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Jack Weber

The Permanent Revolution

(November 1940)

From Fourth International, Vol. 2 No. 4, May 1941, pp. 118–121.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

What distinguishes the great Marxists from others in the working class movement? It is above all their fundamental grasp of revolutionary theory. Engels emphasized this essential characteristic of leadership by stating that there were three forms of revolutionary struggle: political, economic and theoretic. But let no one imagine that when Marx and Engels refer to theory, they want workers to set to memory the dry bones of some abstract formulas. That is the view of Marxism that the revisionists and the philistines try to foist on us.

The founders of socialism meant that Marxism is a living science. If this science is to be put to social use then its practitioners must learn to apply correctly all the weapons in its arsenal. Look at any of the classics in Marxist literature and you will find that, without losing sight for one moment of the meaning of the whole situation under dissection, the writer follows every single detail of the movement and shows its inter-connections with all other social elements. It was this meticulous attention to detail that led Trotsky to give such precision to Marx’s theory of permanent revolution. The Marxist is not satisfied till he has thought things through to the very end. It was Marx who taught this method and it is nowhere better illustrated than in his, and Engels’, work on the Revolution of 1848.

The year 1848 marks the dividing line between two distinct stages in the hectic development of capitalism. In the first stage, before that year, the revolutions that took place in Europe were out-and-out bourgeois ones. But the revolution of 1848 marked something entirely new in history: the first appearance of the proletariat as an independent political force in society. That momentous event was itself signalized by the appearance of the Communist Manifesto. It was no accident that Marx, spokesman for the Communist League, issued this message to the workers of the world on the very eve of the revolution. The Manifesto foresaw the revolution and summed up all the social currents of the time. Into its creation had gone all the immense research of Marx, particularly that concerning the relations of the classes in society in and after the French Revolution.

The Revolution of 1789 was national in scope and character, the bourgeoisie assuming the leadership of the oppressed artisans and tradesmen, and of the peasant-serfs. But Marx noted that it took three years for the revolution to gain momentum and for the left petty-bourgeois elements, the Jacobins, to gain control and to lead the movement forward. Finally it was a section of the Jacobins, the Montagnards, the left wing of the democrats, who led the semi-proletarian sansculottes, that destroyed feudalism and opened the road for capitalism. The democratic forces in the city that had grown up out of the guilds were not yet differentiated but contained in embryo the two future classes, the capitalists and the proletarians. That is why the bourgeoisie led a united nation. The so-called extreme elements, like the Hebertists, while they may be looked upon as forerunners of the future, were nevertheless completely Utopian, since the forces of production upon which alone communism could be based, had still to be developed. The French Revolution therefore resulted in the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie supported by the artisans and the peasants.

Marx studied the rhythm of the French Revolution with the utmost care in order to determine not only the general laws of revolution, but also the development of the coming revolution. He noted that the revolution seems to bring into power and then to exhaust various sections of the oppressed classes in turn. This meant the need to study the class structure of society and to analyze the political content of each class. Here Marx noted at once the difference between France and Germany. The Revolution of 1830 had corrected the reaction of 1815 in France; once more the big bourgeoisie had displaced from power the landed aristocracy. Hence in France it would now be a question of the petty bourgeoisie and the workers, for this latter class had become a real force in society with the growth of capitalism. But in Germany the social and political development of the big bourgeoisie was far behind that of both France and England. “Like master, like man.” The workers were handicapped in their development by the same feudal and national atomism that affected the capitalists. In Germany it would be the upper strata of the bourgeois sie that would come to power first.

This section of the capitalist class, the Liberal bourgeoisie, occupied an anomalous position which robbed it of all initiative. When it actually came to power it could not hold its ground against the vanquished feudal elements without the help of the more advanced popular parties. But it was equally afraid of the revolutionary torrent from below that would be needed to sweep away the old trash, for the revolutionary wave would at the same time sweep it away as well. To confine this torrent the Liberal bourgeoisie could rely only on the feudal nobility that it desired to displace. Engels says: “The Liberal bourgeois ministry was only a halting place from which, according to the turn circumstances might take, the cbuntry would either have to go on to the more advanced stage of Unitarian Republicanism, or to relapse into the old clerico-feudal and bureaucratic regime.”

