History of the Trotskyist movement

Submitted by Matthew on 11 December, 2014 - 11:43 Author: Sean Matgamna

By the eve of Leon Trotsky’s death in August 1940, the American Trotskyist organisation, which was by far the most important group in the Fourth International, had split. Two currents of Trotskyism had begun the process of complete separation, but only begun.

It would take most of a decade before the evolution of two distinct species was complete.

For brevity they can be named after their chief proponents, James P Cannon and Max Shachtman. Trotsky’s political relationship to those two currents is one of the things that will concern us here.

There is no question where he stood in the actual split and the events that led up to it — solidly with Cannon. Indeed, he was the main writer on that side of the divide. On the underlying political issues, as we shall see, the picture was far less clear-cut.

And why was this the starting point of two distinct Trotskyist tendencies? From the very beginning of his exile from the USSR in 1929, Trotsky and his comrades had had many disputes about the exact nature, the class content, and the historical implications of Stalinism and of the USSR over which it ruled.

Trotsky broke with the biggest group in the Left Opposition outside Russia — the German Leninbund — in 1929 over their conflicting attitudes to Russia’s conflict with China over the Chinese Eastern Railroad. Trotsky was vehemently on the Russian government’s side.

In October 1933, in a polemical exchange with Leninbund leader Hugo Urbahns, Trotsky had dealt comprehensively with more or less all the political issues concerning Stalinism and its place in history with which he dealt in 1939-40.

1940 was the definitive branching-off of the two Trotskyist roads for two reasons. It was the end of Trotsky’s life, his last word on the subject. And it marked a decisive turn for Stalinism — the beginning of the Russian expansion that would by 1945 see Russia gain control of half of Europe.

Trotsky’s views on Stalin’s Russia, and the programme he had put forward for the liberation of the Russian working class, had evolved and changed as the Stalinist system had evolved and changed. Until 1933 he had thought that the Stalinist aspects of the Russian state could be “reformed” out of existence.

He had postulated, however, a special type of reform. He expected the bungling and irrationally-run Stalinist system to encounter disaster. The bureaucracy would begin to break up; then the party which Stalin had strangled would separate out from the bureaucracy; bring back the Left Opposition, which was confined in internal exile; reconstitute Bolshevism; and take power.

In 1933 he had shifted towards the belief that a “political” revolution would be needed to break the Stalinist dictatorship, though at that stage he still wrote of a resurgent Bolshevik party carrying out a “police action” against the bureaucracy. In 1936 he had deepened and sharpened what he meant by “political revolution”, defining it, de facto, as a full-scale working-class revolution against “the sole commanding stratum”.

In 1936, too, he defined the conundrum of the USSR and state ownership thus: “The means of production belong to the state. But the state, so to speak, ‘belongs’ to the bureaucracy”.

In 1937, in disputes with two members of the American Trotskyist organisation, James Burnham and Joseph Carter and with the French Trotskyist Yvan Craipeau, he had uncoupled the politics of “defence of the USSR” (against an expected assault from the West) from the characterisation of the system as a “degenerated workers’ state”. Assume for the sake of argument, Trotsky had written, that the bureaucracy had become a new ruling class: “When we are faced with the struggle between two states which are – let us admit it – both class states, but one of which represents imperialist stagnation and the other tremendous economic progress, do we not have to support the progressive state against the reactionary state?”

The direction of evolution of Trotsky’s politics on the USSR through the 1930s was unmistakable. He moved closer and closer to abandoning the “degenerated workers’ state” categorisation. At the beginning of the 1930s he was in public a critical defender of the Russian state. By the end he was denouncing the Russian bureaucracy as worse than all the historical ruling classes, and publicly calling for a new revolution against it.

Trotsky’s defence of Russia, and his insistence that it was a “degenerated workers’ state”, were not the result of his being “soft on Stalinism”.

In 1938, in the programme he wrote for the founding conference of the Fourth International, Trotsky said of Stalinism that it was worse than (pre-World-War) Nazism: “Stalin’s political apparatus does not differ [from fascist countries] save in more unbridled savagery”.

