Alex Callinicos




4 Heresies

4.1 Max Shachtman and the evil empire

“[W]e are all, on the American Trotskyist left, the children of the 1940 split”, the veteran Tim Wolforth (1989: 45) wrote recently. The foundation of the Workers’ Party (WP) in April 1940 by Max Shachtman and other dissident leaders of the American SWP (see Section 2.1 above) was indeed to have long-term political consequences (see Fisk 1977 for a history of the Shachtmanite movement). Although the WP formally adhered to the FI till 1948, the idea that the USSR was a new form of class society, bureaucratic collectivism, was to lead Shachtman and most of his followers a long way from Trotskyism, and indeed from the Marxist tradition altogether.

The expression “bureaucratic collectivism” was in fact coined not by Shachtman, who first adopted it in 1941, but by Bruno Rizzi in 1939. Rizzi (1985: 54) argued that “the USSR represents a new type of society ruled by a new social class ... Property, collectivized, effectively belongs to this class which has installed a new and superior system of production.” The relations of production were distinct from those of capitalism and socialism. Indeed, says Rizzi (1985: 80) “[e]xploitation goes on exactly as in a slave society”, with “[t]he worker of today’s Russia” now displaying “the characteristics of a slave”, reduced to the status of “livestock which has to be cared for, housed, and whose reproduction is of great concern to the master”. Rizzi (1985: 60) discerned the same pattern emerging in Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy: “In these regimes a new managerial class, in the process of formation, announces that capital is at the service of the state.” James Burnham, who initially sided with Shachtman against Trotsky and Cannon in the 1939-40 faction fight but broke with Marxism in the course of the debate (Burnham 1940), developed a very similar analysis to Rizzi’s in a celebrated book, The Managerial Revolution, first published in 1941. He, too, detected a global tendency, most fully realized in the USSR, to replace capitalism with a new mode of production, “managerial society”, but, more consistent than Rizzi, he drew the conclusion that “socialism is not possible of achievement or even approximation in the present period” (Burnham 1962: 53). This analysis allowed Burnham to move rapidly to the right and become, by the late 1940s, an advocate of preventive nuclear war against the Soviet Union (Wald 1987: 189-90). Rizzi, a shoe salesman in the late 1930s, seems only to have been on the margins of the Trotskyist movement, and the praise he gave to Hitler and Mussolini for their anti-semitism – “We must ... become anti-Jewish because anti-capitalist” – suggests that his true home was on the “national-revolutionary” left wing of European fascism – though this did not stop him being taken up by Bettino Craxi, leader of the Italian Socialist Party, in the late 1970s (see Westoby 1985).

Shachtman (1962: 291), unlike Burnham and Rizzi, resisted the conclusion that bureaucratic collectivism in Russia represented the wave of the future rather than a “blind alley”. Indeed, it is striking how much his early writings on the subject simply take over Trotsky’s analysis of the Stalin regime, differing chiefly on certain crucial theoretical conclusions. Thus Shachtman agreed with Trotsky that Stalinist Russia was a post-capitalist society rather than a variant of capitalism. State capitalism, in the sense of a society where all the means of production are nationalized but which is still subject to the dynamic of capital accumulation, was an impossibility: “The norm of capitalism is the private ownership of capital” (Shachtman 1962: 279; cf. Trotsky 1970: 245-8). Shachtman, however, disagreed with Trotsky that statization was a sufficient condition of the existence of a workers’ state. On the contrary, “[t]he proletariat’s relations to property, to the new collectivist property, are indivisibly bound up with its relations to the state, that is, to the political power” (Shachtman 1962: 41). Consequently, “[t]hat political expropriation of the proletariat which is defined in Trotsky’s analysis – that is nothing more or less than the destruction of the class rule of the workers, the end of the workers’ state” (Shachtman 1962: 46). A workers’ state in which, as “Trotsky conceded, the working class no longer had political power was a contradiction in terms.

