Beyond the fragments of the Trotskyist movement

Submitted by AWL on 8 September, 2015 - 6:07 Author: Paul Hampton

Why is the revolutionary left today in such a mess? Why are the politics of the SWP, the Socialist Party, the various Fourth Internationals and most of the splinters, grouplets and fragments so incoherent?

When did it start to go wrong for the classical Marxist tradition, which had reached such a flowering with Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolsheviks? And what were the alternatives, the roads not taken or barely trodden, which might help orientate Marxists today in the situation we start from? The AWL’s new book, a second volume of documents from the early Trotskyist movement goes a long way towards answering those questions.

The short answers are clear and deserve repetition. Between 1917 and 1923 working class movements could have taken power into their own hands and built socialist societies across the globe. The rise and development of Stalinism obliterated this generation of worker-militants. Although this was resisted by the tiny band of Trotskyists who remained true to the potential of the Russian workers’ revolution of 1917, after 1940 these forces too succumbed to Stalinist and semi-Stalinist politics.

What was codified as “orthodox Trotskyism” after the Second World War — even those like the British SWP that appeared to different — in fact largely collapsed into Stalinoid totalitarian conceptions of socialism, revolution, the party and much else. This “orthodoxy” displaced the working class from the irreplaceable role as the self-conscious agency for its own emancipation — making Stalinist states, peasant armies, military despots and religious fanatics the substitute “progressive” force — with the revolutionary left reduced to a cheerleading satellite.

This book is part of a comprehensive AWL effort to understand the defeat of the working class and its socialist vanguard in the twentieth century. It is organised around three significant parts:

1. Further documentation and interpretation of the 1939-40 split in the Trotskyist movement;

2. The desperate course taken by the American SWP led by James Cannon during the war, which laid the basis for ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism in the post-war period

3. The alternative course taken by the heterodox, Third Camp forces around Max Shachtman, which continued and developed the classical Marxist legacy of Trotsky into the new period.

Although the book includes other essays and documents of great interest, these three themes organise the texts and shed new light on this pivotal period.


The AWL’s book, The Fate of the Russian Revolution, Volume 1 (1998) included a substantial selection of documents from the 1939-40 split in the American SWP, the most significant Trotskyist group in the world at the time. The new book adds to this record, for example by publishing the set-piece debate between Cannon and Shachtman.

This was a gladiatorial contest that suggests a higher level of political culture at the time on both sides of the debate, something the left tday must learn again if it is to progress.

Long-forgotten documents show the responses of participants to the Russian invasion of Poland, then Finland and later the Baltic states. The divisions between Cannon’s and Shachtman’s factions are shown to be very different to the impression from books such as Trotsky’s In Defence of Marxism, or Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party.

These books present Cannon’s group as the consistent Trotskyists, united in their political assessment of the USSR as a workers’ state and resolute in their political conclusions to defend the USSR. In reality they were heavily dependent on Trotsky’s conjunctural and often mistaken analysis of swiftly moving events, deeply divided themselves between supporters and opponents of those invasions and highly intolerant of engaging the minority politically.

The short term result in 1939-40 was not a rational debate about the expansion of the USSR, its class nature or what political stance to take on its foreign policy. These matters were scarcely discussed adequately at all. Instead there was a botched, truncated debate, with the minority smeared as “petty-bourgeois” and then expelled because it wanted to produce a public bulletin articulating its politics.

This split sparked the development of “apparatus Marxism” within the Trotskyist movement, combining the same political dogmatism and organisational monolithism that Zinoviev had provided for Stalin’s rise to dominance decades earlier. Matgamna argues that 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”.


The Second World War in Europe began with the Hitler-Stalin pact in 1939, but turned with Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941.

The reaction of the “orthodox” American SWP to this attack was to elevate “defence of the USSR” into a justification for illusion-breeding support for the USSR and a left cover for Stalinism.

The book documents the dreadful array of articles supporting in Stalin’s regime, which made a mockery of the anti-Stalinist politics the American SWP claimed to take from Trotsky. The “orthodox” lauded “Soviet patriotism”, arguing that the “Soviet masses” were fighting to defend the gains from the October 1917 revolution, which had long been extinguished. The Red Army’s morale “astonished” its enemies, while “Soviet soldiers fight bravely because they have something worth defending”.

