Max Shachtman


Reflections on a Decade Past

On the Tenth Anniversary of Our Movement

(May 1950)

Source: The New International: A Monthly Organ of Revolutionary Marxism, Vol.16 No.3, May-June 1950, pp.131-144.
Editor: Max Shachtman.
Editorial Board: James M. Fenwick, Albert Gates, Ben Hall, Henry Judd.
Transcribed & marked up: Sally Ryan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive, June 1999.

Man, the political animal, does not start with theory but with action. It is only after a variety of actions have accumulated that he feels the need of drawing conclusions and acquires the possibility of theory which is only a generalization from experience past to guide him in experience to come. Human progress is made only to the extent that this need is felt and the possibility utilized. If the known goal of that progress is true human dignity, the process of reaching it can be described as the growth of man’s consciousness of his power over nature, including his own nature. And if this process is not straightforward or uninterrupted or as rapid as it might be, it is due in large measure to the fact that the mind, while the most remarkable organ we know, is also one of the most conservative: each idea which finally lodges in it after long and suspicious scrutiny offers resistance to every new idea or new theory.

All this holds true for man associated in political movements, including in different degrees the most iconoclastic or revolutionary. The greater his consciousness and his capacity for thinking, the more he strives to make his thoughts comprehensive, to bring order and system into them. But beyond a certain point, this striving, which is utterly indispensable for logical thinking and fruitful action, runs the risk of sterilizing the movement and its action by freezing thought into dogma. This risk is run especially by the revolutionary movement, precisely because of the importance it attaches to theory. The consequences of this risk are not unavoidable. They cannot be conjured away, however, simply by repeating after Engels that our theory is not a dogma but a guide to action. To understand why it is not a dogma and cannot be, is much more important.

In a world where everything but change itself is continuously changing, and where action (or inaction) contributes to change, theory, which is a guide to action applied to given conditions, cannot possibly apply in exactly the same way or to exactly the same extent under altered conditions. If theory is to remain revolutionary and valid, it must of necessity always be open to the criticism of experience, reaffirmed where practice confirms its validity, modified where that is dictated by a modification of conditions; and discarded where it proves to be ambiguous, outlived or false.

This constant re-examination and readiness to revise itself is provided for by Marxism itself which, because it is revolutionary and scientific, is critical and therefore also self-critical. It is its only safeguard against shriveling into a dogma. It is only by resorting to this safeguard that Lenin was able to overcome the conservatism of the mind (the mind of the revolutionist has a conservatism of its own) and achieve the rearmament of Marxism without which no Bolshevik revolution would have been possible. By misapplying this safeguard, or ignoring it altogether, the Marxian movement of our time has contributed to its own enfeeblement. In this sense, it is not Marxism that has failed, as many gloomy critics find it so popular to say nowadays; it is the Marxian dogmatists who have failed.

These considerations have increasingly influenced the life of our movement in the ten years during which it has existed as an independent organization, first as the Workers Party and now as the Independent Socialist League. The impact of the war, which the working classes were entirely unprepared to cope with and whose outcome they did not determine, left most of the small international Marxian movement (the Trotskyist movement and those akin to it) with little more than theory-turned-dogma. It jolted us into a realization that the theory and politics of Marxism demanded a development or re-development without which it would lose all the massive force it once possessed. The unfolding of the war itself, the conditions under which it was concluded, and all the big events of the dubious peace that followed it, only enhanced this realization.

To enter the second half of the century with nothing more than the political equipment the movement had at the beginning of the war is not so much criminal as it is preposterous. Those whose greatest boast is an impressive capacity for boasting may claim as their proudest virtue a “finished program,” as the auto-certified Trotskyists do; they are only announcing that their program is as good as finished and they with it. As for ourselves, we lay no more claim to having a “finished program” (what a stupid phrase! Just when was it finished? Just what finished it?) than Marxists have ever claimed since the days of the Program of the Communist Party which Marx and Engels presented. We have a program that is more than adequate for the times. We seek constantly to clarify, renovate and strengthen it in harmony with the real developments and the needs of the struggle. Since it is a program for struggle, and not a hone for elderly radicals, we cannot say just when it will be “finished.” The question is of little interest to us.

THE PRINCIPAL NEW PROBLEM faced by Marxian theory, and therewith Marxian practice, is the problem of Stalinism. What once appeared to many to be either an academic or “foreign” problem is now, it should at last be obvious, a decisive problem for all classes in all countries. If it is understood as a purely Russian phenomenon or as a problem “in itself,” it is of course not understood at all. It exists as a problem only in connection with the dying out of capitalist society, on the one hand, and the struggle to replace it by socialism, on the other. It is only in this connection that we can begin to understand it.

