From Russia With Love: Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution

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This article is based on a 2009 speech given by Andrea Bauer, Managing Editor of the Freedom Socialist newspaper, at a public forum of the same name.

Normally, the people who pocket the profits from the wealth that workers create — the ruling class, if you will — like to insist that everything is just fine. The economy is good and getting better all the time. It’s always a great time to invest and a great time to buy a home, take a vacation, check out a new car — a great time to spend. It’s perpetually Morning in America.

But that hasn’t been quite true this past year. Just for a minute, it was generally admitted that something was horribly wrong with the economy. This lasted exactly long enough for Goldman Sachs and their assorted partners in crime to back up a big old truck to the front door of the Treasury Department and empty the place out.

Now that that has been accomplished, the perspective is a lot more contradictory. On the one hand, it took only about a month after the “Great Recession” was acknowledged for the pundits to declare that it was over, and we could all go back to being good little consumers again. But of course this is absurd on the face of it, as unemployment figures continue to show month by month.

The fact is that the crisis for working women and men didn’t start with the home foreclosures meltdown, and it didn’t end when Goldman Sachs and AIG cashed their bailout checks. Real wages have been frozen in place for decades. Nearly 46 million people can’t get healthcare. College is out of reach for more and more young people. There aren’t enough jobs to go around, and the jobs that do exist are increasingly part-time, temporary, and lacking in benefits. And everything that’s wrong and hard is doubly and triply wrong and hard for people of color and for immigrants and for households headed by single moms.

And that’s just speaking about the sorry economic facts of life in the U.S., not even to mention what is happening with reproductive rights, civil rights, constitutional rights. Or to talk about the infinitely worse situation for billions of other people around the world.

One looks at the depth and breadth and persistence of these problems and it’s a logical question to ask: How can things stay so screwed up for so many people for so long? How can people continue to be so exploited without things changing?

Who will lead in making radical change?

The thing is, no matter how rotten a social system is, it doesn’t change by itself. It has to be changed. People have to change it. And the people who suffer the most from the status quo are the people who can and must change it. In our historical era, this means the working class.

This is one of the main points of Leon Trotsky’s concept of permanent revolution, and it flows directly from the ideas of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. It sounds like a simple and logical proposition, which it is. But it’s also a very profound proposition, and a controversial one. Every time you hear a union official or a movement spokesperson advocate relying on the Democrats for an improvement in working people’s lives, for example, you are seeing an opposite point of view at work.

Trotsky was just 25 years old when he began developing the theory of permanent revolution in 1904. A Marxist and a radical activist, he was trying to answer the question of what course the Russian revolution would take, including the question of who would make it.

For Russian socialists, this was not just an academic question. They could see that revolution was coming, even if the despised tsar and tsarina famously could not. But what kind of revolution would it be? What would its goals and tasks be? Who would lead it?

A large part of the reason that the Russian socialists could be so certain that revolution was on the horizon was that Russia was still saddled with a horribly backward and anachronistic social and political system at the beginning of the 20th century. Long after the capitalists had achieved their victories over feudalism in Europe, Russia was still semi-feudal. And the democratic freedoms and institutions that come along with the rise of capitalism were nonexistent.

But Russia was mired in a paradox. For the country to advance, first and foremost, the peasants needed to be freed from the grip of the agricultural landlords. The working class also needed democratic rights. These would normally be the tasks of what is called the bourgeois democratic revolution — the consolidation of power by the capitalists. But the capitalist class in Russia was too tied to the feudal aristocracy there, and too dominated by the foreign capitalists of Europe, to make their own revolution. So what would happen?

Permanent revolution was Trotsky’s answer to this question. The theory has three main parts.

The first idea is that, in those countries where capitalism has developed late and the capitalists are incapable of making the democratic revolution, the workers will have to make it, in alliance with the peasants and led by a consciously revolutionary party. The workers’ initiative will put them in direct conflict with the capitalists, and so the revolution, to defend itself, will have to immediately grow over into a socialist one. A good example of this is the Cuban revolution. Castro and the July 26th Movement that he was part of did not set out to make a socialist revolution. They just wanted to get rid of the dictator Batista and accomplish land reform and other democratic changes. But they were compelled to adopt socialist measures like widespread nationalization to keep the capitalists from blocking every reform they were trying to make.

The second idea of permanent revolution is that the seizing of power by the workers is not the end of the revolution but the beginning of the revolution. There will be all kinds of class conflicts, debates, and new questions to answer as society moves forward.

The third idea is that socialist revolution is inherently international because of the global economy and world division of labor and resources, and that socialist revolution can only be successfully completed on a global scale.

The 1917 Russian revolution proved Trotsky’s theory correct. It was begun from below by women textile workers on February 23rd, the day commemorated as International Women’s Day. It concluded eight months later with the insurrection against the provisional government on October 25 and the capture of the Winter Palace late that night. The months in between showed clearly both the importance of the guiding role of the revolutionary party, which was led in Russia by Lenin and Trotsky, and of winning the support of the peasants, who made up the overwhelming bulk of the army.

