Barry Finger reviews The Two Trotskyisms Confront Stalinism: the Fate of the Russian Revolution volume two, edited by Sean Matgamna (Workers’ Liberty, 2015).
Revolutionary socialism at its liveliest is always a vast theatre of ideological battlegrounds, a Permanent War of Questions, as Julius Jacobson — a one-time follower of Max Shachtman — so aptly put it.
For those, and there were precious few, who still valiantly retained the capacity, the sitzfleisch as well as the activists’ militant vigour, in the years leading up to and through the Second World War, to think through and refine volumes of innumerable majority and minority reports, theses and resolutions, what was at stake was nothing short of a desperate race to outpace history. That period conformed to a world which, in broad strokes and failing a socialist revolution, Marx and Engels had long anticipated: a world of wars, crises, mass unemployment, centralised power and general instability.
But for political activists, critical historical conjunctures do not so much simply unfold at a safe Olympian distance, as they do in an immediate whirl of intersecting and contradictory forces and concentrated processes that combine and unravel often in defiance of precedent and theory. For revolutionaries, at such times, it was a matter of trying to remain clear headed and effective in the midst of a sustained social tornado.
Social democracy was by the 1930s a spent entity ideologically, and the increasingly Stalinised Communist movement was in the throes of self-lobotomising as the bureaucracy consolidated power. Mass workers’ movements in retreat were vast theoretical dead zones. Beyond the Spanish crucible, the responsibility of overtaking events while keeping socialist principles and class struggle values alive, comprehensible and politically relevant devolved upon the relatively youthful heirs of American Trotskyism, advantaged, if at all, by being at the outer perimeter of the approaching maelstrom. This volume is a testament and a balance sheet — and, most significantly, the written record — of the evolving understandings of a relatively handful of truly remarkable figures: those who fought to the limits of Trotsky’s understanding (congregated in the American Socialist Workers Party, whose leading figure was James Cannon) and those who dared to venture beyond (the Workers’ Party whose leading figure was Max Shachtman).
The War of Questions centred on two: the Russian Question and the War Question. The first volume in this series documents the former. This volume takes the debate from there, the textual record introduced by a curious, and curiously sly, foreshadowing, the legendary Shachtman-Browder Debate of 1950. It is curious for two reasons. The exchange took place after the war. But more important, it pitted Shachtman neither against a Cannonite nor against Isaac Deutscher with whom the point Matgamna seeks to acquaint us with might have been equally apt if less dramatic. But instead Matgamna chose a famous exchange between Shachtman and a once preeminent Stalinist disgraced in his own movement and labyrinthinely expelled from on high by Moscow via the French CP.
Browder, despite his dizzying fall from grace, still retained an unflagging loyalty to the “progressive” cause of Soviet Russia, a self-sustaining allegiance condemned to orbit in permanent exile from the Communist Party. It was a masterful matchup, remembered to this day for Shachtman’s devastating conclusion. After rattling off the names of eastern European Stalinist leaders, who had fallen afoul of the Kremlin and were shot, garroted or hanged, Shachtman pointed at Browder and declared, “There, there but for an accident of geography, stands a corpse!”
The scathing irony of introducing the documents in this manner will surely not be lost to adherents of the more orthodox wings of Trotskyism. Nor should it be lost on the discerning but more generic radical public. For Matgamna, the parallel between Browder and the Cannonites is agonisingly clear. Official Trotskyism after 1940 never stopped seeing itself as anything other than an external faction of the Communist movement. It, like Browder, remained the attorney for the defence, if not for Stalinism and Stalinist politics and Stalinist crimes (although sometimes for these as well), then for the property forms that the Stalinist state, in its own inept and reactionary way, was said to defend and build up and in which the hopes for a progressive alternative to capitalism were alleged ever to reside. Orthodox Trotskyism shared the fate of Browder, still relevant only by the grace of Stalinism. How did it come to this?
Trotsky had identified and charted the dynamic of Stalin’s “Thermidorean Reaction” in the piecemeal dissolution of the Bolshevik Party as an authentic and effective working class organisation culminating in its subordination and eventual merger with the state bureaucracy. Trotsky’s attempt to revive the party as a democratic force failed. Yet, despite the utter rout of the socialist opposition, and the total usurpation of political power by the Stalinist bureaucracy, Trotsky nevertheless insisted that the essential conquests of the October Revolution — a planned economy resting on nationalised property — had been preserved and corresponded to the social basis of working-class hegemony.
