Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution and the legacy of Russian Marxism: A dissent to Michael Löwy’s piece

By Seiya Morita

March 5, 2021  — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Michael Löwy's article "Leon Trotsky, prophet of the October Revolution" in Imprecor[1], the French-language journal of the Fourth International, is an excellent piece overall. However, I would like to point out that his statement about Russian Marxism includes a couple of misunderstandings.

Was Plekhanov a mechanical economist?

Michael Löwy criticizes Russian Marxism's abandonment of late Karl Marx's theory of the future Russian revolution (as expressed in the preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto), as follows:

Marx and [Friedrich] Engels had not hesitated to suggest, in their preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto (1882), that "If the Russian Revolution becomes the signal for a proletarian revolution in the West, so that both complement each other, the present Russian common ownership of land may serve as the starting point for a communist development". However, after their deaths, this perspective on the Russian revolution, which raised the suspicion that it would resemble the vision of the Russian Narodniks, was abandoned.

But the Russian Marxists (i.e. Georgi Plekhanov, Vera Zasulich and Pavel Axelrod, the founders of the Emancipation of Labour Group) were perfectly correct in their "abandonment" of this course of development. Both Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin’s thinking starts from this "abandonment". In the first place, the preface to the Russian edition of the Communist Manifesto says nothing about the class subjectivity of the Russian revolution. Who or what class was supposed to carry out the enormous historical task of bourgeois democratic revolution in that huge empire? The terrorist intelligentsia of Russia? Or the "liberal" bureaucrats subordinated to the Tsarist regime? Or the vast mass of communal peasants? The preface to the Russian edition is silent about this. Marx, too, was unable to answer this question before his death (although he did mention it obscurely in his drafts of a letter to Zasulich). Barely at the end of his life did Engels finally turn his attention to the Russian working class as a revolutionary entity as he was persuaded by the Russian Marxists, above all by Plekhanov.

The first generation of Russian Marxists, headed by Plekhanov, was the only revolutionary group which gave the correct answer to this crucial question. They clearly pointed out that the leading role in the future Russian revolution would be played by the Russian proletariat, inevitably formed by Russian capitalism, which would be fostered in a hothouse manner from above, and that therefore neither the Narodnik intelligentsia nor the communal peasantry, though they could be its allies, could ever play a leading role in the revolution. They adopted this policy not to “resemble the vision of the Russian Narodniks”. On the contrary. Plekhanov, Zasulich and Axelrod used to be Narodniks, but they approached Marxism on the basis of fundamental doubts about the Narodnik perspective and tactics. Their doubts arose from their long and hard experience in Russia. They independently analyzed the peculiarities of Russian society on the basis of the theoretical tools of Marxism and arrived at their own strategic (and more correct) perspective.

Even though they were convinced that the immediately pending revolution was purely a bourgeois-democratic one in Russia, they foresaw that the hegemony of the revolutionary struggle would be taken by the revolutionary proletariat, not the urban petty bourgeoisie or the liberal intelligentsia as in the previous bourgeois revolutionary periods of the Western world. They were the first Marxists to clearly propose the concept of the "hegemony of the proletariat" in the bourgeois revolution (indeed they used the term "hegemony") (see Appendix A). Lenin's theory of the democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants and Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution were able to develop as a result of this theoretical breakthrough.

The greatness of the first generation of Russian Marxists was that they were able to challenge the dominant indigenous revolutionary forces, the Narodniks, and, above all, even the theoretical authority of Marx and Engels (both had supported the Narodniks at the time), and reach this bald conclusion on the basis of their own analysis. They were truly worthy of the term "creative Marxism". When in 1889 Plekhanov declared at the founding congress of the Second International that "the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph as a working-class movement or it will never triumph," no one at the time realized its astonishingly accurate prophetic character. Even Engels did not. The first generation of Russian Marxists, in spite of their absolute political and theoretical isolation, resolutely held this position and carried out their amazingly vigorous and thoroughgoing theoretical and enlightenment work, finally establishing the intellectual and political hegemony of Russian Marxism among the revolutionary forces in Russia. Without Plekhanov and the others, there would have been no Lenin, no Trotsky and, of course, no Russian Revolution (at least not in the way it happened in 1917).