From the writing of The Revolution Betrayed (1936) onwards, Trotsky consistently referred to Stalin’s Russia as an oligarchic “totalitarianism”. Indeed, he wrote, “The regime had become ‘totalitarian’ in character several years before this word arrived from Germany”.

At the end of the 1930s Trotsky began to shift from his “fallback” basis for “defence of the USSR” — that, whatever the Russian system was, it was economically progressive. Towards the end he indicated that it was only potentially or conditionally progressive.

In his Open Letter to the Workers of the USSR in April 1940, Trotsky wrote:

“The conquests of the October Revolution will serve the people only if they prove themselves capable of dealing with the Stalinist bureaucracy, as in their day they dealt with the Tsarist bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie...

“The infamous oppressive regime of Stalin has deprived the USSR of its attractive power. During the war with Finland, not only the majority of the Finnish peasants but also the majority of the Finnish workers proved to be on the side of their bourgeoisie. This is hardly surprising since they know of the unprecedented oppression to which the Stalinist bureaucracy subjects the workers of nearby Leningrad and the whole of the USSR”.

And in The USSR in War (September 1939): “In order that nationalized property in the occupied areas, as well as in the USSR, become a basis for genuinely progressive, that is to say socialist development, it is necessary to overthrow the Moscow bureaucracy”.

Even if it was not strictly speaking a ruling class, he wrote (May 1939), the Stalinist oligarchy “contains within itself to a tenfold degree all the vices of a possessing class”.

In the long essay The USSR in War, which he finished in mid-September 1939, he broke radically new ground. For the first time he accepted that the USSR, as it was, without any further counter-revolution to overthrow or modify the regime of the Stalinist counter-revolution against the working class, might have to be reconceptualised as a new and hitherto and unknown type of class-exploitative society.

If the world war produced not the overthrow, one way or another, of Stalinism, but the spread of Stalinist-type regimes across the world, then “it would be necessary in retrospect to establish that in its fundamental traits the present USSR was the precursor of a new exploiting régime on an international scale”.

When some of his American comrades and its factional allies recoiled from such an idea, saying it was “revisionism”, he replied in October 1939 with Again and Once More on The Question of the USSR, in which he dismissed such condemnation as nonsensical know-nothing dogmatising.

“Some comrades evidently were surprised that I spoke in my article of the system of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ as a theoretical possibility. They discovered in this even a complete revision of Marxism. This is an apparent misunderstanding. The Marxist comprehension of historical necessity has nothing in common with fatalism.... [If the working class fails to take power], fascism on one hand, degeneration of the Soviet state on the other outline the social and political forms of a neo-barbarism...”

Stalin simultaneously broke new ground when, on 17 September 1939, with the prior agreement of Hitler, he invaded Poland from the east. His army and Hitler’s met as friends and allies in the middle of Poland, dismembering the country.

“Defence of the USSR” had been seen in terms of a Russia prospectively under attack, on the defensive. Here the USSR was expanding its territory as Hitler’s partner in imperialist rapine and plunder.

Was Russia, then, imperialist? The disputes that erupted around that question were heated, but more about terminology than substance.

At the very start of the Left Opposition against the rising oligarchy, Lenin, from his deathbed, had indicted the Georgian Stalin, whom he urged the party to dismiss as general secretary, for his “Great-Russian chauvinist” treatment of Georgia.

The majority of the peoples of the USSR were not Great Russians, but members of distinct nations. The Bolsheviks, in 1917 and after, had had to tear down the walls of what had been known as the Tsarist “prison-house of nations”.

As Stalinism developed, the rigid bureaucratic centralising power subordinated all segments of the apparatus to Moscow’s control. It thereby made the formal autonomy of the smaller nations in the USSR meaningless. Stalin re-erected, and higher than before, the walls of the old Great Russian prison-house of nations.

All proposals to smash the bureaucracy and revive Bolshevism in the USSR implied freeing the channels of self-determination for the smaller peoples in the USSR.

In 1939 Trotsky called for the independence of a soviet Ukraine. The implications of that call ran right through Stalin’s USSR “empire”.

Trotsky published bitter criticism of Stalin’s invasion of Poland. To those who said Stalin had saved half of Poland from Hitler, he replied that the difference was only between Hitler’s slavery and Stalin’s “semi-slavery”. The invasion was above all an “extension of the territory dominated by bureaucratic autocracy and parasitism”.

Trotsky refused to use the term “imperialism”, but in fact the terms of his refusal conceded that Stalinist expansion amounted to imperialism “in the widest sense of the word”.

“History has known the ‘imperialism’ of the Roman state based on slave labour, the imperialism of feudal land-ownership, the imperialism of commercial and industrial capital, the imperialism of the Tsarist monarchy, etc. The driving force behind the Moscow bureaucracy is indubitably the tendency to expand its power, its prestige, its revenues. This is the element of ‘imperialism’ in the widest sense of the word which was a property in the past of all monarchies, oligarchies, ruling castes, medieval estates and classes. However, in contemporary literature, at least Marxist literature, imperialism is understood to mean the expansionist policy of finance capital...”

When Stalin invaded Finland in November 1939 (after Stalin’s demand for Russian military bases in Finland was rejected), Trotsky again denounced the invasion; but, considering the conflict inseparable from the world war, he favoured the victory of the USSR in Finland. He feared that the Finnish conflict would lead to British and French intervention.

Over Finland, far more than in relation to Poland, Russian expansion was entwined with the question of “defence of the USSR”. Could people who said “defence of the USSR” second-guess the military actions of the leaders of the USSR? Trotsky was highly critical. Cannon was inclined to accept that the military defence of the USSR was the business of those who would know best, the Russian government.

Despite Trotsky’s continuing “defence of the USSR” in late 1939 and 1940, he had taken the giant step of accepting that the USSR, as it was, could be reconceptualised as a new form of exploitative class society.

What if capitalism was in terminal decline (Trotsky was sure it was), and the working class should fail to replace capitalism with socialism, and Stalin’s Russia and Hitler’s Germany proved to be the prototypes of a new world society? That, said Trotsky, would be a slave society. Then the socialists would have to elaborate “a new ‘minimum’ program... for the defence of the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society”.

If Stalin’s system on a world scale would be an exploitative slave society, what was the Stalinist one-sixth of the world, in the USSR? Logically, there was only one answer to the questions posed by Trotsky’s reasoning: Russia was already that exploitative slave society. Trotsky said explicitly that, looking back, the socialists might have to accept that the USSR was already in 1939 the “precursor of a new exploiting régime on an international scale”.

Was there some additional quality which the Russian Stalinist system would get from participation in a worldwide network of similar states? Yes, there was: stability. But in terms of the social structure, and the roles of social groups in it, especially of the working class, Stalinist Russia would remain itself.

Why then did Trotsky reject defining the USSR as already a form of the new order which he saw it as maybe pioneering?

Because it was not stable, not a coherent “order”. “Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall? Posing this question clearly should alone in our opinion restrain the comrades from terminological experimentation and overhasty generalisations”.

The USSR would give way either to a workers’ revolution or to capitalist restoration. The great test would be the world war which was already being fought, and which would reach Russia ten months after Trotsky’s death. The war would decide the fate of the USSR.

To understand fully why Trotsky refused to “affix to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class”, we need to stand back from the immediate situation of 1940.

In refusing at the start of World War Two to classify the USSR as a class-exploitative society, Trotsky stood on the self-same ground as when he rejected the Stalinist theory of socialism in one country in 1924 and after.

One focus of the disputes around the doctrine of socialism in one country was, properly, its immediate political implications. Socialism in one country? So there would be no other working-class revolution in the whole epoch in which socialism was being constructed in the USSR. The Communist Parties throughout the world would no longer work to make revolutions in their own countries. They would function as frontier guards to “defend” and serve the interests of the state in which socialism was being built.

There was also a more profound theoretical reason for rejecting socialism in one country. The programme of working-class communist revolution is grounded on on the level of production attained by capitalism on a world scale. Only that level of production, and what could be developed out of it, would provide a minimum social and economic basis for a socialist society and for abolishing classes.

