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Review: In Defence of Bolshevism. Max Shachtman.

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IDoB cover

“The force of things and the behaviour of men have contradicted all Lenin’s optimistic forecasts, his hopes in a superior democracy as much as his semi-libertarian ideas expressed in the State and Revolution and other writings of the same period, at the dawn of the revolution. Nothing in the individual theses of Trotsky has stood the test any better, in particular his wordy and abstract theory of the ‘permanent revolution’.”

Boris Souvarine, Stalin. A Critical Survey of Bolshevism, 1939.

The labour movement is striving “to renew and reconstruct itself in politics”, writes Sean Matgamma in his Introduction (The Labour Movement and Bolshevism) to In Defence of Bolshevism by Max Shachtman. (Purchase here.) How can this take place? The AWL’s best-known activist¬writer observes that many who identify with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership have “no conception of socialism at all as the negation of capitalism.” Most Corbynistas are enthusiastic and open¬minded people. It would be a mistake to patronise them. But some, the observer of past left wing surges states, may be first of all looking for a career in politics, think tanks and NGOs. Predictably there is plenty of flotsam and jetsam floated in the “social media age”.

A half-thought out “anti¬imperialism” linked to “absolute anti¬Zionism” has become a minefield of “left anti¬semitism”. There are “posh Stalinists”, close to the party chief, who reheat a Boy’s Own view of the gallant Soviet Union fighting Fascism. Socialism in One Country reappears behind efforts to portray Brexit as a working class revolt against elites. And, let’s not forget, in cyberspace, there are over-educated Corbyn supporters. Some see capitalism’s replacement, through Nick Land’s “accelerationism”, pushing forward immanent tendencies, as re-worked by Aaron Bastani, into “fully-automated luxury communism”.

British Labour Movement.

The opening essay, “The British labour movement and Bolshevism” is a settling of accounts with those who have returned to politics after Corbyn’s win and who have been supporters of the British “toy¬town Bolsheviks”. The “Little Great Men” of the far-left have considered their groups the revolutionary Party. One stands out. The Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) was sold to the “Libyan government and secret service”. Their state sponsored hatred of “Zionism” lingers on, in some cases through those who had been directly associated with the WRP such as one¬time London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, Matgamna’s sketch of the history of let-wing opposition to the European Union is also highly relevant.

This became a defining feature of the 1970s Broad Left (alliances of Labour left and the Communist Party of Great Britain, CPGB). An early version of a People’s Brexit, the Alternative Economic Strategy (AES) advocated “an amalgam of World¬War¬Two¬style state controlled ‘siege economy’ and Stalinist models of planning, but linked to bourgeois¬democratic liberalism”. (p.43) At present the Morning Star and its supporters, including advisers to Jeremy Corbyn, are fixated on the last point, asserting national sovereignty against “Brussels”.

This is not the centrepiece of In Defence of Bolshevism. To open a dialogue with Corbyn supporters and talk about socialism Matgamma offers the practice of the Bolsheviks in the years immediately after the 1917 Revolution. They created a “democratic class dictatorship exercised by the elected workers’ councils…” In this they are due honour amongst the “glories of the working class’s past”. The writer that is chosen to shed light on the Bolshevik achievement is Max Shachtman. For Sean Matgamna, the American one¬time leading figure in Trotsky’s Fourth International was the founder of “heterodox” Trotskyism.

Shachtman broke from Trotsky over the defence of the USSR when Stalin ordered the invasion of Finland in 1939. Shachtman’s current supported the judgement that the USSR under Stalin had become a new form of class society that could not be uncritically supported. The AWL has convincingly argued that this turned out not to be anything “new” but a blood¬stained historical by¬way in capitalist development, not any “transition” to socialism.

Marxism.

