The Relevance of the Theory of Permanent Revolution

[:es]FOTOTECA JGB LABO. Carlos[:]

80 years since the assassination of Leon Trotsky (2nd article)

The theory of permanent revolution (TPR) is undoubtedly one of Trotsky´s greatest contributions to Marxist theory. It is essential to analyze and characterize revolutions, their functioning and players, and also the tasks set forth for the working class and revolutionaries. Formulated in 1929, it is not the result of sudden inspiration, but of historic experience.

By Martín Poliak

In 1850, when assessing the European revolutions of 1848, Marx wrote: “While the democratic petite bourgeoisie wants to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, the task of the proletariat is to make the revolution permanent” until eliminating class society, for which they must maintain an independent struggle and organization.

Trotsky would enrich this theory through the experience and the tasks set forth by the class struggle first in Russia, and then internationally.

This is a theory that advances in its formulation as the struggle of the working class also moves forward. It is a theory for the revolution in the advanced countries of Europe; it develops by incorporating underdeveloped countries, and finishes as a theory of global revolution that also incorporates colonial and semi-colonial countries.

In the introduction to his book The Permanent Revolution, Trotsky states that this theory is comprised of three fundamental ideas:

1. Democratic tasks and the socialist revolution

Trotsky says: “First, it takes up the problem of the transition from the democratic revolution to the socialist one. This is in essence the historical origin of the theory.”

Precisely, Trotsky´s first formulation in 1906 sought to answer to the nature of the revolution in an underdeveloped country like Russia.

Marx had written in the Prologue of Das Kapital (1867) that the developed countries showed the underdeveloped countries the image of their own future. Thus, Marxist orthodoxy believed that the socialist revolution was only possible in countries like England, France or Germany. For underdeveloped countries like Russia, they proposed a bourgeois-democratic revolution that, like the French Revolution of 1789, overthrew absolutism, established a republic and carried out an agrarian reform, paving the way for capitalist development. That was the task of the liberal bourgeoisie, just like in France or England.

The task of the working class would thus be limited to joining the bourgeoisie in its struggle against Tsarism and defend it against the reaction. Only after decades of capitalist development would the conditions be met for the fight for socialism. The democratic and socialist revolutions were separated in two clearly differentiated stages.

Trotsky saw in this approach a mechanical and erroneous transfer of Marxism. He asserted that the bourgeoisie, like Marx had proposed, was capable of neither carrying out a revolution nor fulfilling its own tasks. The presence of the organized working class turned it fearful and reactionary. Furthermore, the Russian bourgeoisie was weak and tied by several political and economic strings to the Tsarist monarchy. Only the working class, despite its small numbers, was capable of leading the revolution, transforming the powerful strikes that it was carrying out into uprisings against Tsarism and thus fulfilling the democratic tasks. The revolution of 1905 and the appearance of the first Soviet, confirmed this hypothesis.

But once in power, the proletariat would not limit itself to solving the democratic tasks. It would open a revolutionary dynamic that would surpass the limits of bourgeois democracy and private property, paving the way for the socialist tasks. The revolution would acquire a permanent nature.

The Russian revolution of 1917 was the confirmation of the TPR. Between February and October, the provisional governments of the liberal bourgeoisie, supported by the reformist socialists, did not solve any of the democratic tasks. Only after the working class, led by the Bolshevik Party conquered power, were the agrarian reform passed, the self-determination of oppressed nationalities attained and democratic rights achieved. At the same time the socialist tasks began.

By the end of the 1920’s, Stalinism resumed the reformist two-stage conception, imbuing it mostly with the global left. Since then, it promoted anti-feudal, anti-oligarchy or anti-imperialist revolutions as a necessary previous stage to a future socialist revolution. The consequence of this was the participation of the Communist Parties in governments and alliances with the supposedly progressive sectors of the bourgeoisie and the betrayal of great revolutionary processes.

2. A permanent transformation

Trotsky continues his introduction: “The second aspect of the theory characterizes the socialist revolution. For an indefinitely long time and in constant internal struggle, all social relations are transformed. Society suffers a process of metamorphosis.

With the conquering of power by the working class, an internal transformation starts that combines peaceful changes with more or less violent commotions and involves the whole of social life: education, culture, family, technique, economic organization, etc.

Thus, workers need to constantly mobilize and encourage their democratic organizations, far from the single party dictatorships that some try to point to as the socialist “model”. Only the active and democratic participation of the whole working class can guarantee this transformation.

A current debate

The revolutionary processes in our continent at the end of the last century and the beginning of the current one, as well as the failure of the “progressive” governments that emerged from them, have re-actualized these debates and confirm the relevance of the TPR.

The mobilizations, revolutions and uprisings in Venezuela, Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, etc. marked the end of the “neoliberal decade” and their political regimes, and at the same time raised the possibility of advancing toward fundamental change in our countries.

With differences from country to country, there was progress in redistribution measures and, in cases like Bolivia or Venezuela, in the control of their natural resources. The constituent processes in some countries were greatly important democratic achievements. US imperialism lost ground and there was a certain relative “independence” and “autonomy” against it. However, none of those experiences overcame capitalism.