The Russian revolution was and will remain forever a fabulous event, the opening chapter of the emancipation of working people by working people with socialist aims. It was something completely new in history, but Trotsky had seen its shape 13 years before it happened.

But, as the degeneration of the Soviet Union under Stalin showed, Trotsky was also right that socialism can only prevail as an international system. The causes of the rise of Stalinism are a topic for another day. It’s enough for now to say that Trotsky, Lenin, and the other Bolsheviks knew that for their revolution to survive, they would have to have the support of revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. And these did not come to pass.

The evolution of Permanent Revolution

Trotsky first developed the theory of permanent revolution to apply to backward countries, meaning countries that as of the 20th century had not yet made their bourgeois democratic revolutions. But, as he realized, its conclusions are universal in our time period. As he said, it’s no longer a question of whether a country is “mature” or “immature” for socialism. In his book Permanent Revolution, he wrote: “Insofar as capitalism has created a world market, a world division of labour and world productive forces, it has also prepared world economy as a whole for socialist transformation.”

When it comes to the advanced capitalist countries, I think I can say without undue pride that no party has taken the ideas of permanent revolution and run with them in the same way or to the same extent as the Freedom Socialist Party. In fact, the party came into existence in 1966 because of what founders like Clara Fraser understood these ideas to mean in the United States and on the world stage. This understanding is why we are a socialist feminist party.

Trotsky, Lenin, and other early socialists like Clara Zetkin had a keen appreciation of the revolutionary role that women can and do play. Trotsky explicitly credited women workers with the launching of the Russian revolution. And, going back even earlier, Frederick Engels recognized the subordination of women as a second sex as an absolutely fundamental historical development that was key to the rise of a system of private property.

By 1966, though, an extended economic boom had expanded the service and professional sectors and brought women into the workforce in unprecedented numbers in industrialized countries around the world. Female demands for equality were on the rise. The time was ripe for an analysis of what this meant, and in its very early years the FSP developed this analysis.

Where the FSP parted company with other leftists of the time — and for that matter, many socialists now — was in saying that women’s rights are not some secondary question to be resolved after the socialist revolution, but a huge, basic motor force for that revolution — in the same way that the desperate need of the peasantry for land reform in 1917 was a basic impulse for that revolution. The difference is that women in their overwhelming majority are part of the working class, and, with every passing year, more and more a part of the work force.Women have a double impetus for revolution, as both part of a specially oppressed group and as part of the exploited working class. To build a successful socialist movement, women’s issues and women’s leadership have to be central to the struggle. And this is true globally, not just in the U.S. or in the U.S. and the other highly developed countries.

And this fierce leadership of women organizing on behalf of themselves and their class is why party founders also helped to launch Radical Women, and why our two groups continue to be mutually supportive sister organizations today.

Much of what is true for women is also true for other groups who are both exploited as workers and oppressed on the basis of special characteristics like race or sexuality. Revolutionary integration was another part of the founding program of the FSP. This theory explains the key importance of the Black struggle to the working-class struggle in the U.S. The early FSPers also made waves with their advocacy of lesbian and gay rights and their elevation of this question to a first-rank issue for workers and radicals. Over the first two decades of our history, as we plunged into the various movements as activists and studied their dynamics, we expanded our arsenal of written works to encompass the Chicano movement, the fight for Native American sovereignty, the Asian American movement, the disabled movement, and more.

It is exactly the movements of the most oppressed that have validated Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution over the past decades and kept the revolution itself alive. Think of the explosive impact the movement for immigrant rights has already had on the U.S. labor movement and society in general — and that is a movement that still has new heights ahead of it, I am sure.

After McCarthyism, the socialist movement was wounded and fragmented and the official labor movement tamed and conservatized. Who kept the fight for change alive after those dark days? The civil rights movement, that’s who — a globally energizing and uplifting struggle that rewrote the U.S. social scene and inspired a succession of radical movements against imperialist war and for democratic rights, including the democratic rights of more than half the world’s population. Women were in the forefront of revolutions and revolutionary movements in Iran, Ireland, Palestine, South Africa, Cuba, Nicaragua, and more — sometimes with credit given, and more often not.

The indispensable role of the revolutionary party

Iran is back in the news today providing a great example of the process of permanent revolution, as is Honduras. In both Iran and Honduras, questions of basic democracy, including the right of the people to elect their representatives, are fueling uprisings that threaten to become revolutionary.

In both countries, women are in the vanguard.

And in both countries, reformist leaders — Moussavi in Iran, Zelaya in Honduras — are doing their best to make sure the situation does not get out of control: in other words, that the workers don’t take power. And in making that their first priority, inevitably these two compromise with the ruling elites they are supposed to be the opposition to, and betray the very democratic demands that are the reason anybody even knows their names.

