Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

August 15, 2015

Lars Lih and Lenin’s April Theses

Filed under: Lenin — louisproyect @ 7:33 pm

Lars Lih

In a Jacobin article titled “The Lies We Tell About Lenin”, Lars Lih characterizes Trotskyism in a way that I find unsatisfactory:

So far I have looked at errors that purport to explain the failures of the revolution, but latter-day partisans of the October Revolution are also engaged in heresy-hunting. For them, the success of the revolution is explained by the rejection of ideological errors. The mainstream Trotskyist interpretation is built around a story of this type.

Back in the 1905–6 (the story goes), Leon Trotsky came up with his theory of permanent revolution and pronounced socialist revolution to be possible in backward Russia. Since his theory attacked the unimaginative dogmas of “Second International Marxism,” Trotsky was greeted with universal incomprehension.

Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.

There are number of difficulties with this canonical story, but here I will just point to one odd feature of this pro-October story: it has a pronounced anti-Bolshevik tinge. According to many writers in the Trotskyist tradition, the doctrine of Old Bolshevism was pernicious error that had to be rejected before revolutionary victory was possible. We are constantly reminded by writers in this tradition that the Bolsheviks themselves, taken as a whole, were a dull lot who stubbornly remained loyal to what they had been told yesterday, even when their brilliant and visionary leaders had moved on.

A little later in the article Lih reduces the Bolshevik/Menshevik split prior to 1917 to one over the nature of the coming revolution:

One key debate about the Russian Revolution has always been: was Russia ready for socialist revolution, or for only a “bourgeois revolution”? The Bolsheviks maintained the former, the Mensheviks the latter position. Who was right, and who was wrong in the debate?

Of course there is a contradiction in what Lih writes. If as in the first citation, Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was all about the socialist revolution being possible in Czarist Russia, what could explain the heated debates between Lenin and Trotsky around the time of the 1905 dress rehearsal if, as the second citation indicates, the Bolsheviks said Russia was ready for socialist revolution?

In fact, the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks both believed that bourgeois revolution rather than socialism was on the agenda but differed over which class would be in the driver’s seat. Lenin insisted that it must be the proletariat while the Mensheviks oriented to the liberal bourgeoisie, especially in the Cadet Party. Lih tries to minimize the differences between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks by reducing them into one over how to regard the role of specialists and professionals:

In either case, we start, not with doctrinal insight or error, but with a strongly felt and essentially correct empirical view of Russian society in 1917. The Mensheviks realized that, on the one hand, a modern society could not do without educated specialists and professionals, and, on the other hand, the Russian proletariat was not organized or “purposive” enough to exercise the vlast in isolation nor was the Russian peasantry a secure base for a “dictatorship of the proletariat.”

There is an unfortunate tendency in Lih’s scholarship (or journalism as in this instance) to neglect backing up his claims with citations but I doubt that Lenin was concerned about the role of “educated specialists” as much as he was about the class power of the Russian bourgeoisie. Specialists and professionals are typically members of the petty-bourgeoisie while the essential question for the Russian left was how to regard the bourgeoisie: the industrialists and landlords who had about as much professionalism as a fire hydrant.

But it is really the crude reductionism of this that bothers me most: “Fortunately, just in time, Lenin saw the light and caught up with Trotsky in April 1917. Together the two great leaders rearmed the Bolshevik Party, thus making the glorious October Revolution possible.” This attempt at satirizing the Trotskyist left is clumsy at best but it does point to an essential question: whether Lenin changed his mind about the character of the Russian revolution.

For some time now, Lars Lih has challenged the idea that Lenin adopted a new position on the class character of the Russian Revolution with the April Theses, denying that it differed from what Lenin had stated all along. In an article for the newspaper of the ultraleft, gossip-prone CPGB, Lih describes Bolshevik goals as “democratic” (he is reluctant to use the term most often used by Lenin: bourgeois-democratic”) but essentially overlapping with proletarian dictatorship—constrained only by the the reluctance of Lenin to frighten Russians with the “S” word:

There was an article, for example, by Lenin entitled ‘Paths to the revolution’, published in late September or October, and it does not mention socialism or socialist revolution, although it does include all sorts of things like bank reform and peace negotiations. But after October the rhetoric shifted very drastically, and ‘steps toward socialism’ was very prominent.

