December 4, 2016

On Trotskyism- Problems of theory and history -1 - An Atemporal Dogmatism -Mavrakis



In May 1904 Trotsky had just been excluded from the editorial board of 'Iskra' at Plekhanov's insistence. He continued, nevertheless, to collaborate with the Menshevik journal. At this time he made his way to Munich where he met the Russian social democrat, Alexander Helphand, whose nom de plume was Parvus. He was to remain with him until February 1905 and to fall strongly under his influence. Like him, while his sympathy went to the Mensheviks, he was to claim the role of arbiter, judge and pacifier of the two factions of the Russian Social Democratic Party, and in order to do this he was to keep himself apart from both sides. The 'theory' of the permanent revolution in its essential traits is due to Parvus. He was the first person to set out some of the ideas which continue to structure Trotskyist thought up to the present day.

In a series of articles entitled 'War and revolution' he argued that the national state, the birth of which corresponded to the needs of industrial capitalism, was henceforth superseded. The development of a world market shattered this compartmentalisation by accentuating the interdependence of nations.
At the beginning of the 1905 revolution Parvus wrote a preface to Trotsky's book 'Our Political Tasks' in which he argued: 'The Provisional Revolutionary Government of Russia will be a workers' democratic government . . . As the Social Democratic Party is at the head of the revolutionary movement . . . this government will be social democratic . . . a coherent government with a social democratic majority.'

Trotsky was to conclude quite naturally that such a government could not but carry out a specifically social democratic policy and would therefore immediately commit itself to the road of socialist transformation. In this he was as much opposed to the Mensheviks who, arguing the bourgeois-democratic character of the revolution, supported the big liberal bourgeoisie who were seeking a compromise with Tsarism, as to the Bolsheviks who, while distinguishing the democratic stage from the socialist stage, considered that the proletariat had to mobilise the peasantry in order to take up the leadership of the democratic revolution and to carry out its tasks radically, which by no means implied that social democracy would be in a majority in a government set up after a victory of the people.(1)

At first sight it may seem that Trotsky's theses are left-wing, those of Martov right-wing and those of Lenin centrist, but extremes converge and Martov agrees with Trotsky on more than one point. As we shall see further on, Lenin devoted an article to refuting the ideas of Trotsky which Martov had adopted on his own account.

Trotsky, the eloquent tribune, was accepted as the head of the Petrograd Soviet by the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks precisely because he represented only himself and did not impede them in the pursuit of their policies. This was so true that, while both sides polemicised a great deal among themselves, afterwards they hardly ever bothered to refute his ideas.

Before going on to discuss the 'permanent revolution' in the basis of an analysis of the concrete situation in 1905, let us recall that Trotsky was not long to remain proud of having been Parvus's disciple. The latter revealed himself a social chauvinist in 1914, and in addition an arms dealer and shady speculator. That is why Trotsky traced his theory back to Marx although he did not dare to deny his debt to Parvus.

It is true that Marx uses the term 'permanent revolution', particularly in 'The Class Struggles in France', but what he says about it is at such a level of generality that it cannot be relied upon to confer the palm of orthodoxy on Parvus and Trotsky, nor on Lenin and Mao. The former and the latter agree with Marx while differing among themselves. Besides, Marx was aware of the relatively general and abstract character of his definition of the permanent revolution since he apologises for not having the space to develop it.(2) It was only after 1905 that a differentiation occurs among those calling themselves Marxist over this concept. In any case, the reference to Marx is deceptive, for in the passages where the words 'declaration of the permanent revolution' appear, what is at issue is more reminiscent of the cultural revolution in China than the tactics advocated in 1905 by Trotsky. The latter explicitly invoked Lassalle, who had drawn from the events of 1848-9 the unshakable conviction that 'no struggle in Europe can be successful unless, from the very start, it declares itself to be purely socialist'.(3) If Parvus is the father of Trotskyist theory, Lassalle is its grandfather. The notion of the permanent revolution peculiar to Parvus and Trotsky was an attempt to respond to the problems posed by the 1905 revolution. In what follows I shall endeavour to study the concrete situation at that time.


(A summary of 'Que faire?', pp. 16-24, UJC (M.L.) pamphlet no. 3, Paris, 1967, translated as 'What Is To Be Done?')

In 1905 the imminent revolution had to accomplish bourgeois democratic tasks, that is, to sweep away the Tsarist state and social basis - feudal property - which were holding back the development of capitalism. However, the bourgeoisie could not lead this revolution, given its alliance with the landowners and its infiltration into the state apparatus which it was gradually transforming from within. Hence the obvious paradox: the bourgeoisie had no interest in the bourgeois revolution; it inevitably preferred a compromise with Tsarism. In the countryside, however, the rural bourgeoisie, fettered as it was by feudal relations, had not developed freely. All the categories of peasants which were beginning to differentiate themselves still had a common interest in the overthrow of Tsarism.

