Permanent Revolution: Yesterday & Today

Table of Contents

  1. Preface, Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand), May 1993
  2. Introduction: The Theory of Permanent Revolution, Its Origins and Its Application Today, Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand), October 1988 [below]
  3. Contribution to Discussion in the Young Socialists (New Zealand) (1986), David M and Marcus P
  4. What is the Permanent Revolution? Basic Postulates, Leon Trotsky

Introduction: The Theory of Permanent Revolution, Its Origins and its Application Today

By the Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand), October 1988

The following document ["Contribution to Discussion in the Young Socialists"] was written in May of 1986 by David M and Marcus P, two members of the Socialist Action League (SAL)’s youth organisation, the Young Socialists (YS). It was prepared for submission to the Young Socialists National Hui held at Queen’s Birthday weekend 1986. The response of the National Executive of the Young Socialists was to expel the two members. They went on to help found the Permanent Revolution Group (PRG) and consequently this is one of its originating documents.

The document is also useful in providing a picture of the reformist politics of the Socialist Action League and their response to the appearance of revolutionary ideas within their organisation.

There are holes in the document which reflect the politics of two inexperienced, slightly "ultra-left" communists. For example, there is an overly simplistic approach to the process of ideological control in capitalist society–there is no discussion of the way in which this process is mediated by and has its central mechanism in the class-collaboration of the trade-union leadership. But behind this document there is a fundamentally revolutionary impulse which the Permanent Revolution Group stands by: the refusal to bow down to what "is" but instead to try to change what "is"–and the refusal to abandon socialist principles so that liberal activists will be nice to you.

The document is principally an attack on the Socialist Action League’s position that the struggle in South Africa today is historically merely one against apartheid, led by the rightful vanguard of the black people, the African National Congress (ANC). The Socialist Action League insists that what is on the agenda is a bourgeois-democratic revolution and not a socialist one. Those who attempt to intervene and change the struggle into an anti-capitalist one are therefore seen as "sectarian" and threatening the unity of the democratic anti-apartheid movement.

The most serious gap in this document’s argument is that it does not contain an explicit defence of the Trotskyist theory of permanent revolution. Fundamental to a Marxist understanding of the South African struggle is a recognition that the real destruction of apartheid can only be achieved through socialist revolution and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The issue therefore is not so much whether a bourgeois-democratic revolution led by the ANC is "desirable" but whether such a revolution, which genuinely achieves the legal, democratic rights found in the advanced capitalist countries, is possible.

Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution

In the imperialist epoch, there can be no programme for socialist revolution which is not informed by an understanding of the events in Russia in 1917. The central lessons of twentieth-century Marxism are to be found in concentrated form in those few months.

Permanent revolution was the real impulse behind the establishment of Soviet power in October 1917. Trotsky was a relatively late recruit to the Bolshevik party yet he had first advanced his perspective for social revolution in Russia in 1906 in Results and Prospects; his position was one of three perspectives which dominated Russian Marxism at that time. It was also the most radical of the three.

In 1903, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) had split into two wings: a Bolshevik ("majority") tendency and a Menshevik ("minority") tendency. Both currents agreed that the mounting social upheavals in Russia were leading to a bourgeois-democratic revolution which would usher in a period of capitalist development. However from this premise the two currents drew radically different conclusions as to what the programme of the Marxist left should be.

The Mensheviks remained faithful to established doctrine in that they saw the Russian bourgeoisie as the primary social force behind the democratic revolution. For the Mensheviks the role of Marxists and the Russian working class was to act as an auxiliary left pressure group on the bourgeoisie in the revolutionary movement.

But the idea of the militant St Petersburg proletariat acting as a polite rearguard for the spineless and dependent Russian capitalist class did not inspire Lenin and the Bolsheviks. It may have been orthodox but given the weight and character of the social classes present in Russia it didn’t make much sense.

Lenin’s "Democratic Dictatorship" Formula

Thus in 1905, in Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution,1 Lenin argued for a new formulation to describe the kind of state sought in the forthcoming revolution. He called for "the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry". It would be the proletariat, at the head of the peasantry, which would lead the democratic revolution–Lenin pushed for the organisational independence of the working class and for no confidence in the power of the bourgeoisie. Thus the Bolsheviks stood for the establishment of a revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government, a "democratic dictatorship".

In retrospect of course the formulation is incomplete. What exactly would this revolutionary government look like? How long could it last? What would be the relative weight of the two classes of which it was to be composed? If the democratic dictatorship did not expropriate capitalist property then what was it that made it, if only partially, a workers’ dictatorship?

You could say the formulation was "algebraic"; that is, that Lenin was employing broad, open categories for which history would provide the specific, "arithmetical" properties. With the superior knowledge of hindsight it could even be said to be "wrong". But its "errors" were fruitful. As a form of state the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was not a viable historical possibility, yet it pointed a way out of the passivist and reformist perspective of the Menshevik wing, which it vehemently attacked. In the revolutionary practice of 1917 its algebraic expressions were replaced by the arithmetical qualities of Trotsky’s theory of "permanent revolution".

Trotsky observed that the familiar Marxist model of the necessary ordered succession of certain modes of production was based on the experience of western Europe during a particular era of capitalist development. In many ways there was little resemblance to conditions in Russia. While British and French bourgeoisies, for example, carried through democratic revolutions against feudal landowning power, the indigenous capitalist class of Russia found itself in a different position. Capitalism had outgrown the boundaries of the nation states which had been central to its early development. With the increasing export of capital, it had entered a new era, that of imperialism.

Russia, like other backward countries then and now, was thus marked by the articulation of two modes of production: the existing semi-feudal mode was penetrated and partially transformed by pockets of vigorous industrial development due to a large influx of foreign capital. Unlike the bourgeoisies of western Europe therefore, Russian capitalists at the beginning of the twentieth century were tied to and dominated by both the established landowning nobility and western imperialism.

Thus the Russian bourgeoisie was neither capable nor desirous of carrying through the extensive social revolution that would achieve the "bourgeois-democratic" tasks: land reform, modernisation and representative democracy. What social force then could? The peasantry?

Trotsky on the Peasantry

The peasantry, said Trotsky, was multi-layered and sprinkled geographically over many small holdings; at its lowest levels it was virtually proletarian in character and at its highest, it was linked to the capitalists and landowners. In the middle were strata of independent petty-bourgeois producers, atomised and with no collective class interests of their own other than the desire for a larger plot of land.

As Trotsky argued in 1929:

... in spite of its enormous social and revolutionary weight the peasantry was incapable of creating a really independent party and even less capable of concentrating the revolutionary power in the hands of such a party.2

As such, it was incapable of carrying through a social revolution; it had no unity of class interest and clearly could not function as a homogeneous social force.

However, the peasantry was capable of playing a vital revolutionary role in subordination to the one social class which had the homogeneity, the collectivist character and the material interest to lead a reconstruction of Russian society: the industrial working class.

The Russian proletariat in relation to the rural population was small–in 1917 it numbered around two million. The population of the Tsarist empire as a whole was over 180 million and overwhelmingly peasant. But the patterns of foreign investment since the late nineteenth century meant that capitalist development concentrated in large-scale medium and heavy industry. The working class was spread through a number of cities and towns throughout western and southern Russia and often concentrated in massive plants like the Putilov steel works in St Petersburg, with a payroll of thirty-five thousand.

This tendency towards high concentration meant that by the First World War the Russian proletariat had already a strong tradition of militant, organised struggle based on a high level of class consciousness. The unsuccessful revolution of 1905 had seen a mass upsurge of general strikes and demonstrations, marked by the appearance of spontaneous working-class self-organisation: a centralised system of workers’ councils, or "soviets".

From Democratic to Socialist Tasks

Trotsky thus argued, as did the Bolsheviks, for the working class to lead the democratic revolution and establish a workers’ government. Yet the Trotskyist perspective went a controversial step further. It held that for the working class to retain its political power, and thus to retain even those "democratic" rights of western European capitalism, it would have to expropriate domestic and foreign capital and make its "dictatorship" a genuinely social one–one which extended into the organisation of social production, into the nature of property forms.

In short, the revolution, though developing in part out of the struggle for democracy, must become a socialist one. Only in this way, by establishing collective control of production, foreign trade and so on, could a workers’ government defend itself against the sabotage of imperialism and domestic capital.

But, as Trotsky wrote: "The conquest of power by the proletariat does not complete the revolution, but only opens it."3 For the revolution begins on national terrain but develops and comes to fruition in the international arena; a Russian "socialism" was thus only on the agenda to the extent that revolution there could be an integral component of an international working-class victory.

This is the theory of permanent revolution, revolution which carries through in a permanent way from democratic to proletarian tasks and from national to international scope.

Thus the objection that socialism in a backward country such as Russia was an impossibility missed the point–it abstracts the question of socialism from the international context in which a successful proletarian revolution must unfold. Striking at imperialism’s weakest link, the significance of the Russian Revolution lay in that it could ignite uprisings among the powerful working classes of western Europe. Socialism could therefore not emerge from the victory of the proletariat in an isolated and backward country without the support of workers’ states in the advanced capitalist world.

Dual Powerlessness

The events of 1917 saw the Menshevik, Bolshevik and Trotskyist conceptions outlined above put to the test. In February, spontaneous popular upheavals, most importantly in St Petersburg, led with a deceptive ease to the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II; political power over this massive empire was left dangling with nobody particularly wanting to take it.

Real "street" power lay with the resurrected soviets, but, led by the gutless and prevaricating Menshevik and Social Revolutionary parties, the dominant forces on the proletarian and peasant left, the soviets tried to palm it off to a handful of "Kadets", the party of the bourgeoisie. This mediocre collection, the Provisional Government, preened themselves as the rightful governors of the new Russia; yet they had scant social base or even ostensible "legitimacy" beyond the enthusiastic desire of the left to crown them political rulers.

With Lenin in exile, the Bolsheviks weren’t much better; the Tsar had been overthrown–what now? While Lenin stewed in Switzerland, Pravda editor Stalin, in fine fence-sitting form, stalled and advocated "critical support" for the Provisional Government, which meant, of course ... support. In April Lenin arrived in Petrograd and berated his colleagues: No support for the Provisional Government! All power to the soviets! Some of his comrades asked each other, probably facetiously, if Lenin had become a Trotskyist. The bourgeois-democratic revolution was not complete, they protested.

Lenin argued that the immediate task was "to bring social production and the distribution of products under the control of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies".4 As long as the Bolsheviks were a minority in the soviets they would "preach the necessity" of a soviet state. By September the Bolsheviks had won the majority in the major urban centres, most notably in Petrograd and Moscow. By October state power lay in the hands of the All Russia Congress of Soviets of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies.

1917–Lenin and Trotsky Converge

Lenin had come to realise, as Trotsky had earlier, that the mobilisation of the mass of workers and peasants required to abolish the feudal regime placed immediately on the agenda the question of which class would wield state power. But further it raised the question of the property forms on which the new regime would be based. Thus the notion that backward countries could simply follow the path of western Europe and establish bourgeois democracy was and still is, in the imperialist epoch of capitalist decay, merely a liberal fantasy.

Which of course makes it very popular with the Socialist Action League today. They have enthusiastically revived the early Bolshevik slogan of the "democratic dictatorship" and counterpose it to "permanent revolution", to which they gave misguided lipservice for a number of years before they became conscious of Trotsky’s "leftist errors". But the purpose of the return to the pre-1917 Lenin is an attempt to drive a programmatic wedge between Lenin and Trotsky and thereby avoid appearing to line up with Stalinism.

So the real debate going on here over South Africa is a continuation of that dating from the late 1920s between Trotsky and Stalin, between permanent revolution and "two stage-ism".

The Stalinist conception of revolution by stages–and its corollary, the theory of "socialism in one country"–was a response to the continued isolation in which the young Soviet state found itself in the mid-1920s. In particular, the failure of the German revolution of late 1918, and the subsequent abortive uprisings of 1921 and 1923, meant that Russia faced alone the efforts of imperialism to roll back the October Revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky’s conviction that a healthy Russian workers’ state could not survive short of international revolution was borne out by the experience of those years. Civil war, mass famine, economic blockades and military intervention by the major imperialist powers led to the disintegration of the highly politicised working class of 1917. The other side of this process was the withering of genuine political life in the soviets, and subsequently in the Communist Party too, as social life was increasingly subordinated to a new governmental apparatus of bureaucrats centrally represented by the General Secretariat of the Communist Party, headed by Stalin.

For the Military Defence of the USSR ...

The resultant social formation was clearly a gross degeneration of the Soviet state of 1917 and the immediate postrevolutionary period. But this degeneration did not extend so far as to strike at the collectivised property forms on which the state is based. And, despite the best efforts of imperialism, those property forms remain to this day as an important gain for the international working class. It is therefore an elementary duty of all revolutionaries to give unconditional military defence to the Soviet Union against imperialism and capitalist restoration. Without doubt, the Soviet Union is a degenerated workers’ state; but it is a workers’ state none the less. While its political power has been usurped, in an abstract but very real sense the proletariat is still the ruling class in the Soviet Union.

For this reason, we oppose the anti-communist Polish "Solidarity", in contrast to much of the fake-Trotskyist left who maintain there to be an "objectively" socialist dynamic to this movement. They have a variety of excuses for ignoring Solidarity’s ties to the Catholic church, to the International Monetary Fund, to the redneck American labour bosses of the AFL-CIO, to the rich "kulaks" of the Polish countryside; they brush over its programme of an "enterprise self-management" market economy and a bourgeois parliament. "Solidarity" means capitalist restoration. We oppose it.

Similarly we support the Red Army presence in Afghanistan and call for its victory over the mullah-led, CIA-financed "freedom fighters", another wing of Reagan’s international contra brigade. We militarily support the Stalinists in their bid to defend their southern border against a potentially hostile state.

... And Workers’ Political Revolution against Stalinist Rule

The Stalinist bureaucracy, however, perched precariously atop of state property, is clearly incapable of adequately defending this state. Its privilege depends on the maintenance of those property forms, yet as a nationalist and fundamentally counter-revolutionary social layer it attempts to achieve and maintain a peaceful coexistence with the capitalist world. Yet the latter wants not coexistence, but capitalist restoration.

In order to reconstitute the Soviet Union as a healthy workers’ state, to restore the working class to power and as part of reviving the process of international revolution, Trotskyists call for working-class political revolution to overthrow the parasitic bureaucracy and re-establish soviet democracy. Only the working class, armed with the perspective of Leninist internationalism, can adequately defend the gains of the October Revolution against imperialism.

"Socialism in one country" is the theoretical expression of the contradictory nature of the bureaucracy and its desire for peaceful coexistence; it maintains not only that healthy socialism can be achieved in a single country but that such a state can coexist in relative harmony with imperialism. This conception was in fundamental conflict with the insistence of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky that socialism could only be built as an integrated international system. The "two stage" conception grew of necessity from this theory of nationally limited socialism.

The Popular Front and "Two Stage" Revolution

Hoping to be left alone by imperialism, the Stalinist bureaucracy struck deals with the western "democracies" and assured them that where struggles against fascism or semi-feudal reaction occurred, these were not socialist but merely democratic struggles and therefore no threat to bourgeois property. Thus socialism had to be achieved in "two stages"; in the underdeveloped world, bourgeois democracy was to come first.

The "two stage-ist" theory received its most consistent programmatic expression in the Comintern’s "popular front" strategy as developed in the 1930s. The Moscow-aligned parties had previously for a period refused to form united fronts with the social-democratic labour parties against the far right, on the grounds that they were of a piece with fascism and therefore communists shouldn’t bloc with them.

In 1933 therefore Hitler came to power, mainly due to the criminal abstentionism of the German Communist Party (KPD) and this clearly scared the life out of Stalin; with its characteristically sober and measured approach to political programme, the Comintern did a 180-degree flip to the popular front. Now it was not only permissible to bloc with the "social fascists", the mass labour parties, but it was also necessary to bloc with the liberal bourgeoisie and the western democracies against fascism.

It is therefore ironic that, while the Socialist Action League has retained enough formal Trotskyism to proclaim the need for political revolution against the Soviet bureaucracy, the "two stage" theory they have now embraced has merely acted as a transparent cover for one Stalinist betrayal after another. The massacre of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the late 1920s is only one example. The CCP was directed by the Soviet-controlled Comintern to enter into the bourgeois-nationalist Kuomintang (KMT), under the latter’s discipline, in the interests of uniting all forces in the fight for a democratic revolution. The KMT leader, Chiang Kai-shek, had no illusions about who his class enemies were and at an opportune moment in April 1927 ordered a massacre of thousands of Chinese communists and other militant workers in Shanghai. From Spain in the 1930s to Chile in the 1970s, the Stalinist tradition of "popular front" betrayal has been the same.

Socialist Action League Revives Stalinist Distortions

The Socialist Action League have now aligned themselves with this "two stage-ist" betrayal of Bolshevism. They deny that Lenin in 1917 joined Trotsky in a recognition of the need for the proletariat to take state and economic power into its own hands in order to resolve the tasks of the democratic revolution. To argue this position they are forced to perpetuate the Stalinist falsification of the history of the Russian Revolution. They argue with a stupefyingly formalistic logic that Lenin called for soviet power in April 1917 because there had been a separate bourgeois-democratic revolution in February; thus the two-stage agenda is satisfied.

This is the approach taken by the Socialist Action League’s American parent organisation, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), as for example in the article by its National Secretary, Jack Barnes, "The Coming Revolution in South Africa"5, referred to in the David M/Marcus P document. Barnes seeks to place his popular-front strategy for South Africa within the Bolshevik tradition by arguing that the imminent revolution there is qualitatively similar to the overthrow of the Tsarist regime in Russia of February 1917. He writes that only a "thorough-going democratic revolution"6 could place the socialist revolution on the agenda in Russia. If this is so then the seizure of power by the soviets was never placed on the agenda; for there was never a thorough-going democratic revolution historically prior to the October Revolution and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

What did the "democratic" February Revolution achieve in the manner of historical tasks? Agrarian reform? Peace? Representative democracy with a constituent assembly? An end to imperialist control? None of these democratic demands was realised. The wretched popular-front government that reigned in the nine months preceding soviet power was incapable of doing anything, yet alone doing it thoroughly.

The democratic tasks of the Russian Revolution were and could be realised only by the resolution of the dual power and the creation in October of a working-class soviet state: the dictatorship of the proletariat. The February Revolution can be seen as a democratic revolution only in an extremely qualified sense in that Tsarist absolutism was overthrown and for the first time in Russia there was a substantial measure of freedom of political organisation.

Transparent Cover for Menshevik/Stalinist Class-Collaboration

Thus Barnes’ arguments represent a transparent attempt to cloak Socialist Workers Party support for the ANC’s class collaborationism in Leninist garb. This attempt is particularly absurd in light of the fact that for Lenin, even before 1917, it was crucial to build a Bolshevik vanguard party with the central orientation of maximising the power of the working class in even the "democratic" revolution. Barnes however argues that, for some unspecified reason, an independent communist vanguard will only emerge through the democratic revolution in South Africa; communists in the meantime should merge with the bourgeois-democratic movement.

It’s ironic therefore that the Socialist Action League are particularly keen on Lenin’s Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution as an exposition of their new position; what they don’t seem to realise is that, as an attack against the Mensheviks’ abandonment of working-class independence, this work is an attack against them.

"Permanent revolution" expresses revolutionary Marxism in the epoch of imperialism. Lenin’s algebraic formulation of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry was an attempt to crystallise a working-class strategy amidst the flux and uncertainty of the transition from the preimperialist era.

The Mensheviks had fetishised the political dimensions of the democratic revolution and saw it primarily as the creation of constitutional democracy by the bourgeoisie; for the Bolsheviks however the essential task of the democratic revolution was the resolution of the agrarian question: the breaking up of the great landed estates and their distribution among the organisations of the peasants. Thus the peasantry had to play a central role in the coming revolution.

The ambiguity of the "democratic dictatorship" formulation hinged around Lenin’s perception of the peasantry as a social class–he left open the question of whether the peasantry could be united behind a single petty-bourgeois party and take state power into its own hands. This entailed an ambiguous conception of the subsequent relation between the proletariat and peasantry in the postrevolutionary government.

But, as Trotsky had predicted, the party of the peasantry, the Social Revolutionaries, was incapable of charting a course independent of the bourgeoisie or the working class. As the majority party of the Provisional Government and of the soviets in the period of dual power, the Social Revolutionaries capitulated before the bourgeoisie and the landowners: it suppressed the left wing of the workers’ movement, it continued to slaughter its peasant constituency in the imperialist world war and it relegated land reform to the convocation of a Constituent Assembly which it continued to delay.

After the October Revolution, the Social Revolutionaries attacked the Bolsheviks for "stealing" their agrarian programme of land to the peasants–the Bolsheviks had proven that the peasant revolution could not be effected under the leadership of a peasant party but only under that of the revolutionary party of the proletariat.

For the Bolsheviks, that the bourgeoisie was incapable of resolving the question of the democratic struggle was evident in 1905. But it required the experience of 1917 to show clearly that the "democratic dictatorship" could only be a socialist dictatorship and was thus necessarily the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Lenin–Democratic Dictatorship an "Antiquated" Formula

So it’s one thing to be "algebraic" in 1905. It would be another thing in 1988. By 1917 the slogan of the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry" was no longer algebraic at all. History had given us the arithmetic qualities, and the slogan had necessarily become one of holding back the proletariat; the slogan of the "democratic dictatorship", presented as something other than the dictatorship of the proletariat, could only mean the rule of the bourgeoisie. In April 1917 Lenin berated the "old Bolsheviks":

Didn’t we always maintain, they say, that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed only by the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry"? ...

This formula is already antiquated. Events have moved it from the realm of formulas into the realm of reality, clothed it with flesh and bone, concretised it and thereby modified it.7

But less than ten years after the Russian October, once again against the "old Bolsheviks", Trotsky was repeating the fight against the use of the "democratic dictatorship" slogan, attempting to extricate the Chinese communists from the Kuomintang. Another sixty years on, it is still necessary.

Trotsky’s Summary

In 1939 Trotsky summarised the three political lines among leftists on the Russian Revolution thus:

Plekhanov’s Marxism was concentrated on proving the principled identity of Russia and the West. The program derived from this ignored the wholly real and not at all mystical peculiarities of Russia’s social structure and of her revolutionary development. The Menshevik attitude toward the revolution, stripped of episodic encrustations and individual deviations, is reducible to the following: The victory of the Russian bourgeois revolution is conceivable only under the leadership of the liberal bourgeoisie and must hand over power to the latter. The democratic regime will then permit the Russian proletariat to catch up with its older Western brothers on the road of the struggle for socialism with incomparably greater success than hitherto.

Lenin’s perspective may be briefly expressed as follows: The belated Russian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading its own revolution to the end. The complete victory of the revolution through the medium of the "democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry" will purge the country of medievalism, invest the development of Russian capitalism with American tempo, strengthen the proletariat in the city and country, and open up broad possibilities for the struggle for socialism. On the other hand, the victory of the Russian Revolution will provide a mighty impulse for the socialist revolution in the West, and the latter will not only shield Russia from the dangers of restoration but also permit the Russian proletariat to reach the conquest of power in a comparatively short historical interval.

The perspective of permanent revolution may be summed up in these words: The complete victory of the democratic revolution in Russia is inconceivable otherwise than in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat basing itself on the peasantry. The dictatorship of the proletariat, which will inescapably place on the order of the day not only democratic but also socialist tasks, will at the same time provide a mighty impulse to the international socialist revolution. Only the victory of the proletariat in the West will shield Russia from bourgeois restoration and secure for her the possibility of bringing the socialist construction to its conclusion.

... The perspective of Bolshevism was not complete: it indicated correctly the general direction of the struggle but characterised its stages incorrectly. The inadequacy of the perspective of Bolshevism was not revealed in 1905 only because the revolution itself did not receive further development. But at the beginning of 1917 Lenin was compelled, in a direct struggle against the oldest cadres of the party, to change the perspective.8

The US Socialist Workers Party and Respectable Electoralism

The Socialist Workers Party came to explicitly reject permanent revolution in the early 1980s because by then even the formal nods in the theory’s direction had got in the way of its reformist appetite to become the party of respectable social-democratic electoralism in the United States. It has been helpful in New Zealand, too. Thus Socialist Action League work in anti-racist groups was made that much easier in that no longer did they have to justify hiding their programme on the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa. For now their programme was virtually identical to that of the liberal left in that socialism was not on the agenda.

There was however a certain logic to the SWP/SAL’s rejection of Trotskyism in view of the erroneous, determinist perspective they had held of it for many years. They had long seen permanent revolution as a description of an objectively and inevitably unfolding process. It was thus possible for them to point to the failure of working-class revolution in the third world and say: Look, the theory was wrong.

But permanent revolution is not just a description of processes. Most importantly it is a guide to action. It does not say: in backward countries, democratic struggles will turn into anti-capitalist struggles. Rather it tells us that, in the backward countries, only the working class taking power can solve the democratic tasks–and if we are to keep power then we must expropriate the capitalist class. Permanent revolution, as revolutionary theory, tells us not just what is happening but also what we must do. It calls for the creation of an international Trotskyist party to lead a class-conscious proletariat to state power.

The episode of their expulsion from the Young Socialists taught a few lessons to the authors of this "Contribution to Discussion in the Young Socialists". Closely linked to the programmatic degeneration of the Socialist Action League was the question of the bureaucratic methods it uses to force people out of the organisation. Central here is the way in which both this programmatic and organisational degeneration has closely paralleled that of the SAL’s parent group, the American Socialist Workers Party.

The rejection of permanent revolution originated with the American organisation; the SWP leads the minority tendency of the "United Secretariat of the Fourth International" (USec) which is divided over this issue.9 The SAL’s line change is only one of the most recent of a succession initiated by the Socialist Workers Party, invariably in a rightward direction.

A disciplined international organisation is a vital necessity, but there is something rather less than interactive in the relationship between the SAL and the SWP. Rather than there being a genuine political process of critical international discussion, the line changes are just mailed over by the American leadership. Moreover, in the spirit fostered by political expulsions of the type met by David M and Marcus P, there is a somewhat similar relationship between the leadership of the Socialist Action League and their general membership.

SAL Violates Norms of Democratic-Centralism

But the Socialist Action League have borrowed Barnes et alia’s organisational methods as well. This expulsion was in blatant violation of democratic-centralist principles of Leninist organisation. Fundamental to Bolshevik norms is the principle that membership depends on disciplined acceptance of the programme of the majority and the confinement of political disagreement to the internal debate of the party.

But the SAL did not accuse the two members of breaching discipline; they were told that they had "rescinded" their own membership by having views incompatible with the positions of the organisation. Thus in order to repel attacks on its otherwise indefensible politics the SAL leadership simply expels anyone who looks like they might be trouble.

It is ironic that the PRG has another roundabout historical connection with the SWP/SAL tendency and its practices. The tendency that ultimately recruited David M and Marcus P was politically derived from the international Spartacist tendency, an ostensibly Trotskyist current, which, while remaining extremely interesting, has now departed from revolutionary politics.10 The Spartacists originated as a split from the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1960s. Operating as a legitimate and principled faction, the pre-Spartacists were expelled by a specially written set of Socialist Workers Party organisational rules to the effect that "we allow factions but we don’t allow disloyalty, and factions are disloyal."

Jack Barnes is now the leader of the latest 1980s leadership bloc in the Socialist Workers Party and has, by a variety of ingenious methods, bureaucratically purged the old-guard resistance to the new "two stage" line. Thus the Socialist Action League are worthy pupils of Barnes, not only in the way they parrot his shallow musings on the South African revolution.

For a Leninist Vanguard Party

As it had become clear that the Socialist Action League was now well beyond the revolutionary pale (and because they had been thrown out), David M and Marcus P sought cothinkers elsewhere. They had rejected the objectivism of the Socialist Action League, whereby history is seen as an inevitable, unfolding process and the subjective, human factor is abandoned. However their recruitment by the neo-Spartacist tendency gave them the necessary substance of that subjective element–the Leninist vanguard party.

The Permanent Revolution Group was thus founded on a recognition of the need for a disciplined international Leninist party united around a single body of ideas and positions, a revolutionary programme. Only through the conscious revolutionary action of the working class can society be transformed and rebuilt on the basis of rationality and human need.

In South Africa today, there are clearly layers of anti-capitalist militancy in the working class. Without the leadership of a Trotskyist party guided by the perspective of permanent revolution those workers will be sacrificed on the altar of Stalinist treachery and the unity of a fake "democratic" revolution. Any self-proclaimed Marxists who put unity with the capitalist class ahead of proletarian independence are aiding in that betrayal.

  1. V I Lenin, Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution [1905], Collected Works, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1962, v 9, p 15.
  2. Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, in The Permanent Revolution AND Results and Prospects, Pathfinder, New York, 1969, p 128.
  3. Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution, p 278.
  4. V I Lenin, "The Tasks of the Proletariat in the Present Revolution" (April 1917), Collected Works, Progress, Moscow, 1964, v 24, p 24.
  5. Jack Barnes, "The Coming Revolution in South Africa", New International, Fall 1985, v 2, n 2, p 7.
  6. As above, p 24.
  7. V I Lenin, "Letters on Tactics" (April 1917), Collected Works, v 24, p 44-45.
  8. Leon Trotsky, "Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution" (August 1939), Writings of Leon Trotsky [1939-40], ed Naomi Allen & George Breitman, Pathfinder, New York, 1973, p 72-73.
  9. The centrist majority tendency, centred around the much-published Belgian economist Ernest Mandel, professes a formal adherence to permanent revolution; yet it shares the "objectivism" of the SWP tendency and thus reproduces the fundamental errors of the minority, as for example, in its capitulation to guerrillaism and other nonproletarian social forces.
  10. The Spartacist tendency has gravitated towards a cultish form of leadership, a sectarian formalism of programme, a political practice which subordinates the question of political revolution against the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union to the attempt to push that bureaucracy leftwards, and an apparent predisposition to the adoption of American social-chauvinist positions when under pressure.

Posted: 24 June 2005