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ISR Issue 48, July–August 2006

The Necessity of Permanent Revolution

Read David Whitehouse’s essay which begins this debate, Direct Struggles for Socialism Are on the Agenda: The fading relevance of permanent revolution


Paul D’Amato is the managing editor of the ISR

IT IS difficult to know where to begin a response to David Whitehouse’s arguments on permanent revolution. Much of what he says has nothing to do with the theory of permanent revolution as such, some things he says about the theory are either wrong or misrepresent it, and others are completely obvious and uncontested.

What is the core of his argument? “Late-developing countries have largely outgrown the need for the special sort of socialist revolution that Trotsky described…. The past hundred years of capitalist development has made it possible in most places to take the direct path to socialism that has long been available in the relatively advanced countries.”

If by “direct path to socialism” Whitehouse means that the era of anti-feudal, bourgeois revolutions are over, then he needn’t have bothered writing his article. Permanent revolution, conceived historically as the combination of bourgeois and proletarian revolution under working-class leadership is a thing of the past. The idea is not in contention by any serious Marxist. Bourgeois social relations have triumphed across the world.

What is in contention is Whitehouse’s assertion that therefore permanent revolution is now irrelevant. In order to make this case, he crafts a very schematic and highly idiosyncratic version of the theory, a straw man that is then easily shot down. “The kernel of the theory,” he states, “is that a small working class in a backward country can get to power-and thus gain the footing to begin a socialist transition-but only by leading a broader revolutionary alliance that includes whole classes that are hostile to socialism.”

Whitehouse’s key “insight” consists in this: Capitalist relations have progressed so far since Trotsky’s day that the working class is larger, and there is no longer an undifferentiated peasantry for the working class to unite with. Permanent revolution “requires” this alliance (as well as the subsequent break in the alliance); therefore there can’t be any more permanent revolutions. “It’s the proletariat’s need for a revolutionary alliance with non-socialist classes,” claims Whitehouse, “that gives rise to a phased, permanent revolution.” The permanent revolution must start with an alliance with the whole peasantry, followed by a break between the working class and the peasantry after the revolution-once peasants get their own plots of land- after which to survive the revolution must spread. In short, if a revolution doesn’t follow Russia’s revolutionary pattern to the tee, it isn’t a permanent revolution.

There are two problems with this argument. One is the specious idea that the working class no longer needs to form any alliances with non-socialist classes. We will come back to that. Second, it is a purely formalistic mangling of the theory. What makes permanent revolution permanent is not that it is phased, but that it is uninterrupted-indeed, that it involves a process of historical leaps rather than predetermined stages or phases. Whitehouse equates “phased revolution” with “permanent revolution.” This definition makes it appear as though Trotsky’s conception of permanent revolution is a stageist theory, which it is not.

As soon as Trotsky moved from Russian conditions to apply the theory internationally, he did not apply the theory mechanically as Whitehouse does. According to Trotsky, permanent revolution in China did not hinge on the idea of an initial stage of revolution in which the working class led behind it a “hostile” peasantry. “China has no landed nobility; no peasant estate, fused by a community of interest against the landlord,” argued Trotsky. “The Chinese revolution will have to begin the drive against the kulak at its very first stages.… In other words, the very first stages of the third Chinese revolution will be less bourgeois in content than the first stage of the October revolution.”1

Whitehouse is therefore wrong when he writes, “The theory of permanent revolution contains a presumption that peasants won’t fight for socialism.” Trotsky’s views were far more nuanced than that. He wrote in 1940, for example, “Marxism never ascribed an absolute and immutable character to its estimation of the peasantry as a non-socialist class.… The very nature of the peasantry is altered under altered conditions.”2

Whitehouse has turned a theory whose whole purpose was to reject the old schema of Second International Marxism into a similarly schematic, lifeless dogma. It has nothing in common with Trotsky’s method. Precisely because international capitalism’s unevenness created different “forms and methods” of bourgeois rule, he argued, “it follows that the dictatorship of the proletariat also will have a highly varied character in terms of the social basis, the political forms, the immediate tasks, and the tempo of work in the various capitalist countries.”3 It is necessary, therefore, to study each country, its class relations, and its place in international world capitalism in its specificity. One size doesn’t fit all.

Permanent revolution as uninterrupted revolution

The historical origin of the theory is the attempt to work out the relationship between bourgeois and socialist revolutions. But the theory cannot be reduced to its historical starting point.

Trotsky summed up the general significance of permanent revolution in the following way:

The permanent revolution, in an exact translation, is the continuous revolution, the uninterrupted revolution. What is the political idea embraced in this expression?

It is, for us communists, that the revolution does not come to an end after this or that political conquest, after obtaining this or that social reform, but that it continues to develop further and its only boundary is the socialist society. Thus, once begun, the revolution (insofar as we participate in it and particularly when we lead it) is in no case interrupted by us at any formal stage whatever. On the contrary, we continually and constantly advance it in conformity, of course, with the situation, so long as the revolution has not exhausted all the possibilities and all the resources of the movement. This applies to the conquests of the revolution inside of a country as well as to its extension over the international arena.4

It is this unbroken relationship between national and international revolution that makes the socialist revolution permanent, argued Trotsky, “regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.”5

Whitehouse denies the last point, arguing that it would be “ridiculous” to consider a revolution in Canada that begins with a national struggle of the Québécois, but whose survival would depend on its spreading to the United States, as a permanent revolution. “If this is a permanent revolution, then almost every country needs one,” he insists. All countries, including Canada, do need a permanent revolution, because though the material prerequisites for socialism exist on an international scale, they do not within a purely national framework:

Not only backward China, but in general no country in the world can build socialism within its own national limits: the highly-developed productive forces which have grown beyond national boundaries resist this…. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Britain, for example, will encounter difficulties and contradictions, different in character, it is true, but perhaps not slighter than those that will confront the dictatorship of the proletariat in China. Surmounting these contradictions is possible in both cases only by way of the international revolution.6

Combined and uneven development

The only thing worth retaining from Trotsky’s theory, Whitehouse claims, is Trotsky’s theory of combined and uneven development, because of its crucial importance in “explaining major international trends.” The purpose of Marxist theory is not to explain trends, but to guide action. Be that as it may, this is a bigger concession than Whitehouse realizes, since this is the theoretical underpinning of permanent revolution.

The laws of history have nothing in common with a pedantic schematism. Unevenness, the most general law of the historic process, reveals itself most sharply and complexly in the destiny of the backward countries. Under the whip of external necessity their backward culture is compelled to make leaps. From the universal law of unevenness thus derives another law which, for the lack of a better name, we may call the law of combined development-by which we mean a drawing together of the different stages of the journey, a combining of the separate steps, an amalgam of archaic with more contemporary forms. Without this law, to be taken of course, in its whole material content, it is impossible to understand the history of Russia, and indeed of any country of the second, third, or tenth cultural class.7

Tossing out permanent revolution but saving combined and uneven development is like rejecting Marx’s economics except for the labor theory of value. Ironically, Whitehouse falls prey to this very same “pedantic schematism” not only in his description of the theory we cited above, but also when he describes the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth century:

Conflict sharpened between the two property-holding classes until bourgeois revolutions in Western Europe overthrew the feudal lords. The winners implemented some of their political preferences with measures that promoted the dominance of capitalist property relations. Specifically, bourgeois revolutions seemed to bring with them a package of political ideas and institutions, including: equality before the law, which replaced feudal obligations and rights of birth; some form of democracy as opposed to monarchy; freedom of political association and freedom of the press; a degree of secularism in the state; etc.

This is more or less a description of what happened in the French Revolution. But the transition to bourgeois rule through popular revolutionary means was not the rule in Europe or elsewhere. “The bourgeois tasks,” wrote Trotsky, “can be solved in various ways.”8 In Germany, modern bourgeois conditions were introduced by the Prussian monarchy under Bismarck, after the bourgeoisie proved too cowardly to challenge the Junker class; in Russia, the working class seized power against the counterrevolutionary liberals. In Japan, the feudal bureaucracy brought capitalist social relations. In many countries, universal suffrage had to be forced through by working-class struggle.

Moreover, not even in proper bourgeois revolutions were all the democratic tasks solved even remotely successfully. The American Revolution enshrined slavery, and Southern Blacks were disfranchised until the 1960s; South African capitalism arose on the basis of racist pass laws and apartheid forms of labor control; feudal-era caste divisions that the British cultivated remained after Indian independence; monarchies continued to exist in many bourgeois countries, including Nepal and Saudi Arabia; freedom of political association, the press, and secularism are all extremely circumscribed in various states around the world, if not completely suppressed.

Since the American Civil War, the bourgeoisie has not led a single bourgeois social revolution. The importance of this point will become clearer as we go along.

Solving national and democratic tasks

The world remains extremely uneven in its development between advanced and backward regions, including between regions experiencing capitalist growth and others (for example, in Sub-Saharan Africa) that are stagnating and even being hurled into barbarism; it is, moreover, divided between competitive, dominant old and rising imperialist powers. The question of national liberation, as well as the question of other unsolved “bourgeois” and democratic tasks, remains. The question is under the leadership of what class will those tasks be solved? It is in answering these questions that the method of permanent revolution is crucial.

Whitehouse himself admits that, “democratic tasks can never be completed under capitalism,” and therefore “revolts of oppressed races and nationalities, of land-starved peasants…will continue to break out.” The myriad struggles and movements in Latin America are testament to this fact. The struggle against Suharto in Indonesia and the mass protests against the monarchy in Nepal also come to mind. But then, why use the term “direct route to socialism” when what we are talking about are indirect routes to socialism? This is precisely what makes the strategy of permanent revolution-of the need for independent organization of the working class to play a leading role in solving all the democratic, national, and agrarian tasks, important today. In this context, to speak of a direct route to socialism, or to argue that the working class needs no allies, leads either to ultra-left abstentionism from “non-socialist” struggles, or economism, i.e., the argument that workers must concern themselves with purely economic issues.

This is the mistake Whitehouse makes in reference to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. That Alex Callinicos did or did not underestimate the ability of the African National Congress (ANC) to broker a deal with the South African ruling class is a red herring.9 The question was whether the struggle followed the path laid out by the ANC, which used the South African working class as a battering ram to force the ruling class to negotiate an end to apartheid, an extremely limited outcome leaving capitalism, and certain historical features of inequality imposed by apartheid, intact; or whether South Africa followed a pattern of permanent revolution, in which the struggle against apartheid, led by the Black working class, was linked to the struggle against capitalism.

It would have been a wrong perspective for the revolutionary Left in South Africa to argue that all that was needed was “an independent organization of workers to wage a struggle for socialism.” As if there were not masses of people-including peasants and urban petty-bourgeois, destitute and poor, students and intellectuals, Black businessmen, and even white liberals-who supported the struggle against apartheid. The question was this: how to combine, under working-class rather than petty-bourgeois leadership, the struggle against apartheid (involving alliances with “non-socialist” forces, possibly even the creation of democratic majority rule in its initial phases) with the fight for socialism-that is, how to fight for an uninterrupted revolutionary process that did not stop at the limited goal of Black majority rule.

India, the non-exception

Whitehouse argues that the anti-colonial movement in India was “the first clear exception to the theory” of permanent revolution. This is so, he claims, because independence was achieved under the leadership of the bourgeois Congress Party. But this is just nonsense. The Indian bourgeoisie cooperated with British imperialism to prevent revolution, used the mass struggle as a bargaining chip, and in exchange they were granted independence. Trotsky was absolutely right when he wrote:

The Indian bourgeoisie is incapable of leading a revolutionary struggle. They are closely bound up with and dependent upon British capitalism. They tremble for their own property. They stand in fear of the masses. They seek compromises with British imperialism no matter what the price and lull the Indian masses with hopes of reforms from above.10 [My emphasis]

The price the Indian bourgeoisie was willing to pay, as historian Sumit Sarkar explains, for “a negotiated ‘transfer of power’ was an encouragement of divisive forces culminating in partition. A ‘bloodless’ winning of independence would be accompanied by an unimaginably bloody communal carnage.”11

Trotsky was mistaken in thinking, not without reason before the Second World War, that the British would not give up India without revolution. After the war, British imperialism was severely weakened, and it decided that the best way to prevent a colonial revolution was to get out of India. Trotsky’s analysis of the role of Gandhi and the Congress Party, however, proved amazingly accurate:

Gandhi’s passive resistance movement is the tactical knot that ties the naïveté and self-denying blindness of the dispersed petty-bourgeois masses to the treacherous maneuvers of the liberal bourgeoisie.… “We will prove to you,” say the national bourgeois elements to the gentlemen on the Thames, “that we are indispensable to you, that without us you will not quiet the masses; but for this we will present you with our own bill.”12

Even if Trotsky had foreseen the possibility that the British and the Indian bourgeoisie would strike a counterrevolutionary deal in exchange for independence, his arguments-that the working class must form a party independently of Congress to lead the peasant masses, and that this was the only way to secure real agrarian revolution, an end to caste and communal division, and so on-would have been correct in every respect.

On the so-called democratic transitions

Whitehouse stretches his mistaken argument about the Indian bourgeoisie to the modern bourgeoisie. “From the mid-1970s onward, the crisis [of state capitalism and of profitability] fueled widespread revolts from below. These movements combined in diverse ways with elite movements for reform. Together they produced a wave of democratizations.” According to Whitehouse, this proves that the ruling class, even when it faces a combative working class, is capable of accomplishing a bourgeois transition.

“These transitions did occur,” argues Whitehouse, “even in cases where working-class power might have scared off the bourgeoisies of Lenin and Trotsky’s day.”

In this “wave of democratizations” Whitehouse includes virtually everything that happened in the world from 1975 on, from the Portuguese Revolution to Tiananmen Square (where the Chinese ruling class prevented a “wave of democratization”), from the end of the Soviet Union to the fall of Suharto in 1998.

All of this is simply nonsense. The theory of permanent revolution was about the counterrevolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, i.e., its fear that even its “own” revolution might lead to its own defeat. As Whitehouse himself notes, these transitions were not social revolutions, though some had the potential to be: “In all of the transitions, the shift toward bourgeois democracy thus involved no change in class rule but a change in the way the same class ruled.” If they were social revolutions, the bourgeoisie would have opposed them with all their might-with attempts at cooptation, and, failing that, counterrevolutionary action. That is what happened in Portugal, the closest that the modern European working class has come to social revolution.”

Whitehouse seems to be saying (against what opponent it isn’t clear) that the bourgeoisie (as the ruling class of society) is capable of managing political transitions without losing power. Of course it is, and it is more likely to be willing to favor such changes if it won’t uncork challenges from below that threaten to take things too far.

In Portugal and South Africa, the bourgeoisie, clearly fearing social revolution, used elements of cooptation and coercion against social movements from below.

Portugal is actually a classic case of aborted permanent revolution. The revolution began in April 1974 with a coup organized by a movement of young officers tired of fighting Portugal’s colonial wars in Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, and Angola, and demanding “democracy, development, and decolonization.” Having lifted the lid on the fascist Salazar dictatorship, the coup gave rise to a great outpouring of mass organizing, protests, housing takeovers, land seizures, and strikes. Within a month, workers had created thousands of highly democratic commissions, councils, and committees in their workplaces, which came together in inter-factory meetings to discuss common problems.

Two right-wing coup attempts were rebuffed by mass action and worker-soldier fraternization. Lenin’s State and Revolution became a best seller. A classic revolutionary situation had arrived, but without a mass revolutionary party. In the end, bourgeois stabilization came with the introduction of constituent assembly elections that gave a majority to the mercurial Socialist Party (SP). To the bourgeoisie, however, its leader Mario Soares presented the SP as a party that could salvage Portuguese capitalism. It was able to gain mass support using left-wing rhetoric, while the Communist Party played the role of firemen against militant strikes. A right-wing counter-coup inside the armed forces in November 1975 restored the bourgeois state’s monopoly of armed forces, and from then on the working-class struggle was slowly deflated.

These examples therefore prove nothing at all about the counterrevolutionary nature of the bourgeoisie, which was the essential point in the theory of permanent revolution in its assessment of the bourgeoisie in backward countries. In some cases, such as Portugal and South Africa, they had the potential to move beyond structural reforms but were successfully contained within narrow limits that did not threaten bourgeois rule.

Whitehouse’s strokes are so broad that important differences and peculiarities are lost. First of all, there are important exceptions to his broad generalizations. Chile-the original showcase of neoliberalism in Latin America-imposed neoliberal reforms not under bourgeois democracy, of which Chile had a long history, but under the Pinochet dictatorship. China, Vietnam, Malaysia, and a number of other states have imposed neoliberal reforms without moving toward formal democracy. Moreover, the democracy that does exist in Russia and a number of Latin American countries is of an extremely authoritarian variety. As writer Duncan Green notes of Latin America, Fujimori of Peru, Menem of Argentina, Collor de Mello in Brazil, and Andrés Pérez of Venezuela, all won their presidential elections on platforms critical of neoliberal austerity, and then imposed them by way of various “emergency” powers. To impose neoliberal measures,

They were forced to ride roughshod over democratic institutions, using the traditional Latin American technique of governing by decree in order to bypass congressional opposition. Argentina’s President Menem announced over three hundred “decrees of necessity and urgency” from 1990 to 1994, compared to just twenty-five instances of their use from 1853 until he came to power…. In Bolivia, the government attempted to defuse union opposition to the 1985 structural adjustment decree by declaring a state of siege and imprisoning 143 strike leaders in Amazonian internment camps. In Colombia, the government used antiterrorist legislation in 1993 to try fifteen trade union leaders opposing the privatization of the state telecommunications company. In the most extreme example, Peru’s Alberto Fujimori dealt with a troublesome Congress by simply dissolving it in April 1992 (with army support) and seizing emergency powers in what was billed as a “self-coup.”13

A “wave of democratization” is not exactly the best way to describe the neoliberal disasters of Latin America’s “lost decade” (1980s) and the ongoing ravages of structural adjustment in the 1990s. Rather than seeing the move away from dictatorship as the solving by the bourgeoisie of “bourgeois tasks,” as Whitehouse seems to do, a better way to look at it would be to see these as moves supported by the bourgeoisie as the best means, after years of import substitution under corrupt military or bureaucratic state rule, to effectively impose neoliberal shock therapy. We should not be so foolish as to think, moreover, that the bourgeoisie won’t abandon even these limited forms of democracy when its cherished interests become too threatened. Certainly that is the lesson of the Washington-backed failed coup against Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez in 2002.

“But why did the movements follow the patterns they did instead of the path of permanent revolution?” asks Whitehouse. “Of course, the lack of independent revolutionary workers’ parties held back all of the movements from achieving workers’ power and socialism,” he allows. “But that’s not the only reason that they failed to follow the pattern of permanent revolution. Decades of social, economic, and political development had advanced the late-developing countries beyond the conditions that Trotsky identified for this special revolutionary process-and opened up conditions for more direct routes to socialism.”

Whitehouse enumerates a number of these additional reasons-the “less-developed world’s bourgeoisies have become stronger and more self-confident in relation to other classes within their own countries”; “The proletariat isn’t small anymore”; and “The potential peasant allies of the urban proletariat are thus no longer the peasants as a mass, but the growing fraction of peasants who are landless wage workers.” He really needn’t have. It is patently clear that the reason no revolutionary movement, near revolution, social revolt, or democratic transition has led to workers seizing power anywhere is entirely and completely a question of the absence of mass revolutionary parties rooted in the working class. All the other reasons Whitehouse offers either confirm that point or contradict it. If the working class is larger, both in town and country, then its power is greater-so long as it is organized and conscious of that power. The greater power of the working class is hardly an explanation as to why these “transitions” did not lead to revolution, i.e., to workers’ power.

Let’s be clear, though, that a discussion of how much confidence the bourgeoisie has in its own capacity to maintain its rule is not the same question as whether the bourgeoisie is capable of leading a bourgeois revolution. Secondly, confidence is a relative thing; the confidence of the bourgeoisie in its own rule is in inverse proportion to the strength and self-confidence of the working class. It is precisely the fact that the working class lacks its own independent revolutionary organization that the bourgeoisie feels “stronger and more self-confident” to rule directly through its own political representatives.

Obviously, if the working class in most countries “isn’t small anymore,” then its potential power is more formidable, provided that the working class is conscious of that power. When it is, the bourgeoisie turns to reformist parties, and, failing that, is willing to abandon direct rule for fascist or military rule if it feels that its position is too exposed. The twentieth century is full of examples of this, and to think that the neoliberal (and not really very democratic) transitions Whitehouse refers to prove that the bourgeoisie is now so confident (on some abstract scale) that it will be comfortable with bourgeois democracy from hereon, he is mistaken.

A distinguishing feature of capitalist society is that the bourgeoisie can still be the ruling class even where it does not rule directly: in a bourgeois democracy, a military dictatorship, a constitutional monarchy or a religious theocracy. It can rule under a one-party autocracy or even a racially based democracy. Transitions between different state forms can open up the possibility of more far-reaching social change; but if struggles from below fail to take on revolutionary proportions, these transitions merely change the political superstructure without changing the fundamental social relations or the class that rules. So long as the working class is incapable of posing a socialist alternative in these struggles, such will be the way of these “transformations.”

Now that the bourgeois revolutions are over and the bourgeoisie has long ceased to be a revolutionary class, Whitehouse now finds progressive virtues in the bourgeoisie-in its apparent ability to lead “waves of democratizations.” We should not go with him down this road. Rosa Luxemburg was absolutely correct when she wrote these lines:

The uninterrupted victory of democracy, which to our revisionism, as well as to bourgeois liberalism, appears as a great fundamental law of human history and, especially, of modern history, is shown, upon closer examination, to be a phantom. No absolute and general relation can be constructed between capitalist development and democracy. The political form of a given country is always the result of the composite of all the existing political factors, domestic as well as foreign. It admits within its limits all variations of the scale, from absolute monarchy to democratic republic.14

Alliances versus direct routes

According to Whitehouse, any alliances the working class makes with middle class elements in today’s struggle will break down before, rather than after, workers take power, and therefore don’t fit the pattern that he has decided is the correct pattern for permanent revolution:

Because middle-class forces-unlike Russia’s old peasantry-have such independent politics, we should expect a mass-movement alliance between workers and the middle class to break down before workers get to power. The best outcome of the break would be to split the middle class and to win part of it over to socialism on the way to workers’ power. But this is not the pattern of permanent revolution. In fact, it fits the broad scenario of class alliances and splits that we need to work for in the advanced countries. It’s what we’ve called the direct route to socialism.

All of this is hopelessly pedantic, reducing the content of permanent revolution to a “pattern” that specifies the precise moment in the revolutionary process that alliances are formed or split apart. If Whitehouse acknowledges that the “direct route” to socialism will have its point of origin in movements for national liberation and democracy, and that the working class must form temporary alliances with sections of the middle class, then for all practical purposes his “theory” of a “direct route to socialism” is hollowed of any content.

The question of land

Of course, Whitehouse is not wrong to point out that class relations in the countryside vary from country to country, and have changed tremendously since Trotsky’s day. The peasantry is everywhere a smaller portion than it had been a few generations ago; wage labor more predominant, and commercial farmers are a shrinking portion of the population. Nevertheless, the percentage of the world’s population still actively engaged in agriculture in 2000 was still 44.7 percent, 56.3 percent in Asia and 66.1 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa.15

There are 4.6 million people who lack land or sufficient land to survive on in Brazil. Their concerns and struggles have potential, in the right circumstances, to be linked to a socialist transformation of Brazil. But farming cooperatives operating in market conditions are run along the same lines as small family farms-as business enterprises. They are not somehow inherently more socialistic than small farms. As Stuart Easterling writes:

The significant small-scale landholdings farmed by the MST’s members have raised the issue of how to maintain peasant production in a neoliberal market economy such as Brazil’s. In the words of one commentator, “the reality of the settlements, which now exist in large numbers, has required immediate solutions for the technical organization of production and the political organization of producers in these areas.” Indeed, the MST presently directs over 60 agricultural cooperatives and manages capital in the tens of millions of dollars.16

Successive administrations have promised land redistribution, but have failed to deliver. One percent of landowners own half of the arable land in Brazil, while 50 percent only 2.6 percent-a holdover from the days of Portuguese colonialism. President Luis Inácio “Lula” da Silva. promised to distribute land to 410,000 families but has so far yet to deliver even a small part of this. Why? Because he is beholden to the banks, the wealthy landowners, and capital, and has adopted a policy, in the words of MST leader João Pedro Stedile “limited to the parameters of maintaining the interests and advantages of financial capital.”17 Land distribution is not in and of itself a socialist demand, and could theoretically be accomplished without abolishing Brazilian capitalism. Yet, the best guarantee of the swift carrying out of the MST’s demands would be a revolutionary movement in which the working class takes the lead. That’s how socialists should apply the method of permanent revolution to Brazil.

Planet of slums

Capitalism continues to develop, in China and elsewhere, but in other parts of the world it stagnates and even falls backward into complete barbarism. Where China experiences 8-9 percent annual growth rates, Sub-Saharan Africa sinks into the deepest abyss of poverty and degradation. In his book Planet of Slums, Mike Davis calculates that there may be more than a quarter of a million slums on the earth that are projected in the next few decades to encompass 2 billion people. The question of permanent revolution, therefore, cannot be wished away by noting the fact that the world’s population is increasingly urban. The massive growth internationally of urban slums described by Davis raises the question of uneven development, internationalism, and the role of working class agency to a new level of urgency. As he notes,

Surely, the informal proletariat bears “radical chains” in the Marxist sense of having little or no vested interest in the preservation of the existing mode of production. But because uprooted rural migrants and informal workers have been largely dispossessed of fungible labor-power, or reduced to domestic service in the houses of the rich, they have little access to the culture of collective labor or large-scale class struggle. Their social stage, necessarily, must be the slum street or marketplace, not the factory or international assembly line.18

In many countries, but especially in Africa, this urban “surplus” population is larger by far than the formal working class. No doubt the urban poor are potentially an elemental revolutionary force-but only if their struggles and concerns are brought into relation with the struggle of the working class as a whole, in particular the “formal” working class, against capitalism. Whitehouse won’t call this permanent revolution, but here the methodology of permanent revolution seems clear. Impoverished regions will depend on the centers of working class power to effect a real social transformation, and impoverished countries in which the working class is a minority likewise will require the leadership of the working class to mount a fundamental challenge to the monstrous barbarism of late capitalism.


If we were to accept Whitehouse’s formalistic and schematic definition of permanent revolution, then of course we would have to discard it along with the slide rule and the eight-track.

That doesn’t mean we regard Trotsky’s application of the theory without criticism. Trotsky tended to argue that colonial liberation was impossible without the revolutionary leadership of the working class. In this he was mistaken, not only in India, where independence came without revolution, but in postwar Third-World guerrilla struggles that brought petty bourgeois leaderships to power. Trotsky absolutely excluded the possibility of any independent role for the petty bourgeoisie, arguing that it must follow either the working class or the bourgeoisie. He applied this both to Russia and the colonial countries, which explains why he could not conceive of Stalinism as a new ruling class or that the petty bourgeoisie could seize state power through the mobilization of guerrilla armies.

However, the fundamental basis of the theory-combined and uneven development and the impossibility of socialism in one country-are still extremely important. The value of Trotsky’s theory as a guide for revolutionaries in charting the complicated waters of struggle in Asia, Latin America, and elsewhere, is obvious. Permanent revolution retains its importance in the broadest sense as uninterrupted (both on a national and international scale) revolution. “The permanent revolution, in the sense in which Marx attached to this concept,” writes Trotsky, “means a revolution which makes no compromise with any single form of class rule, which does not stop at the democratic stage, which goes over to socialist measures and to war against reaction from without; that is, a revolution whose every successive stage is rooted in the preceding one and which can end only in the complete liquidation of class society.”19

This theory has very specific applications to today’s world. Take for example the question of Palestine. The need for the Palestinian national movement to ally itself with the Arab working masses is an example of the application of the theory of permanent revolution. By its own efforts the Palestinian movement cannot achieve a democratic-secular state; it is highly unlikely that it could even gain a viable, independent state that isn’t under Israeli domination. But neither can it rely on the Arab regimes, which pay lip service to Palestinian liberation but also fear the radicalism it engenders among their exploited and oppressed citizens. A real solution to the national question in Palestine is contingent upon linking the national struggle of the Palestinians with revolutionary movements in Egypt and other Arab states, where the working classes have far more social weight than the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The Palestinian movement, in turn, acts as a catalyst in the Arab states that has on several occasions in the past threatened to produce revolutionary movements against those states.

Most revolutions in recent memory have been political rather than social, democratic rather than socialist. The chief reason is not objective or material. The working class possesses the potential power to lead an overturn of capitalism on a world scale; but nowhere is the working class yet a class for itself. The chief obstacle is the distortion of Marxism by social democracy and by variants of Stalinism. The sad legacy is the absence, in virtually every country in the world, of sizable revolutionary parties rooted in the working class.

There never was, and never will be, a direct road to workers’ power, notwithstanding all the important changes in the urban and rural relations of modern world capitalism. The peculiar combination of various political and social features that vary from country to country, prevent this, as well as the persistence of imperialist conquest and rivalry. In that respect Lenin’s statement that, “whoever lives to see a ‘pure’ social revolution will never live to see it,” still holds water:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable without revolts by small nations…, without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses…against national oppression, etc.-to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution.20

Of course, the possibility of a successful social revolution depends on the role played by the working class. The question is whether it can become the leader in solving, to quote Trotsky, various burning questions, “the solution of which the majority of the nation is interested, and which demands for [their] solution the boldest revolutionary measures.”21

“While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible,” stated Marx and Engels in their embryonic formulation of the theory in 1850,

it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all the more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of the proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletariat.”22

Permanent revolution as uninterrupted revolution; as international revolution; and as a perspective for the independent organization of the working class in national and democratic struggles-that permanent revolution is vital.

  1. Leon Trotsky, “Three letters to Preobrazhensky,” Leon Trotsky on China (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), 281-82.
  2. Trotsky, “Three concepts of the Russian Revolution,” Stalin (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941), 429.
  3. Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution & Results and Prospects (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1976), 253.
  4. Leon Trotsky, “The New Course,” The Challenge of the Left Opposition (1923-25) (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), 102.
  5. Permanent Revolution, 279.
  6. Ibid., 255.
  7. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961), 5-6.
  8. Trotsky, “The Chinese Revolution and the thesis of comrade Stalin,” China, 163.
  9. In the same article Whitehouse cites, Callinicos argues that it would be the “blindest dogmatism” to assert that the reform process, which was already quite advanced, could not end in a “negotiated transfer of political power to the ANC.” (“Can South Africa be reformed?” International Socialism Journal 46, 134.)
  10. Trotsky, “An open letter to the workers of India,” New International, New York, September 1939, Volume 5, No. 9.
  11. Sumit Sarkar, Modern India: 1885-1947 (New Delhi: MacMillan, 1983), 408.
  12. Trotsky, “The revolution in India: It’s tasks and dangers,” Writings of Leon Trotsky 1930 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1975), 244.
  13. Duncan Green, Silent Revolution: The Rise and Crisis of Market Economics in Latin America (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2003), 176.
  14. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2005), 62.
  15. Stuart Easterling, “Neoliberal reform and the re-emergence of mass rural social movements in Latin America,” unpublished manuscript.
  16. Ibid.
  17. “Agrarian reform in Brazil,” An interview with the MST’s João Pedro Stedile, Znet, March 9, 2004.
  18. Mike Davis, “Planet of slums: Urban involution and the informal proletariat,” New Left Review 26, March-April 2004, 28-29.
  19. Permanent Revolution, 130-31.
  20. V.I. Lenin, “The discussion on self determination summed up,” (1916) Questions of National Policy and Proletarian Internationalism (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1970), 159.
  21. Permanent Revolution, 254.
  22. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “Address to the Central Authority of the League,” Marx Engels Collected Works, Volume 10 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1978), 281.