Workers Liberty and the Third Camp


13/01/2016 by socialistfight



Max Shachtman; 1904-1972. Trotsky: “Had the conscious agents of the class enemy operated through Shachtman, they could not have advised him to do anything different from what he himself has perpetrated”.

Reply by Gerry Downing to Workers Liberty; The Two Trotskys, How the “Orthodox” in the 1940s buried the spirit of one Trotsky to save the ghost of another and to other Third Campists


Trotsky sums up the petty bourgeois opposition as a whole just after the split in the SWP (US) in April 1940 in his article, Petty-Bourgeois Moralists and the Proletarian Party:

“The petty-bourgeois minority of the SWP split from the proletarian majority on the basis of a struggle against revolutionary Marxism. Burnham proclaimed dialectical materialism to be incompatible with his moth-eaten ‘science’. Shachtman proclaimed revolutionary Marxism to be of no moment from the standpoint of ‘practical tasks’. Abern hastened to hook up his little booth with the anti-Marxism bloc…

Only the other day Shachtman referred to himself in the press as a ‘Trotskyist’. If this be Trotskyism then I at least am no Trotskyist. With the present ideas of Shachtman, not to mention Burnham, I have nothing in common… As for their ‘organisational methods’ and political ‘morality’ I have nothing but contempt. Had the conscious agents of the class enemy operated through Shachtman, they could not have advised him to do anything different from what he himself has perpetrated. He united with anti-Marxists to wage a struggle against Marxism. He helped fuse together a petty-bourgeois faction against the workers. He refrained from utilising internal party democracy and from making an honest effort to convince the proletarian majority. He engineered a split under the conditions of a world war. To crown it all, he threw over the split the veil of a petty and dirty scandal, which seems especially designed to provide our enemies with ammunition. Such are these ‘democrats’, such are their ‘morals’’! [1]

Workers Liberty’s Sean Matgamna wants to persuade us all, and his own young members in particular, that they are the genuine one of the “two Trotskys” and the other, the “orthodox”, personified by the post-Trotsky leadership of JP Cannon of the US SWP, Ernest Mandel, Michel Pablo, Gerry Healy, Ted Grant, etc. is a bogus one. [2] Trotsky too made serious errors in the last year of his life (1939-40 – see Trotsky’s USSR in War in this pamphlet), Sean would have us believe, although he was coming around to the way of thinking represented by Max Shachtman and, had he lived long enough, he would have admitted he was wrong. Shachtman was right and Sean Matgamna is also right now it seems in defending Shachtman up to 1958, when he dissolved the Independent Socialist League and entered the small Socialist Party in an unprincipled adaption to the Democrats.

After 1958 apparently the mantle fell to the left Shachtmanites Hal Draper, CLR James, Raya Dunayevskaya, and others until eventually Matgamna shouldered the Shachtman burden and raised the flag of genuine Trotskyism after about 1983. The thesis that we intend to prove is: There is and was only one Leon Trotsky politically and that heritage is definitively not represented be either Max Shachtman or Sean Matgamna who was and are renegades from Trotskyism. Shachtman could likewise said of them, “if this be Shachtmanism I at least am no Shachtmanite” if that’s not just too ridiculous.

We will therefore make a critical defence of the SWP under Cannon and the Fourth International during WWII up to 1948-9, acknowledging that severe problems were emerging during WWII which Shachtman picked up on. But his attacks on the SWP was always with a rightist agenda and therefore ultimately from the right; the trajectory identified by Trotsky in his collection of essays contained in In Defence of Marxism is correct even not all documents are contained in it and Shachtman took far longer to get there than his comrade-in-arms James Burnham. He hared off to the right almost immediately to defend American imperialism in such famous publications as The Managerial Revolution, (today it is obviously farcical nonsense) a rejection of internationalist class politics and anti-imperialism correctly identified by Trotsky as the real basis to the 1939-40 SWP opposition. As it is of the AWL today.


Christmas 1939 – Direct equation of Stalin and Hitler in Socialist Appeal under Shachtman’s editorship; a portent of the split to come.

 The main, central, enemy of the global working class is the global hegemon, US-dominated imperialism, its NATO and other allies

The main enemy is ALWAYS at home in imperialist countries, NEVER in semi-colonial Buenos Aires, Damascus, Kabul, Tripoli, Teheran, Moscow or Beijing. In semi-colonial and Stalinist countries that also hold true even if more emphasis must be put in opposing the local bourgeois or Stalinist leadership but in all conflicts with imperialism true revolutionaries understand the theory of Permanent Revolution. They know their temporary allies are just that; they are conjectural opponents of imperialism who will stab consistent opponents in the back to broker a new compromise with imperialism at the first opportunity. Remember James Connolly’s famous quote in 1916 on this which he brilliantly foreshadowed Trotsky’s famous theory: “In the event of victory, hold on to your rifles, as those with whom we are fighting may stop before our goal is reached. We are out for economic as well as political liberty.”

In 1983 the Workers Socialist League (WSL), which had fused with Matgamna’s International-Communist League in 1981, split from the old WSL group led by Alan Thornett and Alan Clinton. The Matgamna majority refused to call for the defeat of the British Expeditionary force to the Malvinas/ Falkland Islands in the war of 1982. They took a dual defeatist position on the grounds that Argentina was not a semi-colony of imperialism but ‘sub-imperialist’; a regional imperialist power. They called for self-determination for the Malvinas islanders. He split his organisation in three on those disgraceful ‘principles’. The WSL minority took a centrist position, the group around the WSL international, the Trotskyist International Liaison Committee, (TILC) took the correct line of calling for the defeat of the British Expeditionary force.

