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100th anniversary of the ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’
Are Trotsky’s ideas of socialist revolution still relevant today?
ONE HUNDRED years ago, while in a St Petersburg jail awaiting trial for his leading role in the defeated 1905 Russian Revolution, Leon Trotsky formulated the ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’.
Trotsky’s profound ideas examined the prospects for socialist revolution in Russia at the start of the 20th century and the processes of revolution worldwide. The validity of the permanent revolution was brilliantly confirmed by the successful October 1917 socialist revolution.
But is the permanent revolution relevant today, especially since the collapse of Stalinism? Yes. It remains the key to understanding how to end the terrible problems of the so-called ‘Third World’ – pauperisation, under-development, dictatorship and imperialist domination - in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Of course, the permanent revolution is a living theory, which must be updated in the light of new developments.
Trotsky summed up the permanent revolution in two ways. Firstly, the revolution starts in a ‘backward’ country with the capitalist democratic tasks and goes over to socialist measures. Secondly, the revolution starts in one country and spreads on an international level.
Although the 1917 Russian Revolution, and its world repercussions, magnificently proved Trotsky correct, when his ideas were first published in 1906 they caused huge controversy in the Marxist movement.
Most leaders thought a socialist revolution would take place first in the richer, capitalist West. Semi-colonial Russia had to still go through a capitalist ‘democratic revolution’. After the democratic capitalist phase was completed, the Russian working class would struggle for socialism.
What is the ‘democratic revolution’?
THE FIRST ‘democratic revolutions’ saw the developing capitalist class (which included merchants, manufactures and middle-class professionals) rise up against age-old feudalism, which restricted capitalism.
The aim was to end the power and domination of kings, nobles, the aristocracy and the big landlords. This meant removing feudal barriers to trade and the development of the capitalist economy, unification of the country, introducing democratic rights, and establishing the basis of the modern nation-state.
The 1789 French Revolution was the most thoroughgoing capitalist revolution, which swept away the power of the Church, the landlords and the King.
Capitalism in its early, dynamic phase created the material, social and subjective conditions for the socialist transformation of society ie science, technique, and the modern working class. And it is the working class - which is forced to sell its labour power to survive and therefore has no material stake in capitalist society - that alone can lead the struggle for a new, classless society.
In the modern period, in the age of multinationals and imperialism, capitalism is a reactionary barrier to the development of society. It’s a system where the social organisation of production is constrained by the limitations of the nation state, the private ownership of the means of production, and the destructive nature of capitalist competition with its associated booms and slumps.
In Results and Prospects, [on our website - opens in new window] Trotsky wrote about processes of revolution in Russia and internationally, by looking at the lessons of the 1905 Petersburg Soviet and other revolutions.
He explained that the national capitalist class (bourgeoisie) in the ‘underdeveloped’ countries came into existence too late, when the world was already dominated by the major capitalist and imperialist powers, like Britain, France and Germany.
Trotsky explained that the national bourgeoisie in the colonial or neo-colonial world does not play a progressive role. It is dominated by imperialist powers and tied to foreign capital. It is also linked financially to, and reliant on, the big landlords and other feudal relations.
A weak, cowardly class, the national bourgeoisie is not prepared to decisively struggle against feudal relations and the imperialists.
Instead, Trotsky argued, only the proletariat (working class), bringing behind it the peasants, urban poor and other middle layers in society, can lead a successful revolution and solve the problems of society. 1905 showed: "The revolutionary leadership of the proletariat revealed itself as an incontrovertible fact". When it takes power, the working class will have to carry out the historic tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution.
When in power, the working class will not stop at democratic tasks. It will take measures that reflect its class interests; socialist measures, including nationalisations and overthrowing the local capitalist class.
The working class in power in a poor country will be compelled to spread the socialist revolution. At the same time, the revolution will be a hugely inspiring example for the international working class to follow.
Trotsky argued the socialist revolution could break out in Russia first, given the weakness of the Tsarist regime, the development of a young, militant working class, and the acute, unresolved social and economic problems and land question.
There were also differences amongst Marxists over the relationship between the different classes in the revolution. Prior to 1917, Tsarist Russia was a vast empire but also feudal or semi-feudal, where the majority of people were poor peasants and the urban working class was ruthlessly exploited and had no democratic rights.
‘Stages’ theory of social change
The Mensheviks (the ‘Minority’ wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party) argued that the national bourgeoisie must lead the coming revolution, as the main tasks were the completion of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Socialism was for the distant future.
