Workers’ Liberty and the Third Camp
"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 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.1
The Russian revolution of October 1917 was, for Marxists, the greatest event so far in world history, because for the first time the working class, led by the Bolshevik Party, raised itself into power through the Soviets and then, expropriating the capitalist class, held onto power, albeit tentatively, for a decade. The Fate of the Russian Revolution reaffirms this eloquently and offers some substantial answers, building on the Marxist tradition so enriched by Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades who led the revolution, to the question which naturally follows from 1917: what went wrong? This tradition, of which Max Shachtman and his followers in the WP/ISL were a part, recognised that the circumstances after the seizure of power – the backward economic state of the country in which the working class was a fraction of the total population; the three years of bloody civil war and invasion by a dozen countries; and the isolation of Russia as workers’ revolutions failed or were aborted in Europe – meant that the working class clung onto power in the twenties only by the Bolshevik Party increasingly substituting itself for the democratic organs such as the Soviets through which the workers were expected to rule. This substitution or locum, as Sean Matgamna calls it in his introduction, is the root explanation of the degeneration of the Russian revolution, and ultimately of the complete disenfranchisement of the working class by Stalin by 1928.
However, this conception, a commonplace within the Trotskyist movement which sought in vain to rescue the revolution and chart a course for renewal within Russia in the twenties, is only the beginning of a greater problem for Marxists, namely how to explain the development of Stalinism – the force which, having destroyed the Bolshevik Party and any 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.3 This simultaneous smashing of the working class movement, together with the expropriation of the capitalist class, which was the essence of Stalinist bureaucracy, disorientated not only the thousands of members of Communist Parties who had joined the struggle for international socialism after 1917, but even those forces like the Trotskyists who were the principal enemies and most biting critics of Stalinism. Even the mighty Trotsky, who had first theorised and then led the great events of 1917, who had predicted and fought the rise of fascism, and who had charted the degeneration of the Russian revolution, died in 1940 still trapped on the horns of this dilemma. He had however provided his followers with some of the tools to really understand this phenomenon, and the brightest of these people, grouped together firstly in the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and later the WP/ISL, struggled to understand Stalinism as it developed in the forties in light of Trotsky’s earlier analyses.
A number of Trotsky’s followers raised criticisms of his evolving analysis of the USSR, especially after the publication of The Revolution Betrayed in 1936-37. Burnham and Carter in the US argued that the Soviet Union could no longer be considered any kind of workers’ state, explaining 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 their new society.
Burnham and Carter 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 Sean calls in his introduction, totalitarian economism. This 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, whilst Stalin boasted he was dragging Russia into the twentieth century.
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 Burnham called the bureaucratic road to socialism. But, until 1939, Burnham and Carter continued to argue that the bureaucracy was not a ruling class, but rather a "semi- or embryonic bourgeois" formation and that nationalised property was still progressive – entailing, in certain circumstances, the defence of the USSR in war. (It is therefore a mistake to characterise Burnham as a bureaucratic collectivist at this time, reading back his position in The Managerial Revolution to his earlier views, which differed from Trotsky largely on the extent of the degeneration.)
Whose analysis provided the real breakthrough on Stalinism? As the introduction to the book explains, Trotsky himself was the innovator in 1939, in his article on the Stalin-Hitler Pact, "The USSR in War". Here 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.4 Using the mask of Rizzi, Trotsky acknowledged that should Stalinism outlast the war, then he would be forced to re-evaluate his designation of Russia as a "degenerated workers’ state" which should be defended against imperialist attack. In fact Trotsky’s whole approach to Stalinism was to continually modify his theory in the light of its development: for example on whether reform or revolution was necessary, or on the Thermidor and Bonapartism analogy. In 1928, in the letter to Borodai, he argued that the possibility of reform of the Bolshevik Party was the basis on which he still characterised Russia as a workers’ state – by 1931, when this perspective was becoming plainly impossible, he focused more narrowly on nationalised property.5 His later positions in 1939-40 went even further (although he drew back somewhat in the debate within the SWP): on the slogan for an independent Soviet Ukraine, on the possibility of bureaucratic collectivism, and, in the last days of his life, on Communist Parties outside the USSR.6 What is clear from Trotsky’s body of work in the thirties as a whole is that his concrete analyses of Stalinism were chafing and ultimately undermining the characterisation of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state. Shachtman and his followers only drew out the logic of this analysis – firstly for the political conclusions ("defencism") and later for the formula ("workers’ state") that Trotsky himself had laid bare.
