Workers' Liberty #62


Why does Cliff traduce Shachtman?

Over the past ten years there has been a good deal of discussion in this magazine about the ideas of Max Shachtman. Shachtman was in the 1940s the foremost critic of Trotsky's view of Stalinism in the USSR, and together with his comrades in the Workers' Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL), developed a distinctive analysis of the Stalinist Russia, which they called "bureaucratic collectivism". Unfortunately most socialists in Britain are most likely to approach Shachtman through the prism of Tony Cliff's essay, 'The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: a Critique', which appears as an appendix to his State Capitalism in Russia (1988), and in his selected works, Neither Washington nor Moscow (1982).1

By Paul Hampton

Cliff's critique pulled no punches: "The theory of bureaucratic collectivism is supra-historical, negative and abstract. It does not define the economic laws of motion of the system, explain its inherent contradictions and the motivation of the class struggle. It is completely arbitrary. Hence it does not give a perspective, nor can it serve as a basis for a strategy for socialists." In short, "The only two constant elements in the theory have been: first, the conclusion that in any concrete conditions, Stalinist Russia must not be defended (no matter that concrete conditions change all the time); second, that the name of the Stalinist regime is Bureaucratic Collectivism." (1988: 353, 337)

What's wrong with Cliff's critique? It claimed to deal with the essence of bureaucratic collectivism and appeared to provide a panoramic analysis of all the new class theories from their infancy. However on closer inspection it pasted together criticisms from both Trotsky and his epigones, smeared the parentage of bureaucratic collectivism, and by means of highly selective quotation completely misrepresented what the WP/ISL actually wrote about the USSR. In fact it is not a scholarly work at all; a comparison of the original version with the later editions indicates that Cliff never bothered to really investigate the views of his opponents in the first place, and despite close contact with them during the 1950s, never bothered to deepen or develop his understanding of their position as it evolved. In doing so he buried important questions under a torrent of abuse. 'The Theory of Bureaucratic Collectivism: a Critique' is a work of slander, political debris which aborts more serious engagement with Shachtman.

What are the origins of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism?

Shachtman had written against his detractors that, "In the New Course, Trotsky lays great stress on loyalty in discussion, on the honest presentation of your opponents' views, on the reprehensibility of amalgamating one view with views that are essentially alien to it."2

Cliff's original critique included a section on Bruno Rizzi, largely retained in his edited version, together with a long section on James Burnham, which was later omitted. Here Cliff really outdid orthodox Trotskyism by smearing the origins of bureaucratic collectivism with the parentage of these two wicked fairies.

Cliff invested Rizzi with great authority, claiming that: "The first writer to coin this term (Bureaucratic Collectivism) was the Italian Marxist, Bruno R, in his book La Bureaucratisation du Monde (Paris 1939). The same term was adopted and the idea developed (without acknowledgement of the work of Bruno R) by the American socialist, Max Shachtman." (1988: 333) When he first wrote about Rizzi in the late forties, one thing Cliff had done which Shachtman and others had been unable to do in 1939, was to read a copy of the book (in French). Cliff was confident enough to argue that, "on the characterisation, description, and analysis of Bureaucratic Collectivism as such - as a social order - they [Shachtman and Rizzi] are in entire agreement." (1988: 339) He seemed to substantiate this with quotations, which sounded like the views developed by the Workers' Party. Who was Bruno Rizzi? He had been around the Italian Communist Party and retained some acquaintance with opposition currents after Mussolini's ascent to power. He was a shoe salesman, which allowed him to travel outside of fascist Italy, and remained a loyal supporter of the Stalin regime until 1935. By 1937 he had read Trotsky's The Revolution Betrayed, and written a paraphrase of it, which he published himself. By 1938 Rizzi came into contact with Trotskyists in France and in England, and through them learned of the debates within the movement over the class nature of the USSR. Some members of the anti-Stalinist left in Paris were suspicious of him because of his ability to travel freely, although no evidence has been found that he was a police spy.3

