What were the Communist Parties?

Submitted by Matthew on 16 January, 2013 - 1:48

Mike Wood has spent some years researching the evolution of the Workers Party, the group formed by Max Shachtman and his comrades after the 1940 split in the US Trotskyist movement.

This is a second article reporting the results of his research, following a first published in Solidarity 267, 5 December 2012.

One area of discussion in the Workers’ Party in the 1940s which ran slightly aslant the other disputes was on the nature of the official “Communist”, i.e. Stalinist, parties outside the USSR.

Most discussion in the Workers’ Party in the 1940s was dominated by the dispute with a minority faction led by C L R James, which held that immediate socialist revolution was bursting out all over at the end of World War Two, and that the USSR was state-capitalist.

The majority of the WP held it was “bureaucratic-collectivist”, meaning that it was an exploitative system but distinctly not capitalist. They argued that proletarian revolution in Europe could not happen without a period of re-composition and political rejuvenation of the labour movement, but that all the objective social and economic ingredients for such a revolution were present. They predicted a “democratic interlude” that would be followed by revolution.

The debate on the Communist Parties cut across the lines of that major dispute, though it had connections with it.

The WP considered the CP of Russia to be not a workers’ party of any sort, but the vehicle of a ruling class. But what about CPs which did not hold power?

As early as August 1945 Shachtman, as editor of the New International, wrote that:

“It is increasingly clear that the Stalinists are not merely the agents of the bureaucratic ruling class of Russia. That conception is proving to be too narrow. The Stalinist bureaucracy in the capitalist countries has ambitions of its own. It dreams of one day taking power, and establishing itself as rule of substantially the same bureaucratic despotism that its Russian colleagues enjoy.”1 [emphasis in original]

In one of his very last articles before being assassinated in August 1940, Trotsky had written:

“The predominating type among the present ‘Communist’ bureaucrats is the political careerist, and in consequence the polar opposite of the revolutionist. Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU...”

However, Trotsky also saw the Communist Parties as even more fragile and likely to be swept aside by events than the USSR bureaucracy, which he thought almost certain to be ousted in the course of World War Two by foreign conquest, capitalist restoration, or a new workers’ revolution. The dominant image among Trotskyists of the Communist Parties was as ineffective and capitulatory groups which unfortunately retained a large working-class base but would not fight capitalism. The Transitional Programme adopted by the Trotskyist movement in 1938 spoke of “the definite passing over of the Comintern [the international association of Communist Parties] to the side of bourgeois order, its cynically counter-revolutionary role throughout the world”, and declared that “the Comintern has set out to follow the path of Social Democracy...”

In the end most Communist Parties would indeed mutate into variant social-democratic parties and then collapse. But between times, in Yugoslavia (1945), North Korea (1948), China (1949), North Vietnam (1954), etc., Communist Parties did “attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR”, and mostly by their own efforts rather than by Russian intervention putting them in office.

Shachtman had moved on in October 1943, when he had written that where possible the Stalinists tried to oppose both capitalism and socialism and establish their own rule. The CP would only prop up capitalism, he argued, as a lesser evil where its own power was not assured. In 1943, however, Shachtman also held that in order for a CP to take power in its own right it would need not only to be facing a weak proletariat and bourgeoisie but to exist: “where geographical conditions facilitate not only such overthrow but also physical control by the Kremlin.”2

In January 1946 the Workers Party National Committee voted to take up the call in France for a joint government of the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, and the CGT (the major French trade-union confederation, by then dominated by the CP). France was then ruled by a three-way coalition of the CP and SP with the openly bourgeois MRP, with the conservative Charles De Gaulle as president and arbiter (until 20 January 1946); but the CP and the SP alone had won a majority (282 out of 522 seats) in the Constituent Assembly elections of October 1945.

Now, if Shachtman claimed that the CP was intent, even in France, on establishing “bureaucratic despotism”, then how could the Trotskyists call for them to be placed in government?

The Workers Party National Committee resolution accepted Shachtman’s analysis that the CP was not like the SP, and also argued that the CP was not a workers’ party but simply a party based largely on the working class.

