The Permanent Revolution debate is a useless, phony debate
Jose G. Perez
jg_perez at bellsouth.net
Sun Jul 6 23:34:40 MDT 2003
I was there at the launch of this current debate on the Theory of
Permanent Revolution in the Trotskyists movement when Jack Barnes
presented to the SWP Political Committee some of the ideas and then an
outline of the talk that was to become "Their Trotsky and Ours" in the
I heard the talk; took part in interpreting live; in editing the text;
in translating it into Spanish; and --frankly-- although I haven't gone
back to look at it in 20 years or more, I just don't believe there is
much to it, there is no "there" there.
Insofar as it concerns PR, apart from the rather obvious commonplace
that a lot of people who called themselves Trotskyists were sectarian
idiots who thought making a revolution was like making a cup of instant
coffee (in Maurice Bishop's inspired phrase), I never, ever understood
what all the shouting was about. I still don't.
That wasn't the view of other SWPers then, but it was mine. Partly
because by the time I first heard the ideas outlined in that form, there
were already quite familiar to me.
I had become aware that, first, this was not Trotsky's "theory" of
permanent revolution. Clearly not. It was Marx's theory, except, of
course, that he got it from the Jacobins, and I suspect that they, in
turn, were influenced by some of Cromwell's folks.
The core of the "theory," the central idea is simply this: that the most
plebeian, dispossessed classes participating in a truly popular (popular
as in made by the people, not popular as in a Gallup poll) will not want
the revolution declared over and done with, but continuing, because as
each successive privileged strata comes to the fore, the solution to the
problems of that strata does not solve the problems of the French
sans-culottes, of the Argentine descamisados, of the Cuban humildes.
You see this tendency in *every* great revolution and revolutionary
process; it is a commonplace so much so that it is part of the culture,
and reflected in novels and songs. You'll find it behind several of the
commments of the Argentine Everyman character, Che, in Evita. You'll
find it in the selection from Marat Sade that Judy Collins popularized:
Why do they have the gold
Why do they have the power, why?
Why do they have the friends at the top?
Why do they have the jobs at the top?
We've got nothing, always had nothing
Nothing but holes and millions of them
Living in holes dying in holes
Holes in our bellies and holes in our clothes
Marat we're poor and the poor stay poor
Marat don't make us wait any more
We want our rights, and we don't care how
We want a revolution ... Now
Second, the theory, insofar as it isn't merely descriptive but a guide
to action, was *never* a "program" as that word is often used in the
Trotskyist movement, a series of specific measures, slogans or demands.
It was a strategic approach or stance.
The essence of that approach or stance is to represent, not a certain
solution or system or program, but a certain layer of the population,
the oppressed, the exploited, the dispossessed, the wretched of the
earth. To try to develop *their* organization, *their* self-confidence,
so that they can become the ruling class.
As applied to countries facing belated or incomplete
bourgeois-democratic revolutions, which is what people familiar with
"Trotsky's" theory immediately think of when they hear "Permanent
Revolution," the "theory" was already there well before Trotsky, in the
founding Manifesto of the Communist movement, where Marx and Engels
"The Communists turn their attention chiefly to Germany, because that
country is on the eve of a bourgeois revolution that is bound to be
carried out under more advanced conditions of European civilization and
with a much more developed proletariat than that of England was in the
seventeenth, and France in the eighteenth century, and because the
bourgeois revolution in Germany will be but the prelude to an
immediately following proletarian revolution."
In those circumstances, the strategic approach of the Communists was
"In Germany the Communist Party fights with the bourgeoisie whenever it
acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy, the feudal
landowners and philistinism.
"But they never cease, for a single instant, to instill into the working
class the clearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism
between bourgeoisie and proletariat, in order that the German workers
may straightway use, as so many weapons against the bourgeoisie, the
social and political conditions that the bourgeoisie must necessarily
introduce along with its supremacy, and in order that, after the fall of
the reactionary classes in Germany, the fight against the bourgeoisie
itself may immediately begin."
Writing three and a half decades later, after Marx's death, Engels makes
clear that they did not view this as something applicable only to
Germany due to the peculiarity of the German conditions on the eve of
the revolutions of 1848.
"Never has a tactical programme proved its worth as well as this one.
Devised on the eve of a revolution, it stood the test of this
revolution; whenever, since this period, a workers party has deviated
from it, the deviation has met its punishment; and today, after almost
forty years, it serves as the guiding line of all resolute and
self-confident workers parties in Europe, from Madrid to St.
Petersburg." [Marx and the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (1848-49).
