Permanent Revolution in 1917 Russia and Today

The theory of the permanent revolution can serve as a guide for action for working-class politics, internationalism and strategy for socialism.
  • Juan C | 
  • January 11, 2018

Marx and Engels predicted that a socialist revolution would first take place in the most industrialized countries, where the proletariat represented an already powerful force and played a major role in the economy. According to the interpretation of traditional Marxism, countries in which the feudal mode of production was still predominant would have to first pass through a bourgeois revolution and a phase of bourgeois development before a socialist revolution could become a possibility.1This was not necessarily Marx’s own view, as shown in his reply to Vera Zasulich. See: Karl Marx, “The ‘Second’ Draft,” in Late Marx and the Russian Road: Marx and the ‘Peripheries of Capitalism’, ed. Teodor Shanin (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1983)

Leon Trotsky was the first theorist and political leader within the Marxist tradition who, at the beginning of the 20th century, envisioned the possibility that a socialist revolution could indeed take place in a peripheral country. However, it was from the writings of Marx and Engels that Trotsky adopted the notion of a “permanent” dynamic of revolution.

In 1906, a year after Russia’s first revolution, Trotsky penned Results and Prospects in which he described the main principles of the theory of permanent revolution. By the turn of the century, capitalism was no longer just the sum of multiple national economies — it had expanded beyond national borders, and the way social factors in economically backward countries related to (predominantly foreign) capital was substantially different from what was seen in industrialized countries.

Trotsky observed that foreign capital had penetrated the Russian economy and overtaken everything that got in its way in order to generate commodities and obtain profit. This caused an unusual type of development: a combination of feudal social-property relations with an incipient industry that incorporated technological innovations. Russia would not have to follow the same path as England or France in their transition to capitalism. Because of the competition in the global market, foreign capital was able to introduce the latest machinery and industrial innovations into still-feudal Russia. This phenomenon, famously theorized by Trotsky and termed the law of uneven and combined development, had strong implications not only in the context of economic and political analysis but also for the discussion of revolutionary strategy and its prospects in Russia.

The immediate consequence was that, although Russia was a backward, predominantly rural society, the proletariat was already a considerable force that could lead a revolutionary uprising. In fact, it was the only force that could take on this task.

Dogmatism vs. dialectical thought: Stagism vs. permanent revolution

The Mensheviks argued that Russia was still a feudal economy under the rule of an absolutist monarchy and therefore a bourgeois revolution was needed to topple the monarchy and eliminate all vestiges of feudalism. The character of the revolution was determined by the tasks it would accomplish: agrarian reform with the elimination of nobility rights to the land and the separation of the state and Church, national sovereignty, liberal democracy. However, in contrast with classical bourgeois or democratic revolutions (such as the French or the English Revolutions), Trotsky argued that the proletariat was the only class in Russia with the power and the will to overthrow the monarchy and open the path for winning these democratic demands.

This may have sounded ridiculous in the context of 1905 Russia where only 17 million people lived in the cities of a country of over 130 million people.

Trotsky asserted that the peasantry — despite its weight in the economy and its revolutionary potential — was intrinsically unable to hold a political position independent from both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This was partly because it was a very heterogeneous social class though it ranged from small-plot peasants to large landowners. In addition, the seat of political power was in the cities and not in the countryside, a fact that further limited the political leverage of the peasantry. In a similar vein, intellectuals and the urban petty bourgeoisie were unable to act independently from the national bourgeoisie; their higher strata were economically tied to the bourgeoisie while the lower strata shared, to a great extent, the life experience and interests of the proletariat and would thus follow their lead.

Why was the Russian bourgeoisie unable to lead the bourgeois revolution as it had ostensibly done in France or in England? The bourgeoisie had strong economic ties with the landowners, who were their partners in profit. Pushing for land reform meant going after the possessions of the landed aristocracy, breaking de facto this political alliance and putting their own business at risk. Similarly, it was not in the bourgeoisie’s own interest to challenge the absolutist government which was the ultimate guarantor of its profits.

