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.
The original version of this book, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution by Michael Löwy (1981) became the standard text on permanent revolution for “orthodox” Trotskyists. Now Part One and the conclusion of the book have been 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 20th-century, never mind what might lie ahead in the 21st.
The book 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 they 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”. He acknowledges that Trotsky’s conception of a workers’ government in Russia “was shared by Parvus, Luxemburg and, more intermittently, by Lenin as well”. But he is dismissive of Kautsky and Mehring, and makes no reference to Ryazanov.
Trotsky’s originality 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.
Trotsky generalised permanent revolution to the entire colonial and semi-colonial (or ex-colonial) world after the 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 its 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 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”. He at least acknowledges that in Russia in 1917 the working class was the principal actor and led by genuine Marxists. He also baldly states that in China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia and Cuba “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 were “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 a ruling layer (but not ruling class), he still designates these states as “proletarian”, albeit deformed.
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 principal actor and because working class socialists were largely absent or unable to provide the necessary alternative leadership.
In a note of contrition, in the recent interview appended to the book, 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.
Löwy states that “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 20th 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 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. In the midst of the chaos of capitalism after World War One, he stated that if the workers could not take power, then capital would find a way to new stability and expansion on the backs of the workers.
He also developed a nuanced account of both Bonapartism and of fascism, which helps explain the forms of rule of less-developed countries during the 20th century.
In his earliest writings on permanent revolution, Trotsky argued that: “The state is no end in itself. It is, however, the greatest means of organising, disorganising, and re-organising social relations” (Day and Gaido, 2011 p.502).
In reality the 20th century is studded 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 it 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 the baggage that has been grafted onto the theory.