The Lost Marxism of Critical Trotskyists

A review of Sean Matgamna’s The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism (1)

1989-91: End of an Era

The collapse of the Russian bloc gave a great boost to the right wing of capitalism who had long peddled the myth that the monstrosities of Stalinism represented the logical and inevitable outcome of the struggle for socialism. The triumphal crowing about the final triumph of liberal capitalism or even “the end of history” was how they responded to the collapse of their rivals in the fight for world domination.

The left of capitalism’s spectrum, those who had pointed to Stalinism as a model for socialism, were left to mourn the collapse of the model which they had applauded as being worthy of support and admiration. That party of mourners included both the Stalinists who had talked of “real, living socialism” as well as the myriad Trotskyist sects who had considered that the Moscow based empire was made up of post-capitalist “degenerated” and “deformed workers’ states”.

Internationalist Communists such as ourselves, on the other hand, had for decades understood that what existed in the Russian bloc was a particularly grotesque form of state monopoly capitalism in which all the norms of capitalism (the alienation of labour, generalised commodity production, the extraction of surplus value by a class who had the means of production at their own disposal etc.) dominated social relations.

For many Stalinists and Trotskyists the collapse of the Soviet statified economies was a fatal blow to their perspectives and resulted in total demoralisation and the collapse of organisations. In Britain, for example, the former Communist Party of Great Britain suffered total disintegration. The remnants of the old Workers Revolutionary Party and International Marxist Group disappeared as substantial forces and the former Militant group (whose theorists had previously included countries such as Syria and Burma in their list of post-capitalist countries) lost its base in the Labour Party, expelled its former leadership and rebranded itself as the “Socialist Party”.

One Trotskyist organisation in Britain responded in a different way. In the course of transforming from “Socialist Organiser” to the “Alliance for Workers Liberty” (AWL), the grouping led by Sean Matgmamna also experienced a Pauline political conversion. After more than two decades of it and its predecessors proclaiming the orthodox Trotskyist position that the Moscow bloc was made up of “deformed workers’ states”, the AWL has adopted the “heretical” doctrines of Max Shachtman. Shachtman broke with the main-stream Trotskyist organisation in 1940 and subsequently adopted new theoretical positions around a definition of the Soviet Union and its later satellites as a new social category, “bureaucratic collectivism”. It is against that background that the AWL, in 1998, published an edited collection entitled The Fate of the Russian Revolution - Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Volume 1. (2)

The essence of Shachtmanism

A succinct summary of the bureaucratic collectivist position can be found on page 424 from an article written by Shachtman and first published in July, 1943,

We know .... that there is no capitalist class that owns the factories in Russia. We know .... that the working class does not own them. We also know that the working class has not the slightest degree of control over the state that does own Russian property. Who, then, does own the land and factories in Russia? What class? We say: a new class developing out of special historical circumstances, the Stalinist collectivist bureaucracy.

A longer exposition is provided in an article by Joseph Carter, one of Shachtman’s co-thinkers, on pages 294-299. In that article Carter effectively demolishes Trotsky’s use of an analogy between Stalinism and Bonapartism which the latter used during the 1930s (3) as he attempted to argue that the Stalinised Soviet Union retained an essentially proletarian economic base. Carter (page 297-8) draws a picture of the Soviet Union much of which we could agree with,

The ruling class is the bureaucracy which through its control of the state collectively owns, controls and administers the means of production and exchange ... The economy is organized and directed through state totalitarian planning and political terrorism. The toilers are compelled by the state (as well as economic necessity) to labor in the factories and fields. Forced labor is thus an inherent feature of present-day Russian productive relations.

Having described features which are entirely consistent with a view of the Soviet Union as being an expression of state monopoly capitalism, we must part company with Carter as he concludes that Stalinist Russia is thus a reactionary state based upon a new system of economic exploitation, bureaucratic collectivism. The conjuring trick which Carter uses to arrive at that statement will be returned to later.

The fact that Shachtman adopted the “bureaucratic collectivist” definition - one whose fundamentally anti-Marxist approach will also be commented on below - did not prevent him from launching polemics against the official Trotskyists which were both scathing and effective.

