The Shachtman-Johnson donnybrook

Submitted by martin on 11 May, 2007 - 9:09

By Ernest Haberkern
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I couldn't agree more with Chris Ford's comments on the style in which the discussion surrounding the splits in the Trotskyist movement on the "Russian Question" have been conducted.

Given the pressure the participants were under at the time the polemical fireworks can be understood. After all, even in normal, repectable, bourgeois political debates, where the participants are not, most of the time, facing life or death decisions, the bounds of propriety are often violated.

But we today are removed by these events by almost three quarters of a century. And, while the issues are still pressing, maybe even more so, there is no reason to preserve and revive ancient personal animosities. What is needed is a sober look at the extremely important issues that provoked these debates.

And that is my criticism of Chris Ford's article. While more restrained than most commentaries on the subject, his article still casts the debate in personal terms -- Shachtman/Draper vs. Johnson/Dunayevskaya -- instead of looking at the underlying issues.1) What is more, Draper and Shachtman, like Dunayevskaya and Johnson, were by no means of one mind.

What were the issues that provoked the splits in the Trotskyist movement? They can be summed up under three headings:

1) Is Russia a "workers' state (whatever you think that means)?

2) If you say no to the first question, is this just a return to capitalism or does it represent something new?

3) If you answer yes to question number 2, does that mean that the working class has lost the opportunity to remake society in its own democratic and egalitarian image?

The first members of the Trotskyist movement to raise question number one were, in terms of the debates Chris Ford refers to, none of the above. In 1937 James Burnham in the Internal Bulletin of the Socialist Workers' Party and Yvan Craipeau in Quatrieme International proposed that the movement drop the characterization of Russia as a workers' state because it made no sense. The working class had lost all power in Stalinist Russia and was more ruthlessly oppressed there than it was in most capitalist states. And, in fact, the Trotskyists were the most outspoken opponents of that regime. American New Dealers and Fascists were both cultivating Russia as a possible ally in the run up to WWII.

To characterize Russia as a "workers' state" only confused matters. At this point, according to his recollection, Hal Draper thought the question of theoretical interest but not a "burning issue of the day". Shachtman acted as Trotsky's attorney in denouncing the idea. As far as I know Johnson did not intervene in this debate and Dunayevskaya was still acting as Trotsky's secretary.

With the signing of the Hitler-Stalin pact the question of the character of the Russian state was promoted to a "burning issue of the day". It was not simply the alliance with Hitler that was shocking. Trotsky had predicted it. But what Trotsky did not predict was that the invading Stalinist armies would proceed to nationalize Polish capital, destroy the Polish capitalist class and other property owning classes, while simultaneously destroying all independent working class institutions. What was going on?

The debate that broke out in the American Trotskyist movement bore no resemblance to the schema laid out by Chris Ford and Sean Matgamna. The writers who addressed the issue were: Joseph Carter, James Burnham, Dwight MacDonald, and Max Shachtman. 2)

Carter had been, together with Burnham, one of the first to raise the issue of the character of the new regime in Russia. In 1941 he took the next step. He defined Russia as a new social order, which he called bureaucratic collectivism, in which the state bureaucracy was the ruling class by virtue of the fact that it owned everything. The working class was subjected to an iron rule that even the Nazis could not rival. The most important point for Carter, however, was that this new society based on collectivist property was reactionary as compared to capitalism. Why? Because it was based on the destruction of the working class as an organized class and, as a consequence, had to destroy root and branch all the rights and liberties that the bourgeoisie had won for itself in the struggle against feudalism and absolute monarchy and that the working class had subsequently used to advance its own interests.

Shachtman could no longer defend the proposition that Russia was a "workers' state" but neither could he accept the fact that the working class movement and the Russian Revolution had been defeated. He accepted the notion that Russia was ruled by a new, bureaucratic ruling class but he clung to the notion that, in preserving nationalized property, this class was fulfilling a "progressive" role against capitalism and, to that degree, was still "preserving the gains of the revolution." That is, Shachtman tried to retain as much of the old Trotskyist position as he could without ignoring reality altogether. Trotsky, himself, seems to have been more open to rethinking his position but he was murdered shortly before the debate began in ernest.