In a “socialism” in a backward country, confined to its own resources and inevitably severing at least some of its connections with the world market, we would see, as Marx had reasoned: “A development of the productive forces is the absolutely necessary practical premise [of communism], because without it want is generalised, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and that means that all the old crap must revive”.

In the mid 20s Trotsky put forward an ambitious programme of economic development, which the Stalinists and Bukharinites rejected. But the idea that the USSR, in isolation, in parallel to capitalism, could build itself all the way to socialism was a new version, on a gigantic scale, of the projects of 19th century utopian socialists who would set out to create new societies in the wilderness of Texas or some such place.

Marxists argued that socialism would have to develop within capitalism, and be won by one of the classes within capitalism. It could never come from outside advanced capitalism, in parallel to it.

For Trotsky in 1939-40, the idea of the USSR being a new form of class society implied that it was not a freak of history, an “accidental” combination of circumstances, but a relatively stable, “historically established” system.

Trotsky in the late 1930s took it as a fact that capitalism had ceased to develop on a world scale and was in regression — that, short of socialist revolution, a series of world wars and “the eclipse of civilisation”. It was only in such a world of declining capitalism that Stalinism could survive and prosper.

Admitting the theoretical possibility, Trotsky refused to take the step away from his general conceptions of necessary social evolution, which he saw as implied by admitting that the USSR was already solidly established as a new exploitative class society.

That Russia was still a “degenerated workers’ state” was not something Trotsky put forward as a long-term perspective. He did not envisage indefinite Stalinism in one country, or in many backward countries. Anti-capitalist Stalinism could not successfully compete as a development parallel to and on the fringes of advanced capitalism, any more than a working-class “socialism in one country” could.

In The USSR in War Trotsky rejected the idea that the USSR could go on as it was for more than “a few years or even a few months”. (At the end of World War Two, the Cannonites would dispose of things like that with a joke about “Shachtman’s promissory note”).

In the American Trotskyist discussion of 1939, James P Cannon was even more clear-cut than Trotsky in his rejection of the very possibility that Russia could survive and expand without that fact compelling reconsideration of what it was.

“Stalin could take the path of Napoleonic conquest not merely against small border states, but against the greatest imperialist powers, only on one condition: that the Soviet bureaucracy in reality represents a new triumphant class which is in harmony with its economic system and secure in its position at home, etc. That if such is really the case, we certainly must revise everything we have said on the subject of the bureaucracy up to now...” (Letter to Trotsky, 8 November 1939).

Trotsky’s time-frame in his argument about the unviability of the USSR developing as an alternative economic model in parallel to capitalism was vastly mistaken — out by half a century. But his fundamental reasoning was not mistaken.

The USSR, after competing with a revived capitalism for decades, and being drawn into arms competition with the USA which it could not sustain, went down to defeat and destruction.

The dispute in the American Trotskyist movement which saw the organisational separation of the two incipient political currents of post-Trotsky Trotskyism was nothing like as clear-cut as it is almost universally summed up as having been. A summing up of 1939-40 that telescopes the details so that later positions are read back onto those of 1939-40 obscures the complexity of the issues, and of Trotsky’s thinking at the end of his life.

The faction fight in the American Trotskyist movement was focused politically on “defence of the USSR” in the Finnish war, and organisationally on the “Cannon regime” in the SWP, which the opposition defined as Zinovievite (akin to the Communist International in its early years of bureaucratisation).

With not many exceptions, the minority, the future “heterodox Trotskyists”, including Max Shachtman, agreed with Trotsky that Russia was a “degenerated workers’ state”. Shachtman had “doubts”, but Trotsky too had doubts, and expressed them.

The minority agreed that against a big imperialist onslaught the Trotskyists should and would “defend the USSR”.

Much was made polemically of divisions on the Shachtman side. There were internal divisions on Cannon’s and Trotsky’s side too. Those on that side agreed with Trotsky on “defence of the USSR” and on the class nature of the USSR, but, some of them, not with Trotsky’s reasoning. As we’ve seen, Trotsky replied in rebuttal when some of them had rushed to call him “revisionist”.