The Soviet Union, he held, therefore retained the characteristics of a workers’ state, but in a degenerated and imperiled form. According to Trotsky, the bureaucracy was compelled, in its own reactionary, wavering and inconsistent way, to preserve state property because its entire network of privileges was wholly contingent on it doing so. To be sure, he admitted that “in no other regime has a bureaucracy ever achieved such a degree of independence from the dominating class,” that “the very fact of its appropriation of political power in a country where the principal means of production are in the hands of the state, creates a new and hitherto unknown relationship between the bureaucracy and the riches of the nation,” and even conceded that the bureaucracy exercised an “uncontrolled appropriation of an absolutely disproportionate part of the national income.”
He nevertheless held to his contention, ever more provisional, that the bureaucracy could not yet be considered a new exploiting class, a class able to act in its own independent interests, and remained, at least in the short-term, a parasitic steward of a still progressive social order. It was an assertion that history was soon to demolish. For shortly thereafter the Stalinist bureaucracy, with the secret approval of Hitler, extended nationalised property to eastern Poland and the Baltic states under its own imperialist initiative, by force of arms and did so in the utter absence — to put it politely — of any detectable popular pressure from below. The appreciative Stalin used the opportunity to decapitate the Polish CP and to deport over a million Poles, including 400,000 Jews, to the gulag and to resettlement camps.
Trotsky may have reluctantly welcomed the extension of nationalised property, but he was far too honest to identify Polish and Baltic working-class acquiescence in the face of superior force as evidence of indirect consent or to celebrate the political debacle for the left that this entailed. Trotsky, in any case, had already forced a split in the American Trotskyist movement. He could not tolerate the position of the Shachtmanite minority, which repudiated the idea that defence of the Soviet Union itself involved a fundamental issue for socialist politics.
The minority faction had as of yet not worked out its final position that Stalinist Russia represented a hitherto unknown, but new exploitative class society based on its total bureaucratic control of state property and of the social surplus that it extracted. Their position was still in flux. Shachtman never fully rejected the idea of Russia still being a genuine workers’ state until after the split. But Trotsky rightfully perceived that abandoning that particular commitment —- to defend the Soviet Union as a matter of principle — and the minority’s refusal to orient politics around that defence and to instead insist on the centrality of democracy to socialism, also foreshadowed a repudiation of his position that Russia was a degenerated workers state. And he perhaps understood that before the minority fully did.
Trotsky’s politics, even on its own terms, were soon stretched to the breaking point. And when Hitler’s tanks crashed through the eastern front in June of 1941 putting an end to the putative alliance, the Russian Question and the War Question pushed the feuding blocs of Trotskyism, formally separated by a year, beyond the point of no return. Neither faction could quite satisfy itself with mere repetition of the inherited formulas from earlier conflicts.
The First World War, after all, had been for Leninists the quintessential imperialist war, neither side being able to convincingly portray itself as a greater or lesser evil to the other. It was a war for the redivision of empires, power, profits and prestige, but one in which no big country was threatened with the denial of its existence as a national entity. And calling a truce in the class struggle for the duration of the war proved a disaster for the labor and socialist movements. So argued the acclaimed militants of revolutionary socialism, Bolshevik or not.
The right wing of the German labour movement, the most powerful labour movement on the continent, had argued to the contrary and to its lasting disgrace, that because German capitalism was the most progressive force on the Continent, German socialism marching as a contingent alongside German imperialism implanted and empowered social democracy throughout Europe. And because Tsarist Russia was universally, and rightly, detested as the most reactionary force, a victory for the allies equated — the social patriots would go on to argue — to a crushing defeat for social democracy. It would transport the Russian gendarmerie, the shock troops of counter-revolution, through the gates and into the very heart of Europe.
Though a germ of truth resided in this, this betrayal, this capitulation to German capitalism, was reviled on the revolutionary left as abject treason to the socialist cause. It was political sophistry transparently camouflaged as real politik. Still, German social democracy struggled mightily to link the War Question, chauvinistically touted as history’s engine of progress, to the Russian Question, the centre of reaction, until the Bolsheviks — heroically fulfilling their revolutionary obligations — paid put to the last ounce of credibility such casuistry offered.