Shachtman was, however, more successful in exposing the inconsistencies in Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism than in replacing it with a better theory. Modes of production are characterized in historical materialism by distinctive forms of surplus-extraction, control over the productive forces, and relations among the exploiters, from which definite tendencies (“laws of motion”) may be derived (Callinicos 1987a: ch.2). Yet no elaborated account of these features of bureaucratic collectivism was forthcoming. Shachtman (1962: 279) followed Rizzi in describing the working class in the USSR as “the modern slaves, deprived of any political power whatever and therefore of all economic power”. But this claim involved ignoring the very high levels of labour mobility in the USSR, especially during the period of the First Five Year Plan (1928-32), evidence of the existence of a labour market even at the height of the regime’s coercion of the mass of population, and exaggerating the importance of the labour camps of the Gulag Archipelago, at their most extensive a secondary feature of the Soviet economy (see, for example, Filtzer 1986). Shachtman’s account of the social priorities of production in the USSR was equally unsatisfactory. He wrote: “In the Stalinist state, production is carried on and extended for the satisfaction of the needs of the bureaucracy” (Shachtman 1962: 58). Trotsky had argued along similar lines, but the implication for Shachtman was that the goal of exploitation under bureaucratic collectivism was, as Marx had argued to be the case under feudalism, ruling-class consumption. The obvious difficulty with such a view was the huge proportion of Soviet national income devoted to the production of capital goods, a reflection of the priority given heavy industry and the military. This pattern in turn indicated the respect in which the rulers of the USSR were themselves subject to pressures deriving from their involvement in the international state system of competing military powers. But such factors played no part in Shachtman’s analysis.

These weaknesses of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism – which Tony Cliff (1982: 99) summarized by saying that “[i]t does not define the economic laws of motion of the system, explain its inherent contradictions and the motivation of the class struggle” – gave it an indeterminacy which was to have important political consequences. Shachtman’s insistence that the USSR was a new form of class society produced by the contradictions of capitalism, but that socialism nevertheless remained on the agenda as a resolution of these contradictions superior to bureaucratic collectivism, made possible a dramatic political somersault. Initially, the WP remained committed to the conditional defence of the USSR in war, on the grounds that, as its 1941 convention put it, “[f]rom the standpoint of socialism, the bureaucratic collectivist state is a reactionary social order; in relation to the capitalist world, it is on a historically more progressive plane” (quoted in Cliff 1982: 87). After the German invasion of the USSR in June 1941, however, the WP decided to hold a revolutionary defeatist stance, similar to Lenin’s during the First World War, on the grounds that Russia had become a “vassal” of Western imperialism (Cliff 1982: 88-9). Such an argument could not survive what Shachtman (1962: 109ff.) himself described as the Stalinist “counter-revolutionary revolution” in Eastern Europe. By 1947 Shachtman (1962: 87) was arguing that, far from being more progressive than capitalism, “Stalinism is precisely one of the forms of barbarism which has manifested itself in the course of the decay of a society which the proletariat has not yet succeeded in lifting onto a rational plane”.

The term “barbarism” has a very definite sense within the Marxist tradition, being used to refer to forms of social retrogression, declines below the level of productive development hitherto achieved. To call Stalinism the “new barbarism”, as Shachtman (1962: 32) did, therefore implied that socialists should side with capitalism against bureaucratic collectivism, with the higher against the lower form of historical progress. The Shachtmanite group, renamed the Independent Socialist League (ISL) in 1949 in line with lowered post-war expectations, followed this logic in its policies within the American labour movement, where the Communist Party had achieved some influence by the end of the war. Shachtman (1962: 304-6) argued that of the two great enemies of socialism, capitalism and Stalinism, “inside the working class and its movement, Stalinism is the greater and more dangerous of the two”, “a reactionary, totalitarian, anti-bourgeois and anti-proletarian current in the labour movement but not of the labour movement”, which could succeed only through “the crushing of the working class”. Therefore, the ISL should “prefer the leadership of reformists who aim in their way to maintain a labour movement, to the leadership of Stalinist totalitarians who aim to exterminate it”, as part of the process of “eliminating” the Stalinist “poison” which “makes the first claim on the attention of every militant” (Shachtman 1962: 308-9).

