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Can there be socialism in one country?

This article is over 20 years, 1 months old
Colin Barker continues his series on 'Where We Stand', the Socialist Workers Party's statement of principles
Issue 1895

There are two fundamental reasons why socialism has to be international. Both rise from the nature of capitalism. The first is very simple and material. One of capitalism’s historic achievements has been the formation of a world market. If we think about our own everyday lives, it is immediately apparent that we depend on the products of the world.

We wake in the morning in bedding made of cotton, or some mixture of fibres drawn from across the globe. The bed itself may be built from timber grown anywhere in the world. Likewise with the floorboards, the lino or rug onto which we step. Our breakfast cereal and coffee or tea may come from Africa, America, Asia. There’s rubber in our shoes and the bus tyres that take us to work. And so on and on, to just about every aspect of our daily life.

To get through a single day, we use the products of the labour of hundreds of millions of workers across the world. True, some of these goods could be produced more locally. But it’s also the case that our lives are immensely enriched by our material interdependence with the whole world. The idea of relying purely on local resources is deeply reactionary.

For the first time in history capitalism has created a genuinely world society, where all our lives are entwined together in a common history and a common fate. Materially, socialism will build on that achievement, extending and developing our mutual solidarity with working people in every corner of the globe.

The second point is decisive. Capitalism has made a world system, but has always done so by the most brutal means. The making of a world market was achieved by conquest, robbery, piracy, enslavement, threats, bribery and even compulsory drug-trafficking.

Ferocious exploitation and equally ferocious competition, often in warlike form, have marked world capitalism from its birth to the present. Under capitalism world inequalities have deepened despite all the talk of wealth ‘trickling down’ to the poor through further capitalist development. These realities of world capitalism give the question of socialism in one country an urgent sharpness.

As bitter experience has shown time and again over the past century, even quite mild and non-socialist popular movements meet with bitter resistance from the world capitalist class. US capital mobilised to overtthrow Mossadeq’s moderate democratic government in Iran in the 1950s, and the British and French invaded Egypt when Nasser nationalised the Suez Canal.

Cuba has been placed under US economic blockade for decades, and in Chile the US backed a bloody military coup against a reformist socialist government. The IMF, the World Bank and the WTO place immense pressure on any government that attempts even the mildest of reforms, like supplying cheaper drugs to their sick and dying.

If ‘moderate’ governments provoke foreign economic and military interventions, just think how the capitalist class would respond to the outbreak of a genuine socialist revolution!

The fate of the Russian Revolution of 1917 is sufficient evidence. Faced with the first workers’ republic in the world, the world’s capitalist powers sent soldiers and guns to back the counter-revolutionary Whites in the civil war that raged between 1918 and 1920. Terrified that ‘Bolshevism’ would spread, they used every means they could to isolate and defeat the revolution.

The costs to the infant revolution were immense. Although the Bolsheviks could eventually defeat the Whites militarily, the pressures of the civil war effectively drowned the brilliant popular democratic institutions that had made the 1917 revolution.

The very working class that had led the revolution shrank in size. The cities depopulated. There was a terrifying death toll, not just from bullets, but above all from the diseases brought by famine conditions.

Only one thing could have saved the Russian Revolution-the spread of the socialist revolution to other countries. This was not a utopian hope. The end of the First World War initiated the greatest wave of working class insurgency ever seen in Europe.

New communist parties inspired by the Russian Revolution were created overnight. They lacked, however, the clarity needed to seize the opportunities of the time. The Bolsheviks knew their revolution could only succeed if it spread. That was why they devoted so much energy to forming a new Communist International. Its key purpose was to unite all the best militants across the world, and above all in Europe, around clear revolutionary principles and strategies.

For half a decade, everything was in the balance. The revival of soviet democracy in Russia was still a real possibility, but needed aid from abroad. There were titanic labour battles in Germany, Italy, France, even Britain, but the young communist forces were insufficiently prepared.

The social democratic parties worked to contain working class militancy, siding with conservatism rather than the left. Workers across Europe suffered immense defeats. Russia remained isolated, and the tendencies to ‘degeneration’ of the revolution strengthened.

It was in the process of the decay of the Russian Revolution that Stalin put forward his proposal for ‘socialism in one country’. It was a signal, not of victory, but of defeat.

In the next article, we will see what ‘socialism in one country’ would mean in practice: a completely anti-democratic system of exploitation and counter-revolution.

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