Permanent Revolution

July 15, 2009

Paul D’Amato introduces the theory developed by Leon Trotsky to understand new developments in capitalism in the era after Karl Marx.

THE MARXISM that prevailed in the socialist movement in the early part of the 20th century was based on the idea that history moved in defined stages. No new social formation, it was believed, could arise in any society until the old had created all the material conditions necessary to realize it.

Alongside this economic schema went a political one. "Vulgar 'Marxism' has worked out a pattern of historical development," wrote Trotsky, "according to which every bourgeois society sooner or later secures a democratic regime, after which the proletariat, under conditions of democracy, is gradually organized and educated for socialism." These were seen as two entirely separate and distinct stages, "separated by great distances of time from each other."

Certain writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels seemed to promote this idea. "The country that is more developed industrially only shows, to the less developed, the image of its own future," Marx wrote in 1867.

Yet Marx and Engels' analysis of historical development was more nuanced than this. They argued in the 1880s, for example, that Russia might be able to skip capitalism. "If the Russian Revolution," wrote Marx, "sounds the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West so that each complement each other, the prevailing form of communal ownership of land in Russia may be the starting point for a communist course of development."

Marx and Engels used the term "permanent revolution" long before Trotsky adopted it, and in their analysis after the 1848 bourgeois revolutions in Europe, they foreshadowed the theory by arguing that in future revolutions in Germany, due to the unwillingness of the bourgeois liberals to press their democratic demands, the working class would have to take the lead. "It is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions," they wrote in 1850.

The manifesto of the first aborted attempt to create a socialist party in Russia, following a similar line of reasoning, proclaimed, "The further east one goes in Europe, the meaner, more cowardly and politically weak the bourgeoisie becomes, and the greater are the cultural and political tasks that fall to the proletariat."

Nevertheless, both wings of the Social Democratic Labor Party in Russia held the view that Russia must first go through a bourgeois-democratic stage, though each had a profoundly different view of which class should lead the revolution.

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The Mensheviks argued that the natural leader of Russia's coming revolution must be the bourgeoisie, and that therefore the workers' movement must not go "too far" and frighten it from that task. Speaking for the Bolsheviks, Lenin, though he concurred with Trotsky on the counterrevolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie and therefore the leading role of the working class in the coming revolution, considered the idea that there could be a socialist revolution in Russia before the autocracy was toppled "absurd and semi-anarchist."

TROTSKY'S ANALYSIS began with a rejection of the idea that each country would follow the same trajectory of capitalist development as its predecessor. As he wrote:

Russia's development is first of all notable for its backwardness. But historical backwardness does not mean a mere retracing of the course of the advanced countries a hundred or two hundred years late. Rather, it gives rise to an utterly different "combined" social formation, in which the most highly developed achievements of capitalist technique and structure are integrated into the social relations of feudal and pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and dominating them, fashioning a unique relationship of classes.

Capitalism did not develop gradually as it had done in Britain, but was grafted onto the old structures in Russia through the auspices of the state and foreign investment. Amid a society in which the vast majority remained peasants locked in ancient forms of production, factories sprang up in Petersburg and Moscow based on the most up-to-date production methods.

"The proletariat immediately found itself," writes Trotsky, "concentrated in tremendous masses, while between these masses and the autocracy there stood a capitalist bourgeoisie, very small in numbers, isolated from the 'people,' half-foreign, without historical traditions, and inspired only by the greed for gain."

Trotsky argued that there was not a one-to-one relationship between the development of the economic prerequisites for socialism and the political and subjective prerequisites for socialism. The ability of the working class to take power "depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces, but upon the relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and, finally, upon a number of subjective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers."

Therefore, he concluded, "it is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country."

"In our view," Trotsky wrote, "the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers--and in the event of the victory of the revolution it must do so--before the politicians of bourgeois liberalism get the chance to display to the full their talent for governing."

The internal logic of Russian development led naturally to the leading role of the working class in the revolution. But what is a bourgeois revolution led by the working class?

Trotsky answered that it was one in which the tasks of the bourgeois revolution (democracy, labor rights, land redistribution) were combined with those of a workers' revolution--the establishment of the political rule of the working class, the seizure of the factories, and the beginning of the process by which the working class would begin to socialize the means of production.

Whereas Lenin argued that the revolution would be based on an alliance between the working class and the peasantry, Trotsky argued that the peasantry, while a mighty elemental revolutionary force, could not act independently, but must follow one of the leading classes of the towns. Therefore, while he did not deny the importance of peasant revolt, Trotsky argued that the peasant rebellion, in order to be carried through successfully, would require urban leadership from the working class.

