Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

6. Trotsky and Parvus: The inception of the theory of permanent revolution

IN SEPTEMBER 1904 Trotsky announced his break with the Mensheviks, in an Open letter to the Comrades which he sent for publication to Iskra. The letter was never published. Trotsky was very antagonistic to the Mensheviks’ softness towards the liberals during the zemstvo campaign in the latter half of 1904. In the autumn of the same year Trotsky went to stay with Alexander Israel Helphand (Parvus) in Munich. Parvus, twelve years older than Trotsky, was also a Russian Jew; he had lived in Germany since the mid-1890s. The meeting of the two had a profound influence on Trotsky’s thinking which lasted for the rest of his life.

Parvus had an enormous reputation as a Marxist writer and political thinker at the time. In his autobiography Trotsky writes:

Parvus was unquestionably one of the most important of the Marxists at the turn of the century. He used the Marxian methods skilfully, was possessed of wide vision, and kept a keen eye on everything of importance in world events. This, coupled with his fearless thinking and his virile, muscular style, made him a remarkable writer. His early studies brought me closer to the problems of the social revolution, and, for me, definitely transformed the conquest of power by the proletariat from an astronomical ‘final’ goal to a practical task for our own day. [1]

Some years later Parvus degenerated politically and personally – becoming an arms merchant, enthusiastic supporter of imperialist Germany during the war and adviser to Ebert, president of the Weimar Republic. Nonetheless, in 1915, after Parvus had turned social patriotic and Trotsky had broken all ties with him, Trotsky still in all honesty expressed his intellectual debt to Parvus:

The author of these lines considers it a matter of personal honour to render what is due to the man to whom he has been indebted for his ideas and intellectual development more than to any other person of the older generation of European Social Democrats ... Even now, I see less reason than ever to renounce that diagnosis and prognosis, the lion’s share of which was contributed by Parvus. [2]

In 1895-96 Parvus wrote a series of articles for Neue Zeit about the effectiveness of the political mass strike. He preceded Rosa Luxemburg in developing the idea that the mass strike could and should be an important weapon in the arsenal of the socialist movement. In August 1904 he argued that the general strike was the crucial weapon of workers’ offensive.

As early as 1895 Parvus had forecast a war between Russia and Japan and foreseen that out of that war would develop the Russian revolution. Soon after the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese war he started a series of articles for Iskra under the significant title War and Revolution (later reprinted in his book Rossiia i revoliutsiia) which opened with the prophetic sentence: ‘The Russo-Japanese war is the blood-red dawn of coming great events.’ [3]

He proceeded to develop the thesis that the period of European stability that had begun in 1871, after the last of the wars for national unification in Europe, had been brought to an end by the outbreak of the war between Russia and Japan. The national state, as well as the private ownership of the means of production, had become fetters on further economic development: ‘The capitalist order in Europe has long since been an obstacle to the economic, political and cultural development in Europe.’ Competition for raw materials and for overseas markets, rival national economic interests, the insatiable need for continuous industrial expansion – these would ‘inevitably lead to a world war.’ The key to an unparalleled development of the productive forces was in the hands of the international working class which would abolish private property and the national state at one and the same time.

Parvus wrote that Russia’s involvement in imperialist conflict was the outcome of her urge to remain an independent power, and her wish to divert attention from domestic pressure by external conflict. However the war would expose the rottenness of the Tsarist regime and accelerate the process of social disintegration. The Tsarist regime was the most unstable of all European regimes. The upheaval in Russia would have worldwide repercussions: ‘The worldwide process of capitalist development leads to a political upheaval in Russia. In turn this will affect political development in all capitalist countries. The Russian revolution will shape the capitalist world, and the Russian proletariat will assume the role of the vanguard of the social revolution.’ [4]

Up to the 9th January

When Trotsky came to stay with Parvus he brought with him a half-finished pamphlet which dealt with the social and political crisis in Russia, in which he argued how hopeless was the prospect of a bourgeois-led revolution in Russia. He argued that the peasant movement could not by itself win, that the showdown with Tsarism demanded an armed insurrection, and that the very next step along that road would be the general strike. The pamphlet was written before Bloody Sunday in Petersburg, when the powerful wave of strikes began. In December 1904 Trotsky finished writing this pamphlet to which, after the events of Bloody Sunday (9 January 1905) he gave the title Do 9 Ianvara (Up to the 9th January). Parvus read the manuscript and was very excited by it. He exclaimed:

The events have fully confirmed this analysis. Now, no one can deny that the general strike is the most important means of fighting. The 22nd of January was the first political strike, even if it was disguised under a priest’s cloak. One need add only that revolution in Russia may place a democratic workers’ government in power. [5]