The next class to come to power would be the petty bourgeoisie, in the analysis of Marx and Engels. This conclusion they based on the analogy with the Great French Revolution and also on the events of 1848 in Paris. The Democratic Party of the petty trading and shopkeeping class united the large majority of the working people. “The democratic petty bourgeoisie, which is far from desiring to revolutionize the whole of society for the proletariat, strives for a change in social conditions whereby the present society will be made as bearable and as comfortable as possible for itself.” In political terms this meant the removal of as much taxation as possible and its shift to the shoulders of the landed and the big bourgeoisie, the easing of credits and the lowering of interest rates on loans. It meant the easing of the oppression of the petty bourgeoisie by the finance capitalists but, while bribing the workers by a slight easing of their lot, keeping them where they were.

Marx’s Views on Proletarian Policy

It was in the analysis of the strategy that the working class should adopt that the full genius of the founders of Marxism found scope. For here in concentrated form are found the elements of the united front, the independent working class party, the dual power, the soviet, the proletarian military policy, and the permanent revolution. The petty bourgeoisie were well organized all over Germany. Except in a few isolated communities the workers had not yet succeeded in organizing their own forces independently. The Communist League, under the leadership of Marx and Engels, tried to intervene to correct this situation. Its task was at the same time educational and organizational. In the first Address of its Central Committee to the workers it denounces the traitorous role of the big bourgeoisie, but then proceeds to warn that the petty bourgeoisie will act in the same way when it takes power. To frighten the big bourgeoisie into making concessions, the democratic party called itself “socialist” and “red.” All this meant was that when they faced the finance capitalists allied with the feudal elements, the petty bourgeoisie needed the support of the working masses. Once in power they would repeat the performance of the big capitalists.

What should be the attitude of the proletariat and the Communist League towards the petty bourgeoisie? Marx divided the question up into three periods: that in which the lower middle class still suffers suppression; its revolutionary struggle for power; after this struggle when it has assumed power. For Marx had no doubt that this would be a necessary stage of the revolution, as we shall discuss.

“In the case where a struggle against a common enemy exists a special kind of alliance is unnecessary. As soon as it becomes necessary to fight such an enemy directly, the interests of both parties fall together for the moment; and this momentary connection will be established in the future as it has been in the past. It is understood that in the coming bloody conflicts, as in all the previous ones, it will be the workers principally who will, achieve victory by their courage, decisiveness and self-sacrifice ... And then, as soon as victory has been decided, they (the petty bourgeoisie) will endeavor to annex it for themselves. They will call upon the workers to keep the peace and return to their work in order to avoid (so-called) excesses; and then proceed to cut the workers off from the fruits of victory. It does not lie in the power of the workers to prevent the petty bourgeoisie from doing this; but it does lie in their power to make it as difficult as possible for the petty bourgeoisie to use their power against the armed proletariat, and to dictate such conditions to them, that the rule of the bourgeois democrats will beforehand carry within itself the germ of its own destruction, so that their displacement later by the rule of the proletariat will be made considerably easier.”

What policies shall the workers pursue under the rule of the lower middle class?

“While the democratic petty bourgeoisie wishes to bring the revolution to as swift a conclusion as possible... it is in our interest and it is our task to make the revolution permanent until all propertied classes are more or less dispossessed, the governmental power acquired by the proletariat, and the association of proletarians achieved not| only in one country but in all important countries of the world ... With us it cannot be a mere matter of a change in the form of private property, but of destroying it as an institution ; not in hushing up class antagonisms, but of abolishing all classes; not in the improvement of present-day society, but in the foundation of a new society.”

The proletariat, in order at the next stage to carry forward the revolution for these purposes, must set up their own dual power counterposed to the “legal” government.

“They must simultaneously erect their own revolutionary workers’ government hard by the new official government whether it be in the form of executive committees, community councils, workers’ clubs, or workers’ committees, so that the bourgeois democratic government not only will lose its immediate restraint over the workers, but, on the contrary, must at once feel themselves watched over and threatened by an authority behind which stands the mass of the workers. In a word: from the first moment of the victory, and after it, the distrust of the workers must not be directed any more against the conquered reactionary party but against their previous ally, the petty bourgeois democrats who desire to exploit the common victory only for themselves.”

In view of the present building of the Home Guards by the capitalists, it is interesting to note the Marxist military policy:

”Where it is not possible, however, to carry thru this latter objective (namely, preventing the formation of reactionary Citizens’ Guards directed against the workers) the workers must attempt to organize themselves independently as proletarian guards with their own chiefs and a general staff elected by themselves and to place themselves not under the orders of the existing state power, but under the revolutionary community-councils organized through the efforts of the workers.”

