Permanent revolution was one of Leon Trotsky’s outstanding contributions to Marxism. In many respects, to be a Trotskyist is to accept the basics tenets of permanent revolution.
In Russia in 1905 and again in 1917, Trotsky found the empirical grounds for uneven and combined development, which enabled him to grasp the dynamics of the Russian revolution and therefore to draw out the full political conclusions from the analysis.
Trotsky’s key arguments were that the Russian proletariat would be hegemonic due to its strategic position and class conscious Marxist leadership. The working class would overthrow absolutism using its own methods (such as political mass strikes) and create its own organisations (such as unions and Soviets). This meant the working class socialists would form a majority Social-Democratic [in the terminology of that time: Marxist] workers’ government and set about implementing a democratic programme, such as land reform, national self-determination and institute a republic.
However, this socialist workers’ government would also have to implement working class demands, such as unemployment relief, the eight hour day, etc, because of its social base. As such the workers’ government would be compelled by the logic of the class struggle to go further and alter the social relations — effectively the working class would begin to break the capitalist relations of production and make a socialist revolution.
This revolution would detonate European workers’ struggles, which would prevent the Russian workers state from being strangled.
The publication of Richard Day and Daniel Gaido’s book Witnesses to Permanent Revolution allows the English reader to read some of Trotsky’s first formulations of permanent revolution from 1905. The translations in this book indicate the brilliance of Trotsky’s synthesis forged in the heat of a revolution and add to our appreciation of his Marxism.
The first article, ‘Up to the Ninth of January’, written before the massacre, concluded that tsarism would be overthrown by a general strike. In ‘After the Petersburg Uprising: What Next?’ (20 January 1905), Trotsky reiterated his argument that the principal actor was the proletariat.
In his ‘Introduction to Ferdinand Lassalle’s Speech to the Jury’ (July 1905), Trotsky argued for a workers’ government that would be compelled to take socialist means and make a socialist revolution. In ‘Social Democracy and Revolution’ (25 November 1905), Trotsky uses the term “permanent revolution”, or at least its semantic equivalent “uninterrupted revolution” for the first time.
In ‘Foreword to Karl Marx on the Paris Commune’ (December 1905), Trotsky spoke of “a revolution in Permanenz”. He called on the Russian working class to take power, leading the poor peasants. In these texts, it is possible to see how the basic postulates of permanent revolution emerged in Trotsky’s thought.
During his imprisonment in 1906, Trotsky was able to take the daring sweep, and brilliance of these ideas, together with his direct, concrete experience of leading the revolution, to produce the first synthesis of permanent revolution.
However, the book also puts permanent revolution into the context of wider Marxist thought at the turn of the 20th century. What emerges from this collection is that permanent revolution, far from being an exceptional or fringe perspective, was in fact the mainstream view of the most advanced Marxist thinkers in Europe a century ago. Drawing out the origins of permanent revolution helps locate its assumptions and presuppositions, and therefore the foundations of our world view.
Although Marx and Engels used the expression “revolution in permanence” and did discuss some themes in the later debate, including skipping stages, alliances and forms of government, they did not anticipate some of the daring elements of Trotsky’s synthesis.
In 1899, Franz Mehring defended the Marx and Engels version of permanent revolution. In November 1905, he argued that the Russian revolution’s “moving force” was “a proletariat that has understood the ‘Revolution in Permanence’”. However, Mehring said that the working class lacked the power “to skip the stages of historical development and instantly to create a socialist community out of the despotic tsarist state”.
In 1902, Rosa Luxemburg spoke of the “peculiar conception” of “the hope in a so-called ‘revolution in permanence’”, but she did not yet recognise it as a distinctly new policy. In February 1905, in her article, ‘After the First Act’, Luxemburg was the first to refer in the West-European socialist press to a “revolutionary situation in permanence” in Russia.