But a working class, having achieved state power, argued Trotsky, cannot then relinquish its power:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.

HOWEVER, HAVING achieved power, the working class will not be able to sustain its rule, argued Trotsky, unless the revolution were able to spread to more advanced countries. Here, Trotsky recognizes that the material conditions, while ripe for a workers' revolution, are not ripe for socialism purely within Russia's national boundaries. The dialectics of the revolutionary process are such that while the socialist revolution can begin in a backward country, it cannot be finished there.

Indeed, the political opposition of the peasantry after a successful land reform--the breakup of the alliance between the workers and the peasantry--would be the first problem the revolution would face, followed by Russia's economic backwardness. "Without the direct state support of the European proletariat," Trotsky wrote, "the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship."

This prognosis for the Russian revolution, which Trotsky outlined in 1906 in Results and Prospects, was confirmed in almost every respect by the 1917 revolution, which barely allowed the Russian liberal bourgeoisie eight months of political rule before it was dispersed by a workers' insurrection that placed in power the workers' soviets (councils) in October.

Trotsky's argument that the revolution must spread internationally to survive was tragically confirmed by the revolution's degeneration in the face of civil war, blockade, and the failure of the German revolution to come to its aid.

The bureaucratic degeneration of the revolution, culminating in the rise to power of Stalin, who personified the growing state bureaucracy, confirmed Trotsky's theory in the negative--i.e., by showing conclusively that socialism cannot be built within a single country, especially one in conditions of isolation and extreme privation.

The term Trotsky later used to describe the historical process that shaped economic and social conditions in Russia was "combined and uneven" development. He drew out the concept most fully in his History of the Russian Revolution:

The laws of history have nothing in common with a pedantic schematism. Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity, their backward culture is compelled to make leaps.

From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development--by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third, or tenth cultural class.

THE CREATION of a world economy dominated by a handful of great powers controlling vast colonial territories naturally raised the question of what approach Marxists should take to the national-colonial revolts in Asia, the Middle East and Africa, to which the 1917 revolution was a spur. Here again, Trotsky's theory proved to have something important to contribute.

Yet the theory did not directly inform the politics of the Third International--the organization of all the revolutionary parties worldwide that had broken with the reformist Second International parties that capitulated to their own governments during the world war.

The Comintern's 1920 statement, or thesis, on the national and colonial question, written by Lenin, argued for the independent organization of the working class in the struggle for national freedom, but did not argue that workers would play the leading role:

The Communist International should support bourgeois-democratic national movements in colonial and backward countries only on condition that, in these countries, the elements of future proletarian parties, which will be communist not only in name, are brought together and trained to understand their special tasks, i.e., those of the struggle against the bourgeois-democratic movements within their own nations.

The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is in its most embryonic form.

Trotsky himself at various points in the mid-1920s claimed that his theory of permanent revolution was of purely historical interest. However, the experience of the Chinese Revolution in 1927, changed his perspective.

On orders from Stalin--and ironically, based on a theory derived from the old Menshevik leader Martynov, who had joined the Communist Party--the Chinese Communist Party was ordered to enter the bourgeois-nationalist organization known as the Koumintang (KMT).

The policy was justified on the grounds that the working-class movement in China was barely developed, and that the immediate task in China--throwing off the yoke of imperialist domination--required a "bloc of four classes," that is, the unification of all classes in a single national struggle. As a condition for its admission into the Koumintang, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was required to submit to its discipline, and on pain of expulsion to refrain from criticizing its policies.

The results of this policy were disastrous. KMT leader Chang Kai Shek, using weapons and training received from the Soviet Union, turned on the working-class movement--which had organized mass strikes in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Canton--and crushed it.

Trotsky noted that Stalin's position was actually a bad caricature of the Menshevik position vis-à-vis the 1917 revolution, which posited that since Russia's would have to be a bourgeois revolution, it must be led by the liberal bourgeoisie--and that therefore the working class must not do anything that "frighten" that class from its leadership role. In the Chinese case, Stalin and Co. were now arguing that the CCP not only must subordinate itself to the interests of the national bourgeoisie so as not to upset "unity," but it must organizationally merge with it.

In his lashing critique, Trotsky noted first of all that in taking this position, Stalin and the Comintern leadership departed completely from Lenin's view of the relationship between a bourgeois-democratic revolution and the working class struggle. While Lenin's pre-1917 position rejected the idea that Russia could have a socialist revolution, his whole approach was based on the idea that the working class must remain independent from the liberals, and must attempt to draw behind its leadership the peasant masses.

