Thursday, 1 November 2007

Branch Meeting: Socialism in One Country

At this evening's Stoke Socialist Party branch meeting, comrade D delivered a short lead off on socialism in one country. As Keele Socialist Students are hosting a debate between SP and Socialist Party of Great Britain speakers on the Russian Revolution next week, this served as an ideal primer.

D began with the origins of the term. He explained it was coined by Nikolai Bukharin to justify measures Russia took to strengthen itself after the revolutions in the West had failed in the aftermath of the First World War. Its promulgation coincided with his championing of the New Economic Policy. For those not familiar with NEP, this was an attempt to get the economy going after the period of severe dislocation brought on by civil war and war communism. Here, whole swathes of the economy had fallen into bartering and the state was more or less forced to seize what it needed to combat the counter-revolution. NEP tried to get things going again by introducing limited market reforms and allowing production for profit in some agricultural and some industrial sectors. Though Lenin at the time acknowledged this was a step backwards, Bukharin made a virtue out of necessity and equated this necessary development with the building of socialism.

As we know, after Stalin had dealt with his opponents to the left; the right, including Bukharin, were systematically removed from power in the late 1920s and NEP gave way to forced agricultural collectivisation and industrialisation. Market relations were forcibly and brutally liquidated as production was subordinated to the dictates of the bureaucratic plan. Nevertheless, socialism in one country suited Stalins designs and a number of his works were retrospectively doctored to make it appear as if he'd originated the concept. Most famous is the chip-chopping of his 1924 lecture, Foundations of Leninism. Here, passages asserting socialism would only come through the combined efforts of many countries were deleted in favour of the possibility of it being built within the borders of the USSR.

Moving to the discussion, F argued the experience of Stalinism, how it developed, and the baleful effects it had on the international workers' movement are key parts of our history that every socialists should address - not least because there remains a popular identification of socialism with the Stalinist regimes. D added it remained important we understand the ins and outs of the issue.

P, playing devil's advocate, asked to what extent were the features we associate with Stalinism forced on the soviet government by circumstances? If, for instance, the Left Opposition had won the faction fights of the early 20s, wouldn't Trostky have been as authoritarian? Possibly - the same problems the bureaucracy faced would have been there, but on the other hand, if the Left Opposition programme of democratisation and the rejuvenation of the soviets was implemented, these contradictions could not have played themselves out in the same way. The grotesque deformations of the personality cult, the purges, the show trials, and the mass use of slave (gulag) labour would unlikely have taken place under these circumstances.

In his contribution, A turned to bourgeois and "radical" accounts of Stalinism that attribute dictatorship to Bolshevism's political DNA. Such arguments are distortions of history because they ignore the conjuncture at which the Bolsheviks came to power, and suppose an essential continuity between Bolshevism (as a revolutionary Marxist tendency in the Russian working class); and Stalin's Communist Party of the Soviet Union, a party of managers, bureaucrats, and careerists. After the civil war when party membership was opened up, these were the elements that flooded into it and it was they who provided a material base for the rise and consolidation of the Stalinist dictatorship.

Looking at the lessons of Stalinism for socialists in Britain today, it's obvious to even the dogs in the streets that circumstances are very different from Russia in 1917. D noted the absence of a peasantry and the crushing preponderance of a well educated, mobile, and highly communicative working class means the objective situation is far riper for socialist transformation. It is highly unlikely the Stalinist experience could be repeated, given these conditions. However, P added the other key lesson is the centrality of democracy to our politics. Just as socialism in one country is unthinkable, socialism without democracy is not socialism at all. It has to be at the heart of our understanding of what a socialist society could look like, and in our practice as socialist activists in the here and now.


Korakious said...

I disagree that an adoption of the LO programme would have been enough to steer the USSR away from bureaucratism. A key part of the problem lay in the antagonistic policies towards the peasantry adopted by the soviet state, which necessitated the large scale use of terror and the extension of the police network even before the purges began. There is little evidence that Trotsky's agrarian policy would have been much different to Stalin's. And there are also issues pertaining to the nature of the Union, which was basically a federation in name but a unitary formation in essence. Also, I am not entirely sure what "revitalisation of the soviets" actually meant in the concrete context of the USSR. How would the soviets be revitalised, in the absence of an active working class?

