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Guide to the Max Shachtman Papers TAM.103

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

Collection processed by Claudia Hommel

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on May 08, 2018
Description is in English.

Historical/Biographical Note

For half a century, Max Shachtman was at the center of U.S. and international controversies. In the early Twenties, at the age of nineteen, Shachtman was the talented leader of the youth section of the early Communist movement. A decade later, he became one of the three principal founders of the American Trotskyist movement.

In the late Thirties, he led a large minority section of the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, breaking with Trotsky and the majority leadership on the "Russian Question" and the 11defensist" position on the USSR, then forming in 1940 the Workers Party, later called the Independent Socialist League. More than fifteen years later, the ISL often called "Shachtmanite" for its distinctive view of Russia as a new social form, a bureaucratic collectivist society dissolved into the Socialist Party, which it saw as the bearer of democratic socialist traditions closest to its views. From this platform, during the Sixties, Shachtman, among other things, continued the struggle against Stalinism in favor of the democratic process and interests of the American labor movement.

Born in Warsaw on September 10, 1904, Max Shachtman immigrated to New York City with his parents when he was eight months old, and lived there continuously until 1923. His father, Benjamin, like so many thousands of immigrants, worked in the needle trades. As a member of the Journeyman Tailors Union, he worked for wages; occasionally, he did independent work. Benjamin Shachtman's skill and extra effort enabled him to rise above the modest economic circumstances of most needle trade workers. Thus the Shachtmans, Benjamin, his loving mother, Max and his sister, Tillie were able to move from the Lower East Side to the Upper East Side, then to Harlem, populated in those years by Irish, Jews, Finns, and Blacks. Later still, the family became part of the Migration to the Bronx, newly developed and distant from the squalor of lower Manhattan.

Max Shachtman first learned of the Young People's Socialist League from Dr. Abraham Lefkowitz, his instructor at Dewitt Clinton High School and a leader of one of the first teacher's unions in the City. In 1919, Shachtman frequented the Rand School Bookstore, a radical center, where he obtained socialist literature. He entered City College in 1920, but left during the first semester because of illness. The following semester he returned, attended for a few months, dropped out, and never again attended college.

At the turn of the decade, the Russian Revolution was reverberating throughout the world. Lenin and Trotsky were universally known as the leaders of the event that was to alter the course of social evolution in the Twentieth Century. Shachtman's interest in the radical movement was stimulated. During these years he read socialist classics and Marxian theory, and attended street meetings, the great political forums in American radical life of the day. The young Shachtman was particularly attracted to the street debates at what was called "Trotsky Square" at 110th Street and Fifth Avenue. He learned the art of soap box oratory.

When the Bolsheviks seized power, the Socialist Party was immediately rent by deep factional conflict over what its response would be. Although his knowledge of the issues was limited, Shachtman identified himself with the Party's broad and diverse left wing. When he was seventeen, Shachtman joined the Workers Councils.

(After a series of left-wing splits from the Socialist Party, a new left-wing group arose which separated itself from the Party in 1920-21. Called the Workers Councils, an Americanization of the Russian "Soviets," it favored affiliation with the Communist International, but did not believe that the theses and resolutions of the International had much application to the United States. The leaders of this left wing were J.B.S. Hardman (Salutsky), Louis Engdahl, and Alexander Trachtenberg. They joined the Communist Party; Hardman was expelled in 1923. Endgahl, once editor of the Chicago Daily Socialist, became joint editor of the Daily Worker with William F. Dunne, and Trachtenberg became director of International Publishers, the Communist publishing house.)

When they dissolved into the Workers Party the legal organization of the underground Communist movement in 1922-23 Shachtman went with his political associates. Thus, in the era of Harding and Coolidge, inspired by the Russian overturn and the teachings of Lenin and Trotsky, Max, Shachtman became a professional revolutionary.

In 1922, Shachtman met Martin Abern, the National Secretary of the Young Workers League, who had just returned from Moscow, where he had been a delegate to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International. Recognizing a brilliance in Shachtman, Abern persuaded him to move to Chicago, the national headquarters of the youth organization, to take over editorship of its official magazine, The Young Worker. At the beginning of 1923, at 19, Shachtman began to work full time for the movement, as he did with or without pay until the end of his life.

The next six year period through 1928 was one of political maturing for Shachtman. The leadership of the now legal Communist Party acknowledged his outstanding intellectual qualifications and leadership capabilities. Following his political and journalistic apprenticeship in the Young Workers League, he

became an alternate member of the Communist Party's Central Committee, spoke at public meetings, and wrote for the Party press. After the 1925 Party Convention, Shachtman became editor of the labor Defender, the magazine of

the International Labor Defense, which he transformed into an attractive and widely circulated photo journal. In 1925, he was sent to Moscow to attend the Fifth Plenum of the Executive Committee of the Communist International, and two years later was sent to the Seventh Plenum of the Comintern and the Young Communist International. During this period, he became a national figure in the Party and one of its most promising young leaders.

Shachtman's travels helped change the composition of an already fine personal library begun in high school. At first, his collections were literary, as were his interests; during the early Twenties, he reviewed Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and a study of Joyce. This literary background colored his oratory and writing and contributed to his later appreciation of Trotsky's literary style and talents. By the mid 1920s, Shachtman had become a true bibliophile and collector of classics of socialist literature and history; his library, like his writings, had become predominantly political. Fluent in French and German, he collected important works in those languages and later translated articles for American Trotskyist journals, as well as pamphlets by Trotsky. He also knew Yiddish, and had a passing knowledge of Spanish.

The year 1928 marked a new stage in Max Shachtman's political life. During the Summer and early Fall, James P. Cannon, the leader of the Communist Party faction which bore his name, attended the Sixth Congress of the Communist International. As a member of the Program Commission of the Congress, Cannon saw a document by Trotsky, A Criticism of the Draft Program of the Comintern, which convinced him that t e troubles in the American Party were rooted in the increasing Stalinization of the Russian Communist Party and the entire International. He and Maurice Spector, the leader of the Canadian Communist Party, smuggled a copy out of the country. Cannon convinced his two closest associates, Martin Abern and Shachtman, of the correctness of Trotsky's views. As a result., all three, members of the Central Committee of the Party, were expelled in the Fall of 1928. Soon, dozens of other members district leaders, some of them on the Central Committee or on the National Committee of the Young Communist League were expelled for supporting the three.

Thus a Trotskyist movement made its sudden debut in the United States. In May 1929, a few months after the wave of expulsions, this national group met in conference and formed the Communist League of America. For the next ten years, Shachtman was next to Cannon the outstanding leader of the American Trotskyist movement. He edited for many years its weekly paper, The Militantin which he surveyed national and international political events and the activities of the Trotskyist organizations on the Continent.

Max Shachtman was the first American Trotskyist to meet Leon Trotsky after his deportation from the Soviet Union in 1929, when he visited the exile's residence on the island of Prinkipo, Turkey, in early 1930. In 1933, Shachtman accompanied Trotsky and his wife, Natalia Sedova, to France when the Russian leader was permitted to reside briefly in that country. In 1937, he was a member of the party which met Trotsky and Natalia when they arrived at Tampico to take up residence in Mexico, their last place of exile. When the news cane of Trotsky's assassination, in August, 1940, Shachtman flew down to Coyoacan on behalf of the Workers Party to be with Natalia in the sad days following the fatal attack.

In 1931-32, almost alone among international figures, Trotsky alerted the world to the threat of Hitler and the Nazi Party. In a series of pamphlets, he called for a vast united front of Communists, Socialists, trade unions, and liberal democratic groups to prevent the triumph of the Nazi battalions. Shachtman responded by issuing The Militantthree times a week in a crash attempt to awaken the radical forces in American society to the consequences of Hitler's appointment as Germany's Chancellor.

Beginning in 1934, Shachtman edited the New International, a monthly journal which had a significant world wide circulation and was distinguished by contributions from such luminaries as John Dewey, Sidney Hook, Max Eastman, Victor Serge, Dwight MacDonald, Earl Birney, Alfred Rosmer, and Bertram Wolfe. It was noted for the high quality of its political studies and polemics, and its printing of classic documents from socialist archives.

The events which followed the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 1939 split the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party down the middle, with Shachtman as principal spokesman for the minority. The minority 45% of the party and the youth opposed the traditional Trotskyist defense of the Soviet Union on the grounds that the acts of Stalin's Russia the partition of Poland and the invasion of the Baltic states and Finland did not differ from the imperialism of the great capitalist powers. Some members of the opposition also had grave doubts about the nature of the Russian state, questioning whether it was indeed a workers' state, albeit a degenerated one, as Trotsky contended. The debate became a polemic between The Minority and Trotsky himself, now in exile in Mexico. On behalf of the SWP majority Trotsky defended the traditional position which he had developed but he could not convince The Minority that the historic task imposed on Trotskyists was to defend the Soviet Union as a workers' state, despite its degeneration, even despite Stalin's incursions into Poland and Finland.

In 1940, The Minority split to form the Workers Party. With Shachtman as its moving force, the new organization disseminated its new political views in the monthly The New International and the weekly Labor Action. After an extended reexamination of the Russian question, the Workers Party adopted the view that the Soviet Union was a new type of exploitative and oppressive society, neither capitalist nor socialist; this new social phenomenon is termed Bureaucratic Collectivism. Shachtman compiled his writings on the subject in The Bureaucratic Revolution, The Rise of the Stalinist State, published in 1962.

Shachtman continued to edit The New International for a brief time, but his main role during the Second World War and through most of the Fifties was that of a political leader and spokesman of the Workers Party and its successor after 1948, the Independent Socialist League. On the speakers' platform, he was passionate, entertaining, and well informed polemicist, renowned for his wit, humor, and irony. Among his frequent speaking engagements on behalf of the WP and ISL, some of the most significant were the debates with Earl Browder, deposed General Secretary of the Communist Party of the U.S.; with Father Rice, labor priest in Pittsburgh, on social struggles in the U.S.; with Alexander Kerensky, head of the Provisional Government during the Russian Revolution of February, 1917, on events associated with the struggle for power; and with Friedrich Von Hayek, author of The Road to Serfdom on socialist goals.

During the Fifties, Shachtman and some of his close associates continued to reexamine socialist theory and programs. They came to reject the Leninist concept of the Party, believing instead that the totalitarian degeneration of the Russian Revolution was inherent in the dominant ideology of the founder of Bolshevism. The "Shachtmanites" reaffirmed that democracy is essential to socialism, and believed that the one party state leads necessarily to dictatorship or totalitarianism. Earlier, though desiring Hitler's defeat, they had supported neither side in the war, declaring instead for a non existent "Third Camp." Then, after the war they opposed the Marshall Plan for European recovery. On review, they concluded that these positions were based on sectarian misreadings of the events. Shachtman and his comrades concentrated their main political propaganda on the defense of democracy against all exploitative and oppressive regimes, whether right wing or Stalinist. In 193'8, Shachtman and his colleagues of the ISL, on behalf of the organizations affiliated and in consonance with these views, challenged their inclusion on the Attorney General's "Subversive List" and succeeded in having them removed from the list. Max Shachtman was the principal witness for the organizations in the protracted hearings in Washington D.C. Thereafter, the ISL and its youth section dissolved into the Socialist Party, now Social Democrats, USA.

Shachtman observed with alarm the events of the Cuban revolution, and he rejected the Trotskyist (SIKT) interpretation of Castro's Cuba as a new socialist phenomenon. Instead, he saw Castro as the head of the first Stalinist state in the western hemisphere and described the RIP support of Castro's Cuba as a capitulation to Stalinism. Shachtman regarded the Ho Chi Min government as another example of Stalinist expansion. He was disturbed that the anti war movement was highly influenced by the Stalinists and their fellow travelers.

In debates inside and outside the SP, Shachtman held that the anticommunist government in Saigon, though far from democratic, left room for opposition groups and the beginnings of a trade union movement, and thus made possible a democratic development. In speeches and dialogues about socialism in the United States, Shachtman stressed that no democratic socialist movement could prosper without intimate ties with the American labor movement; nor did he think it could flourish without a broad socialist organization encompassing a wide spectrum of theoretical and political views, in which contending ideas could be voiced as long as the majority conducted the affairs of the organization in an open and democratic way.

Although he developed coronary problems in the early Fifties, Shachtman hardly curtailed his activities. He continued to speak and write, and devoted much attention to people who sought his views and assistance. Over the years, he influenced many contemporaries notably James T. Farrell and Bayard Rustin as well as many younger, developing intellectuals, writers, and labor activists, including Saul Bellow, Irving Howe, Harvey Swados, Isaac Rosenfeld, Stanley Plastrik, Michael Harrington, Don Slaiman, Sam Fishman, Tom Kahn, Sandra Feldman, Paul Feldman, Norman Hill, Herman Rebhan, Israel Kugler, Rachelle Horowitz, and Emanuel Geltman.

During the post World War II period, Shachtman frequently saw Natalia Sedova Trotsky. From 1952 to 1961, he and his wife Yetta visited Natalia in Mexico every year, and on two occasions Natalia came to New York. Despite his sharp ideological break with Trotsky, Shachtman remained his literary representative and continued to act in that capacity for Natalia, often corresponding with her on legal matters. Beset by tragedies, Natalia remained alert and interested in intellectual and cultural affairs. After Trotsky's death, she turned against his "defensist" position toward the Soviet Union and other types of Stalinist bureaucracy, writing to the Fourth International, "I see no other way than to say openly that our disagreements make it impossible for me to remain any longer in your ranks." Thus she found herself more closely aligned with Shachtman, with whom she often conversed, in French, about politics and the state of the movement. Until her death in France in 1962, the Shachtmans were among the many international friends with whom she retained warm relations.

Max Shachtman's friends remember him as a colorful, energetic, gregarious man, always ready to enjoy an off color joke or to prolong a one liner to the breaking point while savoring the drama of his Yiddish accent. He felt a paternal affection for the youth he influenced and he was exceptionally fond of his friends' and associates' young children. Sadly, he had been deprived of a relationship to his own son Michael from an earlier marriage to Edith Harvey.

Max's wife, Yetta Barsh Shachtman, had been in the movement most of her life and been a member of the CLA, SWP, WPI, ISL; she is presently affiliated with the SD, USA. She is an Administrative Assistant to Albert Shanker, president of the AFT, AFL CIO and the United Federation of Teachers. Yetta was a strong influence on her husband in controlling his illness and limiting his strenuous activities during his later years. He became a hi fi aficionado and learned to enjoy the classics and jazz. In a greenhouse attached to his modest home in Floral Park, Long Island, he cultivated orchids, cacti, and bromeliads. He and Yetta bought African art at auctions, and acquired pre-Columbian art during their numerous trips to Mexico.

During the Sixties, Shachtman devoted much of his time to researching and writing a history of the Communist International, which he never finished. He lectured at the Hoover Institute at Stanford, for which he prepared the important study, "Comintern Splinter Groups (Trotskyism, Bukharinism)." He spent weeks lecturing at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and spoke at other academic centers. In researching his books he talked to many noted figures about their experiences and knowledge of past events; among these were Ignazio Silone, Boris Souvarine, Nicola Chiaramonte, Manes Sperber, Alfred Rosmer, Pierre Naville, David Rousset, and Jock Haston.

Max Shachtman's concern with socialist ideas and ideals never left him. Although he had been educated in Marxist philosophy and the politics of the early Communist, Trotskyist and Socialist movements, he had nevertheless sufficient objectivity and intelligence to reassess the experiences of several decades. He had the flexibility and wisdom to acknowledge mistakes and adopt new strategies for changing times.

In addition to the critical reevaluation of Soviet society, he was responsible in his later years for a new perspective towards the Democratic Party, known as "realignment." He saw the party as the arena of the social and political struggles of our time and the place where the labor movement and socialists should work to move towards a free and progressive America. He had come to believe the goal of our epoch was to coalesce in defense of humane, democratic institutions, without which a free socialist society would be unattainable. On November 4, 1972, coronary failure ended Max Shachtman's life, a life devoted to liberating social ideals.

Sources:

  • Max Shachtman: a Political-Biographical Essay (by Albert Glotzer, ca. 1983; assisted by Marguerite Glotzer, edited by David T. Williams)