Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution charted the way for Russia


Leon Trotsky was assassinated by a Stalinist agent 80 years ago—on Aug. 21, 1940. Trotsky’s contributions to revolutionary program and theory, based on rigorous analysis of the revolutionary struggles of his own era, still supplies lessons for the struggles of today. His views were derived in large part from his experience as a leader of the revolutionary movement in Russia and of the early Soviet government and the Third International.

This article looks at Trotsky’s “Theory of Permanent Revolution,” a thesis with lasting application to mass upsurges and rebellions in semi-colonial countries—like those that have taken place in recent years in Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. Here we will focus on how the theory applied to Russia, a country that was highly underdeveloped compared to Western Europe and the United States. The successful Russian Revolution of 1917 and its Bolshevik leadership immediately became the global model and standard for revolutionaries of that generation and beyond.

The Theory of Permanent Revolution was formulated around the time of the 1905 revolution in Russia, which though unsuccessful, was in many ways a dress rehearsal (in Trotsky’s words, “a magnificent prologue”) for the successful one that took place 12 years later. But between 1905 and 1917, additional lessons had to be learned and assimilated by the socialist movement in Russia, including in the realm of revolutionary theory.

Problems of the bourgeois democratic revolution

Trotsky’s writings at the time on the subject of “Permanent Revolution” did not have a wide audience. But to many in the socialist movement who did hear about them, the ideas seemed quite outlandish—completely out of touch with what needed to be done. It was pointed out that backward Russia had to look to such reforms as replacing the Tsarist autocracy with a democratic republican government; real distribution of the land to the poor peasants, who made up 85 percent of the population of the country; and freeing the numerous national groupings in the Russian Empire from oppression.

These were all tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution, which the rising capitalist class had begun to achieve centuries earlier in Western Europe, and which had entered its climactic epoch with the fall of the Bastille in 1789. Some socialist leaders noted the irony in the fact that now, when the capitalist class in the West had become self-satisfied and no longer progressive, it was Russia’s turn to take the same path. As the German socialist leader Kautsky put it, in Russia there needed to take place “a bourgeois revolution in an epoch when bourgeois democracy has lost all faith in itself, when it is only on the soil of socialism that ideals can flourish and energy and enthusiasm develop.”

Trotsky did not disagree that a democratic revolution was on the table in Russia. But he pointed out (i.e., in his books “1905” and “The Russian Revolution”) that the small and reactionary Russian capitalist class was beholden to financial investors in Western Europe, and largely invested in maintaining the status quo. Essentially, the apparatus of the Tsarist state was the major motive force of capitalist development in Russia, though in a sluggish manner. But that generally suited the weak capitalist class just fine. If the capitalists were allowed to remain in leadership of the country, even without the Tsar, they would be unable to achieve the reforms that the downtrodden masses were demanding—land, democracy, national rights—to any significant extent. Such reforms could be gained only if the struggle went forward without interruption toward expropriating the capitalists and making the socialist revolution.

Trotsky’s theory implied that the relatively miniscule working class of the cities would have the role of leading the revolution. The peasantry, Trotsky believed, would no doubt play an important part in any revolutionary action, but they they were too dispersed and uneven in class composition and consciousness to be unable to play the leading role.

Moreover, Trotsky affirmed that a socialist revolution, led by the working class, would be immediately possible in economically underdeveloped Russia. This completely broke with the prevailing point of view among socialists. Trotsky projected a scenario in which the energized working class, having taken state power and in the process of solving the democratic tasks of the struggle, would necessarily go on to fulfill its own class demands, which would require taking socialist measures. This movement would take place in one, essentially uninterrupted process.

As Trotsky put it in his later book, “Permanent Revolution,” written in 1936, “While the traditional view was that the road to the dictatorship of the proletariat led through a long period of democracy, the theory of the permanent revolution established the fact that for backward countries the road to democracy passed through the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

But here Trotsky raised an important cautionary point—which was completely in line with what Marxists like Frederick Engels had said in the past. Without a revolution taking in the industrially developed capitalist countries, like Germany, it would be very doubtful that a revolutionary working-class-led Russia could survive on its own. The lack of industrial infrastructure and agricultural inefficiency would catch up with it. The international capitalist class would crush it, using both military and economic means.

However, there was great cause for optimism in that the Russian Revolution would provide a catalyst, a model, so that the working class in Western countries would be inspired to overthrow capitalism in their own countries—and thus able to come to the aid of revolutionary Russia. In that, said Trotsky, the revolution would become permanent in its international dimensions.

