Chris Bambery


Permanent Revolution


from the collection, Marxism and the Modern World, Education for Socialists No.1, March 1986.
Published by the Socialist Workers Party (Britain).
First printed in Socialist Worker, 27 August 1983.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for REDS – Die Roten.

Today capitalism dominates the world. From Sao Paolo to Seoul, from Warsaw to the Philippines, modern industry has taken root. This was something that Karl Marx, writing in the middle years of the last century, could only foresee. At that time only a few countries in Western Europe had developed industry to any degree, with the United States just beginning to follow on their heels.

And it was to these industrial countries that Marx looked for the first stirrings towards socialism. Even at the beginning of this century the view of the vast majority of socialists who claimed to follow Marx was that socialism could only come about in those few countries where the working class already formed a majority. Such socialists quoted Marx to justify their views. He had written that socialism had to be achieved by the working class. To attempt to create a socialist revolution in a country where the working class was in a minority was wildly utopian.

In those countries where democracy didn’t exist it was seen as the task of socialists to help create it. They had to assist in the overthrow of the various semi-feudal and colonial regimes which blocked it.

After all, it had been the great bourgeois revolutions – in England during the mid-17th century and above all the great French Revolution of 1789 – which had created the possibilities for socialism by overthrowing feudalism, laying the basis for the capitalist development which created the industrial working class, and ushering in democratic rule.

All this might have remained an academic argument but for the concrete experience of the Russian revolution of 1905. The great explosion of workers, whose mass strikes, backed by peasant uprisings, rocked the empire of the Russian Tsar, reached its climax in the defeat of an attempt at insurrection in Moscow.

Most Russian socialists, particularly the Menshevik wing of the Social-Democratic Party, held that the revolution would have to be “democratic”. It had to be like the great French Revolution, they said, and had to be led by Russia’s newly-emerging capitalist class. This “democratic revolution” would open the way to industrial development, the creation of a working class on a large scale and a parliamentary regime. The role of the workers in this was to pressurise the capitalists into overthrowing Tsarism.

Such a prospect didn’t seem so outrageous. The capitalists had called for a parliament, elections and press freedom, organising banquets and meetings to push for them. But when the revolution actually broke, the capitalists, however liberal they might have been in speech, rallied to the Tsar and his state. Their fear of the workers was greater than their dislike of the Tsar and the nobility.

After the 1905 revolution had failed, the Mensheviks blamed the workers for turning the capitalists against it by being too “excessive” in their actions. The other major socialist grouping in Russia, the Bolsheviks led by Lenin, opposed an alliance between the working class and the capitalists for the capitalists’ own ends. But even they rejected the idea that in Russia, where the working class was a tiny minority, workers’ power was possible.

A third view also held much favour on the Russian left: that it was possible to build “peasant socialism”. The Narodniks, or “Populists”, saw the peasantry overthrowing the Tsar in order to build a new society based around peasant co-operatives.

All these arguments were decisively rejected by a young Marxist intellectual, Leon Trotsky. During the 1905 revolution Trotsky had been chairman of the St Petersburg Soviet – the directly-elected committee of workers’ representatives. From his involvement with the working class of Russia Trotsky reached a new conclusion, that workers’ power was the only road along which backward Russia could advance.

He arrived at this conclusion by looking beyond Russia’s borders. Within Russia, it was true, the working class was tiny. So was Russia ripe for socialism? As he later wrote: “To that I always answered: No ... But the world economy as a whole, and the European economy in the first place, is fully ripe for socialism.” Capitalism was an international system, dependent on investment and trade on a world scale. Russia, however backward, was part of that system.

In Tsarist Russia, then, there existed an amazing contradiction. On the one hand there were massive new factories employing thousands, owned by Western companies and far more modern than their equivalents in Manchester and Berlin. Yet they existed in a vast country which had changed little since the Middle Ages. It is a phenomenon we can see even more clearly today. In the most backward countries of the Third world capitalism has created vast modern factories. Overnight peasants who have previously used only a primitive plough can find themselves workers in a sophisticated factory.

Capitalism as an international system is careful to hold down the working class wherever they threaten to get out of hand. To this end it has been prepared to use any feudal relic, whether a Tsar, a Pope or a Sultan. The Russian capitalists of 1905, whatever they said over dinner, would deal with their workers as brutally as any.

Russia’s capitalists couldn’t destroy Tsarism, since they jumped into its arms as soon as any social upheaval threatened, nor could they solve the problems of its economic backwardness. But as Trotsky pointed out neither could the peasantry. Marx had once compared the peasantry to “an old bag of potatoes”. Some held large land holdings, some small patches of land, and some no land. They could unite temporarily in opposition to the landlords, but they lacked any common interest beyond this and were divided among themselves. As Lenin would later point out: “The peasant follows the worker or the bourgeois.” Lacking any class identity of their own, they would be pulled along behind one or other of the great classes.

Russia’s tiny working class, therefore, was the only power which could solve the country’s problems. It would have to carry through the measures which were characteristic of the great bourgeois revolutions of France and England.

To those who argued that Russia’s working class was too small to take power. Trotsky pointed out two things. First, while small, the class was concentrated in giant factories, to a far greater extent than in Western European countries. This gave it great collective power and solidarity. Secondly. by promising the land to the peasants, it could win their support. The peasants couldn’t carry out the revolution themselves, but they could be led by the working class.

Inevitably the revolution, led by workers, would grow beyond simple demands for solving the land question and establishing a bourgeois parliament. The workers would bring forward their own demands, against the exploitation they suffered in the factories. In the process of the revolution the working class would start on the road to the construction of socialism. There could be no halfway house.

Russia was too backward to construct socialism by itself. But the answer to this lay in spreading the revolution. just as capitalism was an international system, so was socialism. Trotsky argued that even in a backward country such as Russia workers could take power – on condition the revolution spread. As in a strike wave, where a fairly weak group can initiate the action – hospital workers for instance, the final test must lie in the mobilisation of the strongest sections of the class. Russian workers would have to look to spread their revolution to their German, French and British brothers and sisters.

Trotsky’s theory, the theory of Permanent Revolution as it became known, was brilliantly vindicated by the events of the 1917 Russian Revolution. His ideas were accepted whole-heartedly by Lenin, who argued for a workers’ revolution on his return to St Petersburg after the fall of the Tsar in February 1917. This position was accepted by the other Bolshevik leaders only after a fierce fight.

Russia’s capitalists, far from initiating a democracy, attempted to smash the working class by a military coup. The workers of St Petersburg defeated it, and led a successful insurrection with little opposition. But none of the Bolsheviks, especially Lenin, and including Trotsky, who had joined during 1917, believed that socialism could be built in Russia alone.

The Russian Revolution did lead to revolution in Western Europe. Soviet republics were set up in Bavaria and Hungary. In both 1919 and 1923 Germany tottered on the brink of a successful socialist revolution. In Italy workers occupied their factories throughout the country. But the revolutionary wave was defeated. And the horrors of Stalinism are the conclusive proof that genuine socialism could not be built in one country.

Trotsky’s arguments remain central today. Many socialists argue that the question of national independence or the struggle against imperialism must come first, and socialism itself must follow after. They argue that this means uniting with all sorts of middle-class movements which profess radical nationalist views. Trotsky answers that the working class, through the achievement of its own self-emancipation, would solve such problems. Any attempt to limit the revolution would fall far short of socialism, achieving merely capitalist regimes of a different type.

In a world dominated today by the division between worker and boss, Trotsky’s notion that only the working class stands for change, that only the working class can change society, retains its full force.


Last updated on 31.3.2002