In 1938/39, Rizzi wrote a series of letters to Trotsky, and completed the first part of his book, La Bureaucratisation du Monde, which dealt with the USSR, in March 1939. The second part, dealing with Italian fascism, was prepared by October 1939, but never published, whilst part three, dealing with the USA, and the appendices, were written in May 1939. Having failed to secure a publisher Rizzi printed the first and third parts himself in August 1939. The book contained a number of anti-semitic passages and for this reason the French authorities brought a prosecution against him in January 1940. Stocks of the book were impounded - hence its rarity. However Trotsky received his copy early in September 1939, and referred to it in 'The USSR in War', during the dispute in the American Socialist Workers' Party (SWP). Rizzi was for Trotsky only the latest to hold the view that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a new ruling class: he had criticised earlier exponents of that opinion such as Urbahns and Laurat, for nearly a decade. Rizzi's theory was that history was flowing towards collectivism, ending in Communism, as the state became more involved in economic activity. These tendencies were present not only in the USSR, but in fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and New Deal America. However in his view the working class was unable to take power (in Russia Rizzi thought they had been reduced to slaves). Instead the state bureaucracies were the bearers of progress because of their control of nationalised property. Rizzi's predominant conclusion was that the proletariat still had a "very important task to accomplish; to acknowledge Herr Hitler and Mr Mussolini as the grave-diggers of international capitalism... and to help them in their task"(!) (1985: 13) Happy to justify Hitler's racism, Rizzi argued that British and French workers should force their own capitalists into conceding living space and raw materials to Germany and Italy. His book was in fact a "socialist" rationale for fascism.

What of the accusation made by Cliff and others, that both Shachtman and, more closely, James Burnham plagiarised Rizzi's work? According to Adam Westoby's investigations, "the accusation is unproven, and unlikely to be true." (1985: 25) In fact Rizzi borrowed much of his analysis of the USSR from critics of Stalinism such as Yvan Craipeau, Burnham and Joseph Carter in 1937 from within the Trotskyist movement. He fused it with the praise heaped on bureaucracies by Fabians like the Webbs and George Bernard Shaw.

Typically, Cliff made a fetish out of their use of the same name-tag to produce an amalgam of Rizzi and Shachtman. This smear failed to distinguish the very different theory of bureaucratic collectivism held by the members of the WP/ISL from Rizzi's views. In fact, on the level of theory, by equating nationalised property with progress Rizzi's analysis (if not his conclusions) came closer to "orthodox" Trotskyism than to Cliff's intended target, Shachtman.

Yet Cliff and his apostles (and, for example, Revolutionary History magazine) continue to argue that Shachtman's ideas parallel Rizzi's, even when the details of his real views have been known for some time. For example, Pierre Naville wrote about Rizzi in Le Contrat Social in 1958, and Hal Draper visited him that year, and a debate took place in the New Leader with the sociologist Daniel Bell in 1959. Later, following eulogies about Rizzi at the time of his death in 1977 from luminaries in the Italian Socialist Party, the journal Telos also promoted a positive assessment, before Ernie Haberkern called them to account in his review of Westoby's book in 1985. This and other publications by Haberkern since leave any honest commentator in no doubt of the gulf separating Shachtman from Rizzi.

As a former leading member of the American SWP, the case of Burnham is slightly different. There is no doubting Burnham's place in the development of a critique of Trotsky's analysis, in particular his criticism of the argument that nationalised property was a sufficient condition for characterising Russia as a workers' state, and his view that Trotsky's theory opened up the "possibility" of a bureaucratic road to socialism (a view vindicated by the assessments of the spread of Stalinism made by "orthodox" Trotskyists in the forties). He also played his role in the 1939-40 split in the SWP, during which his long held differences with Marxism (for example, in philosophy) began to unravel in his politics. By 1939 Burnham was breaking from revolutionary socialism; he deserted the Workers' Party almost immediately it was formed in 1940. The views he developed in The Managerial Revolution (1941) were a long way from his earlier conceptions and the New International carried its own vehement attacks on Burnham from the beginning.

