Tony Cliff

Trotsky: Towards October 1879-1917

8. The permanent revolution

IT WAS DURING the year 1905 that Trotsky developed the Theory of Permanent Revolution, which was his greatest contribution to Marxism, and a guide to his thinking and activity for the rest of his eventful life. As leader of the revolution, as founder and leader of the Red Army, as leader of the Communist International, as a hunted exile, he defended and elaborated the ideas he formulated in 1905. For Trotsky clarity of ideas was a fundamental necessity of life. As he said in his autobiography: Without a broad political view of the future, I cannot conceive of political activity or of intellectual life in general. [1]

The 1905 revolution was a laboratory in which all the basic tendencies in Russian Marxism were put to the test and developed. The core of the disagreements between the tendencies was the question of the historical nature of the Russian revolution.

Mensheviks and Bolsheviks on the prospects of Russian revolution

The Bolsheviks and Mensheviks disagreed about the nature of the government that would and should come out of the revolution. The Bolsheviks called for a democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants, while the Mensheviks hoped for a bourgeois government. But on one thing both wings of Russian Social Democracy agreed: that the coming revolution would be a bourgeois revolution. By this was meant a revolution resulting from a conflict between the productive forces of capitalism on the one hand, and the autocracy, landlordism and other relics of feudalism on the other.

That this was the view of the Mensheviks needs no elaboration. But that Lenin at the time held the same opinion, and that he held it for many years afterwards, needs some demonstration, especially in the light of the victory of the October revolution of 1917, which went far beyond the limits of a bourgeois revolution.

Thus Lenin wrote about the future Russian revolution in the pamphlet Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution:

At best, it may bring about a radical distribution of landed property in favour of the peasantry, establish consistent and full democracy, including the formation of a republic, eradicate all the oppressive features of Asiatic bondage, not only in rural but also in factory life, lay the foundation for a thorough improvement for the conditions of the workers and for a rise in their standard of living, and – last but not least – carry the revolutionary conflagration into Europe. Such a victory will not yet by any means transform our bourgeois revolution into a socialist revolution: the democratic revolution will not immediately overstep the bounds of bourgeois social and economic relationships. [2]

Again he wrote, ‘this democratic revolution in Russia will not weaken but strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie.’ [3]

In view of Russia’s backwardness and the smallness of her working class, Lenin rejected

... the absurd and semi-anarchist idea of giving immediate effect to the maximum programme and the conquest of power for a socialist revolution. The degree of Russia’s economic development (an objective condition), and the degree of class consciousness and organisation of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition) make the immediate and complete emancipation of the working class impossible. Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking place. Whoever wants to reach socialism by any other path than that of political democracy will inevitably arrive at conclusions that are absurd and reactionary both in the economic and the political sense. [4]

Further, ‘we Marxists should know that there is not, nor can there be, any other path to real freedom for the proletariat and the peasantry, than the path of bourgeois freedom and bourgeois progress.’ [5] In the same book Lenin makes it clear that the programme of the revolution should be limited to reform within the framework of capitalism:

... a programme of action that will conform with the objective conditions of the present period and with the aims of proletarian democracy. This programme is the entire minimum programme of our party, the programme of the immediate political and economic reforms which ... can be fully realised on the basis of the existing social and economic relationships. [6]

Lenin did not change this opinion until after the revolution of February 1917. In The War and Russian Social Democracy for example, written in September 1914, he was still writing that the Russian revolution must limit itself to

... the three fundamental conditions for consistent democratic reform, viz., a democratic republic (with complete equality and self-determination for all nations), confiscation of the landed estates, and an eight-hour working day.’ [7]

It is clear, moreover, from all Lenin’s writings up to 1917 that he anticipated that a whole period would elapse between the coming bourgeois revolution and the proletarian, socialist revolution. His treatment of the agrarian problem illustrates this point. Nationalisation of the land, he insisted, was not a socialist, but a capitalist demand, albeit one which, in clearing the way for capitalist development, would lead to a rapid increase in the number of proletarians and a sharpening of the class struggle. It would make possible the ‘American path of capitalist development – that is, development unfettered by any remnants of feudalism. The abolition of private property in land was the maximum of what could be done in bourgeois society, for the removal of all obstacles to the free development of capital in land, to the free flow of capital from one branch of production to another:

Nationalisation makes it possible to tear down all the fences of land ownership to the utmost degree, and ‘clear’ all the land for the new system of economy suitable to the requirements of capital. [8]

Trotsky on the peculiarities of Russian History

On the question of the historical nature of the Russian revolution and its future course of development, Trotsky had a position that diverged both from the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

In 1906 Trotsky wrote Results and Prospects – The Moving Forces of the Revolution, as a long concluding chapter to his book Our Revolution – a collection of essays and chronicles of 1905. This essay, together with Trotsky’s writings of 1905, illustrates the theory of permanent revolution.

Traditional Marxism looked upon backward countries in the light of Marx’s well-known formula that the advanced industrial countries showed the more backward countries their own future development. As Marx put it in his Preface to Capital: ‘The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed, the image of its own future.’ The conclusion the Mensheviks drew from this statement was that with all the differences in national conditions, the historical tasks that faced the young capitalism in France in 1789 would face the newly developing capitalism in Russia and other relatively backward countries in the future. Trotsky rejected this mechanical and linear approach to Russia’s historical development.

When he developed the theory of permanent revolution in 1906 he saw it as applicable to Russia. With the experience of the Chinese revolution (1925-27), he generalised it to embrace all relatively backward countries.

The point of departure of the theory of permanent revolution is the unity of the world. It is true that different countries have reached different levels of economic advance, but each has done it in the context of the world system.

Tsarist Russia did not develop in isolation. Throughout its history it was under pressure from its more advanced neighbours.

Russian social life, built up on a certain economic foundation, has all the time been under the influence, even under the pressure, of its external, social milieu.

When this social and state organisation, in the process of its formation, came into collision with other, neighbouring organisations, the primitiveness of the economic relations of the one and the comparatively high development of the others played decisive parts in the ensuing process. [9]

The Tsarist state became an ever-increasing burden on the economy and society, bleeding them and hampering the development of the productive forces. The power of the Tsarist state impeded the development of independent guilds of artisans, independent towns and an independent bourgeoisie.

In the same way that the military pressure of Lithuania, Poland and Sweden compelled old Russia to introduce firearms and create its standing army, so the economic pressure from the West was decisive in shaping Russian capitalism. A crucial role in the development of capitalism in Russia was played by foreign capital. The textile industry was almost totally owned by British capital, and in the metalworking industry one came across factories with such world-famous names as Siemens, Ericson and Nobel.

While international factors undermined the economic, social and political weight of the native Russian bourgeoisie, it gave added weight to the Russian proletariat. The proletariat was concentrated in much larger factories than the proletariat in the West. The Putilov factory in Petersburg, with its 30,000 workers, was by far the largest factory in the world at the time. The specific weight of the Russian proletariat was far greater than its size.

The Russian bourgeoisie, being a latecomer, would be far less revolutionary than the French bourgeoisie at the time of its revolution. If the French bourgeoisie succeeded in carrying out the revolution in 1789-93, the German bourgeoisie in 1848 betrayed the revolution and capitulated to the Kaiser and the Junkers. The Russian bourgeoisie, Trotsky argued, would be even more cowardly than the German.

The young working class of Russia was not only much stronger materially than its equivalent in France during its revolution, or Germany during its, but also spiritually. Again the impact of the international set-up is decisive here. In its aspirations the Russian working class skipped a whole series of stages that the English proletariat, for example, passed through.

In Britain it took over a century after the industrial revolution for the idea of the eight-hour day to dominate workers’ aspirations, while the young Russian working class grasped it firmly with its early steps. In Britain it took 91 years for the engineering union to allow women into its ranks, in Russia the unions from the beginning included women as well as men. Russia did not need a Russian Adam Smith and a Russian Ricardo to arrive at a Russian Karl Marx; nor did they need a Russian Hegel or a Russian Feuerbach. As a matter of fact the first language into which Marx’s Capital was translated was Russian: the first volume was published in German in 1867 and in Russian five years later, many years before the English or French editions.

But Russia’s advanced industry and proletariat are combined with the most backward agricul­ture and peasantry. So we see the combination of the wooden plough (the sokha) with the massive, most concentrated factories in the world. We see the combination of the peasant revolt – characteristic of the dawn of capitalism, such as those of Wat Tyler in England, Thomas Münzer in Germany, or the Jacquerie in France – with the proletariat organised in the Soviet, struggling for power.

