Friday, March 23, 2007

Permanent Revolution: Then and Now

Permanent Revolution : then and now

All theories – like ideas generally - have material roots. They develop as reflections of, and responses to, specific historical and social situations, and to understand them fully they have to be seen in their context. However, it is a big mistake to conclude from this, as people often do, that the moment time passes or society changes, a formerly valid theory now becomes irrelevant. Least of all can socialists afford this error, as we have so much still to learn from the classic texts of our tradition, such as, for example, the writings of Marx and Engels.

There are two main reasons why such texts retain their importance. First, because there is always continuity as well change in history. Capitalism has been around for about five hundred years, and in the course of that time has changed enormously, but its central dynamic – the accumulation of capital - and its basic classes – the bourgeoisie and proletariat – and the relationship of exploitation between them, remain the same. Consequently works which have a firm grasp of these fundamentals, like The Communist Manifesto, retain more validity than any number of ‘up to date’ history or sociology textbooks which fail to grasp them. Second, because a theoretical analysis that contains real insight into the underlying tendencies in society may become more not less true with the passing of time as those tendencies work themselves out. Thus Marx’s statement that, ‘ The bourgeoisie has through its exploitation of the world market given a cosmopolitan character to production and consumption in every country’ (1), is clearly a far more accurate description of the world today than it was when it was written in 1848.

At the same time, however, we must remember that none of the writings in the Marxist tradition are sacred texts and none of them stand above or outside history. They deal not in eternal truths but in concrete analyses and none of their propositions are valid simply by virtue of the author’s authority. Nothing is true just because Marx, or anyone else, said so. Socialists must value and study the outstanding works from the past, but also critically assess them in relation to history and contemporary reality. That very perceptive Marxist, Tony Cliff, summed this up by quoting Isaac Newton, ‘ Those who stand on the shoulders of giants can see far,’ but then improved on Newton by adding ‘… provided they open their eyes’. An excellent example of this is Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, which was developed over a hundred years ago but which, on condition it is not approached dogmatically, remains an extremely useful guide to action in the world today , and particularly in Egypt and the Middle East.

The theory of Permanent Revolution arose in Tsarist Russia at the turn of the century. This was then the most economically, socially and politically backward society in Europe. The vast majority of the population were peasants living and working in conditions at the level of Western Europe in the 17th century. Serfdom had been abolished only in !861, more than 400 years after its disappearance in Britain, and the aristocratic landowners remained the country’s ruling class. Modern industry, with its associated classes of bourgeois and proletarians, was starting to develop in the towns, especially St. Petersburg and Moscow, but agriculture remained predominant. There was no democracy or freedom of speech. Political power was concentrated in the hands of the Tsar or Emperor whose rule was absolute. In other words the situation in Russia was comparable to that in France before the French Revolution of 1789.

The problem facing the young Marxist movement in Russia was what they should do in such circumstances. On one thing they all agreed – that Russia was heading for a revolution that would overthrow the Tsarist autocracy and that they should help bring this about. Where there were differences was on the precise nature and dynamics of this coming revolution, and hence on the strategic role of Marxists within it. These differences came to a head as a result of the 1905 Revolution and three definite positions emerged.

The first, that of Plekhanov and the Mensheviks, was that the Russian Revolution would be a bourgeois revolution led by the bourgeoisie, resulting in a capitalist democracy in which the bourgeoisie was the ruling class . The job of Marxists was to support this process while defending the interests of the working class within it. The struggle for socialism would come later.

The second, taken by Lenin and the Bolsheviks, accepted that the fundamental character of the revolution would be bourgeois – its outcome would be capitalist democracy not socialism – but argued that the Russian bourgeoisie was too conservative and timid to lead its own revolution. The working class , in alliance with the peasantry, would have to lead the democratic revolution. The revolution, Lenin envisaged, would culminate in ‘the establishment of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’(2).This would mean, for a short period, a Worker-Peasant government which would establish a democratic republic and carry through radical land reform. Then the peasant majority, having secured their main aim, the land, would cease to be revolutionary and the revolutionary democratic dictatorship would revert to a normal bourgeois democracy in which socialists would be a revolutionary opposition.(3)

The third, developed by Leon Trotsky, became known as Permanent Revolution.(4) It agreed with Lenin that the working class, not the bourgeoisie, would lead the revolution but argued that in the process the working class would be obliged to take power and begin the transition to socialism. In other words the Russian Revolution would not stop at its bourgeois democratic stage but would grow over into workers’ power and a socialist revolution.(The name came from the use of the slogan ‘ The Permanent Revolution’ in an 1850 article by Marx which put a similar position for Germany).(5)

To the important objection that Russia’s peasant majority and economic underdevelopment made it too backward to sustain socialist relations of production, Trotsky replied that this was true if Russia was considered in isolation, but that the Russian Revolution should be seen as the first step in an international revolution and that internationally the conditions for socialism were in place. However, without the spread of the revolution to other countries it would not be possible for workers’ power to survive in Russia.(6)

Trotsky’s theory, it must be stressed, was rooted in a concrete analysis of Russian history and society. This analysis brought out the peculiarities of Russia’s development, but always by understanding its relationship to the rest of the world , not by viewing Russia in isolation. The national was seen in the context of the international.

The main characteristic of Russian history, Trotsky argued, was its backwardness in relation to the rest of Europe. Pressure on Russia from its more advanced European neighbours resulted in disproportionate growth in the role and size of the Russian state apparatus . This in turn meant that when capitalism, very belatedly, did start to develop in Russia at the end of the nineteenth century, it did so very much under the tutelage of the state and on the basis of foreign investment (especially from France and Britain). These factors produced a bourgeoisie which was exceedingly weak in terms of its organic roots in Russian society, peculiarly subordinate to the Tsarist autocracy, and peculiarly tied to foreign capital , which had long since ceased to be revolutionary and had become a thoroughly counter-revolutionary force internationally.

These same factors, however, had produced in Russia a proletariat whose economic a social and political weight far exceeded its numerical size. Precisely because of its late development and dependence on foreign capital Russian industry arose on the basis of the most modern technique and the largest possible scale.

At the same time that peasant land- cultivation as a whole remained…at the level of the seventeenth century, Russian industry in its technique and capitalist structure stood at the level of the advanced countries and in certain respects even outstripped them. Small enterprises, involving less than 100 workers, employed in the United States, in 1914, 35% of the total of industrial workers, but in Russia only 17.8%… But the giant enterprises, above 1000 workers each, employed in the US 17.8% of the workers and in Russia 41.4%. (7)

Thus despite being only about 5% of the population the working class held in its hands the decisive productive forces in Russian society and through its massive concentration in a few key cities, exercised potentially decisive political power. The whole phenomenon was epitomised by the Putilov Works, in the Vyborg District of St. Petersburg, which with 40.000 workers in 1914, was probably the largest factory in the world and renowned for its political militancy.

This tendency of capitalism to bring side by side in one social formation the most backward and the most advanced social structures and phenomena, was called by Trotsky ‘the law of combined and uneven development’. In Russia combined and uneven development produced the combination of a weak, conservative bourgeoisie and a strong revolutionary proletariat – this was the core material foundation of the strategy of permanent revolution.

To this must be added Trotsky’s analysis of the role of the peasantry. Whereas the Mensheviks had a generally suspicious attitude to the peasant movement, Lenin supported it enthusiastically, but where they agreed was that the peasant majority excluded the possibility of workers’ power. In opposition to this Trotsky maintained that the peasant revolt, although it was a vital factor in the revolution, would not be able to push the proletariat aside or lead the revolutionary government. Basing himself on Marx’s analysis of the French peasantry in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon and the record of peasant revolts in Russia and elsewhere, Trotsky concluded, ‘Historical experience shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role’ (8) The countryside would follow the town. The peasants would follow whichever of the urban classes provided the stronger lead, and since the cowardly bourgeoisie would betray the peasant struggle for land, it would follow the working class who would be obliged, by the logic of events, to take power into its own hands.

The Russian Revolution of 1917 vindicated the theory of Permanent Revolution. Reality was, of course, richer and more complicated than any theory, but there is no doubt that actual events corresponded more closely to Trotsky’s perspective than to any other.. The Revolution began with the February uprising which overthrew the Tsar and was the spontaneous action of the workers themselves. The bourgeois Provisional Government proved completely incapable of carrying through any of demands or tasks of the revolution, neither ending the war, nor giving land to the peasants, nor even convening a constituent assembly to establish a democratic republic. The Menshevik insistence on the bourgeois character of the revolution turned them, first, into a conservative force trying to hold back the working class, and then into outright counter revolutionaries opposed to the October Revolution. The intermediate position of the Bolsheviks was overtaken by events, especially the emergence of Soviets (workers’ councils) as embryos of workers’ power, and Lenin, returning to Russia from exile, rapidly won the Bolshevik Party to a perspective of workers’ revolution based on the call for ‘All Power to the Soviets’, i.e. effectively adopted Trotsky’s position. Trotsky, in turn, joined the Bolsheviks and together they led the working class seizure of power in October.

The theory of permanent revolution was also confirmed, negatively, by the fact that although the Russian Revolution did inspire a wave of revolution internationally, the defeat of the international revolution made it impossible to construct socialism in Russia and led to the Stalinist reaction.

But if Permanent Revolution was valid for Russia, what was its applicability to other countries where the tasks of the bourgeois revolution had not yet been achieved? This question was posed sharply by developments in China. China in the years1925-27 saw the rapid rise of a mass revolutionary movement, directed against foreign imperialism and Chinese warlords and feudal landowners. The leading role in this movement was played by the militant mass strikes of the young Chinese proletariat in the coastal towns of Shanghai, Canton etc.(9)

The Communist International, by now under complete Stalinist control, responded to this situation by reverting to the pre-1917 Menshevik position of arguing that the Chinese Revolution would be a bourgeois democratic revolution led by the bourgeoisie, and that the task of Chinese communists was to do no more than support this process from the left. In pursuance of this policy the Chinese CP was instructed to join, subordinate itself, and even hand over its membership lists, to the main Chinese nationalist party, the Kuomintang led by Chiang Kai- Shek. This policy was persisted with, despite Trotsky’s protests and warnings, right up to the point in 1927 when Chiang Kai-Shek put the Chinese revolutionary workers and Communists to the sword in a series of massacres in Shanghai and Canton. Trotsky responded by insisting that, ‘The Chinese Revolution… will win as a dictatorship of the proletariat or not at all.’ (10) Then in 1928 in his polemical work, The Permanent Revolution, Trotsky formulated his theory as applicable to all underdeveloped and colonial countries.

With regard to countries with a belated bourgeois development, especially the colonial and semi-colonial countries, the theory of permanent revolution signifies that the complete and genuine solution of their tasks of achieving democracy and national emancipation is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat as the leader of the subjugated nation. (11)

This generalization of permanent revolution was both an immense breakthrough and a source of various problems. It was an immense breakthrough because by disposing of mechanical stages theory, typical of both reformism and Stalinism, and getting rid of the idea of individual countries not yet ready for socialism, it made workers’ power and socialism a fully international programme for the first time. It was a source of problems because, by insisting that almost no progress was possible without the dictatorship of the proletariat, it tended to substitute one mechanical dogma for another. These difficulties came to the fore after World War II when a number of the imperialist powers, especially Britain, retreated from policies of direct colonial rule, and many colonial countries achieved national independence without workers’ revolutions. This left some Trotskyists who adhered fanatically to the letter of Trotsky’s formulations either denying the possibility of changes that were manifestly in the process of happening – for example, Gandhi and Nehru leading India to independence in 1947, or Mandela and the ANC defeating Apartheid and establishing democracy in South Africa. – or inventing revolutions that had manifestly not occurred, such as workers’ socialist revolutions in China, Vietnam and Cuba. (For a Marxist analysis of what really happened in class terms in China and Cuba, and similar revolutions, and how it relates to the theory of permanent revolution see Tony Cliff’s article ‘Permanent Revolution’) (12).

So where does Permanent Revolution stand in relation to the struggle today ? Here a distinction must be made between permanent revolution as an absolute and general prediction, and permanent revolution as a strategic goal. As an absolute prediction ( as in its 1928 formulation) it is clearly not sustainable, but as the theory of a general strategic orientation it is, in many situations, extremely useful – indeed essential.

Wherever there is a fight to be waged against imperialism, national or racial oppression, or dictatorship, revolutionary socialists are put under intense pressure ( by liberals, nationalists, reformists, Stalinists and so on) to sacrifice or shelve ( for the time being !) socialist ideas and demands, and even basic working class interests, in the name of unity in the struggle for the immediate aim. The strategy of permanent revolution rejects those pressures, not from the sectarian position of dismissing the anti- imperialist or democratic struggle as irrelevant , but from the standpoint of arguing for working class and socialist leadership in the fight for national independence and democracy.

