Leon Trotsky

The Permanent Revolution

6. On the Skipping of Historical Stages

Transcribed and HTML markup for the Trotsky Internet Archive, a subarchive of the Marxists’ Internet Archive, by Sally Ryan in 1996.

Radek does not simply repeat a few of the official critical exercises of recent years, he also sometimes simplifies them, if that be possible. From what he writes, it follows that I make no distinction at all between the bourgeois and the socialist revolutions, between the East and the West, either in 1905 or today. Following Stalin, Radek too enlightens me on the impermissibility of skipping historical stages.

The question must be put first and foremost: If in 1905 it was for me simply a matter of the ‘socialist revolution’ then why did I believe that it could begin in backward Russia sooner than in advanced Europe? Out of patriotism? Out of national pride? And yet, somehow, that is what did happen. Does Radek understand that if the democratic revolution had been realized in Russia as an independent stage, we should not have had today the dictatorship of the proletariat? If this came earlier here than in the West, then it was precisely and only because history combined the main content of the bourgeois revolution with the first stage of the proletarian revolution – did not mix them up but combined them organically.

To distinguish between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolution is political ABC. But after the ABC come syllables, that is, combinations of letters. History accomplished just such a combination of the most important letters of the bourgeois alphabet with the first letters of the socialist alphabet. Radek, however, would like to drag us back from the already accomplished syllables to the alphabet. This is sad, but true.

It is nonsense to say that stages cannot in general be skipped. The living historical process always makes leaps over isolated ‘stages’ which derive from theoretical breakdown into its component parts of the process of development in its entirety, that is, taken in its fullest scope. The same is demanded of revolutionary policy at critical moments. It may be said that the first distinction between a revolutionist and a vulgar evolutionist lies in the capacity to recognize and exploit such moments.

Marx’s breakdown of the development of industry into handicraft, manufacture and factory is part of the ABC of political economy, or more precisely, of historico-economic theory. In Russia, however, the factory came by skipping over the epoch of manufacture and of urban handicrafts. This is already among the syllables of history. An analogous process took place in our country in class relationships and in politics. The modern history of Russia cannot be comprehended unless the Marxist schema of the three stages is known: handicraft, manufacture, factory. But if one knows only this, one still comprehends nothing. For the fact is that the history of Russia – Stalin should not take this personally – skipped a few stages. The theoretical distinction of the stages, however, is necessary for Russia, too, otherwise one can comprehend neither what this leap amounted to nor what its consequences were.

The matter can also be approached from another side (just as Lenin occasionally approached the dual power), and it can be said that Russia went through all three of Marx’s stages – the first two, however, in an extremely telescoped, embryonic form. These ‘rudiments’, the stages of handicraft and manufacture – merely outlined in dots, so to speak – suffice to confirm the genetic unity of the economic process. Nevertheless, the quantitative contraction of the two stages was so great that it engendered an entirely new quality in the whole social structure of the nation. The most striking expression of this new ‘quality’ in politics is the October Revolution.

What is most unbearable in this discussion is the ‘theorising’ of Stalin, with the two trinkets which constitute his entire theoretical baggage: ‘the law of uneven development’ and the ‘non-skipping of stages’. Stalin does not understand to this day that the skipping of stages (or remaining too long at one stage) is just what uneven development consists of. Against the theory of the permanent revolution, Stalin, with inimitable seriousness, sets up the law of uneven development. Yet, the prediction that historically backward Russia could arrive at the proletarian revolution sooner than advanced Britain rests entirely upon the law of uneven development. However, to make this prediction one had to understand the historical unevenness in its whole dynamic concreteness, and not simply keep permanently chewing upon a 1915 quotation from Lenin, which is turned upside down and interpreted in the manner of an illiterate.

The dialectic of the historical ‘stages’ is relatively easy to understand in periods of revolutionary ascent. Reactionary periods, on the contrary, naturally become epochs of cheap evolutionism. Stalinism, this gross ideological vulgarity, the worthy daughter of the party reaction, has created a cult of its own of progress by stages, as a cover for its political tailism and haggling over rags. This reactionary ideology has now engulfed Radek too.

One stage or another of the historical process can prove to be inevitable under certain conditions, although theoretically not inevitable. And conversely, theoretically ‘inevitable’ stages can be compressed to zero by the dynamics of development, especially during revolutions, which have not for nothing been called the locomotives of history.

For example, in our country the proletariat ‘skipped’ the stage of democratic parliamentarianism, granting the Constituent Assembly only a few hours, and even that much only in the back yard. But the counter-revolutionary stage in China can in no way be skipped over, just as in Russia the period of the four Dumas could not be skipped over. The present counter-revolutionary stage in China, however, was historically in no sense ‘unavoidable’. It is the direct result of the catastrophic policy of Stalin and Bukharin, who will pass into history as the organizers of defeats. But the fruits of opportunism have become an objective factor which can check the revolutionary process for a long time.

Every attempt to skip over real, that is, objectively conditioned stages in the development of the masses, is political adventurism. So long as the majority of the working masses have confidence in the Social Democrats, or let us say, the Kuomintang, or the trade union leaders, we cannot pose before them the task of the immediate overthrow of bourgeois power. The masses must be prepared for that. The preparation can prove to be a very long ‘stage’. But only a tailist can believe that, ‘together with the masses’, we must sit, first in the Right and then in the Left Kuomintang, or maintain a bloc with the strike-breaker Purcell ‘until the masses become disillusioned with their leaders’ – whom we, in the meantime, uphold with our friendship.

Radek will hardly have forgotten that many ‘dialecticians’ characterized the demand for withdrawal from the Kuomintang and the break with the Anglo-Russian Committee as nothing but a skipping over of stages, and besides that, as a breach with the peasantry (in China) and with the working masses (in Britain). Radek ought to remember this all the better since he himself was one of the ‘dialecticians’ of this sorry type. Now he is merely deepening and generalizing his opportunist errors.

In April 1919, Lenin wrote in a programmatic article, The Third International and Its Place in History:

‘We should not be mistaken if we say that it is precisely this contradiction between the backwardness of Russia and its ‘leap’ to the higher form of democracy, its leap across bourgeois democracy to Soviet, or proletarian democracy, that it was precisely this contradiction that was one of the reasons. . . which, in the West, particularly hindered, or retarded, the understanding of the role of the Soviets’. (XVI, p.183 [1])

Lenin says here directly that Russia made a ‘leap across bourgeois democracy’. To be sure, implicit in Lenin’s statement are all the necessary qualifications: after all, the dialectic does not consist of each time repeating all the concrete conditions; the writer takes it for granted that the reader himself also has something in his head. The leap across bourgeois democracy remains in spite of that, and makes difficult, according to Lenin’s correct observation, the understanding of the role of the Soviets by all dogmatists and schematists – not only ‘in the West’, but also in the East.

And here is how this question is dealt with in the foreword to The Year 1905, which now suddenly causes Radek such disquiet:

‘Already in 1905, the Petersburg workers called their Soviet a proletariat government. This designation passed into the everyday language of that time and was completely embodied in the programme of the struggle of the working class for power. At the same time, however, we set up against Tsarism an elaborated programme of political democracy (universal suffrage, republic, militia, etc.). We could act in no other way. Political democracy is a necessary stage in the development of the working masses – with the highly important reservation that in one case this stage lasts for decades, while in another, the revolutionary situation permits the masses to emancipate themselves from the prejudices of political democracy even before its institutions have been converted into reality.’ (Trotsky, The Year 1905, Foreword.)

These words, which, by the way, are in complete accord with the ideas of Lenin quoted by me above, sufficiently explain, I think, the necessity of setting up against the dictatorship of the Kuomintang an ‘elaborated programme of political democracy’. But it is precisely at this point that Radek swings to the left. In the epoch of the revolutionary ascent he opposed the withdrawal of the Chinese Communist Party from the Kuomintang. In the epoch of the counter-revolutionary dictatorship he resists the mobilization of the Chinese workers under democratic slogans. This amounts to wearing furs in summer and going naked in winter.


1. 4th edition, XXIX, 281-282. Selected Works, English edition, X, p.31-32.

Last Chapter    |    Permanent Revolution Index Page    |    Next Chapter

return return return return return

Last updated on: 3.3.2007