Trotsky developed his theory with the 1905 revolution in the back ground. 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 day and other social reforms.
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 in 1905. Again “... this democratic revolution in Russia will not weaken but will strengthen, the domination of the bourgeoisie.” 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.”
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 the resistance of the bourgeoisie.
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.” 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. Trotsky wrote:
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 power passes into the hands of the proletariat depend directly not upon the state of the productive forces, but upon the condition 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 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.
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 shackled 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.
The basic elements of Trotsky’s theory can be summed up in six points:
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 percent of the membership were workers, another 22 percent intellectuals and only 5 percent peasants. 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.” The party admitted that workers comprised only 10 percent of the membership in 1928, 3 percent in 1929, 2.5 percent in March 1930, 1.6 percent in September of the same year, and virtually nothing at the end of it. From then and until Mao’s final victory the party had no industrial workers to speak of.
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. 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. 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 or provincial, city country or other level of government institution, district, town, village or Pao Chia personnel ... are enjoined to remain at their posts ...
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 proclamation:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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 labour parties, or by anything like that the wage workers in the city were not conscious in any revolutionary way ...
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.
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.
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. Composed therein is free enterprise and invested capital as well as many other economic, civic, and political rights.
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.
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 1953-5 8, 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 Oswaldo 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.” An excellent formulation of the Bonapartist manipulation of the people as the object of history, not its conscious subject!
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 an other 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 back ground in industry; i.e. “outsiders” ... many of the outsiders are associated with mote 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!
Weakness and dependence on outsiders leads to personality cults. 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 much help in developing self-reliant democratic organisations. The latter will not grow unless workers learn to stand on own legs and not pathetically rely on eminent personalities to solve all their problems for them.
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.
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.
And from Latin America:
Union representatives seek to achieve their gains through government interference and dictation.
The most important 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 counter-revolutionary role of Stalinism in backward countries has been dealt with too often to need repetition here.
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 demonstrates.
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:
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 in tolerable; 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 they do in the scientific and technical world of the 20th century, they are stifled by the backwardness of their 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.
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 greatest acceptance in Latin America among students and the middle class,” writes a Latin American specialist. 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, land-owning class, and ‘small traders’); 72 percent had some college education.”
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.”
The collapse of the Stalinist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe, the move of Mao’s China onto the rails of market capitalism, the disintegration of the Stalinist and Maoist movements internationally, are opening the path for the development of authentic permanent revolution as described by Trotsky.
We are in the midst of a long, slow awakening of the working class movement in the Third World.
We have seen the working class of Iran involved in a general strike and organised in the shoras (workers’ councils) leading to the over throw of the Shah. We have seen the working class of South Africa smashing the apartheid regime. We have witnessed the emergence of a militant working class movement in South Korea. We have also witnessed the largest mass general strike ever in Brazil.
It will take time to overcome the depression left by decades of reaction, of Stalinism and fascism. But the path is open for the authentic permanent revolution to come into its own.
Last updated on 11.12.2002