On the strength of three quotations plucked from Lenin’s voluminous writings, Stalin in December 1924 put forward the unheard-of idea that socialism could be built in Russia without the victory of the working class in the developed countries.

This idea went counter to everything Lenin had tried to explain, even in the documents Stalin quoted. Lenin went no further than to point out that in Russia the political conditions for socialist transformation (a workers’ regime supported by the peasantry) had been created by the October revolution. At no stage did Lenin entertain the illusion that the economic preconditions existed in backward Russia.

As late as February 1924, Stalin himself had still preached the exact opposite of “socialism in one country”:

…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 organisation of socialist production, 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.

Stalin, Foundations of Leninism

Yet, within months, Stalin took a completely different line:

If we knew in advance that we are not equal to the task [of building socialism in Russia by itself], then why the devil did we have to make the October revolution? If we have managed for eight years, why should we not manage in the ninth, tenth or fortieth year?

Quoted in Carr, Socialism in One Country, Volume 2

What made Stalin turn his ideas upside-down?

Basically, it was the changing balance of forces that emboldened the non-theorist Stalin to throw down the gauntlet to all the theorists of Marxism. The Opposition, the ideas of Marxism and the class demands of the workers were being silenced while the bureaucracy, increasingly arrogant, was prevailing.

The idea of revolutionary struggle against capitalism internationally (“permanent revolution”) was entirely alien to the new masters of the Soviet Union. Stalin’s thoroughly dishonest argument was not a theory in the true sense of the word (an attempt at explaining reality). It was nothing more than an attempt at burying the program of permanent revolution, of Marxism itself.

To cover their tracks, the bureaucracy increasingly “altered” party history, and Marxist textbooks, to make it appear to the workers that their policy was the consistent continuation of Bolshevism. By November 1926, for example, Stalin felt able to declare: “The party always took as its starting point the idea that the victory of socialism in one country means the possibility to build socialism in that country, and that this task can be accomplished with the forces of a singly country”! (Quoted by Woods and Grant.)

Taken to its conclusions, Stalin’s “theory” denied the need for a revolutionary International. Defence of “socialism” in the Soviet Union, in contrast to the building of socialism through world revolution, now became the primary task of the Communist parties internationally.

In practice, this meant uncritical support for the policies and national interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. (In 1943, Stalin himself confirmed this in the most blatant manner when he dissolved the Comintern – by then a bureaucratic shell – at the stroke of a pen, in order to prove to his wartime allies, the imperialist leaders Roosevelt and Churchill, that the Soviet leadership had abandoned all thought of world revolution.)

The Opposition were denounced as “pessimists” and “cynics” for questioning the bureaucracy’s crude, anti-Marxist ideas.

In reality it was the Opposition who had consistently explained the need for industrialisation to strengthen the basis of workers’ rule in the Soviet Union. (For this, in turn, they were denounced as “super-industrialisers”!) But they had also explained that this in itself would not be enough to complete the transition to socialism.

On the other hand, cutting loose from the program of internationalism meant writing-off the perspective of reconstruction in Russia in any real sense – i.e., as part of a socialist Europe. The bureaucracy’s alternative was to rely more openly on the kulaks as mainstay of the “national” economy. Bukharin, in April 1925, went so far as to blurt out: “To the peasants… we must say: Enrich yourselves, develop your farms, do not fear that constraint will be put on you.” (Quoted in Carr, Socialism in One Country, Volume 1) This slogan came under attack because it was too blatant and it was dropped by the central committee, but the general idea became party policy.

Before the year was out, Stalin was even considering whether to denationalise the land!

By this time the triumvirate was breaking-up. Its purpose had been accomplished. Zinoviev and Kamenev had joined forces with the mediocre Stalin out of hostility towards Trotsky; now they recoiled from the ruthless Stalin who had taken virtually all power into his own hands.

Political difference among the trio now began to surface.

At the party congress in December 1925, Zinoviev and Kamenev began to raise questions about Stalin’s ideas. It was left to Trotsky, however, to develop a fundamental Marxist refutation of “socialism in one country”, and expose its inherent dangers.

Today the question has taken on even greater importance than in the 1920s. The powerful present-day Soviet regime has enormous influence in the mass movement internationally, especially in the underdeveloped countries. The bureaucracy’s philosophy of “socialism in one country” (or “national roads to socialism”) has become the conscious or unconscious starting point for many of the leaders.

Trotsky’s reply to Stalin remains the clearest basis for answering these ideas and working out the Marxist way forward.

Continue to Chapter Thirteen