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Mary Bell

Shachtman versus Browder –
A Full Report of the Debate

(10 April 1950)

From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 15, 10 April 1950, pp. 6–8.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

It was a unique – almost an historical – occasion: the debate between Max Shachtman of the Independent Socialist League in one corner, and in the other the outstanding example of a living ex-general secretary of a Communist Party. It was, as Shachtman remarked in opening his presentation, an occasion which “I have been waiting for more than 20 years.”

For Marxist socialists have been trying for years to get Stalinists to debate them, without success. The Stalinists have on occasion broken up their meetings, organized their squads to bash their heads in, in some countries assassinated them, but they have not been willing to confront their left socialist opponents in open debate, spokesman against spokesman, platform against platform, movement against movement.

The reason this debate took place, of course, was because Earl Browder is no longer an official spokesman of the Communist Party, although he still proclaims what was the official line of the party when he was removed as its titular head in 1946, after 14 years of service to the Kremlin as its U.S. general secretary.

That is why Shachtman commented in his opening remarks: “It seems that the only way you can get a Stalinist to defend this position in fair debate is when he has been cast out of the inner darkness into the outer light, and branded publicly as an ‘agent of capitalism’ and an ‘enemy of the Soviet Union.’ So, for a debate with the genuine article, we must still wait patiently, or rather impatiently. Meanwhile I must content myself with the second-hand article, the somewhat used – or, as I read the Daily Worker – the somewhat abused article.”

Browder is thus not a laboratory-pure specimen of a Stalinist, being slightly contaminated by his continued adherence to the “peaceful cohabitation of ‘socialism’ and capitalism” – a theory which changed from orthodoxy to heresy in the twinkling of a cablegram in 1946. But in all essentials of Stalinist doctrine he passes the test and is the best (thus far the only) surrogate for a Stalinist spokesman.

“There ... Stands a Corpse”

The debate was an opportunity for independent socialism again to challenge one of the world’s dominant ideologies through an unofficial spokesman. This is the ideology that is filling the vacuum that declining capitalism leaves, mare apparent in Europe at present than in the United States: the anti-capitalist but also anti-socialist totalitarian doctrine that is falsely couched in Marxist phrases, Stalinism. This doctrine is seen in its purest form in the Communist Party, but it has its variations and reflections elsewhere: in Titoism, the national-Stalinism of the Yugoslav rulers and their sympathizers within the pro-Stalinist world; in Wallaceism, the curious American admixture of Stalinism, totalitarian liberalism and Titoism.

It was with realization of his ignominious decline that Browder said at the beginning of his speech: “I speak for myself alone.” The broken ex-general secretary had only a comparatively smalt claque of personal followers to applaud him. Gone were the cheering CP multitudes in Madison Square Garden, the kleig lights, the halo of absolute authority. He seemed a man almost bewildered. Yet the slander machine of which he was once the leading manipulator, and which now brands him as a &ldquottraitor and agent of capitalism” has not shaken his totalitarian faith. He has been too long schooled in its ways. He still does not even understand what happened to him.

This is what Shachtman pointed to in the last words of his speech. After referring to the fate of Kostov and the other decapitated Stalinist heads in East Europe, he said, pointing to Browder: “There, but for the accident of geography, stands a corpse.” A political corpse it was. But one still exuding the stench of totalitarianism: that is why no tear could be shed over the whitest sepulchre.

At one point Shachtman even proposed a “sporting proposition”: “If what you [Browder] call ‘socialism’ – the Russian variety – were installed in the United States, who would be the first to get the ax, Browder or Shachtman?” Browder did not, of course, rise to the bait.

Browder’s main line of defense for Russia was made, as usual, under the cover of pseudo-Marxist terms. “Marxism is a- system of philosophy that explains the development of society by the development of the productive forces,” he began, as the first speaker of the evening. “Socialism was introduced as a living reality in relation to Russia. The question whether Russia is a socialist community is thus a question of fact as to whether it has increased the productivity.”

To lend the thesis profundity, Browder made an analogy with the early history of the U.S. “Charles Dickens,” he said learnedly, “leveled the charge of backwardness against young America. Dickens and those who agreed with him were profoundly mistaken.” Despite the superficial appearance, he added, “America was in the vanguard of world progress in the 19th century.”

Browder’s Main Line of Defense

With this, Browder set the equation “expansion of production equals vanguard of progress” as a tight and unqualified formula. The purpose: to contend that the productive role played by America has passed to Russia in the 20th century, since the latter has achieved (he claimed) a higher development of the productive forces. “It [Russia] speedly forged ahead from the last of the European powers to the first. Only the U.S.A, is today comparable in force and influence with the USSR. In it's rate of growth it has already surpassed America.”

