The Revolution Betrayed, by Leon Trotsky


“Socialism in One Country”

The reactionary tendencies of autarchy are a defense reflex of senile capitalism to the task with which history confronts it, that of freeing its economy from the fetters of private property and the national state, and organizing it in a planned manner throughout the Earth.

In Lenin’s Declaration of the Rights of the Toiling and Exploited People – presented by the Soviet of People’s Commissars for the approval of the Constituent Assembly during its brief hours of life – the “fundamental task” of the new regime was thus defined: “The establishment of a socialist organization of society and the victory of socialism in all countries.” The international character of the revolution was thus written into the basic document of the new regime. No one at that time would have dared present the problem otherwise! In April 1924, three months after the death of Lenin, Stalin wrote, his brochure of compilations called The Foundations of Leninism:

“For the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, the efforts of one country are enough – to this the history of our own revolution testifies. For the final victory of socialism, for the organization of socialist production, the efforts of one country, especially a peasant country like ours, are not enough – for this we must have the efforts of the proletarians of several advanced countries.”

These lines need no comment. The edition in which they were printed, however, has been been withdrawn from circulation.

The large-scale defeats of the European proletariat, and the first very modest economic successes of the Soviet Union, suggested to Stalin, in the autumn of 1924, the idea that the historic mission of the Soviet bureaucracy was to build socialism in a single country. Around this question there developed a discussion which to many superficial minds seemed academic or scholastic, but which in reality reflected the incipient degeneration of the Third International and prepared the way for the Fourth.

Petrov, the former communist, now a White émigré, whom we have already quoted [in previous chapters of the book], tells from his own memories how fiercely the younger generation of administrators opposed the doctrine of the dependence of the Soviet Union upon the international revolution. “How is it possible that we in our own country can not contrive to build a happy life?” If Marx has it otherwise, that means that “we are no Marxists, we are Russian Bolsheviks – that’s what!” To these recollections of disputes in the middle of the twenties, Petrov adds: “Today I can not but think that the theory of building socialism in one country was not a mere Stalinist invention.” Completely true! It expressed unmistakably the mood of the bureaucracy. When speaking of the victory of socialism, they meant their own victory.

In justifying his break with the Marxist tradition of internationalism, Stalin was incautious enough to remark that Marx and Engels were not unacquainted with the law of uneven development of capitalism supposedly discovered by Lenin. In a catalogue of intellectual curiosities, that remark ought really to occupy a foremost place. Unevenness of development permeates the whole history of mankind, and especially the history of capitalism. A young Russian historian and economist, Solntez, a man of exceptional gifts and moral qualities tortured to death in the prisons of the Soviet bureaucracy for membership in the Left Opposition, offered in 1926 a superlative theoretical study of the law of uneven development in Marx. It could not, of course, be printed in the Soviet Union. Also under the ban, although for reasons of an opposite nature, is the work of the long dead and forgotten German Social-Democrat, Vollmar, who as early as 1878 developed the perspective of an “isolated socialist state” – not for Russia, but for Germany – containing references to this “law” of uneven development which is supposed to have been unknown until Lenin.

“Socialism unconditionally assumes economically developed relations,” wrote Georg Vollmar, “and if the question were limited to them alone, socialism ought to be strongest where the economic development is highest. But the thing does not stand that way at all. England is undoubtedly the most developed country economically, yet we see that socialism plays there a very secondary role, while in economically less developed Germany socialism has already such power that the entire old society no longer feels stable.”

Referring to the multitude of historic factors which determine the course of events, Vollmar continued:

“It is clear that with an interrelation of such innumerable forces the development of any general human movement could not, and can not, be identical in the matter of time and form even in two countries, to say nothing of all . . . Socialism obeys the same law . . . The assumption of a simultaneous victory of socialism in all cultured countries is absolutely ruled out, as is also, and for the same reasons, the assumption that all the rest of the civilized states will immediately and inevitably imitate the example of a socialistically organized state . . . ”

Thus – Vollmar concludes – “we arrive at the isolated socialist state, concerning which I trust I have proven that it is, although not the only possibility, nevertheless the greatest possibility.”

