Permanent Revolution

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Permanent Revolution is the theory of how to sustain Communism within an undeveloped ('backward') state. Although most closely associated with Leon Trotsky, the call for Permanent Revolution is first found in the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the aftermath of the revolutionary year of 1848, in their Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League.

Trotsky's conception of Permanent Revolution is based on his understanding, drawing on the work of the founder of Russian Marxism Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov (1856-1918), that in 'backward' countries the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution could not be achieved by the bourgeoisie itself. This conception was first developed in the essays later collected in his book 1905 and in his essay Results and Prospects.

The basic idea of Trotsky's theory is that in Russia the bourgeoisie would not carry out a thorough revolution which would institute political democracy and solve the land question. These measures were assumed to be essential to develop Russia economically. Therefore it was argued the future revolution must be led by the proletariat who would not only carry through the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution but would move directly to the social or socialist revolution. In this sense the revolution would be made permanent. Trotsky believed that a new socialist state would not be able to hold out against the pressures of a hostile capitalist world unless socialist revolutions quickly took hold in other countries as well. This theory was advanced in opposition to the position held by the Stalinist faction within the Bolshevik Party that "socialism in one country" could be built in the Soviet Union.

Trotsky's theory was developed as an alternative to the Social Democratic theory that undeveloped countries would pass through two distinct revolutions. First the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution, which socialists would assist, and at a later stage, the Socialist Revolution. This is often referred to as the Theory of Stages or as Stagism.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks initially held to a version of the Stagist theory, since they were still connected to the Social Democrats at the time. However, Lenin was arguing by 1917 that the Russian bourgeoisie would not be able to carry through the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution and therefore the proletariat had to take state power. This position was put forward to the Bolsheviks on his return to Russia, in his April Theses. The first reaction of the majority of Bolsheviks was one of rejection of the Theses. Initially, only Alexandra Kollontai rallied to Lenin's position.

After the October Revolution, the Bolsheviks, now including Trotsky, did not discuss the theory of Permanent Revolution as such. However, its basic theses can be found in such popular outlines of Communist theory as The ABC's of Communism, which sought to explain the program of the Communist Party, by Preobrazhensky and Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938).

Later on, in the 1920s, the theory did assume importance in the internal debates within the Communist Party and was a bone of contention within the opposition to Stalin. In essence a section of the Communist Party leadership, whose views were voiced at the theoretical level by Bukharin, argued that socialism could be built in a single country, even an underdeveloped one like Russia. This meant that there would be less need to encourage revolutions in advanced Western countries in the hope that a Socialist Germany (for example) would later give Russia the economic base needed to construct a socialist society. Bukharin argued that Russia's pre-existing economic base was sufficient for the task at hand. Acting on these ideas, the Communist International became less revolutionary and more willing to compromise with "reactionary" forces, for example by advising its Chinese section to back the Guomindang's efforts to unify China. This effort was seen as being the Chinese Bourgeois Democratic Revolution, and the fact that communists supported it meant a return to a Stagist position.

The question of the Chinese revolution and the subjection of the Chinese Communist Party to control by the Guomindang at the behest of the Russian Communist Party was a topic of argument within the opposition to Stalin in the Russian Communist Party. On the one hand, figures such as Karl Radek argued that a Stagist strategy was correct for China, although their writings are only known to us now second hand, having perished in the 1930s (if original copies exist in the archives, they have not been located since the fall of the USSR in 1989). Trotsky, on the other hand, generalised his Theory of Permanent Revolution, which had only been applied in the case of Russia previously, and argued that the proletariat needed to take power in a process of uninterrupted and Permanent Revolution in order to carry out the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic revolution.

His position was put forward in his essay entitled Permanent Revolution, which can be found today in a single book together with Results and Prospects. Not only did Trotsky generalise his theory of Permanent Revolution in this essay but he also grounded it in the idea of combined and uneven development. This argument goes, again in contrast to the conceptions inherent within Stagist theory, that capitalist nations, indeed all class-based societies, develop unevenly and that some parts will develop more swiftly than others. However it is also argued that this development is combined and that each part of the world economy is increasingly bound together with all other parts. The conception of combined and uneven development also recognises that some areas may even regress further economically and socially as a result of their integration into a world economy.