Johnson resolved the question by defining Russia as a fascist state. (The New International, April.) There was nothing new. Ironically, this was a return to Trotsky's original position of the twenties which had Stalin restoring capitalism. Burnham, in his book The Managerial Revolution, and MacDonald (Partisan Review, vol. 8 number 3, 1941) both argued that Stalinist Russia and the fascist and New Deal systems represented a new society in which a managerial or bureaucratic class had come to power. In a sense, they were the original defenders of the "State Capitalist" theory although they did not use that term. At this point, there was no hint of an organizational schism over these issues. Shachtman, Johnson, Carter (and Carter supporter Hal Draper) all agreed that in the war, which was the real "burning issue of the day", Russia had to be judged by the same standards as the other belligerents. It was not defending the gains of the revolution. Burnham and MacDonald dropped out of the movement having concluded that the revolution was an illusion.

During WWII the members of the Workers' Party, as the new organization representing the dissident Trotskyists was called, threw themselves into the growing revolt against the attacks on the gains labor had won during the rise of the CIO. Future "Shachtmanites" and "Johnsonites" were both represented in this important but little studied movement. 3) When the war ended there was a brief but very militant revival of the labor movement. Workers' Party militants who had won recognition because of their role in the defeat of the "No Strike Pledge" the labor leadership had made during the war played a significant role in this movement. But the labor leadership soon gained the upper hand. The post-war prosperity that was the result of American capitalism's position as the only industrial power left standing after the devastation allowed concessions that could only have been dreamt of before the war. The labor leadership was able to re-establish itself on the basis of the gains it could now win.

It would be too long a digression here, but I think it can be shown from the extensive documentation of the dispute that what led to the Shachtman vs. Johnson donnybrook was the question of how to adjust to this new reality. In general, and this is very over simplified, the Shachtman supporters looked to a "long march" within the newly militant labor movement. The Johnson supporters tended to place their hopes in a revival of the anti-leadership struggles of the war years. Who was right and who was wrong is a subject for at least one book. The relevance to this discussion is that the "Russian Question" was only a side issue raised to embarrass an opponent in a fight over something else.

That is the point of Dunayevskaya quote in Chris Ford's article. The charge the Johnson people made was that, in adapting to the post war labor leadership, Shachtman and company were abandoning the revolution and accepting the fact that the working class was not going to take power. In their view, the "theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism" was another manifestation of the same thing. Shachtman and company were accommodating to the politically conservative but economically militant labor movement.

In 1941 the Workers' Party, at its founding convention, had accepted Shachtman's position. Johnson voted for it because he considered the Carter position more objectionable. Since everyone, not just Johnson and his supporters, expected a revolution to follow the war, the issue of the precise nature of the Russian state did not seem to be a pressing one. By 1948, when the Workers' Party held its convention most people realized that the revolution was not going to come. Unlike WWI which had ended with no victors, the United States and Russia had emerged as new world powers while the developed states of Europe and Japan were devastated. Stalinist Russia was not going to disappear, it was not going to become an historical footnote. And the labor movements in the developed world, like the liberation movements in the former colonies of Europe and Japan, had to take a position with respect to the new world powers.

It was at this point that Johnson proposed his theory of "State Capitalism" (The New International, January-February, 1946). In his view there was little difference between Russia and the capitalist states. It has to be emphasized that there were many people who used the term "State Capitalism" who did not agree with that assessment. In fact, the problem with the term is that it does not, by itself, really answer the question "is this a new society". And many who used the term found the supporters of Carter more sympathetic.

Joseph Carter had by this time dropped out of politics and Hal Draper wrote the document that was eventually adopted. The progressive character of the Russian economy was a question that could no longer be ignored. Millions of workers in the industrialized world and the former colonies, repulsed by a capitalist system that had produced two world wars and political monstrosities like fascism and Nazism, looked to Russia with hope. Millions more, especially in Eastern Europe but also in the United States and Western Europe, were just as repulsed by the horrors of the Gulag. And liberal defenders of the capitalist system found a working-class audience when they contrasted the relatively vigorous democracies of the west with Stalin's police state. The Draper document emphasized the reactionary character of the new Russian phenomenon but also emphasized that it was a product of the decay of capitalism. To call simply for the defense of "Democracy" against "Totalitarianism" was to ignore the reactionary tendencies in capitalism that engendered sympathy for its rival. Only an independent working class could defend the democratic tradition.

But the document, and the new organization, The Independent Socialist League, that was founded at the 1948 convention, went further. It argued that capitalism itself was undergoing a process of "bureaucratic collectivization". In the document, phrased in the semi-legal jargon typical of the literary genre, this was summed up in a paragraph. But in the newspaper and journal of the new organization considerable attention was given to describing this phenomenon. It was not just the increasing authoritarian tendencies in political life, justified, naturally, by the need to defend Democracy against the Totalitarian threat, that were at play. Even more imortant was the economic merger of the state and the great corporations especially in the growing defense establishment.4) If anything, the ISL emphasized the convergence of the two systems even more strongly than did the supporters of Johnson. But it argued that this was a case of a new, and reactionary, system produced by capitalism's decay. It was not just the same old thing. 5) Most important was the political conclusion. There was no "lesser evil". The working class alone was capable of saving itself and civilization.

