Max Shachtman

Morrison ‘Shortens His Line’

On What Class Owns
Russian Property

(October 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 42, 18 October 1943, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

It is little short of amazing what people can do with the riches of modern vocabularies when they are hard put. Take, for example, the problem of announcing, in the least embarrassing way, the fact that your army has retreated instead of advanced or even held its own.

Those responsible for issuing the war communiques do not simply say: “Our opponents won the battle, and we retreated.” How would that sound back home? Instead, they write: “We have successfully disengaged our forces from the enemy,” or “Enemy attempts to contact our rear guard were effectively thwarted,” or “We have triumphantly evacuated the fortress because of a lack of adequate housing and sanitary facilities,” or, more simply, “We have shortened our line.” That sounds better.

So it is in war nowadays; so, it seems, it is in political debate.

A good case in point is M. Morrison, the Cannonite essayist of The Militant. A few issues ago in these pages we pinned him right to the board. He described as “one of Shachtman’s debating tricks” the “suggestion that someone” in The Militant had said that the morale of the Red Army proves that Russia is a workers’ state. I thereupon proceeded, without tricks of any kind, to quote a half dozen occasions when writers in The Militant said precisely that.

Morrison Admits “Mistake”

What does Morrison reply in a roundabout way, presumably in discussing a letter from a Chicago reader? In The Militant of October 2 he blandly writes: “It was a rather risky statement to make, I must admit, because it is quite possible that some comrade was guilty of making a bad formulation. I assumed the risk because Shachtman failed to cite any quotation justifying his assertion.” (Emphasis mine – M.S.)

But once Shachtman has presented six or seven quotations “justifying his assertion,” what does Morrison do? He “shortens his line,” as they say in the war communiques. He repeats one of the quotations to create the impression that it was the product of some isolated and not entirely thoughtful or representative writer. “Shachtman,” he says, “has to be grateful to the editors of The Militant for overlooking an incorrect formulation now and then” (my emphasis – M.S.).

What Morrison does not tell his readers (who, he hopes, did not see the Labor Action article!) is that it was not a question of “overlooking” an “incorrect” formulation “now and then.” Among other quotations we printed one, from no less a document than the “unanimously adopted” political resolution of the convention of the Socialist Workers Party. What is more, I showed pretty plainly that this “incorrect formulation” was the sum and substance of every comment The Militant makes on Russian morale. But Morrison is shortening his line, and not only on that front.

Trotsky and the “Mistake”

In a still earlier issue, I addressed a few questions to the editor of The Militant. That paper has been repeatedly printing the outright Stalinist falsehood to the effect that the means of production in Russia belong to the workers and peasants, or the people. We asked the editor how he reconciles these statements, made in an “official” Trotskyist paper, with the assertion by Trotsky that the identification of “state property” with “possession of the whole people” is the “fundamental sophism of the official doctrine,” that is, of Stalinism.

Morrison replied by “officially” ignoring my questions. In other words, and as usual, he dealt with them in a round-about way. But his answer was good enough, all things considered. Do the Russian workers own the factories, as The Militant has said repeatedly? No, replied Morrison, “they know too well that this is a fiction of the bureaucracy.” And two weeks ago: “I must, however, admit that the expression ‘the workers of the Soviet Union own the factories’ was actually used in The Militant.” (Emphasis mine – M.S.)

If Morrison were genuinely objective, and did not confine his indignation to the Stalinists for the mockery they make of self-criticism, he would have acknowledged that this “incorrect formulation” was not only “actually used in The Militant,” but is contained, word for word, in the above-mentioned official convention resolution of the SWP. I quoted it before. Perhaps my lordly critic didn’t see it, either when it was written, or printed, or when he voted for it in the convention, or when it was reprinted. So here it is again, straight from the resolution:

“The Soviet masses have something to fight for. They fight for THEIR factories, THEIR land, THEIR collective economy.” (My emphasis – M.S.)

Thus, as I once said, the very fountainhead of Stalinist fiction is the official position of the SWP, and not of an occasional writer whose repetition of it is “overlooked” by the editor “now and then.” To be the disseminator of Stalinist fiction (and the fundamental one, at that) is a confoundedly bad thing for a “Trotskyist” party and paper to be. To be pilloried for it is even worse. Therefore? Therefore, Morrison “shortens his line” and condemns, not the resolution he voted for (pardon me – “overlooked”), but condemns ... Shachtman. As the Germans say in their communiques: “Our forces were obliged to disengage themselves because the barbaric Russians were armed.”

Where This Landed the Essayist

We would be done for the moment if Morrison had not retreated from the frying pan into the fire. Once forced to admit that the Russian working class does not “own the factories and the state,” he has removed the only serious argument that Russia is a workers’ state, degenerated or otherwise. The Chicago reader whom his October 2 article ostensibly answers without quoting directly, has obviously asked: If the workers do not really own the factories, what happens to our theory of the workers’ state?

Morrison’s explanation is a piece of muddled sophistry if ever there was one, and it goes without saying that it is smeared over with liberal layers of “dialectics.”

We know, as Morrison does, that there is no capitalist class that owns the factories in Russia. We know, as Morrison now admits, that the working class does not own them. We also know that the working class has not the slightest degree of control over the state that does own Russian property.

A Fiction for a Fiction

Who, then, does own the land and factories in Russia? What class? We say: a new class developing out of special historical circumstances, the Stalinist collectivist bureaucracy. Morrison says: No class owns the means of production! That is all that his “answer” to the Chicago reader can mean. A magnificent sample of Marxian and dialectical thinking! For the first time in the long history of the class struggle we have a society in which no class owns the property and no class controls the state. The property is not owned by a class at all. It is merely nationalized, that is, it is owned by the state which is not a class. Is it any wonder that the Chicago reader is perplexed? What reader wouldn’t be? And is it any wonder that the Stalinists declare Russia to be a classless, socialist state? Morrison abandons one Stalinist fiction only to approach another!

Morrison is still shortening his line. He refuses to say in simple or complex English what class owns the factories and (controls) the state, and then adds that the question is of no consequence! He quotes an entirely inappropriate paragraph from Trotsky, says: “It will of course not satisfy the doctrinaires who insist on a specific answer to the question: what class owns the nationalized property in the Soviet Union? The answer can only be to show that the Soviet state owns the factories and then proceed to give Trotsky’s explanation of the nature of the Soviet state.”

Morrison can “proceed to give Trotsky’s explanation” from now till the end of time. He can write himself blue in the face with attacks on those who “insist on a specific answer to the question” as “doctrinaires” and “non-dialecticians” and “abstractionists.” He can shorten his line to a pinpoint. But if he is to stop making a mockery of the fundamentals of Marxism, he must “proceed” from the premises that the state is the political instrument of a class which, fundamentally, controls it, and that there is no class society in which NO CLASS owns the property – be it slaves, land or factories.

Must Answer These Questions

Twist and turn, squirm and squeeze – you cannot evade an answer to the extremely concrete (by no means abstract or “legalistic”) questions which Morrison readily answers for every country, in every period of history, except Stalinist Russia, namely:

If it is “doctrinaire” to “insist on a specific answer to the question” of who “owns,” then why is the capitalist class so infernally concerned about what class owns the factories (and controls the state) in America, England, Germany and Japan; why is it so concerned about CHANGING the class ownership of the factories in Russia; and why are such “abstractionists” as Morrison (and ourselves) interested in changing the class ownership of the factories in the United States?

Is there perhaps another Chicago reader who will give Morrison occasion to explain further?

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