Review: ‘100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects",
edited by Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice
Pluto Press, 2006
Reviewed by Joe Craig
5th Sept 2006
This book is published to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of ‘Results and Prospects’ by Leon Trotsky, in which he reviewed the lessons of the 1905 revolution in Russia and set out for the first time in book format the theory for which he became most famous, permanent revolution.
This theory began from the fact that the development of capitalism across the globe had created a world market in which it was impossible to conceive of the process of socialist revolution as a national phenomenon. The possibility of revolution in a backward country with relatively little industrial development could not be judged only on the social and political situation within the country but only by including an analysis of the international situation and the international class struggle.
This was the starting point of Trotsky’s unique contribution to the debate within the Russian Marxist movement in the first years of the twentieth century. This movement had built itself in opposition to the populist movement which held that the traditional rural commune had the potential to act as the basis for the development of socialism in Russia. There was no need to pass through the awful process of capitalist accumulation.
The Russian Marxists however asserted that only the working class, on the basis of the development of productive forces created by capitalism, could lead a successful struggle for socialism in Russia. Marxist theory refuted the populists who asserted the revolutionary qualities of the peasantry.
Thus common to all the Russian Marxists was the view that economic, social and political development in Russia ruled out any direct move to socialism. The task instead, one accepted by all progressive forces, was the overthrow of the absolutist regime and creation of conditions which allowed the free development of capitalism and thus its inevitable companion, the development of a working class that was destined to overthrow it.
On the political agenda was therefore a purely political revolution which overthrew Tsardom and created a democratic capitalist republic which allowed the greatest freedom for the working class to organise the trade unions and political parties which were growing at that time in Western Europe.
The problem, thrown into graphic relief by the 1905 revolution, was that the ‘natural’ leaders of a purely democratic revolution, the native capitalist class, were extremely weak. Most of Russia was rural and the rural workforce had only been emancipated from serfdom for less than fifty years, something that had occurred in Western Europe centuries before. What capitalism existed was mainly a creature of the absolutist State and dominated by imperialist investment.
A million social bonds tied the Russian capitalist class to the State and to imperialist capital. This class thus lacked the strength to wage an uncompromising struggle against the absolutist State and feared more the freedoms that would accrue to the working class from a successful democratic revolution than it resented the lack of freedom suffered by it under the Tsar.
For the Menshevik wing of the Marxist movement the nature of the coming revolution determined the character of its leadership. The capitalist class must lead a capitalist revolution. The workers party must retain its independence and form a principled opposition in the new republic. The free development of capitalism that would then be possible would engender the development of a working class that could at some stage in the future be strongly placed in the struggle for socialism.
Lenin and the Bolshevik section of the Russian Marxists believed on the other hand that the capitalist class could not be relied upon to lead the revolution and no confidence could be placed in them. Instead an alliance of workers and peasantry, the latter the vast majority of society, would lead the revolution and create a democratic dictatorship (based on majority rule) of the proletariat and peasantry that would not, at least initially, go beyond measures consistent with capitalism.
The Mensheviks had logic on their side when they pointed out the contradiction of working class parties ruling but not going beyond capitalism while the Bolsheviks were correct by asserting the cowardly and reactionary role of the capitalist class and its inability to lead a democratic revolution.
In this debate Trotsky argued that the Bolsheviks were right that the capitalist class in Russia would not and could not address the democratic tasks facing Russian society. His position also acknowledged the argument that was put by the Mensheviks – Marxists ruling over a capitalist society made no sense.
Instead he argued that any workers government, indeed the natural development of the struggle for democracy, would move beyond implementation of purely capitalist measures, or rather measures that remained compatible with capitalism, and would proceed to introduce explicitly socialist measures. This was necessary because the complete solution of the democratic questions facing society could only be achieved through the working class taking power.
The formula of Lenin which tied the proletariat to the peasantry in a joint definition of government devalued the necessary leadership role of the working class and erased the necessary character of the new State power that would be created. The support of the peasantry was essential but the nature of the State and its programme had to be clear. It is not possible for a State to defend the interests of classes with separate and opposed class interests. The working class programme of social ownership clashed with the peasantry’s desire for the extension of private ownership, and the capitalist market that would inevitably have to accompany it.
What made such a strategy possible was not the level of economic and social development in Russia, which remained woefully inadequate for the construction of socialism when considered in isolation, but the possibility that the Russian Revolution could provide the spark for socialist revolution in the much more developed West. Aid from the working class of Europe could then make the beginnings of socialist transformation in Russia a possibility. The fate of the Russian revolution thus lay in the hands of the European working class.
The course of the Russian revolution brilliantly confirmed Trotsky’s analysis. The capitalist class failed to complete the democratic tasks posed by the backward character of Russian society and ended up allying with the most reactionary forces in its struggle against the working class and peasantry. Their ties to imperialism meant they continued to support Russia’s participation in the First World War despite its unpopularity and their ties to the landowning class meant they continually postponed land reform. Those socialists who pursued alliance with the capitalist class ended up discredited by these policies. Only the creation of an embryonic workers state allowed the pursuit of peace and land distribution to the peasants.
The failure of socialist revolution negatively confirmed the second aspect of Trotsky’s theory, that socialist revolution is an international process. The failure of revolution in the west consigned the revolution in Russia to isolation. The ability of imperialism to sponsor invasion and the native reactionary ‘White’ armies drained the vital energies of the revolution and in the end strangled it through Stalinist dictatorship.
This dictatorship signalled an open abandonment of international socialism through its theory that socialism could, and indeed was, being created in Russia in isolation from the rest of the world.
A State Capitalist View?
A number of contributors to the seventeen essays in the book are associated with the international tendency represented in Ireland by the Socialist Workers Party. Although routinely described as Trotskyist this is strictly a misnomer since their tendency has defined itself by adherence to theories which actually depart from Trotsky’s.
This is true of their views on permanent revolution which perhaps partially explains why the book is not actually about permanent revolution as such. Unfortunately the book does not provide a presentation of attempts to develop their own particular perspective of ‘deflected permanent revolution’ which is how they describe their own view.
Only one or two observations are made from this vantage point. It is asserted (p.53) that Trotsky’s theory of the Soviet Union as a workers state contradicts his claim that socialism in one country is impossible, But this is only true if Trotsky’s actual theory that the Soviet Union was a degenerated workers state requiring political revolution to establish real socialism is ignored. Unfortunately the long and acrimonious debate over the class character of the Soviet Union has been a history of such wilful distortion of opposition views.
The second observation on the next page of the book is that Trotsky’s view of the Soviet Union as a temporary phenomenon was indefensible after its massive expansion into Eastern Europe after World War Two. This appears a silly point to make after its collapse in 1989. In the whole sweep of world history the existence of Stalinism in power has indeed been temporary, despite its projections of superpower status during its disintegration. Trotsky’s analysis looks confirmed rather than refuted. In any case its expansion after WWII was a result of world imperialism going to war against itself (US and British imperialism against German and Japanese), allowing Stalinism to survive and manoeuvre to its benefit. But this debate is not taken forward.
The book does contain fairly lengthy quotations from Trotsky that bring to light aspects of his theory. On page 93 the limits to how far backward countries can skip over earlier stages of capitalist industrialisation experienced by earlier industrialisers is brought out:
‘The possibility of skipping over intermediate
steps is of course by no means absolute. Its degree is determined
in the long run by the economic and cultural capacities of the country.
The backward nation, moreover, not infrequently debases the achievements
borrowed from the outside in the process of adapting them to its more primitive
culture. In this the very process of assimilation acquires a self-contradictory
‘The industrially more developed country shows the less developed only the image of its own future.’ This statement of Marx, which takes its departure methodologically not from world economy as a whole but from the single capitalist country as a type, has become less applicable in proportion as capitalist evolution has embraced all countries regardless of their previous fate and industrial level. England in her day revealed the future of France, considerably less of Germany, but not in the least of Russia and not of India.
On page 96 the relationship between counties
is presented as subject to laws similar to those giving rise to the possibility
of permanent revolution:
Trotsky used the concepts and method of analysis involved in working out the dynamics of the Russian revolution to examine the failed Chinese revolution of the 1920s. Since then application of this theory has been the hallmark of organisations claiming to be Trotskyist. In his ‘History of the Russian Revolution’ the analysis that informs the strategy of permanent revolution was defined as uneven and combined development and it is to this that the book reviewed is really devoted.
Uneven development refers especially to the differential development of capitalism across the globe and particularly the persistence of economically advanced and backward countries despite the subsuming of the whole world under the power of capitalism. Combined development, it is argued by one contributor (Neil Davidson), was used by Trotsky to denote the combination of backward and advanced elements within one country. The existence of huge heavy industry employing thousands of militant workers inside a country dominated by backward agriculture is only one example from Russia that was important to its political development. Davidson however argues that combined development, the tying together of the most modern and traditional and not the simple overcoming of the latter by the former, is a feature of relations between nations and states and not just within them.
A second contributor (Sam Ashman) writes about the importance of understanding that we face not just a world market but also a world economy and points to the importance of states and their relationship to capital accumulation in understanding how development is uneven. Others also highlight the importance of the political and of the importance of history in determining development, in the sense that history is not the outworking of immutable laws but is the result of many processes and of contingency and accident.
All the contributors appear to want to enrich Trotsky’s theory but mostly go no further than impressionism and statement of the rather obvious, such as that states impact on dynamics of development or that combined and uneven development reflects the nature of capital accumulation itself. In fact Trotsky’s original analysis of Russia involved an understanding of the central role of the Tsarist State in determining development, as one author acknowledges (p167)
Updating the way in which combined and uneven development operates in our globalised world would require an updating of the Marxist analysis of imperialism but this is nowhere attempted in the book and none equal Ernest Mandel’s analysis of the unevenness of capitalist accumulation contained in his ‘Late Capitalism.’
The overall tone of the book, despite real differences in the essays, is academic, displaying a well-read lack of substance. As we have noted, it doesn’t really deal with permanent revolution so much as with the theory of uneven and combined development which underlies it. It therefore doesn’t deal with whether permanent revolution is a strategy – which socialists fight for – or is an objective process, in which others may be assigned bearers of the socialist logic of the process of revolution. It is a long standing criticism of many in the Trotskyist movement that they have confused the latter with the former.
Occasionally the analysis appears very
poor indeed. One author berates Trotsky’s analysis for omitting ‘the
one social entity that is, presumably, the principal object of Trotsky’s
emancipatory theorising: labour.’ (p153) This is the same Trotsky
whose theory is all about the centrality of the working class in Russia
for the character of the revolution in that country and of the European
working class to the ultimate success of the revolution in Russia.
He is not alone. Karl Marx is criticised - his abstraction ‘despatialised and detemporalised the development of capitalism, and provided few theoretical signposts for dealing with social, political and economic differences across space.’ There is so much that could be said about this remark but . . . it would really not be worth it.
One of the editors of the book, Bill Dunn (p171), writes in his own essay that ‘what is offered here should be understood as a call, rather than an attempt to provide, a general description of contemporary combined and uneven development.’ This could be read as an accurate comment on the whole book, but at 250 pages and £18.99 this is both a very long and expensive call.
The book does not present a history of the theory and application of permanent revolution, which would have entailed some history of the Trotskyist movement, nor does it test the theory against the experience of anti-colonial and liberation struggles around the world after the second world war, which led to the creation of dozens of new states. Did these refute the theory by remaining within world capitalism while solving the problems of democracy, independence and development?
Its chapters on specific countries are no better, and generally worse, than the more ‘theoretical’ parts of the book and the chapter on Ireland is possibly one of the weakest. The book is a testament to the low standard of academic writing which afflicts so much of the Marxism which activists, without the luxury of hours of free time to read books and journals, should be able to rely on to develop their own theoretical views.
Some of the conclusions drawn are banal. At the end of one article on ‘Islamist Responses to Capitalist Development in the Maghreb’ we are informed that:
‘What the future forms of political contestation in the Maghreb might look like is, of course, an open question; that they are likely to be shaped by the conflicting interaction between the dynamics of international capitalism and the apparently local political responses, is not’.
The book is a missed opportunity and disappointing.
It does not really ‘do what it says on the tin’ and cannot be recommended.
Had Trotsky written at the level of this book 100 years ago there would
be no one writing volumes in commemoration today. The best advice
to anyone seeking an explanation of the theory of permanent revolution
is to read the man himself.