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Paul Thompson & Guy Lewis

The Revolution Unfinished?

5. Modern Trotskyism

(d) Permanent revolution and the transition to socialism

One of the main features of Trotskyism is the theory of permanent revolution. The analysis of classes in society, the question of stages of development, the nature of the epoch – all these areas have considerable implications for international analysis and the characterisation of post-revolutionary societies. We will initially deal with the theory itself and then go on to discuss its implications, with particular reference to the Soviet Union and China.

Permanent revolution

Insofar as capitalism has created a world market, a world division of labour and world productive forces, it has also pre pared the world economy as a whole for socialist transformation.
The way out of these contradictions which will befall the proletarian dictatorship will be found in the arena of world revolution. [Trotsky – The Permanent Revolution]

Trotsky saw the world as a unified capitalist market. It follows that the only way the development of the forces necessary for the socialist revolution can flourish is on a world scale. Revolution is total or it is nothing. Only two possibilities face the world – socialism or barbarism. The theory fails to recognise the contradictions, at both an international and national level, on which revolutionary struggle grows. As Mavrakis has said:

By presenting the world as already unified into a single economic organisation, Trotsky was led to neglect national peculiarities, the specific concrete conditions (determined by history and cultural heritage) of the class struggle and the necessity to isolate the peculiar laws of the revolution in each country. In particular he exaggerated the role of exterior influences without seeing that these can only act through forces within each of these partial totalities. [On Trotskyism – p.179]

Whilst capitalism dominates the world economy as a whole, inter-capitalist rivalry creates contradictions which aid the struggle for socialism. The growth of revolutionary struggle in Southern Europe is precisely the product of the tendency of capital to develop and underdevelop different economies at the same time. Capitalist development in France, Germany and Scandinavia is accompanied by underdevelopment in Italy, Spain and Ireland. At an international level the “First World” has only developed at the expense of the Third World. The revolutionary movement, taking advantage of these developments, has succeeded in overcoming capitalism within various nation states, thereby increasing the opportunities for the creation of a socialist “market” alongside the capitalist market.

But this process is denied by most Trotskyists. For the IS:

In most cases the new regime will very rapidly start coming to terms with one or another of the Western imperialist powers. The objective reason exists because if you attempt to take power in your own country, around your own project to overcome the heart of imperialism in one country, whereas imperialism operates on a world scale, inevitably you are forced to exploit your own working class, lower the working conditions of the peasants in order to try and survive in relation to the massive economic powers at the disposal of the metropolitan countries. [IS Journal, No.89 – p.1]

According to this view, revolutions are foregone defeats, only to be rescued by world revolution!

But imperialism is not a uniform phenomenon – it is weak or strong according to the level of class struggle at a national level, and inter-imperialist rivalry at an international level. American imperialism was too weak to win in Vietnam, yet strong enough to win in Latin America. To deny the Vietnamese revolution is to pave the way for Latin Americas. Socialism wilt grow by attacking capitalism at its weak points, and each successive revolution will increase the chances of further revolutions as the balance of forces tilts in favour of socialism. The theory of permanent revolution fails to recognise this long-term struggle. and with its rigid view of the world – seeing socialism or barbarism as the only two choices, with no intermediate phase – is a recipe for fatalism.

In the pamphlet Imperialism, Stalinism and Permanent Revolution, the IMG defend this view by recourse to Marxist methodology: essentially by asserting that in a “holistic” method, the whole determines the parts, so that the world capitalist economy determines any country’s development, even after abolishing capitalism. This is vulgarisation of Marxist method. In developing an analysis Marxism uses the concept of a “structured totality”, giving relative autonomy to the “parts”, or, more precisely, to the superstructure; and admits the possibility of various parts determining the base. The Trotskyist notion is yet one more example of imposing mechanical and fatalistic laws.

“Permanent revolution” and “Socialism in one country”

After the defeats of the European working class in the early 1920s, the Soviet leadership became increasingly, and realistically, despondent of the possibility of further revolutions, at least in the short-term. Isolation and economic backwardness necessitated drastic solutions. Stalin, under the banner of “socialism in one country”, embarked upon a policy of collectivisation combined with extreme authoritarianism and the use of terror. In 1939 he maintained that the class struggle in Russia was over and that it was now possible to move towards establishing communism in one country, having “built” socialism. Trotsky fought a lonely battle against Stalinism but his struggle was too often impaired by the abstraction of his political ideas. The theory of Permanent Revolution offered little in the way of concrete ideas to resolve the Soviet predicament. In 1926 Trotsky wrote: “It was clear to us that the victory of the proletarian revolution is impossible without the world revolution.” What hope then for Russia? Not surprisingly, Trotsky was ousted from power and Stalin was able to characterise Trotsky’s theory as “permanent hopelessness”. “There is but one prospect left for our revolution: to vegetate in its own contradictions and rot away while waiting for the world revolution” was how Stalin put it.

