Lecture six: Socialism in one country or permanent revolution

Part 1

By Bill Van Auken
27 September 2005

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The following is the first part of the lecture “Socialism in one country or permanent revolution.” It was delivered by Bill Van Auken at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the sixth lecture given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. The fourth, “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” was posted in six parts from September 14 to September 20. These lectures were authored by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North. The fifth, “World War I: The breakdown of capitalism,” was delivered by Nick Beams, the national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party of Australia and a member of the WSWS Editorial Board. It was posted in five parts, from September 21 to September 26.

Twenty years since the split in the International Committee

In considering the question of socialism in one country vs. permanent revolution we are dealing with theoretical foundations of the Trotskyist movement. The essential theoretical issues that arose in the struggle over these two opposed perspectives were not only fought out by Trotsky against the Stalinist bureaucracy in the latter half of the 1920s, but have reemerged as the subject of repeated struggles within the Fourth International itself.

This year marks the twentieth anniversary of the split in the International Committee of the Fourth International with the leadership of the British Workers Revolutionary Party.

To grasp the significance of this split, it is necessary to understand the struggle that gave rise to the International Committee. The ICFI was founded in 1953 in a struggle against Pabloite revisionism.

It opposed the thesis advanced by the Pabloites that Stalinism was capable of self-reform and even of playing a revolutionary role, as well as their related conception that bourgeois nationalism in the colonial countries was capable of leading the struggle against imperialism. Combined, these theories constituted a perspective for the liquidation of the cadre historically assembled on the basis of the revolutionary perspective elaborated and fought for by Leon Trotsky in founding the Fourth International.

In 1963, it fell to the leadership of the British section, then the Socialist Labour League, to prosecute the struggle against the American Socialist Workers Party’s reunification with the Pabloites. This was to take place on the basis of an agreement that the petty-bourgeois nationalist guerrilla movement of Fidel Castro had established a workers state in Cuba, thereby supposedly proving that non-proletarian forces could lead a socialist revolution.

Against what was at the time the far more fashionable adulation of Che Guevara, guerrillaism and Third World revolution, the SLL waged an uncompromising defense of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution.

To review the essential features of this profound analysis of the revolutionary dynamics of modern global capitalism developed by Trotsky, the permanent revolution took as its starting point not the economic level or internal class relations of a given country, but rather the world class struggle and the international development of capitalist economy of which the national conditions are a particular expression. This was the world-historic significance of this perspective, which provided the foundations for the building of a genuinely international revolutionary party.

In the backward and former colonial countries, this perspective demonstrated that the bourgeoisie—tied to imperialism and fearful of its own working class—was no longer in a position to make its own “bourgeois” revolution.

Only the working class could carry out this revolution and could consummate it only through the formation of its own dictatorship of the proletariat. The permanent character of this revolution lay in the fact that the working class, having taken power, could not limit itself to democratic tasks, but would be compelled to carry out measures of a socialist character.

The limitations on the construction of socialism imposed by backwardness and isolation could be overcome only through the development of the revolution by the working class in the advanced capitalist countries, culminating in the world socialist transformation, thus lending the revolution a permanent character in a second sense.

The essential political principles that flowed from this perspective—proletarian internationalism and the political independence of the working class—were rejected by the Pabloites in their adaptation to Stalinism and bourgeois nationalism.

In the decade preceding the split, the leadership of the WRP had turned sharply away from the theoretical conquests it had made in its earlier defense of Trotskyism against the Pabloite revisionists.

By the early 1980s, the turn away from this perspective caused growing disquiet within the Workers League, the American section of the International Committee.

Like the Pabloites before them, the WRP leadership increasingly abandoned the scientific appraisal that Stalinism, social democracy and bourgeois nationalism represented, in the final analysis, agencies of imperialism within the workers movement. Instead, it attributed to at least elements of these political tendencies a potential revolutionary role.

In 1982, the Workers League initiated a struggle within the International Committee, developing an extensive critique of the WRP’s political degeneration, at the center of which was the issue of permanent revolution.

In November 1982, in the summation of his “Critique of Gerry Healy’s ‘Studies in Dialectical Materialism,’” Comrade David North reviewed the political relations established by the WRP leadership in the Middle East over the previous period, writing, “Marxist defense of national liberation movements and the struggle against imperialism has been interpreted in an opportunist fashion of uncritical support of various bourgeois nationalist regimes.”

“For all intents and purposes,” he continued, “the theory of permanent revolution has been treated as inapplicable to present circumstances.”

The response of the WRP leadership, which at the time still enjoyed immense authority within the IFCI by dint of its previous struggles for Trotskyism, was not a political defense of its policies, but a threat of an immediate organizational split.

Nonetheless, in 1984, the Workers League again raised these issues. In a letter to WRP General Secretary Michael Banda, Comrade North voiced the growing concerns of the Workers League, pointing to the WRP’s development of alliances with national liberation movements and bourgeois nationalist regimes:

“The content of these alliances has less and less reflected any clear orientation to the development of our own forces as central to the fight to establish the leading role of the proletariat in the anti-imperialist countries. The very conceptions advanced by the SWP in relation to Cuba and Algeria which we attacked so vigorously in the early 1960s appear with increasing frequency within our own press.”

And, in February 1984, North presented a political report to the IC beginning with a critique of a speech by SWP leader Jack Barnes, who had explicitly repudiated the theory of permanent revolution, and concluding with a review of the WRP leadership’s opportunist relations with the bourgeois nationalists, the Labourites and the trade union bureaucracy that in practice pointed to a similar conclusion.

While the WRP leadership again refused a discussion and threatened a split, within barely more than a year an internal crisis ripped their organization apart, leading all factions of the old leadership to break from the IC and repudiate Trotskyism.

The underlying perspective that guided the WRP leadership was that of anti-internationalism. In the course of the split in 1985, it was Cliff Slaughter who championed the national autonomy of the British section, rejecting the necessity of subordinating the factional struggle within the WRP to the clarification and building of the world party.

Thus, in a letter written by Slaughter in December 1985 rejecting the authority of the International Committee, he declared that “Internationalism consists precisely of laying down ...class lines and fighting them through.”

In reply, the Workers League posed question: “But by what process are these ‘class lines’ determined? Does it require the existence of the Fourth International? Comrade Slaughter’s definition suggests—and this is the explicit content of his entire letter—that any national organization can rise to the level of internationalism by establishing, on its own, the ‘class lines and fighting them through.’”

These questions go to the heart of the perspective of the Trotskyist movement. The political tendency that was breaking with Trotskyism reproduced the nationalist outlook that characterized Stalinism from its origins, while those defending the historically developed perspective of the Fourth International did so from the standpoint of internationalism.

Stalinism and social reformism

It is necessary to understand that the perspectives that guided Stalinism were not a uniquely Russian political phenomenon.

The origins of Stalinism itself lay in the contradictory emergence of the first workers state in an isolated and backward country.

The exhaustion of the Russian working class as a consequence of the civil war, combined with the defeats suffered by the European working class and the temporary stabilization of capitalism, contributed to the growth of a nationalist outlook within the Soviet state and its ruling party.

This outlook expressed the definite material interests of a bureaucracy that emerged as the administrator of the social inequality that persisted as a consequence of the economic backwardness and isolation that plagued the first workers state.

Yet, Stalinism and its nationalist outlook were unquestionably related to a wider international political tendency, and its ideology was rooted in previous forms of revisionism. In the final analysis, it represented a specific form of labor reformism that took on a peculiar and malevolent character as a reaction against the October Revolution within the Soviet workers state.

It shared much in common, however, with the official labor movements of the capitalist countries, viewing the national state and the expansion of its economy and industry—not the international revolutionary movement of the working class—as the source of progress and reform.

The conception of “building socialism in a single country” originated not in Russia, but in Germany, where it was propagated by the right-wing Bavarian social democrat Georg von Vollmar. In 1879, he published an article entitled “The isolated socialist state,” laying ideological foundations for the subsequent growth of social patriotism within German Social Democracy. The German SPD ended up backing its own government in the First World War on the grounds that Germany provided the best conditions for the building of socialism. Vollmar foresaw a protracted period of “peaceful coexistence” between the isolated socialist state and the capitalist world, during which socialism would prove its superiority through the development of technology and lowering the cost of production.

To be continued