December 15, 2016

The Theory of Permanent Revolution: A Critique - 1 - Loizos Michael

Trotskyism Study Group CPGB

The theory of “Permanent Revolution”, as elaborated by Leon Trotsky, constitutes a central doctrine of the various groups which internationally form the “trotskyist” tendency within the Marxist movement. For the Trotskyist groups, the theory of Permanent Revolution is not just an analysis of the dynamics of the Russian revolution, but, more importantly, a major “tool” by which they interpret contemporary social reality, and upon which they construct their strategies for revolutionary transformation.

In writings in defence of the theory of Permanent Revolution, one can discern two general strands of argument on the relationship between Trotsky’s theory and the analyses developed by Lenin in 1905-07 and 1917-18. The first emphasises the closeness of Trotsky’s theory with the positions developed by Lenin in 1905-07, apart from a few minor differences; [1] the second emphasises the distance between them in 1905-07, but claims that in 1917-18, Lenin, implicitly, if not explicitly, adopted positions identical with the theses of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. [2]

I want to examine these two strands of argument by, firstly, looking at the debate that took place within the Russian Social-Democratic Movement, prior to 1917, on the character and forces of the Russian revolution. In doing this, I hope to settle the question concerning the theoretical relationship between the strategy developed by Lenin in 1905-07, and that adopted by Trotsky. Secondly, I want to supplement this examination by looking at the perspectives developed by Lenin in 1917-18, in order to determine if any theoretical and political mutation in his thought took place.


Trotsky based his theory of Permanent Revolution on a specific conception of the peculiarities of Russia’s historical development, which emphasised the role of the Tsarist state in social and economic development, and consequently, in the development of social classes. [3] From this, he made the observation that in Russia, there did not exist an independent capitalist class capable of leading a nation-wide revolution against Tsarism; alongside an emasculated bourgeoisie, Trotsky discerned a strong, revolutionary proletariat. From his general observations on the character of the social classes in Russia, Trotsky derived one of his central theses concerning the Russian revolution.

...the struggle for the emancipation of Russia from the incubus of absolutism which is stifling it has become converted into a single combat between absolutism and the industrial proletariat, a single combat in which the peasants may render considerable support but cannot play a leading role. [4]

We should note two points here: Firstly, the notion of a “single combat” between two opponents. The contradictions of the Russian social formation are reduced to a conflict between Tsarism and the proletariat; secondly, the relationship of other classes to this basic class  contradiction remains indeterminate. The peasants may render support.... We shall return to these points at a later stage.

One of the criticisms that has been levelled at Trotsky as a result of his characterisation of the main class contradiction in Russia is that he advocated skipping or “leaping over” the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. This is an erroneous view and fails to understand the basic features of Trotsky’s analysis of the Russian revolution. Trotsky recognised that the immediate, objective tasks of the revolution were “bourgeois-democratic” in essence, that is, against the remnants of feudal economic and political relations. Like Lenin, he recognised that:

The general sociological term bourgeois revolution by no means solves the politico-tactical problems, contradictions and difficulties which the mechanics of a given bourgeois revolution throw up. [5]

An adequate critique of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution cannot, then, rest on the notion that he advocated “skipping” necessary historical tasks, it can only rest on an examination of the principles underlying the thesis that:

In the revolution at the beginning of the twentieth century, the direct objective tasks of which are also bourgeois, there emerges as a near prospect the inevitable, or at least the probable, political domination of the proletariat. [6]

Or, more explicitly that:

...the democratic tasks of the backward bourgeois nations lead directly, in our epoch, to the dictatorship of the proletariat and that the dictatorship of the proletariat puts socialist tasks on the order of the day. [7]

The error of Trotsky’s analysis arose from the contention that the nature of social relations in Russia laid the whole burden of the bourgeois revolution upon the shoulders of the proletariat...” [8] From this argument, he developed the thesis of the necessity, if not inevitability, in a victorious revolution against Tsarism, of the proletariat seizing political power. The bourgeois revolution against the remnants of feudalism would lead directly to the dictatorship of the proletariat, which would, of necessity, by the very logic of events and the position of the proletariat in the state, be compelled to implement socialist measures. Despite the fact that Trotsky was to claim in 1929 that “... at no time and in no place did I ever write or propose such a slogan ...” [9] it is not surprising that Lenin characterised Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution by the slogan formulated by Parvus: “No Tsar, but a Workers’ government.” [10]

The importance of Trotsky’s thesis that the proletariat would seize state power in the course of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, is that his entire conception of the problems of strategy and tactics in the transition to socialism rest upon it. In exactly the same way, the strategies or “prognoses”, of contemporary Trotskyists on the question of the transition to socialism in countries subject to fascist, military or colonial rule, also rest on the notion of the dictatorship of the proletariat arising from what are essentially democratic or national — that is, “bourgeois” — revolutions.

Before examining the propositions which buttress this thesis of the theory of Permanent Revolution, I want to look at the central issues which divided Lenin from the theorists of the Menshevik faction of the R.S.D.L.P. — those concerning the character and the forces of the first Russian revolution.