Moreover, Engels goes on to explain just *how* he, Marx and their
friends applied this approach:
"When we founded a major newspaper in Germany, our banner was determined
as a matter of course. It could only be that of democracy, but that of a
democracy which everywhere emphasised in every point the specific
proletarian character which it could not yet inscribe once for all on
"If we did not want to do that, if we did not want to take up the
movement, adhere to its already existing, most advanced, actually
proletarian side and to advance it further, then there was nothing left
for us to do but to preach communism in a little provincial sheet and to
found a tiny sect instead of a great party of action. But we had already
been spoilt for the role of preachers in the wilderness; we had studied
the utopians too well for that, nor was it for that we had drafted our
Of specific note: the newspaper Marx and Engels founded, the Neue
Rheinische Zeitung, was *NOT* a "communist" or "proletarian" newspaper,
it was (as its masthead proclaimed) an organ of democracy, "but that of
a democracy which everywhere emphasised in every point the specific
proletarian character which it could not yet inscribe once for all on
The *alternative* course was "to preach communism in a little provincial
sheet and to found a tiny sect instead of a great party of action."
But before you say "aha!" and log off Marxmail and rush to
www.moveon.org to vote for Dean and send him a paypal contribution,
consider this: This was in May, 1848. What these guys were doing in
February of 1848 was quite different. They were publishing the Communist
"The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly
declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow
of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a
communist revolution. The proletarians have nothing to lose but their
chains. They have a world to win." That is because for Marx and Engels,
the specific character of your political activity was determined by
concrete circumstances, it could not simply be derived from first
Now if you zip forward 90 years from the Manifesto to the Transitional
Program, I contend that Trotsky's views on the set of strategic and
tactical questions that have come to be known as "permanent revolution"
are indistinguishable from those of Marx and Engels:
"The central task of the colonial and semi-colonial countries is the
agrarian revolution, i.e., liquidation of feudal heritages, and national
independence, i.e., the overthrow of the imperialist yoke. Both tasks
are closely linked with each other.
"It is impossible merely to reject the democratic program; it is
imperative that in the struggle the masses outgrow it.... On the basis
of the revolutionary democratic program, it is necessary to oppose the
workers to the 'national' bourgeoisie."
"The relative weight of the individual democratic and transitional
demands in the proletariats struggle, their mutual ties and their order
of presentation, is determined by the peculiarities and specific
conditions of each backward country and to a considerable extent by the
degree of its backwardness. Nevertheless, the general trend of
revolutionary development in all backward countries can be determined by
the formula of the permanent revolution in the sense definitely imparted
to it by the three revolutions in Russia (1905, February 1917, October
This most finished, mature exposition of "his" Theory of Permanent
Revolution is entirely in keeping with what Marx and Engels did in 1848
and what Engels explained in 1884.
And then zip forward *another* 20 years from Trotsky's Transitional
Program, and consider the July 26 Movement and the course followed by
the Cuban leadership as if it had been a conscious application of the
strategic approach that Marx, Engels and Trotsky outlined.
The banner of the July 26 Movement in Cuba "could only be that of
democracy, but that of a democracy which everywhere emphasised in every
point the specific proletarian character which it could not yet inscribe
once for all on its banner."
The central tasks the Cuban revolution set for itself were "the agrarian
revolution, i.e., liquidation of feudal heritages, and national
independence, i.e., the overthrow of the imperialist yoke." Life showed
that these two tasks were "closely linked with each other."
Having armed the dispossessed Cuban masses with "the revolutionary
democratic program" the revolutionary leadership then proceeded to
"oppose the workers to the 'national' bourgeoisie." As a result, the
"general trend of revolutionary development" was that of "permanent
revolution in the sense definitely imparted to it by the three
revolutions in Russia," that is of a revolution that presented as a
democratic revolution led to the creation of a revolutionary government
based on the working people, fundamentally the workers and peasants, and
grew into a socialist revolution as a result.
I should add, though I won't try to prove it with another set of
quotations, that Lenin's strategic approach as outlined in "Two Tactics"
in 1905, the "April Theses" in 1917 and many other writings is exactly
the same as that of Marx, Engels, Trotsky and Fidel.
The main differences between Lenin and Trotsky before 1917 weren't over
"permanent revolution," but rather in Trotsky's constant tendency to
conciliate and mush over the differences with the Mensheviks, and bloc
with them organizationally even while largely agreeing with the
Bolshevik on immediate political issues. If Lenin commented on Trotsky's
book where he outlines his specific views, I'm not aware of it.
Insofar as Trotsky's own views were concerned at that time, he
considered the *essence* of it not to be "permanent revolution" in the
sense of the prediction that the revolution in Russia would introduce
"The question for us was never whether Russia can be 'carried straight
into socialism.' Even to pose the question in such a way demands a very
special type of brain.
