Workers’ Liberty and the “Third Camp”

Submitted by Anon on 7 August, 2007 - 11:02

By Paul Hampton

“The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflict to oblige humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas. This method is as old as bourgeois society, or more exactly, as class society in general. No one is obliged to become a Marxist; no one is obliged to swear by Lenin’s name. But the whole of the politics of these two titans of revolutionary thought was directed towards this, the fetishism of two camps would give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends.”
Leon Trotsky (1938)

The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), the organisation that publishes Solidarity, believes that the working class is the crucial agent of change in the modern world. The working class is the basic exploited class under capitalism, and therefore has a material interest in ending that exploitation. The working class has tremendous power as a result of its position in the global production chain, and the capacity to bring capitalism to a halt through industrial action. And workers can develop the collective, democratic organisations to run society on the basis of need not profit.

Therefore the AWL looks to the working class and its labour movement organisations to fight for reforms to the present system but also to act as the powerful social force to overthrow capitalism and replace it with a socialist society based on freedom, equality and liberty.

We call this stance independent working class politics and sometimes use the phrase “the Third Camp” to sum up it up. We published a book The Fate of the Russian Revolution (1998) that discusses the origin of this idea, as well as the period in history when we think many other socialists with similar ideas to us went wrong (the 1940s).

The Russian revolution

The starting point is the Russian revolution of October 1917. We think this revolution was the greatest event so far in world history, because for the first time the working class, led by the Bolshevik Party, took power through the Soviets (workers’ councils) and then, expropriating the capitalist class, held onto power (albeit tentatively) for a decade. The Russian workers’ revolution was led by Lenin and Trotsky. As Marxists, the AWL sees itself in the tradition of these great revolutionaries and believes workers and socialists today can still learn from this period in history.

However the workers’ state set up in Russia after 1917 did not last and we think it is important to explain what went wrong. The Russian workers seized power in difficult circumstances. Russia was a backward economic state in which the working class was a fraction of the total population. Three years of bloody civil war and invasion by a dozen countries between 1918 and 1921 decimated industry and sapped the strength of the working class. Russia remained isolated as workers’ revolutions failed or were aborted elsewhere in Europe. This meant that the working class clung onto power in the 1920s only by the Bolshevik Party increasingly substituting itself for the faded democratic organs such as the Soviets. The weakened working class, and those Bolsheviks loyal to it, were unable to resist the rise of a bureaucracy combining old Tsarist officials with some former revolutionaries, led by Stalin. By 1928–9 Stalin could completely crush the Bolshevik Party and disenfranchise the working class.


For the AWL, the rise of Stalin to power marks the end of the USSR as a workers’ state. The Stalinist bureaucracy destroyed the Bolshevik Party and other forces for independent working class politics in Russia, then turned to shatter the development of the nascent bourgeoisie, making itself “the sole master of the surplus product” by the late 1920s. This meant the bureaucracy became the exploiter of the working class, its oppressor and its principal enemy in the USSR.

This simultaneous smashing of the working class movement, together with the expropriation of the capitalist class, which was the essence of Stalinist bureaucracy, disorientated the thousands of Communist Party members who had joined the struggle for international socialism after 1917. Even those forces like the Trotskyists who were the principal enemies and most biting critics of Stalinism, and its first victims in the labour camps of Siberia, also became disoriented.

Trotsky and Trotskyism

Even Trotsky, who had first theorised and then led the great events of 1917, who had predicted and fought the rise of fascism, who had charted the degeneration of the Russian revolution and who was the chief opponent of Stalinism, died in 1940 still trapped on the horns of this conundrum. But Trotsky provided his followers with some of the tools to really understand Stalinism and to map out the road to independent working class politics.

He had developed the idea of the Third Camp in China in the mid-1920s to explain how the Chinese workers should fight for their own interests and oppose the imperialist powers, the warlords and the nationalists. And it was Trotsky who foresaw the coming world war in the 1930s and using the idea of the Third Camp, opposed both the rampant imperialist camp of Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and militaristic Japan and the “democratic” but still colonial imperialist camp of Britain, the US, France and the USSR. This idea of the Third Camp would also prove useful in establishing a stance opposed to both capitalism and Stalinism.

Some of Trotsky’s supporters in the United States, grouped around the figure of Max Shachtman, struggled to understand Stalinism as it developed in the 1930s and 1940s in light of Trotsky’s analyses. They raised criticisms of his evolving analysis of the USSR, especially after the publication of his book The Revolution Betrayed in 1936–37. Some began to argue that the Soviet Union could no longer be considered any kind of workers’ state, and that Trotsky’s analogy between France in 1789–99 and Russia after 1917 was fundamentally false. The bourgeoisie had developed its economic power under decaying feudalism before 1789, and later under Louis Bonaparte in the 1850s had been able to rule socially and economically without necessarily ruling politically, because the sources of bourgeois power lay outside of the form of government in power.