In this work, written when Lenin was eight years old, the law of uneven development receives a far more correct interpretation that that to be found among the Soviet epigones, beginning with the autumn of 1924. We must remark, incidentally, that in this part of his investigation Vollmar, a very second-rate theoretician, is only paraphrasing the thoughts of Engels – to whom, we are told, the law of unevenness of capitalist development remained “unknown.”

“The isolated socialist state” has long ceased to be a hypothesis, and became a fact – in Russia to be sure, not in Germany. But this very fact of isolation is also a precise expression of the relative strength of world capitalism, the relative weakness of socialism. From an isolated “socialist” state to a socialist society once for all done with the state remains a long historic road, and this road exactly coincides with the road of international revolution.

Beatrice and Sidney Webb on their part assure us that Marx and Engels did not believe in the possibility of building an isolated socialist society only because neither of them “had ever dreamt” of such a powerful weapon as the monopoly of foreign trade. One can hardly read these lines from the aged authors without embarrassment. The taking over by the state of commercial banks and companies, railroads, mercantile marine, is as necessary a measure of the socialist revolution as the nationalization of the means of production, including the means employed in the export branches of industry. The monopoly of foreign trade is nothing but a concentration in the hands of the state of the material instruments of export and import. To say that Marx and Engels “never dreamt” of the monopoly of foreign trade is to say that they never dreamt of the socialist revolution. To complete the picture, we may note that in the work of the above-quoted Vollmar, the monopoly of foreign trade is presented, quite correctly, as one of the most important instruments of the “isolated socialist state.” Marx and Engels must then have learned about this secret from Vollmar, had he himself not learned it earlier from them.

The “theory” of socialism in one country – a “theory” never expounded, by the way, or given any foundation, by Stalin himself – comes down to the sufficiently sterile and unhistoric notion that, thanks to the natural riches of the country, a socialist society can be built within the geographic confines of the Soviet Union. With the same success you might affirm that socialism could triumph if the population of the earth were a twelfth of what it is. In reality, however, the purpose of this new theory was to introduce into the social consciousness a far more concrete system of ideas, namely: the revolution is wholly completed; social contradictions will steadily soften; the kulak will gradually grow into socialism; the development as a whole, regardless of events in the external world, will preserve a peaceful and planned character. Bukharin, in attempting to give some foundation to the theory, declared it unshakably proven that

“we shall not perish owing to class differences within our country and our technical backwardness, that we can build socialism even on this pauper technical basis, that this growth of socialism will be many times slower, that we will crawl with a tortoise tempo, and that nevertheless we are building this socialism, and we will build it.”

We remark the formula: “Build socialism even on a pauper technical basis,” and we recall once more the genial intuition of the young Marx: with a low technical basis “only want will be generalized, and with want the struggle for necessities begins again, and all the old crap must revive.”

In April 1926, at a Plenum of the Central Committee, the following amendment to the theory of the tortoise tempo was introduced by the Left Opposition:

“It would be a fundamental error to think that in a capitalist environment we can go towards socialism at an arbitrary tempo. Our further approach to socialism will be ensured only on condition that the distance separating our industry from the advanced capitalist industry shall not increase, but clearly and palpably decrease.”

Stalin with good reason declared this amendment a “masked” attack upon the theory of socialism in one country, and categorically rejected the very inclination to link up the tempo of domestic construction with the conditions of international development. Here is what he said verbatim, according to the stenographic report of the Plenum:

“Whoever drags in here an international factor does not understand the very form of the question. He is either confused in the matter because he does not understand it, or he is consciously trying to confuse the question.”

The amendment of the Opposition was rejected.

But the illusion of a socialism to be built at a tortoise tempo, on a pauper basis in an environment of powerful enemies, did not long withstand the blows of criticism. In November of the same year the 15th Party Conference, without a word of preparation in the press, acknowledged that it would be necessary “in a relatively [?] minimal historical period to catch up to and then surpass the level of industrial development of the advanced capitalist countries.” The Left Opposition at any rate was here “surpassed.” But in advancing this slogan – catch up to and surpass the whole world “in a minimal period” – yesterday’s theorists of the tortoise tempo had fallen captive to that same international factor of which the Soviet bureaucracy had such a superstitious fear. Thus in the course of eight months the first and purest version of the Stalinist theory was liquidated.

Socialism must inevitably “surpass” capitalism in all spheres – wrote the Left Opposition in a document illegally distributed in March 1927 –

“but at present the question is not of the relation of socialism to capitalism in general, but of the economic development of the Soviet Union in relation to Germany, England and the United States. What is to be understood by the phrase ‘minimal historic period’? A whole series of future five-year plans will leave us far from the level of the advanced countries of the West. What will be happening in the capitalist world during this time?”

[ . . . ]

If you admit the possibility of its flourishing anew for a period of decades, then the talk of socialism in our backward country is pitiable tripe. Then it will be necessary to say that we were mistaken in our appraisal of the whole epoch as an epoch of capitalist decay. Then the Soviet Republic will prove to have been the second experiment in proletarian dictatorship since the Paris Commune, broader and more fruitful, but only an experiment . . . Is there, however, any serious ground for such a decisive reconsideration of our whole epoch, and of the meaning of the October revolution as a link in an international revolution? No!

[ . . . ]

In finishing to a more or less complete extent their period of reconstruction [after the war] . . . the capitalist countries are reviving, and reviving in an incomparably sharper form, all the old pre-war contradictions, domestic and international. This is the basis of the proletarian revolution. It is a fact that we are building socialism. A greater fact, however, and not a less – since the whole in general is greater that the part – is the preparation of a European and world revolution. The part can conquer only together with the whole.

[ . . . ]

The European proletariat needs a far shorter period for its take-off to the seizure of power than we need to catch up technically with Europe and America . . . We must, meanwhile, systematically narrow the distance separating our productivity of labor from that of the rest of the world. The more we advance, the less danger there is of possible intervention by low prices, and consequently by armies . . . The higher we raise the standard of living of the workers and peasants, the more truly shall we hasten the proletarian revolution in Europe, the sooner will that revolution enrich us with world technique, and the more truly and genuine will our socialist construction advance as a part of European and world construction.”

This documents, like the others, remained without answer – unless you consider expulsions from the party and arrests an answer to it.

After the abandonment of the idea of a tortoise tempo, it became necessary to renounce the idea bound up with it of the kulak’s growing into socialism. The administrative extermination of kulakism, however, gave the theory of socialism in one country new nourishment. Once classes are “fundamentally” abolished, this mean that socialism is “fundamentally” achieved (1931). In essence, this formula restored the conception of a socialist society built upon a “pauper basis.” It was in those days, as we remember, that an official journalist explained that the absence of milk for babies is due to a lack of cows and not the shortcomings of the socialist system.

A concern for the productivity of labor, however, prevented any long resting upon these sedative formulae of 1931, which had to serve as moral compensation for the devastations effected by complete collectivization.

“Some think,” Stalin unexpectedly announced in connection with the Stakhanov movement, “that socialism can be strengthened by way of a certain material equalization of people on the basis of a pauper life. That is not true. [ . . . ] In reality, socialism can conquer only on the basis of a high productivity of labor, higher than under capitalism.”

Completely correct!

However, at the very same time the new program of the Communist Youth – adopted in April 1936 at the same congress which withdrew from the Communist Youth its last remnant of political rights – defined the socialist character of the Soviet Union in the following categoric terms: “The whole national economy of the country has become socialist.” Nobody bothers to reconcile these contradictory conceptions. Each one is put into circulation in accord with the demands of the moment. It does not matter, for no one dares to criticize.

The spokesman at the congress explained the very necessity of the new program for the Communist Youth in the following words:“The old program contains a deeply mistaken anti-Leninist assertion to the effect that Russia ’can arrive at socialism only through a world proletarian revolution’. This point of the program is basically wrong. It reflects Trotskyist views.” – that same views that Stalin was still defending in April 1924.

Aside from that, it remains unexplained how a program written in 1921 by Bukharin, and carefully gone over by the Politburo with the participation of Lenin, could turn out after fifteen years to be “Trotskyist”, and have to be revised to an exactly opposite effect! But logical arguments are powerless where it is a question of interests. Having won their independence from the proletariat of their own country, the bureaucracy cannot recognize the dependence of the Soviet Union upon the world proletariat. The law of uneven development brought it about that the contradiction between the technique and property relations of capitalism shattered the weakest link in the world chain. Backward Russian capitalism was the first to pay for the bankruptcy of world capitalism. The law of uneven development is supplemented throughout the whole course of history by the law of combined development. The collapse of the bourgeoisie in Russia led to the proletarian dictatorship – that is, to a backward country’s leaping ahead of the advanced countries. However, the establishment of socialist forms of property in the backward country came up against the inadequate level of technique and culture. Itself born of the contradictions between his world productive forces and capitalist forms of property, the October revolution produced in its turn a contradiction between low national productive forces and socialist forms of property.