Views of the Mensheviks and reformist socialists

Now, why were these ideas of Trotsky so out of sync with what most socialists were saying at the time? It must be remembered that before the 1905 revolt in Russia, there had been no revolutionary upheaval in Europe or anywhere else for close to 35 years. The last revolutionary action by the working class had taken place back in 1871; it had been confined to the city of Paris, and the workers were roundly defeated—even massacred—by the capitalist government of France. Since then, the working class had won a few reforms here and there—a few general strikes had even taken place, as in Belgium—and millions of workers still looked at socialism as a goal. But there had been few signs of a sustained or significant upsurge, and the main leadership of the socialist Second International more and more saw socialism as a project for the far distant future.

And even then, some leaders came to believe, the idea of organizing an insurrection in which the working class would overthrow the existing order was outmoded, impossible to achieve, and completely unnecessary. In the future, they said, when people understand that capitalism has lost its previous dynamism, society, through the natural and enlightened evolution of ideas, might be given the opportunity to move society toward socialism, and to establish it entirely through legal channels. At present, however, what was necessary was reform, not revolution.

This point of view had its reflection in Russia among some reformist intellectuals, who were called the “Legal Marxists.” But the main line of argumentation in Russia was framed a bit differently. It revolved around the concern that in economically backward Russia, the working class was simply too weak to sustain a revolution in its own name. In any revolutionary upsurge, therefore, they would be forced to hand over leadership to the bourgeoisie.

The Menshevik wing of the socialist movement put it this way: No, we have not at all renounced the concept of proletarian revolution. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. In Russia, that stage of the revolution is way in the future. Here both the working class and the bourgeoisie are small and weak. So what the workers ought to do, if and when the opportunity comes about, is to help the bourgeoisie to overthrow this autocracy that is keeping us down, this Tsarist government, and to build Russia into a normal, democratic, industrialized country, with a class of free farmers, like those of Western Europe. Of course, they said, as Marx pointed out, in such an arrangement the bourgeoisie will be building its own gravediggers in an exploited but increasingly powerful working class. So after this first stage of the revolution, the working class will get its turn at a later stage to make the proletarian socialist revolution.

In speaking of Marx, perhaps the Mensheviks no longer cared to remember that both Marx and Engels had denied on several occasions that they thought there was a prescribed path that all underdeveloped nations were destined to follow, which needed to take them through a distinct bourgeois democratic stage before undertaking the socialist revolution. In some writings, in fact, Marx and Engels argued the opposite, using the term “Permanent Revolution” to convey the probability that the proletarian revolution would follow immediately on the heels of the bourgeois revolutions of the mid-19th century. That is the credo of the main founding document of the communist movement, the “Communist Manifesto,” and Marx thought in 1848 that the working class would rise up even in countries like Prussia, which was still relatively underdeveloped compared to England and France.

Marx also spoke of Permanent Revolution in his writings on underdeveloped Spain, as well as Russia, etc., though he did not spend a lot of time on the subject or fully work out his views. But Marx’s writings on these subjects had been generally overlooked, or else were considered to have been superseded by subsequent practical events.

Lenin’s early point of view

Even Lenin, the main leader of the Bolshevik Party in Russia, tended to accept the idea that since the bourgeois democratic revolution was on the agenda, the socialist revolution would take place only at a later stage. But Lenin’s vision had nothing in common with that of the Mensheviks. He thought that calling on the workers to hand over leadership of the revolution to the bourgeoisie was traitorous and doomed to failure. Instead, Lenin said, the working class should work in partnership with the peasantry to overthrow the Tsarist dictatorship and to establish a new regime of bourgeois freedoms and democracy. To that end, Lenin envisioned the revolutionary workers party working together with an insurgent peasants party, and that he said that the peasant party might even have the predominant role in the coalition.

But Lenin’s theory also had some stumbling blocks that he never was able to resolve. How could the workers put in place a capitalist regime, while not allowing the capitalist class to run rampant, as they did in every other country? Moreover, how could you ask the working class to make a revolution only to re-establish exploitive capitalism, albeit one of a less repressive type?

It appears that Lenin had never read Trotsky’s writings on Permanent Revolution. Most of the copies of Trotsky’s 1906 book “Results and Prospects,” for example, had been confiscated by the police, and then both Trotsky and Lenin were thrown into exile. But in 1917, Lenin came to agree with Trotsky on the basis thesis: The workers can and must lead the revolution, and the revolution can and must move on immediately and indivisibly to overthrowing capitalism and replacing it with workers’ rule.

Revolutionary role of the workers in Russia

To what extent did the working class take the lead in the revolutionary developments, as Trotsky had said would be possible and necessary? To guide our analysis, it might help to take a look at the revolution not at the point of insurrection in October 1917, but as it developed from below in the early months of the year.

The major industrial city was the national capital, Petrograd, with Moscow slightly behind in regard to the amount of industrial plants and workers. And Riga, Odessa, and other cities had also become industrial centers. In all those cities, a large sector of the working class was made up of people from the countryside who had only recently moved to the city to look for work. In that, Russia was quite similar to what we see in many underdeveloped countries today, in which peasants who are driven off the land by debt, corporate exploitation, drought, and war flock to the cities to seek employment.

The fact remains, however, that industrial capitalism had been growing with some dynamism in the period right before the Russian Revolution—and industrialization was even helped along to a certain extent by the centralized state policies of the Tsar. For example, an extensive railroad system was being built in the country; for that, steel was needed for rails and locomotives. Petrograd was also a major shipbuilding center, especially for the Russian navy. And so, a vast metalworking industry grew up in Petrograd in the 20 years before the revolution, with many thousands of workers in each factory. Some 70 percent of workers in Petrograd were employed in plants of more than 500 workers—a far higher concentration of workers in big factories than in any city of the United States. The Putilov steel works, for example, employed some 30,000 workers. And the needs of the war machine greatly increased employment in Petrograd; between 1914 and 1917, the number of factory workers rose 25 percent.

In the recent period, we have seen similar industrial accomplishments in a handful of underdeveloped countries—such as South Korea or Brazil—but the more general pattern (which shows even in countries like Brazil) is the growth of a huge army of unemployed or marginally employed people living in the shanty towns of the underdeveloped world. That is to say, it is rare in these countries that capitalist industry is able to employ at a relatively high standard of living the millions of poor peasants and agricultural workers who are pushed off the land

Of course, in Russia, the peasants who were newly arrived in a big city like Petrograd did not immediately gain stable jobs in the big manufacturing plants. They got the dirtier jobs, perhaps in iron smelting, or the lower paying jobs, perhaps in textiles. But after some years, these new arrivals were often able to move their way up to better jobs—which is probably not as true today in most underdeveloped and semi-colonial countries.

At the same time, Russia did not have a large number of middle-class layers or even small capitalists—who might be more inclined to the movement for democratic freedoms. In the Middle East today, for example in the rebellion in Syria that broke out in 2011, many people in the middle classes backed the rebellion against Assad. But in the cities of Russia in 1917, there was relatively little middle ground between the energized industrial proletariat and the conservative capitalist class at the head of big industry. There was a political party that pertained to the liberal intellectuals, the Cadet Party, but it more and more became the main party of the big bourgeoisie.

Also in Russia, there was a radical party that spoke to the interests of the peasants—the Social Revolutionary Party, formerly known as the Narodniks. But as capitalism began to transform agricultural relations in Russia, the majority of the party began to identify with the new class of wealthier farmers and landowners and became conservatized. Thus, after the Tsar had been overthrown and the Provisional Government established, it was left to the formerly liberal Cadets and the formerly radical Social Revolutionaries to form a bloc to uphold capitalism in Russia.

The February 1917 revolution

As we know, political events in the year 1917 moved at unbelievable speed, as the masses were propelled into motion from effects of the First World War, mutinies in the army, raging inflation that canceled out any rise in wages, famine in the countryside, etc. On International Women’s Day, on Feb. 25, thousands of women ignored pleas from labor leaders to stay calm, and began a march to the palace of the Tsar, with slogans like “Bread for the workers!” The next day, 200,000 workers were out on strike. The following day, whole armies of workers were out in the streets clashing with troops. Two days later, a large part of the Petrograd garrison deserted to the side of the workers, and within the week Nicholas II abdicated the throne.

After the mass upsurge that overthrew the Tsar, the radicalization in the Petrograd working class did not stop but rapidly picked up pace (with a few lulls and setbacks, of course). A similar process of radicalization was repeated in Moscow and other cities, and this made possible the socialist revolution in October. But the radicalization naturally did not affect all sectors of the working class at the same pace, and it would have been impossible to undertake the socialist revolution with any degree of security until there truly was a groundswell of support for it in the working class.

The workers who had come to the city years earlier, and were now established in the relatively skilled jobs in the giant manufacturing plants, were the most politically sophisticated workers, and they are the ones who moved first and were most attracted to the program of the Bolshevik Party. The more recent newcomers to the city, who had just come from the farm and now had the dirtiest jobs and the lowest pay, took longer to radicalize.

