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a socialistworld is possible: the history of the cwi by peter taaffe
new introduction

The Permanent Revolution

A similar point is made by Michael Lowy in International Viewpoint, allegedly defending the theory of the permanent revolution.

The author writes: “The theory of the permanent revolution has been verified twice in the course of the history of the 20th century. On the one hand, by the disasters resulting from stageism, from the blind application by the Communist parties in the dependent countries, of the Stalinist doctrine of the revolution by stages and the bloc with the national bourgeoisie, from Spain in 1936 to Indonesia in 1965 or Chile in 1973.”7

Michael Lowy then goes on to say that the theory has been verified on the other hand, “Because this theory, such as it was formulated from 1906, has largely allowed us to predict, explain and shed light on the revolutions of the 20th century, which have all been ‘permanent’ revolutions in the peripheral countries. What happened in Russia, China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam or Cuba has corresponded, in its broad outlines, to Trotsky’s central idea: the possibility of combined and uninterrupted revolution – democratic and socialist – in a country of peripheral capitalism, dependent or colonial. The fact that, overall, the leaders of the revolutionary movements after October 1917 have not recognised the ‘permanent’ character of these latter (with some exceptions, like Ernesto Che Guevara), or have done it a posteriori and employing a different terminology, takes nothing away from this historically effective relation…

“Today as yesterday, the revolutionary transformations which are on the agenda in the societies at the periphery of the system are not identical with those of the countries of the centre. A social revolution in India could not be, from the point of view of its programme, strategy and motor forces, a pure ‘workers’ revolution’ as in England. The decisive political role – certainly not envisaged by Trotsky! – played in many countries today by the indigenous and peasant movements (the FZLN in Mexico, the Brazilian MST, the CONAIE in Ecuador) shows the importance and social explosiveness of the agrarian question, and its close link with national liberation.”8

Both points are entirely wrong. Firstly, Trotsky understood the importance of mobilising the peasantry, particularly in Russia where the proletariat was a small minority. But he was absolutely right in understanding that the peasantry was heterogeneous and incapable of independently coming to power and maintaining that power. In a sense, Lowy is correct that the theory of permanent revolution has been borne out by the victory of the revolution in China, Yugoslavia, Vietnam, and Cuba. But these victories do so, not in the classical sense implied by Lowy, but as a caricature. Apart from Russia in 1917, the working class did not directly take power, or establish independent workers’ organisations – soviets, etc. Mobilising the peasants in the Chinese Revolution, a Bonapartist clique, led by Mao Zedong, was able to take power, balancing between the classes and constructing a state, which from the outset was a Stalinist regime in the image of Stalin’s Russia.

This is not recognised in the USFI’s analysis of the processes which led to the creation of these states. Because of this, they make fundamental mistakes on the issue of the ‘peasantry’. As we show in ‘The History of the CWI’, this resulted in the USFI making a number of gross errors in the past on the issue of guerrillaist tactics, the role of the peasantry in the revolution, etc. It has led the USFI to support guerrillaist adventures in Uruguay and Argentina, where some of the flower of the youth were wasted in futile military conflict with the state, over the heads of the working class. The USFI also gave uncritical support to the IRA in Ireland, and pursued many other adventures.

Unfortunately, the USFI have not learnt from their mistakes, as is now illustrated by Lowy’s comments on Trotsky’s alleged position on the peasantry. He states: “The principle limitation of Trotsky’s analysis is of a ‘sociological’ rather than strategic nature: to consider the peasantry uniquely as a ‘support’ of the revolutionary proletariat as a class of ‘small proprietors’ whose horizon did not go beyond democratic demands. He had trouble in accepting, for example, a Chinese Red Army composed in its great majority of peasants. His error – like most Russian and European Marxists – was to adopt, without critical examination, Marx’s analysis in ‘The Eighteenth Brumaire’ of the French peasantry as an atomised and petty bourgeois class and to apply it to colonial and semi-colonial nations with very different characteristics. However, in one of his last writings, ‘Preconceptions of the Russian Revolution’ (1939), Trotsky argued that the Marxist appreciation of the peasantry as a non-socialist class had never had an ‘absolute and immutable’ character.”9

These criticisms of Trotsky are wrong from beginning to end. The precise balance within the peasantry between smallholders or proprietors, poor peasants and landless labourers, who tend to sink into the ranks of the proletariat, differs from continent to continent, and even from country to country. However, the general Marxist proposition, from Marx himself, about the heterogeneous character of the peasantry retains its full validity in relation to the neo-colonial world today. Marx’s brilliant idea, that only the working class, organised in large industry, disciplined by the factory or the workplace, can develop the necessary social cohesion and, ultimately, the necessary consciousness, to carry through a socialist overturn, has been borne out in all revolutions. This was the case principally in the Russian Revolution, but also applies even where revolutions have not taken a ‘classical’ form, as in China.