August 2000 

Stay Tuned – New ICL Line Change Coming

Stalinists Led the Counterrevolution?
ICL Between Shachtman and Trotsky


Hungarian workers toppled Stalin statue in 1956 political revolution. Workers 
uprising, vowing to defend socialized property, led to split in Stalinist bureaucracy. 
Most of Communist Party membership went over to the insurgents.

Key Issue in East Europe and USSR Yesterday,
China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam Today

AUGUST 21For the past four years, the Spartacist League and International Communist League (SL/ICL) have vituperated against the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International (IG/LFI) for our exposure of their anti-Marxist claim that the Stalinist bureaucracy led the counterrevolution in East Germany (the DDR). We pointed out that the ICL had adopted, after the fact, the position of various pseudo-Trotskyist Stalinophobes who used this as “theoretical” justification for sidling up to the bourgeoisie and its direct agents who actually did lead the counterrevolution in the DDR (Kohl’s Christian Democrats and Brandt’s Social Democrats), the Soviet Union (Bush’s man Yeltsin) and East Europe (such as Solidarnosc, the Polish company union for the Vatican and CIA).

The SL/ICL’s new line was generated in its factional frenzy leading to the 1996 expulsion of several leading comrades, who then founded the Internationalist Group. In the July 1996 document published by these comrades, we noted that this line “portray[s] the Stalinist bureaucracy as spearheading the destruction of the proletarian property forms on which it was an excrescence. In reality, this is the line that ‘Stalinism is counterrevolutionary through and through.’ The Spartacist tendency has always fought this kind of equation between the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy and that of direct representatives of the capitalist class.” 

For four years, issue after issue of the SL newspaper Workers Vanguard have repeated this line of a supposed Stalinist-led counterrevolution. In fact, the ICL viewed it as so important that they even wrote it into their revised “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program,” saying: “The Kremlin abetted by the East German Stalinists led the counterrevolution in the DDR” (Spartacist No. 54, Spring 1998). A major article on China in WV (No. 715, 11 June 1999) generalized it to the USSR and all of East Europe, saying flatly: “In the end, it was the Stalinists who led the counterrevolution.” In the same issue, a lengthy polemic against the Internationalist Group over China declared “we warn the main force leading the drive for capitalist restoration today is the Stalinist regime itself. Not so the IG.” 

WV was responding to our article, “Where Is China Going? Workers Political Revolution vs. Capitalist Counterrevolution” in The Internationalist No. 6 (November-December 1998), where we wrote:

“The leading force for bourgeois counterrevolution in China today is the bourgeoisie and powerful capitalist-restorationist forces inside and around the bureaucracy who are allied with it. Likewise, it was the German bourgeoisie of the Fourth Reich and its social-democratic running dogs who led the drive for capitalist reunification that obliterated the DDR in 1990.…”
We noted that “the Beijing Stalinist bureaucracy has gone further than the government of any other deformed workers state in fostering market reforms that fuel capitalist forces,” which are now consolidating their power and influence. “But while the bureaucrats have provided the openings and opportunity for this process, the capitalists do not trust them. The bourgeoisie understands all too well that the governing layer in China is still dependent upon the economic structure of a workers state.” We quoted there from Trotsky’s November 1937 article, “Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?” where he wrote:
“The struggle for domination, considered on a historical scale, is not between the proletariat and the bureaucracy, but between the proletariat and the world bourgeoisie. The bureaucracy is only the transmitting mechanism in this struggle.”
Rendering Revisionism More Precise

In verbal exchanges with the Internationalist Group, SLers loudly insisted over and over that from Berlin to Beijing the Stalinists led and were leading the counterrevolution. Then in late July of this year, something strange occurred in Mexico. As a militant of the Grupo Internacionalista was explaining to a contact the parallels between the ICL’s line on China and that of another pseudo-Trotskyist current, a supporter of the Grupo Espartaquista (GEM), the ICL’s Mexican group, piped up to deny that this is their line. “The bureaucracy as such is not leading the counterrevolution,” he said. When we pointed out that this contradicted their published position, he repeated: “The bureaucracy paved the way for counterrevolution, it is not itself leading it.” A little later our comrades encountered other GEM supporters, who admitted they had made “una pequeña precisión,” they were rendering their position “slightly more precise.”

