Click on the headline to link to a "Leon Trotsky Internet Archives" online copy of his seminal work of revolutionary strategy for the modern epoch, "The Permanent Revolution". Markin comment:
This is an important contribution to the on-going theoretical struggle to figure out how the democratic revolution in "third world" countries (and not just there) today is to be worked out on the basis of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky's ground-breaking work written in 1905. Yes, 1905. We have been spinning our wheels for a long time now. Agree, or disagree, but read this thing if you want to understand, from a revolutionary perspective, places like Iran, Iran, Afghanistan and Haiti today. And how communists have to intervene to do something about it in the interest of furthering our communist future. Not just more of the same.
*************Workers Vanguard No. 901
26 October 2007
The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution
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. 902
9 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).
Mensheviks and Stalinists have long portrayed the February Revolution, which overthrew the Russian tsar, as the opening of a necessary “first stage” of the Russian Revolution. In fact, the February Revolution resolved none of the radical-democratic tasks of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” outlined by V.I. Lenin in 1905.
In a 9 January 1917 “Lecture on the 1905 Revolution,” Lenin had already dropped any mention of his 1905 formula. His speech reflected the development of the class struggle in Russia on the eve of World War I, an interimperialist war. After the 1907-10 years of reaction, the proletariat had raised its head again. By the first half of 1914, the level of strike activity had reached heights not seen since 1905. And this time, some 80 percent of the politically active workers were behind the Bolsheviks.
In his speech, Lenin spoke of 1905 in the terms of Trotsky’s permanent revolution: “In reality, the inexorable trend of the Russian revolution was towards an armed, decisive battle between the tsarist government and the vanguard of the class-conscious proletariat.” Like Trotsky, he now argued that the coming revolution “can only be a proletarian revolution, and in an even more profound sense of the word: a proletarian, socialist revolution also in its content.... Only class-conscious proletarians can and will give leadership to the vast majority of the exploited.”
World War I had a profound impact on Lenin’s thinking. The Second International had collapsed into social-chauvinism, with most of its sections supporting their own national bourgeoisies in the war. This led Lenin to generalize the split course with the Russian Mensheviks, which he had made definitive in 1912. He concluded that opportunism was not a vestigial or localized phenomenon; rather, as he laid out in his monumental study, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism (1916), the superprofits derived from the imperialists’ exploitation of the colonies provided a material basis for an opportunist, pro-capitalist layer in the workers movement. Lenin fought for a complete break internationally from all reformist and centrist currents and raised the call for a Third International. Against the social-chauvinists and social-pacifists, he called for a policy of revolutionary defeatism against all the warring bourgeoisies and raised the slogan: Turn the imperialist war into a civil war!
The war had cut across the upsurge in class struggle in Russia, as an initial burst of patriotism inundated the proletariat. But the reactionary mood did not last too long. The horrors of the war spoke louder than all the priests and patriots. Russia was to see five and a half million soldiers killed, wounded or captured. Women slaved in munitions plants for pitiful wages while a “shower of gold” rained on war profiteers.
The February Revolution was triggered by a strike of mostly women textile workers in Petrograd (as St. Petersburg was renamed after Russia went to war with Germany) on International Women’s Day, demanding increased war rations. Street clashes with the forces of “order” resulted in numerous casualties. But in the end, the tsar could find no loyal troops and was forced to abdicate. Soviets (councils) were immediately elected in the factories and army garrisons and at the front. In the provinces, police and state officials were arrested or sent packing. In the capital, the autocracy had been overthrown by the workers, but the government that emerged was a bourgeois government.
Trotsky remarked in his History of the Russian Revolution (1932) that the February Revolution represented the awakening of the peasant-based army. The first wave of army delegates elected to the soviets consisted heavily of literate petty bourgeois who largely supported the peasant-based Socialist-Revolutionaries (SRs). The war thus gave the SRs as well as the reformist Mensheviks, who represented urban petty-bourgeois layers as well as a section of the workers, a massive but historically accidental initial preponderance in the workers and soldiers soviets.
Even as street fighting was still raging in Petrograd in February, the Provisional Government was formed with the aim of erecting a constitutional monarchy. Meanwhile, within the soviets, the SR and Menshevik delegates, loyal to bourgeois republicanism, held the insurgent workers and peasants in check and desperately appealed to the bourgeoisie to take political power. But the masses were hostile to the bourgeoisie and looked to the soviets. That made these organs, despite their treacherous leadership, the de facto power in the country. Thus the paradox of the February Revolution: the workers, many of them inspired by the Bolsheviks, carried out the revolution, yet the government that came out of it was bourgeois.
The February Revolution resulted in a situation of dual power. As Lenin described in “The Dual Power” (April 1917), “Alongside the Provisional Government, the government of the bourgeoisie, another government has arisen, so far weak and incipient, but undoubtedly a government that actually exists and is growing—the Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.” This situation could not persist—one class or the other would have to rule.
Lenin Rearms the Bolsheviks
Meanwhile, the Bolshevik Party, with Lenin still in exile in Switzerland, was being steered on a conciliationist course under J. V. Stalin and Lev Kamenev, who were veteran Bolsheviks. Taking over the Bolsheviks’ central organ, Pravda, upon their return from Siberian exile in March 1917, Stalin and Kamenev used Lenin’s old formula of the “democratic dictatorship” to trample on Lenin’s uncompromising opposition to the liberal bourgeoisie. The 15 March issue of Pravda, the first to list Stalin and Kamenev as editors, came out for support to the bourgeois Provisional Government “in so far as it struggles against reaction and counterrevolution.” Turning sharply against the Bolsheviks’ revolutionary defeatism, Pravda declared to Russian soldiers that “every man must remain at his fighting post” and that “all ‘defeatism,’ or rather what an undiscriminating press protected by the tsarist censorship has branded with that name, died at the moment when the first revolutionary regiment appeared on the streets of Petrograd.” Pravda also called for the merger of the Menshevik and Bolshevik parties.
In his report to a March 1917 Bolshevik party conference, Stalin sounded like the Menshevik Georgi Plekhanov denouncing the December 1905 Moscow insurrection for antagonizing the bourgeoisie. Stalin stated: “It is not to our advantage at present to force events, hastening the process of repelling the bourgeois layers, who will in the future inevitably withdraw from us. It is necessary for us to gain time by putting a brake on the splitting away of the middle-bourgeois layers” (“Draft Protocol of the March 1917 All-Russian Conference of Party Workers”). He also declared, “Insofar as the Provisional Government fortifies the steps of the revolution, to that extent we must support it; but insofar as it is counterrevolutionary, support to the Provisional Government is not permissible.”
