Max Shachtman


Shachtman contra Burnham

(Early 1941)

From A Letter by Max Shachtman, early 1941.
Copied with thanks from the Workers’ Liberty book The Fate of the Russian Revolution: Lost Texts of Critical Marxism, vol. 1.
Marked up by A. Forse for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I am the last one to claim that the validity of my point of view is based on some “brand new” conception which nobody ever thought of. But the interests of clarity demand that wherein it differs from previous standpoints receive at least the same emphasis as wherein it resembles them. Let us take first the famous Burnham position, stated only as recently as September, 1939, when the fight in the SWP broke out. Carter, who knows his position as well as I, quite properly considers the statement that I now have Burnham’s position as entirely ludicrous. Wherein is the difference? Burnham proceeded from the same fundamental premise as did the Old Man, and as the Cannonites do today. That may sound odd, but it is true. The Old Man said, for 15 years, the Stalinist bureaucracy aims to destroy nationalized property, that it is the channel through which the bourgeoisie will restore private property, and as late as his Revolution Betrayed he insisted that the new constitution was deliberately constituted to lay the juridical basis for the restoration of capitalism. Substantially, said Burnham, that is correct. Only, he continued, it has already gone so far in wiping out nationalized property that we can no longer speak of the Soviet Union as a workers’ state. It is highly interesting to read even now Burnham’s resolution of September 1939, which ostensibly served to precipitate the fight. Still accepting Trotsky’s premise, Burnham declared that the de-nationalization of property, especially in land, had gone so far as to change the class character of the Soviet Union. Now, both the Old Man and Burnham were wrong. Looking back upon the past 15 years, and allowing for the Stalinist zig-zags, the indubitable historical fact is that the bureaucracy has done an enormous work in strengthening and expanding the nationalization of property. Moreover, granted all the contradictions inherent in its work, it far outstripped all predictions so far as industrialization was concerned. We used to say, to put it crudely: there is an inherent contradiction between nationalization and the Stalinist bureaucracy’s rule. This proved to be utterly false, at least in the sense in which we meant it. The preservation of nationalized property and the intensified industrialization resulted in an enormous hypertrophy of bureaucratism. (From this, it doesn’t of course follow, as stupid people like Eastman believe, that industrialization and nationalization “inevitably” strengthen a bureaucracy.) Again, if we look back, we must establish it as an historical fact, that the bureaucracy’s relationship to nationalized property is roughly comparably to the relationship of social democracy to bourgeois democracy. By its written class-peace program and its practice the social democracy paves the way for fascism, that is, for the destruction of bourgeois democracy. But this does not change the fact that the social democracy stands or falls with bourgeois democracy. When we say, correctly, that it paves the way for fascism, we don’t mean, as the Stalinists used to say, that it is for fascism, and that it is against bourgeois democracy. For the contrary is the fact. Similarly with the Stalin bureaucracy. We used to think that this bureaucracy is, so to speak, consciously and deliberately aiming to restore private property, capitalism. This has not proved to be the case. It rests and can rest only upon nationalized property. It stands and falls with it. To continue the comparison: by its policy of class-peace it so weakens the independent class position of the proletariat as to facilitate the victory of capitalism and world imperialism. That is by no means equivalent to saying that it wants the victory of capitalism and the end of nationalized property.

With this as one of my points of departure, you can more easily understand how it is impossible for me to accept Trotsky’s position on the class character of the Soviet Union, or the revision of it by Burnham and the others holding the same view. I might add parenthetically that Carter doesn’t hold Burnham’s view any longer, and has not held it for more than a year. Indeed, at the very beginning of the fight in the SWP, there were in fact four positions on the Russian Question, and not three, as the Cannonites thought. I mean among us. There was the traditional position, there was Burnham’s position, there was Carter’s position which he didn’t get a chance to formulate on paper, and there was the notorious Shachtman school of doubters, which I am trying to liquidate. In one sentence, the Marxian concept of the state is: the state is the machinery of repression in the hands of the economically dominant ruling class, calculated to preserve its social rule, its property relations. I continue to hold to this concept. What I think I do – and it is anything but contradictory to the Marxian concept – is to show that these property relations take one form in a social order where property is private (feudalism, capitalism) and another form where property is no longer private; and necessarily so. Where property is private the relations to it are expressed with comparative clarity and simplicity. In the United States or Germany, your relations to property, and mine, are, alas, only too clear. We don’t own it! All we have is our labor power. Ford’s relations to property or Krupp’s are no less clear. They own the property. Where property is state property, then property relations become, so to speak, “state relations”. The Russian bourgeoisie ceased to own the state as well as the property. The Russian proletariat took over state power. The state took over property. That made the proletariat the ruling class. Then, after a long, drawn-out civil war, the proletariat lost the state power, the bureaucracy took it over. Trotsky says the bureaucracy owns the state as its private property, “so to speak” – that is, in appearance. In appearance and in fact, as everybody knows or should know. By virtue of its ownership of the state, its relations to state property are clearly established for it – and for me. What are the relations to Soviet property of the Soviet proletariat? I quote from an authoritative source, an editorial that appeared a few weeks ago in the Socialist Appeal. It said, literally: the Soviet factories are penitentiaries to which the Russian workers are sentenced for life. My dear friend, I could not express the Russian proletariat’s relation to Soviet property more brutally or crudely. The eminent Marxists of the Appeal may not know it, but in their characterization they are speaking precisely of property relations. There – there and nowhere else – is my own little contribution to the analysis of the Russian question for which I have no particular desire to lay claims for originality.

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Last updated on 8 March 2015