Also, on an entirely unrelated note, I'd like to respond to your latest comment on my blog. The SWP here has increased its activity (only its own of course, they never do solidarity stalls or anything related to solidarity for that matter) three fold, a sign of confusion if I ever saw one. In a meeting about 10 days ago, the Scottish swippers voted unanimously (shock!!!) to support the CC's analysis of the situation. So that's that. I am far more interested however in what you know about the whole thing, given that over here, you folks actually are in the same organisation with the swips.

Phil BC said...

I would agree that it's simplistic to suggest that if the Left Opposition's programme was adopted everything would have been fantastic.

To start with your last points concerning the LO first, I admit my knowledge is a bit sketchy but I think the position on the soviets was articulated in conjunction with other policies designed to "restock" the working class - in other words, ensuring it was conscious of itself as a class at the moment it was being born. You have to remember the LO programme was written in 1923 as a weapon against the sort of policies that meant the soviets remained empty administrative units, and was encouraging a passive membership among the party.

Unfortunately, I haven't got the time to go into it more now - I will do so later.

Ken said...

... socialism in one country suited Stalins designs and a number of his works were retrospectively doctored to make it appear as if he'd originated the concept. Most famous is the chip-chopping of his 1924 lecture, Foundations of Leninism. Here, passages asserting socialism would only come through the combined efforts of many countries were deleted in favour of the possibility of it being built within the borders of the USSR.

If this is meant to imply some Orwellian memory hole, it's quite untrue. Stalin did indeed change one passage in Foundations of Leninism (1924) between the first and the second edition, which were only months or at most a year or two apart.

In a 1926 pamphlet, Concerning Questions of Leninism, and elsewhere, Stalin quoted both editions, and explained his reasons for the change. These two pamphlets were included in every edition of the standard one-volume compilation Problems of Leninism that I've seen, right up to 1953. The common assertion that Stalin had his earlier (and from his point of view, mistaken) formulation suppressed from the record is a myth.

This can easily be verified by looking up the relevant texts at

Phil BC said...

@Ken - well you've got me bang to rights!

@Korakious on Trotsky and agrarian policy. Not being a bibliophile of old Trotters, I haven't got a handy quote at the ready, but luckily I know a man who does. Sort of. According to Richard Day's article on Trotsky's economic policies in the 20s (in The Ideas of Leon Trotsky, eds Ticktin and Cox, 1995), they were designed to preserve the worker/peasant alliance all the Bolsheviks early on thought was key to agricultural and industrial development.

Trotsky's argument was that the industrialisation of agricultural production was necessary to overcome the division between town and country. Increased productivity would boost the living standards of farmers, and have the knock on effect of raising their cultural level, so in fact the worker-peasant alliance became more than just a phrase. But to get the process started, adequate economic incentives had to be made available to the peasant so that surplus grain would be produced, and then sold on the world market. In turn, capital raised this way would be invested in urban and rural industry, or be used to acquire foreign built heavy plant.

In 1926 when such a policy became unworkable (the kulaks had begun with holding grain from the market, under conditions of a bumper harvest), Trotsky proposed to get industry moving through means of a progressive agricultural tax and selective rises in wholesale prices combined with a lowering of retail prices, and with it more capital commitments to lighter industry. This would generate the conditions for some aspects of the earlier policy to be pursued. In 1927 when sections of the peasantry went on grain strike, Stalin began forcible grain seizures and the process of forced collectivisation got under way. In Day's opinion, if Trotsky's 1926 policies had been followed, if more resources were devoted to consumer industries as opposed to heavy industry, then the strike could have been averted and along with it forced collectivisation.

This isn't to say Trotsky's plans would haven't have encountered their own difficulties. For instance, relying on foriegn plant imports would have been affected by the depression. But nevertheless, if the plan had worked up to that point, the light industry-peasant dynamic may have been enough in itself to begin more investment in heavy industry. But whatever the outcome, it is doubtful it would have been worse than the disaster of forced collectivisation and the piling up of millions of bodies as the result of famine.