To the Mensheviks’ offer of fusion raised at this conference, Stalin responded, “We must do it. It is necessary to define our proposal for a basis of union.” The Menshevik and SR leaders were jubilant, but there were numerous protests from Bolshevik cadres. As the worker-Bolshevik Alexander Shlyapnikov, a Central Committee member, put it: “The indignation in the party locals was enormous, and when the proletarians found out that Pravda had been seized by three former editors arriving from Siberia they demanded their expulsion from the party” (quoted in Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution).
Lenin was reading Pravda with alarm. Even before he returned from exile on April 3, he warned in his “Letters from Afar” that the Provisional Government was a bourgeois government and that the slightest support to it meant support of the imperialist war. When he finally arrived and gave his famous speech atop an armored car at the Finland Station, its effect on the Bolsheviks was electrifying. In the face of the official delegation of social-patriots sent to greet him, he spoke in honor of the German revolutionary Marxist leader Karl Liebknecht, who had been imprisoned for his opposition to the war and had denounced those “socialists” who supported their own bourgeoisies as guilty of class treason. For Lenin, any support to the Provisional Government was a split issue.
In his “April Theses,” Lenin explained that it was only “owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat” that power had been allowed to pass into the hands of the bourgeoisie at this stage (“The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution,” April 1917). “The country is passing from the first stage of the revolution,” wrote Lenin, “to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.” When Pravda published Lenin’s “Theses” on April 7, not a single other Central Committee member signed them.
In a rejoinder published in the next day’s Pravda, Kamenev used much the same language to denounce Lenin’s “April Theses” that the Stalinists would later use against Trotsky’s permanent revolution: “As for Comrade Lenin’s general scheme, it appears to us unacceptable, inasmuch as it proceeds from the assumption that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed, and builds on the immediate transformation of this revolution into a socialist revolution.” Quoting Kamenev’s statement, Lenin replied in “Letters on Tactics” (April 1917):
“After the [February] revolution, the power is in the hands of a different class, a new class, namely, the bourgeoisie....
“To this extent, the bourgeois, or the bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia is completed.
“But at this point we hear a clamour of protest from people who readily call themselves ‘old Bolsheviks.’ Didn’t we always maintain, they say, that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed only by the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’?...
“My answer is: The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently....
“The person who now speaks only of a ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry’ is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques.”
Stalin receded into the shadows, confining his criticism of the “April Theses” to their “impracticality” while quietly siding with the conciliators. Kamenev, later joined by Zinoviev, led the charge against Lenin, right up to their open strikebreaking against the revolution when they publicly denounced Bolshevik plans for an insurrection on the eve of October.
Lenin concluded in an article written after he won a majority of the Bolshevik All-Russian Conference in April to his side: “Only assumption of power by the proletariat, backed by the semi-proletarians, can give the country a really strong and really revolutionary government” (“A Strong Revolutionary Government,” May 1917). Lenin had in effect adopted the program of Trotsky’s permanent revolution.
Trotsky and Lenin Reunite
At the same time, Trotsky had come to recognize the correctness of Lenin’s bitter struggle from 1903 on to build a disciplined, programmatically solid vanguard party. In the period before the 1903 split between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks at the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) Second Congress, Trotsky had earned the nickname of “Lenin’s cudgel.” But in 1903, Trotsky balked at Lenin’s insistence on a hard party of professional revolutionaries. However, he also opposed the Mensheviks’ orientation to the liberal bourgeoisie.
Trotsky declared himself to be outside both factions. He worked closely with the Bolsheviks in the 1905 Revolution, but in the years that followed, his attempts to unify all factions cut against Lenin’s fights to sharply differentiate revolutionaries from opportunists and inevitably led Trotsky into episodic rotten blocs against the Bolsheviks. This came to a head in 1912, after the Bolsheviks’ final split with the Menshevik faction, when they constituted themselves as a separate party. In August 1912 Trotsky took the lead in organizing a conference with “pro-party” Mensheviks in Vienna—what became infamous as the “August Bloc”—which sought to reverse the split.
Once the February Revolution had taken care of tsarism and brought the supposedly “democratic” bourgeoisie to power, the majority of the Menshevik leadership joined the bulk of the Second International in adopting a line of “defensism” toward its “own” ruling class. Under the impact of the war and Lenin’s scathing polemics against his conciliationist efforts, Trotsky was increasingly drawn toward Lenin’s insistence on a complete break with opportunism.
Thus in 1917, Trotsky and Lenin were in agreement on the decisive questions of the party and the class character of the revolution. Upon his return from exile on May 4, Trotsky did not immediately join the Bolsheviks but worked with them while in the leftward-moving Mezhrayontsi (Inter-Borough) organization, which he steered toward fusion with the Bolsheviks. The fusion was consummated at the Bolsheviks’ Sixth Congress which began in late July. As Lenin later acknowledged, once Trotsky had recognized the impossibility of unification with the Mensheviks, “from that time on there has been no better Bolshevik” (quoted in Trotsky, The Stalin School of Falsification ).
Throughout the events of 1917, Lenin pounded on the need for a proletarian seizure of state power. After the first Provisional Government was brought down in a firestorm of outrage over its pledge to continue the hated imperialist war, a new government was formed in early May. SR and Menshevik leaders formally accepted ministerial portfolios. Lenin explained that the Russian bourgeoisie had “resorted to a method which for many decades, ever since 1848, has been practised by the capitalists of other countries in order to fool, divide and weaken the workers. This method is known as a ‘coalition’ government, i.e., a joint cabinet formed of members of the bourgeoisie and turncoats from socialism.” He went on:
“The simpletons of the Socialist-Revolutionary and Menshevik parties were jubilant and fatuously bathed in the rays of the ministerial glory of their leaders. The capitalists gleefully rubbed their hands at having found helpers against the people in the persons of the ‘leaders of the Soviets’ and at having secured their promise to support ‘offensive operations at the front,’ i.e., a resumption of the imperialist predatory war, which had come to a standstill for a while.”
—“Lessons of the Revolution” (August 1917)
In his classic work The State and Revolution (September 1917), Lenin retrieved the writings of Marx and Engels on the question of the state from under a mountain of social-democratic obfuscation. Pointing to the key lesson Marx drew from the experience of the 1871 Paris Commune, when the Parisian proletariat held power for nearly three months before being bloodily crushed, Lenin cited Marx’s statement in The Civil War in France (1871) that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery and wield it for its own purposes.” Lenin explained: “Marx’s idea is that the working class must break up, smash the ‘ready-made state machinery,’ and not confine itself merely to laying hold of it.”
