Revisiting permanent revolution

IN THIS time of crisis, occupation, and radical resistance to capitalist globalization, there are growing numbers of people who believe that another world is not only possible but inevitable, and who also hope to help make that a better world, something that is not at all inevitable. More and more, they (we) are fighting hard for that better world—sometimes with amazing results.

The realities we face are complicated, however, and happy endings are not guaranteed. It has often been said that there is a need for the development of serious revolutionary theory to help guide our work. Without that, we risk flailing around in reactive protests unconnected to a strategic pathway that might have some hope of actually bringing about a much needed power shift in the direction of genuine democracy and a humanistic reorientation of economic resources (socialism). Serious revolutionaries are inclined to consider the experiences and ideas of revolutionaries who struggled before us in order to find things that might be useful.

The ideas of Karl Marx were powerfully influenced by working-class struggles erupting during his lifetime, and those ideas powerfully influenced many working-class and revolutionary theorists and activists who came afterward. One of the most sweeping approaches to revolutionary theory is the perspective of permanent revolution associated with Leon Trotsky. This is a focus of the fascinating tome edited by Richard Day and Daniel Gaido, who persuasively insist on giving the matter a different twist.  

Trotsky’s breakthrough?
Marxism fuses a view of history, an engagement with current realities, and a strategic orientation for replacing capitalism with socialism. The dominant interpretation of history shared by Marxists of the early twentieth century went something like this: since the rise of class societies (with small, powerful upper classes of exploiters enriched by vast laboring majority classes), there have been a succession of historical stages characterized by different forms of economy—slave civilizations giving way to feudalism, which has given way to present-day capitalism.

The rise of capitalism was facilitated by democratic revolutions that swept away rule by kings and the power of landed nobles, making way for increasingly democratic republics. The victory of the capitalists (bourgeoisie) paves the way for the triumph of industrialization and modernization. Industrialization creates economic productivity and abundance, making possible a socialist future (a thoroughly democratic society of freedom and plenty in which there will be no upper class and lower class), and which also creates a working-class (proletarian) majority which potentially has an interest in and the power required for bringing into being a socialist future.

This had implications for most Marxists in the Second International (or Socialist International—a global federation of socialist and labor parties established in 1889). Many believed that there must first be a bourgeois-democratic revolution, followed by industrialization and modernization within the context of a democratic republic, before the necessary preconditions for a proletarian-socialist revolution can be created. There was a crying need for such a bourgeois-democratic revolution in an economically “backward” country such as Russia in the early 1900s, oppressed by the tsarist autocracy and landed nobility (to which capitalists were subordinated as junior partners), with a small working class and a large impoverished peasantry. Throughout the Second International, it was agreed that Marxists should fight for the triumph of such a revolution, so that capitalist development could eventually create the economic and political preconditions for a working-class revolution that would bring about socialism.

For many Russian Marxists (the Mensheviks, influenced by “the father of Russian Marxism,” George Plekhanov), this meant building a worker-capitalist alliance to overthrow tsarism. Lenin and his Bolsheviks—revolutionary Marxists who were profoundly skeptical of the revolutionary potential of Russia’s capitalists—called instead for a more radical worker-peasant alliance that would carry the anti-tsarist struggle to victory. But even they did not question the “orthodox” schema: first a distinct bourgeois-democratic revolution paving the way for capitalist development; later—once conditions were ripe—a working-class revolution to bring about socialism.

Yet from a Marxist point of view, this schema provides a theoretical and political puzzle. If the working class is as essential to the democratic revolution as the Mensheviks claimed, and their direct exploiters are the capitalists with whom they are engaged in class struggle that (as the Communist Manifesto tells us) is “constant, now hidden, now open,” then how can these mortal enemies be expected to link arms as comrades in a common struggle? And if—as Lenin insisted—the workers must, in fact, turn their backs on the capitalists in order (in alliance with the peasantry) to overthrow tsarism, what sense would it make for them in the moment of victory to turn power over to their exploiters?

In his recently republished classic The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, Michael Löwy has put forward the commonly held view that “Trotsky alone [was able] to cut the gordian knot of the Marxism of the Second International and to grasp the revolutionary possibilities that lay beyond the dogmatic construction of the democratic Russian revolution which was the unquestioned problematic of all other Marxist formulations.” He envisioned “not only the hegemonic role of the proletariat and the necessity of its seizure of power, but also the possibility of a growing over of the democratic into the socialist revolution.” Löwy elaborates: “Trotsky’s perspective . . . was a major theoretical and political breakthrough. In particular, it offered a radical alternative to the economistic and vulgar-evolutionist interpretation of Marxism that was hegemonic in the pre–1917 socialist movement, and whose mechanical and pre-dialectical strategic corollary was the theory of stages.”1

But it is here that Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido provide a sharp challenge in their splendid collection, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution. In doing so, they offer an incredibly important contribution to our understanding of the context in which Trotsky developed his theory.