As Matgamna’s editorial pieces highlight, the Trotskyist movement, whose Fourth International was shattered in the course of the war, wrote thousands of words confusing Stalinism with progress and portraying Stalin’s army as a successor to the Red Army which had militarily defended proletarian power against the White armies and their imperialist sponsors in the years of revolutionary struggle. Such confusions were spread particularly by the orthodox Trotskyists after the tide of war turned in favour of the Russian state.

In 1931, after the Communist Left had already argued with Trotsky that there was a pressing need to understand the nature of the counter-revolution, Trotsky wrote that,

To defend the USSR as the main fortress of the world proletariat, against all assaults of world imperialism and of internal counter-revolution, is the most important duty of every class-conscious worker

page 363

Tracking the attitude of the Militant (the paper of the orthodox Trotskyists in the USA), Matgamna notes how On 19 December 1942, the 1931 quotation, now with a portrait of Trotsky, reappeared on the editorial page.

As the USSR’s military successes continued - and right up to 31 March 1945 .... The Militant continued to carry the quotation and the policy point [Defend the Soviet Union against imperialist attack].

page 364

In response to such poisons, Shachtman’s polemics should still make uncomfortable readings for the Trotskyists who peddled the same confusion for a further half century. In an article published in March, 1943 (pages 414-425) Shachtman unravelled some of the confusions spread by his orthodox colleagues. Without sharing Shachtman’s analysis, including Shachtman’s use of Trotsky’s Bonapartist analogy (the same analogy which was decisively rejected by Shachtman’s ally, Joseph Carter), it is still informative to quote from that article.

Shachtman’s article is a direct reply to the SWP’s Felix Morrow who had delivered a speech including such classics of misrepresentation as, The Red Army [in 1942 - KT] is fighting for a socialist Europe as well as a socialist Russia.

Shachtman replied,

In the first place there is no such thing as a Red Army. It once existed. It was organised by Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. It was the army of the workers, of the people, of the socialist revolution ... But Stalinism destroyed that army! Hasn’t Morrow heard? ...

What is “Red” (that is socialist, internationalist, democratic) in the Russian army today? It would be interesting to know the answer ... the Stalinist army is the army of Bonapartist counter-revolution ... It is controlled by the Bonapartist counter-revolution which is in power in the country; it is directed by it; it has been imbued with the poison of Stalinist chauvinism and Great-Russian nationalism; its program is the program of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy; its Praetorian “colonels” and “generals” and “marshals” ... differ in no important respect from their opposite numbers in the armies of capitalism; its discipline differs from that of a regular imperialist army like one egg from another ... If it is “fighting for a socialist Europe as well as a socialist Russia”, that is welcome news. But that would be a little more than just welcome news, it would be a miracle - and we don’t believe in miracles ... To disseminate the idea that the Stalinist army is fighting for a “socialist Europe as well as a socialist Russia” is to disseminate the most vicious pro-Stalinist propaganda, and thereby help destroy the prospects of a truly socialist Russia and Europe ...

Marxism Against Shachtmanism

Marxist method is based on an understanding that class struggle is the underlying theme behind the whole of human history since the days of primitive communism - an era predating human ability to master any aspect of nature, where what was in common was shortage and an unmitigated struggle for existence.

Marxism, in contrast to other views of the world, contains within it a core explanation of why a communist future is desirable, but certainly not inevitable. Critically, for those aspiring to Marxist praxis (revolutionary activity/experience synthesising theory and practice) there is a need to grasp that Marxism contains a far more fundamental essential than the desirability of communism. At the core of a Marxist understanding is the fact that capitalism has prepared the productive forces which make communism possible. In the course of its development not only has capitalism accumulated gigantic masses of productive capacity but it has also generated the proletarian class, essential to the generation of profit, and capable of acting as the gravedigger not only for capitalism but for the whole history of class society.

All those essentials can be found in the first section of the Communist Manifesto, part of the most basic ABC for would-be Marxists. As against the development of the bourgeoisie and proletariat: The other classes decay and finally disappear in the face of modern industry (Section 1, The Communist Manifesto). The existence of the two classes emerging as contending giants from a capitalism which, since Marx’s time, has engulfed the world is part of a basic revolutionary world view.