In December 1905, she described the revolution as being “formally bourgeois-democratic, but essentially proletarian-socialist”. It was, “in both content and method, a transitional form from the bourgeois revolutions of the past to the proletarian revolutions of the future”. In 1907, she emphasised the leading role of the proletariat, the weakness of the bourgeoisie, the incapacity of the peasantry and the international significance of the Russian revolution. However, Luxemburg did not call for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Trotsky acknowledged the contribution made by Parvus to developing the permanent revolution perspective. In his preface to Trotsky’s article, known as ‘What Was Accomplished on 9th January?’ (January 1905), Parvus made his main contribution to the permanent revolution perspective. Parvus argued that “only the workers can complete the revolutionary upheaval in Russia. A Russian provisional government will be a government of workers’ democracy. If Social Democracy stands at the head of the revolutionary movement of the Russian proletariat, then this government will also be Social-Democratic... It will be an integral government with a Social-Democratic majority”.
It is not difficult to see the affinity with Parvus’ ideas and those of Trotsky. However, there were important differences.
Parvus wrote in ‘Our Tasks’ (13 November 1905) that “We are not yet ready in Russia to assume the task of converting the bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution, but we are even less ready to subordinate ourselves to a bourgeois revolution”.
According to Trotsky, Parvus foresaw an “Australian”-type workers’ government in Russia — a government led by a workers’ party but with liberal policies.
The biggest revelation for me in this collection was about the ideas of David Ryazanov, which have previously largely been ignored. Ryazanov’s ‘The Draft Programme of Iskra and the Tasks of Russian Social Democrats’ (1903) was the first Russian text to refer to “revolution in permanentia”. The work was remarkable because it anticipated permanent revolution in almost every detail. Ryazanov “systematically explored the ‘peculiarities’ of Russian history”. Ryazanov was also a participant in the events of 1905, where he advocated a permanentist perspective.
The book also makes a strong case for Karl Kautsky as an innovator on permanent revolution.
In his article, ‘The Slavs and Revolution’ (1902) Kautsky argued that the bourgeoisie was no longer a revolutionary class, the working class was the revolutionary force and that the Russian movement was an inspiration for Western Europe.
Kautsky’s most significant intervention before the revolution was probably his article ‘Revolutionary Questions’ (February 1904). First, he prefigured the conception of uneven and combined development, as against a mechanical, unilinear scheme, and advocated the political mass strike.
Kautsky also prefigured one of Trotsky’s most distinctive contributions, arguing that a workers’ government would be forced out of necessity to introduce socialist measures: “Wherever the proletariat has conquered political power, socialist production follows as a natural necessity even where the proletariat has not arrived at a socialist consciousness. Its class interests and economic necessity force it to adopt measures that lead to socialist production... If the proletariat has political power, then socialism follows as a matter of necessity”. However, he also conceded that “a revolution in Russia cannot establish a socialist regime at once”.
In July 1905, Kautsky wrote ‘The Consequences of the Japanese Victory and Social Democracy’, which explicitly developed a permanentist perspective. Kautsky used the term “revolution in permanence” in the context of the hegemonic role of the working class and the international significance of the revolution.
Kautsky’s ‘The American Worker’ (February 1906) and ‘The Driving Forces of the Russian Revolution and Its Prospects’ (November 1906) can be read as supporting Trotsky’s permanent revolution, even if they do not go as far as his bold political conclusions.
He reiterated the sociological prerequisites for permanent revolution: foreign-driven capitalist development in absolutist Russia “resulted only in the development of a strong proletariat but not a strong capitalist class”. His most strident conclusion, contrary to the Menshevik view, was that the age of bourgeois revolutions was over.
The book certainly puts paid to the “stereotypical and mistaken view of Kautsky as an apostle of quietism and a reformist cloaked in revolutionary phraseology”.
Trotsky was “certainly the most famous and brilliant proponent of permanent revolution” but “by no means its sole author”. This does not undermine the novelty or distinctiveness of Trotsky’s contribution, especially the central political conclusions.
Permanent revolution was vindicated by the events of 1905 and by the 1917 revolutions. Again the Russian workers shook the old regime until it fell and it was the dual power of the workers’ soviets that provided the platform for the seizure of power in October 1917.
Probing the roots of permanent revolution shows how revolutionary socialists can by analysing reality both foresee the shape of current and future struggles and formulate the key tasks so that workers win those battles.