Thus the formula became, in his hands, “expansion of production (automatically) equals socialism.”

When later Shachtman quoted the figures on the expansion of production by industrialization in Japan – which ought, by Stalinist Marxicology, to be equal to “at least three-quarters of ‘socialism’” – this argument bounced right off Browder, who did not even try to meet it. But the Stalinist spokesman went so far as to. say that “even the building of every great modern factory is a step toward socialism. If Taft and McCarthy want to pass a law against socialism, they will have to pass a law against building factories – these are the most powerful instruments of socialism."

Presumably, also, the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos atom-bomb plants come under the head of “instruments of socialism,” as would an atom-bomb plant in Yakutsk or Kazakstan. It was, in other words, clear that Browder sought to rest his case upon the equation of production ability and socialism, a pseudo-Marxist thesis which is a main line of approach to the Russian question also, on the part of many Stalinoid liberals as well as, in part, of the official Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party.

In part of his answer on this point – that every factory built is a step toward socialism – Shachtman read from one of Browder’s own pamphlets, What Is Communism? In this work, Browder referred to the construction of Boulder Dam and to the fact that Roosevelt was very proud of it. But, asked Browder in that pamphlet, “This dam, and achievements similar to it, what have they contributed to the material welfare of the working class?”

If this was a legitimate question to ask of the American capitalist class, it was even more legitimate to ask it of those who claim that industrialization of Russia is “socialist in character.” On this basis the main portion of Shachtman’s presentation consisted of a veritable landslide of facts and figures on Stalinist Rilssian life and economy to prove (a) that the wealth produced by advancing Russian industry goes not to raise the consuming ability, and standard of living of the mass of people, but of the ruling bureaucracy; (b) that the people have no control, no voice and no democratic participation in the new exploiting society developed under Stalin. These, he stressed and repeated, were the criterion for the socialist character of a society and an economy, and it is by these criteria that the character of the Russian state has to be judged.

An outstanding fact about this demonstration was that, with few exceptions, all the factual material and citations were taken entirely from official Stalinist sources, so that there could be no charge of relying on biased enemies of the regime, and also were taken from the period before the late war, so that no rebuttal was possible along the lines of the claim that current conditions are simply a result of war devastation. The detailed information poured out in this section of the independent socialist spokesman’s presentation will be made available to L.A. readers in another form, but it is necessary to note that in no way did Browder make a stib at discussing any of it concretely.

No “Socialism” for the People

Shachtman also pointed out that although Russian production has increased tremendously – “Let us even grant Browder’s inflated and falsified statistics,” he said at one point – still it was also important, even from a purely economic viewpoint, to see that the productivity of labor in Russia is greatly lower even than in capitalist America, not to speak of what it would have to be to stamp the economy as socialist.

As a sample, he quoted from the Russian magazine Planned Economy for December 1940: the Russian miner, in spite of the appalling speedup system of Stakhanovism, produces less than half the tonnage of coal than does the American miner, man for man (370 tons as against 844 tons). “While production in a U.S. mine is three times as large as in a comparable Russian mine, the latter uses 11 times as many technicians, twice as many miners, three times a many office workers and 12 times as large a supervisory staff. What kind of ‘socialism’ is it where the productivity of labor is so inferior to that which prevails in advanced capitalist states?” Shachtman asked.

On the one criterion for socialist industrialization – the tendency toward an improved economic welfare for the worker – Shachtman cited numerous figures to show that in 1937, at the end of the Second Five Year Plan, in respect to many phases of the economy touching upon this question, including basic necessities of the people, production had. not only not kept up with the plan but was lower than in 1913. (Browder had referred disparagingly to American boasts about refrigerators and television sets. “I’m not talking about refrigerators, or radios ...” said Shachtman, “I’m speaking of tea for the Russian workers, of shoes, of basic articles of consumption!”)

He cited the wage differential in Russian society, showing that in no country of the world is inequality as great as in Stalinist Russia. Whereas in the U.S. the spread between the poorest paid and the best paid is at the most five to one, in Russia, according to Dr. Abram Bergson’s The Structure of Russian Wages, in October 1934 “the earnings of the highest paid Soviet worker were more than 28.3 times the earnings of the lowest paid worker at that time.” In 1949, using official Russian sources, Shachtman demonstrated that the ratio of lowest to highest was about 50 or 60 to one.

