Tony Cliff

Deflected Permanent Revolution


Tony Cliff, Permanent Revolution, International Socialism (1st series), No. 12, Spring 1963.
Reprinted in International Socialism (1st series), No. 61, June 1973.
Published as a pamphlet under the current title as International Socialism Reprint No. 5, 1981 (with the introduction included here).
This version has been reprinted numerous times and is available from Bookmarks Publications.
Downloaded from the Marxism Page with thanks.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


Before 1917, most Marxists did no believe that a workers’ revolution was possible in any but the most advanced countries. The experience of the Russian revolution proved otherwise and in light of that, Trotsky updated Marxist theory with his ideas on “Permanent Revolution”. Since then we have seen revolutions in countries as different and as far apart as China and Cuba.

Marx wrote: “Philosophers have explained the word. The point however is to change it.” Marxists are often accused by our opponents of being dogmatic and doctrinaire theorists. Nothing could be further from the truth. If the point is to change the world then socialist theory must always be changed and updated in the light of experience. This is what Trotsky did and this is what Tony Cliff set out to do in this re-examination of Trotsky’s theory.

Permanent Revolution

Trotsky’s greatest and most original contribution to Marxism was his theory of Permanent Revolution.

In this study the theory will first be restated. It will then be considered in the light of the colonial revolution experienced over the last decade or so. We shall be compelled to reject a large part of it. But if the result proves to be a set of ideas which differs quite considerably from Trotsky’s, it nevertheless leans heavily on his.


1. Three concepts of revolution

Trotsky developed his theory with the 1905 revolution in the background. Practically all Marxists of the day, from Kautsky to Plekhanov to Lenin, believed that only advanced industrial countries were ready for socialist revolution. To put it crudely, they argued that countries would achieve workers’ power in strict conformity with the stage to which they had advanced technologically. Backward countries could see their future image mirrored in the advanced countries. Only after a long process of industrial development and a transition through a parliamentary bourgeois regime could the working class mature enough to pose the question of socialist revolution.

All the Russian Social Democrats – Mensheviks as well as Bolsheviks – postulated that Russia was approaching a bourgeois revolution, resulting from a conflict between the productive forces of capitalism on the one hand, and autocracy, landlordism, and other surviving feudal structures on the other. The Mensheviks concluded that the bourgeoisie would necessarily lead the revolution, and would take political power into their own hands. They thought that the Social Democrats should support the liberal bourgeoisie in the revolution, at the same time defending the special interests of the workers within the framework of capitalism by struggling for the eight-hour working day and other social reforms. [1]

Lenin and the Bolsheviks agreed that the revolution would be bourgeois in character and that its aim would not overstep the limits of a bourgeois revolution. “The democratic revolution will not extend beyond the scope of bourgeois social-economic relationships ...”, wrote Lenin. [2] Again “... this democratic revolution in Russia will not weaken but will strengthen, the domination of the bourgeoisie.” [3] He returned to the theme again and again.

It was not until after the revolution of February 1917 that Lenin discarded this view. In September 1914, for example, he was still writing that the Russian revolution must limit itself to three fundamental tasks: “the establishment of a democratic republic (in which equality of rights and full freedom of self-determination would be granted to all nationalities), confiscation of the estates of the big landowners, and application of the eight-hour day.” [4]

Where Lenin differed, fundamentally, from the Mensheviks was in his insistence on the independence of the labour movement from the liberal bourgeoisie, on the need to carry the bourgeois revolution through to victory against their resistance. Instead of the Menshevik-sponsored alliance between the working class and the liberal bourgeoisie – Lenin called for an alliance of the working class with the peasantry. Where the Mensheviks expected a government composed of liberal bourgeois ministers after the revolution, Lenin envisaged a coalition comprised of the workers’ party and a peasant party, a “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry”, in which the peasant party would have the majority. The “democratic dictatorship” would establish a republic, expropriate the large landowners and enforce the eight-hour day. Thereafter the peasantry would cease to be revolutionary, would become upholders of property and of the social status quo, and would unite with the bourgeoisie. The industrial proletariat, in alliance with the proletarian and semi-proletarian village population, would then become the revolutionary opposition, and the temporary phase of “democratic dictatorship” would give way to a conservative bourgeois government within the framework of a bourgeois republic.

Trotsky was as convinced as Lenin that the liberal bourgeoisie could not carry out any revolutionary task consistently, and that the agrarian revolution, a fundamental element in the bourgeois revolution, could only be carried out by an alliance of the working class and peasantry. But he disagreed with him about the possibility of an independent peasant party, arguing that the peasants were too sharply divided amongst themselves between rich and poor to be able to form a united and independent party of their own.