In light of these facts, we see that Löwy's assessment that "Trotsky explicitly rejects economism, one of the essential features of Plekhanov's Marxism," is a mere expression of prejudice. Of course, this is not to say that Plekhanov’s thinking did not have an economistic element. But it was by no means an essential feature of his Marxism. To be sure, Plekhanov's support for the war efforts of Tsarist Russia in World War I was certainly due to his economism, but this was neither an essential manifestation nor an inevitable consequence of Plekhanov's theoretical perspective. Rather, it was a result of his political degeneration and decline.

When Löwy further writes that "most Russian Marxists tend, because of their polemic approach to the Narodoniks, to deny any specificity of Russian social formation, and insist on the inevitable similarity between the socio-economic development of Western Europe and the future of Russia", he is also wrong. Russian Marxism, including both its Menshevik and Bolshevik wings, had based its entire strategy and tactics on their recognition of the unique combination and interaction of the peculiarities of Russian society with the general laws of capitalism itself. The question was how deep and wide to delve into such unique combinations and interactions, rather than simply pose a polar opposition between "most Russian Marxists", who thought that Russian history followed the same developmental process as Western society, and Trotsky, who was the only one who correctly understood the peculiarities of Russian society.

To understand this point, it is necessary to read Trotsky's assessment of Plekhanov. In 1922, Trotsky published the second edition of 1905 and included an important piece criticizing M. Pokrovsky’s essay. In it he refuted Pokrovsky's underestimation of Plekhanov, clearly stating that:

Plekhanov quite rightly dismisses the schematic theories of both the doctrinaire “Westerners” and the Slavophil Narodniks on this subject, and, instead, reduces Russia’s “special nature” to the concrete, materially determined peculiarities of its historical development. (...) The weakness of the Russian bourgeoisie and the illusory nature of Russia’s bourgeois democracy undoubtedly represent very important features of Russia’s historical development. But it is precisely from this, given all other existing conditions, that the possibility and the historical necessity of the proletariat’s seizure of power arises. True, Plekhanov never arrived at this conclusion. But then neither did he draw any conclusion from another of his unquestionably correct propositions, namely: “the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph as a working-class movement or it will never triumph.” If we mix up everything Plekhanov said against the Narodniks and the vulgar Marxists with his Kadetophilia and his patriotism, there will be nothing left of Plekhanov. Yet in reality a good deal is left of Plekhanov, and it does no harm to learn from him now and again.[2]

Thus, Trotsky himself writes that “Plekhanov quite rightly dismisses the schematic theories of both the doctrinaire ‘Westerners’ and the Slavophil Narodniks on this subject, and, instead, reduces Russia’s ‘special nature’ to the concrete, materially determined peculiarities of its historical development.” There is no more eloquent testimony than this. To be sure, this assessment was directly related to Plekhanov's History of Russian Social Thought (1914-16). But Trotsky’s words should be regarded as an overall assessment of Plekhanov's basic position after becoming a Marxist, because Trotsky refers to Plekhanov's famous statement in 1889 that "the revolutionary movement in Russia will triumph as a working-class movement or it will never triumph".

Basic characteristics of Plekhanov's view of the Russian revolution

Plekhanov’s (and other Russian Marxists’) vision of the Russian Revolution at the time can be summarized in four points.

Firstly, he opposed the perspectives of the Narodniks, criticized their confusion between bourgeois and socialist revolutions, clearly separated the two, and regarded the immediate revolution as a bourgeois democratic revolution centered on the overthrow of the Tsarist despotism. This makes him look like a mechanical stageist revolutionist, but he was not. First of all, it was necessary to criticize and overcome Russian Narodnism. This is where everything begins. In other words, it was necessary to clearly criticize the prospect of skipping the capitalist stage and moving directly to communist society on the basis of the Mir community in rural Russia. This is just as it is impossible to say that Marx and Engels were wrong in the 1850s and 1860s when they considered that the prospects for revolution in Germany would not really open up unless capitalism developed further and the proletariat became more powerful. At the very beginning, it was necessary to clearly separate the bourgeois revolution from the communist or socialist revolution, to define the immediate revolution as the bourgeois democratic revolution, and to make it clear that the Tsarist regime must be overthrown and a system of freedom and democracy must be won.

