Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 31, 2017

Socialism in one country revivalism

Filed under: socialism,Stalinism,state capitalism — louisproyect @ 8:47 pm

From the blog of Roland Boer, who was awarded the Isaac Deutscher prize in 2014, a decision that made about as much sense as naming Jeff Sessions Attorney General

The subtitle of a Jacobin article by New Left Review editorial board member Daniel Finn probably speaks for many on the left: “The Bolivarian Revolution went too far for capitalism but not far enough for socialism.” Like doctors examining a critically ill patient, the latest issue of the Jacobin features a panel of experts offering various cures. Favoring radical surgery is Eva Maria, a Venezuelan member of the ISO who answers the question “how socialist was Venezuela’s ‘twenty-first century socialism’” thusly:

Chávez’s thinking was that he could take over a capitalist state through an electoral process. Then, he could help foster the social revolution by using the position he held in the state. But I think that presupposes a lot of things that are unstable and untrue.

Mike Gonzalez, a former member of the British SWP that spawned the ISO, has an article in the same issue that accuses the Pink Tide governments of having “left stranded and disoriented those millions who fought for a different world”.

The methodology of Finn, Maria and Gonzalez is the one followed by film critics. You go to a press screening and take notes on all the terrible things that Michael Bay did in his latest movie. There is little doubt that Bay’s movies are crap but are the criticisms going to help young screenwriters and directors make better films? As a film critic and someone who was deeply involved in the Sandinista revolution–another that received thumbs down from the pure at heart–this sort of sideline criticism strikes me as utterly sterile.

But on a deeper level, it poses the question whether the ideological assumptions at the heart of these critics effaces one of the major theoretical challenges the left has faced since 1917—namely, can socialism be built in one country. This is exactly the meaning of the criticisms–that all of these countries should have “gone socialist”. One imagines that they came to this conclusion since Saint Lenin said it was possible in the Soviet Union but the fallen saint Leon Trotsky refused to describe the USSR in those terms even after 19 years of “socialist development”. In chapter nine of “Revolution Betrayed”, he describes the character of the USSR as not yet decided by history:

To define the Soviet regime as transitional, or intermediate, means to abandon such finished social categories as capitalism (and therewith “state capitalism”) and also socialism. But besides being completely inadequate in itself, such a definition is capable of producing the mistaken idea that from the present Soviet regime only a transition to socialism is possible. In reality a backslide to capitalism is wholly possible. A more complete definition will of necessity be complicated and ponderous.

This was the only conceivable way to describe a country that despite the total absence of private property was indistinguishable politically and socially from fascism. For those who have been trained in Tony Cliff’s ideology, characterizing the USSR was much easier. It was “state capitalism”, a term that had little purchase outside of the ranks of the international movement he built except for individuals like CLR James who while believing in it never devoted much ink to defending it. The Cliffites never really answered the question adequately, however. If it was impossible to build socialism in one country in Russia, how in the world could Cuba, Venezuela or Nicaragua “go socialist”? The Sandinistas ruled over a country that had a population about the size of Brooklyn, one elevator in the entire country, and whose GDP was less than what Americans spent on blue jeans. Socialism? If the USSR with its vast resources, immense population and powerful army was not capable of building socialism, how could any of these fragile Latin and Central American nations satisfy the demanding critics?

Up until Lenin took that train ride back to Russia in 1917, he never considered Russia to be capable of building socialism. He was for a revolution against feudalism that could motivate workers in the West to overthrow capitalism. In other words, he was for a world revolution. In 1920, Lenin gave a speech on the 3rd anniversary of the revolution that categorically denied the possibility of building socialism without the USSR being linked to more advanced and liberated nations to the West:

Three years ago, when we were at Smolny, the Petrograd workers’ uprising showed us that it was more unanimous than we could have expected, but had we been told that night that, three years later, we would have what now exists, that we would have this victory of ours, nobody, not even the most incurable optimist, would have believed it. We knew at that time that our victory would be a lasting one only when our cause had triumphed the world over, and so when we began working for our cause we counted exclusively on the world revolution.

Just three years later, he adopted the same cautious tone in an article titled “On Cooperation” that defined socialism in the USSR as a network of peasant cooperatives similar to those that the Chavistas promoted. The big difference between the USSR and Venezuela is that the Bolsheviks “expropriated the expropriators”, a bold act that prompted a counter-revolutionary invasion that cost up to 12 million lives, most of them civilian, and $35 billion. If Chavez had followed “20th century socialism”, he would have expropriated the expropriators as well. That would have eliminated the internal threat but accelerated the external one. The USA would have wasted no time imposing crippling sanctions to make the country “cry uncle”. None of this ever enters the calculations of someone like Mike Gonzalez. It might have been thrilling to him to witness such a transformation in Venezuela even if it lasted briefly and left our movement feeling just as crushed as when Pinochet took power in 1973. We need a permanent revolution, not in the Trotskyist sense but in the sense of permanence. Capitalism achieved that kind of permanence beginning in the 15th century because it pitted a bourgeoisie that was accumulating social and economic power within the framework of medieval political institutions.