If our movement had done nothing more, in the past ten years, than to make its contribution to the understanding of Stalinism, that alone would justify its existence. It is our unique contribution, and all our views are closely connected with it. We consider it decisive for the future of capitalism, in so far as it has one, and for the future of socialism.

An understanding of Stalinism is too much to expect from the bourgeoisie. The modest theoretical capacities at its disposal are still further restricted by class interests which blind it in the investigation of serious social problems, especially when it is so exclusively preoccupied with frenzied but futile efforts to patch together a social order that is falling apart at every joint. To the extent that its thinkers and statesmen try to explain Stalinism in more or less coherent terms, they inform us that collectivism necessarily leads to tyranny – a homily usually prefaced by the well-worn banality from Lord Acton about how power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The explanation does not explain much, least of all how it happens that the tyranny of collectivism is supplanting the freedom of capitalism. But nothing more can be asked from a theory which was intellectually developed and popularized by the savants in the abattoirs of American yellow journalism. Most of the time, the bourgeoisie does not transcend demonology. It explains Stalinism in the simple terms of evil spirits, witchcraft, black magic, conjurations and other unnatural forces, which can be exorcised by adequate police measures or by stocking more atomic bombs than the demonic forces. Actually, Stalinism remains for the bourgeoisie what Winston Churchill, not its most obtuse representative, described as an enigma and a riddle and a mystery. The military mind of Mr. Churchill – which is only a species of the common police mind – hears no special call to undo the enigmas, ravel the riddles and pierce the mysteries of society. Explain Stalinism? It is enough to blow it up by an atomic bomb, even if it does not belong to him but to his more affluent cousin across the sea.

The international Social Democracy has little more to offer. Theory in general and Marxian theory in particular ceased long ago to hold its interest. In part this explains why it alternates between joining with the Stalinists against the bourgeoisie (in the East) and joining with the bourgeoisie against the Stalinists (in the West). About a quarter of a century ago, long before their recent division into pro-Stalinists and American patriots, the Russian Menshevik leaders who retained some respect for theoretical generalization described Stalinism as “state capitalism” or as “one of its forms.” In more recent times, the same theory has regained a pallid existence, or a multiplicity of existences, among smaller groups in and around the Trotskyist movement: Stalinism is Red Fascism, or bureaucratic Fascism, or caste-ruled state capitalism, or bureaucratic state capitalism, or some other variety of state capitalism.

One inconvenience of this theory is that the Stalinist social system is not capitalist and does not show any of the classic, traditional, distinctive characteristics of capitalism. Another is that there is no capitalist class under the rule of Stalinism, and there are as many embarrassments in conceiving of a capitalist state where all capitalists are in cemeteries or in emigration as in grasping the idea of a workers’ state where all the workers are in slave-camps or factory-prisons. A third is that nowhere can an authentic capitalist class, or any section of it, be found to support or welcome Stalinism, a coolness which makes good social sense from its point of view since it is obvious to all but those who extract theories from their thumbs that Stalinism comes to power by destroying the capitalist state and the capitalist class. There are a dozen other inconveniences about the theories of “state capitalism,” or any theory based upon the idea of a single “universal capital” which Marx, rightly, we think, jeered at as nonsensical. But the most important one is the fact that the theories preclude any understanding of the actual social conflict in which Stalinism is involved and offer no possibility of an effective political course for the working-class movement. To combat it as a capitalist force is like galloping with tilted rubber hose at a windmill that is not there.

There remains the Trotskyist movement. During the lifetime of Trotsky, his theoretical contribution to the understanding of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution out of which Stalinism was born, was the only serious and fruitful one produced within or outside the Marxian movement. In the Trotskyist movement today gnomes have succeeded the giant and misery has fallen heir to grandeur. The changing tides of events which sweep the islet on which they are marooned without sail or chart or compass or ship or pilot, seems to give them the illusion that it is they who are moving. Actually, they are immobilized victims of a dogma. They repeat ritually that although Russia is a vast prison of the workers and the peoples, it nevertheless remains a workers’ state because property is in the hands of the state. This state is, however, completely in the hands of an uncontrollable bureaucracy which directs the economy in its own interests. And while it is totalitarian and counter-revolutionary, it nevertheless overturns capitalism in one country after another and extends the domain of the workers’ state as it was never extended before. More baseless theories have been concocted about many things; a weirder one is hard to think of.

