Views originally developed by Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky (1879-1940).
Revolution, once begun, must continue until workers’ power is established worldwide, permanent revolution is thus preferred to socialism in one country.
David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Poltical Thought (Oxford, 1987)
According to Trotsky, his program could be distinguished from other Marxist theories by five key elements:
- Support for the strategy of permanent revolution, in opposition to the two-stage theory of his opponents.
- Criticism of the post-1924 leadership of the Soviet Union, analysis of its features; after 1933 also support for political revolution in the Soviet Union and in what Trotskyists term the degenerated workers’ states.
- Support for social revolution in the advanced capitalist countries through working-class mass action.
- Support for proletarian internationalism.
- Use of a transitional programme of demands that bridge between daily struggles of the working class and the maximal ideas of the socialist transformation of society.
On the political spectrum of Marxism, Trotskyists are usually considered to be towards the left. In the 1920s they called themselves the Left Opposition, although today’s left communism is distinct and usually non-Bolshevik. The terminological disagreement can be confusing because different versions of a left-right political spectrum are used. Anti-revisionists consider themselves the ultimate leftists on a spectrum from communism on the left to imperialist capitalism on the right, but given that Stalinism is often labeled rightist within the communist spectrum and left communism leftist, anti-revisionists’ idea of left is very different from that of left communism. Despite being Bolshevik-Leninist comrades during the Russian Revolution and Russian Civil War, Trotsky and Stalin became enemies in the 1920s and thereafter opposed the legitimacy of each other’s forms of Leninism. Trotsky was extremely critical of the Stalinist USSR for suppressing democracy and lack of adequate economic planning.
The theory of permanent revolution addressed the question of how such feudal regimes were to be overthrown and how socialism could be established given the lack of economic prerequisites. Trotsky argued that in Russia only the working class could overthrow feudalism and win the support of the peasantry. Furthermore, he argued that the Russian working class would not stop there. They would win their own revolution against the weak capitalist class, establish a workers’ state in Russia and appeal to the working class in the advanced capitalist countries around the world. As a result, the global working class would come to Russia’s aid and socialism could develop worldwide.
Capitalist or bourgeois-democratic revolution
Revolutions in Britain in the 17th century and in France in 1789 abolished feudalism and established the basic requisites for the development of capitalism. Trotsky argued that these revolutions would not be repeated in Russia.
In Results and Prospects, written in 1906, Trotsky outlines his theory in detail, arguing: “History does not repeat itself. However much one may compare the Russian Revolution with the Great French Revolution, the former can never be transformed into a repetition of the latter.” In the French Revolution of 1789, France experienced what Marxists called a “bourgeois-democratic revolution”—a regime was established wherein the bourgeoisie overthrew the existing French feudalistic system. The bourgeoisie then moved towards establishing a regime of democratic parliamentary institutions. However, while democratic rights were extended to the bourgeoisie, they were not generally extended to a universal franchise. The freedom for workers to organize unions or to strike was not achieved without considerable struggle.
Passivity of the bourgeoisie
Trotsky argues that countries like Russia had no “enlightened, active” revolutionary bourgeoisie which could play the same role and the working class constituted a very small minority. By the time of the European revolutions of 1848, “the bourgeoisie was already unable to play a comparable role. It did not want and was not able to undertake the revolutionary liquidation of the social system that stood in its path to power.”
The theory of permanent revolution considers that in many countries that are thought under Trotskyism to have not yet completed a bourgeois-democratic revolution, the capitalist class opposes the creation of any revolutionary situation. They fear stirring the working class into fighting for its own revolutionary aspirations against their exploitation by capitalism. In Russia, the working class, although a small minority in a predominantly peasant-based society, were organised in vast factories owned by the capitalist class and into large working-class districts. During the Russian Revolution of 1905, the capitalist class found it necessary to ally with reactionary elements such as the essentially feudal landlords and ultimately the existing Czarist Russian state forces. This was to protect their ownership of their property—factories, banks, etc.—from expropriation by the revolutionary working class.
Therefore, according to the theory of permanent revolution the capitalist classes of economically backward countries are weak and incapable of carrying through revolutionary change. As a result, they are linked to and rely on the feudal landowners in many ways. Thus Trotsky argues that because a majority of the branches of industry in Russia were originated under the direct influence of government measures—sometimes with the help of government subsidies—the capitalist class was again tied to the ruling elite. The capitalist class were subservient to European capital.
Incapability of the peasantry
The theory of permanent revolution further considers that the peasantry as a whole cannot take on the task of carrying through the revolution, because it is dispersed in smallholdings throughout the country and forms a heterogeneous grouping, including the rich peasants who employ rural workers and aspire to landlordism as well as the poor peasants who aspire to own more land. Trotsky argues: “All historical experience […] shows that the peasantry are absolutely incapable of taking up an independent political role”.
The key role of the proletariat
Trotskyists differ on the extent to which this is true today, but even the most orthodox tend to recognise in the late twentieth century a new development in the revolts of the rural poor, the self-organising struggles of the landless; and many other struggles which in some ways reflect the militant united organised struggles of the working class; and which to various degrees do not bear the marks of class divisions typical of the heroic peasant struggles of previous epochs. However, orthodox Trotskyists today still argue that the town- and city-based working-class struggle is central to the task of a successful socialist revolution, linked to these struggles of the rural poor. They argue that the working class learns of necessity to conduct a collective struggle, for instance in trade unions, arising from its social conditions in the factories and workplaces; and that the collective consciousness it achieves as a result is an essential ingredient of the socialist reconstruction of society.
Trotsky himself argued that only the proletariat or working class were capable of achieving the tasks of that bourgeois revolution. In 1905, the working class in Russia, a generation brought together in vast factories from the relative isolation of peasant life, saw the result of its labour as a vast collective effort and the only means of struggling against its oppression in terms of a collective effort and forming workers councils (soviets) in the course of the revolution of that year. In 1906, Trotsky argued:
The factory system brings the proletariat to the foreground […] The proletariat immediately found itself concentrated in tremendous masses, while between these masses and the autocracy there stood a capitalist bourgeoisie, very small in numbers, isolated from the “people”, half-foreign, without historical traditions, and inspired only by the greed for gain.— Leon Trotsky, Results and Prospects
For instance, the Putilov Factory numbered 12,000 workers in 1900 and according to Trotsky 36,000 in July 1917.
Although only a small minority in Russian society, the proletariat would lead a revolution to emancipate the peasantry and thus “secure the support of the peasantry” as part of that revolution, on whose support it will rely. However, in order to improve their own conditions the working class will find it necessary to create a revolution of their own, which would accomplish both the bourgeois revolution and then establish a workers’ state.
According to classical Marxism, revolution in peasant-based countries such as Russia prepares the ground ultimately only for a development of capitalism since the liberated peasants become small owners, producers and traders which leads to the growth of commodity markets, from which a new capitalist class emerges. Only fully developed capitalist conditions prepare the basis for socialism.
Trotsky agreed that a new socialist state and economy in a country like Russia would not be able to hold out against the pressures of a hostile capitalist world as well as the internal pressures of its backward economy. The revolution, Trotsky argued, must quickly spread to capitalist countries, bringing about a socialist revolution which must spread worldwide. In this way the revolution is “permanent”, moving out of necessity first, from the bourgeois revolution to the workers’ revolution and from there uninterruptedly to European and worldwide revolutions.
An internationalist outlook of permanent revolution is found in the works of Karl Marx. The term “permanent revolution” is taken from a remark of Marx from his March 1850 Address: “it is our task”, Marx said:
[…] 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.— Karl Marx, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League