- TROTSKY'S EVOLVING ANALYSIS
- TROTSKY OF THE PARADOXES
- THE SIGNIFICANCE FOR TROTSKY OF STATIFIED INDUSTRY
- TROTSKY: FEVERISH FLUX
- A NEW ORGANIC SOCIO-ECONOMIC FORMATION "IN ONE COUNTRY"?
- TROTSKY IN THE 1939-40 DISPUTE AND SPLIT
- THE TROTSKYIST SCHISM: THE ORTHODOX AND THE HETERODOX
- OLD ANTAGONISMS AND THE TEST OF EVENTS
- TROTSKY'S AMBIVALENT LEGACY
- THE FALLIBILITY OF TROTSKY
- THE FOURTH INTERNATIONAL AND THE USA'S WAR
- THE PROLETARIAN MILITARY POLICY
- APPENDIX: WHAT DID HAPPEN IN "EASTERN POLAND" IN 1939-40?
- A NEW RUSSIAN EMPIRE?
- THE HETERODOX ON THE USSR IN WORLD WAR 2
- THE ORTHODOX IN THE RUSSO-GERMAN WAR: THE FIRST PHASE
- JULY 1941: A "MINIMUM PROGRAM" FOR RUSSIA AT WAR?
- PROGRAM AND AGENCY
- "TROTSKY'S RED ARMY" IN WORLD WAR 2
- THE SECOND PHASE: THE LENINGRAD DELIRIUM
- THE THIRD PHASE: NATALIA SEDOVA'S FIRST "INTERVENTION"
- "RESURGENCE OF THE SOVIET MASSES"
- 1941-2: TAKING STOCK
- THE FOURTH PHASE: AFTER STALINGRAD
- THE "CLASS SIGNIFICANCE" OF RUSSIA'S VICTORIES
- THE ORTHODOX DEFEND THE VICTORIOUS USSR
- THE WARSAW RISING AND JAMES P CANNON
- NATALIA'S SECOND INTERVENTION
- THE FIFTH PHASE: FREE-SWIRLING CONFUSION
- HOW THE WAR RE-SHAPED ORTHODOX TROTSKYISM
- THE ORTHODOX AFTER THE WAR
- THE REVENGE OF "BUREAUCRATIC COLLECTIVISM”
- WHY THE SHACHTMANITES DECLINED AND THE CANNONITES SURVIVED
- DOGMATIC MARXISM AND APPARATUS POLITICS
- CANNON AND SHACHTMAN
- THE ALLIANCE FOR WORKERS' LIBERTY
- THIS VOLUME, VOLUME ONE, AND VOLUME 3
Part 3: The Orthodox and the Heterodox after the war
BY APRIL 1946 Max Shachtman could comment: “It is hard to find anyone in the Fourth International who will today offer, with any measure of conviction, an argument in favour of ‘unconditional defence’ of Stalinist Russia. Many of the Trotskyist militants in this country and elsewhere, who opposed us vigorously in 1940, are today abandoning this outlived and now reactionary slogan”. The Second Congress of the Fourth International, in April 1948, would officially amend the slogan to the ambiguous and open-ended “defence of what remains of the conquests of October”.
“Others go further in our direction”, wrote Shachtman, “by abandoning the preposterous theory that Russia today represents any kind of ‘workers’ state’... The...’workers’ state’ theory, in whose demolition we are proud to have pioneered, is dying in the Fourth International and there is pretty nearly nobody around with enough belief in it to try to save it”.
But there was no conscious, open, and clear-cut self-correction. The minorities in the Orthodox Trotskyist groups in the USA (Goldman-Morrow), in France, and in other countries, who did slough off the “degenerated workers’ state” formula, and did openly attempt self-correction, were demagogically beaten down with charges of “revisionism” and dispersed. The Trotskyist groups had grown around the end of the World War, but then from 1947 the political climate turned very unfavourable for Trotskyists of all stripes.
The April 1948 Second Congress of the Fourth International defined the East European satellite states as capitalist police states. There, in effect, the Orthodox gave the same answer as the James-Dunayevskaya segment of the Workers Party had given in its definition of the USSR as a fascist state-capitalism. If state capitalism, rather than “degenerated workers’ state” or “bureaucratic collectivism” was true for Russia’s satellites, then it was true for the USSR too. Fetishisation of the “degenerated workers’ state” term for Russia kept them from saying, or seeing, that.
The sorting-out would come in the wake of another startling shift. Exactly 68 days after the close of the Second Congress, a split between Stalin and the Tito Stalinists ruling Yugoslavia became public, complete with mutual vituperation. Untypically among the European Stalinist regimes, the Yugoslavs, at the head of a peasant army during the World War, had taken and held power without any important help from Stalin’s army.
Just a few days after the public Tito-Stalin split, the Fourth International, which had very recently characterised Yugoslavia as a capitalist police state, that is, some sort of fascistic state, wrote an open letter to the Yugoslav Communist Party, addressing the YCP leaders as “Comrades”. It offered “to assist [them] in resolving the present crisis in communism along proletarian and Leninist lines”. Within the next year they would, most of them, decide that the other satellite states – Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania, East Germany, North Korea – were also “deformed workers’ states” and should also be “defended”. The long gestation of full-blown post-Trotsky “Orthodox Trotskyism” was nearly over. The political changes had become qualitative. This was a new political tendency, a hybrid combining strands of Trotskyism as Trotsky had it, of pre-1933 Trotskyism, and of the 1930s “Right Communist” Opposition of Heinrich Brandler, Jay Lovestone, and others, who advocated reform not revolution for Russia.
The difference between the Orthodox Trotskyists, as their doctrine solidified in 1949-51, and Trotsky, was vast. The difference between them and the Workers Party (the Independent Socialist League from 25 April 1949) was now one of two radically different world outlooks. The Orthodox Trotskyists’ jump on Yugoslavia and Eastern Europe ate into everything else in their politics. On Yugoslavia and then China, then North Vietnam, then, a decade and a half later, Cuba, the Orthodox jumped back explicitly to the “reform” Trotskyism before the movement’s decision in 1933 that a new, “political”, revolution was necessary in Russia, and to the “reform” Trotskyism to which they had reverted implicitly and erratically during World War 2 in relation to the USSR. It would be 20 years after Mao conquered all of China before the Fourth International decided that a “political revolution” was necessary. (The SWP-USA had been for a “political revolution” from as soon as it decided that China was a “deformed workers’ state”, in 1955, later than the rest of the Fourth International).
The new reformism vis-a-vis some Stalinist states was not the old “reformism”. The pre-1933 Trotskyist “reformism” meant orienting to the elements of the Bolshevik party, assumed to be still a force despite Stalin’s destruction of party functioning, and still loyal to the ideals of the 1917 workers’ revolution. In a sharp crisis of the system – which the Trotskyists expected to come, and very soon – all those elements would be shaken up. The party would recompose itself, its functioning would be restored, and the bureaucracy could be sloughed off.
There was no equivalent agency in the new “reformist Trotskyism”. It was a matter of advocating reform for states identical in structure to the Russian state in its fully-Stalinised, post-counter- revolution condition. In some instances the reform proposals were addressed as advice to the rulers in the style of 19th century utopian socialists petitioning governments. Yet those who had taken and held power in those states had done so at the head of totalitarian parties and armies that were not working-class in their membership or in any Marxist sense at all. The Yugoslav CP did loosen up its totalitarian rule after 1948, and it made some reforms, but they went nowhere near allowing the existence of a workers’ movement or independent communist organisations. After 1950-1 the Yugoslav CP would back the United Nations (US-led) forces in the Korean war, while the Orthodox Trotskyists backed the North Koreans and their Russian and Chinese sponsors. The Yugoslav Stalinists would eventually denounce the Orthodox Trotskyist Fourth International, which had loudly backed them against Stalin and organised international work brigades to go and help build roads in Yugoslavia, for being too soft on... Russian Stalinism!