On these important matters – the decline of the Russian revolution, the origins of Stalinism and the way in which Marxists should judge these developments, Bob Pitt has little to say. Instead he offers a perspective, following his interpretation of Rakovsky, that Stalinism in the 1930s ("the bureaucratic state"), whilst not being a workers’ state as such, still contained sufficient "proletarian residues" – in the form of nationalised property – which would make it more progressive than capitalism and therefore worth defending, firstly in the war with Nazi Germany after 1941, and later against the restoration of capitalism after 1991. This view of Rakovsky is tendentious to say the least – we know he was supposed to have capitulated to Stalin in the face of the rise of fascism, but it is another leap to tie his formula entirely to the idea that Stalinism was progressive against capitalism, as Bob implies.
Nowhere does Bob explain what is more progressive about a state with nationalised property, especially a state which he concedes was no longer ruled in any way by the working class, and over which a bureaucracy stood as the undisputed master. He puts the form of the state (nationalised property) above the content which made it in some sense progressive (i.e. the working class still possessed the state in some way). Stalinism had shattered the Russian workers’ hold on the state, so it is by no means obvious what exactly was worth defending in what was left in the USSR.
Trotsky himself conceded in the debate in 1939-40 that nationalised property was only relatively progressive, and had to be measured against "the sum total of all other factors" and tied this formulation ultimately to the overthrow of the Moscow bureaucracy.7 He continued to define "defencism" as military support for the USSR in a war against imperialism, and not as political support for the Kremlin. But Shachtman took this a stage further. The invasion of Poland and then Finland by the USSR was not an act of defence but rather a sign of imperialist aggression, and socialists were opposed to the seizure by Stalin of new territories in these countries. Yet how could revolutionaries be defencists (i.e. support the Red Army militarily) in these wars, even if Russia was a "workers’ state" due to nationalised property, and still oppose the seizures? Socialists could not both oppose and support the Russian takeover, and not when they knew that it would mean the crushing of any independent labour movement in those countries when Russia took over. The position was impractical, and in effect chose Stalinism as a lesser evil, ruling out a third independent road against both the Nazis and the Stalinists. Instead Trotsky was reduced to making fantastical claims about Soviets and workers’ control in the occupied territories which were largely without foundation. Shachtman’s hostility to the first stages of Russian expansionism was far more appropriate as the war unfolded in 1939-40.
Bob Pitt’s other argument for defencism later on is similarly disingenuous. He says: look at what the Nazis would have done to Russia if they had won, and look what capitalism has actually done in Russia since Stalinism collapsed in 1991. But the reverse argument is also true: look what Stalinism did to Eastern Europe for over forty years, and how it created a huge empire, a prison house of nations, systematically wiping out any freedom for workers to act. Remember Hungary in 1956 and Poland in 1980-81. Trotsky’s words in 1938, that Stalinism differed from fascism only "in more unbridled savagery", sound prophetic here.8 The takeover of Eastern Europe gave a new lease of life to Stalinism, both in Russia and internationally after the war, yet Bob thinks the revolutionaries should have formed a "united front with the Russian workers" (p.38) against the Nazis – rubbing the Stalinist imperial expansion completely out of the picture. Instead we prefer the Third Camp argument – there is no choice, no lesser evil to be had for working class politics – neither capitalism nor Stalinism, and later neither Washington nor Moscow, as the Workers’ Party expressed it from the late forties. But the third camp of the working class does not exist for Bob Pitt in practical politics, and workers under these circumstances can only be the tail defending the Stalinist dog.
The other issues which Bob raises about the WP/ISL position on Stalinism are either false or slanderous, substituting source-mining for the bigger picture. He makes a big deal of the differences between Joseph Carter and Max Shachtman within the WP/ISL, especially in 1941, and follows the view in Haberkern and Lipow’s book that there were really two versions of bureaucratic collectivism within the group.9 Actually their volume, published in 1996, only proves that there were many differences over a range of questions over at least fifteen years – and that it is far too simple to reduce them to two coherent theories. The Workers’ Party did indeed disagree on the place of Stalinism in history in 1941, with the majority agreeing with Shachtman that it was more progressive than capitalism, but these were what were later recognised as "hangovers" from Trotsky’s analysis and soon dropped. In fact, there were other versions of bureaucratic collectivism around as well: the view of MacDonald (and Rizzi) that totalitarian collectivism was the wave of the future for all countries, both Stalinist and capitalist; and the view that Stalinism was worse than capitalism, a path down which Irving Howe and Shachtman himself would later travel in the fifties. The point is that none of the protagonists had a finished theory in 1941, and in fact it took until the late forties to really evolve a rounded, truly Third Camp conception.