This dogma is the substance that has made it possible, today as in the past, for Stalinism to exercise strong magnetic attraction upon the Trotskyist movement, forcing it into reluctant alignment in most of the fundamentally important political developments and leaving it essentially only with the criticism not so much of what Stalinism does as the “methods” by which it does it. This was already true in part during Trotsky’s leadership; since his death, it has become the trait of the Trotskyist movement, which is obscured at times only by its erroneous analyses of Stalinism’s line as a “capitulation” to capitalism. This the bourgeoisie would like to believe in but it has come to understand ruefully that the “capitulation” is only chimerical. The growing frenzy of enthusiasm which the Trotskyist movement has worked up for the Tito regime, which is socially identical with the Russian Stalinist regime even if the Fourth International only yesterday solemnly designated it as Bonapartist capitalism, is only another case of the magnetic attraction to which it yields. This disoriented movement cannot, without radically reorienting itself, make any positive contribution to the reorientation of the working-class movement in general.

THE SECOND WORLD WAR served at least this useful purpose: it underscored the tendencies of development of capitalism and Stalinism, and by making more explicit what was already implicit in them, brought them into clearer perspective.

The decay of capitalist society continues at a rapid pace and almost without interruption. One after another, its organs are attacked by the poisons of decomposition. The mere fact that one part of the capitalist world found it imperative to ally itself with so mortal an enemy of capital as Stalinism is, in order to assure its own existence and expansion at the cost of the other part of the capitalist world – a course which the other part found it just as imperative to adopt when the wheel of events made its turn – is enough to show that we are in the presence of a dying social order. The same thing is shown by the fact, now almost universally acknowledged by the bourgeois world, that the problems which the incredibly destructive war purported to solve are still unresolved and must wait for solution upon victory in the “cold war” which, it is not very sanguinely hoped, will prevent the open military collision of a third world war. Another world war, the third in two or at most three generations – and this one a war of incalculable consequences for whatever civilization we have – is more than any social system can endure. Yet there is no other perspective before world capitalism, and few serious representatives of the capitalist camp confidently offer any other.

The economy of capitalism has never been so chaotic, unstable and so far removed from classical capitalist economy. The reactionaries who complain, unavailingly, that the system of “free enterprise” is being undermined in all capitalist countries, even in the United States, by “socialist” measures, are quite right, in their own way. All they fail to understand is that for capitalism to exist at all nowadays it must allow for its partial negation, for that “invading” socialism of which Engels wrote some fourscore years ago. However, the mixture of the “invader” with decaying capitalism produces an increasingly insufferable monstrosity. The chaos of capitalist economy is organized, as it were, only by an ever heavier emphasis on war economy, on the production of means of destruction which do not re-enter the process of production to enrich the wealth of the nation and which “enter” the process of production of the enemy nation only to disrupt and destroy it. If the war budgets were reduced throughout the capitalist world to what was normal no more than thirty years ago, complete economic prostration would follow immediately and automatically. Such burdens, capitalism cannot escape. They are breaking its back, no matter how much they are shifted to the shoulders of the working people.

In the political sphere, there is a corresponding development. It would almost suffice to point out that in the last real fortress of capitalism, the United States, taken on the whole, there is today less democracy than existed under the Hohenzollern and Habsburg monarchies before the First World War. Partly under the necessity and partly on the pretext of fighting the “fifth column” of Stalinism, one long-standing democratic right after another is being assaulted in the country, undermined, restricted or wiped out altogether. The criminality of the assault is matched only by the hypocrisy of the Stalinist protestants, the cowardly flabbiness if not direct connivance of most of the liberal world, and the tacit approval of the drive by the official labor movement which conducts its own drive in parallel with it. In the other capitalist countries the situation is no better; in many of them it is worse and much worse.

The more the ownership and control of the means of production and exchange are concentrated in the hands of the few – the greater is the centralization of authority and power in the hands of the state and the further are the masses removed from control of economic and political conditions. The deeper the economic crisis of capitalism, the shakier its foundations, the greater the ineffectualness of the market as the automatic regulator of capitalist production – the wider and deeper is the intervention of the state into the economy as substitute-regulator, substitute-organizer, substitute-director. The more extensive the wars and the war preparations, the vaster, more critical and more complex the efforts required to sustain them both in the economic and the political (add also the ideological) fields – the more the state is obliged to regiment and dictate in all the spheres of social life, the less tolerant it becomes of all “disruption,” the more it demands conformity to the “national effort,” to state policy, from all the classes.