In 2007 Matgamna made a critical assessment of Max Shachtman because it was necessary to explain how he ended up in such a bad place politically if he had been correct up to then. He supported the CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 and the US wars on Vietnam and Cambodia (via opposition to withdrawing US troops) up to his death in 1972. He admits:

“Max Shachtman died of a heart attack on 4 November 1972, as the USA was preparing to “bomb Cambodia into the Stone Age” — which it did, leaving the ultra-Stalinist Khmer Rouge as murdering kings of the ruins. The folly of relying on US imperialism against Stalinism could not have been more horribly proven. At his end Shachtman stood as a negative example of the need for the politics he had defended for four decades — independent, socialist, working class politics. Yet his earlier writings continue to stand as an immensely valuable positive embodiment of such politics” [3]

Wasn’t “The folly of relying on US imperialism against Stalinism” the essence of Third Campism? “Well not really for the ‘left’ Shachtman and his political heirs, we are neutral and refuse to take sides” they object. We will see how hollow this claim is later. But you couldn’t get away with that on Vietnam because of the leftism of the age. His earlier writings on the USSR stand for no such thing, as we shall see but for now we will examine the following lines by Matgamna because this is essential Shachtmanism, even after the USSR is long gone:

“In the post-war world, where the USSR was the second great global power, recognition that the USA and Western Europe — advanced capitalism — was the more progressive of the contending camps, the one which gave richer possibilities, greater freedom, more for socialists to build on, was, I believe, a necessary part of the restoration of Marxist balance to socialist politics. It was a pre-requisite for the reconstruction of Marxism after the systematic destruction of its concepts over a long period.” (out emphasis) [4]

In all wars even with semi-colonial countries it was ALWAYS true for the AWL that “the USA and Western Europe — advanced capitalism — was the more progressive of the contending camps.” This is consistent with Shachtman’s Workers Party whose main concern in splitting from Trotsky and the SWP was to signal their loyalty to global imperialism; they could not even defend colonised China against imperialist Japan let alone their later refusal to give critical support to Mao Tse Tung against Chiang Kai-shek in the Chinese Revolution. As Barry Shepherd explains:

“In addition to maintaining the hands-off, third-camp position regarding the Nazi-Soviet war, the Workers Party also took a third-camp position in the war by colonised China against its Japanese occupiers.” [5]

In siding with their own ruling class in its wars the AWL reject Marx’s and Lenin’s theory of imperialism outright. Marx and Engels, Trotsky reminds us, “supported the revolutionary struggle of the Irish against Great Britain, of the Poles against the Tsar, even though in these two nationalist wars the leaders were, for the most part, members of the bourgeoisie and even at times of the feudal aristocracy … at all events, Catholic reactionaries.”

Trotsky went on to point out that the Bolsheviks supported Abd El-Krim in Morocco in 1921 against the French (and Spanish) when he temporarily liberated northern Morocco from Spanish colonial rule. He was an emir, a Rif from the Berber community who fought for an independent Rif republic, whose name is not allowed to be mentioned even today in Morocco. ‘Respectable’ democrats and Social Democrats like Leon Blum spoke with hate of the struggle of a “savage tyrant” against the “democracy” as the AWL do today about Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Ukraine.

But, says Trotsky, “we, Marxists and Bolsheviks, considered the struggle of the Riffians against imperialist domination as a progressive war”. And he refers to the record of Lenin who “wrote hundreds of pages demonstrating the primary necessity of distinguishing between imperialist nations and the colonial and semi colonial nations which comprise the great majority of humanity. To speak of “revolutionary defeatism” in general, without distinguishing between exploiter and exploited countries, is to make a miserable caricature of Bolshevism and to put that caricature at the service of the imperialists.” [6]

And of course Trotsky also opposed wrong ultra-left Third Campist phrase mongering on Abyssinia in 1936, on China in 1937 and Brazil (hypothetically) in 1938. Here he spells out the correct position against imperialism on China:

“The only salvation of the workers and peasants of China is to struggle independently against the two armies, against the Chinese army in the same manner as against the Japanese army” (say his ultra-left Third Campist opponents – GD). And Trotsky explains “to participate actively and consciously in the war does not mean ‘to serve Chiang Kai-shek’ but to serve the independence of a colonial country in spite of Chiang Kai-shek. And the words directed against the Kuomintang are the means of educating the masses for the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek. In participating in the military struggle under the orders of Chiang Kai-shek, since unfortunately it is he who has the command in the war for independence—is to prepare politically the overthrow of Chiang Kai-shek… that is the only revolutionary policy”. [7]

If there is any historical justification for Matgamna’s quote above it is the position taken by Marx before his “Irish Turn” in 1870 when he explained:

“England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.” [8]

Previous to that he and Engels had a position that the advanced capitalist countries showed backward nations their own future. Elsewhere, in reference of the question of forming a revolutionary party, Matgamna suggests that one is not necessary and before 1848 Marx though so too (an early Shachtmanite) and we who rejected this modern idiocy had not reached the level of understanding that Marx had in 1848. It would be helpful if Matgamna managed to reach the level of understanding of Marx’s thinking on Ireland, and the colonial world in general, after 1870.

We have polemicised extensively against the pro-imperialist left, which category the AWL led from 1983, in the Socialist Fight journal and website. Of course their reactionary on Ireland and their pro-Zionism is well known and can be directly attributed to their Shachtmanism after 1983 in particular. Analysis of these issues requires another pamphlet.


This Socialist Appeal (SA) cartoon, on 1 September 1939 (not 1 October as it says above), reproduced in AWL publications, clearly indicates that it is the aggressive Stalin and not the terrified victim Hitler who is the threat to ‘western civilisation’. Socialist Appeal was under the editorship of Shachtman then and appeared three times a week from 1938 to 1940.