At the start, when Poland was invaded, Cannon expressed the view that such things were technical questions of defending the USSR, and it was no business of the Trotskyists to comment on the military technicalities. Albert Goldman, who would shift radically in the mid 1940s, moved a motion to “approve of Stalin’s invasion of Poland”, which Cannon as well as Shachtman opposed.

At one point, Trotsky gave credence to stories in the pro-Stalinist wing of the emigre Menshevik press of workers and peasants roused to action against the capitalists and landlords by the advance of the “Red” Army, and therefore thought that the Stalinists might be stimulating an anti-capitalist revolution in the areas they were invading. The minority said that this implied a concept of “bureaucratic revolution”.

Trotsky responded as if someone had thrown acid in his face, with bitter denial and anger. Whatever might be said about what he wrote on Poland and Finland, Trotsky neither meant nor accepted any implication of progressive Stalinist “bureaucratic revolution”. Yet for decades after the belief would dominate the Cannonites that from the mid-1940s the Stalinists had made “bureaucratic revolutions” in many countries.

In defending the idea that Russia remained a species of workers’ state, Trotsky rested his argument on the fact that nationalised property survived in the USSR, and that all the possibilities that gave the bureaucracy for developing the economy had been the work of the Russian workers who crushed the bourgeoisie and the landlords in 1917-18.

The bureaucracy did not do that work of crushing the bourgeoisie, and could not have done it. It had seized the results of the workers’ revolution in a political counter-revolution.

Statified property on the USSR’s scale or anything near it existed nowhere else in the world, and in practice (Trotsky thought) it could not and would not exist anywhere else without a workers’ revolution. A structure like the USSR’s could develop only after a workers’ revolution and then a decline of the revolutionary energies of the working class, leading to political regression.

The events of the 1940s and 50s would cancel out that reasoning about the USSR, and thereby cancel out Trotsky’s theory of the “degenerated workers’ state”.

The USSR expanded enormously, transforming countries in eastern and southern Europe into replicas of itself. Independent Stalinist movements did the same when they took power, at the head of peasant armies, in Yugoslavia, China, and North Vietnam. In the 1960s countries where Stalinists did not rule — Egypt, Syria, Burma — created statified economies.

(The Grant faction of “orthodox Trotskyists”, today’s Socialist Party and Socialist Appeal, decided in the mid-60s that Syria and Burma were “deformed workers’ states”).

Trotsky saw the nationalised economy as the empirical evidence for his “degenerated workers’ state” theory. But it was a matter of the economy not just “in itself”, but as seen in the perspective of the workers’ revolution and its “political” defeat by the bureaucracy. He saw it as necessarily linked to the October Revolution.

And then nationalised economies similar to the USSR were created in the Stalinist transformations of the 1940s and later. The working class played no part in most of those revolutions, and an essential part in none. In China the victorious Maoists and their peasant armies confronted the workers of the cities as a hostile, repressive force.

Those developments placed the Trotskyists at another fork in the road. One of two things:

Either the fact that now Stalinists (and, later, non-Stalinist formations) could create as much as “remained of the workers’ state” in the USSR, without any of the framing preconditions which Trotsky thought essential, would be seen as destroying the theory of the “degenerated workers’ state” in Russia.

Or, the new totalitarian states would be seen only in terms of nationalised economy, and Trotsky’s theory of Russia would be “developed” to name them, too, as workers’ states (“deformed workers’ states”).

Eventually, the “empiricists” and the “economic determinists” would come to dominate the Cannonite camp, the Fourth International of the years after 1948.

As late as the Second Congress of the Fourth International in April 1948, the “orthodox Trotskyists” defined the Stalinist regimes in Eastern Europe as “state capitalist police states”, in effect as fascist states. But then, when Tito’s Yugoslavia and Russia fell out, only weeks later, it took the leaders of the Fourth International just three days from when the break became public to start issuing a series of open letters to the “Yugoslav comrades”.