The working class is least able to conform because the accumulating burdens rest primarily on its shoulders. To protect its economic interests it is compelled to oppose the prevailing trends. To resist effectively it must have and exercise those democratic rights which, while valuable to all classes, are absolutely indispensable to the working class. The more it exercises these rights out of the simple necessity of defending its economic position – the stronger is the tendency of the bourgeois state, out of the simple necessity of defending its position, to curtail these rights and even to nullify them entirely. Self-preservation generates in the working class a craving for democracy and dictates the fight for it against the bourgeoisie.

The socialist movement, which is (or should be) nothing but the conscious expression of the fight of the working class, can be restored to a decisive political force if it realizes that, today far more than ever before, the all-around and aggressive championing of the struggle for democracy is the only safeguard against the encroaching social decay, and the only road to socialism. We are or must become the most consistent champions of democracy, not so much because the slogans of democracy are “convenient weapons” against an anti-democratic bourgeoisie, but because the working class, and our movement with it, must have democracy in order to protect and promote its interests. Above all because the last thirty years in particular have confirmed or reminded us or awakened us to the fact that without the attainment of democracy all talk of the conquest of power by the working class is deceit or illusion, and that without the realization of complete democracy all talk of the establishment of socialism is a mockery. A socialist movement, grant it the best intentions in the world, which ignores or deprecates the fight for democracy-for-all democratic rights and institutions, for more extensive democratic rights and the most democratic institutions – which is suspicious about such a fight being somehow not in consonance with or something separate from (let alone inimical to) the fight for socialism, which trails along behind that fight or supports it reluctantly or with tongue in cheek, will never lead the fight for socialist freedom.

THE STATEMENT OF THESE VIEWS requires no renunciation of our past; at most, it requires abandoning misunderstandings about it. The most basic and durable program of Marxian socialism rightly equates the raising of the working class to the position of political supremacy with the establishment of democracy. The Russian Marxists, the Bolsheviks, were the most militant and consistent champions of democracy Russia ever knew. The Russian Revolution was the most democratic revolution in history – far more democratic, in every respect, than the French or American revolutions of the eighteenth century – and it established the most democratic political regime in the world, the original soviet system which Lenin prized and praised as a thousand times more democratic than the most democratic of bourgeois parliaments.

It can be granted, however, that with the deepening of the split in the world labor movement between communists and reformists, the polemical battle between the two camps, sometimes fought out in civil war, did not always serve the purpose of clarity. To those who look back upon it today without relating it to the conditions of the times, the polemics are downright misleading. Reformists appear as supporters of democracy; revolutionists as advocates of dictatorship. Leaving aside all exaggerations, which were abundant, the reality was quite different from the appearance. “Democracy” was the shorthand or summary expression of the reformist view that the road to socialism lay through the beneficent expansion of bourgeois parliamentary democracy, with the transition from capitalism to socialism represented by a parliamentary coalition between the socialist proletariat and the so-called progressive or democratic bourgeoisie. “Dictatorship” was the shorthand term for the Marxist view that the road to socialism ran through the transitional period of the revolutionary dictatorship of the proletariat organized in workers’ councils (soviets).

In the civil war or semi-civil war conditions that existed in Europe in those days, the principal obstacles in the path of the fight for socialism were the parliamentary illusions which reformism fostered in the working class. These illusions – that’s what they were and what they are today had to be dispelled as quickly as possible by the revolutionists in those urgent days. They did not succeed in time; neither, however, did socialism. However that may be, what must be borne in mind is what the watchwords “democracy” and “dictatorship” referred to concretely in the early days of the Bolshevik revolution and the Communist International.

To cling to the terms of the old polemic nowadays, in a radically different situation, is political madness. The Russian Revolution has been destroyed; it is no longer the polestar of the socialist proletariat. The socialist proletariat is no longer on the offensive; its struggle for power is nowhere on the order of the day. The main obstacles on the road, not to socialist power, but simply to the reconstitution of a socialist working-class movement, are not the parliamentary illusions of the proletariat. They are the illusions of Stalinism. Today, not reformism but Stalinism is the principal threat to the integrity, the consciousness, the interests of the working class. Today, the term dictatorship does not bring to the mind of the worker the image, clear or dim, of the inspiring soviet democracy of the Bolshevik revolution. It represents what he has experienced in his own day and on his own back: Fascist or Stalinist totalitarianism. The fear and hatred which these despotisms stir in him are deep and justified. The worker of today who wants “democracy” and rejects “dictatorship” does so for entirely different reasons than the worker of 30 or more years ago. And he is unerring in his class instincts, and right in his “prejudices” for democracy, despite the confused form in which he may express them. The meaning of political terms especially is determined in the long run by the people and not by an elite, and even if that elite is socialistic and scientific it loses little or nothing by bowing to the popular verdict. This is, despite its limitations, a good rule.