Neither the Cannonites nor the Shachtmanites could hold the two sides in the emerging Second World War to be politically equivalent. That much was indisputable. Harsh as the Versailles Treaty was, a victory for Hitler would have resulted in the industrial slaughter of entire populations and the wholesale enslavement and colonization of the surviving remnant. It was not a contest of “Democracy v. Slavery” as the allies would have had it. But there still was, unlike World War I, a lesser evil; there was a greater evil. And this was, after all, still a war of competing capitalist empires, capitalist empires, that is, plus Stalinist Russia. What then was the basis for a consistent anti-war politics? Certainly not along Bolshevik lines.
To cling to the outworn formula of “turning the imperialist war into a civil war” or call for “revolutionary defeatism” (whatever that meant) would have been ludicrous. They corresponded to no serious politics rooted in the American reality. The Trotskyists could remain true to the revolutionary cause essentially in two ways: by refusing to relinquish the class struggle and class struggle politics in defiance of the calls for war unity and by telling the truth and refusing to weave democratic fantasies about the war aims of the allies.
The Stalinists, quite predictably, took the opposite tack and embraced a wholesale truce in the class war. They backed labour conscription. They fell in behind Roosevelt even in support of the roundup and internment of the Japanese, going so far as to suspend its members of Japanese extraction. They participated in no-strike pledges and policed their enforcement. And they betrayed the Black freedom struggle by condemning the double V campaign to integrate the armed forces and defence industries, condemning that struggle as divisive. The CP higher-ups cautioned their members not to jeopardise national unity. Whenever labour demands or black protests threatened to disrupt arms production, CP functionaries countered with the patriotic demand of “all out to win the people’s war.” They approved and urged the Roosevelt Administration to imprison strike leaders, anti-war activists, pacifists and civil rights militants for interfering with the war effort.
Of course, Stalinist patriotism was primarily to Russia, and only secondarily and provisionally to America as Stalin’s ally and only thirdly to the defeat of fascism, which it so recently embraced. To their everlasting credit, neither the SWP nor the WP would ever stomach such rank betrayal. Both condemned it and exposed the CP for what it was. When the war broke out however, the WP initially adopted an errant point of view to justify its opposition to the war. It held that under pressure of war, a war that America could not wage democratically, the US would devolve into a fascist state dictatorship. It anticipated that the union movement would be suppressed and ultimately outlawed. “Allied victory or Allied defeat… the age of bourgeois democracy is over.” In retrospect, the WP came quickly to concede that such conclusions had no justification at the time and were not essential to their anti-war position or programme.
Although the WP was very active in the factories, it failed to recruit in large numbers and become a true party. Cadres nevertheless still managed to develop centers of influence in industrial Detroit, Buffalo and Cleveland. They had a real presence in the United Auto Workers and the United Electrical Workers, where they encouraged and developed rank and file movements that allowed them to become a force within the broader labour movement. And they maintained a weekly newspaper, Labor Action, distributed in the tens of thousands at factory gates and housing projects.
Central, above all, for the WP, was the need to uphold democratic rights, including trade union rights and the civil rights demands of African-Americans; to prosecute the class struggle and all liberation struggles without subordinating them to the “higher” purposes of war, lesser evil or not. The WP refused to relent on the issue of a segregated military for fear that it might affect morale; or to temper shop floor demands less they undermine with the war effort. It meant repudiating antisemitism in the government and demanding, in the teeth of mass opposition, that the doors be opened to the victims of Hitlerite persecution; fighting uncompromisingly for the right to strike; exposing corporate profiteering; promoting the March on Washington movement for black rights; and educating the left about the duplicitous and reactionary behaviour of Stalinism at home and abroad and in war.
The SWP had a much more ambiguous anti-war position. It too, of course, gave no credence to the noble war aims proclaimed by the allied colonial powers, the allied capitalist colonial powers, that is. But the War Question for them fast crashed into the Russian Question in ways that steadfastly confounded political clarity. Should the SWP, who opposed Stalin and his bureaucracy, place themselves in political in opposition to Stalin’s war objectives or should they suspend their opposition to the regime for the duration in deference to the nationalised property upon which the Stalinist armies stood?