Finally Marx stresses in this famous Address to the Workers, the international nature of the revolution:

“Even if the German workers may not be able to attain power and carry through their class interests, then they have the certainty this time that the first act of this approaching revolutionary drama will be simultaneous with the direct victory of their own class; in France and will be very much expedited by it. But they will accomplish the greatest part of their final victory for themselves through self-enlightenment as to their class interests, by taking their own independent party attitude as early as possible, and by not permitting themselves to be fooled as to the necessity for the independent organization of the party of the proletariat by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie. Their battle-cry must always be, ‘The Permanent Revolution!’”

Marx and Engels proved to be over-optimistic concerning the Revolution of 1848. Their analysis was in broad outline perfectly correct. The revolution became aborted in its first stage. They had envisioned the coming to power of the lower middle class supported by the exploited peasants. The majority of these peasants were small freeholders, feudal tenants and agricultural laborers. These were too isolated to act independently, but they could be rallied to the support of the petty bourgeoisie of the towns. The resulting government Marx called the “democratic dictatorship of the bourgeoisie supported by the peasants.” After the revolution had been definitively defeated, Marx went carefully over his analysis and compared it with the actual course of events. He concluded that the petty bourgeoisie could not establish a regime of its own. Once the bourgeoisie had taken power, the next revolution would be that of the proletariat. But the proletariat could not succeed unless it led the oppressed masses of the entire nation, including the peasants. In this sense he wrote in 1856 to Engels: “The whole matter in Germany will depend upon the possibility of supporting the proletarian revolution with a sort of second edition of the peasant war.” This revolution would bring about the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasants.

Lenin Applies Marx’s Ideas to Russia

It was Lenin who developed this idea of Marx in relation to Russia. Like Marx Lenin understood the importance of concrete and meticulous analysis of the social forces at every moment. He says: “Marxism demands of us a most exact, an objectively verifiable analysis of the interrelations of classes, and of the concrete peculiarities of each historic moment.” To both Lenin and Trotsky the abortive revolution of 1905 provided a powerful key to such an analysis. The Russia of 1905 had certain points of resemblance to and certain important differences from the Germany of 1848. We do not forget also that the Commune of 1871 had intervened historically. Feudal absolutism prevented the full development of the capitalist class in Russia. They made up for their small numbers by introducing the most advanced form of trustified enterprise from Europe. The proletariat was concentrated in a few big-scale plants. Czarism had been forced by the impact of the Crimean War to free the serfs and a certain development of capitalist agriculture had resulted. This meant that the banks, the factory owners and the landlords were already so intertwined as to be inseparable.

The serfs had been freed, but they did not possess the land, which remained concentrated in a few hands. The seizure of the land by the French peasants had been the greatest force undermining feudal society and aiding the victory of the capitalists. But in Russia this same seizure would have been a blow at both feudalism and rising capitalism. Lenin therefore concluded that the capitalist class could not any longer perform the function it had carried out in the French Revolution. It could not set in motion the forces necessary to undermine feudalism completely and so attain to political power through the democratic revolution.

How then would this revolution come about in Russia? If the capitalists could not achieve their own revolution, who could? Lenin concluded that only the revolutionary proletariat, aided by the peasants, could accomplish the bourgeois-democratic revolution. In Russia the peasants had a party representing their interests, the Social Revolutionists. Marx had been of the opinion originally, as we saw, that the petty bourgeoisie would set up a regime of their own prior to the taking of power by the proletariat. Lenin established the fact that the proletariat would have to take the power next in Russia. But what would their relations be with the peasants? Lenin did not exclude the possibility that the new regime would first consist of a coalition of two parties, that of the proletariat and that of the peasants. He therefore adopted the formulation of Marx, the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants. In the actual course of the Revolution of 1917 Lenin found that he had to modify this formulation in favor of that of Trotsky. The democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry, in Lenin’s terms, existed, if at all, in the unstable period of dual power which existed before the Soviets, guided by the Bolsheviks, took power.

The interrelationship of classes represented by Lenin’s earlier formula existed in the Soviets while they were still under Menshevik control. The revolutionary force of the peasantry was there represented by the petty bourgeois leaders; side by side with them sat the working class representatives. But actually the workers represented more truly the revolutionary interests of the peasants, for they had adopted the complete program of the peasants and were urging them to seize the land. Whereas the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionists had turned to support of the bourgeois provisional government which refused to carry out the demands of the peasants. Lenin called this a unique and unforeseen development. In April 1917 he found it necessary to attack those who were still adhering to his old formulation when the entire situation demanded something new.