The process of working-class radicalization in Russia contained some unique characteristics. Prior to February 1917, trade unions were illegal in Russia, though there were a lot of strikes. Yet if a person were caught organizing workers they could be sent to jail or impressed into the army and sent immediately to the battlefront. But having no trade unions also meant that the workers had no (or at least a very weak) labor bureaucracy to try to limit their demands and ability to fight.

Formation of the soviets

And so, in the euphoria of the February revolution, when the working class—at least from the big and more skilled manufacturing plants—had been out in the streets, they then went back to the factories and built workers committees to protect their rights, and even workers militias to enforce them. The committees often determined the wage rate, the length of the workday, who was hired and fired—and other regulations that used to be the prerogative of the factory owners and managers. And committees were established on the political level, which were called soviets.

In that, a marvelous process called “combined development” made its appearance; Trotsky’s appreciation of this process as applied to underdeveloped countries was an underpinning of his Theory of Permanent Revolution. Not only was backward Russia able to skip ahead of some of its Western European rivals in regard to importing the most advanced factories and machinery, but the Russian working class—or at least key sectors of it—were able to quickly skip over the weak reformist leadership of the labor movement and embrace the most advanced political mechanisms like factory committees and soviets.

It should be said, of course, that these developments did not take place completely spontaneously. The Bolsheviks and other radical parties, like the left Social Revolutionaries, had a prominent influence among the workers in many of the big factories.

And through such radical methods, in those early days of February and March, the factory workers were able to force from the bosses significant gains in wages and benefits. But as the months and the war wore on, and inflation rose, the bosses began to resist concessions. And the new Provisional Government, instead of siding with the workers, tried to arrange peace with the capitalists at home, while they continued to participate in the capitalists’ World War abroad.

Of course, in a real sense, there were at the time two governments in Petrograd. The situation was what is referred to in politics as “dual power.” On the one hand, there was the Provisional Government, headed by Kerensky, a member of the right wing of the reformist Social Revolutionary Party—who by the summertime was opting for a military dictatorship to ensure class peace. But on the other hand, no orders could really be put into effect without going through the council of workers and soldiers, called a “soviet” in the Russian language. The Petrograd Soviet had grown organically out of the working-class struggle, but in the spring of 1917 still had a reformist leadership majority, made up primarily by labor leaders and orators who were left Social Revolutionaries and Mensheviks.

At the time, although the Bolshevik Party had heavy support in the factory committees, where more politically advanced workers were employed, they had qualitatively less influence in the soviets and in the ranks of the working class as a whole than did the Mensheviks. There were various reasons for this—including the fact that the major Bolshevik leadership had been in exile, the party organization had been set back by arrests, and many of the workers who had earlier been Bolshevik supporters had been drafted to fight in the war.

Lenin: “All Power to the Soviets!”

Very little could be accomplished in the capital without the okay of the central Soviet. It might have been easy enough for the Soviet to simply take state power without the pro-capitalist Provisional Government. But the moderate socialists who led the Soviet refused to take that step.

The political problem that was holding back the working-class mobilization had a lot to do with the theoretical view of the Mensheviks, which we spoke about. The Mensheviks insisted that it would be premature for the working class to attempt to take power. They said that this was instead the stage in which the capitalist class was to rule. And so, come Hell or high water, the Mensheviks insisted that the workers’ Soviet must support the capitalist Provisional Government.

At the beginning of the year, in February and March 1917, the insurgent workers still tended to acquiesce to the policy of their leaders in the Soviet to back the Provisional Government. Most workers tended to feel that this made sense as long as the Provisional Government met their relatively limited demands: Peace! Bread! Freedom! Land for the peasants! And of course, they were demanding a raise in wages to meet the effects of inflation and the eight-hour day. Probably very few gave thought at that point to the idea that the working class could actually become the government of the country.

Even by April, it had become abundantly clear to the advanced workers in the factories that the government was acting against their demands when it announced that the Russian army would pursue a new offensive in the World War. Also, the economic crisis continued to worsen, and the threat rose that the bosses and Provisional Government would close down the factories and lock out the workers. In response, two developments took place. In order to keep the factories going, workers throughout Petrograd more and more turned toward direct workers control. Not so much in April, but by the summertime, we saw that happening. And on the political level, the workers began to demand the direct transfer of power to the soviets.

Also in April, Lenin returned from exile, and demanded a strategic course that reflected the theory that Trotsky had put forward years earlier—the workers should prepare to take power in their own name. This required a struggle within the Bolshevik Party itself. In Lenin’s absence, some Bolshevik leaders, such as Stalin and Kamenev, had spoken in favor of giving critical support to the Provisional Government. Lenin had to immediately re-orient the party. The slogan of the Bolsheviks became: “Out with the Provisional Government! All Power to the Soviets!” With that, many of the politically advanced workers understood that this slogan echoed their beliefs exactly, and that the Bolsheviks were the only party who stood by that slogan.

By May 1917, the Russian capitalist class had become so frantic that they gave no opposition to trying a new tactic—bringing reformist representatives of the workers organizations into the government. This was what nowadays we call a “popular front.” The bourgeoisie and their parties thought that this would allow them to demobilize the working class movement by co-opting their leadership into complicity with their oppressors.

Six moderate socialists—including Mensheviks, Social Revolutionaries, and a member of the small Popular Socialist Party—joined the Provisional Government in a coalition cabinet alongside seven pro-capitalist ministers. They put forward the power-sharing arrangement as a way for the working-class parties to “control” the capitalist government. In reality, under the popular front, the working-class parties are the ones who are controlled.

However, the capitalists did get too far with this tactic in Russia. It was too late. The working class continued to radicalize and organize and rapidly lost patience with the hesitations and machinations of the Menshevik and Social Revolutionary leaders. The capitalist parties soon decided that the moderate socialists no longer served them well as a buffer, and they tried to resort to strong-arm methods to quell the workers’ movement.

The Bolshevik Party mushrooms in size

In the meantime, more and more workers were joining the Bolshevik Party. The Bolsheviks grew from about 2000 members in Petrograd in February 1917 to 16,000 members two months later, to 32,000 by late June. Also 2000 soldiers in the Petrograd garrison had joined the Bolshevik Military Organization.

Even the newer workers in Petrograd, the ones with the lower paying jobs, who quite recently had been peasants on the farm, began to radicalize and to look to the Bolsheviks.

These people had not been able to organize to the extent that the metalworkers had in February and March, and so they had not made equivalent gains in wages and benefits during the period that the capitalists had felt compelled to grant concessions. Now, with galloping inflation and the bosses closing factories, they had fallen even further behind. But they had the example before them of what the more politically advanced workers had done. So they too were caught up in the radicalization. At that point, in the early summer of 1917, the Bolsheviks really did begin to acquire hegemony in the Petrograd working class. Lenin became a real mass leader—a household name, so to speak. Also by June, the Bolsheviks had gained a majority in the workers section of the Petrograd Soviet.

Similar developments took place in Moscow and other Russian cities. In the countryside, peasants who had become frustrated with the constantly delayed promises of the Provisional Government to undertake land reform had begun to simply occupy and work the land for themselves. Likewise, the soldiers—who had mainly come from the peasantry—rebelled against the pro-war policies of the Provisional Government, and whole regiments went over to the Bolsheviks. By November 1917, when the Bolsheviks took over the government in the name of the Soviets, they were able to send about 28,000 troops to capture the Winter Palace, against only 3000 Provisional Government defenders.

What I have tried to show is that in Petrograd in 1917, a true workers revolution was developing—as it did in other Russian industrial cities. The immediate underpinning for the revolt was in large part economic demands, which blended into a general weariness with the World War. The working-class radicalization and organizing provided the base for the socialist revolution that took place several months later in October.

The peasants in the countryside played a role in the revolutionary events, though one that was far subordinate to that of the workers. But the workers would not have been able to move in a determined and effective direction if they had lacked a politically conscious leadership. A synchronous relationship developed between the mass of workers and the Bolshevik Party. The influence of the Bolsheviks was strongest at the beginning in the factory committees of the most politically conscious workers—those of the huge manufacturing plants. From there, it spread more and more to lesser-paid and more transient workers and to the bulk of the working class, who saw the Bolsheviks as giving the clearest direction about how they could defend their livelihoods and achieve their demands. By the summertime, the Bolsheviks were able to supplant the moderate and conciliatory socialists in the soviets, and most of the soldiers in the vicinity of the capital had also been won over to the Bolshevik’s slogan, “All power to the soviets!”

But in all these elements—intense concentration of the industrial working class, dual power represented by the soviets, and the mass-based Bolshevik Party—Russia proved to be fairly unique among underdeveloped countries. The key ingredient that was missing in the subsequent revolutions that were spawned by World War II—such as those of China and Yugoslavia, where the new regimes were born already deformed and bureaucratized—was the vanguard party armed with a revolutionary program.

How does Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution and the lessons of the Russian Revolution apply to mass struggles today in the semi-colonial world? The author will explore these questions in an online presentation in September (via Zoom and Facebook). Socialist Resurgence will schedule the date and time of the presentation very soon.

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