In the period of its rise, capitalism, and capitalist leaders, played a progressive role in many ways. The vigorous new system brought technological advances, the notion of individual liberties and democratic participation by the people in political affairs, and the freeing of the serf from the land. It challenged the stranglehold of the church and the hereditary aristocracy over people’s lives. But by 1848, Marx was already warning that the bourgeoisie could no longer be trusted to make good on even elementary reforms. It was in this connection that he used the phrase “permanent revolution” in 1850, in a very inspiring and educational speech to the central committee of the Communist League in London. I want to quote for you the very end of his talk. Speaking of the situation of workers in Germany, who had not been politically experienced enough to take advantage of a revolutionary opening two years earlier, he said this:

“They themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.

You can see how, 150 years later, this problem of workers depending on the representatives of the enemy class is still holding us back, in Iran, Honduras, the U.S. — in country after country. Trotsky called the reliance of working people on others for the changes we need “the worst illusion in all of history.”

Also holding us back is the related question of the lack of revolutionary parties with widespread influence, and this too can be seen in the examples of Iran and Honduras. A vanguard party can communicate the lessons of past victories and failures and provide the alternative leadership — in opposition to capitalist leadership — that workers and oppressed people need. It can explain the need for seizing power, and it can provide the planning and the committed, disciplined cadres required to make it happen. Direct action is not enough. Their side has all the guns, money, and lawyers; we had better at least have a plan!

And these arguments for the revolutionary party, by the way, are the reasons why we hope everyone here tonight will seriously consider joining the FSP. We need each other!

Trotsky played many heroic roles in the years leading up to the 1917 revolution and in the years immediately following. He not only had brilliant ideas, he was a wonderful exponent of them in speeches and writings. He led the most important workers’ council, or soviet, in both the 1905 revolution, which was crushed by the tsar, and the 1917 revolution. He defended the Soviet Union from simultaneous counterrevolution from within and without as the head of the Red Army, which he basically had to build up from scratch as a real fighting force.

You can read about these achievements and many more, by the way, in Helen Gilbert’s very engaging pamphlet Leon Trotsky: His Life and Ideas — for the modest price of which you get not only a very clear explanation of permanent revolution, but also fun anecdotes with which to impress family and friends.

Trotsky played an outstanding role in the Russian revolution, matched only by Lenin’s role. But, even so, his own judgment was that his main contribution to the liberation of the working class came later.

After being exiled from the Soviet Union in 1929, Trotsky’s life work became keeping alive the real ideas of socialism, as against the Stalinist distortion of them, and encouraging the growth of revolutionary parties around the world. In Helen’s pamphlet you will also learn about the enormous sacrifices Trotsky made in his fight against Stalinism and the horrible Stalinist persecution of Trotsky and his co-thinkers, who included most of his family.

These sacrifices were not in vain. Trotskyist parties began to take root and bloom around the world, including in the U.S. These parties came together in an international coordinating body called the Fourth International — essentially a world party of Trotskyism — in 1938.

The parties of the Fourth International did some amazing things. Here in the U.S., the Socialist Workers Party of the 1930s and 1940s resisted imperialist war, led important labor struggles, educated about the danger of fascism and how to fight it, and many other brave and honorable things.

Unfortunately, both the Fourth International and the SWP are very far from the organizations they once were. The full analysis of why that is so is also a topic for another whole forum. But a large part of the answer is that they isolated themselves from the actual process of permanent revolution. And, in the SWP’s case, the party explicitly threw the theory of permanent revolution overboard in the early 1980s.

In part, this was a flight from feminism, which apparently was too threatening for many male socialist leaders. Women and the most abused and put-upon workers were rising up all over the world. But the Fourth International vetoed women’s caucuses within it, and the SWP kept holding on in a death grip to its orientation to the white male worker in heavy industry as the real worker.

Looking forward with optimism

The Trotskyist movement today is badly fragmented. But its ideas remain mighty, and they still live on today and are put into practice by tenacious parties around the world.

In the past few years, the FSP has discovered a number of new friends among Trotskyist parties in Latin America and the Caribbean. We have worked jointly with some of these parties on projects like the campaign against the free trade agreement in Costa Rica and have been heartened by the women’s leadership and the interest in feminism that we have seen in these parties. We look forward to more collaboration with these groups and possibly regroupment with one or more of them. One example of current collaboration is our support for the Mexican electrical workers as they resist the wholesale privatization of their industry by President Calderon, and I hope all of you will sign the petition that we have available here tonight.

I have no doubt at all that from the kernels of bold and principled resistance that capitalism faces at this moment great things will grow. Labor bureaucrats can delay it, sexist and racist movement misleaders can do their best to ignore it, but nothing can stop the permanent revolution. We call it a theory, but it is really not a theory. It is a fact of life, like evolution — it’s a profound social process that Trotsky gave us the tremendous gift of describing. It is up to us now to thank him for that gift by accepting the privilege and the responsibility of consciously carrying the revolution forward.

October 23, 2009, Seattle, Washington

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