Stalinism in Hindsight

Peter Drucker

Posted March 31, 2008

Max Shachtman et al.,
The Fate of the Russian Revolution:
Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Vol. 1
edited by Sean Matgamna
London: Phoenix Press, 1998, $14.99 paperback.

THE MAINSTREAM EXPLANATION of Stalinism is all too well known: The Bolsheviks were power-hungry conspirators whose efforts to create a socialist utopia in Russia inevitably led to a bloody tyranny.

Marxist explanations of Stalinism are harder to come by. A virtual neoliberal monopoly in the media and universities, especially since 1989-91, is one reason for this. Another is that Marxist works on the ex-USSR are typically published by one or another small Marxist current, have been read only in the limited circles that one current can reach, and have ignored or polemicized against all other currents’ theories.

Usually, when a group has split or changed its line, the writings on Stalinism it has published have sunk out of sight.

Max Shachtman’s and his co-thinkers’ writings on Stalinism suffered pretty much this same fate. From 1940 to 1958 they were read mostly in circles influenced by the organizations he led, the Workers Party and Independent Socialist League; a few years after the ISL dissolved into the Socialist Party in 1958, their writings became even less widely available.

This is a shame, because their attempts as Marxists to make sense of Stalinism were among the most interesting. The British group Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has done democratic Marxists a service by republishing many of these writings in The Fate of the Russian Revolution.

Three Contributions

Shachtman and other WP/ISL theorists made three major contributions to a Marxist understanding of Stalinism, all of them explained in the texts in The Fate of the Russian Revolution.

* WP leader Joe Carter in particular put the idea of workers’ democracy back in the center of a Marxist understanding of a transition from capitalism to socialism. Once the last remnants of workers’ democracy were eliminated in the USSR in the 1930s, the WP maintained, so was anything that could be legitimately called a “workers’ state”: “Without political power the working class cannot be the ruling class in any sense.” (297)

* Shachtman concluded that the USSR had stopped being a working-class state without moving back towards capitalism. He pioneered an understanding of the Soviet bureaucracy as simultaneously anticapitalist — dependent for its existence on collectivist property forms — and antisocialist, threatened in its very existence by democratic social relations.

* He was particularly insightful about Soviet expansionism. Unlike Trotsky, who described the bureaucracy as an essentially conservative force that preferred to make deals with capitalism, Shachtman saw that it would overthrow capitalism in neighboring countries if it could — by means of its army and police, shrinking from popular mobilization.

Shachtman was virtually alone in 1943 in predicting that Communist Parties would work “to prop up capitalist rule” in Western Europe after the war, but bring about “the expropriation of the native capitalist class . . . and the seizure of all property by the bureaucracy” in Eastern Europe, according to a single consistent logic. (336-37)

Until now the best available source for Shachtman’s thinking on Stalinism was the anthology The Bureaucratic Revolution. Published in 1962, it is hard to find now; and Shachtman chopped and changed several articles in it in order to make it fit his later, social democratic views. The Fate of the Russian Revolution republishes some of the same articles, but keeps scrupulously to the original versions.

It should be required reading especially for Trotskyists brought up on Trotsky’s In Defense of Marxism and Cannon’s The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (both of which are collections of documents pertaining to the 1939-40 split in the U.S. Trotskyist movement –ed.) Though these books were devoted to refuting Shachtman and his allies, they are strikingly unreliable as a guide to what Shachtman actually said.

Shachtman’s Evolution

Sean Matgamna’s long introduction (145 pages) does a good job of uncovering the roots of the WP approach in Trotsky’s views in the 1930s. Generations of Trotskyists have treated Trotsky’s 1936 book The Revolution Betrayed as the authoritative Marxist analysis of the Stalinist Soviet Union.

Matgamna shows that Trotsky “had changed his framework for viewing the USSR substantially several times — around 1929-30; around 1933; around 1936 — and at the end was tentatively proposing yet another framework.” (58) Many Trotsky scholars could benefit from Matgamna’s account, though his sometimes heavy-handed editorializing may get in their way.

