The crises of the twenty-first century and Trotsky: In honor of the 80th anniversary of his death

By Seiya Morita 

October 31, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — This year marks the 80th anniversary of Leon Trotsky's assassination by an agent sent by Joseph Stalin. The greatness and tragedy of Trotsky was inextricably linked to the greatness and tragedy of the era in which he lived. This era was the “Age of Permanent Revolutions” that began with the Paris Commune in 1871 and ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern European bloc, and China’s partial transformation into "state capitalism" around 1990.

The Age of Permanent Revolution and Trotsky

Before the “Age of Permanent Revolution” came the “Age of Bourgeois Revolution”. During this era the bourgeoisie and its political proponents were the leading forces of revolutions, but when capitalist frameworks were formed and gradually established, even under the monarchies of the developed countries in Europe, the bourgeoisie ceased to be interested in revolution from below. On the contrary, it became hostile to it. This is because every revolution, as it became more radicalized, generally had a tendency to grow beyond the leadership and interests of the bourgeoisie, and also because working class and socialist ideology, which had grown with the development of capitalism, became far more of a threat to the bourgeoisie.

If this was true in the developed countries, it was even more so in the least developed countries where the elemental bourgeois democratic tasks were still to be carried out. The historic mission of carrying out the democratic revolution in this vast less developed world fell on the shoulders of the proletariat, allied with the peasantry and the oppressed peoples. The historic choice for this era was whether the democratic revolution launched under the rule of the workers' and peasants' bloc would leap into a socialist revolution, or be thrown backwards to a more barbaric regime.

The logic of this permanent revolution was most clearly formulated by Trotsky, who experienced the Revolution of 1905 as a leader of the Petersburg Soviet. His theory of permanent revolution, which he inherited from the strategies of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels over the years 1848-1849, and which crystallized in his experience of the 1905 Revolution, was the embodiment of the World Spirit (Weltgeist) of this new era.

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution has a theoretical basis arising from his analysis of the peculiarities of Russian society as a late-coming capitalist country[1], as well as an underlying basis in his trust in the proletariat's ability to change society and exert its political self-determination. Without the latter, in fact, the former would not be possible.

The surprisingly rapid realization of Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution in 1917-1918, and the subsequent, equally surprisingly, rapid defeat of Trotsky in the struggle against the rise of Stalinism in the 1920s, were both due to the operation of the logic in this meta-dimension. In 1917, it worked to his advantage, and in the 1920s, it worked against him. The Russian proletariat, completely weakened after the World War, the revolution and the Civil War, was unable to resist the weight of the bureaucracy in the 1920s.

Wars, revolutions and crises

If the main form of crisis in the Age of Bourgeois Revolutions was periodic industrial panics, the main form of crisis in the Age of Permanent Revolutions was global wars (hot and cold) and revolutions arising from them. The astute Engels had already predicted the possibility of a European war since the 1870s, but he left this world before it became a reality.

From then on, the world lived under the sword of Damocles: world war on a European scale could happen at any time. And when it finally broke out in 1914, the Second International, formed in an era of peace, quickly collapsed, and the revolutionaries and revolutionary parties, worthy of this new era of war and revolution, took over the leading role. So did Lenin's Bolsheviks, and the Comintern and its national branches organized under the impact of the Russian Revolution. If Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution was an ideological expression of the "World Spirit" of the period, Lenin's Bolshevik vanguard party materially embodied the same Spirit. The result of the most ideal combination of the two was the Russian October Revolution in 1917.

But later, because of the Stalinist degeneration of the Bolsheviks, the ideological expression and the material (degenerated) embodiment came to clash constantly. Nevertheless, if the revolutionary party really wanted to lead the revolution to victory, it was inevitably forced to take the road of permanent revolution. If it failed to do so, the country and society would fall into a more barbaric regime of military dictatorship or fascism. The Second Chinese Revolution of the 1920s and the Spanish Revolution of the 1930s are eloquent examples of the latter.

The Second World War, which was much larger than the First, brought revolutions and workers' states from below in China, Vietnam and Yugoslavia. The advance of the Soviet Red Army and the collapse of fascism led to the incorporation of the Eastern European countries into the Soviet bloc. The workers' states became a world system, and its power led to a succession of permanent revolutionary movements in Third World countries. Everywhere the main actors were the revolutionary blocs of workers and peasants led by Communist or Socialist forces. Although workers' revolution did not succeed in the Western advanced countries, they were forced to take up the system of the welfare state under the Cold War.

But this Age of Permanent Revolutions, which included both great revolutions and terrible tragedies (the two World Wars, the Great Depression, fascism, the Holocaust, the atomic bombings, the nuclear arms race, etc.), also failed to produce a successful proletarian revolution in the developed countries (the French Revolution of 1968 was its last great attempt). So the Age finally ended because of the arrival of the neoliberal counter-revolution on the one hand, and because of the eventual collapse of the Stalinist workers' states on the other.

