Issue 73 of INTERNATIONAL SOCIALISM, quarterly journal of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain) Published December 1996 Copyright International Socialism


Alex Callinicos

The American socialist Max Shachtman was probably the best known exponent of the idea that the Stalinist states represented some new form of class society fundamentally different from either socialism or capitalism. One of the founders of the Trotskyist movement in the United States, Shachtman broke with Trotsky and his orthodox followers, notably James P Cannon, over the Russian question in 1939-40. Shachtman and his supporters, who left the Socialist Workers Party (the American section of the Fourth International) to form the Workers Party (WP), argued that the USSR was not, as Trotsky claimed, a degenerated workers' state, but rather the first instance of a new, exploitative mode of production, bureaucratic collectivism.1

Though the 1940 split had a traumatic effect on the Trotskyist movement, particularly in the US, the theoretical differences between the two sides turn out under scrutiny to be less than meets the eye. Neither the orthodox Trotskyist degenerated workers' state theory nor its bureaucratic collectivist rival provides a satisfactory account of the dynamics of the Stalinist societies. Both can consequently justify a wide range of mutually incompatible political stances.

These facts have been obscured by the difficulty in gaining access to the main texts of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Shachtman's writings, for example, are available chiefly in a collection, The Bureaucratic Revolution, which has long been out of print, and many of the articles were in any case bowdlerised by the author in order to reflect his current political opinions as opposed to those he held when he originally wrote them.2 It is partly to correct this situation that Ernest Haberkern and Arthur Lipow have brought together this collection of texts written in the 1930s and 1940s.

The overriding political objective of the collection, however, is to dissociate the theory of bureaucratic collectivism (which the editors accept) from Shachtman. There are at least two reasons for this. The first, that stressed mainly by Haberkern and Lipow, is that there is more than one version of the theory. The second, though unstated, is surely at least as important. It is to remove the theory's associations with Shachtman's political development after he broke with Trotsky.

At the time of the 1940 split, whatever his differences with Trotsky and Cannon, Shachtman was undoubtedly a dedicated revolutionary socialist, and he sought with great determination during the Second World War to root the WP in the American working class. But, faced after 1945 with the failure of this effort (particularly once capitalism entered the long post-war boom) and with the Cold War division of the world into rival blocs, Shachtman moved decisively to the right.3

In the global struggle between Western liberal capitalism and Eastern bureaucratic collectivism, Shachtman opted for the former. In his careful and scholarly political biography of Shachtman, Peter Drucker has demonstrated in great detail how this odyssey led him into more and more unqualified support for US imperialism from opposition to disruptive strikes during the Korean War, through refusal to condemn the CIA invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, to support for American troops in Vietnam. By the time of his death in 1972 Shachtman was a Cold War social democrat.4 Though many of Shachtman's followers broke with him over this move to the right, the question naturally arises whether or not it was a logical consequence of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. Shachtman's opponents were quick to claim that it was.5 Haberkern and Lipow do not, however, directly confront this question. Their chief concern is rather to establish that there had been two theories of bureaucratic collectivism, Shachtman's own and the rival version developed by Joseph Carter.6

Both theories emerged during the debate within the American SWP over the class nature of the USSR. In The Revolution Betrayed (1936) Trotsky argued that the Russian working class had been politically expropriated by the Stalinist bureaucracy. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union remained a workers' state because the means of production and foreign trade were in the the hands of the state. The bureaucracy were therefore in a contradictory position, pulled between their aspiration as a `caste' to acquire private property over the means of production and their objective dependence on a statised economy. Revolutionaries, Trotsky concluded, must, while seeking the political overthrow of the nomenklatura and the restoration of soviet democracy, unconditionally defend the USSR in its conflicts with the Western imperialist powers.

This analysis was immediately attacked by Carter and by James Burnham. Burnham argued that `nationalised economy is not a sole and sufficient criterion or condition of a workers' state'. The working class could only dominate society by controlling the state; its political expropriation therefore implied its economic expropriation as well. Consequently, `the Soviet Union is at the present time neither a bourgeois state nor a workers' state'.7 Carter coined the term `bureaucratic collectivism' to characterise the USSR. At this stage of the debate, in 1937-1938, Shachtman defended Trotsky's interpretation of Stalinism.8

It seems to have been Stalin's conclusion of a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 that prompted Shachtman to change his position and move towards Burnham and Carter. He now argued that the bureaucracy had consolidated itself as a new ruling class and was, by partitioning Poland between itself and Nazi Germany, pursuing an expansionist policy of `Stalinist imperialism'. Trotsky's slogan of unconditional defence of the USSR consequently no longer applied; a thoroughgoing social revolution would be necessary to put Russia back on a socialist course.9

It should be clear that, as initially formulated at least, the main thrust of the concept of bureaucratic collectivism was negative. It served chiefly as an exposition and proposed resolution of the contradictions of the degenerated workers' state theory rather than a positive analysis of the nature of Stalinism. There were soon attempts to develop it into a broader ranging theory. Thus Burnham, breaking with Marxism altogether, rapidly came to the conclusion that Stalinism and fascism were both instances of a new `managerial society'. It was this hierarchical and exploitative society, rather than Marx's classless communist society, that was fated to replace capitalism.10 Burnham proceeded to move sharply to the right, becoming a vehement anti-Communist during the Cold War: I can remember him visiting Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in the mid-1960s to express his solidarity with the white settler regime as a bastion in the struggle against the worldwide Communist conspiracy.11

Shachtman, however, initially resisted such moves. While conceding the existence of an `irrepressible tendency towards collectivism', he argued that `there is no adequate ground for believing that this tendency will materialise in the form of a universal "bureaucratic collectivism".'12 In the immediate aftermath of the 1940 split he sought to maintain his tendency within the Trotskyist tradition. Drucker calls Shachtman's interpretation `an ambitious attempt to preserve the best of Trotsky's analysis and avoid its limitations'.13 This is a rather charitable way of putting it, given the relative lack of new content of Shachtman's theory and the extent to which it drew on Trotsky's. Consider the following parallels. First, Shachtman, like Trotsky, treated private ownership of the means of production as a necessary condition of the dominance of capitalist production relations, thus ruling out the possibility that Stalinist Russia was state capitalist on a priori grounds.

Secondly, Shachtman, like Trotsky, discerned progressive as well as reactionary features in the Stalinist regime. He drew a distinction (ignored, he claimed, by Trotsky) between property forms and property relations. The former characterises very broad `epochs' in the history of social production. The second determines the class character of a given society (what Marx called the mode of production). The October Revolution sounded the death knell of the private property form and marked the inauguration of `collectivist property'. This `fundamental difference between the Soviet state, even under Stalinism, and all other pre-collectivist of epochal historical importance... Economic progress in the Soviet Union was accomplished on the basis of planning and of the new collectivist forms of property established by the proletarian revolution'.14

At the same time, bureaucratic property relations meant that the Stalinist nomenklatura had usurped the collectivist property form and instituted a new form of class exploitation. Nevertheless, the overthrow of the bureaucracy by the working class in a future social revolution would leave the form of property untouched: `Just as it is possible to have different classes in societies resting upon the private ownership of property [sic!], so it is possible to have more than one class ruling in a society resting upon the collective ownership of property concretely the working class and the bureaucracy'.15

Thirdly, the contradiction between property form and property relations encouraged Shachtman to follow Trotsky in seeing Stalinism as `but a special, exceptional and temporary refraction' of the `general laws of modern society...under the conditions of a backward revolutionary country in a capitalist environment'. His belief that the regime could not survive the Second World War encouraged Trotsky to resist the idea that the USSR was a new class society.16 Shachtman continued to accept Trotsky's premiss that Stalinism was a fragile historical aberration unlikely to survive the war.17