The Cannon-Pablo-Mandel tendency made a stark revolution within their “orthodox Trotskyism”, shedding much that Trotskyism meant in Trotsky’s time. After a few years of operating with the perspective that the Third World War would come soon as a “War-Revolution”, from the mid 50s they settled in to the idea that Russia was “in transition to socialism”, protected within the great power system by the balance of nuclear terror, and into the belief that the Stalinist bureaucracy was inseparably committed to the nationalised economy.

Thereby they came to accept a version of “socialism in one country” — the possibility of the long-term, albeit “deformed”, construction of a social alternative to capitalism by development in parallel.

From the 1940 split and Trotsky’s death, the two currents diverged bit by bit.

When Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941, the Shachtman group did not come out for the “defence of the USSR”. Stalin, they said, had only swapped imperialist partners, from Hitler to Churchill and, soon, Roosevelt. In this imperialist war the workers should not take sides. The Shachtmanites, as “revolutionary defeatists”, loudly opposed the USA in the war.

Before the 1940 split they had identified Russia as imperialism, and the Stalinist expansion of the 1940s, which would throw the Cannonites into political contortions, presented no such problem to the Shachtman group.

The two groups diverged further on some issues where I think Cannon was right: over the place of China in the World War, and over what Cannon and his comrades called the “proletarian military policy”, which called among other things for trade-union training schools for working-class military officers. (The Shachtmanites said that was a capitulation to American defencism).

The Cannonites had a more eventful war. They came out passionately for the defence of the USSR in June 1941. When in August 1941 Britain and Russia invaded Iran, they uninterestedly classified it as legitimate defence of the USSR.

Then, as Hitler seemed to move to inexorable victory, defence of the USSR dropped from their press. Their comments on the USSR were about how the crimes of Stalinism had made defeat inevitable.

“Defence of the USSR” became prominent again after the tide began to turn at Stalingrad late in 1942. By then, Russia was the very prestigious ally of the USA, and “Uncle Joe” Stalin a popular hero in America and Britain.

Ridiculously, trying to annex a bit of the USSR’s wartime glory for themselves, the Cannonites developed the line that Stalin’s Russian army was, somehow, “Trotsky’s Red Army”. Trotsky, by contrast, had seen that the Red Army, with its command structures, was one of the root sources of the bureaucratism that came to engulf the workers’ state.

In mid-December 1942, the SWP brought out a very one-sided selection of Trotsky’s articles on Poland and Finland, under the title In Defence of Marxism. In the same month they added “Defence of the USSR” as a ninth point to their paper’s previously eight-point policy platform, and started to print every week, on top of the editorial page in their paper, a quotation on the USSR from Trotsky in 1931.

In 1943 they followed up with a book of Cannon’s writings during the the 1939-40 dispute.

For decades, those two books would be international pillars of their version of Trotskyism, as it took shape in the 1940s. Essentially, they came to run the Fourth International as a one-faction organisation.

In Defence of Marxism include Trotsky’s The USSR in War and Again and Once More, quoted above; and an introduction by Joseph Hansen and George Novack asserting that the characterisation of the USSR and commitment in all circumstances to its defence was part of the “programme of the Fourth International”.

In July 1944, the Russian army was close to Warsaw, and then stopped advancing and waited six weeks while the Germans slaughtered a large-scale Polish uprising whose decision to rise was based on the knowledge that the Russians were near. Cannon, who at the time was in jail for a year, upbraided the editors of The Militant for criticising the Russians for their behaviour. Military tactics were for the Russians to decide! The Trotskyists were defencists!

The main texts in this supplement come from that time. In 1943 Max Shachtman translated a very important 1923 work of Trotsky’s, The New Course, and put a long introduction with it, discussing the Stalinists counter-revolution and Trotsky’s final position. The Cannonites gave the job of reviewing it to a comparatively inexperienced comrade, Harry Braverman [Frankel], who would in the 1970s become well-known for his book Labour and Monopoly Capital.

Shachtman replied, at length. This debate is an important moment in the crystallising out of the two Trotskyisms.

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