“All the experience of history,” he wrote, “... shows that the peasantry is completely incapable of playing an independent role.” [5] If in all revolutions since the German Reformation the peasants had supported one faction or another of the bourgeoisie, in Russia the strength of the working class and the conservatism of the bourgeoisie would force the peasantry to support the revolutionary proletariat. The revolution itself would not be confined to the carrying out of bourgeois democratic tasks, but would proceed immediately to carry out proletarian socialist measures:

The proletariat grows and strengthens together with the growth of capitalism. In this sense, the development of capitalism signifies the development of the proletariat toward the dictatorship. But the day and hour when the power passes into the hands of the proletariat depend directly not upon the state or the productive forces, but upon the conditions of the class struggle, upon the international situation, finally, upon a series of subjective factors: tradition, initiative, readiness for struggle ...

In an economically backward country, the proletariat can come to power sooner than in the economically advanced countries. In 1871 it had consciously taken into its hands the management of social affairs in petty bourgeois Paris – in truth only for two months – but it did not for one hour take power in the robust capitalist centres of England and the United States. The conception of some sort of automatic dependence of the proletarian dictatorship upon the technical forces and resources of the country is a prejudice derived from an extremely over-simplified “economic” materialism. This view has nothing in common with Marxism.

The Russian revolution, in our opinion, creates such conditions under which the power can pass over to the proletariat (and with a victorious revolution it must) even before the policy of bourgeois liberalism acquires the possibility to bring its state genius to a full unfolding. [6]

Another important element in the theory was the international character of the coming Russian revolution. It would begin on a national scale, but could only be completed by the victory of the revolution in the more developed countries:

How far, however, can the socialist policy of the working class go in the economic conditions of Russia? Only one thing we can say with certainty: it will run into political obstacles long before it will be checked by the technical backwardness of the country. 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. [7]

The basic elements of Trotsky’s theory can be summed up in six points:

  1. A bourgeoisie which arrives late on the scene is fundamentally different from its ancestors of a century or two earlier. It is incapable of providing a consistent, democratic, revolutionary solution to the problem posed by feudalism and imperialist oppression. It is incapable of carrying out the thoroughgoing destruction of feudalism, the achievement of real national independence and political democracy. It has ceased to be revolutionary, whether in the advanced or backward countries. It is an absolutely conservative force.
  2. The decisive revolutionary role falls to the proletariat, even though it may be very young and small in number.
  3. Incapable of independent action, the peasantry will follow the towns, and in view of the first five points, must follow the leadership of the industrial proletariat.
  4. A consistent solution of the agrarian question, of the national question, a break-up of the social and imperial fetters preventing speedy economic advance, will necessitate moving beyond the bounds of bourgeois private property. “The democratic revolution grows over immediately into the socialist, and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.” [8]
  5. The completion of the socialist revolution “within national limits is unthinkable ... Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.” [9] It is a reactionary, narrow dream, to try and achieve “socialism in one country”.
  6. As a result, revolution in backward countries would lead to convulsions in the advanced countries.

The 1917 revolution in Russia proved all of Trotsky’s assumptions to be right. The bourgeoisie was counter-revolutionary; the industrial proletariat was the revolutionary class par excellence; the peasantry followed the working class; the anti-feudal, democratic revolution grew over immediately into the socialist; the Russian revolution did lead to revolutionary convulsions elsewhere (in Germany, Austria, Hungary, etc.). And finally, alas, the isolation of the socialist revolution in Russia led to its degeneration and downfall.

Another classic confirmation of Trotsky’s theory was the Chinese revolution of 1925–27. Unfortunately, the confirmation was; to an even larger extent than in the Russian revolution, a negative demonstration. Although points 1–4 were confirmed, Stalinist betrayal ensured that the revolution ended not in the victory of the proletariat, but in its defeat. As a result the peasants were also defeated, and not only was the socialist revolution not consummated, but the democratic neither; nor were the agrarian revolution, the unity of the country and its independence from imperialism achieved. Points 5 and 6 thus did not have the chance of being tested empirically. Since then, however, two events of world importance, Mao’s rise to power in China, and Castro’s in Cuba, seem to challenge practically all the assumptions of the theory.



2. Mao’s rise to power

The industrial working class played no role whatsoever in the victory of Mao. Even the social composition of the Chinese Communist Party was completely non-working class. Mao’s rise in the party coincided with its transformation from a working class party. Towards the end of 1926 at least 66 per cent of the membership were workers, another 22 per cent intellectuals and only 5 per cent peasants. [10] By November 1928, the percentage of workers had fallen by more than four-fifths, and an official report admitted that the party “did not have a single healthy party nucleus among the industrial workers”. [11] The party admitted that workers comprised only 10 per cent of the membership in 1928, three per cent in 1929, 2.5 per cent in March 1930, 1.6 per cent in September of the same year., and virtually nothing at the end of it. [12] From then and until Mao’s final victory the party had no industrial workers to speak of.

