The object of the present essay is to examine one area of the debate recently engaged in nlr between Nicolas Krassó and Ernest Mandel—the question of ‘Socialism in One Country’. This great historical controversy, waged from the outset in somewhat elusive terms and encrusted today with decades of polemical distortions by both sides, is one where it is particularly important to make an objective and balanced estimate of Trotsky’s position, without any ideological or psychological disposition to ‘vindicate’ one side as against the other.

A serious examination of what Trotsky actually said about building Socialism in Russia reveals a fundamental and unresolved contradiction in his position which does not appear in Mandel’s bowdlerized version of it. On the one hand, as Mandel correctly states, Trotsky never disputed the need to start the job of building Socialism, and advanced proposals for an increased rate of economic growth to this end.footnote1 Under attack, he denied having a ‘pessimistic attitude towards the programme of our work of Socialist construction in the face of the retarded process of revolution in the West’, and accepted that ‘in spite of all the difficulties arising out of our capitalistic environment, the economic and political resources of the Soviet dictatorship are very great.’footnote2 On the other hand he remained tied to the ‘two fundamental propositions in the theory of permanent revolution’: that although, firstly, ‘the revolution can transfer power into the hands of the Russian proletariat before the proletariat of advanced countries is able to attain it,’ nonetheless, secondly, the only ‘way out of those contradictions which will befall the proletarian dictatorship in a backward country, surrounded by a world of capitalist enemies, will be found on the arena of world revolution’.footnote3

Krassó is right in showing that the primary basis of Trotsky’s argument against the possibility of completing the building of Socialism in the Soviet Union was his disbelief in its ability even to survive as a workers’ state if the revolution did not spread to more advanced countries. Since Mandel not only does not acknowledge the truth of this, but speaks darkly of ‘historical distortions’ in Krassó’s presentation (nlr 47, p. 42), it would perhaps be useful to let Trotsky speak for himself—not in incidental and untypical quotations taken from their context, but in statements that represent the main content of his thinking on this question.

‘Without the direct State support of the European proletariat, the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship,’ Trotsky wrote in 1906.footnote4 He vigorously defended this formulation in 1928 against criticism from Radek, who had argued that in talking of State support Trotsky had excessively sharpened the presentation of the Soviet Union’s undoubted need for aid from the workers of other countries.footnote5

In The Programme of Peace, published as a pamphlet in June 1917 and republished with a postscript in 1922 and 1924, he wrote of the Socialist revolution in Russia: ‘Without waiting for the others we begin and we continue the struggle on our own national soil in complete certainty that our initiative will provide the impulse for the struggle in other countries; and if this were not so, then it would be hopeless to think—as is born out both by historical experience and theoretical considerations—that revolutionary Russia, for example, would be able to maintain herself in the face of conservative Europe, or that Socialist Germany could remain isolated in a capitalist world.’footnote6

Outlining the theory of permanent revolution in a preface, written in 1922 (and unreservedly defended in 1928), to his book The Year 1905, he spoke of the proletarian vanguard in the early stages of its rule making deep inroads into capitalist property. ‘In this it will come into hostile collision not only with all the groupings of the bourgeoisie which supported it in the first stages of its revolutionary struggle, but also with the broad masses of the peasantry with the help of which it came to power. The contradictions in the position of a workers’ government in a backward country with a peasant majority can be solved only on an international scale on the arena of the world proletarian revolution.’footnote7

In 1937 the theme is essentially the same: ‘Without a more or less rapid victory of the proletariat in the advanced countries, the workers’ government in Russia will not survive. Left to itself the Soviet régime must either fall or degenerate. More exactly it will first degenerate and then fall. I myself have written about this more than once, beginning in 1905.’footnote8