“He who now speaks of ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’ only, is behind the times, is therefore in practice on the side of the petty bourgeoisie and against the proletarian class struggle; such a one should be placed in the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of ‘Old Bolsheviks’).”

The class collaboration of the bourgeoisie and the peasant leaders caused Lenin to adopt the formulation: dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasants. This was the formulation which had earlier been reached by Trotsky after the Revolution of 1905.

Trotsky Expands Lenin’s Analysis

Trotsky, like Lenin, had concluded that the capitalistsi could not play a progressive revolutionary role in Russia. The working class would have to abolish feudalism and the Czar. In this task they would be aided by the peasants. Like Lenin.Trotsky correctly estimated the tremendous revolutionary reservoir residing in the peasantry. But Marx and Engels had stressed the inability of the scattered peasants to coalesce and form a revolutionary political force of their own. Trotsky too concluded that the peasants could not form a strong party capable of carrying through their aims. Only the working class could carry through the aims of the oppressed peasants, as of all the oppressed. If the future revolution was to succeed, it must be therefore in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasants. And in actuality that is how events developed; that was the essence of the October Revolution.

But Trotsky did not stop there. The working class would take the power and would then carry out the democratic revolution which the bourgeoisie was incapable of doing. But would the proletariat, after accomplishing this task, hand the power back to the capitalists? The difference between Bolshevism and Menshevism would have then reduced itself to a matter of tactics. The Mensheviks believed that the democratic revolution was the affair of the bourgeoisie. The workers and peasants should place themselves under the leadership of that class in order not only to overthrow Czarism, but to permit the bourgeoisie to set up its own democratic, parliamentary regime. In this regime the workers would play the part of the loyal opposition as in Western Europe. The Bolsheviks knew that the capitalists could not lead the revolution, – but what about after the revolution? Trotsky answered: no, the workers would never yield the power that it had taken during the revolution to its arch-enemy! It would use that power, once it carried through the democratic reforms, to begin to carry out its own tasks, socialist tasks. The democratic revolution would thus merge or be combined with the socialist revolution. This was the essence of the theory of permanent revolution. Lenin and Trotsky both understood that the socialist revolution could not be accomplished in a single country, above all in a backward country like Russia. Both appraised the Russian Revolution as the first step in the world socialist revolution. But Trotsky formulated in this precise fashion the Marxist theory of permanent revolution, whereby the proletariat in Russia would turn to socialist tasks and would simultaneously use the first proletarian conquest to spread the working class revolution to all other countries.

The theory of permanent revolution derives, as we have seen, from Marx’s analysis of the Revolution of 1848. Trotsky from his study of the Marxist analysis in the light of all the experience up to his time, concluded that not only in semi-feudal Russia was the bourgeoisie incapable of any further progressive policies, but that nowhere at all could capitalism or the capitalist class play any further progressive role. His analysis held not only for Europe, and for the advanced powers, but for the colonial countries as well. Colonial and semi-colonial countries are under the sway not of native capitalism but of foreign imperialism. The native capitalists are merely the agents, in one form or another, of foreign imperialism. Thus the bourgeoisie in colonial countries cannot under any circumstances in the age of imperialism play an independent part in politics. It can only gravitate from one imperialist master to another. When a Chiang Kai-shek is rejected by Japan, he can only turn to the United States. Trotsky concluded therefore that even in the most backward countries oppression could only be ended by the proletariat, weak as they might be, supported by the peasants and the oppressed masses.

The year 1848, we see, marks a turning point of world significance. We can say that once the proletariat had appeared on the scene as an independent force, making its own demands, the bourgeoisie immediately lost its progressive possibilities from a political point of view. This is reflected in all history since then. In all previous bourgeois revolutions, including 1848 when the bourgeoisie received a shock from the proletariat, one of the first slogans had been the demand for the arming of the people. But 1848 taught the bourgeoisie that the national militia included the working class which refused any longer to follow in the leading strings of capitalism. In 1905 the Russian bourgeoisie learned this lesson anew. Hence the capitalists want least of all to put arms in the hands of the workers. That is why they fear war. The most delicate moment for imperialist countries is the moment of peace, when it becomes the ticklish duty of the government to disarm the soldiers before turning them out. This is a task of major strategy.

Need we refer to the actions of Azaña in the Spanish Revolution, of the French General Staff in its capitulation to Hitler? In 1914 Miliukov, as we know, said that if to defeat Germany and win a victory, it would be necessary to have a revolution, he was not interested in the victory! Nothing could sum up better the role and position of capitalism in our epoch. It is reactionary through and through. The Permanent Proletarian Revolution will sweep it away!

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