Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 7 No. 2


The Fate of the Russian Revolution

Sean Matgamna (ed.)
The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, Volume 1
Phoenix Press, London, 1998, pp603, £16.99

We present two reviews of this important collection, the first by Barry Finger, the second by Jim Higgins.

THE purpose of this ambitious volume is to acquaint the Socialist public with the living political legacy of the Workers Party/Independent Socialist League. A Marxist tendency which never amounted to more than a few hundred members, which endured for less than 20 years, and which led no revolutionary insurrections, the WP/ISL nevertheless bridged the gap between the epoch of the Bolshevik revolution and the retrogressive collectivist epoch which followed from its defeat. It germinated as a minority tendency within the Trotskyist movement, and came fully into its own by formulating an unabashed and full-throated defence of revolutionary Socialism, free of the fatuous and still fashionable insistence that Stalinism was the inevitable outcome of Leninism, and offered the struggle against Stalinism, in the words of Max Shachtman, the leading political personality of the movement, ‘a theoretically unassailable basis and a political program that rested on international Socialism’. In an age in which the ‘general idea of Socialism’ is still invariably linked in the public mind with the fate of the Soviet Union, they stood alone in categorically rejecting the notion that what went awry was simply the results of ‘mistakes’, ‘serious errors’ or even ‘crimes’, and went on decisively to dismiss the notion that Stalinist Russia was any kind of workers’ state, degenerated or otherwise.

That these remonstrations remain largely unheeded and unassimilated explains to no small extent why the pall of the lunatic asylum hangs over the remnants of the Socialist movement. The endless, unintentionally self-mocking pronunciations of the ‘crisis of capitalism’ issued in the teeth not only of Socialism’s own unrelieved political failures, but against its own deepening moral and theoretical bankruptcies, is unwitting testimony to the continued relevance of the ground-breaking work of the ‘Shachtmanites’, for the larger failures of Socialism are attributable to issues other than that of mere inadequate reality contact. The heroic political failures of the oppressed and exploited are, after all, forgivable. The unbroken record of complicity of the non-Stalinist left in making alibis for, rationalising and defending totalitarian barbarism to the oppressed and the exploited – whilst coyly holding its nose, a project a bit less heroic – is not.

If Stalinism perverted the most liberating doctrines and noble instincts of humanity into a means of enslavement, and, for a while, marched relentlessly ahead on that basis, the erstwhile non-Stalinists of the left were reduced to wringing their hands and shaking their heads balefully at the dialectical way ‘history’ chose to march forward. And marching forward is exactly what history is said to have done when Stalinism advanced. So insisted not only the soothsayers of the Social Democratic left – the Coleses and Bauers and Dans; yet no more so, and certainly less flagrantly so, than the adepts of post-Trotsky Trotskyism – the Deutschers and Mandels and Cannons. The stormy spectacle of doctrinal hair-splitting and organisational reconfiguration with which official ‘Trotskyism’ greeted Stalinism’s advance measured little beyond the geometrically precise degree of accommodation with which this or that orientation was willing to greet Stalinist imperialism or its national manifestations. Like the vaudevillian lament over the restaurant whose food was so atrocious, and, what’s worse, served in such miserly portions, Trotsky’s epigones distinguished themselves at length by bemoaning Stalinist atrocities, whilst castigating its irresolution whenever a supposed opportunity for expansion was eluded.

