Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution

Submitted by martin on 25 April, 2007 - 11:35 Author: Leon Trotsky

Click here for the series on The Roots of Bolshevism of which this article is part
An article by Trotsky from 1940. (Glossary at the end).
The revolution of 1905 was not only the “dress rehearsal of 1917”; it was also the laboratory from which all the basic groupings of Russian political thought emerged and where all the tendencies and shadings within Russian Marxism took shape or acquired their outlines. The center of the disputes and differences was naturally occupied by the question of the historical character of the Russian revolution and its future paths of development.

In and of itself this war of conceptions and prognoses does not relate directly to the biography of Stalin, who took no independent part in it. Those few propaganda articles which he wrote on the subject are without the slightest theoretical interest. Scores of Bolsheviks, with pens in hand, popularized the very same ideas and did so much more ably.

A critical exposition of the revolutionary conception of Bolshevism should, in the very nature of things, have entered into a biography of Lenin. [However, that did not come about.]

Theories have a fate of their own. In the period of the first revolution and after it, up to 1923, when revolutionary doctrines were being elaborated and put into practice, Stalin generally held no independent position. But beginning in 1924, the situation changed abruptly. An era of bureaucratic reaction opened up, with drastic reevaluations of the past. The film of the revolution began to run backward. Old doctrines were subjected to new appraisals or new interpretations. Quite unexpectedly, at first sight, the center of attention was focused on the conception of “permanent revolution” as the fountainhead of all the alleged blunderings of “Trotskyism.” For a number of years, the criticism of this conception constituted the main content of the theoretical—sit venio verbo (if one may use that term)—work of Stalin and his collaborators. It may be said that the whole of Stalinism, taken on the theoretical plane, grew out of the criticism of the theory of permanent revolution, as it was first formulated in 1905. For this reason, an exposition of the theory of permanent revolution, as distinct from the theories of the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks, cannot fail to enter into this book [Stalin: An Appraisal of the Man and His Influence], even if in the form of an appendix.

The development of Russia is characterized first of all by backwardness. Historical backwardness does not, however, mean that a simple reproduction of the development of advanced countries will occur, with merely a delay of one or two centuries. Backwardness engenders an entirely new “combined” social formation, in which the most modern advances of capitalist technology and structure are introduced [vnedryayutsa] in the midst of feudal relations and those of prefeudal barbarism, transforming and subjecting those older social relations and creating a unique new interrelationship of classes. The same thing applies in the realm of ideas. Precisely because of its historical tardiness, Russia turned out to be the only European country where Marxism as a doctrine and the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party attained powerful development even before the bourgeois revolution. It is only natural therefore that it was precisely in Russia that the problem of the correlation between the struggle for democracy and the struggle for socialism was subjected to the most profound theoretical analysis.

The idealist democrats, chiefly the Narodniks, superstitiously refused to acknowledge that the coming revolution would be bourgeois. They labeled it “democratic,” seeking through this neutral political formula to mask its social content—not only from others but also from themselves. But in the struggle against Narodism, Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, established as long ago as the early 1880s that Russia had no reason whatever to expect a privileged path of development, that like other “profane” nations, it would have to pass through the purgatory of capitalism and that precisely along this path it would acquire the political freedom indispensable for the further struggle of the proletariat for socialism.

Plekhanov not only separated the bourgeois revolution as a historical task from the socialist revolution—which he postponed to the indefinite future—but he depicted entirely different combinations of forces for each of these “stages” [the “bourgeois stage” and the socialist one]. Political freedom was to be achieved by the proletariat in alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie. Then after many decades, and on a higher level of capitalist development, the proletariat would carry out the socialist revolution in direct struggle against the bourgeoisie.

Lenin, in turn, wrote the following at the end of 1904: “To the Russian intellectual it always seems that to acknowledge our revolution as bourgeois is to deprive it of color, to degrade and debase it... For the proletariat [in contrast to the intelligentsia] the struggle for political freedom and for the democratic republic in bourgeois society is simply a necessary stage in the struggle for the socialist revolution.”

“Marxists are absolutely convinced,” Lenin wrote in 1905, “of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? This means that those democratic transformations which have become indispensable for Russia do not, in and of themselves, signify the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule, but on the contrary they clear the soil, for the first time and in a real way, for a broad and swift, for a European and not an Asiatic development of capitalism. They will make possible for the first time the rule of the bourgeoisie as a class...

“We cannot leap over the bourgeois democratic framework of the Russian revolution,” Lenin insisted. “But we can extend this framework to a colossal degree,” that is, establish much more favorable conditions within bourgeois society for the future struggle of the proletariat. Within these limits Lenin followed Plekhanov. The bourgeois character of the revolution served both factions of the Russian Social Democracy [Bolsheviks and Mensheviks] as their starting point.

It is quite natural that under these conditions, Koba (Stalin), in his propagandistic writings, did not go beyond the popularizing formulas that constituted the common property of Bolsheviks as well as Mensheviks.

“The Constituent Assembly,” he wrote in January 1905, “elected on the basis of equal, direct, and secret universal suffrage—this is what we must now fight for! Only such an Assembly will give us the democratic republic, so urgently needed by us for our struggle for socialism.” The bourgeois republic as an arena for a protracted class struggle for the socialist goal—that is his perspective.