In Czechoslovakia, the Communist Party had been a mass working-class party before the Nazis took over. The final act in creating a full replica of Stalinist Russia, in February 1948, was a grim parody of a workers’ revolution, in its way something new in Stalinism: working-class demonstrations, strikes, and other activities were staged and regimented by the Stalinists who had long before acquired real state power as a gift from Moscow. The Militant assessed the Stalinist action as a victory for Czech capitalism: “Stalinists utilise mass pressure to make deal with Czech capitalists” (8 March 1948). In all the world only one Trotskyist organisation thought the Stalinist action in Czechoslovakia good and desirable. The Revolutionary Communist Party in Britain welcomed it in an article in its Socialist Appeal (March 1948), signed by its secretary Jock Haston: “Capitalists routed in Czechoslovakia”. Such was the political chaos that would grip the Fourth International that the people who published that article would also make valid criticisms of the delusions about Yugoslavia which the other Orthodox Trotskyists held from July 1948.
In June 1950 Stalinist North Korea invaded the bourgeois South. It was acting as Russia’s proxy. After December 1950 large Chinese armies fought in Korea. The US and its allies, including Britain, responded to the June 1950 invasion with full-scale war, for which they got the backing of the United Nations, since Russia had temporarily quit the Security Council. The SWP at first responded with a “Third Camp” stance – “Let the Korean people decide their own fate free from US or Kremlin” (The Militant, 3 July 1950). Here too, as at the start of the USA’s war in December 1941, James P Cannon took some weeks to decide what he thought. But then, with an Open Letter to the President and Congress (31 July), he threw the Orthodox Trotskyists behind the Stalinists. Cannon simply redefined the political picture, fading out the Stalinist dimension in Korea. It was not Stalinism but the Korean Revolution, part of the world-wide Colonial Revolution, that confronted the USA and its allies. The technique was familiar from the political performance of the Orthodox during the World War. It was a further turning point in consolidating the new Orthodoxy. In the following three years, up to Stalin’s death in March 1953, the Fourth International would elaborate a world view that expanded the idea of war-revolution that had exercised the Dan Mensheviks, the SWP, and some European Trotskyists, in 1943-5.
World War Three, which many people far from Trotskyism then expected too, would be an international class war. In it, the European mass Stalinist parties would rally to the USSR and lead revolutionary mobilisations as the Russian army marched across Europe to the Atlantic. The Stalinist-led forces would establish systems and regimes similar to those of the East European satellites and the USSR itself. This would be the next, albeit “deformed”, stage of the world socialist revolution. The Orthodox Trotskyists were its advocates by way of their “perspectives” and “predictions” and orientations, which in Europe included entry into the big and authoritarian Stalinist parties of Western Europe.
This new “war-revolution” perspective differed from that of the SWP in 1943-5. It had never been sufficiently clear whether the “Red” Army, or workers roused by it, would make the revolution, but the SWP had talked of the “Red” Army stimulating working-class revolutionary movements that it would not be able to control or repress, and indeed would not want to control or repress, even if ordered to. There was none of that in the 1950-53 war-revolution thesis. The result would not be socialist revolutions beyond the power of Stalin to quell, as the 1943-5 line had it, but Stalinist states set up by the “Red” Army, with more or less local support. The Fourth International’s main leader, Michel Pablo, even wrote speculatively of “centuries” of Stalinist and semi-Stalinist deformed workers’ states (“Where Are We Going?”, SWP International Information Bulletin, March 1951).
IN HIS SPECULATION about Stalinist states covering much or all the world for “centuries”, Pablo came close to defining the Stalinist states as “bureaucratic collectivist”, that is, states of a substantial new type of ruling class. It was what Trotsky had outlined hypothetically in 1939 as a global slave-society, but now re-evaluated as a first wave of socialist revolution. Curiously, Pablo, who separated from the Fourth International in 1963, by the late 1960s had come explicitly to call the Stalinist systems bureaucratic class states. He remained a “defencist” against capitalist imperialism for those states.
In that he merely brought his own publicly-expressed half-thoughts of the early 1950s to their logical conclusion. A number of “anti-Pabloite” Orthodox Trotskyists took an essentially similar course, disguising it from themselves in the idea that “deformed workers’ states” were so sharply distinct from “workers’ states” that the “deformed workers’ state” was a separate stage in history, not necessarily connected to working-class action (and therefore should not be accommodated to in the way that Pablo had accommodated to it around 1950). These were “bureaucratic collectivist” ideas in an ill-fitting “deformed workers’ state” shell, advocated for example by the Grant tendency (Militant, the Socialist Party, Socialist Appeal) and the once-noisy Spartacists.
“Workers’ state”, in this version of “deformed workers’ state” doctrine, signified nothing about the relation of the state to workers, and nothing at all but an encoded expression of approval. The only difference on the level of basic theory between this sort of “deformed workers’ state” doctrine and the “bureaucratic collectivist” idea of the Workers Party/ ISL was a difference of political attitude and of historical evaluation: an attitude of “defending” and lauding and helping along the expansion of Stalinism (because it was historically progressive), as against the WP/ISL’s horrified rejection of it (as a historically regressive totalitarian tyranny). And in that rejection, the WP/ISL, and not the Orthodox, were the Trotskyists.
A sizeable section of the Pablo-Mandel international, the Latin American Bureau, split away in 1962, led by Juan Posadas. Advocacy of the “demand” that Russia and China start the war-revolution came to be one of their central policies. The other Orthodox Trotskyists said that the Posadas group was deranged, and it surely was. When Hal Draper defined the Orthodox Trotskyist Fourth International of the early 1950s as “borderline crackpot”, he erred, if he erred, on the side of restraint and mealy-mouthedness .
The great expansionary wave of Stalinism that ran from the 1940s until it broke in Afghanistan, in Russia’s colonial war of the 1980s, was revolutionary against the bourgeoisie, but also counter-revolutionary against the working class and against all elements of bourgeois democracy and political liberty, that is, against much of the historical achievements of bourgeois civilisation over centuries, not to speak of socialism. The Stalinist revolutions were in no sense or degree working-class revolutions. Under them, the working classes were the immediate victim of repression, labour movements of extirpation, Trotskyists simply of murder. They had none of the characteristics that had led Trotsky to believe that Russia remained some kind of degenerated and degenerating workers’ state.
Thus, in their own way the Orthodox Trotskyists had arrived at a theory of what Trotsky had described in its future projection as “bureaucratic collectivism”, while yet rejecting that term for Russia and the other Stalinist states. They rejected the suggestions which Trotsky had given for reviewing the class character of the USSR in the light of events in World War 2, as they had “suspended” his (and their own) program of political revolution for much of the war. They developed a concept of “deformed workers’ state” that was a new theory of a new form of society, connected only by thin verbal formulae to Trotsky’s theory of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ states”. Trotsky made a well-known joke that even though James Burnham did not recognise the dialectic, the dialectic recognised him. The Orthodox Trotskyists refused to recognise any variant of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, but the theory, in a thin disguise and with pro-Stalinist politics, recognised and took possession of them.
