[Marxism] Permanent Revolution (was RE:In there capitalism ... Is Northern Ireland [sic] occupied?)

Joaquín Bustelo jbustelo at bellsouth.net
Mon Oct 3 21:19:32 MDT 2005

John McAnulty writes, about the situation in the north of Ireland and
changes in the IRA's positions: "In line with permanent revolution it
suggests that a programme that addresses democratic questions but not
class questions is insufficient."

I have no opinion on the right tactics or strategy for revolutionaries
in the north of Ireland, nor in the 26-county entity. Though I would
wish otherwise, I find I don't have the time to follow the situation
there as closely as necessary to even tentatively hazard some
conclusions, so by and large, I tend to follow week-to-week,
month-to-month and even year-to-year developments very erratically.

For that reason, I am unable to share some of the harsh and highly
critical things said here from time to time about the Republican
leadership, although I respect those opinions and the comrades who've
been kind enough to post them. 

The Republican movement has for decades been a central protagonist of
the historic, heroic struggle of the Irish people to free themselves
from English domination. That liberation requires, in my view, as an
unavoidable measure, the expulsion of the English domination and the
reunification of Ireland. The Republican comrades have had and will
continue to have my unconditional solidarity on that basis, but so will
all wings of the Irish patriotic and working class forces. 

So the following comments aren't meant to be *for* or *against* the
tactical or strategic choices the Republicans or others may or may not
have made in recent weeks, months or years. 

I will admit, however, that *some* (not all) of the lines of argument
that have been presented to criticize the approach of Gerry Adams and
his friends track very closely those that I've found myself unable to
agree with when applied to situations that I feel better informed about
and therefore more comfortable in having at least tentative opinions on.

For example, I've seen it expressed that decommissioning weapons and
disbanding guerrilla forces is, in and of itself, a mistake or betrayal.
It may be true that due to my ignorance of the concrete situation and
its development in the North of Ireland, I am not in a position to see
that the criticisms are completely justified in this specific case.

But on the level of generalization that I've sometimes see them
presented here on this list, and in other venues, I've found them
unpersuasive in cases that I have been more conversant with.

My aim here is not to discuss the specifics of Ireland, but the
formulation cde. McAnulty uses in capsulizing or summarizing permanent

I want to add that this formulation may just be a verbal accident, or
the result of correctly applying a Marxist analysis to the Irish
situation, and not a sweeping generalization. 

But it seems to me that an ultraleft  misunderstanding of Permanent
Revolution is common enough as to be worth considering the formulation
abstracted from the Irish situation TODAY as such, especially as the
comrade's wording is that the Irish situation is an illustration of a
*general* truth. 

If in doing this if I seem to be imputing to the comrade views he
doesn't hold, or turned him into a straw person, my apologies to him.
This isn't my intention. I have no quarrel with the comrade; I do not
say his approach in Ireland is mistaken because I do not know Ireland. 

But my experience has been that I've disagreed with, on a fairly basic
level, those comrades who present positions about Latin American
revolutionary processes with a generalized argument about the "strategy"
of permanent revolution that is very similar to what this comrade

And I've chosen to take it up in this context, abstracting ENTIRELY from
the specifics of the Irish case and whether or not the comrade is right
about his own specific situation, mostly to make one point. And that is
that THIS formula (again, as a generalized formula, not a judgment about
Ireland tactics TODAY) is NOT what Trotsky believed and argued for.

My contention, or theses, is that the idea that Trotsky's "permanent
revolution" suggests "that a programme that addresses democratic
questions but not class questions is insufficient," is false if this is
read as an immediate, tactical or programmatic prescription, even though
it is undoubtedly true if it is read an a description of an evolution or
process that might span anywhere from a few months to several years,
perhaps even a decade or more.

Because of this ambiguity or duality, one can find in Marx, Engels,
Lenin, Trotsky, Che, Fidel and other Marxists who have written about
"permanent revolution" (sometimes without using that exact phrase, which
originated with the left plebeian wing of the French Revolution)
formulations which track closely what comrade McAnulty seems to be

Despite its origins, and its use by Marx and Engels, "Permanent
Revolution" as a term is most closely associated with Trotsky and
rightly so. Trotsky more than Lenin wrote about the sweep and breadth of
the perspectives of the overall revolutionary process in Russia
considered as a whole, rather than focusing on next steps as strongly as
Lenin did, who was trying to lead a major party in day-to-day politics.

The complete solidarity between Lenin and Trotsky's views can be seen
not just by taking into account the different situations of the two
revolutionaries when they wrote their major works impinging on this
subject prior to 1917, but more importantly, in real life. BOTH their
formulations were "algebraic," but when imperialist war and the
overthrow of the czar put real numbers into the equations, the result
was that the two were equivalent expressions. 