In 1907, i.e., after innumerable discussions in the press both in St. Petersburg and abroad and after a serious testing of theoretical prognoses in the experiences of the first revolution, Stalin wrote:

“That our revolution is bourgeois, that it must conclude by destroying the feudal and not the capitalist order, that it can be crowned only by the democratic republic—on this, it seems, all are agreed in our party.”

Stalin spoke not of what the revolution begins with, but of what it ends with, and he limited it in advance and quite categorically to “only the democratic republic.” We would seek in vain in his writings for even a hint of any perspective of a socialist revolution in connection with a democratic overturn. This remained his position even at the beginning of the February revolution in 1917, before Lenin’s arrival in St. Petersburg [in April 1917].

For Plekhanov, Axelrod, and the leaders of Menshevism in general, the sociological characterization of the revolution as bourgeois was valuable politically above all because it prohibited in advance any danger of provoking the bourgeoisie by the specter of socialism and “repelling” it into the camp of reaction. “The social relations of Russia have ripened only for the bourgeois revolution,” said the chief tactician of Menshevism, Axelrod, at the Unity Congress [in Stockholm, Sweden, in April 1906]. “In the face of the universal deprivation of political rights in our country there cannot even be talk of a direct battle between the proletariat and other classes for political power…The proletariat is fighting for conditions of bourgeois development. The objective historical conditions make it the destiny of our proletariat to inescapably collaborate with the bourgeoisie in the struggle against the common enemy.” The content of the Russian revolution was thus limited in advance to those transformations which are compatible with the interests and views of the liberal bourgeoisie.

It is precisely at this point that the basic disagreement between the two factions began. Bolshevism absolutely refused to accept the notion that the Russian bourgeoisie was capable of leading its own revolution through to the end. With infinitely greater power and consistency than Plekhanov, Lenin advanced the agrarian question as the central problem of the democratic overturn in Russia. “The crux of the Russian revolution,” he repeated, “is the agrarian question, the question of the land. Conclusions concerning the defeat or victory of the revolution must be based…on the calculation of the condition of the masses in the struggle for land.” Together with Plekhanov, Lenin viewed the peasantry as a petty-bourgeois class; the peasant land program as a program of bourgeois progress.

“Nationalization [of the land] is a bourgeois measure,” he insisted at the Unity Congress. “It will give an impulse to the development of capitalism; it will sharpen the class struggle, strengthen the mobilization [intensify the utilization] of the land, cause an influx of capital into agriculture, lower the price of grain.” Notwithstanding the indubitable bourgeois character of the agrarian revolution, however, the Russian bourgeoisie remained hostile to the expropriation of landed estates, and precisely for this reason it strove toward a compromise with the monarchy on the basis of a constitution on the Prussian pattern. To Plekhanov’s idea of an alliance between the proletariat and the liberal bourgeoisie Lenin counterposed the idea of an alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry. The task of the revolutionary collaboration of these two classes he proclaimed to be the establishment of a “democratic dictatorship,” as the only means of radically cleansing Russia of feudal rubbish, of creating a free farmers’ system and clearing the road for the development of capitalism along American and not Prussian lines.

The victory of the revolution, he wrote, can be crowned “only by a dictatorship because the accomplishment of transformations immediately and urgently needed by the proletariat and the peasantry will evoke the desperate resistance of the landlords, the big bourgeoisie, and the tsarist regime. Without the dictatorship it will be impossible to break the resistance and repel counterrevolutionary attempts. But this will of course not be a socialist dictatorship, but a democratic dictatorship. It will not be able to touch (without a whole series of transitional stages of revolutionary development) the foundations of capitalism. It will be able, in the best case, to realize a radical redistribution of landed property in favor of the peasantry, introduce a consistent and complete democratic system, going so far as the establishment of a republic, rooting out all Asiatic and feudal features not only from the day-to-day life of the village but also of the factory, beginning to seriously improve workers’ conditions and raise their living standards and, last but not least, carry over the revolutionary conflagration to Europe.”

Lenin’s conception represented an enormous step forward insofar as it proceeded not from constitutional reforms but from the agrarian overturn as the central task of the revolution and singled out the only realistic combination of social forces for its accomplishment. The weak point of Lenin’s conception, however, was the internally contradictory idea of “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” Lenin himself underscored the fundamental limitation of this “dictatorship” when he openly called it “bourgeois.” By this he meant to say that for the sake of preserving its alliance with the peasantry the proletariat would in the coming revolution have to forego the direct posing of socialist tasks. But this would signify the renunciation by the proletariat of its own dictatorship. Consequently, the gist of the matter involved the dictatorship of the peasantry, even if with the participation of the workers. On certain occasions Lenin said just this. For example, at the Stockholm Congress [that is, the same “Unity Congress” of 1906 mentioned above], in refuting Plekhanov, who came out against the “utopia” of seizing power, Lenin said: “What program is under discussion? The agrarian. Who is assumed to seize power under this program? The revolutionary peasantry.” Is Lenin mixing up the power of the proletariat with that of the peasantry? No, he says, referring to himself: Lenin sharply differentiated the socialist power of the proletariat from the bourgeois democratic power of the peasantry. “But how,” he exclaimed again, “is a victorious peasant revolution possible without the seizure of power by the revolutionary peasantry?” In this polemical formula Lenin revealed with special clarity the vulnerability of his position.