So why did they downplay socialism before? I am sure it was a conscious decision, made to try and convince people to carry out the revolution. Because they were close to the people, if they thought socialist revolution would appeal to them, then they would have called for it. They must have known that it would not appeal.

Ever since the Jack Barnes sect-cult dumped Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution and made Lenin’s concept of a “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” words to live by, I have failed to understand why otherwise sensible people like the ex-Trotskyists led by the Percy brothers in Australia could make the same error. To start with, it is questionable whether permanent revolution was any kind of theory. I always regarded it as an analysis of the class dynamics of the Russian revolution and not something that could be applied universally. In fact, Trotskyism turned into a formula that was always invoked in order to establish its own purity just as it is doing now with respect to Greece. It says that unless nations follow through with socialist measures, the goals of the bourgeois-democratic revolution (land reform, democratic rights, national independence, etc.) will not be guaranteed. For me this has always been something of a tautology, amounting to a statement that unless there is a revolution there will be no revolution.

Taken on its own merits, a work such as the 1906 “Results and Prospects” was much more reliable as anticipating 1917 than anything Lenin ever wrote:

The political domination of the proletariat is incompatible with its economic enslavement. No matter under what political flag the proletariat has come to power, it is obliged to take the path of socialist policy. It would be the greatest utopianism to think that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of a bourgeois revolution, can, even if it so desires, limit its mission to the creation of republican-democratic conditions for the social domination of the bourgeoisie. The political domination of the proletariat, even if it is only temporary, will weaken to an extreme degree the resistance of capital, which always stands in need of the support of the state, and will give the economic struggle of the proletariat tremendous scope.

I have heard Lenin’s “Revolutionary-Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry” described as “algebraic” from its supporters as if it could refer to either socialism or perhaps a very left-wing government resting on capitalist property relations. In fact, the latter is exactly what Lenin thought it meant despite those who would have you believe that like Fidel Castro he had secret plans to build socialism without ever using the word in advance (to reprise Lars Lih’s silly formulation above.)

All you need to do is look at Lenin’s “The Socialist Party and Non-Party Revolutionism”  where he examines the demands that arose in 1905 as a dress rehearsal for 1917 :

What I mean is that actually they are not specifically class demands, but demands for elementary rights, demands which will not destroy capitalism but, on the contrary, bring it within the framework of Europeanism, and free it of barbarism, savagery; corruption and other “Russian” survivals of serf dom. In essence, even the proletarian demands are limited, in most cases, to reforms of the sort that are fully realisable within the framework of capitalism. What the Russian proletariat is demanding now and immediately is not some thing that will undermine capitalism, but something that will cleanse it, something that will accelerate and intensify its development.

He adds:

Naturally, as a result of the special position which the proletariat occupies in capitalist society, the striving of the workers towards socialism, and their alliance with the Socialist Party assert themselves with elemental force at the very earliest stages of the movement. But purely socialist demands are still a matter of the future: the immediate demands of the day are the democratic demands of the workers in the political sphere, and economic demands within the framework of capitalism in the economic sphere. Even the proletariat is making the revolution, as it were, within the limits of the minimum programme and not of the maximum programme.

Furthermore, there is evidence that Lenin was not quite yet convinced of the inevitably of socialist measures in Russia on the cusp of taking power. Just two months after issuing the April Theses, he was still contemptuous of the idea of building socialism in an article titled “Economic Dislocation and the Proletariat’s Struggle Against It”:

The point is that people who have turned Marxism into a kind of stiffly bourgeois doctrine evade the specific issues posed by reality, which in Russia has in practice produced a combination of the syndicates in industry and the small- peasant farms in the countryside. They evade these specific issues by advancing pseudo-intellectual, and in fact utterly meaningless, arguments about a “permanent revolution”, about “introducing” socialism, and other nonsense.

