Socialist Equality Party (Germany)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Germany)

Stalinism and the Left Opposition

41. The defeat of the German revolution had a direct effect on the Soviet Union. It strengthened the reactionary forces out of which the Stalinist dictatorship would eventually arise. The economic backwardness and international isolation of the first workers’ state led to the development of a bureaucracy in the state and the party that increasingly sought to establish its own interests. Because of the shortage of educated forces, the Soviet government had brought many former tsarist officials into the administration. In the 1921 New Economic Policy (NEP), it had made concessions to capitalist layers, in order to encourage the growth of the economy and to overcome the devastating consequences of the war and civil war. These conservative elements increasingly exerted an influence on the communist party, which had been exhausted by the civil war. They regarded the programme of the world socialist revolution with distrust and endeavoured to consolidate their own social position.

42. The German defeat gave succour to these conservative currents. It dashed the hope that the Soviet economy would soon win support from an advanced industrialized country. The Soviet Union remained isolated, and the failure of the KPD seemed to confirm all those who did not want to link the fate of the Soviet Union with the international successes of the communist movement, but would rather rest on their own national forces. “Had the German revolution conquered toward the end of 1923”, Trotsky wrote, in summarizing the effects of the German defeat, “the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia would have been cleansed and consolidated without any internal convulsions. But the German revolution ended in one of the most terrible capitulations in working class history. The defeat of the German revolution gave a powerful impetus to all the processes of reaction inside the Soviet Republic. Hence the struggle against the ‘permanent revolution’ and ‘Trotskyism’ in the Party led to the creation of the theory of socialism in one country, and so on”.[1]

43. Just a few weeks after the German defeat, Stalin and Bukharin announced the theory of “socialism in one country”, which expressed the material interests of the bureaucracy and became the main thrust of its attack on Marxism. “Socialism in one country” meant a complete break with the international perspective that had informed the October Revolution, and signified a rejection of the strategic conclusions that Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg had drawn from the collapse of the Second International. Its origins can be traced back to the right-wing German social democrat, Georg von Vollmar, who in 1878 had already propagated the theory of an “isolated socialist state”.

44. Trotsky summarized the contradiction between the international perspective of Marxism and the national perspective of the Stalinists with the words: “Marxism takes its point of departure from world economy, not as a sum of national parts but as a mighty and independent reality which has been created by the international division of labour and the world market, and which in our epoch imperiously dominates the national markets. The productive forces of capitalist society have long ago outgrown the national boundaries. The imperialist war (of 1914-1918) was one of the expressions of this fact. In respect of the technique of production, socialist society must represent a stage higher than capitalism. To aim at building a nationally isolated socialist society means, in spite of all passing successes, to pull the productive forces backward even as compared with capitalism. To attempt, regardless of the geographical, cultural and historical conditions of the country’s development, which constitutes a part of the world unity, to realize a shut-off proportionality of all the branches of economy within a national framework, means to pursue a reactionary utopia…”.[2]

45. The perspective of “socialism in a single country” influenced all aspects of Soviet domestic and foreign policy. In domestic policy, it robbed the leadership of a political compass. The Stalin faction pursued an empirical zigzag course, which intensified economic and social contradictions, and which repeatedly drove the country to the edge of civil war. In order to strengthen its position over the working class, it initially promoted the large farmers and speculators. When these threatened to become too powerful, Stalin carried out a panic-stricken shift to the left, pushed through the collectivization of agriculture by force and set about industrialization at a speed that made excessive demands on the workers. Stalin was consistent only in his actions again the Left Opposition, which he persecuted ever more violently after each shift in policy.

46. In foreign policy, the Stalinist regime sacrificed an international revolutionary orientation to national interests. It transformed the Comintern into a tool of Soviet foreign policy and used its sections for its manoeuvres with bourgeois governments. In countries where the Soviet Union expected support from the government, the communist parties followed a course of class collaboration, which finally turned them into instruments of the counter-revolution. The first consequences of this political perspective were the defeat of the British general strike in May 1926 and the Chinese revolution in April 1927. In Britain, the communist party had placed itself uncritically behind the TUC, the trade union umbrella organization, with which Stalin hoped to establish friendly relations. When the TUC stabbed the general strike in the back—which was not difficult to foresee—the working class was completely unprepared. In China, the communist party supported the bourgeois Kuomintang, which then, in 1927, massacred thousands of communist party members.

47. From 1923, the struggle between the Stalin faction and the Left Opposition dominated the internal life of the communist party of the Soviet Union and the Comintern, whose political course Trotsky and his supporters fought to correct. They proposed measures against bureaucratisation and for the re-establishment of internal party democracy. They argued for an economic policy that strengthened the working class and the poor peasants against the profiteers of the NEP and the better-off peasants. They drew the lessons of the German defeat and argued vehemently against the wrong policies of the Comintern in Britain and China. The centre of the conflict concerned two irreconcilable perspectives, permanent revolution and socialism in a single country. The Left Opposition insisted on the fact that the fate of the workers’ state and its further development to socialism were inseparably bound up with the development of the world socialist revolution. The Stalinists wanted to develop a nationally isolated socialist society on the basis of Russian resources.

48. The analyses, predictions and warnings of the Left Opposition were regularly confirmed in practice. Its ranks included many prominent party members who had played an outstanding role in the October revolution. For a time in 1926, it joined together with the supporters of Zinoviev and Kamenev to form the United Opposition. Now a large part of Lenin’s party leadership (including his widow Krupskaya) stood in opposition to the Stalin faction. But the international defeats, for which the Stalinists were largely to blame, strengthened the bureaucracy. “It defeated all these enemies, the Opposition, the party and Lenin, not with ideas and arguments, but with its own social weight. The leaden rump of bureaucracy outweighed the head of the revolution”,[3] is how Trotsky summarized the reasons for the victory of the bureaucracy. The Stalinist bureaucracy proceeded using slander, historical falsification, party expulsions, banishment, persecution and, finally, execution squads against its opponents. Trotsky was expelled from the Politburo in 1926 and from the party in 1927. In 1928 he was banished to Kazakhstan, in 1929 was exiled from the country, and in 1940 he was murdered by a Stalinist agent.

49. The Left Opposition found support in the communist parties of Europe and China. In 1928, James P. Cannon brought back Trotsky’s critique of the draft programme of the Comintern[4] to the USA and thereby laid the foundations for the American Trotskyist movement. Through a long process of political and ideological clarification, the International Left Opposition and later the Fourth International were to emerge. Following his expulsion from the Soviet Union, Trotsky devoted a great deal of his energy to this task.


Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin.