Permanent revolution (20TH CENTURY)

Theory of revolution of the Russian revolutionaryLeon Trotsky (1879-1940).

Socialist revolution and the overthrow of capitalism will only be complete when they are worldwide. There should therefore be no pause in revolutionary activity simply because power has been seized in a single country.

This theory is thus opposed to that of socialism in one country.

David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels

Marx first used the term in the phrase “by substituting permanent war for permanent revolution” in the following passage from The Holy Family (1844) in which he also wrote:

Napoleon presented the last battle of revolutionary terror against the bourgeois society which had been proclaimed by this same Revolution, and against its policy. Napoleon, of course, already discerned the essence of the modern state; he understood that it is based on the unhampered development of bourgeois society, on the free movement of private interest, etc. He decided to recognise and protect this basis. He was no terrorist with his head in the clouds. Yet at the same time he still regarded the state as an end in itself and civil life only as a treasurer and his subordinate which must have no will of its own. He perfected the terror by substituting permanent war for permanent revolution. He fed the egoism of the French nation to complete satiety but demanded also the sacrifice of bourgeois business, enjoyments, wealth, etc., whenever this was required by the political aim of conquest. If he despotically suppressed the liberalism of bourgeois society—the political idealism of its daily practice—he showed no more consideration for its essential material interests, trade and industry, whenever they conflicted with his political interests. His scorn of industrial hommes d’affaires [businessmen] was the complement to his scorn of ideologists. In his home policy, too, he combated bourgeois society as the opponent of the state which in his own person he still held to be an absolute aim in itself. Thus he declared in the State Council that he would not suffer the owner of extensive estates to cultivate them or not as he pleased. Thus, too, he conceived the plan of subordinating trade to the state by appropriation of roulage [road haulage]. French businessmen took steps to anticipate the event that first shook Napoleon’s power. Paris exchange-brokers forced him by means of an artificially created famine to delay the opening of the Russian campaign by nearly two months and thus to launch it too late in the year.[1]

In this passage, Marx says that Napoleon prevented the bourgeois revolution in France from becoming fulfilled; that is, he prevented bourgeois political forces from achieving a total expression of their interests. According to Marx, he did this by suppressing the “liberalism of bourgeois society” and did it because he saw “the state as an end in itself”, a value which supported his “political aim of conquest”. Thus, he substituted “permanent war for permanent revolution”. However, the final two sentences show that the bourgeoisie did not give up hope, but continued to pursue their interests. For Marx, permanent revolution involves a revolutionary class (in this case, the bourgeoisie) continuing to push for and achieve its interests despite the political dominance of actors with opposing interests.

By 1849, Marx and Engels were able to quote the use of the phrase by other writers (Eugen Alexis Schwanbeck, a journalist on the Kölnische Zeitung newspaper;[2] and Henri Druey),[3] suggesting that it had achieved some recognition in intellectual circles.

March 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League

Marx’s most famous use of the phrase permanent revolution is his March 1850 Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League.[4] His audience is the proletariat in Germany, faced with the prospect that “the petty-bourgeois democrats will for the moment acquire a predominant influence”, i.e. temporary political power. He enjoins them as such:

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers.[4]

In the remainder of the text, Marx outlines his proposal that the proletariat “make the revolution permanent”. In essence, it consists of the working class maintaining a militant and independent approach to politics both before, during and after the struggle which will bring the petty-bourgeois democrats to power.

Proletariat should organise autonomously

Marx is concerned that throughout the process of this impending political change the petty-bourgeoisie will “seek to ensnare the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented. Such a unity would be to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose all its hard-won independent position and be reduced once more to a mere appendage of official bourgeois democracy”.[4]

Marx outlines how the proletariat should respond to this threat. First, he says that “above all the [Communist] League, must work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers’ party, both secret and open, and alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes a center and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence”. That is, “it is essential above all for them to be independently organized and centralized in clubs”.[4] Marx does say that “an association of momentary expedience” is permissible if and only if “an enemy has to be fought directly”, although this is not an excuse for a long term alliance since emergency alliances will arise satisfactorily when needed.

Political programme of demands which threaten the bourgeois consensus

In an article two years earlier, Marx had referred to “a programme of permanent revolution, of progressive taxes and death duties, and of organisation of labour”.[5] This confirms the impression that Marx’s theory of permanent revolution is not about revolution per se, but rather more about the attitude that a revolutionary class should adopt in the period of their political subjection, including the programme of political demands they should propose. This aspect is raised in the Address. As well as overtures for organisational alliance with the petty bourgeoisie, Marx is concerned about attempts to “bribe the workers with a more or less disguised form of alms and to break their revolutionary strength by temporarily rendering their situation tolerable”.[4] Therefore, the workers’ party must use their autonomous organisation to push a political programme which threatens the bourgeois status quo along the following lines:

1. They can force the democrats to make inroads into as many areas of the existing social order as possible, so as to disturb its regular functioning and so that the petty-bourgeois democrats compromise themselves; furthermore, the workers can force the concentration of as many productive forces as possible – means of transport, factories, railways, etc. – in the hands of the state.

2. They must drive the proposals of the democrats to their logical extreme (the democrats will in any case act in a reformist and not a revolutionary manner) and transform these proposals into direct attacks on private property. If, for instance, the petty bourgeoisie propose the purchase of the railways and factories, the workers must demand that these railways and factories simply be confiscated by the state without compensation as the property of reactionaries. […] The demands of the workers will thus have to be adjusted according to the measures and concessions of the democrats.[4]

In this passage, we can see that Marx believes the proletariat should refuse to moderate its demands to the petty-bourgeois consensus and advocate extensive nationalisation. Furthermore, the demand of the workers should always seek to push the bourgeois further than they are prepared to go, without the revolution threatening them as well.

Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League in context[edit]

Marx concludes his Address by summarising the themes elucidated above:

Although the German workers cannot come to power and achieve the realization of their class interests without passing through a protracted revolutionary development, this time they can at least be certain that the first act of the approaching revolutionary drama will coincide with the direct victory of their own class in France and will thereby be accelerated. But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.[4]

Since Marxism emphasises the contingency of political developments on material historical circumstances (as against idealism), it is worthwhile to have some idea of how Marx saw the context in which he advocated permanent revolution. It seems that he believed that “the first act of the approaching revolutionary drama [in Germany] will coincide with the direct victory of their own class in France and will thereby be accelerated”. That is, the petty-bourgeois are expected to come to power in Germany at the same time as the direct victory of the proletariat in France. Furthermore, Marx seems to believe that the former and hence of both is “imminent” (c.f. the third paragraph of the Address).[4] Therefore, Marx clearly believes that Europe is entering a time and is at a level of development of the productive forces in which the proletariat have the social revolution within their reach. Although circumstances did not develop as anticipated, this observation proved accurate at the dawn of the 20th century leading into the First World War and the Russian Revolution.

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