From permanent revolution to permanent mystification

Posted in PaulHampton's blog on Thu, 29/09/2011 - 20:47,

Review of Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (Haymarket 2010)

Trotsky warned against turning permanent revolution into a “superhistorical master-key” applicable to all societies in all circumstances. He rejected a “theological” conception of permanent revolution. Sadly, since Trotsky’s death in 1940, most would-be Trotskyists have subscribed to the label while hollowing out the perspective.

In 1981, Michael Löwy published what became the seminal interpretive post-Trotsky text on permanent revolution. Part 1 explained Marx and Engels’ views that prefigured permanent revolution, before discussing Trotsky’s views in 1905 and 1917, and then his generalising of the theory in the context of Stalinism, the Chinese revolution (1925-27) and other struggles in the 1930s. Part 2 consisted of two chapters on the ‘revolutions’ in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Vietnam – which Löwy regarded as confirming Trotsky’s theory and a chapter on other unfinished bourgeois revolutions. The book finished with a conclusion discussing the grand sweep of revolution in the twentieth century.

Last year Part 1 and the conclusion of the book were reprinted by Haymarket books, together with a short recent interview. It should have come with a health warning: if anyone believes the distinctive conclusions offered by Löwy, then they will fail to understand Trotsky, as well as the events of the twentieth-century, never mind what might lie ahead in the twenty-first.

Marx and Engels

The best section of the book is the first chapter, which discusses Marx and Engels’ views on permanent revolution. Löwy is right that Marx and Engels did not have a “coherent and systematic” theory of permanent revolution – the ideas appear in chrysalis form, “as a series of brilliant but unsystematised intuitions”. This was because although the lived through and charted the era in which the bourgeoisie ceased to play a revolutionary role, they also understood the immaturity of the proletariat during their time, which was overcome only fleetingly towards the end of their lives.


The chapter on Trotsky’s first cut of permanent revolution in 1905 is in need of revision in the light of Day and Gaido’s book, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution (2011). Löwy states that permanent revolution was “a bold and original break from the evolutionist Marxism of the Second International” (2010 p.1). he claims that the term ’permanent revolution’ was “otherwise virtually extinct in the vocabulary of the Second International”. Although he acknowledges that Trotsky’s conception of a workers’ government in Russia “was shared by Parvus, Luxemburg and, more intermittently, by Lenin as well”, he is more dismissive of Kautsky and Mehring, and makes no reference to Ryazanov.

Löwy is right about Trotsky’s originality. This lay in the demand, not simply for a workers’ government in Russia, but that the workers go on to make a socialist revolution, overthrow the tsarist state and institute workers’ self-rule. He is simply wrong to argue that “Trotsky sometimes endeavoured to minimise the originality of his conception by claiming an identity of views with Luxemburg, Mehring, Kautsky and, to a certain extent, Lenin”. Trotsky never claimed identity, but rather consistency and family resemblance. On that score, Trotsky was quite correct.

Löwy states that the vital kernel of permanent revolution is “its concept of the uninterrupted going-over of the democratic towards the socialist revolution”. Up to a point this metaphor, of “going over” or “growing over”, as it originated with Kautsky and was used by Trotsky and Lenin, was fine. For them, it assumed that the working class was the principal agent of the combined revolution and the workers were led by their own Marxist party. These assumptions are right – but, as we shall see, Löwy does not accept them as essential.

General theory

Löwy is right that Trotsky’s generalisation of the theory of permanent revolution to the entire colonial and semi-colonial (or ex-colonial) world was catalysed by the dramatic upsurge of the Chinese class struggle in 1925-27. The Chinese working class appeared on the cusp of taking power in the major cities, until thwarted by Stalin’s self-limitation of the revolution to the leadership of Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang’s army then drowned the workers’ revolution in blood. As such China (1925-27) as well as Spain (1936-39) proved permanent revolution negatively: without Marxist leadership even a fantastically militant working class movement could not complete it own socialist revolution and take power. He praises Trotsky’s “foresight, the accuracy of his predictions and the strategic truth of his warnings” on China as “unquestionable”.

