MIA: History: ETOL: Document: Workers Party/Independent Socialist League: Neither Capitalism nor Socialism

Workers Party/Independent Socialist League

E. Haberkern & Arthur Lipow (eds.)

Neither Capitalism nor Socialism


Appendix B

The Myth of Max Shachtman


Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, pp. 325–330.


In 1962, a collection of articles by Max Shachtman entitled The Bureaucratic Revolution, appeared. In his introduction, Shachtman claimed the theory of bureaucratic collectivism as his own. We have seen what historical justification there is for this claim. Even in a collection of his own articles, Shachtman might have made some mention of the contributions of those whom he had once denounced as objective supporters of capitalist restoration for advancing the thesis he now expropriated. But there were more serious consequences of this misrepresentation. The most obvious was that opponents of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism were able to use Shachtman’s continued slide to the right, which was already well under way by 1962, as an example of what would happen to people who entertained such dangerous ideas. This argument would be shameless demagogy even if it were based on fact.

The main difficulty, however, with this book as a statement of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, which is how both its title and its introduction present it, is that Shachtman did not write the principle articles or resolutions in which this theory was developed. When he was not polemicising against them he was passively endorsing them. The resulting distortions take three forms in the 1962 book. The first is simple bowdlerization by Shachtman of his own articles. The most obvious example is the second article of the collection which purports to be a reprint of an article called Is Russia a Workers’ State which appeared in the December 1940 issue of the New International. A whole section in which Shachtman argues for the historical significance, that is the historically progressive character, of collectivist property forms and the consequent necessity of defending them against capitalist attack, is deleted. The October 1941 resolution, which openly attacked the defenders of the Carter resolution and re-emphasized the traditional Trotskyist warnings against the imaginary capitalist restorationist tendencies against which an alliance with Stalin was necessary was, of course, not reprinted.

Secondly, some of the most important questions were ignored in this collection. The bureaucratizing tendencies outside Russia – in the Communist parties which refused to tie their fortunes to the Russian regime, the Yugoslav, Chinese and European parties; in the Social Democracies; and in ostensibly pro-capitalist theoreticians, parties and strata – were left out of consideration simply because Shachtman had written almost nothing on these questions and had opposed much of what was written. He clung as long as he could to the Trotskyist tradition that considered the overturn of capitalist property relations by an anti-working class party impossible.

Thirdly, one of the two articles which Shachtman did write from the perspective of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism was left out of the collection. This is the article Aspects of the Labor Government included as the first selection in chapter five of this collection.

The only article in the 1962 collection which does, unreservedly, adopt the point of view Shachtman had originally rejected is Reflections on a Decade Past which was written in 1951. [A] It is the first selection and the most theoretical. But it is only one of two articles he wrote in 1951 on this theme. The second, which was also adopted as a party resolution, was a treatment of the first post-war labor government in Britain. We quote here once more the key paragraph:

Five years of the new Labor government have brought the country and its working class to a fork in the road. If the present basic economic and political trend were to continue uninterrupted in Britain, the means of production and exchange would all end up in the hands of the state and the state in the hands of an all powerful bureaucracy. Beginning in a different way, with different origins, along different roads, at a different pace, but in response to the same basic social causes, Britain would then develop toward the type of totalitarian collectivism which is the distinguishing mark of Stalinist society, Mr. Attlee’s denunciations of Russia as a “bureaucratic collectivist state” notwithstanding.

There are several reasons why this article might have been left out. For one thing it obviously overstates the anti-capitalist tendencies of the Attlee government. Why not, however, include it with appropriate footnotes and warnings. After all, even Marx and Engels often overestimated the strength of social trends and still felt their comments were worth republishing for the theoretical value contained in them. If Shachtman still held, in 1962, to the view that bureaucratic collectivism represented a third alternative to socialism and collectivism on a world scale, and not just a purely Russian phenomenon, why not reprint the one article in which he discussed the idea?

Part of the reason surely lies in Shachtman’s politics of 1962. For someone who had come to see the Social Democratic parties of western Europe as the major independent force opposing Russian Communism, a view expressed in his introduction to the work under review, it would have been indiscreet to mention the bureaucratic tendencies within this movement.

But Shachtman’s politics had changed at a more fundamental level. Consider the following passage from his introduction:

There are three main reasons why I have not found it possible to subscribe to all the views of those who, like myself, have held that a new class society and a new ruling class exist in the Stalinist countries.