Of course, almost immediately after October 1917, Lenin articulated the need for a proletarian dictatorship in “State and Revolution” and began introducing socialism at a breakneck pace. (The question of whether socialism could be built in a single country is a rather complex one left for another time.)

Finally, on Lars Lih’s fairly long-standing (five years or more at least, I believe) project of rehabilitating the reputation of people like Kamenev on the Bolshevik central committee who were taken aback by the April Theses, there has been an ongoing effort to obfuscate the struggle that took place between Lenin and the “Old Bolsheviks”. For example, in the CPGB article, he writes:

We should bear in mind the possibility that these people had something significant to say to Lenin. I shall give a straightforward example of this. Stalin, who was a fairly high-up Bolshevik at this time – one of the top ten leaders at least – is recorded as saying in a meeting with Lenin and others that the April theses were too schematic and that they overlooked the question of small nations. Often, that is used as evidence that Stalin did not know what was going on, but the fact is that the April theses did not mention the national question.

But the real struggle was over the question of the character of the Russian Revolution. If the Soviets took power, that would effectively render the Constituent Assembly null and void—and hence the future of the bourgeois-democratic project. Since it was commonly understood in the Bolshevik leadership that a 1789 type revolution was necessary in Russia, why would Lenin skip over the necessary stage of radical capitalist democracy under the stewardship of workers and peasants?

Although Lars Lih is dismissive of Leon Trotsky, I would hope that he finds the time at some point to read his “History of the Russian Revolution” (or if he has read it, I hope he makes an effort at understanding what he read.) In the chapter titled “Rearming the Party”, he deals at length with the reaction of the Old Bolsheviks to the April Theses. Trotsky quotes Tomsky: “The democratic dictatorship is our foundation stone. We ought to organise the power of the proletariat and the peasants, and we ought to distinguish this from the Commune, since that means the power of the proletariat alone.” He also quotes Rykov:  “Gigantic revolutionary tasks stand before us, but the fulfillment of these tasks does not carry us beyond the framework of the bourgeois régime.”

I would also urge him to look at what Lenin wrote about the “old Bolsheviks” just one week after he issued the April Theses:

Old Bolshevism should be discarded. The line of the petty bourgeoisie must be separated from that of the wage-earning proletariat. Fine phrases about the revolutionary people are suitable to a man like Kerensky, but not to the revolutionary proletariat. To be revolutionaries, even democrats, with Nicholas removed, is no great merit. Revolutionary democracy is no good at all; it is a mere phrase. It covers up rather than lays bare the antagonisms of class interests. A Bolshevik must open the eyes of the workers and peasants to the existence of these antagonisms, not gloss them over. If the imperialist war hits the proletariat and the peasants economically, these classes will have to rise against it.

To create a network of Soviets of Workers’, Soldiers’, and Peasants’ Deputies—that is our task today. The whole of Russia is already being covered with a network of organs of local self-government. A commune may exist also in the form of organs of self-government. The abolition of the police and the standing army, and the arming of the whole people—all this can be accomplished through the organs of local self-government. I have taken the Soviet of Workers’ Deputies simply because it already exists.


  1. Dear Sir: This is the best and most insightful criticism of Trotskyism I have yet read. It gives me great confidence in your scholarship overall. I shall be archiving this for my rewrite of the appropriate chapters in the 2016 edition of ABC’s and in appropriate lectures on my ABC’s of Communism channel at You Tube.

    Best wishes, Jason drjasonsmith@hotmail.com

    Date: Sat, 15 Aug 2015 19:33:52 +0000 To: drjasonsmith@hotmail.com

    Comment by drjasonwsmith — August 15, 2015 @ 9:01 pm

  2. Reblogged this on parkslavykomsomola.

    Comment by alexfresel — August 15, 2015 @ 9:33 pm

  3. We must remember that February (1917) revolution was victorious due to the revolt of the army after the strike waves started by the mass demonstrations during International Womens Day, before the workers created the Soviets. The Soviets created shortly after these events were led by the Menshevicks and the SR’s which had a huge majority with the Bolsheviks acting as the left flank of “revolutionary democracy”. That is the role they played until the arrival of Lenin at the Finland station. Lenin attacks Stalin, Kamenev, and Pravda in general for “consolidationism with the defensists” He further goes on “The proletariat did not seize power in Feb. because the Bolshevik party was was not equal to its objective task and could not prevent the compromisers from expropriating the masses politically for the benefit of the bourgeoisie”. Even after Lenin’s April thesis the overwhelming majority of the executive committee of the party including Kamenev, Stalin, Tomsky, and Zinoviev opposed him. Supporting Lenin’s position of “The proletarian revolution is imminent, we give no countenance to to the Provisional government,we don’t need a parliamentary republic, we don’t need bourgeois democracy, the only government we need is the Soviets of workers, soldiers, and peasent deputies”. Supporting Lenin were the Vyborg workers and the Kronstadt sailors and Trotsky when he arrived in early May. From April until the actual seizure of power in Oct. there was a division in the leadership of the Bolshevik party with Lenin and Trotsky leading one faction and Kamenev, Zinoviev, Stalin, and Rykov the other. This division in many ways was similar tothe division between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks before the Mensheviks joined the government. The historian Sukhanov was in attendence at the Bolshevik party conference on April 4 and quotes a naval officer in his book commenting on “Ilyich laid down a Rubicon between the tactics of yesterday and today”. The tactics of yesterday was the Democratic dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peaseantry, which Lenin formulated and used for years and was still favored by Kamenev, Stalin etcetera they claimed that the dual power of Soviet and Provosional-Duma government mutually checking each other represented precisely this democratic dictatorship and they advocated apolicy of controlling the Provisional government just as before they wanted to make an alliance with the Mensheviks to push the government to the left. Against this Lenin line proposed the Proletarian dictatorship and socialism he further pointed out that once the Soviets took power the bourgeois state must be smashed and the parliamentary machinery of the provisional government discarded and swept into the dust bin of history and he pointed out that only with the triumph of the proletarian revolution could the tasks of the Feb. revolution land peace and bread become a reality. As far back as 1905 Trotsky pointed out the falicy of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. Namely, within the mechanism of the state will the workers limit themselves to the demands of the peasants and restrain themselves from marching to socialism thus letting the peasantry have hegemony or will the opposite prevail. Trotsky correctly asserted that the workers once having grasped power would never be forced to relinquish it and the proletariat would be forced to socialism what would then be established would NOT be the democratic dictatorship of two classes with the peasantry equal to the workers but the dictatorship of the proletariat which would move to socialism. Lenin evolved his position over time to agree that within the alliance of workers and peasants it would be the workers who would lead and that they would not limit the dictatorship by the dictates of private property but would move irresistably to make the revolution permanent that is to the dictatorship of the proletariat! So it could be said Trotsky arrived at permanent revolution algebraicly and Lenin arithmeticly

    Comment by Michael Tormey — August 16, 2015 @ 2:51 am

  4. Lih’s article strikes me as very muddled: he slides from the 1905 debate over the strategy for socialist forces in the anticipated bourgeois revolution with a strange view of what was pretty much the same debate in 1917 (misrepresenting the latter as a debate over the role of the technical intelligentsia). In fact the common theme was what social force could lead a succesful overthrow of the Tsarist social order, and what implications that had for political forms and policies. Lenin in typical fashion deals with these matters from the point of view of a strategist rather than a theorist. In fact the only serious theorisation of the specific nature of the Russian revolution is that developed by Trotsky. The lack of engagement between Trotsky and Lenin and the Bolsheviks from 1905 to 1917 has always seemed to me deeply tragic – it meant that the Bolsheviks embarked on the huge experiment that was October without any clear theoretical perspective on precisely where they were going.In many ways the possibilities and limitations of the Russian revolution were explored backwards – by overshooting the viable and and then having to row backwards to some sort of equilibrium point: “one-man management”, NEP, economic policy towards the peasantry. This generated the sort of instabiliy which provided perfect ground for the emergence of a figure like Stalin who could claim to subordinate structural constraints to political will.
    I agree with Louis that “permanent revolution” should be seen as an insightful theory of the Russian revolution, not a schema of universal applicability. But that seems to open up the possibility that the concept of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship” might retain a useful afterlife, which is what I understand the post-Trotskyist SWP to be arguing. I think it would certainly have been a more useful framework for eg,. socialists working in Egypt of the Tahrir Square era than the chimera of a “permanent revolution”.