Trotsky in 1928 described the 5 Year Plan as “reactionary, utopian national socialism ... To aim at building a nationally isolated socialist society means to pull the productive forces backward, even as compared with capitalism.” Ironically, Trotsky had advocated collectivisation of the peasantry throughout the early 1920s. By the late 1920s the opposition in the USSR had no effective counter to Stalin’s policies.

Stalin’s version of “primitive socialist accumulation” based on an extremely economistic view of what constituted “productive forces” decimated the proletariat. Until the Chinese revolution saw the re-recognition that the working class was the greatest productive force, this model of development remained unchallenged. Internationally, “Socialism in One Country” required the alliance of Western Communist Parties with the parties of the bourgeoisie. The Popular Front advocated by Stalin (via the Comintern) reduced the CPs to ineffectual reformism (and decimation in the case of Germany), and set back the revolutionary movement in Europe by many years.

Caught between the contrasting utopianisms of Permanent Revolution and Socialism in One Country, a new concept of the transition to socialism was needed.

The Trotskyist view is that while the dictatorship of the proletariat can be achieved in one country “it cannot proceed to a higher stage of socialism.” [Imperialism, Stalinism and Permanent Revolution – IMG – p.24] As we have seen this can only lead to the fatalistic view that the development of productive forces will be retarded, leading to a bureaucratisation that cannot be solved internally.

Particularly disturbing is the position that is therefore allocated to third world countries that have defeated imperialism. The, possibilities of socialism are made dependent on spreading the revolution. In a review of a recent work by Bettleheim the IS Journal had this to say:

The priorities of a victorious regime in a backward country must be ... to break out of its shells, to foster workers’ revolutions in an advanced country as a condition of its survival. (IS Journal, No.89]

What useful advice to the people of Mozambique and Angola! The revolutionary governments have a difficult enough job feeding the people and fighting puppet armies of imperialism without having to foster revolution in Britain, the US etc. even if those unlikely events were possible. This lack of realism is a product of the profound pessimism of an economistic analysis. The same IS article states:

In an isolated and backward society, social relations are imposed and sustained by material scarcity, the ruthless division Of labour demanded by the task of survival in conditions of backwardness. Scarcity impels the creation of a ruling class capable of maintaining the division of labour.

Here economism and fatalism go hand in hand, ignoring the human factor, conscious action and political leadership. This mechanical notion of base and superstructure gives too much weight to the problems of “scarcity”. Scarcity does not necessarily lead to internal degeneration. It can and does “impel” countries like China, Mozambique and Angola to develop alternative models of economic development. They are adapting to their adverse conditions by developing self.sufficiency, building new relations between agriculture and industry and developing alternative technology and work processes.

Of course, they have to live and trade with the capitatist world market and that no doubt makes them do things they have no wish to do, for example Mozambique’s migrant workers in South Africa. But trade doesn’t inevitably lead to bad politics. China’s wrong international policies are not a product of contact with the world market, but a wrong strategy, based on a wrong analysis of the balance of world forces. Deemphasising the problems of economic backwardness can of course lead to idealism, as it has done in the writings of some Maoists who see everything in terms of political leadership. But it is a tightrope that has to be walked, otherwise the concrete problems of building socialism in today’s conditions are dismissed in advance, and the revolutionary left in Europe will have failed to learn important lessons from our comrades in the Third World.

Class alliances

The theory of Permanent Revolution also embodied a narrow view of revolutionary vanguards and alliances between various class forces.

The peasantry
Within the capitalist system it is inconceivable that the industrial working class remains anything but the decisive revolutionary force. The number, concentration, organisations of the industrial proletariat make it on a world scale, the revolutionary class, par excellence.
The peasantry may supply a major part of, or even the main physical force in the revolutionary process, nevertheless as a political force its influence is relatively zero. [Quotes from the IMG pamphlet on Permanent Revolution – pp.48 & 54]

It is clear from Trotsky’s writings that the notion of class alliances derived from the theory of Permanent Revolution are not actual alliances, but the peasantry “subjugating itself” to the leadership of the industrial workers. This has led to a serious under-estimation of the strength of the peasantry, both as a force for socialism and as-a sector whose needs have to be carefully catered for. As a perspective. Permanent Revolution is inferior to Lenin’s initial concept of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. This gave a much better recognition to the necessity for a genuine class alliance with the peasantry.

Trotsky’s lack of understanding of the peasantry is indicated by his view of collectivisation in the USSR, which in its emphasis on rapid and forced collectivisation, differed little from Stalin’s. Trotsky’s view on this again shows the economism involved in his theory. This economism sees power resting only with industrial workers, despite the fact that they are a politically ineffective force in many important situations.