In all such struggles the strategy of permanent revolution will treat the so-called ‘national bourgeoisie’, even its most ‘patriotic’ sections, as at very best an unreliable ally and potential enemy and therefore resist all calls for socialists and the working class to give up their political and organisational independence. Permanent revolution means that socialists while participating vigorously in the movements for national liberation and democracy, will seek to develop those movements into struggles for workers’ power and international socialism, not because no kind of national independence or democracy is possible without socialist revolution , but because the very nature of world capitalism and imperialism will weaken, corrupt and undermine any independence or democracy won on a capitalist basis.

Understood in this way the strategy of permanent revolution, far from being out of date, fits the current situation in the Middle East like a glove. In the first place there is the struggle against imperialist occupation in Iraq. It is the duty of socialists to support that struggle unconditionally, no matter whether it is led by Islamists, nationalists , Communists or whoever, but it also the duty of socialists to press within that struggle for socialist and working class leadership, precisely because such politics and such leadership are the best bulwark against the sectarian divisions that are so fostered by the imperialists and so weaken the struggle against the occupation.

In the second place there is the Palestinian struggle against Zionism. Again it is the duty of socialists to support that struggle unconditionally. However, is it not also clear that no matter how heroically the Palestinians resist, the economic and military strength of Zionism, funded and armed by US imperialism, is overwhelming that it cannot be overthrown by the Palestinians on their own. The defeat of Zionist Israel and the real liberation of Palestine ( the two are inseparable) is possible only on the basis of a united mobilization of the masses throughout the Middle East. But the major obstacle to such a mobilization is, of course, the corrupt, pro- imperialist and thoroughly bourgeois regimes which exist throughout the region, and which, regardless of their nationalist rhetoric, have repeatedly failed and betrayed the Palestinians. Thus the liberation of Palestine urgently demands the worker-led process of permanent revolution across the Middle East.

In the third place, there is the struggle for democracy now in Egypt ( and, of course, elsewhere). Democratic rights – free elections, free speech, freedom of the press and of association, an end to torture and arbitrary detention – are valid and important in themselves, but the struggle for democracy is not separate from other struggles. The Mubarak regime is able to continue its undemocratic practices and survive in power, in large part because it is backed by the US. US imperialism supports Mubarak because he opens up Egypt to the world market, and to US firms in particular, and because of his role in preventing Arab mobilization against Israel and/or the US. Within Egypt it is the massive Egyptian working class, concentrated in Cairo much as the Russian proletariat was concentrated in St. Petersburg and Moscow, that has, a) the strongest interest in achieving full democracy; b) the greatest power to defeat the regime; c) the capacity and consciousness to lead the anti- imperialist struggle in the region as a whole. In other words, from a different starting point we are back again to the perspective of permanent revolution, developed by Trotsky more than a century ago.

Nor is it just a question of the Middle East . If space permitted it would be possible to make a similar demonstration of the relevance of permanent revolution to South America or South Africa or Indonesia.(13) What is more, the methodological principles of starting from an international standpoint in the analysis of national peculiarities and the law of combined and uneven development, which were key to the theory of permanent revolution are also central to the analysis of global capitalism today. Indeed the argument for the contemporary validity of permanent revolution is but one instance of the wider case for the continuing relevance of Marxism and the Marxist tradition as a whole.


  1. Marx and Engels, The Communist Manifesto.
  2. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow, 1962, Vol. 9, p.56.
  3. Lenin’s position at that time was outlined by him in Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, to be found in the Collected Works, op. cit., Vol. 9.
  4. Trotsky produced a number of statements of the theory of permanent revolution. The first was in Results and Prospects, written and published in 1906, and now available in English in Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, New York 1969. One of the clearest is in Chapter 1 of The History of the Russian Revolution, London,1977. Permanent Revolution, written in 1928, and published with Results and Prospects, op.cit. is a polemical defence of the theory against Stalinist attacks and distortions
  5. See Marx and Engels, ‘Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League (March 1850)’, in Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, London 1981.
  6. See Results and Prospects, op.cit., p.105.
  7. Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, op.cit., p31-2.
  8. Trotsky, Results and Prospects, op.cit., p.72.
  9. The best account of these events is probably still Harold Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, Stamford, 1961.
  10. Leon Trotsky on China, New York, 1976, p.269.
  11. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, op.cit., p.276.
  12. In Tony Cliff, Marxist Theory After Trotsky, London, 2003, pp.187-202.
  13. See for example Tony Cliff, ‘Revolution and counter-revolution: lessons for Indonesia’, in International Socialism 80 and John Rees, ‘The socialist revolution and the democratic revolution’, in International Socialism 83.

This article was written for publication in Egypt, by Egyptian socialists.

John Molyneux

12 March 2007

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