In a heated argument each side will tend to construe what the other is saying into that which best suits their own case - that which is most vulnerable to their arguments, that which seems to buttress their own views. Thus, an alleged "best representative" of a particular position, though he may be the weakest, most absurd, most self-caricaturing representative of his school, is often nominated and established before a broad audience by determined opponents of his whole trend of thought. Where a powerful church, state, party does this, the misrepresentation may last decades and centuries or, as in the case of certain ancient Christian sects, forever.
By Sean Matgamna
Bruno Rizzi, the subject of the following article by Hal Draper, is an important case in point. He is still spoken of as either the originator or best representative, or both, of the view that the Stalinist USSR was a new socio-economic formation, not capitalist, not socialist, but "bureaucratic collectivist".
In September 1939 Trotsky read a work of Rizzi's, whose circulation can only have been infinitesimal (most copies were destroyed after the book was banned on the eve of war in France) and, in Hal Draper's words, "Rizzi entered history when Trotsky whirled him round his head like a dead cat and let fly at the opposition" in the US Trotskyist organisation - Shachtman, Burnham, Carter, Draper himself and others, who refused to side with the USSR in its 1939-40 wars against Poland and Finland.
In The USSR and War (mid-September 1939) Trotsky asked: what if the Fourth International were to be forced by events to abandon the badly sapped and - even by Trotsky himself - already half-abandoned theory that the Stalinist USSR remained a form of degenerated workers' state? In a world where capitalism, not recovered from the great slump, was heading for imminent world war, a war that would most probably be succeeded by yet another world war which would, as Trotsky expressed it, be the "grave of civilisation", then the conclusion, he insisted, would have to be that not working-class socialism but "bureaucratic collectivist" societies, like the Stalinist USSR, were likely to be the historical successor to decaying capitalism. Trotsky cited Rizzi's contention in La Bureaucratisation du Monde that Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, the USSR and even Roosevelt's New Deal in the USA were all aspects of a common trend towards a bureaucratised post-capitalist world. That, he said, is what serious and rigorous opponents of Trotsky's own views on the USSR were already saying. No doubt, as Draper says, Trotsky wanted to "frighten the theoretical daylights" out of anyone inclined to reject his views.
Yet Trotsky's own position was not that to identify in the USSR a new form of class society - he had done that in everything but the clear cut word - was forever ruled out so long as the economy remained nationalised. In September and October 1939 Trotsky argued that if the USSR, as it was, nationalised property and all, survived the looming war, giving way to neither capitalist restoration nor a new working-class revolution, then it would have to be seen as a new form of class society.
When some of his closest supporters cried "revisionism", he argued that "bureaucratic collectivism" was no such thing ('Again and Once More...', October 1939, see In Defence of Marxim ). Trotsky's position at the end was that it was too soon to decide, and wrong to do so on the eve of the decisive test of war. He said "wait". Trotsky was as outspoken in his castigation of Stalin's action in Poland, and even Finland, as any of those who opposed his political position. But he thought that the Finnish-USSR war would very soon merge into a war between the USSR and the democratic imperialist powers, France and Britain, that Finland had to be seen as a detail of a much larger picture, and that a partial shift, on Finland, from unconditional military support for the USSR against imperialism, to what he called "conjunctural defeatism", would politically disorient the Fourth International.
In his analysis of the seemingly indestructible myths surrounding Bruno Rizzi Hal Draper gives a misleading account of the conflict between Trotsky and Cannon on one side and Shachtman and Burnham on the other. He is too summary; he telescopes too much. Draper reads later developments and positions anachronistically backwards. The dispute in the SWP in 1939-40 was not fought out on the question of the class character of the USSR. Max Shachtman, Martin Abern and (I assume) most of their supporters shared Trotsky's designation of the USSR as a degenerated workers' state. Nor did they reject his position of "defence of the USSR against imperialist attack". They explicitly shared it. What they rejected was defence of the USSR in the war with Finland, where the USSR, Hitler's partner in the recent partition of Poland, was acting as an imperialist power.