The proletariat and the peasantry were thus the principal revolutionary forces at this time. An alliance between these two classes was necessary to overthrow Tsarism in a revolutionary way. The proletariat had to lead this alliance: it alone had the organisational ability which made its hegemony possible and necessary. For the proletariat to lead the revolution meant: to win over the peasantry, to rely on the revolutionary initiative of the peasant masses, to prevent the bourgeoisie from gaining the leadership of the peasant movement and defeating it by an incomplete and bureaucratic agrarian reform (decreed from above). The slogan of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry expressed this alliance and this hegemony. Furthermore, proletarian leadership, guaranteeing the consistency of the revolution (its radical character), would institute the conditions that would prepare the socialist revolution. This slogan made it possible for the Bolsheviks to participate in a provisional revolutionary government which would exercise this dictatorship. Which parties would be long-term members of this government? This was an abstract question in the following sense: only practice could resolve the question, only the real development of the revolution could provide the elements of an answer. This precise question lost its meaning after the defeat of the revolution and the appearance of a new alignment of class forces. The point is essential. The slogan 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' corresponded adequately to the objective situation of the 1905 revolution. It expressed with total accuracy the immediate tasks of the proletariat: the organisation of the peasants for the achievement of their joint dictatorship. It did not leave room for any 'riddle' (Trotsky). A slogan corresponds to the tasks of the moment. Like all slogans, the Bolshevik slogan in 1905 was an instrument of agitation and propaganda; it showed the workers the principal path that the revolution had to follow: the organisation of the peasants for the conquest of consistent democratic power; it oriented the proletarian revolution and freed the initiative of the peasantry. Trotsky, on the other hand, proposed to the proletariat that they should take over state power and afterwards make use of it to rouse the peasants: 'Many sections of the working masses, particularly in the countryside, will be drawn into the revolution and become politically organised only after the advance-guard of the revolution, the urban proletariat, stands at the helm of the state.'(4)
In 1917 the second revolution triumphed in the midst of imperialist war. The latter had accelerated social development. Capitalism had been transformed into state monopoly capitalism. In the countryside the process of differentiation had made headway.

The Tsarist agrarian reform of Stolypin had strengthened the rural bourgeoisie. The war had united workers and peasants in uniform. It was mutinous soldiers who overthrew the Tsarist government. The revolution of February 1917 led to the installation of a dual power: on the one side, the provisional government representing the imperialist republican bourgeoisie; on the other, the soviets. These differed from the soviets invented by the masses in 1905 in that:

(a) they had arms;
(b) there were soviets of soldiers (mainly peasant conscripts), as Russia was at war.

Lenin explains in his 'April Theses' that the revolutionary situation presented specific features in relation to that of 1905. Democratic dictatorship became a reality in the soviets, although incompletely, since their power co-existed with that of the imperialist bourgeoisie. The immediate task was how to shift all power to the soviets. Hence the slogan put forward by the revolutionary democrats. Concretely, this revolutionary democracy had to resolve the agrarian question (an identical task in principle in 1905 and 1917) and tasks which were already socialist in the towns. It was the imperialist war which put these tasks of socialism on the agenda. The 1917 revolution was therefore a proletarian revolution which had to take the socialist road after carrying out the democratic tasks. 

Trotsky rewrites history. He isolates two moments: 1905 and 1917; he disregards the period that separates them (an episode no doubt of little use to his argument); and this is what the history of Bolshevism becomes. According to him, in 1905, Lenin formulated 'a hypothesis': revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. This hypothesis depended on an 'unknown': the political role of the peasantry. October 1917 reduced the unknown and Lenin's hypothesis (which envisaged the possibility of a peasant party with a majority in the revolutionary government) was invalidated since it was the dictatorship of the proletariat alone which triumphed' On the contrary, it was Trotsky's 'prognosis' that was confirmed. 