A Closer Analysis

The French Revolution of 1789 was carried out by the Third Estate, a heterogeneous social sector made up of the bourgeoisie, the sans-culottes, and the petty bourgeoisie (artisans, merchants, shopkeepers, and peasants). From below, the Jacobins rallied a heterogeneous popular movement sprouting from both the countryside and the towns. Although the mass support came mostly from urban wage workers, artisans, and the peasantry, the political leadership of the revolution was captured by a section of the bourgeoisie who provided the cadre (revolutionary army officials) that led the uprising against the feudal state.2Lynn Hunt, Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution: With a New Preface, vol. 1 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

A relatively recent historiography calls into question the role played by the bourgeoisie in the English and French revolutions.3See: George C. Comninel, Rethinking the French Revolution: Marxism and the Revisionist Challenge, (London: Verso, 1987); Conrad Russell, The Fall of the British Monarchies, 1637-1642. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991); Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital (London: Verso Books, 2013). In both cases, it is noted, it was only under enormous pressure from the popular masses that the bourgeoisie attached a plank of democratic demands to the quest for control of the state. We cannot, therefore, ascribe to the bourgeoisie any intrinsic desire for democratic rights. This reassessment only reinforces the tepid character of the bourgeoisie and its unwillingness to awaken popular forces to fight for the establishment or expansion of liberal democracy. In the case of the French Revolution, we are told that it was not the bourgeoisie who spearheaded the movement, but it was instead predominantly the petty-bourgeois elements and a small bourgeois sector who led the uprising. Granted, the most progressive aspects in the Declaration of the Rights of Man were a direct product of the pressure of the peasants and the urban laborers, not the goodwill of the bourgeoisie. However, the transformation of the state and the democratic rights conquered with the overthrow of the monarchy were requisites for capitalist production to thrive.4Alex Callinicos, “Bourgeois Revolutions and Historical Materialism,” International Socialism 43, no. 2 (1989): 113-171.

It is worthwhile mentioning, before we continue, that under the banner of democratic demands, we understand both the formal demands and the structural demands. The former are universal suffrage, freedom of press, and equality before the law, whereas the latter refer to the distribution of land, national independence, and self-determination.

In the 1848 revolutions in France, the proletariat took part wholeheartedly, pushing the revolutionary process to go beyond the moderate demands of the bourgeoisie. However, the working class was still too weak and it lacked an independent political program to take a leading position in the revolution. The bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie played a counter-revolutionary role, cutting short the thrust of the mass movement, stripping off the most democratic demands — such as universal suffrage — and catapulting Louis Bonaparte to power.

In countries where capitalism developed later, the national bourgeoisie showed itself to be reluctant to upset the political landscape and shake off the nobility. In Germany and Italy, the bourgeoisie, in alliance with sections of the landed aristocracy, operated a “revolution from above” or, in Gramsci’s words, a “passive revolution.” The process accomplished national unification — a prominent requirement for capitalist development — and adapted the state to allow the spread of the market economy while compromising in other aspects with the representatives of feudal power.

The Russian bourgeoisie was unwilling to confront the ancien regime in the years from 1905 to 1917 and was frightened of setting into motion a social force that it could not control. The urban proletariat, composing the largest group of the inhabitants of Russian modern towns, was the only social class that could provide the political leadership necessary to strike a total break with the monarchic state. The democratic rights brought about by the French and English revolutions would only be achievable in Russia under the leadership of the proletariat.

The nucleus of the population of a modern town, at least of a town possessing some economic and political significance, is the sharply differentiated class of wage-workers. It was this class, as yet substantially unknown during the period of the Great French Revolution, that was destined to play the decisive role in our [1905] revolution.5Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (Seattle: Red Letter Press, 2010), 55

The main theoretical innovation here was that a class (the proletariat) would lead a transformation (a democratic revolution) that in theory did not correspond with its historical tasks. In fact, Trotsky argued that once the proletariat took the reins of the state, it would not content itself with obtaining these liberal democratic rights.

In the 1919 re-issue of Results and Prospects, he explains:

Once in power, the proletariat not only will not want, but will not be able to limit itself to a bourgeois democratic program. It will be able to carry through the Revolution to the end […] [T]he Russian working class will develop into a prolonged Socialist dictatorship.6Ibid, 35.