THE CLASS INSTINCTS of the proletariat are a safeguard against many things. But they do not suffice for the victory of socialism. For that, a conscious proletariat is required, a socialist proletariat. The question that once arose as an academic one is now posed as a real one: what is the social trend when capitalism has become ripe and overripe, objectively, for the socialist reorganization, and the working class, for one reason or another, fails to develop its socialist consciousness to the point where it is capable of dealing capitalism the death-blow? Socialism does not and cannot come into existence automatically. Does capitalism then continue in existence automatically and indefinitely? We are familiar with the theory that Stalinist Russia is a workers’ state which decays and decays and decays further but which will nevertheless always remain a workers’ state until overturned by the capitalist class. There is evidently also a theory that capitalism continues to decay and decay and decay still further but that until it is overturned by the socialist proletariat, no matter how long that may take, it will continue to exist as a capitalist society. Neither theory, for all the stereotyped references to dialectics, is worth the paper devoted to it.

To say that capitalism is decaying is to say that it is increasingly incapable of coping with the basic problems of society, of maintaining economic and political order – that is, of course, order on a capitalist foundation. Modern society, based on large-scale machinofacture and world trade, is an intricate and highly integrated complex. Every serious disturbance of its more or less normal operation – crisis, war, sharp political conflict, revolution – violently dislocates the lives of millions and even tens of millions all over the world. The dislocations in turn render difficult the return to normal operation. The difference between capitalism flowering and capitalism declining lies in the growth of the number, scope, gravity and intensity of these disturbances. It is increasingly difficult for capitalism to restore an equilibrium and to maintain it for long. Where the crisis reaches an acute stage, and the forces of capitalism are more or less paralyzed, the proletariat is called upon to restore order, its own order, by the socialist revolution.

But what if the proletariat is not organized to carry through the socialist revolution? Or, having carried it out, as in Russia in 1917, what if it remains isolated and is therefore not yet able to discharge its only task as a new ruling class, namely, to abolish all ruling classes by establishing socialism? From the days of the Paris Commune to the defeat of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, the answer was always the same: the proletariat pays for failure in bloody retribution inflicted by the bourgeoisie restored to power.

In the last quarter of a century, an epoch of the exceptionally rapid disintegration of capitalism, we have seen that the answer to the failure of the working class may also take another form. Where the bourgeoisie is no longer capable of maintaining (or, as in the case of Russia), of restoring its social order, and the proletariat is not yet able to inaugurate its own, a social interregnum is established by a new ruling class which buries the moribund capitalism and crushes the unborn socialism in the egg. The new ruling class is the Stalinist bureaucracy; its social order, hostile both to capitalism and socialism, is bureaucratic or totalitarian collectivism. The bourgeoisie is wiped out altogether and the working classes are reduced to state slaves.

THE ELEMENTS OF THE NEW RULING CLASS are created under capitalism. They are part of that vast social melange we know as the middle classes. Concentration of capital, capitalist crisis – these uproot the numerous strata which are intermediate between the two basic classes. They tend more and more to lose their stake in the capitalist system of private property. They lose their small properties or the properties lose their value; they lose their comfortable social positions or their positions lose importance. The sharper and longer the agony of capitalism, the more of these elements become declassed. Their old social allegiances give way to new ones, the choice depending on a whole mass of circumstances. They are attracted to anti-capitalist movements, real or spurious. When the proletarian movement is in a growing, healthy, self-confident condition, they are drawn to it, become its valuable allies and are greatly influenced by its democratic and socialist ideology. Under other circumstances, many of them are drawn to a fascist movement which promises to check the excesses of capital without permitting the rule of labor. However, fascism in power proved to be a cruel disillusionment to the anti-big-capitalistic middle classes and, particularly since its defeat in the war, suffered a tremendous moral-political blow on a world scale. Today it is Stalinism, in the absence of a revolutionary socialist movement which it has helped so signally to strangle, that exercises a magnetic power over these elements.