The NAM Shows Up

At this point also, Shachtman showed the difference in fact and principle between the period of the Russian Revolution under Lenin, when the “Commune” principle of paying officials no higher than skilled workers was established, and that of today under Stalin. A new bureaucratic ruling class has rooted itself: “the factory directors, the managers, the army and navy officers, the millionaire kolkhozniks, the bureaucrats of all varieties, stripes, ranks, sizes and weights.”

In December 1938, when the average worker was earning 259 rubles a month, Shachtman reminded Browder, “it was decreed that the Russian ‘Gil Greens’ get 100 rubles a month, while the presidents of what are jocularly called ‘soviets’ get ten thousand times more. Presidents of the federated republics get 12,500 a month.” And so on. “John L. Lewis would break his back to get that kind of ‘socialism,’ ” he concluded. “Wouldn’t the NAM be delighted with such a differential in this country? The problem for them would be how to conceal their delight!”

Shachtman piled on the coals: “Under ‘socialism’ we have ‘marshals’!” he exclaimed; describing the caste systern in the Russian army, pay differentials there also, etc. – “Are the American colonels any better off? ... Go peddle your ‘socialism’ to the Pentagon building!’’

Browder indeed, had in-effect done just that. In his rebuttal, Browder (apparently out of Stalinist habit, since he did not bother to try to hang it on to anything specifically said by Shachtman) had verbally linked his Socialist opponent with the NAM. In reply, Shachtman devastatingly showed that, whereas the Independent Socialist League was and always had been an unvarying enemy of the NAM forces, it was Browder who had openly tied himself up with that citadel of reaction. He quoted from a wartime interview with Browder printed in the New York newspaper PM on March 15, 1944, in which Browder had said: “I’m not sorry that the NAM says I talk like them,” and more of the same.

Yet all that Browder could do in his final rebuttal was more futile invective: “When I hear such speeches as that, I say that even a peace-minded capitalist, every member of the NAM, is preferable to such war-mongering under the name of socialism.”

This last empty accusation – Browder also .at one point called his opponent “a recruiting sergeant in this war against Russia” – was flung out with no attempt to give it even a color of correspondence to any fact. Typically he was depending on identifying ANY criticism, of Russia with the anti-Russianism of American imperialism Shachtman made short shrift of this dodge, vigorously stating (as in his opening remarks) the opposition of independent socialists to both imperialisms, to the cold war, to both capitalism and the Russian exploiting system.

Something New for a Stalinist

He pointed out that Browder’s slander was of a piece with that which was used to railroad Debs and others (including Browder) to prison during the imperialist First World War. When they criticized the U.S. at that time, the opponents of the war were told they were “helping the kaiser.” He also referred to the arguments used by the labor leaders against Browder when the latter was the editor of the Labor Herald: any criticism of the leaders of labor was identified by them as an attack on the labor movement itself, and denounced as “playing into the employers’ hands.” At that time, Shachtman said, the revolutionary socialists “stood by the precept that the truth never hurts the working class.”

Again: on the standard of living of the Russian people as one of the criteria for socialism, Shachtman exhibited Stalin’s justification for the growing trend toward inequality and bureaucratic privilege. “The Russian workers yearned for greater equality, and Stalin answered them (at the 17th Congress in 1934) that this yearning is ‘a reactionary, petty-bourgeois absurdity worthy of a primitive sect of ascetics but not of a socialist society.organized on Marxian lines.’”

For Browder, this question scarcely existed, for the reasons noted above. In one of his passages on the point he wound up with something new for a Stalinist:

“Russia required enormous production to lift itself up from backwardness, and national defense in order that Russia not be destroyed by its enemies. Are these things important, or is immediate consumption the only test of socialism, as he says? [Shachtman had not given consumption as the only test.] There is nothing of Marx in the whole approach. There is only a vulgar demagogy of such schools of socialism as, for example, that of the famous Disraeli of Great Britain, the kind that wants to protect the working class from the evils of capitalism. The socialism of the Tory Disraeli [sic] is equally respectable with the socialism that has been expressed here.”

And further:

“In so doing he [Shachtman] moves to the position of the reactionary form of socialism, utopian, clerical socialism. Not a Marxist socialist certainly – a Christian socialist, perhaps.”

Detailing the Indictment

The spectacle of a Stalinist denouncing a “Trotskyite” as a “Christian socialist” was perhaps one of the reasons why there was an audible titter through the audience at this point. The reader may find it interesting to learn also that at no time during the debate was Browder so indiscreet as to accuse Shachtman of being what he has so often called Marxist socialists in the safety of print – namely, “fascist,” “ally of Hitler,” etc. If in effect he ate those words during the debate, it was due to the better part of valor and not to respect for his own previous slanderous mouthings of the Stalinist book of invective.

Browder again and again put forward his awed respect of power and military might, together with deification of industrialization as such, as evidence of Russia’s “socialism.” Early in his speech he said that Russia “sustained its right to use of the name [socialist] by its victory in the greatest of all wars ... There is the fact, a very important one. It is the prudence of wisdom to recognize facts and try to understand them ...

“Many Americans believe that Russia is backward and powerful. But a powerful nation cannot be unprogressive ...

“Statistics can be falsified [he did not say by whom] but they were confirmed in the battle of Europe and the defeat of Hitler. Artillery, planes and tanks were means by which the war was won ... Such modern means as atom bombs do not come from falsified statistics. They come from highly skilled labor and the advance of science.”

The reply to this was a setup. For one thing, Shachtman reminded the audience of the defeat of Napoleon, the organizer of bourgeois rule over feudal Europe, by Czar Alexander’s army of serfs. “Does that prove that Alexander was Lenin, or his ‘best disciple,’ or that he ‘created the world’?” asked Shachtman, referring to the Byzantine eulogies lavished on Stalin by his Russian sycophants.

Browder dismissed all reference to the standard of living of the Russian people as irrelevant. Life in Russia, he admitted, “remains hard and austere,” and it must be that way because this “socialist” country must first be concerned with “the expansion of production ... and a military establishment able to meet all possible dangers.”

But far from being exclusively concerned with “consumption,” as Browder was able to charge only by ignoring a whole long section of Shachtman’s presentation, the ISL chairman maintained that the political nature, of the regime was also basic. No democracy existed for the working masses (that, indeed, is why the new exploiting class ruling Russia is able to channel the country’s wealth in the.direction of its own power and revenue).

“There is not a working class in a single modern country that is as brutally exploited as is the working class of Russia, not one as cynically disfranchised and deprived of its elementary rights,” he charged. The evidence, which we have already referred to, was marshaled to demonstrate the following, among others:

  1. The Russian worker has no real trade unions.
  2. He cannot determine hiring, firing, wage scales, working days, working conditions.
  3. The so-called “trade unions” are pure and simple speedup instruments of the state power. Trade union committees are composed of appointed officials.
  4. The wage scale is in the hands of the managers of industry and the bureaucrats.
  5. Every worker must carry a labor book of the type first introduced by Bonaparte and later by Hitler.
  6. Workers are forbidden to leave the factory without permission of the boss; violation of this is called desertion, with penalties up to 10 years.
  7. The worker must accept work wherever he is ordered to be or to go.
  8. Absence from work without excuse can be punished by dismissal, involving loss of trade-union cards and lodging; three latenesses of 20 minutes are equal to an absence.
  9. The czarist system of internal passports, abolished by the revolution, was reintroduced in 1932 by Stalin.
  10. A Russian cannot leave the country without authorization and the cannot get authorization. “Flight” abroad is punished by death.
  11. Whereas even the czarist regime abolished capital punishment for all crimes except assaults on the czar and political assassination, in Stalinist Russia the death penalty is inflicted for: counterfeiting, acts of “sabotage” (which can include anything), strikes in state enterprises, illegal slaughter of cattle, etc.
  12. All children from 12 up may be punished to the full limit of the law, including execution.
  13. The legal minimum in housing is six square meters, except for the apartments of the ruling bureaucrats, which are built with servants’ quarters.
  14. Women have been reduced to the status of childbearers by the laws against divorce and abortion.
  15. Millions of slave laborers are penned in the labor camps as a working force for the GPU.
  16. The secret police (GPU) rules omnipotently over everyone in the land.

Shachtman challenged Browder to cite a single democratic right left to the Russian workers, aside from the “right” to vote for Stalin whenever the latter decides to permit “what he calls an election.” He asked: “Does the worker have the right to form a political party of his own? Would I have that right? Would Norman Thomas have that right? Would Wallace have it? Would Browder have it? What would happen if he tried?”

“Yeah – but What About Italy?”

There was naturally no reply to this question, and Browder later sloughed off part of the question with the casual statement that “there is a limit to the amount of trimmings [sic] of democracy that are enjoyed.”

Regarding the emphasis on state control of Russian industry as “proof” of socialism, Shachtman recalled that Browder had already had two experiences with “socialism” in America – one in World War 1 in Leavenworth penitentiary and the. other in World War II in Atlanta penitentiary. Both, are “nationalized” institutions, he explained to the laughing audience. But: Browder was able to leave these institutions when his terms were up, whereas the Russian worker is imprisoned virtually for life and his family is held as hostage if he tries to flee.

