Permanent Revolution: the 1917 Victorious Perspective

The October Revolution was the product of the combination between the Bolshevik Party led by Lenin and the Theory of Permanent Revolution elaborated some ten years earlier by Trotsky [1]. For it is the fusion between the theory of the revolutionary vanguard party, which leads the politically active working masses that includes only a minority (up to October 1917 only 5% of the Russian workers were militants of Lenin’s party), and the theory of the Russian revolution as a socialist revolution.
By: Francesco Ricci
It is not a matter of reducing history to great characters , but of considering that in some passages singular figures fulfill an irreplaceable role. Clearly we are not speaking of Homeric heroes but of revolutionary leaders, Lenin and Trotsky, who, in turn, were the product of the previous development of the class struggle and, in it, of Marxism and revolutionary organizations.
The theory of permanent revolution does not come out of nowhere , but from Trotsky’s 1905 Russian revolution experience  in which the Soviet first emerged, that is, a committee or council of struggle, with elected and revocable representatives (in reality ,something similar had already been born in the Paris Commune of 1871, with the National Guard Central Committee). Since the beginning of the twentieth century there have been three predictions about the future of the revolution in Russia.
The alleged “orthodox” theory
The most credited theory, both in the Russian Social Democracy and in the Second International, was that of  “orthodox” Marxist [2]. According to this vision, whose main proponent was Georgij Plekhanov, founder of Russian Marxism, history has to submit to strict economic laws that predetermine the stage of each society. According to these laws, socialism could only be born in mature capitalist countries; for this reason, the socialist revolution would first develop in countries like Germany.
Therefore, Russia had to (first) go through a bourgeois revolution that would open the way to full capitalist development and only after a long time (decades, if not centuries) a socialist revolution could be possible. The role of social democracy should be to favor the bourgeoisie to fulfill this revolution, helping it become the government.The Menshevik theory of revolution by stages and of the subaltern alliance of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie, rejected by Lenin in 1917, would be revived by Stalinism in 1926-1927, with China. If this theory was indeed based on the elaboration and texts of Marx, or if instead it was based on a misinterpretation of these texts, it is a subject that cannot be discussed in this article.Although isolated phrases can be found in Marx ,which separated by context may seem to consent to this theory, the whole work of Marx and Engels is alien to any narrow ,fatalistic  determinism , which brings everything back to alleged absolute “economic” laws . Laws that do not find any space in Das Capital or in the Marxian materialist conception, which is based more on the concept of socio-economic development and class struggle as the driving force of history. Moreover, even several of Marx’s texts specifically dedicated to Russia [3] exclude the possibility of indicating in Marx some reference to this presumably “Marxist” staging theory. It is necessary to add that in Marx it is not possible to find a finished theory of permanent revolution either, although there are a great number of intuitions that allude to it.
Lenin’s position  (until April 1917)
Lenin , who in the split of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party of 1903 was the leader of the Bolsheviks, was also convinced that the next Russian revolution would be a bourgeois revolution. Moreover, he considered this an “axiom” for every Marxist. [4] But here his agreement with the positions of the Mensheviks stopped. For Lenin, in effect, the liberal bourgeoisie, totally subordinated to imperialism, was incapable of making the bourgeois revolution and , the direction of this first stage would fall into the hands of an alliance (algebraic) between the proletariat and the peasants who would limit themselves to carrying out the bourgeois revolution, that is ,within the democratic tasks (agrarian reform, democratic freedoms, 8-hour workday, etc.), and later move on to a second stage , a socialist one (that is, to expropriate the bourgeoisie and socialization of the means of production). The first stage, according to this theory, would give life to a special type of bourgeois Republic , that Lenin defines with the formula: democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants.The socialist revolution is postponed for a second phase: although in Lenin’s view , a brief lapse would take place between both stages , defined by the victory of the revolution in Europe.
Trotsky breaks the staging schemes
Leon Trotsky, who after having aligned for a brief period with the Mensheviks during the split of 1903 remains outside the two main Russian Social Democratic organizations (Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), begins in 1905-1906 to develop a “third” theory , different of the two previous ones , which breaks the scheme of the alleged “Marxist” dogma of linear evolution that would prescribe the same route to every country .For Trotsky, Russia’s “maturity” for the socialist revolution depends not only on the degree of economic development ,but  rather on the degree of socio-economic development (for example, the concentration of the industrial proletariat, beyond its number, its degree of organization , etc); and not of an isolated Russia, but of Russia as part of a totality in which “advanced” and “backward” countries develop  according to dialectic laws .It is the “law of unequal and combined development” that, to make it short, allows the backward countries to skip some steps precisely because their development is not isolated but occurs in parallel and at one point is combined with the development of the more advanced countries. [5]
Trotsky’s theory approaches that of Lenin on several points: both agree on the incapacity of the liberal bourgeoisie to carry out democratic tasks, and both argue that the socialist revolution can only be developed within the framework of an international development (and first European) of the revolution.But Trotsky considers that the next revolution in Russia will be socialist and its leadership will have to be the proletariat, hegemonic in the alliance with the poor peasants, led by the communist party.
