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ISR Issue 48, July–August 2006
Direct Struggles for Socialism Are on the Agenda
The fading relevance of permanent revolution
By DAVID WHITEHOUSE
David Whitehouse is the reviews editor of the ISR
PERMANENT REVOLUTION is Leon Trotsky’s theory of how to win socialism in late-developing countries. He first came up with the theory as he was becoming a major leader in Russia’s failed 1905 Revolution, and he spelled out the theory in print almost exactly one hundred years ago in “Results and Prospects.”1
Trotsky argued that Russia’s late development of capitalism failed to produce a bourgeois class that would rise to lead the overthrow of the Russian tsar-as Western bourgeoisies had overthrown their own “absolute monarchs” in previous centuries. Other socialists, including V.I. Lenin, shared this assessment of the bourgeoisie and agreed with Trotsky that leadership in a fight for democracy would fall to Russia’s small working class. But Trotsky argued further that once workers pushed the tsar aside, they would need to take control of production just in order to defend their victory. In his words, “The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement.”2
The revolution would thus start with a struggle for democracy and continue with a fight for socialism. In the language of the time, the revolution would be “permanent” because it entailed an ongoing process. As Trotsky wrote later, “Democracy is not a regime that remains self-sufficient for decades, but is only a direct prelude to the socialist revolution. Each is bound to the other by an unbroken chain.”3 Workers’ victory in Russia would inspire workers to rise up in other countries, a further necessary step “in permanence” to assure the survival of a fledgling socialist republic in backward Russia.4
American socialist Hal Draper later noted that the use of the word “permanence” to describe a revolutionary process of interlocked, increasingly radical phases dates back at least to the French Revolution.5 Karl Marx picked up the phrase to describe the strategy he advocated for workers in the revolutionary movements that swept Europe in 1848.6 Trotsky probably had no direct knowledge of these writings, but he and other socialists were clearly familiar with the phrase.7
The revolutionary years of 1917-19 proved Trotsky right. A wave of antiwar strikes brought the tsar down in the first months of 1917, and workers took political power in the fall. By the end of the year, they seized and began to run most of the factories, while peasants were seizing the land. The Russian example helped to inspire German workers and soldiers to overthrow the Kaiser in 1918, thus bringing the world war to a close and opening a period of mass revolts that gripped Europe, Asia, and even Seattle.
Even though the early years of the Russian Revolution confirmed the perspective of permanent revolution, Stalinists and Third World nationalists later revived the notion that conditions were unripe for socialism in this or that country, claiming that a struggle for democracy or national independence would have to precede a fight for socialism by years or decades. One of the distinctive features of Trotskyism, beginning with Trotsky himself, has been to answer such “two-stage” theories by adapting his conclusions about Russia to the circumstances of other countries. Stalin’s bungled approach to the Chinese revolts of 1926-27 led Trotsky to publish The Permanent Revolution in 1930. The book argued that the special process of permanent revolution was possible in many late-developing countries-if revolutionaries based their strategy on the theory.
The aim of this article is to explain how 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.
What follows is the barest sketch of an argument. It begins with the conditions in Russia and elsewhere that led Trotsky to formulate his theory, and continues with the changes that have made the applicability of the theory less and less general. As we get closer to current conditions, I open a discussion of how these changes should affect the expectations and practical work of today’s socialists.
The framework of the debate over Russia
The starting point for all Marxists debating the future of Russia was the framework of historical materialism, which explains a society’s political forms, such as parliamentary democracy, as reflections of its material economic base. The base, built upon the society’s available tools, materials, and productive know-how, determines what kind of division of labor, or work relations, are possible. These work relations, in turn, are crystalized into stereotyped class positions of command and subordination. And each form of class rule requires a distinctive “superstructure” of culture, politics, schooling, law, etc.8
Beyond explaining how particular political and ideological forms correspond to a society’s productive base, historical materialism is supposed to explain the dynamics of social change. In the Middle Ages, for example, capitalist enterprises grew in the cities between the estates of the feudal ruling class. Competition under the profit system gave rise to advances in productivity, and the increasingly wealthy capitalist class began to articulate a number of political goals that it dressed up as the natural and proper relations of human beings. For example, one mundane economic imperative of capitalist commerce-the freedom to make deals with anybody for any purpose-flowered into the concept of equality before the law.9
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.
Trotsky’s argument about Russia
A hundred years ago, Russia clearly hadn’t had a bourgeois revolution. It was ruled by a grotesquely repressive monarchy, supported by a reactionary church. There was no freedom to form political parties or trade unions. And although the peasants had technically been freed in 1861, debt and raw coercion kept the vast majority of them in serflike bondage to the nobles.10 As Trotsky wrote later, Russia faced “a revolution produced by the contradictions between the development of the productive forces of capitalist society and the outlived caste and state relationships of the period of serfdom and the Middle Ages”-i.e., a revolution that adjusted the social superstructure to developments in the economic base.11
Most socialists reasoned that the revolution could not be a socialist one, since Russia simply didn’t have the technical capacity to produce the material abundance that’s necessary for socialism. A regime of scarcity can only be stable if it involves repression and inequality. One Russian Marxist conclusion, that of the Menshevik faction, was that Russian capitalists would behave like the French bourgeoisie of the eighteenth century-leading the peasants against the monarchy and the feudal lords to extend capitalism throughout the country and to establish democratic rights. In this fight, the role of the proletariat would be to pressure the bourgeoisie to lead the democratic movement to its conclusion. The proletariat’s day to fight for socialism was put off to some later time after capitalism got a chance to develop society’s productive powers.
