Can the working class in less developed countries lead a socialist revolution, even when it is not a majority in society?
Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution provides, under certain circumstances, a positive answer to this question.
Trotsky’s theory was one of the great developments in Marxism.
The birth of the theory of permanent revolution is inseparable from the huge mass strikes and insurrections that swept the Russian Empire in 1905. The 26 year old Leon Trotsky was at the centre of these events and was elected chair of the first workers’ council in history, the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies.
The nature of the coming Russian revolution had been the subject of sharp debate among socialists. Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued for a democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants, while the Mensheviks expected a bourgeois government to be the outcome of a revolution against Tsarism.
But both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks agreed that the revolution would clear the path for further capitalist development in backward Russia.
In 1906 Trotsky wrote Results and Prospects drawing on the lessons of 1905. He broke decisively from the traditional view of Marxists towards the historical path of less developed nations. Marx had written in the preface to Capital, “The country that is more developed industrially only shows to the less developed the image of its own future.”
This had been turned into a mechanical, deterministic formula, espcially by the Mensheviks. Russia had to go through its own version of the French Revolution of 1789 that would place the bourgeoisie in power, they argued.
Trotsky rejected any simple historical parallel between the Russian and French Revolutions. “The 19th century has not passed in vain,” as he pithily put it.
The rapid expansion of the capitalist system over the preceding century meant that there could be no simple repeat of the great bourgeois revolutions.
Trotsky showed how Russia had not developed in isolation from its more advanced neighbours, but under military pressure from them. Russian industry emerged from the actions of the Tsarist state in collaboration with foreign capital and not from urban handicraft production as it had in the West.
The capital and technology transferred were the most advanced available, a process Trotsky described as “combined and uneven development”.
An absolutist state presided over a weak domestic bourgeoisie and exceptionally concentrated modern working class in the giant factories of St Petersburg and Moscow.
This working class was the decisive revolutionary force in Russian society. The peasantry, though millions strong, could not play this role. It lacked the internal unity to act as an independent force. The only question was which urban force would draw the peasants behind it? With the bourgeoisie tied to Tsarism and thus to the landowners, this task fell to the working class: “The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it.”
And once the working class took political power, it would be forced to undermine capitalism. Here Trotsky went beyond Lenin’s pre-1917 arguments. Workers’ political domination was incompatible with its economic exploitation.
The revolution, if victorious, must burst the boundaries of capitalist society and lead to socialist revolution. The revolution would not stop at bourgeois democracy but would lead to workers’ complete emancipation, and so would become “permanent”.
Trotsky grasped that the internal dynamic of the bourgeois revolution in Russia would place the proletariat in power, and once in power, the barriers to its economic domination must also be breached.
But Russia was undeveloped and lacked the material basis for socialism. The fate of the revolution would depend on whether it spread to more advanced industrial countries: “Without the direct state support of the European proletariat the working class in Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialist dictatorship.”
Trotsky’s analysis began with the world economy and ended in the necessity for international revolution. The Russian Revolution of 1917 brilliantly vindicated Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution (when Lenin effectively also came to accept the same perspective): the working class did take power (under Bolshevik leadership), leading the peasantry behind it, against a counter-revolutionary alliance of the bourgeoisie, landlords and the Tsarist state. The new workers’ state did step beyond the boundaries of capitalist social relations. Its fate was also, tragically, bound up with the rise and then defeat of the international revolution, above all in Europe.
Initially Trotsky only applied his theory to Russia. But in his 1929 book The Permanent Revolution, written in response to the Stalinist talk of “socialism in one country”, he generalised his theory as applicable to other undeveloped or devleoping countries.
Results and Prospects and The Permanent Revolution are usually published together as single volume. Both repay reading today.
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