The striking relevance of Leon Trotsky’s ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’

Protesters in Algeria, photo by Bachounda/CC

The revolutionary movements shaking Sudan and Algeria, and mass upheavals in other parts of the neo-colonial world, underlines the relevance of Leon Trotsky’s ‘Theory of Permanent Revolution’. This is particularly the case for the international workers’ movement and revolutionary socialists, and the heroic masses struggling for fundamental change in Algeria and Sudan, and throughout the whole of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The devastating economic and social crisis in Asia, Africa and Latin America is producing social convulsions and devastating the lives of millions.

The slaughter of millions in wars in the Middle East and Africa, the direct consequences of intervention by the imperialist powers, together with miserable economic conditions, is the reality of life on the basis of capitalism and landlordism in these countries. For millions capitalism means “horror without end”.

Yet the crucial question facing the masses is how to put a stop to it. In providing an answer in the countries of the neo-colonial world, Trotsky’s ‘theory of the permanent revolution’ provides the key to understanding the class forces involved, and the programme and tasks facing the working class.

Following the events of the first Russian revolution in 1905, Trotsky – who played a leading role in the capital, St Petersburg – was able to draw conclusions that brilliantly anticipated the class forces involved in the victorious outcome of the Russian revolution in October 1917. Russia then, like India and other countries, today, was a semi-feudal system that meant slavery for the mass of the population, who were forced to eke out an existence on narrow strips of land. In the urban centres, which had seen the rapid development of industry, the industrial working class was ruthlessly exploited and oppressed.

Russia in that period had not completed the bourgeois-democratic revolutions of countries like England, in the 16th century, and France, in the 18th century. The main historic tasks of these revolutions consisted in the elimination of feudal and semi-feudal relations on the land and the unification of the country into a nation-state.

The emergence of the working class

These changes in social and economic relations paved the way for the eventual development of industry and the working class. Side by side with these developments was the introduction of basic bourgeois-democratic rights, including the right to vote, a free press, the election of a parliament – usually won as a consequence of bitter and long struggles by the masses. The tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, however, were not completed by the Russian ruling class – as they still have not been fully completed in the neo-colonial world, today.

In the modern era of capitalism and imperialism, the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution are also bound together with breaking from the domination of imperialism. In the case of Russia in 1917, this was particularly centred on Anglo-French imperialism, which viewed Russia as a virtual colony, at that time.

Marxists had thought that it was more likely that the socialist revolution would first be carried through in the advanced capitalist countries, given the development of modern industry and a powerful industrial working class. The question posed in Russia in 1917 was, what would happen should the revolution break there first, and not in Germany, France or Britain, where the bourgeois-democratic revolution had already been carried through?

The capitalist class in the neo-colonial world coming onto the scene of history too late and was too weak and tied to imperialism to complete the tasks of the bourgeois revolution.

The same issue is posed today throughout the neo-colonial world. Even in countries like Argentina, where feudal land relations do not exist, the capitalist class is tied to imperialism and is incapable of playing a totally independent role.

In other countries, like India, there remains both capitalist and feudal land relations, and even slavery. This can be seen in Brazil, despite having a capitalist class and some highly developed aspects of modern industry. As Trotsky explained, it is a question of ‘combined and uneven development’, involving features of a modern capitalist economy existing, side by side, with elements of feudalism.

The ideas of the permanent revolution are crucial for the working class in the neo-colonial world. The capitalist class anticipate the development of some countries that combine the features of a developed capitalist economy with elements of feudalism and slavery. However, despite development in countries such as Brazil and India, they have not broken free from the domination of the major imperialist powers. They have failed to fully complete the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. The mass of the population continues to swim in a sea of misery. Brazil’s much-praised industrial development has gone into reverse and been weakened. It is now more dependent on raw materials, which account for 65% of its exports than it was twenty years ago. The increased globalization of the world economy has bound these countries together, even more, to the major imperialist powers.

The strength of the working class

At the same time, the working class is far stronger throughout the neo-colonial world than it was when Trotsky developed his theory of the permanent revolution. This is reflected in the explosion of urban centres and cities. For the first time in history, over 50% of the global population was concentrated in cities by 2014. In Africa, over 50% of the population lives in urban areas, compared to 14.7% when the independence movements developed in the 1950s. In Latin America, four-fifths of the population now lives in towns and cities. The same trend is repeated in Asia, with the explosion of massive towns and cities. These are populated by the urban poor, an increasingly ‘proletarianised’ middle class, and potentially powerful sections of the working class, especially in countries like Mexico. This poses the prospect of collective class struggle.

In pre-revolutionary Russia, all trends of socialist opinion saw the main task as the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. However, the Mensheviks – right-wing, reformist socialists – believed that the task of the working class was to be tied to the coat-tails of the so-called liberal wing of the capitalist class, which they saw as playing the main role in the revolution. The working class was to play second fiddle.

Although Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels had not developed the ideas of the permanent revolution as Trotsky was able to do, by the 1850s they had coined the term ‘permanent revolution’. They used it as a means of arguing for a strategy for the revolutionary class to pursue a struggle for its own class interests and independence, and they strongly denounced the cowardly role of the bourgeoisie.

The Mensheviks saw the revolution as a purely ‘national Russian’ affair. These ‘Menshevik’ ideas are all echoed throughout the neo-colonial world today. They relegate the question of socialism to the dim and distant future. Instead, they emphasize the ‘democratic revolution’ first, to be followed by a period of capitalist development and democracy. These ideas have been echoed by the Stalinist parties and others on the left.

A new ‘stage’ has often been added recently: that it is necessary to defeat ‘neo-liberal capitalism’ first, and only then to proceed to develop a more ‘humane’ capitalism. In Bolivia, the idea of a period of ‘Andean capitalism’ was advocated by president Evo Morales, and others, before it would be possible to begin to embark on a struggle for socialism!

When attempting to enact serious land reform or reforms for the working class, however, these ideas have always come up against the interests of the capitalists and landlords. These classes are linked together; the landlords invest in industry and the capitalists invest in land. Both are intrinsically tied to imperialism through the banks and multi-national companies. They will act in their own class interests against those of the working class and peasantry. This has been seen, time and again, throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. It was also a feature of the Spanish revolution and civil war in the 1930s.

In the theory of the permanent revolution, Leon Trotsky was able to anticipate brilliantly how the apparent contradiction of completing the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution was to be achieved when the bourgeoisie was to too weak or cowardly to do so. His prognosis was to be borne out in the Russian revolution in 1917.

Russia 1917

In Russia, a newly developed force arose, which was not present in the English and French bourgeois revolutions – the industrial working class. Trotsky pointed out that the liberal bourgeoisie was terrified that a struggle against Tsarism and the social foundations it rested upon would open the floodgates for the working class, together with the peasantry, especially the poor peasants. They would place their own demands on the agenda of the revolution and this would bring them into direct conflict with landlordism and capitalism.

Trotsky, together with Lenin, argued that only an alliance of the working class and peasantry could carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Lenin, however, expressed this in his formula, “the democratic dictatorship of the working class and the peasantry”. This was an ‘algebraic’ formula which left open the exact relationship between the working class and the peasantry, the inadequacy of which Lenin later accepted.

Trotsky took it further and argued that the peasantry had never played an independent role. It must, therefore, be one of the two main classes, the working class or bourgeoisie, that led the revolution. But the liberal capitalist class was incapable of doing this, and so the role fell to the working class. The working class could seize power in urban areas with the support of the peasants in the rural areas.

Having taken power, the demands of the working class would inevitably push the revolution beyond the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution to encompass the tasks of the socialist revolution. For this to succeed, the revolution would need to spread to the industrialized capitalist countries, particularly Germany, France and Britain.

This prognosis was fully borne out in the events of the Russian revolution and coming to power of the working class in October 1917. This was followed by a revolutionary wave in Europe: Germany 1918-23, Hungary 1919, Italy 1920 and the British general strike of 1926. Unfortunately, these and other revolutionary movements were defeated as a result of the lamentable role of the leadership of the mass social-democratic parties which betrayed them. This was coupled with the weaknesses and mistakes of the young Communist Parties which had emerged.

Trotsky was able to formulate his ideas on the character of the revolution in Russia out of the experience of the 1905 revolution and class struggle. He also did so in collaboration with one of the German Marxist theoreticians at the turn of the 19th century, Alexander Israel Helphand, known as Parvus. Despite his later capitulation to German imperialism – and his degeneration to become an arms dealer! – Trotsky acknowledged his contribution in helping to develop the ideas contained in the theory of the permanent revolution.

Although Parvus had contributed to the ‘lion’s share’ to these ideas, he did not reach Trotsky’s far-sighted conclusions. At one stage, Parvus thought that the Russian working class would form a government like the reformist Labour government in Australia, at the time. Trotsky posed the need for the working class to enact the measures of the socialist revolution, as a prelude to the socialist revolution in the industrialised capitalist countries.

The social and class relations in the neo-colonial world today are such that, with strong revolutionary socialist parties, the working class can come to power and apply again, in practice, the ideas of the permanent revolution under far more favourable conditions than which existed in Russia in 1917.

Venezuela: negative confirmation of permanent revolution

Recent events in Venezuela have demonstrated that any government that comes to power but is not prepared to take the measures necessary to break with landlordism, capitalism and confront imperialism, will be imprisoned by a reactionary ruling class determined to defend its own interests. The social and economic catastrophe unfolding in Venezuela is a warning to all workers and socialists. In a negative sense, it confirms Trotsky’s ideas: the consequences of not applying the methods and ideas contained in the theory of the permanent revolution.

When Hugo Chávez came to power in 1998, 60% of farmland was owned by less than 1% of the population, while 5% of landowners controlled over 75% of all rural land. Unfortunately, the failure to eradicate capitalism and landlordism, and the absence of democratic workers’ control and management, has resulted in a rolling back of most of the initial reforms and gains won by the working class during the revolution that unfolded. A social and economic crisis now engulfs the country.

Had the ideas of Trotsky been applied, and capitalism and landlordism snuffed out, the tasks of the socialist revolution could have begun to be carried through. Linking up with the revolutionary movements sweeping Bolivia and Ecuador, at the time, and had there been the introduction of a genuine system of democratic workers’ control and management in Cuba, a voluntary, democratic, socialist federation of these countries could have been formed. This could have acted as a pole of attraction to the masses of the whole of Latin America and the USA. Unfortunately, this opportunity was lost due to the failure of the leadership of the movement in these countries to understand and apply the ideas contained in the permanent revolution.

A study of this outstanding theoretical contribution by Leon Trotsky is a great assistance in helping the working class and a new generation of revolutionary socialists. A thorough grasp of the importance of revolutionary socialist ideas and programme can see them successfully applied to the struggles unfolding today in countries like Sudan and Algeria, and throughout the continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America.



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April 2019