That remarkable ambiguity remains the principal impediment in translating non-Stalinist sentiments into something coherently approaching a viable anti-Stalinist theory. ‘Orthodox’ Trotskyism never truly outgrew the faction fights of the 1920s when Marxists considered Stalinism to be a legitimate – if errant and reactionary – faction within the broader Socialist and working-class movement. It never in practice assimilated the evolving dynamic of Stalinism, a dynamic from which was to crystallise a new social organisation of labour serving an historically new ruling class, and held fast instead to a static picture of Stalinism derived from its origins as a petit-bourgeois tendency within Bolshevism. This led the deans of Trotskyism to ‘confirm’ Trotsky’s view that Stalinism was capitulating to capitalist restoration whenever a peasant in Siberia was found to have owned a cow. The initial lessons of the Stalinist Czech coup of 1948? Why, merely additional evidence, according to the American Socialist Workers Party, of Stalinism’s capitulation to capitalism. Was it not after all the Cannonites – and not they alone – who blithely announced just days before the Chinese Stalinist armies were to defeat Chiang, that Mao’s and Stalin’s greatest desire was – appearances notwithstanding – to surrender to Chiang? Of course, after the fact all sorts of additionally fascinating and equally erroneous lessons were drawn.

Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism was necessarily in flux, and Matgamna’s offers the analytically elegant suggestion that rereading In Defence of Marxism in chronological order demonstrates precisely how close Trotsky himself came just prior to his murder in recognising Stalinism’s mutation into a new and hitherto unimagined social order. But it also true that these vague possibilities of historic alternatives other than Socialist revolution, once raised, were instantly dismissed or ridiculed. In the end, I think we are left with the conclusion that Shachtman and his comrades finally parted ways with Trotsky to a degree beyond which Matgamna is prepared to acknowledge. For if politics is the struggle for ‘alternative programmes’, the traditional conceptions of Marxism expressed in the theories and conclusions of Trotskyism were rejected in the search of a new programme within the broad framework of revolutionary Socialist principles. Trotsky distilled the problem of the day to that of the crisis of revolutionary leadership, and he sought its resolution on an international scale. He consistently insisted that the key to developing Russia on a Socialist basis and thereby breaking the stranglehold of the nationalist bureaucracy lay in ending Russia’s enforced isolation. In this he faithfully reflected the perspective of the Bolshevik revolution. What Trotsky was unwilling to concede was not merely that the Stalinist bureaucracy might mutate into a new ruling class, but that it had already largely created a new type of international movement, a new type of imperialism, and a new type of party. Trotsky sought the salvation of the revolution in the defeat of capitalism. Shachtman and his comrades soberly faced the emerging programmatic implications of a new international force operating within the working class, claiming the trappings and traditions of the Socialist movement, which at the same time sought the destruction of world capitalism in terms of its own reactionary bureaucratic collectivist interests.

If history had, in any case, by the late 1930s proceeded beyond the limits of ‘permissible’ speculation, Trotsky’s ‘orthodox’ following could not. Trotsky’s inquiries were not received as the provisional propositions of an unfolding understanding, but as a series of eternally fixed, self-contained truths – the cornerstones of a ‘finished’ programme. Apparent internal inconsistencies and contradictions were ascribed to the subtlety of the historic dialectic. This was less a synthesis than a juggling act, a juggling act, to be precise, where the very foundation of Marxism – the foundation which imbued Bolshevism in its time with an integrated revolutionary content – was simply suspended in mid-air. Thus Stalinism was at once the bureaucratic guardian, or night watchman, of the gains of October, whose privileges were derived from the defence of state industry and the planned economy; the wavering capitulator to capitalism; and above all a bureaucratic growth in the labour movement bisymmetrical with other forms of reformist Socialism, differing only in that it emerged out of and leaned on a workers’ state. All this contributed to the summary judgement of Stalinism as narrow, conservative and provincial – whose economic and social structures were incompatible with imperialist expansion, and whose internal frailties and limited life expectancy precluded its playing an independent historical rôle. Stalinism could only be understood and indeed it was, for Trotsky, the responsibility of Socialists to insist on an understanding of Stalinism solely within the traditional language and analysis of the bipolar world of classical Marxism.

