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Workers Vanguard No. 901

26 October 2007

The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution

Part One

This month marks the 90th anniversary of the Russian Revolution led by the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky. The October Revolution was the defining event of the 20th century. Spurred especially by the carnage of World War I, the working class took state power, establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. In doing so, the multinational proletariat of Russia not only liberated itself from capitalist exploitation but also led the peasantry, national minorities and all the oppressed in driving out feudal tyranny and imperialist bondage.

The young workers state carried out an agrarian revolution and recognized the right of self-determination of all nations in what had been the tsarist prison house of peoples. The soviet regime took Russia out of the interimperialist world war and inspired class-conscious workers in other countries to try to follow the Bolshevik example. The Third (Communist) International, which held its inaugural congress in Moscow in 1919, was founded to lead the proletariat internationally in the struggle for socialist revolution.

The October Revolution was a stunning confirmation of the theory and perspective of permanent revolution developed by Trotsky. In his 1906 work Results and Prospects, Trotsky projected that because Russia, despite its economic backwardness, was already part of a world capitalist economy that was ripe for socialism, the workers could come to power there before an extended period of capitalist development. Indeed, the workers would have to come to power if Russia was to be liberated from its feudal past. At the heart of the Bolsheviks’ success in 1917 was the coming together of Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution with Lenin’s single-minded struggle to build a programmatically steeled and tested vanguard party against all manner of reconciliation with the capitalist order.

Just before Results and Prospects appeared, the 1905 Russian Revolution had shaken the tsarist empire to its foundations and brought to the fore an intense debate over the future course of revolutionary developments. Russia was an imperialist power but also the weakest link in the imperialist chain, saddled with an absolutist monarchy, an encrusted landed aristocracy and a huge Russian Orthodox state church.

The young, vibrant bourgeoisies of 17th-century England and 18th-century France had stood at the head of the urban and rural populace in bourgeois-democratic revolutions that swept away similar feudal-derived fetters on modern capitalist development and would give rise to an industrial proletariat. But the late-emerging Russian bourgeoisie—subordinated to foreign industrialists and bankers, tied by a thousand threads to the aristocracy—was weak and cowardly, fearful that it, too, would be swept away should the worker and peasant masses rise up against the tsarist autocracy.

Addressing this contradiction, Trotsky argued, as he later summarized in the August 1939 article “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution” (also known as “Three Concepts”):

“The complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is inconceivable otherwise than in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat basing itself on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which will inescapably place on the order of the day not only democratic but also socialist tasks, will at the same time provide a mighty impulse to the international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.”

As the Bolsheviks anticipated, the October Revolution inspired proletarian upheavals in Europe, particularly Germany, as well as anti-colonial and national liberation struggles in Asia and elsewhere. But despite the revolutionary ferment, the proletariat did not come to power in any of the advanced capitalist countries of the West. Russia, bled white by imperialist war and the bloody Civil War that erupted a few months after the Bolsheviks took power, remained isolated. Conditions of great material scarcity produced strong objective pressures toward bureaucratism. The failure to consummate an exceptional opportunity for socialist revolution in Germany in 1923 allowed a restabilization of the world capitalist order and led to profound demoralization among Soviet workers. This facilitated a political counterrevolution and the rise of a privileged bureaucratic caste around Joseph Stalin.

In late 1924, Stalin promulgated the dogma of “socialism in one country.” This flouted the Marxist understanding that socialism—a classless society of material abundance—could only be built on the basis of the most modern technology and an international division of labor, requiring proletarian revolutions in at least a number of the most advanced capitalist countries. Stalin and his henchmen suppressed proletarian democracy and, over the years, transformed the Communist International from an organizer of the world socialist revolution into its antithesis, strangling revolutionary possibilities abroad in hopes of convincing world imperialism to leave the USSR alone. The Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet workers state and the Comintern did not go unopposed. Taking up the Bolshevik banner of revolutionary proletarian internationalism, Trotsky and his supporters fought against the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country.”