Venezuela, despite claiming a Socialism of the 21st Century, never went beyond the framework of capitalism and never overcame its dependence on oil revenue, which was increasingly associated to the big transnational corporations from where we saw the rise of a parasitic Boli-bourgeoisie that thrives on the million-dollar oil business and imports. The result is at plain sight:

After almost 20 years, those experiences ended up in failure or frustration, the gains achieved were lost. Despite exceptional political and economic conditions (the loss of influence by the US imperialism, favorable prices of commodities, mobilized people, process of continental extent), instead of advancing in structural changes, they ended up regressing and most of them allowed the return to power to versions of the right.

The reason behind the setback is in the unbridgeable limitations of every nationalist process that stops without transforming the social and economic relations in an anti-capitalist way. There is no agrarian reform without touching the great corporations and agro-businesses. Without controlling the banks and foreign trade, it is impossible to think of a sovereign productive development. Without touching the interests of the big transnational corporations, it is not possible to abandon the primary natire of our economies. 

The experience of these twenty years shows, just like the TPR proposes, that the full completion of the democratic tasks can only become a reality as a product of a government of the working class through a socialist revolution.

3. The international nature of revolution

Trotsky continues, “The international nature of the socialist revolution, which constitutes the third aspect of the theory of the permanent revolution, is the inevitable consequence of the current state of the economy and the social structure of humanity […] the socialist revolution begins within national borders; but it cannot be contained within them.”

Capitalism is a global system, thus any revolution that does not extend and remains isolated is doomed to retreat. Lenin and Trotsky knew this and therefore founded the Third International after the triumph of the Russian Revolution. None of the political leaderships that led revolutions in the 20th Century repeated that path. They prioritized “co-existence” with imperialism and “socialism in one country.” Thus, both in Eastern Europe and even in Cuba, what imperialism could not achieve through violence, it achieved through economic pressure.

Based on the combination of these three aspects, the TPR erases the distinction between countries “mature and immature ” for socialism, becoming a theory of global revolution, in which each revolution is ultimately part of an international whole. If the processes of change are not increasingly deeper within, transforming all the economic structure, eliminating the bourgeois State and replacing it with workers´ democratic organizations; if there are not changes in culture and education, if there are not in-depth and permanent changes within and without, spreading the revolution, the process will ultimately retreat. This is the essence of the TPR formulated by Trotsky.

The need for a revolutionary leadership

The advocates of “progressivism” claim these ideas are utopian and oppose a supposed “realism” of what is “possible” to them.

Emir Sader explains: “The extreme left perspective is nice in theory but it has little to do with practice, it demands rupture when there is insufficient political strength. You cannot break from capitalism without the reconstruction of labor, which is fragmented and precarious.”

It is a definition that justifies “it can´t be done,” with arguments about supposedly unfavorable relations of strength that are not grounded in reality. Recent history shows that there is a great social strength that achieved social gains through years of struggles. Was there not enough strength in Venezuela after defeating the coup d’état, the oil sabotage and the revoking referendum promoted by imperialism and the traditional bourgeoisie? Was there not enough strength in Bolivia after the defeat of the secessionist attempt of the bourgeoisie of the “half-moon”? Or in Ecuador after the defeat of the coup in October of 2010?

What was missing was the political determination of the political leaderships of those processes. Álvaro García Linera, one of its leaders, says that they consider “post-neoliberalism” as the only possible path, in other words, a more “distributive” capitalism. But as Marx claimed, capitalism is a system of exploitation and it develops by destroying its two sources of wealth, humanity and nature. The fact that it takes on a more “wild” or “civilized” nature has to do with its own needs of accumulation and the leeway the class struggle grants it.

Not confronting the core of capitalism leads to its reproduction. That is why the PT ended up in negotiations with Oderbretch, Correa encouraging exctractivism, CFK privileging relations with the mega-mining industry, agricultural businesses and secret agreements with Chevron and the government of Venezuela handing over 12% of its territory to transnational corporations for the extraction of minerals.

We affirm that the limits of how far we can go are determined by the nature of a political project, whether it has a program to do so, whether it is supported and propelled by the mobilization of the people, whether it uses every measure to push further, whether it is free of any commitment to extractive and financial corporations, whether it gives a regional and international nature to those goals.

And those characteristics are intimately linked to the class nature of a projects and political leadership. If they did not go further, it is ultimately because of the petite bourgeois or directly bourgeois leaderships that were clearly not willing to carry the fight against capitalism to the end. As Marx, Lenin and Trotsky stated, only the independently organized working class can carry the fight for a radical and socialist transformation to the end, without any commitment or ties to big corporations.

Only from that perspective can relations of strength be measured. It is clearly not an easy struggle and the result is not predetermined. Like any other political struggle, it must be carried out, and for that to happen, we first need to have the political determination to do so.

This is not an academic debate. It sets the concrete perspectives of our struggles. As we are witnessing, the big revolutionary mobilizations are not stopping. With the United States at the front, they are spreading to Lebanon, France and Bolivia. Sooner or later they will start again in Chile, Ecuador and other countries. The brutal global economic crisis we are going through, together with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, prepares a world in which millions of workers will take to the streets to prevent the bourgeoisie from placing the weight of the crisis on their shoulders. All the decadence of the capitalist system is becoming visible in the eyes of millions of people, and the possibility of a socialist perspective, of a real transformation that benefits the majority, will be on the table with strength once again. Avoiding new failures and frustrations is possible if we build strong revolutionary alternatives in each country and at an international level, like we are doing in the MST and the ISL.