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. 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 struggle within the SWP—to which Trotsky, in the final months of his life, contributed several documents that are among his most brilliant and far-sighted—culminated in a split in April 1940.