For a number of years the party was confined to insurgent peasant movements deep in the provinces of central China, where it established a Chinese Soviet Republic; later, after a military defeat in the central provinces (1934), it moved to northern Shensi, in the north-west. In both these areas there was no industrial working class to speak of. A Comintern organ was not exaggerating when it wrote that “the Border Region is socially and economically one of the most backward regions of China.” [13] Chu Teh repeated: “The regions under the direction of the Communists are the most backward economically in the whole country ...” [14] Not one real town came under the control of the Communists until a couple of years before the establishment of the Chinese People’s Republic.

So unimportant were workers in Communist Party strategy during the period of Mao’s rise to power that the party did not find it necessary to convene a National Congress of Trade Unions for 19 years after the one held in 1929. Nor did it bother to seek workers’ support, as witnessed in its declaration that it did not intend to maintain any party organisation in the Kuomintang-controlled areas during the crucial years 1937-45. [15] When, in December 1937, the Kuomintang government decreed the death penalty for workers who went on strike or even agitated for a strike while the war was in progress, a Communist Party spokesman told an interviewer that the party was “fully satisfied” with that government’s conduct of the war. [16] Even after the outbreak of civil war between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang, hardly any Communist Party organisations existed in the Kuomintang areas, which included all the industrial centres in the country.

Mao’s conquest of the towns revealed more than anything else the Communist Party’s complete divorce from the industrial working class. Communist leaders did their best to prevent any workers’ uprisings in the towns on the eve of their being taken. Before the fall of Tientsin and Peking, for example, General Lin Piao, commander of the front, issued a proclamation calling on people:

to maintain order and continue in their present occupations. Kuomintang officials or police personnel of provincial, city, country or other level of government institution; district, town, village, or pao chia personnel ... are enjoined to remain at their posts ... [17]

At the time of the crossing of the Yangtze River, before the great cities of Central and South China (Shanghai, Hankow, Canton) fell to them, Mao and Chu Teh again issued a special proclamation stating among other things:

It is hoped that workers and employees in all trades will continue to work and that business will operate as usual ... officials of the Kuomintang Central, Provincial, Municipal or County Governments of various levels, or delegates of the “National Assembly”, members of the Legislative and Control Yuans or People’s Political Council members, police personnel and heads of Pao Chia organisations ... are to stay at their posts, obey the orders of the People’s Liberation Army and People’s Government. [18]

The working class obliged and remained inert. A report from Nanking on 22 April 1949, two days before the People’s Liberation Army occupied it, described the situation in this way:

Nanking’s populace is showing no signs of excitement. Curious crowds were seen this morning to gather at the river wall to watch the gun duel on the opposite side of the river. Business is going on as usual. Some shops are closed, but it is due to lack of business ... Movie houses are still showing to packed houses. [19]

A month later a New York Times correspondent wrote from Shanghai:

The Red troops began putting up posters in Chinese instructing the populace to be calm and assuring them they had nothing to fear. [20]

In Canton:

After their entry the Communists made contact with the police station and instructed the officers and men to remain at their posts to keep order. [21]



3. Castro’s Revolution

A case in which neither the working class nor the peasantry played a serious role, but where middle-class intellectuals filled the whole arena of struggle, is Fidel Castro’s rise to power. C Wright Mills’ book, Listen Yankee, which is a more or less authentic monologue spoken by the Cuban leaders, deals first of all with what the revolution was not:

... the revolution itself was not a fight ... between wage workers and capitalists ... Our revolution is not a revolution made by labour unions or wage workers in the city or by labour parties, or by anything like that. [22] ... the wage workers in the city were not conscious in any revolutionary way; their unions were merely like your North American unions: out for more money and better conditions. That was all that really moved them. And some were even more corrupt than some of yours. [23]

Paul Baran, an uncritical supporter of Castro, wrote, after discussions with Cuban leaders, regarding the negligible role of the industrial proletariat in the revolution:

It would seem that the employed segment of the industrial working class remained, on the whole, passive throughout the revolutionary period. Forming the “aristocratic” layer of the Cuban proletariat, these workers partook of the profits of monopolistic business – foreign and domestic – were well paid by Latin American standards, and enjoyed a standard of living considerably higher than that of the masses of the Cuban people. The fairly strong trade union movement was dominated by “business unionism”, United States style, and was thoroughly permeated by racketeering and gangsterism. [24]

The indifference of the industrial proletariat accounted for the complete failure of Castro’s call for a general strike on 9 April 1958, some sixteen months after the beginning of the uprising and eight months before the fall of the Cuban dictator, Batista. the workers were apathetic, and the Communists sabotaged. (It was some time later that they jumped on Castro’s bandwagon. [25])

The role of the peasantry in Castro’s rise to power has been commented on more positively. Wright Mills reports that during the insurrection:

the peasants played the big role. Together with the young intellectuals, they became the rebel army that won the insurrection. They were the decisive ones, the intellectuals and the campesinos ... Rebel soldiers [were] formed of peasants and led by young intellectuals ... [26]

Who were these peasants? “... really a sort of agricultural wage worker, who, most of the year, were unemployed”. [27] In similar vein Baran reports: “The class that made the revolution is the rural campesinos.” [28] And these were agricultural wage earners, not petty owners. “Not being inhabited by a petty bourgeois stratum of small peasant proprietors, the Cuban countryside ... never became a ‘breeding ground of bourgeois ideology’.” [29]

This description, however, is belied by two things: the peasantry was hardly involved in Castro’s army. As late as April 1958, the total number of armed men under Castro numbered only about 180 and at the time of Batista’s fall had only grown to 803. [30] The cadres of Castro’s bands were intellectuals. And peasants that did participate were not agricultural wage earners, collectivist in inspiration, as Mills and Baran state. Witness ‘Che’ Guevara on the peasants who joined Castro in the Sierra Maestra:

The soldiers that made up our first guerrilla army of country people came from the part of this social class which shows its love for the possession of land most aggressively, which expresses most perfectly the spirit catalogued as petty bourgeois. [31]

The Castro movement was middle-class. The 82 men under Castro who invaded Cuba from Mexico in December 1956 and the 12 who survived to fight in the Sierra Maestra all came from this class. “The heaviest losses were suffered by the largely middle-class urban resistance movement, which created the political and psychological acids that ate into Batista’s fighting force.” [32]

Quite characteristically ‘Che’ Guevara raises the weakness and impotence of the industrial working class as a central element in all future socialist revolutions:

The campesinos, with an army made up of their own kind fighting for their own great objectives, primarily for a just distribution of land, will come from the country to take the cities ... This army, created in the countryside, where subjective conditions ripen for the seizure of power, proceeds to conquer the cities from the outside. [33]

Industrial advance is described as an impediment to the socialist revolution:

It is more difficult to prepare guerrilla bands in those countries that have undergone a concentration of population in great centres and have a more developed light and medium industry, even though not anything like effective industrialisation. The ideological influence of the cities inhibits the guerrilla struggle ... [34] ... even in countries where the predominance of the cities is great, the central political focus of the struggle can develop in the countryside. [35]

Paying lip service to the role of the industrial proletariat, Che says that the peasant guerrillas will have to accept “the ideological base of the working class – Marxism” – forgetting that the very heart of Marxism is the fact that the socialist revolution is the act of the working class itself, the result of the proletariat becoming the subject and not the object of history.

From the outset Castro’s programme did not go beyond the horizon of broad liberal reforms acceptable to the middle classes. In an article to the magazine Coronet of February 1958, Castro declared that he had no plans for expropriating or nationalising foreign investments:

I personally have come to feel that nationalisation is, at best, a cumbersome instrument. It does not seem to make the state any stronger, yet it enfeebles private enterprise. Even more importantly, any attempt at wholesale nationalisation would obviously hamper the principal point of our economic platform – industrialisation at the fastest possible rate. For this purpose, foreign investments will always be welcome and secure here.

In May 1958, he assured his biographer, Dubois:

Never has the 26th of July Movement talked about socialising or nationalising the industries. This is simply stupid fear of our revolution. We have proclaimed from the first day that we fight for the full enforcement of the Constitution of 1940, whose norms establish guarantees, rights and obligations for all the elements that have a part in production. Comprised therein is free enterprise and invested capital as well as many other economic, civic, and political rights. [36]

As late as 2 May 1959, Castro declared to the Economic Council of the Organisation of American States in Buenos Aires: “We are not opposed to private investment ... We believe in, the usefulness, in the experience and in the enthusiasm of private investors... Companies with international investments will have the same guarantees and the same rights as the national firms.” [37]

The impotence of the contending social classes, workers and capitalists, peasants and landlords, the inherent historical weakness of the middle class, and the omnipotence of the new Castro elite, who were not bound by any set of coherent, organised interests, explains the ease with which Castro’s moderate programme of the years 1953-58, based on private enterprise, was cast aside and replaced by a radical programme of state ownership and planning. It was not before 16 April 1961 that Castro announced that the revolution had been socialist. In the words of the President of the Republic, Dr Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado, the people “one fine day ... discovered or confirmed, that what they have been applauding, which was good for the people, was a Socialist Revolution.” [38] An excellent formulation of the Bonapartist manipulation of the people as the object of history, not its conscious subject!



