be left to the test of events.

One of the components in the American radical movement follows the thinking of Isaac Deutscher. For many members of the Communist party his writings have served as an introduction and bridge to the works of Leon Trotsky whom Deutscher greatly admires but with whom he has expressed differences on key questions, particularly the possibility of self-reform of the Soviet bureaucracy.

Recently Deutscher has begun to modify his differences. In an essay Russia in Transition, which heads a book of the same name, the change is notable. The Hungarian Revolution seems to have impressed Deutscher with the fact that there does exist a power greater than the bureaucracy and one that is capable of moving on its own; that is, the masses. Two quotations will indicate what he is beginning to take into account:

“By far the most important phenomenon of the post-Stalin era is the evident revival of the long-suppressed egalitarian aspirations of the working class.”

“In moments of great crises spontaneous mass movements do run ahead of all political groups, even the most radical ones, and of their programs and methods of action. So it was in Russia in February 1917. The workers then found in the Soviets, the Councils of their deputies, the institutions within which they learned to harmonize impulse and thought, to test conflicting programs, and to choose leaders. Of those institutions Stalinist Russia preserved no more than the name and the dead shells. Yet in the memory of the working class the Soviets have survived as the instruments of socialist government and self-government, the organs of a workers’ state. Even in Hungary, amid all the confusion of revolution and counterrevolution, the insurggent workers hastily formed their Councils. Any political revival in the working class of the USSR is almost certain to lead to a revival of the Soviets which will once again become the testing ground of political programs, groups, and leaders, and the meeting place of spontaneous movements and political consciousness.”

Deutscher’s views warrant the closest attention, despite whatever differences one may have with them, for he is a conscientious observer. As noted, he carries a lot of weight in the American radical movement and a shift in his position can be taken to foreshadow a similar shift among many of his followers. We are sorry lack of space prevents further analysis of his latest writings.

Let us turn from the question of a possible revival of Workers Councils in the Soviet Union to what happened in the November elections in Detroit, New York and San Francisco. After efforts failed to get independent labor candidates representing the broadest possible base, the Socialist Workers party ran its own candidates.

The National Guardian, which enjoys the largest circulation in the radical movement, offered its endorsement of the candidates despite differences it had on planks in their platform. Similar action was taken by such figures as Vincent Hallinan, Muriel McAvoy, Warren K. Billings, George Hitchcock, George Olshausen, Tim Wohlforth of the Socialist Youth Alliance and similar independents.

The top bureaucrats of the Communist party, on the other hand, rejected supporting the socialist candidates and urged voting in New York for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who ran for councilwoman in a lower East Side district, and Wagner the Democratic candidate for mayor.

A sharp exchange over this occurred between the National Guardian and the Worker, with the Worker on the defensive and offering arguments against voting for socialists that made it the butt of some unkind laughter in radical circles.

The vote in San Francisco and New York (the Detroit candidate was eliminated in the run-offs) was not large but it was encouraging, for it demonstrated something that has not been seen in a long time – the possibility of radicals getting together in support of socialist candidates in opposition to the capitalist machines.

Perhaps the most significant vote occurred in the district where Elizabeth Gurley Flynn ran. She and Joyce Cowley, the Socialist Workers choice for mayor, received approximately the same number of votes, a little under 700. Thus the socialist-minded workers in that district demonstrated in the clearest possible way their rejection of the Communist party line and their support of the policy of running socialist candidates in opposition to the nominees of Big Business.

Some 30,000 San Francisco and New York voters registered their approval of the joint election action at the polls. This is a solid enough indication of the approval the whole radical movement felt. In going against this sentiment with their arbitrary insistence on supporting the Democrats, the heads of the Communist party isolated themselves still further from the main stream of socialist opinion.

The evidence, we think, is sufficient to indicate a new mood in the American radical movement, one that offers grounds for a more optimistic perspective than has been realistic for quite a few years. The discussion of programmatic questions aiming at a possible re-groupment of socialist forces, touched off by Khrushchev’s secret report and strengthened by the upsurge of the Hungarian workers, already shows tangible results.


1. The Naked God, by Howard Fast. Frederick A. Praeger, Publisher, New York. 1957. 197pp. $3.50.

Top of page

Main ISR Index | Main Newspaper Index

Encyclopedia of Trotskyism | Marxists’ Internet Archive

Last updated on: 29 April 2009