Lenin and Trotsky considered the necessity of a triumph of the proletarian revolution in the West to be a consequence of several factors. Without proletarian control of the governments of the West, the political isolation of Russia, along with its limited industrial capacity, would create conditions favorable for a counterrevolution by the bourgeoisie and upper and middle peasants. However, if the revolution in the West were to triumph, the Western proletarian-controlled states could provide technical and economic support to the Russian Revolution, enabling it to develop, thus bringing the peasantry to the support of the proletarian revolution and undermining the counterrevolution. But in the absence of a proletarian triumph in the West, such assistance would not be available, and the imperialist powers would mobilize their considerable resources to engage in armed intervention in Russia (Trotsky 2008:894, 901).
Lenin believed that the victory of the proletarian revolution in the West was imminent. From underground in 1917, he wrote to Bolshevik Party leaders that “we stand in the vestibule of the worldwide proletarian revolution” (quoted in Trotsky 2008:711). For this reason, during September and October of 1917, he was exhorting party leaders to give greater emphasis to plans for an armed insurrection to take power. Lenin believed that the taking of power by the Russian proletariat would be a stimulus to the proletarian revolution in Western Europe (Trotsky 2008:230).
In his report to the eighth congress of the party in 1919, Lenin continued to express the need for a proletarian victory in the West. “We live not only in a state, but in a system of states, and the existence of the Soviet Republic side by side with the imperialist states for an extended period is unthinkable. In the end either one or the other will conquer” (quoted in Trotsky 2008:900). In 1920, he expressed the view that capitalism and socialism cannot live in peace, and that “either the one or the other in the long run will conquer” (quoted in Trotsky 2008:900).
Although the proletarian revolution in Western Europe did not triumph, it was able to constrain imperialist intentions. Trotsky notes that the proletarian revolution in Germany compelled the German government to abandon its military adventures on the Russian frontier, and the spirit of revolt among the troops compelled the English, French, and U.S. governments to withdraw from the shores of Russia. This constraint on imperialist interventionism gave the Soviet Union the possibility to establish an “unstable equilibrium” (Trotksy 2008:901).
But the imperialist supported civil war in Russia was costly, establishing conditions that undermined peasant support for the revolution and exhausted the proletarian class, facilitating the victory of the petty bourgeois and bureaucratic counterrevolution (see Grant 1997). Subsequently, the Soviet Union proclaimed the notion of “socialism in a separate country,” and in Trotsky’s view, distorted Lenin’s concepts and the history of the Bolshevik Party in order to legitimate this claim. Trotsky maintains that the consistent view of Lenin and the consensus of the Bolshevik Party prior to 1924 was that the socialist revolution is permanent and international, and that socialism in a single country would not be possible (Trotsky 2008:890-913).
Thus, “peaceful co-existence” with imperialist powers by a “socialist state” is not consistent with the understanding of Lenin. There may be good reasons, in a particular historical and international context, to depart from the teachings of Lenin and to adopt such concepts and strategies. But neither the history of the struggle nor the views of the charismatic leader should be distorted. Rather, the unanticipated international situation should be explained, thus making necessary the departure from the teachings of the leader.
Although the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union are no longer at the forefront of the global revolution, humanity still confronts the choice between two systems with different foundational structures: the world capitalist economy, on the one hand, and the alternative socialist and post-capitalist structures being developed by the Third World, on the other. From the perspective of the Third World revolution, if the world system manages to contain the global revolution from below and sustain the basic structures of the world-system, humanity will continue to experience global poverty, insecurity, wars, chaos, and threats to the ecological balance of the earth, dynamics that put the survival of the human species at risk. On the other hand, the Third World revolution is developing in practice alternative structures that are designed to protect the social and economic rights of all persons, defend the sovereignty of nations and peoples, and conserve the ecological balance of the planet. It is a choice that Rosa Luxemburg understood as the option of “socialism or barbarism” (Kohan, ed. 2006:98-101).
As Lenin and Trotsky understood, since all nations live in the capitalist world economy, in the development of alternative structures to capitalism, no nation can stand alone. But today there are eight nations with alternative projects, with others coming to their support. The foundational structures for alternative world-system are emerging. Meanwhile, the world-system itself confronts a structural crisis that its leaders are unable and unprepared to resolve.
Grant, Ted. 1997. Rusia—De la revolución a la contrarrevolución: Un análisis marxista. Prólogo de Alan Woods. Traducción de Jordi Martorell. Madrid: Fundación Federico Engels. [Originally published in English as: RUSSIA—From Revolution to Counterrevolution].
Kohan, Néstor, ed. 2006. Rosa Luxemburgo. Melbourne: Ocean Press.
Trotsky, Leon. 2008. History of the Russian Revolution. Translated by Max Eastman. Chicago: Haymarket Books.
Key words: Third World, revolution, colonialism, neocolonialism, imperialism, democracy, national liberation, sovereignty, self-determination, socialism, Marxism, Leninism, Cuba, Latin America, world-system, world-economy, development, underdevelopment, colonial, neocolonial, blog Third World perspective, Russian Revolution, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, permanent revolution, socialism or barbarism