This crude, ‘stages’ position, reflected the reformist, class collaborationist approach of the Mensheviks - the right wing of the Russian workers’ movement.
In contrast, Lenin, the leader of the Bolsheviks (‘Majority’ of the Russian Social Democrats), agreed with Trotsky that the pro-capitalist ‘Liberals’ would not carry out the bourgeois democratic revolution. Only the proletariat would carry out the revolution, in alliance with the peasants. Lenin called for a "democratic dictatorship of the working class and peasantry", leaving open the exact relationship between the classes.
Trotsky said the working class would play the key, leading role. The peasantry never played an independent role in history. It would be led by either the capitalist class or the working class.
The arguments were finally settled by the year 1917, when Trotsky’s permanent revolution was borne out.
The February Revolution overthrew the Tsarist regime but the Provisional Government, dominated by capitalist ‘Liberals’, failed to end Russia’s disastrous participation in the First World War or carry out bourgeois democratic tasks.
Lenin accepted his old slogan of "a democratic dictatorship of the working class and peasantry" was overtaken by events. In his famous April Theses, Lenin called for the working class to fight to take power.
The October 1917 socialist revolution, led by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, saw the working class come to power, leading the peasantry and middle layers. The Bolsheviks carried out bourgeois democratic tasks (e.g. land reform, democratic rights) and went over to socialist tasks (e.g. nationalisation of major industries).
The example of October 1917 sparked a revolutionary wave throughout Europe (e.g. Germany 1918, 1923, Austria 1918, Bavaria 1919, and Italy 1919-1920).
In the face of imperialist armed intervention, the Bolsheviks appealed to the world working class. The Communist International (Comintern) was set up. Lenin, Trotsky and all the leading Bolsheviks understood that without the spread of the socialist revolution, economically under-developed Russia could not build socialism alone.
But the international revolutions failed, largely due to the betrayal of social democrat leaders in the West. This compounded the isolation and economic backwardness of Russia. A conservative bureaucracy – based around the figure of Stalin - increased its hold in these conditions and wanted to expand and to protect its power and privileges.
This bureaucratic reaction found ideological expression in Stalin and Bukharin’s ‘Socialism in one country’ theory, in 1924. Socialism, they argued, could be built in Russia and it was not necessary to wait for international revolution.
This marked a complete refutation of the historic position of the Marxist movement and it had disastrous consequences.
Under Stalin, the Communist International rejected Lenin’s independent, class policy and the communist parties internationally sought "alliances" with the "national progressive bourgeoisie" in various countries.
This approach led to defeats for the working class internationally (e.g. British General Strike 1926, China 1925-1927, Germany 1933, Spain 1936-39), which, in turn, deepened the bureaucratic counter-revolution in Russia.
The Stalinists argued that capitalist democratic revolutions would take place first in the neo-colonial world, and after a period of capitalist development there would be a struggle for socialism. In other words, Stalinists argued a return to the discredited Mensheviks’ ‘stages theory’.
The Stalinists covered their betrayals by a vociferous attack on the permanent revolution, digging up old pre-1917 arguments between Lenin and Trotsky on the issue. "The revolution on the international scale was suffering one defeat after another… strengthening the Stalin bureaucracy against me and my political friends," Trotsky wrote.
The ‘permanent revolution’ today
AFTER THE Second World War, the permanent revolution developed in a way that could not have been foreseen even by Trotsky. The victory of the Red Army over the Nazis strengthened Stalinism. Capitalism was overthrown in Eastern Europe, albeit in a distorted, bureaucratic way. At the same time, the reformists and Stalinists saved capitalism in Western Europe.
In countries like China, Vietnam and Cuba, society was at an impasse due to capitalism and landlordism. But the working class was weak or misled, usually by Stalinists.
When the peasant Red Army of Mao Zedong entered China’s cities, they balanced between different sections of society – peasants, workers, sections of the capitalists – and gradually ended capitalism and landlordism. Land and most of industry was nationalised but workers’ democracy was not introduced. Instead, what Marxists called a ‘deformed workers’ state’ was established.
The main thrust of Trotsky’s permanent revolution was borne out in these events, but in a caricatured form. Although a key part of Trotsky’s theory - the conscious role of the working class as the leading class in the revolution - was absent in China, Cuba and Vietnam, for example, a social revolution was still carried out. Landlordism and capitalism were abolished. But the working class did not directly play the leading role in these revolutionary upheavals.
The Cuban Revolution, lead by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, enjoyed mass support, but without workers’ democracy - a bureaucratic layer formed, concentrating power in its hands.
Trotsky’s permanent revolution was vital to understanding events in the post-1945, neo-colonial world. Take China, for example. Does its ‘spectacular’ growth disprove the permanent revolution?
The 1949 revolution, despite its bureaucratic character, led to the development of industry and living standards, under a planned economy. But in the absence of democratic workers’ rule, the economy stagnated under the ruling bureaucracy.
In the 1970s, the ruling elite began looking towards the market as a way to boost growth, although the state run sector was still dominant. Today, capitalist relations increasingly take hold. Growth rates are high but at a huge social cost: barbaric exploitation, uprooting millions from the countryside, enormous poles of wealth and poverty, dismantling of social gains, growing problems of nationalities, etc.
Many of the worst features of pre-1949, capitalist China have re-appeared. And whatever the future role of China in the world economy, capitalist restoration will be incapable of fundamentally raising living standards and conditions of the mass of its people (as we have clearly seen in the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe).
India is also held up as an ‘emerging power’, based on its huge supply of cheap labour. But while India has a growing middle class, pockets of ‘modernisation’ and is a nuclear power, the majority of its desperately poor people eke a living on the land and caste, religious and national differences remain.
As a whole, Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America have suffered social and economic regression over decades of neo-liberalism, imperialist plunder and endemic corruption and waste.
A quarter of the world’s population lives in "severe poverty", and half the world lives on less than $2 a day. Almost 800 million people are malnourished and the same figure lack basic healthcare. Every day, 30,500 children die from preventable diseases.
African is littered with "failed states" and the continent is beset with endless problems, like wars, poverty famine, preventable diseases, corruption, and dictatorships. In Latin America, once ‘promising’ countries, like Argentina, are still recovering from economic collapse. Brazil is now trumpeted by pro-capitalist commentators as the new economic ‘success story’.
Like Tsarist Russia, Brazil plays a regional imperialist role but many of the fundamental problems of the neo-colonial world remain in that huge country (including, huge city and rural disparities, underinvestment, slums, land problems, oppression of minorities and state repression).
In Venezuela and Bolivia, the masses have mobilised for fundamental change. Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela, has been pushed into taking radical measures. How far he goes depends on various factors, including the world economic situation, the actions of US imperialism, and the consciousness of working people.
Unlike the first years of the Cuban Revolution, Stalinist Russia no longer exists to act as a ‘model’ and practical support to neo-colonial deformed workers’ states. Ultimately, the only way to defend and to extend the revolution in Venezuela is by carrying through and spreading the socialist revolution; fulfilling the tasks of the permanent revolution.
Today, the ‘classical’ ideas of the permanent revolution - with the working class playing the main role - can re-develop. This year, marks the first time in history when over 50% of the world’s population lives in urban areas.
The collapse of Stalinism, and the social democratic parties openly going over to capitalism, provides an opportunity for independent, class politics and revolutionary socialism to win a mass audience. However, reformist ideas, and versions of the ‘stages theory’, will not just disappear.
This was seen in recent years in Indonesia, a former ‘Asian Tiger’. The young membership of the influential, People’s Democratic Party (PRD), played a heroic role in the mass movement against the former Indonesian dictator, General Suharto, in the late 1990s. This was triggered by the collapse of the economy after the Asian financial meltdown.
Unfortunately, PRD leaders echoed the false ideas of the old Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) and advocated support for opposition ‘progressive’, ‘democratic’ capitalist leaders, like Megawati Sukarnopoutri and Abdurrahman Wahid. When in power, Wahid and Megawati attacked workers’ conditions and rights, increased repression against national minorities, opened the economy to further imperialist exploitation and failed to tackle the powerful armed forces.
Ironically, an ex-Trotskyist party, the Australian Democratic Socialist Party, which has attacked the adherence of the Committee for a Workers’ International (to which the Socialist Party is affiliated) to the permanent revolution, advised and influenced the PRD during these crucial years for the Indonesian working class.
Under the misleading term, ‘uninterrupted revolution’, the DSP puts forward a version of the old ‘two stages’ theory, ignoring that fact that all sections of the ruling class in the ex-colonial world are completely incapable of carrying out consistent democratic reforms or transforming the living conditions of the mass of people. How can they, when the system they are based on (capitalism and landlordism), is responsible for the barbaric conditions facing working people?
In the next period, the working class in the neo-colonial world will be poised to lead the social transformation of society. Trotsky’s permanent revolution may be 100 years old but his brilliant theory remains the most modern, indispensable guide for the working class in its struggle to overthrow capitalism, landlordism, and to end all the barbarities of life in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In The Socialist 9 February 2006: