The Theory of the Permanent Revolution
Leon Trotsky came to adulthood in Russia at the turn of this century – when the working class was rising to its feet in a struggle to end the semi-feudal dictatorship of the Russian Tsar (emperor). He was a member of the Russian workers’ party, the Social Democratic Labour Party.
What was the role of the working class in this struggle to overthrow the Tsar? What would be its outcome? These were questions that were under fierce debate within the RSDLP to which Trotsky’s answer was the theory of permanent revolution.
Bourgeois and proletarian revolution
In Britain in the seventeenth century, in France in the eighteenth, feudalism had been overthrown by mass revolutions. The old feudal order in these countries was obstructing the development of the capitalist forces of production growing up in their womb.
The mass of the people fought in these revolutions to end their oppression and secure the power to transform their conditions of life. But the result of these revolutions was to replace one system of exploitation by another. In place of a society based on the extraction of tribute from peasants by feudal lords there arose one in which capitalists extracted profit from the labour of the working class.
These were bourgeois (capitalist) revolutions. Today the capitalists claim these revolutions were ‘unnecessary’. But, as Marx and Engels explained, these revolutions reflected a fundamental law of human development that, “at a certain stage of their development, the material productive forces of society come in conflict with the existing relations of production…Then begins an epoch of social revolution.”
The bourgeois revolutions are often referred to as ‘democratic revolutions’. But, for the bourgeois, the establishment of political democracy was not the essential aim. The aim was to carry through fundamental changes to clear the way for capitalist advance: emancipating the peasantry from the rule of the landlords; replacing the castes, estates and regionalism of feudal rule with unified nation-states; and replacing the rule of hereditary monarchs by forms of political rule reflecting the interest of the capitalist class.
In Britain, this revolution ended with the re-establishment of a monarchy (which exists to this day), though subject to the constitutional control of parliament. In the revolution in France, fought under the slogans of “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”, a period of (qualified) democracy gave way to the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte.
The establishment and maintenance of political democracy under capitalism, from its earliest times, has been achieved not by the bourgeoisie, but against it, by the struggle of the working class.
Bourgeois revolutions merely replaced the rule of one class by another: the state’s defence of one system of property relations by another. Even within the framework of capitalism, a variety of forms of rule have existed – from bourgeois democracy to the totalitarian dictatorship of Fascism. Within capitalism there is an ongoing struggle between political counter-revolution and revolution, depending on the balance of forces between the main contending classes.
Capitalism revolutionised society. But capitalism itself, as Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto (1848), is subject to the same law of social development as the feudal society it had replaced. Capitalist relations of production, they showed, would come to obstruct the development of the forces of production – preparing the way for a new social revolution.
This would be a proletarian revolution. It would be a revolution by the working class (formed by capitalism as the producers of social wealth) to overthrow the capitalist state and establish workers’ democratic rule. It would be a socialist revolution: with private ownership giving way to social ownership of the means of production (that of the working class), and with the capitalist system of nation-states giving way to the international rule of the proletariat.
On this basis, there would be a period of transition from capitalism to communism, a period which they called socialism.
When the working class “sweeps away by force the old conditions of production”, anticipated Marx and Engels,
it will, along with these conditions, have swept away the conditions for the existence of class antagonisms and of classes generally, and will thereby have abolished its own supremacy as a class.
In place of the old bourgeois society, with its classes and class antagonisms, we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all.
Such an “association” was what they meant by communism.
The Manifesto was written as the program of the Communist League, which Marx (aged 29) and Engels (aged 27) had participated in forming as the first party of the international proletariat. The theoretical principles of the Manifesto, of scientific socialism, passed down through the First International (1864-1876) to the Second International, founded in 1889, the first association of mass workers’ parties. The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party was a part of the Second International.
Russia at the turn of the century, as we have said, had not yet experienced a bourgeois revolution. It was a backward country. Yet already in France, in 1871, the working class had briefly taken power in the Commune of Paris, before it was defeated. For revolutionary Marxists in the Second International, it was clear that – in the most advanced capitalist countries at least – proletarian revolution was on the order of the day.
What, in Russia, was the relation between bourgeois revolution and proletarian revolution? This was the main question of debate within the RSDLP.
Trotsky, in 1904-6, advanced a bold answer to this question. Put in condensed fashion, it was as follows. The foremost tasks of the revolution in Russia were those of bourgeois revolution. But the bourgeois were incapable of carrying them out: indeed, would stand in the way of this. Though Russia was a backward country, the working class would have to take state power to carry out those tasks. Having done so, it could not and would not stop there. It would come into inevitable conflict with the capitalist class, and be compelled to end capitalism.
Thus, he anticipated, in Russia bourgeois and proletarian revolution would become fused together into what he – following Marx and Engels – called a permanent revolution.
Nor would matters stop there. As Trotsky in 1929 summarised the idea of permanent revolution:
First, it embraces the problem of the transition from the democratic revolution to the socialist. This is in essence the historical origin of the theory…
The second aspect of the ‘permanent’ theory has to do with the socialist revolution as such. For an indefinitely long time and in constant internal struggle, all social relations undergo transformation. Society keeps changing its skin. Each stage of transformation stems directly from the preceding… Revolutions in economy, technique, science, the family, morals and everyday life develop in complex reciprocal action and do not allow society to achieve equilibrium….
The international character of the socialist revolution… constitutes the third aspect of the theory of the permanent revolution…. The socialist revolution begins on national foundations – but it cannot he completed within those foundations…. Viewed from this standpoint, a national revolution is not a self-contained whole: it is only a link in the international chain. The international revolution constitutes a permanent process, despite temporary declines and ebbs.The Permanent Revolution
Trotsky’s theory applied the ideas of Marx and Engels to the concrete conditions of the world and Russia in the early twentieth century. It was confirmed in practice in 1917, when it formed the perspective and program on which the working class came to power in Russia.
Under modern conditions – re-applied again – it remains an essential weapon in the struggle of workers and peasants throughout the “Third World” against oppression and exploitation, including our movement in South Africa.
In many ways, in fact, it sums up the strategy and tasks of the transition from capitalism to socialism in the modern epoch.
Stalinism rejects permanent revolution
Usurping power from the working class in Russia in the 1920s, Stalin and the bureaucracy launched an ideological offensive against the theory of permanent revolution. They did so to try to discredit Trotsky as a ‘deviant’ from the traditions of Marx, Engels and the recently-deceased Lenin, to try to claim this authority for themselves. More importantly, they did so because the theory of permanent revolution was totally irreconcilable with their false ideas of achieving “socialism in one country”.
To this day the bureaucracy and those who support them try to repudiate the theory of permanent revolution. The South African ‘Communist’ Dialego, for example, writing in the African Communist (4th Quarter, 1988) on “What is Trotskyism?“, does exactly this.
However in his argument there is one difference from what was said by the Stalinists in the 1920s. He claims to accept a theory of permanent revolution – but maintains that:
There is not one theory of permanent revolution but two. Marx and Engels themselves elaborated a theory of permanent revolution in The Communist Manifesto, but their theory differs fundamentally from the version of permanent revolution championed by Leon Trotsky.
Permanent revolution for Marx and Engels”, he continues, “presented a perspective in which (in the words of the Manifesto), the bourgeois revolution is ‘the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution’. Lenin reaffirmed this perspective in 1905 when he declared that ‘from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength…begin to pass to the socialist revolution’. In other words, as far as the Marxist classics are concerned, the permanent or ‘uninterrupted’ revolution proceeds in phases. The phases are of course linked since one is a prelude or precondition for the other. But – and this is the decisive point – the democratic revolution comes first.
It is this proposition [– adds Dialego –] which Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution rejects. Trotsky took the view that unless the revolution is socialist in character and immediately establishes ‘a dictatorship of the proletariat’, it will fail.
…His [Trotsky’s] mystical belief was that workers can somehow or other pole-vault themselves into socialism.
Needless to say, neither Trotsky nor any other Marxist has “the mystical belief” that “workers can somehow or other pole-vault themselves into socialism” – that they can leap over all the material obstacles to achieving a classless society. The possibilities for socialism are prepared by material conditions world-wide – though a pre-condition for socialism is state power in the hands of the working class. Revolution, moreover, does proceed through phases, depending on the relation of forces between, and above all the consciousness of, the different classes. Neither Trotsky nor any other Marxist would deny this.
But, as we shall see, Dialego’s childish caricature of “Trotskyism” masks his real intention. Like the Stalinists in the 1920s, he accuses Trotsky of “jumping stages”. He wants to try to put the authority of Marx, Engels and Lenin behind, not an ‘alternative’ version of permanent revolution, not inevitable ‘phases’ in a revolution, but the discredited Stalinist idea of ‘two-stage’ revolution – of a “democratic revolution” in late-developing countries in the modern world which inevitably precedes and is separate from proletarian socialist revolution.