A week later in Philadelphia, the Internationalist Group ran into a Spartacist League sales team. At the end of the day a half-hour discussion took place between IG and SL supporters, in which the SLers refused to say that the Stalinists were “leading” the counterrevolution in China. Instead, they said that the bureaucracy “opened the door” and “paved the way” to capitalist restoration. The bureaucracy doesn’t have the cohesion of a class, such as the bourgeoisie or proletariat, that could lead a revolution or counterrevolution, they added. When we pointed out that they were repeating, word for word, what the IG/LFI had written and what they had previously vociferously denounced, they replied, “it’s not a matter of a formulation.”

What was gold for the ICL yesterday, suddenly becomes fool’s gold today. Just a “formulation” which was being made “more precise”?! The ICL can’t figure out who led the counterrevolution in East Europe and the USSR and who is leading the counterrevolution in China today, affecting the fate of 1.2 billion people, one-fifth of the world’s population? This is no trivial matter. For any genuine communist, it’s vital to understand the difference between the traitorous misleaders of the working class (the Stalinists, social democrats and various reformist and centrist pseudo-socialists) and the class enemy (the bourgeoisie). What does the ICL’s talk of political revolution in China mean if they can’t tell Chinese workers where and how to direct their blows? And who will take them seriously, let alone follow them, when they keep changing the line of fire and calling one about-face after another? 

We pointed out that this “formulation” was the theoretical linchpin of ICL spokesman Al Nelson’s attack on long-time WV editor and ICL executive committee member Jan Norden over Germany, leading up to the June 1996 expulsions. Nelson wrote that “Norden can’t seem to grasp” that “the SED [the East German Stalinists’ Socialist Unity Party] was leading the counterrevolution” in the DDR. “In a way Nelson was right,” responded a current member of the editorial board of Workers Vanguard during the exchange in Philadelphia. In a way?! How could the SED lead the counterrevolution, we challenged, when the entire SED Politburo from Erich Honecker on down ended up in the jails of the German Fourth Reich? 


If Stalinists were leading the counterrevolution in East Germany,
why did ICL join Stalinist SED leaders in speaking at 3 January 1990
anti-fascist mobilization at Treptow Soviet War Memorial, East Berlin?

A recent SL recruit said the Kremlin led the counterrevolution because the Soviet Army controlled the military forces in the DDR. An IG spokesman replied by asking, if the Soviet Army was leading the counterrevolution, why didn’t the ICL call for withdrawal of the Soviet troops? In fact, our comrade noted, several groups falsely claiming to be Trotskyist took exactly the line of the present-day ICL, that the Stalinists were leading the counterrevolution, and used this as justification for calling for removal of the Soviet troops. The ICL at the time opposed this because it correctly understood that this would open the door to the imperialists.

What about in the Soviet Union, we asked, did the Stalinists lead the counterrevolution there? No, said ICLers, it was a different situation. We pointed out that their new line change contradicted their own revised Declaration of Principles. Perhaps they would now issue a version 2.1? This was met by silence from the assembled SLers. We pointed out that they had not responded when we said the ICL’s line of the bureaucracy leading the counterrevolution was Shachtmanite, and their silence showed they knew this was true. More silence. We pointed out that this was not about word games; that their repeated line changes reflected a different policy. Again, not a peep.

This silence was curious indeed coming from the SL whose practice has been to stage “scream-ins,” trying to talk over and shout down our comrades. The exchanges in Mexico City and Philadelphia referred to here involved quite a few ICL members and were witnessed by others. It is possible that the ICL will try to slip in its latest line “rectification” unnoticed, without calling attention to it. But if it does, every ICL supporter will know that the leadership is covering up the fact that they vociferously argued one line against the IG/LFI and now they have adopted another line. Many ICLers may cynically pass this off, but others may have some “stomach aches” digesting this latest turnaround.

