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Against Trotskyism: Socialism in one country

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One of the main pillars of Trotskyism is the denial of the possibility of building socialism in a single country. This is an outgrowth of Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory, which argued that the revolution in Russia depended on the immediate success of revolution in western Europe to avoid defeat. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union did indeed build socialism in one country, so we should look at the disagreements between Marxism-Leninism and Trotskyism on this point and try to understand where they come from.

Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory was, from the beginning, opposed to the idea that socialism could be built in a backwards, peasant country like Russia. 

As Stalin writes in The Foundations of Leninism, “Lenin fought the adherents of ‘permanent’ revolution, not over the question of uninterruptedness, for Lenin himself maintained the point of view of uninterrupted revolution, but because they under-estimated the role of the peasantry, which is an enormous reserve of the proletariat.” 

Lenin, as we have seen, understood far better, and more concretely than Trotsky, how to bring the revolution from its bourgeois-democratic stage into its proletarian-socialist stage. For Lenin, the key was to build the alliance between the workers and the peasantry that would form the backbone of both stages of the revolution. For Trotsky, this was a doomed project; he believed because that relationship was fundamentally antagonistic, and that the success of the revolution relied upon its immediate spread to western Europe. Thus, Trotsky said, in 1906, “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.”

Trotsky wanted socialism to sweep through Europe all at once, as though all of the countries in the capitalist world were equally ripe for revolution. Lenin’s view, on the other hand, was based on his understanding that capitalism developed unevenly. Indeed, it is essential to understand that Lenin’s analysis is based on the understanding that the present stage of capitalism is its monopoly capitalist stage – imperialism. 

In an article in the Swiss Social-Democrat called “On the Slogan for a United States of Europe,” Lenin argued, “The times when the cause of democracy and socialism was associated only with Europe alone have gone forever.” Instead, Lenin argues, “A United States of the World (not of Europe alone) is the state form of the unification and freedom of nations which we associate with socialism – about the total disappearance of the state, including the democratic. As a separate slogan, however, the slogan of a United States of the World would hardly be a correct one … because it may be wrongly interpreted to mean that the victory of socialism in a single country is impossible, and it may also create misconceptions as to the relations of such a country to the others.” Lenin then explains that “Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism. Hence, the victory of Socialism is possible first in a few or even in one single capitalist country taken separately.”

Trotsky rejects the Leninist theory of uneven development. In his article, “The Program for Peace,” from 1917, arguing against Lenin in favor of the slogan for a “United States of Europe”, Trotsky says,

“The only more or less concrete historical consideration put forward against the slogan of the United States of Europe was formulated in the Swiss Social-Democrat in the sentence which follows: ‘Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism.’ From this the Social-Democrat drew the conclusion that the victory of Socialism was possible in a single country, and that, therefore, there was no point in making the creation of a United States of Europe the condition for the dictatorship of the proletariat in each separate country. That capitalist development in different countries is uneven is an absolutely incontrovertible fact. But this very unevenness is itself extremely uneven. The capitalist level of England, Austria, Germany or France is not identical. But in comparison with Africa or Asia all these countries represent capitalist ‘Europe’, which has grown ripe for the social revolution.”

Trotsky dismisses the Leninist theory of uneven development by saying that Europe is comparatively on the same plane of development if you compare it to the colonies. With this rhetorical flourish, Trotsky dismisses the contradictions between the imperialist states themselves, and the contradictions between those states in relation to their colonies. Again, Trotsky sees only workers and capitalists, incapable of concrete, materialist analysis of the complex contradictions at work in each country. And so, Trotsky says, all of Europe is ripe for revolution, presumably because all of Europe is capitalist, concrete conditions be damned! 

Based on these idealist abstractions Trotsky continues his argument: 

“That no single country should ‘wait’ for others in its own struggle is an elementary idea which it is useful and necessary to repeat, in order to avoid the substitution of the idea of expectant international inaction for the idea of simultaneous international action. Without waiting for others, we begin and continue our struggle on our national soil quite sure that our initiative will give an impetus to the struggle in other countries; but if that should not happen, then it would be hopeless, in the light of the experience of history and in the light of theoretical considerations, to think, for example, that a revolutionary Russia could hold its own in the face of conservative Europe or that a Socialist Germany could remain isolated in the capitalist world.”

Trotsky here combines ultra-revolutionary phrase-mongering with pessimism. It is his usual refrain: revolution must sweep through all of Europe or we are doomed. 

Later, in 1922, Trotsky still persists in his rejection of the possibility of building socialism in one country. He writes, “The assertion, repeated several times in ‘A Program of Peace,’ that the proletarian revolution cannot be carried through to a victorious conclusion within the boundaries of one country may appear to some readers to be refuted by almost five years’ experience of our Soviet Republic. But such a conclusion would be groundless.” 

Here, even as late as 1922, Trotsky insisted, “genuine advance in the construction of Socialist economy in Russia will become possible only after the victory of the proletariat in the most important countries of Europe.” Trotsky simply rejects facts in order to avoid having been proved wrong. The only way out for Trotsky, if he is to remain right, is to say that what is being built in Russia isn’t really socialism. 

In 1923, Lenin, in the article “On Cooperation,” argued that the victory of socialism in Russia was indeed possible. Lenin wrote, 

“…state power over all large-scale means of production, state power in the hands of the proletariat, the alliance of this proletariat with the many millions of small and very small peasants, the assured leadership of the peasantry by the proletariat, etc. – is not this all that is necessary for building a complete socialist society from the co-operatives, from the co-operatives alone, which we formerly looked down upon as huckstering and which from a certain aspect we have the right to look down upon as such now, under NEP? Is this not all that is necessary for building a complete socialist society? This is not yet the building of socialist society, but it is all that is necessary and sufficient for this building.” 

In other words, Lenin understood clearly that the material basis for building socialism existed in Russia, and that the most important thing was correctly resolving the internal contradictions of the revolution itself, especially the correct handling of the contradiction between the workers and peasants. And as history has shown, correctly handling these internal contradictions formed the basis for dealing with the external contradictions between the Soviet Union and the imperialist countries. It gave them the material foundation needed to resist imperialist intervention when the Soviet people turned back the German Nazi invasion. 

The Trotskyite theory was proven false in practice by the Bolshevik party, as socialist construction and agricultural collectivization cemented the bond between the proletariat and the toiling masses of the peasantry. Despite all of Trotsky’s protests to the contrary, the Bolsheviks did indeed build socialism in their country, which shown as a beacon to the working and oppressed people of the entire world.


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