Trotsky, however, looked at Russia by starting with the world situation, which gave him two clues.
First, the productive techniques already in use in the advanced countries did promise material abundance if they could be spread to backward countries.12 So it didn’t matter where the world socialist movement started as long as it came to include the advanced countries.
Second, the collision of advanced capitalism with backward, feudal Russia produced a social balance of forces in Russia that was favorable to workers’ political victory, even though the technical basis for stabilizing socialism would have to be imported. The uneven development between Russia and the West produced an unprecedented combination of factors within Russia that gave workers an opportunity to take power before they did in Germany, Britain, or the United States.13
The international perspective showed that Russian development was not an isolated replay of Western history but a response, by a backward country, to a challenge posed by advanced capitalism. The growth of capitalism in Russia was not mainly the product of internal class conflicts with the bourgeoisie in the lead. The monarchy itself-threatened by the growing military power of Western capitalism-took the lead in promoting capitalism. The tsars taxed the peasants in order to import state-of-the-art machinery from the West to build the major industries necessary for national defense. Furthermore, because the native bourgeoisie was so undeveloped, he invited Western capitalist investors to fill the gaps in his new economy.14
In these conditions, the Russian proletariat grew into the low millions under conditions of medieval repression. Nevertheless, workers were concentrated in huge factories that formed the jugular vein of both the economy and the state. As a result, workers possessed disproportionate social leverage.15
But the same conditions produced a bourgeoisie that was poorly suited to leading a broad national struggle against tsarism, since the class was “very small in numbers, isolated from the ‘people,’ half-foreign, without historical traditions, and inspired only by the greed for gain.”16 Capitalists may not have liked the autocracy, but if they started a fight against the tsar and the feudal lords, more than the peasantry would mobilize. In the cities, the working class would rise as well. Beyond the “mob” and barricade methods of the French Revolution, workers had the power of the mass strike, a potent weapon against the bourgeoisie itself. In this circumstance-a weak bourgeoisie combined with a strong proletariat-the bourgeoisie would ultimately line up with the feudal lords and the state for its own protection.17
At the same time, the peasants were not in a position to lead the revolution that they themselves needed. They were dispersed through the countryside, riven by regional differences, and mostly illiterate. The only thing they could unite on was their hatred of the lords. Even if peasants succeeded in seizing noble estates, their movements were incapable of providing a vision for society as a whole. What’s more, peasants needed an urban class to overthrow the tsar, or he’d drown the revolt in blood.18
Trotsky concluded that the proletariat had to step in to fill the leadership role that the bourgeoisie couldn’t fill. The “bourgeois revolution” to smash feudalism and establish democracy couldn’t be led by the bourgeoisie. Workers would have to take state power-now-not after an extended period of capitalist development.
This position at the head of the state, said Trotsky, would force the working class to move from the democratic revolution straight to socialist measures. If there were a strike, for example, would a workers’ state send out police to help scab workers get across the picket lines? No, it would help the strikers keep the place shut down-and thus would undermine the ability of the bosses ever to get back to making profit. Then, if the bosses retaliated with lockouts, a workers’ state would support factory takeovers, and workers would start up production under their own control. And this is the crucial step toward socialism-workers’ control at the point of production.19
But it’s only a first step. Trotsky asked:
How far can the socialist policy of the working class be applied to the economic conditions of Russia? We can say one thing with certainty-that it will come up against political obstacles much sooner than it will stumble over the technical backwardness of the country.20
The major source of the revolution’s political crisis would be the constriction of its social base. Peasants would defect from the movement as workers turned to socialist measures.21 Peasants would not voluntarily create large-scale collective farms unless they had electricity, tractors, dams for irrigation-and the leisure and literacy that would allow them to run the enterprises themselves.22 A socialist revolution could thus succeed only by spreading to countries such as Germany. Advanced countries could provide the technology that was necessary in the long run, but the urgent short-run need was for international support to stabilize workers’ rule.
The 1917 Revolution followed the pattern that Trotsky predicted, except that the revolutions of the Western working classes did not succeed. The setbacks in the movement ultimately allowed Stalin to get a grip on power and to revert, within ten years, to a development strategy that would have looked familiar to the tsar. He strengthened the state autocracy to direct the economy toward competition with Western capitalism, especially in the crucial military sector.
Trotsky generalizes the theory
Even though the Russian Revolution confirmed the perspective of permanent revolution, Stalin’s counterrevolution opened a new space for the Menshevik theory of two-stage revolution. Stalin’s strategy of national development required him to make peace with the world’s bourgeoisies, not class war.
In the late 1920s, this policy meant instructing China’s Communist Party (CP) to dissolve itself into the bourgeois nationalist party of Chiang Kai-Shek. The result was a catastrophe as Chiang first accepted the communists into the party but later slaughtered thousands of worker-militants when they showed what kind of a force the working class really was. The communists had to flee the cities.23
Following this defeat, Trotsky generalized the theory of permanent revolution beyond the Russian case to say that China and other late-developing countries also possessed a combination of features that made them ripe for permanent revolution:24
1) Capitalist production techniques have penetrated the backward state, but the state’s old legal and social forms are holding back their development.
This is the kind of conflict between rising new powers of production and confining social forms that can fuel a movement to overthrow the old society.
2) The working class may be small, but it is concentrated and pivotal to the economy.
3) The bourgeoisie is relatively weak (and partly foreign in origin or allegiance), and it shrinks away from mass struggle because it fears the action of the factory proletariat. The bourgeoisie may detest the state authority, but it depends on the state to keep the workers down.
4) There is a large peasantry that can be mobilized en masse to compensate for the small size of the proletariat. They’re either mobilized for a democratizing overthrow of feudal oppressors, or-and here’s the point that extends the theory to China-the peasantry can be mobilized as a national force against colonial oppressors. Either way, the small proletariat needs a peasantry that can overcome its natural fragmentation to unite along some lines as an ally to help dislodge the feudal or colonial state.25
Trotsky’s generalized theory of permanent revolution maintained the key practical conclusion from his 1906 analysis of Russia-that the social ingredients for socialist revolution were available even in some countries where the technological prerequisites didn’t yet exist. Socialist revolution was on the agenda, but it would have to spread to the advanced world.
Since the Russian Revolution of 1917, however, Trotsky had begun to emphasize a second key practical point-the need for a party of worker revolutionaries.26 The negative example of the Chinese Revolution in 1926-27 drove the point home. While socialist revolution may be on the agenda, it can’t take place unless workers are independently organized for their task of political leadership.
How permanent revolutions work
The kernel of the theory 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. The Russian proletariat needed an alliance with peasants en masse, but the movement to overthrow the tsar and landlords produced the division of the land into private family plots, not collectivization. Having achieved their common aim of acquiring full rights to productive land, peasants had no incentive to push the movement further. To defend their victory in the cities, however, workers were compelled to carry the revolution into further phases that included the collectivization of industry and an urgent search for new allies in the movements of the international proletariat.
It’s the proletariat’s need for a revolutionary alliance with non-socialist classes that gives rise to a phased, permanent revolution, as the most radical class must press forward with new struggles when its allies peel away from the fight. In contrast, the democratic and socialist conquests of a permanent revolution are likely to be made in a jumbled and overlapping sequence rather than falling into well-marked “democratic” and “socialist” phases. For example, workers’ councils-the embryo of a workers’ state-may appear before trade unions are legalized. Or the protection of some national minority might receive its greatest boost after workers have begun to control production. In the Russian Revolution, dozens of civil freedoms, such as rights to divorce and abortion, came by decree after October from the new workers’ state. What really separates the process of permanent revolution into phases is not a shift in the nature of its achievements but something that’s socially more basic-a shift in the relations among the classes that are making the achievements. The turning point comes when the revolution’s initial multi-class alliance breaks up. As Trotsky wrote about Russia, when “the peasantry turns its back [on the proletariat],” it’s clear that the revolution has entered a new phase-in which the proletariat must “link the fate of its political rule, and hence, the fate of the whole Russian revolution, with the fate of the socialist revolution in Europe.”27
What kind of theory is this?
Trotsky’s theory differs from, say, Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, in two ways that are important to note.
First, it’s not a purely descriptive theory of reality as it exists apart from human action. One of the ingredients of success in a permanent revolution is an independent working-class party that sets a goal of socialist revolution and makes the alliances necessary to project the class into state power. As such, a strategy for permanent revolution is woven inseparably into the theory. In the terms that revolutionary parties use, permanent revolution is thus a perspective, an assessment of objective social circumstances combined with what a party-or a broader working-class movement-can achieve in the circumstances if it plays its cards right.
Second, while Newton’s physics was supposed to apply to all things under all circumstances, permanent revolution is a theory of what’s possible for particular people (workers) in a particular range of circumstances. It was invented to cover precapitalist societies whose internal structure had been partly reshaped by a collision with capitalism. In Russia, for example, the peasants formed a cohesive force against the nobility only because the persistence of feudal forms of exploitation retarded a sharp differentiation of peasants into mutually hostile classes.28 The united blow from the peasantry to equalize-i.e., to democratize-rural relations was, in turn, crucial to projecting the urban working class into political power. As Trotsky put it in 1930, beginning with a quotation from his 1906 Our Revolution:
“The peasantry as a whole represents an elemental force in rebellion. It can be put at the service of revolution only by a force that takes state power in its hands.… The complete victory of the revolution means the victory of the proletariat.…”
The prospect of the dictatorship of the proletariat consequently grows here precisely out of the bourgeois-democratic revolution.… That is just why the revolution is called permanent (uninterrupted). But the dictatorship of the proletariat does not come after the completion of the democratic revolution.… If that were the case, it would simply be impossible in Russia, for in a backward country the numerically weak proletariat could not attain power if the tasks of the peasantry had been solved during the preceding stage.29
Because the conditions for permanent revolution are historically specific, it’s a theory that could have some exceptions right from the beginning because of the variation in the starting points of individual countries. But the theory is also likely to develop more exceptions as time goes on, because it’s based on a conjuncture of circumstances that is likely to break up as capitalism keeps expanding to permeate every human and material relationship.