Much of the substance of Cliff's assault on Burnham was common to wider sections of the left by the late '40s, including socialists like George Orwell. Many of Burnham's predictions were shallow; like Rizzi he argued that the tendencies which were most pronounced in Russia were also true of Nazi Germany, Italy and the USA. Most importantly, he had given up on the working class as the agent of social change. Believing he had glimpsed the decline of capitalism, he made arguments for what he saw as its "managerial" (actually fascist) successor, only later to recoil as a conservative defender of American imperialism against Russian totalitarianism. Cliff's critique of Burnham is, in hindsight, rather mild - but had little to do with Shachtman. Nowhere did Cliff demonstrate their identity, asserting it only in a short footnote. No documentary evidence has been produced since - at best there are the reminiscences of old and ex-comrades who lived at the time.

On the matter of who invented the term, "bureaucratic collectivism", Cliff was wrong again. The term was used before the First World War by British Marxists and by critics of socialism such as Belloc. Perhaps Rizzi was the first to apply the name-tag to Stalinism, but even if this were true it lacks any great significance. Trotsky himself had used Rizzi as a mask for an alternative perspective on Stalinism that he had been tentatively developing during 1939 - the memoirs of Jean van Heijenhoort attest to his preoccupation with the question during that summer, although Trotsky drew back from this in the last year of his life. However, the originator of the new class theory was probably Christian Rakovsky, a leader of the Russian opposition to Stalinism second only to Trotsky, who wrote a number of articles from 1928, some of them published in the Bulletin of the Opposition, on the dangers of the bureaucracy developing into a class.

Shachtman did not invent the position, and lagged behind Burnham and Carter who originated it in the USA. But Cliff was not interested in engaging with a position different from his own, even if it had entirely respectable roots within the movement.4

What was Cliff's method?

When Cliff edited his critique of bureaucratic collectivism, what he was prepared to reprint in 1968 amounted to about half the original. He probably thought he had done enough to slay the dragon, yet the discarded passages, dealing with his musings on philosophy, reveal more clearly the errors of his methodology. Cliff had since 1947 characterised Stalinist Russia as "state capitalist", and evaluated other name-tags against this label. But at the deeper level, the theory - and particularly the manner in which Cliff 'proved' that the social relations in Russia were "state capitalist" -revealed that the confusion of Stalinised "Marxism" was not confined to those who persisted with the "workers' state" name-tag. His approach was clear from his discussion of the inevitability of socialism. Shachtman had argued that those who believed socialism was inevitable had, by ruling out the possibility of developments other than socialism, undermined the necessity of actually fighting for socialism.

Cliff raised the hue and cry of revisionism and quoted Plekhanov approvingly that, "...history shows that even fatalism was not always a hindrance to energetic, practical action; on the contrary, in certain epochs it was a psychologically necessary basis for such action", witness the English Puritans and the followers of Mohammed. Cliff had in fact misunderstood the essential difference between the fight for socialism and other previous revolutions in history. He wrote: "After feudal society, capitalism was inevitable. No other social system could take its place.

This did not make the rising bourgeoisie any less active in its fight against feudalism... As there is no other system than socialism that can drive forward the productive forces, and as the proletariat exists so long as social production exists, the fight for socialism is inevitable and its victory is inevitable." (1949: 18)

Cliff exhibited the crudest of "determinism" derived from Stalinism. He confused two distinct elements: the fightback which workers put up against their exploitation under capitalism (which is inevitable); and the victory of socialism, which is not a foregone conclusion. He deliberately downplayed Shachtman's real point: the exceptionally conscious character of the socialist revolution. For Shachtman, as for Marx and Trotsky, the working class (unlike other previous classes) had to make its own revolution, and had to understand the meaning of its fight in order to lay the basis for self-conscious (i.e. democratic) working class rule, and wider universal human emancipation. This was part of the rationale for revolutionaries organising themselves as a party, together with combating the ruling ideas of the epoch. However. Cliff, writing at the end of the '40s, defined consciousness as basically "accidental" in this fight, despite his protestations of its "big role", and of the need to avoid "complacency".