To be sure, the isolation of the Soviet Union did not have those immediate dangerous consequences which might have been feared. The capitalist world was too disorganized and paralyzed to unfold to the full extent its potential power. The “breathing spell” proved longer than a critical optimism had dared to hope. However, isolation and the impossibility of using the resources of world economy even upon capitalistic bases (the amount of foreign trade has decreased from 1913 four to five times) entailed, along with enormous expenditures upon military defense, an extremely disadvantageous allocation of productive forces, and a slow raising of the standard of living of the masses. But a more malign product of isolation and backwardness has been the octopus of bureaucratism.

The juridical and political standards set up by the revolution exercised a progressive action upon the backward economy, but upon the other hand they themselves felt the lowering influence of that backwardness. The longer the Soviet Union remains in a capitalist environment, the deeper runs the degeneration of the social fabric. A prolonged isolation would inevitably end not in national communism, but in a restoration of capitalism.

If a bourgeoisie cannot peacefully grow into a socialist democracy, it is likewise true that a socialist state cannot peacefully merge with a world capitalist system. On the historic order of the day stands not the peaceful socialist development of “one country”, but a long series of world disturbances: wars and revolutions. Disturbances are inevitable also in the domestic life of the Soviet Union. If the bureaucracy was compelled in its struggle for a planned economy to dekulakize the kulak, the working class will be compelled in its struggle for socialism to debureaucratize the bureaucracy.

On the tomb of the latter will be inscribed the epitaph:

“Here lies the theory of socialism in one country.”

1. The “Friends” of the Soviet Union

For the first time a powerful government provides a stimulus abroad not to the respectable right, but to the left and extreme left press. The sympathies of the popular masses for the great revolution are being very skillfully canalized and sluiced into the mill of the Soviet bureaucracy. The “sympathizing” Western press is imperceptibly losing the right to publish anything which might aggrieve the ruling stratum of the Soviet Union. Books undesirable to the Kremlin are maliciously unmentioned. Noisy and mediocre apologists are published in many languages. We have avoided quoting throughout this work the specific productions of of the official “friends”, preferring the crude originals to the stylized foreign paraphrases. However, the literature of the “friends”, including that of the Communist International, the most crass and vulgar part of it, presents in cubic metres an impressive magnitude, and plays not the last role in politics. We must devote a few concluding pages to it.

At present the chief contribution to the treasury of thought is declared to be the Webbs’ book, Soviet Communism. Instead of relating what has been achieved and in what direction the achieved is developing, the authors expound for twelve hundred pages what is contemplated, indicated in the bureaus, or expounded in the laws. Their conclusion is: When the projects, plans and laws are carried out, then communism will be realized in the Soviet Union. Such is the content of this depressing book, which rehashes the reports of Moscow bureaus and the anniversary articles of the Moscow press.

Friendship for the Soviet bureaucracy is not friendship for the proletarian revolution, but, on the contrary, insurance against it. The Webbs are, to be sure, ready to acknowledge that the communist system will sometime or other spread to to the rest of the world.

“But how, when, where, with what modifications, and whether through violent revolution, or by peaceful penetration, or even by conscious imitation, are questions we cannot answer.”

This diplomatic refusal to answer – or, in reality, this unequivocal answer – is in the highest degree characteristic of the “friends”, and tells the actual price of their friendship. If everybody had thus answered the question of revolution before 1917, when it was infinitely harder to answer, there would have been no Soviet state in the world, and the British “friends” would have had to expand their fund of friendly emotion upon other objects.

The Webbs speak as of something which goes without saying about the vanity of hoping for a European revolution in the near future, and they gather from that a comforting proof of the correctness of the theory of socialism in one country. With the authority of people for whom the October Revolution was a complete, and moreover an unpleasant, surprise, they give us lessons in the necessity of building a socialist society within the limits of the Soviet Union in the absence of other perspectives. It is difficult to refrain from an impolite movement of the shoulders! In reality, our dispute with the Webbs is not as to the necessity of building factories in the SOviet Union and employing mineral fertilizers on the collective farms, but as to whether it is necessary to prepare a revolution in Great Britain and how it shall be done. Upon that question the learned sociologues answer: “We do not know.” They consider the very question, of course, in conflict with “science.”

