The Land Question in the Russian Revolution

Did Lenin and Trotsky Betray the Permanent Revolution?

Chris Kinder

The following article is a considerably expanded version of a September 2014 email in response to an unpublished piece by Thomas Smith entitled, “The Problem with Land, Peace and Bread: the fatal error in Lenin’s agrarian program and the Marxian alternative.”

The Russian Revolution of 1917, under Lenin and Trotsky’s leadership, was nothing if not a confirmation of the “permanent revolution.” The “permanent revolution” is a Marxist/Trotskyist theory which is just as vital today as it was in 1917. “Permanent revolution” refers to the fact that in the modern world (since the abolition of feudalism), a “democratic” (i.e., bourgeois) revolution is incapable of solving the imperialist and class oppression that persists in Third World ex-colonial societies, as well as in capitalist societies generally. Only the working class, fighting independently for its own socialist demands and goals, can solve the problems that imperialist capitalism and its local “nationalist” hirelings stubbornly maintain in the world.

The Russian Revolution of 1917, guided by Lenin and Trotsky, remains today as the clear path to make the workers’ revolution that we need, in the context of all national situations.

Lenin’s “April Theses”

In April 1917, Lenin issued a brilliant assessment of the direction the revolution needed to follow, starting with throwing out the old Bolshevik slogan of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” and heading immediately to “all power to the soviets” to establish a dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry. Lenin’s April Theses were based on his idea of how to move the revolution forward, a concept first initiated by Marx and Engels in the wake of the 1848 revolutionary experience in Germany, and promoted by Trotsky in his Results and Prospects (1906) and The Permanent Revolution (1930).

This theory held that the bourgeois/petty-bourgeois parties were completely incapable of completing the most basic tasks of their own bourgeois revolution, which was due to the capitalists’ fear of the rising power of the working class, and to their alliances with the reactionary noble and landowning classes, acting in concert to thwart the workers. Therefore, to complete the democratic tasks (such as expropriating the landed aristocracy), the working class had to seek power in its own name and pursue its own demands for overthrowing capitalism and establishing a workers government. Only in this way was it possible to establish, as Marx said, “The Revolution in Permanence.”

“April Theses” Contested

Despite new worker recruits pouring into the Bolshevik Party following the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917, who were demanding the immediate overthrow of the Provisional Government, many of the “Old Bolshevik” leading cadres went into shock over Lenin’s April Theses, and made Lenin a minority of one for a time. Were these cadres, under leaders such as Zinoviev, Stalin and Kamenev, still stuck in a Menshevik-like stagism, and was this stagism partly due to Lenin’s earlier writings on the land question, which theorists such as Thomas Smith don’t want us to forget? Perhaps. But quickly the cadre learned what these new recruits already knew: that this was the party that didn’t want to wait for the petty-bourgeois liberals or reformists (democrats, Mensheviks, SRs etc.) to finish the revolution.

The April Theses alone strongly signify that Lenin, and with him (in short time) the Bolshevik Party, were firmly on the road toward permanent revolution. The Bolshevik-led insurrection in October, timed at Lenin’s insistence to coincide with the opening of the 2nd All-Russian Congress of Soviets, combined with the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly and establishment of a workers (Soviet) government, put the Russian Revolution itself into history as giving life to the 1850 program of Marx. Lenin was the key leader who showed that it would take the assumption of power by the revolutionary working class to carry out the basic reforms of the bourgeois revolution, and that this could only be achieved by moving on to socialist tasks.

The Russian Revolution thus became one of the greatest events, perhaps the greatest event in world history. Revolutionists today must promote its lessons to the world, especially in these dreadfully reactionary times, when, in the post-colonial world petty-bourgeois democrats and nationalists are mostly just agents for imperialism and cower before, or even support, murderous religious reactionaries such as the Christianist “Lord’s Resistance Army,” or Islamic Jihadists whose “program” dates to the Seventh Century, or beyond.

Lenin’s Decree on Land

Following on a quote from Victor Serge at the beginning of his piece [1] , Smith asserts that Lenin ignored the permanent revolution program for land reform originally put forward by Marx and Engels in 1850, and Trotsky abandoned his own advocacy of the permanent revolution theory on the land question; and that these were key factors leading to the destruction of Bolshevism, and the degeneration of the Russian revolutionary workers state under Stalin & Co. This is an unfair and inaccurate criticism of both Lenin and Trotsky, as well as a misreading of the real problems facing the making of a permanent proletarian revolution in Russia.

There is, however, some truth in what Smith says concerning the land question in revolutionary Russia, along the lines indicated in the critiques of Rosa Luxemburg, Paul Levy and others, which Smith points to. The overthrow of the big landlords in 1917, which eliminated the burdensome debts imposed on the peasants, combined with the Revolution’s failure—I would say inability—to institute mass collectivization at an early stage (1917-18), did lead to the enrichment of the kulaks, and the expansion of class differentiation among the petty-bourgeois peasantry in general. These factors encouraged the peasants to treat the land as their property, which in turn contributed to hoarding of grain, famine in the cities, and the development of a bureaucracy, which by 1923 was already becoming the base of Stalin’s seizure of power, consummated in late 1923-24.

But was Lenin’s land reform program really the root cause of the Stalinist degeneration of the Revolution, and was this outcome due to Lenin and Trotsky’s (alleged) abandonment of permanent revolution? I think not.

A “Deeply Flawed” Decree?

Smith says the Land Decree was “deeply flawed” because it gave the peasants the land, thus abandoning the socialist tasks of the revolution as specified by Marx and Trotsky. But Victor Serge, who developed a critique of the Communist Party in 1921, was a little less denunciatory of the Land Decree in his seminal Year One of the Revolution (1930). First of all, he says that this decree, “alone would make the new authority invincible, by assuring it the support of millions of peasants.” He goes on to say that, “In expropriating the land-owners, possessors of the estates, the decree did not abolish private property in land.” Serge notes that the decree was based on the program of the SRs, as codified in 242 decrees which “local peasant soviets had passed in conformity with the agrarian programme of the Socialist Revolutionary party.” He goes on to point out that the decree “created a united-front of the whole of the peasantry around the soviets.” Thus, Serge says, “Here was the triumphant proletariat limiting itself to achieving the bourgeois revolution in the countryside.” [2]

The Bolshevik Land Decree, written by Lenin, and fully supported by Trotsky, was passed at the 2nd Congress, immediately after the October insurrection. The decree did not have the effect of abolishing private property “on the ground” so to speak, but that was not reflective of what it actually said. The decree had as its first clause, “1. Landed proprietorship is abolished forthwith without any compensation,” period, end of point one (emphasis mine). And later, under the clause, “The most equitable settlement of the land question is to be as follows,” we have “1, Private ownership of land shall be abolished for ever; land shall not be sold, purchased, leased, mortgaged, or otherwise alienated. All land, whether state, crown, monastery, church, factory, entailed, public, peasant, etc., shall be confiscated without compensation and become the property of the whole people, and pass into the use of all those who cultivate it.” [3]

Thus Smith’s assertion that the Land Decree “gave the peasants the land,” and Serge’s statement that the decree, “did not abolish private property in land,” are not accurate. Granted that this land law was based on decrees from SR dominated peasant soviets, and granted that the new workers government could not immediately implement this provision beyond the expropriation of the landlord nobility, the point is that in this decree, the working class stated its goals as the abolition of private property in land, even if that could not be fully carried out immediately by the workers state.

Revolutionary Developments in Rural Russia in 1917

Rosa Luxemburg is a little more severe than Serge. As quoted by Smith, “Formerly, there was only a small caste of noble and capitalist proprietors and a small minority of rich village bourgeoisie to oppose a socialist reform on the land. And their expropriation by a revolutionary mass movement of the people is mere child’s play.” Whose expropriation is “mere child’s play,” the noble and capitalist proprietors and rich village bourgeoisie, or them plus the mass of the peasantry, who thought the land belonged to them? And who was to do the expropriating, in the absence of an active, mass rural proletariat?

Much as I respect Rosa Luxemburg, I must say that this statement is an over-simplification which ignores the rural realities in Russia. Most peasants were former serfs (or their immediate offspring) who, having been relieved of their serfdom in 1861, were now exploited renters, deeply in debt to the lords who formerly possessed them as serfs, and who still owned the land. A few were landowners themselves, and many were poor peasants or agricultural laborers, but the majority who were renters worked what they thought of as their land, and wanted to own it free and clear of the feudal hangovers that the rents, debts and endless fees represented.

The situation after the overthrow of the Tsar in the bourgeois February Revolution was “unstable” to say the least. In rural areas during the Summer and Fall of 1917 all hell was breaking loose. Peasants were frustrated with the lack of any action to expropriate the noble landed aristocracy, the owners of the big latifundia, a few of whom were ministers in the Provisional Government. As the air of revolution permeated the countryside, raids on the big landowners’ property began to take place. Peasants began to invade the estates and cart off crops of hay and other resources such as tools and other implements. Some of the big landed estate owners tried to get the weak Provisional Government’s support to protect their properties to no avail, and many panicked and sold their estates to foreign investors, notably from France (which was Tsarist Russia’s major trade and investment partner). The expropriation of the landlords was proceeding apace!

The peasants were also looking around for leadership. This is when the Socialist Revolutionaries, who promised “land to the tiller,” surged to prominence as the peasants’ chief representatives. Or, as Trotsky put it in 1923, “The Socialist Revolutionaries considered that the peasantry was created for the purpose of being under their leadership and, through them, to rule the country” ! [4] The inability of the peasantry to take power on its own, and the fact that the peasantry in power would mean rule by the petty-bourgeoisie, and hence the capitalist parties, completely escaped the understanding of the SRs.

Peasants Were Desperate for Expropriation

As prices of grain went up, the poorer sections of the peasantry, as well as landless laborers already living on the edge, faced desperation. Many turned to burning down landlords’ manor houses, against the advice of others who said these buildings should be saved to be used later as cooperative community centers or hospitals, etc. But despite Bolshevik efforts, the poorer peasants and laborers remained in the background of a united peasant movement led by the better-off elements.

Trotsky describes all of this in great detail in his History of the Russian Revolution. He relates that contrary to Lenin’s expectation in April that kulaks and “patriotic co-operators” would “drag the main mass of the peasantry after them along the road of compromise with the bourgeoisie and the landlord,” the opposite was happening. As more and more big landlord holdings were being looted, the kulaks and small-landowning peasants took the lead and had the advantage of well-fed horses and carts to hold crops and equipment. The better-off peasants were dominating the peasant revolutionary movement, which was already in the Summer of 1917 roaring toward a seizure of the land, with the better-off land-owning peasants in the forefront, and with the SRs increasingly being seen as the political leadership.

Lenin Seeks an Organized Rural Proletariat

It was for this reason, Trotsky relates, that Lenin “…tirelessly insisted on the creation of special soviets of farm hands’ deputies, and upon independent organizations of the poorest peasantry.” But “month by month” it became clear that this was not taking root. “Except in the Baltic state, there were no soviets of farm hands. The peasant poor also failed to find independent forms of organization.” Referring to the backwardness of rural Russia in general, Trotsky asserts that, “To explain this merely by the backwardness of the farm hands and the poorest strata of the villages, would be to miss the essence of the thing. The chief task lay in the substance of the historic task itself—a democratic agrarian revolution.” [5]

Lenin had indeed made attempts to develop the rural proletariat into a fighting force. In a June 1917 article printed in the Bolshevik press, Lenin argued that, “It may seem to many, and perhaps even most at the moment, that with the peasants organizing throughout Russia and calling for the abolition of private ownership of land, and for ’equalized’ land tenure, this is not the time to set up a rural workers union. Quite the contrary. This is precisely the time to set up a rural workers union.” Lenin then quotes from the 1906 RSDLP program:

“‘The Party should in all eventualities, and whatever the situation, with regard to democratic agrarian reforms, consider it as its task to steadfastly strive for the independent class organization of the rural proletariat, and explain to it the irreconcilable antithesis between its interests and the interests of the peasant bourgeoisie, to warn it against illusions about the small-holding system, which can never, as long as commodity production exists, do away with the poverty of the masses, and, lastly, to point to the need for a complete socialist revolution as the only means of abolishing all poverty and exploitation.’” [6]

This is the program Lenin is accused of betraying.

Later, in 1921, in “Theses for a report [to the Third Congress of the Communist International] on the Tactics of the RCP,” Lenin, reiterated a point he had often made over the years (including in some of the material cited by Smith), that “A large scale machine industry capable of reorganizing agriculture, is the only material basis for socialism.” Lenin also asserts in the same theses that, “With every passing month [the Russian peasant] sees more clearly and more vividly that only the guidance given by the proletariat is capable of leading the mass of small farmers out of slavery to socialism.” [7]

A Basis for the Future Through Workers’ Power

Summing up with regard to the 1917 Land Decree, Lenin’s inclusion of the clause, “Private ownership of land shall be abolished for ever…and become the property of the whole people…” (full quote above) must be seen as laying a basis for the future, when the development of industry could provide the necessary tools, tractors, etc., and the organizing of a conscious rural proletariat would enable the working class to fully introduce the socialist system to the countryside, not by force, but through patient explanation and example. So then, how is Lenin’s view of this goal for the peasantry different from that of the SRs, who authored the decree’s specifics in 242 resolutions of peasant soviets, and whose aim was more in line with securing the petty-bourgeois peasantry on the land?

The answer to this question is tied up with the question of which class should seek power in the revolution, and to what end. This was expressed and illustrated in attitudes towards the Constituent Assembly. In October 1917, the SRs were desperate to establish some sort of bulwark against the overwhelming position of strength that the Bolsheviks had among the urban working class. The SRs relied on the upcoming Constituent Assembly to accomplish this, and the Land Decree reflects that with its statement that “final disposition” of the land was to be made by the Constituent Assembly. The Bolsheviks had also called for a Constituent Assembly, as an important democratic demand, prior to October, and it was still in their program. Not only that, there were moderates, not just among the Mensheviks, SRs and Left SRs, but also in the Bolshevik Party, who leaned toward the formation of a “broad” multi-party socialist government, and saw the Constituent Assembly as an avenue for that.

Such an avenue would have derailed the Revolution, led to a petty-bourgeois capitalist government, and curtailed any hope of permanent revolution. As Trotsky explained, “The Mensheviks, who at the most critical moments of the revolution made common cause with the Socialist Revolutionaries, judged that by its very nature the peasantry was destined to be the principal prop of bourgeois democracy, to whose aid they came on every occasion, by supporting either the Socialist Revolutionaries or the Cadets. Moreover, in these combinations the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries delivered the peasantry bound hand and foot to the bourgeoisie.”[8] The Leninists led the Bolshevik Party, after much discussion, to the conclusion that setting up a workers government and workers state required the dissolution of the Constituent Assembly, which could only have implemented a rival bourgeois government.

In other words, Lenin saw the Land Decree as a necessary step to complete the democratic tasks of the revolution, and point the way for the full socialization of the countryside, while the SRs saw expropriation of the big monied landowners as a step toward effective peasant ownership of the liberated land and a democratic capitalist state, albeit led by socialists.

“Immediate” Collectivization of Land Was Impossible

The context of the Land Decree is critical. Not only had Lenin’s attempts to spur the organization of the rural proletariat and establish rural workers’ soviets substantially fallen short; and not only had the well-off and land-owning peasants emerged as the leadership of a mass, revolutionary peasant movement that was already expelling the big landowners; but also neither the Bolshevik Party nor the urban working class had the wherewithal to go into the countryside in a mass way and do it “immediately” in 1917-18 as Smith suggests. Russia was a vast, mostly agricultural country, with a massive peasant class, which was barely out of feudalism, and still suffering under financial burdens imposed by the formerly feudal landlords. And, we must not forget that the revolutionary urban working class was vastly outnumbered by a peasant majority, most of whom aimed at saving land they were already working for themselves by getting rid of the nobility!

If enough urban workers had been mobilized right after the October insurrection to go to the countryside and “immediately” attempt to organize the peasants into collectives, thus requiring them to leave the farms they were working behind in favor of taking on a much bigger task of organizing new structures of work on large collective farms, which would have been created by patching together small farms as well as taking over the big estates, various disasters could easily have ensued. First of all, the urban delegations of workers would have had nothing to offer to the peasants: virtually no industry to provide the necessary tools, tractors and other supplies that would have been needed, and probably not much expertise on how to set up a big farming operation (the fact that many of them were from peasant villages originally notwithstanding). Furthermore, the workers would have been confronted by peasants who were already mobilized to get rid of their landlords and debts so that they could successfully manage their own existing farms. And, the peasants probably had enough work on their hands just getting in their own crops, without having to set themselves up as a collective to farm whole new areas of farmland!

Resistance to an “immediate” collectivization effort would have been inevitable, and likely disastrous for the Bolsheviks. It could have led to a confrontation between a peasant united front and the Bolsheviks, which would have required either a plan of forced collectivization, or more likely, a full retreat. The peasants, after all, faced with an onslaught of pressure to collectivize while just in the process of removing the nobility from their backs, could easily have assumed that the Bolsheviks were trying to substitute a new form of rule on them, one that would also take their land away.

The Peasants Should Be Assured…

Lenin knew this. When asked after the passage of the Land Decree why he had applied the agrarian program of the SRs instead of his own, he said:

“Voices are being raised here that the decree itself and the Mandate were drawn up by the Socialist-Revolutionaries. What of it? Does it matter who drew them up? As a democratic government, we cannot ignore the decision of the masses of the people…. Let the peasants solve this problem from one end and we shall solve it from the other. Experience will allow us to draw together in the general stream of revolutionary creative work, in the elaboration of new state farms. We must be guided by experience; we must allow complete freedom to the creative faculties of the masses.”

While the old, Tsarist government had only “fought the peasants,” Lenin continued:

“The peasants have learned something during the eight months of our revolution; they want to settle all land problems themselves. We are therefore opposed to all amendments to this draft law. We want no details in it, for we are writing a decree, not a programme of action…. The point is that the peasants should be firmly assured that there are no more landowners in the countryside, that they themselves must decide all questions, and that they themselves must arrange their own lives.” [9]

The point that the peasants “should be firmly assured that there are no more landowners in the countryside,” is probably the definitive point here. As Serge said, the Land Decree “alone would make the new authority invincible, by assuring it the support of millions of peasants.” Or as Trotsky said, “The chief task lay in the substance of the historic task itself—a democratic agrarian revolution.” Consider: if the Bolsheviks had, as the new workers government, immediately counterposed themselves to, and alienated the mass of the peasantry, they would have inevitably gone down in flames in the ensuing civil war! They couldn’t take that risk. Support of the peasantry, was absolutely vital to the young Soviet government in defeating the White armies and imperialist invaders. Lose that war, and the workers government would have been written off as a failed experiment. It would have been said that the Mensheviks were right: Russia wasn’t ready, wasn’t at the right “stage” for a workers revolution. And the world would have lost a vital lesson: how to make a workers revolution in a majority peasant country.

If the urban revolutionary workers had been mobilized in sufficiently large numbers to cover the vast countryside with delegations to the peasantry to try to organize collective farms, the cities would have been virtually denuded of workers. This was just when the factories were about to be expropriated, and workers control needed to be consolidated. And, needless to say, industry was needed to supply the new workers’ economy and society. Furthermore, there would not have been enough workers left in Petrograd to build and staff defenses against the advancing Germans, who continued to threaten the revolutionary bastion even after the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty. Finally, when the call went out in 1918 to form a Red Army to oppose the Whites and imperialists, the revolutionary urban workers were the first to respond, and became the core of the army. Would they have even been there to respond to the call if Smith’s plan for an immediate mobilization to the countryside to promote collectivization had been implemented?

Class Struggle on the Land Amidst Famine and Civil War

Lenin and Trotsky’s program for the Revolution did not in any way abandon the class struggle on the land. In the midst of the civil war and the growing famine in the cities—in conditions of war communism—Trotsky, as head of the Red Army, spoke in the following terms to an assembly of soviet and trade-union delegates in June of 1918:

“The working class has put the landlord’s land into the hands of the peasantry: it is also teaching the rural poor to take from the kulaks, plunderers and speculators the stocks of food they hold, and to transform these stocks into a common food reserve of the proletarian state. If it is to remain in power, the working class must set in motion the mechanism of its state administration, carrying through this task under very difficult conditions…. When we are told that this is the road of civil war, we are bewildered. It is obvious that Soviet power is organized civil war against the landlords, the bourgeoisie and the kulaks.”

Amidst shouts and uproar in this mass meeting of soviet and factory council delegates, Trotsky continues:

“It is a pitiful utopia to hope that grain can be got from that kulak by means of palliative measures…. We know that in the next few weeks, we shall raise up in Moscow, for the fight against famine, the best elements among the workers, who know what the famine in the towns means, and whose consciousness has been enlightened by the ideals of socialism. These we shall hurl into the countryside, in well-organized columns, to establish fraternal unity with the poor.”

Trotsky mentioned in another speech five days later that working-class women would play a central role in the detachments being sent out from Petrograd and Moscow to collect grains, because mothers:

“…know better than anyone else what famine means for a family with a lot of children. When she reaches Ufa Province [currently in the Republic of Bashortostan, in south-western Russian Federation] or Western Siberia, such a housewife will say what needs to be said to the local kulaks. Can we doubt, Comrades, that the fraternal alliance between the town workers and the village poor will be strengthened, that the kulaks will not dare to oppose this combination, since they are so insignificant numerically?”

On-Going Struggle for Socialist Measures on the Land

Besides making clear the urgency of measures needed to deal with the growing famine in the cities—which was due to the hoarding of grain by the rich peasants—these excerpts demonstrate the on-going commitment of the Lenin/Trotsky leadership to push forward with the socialist tasks of the revolution as much as possible, even in the depths of civil war, famine and emergency measures to feed the cities. Trotsky’s remarks at this time also reflect the needs of the Red Army for food, as the Army was being formed mostly of peasants recruited from the landless, poor and middle peasantry (with workers mostly in leadership/organizing roles).

The remarks here also, incidentally, demonstrate the functioning of Soviet democracy in mid-1918, as the most dire crises loomed over the Revolution. Despite numerous shouts from the right, and opposition from the floor by the Menshevik Martov and others, Trotsky’s proposed “Resolution on the question of combatting famine,” was adopted at this 4th of June 1918 joint session. The resolution concludes, “By triumphing over famine, we shall triumph over counterrevolution and secure the Communist republic forever.” [10]

Marx: Make the Revolution Permanent

So, was the Land Decree a betrayal of the permanent revolution that Marx delineated in 1848-50, Trotsky elaborated in 1904-06, and Lenin signed onto in 1917, as Smith suggests? The answer lies in the nature of the permanent revolution concept itself. The basic lesson of the 1848 revolutions in Europe, was that the bourgeoisie, now empowered after the French Revolution, had become a brake on the revolution, thus preventing the masses in the street from becoming any more of a threat than they already were. The bourgeoisie allied with its fellow propertied class, the remaining aristocratic hangovers from feudalism, rather than grant any more freedom to the working masses. They wanted to stop the revolution at their “stage,” i.e., with the bourgeoisie in power with whatever anti-democratic compromises that required. What Marx so brilliantly pointed out, is that it would take a working-class revolution just to complete the bourgeois revolution. But the working class needed to raise its own demands in order to make the revolution happen at all, i.e., to make it “permanent.”

While Lenin’s Land Decree did proclaim a nationalization of the land without compensation, it did not, in practice, serve the function of making the socialist revolution “permanent” on the land. But it did contribute to making the revolution permanent in Russia in general, by solidifying the revolutionary workers government with the majority peasant population, who now identified the Bolsheviks as the only party that actually implemented the comprehensive program of expropriation of the landlords that was required to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution.

In other words, as Marx & Engels pointed out in the 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League” to which Smith referred, “The petty-bourgeois democratic party of Germany is very powerful; it comprises [besides the small and large bourgeoisie and guild masters] the peasants and rural proletariat, in so far as the latter has not yet found a support in the independent proletariat.” The authors continue, “The relation of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it marches together with them against the faction which it aims at overthrowing, it opposes them in everything whereby they seek to consolidate their position in their own interests.”[11]

In October 1917, Lenin judged, correctly in my view, that the conditions required the nascent workers state to fulfill its revolutionary task of “marching together” with the petty-bourgeois peasant population to fulfill the basic anti-feudal, bourgeois democratic tasks which neither the Tsarist, nor the socialist-led Provisional (bourgeois) Government was capable of doing. The Bolsheviks, the workers’ party, lacked the ability to move on to the socialist tasks on the land just yet. To have failed to take the first step, of fulfilling the bourgeois-democratic task of officially abolishing all the feudal riff-raff still holding sway over the oppressed peasantry, would have been a betrayal, not just of the peasantry, but of the permanent revolution itself. The main point here is that the working class was in the lead, fighting for its own goals, but with the support of the peasantry.

Trotsky’s Role: The Permanent Revolution

Did Trotsky join in Lenin’s alleged abandonment of the permanent revolution, by also failing to implement socialist collectivization on the land in 1917-18? Such a betrayal is what Comrade Smith asserts Trotsky did, as a co-leader with Lenin in the Bolshevik Party.

First of all, let us hear from Trotsky. In 1923 he said that:

“As to the theory of the ‘permanent revolution,’ I see no reason to renounce what I wrote on this subject in 1904, 1905, 1906, and later. To this day, I persist in considering that the thoughts I developed at that time, taken as a whole, are much closer to the genuine essence of Leninism than much of what a number of Bolsheviks wrote in those days…. One cannot discover in my writings of that time the slightest attempt to leap over the peasantry. The theory of the permanent revolution led directly to Leninism and in particular to the April 1917 Theses.” [12]

Indeed there was nothing to renounce, although it’s true that Trotsky did not actually push for immediate collectivization in the wake of the civil war (1920-23). This was due to the immense structural problems the revolutionary government had to deal with just in order to develop a functional economic relationship between the proletariat and the peasantry. During War Communism, about all the workers government had time for was defeating the reactionary white armies and the imperialist interventions. And while Trotsky, as head of the Red Army, never forgot the class question on the land (as we saw above), requisitioning of food stuffs (mainly from rich peasants) was a necessity. After the war, reviving the economy was the central concern. As Trotsky pointed out:

“Ridiculous, not to say absurd, is the pretension to establish some kind of universal Bolshevik formula out of the peasant question…. Bolshevism began with the program of the restoration of small plots of land to the peasants, replaced this program with that of nationalization, made the agrarian program of the Socialist Revolutionaries its own in 1917, established the system of the requisition of food products, then replaced it with the food tax…. And we are nevertheless still very far from the solution of the peasant question, and we still have many changes and turns to make.”

Industrial Planning Needed for a Worker-Peasant Relationship

Trotsky goes on to point out that the question of establishing a stable economy, and a sound relationship between town and country, i.e., between workers and peasants, rests squarely on the ability of the urban workers to provide the necessary supplies and implements of production so as to facilitate the sort of large-scale agriculture that would be necessary both to establish collective farms, and to recruit the peasants to them (the forced collectivization resorted to years later by the Stalin regime was not what Trotsky had in mind!). In 1923 Trotsky said that, “What the peasant asks of us is not to repeat correct historical formula of class relationships (smychka, etc.) but to supply him with cheaper nails, cloth and matches.” [13]

Trotsky’s approach here is fully in accord with what he wrote in Results and Prospects. In the chapter titled “A Workers Government and Socialism,” he said:

“Can we expect that the transference of power into the hands of the Russian proletariat will be the beginning of the transformation of our national economy into a socialist one? A year ago…we said the following:
‘“The Paris workers,” Marx tells us, “did not expect miracles from their Commune.” We too must not expect immediate miracles from the proletarian dictatorship today. Political power is not omnipotence. It would be absurd to suppose that it is only necessary for the proletariat to take power and then by passing a few decrees to substitute socialism for capitalism. An economic system is not the product of the actions of the government. All that the proletariat can do is to apply its political power with all possible energy in order to ease and shorten the path of economic evolution towards collectivism.”’

Trotsky writes that for the proletariat “…to act as the inheritor of land and industrial capital means that the workers state must be prepared to undertake the organizing of social production.” And he adds, “The socialization of production will commence with those branches of industry which present the least difficulties.”[14]

One can find nothing in Trotsky’s (or Lenin’s!) actions in the 1917 Revolution and subsequent years to justify an accusation of abandoning the permanent revolution. Rather, what we find is that Trotsky, as Lenin, stuck to the program of workers revolution as opposed to opportunist “democratic” alternatives, and pursued a policy of implementation of socialization that would work. Recalling that Lenin, in his defense of the Land Decree of 1917, said that, “we cannot ignore the decision of the masses of the people,” (see note 9), and noting that he also withdrew the slogan of “Down with the Provisional Government” in 1917 for a time when he felt the masses weren’t fully convinced of that slogan as yet, we see that both Lenin’s and Trotsky’s revolutionary tactics were geared to the principle of permanent revolution, but also to the appropriate tactics necessary to accomplish this goal with the masses of workers and peasants, not against them!

Trotsky Attacked and Vilified

Trotsky was under attack during the accession to power by the bureaucratic clique around Stalin in 1923-24. “Old guard” members of the party leadership falsely attacked him for setting the young against the old, extolling permanent revolution, underestimating the peasantry, and advocating for a planned economy. This last was critically important, particularly for the land question, since issues such as functioning factories and railways were essential to supply the peasants, thus providing the necessary basis for collectivization.

While it is true that the full effects of the Stalinist political counterrevolution took several years to fully trickle down into Soviet society during the 1920’s, at the top it was clear that Trotsky and his collaborators were for the most part not listened to and excluded from effective leadership; the growing Stalinist clique leadership made sure of that. That is why a Left Opposition was formed, and why the LO was frustrated at every turn in the attempt to get its views out.

The Stalin-led clique at the top was responsible for the years-long extension of Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP), when Lenin’s program for industrializing Russia (such as the program of rural electrification, for instance) should have been continued and expanded. The Stalinist clique were content to build their bureaucratic base around Bukharin’s slogan, “peasants, enrich yourselves.” Trotsky, despite some important initial mistakes, such as not opposing Stalin when Lenin asked him to, nevertheless carried on the real Leninist program both before and after his expulsion from the CP, and his banishment from the Soviet Union. This included his advocacy of the Leninist program of industrialization, and full socialization on the land (collectivization).

Left Opposition Was for Collectivization

In The Platform of the Left Opposition (1927), Trotsky’s group called “a powerful socialist industry” helping “peasants transform agriculture along collectivist lines” a “central tenet of Marxism.” Such a program was an essential part of Leninism, and it was being prevented by the Stalin/Bukharin-led clique at the top, which was on a course of extending the NEP endlessly. The Platform asserts that, “The growth of individual farming must be offset by a more rapid development of collective farming.” The program continues to say that Stalin/Bukharin’s policies were “undermining the foundations of the nationalization of the land.” The state must invest in “the creation of state and collective farms.” [15]

This is just a brief glimpse of a long document which makes clear that Trotsky’s Left Opposition was calling for Lenin’s program of planned industrialization to secure a socialist program for the land as well as the nation as a whole, and state farms and collectives to be implemented as soon as practicably possible. Rather than being a leader of the CP who was somehow complicit in the Stalinist degeneration, Trotsky was a determined opponent of Stalin’s bastardization of what Lenin stood for, including on the peasant question.

Failure to Spread the Revolution Was Key

Further to the point of the Stalinist degeneration of the Russian Revolution, it is important to note that the chief reason for the onset of the Stalin-led political counterrevolution was not the land question or Lenin’s Decree, but the failure of successful proletarian revolutions in Europe, particularly Germany. Lenin and Trotsky, and the whole leadership of the October Revolution, in fact, were clear that survival of the Revolution would depend centrally on spreading it to Europe. But Stalin’s camp had other ideas when the potential of a German workers revolution came to a head in 1923. Although Trotsky warned that the hesitating Brandler-Thalheimer leadership of the German party was about to miss a precious opportunity to launch a struggle for power, he was attacked and ignored.

Instead of following Trotsky’s advice, Stalin wrote to Zinoviev and Bukharin (reflecting his faction’s thinking) that “If now, in Germany, the power…will fall and the Communists will seize it, they will fall through with a crash…. In my estimation, the Germans must be restrained, not spurred on.” [16] In this, the same “Old Bolsheviks” who had hesitated and vacillated over Lenin’s plan for insurrection in Russia in 1917, repeated their mistake in Germany. In this case, the revolutionary workers were crushed because of what Trotsky would later call “a crisis of revolutionary leadership.” [17]

The failure of the Communist International (CI) under the Stalin faction to lead the German party to move forward to insurrection at this critical time was key to the failure of the German revolution and indeed to the end of the revolutionary upsurge throughout the world that had followed on the heels of the Russian Revolution of 1917. This disaster is what led directly to the Stalin clique’s proclamation of building “socialism in one country,” which had always been denounced as impossible by Marxist leaders. This in turn led to the conversion of the CI from an organization of revolutionary parties into a weakened collection of groups whose main function was to act as political “border guards” for the national/diplomatic interests of the Soviet Union; and it marked the final conversion of the Stalin-Zinoviev-Bukharin troika into a bureaucratic ruling clique, displacing the working class from effective power in its own state.

The Real Betrayal of the Revolution in Permanence

This was the real betrayal of the permanent revolution, not anything that Lenin or Trotsky did on the land question. While the inability of the Bolshevik Party to immediately complete the revolution on the land contributed to the problem, the solutions put forward by Trotsky and the Left Opposition were there: planned industrialization to both build industrial capacity and provide for a supportive relationship between workers and peasants; and continuing Lenin’s attempts to organize agrarian workers and poor peasants into class-based organizations (unions, soviets, collectives, etc.). The Stalin clique at the top, however, took the exact opposite course: dragging their feet on state planning, and urging the peasants to “enrich themselves” by extending the NEP (i.e., promoting market-based economics) for years, only to do a bureaucratic 180-degree turn, with the rapid industrialization and forced collectivization of the late 1920s and 1930s.

The great importance of the permanent revolution is not just an historic question, but, like the Russian Revolution itself, is a beacon of guidance for revolutionary movements today. It begins with the recognition that neither petty-bourgeois “democratic” movements, nor reformist working-class parties are capable of solving the problems posed for working people in post-colonial, imperialist-dominated nations and societies. Only an organized and revolutionary working class, which puts forth its own demands—not just anti-imperialist, but anti-capitalist and pro-socialist demands—can lead the needed breakthrough to true liberation. There are so many examples of this, particularly in the post World War II era, when imperialist colonies gained a technical “independence,” it’s impossible to name them all. Suffice it to say that getting your own postage stamp, flag and tin-pot dictator (or parliament!) does not true independence make. In the latest examples, “Arab Spring” uprisings tossed out a few strongmen whose regimes dated back to the post-WWII period, only to reveal a total inability to solve the root social problems. Most led to reactionary Islamist regimes, or to total imperialist-derived chaos, as in the case of Libya.

In order to solve the problems on land, uneven and combined development and imperialist exploitation, the masses must organize behind a working-class party with a revolutionary Leninist/Trotskyist leadership, with an internationalist program based on the overthrow of the capitalist system. This is not just what the permanent revolution theory teaches us, it is what the actual experience of the working class and masses of oppressed people in struggle over many decades teaches us! It is high time to send all other “theories” of revolution into the dustbin of history!

As Rosa Luxemburg famously said, we face either socialism or barbarism, now more than ever. Lenin, Trotsky, and the Russian Revolution itself stand today as beacons for the revolution the world needs.


1  This is the citation of Victor Serge, from Thomas Smith: “‘Precisely because it had within it prodigious energy, because it intelligently harnessed and guided that of the masses on the march, Bolshevism, despite its unity of thought and discipline, was always prey to contradictory tendencies. While some of them opened the way to history’s most beautiful futures, others clearly led it to its destruction.’ —Victor Serge, Review of Trotsky’s Their Morals and Ours, tr. Mitch Abidor.”

2  Victor Serge, Year One of the Russian Revolution, Peter Sedgwick translator, New York, 1972. First published in 1930.

3  The full text of the Land Decree is reprinted in: M. Matthews, ed.; Soviet Government, A Selection of Official Documents On Internal Policies, New York, 1974.

4  Trotsky, The New Course, first published in 1924, reprinted in Leon Trotsky, The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25), Pathfinder Press, New York, 1975. See page 105.

5  Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Volume 3 The Triumph of the Soviets, Chapter 1, “The Peasantry Before October,” Sphere Books edition, small-type paperback unfortunately, Britain, 1967. See pp 9-38.

6  Lenin, “The Need For An Agricultural Labourers Union In Russia,” June & July 1917, Collected Works, Vol. 25, pp 123-126, emphasis in original.

7  Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 32, page 459.

8  Trotsky, The New Course, op. cit., p. 105.

9  Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 26, page 261, emphasis mine.

10  These quotes are from Trotsky’s speech, “Two Roads—The Question of Food Supplies,” at the joint session of members of the 4th All-Russia Central Executive Committee, the Moscow Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies, the All-Russian and Moscow Central Trade Union Council, and representatives of all the trade unions of Moscow, factory committees and other workers’ organizations, on June 4th, 1918; in The Military Writings and Speeches of Leon Trotsky, Vol. 1, How the Revolution Armed, first published in 1923 in Moscow; New Park Publications, 1979, pp 80-87. And as to the reference to women recruited for the requisition details, see the same volume, How the Revolution Armed, page 106.

11  Marx & Engels, Selected Works, Moscow, 1962; Vol. 1, page 109.

12  Trotsky, The New Course, op. cit., pp. 101-102. The reference to his writings in 1904-06 is principally to Results and Prospects. The reference to “attempt to leap over the peasantry” refers to accusations being made against Trotsky by certain “Old Bolsheviks” (already part of the Stalin clique) that he (Trotsky) “underestimated” the peasantry with his theory of permanent revolution.

13  Both quotes from, The New Course, op. cit., p. 107. “Smychka” refers to an alliance of workers and peasants.

14  Trotsky, Results and Prospects, Chapter 8, “A Workers Government in Russia and Socialism,” edition: Neither the earlier piece Trotsky mentions here, nor the quote from Marx, are independently sourced in this text.

15  The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1926-27), Pathfinder Press, New York, 1980, pp. 322 - 328, emphasis in original.

16  Quoted by then-Trotskyist Max Shachtman in Genesis of Trotskyism, the Lessons of October, written in January 1933, and published as a pamphlet in November 1933:

17  Had Lenin not been incapacitated by a stroke earlier in 1923, things might have turned out differently. He died a few months later, in January 1924.