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Against Trotskyism: The theory of permanent revolution

By J. Sykes |
February 5, 2023
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When Lenin gave his brief and scathing overview of Trotsky’s career in his 1914 article “Disruption of Unity Under Cover of Outcries for Unity,” so that “the younger generation of workers should know exactly whom they are dealing with,” he made a point of referring to Trotsky’s “absurdly Left ‘permanent revolution’ theory.” What is the role of this “permanent revolution” theory within Trotskyism, and why is it “absurdly Left,” as Lenin says?

Karl Marx himself said in his 1850 address to the Communist League,

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers.

The Trotskyites will always bring out this quote as evidence of the “orthodoxy” on the question. Why then does Lenin characterize the Trotskyist interpretation as “absurdly Left” if this is the case?

To understand this, we need to look concretely at the revolutionary movement in Russia. While everyone agreed that the first order of business was the bourgeois-democratic revolution against the tsar, after that things get more complex.

The Mensheviks argued that the bourgeois-democratic revolution should be led by the liberal bourgeoisie with the support of the working class. It should lead, according to the Mensheviks, to the formation of a capitalist republic, which would develop the productive forces and set the conditions for a socialist revolution, to come much later.

Trotsky explained his view in the essay “The Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution.” According to Trotsky,

The perspective of the permanent revolution may be summed up in these words: The complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is inconceivable otherwise than in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat basing itself on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which will inescapably place on the order of the day not only democratic but also socialist tasks, will at the same time provide a mighty impulse to the international socialist revolution. Only, the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.

Lenin opposed both the Menshevik and the Trotskyite formulation. Against the Mensheviks, Lenin insisted that the proletariat could, and must, lead the revolution against feudal autocracy and tsarism. Against Trotsky’s view, Lenin advocated for revolution in two stages by leading the peasantry against the feudal autocracy and then against the bourgeoisie. Lenin argued that the first stage would be followed immediately by the second, and indeed it was, with the February Revolution to overthrow the Tsar in 1917 followed by the socialist revolution against the bourgeoisie in October. For Lenin, this relied on the strategic alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry, the “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.”

Trotsky wrote in “The Permanent Revolution,” that “I accused Lenin of overestimating the independent role of the peasantry. Lenin accused me of underestimating the revolutionary role of the peasantry.” Trotsky argued that the revolution, in the socialist period, would inevitably form an antagonistic contradiction between the proletariat and the peasantry, leading the peasants to abandon and even to oppose the socialist revolution. The socialist revolution, according to Trotsky, would "have to make extremely deep inroads not only into feudal but also into bourgeois property relations," leading into inevitable conflict with the masses of peasants. Indeed, according to Trotsky, “The contradictions in the position of a workers' government in a backward country with an overwhelmingly peasant population could be solved only ...in the arena of the world proletarian revolution.” In other words, as a result of this inevitable antagonism between the proletariat and the peasantry, the revolution in Russia was doomed to failure unless the revolution was spread immediately to Western Europe.

For Lenin, the dictatorship of the proletariat in the world’s first socialist country has a special character. “The dictatorship of the proletariat is a special form of class alliance between the proletariat, the vanguard of the toilers, and the numerous nonproletarian strata of the toilers (the petty bourgeoisie, the small craftsman, the peasantry, the intelligentsia, etc.) or the majority of these.” Lenin believed that the revolution depended on the unity of the toiling masses, of the working class together with the poor peasants. Harry Haywood points out that “Trotsky portrayed the peasantry as an undifferentiated mass. He made no distinction between the masses of peasants who worked their own land (the muzhiks) and the exploiting strata who hired labor (the kulaks).” Haywood goes on to point out that this is in contradiction to the Leninist analysis and strategy of the worker-peasant alliance and is “at complete variance with any realistic economic or social analysis.”

Because of this, Trotskyism holds that socialism couldn’t be built in a single country, but that it must sweep away the entire capitalist and imperialist system at once. This is what characterizes Trotsky’s theory as “absurdly Left.” It sounds very revolutionary, but at its core it doesn’t coincide with facts. Indeed, Marx argued that socialism must take hold “not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world.” There is nothing controversial about that. But Trotsky mistakes the final victory of socialism for the present task of the revolution. It is all or nothing.

For the Trotskyists, “permanent revolution” is held up as a matter of principle, but in reality, it is an abstraction based on the underestimation of the peasantry and a fundamental failure to understand who the allies of the working class are. As Lenin’s wife, Nadezhda Krupskaya, said in 1925, “Marxist analysis was never Comrade Trotsky’s strong point. This is the reason why he so under-estimates the role played by the peasantry.”

Harry Haywood put this another way:

Behind Trotsky's revolutionary rhetoric was a simplistic social-democratic view which regarded the class struggle for socialism as solely labor against capital. This concept of class struggle did not regard the struggle of peasant against landlord, or peasant against the Czar, as a constituent part of the struggle for socialism. This was reflected as early as 1905, in Trotsky's slogan, "No Czar, but a Workers' Government," which, as Stalin had said, was "the slogan of revolution without the peasantry."

This is a problem that arises again and again for the Trotskyists, as they lead with abstractions instead of concrete Marxist analysis, coming to erroneous positions on the socialist countries and the national-colonial question, both in the U.S. and in the anti-imperialist national liberation struggles abroad.

In the following articles, we’ll look more closely at the Leninist theory of revolution in two stages and then at the possibility of building socialism in a single country, and how these differed from the Trotskyite view. In any case, Trotsky and his followers have been sidelined by the course of history, while Marxism-Leninism has been proved in practice again and again.