Permanent Revolution for the 21st Century

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Murry Weiss’ pamphlet, titled Women’s emancipation and the future of the Fourth International, is a collection of three short essays written between 1978 and 1982. It also includes an obituary that introduces the reader to Weiss who is described as “a quintessential revolutionary.”

Of what interest are the seemingly dated essays to students of the labour movement today?

First some background. The Fourth International (FI), that Weiss is concerned with, is the umbrella grouping of revolutionary communist organisations scattered around the world which was founded in 1938 by Russian revolutionary, Leon Trotsky.

The first essay explores the crisis of the FI. Weiss believed that the FI ignored the explosive wave of struggles being waged by women across Western Europe. Additionally, he believed that sexism and unprincipled opportunism, among other things, dominated the U.S. Socialist Workers Party (SWP).

The second essay focuses on a split in the FI in 1979, when two tendencies from France and Latin America boycotted the 11th World Congress. The point of fissure was the U.S. SWP’s actions in relation to the then unfolding Nicaraguan revolution. The SWP, supported by the governing body of the FI, the United Secretariat, denounced and disarmed Colombian Trotskyists who had travelled to Nicaragua to help carry the revolution forward. Colombian activists were deported, beaten by neighbouring security forces and returned home.

The third essay puts the argument for “Permanent revolution and women’s emancipation.” This essay is the shining jewel in an interesting collection. Weiss throws new light on the complex and not easily reducible theory of permanent revolution (PR).

At its heart is the understanding that “the unfinished bourgeois-democratic tasks of humanity can only be carried through by proletarian socialist revolution.” For example, the French revolution promised the lofty democratic ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. While they were promised, the emerging ruling class of the time could never deliver. Today in France, laws are passed to limit, restrict, impede, confine and curb these very ideals through a raft of legislation, policing practices, bureaucratic policies, Kafkaesque procedures, registration documents, detention centres and other repressive measures. Indeed it is the same the world over. The core of PR is the insight that such “bourgeois-democratic tasks” can only be completely and resolutely carried to their conclusion by an insurgent working class that will reap the benefit of turning the noble rhetoric of freedom, democracy and equality into real, non-negotiable living conditions.

Weiss is at his passionate best here, providing a framework to understand the rise and fall of twentieth century national liberation and post-colonial struggles, the rowdy emergence of the women’s liberation movement and the emergence and continual re-emergence of anti-racism movements in the first world. Importantly, Weiss addresses the role of Stalin, and Stalinism, in undermining workers’ upheavals for the most part of last century, and places such events within the framework of PR, while underscoring the utter centrality of internationalism within Trotsky’s theory of PR. Weiss also has something original to say about the centrality of women in particular, but also of migrants, gays, and other marginalised communities, in the PR process. It’s an insight that merits consideration, and is founded on a reflection of revolutionary history.

Do these articles stand the test of time? The first two articles are of great interest for students of the communist movement of the twentieth century, and Weiss writes clearly and with conviction. The third study is a must-read for those wanting a primer in the single most critical premise in Trotskyist theory.

In trying to understand, at least theoretically, why the decaying corpse of capital has been able to see off the too-long delayed socialist revolutions of the first world, Weiss’ pamphlet is well worth the $7 purchase price.

Bryan is a member of the Community and Public Sector Union and a regular contributor to Alliance for Workers Liberty, which can be found at

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