Nevertheless, they argued that the CP would be unable to take power if it were in a government also with the SP and CGT, and as such there was no risk of it using government power against the working class. In the words of the resolution:

“The slogan is not the same, adapted to French conditions, as that put forward by the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917 in advocating a coalition government of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties... In France today, there is involved, as far as the Stalinist party is concerned, not a democratic but a totalitarian party operating as an instrument of the Kremlin and the GPU. Hence we oppose any slogan which means lifting this counter-revolutionary totalitarian instrument into the position of state power in any country... where there is the clear threat of its use of the state police power for the extermination of the independent working class.”3

The slogan, for the NC majority, was the consequence of calling for an end to the coalition with outright bourgeois parties. Any drive for working-class political independence meant a drive to throw the outright bourgeois parties out of government. Without a slogan for the outright bourgeois politicians to be removed from government: “all the other transitional slogans are left hanging in mid air.”4

A substantial minority opposed this slogan in the WP, including Al Glotzer, Hal Draper, Manny Garrett and Irving Howe. They argued that the CP was not a workers’ party, which the NC majority did not dispute, and concluded that socialists could not call for the CP to be put into government.

Whether or not the CP could then take sole power in the state, it would still have additional influence and use it to the detriment of the working class. If the government proposed by the majority were to happen, then: “the difficulties and the hazards of revolutionary operation would most certainly increase”. The CP would be able to use its increased governmental power to gain more influence over the workers, the opposite effect from that desired.

Garrett elaborated in a discussion article for the WP magazine New International in April 1946. Bureaucratic collectivism in the USSR was not able to survive in isolation. In order to ensure its survival the ruling class of Russia would use the CPs to put pressure on governments. This would generally mean a policy of class peace; but where both capitalism and the workers’ movement were weak the CPs would seek power in their own right.5

C L R James and his minority accepted the slogan for a CP-SP-CGT government in France, but with a different set of premises.6 They maintained that the CPs were like the social-democratic parties. Far from attempting to establish systems like the USSR where they gained control, the CPs were cooperating with capitalism to ensure the survival of private property. James wrote of the: “Anglo-American-Russian plan for defending property and privilege”.7

For Shachtman and his co-thinkers, a great deal more ambiguity was present. The NC majority resolution on France presented the CP leadership as an agent of the ruling class of the USSR, despite Shachtman’s earlier article suggesting that CP leaderships would seek Stalinist power in their own right, independently of the USSR.

Joe Carter analysed the contradictions and ambiguities of the majority position in May 1946:

“Does the NC majority hold that the formation of a coalition government of a counter revolutionary anti-working class party (the CP) with a reformist workers party (the SP) would be, what it calls, ‘the first step’ towards the ‘class independence of the French proletariat’?”8 [emphasis in original]

In his critique Carter recalled previously being alone in arguing on the WP Political Committee that the goal of CPs outside of Russia was to establish state power in a form similar to that in the Soviet Union. The leadership’s rejection of this was consistent with the January resolution, wrote Carter, but was not consistent with Shachtman’s new assessment, which Shachtman repeated in an article of May 1947.9

In Shachtman’s book The Fight for Socialism, published April 1946, the Communist Parties were described as the “most reactionary” force in the labour movement.10 After the Second World War the Workers Party decided to make a general rule of backing reformists in the labour movement against CP opponents, and criticised the “orthodox Trotskyists”, the SWP, for not doing the same.

When, in December 1940, Max Shachtman first came to argue that the Soviet Union was no longer a “degenerated workers’ state”, he had accepted that it was economically still progressive compared to capitalism. How could agents of a system more progressive than capitalism be the “most reactionary” forces in a labour movement which contained pro-capitalist forces?

The estimation of the global class struggle was another factor in these disputes. One reason the NC majority claimed in January 1946 that the CP functioned only as an agent of the Stalinist bureaucracy of the USSR in France and would not seek power independently was that it believed that, despite the “democratic interlude”, despite the need for a period of re-composition of the labour movement, in basic social and economic terms working-class revolution was close at hand. Stalinism could not establish power without the strength of the Red Army to directly back it.