4. What went wrong with the theory?

While the conservative, cowardly nature of a late-developing bourgeoisie (Trotsky’s first point) is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working class (point 2) is neither absolute nor inevitable. The reasons are not difficult to appreciate. The prevailing ideology in the society of which the working class forms a part is that of the ruling class; in many cases the existence of a floating, amorphous majority of new workers with one foot in the countryside creates difficulties for autonomous proletarian organisations; lack of experience and illiteracy add to their weakness. This leads to yet another weakness: dependence on non-workers for leadership. Trade unions in the backward countries are almost always led by “outsiders”. Thus it is reported from India:

Practically all Indian unions are led by persons who have no background in industry, i.e. “outsiders” ... many of the outsiders are associated with more than one union. A national leader of considerable stature remarked that he was president of about 30 unions, but added that obviously there was nothing he could contribute to the work of any of these! [39]

Weakness and dependence on outsiders leads to a personality cult.

Many unions are still in the habit of revolving around personalities. A strong personality dominates the union. He determines all its policies and actions. The union becomes known as his union. Workers look up to him to solve all their difficulties and to secure for them all their demands. They rely upon him as their defender and champion and are prepared to follow him wherever he may lead them. There is a large element of hero worship in this attitude. There is a good number of such heroes in the movement. They are of help in getting for workers some of their demands, but not of much help in developing self-reliant democratic organisations. The latter will not grow unless workers learn to stand on their own legs and not pathetically rely on eminent personalities to solve for them all their problems. [40]

Another weakness of the labour movement in many backward countries is its dependence on the state. It was reported from India:

The state has already taken upon itself many of the functions which, in a free society, normally belong to trade unions. As things stand at present the state, and not collective bargaining between employers and employees, plays the major part in the determination of wages and other conditions of work. That was inevitable to some extent owing to the background condition of the economy and the weakness of workers and their trade unions. [41]

And from French West Africa:

... direct union efforts against employers have rarely brought real wage increases to African labour; it is rather social legislation and the labour movement’s political influence which have been responsible for most of the real wage gains of recent years. [42]

And from Latin America:

Union representatives seek to achieve their gains through government interference and dictation. [43]

The penalty for dependence on the state is subordination to government policies, avoidance of policies antagonistic to the political rulers, and a limitation of trade union activity to narrow “economist” demands, or, to use Lenin’s term, “trade unionist” policies.

This, in turn, leads to alienation of the trade unions from the agricultural toilers’ struggle. The difference between town and country living standards is generally very big in backward countries, much more so than in the advanced countries. Under such conditions, and with the mass rural unemployment and underemployment, the achievement of standards of wages and working conditions in industry depends largely on maintaining the closed shop, that is, hiring of workers for an industry through the union. This could hardly be done without state support – the close alliance of the trade unions with the government – to the neglect of rural toilers. This was the set-up in Peron’s Argentina, Vargas’s Brazil, Batista’s Cuba. The result was a labour movement that was conservative, narrow, bereft of idealism.

The last, but by no means least factor determining whether the working class in the backward countries is actually revolutionary or not is a subjective one, namely, the activities of the parties, particularly the Communist Parties, that influence it. The counterrevolutionary role of Stalinism in backward countries has been dealt with too often to need repetition here.

To sum up, up to now experience has shown both the strength of revolutionary urges amongst industrial workers in the emergent nations, and their fatal weaknesses. An automatic correlation between economic backwardness and revolutionary political militancy does not exist.

Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky’s theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces. His third point is not realised, as the peasantry cannot follow a non-revolutionary working class, and all the other elements follow suit. But this does not mean that nothing happens. A concatenation of national and international circumstances makes it imperative for the productive forces to break the fetters of feudalism and imperialism. Peasant rebellions take on a deeper, broader sweep than ever before. In them is rooted also national rebellion against the economic ruin brought by imperialism and for the higher living standards which it as surely demonstrated.

The needs of the productive forces plus the rebelliousness of the peasantry would not by themselves have been sufficient to break the yoke of landlordism and imperialism. Three other factors helped:

  1. The weakening of world imperialism as a result of increasing contradictions between the powers, and the paralysis affecting their mutual intervention brought about by the existence of the H-bomb.
  2. The growing importance of the state in backward countries. It is one of the tricks of history that when an historical task faces society, and the class that traditionally carries it out is absent, some other group of people, quite often a state power. implements it. State power, under such conditions, plays a very important role. It reflects not only, or even mainly, the national economic base on which it rises, but the supra-national character of the world economy today.
  3. The growing importance of the intelligentsia as the leader and unifier of the nation, and above all as manipulator of the masses. This last point will need special elaboration.