If Stalinist Russia was not an exploitative society, if instead it comprised the most progressive economy — the basis for socialism, but under reactionary leadership — then the orthodox followers of Trotsky were faced with a dilemma parallel to that of the German social democracy during the First World War. It was a forced dilemma, hammered into a new form and of their own making, with roots in revolutionary Trotskyism rather than labour reformism and national chauvinism, inverted in every way, but a mirror image of German social democracy nonetheless.
The SWP approached the war as Russian defencists and self-conscious Soviet patriots. And their politics quickly shattered into shards of fantasy on all fronts. What did being anti-war mean, when it involved extending unconditional support to one pillar of the war effort? They quickly dropped their opposition to conscription and buried their capitulation to war with the nonsensical, but very revolutionary sounding demand that military training of workers be done under trade-union auspices.
Of course, their members rarely, if ever, actually introduced what would be such logic defying, politically mystifying resolutions. And, in practice the SWP kept a low profile preserving its cadre, heeding in effect the warning shot fired across its bow by the erstwhile liberal Roosevelt administration during the 1941 Minneapolis labor trial. Far worse, however, was their characterisation of the war. A nation fighting a war the way the French Revolutionary armies fought, or as the Red Army of 1919 fought did everything possible to politicize and motivate the struggle, to make the emancipatory meaning of the war clear to the army’s rank and file and to the nation.
Stalinist Russia never pretended to fight for socialist ideals. It was a “Great Patriotic War” for national survival; a war that embraced Tsarist imagery and that drew inspiration from Russia’s war against Napoleon. Stalin made haste to reassure his capitalist allies. He dissolved the Comintern washing his hands of any whiff that he still harboured revolutionary principles or socialist aims. The SWP, in abject disregard for actual events as they unfolded, attributed meaning and purpose to Stalin’s war that simply defied imagination.
The Red Army was again the army of Trotsky, rediscovering with every advance its revolutionary roots. Russian workers were “defending the Bolshevik revolution.” And with each victory the revolutionary passions of the Soviet workers were emboldened, heralding the imminent demise of the bureaucracy’s stranglehold over society. Russia’s victory, The Militant assured, would prove to be Stalin’s ultimate undoing. But that ultimate undoing proved ever more elusive.
Trotsky had argued that the Stalinist bureaucracy would be short-lived and could not survive the war. He argued that Stalinism was a one-off, an historical anomaly, unable to replicate itself beyond the concrete circumstances that gave rise to it. Post-war events scrambled these assumptions. The Red Army brought bureaucratic collectivism into Eastern Europe. Mao’s insurgents seized power on the back of a peasant army. Discredited Czech capitalism simply collapsed and Stalinism rushed to seal the vacuum. Systems of nationalized property arose and were arising under a multiplicity of historical experiences, none of which were anchored in workers’ revolution and many of which were anchored in Stalinist imperialism.
Trotsky conceded in his final writings that his preliminary positions would have to be qualified, revised or even reversed if Stalinism survived the war. But the SWP remained defencist even in the face of a new emerging world bloc. The new system eventually extending to a quarter of the globe, was clearly anti-capitalist, clearly exploitative, clearly expansionist and clearly imperialist. Or so it appeared to the Workers’ Party. For them, the future of socialism of civilisation depended on a politically maturing third camp of independent socialists ready to stand in opposition both to capitalism and Stalinism.
For the American SWP, in stark contrast, the revolution wasn’t finished with Stalinism. Stalinism became, in effect, the agent of revolution, fulfilling the historical responsibility and replacing the role of errant and even absent working classes.
The once counter-revolutionary betrayer of socialism — progressive only because it preserved statified property — but unable to advance the cause of socialism, became, by the cunning of history, its opposite. And the orthodox Trotskyists adjusted themselves accordingly, transforming socialism and anti-imperialism into a cult of state property fetishists. It was a movement still honourably capable of opposing the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, but never capable of demanding from itself a social explanation of what motivated such repeated interventions on the part of the “socialist camp”.
The fallout from this raging political fire dispersed blinding soot everywhere. But it also spread embers of light. This selection makes a valiant effort in fanning those cinders of insight, and clearing aside the thick maze of smoke and muck that blinded orthodox Trotskyism and revolutionary socialism.
• Barry Finger is an editor of the American socialist journal New Politics.