There is one point on which the ISL was vague. All of its literature and position papers emphasized that Stalinism depended on the complete suppression of democratic life. It was the only way to keep the working class from organizing. The question then arises: if the capitalist democracies are moving economically in the direction of "bureaucratic collectivism" will it eventually require a state system similar to that of Russia? The ISL certainly paid plenty of attention to the growth of a secret state in the form of the CIA and the FBI, not to mention the growth of a massive military machine with its officer corps commanding millions of career soldiers drawn from the ranks of the working class. But was the complete destruction of democracy as in Russia a necessary final step?

There still is no answer to this question but the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent devolution of the states that made it up has made it more pressing. I don't think anyone can predict the future but certain trends can be noted. The most prominent is the emasculation of the legislature in all the developed countries. Increasingly, even in countries with a parliamentary system like Britain, the legislature is reduced to a rubber stamp and its members to beggars seeking small crumbs of patronage from the real authorities. The Blair phenomenon is a perfect example of this. And the new states in Eastern Europe 6) are clearly moving in this direction. Even the formal representative of the executive branch, the president or prime minister, is chosen not by a party or other representative institution but by the media. The labor movement is reduced to one more "special interests" paying out cash unable to present its own message openly. Behind the scenes the bureaucratic apparatus carries on its work unchecked and, most of the time, unobserved.

On a global scale, institutions like the IMF and the World Bank are run by unelected technocrats who are, except for the occasional Paul Wolfowitz, mostly unknown to the general public. Yet these apparatchiks plan the economies of whole countries in the underdeveloped world, dictating everything from tax and wage policies to import and export rules. The average GOSPLAN official of the thirties was a small businessman by comparison.

Today, under slogans like "globalization" and "modernization" even developed countries are experiencing similar pressures. Organizations like the EU and NAFTA are also planning bodies unsupervised by any elected legislature. While such bodies mask themselves as defenders of "free trade", EU regulations and NAFTA agreements are, in fact, planning mechanisms dictating the most minute details of economic life.

Is a fascist state the final end? Especially in an economic crisis, could this system survive without eliminating all forms of democratic life? We can't predict the future but what is clear is that the current state of "bureaucratic collectivization" is far enough advanced to make a transition to such an authoritarian regime relatively easy.


1. In the best traditions of modern journalism let me make a full disclosure. The Center for Socialist History, of which I am the Director, holds the copyright to Hal Draper's papers and I am in the process of completing his Karl Marx's Theory of Revolution. On the other hand, when I first came around the American Socialist Party in the 1960s Max Shachtman had drifted far to the right. My first contact with him was as part of the audience at a debate over the Kennedy administration's invasion of Cuba. Shachtman was defending that invasion. His opponent in the debate was Hal Draper. There were a few comrades who considered themselves "Johnsonites" but for all practical purposes they were indistingushable from the rest of the "third camp" supporters of the Draper position.

2. Humanities Press published a collection of articles on this and subsequent discussions edited by E. Haberkern and Arthur Lipow. Humanities Press has since gone the way of all flesh and many left wing presses but you may be able to find a copy in your local library and the Center for Socialist History will be publishing a new edition within the year.

3. There is a good account of this movement in Nelson Lichtenstein's doctoral dissertation Industrial unionism under the no-strike pledge : a study of the CIO during the Second World War (Berkeley, 1972). A second edition was published with the title Labors' War at Home: The CIO in World War II, (Cambridge 1982) .

4. There was a series of articles on "The Permanent Arms Economy" which appeared in The New International in the early fifites under the name T.N. Vance. There is also a good book on the subject by Professor Seymour Melman, The permanent war economy; American capitalism in decline (Simon & Scuster, 1984).

5. I should mention, to show how meaningless the Shachtman vs. Johnson debate is, that Shachtman played no role in the debates and discussion over this new position. It isn't even clear that he voted for it. His prominence in the movement, internationally as well as in the US, stemmed from his authority as one of Trotsky's associates in the thirties and his considerable debating talents.

6. The most extreme example of this phenomenon is China where an unbroken stalinist apparatus rules over an economy resembling that of early nineteenth century Britain -- child labor included. In the early nineties the Rand corporation published a study which seriously argued that "the Chinese model" was a better vehicle for "modernization" than that of Eastern Europe with all those crowds of striking workers.

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