However: “If, contrary to this analysis, the Stalinists should now be on the verge of taking state power in France in their own name... the Fourth International would have to... revise fundamentally not only its whole European and international perspective, but also the whole character of our epoch.”11

Maintaining that revolution was a likely medium term prospect was connected, for the majority of the WP, with an analysis of Stalinism as a transitory and isolated phenomenon, the product of the peculiar nature of the counter-revolution in the USSR. Trotsky had suggested in 1939 that admitting another class society than socialism was possible after capitalism would mean seeing that society as the wave of the future.12 The WP majority avoided that conclusion by casting bureaucratic collectivism as transitory and accidental. Carter responded to the NC:

“Because we may have to revaluate our program if and when we are confronted by the ‘reality’ of a completely Stalinised Europe does not contradict the view that such a Europe is a real possibility.”13

Garrett had already argued such a revaluation might prove to be necessary, suggesting that if the Stalinist parties proved capable of taking power it would prove that history had “been deflected from its natural course”.14 Garrett also claimed that Stalinism was not simply a product of the Russian counter-revolution, but was a product of capitalism. A stratum of labour bureaucrats, intellectuals, and professionals attached themselves to the Communist Parties as they saw the possibility of office under a planned but anti-democratic economy. Garrett and Carter designated the CPs as parties with a base in the working class, but not working-class parties.15

In 1941 Shachtman and his co-thinkers had largely accepted Trotsky’s theory that the Soviet bureaucracy was a transitory phenomenon soon to be buried by the coming proletarian revolution. They saw the CPs as agents of that bureaucracy, but not ones that could on their own take power. Bureaucratic collectivism was for them the result of a freak peculiarity of Russian class struggle, not a natural offshoot of capitalism. By late 1947 that analysis of the CPs was slipping.

Bureaucratic collectivist trends existed in capitalist societies, independent of intervention by the USSR. It was impossible to maintain that bureaucratic collectivism was merely a unique and momentary aberration in Russia.

By adding piecemeal to his analysis of Stalinism Shachtman slowly changed his underlying theories and dropped more and more of Trotsky’s 1936 Revolution Betrayed analysis.


1 Editorial ‘Notes of the Month’ in New International 11:5, August 1945, p.136

2. Shachtman, M. ‘The program of Stalinist Imperialism’ in Fate of the Russian Revolution ed. Matgamna, S. (London: Phoenix Press, 1998) p. 336

3.Ibid, p. 3

4.Ibid, p.2

5. Garrett, E. ‘Class Nature of the Stalinist Parties’ in New International 12:4, April 1946

6. Johnson Minority: ‘Statement by the Johnson Minority on the Origin, Character and Perspectives of the Johnson Faction’ in Workers Party Bulletin, 24 May 1946, p. 26-33

7. James, CLR: ‘The Lesson of Germany’, in New International 11:4, May 1945

8. Carter , J. ‘For unconditional opposition to Stalinism! Against the slogan of an “SP-CP-CGT Government”!’ in Workers Party Bulletin, 15 May 1946, p.5

9. Shachtman, M. ‘Stalinism and the Marxist Tradition’ The Bureaucratic Revolution ed. Shachtman (New York: The Donald Press, 1962), originally written 1947

10. Shachtman, M. The Fight for Socialism, written April 1946, available at www.marxists.org/archive/shachtma/1946/ffs/index.htm

11. Workers Party National Committee: ‘Statement on the Slogan of “Socialist Party-Communist Party-CGT Government in France”‘, in Workers Party Bulletin, 22 March 1946 p.3-4

12 Trotsky, L. The USSR in War written September 1939 available at www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/09/ussr-war.htm

13. Carter , op.cit. p.6-7

14. Garrett, E. ‘Class Nature of the Stalinist Parties’ in New International 12:4, April 1946, p.127-8

15. Ibid, and Carter, op. cit.

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