Shachtman and His Legacy

Against the Current, No. 57, July/August 1995

David Finkel

Max Shachtman and His Left:
A Socialist’s Odyssey Through the “American Century”
by Peter Drucker
New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1994,
346 pages, paperback, $18.95.

LIKE ALMOST ANY work of serious Marxist scholarship, Peter Drucker’s Max Shachtman and His Left cannot be separated from issues of present-day politics and commitment. We should be grateful that it found a ready publisher in the Humanities Press “Revolutionary Studies” series edited by Paul Le Blanc.

Far from producing a purely academic study of an historical figure, Drucker chose his subject as part of a conscious effort toward reconstructing a working class, internationalist revolutionary left.

“Paradoxically,” Drucker writes, “In some respects the pre-Cold War Shachtman of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s now seems startlingly contemporary…the more clearly we conjure up the picture of that pre-Cold War world, the more unsettlingly familiar it looks.” (2)

What Drucker has in mind, obviously, is not a literal repetition of the 1930s but rather broad features of the global and U.S. scene: a protracted crisis with wrenching effects on the lives and the consciousness of working people; a U.S. working class in the process of being recomposed as a multinational reality, in which traditions of struggle of immigrant workers (today, especially from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America) must play a growing role; a scramble among capitalist imperialist powers for advantages in trade and manufacture; the centrality of struggles against racism.

Most of all, the collapse of Stalinism and the end of the Cold War system removes, in Drucker’s view, one of the crippling obstacles to the development of socialist working class politics in both East and West. Indeed, the crisis in socialist thought resulting from Stalin’s destruction of the Russian Revolution and the post-1945 bipolar division between Pax Americana and the Soviet bloc is central to any investigation of “Shachtmanism.”

Shachtman’s greatness as a thinker lay in his ability to understand and confront the impact of these events on socialist expectations — particularly, his understanding that any confusion between bureaucratic tyranny and socialism was fatal. Yet the contradictions of the Cold War world contributed greatly to the ultimate degeneration of Max Shachtman, and most of “his Left,” into either reactionary, pro-imperialist right-wing Social Democratic politics or a critical but decidedly pro-West liberalism.

Drucker chronicles the evolution of Shachtman’s views of the Communist menace (both real and imagined) in order to understand its errors and the lessons to be drawn. A point must be stressed here, however<197>one which Drucker certainly understands, but to which many on the left who consider themselves adept critics of “Shachtmanism” are quite oblivious: Shachtman’s supposed obsession with Communism was only one factor, an important but not necessarily the most crucial one, in his rightward trajectory.(1)

Who Was Max Shachtman?

The first problem that arises in writing, or reviewing, a political biography of Max Shachtman has to do with the audience that Drucker obviously wants to reach. It includes many activists who have no idea who Shachtman was; some who are familiar with intricate details of the half-century of mass struggles and factional battles in which he was engaged; and others of us who have studied parts of the relevant literature but who cannot claim deep historical expertise.(2)

It must be said that Drucker succeeds strikingly in writing for a diverse potential readership. He is also concerned to attempt to recover Shachtman’s personal qualities — his warmth and capacity for friendship as well as his abrasive and quarrelsome traits — a difficult task for an author generations removed from his subject.

Those who are uninitiated will find here a basic “tendency history” covering the early years of the Communist party, the origins of the Trotskyist movement and its struggles against the isolation produced by the Stalinist counterrevolution and the ascendancy of fascism.

This was followed by the militant revolutionary activism of the 1940s Workers Party and the 1950s left-socialist Independent Socialist League. Finally came the 1960s, when what remained of Max Shachtman’s movement irrevocably splintered, and when Shachtman himself
adopted a contemptuous and sectarian attitude toward the New Left, particularly the anti-war movement, until his death in 1972.

So who was Max Shachtman anyway? An astonishing and contradictory figure by any reckoning, he was among the political and intellectual founders of American Communism, Trotskyism — and neoconservatism. In the 1940s he led a small but vigorous revolutionary party that led early struggles to desegregate auto plants; in the 1960s, after his career as a revolutionary had ended, he was a major (though unpublicized) strategic thinker behind the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, yet also a mentor of United Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker, leader of the 1968 racist New York teachers’ strike against community control.

He was born in 1904 in Warsaw but a lifelong New Yorker from infancy, recruited to socialist politics through his studies and the Jewish working-class milieu he lived in. He was a founding member of the American Communist party, among its most energetic organizers and journalists, and a youthful leader of its “Americanizing” wing during the party factional wars of the 1920s.

