MARX AND Engels first used the phrase “permanent revolution” when they assessed the defeat of the German Revolution of 1848–1850. They had identified the working class as the key force that could create socialism. Capitalism, however, was still relatively new, and the working class—outside of parts of northwest Europe and the U.S.—was tiny. For a minority class, the question was posed of whether or not to make alliances with other classes in the struggle against the old aristocracy. Some of these allies ended up siding with the aristocracy out of fear of the revolution “going too far.” Marx and Engels experienced the vacillation and timidity of Germany’s middle-class revolutionaries and concluded that workers had to make revolution “permanent,” by which they meant “continuing forward without interruption.”
After 1848, Marx and Engels did not write a great deal more on permanent revolution. That fell to Leon Trotsky. Following the 1905 Russian Revolution, Trotsky outlined the theory in “Results and prospects.”
Russia in 1905 was a monarchy ruled by the tsar, unlike Britain, the U.S., and France, which were bourgeois democracies. In these countries, the bourgeoisie had overthrown feudalism or, in the case of the U.S., colonialism. These regimes were far from truly democratic. The enlightenment ideal of “equality before the law”—while a step forward from the “divine right of kings”—masked the exploitation of workers.
Before Trotsky, most Marxists assumed bourgeois revolution was necessary for capitalism to develop before socialism was possible. This became known as the “stages theory.” However, by 1905 only a handful of countries had bourgeois revolutions—even though capitalism had become the dominant force on the planet.
“Great powers” like Russia, which were still feudal societies, had to compete, so they used the state to develop key industries. In addition, powers such as Britain and the U.S. were looking for new places to invest, bringing industry to every corner of Europe and increasingly into the colonies. But in these countries, industry did not develop exactly as it had before. The most modern plants existed beside the most “backward” conditions. The fabric of Russia was woven with such contradictions. Most Russians were peasants—and the tsar got in the way of the full development of capitalism.
But as the working class grew, the more timid the capitalists became, afraid of workers mobilizing against the tsar, lest workers mobilize against capitalism as well. This propelled workers into leadership. And if workers took the lead, why should they limit their own revolution? Workers could make the revolution permanent by taking power—which would further become permanent by spreading beyond Russia. Development in Russia was uneven, but it was also combined with global capitalism. Trotsky’s theory was vindicated by the 1917 Revolution—and the general strikes, revolts, and revolutions that spread across Europe.
The conditions of the 1905 Revolution no longer apply, but this theory remains important, as 100 Years of Permanent Revolution makes clear. With seventeen essays, the volume attempts to rescue the theory from historic novelty.
Uneven and combined development
At the core of permanent revolution is the law of uneven and combined development. Capitalism tends to break down barriers between different national economies. But it does so unevenly—since each nation takes a different starting point. As Ernest Mandel wrote: “permanent revolution was born from the discovery of the law of uneven and combined development, i.e., of the combination of tasks with which the masses in a backward country are simultaneously faced under conditions of imperialism.”
Permanent revolution is the method of understanding how the workers’ movement needs to navigate this “combination of tasks” and how this brings workers into alliance with forces whose interests are not identical to their own.
The workers of Russia were faced with the dual problem of overthrowing absolutism and capitalism. The workers of economically “backward” countries today, confronted with neoliberalism, face even more tasks. From Mexico’s maquiladoras to China’s special enterprise zones, modern production can be found next to the historic “underdevelopment” of these nations. The neoliberal policies of the imperial powers develop industries but they also destroy industry, and in the process foster undemocratic regimes and other forms of oppression.
These policies create opposition not just among workers and peasants but also the middle class and some capitalists. They may chafe at their subjugation to foreign dominance—just as the Russian capitalists chafed at the tsar’s rule. Such forces may aim to achieve some kind of national liberation so their economy can develop and compete. The working class shares the aim of ending national oppression. But these interests diverge in the course of struggle.
When the African National Congress (ANC) took power in the early 1990s in South Africa, the ANC instituted neoliberal reforms that have been devastating to workers. Black workers and the ANC leadership shared the goal of ending apartheid, but they did not share the interest at uprooting the capitalist system that created apartheid. The ANC justified this with a “stages theory.” Today, as Patrick Bond notes, the ANC explains the country’s growing poverty with a theory of “two economies”—a “First World” and a “Third World” South Africa. President Mbeki argues these are “structurally disconnected” from one another. However, it is the combined nature of South African capitalism that creates wealth—and poverty for millions of Black workers. The solution remains permanent revolution.
It would be impossible to evaluate all the contributions to 100 Years—which cover a number of events—from the Irish independence struggle to issues facing today’s workers. In part this is because Trotsky’s theory takes its starting point by rejecting the abstract concept of stages and looks at the specific dynamics. But the method of permanent revolution is indispensable.
Take the industrialization of China. As Neil Davidson puts it, “If there is one place in the world where the process” of uneven and combined development “is unmistakable, it is China.” It is not just that the “backward” and the “modern” exist side by side. Together, they produce “explosive instability.” The Chinese Communist Party’s dictatorship behaves like the tsar—marshalling arms, brokering investment, and policing workers. While China produces 50 percent of the world’s cameras and 30 percent of its air conditioners and televisions, the majority still live as peasants—and workers make extremely low wages—without basic democratic rights. This hybrid of advanced and backward is leading to advanced struggles. In 1998 alone, 3.8 million workers were involved in workplace disputes.
The revolutionary party
The prospects for these movements, however, are difficult to predict. This is because there is another element of Trotsky’s theory—the question of working-class organization. To make the revolution permanent, workers need to organize independently of vacillating and wavering allies. This requires revolutionary parties. This urgent question is a weak point in 100 Years, maybe because today such parties are few and far between.
There is also not a great deal of discussion about Latin America, even though the editors point out that
“combined and uneven” global neoliberalism is exposing the limitations of…social democracy in the disappointments of Lula’s presidency in Brazil, while at the same time generating new forms in the Zapatista rebellion in Mexico, or in Venezuela under Chávez.... Read critically, Trotsky’s insights can provide the basis for a rejuvenated…Marxism, which can understand better, not only the tumultuous last 100 years but also contemporary results and prospects.In fact, the practical questions posed by permanent revolution—including the question of the revolutionary party—are most urgent in Latin America. The questions are vividly concrete in Venezuela. What attitude should revolutionary workers take to the Chávez government, joint management, or Venezuela’s international debt?
Aside from its gaps, 100 Years brings permanent revolution back to the forefront—and that is a welcome contribution.