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Permanent Revolution

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Permanent Revolution is the theory of how to sustain Communism within an undeveloped ('backward') state. Although most closely associated with Leon Trotsky the call for Permanent Revolution is first found in the writings of Karl Marx in the aftermath of the revolutionary year of 1848.

Trotsky's conception of Permanent Revolution is based on his understanding, drawing on the work of the founder of Russian Marxism Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov (1856-1918), that in 'backward' countries the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution could not be achieved by the bourgeoisie itself. This conception was first developed in the essays later collected in his book 1905 and in his essay Results and Prospects.

The basic idea of Trotsky's theory is that in Russia the bourgeoisie would not carry out a thorough revolution which would institute political democracy and solve the land question. These measures were assumed to be essential to develop Russia economically. Therefore it was argued the future revolution must be lead by the proletariat who would not only carry through the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution but would move directly to the social or socialist revolution. In this sense the revolution would be made Permanent.

Trotsky's theory was developed as an alternative to the Social Democratic theory that undeveloped countries would pass through two distinct revolutions. First the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution, which socialists would assist, and at a later stage, the Socialist Revolution. This is often refered to as the Theory of Stages or as Stagism.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks held to a version of the Stagist theory as Social Democrats. However Lenin was arguing by 1917 that the Russian bourgeoisie would not be able to carry through the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic Revolution and therefore the proletariat had to take state power. This position was put to the Bolsheviks on his return to Russia in his April Theses. At the time the majority of the Bolsheviks rejected the Theses as being opposed to Stagism and only Alexandar Kollontai rallied to is position initially.

After the October Revolution the Bolsheviks, now including Trotsky, did not discuss the theory of Permanent Revolution as such. However its basic theses can be found in such popular outlines of Communist theory as The ABC's of Communism, which sought to explain the program of the Communist Party, by Preobrazhensky and Nikolai Bukharin (1888-1938).

However in the 1920s the theory did assume importance in the internal debates within the Communist Party and was a bone of contention within the opposition to Stalin. In essence a section of the Communist Party leadership, whose views were voiced at the theoretical level by Bukharin, argued that socialism could be built in one country. This meant that there was less need to foster revolutions in other countries in order to achieve the economic base needed to construct a socialist society. Therefore Communist International advised its Chinese section to back the Guomindang's efforts to unify China. This effort was seen as being the Chinese Bourgeois Democratic Revolution and was a reversion to a Stagist position.

The question of the Chinese revolution and the subjection of the Chinese Commuist Party to control by the Guomindang at the behest of the Russian Communist Party was argued out in the opposition to Stalin in the Russian Communist Party. On the one hand figures such as Karl Radek argued that a Stagist strategy was correct for China. Although their writings are only know to us now at second hand having perished in the 1930s and if copies exist in the archives they have not been located since the fall of the USSR in 1989. Trotsky on the other hand generalised his Theory of Permanent Revolution, which had only been appplied in the case of Russia previously, and argued that the proletariat needed to take power in a process of uninterrupted and Permanent Revolution in order to carry out the tasks of the Bourgeois Democratic revolution.

His position was put forward in his essay entitled Permanent Revolution which can be found today in a single book together with Results and Prospects. Not only did Trotsky generalise his theory of Permanent Revolution in this essay but he also grounded it in the idea of combined and uneven development. This idea argues, again in contrast to the conceptions inherent within Stagist theory, that capitalism, indeed all class-based societies, develop unevenly and that some parts will develop more swiftly than others. However it is also argued that this development is combined and that each part of the world economy is increasingly bound together with all other parts. The conception of combined and uneven development also recognises that some areas may even regress further economically and socially as a result of their integration into a world economy.

Since Trotsky's assassination in 1940 the theory of Permanent Revolution has been held to by the various Trotskyist groups which have developed since then. However the theory has only rarely been given any extended treatment by Trotskyist theoreticians seeking to relate it to post-war political developments. The greatest challenge to the theory, which postulated that only socialist revolution could solve the problems posed to Bourgeois Revolutions, is that many such problems have been solved in the real world. Often this has been dealt with by ignoring reality and retreating into abstract theory or by denying that the productive forces have actually increased.

Another problem posed to the theory was the development of 'workers' states' in countries where socialist revolutions have not been carried out by the proletariat. This has been dealt with in various ways by different Trotskyist groups but the known argument has been that the 'workers' states' were the result of socialist revolutions carried out by various forces that were 'proletarian' in a political sense being led by Communist parties. A good example of this and one of the most theorised is to be found in Michel Lowys book 'The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development'. Not all Trotskyists agree with this position, however, and some, the best known being the International Socialism tradition of Trotskyism, argue that the 'workers' states' were in fact state capitalist.

Another attempt to develop the theory was made by Tony Cliff, the leader of the International Socialism tradition of Trotskyism, in his Theory of Deflected Revolution. In this he develops the idea that where the proletariat is unable to take power, that a section of the intelligentsia may take power on its on behalf and carry through the tasks of the Bourgeois Revolution. He further argues that the aspousal of Marxist concepts by such elements is not genuine but is the use of Marxism as an ideology of power. His ideas are to be found in his 1961 essay Deflected Permanent Revolution.

See Also