At the same time imperialism has drawn the peasantry of the third world right into the centre of the struggle. Monopoly capitalism has in general created new layers of the working masses, who are just as oppressed and often more combative politically, although they do riot wield the same economic power as the industrial working class. The revolutions of the post-war period – China, Cuba, Vietnam, Angola, etc. – have all, been based on peasant movements. To continue to deny their role shows incredible blindness to historical fact. Isaac Deutscher could only suggest that the Chinese revolution was an extraordinary “coincidence”. But perhaps more disturbing as the automatic labelling of any peasant based revolution as “degenerated”. The IMG’s view of China is indicative:

With a correct policy from the Comintern the proletariat could have seized power in China in 1927 ... Instead, however, not until 22 years later did the Chinese Communist Party, profoundly bureaucratised through being based on rural and not urban class struggle, come to power. (IMG – Permanent Revolution, p.49]

This quotation illustrates a recurrent weakness of Trotskyism – sociologism. Political phenomena (degeneration, bureaucracy) are explained entirely in terms of being based on particular social forces, in this case on the peasantry. It is an absurd notion which implies that if the Chinese Communist Party had been based on industrial workers things would have automatically been different. It also is deficient in that the problem of bureaucratisation was not particularly important at this time, given the close links with the masses built during the guerilla and normalised war situations.

The denigration of the peasantry is based on the assertion that it is incapable of posing collective solutions to the agrarian crisis. The IS in an article entitled The Vietnamese Road to State Capitalism wrote:

In most backward countries since the Second World War, the potential revolutionary role of the working class has not been realised, for a variety of reasons, notably the political leadership of the communist parties. The peasantry cannot substitute for it because by its nature it does not pose collective solutions to the problems of society. Crudely, peasants on an estate see their salvation as dividing the land up among themselves; workers on an assembly line can’t divide it up, they can only collectively appropriate it. [IS Journal, No.89]

But peasants have in many cases proved their collective tendencies. Although the immediate programme of the Chinese peasantry after liberation was the seizure of the landlord holdings and the division of the land, it soon became evident that only collectivisation of farm tools, then of the land, could solve the agrarian crisis. The process is described by a Chinese peasant:

The typical thing in our area is that the heavy soil here requires three horses to pull one plough. But no family that benefited from land reform got three horses – the average was one per household. So there was a spontaneous tendency right from the start for three or four households to get together, pool their horses and plough each others’ land in turn... Those who tried to work individually the first season saw the results and sought out work partners for the following season. . .The pooling of several work-teams paved the way for a new development in 1952, when there was a “land-pooling” campaign in which 30 to 50 households pooled their land, implements and cattle, forming agricultural co-operatives, and planning production according to an overall state plan ... [Quoted in China: The Quality of Life, by Wilfred Burchett – p.18]

The gradual process of collectivisation continued until the establishment of the Peoples Communes in 1958, with the complete absence of the violence and enforcement associated with the Russian campaign.

It is not just in China where peasants have shown this collectivist consciousness. Peru, Chile and many other parts of Latin America, and the South of Portugal are only some of many notable examples.

For many of the countries of the world the industrial working class is a tiny minority of the population, and revolutions must be built primarily on the peasantry. For revolutionaries, the task is to draw into the struggle those strata of society “that think and feel as the working class”. It is more a question of proletarian consciousness, not whether he or she is a “worker” in the strict sense. It is also a question of material position in many third world situations. There is an increasingly large sector that is not a landowning peasantry to any significant degree. Many are landless labourers and many switch jobs from the land to industry depending on conditions and availability of work.

For IS, however, revolutions like that in Mozambique, are largely an irrelevance: “The importance of Mozambique is that its liberation prepared the way for the creation of revolutionary workers’ parties in Rhodesia and South Africa – And, although we support the liberation movements we recognise that now, not in the future, there needs to be the creation of workers’ parties in the third world.” [Debate with Avanguardia OperaiaIS Journal, No.84] According to this view the revolutions in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique and Angola had no importance in their own right, but only inasmuch as they destabilised Portugal. It is hardly surprising that that the Trotskyist movement has few representatives outside Europe while these ideas prevail.

A final aspect of the above point of view is that the weaknesses of the industrial working class in third world countries is not seen in materialist terms, i.e. as due to their relative lack of weight in the class structure. Instead, failures of the industrial working class to establish itself as the main political reference point is seen by Trotskyism in the idealist terms of “lack of revolutionary leadership”. It is as if the industrial working class plus Trotskyist leadership is the sole condition for revolution.

Seizure of power

The other important weakness of Permanent Revolution in this general context is on the process of seizing power. Briefly, it tends to see the process as too linear and “uninterrupted”, ignoring the problem of phases and stages. In a speech in 1937 (Let us strive to draw the broad masses into the anti-Japanese united front) Mao Tse Tung wrote:

We advocate the theory of the transition of the revolution, not the Trotskyite theory of permanent revolution. We stand for going through all the necessary stages of a democratic republic in order to arrive at socialism. We are opposed to tailism, but also to adventurism and precipitation. We cannot agree with the Trotskyist approach which rejects the bourgeoisie and stigmatises the alliance in the semi-colonial, countries simply because of the transitory nature of the bourgeoisie’s participation in the revolution.

