Review

Permanent Revolution: Past and Future

Michael Löwy. The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 162 pages including index. $15.00 paperback.

Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, eds. Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record (Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2009 hardcover/Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010 paperback), 682 pages including index. $286.00 hardcover; $36.00 paperback


There appear, in this time of crisis, to be growing numbers of people who believe that another world is not only possible but inevitable, and who also hope to help make that a better world (something that is not at all inevitable). It has often been said that there is a need for the development of serious revolutionary theory to help guide our work. Without that, we risk flailing around in reactive protests unconnected to a strategic pathway that might have some hope of actually bringing about a much needed power shift in the direction of genuine democracy and a humanistic reorientation of economic resources (socialism). One of the most sweeping approaches to revolutionary theory is the perspective of permanent revolution associated with Leon Trotsky. This is the focus of the thin, characteristically elegant volume by Michael Löwy, and the massive, fascinating tome edited by Richard Day and Daniel Gaido.

Löwy both provides rich resources and a fine example of how to make use of them. His importance for the international Left flows from his ability, over many years, to provide serious, creative, and generally succinct discussions of revolutionary theory — drawn especially from the traditions of revolutionary Marxism — that are clear, stimulating, and relevant for radical activists. The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution, which first appeared in 1981, is one of the classic studies of Trotsky’s thought. When Trotsky’s perspectives were being distorted and dismissed (including within the increasingly ex-Trotskyist U.S. Socialist Workers Party) in the early 1980s, his book assumed a special importance for many then-young activists such as myself. In recent decades he has demonstrated a wonderful capacity for engaging appreciatively – in a thoughtful, insistently heterodox manner – with all manner of non-Marxist intellectual and activist currents (Christian, anarchist, environmentalist, and more), while never repudiating or abandoning his own Marxist orientation.

 Trotsky’s Breakthrough?

Trotsky’s theoretical innovations have been of central importance to the revolutionary movement from the early years of the twentieth century down to our own time. Löwy writes that Trotsky offered “a bold and original break from the evolutionist Marxism of the Second International” (also known as the Socialist International, the global federation of Marxist-influenced socialist parties between 1889 and 1914), opening a way to “a creative development of classical socialist theory” (p. 1).

Marxism fuses a view of history, an engagement with current realities, and a strategic orientation for replacing capitalism with socialism. Löwy outlines the dominant interpretation of history shared by Marxists of the early twentieth century: since the rise of class societies (with small, powerful upper classes of exploiters enriched by vast laboring majority classes), there have been a succession of historical stages characterized by different forms of economy – slave civilizations giving way to feudalism, which has given way to present-day capitalism. The rise of capitalism was facilitated by democratic revolutions that swept away rule by kings and the power of landed nobles, making way for increasingly democratic republics. The victory of the capitalists (bourgeoisie) paves the way for the triumph of industrialization and modernization – which creates economic productivity and abundance making possible a socialist future (a thoroughly democratic society of freedom and plenty in which there will be no upper class and lower class), and which also creates a working-class (proletarian) majority which potentially has an interest in and the power required for bringing into being a socialist future.

The implications of this for most Marxists in the Second International was that there must first be a bourgeois-democratic revolution, followed by industrialization and modernization within the context of a democratic republic, before the necessary preconditions for a proletarian-socialist revolution can be created. There was a crying need for such a bourgeois-democratic revolution in an economically “backward” country such as Russia in the early 1900s, oppressed by the Tsarist autocracy and landed nobility (to which capitalists were subordinated as junior partners), with a small working class and a large impoverished peasantry. Throughout the Second International, it was agreed that Marxists should fight for the triumph of such a revolution, so that capitalist development could eventually create the economic and political preconditions for a working-class revolution that would bring about socialism. For many Russian Marxists (the Mensheviks, influenced by “the father of Russian Marxism,” George Plekhanov), this meant building a worker-capitalist alliance to overthrow Tsarism. Even Lenin and his Bolsheviks – who profoundly distrusted the revolutionary potential of Russia’s capitalists, and called instead for a more radical worker-peasant alliance that would carry the anti-Tsarist struggle to victory – did not question this schema: first a distinct bourgeois-democratic revolution paving the way for capitalist development; later – once conditions were ripe – a working-class revolution to bring about socialism.