In this framework, it would not be possible to “self-limit” to democratic  tasks : it will be necessary to proceed in a “permanent” way, that is, uninterrupted, interlacing the resolution of democratic tasks (national independence, democratic liberties, land reform) with socialists tasks ( expropriation of the main means of production and exchange). Premise for all this would necessarily be, a proletarian dictatorship that would assume power through a socialist revolution.In Russia the socialist revolution can start its way, but Russia’s development towards socialism can only happen in the framework of other victorious revolutions and the beginning of other countries towards the same goal.
April 1917: Lenin changes the program
In another article [6], we have written in more detail about what happens when Lenin returns to Russia after exile in Switzerland. We will limit ourselves here to remembering that he finds his party, led by Stalin and Kamenev, firm with the old theory presented above: and rather he confirms that it is applied with a greater deformation towards the right.Not only Stalin and Kamenev are convinced of being in the first stage of the revolution but, pushed by the rapid development of events, they believe necessary to give “critical” support to the provisional government made up of liberals and reformers ( a government that wants to continue the war ) and, consistent with this position, which minimizes the differences with the Mensheviks, they think that an integration  should be carried out .
With the “April Theses” (initially a small minority, only after an intense battle they will be majority in the Bolshevik Party), Lenin raises this line: no support for the imperialist war and for its transformation into civil wars (in Russia and other countries); no support for the provisional government, which is a bourgeois government and, on the other hand, class opposition against it; rupture of the bourgeois State and its army, armament of the proletariat; no unity with the Mensheviks, left wing of the bourgeois government.
The old theory of the two stages and the “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants” is defined by Lenin worthy of finishing in a museum. Instead, he now argues that it is necessary to develop, in the current situation (and not in an indeterminate future), the socialist revolution, overthrowing the bourgeois government, assuming power and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat to expropriate the expropriators.To do all this, the Bolsheviks, still a minority in the Soviets, have to win the majority, which will happen in September, when Trotsky becomes president of the Petrograd Soviet. After this change of perspective of the Bolsheviks, Trotsky, returned in May to Russia, leads the confluence of the Interdistrict organization  [7] with the Bolshevik Party, which from that moment on , rearmed with the indispensable permanent revolution program , will be defined «The party of Lenin and Trotsky».
[1] To deepen your understanding , we recommend  our published essays: “What is the theory of permanent revolution”, in Trotskismo Oggi, n. 1, September 2011 and “The relevance of a Bolshevik-type party. What was the Bolshevik Party between 1903-1924. Because it is our model for winning », in Trotskismo Oggi, n. 2, June 2012.
[2] Karl Kautsky, the main theorist of the Second International, distinguished himself only from the Mensheviks because he believed that the leading role of the Russian Revolution – which he also predicted as bourgeois – could not be developed by the bourgeoisie. In 1917 he will leave this position to support the Menshevik.
[3] It refers in particular to Marx’s letter to the editor of Otiecestvennye Zapiski (November 1877), in which Marx rejects the attribution to Capital of a “historical-philosophical theory” based on economic laws (the letter is in Marx-Engels, Letters on Capital, Laterza, 1971); and to the letter of 1881 from Marx to Vera Zasulic (ibid.).To study Marx’s thought on Russia are useful: T. Shanin, Late Marx and the Russian Road, Monthly Review Press, 1984; M. Musto, The Last Marx. 1881-1883, Editorial Donzelli, 2016. On the Marxian conception in relation to the revolution in the dependent countries, see also M. Lowy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, Haymarket, 2010, consulted about it in the edition in Portuguese by Editora Sundermann, 2014. The analytical part of Lowy’s book is optimal; unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the author’s political conclusions.
[4] See in particular V. I. Lenin, “Two tactics of social democracy in the democratic revolution”, in Complete Works, vol. 9, p. 9 and ss.
[5] For a synthesis on the theme of the “law of unequal and combined development” we propose our essay on the permanent revolution recorded in note 1, and Lowy’s book cited in note 3.
[6] See our: «1917-2017: Lenin’s April Theses . A scandalous text for the reformers of yesterday and today “, in Progetto Comunista, no. 64, April 2017.
[7] The Interdistricts or Mezhraionka, organization born in November 1913, of some 4,000 or 5,000 militants, with a non-irrelevant weight in Petrograd, constituted a coordination of former Mensheviks and former Bolsheviks rather than a party. At the First Congress of the Soviets (June) the Bolsheviks had 105 delegates of 822 and the Interdistrict 35. For an in-depth discussion on the subject see: I.D. Thatcher, “The St. Petersburg / Petrograd Mezhraionka, 1913 -1917: The Rise and Fall of a Movement for Social-Democratic Unity,” in Slavonic & East European Review, No. 87, 2009.
Article originally published by PdAC, Italy, November 7, 2017. Available at:
Translation: Blas

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