Was “permanent revolution” the flaw?

Submitted by Matthew on 25 September, 2019 - 8:42 Author: Martin Thomas

A discussion of Jacques Texier's book Revolution et democratie chez Marx et Engels

Reformist socialism? Who is there, who could there be, who would hold to such a doctrine today?

As a positive scheme for a society of free and democratic cooperation, rather than as a negative reluctance to see working-class struggle rise too high?

Labour's 2017 manifesto was a refreshing break from New Labour. But it did not propose to replace a society of the rich Few and the hard-up Many by equality. It proposed only to take a little from those Few to alleviate the Many.

And, unlike some reformist-socialist platforms of earlier times, it sketched no process through which an accumulation of piecemeal measures like those it proposed would eventually bring an equal and unexploitative society.

The big-business class will never wait quietly while socialists win a majority in Parliament and carry out our measures, shaking hands with us as we expropriate them and congratulating us on a good clean fight?

Few active socialists believe it will. Many, however, hesitate at the stark alternative of committing themselves to revolutionary socialism. The great merit of Jacques Texier’s book is that he spells out as theory the half-thought ideas which must often underpin such hesitation.

Texier, who died in 2011, was an expert on Gramsci and a not-exceptionally-left-wing member of the French Communist Party. He defined his hesitation thus:

“The 20th century saw a whole series of glorious revolutions… 1917… Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban… Algerian… They all failed to install a socialist system capable of functioning normally. Our revolutionary enthusiasm, without having disappeared, is accompanied by doubts...”

He pursues the question, not by analysing those 20th century revolutions, but by studying the ideas of Marx and Engels on revolution and democracy, and their interpretation by Lenin and Trotsky.

His account is lucid and unpretentious, as good as summary of the ideas of Marx and Engels on the question as you will find anywhere.

His conclusion is that, despite the good and generous impulses behind it, the idea of permanent revolution – sketched by Marx and Engels, developed by Trotsky, then tacitly adopted by Lenin – is a snare.

Texier does not counterpose revolution to democracy in general. He recognises plainly that, contrary to liberal myth, historically it has taken revolutionary action to win democracy. But, he notes: “Effectively, it is hardly a question of democratic procedures during revolutionary confrontations”.

So the question arises: “We can always wonder, ‘How long does a permanent revolution last?’ And the Stalinist despot has his reply ready: ‘As long as it takes, that is, a long time, or for ever’.”

Permanent revolution, argues Texier, was a tactic advocated by Marx and Engels for a particular time and place – continental Europe between 1848 and 1871. For Britain and the USA they saw a different perspective, peaceful revolution through a working-class parliamentary majority.

Moreover, in his later years, Engels saw his and Marx’s “point of view of that time [1848-50] to have been an illusion”. He emphasised peaceful methods of struggle, and defined a democratic republic as “the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat”.

Texier knows that Engels never renounced the right of revolution, and emphasised, even when writing about the possibility of a peaceful working-class victory in Britain, that he “hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a ‘pro-slavery rebellion’ [i.e. without violent clashes], to this peaceful and legal revolution”.

Nevertheless, he believes that, in part because of defects in Lenin’s presentation in State and Revolution, the legacy of Marx and Engels has been transmitted in a one-sided way.

Texier's argument is flawed in his conflation of the 1917 Russian workers' revolutions with later Stalinist or nationalist-statist revolutions.

Where many “orthodox” neo-Trotskyists have argued that the Maoist revolution in China, for example, was a form of permanent revolution, because the Maoists started with a broad democratic alliance against the Japanese invaders and then pushed on to undivided “communist” power, Texier implicitly agrees. Only where the neo-Trotskyists saw credit for Mao, Texier sees discredit for permanent revolution.

In fact the Maoist road to power was not permanent revolution in any Marxist sense.

It was utterly different in substance because the agency was not the working class. It was a hierarchical military machine, ready to transform itself into the core of a state-centred exploitative ruling class against the workers.

The answer to the ensuing Stalinist despotism is a new revolution — only a working-class one.

There are good reasons why many activists hesitate to declare themselves “revolutionary” in general. Successful revolutions in the 20th century were generally operations by which a military force, building itself up by guerrilla war and by broad-brush democratic agitation, eventually went on the attack against a decrepit old power and replaced it by its own rule.

Some were horrific (Cambodia), some were more benign (Cuba in the early years after 1959), but Texier is right: all produced nothing like a functioning socialist democracy. In terms of democracy, all produced less than even the meagre, limited bourgeois democracy we're used to.

The Russian revolution of October 1917 was something qualitatively different, a successful workers’ revolution. The constraints of its isolation in poverty and its civil war against counter-revolution of 1918-21 make it look — when viewed “backwards”, through the lenses of the ensuing Stalinist degeneration — less different than it was.

Texier knows that Stalinism was qualitatively different from Lenin’s regime. He believes, however, that Lenin’s revolutionary daring in 1917, and the ensuing emergency regime, laid the basis for Stalinism.

“Revolutionary” is no less ambiguous a word than “communist” or “socialist”, after the experience of Stalinism. Working-class democratic revolutionaries? Yes, that’s us! “Revolutionaries” in general? Tell us what sort of revolution you mean.

The problem is compounded by traits of the anti-Stalinist left. Too often, instead of denouncing revolutionary Stalinists for the sort of revolution they went for, we would denounce them for being too slow about that revolution, wanting to do it in “stages” for example.

From a working-class point of view, a revolutionary perspective means aiming to change society drastically and thoroughly – replacing the rule of the capitalist class by that of the working class, which is something that cannot be done quietly and bit-by-bit any more than a person can turn a somersault in gradual stages.

That revolutionary perspective is not counterposed to reform. Only by struggles for reform can the working class gain the organisation, confidence and awareness necessary for revolution. It is counterposed only to reformism, meaning a doctrine which sees no further than piecemeal changes within the framework of status quo, and imagines that the working-class can be liberated just by the accumulation of those pieces.

This argument is quite distinct from the one about violence. Reformism can be violent, too! Sometimes big hard-fought strikes just for better wages cannot be won without pickets willing to use force if necessary. Sometimes oppressed minorities cannot counter fascist and racist violence without militant defence squads.

Many reformists can and do recognise that working-class and democratic fighters must sometimes use violence.

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