The exceptional case of India
The first clear exception to the theory was the anti-colonial movement in India. It’s a case of individual variation, but it’s a revealing one.
India’s industrial proletariat, like Russia’s , was small but concentrated.30 The peculiarity of India’s development was that there was an indigenous bourgeoisie that captured a major share of the home market, especially in textiles but also in steel. It was the largest and richest capitalist class in any colonial country.31
The middle class of lawyers and state functionaries, politically grouped in the Indian National Congress, was ultimately able to enlist most of the big bourgeoisie in a national struggle to end colonial rule. Their bridge to the peasant masses was Gandhi, whose strategy for mobilization bypassed the proletariat and agitated the peasants on the narrowest of national grounds. The British had a tax system that literally starved the peasants, so they responded to the call.32
The Congress Party’s success in pursuing the national question to the exclusion of all others produced a movement that didn’t scare off its allies in the big bourgeoisie. At first, bourgeois support for nationalist politics was strong only in the industrial center of Ahmedabad, where Gandhi’s politics of labor peace was most effective in demobilizing labor struggle. Where labor militancy was stronger, as in Bombay during the communist-led strikes of 1928-29, mill owners were cautious in expressing nationalist ideas and tended to seek the protection of the colonial state.33
Bourgeois support of Congress surged in the early 1930s when Gandhi re-emerged at the forefront of the struggle.34 He started with a brilliant stroke-a challenge to Britain’s salt monopoly that mobilized peasants around a major grievance without raising class questions.35 Business confidence in Congress didn’t fully solidify, however, until British concessions allowed Congress to take over provincial governments in 1937. In office, the party proved itself to the bourgeoisie by maintaining the unequal social status quo in the countryside and repressing a wave of industrial strikes.36 In the end, big business saw the national movement through and wound up on top at independence in 1947. India became democratic, in the sense of having elections with wide suffrage, but the democracy movement was largely stripped of its class content-and failed to overturn caste oppression, a key task for any Indian movement that aims at real equality.
By itself, the strength of the Indian bourgeoisie did not guarantee their leadership of the peasant movement. The working class might have been an effective contender for that role if it had had Trotskyist instead of Stalinist leadership. Permanent revolution was thus possible in India, but only by overcoming an obstacle that the Russian working class hadn’t faced-a bourgeoisie that was willing and able to lead the mass movement through to victory.
The strength and self-confidence of the Indian bourgeoisie may be unique among colonized countries. But the other key feature of the movement-the strategy of creating an isolated focus on the national question-is something that became systematic in many future anti-imperial struggles.
Mao’s China: New model for national revolution
The strategy of building a multi-class national struggle by putting off class struggle conforms to Stalin’s two-stage theory, but the real practical innovator is Mao Zedong.
When the Chinese party came back from their disaster and took power in 1949, they came back as a new kind of force. Following their 1920s retreat from the cities, Mao built an army-commanded by urban intellectuals and staffed by peasants-to capture control of the state and the cities from outside.37
The result was the expulsion of foreign imperialists, but it wasn’t the victory of the peasantry or the projection of the working class into state power. The leading class in the cities-the key locus of state power-was the slice of the petit bourgeoisie that formed the leadership of the Communist Party.
The CP embarked on a Russian-style, state-directed path of economic development, and the Chinese experience created a model for a new kind of national revolution. There was nothing very democratic about it, although the CP followed tradition in calling it “the democratic revolution.” Like a bourgeois revolution, there was a package of things that went together, but a new package, including: tactics of guerrilla war to capture the cities from outside; alliances with landlords and capitalists at various points in the struggle; the mobilization of people who have real grievances to help a middle-class minority take state power; a policy of state-led development or state capitalism, administered by a single autocratic party; and so forth. Many others around the world tried to follow this example. Sometimes the movement called itself socialist, but it didn’t involve workers’ self-emancipation. This pattern came to characterize a whole generation of revolts in later-developing countries-what came to be known as the Third World.
One could say that the new-model economies involved an unexpected way of adjusting the social superstructure to the society’s powers of production, a way that was specially adapted for late-developing countries. State planners would chart out a course for a fairly self-contained economy, one that was protected against competition from the more advanced ones in order to give the country a chance to play developmental catch-up. This is Stalinism, generalized, something that Trotsky certainly didn’t expect.
In 1963, British socialist Tony Cliff of the International Socialists (IS) named this pattern of events “deflected permanent revolution.” In circumstances where the working class was not independently organized to lead a democratic revolution that moves on to socialism, Third World middle classes could step into the breach to lead a revolution for the purpose of national economic development.38 The IS thus recognized a systematic exception to the theory of permanent revolution in those cases where nobody built parties that were capable of focusing the independent power of the working class. The alternative of permanent revolution was still possible-there were still democratic revolutions to be made, and workers could lead peasant masses to win them-so this was still a theory of permanent revolution. But the IS recognized that there was an alternative path that didn’t lead to socialism.39
This deflection from workers’ democracy was, in fact, a deflection from practically any kind of democratic process. Political power was fused with economic power, so monolithic parties were built to enforce the state plan with ruthless coercion from the top down.40 Non-Communist countries that adopted extensive state planning also tended toward one-party rule, such as Mexico under the Institutional Revolutionary Party, Taiwan under the Guomindang, India under Congress, and Japan under the Liberal Democrats.
The development and crisis of state capitalism
In order to understand why one-party dominance has broken down as widely as it has-and the relevance of permanent revolution to this process-we need to look at how state capitalism in mid-century set the stage for the democracy movements in the last quarter of the century.
As we’ve noted, the extreme forms of state capitalism found in the late-developing world were an outgrowth of uneven development. Ruling elites constructed a new, politically monolithic, social superstructure in order to quickly modernize the economic base.
Repression is well suited to promoting rapid economic growth through the use of labor-intensive methods. In the USSR, the classic case of state-capitalist development, the forced collectivization of agriculture expelled a steady stream of peasants from the land and “freed them up” to take low-skilled, low-technology industrial jobs. The political regime that corresponded to these economic plans was Stalin’s terror of the 1930s.
Further advances in production, however, require the adoption of more-advanced techniques to raise the productivity of labor. This requires a larger middle class, plus a working class with higher skills, better education, and a higher standard of living. When these needs begin to predominate, repression needs to let up. To take Russia again as an example, Stalin’s terror was lifted in the 1950s, and Russia went through the thaw that’s associated with Kruschev.41
But while state capitalism was maturing, Western capitalism wasn’t standing still. The post-Second World War boom in the West involved a re-internationalization of the most advanced economies. The 1930s Depression and the war had driven all economies inward-in the direction of self-contained state capitalism. Nevertheless, peacetime gradually revealed the profit advantages of international trade and multinational production, especially among the big players in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.
There came a point when late-developing countries could no longer make adjustments that would allow them to compete-without breaking out of the state capitalist framework. A final example from Russia reveals the conflict between state capitalism’s superstructure and the development of the productive powers. Right up into the 1980s, offices and universities in the Soviet Union did not have photocopy machines-because students or workers might use them as political printing presses.42
By the 1970s, this kind of conflict hit all state capitalists, not just in the Communist countries. The whole world entered a crisis of profitability, and the state capitalists were the biggest losers. Many responded by opening up to trade and investment-trying to find niches in the new world division of labor. But the economy didn’t grow to let them in, they got beaten in competition, and they took out more loans on the easy repayment terms prevalent in the 1970s. In 1979, however, the U.S. and Britain initiated a period of sharply higher interest rates. The credit squeeze, combined with depressed export prices, produced crises of debt repayment that stretched, in the early 1980s, from the Third World to Eastern Europe.43
The new democracy movements
From the mid-1970s onward, the crisis fueled widespread revolts from below. These movements combined in diverse ways with elite movements for reform. Together they produced a wave of democratizations.
The wave started in the mid-1970s in Southern Europe with Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Turkey. It spread to Latin America, starting with Nicaragua in 1979, and it soon included Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and more. The wave spread to Asia, starting with the Philippines in 1986 to later include South Korea and Taiwan, with a notable failure in China in 1989. China’s Tiananmen Square crackdown was immediately followed by movements that broke up the Soviet bloc, followed by transitions in South Africa in 1994 and Indonesia in 1998.
The elite contribution to democratization was not merely a matter of concessions to mass movements, or of preemptive liberalizations to head movements off, or of bourgeois figures rushing to put themselves at the head of movements they couldn’t stop-although all of these occurred. As we’ve noted, the nature the crisis made liberalization into a positive attraction for state capitalist rulers. Thus, for example, Mikhail Gorbachev initiated glasnost (openness) in 1986 in order to promote perestroika (restructuring) of a stagnant economy-not in response to a mass movement, which emerged only two years later.44
Rulers’ positive desire for reform showed up in a different way in some cases where the workers’ movements were strong-Poland, South Korea, South Africa, and Chile. Dictators in those countries fiercely held on to power through the high points of the workers’ movements, then years later negotiated their own departure, when things had settled down.45 The elites in Chile and South Korea used the time to firm up their own “democratic leadership,” while repression in Poland and South Africa pushed the movement’s leaders into becoming “responsible” neoliberal democrats.
And that’s the point. These transitions did occur, even in cases where working-class power might have scared off the bourgeoisies of Lenin and Trotsky’s day. The transitions happened, in part, because the economic elites came to believe that they needed a change that would help them recover profitability. Part of this was quite cynical. Neoliberalism, after all, is a method to restore profits at the expense of the working population. It’s a lot easier to pull this off if the ruling party, such as Solidarnosc, has some legitimacy among the people it’s screwing over. General Jaruzelski handed off power to Lech Walesa in late 1989 on the condition that free-market “shock therapy” would come to Poland in 1990.46 But if democracy is just a trick to enforce austerity, then we might also expect lots of anti-democratic transitions, because that’s also a way to enforce austerity. The fact is that ruling classes widely became convinced that the repressive political structures of the state capitalist era had become fetters on their own success in international competition.