There was, in fact, in the test of practice of 1917 a much greater
degree of coincidence between Lenin and Trotsky's strategy, slogans and
tactics than there were between the two of them and some other leaders
of the revolutionary workers party, notably Zinoviev and Kamenev -- and
not just the two of them.

But Trotsky's primacy in the field of "permanent revolution" derives not
just from having addressed it as such, i.e., viewing the long-term
process *as a whole* in Russia prior to 1917, but also that he was able
to write about it long after October, bringing to various situations
what he learned in 1917. And also, the fact that fate put him in his
last exile in the role of a political analyst and commentator and
advisor, rather than in his soviet role as a central leader of the
insurgent masses.

I believe the most mature, generalized and balanced presentation of the
Permanent Revolution as applied to the work of revolutionaries in
overthrowing capitalism (Celia Hart reminds us in her writings that
Permanent Revolution CONTINUES after the establishment of a
revolutionary government and the expropriation of the bourgeoisie) is
contained in the Transitional Program.

And I believe what Trotsky says there is *incompatible* with what
comrade McAnulty says, at least if one reads this comrade's statement as
a sweeping generalization, which is the way it is worded (rather than as
a concrete conclusion applicable to Ireland right now, which, I
recognize, again, may be all that this comrade meant, not suspecting
that I'd come along and take the statement out of its concrete time,
place and circumstance).

The incompatibility is this: the very heart of the transitional program,
of the method Trotsky put forward, is to raise demands that BEGIN with
the immediate, felt needs of the masses, the issues that have put them
into motion. It isn't and wasn't meant to be a recipe book for how to
cook up a proletarian dictatorship.

In relation to democratic demands and the struggle against imperialism
in the colonial and semicolonial countries, Trotsky is quite clear in
rejecting the kind of formulation about the insufficiency of national
democratic demands that McAnulty seems to be putting forward in a
generalized way:

"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. Then, at a certain stage in the
mobilization of the masses under the slogans of revolutionary democracy,
soviets can and should arise. Their historical role in each given
period, particularly their relation to the National Assembly, will be
determined by the political level of the proletariat, the bond between
them and the peasantry, and the character of the proletarian party
policies. Sooner or later, the soviets should overthrow bourgeois
democracy. Only they are capable of bringing the democratic revolution
to a conclusion and likewise opening an era of socialist revolution."

Now, it may well be that comrade McAnulty is *entirely correct* in his
formulation in relation to Ireland TODAY. Trotsky explains that "The
relative weight of the individual democratic and transitional demands in
the proletariat’s 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." 

But what is unquestionably true is that Trotsky did not advocate
immediately turning every national democratic revolution into a
proletarian socialist revolution by injecting into the situation "class"
demands, nor did he say that "a programme that addresses democratic
questions but not class questions is insufficient."

On the contrary, the clear statement is that the "national democratic"
program is "sufficient" enough for the workers as a class to set up
Soviets (i.e., to undertake the battle for political power, which
Trotsky projects in the specific Soviet form based on the 1917
experience, and which since Trotsky's time we've seen can also take
other forms). Later in the same passage Trotsky carves out some wiggle
room in this very broad generalization, but, clearly, the idea that
Trotsky's "permanent revolution" is about the general *insufficiency* of
the national democratic program as a basis for the struggle for
political power is mistaken. 

That MAY be true of the Irish case TODAY, but IF SO, that would be due
to concrete circumstances, not general "laws" of permanent revolution.
The "STRATEGY" of permanent revolution, as a broad generalization, is
the *OPPOSITE* of what McAnulty's formulation implies. 

The "strategy of permanent revolution" --as it is often referred to-- is
to oppose the proletariat to the "national" bourgeois "on the basis of
the revolutionary democratic program," in other words, NOT because the
national democratic program is "insufficient," but because the
"national" bourgeoisie in the epoch of imperialism is essentially
*anti-national* and betrays the democratic program at every turn. 

Those factors THEN lead to the "growing over" of what starts out as a
national and democratic revolution INTO a socialist revolution for two
interrelated reasons. 

One is that, as experience shows, it is necessary to break the neck of
the capitalists as a class and smash their ideological and political
hegemony over the state apparatus and society as a whole, to actually
CARRY OUT the democratic revolution, because the very logic of their
place in the world imperialist system leads the "national" capitalists
as a class, as a political force, to oppose and betray the
democratic-national revolution. That was the lesson of Cuba (among many
other examples, but Cuba's case was particularly transparent, explicit
and clear cut).

The second reason is that the proletariat cannot become the "national"
class, the leading class of the nation, playing an ever growing role in
the transformation of society as a whole, without also transforming
itself. This is a struggle against atomization, disorganization, lack of
solidarity, lack of social and political consciousness, against
backwardness and ignorance and illiteracy and innumeracy, against
poverty, lack of schools, starvation wages, and all the rest of it.

