Lecture four: Marxism, history and the science of perspective

Part 6

By David North
20 September 2005


This is the sixth and final part of the lecture “Marxism, history and the science of perspective,” delivered by World Socialist Web Site Editorial Board Chairman David North at the Socialist Equality Party/WSWS summer school held August 14 to August 20, 2005 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

This is the fourth lecture that was given at the school. The first, entitled “The Russian Revolution and the unresolved historical problems of the 20th century” was posted in four parts, from August 29 to September 1. The second, entitled “Marxism versus revisionism on the eve of the twentieth century,” was posted in three parts on September 2, 4 and 5. The third, entitled “The origins of Bolshevism and What Is To Be Done?” was posted in seven parts from September 6 to September 13. These lectures were also authored by David North.

Trotsky and the Permanent Revolution

In late 1904, on the eve of the revolutionary upheavals of the approaching new year, the 25-year-old Leon Trotsky outlined a strikingly original analysis of the socio-economic and political dynamic of the anti-tsarist struggle in Russia. He rejected any formalistic approach to the elaboration of Russian perspectives. The democratic revolution in the Russia of the early twentieth century could not simply repeat the forms taken by the anti-autocratic revolutions 50, let alone 100 years earlier. First of all, the development of capitalism on a European and world scale was on an incomparably higher level than in the earlier historical periods. Even Russian capitalism, though economically backward relative to the most advanced European states, possessed a capitalist industry infinitely more developed than that which had existed in the mid-nineteenth, let alone the late eighteenth century.

The development of Russian industry, financed by French, English and German capital, and highly concentrated in several strategic industries and key cities, had produced a working class that, though constituting a small percentage of the national population, occupied an immense role in its economic life. Moreover, since the mid-1890s, the Russian workers’ movement had assumed a highly militant character, attained a high level of class consciousness, and played a far more prominent and consistent role in the struggle against the tsarist autocracy.

The objection raised by Trotsky to not only the two-stage revolution perspective of Plekhanov but also the democratic dictatorship hypothesized by Lenin was that both concepts imposed upon the working class a self-limiting ordinance that would prove, in the course of the actual development of the revolution, entirely unrealistic. The assumption that there existed a Chinese wall between the democratic and socialist stages of the revolution, and that the working class, once it had overthrown the tsar, would then proceed to confine its social struggles to that which was acceptable within the framework of the capitalist system, was highly dubious. As the working class sought to defend and extend the gains of the democratic revolution, and fought to realize its own social interests, it would inevitably come into conflict with the economic interests of the employers and the capitalist system as a whole. In such a situation—i.e., a bitter strike by workers against a reactionary and recalcitrant employer—what attitude would be taken by the working class deputies or ministers holding responsible posts within a “democratic dictatorship”? Would they side with the employers, tell the workers that their demands exceeded what was permissible within the framework of capitalism, and instruct them to bring their struggle to a conclusion?

The position taken by Plekhanov and (in the aftermath of the 1903 split in the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party—RSDLP) the Mensheviks was that socialists would avoid this political dilemma by refusing to participate in a post-tsarist bourgeois government. The demands of their two-stage perspective required, as a matter of principle, political abstention.

This meant, in effect, that all political power was being ceded, as a matter of historical and political necessity, to the bourgeoisie. Aside from the schematic and formalistic character of this argument, it actually ignored the political reality that the policy that arose from the two-stage perspective would in all likelihood lead to the shipwreck of the democratic revolution itself. Given the cowardly character of the Russian bourgeoisie, its morbid fear of the working class, its two-faced and essentially capitulatory attitude toward the tsarist autocracy, there was no reason to believe, Trotsky argued, that the Russian liberal bourgeoisie would behave any less treacherously when confronted with revolution than the German bourgeoisie in 1848-1849.

As for the formulation employed by Lenin, it envisaged a revolutionary dictatorship in which the socialists wielded power alongside the representatives of the peasantry. But it failed to indicate which class would predominate in this governmental arrangement, or how it would negotiate the inner tension between the socialistic strivings of the working class and the bourgeois-capitalist limitations of the democratic dictatorship. Trotsky insisted that no way could be found out of this dilemma on the basis of capitalism or within the framework of the democratic dictatorship advanced by Lenin.

