Trotsky for the 21st century

Issue: 111

Judy Cox

A review of Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice (eds), 100 years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects (Pluto Press, 2006), £18.99

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was, as Michael Lowy writes in this volume, ‘one of the most astonishing political breakthroughs in Marxist thinking in the early 20th century’. This fascinating volume of essays marks the centenary of the theories of combined and uneven development and of permanent revolution.

Trotsky developed his theory by applying the insights of other Marxists and historians to the experiences of the 1905 Russian Revolution to analyse what could be achieved by a revolution in a less developed country. The outcome was published as Results and Prospects in 1906. The theory was to become one of the hallmarks of Trotskyism and of the struggle to maintain the tradition of the Russian Revolution of 1917 in contradiction to the ideology of Stalinism. The theory of permanent revolution was distorted, vilified and, perhaps worse, neglected for long periods of time. The status of the theory rose and fell with the reputation of its author, and of the 1917 Revolution which was its vindication, but has great relevance for those wishing to resist capitalism today.

Trotsky was certainly not the first to address the question of the relationship between backward and developed countries. Debates on the left focused on how to understand the world of interimperialist competition which was to erupt in the First World War. Some prominent members of the Second International argued that colonialism was a prerequisite for colonised countries to develop to a stage at which socialism could be sustained. Others argued that the existence of imperialist powers prevented other countries from developing. A third element to the debate drew on what Trotsky was to call the ‘privilege of backwardness’. Writers in the Russian populist tradition among others noted that less developed countries could absorb the achievements of more developed countries directly and thus avoid ‘passing at a snail’s pace through successive stages’.

Trotsky’s theory of uneven but combined development located nation-states in the context of the world economy. Sam Ashman describes contradictory aspects of the process in her essay. The capitalist mode of production generates a drive towards the creation of a world economy, and capitalist competition leads to the creation of a general rate of profit, while at the same time Trotsky referred to unevenness as the ‘most general law of the historic process’. The idea that capitalism created uneven development was by no means unique to Trotsky, but he connected the theory of uneven development to that of combined development, ‘the assimilation of material and intellectual conquests of the advanced countries’, revealing new socialist potential in revolutionary movements in colonial countries with powerful working classes.

Some of the essays in the this volume focus on applying Trotsky’s theory to specific historical events and evaluate it in relation to historical developments such as the survival of the Soviet regime after the Second World War, and revolutions in Third World countries which were not led by the working classes. Others situate Trotsky’s theory in its historical context, or flesh out under-theorised aspects of the theory.

All the contributions are challenging, provocative and polemical. For example, Neil Davidson argues that, while the world economy may be unevenly developed, combined development is necessarily confined to individual nationstates. Colin Barker challenges this view, arguing that combined development, like uneven development, could be a ‘general law of historic process’. This collection of essays is an excellent place to delve into some of the theoretical debates which underpin ideas of globalisation, imperialism and the possibility for a socialist challenge.