Duncan Hallas

Trotsky’s Marxism

1. Permanent Revolution



During the last third of the eighteenth century the industrial revolution, the most profound change in the whole history of the human race since the development of agriculture in the remote past, gained an irresistible momentum in one small corner of the world, in Britain. But the British capitalists soon had imitators in those other countries where a bourgeoisie had gained power or come near to gaining power.

By the beginning of the present century industrial capitalism completely dominated the world. The colonial empires of Britain, France, Germany, Russia, the USA, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Japan covered by far the greater part of the world’s land surface. Those essentially pre-capitalist societies that still preserved a nominal independence (China, Iran, the Turkish Empire, Ethiopia, etc.) were, in fact, dominated by one or other of the great imperialist powers or informally partitioned between them – the term “spheres of influence” expresses it exactly. Such token “independence” as remained was due solely to the rivalries of competing imperialisms (Britain versus Russia in Iran; Britain versus France in Thailand; Britain versus Germany – with Russia as an also-ran – in Turkey; Britain, the USA, Germany, Russia, France, Japan and various minor contenders, all against each other, in China).

Yet the countries conquered or dominated by the industrial capitalist powers were not, generally speaking, transformed into replicas of the various “mother countries”. On the contrary, they remained essentially pre-industrial societies. Their social and economic development was profoundly influenced – profoundly distorted – by conquest or dominance, but they were not, typically, transformed into the new type of society.

Marx’s famous description of the ruin of the Indian textile industry (which had been based on high quality products made by independent artisans) by cheap Lancashire machine-made cotton piece goods still stands as a good rough outline of the initial impact of Western capitalism on what is now called the “Third World”: impoverishment and social retrogression.

This process of “combined and uneven development”, to use Trotsky’s expression, led to a situation (still with us in all essentials) in which the greater part of the world’s population had not only not advanced socially and economically, but had been thrown backwards. What then, was (and, indeed, is) the way forward for the mass of the people in these countries?

Trotsky, as a young man of 26, made a profoundly original contribution to the solution of this problem. It was a solution rooted both in the realities of the uneven development of capitalism on a world scale, and in the marxist analysis of the true significance of industrial development – the creation, at one and the same time, of the material basis for an advanced classless society and of an exploited class, the proletariat, which is capable of raising itself to the level of a ruling class and, through its rule, of abolishing classes, the class struggle, and all forms of alienation and oppression.

Trotsky, naturally, developed his ideas in relation to Russia in the first instance. It is therefore necessary to look at the ideological background to the disputes amongst Russian revolutionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in order to understand the full import of his contribution. But not only Russian revolutionaries. There was, after all, a real international movement at that time.

Once Europe is reorganised, and North America, that will furnish such colossal power and such an example that the semi-civilised countries will follow in their wake of their own accord. Economic needs alone will be responsible for this. But as to what social and political phases these countries will then have to pass through before they likewise arrive at socialist organisation, we today can only advance rather idle hypotheses, I think. One thing alone is certain; the victorious proletariat can force no blessings of any kind on any foreign nation without undermining its own victory by so doing. [1]

So Engels wrote to Kautsky in 1882. He was not thinking of Russia. The countries mentioned in this letter are India, Algeria, Egypt and the “Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish possessions”. Nevertheless, his general approach is representative of the thinking of what was to become the Second International (from 1889 onwards). The course of political development would follow the course of economic development. The revolutionary socialist movement that would destroy capitalism and lead ultimately to the dissolution of the proletariat and all classes (after a period of proletarian dictatorship) into the classless society of the future would develop where capitalism and its inseparable concomitant the proletariat had first developed.

Russian marxists, of which the pioneer “Emancipation of Labour” group was founded the year after Engels’s letter was written, had to place Russia in this historical scheme.

Plekhanov, the leading light of the group, had no doubts. The Russian Empire, he argued in the eighties and nineties, was an essentially pre-capitalist society and therefore was destined to go through the process of capitalist development before the question of socialism could be addressed. He firmly rejected the idea, with which Marx himself had once toyed, that Russia might, depending on developments in Europe, avoid the capitalist stage of development altogether and achieve a transition to socialism on the basis of a peasant movement overthrowing the autocracy and seeking to preserve the elements of traditional communal ownership of land (the Mir) which still existed in the 1880s.