The peasantry is dispersed over the surface of an enormous country whose key junctions are the cities. The peasantry itself is incapable of even formulating its own interests inasmuch as in each district these appear differently. The economic link between the provinces is created by the market and the railways, but both the market and the railways are in the hands of the cities. In seeking to tear itself away from the restrictions of the village and to generalize its own interests, the peasantry inescapably falls into political dependence upon the city. Finally, the peasantry is heterogeneous in its social relations as well: the kulak stratum naturally seeks to swing the peasantry toward an alliance with the urban bourgeoisie, while the lower strata in the villages pull toward the side of the urban workers. Under these conditions the peasantry as such is completely incapable of conquering power.

True enough, in ancient China, revolutions placed the peasantry in power or, more precisely, placed the military leaders of peasant uprisings in power. This led each time to a redistribution of the land and the establishment of a new “peasant” dynasty, whereupon the same old history would begin over again, with a new concentration of usury capital, and eventually a new uprising. As long as the revolution preserves its purely peasant character, society is incapable of emerging from these hopeless and vicious cycles. This was the basis of ancient Asiatic history, including ancient Russian history. In Europe beginning with the close of the Middle Ages each victorious peasant uprising placed in power not a peasant government but a left urban party. To put it more precisely, a peasant uprising turned out victorious exactly to the degree to which it succeeded in strengthening the position of the revolutionary section of the urban population. In bourgeois Russia of the twentieth century there could be no question of a seizure of power by the revolutionary peasantry.

The attitude toward the liberal bourgeoisie was, as has been said, the touchstone of the differentiation between revolutionists and opportunists in the ranks of the Social Democrats. How far could the Russian revolution go? What would be the character of the future revolutionary Provisional Government? What tasks would confront it? And in what order? These questions with all their importance could be correctly posed only on the basis of the fundamental character of the policy of the proletariat, and the character of this policy was in turn determined first of all by the attitude toward the liberal bourgeoisie.

Plekhanov obviously and stubbornly shut his eyes to the fundamental conclusion of the political history of the nineteenth century: Whenever the proletariat comes forward as an independent force the bourgeoisie shifts over to the camp of counterrevolution. The more audacious the mass struggle, all the swifter is the reactionary degeneration of liberalism. No one has yet invented a means for paralyzing the effects of this law of the class struggle.

“We must cherish the support of nonproletarian parties,” repeated Plekhanov during the years of the first revolution [1905–07], “and not repel them from us by tactless actions.” By monotonous preachments of this sort, this philosopher of Marxism indicated that the living dynamics of society were to him a sealed book. “Tactlessness” can repel an individual, especially a sensitive intellectual. Classes and parties are attracted or repelled by social interests. “It can be stated with certainty,” Lenin replied to Plekhanov, “that the liberals and landlords will forgive you millions of ‘tactless acts’ but will not forgive you a summons to take away the land.” And this referred not only to the landlords. The upper echelons of the bourgeoisie are bound up with the landowners by the unity of property interests, and more narrowly by the banking system. The upper elements among the petty bourgeoisie and the intelligentsia are materially and morally dependent upon the big property owners and the owners of medium-sized properties. They are all afraid of an independent mass movement.

And yet, in order to overthrow the tsarist system, it was necessary to rouse tens upon tens of millions of oppressed people to a heroic, wholehearted, self-sacrificing revolutionary assault that would stop at nothing. The masses can rise to the high level of making an insurrection only under the banner of their own interests and consequently in the spirit of irreconcilable hostility toward the exploiting classes, beginning with the landlords. The “repulsion” of the oppositional bourgeoisie from the revolutionary workers and peasants was therefore an inherent law of the revolution itself and could not be avoided by means of diplomacy or “tact.”

[In the 1905 revolution] each passing month confirmed Lenin’s appraisal of liberalism. Contrary to the best hopes of the Mensheviks, the Cadets [i.e., Constitutional Democrats, the main party of Russia’s capitalists] not only did not prepare to take their place at the head of the “bourgeois” revolution, but on the contrary they found their historical mission more and more in the struggle against it.

After the crushing of the December uprising [i.e., the armed uprising of the workers in Moscow in 1905] the liberals, who occupied the political limelight thanks to the ephemeral First Duma, sought with all their might to justify themselves before the monarchy and explain away their insufficiently active counterrevolutionary conduct in the autumn of 1905, when danger had threatened the most sacred foundations of “culture.” The leader of the liberals, Milyukov, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Winter Palace, quite correctly argued in the press that at the end of 1905 the Cadets could not even show themselves before the masses. “Those who now chide the (Cadet) party,” he wrote, “because it did not protest at the time by arranging meetings against the revolutionary illusions of Trotskyism…simply do not understand or do not remember the moods prevailing at the time among the democratic public gathering at meetings.”

By the “illusions of Trotskyism” the liberal leader understood the independent policy of the proletariat, which attracted to the Soviets the sympathies of the bottommost layers in the cities, and of the soldiers and peasants, and in so doing caused “educated” society to be “repelled.” The evolution of the Mensheviks unfolded along parallel lines. They had to justify themselves more and more frequently to the liberals, because they had ended up in a bloc with Trotsky after October 1905. The explanations of Martov, the talented publicist of the Mensheviks, came down to this: it was necessary to make concessions to the “revolutionary illusions” of the masses.