An early expression of Shachtman’s internationalism was his powerful statement of solidarity with the Nicaraguan anti-imperialist war of Augusto Sandino (45-46), expressing a view of the importance of national liberation movements that Shachtman would maintain until the disintegration of his own revolutionary perspective. Throughout his career, Shachtman would be perhaps the outstanding publicist for socialist politics that the movement has produced in the United States.

Along with co-factionalists James P. Cannon and Martin Abern, Shachtman was a founder of the U.S. Trotskyist movement and an early fighter for the Fourth International. He and Cannon participated actively in the Trotskyists’ leadership of the 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strike; Shachtman also wrote some of the most important exposures of the Stalinist show trials, and edited the Trotskyist theoretical organ New International, the best revolutionary Marxist journal ever published in the English language.

The Third Camp

Trotskyism split, inevitably, over the “Russian Question” in the context of the second World War. Wrenching controversies arose from the destruction of the remnants of Lenin’s Bolshevik party and the virtual enslavement of Soviet workers, as well as the Stalin-Hitler pact, Soviet occupations of Finland and Poland and the USSR’s trajectory into, out of and back into alliance with Western imperialist powers.

These catastrophic events irrevocably broke apart Trotskyists’ unity around “defense of the Soviet Union” as a workers’ state (however degenerated it had become, Trotskyists had argued, under Stalin’s totalitarian bureaucratic dictatorship).

Again, readers new to the history of this split, which was consummated organizationally shortly before Trotsky’s assassination in 1940, and its legacy of polemics will find in Drucker’s book as good a basic account as will be found anywhere.

The author (like this reviewer) is unabashedly sympathetic to the “Shachtmanite” as opposed to the “Cannonite” and Trotsky’s side of the argument. Drucker is careful, however, to trace the stages and internal contradictions through which Shachtman’s position evolved from 1939 to the articulation of an essentially complete theory of a new Stalinist ruling class system — bureaucratic collectivism — in 1940-43.

The formation produced by the minority in the split, the Workers Party led by Shachtman, organized around the slogan of a “Third Camp” — conceived as a struggle of workers and oppressed people everywhere as an alternative to both imperialist war camps. In the postwar world of the Cold War, the concept of the Third Camp took on a new and more lasting meaning, as the vision of an independent democratic and revolutionary alternative to both capitalist imperialism and its bureaucratic collectivist rival.

It is as leader of the Workers Party (1940-48) and its successor organization the Independent Socialist League (1949-58) that Shachtman emerges as a magnificent, if ultimately tragic figure. Although a highly competent Marxist thinker, he was not a profoundly original theorist but rather a synthesist of major importance.

The conception of the consolidated Soviet bureaucracy as a new ruling class, opposed in its own way to capitalism but even more bitterly hostile to socialism and any form of independent working class politics, was not Shachtman’s own original insight, but he was able to provide its finished formulation and, most importantly, to explain its relevance for the monumental effort to reconstruct a socialist movement from the wreckage of Stalinism, fascism and postwar U.S. imperialist supremacy.

“His most enduring legacy,” Drucker rightly says, “was his appreciation of the inseparability of socialism and democracy.” (318)

Similarly, Shachtman did not originate the theory of the Permanent War Economy as an important new vehicle for the economic stabilization of postwar capitalism. But he grasped its importance for understanding why there would not be an inevitable rapid recurrence
of the 1930s-style Great Depression, the expectation of which distorted the perspectives of many Marxists. (218)

A Winding Road to Reformism

Shachtman’s politics and activities through World War II make up Part I of Drucker’s work. Part II, subtitled “The American Working Class as It Really Is” — one of the later Shachtman’s favorite phrases and his dominant political preoccupation — begins with the profound rethinking of Trotskyist expectations.

Between 1946-48 it began to become clear that U.S. workers would share in the postwar prosperity of U.S. capitalism. “(W)orkers were not about to support revolutionary projects while their lives were tangibly improving. Shachtman recognized these postwar realities faster and more thoroughly than almost any other Marxist. He was still determined to fight against ascendant U.S. power and build a working class opposition in the belly of the beast.” (189)

This meant, among other things, looking for any possible opening toward independent mass working class politics. Contrary to a certain sectarian mythology that sees Shachtman after 1940 as hopelessly blinded by “Stalinophobia,” Shachtman initially placed some real hope in Henry Wallace’s third-party movement despite its considerable Communist support.(201)(3)

Shortly, however, Shachtman tilted toward a notion that was to prove sterile and crippling to every socialist current that has pursued it ever since, often with much less realistic justification than Shachtman originally had. This was the perspective that a labor party in the United States would most likely arise through the initiative of the Reuther or Dubinsky wing of the labor bureaucracy.