5. The Intelligentsia

The importance of the intelligentsia in a revolutionary movement is in direct proportion to the general backwardness-economic, social and cultural-of the masses from whose midst it arises. It is characteristic that the Russian Populist movement, which more than any other emphasised the need to revolutionise the most backward elements of society, the peasants, was also the group to put the greatest premium on the intelligentsia, masters of “critical thinking”.

Although all revolutionary movements in Russia were composed largely of intellectuals, Populist intellectuals championing the cause of the peasants, and Marxist intellectuals championing that of the industrial workers, there was a basic difference in the way they saw the relations between “leaders” and “masses”. The workers’ movement, at least during the height of the struggle, was organised; hence the intellectuals were accountable to the workers’ collective, and notwithstanding their inherent tendency to divorce themselves from, and rise above, the masses, they were checked by this collective. The Populist intellectuals’ milieu was less restrictive, hence they showed clearer and much more extreme tendencies towards elitism, arbitrariness, as towards vacillations and splits. As Lenin said at the time, “No one will undertake to deny that it is precisely its individualism and incapacity for discipline and organisation which in general distinguished the intelligentsia as a separate stratum of modern capitalist society.” [44]

The revolutionary intelligentsia has proved itself a much more cohesive factor in the emergent nations of today than in Tsarist Russia. Quite understandably bourgeois private property is bankrupt; imperialism is intolerable; state capitalism – through the weakening of imperialism, the growing importance of state planning, plus the example of Russia, and the organised, disciplined work of the Communist Parties – gives them a new sense of cohesion. As the only non-specialised section of society, the intelligentsia is the obvious source of a “professional revolutionary elite” which appears to represent the interests of the “nation” as against conflicting sectional and class interests. In addition, it is the section of society most imbued with the national culture, the peasants and workers having neither the leisure nor education for it.

The intelligentsia is also sensitive to their countries’ technical lag. Participating as it does in the scientific and technical world of the twentieth century, it is stifled by the backwardness of its own nation. This feeling is accentuated by the “intellectual unemployment” endemic in these countries. Given the general economic backwardness, the only hope for most students is a government job, but there are not nearly enough of these to go round. [45]

The spiritual life of the intellectuals is also in a crisis. In a crumbling order where the traditional pattern is disintegrating, they feel insecure, rootless, lacking in firm values. Dissolving cultures give rise to a powerful urge for a new integration that must be total and dynamic if it is to fill the social and spiritual vacuum, that must combine religious fervour with militant nationalism.

Before their country gains political freedom, the intellectuals find themselves under dual pressure – privileged beyond the majority of their people, yet subordinated to the foreign rulers. This explains the hesitations and vacillations so characteristic of their role in the national movements. But the big changes since have introduced new elements in their attitude – a feeling of guilt, of “debt” towards the “dark” masses, and at the same time a feeling of divorcement from, and superiority to them. The intelligentsia are anxious to belong without being assimilated, without ceasing to remain apart and above. They are in search of a dynamic movement which will unify the nation, and open up broad new vistas for it, but at the same time will give themselves power.

They are great believers in efficiency, including efficiency in social engineering. They hope for reform from above and would dearly love to hand the new world over to a grateful people, rather than see the liberating struggle of a self-conscious and freely associated people result in a new world for themselves. They care a lot for measures to drag their nation out of stagnation, but very little for democracy. They embody the drive for industrialisation, for capital accumulation, for national resurgence. Their power is in direct relation to the feebleness of other classes, and their political nullity.

All this makes totalitarian state capitalism a very attractive goal for intellectuals. And indeed they are the main banner-bearers of communism in the emergent nations. “Communism has found acceptance in Latin America among students and the middle class”, writes a Latin American specialist. [46] In India, at the Congress of the Communist Party in Amritsar (March/April 1958), “approximately 67 per cent of the delegates were from classes other than the proletariat and peasantry (middle class, land-owning class, and ‘small traders’). 72 per cent had some college education.” [47] (In 1943 it was found that 16 per cent of all Party members were full-time functionaries. [48])



6. Deflected Permanent Revolution

Those forces which should lead to a socialist, workers’ revolution according to Trotsky’s theory can lead, in the absence of the revolutionary subject, the proletariat, to its opposite, state capitalism. Using what is of universal validity in the theory and what is contingent (upon the subjective activity of the proletariat), one can come to a variant that, for lack of a better name, might be called the “Deflected, state capitalist, Permanent Revolution”.

In the same way as the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia and that of 1925–27 in China were classic demonstrations of Trotsky’s theory, Mao’s and Castro’s rise to power are classic, the purest, and most extreme, demonstrations of “Deflected Permanent Revolution”. Other colonial revolutions – Ghana, India, Egypt, Indonesia, Algeria etc. – are deviations from the norm. In these countries, the political and military retreat of imperialism, plus the financial backing of the local ruling classes – quite often including basic sections of the bourgeoisie – plus the hamstringing of the local communist parties by Moscow, have prevented a Simon-pure state capitalism dominated single-handed by a new Stalinist bureaucracy. But, although Nehru’s India, Nkrumah’s Ghana, or Ben Bella’s Algeria deviate more or less from the norm of “Deflected Permanent Revolution”, they can best be understood when approached from the standpoint of, and compared with the norm.

Some strange conclusions follow for the international labour movement from the working out of the “Deflected Permanent Revolution” whether in its pure or its bastard form. First, for the workers in the emergent nations: having failed to carry out the permanent revolution, to lead the democratic revolution on to socialist rails, to combine the national and social struggles, they will now have to fight against their “own” ruling class (and Nehru proved no less harsh when incarcerating striking workers than the British Raj). The industrial workers will nevertheless become more and more ready for the socialist revolution. Under the new national regimes they experience an increase in numbers and hence, in the long run, in cohesion and specific social weight.

For revolutionary socialists in the advanced countries, the shift in strategy means that while they will have to continue to oppose any national oppression of the colonial people unconditionally, they must cease to argue over the national identity of the future ruling classes of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and instead investigate the class conflicts and future social structures of these continents. The slogan of “class against class” will become more and more a reality. The central theme of Trotsky’s theory remains as valid as ever: the proletariat must continue its revolutionary struggle until it is triumphant the world over. Short of this target it cannot achieve freedom. [49]




1. The Menshevik spokesman Martynov wrote on the eve of the 1905 revolution:

The coming revolution will be a revolution of the bourgeoisie; and that means will only, to a greater or lesser extent, secure the rule of all or some of the bourgeois classes ... If this is so, it is clear that the coming revolution can on no account assume political forms against the will of the whole of the bourgeoisie, as the latter will be the master of tomorrow. If so, then to follow the path of simply frightening the majority of the bourgeois elements would mean that the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat could lead to only one result – the restoration of absolutism in its original form ...

Martynov’s implied conclusion is that the working class should impose self-restraint on itself so as not to “frighten” the bourgeoisie; but at the same time he states that it should persistently press the bourgeoisie to lead the revolution: “The struggle to influence the course and outcome of the bourgeoisie can be expressed simply in the proletariat’s exerting revolutionary pressure on the will of the liberal and radical bourgeoisie, the more democratic ‘lower’ section of society’s compelling the ‘higher’ section to agree to lead the bourgeois revolution to its logical conclusion.” (A. Martynov, Dve Diktatury, Geneva, 1905, pp.  57–8).

Similarly the Menshevik paper Iskra wrote at the time:

When looking at the arena of struggle in Russia, what do we see? Only two powers: Tsarist autocracy and the liberal bourgeoisie, the latter organised and of tremendous specific weight The working masses are split and can do nothing; as an independent force we do not exist; and therefore our task consists in the support of the second force – the liberal bourgeoisie; we must encourage it, and on no account frighten it by putting forward the independent demands of the proletariat. (Quoted by G Zinoviev, Istorija Rossiiskoi Kommunisticheskoji Partii (Bolshevikov), Moscow-Leningrad 1923, p. 158).

2. V.I. Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, 1905 in Sochineniia, 4th Edition, Vol. IX, p. 40.

3. Ibid., p. 9.

4. Ibid., Vol. XXI, p. 17.

5. Trotsky, Perspektivy Russkoi Revoliutsii (Selection from his book Nasha Revoliutsija), Berlin 1917, p. 46.

6. Trotsky, Perspektivy etc., op. cit., p. 36.

7. Ibid., p. 48. Trotsky’s theory was a development, application and expansion of Marx’s analysis of the 1848 revolution. Even before that revolution, the Communist Manifesto had predicted that because of the “advanced conditions” and “developed proletariat” of Germany, “The bourgeois revolution in Germany” would be “but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”. (Marx, Selected Works, Vol. 1, London 1942, p. 241). And after the defeat of 1848 Marx stated that, faced with the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to carry out the anti-feudal revolution, the working class had to struggle for the growth of the bourgeois revolution into the proletarian, and of the national revolution into the international revolution. In an address to the Central Council of the Communist League (March 1850) Marx said:

While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible and with the achievement at most of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been displaced from domination, until the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of the proletarian, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians.

And Marx ended his address with the phrase: “Their [the workers’] battle-cry must be: the permanent revolution!” (K. Marx, Selected Works, London 1942, Vol. III, pp. 161–168.

8. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, Calcutta 1947, p. 168.

9. Ibid., p. 169.

10. R.C. North, Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Elites, Stanford 1962, p. 32.

11. H.R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution, London 1938, p. 333.

12. Ibid., p. 394.

13. World News and Views, 22 April 1939.

14. S. Gelder, The Chinese Communists, London 1946, p. 167.

15. See Communist Manifesto published in Chungking on 23 November 1938, New York Times, 24 November 1938.

16. Isaacs, op. cit., p. 456.

17. New China News Agency, 11 January 1949.

18. Ibid., 3 May 1949.

19. North China Daily News, 23 April 1949.

20. New York Times, 25 May 1949.

21. South China Morning Post, 17 October 1949.

22. C. Wright Mills, Listen Yankee, New York 1960, p. 46.

23. Ibid., p. 47.

24. p. A. Baran, Reflections on the Cuban Revolution, New York 1961. p. 17.

25. The Communist Party of Cuba, the People’s Socialist Party, had a lot to live down. It supported Batista’s rule between 1939 and 1946. It participated in Batista’s first Ministry with two Ministers, Juan Marinello and Carlos Rafael Rodriguez. In 1944 the Communist paper Hoy addressed Batista as the “idol of a people, the great man of our national policy, the man who incarnates the sacred deals of a new Cuba”, Castro was declared a petty bourgeois adventurer. As stated above the Communists did not co-operate in the April 1958 strike. As late as 28 June 1958, they were timidly advocating “clean democratic elections” to get rid of Batista.

26. Mills, op. cit., pp. 46–8.

27. Ibid., p. 44.

28. Baran, op. cit., p. 11.

29. Ibid., p. 12.

30. Speech by Castro of 1 December 1961, El Mundo La Habana, 22 December 1961.

31. ‘Che’ Guevara, Cuba: Exceptional Case?, Monthly Review, New York, July–August 1961, p. 59.

32. T. Draper, Castro’s Cuba. A Revolution Betrayed?, Encounter, London, March 1961.

33. Guevara op. cit., p. 63.

34. Ibid., pp. 65–6.

35. Ibid., p. 68.

36. Quoted by Draper, ibid.

37. Plan for the Advancement of Latin America, Havana 1959, p. 32.

38. Osvaldo Dorticos Torrado, The Institutional and Political Changes made by the Cuban Revolution, Cuba, Havana, November 1961.

39. C.A. Mayers, India, in W Galenson (ed.), Labor and Economic Development, New York 1959, pp. 41–2.

40. V.B. Karnik, Indian Trade Unionism: A Survey, Bombay 1960, pp. 227–8.

41. Ibid., p. 236.

42. E. Berg, French West Africa, in Galenson. op. cit., p. 227.

43. United States Senate, United States-Latin American Relations, 86th Congress, Second Session, Washington 1960, p. 645.

44. V. Lenin, Selected Works, Moscow 1946, Vol. 7, p. 248.

45. Thus, for instance, a survey made in India showed that about 25 per cent of the students ho received their Master’s degree from Lucknow University in Arts, Science, Commerce and Law between 1949 and 1953 were still unemployed in 1957. The survey also reported that bout 47 per cent of the liberal arts students, 51.4 per cent of the science students, 7 per cent of the commerce students, and 85.7 per cent of the education students said they went to the university to get the necessary qualifications for government service. About 51 per cent of the degree holders concluded that university education was a “waste of time”. (M. Weiner, Party Politics in India, Princeton, NJ 1957, pp. 8–10).

46. V. Alba, The Middle Class Revolution, New Politics, New York, Winter 1962, p. 71.

47. G.D. Overstreet and M. Windmiller, Communism in India, Berkeley and Los Angeles 1959, p. 540.

48. Ibid., p. 358.

49. For lack of space the present article has concentrated on the relevance of the theory of Permanent Revolution to the backward countries, and not dealt with its implications in the advanced countries. This second element – that the victory of the colonial revolution must lead to the socialist revolution in the advanced metropolitan countries – was not originally (in 1906) part and parcel of Trotsky’s theory, but has since become grafted upon it. For some of the relevant considerations, see Michael Kidron, Imperialism, Highest Stage But One, International Socialism 9, Summer 1962, reprinted in International Socialism 61, June 1973.


Last updated on 3 February 2017