Up to the 9th January was written in response to the liberals’ zemstvo campaign, which culminated in November 1904 with a conference calling on the Tsar to reform the government system. The first part of the pamphlet was devoted to showing how cowardly the liberals’ pleading was. They shied away from calling for the Constitution, universal suffrage and a republic:

Compromise instead of struggle. Consensus at all costs. Hence the urge ... to organise itself not for the purpose of a struggle against the autocracy, but for the purpose of making itself useful to it. Not to defeat the government, but to entice it to its side, to be worthy of its gratitude and trust ... [6]

After showing the cowardly nature of the bourgeoisie, Trotsky goes on to analyse the revolutionary nature of the proletariat. The power of Trotsky’s realistic imagination is shown here at its best. He describes the coming revolution with astonishing clarity. Reading it one has to rub one’s eyes, because it appears to have been written after the event. The revolution, he said, would develop from a general strike into an armed insurrection:

Above all it must be established that the main arena of revolutionary events will be the city. No one would venture to deny this. Further, there is no doubt that demonstrations can only turn into a popular revolution in the event that the masses are involved – above all the industrial proletariat ... To tear the workers away from the machines and workbenches, to lead them out of the factory gates on to the streets, to set out for the neighbouring mill, there to proclaim the stopping of work, to attract new masses on to the street, and so, in this fashion, from mill to mill, from factory to factory, growing larger and tearing down the police barriers, attracting passers by with speeches and appeals, swallowing up groups coming from the opposite direction, filling the streets, taking possession of suitable premises for popular meetings, growing stronger in these places, using them for continuous revolutionary meetings, with an audience that constantly renews itself, bringing order to the movements of the masses, elevating their mood, explaining to them the aim and implications of what it going on – in this way, finally, to turn the town into a revolutionary camp – this is the general aim of the plan of action.

Let us repeat: the starting point, in accordance with the composition of our main revolutionary forces, must be the mills and factories. This means that important street demonstrations, bearing with them the possibility of decisive events, must begin with a mass political strike. [7]

But the urban working class alone will not decide the issue. The peasantry represents ‘a major reserve of potential revolutionary energy’:

The peasants must be called on to assemble at their own meetings on the day of the political strike, to pass a resolution demanding the convocation of the Constituent Assembly the suburban peasants must be summoned to the towns to participate in the street demonstrations of the revolutionary masses, gathered under the banner of the Constituent Assembly. [8]

Last but not least,

It is imperative to conduct the most intense agitation amongst the troops in order that on the day of the strike each soldier sent to put down the ‘rebels’, should know that he is facing the people who are demanding the convocation of the National Constituent Assembly. [9]

The war against Japan made the soldiers ready to absorb revolutionary socialist propaganda:

We have gone through a year of war. Of course it is impossible to show exactly the influence of the passing year on the consciousness of the army. But there can be no doubt that this influence is colossal. One of the main strengths of the military hypnosis consists in actively maintaining the soldiers’ faith in their invincibility, power and superiority over the rest of the world. Not a trace of this belief has survived the war ... loss of faith in its invincibility means that the army already has a large degree of doubt in the invincibility of the order which it serves ... The one entails the other ...

Our ships go more slowly. Our guns have a shorter ranger, our soldiers are illiterate, the NCOs have no compass or map, our soldiers are barefoot, naked and hungry, our Red Cross pilfers. The Commissariat thieves – of course rumours and tidings of this reach the army and are greedily absorbed by it. Every such rumour, just like corrosive acid, wears away the rust of the armour of morale. Years of peaceful propaganda would not have accomplished what each day of war does. As a result only the mechanism of discipline remains ... The less the faith in the autocracy, the more space exists for reliance on the enemies of the autocracy.

This mood must be made use of. It is imperative that the meanings of the actions of the toiling masses, guided by the party, is explained to the soldiers. This meaning must be fixed strongly in their consciousness by new leaflets, and by more new leaflets. The slogan ‘Down with the war!’ which can unite the army with the revolutionary people, must be used in the widest manner. It is necessary, so that as the decisive day approaches, the officers cannot trust the soldiers ...

The street will do the rest. It will dissolve the last remnants of the barracks hypnosis in the revolutionary enthusiasm of the people. [10]

The picture Trotsky painted of the coming revolution was prophetic. He had very little historical experience to go by. In the French revolution the industrial proletariat played a very small role. In the 1848 revolution the proletariat did not lead the peasantry and did not pull the army to its side. The Paris Commune also did not prefigure the combination of proletariat, peasantry and army that took place in 1905. A restless, constructive imagination, clarity and self-confidence combined in Trotsky’s Up to the 9th January.