Yet from a Marxist point of view, this schema provides a theoretical and political puzzle. If the working class is as essential to the democratic revolution as the Mensheviks claim, and their direct exploiters are the capitalists with whom they are engaged in class struggle that (as the Communist Manifesto tells us) is “constant, how hidden, now open,” then how can these mortal enemies be expected to link arms as comrades in a common struggle? And if – as Lenin insisted – the workers must, in fact, turn their backs on the capitalists in order (in alliance with the peasantry) to overthrow Tsarism, what sense would it make for them in the moment of victory to turn power over to their exploiters?

According to Löwy, “Trotsky alone [was able] to cut the gordian knot of the Marxism of the Second International and to grasp the revolutionary possibilities that lay beyond the dogmatic construction of the democratic Russian revolution which was the unquestioned problematic of all other Marxist formulations.” He envisioned “not only the hegemonic role of the proletariat and the necessity of its seizure of power, but also the possibility of a growing over of the democratic into the socialist revolution” (p. 43). Löwy elaborates: “Trotsky’s perspective . . . was a major theoretical and political breakthrough. In particular, it offered a radical alternative to the economistic and vulgar-evolutionist interpretation of Marxism that was hegemonic in the pre-1917 socialist movement, and whose mechanical and pre-dialectical strategic corollary was the theory of stages” (p. 101).

But it is here that Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido provide a sharp challenge in their splendid collection Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record. In doing so, they offer an incredibly important contribution to our understanding.

 The Richness of the Classical Marxist Tradition

What Day and Gaido present – in their scholarly introduction and in the impressive collection of writings that they have gathered and translated – is a current within “Second International Marxism” that is much richer than indicated in Löwy’s study. They explain it quite aptly:

“The theme of our anthology is the rediscovery and elaboration of the concept of permanent revolution in the years 1903-7. In researching this project we have collected and translated into English for the first time a series of documents that bring fundamental issues to life in a way that no secondary account possibly could. One of our principal discoveries is that Leon Trotsky, while certainly the most famous and brilliant proponent of permanent revolution, was by no means its sole author; indeed, several major contributions came from a number of other Marxists, some of whom – such as David Ryazanov – have rarely been mentioned in this connection, while others – Karl Kautsky in particular – have most often been regarded as pseudo-revolutionaries whose real commitment was always parliamentary politics. The documents that we have translated demonstrate not only that Kautsky was a key participant in all discussions of permanent revolution, but also that in the years of the first Russian Revolution [1905-06] his thinking was often closer to Trotsky’s than to Lenin’s” (pp. xi-xii).

We are treated to seven essays by Kautsky, five by the young Trotsky, two by Trotsky’s mentor and collaborator Parvus (Alexander Helphand), three by Rosa Luxemburg, two by Ryazanov, and one by Franz Mehring – none of which easily fits into the alleged “economistic and vulgar-evolutionist interpretation of Marxism.” There is also a dissenting essay from George Plekhanov, defending the kind of orientation that Löwy presents as characteristic of “Second International Marxism.” Notably absent are contributions from Lenin, although as Löwy documents in The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, in Lenin’s writings “there are some passages that seem to hint at the idea of an uninterrupted revolutionary development towards socialism” during the 1905 events. By 1917 he had fully embraced the notion that Russia’s democratic revolution must – in order to be completed – spill over into a working-class socialist revolution.

Actually, it is Karl Kautsky who emerges as the theoretical revolutionary hero of Witnesses to Permanent Revolution. The quality of his Marxist analyses – as represented in these pages – is of high caliber. This substantially corroborates recent scholarly interventions by Lars Lih, insistent on Kautsky’s revolutionary integrity in the pre-1910 period. [1] (Day and Gaido note in their introduction, as does Lih elsewhere, that a series of compromises with the bureaucratic leadership of German Social-Democratic Party caused this deservedly esteemed “pope of Marxism” to slide away from his earlier two decades of revolutionary commitment.) Given this affinity with the perspectives of Lih, it is surprising and disappointing that a passing reference in the introductory essay slams “Lenin’s high-handed view of centralized party control” (p. 34), which Lih so sharply and adeptly challenges as a myth in Rediscovering Lenin. But the focus of Day and Gaido is not on this but on the incredibly rich discussion taking place among such an impressive number of intellectual-activists over the five-year period of 1902-1907.

For those seeking to understand these long-ago times, and to learn something of the Marxist method, one could do worse than to immerse one’s self in these stimulating contributions of long-ago revolutionaries. What becomes clear from such an immersion is the theoretical context within which Trotsky’s own perspectives developed. It is, of course, obvious that neither Kautsky nor Mehring nor Ryazanov nor any of the others first came up with the elements of the theory of permanent revolution. The editors acknowledge (as was shown three decades earlier in Michael Löwy’s lucid study) that the very phrase “permanent revolution” as well as essential elements of the theory can be found in the works of Marx and Engels – especially in their writings of 1850 and, with specific reference to Russia, of the late 1870s and early 1880s.

In various works (his introduction to a later edition of 1905, comments in The New Course, his autobiography), Trotsky commented that his “permanent revolution” conception overlapped with perspectives of Parvus, Luxemburg, Mehring and Kautsky – and also Lenin. Löwy characterizes this as an effort to “minimize the originality of his conception” in order to “play down the supposedly ‘heretical’ nature of the theory of permanent revolution” (p. 40). One does have a sense, at points, that Day and Gaido may be stretching or simplifying what is meant by “permanent revolution” to gather as wide a congregation of Marxists as possible under the same theoretical tent. Nonetheless, Witnesses to Permanent Revolution suggests that Trotsky’s comments may have been grounded less in political expediency than intellectual honesty.

 Appreciating Trotsky’s Contribution

Despite limitations, Löwy’s book holds up well as a critical-minded but positive discussion of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. He persuasively argues that while rooted in the contributions of others in the Marxist tradition, and paralleling the insights of other revolutionary comrades, Trotsky’s own articulation of permanent revolution has a distinctive breadth, clarity, and coherence. Löwy’s summary of this articulation has three components:

“(a) the possibility of proletarian revolution in “backward” (underdeveloped, semi-feudal, pre-capitalist or pre-industrial) countries; (b) the uninterrupted transition from the democratic to the socialist revolution, as so-called bourgeois-democratic tasks (national independence and unity, the emancipation of the peasantry, democratic enfranchisement, and so on) are undertaken by workers’ power in ineluctable combination with specifically socialist tasks; (c) the international extension of the revolutionary process and the construction of socialism on a world scale” (p. 1).

As Löwy demonstrates, this conceptualization first emerged clearly during the Russian revolutionary upsurge of 1905, was marginalized during the period of 1906-1916, and was powerfully resurgent from 1917 through 1923 – its interactive elements (if not the actual name) dynamically contributing to the political reorientation, at Lenin’s initiative, of the Bolshevik party, consequently providing the basis for the October/November 1917 Revolution and the perspectives of the early Communist International beginning in 1919.

After Lenin’s death, in the middle 1920s, the rising bureaucratic party and state apparatus headed by Joseph Stalin pulled away from this orientation. Stalin advanced the notion that socialism could be created in the Soviet Union itself, within a capitalist dominated world. Flowing from this was the notion that Communist parties in other countries should struggle for democracy and social reforms, but not socialist revolution if alliances could be made with “progressive capitalists” and regimes willing to peacefully coexist with the Soviet Union. This caused a revival of the “economistic and vulgar-evolutionist interpretation of Marxism” that projected two stages – an immediate “democratic” stage of struggle (involving a “bloc of four classes”: progressive-capitalists, urban petty bourgeoisie, workers, and peasants), and a socialist stage of struggle in the distant future. This schema was imposed on revolutionary China in the mid-to-late 1920s, and was utilized to force Chinese Communists to subordinate themselves to presumably progressive Chinese Nationalists – who manipulated their Communist allies and then massacred them.

Löwy notes that Trotsky opposed the Stalinist strategy China, predicted the disaster that it brought about, and on the basis of the Chinese experience went on to generalize the theory of permanent revolution beyond the Russian context. In China as in Russia – and in other “backward” regions as well – Trotsky saw, in Löwy’s words, “the indissoluble dependence of the national bourgeoisie upon imperialism and the landowners, the disproportional weight of the proletariat (disproportionate to its actual numerical strength), the impossibility of the peasantry playing an autonomous political role, etc.” He adds that “Trotsky’s universalization of the theory of permanent revolution was not only the result of an inductive reasoning from the Russian and Chinese experiences. It was also grounded on a general theory of the socio-economic dynamics of the historical process (the law of uneven and combined development) and on a rather condensed analysis of the role of the main classes in the colonial and semi-colonial societies which he developed between 1928 and 1930” (pp. 86, 87). [2]

The stress on the theory’s applicability for “backward” countries in the quote from Löwy above is a matter to which we will need to return later in this review. But a somewhat more expansive restatement of the theory would go like this: (1) the struggle for the full realization of democratic goals can be won only through uncompromising struggle of the working class and its allies (the peasantry, plus artisans, small shopkeepers, independent professionals, but also oppressed national, ethnic and racial groups, women, students and youth, etc.), and such victory would place political power in the hands of the working class, resulting in a workers’ state; (2) this opens up a multi-faceted transition period, involving profound political, social, economic, cultural and other transformations, moving in the direction of socialism; (3) the possibility for socialism being realized is dependent on more and more countries, especially industrially advanced countries, experiencing working-class revolutions that would enable them to go in a socialist direction – aiding the less developed regions in their own socialist development and replacing the world capitalist economy with a global cooperative commonwealth.

Trotsky’s theorization involved a dynamic interplay of these three components, in a manner not fully realized in most of the materials gathered in the Witnesses to Permanent Revolution volume. His profound emphasis on the international dimension as essential to the possibility for the success, appropriately emphasized in Löwy’s study, is a keystone both for the revolutionary Marxist political strategy (for which revolutionary internationalism must be much more than an idealistic slogan) and for a revolutionary Marxist critique of Stalinism’s grotesque distortion and ultimate destruction of the revolutionary achievements of the 1917 Revolution.

The international dimension of the revolution in Russia was highlighted by ferocious military and economic assaults from a grand coalition of combined world powers and vicious pipsqueak-tyrants, determined to crush the “bad example” of the workers’ and peasants’ soviet republic. At the same time, the revolution was an example which inspired workers, peasants, intellectuals, idealistic youth and others of many lands to join in the struggle for a new and better world. Unfortunately, intense ferment and revolutionary uprisings in other countries failed to replicate the success enjoyed by the Russian Bolsheviks led by Lenin and Trotsky.

It was the isolation of the Soviet Union persisting through the 1920s that made it possible for the bureaucratic dictatorship under Stalin to consolidate its hold – under the banner of building “socialism in one country” – and to initiate the so-called “revolution from above” that rammed through a breakneck industrialization and modernization which destroyed millions of people (workers and peasants most of all) while exploiting many millions more. Stalin and his co-thinkers insisted that this constituted the triumph of “socialism,” but this bore little resemblance to the actual socialist goals of the early Bolsheviks or others associated with the revolutionary workers’ movement since the time of Karl Marx. And it provided a tragic confirmation of Trotsky’s theory – the failure of the revolution to triumph internationally, beyond the borders of the Soviet Union, would spell defeat for workers’ rule and an ability to realize socialism there. By the 1930s, Löwy notes, Trotsky explained that the “malign product of isolation and backwardness has been the octopus of bureaucratism,” adding prophetically: “Without a more or less rapid victory of the proletariat in the advanced countries, the workers’ government in Russia will not survive. Left to itself the Soviet regime must either fall or degenerate. More exactly, it will first degenerate and then fall” (p. 72).

 Corruptions and Challenges

Among the strengths of Löwy’s contribution is his critical-minded ability to consider serious shortcomings in the tradition with which he himself identifies. An example involves a critique of Trotsky’s inclination (shared with many Russian Marxists) to superimpose on the peasantry of the Russian empire and other “backward” regions a “petty bourgeois” conception perhaps more appropriate to agricultural sectors in more advanced capitalist economies. Even more relevant to issues focused on in this review, however, is Löwy’s stress on what he sees as blind-spots in the perspectives of the early Bolshevik leadership under Lenin and Trotsky. This is rooted in his understanding of revolutionary Marxism (as highlighted in the theory of permanent revolution) as an approach that sees history shaped by the dynamic, dialectical interplay of objective factors (material economic and social forces) and subjective factors (what human beings think and do within that “objective” context). He writes:

“It seems reasonable to assume . . . that the intervention of the so-called “subjective factors” – the participatory character of the revolutionary process, the democratic/pluralistic outlook of the socialist vanguard, the degree of proletarian self-activity and popular self-organization, and so on – can, if not abolish, then at least limit and counterbalance the tendencies toward bureaucratization inherent in the transition toward socialism in a poor and underdeveloped country. Considering the bureaucratic degeneration of the USSR, for example, we must count amongst the negative “subjective” determinants, the lack of socialist-democratic awareness on the part of the revolutionary leadership. The mistakes of the Bolsheviks in 1917-23 paved the way for the emergence and, later, the triumph of the Stalinist bureaucratic estate. The revolutionaries of October created, by default of maintaining the vigor of proletarian democracy, a Golem – a bureaucratic apparatus – that soon escaped their control, ran amock and finally destroyed them” (pp. 142-143).

This insight necessarily introduces a crucial but contradictory element into our understanding of the theory of permanent revolution. Central to the theory, as we have seen, is the “growing over” of democratic struggles into socialist struggles (with socialism understood as a deepening or extension of democracy into the economic sphere), with the working class establishing its own, actual control over the state in order to carry out this transition. What do we make, then, of a situation (even before the consolidation of Stalin’s power) in which in the name of the working class a political fragment of the workers’ movement, with the most admirable revolutionary intentions, establishes control over the state apparatus but fails to sustain the institutionalization of workers’ democracy (the possibility of pluralism and freedom of expression) necessary for genuine socialism?

This contradiction cropped up in Löwy’s efforts to demonstrate the ongoing relevance of Trotsky’s approach from 1940 to the 1980s in the first edition of his book. For that matter, it cropped up in some of Trotsky’s own theorizations. The “tasks” of the presumably democratic revolution were sometimes separated from actual “rule by the people,” the notion of a “workers’ state” was sometimes separated from the actual political rule by the working class, and the notion of the “revolutionary workers’ party” (in some of Löwy’s analyses) is separated from the actual working class. This was done with a high degree of sophistication and persuasiveness, and was necessary to make sense (within the framework of the theory) of the Chinese, Yugoslav, Vietnamese, and Cuban revolutions, as well as presumably revolutionary socialist developments in Africa. But the results proved problematical.

Thirty years after the appearance of The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development, in an interesting interview appended to the new addition of the book, Löwy comments: “I feel much of it has become outdated. Among other reasons, because most of the societies that I characterized as ‘post-capitalist’ have simply restored capitalism, without much resistance from the exploited classes” (p. 146). Consequently, author and publisher have decided to make available only the first part and the conclusion of the original book – which is disconcerting as the reader comes upon references in the interesting conclusion to a now non-existent Chapter 5! (Actually, two chapters are missing – one on “The Socialist Revolutions in Backward Capitalism,” another on “The Unfinished Bourgeois Revolutions.”)

Nonetheless, Löwy’s book remains a valuable resource for revolutionary activists seeking to understand and change the world. “New problems have emerged in the twenty-first century,” we are told in the interview at the end of the book, “not predicted by Trotsky, but which can be approached by using his method” (p. 154). In fact, elements in this volume having to do precisely with the problematical categories just referred to – the working class and democracy – can provide the basis for dealing with contemporary realities and future possibilities.

In the conclusion of The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development Löwy gives sustained attention to the terms national bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie, intelligentsia, peasantry, and proletariat, providing enough bits and pieces to begin the construction of a new way of comprehending the question of proletarian revolution. Ironically, the discussion focused on the proletariat is the least satisfactory – with an apparent assumption that since factory workers have not played as central a role in revolutionary struggles of many less developed countries than was the case in early twentieth-century Russia, one should look to Communist parties (or, with Cuba, the July 26th Movement) as a “stand-in” for the key social element in Trotsky’s orientation.