Finally, while Trotsky advocated the unconditional defence of the USSR, Shachtman proposed to defend it conditionally. This reflected the `historical superiority' of Stalinism over capitalism.18 Consequently, while revolutionaries should oppose an imperialist war of expansion waged by the USSR, `should the character of the present war change from that of a struggle between imperialist camps into a struggle of the imperialists to crush the Soviet Union, the interests of the world revolution would demand the defence of the Soviet Union by the international proletariat.' 19

Shachtman's first version of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism thus took over many of the features of Trotsky's analysis of Stalinism that made it so fragile and vulnerable to political events, at the same time adding to it the further contradiction that this `belated', `transitory', `anachronism' was simultaneously `a new, exploitative society'. Not surprisingly Shachtman's theory proved as vulnerable as Trotsky's to the outcome of the Second World War not the fall of the bureaucratic regime in Moscow but its emergence as a world power.20

His position was under pressure from the start. Carter in particular pointed out its resemblance to Trotsky's and argued that a consistent bureaucratic-collectivist analysis required treating Stalinism as equally reactionary as Western capitalism.21 When Nazi Germany invaded the USSR in June 1941, some members of the WP, following Shachtman's general analysis, proposed that the group call for a Russian victory.22 But Shachtman himself, while still not ruling out the abstract possibility that it might in some circumstances be correct to take this position, refused to do so in this case on the absurd grounds that the Soviet Union had been reduced to a condition of `vassalage' to the Western imperialist powers.23

Such a claim could not survive the Second World War, and in particular the Stalinist regime's expansion into Eastern Europe. Events such as the Stalinist seizure of power in Czechoslovakia signified for the Shachtmanites, in Hal Draper's words, `the emergence of the bureaucratic-collectivist empire as a bidder for the historic role of successor to a doomed capitalism'. Consequently, `working class revolutionists...face two enemies: a capitalism which is anti-Stalinist and a Stalinism which is anti-capitalist'.24

These developments made Shachtman's initial theory untenable. The 1940s saw what Drucker calls `his step-by-step abandonment of his own theory of bureaucratic collectivism in favour of Carter's, until, by about 1948, his differences with Carter had disappeared'.25 Shachtman, however, offered no new analysis of the dynamics of the Stalinist economy. As Tony Cliff bitingly observed, the `only two constant elements in the theory have been: first, the conclusion that in any concrete conditions, Stalinist Russia must not be defended...; and, second, that the name of the Stalinist regime is Bureaucratic Collectivism'.26

Haberkern and Lipow clearly regard Carter's theory as superior to Shachtman's, and indeed take Shachtman to task for, they claim, effectively dropping it after 1948.27 But in what sense is Carter's version of the idea of bureaucratic collectivism to be preferred to Shachtman's as an interpretation of Stalinism? Undoubtedly it is more consistent, since it does away with the confused distinction between collectivist property forms and bureaucratic property relations. But does it offer the basis of a theory of bureaucratic collectivism as a distinct mode of production? Here is a summary version of Carter's analysis of Stalinism:

Stalinist Russia is thus a reactionary state based upon a new system of economic exploitation, bureaucratic collectivism. The ruling class is the bureaucracy which through its control of the state collectively owns, controls and administers the means of production and exchange. The basic motive force of the economy is the extraction of more and more surplus labour from the toilers so as to increase the revenue, power, and position of the bureaucracy. The economy is organised and directed through state totalitarian planning and political terrorism. The toilers are compelled by the state (as well as economic necessity) to labour in the factories and fields. Forced labour is an inherent feature of present-day Russian productive relations.28

But this interpretation of Stalinism is as vulnerable as Shachtman's to Cliff's classic critique of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. First, it gives no explanation of the driving forces of bureaucratic collectivism. For Carter, as for Trotsky and Shachtman, the motive for production under Stalinism is the consumption of the bureaucracy a factor which is incapable of accounting for the immense expansion of the productive forces in the Soviet Union between the 1920s and the 1960s. Secondly, Carter grossly exaggerates the role of forced labour even at the height of the Stalinist terror in the 1930s. Thirdly, Carter, like Shachtman, provides only an indeterminate basis on which to decide whether bureaucratic collectivism is more or less progressive than capitalism.29

The last point is the most important one politically. It is true that Carter explicitly treats the Second World War as an inter-imperialist war in which revolutionaries should welcome the victory of neither side. But it is not clear that this correct conclusion actually follows from Carter's theory. An economy that relies chiefly on forced labour, as both Carter and Shachtman argued Stalinism did, is less progressive than a capitalist economy based primarily on wage labour, above all because it cannot develop the productive forces as effectively as capitalism can. And indeed Carter seeks to show that Stalinism cannot develop the productive forces in the way that `early bourgeois society' did.30 Similarly, Robert Brenner, the most sophisticated contemporary exponent of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, argues that the Stalinist states were, in effect, like pre-capitalist societies in that they were unable intensively to develop the productive forces through technical innovations that raised the productivity of labour.31

It follows from such an analysis that Stalinism represented a more backward mode of production than Western capitalism. In any conflict between the two it would then surely be the duty of revolutionaries to support the more progressive side. Shachtman was thus being perfectly consistent when he wrote in 1962, after citing the classical Marxian prediction `socialism or barbarism': `Stalinism is that new barbarism'.32 Haberkern and Lipow fail to appreciate the logic of Carter's theory. They ascribe to him the view that bureaucratic collectivism represented `a step backwards for modern civilisation', but then go on to take Shachtman to task for siding with `American imperialism as the lesser evil' in the Cold War.33 But if Stalinism really was `a step backwards', wasn't US capitalism, as the most powerful version of `modern civilisation', really the `lesser evil'?

Such confusion is, in fact, typical of this sloppily edited collection, notably in Haberkern's and Lipow's introduction.34 Here they confront the fact that recently bureaucratic collectivism would seem to have suffered something of a setback, what with the East European revolutions and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Or has it? Haberkern's and Lipow's analysis of these world historic events is, to say the least, hard to follow.

On the one hand they say, `What has been revealed in the past ten years, even before the fall of Gorbachev and the Berlin Wall, is that totalitarian state planning is economically regressive as compared to capitalism'.35 Is this timelessly true? If it is, how was Stalinism able to industrialise the USSR in the 1930s? And why were the nomenklatura able to give Western capitalism a good run for its money over 40 years of Cold War? Or was it just sheer historical accident that the Stalinist system collapsed in the late 1980s rather than, say, in the mid-1950s?

On the other hand, Haberkern and Lipow claim that, far from the free market triumphing, a `new system of economic exploitation in which the lines between corporate and state planning are becoming blurred' is taking shape `this "bureaucratic collectivisation" of the capitalist system' is occurring not only nationally, but globally, in the shape of institutions such as the IMF: `The admirable goal of international economic co-operation has been subordinated to this bureaucratisation of capitalism in the form of corporations which are themselves large bureaucratic entities not accountable to anyone except those who effectively control them'.36

Haberkern and Lipow are right to stress that the 1990s are not seeing the triumph of laissez-faire. The world market is increasingly dominated by giant bureaucratically organised corporations. But how does this relate to the theory of bureaucratic collectivism? Carter and his co-thinkers argued, correctly, that the Stalinist economy was a `nationally limited economy...a huge national trust'.37 One does not have naively to believe in fashionable notions of globalisation to see that the crisis of the Stalinist states was crucially a consequence of the inability of their nationally organised economies to compete in an increasingly globally integrated system.38 Bureaucratic and unaccountable though current forms of capitalist organisation may be, their international extension represents a significant difference from the era of nationally organised capitalism characteristic of the first half of the century. Hand waving and incantations of the word `bureaucratisation' are no substitute for a serious analysis of these changes.

But perhaps the most important conclusion that emerges from this collection is the similarity between the theory of bureaucratic collectivism and the orthodox-Trotskyist degenerated workers' state theory. This comparison is to neither's advantage. Neither gives any clear account of the dynamics what Marx would call the laws of motion of Stalinism as a social system. It is this lack of content which allows both bureaucratic collectivists and orthodox Trotskyists to oscillate wildly across the political scene.

