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Permanent Revolution today

By Phil Hearse

In the fight for socialist renewal, international collaboration cannot be on the basis of total agreement on theory, strategy or tactics. All or some of the members of organisations the Democratic Socialist Party seeks collaboration with hold or tend towards the permanent revolution theory. These include the sections of the Fourth International, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Pakistani Labour Party, the NSSP in Sri Lanka, Solidarity in the USA and Socialist Democracy in England and Wales.

Quite correctly, the DSP has not been swayed by petty diplomacy in forthright criticism of permanent revolution in a very polemical pamphlet.[1]

We maintain that Lorimer's conclusion that permanent revolution is "an inferior guide to revolutionary action compared to the Leninist theory and policy of a two-stage, uninterrupted revolution" is wrong. In fact, the reverse is true.


  • Lorimer's pamphlet is based on the obviously false assumption that the social structure of Third World countries today is similar to pre-1917 Russia or 1920s China, with the peasantry overwhelmingly dominant numerically. He does not mention that this is today untrue in most dominated and semicolonial countries.


  • Lorimer confines his critique to the experience of prerevolutionary Russia and China, and does not discuss either the other revolutionary experiences of the 20th century, or post-Trotsky rethinks in the light of subsequent experience. In his introduction Lorimer writes:


I have also not attempted to take up the innumerable distortions of Lenin's views on the class dynamics of the Russian revolution made by later Trotskyists and writers influenced by Trotskyism, preferring instead to concentrate on the original source of these distortions, i.e. Trotsky himself.[2]

Thus into the dustbin of "innumerable distortions" go Isaac Deutscher, Marcel Liebman, Ernest Mandel and two very important works which deal with these problems Norman Geras' Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg and Michael Löwy's Politics of Uneven Development not to mention works of non-Marxists such as E.H. Carr. Löwy's book in particular answers in advance every single point that Lorimer makes.


  • The pamphlet fails to recognise that solutions to the national and democratic tasks of the revolution where Third World countries have achieved formal independence, but are still gripped by imperialist finance capital cannot happen without anti-capitalist measures, i.e. tasks of the socialist revolution. How can any state achieve real national liberation today without breaking the grip of the transnational corporations, World Bank, IMF and domestic banks and finance houses?


  • Its account of the debates inside the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) up to October 1917 ignore the contradictions and inconsistencies in Lenin's position, and falsely caricature Trotsky's.


  • Lorimer gives a false picture of the post-1923 struggles in Russia and elsewhere between partisans of the two-stage and permanent revolution positions. This writes out the struggle against Stalinism and its neo-Menshevik stageist theory.


  • Paradoxically, Lorimer comes up with definitions of what the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship might mean in practice that come close to permanent revolution. These concessions give back to Trotsky with the left hand what Lorimer thinks he has taken away with the right. We are left with an eclectic and dangerously confused mishmash.


The central strategic problem: class alliances in the dominated countries

The crux of Lorimer's critique of Trotsky is the claim that to move towards socialist revolution, it is first necessary to complete bourgeois democratic revolution. Trotsky failed to understand this, he maintains.

To complete the bourgeois democratic revolution, it is necessary to forge an alliance between the working class and the whole peasantry, on the basis of national and democratic demands, Lorimer believes.

This alliance can then take power in the form of a "revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry". It will include the "peasant bourgeoisie", and can then proceed to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution, in particular land reform. Only then can a break with the peasant bourgeoisie take place and the transition to socialist revolution be posed.

This forms an "uninterrupted" process, but with a definite and distinct "national democratic" stage. It is thus a "two-stage" revolution. Lorimer argues:


The Bolsheviks projected a line of march that was necessary for the working class to take and hold power in Russia. The Bolsheviks recognised that a socialist revolution could only be carried out in Russia if the majority of the population (the workers and poor peasants) supported it.

But the majority of workers, and above all the masses of poor peasants could only be won to support a socialist revolution through their own experience in struggle.

As long as the bourgeois democratic revolution was not completed, the Bolsheviks argued, the poor peasants would remain united with the peasant bourgeoisie in the struggle against the landlords and would not see their problems stemmed not only from the vestiges of feudalism in Russia (the autocracy and landlordism) but also from capitalism.

As long as this remained the case, the revolutionary proletariat would be unable to rally the majority of the country's population, i.e. the semiproletarian section of the peasantry, to the perspective of carrying out a socialist revolution.[3]

Incidentally, I am not very happy with the phrase "peasant bourgeoisie". It would be much more accurate to say the rich peasants or kulaks were a section of the petty bourgeoisie. But here I have not disputed the term "peasant bourgeoisie" every time Lorimer uses it.

Even if this were an adequate account of what happened in Russia which it is not would it be applicable as a general schema for the Third World today? For South Korea, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Iran and South Africa? Social changes in the dominated countries exclude such a strategy a priori, because the class composition of these countries and the relative numerical weight of the different classes on a world scale has changed dramatically.

