Permanent revolution: Trotsky's theory and later constructions

Submitted by martin on 25 August, 2018 - 7:54 Author: Sean Matgamna
Permanent revolution

From The Left in Disarray

Central to the formation of the ideas of the ostensible left on imperialism and anti-imperialism has been the fact that the Orthodox Trotskyists conflated working-class socialist revolution and the anti-colonial revolutions of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, in what they saw as a variant of Trotsky's permanent revolution.

What is "permanent revolution", as Trotsky expounded it? The French revolution had been a particularly radical bourgeois revolution against the remnants of feudalism in France. Tsarist Russia needed a similar revolution to establish civil liberty and a democratic republic. The bourgeois liberals in Russia were unable and unwilling to lead a bourgeois revolution like that of France against Tsarism. In Russia the working class, leading the peasants, did fuse two revolutions, the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the working-class revolution, into one continuous movement, one ongoing "permanent" revolution. They made the October 1917 revolution.

In the 20th century many countries, China for instance, had not had successful bourgeois revolutions. Colonies and semi-colonies were occupied or controlled by imperialist powers. In many of those countries the bourgeoisie was even more feeble, and even more tied up with external imperialist interests and with the old landlord classes, than the Russian Tsarist bourgeoisie had been. The internal bourgeois revolution had to also be an anti-imperialist movement. Trotsky advocated that the working class, through the Communist Parties, should, as in Russia, take the lead in an anti-imperialist movement which the victorious workers could lead straight to working-class power.

In the Communist International's and the Fourth International's idea of permanent revolution, elements of a bourgeois revolution would be fused with working-class revolution by the workers' party taking the lead in societies with a combined and uneven development, and there would be no stable period of bourgeois rule in between. The workers would drive the revolution straight on, destroying all elements of imperialist and bourgeois rule.

The Communist International did not use the expression "permanent revolution". Its Theses on the Eastern Question of 1922 put the idea like this: "The Communist International... remains convinced that the oppressed masses can only be led to victory by a consistent revolutionary line that is designed to draw the broadest masses into active struggle and that constitutes a complete break with all who support conciliation with imperialism in the interests of their own class rule... The objective tasks of the colonial revolution go beyond the bounds of bourgeois democracy because a decisive victory for this revolution is incompatible with the rule of world imperialism... The struggle for influence over the peasant masses will prepare the indigenous proletariat for political leadership. Only when the proletariat has done this preliminary work in its own ranks and in those of the social layers closest to it can it challenge bourgeois democracy, which in the conditions of the backward East is even more inadequate than in the West..."

This was one version of permanent revolution, Trotsky's. The working class was the protagonist at the head of the farmers in nations trying to reconstruct themselves "under the leadership of the proletariat". In the 1920s and 30s, Trotskyists advocated working-class leadership of liberation movements in colonies and semi-colonies such as China and India. Such working-class-led revolutions happened nowhere.

Stalinists in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam - in all cases, peasant movements led by de-classed and militarised "Communist Parties" - led anti-colonial revolutions. The working class played no important part in those revolutions. They created totalitarian regimes modelled on Stalin's Russia.

In the 1950s and 60s version (partially excepting Algeria), "permanent revolution" came to mean Stalinist revolutions that would end not in working-class rule and freedom, but in tight Stalinist bureaucratic dictatorships like, for instance, China's. These eliminated the possibility of an independent working-class movement, let alone of the working class developing so as to be able to take power and exercise it.

In 1932 Trotsky had warned that the de-classed peasant-based Mao-Stalinists might confront the working class as a hostile, alien, enemy force: they "will incite the armed peasants against the advanced workers".i That they did.

The Stalinists in power did not do as the working class would do in Trotsky's formula for permanent revolution, and did in Russia, bring two revolutions together, winning liberty and a democratic republic and simultaneously seizing economic power from the bourgeoisie and the landlords. All the things central to Marx's and Trotsky's permanent revolution - civil rights, working-class freedom, self-rule - were eliminated. The society went straight to full-blown Stalinist totalitarianism. This was not so much fusing the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the working-class revolution as bypassing both. It was something else entirely.