At this point, Trotsky, not his opponents, was the innovator: the long-term commitment to "defence of the USSR against imperialist attack" had not taken account of anything like the Finnish war; in so far as the issue of Stalinist oppression of nations had been discussed, in relation to the Ukraine, Trotsky was a passionate advocate of independence for the Ukraine, and therefore of a national fight for independence as part of the "political revolution" against Stalinism.
In the SWP-USA, a minority (a very small one, I understand) had from 1937 held that the USSR was no sort of workers' state. In fact, though Trotsky had recoiled from it, that conclusion was plainly indicated in Trotsky's own formulation in his book, The Revolution Betrayed (1936) that in the USSR "the state owns the economy and the bureaucracy, so to speak, owns the state". Others drew the indicated conclusions. But those - including, I suppose, Hal Draper - who rejected the idea that the USSR was any sort of workers' state, continued like Trotsky to think it economically "progressive" compared to crisis-ridden capitalism, and that it should be "defended" against imperialist attack.
Here, too, in the separation of the evaluation of the class character of the USSR from his political conclusions, Trotsky was the innovator. From 1937 Trotsky had two separable and distinct bases for defencist political conclusions: that the USSR remained a degenerated workers' state, a product of the October revolution, and that, even if it wasn't that, its collectivised economy was nonetheless "progressive" compared to capitalism and should be defended against the restoration of capitalism. He separated the political conclusions from the degenerated workers' state "designation". The political conclusion - progressive, therefore defend it - would remain unchanged even if the idea that the USSR was still some sort of workers' state had to be dropped - if the original class characterisation from which defencism was derived had been jettisoned. The same political conclusions could follow from different class designations. The implication for the future of Trotsky's political tendency, once Stalinism survived the war and expanded across a further sixth of the globe, were after Trotsky's death, enormous.
Around the core idea that bureaucratically collectivised economies like that of the USSR were progressive, no matter what developed, post-Trotsky Trotskyism used Trotsky's terminology to describe things very different from what Trotsky thought he described in the USSR. Where Trotsky had separated the idea of the progressive collectivised economy from the increasingly nonsensical idea that the working class ruled, which he defended in the 1939/40 dispute, his epigones reconnected them, promiscuously slapping workers' state designations on the newly emerged Stalinist collectivist economies. From this root idea, that collectivised economy was progressive irrespective of the working class, would sprout the many branches of post-Trotsky Trotskyism, with its new attitude to Stalinism.
But Draper is mistaken in the idea that the discussions in 1939-40 were - other than implicitly - about either Trotsky's theory of the Stalinist degenerated workers' states or his general political conclusions. He generalises misleadingly from what may have been his own position then.
Between 1937 and 1939, and even 1940, Trotsky and the "new class" Fourth Internationalists agreed on everything, as Trotsky insisted, but names - that the collectivised economy remained progressive, or potentially progressive; that it had to be "defended" against capitalist restoration; that the working class would have to make a new - "political" - revolution. They parted when their politics diverged, at first on a limited question of "defencism" - on "conjunctional defeatism" towards the USSR in its Finnish war.
Even here Trotsky had blazed the first trail: after the USSR takeover of eastern Poland Trotsky wrote in favour of the possibility of what he would soon call "conjunctural defeatism" in future such cases. If not for his expectation that the British and French would very soon be at war with the USSR, he would, on his recent writings, have been a conjunctional defeatist himself [see The Fate of the Russian Revolution].
A minority of those opposing Trotsky in 1939-40, including perhaps Hal Draper, already had (but had not written down) or soon developed the idea that "bureaucratic collectivism" was neither progressive nor to be defended. That became the position of the whole Workers Party in 1947-48. In the first seven years of the Workers Party, Max Shachtman and others remained very close to Trotsky's last position; even after they decided that the USSR Stalinist autocracy was a new ruling class, they thought of the USSR's economy as still progressive, or potentially progressive; it should be defended against imperialism, they still said. In World War 2 they saw the USSR as being inseparable from its imperialist partners and subordinate first to Hitler and then to the USA and Britain and for that reason did not side with the USSR. Then they registered and responded with hostility to the powerful and by no means "subordinate" development of Russian imperialism from 1943.