The double crisis the world faces

Today, the world is in the midst of a double and serious crisis. One is an objective crisis, unprecedented in history, and the other is an equally serious subjective crisis, i.e. the absence of a revolutionary class force to overcome it. The world is facing a much more serious crisis than Trotsky saw in the Age of Permanent Revolution. Noam Chomsky identified this serious crisis in three dimensions in his speech at the Progressive International's kick-off meeting: 1) the danger of nuclear war, 2) the growing threats of environmental catastrophe, and 3) the deterioration of democracy.[2]

The first two are well known and have already been noted by many. From the severity of this crisis, not a few people have drawn conclusions about the incompatibility of capitalism and humanity, and the alternative of "ecosocialism" has been raised.[3] In contrast, the third crisis does not appear to be comparable to the first two. But, as Chomsky wisely sees it, the third is actually more serious in the sense that it is directly related to humanity's ability to deal with the first two crises. The "liberal democracy" that was supposed to have won the Cold War is becoming a kind of caricature, even in a bourgeois sense, through having eliminated the counterweight of Communist/Socialist forces.

This deterioration of democracy that is going on right before our eyes doesn’t take an extreme form such as military dictatorship or fascism in the Age of Permanent Revolutions (in fact, that extremism was an expression of the strength of the proletarian forces of that era). Instead it takes the form of a gradual breakdown of the rule of law and the quasi-dictatorship of puppet politicians, and it proceeds in a parodic form of democracy. As if reminiscent of the phrase "tragedy happens twice, first as tragedy then as farce", bourgeois politics in its farcical aspect tells us that its lifeblood is running out far more surely than its tragic aspect of the past.

When, as Greta Thunberg said, "we must act as if our house were on fire", bourgeois politicians and parties, both conservative and liberal, are unable to do anything about the serious problem of global warming, and instead focus on their own supporters who are increasingly becoming cultish and self-obsessed.

The phrase "our house is on fire" is not just a metaphor. This year, the Giga Fire in California, United States, destroyed four million acres of forest. Its size was so substantial that, in just one season, it topped the records of California’s five biggest-ever fires. As shown by such natural disasters, just at the moment when all countries should be working together to urgently tackle global warming, they spent more than US$2 trillion on military expenditure in 2019 alone. Instead of fighting the fires that are raging in our homes, we are still busy buying rifles and bullets.

The existing political establishment is surprisingly helpless in the face of even the COVID-19 crisis, and it resorts to haphazard remedies. More than 44 million people have already been infected and more than 1 million people have died, and the momentum of infection has not diminished in any way. This is the result of 40 years of neoliberalism, which has destroyed the social infrastructure needed to combat such a crisis. How can, therefore, the current political establishment be expected to be able to deal with the three crises?

But the real seriousness of these crises is shown by the fact that no revolutionary class force with a willingness to take on political and economic leadership for itself has emerged (so far) to replace the declining bourgeois politics. This subjective crisis arises, needless to say, from the absence of a class force to replace the industrial proletariat, which was the central revolutionary force in the Age of Permanent Revolutions, but whose transformative capacity has been severely debilitated, if not "exhausted".

Can we overcome the human crises?

But if, as Marx predicted, there can be no more a revolutionary class force than the proletariat, how on earth can humanity survive these unprecedented crises? We live in an era in which, as Wolfgang Streeck suggests in How Will Capitalism End?, it is much easier to imagine a situation in which humanity ends with capitalism than to imagine the end of capitalism through revolution.[4]

In this context, indulging in idle wishful thinking is as dangerous as spouting an idle sense of despair. Even in the Age of Permanent Revolutions, which was not the final crisis of humanity, it took two world wars for parts of humanity to break free of the yoke of capitalism and imperialism. What we have before us, as Mike Davis puts it, is "la lutte finale (the last struggle)".[5] There is nothing more foolish than to think that this will be idyllic. A new agent of change can be formed only gradually out of a quagmire of blood and mud.

And the most important key to this last struggle remains the working class. The Corona crisis brought the term ‘essential workers’ into focus, but what it showed was the very simple fact that, in the end, workers (not only industrial workers, but also various service and care workers) run our society. Any billionaire is powerless without them. Candidates for the new class force of change, who are still absent at the moment, still do not exist outside this diverse and multiple working class.

The working class served the bourgeoisie as an auxiliary revolutionary force in the Age of Bourgeois Revolutions. Then, it emerged for the first time as an autonomous revolutionary force in the Age of Permanent Revolutions, but ended up serving the bureaucracy (of the party, the trade unions and the state). In the twenty-first century it must become a truly independent force. In this final struggle there is only one object to be served by the working class: human society itself. Humanity will survive through the final victory of the working class, or it will perish with capitalism. In this sense, Trotsky's ideas and life, betting on the ability of the working class to change society and to carry out its political self-determination, is today more important than ever.

Seiya Morita lectures at Kokugakuin University, Tokyo.


[1] For this see my recently published book Trotsky and the Politics of Permanent Revolution, Tsuge Shobo Shinsha: Tokyo, 2020 [in Japanese].

[2] Noam Chomsky: Internationalism or Extinction, Progressive International, 18 September 2020,

[3] For example, see Michael Löwy, Why Ecosocialism: For a Red-Green Future, Great Transition Initiative, December 2018,

[4] Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End?: Essays on a Failing System, Verso: New York, 2016.

[5] Mike Davis, C'est La Lutte Finale, Progressive International, 30 April 2020,