However Löwy is keen to ‘correct’ Trotsky even at this stage. He states that Trotsky can “rightly be adjudged guilty of the error of ‘sociologism’”, in relation to the Chinese revolution in 1949. Then, the Maoist-Stalinist party-army defeated Chiang through rural guerrilla warfare and then took control of the cities, without (and indeed against) the involvement of the workers. Löwy explicitly refers to the to an article by Ernest Mandel, The Third Chinese Revolution (December 1950), which effectively started this bowdlerisation of permanent revolution. Mandel wrote that “The whole logic of the situation pointed to the conclusions of the Trotskyist theory of the permanent revolution”.

What Mandel meant is teased out by Löwy. In the original 1981 book, in a passage from a chapter omitted from this new edition, he stated that: “The Chinese revolution was sociologically a peasant revolution, led by ‘petty bourgeois’ intellectuals, but it would be absurd to deduce from this that it was equally true politically. One thus discovers the operation of what Isaac Deutscher termed a ‘double substitutionism’: socially, the peasantry substituted for the proletariat as the revolution’s mass base; while politically the Communist Party substituted itself for the working class. Nonetheless, the political leadership of the revolutionary process must be characterised as ‘proletarian’ to the extent that the CCP was – historically, politically and ideologically – a working class party (albeit with significant bureaucratic tendencies)” (1981 p.129).


This “double substitution” remains in the new edition of the book and like the original, is generalised to other Stalinist revolutions. Löwy argues that “what occurred in Russia, Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba corresponded closely to Trotsky’s central thesis: the possibility of an uninterrupted and combined (democratic/socialist) revolution in a ‘backward ’, dependent or colonial country”.

Löwy is right that in Russia in October 1917 “the working class was directly the principal social actor and architect of the revolution through its organisation into soviets”. And he admits that “although the proletariat did play a seminal role in the early stage of the struggle in China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia (as well as in Cuba in the 1930s), it was largely absent during the actual revolutionary seizure of power”. Indeed, he goes as far as to state that “not only was the proletariat not directly the social agent of revolution, but the revolutionary party was not the direct, organic expression of the proletariat”.

However Löwy’s assessment of Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba is completely wrong. He states that: “All the post-1917 revolutions, therefore, can be designated as ‘proletarian’ only indirectly, by the nature of the political leadership of the revolutionary process”. He believes that the Communist Parties that led the first three ‘working class’, despite that fact that on coming to power they crushed all independent organisation by the actually-existing working classes they ruled. Although he points to the bureaucracy as ruling layer (but not ruling class, he still designates these states as “proletarian”, albeit deformed.

What this meant in the original edition was to hail the Stalinist rulers as somehow working class leaders presiding over more progressive societies in which an atomised working class was still somehow also the ruling class. Thus Löwy praises “Mao Tse-tung’s genuinely original achievements, which lay in the field of active statesmanship” – and never mind the suppression of strikes, the great leap forward and indeed the imprisonment of some Chinese Trotskyists for the entire period of his rule. Che Guevara is praised for his “seasoned Marxist background”, which took in support for the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956 and the suppression of a small group of Cuban Trotskyists.

Mandel, Lowy and the rest of the “Fourth International” argued that the process of permanent revolution was at work in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba. They believed that these revolutions started out as bourgeois democratic but were forced to become socialist revolutions and create workers states, albeit “deformed”. This is utter nonsense. None of these revolutions was headed by the working class – in fact in each case the working class forces and the genuine Marxists had first been routed, and in some cases actually physically liquidated. Worse, these revolutions were headed from the start by Stalinists whose project was to create a society on the model of the USSR – a model in which the working class was atomised and completely disenfranchised. In fact these social revolutions had nothing to do with permanent revolution, because the working class was not the principle actor and because working class socialists were largely absent or unable to provide the necessary alternative leadership.

A root of the problem is the mangling of the “growing over” metaphor. This was fine in the hands of the classical Marxists, who understood it assumed that the working class was hegemonic and therefore led by an authentic Marxist party. However in Löwy’s hands, where substitutes for both the working class and its Marxist leadership are permitted, “growing over” becomes the justification for revolutions led by Stalinists that result in Stalinist states dressed up as victories and social progress.

In a note of contrition, in the recent interview appended to the book, Löwy states that “thirty years later I feel that much of it has become outdated. Among other reasons, because most of the societies that I characterised as ‘post-capitalist’ have simply restored capitalism, without much resistance from the exploited classes”. But if that’s true, why reprint the book at all – including the conclusion where much this is restated? History has put paid to the oxymoronic formulation of “bureaucratic workers’ states” It has also refuted Löwy’s view of permanent revolution.

If Löwy half-heartedly repudiates his view of Stalinism as capable of leading the permanent revolution, he does not reject his other serious revisions of Trotsky’s original theory. In his conclusion he writes: “If the politics of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution have on the whole passed the tests of history, his sociology – that is, his analysis of the roles of various social classes in the revolutionary process – requires some important clarifications and amendments”.

Löwy states that Trotsky’s view of the peasantry, as a class unable to rule itself and therefore will side either with bourgeoisie or the workers “contained a very deep political truth, but if understood in directly sociological terms, it was contradicted by the actual course of historical development in China and other dependent countries”. Further, “the revolutionary role of the peasantry is simply a huge historical fact that occupies a central place in the unfolding dynamic of revolution in the twentieth century”. He states that Trotsky was correct in insisting that “the peasantry could only play a consistent revolutionary role under proletarian and communist leadership” –but this can only be true if you pretend that the Stalinist party-armies were in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba were somehow working class.

Löwy is on firmer ground when he wrote that Trotsky underestimated the potential of the Indian bourgeoisie to win independence and to create a parliamentary democracy. However Trotsky was perfectly well aware that in the absence of a powerful organised working class movement, the self-conscious bourgeoisie would continue to rule, to evolve and develop its reach. He took such a perspective about the post-first world war stabilisation of capitalism. He also developed a nuanced account of both Bonapartism and of fascism, which does explain the forms of rule of less-developed countries during the twentieth century. In his earliest writings on permanent revolution, Trotsky argued that: “The state is no end in itself. It is only a working machine in the hands of the ruling social forces... The state is no end in itself. It is, however, the greatest means of organising, disorganising, and re-organising social relations. Depending upon whose hands control it, it can be either a lever for profound transformation or an instrument of organised stagnation” (Day and Gaido, 2011 p.502).

The relevance of permanent revolution

In reality the twentieth century is littered with revolutions in which the working class played a crucial role. Germany and Hungary in 1919, China (1925-27), Spain (1936-39), Hungary (1956), France (1968), Chile (1973), Portugal (1974-75), Iran (1978-79) and Poland (1980). More recently, one might argue that the events in China (1989) and in Indonesia (1998) had elements of permanent revolution, where the working class played a leading role. What these revolutions have in common is that the working class was thwarted from making a socialist revolution, even where they had succeeded in shaking (and in certain cases), threatening the existing (bourgeois or Stalinist) states. Permanent revolution was aborted, even where powerful mass organisations of workers (councils, cordones or shoras) were created or where mass strikes and new militant unions were created. A key explanation in all these revolutions is that the working class lacked a Marxist leadership capable of charting a strategy for self-emancipation.

Similarly, in Tunisia and Egypt this year, the working class played a critical role in shaking the old regime and in the latter case, toppling a dictator. However neither has yet been able to shatter the old armed forces or shatter the state bureaucracy. There is still the potential for a permanentist logic to the class struggle in the Middle East revolutions – but not unless working class organisation can be built and unless genuine Marxism is able to flourish. Helping the new labour movements and the Marxists grow and thrive is the central strategic task for socialists who advocate permanent revolution.