Secondly, he saw the coalition of the working class and the bourgeoisie as the central force in this future bourgeois revolution. This second proposition contains two important points. The first is that he saw the working class as the main force (or at least one of the main forces) in the bourgeois revolution. As we saw above, Marx was unable to take such a position. To some extent, this was unavoidable. At that time, the working class in Russia numbered less than one million. However, at this point Plekhanov had already designated the Russian working class a leading role in the future bourgeois revolution. At the same time, unlike the German working class of 50 years prior, it would grow from its inception under the influence of the powerful socialist forces and Marxist ideology in Europe, and would therefore become more powerful. Second, though, he thought that the working class was still an overwhelming minority in Russia, so it had to cooperate with the bourgeoisie in the bourgeois revolution. Plekhanov often used the phrase that the working class should not threaten the bourgeoisie with the "red specter". This idea later became a factor that led to his confrontation with Lenin and Trotsky.

Thirdly, he insisted, even though the working class played a hegemonic role in the liberation movement, that it was the bourgeoisie that would take state power. Here we can already see the idea of distinguishing between "hegemony" and "power". The word "hegemony" itself was first used in a Marxist context by the early Russian Marxists, such as Plekhanov and Axelrod, to refer to political leadership as distinct from “power”. Later, when the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party was founded, and then when the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks split, all Russian Marxists believed that it was the working class (and therefore the Social Democratic Party as its political vanguard) that would play the hegemonic role in the pending bourgeois democratic revolution in Russia. This was the decisive understanding that would preface Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. But for Plekhanov, and later for the Mensheviks, it was only the bourgeoisie or its political agents that would take power. If the working class and its political vanguard played a hegemonic role in the revolutionary movement, one would think that they would also take power when the revolution was won, but, here again, based on the scheme of historical materialism, they thought that it would be the bourgeoisie and its political agents that would take power.

Fourthly, it was true that the Russian bourgeois revolution would put the bourgeoisie in power, but the bourgeois regime would not last for a long period, and the Russian working class, by using the democratic means made possible by the bourgeois revolution, would immediately begin its struggle for social emancipation and quickly win. In other words, the history of the less developed or belatedly developing countries would not simply repeat the history of the developed countries, because the working class in Russia was much more developed than that of Germany in 1848, and internationally the socialist revolution was already on the table in the developed countries of Europe.

The above-mentioned position is clearly stated in Plekhanov's first Marxist work, Socialism and the Political Struggle (1883), as follows:

Thus, in our opinion, the struggle for political freedom, on the one hand, and the preparation of the working class for its future independent and offensive role, on the other, is the only possible “setting of party tasks” at present. To bind together into one these two so fundamentally different matters: the overthrow of absolutism and the socialist revolution, and to wage revolutionary struggle in the belief that these elements of social development will coincide in the history of our country means to put off the advent of both. But it depends on us to bring these two elements closer together. We must follow the splendid example of the German Communists who, as the Manifesto says, fight “with the bourgeoisie whenever it acts in a revolutionary way, against the absolute monarchy”, and yet “never cease, for a single instant, to instil into the working class the dearest possible recognition of the hostile antagonism between bourgeoisie and proletariat”. Acting thus, the Communists wanted “the bourgeois revolution in Germany” to “be but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution”.

The present position of bourgeois societies and the influence of international relations on the social development of each civilised country entitle us to hope that the social emancipation of the Russian working class will follow very quickly upon the fall of absolutism. If the German bourgeoisie “came too late”, the Russian has come still later, and its domination cannot be a long one. Only the Russian revolutionaries should not, in their turn, begin “too late” the preparation of the working class, a matter which has now become of absolute urgency.[3]

The original Russian text of the word "came too late" here is запоздалы, which is actually an adjective that Trotsky often used later to explain his theory of permanent revolution and of “uneven and combined development”, and it is a word that means not just "backwardness" but also "belatedness".

So we can say that Plekhanov's position was indeed a theory of stageist revolution, but he thought that a period between one stage and another stage of revolution would be very short. This perspective theoretically prefaced for Lenin's theory of the democratic dictatorship of workers and peasants and Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution.