 The ‘Nature’ and ‘role’ or ‘function’ of the Stalinist bureaucracy and workers’ states

Barry Sheppard succinctly sets out the Trotskyist position on the USSR thus:

The SWP in the United States and the Fourth International it its majority held to Trotsky’s analysis. This view posited that the ruling bureaucracy was not a new ruling class in a new form of class society, as the bureaucratic collectivists maintained, nor a capitalist class ruling through a new form of state capitalism. The bureaucratic counter-revolution had not destroyed all the gains of the Russian Revolution, especially the property forms the revolution had established – the nationalised and planned economy and subsidiary aspects such as the monopoly of foreign trade. Labour power was no longer a commodity and the reserve army of the unemployed no longer existed. The bureaucracy did not derive its privileges through ownership of the means of production, but through its control over distribution. It was a parasite on the nationalised and planned economy. The new property forms that were established by the revolution were working-class conquests that remained. These gains had to be defended both internally and from imperialist attack, so this current defended the USSR against the Nazi invasion. It also defended China against Japan and all movements by oppressed countries against imperialist colonisation and oppression. [9]

But the nature and role of Stalinism was a point of political confusion which caused great problems. The ‘nature’ of Stalinism is always counter-revolutionary; the role of Stalinism in the USSR and internationally can be either progressive/revolutionary in national economic and social terms or reactionary/counterrevolutionary in global terms depending on circumstances or their perceived material interests. It is vital to understand this distinction. As with the trade union bureaucracies Stalinist bureaucracies do not and did not have a ‘dual’ or contradictory nature and neither has the workers’ state, healthy, degenerated or deformed. In so far as the state continued to exist it was bourgeois in character to a certain degree and in a certain sense and therefore counter-revolutionary but should have been continually withering away as the productive forces developed exponentially as socialism moved on to communism where there would be no state and no classes and a superabundance of wealth. But war and isolation made withering away impossible and therefore made the rise of the bureaucracy inevitable if revolutions were not successful in the advanced capitalist countries.

But in the USSR the opposite happened, the state became a monstrously repressive organ of privilege in the midst of universal want. The state WAS the bureaucracy, its policemen, because the by-now degenerated Communist Party appointed all the functionaries of that state and there was no real separation of powers between government, legislature and judiciary/police. It was a real dictatorship, a dictatorship of the proletariat wielded by the democratic Soviets in the USSR when it was a healthy workers’ state up to 1923-4 and wielded by the Stalinist bureaucracies in degenerated and deformed workers’ states since, both defending nationalised property relations allied with a monopoly of foreign trade in a planned economy. But that Stalinist bureaucracy and state was counter-revolutionary full stop after 1923-4 and not withering away at all.

But we cannot leave the matter there; like the trade union bureaucracies they rest on gains of the working class so sometimes they must defend and even advance those gains in defence of their own privileges. So they have a contradictory role or function. They must maintain their trade union or workers’ state because that is the source of their privileges so they must do some progressive things like call strikes and provide welfare and fight off and sometimes defeat feudalists, fascists, imperialists and their proxies. But they must not fight too consistently or mobilise the working class globally to such an extent that capitalism and global imperialism itself is endangered by revolution. This would abandon the vital corollary to the fundamental theory of socialism in a single country; peaceful co-existence with imperialism. Again and again the Soviet bureaucracy opposed wars in Korea (not vetoing the UN support for the US invasion), [10] in Vietnam and in Cuba only to change their tune when the facts on the ground opened up the possibility of putting a bit of extra pressure on imperialism on the understanding that it would never go as far as advocating world revolution that would threaten imperialism in its heartlands.

Because if the working class gets its head it will not forget all the previous acts of treachery and unprincipled compromises they had made to enrich themselves. The workers threaten them from below and the bosses from above; hence their contradictory role or function. But both the reformist trade union bureaucrats and their allied bourgeois-workers’ parties, Labour of Social Democratic, and the Stalinist workers’ state functionaries are counterrevolutionary themselves; they cannot ever lead a real workers’ revolution against global capitalism.

Of course we cannot take the trade union bureaucracy analogy too far. Unlike the TU bureaucrats, who have a direct relationship of loyalty to their own ruling class, it must be acknowledged that the Stalinist bureaucracy was the sole ruling cast or stratum in Soviet society after 1928 as Trotsky explained in The Revolution Betrayed:

“The state support of the kulak (1923-28) contained a mortal danger for the socialist future. But then, with the help of the petty bourgeoisie the bureaucracy succeeded in binding the proletarian vanguard hand and foot, and suppressing the Bolshevik Opposition. This “mistake” from the point of view of socialism was a pure gain from the point of view of the bureaucracy. When the kulak began directly to threaten the bureaucracy itself, it turned its weapons against the kulak. The panic of aggression against the kulak, spreading also to the middle peasant, was no less costly to the economy than a foreign invasion (1928-32 – GD). But the bureaucracy had defended its positions. Having barely succeeded in exterminating its former ally, it began with all its power to develop a new aristocracy. Thus undermining socialism? Of course but at the same time strengthening the commanding caste. The Soviet bureaucracy is like all ruling classes in that it is ready to shut its eyes to the crudest mistakes of its leaders in the sphere of general politics, provided in return they show an unconditional fidelity in the defence of its privileges. The more alarmed becomes the mood of the new lords of the situation, the higher the value they set upon ruthlessness against the least threat to their so justly earned rights. It is from this point of view that the caste of parvenus selects its leaders. Therein lies the secret of Stalin’s success.” [11]

And on occasions like great financial crises and war revolution is they only thing that will avoid disaster and secure a future for youth, which neither TU bureaucrats nor Stalinists will ever lead. Dave Bruce wrote in 1887:

“It cannot be over-stressed that, in spite of widespread claims to the contrary, Trotsky never referred to the ‘dual nature’ of the workers’ state, the bureaucracy or anything else. As a complex of institutions comprising millions of people, it would be absurd to talk of a ‘dual nature’ of a bureaucracy. On the contrary, in The Transitional Programme, he had written:

“. . . from genuine Bolshevism (Ignace Reiss) to complete fascism (F. Butenko). The revolutionary elements within the bureaucracy, only a small minority, reflect, passively it is true, the socialist interests of the proletariat. The fascist, counter-revolutionary elements, growing uninterruptedly, express with even greater consistency the interests of world imperialism . . . Between these two poles, there are intermediate, diffused Menshevik-S.R.-liberal tendencies which gravitate toward bourgeois democracy.”

