Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

Preparing the Fourth International for war

35. Within a year the world was plunged into the Second World War. In May 1940, an emergency conference of the Fourth International appealed once again for the WIL to “realise the serious need of a single section”. Three months later, the Stalinist campaign of political genocide achieved its ultimate aim with the murder of Trotsky by GPU agent Ramon Mercader at Coyoacán, Mexico.

36. The last years of Trotsky’s life had been dedicated to preparing the Fourth International for the coming war. Of fundamental importance was his opposition to a number of tendencies that began to designate the Soviet bureaucracy as a new, exploiting class, defined variously as “state capitalism” or “bureaucratic collectivism”. Trotsky wrote In Defence of Marxism against a faction in the SWP led by James Burnham and Max Shachtman, who shared much with others such as Bruno Rizzi in Italy and the Urbahn group in Germany. The conflicting issues of perspective raised during Trotsky’s political and philosophical struggle against Burnham and Shachtman were to recur again and again within the Fourth International.

37. In The Revolution Betrayed, written in 1936, Trotsky had stressed that the proper starting point for defining the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers’ state was its origins in the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism by the working class. While its subsequent isolation had allowed the unchecked growth of a bureaucracy, this layer rested upon the property forms created by the October Revolution, based upon collective planned production rather than private ownership and the market. Using the apparatus of the state, the bureaucracy appropriated the lion’s share of production. But its control of distribution did not extend to ownership of the productive forces. Its existence was parasitic on the body of the workers’ state, rather than integral to it. The task facing the Soviet workers was to overthrow the bureaucracy in a political revolution, so as to safeguard the economic foundations for the development towards socialism and prevent the restoration of capitalism. The still existing gains of the October Revolution had to be defended by the international working class against imperialist overthrow.

38. The theorists of state capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism repudiated Trotsky’s appraisal. Following the signing of the Hitler-Stalin non-aggression pact on August 23, 1939, Burnham and Shachtman urged the SWP to drop its unconditional defence of the USSR against imperialist attack. Their position echoed that of a layer of pro-Democratic Party intellectuals, at a time when the Roosevelt administration was in favour of entry into the war against Germany.

39. The political retreat of this petty-bourgeois layer confirmed Trotsky’s insistence that its definition of the Soviet Union involved a political prognosis that threw into question the revolutionary character of the working class and the prospects for socialism on a world scale. The renewed drive to imperialist militarism demonstrated that the crisis of capitalism had reached extreme limits, and that a new system for the planned development of the productive forces was required. But according to the advocates of state capitalism and bureaucratic collectivism, the working class had proved incapable of accomplishing such a social transformation. Instead, its place had been taken by a bureaucratic elite, which would replace the decayed bourgeoisie as a new ruling class, not merely in the Soviet Union but on a world scale.

40. After splitting with the SWP in 1940, Shachtman established the Workers Party, which took a “third camp” position during the war. Burnham quickly left the workers’ movement altogether, joining the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, and later became a leading advocate of the Cold War and a prominent Republican.