In Tiflis the political groupings took shape on the same principled basis as in St. Petersburg. “To smash reaction,” wrote Noi Zhordania, leader of the Mensheviks in the Caucaus region, “to conquer and carry through the Constitution — this will depend upon the conscious unification and the striving for a single goal on the part of the forces of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie... It is true that the peasantry will be drawn into the movement, investing it with an elemental character, but the decisive role will nevertheless be played by these two classes, while the peasant movement will add grist to their mill.” Lenin mocked at Zhordania’s fears that an irreconcilable policy toward the bourgeoisie would doom the workers to impotence. Zhordania “discusses the question of the possible isolation of the proletariat in a democratic overturn and forgets ... about the peasantry! Of all the possible allies of the proletariat, he knows [only] of the liberal landowners, and he is enamored of them. But he does not know the peasants. And this in the Caucasus!” [Note: The population in the Causasus was predominantly peasant.]

The refutations of Lenin, while correct in essence, simplify the problem on one point. Zhordania did not “forget” about the peasants and, as may be gathered from the hint of Lenin himself, could not have possibly forgotten about them in the Caucasus, where turbulent peasant uprisings were taking place at the time under the very banner of the Mensheviks. Zhordania saw in the peasantry, however, not so much a political ally as a historical battering ram which could and should be utilized by the bourgeoisie in alliance with the proletariat. He did not believe that the peasantry was capable of becoming a leading or even an independent force in the revolution, and in this he was not wrong; but he also did not believe that the proletariat was capable of leading the peasant uprising to victory — and in this he was fatally mistaken. The Menshevik idea of the alliance of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie actually signified the subordination of both the workers and the peasants to the liberals. The reactionary utopianism of this program was determined by the fact that the deep separations and divisions [raschlenenie] that had developed between the social classes paralyzed the bourgeoisie in advance as a revolutionary factor. In this fundamental question Bolshevism was entirely correct. To chase after an alliance with the liberal bourgeoisie would inescapably have placed the Social Democratic Labor Party in opposition to the revolutionary movement of the workers and peasants. In 1905 the Mensheviks still lacked the courage to draw all the necessary conclusions from their theory of the “bourgeois” revolution. In 1917 they followed their ideas to the logical conclusion and [as a result] fell flat on their faces.

On the question of the attitude toward the liberals, Stalin stood on Lenin’s side during the years of the first revolution. It must be stated that during this period even the majority of rank-and-file Mensheviks were closer to Lenin than to Plekhanov on issues relating to the “oppositional” bourgeoisie. A contemptuous attitude toward the liberals was the literary tradition of intellectual radicalism. One would, however, seek in vain for an independent contribution from Koba on this question, for an analysis of social relations in the Caucasus, for new arguments, or even for a new formulation of old arguments. The leader of the Mensheviks in the Caucasus, Zhordania, was far more independent in relation to Plekhanov than Stalin was in relation to Lenin. “In vain the Messrs. Liberals seek,” wrote Koba after [the events of Bloody Sunday, on] January 9, 1905, “to save the tottering throne of the tsar. In vain are they extending the hand of assistance to the tsar! The aroused popular masses are preparing for the revolution and not for reconciliation with the tsar... Yes, gentlemen, your efforts are in vain. The Russian revolution is inevitable, and it is as inevitable as the inevitable rising of the sun! Can you stop the rising sun? That is the question!” And so forth and so on.

Higher than this Koba did not rise. Two and a half years later, repeating Lenin almost literally, he wrote: “The Russian liberal bourgeoisie is anti-revolutionary. It cannot be the motive force, nor, all the less so, the leader of the revolution. It is the sworn enemy of the revolution, and a stubborn struggle must be waged against it.” However, it was precisely on this fundamental question that Stalin was to undergo a complete metamorphosis in the next ten years and was to greet the February revolution of 1917 as a partisan of a bloc with the liberal bourgeoisie and, in accordance with that, as a champion of uniting with the Mensheviks into one party. Only when Lenin arrived from abroad [in April 1917] did he put an abrupt end to this “independent” policy of Stalin, which Lenin called a mockery of Marxism.

The Narodniks saw in the workers and peasants simply “toilers” and “the exploited,” who are all equally interested in socialism. Marxists regarded the peasant as a petty bourgeois who is capable of becoming a socialist only to the extent to which he ceases materially or spiritually to be a peasant. With the sentimentalism peculiar to them, the Narodniks perceived in this sociological characterization a moral slur against the peasantry. For two generations the main struggle between revolutionary tendencies in Russia took place along this line. To understand the future disputes between Stalinism and Trotskyism, it is necessary once again to emphasize that, in accordance with the entire tradition of Marxism, Lenin never for a moment regarded the peasantry as a socialist ally of the proletariat. On the contrary, the impossibility of the socialist revolution in Russia was deduced by him precisely from the colossal preponderance of the peasantry [in Russia’s population]. This idea runs through all his articles which touch directly or indirectly upon the agrarian question.

“We support the peasant movement,” wrote Lenin in September 1905, “to the extent that it is a revolutionary democratic movement. We are preparing (right now, and immediately) for a struggle with it to the extent that it will come forward as a reactionary, anti-proletarian movement.” The entire gist of Marxism lies in this twofold task. Lenin saw the socialist ally in the Western proletariat and partly in the semi-proletarian elements in the Russian village, but never in the peasantry as a whole. “From the beginning we support to the very end, by means of all measures, up to confiscation [of the land],” he repeated with the insistence peculiar to him, “the peasant in general against the landlord, and later (and not even later but at the very same time) we support the proletariat against the peasant in general.”

