Thirty years ago Michael Löwy wrote a brilliant and accessible analysis of the emergence and application of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution. This new edition of his book is even more relevant read in the context of the revolutionary uprisings in the Middle East today.

Michael Löwy, The Politics of Combined and Uneven Development: The Theory of Permanent Revolution (Haymarket 2010), 154pp.

Löwy describes the theory of permanent revolution, which was first developed by Leon Trotsky in 1905-6, as involving three interrelated problems: first, the possibility of socialist revolution in developing countries; second, the uninterrupted transition from the bourgeois-democratic to the socialist revolution; and third, the international extension of the revolutionary process, leading to the construction of socialism on a world scale (p.1).

The theory was a break with the ‘evolutionist’ Marxism of the Second International. It was a repudiation of the determinist idea that a socialist revolution in any given country is dependent mainly on its economic potential; that only industrialised countries that have undergone the various historical stages of economic development, particularly capitalist development, are ‘ripe’ for socialism.

Löwy first sets out to prove that ideas about permanent revolution were found in the writings of Marx and Engels, and it is these ideas upon which the theory is based. That the theory of permanent revolution is specifically a Marxist theory demonstrates the distortion of Marx by Stalin, who rejected the necessarily internationalist approach of permanent revolution in favour of a nationalistic, economistic, ‘pre-dialectical’ (p.101) theory of stages.

Marx and Engels did not develop a concrete theory of permanent revolution. Their writings reflected the reality of the period in which they were living: the transition between the great bourgeois revolutions and the era of proletarian revolution. However, they clearly grappled with the idea, admitting the ‘objective possibility of a rupture in the succession of historical tasks’ (p.8), and recognising that the ‘bourgeois and proletarian revolutions might in fact constitute only two moments of the same uninterrupted revolutionary process’ (p.12).

This profound insight is most evident in the March 1850 address to the Communist League (Marx, The Revolutions of 1848, pp.323-4):

‘It is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far – not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world – that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers’ (Löwy, p.15).

The recognition of the objective possibility of proletarian revolution combined with the profound importance of subjective leadership, grew out of the realisation, according to Löwy, ‘that history moves dialectically – not unilinearly – through innumerable combinations, fusions, discontinuities, ruptures and sudden, qualitative leaps’ (p.27). It was a recognition of the necessarily limited role of the bourgeoisie as a revolutionary force, and the world historical role of the working class.

The ‘stagist’ perspective, first developed in a systematic way by Plekhanov, was in direct contrast to this ‘permanentist’ view. Löwy argues that Plekhanov replaced Marxist historicism – the idea that people make their own history, but under given conditions – with a mechanical conception of Marxism that removed any possibility for creative intervention in politics: ‘the objective determines the subjective, the economy is the condition of consciousness’ (p.35). It would be impossible for the proletariat to take power prematurely.

It was this economistic view that precluded any consideration of a move away from the path of capitalist development. Plekhanov affirmed: ‘Russia stands at a crossroads on the way to capitalism and all other solutions are closed to her. In order to fight capitalism, only one way is left: to help it grow as fast as possible’ (p.32). Thus the almost universal assumption of the Second International, which the Mensheviks ultimately upheld, that revolution in Russia could only be brought about by an alliance between workers and the bourgeoisie.

This was the crucial point around which Trotsky advanced a completely original perspective, in the midst of the revolution in 1905. It was not that the proletariat needed to forge an alliance with the bourgeoisie – the bourgeoisie having exhausted its revolutionary potential – but, in order to fulfil its historical mission, the proletariat would need to rely on the support of the peasantry. It would not be an egalitarian alliance between workers and peasants, but rather ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry’ (p.44). And once in power, a proletarian government would have to adopt distinctively socialist policies.

This is because the political dominance of the proletariat in a revolutionary situation and the dynamic of class struggle would immediately raise questions of social and economic power, Trotsky argued, on the basis that ‘the political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement’ (p.54). The ephemeral alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry would ultimately give rise to hostility from wealthy sections of the peasantry, since the policies of a proletarian government would favour the rural proletariat. The only thing that could save the Russian revolution, Trotsky argued, would be its extension to Europe.

The real obstacle to socialism then, was less economic than political: if the revolution failed to spread and the proletarian government became isolated, the revolution would be crushed by a counter-revolution. These predictions were not pessimistic; on the contrary, the theory was optimistic and dynamic – inimical to the pessimism of Marxist orthodoxy at the time. It was optimistic because it recognised the objective possibility of moving beyond the limits of a bourgeois-democratic transformation, and dynamic because it put the dialectical materialist method at its centre. That is, questions about the possibility of socialist revolution – levels of economic ‘maturity’ and infrastructure, proletarian consciousness and so forth – were understood from the standpoint of the capitalist system in its totality, as an international system, and from a historical perspective.

