A pioneering work on Lenin and Bolshevism

In Defence of Bolshevism

This is an important work on Lenin and the Bolshevik tradition. While many have been profoundly impressed by the valuable work of Lars Lih in Rediscovering Lenin (2006), Max Shachtman was articulating and documenting many of the same points in the late 1930s, through the 1940s and 1950s, and into the early 1960s. His defense of Bolshevism was articulated over and over, with facts and citations buttressed with brilliant turns of phrase, sometimes with entertaining (even hilarious) flourishes—and often with challenging, inspiring, illuminating insights.

“The Russian revolution of 1917, which Lenin led, [was] a socialist revolution that established a genuine workers’ government,” Shachtman argued in a 1957 letter to Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas. and In the years leading up to that revolution Lenin and his Bolshevik comrades were animated by the conviction that “socialism can and will be attained only by the fullest realization of democracy.” Joseph Stalin’s dictatorship in the Soviet Union had not “carried out the ideal and principles of the socialist revolution to a logical conclusion” but instead had “betrayed and destroyed it,” as he put it several years earlier, and “if we defend the Bolsheviks today, it is in the interest of historical objectivity but also because we remain loyal to the emancipating fight for socialism.”

Political background

The editor of this volume is Sean Matgamna, leader of a small British group associated with the publication Workers Liberty, whose perspectives are elaborated in a lengthy introduction. His group adheres to a theory that Shachtman developed upon breaking with Leon Trotsky in 1940, viewing the Soviet Union as a new form of class society, what Shachtman and his cothinkers called bureaucratic collectivism. The importance of this volume, however, transcends such matters, and has more to do with Shachtman’s earlier convictions—which remained within him as a powerful residue through his later years.

Shachtman began his political life in the Young People’s Socialist League, youth group of the Socialist Party of America, in the glory days of Eugene V. Debs. As with many Eastern European immigrant youth of the time, he was inspired by the Russian Revolution, and he became a leader of the Young Communist League in the early 1920s, going on to help James P. Cannon create the International Labor Defense (ILD). The ILD defended the rights of all working-class and left-wing activists of that time, most notably the immigrant anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti. Cannon concluded, in the late 1920s, that the perspectives of Leon Trotsky represented a genuine alternative to the bureaucratic and authoritarian degeneration of the Communist movement. Shachtman joined with him, and both, along with handfuls of others, were expelled from the US Communist Party. Shachtman began this phase of his political life as one of the central leaders of the revolutionary socialist current associated with Trotsky, with whom he collaborated closely throughout the 1930s.

Among Shachtman’s contributions during the volatile Depression years was his editorship of the theoretical journal New International; two of the articles in this volume date from that time. One is an incisively critical review of a memoir written by Angelica Balabanoff, who had played an important role in the early Communist International before joining the anti-Communist wing of the socialist movement. The other is a brilliant discussion of the relationship of two outstanding revolutionaries of the twentieth century, Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg. The balance of the items in this volume is drawn from the period after Shachtman’s break with Trotsky, but deal mostly with matters around which he was in harmony with his former teacher.

Shachtman’s later political orientation evolved in a social-democratic direction, ending in a 1958 merger into the Socialist Party of America. He was a mentor to an important younger layer of US socialists, including Michael Harrington and Bayard Rustin. Such protégés had a powerful impact on social struggles and political thought on the left in the 1960s. Shachtman never renounced his earlier pro-Bolshevik beliefs, but they were now refracted by a political evolution at odds with his earlier revolutionary standpoint. In Left Americana I recall:

When one heard Shachtman explain himself [as I did in 1968], one heard passionately revolutionary syllables forming stolidly reformist words. Uncompromising notions of class struggle became inseparable from a commitment to the far-from-radical officialdom of the AFL-CIO and to its place in the Democratic Party, and the defense of socialism from Stalinist betrayal added up to an alignment with the US government in the cause of Cold War anti-Communism—all with a Marxist flourish.

Despite this evolution, the analysis, scholarship, and insights in Shachtman’s pro-Bolshevik essays are worth engaging with. In illuminating what actually happened in history, Shachtman was being true to revolutionary cause—even while veering from it in his latter-day orientation.

Shachtman’s defense of Bolshevism

In contrast to Shachtman, the former Communist educator Bertram D. Wolfe—who became an increasingly conservative anti-Communist propagandist for the US State Department—devoted the last twenty-five years of his life to attacking and slandering the Bolshevik tradition. Shachtman’s critique of Wolfe’s influential work on Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, and the Bolshevik party,Three Who Made a Revolution, is presented in abridged form. Missing from the substantial fragment is the apt characterization of “Wolfe’s style . . . the polite mockery, the faint air of condescension, the misplaced irony, the elderly skepticism toward the Russian Revolution and its leaders which is so fashionable nowadays.” But we do find in this book reference to Wolfe’s “innuendo, clouded allusions, grunts, grimaces, pursed lips, winks and nods” and a pointed suggestion that Wolfe was “just a little … careless with his innuendos.”