Marxists have always had to defend that world view against attacks from the whole variety of sociological explanations originating from Bernstein, Weber and their modern counterparts who sow confusion by pointing to changes in the appearance of wage labour and capitalist relations to talk about the emergence of new “middle classes”, salaried or “white collar staff”, technocrats, managers and so forth. A variant on those themes in which a new managerial class is supposed to have taken control of society can be found in The Managerial Revolution by James Burnham, an ally of Shachtman in his split with official Trotskyism.

More recently the bourgeoisie has launched fresh offensives around the end of class or more spectacularly (and ludicrously) Fukuyama’s mock-Hegelian proclamation of the end of history. The efforts to destroy the Marxist concept of class and, alongside it, the ability of the working class to raise its level of class consciousness has been a major ideological weapon of our class enemies.

Fully developed class consciousness goes hand-in-hand with revolutionary praxis.

How then does the AWL’s discovery of a new “bureaucratic collectivist” class fit in to a Marxist theory of class, without which an understanding of class consciousness is impossible ?

Imperialism - The Highest Stage ... But One ? ... or Two ? ... or ...?

The difference between the Internationalist analysis of the Stalinist formations being an expression of state monopoly capitalism and the Shachtmanite use of ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ is not merely a question of semantics.

For Internationalists, our analysis of the Russian bloc is essentially located within a historical analysis of present-day capitalism. The great contribution of Marxists such as Lenin, Luxemburg and Bukharin was that they laid the basis for understanding the imperialist epoch as one in which capitalism has exhausted its progressive capabilities. The prospect of continuous economic expansion with social democratic structures thriving as stable institutions serving the proletariat had come to a definitive and irreversible end. From 1914 onwards the historic course was to be one of crises, wars and revolutions with the bourgeoisie and proletariat as the two contending forces capable of shaping the future of humanity.

For Shachtman and our latter-day Shachtmanites that analysis, a product of a consistent and rigorous Marxist approach to historic developments, is no longer valid. Instead they present their own revision of Marxism, a version where new social classes can spring into existence.

In case there is any doubt that the Stalinists represented a new class, Matgamna reasserts the point at several times in his editorial. On pages 33-4 he writes that the Communist International ... was captured by the new anti-capitalist bureaucratic Russian ruling class. On page 45, the Stalinists had not gone over to the bourgeois enemy ... they served the anti-capitalist Russian bureaucracy.

In the 1930s and 40s those seeking to salvage revolutionary Marxism struggled to understand “the Soviet enigma”. Tragically, the defeat of the revolutionary wave at the end of the first World War had resulted in the first toehold of proletarian political power being transformed into a nightmarish, obviously anti-proletarian prison camp. When Shachtman starts groping towards his “bureuacratic collectivist” label less than two decades have passed since the loss of proletarian power in Russia. Stalinism in 1940 is isolated in a relatively backward economy surrounded by predatory competitors. The argument for a peculiar, temporary and unstable social formation developing is certainly stretching Marxist analysis to its limits but may be excusable in a situation where all tendencies, including our own, were still struggling for a fully developed understanding of what had happened to the Russian Revolution.

However, the AWL’s persistent lack of understanding is no longer acceptable for the end of the 1990s. Today their arguments have even graver implications. They would have us believe that their “bureaucratic collectivist” class not only seized power in the Soviet Union for more than 60 years, but spread their system to China where it has existed for more than 50 years and presumably continuing, Cuba - for 40 years and continuing and roughly a quarter of a century and still continuing in Vietnam and possibly other territories. For Matgamna the “bureaucratic collectivists” may be declaimed as a historical freak but if his logic is correct they have also proved to be the most dynamic new class in world history.

If such a class can appear at this point in history then there is no end to the new classes which might yet have a role in deciding humanity’s destiny. The struggle between proletarian and bourgeoisie may be replaced by struggles between weird and wonderful classes which as yet remain unimagined. Needless to say the modes of production which would provide the basis for such classes can be equally speculative.

