Lecture six: Socialism in one country or permanent revolution

Part 3

By Bill Van Auken
29 September 2005


The following is the third and fina part of the lecture “Socialism in one country or permanent revolution.” It was delivered by Bill Van Auken at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the sixth lecture given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. The fourth, “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” was posted in six parts from September 14 to September 20. These lectures were authored by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North. The fifth, “World War I: The breakdown of capitalism,” was delivered by Nick Beams, the national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party of Australia and a member of the WSWS Editorial Board. It was posted in five parts, from September 21 to September 26.

Beginning September 30, we will post the seventh lecture, “Marxism, art and the Soviet debate over ‘proletarian culture’” The lecture was delivered by David Walsh, the arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site. It will appear in four parts.

The reaction against October 1917

The campaign against permanent revolution was a necessary expression of the growth of nationalism within the Bolshevik Party and the beginning of the reaction against the October Revolution, which had been carried out based upon this theory.

Those like Stalin who denounced Trotsky in 1924 for failing to believe that Russia could build “socialism in one country” had between 1905 and 1917 condemned him as a utopian for asserting that the Russian proletariat could come to power before the workers of Western Europe. Russia, they insisted at the time, was too backward.

Trotsky had grasped that the nature of the Russian Revolution would be determined in the final analysis not by the level of its own national economic development, but by the domination of Russia by world capitalism and its international crisis. In countries like Russia with a belated capitalist development, integration into the world capitalist economy and the growth of the working class made it impossible for the bourgeoisie to carry through the tasks associated with the bourgeois revolution.

As Trotsky summed up his theory in the 1939 article “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution”: “The complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is inconceivable otherwise than in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat basing itself on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which will inescapably place on the order of the day not only democratic but also socialist tasks, will at the same time provide a mighty impulse to the international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.”

Rejecting the internationalist foundations of this theory—verified in the experience of the October Revolution—the Stalin leadership based itself on a formal nationalist approach, dividing the world into different types of countries based upon whether or not they possessed the supposed necessary prerequisites for socialist construction.

Trotsky denounced this approach as doubly wrong. He pointed out that the development of a world capitalist economy not only posed the conquest of power by the working class in the backward countries, it also made the construction of socialism within national boundaries unrealizable in the advanced capitalist countries.

He wrote: “The draft program forgets the fundamental thesis of the incompatibility between the present productive forces and the national boundaries, from which it follows that highly developed productive forces are by no means a lesser obstacle to the construction of socialism in one country than low productive forces, although for the reverse reason, namely, that while the latter are insufficient to serve as the basis, it is the basis which will prove inadequate for the former.”

That is, the colonial countries lack the economic/industrial base, while in the advanced capitalist country, the capitalist economy has already grown beyond the confines of the national boundaries. Britain, as Trotsky pointed out, because of the development of its productive forces required the entire world to supply it with raw materials and markets. An attempt to build socialism on one island would inevitably spell an irrational economic retrogression.

Socialism in one country and China

While time does not allow a detailed examination of the implications of the policy of “socialism in one country” for the sections of the Communist International, I think it is necessary to refer, even if only in a summary fashion, to the betrayal of the Chinese revolution of 1925-1927. This betrayal unfolded in the midst of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalin’s retrograde theory and provided a grim confirmation of his warning that it could only lead to catastrophic defeats for the international working class.

Writing in 1930, Trotsky described this “second” Chinese revolution as the “greatest event of modern history after the 1917 revolution in Russia.” The rising tide of revolutionary struggle by the Chinese working class and peasantry and the rapid growth and political authority of the Chinese Communist Party after its founding in 1920 provided the Soviet Union with the most favorable opportunity for breaking its isolation and encirclement.

Having repudiated the permanent revolution and resurrected the Menshevik theory of the “two-stage” revolution in the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the Stalin leadership insisted that the Chinese working class had to subordinate its struggle to the bourgeois nationalist Guomindang led by Chiang Kai-shek.

Against Trotsky’s opposition, the Chinese Communist Party was instructed to enter the Guomindang and submit to its organizational discipline, while Chiang Kai-shek was elected as an honorary member of the Comintern’s executive committee, with Trotsky casting the sole opposing vote.

