Leon Trotsky and Permanent Revolution

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A planet controlled by imperial powers, its resources plundered and its people forced to live with unrelenting war, poverty and disease.

Sound like 2005? It’s a description of 1901, the year that a young Leon Trotsky wrote the essay “On Optimism and Pessimism,” reflecting his hope for a better future.

Four years later, he helped lead an uprising of Russian workers against the tsar. The event produced history’s first revolutionary soviet, or workers’ council, with Trotsky as its president.

The 1905 insurrection was crushed, but it provided rich lessons for the successful revolution in Russia in 1917. Out of it came Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. (See The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, Pathfinder Press, or www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/works/1931-tpv/index.htm.)

This theory asserts that even the most basic demands of workers and peasants, especially those who are most oppressed, can not be achieved without overthrowing capitalism. The needs of humanity can only be met through socialism. Further, the fight to accomplish this transformation must take place on a world scale; there are no national solutions to global problems.

In the 1920s, following Joseph Stalin’s rise to power in the Soviet Union and his claim that socialism could be built in one country, Trotsky was exiled for his ideas. But world events, including the demise of the USSR and the imperialist rise of the U.S., are making the concept of permanent revolution relevant as never before.

At a recent World Forum of Intellectuals and Artists, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez noted the importance of Trotsky’s ideas and urged the audience to study them. For anyone struggling with the problem of how to successfully make change — antiwar and anti-globalization activists, feminists and lesbians and gays, fighters for national and race liberation — this advice could not be more timely.

Socialism or bust. Chávez in Venezuela, and other left populist leaders around the world, now face the same questions that Trotsky and V.I. Lenin confronted in Russia in 1917.

One of Trotsky’s observations from the 1905 uprising was that workers, not Russia’s small, conservative capitalist class, initiated the drive to overturn feudal relations, end the rule of the tsar and the nobles, and win reforms and democracy.

This was a departure from earlier history. During the era of the French Revolution, the ascending capitalist class played a progressive role in sweeping away feudalism. Since then, Trotsky said, capitalism had become reactionary, incapable of improving the lives of the masses.

Against prevailing socialist thought, he theorized that insurrectionary workers could not achieve their demands by artificially stopping at a “bourgeois democratic” stage of revolution, one that would leave capitalism intact and evolve at some future date into socialism.

His ideas were soon tested. During the months-long course of the Russian Revolution, the Bolshevik Party split over whether to back the new bourgeois (capitalist) government, which intended to institute reforms without overturning basic property relations — or to lead a fight to establish a workers state. Trotsky and Bolshevik leader Lenin urged the latter course, and Russia’s most politicized workers agreed with them.

Today, Venezuela is at a similar crossroads. While Chávez has instituted tremendous reforms, the country’s capitalist economy and class relations remain intact. The profit-makers intend to sabotage the gains of the masses and are working with the U.S. to oust Chávez. As long as they hold economic power, they will threaten Venezuela’s progress.

Globalization and its meaning. Neither Lenin nor Trotsky believed that impoverished Russia could achieve socialism on its own. Both argued that workers must seize the revolutionary initiative when opportunity arose, but also believed the construction of socialism required an advanced economy. The survival of Russia’s new workers state required the spread of revolution to highly developed capitalist countries.

But revolution failed to succeed in Europe. And Trotsky’s insistence on continuing to push for global revolution, rather than retreat and compromise with capitalism, became a crucial debate.

His intransigence on this issue flowed from his understanding of world economy. Trotsky understood that the conflict between the working and capitalist classes is international in nature, because the economy is. As long as capitalism exists, it will engage in a life-and-death battle against anything anywhere that gets in the way of profits, from colonial liberation struggles to workers states like the USSR.

His ideas challenged Stalin’s practice of curbing workers’ movements to achieve “peaceful coexistence” with capitalism. Tragically, the Soviet Union’s collapse vindicated Trotsky’s position.

Cuba faces the same issue today. Celia Hart, a Cuban proponent of permanent revolution, believes that an isolated workers state cannot survive in the long run: “The spreading of the revolution across the Latin American continent is essential for the survival of revolutionary Cuba.”

Humanity’s common global fate. Trotsky’s ideas are no less significant for U.S. radicals, whose job is to make revolution at home.

For one thing, liberation around the world depends on ending the U.S. role as the globe’s exporter of war and counterrevolution. For another, all of the gains of the U.S. working class, from Social Security to voting and abortion rights, are also at risk of extinction. Since the time that Trotsky formulated his ideas about permanent revolution, capitalism has only become more reactionary, violent, and incapable of meeting human needs.

An important part of his theory is the belief that those workers who have the most to gain from revolution should be looked to for leadership. He famously urged socialists in 1938 to “open the road” to women workers and youth.

In 1917, it was a strike by super-exploited women textile workers that launched Russia’s revolution. Today, quiet as it’s kept, resistance is no less alive in the U.S. And, as Trotsky emphasized, its heroes are the people most marginalized under the current system.

African American longshore workers initiated the Million Worker March. Women are mobilizing for reproductive justice. Queers are committing civil disobedience to win equality.

These battles inspire, and are inspired by, battles in other countries. The perspective of permanent revolution can weld these campaigns together and create what is needed to satisfy the aspirations of global humanity yearning to breathe free: an international movement to win a socialist world.

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