This is one of the three thesis of the theory of permanent revolution. Once in power, the proletariat would face staunch opposition and boycott from the bourgeoisie and thus would be forced to expropriate. Therefore, “[t]he democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.”7Ibid, 312.

Trotsky’s predictions were proven accurate in 1917 when, after a few months of the bourgeois provisional government, the demand for “all the power to the Soviets” became irresistible. Workers, organized as a class by the Bolsheviks, took power; the transition to socialism begun.

However, there are two more theses in the theory of the permanent revolution that are worth our attention. One of them is the need to extend the revolution internationally:

The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion, only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.8Ibid, 313.

Trotsky and Lenin counted on the victory of the socialist revolution in the central countries — notably in Germany — not only as a requisite to further developing socialism internationally but also as the only way for the Russian revolution to survive.

Material basis for communism

The development of industry has been the material basis for the construction of a socialist society. It was only through technological innovation and the rise of productivity brought about by capitalism that European countries were able to escape the periodic Malthusian crises and match population growth with an increasing agrarian output.9Robert Brenner, “Property and Progress: Where Adam Smith Went Wrong,” in Marxist History-Writing for the Twenty-First Century, ed. Chris Wickham (Oxford University Press, 2007), 49-111.

By the beginning of the 20th century, capitalism had spread across Europe and industrialized countries had been able to forcefully integrate other countries into the market, but left in place much of their feudal social relations. After the revolution, Soviet Russia was still an extremely backward country competing (and at war) with highly industrialized capitalist nations whose governments had a strong interest in seeing the socialist project sink. The prospects for the survival of the new nation were dire unless workers took power in an advanced country and used its resources to reinvigorate the soviet economy. A workers’ government in Germany or in any other industrialized country would have had immeasurable consequences for the USSR and the evolution of socialism around the world.

These were the stakes in the debate between the theory of the permanent revolution and Stalin’s theory of socialism in one country (which was, in actuality, more of a doctrine than a theory). The bottom line is that instead of fostering the development of other revolutions around the world — which was the only way to secure the survival of workers’ states and move forward on the path to socialism — the Communist International (Comintern) under Stalin submitted all foreign communist parties to the main objective of preserving the USSR.

To this end, the Comintern focused on exerting pressure on other countries’ (bourgeois) governments — through strikes, mobilizations, and isolated actions — to allegedly prevent them from attacking the USSR and restoring capitalism. At the same time, communist parties in China, France, Great Britain, Spain were given orders to form alliances with the national bourgeoisies, writing off the possibility of (or actively boycotting) a revolution in those countries and providing the ground for a peaceful coexistence between the USSR and the capitalist European countries.

The policy of socialism in one country was taken to its final conclusions in China in the 1920s when Stalin and Bukharin ordered the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to enter (and dissolve the party into) the Kuomintang, a nationalist bourgeois party. First Chiang Kai-Shek, and later the leader of the left wing of the Kuomintang, Wan Tin-Wei, betrayed the Chinese communists and took up arms against them. The Shanghai Massacre, in which thousands of communists were slaughtered, was only a harbinger of the hundreds of thousands to be killed in the span of a year at the hands of the Kuomintang. This outcome was foreseeable, however, and could have been prevented if the Comintern had stuck to the principle of refusing alliance with bourgeois parties. It confirmed, as well, that the bourgeoisie cannot be an ally of the working class in the fight for national sovereignty.

During the Spanish Revolution, the Comintern embraced the tactic of the popular front and decided that the Spanish would stage a bourgeois revolution against fascism. George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia captures the persecution and the low-intensity, dirty war the Spanish CP waged against the POUM and other dissident forces in the revolutionary camp. The Spanish CP sought vehemently to halt both land expropriation in the countryside and workers’ self-activity organizations in the cities because the task of the day was to stop fascism, not to fight for socialism. Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom depicts the moment at which CP-led brigades turn their arms against militias that refused to fold themselves onto the popular front with the bourgeois parties sponsored by the Spanish Communist Party.

The popular front policy was merely a new iteration of the Menshevik policy of class collaboration with the national bourgeoisie and the endorsement of the provisional government in Russia in 1917. Although fighting on the same side against absolutism (fascism in Spain) and foreign powers, workers needed to fight for their own program, maintaining complete political independence from the bourgeoisie. In the case of Spain, this meant fighting on the republican side with an independent program for a socialist workers’ government.