The Stalin leadership defined the Guomindang as a “bloc of four classes” consisting of the working class, the peasantry, the petty bourgeoisie and the national bourgeoisie.

It was Stalin’s position that China was not yet ripe for a socialist revolution, that it lacked the “sufficient minimum” of development for socialist construction. Therefore, the working class could not fight for political power.

As the February 1927 resolution of the Comintern stated: “The current period of the Chinese revolution is a period of a bourgeois-democratic revolution which has not been completed either from the economic standpoint (the agrarian revolution and the abolition of feudal relations), or from the standpoint of the national struggle against imperialism (the unification of China and the establishment of national independence), or from the standpoint of the class nature of the state (the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry)....”

Trotsky pointed out that everything in this resolution on China echoed the positions held by the Mensheviks and much of the leadership of the Bolshevik Party—Stalin included—in the aftermath of the February 1917 revolution in Russia. They insisted then that the revolution could not leap over the bourgeois democratic stage of its development and called for conditional support to the bourgeois Provisional Government. They opposed as “Trotskyism” Lenin’s thesis enunciated in April 1917 that the essential tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution could only be completed by the working class seizing power and establishing its own dictatorship.

The Stalin leadership insisted that the imperialist oppression of China—and indeed in all the colonial and semi-colonial countries—welded together all classes, from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie in a common struggle against imperialism, justifying their unification in a common party.

Against this conception, Trotsky established that the struggle against imperialism, which enjoyed myriad ties to the native bourgeoisie, only intensified the class struggle. “The struggle against imperialism, precisely because of its economic and military power, demands a powerful exertion of forces from the very depth of the Chinese people,” he wrote. “But everything that brings the oppressed and exploited masses of toilers to their feet, inevitably pushes the national bourgeoisie into an open bloc with the imperialists. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the masses of workers and peasants is not weakened but, on the contrary, it is sharpened by imperialist oppression, to the point of bloody civil war at every serious conflict.”

Stalin was able to impose the Menshevik policy on China—against the will of the Chinese Communist Party, which was instructed to restrain both the workers in the city as well as the agrarian revolution in the countryside. In the end, it was ordered to surrender its weapons to Chiang’s army. The result was the massacre of some 20,000 communists and workers by this army in Shanghai on April 12, 1927.

The Stalin leadership then insisted that the massacre had only confirmed its line and that Chiang only represented the bourgeoisie, not the “nine-tenths” of the Guomindang made up of workers and peasants, whose legitimate leader was proclaimed Wang Ching-wei, who headed the “left” Guomindang government in Wuhan, to which the CP was again ordered to subordinate itself. In July 1927, after Wang reached an accommodation with Chiang, he repeated the massacre of workers and Communists seen in Shanghai.

It is worth noting that this leader of the “left” Guomindang—proclaimed by Stalin the head of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship”—went on to become chief of the Japanese occupation’s puppet regime in Nanking.

In a bald attempt to cover up the catastrophic consequences of the opportunism of the Comintern in Shanghai and Wuhan, Stalin insisted that the Chinese revolution was still in its ascendancy and sanctioned an adventurist uprising in Canton that ended in yet another massacre.

The result was the physical annihilation of the Chinese Communist Party and the loss of what had been the most promising revolutionary opportunity since 1917.

The opportunism of the Stalin leadership in China was based upon the conception that the success of the Guomindang could serve as a counterweight to imperialism and thereby give the Soviet Union breathing space for the project of building “socialism in one country.”

But the anti-Marxist and opportunist policy in China grew out of the nationalist underpinnings of the theory of socialism in one country. Applied to China, this method analyzed the national revolution in isolation from the world revolution. It thus, on the one hand, saw China as insufficiently mature for socialism while, on the other, endowed the national bourgeoisie and the nation-state form itself with a historically progressive role.

Trotsky rejected both conceptions, insisting that the character of the Chinese revolution was determined by the world development of capitalism, which, as in Russia in 1917, posed the taking of power by the working class as the only means of solving the revolution’s national and democratic tasks.