What he did write about was the dual role, the dual function of the workers’ state and the bureaucracy, more or less interchangeably. And that was no accident: the bureaucracy had usurped the state, leaving the working class no role or function within it. The Marxist conception of the workers’ state assigned the role of defence of the state and of control of its bureaucracy to the working class, organised in Soviets. The capacity of the class to perform this role had been portended by the short-lived Paris Commune of 1871 and, to a degree, proved by the early experience of post-revolutionary Russia. However, under the appallingly difficult conditions of the first, backward and isolated workers’ state, the working class surrendered the role. By the mid-1920s, if Trotsky is to be believed, the Thermidorian reaction had occurred and the bureaucracy had become the state.” [12]


Dave Bruce: “It cannot be over-stressed that, in spite of widespread claims to the contrary, Trotsky never referred to the ‘dual nature’ of the workers’ state, the bureaucracy or anything else.”

It was Michel Pablo and nor a genuine Trotskyist who falsely (almost) claimed that Stalinism was “objectively revolutionary” – no centrist groupings claiming the heritage of Trotskyism defends that line today. In fact what he referred to was the “objectively revolutionary significance of these facts” in the following passage in Where Are We Going? in 1952:

“Those who think they can respond to the anxiety and the embarrassment of some people at the so-called victories of Stalinism by minimising the objectively revolutionary significance of these facts are obliged to take refuge in a sectarianism, anti-Stalinist at all costs, which scarcely conceals under its aggressive appearance its lack of confidence in the fundamental revolutionary process of our epoch. This process is the most certain pledge for the inevitable final defeat of Stalinism, and it will be realised all the more rapidly, the quicker the overthrow of capitalism and of imperialism progresses and gains a bigger and bigger part of the world”.

That passage showed a complete descent into centrist objectivism by the leaders of the Fourth International at that point. However the position of Shachtman and the Workers’ Party was worse and to their right even then, as we shall show. But first we must show why the global working class were obliged to defend the USSR even after the Hitler-Stalin pact and during WWII up to its final collapse in August 1991.

A Critical Defence of the US SWP against Shachtman 1940-1948

The confusion between ‘nature’ and ‘role’ is the ideological source of the mistakes on Stalinism and the ‘Red Army’ that Shachtman picked up on during the course of the war. The split of April 1940 severed the Stalinophobic right wing of the SWP and now very clear signs of Stalinophilia began to emerge without that balancing force and Trotsky’s guidance.

It was wrong to call the Red Army Trotsky’s Red Army. It was simply the armed forces of the Stalinist bureaucracy, all revolutionary leadership had been eliminated in the Great Purges and now only yes men remained. Of course the motivation for that line was to appeal to the US Stalinists whose strength reached 100,000 before the war’s end. Nevertheless the illusions are clearly wrong and Cannon’s objections to the defence of the revolutionary uprising in Warsaw in August 1944 demonstrated that those illusions went to the top.

Nonetheless it is wrong to for Shachtman assert that there was no motivation amongst the Red Army and the working class to defend the gains of the October Revolution. Putting it down simply to fear of the Nazis and fear of Stalin’s NKVD ‘mopping-up” battalions behind the lines to shoot retreating soldiers is Stalinophobia.

But by continually denying any revolutionary essence in the leadership of the Red Army and in the bureaucracy itself, correctly, against Cannon, Shachtman dismisses this revolutionary impulse in the masses themselves. Warsaw arose not just because the nationalist leadership wanted to prevent the Red Army taking over from Hitler but because the masses wanted to liberate themselves and establish socialism and they thought, wrongly, that the Red Army had come to help them. This happened in practically every major city that was under Nazi occupation. And the mass bombing of the working class quarters of the German cities was to prevent just these revolutionary uprisinbgs.


This cartoon in SA on 29-8-1939 works at a certain level, Stalin was certainly as brutal as Hitler. But alarm bells should have rung at the direct equations that were constantly made.

The SWP were quite right against Shachtman to demand that Stalin appeal to the German working class to rise up and overthrow Hitler because they were coming to liberate them. This was the correct Transitional demand to appeal to the ranks of the Red Army. But instead under the leadership of and on the urgings of Stalin and the Red Army leaders they raped and slaughtered their way into Berlin because they accepted Stalin’s lies that all Germans were Nazis. Western imperialism agreed.

The advance of the Red Army and the way it fought inspired the working class of the planet but the Stalinist bureaucracy betrayed that in Warsaw, in Czechoslovakia, in Northern Italy, in Greece and in Vietnam. And six communist parties entered European governments to save capitalism from revolution at the end of the war, only to be ejected from government when the revolutionary wave had ebbed and Marshall Aid had replaced it from April 1947.

But Shachtman only points to the counter-revolutionary acts of the bureaucracy and not to the revolutionary struggles of the masses, which the Trotskyists on the ground did everything they could to advance and instead he looks to imperialism itself, Stalin’s allies in counter-revolution, to assist. Of course the Stalinists overturned property relations in a bureaucratic manner, having first smashed the revolutionary upsurge of the masses and then relied on them as a controlled stage army to expropriate the capitalists beginning from the end of 1948.

If Shachtman can point to the shortcomings of the SWP leaders in fighting Stalinism it was from the increasingly obvious perspective of siding with ‘democratic imperialism’ against Stalinism.

Bob Pitt recounts:

If Matgamna’s tradition-building project requires him to tinker with the real history of the WP/ISL, it also involves a parallel distortion of the politics of the Shachmanites’ “orthodox Trotskyist” opponents in the United States, represented by the SWP and its leader James P. Cannon.

The SWP’s applause for the Soviet armed forces during the war as “Trotsky’s Red Army” is made much of in this collection, which backs up the Shachtmanites’ anti-SWP polemics with illustrations of the offending articles and cartoons from the SWP’s paper Socialist Appeal. Shachtman himself insisted that this position on the Red Army was a necessary consequence of the pro-Stalinist politics implicit in the SWP’s Soviet defencism. But it seems to me that the Cannonites’ line stemmed not from an intrinsic softness towards Stalinism (which they were not inclined to) but rather from an effort to relate to the consciousness of US workers (which Cannon in particular certainly was inclined to – it was one of his political strengths).

