Workers Vanguard No. 903
23 November 2007
The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution
Part One of this article appeared in WV No. 901 (26 October) and Part Two in WV No. 902 (9 November).
It was in the wake of the catastrophic defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution of 1925-27 that Leon Trotsky generalized his theory and perspective of permanent revolution, which had been borne out by the Russian October Revolution of 1917, to other countries of belated capitalist development. In the period between 1923 and 1925, the Chinese proletariat had not yet emerged as a contender for power. At this time, Trotsky correctly stood for Soviet military aid to the bourgeois-nationalist Guomindang (GMD) and for a military bloc between the GMD and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) against the warlords, who were agents of one imperialist power or another. His prognosis for colonial revolutions in this period still had the tentative quality of the 1920 Communist International (CI) Second Congress “Theses on the National and Colonial Question,” which did not exclude the possibility of a radical bourgeois regime arising for a time in China.
Even as he warned the embryonic Communist movements of the East against adapting to nationalism, Trotsky stated, “There is no doubt that if the Chinese Guomindang party manages to unify China under a national-democratic regime then the capitalist development of China will go ahead with seven-mile strides” (“Perspectives and Tasks in the East,” April 1924, reprinted under the headline “Communism and Women of the East” in Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 60, Autumn 2007). But in contrast to the Troika of J.V. Stalin, Lev Kamenev and Gregory Zinoviev that stood at the head of the Soviet Communist Party and the CI, Trotsky opposed the CCP’s entry into the Guomindang. He insisted that the Chinese Communists maintain their independence and not merge political banners with the bourgeois nationalists.
The Second Chinese Revolution began with the Shanghai Incident of 30 May 1925, when British troops fired into a demonstration protesting repression against strikers, killing 12. In response, a general strike was called in Shanghai, which quickly spread. British goods were boycotted and Chinese longshoremen in Hong Kong bottled up the port. The GMD drove out the local warlord in Canton, but the growing general strike made a clash between the Chinese bourgeoisie and the proletariat inevitable. In 1925, up to a million workers participated in strikes, many of them directly political in nature. Two years later, Chinese unions counted three million members.
Sun Yat-sen, the founder of Chinese nationalism, had died in 1925. His successor, General Chiang Kai-shek, launched a coup in Canton in March 1926 to crush the proletariat and roll back the CCP’s positions within the GMD. In May, Chiang ordered the CCP to turn over a list of its members in the GMD. Key CCP leaders renewed their calls for the party to exit the GMD. But the CI representative, Mikhail Borodin, declared that Communists should do “coolie service” for the GMD and this nationalist party was even admitted to the Comintern as a “sympathizing” section. Only Trotsky voted against this, in the Russian Politburo. The “two-stage revolution” propounded for China by Stalin’s Comintern was a rehash of the Mensheviks’ servile position in 1917 when they supported, and then entered, the bourgeois Provisional Government—with the added twist that the CCP was liquidated wholesale into the bourgeois Guomindang.
The decisive political events took place the following year in Shanghai. As Chiang’s army approached in March, over 500,000 workers staged a general strike, which turned into an insurrection. The workers stormed the police stations and drove the warlords out of the city. The proletariat had Shanghai in its hands, but Stalin ordered the CCP to give Chiang a triumphant welcome as he entered the city on March 26. Two days later Chiang declared martial law. On March 31, as these events were unfolding, Trotsky demanded that the CCP organize soviets and initiate a revolutionary struggle for power. But that same day Stalin & Co. ordered the CCP to hide its weapons. Stalin had ordered a surrender, and Chiang would take no prisoners.
On April 12, Chiang staged a massive coup—tens of thousands of Communists and trade unionists were slaughtered. The Comintern then turned to the Guomindang’s “left” faction based in Wuhan and had the CCP enter a coalition government there. But the “left” GMD quickly turned its guns on the CCP and reunited with Chiang.
Faced with Trotsky’s scathing criticisms of Stalin’s conciliationist policies, as the 15th Congress of the Russian Communist Party opened in December 1927, Stalin cynically called an uprising in Canton. Having fought against Trotsky’s call to form soviets at the height of the proletarian upsurge, Stalin now attempted to conjure up a Canton “soviet” out of thin air. The Communist workers, despite their heroic efforts, never had a chance. After the massive defeat in Shanghai, the bulk of the working masses remained passive. The Canton Commune added an estimated 5,700 fatalities to the terrible toll of 1927.
The defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution had a profound impact on the CCP. Retreating to the countryside, the party turned away from the proletariat, transforming itself into a peasant party both in composition and political outlook. When the 1949 Chinese Revolution overthrew capitalist rule, it did so under the leadership of a Stalinized, peasant-based party that established a bureaucratically deformed workers state, in which the proletariat was excluded from political power.
Permanent Revolution and the Joint Opposition
A political assessment of the catastrophic defeat of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution was indispensable, and it was carried out by Trotsky. From March 1926 on, his attention had been focused on China. When he submitted a report to the Politburo on military-diplomatic dangers in the Far East that month, he again proposed that the CCP leave the Guomindang instantly. As noted by the Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher in The Prophet Unarmed (1959), Trotsky held that “it was the diplomat’s business to make deals with existing bourgeois governments—even with old-time warlords; but it was the revolutionaries’ job to overthrow them.” This was a declaration of war by Trotsky, the beginning of his direct intervention into Comintern policies in China.
In September 1926, Trotsky argued in “The Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang”:
“The petty bourgeoisie, by itself, however numerous it may be, cannot decide the main line of revolutionary policy. The differentiation of the political struggle along class lines, the sharp divergence between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, implies a struggle between them for influence over the petty bourgeoisie, and it implies the vacillation of the petty bourgeoisie between the merchants, on the one hand, and the workers and communists, on the other.”
Up until that year, Trotsky had sought to evade the bureaucracy’s charge that the theory of permanent revolution was his original sin against Leninism. But now the question of permanent revolution vs. the Menshevik/Stalinist dogma of “two-stage” revolution posed the very fate of the Chinese proletariat. As Trotsky would write in a footnote in The Permanent Revolution (1930): “I found myself compelled to return to this question only at the moment when the epigones’ criticism of the theory of the permanent revolution not only began to nurture theoretical reaction in the whole International, but also became converted into a means of direct sabotage of the Chinese Revolution.”
For most of the period when the dispute over China raged, Trotsky’s Left Opposition was in a political bloc with the Leningrad-based opposition of Zinoviev, who, along with Kamenev, had fallen out with Stalin in late 1925. In “A Critical Balance Sheet: Trotsky and the Russian Left Opposition” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 56, Spring 2001) we observed: “Trotsky and Zinoviev-Kamenev shared a theoretical opposition to ‘socialism in one country’ and an opposition to the pro-peasant economic policies of the Stalin/Bukharin bloc. But they differed on the concretes of Comintern policy.”
Within this Joint Opposition there were significant differences over China. Zinoviev had been the chairman of the Comintern until he was removed in October 1926 and thus had heavy responsibility for its early policy in China, including the decision to enter the Guomindang. The Zinovievites opposed the demand raised by Trotsky that the CCP leave the GMD, even after the latter had begun openly carrying out counterrevolutionary policies. And the public line of the Joint Opposition was that of the Zinovievites.
In early 1927, as part of his accommodation with Zinoviev, Trotsky supported the call for a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” a slogan he had rejected two decades earlier in the Russian context. Likewise, the September 1927 platform of the Joint Opposition declared: “Trotsky has stated to the International that on all the fundamental questions over which he had differences with Lenin, Lenin was right—in particular on the questions of the permanent revolution and the peasantry.” And by the time the Joint Opposition publicly called for the CCP to leave the Guomindang in the fall of 1927, the question was moot, as all wings of the GMD had turned on the Communists.