Decades of Stalinist treachery, lies and bureaucratic mismanagement eventually opened the gates to the imperialist-sponsored forces of capitalist restoration, culminating in the counterrevolutionary overthrow of the Soviet degenerated workers state in 1991-92. The workers state erected by the October Revolution no longer exists. But it remains vital for class-conscious workers and leftist intellectuals to study the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the world proletariat’s greatest success and imperialism’s greatest defeat ever.

From Tsarist Russia to Post-Apartheid South Africa

Trotsky formulated his theory in regard to tsarist Russia. But history would demonstrate that the conditions that made Russia ripe for the proletarian seizure of power in 1917 would be replicated in their broad outlines in even more backward colonial and semicolonial countries, as imperialist capitalism extended its tentacles into ever more remote regions of the globe. This was seen decisively in China, where a young urban proletariat had emerged in the years during and after World War I. But unlike the Bolshevik Revolution, the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 went down to bloody defeat. The crucial reason, as we will detail later in this article, is that the proletariat was subordinated to the bourgeoisie instead of fighting for power in its own name and leading the mass of the peasantry. Drawing the lessons of that defeat, in The Third International After Lenin (1928) and The Permanent Revolution (1929), Trotsky generalized the theory of permanent revolution to all countries of belated capitalist development in the imperialist epoch.

The validity of this revolutionary perspective has been repeatedly demonstrated in the decades since. Dozens of former colonies have achieved independent statehood, including through heroic and protracted national liberation struggles. But none have managed to defy the laws of Marxist materialism: Short of the dictatorship of the proletariat there can be no liberation from the yoke of imperialist domination and mass poverty. And across Latin America, revulsion over imperialist-dictated neoliberal austerity measures has been channeled into support for a new layer of bourgeois nationalist populists, from Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico. Despite their “anti-imperialist” and even “socialist” rhetoric, the bourgeois nationalists are committed to defense of the capitalist order, which necessarily means subordination to the world imperialist system.

Or look at post-apartheid South Africa. Unusually in this period in which the apologists for imperialist exploitation have officially decreed communism to be dead, tens of thousands of South African working-class militants continue to rally around the red banner of the hammer and sickle, the emblem of the Soviet workers state that issued out of the October Revolution. But the South African Communist Party (SACP) tramples on the lessons of the October Revolution, centrally the need for a vanguard party intransigently opposed to all wings of the bourgeoisie and committed to the struggle for proletarian state power and revolutionary internationalism.

In 1994, the election of a government led by the African National Congress (ANC) of Nelson Mandela marked the end of decades of white-supremacist rule. In the name of the martyrs of Sharpeville and Soweto and the many thousands of others who had given their lives in the struggle against apartheid, the ANC proclaimed a new era of emancipation in which the black and other non-white masses would no longer be consigned to segregation, degradation, murderous repression and grinding poverty. But the reality is that the ANC-led government presides over neo-apartheid capitalism, based on the same social foundations as the former regime: the brutal exploitation of the overwhelmingly black proletariat by a tiny class of fabulously wealthy white capitalist exploiters (though now including a few black front men).

The SACP, a longtime ally and component of the ANC, hailed the advent of a “national democratic revolution” that would grow over into socialism. The Communist-influenced leadership of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU)—formed in bitter labor struggles that demonstrated the immense social power of the black proletariat and heralded the death knell of apartheid rule—joined the SACP in a Tripartite Alliance with the bourgeois-nationalist ANC. Thirteen years on, the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance government breaks workers strikes and unleashes cops on rebellious township youth. The black African masses are no nearer to social and national emancipation, much less socialism.

Russia on the Eve of the 1905 Revolution

In his book 1905 (written between 1908-09), Trotsky described Russia’s enormous contradictions at the start of the 20th century: “The most concentrated industry in Europe based on the most backward agriculture in Europe. The most colossal state apparatus in the world making use of every achievement of modern technological progress in order to retard the historical progress of its own country.” Investment from Europe (primarily France) had created a new urban proletariat in large-scale, state-of-the-art industrial concentrations in St. Petersburg, Moscow and the Urals. While this industrial proletariat constituted less than 10 percent of Russia’s population, it was concentrated in economically strategic enterprises. The percentage of Russian workers employed in factories of more than 1,000 employees was higher than in Britain, Germany or the United States. Yet the tsarist autocracy, the counterrevolutionary gendarme for all of Europe’s ruling powers, rested on a landed gentry that lived and breathed in a prior epoch.

Such conditions of “combined and uneven development” make the proletariat a uniquely revolutionary force in even the most backward capitalist countries in the imperialist epoch. Russia would not, and could not, simply repeat the experience of ascendant capitalism in England or France. Trotsky explained in “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution”:

“The development of Russia is characterized first of all by backwardness. Historical backwardness does not, however, signify a simple reproduction of the development of advanced countries, with merely a delay of one or two centuries. It engenders an entirely new ‘combined’ social formation in which the latest conquests of capitalist technique and structure root themselves into relations of feudal and pre-feudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting them and creating a peculiar interrelationship of classes.”

The immediate prelude to the 1905 Revolution was the defeat of Russia’s Pacific Fleet at Port Arthur in Manchuria in late 1904 by nascent Japanese imperialism. This emboldened bourgeois liberals to timidly urge greater civil liberties. But down below, larger forces were stirring. These came spilling out on the morning of Sunday, 9 January 1905. When a January 3 strike over firings at the massive Putilov metal works in St. Petersburg began to spread, a legal labor organization led by Father Gapon, a radical Russian Orthodox priest, tried to dissipate the growing class confrontation by organizing a procession to humbly petition the tsar for reforms, including an eight-hour day, the separation of church and state and a constituent assembly.

Dressed in their Sunday best, well over 100,000 workers with their families set off for the Winter Palace, the seat of the autocracy. In what came to be known as Bloody Sunday, the tsar ordered troops to open fire. Over 1,000 were slaughtered and almost 4,000 wounded. Russia exploded. By October 1905, a massive series of strikes culminated in a general rail strike and the formation of the Petersburg workers council (soviet), which elected Trotsky as its chairman in November.

In an attempt to quell the upheaval, the tsar issued the October Manifesto, granting a constitution and a limited legislature. The bourgeoisie, terrified of the independent power of the proletariat, eagerly embraced the Manifesto and joined the camp of open counterrevolution. At the same time, the tsar unleashed the Black Hundreds reactionaries in a nationwide pogrom against the Jewish population. Some 4,000 Jews were murdered and 10,000 maimed. This attempt to derail the revolution was courageously combatted by a broad range of socialist organizations that formed armed defense guards. Industrial workers, especially the mainly Russian rail workers, played an important role in defending Jews. Significantly, in St. Petersburg there were no pogroms because the working class showed its determination in advance to defend the Jewish population.

In Moscow, a general strike grew into an armed uprising of the proletariat, with pitched battles on barricades all over the city. Lenin considered the Moscow insurrection of December 7-19 the high point of the revolution. The determination of the insurrection undermined the loyalty of the tsar’s troops. It took over a week to put down the insurrection and crush the workers’ fighting units. Over 1,000 were killed, followed by a campaign of arrests and executions.

The experience of the St. Petersburg Soviet was of historic importance. Originating as a joint strike committee composed of delegates elected from their factories, the soviet soon began to act as an alternative center of power. After the soviet was crushed, Trotsky and other of its leaders used their trial as a platform to disseminate revolutionary ideas.

The Petersburg Soviet existed for 50 days, the Moscow barricades far less than that. But the impact of the 1905 Revolution was world historic (see “The Russian Revolution of 1905,” WV No. 872, 9 June 2006). It sent fear into the hearts of the European ruling classes and galvanized the revolutionary wing of international Social Democracy (as Marxists called themselves at the time). It spurred anti-colonial movements throughout Asia and resonated through the workers movement internationally, including in the U.S., where the revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was founded that year. In Russia, crucially, it illuminated the programmatic differences between the Bolshevik and Menshevik factions of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP), which would end up on opposite sides of the barricades in 1917.

Plekhanov and the Origins of Russian Marxism

Organized Russian Marxism originated in 1883, centering on Georgi Plekhanov’s break from the dominant populist current to form the small Emancipation of Labor group in exile. The Narodniks (populists) were often heroic in their pursuit of a revolution against tsarist autocracy. Valiant but futile efforts to “go to the people” and reach out to the benighted peasant masses were followed by courageous but no less futile acts of terror against tsarist officials.

The Narodniks followed a tradition that stretched back to the 1825 Decembrist rising by military officers who sought to emulate modernized bourgeois Europe. But the Russian populists of the second half of the 19th century did not wish to follow the West European model of capitalist development. Instead, they envisioned a uniquely Russian socialism based on the mir, the traditional communal peasant land. But while the peasantry had a history of spontaneous, volatile explosions of collective rage, its outlook and aspirations were those of the petty proprietor, not the coherent and collectivist class interests of the urban proletariat. Moreover, as Plekhanov demonstrated in his seminal Marxist polemic against populism, Our Differences (1884), the peasant mir had already begun to disintegrate under the impact of capitalist market relations.

In fighting to popularize Marxism among radical intellectuals of his day, Plekhanov produced a Russian translation of Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto, which outlined the proletariat’s role as the most revolutionary class in history. “The history of all hitherto existing society,” declared the Manifesto, “is the history of class struggles.” Classes are defined by their relationship to the means of production. Capitalism created dynamically expanding and globally organized means of production and commerce. But the private ownership of those socially organized means of production and the barriers imposed by the bourgeois nation-state became in their turn shackles on the development of the productive forces.

The proletariat’s place in production—and the fact that it has only its own labor power to sell—makes it the only class with both the material interest in liberating and expanding socialized production based on a collectivized economy and the social power to carry out this revolution. Plekhanov anticipated that capitalist development would soon lead to the emergence of a significant industrial working class. About “the rising proletariat,” he declared:

“They, and they alone, can be the link between the peasantry and the socialist intelligentsia; they, and they alone, can bridge the historical abyss between the ‘people’ and the ‘educated’ section of the population. Through them and with their help socialist propaganda will at last penetrate into every corner of the Russian countryside. Moreover, if they are united and organised at the right time into a single workers’ party, they can be the main bulwark of socialist agitation in favour of economic reforms which will protect the village commune against general disintegration.... The earliest possible formation of a workers’ party is the only means of solving all the economic and political contradictions of present-day Russia. On that road success and victory lie ahead; all other roads can lead only to defeat and impotence.”

Our Differences (1884), reprinted in Selected Philosophical Works, Vol. 1

Plekhanov succeeded in winning some of the best of the populists to Marxism. Among the formative figures in the Emancipation of Labor group was the former Narodnik Vera Zasulich, who was hailed throughout Europe for her heroism in attempting to shoot the St. Petersburg chief of police in 1878. Other Narodniks eventually consolidated into the main party of bourgeois liberalism, the Constitutional Democratic Party (Cadets), and the petty-bourgeois Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs).

The Marxist propaganda circles in Russia connected with Plekhanov turned to mass agitation in the mid 1890s, when a young Lenin and Julius Martov first came to the fore. At the same time, a reformist wing developed. This tendency, dubbed Economism by Plekhanov, limited its agitation to elementary trade-union demands while passively supporting bourgeois liberal efforts to reform tsarist absolutism. Beginning around 1897-98, Economism became the dominant tendency among Russian Social Democrats. Hostile to orthodox Marxism, the Economists were loosely associated with the reformist current around Eduard Bernstein in Germany.

The 1903 Bolshevik-Menshevik Split

In 1900, the second generation of Russian Marxists (represented by Lenin and Martov) coalesced with the founding fathers (Plekhanov, Pavel Axelrod, Zasulich) to return Russian Social Democracy to its revolutionary traditions as embodied in the original Emancipation of Labor program. The revolutionary Marxist tendency was organized around the paper Iskra (Spark), and Lenin became its organizer. Iskra provided, for the first time, an organizing center for a Russian Social Democratic party, one from which Lenin directed work in Russia to win over local Social Democratic committees from Economism or, if necessary, split them.

Lenin’s What Is To Be Done? (1902) was a scathing polemic against the Economists’ attempt “to degrade Social-Democratic politics to the level of trade union politics!” Against this, Lenin argued that the workers party must not act as a labor auxiliary to bourgeois liberalism but as a “tribune of the people.” Such a party must agitate against injustice among all layers of the population and render the proletariat conscious of the need to become the ruling class and to reconstruct society on socialist foundations. By the time of the RSDLP’s Second Congress in July-August 1903, the Economist tendency was a small minority.

Though the Iskraists walked into the Congress with a solid majority, beneath the seeming unity were considerable differences between the “soft” Martov, who favored a greater role for non-Iskraists in a unitary party, and the “hard” Lenin. These differences exploded over the first paragraph of the RSDLP’s rules defining who was a member. Martov’s draft defined a party member as one who “renders it regular personal assistance under the direction of one of its organizations.” For Lenin, membership was defined “by personal participation in one of the Party organizations.” This narrower definition was motivated by a desire to exclude opportunists and weed out dilettantes attracted to the RSDLP precisely because of its loose circle nature. With the support of the Economists and the Jewish Bund, Martov’s formulation carried. But when the Economists and the Bund walked out of the Congress, Lenin’s “hards” gained a slight majority. (Bolshevik is derived from the Russian word for “majority,” while Menshevik comes from “minority.”)

The decisive split came over the election of a new Iskra editorial board. When Lenin’s proposal carried, Martov and his followers refused to serve on the editorial board or Central Committee. Plekhanov supported the Bolshevik faction but soon broke with Lenin and threw in his lot with the Mensheviks, who thus regained control of Iskra.

Lenin would spend the years between the 1903 split and the 1905 Revolution (and afterwards) waging a fierce struggle against those within the Bolshevik faction—as well as those outside it, such as Trotsky, who opposed Lenin in the split—who sought to reconcile the two factions. While the political differences between Lenin and Martov were unclear to most in 1903, their significance quickly grew. The logic of the factional struggle drove the Mensheviks further to the right, leading to reconciliation with the defeated Economists. Alexander Martynov, formerly the main exponent of Economism, became the Mensheviks’ main theoretician.

As we elaborated in the 1978 Spartacist pamphlet Lenin and the Vanguard Party, the 1903 split did not represent Lenin’s final break from the Social Democratic concept of the “party of the whole class,” in which all political tendencies claiming the banner of socialism, from avowed reformists to revolutionaries, coexist. Nonetheless, 1903 marked the beginning of such a break, the first step in the construction of a vanguard party led by a cadre of professional revolutionaries.

The 1905 Revolution, though it was defeated, became “the laboratory in which all the fundamental groupings of Russian political life were worked out and all the tendencies and shadings inside Russian Marxism were projected,” as Trotsky would put it in his article, “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution.” Trotsky observed:

“Precisely because of her historical tardiness Russia turned out to be the only European country where Marxism as a doctrine and the social democracy as a party attained powerful development even before the bourgeois revolution. It is only natural that the problem of the correlation between the struggle for democracy and the struggle for socialism was submitted to the most profound theoretical analysis precisely in Russia.”

Three Concepts of the Russian Revolution

The Mensheviks, the Bolsheviks and Leon Trotsky put forward three distinct conceptions of the coming Russian Revolution. Pointing to Russia’s backwardness, the Mensheviks insisted that the working class could only be an appendage to the liberal bourgeoisie, which was supposedly striving to establish a democratic republic. In early 1905, Martynov codified this orientation to the liberal bourgeoisie in his pamphlet, Two Dictatorships. The Mensheviks’ chief tactician, Pavel Axelrod, spelled this out at the 1906 RSDLP “Unity Congress”:

“The social relations of Russia have ripened only for the bourgeois revolution.... In the face of the universal deprivation of political rights in our country, there cannot even be talk of a direct battle between the proletariat and other classes for political power.... The proletariat is fighting for conditions of bourgeois development. The objective historical conditions make it the destiny of our proletariat to inescapably collaborate with the bourgeoisie in the struggle against the common enemy.”

This basic line was upheld by all the Menshevik leaders, including Plekhanov. “They should not have taken to arms,” was his epitaph on the 1905 Moscow insurrection (quoted in Lenin, “Lessons of the Moscow Uprising,” 29 August 1906). “We must cherish the support of the non-proletarian parties…and not repel them from us by tactless actions,” Plekhanov stated, to which Lenin pointedly replied that “the liberals and landlords will forgive you millions of ‘tactless’ acts but will not forgive you a summons to take away the land.” Quoting the above exchange, Trotsky explained in “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution”:

“Plekhanov obviously and stubbornly shut his eyes to the fundamental conclusion of the political history of the nineteenth century: whenever the proletariat comes forward as an independent force the bourgeoisie shifts over to the camp of the counterrevolution. The more audacious the mass struggle all the swifter is the reactionary degeneration of liberalism. No one has yet invented a means for paralyzing the effects of the law of the class struggle.”

For his part, Lenin accepted that the struggle for political freedom and the democratic republic in Russia was a necessary stage that would not undermine “the domination of the bourgeoisie” (Two Tactics of Social-Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, 1905). But, crucially, Lenin had no illusions about some “progressive” character of the Russian bourgeoisie, categorically ruling out that it could consummate its own revolution:

“They are incapable of waging a decisive struggle against tsarism; they are too heavily fettered by private property, by capital and land to enter into a decisive struggle. They stand in too great need of tsarism, with its bureaucratic, police, and military forces for use against the proletariat and the peasantry, to want it to be destroyed…. ‘The revolution’s decisive victory over tsarism’ means the establishment of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”

Lenin wrote of such a dictatorship: “At best, it may bring about a radical redistribution of landed property in favour of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy, including the formation of a republic, eradicate all the oppressive features of Asiatic bondage, not only in rural but also in factory life, lay the foundation for a thorough improvement in the conditions of the workers and for a rise in their standard of living, and—last but not least—carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe.”

In his 1906 article, “The Proletariat and Its Ally in the Russian Revolution,” Lenin argued that “the crux of the Russian Revolution is the agrarian question.” He knew, as Trotsky observed in “Three Conceptions,” that “in order to overthrow czarism it was necessary to arouse tens upon tens of millions of oppressed to a heroic, self-renouncing, unfettered revolutionary assault that would halt at nothing. The masses can rise to an insurrection only under the banner of their own interests and consequently in the spirit of irreconcilable hostility toward the exploiting classes beginning with the landlords.”

For Lenin, the formula of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship remained algebraic. His outlines for a joint revolutionary dictatorship were not terms for an epoch of class peace but battle plans for an episode of class war extended to the international arena. The destruction of the Romanov gendarme would inspire European workers to take state power. They would then support the proletariat in Russia in doing the same.