The law of uneven and combined development is the essence of the theory of the permanent revolution. Although Trotsky coined the term ‘The Law of Combined Development’ only in the 1930s, the concept of combined development permeated all his writings from Results and Prospects onwards.

The peasantry, argues Trotsky, is not an independent force. Being atomised, it cannot organise itself. Under capitalism the countryside always follows the town. So, if in the town the revolutionary force is that of the proletariat, the Russian peasantry will follow the proletariat.

The agrarian problem in Russia is a heavy burden to capitalism. It is an aid to the revolutionary party, and at the same time its greatest challenge. It is the stumbling block for liberalism, and a memento mori for counter-revolution. [10]

The fate of the revolution would depend on the working class mobilising behind it the peasantry.

The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated them. The domination of the proletariat will mean not only democratic equality, free self-­government, the transference of the whole burden of taxation to the rich classes, the dissolution of the standing army in the armed people, and the abolition of compulsory church imposts, but also recognition of all revolutionary changes (expropriations) in land relationships carried out by the peasants. The proletariat will make these changes the starting-point for further state measures in agriculture.

Under such conditions, the Russian peasantry, in the first and most difficult period of the revolution, will be interested in the maintenance of a proletarian regime (workers’ democracy) at all events not less than was the French peasantry in the maintenance of the military regime of Napoleon Bonaparte, which guaranteed to the new property owners, by the force of its bayonets, the inviolability of their holdings. [11]

Reading this, one can see how unjustified was the charge later made against Trotsky by the Stalinists, that he underestimated the revolutionary potential of the peasantry.

Alter the victory of the revolution, wrote Trotsky, the alliance of proletariat and peasantry would come under increasing strain:

The proletariat will find itself compelled to carry the class struggle into the villages, and in this manner destroy that community of interest which is undoubtedly to be found among all peasants, although within comparatively narrow limits. From the very first moment after its taking power, the proletariat will have to find support in the antagonism between the village poor and the village rich, between the agricultural proletariat and the agricultural bourgeoisie. While the heterogeneity of the peasantry creates difficulty and narrows the basis for a proletarian policy, the insufficient degree of class differentiation will create obstacles to the introduction among the peasantry of developed class struggle upon which the urban proletariat could rely. The primitiveness of the peasantry turns its hostile face towards the proletariat. [12]

The peasants’ fanaticism about their property meant they would welcome the proletariat for helping them acquire the landlords’ lands, but also meant they would turn against it in the course of its collectivist and internationalist policies:

... the more definite and determined the policy of the proletariat in power becomes, the narrower and more shaky does the ground beneath its feet become. All this is extremely probably and even inevitable ...

The two main features of proletarian policy which will meet opposition from the allies of the proletariat are collectivism and internationalism.

The primitiveness and petty bourgeois character of the peasantry, its limited rural outlook, its isolation from world political ties and allegiances, will create terrible difficulties for the consolidation of the revolutionary policy of the proletariat in power. [13]

The fate of the revolution in backward Russia would be decided by the march of the international revolution in the West:

... how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty – that it will come up against political obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without the direct state support of the European proletariat the working class in Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship. But on the other hand, there cannot be any doubt that the socialist revolution in the West will enable us directly to convert the temporary domination of the working class into a socialist dictatorship. [14]

The revolution could not survive for a long time in isolation:

Should the Russian proletariat find itself in power, if only as the result of a temporary conjuncture of circumstances in our bourgeois revolution, it will encounter the organised hostility of world reaction, and on the other hand, will find a readiness on the part of the world proletariat to give organised support. Left to its own resources, the working class of Russia will inevitably be crushed by the counter-revolution the moment the peasantry turns its back on it. It will have no alternative but to link the fate of its political rule and, hence, the fate of the whole Russian revolution, with the fate of the socialist revolution in Europe. That colossal state political power given it by a temporary conjuncture of circumstances in the Russian bourgeois revolution, it will cast into the scales of the class struggle of the entire capitalist world. With state power in its hands, with counter-revolution behind it and European reaction in front of it, it will send forth to its comrades the world over the old rallying cry, which this time will be a call for the last attack: Workers of all countries unite! [15]

Events emphatically confirmed Trotsky’s prophetic foresight.