Stalinism is represented by a powerful and seemingly stable state. Outside of Russia it commands, or tries to command, powerful mass organizations. Its authentically anti-capitalist nature is established in the minds of all social groups, including the precariously-situated or declassed elements from the old middle classes: intellectuals, skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled; individuals from the liberal professions; officials and employees of all sorts, including those from the swollen but impoverished governmental apparatus; and above all else, labor bureaucrats. They have less and less to lose from the abolition of private property by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie, and more and more to gain from a movement which will overturn capitalism without imposing upon them the democratic discipline and equalitarian principles of the socialist proletariat. In Stalinism they find a movement able to appeal to the masses for the struggle against capitalism, but yet one which does not demand of them – as the socialist movement does – the abandonment of the ideology which is common to all oppressor classes, namely: command is the privilege of superiors, obedience the lot of inferiors, and the mass must be ruled by kindly masters for its own good. Such elements gravitate easily to the Stalinist bureaucracy precisely because it already has, or has the possibility of acquiring, the leadership of one of the main social classes, which has in common with them a growing disinterest in the preservation of capitalist property.

Given the existence and normal growth of the proletarian movement and its assimilation of a socialist consciousness, all these elements taken together would not constitute a very decisive social force. But the weight of social forces is not absolute but relative. The socialist consciousness and coherence of the working class have suffered tremendous blows in the past three decades from reformism, on the one hand, and from Stalinism, on the other. Its disorientation and demoralization have been aggravated by the continuing decomposition of capitalism. While we do not believe for one moment that this condition will continue without end, the fact is that this is what the situation has been for some time. Compared with a workings class in such a state, the elements we have described, especially when bolstered by a big Stalinist state, can for a time act as a decisive social force in one country after another where the crisis has prostrated the bourgeoisie. What is more, this force can destroy the bourgeoisie, its state and its economy, and transform itself into a new ruling class. It can do it and it has done it. That the auto-certified Marxists refuse to recognize this fact is small comfort to the bourgeoisie that has already been crushed and the working class that has already been subjugated.

WHILE THE POWER OF STALINISM was confined to Russia, this analysis and conclusion may have appeared premature. The reserve is no longer necessary today; actually, it is no longer possible. It is possible now to re-read the history of the Russian Revolution with greater profit. It proved that the working class, democratically organized, self-acting and class-conscious, can carry out the socialist revolution, can “establish democracy.” Unless this is attributed to some we-do-not-know-which quality unique to Russians, it is valid for the working class as a whole. It proved also that the working class in power either moves toward the socialist reconstruction of society, or loses power altogether.

It proved other things, too. Isolated in one country, the workers’ democracy cannot organize the productive forces socialistically. But, by definition, so to speak, workers’ power is an obstacle to the organization of the productive forces on a reactionary foundation, which implies an exploitation of the working class that its power cannot tolerate. The bourgeoisie was incapable of restoring its power in Russia, either by its domestic or its international forces. In 1905, it could restore its power; a quarter of a century later, it could not. The “obstacle” was thereupon removed, not by the bourgeoisie, but by the elements that consolidated themselves into the new ruling class, the collectivist bureaucracy. It proceeded to organize the economy of the nation, not on a socialist or even socialistic basis but on a reactionary basis. It subjected the Russian people to the fiercest and most ruthless exploitation known in modern times and established as the guardian of its rule and privilege the most barbarous of totalitarian regimes, differing from Hitler’s, generally speaking, like one pea from another.

During and after the Second World War, the new Stalinist bureaucracy became the master of just those more-or-less peripheral countries in which the most striking and complete collapse of the bourgeoisie – economic, political, military and ideological – occurred, and precisely because of that collapse. Poland, Hungary, Albania, Czechoslovakia, Rumania, Yugoslavia, China – these are not yet the world, or the decisive part of the world; far from it. But whether Stalinism conquered them from abroad (regime imposed by the Russian army) or by means of a native movement, the symptomatic significance of the events is clear. A new state machine, replica in every respect of the Russian state machine, is established by the bureaucracy and under its exclusive, totalitarian control; all the means of production and exchange are sooner or later converted into state property; the decadent and demoralized bourgeoisie is sooner or later exterminated; the working classes are deprived of any right whatsoever and transformed into modern slaves.

PRIMITIVE AND CONSERVATIVE theoretical minds, while frowning on the “methods” of Stalinism, argue, with an ignorance (or is it cynicism?) which they regard as objectivity, that after all is said that should be said, Stalinism does represent a workers’ state of a kind, or else that it plays a progressive role of a kind. Why? Essentially, it appears, because it expropriates the bourgeoisie and statifies property; because it “develops the productive forces”; and because after all it is only a caste and not a class, for only historically – necessary social groups can be designated as classes, and Stalinism is not historically necessary. To go through this galimatias as it should be gone through would require a volume at least. Short of that, a few words added to what has often been written and said by us will have to suffice.