The Dual Nature of the Stalinist Bureaucracy

The theoretical and programmatic ramifications of the ICL’s line are far-reaching. This revision of Trotsky’s analysis of the dual nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy negated what the SL/ICL had written on the “Russian question” for three decades, and was sharply counterposed to its own intervention fighting counterrevolution in the DDR and the USSR during 1989-92. It would also deeply disorient forces fighting for workers political revolution against encroaching capitalism in the bureaucratically deformed workers states today, first and foremost China, along with Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam.

In our July 1996 document on the expulsions from the ICL, titled From a Drift Toward Abstentionism to Desertion from the Class Struggle, we emphasized:

“The Stalinist bureaucracies, a parasitic intermediate layer, undercut the defense of the workers states by their treacherous policy of conciliating imperialism and politically suppressing the workers, and thus prepared the way for counterrevolution. In this way the Stalinists play a counterrevolutionary role, even more so in their international policies. But the actual overthrow of the bureaucratically deformed workers states and installation of capitalist rule was led not by the bureaucracies but by the direct agents of capitalism.”
There should be no mistaking the seriousness of this question. Indeed, WV No. 651 (13 September 1996) wrote that the IG “fume[s] over a statement that the East German Stalinist ‘SED in 1989-90 was leading the counterrevolution,’ claiming that this denies Trotsky’s position on the dual nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy.” On the contrary, said WV, the IG’s position was “an outright revision of the Trotskyist understanding of the Stalinist bureaucracy.” This was its “proof” for the claim that the IG represents “Pabloism of the Second Mobilization.” Yet today the SL/ICL is junking the position which it had previously declared the sine qua non of Trotskyism. 

Trotsky’s actual position on the nature of Stalinism was summed up in his crucial work, “The Class Nature of the Soviet State” (October 1933). For many years the SL/ICL cited this article against myriad Stalinophobic opponents. Trotsky wrote that what is crucial is the specific class basis on which a bureaucracy arises:

“The bureaucracy is indissolubly bound up with a ruling economic class, feeding itself upon the social roots of the latter, maintaining itself and falling together with it….
“The further unhindered development of bureaucratism must lead inevitably to the cessation of economic and cultural growth, to a terrible social crisis and to the downward plunge of the entire society. But this would imply not only the collapse of the proletarian dictatorship but also the end of bureaucratic domination….
“[W]hether we take the variant of further successes of the Soviet regime or, contrariwise, the variant of its collapse, the bureaucracy in either case turns out to be not an independent class but an excrescence upon the proletariat. A tumor can grow to tremendous size and even strangle the living organism, but a tumor can never become an independent organism.
“[The bureaucracy] defends the proletarian dictatorship with its own methods, but these methods are such as facilitate the victory of the enemy tomorrow. Whoever fails to understand this dual role of Stalinism in the USSR has understood nothing.”
Trotsky wrote these lines only a few months after Hitler had taken power in Germany, a world-historic defeat for the proletariat which had been made possible by Stalin’s disastrous line declaring the reformist Social Democrats to be “social-fascist” and refusing to form a united front with them against the actual fascists. On the eve of World War II, as the fate of the Soviet Union hung in the balance, a petty-bourgeois opposition in the Trotskyist movement led by Max Shachtman and James Burnham abandoned the Fourth International’s position of unconditional military defense of the USSR. Murry Weiss, a spokesman for the Trotskyist majority led by James P. Cannon, wrote in answer to the “Third Camp” minority:
“[I]t was this slight misconception as to who was the main enemy that helped to bury the German revolution.
“For the Marxists, the main enemy of the Russian working class, as well as the international working class, is the class enemy…. The Bolshevik-Leninists in the U.S.S.R. will be the best fighters and because of that they will tell the Russian workers the truth: In order to win this war against imperialism we must overthrow the traitor Stalin and appeal to the revolutionary working class of the world to come to our aid.”
–“Marxist Criteria and the Character of the War,” [SWP] Internal Bulletin, February 1940
From the Soviet Union under Stalin to China under Mao’s heirs today, the indispensable instrument to lead workers political revolution to oust the traitorous Stalinist bureaucracies is a Trotskyist (Bolshevik-Leninist) party. This is indissolubly bound up with forging such parties in the imperialist centers and the semi-colonial countries, reforging a genuinely Trotskyist Fourth International to sweep away imperialism through international socialist revolution.