Bob says that The Fate of the Russian Revolution is unjust to Carter and others who undoubtedly played an important role in the movement, and that we have tinkered with the history of the WP/ISL to produce "a version of history which has been put through an ideological blender and all the lumps removed".10 This is false. Carter’s role, as well as that of others like Draper, are documented in the book, and are to some extent available in other sources (by Pathfinder, Monthly Review Press, and Humanities Press) which address a similar audience to The Fate of the Russian Revolution. The book does not claim to be a history of the WP/ISL, but rather a critique of Trotskyism from within this tradition. So it is simply slanderous to suggest that "sharp practice" has gone on in the editing of the book. In the case of Carter’s 1941 document, the editing is explicitly referred to on the page (The Fate of the Russian Revolution, p.294), and a summary of its point given in the footnote as well as the reference to the full text in the Haberkern book which is currently in print. Bob Pitt sounds like a trainspotter of the archives, more concerned with finding antecedents of his own views in the documents than with establishing their overall trajectory. He is really only miffed because views close to his own are not given more prominence in the book. In any case, the 1941 debate was of peripheral significance, a brief episode, not a major turning point – Erber’s defencism was identical to Shachtman’s as he expressed it in 1940 in "Is Russian a Workers’ State?", and Shachtman’s volte-face was indicative of the unfinished character of his analysis.
The differences were never so vast as to prevent political collaboration between these revolutionaries for nearly two decades. Effectively the issue of the place of Stalinism in history for the Workers’ Party was settled in Carter’s favour from 1942, when Stalinism is treated by the whole tendency, Shachtman included, as a parallel and rival imperialism to the US. The business of progressive property forms drops out of their press, and Stalinism is treated as mongrel formation – a "leap sideways" as Shachtman put it in 1942.11 (His book, The Struggle for the New Course, offers further proof of this.) Also, crucially, it was Shachtman, and later Draper (not Carter), who really analysed the development of Stalinism as it expanded into Eastern Europe, a process which confirmed the broad outlines of their theory against the luminations of the orthodox Trotskyists. It was Shachtman too who acknowledged right from the outset the collective effort involved in working out a new analysis, and Shachtman who like Trotsky sought to use the concrete analysis of the real world as the criterion for assessing the new phenomenon. And when Shachtman himself left out reference to Carter and others in 1962 in his book, The Bureaucratic Revolution, it was not mainly a matter of denying prominence to a particular individual, but of separating himself from the whole tradition of the Third Camp which the WP/ISL had tried to develop.
Even here Bob is less than honest about the issues. He calls Carter’s view in 1941 "reactionary bureaucratic collectivism", which he goes on to say means "regressive even in relation to capitalism".12 This is wrong: Carter or Draper never held this view – they characterised Stalinism as reactionary from the point of view of the working class (which it was), but equally as bad as capitalism – hence the "neither Washington nor Moscow" slogan and the importance they attached to the Third Camp of the proletariat. Again, this camp does not exist in Bob Pitt’s scenario. The same can also be said for his slander that the AWL and other socialists welcomed the reintroduction of capitalism into Russia. He fails to distinguish between welcoming the movement of large numbers of people during this revolutionary period to throw off the yoke of Stalinism, and encouraging the embryonic workers’ movements that emerged from the freeze, but at the same time standing for workers’ liberty as the only answer. Even a cursory glance through our press at the time will show an explicit rejection of capitalism as an alternative, including headlines in our press, such as "Yeltsin has no answers", and a whole pamphlet, Towards Capitalism or Workers’ Liberty.13 Readers should judge for themselves. But they should also delve into the record for what the WP/ISL said in the forties and fifties: support for free trade unions against the state; support for democratic movements against the bureaucracy even when their leaderships are pro-capitalist; concern first and foremost with re-establishing an independent labour movement and a group of Marxists working to win it to revolutionary socialism.14