This was not only a significant strategic miscalculation at a time when the labor bureaucracy, particularly its liberal wing, was incorporating itself into the Cold War system on the side of its own imperialist ruling class — at home through the anti-Communist purges, abroad through very dirty operations on behalf of U.S. policy inside the labor movements of western and southern Europe and Latin America.

It was also a particularly dangerous orientation for a small political tendency — one that had sunk impressive roots during wartime in rank and file militancy against the no-strike pledge, but which now saw that militancy dissolving and an increasing number of its own cadres either leaving industry or finding posts inside the union officialdom.

To be sure, it is much easier retrospectively to identify the Shachtman tendency’s mistakes than to identify any viable alternative course. Yet the orientation toward progressive labor bureaucrats to launch independent politics, substituting for a vibrant working class insurgency that was dissolving, led Shachtman by an almost infinite sequence of incremental adaptations toward the Democratic Party (where, as not only Shachtman but his disciple Michael Harrington lectured us until his death, is where “the American working class as it really is” politically lives).

Today, the attempt to forge an independent working class political alternative — coming together around the formation Labor Party Advocates — is starting virtually from scratch, partly because the socialist left of previous generations has produced such a sad legacy of dependence on the Democrats.

Obviously, these adaptations were also profoundly linked to Shachtman’s deepening skepticism that any radical opposition movement in the world — in particular, national liberation struggles in which he had invested enormous hope — could forge a really independent, let alone revolutionary, force in a world divided into the imperialist
camps of rival social systems.

In short, Shachtman’s winding road to reformism entailed the step-by-step abandonment of the Third Camp conception to which he had devoted so much passion and energy.

Aligning with Imperialism

A crucial moment was the dissolution in 1958 of the Independent Socialist League and its members’ entry into the long-moribund Socialist Party. As Alan Wald has written:

“As long as the Independent Socialist League continued, those who aspired to shift their allegiance in the direction of supporting the ‘democratic’ imperialist foreign policy of the United States had to break from the organization. Once the organized political tendency ceased to exist, the speed with which Shachtman moved to the far right wing of social democracy appalled not only many of his associates but even those who had previously left his group.” (The New York Intellectuals, 192)

By 1961, Shachtman refused to condemn the Bay of Pigs invasion; by 1965, he publicly supported the U.S. war in Vietnam. Those inspired by the politics of the last decade of his life inhabit such environs as the Social Democrats USA, National Endowment for Democracy and American Institute for Free Labor Development, where as intellectual advisors to the right wing of the AFL-CIO bureaucracy and the Reagan administration they contributed significantly to keeping Central America safe for torturers, dictators and death squads.

Always searching for “the American working class as it really is,” Shachtman made his final commitment to the worst of reactionary institutions and leaderships dedicated to preventing that working class from changing and emancipating itself.

Grappling with a Legacy

Coming to terms with the legacy of a political leader both so inspiring and appalling is Peter Drucker’s fundamental purpose in writing this book. His own orientation as an activist shaped by the fresh upsurges of the 1960s and `70s (which Shachtman generally despised, except for the early Civil Rights movement), as a revolutionary socialist and gay activist, as a Fourth Internationalist who regards himself as a “Shachtmanite,” naturally strongly influences Drucker’s interpretive effort.

Briefly stated, Drucker’s hope is that recuperating the revolutionary Shachtman for today’s working-class struggle, combined with the best qualities of a non-dogmatic Fourth International and fused with the anti-racist, feminist and pro-gay commitments demanded by new movements, can help prepare a revival of authentic socialist politics in a crisis-ridden, post-Cold War world.

It’s a powerful vision, and since I generally share it I certainly recommend to all comrades and activists a careful study of Peter’s sympathetic but sharp criticisms of key phases of Shachtman’s complex evolution. In a review of this scope I can’t possibly address many details, but I want to focus on one problem that Peter seems to slide around.

For that generation whose radical education came through the struggle to stop U.S. imperialism’s dirty war in Vietnam and its attempts to recolonize Cuba, it’s hard to accept the degree to which Shachtman, even in the 1950s, continued to be right about Stalinism — even as he developed fatal delusions about capitalist democracy.

Peter believes that from that the late 1940s onward, Shachtman should have had a more positive, though highly critical, orientation toward Titoism and Maoism.

“As Shachtman predicted, the Yugoslav and Chinese revolutions did not create socialist democracy in either country…. But unlike Shachtman’s account of Stalin’s triumph in the Soviet Union, which looked carefully at each stage of the long, drawn out process of bureaucratization, his account of the Yugoslav and Chinese revolutions obscured some of their contradictory features.” (238)

“Contradictory features,” of course, can cover an awful lot. In the case of China, Peter contends:

“In China the repression and military predominance in which the Cultural Revolution culminated and the repression of the 1989 movement for democracy proved that the bureaucracy could rely on the state to crush working people’s resistance…But bureaucratic triumph was not the only possible outcome…The same economic policies that fostered a bureaucratic elite greatly expanded the working class…At the height of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Communists in Shanghai took his references to the Paris Commune of 1871 more literally than he meant them to and clashed with Mao and the army in an attempt to create true workers’ democracy. (229)

The fact is, however, that we know plenty about Mao’s Communist party, from long before it took power,(4) through the “anti-rightist” purges of the 1950s, the brutal annexation of Tibet, through the mass starvation that followed the “Great Leap Forward” and other wonders of “socialist construction.”

The lesson of China wasn’t “the repression and military predominance in which the Cultural Revolution culminated;” it was the repression and bureaucratic-military predominance which culminated in the Cultural Revolution, the eruption of unlimited factional gang warfare devoid of any political principles. This national catastrophe, which probably discredited the idea of socialism among the Chinese masses for at least a generation, was rooted in the character of that regime from its inception.

Following a further fifteen years of repression of the “Democracy Wall” movement and its successors through the Tiananmen massacre, the Chinese Communist Party is now, finally, carrying through more or less the historic economic program of Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang — only with a more efficient (though of course not permanent) totalitarian control over working-class institutions than the KMT could likely have sustained.

Peter, it seems to me, would like to achieve a fusion of the Shachtman theory of bureaucratic collectivism with the Fourth Internationalist view of the Chinese, Yugoslav and Vietnamese Communist parties as embodying a certain vindication of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution.(5) Here I am afraid is where his argument is forced to gloss over much of the actual historical experience.

If the course of events following the collapse of the USSR and the satellite states of Eastern Europe teaches us anything, it would appear to be that the crippling legacy of the bureaucratic system has made it more difficult for the working class to regain its own independent organization and movement than revolutionary Marxists of all stripes had predicted.

My own view is that the Shachtman tendency would not have improved its own chances for political survival by straining to find something positive in Yugoslav, Chinese or Vietnamese Communism; but it would have weakened the legacy it has passed on to those of us who are prepared to confront its strengths, its contradictions and its errors. Max Shachtman and His Left is a crucial and seminal text for that important work of critical assimilation.


  • See, for example, the review of this book authored by Phil Shannon in the Australian weekly Green Left, March 30, 1994 (25). Due to Shachtman’s “bloated and all-consuming anti-Stalinism,” Shannon writes, “Shachtman abandoned the strategy of social change through industrial and political struggle in the streets and factories and offices, in favor of currying backroom influence with the top levels of trade unions and parliamentary parties.” This absurdly crude rendering misses at least two-thirds of Drucker’s carefully documented analysis. In fact, because Shachtman fiercely defended and never abandoned the view that anything resembling a socialist transformation could come only from an organized working-class movement, he was pulled away from revolutionary perspectives as the working-class radicalism in which he had been immersed from childhood evaporated in the postwar prosperity. These developments significantly precede Shachtman’s “stalinophobia” and ultimate pro-imperialism.
    back to text
  • According to book-reviewing protocols I think I’m supposed to mention that I was one of a number of people, cited in Drucker’s acknowledgements, who read the manuscript in draft form. Incidentally, I regretfully note that in the published version a detailed discussion of the complex efforts to reunify Shachtman’s Workers Party with James P. Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party in 1947-48 has been greatly compressed, presumably for reasons of space, with much entertaining narrative sadly lost.
    back to text
  • Ihis attitude is quite different from that of those who look backward nostalgically to this movement primarily because Communists ultimately took control of much of it.
    back to text
  • Trotsky in the 1930s wrote, briefly but prophetically, that the Chinese Communist Party might conceivably come to power as a force in opposition to the working class.
    back to text
  • The work that presents this view most systematically is Michel Löwy’s valuable study The Politics of Uneven and Combined Dweloyment (Verso, 1981).
    back to text
  • ATC 57, July-August 1995