“The peasantry will conquer in the bourgeois-democratic revolution,” he wrote in March 1906, “and with that it will completely exhaust its revolutionary spirit as the peasantry. The proletariat will conquer in the bourgeois-democratic revolution and with that it will only unfold in a real way its genuine socialist revolutionary spirit.”

“The movement of the peasantry,” Lenin repeated in May of the same year, “is the movement of a different class. This is a struggle not against the foundations of capitalism but for purging all the remnants of feudalism.” This viewpoint can be followed in Lenin from one article to the next, year by year, volume by volume. The language and examples vary; the basic thought remains the same. It could not have been otherwise. Had Lenin seen a socialist ally in the peasantry, he would not have had the slightest ground for insisting upon the “bourgeois” character of the revolution and for limiting “the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” to purely democratic tasks. In those cases where Lenin accused the author of this book of “underestimating” the peasantry he had in mind not at all my nonrecognition of the socialist tendencies of the peasantry but, on the contrary, my inadequate — from Lenin’s viewpoint — recognition of the bourgeois-democratic independence of the peasantry, its ability to create its own power and thereby prevent the establishment of the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat.

The reevaluation of values on this question was opened up only in the years of Thermidorian reaction, the beginning of which coincided approximately with Lenin’s illness and death. Thenceforth the alliance of Russian workers and peasants was proclaimed to be, in and of itself, a sufficient guarantee against the dangers of restoration and an immutable guarantee that socialism could be realized within the borders of the Soviet Union. Replacing the theory of international revolution by the theory of socialism in one country, Stalin began calling the Marxist evaluation of the peasantry nothing other than “Trotskyism.” And this, moreover, was not only in relation to the present but to the entire past.

It is, of course, possible to raise the question whether or not the classic Marxist view of the peasantry has been proven erroneous. This subject would lead us far beyond the limits of the present review. Suffice it to say here that Marxism has never invested its estimation of the peasantry as a non-socialist class with an absolute and static character. Marx himself said that the peasant possesses not only superstitions but the ability to reason. In changing conditions the nature of the peasant himself changes. The regime of the dictatorship of the proletariat opened up very broad possibilities for influencing the peasantry and reeducating it. The limits of these possibilities have not yet been exhausted by history. Nevertheless, it is now already clear that the growing role of state coercion [against the peasantry] in the USSR has not refuted but has confirmed fundamentally the attitude toward the peasantry which distinguished Russian Marxists from the Narodniks. However, whatever may be the situation in this respect today after twenty years of the new regime, it remains undeniable that up to the October revolution, or more correctly up to 1924, no one in the Marxist camp—Lenin, least of all—saw in the peasantry a socialist factor of development. Without the aid of the proletarian revolution in the West, Lenin repeated, restoration in Russia was inevitable. He was not mistaken: the Stalinist bureaucracy is nothing other than the first phase of bourgeois restoration.

We have analyzed above the points of departure of the two main factions in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. But alongside of them, already at the dawn of the first revolution, a third position was formulated, although it met with almost no recognition during those years. Still, we are obliged to present it here with the necessary completeness, not only because it found its confirmation in the events of 1917 but especially because seven years after the October revolution, this conception, after being turned topsy-turvy, began to play a completely unforeseen role in the political evolution of Stalin and the whole Soviet bureaucracy.

At the beginning of 1905 a pamphlet by Trotsky was issued in Geneva. This pamphlet analyzed the political situation as it had unfolded in the winter of 1904. The author arrived at the conclusion that the independent campaign of petitions and banquets by the liberals had exhausted all its possibilities; that the radical intelligentsia who had pinned their hopes on the liberals had arrived in a blind alley together with the latter; that the peasant movement was creating favorable conditions for victory but was incapable of assuring it; that a solution could be achieved only by the armed uprising of the proletariat; and that the next phase on this path would be the general strike. The pamphlet was entitled Before the Ninth of January (Do devyatogo yanvarya), because it was written before the events of Bloody Sunday in St. Petersburg. The mighty strike wave that came after this date, together with the initial armed clashes which supplemented this strike wave, were an unequivocal confirmation of the strategic prognosis of this pamphlet.

The introduction to my work was written by Parvus, a Russian émigré, who had succeeded by that time in becoming a prominent German writer. Parvus was an exceptionally creative personality capable of becoming infected with the ideas of others as well as of enriching others by his ideas. He lacked internal equilibrium and sufficient love for work to give the labor movement the contribution worthy of his talents as thinker and writer. He undoubtedly influenced my personal development, especially in regard to the revolutionary socialist understanding of our epoch. A few years prior to our first meeting Parvus passionately defended the idea of a general strike in Germany; but the country was then passing through a prolonged industrial boom; German Social Democracy had adapted itself to the regime of the Hohenzollerns; and the revolutionary propaganda of a foreigner met with nothing but ironical indifference.

On the second day after the bloody events in St. Petersburg, on becoming acquainted with my pamphlet, then in manuscript form, Parvus was captured by the idea of the exceptional role which the proletariat of backward Russia was destined to play.

The few days that we then spent together in Munich were filled with conversations which clarified a good deal for both of us and which brought us personally closer together. The introduction Parvus wrote for the pamphlet at that time has entered firmly into the history of the Russian revolution. In a few pages he illuminated the social peculiarities of Russia’s belated development. It is true that these had been known previously, but no one had drawn all the necessary conclusions from them.

Parvus wrote:

“The political radicalism of Western Europe was, as is well known, based primarily on the petty bourgeoisie. These were the handicraft workers and, in general, that section of the bourgeoisie which had been caught up by the industrial development but was at the same time pushed out of the capitalist class... In Russia, during the precapitalist period, the cities developed more along Chinese than European lines. They were administrative centers, purely functionary in character, without the slightest political significance, while in terms of economic relations they served as trading centers, bazaars, for the surrounding landlord and peasant milieu. Their development was still very insignificant when it was halted by the capitalist process, which began to create big cities after its own pattern, i.e., factory cities and centers of world trade…The very same thing that hindered the development of petty-bourgeois democracy served to benefit the class consciousness of the proletariat in Russia, namely, the weak development of the handicraft form of production. The proletariat was immediately concentrated in the factories...

“The peasants will be drawn into the movement in ever larger masses. But they are capable only of increasing the political anarchy in the country and, in this way, of weakening the government; they cannot compose a tightly welded revolutionary army. With the development of the revolution, therefore, an ever greater amount of political work will fall to the share of the proletariat. Along with this, its political self-consciousness will broaden, and its political energy will grow…

“The Social Democratic Party will be confronted with the dilemma: either to assume the responsibility for the Provisional Government or to stand aside from the workers’ movement. The workers will consider this government as their own regardless of how the Social Democracy conducts itself…The revolutionary overturn in Russia can be accomplished only by the workers. The revolutionary Provisional Government in Russia will be the government of a workers’ democracy. If the Social Democracy heads the revolutionary movement of the Russian proletariat, then this government will be Social Democratic…

“The Social Democratic Provisional Government will not be able to accomplish a socialist overturn in Russia, but the very process of liquidating the autocracy and of establishing the democratic republic will provide it with a rich soil for political work.”

In the heat of the revolutionary events in the autumn of 1905, I once again met Parvus, this time in St. Petersburg. While preserving an organizational independence from both factions [Bolsheviks and Mensheviks], we jointly edited a mass workers paper, Russkoye Slovo, and, in a coalition with the Mensheviks, a big political newspaper, Nachalo. The theory of the permanent revolution has usually been linked with the names of Parvus and Trotsky. This was only partially correct. The period of Parvus’s revolutionary apogee belongs to the end of the last century, when he marched at the head of the struggle against so-called revisionism, i.e., the opportunist distortion of Marx’s theory. The failure of the attempts to push the German Social Democracy onto the path of more resolute policies undermined his optimism. Toward the perspective of the socialist revolution in the West, Parvus began to react with more and more reservations. The view he held at that time was that the “Social Democratic Provisional Government will not be able to accomplish a socialist overturn in Russia.” His prognoses indicated, therefore, not the transformation of the democratic revolution into the socialist revolution but only the establishment in Russia of a regime of workers’ democracy of the Australian type, where on the basis of a [large-scale] farmers’ movement there arose for the first time a labor government, which did not go beyond the framework of a bourgeois regime.

This conclusion was not shared by me. The Australian democracy grew organically from the virgin soil of a new continent and at once assumed a conservative character and subjected to itself a young but quite privileged proletariat. Russian democracy, on the contrary, could arise only as a result of a grandiose revolutionary overturn, the dynamics of which would in no case permit the workers’ government to remain within the framework of bourgeois democracy. Our differences, which began shortly after the revolution of 1905, resulted in a complete break between us at the beginning of the world war, when Parvus, in whom the skeptic had completely killed the revolutionist, ended up on the side of German imperialism, and later became counselor and adviser to the first president of the German republic, [the right-wing Social Democrat] Ebert.

Beginning with the pamphlet Before the Ninth of January, I returned more than once to the development and justification of the theory of the permanent revolution. In view of the importance which this theory later acquired in the ideological evolution of [Stalin,] the hero of this biography, it is necessary to present it here in the form of exact quotations from my works in 1905-06:

“The core of the population of a modern city, at least in cities of economic and political significance, is constituted by the sharply differentiated class of wage labor. It is precisely this class, essentially unknown during the Great French Revolution, that is destined to play the decisive role in our revolution... In a country economically more backward, the proletariat may come to power sooner than in an advanced capitalist country. The assumption of some sort of automatic dependence of proletarian dictatorship upon the technical forces and resources of a country is a prejudice derived from an extremely oversimplified ‘economic determinist’ form of materialism. Such a view has nothing in common with Marxism... Notwithstanding that the productive forces of industry in the United States are ten times higher than ours, the political role of the Russian proletariat, its influence on the politics of our country, and the possibility of its coming influence on world polities is incomparably higher than the role and significance of the American proletariat...

“The Russian revolution, in our view, will create conditions in which the power may (and with the victory of the revolution must) pass into the hands of the proletariat before the politicians of bourgeois liberalism get a chance to develop their ‘statesmanlike genius’ to the full…The Russian bourgeoisie is surrendering all the revolutionary positions to the proletariat. It will have to surrender likewise the revolutionary leadership of the peasantry. The proletariat in power will appear to the peasantry as an emancipator class... The proletariat, basing itself on the peasantry, will bring all its forces into play to raise the cultural level of the village and develop a political consciousness in the peasantry...

“But perhaps the peasantry itself will crowd out the proletariat and occupy its place? This is impossible. All the experience of history protests against this assumption. It shows that the peasantry is completely incapable of playing an independent political role…From what has been said it is clear how we regard the idea of the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.’ The gist of the matter is not whether we consider it admissible in principle, whether or not we find this form of political cooperation ‘desirable.’ We consider it unrealizable—at least in the direct and immediate sense…”

The foregoing already demonstrates how erroneous is the assertion, endlessly repeated in later years, that the conception presented here “leaped over the bourgeois revolution.”