It was not until September 1927 that Trotsky unambiguously asserted: “The Chinese revolution at its new stage will win as a dictatorship of the proletariat, or it will not win at all” (“New Opportunities for the Chinese Revolution”). In a 1928 letter to Left Oppositionist Evgeny Preobrazhensky, Trotsky acknowledged:
“From April to May 1927 I supported the slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry for China (more correctly, I went along with this slogan) inasmuch as the social forces had not as yet rendered their political verdict, although the situation in China was immeasurably less propitious for this slogan than in Russia. After this verdict was rendered by a gigantic historical action (the experience of Wuhan) the slogan of the democratic dictatorship became a reactionary force and will lead inevitably either to opportunism or adventurism.” (our translation)
Trotsky summed up the cardinal political lesson of the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution in “The Political Situation in China and the Tasks of the Bolshevik-Leninist Opposition” (June 1929):
“Never and under no circumstances may the party of the proletariat enter into a party of another class or merge with it organizationally. An absolutely independent party of the proletariat is a first and decisive condition for communist politics.”
Zinoviev and Kamenev capitulated to Stalin at the December 1927 15th Party Congress. Some 1,500 Oppositionists were soon expelled and allowed re-entry only on condition of denouncing permanent revolution. This Congress marked the end of the Joint Opposition and sent shock waves into the Left Opposition itself, some of whose members reconciled themselves to the nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country.” Preobrazhensky declared, “We, the old Bolsheviks in opposition, must dissociate ourselves from Trotsky on the point of permanent revolution” (quoted in Isaac Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed).
In rising to the unprecedented challenge of fighting against the bureaucratic usurpation in the Soviet Union and its catastrophic consequences in China, Trotsky had to grow as a Leninist party leader. A letter left for Trotsky by Adolf Joffe upon his suicide played a key role in stiffening Trotsky’s resolve in the struggle to forge the International Left Opposition. (The Stalinists had denied Joffe permission to travel abroad to seek medical treatment.) In his 16 November 1927 letter, Joffe asserted:
“I have always believed that you lacked Lenin’s unbending will, his unwillingness to yield, his readiness even to remain alone on the path that he thought right in the anticipation of a future majority.... Politically you were always right, beginning with 1905, and I told you repeatedly that with my own ears I had heard Lenin admit that even in 1905, you, and not he, were right....
“But you have often abandoned your rightness for the sake of an overvalued agreement or compromise. This is a mistake.”
In his dying words, Joffe confirmed that Lenin had explicitly acknowledged the correctness of the theory of permanent revolution advanced by Trotsky for Russia in 1905. Joffe wrote this just as Trotsky grasped the global validity of permanent revolution. Once and for all Trotsky absorbed Lenin’s “policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party,” as he put it in The Permanent Revolution, which was framed as a polemic against Karl Radek, one of the former Oppositionists who had capitulated to Stalin.
The programmatic founding document of the international Trotskyist movement was Trotsky’s “The Draft Program of the Communist International—A Criticism of Fundamentals” (published in English in The Third International After Lenin), a critique of the Stalin/Bukharin draft program submitted to the Sixth CI Congress in 1928. Trotsky sharply drew the lessons of the defeat of the Second Chinese Revolution, linking the fight against the bureaucratic degeneration of the Russian Revolution with the defense of permanent revolution as the core of the program for the colonial and semicolonial world. He branded the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” slogan a “noose for the proletariat” and emphatically affirmed that permanent revolution had “been completely verified and proven: in theory, by the works of Marx and Lenin; in practice, by the experience of the October Revolution.”
In “Summary and Perspectives of the Chinese Revolution” (also included in The Third International After Lenin), Trotsky noted that in the brief time that Communist workers held power in Canton, their program included workers control of production, nationalization of large industry, the banks and transportation, “and even the confiscation of bourgeois dwellings and all bourgeois property for the benefit of the toilers.” He asked: “If these are the methods of a bourgeois revolution then what should the proletarian revolution in China look like?”
Trotsky explained permanent revolution as the antithesis of “socialism in one country”:
“It is precisely here that we come up against the two mutually exclusive standpoints: the international revolutionary theory of the permanent revolution and the national reformist theory of socialism in one country. Not only backward China, but in general no country in the world can build socialism within its own national limits.”
—The Permanent Revolution
In his November 1929 introduction to the first Russian edition of The Permanent Revolution, Trotsky noted, “The socialist revolution begins on national foundations—but it cannot be completed within these foundations. The maintenance of the proletarian revolution within a national framework can only be a provisional state of affairs, even though, as the experience of the Soviet Union shows, one of long duration. In an isolated proletarian dictatorship, the internal and external contradictions grow inevitably along with the successes achieved. If it remains isolated, the proletarian state must finally fall victim to these contradictions.”