But in his discussion of the remaining three categories, he notes that they have demonstrated greater revolutionary potential than anticipated. In the cracks and the crevices of his exposition, a sense is given of a “proletarianization” process impacting on the labor force in both “developing” and “developed” countries throughout world. A growing percentage of laborers outside of factories have been transformed into those compelled to sell their ability to work (their labor-power) for payment of wages or salaries – the classical Marxist definition of a proletarian. Even before the term “globalization” became fashionable, Löwy could assert:

“It may be predicted . . . that because of the accelerated urbanization and industrialization of many peripheral capitalist countries, especially in Latin America, the revolutionary class struggles of the next decade may increasingly shift to the cities, and the working class will play a more central role. The end of the twentieth century may see a return to the “classical” October pattern of proletarian revolution” (125).

While there have hardly been new versions of 1917 Russia, we have seen a global resurgence of social movements – focused largely on struggles for economic justice and increasingly radical interpretations of human rights – in which proletarian and other identities have blended in what can be seen as new forms of class struggle in which notions of “advanced” and “backward” economies begin to lose their distinctness.

Certainly in his thirty year old discussion of the need to struggle for democracy in “the capitalist periphery,” the modern-day reader is struck by the relevance of such strictures for countries in “the capitalist center” as well. Löwy challenges what he calls “the fetishism of ‘maturity’” (p. 134) in the post-1917 reasoning of Karl Kautsky, who insisted that, as Löwy puts it, “a whole era of bourgeois democracy is an indispensible precondition for ‘schooling’ the working class for socialism.” One aspect of Löwy’s response is worth quoting at length:

“Even in the advanced capitalist democracies, what level of socialist culture is developed by working classes whose main political activity is to vote every four, five or seven years, while technocrats and politicians of the bourgeoisie run both economy and state in the meantime? Finally, if bourgeois democracy is the decisive ‘training ground’ for socialism – or as Kautsky puts in, ‘the indispensible means of ripening the proletariat’ – why is it that the U.S. proletariat, after more than a century of representative democracy, is still politically one of the most backward and ‘unripe’ – from a socialist standpoint – in the world?” (p. 138)

What this suggests is that struggles for genuine democracy are today as relevant for “advanced” countries as for “backward” ones. Democracy is everywhere in irreconcilable conflict with the power structure and the workings of capitalism – whether we are talking about actual “rule by the people” over the policies and apparatus of the state; or a meaningfully democratic republic and freedom of expression which is not corrupted by wealthy elites; or truly equal rights for women, for racial and ethnic minorities, and others. In his writings on China, Trotsky had asserted:

“The stage of democracy has a great importance in the evolution of the masses. Under definite conditions, the revolution can allow the proletariat to pass beyond this stage. But it is precisely to further this future development, which is not at all easy and not at all guaranteed to be successful in advance, that it is necessary to utilize to the fullest the inter-revolutionary period [between democratic and socialist revolutions] to exhaust the democratic resources of the bourgeoisie. This can be done by developing democratic slogans before the broad masses and by compelling the bourgeoisie to place itself in contradiction to them at each step” (p. 117).

This approach is as relevant throughout North America and Western Europe in our own time as it is for the rest of the world. Trotsky’s theory resonates in relation to other global realities. “A struggle to save the climate,” Löwy tells us at the end of his recent interview, “has to become an anticapitalist combat, otherwise it is doomed to failure. This is not ‘permanent revolution’ as Trotsky formulated it, but there is a sort of analogous argument” (p. 154).

An essential ingredient for the practical political relevance of Trotsky’s orientation in our own time is the kind of mass working-class movement, existing on a global scale and informed by the kind of rich theoretical culture of classical Marxism, that is reflected in Day and Gaido’s Witnesses to Permanent Revolution, although it will inevitably be more diverse in many ways than the movement of the early 1900s. Such volumes as these can assist activists in building that movement. Then what Löwy calls “the very precious tool” of Trotsky’s theory can help to make possible another, better world.

Paul Le Blanc