When did the term ‘permanent revolution’ first come into use?

In addition to these fundamental problems, there is another inaccurate statement in Löwy's piece. He writes that “the term ‘permanent revolution’ was inspired by Franz Mehring's article in the Neue Zeit in November 1905.” Even before November 1905, however, in March-April 1905, Mensheviks (one of whom was Plekhanov) discussed the prospects for the Russian revolution, by using the term “permanent revolution (Revolution in Permanenz)” repeatedly in Iskra. There was no need to wait for Mehring's article in November. 

For example, in his article “The workers' party and the ‘seizure of power’ as our immediate task,” published in Iskra No. 93 (March 17, 1905), the Menshevik leader Martov wrote:

The great role played by the proletariat in the Russian revolution, now and in the future, makes it perfectly possible to create a situation in which the struggle of the proletariat for the further consolidation and development of the revolution coincides with the struggle for the direct acquisition of political power. The advent of such a moment will be accelerated, of course, if all the powerful bourgeois revolutionary parties end up withering before they have fully blossomed. And, in this case, the proletariat will not be able to reject political power. But it also goes without saying that the proletariat cannot limit itself to the use of the framework of the bourgeois revolution if it has reached such a point on the road of social struggle. If the proletariat, as a class, acquires power (and like Comrade T. [Trotsky] we speak only of the seizure of power in such a case), it cannot fail to take the revolution further, therefore, in order to aim for Revolution in Permanenz, a direct revolution against the whole bourgeois society. Specifically, this would mean either a new iteration of the Paris Commune or the beginning of a socialist revolution "in the West" and its transfer to Russia. And it is our duty to aim for the latter. [4]

Thus, as early as March 17, 1905, Martov clearly used the term "Revolution in Permanenz" and acknowledged its possibility. However, for Martov, this possibility was unlikely and represented an unfortunate development for the Russian revolution. Therefore, even though Martov talked about such a possibility, in the end he maintained the prospect of a stageist revolution in which bourgeois parties would take power and carry out a bourgeois democratic revolution (under the pressure of the Social Democrats from below).

Around the same time, Plekhanov, in his article "On the question of the seizure of power: some historical findings," which appeared in Iskra No. 96 (April 5, 1905), wrote:

(…) Marx and Engels endorsed the tactics of 1850 only because they were convinced at that time that capitalism had grown old, that the socialist revolution was therefore imminent, and that the petty-bourgeois revolution was merely a prologue to the socialist revolution. It was precisely this conviction that led them to raise the slogan of the uninterrupted revolution. Later, when the socialist revolution no longer seemed imminent, they no longer raised the slogan “Revolution in Permanenz” even though they were anticipating a petty-bourgeois revolution. This was because they considered that the objective (and therefore also the subjective, i.e. psychological) conditions of the “uninterrupted revolution” did not exist. It seems that the political task of the proletariat was already defined by the expectation that the [bourgeois] democratic system would be dominant for a considerable time. [5]

It is time for us to dispel our prejudice against the Russian Marxists, including Plekhanov. While Lenin and Trotsky were sufficiently severe in their criticism of Plekhanov's limitations and betrayal, they continued to appreciate the decisive role he played in establishing Marxism in Russia. We too must actively learn from his legacy.

Appendix A: Some examples of Plekhanov's use of “hegemony”

Plekhanov uses the term “hegemony” very early on. The first reference I have been able to find is in his "Letter to Lavrov" (July 22, 1884), which is included in the "Preface" to the 1885 edition of Our Differences. In it Plekhanov states:

If the Russian socialists recognise in principle the right of free speech and include the demand for it in their programmes, they cannot restrict its enjoyment to the group or “party” which claims hegemony in a particular period of the revolutionary movement. [6]

It is permissible for a group capable of becoming “a social army at a particular historical minute” to “disrupt the organisation” of our revolutionary army. All the more it is “permissible” for the latter, as a tried and tested force, “to disrupt the organisation” of “nonconformist” groups whose hegemony it considers a matter of a remote and “perhaps somewhat doubtful” future. [7]

Moreover, in Plekhanov's most famous work, The Development of the Monist View of History (1895), there is a section that reads as follows:

The territory of psychology is sub-divided into provinces, the provinces into counties, the counties into rural districts and communities, and the communities represent unions of individuals (i.e. of individual questions). When a “contradiction” arises, when struggle blazes up, its passion seizes, as a rule, only upon individual provinces – if not individual counties – and only its reflection falls upon the neighbouring areas. First of all that province to which hegemony belonged in the preceding epoch is subjected to attack. It is only gradually that the “miseries of war” spread to its nearest neighbours and most faithful allies of the province which has been attacked. Therefore we must add that, in ascertaining the character of any particular critical epoch, it is necessary to discover not only the general features of the psychology of the previous organic period, but also the individual peculiarities of that psychology. During one period of history hegemony belongs to religion, during another to politics, and so forth. This circumstance inevitably reflects itself in the character of the corresponding critical epochs, each of which, according to circumstances, either continues formally to recognize the old hegemony, introducing a new, opposite content into the dominating conceptions (as, for example, the first English Revolution), or else completely rejects them, and hegemony passes to new provinces of thought (as, for example, the French literature of the Enlightenment). If we remember that these disputes over the hegemony of individual psychological provinces also extend to their neighbours, and moreover extend to a different degree and in a different direction in each individual case, we shall understand to what an extent here, as everywhere, one cannot confine oneself to abstract proposition. [8]

Furthermore, in his article ‘Socialism and the political struggle, once again’ (published in Zarya, No. 1, April 1901), he uses the concept of hegemony in a more explicit form.

Our party, which has not the slightest tendency to suicide, takes upon itself the initiative in the struggle against absolutism, and therefore also takes upon itself the hegemony in this struggle. The more and more varied the methods of struggle, the more and more it becomes clear to the serious enemy of the existing political order, that is, to all those whose love of political freedom exceeds in their hearts the desire for the exploitation of the workers, that they must support our party for their own cause.[9].

The tactic defended by me in this article [Socialism and the Political Struggle in 1883] would inevitably give the Russian Social-Democratic Party – the vanguard of the Russian working-class – a political hegemony in the liberation struggle against tsarism. [10]

Thus, Plekhanov clearly states that the Russian Social Democratic Party will assume the role of hegemon in the struggle against absolutism. At the same time, his statements also show the foundation of a disagreement that would later become a sharp point of contention with Lenin. On the one hand, Plekhanov says that the Social Democrats will assume hegemony in the struggle against absolutism, but on the other hand, he argues that “all those whose love of political freedom exceeds … the desire for the exploitation of the workers,” i.e. the liberal bourgeoisie, “must support our party for their own cause.” Lenin and Trotsky, on the contrary, thought that the more active the workers' struggle, the more the liberal bourgeoisie would become reactionary and betray “their own cause”. This difference would become a decisive point in the political divergence between the Bolsheviks and Trotsky, on one hand, and the Mensheviks and Plekhanov, on the other, in the 1905 revolution.

Seiya Morita lectures at Kokugakuin University, Tokyo.


[1] Michael Löwy, “Léon Trotsky, prophète de la révolution d’Octobre,” Inprecor, no. 677-678,,-proph%C3%A8te-de-la-r%C3%A9volution-d%E2%80%99Octobre?id=2397

[2] Leon Trotsky, ‘On the Special Features of Russia’s Historical Development: A Reply to M. N. Pokrovsky,’ in 1905, Haymarket Books, 2016, p. 277. This English translation has a few problems.

[3] Plekhanov, Socialism and the Political Struggle,

[4] Trotsky Studies, vol. 47, 2005, pp. 136-137.

[5] Ibid., p. 153.

[6] G. Plekhanov, "Letter to P.L. Lavrov (In Lieu of Preface)," July 22, 1884,

[7] Ibid.

[8] G. Plekhanov, The Development of the Monist View of History (1895),

[9] G. Plekhanov,‘Eshchyo raz sotsializm i politicheskaya borba,’ Sochineniya, Vol. XII, Moscow, 1923, p. 101.

[10] Ibid., p. 102. Perry Anderson also quoted this phrase in his recent book The H Word: The Peripeteia of Hegemony (London & New York, 2017). But he does not provide any examples of Plekhanov's use of hegemony in the 1880s and the 1890s.