Leon Trotsky

The Permanent Revolution

Introduction to
the German Edition

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

As this book goes to press in the German language, the entire thinking section of the world working class and, in a sense, the whole of ‘civilized’ humanity is following with particularly keen interest the economic turn, and its reverberations, now taking place over most of the former Tsarist empire. The greatest attention in this connection is aroused by the problem of collectivizing the peasant holdings. This is hardly surprising: in this sphere the break with the past assumes a particularly sweeping character. But a correct evaluation of collectivization is unthinkable without a general conception of the socialist revolution. And here, on a much higher plane, we once again become convinced that in the field of Marxist theory there is nothing that fails to impinge on practical activity. The most remote, and it would seem, the most ‘abstract’ disagreements, if they are thought out to the end, will sooner or later be invariably expressed in practice, and practice does not allow a single theoretical mistake to be made with impunity.

The collectivization of peasant holdings is, of course, a most necessary and fundamental part of the socialist transformation of society. However, the scope and tempo of collectivization are not determined by the government’s will alone, but, in the last analysis, by the economic factors: by the height of the country’s economic level, by the inter-relationship between industry and agriculture, and consequently by the technical resources of agriculture itself.

Industrialization is the driving force of the whole of modern culture and by this token the only conceivable basis for socialism. In the conditions of the Soviet Union, industrialization means first of all the strengthening of the base of the proletariat as a ruling class. Simultaneously it creates the material and technical premises for the collectivization of agriculture. The tempos of these two processes are interdependent. The proletariat is interested in the highest possible tempos for these processes to the extent that the new society in the making is thus best protected from external danger, and at the same time a source is created for systematically improving the material level of the toiling masses.

However, the tempos that can be achieved are limited by the general material and cultural level of the country, by the relationship between the city and the village and by the most pressing needs of the masses, who are able to sacrifice their today for the sake of tomorrow only up to a certain point. The optimum tempos, i.e., the best and most advantageous ones, are those which not only promote the most rapid growth of industry and collectivization at a given moment, but which also secure the necessary stability of the social regime, that is, first of all strengthen the alliance of the workers and peasants, thereby preparing the possibility for future successes.

From this standpoint, of decisive significance is the general historical criterion in accordance with which the party and state leadership direct economic development by means of planning. Here two main variants are possible: (a) the course outlined above toward the economic strengthening of the proletarian dictatorship in one country until further victories of the world proletarian revolution (the viewpoint of the Russian Left Opposition); and (b) the course toward the construction of an isolated national socialist society, and this ‘in the shortest possible time’ (the current official position).

These are two completely different, and, in the last analysis, directly opposed conceptions of socialism. From these are derived basically different lines, strategy and tactics.

In the limits of this preface we cannot deal in detail with the question of building socialism in one country. To this we have devoted a number of writings, particularly Criticism of the Draft Program of the Comintern. Here we confine ourselves to the fundamental elements of this question. Let us recall, first of all, that the theory of socialism in one country was first formulated by Stalin in the autumn of 1924, in complete contradiction not only to all the traditions of Marxism and the school of Lenin, but even to what Stalin himself had written in the spring of the same year. From the standpoint of principle, the departure from Marxism by the Stalinist ‘school’ on the issues of socialist construction is no less significant and drastic than, for example, the break of the German Social Democrats from Marxism on the issues of war and patriotism in the fall of 1914, exactly ten years before the Stalinist turn. This comparison is by no means accidental in character. Stalin’s ‘mistake’, just like the ‘mistake’ of the German Social Democracy, is national socialism.

