Letter to the Editor on Fate of the Russian Revolution Review

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Paul Hampton

PETER DRUCKER’S REVIEW of The Fate of the Russian Revolution (>ATC 93, July/August 2001) is a welcome contribution to the discussion generated by its publication, particularly given his own important research on Max Shachtman.

However, I fear that Drucker like some other reviewers has missed the point of the book. It is not primarily a selection of Shachtman’s writings on Stalinism, or a collection which attempts to represent theories of “bureaucratic collectivism.”

It is true that the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty opened a discussion on the nature of Stalinism some years ago, but this was not the principal reason for reprinting these important articles. To do justice to the origins of “bureaucratic collectivism” one would have to include the articles of Rakovsky, Bukharin, Craipeau and others in France, the Germans who wrote to Trotsky in 1935, as well as others outside the Trotskyist movement, at the very least.

By comparison the American comrades seem to have been rather late in developing their conceptions. Even Shachtman’s insights on Soviet expansionism were not especially original. The USSR’s war aims were similar to the Tsar’s in World War I, and others made predictions about Stalin’s aspirations — for example, the Menshevik David Dallin made similar claims in his 1943 book, Russia and Post-War Europe.

Indeed I think The Fate of the Russian Revolution makes it clear that far from the U.S. group “pioneering” an understanding of Stalinism as simultaneously anti-capitalist and anti-working class, it was Trotsky not Shachtman (or Carter) who developed this view.

Nevertheless the debates in the Workers’ Party on Stalinism are of interest, and the book includes some of the relevant texts. Peter would like to rehabilitate the view held by Shachtman in the early 1940s that although Stalinist Russia was no kind of workers’ state, it was at least historically progressive compared with capitalism.

I think there were powerful reasons then, and decisive reasons now, for rejecting this view. Shachtman himself had to abandon this view of the place of Stalinism in history almost as soon as he had formulated it, as an unnecessary residue from Trotsky’s position.

The evidence for this, which is by no means exhaustive, is:

i) Shachtman’s refusal to defend the Soviet Union in the war, despite his argument in “Is Russia a Workers’ State?” (1940), repeated in his 1941 resolution, that he would do so if one or more imperialist powers attempted to restore capitalism in the USSR, or turn Russia into a colony;

ii) Shachtman’s comment in “25 Years of the Russian Revolution,” (New International, November 1942) that Stalin<->ism was a “mongrel social formation,” a “leap sideways” (294);

iii) Shachtman’s book The Struggle for the New Course (1943) in which he describes nationalized property as the “economic foundation of the new ruling class” (235); and

iv) Shachtman’s articles on Soviet imperialism, which nowhere equate this expansion of nationalized property with progress.

Similarly, the collapse of the Stalinist states in 1989-91 does in hindsight deal a death-blow to the views held by all the Fourth Internationals, and to Peter’s idea of progressive bureaucratic collectivism, that Stalinism was in any way historically progressive. Stalinist Russia in hindsight was never a serious economic rival to advanced capitalism, and Trotsky’s prognosis in the 1920s that if capitalism recovered, the USSR was doomed turned out to be true.

Our view is that when the Stalinist bureaucracy finally cut the ties between the Russian working class and the state they created, pulverized the Bolshevik Party, and went on to savagely repress and exploit this working class for the next sixty years, it destroyed what was progressive in the USSR.

The book is not primarily about Stalinism, however; rather it is a critique of post-Trotsky Trotskyism, from the premises of his most ardent followers in the immediate period after his death. Peter might dismiss the contrast made in the introduction between the Shachtman tradition and `official’ Trotskyism as “not particularly relevant or convincing” (ATC 93: 40), but this is precisely the rationale behind the selections.

The book does not analyze the mistakes of even the best of these comrades in more recent years (for example over Cuba, or Nicaragua, never mind during the collapse of the USSR, on Afghanistan, Gorbachev), but rather seeks to locate these roots back in the early 1940s. The references made by Shachtman and others to the failings of the Fourth International are not peripheral issues, they are fundamental to locating where Trotskyism went wrong.

The belief that Russian soldiers fought harder because they really owned the factories, or that the Red Army was still Trotsky’s Red Army and the part of state least contaminated by Stalinism; or that morale was higher because the October revolution lived on; or the demand that the Warsaw uprising [of 1944, not to be confused with the Jewish Warsaw ghetto insurrection of 1943 –ed.] should subordinate itself to the Red Army — none of this is independent working class politics, it is a long way from Trotsky. And yet much of it would be repeated at the alter of Tito, Mao, Castro and others over the next sixty years.

A related issue concerns whether there was (or is) a bureaucratic road to socialism, or concretely whether workers’ states (deformed or otherwise) were (or still can) be created by forces other than the working class, analogous to bourgeois revolutions which had been made by forces other than the bourgeoisie.

While it is indisputable that bourgeois revolutions were made by all sorts of other class forces, I think there is no analogy whatsoever with a proletarian revolution, which can only be made by the working class. Joe Carter’s insight, that once it lost political power, the working class in Russia also lost economic power, is decisive here.

The working class can only come to power politically, i.e. by consciously seizing power, smashing the bourgeois state and creating its own state; and if it loses political power, it also loses its economic power to put an end to exploitation.

The self-emancipation of the working class is the core of the third camp conception of socialism elaborated by the Workers’ Party in the conditions of the 1940s, and whatever label we might put on them, Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam etc. were no kind of workers’ states. Any revived Marxist project will have to reject the `bureaucratic’ road as a snare, and the Workers’ Party undertook this cleansing long before Trotsky’s apparently more `orthodox’ followers would effectively embrace it.

from ATC 77 (March/April 2002)