Leon Trotsky at his desk. Photo Public domain
Leon Trotsky at his desk. Photo Public domain

In the latest article in our series reviewing Marxist classics, Helen Pattison looks at Trotsky’s writings on the ‘permanent revolution’.

Today, the theory of permanent revolution has multiple lessons for Marxists around the world. It is particularly relevant in those countries where economic development has been held back. But it also has relevance in every country, including the most developed capitalist economies. It explains why, in every country, Marxists’ core responsibility is building the struggle for socialism.

Trotsky wrote ‘Results and Prospects’, the first part of his writings on the permanent revolution, after the defeat of the 1905 revolutionary movement against absolutist feudalism in Russia. It was a reply to ideas such as those put forward by the Mensheviks, who believed that, in an underdeveloped country like Russia, socialists should critically support liberal capitalist forces that would carry out the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution – with the fight for socialism delayed into the future.

Trotsky, along with Lenin, understood that the liberal capitalists, weak and dependent on international capital, would never be able to carry out a revolution in Russia that would solve the tasks of the capitalist democratic revolution, which included the elimination of feudal and semi-feudal relations on the land and the unification of the country into a nation-state, democratic reforms, and freedom from domination of foreign imperialism.

Working-class power

Lenin, at that stage, called for a democratic alliance of the working class and peasantry as the main forces that could transform society. Trotsky went further, as Lenin later did, explaining that, despite comprising a small percentage of the population, the working class, with its potential collective power in the industrial workplaces, would need to play the leading role in such an alliance.

The much larger peasant population, scattered across the countryside, wasn’t capable of playing a collective and independent role in the revolution or in a future government. It would be the working class which would have to lead the peasant masses and could win them to the fight for socialism. Therefore, armed with the correct programme, the working class would be able to win power and keep it, especially if it developed the correct approach to the rural peasant population.

Russia had a relatively small and ‘young’ working class compared to more developed capitalist economies in Europe. Though they had already shown their potential strength in the 1905 revolution, the growing cities had only just become places of industry, but the factories were comprised of large workforces. In a relatively short space of time, the cities had grown from 300,000 in the early 18th century, to 16 million at the end of the 19th century. Yet still the working class made up a small percentage of the population, about 13%.

It was a ‘young’ working class in the sense that the people who would take part in the revolution were the first generation who had only just moved into the cities for work. Their families had made up part of the peasant population and hadn’t had much chance to experience the huge and growing strength of the working class.

Capitalist development

Factories and industry were able to develop relatively quickly in Russia, feeding off of the technology and development of capitalist economies internationally. This, however, didn’t complete the process of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. At the start of the twentieth century, the Russian capitalist class, which had developed very late, was incapable of completing this historic task. They were completely intertwined with the imperialist powers and with the old feudal regime. Landlords invested in industry and vice versa. Above all, they were scared that the working class would demand power.

Instead of limiting the struggle to overthrowing the Tsar and landlords, and other important democratic demands, Trotsky explained: “The factory industrial system not only brings the proletariat to the forefront but also cuts the ground from under the feet of bourgeois democracy.” He said the working class would be forced to take power in the course of the revolutionary movement and then should keep it, rather than handing over power to a capitalist government. He also highlighted that “power will pass into the hands of that class which plays a leading role in the struggle”, and that was the working class.

Trotsky, along with Lenin, concluded that revolution might start with people wanting to fight against the feudal system but end with them convinced of fighting for socialism, and that this would be necessary to achieve the basic demands of the movement: ensuring the peasant population was given the land it wanted, the war ended and hunger eliminated. Peace, bread and land.

Capitalism is a global system and so the successful overthrow of capitalism in Russia in 1917, with the working class – as Trotsky had predicted – playing the key role, had international importance, as is shown in Trotsky’s work and writings. Not only did it spark revolutionary movements in other parts of the world – there was a revolutionary wave in Europe after 1917 – but defeating capitalism in a more developed capitalist country would have also aided the workers’ government in underdeveloped Russia.

As Trotsky said, capitalism had bound “all countries together with its mode of production and its commerce, capitalism has converted the whole world into a single economic and political organism.”

Unfortunately, the defeat of revolutions in other countries left Russia isolated in a sea of more developed capitalist economies, which wanted to overthrow the workers’ government. This isolation slowed the process of pulling the population out of poverty. At any one time, a huge portion of the countries’ tractors would be broken, so even on a very practical level, if a workers’ government had taken power in Germany, for example, it would have been able to exchange designs on better farming equipment, meaning they could better feed the population and protect the gains of the Russian revolution.

Stalinist degeneration

The resulting degeneration of the Soviet Union from a democratic workers’ state into a brutal Stalinist dictatorship, which had no interest in healthy workers’ revolutions in other countries, came with the adoption of a new form of the Mensheviks’ approach, the ‘stages theory’, where Communist Parties around the world gave support to supposedly ‘progressive’ capitalist forces. 

Trotsky reiterated his ideas in the ‘The Permanent Revolution’ after the Russian revolution had succeeded, to warn against the mistaken idea of the stages theory.

Today the world is very different from the 19th and early 20th centuries. But the lessons of the permanent revolution are still vital. Not only are there many countries where capitalist development has been stunted. Globally, there is also still a large peasant population of poor farmers and the landless poor.

Many of these people make up some of the world’s poorest, and are also part of minority populations within their own countries, such as the large, rural, farming populations in India, who have been recently forced to fight back against the Modi government’s removal of grain subsidies and soaring prices.

Their heroic struggle defeated Modi’s most recent attack, but it will take the socialist transformation of society to really secure their living conditions. The Modi government, alongside its capitalist friends, wants to increase their profits from the rural farm lands of India, even if it means destroying the livelihoods of tens of millions of people. 

While the Communist Parties in India have opposed Modi, they haven’t done this by building an independent working-class leadership. Instead, they have mistakenly pushed for unity of ‘progressive forces’, a form of stages theory. These ideas result in kicking the fight for socialism down the road.

Working class today

Today, the world population is different from when Trotsky was organising. A far greater portion of the population is part of the working class, meaning it is much clearer that they can challenge capitalism and fight for an alternative if organised. Not only that, it is clear that capitalism plays no ‘progressive’ role: there is a growing gap between the rich few and the world’s poorest masses. Even in the most developed capitalist countries, children expect to be poorer than their parents. Over 100 years after the Russian Revolution took important steps against women’s oppression, news headlines are full of violence against women and girls, sexual harassment and similar crimes.

The theory of the permanent revolution can still have important lessons even in more developed economies. Capitalism saw the creation of the nation state, such as the United Kingdom, which seemed to resolve the national question. Yet today in the 21st century, there is renewed anger and support for Scottish independence, for example. Much like Trotsky’s approach to the many different ethnicities and languages within Russia, socialists must take up the fight against all forms of national oppression today and link it to fighting the whole capitalist system.

It reminds us of the international nature of the working class. Famous socialists and trade union leaders had often repeated the quote that they have more in common with a worker in their own industry halfway around the world than with the bosses and capitalist class of their own country. Capitalism is international, and therefore so should the movement which fights it, and these are just a few of the lessons of reading Trotsky’s work.