Permanent Revolution and Left Social Democracy
In the revolution of 1905, the term permanent revolution cropped up quite often. It, or related terms, were used by Franz Mehring, Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg, various Socialist Revolutionaries and even on one occasion, by Lenin. But the content Trotsky put into it was quite specific, and unique in the Social Democratic camp. Mensheviks like Martynov counterposed permanent revolution to the struggle for democracy, and carried away by revolutionary euphoria, championed this ‘vulgarised’ version as Trotsky characterised it.[i]
Discussion on the term and its origins, implications, etc, have often been confused. They have even been muddied with deliberate intent by generations of Stalinists, beginning with Stalin who asserted that “Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg … invented the utopian and semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution….subsequently, this semi-Menshevik scheme of permanent revolution was caught by Trotsky”.[ii]
Even scholars who do not have that particular axe to grind often do little better. Knei-paz holds that Trotsky’s choice of the term was unfortunate, because it is sententious, bombastic, and misleading.[iii] Having retailed all the possible misunderstandings, he declares suddenly, “But we shall not quibble over semantics”.[iv] Knei-Paz’s search for the origin of the term are quite erroneous, for he attributes it to Proudhon, and considers Marx’s usage a ‘Blanquist’ aberration and also possibly a Pickwickian usage.[v]
Nocolas Krasso goes even further, forgetting conveniently Marx’s use of the term. He then safely asserts the ‘permanent revolution’ is “an inept designation” that shows the lack of scientific precision even in Trotsky’s profoundest insights. Apparently, Krasso believes, that thereby Trotsky evoked the idea of a continuous conflagration at all times and all places.[vi]
Actually, if we look at the contemporary left Social Democratic writers, we find many of them expressing unease with the mechanical determinism of “orthodox” theory.[vii]
Lenin based his tactics on the socio-economic analysis that he had carried out.[viii] His first analysis of Russian capitalism was primarily a national one. He argued that industrial capitalism constituted the apex of capitalist development.[ix] For him, accordingly, at this stage, every proletarian revolution was primarily a nationally self-contained one. The ‘ripeness’ of the country for revolution was determined by national conditions.
Lenin could not transcend the limits of Social Democratic orthodoxy because he tended to equate that orthodoxy with the cardinal tent that building a communist society was possible only on the basis of highly developed productive forces and the domination of a modern industrial proletariat. Trotsky had no dispute with him on this point. But his understanding of imperialism and the world economy led him to conclude that communism would be achieved globally, and that if the Russian workers come to power before others, they would use such power to promote faster social development short–circuiting capitalism, and helping the process of world revolution in which they too would find salvation.
Lenin, for his part, saw only two possibilities. All through 1905, and beyond, he went on evoking the rival models of 1789 and 1848.[x] In his major work of 1905, Lenin on one hand repeatedly emphasised the purely bourgeois character of the revolution, encasing his argument in the formulation that the degree of economic development, (the objective condition) determined the level of consciousness and organisation of the proletariat (the subjective condition).[xi] Lenin also rejected the Paris Commune as a model.[xii]
However, Lenin also wrote, in an article of September 1905, that “We stand for uninterrupted revolution”.[xiii] But by this he meant, not his 1917 formula of the growth in over of the bourgeois revolution, but only a kind of foreshortening of the historical process.
But between the bourgeois and the proletarian revolutions in Lenin’s schema there was to exist a period of capitalist consolidation.
As he commented, “Our revolution is a bourgeois revolution precisely because the struggle going on in it is … between two forms of capitalism … The proletarian –peasant republic, too, is a bourgeois democracy.”[xiv]
Parvus and Rosa Luxemburg both saw a temporary workers’ power as the only route to achieving victory in the democratic revolution. In a 1906 polemic with Plekhanov, Luxemburg agreed that the proletariat could not remain in lasting power, but could only use its temporary power to finish off the old regime.[xv]
The legitimate power was for her the power of a democratically elected constituent assembly, where the majority would inevitably be non-proletarian. Though a far more radical concept than Plekhanov’s and to some extent Lenin’s too, Luxemburg’s idea stopped at the utmost barrier of orthodoxy, the inevitably bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. In a work on the revolution of 1905, she wrote: “The present revolution in Russia goes far beyond the content of all previous revolutions…. It is then, both in method and in content, a radically new type of revolution. Bourgeois–democratic in form, proletarian–socialist in essence, it is also in content and form a transitional form between the bourgeois revolutions of the past and the proletarian revolutions of the future.” Though this may appear to be a ‘permanentist’ text, a little later in the same essay she again repeats that the “proletariat does not now place before itself the task of implementing socialism, but rather must first create the bourgeois–capitalist pre-conditions for the implementation of socialism.”[xvi]
The main difference between Lenin and Luxemburg was over the question of the precise mechanisms of the worker–peasant bloc. Lenin wanted to keep his options open, sometimes saying that a peasant party could arise, sometimes being more hesitant. Luxemburg, on the other hand, adopted here the formula put forward by Trotsky: “ dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry”. But at the 1909 conference, Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky all rallied to this formula, while each chose to interpret it in his or her own way.
Between 1914 and 1917/18, Lenin and Luxemburg changed their positions. Lenin’s change is better documented. Prior to 1917, Lenin again and again presented a careful sequence of events. He clearly expected the peasantry to become treacherous once the bourgeois democratic revolution had been accomplished.[xvii] Indeed, in this, he was less optimistic than Trotsky for the latter had emphasized that “the Russian peasantry in the first and most difficult period of the revolution will be interested in the maintenance of a proletarian regime….”[xviii]
Under the impact of war and the new view of international capitalism that he developed, his philosophical studies, etc., led Lenin to change his position.[xix] A methodological break through prepared the way for a new socio-economic analysis. His Imperialism enabled him to situate capitalism in its concrete totality as a global system. After the February revolution Lenin therefore adopted an explicitly permanentist visualisation of the process of revolution.[xx]
Monty Johnstone and Loizos Mikhail both try to prove that the April Theses differed from Trotsky’s perspectives.[xxi] But the most vital point, which they have perforce to gloss over, is that Lenin gave up the idea that the Russian revolution could only clear the ground for a wide and rapid development of capitalism.
Luxemburg, too, changed her position. This is easiest seen by looking at her critical work, The Russian Revolution, where her criticisms of Lenin and Trotsky start by accepting the necessity of a proletarian revolution and the beginning of socialist construction.[xxii]
[i]. Martynov’s position is cited in L. Trotsky, 1905, pp., 317 – 8. See also his Stalin, pp. 68 – 9 for the opportunistic nature of the Mensheviks’ adaptation to the slogan.
[ii]. J. Stalin, Works, Moscow, 1954, Vol. 13, p. 93.
[iii]. B. Knei-Paz, The Social and Political Thoguht of Leon Trotsky, London etc, p. 153.
[iv]. Ibid, p.154.
[v]. Ibid., p. 155 text and note 111, pp. 158 – 9.
[vi]. N. Krasso ‘Trotsky’s Marxism’ in N. Krasso (Ed), Trotsky: The Great Debate Renewed, St. Louis, 1972, p. 16.
[vii]. See on this point E. Mandel, Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamics of His Thought, pp. 12 – 3.
[viii]. See N. Harding, Lenin’s Political Thought,2v., London and Basingstoke,, 1983. My own arguments are based more on K. Chattopadhyay, Leninism and Permanent Revolution, Baroda, 1987, a work I wrote originally in 1978 – 9, without the aid of Harding’s valuable research.
[ix]. LCW, vol. 1, p. 438. Industrial capitalism, he held, organised and disciplined the workers – vol. 1, p. 236 and vol. 3, p. 546. The factory workers therefore were the representatives of the entire exploited population – vol. 1, p. 299.
[x]. Thus, against Parvus, he wrote that a Social Democratic majority government was impossible as a revolutionary dictatorship that would leave its mark in history. Trotsky was a ‘wind bag’ who failed to realise that Russia had to pass through her own 1789 – 93. LCW, vol. 8, pp. 291 – 2, See also Ibid., vol. 9, p. 241.
[xi]. Ibid., pp. 49, 28.
[xii]. Ibid., pp. 80 – 1. He criticised the commune for confusing the democratic and socialist tasks, and argued that it was a model to be eschewed. See by contrast Trotsky’s introduction to The Civil War in France, in Leon Trotsky, On the Paris Commune.
[xiii]. LCW, vol. 9, p. 237.
[xiv]. Ibid., vol. 15, p. 175. In this period, Lenin and Kautsky shared some common positions, as did Luxemburg. For this, see M. Lowy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, pp. 36 – 7, and M. Salvadori, Karl Kautsky and the Socialist Revolution 1880 – 1938, London, 1979, pp. 100 – 8.
[xv]. R. Luxemburg, ‘Blanquisme et social democratie’, Quatrieme Internationale, April 2, 1972, p. 55.
[xvi]. Cited in M. Lowy, op. cit., p. 38.
[xvii]. Cf. LCW, vol. 13, pp. 239, 343, vol. 15, pp. 158 – 81, vol. 16, p. 379 for expectations of capitalist development, and vol. 9, p. 136 for the above mentioned assessment of the peasantry.
[xviii]. L. Trotsky, PRRP, pp. 71 – 2.
[xix]. For a full treatment, see my Leninism and Permanent Revolution, especially pp. 49 – 61.
[xx]. Cf. LCW, vol. 23, pp. 299 – 300, 306 – 7, 308, and vol. 24 (which contains the April Theses).
[xxi]. M. Johnstone, ‘Trotsky – Part One’, Cogito, No. 5, London, n.d., pp. 11-12; and L. Mikhail, op. cit., pp. 31-40.
[xxii]. For Luxemburg, see further N. Geras, The Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg, London, 1972.