Oddly, his introduction devotes less attention to Shachtman’s intellectual development than to Trotsky’s. He skips from the 1939-40 Shachtman-Cannon debate to Shachtman’s right turn in the late 1950s. For example, he hardly mentions the debate in the WP that was the context for Shachtman’s seminal 1940 article on bureaucratic collectivism, or the June 1941 German invasion of the Soviet Union that muddled that debate.

[The 1940-41 debate in the WP pitted Shachtman against workers’-state and state-capitalist theorists in the WP, but also against a rival theorist of bureaucratic collectivism, Joe Carter. A curious three-cornered discussion about Shachtman’s differences with Carter has grown up over the years.

[In one corner, Ernie Haberkern and Art Lipow have highlighted the differences, in order to portray Carter and Hal Draper as the originators of an independent, democratic socialism that broke clearly with Trotskyism while Shachtman was trying to build a ramshackle halfway house (Haberkern & Lipow eds., Neither Capitalism nor Socialism: Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism, New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1996). In a second corner, my book Max Shachtman and His Left (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1994) highlights those same differences, in order to reclaim Shachtman for a broad revolutionary Marxist tradition.

[Matgamna is in a quandary here: He is very much attached to the Trotskyist tradition, but also eager to dismiss all currents except Shachtman’s. He ends up neither doing justice to Carter’s distinctive contribution (which Shachtman himself acknowledged) nor recognizing Shachtman’s full indebtedness to Trotsky (which Shachtman himself did).

[Bob Pitt has made this point in his review of The Fate of the Russian Revolution (What Next? no. 11). Paul Hampton spoke for others in the Shachtmanite tradition when he responded that Carter’s and Shachtman’s difference of opinion in the WP “was settled in Carter’s favour from ” (Thanks to the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty for providing me with copies of this and other reviews.) I think this interpretation ignores too much contrary evidence, such as Shachtman’s 1946 comment, “The differences that we had I have to this day.” (WP May 1946 convention minutes, cited in Max Shachtman and His Left, 167)]

After Stalin

The Fate of the Russian Revolution also does not include anything on post-Stalin Stalinism. Yet Shachtman’s writings (included in The Bureaucratic Revolution) on Khrushchev’s post-1956 reforms still make fascinating reading, and help illuminate why Gorbachev’s later reforms ended in the regime’s collapse.(1)

Above all Matgamna does not take advantage of the historical distance provided by the years since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Hindsight tends to vindicate Shachtman’s skepticism in 1940 that the bureaucracy “could look forward to a [long] social life-span.” (284) His later notion that the advance of collectivism was unstoppable, and that the decisive battle would be between democratic and bureaucratic collectivism, has not stood the test of time so well.

There is a hopeful sign in this collection’s subtitle: Vol. 1. The WP tradition includes many valuable writings on subjects other than the Soviet Union: Shachtman’s 1945 book Socialism, for example, which includes excellent sections on the trade union bureaucracy and rank-and-file strategy.

The WP’s resolutions on the national question, and documents describing the kind of open, pluralist, programmatically coherent organization its members were trying to build, are also far richer than the few pages included in The Fate of the Russian Revolution suggest. They are more timely and internationally relevant now than the writings on Stalinism. Here’s hoping they will be published in this series’ later volumes.


  1. On the other hand Matgamna spends almost thirty pages summing up the development of what “was to be `official’ Trotskyism by the mid-1950s,” though his account is not particularly relevant or convincing. He reiterates Shachtman’s charge that “official” Trotskyism “translated Trotsky’s defence of the Soviet Union into partisanship for the USSR empire.” (116) The workers’ state theory has sometimes served this purpose, as shown for example by the Fourth International’s call for North Korean victory in 1950 and the U.S. Workers World Party over several decades. But the great majority of the world’s Trotskyists, whatever one may think of their theories or groups, showed their genuine hostility to the “USSR empire” in responding to the Hungarian Revolution and Soviet invasion of 1956, the crushing of the Czech reform movement in 1968 and the rise of the Polish Solidarnosc trade union movement in 1980-81.

    back to text

from ATC 93 (July/August 2001)