The USSR under Stalin had chosen a different route. According to the permanent revolution perspective, the path to socialism was necessarily international, whereas in the framework of socialism in one country, the top priority became defense in the form of national security. This foreign policy responded to the goal of maintaining the USSR at any cost, but also to the fear of the Stalinist bureaucracy that a new leadership might rise at the head of revolutions in other countries.

Post WW2 Revolutions

The theory of the permanent revolution was put to the test by new revolutionary uprisings in the mid-20th century. Among them, revolutions of the post-World War II period, including the Chinese revolution of 1949 and the revolutions in Cuba and other semicolonial countries, pose a particular challenge. The question is how to reconcile Trotsky’s prescription of a working-class leadership as a requisite to successfully achieve socialism with the experience of the peasant-led Chinese revolution of 1949, or the victorious Cuban revolution led by a petty-bourgeois political organization. (for a discussion on the revolutionary party, see article by Christian Castillo in this edition) Many authors have found in these historic events enough reason to abandon the theory or to prove it wrong. This article argues that the theory-strategy connection remains strong in the face of these events once we analyze them closely.

After a resounding defeat in 1925-1927, Mao Tse-tung led a wing of the CCP to retreat to the countryside in a search for protection from the onslaught. The Long March demonstrated the prowess that allowed the CCP to survive the crackdown by the Kuomintang. However, Mao’s political strategy remained attached to building a coalition with the national bourgeoisie and only under immense pressure did he decide to break with it and take power in 1949. Immediately afterward, the CCP under Mao’s leadership had to go beyond its own program and expropriate the bourgeoisie. The CCP’s social base was overwhelmingly peasant-based and the leadership was petty bourgeois. Nevertheless, they were able (forced?) to take power to expropriate the means of production and implement a planned economy.

In the Transitional Program, Trotsky actually entertains the possibility that “under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.), the petty bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie.” He was wrong, however, when he asserted that “it would represent merely a short episode on the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.”10Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program & The Struggle for Socialism (Sydney: Resistance Books, 1999), 44.

In a similar vein, Fidel Castro’s Movimiento 26 de Julio was a petty bourgeois organization that built a social base in the sierra (mountainous countryside) before marching onto the urban centers. Although the worker-led actions in the cities (mainly organized by Frank Pais) were of paramount importance for the final outcome, the Revolutionary Armed Forces were a top-down military organization with a petty-bourgeois leadership. Once in power, cornered by the bourgeoisie’s boycott in response to sweeping radical-democratic measures, the revolutionary government with Fidel Castro at its head expropriated all major industries and declared the socialist character of the Cuban revolution –— one year after taking power.

This growing over of the national liberation revolution into a socialist revolution can be taken, in a way, as a confirmation of the theory of the permanent revolution. At the same time, similar to the Chinese revolution of 1949, the social composition of the revolutionary organization, as well as its leadership, was petty bourgeois. It needs to be emphasized that the take of power in both cases was not preceded by the rise of a dual power or a mushrooming of working class self-activity organizations. The vertical structure of the revolutionary party and the lack of workers’ democratic bodies (in united front with other revolutionary forces), dramatically conditioned the structure of the fledgling state: a highly bureaucratized workers’ state under the tight grip of the Communist Party.

These examples show that, under extremely exceptional circumstances such as the early post-World War II period in China and the 1950s in Cuba, a petty-bourgeois leadership can be successful in taking the power of the state. Following a permanent dynamic, a national liberation struggle can turn into social revolution that topples capitalism, but the germ of bureaucratization is written into the strategy. Sooner or later these governments become fetters for the advancement of international socialism.

The Theory Negated

The abandonment of the permanent revolution perspective led many Trotskyist parties around the world to lose their compass, support popular fronts, encourage and support guerrilla-type organizations, take part in bourgeois governments, or even, in probably the most absurd case, celebrate the 2013 military coup in Egypt and the suppression of rights to the Muslim brotherhood.

