Expropriating the petty bourgeoisie

Louis N Proyect lnp3 at columbia.edu
Sat Jun 1 14:46:34 MDT 1996

On Sat, 1 Jun 1996, Hugh Rodwell wrote:

> All these arguments are intimately connected to the Theory of Permanent
> Revolution.
> Louis promised us he was looking into it a while back. I'm looking forward
> to the debate.

Louis: I have no recollection of Leon Trotsky writing about the
petty-bourgeoise in his writings on "permanent revolution" so I am not
sure that what looking "into it" means. I have written, however, about the
applicability of this theory to the Sandinista revolution and I invite
Hugh's comments.


Before responding to the question of Sandinista failure to carry out
"permanent revolution", it would be useful to try to put this theory into
historical context. Although we tend to connect the term to Leon
Trotsky, it appeared in the writings of Marx himself. There always has
been a tension in Marx and Engels between a so-called "stagist" idea
of socialist revolution and something resembling Trotsky's notion of
permanent revolution.

In the "Communist Manifesto", Marx and Engels provide the
theoretical framework for a "stagist" approach on almost every page.
In one typical passage, they state:

"The weapons with which the bourgeoisie felled feudalism to the
ground are now turned against the bourgeoisie itself.

But not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that bring death
to itself; it has also called into existence the men who are to wield
those weapons--the modern working class--the proletarians."

When Marx and Engels wrote these words, they had in mind the
French revolution of 1789, the most representative case of a
bourgeoisie acting mercilessly and decisively against the feudal
aristocracy. The guillotine was a symbol of this aggressive stance.

However, Marx and Engels eventually began to question whether this
"classic" model could occur in the mid-nineteenth century, the period
in which they lived. They noticed that the bourgeoisie had begun to
lose its nerve and sought ways to tolerate feudal relations. They
speculated that it might be up to the proletariat to eradicate feudalism.
Once the workers had finished this task, it might immediately take on
socialist tasks. This seemed like a real possibility, if not necessity, in
Germany. In the "Address to the Communist League" in 1850, they
note that the bourgeoisie united with the feudal party against the
proletariat. Even the German petty-bourgeoisie, which formed the
shock troops of the French revolution, were inadequate to the task:

"While the democratic petty-bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to
a close as quickly as possible, and with the achievement, at most, of
the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the
revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have
been forced out of their position of dominance, until the proletariat has
conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only
one in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has
advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these
countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are
concentrated in the hands of the proletarians."

It is crucially important to recognize that Marx and Engels did not
separate a socialist revolution in Germany from the worldwide
socialist revolution. They specifically point to the need to have
socialist power in "all the dominant countries of the world". Germany
was but a link in a great chain. Marx and Engels saw the prospects for
socialism in European terms, if not global terms. We shall return to
this theme time and time again, since it is central to understanding of
the Nicaraguan revolution.

George Plekhanov was the father of Russian Marxism. He served as
teacher to a whole generation of Russian revolutionaries, including
Lenin himself. Plekhanov adhered to a strict "stagist" understanding of
the tasks of the Russian revolution. The first task was to eradicate
Czarism. After a successful bourgeois-democratic revolution, the
Russian capitalist class would be free to develop the country along
modern, industrialized lines. By doing this, it would transform the
great mass of Russian peasantry into proletarians and create the
possibility for the next socialist stage.

Plekhanov's influence on Lenin is obvious when we look at "Two
Tactics of Social Democracy". Commenting on a resolution for a
provisional government, Lenin says:

"Finally, we will note the resolution, by making implementation of the
minimum programme the provisional revolutionary government's task,
eliminates the absurd and semi-anarchist ideas of giving immediate
effect to the maximum programme, and the conquest of power for a
socialist revolution. The degree of Russia's economic development (an
objective condition), and the degree of class-consciousness and
organization of the broad masses of the proletariat (a subjective
condition inseparably bound up with the objective condition)  make the
immediate and complete emancipation of the working class
impossible. Only the most ignorant people can close their eyes to the
bourgeois nature of the democratic revolution which is now taking
place; only the most naive optimists can forget how little as yet the
masses of the workers are informed about the aims of socialism and
the methods of achieving it."

Lenin of course changed his mind about the character of the
revolution. The Russian revolution of 1917 was socialist in character
rather than bourgeois. To Lenin's credit, he never thought that the
bourgeoisie itself would lead the revolution. This was up to the
proletariat allied with the peasantry. They would create something
called a "revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and
the peasantry." This rather untidy formulation meant that the workers
would wield state power in alliance with the peasantry while ruling
over capitalist property relationships for some time. When the workers
had crushed feudal reaction and gathered sufficient strength, it would
accomplish the socialist phase of the revolution. Lenin left the timing
question aside, since the tempo of the class struggle can only decide its
outcome. It could be a matter of days, months, years or even decades.

A decisive factor in the transition to socialism in Russia would be the
outcome of socialist revolutions in Europe. The survival of a
revolution in Russia was impossible without help from victories in the
West. In a "Speech on the International Situation" delivered to the
1918 Congress of Soviets, Lenin said, "The complete victory of the
socialist revolution in one country alone is inconceivable and demands
the most active cooperation of at least several advanced countries,
which do not include Russia." Lenin is clearly consistent with the
analysis put forward by Marx and Engels regarding the German
revolution in 1850. Revolutions can not survive on their own. They
have to link up with an overall assault on bourgeois power by a
working-class unified under a socialist banner across nations, if not

Trotsky's theory is a product of his study of the Russian class-struggle.
He did not develop it as a general methodology for accomplishing
bourgeois-democratic tasks in a semi-colonial or dependent country.
He was instead seeking to address the needs of the class-struggle in
Russia. In this respect, he was identical to Lenin. They were both
revolutionaries who sought to establish socialism in Russia as rapidly
as possible. Their difference centered on how closely connected
socialist and bourgeois-democratic tasks would be at the outset. Lenin
tended to approach things more from Plekhanov's "stagist"
perspective, while Trotsky had a concept more similar to the one
outlined by Marx and Engels in their comments on the German

Trotsky sharpened his insights as a participant and leader of the
uprising of 1905, which in many ways was a dress-rehearsal for the
1917 revolution. He wrote "Results and Prospects" to draw the lessons
of 1905. Virtually alone among leading Russian socialists, he rejected
the idea that workers holding state power would protect private

"The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its
economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the
proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist
policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat,
having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism
of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to
the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social
domination of the bourgeoisie."

Does not this accurately describe the events following the Bolshevik
revolution in October, 1917? The workers took the socialist path
almost immediately. If this alone defined the shape of revolutions to
come, then Trotsky would appear as a prophet of the first magnitude.

Before leaping to this conclusion, we should consider Trotsky's entire
argument. Not only would the workers adopt socialist policies once in
power, their ability to maintain these policies depended on the class-
struggle outside of Russia, not within it. He is emphatic:

"But how far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied in
the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with
certainty--that it will come up against obstacles much sooner than it
will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country. Without
the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class
of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary
domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship."

While there is disagreement between Lenin and Trotsky on the exact
character of the Russian revolution, there is none over the grim
prospects for socialism in an isolated Russia. We must keep this
uppermost in our mind when we consider the case of Nicaragua. Well-
meaning Trotskyist comrades who castigate the Sandinistas for not
carrying out permanent revolution should remind themselves of the
full dimensions of Trotsky's theory. According to this theory, Russia
was a beachhead for future socialist advances. If these advances did
not occur, Russia would perish. Was Nicaragua a beachhead also? If
socialism could not survive in a vast nation as Russia endowed with
immense resources, what were Nicaragua's prospects, a nation smaller
than Brooklyn, New York?

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