The only viable political program for the working class was one that accepted that the social and political dynamic of the Russian revolution led inexorably to the conquest of power by the working class. The democratic revolution in Russia (and, more generally, in countries with a belated bourgeois development) could only be completed, defended and consolidated through the assumption of state power by the working class, with the support of the peasantry. In such a situation, severe encroachments on bourgeois property would be inevitable. The democratic revolution would assume an increasingly socialistic character.

It is difficult to appreciate, especially 100 years later, the impact of Trotsky’s argument upon Russian and, more broadly, European socialists. To argue that the working class in backward Russia should strive to conquer political power, that the coming revolution would assume a socialistic character, seemed to fly in the face of every assumption held by Marxists about the objective economic prerequisites for socialism. Economically advanced Britain was ripe for socialism (although its working class was among the most conservative in Europe). Perhaps France and Germany. But backward Russia? Impossible! Madness!

Trotsky’s anticipation of a proletarian socialist revolution in Russia was certainly an intellectual tour de force. But even more extraordinary was the theoretical insight that enabled Trotsky to refute what had been universally accepted as the unanswerable objection to the conquest of power by the working class and the development of the revolution along socialistic, rather than simply bourgeois-democratic lines—that is, the absence of the economic prerequisites within Russia for socialism.

This objection could not be answered if the prospects for socialism in Russia were considered within the framework of the national development of that country. It could not be denied that the national development of the Russian economy had not attained a level necessary for the development of socialism. But what if Russia was analyzed not simply as a national entity, but as an integral part of world economy? Indeed, inasmuch as the expansion of Russian capitalism was bound up with the inflow of international capital, the Russian developments could be understood only as the expression of a complex and unified world process.

As the Russian Revolution unfolded in 1905, Trotsky argued that “capitalism has converted the whole world into a single economic and political organism.... This immediately gives the events now unfolding an international character, and opens up a wide horizon. The political emancipation of Russia led by the working class will raise that class to a height as yet unknown in history, which will transfer to it colossal power and resources, and make it the initiator of the liquidation of world capitalism, for which history has created all the objective conditions.”[18]

Permit me to quote from an assessment that I made several years ago of Trotsky’s analysis of the driving forces of Russian and international revolutionary processes:

“Trotsky’s approach represented an astonishing theoretical breakthrough. As Einstein’s relativity theory—another gift of 1905 to mankind—fundamentally and irrevocably altered the conceptual framework within which man viewed the universe and provided a means of tackling problems for which no answers could be found within the straitjacket of classical Newtonian physics, Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution fundamentally shifted the analytical perspective from which revolutionary processes were viewed. Prior to 1905, the development of revolutions was seen as a progression of national events, whose outcome was determined by the logic of the nation’s internal socio-economic structure and relations. Trotsky proposed another approach: to understand revolution, in the modern epoch, as essentially a world-historic process of social transition from class society, rooted politically in nation-states, to a classless society developing on the basis of a globally integrated economy and internationally unified mankind.

“I do not believe that the analogy to Einstein is far-fetched. From an intellectual standpoint, the problems facing revolutionary theorists at the turn of the twentieth century were similar to those confronting physicists. Experimental data was accumulating throughout Europe that could not be reconciled with the established formulae of Newtonian classical physics. Matter, at least at the level of sub-atomic particles, was refusing to behave as Mr. Newton had said it should. Einstein’s relativity theory provided the new conceptual framework for understanding the material universe.

“In a similar sense, the socialist movement was being confronted with a flood of socio-economic and political data that could not be adequately processed within the existing theoretical framework. The sheer complexity of the modern world economy defied simplistic definitions. The impact of world economic development manifested itself, to a heretofore unprecedented extent, in the contours of each national economy. Within even backward economies there could be found—as a result of international foreign investment—certain highly advanced features. There existed feudalist or semi-feudalist regimes, whose political structures were encrusted with the remnants of the Middle Ages, that presided over a capitalist economy in which heavy industry played a major role. Nor was it unusual to find in countries with a belated capitalist development a bourgeoisie that showed less interest in the success of ‘its’ democratic revolution than the indigenous working class. Such anomalies could not be reconciled with formal strategical precepts whose calculations assumed the existence of social phenomena less riven by internal contradictions.