The other great issue which is dealt with in a slapdash fashion by the review, but actually forms a centrepiece of The Fate of the Russian Revolution, and is the main criteria for selecting particular documents, is the failure of Trotskyism after Trotsky. Bob tries to brush over this – not surprisingly for someone who thinks Mike Banda’s Maoism in the WRP is the height of pluralism – but the record of the the SWP and the Fourth International during the war, so well documented by the WP/ISL, proved to be an accurate precursor of what was to follow later on.15 Whether it was George Clarke’s belief in 1942 that the Russian soldiers fought harder because they really owned the factories and mines of the country, or John G. Wright’s claim that it was really Trotsky’s Red Army, the part of the state least contaminated by Stalinism, which had resisted the Nazi offensives in 1941, we are a long way from Trotsky. Whether it was Bert Cochran’s insistence that the morale of the Russian people was high because the October Revolution still lived on, or James P. Cannon’s edict that the Warsaw uprising should subordinate itself to the main army (the Red Army) that stood by whilst the Nazis pulverised them in 1944, we are no longer on the grounds of working class politics. And let alone Cannon’s most famous faux pas in November 1945, when he claimed that Trotsky’s prognosis (that the war would settle the fate of Stalinism) was still valid ... because the war was not over!!16
The orthodox Trotskyists were utterly incoherent on the spread of Stalinist imperialism into Eastern Europe, firstly claiming that these were state capitalist regimes (whilst the Czech bourgeoisie celebrated its victory by being hurled out of high windows onto the pavement below), and then flipping over to the dreadful position that (deformed) workers’ states had been created by renegade Stalinists like "comrade" Tito, and later Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro and so on. 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 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. The bureaucratic road to "socialism" had most surely been created – by the Stalinists – so what point was there being a Trotskyist when other forces could carry out your programme?
This is the dross from which Marxists today have to rescue our tradition. Bob Pitt’s conclusion, that the introduction of the world socialist society is "postponed for we don’t know how long" (p.40) shows all the signs of a pessimist who has lost his bearings (especially when he talks of Stalinism as an example of a "viable" alternative to capitalism).
Finally, do the AWL recognise that different strands exist within the Marxist tradition, or are we engaged in "bogus tradition building"? The reader will only need to consult the range of contributions in the book, as well the rancorous debates in our press on current politics to know that this is nonsense. If Bob had bothered to read the book more carefully, he wouldn’t have to plead for documents on organisational questions in subsequent volumes, as some of them already appear in this one, along with real debates within the Trotskyist tradition.17 Contrast this with books that really do indulge in bogus tradition building – In Defense of Marxism and The Struggle for a Proletarian Party – published by the SWP and the WRP – which produce only the elements of Trotsky which suit their "defencist" prejudices, along with only the worst documents of their opponents and some truly awful introductions. Trotskyism is not defined by Trotsky’s formula of the "degenerated workers’ state", nor by Rakovsky nor any other position frozen in time since the 1930s.
All his bluster about the AWL "retrospectively constructing an unsullied political tradition" and seeing ourselves as the unique continuation of the struggle for revolutionary principle, aside from being an admission that he has given up the fight to build a party of Marxists, again really misses the point of the book. Putting on Shachtman’s old clothes, and pretending they are our own is about as useful as dressing up as one of Cromwell’s New Model Army and pretending to understand the English civil war. We have never claimed to be uncritical followers of Shachtman nor the sole inheritors of the WP/ISL – rather we think they represent an important but forgotten element in the tradition of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. In fact the introduction is quite explicit in rejecting such nonsense, when it says: "It should not be thought that one has to take or leave the political legacy of the Workers’ Party and the ISL as a whole. Nothing could be more foreign to the spirit of that organisation. The Workers’ Party was not a "monolithic" party; nor are the organisations of those who want to learn from it."18
We have to work in today’s class struggle, and though we learn from the past, and not only from Shachtman (or Carter) but the rich tradition on which they stood, when we fight on the ideological front we do so in our own way. But what sort of tradition do we base ourselves on? A renewed Marxism, cleansed of its Stalinist and other distortions, and enriched by sixty years of struggle since Trotsky. Bob Pitt either seems to want a talking shop where all views are equally valid, which won’t do if you have to intervene in the workers’ movement, or a defencism that puts state property above the living movement of workers which are the only agency that can make socialism. He seems to spurn the relentless search of clarity which the working class movement needs if it is to strike out on its own path, preferring innuendo and sneering at those who do seek this path. Trotsky’s rules in 1938 sum up crisply the alternative kind of tradition the AWL seeks to create: "To face reality squarely, not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s programme on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives."19 But none of this is much use unless you think the working class is the subject of history and working class self-liberation is at the centre of our concerns. Hence the importance of the Third Camp. Hence the critique of Stalinism (and capitalism). Hence the critique of Trotskyism.
1. Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement 1934-40, 1979, pp.868-869. Although Trotsky is referring to the prospect of world war, the quote is still sufficiently broad to include Stalinism as the "second" camp apart from capitalism which the WP/ISL meant by it.
2. Pitt, "Max Shachtman, Soviet Defencism and ’Unfalsifed Marxism’", What Next? No.11, 1998. Bob never quite manages to explain how a "cranky sect" is capable of publishing such a unique collection. Is it merely an accident?
3. See Trotsky, Stalin, Volume II, 1969, pp.221, 240.
4. Trotsky, "The USSR in War", In Defense of Marxism, 1990, pp.8-9. Carter did not write his position down at the time.
5. Matgamna, ed, The Fate of the Russian Revolution, 1998, pp.305-309.
6. Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1939-40, 1973, pp.350-351. "The predominating type among the present "Communist" bureaucrats is the political careerist, and in consequence the polar opposite of the revolutionist. Their ideal is to attain in their own country the same position that the Kremlin oligarchy gained in the USSR. They are not the revolutionary leaders of the proletariat but aspirants to totalitarian rule. They dream of gaining success with the aid of this same Soviet bureaucracy and its GPU. They view with admiration and envy the invasion of Poland, Finland, the Baltic states, Bessarabia by the Red Army because these invasions immediately bring about the transfer of power into the hands of the local Stalinist candidates for totalitarian rule." Trotsky, "The Comintern and the GPU", 17 August 1940.
7. Trotsky, "The USSR in War", In Defense of Marxism, p.19.
8. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, 1974, p.105.
9. E. Haberkern and A.nbsp;Lipow, eds, Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, 1996, p.1.
10. Pitt, p.37.
11. Shachtman, "25 Years of the Russian Revolution", New International, November 1942. In the book The Struggle for the New Course, first published in 1943, and reissued in 1965, Shachtman adopts Carter’s critique of Trotsky’s three factions theory from the twenties, and describes nationalised property as the "economic foundation of a new ruling class" (1965 edition, p.235) and "the most important weapon it has for the exploitation and oppression of the proletariat" (p.238). He disparages the "socialist successes" under Stalin, and the closest to his earlier position is a reference to capitalist restoration turning Russia into a colony (p.221). There is no mention of the progressive nature of nationalised property.
12. Pitt, p.39.
13. Socialist Organiser, No.451, 7 June 1990.
14. On the bogus state-run unions, see Al Gates (Glotzer), "The Stalinist Threat in the Unions", Labor Action, 9 May 1955. The ISL Theses argued: "In the anti-Stalinist revolution, therefore, we vigorously support all tendencies, struggles and steps towards a revolutionary democratic opposition to the regime.... The leading social force in the anti-Stalinist revolution, however, is the working class. The experience of both Hungary and Poland has shown that the revolutionary working class spontaneously organised its forces into Workers’ Councils as its revolutionary instrument against the state, and that these Workers’ Councils tended to assume the character of dual power challenging the old state or assuming its power after shattering of the old state." Labor Action, 15 July 1957.
15. The example of the WRP is indicative of Bob’s own roots. Mike Banda’s Maoism was a privilege afforded to a prominent member of Healy’s inner circle, not a right which ordinary members could exercise in opposition to the leadership – except of course in 1967 when the whole organisation briefly flirted with Chinese Stalinism, as a file of their papers from the period shows. Similarly the idea that Trotskyism Versus Revisionism is only just below the editing techniques of The Fate of the Russian Revolution is so preposterous only an ex-Healyite would seriously make it.
16. For these references see Matgamna, ed, pp.414-26, 440-456. For Cannon on the war see The Militant 17 November 1945. The relevant quote is in Matgamna, ed, p.449, or in James P. Cannon, Writings and Speeches 1945-47, 1977, p.200.
17. Matgamna, ed, pp.372-385.
18. Ibid, p.155.
19. Trotsky, The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International, p.108.