Most socialists dream of taking part in a revolution. The revolutionary Leon Trotsky was involved in two, playing a leading role in the Russian revolutions of 1905 and 1917.
The 1905 Revolution made a huge impression on the young Trotsky, and the wider workers’ movement.
It was sparked by a huge strike wave that spread rapidly, leading to mutinies in the army and uprisings in the countryside.
Workers also created Russia’s first democratic institution – the soviet, or workers’ council. They debated tactics and organised their struggle in the soviets.
Trotsky, who was at heart of the struggle, was elected as a leader of the soviet in St Petersburg, then Russia’s capital.
Repression eventually broke the revolution, but it had put workers firmly at the centre of struggle. It also created a debate about what sort of revolution could take place there.
The country was still a largely peasant economy, ruled by the Tsar.
Most socialists thought that any revolution would have to sweep away the old order and bring in a period of parliamentary capitalism before socialism would be on the agenda.
Trotsky took a different position – laying out a theory of “permanent revolution”. Drawing on his experiences of 1905, he argued that workers were powerful enough to push a revolution beyond the boundaries of capitalism and raise the possibility of socialism.
He argued that workers were the only group that could lead a successful fight against the Tsar to win more political freedom.
Liberal capitalists were too scared of radical change and peasants were too bound to individual production to form the heart of a fight for change.
Workers would have to fight the Tsar for political freedoms and the capitalists for economic freedom.
So workers have the power and an interest in taking a revolution forward to a free society.
Trotsky looked at Russia’s development in the context of the global economy. Capitalism came to Russia much later than it did to most parts of Western Europe. Its development did not go through the same stages, from small workshops to larger and more advanced firms.
Instead, the latest technology was implanted in the midst of the largely peasant country. This created powerful groups of workers clustered together at the heart of Russia’s developing economy.
Trotsky called this combined and uneven development. It was uneven because different areas of the world develop at different rates.
It was combined because different stages of development can be compressed or co-exist next to other stages. This pattern still characterises the world, which has been transformed by capitalism everywhere.
In much of the Global South advanced technology and manufacturing exists alongside subsistance farming or large slums.
The cramming together of these varied levels of development creates an explosive political mixture.
Trotsky did not argue that permanent revolution was inevitable – it was a theory of what was possible. He insisted that if a revolution in Russia – or any country – was to survive, it would have to spread internationally or be crushed.
Trotsky’s theory was proved right in 1917 when a revolution in Russia in February overthrew the Tsar and brought in a new government.
But it didn’t resolve the problems that workers and peasants faced – exploitation in the factories, misery in the countryside and an imperialist war.
Arguments raged about what to do. By October the situation was polarised and workers – organised through the Bolshevik Party – pushed the revolution forward to establish a workers’ state.
The alternative would have been reactionary forces crushing the movement.
The October Revolution ushered in the most democratic and free society that has yet been seen.
It sparked an upsurge of struggles across Europe and the colonised world.
But the revolution failed to spread and was strangled by invasion, civil war and famine. This laid the basis for the rise of Joseph Stalin and the revolution’s destruction.
Trotsky’s ideas remain very useful. They point to why workers are the key group who have the power to win change in the Global South.
They also show how fighting for genuine democracy means economic as well as political freedom.
They remind up that Karl Marx’s theory of history is not a pre-determined story – but one that is created by the living struggles of human beings.