Socialist Equality Party (United States)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

The Outbreak of World War II and Trotsky’s Last Struggle

The signing of the Stalin-Hitler Pact in August 1939 and the subsequent outbreak of World War II led to a political crisis inside the Socialist Workers Party in the United States.[1] A political faction led by Max Shachtman, James Burnham and Martin Abern argued that the Soviet Union could no longer be designated a workers’ state. Flowing from this change in their definition of the class nature of the Soviet State—which Burnham now characterized as “bureaucratic collectivist”—they stated that the Fourth International should not call for the defense of the USSR in the event of war.

Trotsky replied that the characterization of the Stalinist regime as “bureaucratic collectivist”—a new and unprecedented form of exploitative society, unforeseen by Marxism—had far-reaching political and historical implications. At issue, in the final analysis, was the historical viability of the Marxist project itself. The premise that underlay the Burnham thesis (adopted somewhat later by Shachtman) was that the working class had exhausted its potential as a revolutionary social force. The development of modern society was leading not in the direction of socialism, achieved on the basis of an international working class revolution. Rather, a form of “bureaucratic collectivism” was emerging, in which society was controlled and directed by a managerial elite. If Burnham was correct, it followed that Marxism understood incorrectly the processes of modern history; and had been mistaken in attributing to the working class a revolutionary role. But Burnham’s revisionist perspective was less the product of a materialist analysis of the economic foundations and social dynamics of modern capitalist society, let alone of the Soviet Union, than it was a cry of despair. From the defeats of the 1920s and 1930s, Burnham and Shachtman had concluded that the socialist revolution was impossible. Trotsky rejected this impressionistic and pessimistic position. The Fourth International, he wrote, upheld the revolutionary perspective of Marxism, and explained that the defeats suffered by the working class were the outcome of the political betrayals of its mass organizations. In opposition to this analysis, wrote Trotsky:

...All the various types of disillusioned and frightened representatives of pseudo-Marxism proceed on the contrary from the assumption that the bankruptcy of the leadership only “reflects” the incapacity of the proletariat to fulfill its revolutionary mission. Not all our opponents express this thought clearly, but all of them—ultra-lefts, centrists, anarchists, not to mention Stalinists and social-democrats—shift the responsibility for the defeats from themselves to the shoulders of the proletariat. None of them indicate under precisely what conditions the proletariat will be capable of accomplishing the socialist overturn.[2]

Trotsky insisted that the conflict within the SWP over program reflected two irreconcilably opposed conceptions of contemporary social processes:

If we grant as true that the cause of the defeats is rooted in the social qualities of the proletariat itself then the position of modern society will have to be acknowledged as hopeless. ... Altogether differently does the case present itself to him who has clarified in his mind the profound antagonism between the organic, deep-going, insurmountable urge of the toiling masses to tear themselves free from the bloody capitalist chaos, and the conservative, patriotic, utterly bourgeois character of the outlived labor leadership. We must choose one of these two irreconcilable conceptions.[3]

The Fourth International was to confront again and again, in diverse forms, political and theoretical tendencies that proceeded from the premise that the working class was not a revolutionary force. Whether in the form of Pabloism or other demoralized radical and “New Left” tendencies influenced by the theoreticians of the “Frankfurt School” (Marcuse, Adorno, Horkheimer, et al.), the rejection of the revolutionary role of the working class formed the basis of their opportunist political outlook. As for Shachtman and Burnham, their subsequent evolution vindicated Trotsky’s analysis. In April 1940 Burnham and Shachtman split from the SWP and formed the “Workers Party.” Within a month, Burnham resigned from his own creation and declared that he no longer considered himself a Marxist or a socialist. This marked the beginning of a rapid evolution to the extreme right. He became an advocate of preemptive nuclear war against the USSR, and, by the 1950s, the principal ideologist of the emerging neo-conservative movement. In 1982, several years before his death, Burnham was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. Shachtman’s movement to the right proceeded at a somewhat slower pace, but was no less fundamental. He became a political adviser to the anti-communist AFL-CIO bureaucracy and to the most reactionary Cold War wing of the Democratic Party. Before his death in 1972, Shachtman supported the bombing of North Vietnam by the United States.


The SWP was founded in January 1938, almost a decade after Cannon initiated the fight for Trotskyism in the United States. During these 10 years, the American Trotskyists established a significant presence in the struggles of the working class. Their leadership of the Minneapolis General Strike in 1934 attracted national and worldwide attention.


Leon Trotsky, In Defense of Marxism (London: New Park, 1971), p. 15.