The richness of the classical Marxist tradition
What Day and Gaido present—in their scholarly introduction and in the impressive collection of writings that they have gathered and translated—is a current within “Second International Marxism” that is much richer than has been acknowledged by many on the revolutionary left. They explain it quite aptly:

The theme of our anthology is the rediscovery and elaboration of the concept of permanent revolution in the years 1903–7. In researching this project we have collected and translated into English for the first time a series of documents that bring fundamental issues to life in a way that no secondary account possibly could. One of our principal discoveries is that Leon Trotsky, while certainly the most famous and brilliant proponent of permanent revolution, was by no means its sole author; indeed, several major contributions came from a number of other Marxists, some of whom—such as David Ryazanov—have rarely been mentioned in this connection, while others—Karl Kautsky in particular—have most often been regarded as pseudo-revolutionaries whose real commitment was always parliamentary politics. The documents that we have translated demonstrate not only that Kautsky was a key participant in all discussions of permanent revolution, but also that in the years of the first Russian Revolution [1905–06] his thinking was often closer to Trotsky’s than to Lenin’s.

We are treated to seven essays by Kautsky, five by the young Trotsky, two by Trotsky’s mentor and collaborator Parvus (Alexander Helphand), three by Rosa Luxemburg, two by Ryazanov, and one by Franz Mehring—none of which easily fits into the alleged “economistic and vulgar-evolutionist interpretation of Marxism.” There is also a dissenting essay from George Plekhanov, defending the kind of orientation that Löwy presents as characteristic of “Second International Marxism.”

Notably absent are contributions from Lenin—which strikes this reviewer as an unfortunate weakness, given the fact that Lenin’s writings of 1905 also contain passages hinting at the possibility of “uninterrupted revolution”—which by 1915 had developed into an insistence on the link between uncompromising democratic struggles culminating in a working-class socialist revolution, which he re-emphasized in theory and practice in 1917.

Actually, it is Karl Kautsky who emerges as the theoretical revolutionary hero of Witnesses to Permanent Revolution. The quality of his Marxist analyses—as represented in these pages—is of high caliber. This substantially corroborates recent scholarly interventions by Lars Lih, insistent on Kautsky’s revolutionary integrity in the pre–1910 period.2 (Day and Gaido note in their introduction, as does Lih elsewhere, that a series of compromises with the bureaucratic leadership of the German Social-Democratic Party caused this deservedly esteemed “pope of Marxism” to slide away from his earlier two decades of revolutionary commitment.) Given this affinity with the perspectives of Lih, it is surprising and disappointing that a passing reference in the introductory essay slams “Lenin’s high-handed view of centralized party control” (34), which Lih so sharply and adeptly challenges as a myth in Rediscovering Lenin. But the focus of Day and Gaido is not on this but on the incredibly rich discussion that took place among such an impressive number of intellectual-activists over the five-year period of 1902–07.

For those seeking to understand these long-ago times, and to learn something of the Marxist method, one could do worse than to immerse one’s self in the stimulating contributions of these revolutionaries. What becomes clear from such an immersion is the theoretical context within which Trotsky’s own perspectives developed. It is, of course, obvious that neither Kautsky nor Mehring nor Ryazanov, nor any of the others first came up with the elements of the theory of permanent revolution. The editors acknowledge (as was shown three decades earlier in Michael Löwy’s lucid study) that the very phrase “permanent revolution” as well as essential elements of the theory can be found in the works of Marx and Engels—especially in their writings of 1850 and, with specific reference to Russia, of the late 1870s and early 1880s.

In various works (his introduction to a later edition of 1905, comments in The New Course, his autobiography), Trotsky commented that his “permanent revolution” conception overlapped with perspectives of Parvus, Luxemburg, Mehring, and Kautsky—and also Lenin. Some Trotskyist scholars, such as Michael Löwy, have characterized this as an effort to “minimize the originality of his conception” in order to “play down the supposedly ‘heretical’ nature of the theory of permanent revolution.”3 Witnesses to Permanent Revolution suggests that Trotsky’s comments may have been grounded less in political expediency than intellectual honesty.