From “Feudalism” to Shachtmanism

WV No. 715 wrote on China, “The IG is fond of screaming how we have changed our line on every question under the sun.” Now they are doing it again, precisely over China. The ICL has changed its line on a whole number of key questions recently, usually in direct response to the LFI. In our July 1996 document we noted: “whether for simple factional animus or reflecting a deeper shift in the party, the ICL has now not only revised its own Leninist organizational norms and parts of its recent history, it has begun to adopt revisionist positions at the formal programmatic level. Most significantly, in the Germany dispute, the ICL has rejected important aspects of Trotsky’s analysis of Stalinism.” Since then the ICL has changed its line on the colonial question, the popular front, permanent revolution, the general strike and labor mobilization against imperialist war, the nature of corporatist “unions” as well as the key thesis of the Transitional Program, writing off long-held Trotskyist and characteristically Spartacist positions.

For decades, the SL held that Leninists fight for independence for all colonies, as Lenin, Trotsky, the Third and Fourth Internationals insisted. Beginning in 1998, the SL declared “we do not presently advocate independence for Puerto Rico,” calling only for its “right” to separation from U.S. imperialist domination. From 1988 to 1997, the ICL called on workers and the oppressed in Mexico to “break with the Cárdenas popular front.” This key position of the GEM appeared in every issue of its newspaper. Then, as Cárdenas was about to be elected head of the Mexico City government and it was more crucial than ever to combat the popular front, the ICL dropped this line, concluding that Mexican workers are so besotted with nationalism that there is no point in calling for them to break from the class-collaborationist “alliance” with the bourgeois nationalist opposition party. Subsequently it declared a popular front impossible in any country without a mass workers party, thus contradicting Trotsky’s writings on India and China in the 1930s as well as the Spartacist tendency’s own writings on popular fronts from the anti-war movement in the U.S. to Bolivia, El Salvador and many other countries.

In some instances, as now appears to be the case over the nature of Stalinism, the ICL bombastically proclaimed a line only to withdraw it later when it couldn’t defend it under polemical fire. Thus in Mexico, the ICL declared “IG ‘Disappears’ Permanent Revolution” (WV No. 663, 7 March 1997) and “IG Discards Permanent Revolution” (WV No. 672, 8 August 1997) because we denounced their fantasy that workers revolution in Latin America must be for “the destruction of feudal peonage in the countryside” and of the “heritage of Spanish feudal colonialism.” We pointed out that the hoary myth of Latin American “feudalism” was invented by the Stalinists to justify their program of “two-stage revolution.” After a year of lambasting the IG on this score, suddenly in December 1997 the ICL leadership discovered that, mirabili dictu, there was no feudalism in present-day Mexico after all and the Spanish colonial heritage was one of “mercantile capitalism.” 

With egg on their faces, ICLers declared that this was merely an “analytical” difference. In fact, there are direct programmatic consequences for any tendency which fights for agrarian revolution in Latin America (which the ICL has no intention of doing). As for the ICL’s revisionism on the nature of the Stalinist bureaucracy, this has already had programmatic consequences on China. The article in Spartacist (No. 53, Summer 1997) calling for an independent “Soviet Tibet” was no fluke, although the ICL later withdrew this call. It came amid a crescendo of “free Tibet” propaganda and reflected the view that the Stalinists were “leading” counterrevolution in China. This was precisely the argument made by pseudo-Trotskyists like Workers Power who called for independent “soviet republics” in the Baltics in 1990 just as the fascistic Lithuanian Sajudis was demanding independence from the USSR.

