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 developed capitalist countries before doing so in the most developed ones—has meaning only in the context of a particular analysis of imperialism and the class struggle on a world scale. It is only because of the phenomenon of imperialism, or more precisely the beginning of the capitalist mode of production’s decline, that Marx’s old dictum that the most advanced countries mirror the future of the least advanced is no longer generally applicable in the twentieth century.

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.

If you define the slave mode of production as founded essentially on the productive labour of slaves in agriculture and crafts (the principal sources of the social product), and if you define the feudal mode of production as founded essentially on the labour of serfs in agricultural production, then you find that a centuries-long period of transition separated the predominance of slave labour from the predominance of serf labour, at least in western, central and southern Europe (I leave aside the Byzantine empire). This period saw, in varying forms and combinations, the elevation of the lot of the slaves side by side with the deterioration of the lot of the free peasants, especially those of the so-called barbarian ethnic tribes that penetrated the Roman empire. It was only through the fusion of these two social forces, which was probably completed around the seventh or eighth century, that the feudal mode of production proper became dominant.

The second example is clearer, although of shorter duration. The decline of serfdom is quite evident by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries in the most advanced parts of the European economy, especially in the Low Countries, England, a portion of France, a portion of northern and central Italy, and Germany. In some of these regions, serfdom virtually disappeared as the predominant relation of production in agriculture. Now, the disappearance of serfdom does not immediately lead to the generalization, or even the large-scale extension, of wage-labour. In other words, there is manifestly another transitional period between the decline of serfdom and the rise of wage-labour; between the decline of the feudal mode of production and the flowering of the capitalist mode of production. (I say deliberately ‘capitalist mode of production’ and not ‘domination of market or banking capital’, which is something else again; I am speaking of capitalist relations of production.) This transitional period may also be characterized as the economic organization founded on petty commodity production (a term which is open to discussion), under which the essential producer is neither the serf nor the wage labourer, but the small-scale producer having access to the means of production and subsistence. In fact, it is the transformation not of the serf into the wage labourer, but of this independent producer into the wage labourer, that gives rise to capitalism as the predominant mode of production in the real sense of the term, since one of the characteristics of the proletariat is precisely that it is free, not subject to personal servitude.