The "official" Trotskyists, Trotsky's comrades-in-arms in 1939-40, developed from the 1937-39/40 position in the opposite direction. They lost much of the common all-pervasive alienation from the USSR of the 1937-40 period, especially after Hitler invaded Russia. They held firm to the idea that collectivised property was progressive. Though more "orthodox" than the dead man they treated as pope, they had no use for the separation Trotsky had laid down between the class character of the USSR and the supposed progressiveness of its economy. Whenever collectivised economies appeared they saw them as workers' states. They constructively wrote the working class out of history. Thus the unstable 'consensus of flux' of 1937-40 produced two radically different strands of Trotskyism.
In 1939-40, the "theses" which James Burnham produced at the beginning of the discussion, and then withdrew, did not state "a new class analysis" of the USSR, nor merely repeat the position he and others had had since 1937: he argued that bourgeois restoration in the USSR was already a fact. (See James' Burnham's text in The Fate of the Russian Revolution [FRR]). (He would present a new class position in The Managerial Revolution, 1941.) According to an account by Shachtman, writing in the Workers' Party internal bulletin in 1941 (it is in FRR) Joseph Carter, Draper's co-thinker, had a distinct position in 1939, but it played no part in the 1939-40 discussion.
Draper's account eliminates important distinctions, stages of development and zig-zags, and thereby loses a proper account of what really happened. At this distance that might not matter, except that something of very great importance is simultaneously lost: the picture of the development and trajectory of Trotsky's own thinking, and the relationship of Trotsky's thinking to the politics on the USSR developed after his death.
A careful reading of Trotsky's writing from 1937-40 would show that the Workers' Party's "Bureaucratic Collectivists" developed Trotsky's thinking along the trajectory on which he had been moving. Both those like Shachtman, who at first saw bureaucratic collectivism as 'progressive', and those who broke with that idea (Carter, Draper, Geltman).* For someone concerned as Draper is to vindicate the Carter strand of bureaucratic collectivism in the first half of the '40s as against Shachtman's early version then, this is an odd patch of blindness to an immensely more important question - the relationship of Trotsky's thinking to both of the two strands of post-Trotskyist Trotskyism, associated with the names of Shachtman (or, if you like, Carter or Draper) on one side and of Cannon, Pablo, Mandel on the other.
What Trotsky really said and what his political trajectory was is important because the preservation and restoration of the real revolutionary tradition is immensely important for the work of socialists now and in the future.
Trotsky is the Spartacus of the 20th century, and much more. Trotsky's tardiness in drawing the unavoidable conclusions which most of his writings from The Revolution Betrayed onwards pointed to - that the Stalinist state was a distinct form of exploitative class society and the bureaucracy a new type of ruling class - and his too-violent and too self-contradictory polemics of 1939-40, contributed to the intellectual chaos that engulfed so much of post-Trotsky Trotskyism. If he really was at one with those who after his death put "Trotskyism" in orbit around the magnetic pull of the Stalinist empire, then so be it. There would be nothing to be done about it. If, however, it can be shown - as, I believe, it is shown in the FRR - that his entire trajectory was in the opposite direction, then Trotsky's tradition and Trotsky's memory should be rescued from his posthumous captivity to his "orthodox Trotskyist" epigones and not blamed for what they did in his name.
Nonetheless, Draper's account of Rizzi must be considered definitive, for three reasons: he was a participant in the discussions at the turn of the decade that would see the creation of a vast Stalinist empire in Eastern Europe and its establishment in China and he knows what influence Rizzi's ideas had on those who developed the bureaucratic collectivist positions; he sought out Rizzi in Italy in 1958 and discussed the question with him thoroughly; and Draper's article contains a summary with representative quotations, of that part of Rizzi's work containing his political conclusions, which the late Adam Westoby did not translate and include in his book on Rizzi, whose publication in the late 1980s was the occasion for Draper's article.
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