October 1917 did not invalidate July 1905. The Leninist slogan was correct at that time because it corresponded to the tasks of the moment and was an adequate instrument of agitation and propaganda. The new Leninist slogan was correct in 1917 because it corresponded to the new tasks of the moment (war, differentiation in the countryside, development of monopoly capitalism, the current practical development which produced this unforseeable concrete form of dual power). Trotsky's construction presupposes the identity of conditions in 1905 and 1917: indeed, in order to find in 1917 the confirmation of what he said in 1905, Trotsky has to assume that nothing changed between the two moments. Such is the basis of Trotskyist abstraction. The result: Trotsky is forced to falsify the meaning of Lenin's 1917 texts. Lenin said in fact that democratic dictatorship was realised to some extent in 1917 (in the form of the soviets). Trotsky pretends to believe that if democratic dictatorship was achieved it was in the form of Kerensky's imperialist regime:

If the democratic dictatorship had only been realised in our country in the form of Kerenskyism, which played the role of errand-boy to Lloyd George and Clemenceau, then we should have to say that history indulged in cruel mockery of the strategic slogan of Bolshevism.(5)

This is false. Lenin regarded the soviet form as the achievement democratic dictatorship.
Trotsky tries in vain to dress Leninist theory in his cloak, relying on the apparent coincidence between his slogan in 1905 and Lenin's in 1917. Lenin did not hesitate to describe 'All power to the soviets!' as the slogan, not of socialism, but of 'advanced revolutionary democracy'; he did not allow himself to play with words and abstractions. The dictatorship of the proletariat was not an abstraction for him and he did not hesitate after the revolution to explain how the Soviet state was a workers' and peasants' state. 

By common consent of Trotsky and his successors the 'permanent revolution' is not a dated quarrel. Its importance lies in its current value. As a general theory formed on the basis of the lessons of October, it should constitute the universal path of Bolshevism. The 'colonial['] revolutions - China yesterday, and Vietnam today - should demonstrate it brilliantly. The Trotskyists have acquired a stupefying theoretical ease in reducing specific experiences to applications of the theory of the permanent revolution. This 'ease' must be explained: it results from the very content of the theory. It was formed by reducing the concrete modifications in the Russian situation; it has developed in the same way.
Let us take the example of China: for nearly twenty years the Chinese Communist Party mobilised the masses with the slogans of New Democracy, and the struggle against imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism. The victory of this new type of democracy, which accomplishes the radical agrarian revolution under the leadership of the proletariat, opens up the road to socialism. To achieve this victory, it was necessary to distinguish accurately the stages of the revolution: the fundamentally economic bourgeois stage and the socialist stage; to prepare in the first the conditions for the second. All this supposes a firm leadership of the struggle, which is capable at every moment of winning the largest possible number of allies by its slogans, and of isolating the principal enemy. The Trotskyists contemplate the result - socialist China - and make the following subtle remark: the revolution did not halt, it developed continuously. In short, it is quite clearly a permanent revolution. For twenty years the 'Stalinist' slogan was inadequate: it contained an 'algebraic' unknown, as Trotsky said about the Leninist slogan of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. Its solution is 'arithmetic', the socialist revolution. He who can do more can also do less. Once one has made the socialist revolution (the maximum) one will at the same stroke have made the democratic revolution (the minimum). From the fact that, at a determinate stage, the democratic revolution is transformed into a socialist revolution, the Trotskyists deduce that the socialist revolution is democratic in the first place. This little game of reciprocity exalts their revolutionism. Clearly, it is bankrupt, for it is necessary to prepare the stage in which the revolution is transformed; which supposes that the stages are distinguished. This is a particular condition for freeing the peasants' initiative.

The agrarian revolution is a primordial task in countries dominated by imperialism. The process of the subordination of the landowning class to imperialism gives a new concrete meaning to the thesis: the agrarian revolution is basically a national revolution. Strategically, the Vietnamese example outstandingly bears this out: the principal enemy of a consistent democratic revolution is imperialism. A concrete imperialism: the American one, in Vietnam. The first stage of the uninterrupted revolution is therefore national democratic. Delivering blows at the same enemy as the world proletarian revolution, it forms a part of this revolution. This provides the best guarantee for the necessary leadership by the proletariat without which the national democratic revolution will not be consistent and cannot be transformed into a socialist revolution. This necessary leadership is not inevitable, as is shown by the victory of a non-democratic national revolution in Egypt or Algeria. Trotsky excluded all possibility of a revolutionary national victory led by the democratic petty bourgeoisie.(6) Life gives the lie to Trotskyist formalism. 

Proletarian leadership pre-supposes the liberation of the revolutionary initiative of the peasants as they set out for the conquest of power - and not after the workers' seizure of power (Trotsky's thesis). This leadership assumes methods of peasant organisation for the conquest of power. Baldly denying the peasants' ability to organise an 'independent party', Trotsky excluded the possibility of organising them for the seizure of power. To recognise this condition clearly is to acknowledge the revolutionary democratic composition of the power to be won. The Trotskyists are unable to recognise the necessity (the correctness) of a democratic government (the NLF thesis) arising out of the ruins of the old, feudal and colonial or neo-colonial state apparatus. To recognise the necessity to devise forms of leadership which free the initiative of the peasant masses is to make possible the people's war and its infinite capacity for revolutionary creativity.