The wider relevance of permanent revolution concerns the continued need for the working class movement to fight for the wider goals of universal human liberation. The working class in every capitalist (or Stalinist) state still needs to fight for democracy, against national and other forms of oppression and indeed for wider goals such as tackling climate change. The working class must lead other basic exploited classes in the struggle not just for socialism but for general freedom. It must act as a universal class, in Marx’s formulation. Löwy is right that the struggle to prevent dangerous climate change is analogous to permanent revolution, in that it requires working class leadership and ultimately, working class revolution. Permanent revolution is ultimately a perspective of working class-led emancipatory politics. But to play that role, we need to slough off its excrescences.

Appendix: Cliff’s pale shadow

A pale shadow of post-Trotsky Trotskyist approach is Cliff’s so-called “deflected permanent revolution”. Cliff’s rational thought was that the revolutions in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba had been headed by other classes and class fractions (intellectuals, the military etc) and so the outcome was still class society, what Cliff called state capitalism. But they were not somehow working class revolutions that got blown off track, or to push the analogy, where somehow the points were switched part way through, as suggested by the “deflect” metaphor. “Permanent revolution” in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba, without the working class and without a Marxist party, is not permanent revolution in Trotsky’s sense at all, “deflected” or otherwise.

In Cliff there is the lingering hang-over of the “revolutionary process” that so damaged other post-Trotsky Trotskyists, where the ruse of reason apparently ensures that “the revolution” advances onwards, whatever and indeed despite its social content and organisational form. Cliff cut out the teleological “inevitability” of the “growing over to socialism” that was implicit in the USFI view, though he failed to analyse the actual outcome as a bureaucratic social revolution leading to bureaucratic class societies parallel but not equal to capitalism.

But the central point is that these were never working class-led revolutions from the start. The original permanent revolution strategy was premised on the central strategic position of the working class in the social relations prior to revolution, as well as the concomitant role of socialists in providing ideas and organisation that would wield the working class into the leading force in the forthcoming revolution. The Stalinist revolutions were neither permanent nor (working class) revolution at all.

Marxist Theory and History
Culture and Reviews


Submitted by guenter on Sun, 02/10/2011 - 14:09

" though he failed to analyse the actual outcome as a bureaucratic social revolution leading to bureaucratic class societies parallel but not equal to capitalism. "

if the nature of USSR was not socialist,no degenerated workers-state, not (private-)capitalism, not state-capitalism, then what was it exactly? the term prefered by shachtmanites &AWL (bureaucratic class society) never cleared anything, cause if its not capitalism, then what form of class-society is it?

Submitted by AWL on Tue, 04/10/2011 - 11:57

Hi Guenter,

This is what I wrote here:

It's not quite right that the AWL has "adhered" to Shachtman's position, ie that the Stalinist states were/are a form of class exploitation distinct from capitalism ("bureaucratic collectivism").

In fact our collective position, adopted in 1988 after much debate and developed from there, does not conclude exactly what the Stalinist states were/are. We agree - all of us, as far as I know - that they were class societies, with ruling classes that the workers had to overthrow in a full political and social revolution. We agree that they not post-capitalist, but parallel detours within the general epoch of capitalism.

Of those in the AWL who have a definite opinion, some, I think a majority, hold some sort of bureaucratic collectivist viewpoint. Others regard Stalinism as a form of state capitalism.

But what would be the benefit of voting through a majority position? We have rough agreement on everything that significantly affects our political program. Meanwhile, we continue the debate about theory.

As our 1988 document, "Reassessing the Eastern Bloc", put it:

"We must conduct the discussion carefully. Too often discussion of the command economies on the left has been just a search for a label that can then be wielded as a sect badge. But a label is no substitute for detailed, careful, factual analysis...

"We are concerned, of course, to find the best label. Some of us think that some term like 'bureaucratic collectivism' is the best approximation. Others would prefer 'state capitalism'. This must be discussed. But we have no intention, no intention at all, of finding a label according to a pre-set timetable.

"Our concern is first and foremost to develop an exact, concrete assessment of the workers' struggles and the bureaucracy's operations in the Eastern Bloc, and to fight for a programme for workers' liberty East and West."

