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Leon Trotsky: Workers can make revolution permanent

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In the first part of our new series John Molyneux looks at revolutionary Leon Trotsky’s contribution to Marxism
Issue 2233
Leon Trotsky
Leon Trotsky

Leon Trotsky (1879-1940) was murdered 70 years ago by an agent of Russian dictator Joseph Stalin.

Trotsky was one of the greatest revolutionaries of the 20th century.

After the death of Karl Marx, Trotsky, together with Vladimir Lenin, did the most to develop Marxist ideas.

Trotsky’s practical revolutionary achievements were enormous. He emerged as the leader of the 1905 Russian Revolution when elected president of the St Petersburg workers’ council (Soviet) aged just 26.

In 1917, as president of the soviet, he organised the October insurrection that established workers’ power in Russia. He then became chief organiser of the five million-strong Red Army, which defeated counter-revolutionary armies that were backed by Western imperialism.

Finally he led the Left Opposition which tried, unsuccessfully, to resist the rise of Stalin and defend workers’ democracy and the ideals of the revolution.

Trotsky led in action. Along with Lenin, he was the 1917 revolution’s main political inspirer and thinker.

As early as 1905 he most clearly foresaw the course of the revolution.

At the time, Russian socialists and radicals thought that Tsarist Russia was heading for revolution—but that it would be a “bourgeois democratic revolution” like the French Revolution of 1789.

They thought it would overthrow the Tsar and establish a capitalist democracy, and that only after that would the working class begin the struggle for socialism.

The more moderate socialists, the Mensheviks, thought this meant the middle class would lead the revolution and the working class should limit itself to supporting them.

The revolutionary socialists—the Bolsheviks led by Lenin—argued that the middle class was too conservative and it would be up to the working class to make the revolution.

But they accepted the idea that Russia was too economically backward to move to socialism—the working class was a minority of the population compared with the vast peasant majority.

Trotsky agreed with Lenin that the working class would make the revolution. But he argued that, in doing so, the logic of the struggle would lead to the establishment of full workers’ power and a break with capitalism.

He maintained that the peasant majority would support the urban working class—if the workers gave a strong enough lead.

Some said that Russia was not sufficiently economically developed to sustain socialism.

Trotsky said this was true of Russia in isolation—but he saw the revolution as only the first breakthrough in a wave of international revolution.

He argued that workers’ power in Russia could lead to the same happening in Germany and elsewhere in Europe where the level of industrialisation was high enough to make the transition to socialism.

Trotsky’s idea became known as the theory of permanent revolution.

This didn’t mean endless revolution.

It meant revolution that doesn’t stop at an intermediate stage—such as a capitalist democratic revolution—before achieving its ultimate goal of world socialist revolution.

In 1917 Trotsky was proved right.

Workers brought down the Tsar in February and then took power themselves in October.

Lenin came round to Trotsky’s view and won over the Bolshevik Party in April.

Trotsky joined the Bolsheviks, who led the revolution. They founded the Communist International with the aim of spreading the revolution internationally.

The theory of permanent revolution had significance beyond Russia.

It meant that where workers were still a minority, such as in colonial and Third World countries, they did not have to sit back and wait for socialism in Europe.

Instead they could take the lead in fighting for their own workers’ revolutions.

Even today, when modern capitalism has spread across most of the globe, permanent revolution is still important in dictatorships like Egypt or oppressed countries like Palestine.

It says movements should not limit their goals to democracy or national freedom, nor only use methods of struggle acceptable to the middle class.

Rather it argues that revolutionary socialists and the working class should take the lead and try to transform struggles into international workers’ revolution.

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