First of three articles on Trotsky's contribution to Marxism, published in Socialist Worker (UK)
This article was written before the Tunisian Revolution but is worth noting that what is happening in Tunisia at the moment and the way it is spreading to other North African and Middle Eastern countries is an excellent example of the first stages of the process of 'permanent revolution' theorised by Trotsky and outlined here.
Trotsky and the Russian Revolution.
Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was murdered seventy years ago by an agent of Stalin who drove an ice pick into his head. Why write about him now? Because he was one of the greatest revolutionaries of the twentieth century and because, after the death of Marx, it was he, together with Lenin, who did most to develop Marxist ideas.
Trotsky’s practical revolutionary achievements were enormous. At the age of 26 he emerged as the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1905, when he was elected President of the St Petersburg Workers’ Council (Soviet). Then in 1917, once again president of the Soviet, he organised the October Insurrection which established workers’ power in Russia.
After that he became chief organiser of the five million strong Red Army which defended the Revolution against the counter revolutionary White armies backed by Western imperialism. Finally he led the Left Opposition in Russia which tried, unsuccessfully to resist the rise of Stalin and defend workers’ democracy and the original ideals of the Revolution.
Trotsky not only led the Russian Revolution in action, he was also, again with Lenin, Its main political inspirer and thinker. It was he who, as early, as 1905 most clearly foresaw the course the revolution was going to take.
At the time all Russian socialists and radicals thought that Tsarist Russia was heading for revolution, but they almost all thought it would just be a ‘bourgeois democratic revolution’ like the French Revolution of 1789. That is they thought it would overthrow the Tsar and establish a normal capitalist democracy like in Western Europe, and that only after that would the working class begin the struggle for socialism.
The more moderate wing of the Russian socialist movement, the Mensheviks, thought this meant the middle class would lead the revolution and the working class should limit itself to supporting them.
The revolutionary wing, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin, argued the middle class was too conservative to lead the movement and it would be up to the working class to make the revolution but they accepted the idea that Russia was too economically backward to move to socialism, particularly as the working class were only a minority of the population, compared with the vast majority of peasants.
Trotsky agreed with Lenin that the working class not the middle class would make the revolution. However, he argued that in doing so the logic of the struggle would lead to the establishment of workers power and to breaking with capitalism. To the objection that this would be blocked by the peasants he maintained that the peasants, even though they were the majority, would support the urban working class IF the workers gave a strong enough lead.
To the argument that Russia was not sufficiently economically developed to sustain socialism, Trotsky said this was true if you looked at Russia in isolation, but the Russian Revolution should be seen as the first breakthrough in a wave of international revolution. Workers power in Russia would lead to workers power in Germany and elsewhere in Europe where the level of industrialisation was high enough to make the transition to socialism.
Trotsky’s idea became known as the theory of Permanent Revolution. This didn’t mean revolution going on forever, but revolution not stopping at any intermediate stage until it had achieved its ultimate goal of world revolution.
In 1917 Trotsky was proved right – the workers, not the middle class, brought down the Tsar in February and moved on to take power themselves in October. Lenin came round to Trotsky’s view and won over the Bolshevik Party in April. Trotsky then joined the Bolsheviks and they united to lead the Revolution and to found the Communist International with the aim of spreading the Revolution internationally.
The theory of permanent revolution had significance way beyond Russia. It meant that the working class in colonial and third world countries where it was still a minority did not have to sit back and wait for socialism in Europe but could take the lead in fighting for their own workers revolutions.
Even today when modern capitalism has spread across most of the globe permanent revolution is still important in dictatorships like Egypt or oppressed countries like Palestine, because it says that in these countries the movement should not limit itself to achieving democracy or national freedom, or to methods of struggle acceptable to the middle class . Rather it argues that revolutionary socialists and the working class should take the lead in the struggle and try to transform it into international workers revolution. This is particularly relevant in the Middle East where it is the only way Palestine can really become free.