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Carl Davidson

Left in Form,
Right in Essence

Socialism in one country

It is an historical fact that Trotsky stood together with Lenin and the, Bolshevik party during the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia.

But it is also true that in February 1917 Lenin termed Trotsky a “swine” and “scoundrel” and in March of 1918 declared his views on the most crucial issue to the survival of the revolution – the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty – to be “absolutely wrong.”

Why were Trotsky and the Leninists able to find a temporary unity during the October period? Why did that unity succumb to a series of “tactical differences” which eventually developed into two opposing lines on the question of building “socialism in one country?”

The answer lies in the internal contradiction in Trotsky’s views and his failure to take into account the changing national and international objective conditions determining the course of the revolutionary struggle.

On one hand, Trotsky stood in opposition to the bourgeoisie and called for the immediate transition to the proletarian dictatorship. In spite of the fact that this was an ultra-leftist position prior to the first stage of the revolution in February, Trotsky’s opposition to the Provisional Government and his call for the assumption of all power to the Soviets during the transition to the second stage placed him objectively in the same position as the Bolsheviks.

On the other hand, Trotsky stood in opposition to the Bolsheviks in claiming that the proletariat was bound to come into “hostile collision” with the broad masses of peasants during socialist construction and that “without direct state support from the European proletariat, the working class of Russia cannot maintain itself in power and transform its temporary rule into a durable socialist dictatorship. This we cannot doubt for an instant.”

These differences between Trotsky and the Leninists did not immediately become paramount for two reasons, both related to objective conditions. First, internally, Trotsky’s views on the peasantry did not immediately come to the foreground because the Soviet power’s first tasks in the countryside were not socialist construction but the completion of the democratic revolution against the big landlords.

With this much Trotsky agreed. But he did not believe it could go much further without socialism in power in Western Europe. After victory in the Civil War and the successful conclusion of the temporary retreat during the period of the New Economic Program (NEP), the objective conditions changed. Trotsky’s underlying views on the peasant masses did not change, however, which led him to vacillate on agrarian policy and finally to term the actual rural collectivization an “economic adventure.”

Second, on external questions concerning the “direct state support” of the European workers, Trotsky’s disagreements were seen as “tactical” because the immediate postwar period was viewed as one of acute crisis for the capitalists and direct revolutionary offensive by the revolutionary proletariat. Despite the emergence of Soviets in Hungary and Germany, however, the offensive failed to bring about another proletarian state power. After its peak in 1921, the offensive slacked off and by 1923 had turned into a proletarian defensive and a new period of temporary stabilization and offensive by capital.

Why were the proletarian forces unable to go further and take power in Europe? “It could have taken place,” said Lenin, “but for the fact that the split within the proletariat of Western Europe was deeper, and the treachery of the former socialist leaders greater, than had been imagined.” Trotsky, on the other hand, laid the main blame not on the social-democratic opportunists, but on “the weaknesses, unpreparedness and irresolution of the communist parties and the vicious errors of their leadership ...”

But what did this turn of events mean for the new Soviet power?

Although Lenin had proclaimed in March 1918 “that without a revolution in Germany, we shall perish,” he also made the point even earlier, in 1915, that “uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of socialism is possible first in several or even in one capitalist country taken separately.”

“It has turned out,” said Lenin later, after the Civil War, “that while our forecasts did not materialize simply, rapidly and directly, they were fulfilled insofar as we achieved the main thing. The possibility has been maintained of the existence of proletarian rule and the Soviet Republic even in the event of the world socialist revolution being delayed.”

“But is the existence of a socialist republic in a capitalist environment at all conceivable?” Lenin asked again. “From the political and military aspects it seemed inconceivable. That it is possible, both politically and militarily, has now been proved. It is a fact.”

By ignoring the changed objective conditions, Trotsky arrived at the opposite conclusion: “The organic interdependence of the several countries, developing toward an international division of labor, excludes the possibility of building socialism in one country. This means that the Marxist doctrine, which posits that the socialist revolution can begin only on a national basis, while the building of socialism in one country is impossible, has been rendered doubly and trebly true, all the more so now, in the modern epoch ...”

Final victory is worldwide

Marxist-Leninists, of course, have never held that the final victory of socialism – the classless society – is possible in one country. “According to the Leninist viewpoint,” states Mao Tsetung, “the final victory of a socialist country not only requires the efforts of the proletariat and the broad masses of the people at home, but also involves the victory of the world revolution and the abolition of the system of exploitation of man by man over the whole globe, upon which all mankind will be emancipated.”

The Trotskyists consider this distinction between the final aims and the present tasks of socialist construction to be so much sand thrown in the face of the masses. “The lowest stage of communism,” said Trotsky, referring to Marx’s term describing the initial period of socialist construction, “begins at that level to which the most advanced capitalism has drawn near.”

Most socialist construction that has taken place in the world has been in relatively backward countries. But to call it “socialism,” in Trotsky s view, would only “hopelessly discredit the idea of socialist society in the eyes of the toiling masses.” (If this position were not patently ridiculous, one would be led to the conclusion that the deepest and broadest hatred of socialism in the world today would be permeated among the masses of the Chinese people.)

Idealism versus materialism

How can Trotsky arrive at such a conclusion? By adopting an idealist rather than a materialist world outlook: “The Soviet proletariat has achieved grandiose successes,” writes Trotsky in 1928, “if we take into consideration the conditions under which they have been attained and the low cultural level inherited from the past. But these achievements constitute an extremely small magnitude on the scales of the socialist ideal.”

What is Trotsky’s “socialist ideal?” Writing in 1936, after the successful conclusion of the first five-year plan and the collectivization of agriculture, Trotsky still says “there is not yet, in this fundamental sense, a hint of socialism in the Soviet Union.” Why? Because “socialism, if it is worthy of the name, means human relations without greed, friendship without envy and intrigue, love without base calculation.”

Proletarian revolutionaries, of course, must never forget the final aims of their movement and always fight to implement them in the fullest way possible in the present day struggle. But Trotsky’s use of these standards to measure the advances of socialism under conditions of class domination and class struggle reduces the role of the Marxist-Leninist vanguard to that of a Sunday-school parson prattling moralistic aphorisms.

This utopianism, however, is only the veneer on the Trotskyist attack on socialist construction “in one country.” Its essence is what has led many revolutionaries to attack Trotskyists for “supporting socialism everywhere in the world except where it exists,” that is, anti-communism.

“The Soviet government,” writes Trotsky in 1936, “had become totalitarian in character several years before this word arrived from Germany”. What are the roots of fascism? “Japanese militarism” and the “triumph of Hitler,” says Trotsky, “are alike the fruits of the policy of the Communist International.” To make sure the point gets across, he adds, “Stalinism and fascism, in spite of a deep difference in social foundations, are symmetrical phenomena. In many of their features they show a deadly similarity.”

That Trotsky’s position would lead him into this camp of the social-democratic renegades became clear to the leadership of the Bolshevik party by 1924. At that time Trotsky’s initial unity with the Leninists had been transformed into its

opposite. There were now two lines-the proletarian and the urban petty bourgeois-on almost every question. The ensuing struggle between them and their practical ramifications manifested itself in a debate conducted within the party over three years and led finally to the expulsion of Trotsky and his “left” opposition in 1927.

What were the strategic questions involved? In a 1925 speech Stalin focused the question again on the role of the peasantry and asked why it assumed exceptional importance in the Soviet Union at that time:

The ... reason why the peasant question has assumed exceptional importance for us at the present moment is that, of the allies of the Soviet power, of all the proletariat’s principal allies – of whom there are four, in my opinion – the peasantry is the only ally that can be of direct assistance to our revolution at this very moment.

The four allies were: the proletariat in the developed countries, the oppressed people in the underdeveloped countries, the conflicts and contradictions between the capitalist countries and, lastly, the peasantry.

The proletariat in the West, Stalin believed, was the principal ally. But due to its defensive position in the temporary stabilization it was “unable to render us direct and decisive assistance at the present moment.” The oppressed peoples, he said, were “coming directly to our help, but it is evident that they will not arrive quickly.” The contradictions among the capitalists had several aspects and could not be relied upon.

“There remains the fourth ally-the peasantry,” he said. “It is by our side, we are living together, together we are building the new life ... The peasantry is not as reliable an ally as the proletariat in the developed countries. But, for all that, it is an ally, and of all our existing allies it is the only one that can render us, and is rendering us, direct assistance at this very moment, receiving our assistance in exchange.”

Two lines on allies

Stalin then pointed to the two lines within the party: “Has this question – the question of the peasantry – any connection with the question of Trotskyism, which you have discussed here? Undoubtedly it has.”

... Can the bond, the alliance between the workers and peasants, be established if the theory which involves disbelief in that alliance. i.e., the theory of Trotskyism, is not smashed? No, it cannot. The conclusion is obvious: whoever wants to emerge from NEP as the victor must bury Trotskyism as an ideological trend.

Thus Trotsky’s position on the impossibility of “socialism in one country” led him and his followers into a blind alley. The path there was paved by a dogmatic and subjective world view that denied the law of uneven development in the imperialist epoch. Its fruit had two aspects: an infantile “leftism” that led to a line of “skipping stages” and the “export” of revolution and a right opportunist “theory of productive forces” similar to those held in the 1960s by Khrushchev and Liu Shao-chi. This became most apparent in the Trotskyist view of the Chinese revolution and the national liberation movements in general.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002