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Against Trotskyism: The Shachtmanites and “Third Camp” Trotskyism

By J. Sykes

Trotsky with Max Shachtman.

Max Shachtman was one of the original founders of the Trotskyite movement in the United States. He was a pragmatist, an opportunist even among opportunists, who led the first major split from the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1940. At that time, he broke with the orthodox Trotskyite position that the USSR should be understood as a “degenerated workers state” and that it instead had come to be ruled by a new “bureaucratic collectivist” class.

Under the cloak of the theory of the “degenerated workers state” the Trotskyites kept up the pretense of support for the Soviet Union while making every effort to subvert and delegitimize it. Shachtman abandoned that pretense and raised the slogan of “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but international socialism.” Shachtman instead said the Trotskyites should form a so-called “Third Camp” equally opposed to both. In reality, however, the Third Camp Trotskyites aimed most of their fire at the communist movement and the Soviet Union.

Shachtman didn’t limit himself to opposing socialism in the USSR. He also opposed national liberation here in the United States. Shachtman wrote an entire book devoted to denying the right to self-determination for the African American Nation in the Black Belt. In his essay “Race and Revolution” from 1933, while Communist-led sharecroppers were militantly resisting Jim Crow terror in the Deep South, Shachtman argued that national self-determination for African Americans was a “reactionary utopia.”

Later, two other figures rose to prominence among the Trotskyites that would come to shape Shachtmanite Trotskyism as it developed: Hal Draper and Tony Cliff. Draper was part of the group who split with Shachtman from SWP, while Cliff was a founder of British Trotskyism.

To put it briefly, Hal Draper argued that so-called “Stalinism” (that is, Marxism-Leninism) represented “socialism from above” whereas Trotskyism represented “socialism from below.” According to Draper, “Stalinism” imposes socialism on the masses “from above” while Trotskyism seeks the “self-emancipation” of the masses, “from below.” Of course, this is nonsense, as anyone with experience with either can attest.

Anyone who has ever encountered Trotskyism in practice can attest to its commandist, rule-or-ruin methods among the masses. This is what working class “self-emancipation” by the Trotskyites looks like! On the contrary, the Marxist-Leninist organizational method of the mass line, based on the principle of “from the masses to the masses'' represents the dialectical method of leadership, where correct ideas are drawn from the felt needs of the masses, concentrated and honed by theory, and then propagated among the masses through struggle. This is the way to build towards revolution. “Socialism from above” and “socialism from below” aren’t metaphysically separated as the Trotskyites would have it, but are dialectically intertwined.

Tony Cliff was a British Trotskyite who disagreed outwardly with Max Shachtman on many points, but truly represents an extension of his Third Camp theory. Cliff’s book State Capitalism in Russia critiques Trotsky’s theory of the “degenerated or deformed workers states” and Shachtman’s theory of “bureaucratic collectivism” in favor of the theory that the socialist countries are “state capitalist.”

According to Cliff, the socialist countries are “state capitalist” because the Law of Value still operates, they still engage in commodity production, and surplus value still exists. Cliff argues that a “permanent arms economy” prevents cyclical crises, ignoring the fact that constant military spending isn’t sufficient to prevent crises of overproduction in the imperialist countries. Regarding countries like Cuba and China, that Trotsky would call “deformed workers states,” Cliff says they are undergoing “deflected, state capitalist, permanent revolution.”

The simple truth is that Cliff argues from an idealist position. He fails to understand, as outlined by Marx in “Critique of the Gotha Program” and further explained by Lenin in The State and Revolution, that socialism cannot help but carry forward elements of capitalism. In reality, however, the fundamental contradiction of capitalism is the contradiction between socialized production and private accumulation. This contradiction is at the heart of the crises that plague capitalism over and over again. The reason the socialist countries don’t experience these crises is that this contradiction largely no longer exists in socialist countries, or where it does it is only on a very small scale. The commanding heights of the economy in the socialist countries are controlled by the state, and the value created by the workers goes primarily into the betterment of society rather than the pockets of the members of the capitalist class.

Of course, problems exist in the socialist countries. Contradictions continue in the period of the socialist transition, including classes and class struggle. But socialism’s reason for existence is to eliminate those problems step by step. This demands a scientific and materialist approach, starting not with ideals, but with the way things really are.

In the United States, the most significant group to come out of this current was the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a group that constantly placed itself on the wrong side of nearly every struggle. The ISO were Third Camp Trotskyites who drew heavily from Draper and Cliff. They opposed the anti-imperialist struggles and the socialist countries internationally, and took either a rule-or-ruin approach to the mass struggles here, or merely shouted from the sidelines. Like the SWP in the 1930s, with its dissolution and entry into the Socialist Party to commandeer the SP or steal away its members, history has repeated itself with the ISO. The ISO likewise dissolved itself in 2019, and by now most of its former members are hiding out in the social-democratic big-tent organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).

These modern-day Shachtmanites now try to inject their petty bourgeois ideology into the people’s struggles through DSA. For example, in an article from June 23, 2023 in The Tempest, entitled “Time for DSA’s internationalists to show solidarity with Ukraine,” they argue for the U.S. State Department’s line of support for the U.S./NATO proxy war in Ukraine against Russia and argue in favor of U.S. taxpayer money funding arms for Ukrainian forces. This position only diverts money away from people’s needs at home while supporting the imperialist war waged by the United States. It is shameful for so-called “socialists” and “internationalists” to support the cynical scheme to send the Ukrainian people to die as proxies for the hegemonic ambitions of the U.S. monopoly capitalist class and their NATO allies. U.S. imperialism is the main enemy of the working class and oppressed people of the world. This is a point these “third camp” Trotskyites emphatically refuse to understand.

From every angle, beginning with Trotsky himself and moving through Cannon and Shachtman to Draper and Cliff, Trotskyism again and again presents itself as a lapdog of the U.S. ruling class against socialism and anti-imperialist struggles. Under the cover of its demand for “socialism from below” it opposes socialism everywhere it exists. While pretending to uphold proletarian democracy, it approaches the masses with a sectarian and dogmatic rule-or-ruin attitude. It is an ideology that has failed to lead a successful revolution anywhere, and it is a trap laid at the feet of the workers movement. It is an important task of Marxist-Leninists to expose the true nature of this ideology everywhere it rears its head.

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