“Socialism in One Country” and the Soviet economic debates of the 1920s—Part 1

By Nick Beams
4 May 2009

Nick Beams, national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia) and a member of the International Editorial Board of the WSWS, delivered two lectures at a summer school of the SEP in Ann Arbor Michigan in August 2007. The lectures deal with some of the crucial conflicts over economic policy in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. One of the motivations for the lectures was to answer the distortions advanced by the British academic Geoffrey Swain in his book Trotsky published in 2006. Further material can be found in Leon Trotsky & the Post-Soviet School of Historical Falsification by David North.

The following is the first part of the lecture concerning the Stalinist theory of “Socialism in One Country.” The second part will be posted Tuesday, May 5. Nick Beams’ second lecture will be posted in two parts on May 6 and 7. For other lectures from the 2007 SEP summer school, click here.

It would be a mistake to believe that the issues that arose in the so-called economic debates in the Soviet Union, culminating in the conflict over Socialism in One Country, were restricted merely to economic matters. In fact, the issues of economic perspective encompassed all the most fundamental issues: the assessment of international perspectives and the prospects for the socialist revolution; the relations between the working class and the peasantry in the Soviet Union; plan versus market in the construction of a socialist economy; the relations between different sections of industry; and last, but by no means least, the relationship of economic development to the cultural advancement of the working class and the impact of these processes on the party regime.

The struggle between the different tendencies was shaped at every stage by the international context within which it unfolded. Likewise, the positions adopted by the different tendencies had vast implications for the development of the international socialist movement.

The first point to make in reviewing this history is that none of the participants entered the struggle over the economic development of the Soviet Union with a worked-out plan. In fact, there could not have been such a plan because no one conceived of a discussion of economic perspectives in an isolated workers’ state surrounded by hostile capitalist powers. No one believed that the revolution could survive for any extended period of time outside a victory of the working class in at least one or more of the major European countries, let alone did anyone consider the construction of socialism in Russia alone.

In the struggle against the Trotsky and the Left Opposition, one of the constant refrains of Stalin and his supporters was that if it was not possible to build socialism in one country, then why was the revolution undertaken in the first place? To deny the possibility of building socialism in the Soviet Union, irrespective of whether or not the working class came to power in the advanced capitalist countries, was to undermine the historical legitimacy of the Russian Revolution, they claimed.

The argument was completely specious. The historical legitimacy of the Russian Revolution derived not from the possibility of creating an isolated socialist Russia but from the fact that it was the opening shot of the world socialist revolution. The contradictions of the world capitalist system—which had violently exploded in World War 1, threatening civilization with a relapse into barbarism—had unfolded in such a way that the possibility of a detachment of the working class coming to power had first presented itself, and been seized, not in one of the advanced capitalist countries but in a backward one, Russia. Throughout the period leading to the insurrection Lenin insisted that the working class had a responsibility to take power, not because it could establish socialism in a single country, but in order to open the way for the conquest of power by the European and international proletariat.

The parties of the Second International had betrayed the working class and the cause of socialism when they lined up to support their “own” ruling class in the war. It was necessary not only to use the weapon of criticism in denouncing this betrayal and expose the Second International, but to pass over to the criticism of weapons in the actual seizure of power.

LuxemburgRosa Luxemburg

The German revolutionist Rosa Luxemburg, by no means uncritical of the some of the policy decisions of the Bolsheviks, was in no doubt about the enduring significance of the revolution. It lay in the fact that “the Bolsheviks have based their policy entirely upon the world proletarian revolution.” Lenin and Trotsky, she concluded, were the first “who went ahead as an example to the proletariat of the world; they are still the only ones up to now who can cry with Hutten: ‘I have dared!’ This is the essential and enduring in Bolshevik policy. In this sense theirs is the immortal historical service of having marched at the head of the international proletariat with the conquest of political power and the practical placing of the problem of the realization of socialism, and of having advanced mightily the settlement of the score between capital and labor in the entire world. In Russia, the problem could only be posed. It could not be solved in Russia. And in this sense, the future everywhere belongs to ‘Bolshevism.’”

Ninety years on, that assessment has lost none of its relevance. I make these points at the outset because we sometimes hear the position advanced that, given all that followed, and the enormous problems created by the isolation of the first workers’ state, it might have been better had the revolution not taken place. 

Our movement has a completely different perspective. The socialist revolution in the coming period will have a very different form from the Russian Revolution. But it will be led and organized by those who have assimilated all the lessons of the first attempt by the international working class to conquer power and establish socialism.

The initial measures taken by the Bolsheviks upon the conquest of power did not represent major steps towards the socialization of the economy. The first major economic decree was the nationalization of the land. Here the revolutionary government took over the program of the peasant party, the Socialist Revolutionary Party. Land was nationalized but the peasants had the right to its use. In essence, the decree did little more than give sanction to the outcome of the peasant war against the landlords that had formed such a decisive component of the revolutionary upsurge.