The Orthodox became political satellites of the Stalinist bloc in world affairs – outspokenly so from 1950 and the Korean war. They did not become uncritical supporters of either the foreign or (most of) the domestic policy of Stalinists in power. For the “autonomous” Stalinist states, those not set up by the Russian army, they did as the SWP had done in 1941 with its “minimum program” for defence of the USSR: they advocated “reforms” that would have amounted to a revolution. As in the pioneering model in 1941, these “demands” had their head and executive organs lopped off. The demands – which of course were a form of propaganda in the Orthodox Trotskyist press, aimed at their own milieu – were separated off from the necessary conclusion: a workers’ revolution. On one level they were advice to the rulers to cut off their own horns, claws and tails. They were a species of utopian socialism.
James P Cannon, who was in some ways always better, or trying to be better, than the movement he had educated and miseducated, made a confused revolt in 1953 against some of the trends that the Orthodox Fourth International developed around the ideas of the August-September 1951 Third World Congress. He split the Orthodox Fourth International, accusing the Pablo-Mandel leadership of conciliation with Stalinism; of failing to support the East German workers when they rose in 1953 with demands that the Russian army, which was shooting them, should withdraw from Germany; and of liquidating the small independent Trotskyist groups into the big Stalinist parties. Cannon was in part driven by an internal SWP faction fight with people who claimed to be acting “for Pablo”, and he explicitly refused to “go back to 1940”, or even to the Third Congress of 1951. When one of his comrades, Sam Gordon, argued in a private letter that what Cannon denounced was rooted in the positions of the Third Congress, Cannon responded that they should recognise no major errors as having been made by the Third Congress or themselves. Prestige and calculation of factional advantage ruled then, as they had since Trotsky’s death and always would. The consequence for the “anti-Pabloite” segment of the Fourth International was that they arbitrarily asserted their own picture of reality, as they had during World War 2, and didn’t bother too much with logic, theories, the recent past, or the implications of positions taken or not taken. They cut loose from the theorising of the Third Congress and of Pablo, as earlier from that of Trotsky .
Those who sided with Cannon in 1953 – the British Healyites and French Lambertists – would evolve into the worst regime-ridden, undemocratic, and irrational organisations in the Trotskyist archipelago. In 1979 the SWP itself went the same way, transformed by its own party machine, under new control. It soon expelled almost all the older Orthodox Trotskyists and transformed the group into a semi-Stalinist sect rigidly aligned with the Castro regime in Cuba.
That was not a matter of political logic only, or of the habit of establishing a political line for short-term advantage. It happened, could happen, only because the organisations of the 1953 Cannonite “International Committee of the Fourth International” were under the control of strong bureaucratic machines.
When the SWP and the Mandel grouping reunited in 1963 (minus Pablo), the Healyites and Lambertists rejected the reunification, and went their own, increasingly bizarre, ways. In 1967, the Healyites came out for Mao’s Cultural Revolution – a debauch of wild physical and intellectual wrecking and destruction by “Red Guard” youth controlled by the Maoist army.
The mainstream “Orthodox Trotskyists”, with Mandel, zig-zagged wildly, playing political chameleon to many other political tendencies, Stalinist and non-Stalinist. In the 1950s and most of the 1960s they operated as factions inside social democratic parties and official Communist Parties. Then in the late 1960s and the 70s they grew into sizeable organisations, usually ultra-left, in a number of countries.
From the 1980s, they generally declined. After the collapse of Stalinism in Europe and the USSR in 1991, they officially declared that their “deformed workers’ state”, “post-capitalist society”, or “transitional society” descriptions of Stalinism must be critically reviewed. Their well-known writer, Daniel Bensaid, explicitly repudiated all those formulas. Their summary of their adjustment after 1991 was, however, “new epoch, new program, new party”, which in practice means they have become proponents of building ill-defined “broad left” parties rather than of parties of the type advocated and built by Lenin and Trotsky. In Britain their small group attached itself to George Galloway’s ill-born and ill-fated “Respect party”.
IN THE MID 40S THE SHACHTMANITES REVISED their version of “bureaucratic collectivism” to see Stalinism as a viable world system able to compete with advanced capitalism and likely to supplant it unless the workers first made a socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries. It was, they decided, very urgently a case of socialism or barbarism. Stalinism was barbarism.
They drew sharp, angular, truth-centred but often too abstract lines and definitions – in World War 2, in their characterisation of the mass Stalinist parties, in their trade-union work. In their belief that Stalinist bureaucratic collectivism was a viable alternative to advanced capitalism, they paralleled the view which the Orthodox took, though with a different evaluation, from the mid 1950s. The Heterodox never ceased to see capitalism as in retreat before Stalinism and historically vulnerable to its predatory competition. Stalinism did expand enormously, and was still expanding for many years after Shachtman’s death in 1972. But in the years after World War 2, when Stalinism was expanding into backward countries, capitalism had reorganised itself in its two-thirds of the world, which included the most developed areas, and it began to flourish again. The Heterodox refused to take sides in the Cold War; but they thought and said that the bourgeois West was “better”, economically, socially, politically, and in general civilisation, than the Stalinist East, and they were always under a pressure of political logic to side with “the West” as the lesser evil.
In the decades of capitalist prosperity, their commitment to the working class and its movement subjected their revolutionary politics and perspectives to great pressure. Trade-union routines drained off much of their politics. They were pushed towards going where most of the unions were politically immersed, in the Democratic Party.
Their hostility to Stalinism and to the Stalin-controlled workers’ movements, and their stringent rationalism, deprived them of the sheltering and sustaining illusions and delusions that the Orthodox would repeatedly avail themselves of when they let themselves see the “world revolution” advancing by way of Tito, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, or Castro. The democratic structure of the Workers Party and ISL cut away the sectism that can sometimes scaffold even the most intellectually and politically feeble organisations and enable them to survive and grow. In the 1950s and after, the bulk of the Shachtmanites slowly biodegraded into social democracy.
In the early 1950s, a section of the younger leaders of the group (since 1949, called the Independent Socialist League) – Irving Howe, Stanley Plastrik, Emanuel Geltman, Jack Ranger, and others – hived off to found a new journal, Dissent, which still appears today, after they are all dead. One of them, Irving Howe, would in 1965 produce the best one-volume anthology of Trotsky’s writings. The ISL produced a politically high-grade weekly paper and a quarterly journal. But many of its members dwindled, in their activity, to being mere trade unionists. They were greatly under pressure, from the realities of the American labour movement and its politics, to participate in Democratic primaries when the trade unions did, as they did. In 1958 the ISL fused with the small Socialist Party. Some former ISL people, around Max Shachtman, gained great influence in the Socialist Party. In 1961 Shachtman refused to condemn the CIA-backed invasion of Castro’s Cuba, and the Shachtmanites divided again. Shachtman and some of his long-time close associates, for example Al Glotzer, evolved to backing the US against Stalinism. Shachtman wound up in the Democratic Party; he died in November 1972.
But as long as the Heterodox Trotskyists of the Workers Party and the ISL were alive as a revolutionary political tendency, they did not become in any way or degree supporters of the bourgeois-democratic capitalist system, as the Orthodox Trotskyists became critical supporters of varieties of Stalinism. It took Max Shachtman 21 years of erosion and demoralisation after the death of Trotsky to adopt the same attitude to bourgeois-democratic capitalism that the Cannonites had taken to Stalinism less than 21 months after Trotsky’s death.