“The struggle for the democratic renewal of Russia,” I wrote at that time, “has wholly grown out of capitalism and is being conducted by the forces unfolding on the basis of capitalism and is being aimed directly and first of all against the obstacles deriving from feudalism and serfdom that block the path to the development of capitalist society.”

The question, however, was this: Exactly what forces and methods were capable of removing those obstacles?

“It is possible for all the questions of the revolution to be confined to a limited framework by the assertion that our revolution is bourgeois in its objective aims, and therefore in its inevitable results, and it is possible consequently to shut one’s eyes to the fact that the chief agent of this bourgeois revolution is the proletariat, and the proletariat will be pushed toward power by the whole course of the revolution…You may lull yourself with the thought that the social conditions of Russia are not yet ripe for a socialist economy—and consequently you may neglect to consider the fact that the proletariat, once in power, will inevitably be pushed by the whole logic of its situation toward management of the economy by the state... Entering the government not as impotent hostages but as a ruling power, the representatives of the proletariat will by this very act destroy the boundary between minimum and maximum program, i.e., will place collective ownership on the order of the day. At what point the proletariat will be stopped in this direction will depend on the relationship of forces, but not at all upon the original intentions of the party of the proletariat...

“But it is not too early now to pose the question: Must this dictatorship of the proletariat inevitably be shattered against the framework of the bourgeois revolution? Or may it not, on the basis of the existing worldwide historical conditions, open before itself the prospect of victory to be achieved by shattering this limited framework?…One thing can be stated with certainty: Without direct state support from the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and cannot convert its temporary rule into a prolonged socialist dictatorship…”

From this, however, a pessimistic prognosis does not follow, not by any means: “The political emancipation led by the working class of Russia raises this leader to unprecedented historical heights, transfers into its hands colossal forces and resources, and makes it the initiator of the worldwide abolition of capitalism, for which history has created all the necessary objective prerequisites…”

In regard to the degree to which international Social Democracy would prove capable of carrying out its revolutionary task, I wrote in 1906:

“The European socialist parties—above all, the mightiest among them, the German party—have developed a conservatism of their own. As greater and greater masses have rallied to socialism and as the discipline and degree of organization of those masses has increased, that conservatism has grown stronger. Because of this, Social Democracy as an organization embodying the political experience of the proletariat may become at a certain moment a direct obstacle for the workers on the road toward open confrontation with bourgeois reaction…”

I concluded my analysis, however, by expressing the assurance that the “Eastern revolution will imbue the Western proletariat with revolutionary idealism and engender in it the desire to ‘start speaking Russian’ to the class enemy.”

Let us summarize.

The Narodniks, following in the wake of the Slavophiles, proceeded from the illusion that Russia’s path of development would be absolutely unique, avoiding capitalism and the bourgeois republic.

Plekhanov’s Marxism was concentrated on proving that the historical paths of Russia and the West were in principle identical. The program derived from this ignored the wholly real and not at all mystical peculiarities [or unique aspects] of Russia’s social structure and of her revolutionary development.

The Menshevik view, stripped of episodic encrustations and individual deviations, can be reduced to the following: The victory of the Russian bourgeois revolution is conceivable only under the leadership of the liberal bourgeoisie and must hand over power to the latter. A democratic system will then make it possible for the Russian proletariat to catch up with its older Western brothers on the road of the struggle for socialism with incomparably greater success than before.

Lenin’s perspective may be briefly expressed in the following words: The belated Russian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading its own revolution to the end! The complete victory of the revolution through the medium of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” will purge the country of medievalism, invest the development of Russian capitalism with American tempos, strengthen the proletariat in the city and country, and open up broad possibilities for the struggle for socialism. On the other hand, the victory of the Russian revolution will provide a mighty impulse for the socialist revolution in the West, and the latter will not only shield Russia from the dangers of [feudal-monarchical] restoration but also permit the Russian proletariat to reach the conquest of power in a comparatively short historical interval.

The perspective of the permanent revolution may be summed up this way: The complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is inconceivable otherwise than in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat basing itself on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which will inescapably place on the order of the day not only democratic but also socialist tasks, will at the same time provide a mighty impulse to the international socialist revolution. Only, the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing socialist construction to its conclusion.

These terse formulations reveal with equal clarity both the homogeneity of the last two conceptions, in their irreconcilable contradiction to the liberal-Menshevik perspective, and the very fundamental difference between them on the question of the social character and the tasks of the “dictatorship” that was bound to grow out of the revolution.

The frequently repeated objection of the present Moscow theoreticians to the effect that the program of the dictatorship of the proletariat was “premature” in 1905 is entirely lacking in content. In the empirical sense the program of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry proved to be equally “premature.” The unfavorable balance of forces in the epoch of the first revolution rendered impossible not the dictatorship of the proletariat as such but the victory of the revolution as a whole. Meanwhile all the revolutionary tendencies proceeded from the hopes for a complete victory; without such a hope an all-out, wholehearted revolutionary struggle would be impossible. The differences involved the general perspectives of the revolution and the strategies flowing from those perspectives. The perspective of Menshevism was false to the core: the road it wanted the proletariat to take was totally wrong. The perspective of Bolshevism was incomplete: it indicated correctly the general direction of the struggle but characterized its stages incorrectly. The inadequacy of the perspective of Bolshevism was not revealed in 1905 only because the revolution itself did not develop fully. But in early 1917 Lenin was compelled, in a direct struggle against the oldest cadres of the party, to change the perspective.