So much the worse for Marxism. For wherever else Trotsky’s investigations led him, he left unquestioned the theoretical viewpoint of the 1924 opposition: that the Soviet Union represented a ‘degenerated workers’ state’, and that the responsibility of the revolutionary Socialists everywhere was to defend that state if threatened by war or intervention. But whereas the revolutionary movement could still make the case in 1924 that, despite draconian inroads against democracy, workers still tacitly exercised considerable control over the conditions of social life through elective bodies in the soviets, trade unions and cooperatives, the consolidation of bureaucratic power extinguished these remnants of revolutionary rule, and in so doing fundamentally transformed the revolutionary responsibilities of the left. The original programme of the left aimed to reform and thereby salvage the gains of the revolution by means of an invigoration, extension and deepening of workers’ democracy; by reining in the bureaucracy, and subjecting it to decisive subordination under party authority. Yet the society that Trotsky fought to revive was simply a different order and conception of humanity than that which he ultimately confronted in Stalinist Russia. And so too did Trotsky tacitly acquiesce to this judgement by dropping the ‘reformist’ strategy – of labouring to redirect the Communist movement, invoking instead the need for a political revolution predicated on a new International.

In this acquiescence lay, tragically, a greater obfuscation. For it had been the inherited understanding of the revolutionary movement that a given class is the ruling class when the entire economic and social structure is in conformity with its mode of production and its social domination, and is not compatible with the rule of any other class. Because the working class is not a property-owning class, its social rule must be bound to its political rule, and therefore cannot exist – in contradistinction to the capitalist class – where it has no political rights. Trotsky, for whom revolutionary Socialism was also inseparable from workers’ democracy, was forced into the untenable position of offering unconditional defence to a society where the political mechanisms of working-class social domination had been irrevocably obliterated and replaced by a socially autonomous bureaucracy. Thus the dilemma: to abandon the cause of revolutionary defencism, or to revise the criteria upon which the judgement of Soviet Russia as a workers’ state had crucially rested. Trotsky – who, better than any contemporary, had demonstrated that Stalinist Russia by reason of its politics, policies and activities, by its internal structure and world strategies, was a mortal enemy of Socialism and the working class everywhere – stumbled disastrously towards the latter alternative.

That this was a provisional judgement is clear from Trotsky’s final essays, as members of the Workers Party soberly pointed out. But for his followers in the SWP majority, the defence of the Soviet Union was now to rest on the existence of nationalised industry and state planning, on juridical forms rather than the (unexamined) exploitative property relations. Socialism was no longer immutably identified with democracy, a workers’ state with workers’ power. Russia was a workers’ state in which the workers exercised their social dominance, as it were, from jail. When Stalinism at the end of the war expanded its domain, by dint of bayonet and coup, Trotsky’s followers initially pronounced these satellites as reactionary police states, incapable of implementing progressive anti-capitalist measures. After their economies were taken under a bureaucratic wing, replicating Stalinist Russia in every essential detail, other, that is, than in having overthrown a workers’ revolution, these same ‘revolutionaries’ demonstrated heretofore unknown abilities for innovative social theory. By this time a bankrupt clique thoroughly permeated by a bureaucratic mentality, Fourth Internationalists declared yesterday’s reactionary Bonapartist police states to be workers’ states of a new kind, deformed perhaps, but the genuine article nonetheless. If ‘workers’ states’ could be fashioned entirely from above and maintained without the participation of the masses and even against their expressed desires – if such transformative measures were ‘progressive’ anti-capitalist actions – the gap between Trotskyism and Stalinism had become appreciably narrowed. Every venue of accommodation could now be thrown open.