One is that most of them regard “bureaucratic collectivism” or the “totalitarian state economy” or the “managerial society” as the social order common to Stalinist Russia, Hitlerite Germany and even (at least in incipient form) New Deal United states. To me, this contention is an absurdity. It is theoretically false; it ignores what is essential in Stalinism; it is refuted repeatedly by big events and conflicts; it precludes intelligent participation in political life. I hold the difference between capitalism – be it Fascist or democratic – and Stalinism to be fundamental and irreconcilable ...

We are back to 1940. Once more the secondary question – are the capitalist states exhibiting tendencies towards bureaucratic-collectivization of the economy similar to that which prevails in Stalinist Russia is confused with the fundamental question – are such tendencies, however strong they may be in a given country, a step towards socialism and progress or not. The fact that all the tendencies lumped together in the first of the two paragraphs quoted also considered this new society based on a planned, statified economy to be progressive is not mentioned. In fact, nowhere in this collection does Shachtman emphasize, as the adherents of the Carter position did, the central importance of this question.

That is because nowhere did Shachtman explicitly repudiate this notion which he originally shared with Trotsky and the variegated tendencies amalgamated in this paragraph. He could not find an article to include and he could not mention the fact in his introduction without giving up his claim to have originated the theory of bureaucratic collectivism.

For this purpose it was necessary to conceal the fact that there had been two theories of bureaucratic collectivism. One, espoused by Shachtman, held that collectivist property forms were per se progressive, a conquest of the Russian Revolution that had to be defended no matter what class was the immediate beneficiary (or victim) of the social relations based on these forms. The other, originally proposed by Carter, insisted on the primacy of class relations. Carter insisted against Shachtman that the bureaucracy’s control of collectivist property condemned the working class to a new form of exploitation and represented a step backwards for modern civilization.

The total effect of this collection of essays is to reinforce the picture of Stalinism as a purely Russian phenomenon. This is not just because Shachtman, by 1962, was already far gone in his drift towards a the defense of “the West” against “totalitarianism”. It is also an accurate reflection of Shachtman’s political history. He never assimilated the concept of the bureaucracy as a new, third social class competing with capitalism and the working class for power but remained most comfortable with Trotsky’s view of the Russian bureaucracy as a ‘sport’ a mutation that could not survive outside its peculiar Russian environment.

Behind this emphasis on Russia lay an even more fundamental confusion in Shachtman’s thinking.

From the beginning, from 1934, Trotsky insisted that socialists had to choose between two alternatives:

  1. Russia was a sport, a mutation, which would disappear either in a workers’ revolution or a capitalist counter-revolution.
  2. Russia was, indeed, the “wave of the future” and socialism was a utopia, a dream. The rule of the bureaucracy was the next, predetermined, stage in the history of mankind, historically progressive if undesirable. Decent people would, of course, be on the side of those defending “the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society.”

Again, whether Trotsky believed this stuff himself or was simply trying to frighten his supporters away from dangerous thoughts is difficult to say. Shachtman’s political trajectory, however, does seem to indicate that he, at least, took this Hobson’s choice seriously. For as long as was decently possible for an opponent of totalitarianism he clung to the notion that the bureaucracy was only defending the historically progressive property forms created by the Russian Revolution.

When, in 1948, that became impossible, he was literally struck dumb. For several years he wrote nothing on the subject. Then, briefly, he supported the bureaucratic collectivist position he had originally denounced as a capitulation to capitalist reaction. But this was only a point on a trajectory. Trotsky’s dichotomy still dominated his thinking and he soon moved towards a position of defending “democracy versus totalitarianism” which was his version of defending “the interests of the slaves of the totalitarian bureaucratic society”.

Of course, there were other forces, non-ideological forces, acting on Shachtman – and others. The relative weakness of the working class movement in both capitalist and bureaucratic collectivist societies has conditioned everyone’s political evolution since the end of World War II. Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists, and liberals all felt the pressure to hide behind whatever the lesser evil seemed to be at a given time. Nevertheless, all of them were political people and they all required some theoretical defense for the choices they made. Trotsky’s dichotomy seems to have provided Shachtman with his bridge from defense of the bureaucracy as the lesser evil to that of defense of “democracy” as represented by American imperialism as the lesser evil.

The weaknesses of Shachtman’s 1962 collection are easily overlooked because it contains several brilliant essays defending the heritage of the Russian revolution and debunking the claims of several apologists for Stalinism such as Isaac Deutscher.

But Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed also defended the Russian Revolution while flaying the apologists for the bureaucracy. A major step beyond Trotsky had been taken by the advocates of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. The portrait of that position in Shachtman’s 1962 collection is badly distorted.


Note by ETOL

A. The article was actually published in The New International, Vol. XVI No. 3, May–June 1950.

Last updated on 8 November 2020