Indeed, Trotsky's initial call for the CP to leave the KMT and his warnings that the Chinese bourgeoisie was tied too closely to imperialism to lead a struggle against it were couched in terms of Lenin's pre-1917 approach--that though China was too economically backward to achieve a socialist revolution, the national-democratic struggle could succeed only if it were led by the working class, in alliance with China's peasants, against the Chinese bourgeoisie.

Some time in 1927, Trotsky more explicitly concluded that the surest road to a successful national revolution in China would be through the assumption of power by the Chinese working class. "The Chinese revolution," he wrote, "will win as a dictatorship of the proletariat or it will not win at all."

In 1929, Trotsky wrote The Permanent Revolution, in which he explicitly counterposes Stalin's theory of "socialism in one country" with his internationalist perspective of permanent revolution.

He then outlined the three main points of the theory:

-- In the national-democratic struggle in "backward" countries, or late-developing countries, the working class must assume leadership of the struggle in order to lead it to victory. In doing so, the working class cannot stop halfway, but will, once in power, proceed to implement socialist measures.

The permanent revolution is one that "makes no compromise with any single form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to socialist measures and to war against reaction from without: that is, a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one, and which can end only in the complete liquidation of class society."

The question of permanent revolution cannot be viewed outside of the international context of world capitalism. "The socialist revolution begins on national foundations--but it cannot be completed within these foundations," Trotsky wrote.

Trotsky continued:

In an isolated proletarian dictatorship, the internal and external contradictions grow inevitably along with the successes achieved. If it remains isolated, the proletarian state must finally fall victim to these contradictions. The way out for it lies only in the victory of the proletariat of the advanced countries. Viewed from this standpoint, a national revolution is not a self-contained whole; it is only a link in the international chain.

In developing an international perspective, Trotsky was clear (as he was not in 1906) that the prospects for permanent revolution depended upon the existence of revolutionary parties rooted in the working class capable of leading the working class to victory. The existence of Stalinized Communist Parties, such as the CCP in China, meant that Trotsky's theory was confirmed not in the positive--that is, by the success of the Chinese working class--but by its defeat as a result of its subordination to the bourgeois KMT.

BUT WHAT happened if the working class--as a result of defeat and atomization or because of the treacherous role of Stalinism--was unable to play the role allotted to it in Trotsky's theory? If the national bourgeoisie was incapable of leading the national struggle, and the working class unable to assert its own hegemony, what was the alternative?

Michael Lowy, in his book The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, notes that in the post-Second World War period (Trotsky died in 1940), other class forces stepped in to fill the vacuum:

[T]here has been a much more frequent phenomenon, of central importance in the Third World, which Trotsky did not foresee: that petty-bourgeois nationalist forces (particularly the military) would substitute themselves for the weak or faltering national bourgeoisie, assume the leadership of the democratic revolution or semi-revolution, and implement important reforms whose radicalism would far exceed the desires or capacities of the bourgeoisie. This, of course, is what happened in Nasser's Egypt, in Boumedienne's Algeria, in Velasco Alvarado's Peru, and, to a certain extent, in both Mexico and Bolivia.

The national revolutions led by petty-bourgeois intelligentsia were not limited to those Lowy mentions. China, Vietnam and Cuba are also examples. In China, for example, after the defeat of the first revolution, the Chinese CP retreated to the countryside and lost its working-class base, becoming in essence a nationalist army led by urban intellectuals, which recruited chiefly among the peasantry.

The difference between these latter two and the ones mentioned by Lowy is that they led to societies which replaced private forms of capitalism with more or less complete state ownership of the economy, modeled on Stalin's USSR. These revolutions used the language of socialism, but were not led by the working class and did not bring workers to power.

Some Marxists (Lowy being one) concluded that since these revolutions eliminated private capitalism, they could be considered "indirectly" proletarian, and therefore a confirmation of Trotsky's theory. The British Marxist Tony Cliff referred to them, I think more accurately, as "deflected" permanent revolutions.

Nevertheless, Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution continues to be important today, for a number of reasons.

First, it emphasizes the centrality of the working class in the struggle against all forms of tyranny and oppression. Only the working class, of all classes in society, is capable of taking the struggle for land reform, democratic rights, national rights and so on to its most complete and thoroughgoing solution. All other classes seek to limit the struggle within the confines of capitalism. Only the working class has an interest in making the struggle "permanent"--i.e., until all forms of exploitation, tyranny and oppression are rooted out.

Finally, Trotsky emphasis on the international character of revolution remains central to any serious Marxist perspective. For Trotsky, socialism was not possible in one country, "regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism."

He concludes: "The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion, only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet."

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