In 1929 Trotsky could write: "Not only the agrarian, but also the national question, assigns to the peasantry the overwhelming majority in the backward countries an exceptional place in the democratic revolution."[4]

Lorimer writes:


Trotsky's inability to clearly understand that a proletarian-socialist revolution could not be carried out in a peasant country except on the basis of the completion of the tasks of the peasant-democratic revolution, led him to identify the Bolshevik perspective with that of Menshevism.[5]

Lorimer goes on to his conclusion that permanent revolution is an "inferior" guide to revolutionary action compared with what he takes to be Lenin's theory straight from his polemic about Trotsky's theory "in a peasant country", without a nod in the direction of the fact that today that most Third World countries are not "peasant" countries at all.

As Löwy, writing about the 1848 Communist Manifesto and its relevance for today, puts it, the Manifesto's call for international working-class unity


… was a visionary one. In 1848 the proletariat was still only a minority in most European societies, not to mention the rest of the world.

Today the mass of wage workers exploited by capital industrial workers, white collar workers, services employees, day labourers, farmhands comprises the majority of the world's population. It is by far and away the most important force in the class struggle against the global capitalist system, and the axis around which all other social forces other social struggles [QUOTE IS GARBLED HERE] can and must orient themselves.[6]

While Lorimer abstracts directly from the Russian experience to contemporary conditions, the changes described by Löwy have altered the relative weight of the classes within specific countries and not just on a world scale.


The Mexican example

In Mexico individual peasant farmers with their own plots of land are a small minority of the population. Already in 1960, some fifty per cent of the Mexican population lived in towns. Today the figure is around seventy-five per cent (compared with about fifteen per cent in 1917 Russia). More than twenty per cent of the roughly 98 million population live in Mexico City. The rural population is in its majority composed not of peasants but of agricultural labourers, working for a wage, and often only seasonally and intermittently employed.

In the cities, the proletarian population lives side by side with the urban poor, often engaged in petty trade and criminal activity. But even here, the urban poor are often disguised proletarians.

The vast majority of the 100,000 ambulantes in Mexico City street traders are actually employees of the mafia-capitalists who control the street trade. Another huge sector of the urban population is engaged in home working, producing everything from clothes to fireworks in their backrooms and back yards.

These people, despite the fact that they may own their own pitiful "means of production", are also disguised proletarians, selling their products for a pittance to the vastly rich capitalists who control the trade.

What do these changes in the social structure over the last forty years mean for socialist strategy? A society like Mexico is very different from pre-revolutionary Russia, not just in social structure but also in the character of the agrarian question, which dominated the thinking of Russian Marxists about the peasantry.

Lenin and Trotsky debated how to overthrow a semi-feudal aristocracy based on landed estates. But in Mexico there is no semi-feudal aristocracy. Instead there is agribusiness, the thorough permeation of agriculture by capitalist social relations. The enemies of the rural poor are Mexican capitalist farmers and international, especially US, transnational corporations.

Insofar as one can talk about latifundia in Mexico, they take the form of big farms, linked to agribusiness and the rural bourgeoisie, not a semi-feudal aristocracy. Demands of the rural poor come right up against the national and international bourgeoisie, and are therefore directly linked with the anti-capitalist (not anti-feudal) struggle.

This is obvious to virtually the whole Mexican left, and reflected in the ideology of the main peasant organisations of struggle, which are socialist, anti-capitalist and explicitly linked with the urban left. There is no push whatsoever to create an independent peasant party, counterposed to proletarian and socialist demands.

If the left and progressive parties fight for the allegiance of the rural poor, it is against the right-wing bourgeois parties, particularly the governing PRI.

The battle for the allegiance of the rural poor is directly between the working class and the bourgeoisie. A worker-peasant-indigenous peoples' alliance which already exists in skeleton form will be under the political leadership of the working class.

Virtually the whole Mexican far left puts forward the slogan "un gobierno obrera, campesino, idigena y popular" (a workers, peasants, indigenous and popular government). Such a government could not be anything but the dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. a socialist government.

There can be no talk of an alliance with the "peasant bourgeoisie" against the semi-feudal aristocracy, because there is no peasant bourgeoisie and no semi-feudal aristocracy.

Does this mean that the demands of the peasants and the rural poor in particular "land to the tiller" are irrelevant or totally secondary? Not at all. Peasants and indigenous peoples' struggles have enormous weight, and are extremely popular with the progressive sections of the urban workers. But it does mean that the crucial class in any revolutionary transition is the working class itself.

Spectacular growth in the urban population in many Third World countries is directly linked to the rise of capitalist social relations in agriculture and the subordination of the rural population to agribusiness.

Countless peasants have been transformed into landless rural workers, often employed for only a small part of the year and living a miserable, semi-starvation existence. Mass migration to the cities is a logical move for the rural poor. Even the forlorn existence of the urban poor normally beats staying in the countryside. But a paradoxical effect of these processes is to heighten, rather than diminish, the importance of the land question.