The WP/ISL operated from an entirely different understanding. The rise of Stalinism was situated within the broader disintegrative tendencies of interwar society. Unable to resolve the once acute, now chronic problems of mass poverty and unemployment on a capitalist basis through accumulation, unable that is to rationalise the technological advances which capitalism itself engendered, a vacuum was created. The working class, which Marxists have always looked to as that force uniquely qualified to fill that vacuum, proved unable to mobilise its forces and emancipate society. But the imperative to hold society together in an epoch of rampant dissolution required some form of collectivisation, that is some third social force from outside the ranks of capital capable of substituting a new dynamic for the flagging mechanisms of capitalist expansion. That need was answered through the pervasive growth of the state bureaucracy, of bureaucratic controls and regulations supplanting the market as a method of allocating resources and distributing the social product. These tendencies necessarily operated on a world scale, though at different, uneven and hybrid stages of completion. Directed by technocratic and managerial élites – products of capitalism as is the working class, but unable to express their will through the fusion of political and economic democracy, these tendencies could only be realised in the form of minority domination from above. Whatever problems may have been rationalised by the exercise of bureaucratic collectivisation, the resulting social stabilisation was secured without the exercise of any new power or expanded participation of the working masses in the life of society. The means of production and exchange which fell to the disposal of the state under such circumstances could be collectivised, but not socialised.

The rise of the state bureaucracy as a social tendency necessarily operated through different social channels throughout the capitalist world. It had as its precondition, however, the partial paralysis of capital coupled with a pervasive sense of weakness on the part of the working class, a weakness wherein self-awareness – Socialist consciousness – was replaced by bureaucratic dependency. But where managerial elements in the West move in this direction, they are constrained by their direct ties with immediate capitalist interests. As soon as individual members of the bureaucracy acquire sufficient capital, they are reabsorbed into the existing network of class relations. By siphoning off promising members of the state bureaucracy and depositing its rejects therein, the private sector temporises the appetites of the state, and paralyses its effectiveness. The revolving door between the state and capitalist managerial functionaries, to the extent that it remains well lubricated, blunts the rise of an independent bureaucratic class consciousness, and thereby limits the scope of its social vision. Bureaucratic tendencies operating within an existing bourgeois context therefore necessarily operate in contradictory fashion. They bind capitalism together, and to that extent act as the implementors of capitalist interest, whilst bearing the as yet unrealised seeds of an alternative social formation.

The Stalinist revolution was the extrapolation of the existing disintegrative tendencies of interwar capitalism brought to fruition. Post-revolutionary Russia, though revived by the limited capitalist openings of the New Economic Policy, found itself unable to advance by capitalist methods, and yet equally unable to modernise on a Socialist basis due to the enforced isolation of the revolution. Those elements latent in Russian society, technical and professional personnel no longer able to vouchsafe their privileges through service to capital, coalesced to positions of bureaucratic power in a milieu virtually absent of external constraint beyond the enfeebled resistance of a war-weary working class. When these last vestiges of independent, organised working-class power and influence were broken with the bloody suppression of the Bukharinites and the Left Opposition, the bureaucracy was able to constitute itself as a ruling class in every significant sense of the term. This bureaucracy was ‘no longer the controlled and revocable “managers and superintendents” employed by the workers’ state in the party, the state apparatus, the industries, the army, the unions, the fields, but the owners and controllers of the state, which is in turn the repository of collectivised property and thereby the employer of all hired hands, the masses of the workers, above all, included’. The new ruling class administered the property forms created by the revolution, but by transforming them into a vast apparatus of bureaucratic power and exploitation, they drained them of their emancipatory purpose.

The new bureaucratic ruling class similarly wasted no time in modifying in kind the revolutionary world view it inherited. The teachings of Marx and Lenin were scoured and brutally purged of all their inconvenient and dysfunctional mass democratic, revolutionary and working-class features against which a monstrous state-worshipping, soul-crushing caricature was substituted. This new housebroken ideology became, in short order, a powerful ancillary instrument in the perpetual cleansing – and self-cleansing – from the ranks of the Stalintern of any who betrayed even the barest potential for independent thought or action.