After the revolution, in 1922, Trotsky gave a brilliant summary of the theory of permanent revolution:

The Russian revolution, although directly concerned with bourgeois aims, could not stop short at those aims. The revolution could not solve its immediate, bourgeois tasks, except by putting the proletariat into power. And the proletariat, once having power in its hands, would not be able to remain confined within the bourgeois framework of the revolution. On the contrary, precisely in order to guarantee its victory, the proletarian vanguard in the very earliest stages of its rule would have to make extremely deep inroads not only into feudal, but also into bourgeois property relations. While doing so it would enter into hostile conflict, not only with all those bourgeois groups which had supported it during the first stages of its revolutionary struggle, but also with the broad masses of the peasantry, with whose collaboration it, the proletariat, had come to power.

The contradictions between a workers’ government and an overwhelming majority of peasants in a backward country could be resolved only on an international scale, in the arena of a world proletarian revolution. Having, by virtue of historical necessity, burst the narrow bourgeois-democratic confines of the Russian revolution, the victorious proletariat would be compelled also to burst its national and state confines, that is to say, it would have to strive consciously for the Russian revolution to become the prologue to a world revolution. [16]

Trotsky’s unique position

None of the Marxist leaders agreed with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. We have already dealt with the Mensheviks and Bolsheviks. But even Parvus, closest to Trotsky intellectually, did not agree with him. Parvus’s ideas were not the same as Trotsky’s. Trotsky explains that Parvus’s

... views on the Russian revolution in 1905 bordered closely on mine, without however being identical with them ... Parvus was not of the opinion that a workers’ government in Russia could move in the direction of the socialist revolution, that is, that in the process of fulfilling the democratic tasks it could grow over into the socialist dictatorship. Parvus confined the tasks of the workers’ government to the democratic tasks ...

In 1905 ... Parvus saw in the conquest of power by the proletariat the road to democracy and not to socialism, that is, he assigned to the proletariat only the role which it actually played in Russia in the first eight to ten months of the October revolution. In further perspective, Parvus even then pointed to the Australian democracy of that time, that is, to a regime in which the workers’ party does indeed govern but does not rule, and carries out its reformist demands only as a supplement to the programme of the bourgoisie. [17]

What about Rosa Luxemburg?

In his autobiography Trotsky claims that Rosa Luxemburg, at the Fifth Congress of the RSDRP in London in 1907, adopted the same position as he did regarding the theory of permanent revolution. [18] Isaac Deutscher, in The Prophet Armed, repeats the claim without providing any further evidence. [19] The present author also repeated this claim in his book on Rosa Luxemburg. [20] But closer inspection reveals that this is not the case. [21]

In her Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy Luxemburg writes: ‘ ...the revolution soon to break out in Russia will be a bourgeois and not a proletarian revolution.’ [22] Rosa Luxemburg told the Fifth Congress of the RSDRP that the mass strike of Russian workers was ‘a means of class struggle for winning the most elementary freedoms of the contemporary class state.’ [23] Again, in 1915, she wrote on the 1905 revolution: ‘It was a proletarian revolution with bourgeois duties and problems, or if you wish, a bourgeois revolution waged by socialist, proletarian methods.’ [24]

Rosa Luxemburg’s views on the Russian revolution – that it was bourgeois democratic but carried by the proletariat – was to all intents and purposes the same as Lenin’s, not Trotsky’s, though it is true she used the words ‘permanent revolution’. Thus immediately after Bloody Sunday, 9 January 1905, she wrote of the need ‘to maintain the Russian revolution in Permanenz’. [25]

Others, such as Karl Kautsky and Franz Mehring, also used the words ‘permanent revolution’ when they wrote on the Russian revolution. Kautsky did so in describing the 1905 revolution. Trotsky wrote in 1922: ‘Kautsky ... fully identified himself with my views. He adopted the viewpoint of “Permanent Revolution”.’ [26] Kautsky’s conception, however, was completely different from Trotsky’s. He defined the Russian revolution as a bourgeois revolution brought about by the proletariat and the peasantry because of the inconsistency of the bourgeoisie. Lenin was right when he claimed in a preface to the Russian translation of Kautsky’s essay that Kautsky’s position was that of Bolshevism.