Healthy or sick, upright or bent over, a workers’ state deserves that designation only if the workers or their chosen representatives hold the political power. Nothing less will do. Whoever teaches otherwise is not teaching socialism or Marxism. It is not the statification of property that makes the state proletarian; it is the proletariat in command of the state which centralizes property in its hand that makes it a workers’ state. Where classes own property, the character of the state can usually be determined by asking which class owns the property – the slaves, the land or the capital. Where no class owns property, but where it is all in the hands of the state, its character can usually be determined by asking which class controls the state. Under Stalinism, the workers own no property, they have no control whatever over the totalitarian state which disfranchises and controls them utterly, and oppresses and exploits them mercilessly.

Capitalism has become reactionary and obsolete not because it no longer develops the productive forces but because it converts more and more of those forces at the disposal of society into means of destruction which do not enrich but impoverish it, and prevent it from making the progress which a rationally-organized economy would assure. That – according to Marx and according to what we can see all around us with the naked eye. The reactionary character of Stalinism is determined in the same way, The productive forces available to society are converted into means of destruction to no smaller – perhaps even to a larger – extent under Stalinism than under capitalism. The enormous wastage in production under Stalinism is notorious and inherent in bureaucratic collectivism. The physical using-up of the most important productive force in society, the workers, and their downright annihilation in the slave camps, is appalling under Stalinism; it has yet to be exceeded by capitalism. The vast technological advantages of state ownership are constantly undermined precisely by the social relations established by Stalinism and its parasitic ruling class.

To determine the class character of the Stalinist bureaucracy by asking if it is historically necessary, in the way Trotsky demanded and his unthinking epigones repeat, is, to put it quietly, erroneous. They would be hard put to it to prove that all ruling classes in history were historically necessary in the sense they give to this phrase. Was the feudal ruling class historically necessary? It would be interesting to hear what the theoreticians in New York, Brussels and Paris would answer to this question, and how their answer would differ from, let us say, the one given by Engels.

The Stalinist bureaucracy in power is a new ruling, exploitive class. Its social system is a new system of totalitarian exploitation and oppression, not capitalist and yet having nothing in common with socialism. It is the cruel realization of the prediction made by all the great socialist scientists, from Marx and Engels onward, that capitalism must collapse out of an inability to solve its own contradictions and that the alternatives facing mankind are not so much capitalism or socialism as they are: socialism or barbarism. Stalinism is that new barbarism. The old Marxists could foresee it in general but could not describe it in detail. We can. The workers will fail to take command of society when capitalism collapses only on penalty of their own destruction, warned Engels. Stalinism is that gruesome punishment visited upon the working class when it fails to perform the task, in its own name and under its own leadership, of sweeping doomed capitalism out of existence and thus fulfilling its social destiny. For this failure it must record not the triumph of the invading socialist society but of the invading barbarism.

THESE ARE THE BASIC THOUGHTS that determine the outlook and politics of the Independent Socialist League.

They determine our attitude toward Stalinism and other currents within the working-class movement. The analysis we have made of the social forces and trends excludes any consideration of Stalinism as a working class tendency. It operates inside the working-class movement, but is not of the working class. Those who put the Stalinist bureaucracy on the same plane with the reformist labor bureaucracy are like people digging a well with a washcloth. The security and progress of the reformist leadership require the maintenance of a reformist labor movement – but a labor movement! – of some form of democracy – but not its complete abolition! The triumph of the Stalinist bureaucracy requires the destruction of the labor movement and of all democracy. Whoever cannot see this after the victory of Stalinism in a dozen different countries, cannot see a fist in front of his nose.

Therefore, drive Stalinism out of the labor movement! BUT only by the informed, democratic decision of the working class itself, and not by supporting the reactionary police measures of the bourgeois state and not by the bureaucratic methods of the reformist and conservative labor officialdom! We are for democracy, in full and for all, in every field, including above all the labor movement. Complete and equal democratic rights for the Stalinists in the labor movement and outside of it, we say, and not the aping of Stalinism in the fight against it. Relentless struggle to up root Stalinism from the labor movement by democratic political and organizational means, and combination with all democratic elements in the labor movement to defend it from conquest and subjugation by the champions and protagonists of the most outrageous anti-labor regimes in the world! Whatever scores there are to settle between socialists and reformists or conservatives in the labor movement – and there are not a few – will be settled democratically and at the right time inside the labor movement. But no thinking socialist, no thinking worker, will combine with Stalinism, or do anything but resist it, when it invades the labor or, in general, the democratic movements and seeks to replace the present leadership with its own.

