3. Lenin and Trotsky on the Permanent Revolution in the Imperialist Countries


Contrary to the view of many so-called Marxists, Lenin and Trotsky considered the democratic questions as highly relevant not only for the backward capitalist countries but also for the advanced countries.

First let us recall Lenin’s general statement about the importance of the class struggle for democratic rights as part of the struggle for the socialist revolution. In a polemic against those whom he called “imperialist economists” – i.e., economists in the epoch of imperialism who ignore the importance of the political struggle, including the struggle for democracy – he stressed that the democratic questions are an inseparable part of the revolutionary class struggle.

This leaves only one single argument [for the ‘imperialist economists’, Ed.]: the socialist revolution will solve everything. Or, the argument sometimes advanced by people who share his views: self-determination is impossible under capitalism and superfluous under socialism. From the theoretical standpoint that view is nonsensical; from the practical political standpoint it is chauvinistic. It fails to appreciate the significance of democracy. For socialism is impossible without democracy because: (1) the proletariat cannot perform the socialist revolution unless it prepares for it by the struggle for democracy; (2) victorious socialism cannot consolidate its victory and bring humanity to the withering away of the state without implementing full democracy.[1]

In the same spirit Trotsky stated, in a polemic against the Bordegists – an ultra-left current based in Italy – who denied the importance of the struggle for democracy both in their motherland Italy as well as everywhere else:

These doctrinaires [the ultra-left Bordegists, Ed.] refuse to understand that we carry on half, three-quarters or, in certain periods, even 99 percent of the preparations of the [proletarian, Ed.] dictatorship on the basis of democracy, and in doing this we defend every inch of democratic positions under our feet[2]

From the beginning Lenin insisted that socialists have to fight against all violations of democratic rights – not only in colonial or backward countries but also in advanced capitalist societies of the time like Germany. In What Is To Be Done? Lenin wrote:

Why is there not a single political event in Germany that does not add to the authority and prestige of Social-Democracy? Because Social-Democracy [as the revolutionary Marxists were called at that time, Ed.] is always found to be in advance of all others in furnishing the most revolutionary appraisal of every given event and in championing every protest against tyranny. It does not lull itself with arguments that the economic struggle brings the workers to realise that they have no political rights and that the concrete conditions unavoidably impel the working-class movement on to the path of revolution. It intervenes in every sphere and in every question of social and political life; in the matter of Wilhelm’s refusal to endorse a bourgeois progressist as city mayor (our Economists have not yet managed to educate the Germans to the understanding that such an act is, in fact, a compromise with liberalism!); in the matter of the law against “obscene” publications and pictures; in the matter of governmental influence on the election of professors, etc., etc. Everywhere the Social-Democrats are found in the forefront, rousing political discontent among all classes, rousing the sluggards, stimulating the laggards, and providing a wealth of material for the development of the political consciousness and the political activity of the proletariat.[3]

This approach became particularly relevant in the epoch of imperialism. Lenin explained that by its nature monopoly capital strives towards the violation of democracy – both at home as well as abroad.

The political superstructure of this new economy, of monopoly capitalism (imperialism is monopoly capitalism), is the change from democracy to political reaction. Democracy corresponds to free competition. Political reaction corresponds to monopoly. “Finance capital strives for domination, not freedom,” Rudolf Hilferding rightly remarks in his Finance Capital. It is fundamentally wrong, un-Marxist and unscientific, to single out “foreign policy” from policy in general, let alone counterpose foreign policy to home policy. Both in foreign and home policy imperialism strives towards violations of democracy, towards reaction. In this sense imperialism is indisputably the “negation” of democracy in general, of all democracy, and not just of one of its demands, national self-determination. [4]

Therefore Lenin considered it as particularly important that the working class in the imperialist countries learns to oppose the anti-democratic policy of “its” ruling class by consistently fighting for the rights of the oppressed – even if they are “only” small nations.

The important thing is not whether one-fiftieth or one-hundredth of the small nations are liberated before the socialist revolution, but the fact that in the epoch of imperialism, owing to objective causes, the proletariat has been split into two international camps, one of which has been corrupted by the crumbs that fall from the table of the dominant-nation bourgeoisie—obtained, among other things, from the double or triple exploitation of small nations—while the other cannot liberate itself without liberating the small nations, without educating the masses in an anti-chauvinist, i.e., anti-annexationist, i.e., “selfdeterminationist”, spirit.[5]

Against the argument of the economists that the struggle for democratic rights could distract the workers from their “real” goals, Lenin counterposed that this violates completely the principles of Marxism.

The idea that the slogan of socialist revolution can be “overshadowed” by linking it up with a consistently revolutionary position on all questions, including the national question, is certainly profoundly anti-Marxist. [6]

This is particularly true since the struggle for socialist revolution is not a one-time event but a long process of which the struggle for democratic rights is an inseparable part.

The socialist revolution is not a single act, it is not one battle on one front, but a whole epoch of acute class conflicts, a long series of battles on all fronts, i.e., on all questions of economics and politics, battles that can only end in the expropriation of the bourgeoisie. It would be a radical mistake to think that the struggle for democracy was capable of diverting the proletariat from the socialist revolution or of hiding, overshadowing it, etc. On the contrary, in the same way as there can be no victorious socialism that does not practise full democracy, so the proletariat cannot prepare for its victory over the bourgeoisie without an all-round, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy. [7]

The crucial point is not to put forth the democratic question in a reformist way, not as an isolated appeal to the ruling class, but in a revolutionary way, i.e., as a slogan to mobilize the working class and the popular masses and which Marxists link to the revolutionary program.

The demand for the immediate liberation of the colonies that is put forward by all revolutionary Social-Democrats is also “impracticable” under capitalism without a series of revolutions. But from this it does not by any means follow that Social-Democracy should reject the immediate and most determined struggle for all these demands—such a rejection would only play into the hands of the bourgeoisie and reaction —but, on the contrary, it follows that these demands must be formulated and put through in a revolutionary and not a reformist manner, going beyond the bounds of bourgeois legality, breaking them down, going beyond speeches in parliament and verbal protests, and drawing the masses into decisive action, extending and intensifying the struggle for every fundamental democratic demand up to a direct proletarian onslaught on the bourgeoisie, i.e., up to the socialist revolution that expropriates the bourgeoisie. The socialist revolution may flare up not only through some big strike, street demonstration or hunger riot or a military insurrection or colonial revolt, but also as a result of a political crisis such as the Dreyfus case or the Zabern incident, or in connection with a referendum on the secession of an oppressed nation, etc. [8]

Later the Stalinists, in their ultra-left centrist phase in the late 1920s and early 1930s, also tended to ignore the importance of the democratic questions. This was the case not only for semi-colonial countries like in China after the defeat of the 1925–27 revolution but also for imperialist countries like Germany, Spain, or Italy. Trotsky strongly polemicized against this revisionism. He stressed that revolutionaries have to gather up every, even minor, democratic demands of the popular masses. They should energetically support such struggles and explain to the masses that the final implementation of authentic democracy is only possible through a socialist revolution and the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Stalinists (and their miserable imitators, the Brandlerites), declared democratic slogans under prohibition for all the countries of the world: for India, which did not as yet accomplish its liberating national revolution; for Spain, where the proletarian vanguard must yet find the ways for transforming the creeping bourgeois revolution into a socialist one; for Germany, where the crushed and atomized proletariat is deprived of all that it achieved during the last century; for Belgium, the proletariat of which does not take its eyes off its Eastern borders and, suppressing a deep mistrust, supports the party of democratic “pacifism” (Vandervelde & Co.). The Stalinists deduce the bare renunciation of democratic slogans in a purely abstract way from the general characteristic of our epoch, as an epoch of imperialism and of socialist revolution.

Thus presented, the question contains not even a grain of dialectics! Democratic slogans and illusions cannot be abolished by decree. It is necessary that the masses go through them and outlive them in the experience of battles. The task of the proletariat consists in coupling its locomotive to the train of the masses. It is necessary to find the dynamic elements in the present defensive position of the working class; we must make the masses draw conclusions from their own democratic logic, we must widen and deepen the channels of the struggle. And on this road, quantity passes over into quality. [9]

Taking into account that the workers and popular masses still retain numerous illusions in bourgeois democracy and their political parties (like social democracy), Trotsky advocated combining the raising of democratic demands with the application of the tactics of the united front. This means that he urged revolutionaries to strive for joint actions with the reformist-minded workers and oppressed in order to jointly fight for such democratic demands. Such a policy has to include putting demands on the reformist leadership which the masses still trust.

Let us recall once more that in 1917, when the Bolsheviks were immeasurably stronger than any one of the present sections of the Comintern, they continued to demand the earliest convocation of the Constituent Assembly, the lowering of the voting age, the right of suffrage for soldiers, the election of officers, etc., etc. The main slogan o£ the Bolsheviks, “All Power to the Soviets,” meant from the beginning of April up to September, 1917, all power to the Social-Democracy (Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionists). When the reformists entered into a governmental coalition with the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks put forth the slogan, “Down with the Capitalist Ministers.” This signified again, Workers, force the Mensheviks and the Social-Revolutionists to take the whole power into their hands! The political experience of the only successful proletarian revolution is perverted and falsified by the Stalinists beyond recognition. Our task, here also, consists in reestablishing the facts and drawing from them the necessary conclusions for the present.

We, Bolsheviks, consider that the real salvation from fascism and war lies in the revolutionary conquest of power and the establishing of the proletarian dictatorship. You, socialist workers, do not agree to this road. You hope not only to save what has been gained, but also to move forward along the road of democracy. Good! As long as we have not convinced you and attracted you to our side, we are ready to follow this road with you to the end. But we demand that you carry on the struggle for democracy, not in words but in deeds. Everybody admits – each in his own way – that in the present conditions a “strong government” is necessary. Well, then, make your party open up a real struggle for a strong democratic government. For this is it necessary first of all to sweep away all the remnants of the feudal state. It is necessary to give the suffrage to all men and women who have reached their eighteenth birthday, also to the soldiers in the army. Full concentration of legislative and executive power in the hands of one chamber! Let your party open up a serious campaign under these slogans, let it arouse millions of workers, let it conquer power through the drive of the masses. This, at any rate, would be a serious attempt of struggle against fascism and war. We, Bolsheviks, would retain the right to explain to the workers the insufficiency of democratic slogans; we could not take upon ourselves the political responsibility for the social-democratic government; but we would honestly help you in the struggle for such a government; together with you we would repel all attacks of bourgeois reaction. More than that, we would bind ourselves before you not to undertake any revolutionary actions which go beyond the limits of democracy (real democracy) so long as the majority of the workers has not consciously placed itself on the side of revolutionary dictatorship.“ [10]

Another reason why Trotsky considered the program of permanent revolution as highly relevant for imperialist countries was the continuing existence of national and racial oppression in these societies. Discussing the oppression of the black minority in the US, Trotsky emphasized the need to orient the building of a revolutionary party towards these layers as a crucial task which he saw as an organizational consequence of the program of permanent revolution.

We must say to the conscious elements of the Negroes that they are convoked by the historic development to become a vanguard of the working class. What serves as the brake on the higher strata? It is the privileges, the comforts that hinder them from becoming revolutionists. It does not exist for the Negroes. What can transform a certain stratum, make it more capable of courage and sacrifice? It is concentrated in the Negroes. If it happens that we in the SWP [Socialist Workers Party, the US section of the Fourth International, Ed.] are not able to find the road to this stratum, then we are not worthy at all. The permanent revolution and all the rest would be only a lie.[11]



[1] V. I. Lenin: A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism (1916), in: LCW 23, p. 74

[2] Leon Trotsky: Critical Remarks about Promoteo's Resolution on Democratic Demands (1931), in: Trotsky Writings 1930-31, Pathfinder 1973, p. 135

[3] V. I. Lenin: What Is To Be Done? (1902); in: LCW 5, p. 439

[4] V.I. Lenin: A Caricature of Marxism and Imperialist Economism (1916); in: LCW 23, p. 43 (Emphasis in the Original)

[5] V. I. Lenin: The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up (1916) ; in: CW Vol. 22, p. 343

[6] V. I. Lenin: The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up (1916) ; in: CW Vol. 22, p. 344 (Emphasis in the Original)

[7] V.I. Lenin: The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1916); in: LCW 22, p. 144

[8] V.I. Lenin: The Socialist Revolution and the Right of Nations to Self-Determination (1916); in: LCW 22, p. 145

[9] Leon Trotsky: Our Present Tasks (1933), Trotsky Writings 1933-34, pp. 137-138

[10] Leon Trotsky: Our Present Tasks (1933), Trotsky Writings 1933-34, pp. 138-139

[11] Leon Trotsky: Second Discussion on the Negro Question. A Negro Organization (1939); in: Leon Trotsky: On Black Nationalism and Self-Determination, Merit Publishers, New York 1967, p. 62