During the war the anti-fascist sentiments of the working class took the form of enthusiastic support for the Soviet Union in its resistance to the Nazi invasion. The Communist Party won widespread popularity for its Stalinist politics as a result, and I think that the SWP leadership with its “Trotsky’s Red Army” line sought to direct this pro-Soviet response towards the October Revolution and away from its Stalinist degeneration. They may have been wrong in this, but it hardly stands as conclusive evidence of a consistent Stalinophile deviation.

Post-war, the SWP along with other sections of the world Trotskyist movement had to grapple with the question of Soviet Stalinism’s expansion into Eastern Europe, along with successful seizures of power by indigenous Stalinist forces in Yugoslavia and China. These developments ran entirely counter to Trotsky’s predictions – which had anticipated that the inevitable outcome of the war would be Stalinism’s overthrow either by workers’ revolution or by capitalist restoration – so it is not surprising that Trotskyists had difficulty in comprehending the new situation.

Comrade Pitt wrote well in 1990 but I think he was wrong to excuse the SWP leaders to that extent. We understand the pressures; the CPUSA had 100,000 members at its high point during the war, Trotsky stressed the need to orientate towards these workers, the Shachtmanites really were petty-bourgeois and not workers themselves and could not nor did not want to orientate towards workers at all. Hence Trotsky’s insistence on ‘proletarianising’ the party.

Why the economic base of the USSR had to be defended

The economy of the USSR was not simply based on ‘nationalised property’ but on nationalised property relations together with central planning (however distorted) and the monopoly of foreign trade. The AWL scribes continually refer to ‘nationalised property’ only in order to infer that the Trotskyists hold that the degree of nationalisation determines a workers’ state. That became the reformist criterion for Ted Grant which led him to accept a whole list of third world countries as workers’ states beginning with Burma and Egypt when they were simply bourgeois nationalist regimes.

But the workers’ state is not simply the base of the state or the superstructure but the dialectical relationship between the two. Of course you cannot plan an economy without state ownership of the main means of production, the ‘commanding heights’. Of course you must have a revolutionary party or historically a Stalinist party determined to maintain their position and privileges to achieve this. The LTT’s The Marxist Theory of the State and the Collapse of Stalinism made just this point;

“according to Trotsky’s succinct definition, “the class character of the state is determined by its relation to the forms of property in the means of production” and “by the character of the forms of property and productive relations which the given state guards and defends”. This implies a dialectical rather than a mechanical relationship between base and superstructure: it is not merely a question of the existing forms of property but of those which the state defends and strives to develop.” [13]

Remember Germany under Bismarck and Russia under Stolypin had very big state sectors with the state ruling industry on behalf of the capitalists. This is the mistake Ted Grant made with third world countries. Not the degree of nationalisation as Trotsky says: “The class nature of the state is, consequently, determined not only by its political forms but by its social content; i.e., by the character of the forms of property and productive relations which the given state guards and defends.”

And what is the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ (another phrase for a workers’ state):

“The concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat is not primarily an economic but predominantly a political category … All forms, organs, and insThtitutions of the class rule of the proletariat are now destroyed, which is to say that the class rule of the proletariat is now destroyed.” After hearing about the “different forms” (say Burnham and Shachtman GD) of the proletarian regime, this second contention, taken by itself, appears unexpected. Of course, the dictatorship of the proletariat is not only “predominantly” but wholly and fully a “political category.” However, this very politics is only concentrated economics. The domination of the Social Democracy in the state and in the soviets (Germany 1918–19) had nothing in common with the dictatorship of the proletariat inasmuch as it left bourgeois property inviolable (as the USSR left capitalist property relations intact in Austria and Afghanistan when they occupied them, for example – GD). But the regime which guards the expropriated and nationalized property from the imperialists is, independent of political forms, the dictatorship of the proletariat.” [14]

Underlining this approach, Lenin argued in early 1918 that:

“No one, I think, in studying the question of the economic system of Russia, has denied its transitional character. Nor, I think, has any Communist denied that the term Socialist Soviet Republic implies the determination of Soviet power to achieve the transition to socialism, and not that the new economic system is recognised as a socialist order.” [15]

Matgamna’s “totalitarian economism” is simply nonsense, a non-Marxist category. And as an aside where and when did Trotsky and Cannon say the obvious falsehood perpetrated by Workers Liberty?

“When Trotsky (and Cannon after him) said the bureaucratic autocracy … seized a proportionately greater share of the social product in Russia than the rich in the advanced capitalist countries.” [16]


Nothing to complain about in this SA cartoon on 6-10-1939. It ridicules the CPUSA’s mind-boggling U-turns before and during the war.

 Third Campism is the opposite side of the same coin as Stalinism’s socialism in a single country

The AWL conception of the Third Camp is false and ahistorical; it conflates and confuses two distinct concepts of Marxism. Of course in order to make socialist revolutionary the working class must establish its own political class independence and it was in this sense that Trotsky defended the term before the 1939-40 conflict here:

“The attempt of the bourgeoisie during its internecine conflict to oblige humanity to divide up into only two camps is motivated by a desire to prohibit the proletariat from having its own independent ideas. This method is as old as bourgeois society, or more exactly, as class society in general. No one is obligated to become a Marxist; no one is obligated to swear by Lenin’s name. But the whole of the politics of these two titans of revolutionary thought was directed towards this, that the fetishism of two camps would give way to a third, independent, sovereign camp of the proletariat, that camp upon which, in point of fact, the future of humanity depends.” [17]

But in the 1939-40 conflict in the US SWP Shachtman and Burnham attributed a new and opposite meaning to the term Third Camp which Trotsky absolutely opposed. This is that in a conflict between imperialism and the USSR the working class took no side, they were dual-defeatist and that was the ‘Third Camp’. This cowardly position of back-handed support for your own imperialist ruling class in war was summarised later by Shachtman in the slogan; “Neither Washington nor Moscow but the international working class”. This could not possible establish the political independence of the working class but signified their subordination to their own ruling class. Trotsky clarified:

“The very first “programmatic” articles of the purloined organ (The New International – GD) already reveal completely the light-mindedness and hollowness of this new anti-Marxist grouping which appears under the label of the “Third Camp.” What is this animal? There is the camp of capitalism; there is the camp of the proletariat. But is there perhaps a “Third Camp” – a petty-bourgeois sanctuary? In the nature of things, it is nothing else. But, as always, the petty bourgeois camouflages his “camp” with the paper flowers of rhetoric. Let us lend our ears! Here is one camp: France and England. There’s another camp: Hitler and Stalin. And a Third Camp: Burnham, with Shachtman. The Fourth International turns out for them to be in Hitler’s camp (Stalin made this discovery long ago). And so, a new great slogan: Muddlers and pacifists of the world, all ye suffering from the pin-pricks of fate, rally to the “third” camp! … The schoolboy schema of the three camps leaves out a trifling detail: the colonial world, the greater portion of mankind!” [18]

The final sentence shows the greatest political weakness of the Third Campers – it allows most [19] who gather beneath its banner to side with their own imperialist ruling class against the semi-colonial world as we have pointed out above in relation to the AWL.

Third Campism is, in fact, the opposite side of the same coin as the Stalinist socialism-in-a-single-country. Stalin, with the theoretical assistance of Bukharin, abandoned the Leninist-Bolshevik perspective of world revolution in 1924. They opted for the defence of their own bureaucratic privileges then and Shachtman abandoned it even that in 1939 in favour of defence of the petty bourgeoisie’s privileges in university academic circles in the face of the furious reaction caused by the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact in August 1939 and Stalin’s consequent invasion of eastern Poland, the Baltic States and Finland.

And of course both currents absolutely oppose the perspective of world revolution, the Stalinists from a nationalist peaceful co-existence with imperialism perspective of the self-satisfied bureaucrat, the result of the pressure of imperialism on the first isolated workers’ state. The Third Camp came from the perspective of direct capitulation to the ‘civilising mission’ of their own ruling class, the old ‘white man’s burden’ so obvious in the quote in defence of his own ruling class from Matgamna above; they are “the more progressive of the contending camps” let there be no doubt.

Trotsky condemned Stalin’s invasions of eastern Poland etc. as agreed by Hitler in the secret protocols of the Hitler-Stalin pact. This did great damage to the class consciousness of the international proletariat but he acknowledged they were acts of self-defence by Stalin, albeit in his own brutal way and with his own bureaucratic methods. “From the standpoint of the strategy of the world proletariat” Trotsky insisted was how we had to judge these events. Shachtman said they were simply an example of Soviet imperialist expansionism.

And the main political characteristic of Shachtmanism comes out in the question of how he saw his Third Camp and how he defended his view. Shachtman was a gross political coward; that was the reason he abandoned the theory of the degenerate workers’ state and adopting the theory of bureaucratic collectivism. This was, he said, a new form of exploiting society that was not capitalist (contrary to the later state capitalism of Tony Cliff). But it initially involved defence of the USSR because it contained some elements of the remnants of the gains of the Russian Revolution in its property relations. So it seems that they could have remained in the SWP in 1940 and not split at all as the differences were merely terminological. But there was more to it as Trotsky understood. Not defending the USSR as a degenerated workers’ state after the Hitler-Stalin pact of August 1939 changed after June 1941 when Hitler invaded the USSR and now it could not be defended even when attacked by the world’s most ferocious imperialist power, Nazi Germany.

It is noted that when Shachtman abandoned his line that the USSR was a degenerated after the attack on Finland he began calling it ‘imperialist’, thereby abandoning the Leninist definition of imperialism, the domination of Finance capital allied to transnational corporations, which is still the position of Third Campists today. Lenin anticipated them in his Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism:

“Colonial policy and imperialism existed before this latest stage of capitalism, and even before capitalism. Rome, founded on slavery, pursued colonial policy and achieved imperialism. But ‘general’ arguments about imperialism, which ignore, or put into the background the fundamental difference of social-economic systems, inevitably degenerate into absolutely empty banalities, or into grandiloquent comparisons like ‘Greater Rome and Greater Britain.’ Even the colonial policy of capitalism in its previous stages is essentially different from the colonial policy of finance capital.”


This SA cartoon on 13-10-39 is just wrong politically. Although they are different forms of the same capitalist beast bourgeois democracy is NOT the mirror image of Fascism. That is a Third Period ultra-left error.

 Bob Pitt recounts the sorry tale of political cringe and cower:

“This position – that the Soviet Union was a new system of exploitation, a bureaucratic collectivist society, but that it should nevertheless be defended against imperialism – was, initially, Max Shachtman’s own view. Included in Matgamna’s collection is the article “Is Russia a Workers’ State?”, published by Shachtman in the New International in December 1940, not long after the split with James P. Cannon and the majority of the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP) had led to the formation of the Workers Party. In this article Shachtman concluded that, even though Russia was no longer a workers’ state but a new form of class society, if the Soviet Union were to come under attack from the capitalist world it would be necessary for revolutionaries to rally to Russia’s defence.

His argument is worth quoting:

“Under what conditions is it conceivable to defend the Soviet Union ruled by the Stalinist bureaucracy? It is possible to give only a generalized answer. For example, should the character of the present war change from that of a struggle between the capitalist 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. The aim of imperialism in that case, whether it were represented in the war by one or many powers, would be to solve the crisis of world capitalism (and thus prolong the agony of the proletariat) at the cost of reducing the Soviet Union to one or more colonial possessions or spheres of interest…. There is no reason to believe that victorious imperialism in the Soviet Union would leave its nationalized property intact – quite the contrary…. imperialism would seek to destroy all the progress made in the Soviet Union by reducing it to a somewhat more advanced India – a village continent…. Such a transformation of the Soviet Union as triumphant imperialism would undertake, would have a vast and durable reactionary effect upon world social development, give capitalism and reaction a new lease on life, retard enormously the revolutionary movement, and postpone for we don’t know how long the introduction of the world socialist society. From this standpoint and under these conditions, the defence of the Soviet Union, even under Stalinism, is both possible and necessary.”

