Trotsky demonstrated that the program of internationalism (now labelled “permanent revolution”) had never been challenged in the Bolshevik Party prior to 1924. Stalin’s crude challenge, however, made it necessary to once again explain the question fundamentally.
Trotsky started with the basic ideas of Marxism. Civilisation, he explained, advances through the development of the productive forces – through the struggle by people and classes in society to supply their material needs, in the process stimulating the development of science, technology, politics and culture.
Social systems come into existence on the basis of the organisation of production. A social system can only be swept away when it has come to the limits of its development, and a new revolutionary class, with the capacity to reorganise and further develop the forces of production, is prepared to take power.
The necessity for socialism arises out of the obstacles created by the capitalist system to the further development of the productive forces. The historical purpose of socialism is to develop society beyond the economic and political limits of capitalism, to new levels of abundance and freedom.
“Socialist society”, as Trotsky explained,
…can be built only on the most advanced productive forces … on combining, generalising and bringing to maximum development the highest elements of modern technology… Socialism, however, must not only take over from capitalism the most highly developed productive forces but must immediately carry them onward… and give them a state of development such as has been unknown under capitalism.The Third International After Lenin
The struggle and sacrifice to end capitalism and build socialism, in other words, could have no justification – and no attraction for the mass of working people – if it represented no advance (or a step backward) from the standards of living that capitalism is able to offer.
Why does socialist transformation make possible a huge leap forward even from the highest achievements of capitalism? On the one hand, because it frees production from the anarchy of market forces, the distortions of private ownership and the limits of national states. On the other hand, it liberates the collective ingenuity and creativity of the mass of working people from the repressive discipline of capitalist production.
Workers’ democratic rule, in other words, is an essential political precondition for the transition to socialism and communism.
Why can this transformation not be carried through within the borders of one country? Precisely because capitalism has developed as a world system. The “most advanced productive forces” are not contained in any single country; they depend on the combined efforts of the working class in whole series of countries, tied together through world trade. Certainly they could not exist in an underdeveloped country, such as Russia in 1917.
The transition to socialism – for control of the “most advanced productive forces” – can only be an international process, depending on the conquest of power by the working class in at least a number of industrialised countries (which would seal the doom of the capitalist class on a world scale).
As long as workers’ rule remains confined to a single country, it will face the combined hostility of the capitalists of the world, with vast economic and military resources at their disposal.
Stalin’s crude argument, that the October revolution could have no other aim than the construction of socialism in Russia, therefore completely missed the point. Lenin, in one of many statements on the question, answered him in advance:
Single-handed, the Russian proletariat cannot bring the socialist revolution to a victorious conclusion. But it can give the Russian Revolution a mighty sweep that would create the most favourable conditions for a socialist revolution, and would, in a sense, start it. It can facilitate the rise of a situation in which its chief, its most trustworthy and reliable ally, the European and American socialist proletariat, could join the decisive battles.Collected Works, Volume 23