Nikolai Bukharin was very clear about the differences between the bourgeois revolution and proletarian revolutions. Marxists traditionally had believed that just as capitalism emerged out of the old feudal order, so would socialism emerge out of bourgeois society. However, as Bukharin pointed out, the bourgeoisie was not an exploited class and therefore was able to rule society long before its political revolution was effected. The workers are in a completely different position, however. They lack an independent economic base and suffer economic and cultural exploitation. Prior to its revolution, the working-class remains backward and therefore, unlike the bourgeoisie, is unable to prepare itself in advance for ruling all of society. It was only through the seizure of power and rule through a vanguard party that the workers could build socialism.

What did Karl Marx think about a revolution in Russia? Toward the end of his life, he became increasingly convinced that the country was ripe for revolution. So persuaded was he of this eventuality that he began to study Russian to keep up with the developments in the country. Just two years before his death, he began corresponding with Vera Zasulich, a one-time Narodnik who had become a Marxist. However, she had qualms about whether Russia had to go through a capitalist phase before socialism was possible, a view held by Georgi Plekhanov who was regarded as the most advanced Marxist thinker in the country.

Marx said it was not necessary and even anticipated what Lenin would state in 1923 about socialism resting on communal peasant farming: “My answer is that, thanks to the unique combination of circumstances in Russia, the rural commune, which is still established on a national scale, may gradually shake off its primitive characteristics and directly develop as an element of collective production on a national scale.”

A year after Marx wrote this letter to Zasulich, he and Engels co-wrote a preface to a new edition to Capital that fleshed out the relationship between Russia and advanced nations in the West:

The Communist Manifesto had, as its object, the proclamation of the inevitable impending dissolution of modern bourgeois property. But in Russia we find, face-to-face with the rapidly flowering capitalist swindle and bourgeois property, just beginning to develop, more than half the land owned in common by the peasants. Now the question is: can the Russian obshchina [commune], though greatly undermined, yet a form of primeval common ownership of land, pass directly to the higher form of Communist common ownership? Or, on the contrary, must it first pass through the same process of dissolution such as constitutes the historical evolution of the West?

The only answer to that possible today is this: If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development.

In other words, in 1920 Lenin was simply repeating what Marx and Engels had written in 1882. If the Russian Revolution detonated revolutions in Germany, England, France et al, then a “communist development” would be possible. Marx never wrote much about what a socialist revolution would look like until 1871, when the Paris Commune became the first state ever governed by the workers themselves. Marx’s focus in his book on the Commune was not on “socialism” as much as it was about the proletariat in power. Clearly, the failure of the Commune to be replicated anywhere else in France, let alone the rest of Europe, sealed its fate. Its importance was an example of working people acting in their own interests without a ruling class. As such, it had to be destroyed. Marx ends “Civil War in France” with a judgement on its historical significance: “Working men’s Paris, with its Commune, will be forever celebrated as the glorious harbinger of a new society. Its martyrs are enshrined in the great heart of the working class. Its exterminators history has already nailed to that eternal pillory from which all the prayers of their priest will not avail to redeem them.”

The key word is harbinger.

Yesterday, a graduate student in Tampa, Florida named Donald Parkinson replied to someone who identified Nikolai Bukharin as the inventor of the theory of socialism in one country even though it is usually attributed to Josef Stalin. Parkinson said that there were those who came before him including Karl Kautsky, something that was news to me.

I had never associated Kautsky with the theory but a brief search turned up an article titled ‘Socialism in one country’ before Stalin: German origins that is worth reading. It was written by Erik Van Ree for the June 2010 Journal of Political Ideologies that includes a sharp analysis of Kautsky, who ironically attacked Lenin for trying to build socialism in a country that was not economically advanced enough. Van Ree writes:

After Engels’s death in 1895, the editor of Die Neue Zeit, Kautsky, was widely seen as the main theoretical spokesman of ‘orthodox Marxism’. In contrast to the revisionists, he rejected German colonial and imperial ambitions. In his view, the most effective way of strengthening the country would be to expedite the transition to socialism. In a remarkable March 1897 editorial of Die Neue Zeit discussing admiral Friedrich von Hollmann’s naval programme, it was concluded that Germany was too late to become a winner in the imperialist rivalry:

If Germany wants to get ahead of richer nations, only one road is available to her, the road of a ‘social revolution, which … makes possible the creation of new productive forces that cancel out the disadvantages of the geographical situation’. Marx expressed this thought already fifty years ago … and later Lassalle gave it the formulation that the world market will belong to that nation whose working class first manages to emancipate itself. … The Weltpolitik of the big industrialists must be confronted with the proletarian Weltpolitik.