Lenin’s formula was irreconcilably opposed to the Mensheviks’ tailing of the bourgeoisie. But it was inherently contradictory, projecting a dictatorship of two classes with conflicting interests. History would demonstrate that the tasks Lenin envisioned for the democratic dictatorship could only be carried out by the dictatorship of the proletariat resting on the peasantry, while the formula of the democratic dictatorship would be used by others to justify support to the bourgeois Provisional Government in 1917.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, initially formulated in collaboration with the Social Democrat Alexander Parvus just before the 1905 Revolution, was distinct from those of both the Mensheviks and Lenin, but far closer to the latter. Like Lenin, Trotsky saw that the Russian liberal bourgeoisie had no revolutionary capacities, declaring in Results and Prospects:

A national bourgeois revolution is impossible in Russia because there is no genuinely revolutionary bourgeois democracy. The time for national revolutions has passed—at least for Europe.... We are living in an epoch of imperialism which is not merely a system of colonial conquests but implies also a definite régime at home. It does not set the bourgeois nation in opposition to the old régime, but sets the proletariat in opposition to the bourgeois nation.”

In contradistinction to Lenin, Trotsky argued that the peasants could not play the role of an independent partner, let alone leader, in the revolution. Trotsky observed that peasant uprisings in Europe had brought down regimes, but this had never resulted in governments of peasant parties. In Results and Prospects, he noted that it was always in the towns where the first revolutionary classes arose that later overthrew feudalism. “If the proletariat does not tear power out of the hands of the monarchy nobody else will do so,” he declared. He emphasized, “The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it.” Later, Trotsky expanded his point in “Three Conceptions”:

“Finally, the peasantry is heterogeneous in its social relations as well: the kulak stratum [rich peasants] naturally seeks to swing it to an alliance with the urban bourgeoisie while the nether strata of the village pull to the side of the urban workers. Under these conditions the peasantry as such is completely incapable of conquering power.”

Subsequent Stalinist falsifications to the contrary, the difference between Lenin and Trotsky was not over whether the bourgeois-democratic tasks of the revolution could be skipped, or whether an alliance between the workers and peasants was necessary, but over the specific political form of that alliance. Trotsky stated: “The very fact of the proletariat’s representatives entering the government, not as powerless hostages, but as the leading force, destroys the border-line between maximum and minimum programme; that is to say, it places collectivism on the order of the day” (Results and Prospects). He wrote:

“It is possible for the workers to come to power in an economically backward country sooner than in an advanced country....

“In our view, the Russian revolution will create conditions in which power can pass into the hands of the workers—and in the event of the victory of the revolution it must do so—before the politicians of bourgeois liberalism get the chance to display to the full their talent for governing.”

At the same time, Trotsky stressed: “Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship. Of this there cannot for one moment be any doubt. But on the other hand there cannot be any doubt that a socialist revolution in the West will enable us directly to convert the temporary domination of the working class into a socialist dictatorship.”

Karl Marx’s “Revolution in Permanence”

In developing his theory of permanent revolution, Leon Trotsky drew on the conclusions reached by Karl Marx following the defeat of the democratic revolutions in Europe in 1848-49, when he raised the formulation “revolution in permanence.”

In their March 1850 “Address of the Central Authority” to the Communist League, Marx and his co-thinker Friedrich Engels predicted that in a coming resurgence of revolutionary struggle, petty-bourgeois democrats would play the same treacherous role that the German liberal bourgeoisie had played in 1848. The 1848-49 revolutions were democratic uprisings aimed at bringing about political democracy and destroying feudal remnants. In Germany, this included the need to demolish the barriers that splintered the country into numerous small princely states and the Kingdom of Prussia and thus hindered the development of a national capitalist economy.

But what became clear as the revolutionary upheaval gripped Europe was that the bourgeoisies feared the prospect of an armed and mobilized proletariat more than they resented the remaining impediments to their domination presented by the landed nobility. The revolutionary masses were betrayed when the forces of the liberal bourgeoisie made their peace with the aristocracy.

Marx’s main point was that the proletariat must fight independently for its own aims against the petty-bourgeois democrats:

“While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible, and with the achievement, at most, of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians in these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians.”

