Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution: A long and still relevant debate

By John Nebauer

Review of Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution: A Leninist critique, by Doug Lorimer, Resistance Books, Sydney, 1998, A$6.95.

John Nebauer is a member of the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia.

After Lenin, Trotsky was the foremost leader of the Russian Revolution. His contributions to the international socialist movement and to Marxism were immense. Trotsky's leadership of the Military Revolutionary Committee in November 1917 helped ensure the victory of the Bolshevik uprising. His classic History of the Russian Revolution remains the best account of the events that led to and followed the demise of the Romanov dynasty. As the founder of the Red Army, Trotsky played a vital role in defending the revolution from the forces of reaction. Later, he led the opposition to Stalinist degeneration and provided a Marxist analysis of the bureaucratic regime.

However, some believe that his most outstanding contribution to Marxism is his theory of permanent revolution, which he developed in conjunction with German Social Democrat Adolph Helphand (better known to history as "Parvus") prior to the Russian revolution of 1905. While the theory was initially designed to explain the unfolding of the revolutionary process in Russia, Trotsky later claimed that it applied to revolutions in all non-industrialised countries.

In his recently published book Trotsky's Theory of Permanent Revolution: A Leninist Critique (Resistance Books, Sydney, 1998), Australian Democratic Socialist Party member Doug Lorimer subjects Trotsky's thesis to a rigorous critique. He argues that Trotsky was incorrect on the main questions of the Russian Revolution, and that his theory cannot be applied to any subsequent revolution.

The Trotskyist movement and its sympathisers argue that the 1917 revolution led Lenin to accept Trotsky's theory, a position Lorimer rejects.

Both the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks believed that the Russian revolution would be bourgeois in its social content. The Mensheviks argued that the Russian capitalists and their liberal political representatives would lead the revolution, with the working class playing the role of "extreme opposition".

By contrast, Lenin believed that the bourgeois revolution would fundamentally be a peasant revolution against the remnants of feudalism, since the peasantry constituted the big majority of Russia's population. He argued that the liberal capitalists would align themselves with the tsarist regime rather than provide revolutionary leadership to the masses. Indeed, Lenin expected the liberals to play an openly counter-revolutionary role; therefore the workers could not rely on any strategic alliance with them to achieve genuine political liberty.

The Bolsheviks' aim was to forge a revolutionary-democratic alliance between the working class and the peasants, under the political leadership of the workers' revolutionary vanguard party. According to Lenin, only a revolutionary state power based upon such an alliance could carry through the bourgeois revolution to completion. Hence Lenin summed up the nature of this state power in the formula "revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry".

Once the bourgeois revolution was completed (the working people had won political liberty and revolutionary peasant committees had confiscated the large semi-feudal estates), the task of the working class would be to win the poor and semi-proletarian layers of the peasantry away from the political leadership of the wealthy peasants (kulaks) in order to bring about the socialist revolution (the expropriation by the workers and poor peasants of bourgeois property in both the cities and the countryside).

While Trotsky agreed with the Bolsheviks on the approach the working class should take towards the liberals, he argued that once the workers took power, the revolution would immediately break the bounds of bourgeois social and economic relations. Moreover, Trotsky shared the Menshevik assessment that the peasantry as a whole was too backward and passive to be a strategic ally of the working class or a major force in the coming revolution.

Lorimer quotes from an article in the September 1915 edition of Nashe Slovo, which Trotsky co-edited with Menshevik leader Julius Martov:

Today, based on the experience of the [1905] Russian revolution and of the reaction, we can expect the peasantry to play a less independent, not to mention decisive, role in the development of revolutionary events than it did in 1905.

Dismissing the need for an alliance with the peasantry as a whole, Trotsky argued that the working class alone would have to carry out the democratic revolution against the semi-feudal tsarist autocracy. In addition, he believed that, as soon as it took power, events would force the Russian proletariat to implement socialist measures alongside democratic measures.

Thus there would be no identifiable democratic stage or phase of the revolution separate from the socialist revolution. For example, in his 1906 work Results and Prospects, Trotsky wrote:

In undertaking the maintenance of the unemployed, the government thereby undertakes the maintenance of strikers. If it does not do that, it immediately … undermines the basis of its own existence.

There is nothing left for the capitalists to do then but to resort to the lockout … It is quite clear that the employers can stand the closing down of production much longer than the workers, and therefore there is only one reply that a workers' government can give to a general lockout: the expropriation of the factories …


Trotsky made it clear, when he wrote in 1906 of the socialist revolution being implemented "from the very first moment" of the Russian workers taking political power, that this was not a rhetorical flourish. In his 1909 article "Our Differences", Trotsky wrote, "I have demonstrated elsewhere that twenty-four hours after the establishment of a `democratic dictatorship', this idyll of quasi-Marxist asceticism is bound to collapse utterly". The revolutionary state power, in Trotsky's view, would from the outset be a "dictatorship of the proletariat", passively supported by the peasantry.