A political prognosis cannot pretend to the same exactness as an astronomical one. It is sufficient if it correctly indicates the general line of development and helps people orient themselves in the actual course of events—events in which the basic line inevitably diverges to the right or to the left. In this sense it is impossible not to recognize that the conception of the permanent revolution has fully passed the test of history. In the first years of the Soviet regime, no one denied this; on the contrary, it was acknowledged as a fact in a number of official publications. But when on the quiescent and ossified summits of Soviet society the bureaucratic reaction against October began, it aimed its fire against this theory from the very start—a theory that more completely than any other reflected the first proletarian revolution in history and at the same time clearly revealed its incomplete, limited, and partial character. Thus, through a process of repulsion [against the theory of permanent revolution], there arose the theory of socialism in one country, the basic dogma of Stalinism.


19O5: strikes broke out in December 1904 and January 1905. On 9 January workers marching to the Tsar's palace lo appeal for his help were shot down. The strike wave grew.

Strikes continued through the summer. Peasants withheld taxes. Sailors mutinied on the battleship 'Potemkin'.

In September a new strike wave exploded. A joint council of workers' delegates - a 'soviet' in Russian - was set up in St Petersburg (Leningrad).

In December the Tsar regained the initiative, arresting the Executive of the St Petersburg soviet. An armed workers' uprising in Moscow was put down.

Bourgeois revolution: by this term Marxists meant a revolution that would break the power of the Tsar (king) and the landed nobility, raising up a new ruling class from the industrialists, merchants and bankers. It would replace hereditary privilege as the keystone of society with profits made in the market place.

Populism, in Russia, meant revolutionary politics which looked to a revolution made by "the people" in general (not the workers particularly). The populists usually argued that Russia need not (or could not) go through capitalist development, but could instead go straight from Tsarism to a sort of peasant-based socialism. Tactically the populists often favoured conspiracies to assassinate leading figures of the Tsarist regime as a way to arouse the people.

Menshevik: the less revolutionary wing in the split in the Russian socialist movement after 1903. Although the split was originally about obscure organisational issues, it quickly gained political substance. The Mensheviks' strategy was to push the bourgeoisie (the industrialists, merchants and bankers) into leading the bourgeois revolution - and this meant the workers must be careful not to frighten the bourgeoisie off.

Bolshevik: the more revolutionary wing in the split the Russian socialist movement after I903. In contrast to the Mensheviks (qv), the Bolsheviks argued for the workers to fight to take the lead and to drive the revolution forward as far as possible Even though (before 1917) they calculated that it would be impossible for the workers to drive the revolution beyond the level of radical democratic measures within a society still based on private profit and private ownership of the means of production, they believed that if the workers did not lead the 'bourgeois revolution', the bourgeoisie would make no revolution at all.

Correspondingly the Bolsheviks argued for a tighter more clearly defined party organisation than the Mensheviks.

Social Democracy was the term used before 1917 to mean 'Marxian Socialist'. The Bolsheviks changed their name from Social Democratic Labour Party (Bolsheviks) to Communist Party in 1917 to signal their break with the big 'Social Democratic' parties in other countries which had supported their own governments in World War 1. The German Revolution of 1918-19 started with rebellions in late 1918 as the German army went down to defeat in World War 1. The Emperor was quickly kicked out, and a Provisional Government of Social Democrats took over.

But the German Social Democrats were not the revolutionary party they had been. Over the years they had become dominated by party and trade union bureaucrats who looked to piecemeal reform within the capitalist system. lo World War I they supported the German government. And in 1918-19 they became the last prop of the capitalist order.

Workers' councils were set up all across Germany, but the Social Democrats were able to dominate them, attracting the support of newly-politicised workers for whom the Social Democrats were still the left. The revolutionaries led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg were provoked into an ill-timed uprising (against Luxemburg's insistence) in January 1919, and bloodily suppressed. Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered by right-wing military detachments acting under the authority of the Social Democratic government.

Germany, however, remained in turmoil until 1923, when the Communist Party, misled by Moscow, botched a new revolutionary opportunity and allowed capitalism to re-establish itself.

Petty bourgeois - in Marxist analysis. means the class who are neither wage-workers nor capitalists exploiting substantial numbers of workers. It is the class of small shopkeepers, small business people employing only one or two workers, 'independent' professional people, doctors, lawyers, dentists, etc.

The 'Prussian Road' meant a transition from feudal or neo-feudal society (based on hereditary privilege) to capitalist society (based on market economics and free wage labour) by way of reform from above rather than revolution from below.

In Prussia (the largest of the cluster of states which were united in 1871 to form Germany), such a policy of reform from above was carried through by Otto von Bismarck. He helped the landlords (junkers) transform themselves into capitalist operators; he used the state to help develop capitalist industry; he introduced limited forms of parliamentary democracy under his own strict control.

Kulak was the term used in Russia for 'rich' peasants. They were rich only very relatively, but in contrast to other peasants they would own enough land to employ a few workers outside their family to work it. They might also own horses or ploughs which they hired out to poorer peasants. The Marxists saw them as the group from which a class of capitalist farmers might grow.

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