Agribusiness tends to involve counter-reforms in countries where limited land reform has already taken place. Mexico is a clear example.

Individual or collective land ownership by the peasantry cannot be a solution to rural poverty so long as agribusiness monopolises the purchase and marketing of agricultural produce. Peasants become the indirect employees of national and international capital.

Owning your own plot of land and/or being part of a peasant collective, while not freeing you of your subordination to agribusiness, is going to give you more economic possibilities than being a landless labourer.

That's why landless movements like Brazil's MST have such enormous popularity. But they fight against, not a semi-feudal aristocracy, but the domestic and international capitalist/agribusiness nexus. These movements tend to spontaneously anti-capitalist ideology and ally themselves with the urban left. They do not constitute the social and political basis for an "independent" peasant party counterposed to the left.


End of the semi-feudal aristocracy

Outside some limited cases like rural Pakistan or parts of pre-1994 Chiapas, where the social relations of bonded labour and semi-slavery persisted, the semi-feudal aristocracy is defunct.

On an international scale, the semi-feudal aristocracy is (or was) a hangover from the feudal mode of production, which in a world more capitalist than ever no longer exists.

Russia in 1917 was a very peculiar social formation. It was an imperialist country, financially dependent on Western imperialist powers (especially France and Britain). Yet, simultaneously, it had a semi-feudal rural class and a huge majority of peasants in its population. Where exactly can you find a similar social formation in the world today?

One country which is overwhelmingly peasant is of course the largest China. Today only about 450 million people, about a third of the population, live in cities. This is a much bigger proportion than in 1917 Russia, and China has some of the largest concentrations of the proletariat in the world. And there is indeed a peasant bourgeoisie, the kulak class created by Deng Xiaoping's late 1970s economic reforms, which broke up the peasant communes and have led to China's transformation into a capitalist state.

However, Lorimer's theory could not possibly apply to contemporary China. The peasant bourgeoisie will not struggle for land reform against a nonexistent semi-feudal landlord class. It will fight tooth and nail to defend its gains, together with the urban bourgeoisie, against the urban proletariat and the rural workers. Class struggle will develop along the axis of anti-capitalist struggle, under the hegemony of the proletariat.


National and democratic tasks in the era of neo-liberal globalisation

Neo-liberalism the latest phase of imperialism has clamped the semi-colonial and dependent countries under the most harsh regime of exploitation since the era of direct imperialist occupation. The experience of the Asian "tigers" and "dragons" has disproved the idea that these countries are independent centres of capital accumulation to rival the imperialist powers, and shown their financial dependence of the Western imperialist centres. However much it may sometimes strain at the leash, the bourgeoisie in these countries is bound hand to foot to the imperialists.

The ideologies of bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalism, which swept the Third World in the 1950s and 1960s, have been seriously undermined. The Nassers and Nehrus of yesteryear have been replaced by pale imitations, unwilling to take the faintest independent step against the imperialist powers. The national oppression of the semi-colonial and dependent countries has deepened, not lessened.

From these factors, we conclude that democratic and national questions (including land reform) remain central in these countries.

DSP writer Norm Dixon has recently made the point that the struggle for national liberation is more than ever an anti-imperialist struggle. He argues:


The struggle for national liberation has shifted overwhelmingly to demands to end the Third World's subservience to the dictates of the World Bank and IMF, rejection of the austerity programs formulated by these imperialist-controlled institutions, and the demand to cancel foreign debt. As a result, the labour and socialist movements are more centrally placed and essential in the struggle for national liberation than ever before.[7]

Exactly. Real national liberation today means breaking the dominance of imperialist finance capital over the peoples of the exploited countries. This is a task of the socialist revolution, not the democratic revolution.

The "completion" of the national democratic revolution is inconceivable without anti-capitalist measures, for example the establishment of a monopoly of foreign trade, the nationalisation of the banks and finance houses, a regime of workers' control over the finance houses and big monopolies and the expropriation of or at least the state control and supervision of transnational corporations.

If Lorimer insists that all these measures are compatible with the national democratic revolution, carried out by what he calls a "special form of the dictatorship of the proletariat", he has really just baptised the first steps of socialist revolution with another name and agrees in essence with permanent revolution.

If not, then he is going to be the partisan of a "democratic revolution", which in today's conditions utterly fails to solve the national and democratic tasks of the revolution. As Trotsky in his writings on China argued:


The most extreme agrarian revolution, the general division of the land (which will naturally be supported by the communist party to the very end) will not by itself provide a way out of the economic blind alley. China requires just as urgently national unity and economic sovereignty, that is customs autonomy, or more correctly a monopoly of foreign trade. And this means emancipation from imperialism.[8]

The continuing importance of the national and democratic questions makes worker-peasant alliances centred on these issues essential for mobilising the forces of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, transition.