In our article “Where Is China Going?” we noted: “in defending the right to independence of an entirely mythical ‘soviet Tibet’ and in claiming that the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] formally voted to carry out the restoration of capitalism, the ICL press was directly reflecting the pressure and views of ‘its own’ imperialist bourgeoisie” (The Internationalist No. 6). After quoting the last half of this sentence, WV responds: “Actually, it is the view of a significant wing of the U.S. bourgeoisie that the Beijing bureaucracy is a battering ram for capitalist restoration.” Thus they confirm our charge, essentially saying, so what? So what is that to claim the Stalinists are leading the counterrevolution is factually wrong, contradicts Trotsky’s analysis of the nature of Stalinism and leads to the dangerously wrong perspective of a “cold” counterrevolution “led” by the Stalinist bureaucracy in its entirety. 

This anti-Marxist perspective is explicitly stated in some, but not all ICL articles on China. WV No. 675 (3 October 1997) linked this to a supposed vote by the Stalinist CP to “liquidate state industry.” WV No. 725 (10 December 1999) starts off with the view that joining the World Trade Organization would be the death knell of China’s socialized economy: “China’s entry into the WTO would mean eliminating what remains of the state monopoly of foreign trade, a key component of the collectivized economy created by the 1949 Chinese Revolution.” As we have written, China’s joining the WTO would greatly escalate pressures for restoration of capitalism. But it would sharply pose the fight, not end it. The ICL’s fantasy of Stalinist-led counterrevolution is the classic posture of those preparing to abandon defense of the deformed workers state before the final battle. This is not Trotskyism but proto-Shachtmanism.

Third Campism of the Second Mobilization

In our earlier article on China, we noted: “Taken together with their recent flip-flop over Tibet, one might be tempted to ask: is there a ‘two-line struggle’ (to use a Maoist phrase) going on inside the ICL over China? Rather, this is another zig-zag of a degenerating centrist tendency.” No doubt the ICL leadership will explain another line “adjustment” as a sign of an internal corrective process, while seeking to minimize its import publicly and perhaps launching some new (or recycling an old) slander against the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International to divert attention from the enormity of their “mistake.” Certainly any revolutionary party can and will make mistakes. But the sheer number of the ICL’s recent “corrections” and uncorrected line changes should lead would-be revolutionary militants to inquire what is behind this. Marxists must begin by asking whose class interests the different policies represent.

Coming next, version 2.1?

Centrism, as Trotsky noted, is not a static or stable condition but an intermediate state, characterized by constant shifting and “organic amorphousness” (“Centrism and the Fourth International,” February 1934). There is also the key question of the direction of movement, typically of erstwhile revolutionary groups sliding into opportunism, occasionally of split-offs from reformism veering to the left under the impact of great upheavals (such as the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution or Hitler’s seizure of power in 1933). While various reformist/centrist pseudo-Trotskyist currents characterize the SL/ICL as hardened “sectarians” and “ultra-lefts” – as do the misnamed Bolshevik Tendency, the Mandelites and others – we have insisted that the ICL is moving unevenly to the right. The SL’s reaction to the anti-WTO/IMF/World Bank protests in Seattle and Washington, D.C. is a barometer: first insisting that the SL wouldn’t even sell its press in Seattle, then prettifying the D.C. protests to say that the youth present were untainted by anti-Communism.

This qualititative degeneration of the political tendency which for three decades upheld revolutionary Trotskyism was set off by the destruction of the Soviet Union and the East European deformed workers states. This led the ICL to write (in its new Declaration of Principles, version 2.0) that although Trotsky stated in the 1938 Transitional Program that the world political situation is “chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat,” this statement “predates the present deep regression of proletarian consciousness.” So according to the ICL, the key thesis of the founding program of the Fourth International is out of date, and the backward consciousness of the proletariat, not the leadership, is now key. Over China, WV No. 715 writes that “Stalinism has done everything in its power to wipe out anything that smacks of socialist consciousness in the working class,” suggesting that it has been successful in doing so. WV takes The Internationalist to task for referring to the need for a proletarian political revolution in China to link up with the (presumably non-existent) “socialist workers of Vietnam and North Korea.”