This approach is clearly incompatible with Marx’s understanding of the dynamics of class development or the founders of the Third International’s understanding of the imperialist epoch. In short a theory of bureaucratic collectivism is incompatible with the basic tenets of Marxism.

One clue to the way in which the Shachtmanites reached such conclusions is in the quote from Joseph Carter reproduced above. In the middle of his list of descriptive features is, The basic motive force of the economy is the extraction of more and more surplus labor from the toilers so as to increase the revenue, power, and position of the bureaucracy (page 297). Now, for those of us who saw the degenerated Soviet system as a form of capitalism the basic motive force of the economy is the accumulation of capital. That process took place on a dramatic scale in the Soviet Union from the late 1920s onwards and was obviously common knowledge to Carter and his associates. However, the approach of developing a theoretical analysis from an understanding of the dynamics of relations of production (from 1914 onwards necessarily understood on a global scale) was not Carter’s (or Shachtman’s or Matgamna’s ) preferred method. Instead the focus is switched to Weberian characteristics such as “revenue, power and position” all of which certainly appear within class society but in no way serve to reveal its underlying dynamics.

Of course, the very ability to adopt an analysis involving new classes also reflects the flaws in the overall framework. Since the 1930s Trotskyists have sought to find common cause with “progressive movements”, left social democracy, anti-imperialism, national liberation, anti-fascism, feminism, ecologism - the list is inexhaustible. To justify such alliances the Trotskyists are forced to maintain an analysis and practice which pretends that struggles short of an independent class struggle, all act as ‘transitional’ processes. For revolutionists in the present epoch nothing could be further from the truth. The first step toward a revolutionary class struggle is the destruction of illusions in these neo-reformist strategies.

Fools Return Unto Their Folly

In The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte Marx comments on the tendency for events and characters to recur, the first time as tragedy, the second of farce. Reading the writings of dissident Trotskyists from the 1940s is indeed an instructive exercise. Revolu-tionaries such as the faction around Munis were still capable of emerging from the Trotskyist movement as late as the end of the 1940s. This, despite the fact that the Trotskyist movement had left the terrain of proletarian politics during the 1930s, evidenced by their return into social democratic parties, their support for the Spanish democratic Republic during the Civil War and support for anti-imperialist wars in both China and Ethiopia. The 1938 programme codified these betrayals into a document in which reformist and state capitalist remedies are presented as a bridge to a Marxist solution.

However, the Shachtman experience was incapable of reaching revolutionary positions. For instance, one time associates such as CLR James or Raya Dunayavskaya evolved towards “Marxist humanism” as an alternative to proletarian revolution. Shachtman himself ended up siding with democratic imperialism from within the U.S. Democratic party.

Today, despite the fact that the last pretence of Trotskyism to have a coherent Marxist frame has been shattered with the collapse of the USSR, there has been no attempt by any of the Trotskyist groups to relate to the only political current whose theoretical analysis has held up in the face of this. The AWL’s rediscovery of Shachtmanism and their unwillingness to break out of the social democratic/state-capitalist morass that Trotskyism inhabits is just one more example of the bankruptcy of Trotskyism.

(1) The Fate of the Russian Revolution - Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Vol 1, ed. by Sean Matgamna, Phoenix Press, U.K., 1998.

(2) It is not just the AWL who have recently adopted the tag of “bureaucratic collectivism” as a mystifying label for the Soviet bloc. Ex-IS/SWPer, Bob Deacon, also uses the label in an academic publication (Global Social Policy: International organizations and the future of welfare, Bob Deacon with Michelle Hulse and Paul Stubbs, Sage Publications, 1997). Arguably Deacon attains a higher level of confusion than the AWL when he writes about “the bureaucratic collectivist variant of socialist [My emphasis - KT] development that had ossified in Russia and Eastern Europe” (page 46). To show that academia can produce more layers of confusion than an onion has skins, Deacon, earlier in the same paragraph, contrasts the Soviet bloc with “*socialist [My emphasis - KT] development [which] was good in the past for meeting human needs in China (and Cuba and elsewhere)” (page 46).

(3) Possibly the fullest exposition of Trotsky’s use of the Stalinism-Bonapartism analogy can be found in his book “Revolution Betrayed” first published in 1936.