Since Trotsky's assassination in 1940, the theory of Permanent Revolution has been held to by the various Trotskyist groups which have developed since then. However, the theory has only rarely been given any extended treatment by Trotskyist theoreticians seeking to relate it to post-war political developments. The greatest challenge to the theory, which postulated that only socialist revolution could solve the problems posed to Bourgeois Revolutions, is that many such problems have been solved in the mean time through gradual social reform rather than revolution. On the other hand, it is equally true that such reforms might have been only a temporary solution, because some of them are starting to be rolled back in certain countries in the present day.

Another problem posed to the theory of permanent revolution was the development of 'deformed workers states' in countries where socialist revolutions have not been carried out by the proletariat. This has been dealt with in various ways by different Trotskyist groups.

The leaders of the Fourth International during the late 40s and early 50s argued and eventually split over this question. The side led by Michel Pablo argued that these 'deformed workers' states' were the result of socialist revolutions carried out by various forces that were 'proletarian' in a political sense (being led by Communist parties), but not proletarian per se (hence the deformed nature of those workers' states, often referred to as Stalinist states). A good example of this and one of the most theorised is to be found in Michel Lowy's book 'The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development'.

Those Trotskyist led by James P. Cannon, the American Trotskyist who helped found the Fourth International along with Trotsky, argued differently. They saw these new states as an extension of the Stalinist bureaucracy, and argued for a political revolution against that bureacracy. They considered the position that the bureacracy can lead revolutions as contradictory in principle to Trotskyism, and this posed the question: if the Stalinists can lead the revolution, what do we need the Fourth International for? In fact, Pablo argued that the Trotskyist parties should be dissolved into the Communist Parties that answered to Moscow. He said that humanity had entered a period where the would be centuries of deformed workers states.

Not all Trotskyists agree with this position, however, and some argue that the 'workers' states' were in fact state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist in nature.

Another attempt to develop the theory was made by Tony Cliff of the Socialist Workers Party (UK), in his "Theory of Deflected Permanent Revolution". In his 1963 essay Deflected Permanent Revolution ( he develops the idea that where the proletariat is unable to take power, a section of the intelligentsia may be able to carry out a Bourgeois Revolution. He further argues that the use of Marxist concepts by such elements (most notable in Cuba and China, but also for example by regimes espousing Arab Socialism or similar philosophies) is not genuine but is the use of Marxism as an ideology of power. Cliff's views have been criticised by more orthodox Trotskyists as an abandonment of Trotsky's theory in all but name in favour of the stagist theory, since Cliff is pessimistic about the potential of the working class in underdeveloped countries to seize power while Trotsky's view is optimistic. This criticism is somewhat misguided, since Cliff saw such revolutions as a detour (deflection) from socialist revolution rather than a necessary preliminary as in the theory of stages.

The modern (ie post-Kautsky) social democratic critique of the theory is a sub-set of the wider critique of Leninism. Social democrats argue that, as in Russia in 1918, the permanent revolution leads to a suppression of democracy as it seeks to institute the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is argued that this is made all but inevitible by the theory's explicit rejection of democracy in favour of vangaurdism.

In tactical debates in the Labour Movement social democrats argue that the theory drives Trotskyists to support all manner of ultra-left and even reactionary forces. For instance, argue social democrats, in the United Kingdom the orthodox Trotskyists of the International Marxist Group greeted the Irish Republican Army's campaign of bombing and killing with the slogan "permanent revolution comes to Britain" and went on to develop a theory entitled "from the periphery to the centre" arguing that revolutionary upheavals in the third world would spread to Western Europe.

The ICFI and its news website the World Socialist Website continue to insist on the importance of Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution and the necessity of building a world party of socialist revolution that opposes nationalism, Stalinism, and all forms of opportunism.

"Permanent Revolution" is also a phrase sometimes used to denote the Maoist idea of a continuous revolution within the socialist state.

External links


nl:Permanente revolutie


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