Lenin and Trotsky’s theory

We have already described Lenin’s position regarding the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ as against the theory of permanent revolution. One of the saddest things is that Lenin never read Trotsky’s Results and Prospects prior to the October revolution. As Trotsky wrote in 1929:

I want to point out ... that Lenin, as has become particularly clear to me now in reading his old articles, never read my basic work ... This is probably to be explained not only by the fact that Our Revolution, which appeared in 1906, was soon confiscated and that all of us shortly went into emigration, but also perhaps by the fact that two-thirds of the book consisted of reprints of old articles. I heard later from many comrades that they had not read this book because they thought it consisted exclusively of old works ... Never did Lenin anywhere analyse or quote, even in passing, Results and Prospects’, and certain objections of Lenin to the permanent revolution, which obviously have no reference to me, directly prove that he did not read this work. [27]

Lenin was so critical of Trotsky’s conciliation towards the Mensheviks that he certainly was not encouraged to go out of his way to search for one of the very scarce copies of Trotsky’s Our Revolution, of which Results and Prospects was a section.

There is no doubt that Trotsky’s perspective on the Russian revolution was proved in 1917 to be absolutely correct. He was proved right in relation not only to the Mensheviks, but also to Lenin’s 1905-16 perspectives for a democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants.

However, despite his clear vision of future developments, Trotsky badly misjudged the concrete prospects for the development of Bolshevism versus Menshevism. From an abstract standpoint, the Bolsheviks, claiming the Russian revolution to be a bourgeois revolution, were no less in error than the Mensheviks. Both were bound, in Trotsky’s view, to become obstacles in the path of the revolution. Thus he wrote in 1909, in an article entitled ‘Our Differences’ and published in Rosa Luxemburg’s Polish Marxist journal Przeglad social-demokratyczny:

Whereas the Mensheviks, proceeding from the abstract notion that ‘our revolution is a bourgeois revolution’, arrive at the idea that the proletariat must adapt all its tactics to the behaviour of the liberal bourgeoisie to ensure the transfer of state power to that bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks proceed from an equally abstract notion – ‘democratic dictatorship, not socialist dictatorship’ – and arrive at the idea of a proletariat in possession of state power imposing a bourgeois democratic limitation upon itself. It is true that the difference between them in this matter is very considerable; while the anti- revolution aspects of Menshevism have already become fully apparent, those of Bolshevism are likely to become a serious threat only in the event of victory. [28]

But Trotsky misjudged Lenin, whose 1905 perspective included not only the weakness of restricting the coming revolution to bourgeois democratic tasks, but also the strength of Lenin’s position – its inner dynamic of independent working-class action. When it came to the test of 1917, Bolshevism, after an internal struggle, overcame its bourgeois democratic crust. Lenin demonstrated in action that a revolutionary army with a limited programme can overcome the limits of its programme, so long as it is authentically revolutionary, independent and hegemonic in the struggle.

In Lenin’s position regarding the prospects of the Russian revolution there was a contradiction between the bourgeois democratic tasks of the revolution and its proletarian leadership. Concerning the first element there was no difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism, but concerning proletarian leadership they differed fundamentally. Lenin wrote:

The Bolsheviks claim through the proletariat the role of leader in the democratic revolution. The Mensheviks reduced its role to that of an ‘extreme opposition’. The Bolsheviks gave a positive definition of the class struggle and the class significance of the revolution, maintaining that a victorious revolution implied a ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.’ The Mensheviks always interpreted the bourgeois revolution so incorrectly as to result in their acceptance of a position in which the role of the proletariat would be subordinate and dependent on the bourgeoisie. [29]

And again:

Social Democrats ... rely wholly and exclusively on the activity, the class consciousness and the organisation of the proletariat, on its influence among the labouring and exploited masses. [30]


From the proletarian point of view hegemony in a war goes to him who fights most energetically, who never misses a chance to strike a blow at the enemy, who always suits the actions to the word, who is therefore the ideological leader of the democratic forces, who criticizes half-way policies of every kind. [31]

From the independence and hegemony of the proletariat in the bourgeois revolution, Lenin argued in September 1905 that it was only one step from the bourgeois revolution, with its limitations, to the proletarian revolution:

From the democratic revolution we shall at once and precisely in accordance with the measure of our strength, the strength of the class-conscious and organised proletariat, begin to pass to the socialist revolution. We stand for uninterrupted revolution. We shall not stop half-way. [32]

In short, Lenin poses two different answers to the question: What happens after the victory of the revolution? The first, to be found mainly in Two Tactics, is that there will be a period of capitalist development. The second can be summed up as: ‘Let us take power and then we shall see.’ To quote Napoleon: ‘On s’engage, et puis ... on voit.’

It is true that the vagueness of Lenin’s formula of the democratic dictatorship in Two Tactics made it possible for Bolshevik leaders to slide towards Menshevism, to subordinate their policy to the bourgeoisie, as happened in March-April 1917 when Stalin, Kamenev and others supported the Provisional Government. Trotsky was right in his criticism of Two Tactics; he was completely wrong in his underestimate of the Bolsheviks’ basic political strength. He misjudged Lenin’s stand because he did not grasp it dialectically.

The dynamic forces which Lenin was relying on and shaping must be taken into account: the proletariat fighting against Tsarism and its accomplices the liberal bourgeoisie; the proletariat struggling to be the spearhead of the peasantry; the proletariat leading an armed insurrection; the Marxist party fighting for the conquest of power, and so on. In this algebra of revolution the real value of the unknown or doubtful element in Lenin’s equation – how far the revolution would go beyond the minimum programme – would be decided largely by the dynamic of the struggle itself. Nonetheless, the weakness of Lenin’s concept of democratic dictatorship brought about the crisis of leadership in the Bolshevik Party in 1917 before his own return to Russia. It was he alone who rearmed the party, overcoming the vagueness of the concept of the democratic dictatorship. (In the rise of Stalin in the 1920s this concept again played a very sorry role).

Above all, Trotsky’s genius for graphic abstract generalisation misled him. He failed to judge the merits of Bolshevism in terms of the people collected, organised and trained by Lenin. Thus one finds that in the whole of his book on the history of the Russian revolution Trotsky does not once mention the Bolsheviks or Lenin. Much later Trotsky admitted:

Having stood outside both of the two factions in the period of emigration, the author did not fully appreciate the very important circumstance that in reality, along the line of disagreement between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks there were being grouped inflexible revolutionaries on the one side, and, on the other, elements which were becoming more and more opportunist and accommodating. [33]

Elsewhere I wrote:

In conclusion we may say that Lenin’s abstract, algebraic formula of the democratic dictatorship was translated in life into the language of arithmetic and the conclusions drawn were the result of the sum total of the activity of the Bolshevik party leading the working class. [34]

Trotsky was always inclined to over-abstraction. As he put it in his autobiography:

The feeling of the supremacy of general over particular, of law over fact, of theory over personal experience, took root in my mind at an early age and gained increasing strength as the years advanced. Later [this approach] became an integral part of my literary and political work. [35]

Trotsky’s judgment that the Bolsheviks’ view of the Russian revolution was analogous to the Menshevik view was completely wrong. One must always know the limits beyond which an analogy becomes false. It was this abstract view that motivated Trotsky’s conciliationism over many years. After all, the two factions were equally in the wrong about the key issue of the prospects of the Russian revolution.

Trotsky’s magnificent historical sweep blinded him to the real qualitative differences between Bolshevism and Menshevism. He overlooked the statement by Clausewitz that was so dear to Lenin: that in order to bring the abstract concept into line with the real world, one needs to ‘fall back upon the corresponding results of experience; for in the same way as many plants only bear fruit when they do not shoot too high, so in the practical arts, the theoretical leaves and flowers must not be made to sprout too far, but keep near to experience, which is their proper soil.’ [36]

Trotsky’s supreme ability to generalise was the source of his weakness in understanding Bolshevism concretely. So, paradoxically, his magnificent theoretical contribution – his theory of permanent revolution – became the source of his weakness in grasping the real nature of the Bolshevik party. As we shall see, only in 1917 did he overcome this weakness. He himself explained how he overcame this misjudgement:

Each of us had occasion to renounce one part of his already obsolete past in order to preserve, develop and assure victory to that other part of his past which did meet the test of events. An inner resolution of this type does not come easily. But only at this price, and at this price alone, can one acquire the right to really participate in the revolution of the working class. [37]

The Theory of Permanent Revolution breaks the hold of Kautskyian Marxism

After the death of Marx and Engels the mantle of Marxism largely passed to Karl Kautsky, who was called the ‘Pope of Marxism’. His Marxism was very much affected by the social conditions of the German labour movement at the time. Experiencing relative social peace, with capitalism expanding rapidly without any convulsions and delivering systematic concessions to workers, Kautsky’s Marxism became subdued and dominated by reformism. His concept of history was deterministic, fatalistic and mechanical.

For Kautsky the working class was not the subject of history, not the shaper of objective conditions, but the passive reactor to the objective world. The working class was the object of history. According to him working-class strength would go on growing automatically – by a growth in the number of workers, by an increase in their economic power, and by the inevitable product of these events: the growth of consciousness. This would inevitably lead to socialism. As the working class grew, so did its consciousness, until there would be an overwhelming majority for socialism. ‘Economic development would lead naturally to the accomplishment of this progress,’ he wrote. [38] The only task for the socialist party was organisation and education:

The socialist party is a revolutionary party, but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can only be attained through a revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it. It is not part of our work to instigate a revolution or to prepare a way for it. [39]

Three people shattered Kautsky’s passive, mechanical Marxism: Lenin, with his theory of the revolutionary party and the rehabilitation of the authentic Marxist concept of the state and revolution; Rosa Luxemburg with her analysis of the mass strike; and Trotsky with his Theory of Permanent Revolution. In a way each reacted to the immediate aspect of Kautskyism that impinged on his or her own political activity. Lenin, who was the prime organiser of the revolutionary party, had to deal early with the question of the party, its relation with the class, the unevenness in the consciousness of different layers of workers, and how the revolutionary party had to relate to different sections of the class. Rosa Luxemburg, facing the massive bureaucracy of the trade unions and the German Social Democratic Party, looked to the mass strike as the volcano to blow off the hard crust on the labour movement. Trotsky, coming to maturity in the heady days of the revolution itself, developed the Theory of Permanent Revolution.

It was a tragedy that Trotsky’s brilliant theory had practically no impact in the Russian socialist movement. The Mensheviks, who recoiled from their radicalism of 1905, gave it short shrift. The Bolsheviks were not ready to pay attention to the ideas of a spokesman of Menshevism. The ‘anti-faction’ faction led by Trotsky himself undermined the influence of his most important theoretical contribution. The strength of a chain is the strength of its weakest link, and in the case of Trotsky this was his stand on the question of the party. It was a weakness that was later to play into the hands of Stalin in his faction fight against Trotsky in the 1920s.


1. Trotsky, My Life, page 211.

2. Lenin, Works, volume 9, pages 56-7.

3. Lenin, Works, volume 9, page 23.

4. Lenin, Works, volume 9, pages 28-9.

5. Lenin, Works, volume 9, pages 56-7.

6. Lenin, Works, volume 9, page 27.

7. Lenin, Works, volume 21, page 33.

8. Lenin, Works, volume 13, page 328.

9. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects (London 1971), page 170.

10. Trotsky, 1905, page 35.

11. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pages 203-4.

12. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pages 208-9.

13. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, page 209.

14. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pages 236-7.

15. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, page 247.

16. Trotsky, Preface to the first Russian edition of 1905, in Trotsky, 1905, pages vi-vii.

17. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pages 63-4.

18. Trotsky, My Life, page 203.

19. Deutscher, The Prophet Armed, page 178.

20. Cliff, Rosa Luxemburg, page 21.

21. As Norman Geras points out in his book The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg (London 1976), pages 46-8.

22. Rosa Luxemburg, Organisational Questions of Russian Social Democracy, in M.A. Waters (editor) Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York 1970), page 127.

23. Piatis (Londonskii) Sezd RSDRP (Moscow 1963), page 97.

24. Luxemburg, The Junius Pamphlet, in Waters, page 290.

25. Luxemburg, After the First Act, in Neue Zeit, 4 February 1905.

26. Trotsky, 1905, page page viii.

27. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, page 42.

28. Reproduced in Trotsky, 1905, pages 316-7.

29. Lenin, Works, volume 13, page 111.

30. Lenin, Works, volume 8, page 27.

31. Lenin, Works, volume 8, page 79.

32. Lenin, Works, volume 9, pages 236-7.

33. Trotsky, Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, pages 163-4.

34. Cliff, Lenin, volume 1, page 207.

35. Trotsky, My Life, pages 87-8.

36. Karl von Clausewitz, On War (London 1971), pages 164-5.

37. Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, volume 1 (London 1973), page 213.

38. Karl Kautsky, The Class Struggle (New York 1971), page 189.

39. Kautsky, The Road to Power (Chicago 1909), page 50.

Last updated on 18 July 2009