From the standpoint of the development of the socialist program in the sphere of agriculture, a program that is based on the large-scale development of industrial methods of production, thereby ending what Marx termed the idiocy of rural life, the land policy was a step back. Some of the larger estates were reduced in size, as land was allocated to poorer peasants, and the average size of landholdings decreased while the number of peasant households with land increased as poor and landless peasants gained from the redistribution. There was no overall policy, or set decision on the size of holdings. Each village made its own arrangements and there were wide variations both within and between regions.

So far as industry was concerned, one of the first major decrees, issued on November 21, 1917, concerned “workers’ control.” It gave the factory committees, which had already acquired certain powers under the Provisional Government, additional authority. They could actively intervene in all aspects of production and distribution, and had the right to supervise production, had the right to obtain data on costs and to lay down indicators for output. The owners had to make available all accounts and documents. Commercial secrecy was abolished. [1]

The Bolsheviks did not enter the revolution with any kind of plan to nationalize all industry, or even the key sectors, apart from the banks and transport. In an article published on the eve of the revolution entitled “Can the Bolsheviks Retain State Power?” Lenin made clear that the crucial question was to establish political power. Economic policy was subordinated to that objective.

“The important thing,” he wrote, “will not be even the confiscation of the capitalists’ property, but country-wide, all-embracing workers’ control over the capitalists and their possible supporters. Confiscation alone leads nowhere, as it does not contain the element of organization, of accounting for proper distribution. Instead of confiscation, we could easily impose a fair tax ...” [2]

The revolutionary government established the Supreme Council of National Economy on December 15, 1917 and defined its task as the organization of national economy and state finance working in collaboration with local authorities as well as the factory, trade union and working class organizations. While nationalization was beginning, it was not a central priority. Often such nationalizations as did take place were carried out on the initiative of local organizations. Indeed, in January 1918 and again in April the Supreme Council declared that no nationalization should take place without its specific authority, adding on the second occasion that any enterprises nationalized without its authority would not receive finance.

In June 1918 the situation changed dramatically. There was now a sweeping expropriation of capital. This transformation was not brought about by a change in doctrine, but in the external situation. The launching of the civil war, fueled in large measure by the decision of the imperialist powers to intervene and secure the overthrow of the Bolshevik government, meant that the bourgeoisie and owners of capital who might, under different circumstances, have been prepared to submit to workers’ control were not prepared to do so. From the first day after the conquest of power, the American cabinet was discussing the situation in Russia and how it might intervene. In Britain, Churchill spoke of the necessity to strangle the Bolshevik baby in its cradle. The French, the biggest creditors of the tsarist regime, were determined to reverse the situation, while the German bourgeoisie and military high command were laying down their demands for the appropriation of large areas of Russia and its resources as the condition for peace.

This led to a situation inside Russia where the bourgeoisie refused to accept the loss of power ... it was a temporary setback that would soon be overcome with the assistance of outside friends and allies. This was the political impetus for the program of nationalization.

As Trotsky explained in 1920:

“Once having taken power, it is impossible to accept one set of consequences at will and refuse to accept others. If the capitalist bourgeoisie consciously and malignantly transforms the disorganization of production into a method of political struggle, with the object of restoring power to itself, the proletariat is obliged to resort to socialization, independently of whether this is beneficial or not at the given moment. And, once having taken over production, the proletariat is obliged, under the pressure of iron necessity, to learn by its own experience a most difficult art—that of organizing a socialist economy. Having mounted the saddle, the rider is obliged to guide the horse—in peril of breaking his neck.” [3]

Two years later, in his report to the Fourth Congress of the Communist International held in November 1922, Trotsky elaborated further on the reasons for the nationalization of industry. In a civil war, he explained, decisions had to be taken which from the standpoint of economic development were completely irrational but which were politically necessary—such as the blowing up of bridges.

It would be perfectly in order for a workers’ state to carry out the expropriation of the bourgeoisie provided it was able to organize the development of the economy on new foundations. However that was not the situation in Russia in 1917-18. The organizational capacities of the workers’ state lagged far behind the tasks posed by total nationalization. But the Civil War made nationalization a necessity. That is, measures that were irrational from an economic point of view were politically necessary.

And the key factor giving rise to this economic irrationality was the contradictory character of the revolution itself. The working class had first come to power, not in Western Europe but in Russia. Had the socialist revolution taken place in the wake of a victory in Europe, then developments would have assumed a very different form. The Russian bourgeoisie would not have dared raise so much as a little finger against the revolution and it would have been possible to carry out the reorganization of industry in relative tranquility. 

