Socialist Equality Party (United States)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (United States)

The Theory of Permanent Revolution

The split at the 1903 Congress anticipated social upheaval in Russia. The Russian Revolution of 1905 raised crucial problems of strategy for Russian Social Democracy. Despite the defeat of the revolution, the events of 1905 demonstrated the immense social power of the working class, which played the leading role in the struggle against the tsarist regime. Prior to 1905, revolutions were seen as national events, the outcomes of which were determined by the logic of their internal socio-economic structures and relations. Marxist theoreticians had assumed that the socialist revolution would begin in the most advanced European capitalist countries (Britain, Germany and France), and that the less developed countries (such as Russia), would have to pass through an extended stage of capitalist economic and bourgeois-democratic political development before they were “ripe” for a proletarian socialist revolution. In the latter countries, it was generally maintained that Marxist parties would be obligated to limit the revolutionary struggle to the establishment of a democratic republic under the political leadership of the national bourgeoisie. This traditional perspective guided the work of the Russian Mensheviks, following the political strategy developed by Plekhanov. In the 1905 revolution, however, the bourgeoisie proved unwilling to carry through the democratic revolution against the Tsar, and instead sided with the Tsar against the working class.

Lenin, in opposition to the Mensheviks, argued that because of the political weakness of the bourgeoisie, the revolution would be led by the working class in alliance with the peasantry. This alliance would establish a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” This formulation expressed Lenin’s determination to impart to the democratic revolution the most radical character possible (i.e., the uncompromising destruction of all remnants of feudal relations in the countryside and the resolute destruction of autocratic rule). But it did not define in socialist terms either the revolution or the state that was to issue from it. The democratic dictatorship did not necessitate an encroachment on bourgeois capitalist property. Moreover, it remained ambiguous on the distribution of power between the proletariat and peasantry.

Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution presented a bolder solution to the problem of the democratic revolution in Russia. His conception was without the ambiguity, relating to the class nature of the state power that would issue from the overthrow of tsarism, which characterized Lenin’s formulation. Trotsky predicted that the revolution would not be limited to democratic tasks, that it would assume a socialist character, and that the working class would take state power and establish its dictatorship. The nature, tasks and outcome of the Russian revolution, Trotsky insisted, would be determined by international rather than national conditions. Though the immediate tasks that confronted the Russian masses were of a bourgeois-democratic character—the overthrow of the tsarist autocracy and the liquidation of the remnants of feudal relations in the countryside—they could not be realized either under the political leadership of the national bourgeoisie or within the framework of a bourgeois-democratic republic. The changes in world economy and the emergence of the working class as a powerful social force meant that the democratic revolution in the 20th century would develop very differently than in the 19th. The Russian bourgeoisie, having been integrated into the world capitalist system, was weak and dependent upon imperialism. The democratic tasks could be realized only through a revolution led by the working class with the support of the peasant masses. Having taken power, however, the working class could not limit itself to democratic tasks and would be compelled to carry out measures of a socialist character. Moreover, the social revolution in Russia could not maintain itself within a national framework. Its survival depended upon the extension of the revolution into the advanced capitalist countries and, ultimately, throughout the world.

Trotsky wrote in June 1905:

Binding all countries together with its mode of production and its 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 make it the initiator of the liquidation of world capitalism, for which history has created all the objective conditions.[1]


Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution (London: New Park, 1971), p. 239-40