Lenin revived Marx’s understanding that the proletariat cannot maintain an alliance with, let alone lead, the peasantry unless the workers wield state power: “The proletariat needs state power, a centralised organisation of force, an organisation of violence, both to crush the resistance of the exploiters and to lead the enormous mass of the population—the peasants, the petty bourgeoisie, and semi-proletarians—in the work of organising a socialist economy.”
Having already dropped his earlier formula of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,” Lenin explicitly asserted that the state could not represent two different classes:
“The essence of Marx’s theory of the state has been mastered only by those who realise that the dictatorship of a single class is necessary not only for every class society in general, not only for the proletariat which has overthrown the bourgeoisie, but also for the entire historical period which separates capitalism from ‘classless society,’ from communism. Bourgeois states are most varied in form, but their essence is the same: all these states, whatever their form, in the final analysis are inevitably the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie. The transition from capitalism to communism is certainly bound to yield a tremendous abundance and variety of political forms, but the essence will inevitably be the same: the dictatorship of the proletariat.”
When the Bolsheviks led the proletariat to power in October 1917, they gave flesh and blood to the Marxist understanding of the dictatorship of the proletariat.
The Comintern and the Colonial Revolution
The October Revolution had an electrifying effect internationally. It was felt most immediately among the workers of the other warring European powers, especially Germany. But the tidal wave it set off reached far beyond Europe, including throughout the colonial world.
Prominent among those drawn to the banner of Communism were students and other intellectuals who wanted to overcome profound social oppression, autocratic government and subservience to imperialism in their own countries and had become disillusioned in the capacity of their own weak, corrupt bourgeoisies to achieve anything resembling the Great French Revolution of 1789-93. But the early Communist International (CI) was still breaking new ground when it addressed the question of the relationship of Communist parties in the colonial world to bourgeois-nationalist movements. The Bolsheviks expected workers revolution in the imperialist centers to by and large resolve the colonial question.
The Comintern’s early work on the national and colonial question was largely aimed at drawing a hard programmatic line between the Communists and the chauvinist cesspool of the Second International. Before World War I, there had been a spread of attitudes on the colonial question within the Second International. On the left wing were many who solidarized with the colonial victims of their “own” rulers. But these Kautskyan “parties of the whole class” also included right-wing elements who championed the “civilizing” mission of imperialism (and were sometimes openly racist toward “lesser” peoples overseas and at home). Once the war broke out, the pro-war Socialist leaders acted as recruiters for the imperialists’ efforts to defend and extend their colonial empires.
Lenin drew the sharpest line against such social-chauvinism. He insisted, “Repudiation of the right to self-determination, i.e., the right of nations to secede, means nothing more than defence of the privileges of the dominant nation” (“The Right of Nations to Self-Determination,” 1914). A working class in bloc with its own rulers against oppressed nations and the colonial masses would never make a socialist revolution.
The “21 Conditions” adopted at the Second CI Congress in 1920 demanded that the Communist parties in the imperialist countries support “every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds” and carry out “systematic propaganda among their own country’s troops against any oppression of colonial peoples.” At the same time, the Second Congress “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions” warned against subordinating the colonial proletariat to the bourgeoisie, stating: “The Communist International must enter into a temporary alliance with bourgeois democracy in the colonial and backward countries, but should not merge with it, and should under all circumstances uphold the independence of the proletarian movement, even if it is in its most embryonic form.”
The Second Congress had not yet assimilated the significance of the changes wrought by the world war. Before 1914 there had been virtually no industrial development in the colonial and semicolonial countries, whose economies were built around agriculture and the extraction of raw materials for the benefit of the imperialist powers. But with the disruption of international trade and the emphasis on war production in the belligerent powers, countries such as China and India experienced substantial industrial growth and the rapid development of a militant, young proletariat. The war choked off the supply of consumer goods and capital from the West European powers, giving a powerful impetus to local capitalist industry.
Unlike India, China was not an outright colony. The Chinese Revolution of 1911, led by Sun Yat-sen’s bourgeois-nationalist movement, had overthrown the decrepit Qing (Manchu) dynasty, which was beholden to the imperialist powers. However, the country was soon riven by warlordism and remained prostrate before the Western and Japanese imperialists, chopped up into “spheres of influence.” On the other hand, by 1919 there were some 1.5 million industrial workers, concentrated in large enterprises in a few urban centers (see “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 53, Summer 1997). These changes gave the Chinese proletariat great potential social power; however, by themselves they did not answer the question of whether this proletariat, a tiny minority in a country of extreme social backwardness, could become politically conscious and contest for state power. By the time this question was posed pointblank in 1925-27, the Comintern had begun its qualitative degeneration.
The “Anti-Imperialist United Front”
At its Fourth Congress in November-December 1922, the CI introduced the slogan of an “anti-imperialist united front” in its “Theses on the Eastern Question.” This went beyond the correct consideration of common actions against imperialism with bourgeois forces in the colonial and semicolonial world and mooted a political bloc with such forces on the basis of a minimum program of democratic demands.
While remaining critical of the colonial bourgeoisie, the Theses were ambiguous on the key question of the proletariat’s relationship to it: “The proletariat supports and advances such partial demands as an independent democratic republic, the abolition of all feudal rights and privileges, the introduction of women’s rights, etc., in so far as it cannot, with the relation of forces as it exists at present, make the implementation of its soviet programme the immediate task of the day.” Implicitly the Theses posed a Menshevik, “two-stage” program for the colonial revolution, with the first stage being a democratic struggle against imperialism.
Though the Theses were vague about the work of Communist sections in the backward countries, the Congress delegate from the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), Tan Malaka, openly defended his party’s prior entry into the bourgeois-nationalist Islamic League (Sarekat Islam). The PKI’s practice clearly ran counter to the Second Congress insistence on the political independence of the proletariat from the bourgeois nationalists. And where the Second Congress had stressed “the need to combat Pan-Islamism and similar trends, which strive to combine the liberation movement against European and American imperialism with an attempt to strengthen the positions of the khans, landowners, and mullahs, etc.,” the Fourth Congress Theses instead neutrally asserted, “As the national liberation movements grow and mature, the religious-political slogans of pan-Islamism will be replaced by political demands.”
Well before the Fourth Congress, CI chairman Gregory Zinoviev had declared at the First Congress of the Toilers of the Far East that a “division of the program of the Communist Parties into a minimum program and maximum program...must be considered valid in the immediate future particularly for the countries of the Far East, to the extent that the next stage of development of these countries is the democratic overturn and the independent—political and economic—class organization of the proletariat” (“Theses on the Tasks of Communists in the Far East,” January 1922).
