1. A Brief Recapitulation of the Three Aspects of Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution

Let us at the start briefly recapitulate the three central aspects of the theory of permanent revolution. The first aspect – and the issue around which the faction struggle between the Stalinist bureaucracy and Trotsky’s Left Opposition started in 1923 – is the need for the internationalization of the revolution. The Stalinists claimed that socialism – i.e., a society where productive forces are so developed that classes and the state are withering away – can be built in a single nation state. Trotsky, referring to the traditional position of both Lenin as well as himself, stated that this is impossible. Both Lenin and Trotsky explained that since all national economies are inextricably linked with the world economy and since imperialist great powers can not tolerate a victorious revolution in a single country, the working class in power must see the international spread of the revolution as its most important strategic task.

The completion of the socialist revolution within national limits is unthinkable. One of the basic reasons for the crisis in bourgeois society is the fact that the productive forces created by it can no longer be reconciled with the framework of the national state. From this follows on the one hand, imperialist wars, on the other, the utopia of a bourgeois United States of Europe. The socialist revolution begins on the national arena, it unfolds on the 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.” [1]

Secondly, Trotsky showed that the tasks in the proletarian liberation struggle – including the democratic tasks – cannot be implemented under any form of capitalist regime but only under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is particularly relevant (but not exclusively!) for backward countries where many democratic tasks – national independence, agrarian revolution, and democratic freedoms – remain unfulfilled. From this follows that the revolutionary class struggle must not strive for actualization in separate stages of revolution and must not be subordinated to any faction of the bourgeoisie, but rather must continue without interruption until the proletariat has conquered power and established its dictatorship.

No matter what the first episodic stages of the revolution may be in the individual countries, the realization of the revolutionary alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry is conceivable only under the political leadership of the proletariat vanguard, organized in the Communist Party. This in turn means that the victory of the democratic revolution is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat which bases itself upon the alliance with the peasantry and solves first of all the tasks of the democratic revolution. (…) The dictatorship of the proletariat which has risen to power as the leader of the democratic revolution is inevitably and, very quickly confronted with tasks, the fulfillment of which is bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property. The democratic revolution grows over directly into the socialist revolution and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.[2]

Finally, Trotsky stressed that the revolutionary struggle does not end with the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Quite the contrary, the working class must continuously drive the revolutionary process forward. It has to organize the class struggle – including the civil war and revolutionary wars – both internally against its domestic enemies as well as abroad against the imperialist powers.

The conquest of power by the proletariat does not complete the revolution, but only opens it. Socialist construction is conceivable only on the foundation of the class struggle, on a national and international scale. This struggle, under the conditions of an overwhelming predominance of capitalist relationships on the world arena, must inevitably lead to explosions, that is, internally to civil wars and externally to revolutionary wars. Therein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.” [3]

So from this brief summary we already see that the theory of permanent revolution applies not only to backward countries but also to advanced capitalist societies. Trotsky stressed that irrespective of the differences in the tempo and the concrete tasks all countries – backward and advanced capitalist states – had to combine the immediate tasks with the goal of socialist revolution.

Then wherein lies the distinction between the advanced and the backward countries? The distinction is great, but it still remains within the limits of the domination of capitalist relationships. The forms and methods of the rule of the bourgeoisie differ greatly in different countries. At one pole, the domination bears a stark and absolute character: The United States. At the other pole finance capital adapts itself to the outlived institutions of Asiatic mediaevalism by subjecting them to itself and imposing its own methods upon them: India. But the bourgeoisie rules in both places. From this it follows that the dictatorship of the proletariat also will have a highly varied character in terms of the social basis, the political forms, the immediate tasks and the tempo of work in the various capitalist countries. But to lead the masses of the people to victory over the bloc of the imperialists, the feudalists and the national bourgeoisie – this can be done only under the revolutionary hegemony of the proletariat, which transforms itself after the seizure of power into the dictatorship of the proletariat.[4]

Likewise Trotsky explained that the need to internationalize the revolution instead of mistakenly trying to build socialism in a single country is true for modern imperialist countries as much as it is for backward ones.

It is precisely here that we come up against the two mutually exclusive standpoints: the international revolutionary theory of the permanent revolution and the national-reformist theory of socialism in one country. Not only backward China, but in general no country in the world can build socialism within its own national limits: the ‘highly-developed productive forces which have grown beyond national boundaries resist this, just as do those forces which are insufficiently developed for nationalization. The dictatorship of the proletariat in Britain, for example, will encounter difficulties and contradictions, different in character, it is true, but perhaps not slighter than those that will confront the dictatorship of the proletariat in China. Surmounting these contradictions is possible in both cases only by way of the international revolution.[5]

However, in this chapter we will not discuss these two aspects of permanent revolution in more detail. Rather we will focus below on the specifics of the democratic task as part of the program of permanent revolution in the imperialist countries. We take this approach first because we are convinced of the importance of these specifics for the revolutionary class struggle in the imperialist metropolises of the 21st century. Secondly we believe that this is needed because apart from a few isolated remarks this aspect has not been elaborated by Trotsky.

[1] Leon Trotsky: The Permanent Revolution (1929), Pathfinder Press, New York 1969, p. 297

[2] Leon Trotsky: The Permanent Revolution (1929), p. 277

[3] Leon Trotsky: The Permanent Revolution (1929), p. 297

[4] Leon Trotsky: The Permanent Revolution (1929), p. 253

[5] Leon Trotsky: The Permanent Revolution (1929), p. 255