Fragmented Trotskyist tradition? Remember CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya too.

Submitted by Anon on 7 May, 2007 - 12:46

By Chris Ford

In Workers Liberty 3/11 (April 2007) it is explained that in opposition to those Trotskyists who defended the USSR as a “workers’ state” there developed another Trotskyist current and for “a whole epoch of world history, they produced a powerful literature that has for that period no equal, nor any near relative or rival.” This current is narrowed to what is alleged to be its “most able representatives, Max Shachtman and his close friends.”

Over and again it has been predominantly articles by Shachtman and Draper, from a specific period of their life, that are re-published. Not only is this sweeping assertion simply not the case; it contributes to the fragmenting of our tradition, particularly when considering the 1940s which is given such prominence.

Contrary to the history as presented, there were other able representatives of critical Marxism within international socialism and the Workers’ Party in this epoch. In particular amongst these absent friends are the adherents of the state-capitalist analysis of the USSR. Notable by her absence is Raya Dunayevskaya, Trotsky’s Russian-language secretary, who broke with him in 1939 at the time of the Hitler-Stalin Pact. She also went with the new Workers’ Party in the USA, developing an extensively researched original analysis of the USSR as a state-capitalist society which she first outlined in 1941.

Separately CLR James had reached similar conclusions and they formed a state-capitalist tendency more commonly known under the Johnson-Forrest Tendency label. They constituted a large section of the Workers’ Party and Dunayevskaya’s work was known internationally.

Yet amidst the array of articles re-published from Labor Action and New International there has been next to nothing of this tendency headed by two of the leading theorists of post-war Marxism. The nearest explanation I can find for this is buried in a footnote way back in an issue of Workers Liberty in July 1996 by Sean Matgamna. Whilst Sean considers CLR James and Dunayevsakya as “the most talented” of the adherents of the state-capitalist school he indulges in little more than abuse, presenting a false micro-history of this tendency concluding:

“The nearest thing to the unreason, mysticism, cultism, pontifical pronouncements and duff philosophising you find in the Johnson-Forest documents and articles of the forties, is the British SLL-WRP in the late 60s and early 70s.”

On reading this hyperbole I consider it rather embarrassing for our organisation. Do we really consider as “unreason”, never mind “megalomania”, such things as Dunayevskaya’s divergence of views with the likes of Tony Cliff and others due to their refusal “to see anything revolutionary in the action of the Jewish masses to rid themselves of British Imperialism”? Or that their perspective that American Marxists should devote their energy to the building of a revolutionary party by winning workers into its ranks, as opposed to the pre-occupation with internal discussion and winning over of groups of Trotskyists from one point of view to another within the party or rival parties?

This type of politics, not uncommon today, which they considered a barrier to the development of a revolutionary party, was linked the lack of revolutionary perspectives. However this penetration into the workers’ movement, they argued, did not mean a lowering but a heightening of the theoretical level of the cadres.

The other area pointed to is that James and Dunayevskaya “shared all the mystifications of the Cannonites about imminent revolution, despite the state of the labour movement and the working class”. Strangely, in the latest Workers’ Liberty such over optimism in the potentialities for socialist transformation are excused in the Shachtmanites. Many critical Marxists suffered from this problem in the post-war period, but this should not detract us from far more positive contributions, and this itself was not the core of the disagreement in the Workers’ Party at the time.

A key feature of Dunayevskaya’s theory of state-capitalism was that they it never separated the analysis of capital from its dialectical opposite, the struggle of the working class. She considered that “from the start of the state-capitalist debate in 1941, my immediate point of departure was not the crimes of Stalin, but the role of labour in a workers state”. The question of revolutionary potential of the working class itself was a key feature of the debates within the Workers’ Party, in which CLR James and Dunayevskaya criticised those influenced and “governed by the theory of ‘historical retrogression’, as elaborated by the IKD (International Communists of Germany).”