Capturing both the specificities of Russia and the general tendencies of the capitalist system, doing away with the abstract opposition between the objective and the subjective, allowing for a ‘break in continuity’ (p.60), were all the result of a dialectical application of Marxism. Trotsky was vindicated by the experience of the Russian revolution over a decade later. However, the isolation of Russia, the revolutionary setbacks in Germany and elsewhere, and the growing bureaucratisation of the revolution, put Trotsky on the defensive. By 1923, when the first wave of criticism against permanent revolution was unleashed, this pressure forced Trotsky to temporarily back away from the theory. Löwy argues that only after the tragedy of the Chinese revolution in 1926-7 and in the struggle against Stalin’s narrow interpretation of Leninism as equivalent to ‘socialism in one country’ did Trotsky attempt to generalise the universal-historical perspective of permanent revolution.

Part of the controversy between Stalin and Trotsky was over the meaning of socialism. Bukharin, on the side of Stalin, defined socialism as ‘synonymous with social forms of property’ (p.74), or a state-run economy. Even though Russia may have been experiencing a ‘backward socialism’ (p.74), the Stalinist camp argued that the world communist movement should be subsumed under the bureaucratic leadership of the USSR. On a practical level the Stalinist bureaucracy would be defended with all the economic, political, military and diplomatic means that countries in its periphery could offer, and on an ideological level it would bolster the conservative Stalinist ideology of stagism.

In China, the concrete consequences of this approach would lead the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI) to advocate a strategic alliance with bourgeois forces. When communist workers in Shanghai seized power in 1927, the message was that workers should bury their weapons ‘in order to avoid possible confrontations’ (p.78) with the bourgeois government of the Kuomintang, only to find that when its leader Chiang Kai-shek entered Shanghai, he made an alliance with the warlord Chang Tso-lin and crushed the revolutionaries.

For Trotsky these events confirmed three things, which strengthened the argument for the universal application of the theory. Firstly, that the national bourgeoisie are entirely dependent on imperialism and are therefore incapable of leading a revolution in the interests of the majority. Secondly, that the proletariat, irrespective of its actual numerical strength, holds the most political weight, and finally that the peasantry, despite their fundamental importance as an ally of the proletariat, are incapable of playing an independent political role.

The concluding chapter considers the disastrous application of stagism in a number of different countries in Latin America – where the stagist line of the Stalinist Comintern was strictly applied – and Asia, where ‘stagist illusions were on an even more tragic scale’ (p.107). The consequence was that developing capitalism came to be viewed as a revolutionary aim. Class collaborationist policies led to a weakening of the left at best, and at worst, resulted in the wholesale massacre of communists and other left activists, as with the Indonesian Communist Party in 1965.

Of course there are phases or moments in revolutionary processes, Löwy argues, implying that the distinction between a democratic revolution and a socialist revolution is more one of content than mechanical sequence. While this is true, the focus on ‘episodic stages’ obscures a more important point: that Löwy characterises Yugoslavia, China and Vietnam as countries where democratic reforms ‘were inseparably combined (‘chemically’ not merely mechanically) with socialist measures implemented by proletarian parties holding state power’ (p.111). Similarly, Cuba is described as having experienced a victorious democratic revolution through a dictatorship of the proletariat.

He later admits that the possibility of successful bourgeois-democratic revolutions is ‘controversial and ambiguous’ (p.111), and that the historical evidence makes it unclear what exactly defines the success or completion of bourgeois-democratic tasks. He also suggests that what revolutionaries must take from historical evidence, particularly in the twentieth century, is the capacity of bourgeois revolutions to establish relatively stable regimes. An understanding of this process, he argues, ‘arms revolutionaries with a more active understanding of their own role in fighting to prevent bourgeois stabilisation’ (p.113), and of the need to exploit the contradictions of bourgeois regimes. But what Löwy doesn’t address is the idea that state-run post-colonial regimes were an example of this bourgeois stabilisation.

A resulting problem is that he tends to judge the nature of political regimes by their international relations rather than their internal structure or social content. He argues, for example, that increasing industrialisation has made developing countries more dependent on imperialism, and therefore less able to break from the hegemony of bourgeois forces (p.112). This formulation neglects the question of class power, and the notion that imperialist intervention can give rise to new struggles for democracy, as the recent revolutions in the Middle East have shown.

Löwy warns against the idea that permanent revolution is an automatic process, and this is important. But the danger today is an overestimation of the ability of the bourgeoisie to stabilise the situation – a view that democratic revolutions inevitably lead to bourgeois outcomes. This leads to a pessimism that discounts the objective possibility of a combined socialist-democratic revolution. Either way, in order for revolutionaries to ‘seize the advantage from every hesitation or indecision of the bourgeoisie’ (p.113), they must put themselves at the head of the democratic movement. Subjective factors, including ‘the participatory character of the revolutionary process’ (p.142) and the degree of popular self-organisation and self-activity, are crucial, as we have seen in such inspiring forms in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East.

Feyzi Ismail

Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU