Some would have us believe that Stalin suddenly introduced the thorough new idea of socialism in one country in the mid-1930s, thereby ‘betraying’ the Marxist tradition. This is yet another fiction. The idea runs a long way back, as Erik van Ree points out in Boundaries of Utopia (pp. 163-96): it predated Marx and Engels and was an assumed position among German and Austrian communists. Lenin too developed the idea, so much so that the ‘Great Debate’ over the question in the 1920s and then 1930s was really an articulation of positions that had already been settled.
So let us have another look at this much misunderstood idea. The core idea is simple: socialism can be achieved in one country but it will never be complete and secure unless global socialism and indeed communism takes place. It is clearly a doctrine at the intersection between local and international concerns, with the two dimensions intimately connected, although many leave out the international component. (I would add that it became a standard position that socialism may be established in one or more countries, but communism can happen only on a world-wide scale).
As for the development of Stalin’s thought on the question, the detail was first clearly articulated in a key document from 1925, a report on the results of the work of the fourteenth conference of the Communist Party (all references in my book on Stalin). It was restated without significant development on a quite a number of occasions afterwards. The doctrine turns on two contradictions, with the overcoming of one taking place in the context of the other. The first contradiction is internal, concerning the tensions between workers and peasants, between industry and agriculture. This contradiction, which runs back to pre-revolutionary activity, must be overcome if socialism is to be achieved in one country. Here lies the initial theoretical justification for the socialist offensive of the late 1920s and 1930s, with its industrialisation and collectivisation drives. Yet this internal contradiction must be understood and is indeed enabled by another, between socialism in Russia and global capitalism, which cannot be resolved by internal dynamics alone. Since a global socialist revolution will not take place soon, any country that has experienced a socialist revolution should not sit idly by but work to construct socialism as far as possible within the global framework of capitalism. However, such a country will never be entirely secure as long as capitalist states exist in the world. Security will come only with global socialism and then communism. In this definition we may see the distinction between socialism and communism in another form: socialism may be established in one country and perhaps a majority of countries, but communism can happen only on a worldwide scale.
Thus, Stalin warns his comrades that as long as capitalist encirclement exists, the danger of capitalist intervention and even restoration is always there. Much can be achieved in one country, such as driving away the landlords and capitalists, repelling imperialist attacks and beginning to construct a socialist economy, but this is not yet a ‘complete victory’. The reason is that the main contradiction between local socialism and international capitalism cannot be fully overcome by one country, for it cannot provide a guarantee against the danger of intervention. ‘Hence’, writes Stalin, the final victory of socialism is ‘possible only on an international scale, only as a result of the joint efforts of the proletarians of a number of countries, or – still better – only as a result of the victory of the proletarians in a number of countries’. In other words, the victory of socialism is the ‘full guarantee against attempts at intervention, and hence against restoration, for any serious attempt at restoration can take place only with serious support from outside, only with the support of international capital’. All of which means that socialism in one country is possible and impossible: possible in terms of overcoming the tensions between industry and agriculture; impossible in terms of the completion of the socialist and indeed communist project without a favourable international context. The stage of socialism, at least in one country, is determined by such a contradiction and its risk.