Shachtmanism is the form of Marxism associated with Max Shachtman. It has two major components: a bureaucratic collectivist analysis of the Soviet Union and a third camp approach to world politics. Shachtmanites believe that the Stalinist rulers of proclaimed socialist countries are a new ruling class distinct from the workers and reject Trotsky's description of Stalinist Russia as a "degenerated workers' state".


Shachtmanism originated as a tendency within the US Socialist Workers Party in 1939, as Shachtman's supporters left that group to form the Workers Party in 1940. The tensions that led to the split extended as far back as 1931. However, the theory of "bureaucratic collectivism," the idea that the USSR was ruled by a new bureaucratic class and was not capitalist, did not originate with Shachtman, but seems to have originated within the Trotskyist movement with Yvan Craipeau, a member of the French Section of the Fourth International, and Bruno Rizzi.

Although Shachtman groups resignation from the SWP was not only over the defence of the Soviet Union, rather than the class nature of the state itself, that was a major point in the internal polemics of the time.

Currents influenced by Shachtman

Regardless of its origins in the American SWP, Shachtmanism's core belief is opposition to the American SWP's defence of the Soviet Union. This originated not with Shachtman but Joseph Carter and James Burnham, who proposed this at the founding of the SWP in 1938. C. L. R. James referred to the implied theory, from which he dissented, as Carter's little little pill. The theory was never fully developed by anybody in the Workers Party and Shachtman's book, published many years later in 1961, consists earlier articles from the pages of New International with some political conclusions reversed. Ted Grant has alleged that some Trotskyist thinkers, including Tony Cliff, who have described such societies as "state capitalist" share an implicit theoretical agreement with some elements of Shachtmanism.[1] Cliff, who published a critique of Shachtmanism in the late 1940s,[2] would have rejected this allegation.

Left Shachtmanism

Left Shachtmanism, influenced by Max Shachtman's work of the 1940s, sees Stalinist nations as being potentially imperialist and does not offer any support to their leadership. This has been crudely described as seeing the Stalinist and capitalist countries as being equally bad, although it would be more accurate to say that neither is seen as occupying a more progressive stage in the global class struggle.

A more current term for Left Shachtmanism is Third Camp Trotskyism, the Third Camp being differentiated from capitalism and Stalinism. Prominent Third Camp groupings include the Workers' Liberty grouping in Australia and the United Kingdom and by the International Socialist predecessor of Solidarity.

The foremost left Shachtmanite was Hal Draper, an independent scholar who worked as a librarian at the University of California, Berkeley, where he organized the Independent Socialist Club and became influential with left-wing students during the Free Speech Movement. Julius Jacobson and the New Politics journal continued to develop and apply this political tradition.

Social democratic Shachtmanism

Social democratic Shachtmanism, later developed by Shachtman and associated with some members of the Social Democrats, USA, holds Soviet Communist states to be so repressive that that communism must be contained and, when possible, defeated by the collective action of the working class. Consequently, adherents support free labor unions and democracy movements around the world. Domestically, they organized in the civil rights movement and in the labor movement. Social democrats influenced by Shachtman rejected calls for an immediate cease-fire and the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam, but rather opposed bombings in Vietnam and supported a negotiated peace that would allow labor unions and government-opposition to survive. Such social democrats helped provide funding and supplies to the Solidarity, the Polish labor union, as requested by the Polish workers.


Further reading

  • The Fate of the Russian Revolution, Lost Texts of Critical Marxism Vol 1, edited by Sean Matgamna: Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, CLR James, Al Glotzer, Joseph Carter, Leon Trotsky, a.o [Phoenix Press, 1998]
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