However, the situation facing the Bolsheviks was very different. Under conditions where capital remained dominant in the rest of the world, the Russian bourgeoisie refused to take the revolution seriously.

“The initial decrees of the revolutionary power were greeted with scornful laughter; they were flouted; they remained unfulfilled. Even the newspapermen—as cowardly a set as you can find—even they refused to take seriously the basic revolutionary measures of the workers’ government. It seemed to the bourgeoisie as if it was just a tragic joke, a misunderstanding. How else was it possible to teach our bourgeoisie and its flunkies to respect the new power, except by confiscating its property? There was no other way. Every factory, every bank, every little office, every little shop, every lawyer’s waiting room became a fortress against us. ... It was necessary to smash the enemy, to deprive it of its sources of nourishment, independently of whether or not organized economic activity could keep up with this.” [4]

The expropriations undertaken in 1918 were from the economic standpoint “irrational.” But that only serves to demonstrate the fact that the world is not governed by economic rationality—if it were the bourgeoisie would have been long gone—but that socialist revolution is necessary in order that reason can be introduced into the regulation of economic and social life.

The compelling economic task that confronted the revolutionary government in 1918 was the provision of economic resources for the Red Army now engaged in a life and death civil war, both against the old ruling classes of Russia and the imperialist bourgeoisie of the United States and Europe ... and even from interventionist forces from as far away as Australia. This was the basis of the policy that has gone down in history under the name of War Communism.

Trotsky and Red ArmyTrotsky reviewing Red Army troops

The central foundation of War Communism was the requisitioning of grain surpluses from the peasants to supply the Red Army and feed the cities. Industrial policy involved exchanges between state enterprises increasingly without the use of money, which became steadily worthless. According to a resolution of the second All-Russian Congress of Economic Councils, state enterprises were to deliver their products to other state enterprises without payments and the railways and merchant fleet should transport gratis the products of all state enterprises. The aim of this proposal, the resolution stated, was to “see the final elimination of any influence of money upon the relations of economic units.” [5]

Money lost its function within the state sector of the economy and played virtually no role at all. So devalued was the currency that the economic historian of Soviet Russia, Alec Nove, recalls as a child handing a note of considerable face value to a beggar only to be told that it was worthless. As money lost all value, private trade was declared illegal and nationalization was extended to practically all enterprises, there was a belief that a socialist economy was being established. Of course insofar as “communism,” based on equality, was being established, it was a communism of poverty. Yet the measures of War Communism were seen as a stepping stone to a socialist system.

Viewed from the standpoint of impoverished Russia, such conceptions were completely irrational. How then could they arise? The answer lies in the fact that they were developed on the basis of the perspective that had animated the revolution in the first place—that the taking of power in Russia was but the immediate prelude to the European socialist revolution.

As Trotsky later explained, while War Communism had been imposed on the workers’ state there was a certain expectation that it could lead to socialism without any major economic turns. This was based on the belief that the revolutionary development in Western Europe would come more rapidly than it did.

“If the European proletariat had conquered power in 1919, it could have taken our backward country in tow—backward in the economic and cultural sense—could have come to our aid technically and organizationally and thus enabled us, by correcting and modifying our methods of War Communism, to move straight toward a genuine socialist economy. Yes, admittedly, such were our hopes. We have never based our policy on the minimizing of revolutionary possibilities and perspectives. On the contrary, as a living revolutionary force we have always striven to expand these possibilities and exhaust each one to the very end.” [6]

While entertaining the prospect that the European revolution could unfold quite rapidly, Trotsky, at the same time, held out no hope for any assistance from the West to overcome the economic burdens afflicting the workers’ state, either in the form of concessions—the establishment of foreign-owned investment projects in Soviet Russia—or loans. After all, as leader of the Red Army, Trotsky was engaged in the day-to-day struggle to throw back the imperialist-backed counterrevolution.

Consideration of these issues helps to expose the outright falsifications of Geoffrey Swain and the unclarities in the analysis by the historian Richard Day upon which Swain seeks to base himself.

On the first page of his book Swain writes: “Richard Day, writing more than 30 years ago, argued convincingly that Trotsky, far from being an internationalist, firmly believed in the possibility of socialism in one country.” [7]

In the first place, this is a complete falsification of what Day actually wrote. “The operative question for Trotsky,” he wrote, “was not whether Russia could build socialism in advance of the international revolution, but how to devise an optimal planning strategy, taking into account both the existing and future international division of labour.” [8]

According to Day, in the period of War Communism two tendencies, one “isolationist” the other “integrationist,” emerged within the Bolshevik Party. The isolationists tended to look upon Soviet Russia as an exile from the world economy while the integrationists maintained that Russia had to resume her position in international affairs. If Trotsky’s position had been consistent with the normal interpretation placed on the perspective of permanent revolution, he continued, then Trotsky would have fallen into the integrationist category.