“Trotsky’s great achievement consisted in elaborating a new theoretical structure that was equal to the new social, economic and political complexities. There was nothing utopian in Trotsky’s approach. It represented, rather, a profound insight into the impact of world economy on social and political life. A realistic approach to politics and the elaboration of effective revolutionary strategy was possible only to the extent that socialist parties took as their objective starting point the predominance of the international over the national. This did not simply mean the promotion of international proletarian solidarity. Without understanding its essential objective foundation in world economy, and without making the objective reality of world economy the basis of strategical thought, proletarian internationalism would remain a utopian ideal, essentially unrelated to the program and practice of nationally based socialist parties.

“Proceeding from the reality of world capitalism, and recognizing the objective dependence of Russian events on the international economic and political environment, Trotsky foresaw the inevitability of a socialist development of Russia’s revolution. The Russian working class would be compelled to take power and adopt, to one extent or another, measures of a socialist character. Yet, in proceeding along socialist lines, the working class in Russia would inevitably come up against the limitations of the national environment. How would it find a way out of its dilemma? By linking its fate to the European and world revolution of which its own struggle was, in the final analysis, a manifestation.

“This was the insight of a man who, like Einstein, had just reached his 26th birthday. Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution made possible a realistic conception of world revolution. The age of national revolutions had come to an end—or, to put it more precisely, national revolutions could be understood only within the framework of the international socialist revolution.”[19]

Let me sum up Trotsky’s perspective of Permanent Revolution: Whether the economic prerequisites existed for socialism in Russia or any other country, he argued, depended ultimately not upon its own national level of economic development, but, rather, on the general level attained by the growth of the productive forces and the depth of capitalist contradictions on a world scale. In countries such as Russia, with a belated capitalist development, where the bourgeoisie was unable and unwilling to carry through its own democratic revolution, the working class would be compelled to come forward as the revolutionary force, rally behind it the peasantry and all other progressive elements within society, take power into its own hands and establish its revolutionary dictatorship, and proceed, as conditions might require, to encroach upon bourgeois property and embark upon tasks of a socialist character. Thus, the democratic revolution would grow into a socialist revolution, and in this way acquire the character of a “Revolution in Permanence,” breaking down and overcoming all obstacles that stood in the way of the liberation of the working class. However, lacking within the national framework the economic resources necessary for socialism, the working class would be obliged to seek support for its revolution on an international scale.

But this reliance would not be based on utopian hopes. Rather, the unfolding revolution, though it began on a national basis, would reverberate internationally, escalating international class tensions and contributing to the radicalization of workers throughout the world. Thus, Trotsky maintained:

“The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable.... The socialist revolution begins on a national arena, it unfolds on an international arena, and is completed on the world arena. Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word: it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.”[20]

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution, which argued that the democratic revolution could be carried through only on the basis of the conquest of political power by the working class, supported by the peasantry, overthrew the most basic assumptions of Russian Social Democracy. Even in 1905, as the revolution unfolded with an energy that astonished all Europe, the Menshevik faction of the RSDLP derided Trotsky’s perspective as a dangerous, adventurist exaggeration of the political alternatives open to the working class. The Menshevik position was summed up in a pamphlet by Martynov:

“Which form might this struggle for revolutionary hegemony between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat take? We should not fool ourselves. The coming Russian revolution shall be a bourgeois revolution: this means that whatever its vicissitudes, even if the proletariat were momentarily to find itself in power, in the final analysis it will secure to greater or smaller extent the rule of all or some of the bourgeois classes, and even if it were most successful, even if it replaced tsarist autocracy with the democratic republic, even in that case it would secure the complete political rule of the bourgeoisie. The proletariat can get neither complete nor assume partial political power in the state until it makes the socialist revolution. This is the undisputed postulate which separates us from the opportunism of the Jauresists. But if that is so, then the coming revolution cannot realize any political forms against the will of the whole bourgeoisie, since it is this last which is destined to rule tomorrow. If that is so, then by simply frightening the majority of the bourgeois elements the revolutionary proletarian struggle could lead to only one result—to the re-establishment of absolutism in its initial form. The proletariat will not, of course, hold back in light of this possible result, it will not refrain from frightening the bourgeoisie at the very worst, if the matter is leading decisively to a situation where a feigned constitutional compromise would revive and strengthen the decaying autocracy. But when coming into struggle, the proletariat does not, of course, have in mind such an unfortunate outcome.”