In his rebuttal Browder gave prominent place, in the course of his 20 minutes, to a familiar Stalinist cover-up when confronted with the crimes of the Kremlin. In effect he asked “What about Italy? What about France? What about conditions there, under capitalism?” He bemoaned the situation of the French and Italian workers, claiming at the same time that the standard of living has gone up in all the East Europe satellites.

The dodge was quite plain. Shachtman stressed (once again) that Marxist socialists, in attacking Stalinist Russia, held no brief for the oppression of capitalism in its own lands, but, he hammered home, tonight we are debating whether RUSSIA is socialist not any other question. Browder could not get away by the trick of drawing attention to Italy or France as a means of evading a discussion of the facts of Russian life, since he was debating a consistent and uncompromising foe of capitalism as welt as of Stalinism.

The appropriate anecdote about the American tourist who was being shown the Moscow subway also served to make the point. After waiting some time for a train to come along, the tourist complained to the guide: “It’s very beautiful, but the trains don’t seem to run on time.”

“No,” replied the guide, “but what about the Negroes in the South?”

There was another effective way of answering Browder’s method of glossing over Russia’s crimes by attacking the Polish landlords, as if this was relevant to the debate, in addition to reminding Browder that Shacht-man’s criticism of Russia came not as a defense of the NAM, of the Polish colonels – or of Nazism. “My comrades,” said Shachtman, “were murdered for supposedly supporting a pact with Hitler [referring to the liquidation of the old Bolsheviks in the Moscow purges]. There were no documents, nothing, to prove it. But there was one document. It appeared in the Daily Worker. It was not my name that was signed to it. It was not Trotsky’s, not Rakovsky’s ... Whose signature was on it?”

This challenge on the notorious Stalin-Hitler pact of 1939 was not taken up by Browder.

Quoting Lenin’s statement that “socialism cannot retain its victory ... unless it establishes complete democracy,” Shachtman affirmed: “I stand on that more firmly than ever before.” He closed his last speech with a fervent and eloquent avowal of the basic role of democracy for socialism.

And what of Browder’s own line, his political reason for being (or non-being)?

He still preaches the gospel of the wartime alliance of Russia and the Western Allies, that peace is the immediately necessary goal and that it can be achieved by an agreement between capitalism and Russian “socialism.” America is organized, he maintains, to halt the crusade of “socialism”'(that is, Stalinist power) in other countries. Russia, on the other hand, “has no urge toward war, no profit in it.” Russia, Browder insists, supports only “wars of liberation and not wars of reactionary invasion.” Still the apologist for Russia, even in his heresy!

However, Browder still calls for peace, an agreement between the two world systems. He apparently thinks it can be arranged by some kind of UN agreement, not (he stressed) by preaching “socialism” to America now, “There is no peace until its terms in state relations have been defined and accepted,” was the way he put it.

He suggested that the United States could get the markets it requires by peaceful cooperation with “socialism” (Russia). He was not even hopeless about the prospect, even though he placed the blame for the cold war solely on the US. Making an analogy with the Sherman anti-trust laws, which did not bust the trusts, he felt that perhaps the warlike attitude of the American bourgeoisie (yes, he retains the phrase) might signify a “move into peace backward, its usual method.” And, with an attempt at a profound phrase, he intoned: “Backing into the future is possible only by a powerful ruling class.”

For his heretical views on peace, Browder has been separated from the Communist Party. In all other respects, he is the apologist for Russia. In his final, agitated sur-rebuttal, he cried: “If democracy means the power of the people to determine their own destiny, there must be a thousand times more democracy in Russia than anywhere on earth. The people are constantly determining the system under which they live.”

And, for the party that ousted him, ostracized him, branded him traitor, would not permit his mild difference within its ranks, Browder had only a gentle slap on the wrist. One had difficulty catching it, for he did not even call the party by name.

“Only political idiots,” he said, “believe socialism can be smuggled into America. Socialism will come only when a Marxist party has won the confidence of the working class and can convince the working class that socialism is necessary also in America.” One must remember again, in Browder’s vocabulary, “socialism” equals Stalinism, “Marxist party” equals “Communist Party.” He condemned the CP (in anonymous terms) for trying to combine both the struggle for peace and the struggle for “socialism” into one movement.

This identification of Stalinism with socialism, as Shachtman charged repeatedly, is the greatest blow that Stalinists, and some who are not Stalinists, have delivered against the movement for socialism. “The Stalinist movement has done more than any other single force in the world to give weapons against socialism into the hands of capitalist reaction.”

If the debate accomplished no more than distinguishing' the world of difference that lies between the Stalinist ideology and the ideals of genuine socialism, it served its purpose brilliantly.