While falsely claiming that the IG is “Looking for a Few Good Stalinist Bureaucrats” in China, the reality is that the ICL is writing off the Chinese working class as a revolutionary force. Compare the article on “Where Is China Going?” in The Internationalist No. 6 with the ICL’s propaganda. While the ICL still ritually calls for workers political revolution (as did the “Bolshevik Tendency” on the USSR until August 1991), nowhere in the lengthy two-part China article in WV Nos. 714-715 (or in a dozen articles before or since) does it give any but the most minimal programmatic content to this slogan. In contrast, our article puts forward a series of transitional demands for mobilizing Chinese workers against encroaching counterrevolution and building a Trotskyist party in sharp class struggle. 

The ICL’s snowballing line changes, corrections, corrections of corrections and revisions of revisions oscillate around a descending line heading from revolutionary Trotskyism toward reformism. We have characterized its present position as left centrism, but this is no final resting place. We have shown how the SL/ICL has taken on different aspects of left social-democratic currents, from De Leon’s abstract propagandism to Serrati’s refusal to build revolutionary leaderships in the colonial countries to Kautsky’s posture of “passive radicalism” on the eve of World War I. The various strands of left social democracy and its accompaniment, anarchosyndicalism, proved incapable of carrying out workers revolution, and their protagonists degenerated into reformism or simply disappeared from the stage of history. 

The ICL’s recent line of a counterrevolution led by the Stalinists is a retrospective backing off from the Trotskyist program it correctly fought for in the DDR and USSR in 1989-92, and a bridge to abandoning defense of the remaining deformed workers states by claiming that a “cold” counterrevolution already took place. It is the same line as that taken in August 1991 over the Soviet Union by various pseudo-Trotskyists including Workers Power in Britain and Altamira’s Partido Obrero in Argentina who subsequently formally abandoned defensism (WP decided that the bourgeois state had never been overthrown in East Europe, PO has since declared China capitalist). 

As we have demonstrated the falsity of its arguments, and what they would mean in practice, the ICL has constantly tried to shift the debate. We pointed out that if the SED Stalinists were leading the counterrevolution, what were the Spartakist Workers Party and Spartakist-Gruppen doing up there as speakers at the 3 January 1990 anti-fascist mobilization at the Soviet war memorial together with the SED leadership? The ICL responded by declaring that the SED became the leaders of the counterrevolution after Treptow. When we asked, if the SED tops led the counterrevolution, how come they all ended up in the Fourth Reich’s jails, the ICL changed tack again, declaring that it was the Kremlin Stalinists who led the counterrevolution. 

Now it is apparently preparing to drop the argument altogether, in good part for its own internal reasons. The ICL’s Mexican section, the GEM, is clearly in crisis, as could be expected from a group that essentially sat out the ten-month UNAM student strike, with occasional forays onto campus to make sales and pronouncements and never fighting for revolutionary leadership to integrate the students’ strike into a powerful working-class struggle. Today GEM supporters argue different lines on whether the Stalinists led the counterrevolution in the DDR and USSR, and finally announced that they are having internal discussion to figure this out. Meanwhile, they say that even though the claim that the Stalinist bureaucracy is leading the counterrevolution in China is “incorrect,” they have to argue the old line until the new one is published. 

The Spartacist League/U.S. certainly ought to be in a deep crisis after arguing a proto-Shachtmanite line for four years, then suddenly being struck dumb in Philadelphia and becoming tongue-tied in subsequent encounters. But by now SLers have become well-versed in the art of vehemently arguing both sides of a line. While this is the professional specialty of lawyers and bourgeois politicians, as well as reformist pseudo-socialists of all stripes and the centrists who chase after them, it is deadly for revolutionists. As James P. Cannon, the founding leader of American Trotskyism, wrote about the Shachtmanite minority that abandoned unconditional defense of the Soviet Union on the eve of World War II: 

“The leaders of the opposition, and a very large percentage of their followers, have shown that they are capable of changing their opinions on all fundamental questions of theory and politics over night. This only demonstrates quite forcibly that their opinions in general are not to be taken too seriously.” 
The Struggle for a Proletarian Party

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com