New balances of social forces, new dynamics of revolution
By the time of the outbreak of democratizations, the internal conditions of late-developing countries were quite diverse, with Russia at the advanced end, Mozambique at the backward end, and countries such as the Philippines and South Korea in between. And unlike many other dictatorships, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay had already initiated harsh neoliberal reforms in the decade before their political crises finally broke in the 1980s.47 The growth in diversity meant that, when the political crises erupted, the movements, despite their broad tendency toward electoral democracy, would be built on different balances of social forces from place to place. Some came closer to an anticapitalist breakthrough, including the early ones of Portugal and Nicaragua.
Despite the diversity, it is possible to generalize: The new democratizations occurred because pressures from below coincided with a desire among some at the top to retool the economy. But why did the movements follow the patterns they did instead of the path of permanent revolution? Of course, the lack of independent revolutionary workers’ parties held back all of the movements from achieving workers’ power and socialism. 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.
In the broadest terms, the change has come because the unevenness of development has taken new forms. Trotsky was describing movements that arose out of a crisis of precapitalist or semicapitalist systems as they buckled under the pressure of capitalism. In contrast, the movements we’ve lived through came out of a crisis of state capitalism as it buckled under the pressure of neoliberal, multinational capitalism.
The change in relations between countries corresponds to a shift in the combinations of social forces at work within countries. The internal situations of less-developed countries no longer match the conditions that Trotsky’s theory is founded on:
1) The state machines are different. They’re almost never an expression of a feudal class or a colonial power, so the local bourgeoisie is already intimately connected with the state even when the state is run by a dictatorship.
Even where the dominant class force within the state started out as feudal landholders fifty-odd years ago, as in South Korea, Pakistan, or the Gulf monarchies, they’ve all deliberately bourgeoisified themselves since then.48 Their social power now rests on free wage labor and surplus value like that of any other bourgeoisie.
The bourgeoisie’s pre-existing connection to the state smoothes a democratic transition, because the transition doesn’t involve changing the state’s class nature. As a result, the state’s armies have experienced minimal disturbance in most recent transitions, so they have been ready to restore order for the new regime. Notably, the two recent democratic transitions that took the longest to be pushed back onto a pro-capitalist path involved either the dissolution of the National Guard and its replacement by a revolutionary army (Nicaragua) or a successful mutiny from within the army (Portugal).
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.
2) The less-developed world’s bourgeoisies have become stronger and more self-confident in relation to other classes within their own countries, even if they must regularly submit to the pressure of imperial ruling classes. Their increased dominance over others within their borders arises partly from previous economic development, including capitalist accumulation, and partly because of factor (1) above, i.e., their intimate connection to state machines, most of which are now politically independent. In other words, the exceptional case-a strong bourgeoisie in colonial India-has become the rule. In fact, postcolonial bourgeoisies are now incomparably better equipped to contend for leadership in mass movements than India’s was.
3) The proletariat isn’t small anymore. In many places, it’s huge, and it thus has enough social weight by itself to overthrow capitalism. It may ally with peasants where peasants are a factor, but since Trotsky’s time, the political weight of the cities has expanded even further at the expense of the countryside.
4) The peasantry, where it does exist in large numbers, is different now, too, and farming is conducted on a higher technical level. The nearly universal defeat of colonialism means that there generally isn’t a national struggle that peasants can unite around. And the conversion of feudal lords into capitalists means that there isn’t a class of nobles for all peasants to unite against. Instead, class divisions within the peasantry itself have sharpened. 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.49 Unlike middle and rich peasants, these allies are likely to favor steps toward collectivizing agriculture from the start.
But the theory of permanent revolution contains a presumption that peasants won’t fight for socialism. The unity of Russian peasants in 1905 and 1917 arose, as we’ve seen, from the underdeveloped state of capitalist relations in the countryside. Class polarization between landholding and landless peasants had not yet produced a sharp political divergence-as might be expressed in class-based political parties. The main line of social cleavage was thus between all peasants and the nobility,50 and the revolution redivided the land instead of collectivizing it. At the time, socialists noted two other factors that held peasants back from opting for socialist politics-a low cultural level, and local farming techniques so primitive that large-scale and collective farming methods wouldn’t pay off.51
Since that time, however, the capitalist development of agriculture has sharpened class and political divisions within the peasantry. In India, for example, Congress Party policies allowed rich peasants to emerge as a self-conscious group that became attracted to the politics of the Hindu Right-at the same time that the rural poor defected from the Congress coalition to vote for tribal and oppressed-caste (Dalit) parties.52
An even sharper class-based divergence has developed in rural Brazil. One expression of it is the Movement of Landless Rural Workers (MST), which has been famous for land occupations since 1984. The MST has achieved many things that used to be beyond the reach of peasants. These include mounting nationally-coordinated actions, sponsoring national educational programs for its members, articulating broad long-term goals for society as a whole, and maintaining organizational continuity and mass participation for decades.53
What’s more, the level of farm technique in Brazil is so high, and farm operations so integrated with rural industries, that the MST’s successful land occupations result in farm-industrial cooperatives, not the division of the land into family plots.54 The MST’s cooperatives are capitalist units, of course, which are subject to market pressures to lay off some workers and overwork the rest. The example is thus not included to endorse the MST’s brand of reformist socialism but to show (1) that existing local conditions are ripe for collective farming and (2) that landless peasants are astute enough to see this. This suggests that Brazil’s urban workers can find allies in the rural proletariat for a direct revolutionary step from capitalism to socialism. Land hunger is acute in many other countries, but to the extent that their technical and class development resemble Brazil’s , the land question may have new answers.
These changes-in the state, the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, the peasantry, and the technical basis of farming-thus combine to produce, on a widening scale, national balances of forces that are ripe for socialist revolution, period. The bourgeoisie has the power, and we need to take it. Late-developing countries have either lost, or are on their way to losing, the need for the special kind of socialist revolution that Trotsky described. Today’s proletariat is strong enough, and rural development advanced enough, that it would be an exceptional circumstance where a working class needs to embark on the path of permanent revolution-enlisting the help of whole classes that are hostile to socialism in order to attain political power.
Mistakes that result from clinging to the theory
We will sow confusion and risk major mistakes if we uphold a theory of permanent revolution that doesn’t anticipate a process of permanent revolution. We’ll take up two examples, one from the recent past in South Africa, and another concerning China’s future.
When the apartheid government released Nelson Mandela from prison in 1990, the International Socialist Tendency (IST) maintained a position of permanent revolution-partly in response to the two-stage theory, which was dominant in South Africa. In the name of permanent revolution, the IST’s Alex Callinicos stuck to a previous prediction that the least likely outcome of South Africa’s crisis was that the white minority would allow apartheid to be reformed out of existence.55 The bourgeoisie was too afraid of the Black working class to let up on state repression, he wrote, so apartheid would fall only under a working-class assault. “Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution,” wrote Callinicos in 1990, “according to which bourgeois-democratic demands can only be realized by the dictatorship of the proletariat,…applies to South Africa not as an abstract theorem but as a direct inference from a concrete analysis of the alignment of class forces in South African society.”56
This view, however, underestimated the willingness of the white rulers to take a gamble on a change. South Africa’s ruling elite had keenly watched democracy movements elsewhere to learn how to manage a transition, hold onto their position as exploiters, and retool the economy as they wanted. F.W. de Klerk let Mandela out of prison in the middle of worldwide publicity about how Poland’s new Solidarnosc government planned to enforce a program of privatization and austerity.57 Soon after Mandela was released, he indicated that he would follow a similar path. The IST position left us to be blindsided by the apartheid bourgeoisie, which wasn’t panicked by the mass movement, and not only accepted democratization but stuck around to help set its limits.
That’s one danger of reflexively applying the theory of permanent revolution to current cases: The theory’s assumptions about the balance of forces tend to get imported wholesale, even when they’ve become outmoded. In this case, the mistake was to underestimate the strength of the apartheid bourgeoisie. It turned out to have some room for reformism that the brittle tsarist state did not.58
But there’s a more basic mistake involved in speaking of permanent revolution in South Africa. What would be “permanent” or ongoing about it? The industrial working class was already one of the world’s strongest and best organized, and a direct socialist method was available for smashing apartheid and establishing democratic equality-the seizure of the land, mines, and factories, and the replacement of the apartheid state with councils of workers’ delegates. No easy task, of course. But the movement would combine democratic and socialist tasks in the same strokes. If workers did sweep away the apartheid laws before taking control of production, the division of the revolution into phases would be a matter of tactics and opportunity, not a necessity forced upon workers by social underdevelopment, as it was in Russia in 1917 and China in 1926. Calling in 1990 for permanent revolution in South Africa was thus a confusing way to call for what was really necessary-independent organization of workers to wage a struggle for socialism.
To apply these lessons to China, we should expect that China’s rulers are actively looking for ways to democratize on their own terms and schedule. This is not to say that they can pull it off. All of these transitions are risky for ruling classes. But they’ve already conceded a number of democratic rights, including allowing village elections, and starting in 2001, lifting apartheid-like restrictions on peasants’ freedom to migrate to the cities.59
Despite these moves, the ruling Communist Party is widely hated. Major strikes and demonstrations have increased more than eight-fold since 1993.60 The regime could face a sharp crisis of legitimacy if the economy slows down-and therefore, sharp new demands for political democracy. There are at least two problems that the theory of permanent revolution would create for socialists in China as resistance grows from below.
One is the same as for South Africa-the problem of underestimating the rulers’ capacity to democratize. The CP’s favorite method has been to grant different concessions of rights to different segments of the workforce.
The other problem is who to unite with. Workers obviously need to forge a political outlook that unites the divided segments of the workforce, but the trickiest part is how to unite urban workers with peasants. The peasantry that remains in the countryside is being rapidly differentiated into classes. Urban workers cannot unite with all of them against the state, because state policy is raising some of them up as farm managers while it pushes the others down into farm wage work.61 China’s rural polarization is not taking place in just the same way that India’s or Brazil’s did, but it’s taking place. Socialist strategy would thus require efforts to sharpen rural class conflict and to give up any hope of a general rising of peasants as occurred in Russia in 1917. Permanent revolution would be a disastrous strategy in today’s China.
Demands and class forces in future revolutions
It is difficult to predict the course of future struggles in much detail, especially when it comes to the particular grievances that will spark or sustain mass movements. We can be sure, however, that democratic demands will continue to play a major role, because democratic tasks can never be completed under capitalism. It’s a system of social inequality, and revolts of oppressed races and nationalities, of land-starved peasants, of women, of gay men and lesbians will continue to break out. Some will spark broader and even revolutionary struggles.
But a socialist revolution’s origin in a democratic movement doesn’t make it a permanent revolution, even if it then urgently needs to spread internationally. Canada, after all, fits that description. Canadian socialist revolution could start with a democratic movement such as a revolt of the Québecois or the Mohawks. If the struggle generalized to the working class and reached revolutionary proportions, it would need to spread south of the border in order to avoid being crushed by U.S. intervention. If this is a permanent revolution, then almost every country needs one. But that’s ridiculous. Trotsky described a special process of revolution for “countries with belated bourgeois development.”62 That process, as we’ve seen, occurs when a working class needs to ally with whole classes that are hostile to socialism in order to reach state power. In that case, the alliance breaks down as the nonsocialist demands of workers’ allies are achieved. Workers thus need to continue the revolution into a new phase in order to achieve socialism. The narrowing of the social base for the socialist phase adds urgency to the international spread of the revolution, the second major step in continuation, or “in permanence.” This urgency for the revolution’s spread has internal political roots above and beyond the need to fight off imperial enemies.
The factors that really determine whether a revolution will take a “permanent” form are the class forces that make it. Fortunately, the nature of these forces can be described with much greater precision than the sequence of demands and tactical goals that a movement will adopt. This is not the place to assess these forces country by country, although that will be the way to find out how widely the theory of permanent revolution still applies. As a stopgap, we can briefly discuss two classes that workers are likely to ally with at various points of struggle, the informal proletariat and the urban middle class.
The fastest-growing portion of the world’s workforce belongs to the Third World’s “informal” sector, as Mike Davis describes in his excellent new book, Planet of Slums. The growth and activity of this group has boosted its political significance from Caracas to Cape Town. As a socially atomized group, the informal proletariat shares the old peasantry’s need for an outside force to organize it-but does not possess a social goal of its own, such as dividing up the land, that puts it at odds with socialism.63 In fact, informal workers could be a powerful force in a direct struggle for socialism-but only with political leadership from the classical proletariat, which possesses great capacity for self-organization and has its hands on the levers of mass production.
The urban middle class, or fractions of it, have played significant, even leading political roles in late-developing countries, especially in struggles for national self-determination. Thus, while some recent anti-imperial struggles have taken the form of class struggle (as South Korean workers fought International Monetary Fund-mandated layoffs in 1998), many others have been multi-class mobilizations (as in Bolivia’s 2000 struggle against the sell-off of water resources to foreign buyers, and in the anti-IMF, anti-austerity Argentinazo of 2001-2002). Because middle-class forces-and even some bourgeois or state forces-can be allies of the proletariat in particular limited anti-imperial struggles, these forces are also potential rivals with workers for leadership in the movement. It is, for example, the state of Hugo Chávez, not the working class, that has acted as the prime mobilizer of Venezuela’s urban poor, both for repatriation of oil profits and in defense against U.S.-sponsored destabilization.
Many of these struggles have the potential to grow into socialist revolution if the working class is prepared for it. But middle-class and other allies are unlike the old peasantry in two key ways: (1) as noted, they are favorably positioned to be rivals to the working class for leadership, and (2) they can produce coherent visions of their own for the future of society. For instance, they can produce varieties of anti-imperial populism to rally support from workers and others, especially as governments experiment with ways to manage their own economies better by selectively rejecting aspects of neoliberalism. They may advocate renationalizing resources or industries, restricting the flows of currency and capital, and trying to boost working-class buying power to enlarge the internal market. This is a vision for a reformed, capitalist future.
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.
Permanent revolution’s continuing relevance
There are good reasons for laying aside the theory of permanent revolution as a guide to action in most places where it used to apply. The theory does, however, have enduring value. First off, permanent revolution is crucial to understanding the history of the twentieth century, starting with the success and the ultimate failure of the Russian Revolution, followed by the ways that the anti-colonial movements developed.
Second, Trotsky’s conception of combined and uneven development is still crucial in explaining major international trends, from the rise of state capitalism to its fall, and to the concurrent wave of democratizations.
Third, Trotsky is still right that socialism is on the agenda, and that the obstacles aren’t technical. The crucial question is the consciousness, the confidence, and the independent organization of the working class. Trotsky’s work can make a vital contribution to that consciousness, and we need to build on its insight.
A final legacy is the example of Trotsky’s nerve in taking a fresh, concrete look at the world to see how it had changed. That’s how he discovered new revolutionary possibilities in his situation, and that’s how we’ll find them in ours.
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