Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Theory of Permanent Revolution


The Theory of Permanent Revolution

So far this column has focused on explaining the basic ideas of Marxism as developed by its founders, Marx and Engels. But Marxism is a living, growing theory which has to be kept up in response to changes in capitalism and developments in the class struggle, so now I want to have a look at some of the most important contributions made to Marxism after Marx, beginning with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution.

The theory of permanent revolution was without doubt one the most original and significant additions to Marxism, with the most far reaching implications, made in the whole of the twentieth century. Unfortunately the first obstacle to understanding it is its name. Naturally, when people first hear the term ‘permanent revolution’ they assume it must signify the idea of revolution going on for ever, without end, which might sound exciting to some people who don’t know what revolutions really involve, but would actually be both impossible and contrary to Marxism, which has the ultimate aim of abolishing violence and conflict in human affairs. In reality ‘permanent’ revolution, like other terms in the history of Marxism such as Bolshevism and Menshevism, is just a nickname that happened to stick, and even the nickname can’t be understood until the basic ideas of the theory have been explained and put in their historical context.

That context was- in the first place- 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 third, developed by Leon Trotsky, became known as Permanent Revolution. 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 a socialist revolution.(The name came from the use of the slogan ‘ permanent revolution’ in an 1850 article by Marx which put a similar position for Germany).

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.

The actual Russian Revolution of 1917 vindicated Trotsky’s perspective. The Revolution began with the February uprising which overthrew the Tsar and was the spontaneous action of the workers themselves. 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.

Stalinism denounced permanent revolution as Trotskyist heresy and reverted to the Menshevik stages theory of alliance with the bourgeoisie, first in relation to the Chinese Revolution in the twenties, and then for all countries where there was a struggle for democracy or national independence. Trotsky responded by generalizing the theory of permanent revolution from just Russia to the world as a whole.

This was of immense significance for Marxism. Marx’s identification of the working class as the agent of socialism (the core proposition of Marxism) had led many would-be Marxists to see the socialist revolution as relevant only to those industrialized countries where the working class was a majority, essentially Europe and North America. By arguing that, even where it was a minority, the working class could and should take power, in alliance with the peasantry and as a first step in an international process, Trotsky made the programme of socialist revolution genuinely global.

Even today, when feudalism is dead and the bourgeoisie rules virtually everywhere, the perspective of permanent revolution remains relevant and vital wherever there is a struggle for basic democracy or national liberation. In such situations there is always pressure on Marxists ( from liberals, reformists, nationalists, Stalinists, etc.) to set aside socialism, and even the basic demands of the working class, in the name of ‘unity’ in the immediate struggle.

The theory of permanent revolution shows how Marxists and the workers’ movement, by taking the lead in the fight for democratic and national demands, can both strengthen those immediate struggles and make them component parts of the struggle for workers power and international socialism.

John Molyneux

28 Feb 2007

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