Only six months later, in June 1941, the Soviet Union did indeed come under attack, and not just from any imperialist power but from the most reactionary imperialist power of all – Nazi Germany. Here was a situation where, by Shachtman’s own analysis, revolutionaries were obliged to defend the Soviet Union. One would therefore have expected him to call on the WP to adopt a Soviet defencist position.

But Shachtman did nothing of the sort. Quite the contrary, in fact – he insisted that defence of the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany could not be justified. His argument was that the fundamental character of the war had not changed, that it was still an inter-imperialist conflict, and that the German attack on the Soviet Union was a subordinate part of that wider conflict, with Stalin in a bloc with one group of imperialist powers against another. “In a struggle between Stalinist Russia and capitalist imperialism, on the one side, and another section of capitalist imperialism on the other”, Shachtman asserted, “the revolutionary proletariat takes its position against both camps.”7

This argument was, I think, entirely fraudulent, because the consequences of imperialist conquest and capitalist restoration, so eloquently described by Shachtman in the passage from “Is Russia a Workers’ State?” quoted above, would surely follow irrespective of whether the Soviet Union was in a military alliance with another section of imperialism.

Another article, written two years later, underlined the incoherence of Shachtman’s position. “The Russian people have shown no signs of wanting the restoration of capitalism with its bankers and industrial monopolists”, he wrote. “That is all to the good, for otherwise they would be the poor dupes of world reaction. The road to freedom for Russia does not lead backward but forward.” He explained: “They do not want their country overrun and ruled by a foreign oppressor. And this is no ordinary foreigner, but a fascist. For long years, from Lenin’s day through Stalin’s, the Russian people have learned to feel a horror and hatred of fascism. The record of fascism’s conquests in Europe has only deepened this feeling. Their feelings in this matter are more than justified, and correspond with the interests and ideals of the international proletariat.”

From which one would presumably conclude that revolutionaries should be in a united front with the Russian workers in supporting armed resistance to the Nazi invasion. But Shachtman evaded this conclusion and took refuge in abstentionist propagandism: “The task of the revolutionary Marxists can be fulfilled only by taking these progressive sentiments into full account, while continuing their ‘patient enlightenment’ of the masses as to the imperialist and reactionary character of the war itself, the harmfulness of political support of the war and the war regimes, the need of breaking with imperialism and the ruling classes, the urgency of an independent, internationalist road for the proletariat of all countries.”

… Shachtman did later come round to this point of view himself, and in 1948 the ISL adopted as its official position a version of bureaucratic collectivism based on Carter’s analysis. When he reprinted “Is Russia a Workers’ State?” in the 1962 collection of his writings The Bureaucratic Revolution, Shachtman edited out the part about defending the Soviet Union. But, in his introduction to that collection, he failed to acknowledge Carter as the originator of the theory of reactionary-bureaucratic-collectivism.

Shachtman’s aim, Ernie Haberkern has argued, was to construct his own bogus theory of continuity by presenting himself as the sole author of the bureaucratic collectivist position: “For this purpose it was necessary to conceal the fact that there had been two theories of bureaucratic collectivism. One, espoused by Shachtman, held that collectivist property forms were per se progressive, a conquest of the Russian Revolution that had to be defended no matter what class was the immediate beneficiary (or victim) of the social relations based on these forms. The other, originally proposed by Carter, insisted … against Shachtman that the bureaucracy’s control of collectivist property condemned the working class to a new form of exploitation and represented a step backwards for modern civilisation.” [20]


Max Shachtman played a leading role as a Trotskyist up to 1939 but lacked the political courage to continue the struggle after the Hitler-Stalin pact; he ran away from the perspective of the world revolution like Stalin before him.

So for Shachtman in all these conflicts after 1939 the main consideration and only consistent platform he stood on to his dying day was never to oppose the fundamental interests of your own ruling class in the serious matter of war. And that is why the AWL admire him so much because it is their position too from that 1982 war on the Malvinas to the current wars in Syria and the Ukraine.

The AWL’s Paul Hampton, in What Next No. 12 replied to Bob Pitt in No. 11 with the following points:

“Whose analysis provided the real breakthrough on Stalinism? As the introduction to the book explains, Trotsky himself was the innovator in 1939, in his article on the Stalin-Hitler Pact, “The USSR in War”. Here he acknowledged the theoretical possibility that nationalised property might also be the basis of a new exploiting class, thus effectively cutting the roots of the theory that Russian Stalinism could only be a workers’ state. Using the mask of Rizzi, Trotsky acknowledged that should Stalinism outlast the war, then he would be forced to re-evaluate his designation of Russia as a “degenerated workers’ state” which should be defended against imperialist attack. In fact Trotsky’s whole approach to Stalinism was to continually modify his theory in the light of its development: for example on whether reform or revolution was necessary, or on the Thermidor and Bonapartism analogy. In 1928, in the letter to Borodai, he argued that the possibility of reform of the Bolshevik Party was the basis on which he still characterised Russia as a workers’ state – by 1931, when this perspective was becoming plainly impossible, he focused more narrowly on nationalised property. His later positions in 1939-40 went even further (although he drew back somewhat in the debate within the SWP): on the slogan for an independent Soviet Ukraine, on the possibility of bureaucratic collectivism, and, in the last days of his life, on Communist Parties outside the USSR. What is clear from Trotsky’s body of work in the thirties as a whole is that his concrete analyses of Stalinism were chafing and ultimately undermining the characterisation of Russia as a degenerated workers’ state. Shachtman and his followers only drew out the logic of this analysis – firstly for the political conclusions (“defencism”) and later for the formula (“workers’ state”) that Trotsky himself had laid bare.” [21]

In a note Paul says: “Although Trotsky is referring to the prospect of world war, the quote (by Trotsky – GD) is still sufficiently broad to include Stalinism as the “second” camp apart from capitalism which is what the WP/ISL meant by it.”

Our quote from Trotsky in Petty Bourgeois Moralists above just about scuppers that argument. We ask the reader to study Trotsky’s The USSR in War, in this pamphlet, and the other quotes from him on Third Campism and Shachtman to assess for themselves if Trotsky was leaning towards Shachtman in his last days. Note again the ‘nationalised property’ without the ‘relations’ after it to imply a truly idiotic notion by Trotsky.