Hundreds of young CCP cadre studying in Moscow were won to the Left Opposition. But it was not until after the beheading of the proletariat in April 1927 that CCP leaders in China like Chen Duxiu learned of Trotsky’s fight. By then Chen, the founding leader of Chinese Communism, had been made the scapegoat for the bloody disaster Stalin’s class collaborationism had wrought. Though isolated, Chen still had many defenders among the top party cadre, who shared his view that liquidation into the Guomindang had been behind the defeat. They had heard of factional fights in the Russian party but had no idea what they were about. When they finally read Trotsky’s critique of the Stalinist betrayal in China, Chen and many others were won to Trotskyism. While Chen had implemented the Comintern’s disastrous line, he had thought through his mistakes, which made him a better communist.
Many Chinese Trotskyists were killed by Stalin’s regime. By the late 1930s, to consolidate his position atop the bureaucracy that had usurped control of the Soviet party and state, Stalin had murdered or otherwise eliminated virtually every one of the surviving “old Bolshevik” cadres.
In China, the Trotskyists sought to maintain roots within the urban working class under extremely onerous conditions. On top of Chiang’s counterrevolutionary terror came the murderous occupation of China by Japanese imperialism. As we noted in “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 53, Summer 1997): “The 1930s did see some sporadic workers’ economic struggles in Shanghai and Hong Kong, in which the Trotskyists played leading roles. However the general prostration of the working masses, whose trade unions and other legal organizations had been smashed, took a great political toll.”
SACP’s “Two-Stage” Menshevism
In the aftermath of the Chinese debacle, the Stalinized Comintern proclaimed the imminence of the world revolution and embarked on its sectarian, pseudo-leftist “Third Period” course, abjuring united fronts with other workers organizations and building “red trade unions” in counterposition to the existing unions led by social democrats and others. The Third Period was driven largely by the domestic circumstances faced by the Soviet bureaucracy. A threatened counterrevolutionary rising by the wealthier peasants (kulaks) led Stalin to break from his rightist, conciliationist policies, which were articulated particularly by his ally Nikolai Bukharin. Stalin now borrowed from the Left Opposition’s program of collectivization and planned industrialization—albeit carried out by the bureaucracy in an arbitrary, adventurist manner and at breakneck pace. This turn facilitated the capitulation of leading Oppositionists like Radek and Preobrazhensky.
But the Stalinist bureaucracy never wavered from its nationalist dogma of “socialism in one country,” and in the countries of belated capitalist development, it deepened and codified the stagist, liquidationist line that led to the betrayal of the Chinese Revolution. This was recently brought home at a congress in July 2007 of the South African Communist Party (SACP), where a document submitted by the party’s leadership quoted the following passages from a resolution of the 1928 Sixth CI Congress:
“Our aim should be to transform the African National Congress into a fighting nationalist revolutionary organization against the white bourgeoisie and the British imperialists, based upon the trade unions, peasant organizations, etc., developing systematically the leadership of the workers and the Communist Party in this organization [we repeat: “developing systematically the leadership of the workers and the Communist Party in this organization”].... The development of a national-revolutionary movement of the toilers of South Africa...constitutes one of the major tasks of the Communist Party of South Africa.”
—Political report of the SACP’s 11th Congress Central Committee as tabled before the 12th Congress (brackets and emphasis in original)
In harking back to the Comintern Sixth Congress, the SACP leadership today offers a fig leaf of historical legitimacy for its continuing subordination to the bourgeois-nationalist African National Congress (ANC) and for the SACP’s participation in the capitalist ANC-led Tripartite Alliance—a nationalist popular front that came to power in 1994, signaling the end of apartheid rule. This is the “orthodoxy” not of Lenin’s Bolshevism but of Stalinist betrayal. In South Africa, where the capitalist class is white (now including a handful of others), the fundamental class divide is hugely distorted by the lens of racial color. The SACP uses this historic characteristic of South African society to much more openly and shamelessly advance its class-collaborationist alliance with the ANC.