Shachtman focuses attention on two sentences thrown out in passing—“Just in passing!” Shachtman thunders—containing “more insight than can be found in any two chapters of Wolfe’s book.” Here are the sentences:

Nineteen five and nineteen seventeen, the heroic years when the machine was unable to contain the flood of overflowing life, would bring Trotsky to the fore as the flaming tribune of the people, would show Lenin’s ability to rise above the confining structure of his dogmas, and would relegate Stalin, the machine-man, to the background. But no people can live forever at fever heat and when that day was over and Lenin was dead, the devoted machine-man’s day would come.

“Then why the title Three Who Made a Revolution?” asks Shachtman. “The facts presented by Wolfe show this to be a falsification and the above quotation confirms it. The title he gives his book is therefore utterly misleading.” He concludes: “It would of course be very awkward to load a book with a title like Two Who Made a Revolution and One Who Made a Counter-Revolution, but one merit it would have: it would be accurate.” Stalinists insist on a continuity of Lenin and Stalin to enhance the latter’s authority, and anti-Communists do it to discredit Lenin.

Confronting widespread accusations of Lenin’s intolerance, Shachtman observed: “Nine times out of ten, Lenin’s ‘intolerance’ consisted, for the opponents, in the fact that he refused to accept their point of view on a question.” Pushing hard against the notion that Lenin’s Bolshevik organization was authoritarian, he insisted that “the Bolshevik movement had, on the whole, more genuine democracy in its organization, more freedom of opinion and expression, a freer and healthier internal life, than at least nine-tenths of the other socialist or trade-union organizations of Europe,” and that “the hideous monolithism of Stalin’s regime was entirely unknown—it was not even dreamed of—among the Bolsheviks. Political tendencies were formed without let or hindrance, and if they dissolved it was not under compulsion of any kind. . . . Lenin’s collected works, which were composed largely of open ‘inner-party’ polemics and the files of a dozen different factional papers and pamphlets provide inundating evidence of this rich, free and open party life.”

Contested terrain

Most items in this volume emerged from the context of debates on the left. Pride of place is devoted to “Under the Banner of Marxism.” This is aimed at Ernest Erber, a prominent member of the Workers Party who in 1948 announced his withdrawal from revolutionary politics with a lengthy critique of Lenin’s theory of the state and of the Bolsheviks’ 1917 decision to take power. Shachtman employs bell, book, and candle—not to mention lightning and thunder, peppered with humor and passion—in defending both. Why did Leninism give way to Stalinism? Shachtman responds:

Exactly ninety-nine per cent of the critics of Bolshevism answer the question this way, at bottom: The Russian workers lost power because they took power. Stalinism (the destruction of the Russian workers’ power) followed ineluctably from the seizure of power by the proletariat and Lenin’s refusal to surrender this power to the bourgeois democracy. Exactly ninety-nine per cent of the revolutionary Marxists answer the question in this way, at bottom: The Russian workers lost power because the workers of other countries failed to take power.

Particularly fascinating is the substantial summary of a 1951 debate at the University of Chicago between Shachtman and Alexander Kerensky, exiled leader of the provisional government that Lenin and the Bolsheviks ousted in 1917. Kerensky, employing a quote from the anarchist Proudhon against Marx, claimed that “Communism is nothing more than inequality, subjugation, and slavery,” characterizing his 1917 struggle with the Bolsheviks as “not a fight between capitalism and socialism, but between freedom and slavery.” Kerensky concluded: “Stalin is the most able, most talented disciple of Lenin.” In contrast, Shachtman insisted:

The road out of the blind alley into which society is being driven more and more, lies in the struggle for democracy. The struggle for democracy receives its clarity, purpose and guarantee in the struggle for socialism; the struggle for socialism lies in the hands of the working class—the beast of burden, the despised of the earth—whose will to victory was forever underlined by their first great revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.

This perspective—compromised in some of what Shachtman later did, but never repudiated by him—is essential to the revolutionary Marxist tradition. Here we can find not only Shachtman at his best, but also a diverse lot of others: Tony Cliff, C. L. R. James, Raya Dunayevskaya, Ernest Mandel, Hal Draper, James P. Cannon, Leon Trotsky, Clara Zetkin, Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Marx, and many more.  Growing numbers of socialists, today and tomorrow, may find something of value in what this tradition has to offer.

Issue #90

july 2013

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