With the working class it is completely different: to rule socially and economically, the working class — which is a slave class until it seizes power — must also rule politically through its own organisations. Not only must the emancipation of the working class be the act of the working class itself (whereas other forces had often made bourgeois revolutions), but in order to establish socialism the working class needed, along with the international economic prerequisites of advanced capitalism, the democratic organs — the Soviets, factory committees, trade unions — and revolutionary leadership to sustain the new society.

Shachtman and his supporters challenged the mistaken view that nationalised property was the sole and sufficient criterion for continuing to define Russia as a degenerated workers’ state — a mistake which the AWL calls “totalitarian economism”. The mistake implicitly brushes over the gulf between the workers’ state that did exist in the twenties, and the Stalinist counter-revolution that established itself in the thirties. It led Trotskyists, at the time and since, to overstate the development of the productive forces in Russia in the thirties, and claim (as the Stalinists themselves did) that this proved the progressive nature of the “workers’ state” as against decaying, depression-hit capitalism. In reality, the old Bolsheviks were being purged in the bloody show trials and the Russian working class was being subjected to the most vicious, brutal exploitation it had ever seen.

Politically, totalitarian economism offered no clear differentiation between reform of the Bolshevik Party — essentially clearing out the (workers’) bureaucracy and re-establishing full working class democracy, which was still possible in the first decade after 1917 — and revolution, where the working class must smash the Stalinist state machine and re-create its own forms of self-rule. Crudely it opened the door to a glimmer of continuity between Leninism and Stalinism, and what might be called “the bureaucratic road to socialism”.

Trotsky’s approach to Stalinism was to continually modify his theory in the light of its development. It is clear from Trotsky’s body of work in the 1930s as a whole that his concrete analyses of Stalinism were chafing and ultimately undermining the characterisation of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state.

In 1939, in an article on the Stalin-Hitler Pact, The USSR in War, he acknowledged the theoretical possibility that nationalised property might also be the basis of a new exploiting class, thus effectively cutting the roots of the theory that Russian Stalinism could only be a workers’ state.

Trotsky acknowledged that if Stalinism survived the war, then he would be forced to re-evaluate his designation of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state”. He was murdered by a Stalinist agent in 1940 before he could re-evaluate. Shachtman and his followers only drew out the logic of Trotsky’s analysis — firstly for political conclusions, and later for the formula “workers’ state” that Trotsky himself had laid bare.

After the war Stalinism expanded into Eastern Europe and ruled for more than 40 years, creating a huge empire, a prison house of nations, systematically wiping out any freedom for workers to act. In Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980–81 Stalinist governments backed by Stalinist tanks viciously suppressed workers’ uprisings. Trotsky’s words in 1938, that Stalinism differed from fascism only “in more unbridled savagery”, were prophetic. The takeover of Eastern Europe gave a new lease of life to Stalinism, both in Russia and internationally after the war.

Where “orthodox Trotskyism” went wrong

The “orthodox” Trotskyists who stuck to the formula of Trotsky rather than the essence of his politics were utterly incoherent on the spread of Stalinist imperialism into Eastern Europe. First they hailed the victories of the Red Army as liberation, when in fact the Stalinists imposed shackles on the peoples of Eastern Europe just as tight as the Nazi barbarians.

They theorised the takeover of Eastern Europe as the spread of “progressive” nationalised property, calling the new regimes (deformed) workers’ states and hailing Stalinists like Tito, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro as if they were heroes — when in fact they were the oppressors of workers.

The post-war period provided ample proof that Stalinism was no part of the working class movement, but its mortal enemy. Whilst the Stalinists were busy wiping out militant workers (including Trotskyists) in the countries where they seized power, the orthodox “Fourth International” was busy claiming that peasant-based guerrilla armies could create workers’ states without the active intervention of the working class and without the existence of a Bolshevik Party. In doing so “orthodox” Trotskyists effectively wrote themselves out of the making of history — after all, if the bureaucratic road to “socialism” had been created by the Stalinists, what was the point of being a Trotskyist when other forces could carry out your programme?

The Third Camp

But the idea of the Third Camp was never completely extinguished. Socialists around Shachtman and Hal Draper in the US and elsewhere continued to promote independent working class politics. They characterised Stalinism as reactionary from the point of view of the working class — equally as bad as capitalism — and used the slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow” to sum up their stance. For the Eastern Bloc they advocated free trade unions against the state; support for democratic movements against the bureaucracy even when their leaderships are pro-capitalist, and concern first and foremost with re-establishing an independent labour movement and a group of Marxists working to win it to revolutionary socialism.

Marxists in that tradition celebrated the fall of Stalinism in 1989–91. Above all, like us they looked to the working class as the crucial agent of change throughout the world.

Socialists and other radicals have to work in today’s class struggle, and though we learn from the past, from the rich tradition of Trotsky, Shachtman and others on whose shoulders we rest, we also have to fight in different circumstances. But we can fight to renew Marxism, cleansed of its Stalinist and other distortions, and enriched by sixty years of workers’ struggle since their time.

We do this because we think the working class is the subject of history and working class self-liberation will bring about the liberation of humanity. That is the meaning and importance of the Third Camp.

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