Cliff also assailed Shachtman with the familiar orthodox Trotskyist insult that he had abandoned dialectics by adopting bureaucratic collectivism, but gave this argument a novel twist. He deduced the nature of Stalinist Russia straight from the laws of dialectics: capitalism was the negation of feudalism; capitalism was the unity of wage labour and capital, "the existence of each of which is dependent on the existence of the other"; as capitalism developed, from free competition to monopoly, and then to state capitalism; so the polar opposites came into conflict until the working class triumphed over the capitalists, "the negation of the negation". (1949: 20) For Cliff, bureaucratic collectivism cannot fit into this schema, it is impossible in Marxist theory because of his version of dialectics (straight from the Short Course). Instead, during this "transition period", "today all the exploiters are compelled to use more and more elements of the socialist future, such as planning, etc., in defence of their interests, is only a sign of the historical obsoleteness of capitalism" (1949: 22-23). The sub-text here (with shades of Ted Grant) is that Russia can only be socialist or some form of capitalism - the structure of logic will permit nothing else.

Overall Cliff substituted logic-chopping for the study of real relations in Russia. His mistake recalled precisely the error Marx had in mind when he wrote to Danielson that, "My critic must needs metamorphose my outline of the genesis of capitalism in western Europe into a historic-philosophical theory of the general course, fatally imposed on all peoples, regardless of the historical circumstances in which they find themselves placed... He does me too much honour and too much shame at the same time... but one will never succeed with the master-key of a historico-philosophical theory whose supreme virtue consists in being supra-historical." [My emphasis]

How should Marxists proceed to analyse different class societies in history? An originator of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, Joseph Carter, addressed this question when he wrote, against CLR James' theory of state capitalism: "The process of accumulation is then consciously directed through the state, and the state alone. It is this 'specific manner' in which the factors of production are united, this specific way in which surplus is extracted from the working class, that differentiates bureaucratic collectivism from capitalism." Carter was only paraphrasing the master-key Marx identified to understand different epochs in human history, "The specific economic form in which unpaid surplus-labour is pumped out of the direct producers, determines the relationship between rulers and ruled".5

What determines the place of any regime in history?

In his original document, Cliff wrote that, "Not one of the proponents of the theory of bureaucratic collectivism tries to pose the question of what the place of this bureaucracy is in the general chain of historical development, what is its function, what is the relation between its function and the function of the bourgeoisie." (1949: 5-6) His answer, that it was ultimately the development of the productive forces which determined the place of any regime in history, merely echoed Trotsky in The Revolution Betrayed. This was a commonplace within the movement and not disputed by Shachtman or anyone else. But the weight of much of Cliff's criticism, and the argument in the Nature of Stalinist Russia (1948), was that the bureaucracy was progressive because it had developed the productive forces.

Cliff made a parallel in his original document between Nazi Germany, which he defined as "a state capitalist cartel", and Stalinist Russia, which was "a state capitalist trust". He later discussed the development of capitalism as far as "state capitalism (of lower or higher form - cartel or trust)". (1949: 17, 20) The impression was that Russia represented the highest, most concentrated form of capitalism. Stalinism was the wave of the future, the destiny of advanced capitalism.

Elsewhere in the same document, he retained this positive evaluation, but this time placing the bureaucracy at a primitive stage in the development of capitalism. He claimed his earlier study proved "that the average income per occupied person in Russia on the eve of the rise of the Stalinist bureaucracy was the same as existed in Britain a century before the industrial revolution". His conclusion: "Post-October Russia stood before the fulfilment of the historic mission of the bourgeoisie, which Lenin summed up in two postulates: 'increase in the productive forces of social labour and the socialisation of labour'." (1988: 351) His point was that the Stalinist bureaucracy became a "capitalist" class because Russian capitalism had not come to maturity before the 1917 revolution. The bureaucracy "bridged the gap" in the country's development - "it personified the accumulation of capital".

