Trotsky’s point of departure, and this is where the strength of his position on the character of the ussr lies, was the view taken by the entire working-class Left at the beginning of the Russian revolution of 1917 (and which was subsequently abandoned by one revisionist tendency after another), that it was impossible to examine the origins and development of the Russian revolution while isolating Russia from the rest of the world. The paradox that lies at the root of the theory of permanent revolution—that the proletariat could conquer power in the less
Trotsky drew two conclusions from this initial position. First, that the victory of the Russian Revolution was possible only through the establishment of a dictatorship of the proletariat, supported by the poor peasantry. Secondly, that the construction of a classless society, a complete socialist society, in this backward country was obviously impossible. The Mensheviks stuck to Marx’s nineteenth-century position. They failed to understand the consequences of the advent of the imperialist era. They did not understand the weight and logic of underdevelopment, which have so strongly marked the consciousness of contemporary revolutionaries and demonstrate what Russia could have become had it not been for the victory of the October Revolution. Stalin, on the other hand—and this remains true of the Stalinists to this day, as of all tendencies that analyse the nature of the Soviet Union solely on the basis of the internal trends at work within it—committed the parallel error of disregarding Russia’s insertion into the world, with all its economic, military, and social implications, and assuming that it was possible, under certain conditions, to complete the construction of a classless society in a single country.
What underlay Trotsky’s theoretical position, independent of conjunctural formulations and trends, was that for him the fate of the Soviet Union ultimately depended on the outcome of the class struggle on a world scale. Stalinism thus appears as an unforeseen variant of history, a function of what could be called the unstable equilibrium between the fundamental antagonistic social forces on a world scale. Stalinism is the expression of a defeat and serious regression of the world revolution after 1923. But it also reflects the long-term structural weakness of world capitalism, which has been unable to restore the capitalist mode of production in the ussr despite repeated attempts, both economic and military. Behind the formulae ‘transitional stage’, ‘transitional society’, lies the reality of this not yet definitively decided test of strength between capital and labour on a world scale. In this sense as well, the way Trotsky formulated the alternative in 1939–40 remains essentially correct, although he was wrong about the timing. A crushing defeat for the world proletariat, for an entire historical period, not only could but inevitably would lead to the restoration of capitalism in the ussr. A crushing defeat for capital, for the world bourgeoisie, in several of the key countries of the capitalist world would set the ussr back on course towards the construction of a classless society.
First of all, there is no ‘Marxist tradition’ on this subject in the real sense of the word. Marx himself had no time to dwell on this problem. Nor did Engels. After their deaths, vulgarization and simplification took hold, culminating in Stalin’s famous writings on the modes of production through which all societies are supposedly required to pass—primitive communism, slavery, feudalism, capitalism, socialism. In reality, it is only in the most recent period, with the renaissance of Marxist historical analysis and the penetration of methods inspired by Marxism into academic historical research, that the initial foundations of this exciting chapter of Marxist theory have been laid. But these foundations are still fragmentary; a lot remains to be done.
Today, taking only Europe and leaving out of consideration other parts of the world and other civilizations, we can see that there were actually long periods of transition between all the great modes of production. In light of this observation, the case of Soviet society, far from constituting an exceptional, unusually long process of transition, appears as a quite limited one. Let us take two examples.