Reassessing the Eastern Bloc (1988)
For more see What was the Stalnist USSR? A Marxist debate

Sacha Ismail

Submitted by guenter on Tue, 04/10/2011 - 14:56

hi sacha,
i got ur point, no simple labels, but that dont exactly answer my quest.
u see, i tend to see the ex-USSR as state-capitalist.most who disagree with that, see it as a degenerated workers state. only AWL holds the position, that it was a class-society, but not necessarily a capitalist one. this i see as a contradiction. cause what other forms of class-society u know, except capitalism? only if we go back in history, goin back 2 absolutism, feudalism, slavery and so on. but i dont think that any1 wud label the ex-USSR like this. but if we claim that it was something new in-between capitalism and socialism, we are close to "degenerated workers state" so what type of class-society, if not capitalism? the term of bureaucratic collectivsm dont clear up the class-nature.

Submitted by PaulHampton on Tue, 04/10/2011 - 21:58

In reply to by guenter

Two short points

1) The central issue here is the way post-Trotsky Trotskyists mangled permanent revolution into a “process”. They described events in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam and Cuba as “socialist revolutions” leading to “deformed workers states”, using the metaphors ripped out of context from Trotsky. Yet these were not revolutions that were made by the working class or led working class parties – and their outcome was states that would not/do not even allow workers the space to organise, never mind rule. As such, I think we’re closer to the essence of Trotsky’s permanent revolution than other apparent advocates.

2) The AWL has long sloughed off the old formula to define the Stalinist states and the bowdlerisation of permanent revolution. I think we’ve also begun to develop assessments about the forms of exploitation in these societies (especially for China under Mao and Castro’s Cuba), which is the grounding for a theory of new class societies. It’s an unfinished research programme, but one where we’ve at least cleared away some excrescences and drawn some robust and consistent political conclusions. One of the great things to take from Trotsky is that history does not follow a unilinear succession of rigid stages – rather there are aberrations, hybrids, blind-alleys from the main lines. It is the method of Marxism that allows us to tackle new and previously unknown forms of class society as well as new problems unknown to our forerunners.


Submitted by AWL on Wed, 05/10/2011 - 10:43

To elaborate on Paul's second point, why is it not possible to have parallel, "sideways" developments as well as clear steps forward and back? To say, it's not capitalism, therefore it must either be qualitatively more advanced/progressive or more backward/reactionary than capitalism, is faulty logic. As Max Shachtman put it when he was still a revolutionary:

Marxists, especially those educated by Lenin and Trotsky will readily admit that classes and nations can leap forward in history, can leap over stages, can be hurled backwards along the main line of historical development. But in speaking of Stalinist Russia they will obdurately refuse to acknowledge that history 'permits' sideleaps, mongrel social formations, unique contributions. Leap forward? Yes! Thrust backward? Yes! Leap sideways? No! - that is strictly prohibited by the party statutes!

(Actually I think there is a good argument that Stalinism is more reactionary than "Western" capitalism, both in terms of developing the productive forces and the possibility of space for working-class organisation and struggle to develop. It doesn't follow, however, that it is qualitatively more reactionary like, say, feudalism.)

As far as I know, all the "bureaucratic collectivists" in the AWL agree that Stalinism is roughly parallel to capitalism in its place in history. As do the advocates of a "state capitalist" analysis, obviously.

Have a read of some of the documents.


Submitted by guenter on Wed, 05/10/2011 - 14:32

Have a read of some of the documents.


sacha, i thought u know that i read anything here not long ago. if this would have cleared everything, i wudnt have raised my quests.
sorry that i hooked on a sentence of the article which wasnt his main case and thanks 4 all who replied, but all i can see, is, that other people have less difficulties than i to live with open quests, but i dont think that we clarified the case.

if u like, see my remarks on victor serge and kronstadt; this articles are really contradicting each other, and again i wonder, what is the "line" of AWL.

Submitted by AWL on Wed, 05/10/2011 - 15:10

See my reply to Martyn Hudson here.

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