Marxism takes its point of departure from world economy, not as a sum of national parts but as a mighty and independent reality which has been created by the international division of labor and the world market, and which in our epoch imperiously dominates the national markets. The productive forces of capitalist society have long ago outgrown the national boundaries. The imperialist war (of 1914-1918) was one of the expressions of this fact. In respect of the technique of production socialist society must represent a stage higher than capitalism. To aim at building a nationally isolated socialist society means, in spite of all passing successes, to pull the productive forces backward even as compared with capitalism. To attempt, regardless of the geographical, cultural and historical conditions of the country’s development, which constitutes a part of the world unity, to realize a shut-off proportionality of all the branches of economy within a national framework, means to pursue a reactionary utopia. If the heralds and supporters of this theory nevertheless participate in the international revolutionary struggle (with what success is a different question) it is because, as hopeless eclectics, they mechanically combine abstract internationalism with reactionary utopian national socialism. The crowning expression of this eclecticism is the program of the Comintern adopted by the Sixth Congress.

In order to expose graphically one of the main theoretical mistakes underlying the national socialist conception we cannot do better than quote from a recently published speech of Stalin, devoted to the internal questions of American Communism.[1] ‘It would be wrong,’ says Stalin, arguing against one of the American factions, ‘to ignore the specific peculiarities of American capitalism. The Communist party must take them into account in its work. But it would be still more wrong to base the activities of the Communist party on these specific features, since the foundation of the activities of every Communist party, including the American Communist Party, on which it must base itself, must be the general features of capitalism, which are the same for all countries, and not its specific features in any given country. It is precisely on this that the internationalism of the Communist parties rests. The specific features are merely supplementary to the general features.’ (Bolshevik, No.1, 1930, p.8. Our emphasis)

These lines leave nothing to be desired in the way of clarity. Under the guise of providing an economic justification for internationalism, Stalin in reality presents a justification for national socialism. It is false that world economy is simply a sum of national parts of one and the same type. It is false that the specific features are ‘merely supplementary to the general features,’ like warts on a face. In reality, the national peculiarities represent an original combination of the basic features of the world process. This originality can be of decisive significance for revolutionary strategy over a span of many years. Suffice it to recall that the proletariat of a backward country has come to power many years before the proletariat of the advanced countries. This historic lesson alone shows that in spite of Stalin, it is absolutely wrong to base the activity of the Communist parties on some ‘general features’, that is, on an abstract type of national capitalism. It is utterly false to contend that ‘this is what the internationalism of the Communist parties rests upon’. In reality, it rests on the insolvency of the national state, which has long ago outlived itself and which has turned into a brake upon the development of the productive forces. National capitalism cannot be even understood, let alone reconstructed, except as a part of world economy.

The economic peculiarities of different countries are in no way of a subordinate character. It is enough to compare England and India, the United States and Brazil. But the specific features of national economy, no matter how great, enter as component parts and in increasing measure into the higher reality which is called world economy and on which alone, in the last analysis, the internationalism of the Communist parties rests.

Stalin’s characterization of national peculiarities as a simple ‘supplement’ to the general type, is in crying and therewith not accidental contradiction to Stalin’s understanding (that is, his lack of understanding) of the law of uneven development of capitalism. This law, as is well known, is proclaimed by Stalin as the most fundamental, most important and universal of laws. With the help of the law of uneven development, which he has converted into an empty abstraction, Stalin tries to solve all the riddles of existence. But the astonishing thing is that he does not notice that national peculiarity is nothing else but the most general product of the unevenness of historical development, its summary result, so to say. It is only necessary to understand this unevenness correctly, to consider it in its full extent, and also to extend it to the pre-capitalist past. A faster or slower development of the productive forces; the expanded, or, contrariwise, the contracted character of entire historical epochs – for example, the Middle Ages, the guild system, enlightened absolutism, parliamentarism; the uneven development of different branches of economy, different classes, different social institutions, different fields of culture – all these lie at the base of these national ‘peculiarities’. The peculiarity of a national social type is the crystallization of the unevenness of its formation.

The October Revolution came as the most momentous manifestation of the unevenness of the historic process. The theory of the permanent revolution gave the prognosis of the October Revolution; by this token this theory rested on the law of uneven development, not in its abstract form, but in its material crystallization in Russia’s social and political peculiarity.

Stalin has dragged in the law of uneven development not in order to foresee in time the seizure of power by the proletariat of a backward country, but in order, after the fact, in 1924, to foist upon the already victorious proletariat the task of constructing a national socialist society. But it is precisely here that the law of uneven development is inapplicable, for it does not replace nor does it abolish the laws of world economy; on the contrary, it is subordinated to them.

By making a fetish of the law of uneven development, Stalin proclaims it a sufficient basis for national socialism, not as a type common to all countries, but exceptional, Messianic, purely Russian. It is possible, according to Stalin, to construct a self-sufficient socialist society only in Russia. By this alone he elevates Russia’s national peculiarities not only above the ‘general features’ of every capitalist nation, but also above world economy as a whole. It is just here that the fatal flaw in Stalin’s whole conception begins. The peculiarity of the USSR is so potent that it makes possible the construction of its own socialism within its own borders, regardless of what happens to the rest of mankind. As regards other countries, to which the Messianic seal has not been affixed, their peculiarities are merely ‘supplementary’ to the general features, only a wart on the face. ‘It would be wrong,’ teaches Stalin, ‘to base the activities of the Communist parties on these specific features’. This moral holds good for the American C.P., and the British, and the South African and the Serbian, but – not for the Russian, whose activity is based not on the ‘general features’ but precisely on the ‘peculiarities.’ From this flows the thoroughly dualistic strategy of the Comintern. While the USSR ‘liquidates the classes’ and builds socialism, the proletariat of all the other countries, in complete disregard of existing national conditions, is obligated to carry on uniform activity according to the calendar (First of August, March Sixth, etc.). Messianic nationalism is supplemented by bureaucratically abstract internationalism. This dualism runs through the whole program of the Comintern, and deprives it of any principled significance.

If we take Britain and India as polarized varieties of the capitalist type, then we are obliged to say that the internationalism of the British and Indian proletariats does not at all rest on an identity of conditions, tasks and methods, but on their indivisible interdependence. Successes for the liberation movement in India presuppose a revolutionary movement in Britain and vice versa. Neither in India, nor in England is it possible to build an independent socialist society. Both of them will have to enter as parts into a higher whole. Upon this and only upon this rests the unshakable foundation of Marxist internationalism.

Recently, on March 8, 1930, Pravda expounded anew Stalin’s ill-starred theory, in the sense that ‘socialism, as a social-economic formation,’ that is, as a definite system of production relations, can be fully realized ‘on the national scale of the USSR.’ Something else again is ‘the final victory of socialism’ in the sense of a guarantee against the intervention of capitalist encirclement – such a final victory of socialism ‘actually demands the triumph of the proletarian revolution in several advanced countries.’ What an abysmal decline of theoretical thought was required for such shoddy scholasticism to be expounded with a learned air in the pages of the central organ of Lenin’s party! If we assume for a minute the possibility of realizing socialism as a finished social system within the isolated framework of the USSR, then that would be the ‘final victory’ – because in that case what talk could there be about a possible intervention? The socialist order presupposes high levels of technology and culture and solidarity of population. Since the USSR, at the moment of complete construction of socialism, will have, it must be assumed, a population of between 200,000,000 and 250,000.000, we then ask: What intervention could even be talked of then? What capitalist country, or coalition of countries, would dare think of intervention in these circumstances? The only conceivable intervention could come from the side of the USSR. But would it be needed? Hardly. The example of a backward country, which in the course of several Five-Year Plans was able to construct a mighty socialist society with its own forces, would mean a death blow to world capitalism, and would reduce to a minimum, if not to zero, the costs of the world proletarian revolution. This is why the whole Stalinist conception actually leads to the liquidation of the Communist International. And indeed, what would be its historical significance, if the fate of socialism is to be decided by the highest possible authority – the State Planning Commission of the USSR? In that case, the task of the Comintern, along with the notorious ‘Friends of the Soviet Union,’ would be to protect the construction of socialism from intervention, that is, in essence, to play the role of frontier patrols.

The article mentioned attempts to prove the correctness of the Stalinist conception with the very newest and freshest economic arguments: ‘... Precisely now,’ says Pravda, ‘when productive relations of a socialist type are taking deeper root not only in industry but also in agriculture through the growth of state farms, through the gigantic rise, quantitatively and qualitatively, of the collective-farm movement and the liquidation of the kulaks as a class on the basis of complete collectivization, precisely now what is shown dearest of all is the sorry bankruptcy of the Trotskyite-Zinovievite theory of defeat, which has meant in essence “the Menshevik denial of the legitimacy of the October Revolution” (Stalin)’. (Pravda, March 8, 1930.)

These are truly remarkable lines, and not merely for their glib tone which covers a complete confusion of thought. Together with Stalin, the author of Pravda’s article accuses the ‘Trotskyite’ conception of ‘denying the legitimacy of the October Revolution.’ But it was exactly on the basis of this conception, that is, the theory of the permanent revolution, that the writer of these lines foretold the inevitability of the October Revolution, thirteen years before it took place. And Stalin? Even after the February Revolution, that is seven to eight months prior to the October Revolution, he came forward as a vulgar revolutionary democrat. It was necessary for Lenin to arrive in Petrograd (April 3, 1917) with his merciless struggle against the conceited ‘Old Bolsheviks,’ whom Lenin ridiculed so at that time, for Stalin carefully and noiselessly to glide over from the democratic position to the socialist. This inner ‘growing over’ of Stalin, which by the way was never completed, took place, at any rate, not earlier than 12 years after I had offered proof of the ‘legitimacy’ of the seizure of power by the working class of Russia before the beginning of the proletarian revolution in the West.

But, in elaborating the theoretical prognosis of the October Revolution, I did not at all believe that, by conquering state power, the Russian proletariat would exclude the former Tsarist empire from the orbit of world economy. We Marxists know the role and meaning of state power. It is not at all a passive reflection of economic processes, as the Social Democratic servants of the bourgeois state depict it. Power can have a gigantic significance, reactionary as well as progressive, depending on which class holds power in its hands. But state power is nonetheless an instrument of the superstructural order. The passing of power from the hands of Tsarism and the bourgeoisie into the hands of the proletariat abolishes neither the processes nor the laws of world economy. To be sure, for a certain time after the October Revolution, the economic ties between the Soviet Union and the world market were weakened. But it would be a monstrous mistake to make a generalization out of a phenomenon that was merely a brief stage in the dialectical process. The international division of labor and the supra-national character of modern productive forces not only retain but will increase twofold and tenfold their significance for the Soviet Union in proportion to the degree of Soviet economic ascent.

Every backward country integrated with capitalism has passed through various stages of decreasing or increasing dependence upon the other capitalist countries, but in general the tendency of capitalist development is toward a colossal growth of world ties, which is expressed in the growing volume of foreign trade, including, of course, capital export. Britain’s dependence upon India naturally bears a qualitatively different character from India’s dependence upon Britain. But this difference is determined, at bottom, by the difference in the respective levels of development of their productive forces, and not at all by the degree of their economic self- sufficiency. India is a colony; Britain, a metropolis. But if Britain were subjected today to an economic blockade, it would perish sooner than would India under a similar blockade. This, by the way, is one of the convincing illustrations of the reality of world economy.

Capitalist development – not in the abstract formulas of the second volume of Capital, which retain all their significance as a stage in analysis, but in historical reality – took place and could only take place by a systematic expansion of its base. In the process of its development, and consequently in the struggle with its internal contradictions, every national capitalism turns in an ever-increasing degree to the reserves of the ‘external market,’ that is, the reserves of world economy. The uncontrollable expansion growing out of the permanent internal crises of capitalism constitutes a progressive force up to the time when it turns into a force fatal to capitalism.

Over and above the internal contradictions of capitalism, the October Revolution inherited from old Russia the contradictions, no less profound, between capitalism as a whole and the pre-capitalist forms of production. These contradictions possessed, as they still do, a material character, that is, they are embodied in the material relations between town and country, they are lodged in the particular proportions or disproportions between the various branches of industry and in the national economy as a whole, etc. Some of the roots of these contradictions lie directly in the geographical and demographical conditions of the country, that is, they are nurtured by the abundance or scarcity of one or another natural resource, the historically-created distribution of the masses of the population, and so on. The strength of Soviet economy lies in the nationalization of the means of production and their planned direction. The weakness of Soviet economy, in addition to the backwardness inherited from the past, lies in its present post-revolutionary isolation, that is, in its inability to gain access to the resources of world economy, not only on a socialist but even on a capitalist basis, that is, in the shape of normal international credits and ‘financing’ in general, which plays so decisive a role for backward countries. Meanwhile, the contradictions of the Soviet Union’s capitalist and pre-capitalist past not only do not disappear of themselves, but on the contrary rise up from the recovery from the years of decline and destruction; they revive and are aggravated with the growth of Soviet economy, and in order to be overcome or even mitigated they demand at every step that access to the resources of the world market be achieved.

To understand what is happening now in the vast territory which the October Revolution awakened to new life, it is necessary to take clearly into account that to the old contradictions recently revived by the economic successes there has been added a new and most powerful contradiction between the concentrated character of Soviet industry, which opens up the possibility of unexampled tempos of development, and the isolation of Soviet economy, which excludes the possibility of a normal utilization of the reserves of world economy. The new contradiction, pressing down upon the old ones, leads to this, that alongside of tremendous successes, painful difficulties arise. These find their most immediate and onerous expression, felt daily by every worker and peasant, in the fact that the conditions of the toiling masses do not keep step with the general rise of the economy, but are even growing worse at present as a result of the food difficulties. The sharp crises of Soviet economy are a reminder that the productive forces created by capitalism are not adapted to national markets, and can be socialistically coordinated and harmonized only on an international scale. To put it differently, the crises of Soviet economy are not merely maladies of growth, a sort of infantile sickness, but something far more significant – namely, they are the harsh curbings of the world market, the very one ‘to which,’ in Lenin’s words, ‘we are subordinated, with which we are bound up, and from which we cannot escape.’ (Speech at the Eleventh Party Congress, March 27, 1922).

From the foregoing, however, there in no way follows a denial of the historical ‘legitimacy’ of the October Revolution, a conclusion which reeks of shameful philistinism. The seizure of power by the international proletariat cannot be a single, simultaneous act. The political superstructure – and a revolution is part of the ‘superstructure’ – has its own dialectic, which intervenes imperiously in the process of world economy, but does not abolish its deep-going laws. The October Revolution is ‘legitimate’ as the first stage of the world revolution which unavoidably extends over decades. The interval between the first and the second stage has turned out to be considerably longer than we had expected. Nevertheless it remains an interval, and it is by no means converted into a self-sufficient epoch of the building of a national socialist society.

Out of the two conceptions of the revolution there stem two guiding lines on (Soviet) economic questions. The first swift economic successes, which were completely unexpected by Stalin, inspired him in the fall of 1924 with the theory of socialism in one country as the culmination of the practical prospect of an isolated national economy. It was precisely in this period that Bukharin advanced his famous formula that by protecting ourselves from world economy by means of the monopoly of foreign trade, we should be in a position to build socialism ‘although at a tortoise pace.’ This was the common formula of the bloc of the Centrists (Stalin) with the Rights (Bukharin). Already at that time, Stalin tirelessly propounded the idea that the tempo of our industrialization is our ‘own affair,’ having no relation whatever to world economy. Such a national smugness naturally could not last long, for it reflected the first, very brief stage of economic revival, which necessarily revived our dependence on the world market. The first shocks of international dependence, unexpected by the national socialists, created an alarm, which in the next stage turned into panic. We must gain economic ‘independence’ as speedily as possible with the aid of the speediest possible tempos of industrialization and collectivization! – this is the transformation that has taken place in the economic policy of national socialism in the past two years. Creeping and penny-pinching was replaced all along the line by adventurism. The theoretical base under both remains the same: the national socialist conception.

The basic difficulties, as has been shown above, derive from the objective situation, primarily from the isolation of the Soviet Union. We shall not pause here to consider to what extent this objective situation is itself a product of the subjective mistakes of the leadership (the false policy in Germany in 1923, in Bulgaria and Estonia in 1924, in Britain and Poland in 1926, in China in 1925-27; the current false strategy of the ‘Third Period,’ etc., etc.). But the sharpest convulsions in the USSR are created by the fact that the incumbent leadership tries to make a virtue out of necessity, and out of the political isolation of the workers’ state constructs a program of an economically-isolated socialist society. This has given rise to the attempt at complete socialist collectivization of peasant holdings on the basis of a pre-capitalist inventory – a most dangerous adventure which threatens to undermine the very possibility of collaboration between the proletariat and the peasantry.

Remarkably, just at the moment when this has become delineated in all its sharpness, Bukharin, yesterday’s theoretician of the ‘tortoise pace,’ has composed a pathetic hymn to the present-day ‘furious gallop’ of industrialization and collectivization. It is to be feared that this hymn, too, will presently be declared the greatest heresy. For there are already new melodies in the air. Under the influence of the resistance of economic reality, Stalin has been compelled to beat a retreat. Now the danger is that yesterday’s adventuristic offensive, dictated by panic, may turn into a panic-stricken retreat. Such alternation of stages results inexorably from the nature of national socialism.

A realistic program for an isolated workers’ state cannot set itself the goal of achieving ‘independence’ from world economy, much less of constructing a national socialist society ‘in the shortest time.’ The task is not to attain the abstract maximum tempo, but the optimum tempo, that is, the best, that which follows from both internal and world economic conditions, strengthens the position of the proletariat, prepares the national elements of the future international socialist society, and at the same time, and above all, systematically improves the living standards of the proletariat and strengthens its alliance with the non-exploiting masses of the countryside. This prospect must remain in force for the whole preparatory period, that is, until the victorious revolution in the advanced countries liberates the Soviet Union from its present isolated position.

Some of the thoughts expressed here are developed in greater detail in other works by the author, particularly in the ‘Criticism of the Draft Program of the Comintern.’ In the near future I hope to publish a pamphlet specially devoted to an evaluation of the present stage of economic development of the USSR. To these works I am obliged to direct the reader who seeks a closer acquaintance with the way in which the problem of the permanent revolution is posed today. But the considerations brought out above are sufficient, let me hope, to reveal the full significance of the struggle over principles which was carried on in recent years, and is being carried on right now in the shape of two contrasting theories: socialism in one country versus the permanent revolution. Only this topical significance of the question justifies the fact that we present here to foreign readers a book that is largely devoted to a critical reproduction of the pre-revolutionary prognoses and theoretical disputes among the Russian Marxists. A different form of exposition of the questions that interest us might, of course, have been selected. But this form was never created by the author, and was not selected by him of his own accord. It was imposed upon him partly by the opponent’s will and partly by the very course of political development. Even the truths of mathematics, the most abstract of the sciences, can best be learned in connection with the history of their discovery. This applies with even greater force to the more concrete, i.e. historically-conditioned truths of Marxist politics. The history of the origin and development of the prognoses of the revolution under the conditions of pre-revolutionary Russia will, I think, bring the reader much closer and far more concretely to the essence of the revolutionary tasks of the world proletariat than a scholastic and pedantic exposition of these political ideas, torn out of the conditions of struggle which gave them birth.

March 29, 1930. 


1. Stalin delivered this speech on May 6, 1929; it was first published early in 1930, in circumstances that cause it to acquire a sort of ‘programmatic’ significance. – L.T.

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