Lenin was passionately hostile to the conservative bourgeois who imagines himself a socialist, and, in particular, to the British Fabians. By the biographical glossary attached to his Works”, it is not difficult to find out that his attitude to the Webbs throughout his whole active life remained one of unaltered fierce hostility. In 1907 he first wrote of the Webbs as “obtuse eulogists of English philistinism”, who try to represent Chartism, the revolutionary epoch of the English labor movement, as mere childishness.” Without Chartism, however, there would have been no Paris Commune. Without both, there would have been no October revolution. The Webbs found in the Soviet Union only an administrative mechanism and a bureaucratic plan. They found neither Chartism nor Communism nor the October revolution. A revolution remains for them today, as before, an alien and hostile matter, if not indeed “mere childishness.”

In his polemics against opportunists, Lenin did not trouble himself, as is well known, with the manners of the salon. But his abusive epithets (“lackeys of the bourgeoisie”, “traitors”, “boot-lick souls”) expressed during many years a carefully weighed appraisal of the Webbs and the evangels of Fabianism – that is, of traditional respectability and worship for what exists. There can be no talk of any sudden change in the views of the Webbs during recent years. These same people who during the war support their bourgeoisie, and who accepted later at the hands of the King the title of Lord Passfield, have renounced nothing, and changed not at all, in adhering to Communism in a single, and moreover a foreign, country. Sidney Webb was Colonial Minister – that is, chief jailkeeper of British imperialism – in the very period of his life when he was drawing near to the Soviet bureaucracy, receiving material from its bureaus, and on that basis working upon this two-volume compilation.

As late as 1923, the Webbs saw no great difference between Bolshevism and Tzarism (see, for example, The Decay of Capitalist Civilization, 1923). Now, however, they have fully reorganized the “democracy” of the Stalin regime. It is needless to seek any contradiction here. The Fabians were indignant when the revolutionary proletariat withdrew freedom of activity from “educated” society, but they think it quite in the order of things when a bureaucracy withdraws freedom of activity from the proletariat. Has not this always been the function of the laborite’s workers’ bureaucracy? The Webbs swear, for example, that criticism in the Soviet Union is completely free. A sense of humor is not to be expected of these people. They refer with complete seriousness to that notorious “self-criticism” which is enacted as a part of one’s official duties, and the direction of which, as well as its limits, can always be accurately foretold.

Naïveté? Neither Engels nor Lenin considered Sidney Webb naive. Respectability rather. After all, it is a question of an established regime and of hospitable hosts. The Webbs are extremely disapproving in their attitude to a Marxian criticism of what exists. They consider themselves called to preserve the heritage of the October revolution from the Left Opposition. For the sake of completeness we observe that in its day the Labor Government in which Lord Passfield (Sidney Webb) held a portfolio refused the author of this work a visa to enter Great Britain. Thus Sidney Webb, who in those very days was working on his book upon the Soviet Union, is theoretically defending the Soviet Union from being undermined, but practically he is defending the Empire of His Majesty. In justice be it said that in both cases he remains true to himself.


For many of the petty bourgeoisie who master neither pen nor brush, an officially registered “friendship” for the Soviet Union is a kind of certificate of higher spiritual interests. Membership in Freemason lodges or pacifist clubs has much in common with membership in the society of “Friends of the Soviet Union”, for it makes it possible to live two lives at once: an everyday life in a circle of commonplace interests, and a holiday life evaluating to the soul. From time to time the “friends” visit Moscow. They note down in their memory tractors, creches, Pioneers, parades, parachute girls – in a word, everything except the new aristocracy. The best of them close their eyes to this out of a feeling of hostility toward capitalist reaction. Andre Gide frankly acknowledges this:

“The stupid and dishonest attack against the Soviet Union has brought it about that we now defend it with a certain obstinacy.”

But the stupidity and dishonesty of one’s enemies is no justification for one’s own blindness. The working masses, at any rate, have need of clearsighted friends.