Nahuel Moreno revised the theory of permanent revolution in 1984. He declared it obsolete and proposed instead a new theory — one of the democratic revolution. Drawing a parallel to the program of political revolution for the Soviet Union under Stalin, he contended that a revolution against the political regime was needed to defeat fascism. In the same vein, in those Latin American countries under a military dictatorship, the change of the government to a constitutional (capitalist) democracy represented a triumphant democratic revolution. This has led the Morenoite International Workers’ League (IWL) to contend that, since the 1980s, there have been a succession of triumphant revolutions, including the fall of Somoza’s dictatorship in Nicaragua but also, notably, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. Where everyone sees a continuous retreat of the left, they see victory after victory.

This same logic has led the organization to celebrate “yet another” triumphant revolution — the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt at the hands of the army.11“¡Fuera Morsi! ¡Fuera Militares!.” Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores — Cuarta Internacional (2 July 2013). The newly-constituted military government engaged in a vengeful witch hunt against the Muslim Brotherhood, but the IWL didn’t condemn state terror against them and called for “no democratic rights for the Muslim Brotherhood.”12A statement published June 18, 2013 reads “¡Ningún derecho democrático ni de expresión para la Hermandad y sus líderes políticos mientras se movilicen por el retorno de Morsi!” (“No democratic rights for the Muslim Brotherhood and its political leaders as long as they rally for Morsi’s return”) See: “Los militares no atacan sólo a la reaccionaria Hermandad Musulmana sino a todo el pueblo,” Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores — Cuarta Internacional (16 August 2013).

During its reactionary drift in 1983, the American SWP also rejected the relevancy of the permanent revolution. In Their Trotsky and Ours, Jack Barnes struck a belated turn towards full support to Latin American guerrillas and converted fully to Castroism. (The whole Fourth International under the leadership of Ernest Mandel had adopted the guerrilla strategy for Latin America in 1969.13Socialist Workers Party, “Draft Resolution on Latin America,” in International Information Bulletin, pt. 2 (January 1969).) In 1984, the SWP amended its party constitution to fight for a “workers and farmers” government — however surreal this slogan may sound for the U.S. in the 1980s.14Jack Barnes, Their Trotsky and Ours (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2002).

Its Relevance Today

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is not a fixed dogma but a strategy for action — a roadmap to world socialism. Although there are, of course, no feudal countries in the world today, the main lessons drawn from the theory can be helpful when analyzing the struggle for socialism in semicolonial countries today.

In the face of imperialist oppression, part of the left still feels compelled to support national bourgeois governments such as that of Evo Morales in Bolivia or that of the late Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. This support is based on the myth that the national bourgeoisie is in favor of national liberation against foreign powers (and is willing to fight foreign capital for it), and that the bourgeoisie is historically poised to bestow democratic rights on the whole of the population, an expectation that flies in the face of all historical experience. The fight for national sovereignty can and must be waged without giving political support to national bourgeois governments.

Furthermore, as this article argues, the fight for democratic rights — along with related struggles — is a task that falls squarely in the hands of the working class: the fight for national sovereignty and self-determination; the distribution of the land; and even the right to vote and participate freely in politics where those rights are suppressed. If the socialist left does not stand at the forefront of the fight for social liberties, then the workers, the most oppressed, the underclass, will look for a force that will champion their demands in parties of liberal democracy or in reformist organizations.

At the same time, when faced with military dictatorships or other authoritarian or bonapartist governments that suppress democratic rights, there is a tendency to present the fight to overthrow the government as an end in itself towards which it is worth coalescing with liberal democratic forces. An example of this is the call to support the rebels in Syria when, after six years of the initial uprising, all forces in the rebel camp are led by bourgeois or petty-bourgeois armed groups. The “Syrian revolution” has mutated to a constellation of armed groups — many religious, a few of them secular — loosely united by the common goal of toppling Assad. Lending political support to them means settling for a program that advances a liberal capitalist state and forgoes (until a later stage) the fight for socialism.

After decades of retreat in the class struggle as well as in the realm of ideas, the theory of the permanent revolution can serve as a guide to action for working-class politics, internationalism, and strategy for socialism. The international left can only benefit from revisiting this classic theory and reassessing the question of revolutionary strategy in light of its main historical lessons.


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