Marx and Engels also recognized that without a revolution in Britain, Europe’s most industrially advanced country at the time, an isolated French or German revolutionary regime would soon be crushed by an alliance of British finance capital and the Russian tsarist army.

Notwithstanding the treachery of the bourgeoisie, the German proletariat was still too weak in 1848-49 to take power. As Trotsky later put it in his book 1905, “Capitalist development had gone far enough to necessitate the destruction of the old feudal relations, but not far enough to advance the working class, the product of the new production relations, to the position of a decisive political force. The antagonism between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie had gone too far to enable the bourgeoisie to assume the role of national leadership without fear, but not far enough to enable the proletariat to grasp that role.”

In his March 1850 Address, Marx commented, “That, during the further development of the revolution, petty-bourgeois democracy will for a moment obtain predominating influence in Germany is not open to doubt.” But the petty-bourgeois democracy showed itself to be incapable of taking power. In 1852 Marx wrote in his classic work, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “The peasants find their natural ally and leader in the urban proletariat, whose task is the overthrow of the bourgeois order.” In a 16 April 1856 letter to Engels, Marx stated emphatically: “The whole thing in Germany will depend on whether it is possible to back the Proletarian revolution by some second edition of the [16th century] Peasants’ war. In which case the affair should go swimmingly.” Lenin in 1918 pointed to this letter as a remarkable anticipation of the Bolshevik Revolution, and an exposure of the Mensheviks’ fake-Marxist schema for a supposedly inevitable bourgeois-led “first stage” of the Russian Revolution.

The German bourgeoisie was indeed incapable of carrying out a democratic revolution. With the further rapid development of industrial capitalism, the main body of the German bourgeoisie formed an alliance with the Prussian landed nobility (the Junkers), which laid the basis for a “revolution from above” under the guiding hand of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck. Confronted with the power of the more advanced British and French bourgeois states, the reactionary Bismarck came to understand that only the industrial/financial bourgeoisie could transform Germany into a comparably advanced state and thereby ensure the survival and prosperity of the old landed classes as well. Thus the Prussian monarchy presided over the modernization and national unification of Germany through a non-democratic bourgeois revolution. As Engels wrote in the late 1880s:

“A person in Bismarck’s position and with Bismarck’s past, having a certain understanding of the state of affairs, could not but realise that the Junkers, such as they were, were not a viable class, and that of all the propertied classes only the bourgeoisie could lay claim to a future, and that therefore (disregarding the working class, an understanding of whose historical mission we cannot expect of him) his new empire promised to be all the stabler, the more he succeeded in laying the groundwork for its gradual transition to a modern bourgeois state.”

The Role of Force in History (1887-88)

A similar development took place around the same time in Japan, where a section of the old warrior caste ousted the feudal regime in 1867-68 to build up the Japanese military and enable it to stand up to the encroachments of the Western powers. In the following decades, an industrial bourgeoisie and modern imperialist power were created in Japan. By the turn of the century, entry to the small club of imperialist powers that continues to dominate the world today had been shut to other emergent bourgeoisies. (For more on this, see “The Meiji Restoration: A Bourgeois Non-Democratic Revolution,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 58, Spring 2004.)

[To Be Continued]


Workers Vanguard No. 901

WV 901

26 October 2007


Democrats: Partners in Bush's "War on Terror"

U.S. Imperialism's Torture Machine


Free Mychal Bell Now!

Vicious Racist Backlash After Jena Protest

Finish the Civil War!

For Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!


At "Labor Conference to Stop the War" Workshop

Labor Opportunists, Renegades Embrace Bill Logan


For New October Revolutions!

(Quote of the Week)


Northites' Scab Line on UAW


Why They Can't Wait 'til 2008

RCP Maoists "Serve the People" ...Up to the Democrats

(Young Spartacus pages)


The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution

Part One


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