But a decisive issue facing the revolutionary movement in Third World countries today is how to articulate the question of class independence, i.e. working-class independence of strategic alliances with the bourgeoisie.

There are no cookbook recipes. Tactical and conjunctural alliances with forces from bourgeois nationalist and petty bourgeois nationalist traditions are absolutely inevitable in this period, in specific campaigns and movements. This is different to a strategic alliance, such as that envisaged in the Stalinist-Menshevik version of the two-stage theory.

Revolutionary forces have to advance the objective of a workers and peasants' government, politically led by the working class and supported by the poor peasants and other oppressed groups. This can only be the first stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat.


The DSP on Indonesia

If Lorimer does not attempt to demonstrate his theory by reference to contemporary conditions, DSP writer James Vassilopoulos has attempted to do this with reference to Indonesia.[9]

Vassilopoulos polemicises against the views of the Australian supporters of Tony Cliff. But in doing so he makes an entirely failed attempt to squeeze Indonesia into the optic of 1917 Russia.

He starts off by conceding that social reality is entirely different between the two countries: "How can Lenin's policy of uninterrupted revolution be applied in Indonesia today? Indonesia is a capitalist country oppressed by imperialism. Russia was a weak imperialist power, with survivals of feudal relations in the countryside."

So far, so good. But:


The main significance of the Russian Revolution for Indonesia lies in the fact that in Indonesia, like Russia in 1917, the working class is in a minority. A socialist revolution cannot occur without the active support of the poor peasants.

Before the 1997 economic crisis, there were some 86 million employed workers out of a population of 200 million in Indonesia.'

Although numbers will have fallen since the Asian crash, this is an enormous percentage of the economically active population. As Lenin correctly noted:


The strength of the proletariat in any capitalist country is infinitely greater than the proportion of the proletariat in the total population. This is due to the fact that the proletariat is in economic command of the central points and nerve centres of the entire capitalist system of economy, and because the proletariat expresses economically and politically the real interests of the vast majority of the toilers under capitalism.[10]

Vassilopoulos continues:


… about 10.5 million workers are employed in manufacturing, 30 million in service and mining industries, and 46 million in agriculture. In the cities there are millions of urban poor, many of whom are semi-proletarians, having only occasional waged work, and engaging in petty trading activities for survival.

By any Marxist definition whatsoever, Vassilopoulos has listed more than forty million proletarian workers, even if we were to take the false step of discounting rural workers. That is twenty per cent of the whole population, a much bigger percentage than the Russian proletariat in 1917.

He goes on:


If Indonesia is to have a socialist revolution, a revolutionary alliance between the working class and the tens of millions of rural and urban semi-proletarians will have to be forged … To forge such an alliance the revolutionary workers will have to champion the immediate needs of the peasant masses, which centre on winning democracy and land reform.

The majority of Indonesia's rural population are still landowning peasants. In the early 1980s, almost 16 million small landowners grew subsistence and cash crops on some 16 million hectares.

How can sixteen million small peasant landowners be a majority against forty-six million rural workers? The economically active majority in the countryside are rural proletarians at least on the basis of the figures which Vassilopoulos quotes. Vassilopoulos continues:


A Marxist party in Indonesia today would need to build a revolution as two stages of one uninterrupted process. In the first stage, an alliance would have to be forged between the workers and the whole of the peasantry. It would also have to include campus students (who largely come from urban bourgeois and middle class families) and the urban poor.

Whatever happened to the agricultural workers, then? Once it was concluded, the vast majority of this alliance would be composed of proletarians and "semi-proletarians" those directly exploited by capital. Such an alliance, centring initially on democratic and national tasks, would inevitably be under the organisational and political hegemony of the working class.

Victory would be, as explained by the theory of permanent revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the first step of the socialist revolution.

Vassilopoulos argues that, because alliances between different social groupings must be made, they must be of the same type as the (DSP's account of) the worker-peasant alliance in Russia. In effect, the party is trying to make Indonesia's urban poor and rural labourers an ersatz Russian peasantry. It is making an unwitting "workerist" error in its conception of the proletariat.

The proletariat today, in every country, is an immensely diverse, stratified and varied class. In the imperialist countries, service workers of all kinds make up an enormous percentage of the working class, sometimes a bigger proportion than in manufacturing.

The definition of the proletariat is not that it works in manufacturing, but the wage labour-capital relationship and the appropriation of surplus value from the labourers by the capitalist class.

We can see the false counterpositions involved in the two-stage dogma in an astounding section of Vassilopoulos' polemic. Under the heading "Socialist revolution now?", he argues:


Should the PRD (Indonesia's most important left-wing organisation) be calling for an immediate socialist revolution today? Such a call would have no mass resonance because the working class does not have sufficient class consciousness and organisation to carry it out and the poor peasants are inert.

If the Australian Cliffites do indeed advocate "immediate socialist revolution today", they are out to lunch. Any serious debate between the two-stage and permanentist perspectives in Indonesia would be about overall strategic perspectives.

Can the national and democratic tasks of the Indonesian revolution, in particular land reform and freeing of the country from imperialist domination, be solved other than through a huge national alliance which involves at its centre its massive proletariat and semi-proletariat?

And could such an alliance possibly be under the hegemony and leadership of any class but the working class? Won't such an alliance, if it is victorious, come immediately and massively into conflict with local capital and imperialism, and not "semi-feudalism"?

And how could a victorious Indonesian revolution avoid an immediate and direct clash with the long-term interests of local capitalism and world, especially, US imperialism? We return to these questions below.


The debate inside the RSDLP

Lorimer's pamphlet attempts to prove that "Trotsky's identification of Bolshevik policy with Menshevism" had become by the early 1930s a "grotesque absurdity".[11]

Could this be the same Trotsky who wrote "Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution" (NB: three, not two ), in which he scrupulously explained the differences between Bolshevism, Menshevism and his own pre-1917 views?[12] The History of the Russian Revolution.

Lorimer refers to Trotsky's magnum opus as "providing an incomparable Marxist exposition of the events that led to the Bolshevik victory in 1917". Has he forgotten that this whole book is written from the perspective of permanent revolution? If Lorimer is right about the Trotsky's views on the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, then at the core of this book is "grotesque absurdity" bordering on falsification. Strange, then, that he should recommend its "incomparable Marxist exposition".

In "Three Conceptions", Trotsky stresses the tensions and contradictions within Lenin's policy, and the fundamental change of 1917. The contradiction in Lenin's policy, according to Trotsky, was on the one hand that he correctly identified that the Russian bourgeoisie would not lead its "own" bourgeois revolution, while at the same time failing to see the logical consequences of this.

If the working class in alliance with the peasantry led the revolution and took power, it would not and could not limit itself solely to the tasks of the bourgeois revolution. Indeed, in the medium and long term, there cannot be a contradiction between the class(es) which hold the power and the social program they implement.

According to the Trotsky (and Trotskyist) explanation, the working class, supported by the poor peasantry, seized power in a socialist revolution in October 1917. Proceeding to solve the democratic tasks of the revolution, they combined this with tasks of the socialist revolution from the beginning.

Trotsky's account fits in well with a quotation from a 1921 Lenin speech:


We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a "byproduct" of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities. We have always said that reforms are a byproduct of the revolutionary class struggle. We said and proved it by deeds that bourgeois-democratic reforms are a byproduct of the proletarian, i.e., of the socialist revolution[13]

The logic of the Trotskyist position is this: there is no socialist revolution in any country whatsoever, advanced or "backward", which will carry out the socialist tasks of the revolution "all at once". This is an absurd position which Lorimer wrongly attributes to Trotsky.

As Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, the working class will seize power "and then by degrees" socialise the economy.

The timing of the socialisation of basic industry is a complex question. It crucially depends on whether the working class (and its allies) are socially and technically capable of running industry themselves.

In the advanced countries, where the working class has a higher educational and cultural level, the transition time will probably be short. Indeed, the idea that the US, British, Canadian or French bourgeoisie would go on conducting normal business for any length of time under a workers' government is far-fetched.

A workers' government in an imperialist country would be faced with a sustained counter-revolutionary offensive, and need to take more or less immediate steps to expropriate the major industries, banks and finance houses.


Lorimer's concessions to permanent revolution

In trying to define the character of the regime which existed after October 1917, Lorimer ties himself up in rather "permanent" knots, and comes close to rewriting Trotsky's theory. Lorimer says:


A revolutionary worker-peasant dictatorship, or state power, could only come into being if the workers in the cities overthrew and replaced state institutions of the tsarist landlord-capitalist state with their own organs of state power. The workers would use the state power they had conquered to rally the peasantry as a whole to consummate the bourgeois-democratic revolution and then, once the peasants came into conflict with the peasant bourgeoisie, to rally the poor peasants in the struggle for the transition to socialism. The proletarian-peasant dictatorship would therefore be the first stage of the proletarian dictatorship in Russia, or as Trotsky himself described it in Results and Prospects, a "special form of proletarian dictatorship in the bourgeois revolution".[14]

And again:


A state power which organises the working class, in alliance with the peasantry as a whole, to suppress the resistance of the big landowners and industrialists in order to carry to completion a democratic revolution would also be a form of proletarian dictatorship, of working class state power.

But it would not yet be the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat, i.e. a state power that organises the working class and the semiproletarian elements to suppress the resistance of the capitalists to the "abolition of bourgeois property in city and village". It would be a special form of proletarian state power in the bourgeois democratic revolution, a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.[15]

Lorimer knows very well that the Bolsheviks routinely described their regime from the first day of the revolution as the dictatorship of the proletariat. But in accepting this to be the case, Lorimer is forced towards permanentist perspectives. Who was it exactly in the RSDLP before 1917 who said that solving the national and democratic tasks would require the dictatorship of the proletariat? Wasn't it the author of the theory of permanent revolution?

