Tony Cliff

Trotskyism after Trotsky

Chapter 4:
Deflected permanent revolution



One further issue which post-war Trotskyists had difficulty in understanding concerned developments in the Third World. The theory of permanent revolution as developed by Trotsky in Russia predicted the weakening of imperialism and social change in Third World countries. This was to be driven by the working class struggling to complete the tasks of the bourgeois revolution and at the same time carrying on through to the struggle for socialism. The issue of whether Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution adequately explained the significant developments in the Third World was posed most sharply in Mao’s China and Castro’s Cuba. Did the theory apply? To answer this question neither a “yes” nor a “no” would do. There was a lot in common between what happened in these countries and Trotsky’s theory, but in some ways there was also a radical divergence. Hence the need arose to formulate a theory that could encompass both aspects. This was the theory of deflected permanent revolution.


Mao’s rise to power

The industrial working class played no role whatsoever in the victory of Mao’s Chinese Communists over the Nationalist Kuomintang in 1949. Even the social composition of the Chinese Communist Party itself was completely non-working class. Mao’s rise in the party ranks coincided with a time when it ceased to be a working class party. Towards the end of 1926 at least 66 percent of the membership were workers, another 22 per cent intellectuals and only 5 percent peasants. [99] By November 1928, the percentage of workers had fallen by more than four fifths to just 10 percent. An official report admitted that the party “did not have a single healthy party nucleus among the industrial workers”. [100] A year later workers comprised only 3 percent of the membership and this dropped to virtually nothing by the end of 1930. [101] From then on and until Mao’s final victory the party had virtually no industrial workers.

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 in 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, “The Border Region is socially and economically one of the most backward regions of China.” [102] Chu Teh repeated: “The regions under the direction of the Communists are the most backward economically in the whole country.” [103] 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 following the one held in 1929. It did not 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 l937-45. [104] When, in December 1937, the Kuomintang government decreed the death penalty for workers who went on strike or even agitated for a strike while its war against the Japanese was in progress, a Communist Party spokesman told an interviewer that the party was “fully satisfied” with that government’s conduct of the war. [105] 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 People’s Liberation Army, issued a proclamation calling on people:

... to maintain order and continue in their present occupations. Kuomintang Yuan officials or police personnel of provincial, city, country or other level of government institutions; district, town, village, or Pao Chia (Kuomintang security) personnel ... are enjoined to remain at their posts. [106]

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 issued a proclamation in identical terms:

... workers and employees in all trades will continue to work ... 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. [107]

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 population 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.

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.” [108] 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.” [109]

Trotsky’s argument that the tasks of the bourgeois revolution such as liberation from imperialist domination could only be achieved by workers could not explain what happened in China.



Castro’s revolution

Another example of developments that did not fit Trotsky’s scenario occurred in Cuba. Here neither the working class nor even the peasantry played a serious role. Middle class intellectuals filled the whole arena of struggle in Fidel Castro’s rise to power. C. Wright Mills’s 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 labor parties, or by anything like that ... 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. [110]

After discussions with Cuban leaders, Paul Baran, an uncritical supporter of Castro, wrote:

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. [111]

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. It was some time later that they jumped on Castro’s bandwagon. [112]

Not only was the working class uninvolved in the rise of Castro, the same applied to the peasantry. 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. [113] The cadres of Castro’s bands were intellectuals. And peasants that did participate were not agricultural wage earners. Che Guevara described 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. [114]

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.” [115]

Characteristically for the Cuban movement, Che Guevara implied that the industrial working class would be irrelevant to 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 ... [116]

Elsewhere in the Third World the working class never played more than a subsidiary role in post-war social transformations, and even when present it was not acting as an independent force striving for revolutionary socialism as had been the case in Russia in 1917. Therefore the processes of overcoming internally backward socio-economic relations and achieving national liberation from imperialism were spearheaded by a variety of forces mostly drawn from the intelligentsia, or the state, playing the role ascribed to the working class in Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory. Although the political results in Africa, Asia and Latin America varied, state capitalism was, to a greater or lesser extent, the prevailing result.



What had gone wrong with Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution?

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

(1) A bourgeoisie which arrives late on the capitalist 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 problems 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) The peasantry, incapable of independent action, will follow the towns, and in view of the first two 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.” [117]

(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.” [118] 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.

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 (second point) is neither absolute nor inevitable. If the working class is not, in fact, revolutionary, then points (3) to (5) will not be realised.

Once the unswervingly 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 at all happens. A concatenation of national and international circumstances brings the productive forces into conflict with the fetters of feudalism and imperialism. Peasant rebellions take on a deeper, broader sweep than ever before. In them is rooted also national rebellion for higher living standards and against the economic ruin brought by imperialism. The result was a type of transformation which included elements of permanent revolution but also deviated from it in radical ways. This we called deflected permanent revolution, a theory that was first presented in broad terms in 1963. [119]

If the two main classes of modern capitalist society, the capitalists and the workers, were not playing a key role – one because it had become a conservative force, the other because it was diverted from its goal by Stalinism or reformism – how did such a major process occur? The drive 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. Four other factors helped:

(1) The weakening of world imperialism as a result of increasing contradictions between the two superpower blocs whereby each felt paralysed by the existence of the H-bomb. This partially limited their ability to intervene in the Third World for fear of igniting a war with each other.

(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 organised as a state power. implements it. Under such conditions state power plays a very important role. It reflects not only, or even mainly, the national economic base on which it rises, but the supra-national imperatives of the world economy.

(3) The impact of Stalinism and reformism diverting the strength of the workers’ movements in a different direction to socialist revolution. Very often Communist parties, or similar movements with influence among the working class, put their efforts into collaborating with and bolstering local forces representing other class interests.

(4) 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.

The leading role 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”.

The revolutionary intelligentsia proved itself a much more cohesive factor in the emergent post-war nations than in Tsarist Russia. With native bourgeois private private property too weak to transform the situation, and the burden of imperialism felt as intolerable, state capitalism seemed the answer. Through the weakening of imperialism, the growing importance of state planning, the example of Russia, and the organised, disciplined work of the Communist Parties, it gave the intelligentsia a cohesive programme. As the only non-specialised section of society (because it was not locked into a particular class role within the relations of production) the intelligentsia was both the source of a “professional revolutionary elite” and simultaneously appeared to represent the interests of the “nation” as against conflicting sectional and class interests. In addition, it was the section of society most imbued with the national culture, the peasants and workers having neither the leisure nor education for that.

The intelligentsia were also sensitive to their countries’ technical lag. Participating in the scientific and technical world of the 20th century, they were stifled by the backwardness their its own nation. This feeling was 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. [120]

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

Before their country gained political freedom, the intellectuals found 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. Their advantages created a feeling of guilt, of “debt” towards the “dark” masses, and at the same time a feeling of being divorced from and superior to them. The intelligentsia are anxious to belong without being assimilated, without ceasing to remain apart and above. They were in search of a dynamic movement which would unify the nation, opening up broad new vistas for it, but at the same time would give the intelligentsia itself power.

They were great believers in efficiency, including efficiency in social engineering. They hoped for reform from above and would dearly have loved 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 cared a lot for measures to drag their nation out of stagnation, but very little for democracy. They embodied the drive for industrialisation, for capital accumulation, for national resurgence. Their power was in direct relation to the feebleness of other classes, and their political nullity.

All this made 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 greatest acceptance in Latin America among students and the middle class,” wrote a Latin American specialist. [121] In India, at the Congress of the Communist Party in Amritsar (March/April 1958), “approximately 67 percent of the delegates were from classes other than the proletariat and peasantry (middle class, landowning class and ‘small traders’). 72 per cent had some college education.” [122] In 1943 it was found that 16 per cent of all Party members were full time functionaries. [123]



Deflected permanent revolution

In the Third World Trotsky’s theory suggested that the driving forces of social development would lead to permanent revolution and workers struggling for socialism. But in the absence of the revolutionary subject, proletarian activity and leadership, the result could be a different leadership and a different goal – state capitalism. Using what was of universal validity in Trotsky’s theory (the conservative character of the bourgeoisie) and what was contingent (upon the subjective activity of the proletariat), one came to a variant that, for lack of a better name, was called the “deflected, state capitalist, permanent revolution”. However, 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.




99. R.C. North, Kuomintang and Chinese Communist Elites (Stanford, 1962), p.32.

100. H.R. Isaacs, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution (London, 1938), p.333.

101. Ibid., p.394.

102. World News and Views, 22 April 1939.

103. S. Gelder, The Chinese Communists (London, 1946), p.167.

104. See Communist Manifesto published in Chungking, 23 November 1938, reported in the New York Times, 24 November 1938.

105. H.R. Isaacs, op. cit., p.456.

106. New China News Agency, 11 January 1949.

107. Ibid., 3 May 1949.

108. New York Times, 25 May 1949.

109. South China Morning Post, 17 October 1949.

110. C. Wright Mills, Listen Yankee (New York, 1960), p.47.

111. P.A. Baran, Reflections on the Cuban Revolution (New York, 1961), p.17.

112. 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. 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 ideals of a new Cuba”. Castro was declared a petty bourgeois adventurer. As stated above the Communists did not cooperate in the April 1958 strike. As late as 28 June 1958 they were timidly advocating “clean democratic elections” to get rid of Batista. See P.A. Baran, op. cit.

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

114. Che Guevara, Cuba: Exceptional Case?, Monthly Review (New York), July-August 1961, p.59.

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

116. Che Guevara, op. cit., p.63.

117. L. Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution (New York, 1978), p.278.

118. Ibid., p.279.

119. T. Cliff, Deflected Permanent Revolution, first published in International Socialism 12 (first series), Spring 1963.

120. Thus, for instance, a survey made in India showed that about 25 percent of the students who 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 about 47 percent of the liberal arts students, 51.4 percent of the science students, 7 percent of the commerce students, and 85.7 percent 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, 1957), pp.8-10).

121. V. Alba, The Middle Class Revolution, New Politics (New York), Winter 1962, p.71.

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

123. Ibid., p.358.


Last updated on 22.4.2007