Under the Banner of Marxism, the main polemic reprinted here, was, as Alan Johnson indicates (Solidarity 5.12.18), directed against an attempt by Ernest Erber to trace the origins of Stalinist totalitarianism in Lenin’s political theory and practice. Most people, including this reviewer, will have never heard of Erber, or his split from the Shachtman group, which was a small minority within a small minority of Trotskyists on the already marginal American left. What is the importance of the writings from this dispute?

This document, and the articles also included in the book from New International and Labor Action, offer an independent defence of Bolshevik practice in 1917 and the immediate aftermath. They are clearly of their time and place. This is not entirely a bad thing. Shachtman was concerned not just to teach “muddlehead “ Erber a thing or two, with echoes of the purple prose of Engels’ Anti¬Dühring and Lenin’s “polemical” style. The heterodox Trotskyist that he was at this point aimed to stand against “apostates” who moved from revolutionary socialism to an acceptance of the “American Way of Life” and who “identify Stalinism with Bolshevism”. His pages are concerned with the “bourgeois struggle against socialism.” In other words, he stood up for Marxism and communism at the onset of the Cold War.

A wide range of quotations from the writings of Marx and Lenin supports the defence of the Russian revolution. His authorities include the Communist Manifesto, and AntiDühring. Lenin’s State and Revolution is cited to defend the power of the Soviets against the Constituent Assembly. The Soviet type of state is the best “genuine democracy”. As for the Bolshevik dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, elections in nation-wide ballots are no great shakes. “Like the prettiest girl in all of France, universal suffrage cannot give more than it has.” (p.127)

Shachtman is a relentless user of the argument “by circumstances”. This blames any repressive anti-democratic action of the Bolsheviks when Lenin was at the levers of power on conditions beyond his, the Bolsheviks’, and the democratic soviets’ control. Lenin gambled. They were “summoned to hold the first revolutionary citadel against frenzied and maddened besiegers until the relief columns of the Western proletariat could be brought forward” (p.175).

Bolsheviks Eliminated Workers’ Democracy.

One may accept that the alternatives to the Bolsheviks in that fight were worse without having a present need to join the defence on the battlements. Russia, telescoping democratic and working class stages of the uprising together, did not just fail to trigger any successful socialist revolution in Europe. It did not just set the path for the rejection of democratic representative forms, as Johnson rightly point out. It did not only, from early expulsions and splits and moral annihilation, turn to the policy of physically eliminating opponents. The Bolshevik leadership eliminated workers’ democracy in the Soviets themselves.

Inside the workers’ movement the Bolsheviks assumed the right to lead the proletariat above the wishes of wage earners. In June 1918 the All¬Russia Soviet CEC decided that the Left and Right Socialist¬Revolutionaries, and the groups of the Mensheviks, should be deprived of their mandates in the Soviets. They resolved that, “all soviets of workers’, soldiers’ peasants’ and Cossack deputies remove representatives of these fractions from their midst”. In these conditions it is a bold claim that Soviets run in the early 1920s — under Lenin’s rule — exclusively by one party plus “non¬party Bolsheviks” were a model for workers’ democracy and socialist practice.

Whatever the misdeeds of their political opponents, how could any different opinion be expressed freely without opposition parties? How exactly can socialist forms of the economy be run without open democratic debate? The purge included those, Mensheviks, who had been comrades in the same Russian Social Democratic and Labour Party (RSDLP) as Lenin, a party marked by a remarkable “freedom and an openness that was known to no other working¬class organisation of the time and has certainly had no equal since the rise of Stalinism.” (p.202) Sean Matgamma states, “The Bolsheviks did not say the last word on socialism. If there is a last word, it has not been said yet. But they said much that socialists now need to heed, learn, remember and work to apply in our conditions.” (p.68)

Indeed. Some socialists, including Corbynistas, explain the crack down on opposition by the disastrous Maduro regime in Venezuela and the repression in Nicaragua on the grounds that these “citadels” have to be defended against imperialism. They might learn from the Bolsheviks that eliminating democratic institutions is nothing but a deviation from the road to socialism.

Solidarity.

30th of January 2019. 

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