Compare what Lorimer says with a passage he himself quotes from Trotsky:


No matter what the first episodic stages of the revolution might be in the individual countries, the realisation of the revolutionary alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry is conceivable only under the leadership of the proletarian vanguard … This in turn means that the victory of the democratic revolution is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat which bases itself upon the alliance with the peasantry and solves first the tasks of the bourgeois revolution.[16]

Now, there is a difference in emphasis between this quote and what Lorimer says. But the similarity of positions a worker-peasant alliance to create the proletarian dictatorship and solve the democratic tasks will be immediately obvious.

But neither position is anything like that defended by the Lenin of 1905 or 1908. If that were not enough, under the impact of events Lenin not only changed his position, but demanded a change of the Bolshevik program in April 1917.


Lenin: from 'bourgeois republic' to 'Commune state'

Against the Menshevik notion of subordinating the revolution to the liberal bourgeoisie, Lenin and the Bolsheviks developed the idea that the democratic revolution would be led by the workers and peasants against the resistance of the bourgeoisie itself.

Thus they developed the idea of the "workers' and peasants' democratic dictatorship" democratic because it would carry through the democratic revolution. But the democratic revolution did not mean going beyond capitalism. In "Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution" (1905), Lenin noted:


Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? It means that the democratic reforms that become a necessity for Russia do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule.

On the contrary, they will, for the first time, clear the ground for the wide and rapid, European and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.[17]

A question to Lorimer. Is this what happened in 1917? Compare Lenin's view with what Trotsky wrote in the very next year, 1906:


The immediate task of the social democracy will be to bring the democratic revolution to completion. But once in control, the proletarian party will not be able to confine itself to the democratic program, but will be forced to adopt socialist measures.[18]

Now, which of these two quotations Trotsky's or Lenin's best explains what happened in 1917-18? The answer is obvious. Lenin at the same time stressed (a) the bourgeois character of the revolution, and (b) the need politically to sweep aside the bourgeoisie. Trotsky identified a tension in these ideas. They faced logical and not dialectical contradiction. How could the workers and peasants be put in power and then merely preside over the "European" development of capitalism? Trotsky noted:


The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to believe that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of the bourgeois revolution can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie.[19]

Lenin argued that February 1917 created the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry "in a certain form and a certain way. Now a radical change was needed in Bolshevik strategy. The proletariat would have to seize power in a socialist revolution, supported by the poor peasants. He noted:


No one, no force, can overthrow the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries except the revolutionary proletariat. Now, after the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible. The only solution is for power to be in the hands of the proletariat, and for the latter to be supported by the poor peasants or semiproletarians. And we have already indicated the factors that can enormously accelerate this solution.[20]

It was against this background that Lenin wrote one of his most important works, The State and Revolution. In its preface he wrote that the Russian revolution "is now (early August 1917) completing the first stage of its development; but this revolution as a whole can only be understood as a link in a chain of socialist proletarian revolutions being caused by the imperialist war".


Lessons of Spain

When Franco led a fascist-military putsch in June 1936, the workers and peasants of Spain rose up in a revolution, successful in many important areas, especially Catalonia and its capital, Barcelona. Spontaneously the workers socialised just about everything. In the countryside too, land was collectivised.

But the revolution was crushed way before the fascist victory, by a right-wing republican alliance, whose shock troops, flank guards, anti-revolutionary murderers and torturers were the Communist Party, and especially its Russian-organised GPU contingents.

The Spanish revolution was smashed in the name of a rigid two-stage theory: first win the national and democratic struggle against the fascists, and only then begin the struggle for socialism.

Against this perspective, Trotsky counterposed permanent revolution. Even though Spain was a weak imperialist country like Russia, Trotsky insisted on the centrality of the national, democratic and land questions.

These questions centrally concerned the building of an alliance including the poor peasants and agricultural labourers, under the leadership of the working class, capable of defeating fascist reaction. Solutions had to go hand in hand with the measures of socialisation taken immediately and spontaneously by the working class itself.

Any two-stage theory indeed, any attempt to delay, prevent or obstruct spontaneous socialisation meant repressing the revolution, which is exactly what the Stalinists did.

Lorimer's theory cannot explain the blood of Spain. If national and democratic revolution has to be achieved first, before measures of socialisation; if combining socialist measures with national and democratic tasks simultaneously is a priori incorrect; then the actions of the working class in Barcelona were ultra-left, exactly as the Stalinists said .


Two-stage theory

Accounting for all the disasters which the two-stage theory created for the Third World masses would require a long book. I want to refer to two more modern experiences, Indonesia and South Africa.

Prior to the Suharto military coup in 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) under Aidit subordinated the Indonesian masses to a national "anti-imperialist" alliance with the bourgeois nationalist government of Sukarno. This fitted perfectly with the official national unity ideology of the Indonesian state. Instead of mobilising the Indonesian masses around a class independentist line as the economic situation got progressively worse, the PKI gave left cover to Sukarno. The party was disastrously unprepared for the military-Islamic coup which followed.