Hal Draper, who had disputed with Shachtman over Cuba, produced scholarly books of great value. Some of Draper’s younger co-thinkers linked up with the British IS (forerunner of the SWP), and acted as revolutionary socialists where they could. Despite a dispersal in 1976-7, when pressure from the British IS for greater control broke the American group into half-a-dozen splinters, they continue to do that. But, on the whole, the Heterodox Trotskyist current had withered to very little by the time the revolutionary left revived in the late 1960s, and its legacy has had to be rediscovered in libraries rather than being passed on directly through living political organisations.
If the outlook of the Heterodox was aridly chaste and truth-centred, that of the Orthodox was full of sloppy political and historical fantasies, delusions, and adulterations, and it was polluted by promiscuous association with reactionary regimes.
The Orthodox had the weight of Trotsky’s authority on their side. They presented their ideas about Stalinism as the only consistent development from Trotsky’s (in fact very different) ideas. And they survived for the same reason that the Stalinists did. The Stalinist parties were Stalinist even when their politics were bourgeois-conformist. In Britain, for instance, they were against the Labour Party leaving its coalition with the Tories in May 1945. Even after Labour had won the general election in July 1945 the Communist Party advocated a new coalition that would include the Tories. Even Labour’s right wing was to the left of this Stalinist party! What made the Communist Party Stalinist and prevented its sometimes bourgeois-conformist politics leading to full conciliation with the bourgeoisie was that its core commitment was to the Russian Stalinist state. That kept it in the orbit of Russia, and at odds with the local bourgeoisie, no matter how much the Stalinists became mired in the local bourgeoisie’s politics. So too with the Orthodox Trotskyists: their “defencism” kept them from recoiling from Stalinism towards bourgeois democracy. The Heterodox had no such moorings.
1700 years ago Catholic Christianity fought for supremacy with Arian Christianity. The Arians were rational for their times, severely sensible, impatient with such ideas as that Jesus was god. The Catholics dealt in intellectual gibberish like the Trinity, the idea that god is both three persons and one. They absorbed pagan cults and worshipped local pagan gods as Christian saints. But the Catholics’ myths and monkish fantasies catered for emotional and other needs in their congregations that the Arians could not cater for or hope to satisfy. The Heterodox were the Arians, and the Orthodox the Catholics, of post-Trotsky Trotskyism. The “Catholic” Orthodox, by virtue of their fudging of issues and their revolutionary fantasies and delusions, and their willingness to accept or adapt to alien political movements, were the better equipped to survive in an age of Stalinist expansion and of the widespread credibility of Stalinism even in the political eye of its critics and its bourgeois outright enemies.
A WEEK AFTER TROTSKY’S DEATH on 21 August 1940, a big memorial meeting for him was held in New York. Al Glotzer represented the Workers Party there, but the main speaker was James P Cannon. His speech was printed in The Militant (6 September 1940: p.527 of this volume).
Cannon’s powerful and moving speech for Trotsky was also a clear declaration of what Marxism was to be for the Orthodox now that Trotsky, its eminent practitioner, was dead. It was the manifesto of a new Trotskyism. “The mighty ideas of Trotsky are... a clear guide to action in all the complexities of our epoch, and a constant reassurance that we are right... He worked against time to pour out through his pen the whole rich content of his mighty brain and preserve it in permanent written form for us...”
Marxism was now the texts of Trotsky – and earlier leaders, but primarily of Trotsky, who had unpacked his mind of all it contained and “laid up a literary treasure for us, a treasure that the moths and the rust cannot eat”. Not said, but implied – and it would be the guiding rule for the Orthodox – was the idea that Marxism as a process of scientific investigation had more or less come to an end. Now those whom Cannon himself called Trotsky’s “disciples” had to “apply” Trotsky’s “teaching” (as they sometimes put it). They themselves would, of course, have to pick and choose at each time whatever of Trotsky’s written “treasure” they thought relevant. Marxism was now a set of texts and old analyses, positions, and predictions, for deployment by “Trotsky’s disciples”. They would defend it and construe it in current politics.
Before the 1940 memorial meeting, an attempt had been made to bring Trotsky’s corpse to New York for the ceremony. As well as being an undeserved insult to the Mexican people, whose government had given the live Trotsky refuge, this was bizarre – the idea of a Marxist political event organised around the specially imported carcass or ashes of the great dead man. The American government’s refusal to give permission saved the Orthodox from this mummery, and they had the memorial without the corpse.
More than 40 years later in London, the Workers Revolutionary Party, the organisation (now defunct) that had once been the Cannonites’ section in Britain but had long ago separated from them, somehow got hold of Trotsky’s death mask and used it rather as Cannon had wanted to use Trotsky’s body. They organised a mass meeting at which the centrepiece was the death-mask. It was a mix of showmanship, idolatry, kitsch religion, and all-round mumbo-jumbo.
The WRP had come close to realising Cannon’s ambition half a century later. Cannon, however, did do with Trotsky’s thinking what he couldn’t do with Trotsky’s corpse.
Cannon took on the role of St Peter, to whom Jesus Christ had supposedly said: “Thou are Peter” – his name up to then had been Simon; Peter meant “rock” – “and upon this rock I will build my church”. Peter was, so the Catholic Church said, the first pope, the “vicar on Earth” of the departed Christ. For the Trotskyist movement, Cannon also took a role similar to that played for the “De Leonites” (the Socialist Labor Party) by Arnold Petersen after the death in 1914 of the SLP’s central figure, Daniel De Leon – De Leon’s dogmatising and sterile “vicar on Earth”.
That this was Cannon’s conception of Marxism would be demonstrated again and again all through the 1940s, the formative period of Orthodox Trotskyism. Much of their history in that period was a succession of more or less demented blunders rooted in a fixation on Trotsky’s “predictions” and on verbal formulae taken from Trotsky.
We have seen that Trotsky had said that bourgeois democracy would soon give way in all the combattant states to fascism or authoritarianism. That proved to be not true of the USA, Britain, etc. during the war. It was proved not true in Italy after the fall of Mussolini in 1943, and in France as the Nazis retreated in 1944. But the Orthodox – or most of them: the British RCP was comparatively sensible about it – insisted, and insisted again, long after the actual establishment of new bourgeois-democratic states in Western Europe, that only authoritarian or “Bonapartist” police states could emerge there.
The Orthodox understood Trotsky to have believed that all imperialisms were equally predatory, the British and American as predatory as Hitler’s. Therefore, they concluded, the triumphant USA would treat the European peoples liberated from German rule just as the Nazis had. That conclusion was by 1943-4 far from sensible. Yet long after the war was over, and the Americans were not behaving like the Nazis in Europe, the Orthodox clung to their belief.
Trotsky had predicted that during and immediately after the war there would be mass working-class anti-capitalist risings and socialist victories. That had been a plausible idea before the war, rooted in the experience at the end of World War One; but it did not happen. The war in Europe ended on 8 May 1945 (and in Japan on 2 September). Ah, but had the war really ended? At a public meeting on 4 November 1945, Cannon addressed himself to that question. No, the war hadn’t ended, he said. Only “careless thinkers” believed it had (p.546 of this volume). The Marxists, Trotsky’s disciples, knew better. There was only a pause in the ongoing and unended war. Trotsky’s predictions would yet be proven true. His Marxist foresight would be vindicated.
Everyone, well-prepared and experienced speakers at public meetings too, sometimes gets carried away with an idea, or makes exaggerations. There was a sane and reasonable idea within the ridiculous claim that World War 2 was not over. Many smaller wars continued. Lines were already being drawn for a possible World War 3. But sensible people would see the exaggeration, or have it pointed out to them, and modify or retract.