Martynov’s pamphlet expressed with almost embarrassing frankness the political psychology of the Mensheviks—which not only insisted on the bourgeois character of the revolution, but which also considered a misfortune the prospect of an open clash with the bourgeoisie. Such a clash was to be regretted because it pressed against the inviolable bourgeois limits of the revolution. In opposition to Trotsky, the Mensheviks insisted that the Russian Social-Democratic movement “has no right to become tempted by the illusion of power....”

It is not possible within the framework of this lecture to review the extended controversy—spanning more than a decade—provoked by Trotsky’s perspective. I will confine myself to only the most critical points. The Mensheviks categorically rejected the possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia, and the Bolsheviks, while rejecting any form of political adaptation to the liberal bourgeoisie, insisted as well on the objectively bourgeois character of the revolution.

What, then, accounted for the shift in the political line of the Bolsheviks that made possible the conquest of power in 1917? I believe that the answer to this question must be found in the impact of the outbreak of World War I on Lenin’s appraisal of the dynamic of the Russian Revolution. His recognition that the war represented a turning point in the development and crisis of capitalism as a world system compelled Lenin to reconsider his perspective of the democratic dictatorship in Russia. The involvement of Russia in the imperialist war expressed the dominance of international over national conditions. The Russian bourgeoisie, inextricably implicated in the reactionary network of imperialist economic and political relations, was organically hostile to democracy. The carrying through of the unresolved democratic tasks confronting Russia fell upon the working class, which would mobilize behind it the peasantry. And even though there did not exist within an isolated Russia the economic prerequisites for socialism, the crisis of European capitalism—the existence of a maturing revolutionary crisis of which the war itself was a distorted and reactionary expression—would create an international political environment that would make possible the linking up of the Russian and European-wide revolution.

The revolutionary upheavals in Russia would provide a massive impulse for the eruption of world socialist revolution. Upon returning to Russia in April 1917, Lenin carried through a political struggle to reorient the Bolshevik Party on the basis of an internationalist political perspective that was based, in all essentials, upon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution. This shift laid the political basis for the alliance of Lenin and Trotsky, and for the victory of the October 1917 Revolution.

Despite Mr. Popper’s objection that it is impossible to predict the future, the events of 1905, 1917 and subsequent revolutions throughout the twentieth century tended stubbornly to unfold very much as Trotsky had said they would. In countries with a belated bourgeois development, the national capitalist class would prove time again that it was incapable of carrying through its own democratic revolution. The working class would be confronted with the task of conquering state power, accepting responsibility for the completion of the democratic revolution, and, in so doing, it would attack the foundations of capitalist society and initiate the socialist transformation of the economy. Again and again, in one or another country—in Russia in 1917, in Spain in 1936-1937, in China, Indochina and India in the 1940s, in Indonesia in the 1960s, in Chile and throughout Latin America in the 1970s, in Iran in 1979, and in innumerable Middle Eastern and Africa countries during the protracted post-colonial era—the fate of the working class depended on the extent to which it recognized and acted in accordance with the logic of socio-economic and political developments as analyzed by Trotsky early in the twentieth century. Tragically, in most cases, this analysis was opposed by the bureaucracies that dominated the working class in these countries. The result was not only the defeat of socialism, but the failure of the democratic revolution itself.

But these experiences, however tragic, testify to the extraordinary prescience of Trotsky’s analysis, its enduring relevance, and, finally, to the critical life-and-death importance of Marxism as the science of revolutionary perspective.


[18] Permanent Revolution (London: New Park, 1971), p. 240.
[19] “Toward a Reconsideration of Trotsky’s Legacy and His Place in the History of the 20th Century,” World Socialist Web Site, June 29, 2001, http://www.wsws.org/articles/2001/jun2001/dn-j29.shtml
[20] Permanent Revolution, p. 155.

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