When Bolshevik Central Committee member and future Left Oppositionist A. A. Joffe was commissioned as the head of a Soviet diplomatic mission to negotiate with Sun Yat-sen’s Guomindang (Nationalist Party—GMD), he sought to hew to the principled stance adopted at the Second Congress as against the policies then being pushed by the emissary of the CI’s Executive Committee (ECCI) in China. In a 22 July 1922 letter to the Russian Communist Party Politburo, Joffe asserted:
“Our policy in China, as throughout the world, must above all else pursue the goals of world proletarian revolution.... In internal Chinese politics, conduct a line for the national liberation and unification of China and the creation of a united, truly independent and free-democratic (soviet?) Chinese republic.... Support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) even more [than Sun Yat-sen], not fearing its open closeness with the Embassy. Irrespective of the weakness of this party, to regard its complete independence as necessary, and the efforts of certain agents of the CI ECCI to fuse this party organization with the party of Sun Yat-sen as completely incorrect.”
—translated from Bol’shevistskoe rukovodstvo, Perepiska [Bolshevik Leadership, Correspondence], 1912-1927 (Moscow: ROSSPEN, 1996)
The ECCI agent to whom Joffe referred was G. Maring (Henricus Sneevliet), a Dutch Communist who had engineered the PKI’s entry into Sarekat Islam. In August 1922, Maring strong-armed the young CCP into a partial entry into the GMD. Maring was supported by the ECCI. Lacking an alternative to Maring’s course, and in an effort to pressure Sun Yat-sen to act against the imperialists in China, Joffe signed a January 1923 “non-aggression pact” with the GMD that foreswore attempts to introduce communism into China. That August, a Politburo motion by Stalin assigning Mikhail Borodin as Political Adviser to Sun stated: “To instruct comrade Borodin in his work with Sun Yat-sen to be guided by the interests of the national liberation movement in China, and not at all be distracted by aims of planting communism in China” (emphasis added). Stalin got his way. At its third national conference that year, the CCP voted to turn the partial entry into a full entry and resolved that the “GMD should be the central force of the national revolution and should assume its leadership.”
By the time of the Fourth Congress of the CI, Lenin was increasingly sidelined by illness, and an anti-Trotsky “Troika” (triumvirate) of Stalin, Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev coalesced and came to the fore in the Soviet Communist Party and the CI. All five members of the CCP Central Committee had initially opposed entry into the GMD. Their objections should have been fully discussed and debated inside the Comintern. But these differences were kept secret from opponents of the bureaucratic clique then congealing at the top of the Soviet state and Comintern.
Even so, Trotsky opposed the Troika’s line on entry into the GMD when it came up for a vote in the Politburo in 1923 and thereafter. While Trotsky kept his overt opposition to the Troika within the Politburo, he at the same time distinguished himself publicly by warning the Communists of the East against blending their programs into the nationalism of parties like the GMD. He opposed the concept of two-class “worker-peasant” or “farmer-labor” parties promoted by Zinoviev and Stalin for the U.S., Poland and other countries—to disastrous effect—and insisted that the Guomindang was a bourgeois party.
“Socialism in One Country”: A “Theory” of Betrayal
When Lenin recovered from a stroke in the fall of 1922, he was horrified to learn that the pressures of the growing bureaucratic layer in the Soviet state and party were finding increasing expression within the Politburo. He collaborated with Trotsky to beat back a proposal pushed by Stalin and others to weaken the state monopoly of foreign trade—a crucial bulwark of the collectivized economy. Lenin later resolved to consummate a bloc with Trotsky to have Stalin removed as General Secretary at the 12th Party Congress in April 1923, in no small part due to an abusive policy pursued by Stalin and his cohorts toward non-Russian nationalities in the Caucasus that smacked of Great Russian chauvinism. But Lenin was again struck down by illness in March 1923, after which Trotsky pulled back from a sharp fight. With the Troika in charge, the 12th Congress made a special agenda point to welcome into its ranks the old Economist and Menshevik, Alexander Martynov.
Martynov would become central to the Troika’s fight against Trotsky over China. It was Martynov, for instance, who coined the characterization of the GMD as a “bloc of four classes” (workers, peasants, petty bourgeoisie and national bourgeoisie), which was used to justify the CCP’s liquidation into that bourgeois-nationalist party. As Trotsky later noted in “Who Is Leading the Comintern Today?” (September 1928):
“Martynov not only wormed his way into the party, but he became one of the chief sources of ‘inspiration’ in the Comintern.... They have come closer to him and they have stooped to him—solely because of his struggle against ‘Trotskyism.’ For this he did not need reeducation. He simply continued to fight ‘permanent revolution’ just as he had done for the previous twenty years.”
A few months after the 12th Party Congress came the defeat of the 1923 revolution in Germany, which had enormous worldwide consequences. The failure in Germany was due to the incapacity of the Communist International under Zinoviev and the lack of a sufficiently steeled Communist Party in Germany: the German KPD adapted to the Social Democracy and, in October, even entered Social Democratic-led regional bourgeois governments (see “Rearming Bolshevism: A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 56, Spring 2001). The postwar revolutionary wave, already receding by 1921, was stopped and the global bourgeois order stabilized. In Soviet Russia, the workers had been intensely following the course of the German workers revolution. Its defeat had a huge demoralizing effect on Soviet workers, prolonging the isolation of the workers state and helping pave the way for the usurpation of political power from the proletariat by the nascent Soviet bureaucracy.
The elections to the January 1924 13th Party Conference were rigged to allow only three representatives of the loose grouping of oppositionists associated with Trotsky, despite their broad support in the urban centers and in the Red Army. “Trotskyism” was condemned as a heresy antithetical to Leninism. Lenin died on January 21, the day after he learned the outcome of the Conference. After January 1924, the people who ruled the USSR, the way the USSR was ruled and the purposes for which the USSR was ruled had all changed. In the fall of 1924, Stalin generalized the conservative bureaucracy’s aversion to the proletarian, revolutionary, internationalist program of the October Revolution with his “theory” that socialism—a society based on a qualitatively higher level of productivity, in which classes have disappeared and the state has withered away—can be built in a single country, and in economically devastated Russia at that.
“Socialism in one country” was a program of retreat and a false promise of the stability for which Soviet society ached after years of war, revolution and privation. It crystallized the mood of conservatism that affected not only the Soviet party but the young Communist parties of the West in the face of the restabilization of world capitalism. It flew in the face of the theory and practice of not only Lenin and the Bolshevik Party but of Marx and Engels, who had always been explicit that socialism would prevail only as a world system.