Not Cannon. Not the “disciples”. When Felix Morrow proposed to have the SWP repudiate the idea that World War 2 was not over, the rest of the SWP Political Committee rallied to Cannon. Morrow’s motion was “factionally motivated”, and therefore it was not necessary to separate the SWP from the idea, expressed by the Leader of the Orthodox in a major public speech printed in their paper, that World War 2 was still going on (p.549 of this volume). Thereafter the broad idea that the war was not over was repeated again and again in The Militant, in a toned-down and not-crazy form. For example, “Only Militant warned ‘There is no peace!’” (16 March 1946). To reassert the idea in some form, while silently retreating from the letter of what Cannon had said, became a point of honour with the Orthodox.
The accumulating effect of this prestige-heavy and politics-light approach to Marxism was to change the public persona of the organisation from one of reasonable Marxists in touch with reality (and, where necessary, with their own fallibility) into one that was quirky, arbitrary, capricious, a little eccentric, sometimes very eccentric. Reading the Orthodox papers and magazines of the 1940s, you get the feel of people not reasoning things through but tacking, trimming, and manoeuvring with “smart” formulations and gambits cut loose from their notional political doctrine and the Marxist framework. You get the feel of agitation-led “lines” and commentaries and not honest or free discussion of unexpected or problem-raising events – of an edifice dominated by apparatus politics and calculations about likely short-term political effect – above all of arbitrariness and caprice.
There was a famous dispute, recorded in Lenin’s What Is To Be Done?, between Lenin and the future Menshevik (and future Stalinist) Alexander Martynov about the relationship for Marxists between agitation and propaganda. Martynov thought agitation and propaganda were separate things that, so to speak, sometimes didn’t talk to each other. Agitation was measured by its results as a “call to action”. Lenin, following Plekhanov, argued that agitation was bound by the theory and basic propaganda of the movement. There could be no such thing as doctrine-free agitation, no separate category of slogans which were “calls to action”. Agitation on specific questions flowed from the basic doctrine and purposes of the Marxist movement, and led back to them.
In Cannon and the Orthodox after Trotsky’s death, for example in their jugglings about Russia, there is a loosening or breaking of the link between agitation (which Plekhanov defined as one or a few ideas reaching a large audience) and propaganda (many ideas, reaching a few), and theory.
On the one hand, the Orthodox sometimes practised daft fidelity to the letter of Trotsky; on the other, when it suited them, they could ignore Trotsky’s reasoning. Not only Trotsky, but also Cannon, had based their assessment of the Stalinist USSR in 1939-40 on the idea that it was unviable even in the short term, and certainly incapable of large expansion. Russia had survived and seized half of Europe. The Workers Party asked the Orthodox: what about that? On this the Orthodox were not at all “Trotsky-to-the-letter” people. They made a joke of it. Shachtman thinks he has a “promissory note” from Trotsky and from History! Ha! Ha! Ha! These were pick-and-choose dogmatists.
One reason for their fixation on, for example, the idea that bourgeois democracy was impossible in post-war Europe, was their own inability to elaborate revolutionary working-class politics based on the same premisses, norms, and methods as Trotsky in unexpected realities. The truth about all dogmatists is that in practice they pick and choose what to do empirically, according to pressures, perceived opportunities or dangers, pet ideas, brainstorms, and then fit dogma to deed. Even when the text-fetishists get hooked in the wheels of a dogma which runs away with them – the idea about bourgeois-democratic regimes being impossible in post-war Europe, for example – on the whole they match dogma to deed, not deed to dogma. Marxism becomes not method and precept but afterthought and rationalisation: apparatus Marxism.
In Orthodox Trotskyism, the tendency over decades came to be for “the party” and what was considered to be good for “the party” to become the all-defining supreme good – to become what the USSR was to the Stalinised Comintern. There are very few things people calling themselves Trotskyists have not done for organisational advantage. Much of the time, for many of the “Orthodox” Trotskyist groups, everything – perceptions of reality, “perspectives”, truth, consistency, principle – is up for “construing” and reinterpretation in the light of perceived party interest. Their “Marxism” is “Apparatus Marxism”: it exists to rationalise what the party apparatus thinks it best to do. The idea of the “finished” or “unchanging” program has sometimes been presented as a barrier to opportunism, but in fact has become a licence for it: any emphasis, extrapolation, or selective reading is justified so long as it remains or can be claimed as remaining within the limits of the barebones formula.
This is “Marxism” with its eyes put out, chained to the millwheel, “Apparatus Marxism”. Apparatus Marxism is a peculiarly rancid species of “Marxism” from which everything “objective”, disinterested, spontaneous and creative is banished. Creativity is incompatible with the prime function of “Apparatus Marxism”: rationalising for “the party” and its apparatus. Creativity and, so to speak, spontaneity, is the prerogative of the all-shaping, suck-it-and-see empirical citizens who staff the “Party” apparatus. Everything is thereby turned on its head. The history of the Orthodox Trotskyist, or Cannonite, organisations is a story shaped by this conception of the relationship of Marxism to “the revolutionary party” – as a handmaiden of the apparatus.
“Apparatus Marxism” is both blind and sterile because it is not and cannot be a guide to honest analysis and to practice consistent with theory. It exists to rationalise a practice that is in fact guided by something else – usually, the perceived advantage of the organisation. For Marxists, the unity of theory and practice means that practice is guided by theory, a theory constantly replenished and sometimes modified by experience. In “Apparatus Marxism”, the proper relationship of theory to practice and of practice to theory is inverted.
Our predominant Marxist culture today is largely made up of the various “Apparatus Marxisms”, protected, as behind high tariff walls, by the “party” regimes they serve. Demurrers or questioners of cloistered certainties are inimical to that culture, which, progressively over the 1940s, reshaped the Orthodox Trotskyists and their policies. James P Cannon was the Zinovievist cuckoo in Trotsky’s small nest. It was not all negative Zinovievism. Cannon stood for a serious attitude to organisation, and that was necessary. But the Zinovievism eventually, as Cannon himself seems ruefully to have recognised in the 1960s, “strangled the party” (p.621, this volume). Grown fully, and without Trotsky restraining him, Cannon bit off the heads of a lot of the smaller birds in the nest or pushed them out. With Trotsky’s help in 1939-40, he tried to bite off the head of some of the bigger birds: in the first place Shachtman. He “bumped off” a succession of leading SWP intellectuals in 1939-40 (Shachtman and others), 1943-6 (Morrow, Goldman, van Heijenoort), and 1952-4 (Cochran, Braverman), until he had left only the Cannon cultists, George Novack and Joseph Hansen, and, until his death in 1956, John G Wright, who was certainly a patronised member of Cannon’s inner circle. Cannon, again and again, urged that the organisation become “tighter”, more “centralised”. Farrell Dobbs, who succeeded Cannon as secretary of the SWP and served in the post until the 1970s, summarised in 1941 how those close to Cannon had seen the April 1940 split: “the petty-bourgeois minority... tried to force the party to renounce the defense of the Soviet Union. They tried to turn the organization into the shambles of a social democratic debating society” (The Militant, 13 September 1941). Eventually the “tightening” and the “centralisation” squeezed the life out of the organisation.