"The question for us concerned the class dynamics of the Russian
revolution-not the 'permanent revolution,' not the 'socialist
revolution,' but the one that is going on in Russia at the present
Nevertheless, he criticized Lenin and the Bolsheviks, writing, for
example, in 1905:
"It goes without saving that the proletariat must fulfill its mission,
just as the bourgeoisie did in its own time, with the help of the
peasantry and the petty bourgeoisie. It must lead the countryside, draw
it into the movement, make it vitally interested in the success of its
plans. But, inevitably, the proletariat remains the leader. This is not
the 'dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry,' it is the
dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry."
For Trotsky, the nub of the differences lay in what the revolutionary
government would do *after* seizing power. In his view Lenin's formula
would lead to the proletariat having to limit itself to purely
democratic demands, suspending the class struggle against the
bourgeoisie. Whatever the merits of Trotsky's criticism of this or that
formulation of Lenin's, the plain fact is that Lenin and the party he
created led the October revolution.
Among some Trotskyists, the vacillation and opportunism of
pre-October-1917 "Leninists" like Zinoviev and Kamenev on the eve of
October and right afterwards shows that they had been "miseducated" by
Lenin's formula. However, Ryazanov, who was one of the pre-October
"Trotskyists" was with Zinoviev and Kamenev in their opposition (and
violations) of the line of the Bolshevik CC majority led by Lenin and
The current debate is provoked by those who promote the opposing view,
that some of Trotsky's writing about Permanent Revolution were too
"leftist" and therefore it is necessary to go back to Lenin's Two
Tactics as distinct from and counterposed to what Trotsky wrote, because
those Trotsky writings are the source of a fairly generalized "leftist"
bias among Trotskyists when confronting "permanent revolution" in the
flesh in Cuba, etc., I don't believe this either. (This is, I think,
although I've not studied their resolutions closely and may be wrong
about this, the general view of many comrades in the Australian DSP).
I think in BOTH cases, the writings of these Marxists are simply being
asked to carry too much freight. If we are to fault some of Trotsky's
one-sided wording, what are we to make then of some of Che and Fidel,
for example the second Declaration of Havana where it says: "There are
no more changes to be made: either socialist revolution or caricature of
revolution." (Quoted from memory -- I can't find the full text online).
Sure, one could take that phrase and counterpose it to the sort of
approach Fidel took in making the revolution, just as one can take the
concluding paragraph of the Communist Manifesto ("The communists disdain
to conceal their aims") and counterpose it to what Marx and Engels were
doing a couple of months later, carrying out their *practical*
intervention as "democrats" rather than "Communists" and explicitly
rejecting the idea of founding a Communist newspaper.
But then you'd have to conclude that by Feb. 1962, Fidel had somehow
lost his bearings as a revolutionary political leader, only to regain
them later (as manifested in Cuba's approach to the revolutions in
Central America and the Caribbean in the 80's or Venezuela since Chávez
became President in 1998).
The debate going on about "Permanent Revolution" is a phony basically
because it is a debate about dogma, about a revealed truth, about a
Trotsky got it right in his book about 1905 when describing his
differences with the opportunist wing of the RSDLP: "The question for us
concerned the class dynamics of the Russian revolution-not the
'permanent revolution,' not the 'socialist revolution,' but the one that
is going on in Russia at the present time."
The real questions all revolve around class dynamics, political forces
in motion. There is no other way for the *masses* to come to
revolutionary and socialist conclusions except through the road of their
own *practical* experience, all the revolutionary and socialist
preaching in the world won't do it. And when the masses break into
history and become its protagonists, real revolutionaries, like Marx,
Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Fidel, and those that worked with them,
understand that and seek to lead the mass struggle.
The exact shape and forms of the struggle, the issues posed, the
slogans, the organizations, both mass and vanguard groups, all those
things are *determined* by a host of circumstances, some of them quite
accidental. People who come to great mass movements, to revolutionary
processes with preconceived schemas and lectures about socialism that
only need to have one or another current reference or example inserted
for the sake of popularizing things will fail.
If Fidel had done what "permanent revolutionist" sectarians advocated,
and proclaimed that the objective of the July 26 movement was to
establish the dictatorship of the proletariat and commence the building
of socialism, then he would have failed, the result would have been
exactly the same as what Engels said would have happened to him and Marx
if they had founded a communist newspaper instead of a democratic one in
I propose to take up the precise character of the July 26 Movement, and
the post that set off this latest round in the interminable "permanent
revolution" debates, the republication of the miserable Militant
editorial from early 1960, in another post, as this one has already gone
on long enough.
My theses will be that what the most useful way to understand he
Militant's error is NOT to view them as an application of a "too
leftist" Theory of Permanent Revolution, or of an ultraleft view of that
theory, but something more concrete, an inability to understand the
character of the revolution, having no feel for or identification with
this movement for national liberation.
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