SWP leaders claimed that it wasn’t Stalin’s Red Army, but Trotsky’s! Trotsky had last led the Red Army in 1921, was expelled from Russia in 1929 and then killed by Stalin’s agents in 1940. Trotskyists were incarcerated and murdered in Russia, while the Russian army was purged in the late 1930s. Yet for the “orthodox”, “The name of Leon Trotsky is inseparably bound up with the formation, life and victories of the Red Army”.

Cannon rebuked the party paper’s editors, who had criticised the Red Army for standing outside Warsaw while the Nazi armies massacred the uprising in 1944. This was a million miles from Trotsky and authentic Marxism.

As the USSR turned the tide and defeated the Nazis, it seized large territories and countries. An SWP resolution in February 1946 advocated that workers in Eastern Europe “tolerate the presence of the Red Army” in the name of its alleged help in “the fulfilment of agrarian reform and the stateisation of the means of production”.

As the USSR pillaged war torn Europe, displacing millions, imposing forced labour and its own puppets, the “orthodox” continued to fetishise “defence of the USSR” and eventually to conclude that the Stalinists had made “socialist” revolutions in Eastern Europe — without and against the working classes of those countries. For the “orthodox”, the scratch had turned to gangrene.

The book would be demoralising if all it contained were the dismal journalism of beleaguered “orthodox” Trotskyists in the process of degeneration.

The great virtue of this selection is to show that a vibrant alternative existed at the time, articulating a coherent world view and one that could have helped generate a healthy revolutionary left into the post-war period.

Max Shachtman and his co-thinkers were not only politically astute; they were eminently readable and at times witty political satirists. Thus Shachtman in his debate with the Stalinist Earl Browder finished his contribution by mocking his opponent, previously a CP leader but one that had not been killed by Stalin. Shachtman’s reposte: “There but for an accident of geography stands a corpse”.

In another contribution, Shachtman exposed the nonsense of a “bureaucratic road to socialism”.

He wrote: “I do not believe in the bureaucratic proletarian (socialist) revolution... I reject the concept not out of ‘sentimental’ reasons or a Tolstoyan ‘faith in the people’ but because I believe it to be scientifically correct to repeat with Marx that the emancipation of the working class is the task of the working class itself… But the proletarian revolution cannot be made by others than the proletariat acting as a mass; therein, among other things, it is distinguished from all preceding revolutions. No one else can free it — not even for a day”.

Shachtman exposed the dreadful conflations of Isaac Deutscher, Trotsky’s erudite biographer but a flawed interpreter of his politics. Deutscher was fascinated “by undiscriminating, uncritical and unthought out analogies between the bourgeois revolutions (the French in particular; but never the American, it is interesting to note) and the Bolshevik revolution”. Worse, Deutscher regarded Stalin as carrying out proletarian revolution, albeit in a bureaucratic way. This was the root confusion that shattered the post-Trotsky Trotskyist left in the post-war period. Shachtman asserted that whereas countless social forces paved the way for capitalism, only workers can make socialism.

The book also sets out the kind of organisation Shachtman wanted workers to build. It is integral to the working class, open and democratic. The party determines its line from the careful and constantly revised assessment of reality. Democratic debate is the means through which the party and the class clarifies its perspectives and charts it course. Shachtman propagated a conception of party building close to the original classical Marxist-Bolshevik model and far from the semi-Stalinist sects created by the “orthodox” Trotskyists ever since.

There is more to the book than can be expressed in a short review. It is teeming with debate and political clarity. It articulates the renewal of socialism and warns of the pitfalls. It demands careful reading and repays conscientious study. To revive Marxism, the book both diagnoses the ailment and proscribes the cure.

The debates may appear archaic, but learning from this period in our history is essential for the renewal of today’s revolutionary Marxist left.

The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism

Purchase from our website for £19.99 (+£3 postage), bulk buying discounts available.

Special offer: buy Fate of the Russian Revolution volume 1 with this volume 2 together for £25

Paul Hampton is a socialist in London, and a friend of Workers' Liberty. He is the author of "Workers and Trade Unions for Climate Solidarity: Tackling climate change in a neoliberal world".

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