The Maoist theory goes too far in mechanically separating “stages”, but it does point to two factors which Trotskyism ignores. Firstly, there may be intermediary and distinct stages, which we would call phases, which pose different tasks. An emphasis solely on the uninterrupted continuity of the process tends to telescope the tasks and lead to adventurist short-cuts. Secondly, one stage may still include alliances with the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie. The Chinese and other experiences show that they are not always weak and may have a temporary progressive role to play, although this is increasingly unlikely in modern imperialism and its neo-colonialist context. Basically, both Permanent Revolution and the concept of “necessary stages” pose the process of seizing power in too rigid and universal a way. We must allow for the concrete analysis of particular conditions to see what kind of phases and alliances are necessary.

Trotsky also differed with Lenin over this question. He criticised Lenin s slogan of the 1905 Revolution – “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”. For Trotsky, this slogan implied the submission of the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. But for Lenin the slogan flowed from an analysis of the concrete possibilities of the time. The workers’ movement was inexperienced and barely organised aid the peasant movement was equally backward. The demand for immediate socialism would have been adventurist and utopian. Yet “democratic” demands had the possibility at winning certain sections of the bourgeoisie and thereby aiding the downfall of the aristocracy. The 1905 revolution gave the workers’ movement vital space in which to develop. By 1917 that movement had created its own organ isations (the soviets) and the seizure of power had become a reality. This new set of conditions required new programmes. Lenin’s slogan, dropping the “democratic” tag, became the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. Trotsky then maintained that Lenin had learnt his lesson! Not so. For Lenin, correct demands arose from an analysis of the balance of forces at the partic- ular historical conjuncture. For Trotsky, the formula became ahistorical dogma – abstracted from the realities of the situation.

The mistakes of Trotsky on these questions are often repeated by modern Trotskyists. A recent article by Mandel (On the Current Stage of the World RevolutionImprecor, 10 June 1976) had this to say:

From a programmatic standpoint, the slogan of the Socialist United States of Europe has now been superseded by the need to fight for the Socialist United States of the World.

This unfortunately continues the weaker strand in Permanent Revolution of metaphysical internationalism, ignoring national peculiarities in the process of seizing power. One example is that Trotskyists characterise the demand for national independence as ultra-leftism and a betrayal of the international revolution. Thus Otelo de Cavarhlo’s campaign in the elections of summer 1976 in Portugal was attacked for not putting forward “principled” socialist positions and, in particular, for raising the slogan of “national” independence. Of course, aspects of Otelo’s programme must be criticised, particularly the “non-partyism”, but this is secondary to the point. The importance of his campaign was its ability to mobilise a substantial mass of the Portugese proletariat around a left programme, to revitalise the movement and give it confidence and space to develop in a period of right-wing offensive. The fact that more than 20% voted for the left platform certainly restricted the plans of the bourgeoisie. A vote of 5% for a so-called “principled” platform would surely have been a defeat. That is why all the revolutionary groups in Portugal (UDP, MES, PRP etc) with the exception of the LCI (4th International) supported Otelo. It is worth recalling Marx’s advice to the European communist movement in the Critique of the Gotha Programme – “one step of real movement is worth a dozen programmes”. The role of revolutionaries is to analyse the balance of forces between proletariat and bourgeoisie and to raise slogans and demands which meet the needs of the situation.

The point about such “principled programmes” is that they are often abstractly imposed on the situation. Even if people did fight for them it would tend to result in confusion and demoralisation.

For us, national independence can be an element in the strategy for socialism under particular conditions. Revolutionary movements and governments are faced with real political and economic survival problems. National independence in such circumstances is aimed at finding the space for the proletariat of that country to move against the vestiges of the bourgeoisie and to avoid dependence on international imperialism by fostering links with progressive countries. Trotskyism tends to deny this phase of internal strengthening and consolidation. Permanent Revolution only recognises the two extremes of world capitalism and world socialism. It has little to say about the long period of transition between the two and specifically rejects the possibility of a socialist “bloc” existing alongside a capitalist one, before finally overcoming it: as this quote reveals:

The opportunist concept that capitalism can be overthrown gradually, first on one sixth, then one third, then one half of the world’s surface ... and so on ... is nothing more than an updated extension of the Stalinist concept of socialism in one country. (Mandel – On the Current Stage of World Revolution)

We are left with nothing but the cataclysmic vision and exhortations to build the world revolutionary party that the theory of Permanent Revolution has become.

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Last updated on 13.11.2002