“Socialism in one country” was the banner under which countless revolutionary opportunities were betrayed by the Stalinists. But the transformation of the CI from an instrument for world socialist revolution into an agency for diplomatic maneuvers did not happen overnight. During the 1920s, first Zinoviev and later Stalin experimented with various coalitions with bourgeois forces, eventually leading to the murderous sabotage of the Second Chinese Revolution of 1925-27. By 1933, Stalin’s Comintern could not be awakened by what Trotsky called “the thunderbolt of Fascism”—the victory of Hitler’s Nazis without a shot being fired by the powerful German workers movement. The CI had proved itself utterly dead as a force for revolution. By 1935 it had explicitly codified a program of class collaboration (the Popular Front) and played an aggressive counterrevolutionary role in the Spanish Civil War in order to prop up bourgeois rule. The Stalinized Comintern was indeed, as Trotsky described it, “the great organizer of defeats.”
[TO BE CONTINUED]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 RevolutionWorkers Vanguard No. 904
7 December 2007
The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution
This part concludes this article. Part One appeared in WV No. 901 (26 October), Part Two in No. 902 (9 November) and Part Three in No. 903 (23 November).
In generalizing and extending the concept of permanent revolution following the defeat of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, Leon Trotsky explained in The Permanent Revolution (1930):
“Does this at least mean that every country, including the most backward colonial country, is ripe, if not for socialism, then for the dictatorship of the proletariat?... Under the conditions of the imperialist epoch the national democratic revolution can be carried through to a victorious end only when the social and political relationships of the country are mature for putting the proletariat in power as the leader of the masses of the people. And if this is not yet the case? Then the struggle for national liberation will produce only very partial results, results directed entirely against the working masses. In 1905, the proletariat of Russia did not prove strong enough to unite the peasant masses around it and to conquer power. For this very reason, the revolution halted midway, and then sank lower and lower. In China, where, in spite of the exceptionally favourable situation, the leadership of the Communist International prevented the Chinese proletariat from fighting for power, the national tasks found a wretched, unstable and measly solution in the régime of the Kuomintang.”
As in Trotsky’s time, there are today a number of especially backward countries—e.g., Afghanistan, East Timor, Rwanda—in which there is not a modern, concentrated proletariat with sufficient social weight to lead the oppressed masses in carrying out the tasks of permanent revolution. Even so, as we noted in regard to the modernizing intellectuals and military officers of the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in the 1980s, radicals have much to learn from the struggles of Georgi Plekhanov a century earlier, notwithstanding the vast differences between contemporary Afghanistan and tsarist Russia. Despite the fact that the Russian proletariat in the 1880s was also a relatively insignificant social force, Plekhanov fought to forge a core of Marxist revolutionaries through polemical and ideological struggle (see Part One of this article). What is crucial is to develop a Marxist-internationalist framework, linking the struggle for social modernization and liberation to the class struggles of the proletariat in more advanced countries outside their own countries’ boundaries.
Afghanistan’s tiny proletariat is dwarfed by a far more numerous Islamic clergy, and the small urban population is surrounded by a sea of nomadic herdsmen and landless peasants beholden to the khans. In April 1978, a coup brought the PDPA to power, touching off a reactionary Islamist revolt backed by the CIA. It was at the behest of the PDPA that the Soviet Red Army intervened in December 1979. The International Communist League—then the international Spartacist tendency—declared: Hail Red Army in Afghanistan! Extend social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples!
We understood that the entry of the Soviet Army posed the chance to not only defeat the imperialist-sponsored reactionary cutthroats but to incorporate Afghanistan into Soviet Central Asia, where the masses lived a modern existence light years beyond that of the Afghan peoples. The withdrawal of Soviet troops by the Gorbachev regime in Moscow in 1988-89 was a historic betrayal that not only ushered in bloody mujahedin rule in Afghanistan but also opened the floodgates to capitalist counterrevolution in East Germany and then the Soviet Union itself.
Likewise in desperately poor Nepal, where Maoist forces have waged a peasant-guerrilla struggle aimed at replacing the monarchy with a bourgeois coalition government, the proletariat is relatively insignificant. However, Nepalis have for decades crossed into India to live and work, becoming a part of what is now a rapidly growing proletariat in India; hundreds of thousands of Nepalis work elsewhere in Asia. A proletarian revolution in India would have a massive immediate effect on Nepal and other neighboring countries, posing a struggle for a socialist federation of the subcontinent. Crucial to such a proletarian-internationalist perspective is the fight for workers political revolution in the Chinese deformed workers state, a fight that must be premised on the unconditional military defense of China against imperialism and domestic counterrevolution.
The Algerian Independence Struggle
Today in South Africa and in many semicolonial countries such as South Korea, the role of the peasantry is no longer the crucial question it was in Russia in 1917 or in China in 1925-27. Nonetheless, historical experience since then has confirmed the theory of permanent revolution for such countries, which are characterized by combined and uneven development.
Those countries that underwent “democratic” or anti-colonial revolutions that did not result in the overthrow of capitalist rule remain bourgeois states mired in backwardness and dominated by imperialism. A case in point is the Algerian independence struggle against France in the 1950s and early ’60s, one of the most radical and heroic of the colonial revolutions of the postwar period. From the first military operation by the National Liberation Front (FLN) in November 1954, it took more than seven years, at a cost of over one million dead, for the Algerian masses to drive the colonial rulers out of their country. The Algerian proletariat played an important, though not politically independent, role in this national liberation struggle. Together with the bourgeois-nationalist FLN, the UGTA union federation called a number of powerful strikes, including a massive general strike in July 1956.
When independence was finally achieved in 1962, it placed in power the FLN, which was committed to maintaining capitalism with a domestic ruling class lording it over its “own” people. Various leftists, uncritically promoting the FLN’s “socialist” rhetoric, played a direct role in helping to consolidate an anti-working-class bourgeois regime in independent Algeria. The Algerian Communist Party liquidated into the FLN in 1956, and its successor organization was outlawed as soon as the FLN came to power. Yet the Stalinists continued to serve in the FLN machine after independence as propagandists, administrators and UGTA bureaucrats. Revisionist “Trotskyist” Michel Pablo was a top economic adviser to the FLN government of Ahmed Ben Bella and was instrumental in chaining the working class to the capitalist government.
The FLN banned strikes by public sector workers and imposed an iron grip over the organized working class. The FLN demobilized thousands of women who had courageously fought against French colonialism and enforced the subjugation of women, including through references to Islamic law. The Berber ethnic minority, whose militants had played an exceptionally prominent role in the independence struggle, were subjected to vicious repression. FLN rule paved the way for a brutal military dictatorship and the rise of a mass Islamic fundamentalist movement committed to the enslavement of women, the reversal of modernization efforts and savage terror against workers and minorities.