As James Balowski correctly explained in a recent issue of Green Left Weekly:


The PKI adhered to the Stalinist/Maoist theory of revolution: a national democratic first "stage" in which state power is exercised by a "bloc of four classes" (the nationalist bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry and the working class) would consolidate capitalism. After an extended and unspecified period of time, a distinct socialist stage would begin.[21]

Any attempt to reforge a revolutionary movement in Indonesia has of course to critically appropriate the strategic errors of the Aidit leadership, and thus be based on a militant rejection of two-stage theory.

In South Africa, prior to the 1994 transition, the South African Communist Party (SACP) completely subordinated itself to the procapitalist policies of the ANC. Crucially, when class independentist forces emerged in the trade unions in the late 1980s, around first FOSATU and then COSATU (Congress of South African Trade Unions), the SACP acted as the central conduit for reintegrating the militants into the ANC coalition, through fusion with the SACP-ANC trade union centre SACTU.

The strategic question in South Africa was not, as some ultra-leftists thought, socialist revolution versus the national democratic anti-apartheid struggle. It was, rather, which class will take leadership of the national democratic struggle?

That question has been answered in practice. On the one hand, we have a neo-liberal ANC government, headed by a former leader of the SACP and graduate of the Moscow Lenin School, Thabo Mbeki. On the other, a growing mass struggle led by the unions against the ANC government.

Numerous other experiences showing the disaster of the two-stage theory could be listed, from the subordination of the Middle East Communist parties to bourgeois nationalism in the shape of Nasserism and Ba'athism; the subordination of official Latin American Communism to national bourgeois forces, tail-ending Peronism and forming the right wing of the Chilean popular front in 1970-73, literally disarming the workers; and the CPI and the CPI(M) tail-ending Congress in India, even forming coalitions with more right-wing forces to prop up the bourgeois order.

Lorimer says:


Any attempt to build an international movement that is really based, as Cannon put it more than 50 years ago, on a revival of "genuine Marxism as it was expounded and practised in the Russian revolution and in the early days of the Communist International", cannot avoid dealing with the misrepresentations of Bolshevik policy made by Trotsky in the 1920s and 1930s.[22]

It would have been better to say: "Any attempt to rebuild the international socialist movement cannot avoid dealing with the rotten Menshevik-Stalinist two-stage theory of revolution, which for decades was fought from the perspective of permanent revolution".


Weaknesses of the permanent revolution theory

We admit that there are weaknesses in the permanent revolution theory, stemming from the ambiguities involved in the notions of "bourgeois democratic" and "national democratic" revolutions.

Bourgeois revolutions in Britain and France broke the hold of feudal relations of production and cleared the way for the full development of capitalism. From this, Marxists imputed a paradigm of general "tasks" of the bourgeois democratic revolution, which included the abolition of feudal relations in the countryside and the creation of national unity and independence.

These factors were considered a prerequisite for the full development of capitalism, which required a unified national market and a free labour force capable of being proletarianised. The full development of capitalism was taken to mean the beginning of industrialisation.

From this, many Marxists drew the conclusion that the beginnings of industrialisation in the semi-colonial countries, and the achievement of basic tasks of the bourgeois revolution, were in the epoch of imperialism impossible without the conquest of power by the working class. It was held that imperialist domination completely blocked the road to all national democratic reforms and even partial industrialisation. Trotsky seemed to lend credence to these ideas in some his writings.

The experience of the 20th century has partially contradicted the idea that in the epoch of imperialism, basic tasks of the bourgeois revolution cannot be carried out by the nationalist bourgeoisie. In many less developed countries there has been a partial solution of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution under bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalist leaderships.

For example, Mexico between 1910 and 1920 experienced a bourgeois revolution led by the peasantry and sections of the bourgeoisie itself. A "state capitalist" model of capital accumulation was initiated and partial industrialisation begun. Radical land reform in favour of the peasantry was carried out in the 1930s under Lazaro Cárdenas. A form of parliamentary democracy severely controlled was established. The leading Marxist historian of this process, Adolfo Gilly, argues that the revolution was "incomplete" and "interrupted". This is correct from one angle.

Real democracy was not, and has not been, established. Real national independence cannot exist while the country is under the tutelage of US imperialism. Breaking the grip of imperialism is a task of the socialist revolution.

On the other hand, did the revolution do away with the last vestiges of semi-feudal relations, and did it establish the basis for the emergence of an unambiguously capitalist country and free wage labour? Obviously it did. In this sense it was a "successful" bourgeois revolution.

What nationalist struggles under bourgeois or petty bourgeois leadership have been incapable of doing is establishing new imperialisms to rival the existing ones. They have all been subordinated to imperialism. "Real" national independence cannot be achieved outside the conquest of power by the working class.