This editorial suggested not only that Germany could establish socialism on her own, but that this would even represent the desirable state of affairs; for the spread of socialism to other nations would have undone the lead socialism would have given Germany, which was the whole point of the editorial. That was however not likely the real drift of Kautsky’s thinking. More likely, he only intended to show that the socialist economic system was a solution for countries that were insufficiently able to get ahead. Nonetheless, the editorial shows that even the ‘orthodox’ Kautsky was not insensitive to the patriotic attractions of socialism in one country.

Kautsky was influenced by the spirit of the times. From the 1870s onward capitalist states had been retreating from free trade to nationalization of their economies and protectionism. Correspondingly, in the work of German social-democrats, including even of free-trade advocate Kautsky, the concept of autarky became steadily more important. In his 1892 Das Erfurter Program, Kautsky defined the socialist state as a ‘self-sufficient association [Genossenschaft]’ that must produce ‘everything it needs for its existence’, something he said all socialists agreed on. He explained that the expansion of international trade had more to do with capitalism than with real needs, and that under socialism international trade ‘will be strongly reduced’.32 To be sure, Kautsky was probably not referring to an isolated socialist state but to an international community of socialist states, each of which would be organizing its own autarkic economy.33 Nonetheless, this was a programme of socialist autarky. The book was probably the single most authoritative compendium of the SPD’s ideology for the next 25 years, so the weight of these passages should not be underestimated.

Unlike Lars Lih who has devoted so many words to rehabilitating Kautsky’s reputation, this passage reminds me why I have always seen him a bit more critically. I would go so far as to advise all my readers to see all of the classic Marxist thinkers with “warts and all”, including a patzer like me.



  1. I haven’t read the articles that you mention yet but it seems clear to me that Chavez and the other “Pink Tide” leaders were the real “socialism in one country” advocates. None of them ever advocated building a genuine socialist International, not even an International for Latin America. In the absence of a strong International any attempt at socialism — however one wishes to define that term — is going to fail. One the one hand Chavez invoked Rosa Luxemburg, on the other hand he reached out to Alexander Lushenko, dictator of Belarus. Not exactly following in Lenin’s footsteps.

    Very few socialist governments have ever taken internationalism seriously as a strategy, not merely a sentiment. Add all the Pink Tide leaders to that long list.

    Comment by jschulman — May 31, 2017 @ 9:57 pm

  2. While an academic discussion, was it possible for Germany to transform itself and survive as a socialist society in the 1890s and early 1900s? Given that capitalism had not yet established itself as an all encompassing global system at the time, and the fact that Germany was a diverse industrial powerhouse, it might have been difficult, but not impossible. Germany might have even pulled other adjoining countries dependent upon it into such a system, as implied by Kautsky.

    But I don’t think that socialism in one country is possible today unless the country is the US or China. It might also be possible in a unified EU, but the prospect of such unity any time soon is slight.

    Comment by Richard Estes — May 31, 2017 @ 10:00 pm

  3. As Rudy Bahro pointed out in the 70s, socialism in Western European countries could not have happened around World War 1 because they were profoundly colonial powers. Socialist revolution was impossible until they got rid of their colonies. I think the Bolivarian Revolution is profoundly international, and has reached out to Latin America and even North America, You know that the Venezuelan government oil company Citgo has provided free heating oil to people in the South Bronx, and has sponsored political gatherings there. Their providing oil to Cuba is also part of their internationalism. Just because they haven’t set up an office and designed a flag for the 6th International does not mean they are not active beyond the country.

    Comment by Bert Schultz — May 31, 2017 @ 10:19 pm

  4. Jason, the Pink Tide was not socialist unless you are talking about Bernie Sanders socialism. Forgive for being old-fashioned but socialism means transcending capitalism to me.

    Comment by louisproyect — May 31, 2017 @ 11:10 pm

  5. Don’t bring out the tremendous industrial success of the Soviet Union in Stalin’s time, achieved without the outrageous income inequality in China. You can write drivel in relative safety because the Soviet Union crushed real fascism. And now as antagonisms grow between imperialist countries, preach that there must be no revolution in one country or another, nothing until the whole world rises up at one moment.

    Comment by Miss Tickle — June 1, 2017 @ 3:41 am

  6. Miss Tickle, your beef is not with me but those Marxists I cited, including Marx himself.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 1, 2017 @ 12:17 pm

  7. “Jason, the Pink Tide was not socialist unless you are talking about Bernie Sanders socialism. Forgive for being old-fashioned but socialism means transcending capitalism to me.”

