Alex Callinicos




1 Origins

1.1 Permanent revolution

The origins of what would be later called Trotskyism can be traced back to the event which established Trotsky in the first rank of Russian socialists, the 1905 Revolution. Until that upheaval, which at its climax in the winter of 1905-6 swept him at the age of twenty-six into the leadership of the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies, Trotsky had shared in the consensus among Russian Marxists about the immediate political future. Marxism had emerged in Russia at the beginning of the 1880s in reaction to the dominant revolutionary tradition among the intelligentsia, populism. For the populists, deeply influenced by Western socialism, the transformation of Russian society, feudal, predominantly rural, presided over by the absolute monarchy of the tsars, into an industrialized capitalist country like Britain was a disaster to be avoided at all costs. The communal forms of social organization surviving among the peasantry would allow Russia to sidestep the travails of capitalism and move directly to socialism. Increasingly the populists saw their role as that of giving history a push, as Zhelyabov, leader of the terrorist Narodnaya Volya, put it, by physically destroying the autocracy which stood in the way of the socialist future. Plekhanov, the founder of Russian Marxism, set his face against such voluntarism. Socialism, he argued, presupposed a development of the productive forces which only capitalism could achieve. The expansion of the market and consequent disintegration of peasant communities which Lenin in particular analysed and documented at the turn of the century were historically necessary preconditions of socialist revolution.

Russian Marxists on the eve of 1905 were unanimous in recognizing what seemed to be the political corollary of this argument, namely that the coming revolution would be “bourgeois-democratic”. Like the English and French Revolutions before it, in sweeping away absolutism it would create the political framework within which capitalism could develop unfettered. There were, however, important differences about the role the key social classes would play in Russia’s bourgeois revolution. Indeed, the historic split at the 1903 Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) between Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, though precipitated by questions of party organization, was consolidated by disagreements over this issue. Plekhanov and the Mensheviks expected the liberal bourgeoisie to play the sort of leading role they believed its English and French counterparts had performed in their revolutions; on this prognosis, the task of the infant Russian workers’ movement would be to support the liberals against the tsar – their time would come only after the autocracy had been overthrown and capitalism considerably expanded. By contrast, Lenin and the Bolsheviks contended that the belated development of Russian capitalism had rendered the bourgeoisie economically dependent on and politically subordinate to the state and foreign capital: far from leading mass action against the absolutist state the liberals would look to it for protection against a proletariat that was already showing signs of getting out of hand. The workers’ movement should in these circumstances assume the role abandoned by the supine bourgeoisie and lead the peasant masses against the tsar. If the RSDLP seized the initiative at a time of popular turmoil, it might succeed in replacing the autocracy with a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which would seek, within the limits of capitalism, to promote conditions as favourable as possible for socialist transformation.

Lenin’s analysis proved more accurate than Plekhanov’s in both 1905 and 1917: liberal capitalists on both occasions were more afraid of insurgent workers and peasants than of the ancien régime. Trotsky, while agreeing with Lenin, went much further. In the first place, he set the development of capitalism in Russia in the context of the world economy. The rapid industrialization promoted by the monarchy in co-operation with foreign capital at the end of the nineteenth century was a response to competitive pressures transmitted through the European state system: military power now required an advanced industrial base. The result was an illustration of what Trotsky (1967: I, 23) would later call “the law of combined development”, the “drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of separate steps, an amalgam of archaic and more contemporary forms”. By virtue of “the privilege of historical backwardness”, Russia, rather than pass through all the separate stages travelled by countries such as Britain and France on their road to capitalism, could take advantage of the most advanced forms of technology and organization available in the West, importing the latest industrial plant. By the turn of the century, there were some of the largest and most modern factories in the world in Russia, amid vast pools of rural poverty. The new proletariat, concentrated in a few major urban centres, could exert an influence quite out of proportion to its size. Suffering all the social miseries typical of rapid industrialization, denied the most elementary political rights, this working class would, Trotsky (like Lenin) believed play the central role in the struggle against tsarism.

Thereafter the two parted company. The Bolsheviks, Trotsky argued, overestimated the capacity of the peasantry to act as an independent social and political force:

Because of its dispersion, political backwardness, and especially of its deep inner contradictions which cannot be resolved within the framework of the capitalist system, the peasantry can only deal the old order some powerful blows from the rear, by spontaneous risings in the countryside, on the one hand, and by creating discontent in the army, on the other. (Trotsky 1973a: 237)

It could only act as a national force under the leadership of an urban class. The peasant parties such as the Social Revolutionaries which Lenin envisaged participating in the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship” represented the hegemony of the urban bourgeoisie and petty bourgeoisie over the rural masses. A coalition between such parties and Russian social democracy would inevitably succumb to the contradictions it contained. Either the proletariat would adopt a “self-denying ordinance”, and refuse to use its political power to further its economic interests, in which case its position would be gradually eroded by the bourgeoisie, or it would make inroads into the economic power of capital, for example, by taking over firms which laid off workers, in which case it would have crossed the boundaries of the bourgeois-democratic revolution and established the dictatorship of the proletariat. Trotsky argued that Russian socialists should opt for the second course. Only thus, through a “permanent revolution” in which bourgeois and socialist elements fused, could tsarism be destroyed.

This position left Trotsky isolated till the outbreak of the Russian Revolution of February 1917. Then the dilemma he had outlined more than a decade previously came to life. The liberal Provisional Government could only survive with the support of the soviets, which it obtained not merely from the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries but also from many Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin and Kamenev. Lenin, on his return to Russia in April 1917, rapidly won the party to a very different strategy, the seizure of power by the soviets on the basis of a programme which sanctioned peasant takeovers of the gentry’s estates alongside other demands – for example, workers’ control of the factories – which implied a commitment to the construction of socialism. As many “Old Bolsheviks” complained, Lenin’s April theses were tantamount to “Trotskyism”. The Bolsheviks’ effective acceptance of the theory of permanent revolution helps explain Trotsky’s decision to join the party in the summer of 1917. Another factor was also at work. He had since the 1903 Congress strenuously opposed Lenin’s efforts to build a centralized revolutionary party. Like Rosa Luxemburg, Trotsky had believed that the development of mass workers’ struggles would generate the transformations of consciousness required for the proletariat to play the independent political role implied by the theory of permanent revolution. The revolutionary party would be primarily a reflection of the evolution of proletarian class consciousness. The February Revolution and its aftermath seem, however, to have convinced Trotsky that Lenin was right: only a politically homogeneous vanguard organization such as the Bolsheviks could give the spontaneous movements of the class struggle the necessary focus upon the conquest of state power. “Without a guiding organization the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam” (Trotsky 1967:1, 17). From this perspective, without the Bolsheviks the theory of permanent revolution would have remained, despite all Trotsky’s gifts as a mass leader, a purely intellectual construction lacking the mechanism capable of putting it into practice.

The Revolution of October 1917, in confirming Trotsky’s prognosis, burst asunder the traditional categories of “orthodox” Marxism. It was, as Gramsci (1977: 34-7) put it, a veritable “revolution against Capital” – in other words, it challenged the schema drawn up by Kautsky, Plekhanov, and other theoreticians of the Second International of history as a series of modes of production succeeding one another by iron necessity and culminating in the inevitable triumph of socialism. It was, however, only a decade later that Trotsky generalized what had been a specific analysis of the peculiarities of Russian historical development into a universal theory of revolution in the backward countries. The occasion was the Chinese Revolution of 1925-7. Stalin and Bukharin, then the leaders of the dominant faction within the Bolsheviks and therefore also in the Third (or Communist) International (Comintern), insisted that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) adopt a variant of the old Menshevik strategy, participating in a “four-class bloc” with the nationalist wing of the bourgeoisie, represented by the Guomindang, in order to achieve the “national-democratic revolution” required to rid China of foreign exploiters. Trotsky backed up a withering critique of the tactical errors involved – the Guomindang, after using the Communists to defeat the warlords, then turned on and massacred them – with the general thesis that the bourgeoisie in the backward countries was no longer capable of playing a revolutionary role. But the same global processes of capitalist development, the interlacing of advanced and backward which Trotsky called uneven and combined development, which bound these capitalists to imperialism, also created in countries such as China and India working classes capable, like their Russian counterpart, of exerting an influence out of proportion to their minority status. The hold of imperialism on the rest of the world could be broken only if the proletariat of the backward countries could lead the mass of peasants in revolutions which both eliminated pre-capitalist and colonial exploitation and initiated the transition to socialism.

In its general form, the theory of permanent revolution implied a direct challenge to what after 1945 became the orthodoxy in Third World national liberation movements influenced by Marxism-Leninism in its Russian, Chinese, or Cuban variants. Whereas these sought to construct coalitions (following the Chinese formula) of workers, peasants, intellectuals, and the “national bourgeoisie” (that is, those capitalists supposed to have an interest in breaking with imperialism) united by the objective of national independence, Trotsky stressed the class antagonisms within such alliances, and the distinctive character of the proletariat as the only force with both an interest in, and the capacity to achieve, national liberation. A similar theme informs his writings on Europe in the 1930s. Trotsky was fiercely critical of the Comintern’s “third period” policy in the late 1920s and early 1930s, which involved the powerful German Communist Party opposing united action with the Social Democrats against the Nazis on the grounds that one was as bad as the other. He was nevertheless equally opposed to the strategy adopted by Stalin in 1935 of constructing anti-fascist “Popular Fronts” of the labour movement and the “democratic” wing of the bourgeoisie. Rather than uniting the working class against fascism, Trotsky argued, the Popular Front governments in France and Spain represented the subordination of proletarian interests to those of capital, with results that could only strengthen Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. As in the theory of permanent revolution proper, Trotsky here accorded primacy to independent working-class action.


Last updated on 13.3.2001