Cliff's tunnel-visioned version of history made all societies pass through the same stages of development and pass automatically from one to the other under the lash of the development of the productive forces. He must have glanced at the Communist Manifesto and imagined Marx chanting the mantra: "the country that is more developed shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future." However, for all his apparent orthodoxy, he never could decide on whether the Stalinist bureaucracy represented the highest stage of capitalism, or its birth pangs. No doubt Cliff would shriek about the unity of opposites, but even the over-burdened dialectic would find it difficult to carry the weight of such confusion. He was subject to the same kind of ambiguities of which he was to accuse Shachtman!

Cliff quoted selectively to "show" how incoherent bureaucratic collectivism was on the place of Stalinism in history. In 1941, Shachtman had written that: "From the standpoint of socialism, the bureaucratic collectivist state is a reactionary social order; in relation to the capitalist world, it is on an historically more progressive plane." Later he characterised Stalinism as "the new barbarism". Shachtman's characterisation of "progressiveness", because of the existence of nationalised property, was a vestige of Trotsky, which would be consciously removed later as the theory developed. In 1949, the renamed ISL proclaimed that: "Stalinist nationalisation is in no sense at all a prerequisite for the socialization of the means of production; nor does it 'prepare the way' for the latter... Stalinist nationalization therefore is in no sense progressive... This is the only criterion for the category of 'progressiveness' in today's world, and means: that is 'progressive' which is a prerequisite for, or does lead in fact lead to, the establishment of socialist democracy."

Shachtman himself wrote a satisfactory rejoinder to his original view of nationalised property: "There is no private ownership of property under Stalinism, it is true, and the development of the productive forces is likewise a fact... A concrete foundation is essential to a good home, just like the nationalisation of the means of production and distribution is essential to the construction of a socialist society. But on the same foundation of concrete can be built a prison (in fact the foundations of most prisons are supposed to be stronger than of most homes). Very few people, however, speak of prisons as 'imperfect homes' the way the Stalinist states are sometimes called, by affable apologists"6.


  1. I have used for reference the version in State Capitalism in Russia, (1988) which is widely available. According to the notes in his books, the article originally appeared as a duplicated document in 1948 and was reprinted in IS(1) 32, Spring 1968. In the introduction to Hallas (ed) The Fourth International, Stalinism and the Origins of the International Socialists (1971:1), it says that no copy of the original could be found and so the 1968 IS article was reprinted. Hallas later claimed the document was first published in 1952, (IS(2) 9, Summer 1980: 129). The references in the original version suggest it was finished in 1949, which is the dating I have used when quoting from it. The 1968 version was revised using Shachtman's The Bureaucratic Revolution (1962). Cliff's critique of Shachtman, despite superficial appearances, relied heavily on orthodox Trotskyism. The most relevant sources are: Harry Frankel, 'A Defamer of Marxism', Fourth International, May 1944; and 'Revolutionary Marxism or Petty-Bourgeois Revisionism', IB of the SWP, Vol VIII, No10, August 1946.

  2. Shachtman (1944: 267), 'An Epigone of Trotsky', New International, August and October 1944.

  3. Most of the background is in Rizzi (1985), The Bureaucratisation of the World, translated by Adam Westoby. James M. Fenwick first reviewed the book in the New International in 'The Mysterious Bruno R', in September 1948. See Haberkern's review of Rizzi in Telos, No66, Winter 1985-86, and Haberkern and Lipow (eds), (1996), Neither Capitalism nor Socialism: Theories of Bureaucratic Collectivism.

  4. Van Heijenhoort, With Trotsky in Exile, (1978: 141). Some of Rakovsky's work is in Fagan (ed.), (1980), Christian Rakovsky: Selected Writings on Opposition in the USSR 1923-30.

  5. Carter, 'Aspects of Marxian Economics', New International, April 1942. Marx, Capital, Volume III (1971: 791).

  6. ISL 'Capitalism, Stalinism and the War', New International, April (1949: 121-122), in Matgamna Fate of the Russian Revolution (1998: 492). Shachtman, 'Freedom in Equality', Labor Action, 18th November (1957: 8).

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