Plekhanov’s views, developed in polemics with the “peasant road to socialism” school (the Narodniks), became the starting point for all subsequent Russian marxism. That capitalism was in fact developing in Russia, that the Mir was doomed, that a special “Russian road to socialism” was a reactionary illusion – these ideas were basic for the next generation of Russian marxists, for Lenin and, a few years later, for Trotsky and for all their associates. The first three volumes of Lenin’s Collected Works consist very largely of criticism of the Narodniks and demonstrations of the inevitability – and progressive character – of capitalism in Russia. The Iskra group, founded in 1900 to create a unified national organisation out of the scattered social-democratic groups and circles, based itself firmly on the view that the industrial working class was the basis for that organisation.

Three questions arose: first, what was the relationship between the political roles of the working class (still a small minority), the bourgeoisie and the peasantry (the great majority); hence, what was the class character of the coming revolution in Russia; finally, what was the relationship between the revolution and the working class movements of the advanced countries of the West?

The different answers given to these questions was one of the two main issues (the other being the nature of the revolutionary party) that defined what were to become fundamentally divergent tendencies. To understand Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution it is necessary to look briefly at these answers, as they appeared in developed form after the 1905 revolution.




The Menshevik view can be summarised in this way: the state of the development of the productive forces (that is, Russia’s general economic backwardness combined with a small but significant and growing modern industry) defines what is possible – a bourgeois revolution, like that of 1789-94 in France. Therefore the bourgeoisie must come to power, establish a bourgeois-democratic republic which will sweep away the remnants of pre-capitalist social relations and open the road to a rapid growth of the productive forces (and so of the proletariat) on a capitalist basis. The struggle for the socialist revolution will thus, eventually, come onto the agenda.

The political role of the working class is, therefore, to push the bourgeoisie forward against Tsarism. It must preserve its political independence – meaning, centrally, that social democrats cannot enter into a revolutionary government alongside non-proletarian forces.

As to the peasantry, it cannot play an independent political role. It can play a secondary revolutionary role in support of the essentially urban bourgeois revolution and, after that revolution, will undergo more or less rapid economic differentiation into a layer of capitalist farmers (which will be conservative), a layer of small-holders and a layer of landless agricultural proletarians.

There is no organic connection between the Russian bourgeois revolution and the European workers’ movement, although the Russian revolution (if it occurs before the socialist revolution in the West) will invigorate the Western social democracies.

Actually, Menshevism was a rather variegated tendency. Different Mensheviks put different emphases on the several parts of this scheme (which, as presented, is essentially Plekhanov’s) but all accepted its general contours.

The 1905 revolution showed up its fundamental flaws. The bourgeoisie would not play the part allocated to it. Of course, Plekhanov, a profound student of the great French Revolution, never expected the Russian bourgeoisie to lead a ruthless struggle against Tsarism without enormous pressure from below. Just as the Jacobin dictatorship of 1793-94, the decisive culmination of the French Revolution, had come to power under the violent pressure of the sans-culottes, the plebeian masses of Paris, so in Russia the working class could be the real driving force, compelling the bourgeoisie’s political representatives (or a section of them) to take power. But 1905 and its aftermath demonstrated that there was no “Robespierrist” tendency in the Russian bourgeoisie. Faced with revolutionary upsurge it rallied to the Tsar.

Already in 1898 the Manifesto drawn up for the abortive First Congress of Russian Social Democrats had declared:

The farther east one goes in Europe, the more the bourgeoisie becomes in the political respect weaker, more cowardly, and meaner, and the larger are the cultural and political tasks which fall to the share of the proletariat. [2]

It was not a matter of geography but of history. The development of industrial capitalism and of the modern proletariat had made the bourgeoisie everywhere, even in countries where industrialisation was embryonic, a conservative class. Indeed, the failure of the revolution in Germany in 1848-49 had demonstrated this much earlier.




The Bolsheviks’ view started from the same premises as the Mensheviks’. The coming revolution would be, and could only be, a bourgeois revolution in terms of its class nature. It went on to reject outright any reliance on pressurising the bourgeoisie, and to propose an alternative.

The transformation of the economic and political situation in Russia along bourgeois-democratic lines is inevitable and inescapable,

wrote Lenin in his famous pamphlet Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (July 1905).

No power on earth can prevent such a transformation, but the combined action of the existing forces which are effecting it may result in either of two things, may bring about either of two forms of that transformation. Either 1) matters will end in the revolution’s decisive victory over Tsarism’ or 2) the forces will be inadequate for a decisive victory, and matters will end in a deal with the most inconsistent’ and most self-seeking’ elements of the bourgeoisie ... We must be perfectly certain in our own minds as to what real social forces are opposed to Tsarism ... and are capable of gaining a decisive victory’ over it. The big bourgeoisie ... cannot be such a force. We see that they do mit even want a decisive victory. We know that owing to their class position they are incapable of waging a decisive struggle against Tsarism; they are too heavily fettered by private property, by capital and land to enter into a decisive struggle. They stand in too great a need of Tsarism, with its bureaucratic, police and military forces to use against the proletariat and peasantry to want it to be destroyed. No, the only force capable of gaining a “decisive victory over Tsarism” is the people, i.e., the proletariat and the peasantry ... The revolution’s decisive victory over Tsarism’ means the establishment of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry ...

It can only be a dictatorship, for realisation of the changes urgently and absolutely indispensible to the proletariat and the peasantry will evoke desperate resistance from the landlords, the big bourgeoisie and Tsarism ... But of course it will be a democratic, not a socialist dictatorship ... At best, it may bring about a radical redistribution 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 foundations for a thorough improvement in 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 ... [3]

The Menshevik line was not simply a mistake, Lenin argued, it was the expression of an unwillingness to carry through the revolution. Menshevik determination to cling to the bourgeois liberals must lead to paralysis. The peasantry, on the other hand, had a genuine interest in the destruction of Tsarism and the remnants of feudalism on the land. Therefore the “democratic dictatorship” – a provisional revolutionary government, with representatives of the peasantry included alongside social democrats – was the appropriate “Jacobin” regime that would crush the reaction and establish “a democratic republic (with complete equality and self-determination for all nations), confiscation of the landed estates, and an eight hour working day”. [4]



Trotsky’s Solution

Trotsky rejected the reliance on a revolutionary bourgeoisie’ as firmly as Lenin. He ridiculed the Menshevik scheme as

an extra-historical category created by journalistic analogy and deduction... because, in France, the Revolution was carried through to the end by democratic revolutionaries – the Jacobins – therefore the Russian revolution can transfer power only into the hands of a revolutionary bourgois democracy. Having thus erected an unshakeable algebraic formula of revolution, the Mensheviks then try to insert into it arithmetical values which do not in fact exist. [5]

In every other respect Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution, which owed a good deal to the Russo-German marxist Parvus, differed from the Bolshevik position.

First, and crucially, it ruled out the possibility that the peasantry could play an independent political role:

the peasantry cannot play a leading revolutionary role. History cannot entrust the muzhik with the task of liberating a bourgeois nation from its bonds. Because of its dispersion, political backwardness, and especially of its deep inner contradictions which cannot be resolved within the framework of a capitalist system, the peasantry can only deal the old order some powerful blows from the rear, by spontaneous risings in the countryside, on the one hand, and by creating discontent within the army on the other. [6]

This was identical with the Menshevik. line and followed Marx’s own assessment of the French peasantry as a class.

Because “the town leads in modern society”, only an urban class can play a leading role and because the bourgeoisie is not revolutionary (and the urban petty-bourgeoisie in any case is incapable of playing the part of sans-culottes),

the conclusion remains that only the proletariat in its class struggle, placing the peasant masses under its revolutionary leadership, can carry the revolution to the end’. [7]

This must lead to a workers’ government, Lenin’s “democratic dictatorship” is simply an illusion:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it Ac obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie. [8]

But this leads to an immediate contradiction. The common starting point of all Russian marxists was precisely that Russia lacked both the material and human basis for socialism – a highly developed industry and a modern proletariat making up a large fraction of the population and having acquired organisation and consciousness as a “class for itself”, as Marx had put it. Lenin had denounced forcefully (in Two Tactics):

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 economic development (an objective condition), and the development 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 [in 1905]. [9]

From a marxist standpoint, Lenin’s argument is incontestible so long as matters stand on the ground of Russia alone. It is perhaps necessary, in view of subsequent developments, to stress this elementary point. Socialism, for Marx and for all those who regarded themselves as his followers at that time, is the self-emancipation of the working class. It therefore presupposes both large-scale modern industry and a class-conscious proletariat capable of self-emancipation.

Trotsky was nevertheless convinced that only the working class was capable of playing the leading role in the Russian revolution and, if it did so, could not fail to take power into its own hands. What then?

The revolutionary authorities will be confronted with the objective problems of socialism, but the solution of these problems will, at a certain stage, be prevented by the country’s economic backwardness. There is no way out from this contradiction within the framework of a national revolution. The workers’ government will from the start be faced with the task of uniting its forces with those of the socialist proletariat of Western Europe. Only in this way will its temporary revolutionary hegemony become the prologue to a socialist dictatorship. Thus, permanent revolution will become, for the Russian proletariat, a matter of class self-preservation. [10]

Engel’s original hypothesis is turned upside down. The uneven development of capitalism leads to a combined development in which backward Russia becomes, temporarily, the vanguard of an international socialist revolution.

The theory of Permanent Revolution remained central to Trotsky’s marxism to the end of his life. In only one important respect did his post-1917 ideas on the question differ from those outlined. The pre-1917 version depended heavily on spontaneous working class action. As we shall see, Trotsky was in this period a strong opponent of “Bolshevik centralism” and rejected in practice the conception of the leading role of the party. In 1917 he reversed his position on this issue. His subsequent applications of the theory of Permanent Revolution were structured around the role of the revolutionary workers’ party.



The Outcome

All theory, at least all theory which has any pretensions to be scientific, finds its ultimate test in practice. “The proof of the pudding”, as the Lancashire saying goes, “is in the eating.” But the decisive practical test may be long delayed, delayed long after the deaths of the theorist and his or her supporters and opponents.

Unlike the physical sciences – where it is always possible in principle to set up experimental tests (even though the technical means to carry them through may not be immediately available) – marxism as the science of social development (and, indeed, its bourgeois rivals, the pseudo-sciences of economics, sociology and so on) cannot be tested according to some arbitrary time scale but only in the course of historical development and, even then, only provisionally.

The reason is simple enough, although the consequences are immensely complicated. “Men make their own history”, Marx said, “although they do not do so under conditions of their own choosing.” The “voluntary” acts of millions and tens of miliions of people who are, of course, themselves historically conditioned, pressing against constraints imposed by the whole course of previous historical development (of which the millions are, typically, unaware) produces effects more complex than the most far-sighted theorist can foresee. The degree of on s’engage, et puis ... on voit (get stuck in, and then we’ll see) which was Napoleon’s aphoristic description of his military science, must always be considerable for revolutionaries engaged in a conscious attempt to shape the course of events.

The Russian revolutionaries of the early twentieth century were more fortunate than most. For them the decisive test came very quickly. 1917 saw the Mensheviks, the opponents in principle of participation in a non-proletarian government, join a government of opponents of socialism in order to prosecute an imperialist war and hold back the tide of revolution. It verified in practice Lenin’s 1905 prediction that they were the “Gironde” of the Russian revolution.

It saw the Bolsheviks, the advocates of the democratic dictatorship and a coalition Provisional Revolutionary Government, after an initial period of “critical support” for what Lenin, on his return to Russia, called “a government of capitalists”, turn decisively towards the seizure of power by the working class under the impact of Lenin’s April Theses and the pressure of the revolutionary workers in their ranks.

It saw Trotsky briliiantly vindicated when Lenin, in effect although not in words, adopted the Permanent Revolution perspective and abandoned the democratic dictatorship without ceremony.

It also saw Trotsky in practice isolated and impotent to affect the course of events in the great revolutionary crisis of 1917 until, in July, he led his smallish and largely intellectual following into the mass Bolshevik party. It therefore saw Lenin’s long, hard struggle (which Trotsky had denounced for more than a decade as “sectarian”) for a workers’ party, free from the ideological influence of petty-bourgeois “marxists” (so far as such independence can be achieved by organisational means) no less brilliantly vindicated. [11]

Trotsky had been proved right on the central strategic issue of the Russian revolution. But, as Cliff justly remarks, he was “a brilliant general without an army to speak of”. [12] Trotsky never subsequently forgot that fact. He was later to write that his breach with Lenin, on the question of the need for a disciplined workers’ party in 1903-04, was “the greatest mistake of my life”.

The October revolution put the Russian working class in power. It did so in the context of a rising tide of revolutionary revolt against the old regimes in central and, to a lesser degree, western Europe.

Trotsky’s perspective, and Lenin’s after April 1917, depended crucially on the success of the proletarian revolution in at least “one or two” (as Lenin, always cautious, put it), advanced countries.

In the event, the power of the established social-democratic parties (which proved in practice, from August 1914 on to have become conservative and nationalistic) and the vacillations and evasions of the leaders of the mass “centrist” breakaways from them between 1916 and 1921, aborted the revolutionary movements in Germany, Austria, Hungary, Italy and elsewhere before the proletarian revolution could be achieved or, where temporarily achieved, consolidated.

Trotsky’s analysis of the consequences of these facts will be examined later. But first it will be useful to look at the second Chinese Revolution (of 1925-27), and its outcome in terms of Trotsky’s theory.



The Chinese Revolution 1925-27

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was founded in July 1921 against a background of rising anti-imperialist feelings and working class militancy in the coastal cities where the newly created but sizeable industrial working class was struggling to organise itself.

Tiny and composed at first entirely of intellectuals, the CCP was able in a few years to become the effective leadership of the newly born labour movement.

China was then a semi-colony, partitioned informally between British, French, United States and Japanese imperialisms. German and Russian imperialisms had been eliminated by war and revolution before 1919.

Each imperialist power maintained its own “sphere of influence” and supported “its own” regional baron, war-lord or “national” government. Thus the British, then the dominant imperialist power, gave arms, money and “advisers” to Wu P’ei-fu, the dominant warlord in central China, who controlled the districts along the Yangtse River. The Japanese rendered the same services to Chang Tso-lin, war-lord of Manchuria. Lesser military gangsters, each one shiftingly attached to one or other imperialist power, controlled most of the rest of the country.

The exception, a very partial exception, was Canton and its hinterland. Here Sun Yat-sen, the father of Chinese nationalism, had established some sort of a base on a programme of national independence, modernisation and social reforms with a vague “leftist” veneer. Sun’s party, the Kuomintang (KMT), a fairly formless and ineffective body before 1922, depended on the toleration of the local “progressive” warlord.

However, after preliminary moves from 1922 onwards, the KMT leaders made an agreement with the government of the USSR which in 1924 sent political and military advisers to Canton and began to supply arms. The KMT became a centralised party with a relatively efficient army. Moreover from late 1922 the members of the CCP were sent into the KMT “as individuals”. Three of them even sat on the KMT Executive. This policy, which had met with some resistance in the CCP, was imposed by the Executive of the Communist International. The CCP was, in effect, tied to the KMT.

Then, in the early summer of 1925 a mass strike movement – partly economic in origin but rapidly politicised in the repression attempted by foreign troops and police – broke out in Shanghai and spread to the major cities of central and south China, including Canton and Hong Kong. With many ups and downs an enormous mass movement of revolt existed in the cities until early 1927. At various times a situation of dual power existed, with CCP-led strike committees constituting “Government Number Two”. And in those same years peasant revolts broke out in a number of important provinces. The war-lord regimes were shaken to their foundations. The KMT sought to ride the storm with the help of the CCP, and then to exploit it to conquer national power without social change. Early in 1926 the KMT was admitted to the Communist International as a sympathising party!

Trotsky, although still a member of the political bureau of the Russian party, was effectively excluded from direct influence on policy by 1925. According to Deutscher [13], he called for the withdrawal of the CCP from the KMT in April 1926. His first substantial written criticism dates from September.

The revolutionary struggle in China has, since 1925, entered a new phase, which is characterised above all by the active intervention of broad layers of the proletariat. At the same time, the commercial bourgeoisie and the elements of the intelligentsia linked with it, are breaking off to the right, assuming a hostile attitude towards strikes, communists and the USSR. It is quite clear that in the light of these fundamental facts the question of revising relations between the Communist Party and the Kuomintang must necessarily be raised ...

The leftward movement of the masses of Chinese workers is as certain a fact as the rightward movement of the Chinese bourgeoisie. Insofar as the Kuomintang has been based on the political and organisational union of the workers and the bourgeoisie, it must now be torn apart by the centrifugal tendencies of the class struggle...

The participation of the CCP in the Kuomintang was perfectly correct in the period in which the CCP was a propaganda society which was only preparing itself for future independent political activity but which, at the same time, sought to take part in the ongoing national liberation struggle ... But the fact of the Chinese proletariat’s mighty awakening, its desire for struggle and for independent class organisation, is absolutely undeniable ... Its [the CCP’s] immediate political task must now be to fight for direct independent leadership of the awakened working class – not of course to remove the working class from the national-revolutionary struggle, but to assure it the role of not only the most resolute fighter, but also of political leader with hegemony in the struggle of the Chinese masses ...

To think that the petty-bourgeoisie can be won over by clever manoeuvres or good advice within the Kuomintang is hopeless utopianism. The Communist Party will be more able to exert direct and indirect influence upon the petty-bourgeoisie of town and country the stronger the party is in itself, that is, the more the party has won over the Chinese working class. But that is possible only on the basis of an independent class party and class policy. [14]

This was totally unacceptable to Stalin and his associates. heir policy was to cling to the KMT and to force the CCP to subordinate itself, no matter what. In this way they hoped a reliable ally of the USSR could be kept going in South China and, perhaps, later could take power nationally.

This policy was justified theoretically by reviving the “democratic dictatorship” thesis. The Chinese revolution was a bourgeois revolution and therefore, the argument went, a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry should be the aim. In order to preserve the worker-peasant bloc the movement must confine itself to “democratic” demands. The socialist revolution was not on the agenda. The difficulty presented by the fact that the KMT was manifestly not a peasant party was met by the argument that actually it was a multi-class party, a “bloc of four classes” (bourgeoisie, urban petty bourgeoisie, workers and peasants).

What does this mean anyway – bloc of four classes? Have you ever encountered this expression in Marxist literature before? If the bourgeoisie leads the oppressed masses of the people under the bourgeois banner and takes hold of state power through its leadership, then this is no bloc but the political exploitation of the oppressed masses by the bourgeoisie. [15]

The real point is that the bourgeoisie would capitulate to the imperialists. Therefore the KMT would inevitably play a counter-revolutionary role.

The Chinese bourgeoisie is sufficiently realistic and acquainted intimately enough with the nature of world imperialism to understand that a really serious struggle against the latter requires such an upheaval of the revolutionary masses as would primarily become a menace to the bourgeoisie itself ... And if we taught the workers of Russia from the very beginning not to believe in the readiness of liberalism and the ability of petty-bourgeois democracy to crush Tsarism and to destroy feudalism, we should no less energetically imbue the Chinese workers from the outset with the same spirit of distrust. The new and absolutely false theory promulgated by Stalin-Bukharin about the “immanent” revolutionary spirit of the colonial bourgeoisie is, in substance, a translation of Menshevism into the language of Chinese politics. [16]

The outcome is well known. Chiang Kai-shek, military chief of the KMT, mounted his first coup against the left in Canton in March 1926. The CCP, under Russian pressure, submitted. When Chiang’s army launched the “Northern Expedition” a wave of working class and peasant revolt destroyed the war-lord forces, but the CCP, faithful to the “bloc”, did its best to prevent “excesses”. Before Chiang entered Shanghai in March 1927, the war-lord forces were defeated by two general strikes and an insurrection led by the CCP. Chiang ordered the workers to be disarmed. The CCP refused to resist. Then, in April, they were massacred and the labour movement was beheaded. There followed a split in the KMT. The civilian leaders, fearing (correctly) that Chiang was out to become military dictator, set up their government in Wuhan (Hankow).

The CCP was now required by the Comintern to support this “left” KMT regime, and supplied its ministers of labour and agriculture. Its leader, Wang Ching-wei, used them to serve his turn and then, after a few months, carried out his own coup. Subsequently he even headed the puppet government of Japanese-occupied China. The CCP was driven underground and rapidly lost its mass base in the towns. At each crucial confrontation it had used its hard-earned influence to persuade the workers not to resist the KMT.

Then, because a critical stage had been reached in the inner party struggle in Russia, the Stalin-Bukharin ruling group in the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) made a 180 degree turn. From repeated capitulations to the KMT, the CCP was forced into an outright putsch. Stalin and Bukharin needed a victory in China in order to fend off the criticisms of the opposition (which they planned to expel) at the fifteenth Congress of the CPSU in December 1927. A new Comintern emissary, Heinz Neumann, was sent to Canton where he attempted to stage a coup d’état in early December. The CCP still had a serious underground force in the city. Five thousand communists, mostly local workers, took part in the rising. But there had been no political preparation, no agitation, no involvement of the mass of the working class. The communists were isolated. This “Canton Commune” was crushed in approximately the same time it had taken to crush Blanqui s insurrection in Paris in 1839 – two days – and for the same reasons. It was a putsch undertaken without regard to the level of the class struggle and the consciousness of the working class. The outcome was a massacre even greater than that of Shanghai. The CCP ceased to exist in Canton.

The theory of Permanent Revolution had been strikingly confirmed again – in a negative sense. Imperialist domination of China got a further lease of life.

Suppose, however, the CCP had followed the same course as the Bolsheviks had followed after April 1917. Was a proletarian dictatorship really possible in a country as backward as China was in the nineteen-twenties?

Trotsky was open-minded:

The question of the “non-capitalistic” path of development of China was posed in a conditional form by Lenin, for whom, as for us, it was and is ABC wisdom that the Chinese revolution, left to its own forces, that is, without the direct support of the victorious proletariat of the USSR and the working class of all countries, could end only with the broadest possibilities for capitalist development of the country, with more favourable conditions for the labour movement... But first of all, the inevitability of the capitalist path has by no means been proved; and secondly – the argument is incomparably more timely for us – the bourgeois tasks can be solved in various ways. [17]

It will be necessary to return to that last point. In the second half of this century a series of revolutions have occurred, from Angola through to Cuba and Vietnam to Zanzibar (now part of Tanzania), which were certainly not proletarian revolutions and were certainly not bourgeois revolutions in the classic sense.

Trotsky did not foresee such a development, nor did anyone else in his time. The theory of Permanent Revolution, decisively confirmed in the first half of this century, must obviously be reconsidered in the light of these later developments. The question will be taken up in the final chapter below.




1. Engels to Kautsky, Marx and Engels: Selected Correspondence 1846-1895, London: Lawrence & Wishart 1936, p.399.

2. Manifesto of the Russian Social-Democratic Workers’ Party, (1898), in R.V. Daniels (ed.), A Documentary History of Communism, New York: Vintage 1962, Vol.1, p.7.

3. Lenin, Collected Works, Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House 1960, Vol.9, pp.55-7. Emphasis in original.

4. Ibid., Vol.21, p.33.

5. Trotsky, Our differences, in 1905, New York: Vintage 1972, p.312.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid., pp.313-14.

8. Trotsky, Results and prospects, in The Permanent Revolution, 1962, pp.194-5. Emphasis added.

9. Lenin, Collected Works, op.cit., Vol.9, p.28.

10. Trotsky, Our differences, op.cit., p.317.

11. It would take us too far afield from the limited purpose of this book to attempt to justify these statements. Trotsky’s own History of the Russian Revolution, London: Sphere 1977, and Pluto Press 1978, Vols. I and II; and Tony Cliff’s Lenin, London: Pluto Press 1976, Vol.2, provide, from slightly different angles, the decisive evidence.

12. T. Cliff, Lenin, London: Pluto Press 1976, Vol.2, p.138.

13. I. Deutscher, The Prophet Unarmed, London: Oxford University Press 1959, p.323.

14. Trotsky, The Chinese Communist Party and the Kuomintang, Leon Trotsky on China, New York: Monad 1976, pp.113-5.

15. Trotsky, First speech on the Chinese question, Leon Trotsky on China, op.cit., p.227.

16. Trotsky, Summary and perspectives of the Chinese revolution, Leon Trotsky on China, op.cit., p.297.

17. Trotsky, The Chinese revolution and the theses of Comrade Stalin, Leon Trotsky on China, op.cit., pp.162-3.


Last updated on 1.10.2002