State capitalism (A Genealogy of Trotskyism)

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Sun Jul 23 14:49:14 MDT 1995

In a message dated 95-07-22 16:13:46 EDT, John Walker writes:

>Here's a quick question, I hope: recently I heard someone make reference
>to the old Soviet Union as being not communist, but instead "state

I have been out of commission for a number of days -- I made the mistake of
aggreing to preview Windows 95 for AFT publication, then discovered I needed
a new hard drive to contain it, then folloishly decided that having already
spent $600. for a 1.6 gigabyte hard drive, I would do all of the installation
and data transfer (each $80. more at CompUSA) myself, and then redoing the
process four times to clean out all of the glitches. I have had to
reconstruct my AOL files from scratch. Computer expanders, beware!

I want to compose a thoughtful posting on the latest discourse postings, but
John's question deserves an answer of more detail and clarity than it has
received so far.

The issue is caught up in the history and evolution of the Trotskyist
movement. One way of trying to make sense of the Trotskyist family tree (a
genealogy more complicated the Tudor family) is to view it through the lens
of analyses of the communist states. (Other issues are connected to this one
central question, but it has historically been the 'wedge' issue through
which the Trotskyists have subdivided themselves into smaller and smaller

The story begins with Trotsky himself, who analyzed the USSR as a deformed or
degenerated workers' state -- and thus worthy of defense from the capitalist
and imperialist states, notwithstanding its deficiencies. The first major
split in Trotskyism took place with the formation of the Workers Party in the
US, headed by Max Shachtman and  James Burnham, and focused on their analysis
that the USSR could no longer be viewed as a workers state (deformed or
otherwise) -- it was a new form of  class society, a bureaucratic
collectivism. This analysis led to the conclusion that the USSR should not be
defended; rather, "genuine" Marxists (ie, those who had been Trotskyists)
should form a 'third camp' which took the position of "pox on both of your
houses." Once this break with Trotsky took place, the historical floodgates
were opened.
Various third camp analyses developed, one of which -- first articulated by
the Johnson-Forest tendency (a group, led by C.L.R. James and Raya D.,  which
moved between the Shactmanite Workers' Party and the orthodox Trotskyist
Socialist Workers' Party) was "state capitalism." In this 'third camp' view,
the USSR was indeed a class society unworthy of defense, but a class society
of a fundamentally capitalist nature. Among the more significant supporters
of this view one will find the International Socialist tendency (another
Shachtmanite split off), which included the British Socialist Workers' Party
(not to be confused with the American orthodox Trotskyists of the same name)
and the US and Canadian organizations going by the name International
Socialists. Today, there are innumerable 'third camp' analyses -- every new
Trotskyist sect needs one to stake out its claim to being the vanguard of the
working class -- including a number of different state capitalist theories.

If you enjoy following the labryniths of internecine sectarian conflict, you
wil find some of this documented in Maurice Isserman's chapter on Shachtman
in _If I Had A Hammer_ (the shortest, clearest presentation by someone
without many axes to grind), and in the entries on Trotskyism, Shachtman et.
al. in the _Encyclopedia of the American Left_. Peter Drucker wrote a book on
_Max Shachtman and his Left_ from the point of view of a particular 'third
camp' position,  and much of the later splits and fragmentation is covered in
Tim Woolforth's _The Prophet's Children_.

As an aside, I think that the most interesting aspect of the history of
American Trotskyism has nothing to do with these analyses, none of which are
particularly insightful, but in the development and the trajectory of a
number of intellectuals, from such as James Burnham, Irving Howe, Michael
Harrington and Irving Kristol, to name a few.

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