Experience has now shown that there is no reason to postulate that this
process cannot BEGIN and ADVANCE a certain distance even while the
capitalists (or capitalist bureaucracies set up by neocolonial bourgeois
states) continue to run certain factories or even entire branches of
industries. But to the degree that the level of culture, organization,
solidarity, social consciousness and political coherence/action of the
working class increases, to that degree it becomes increasingly unlikely
that the workers will find traditional "boss/worker" relations of
productions even sufferable. 

We must remember, the *essence* of property relations is NOT relations
between people and things. That is their form, and although forms and
their relationship to content are important, the *actual* content of
capitalist property is a relationship between people (and classes of
people) and other people (classes), mediated by "things," namely the
capitalist's ownership of the means of production.

Now, I think that it is fair to say that nowhere in Trotsky will you
find wording suggesting that this process of transformation I've been
referring to above can take many, many months, never mind several years,
and at this point I have to admit at least the theoretical possibility
of *many* years. 

But I think it is also true that nowhere in Trotsky's writings do you
find him anticipating anything like today's Venezuelan revolution.
Neither anything approximating the circumstances today's revolutionaries
face, nor the (slow) tempo of economic and political transformations,
can be found in Trotsky. 

If you had described to Trotsky today's world, one where the
imperialists and especially the American imperialists are BOTH so strong
AND so weak, so there are no workers states in the more
advanced/developed countries, but working people are clearly in a
revolutionary process that will lead to that in a backward and small
country like Venezuela if left undisturbed, he would undoubtedly have
pointed out how UNLIKELY such a scenario was.

But this largely has been the story since Trotsky was assassinated. He
anticipated either one (or more) of the imperialist powers winning the
war, or the USSR doing so, which of necessity would lead to the
disintegration or overthrow of the Stalinist bureaucracy also. 

That BOTH the imperialists AND the Stalinist USSR would win AT THE SAME
TIME, I don't think crossed his mind, because THAT would just lead to a
renewed war between the winning imperialist(s) and the workers state.
And Trotsky's view on this would have been vindicated, EXCEPT that he
could not have foreseen that this new war would take the shape of the
prolonged "cold war" that would dominate an entire historical epoch.

He could not possibly have foreseen that because it was the result of
the development of the atom bomb, which had not happened, and only a
handful of scientists understood such a weapon was even theoretically
possible at the time of Trotsky's assassination.

By the time the U.S. was ready to start phase 2 of the Second World War,
the war against the USSR, the Soviet bomb made "military victory"
impossible. But that also meant that escalation of the Korean War into a
World War pointless or insane. This was what the McArthur-Truman
conflict was about.

But this decades-long standoff created space for the colonial revolution
to develop. Moreover, the imperialist countries with the largest
collection of colonies (Germany, France, Britain, Italy and Japan) came
out of WWII so weakened that they could not have maintained their direct
rule without massive U.S. aid. But the U.S. imperialists turned out to
be not very interested in restoring the glory of the British and other
empires, and preferred instead to cut themselves in for a percentage of
the action  in the Third World through the sorts of neocolonial
arrangements that the United States had already stumbled into in the
Caribbean and Latin America. 

But the *essence* of it, the key to understanding it, that what is
involved is a *process* over time and a central component is the
transformation of the working class and the working people generally,
you will find in Trotsky and specifically in the transitional program.
After saying that the relationship of democratic to transitional demands
and their tempo and so on depends on circumstances, he adds,
"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 1917)." 

Note that Trotsky encompasses not just October but also February 1917
and even 1905 within the SINGLE process of Russia's "permanent
revolution." How is this to be understood? I think the only way that it
can be understood is that permanent revolution --this aspect of it,
leading to the seizure of power and the expropriation of the
bourgeoisie-- is NOT a question of, quick, now that we have an
independent national democratic mass movement, we have to inject and
overwhelm it and reshape it with proletarian class content.

On the contrary, I think what Trotsky is pointing out is that "permanent
revolution" is a PROCESS that takes TIME, that goes through different
moments, or steps, or phases, or stages and in this sense is the
OPPOSITE of the ultraleft interpretation of instantaneous socialist

Again, apologies to cde. McAnulty for having seized on what might have
even been the quite accidental wording of his points about the Irish
struggle today (and, again, which is something I don't even pretend that
I am in a position to offer even the most tentative comment on
concretely), to raise this more general
theoretical/methodological/strategic concern about how many forces from
the Trotskyist tradition interpret "Permanent Revolution" in a spirit
that I believe is quite contrary to what Trotsky was trying to convey.


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