Trotsky was not simply analysing a fixed category called Stalinism but its evolution from centrism in the period 1923-33 to consciously counter-revolutionary thereafter. And, whilst Stalinism clearly examined the possibility of defending its privileges by restoring capitalist property relations in the period 1936-39 during the Great Purges it was forced to defend the national property relations when Hitler attacked in June 1941. And we all know that it was the Stalinist bureaucracies themselves that restored capitalism in the period 1989-92.

And Andy Y (Workers Power), replying to Tim Nelson’s post cited p.20 made the telling point that the third option postulated by Trotsky was not ‘bureaucratic collectivism’ or ‘state capitalism’ but capitalism itself restored by the Stalinist bureaucracy, which is what actually happened. Trotsky quote:

“To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a back slide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.”

Andy replies:

“This quote doesn’t indicate that Trotsky believed there was a third alternative to capitalism and socialism. He discusses three “hypotheses”: the workers overthrow the bureaucracy, a bourgeois party overthrows the bureaucracy and re-establishes capitalism, and then this third “variant”, the bureaucracy becomes a ruling class. From everything else he has written it is clear he means by this a capitalist ruling class, as the Transitional Programme (and other writings) make clear and his writings immediately after the “third variant” etc.”

“The new class society/bureaucratic collectivism theories etc. which as an idea ripped apart Marx Engels and Lenin’s’ whole conception of historical materialism, and the organic relationship between capitalism and its successor, socialism, just as Cliff’s theory of state capitalism effectively bins Marx’s Capital.”

The United Front and the Anti-Imperialist United Front; never political defence of Stalinism or bourgeois nationalists

“Defence of the USSR does not at all mean rapprochement with the Kremlin bureaucracy, the acceptance of its politics, or a conciliation with the politics of her allies. In this question, as in all others, we remain completely on the ground of the international class struggle.” (Trotsky)


In late 1939, following the Hitler/Stalin pact, Stalin, having invaded Poland on 17 September, invaded the Baltic States and Finland. The Finns fought and were eventually defeated in March 1940. Trotsky defended the sovietisation of Eastern Poland, the establishment of nationalised property relations and the expropriation of the capitalists, but not the invasion that preceded it nor the manner in which it was carried out. Genuine Trotskyists trace the process of degeneration thus:

“This measure, revolutionary in character –”the expropriation of the expropriators” – is in this case achieved in a military bureaucratic fashion. The appeal to independent activity on the part of the masses in the new territories – and without such an appeal, even if worded with extreme caution it is impossible to constitute a new regime – will on the morrow undoubtedly be suppressed by ruthless police measures in order to assure the preponderance of the bureaucracy over the awakened revolutionary masses. This is one side of the matter.

But there is another. In order to gain the possibility of occupying Poland through a military alliance with Hitler, the Kremlin for a long time deceived and continues to deceive the masses in the USSR and in the whole world, and has thereby brought about the complete disorganization of the ranks of its own Communist International.

The primary political criterion for us is not the transformation of property relations in this or another area, however important these may be in themselves, but rather the change in the consciousness and organization of the world proletariat, the raising of their capacity for defending former conquests and accomplishing new ones. From this one, and the only decisive standpoint, the politics of Moscow, taken as a whole, wholly retain their reactionary character and remain the chief obstacle on the road to the world revolution.

Our general appraisal of the Kremlin and Comintern does not, however, alter the particular fact that the statification of property in the occupied territories is in itself a progressive measure. We must recognize this openly. Were Hitler on the morrow to throw his armies against the East, to restore “law and order” in Eastern Poland, the advanced workers would defend against Hitler these new property forms established by the Bonapartist Soviet bureaucracy.” [22]


[1] Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism, Petty-Bourgeois Moralists and the Proletarian Party, (April 1940),

[2] The two publications that contain this defence of Shachtmanism are The Fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 1 (1999). and the recent one, The two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism: the fate of the Russian Revolution, volume 2 (2015) Contents here

[3] Sean Matgamna, The fate of Max Shachtman: a critical assessment, 25 September, 2007,

[4] Ibid.

[5] Barry Sheppard: Three theories of the USSR,

[6] Leon Trotsky, On the Sino-Japanese War, (September 1937)

[7] Ibid.

[8] Karl Marx, Letter to Sigfrid Meyer and August Vogt In New York, 1870,

[9] Sheppard, Three Theories.

[10] The Soviet Union was a permanent member of the UN Security Council, they had a “veto power” over any vote taken by the Security Council. When the Security Council voted in 1950 to introduce UN forces the Soviets were absent, having walked out a few days previously over something else, they said. They did not walk back in again to support their ally North Korea because they wished to send the message to the USA that they did not really support Korea or China because they were seeking ‘peaceful co-existence’.

[11] Leon Trotsky, The Revolution Betrayed, What is the Soviet Union and Where is it Going?, (1936),

[12] These arguments are made in greater detail in Dave Bruces’s Trotsky and the Material Analysis of Stalinism. 2016/01/04/trotsky-and-the-materialist-analysis-of-stalinism-by-dave-bruce/

[13] In Defence of Marxism Number 3 (June 1995), The Marxist Theory of the State and the Collapse of Stalinism,

[14] L. Trotsky, Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State? (November 1937),

[15] W. l. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 27, Moscow, 1965, p.335.

[16] The Leningrad delirium, Submitted by AWL on 13 -10-15,

[17] Writings of Leon Trotsky: Supplement 1934-40, 1979, pp.868-869.

[18] Leon Trotsky, Petty-Bourgeois Moralists…

[19] The Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB, Weekly Worker) and the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP USA) call themselves Third Campists who would not defend the concept to the extent that Shachtman took it even in 1940.

[20] Bob Pitt review, Max Shachtman, Soviet Defencism and “Unfalsified Marxism” What Next? No.11, 1998,

[21] Paul Hampton, What Next No. 12, Workers’ Liberty and the Third Camp.

[22] Leon Trotsky, The USSR in War, (September 1939),

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