Doug Lorimer, Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution: A Leninist Critique
Resistance Books, 1998, 80pp. $6.95
A review by John Nebauer, Green Left Weekly, #353, 15 March 1999
After Lenin, Leon Trotsky was the foremost leader of the Russian Revolution. His contributions to the international socialist movement and to Marxism were immense. Trotsky's leadership of the Military Revolutionary Committee in November 1917 helped ensure the victory of the Bolsheviks uprising. His classic History of the Russian Revolution remains the best account of the events that led to and followed the demise of the Romanov dynasty in 1917. As the founder of the Red Army, Trotsky played a vital role in defending the revolution from the forces of reaction. Later, he led the opposition to Stalinist degeneration and provided a Marxist analysis of the bureaucratic regime.
However, some believe that his outstanding contribution to Marxism is the theory of permanent revolution, which he developed in conjunction with German Social Democrat Adolph Helphand (better known to history as "Parvus") prior to the Russian revolution of 1905. While the theory was initially designed to explain the unfolding of the revolutionary process in Russia, Trotsky later claimed that it applied to revolutions in all non-industrialised countries.
Lorimer subjects Trotsky's thesis to a rigorous critique. He argues that Trotsky was incorrect on the main questions of the Russian Revolution, and that his theory cannot be applied to any subsequent revolution. The Trotskyist movement and its sympathisers argue that the 1917 revolution led Lenin to accept Trotsky's theory, a position Lorimer rejects.
Both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks believed that the revolution would be bourgeois. The Mensheviks argued that the Russian capitalists would lead the revolution, with the working class playing the role of "extreme opposition."
In contrast, Lenin believed that the bourgeois revolution would fundamentally be a peasant revolution against the remnants of feudalism. His aim, therefore, was to forge an alliance between the working class and the peasants. According to Lenin, only a revolutionary government based upon such an alliance could carry through the bourgeois revolution to completion. Once the bourgeois revolution was complete, the task of the working class was to win the poor and semi-proletarian layers of the peasantry away from the political leadership of the wealthy peasants (kulaks) in order to bring about socialist revolution.
While Trotsky agreed with the Bolsheviks on the approach that the working class should take towards the liberals, he argued that the revolution would immediately break the bounds of bourgeois-democratic revolution and spill over into a socialist one. Moreover, Trotsky shared the Menshevik assessment that the peasantry was too backward and passive to be a strategic ally or a major force in the coming revolution.
Lorimer quotes from an article in the September 1915 edition of Nashe Slovo, which Trotsky co-edited with Menshevik leader Julius Martov: "Today, based on the experience of the  Russian revolution and the reaction, we can expect the peasantry to play a less independent, not to mention decisive, role in the development of revolutionary events than it did in 1905." By dismissing the need for an alliance with the peasantry as a whole, Trotsky argued that the working class alone would have to carry out the democratic revolution. In addition, he believed, events would force the proletariat to implement socialist measures alongside bourgeois-democratic measures, thus stepping over the bourgeois-democratic phase of the revolution.
For example, in his 1906 work Results and Prospects, Trotsky wrote:
"In undertaking the maintenance of the unemployed, the government thereby undertakes the maintenance of the strikers. If it does not do that, it immediately ... undermines the basis of its own existence.
"There is nothing left for the capitalists to do then but to resort to the lockout ... It is quite clear that the employers can stand the closing down of production much longer than the workers, and therefore there is only one reply that a workers' government can give to a general lockout: the expropriation of the factories ..."
Trotsky made it clear that, when he wrote in 1906 of the socialist revolution being implemented "from the very first moment," this was not a rhetorical flourish. In his 1909 article =93Our Differences," Trotsky wrote, "I have demonstrated elsewhere that twenty-four hours after the establishment of a `democratic dictatorship', this idyll of quasi-Marxist asceticism is bound to collapse utterly."
Lorimer argues that this gave Trotsky's perspective an ultra-left character. The theory was based upon a mechanical and fatalistic conception of the class struggle. Lorimer refers to Trotsky's 1904 polemic against Lenin, Our Political Tasks, in which Trotsky wrote, "Marxism teaches us that the interests of the proletariat are determined by its objective conditions of life. These interests are so powerful and so inescapable that they finally oblige the proletariat to bring them into the realm of its consciousness ..."
Lorimer quotes from a 1970 article by Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, which argued:
"Today it is easy to see what a naively fatalistic optimism was concealed in this inadequate analysis. Immediate interests are here put on the same level with historical interests ..."
Test of events
The test of a theory is how well its predictions correspond to events as they emerge from the historical oven. Lorimer shows that Trotsky's recipe was rather lacking in essential ingredients. Trotsky projected the capitalists' lockout during the 1905 revolution, when they still commanded the support of the tsar's police and army, forward to a situation under a revolutionary government of the workers and peasants, when they would not enjoy such support.
In fact, the replacement of the tsarist police by armed workers' detachments in 1917 created a favourable political situation. Thus, on March 10, 1917, an agreement between the Petrograd Industrialists' Society and the Petrograd Soviet instituted an eight-hour day in all factories in the city. It spread to most factories throughout Russia during March and April.
Trotsky's assessment that the peasantry was incapable of playing an independent role was also wrong. The October Revolution was the victory of an alliance between workers and peasants, and was accompanied by the emergence of a revolutionary peasant party, the Left Social Revolutionaries. This alliance played a crucial role in the first stage of the revolution, when the peasantry remained united to carry through the bourgeois agrarian revolution against the landlords.
It's been argued that "socialist" measures were carried out before the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Certainly, some capitalist property was expropriated during the months following October 1917. However, it was not part of any plan to socialise industry as a whole. Historian E.H. Carr, in volume two of The Bolshevik Revolution, said about the earlier nationalisation:
"Extensive nationalisation of industry was ... no part of the initial Bolshevik program.... The nationalisation of industry was treated at the outset not as a desirable end in itself but as a response to special conditions, usually some misdemeanour of the employers; and it was applied to individual factories, not to industries as a whole, so that any element of planning was quite absent from these measures."
Victor Serge in Year One of the Russian Revolution pointed out that in December of 1917, "The management of some of the big factories -- notably the Franco-Russian Works in Petrograd -- immediately insisted that their works be nationalised: they wanted to get out of the responsibilities of demobilising industry from war production. Belgian, Swedish and French companies made similar approaches, which were received with a categorical refusal."
Lenin himself believed that it was the Bolsheviks' recipe which carried off the blue ribbon. In his 1918 pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (written after Lenin was supposedly converted to the permanent revolution thesis), Lenin wrote:
"Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First, with the `whole' of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese wall between the first and second, to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means to distort Marxism dreadfully ..."
There is a great deal more to be sampled, including the debates that flared within the Communist Party between 1917 and 1928 on Bolshevik policy and the revolutionary process. Lorimer also charts Trotsky's return to his pre-1917 positions as revolution flared in China in 1927-28, and Trotsky's later identification of Bolshevik policy with Menshevism.
The debate over permanent revolution is not just a matter of history. Both Lenin and Trotsky tried to apply the lessons of October to revolutions in the colonial and semi-colonial world. Lorimer's analysis vindicates Lenin's perspective of uniting the working class and peasantry to achieve the democratic, then proceeding to complete the proletarian revolution with an alliance between the working class and poor peasantry.
Today in countries like Indonesia, the debates of 1917 have a new pertinence. The subject of this book deals with living, breathing class struggle, making it a must read for all those who participate in the struggle against capitalism.
[Copies of this important essay are available from Resistance Bookshops throughout Australia or can be ordered by emailing email@example.com.]
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