The Cuban Revolution
However, following World War II there were also several revolutions in the backward countries that destroyed capitalist class rule and overthrew the yoke of imperialist domination. When Mao Zedong’s peasant-based People’s Liberation Army seized power from the collapsing Guomindang in 1949, the state that resulted was not a “New Democracy” based on a “bloc of four classes”—the parlance of the Stalinist Communist Party (CCP)—but a dictatorship of the proletariat, albeit bureaucratically deformed from its inception. Stalinist-led social overturns in Yugoslavia, North Korea and North Vietnam (extending to the South in 1975) also resulted in bureaucratically deformed workers states. Similar social overturns also occurred in the postwar “People’s Democracies” established under the aegis of the Soviet Red Army elsewhere in East Europe and in East Germany.
Michel Pablo, then head of the Fourth International that had been founded under Trotsky’s leadership in 1938, seized on the postwar social overturns to repudiate the central importance of a conscious revolutionary leadership and argue for the liquidation of Trotskyist organizations into various Stalinist and social-democratic parties. This revisionism led to the destruction of the Fourth International in 1951-53. In the early 1960s, the leadership of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which had broken with Pablo in 1953, embraced similar revisionist conclusions in its adulation for the petty-bourgeois Castroite leadership of the Cuban Revolution (see “Genesis of Pabloism,” Spartacist No. 21, Fall 1972).
Fidel Castro led a force of petty-bourgeois intellectuals and peasant guerrillas, the July 26 Movement, who were temporarily estranged from the bourgeoisie and independent of the proletariat. Under ordinary conditions, the rebels, after their overthrow of the corrupt, U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship in January 1959, would have followed in the footsteps of countless similar movements in Latin America, wielding radical-democratic rhetoric to reassert bourgeois control. But with the old capitalist state apparatus shattered, in 1960-61 the Castro regime nationalized U.S.-owned and domestic capitalist holdings, creating a deformed workers state. The existence of the Soviet Union was crucial in this development, providing not only a model for the Castro regime but, more importantly, economic assistance and a military shield that helped stay the hand of the U.S. imperialist beast just 90 miles away.
It was only as a result of exceptional circumstances—the absence of the working class as a contender for power in its own right, hostile imperialist encirclement and the flight of the national bourgeoisie, and a lifeline thrown by the Soviet Union—that Castro’s petty-bourgeois government was able to eventually smash capitalist property relations (see “Cuba and Marxist Theory,” Marxist Bulletin No. 8). Similar circumstances allowed for the creation of deformed workers states in Yugoslavia and elsewhere by Stalinist-led petty-bourgeois forces following World War II.
Our tendency, originating as the Revolutionary Tendency (RT) in the SWP, was born in a struggle to defend the Trotskyist program against the Pabloism of the SWP majority. Painting Castro as an unconscious Trotskyist, the SWP argued:
“Along the road of a revolution beginning with simple democratic demands and ending in the rupture of capitalist property relations, guerrilla warfare conducted by landless peasant and semiproletarian forces, under a leadership that becomes committed to carrying the revolution through to a conclusion, can play a decisive role in undermining and precipitating the downfall of a colonial or semicolonial power. This is one of the main lessons to be drawn from experience since the second world war. It must be consciously incorporated into the strategy of building revolutionary Marxist parties in colonial countries.”
—SWP Political Committee,
“For Early Reunification of the World Trotskyist Movement,” SWP Discussion Bulletin Vol. 24, No. 9 (April 1963)
In direct counterposition, the RT upheld Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and asserted:
“Experience since the Second World War has demonstrated that peasant-based guerrilla warfare under petit-bourgeois leadership can in itself lead to nothing more than an anti-working-class bureaucratic regime. The creation of such regimes has come about under the conditions of decay of imperialism, the demoralization and disorientation caused by Stalinist betrayals, and the absence of revolutionary Marxist leadership of the working class. Colonial revolution can have an unequivocally progressive significance only under such leadership of the revolutionary proletariat. For Trotskyists to incorporate into their strategy revisionism on the proletarian leadership in the revolution is a profound negation of Marxism-Leninism no matter what pious wish may be concurrently expressed for ‘building revolutionary Marxist parties in colonial countries.’ Marxists must resolutely oppose any adventurist acceptance of the peasant-guerrilla road to socialism—historically akin to the Social Revolutionary program on tactics that Lenin fought.”
—“Draft Resolution on the World Movement,” 14 June 1963;
reprinted in Marxist Bulletin No. 9 and most recently in Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 58, Spring 2004
The Cuban Revolution demonstrated yet again that there is no “third road” between the dictatorship of capital and the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this sense, it confirmed the theory of permanent revolution. But the Cuban Revolution was a far cry from the Bolshevik-led proletarian socialist revolution that took place in Russia in November 1917. In Cuba, as in the other deformed workers states, the road to further socialist development was blocked by the political rule of a parasitic and nationalist bureaucracy. Upholding the anti-revolutionary Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country,” the Castro regime has been hostile to the struggle for world revolution. Instead, it has promoted “progressive” bourgeois formations from the Allende popular-front government in Chile in the early 1970s, which resulted in a bloodbath of the workers, to the national-populist regime of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez today.
As was the case with the degenerated Soviet workers state, what is necessary in Cuba and the other remaining deformed workers states is the shattering of the bureaucracy through a proletarian political revolution that establishes democratic organs of working-class rule based on revolutionary internationalism. Trotskyists base this perspective on the unconditional military defense of the workers states against imperialist attack and domestic capitalist counterrevolution.
To the limits of our modest forces, the ICL fought in East Germany and in the USSR to rally the working class to defeat the forces of capitalist restoration and to oust the disintegrating Stalinist regimes, which had undermined the workers states and in the end capitulated to imperialist-backed counterrevolution. Today we raise the same program in regard to China, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and fight for socialist revolutions in capitalist countries from the Third World to the imperialist centers of the U.S., Japan and West Europe.
Permanent Revolution vs. Populist Nationalism
The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and the East and Central European workers states had disastrous effects for the people of those societies and was a world-historic defeat for workers and the oppressed internationally, with the balance of forces dramatically altered in favor of imperialism. The working people of the former workers states have been plunged into mass poverty, ethnic bloodletting and other horrors. In the imperialist centers, the capitalist rulers have taken the ax to workers’ hard-won gains, accompanied by widespread attacks on immigrants and minorities. With a military force far surpassing that of any other country, U.S. imperialism in particular has been riding roughshod over the peoples of the Near East and elsewhere, while imperialist-dictated austerity measures have driven the masses of the Third World further into misery.
The profound retrogression in consciousness resulting from the destruction of the USSR has led even militant workers and radical youth to dismiss the Marxist program of proletarian revolution as, at best, a pipe dream. Instead, many leftists look to the resurgence of bourgeois-populist nationalism in Latin America, exemplified by Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, as the road to, in Chávez’s words, “21st century socialism.” Among those promoting such illusions is Cuban writer Celia Hart, a supporter of the Castro regime and self-styled Trotskyist, who in a recent interview with the fake-Trotskyist Argentine El Militante (translated by CubaNews online, 6 July) lavishes praise on “Venezuela’s revolutionary process, which is increasingly moving to a radical left.”
Hart asserts that “many Cubans who stopped talking about socialism” are “seeing that Venezuela talks quite naturally about socialism and want to follow suit, never mind the strange ways some people want to call it these days, namely 21st Century Socialism, saying that it can be attained without expropriating the local capitalists and so forth.” Speaking of Chávez’s call for “socialism,” Hart adds: “It’s like seeing how the Permanent Revolution thesis of that Russian in 1905 comes to life a century later.”
Similarly, Mexican leftist Guillermo Almeyra, in an article titled “Trotsky in the 21st Century” in La Jornada (19 August), a newspaper that supports the bourgeois-nationalist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), claims: “The attitude of poor countries like Venezuela or Cuba in their solidarity aid is inscribed, consciously or not, in that course of thought by Trotsky which Lenin shared.” In his “defense” of permanent revolution, Almeyra, a former Pabloite who now “critically” supports the PRD, recasts Trotsky’s fight for the continuity of Lenin’s Bolshevism into a tale of “democracy” vs. “the monolithic party” and concludes by warning against “dogmatic” and “Talmudic” followers of Trotsky today.
Knowingly or not, Hart and Almeyra echo the SWP line that Castro was an unconscious Trotskyist. To say this of Hugo Chávez is truly breathtaking. Since his election as president in 1998, Chávez has diverted some of the huge profits the Venezuelan bourgeoisie has gleaned from skyrocketing oil prices to provide enhanced social services for the plebeian masses. Meanwhile, the government has increased taxes on foreign oil companies, which continue to rake in profits. The social measures under Chávez, and the fact that he boasts of his zambo (mixed African and indigenous) heritage, have earned him the contempt of the lily-white oligarchy. He has also incurred Washington’s wrath for his friendship with Castro’s Cuba and his pointed denunciations of the arrogant U.S. imperialists. In the event of a U.S.-sponsored coup attempt, as in 2002, we call for the military defense of the Chávez regime.
But Chávez is no socialist. He has moved to tighten the straitjacket of capitalist state control over the Venezuelan workers movement and, as even Hart admits, is not about to countenance the expropriation of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie. As we noted in “Venezuela: Populist Nationalism vs. Proletarian Revolution” (WV No. 860, 9 December 2005):
“When Castro’s rebel army marched into Havana on 1 January 1959, the bourgeois army and the rest of the capitalist state apparatus that had propped up the U.S.-backed Batista dictatorship collapsed in disarray. By the time Castro declared Cuba ‘socialist’ in 1961, the Cuban bourgeoisie and the U.S. imperialists and their CIA and Mafia henchmen had all fled and every bit of capitalist property down to the last ice cream vendor had been expropriated. In contrast, Chávez came to power and rules at the head of the capitalist state, the Venezuelan bourgeoisie is alive and kicking, and the imperialists continue to carry on a thriving business with Venezuela, White House threats and provocations notwithstanding.”
Hart and Almeyra turn permanent revolution on its head in order to justify their support to bourgeois populists, who are no less the class opponents of the victory of the workers and urban and rural poor than neoliberal politicians. The programmatic essence of permanent revolution is the struggle for the class independence of the proletariat from all wings of the semicolonial bourgeoisie—no matter how “progressive” or “anti-imperialist” their proclamations. That struggle can be realized only through forging revolutionary, internationalist workers parties in opposition to all variants of bourgeois nationalism. The ICL fights to reforge the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution.
The Modernization of Capitalist Spain
Despite substantial industrial development in recent decades, Brazil, South Korea and the so-called “tiger” economies of Southeast Asia have not been able to escape from imperialist subjugation. However, there are a handful of countries on the periphery of Europe that have managed—at great human cost and in the context of wars, counterrevolutions and other major world developments—to develop from backward agrarian societies to modern capitalist states as part of the European imperialist consortium. For example, in the period before World War I Finland was an economic backwater, with a sizable oppressed peasantry, that had been part of the Russian tsarist empire. But the attempt to consummate a proletarian revolution following the Bolshevik victory in Russia was drowned in blood by the imperialist-backed Mannerheim military dictatorship, and capitalist Finland was subsequently integrated into imperialist Europe.
Spain before World War II was a prime example of combined and uneven development where the tasks of permanent revolution were manifest. A large peasantry was brutally exploited by a landowning class, derived from the old feudal nobility, that heavily overlapped with the urban bourgeoisie. The powerful Catholic church, which exercised a monopoly in the education of children, was the country’s largest landowner and also had substantial investments in industry and finance. Furthermore, then as today the Spanish state contained within its boundaries such oppressed nations as the Basques and Catalans. Amid the social backwardness, there also existed a raw, combative working class made up in good part of peasant youth who retained close ties to their families in the countryside.
The Spanish Civil War of 1936-39 posed pointblank the possibility of proletarian revolution. But this opportunity was betrayed by the Stalinists, Socialists and anarchists who were the mainstay of the bourgeois Republican government, a popular front that was also treacherously supported by the centrist POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). Through its disarming and suppression of the revolutionary proletariat, mainly at the hands of the Stalinists, the popular front paved the way for the victory of the right-wing forces of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, who subsequently ruled Spain with an iron fist for nearly four decades.
Developments in Spain between the 1930s and the 1980s, at both the economic and political levels, were to a large degree determined and conditioned by the changing international situation. Following the end of World War II, the U.S. forged a political and military alliance (NATO) with the West European capitalist governments as part of the imperialist Cold War against the Soviet Union. By allying itself with American imperialism, the Franco regime broke Spain out of its former international isolation. (The country had not even been allowed to join the United Nations at its founding.) In 1953, Washington scrapped a UN-sanctioned economic embargo of Spain in exchange for U.S. military bases there. Spain became a recipient of U.S. government loans and, more importantly, began to increase its economic ties to the rest of West Europe.
Beginning in the 1960s, Spain experienced a rapid rate of economic growth that would eventually lead to a predominantly urbanized and culturally cosmopolitan society with an annual per capita gross domestic product ($25,300) not much below that of Italy (Economist, Pocket World in Figures, 2007). In The Economic Transformation of Spain and Portugal (1978), American economist Eric N. Baklanoff summarized the international factors underlying what was called the Spanish “economic miracle”: “For it was the international economy, and most especially the European Economic Community and the United States, that presented Spain with surging markets for its products, sent it free-spending tourists by the millions, invested in its factories and real estate, and employed a goodly share of its ‘surplus’ manpower.” Private foreign investment climbed from $40 million in 1960 to nearly $800 million in 1973. Attracted by Spain’s relatively cheap labor, American, German and British capitalists concentrated their investments in manufacturing, especially the automobile and chemical industries.
