Skipping stages

Issue: 128

Esme Choonara

Richard B Day and Daniel Gaido (eds), Witnesses to Permanent Revolution: The Documentary Record, (Haymarket, 2011), $36

“The revolutionary centre is moving from the West to the East,” writes German socialist Karl Kautsky in 1903 in the first article in this collection. It is an apt opening for a groundbreaking book that documents some of the huge debates that took place in the socialist movement in Russia and beyond in the years 1903-1907.

This was the era of growing agitation against the Russian Tsar, the disaster of Russia’s war with Japan and of course the first Russian revolution of 1905. Questions about economic development, class forces and revolutionary agency were posed concretely and with urgency. And for most of the authors represented in this collection, the answer lay at least in part in the theory of permanent revolution.

This theory is most associated with Leon Trotsky. Yet while the editors of this remarkable collection in no way underestimate Trotsky’s unique contribution, they also make clear that his work emerged from the wider debates he was part of.

The editors, Richard B. Day and Daniel Gaido, have collected and translated some of Trotsky’s little known articles from this period alongside pieces by Russian revolutionaries Parvus (who Trotsky credited with being the key influence on the development of his theory), Plekhanov and David Ryazanov and by German socialists Karl Kautsky, Rosa Luxemburg and Franz Mehring. Several of the articles appear in English for the first time or have been retranslated from the original for this volume. What emerges is a lively debate about the roles of different classes, the nature of revolution and the basis of Marxist theory itself.

One theme that runs throughout the book is the lessons of the 1848 European revolutions which in the early 1900s clearly still felt quite contemporary. Marx had learned from the 1848 revolutions that the bourgeoisie was no longer a revolutionary class as it had been in the Great French Revolution. Instead the bourgeoisie had shown that it was terrified of the revolutions it helped to initiate, and turned to shoddy compromise with the old order and vicious repression of the working class forces that had helped to lead the revolutions.

In 1850 Marx and Engels drafted an address to the members of the Communist League which argued that workers needed to fight for political organisation independent from other class forces. They wrote that the workers’ “battle cry must be: the permanent revolution”.

Witnesses to Permanent Revolution shows how Marx’s theory was applied by a new generation to the experience in Russia, an absolutist state that was still economically backward compared to Western Europe. It was a largely feudal country and the question of the peasantry
had loomed large in socialist debate for many years. However, as many of the writers here testify, Russia had imported some of the most advanced forms of capitalist production into the cities, creating powerful concentrations of workers.

These workers had already shown their power in mass strikes in the 1890s, but the question remained as to what sort of revolution could Russia expect and what sort of strategy the left should pursue. If Russia was still a feudal society, did it have to have a capitalist revolution and a period of capitalist development before socialist revolution was possible? This was certainly the orthodoxy among many Russian Marxists at the time. It was a view put forward most stridently by Plekhanov, who argued that workers should form a bloc with the bourgeoisie.

Lenin strongly disagreed that workers should form a bloc with the bourgeoisie. But he too accepted that there would need to be a “democratic revolution” before a socialist one. He argued that the workers’ key ally should be the peasants and that they should fight together for the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.

The only work by Lenin that is included in this collection is a short introduction to one of Kautsky’s articles. But Lenin is repeatedly quoted in the editors’ comments, mostly to point out his errors and to give context to those arguing for permanent revolution. Intriguingly, the editors also then include one passage to suggest that Lenin may in fact have agreed to some degree with Trotsky and the others who called for an “uninterrupted revolution”. Lenin was wrong on the question of
permanent revolution—both in terms of the character of the revolution and the role of the peasantry. He rectified his position decisively in practice, if not explicitly in theory, in the 1917 revolution. But the scattered references to Lenin throughout this collection leave a slightly unfathomable and unsatisfactory picture of Lenin’s evolving thought and tactics.

In contrast to Plekhanov and Lenin, all the other authors represented in this book believed to varying degrees that the unique position of workers in Russia raised the possibility of permanent revolution—revolution led by the workers and going beyond democratic demands. Much of their argument was based on the development of Russia’s different classes. For example Luxemburg points to the speed of the economic transformation of Russia and the sudden birth of a working class. She also argues that liberalism in Russia has not grown out of progressive forces as it did in Western Europe but out of the agrarian aristocracy.

Unsurprisingly, Trotsky was the clearest on the political role of the different classes. He lays out his position in an article written in November 1905, “Social Democracy and Revolution”. Comparing the role of various classes in 1905 to those in the 1848 revolutions, he explains:

“The class dismemberment of a bourgeois nation has gone much further in our country than in Prussia and Austria in 1848. Our liberal bourgeoisie turned out to be counter-revolutionary even before the revolution reached its culmination. At every critical moment, our intelligentsia democrats displayed their impotence. The peasantry as a whole represents spontaneous insurrection—but it can be put into service of the revolution only by a force that will take state power into its own hands. That leaves the proletariat.” (p555)

Both Trotsky and Kautsky in different ways explore how even if the working class were to set out to achieve a purely democratic reform of Russian society, the logic of coming to power would compel them to implement measures that would move towards socialism. Workers could not maintain political power without starting to challenge for economic power.

Many of these discussions started before 1905, but the revolution had a massive impact, not least by establishing the mass strike as a weapon of revolutionary struggle. And while much of the writing in Witnesses to Permanent Revolution stresses the global dynamics of the system that made workers’ revolution a possibility in Russia, there is also a sense of the impact of the 1905 revolution internationally. Luxemburg and Kautsky, for example, saw the use of mass strikes and the upsurge in Russia as a chance to re-energise the German SPD which was coming under the conservative influence of a large trade union bureaucracy.

It is Trotsky’s articles from 1905 that really stand out in this collection. It is an absolute joy to read his polemics on how to split the army and the picture he paints of how workplaces can become centres of resistance that spread the struggle. And it is fascinating to see in Trotsky’s writings collected here the foundations for his seminal writings on permanent revolution, Results and Prospects and his later riposte to Stalin, Permanent Revolution.

The theory of permanent revolution represented a wider challenge to a deterministic view of Marxism and of history and class struggle.Several authors look at how the late economic development of Russia meant it was not destined to follow the same prolonged stages of industrialisation as Western Europe. It was the mixture of old and new in Russia that created new possibilities. The question was whether the workers’ movement could seize them. And that, as Parvus, Trotsky and Luxemburg make clear, was a question of politics and of class struggle.

Trotsky slates those that appeal to “objective social development” to deny the possibility of workers’ revolution in Russia. He points out that his critics are missing the interaction of economic with social and political factors—the class struggle. This of course was not to say that workers’ revolution was guaranteed success. Permanent revolution is a theory of what is possible, as Trotsky himself explains in the collection. But it is a chance that must be taken and a fight that must be waged. As Luxemburg put it, “It is a poor leader and a pitiful army that goes into battle only when it knows in advance that victory is in its pocket.” (p566)

Sometimes reading debates between figures on the left, involving historical references readers may not be familiar with, can be a daunting or even demoralising experience. But the brilliant and precise annotating of this collection, along with a short introduction to each piece, makes every article accessible to a wide range of readers.

Editing is of course always a political role, and at times I found myself in disagreement with Day and Gaido’s emphasis or evaluation. I felt they overestimated the contribution of Ryazanov—clearly a talented and principled revolutionary Marxist, but hardly the precursor of Trotsky’s theoretical insights that the editors claim for him. Similarly, while they are right to reclaim the revolutionary Kautsky from the renegade he later became, they overplay the clarity of some of his work on Russia.

But none of this detracts from the fact that Day and Gaido have done a fantastic service with this immense collection. Witnesses to Permanent Revolution is a fascinating and thought-provoking book and one that genuinely sheds new light on past debates about socialism that can help to inform the future.