Trotsky’s warnings about the consequences of the policy of “socialism in one country” had been vindicated, but as he warned those in the Left Opposition who saw this as a mortal defeat for Stalin, the objective impact of the defeat in China upon the masses of Soviet workers would only strengthen the hand of the bureaucracy. In the aftermath of the defeat, he himself was expelled from the party in November 1927 and banished to Alma Ata on the Russo-Chinese border several months later.

The political significance of the adoption of the Stalin-Bukharin perspective of “socialism in one country” combined with the campaign against permanent revolution and the suppression of Trotsky and his co-thinkers was well understood by the most class-conscious organs of the world bourgeoisie.

Thus, the New York Times published a special report by its ineffable Moscow correspondent Walter Duranty in June 1931, stating, “The essential feature of ‘Stalinism,’ which sharply defines its advance and difference from Leninism...is that it frankly aims at the successful establishment of socialism in one country without waiting for world revolution.

“The importance of this dogma which played a predominant role in the bitter controversy with Leon Trotsky...cannot be exaggerated. It is the Stalinist “slogan” par excellence, and it brands as heretics or “defeatists” all Communists who refuse to accept it in Russia or outside.”

Duranty continued, “[T]he theory of ‘Soviet Socialist sufficiency,’ as it may be called, involves a certain decrease of interest in world revolution—not deliberately, perhaps, but by force of circumstances. The Stalinist socialization of Russia demands three things, imperatively—every ounce of effort, every cent of money, and peace. It does not leave the Kremlin time, cash or energy for ‘Red propaganda’ abroad, which, incidentally, is a likely cause of war, and, being a force of social destruction, must fatally conflict with the five-year plan which is a force of social construction.”

Similarly, the French newspaper Le Temps commented two years later, “Since the removal of Trotsky, who with his theory of permanent revolution represented a genuine international danger, the Soviet rulers headed by Stalin have adhered to the policy of building socialism in one country without awaiting the problematic revolution in the rest of the world.”

The paper went on to counsel the French ruling class not to take the Stalinist bureaucracy’s revolutionary rhetoric all too seriously.

Trotsky proposed during this period the creation of a “white book” compiling such endorsements of “socialism in one country” on the part of the bourgeoisie and a “yellow book” including declarations of sympathy and support from the social democrats.

Eight decades later, the implications of the struggle between the theory of permanent revolution and socialism in one country are plain to see. Trotsky’s precise and prescient warnings that the attempt to separate the socialist development of the Soviet Union from international developments and world revolution could only lead to catastrophe have been confirmed in the redrawing of the map of the world and in the vast impoverishment of the working people of the former USSR.

In addition to the split in the IC, this year also marks the twentieth anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev’s initiation of the program of perestroika. This policy marked the completion of Stalinism’s betrayal of the October Revolution. Behind the Marxist verbiage, the bureaucracy had long seen socialism not as a program for the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, but rather as a means of developing a national economy that was the base of their own privileges.

It was to defend those privileges that it turned to a policy of capitalist restoration that unleashed a disaster of world historic proportions on the Soviet people. The starkest manifestation is a population implosion—in the last 10 years the population of Russia alone has dropped by 9.5 million, despite the many thousands of Russians returning from former Soviet republics. The number of homeless children is greater today than in the worst days of the Civil War or the aftermath of World War II.

The Stalinist bureaucracy’s dissolution of the USSR—a response to the growing pressure from globally integrated capitalism upon the nationally isolated Soviet economy—represented the failure not of socialism or Marxism, but rather that of the attempt by the Stalinist bureaucracy to maintain an isolated, self-sufficient national economy—i.e., the perspective of socialism in one country.

The struggle waged by Trotsky against the theory of socialism in one country provided a profound analysis of the causes of the reaction against October and its significance for the international working class, in the process elaborating a comprehensive program for the building of the world party of socialist revolution.

Trotsky’s defense of permanent revolution and the fundamental conception that world economy and world politics constitute the only objective foundation for a revolutionary strategy represents the theoretical cornerstone of the internationalist perspective of the International Committee of the Fourth International today.