Brazil, Mexico, Taiwan, South Korea, Argentina, India demolish the idea that imperialism is a complete block to any form of industrialisation. These countries, among others, have achieved a partial, but dependent, industrial development. The traditional model of semi-colonial countries exporters of raw materials, importers of manufactures does not fit these examples, which is why some Marxists have preferred to call them "dependent semi-industrialised countries".

It would be more useful to distinguish the tasks of the national democratic revolution as being distinct, at least partially, from the bourgeois revolution per se. If this is done, then it makes sense to say that real democracy, real national independence, real national unity can be achieved only by the conquest of power by the working class and its allies (or if Lorimer prefers: a special form of the dictatorship of the proletariat).

After all, the declared aims of the bourgeois revolution liberty, equality and fraternity could only ever be achieved by the socialist revolution anyway.


Underestimating the role of the proletariat, underestimating the role of the party

The final irony of Lorimer's pamphlet is that despite its intention to take a stand for Leninism and Bolshevism it ends up underestimating the role of the proletariat, and thus the role of the revolutionary party.

Lorimer wants to defend the idea that in the countries oppressed by imperialism, it is first necessary to forge an alliance with "the whole peasantry", including the misnamed peasant bourgeoisie, to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution.

However, the peasantry is a declining force worldwide, and the peasant bourgeoisie a theoretical anachronism. DSP theory instead assigns the urban poor and the agricultural labourers directly exploited by capital the role previously assigned to "the whole peasantry".

Since DSP theory considers it necessary to forge an alliance on the basis of national and democratic demands with the rural and urban poor, it follows that it considers that these forces will be under the political leadership of non-proletarian political forces, and specifically not under the leadership of the revolutionary party.

In Russia the Lorimer theory considers that the peasants were under the leadership of a peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries, and that the Bolshevik alliance with the Left SRs was key to cementing a worker-peasant alliance.

But it is very difficult to imagine what the contemporary analogue of the Socialist Revolutionaries might be in the ghettos and barrios of the growing cities of the Third World. The urban poor are often proletarians in the most direct sense themselves. There are hundreds of thousands of factory workers, construction workers, transport workers, government employees, personal servants and workers in the tourism, catering and entertainment industries who live in the huge poor barrios of Iztapalapa, Indios Verdes and La Villa in Mexico City. They live cheek by jowl with semi-proletarian street traders, home workers and unemployed.

There is no political force which can take the leadership in the poor barrios independent of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. There is no candidate for an "alliance" on a democratic basis. On the contrary, revolutionary forces must fight for the leadership of the struggles around housing and other amenities which dominate the barrios. These are class, not national or democratic, demands.

Equally, the struggles of the rural poor increasingly come up against agribusiness, rural bourgeois and capitalist farmer-landlords. The forces of capitalist reaction will themselves try to establish through clientalism and violent repression a mass base among the rural poor.

In today's conditions it is mostly fruitless to try to find ideologically independent peasant organisations to form an alliance with. Revolutionary and progressive forces among workers will spontaneously ally with the combat organisations of the rural poor, who in general reciprocate. The worker-peasant alliance today is overwhelmingly an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist alliance.

The idea that there could be a "democratic stage" other than a workers and peasants' government, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which could solve the national and democratic tasks of the revolution, is extremely dangerous and is potentially open to all kinds of opportunist interpretations.




1. Doug Lorimer, Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution: A Leninist critique, Resistance Books, 1998.

2. ibid., p.9.

3. ibid., p. 19.

4. Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution, PUBLISHER, DATE, p. 276.

5. Lorimer, p. 70.

6. Michael Löwy, Monthly Review, November 1998, pp. 22-3.

7. Norm Dixon, "Marx, Engels and Lenin on the National Question", Links No 13.

8. Leon Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, Pathfinder, New York, DATE, p. 183.

9. James Vassilopoulos, "Uninterrupted revolution in Indonesia", Green Left Weekly, No. 363, August 25, 1969.

10. V.I. Lenin, "The Year 1919".

11. Lorimer, pp. 67 ff.

12. Leon Trotsky, Writings 1939-40, Pathfinder, New York, DATE.

13. V.I. Lenin, "Speech on the fourth anniversary of the revolution", Collected Works, Vol. ??? p. ???

14. Lorimer, p. 41.

15. Lorimer p. 59.

16. Permanent Revolution, quoted by Lorimer, p. 74.

17. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 9, p 29.

18. Preface to the Russian edition of Marx's writings on the Paris Commune.

19. Results and Prospects, in Permanent Revolution, Pathfinder, New York, DATE, pp. 101-2.

20. Lenin, "On Slogans", July 1917, Collected Works, Vol ??? p. ???.

21. James Balowski, "How PKI strategy sowed illusions", Green Left Weekly, October 27, 1999.

22. Lorimer, p. 8.

Phil Hearse is a member of Socialist Democracy in Britain. He has contributed a number of articles to Links, most recently on the Mexican left and on Militant Labour/Socialist Party.

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