We have seen how Burnham and Shachtman degenerated into what they themselves had described when they were still revolutionaries as `Stalinophobia, or vulgar anti-Stalinism'.39 But Trotsky, at his last meeting with the leadership of the American SWP in June 1940, accused them of adapting to the `progressive' pro-Roosevelt wing of the trade union bureaucracy by allying with them against the Communist Party, and failing to understand that `the Stalinists are a legitimate part of the workers' movement'.40 Adherence to the degenerated workers' state theory did not prevent ultra-loyal orthodox Trotskyists such as Jim Cannon and Farrell Dobbs from falling into Stalinophobia.

Similarly, during the Portuguese Revolution of 1974-1975, the American SWP lined up in effect with NATO and the Second International by supporting the Socialist Party in its reactionary campaign against the workers and soldiers of Lisbon. The SWP justified this position on the grounds that the Armed Forces Movement (MFA) which overthrew the old dictatorship was seeking change by bureaucratic methods. Meanwhile, the main Shachtmanite organisation in the US, the International Socialists, was uncritically backing that section of the Portuguese far left which was tailing the radical wing of the MFA and its dreams of some sort of revolution imposed from above by the army.41

A theory which lacks any concrete content can be made compatible with any political conclusions. This may help to explain why bureaucratic collectivists and orthodox Trotskyists in the United States can today happily co-exist within the multi-tendency organisation Solidarity, despite their apparently divergent interpretations of Stalinism.

The concept of bureaucratic collectivism is little more than a label, defined chiefly by the negations in this collection's title `neither capitalism nor socialism'. As to what bureaucratic collectivism actually is, we are left none the wiser at the end of the book than at the beginning. Its most serious and systematic interpretation, first formulated by Carter and taken up later by Shachtman, leads to reactionary political conclusions. Haberkern and Lipow resist these conclusions, but offer instead little but muddle. Far from, as they presumably hoped, producing an advertisement for the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, they have unintentionally provided a strong case for its final internment.


1 The main published sources for this controversy are M Shachtman, The Bureaucratic Revolution (New York, 1962), L Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism (New York, 1973), and J P Cannon, The Struggle for a Proletarian Party (New York, 1972). Invaluable historical background is provided by A Wald, The New York Intellectuals (New York, 1987), ch 6. For the theoretical context of the controversy and a brief critical assessment of Shachtmanism, see A Callinicos, Trotskyism (Milton Keynes, 1990), esp ch 4.

2 See, for example, E E Haberkern and A Lipow, The Myth of Max Shachtman, Appendix B to Haberkern and Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism (Atlantic Highlands, 1996).

3 M Shachtman, Bureaucratic Revolution, pp305-306. For a critique of this position, see D Hallas, `The Stalinist Parties', in The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists (London, 1971).

4 P Drucker, Max Shachtman and His Left (New Jersey, 1994), Part II.

5 See, for example, J Hanson and G Novack, Introduction to L Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, op cit..

6 E E Haberkern and A Lipow, op cit, p185.

7 J Burnham (1937) `From Formula to Reality', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, pp13, 15.

8 P Drucker, op cit, pp90-91.

9 M Shachtman, (1940) `Is Russia a Workers State?', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism. See also Drucker, op cit, ch 4.

10 J Burnham (1941) `The Theory of the Managerial Revolution', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism.

11 Dwight MacDonald took a somewhat more nuanced and less reactionary version of this position, arguing, `Bureaucratic collectivism may or may not develop into a new form of class rule as stable as was that of the bourgeoisie', but that `the alternative Socialist solution is still possible'. D MacDonald, `The Future of Democratic Values', Horizon, VIII: 47 (1943), p318.