Stalinism, which relentlessly waged its political war simultaneously on the national, international and ideological fronts, established itself as one of the most virulently class-conscious and expansive of all reactionary ruling classes. It had its mass movements everywhere, and successfully made a powerful appeal to the wretched and exploited of the underdeveloped capitalist world on the basis, not of its grotesque ideological formulations, but by virtue of its demonstrated commitment to an anti-capitalist programme. Stalinism fostered and distorted the revolt against capitalism, and for quite some time successfully rode its wake. Yet the economic ‘freedom’ that Stalinism offered was nothing but a cynical cover for the brutal reality of another form of oppression and domination. For Communist party leaders and bureaucrats abroad, service in the interests of the Stalinist bureaucracy was the unavoidable means of advancing their own aspirations to become a national ruling class in the image of their sponsors. That is why the WP/ISL held the resolute conviction that such parties were not merely the ideological agents of Stalinism, as Social Democrats are of capitalism. For they, unlike the Social Democrats with respect to capitalism, could not realistically be expected to preserve the organisational independence of working-class institutions under Stalinist conditions. And under capitalist conditions, they could only be expected to wage or participate in working-class struggles to the extent in which the conjunctural interests of the Kremlin were served by such actions. Where Stalinists were aligned with New Deal capitalism, as they were during the Second World War, or where they had limited potential for gaining control over revolutionary events such as in the Paris uprising of 1968, the Stalinist movement advanced or preserved its own interests by sabotaging working-class interests. The Stalinists were, in the oft-repeated phrase of the WP/ISL a ‘reactionary, totalitarian, anti-bourgeois and anti-proletarian current in the labour movement, but not of the labour movement’.

But this already takes us far afield from the subject of Volume One of this compelling undertaking. It can only be hoped that this, amongst other aspects of the comprehensive reconstruction of the Socialist project that the ‘Shachtmanites’ pioneered, can be continued in forthcoming editions. In its time, the WP/ISL aspired to mobilise the third camp in its own name, and under its own political banner, completely independent of the two war camps. Freed of Stalinism as a menacing world force, the vestigial progressive community – there is no Socialist working class, no revolutionary movement as Trotsky or even Shachtman knew it – is today so thoroughly infected by the patterns of bureaucratic thought and habit which are the legacy of Popular Front Stalinism that this volume cannot, of necessity, be directed to them. Its great strength and significance lies as a tool for educating those who aspire to something other than permanent sectarian status at the boundaries of politics; those who intend to engage this broader leftish public with the ideas and ideals of revolutionary Socialism, fully determined to avoid rerunning the last reel of history, and moving on to the next.

Finally, much has been made of Shachtman’s moral and political collapse, as if the politics Shachtman came to adopt in support of the Democratic Party, of the labour bureaucracy and of American intervention in Vietnam were genetically programmed into his revolutionary critique of Trotsky and Trotskyism. This is an all-too-convenient, and equally dishonest, dodge on the part of those unwilling and unable to confront the WP/ISL analysis head on, and who continue to shirk responsibility for their own politics of disorientation. Matgamna deals with this issue pointedly, insisting that the true corpus of Shachtman’s work constitutes a ‘lineal defence, elaboration and continuation of Trotsky’s ideas... as they really were developing at Trotsky’s death’. Whether Matgamna overstates the case for continuity, it is even more true, as Matgamna suggests, that Trotsky’s orthodox followers lived for decades in a fantasy-world existence of their own making. Pitiably clinging to all the tentative, semi-contradictory positions of their mentor, necessarily unable to integrate these positions into a coherent theory, and smugly content to expand upon the mistakes of the past, Trotsky’s epigones became Stalinism’s attorneys – an unbroken political consistency which, unlike Shachtman’s, continues for that very reason to reverberate as their precise political legacy. If the gravitational pull of new class relations ultimately lured the majority of the Trotskyist movement into the camp of bureaucratic collectivism, ‘Shachtman and his comrades kept alive Marxist method, culture, political memory and the aspiration to working-class liberty in the age of political barbarism’.

Barry Finger

Updated by ETOL: 3.10.2011