Our views determine our attitude toward bourgeois democrats and Social Democrats. We do not differ from the former because they are for democracy, but because to support capitalism, to tolerate it, to do anything but work for its replacement by socialism, is to be reconciled to a narrow class democracy and to be disarmed in face of that sapping even of bourgeois democracy which capitalism requires for its continued existence. It is not necessarily true that to fight against capitalism is to fight for democracy, we grant. But it is decidedly true that to fight for democracy is to fight against capitalism.

We do not differ from the Social Democrats because they are for democracy as the road to socialism. That we believe – in the sense given that idea by Marx and Engels, in the sense that the attainment of democracy is possible and equated to the winning of political power; by the socialist proletariat. We differ with them because of their belief in the growing democratization of capitalism. It is an illusion. We differ with them because of their belief in the collaboration between classes which are irreconcilable. We differ with them because of their own bureaucratic regime and methods, because of their own not-very-well concealed contempt for the workers, because of their own resistance to the complete independence and self-reliance of the working class. We differ with them because, hating Stalinism without understanding it, they oppose it by tolerating and even urging the subordination of the working class to the doomed and dying capitalist regime. That is the particular contribution which the Social Democrats make to the new barbarism! It is this very policy of reconciliation with capitalism instead of socialist struggle against it that has made possible the rise of Stalinism and its victories. The workers need a lifebuoy to carry them out of danger from the foundering ship of capitalism and the Social Democrats throw them the anchor. We are revolutionary socialists, we are democratic socialists; we are not Social Democrats.

WE CALL OURSELVES Independent Socialists. A clever man, rising to his most indignant public mood, has recently chided us a little for our name. Genuine socialism has always been independent, he remarked, and the truth was in him. Genuine socialism was always international, yet the French friends of the clever man call themselves the Internationalist Communist Party; genuine socialism was always revolutionary, yet his British friends called themselves the Revolutionary Communist Party; genuine socialism was always working-class, yet his friends here, and they are legion, call themselves the Socialist Workers Party. We have taken our name precisely in order to distinguish genuine socialism from Washington “socialism” or Moscow “socialism.” We seek to emphasize that genuine socialism is not tied to the anchor of sinking capitalism or to the noose of Stalinist barbarism, and does not support their wars against civilization.

Another little but not so clever man has sometimes reproved us because our theory of Stalinism is not only “pessimistic” but “deeply pessimistic.” It shows that politics cannot cope with all phenomena; in some cases nature and the soothing effect of time must be allowed to play their part.

If a socialist can at all permit himself the overly youthful luxury of using such terms as “optimistic” or “pessimistic” about theoretical questions or even political perspectives, it would be in another connection. Pessimism does not lie in stating that Stalinism has conquered here and there and defeated the working class, any more than optimism consists in claiming that Tito is the new rallying center of proletarian revolutionary internationalism. Our “optimism” does not consist in the belief that the working class is always revolutionary, or is always ready to make the revolution, or that it cannot be defeated, or even that it is always right. It derives from our belief, scientifically grounded, that the working class, no matter what the setbacks it suffers, has a solid position in society which gives it inexhaustible powers of self-renewal and recuperation to resume the attack against the conditions of its existence. These attacks have continued; they will continue because they must.

Capitalism is dying and even disappearing, along with the capitalist classes. But the working class cannot be killed off, and it cannot exist without struggle. Stalinism has, it is true, appeared on the scene, but before this regime of permanent crisis can think of consolidating itself all over the world its first excursions beyond its original frontiers have already brought it into a violent and irresolvable conflict with itself which is doing more to reveal its real nature to the working-class world than a dozen good theories.

The idea that the working class can struggle but never win, that it can do nothing more than suffer under new oppressors, is a superstitious prejudice which ruling classes have ever been interested in cultivating. The idea that the workers, whose numbers are overwhelming, can forever attack but never break through to self-rule, is worthy of an inventor of perpetual-motion machines. The working class learns more slowly than was once thought; but with interruptions and distractions it learns. Sooner or later it will learn its emancipating task, and the power it has to perform it. On its banner then the watchword of democracy will be indistinguishable from the watchword of socialism. We are here to help make it sooner.


Max Shachtman

Marxist Writers’

Last updated on 21.8.2005