It was necessary for revolutionary Marxists to give military support to the ANC in its struggle against the white-supremacist apartheid regime, in the same vein that the Second Congress of the Comintern called for supporting national liberation struggles against the imperialist powers. But the Stalinists mandated political support to what was a petty-bourgeois nationalist movement. Today the bourgeois ANC and its SACP partner administer neo-apartheid capitalism, enforcing the brutal exploitation of the mainly black proletariat on behalf of the white South African Randlords and their senior partners on Wall Street and in the City of London. Today as before, the struggle for national liberation can be a powerful motor force for socialist revolution in South Africa. But the precondition for victory is the political independence of the proletariat from all wings of the bourgeoisie.
To justify its participation in the government, the SACP has to pretend that the Tripartite Alliance is not a bourgeois government. The SACP claims that “the post-1994 democratic state is not inherently capitalist, it is, in fact, a sharply class-contested reality” and that the workers can somehow achieve “hegemony” or control over that state. To maintain any claim to the mantle of communism, the SACP leadership has to falsify the experience of the October Revolution. In “Lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution” (Umsebenzi online, 6 November 2002), the SACP states:
“We have to move away from the illusion, in our circumstances, of the ‘total’ seizure of power, or of the ‘complete’ rupture with the global system. We also have to move away from the idea that there is a Chinese Wall between the tasks of the national democratic revolution, and the tasks of advancing towards socialism.... We need to approach the ongoing national democratic revolution to liberate the black majority, Africans in particular, as a complex, dialectical process that must, necessarily, have anti-imperialist, non-capitalist features if it is to succeed at all.
“There are the lessons which we believe can be derived, in part, from the great Bolshevik Revolution and its consequences.”
What the SACP denounces as an “illusion” is the proletarian seizure of power and the “complete” overthrow of the yoke of global imperialism, as part of a fight for world socialist revolution. To mask the class nature of the South African capitalist state and to cover over its own hostility to Bolshevism, the SACP leadership holds out the promise that the “national democratic revolution” is something that grows over organically into socialism. In 1917, the bourgeois Provisional Government in Russia did not grow over into a socialist regime but was overthrown by the Bolshevik-led proletarian insurrection. Only when the bourgeois state was smashed and replaced by soviet power—the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry—was it possible to fulfill the tasks of the democratic revolution. Trotsky himself debunked this “growing over” conception in 1931, when, as now, it was a justification for ostensible socialists giving political support to bourgeois formations:
“It is not the bourgeois power that grows over into a workers’ and peasants’ and then into a proletarian power; no, the power of one class does not ‘grow over’ from the power of another class, but is torn from it with rifle in hand. But after the working class has seized power, the democratic tasks of the proletarian regime inevitably grow over into socialist tasks. An evolutionary, organic transition from democracy to socialism is conceivable only under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is Lenin’s central idea.”
—“The Spanish Revolution and the Dangers Threatening It,” 28 May 1931
The proletariat’s pursuit of its class interests requires not only organizational independence from capitalist parties like the ANC but also political opposition to them. Spartacist South Africa, section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), raises the call to break with the Tripartite Alliance and to forge a Leninist-Trotskyist party that fights for a black-centered workers government. This does not mean placing in power a labor government that administers capitalism, like the British Labour governments, but a revolutionary struggle that overthrows the capitalist order.
South African reality starkly demonstrates the need for permanent revolution. The proletariat is brutally exploited in the mines and factories. In the countryside, millions of black people are relegated to desperate poverty in what were formerly the bantustans, while productive land is owned overwhelmingly by white farmers who depend on black laborers toiling for next to nothing. The AIDS pandemic that continues to ravage South Africa demands a fight for quality public health care, including access to free anti-retrovirals, and a struggle against the destitution as well as the religious and anti-woman backwardness that have fueled the spread of the disease. The extent of AIDS throughout sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere and the need to marshal all available scientific resources, especially in the advanced industrialized countries, to combat it demand breaking from the narrow framework of bourgeois nationalism. Adequate housing for millions in the townships and shantytowns, electricity and clean water for the entire population, free quality education, the eradication of lobola (the bride price) and female genital mutilation: these desperately needed measures require the socialist transformation of the economy and society under a dictatorship of the proletariat, fighting to promote socialist revolution internationally.
[TO BE CONTINUED]