Their criticism lay in the problem of a theory which “said that the degeneration of bourgeois society meant also the degeneration of the proletariat. Our conception was the exact opposite. We said that the degradation of bourgeois society was due to the maturity and power of the proletariat”. This debate is not without its relevance today considering the similarities to the influence of post-modernism. (An interesting critique was ‘Historical Retrogression or Socialist Revolution’, by CLR James in New International February, 1946.)

It appears to me that permeating the criticism of CLR James and Dunayevskaya is a certain disdain for the integrality of philosophy to socialism, in particular what has been broadly called Hegelian-Marxism. This unfortunately reflects a rather philistine approach by some comrades, usually voiced as criticism of “mysticism”. This echoes James Burnham who, like the Stalinists, considered dialectical philosophy a “mystical left over” from Marx’s youth. It has been the worst elements in our movement’s history that turned their backs on the dialectical core of Marxism and the Marx-Hegel relationship: from the vulgar materialist and Russian chauvinist, Plekhanov, to the mad Stalinist pseudo-philosopher Althusser. These people hated Marx’s humanism and raged against the so-called “young” or “immature” Marx.

We should recall that Lenin had no such qualms about the importance of engaging with Hegel to come to terms with the collapse of the Second International in 1914. He renewed authentic Marxism by recourse to the Hegelian dialectic. His studies prompted him to conclude: “It is impossible fully to grasp Marx’s Capital, and especially its first chapter, if you have not studied through and understood the whole of Hegel’s Logic. Consequently, none of the Marxists for the past half century have understood Marx!!”

In advice we may take for future issues of Workers’ Liberty Lenin advised one leading communist journal in 1922: “In my opinion, the editors and contributors of Pod Znamenem Marksizma should be a kind of ‘Society of Materialist Friends of Hegelian Dialectics’.”

Despite all his criticism of bureaucracy, Shachtman hypocritically engaged in a variety of machinations to stop Dunayevskaya and CLR James being published. For example only part of her original and painstakingly researched analysis of the USSR was ever published, the first part appearing in 1942, no further writings were allowed publication in New International until December 1946. The record of these shenanigans is well documented. This reached ridiculous proportions with the refusal to publish the first English translations of Marx’s 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and Lenin’s 1914-15 Philosophic Notebooks by Dunayevskaya!

In contrast there were adherents of to state-capitalist theory who received a great deal of coverage in the New International and Labor Action. That is the Ukrainian Revolutionary Democratic Party who published Vpered from 1949 until late 1959, and included some of the most talented Ukrainian thinkers of the 20th century. The URDP was a unique development, being the last such organisation since the Left Opposition comprising actual citizens of the USSR to be established. It included former activists of the revolutionary period and the opposition to Stalin and crystallized around the revolutionary struggle taking place in Ukraine in the 1940s. They developed a prognosis of the future of Stalinism which was remarkably accurate.

It is unfortunate in reading the recent Workers’ Liberty which had such articles as ‘Stalinist Imperialism’ and ‘The new Russian imperialism’ to find that the writings of Vpered so highly respected by Draper and his comrades have unfortunately not been given recognition by our own organisation.

In The Fate of the Russian Revolution despite bearing the name of CLR James on the cover there are only two very minor texts, and nothing of Dunayevskaya, the main theorist of state-capitalism in the Workers’ Party. With regard to Vpered there not one mention of them. Future issues of Workers’ Liberty and volume two of The Fate of the Russian Revolution should seek to transcend our fragmented situation by considering all of the other critical Marxists.

There is a danger in the restricted linear approach outlined in the Workers’ Liberty article “What is Trotskyism? — Our fragmented tradition”, in which all roads lead from 1917 to a specific period of Shachtman, neglecting the decades of work conducted afterwards.

This approach tends to a prism which lacks due consideration of the extensive theoretical developments after the post-war decade, not only by those cited above such as Draper and Dunayevskaya but the Marxist humanists, the Praxis school, IstvĂĄn MĂ©szĂĄros and others. Similarly looking backwards, pre-war theoreticians of Western Marxism seem to receive scant attention.

Chris Ford


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