The question of Cannon’s ascribed pre-eminence in the organisation had been a contentious issue since about 1929. The notion – and it was Cannon’s governing notion – of a fixed “prestige” for certain leaders, and a common leadership duty to maintain it, could not but play a deadly role. Inevitably a leader’s prestige fluctuates. Everyone, even a Trotsky, sometimes makes mistakes, is slow to understand or too hasty or one-sided in response. To try to stop the natural fluctuation of prestige involves putting the judgement, and the freedom to think and express themselves, of the organisation’s members in a bureaucratic straitjacket. It comes to involve falsification of the political records, covering-up, and the stifling of anyone who might politically undermine the leaders’ prestige. A serious revolutionary socialist will practise a politics of truth and honest dealing, and inescapably that involves being unpopular sometimes. That, as they say, goes with the territory. Valid prestige based on honest dealing in politics can come only from having been right on a number of occasions, despite unpopularity. That is the “prestige” which Lenin had in the Bolshevik party, for example. It is very different from prestige based on pretend-omniscience and an eternal bureaucratic struggle to maintain it.
Cannon, in his “Notes on the Party Discussion”, produced during his battle with Goldman and Morrow (SWP Internal Bulletin vol.7 no.2, April 1945), was surely right that “workers will not stay in a kibitzers’ club. They won’t talk back to the articulate smart alecks, and they won’t write letters to the national office, either. They ‘vote with their feet’.” And, certainly, from that must flow some regulation as to time, occasion, and place for discussion, and broad guidelines for the chairing of such discussions in branches. But the gap between “kibitzers” and workers who can gain confidence in abstract debate and attend meetings only by effort against the pressures of social conditions and of long and tiring hours of work, demands not just restraint on the “kibitzers” but a “levelling-up” of the workers by education, experience, and discussion. As Gramsci put it: “Education, culture, the spreading of knowledge and experience – this is the independence of the masses from the intellectuals”. Or again: “Marxism is antithetical to this Catholic position [of an iron discipline over the intellectuals so that they do not pass beyond certain limits of differentiation] ... If [Marxism] asserts the need for contact between the intellectuals and the simple people it does so, not in order to limit scientific activity and maintain unity at the low level of the masses but precisely in order to build an intellectual-moral bloc which makes politically possible the intellectual progress of the masses and not only of a few groups of intellectuals... [This] means working to produce cadres of intellectuals of a new type who arise directly from the masses though remaining in contact with them and becoming the stay of the corset.”
In fact, Cannon offered as solution a levelling-down. What did the “kibitzers” of the 1945 SWP want to discuss? General politics, issues in dispute inside and outside the SWP, current events, Marxism... That such things be discussed by the membership is a necessity for a healthy party organisation. To stifle the “articulate” people who want to discuss those things in deference to new working-class (and other) members – or, with Cannon in 1945, in deference to a hoped-for big “influx of new, politically-inexperienced worker militants” which in fact never came – is to stultify the organisation, cramp the functioning of its cadres, and cut off the development of new worker activists. It is to make discussion of complex political issues into a preserve of an intellectually-privileged caste within the organisation, of just a few leaders (or one leader) and their personal political friends, sheltered from criticism. And a consequence of that is progressively to lower the intellectual and political level of the “top” layer in the organisation itself.
That deadly “dumbing down” could already be seen in the SWP-USA in the early 1940s. It did not eliminate petty-bourgeois intellectuals, and in any case they should not be eliminated; it just added another requirement for entry into complex discussions: selection by or subservience to the leading group, the apparatus, or “the leader”. It led to a lowering of the level of the “intellectuals”: a Wright for a Shachtman, a Novack for a Morrow, a Hansen for a Goldman, or a Dobbs for a McKinney, was not progress. If entirely party-trained intellectuals, without a “petty-bourgeois” (that is, a wide) educational background, are made the ideal, then they are likely to be narrow and one-sided. Cannon’s approach tended artificially to cut the party off from contributions not only from independent-minded but also from better-trained intellectuals. In an apparatus-ruled party, no-one can know or say more than the apparatus and its leader says, or licenses them to say.
John G Wright, who conjured up the “Trotsky’s Red Army” nonsense, was not a negligible man. He translated important texts and wrote some valuable articles. He, like Cannon, was one of the last of the Orthodox to accept the formula that the new Stalinist states were “deformed workers’ states”. Even so, in the early 1940s, he had the position he had in the SWP press by virtue of membership in a clique around Cannon. Novack and Hansen were selected over time, and survived, by dint of their intellectual and political biddability and willingness to operate within limits set by the apparatus, that is, to one degree or another, by their intellectual and political lack of independence and of personal political integrity, in a word, by their corruptibility. The levelling-down and stultifying gradually killed intellectual life in the SWP, and paved the way for the coup in 1979, when apparatus-made and now apparatus-controlling younger leaders revolutionised the organisation from above. They made it a Castroite sect and expelled the remaining veteran Trotskyists (except, notably, George Novack, who remained subservient even to the Castroite “leadership” and apparatus). The smaller would-be Trotskyist groups around the SWP reported in the mid-80s an episode that in its symbolism summed up the whole tragic story. The new SWP leaders threw out Cannon’s personal collection of pamphlets and documents, placing them in a dumpster. When they found interested people with respect for Cannon rescuing the documents, they put a guard on the dumpster until it was hauled away. The paths of artificial prestige sooner or later lead only to the historical dumpster.
Their junking of the “old Cannonism” could happen the way it did – through clique control of the apparatus – only on the basis of further development of the apparatus control Cannon created after the 1940 split. One of the veterans expelled after the 1979 coup, Frank Lovell, described the regime after 1953 like this: “Disagreements that developed within the National Committee were smoothed over and remained unresolved. The leaders in the national office made decisions by consensus and discouraged any general discussion within the ranks of the party about the correctness of their decisions or the best way of implementing them. This sufficed to keep the organization together... But this method tended to have a stultifying effect. It discouraged political initiative and debate”. (Introduction to In Defence of American Trotskyism, FIT pamphlet 1992).
THE HONEST CRITIC of the Trotskyist movement — of both the Cannon and Shachtman segments of it, which are intertwined in their history and in their politics — must remind himself and the reader that those criticised must be seen in the framework of the movement as a whole. Even those who were most mistaken most of the time were more than the sum of their mistakes, and some of them a great deal more. The US Trotskyists, Shachtmanites and Cannonites alike, mobilised 50,000 people in New York in 1939 to stop fascists marching into Jewish neighbourhoods of that city. When some idea of the extent of the Holocaust became public, the Orthodox responded vigorously (and the Heterodox would have concurred): “Anger against Hitler and sympathy for the Jewish people are not enough. Every worker must do what he can to aid and protect the Jews from those who hunt them down. The Allied ruling classes, while making capital of Hitler’s treatment of the Jews for their war propaganda, discuss and deliberate on this question endlessly. The workers in the Allied countries must raise the demand: Give immediate refuge to the Jews... Quotas, immigration laws, visa – these must be cast aside. Open the doors of refuge to those who otherwise face extermination” (Statement of the Fourth International, The Militant, 3 April 1943).