The epidemic sympathy of bourgeois radicals and socialist bourgeois for the ruling stratum of the Soviet Union has causes that are not unimportant. In the circle of professional politicians, notwithstanding all differences of program, there is always a predominance of those friendly to such “progress” as is already achieved or can easily be achieved. There are incomparably more reformers in the world than revolutionists, more accommodationists than irreconciables. Only in exceptional historic periods, when the masses come into movement, do the revolutionists emerge from their isolation, and the reformers become more like fish out of water.

In the milieu of the present Soviet bureaucracy, there is not a person who did not, prior to April 1917, and even considerably later, regard the idea of a proletarian dictatorship in Russia as fantastic. (At that time this “fantasy” was called . . . Trotskyism.) The older generation of the foreign “friends” for decades regarded as Realpolitiker to Russian Mensheviks, who stood for a “people’s front” with the liberals and rejected the idea of dictatorship as arrant madness. To recognize a dictatorship when it is already achieved and even bureaucratically befouled – that is a different matter. That is a matter exactly to the minds of these “friends.” They now not only pay their respects to the Soviet state, but even defined it against its enemies – not so much, to be sure, against those who yearn for the past, as against those who are preparing the future. Where these “friends” are active preparing, as in the case of the French, Belgian, English and other reformists, it is convenient to them to conceal their solidarity with the bourgeoisie under a concern for the defense of the Soviet Union. Where, on the other hand, they have unwillingly become defeatists, as in the case of the German and Austrian social patriots of yesterday, they hope that the alliance of France with the Soviet Union may help them settle with Hitler or Schussnigg. Leon Blum, who was an enemy of Bolshevism in its heroic epoch, and opened the pages of Le Populaire for the express purpose of publicly baiting the October revolution, would now not print a line exposing the real crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy. Just as the Biblical Moses, thirsting to see the face of Jehovah, was permitted to make his bow only to the rearward parts of the divine anatomy, so the honorable reformists, worshipers of the accomplished fact, are capable of knowing and acknowledging in a revolution only its meaty bureaucratic posterior.

The present communist “leaders” belong in essence to the same type. After a long series of monkey jumps and grimaces, they have suddenly discovered the enormous advantages of opportunism, and have seized upon it with the freshness proper to that ignorance which has always distinguished them. Their slavish and not always disinterested kowtowing to the upper circles in the Kremlin alone renders them absolutely incapable of revolutionary initiative. They answer critical arguments no otherwise than with snarling and barking; and, moreover, under the whip of the boss they wag their tails. This most unattractive aggregation, which in the hour of danger will scatter to the four winds, considers us flagrant “counterrevolutionists.” What of it? History, in spite of its austere character, cannot get along without an occassional farce.

The more honest or open-eyed of the “friends”, at least when speaking tete-a-tete, concede that there is a spot on the Soviet sun. But substituting a fatalistic for a dialectic analysis, they console themselves with the thought that “a certain” bureaucratic degeneration in the given conditions was historically inevitable. Even so! The resistance to this degeneration also has not fallen from the sky. A necessity has two ends: the reactionary and the progressive. History teaches that persons and parties which drag at the opposite ends of a necessity turn out in the long run on opposite sides of the barricade.

The final argument of the “friends” is that reactionaries will seize upon any criticism of the Soviet regime. That is indubitable! We may assume that they will try to get something for themselves out of the present book. When was it ever otherwise? The Communist Manifesto spoke scornfully of the fact that the feudal reaction tried to use against liberalism the arrows of socialist criticism. That did not prevent revolutionary socialism from following its road. It will not prevent us either. The press of the Communist International, it is true, goes so far as to assert that our criticism is preparing military intervention against the Soviets. This obviously means that the capitalist governments, learning from our works of the degeneration of the Soviet bureaucracy, will immediately equip a punitive expedition to avenge the trampled principles of October! The polemists of the Communist International are not armed with rapiers but wagon tongues, or some still less nimble instrument. In reality a Marxist criticism, which calls things by their real names, can only increase the conservative credit of the Soviet diplomacy in the eyes of the bourgeoisie.

It is otherwise with the working class and its sincere champions among the intelligentsia. Here our work will cause doubts and evoke distrust – not of revolutionaries, but of its usurpers. But that is the very goal we have set ourselves. The motor force of progress is truth and not lies.

Last updated Tuesday, March 4, 2014 at 20:05