Compare this with the prognosis of Peter Struve, the ex-Marxist and now leader of the liberals who said, two days before Bloody Sunday: ‘There is not yet such a thing as a revolutionary people in Russia.’ [11] Struve’s words remind one of the statement by Witte, the Tsarist finance minister, in 1895: ‘Fortunately, Russia does not possess a working class in the same sense as the West does. Consequently we have no labour problem; nor will either of these find in Russia a soil to produce them.’ [12]

Parvus on the prospects of Russian Revolution

No wonder Parvus was impressed with what Trotsky had written; enthusiastically he set to work to write a preface to Trotsky’s pamphlet. He begins with an analysis of the weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie and its inability to play a leading role in the revolution. In Tsarist Russia there were no independent provincial towns in which a politically active middle class could establish a power base. In past revolutions,

Political radicalism throughout Western Europe, as everybody knows, depended primarily on the petty bourgeoisie. These were artisans and generally all of that part of the bourgeoisie which was caught up by the industrial development but which at the same time was superseded by the class of capitalists ... In Russia of the pre-capitalist period cities developed on the Chinese rather than on the European model. These were administrative centres, purely official and bureaucratic in character, devoid of any political significance, while in the economic sense they were trade bazaars for the landlord and peasant milieu of its environs. Their development was still rather inconsiderable, when it was terminated by the capitalist process, which began to establish large cities in its own image, that is, factory towns and centres of world trade ... That which had hindered the development of petty bourgeois democracy come to benefit the class consciousness of the proletariat in Russia – the weak development of the artisan form of production. The proletariat was immediately concentrated in the factories ...

What about the peasantry?

Greater and greater masses of peasants will be drawn into the movement. But all they can do is to aggravate the political anarchy already rampant in the country and thus weaken the government; they cannot become a compact revolutionary army ...

As the revolution develops, more and more of the political work will fall to the proletariat. This will also broaden its political self-awareness and increase its political energy. The Russian proletariat has already built up a revolutionary force that surpasses anything other peoples have achieved during revolutionary uprisings ... When the Russian proletariat finally overthrows autocracy, it will be an army tempered in the revolutionary struggle, firm and determined, always ready to use force to back up its demands.

... In Russia only workers can accomplish a revolutionary insurrection. In Russia the revolutionary provisional government will be a government of the workers’ democracy.

... A Social-Democratic provisional government cannot effect a socialist overturn in Russia, but the very process of liquidating autocracy and establishing a democratic republic will provide a favourable soil for its political work ... [13]

It is clear that many of Trotsky’s views on international perspectives of capitalism and revolution, on Russian history, on the Tsarist state, on the physiognomy of the Russian bourgeoisie and on the role of the peasantry and the working class were influenced by Parvus. As Trotsky wrote many years later: ‘There is no doubt that he [Parvus] exerted considerable influence on my personal development, especially with respect of the social-revolutionary understanding of our epoch.’ [14] Trotsky always saw the time he spent in Munich in 1904 as a turning point in his intellectual development.

Parvus’s preface to Up to the 9th January did not suggest that the working-class revolution would go beyond democratic tasks to carry out the socialist transformation of society. In this it lagged behind the theory of permanent revolution which Trotsky was to develop in the following months. However, at that time, Trotsky himself did not visualise the future Russian revolution going beyond bourgeois democratic tasks. Thus, for instance, in Our Political Tasks, written in August 1904, he states:

... we, as communists, as pioneers of the new socialist world, will know how to carry out our revolutionary duty towards the old bourgeois world. We will fight on the barricades. We will conquer for it the freedom which it is impotent to gain without us ...

Only the free Russia of the future, in which we ... will obviously be obliged to play the role of opposition party and not government, will enable the class struggle of the proletariat to develop to its full extent. [15]

In the intellectual partnership of Parvus and Trotsky prior to the revolution of 1905, the elder was well ahead of his junior. But as a result of the revolution and the development of the theory of permanent revolution following it, the roles were to be reversed.


1. Trotsky, My Life, page 167.

2. Nashe Slovo, 14 February 1915.

3. A.L. Parvus, Rossiia i revoliutsiia (St Petersburg 1906), page 83.

4. Iskra, 1 January 1905.

5. Quoted in Trotsky, My Life, page 167.

6. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, page 9.

7. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, pages 50-1.

8. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, page 52.

9. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, page 53.

10. Trotsky, Sochineniia, volume 2, book 1, pages 47-8.

11. Quoted in Trotsky, 1905 (New York 1972), page 77.

12. Quoted in M.N. Pokrovsky, A Brief History of Russia, volume 2 (London 1933), page 38.

13. Parvus, Preface to Trotsky, Do 9 Ianvara (Geneva 1905), pages x-xii; quoted in Trotsky, Stalin, page 430.

14. Trotsky, Stalin, pages 429-30.

15. Trotsky, Our Political Tasks, pages 5-6 and 70.

Last updated on 18 July 2009