The Orthodox Trotskyists' theory of Russia as a degenerated workers' state was adapted to explain the East European Stalinist states - in the first case, Yugoslavia - as deformed workers' states. Before the Orthodox Trotskyists could do that adaptation, and as an essential part of it, they had to elaborate what was in fact, despite their claims of Trotskyist orthodoxy, a new theory of Russia as a degenerated workers' state. They did that by shedding all of Trotsky's framework for seeing Russia's nationalised economy as the empirical evidence that Russia was still a workers' state - its origin in the workers' revolution, its uniqueness in the world, the unstable and transitory character of the Russian system as Trotsky saw it. For Trotsky his conclusion was very much pro tem: "Might we not place ourselves in a ludicrous position if we affixed to the Bonapartist oligarchy the nomenclature of a new ruling class just a few years or even a few months prior to its inglorious downfall?" For the Orthodox Trotskyists, from the mid-1950s, the USSR and the other Stalinist states were stable systems "in transition to socialism". The concept of "transitional" in Trotsky's writings, carrying connotations of transient or transitory, was given a meaning which it could not have had for Trotsky.

The Orthodox Trotskyists made their shift by amending Trotsky's theory of the Russian degenerated workers' state so that the sole criterion of such a state came to be nationalised property. In that scale the satellites too were workers' states - "deformed workers' states".

Stalinist victories were seen as victories for permanent revolution. This "permanent revolution Mark II" might be called "totalitarian permanent revolution", except that it had nothing to do with socialist "permanent revolution", or with working-class rule, other than in being their stark opposite.

Between the 1940s and the 1970s, the Orthodox Trotskyists saw the revolts in the colonies and semi-colonies as a segment of an unfolding "world revolution". Where the anti-colonial revolts were Stalinist-led movements, their victory would also be a victory against capitalism and for "socialism": deformed workers' states would be created. The world socialist revolution would be making progress. The Orthodox Trotskyists supported anti-colonial movement not only for their fight against the colonial overlords - though of course they did that - but also for their attributed anti-capitalism, even in the Stalinist version created by movements such as Tito's, Mao Zedong's, and Ho Chi Minh's.

The Orthodox Trotskyists worked out schemas according to which colonial wars of liberation, if they developed their full potential, must produce socialist revolutions modelled on what had happened in Yugoslavia, North Vietnam, and China, that is, in reality, Stalinist revolutions. By the 1960s, after the Cuban revolution, they had extended their revolutionary anti-capitalist expectations beyond Stalinist-led colonial revolutions, like China and Vietnam. They came to believe that only a socialist revolution could be the result of the eight year long Algerian war of liberation against France, which was not led by Stalinists. Some, with extra nonsensicality, would extend this scenario even to the Provisional IRA war in Ireland. Thus anti-imperialism, meaning conflict with the capitalist big powers, was, per se, also anti-capitalist, or sure to become so as the struggle "developed and deepened". Had to become so. Could not but become so.

This was a variant of Trotsky's permanent revolution, they said. In fact, for all the Orthodox Trotskyists, "permanent revolution" was implicitly (at best) transformed into its opposite, into a notion of walled-off stages. First there would be the creation of a Stalinist "deformed workers' state" - or, in Cuba, they thought, a less-deformed workers' state - and then, eventually, once the Stalinists had created an advanced economy, the workers' revolution (called "political revolution"). Some Orthodox Trotskyists - Ted Grant for the crassest example - came to see the first, Stalinist, stage as part of the program they advocated.

The Communist International had seen and proclaimed an important distinction between those anti-imperialist nationalists who organised militant and military activity against their overlords and those who did not. The Communists could combine with the "revolutionary nationalists". Lenin explained at the Second Congress of the Communist International, in 1920: "The imperialist bourgeoisie is doing everything in its power to implant a reformist movement among the oppressed nations too... Very often... the bourgeoisie of the oppressed countries, while it does support the national movement, is in full accord with the imperialist bourgeoisie, i.e. joins forces with it against all revolutionary movements and revolutionary classes... We, as communists, should and will support bourgeois-liberation movements in the colonies only when they are genuinely revolutionary, and when their exponents do not hinder our work of educating and organising in a revolutionary spirit the peasantry and the masses of the exploited". The Orthodox Trotskyists merged that distinction between "revolutionary nationalists" and pliant bourgeois anti-colonialists into an idea that all such militant revolutionary nationalist struggles were incipiently permanent revolution, and to be identified, now or soon, with socialist revolution.

The "colonial-revolution-is-permanent-revolution" mutation of Trotsky's theory, the belief that all anti-colonial movements were or could be a variant of socialist revolution, was contradicted by unfolding reality over decades. The intense overvaluation of national-liberation movements remained - the pulping and blending of basic Marxist ideas and qualifications into a populist-nationalist pastiche.

Add new comment

This website uses cookies, you can find out more and set your preferences here.
By continuing to use this website, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms & Conditions.