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One person’s Last Stand for Bolshevism
Max Shachtman, In Defence of Bolshevism, London 2018.

Reviewed by D.R.O’Connor Lysaght.

20 December 2018

Over the last few years, the English-based Alliance for Workers’ Liberty has been sending this website review copies of its major publications. These have been reviewed here, since they contain material which is interesting, though not in the way that their publishers seem to believe.  In addition, they stimulate greater detailed thought on many issues in the history of the world socialist movement.

This new publication is rather different. There is little that is new here, good or bad. The most provocative stuff is contained in Sean Matgamna’s introduction, and this is a rehash of themes that he has presented better elsewhere, the unrelieved badness of the Soviet Union, the equation of Anti-Semitism with Anti-Zionism, as well as his failure to provide even a skeleton of a programme for the semi-colonial world, and, of course, more justifiably (and enjoyably), his attacks on the leaders of rival organisations to his Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. Well, repetition is effective propaganda, no doubt, but it cannot change its matter’s accuracy or otherwise.

By comparison, Shachtman’s analysis is unexceptional. It would make a useful textbook of ‘orthodox’ Trotskyism, bar certain gratuitous additions and bigger omissions. Among the first is Shachtman’s occasional sneer at the concept of ‘Workers’ States’.  Presumably, he is referring to the concept of deformed/degenerated workers states as developed by Stalinism. Otherwise, it raises a number of questions, most notably what the hell was the Soviet Union before it became ‘bureaucratic collectivist’? On the other hand, if Shachtamn’s meaning refers to the workers’ states deformed/degenerated, then he is displaying precisely the lack of dialectic for which Trotsky rebuked him. There was a dialectic in these states between their economic (and, in many cases, social) structure and their regressive politics which destroyed that structure in the end.  ‘Bureaucratic collectivism’ explains only one dimension.
Less obviously significant is the dismissal of the renegade Sidney Hook’s reliance on Acton’s dictum ‘Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ Linking it to Hook ignores the fact that his use of it was a case that ‘the truth that’s told with bad intent, beats any lie you can invent.’ The surrender of the Soviet Union to Stalin was the result of his fellow Bolsheviks disregarding the need to limit their power either organizationally or temporally. Indeed, the ban on factions was an example of their party seeing the way forward as one involving increased absolutism, if only for a time. This was a conclusion that, of course, Stalin was happy to support and interpret for permanence.

This ban is mentioned by Shachtman as the major mistake that caused Soviet Russia’s degeneration. He does not record the other errors that made it toxic (and helped Stalin). He is quite correctly defensive of the Bolsheviks’ refusal to tolerate opposition parties unless they lay down the arms they were using against them. He does not consider seriously Rosa Luxemburg’s idea that there should have been new elections for a constituent assembly, such as may have neutralized sections of the opposition. Nor does he ask whether Dzherzhinsky’s organization of the necessary security apparatus was all that different from that of Yagoda, Yezhov or Beria. These conundrums have to be faced when workers’ republics rise again. Above all, he does not face the basic and, in the circumstances, unavoidable weakness of the Bolsheviks’ seizure of power: the fact that they were the world’s only Bolshevik Party. This did not mean that they should not have led the workers to take state power, not only because the alternative was abominable, but because the time was overdue. Today the problem is just the opposite; there are too many would-be Bolshevik Internationals under too many would-be Lenins.

Shachtman’s defensiveness is interesting. His book appeared roughly half way in his period as an ‘heterodox Trotskyist’ between his departure from the Socialist Workers’ Party and his surrender to social democracy. He seems to be making an effort to defend his Bolshevism, not least in the fact that he is presenting his argument as a polemic against Ernest Erber. This reviewer does not know whether Erber deserved to be given such a tribute. Certainly, he seems to have been a minor threat to Shachtman’s party compared to that of Duehring to the German Social Democrats, the Mensheviks to the Bolsheviks or, indeed, Shachtman and Burnham to the Socialist Workers’ Party. We might have known more, had the editor not excised pages concerning him. As it is, In Defence of Bolshevism resembles a steam hammer crushing a peanut. This is particularly notable in the first chapter where Shachtman takes forty pages to defend the scientific definition of the state against one who has made no effort to refer to Engels’ Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State or Lenin’s State and Revolution. Nothing in this is incorrect, but Shachtman’s tendency to long windedness is all too apparent; it would have benefitted from the editor inserting sub-headings.  As it is, the book transmits a sense of weariness with the task of preaching ‘the third way.’

Though parts of the work are useful educational pieces, it is probable that its overall longterm value will be as a contribution to understanding the career of its author. Shachtman was a very gifted individual and a skilled populariser of Marxism. Agnostic on dialectics, he succumbed to the politics of the last Stalinite atrocity. This was reinforced by the belief that the Second World War victory of the Soviet Union proved that it was the malign equal of liberal democracy.  He preached a third (genuine Communist) way against both only to conclude each was more powerful and liberal democracy a lesser evil. This book was his attempt to lay the theoretical base for making his way viable. The editor has inserted a letter of eight years later that expresses his abandonment of his hopes.

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