12 M Shachtman, `Is Russia a Workers' State?', op cit, p77.

13 P Drucker, op cit, p132.

14 Ibid, pp80-81. It is important not to confuse Shachtman's concept of form of property with the distinction that Marx draws between legal property forms and the relations of production (understood as relations of effective control over the productive forces), particularly since some arguments against the orthodox Trotskyist conception of a workers' state can be made using either concept. On Marx's distinction see T Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia (London, 1988), pp184-187, 314-316, and G A Cohen, Karl Marx's Theory of History (Oxford, 1978), chs III and IX.

15 Ibid, p77.

16 L Trotsky, In Defence of Marxism, op cit, pp7, 14.

17 M Shachtman (1941) `The Russian Question', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, op cit, p118.

18 Ibid, p119.

19 See M Shachtman, `Is Russia a Workers State?', op cit, p86. The passage referred to is omitted from the version of this essay reprinted in The Bureaucratic Revolution.

20 See, on the post-war crisis of orthodox Trotskyism, A Callinicos, Trotskyism, op cit, ch 2.

21 J Carter (1941) `Bureaucratic Collectivism', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, op cit, pp107-113.

22 E Erber (1941) `The Basis for Defensism in Russia', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, op cit.

23 See T Cliff, `The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism A Critique', Appendix 2 to State Capitalism in Russia, op cit, pp336-337.

24 H Draper (1948) `The Triangle of Forces', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, op cit, pp136-137.

25 P Drucker, Shachtman, op cit, p138.

26 T Cliff, op cit, p337.

27 E E Haberkern and A Lipow, `Myth', op cit, pp186-187.

28 J Carter, `Bureaucratic Collectivism', op cit, p104.

29 See T Cliff, `The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism', op cit. This document was originally written in 1948 as part of the debate on the Russian question within the Fourth International. Scandalously Haberkern and Lipow ignore it, along with Cliff's State Capitalism, which also began life as an FI internal document.

30 J Carter, Bureaucratic Collectivism, op cit, p106. On the relation between wage labour and the development of the productive forces under capitalism, see A Callinicos, `Wage-Labour and State Capitalism', International Socialism 12 (1981).

31 R Brenner, `The Soviet Union and Eastern Europe', Against the Current (N.S.) 30 and 31 (1991). See my critique of Brenner's analysis in Theories and Narratives (Cambridge, 1995), pp134-139.

32 M Shachtman, Bureaucratic Revolution, op cit, p32. See, for a definitive discussion of whether the Stalinist regime represented progress or barbarism, T Cliff, State Capitalism, pp196-200.

33 E E Haberkern and A Lipow, `Myth', op cit, pp185, 186.

34 Some examples of Haberkern's and Lipow's poor editing: their rambling introduction fails to provide the reader with any proper account of the historical context in which the texts they collect were composed; essential background information about the various political tendencies referred to is also not given; sometimes the original publication details of texts are given, sometimes not; the editorial notes are frequently partisan interpolations; the editors sometimes become a singular `I'. Considerations of space prevent me from considering more substantive muddles, for example, Haberkern's and Lipow's suggestion, following a hint of Shachtman's, that reformist governments may represent `a "parliamentary road" to bureaucratic collectivism': see Editorial Note to M Shachtman, (1951) `Aspects of the Labour Government', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, op cit, p168.

35 E E Haberkern and A Lipow, Introduction, Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, op cit, pxi.

36 Ibid, ppxiv-xv.

37 J Carter, Bureaucratic Collectivism, p105. See also H Draper, (1948) `The Economic Drive behind Tito', in E E Haberkern and A Lipow (eds), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism, op cit.

38 See C Harman, `The Storm Breaks', International Socialism 46 (1990), and A Callinicos, The Revenge of History (Cambridge, 1991), ch 2.

39 J Burham and M Shachtman, `Intellectuals in Retreat', New International, V:1 (1939), p20.

40 `Discussions with Trotsky', in Writings of Leon Trotsky (1939-40) (New York, 1973), quotation from p282.

41 See C Harman, The Fire Last Time (London, 1988), ch 13, and, for the extensive debate the American SWP's stance provoked in the Fourth International, Intercontinental Press, 1975-1976.

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