    That’s why I said “however you define that term.” My point was that not only is a classless society impossible in one country, but for most of the world social-democratic capitalism is impossible in one country. The Pink Tide leaders never addressed this unfortunate fact. Chavez essentially championed “socialist” autarchy.

    Comment by jschulman — June 1, 2017 @ 8:43 pm

  8. “The Pink Tide leaders never addressed this unfortunate fact. Chavez essentially championed “socialist” autarchy.”

    I don’t think that this is true. Chavez championed a process of South American economic integration through Mercosur. Of course, Mercosur was far from a socialist project, but the objective was to make South America more self-sufficient, more independent from the US. Perhaps, Chavez was taking the long view, that movement towards a socially democratic, economically integrated South America was a necessary precondition for socialism.

    Without getting into the contradictory aspects of this enterprise, particularly in regard to respecting the rights of peasants and indigenous peoples, Brazil was the linchpin of the effort, and the 2015 recession rendered it a dead letter.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 2, 2017 @ 12:32 am

  9. “a socially democratic, economically integrated South America was a necessary precondition for socialism.”

    A modulation in capital’s management hardly prefigures socialism.

    Comment by Aydin Jang — June 2, 2017 @ 1:00 am

  10. “Instead of accepting the neoliberal assumption that governments must respond to threats of disinvestment by guaranteeing opportunities for profitable enterprise to international finance, the Bolivarian Republic has reoriented its economy towards autarky and implemented stringent controls on private producers.”

    Source: http://links.org.au/node/3705

    I hate neoliberalism with all my heart but autarchy is no strategy at all. Marx, Engels, Luxemburg, Lenin, Trotsky, Zetkin, Serge — they all understood this. I don’t think the PSUV leaders ever really did.

    Comment by jschulman — June 2, 2017 @ 3:25 am

  11. There are communists, and there are communists. One of the longest-running arguments I have with one fellow traveler is that these states (e.g., Cuba, USSR, Venezuela) cannot be considered socialist because they don’t meet Marx’s criteria. These people are like those (well-meaning) scientists in the 80’s and 90’s who refused to believe that HIV exists. They had a hypothesis, and anything that didn’t fit their hypothesis could not be. But this is not what scientists – or communists – should do. Form your hypothesis, and if it needs tweaking after you’ve done successive experiments, you must alter your hypothesis. And when other researcher/communists come along and find new conditions to uphold the original hypothesis, they aren’t apostates. Just evolutionists.

    Comment by Lowell Denny — June 2, 2017 @ 9:07 am

  12. Please forgive us old-fashioned Marxists who believe that “socialism” means a classless society and that achieving a classless society in one country is impossible for reasons that should be obvious — and, furthermore, goes directly against the idea of “workers of the world unite.” Also — well-meaning scientists who thought HIV didn’t exist? What?

    Comment by jschulman — June 2, 2017 @ 2:15 pm

  13. You wrote : ‘the failure of the Commune to be replicated anywhere else in France, let alone the rest of Europe, sealed its fate.’

    This shows that you either failed to read Marx’s classic “The civil war in France,” or failed to understand it.

    Marx stated that the Paris Commune didn’t go far enough. It didn’t seize the bank and it’s gold, and it didn’t pursue the retreating French government and army outside of Paris. The government was thus able to regroup and attack Paris, where it found the gold still resting safely in the bank.

    Marx also wrote that the Paris Commune proved that the proletariat couldn’t simply seize the capitalist state and use it for its own ends. The capitalist state has to be smashed.

    These are Marx’s own statements, taken from a book you refer too but mischaracterize.

    Chavez was a nationalist generalismo. He came from the tradition of the Latin American bourgeoisie. Late to the scene it sought to mobilize the plebian masses to pursue its own efforts to build an independent national market. It has nothing to do with Marx or the proletarian tradition that the Paris Commune emerged from.

    If Chavez was any kind of Marxist he would have been a very poor one since he went against the findings that Marx published a century prior in “The Civil War in France” : you can’t use the capitalist state to build socialism and you can’t be afraid to go all the way.

    Comment by Scott Isaac — June 4, 2017 @ 6:34 am

  14. “Chavez was a nationalist generalismo. He came from the tradition of the Latin American bourgeoisie. Late to the scene it sought to mobilize the plebian masses to pursue its own efforts to build an independent national market. It has nothing to do with Marx or the proletarian tradition that the Paris Commune emerged from.”

    One can argue that Chavez’s efforts in support of Mercosur were consistent with this.

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 5, 2017 @ 5:18 pm

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