What this suggests is that the theory of permanent revolution, far from being the unique innovation of Leon Trotsky, flows naturally from the revolutionary conceptualizations inherent in the analyses and methodology of Marx himself. Revolutionary-minded theorists and activists seeking to apply such Marxism to the world around them will naturally come up with formulations going in a “permanentist” direction.

Trotsky’s distinctive formulation
This is one of the irrepressible conclusions emerging from this volume—a must-read collection for anyone wanting to know the true nature of what might be called “the best of Second International Marxism.” On the other hand, it can be argued that Day and Gaido tend to stretch or simplify what is meant by “permanent revolution” in order to gather as wide a congregation of Marxists as possible under the same theoretical tent. To the extent that they do this, it blurs the distinctive contribution offered by Trotsky.

In Trotsky’s sparkling prose we see several interrelated elements formulated more clearly and boldly than can be found among many of these “witnesses.” Trotsky’s formulation linked the struggle for democracy—freedom of expression, equal rights for all, and rule by the people—with the struggle for socialism, a society in which the great majority of people would own and control the economic resources of society to allow for the free development of all. It also linked the struggle for revolution in Russia with the cause of socialist revolution throughout the world.

Trotsky’s version of the theory contained three basic points. One held that the revolutionary struggle for democracy in Russia could only be won under the leadership of the working class with the support of the peasant majority. The second point held that this democratic revolution would begin in Russia a transitional period in which all political, social, cultural, and economic relations would continue to be in flux, leading in the direction of socialism. The third point held that this transition would be part of, and would help to advance, and would also be furthered by an international revolutionary process.4

It is not the case that all of the “witnesses” gathered together by Day and Gaido actually put things together in just that way. For some of them, the primary association with “permanent revolution” involves the idea that democratic revolution spills over into socialist revolution, or that the working class must provide leadership in the democratic revolution. The dynamic bond between democratic struggle, socialism, and working-class internationalism is not articulated by all of the “witnesses” in the manner of Trotsky.

More than this, among many within the Second International there most definitely was a very different way of understanding Marxism, consistent with or influenced by the way that Plekhanov (and other theoretical opponents of Lenin and Trotsky) explained things. That was also very much a part of the theoretical scene within the world socialist movement in the early decades of the twentieth century. Karl Kautsky himself, from 1910 through 1920 and beyond, pulled away from his revolutionary contributions of earlier years and fell into what some have decried as the “economistic and vulgar-evolutionist interpretation of Marxism.” Aspects of such “Marxism” infected parties affiliated with the Communist International—even the Russian Communist Party.

After Lenin’s death, in the middle 1920s, the rising bureaucratic party and state apparatus headed by Joseph Stalin instinctively gravitated toward a variant of “Marxism” that snapped all of the threads connecting the essential elements of Trotsky’s formulation of permanent revolution: connections between democracy, socialism, and internationalism. Stalin advanced the notion that some kind of “socialism” (burdened by scarcity and authoritarianism, which—many hoped—would eventually fade away if all loyal comrades did what they were told) could be created in the Soviet Union itself, within a capitalist dominated world. Flowing from this was the notion that communist parties in other countries should struggle for democracy and social reforms, but not socialist revolution if alliances could be made with “progressive capitalists” and regimes willing to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union.

Such “Marxism”—whether in Second International or Stalinist variants—has done considerable damage to the working-class and revolutionary movements. The articulation of permanent revolution put forward by Trotsky provides a vital alternative to those who would change the world for the better. What Day and Gaido show us in this remarkable collection is that Trotsky had a number of brilliant comrades who powerfully influenced and reinforced the revolutionary perspectives that he developed in the struggle for human liberation. Like Trotsky, we are now able to engage with the vital contributions of these comrades.

Paul Le Blanc is professor of history at La Roche College in Pittsburgh. He is the is author of numerous books, including From Marx to Gramsci ­(Humanity Books, 1996), Lenin and the Revolutionary Party (Humanities Press, 1993) and the editor of Lenin: Revolution, democracy, socialism (Pluto Press, 2008).

  1. Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 43, 101.
  2. For example, Lars Lih, “Lenin and Kautsky: The Final Chapter,” International Socialist Review 59, May–June 2008.
  3. Löwy, 40.
  4. This summary is drawn from Paul Le Blanc, “Uneven and combined development and the sweep of history,” International Viewpoint (2005),



Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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