Socialist Equality Party (UK)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Britain)

The theory of permanent revolution and October 1917

14. The guiding perspective of the Russian Revolution in October 1917 was Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution. Trotsky drew on the lessons of the defeat of the 1905 Russian Revolution, in which the working class had played the leading role against Tsarism. Hitherto, the parties of the Second International had viewed revolutions as national events, with their outcome determined by internal socio-economic factors. They assumed that the socialist revolution would begin in the most advanced European countries, whereas those less developed, such as Russia, would necessarily pass through an extended period of capitalist economic and bourgeois-democratic political development prior to the socialist revolution. The task of Marxist parties, therefore, would be to support and encourage a revolutionary struggle for the establishment of a democratic republic, led by the national bourgeoisie.

15. The 1905 revolution demonstrated the inability of the bourgeoisie to fulfil such a role. It had been integrated within, and was essentially subservient to, a global economic order dominated by the major powers. It was constrained by its hostility to the proletariat, which had emerged as the most dynamic class within Russian society due to the penetration of capital into the major cities. In opposition to the Mensheviks, Lenin and the Bolsheviks argued that the political weakness of the bourgeoisie meant that the revolution would be led by the working class, in alliance with the rural masses, and would establish a “democratic dictatorship of the working class and peasantry”. Lenin’s formulation imparted to the democratic revolution a radical character, implying the destruction of all remnants of feudal relations and an end to autocratic rule. But it did not define concretely the social character of either the revolution or the state it would create.

16. Trotsky’s own appraisal of the nature and tasks of the revolutionary movement marked his emergence as the foremost strategist, not merely of the Russian, but of the world socialist revolution. He insisted that the character of the revolution in Russia would be determined by international rather than national conditions. The immediate tasks that confronted the Russian masses were of a bourgeois-democratic character, but they could not be realised under the leadership of the national bourgeoisie, or within a bourgeois republic. Having taken power, the working class would be forced to carry out measures of a socialist character. To those who argued that socialist goals could not be realised within economically backward Russia, he countered that they would be made possible by the extension of the revolution onto the European and, ultimately, world arena:

“Binding all countries together with its mode of production and commerce, 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, will transfer to it colossal power and resources, and will make it the initiator of the liquidation of world capitalism, for which history has created all the objective conditions.”[1]

17. The outbreak of the First World War in August 1914 confirmed this appraisal. The war was the result of the eruption of the insuperable contradiction at the heart of the capitalist system—between the nation state and world economy. The historic betrayal of the working class by the parties of the Second International in supporting the war established the full significance of Lenin’s struggle against opportunism within the Russian Social Democratic movement. The collapse of the Second International into social chauvinism and defencism could not be explained by reference to the failings of individual leaders. Rather, the same processes that had given rise to war, had also led to the corruption of the upper stratum within the workers’ movement. The ability of the imperialist powers to plunder resources from the colonies had created the material foundations for the growth of a labour aristocracy, which provided the social basis for opportunism. This found its ultimate expression in an open abandonment of proletarian internationalism and the alliance of the social democratic leaders with their “own” bourgeoisie. As Trotsky later explained:

“On August 4, 1914, the death knell sounded for national programs for all time. The revolutionary party of the proletariat can base itself only upon an international program corresponding to the character of the present epoch, the epoch of the highest development and collapse of capitalism. An international communist program is in no case the sum total of national programs or an amalgam of their common features. The international program must proceed directly from an analysis of the conditions and tendencies of world economy and of the world political system taken as a whole in all its connections and contradictions, that is, with the mutually antagonistic interdependence of its separate parts.”[2]

18. Following the overthrow of the Tsar in February 1917, Lenin returned to Russia from exile and issued his April Theses, which repudiated in practice the previous Bolshevik programme of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. In calling for the working class to oppose the bourgeois provisional government and take power through Soviets, or workers’ councils, Lenin adopted, in all essentials, Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution. This met with bitter opposition from many “Old Bolsheviks”, including Joseph Stalin, Gregory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev who, like the Mensheviks, were advocating critical support for the provisional government and—in Stalin’s case—also for the war effort.

19. On October 25th 1917, the working class took power in Russia. For Lenin and Trotsky the revolution was to be the start of a world revolutionary transformation, in which the victory of the working class in Europe—most particularly in Germany—would provide the necessary economic and technological resources for the development of socialism. The establishment of Soviet power over one-sixth of the world’s surface provided a powerful impulse to revolutionary struggles in a number of countries, and in 1919 the Third (Communist) International was founded.

20. The Russian revolution would not have survived without widespread working class opposition—including in Britain, with the “Hands off Russia” movement—to the intervention of the imperialist armies against it. But nowhere outside of Russia had parties of the Bolshevik type been constructed in advance of these events. In their absence, the social democratic parties were able to strangle the revolutionary struggles that erupted in Germany and elsewhere. The resulting isolation of the Soviet Union led to the degeneration of the state and party apparatus. With an economy ruined by civil war, the Bolsheviks were forced to implement the New Economic Policy and make significant concessions to capitalist strata in the towns and countryside. As a result, conservative social forces were strengthened in the country, finding expression in an expanding state and party bureaucracy that presided over generalised scarcity and want. The defeat of the 1923 revolution in Germany provided the immediate impulse for the coalescence of these conservative moods into a political campaign against Trotsky as the most consistent representative of the party’s revolutionary wing.


Leon Trotsky (1975) The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, New Park Publications, pp. 239-240.


Leon Trotsky (1972) Third International After Lenin, Pathfinder Press, pp. 3-4.