We, the Orthodox – the writer was one of them – identified with the exploited and oppressed and sided with them and with the labour movements of which we ourselves were part; with people struggling for national independence; with the black victims of zoological racism. We took sides always with the exploited and oppressed. To those we reached we brought the basic Marxist account of class society in history and of the capitalist society in which we live. We criticised, condemned, and organised against Stalinism. Even at the least adequate, the Orthodox Trotskyists generally put forward proposals that in sum meant a radical transformation of Stalinist society, a revolution against Stalinism. Always and everywhere the Orthodox Trotskyists fought chauvinism. When some got lost politically, as they sometimes did and do, it was usually because of a too blandly negative zeal for things that “in themselves” were good, such as anti-capitalism and anti-imperialism. We mobilised political and practical support for movements of colonial revolt. French Trotskyists, living in a world gone crazy with chauvinism of every kind, set out to win over and organise German soldiers occupying France. They produced a newspaper aimed at German worker-soldiers: some twenty French Trotskyists and German soldier sympathisers lost their lives when the Nazis suppressed it. The Orthodox Trotskyists even kept some elements of feminism alive in a world in which it was long eclipsed. Michel Pablo, in a French jail for helping the Algerians in their war of independence, applied himself to studying and writing about “the woman question”. Large numbers of people shared the view of the Trotskyists on specific questions and worked with them or in parallel to them. The Trotskyists alone presented and argued for a whole world outlook that challenged the outlook of the capitalist and Stalinist ruling classes. We embodied the great truths of Marxism in a world where they had been bricked up alive by Stalinism. We kept fundamental texts of anti-Stalinist Marxism in circulation.
Read the accounts of the day to day mistreatment of black people in the USA in the mid 20th century — Jim Crow in the South, where blacks had been slaves, segregation in the North, all-pervasive humiliations, exclusions, beatings, mob lynchings, burnings, the systematic ill-treatment of children as of grown-up black people. Work through even a little of that terrible story and you run the risk of despairing of the human race. The Trotskyists, consistently and unswervingly challenging Jim Crow, championing and defending the victims of injustice, showed what they were. To have been less would have been despicable. That does not subtract from the merits of those who did what was right and necessary, when most people did not.
James P Cannon and Max Shachtman, the main representatives of the two currents of Trotskyism, were, in my judgement, heroes, both of them. Cannon, when almost all of his generation of Communist International leaders had gone down to Stalinism or over to the bourgeoisie, remained what he was in his youth, a fighter for working-class emancipation. I make no excuses for the traits and deeds of Cannon which are shown in a bad light in this volume. It is necessary to make and keep an honest history of our own movement if we are to learn from it.
After Trotsky’s death Cannon found himself, and fought to remain, the central leader of the Trotskyist movement, a job which, as the Heterodox said, he was badly equipped politically to do. Moving by instinct and the great tradition of which he was part, he steered a course between what he saw as the twin evils, Stalinophilia and Stalinophobia — as he might have said, between Deutscher and Shachtman. That was a long way from being politically or intellectually adequate. He did the best he could, in a world that had turned murderously hostile to the politics he worked for and the goals he fought to achieve. More than once he must have reminded himself of the old lines, “The times are out of joint. O cursed spite/ That ever I was born to set it right”. James P Cannon remained faithful to the working class and to revolutionary socialism. Such a book as his History of American Trotskyism cannot be taken as full or authoritative history, but it has value as what Gramsci called a “living book”: “not a systematic treatment, but a ‘living’ book, in which political ideology and political science are fused in the dramatic form of a ‘myth’.” Socialists today can learn much from both Shachtman and Cannon.
In his last decade (he died in 1972), Max Shachtman followed the US trade unions into conventional politics and dirty Democratic Party politicking. He took up a relationship to US capitalism paralleling that of the Cannonites to Stalinism of different sorts and at different times. Politically that was suicidal. But those who, again and again, took similar attitudes to one Stalinism or another forfeit the right to sneer and denounce. Shachtman got lost politically at the end of the 1950s; the Cannonites got lost politically, in relation to Stalinism, twenty years earlier!
When Trotsky in 1939-40, living under tremendous personal strain, reached a crossroads in his political life and fumbled and stumbled politically, Max Shachtman, who had tremendous and lasting regard for Trotsky and a strong loyalty to what he stood for, had the integrity and spirit to fight him and those who — Cannon and his comrades in the first place — were starting on a course that would warp and distort and in serious part destroy their politics in the decade ahead and long after. The Prometheus myth has been popular amongst socialists, supplying names for organisations and newspapers. As punishment for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humankind, the Titan Prometheus is chained forever to a rock in the Caucasian mountains and vultures eternally rip at his liver. Shachtman picked up the proletarian fire Trotsky had for a moment fumbled with and carried it forward. Generations of mockery, obloquy, misrepresentation, and odium where it was not deserved, have been his punishment for having been right against Trotsky and Cannon. This book is intended as a contribution to the work of those who strive to refurbish and renew the movement that in their own way both James P Cannon and Max Shachtman tried to serve, and served.
MOST HISTORIES of the Trotskyist movement are what might be called “apparatus historiography”. They are tendentious, selective to the point of distortion or outright falsification. The histories are written for purposes other than providing accurate chronicles or analyses. It sometimes reaches the point that there is very little real history in the stories of themselves and their opponents that some Trotskyist organisations tell.
That was true of the Workers Revolutionary Party of Gerry Healy, now long defunct but once the biggest activist organisation of the revolutionary left in Britain. But not only extremely degenerated organisations fail to provide accurate history. Even honest academic-style efforts such as those of Robert Alexander fail miserably . This volume tries to provide a broader political picture by presenting in their own words the different sides of every dispute it covers. Of course, even then selection can serve to distort. All I can offer the reader is assurance that I have not knowingly held back anything that would change the picture my selection paints.
The reclamation of a true picture of our own history is one of the most important tasks of revolutionary Marxists today – an essential element in reconstituting a viable revolutionary socialism. As with Lenin’s work on State and Revolution, the reanimation of revolutionary Marxism requires that we dig down into our own roots.
The “Shachtmanites” have in my opinion suffered worst in the handed-down history of the revolutionary movement after the death of Trotsky. And yet in the 1940s and 50s they continued and elaborated an alternative strain of Trotskyism from that of the Cannon tendency, whose literature has for most people today and for more than three quarters of a century has defined “Trotskyism”. The historical reputation of the Shachtmanites has largely been defined by the Cannonites’ account of them. Peter Drucker’s biography, Max Shachtman and his Left (1994), and the first volume of The Fate of the Russian Revolution (1998), have opened things up quite a bit in the last two decades, but for many people, still, the very tendentious selection of polemical texts by Trotsky put together by Cannon and his comrades in 1942 under the title In Defence of Marxism has frozen the image of the Shachtmanites. Generations of Trotskyists have been cut off from the ideas of “the other Trotskyists” – and thereby from many ideas of Trotsky himself, major aspects of whose thinking were jettisoned by the Cannonite “Orthodox Trotskyists”. The history of that time is told usually by supporters of the Orthodox. It is told, when it deals with the Shachtmanites, as if the Heterodox were aberrant and the Orthodox were balanced, properly pro-USSR but adequately anti-Stalinist. Pretty much the opposite is true. The Orthodox went prolifically haywire after June 1941. In important respects they ceased to be Trotskyists at all, as that term had been understood before June 1941.
A valuable and honest book like Peter Drucker’s account of Max Shachtman is diminished by the author’s apparent belief that there was, side by side with the WP/ISL, a balanced or more balanced Trotskyism. (He is a member of the Mandelite Fourth International). There surely was not. It is not possible to understand the WP-ISL without a properly filled-in background of the politics and activities of the Orthodox. One can’t be understood without consideration of the other. For the Workers Party in the 1940s and well into the 50s, it is a case of: what can they know of Shachtman, who only Shachtman know? It not possible to clear space for the real history of the two Trotskyisms without demolishing the myths and self-serving misrepresentations of the Orthodox, which occupy the space now.