Lorimer argues that this gave Trotsky's perspective an ultra-left character. The theory was based upon a mechanical and fatalistic conception of the class struggle. Lorimer refers to Trotsky's 1904 polemic against Lenin, Our Political Tasks, in which Trotsky wrote:

Marxism teaches that the interests of the proletariat are determined by its objective conditions of life. These interests are so powerful and so inescapable that they finally oblige the proletariat to bring them into the realm of its consciousness.

Lorimer quotes from a 1970 article by Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, which argued: "Today it is easy to see what a naively fatalistic optimism was concealed in this inadequate analysis. Immediate interests are here put on the same level with historical interests."

The best test of a theory is how well its predictions correspond to events. Lorimer shows that Trotsky's theory was lacking. Trotsky projected the capitalists' lockout during the 1905 revolution, when they still enjoyed the support of the tsar's police and army, forward to a situation under a revolutionary government of the workers and peasants, when they would not have such support.

In fact, the replacement of the tsarist police by armed workers' detachments in 1917 created a favourable political situation for the workers to advance their economic demands. Thus, on March 10, 1917, an agreement between the Petrograd Industrialists' Society and the Petrograd Soviet instituted an eight-hour day in all factories in the city. It spread to most factories throughout Russia during March and April.

Trotsky's assessment that the peasantry was incapable of playing an independent role was also wrong. The October Revolution was the victory of an alliance between the workers and the peasants, and was accompanied by the emergence of a revolutionary peasant party, the Left Socialist Revolutionaries. This alliance played a crucial role in the first stage of the revolution, when the peasantry remained united to carry through the bourgeois agrarian revolution against the landlords.

It has been argued that "socialist" measures were carried out before the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia. Certainly, some capitalist property was expropriated during the months following the Bolshevik insurrection. However, this was not part of any plan to socialise industry as a whole. Historian E.H. Carr in volume two of The Bolshevik Revolution said about the earlier nationalisations:

Extensive nationalisation of industry was … no part of the initial Bolshevik program… The nationalisation of industry was treated at the outset not as a desirable end in itself but as a response to special conditions, usually some misdemeanour of the employers; and it was applied to individual factories, not to industries as a whole, so that any element of planning was quite absent from these measures.

Victor Serge in Year One of the Russian Revolution pointed out that in December of 1917:

The management of some of the big factories—notably the Franco-Russian Works in Petrograd—immediately insisted that their works be nationalised: they wanted to get out of the responsibilities of demobilising industry from war production. Belgian, Swedish and French companies made similar approaches, which were met with a categorical refusal.

In the 1909 article "Our Differences", quoted earlier, Trotsky posed the question, "What can the workers' government do when faced with closed factories and plants? It must reopen them and resume production at the government's expense. But is that not the way to socialism?"

In fact, the Soviet government carried out a wide range of measures to counter the bourgeoisie's attempts to sabotage production. These included workers' accounting and control over the capitalists, arrests by workers' militia and punishment by revolutionary courts, and punitive confiscations where necessary. The unfolding of the class struggle in Russia was a more complex process than Trotsky had foreseen.


It has long been held by most of the Trotskyist movement that the Russian Revolution produced a convergence between the views of Lenin and Trotsky. For example, Michael Löwy, in his 1981 book The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution, argued: "Trotsky's reconciliation with the Bolsheviks was reciprocated by a profound shift in Lenin's views on the nature of the coming revolution".

"When Lenin published his famous April Theses", Löwy wrote, he "broke decisively with traditional tenets and embraced a permanentist conception akin to Trotsky's".

Löwy argued that prior to 1914, Lenin's acceptance of the allegedly "pre-dialectical Marxism" of Georgy Plekhanov was a "dead weight [which] overlay Lenin's rich and powerful political intuition".

According to Löwy, it was Lenin's study in 1914 of Hegel's Science of Logic that was decisive:

Lenin's methodological break with pre-dialectical Marxism prepared the way for his break with its political corollary … [It] permitted him to cross the forbidden threshold and to develop in April 1917 the "concrete analysis of the concrete situation" which he proposed to the Bolsheviks as the perspective of a struggle for a proletarian and socialist power in Russia.

As an aside, Löwy's claim that Lenin rejected Plekhanov's "pre-dialectical Marxism" during World War I is preposterous and is contradicted by Lenin's later comments, such as his remark in his 1921 article "Once Again on the Trade Unions": "You cannot hope to become a real, intelligent Communist without making a study—and I mean study—of all of Plekhanov's philosophical writings, because nothing better has been written on Marxism anywhere in the world".

With regard to Lenin's "April Theses", as Lorimer notes, Lenin had not rejected "his previous perspective of a transitional worker-peasant government to carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution". Lorimer continues:

The peculiarity of the situation arising out of the February 1917 revolution was that the workers and peasants … had created a revolutionary workers' and peasants' government, the Petrograd Soviet, but this government was voluntarily ceding power to the rival Provisional Government created by the liberal bourgeoisie.

Thus, in his April 1917 "Letters on Tactics", Lenin wrote, "This formula [of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry] is already antiquated. Events have moved it from the realm of formulas into the realm of reality …"

Furthermore, Lorimer argues, "Lenin explicitly rejected any idea that this tactical line involved abandoning the Bolsheviks' policy of forging a revolutionary worker-peasant alliance to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution" (emphasis added). Again in "Letters on Tactics", Lenin wrote:

But are we not in danger of falling into subjectivism, of wanting to arrive at the socialist revolution by "skipping" the bourgeois-democratic revolution—which is not yet completed …?

I might be incurring this danger if I said: "No Tsar, but a workers' government" … In my theses, I absolutely ensured myself against skipping over the peasant movement, which has not outlived itself, or the petty-bourgeois movement in general, against any playing at "seizure of power" by a workers' government.

Lenin himself believed that it was his perspective that was confirmed by events. In his 1918 pamphlet The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky (written more than a year after he was supposedly converted to the permanent revolution thesis), Lenin wrote:

Things have turned out just as we said they would. The course taken by the revolution has confirmed the correctness of our reasoning. First with the "whole" of the peasants against the monarchy, against the landowners, against medievalism (and to that extent the revolution remains bourgeois, bourgeois-democratic). Then, with the poor peasants, with the semi-proletarians, with all the exploited, against capitalism, including the rural rich, the kulaks, the profiteers, and to that extent the revolution becomes a socialist one. To attempt to raise an artificial Chinese wall between the first and second, to separate them by anything else than the degree of preparedness of the proletariat and the degree of its unity with the poor peasants, means to distort Marxism dreadfully.

Lenin pointed out in that pamphlet, and in his reports to the Bolshevik Party's eighth congress in March 1919, that up until the middle of 1918, that is, until the kulaks came into conflict with the urban workers and the poor peasants, the October Revolution was still a bourgeois revolution in its social content.

Ernest Mandel, in his 1978 book Trotsky: A Study in the Dynamic of his Thought, covered similar ground to Löwy. Mandel also took the "April Theses" as the signal that Lenin had embraced Trotsky's perspective. However, Mandel adopted a unique approach to the question. He argued that, "in order to convince his old comrades, Lenin used some ambiguous formulas which later enabled his epigones [the Stalinist bureaucracy—JN] to claim that there had, after all, been two stages in the revolution."

This is an extraordinary claim. Mandel would have us believe that, in the midst of a revolution for which he had spent over a decade and a half forging a revolutionary party, Lenin would deliberately use "ambiguous formulas" in order to win over the Bolshevik Party. In fact, it was a period that demanded the utmost clarity if the Bolsheviks were to lead the revolution to a successful conclusion. Rather than dealing with the evidence in the "April Theses" and elsewhere that Lenin thought that events confirmed his prognoses, Mandel has Lenin indulging in political trickery in order to win a political argument.

Hungarian lesson

Lorimer explores the consequences of a revolutionary government "immediately putting `collectivism on the order of the day' in a country with a peasant majority" in his examination of the Hungarian revolution in 1919.

Led by Bela Kun, the Hungarian Communists took power in March 1919 and, proclaiming a soviet republic, implemented policies similar to those outlined by Trotsky in Results and Prospects. While decreeing the confiscation of the large semi-feudal estates, the Budapest government refused to allow the peasantry to divide them up. Converting the estates into state farms, the Communists were forced to appoint old landlords and their managers to direct the new state farms due to a lack of experienced farm managers. This alienated the peasantry—60 per cent of the population—from the revolutionary government.

At the same time, industry and commerce were instantly nationalised, even though the working class sorely lacked managerial expertise. This led to a sharp fall in production and a rapid rise in unemployment.

The Hungarian soviet republic, having alienated the peasantry and demoralised and confused the working class, was overthrown by Czech, Romanian and Serbian mercenaries 19 weeks after it was proclaimed.

There is a great deal more in Lorimer's book, including the debates that flared within the Communist Party between 1917 and 1928 on Bolshevik policy and the revolutionary process. Lorimer also charts Trotsky's return to his pre-1917 positions as revolution flared in China in 1926-27, and Trotsky's later identification of Bolshevik policy prior to 1917 with Menshevism.

The debate over permanent revolution is not just a matter of history. Both Lenin and Trotsky tried to apply the lessons of October to revolutions in the colonial and semi-colonial world. While Lorimer deals with this aspect of the subject only in relation to Trotsky's writings on the second Chinese revolution, he vindicates Lenin's perspective of completing the anti-imperialist, national-democratic revolution through the revolutionary seizure of state power by an alliance of the workers and the peasants, then proceeding to achieve the socialist revolution with the expropriation of capitalist property by the working class in alliance with the poor peasantry and other semi-proletarian sections of the population.

Today, in countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, the debates among the Russian Marxists in the years between 1905 and 1917 have a new pertinence. The subject of this book deals with living, breathing class struggle, making it a must read for all those who participate in the struggle against capitalism.