The economic boom of the 1960s-early ’70s led to the effective liquidation of small peasant farming. The agricultural labor force declined from 5.3 million in 1950 to 2.9 million in 1975 and then to 2.4 million in 1980. Small family holdings, dependent on manual labor and draft animals, were increasingly replaced by larger, mechanized farms. The share of the labor force engaged in agriculture declined from 48 percent in 1950 to 13 percent by 1990 (Carlos Prieto del Campo, “A Spanish Spring?”, New Left Review, January-February 2005). Today, Spain’s agricultural labor force consists primarily of immigrants from North Africa and elsewhere.
Following Franco’s death in 1975, Spain experienced a massive wave of labor strikes that raised both economic and political demands. At this point the Spanish ruling class and its senior partners in Washington and the capitals of NATO Europe recognized that the only way to restore social and political order was to work out a deal with the country’s reformist workers parties, which had been outlawed under the Franco regime. In late 1977, in exchange for their parties’ legalization and the promise of “democratization,” the Communist and Socialist leaders demobilized the workers movement, thereby ending the greatest threat to bourgeois rule in Spain since the end of the Civil War. Groomed by the West German Social Democracy, the Spanish Socialist Workers Party has since become a bulwark of a stable bourgeois parliamentary order. Clearly the perspective of permanent revolution in regard to the historic tasks associated with the bourgeois-democratic revolution no longer applies to Spain.
Ireland is another European country that was historically marked by socio-economic backwardness, including a primarily agrarian economy and a dominant role played by the Catholic church in society. Moreover, a significant proportion of the Irish Catholic nation constitutes an oppressed minority in the Ulster Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland statelet, which is part of the British imperialist state.
Addressing the intense national conflict between these two geographically interpenetrated peoples, we wrote in “Theses on Ireland” (Spartacist No. 24, Autumn 1977): “Ireland, like other situations of interpenetrated peoples as in the Middle East and Cyprus, is a striking confirmation of the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution.” The Theses made clear that in cases of interpenetrated peoples, there can be no democratic and equitable solution to the national question within the framework of capitalism: “In such circumstances the exercise of self-determination by one or the other people in the form of the establishment of their own bourgeois state can only be brought about by the denial of that right to the other.” While opposing the national oppression of the Irish Catholics in the North, we also oppose the forcible reunification of Ireland, which would mean the oppression of the Ulster Protestant population in a Catholic-dominated state. The Spartacist League/Britain, section of the ICL, demands the immediate withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland and calls for an Irish workers republic within a federation of workers republics in the British Isles.
However, subsequent discussion within the ICL concluded that to refer to permanent revolution in this context was theoretically confusing, conflating a democratic solution to the national question in an advanced capitalist society with the historic tasks of the bourgeois revolution. For well over a century, Ireland has been integrated into the economy of the British Isles, with a large fraction of the Irish proletariat working in the factories and construction sites of London and other cities. And in recent decades, Ireland’s membership in the European Union has played a large part in the country’s further economic development.
The concept of permanent revolution is not about the relationship of proletarian revolution to democratic questions in general. In many advanced capitalist countries there exist reactionary institutions inherited from the feudal past—e.g., the monarchy in Spain, Britain and Japan; the privileged role of the Vatican in Italy—which play a very important role in maintaining the present-day bourgeois order. In the U.S., the institutionalized oppression of the black population—a strategic question for proletarian revolution—is a legacy of chattel slavery. In all of these cases, only proletarian socialist revolution can eliminate national, racial and ethnic oppression. This underlines the need to forge Leninist-Trotskyist vanguard parties that act as a tribune of the people.
For Proletarian Internationalism!
As Trotsky laid out in The Permanent Revolution:
“The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national state.... The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.”
From Mexico to South Africa and elsewhere, many leftists point to the tremendous military and economic might of the U.S. to claim that a workers revolution would inevitably be crushed by the imperialists. No one would deny that the U.S. and other capitalist powers represent a formidable obstacle to proletarian revolutions. But the imperialist countries are class-divided societies with deep discontents and insoluble contradictions, necessarily leading to class and other social struggles. In the course of sharp class struggle and through the instrumentality of a revolutionary party that patiently educates the working class in the understanding not only of its social power but of its historic interests, the workers will become conscious of themselves as a class fighting for itself and for all the oppressed against the capitalist order.
The preconditions for a revolution will be different in different parts of the world. When these are met, the situation in any particular country and in the world will be different than it is today, and the consciousness of the working class will have changed significantly. Our struggle to forge Leninist vanguard parties is based on the understanding that when such parties become rooted in the working class, this will reflect a qualitative change in the political consciousness of the proletariat.
The struggles of the proletariat in the semicolonial world are integrally intertwined with those of the workers in the imperialist centers. A proletarian revolution in Mexico would have a massive impact on the multiracial U.S. proletariat, whose growing Latino component is a human bridge between the struggles of workers in the U.S. and of those in Latin America. A revolutionary proletarian upsurge in South Africa would resonate powerfully among working people and youth throughout the world, especially but definitely not only the black people who form a strategically important layer of the working class in the United States and in Brazil. A South African workers revolution would also touch off struggles throughout the continent by destroying the regional gendarme of sub-Saharan Africa. Conversely, a proletarian seizure of state power in one of the imperialist countries would have enormous revolutionary repercussions in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
In the 1994 WV series, “South Africa Powder Keg” (reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 12 [February 1995]), we wrote:
“For the moment South Africa is a weakened link in the chain of the world capitalist system binding the neocolonies of the Third World to the imperialist states of North America, West Europe and Japan. It is necessary to mobilize the forces of the proletariat to break that chain at its weakest links, and then fight like hell to take the battle to the imperialist centers, seeking allies against the vicious enemy of all the oppressed—international capital. Thus, the fight to build a South African Bolshevik Party is inseparable from the struggle we in the International Communist League are waging to reforge an authentically Trotskyist Fourth International.”
The fight for world socialist revolution is certainly not easy. But what is truly impossible is for the subordination of the working class to the class enemy to result in anything but the continuing vicious cycle of defeats and demoralizing sellouts.
Labels: anti-capitalism, ANTI-IMPERIALISM, COMMUNIST INTERNATIONAL, Fourth International, leon trotsky, russian revolution of 1905, the russian revolution, V.I. Lenin