Max Shachtman


Genesis of Trotskyism


The Theory of Socialism in One Country

The defeat of the September 1923 insurrection in Bulgaria and the October retreat in Germany, followed a few months later by the crushing of the Reval uprising in Esthonia, opened up a new period of development in Europe, replete with far-reaching consequences. The retreat in Germany gave the bourgeoisie the breathing space it sought and needed. A few months later, the enfeebled system of German capitalism was reinvigorated by the injections of gold it received under the Dawes plan. In England, the MacDonald Labor government came into power for the first time. In France, the liberal Herriot ministry was established and the immediate danger of a new “Ruhr attack” upon Germany receded into the political background.

Among the terrific effects of the fatal German retreat, could already be discerned the following: the big post-war tidal wave of revolution had definitely ebbed. A period of bourgeois democratic pacifism was opening up in Europe. In Central Europe, at the very least, the Communist movement was weakened by the defeats suffered: and these same defeats had given the social democracy a new lease on life.

None of these symptoms of the period was acknowledged by the Comintern leadership. When they were pointed out by Trotsky, who proposed that the International should direct its course in harmony with the newly created situation, he was simply attacked as a ... liquidator. As late as the Fifth Congress of the Comintern, in 1924, Stalin, Zinoviev, Bucharin and all the other Trotsky-baiters proclaimed that the revolutionary situation was right ahead, that the October defeat was a mere episode and that the Opposition had lost faith in the revolution!

As the weeks extended into months, they threw a cold light upon this light-minded analysis. It became clear to all that the revolutionary wave had actually receded. In the minds of those who accused the Opposition of “liquidationism” arose the conviction that the revolution in Western Europe was postponed for a long, long time to come. What remained to be done, thought the bureaucrats, was to consolidate what had already been conquered – Russia – and to cease expending energy upon a western European revolution which had dropped to the bottom of the agenda.

It is under these circumstances, and with this pessimistic frame of mind into which the Centrist and Right wing party bureaucracy worked itself, that the theory of “socialism in one country” was developed. According to this theory, which deals with the fundamental question dividing the Left Opposition from the Right wing and the Centrist faction in the Communist movement, a classless socialist society can be built up in one single country alone, the Soviet Union, even if the proletariat in the more advanced countries does not succeed in seizing power.

The mere formulation of the theory reveals that its authors could have produced it only if their belief in the world revolution was shattered. It is impossible to conceive that Russia will complete a classless society sooner than the workers of one country or another in Europe will seize power.

Losovsky, the head of the Red International of Labor Unions, only expressed what was uppermost in the minds of his associates at that time when he wrote that the stabilization of Europe would last for decades. (This was some time after the Dawes Plan, when even the Stalinists were compelled to acknowledge the advent of a precarious capitalist stabilization.) If that were the case, the Leninist dictum that we are living in a period of wars and proletarian revolution no longer held good. In any case, the revolution was a long way off. Then what point is there in bending our energies upon revolutions outside of Russia which will not take place, especially when there is so much to be “done at home,” and more especially, when “we have all the prerequisites needed to build up a socialist society by ourselves”?

Utopian socialists and nationalists have advocated the theory of socialism in a single country before this time. In Germany today, the theory of an “independent” national economy, which progressively diminishes its connection with world economy to the vanishing point “autarchy,” as it is called – is the reactionary ideal of Hitler’s Fascists.

In the Communist movement this idea was never heard of until the fateful days of 1924. Marx and Engels specific ally polemicized against the idea of a national socialist utopia in all their writings. Even Stalin was compelled to admit that the two founders of scientific socialism never entertained the idea, when he said that the possibility of building socialism in a single country was “first formulated by Lenin in 1915.” (As will be seen, even the reference to Lenin is entirely unfounded.)

The program of the Bolshevik party under which it carried out the 1917 revolution, does not contain a reference to this theory. The program of the Young Communist League of Russia, adopted in 1921 under the supervision of Bucharin and the Central Committee of the party, says that Russia “can arrive at Socialism only through the world proletarian revolution, which epoch of development we have now entered.” The draft of an international program at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern in 1922, submitted by Bucharin and Thalheimer, says not a word about the possibility of building a socialist society in one country alone. The same congress, in its unanimously adopted resolution on the Russian revolution, “reminds the proletarians of all countries that the proletarian revolution can never be completely victorious within one single country, but that it must win the victory inter nationally, as the world revolution.”

In 1919, Bucharin, one of the later prophets of the evangel of national socialism, wrote that “the period of the great development of the productive forces (to say nothing of completing a socialist society! – M.S.) can begin only with the victory of the proletariat in several large countries.” Lenin asserted

“in many of our works, in all our speeches and in the whole of our press that matters in Russia are not such as in the advanced capitalist countries, that we have in Russia’ a minority of industrial workers and an overwhelming majority of small agrarians. The social revolution in such a country can be finally successful only on two conditions: first, on the condition that it is given timely support by the social revolution of one or several advanced countries... Second, that there be an agreement between the proletariat which establishes the dictatorship or holds State power in its hands and the majority of the peasantry. We know that only an agreement with the peasantry can save the social revolution in Russia so long as the revolution in other countries has not arrived.”

Stalin himself, who first formulated the theory of national socialism, wrote in the first edition of his Problems of Leninism that

“the main task of socialism – the organization of socialist production – still remains ahead. Can this task be accomplished, can the final victory of socialism in one country be attained, without the joint efforts of the proletariat of several advanced countries? No, this is impossible ... For the final victory of socialism, for the organization of socialist construction, the efforts of one country, particularly of such a peasant country as Russia, are insufficient. For this the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries are necessary.”

It is only in the second edition of the same work, printed in the same year, that he turned this clear and definite conclusion inside out and presented the still cautious formula which has since been developed into an unrestrained nationalistic gospel:

“After the victorious proletariat of one country has consolidated its power and has won over the peasantry for itself, it can and must build up the socialist society.”

Nothing that has ever been said can refute our characterization of the origin and essence of this theory, born in the womb of reaction and conceived by a defeatist state of mind. The Left Opposition argued that to build a socialist society in the Soviet Union, the aid of the proletarian revolution in a more advanced country or countries would be required. Together with Stalin and Bucharin, the international apparatus of the Comintern argued that a socialist society could be built up without the “state aid” of the workers in other countries – pro vided there is no military intervention from the foreign bourgeoisie! And to prevent this intervention, to act merely as frontier guards for the Soviet Union, has now become the principal task of the Communist parties. The emphasis is significant. Previously, the main task of the various parties was the revolution in their respective country, the victory of which is the highest guarantee for the victory of world socialism – including socialism in Russia. Now the Communist parties have been reduced to the position of “Friends” of the Soviet Union.

The “practical” significance of this theoretical dispute cannot be overstated. Socialism is not built in one day. Only petty-bourgeois anarchists believe that the “free society” will be established on the morrow of the overthrow of the bourgeois state. The Marxists know that “the road of organization,” in Lenin’s words, “is a long road, and the task of socialist construction demands a long-drawn out, stubborn work and real knowledge which we do not possess to a sufficient degree. Even the next generation, which will be further developed, will probably hardly be able to achieve the complete transition to socialism.” If it is argued, as Stalin does, that this long road will be travelled its full length “alone,” before the workers in the other countries have overthrown their bourgeoisie, then the world proletarian revolution has been postponed – at least in one’s mind – for an indefinite period.

The Opposition believed and declared: The proletarian revolution in the West is far closer to realization than is the abolition of classes and the establishment of a socialist society in Russia. If it is not closer, then the proletarian revolution in Russia is doomed!

This simple truth was repeated a thousand times by Lenin, who had not a grain of “pessimism” or “disbelief in the Russian revolution” in his makeup. “We do not live,” he wrote, “merely in a state but in a system of states and the existence of the Soviet republic side by side with imperialist states for any length of time is inconceivable.” This idea is permeated to the letter with realistic Marxian internationalism.

What is this internationalism? It is no mere loose sentimental addition of national links, uniting the workers of the world in a fairy-chain of phraseological solidarity. It arises directly out of the development of world economy. The imperialist stage of capitalism, its expansion on a world scale, the tremendous and vital importance of exports and imports for the maintenance of capitalism, monopolies extending to the ends of the earth, the mutual dependence of one country upon another – these are some of the phenomena of world economy.

Capitalism has not matured for the socialist revolution in this or that country, large or small, backward or advanced. It has matured for socialism on a world scale. This fact not only creates the basis for a living internationalism, but also for the transformation of the old society by the triumphant proletariat.

But if each country can build an enclosed socialist society by the efforts and resources of its own proletariat, then internationalism becomes a sentimental phrase for holiday resolutions. If it can be completed in backward Russia alone, then surely it can be done in more advanced Germany, in France, in England, and certainly in the United States. What need then have the Communists for a highly centralized international of action of their own?

Furthermore: the development of all existing society up to now, and particularly of modern capitalist society, has been towards increasing world interrelations and inter dependence. Capitalism reaches its highest stage of evolution, it develops to its most majestic economic heights, not by retiring into its national shells, but by projecting from each national territory those links which bind it inseparably to the rest of world economy. The economy of the United States, or of France, or of India, is merely the “national” manifestation of a world economy. The countries of the most backward culture, technique and living standards are those that play the smallest role in world economy; and vice versa.

Socialism assumes a vastly higher stage of development than that reached by capitalism in its most flourishing days, a higher culture, technique, and living standard. It means not only the abolition of classes, but the elimination of the difference between worker and peasant, between town and country, the abolition of agriculture by means of its industrialization. But this, in turn, means that a socialist society must develop much further along the economic and technical (that is, the cultural) road than capitalism.

The theory of socialism in one country implies (and its spokesmen state explicitly) that this is to be accomplished by rendering the Soviet Union entirely independent of the rest of the world. But this can be “accomplished” only by taking the road back from capitalist evolution which went in the opposite direction. The Marxists, in opposition to this reactionary, Utopian idea, declare that the road to socialism presupposes an increasing participation in world economy, not only in the future socialist world economy, but right now, under the conditions of the capitalist world market. For this capitalist world economy is one to which, according to Lenin, “we are subordinated, with which we are connected and from which we cannot escape.”

Against the Stalinist theory, the Opposition put forward again the classical formula of Marx and Engels: the Revolution in permanence. This formula, first advanced by the founders of scientific socialism to express the interests of the proletariat at the time when the progressive bourgeoisie, having come to power, sought to establish “order” and bring the revolutionary advance to a halt, was first outlined by Trotsky at the time of the first Russian revolution. In his conception, the approaching revolution in Russia could not stop at the bourgeois democratic stage after the overthrow of Czarist absolutism, but would be driven on inexorably to the socialist stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But it could not remain at this point, either, for the contradictions facing a socialist dictatorship in a single country, and a predominantly agricultural land at that, could be solved only on the international arena. The proletariat, therefore, far from setting itself the Utopian goal of a nationally isolated socialist re public, would inscribe upon its banner the slogan of the permanent revolution; that is, the maintenance of the dictatorship in one land was dependent upon the extension of the proletarian revolution on a world scale, or at least in several of the advanced capitalist countries of Europe.

But if the proletarian revolution in the West is, nevertheless, delayed in coming -what shall we do then? Shall we give up power in the Soviet Union? is the “annihilating” poser put by the Stalinists. Not at all! Lenin and Trotsky, who never believed in the utopia of national socialism, stood for six years at the head of the proletarian dictatorship and never once proposed to “give up power.” What they did and what the Left Opposition today proposes to do, was to retain the power in the first fortress conquered by the proletariat. In this fortress, while looking forward to the assistance of the workers in other countries, the position of the socialistic elements in the country must be strengthened as against the capitalist elements. Thigh means the utilization of the “two levers” at the command of the proletariat: the long lever of international revolution and the shorter lever of laying and strengthening the foundation for a socialist economy at home.

What it certainly does not mean is that the workers and peasants of Russia should be duped with the grandiloquent illusion that at the end of another five years, “socialism will have been established” – on the basis of Russia alone and regardless of what happens to the revolution in Europe, Asia and America. For there will be terrific consequences to account for when the reckoning must be given.

This pernicious theory, which was finally written into the fundamental program of the Communist International in 1928, has brought the greatest harm to the revolutionary movement inside of the Soviet Union and out. From it flowed that unbroken chain of blunders, defeats, catastrophes and setbacks which the Communist movement has suffered since 1924. Among the first of the events in which this theory disclosed its significance was the British General Strike of 1926.


Last updated on 10.4.2005