    Comment by Brian S — August 16, 2015 @ 2:01 pm

  5. An excellent discussion. I wanted to write a few words about Permanent Revolution.

    As anyone who studies this issue Trotsky formulated this perspective in 1906-07 *after* 1905. But he rarely referred to in the ensuing 12 years though he continued to defend it when on rare occasions it would be inserted into the rough and tumble world of Russian social-democratic politics and polemics. In fact according to Trotsky he was surprised when editors for the Communist International showed up at his apartment announcing they were not only republishing it but translating it into 12 languages to use at their cadre schools. (They wanted LT to write an introduction which he did an is available here: https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rppr.htm ).

    Trotsky and Lenin (and others of the RSDRP) had this messianic way of writing that I find often annoying. It is riddled with prognostications that there is no basis for. It is these prognostications that end up being subsumed into immutable planks or points in the “Program” of Marxism. Trotsky engages in this with Permanent Revolution but it raises some interesting aspects of Permanent Revolution, nevertheless, a theory that I think is proven over the ensuing near 110 years since it was first formulated. But I’m not here to defend Permanent Revolution (PR) but offer my own POV on it that should be taken into consideration.

    Trotsky, not “Trotskyism” (as Louis suggests above) applied PR “universally” in 1929, after the failure…betrayal…of Chinese Communism by the Bolsheviks (please note I say “Bolsheviks” not “Comintern” since policy of the Chinese Communist Party was imposed on them by the Russian communists — using the Comintern as their tool). It is at this point that PR becomes the sin-quota-non of the International Left Opposition.

    One of the problems of Trotsky’s prognostication as it manifests itself in PR is exhibited in the “What is the Permanent Revolution? Basic Postulates” ( https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/pr10.htm ). He writes the following: “8. 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.”

    The reader should note this. It assumes that the entire fight for national liberation will be lead by…communists. There is no room for indigenous forces of national liberation that could arise by dint of national or colonial oppression. PR is not a theory of national liberation but one of a strategic line of march programmatically put forward by communists working and fighting for national liberation. This is certainly not how the world unfolded, especially after WWII. Though various Stalinized communist forces did lead such national liberation struggles of note (China, Korea, Yugoslavia and so on) many/most/lots of them were not. PR offers no real guidence, IMO, on how to relate to what are arguable revolutionary democratic nationalist forces confronting Imperialism. And this is where most Trotskyist forces starting failing.

    Trotsky is very clear, repeatedly, that the “Revolution starts as a democratic and national one…”. I think this is what allowed the Barnes clique to so easily (among a lot of other reasons) to recast PR as a failed policy and the Lenin (pre-1917/April Thesis) policy as the ‘correct one’. Trotskyists for the most part don’t use, ignore or otherwise reject this notion, raising ultimatistic demands for “Socialist Revolution” as the best application of PR and communist policy when dealing with issues of national liberation. They (our erstwhile followers of Trotsky) *start* with socialist revolution, arguing, as a 1944 SWP political resolution sub-head stated “National Liberation through Socialist Revolution”. They have this really ass-backward: it should be “Socialist Revolution through National Liberation”. The Democratic and National revolutions are what are bringing the masses in any given fight into the streets, arming, and threatening Imperialism. If the masses are doing this and, objectively, have not adopted PR, then where does this leave our revolutionary communist Trotskyists? It leaves them outside the struggle placing demands ON the movement before they could ever participate. It leaves the revolution in the hands not of “Dictatorship of the Proletariat” as described in the Postulate above but in the every hands of the leadership of the national and democratic revolution while the Trotskyists stand outside waiting for vanguard of the working class to ‘catch up’ to them.

    In reality advocates of PR, Trotskyists should be from the get-go, initiate anti-Imperialist fights around *demands for national liberation* while pedagogically educating…using the revolutions own experiences and the masses mobilizations…the need for such fights to grow over into a socialist revolution as these revolutions because “the fulfillment of which is bound up with deep inroads into the rights of bourgeois property.” This is why, in it’s non-ideological commitment, Trotskyist leaders like Joseph Hansen correctly looked to the Cuban revolution in how this all played out. It was not programmatic in this case, but the J26M made the same ‘conclusion’ based on their experiences. Permanent Revolution is far shown far more to be accurate by negative example however, than but the few positive workers revolutions that would prove PR to be a programmatically correct part of a revolutionary Marxist program.

    Much of the sectarianism…and the rejection of this sectarianism and abandonment of “Trotskyism”…stems from the lack of understanding by Trotsky’s followers and ex-followers in understanding that there does in fact exist a “Democratic Revolution” stage but that this stage is dynamic and fluid leads, automatically, to the next ‘stage’. There is no iron-wall between these stages that would somehow cut the red-thread leading to a working class victory over capitalism.

    Comment by David Walters — August 16, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

  6. David Walters,

    A very interesting take on the importance of PR for strategy. As a non-Trotskyist, I have long wondered what the exact tenets of PR are.

    I have never read enough of Trotsky’s writings, mostly because in Iran there weren’t any influential leaders in the Marxist left that followed a Trotskyist line. In a sense, we have not had a need for him, and we can arrive at almost exactly the same programatic points you presented (going through Trotsky) by going through the basics of Marxism.

    My understanding of the revolutionary process has mostly been informed by reading Marx and Lenin (and later Marxists like Gramsci and different ‘schools’ of Marxism), and participating in the Iranian revolution, which presented our whole generation with numerous massive challenges and posed big issues for us to grapple with. So, my studies have always been in the context of finding answers for that struggle, as well as the need to study the myriad challenges the working classes face worldwide.

    A key concept for me, in both Marx and Lenin, is that of “winning the battle of democracy”. This was first articulated in the Manifesto, and in subsequent writings by Marx, and picked up by Lenin, especially as he expounds this in The State and Revolution.

    In State and Revolution, Lenin presents a very clear and simple explanation of the relationship between democracy and class dictatorship. [And it is also a key tenet developed by Marx and Engels that the State is always a class state, meaning the apparatuses that wield power on behalf of the ruling class.] To paraphrase, Lenin explains that in a capitalist state formation, there is the dictatorship of capital over labor, but there is democracy and freedom for the capitalist classes; in a socialist state formation, by contrast, we must have dictatorship of labor over capital, while there must be maximum democracy (and freedom to organize) for the labor (or ‘producing classes’, a category that avoids the peasant/worker dichotomies).

    Winning the battle of democracy is not as straight forward a concept as some may assume. It does not mean merely winning elections, for example. For Marx (as far as I understand his ideas), it starts with *pushing for reforms* (The Manifesto presents a few good examples). By pushing for reforms, the working classes are basically doing two things: 1) reducing the profit margins for capital, and therefore facing limits on how it can operate and develop further, and 2) in that very struggle to achieve reforms recognizing their own power and seeing it in action.

    So, we start by making immediate demands that in themselves don’t put capital in its grave, but force some limits on capital; and then we push for some more, and more, so that in the course of the struggles the working classes face, they can experientially see the contradictions capitalism throws up regularly as it develops. And by seeing those contradictions, and having struggled to find answers for them, the working classes will in the long run be transformed from a ‘class in itself’ (as in, *not being aware* of the class nature of their status, but objectively *being* an actual class, with common interests, and not simply an aggregate of individuals) to being a ‘class for itself’; meaning, being self-consciously a social organism that comes to battle recognizing itself to be a class, and a class whose values and interests can replace capitalism as a system.

    I believe that for both Marx and Lenin, the transition from being a ‘class in itself’ to becoming a ‘class for itself’ happens in the course of fighting for reforms: for example, abolition of slavery, end to Jim Crow laws, 8-hour work day, end to child labor, etc.; or in the case of the Russian revolution, very simply, Bread and Peace. The concrete fights for reform create the political space for intervention of both the more leftist ideologies to be aired and tested, as well as the more right-wing reaction that is certain to appear.

    And so we go through a historical era of this fight, which has been and will continue to be many-faceted, with lots of ups and downs.

    The quantitative accumulation of reforms will in the long run put such fundamental pressures on the system as a whole that it cannot hold or overcome its own contradictions. Which in turn means there exists now the conditions for a qualitative leap, a revolutionary leap, to create the conditions for really smashing the capitalist state and replacing it by a new dictatorship, one which dominates and usurps capital, stops its production and places maximal barriers on its accumulation or circulation, etc. All the while giving the working classes maximal freedom to organize their own independent organizations and associations, including all manner of localized organizations of neighborhoods or communities, trade organizations, cultural and educational organizations, etc., to political party organizations or state organizations.

    The correct slogan should not be the question, ‘Reform OR Revolution?’ The correct slogan should be the imperative, ‘Reform AND Revolution!’

    The problem with those who hold that we start with a revolution is that such talk is a non-answer. It is the same as if you told a cancer patient, “Your only solution is to get cured.” To say that we need a revolution is to say nothing. HOW? That’s the question. Everybody knows we need a revolution. It’s even in quite a large number of popular literary fiction, movies, and folk songs humans have been singing for a long time; for centuries we have known we need a revolution. In Iran, for one example, we had a very revolutionary visionary by the name of Mazdak, who was a socialist in the sixth century. Look him up. He died some time around mid-to-late 520s AD. That means that, almost fifteen hundred years ago, in our now-taken-backwards country, the idea of socialism was already presented and almost sold to the then-king (but of course, the clerical classes of the Zoroastrian ruling classes of the time killed him off before his ideas could get dangerously out of hand, and, Ahura Mazda forbid, popular).

    Comment by reza — August 16, 2015 @ 10:19 pm

  7. I always understood permanent revolution as a strategic approach to pre-capitalist states in an increasingly capitalist world. Now that virtually the whole world is capitalist, how does this theory matter any longer?

    Comment by jschulman — August 17, 2015 @ 4:05 am

  8. Reza, and interesting way of looking at things. Indeed…even the Trotskyist Transitional Program does not counter-poise “immediate” (or democratic) demands with the socialist Transitional ones but is supposed to be simply the heightening of the struggle at every step…er…stage.

    Comment by David Walters — August 17, 2015 @ 6:57 pm

  9. David Walters,

    “Heightening of the struggle at every step/stage” is about the gist of it. With only one proviso: the other side can heighten the struggle too, and they are pretty well organized and pretty well winning at the moment.

    So, for me the formulation ‘permanent revolution’ is incomplete. It’s a permanent revolution/counter-revolution for as long as the historical eye can see (as far as our generation is concerned). Our generation of Iranian socialists can deeply appreciate Gramsci’s insight to the effect that, with every revolutionary set of conditions we can expect an equally counter-revolutionary set of conditions as well.

    I think for too long, despite the ample historical evidence, the left has thought that socialism will be achieved in one Big Bang of a revolution. The fact that humanity, as a species, has been at it for more than 150 years is evidence enough that the transition to socialism, just like the transition to capitalism, will take a historical era.

    Comment by reza — August 18, 2015 @ 5:08 am

  10. Dan La Botz on Trotsky and his relevance, or perhaps lack thereof — note the discussion of permanent revolution in particular:


    Comment by jschulman — August 26, 2015 @ 7:46 pm

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