“For want of a better alternative he would have subscribed to the widely held view that every possible device must be employed to solicit economic aid from abroad, including both a restoration of international trade and even foreign investments from capitalist Europe. But the evidence shows he in fact emerged as the central theorist of economic isolation.” [9]

But, contrary to Day, there was nothing inconsistent in Trotsky’s position. He insisted that no reliance could be placed on economic assistance from the West and that, because of the weakened economic position of Soviet Russia, the imperialist powers would seek to use any economic concessions as a means of undermining the workers’ state, just as they were seeking to do by military means.

In early 1920, when the Allied economic blockade on Russia was lifted, Lenin entertained hopes that economic aid would be forthcoming. Trotsky held a different viewpoint. In February 1920 he noted that if economic connections with Europe were restored under conditions of economic recovery this could be beneficial for socialist construction. But there was also another, and more likely, possibility:

“Given our further economic deterioration, terms will be dictated to us by the world merchants who have commodity supplies at their disposal. In one manner or another they will reduce us to the position of an enslaved colonial country.” [10]

As Richard Day noted in a later article on the economic policies of the Left Opposition, Trotsky had been “reluctant to restore contact with Europe until Russia’s own recovery was under way, fearing that unfavourable terms would be dictated and that the Bolsheviks would be forced to acknowledge the Tsarist debts in exchange for ‘a pound of tea and a tin of condensed milk.’” [11]

Trotsky’s belief was borne out, that concessions and loans would be extremely limited and attached with conditions aimed at undermining the workers’ state. At the Genoa conference of April 1922, called by Lloyd George to attempt an economic reorganization of Europe under British tutelage, the demands of the imperialist powers for denationalization and the payment of the tsarist debts were so severe that even before the conference began Lenin insisted that it was time to call a halt.

Notwithstanding the hopes of the Bolsheviks about the prospects for a speedy development of the socialist revolution in Western Europe, the program of War Communism was doomed to failure. The basic problem was that while the program of grain requisitioning could, at least for a time, secure supplies to the Red Army, it could not ensure the supply of agricultural products to the city without which industrialization could not proceed. The peasants had come to the side of the Bolsheviks in the course of the civil war understanding through bitter experience that only they could prevent the return of the landlords. But support for the economic policies of the new regime was another question. The attitude of the peasants was summed up in the phrase that, while they supported the Bolsheviks, they opposed the Communists.

By the end of 1919 it was clear that, while the existing policy could continue for a period, in the long run society faced a breakdown unless there were a radical reorientation.

The first move in this direction came from Trotsky at the beginning of 1920. Drawing on observations he made while stationed in the Urals, he advanced a proposal to end the program of grain requisitioning and replace it with a tax in kind. Under this proposal, the peasant, while having to supply grain to the state, would be able to improve his individual lot. In February 1920 he submitted his proposal to the Central Committee.

“The present policy of equalized requisition according to the food scale, of mutual responsibility for deliveries, and of equalized distribution of manufactured products, tends to lower the status of agriculture and to disperse the industrial proletariat, and threatens to bring about a complete breakdown in the economic life of the country,” he wrote.

“The food resources are threatened with exhaustion, a contingency that no amount of improvement in the methods of requisition can prevent. These tendencies towards economic decline can be counteracted as follows: (1) The requisitioning of surpluses should give way to a payment on a percentage basis (a sort of progressive tax in kind), the scale of payment being fixed in such a way as make an increase of the ploughed area, or a more thorough cultivation, still yield some profit; (2) a closer correspondence should be established between industrial products supplied to the peasants and the quantities of grain they deliver; this applies not only to rural districts (volosts) and villages, but to the individual peasant households, as well.” [12]

Lenin, however, opposed the proposal and it was defeated by 11 votes to 4 on the central committee. The ninth congress of the party was held in March 1920. Trotsky did not raise the proposal there, but in collaboration with Lenin advanced measures for the more stringent application of the policies of War Communism.

To be continued


1. Alec Nove, An Economic History of the USSR, Penguin, 1990, p. 42.

2.  Nove, p. 37.

3.  Nove, p. 75.

4.  Leon Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Comintern, Volume 2, New Park, 1974, p. 227.

5.  Nove, p. 57.

6.  Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Comintern, Volume 2, p. 230.

7.  Geoffrey Swain, Trotsky, Longman, 2006, p. 1.

8.  Richard Day, Leon Trotsky and the Politics of Economic Isolation, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p.4.

9.  Day, p. 5.

10. Day, p. 27.

11.  Richard Day, “Trotsky and Preobrazhensky: The Troubled Unity of the Left Opposition,” in: Studies in Comparative Communism, 1977, p. 73.

12.  Trotsky, My Life, Penguin, 1988, p. 482.

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