To sustain this fiction, Dialego, like the Stalinist “theoreticians” of the 1920s, turns Marxism from a method for analysing the real processes of history into a dogmatic reproduction of formulae from texts. To understand his distortions, it will be necessary to disentangle the quotations that he employs, and place them in their historical context.
Marx and Engels on permanent revolution
The extract which Dialego quotes from the Manifesto is not, for example, a general prescription about revolution. It is a concrete perspective for impending revolution in Germany at that time. Let us quote it in full:
The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilisation, than that of England was in the seventeenth, and of France in the eighteenth century, and because the bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution.
Unlike Britain and France, Germany in 1848 had not yet experienced a bourgeois revolution. The significance of the Manifesto’s perspective for Germany was its claim that – without a whole intermediate period of capitalist development – bourgeois revolution could lead “to an immediately following proletarian revolution”.
Dialego draws from this passage an emphasis on “phases” in the revolution. But Marx and Engels had a different purpose. At the time of the bourgeois revolutions in England and France, the objective conditions for socialist revolution were not yet in existence. Modern industry was not yet sufficiently developed. The proletariat barely existed. It was not concentrated into large factories, with the power to halt production.
What Marx and Engels were concerned to show in 1848, for Germany, was the objective interconnection that was already developing between bourgeois and proletarian revolution.
1848 was a year of revolution in Europe – but the revolutions were defeated. In Germany the bourgeois recoiled from their own revolution into an alliance with reaction. As Marx and Engels explained, “the German bourgeoisie had developed so sluggishly, so pusillanimously and so slowly, that it saw itself threateningly confronted by the proletariat, and all those sections of the urban population related to the proletariat in interests and ideas, at the very moment of its own threatening confrontation with feudalism and absolutism”. (Neue Rheinische Zeitung, 15/12/1848, in Marx, The Revolutions of 1848)
The emergence of the proletariat, in other words, was changing the attitude of the bourgeoisie towards championing its ‘own’ revolution. Therefore, Marx and Engels anticipated that “a purely bourgeois revolution, along with the establishment of bourgeois hegemony in the form of a constitutional monarchy, is impossible in Germany. What is possible is either the feudal and absolutist counter-revolution or the social-republican revolution.” (NRZ, 31/12/1848, in ibid)
By a “social-republican revolution” they meant a revolution which would establish a democratic republic, with political rights for all – or at least, in the conditions of the time, for all males. Such a revolution, bourgeois-democratic rather than merely bourgeois, would, they expected, be led at first by the democratic petty bourgeois: the urban middle class, small industrial merchants, master craftsmen, together with the mass of peasants – those with an interest in the fullest possible democracy under capitalism.
It was in this connection (and not, as Dialego would have it, in the Communist Manifesto) that they first used the idea of permanent revolution:
while the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible…it is our interest and our task [i.e. that of the working class] to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers.”
“Our concern cannot simply be to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one.Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, March 1850
In other words, in Germany bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolution had already become fused together as one revolution. It was the “interest and task” of the working class to push forward without interruption to socialist revolution. If there were “phases” in this revolution, it would be only because the working class had not yet developed the consciousness and organisation to lead the revolution – thus allowing the “democratic petty bourgeoisie” to “bring it to an end as quickly as possible.”
These were the ideas which Trotsky would elaborate in his theory of permanent revolution.
Imperialism and reformism
The world situation did not develop precisely as Marx and Engels anticipated. By the time that Lenin and Trotsky were applying Marxism in Russia at the end of the century, there had been important changes.
Central to these was the transition, in the major capitalist powers, from competitive to monopoly capitalism. The anarchistic competition of capitalism drove out less efficient capitalists. Their businesses were swallowed up by their rivals. In the biggest countries, the main branches of industry became dominated by a few gigantic firms: monopolies. This did not abolish competition, but projected it, in more violent form, from the national market to the world market. Monopoly capitalism gave rise to modern imperialism.
From the 1870s the biggest capitalist powers fought to carve and recarve the whole planet among themselves, competing to establish colonies and semi-colonies in a ruthless search for sources of raw materials, new markets, and fields for profitable investment.
Paradoxically backward Germany, with bourgeois revolution “from below” – under the driving force of the masses – defeated in 1848, leapt ahead to become a major imperialist power. A bureaucratically-managed “revolution from above” under the lead of the Prime Minister Bismarck, unified Germany and cleared away other obstacles to the development of capitalism.
The rise of monopoly capitalism and imperialism bound together the world economy as a single integrated whole far more than had ever previously been the case. This transition also was an expression of the fact that private ownership and national boundaries had become fetters to the development of production.
As Lenin put it in his classic work, Imperialism: the highest stage of capitalism (1916):
the economic quintessence of imperialism is monopoly capitalism. This very fact determines its place in history, for monopoly that grew up on the basis of free competition, and precisely out of free competition, is the transition from the capitalist system to a higher social-economic order…
Monopolies, oligarchy, the striving for domination instead of the striving for liberty, the exploitation of an increasing number of small or weak nations by an extremely small group of the richest or most powerful nations – all these have given birth to those distinctive characteristics of imperialism which compel us to define it as parasitic or decaying capitalism….
…private economic relations and private property relations constitute a shell which is no longer suitable for its contents, a shell which must inevitably begin to decay if its destruction be delayed by artificial means; a shell which may continue in a state of decay for a fairly long period…but which will inevitably be removed.
– removed, that is, by proletarian revolution.
Marx and Engels in the Manifesto had anticipated that working class revolution would take place first in the countries where industry and the working class were most advanced.
The possibilities for this were revealed when the working class briefly took power in Paris in 1871. They were revealed also in the increasing strength of the working class, its organisation, and its consciousness in the biggest countries. The Second International adopted the principles of Marxism at its birth, and grew into a mighty organised force, particularly in Germany.
Yet, on the basis of monopoly capitalism and imperialism, there was a revival of capitalism – a more-or-less sustained economic upswing in the most advanced countries for 40 years from the 1870s. It took place on the basis of increasing unevenness in world development, and of capitalist parasitism and speculation. It gave rise to conflicts and an arms-race between the big imperialist powers which culminated in the First World War. It took place on the basis of the increasing super-exploitation of the rest of the world by the monopolies in the major imperialist powers.
This economic growth resulted in the formation of a layer of privileged workers in the most advanced countries – what Lenin described as an “aristocracy of labour”. These provided a basis of support for a bureaucracy of officials which developed in a privileged position in the mass workers’ organisations, insulated from the pressures of the rank and file.
The material interest of these layers found ideological expression in reformism: the idea that socialism could be implemented gradually, by winning concessions from the capitalists, without the need to overthrow the capitalist class. In practice, large sections of the leadership of the Second International abandoned the struggle for socialist revolution.
Writing an introduction to an Afrikaans translation of the Communist Manifesto in 1937, Trotsky summed up the changes in the world situation between 1848 and the turn of the century:
The revolution of 1848 did not turn into a socialist revolution as the Manifesto had calculated, but opened up to Germany the possibility of a vast future capitalist ascension. The Paris Commune proved that the proletariat, without having a tempered revolutionary party at its head, cannot wrest power from the bourgeoisie. Meanwhile, the prolonged period of capitalist prosperity that ensued brought about not the education of the revolutionary vanguard, but rather the bourgeois degeneration of the labour aristocracy, which became in turn the chief brake on the proletarian revolution. In the nature of things, the authors of the Manifesto could not possibly have foreseen this ‘dialectic’.
The full bankruptcy of reformism was revealed with the outbreak of the First World War. In a shameful betrayal of the workers’ international struggle, the reformist leaders of the Second International in the different countries threw themselves behind the war effort of their ‘own’ imperialist bourgeoisies. Workers were sent into war by these leaders – to massacre the workers of other countries.
The First World War brought sharply to the surface all the contradictions of capitalism, and led, before its end, to a revolutionary polarisation between the classes in every country.
It was all this which made it possible for the working class to take power first, not in one of the most advanced capitalist countries, but in backward Russia.
As Trotsky put it in 1936: “Marx expected that the Frenchman would begin the social revolution, the German continue it, the Englishman finish it; and as to the Russian, Marx left him far in the rear. But this conceptual order was upset by the facts,” (The Revolution Betrayed). This possibility was what Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution had anticipated.
The permanent revolution and Russia
Though early twentieth century Russia was still a semi-feudal empire, capitalism had developed rapidly, largely on the basis of foreign investment by the imperialist powers. Peasants were pulled from the land into big factories and transformed almost overnight into an industrial working class. The developing forces of production were straining against the chains imposed by the old social order – creating objective conditions for revolution.
The character of this revolution, and the relation of forces in it, was enormously clarified in 1905, when the Russian working class rose up as an independent force trying to overthrow the Tsar’s dictatorship. This revolution was defeated. But it proved to be a “dress rehearsal”, in Trotsky’s words, for the revolution in 1917.
Trotsky played a major role in the 1905 revolution. Returning from enforced exile, he was elected President of the St Petersburg soviet. The soviets were councils of factory delegates formed to co-ordinate the strike movement, but soon became the main political organs of the working class, and, as Lenin explained, “the embryo of a revolutionary government.”
In December Trotsky and other leaders of the St Petersburg soviet were arrested, and later put on trial on charges of treason. In the trial Trotsky boldly defended the actions of the soviet in organising the armed self-defence of workers and preparing the overthrow of the Tsar’s dictatorship, in front of the Tsar’s own judges! The state’s case collapsed – though the leaders of the soviet were banished to Siberia, from where Trotsky escaped, again into exile.
The 1905 revolution sharpened the political differences between two main tendencies in the RSDLP. The right-wing, the Mensheviks, had much in common with the reformists in the Second International. They spoke of “revolution”. But, they added: “The social relations of Russia have ripened only for a bourgeois revolution” – in the words of Axelrod, a Menshevik leader, in 1908. “We must not even so much as mention the direct fight of the proletariat against other classes for political power…. Objective historical conditions doom our proletariat to an inevitable collaboration with the bourgeoisie in the struggle against our common enemy.”
The Mensheviks claimed to be ‘Marxists’. Yet, in insisting that, for objective reasons, ‘the bourgeois revolution comes first’ they had not even absorbed the lessons that Marx and Engels had drawn from the experiences of 1848 – that the bourgeoisie would betray their ‘own’ revolution.
Trotsky, together with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the revolutionary wing of the Russian workers’ movement, vehemently opposed this standpoint. Yes, they agreed, the revolution was bourgeois in its tasks, or, more precisely, bourgeois-democratic. It was first and foremost a question of ending feudalism and the Tsar’s dictatorship, achieving democracy, and liberating the nationalities oppressed by Russian imperialism.
But the Russian bourgeoisie was even weaker than that in Germany in 1848 and more bound up with the landlords, the whole Tsarist order – and imperialism. At the same time, as the 1905 revolution showed, the working class in Russia – though still a small minority in society – was stronger in numbers and concentration, more conscious of its power, than in Germany in 1848.
As Lenin put it later, the 1905 revolution “was a bourgeois-democratic revolution in its social content, but a proletarian revolution in its methods of struggle.” (Lecture on the 1905 Revolution, February 1917).
The Russian bourgeoisie was bound to recoil from the revolution – but the Menshevik policy of ‘restraining’ the role of the proletariat was futilely intended to try to prevent this.
Against the Mensheviks, Lenin wrote scathingly:
If we are even in part, even for a moment, guided by the consideration that our participation [i.e. that of the RSDLP] may cause the bourgeoisie to recoil, we thereby simply hand over leadership of the revolution entirely to the bourgeois classes. We thereby place the proletariat entirely under the tutelage of the bourgeoisie… compelling the proletariat to be moderate and meek, so that the bourgeoisie should not recoil. We emasculate the most vital needs of the proletariat, namely its political needs…so as not to make the bourgeoisie recoil. We go over completely from the platform of revolutionary struggle for the achievement of democracy to the extent required by the proletariat to a platform of chaffering with the bourgeoisie, buying the bourgeoisie’s voluntary consent (‘so that it should not recoil’) at the price of our principles, by betraying the revolution.Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, 1905
Trotsky was the first to draw out the implications of all this to their full conclusion. Lenin later came to the same position.
In his first exposition of the ideas of permanent revolution, Results and Prospects (1905), Trotsky explained: “it is possible to limit the scope of all the questions of the revolution by asserting that our revolution is bourgeois in its objective aims and therefore in its inevitable results, closing our eyes to the fact that the chief actor in this bourgeois revolution is the proletariat, which is being impelled towards power by the entire course of the revolution.”
If the bourgeois would inevitably recoil, in other words, the working class would have to lead the democratic revolution. Even though Russia was a backward country, the working class would have to take power.
Trotsky continued in the same passage: “We may reassure ourselves that the social conditions of Russia are not ripe for a socialist economy, without considering that the proletariat, on taking power, must, by the very logic of its position, inevitably be urged towards the introduction of state management of industry. The general sociological term bourgeois revolution by no means solves the politico-tactical problems, contradictions, and difficulties which the mechanics of a given bourgeois revolution throw up.”
Trotsky was well aware that, in backward Russia, conditions were “not ripe” for a fully socialist economy – a favourite argument of the Mensheviks. As a matter of fact, the same argument held true for any single country, even the most advanced. A fully socialist economy, as we have seen, can come into existence only on an international basis: when “the proletariat has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country, but in all the leading countries of the world”. (Marx and Engels)
It was true also that, seen in isolation, and abstractly, capitalism had not ‘exhausted its historical mission’ in Russia. “No social formation disappears before all the productive forces have developed for which it has room”, was a popular formula of Marx’s also favoured by the Mensheviks.
But (as Trotsky later put it) this idea needed to be understood,
not from the country taken separately, but from the sequence of universal historical stages (slavery, medievalism [feudalism], capitalism). The Mensheviks, however, taking this statement from the point of view of the single state, drew the conclusion that Russian capitalism has still a long road to travel before it will reach the European or American level. But productive forces do not develop in a vacuum! You cannot talk of the possibilities of a national capitalism, and ignore on the one hand the class struggle developing out of it, or on the other its dependence upon world conditions.History of the Russian Revolution
“The class struggle” – this was why Trotsky, in Results and Prospects, laid emphasis on not “closing our eyes to the fact that the chief actor in this bourgeois revolution is the proletariat, which is being impelled towards power by the entire course of the revolution.” He added: “the day and the hour when power will pass into the hands of the working class depends directly not upon the level attained by the productive forces but upon relations in the class struggle, upon the international situation, and, finally, upon a number of subjective factors: the traditions, the initiative and the readiness to fight of the workers.”
Very concrete questions were involved, Trotsky explained. The working class was impelled towards power. In power, it would be impelled to act against capitalism. What if the working class wanted to legislate to shorten the hours of work? What if it wanted to provide state benefit to the unemployed? The capitalists would resist this. They would lock workers out of factories. Could a workers’ government stand aside? No, it would have to intervene, and re-establish production. It would have to take over the control and management of production. On every question, a real workers’ government would come into conflict with the economic power of capitalism, and be compelled to end it.
Dialego ridicules Trotsky for his “mystical belief… that workers can somehow or other pole-vault themselves into socialism”. The theory of permanent revolution did involve a “pole-vault”, a leap. But it was not a leap into classless society, or into socialism. It was a leap beyond what had been achieved by the working class in the most advanced capitalist countries: the establishment of a workers’ state, and the overthrow of capitalism.
It was, as Trotsky was later to put it, a leap out of necessity:
The history of recent decades very clearly shows that, in the conditions of capitalist decline, backward countries are unable to attain that level which the old centres of capitalism have attained. Having themselves arrived in a blind alley, the highly civilised nations block the road to those in the process of civilisation. Russia took the road of proletarian revolution, not because her economy was the first to become ripe for a socialist change, but because she could not develop on a capitalist basis. Socialisation of the means of production had become a necessary condition for bringing the country out of barbarism.The Revolution Betrayed, our emphasis
At the same time, as regards conditions within Russia, it was not a leap. As Trotsky explained against the Stalinist theoreticians in the 1920s: “The permanent revolution is no isolated leap of the proletariat, rather, it is the re-building of the nation under the leadership of the proletariat. That is how I conceived and interpreted the prospect of the permanent revolution, beginning with 1905.” (The Permanent Revolution)
Dialego claims to have a theory of permanent revolution – derived from Marx, Engels and Lenin, but not from Trotsky. But what answers does he have to these arguments? He can only mechanically assert: “But – and this is the decisive point – the democratic revolution comes first.”
“It is this proposition which Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution rejects. Trotsky took the view that unless the revolution is socialist in character and immediately establishes a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ it will fail.”
It is evident how Dialego is falsifying Trotsky’s position. Trotsky “took the view” that the working class must take state power (i.e. establish a ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’) to carry out the democratic revolution itself. Having taken state power, it would be propelled to move against capitalism. This perspective was confirmed when the Russian working class did take state power in 1917 – and ended capitalism.
The state, for Marxism, is an instrument of class rule. The state in Russia was in the hands of an essentially feudal and autocratic ruling class. Dialego rejects the idea that the working class needed to take state power to carry out the democratic revolution. But he never addresses the question of which class then, if not the proletariat, would hold state power in his ‘democratic revolution’, that must ‘come first’.
In words, Dialego talks of “permanent”, “uninterrupted” revolution, in “phases [which] are of course linked since one is the prelude or precondition for the other.” But his argument reduces to the same mechanical schematism as the Mensheviks. The “democratic revolution” is not the “socialist revolution”: therefore, the working class must subordinate itself to the bourgeoisie in the democratic revolution. This is not an ‘alternative’ theory of permanent revolution, but of inevitable objective “stages”.
He uses concepts to try to squeeze history into an abstract scheme, rather than to illuminate its contradictory dialectic. He is oblivious to the fact that real societies do not develop uniformly, from a preconceived model, but unevenly, combining together “advanced” and “backward” features in concrete and unique ways.
Trotsky long ago identified and summed up the errors of Dialego’s “vulgar ‘Marxist'” method, referring to leaders of the Second International:
Vulgar ‘Marxism’ has worked out a pattern of historical development according to which every bourgeois society sooner or later secures a democratic regime, after which the proletariat, under conditions of democracy, is gradually organized and educated for socialism. The actual transition to socialism has been variously conceived: the avowed reformists pictured this transition as the reformist filling of democracy with a socialist content (Jaures): the formal revolutionists acknowledged the inevitability of applying revolutionary violence in the transition to socialism (Guesde). But both the former and the latter considered democracy and socialism, for all peoples and all countries, as two stages in the development of society which are not only entirely distinct but also separated by great distances of time from each other…
The theory of permanent revolution, which originated in 1905, declared war upon these ideas and methods.”Permanent Revolution
Dialego on Trotsky in 1905
Not content with falsifying Trotsky’s ideas, Dialego also falsifies his account of Trotsky’s life. Regarding Trotsky in 1905, he writes: “he made dramatic speeches to the Petrograd Soviet during the 1905 Revolution, but (like the Mensheviks) he opposed the call for armed revolution and played no part in the bitter street battles in Moscow.”
Into this one sentence he manages to mix a series of downright lies, and distortions, to try to turn Trotsky from a revolutionary into a reformist.
As Dialego well knows, Trotsky did not merely “make speeches” to the Petrograd (St Petersburg) soviet, like some demagogic windbag. At the age of 25, he was its President and one of its leading strategists.
“Like the Mensheviks”, says Dialego, Trotsky “opposed the call for armed revolution”. Far from opposing such a call, Trotsky was a leader in initiating it. That was why he was arrested, imprisoned, and put on trial for high treason!
In mid-November Trotsky was explaining in the newspaper he produced that the way forward from the October general strike was for the working class to link up with the peasantry, establish contact with the army, and arm itself: “that is the simple and main conclusion the proletariat must draw from the October struggle and October victory. On this conclusion will depend the future of the revolution.” (Quoted from A. Asher, The Revolution of 1905, 1988, pp. 285-6)
Trotsky “played no part in the bitter street battles in Moscow”, complains Dialego. This is laughable. Trotsky was arrested and imprisoned on December 3. He was held in prison for 57 weeks, and tried in June-November 1906. Whilst the struggles in Moscow were taking place – between December 9 and 17, 1905 – Trotsky was imprisoned hundreds of miles away, in the Peter Paul Fortress in Petrograd. Even Houdini might have found it a bit of a problem to join the street fighting in Moscow in these circumstances!
To support his “version” of permanent revolution, Dialego also calls, as we have seen, on the authority of Lenin: “Lenin reaffirmed this perspective in 1905 when he declared that ‘from the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength… begin to pass to the socialist revolution.'”
More fully, this extract reads: “From the democratic revolution we shall at once, and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop halfway.” (Social Democracy’s attitude towards the peasant movement, 1905. Our emphasis)
Taken in itself, this passage appears to support Dialego’s standpoint. But here, again, Dialego quotes some phrases from a Marxist text as a general prescription on revolution, without presenting his readers with the context in which they were put forward.
Like Trotsky, Lenin’s writings in 1905 and after, notably Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, all vehemently rejected the Menshevik conception of the impending Russian revolution: the idea that the working class should submit to bourgeois leadership.
Against the Menshevik position, Lenin advocated an alliance of the working class with the peasantry (nine tenths of the population), against the Tsarist state and the big bourgeoisie, in a revolution to establish a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.
This formula was, as we shall see, imprecise, and Lenin later abandoned it. It was intended to emphasise the need for the working class to struggle as far as possible to take state power in its own hands and exercise that power without being fettered by its class enemy, the bourgeoisie.
So far as it went against the Mensheviks, this position was entirely at one with Trotsky’s. This is the opposite of what Dialego would have us believe. He quotes Lenin on “democratic revolution”. But he completely fails to mention the concept of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which is the key to distinguishing Lenin’s standpoint from that of Menshevism. By this means, he leaves the door open to the idea that when Lenin writes of a “socialist revolution” following a “democratic revolution”, he is putting forward the same “vulgar ‘Marxist'” position as Dialego himself adopts.
In reality Dialego’s position – that it was not the task of the working class to struggle for state power in the Russian revolution, would have been rejected by Lenin as mere Menshevism.
Within the general framework of “bourgeois-democratic revolution”, Lenin drew a complete contrast between his program of a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and, for example, the half-hearted “bourgeois revolution from above” led by Bismarck in his rule of Germany from 1860 to 1890.
In actual fact [Lenin wrote in Two Tactics] the Russian revolution will begin to assume its real sweep, and will really assume the widest revolutionary sweep possible in the epoch of bourgeois-democratic revolution, only when the bourgeoisie recoils from it and when the masses of the peasantry come out as active revolutionaries side by side with the proletariat.”
“It is to the advantage of the bourgeoisie to rely on certain remnants of the past, as against the proletariat, for instance, on the monarchy, the standing army, etc… On the other hand it is more advantageous to the working class for the necessary changes in the direction of bourgeois democracy to take place by way of revolution and not by way of reform, because the way of reform is one of delay, procrastination, the painfully slow decomposition of the putrid parts of the national organism.” (Our emphasis)
Together with this, Lenin emphasised the integral links between the Russian revolution and the Western European socialist revolution. The victory of a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry in Russia “will enable us to rouse Europe; after throwing off the yoke of the bourgeoisie, the socialist proletariat of Europe will in its turn help us to accomplish the socialist revolution.”
In 1905, however, Lenin had not as yet reached Trotsky’s further conclusion: that, in government with the peasantry, the working class in Russia would come immediately into conflict with the capitalist class and be compelled to end capitalism. As he then understood the question, the working class needed to hold back from this because of Russia’s backwardness.
As Lenin put it in Two Tactics, “The degree of Russia’s development (an objective condition), and the degree of class-consciousness and organisation of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition) make the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class impossible.” (Our emphasis)
He was operating with the idea not only that it was still possible for capitalism to develop the backward countries, but that it was necessary for their development. Russia, he maintained in Two Tactics suffered from “too little capitalism”. But he was arguing for a government in which the mass of the population – the workers and peasants – would be able to exercise the maximum degree of control over the form which this capitalist development took.
If Lenin had a rough historical analogy in mind, it was the Jacobin period of the French revolution – the period in which the revolutionary masses had established the most democratic regime then possible on the basis of capitalism.
For the advance towards socialism in Russia, Lenin relied on the differences in the international balance of forces from the time of the French revolution. In France, the bourgeois revolution had been surrounded, for the most part, by backward feudal regimes. Now Russia was surrounded by advanced capitalist countries, in which conditions were ripe for socialist revolution.
Lenin thus believed the Russian working class would be constrained for a “transient, temporary” period (his words) from ending capitalism. But, instead of being propelled backwards into a capitalist dictatorship like that of Napoleon Bonaparte, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry could be propelled in the direction of socialism by workers’ revolution in the West.
Dialego also ignores this other, key, internationalist element in Lenin’s argument: that the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry in Russia would “enable us to rouse Europe”, stimulating proletarian revolution in the West, and thereby socialist revolution in Russia. This, too, cannot be reconciled with Dialego’s “vulgar ‘Marxist'” standpoint that the conditions for, first, democratic, and then, socialist revolution are prepared in every single country in isolation.
Nevertheless, Lenin’s position at this time did differ from that of Trotsky. Perspectives are not blueprints. Marxism is not an exact science. Before the test of the revolution, different viewpoints openly contended in the Russian labour movement, polemicising sharply against one another. The proof of the perspectives of Trotsky, of Lenin, and indeed of the Mensheviks, lay in the course of the Russian revolution itself.
The implication in Dialego’s argument is that the Russian Revolution of 1917 bore out Lenin’s perspective of 1905 rather than Trotsky’s. But this is not the case.
In October 1917 the working class, through the Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky, took power, established its own democratic rule (‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’) and in the course of the next months, ended capitalism. Even Dialego cannot dispute this.
In 1917, Russia had not overcome the backwardness which formed the basis for Lenin’s perspective in 1905. The peasantry remained the overwhelming majority in society. The working class had not carried through the socialist revolution in any country in the West. Yet Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks led the working class, supported by the poor peasants, to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and overthrow capitalism in Russia – something Lenin had maintained in 1905 would be impossible, short of workers’ revolution in Europe. Between 1905 and 1917, Lenin clearly changed his position. He had, in fact, adopted the position of the permanent revolution.
In other words, Lenin’s perspective of 1905 was proved in 1917 to be incorrect, or, more precisely, incomplete. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was verified. But it is entirely misleading to exaggerate the differences between these two perspectives. These were entirely secondary in comparison to their common opposition to Menshevism. The exaggeration, and falsification, of these differences was the work of the Stalinist ‘theoreticians’ in the 1920s, in their own self-interest. It is faithfully echoed by Dialego.
What, in terms of the practical tasks of the working class, did the differences amount to? As Trotsky later explained:
The difference between the ‘permanent’ and the Leninist standpoint expressed itself politically in the counterposing of the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat relying on the peasantry to the slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. The dispute was not concerned with whether the bourgeois-democratic stage could be skipped and whether an alliance between the workers and peasants was necessary…”
“Insofar as [Lenin’s] formula of the democratic dictatorship left half-open the question of the political mechanics of the alliance of workers and peasants, it thereby remained up to a certain point… an algebraic formula, allowing of extremely divergent political interpretations in the future… The reasons are to be sought in the fact that this algebraic formula contains a quantity, gigantic in significance, but politically extremely indeterminate: the peasantry.The Permanent Revolution
Why did Lenin have these incomplete perspectives in 1905? It is necessary to see the context in which his thought developed.
The context of Lenin’s position
Russian Marxism evolved in a struggle against the utopianism of the Narodniks (or Populists), who argued that, on the basis of the “primitive communalism” of peasant villages, Russia could “leap over” capitalism into socialism. Against this Plekhanov, the pioneer of Russian Marxism, remorselessly stressed that capitalism was a developing reality in Russia which could not be bypassed.
Lenin learnt his Marxism from Plekhanov, and put forward similar arguments against the Narodniks – for example, in his early, detailed study of The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899).
Plekhanov subsequently went over to Menshevism, interpreting the need for capitalism in Russia to require the political domination of the big bourgeoisie.
Lenin’s Two Tactics was a polemic against this mechanical and schematic political strategy of Menshevism – but without abandoning the idea that capitalism could not be “leaped over” in Russia.
Marxism [he wrote in Two Tactics] teaches us that at a certain stage of its development a society which is based on commodity production and has commercial intercourse with civilised capitalist nations must inevitably take the road of capitalism. Marxism has irrevocably broken with the Narodnik and anarchist gibberish that Russia, for instance, can bypass capitalist development, escape from capitalism, or skip it in some way other than that of the class struggle, on the basis and within the framework of this same capitalism.
At this time, however, he had an insufficient appreciation of the fundamental transformations taking place in the world economy that he would later analyse so brilliantly in Imperialism: he did not see that the transition to imperialism meant that backward countries would become blocked off from developing on a capitalist basis. With this, he did not see that this would require the working class to end capitalism in Russia, even without workers’ revolution in the West.
In this period, Lenin’s principal focus of analysis was on the conditions of production within Russia, particularly in agriculture, to hammer home the fact that capitalism had established deep indigenous roots. The Development of Capitalism in Russia, for example, does not examine the character of Russia’s foreign trade, foreign relations, or the extent of foreign investment and its implications for the industrial concentration of the proletariat.
Together with this, all the revolutionaries in Russia were affected by the fact that (as Trotsky later put it):
the first Russian revolution [of 1905] broke out more than half a century after the wave of bourgeois revolutions in Europe and thirty-five years after the episodic rising of the Paris Commune. Europe had had time to grow unaccustomed to revolutions. Russia had not experienced any.
All the problems of the revolution were posed anew. It is not difficult to understand how many unknown and conjectural magnitudes the future revolution held for us in those days. The formulae of all the groupings were, each in their own way, working hypotheses. One must have complete incapacity for historical prognosis and utter lack of understanding of its methods in order now, after the event, to consider analyses and evaluations of 1905 as though they were written yesterday.The Permanent Revolution
It was with the outbreak of the First World War that Lenin was brought abruptly face to face with the significance of the transition to imperialism – particularly in terms of the abject treachery of the leaders of the Second International. When he first heard the news that the nominally ‘Marxist’ leaders of the German worker’s party (the SPD) had voted in parliament in support of the war, he believed this was a falsehood put out by the German military general staff!
Lenin had previously had enormous respect for the left-wing leaders of the Second International, such as the German Karl Kautsky, because they came from a more advanced country, with a stronger working class and Marxist tradition. Now he realised he had placed too much faith in them. In a series of writings, including Imperialism, he set out to reappraise the whole international situation. This, in turn, brought gradual modification in his definition of the tasks of the working class in the Russian revolution.
A clear example of this – dealt with in more detail later in this pamphlet – was his reappraisal of the Paris Commune of 1871. In Two Tactics (1905) he describes it as “a government that was unable, and could not at that time, distinguish between the elements of a democratic and a socialist revolution, a government that confused the tasks of fighting for a republic with those of fighting for socialism…. In short… it was a government such as ours should not be.” Yet in State and Revolution, his classic work on the state written in the midst of the 1917 revolution, it is from the Paris Commune above all that he draws out the principles for the workers’ state that needs to be established in Russia!
Equally, until 1917, Lenin criticised the agrarian program of the Narodnik-like Social Revolutionaries for redistributing the land to the peasantry as utopian. He believed the democratic dictatorship and the peasantry would need to allow the development of large-scale agriculture on a capitalist basis. Yet, when the working class took power in October 1917, one of the first acts of the Bolsheviks was to adopt the agrarian program of the Social Revolutionaries: expropriation of the landowners and democratic redistribution of the land.
Though it is not evident in all he wrote before 1917, events were driving Lenin towards the ideas of permanent revolution held by Trotsky. Thus, in 1915 he stated:
History seems to be repeating itself [in Russia]: again there is a war, as in 1905, a war Tsarism has dragged the country into with definite, patently annexationist, predatory and reactionary aims. Again there is military defeat, and a revolutionary crisis accelerated by it. Again the liberal bourgeoisie – in this case even in conjunction with large sections of the conservative bourgeoisie and the landowners – are advocating a programme of reform and of an understanding with the Tsar…
There is, however, actually a vast difference, viz., that this war has involved all Europe, all the most advanced countries with mass and powerful socialist movements. The imperialist war has linked up the Russian revolutionary crisis, which stems from a bourgeois-democratic revolution, with the growing crisis of the proletarian socialist revolution in the West. This link is so direct that no individual solution of revolutionary problems is possible in any single country – the Russian bourgeois-democratic revolution is now not only a prologue to, but an indivisible and integral part of, the social revolution in the West.
In 1905, it was the proletariat’s task to consummate the bourgeois revolution in Russia so as to kindle the proletarian revolution in the West. In 1915, the second part of this task has acquired an urgency that puts it on a level with the first part. A new political division has arisen in Russia on the basis of new, higher, more developed and more complex international relations. This new division is between the chauvinist revolutionaries, who desire revolution so as to defeat Germany, and the proletarian internationalist revolutionaries, who desire a revolution in Russia for the sake of the proletarian revolution in the West, and simultaneously with that revolution.“The Defeat of Russia and Revolutionary Crisis“, Collected Works, XXI. Our emphasis .
Lenin was saying the Russian revolution, though bourgeois-democratic in its tasks, was now “an indivisible and integral part of the socialist revolution in the West”. He was saying that to kindle the socialist revolution in the West was as urgent for the Russian proletariat as its own ‘bourgeois-democratic’ revolution. This represents a definite and conscious revision of Lenin’s perspectives in Two Tactics, and is hardly distinguishable from the idea of permanent revolution.
Lenin and Trotsky: political differences
In 1905-1917 Lenin and Trotsky both conducted their main polemics against Menshevism. At the same time, they occasionally polemicised against each other. Thus Trotsky wrote in Results and Prospects, regarding the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry:
We simply think that it is unrealisable – at least in a direct immediate sense.
Indeed, such a coalition presupposes either that one of the existing bourgeois parties commands influence over the peasantry or that the peasantry will have created a powerful independent party of its own, but we have attempted to show that neither the one nor the other is possible.
Equally, Lenin made occasional criticisms of Trotsky’s perspectives. Dialego, like the Stalinist “theoreticians” who compiled their “indictment” against Trotsky in the 1920s, seizes on such criticisms to try to sustain his argument that Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution is “non-Leninist” and invalid.
Thus Dialego writes: “Trotsky’s ‘major mistake’ – as Lenin commented – was his failure to develop a ‘clear conception’ of the transition from the bourgeois revolution to the socialist revolution.”
Dialego takes this phrase from an article of Lenin’s titled The Aim of the Proletarian Struggle in our Revolution, (1909). More fully, this is what Lenin wrote:
As for Trotsky, whom Comrade Martov has involved in the controversy of third parties which he has organised – a controversy involving everybody except the dissentient – we positively cannot go into a full examination of his views here. A separate article of considerable length would be needed for this. By just touching upon Trotsky’s mistaken views, and quoting scraps of them, Comrade Martov only sows confusion in the mind of the reader, for scraps of quotations do not explain but confuse matters. Trotsky’s major mistake is that he ignores the bourgeois character of the revolution and has no clear conception of the transition from this revolution to the socialist revolution. This major mistake leads to those mistakes on side issues which Comrade Martov repeats when he quotes a couple of them with sympathy and approval.
Trotsky’s “major mistake is that he ignores the bourgeois character of the revolution”… Trotsky “has no clear conception of the transition from this revolution to the socialist revolution”. This does indeed appear to support Dialego’s idea that Trotsky was guilty of “jumping stages”, of refusing to recognise that “the bourgeois revolution comes first”.
However, as any comrade who has access to this article can judge for themselves, the concrete issues raised by Lenin against Trotsky are not at all concerned with this issue. Its major purpose is to reaffirm, against Menshevism, that Marxism in Russia stood for “(1) recognition of the guiding role of the proletariat, the role of leader, in the revolution, (2) recognition that the aim of the struggle is the conquest of power by the proletariat assisted by other revolutionary classes, (3) recognition that the first and perhaps the sole “assistants” in this matter are the peasants”.
In all this, there is nothing that Trotsky would have disagreed with. Lenin then defends the idea of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry against Trotsky’s criticism of its “unrealisability” on the grounds that (a) there can and has been cooperation in action between the Russian proletariat and peasantry, regardless of whether or not the peasantry is organised in its own party and (b) that the peasantry is likely to constitute itself into a party in the course of the revolution.
Thus the concrete issues that Lenin disputes with Trotsky are precisely those later summed up by Trotsky himself: “the dispute was not concerned with whether the bourgeois-democratic stage could be skipped and whether an alliance between the workers and peasants was necessary… it concerned the political mechanics of the collaboration of the proletariat and the peasantry in the democratic revolution.” (The Permanent Revolution)
In this 1909 article Lenin uses only phrases of Trotsky’s taken from writings by Martov. Moreover, Lenin never did write a “separate article of considerable length” to criticise Trotsky. When Trotsky after Lenin’s death came to re-examine the polemics of this period, he concluded that Lenin never had access to the only full exposition of his theory, in Results and Prospects. Indeed, had Lenin, who was precise and meticulous in criticism, actually read Results and Prospects, he could not have drawn the sweeping conclusion that Trotsky “ignored” the bourgeois character of the revolution. As we have seen, this was simply not the truth.
Lenin and Trotsky: organisational differences
But, magnifying and distorting the pre-1917 differences between Lenin and Trotsky, Dialego draws the further conclusion that it was the theory of permanent revolution which “explains why Trotsky was unable to work with Lenin before the Russian revolution and with the new Soviet Government after it”!
This is another falsification invented by the Stalinists in the 1920s. In reality, after 1917, Lenin and Trotsky worked in the closest collaboration until Lenin’s death. Lenin conducted his last political campaign together with Trotsky against the bureaucracy which was rising in the Soviet workers’ state.
Even after 1917, Lenin and Trotsky had their occasional differences. There was not then the totalitarian climate of enforced unanimity imposed by the political counter-revolution of the Stalinist bureaucracy.
Moreover, Trotsky remained a part of the Soviet government until he was thrown out of it and expelled from the Soviet Union by Stalin and the bureaucracy – because of his defence of Marxism and Leninism against its perversion by Stalinism.
But before 1917, Trotsky did not “work with Lenin”, not principally because of the question of permanent revolution, but because he differed with Lenin on questions regarding the nature of Bolshevik organisation. In 1917 Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks and admitted he had been in error on these questions.
These organisational differences may well have heightened the tone of the political debate between Lenin and Trotsky. But Dialego’s claim that political differences would have prevented them working together is typically Stalinist. In contrast to Stalinism, Bolshevism did not mean the stifling of political differences.
But what were the organisational differences? The Russian Social Democratic Labour Party split in 1903 between the Bolshevik (majority) and Menshevik (minority) wings, over secondary organisational issues. Trotsky went with the Mensheviks at this time on these organisational points.
The two wings, however, rapidly crystallised as opposing political tendencies. At this point Trotsky broke with the Mensheviks. As he wrote later: “I remained politically and organisationally associated with this minority only until the autumn of 1904… when my irreconcilable conflict with Menshevism upon the questions of bourgeois liberalism and the perspectives of the revolution defined itself.” (“Letter to the Bureau of Party History”, 7/2/1930, in L. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, 1932)
But he continued to resist Lenin’s ideas on party organisation, and on how the differences within the RSDLP should be overcome.
Dialego says: “Trotsky denounced Lenin’s view of the party in What is to be Done? as elitist and authoritarian. Identifying Lenin as ‘the leader of the reactionary wing of our party’, he sided with the Mensheviks when the Russian socialists divided in 1903… Thereafter [after 1905] he became an ‘independent’ vainly seeking to persuade the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks to sink their differences.”
Dialego here fails to differentiate between the organisational and political questions involved. But he is correct that Trotsky at first sided with the Mensheviks in criticising Lenin’s conception of the party, and that, later, he became an ‘independent’, trying to recreate a united RSDLP.
Lenin had argued in What is to be Done? (1902) that, to sustain a revolutionary program, it was necessary to weld the Bolsheviks into a firm revolutionary organisation. On this basis, they could conduct a struggle to win those workers who adhered to Menshevism away from their reformist leaders. Trotsky felt that it was necessary to unite the factions of the party first, despite the political differences, as the only way by which revolutionaries could gain the ear of the Menshevik workers. Lenin correctly condemned this as “conciliationism.”
As Trotsky explained later: “Not the permanent revolution but conciliationism was what separated me, in Lenin’s opinion, from Bolshevism.” He added:
I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party….
It is impermissible and fatal to weaken a political line for purposes of vulgar conciliationism; it is impermissible to paint up centrism when it zig-zags to the left; it is impermissible, in the hunt after the will-o’-the-wisps of centrism to exaggerate and inflate differences of opinion with genuine revolutionary co-thinkers. These are the real lessons of Trotsky’s real mistakes.The Permanent Revolution
This was how Trotsky honestly summed up the lessons he had learned from experience.
Dialego paints a rather different picture of the nature of these differences:
Whereas Lenin insisted that socialist ideas have to be brought in ‘from the outside’ in the sense that an overall revolutionary strategy needs to be coherently worked out by professional revolutionaries, Trotsky tended to ascribe revolutionary initiative to the ‘will’ of the working class.
He was committed in other words to what Marxists call a ‘spontaneist’ view of the political process: a belief that workers have a kind of innate ‘instinct’ for revolution.
Dialego here misrepresents both Lenin and Trotsky. Lenin was committed to building a party of professional revolutionaries, but working class revolutionaries. What is to be Done? was a powerful statement of the need for such an organisation. But Lenin himself later admitted that some of the formulations in it, drawn from the German workers’ leader Kautsky, were “one-sided”.
Replying in 1903 to criticisms that What is to be Done? “takes no account whatever of the fact that the workers, too, have a share in the formation of an ideology”, Lenin wrote: “Have I not said time and time again that the shortage of fully class-conscious workers, worker leaders, and worker-revolutionaries is, in fact, the greatest deficiency in our movement. Have I not said there that the training of such worker-revolutionaries must be our immediate task.” (Collected Works, VI)
The fact that Dialego holds the elitist position that socialism must come to the workers from “outside” is in fact an indictment of his so-called “Marxism-Leninism”.
Trotsky was never a “spontaneist”. His adult life was dedicated to revolutionary participation in the struggle of the working class, and clarifying the programme on which it should conduct the fight for power. If he had really held the views Dialego ascribes to him he would have been quite happy to sit back and leave all this to the workers’ “innate ‘instinct’ for revolution”!
Trotsky’s decision to join the Bolshevik Party in 1917 was an open recognition of his mistake. For the rest of his life, until his assassination in 1940, he dedicated himself to building a revolutionary leadership of the working class on the basis of Bolshevik methods, in Russia and internationally. Indeed, for Stalin and the bureaucracy, this was in reality his principal “crime”.
When Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks, Lenin immediately understood that he had admitted his errors. Generously, Lenin welcomed this. For example, at a meeting of the Petrograd committee of the Bolsheviks (1/11/1917), Lenin said: “As for conciliation [with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries] I cannot even speak about that seriously. Trotsky long ago said that unification is impossible. Trotsky understood this and from that time on there has been no better Bolshevik.”
This remark of Lenin’s was such an embarrassment to Stalin and the bureaucracy that, when the minutes of this committee were printed in 1927, all record of this meeting was expunged from the book. Even the table of contents were reset and the pages renumbered, to try and hide all trace of the truth! (See “The lost document” in L. Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification, 1932)
Dialego conceals all this. Like the Stalinists in the 1920s, he tries to invalidate Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, and drive a wedge between Lenin and Trotsky, on the basis of scraps torn from Lenin’s writings before 1917, on distortions, and on falsifications.
To this one can only reply, as Trotsky did himself in the 1920s: “Since that time such great events have taken place and we have learned so much from these events that, to tell the truth, I feel an aversion to the epigones [i.e. the Stalinists] present manner of considering new historical problems not in the light of the living experience of the revolutions already carried out by us, but mainly in the light of quotations that relate only to our forecasts regarding what were then future revolutions.” (The Permanent Revolution)
The real test of the theory of permanent revolution lies not in formulae extracted from the writings of either Lenin or Trotsky, but in the experience of the 1917 Russian revolution itself, when Lenin and Trotsky stood together, side by side, in the leadership of the Bolsheviks. It is to this that we now turn.
The permanent revolution in 1917
In February 1917 a mass uprising spearheaded by the Russian working class overthrew the Tsar. The troops, mostly peasants, came over to the side of the revolution. As in 1905, the working class in the main cities established soviets, embryonic organs of its own power. But the leadership of the soviets fell into the hands of the reformist Mensheviks and equally reformist Social-Revolutionaries.
Consistently with their idea that the “democratic revolution” must be led by the bourgeoisie, these supported the formation of a “Provisional Government” of capitalist parties. This government proved incapable of expropriating the landlords and redistributing the land to the peasants, of liberating the oppressed national minorities, or of convening a Constitutional Assembly to establish a democratic government – the democratic tasks of the revolution.
Despite mass desertions from the army, the government continued Russia’s participation in the hugely unpopular imperialist First World War.
With the government paralysed, and proving incapable of implementing their demands, the mass of the working class swung within months to the Bolsheviks. In the countryside the peasants were taking matters in their own hands, and seizing the land from the landlords. In October 1917, led by the Bolsheviks, the working class overthrew the Provisional Government and established its own state power, on a program for implementing the democratic tasks of the revolution, under the slogans of “Bread, Peace, and Land”. Within months it was driven to bring the major means of production in the cities into control and management by the workers’ state.
Returning from exile in early May, Trotsky was, with Lenin, at the centre of all these developments, agitating for the Bolshevik program among workers and soldiers. In July he was elected to the Bolshevik Party’s Central Committee with the fourth highest vote. In August he was imprisoned, with other Bolshevik leaders, but released under the pressure of the revolution. On 23 September he was re-elected President of the Petrograd Soviet and, with Lenin in hiding, assumed the organisational leadership of the revolution.
A Military Revolutionary Committee was set up, with Trotsky as its President, to organise for an insurrection which could place power in the hands of the All-Russian Congress of Soviets, representing the workers, peasants and soldiers.
Trotsky’s role in the month which followed is captured by a lifelong opponent of his, the Menshevik Sukhanov:
Tearing himself from the work in revolutionary headquarters he would fly from the Obukhovsky factory to the Trubocheny, from the Putilov to the Baltic shipyards, from the Riding Academy to the barracks, and seemed to be speaking simultaneously in all places.
Every Petrograd worker and soldier knew him and heard him personally. His influence – both in the masses and headquarters – was overwhelming. He was the central figure of those days and the chief hero of this remarkable page of history.
Trotsky modestly remarked that far more important than his contribution was the “molecular agitation carried on by nameless workers, sailors, soldiers, winning converts one by one, breaking down the last doubts, overcoming the last hesitations”. (History of the Russian Revolution) But no individual did more than him in this respect.
Dialego on the 1917 revolution
The experience of 1917 was a confirmation of Trotsky’s perspective of permanent revolution. But Dialego tries to deny this.
The socialist revolution in October” claims Dialego, “was made possible by the democratic revolution in February. Even though the democratic stage only lasted around six months, it proved vital in enabling the Bolsheviks to win a majority of the population to their side. Despite his claim to the contrary, the Russian Revolution proved to be a practical refutation of Trotsky’s theory, and it is not surprising that no revolution has ever taken place in accordance with the mystifying principles of Trotskyist logic.
The 1917 Russian revolution, for Dialego, proceeded in “stages”. This is another of the falsifications of history invented by Stalin’s lackeys in the 1920s to discredit Trotsky, and try to separate him from Lenin.
Let Lenin answer Dialego. In 1918 he summed up the nature of the Provisional Government, and contrasted its role with what the workers’ revolution in October achieved:
These poltroons, gas-bags, vainglorious Narcissuses and petty Hamlets [i.e. the Provisional Government] brandished their wooden swords”, he explained, “but did not even destroy the monarchy! We cleansed out all that monarchist muck as nobody has ever done before. We left not a stone, not a brick of that ancient edifice, the social-estate system… standing… the fact cannot be denied that the petty-bourgeois democrats “compromised” with the landowners, the custodians of the traditions of serfdom, for eight months, while we completely swept the landowners and their traditions from Russian soil in a few weeks.Collected Works, Vol 33
“Monarchist muck…the social-estate system…the landowners”: sweeping these away were among the central bourgeois-democratic tasks of the revolution. But who achieved these tasks, in Lenin’s estimation? Not the February revolution, not the Provisional Government, but “we”, i.e., the working class, allied with the mass of the peasantry, in the revolution in October. The Provisional Government compromised with the landowners throughout its eight months in office. The revolution in October swept away the landowners within weeks.
Lenin’s retrospective summary of the processes in 1917-18 confirms the fact that there was not a “democratic” revolution followed by a “socialist” revolution, but one revolution, a permanent revolution, in which it was necessary for the working class to take state power to accomplish even the democratic tasks. It confirms also that Lenin had changed his perspective from that of 1905.
On the basis of his 1905 perspective, Lenin could not have argued for the working class to carry through a “socialist revolution” in October. He had excluded the possibility of socialist revolution in Russia – until the working class took power in Western Europe.
In fact, on his return to Russia from exile in April 1917, Lenin had to wage a struggle against the internal leadership of the Bolshevik party, including Stalin, who were claiming that the perspective of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” warranted critical support by the Bolsheviks for the Provisional Government.
“No support for the Provisional Government”, Lenin declared, “the utter falsity of all its promises should be made clear… The masses must be made to see that the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies are the only possible form of revolutionary government”. (The tasks of the proletariat in the present revolution, April 1917)
The Provisional Government’s “democratic” promises are false. The Soviets, organs of working class power, are the only possible form of revolutionary government. This standpoint of Lenin’s was the standpoint of the permanent revolution.
In explaining this, Lenin explicitly abandoned the idea that there were objective barriers to ending capitalism in Russia – the idea contained in his 1905 perspective. “The specific feature of the present situation in Russia”, he wrote in the same article, “is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution – which, owing to the insufficient class consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie – to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants”.
Lenin uses the word “stages“. But these are not a consequence of the backwardness of Russia’s economic development, or the preponderance of the peasantry. It is not a question – as Dialego tries to maintain – of an objective need for “democratic revolution” prior to and separate from “socialist revolution”. Power remained in the hands of the bourgeoisie because, and only because, of the “insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat”. The revolution, for Lenin, is passing through “phases” or “stages” which are subjectively determined by the degree of consciousness and organisation of the proletariat.
Between April and October, the strategy and tactics of the Bolsheviks were directed to transforming this situation, to exposing the false promises of the Provisional Government, and convincing the working class of its need to take power – to carry through the democratic revolution.
In 1918 the German workers’ leader Karl Kautsky published a pamphlet attacking the Soviet workers’ state. In 1905 Kautsky had written an article explaining that the Russian revolution was neither wholly bourgeois nor wholly socialist – an article warmly endorsed by both Lenin and Trotsky. Kautsky had here put his finger on the contradiction that was resolved by the theory of permanent revolution. But, since that time, Kautsky had moved away from Marxism.
In 1918 the essence of Kautsky’s critique of the Russian revolution was the same as the Mensheviks, that, by taking power in October, the Bolsheviks were “jumping stages” in the revolution. Lenin replied with vigour:
Beginning with April 1917, however, long before the October Revolution, that is, long before we assumed power, we publicly declared and explained to the people: the revolution cannot now stop at this stage, for the country has marched forward, capitalism has advanced, ruin has reached fantastic dimensions, which (whether one likes it or not) will demand steps forward, to socialism. For there is no other way of advancing, of saving the war-weary country and of alleviating the sufferings of the working and exploited people.
Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First, with the ‘whole’ of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese Wall between the first and second, to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means to distort Marxism dreadfully, to vulgarise it, to substitute liberalism in its place. It means smuggling in a reactionary defence of the bourgeoisie against the socialist proletariat by means of quasi-scientific references to the progressive character of the bourgeoisie in comparison with medievalism.” (Our emphasis)
…it is the proletariat alone that has really carried the bourgeois-democratic revolution to its conclusion, it is the proletariat alone that has done something really important to bring nearer the world proletarian revolution, and the proletariat alone that has created the Soviet state, which, after the Paris Commune [of 1871], is the second step towards the socialist state.The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky
Again, Lenin is not excluding “stages”, i.e. phases in the process of the revolution. But these are “separated” by nothing else than the “degree of preparedness of the proletariat” (i.e. its consciousness) and “the degree of its unity with the poor peasants”. And it is the proletariat that has “carried the bourgeois-democratic revolution to its conclusion” by creating “the Soviet state”, which is, at the same time a “step towards the socialist state”.
“The phases are of course linked”, Dialego has told us, “since one is a prelude or precondition for the other. But – and this is the decisive point – the democratic revolution comes first.
“It is this proposition”, he adds, “which Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution rejects. Trotsky took the view that unless the revolution is socialist in character and immediately establishes ‘a dictatorship of the proletariat’, it will fail.”
Trotsky, we have seen, maintained that the working class needed to establish the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ to “carry the bourgeois-democratic revolution to its conclusion”. Now we see that, contrary to what Dialego would have us believe, Lenin is holding the identical position. Though there are phases in the process of the revolution, without the working class taking state power there would have been no democratic revolution in Russia in 1917. This is the essential point that Dialego rejects.
In 1920 Lenin drafted theses which were adopted by the 3rd Congress of the Communist International as its program for revolution in the colonial world. These included the following passage: “The policy of the Communist International on national and colonial questions must be chiefly to bring about a union of the proletarian and working masses of all nations and countries for a joint revolutionary struggle leading to the overthrow of capitalism, without which national inequality and oppression cannot be abolished.” (Our emphasis)
National inequality and oppression in the colonial world cannot be abolished without the overthrow of capitalism. That expressed the theory of permanent revolution. It was a generalisation by Lenin of the lessons of the 1917 Russian revolution to every economically under-developed country. It is a vital lesson for our own movement in South Africa today.
Revolution or counter-revolution
Despite the overthrow of the Tsar, a “democratic revolution” was not carried through in February 1917. But, it could be argued, at least the working class created for itself in February the necessary “democratic space” within which it could develop the class-consciousness and organisation necessary to take power. “Even though the democratic stage only lasted around six months, it proved vital in enabling the Bolsheviks to win a majority of the population to their side”, asserts Dialego.
Between February and October 1917 there was a period of “dual power”: divided between the state power still in the hands of the bourgeoisie, and the power of the working class in the soviets. But this was a highly unstable and contradictory situation, which could be resolved only by workers’ revolution – or by counter-revolution.
Nor was this situation in any way inevitable. It existed only because the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries still commanded a majority in the soviets, which they used to prop up the tottering rule of the bourgeoisie. Had the Bolsheviks been in the majority in February, and with Lenin’s leadership, the working class could have taken power forthwith.
Dialego’s claim implies that, up to 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks had reconciled themselves to the idea that they would have to “allow” the Mensheviks and other compromisers to retain majority support, so as to have a “democratic stage” in Russia during which the Bolsheviks could in turn become a majority. The idea only needs to be stated to see how ridiculous it is.
Lenin and the Bolsheviks fought implacably against the Mensheviks to develop the class consciousness and independent political organisation of the proletariat throughout the period before 1917, in underground conditions, because they saw the fatal dangers for the working class of compromises with the bourgeoisie. In 1912, on this basis, the Bolsheviks won majority support in the working class in the major industrial centre of Petrograd – only to lose this again as a result of the outbreak of the First World War. In 1917 Lenin, Trotsky, and the Bolsheviks campaigned to bring to an end as rapidly as possible the pseudo-democratic stage of dual power under the Provisional Government, in favour of the democratic rule of the working class.
As Trotsky put it:
Political [bourgeois] democracy is an essential phase in the development of the working masses – with the important proviso that in some cases the working masses may remain in this phase for several decades, whereas in another case [e.g. in Russia in 1917] the revolutionary situation may enable the masses to liberate themselves from the prejudices of political [bourgeois] democracy even before its institutions have come into being.
The state regime of the socialist revolutionaries and Mensheviks (March-October 1917) completely and utterly compromised democracy, even before it had time to be cast in any firm bourgeois-republican mode.(1922 Preface to his collection titled 1905.
Attempting to generalise the idea of a ‘necessary democratic stage’, Dialego writes, “This is why Lenin always insisted that socialism can come only through democracy. It is only through democratic struggle that workers acquire the experience, the confidence and the wider popular support necessary if they are to become the ruling class of the new society.”
Dialego is here mixing up two separate ideas: the correct idea that the working class has to struggle for democracy as part of equipping itself to take power and carry through the transition to socialism; and the false idea of a (capitalist) constitutional democracy as a necessary or inevitable social stage before the working class can take power.
Marxism has always insisted that the working class should be the most consistent fighter for democracy. But, equally, Marxism has always insisted that the working class should never limit or hide its socialist aims. Dialego wants the working class “first” to participate in the struggle for democracy and “then” to struggle for socialism. In reality, it is not “only through democratic struggle”, but through struggle for its combined democratic and social class aims that the working class acquires the confidence, experience, and organisation to lead all the oppressed in a struggle for workers’ democratic rule.
Lenin, in fact, “insisted” on this, even in the period when he believed that the Russian revolution, taken in isolation, would have to confine itself within the framework of capitalism.
The revolution in our country is one of the whole people, the Social-Democrats [Marxists] say to the proletariat”, he wrote in Two Tactics. “As the most progressive and the only thoroughly revolutionary class, you should strive to play not only a most active part in it, but the leading part as well. Therefore you must not confine yourself within a narrowly conceived framework of the class struggle, understood mainly as the trade union movement; on the contrary, you must strive to extend the framework and the content of your class struggle so as to make it include not only all the aims of the present, democratic Russian revolution of the whole people, but the aims of the subsequent socialist revolution as well.
Moreover, in Russia in 1917, had the Bolsheviks not taken power in October, the consequence would not have been the extension of some peaceful “democratic stage” under the rule of the Provisional Government – but the victory of counter-revolution in the form of vicious military dictatorship.
In August 1917, Kerensky – the ‘socialist revolutionary’ lawyer who headed the Provisional Government – imprisoned Bolshevik leaders, smashed up their press and began plotting the military suppression of the revolution with the reactionary General Kornilov. Kornilov’s first attempt at counter-revolution failed. The skilful tactics of the Bolsheviks enabled them to turn it to their advantage, win support, and prepare the way for the working class to conquer power in October. But Kornilov remained waiting in the wings, to take advantage of any faltering of the revolution. Even in power, the Russian working class had to fight and win a three-year civil war against the forces of counter-revolution, supported by the imperialist powers.
“Trotsky took the view”, Dialego tells us, “that unless the revolution is socialist in character and immediately establishes ‘a dictatorship of the proletariat’ it will fail. The capitalists (in alliance with the bourgeois minded peasantry) will inevitably sabotage the democratic revolution”.
Dialego ridicules these ideas, which are in fact his rather imprecise summary of a passage from an article published in Trotsky’s collection 1905.
But let us accept Dialego’s summary, and even his false hypothesis that February 1917 was a democratic revolution. In that case, Trotsky’s advance warning was shown absolutely correct. So long as they were able to, the capitalists and the “bourgeois minded peasantry” did try to sabotage this “revolution” with all the means at their disposal. All that stood against them was the proletariat, leading the mass of the peasantry, in its struggle to establish and defend its rule. The choices were workers’ rule or counter-revolution. Trotsky, as well as Lenin and the Bolsheviks, had understood this well before 1917.
The Russian revolution in 1917 confirms the theory of permanent revolution – in what Trotsky called its “first” aspect – that of the “transition from the democratic revolution to the socialist” in a backward country in the modern world. The subsequent fate of the revolution in Russia also confirms the further aspects of the permanent revolution: that “the socialist revolution begins on national foundations – but it cannot be completed within those foundations…. Viewed from this standpoint, a national revolution is not a self-contained whole: it is only a link in the international chain”.
For Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks in the period after 1917, the fate of the Russian revolution was integrally linked with the fate of the workers’ revolution in Western Europe. Without the spreading of the revolution to more advanced countries, they firmly believed, the working class in Russia would once again lose power through capitalist counter-revolution.
These perspectives were not borne out precisely. Instead, with the turning back of the first wave of revolution in Western Europe and the isolation of the revolution in Russia, there was a counter-revolution, but of a different sort. It was a political counter-revolution spearheaded by Stalin and the bureaucracy, usurping power from the working class, though preserving the framework of nationalised and planned economy brought into being through the 1917 revolution.
We turn to Trotsky’s role in the struggle against this political counter-revolution, and the way that this has been falsified by Stalinism.