The story of the Orthodox Trotskyists told in this introduction and in the documents in this book is one of political confusion, bewilderment, inadequacy, and defeat. Of a small political tendency being overwhelmed by events and, despite its revolutionary, working-class, anti-Stalinist best intentions, magnetised by the Stalinist USSR as it conquered and consolidated a great European empire. Of a small political tribe that got lost trying, half-blind, to work its way through the murderous maze of mid 20th century history.
From the standpoint of broad, long-term, impartial history, there is no mystery here, and there should not be much surprise. The Fourth International was a very small political tendency. It was heavily dependent on one person, Trotsky, who was, you could say, a visitor from another world, the lost world of Russian and international Bolshevism. He was removed by the assassin at the decisive turning-point of mid-20th century history. So, soon, were many of his most experienced comrades, victims of Stalin and fascism.
The fate of the Polish Trotskyists in the war is only an extreme example of the fate of the whole tendency. They were targeted by the German and Russian totalitarians who turned Poland into a battlefield and then a slaughterhouse. They were hunted by Nazis and Stalinists, as communists and Trotskyists, as Poles, and (a very large proportion of them) as Jews. Not a single member of the Trotskyist organisation in Poland survived the war. At the end of the war, the Stalinists in Greece slaughtered several hundred Trotskyists. The Nazis had already killed the Greek Trotskyists’ outstanding leader, Pantelis Pouliopoulos. In Vietnam the members of the sizeable Trotskyist organisation were massacred in 1945-6 by the Vietnamese Stalinists, led by Ho Chi Minh. In China, the members of the Trotskyist organisations were killed by the Guomindang or the Stalinists, or put in Maoist jails for decades.
Even before that, the leaders of the Fourth International in Europe were killed as the International was being proclaimed in 1938. Rudolf Klement, a German émigré, was kidnapped and murdered on the eve of the Fourth International congress; his body, without its head, was found floating in the Seine. Leon Sedov, son of Natalia Sedova and Leon Trotsky, and an important leader of the Fourth International in his own right, was murdered in a French hospital in February 1938.
This slaughter was inflicted on a political tendency faced with the theoretical and political conundrums that exercised Trotsky at the end of his life. Many quit in despair, exhaustion, and disgust, or a combination of them. Like the First International, whose centre was moved from Europe to the USA after the Paris Commune, the Fourth had its centre relocated to New York early in World War 2. In Europe, underground Trotskyist organisations continued to exist and fight. All their expectations were proved false, their expectations of Stalinism too. Stalinism survived and prospered and kept its grip on the working-class movement. That shaped everything else.
In other words, this is the history of a movement which suffered a comprehensive defeat. One of the modes of its defeat was that it was, to a serious extent, conquered and politically overwhelmed by Stalinism. In the name of “defending the USSR”, it turned itself into a group of auxiliary frontier guards, albeit highly critical ones. It went into a political and historical blind alley, a cul-de-sac.
That is the story of a historical tragedy. But it is not the whole story. That is what makes the “other Trotskyists”, the Heterodox, so important for the future of revolutionary socialist politics. In parallel to and in polemic with the Orthodox, on issue after issue and in general, they elaborated a politics of consistent anti-Stalinism as well as consistent anti-capitalism. Where the Orthodox built on Trotsky’s mistakes at the end of his life, the Heterodox built on the whole record of Trotskyist anti-Stalinism and anti-capitalism.
The Heterodox too were organisationally scattered and dispersed, even more radically so than the Orthodox. The surprising thing is not their setbacks, but that they were able to do the work they did for two decades and more. Their political legacy, not that of the more numerous and seemingly more successful Orthodox, is the one on which a renewal of revolutionary Marxism is possible.
In history, revolutionary movements suffer defeat and again defeat. That is in the nature of things for movements confronting the entrenched might and power of ruling classes. There are no words of explanation and consolation that can make that historical reality less bitter. But the movement continues, because the bourgeois oppression to which revolutionary socialism is the opposite and the antidote continues. The defeated bear their defeat honourably, and work to prepare the future. Brave young people pick up the fallen banners. They try to learn from the past.
To learn from the past we must know the past. To renew and build on the history of the Trotskyist movement it is necessary to know that history. It is necessary to know the whole heritage; to know that, important as the Orthodox organisations are, theirs has not been the only strand of Trotskyism, or the best. The Heterodox are pivotal in the history of Trotskyism, and in its future. Don’t mourn: study, think, and organise! Or, as James Connolly used to put it: hope, and fight!
THE ALLIANCE FOR WORKERS’ LIBERTY, which had distant origins as “1953”, that is, sharply anti-Stalinist “Cannonites”, made our way to the Third Camp politics of the Heterodox Trotskyist tradition by our responses to successive political events, rather than by way of a sudden conversion. Then we revised our ideas about the history of the Trotskyist movement: we “went back to 1940”, to the parting of the ways of the two main Trotskyist currents. The AWL has for practical purposes, that is, in our political response to events, been in the Heterodox Trotskyist camp since the late 1970s, though some formal explanations and changes of “position” were made later. The Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, and our decision to argue for the withdrawal of USSR troops – alone of Orthodox Trotskyist organisations – is a convenient point from which to date our allegiance to the “Third Camp” tradition. Despite its vicissitudes, and despite the fact that it does not come down to us as a neatly-codified package transmitted by a continuous chain of organisational and intellectual activity, that tradition, and the formulations of its politics form a rich heritage. As well as the political disputes, mistakes, and degenerations, there is also a magnificent record of indomitable devotion and courage in the fight for socialism against both capitalism and Stalinism.
IN THE FATE OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION, volume 1, I assembled key texts of a strand of Trotskyist thinking which had been confined to the archives for many decades, the “Heterodox Trotskyism” of Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, C L R James, Al Glotzer, and others. This volume continues that work of rediscovery. It documents the fact that the characteristic ideas of later “Orthodox Trotskyism” – “objectively revolutionary” Stalinism; socialist revolution by “bureaucratic impulse” or by Stalinists being “compelled” by circumstances; the supposed self-sufficiency of a “party” apparatus with an allegedly “finished” program; the fetishisations of some formulas of Trotsky’s, such as that the USSR was a “degenerated workers’ state” – had developed within a year or so of Trotsky’s death in 1940, though it took another decade for them to develop into a locked-down system. It makes the case that revolutionary socialists today who want to find clean political ground on which to rebuild, in labour movements where seepage from many decades of Stalinism still poisons the ground, must go back to re-examine the old debates and the flaws and lacunae in the political legacy which Trotsky left at his death – back to 1940.
My original plan was to cover all the important disputes and debates that helped form the two basic strands of the Trotskyist movement in one sizable volume. That proved impossible. There will be a third and final volume. Important issues are being held back for the third volume, most notably perhaps on the Trotskyists and the Jewish question in the period of the Holocaust.
In producing this volume I owe much to Martin Thomas for suggestions and insights, for much discussion and argument, for the index, and for pre-print technical work, and to Gemma Short for technical work.
Sean Matgamna, October 2015
We thank Marty Goodman, the Riazanov Library Project, and the Marxist Internet Archive for their work in making many of the texts used here more accessible and available. Source citations for the quotations from Trotsky in the Introduction will be found in The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 1. Most of the other quotations are from texts in this volume: they may include cuts not indicated by ellipses which can be identified from the full texts. The texts have the old usage of "man" for "human being", "he" for "she or he", etc.: that reflects their times, rather than indifference by the speakers and writers to women's liberation.