This analysis of Stalinism as incipient barbarism very much reflected the mood of part of the Western Left in the 1940s. Already at the end of the 1930s a number of American intellectuals previously sympathetic to Trotskyism, among them Max Eastman, Sydney Hook, and Edmund Wilson, had begun to move in reaction to Stalinism towards social democracy (Burnham and Shachtman 1939). The Nazi victories in the early part of the war encouraged some exiled German Trotskyists to discern the “development of a modern slave state” as part of a more general process of socio-economic retrogression (IKD Committee Abroad 1943). The triumph of totalitarianism over a decaying civilization is, of course, the central theme of 1984 (Orwell’s experiences in the Spanish Civil War had earlier attracted him towards an anti-Stalinist variant of Marxism), but it is also to be found in Norman Mailer’s earlier novels – particularly Barbary Shore, which reflects his brief flirtation with Trotskyism (see Cannon’s (1973b: 212-17) sensible discussion of the novel). Trotsky had detected the political consequence of such views – Stalinophobia, leading to support for Western capitalism against the USSR – among his own allies in the faction fight inside the American SWP. At his last meeting with the SWP leadership in June 1940, Trotsky attacked them for a “passive adaptation” to pro-Roosevelt “progressives” inside the Teamsters Union and insisted, against Cannon’s opposition, that “the Stalinists are a legitimate part of the workers’ movement”, “not at all different from other opposition labour bureaucracies” (Trotsky 1973d: 280, 282). It was, however, Shachtman in the late 1940s who took Stalinophobia to its logical conclusion by arguing that the Western Communist parties were merely the agents of bureaucratic revolution. The flaw in this analysis was that it greatly underestimated the tendency, noted by Trotsky (for example, 1974: 70-2), for the Communist parties to detach themselves from their subordination to the Russian state, and develop the same kinds of roots, based on control of a trade-union machine, and electoral strategy, as the social-democratic parties – a tendency which became manifest with the emergence of Eurocommunism in the 1970s (for a critique of Shachtman’s analysis, see Hallas 1971).

The political import of the argument was much more immediate in the USA of the late 1940s. Shachtman’s support for the “elimination” of Stalinism from the labour movement dovetailed with the drive, central to McCarthyism, to purge the unions of Communist supporters, a necessary condition for the post-war deradicalization of the American working class (see, for example, Davis 1986: ch.2). So the WP backed Walter Reuther in his struggle to win control of the United Auto Workers from the Communist Party and its allies in 1946-7, an important episode in this process (Fisk 1977: 22-4). This was the beginning of the Shachtmanites’ more general identification with the Atlantic alliance against the Eastern bloc. In the late 1940s, disillusionment with the USSR and Cold War hysteria panicked many previously radical metropolitan intellectuals into the arms of the American government. The resulting phenomenon of “CIA socialism” is summed up by a scene later recalled by Lionel Trilling. At a meeting of the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas rang Allen Dulles, Director of Central Intelligence, successfully to plead for funds to keep the committee going (Bloom 1986: 264). The Shachtmanites were very largely drawn from the milieu of the New York Intellectuals and were therefore heavily influenced by its evolution towards “liberal anti-communism” (Bloom 1986: chs.10 and 11; Wald 1987: chs.6-9). In 1958 the ISL dissolved itself into the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation, which proved to be merely a stage towards entry into the Democratic Party, where Shachtman became a stalwart of the Cold War Right, backing US intervention in Vietnam and even endorsing Richard Nixon in the 1972 presidential election.

A minority led by Hal Draper resisted this evolution, founding in 1964 the Independent Socialist Clubs (ISC), which, swelled by recruits from the student and anti-war movements, became the International Socialists in 1969. But the International Socialists were still bedevilled by the ambiguities of the concept of bureaucratic collectivism which had made Shachtman, in Wolforth’s (1988b: 44) words, “the original theorist of the Evil Empire”. The search for a “third camp”, representing a democratic alternative to both the Viet Cong and the Americans and their allies, prevented the ISC from mounting an effective campaign against the Vietnam war (Fisk 1977: 42-5). From the mid-1970s onwards, however, the International Socialists, along with much of the rest of the American Left, developed a fairly uncritical enthusiasm for Third World movements such as the Sandinistas, even though these could as plausibly as the Viet Cong be depicted as the agents of bureaucratic collectivist revolution. This made it possible for the International Socialists, along with another grouping of Shachtmanite provenance, Workers’ Power, to form, together with dissident members of the American SWP, a new, broader far left organization, Solidarity, in 1985.

The idea that the USSR and its like were post-capitalist class societies has won support outside the Shachtmanite movement, elsewhere on the American Left (for example, Wright 1983) and among dissident Marxists in the Eastern bloc itself (see notably Bahro 1978; Kagarlitsky 1988). But the history of Shachtman and his followers suggests that, in the absence of an articulated theory of the new mode of production, the concept of bureaucratic collectivism has acted primarily as a means whereby its adherents could adapt to the prevailing mood on the local Left.


Last updated on 13.3.2001