Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 5, 2021

Lars Lih, Revolutionary Continuity, and Permanent Revolution

Filed under: bourgeois revolutions,Kautsky — louisproyect @ 9:48 pm
Lars Lih

In the latest issue of Historical Materialism, there’s a Lars Lih article titled “Why Did Marx Declare the Revolution Permanent? The Tactical Principles of the Manifesto” that is his latest salvo against Leon Trotsky’s singularly most important theoretical contribution—even if it does not mention Trotsky once.

Despite the association that Trotsky has with the term permanent revolution, you can also find it in Marx’s writings. The goal of Lih’s article is to prove that Marx had something completely different in mind than Trotsky. Instead of being a call to bypass a bourgeois revolutionary stage, Marx was advocating a class alliance between the workers and their class enemies in order to create the democratic conditions that would allow for the construction of a workers party, trade unions and the constitutionally protected rights allowing progress toward socialist transformation. Two works are singled out by Lih to make his point, the March 1850 “Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League” and the October 1850 “The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850”. The first states:

While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, 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.

The second has the same kind of insistence:

…the proletariat rallies more and more around revolutionary socialism, around communism, for which the bourgeoisie has itself invented the name of Blanqui. This socialism is the declaration of the permanence of the revolution, the class dictatorship of the proletariat as the necessary transit point to the abolition of class distinctions generally, to the abolition of all the relations of production on which they rest, to the abolition of all the social relations that correspond to these relations of production, to the revolutionizing of all the ideas that result from these social relations.

Notwithstanding their fiery rhetoric, Lih assures us that you have to look closely at the context in which they were written. They were mostly about overthrowing absolutist states, roughly equivalent to Czarism in Russia. Germany was rotten-ripe for its first bourgeois revolution while France, its birthplace in 1789, was struggling under Napoleon III, Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew.

According to Lih, there were some who were fooled into thinking that Marx was advocating socialist revolution. He singles out Hal Draper as an example: “According to Hal Draper, these passages outline a scenario of immediate transition to a proletarian revolution: ‘the idea of immediacy is stressed three times. The revolution is to move uninterruptedly from the bourgeois state into the proletarian revolution’.” So, you get the picture. Draper, a member of Cannon’s SWP who hooked up with Max Shachtman in the 1940 split, serves as a proxy for Leon Trotsky—Lars Lih’s nemesis.

In going back to 1850, Lih is trying to establish what we used to call “revolutionary continuity” in the SWP. That’s a kind of red thread that connects Marx’s 1850 writings to Kautsky and then Lenin in his eyes. In the SWP, our red thread was a bit different. It went from Marx to Lenin and then from Trotsky to James P. Cannon. When I joined in 1967, I was told that Jack Barnes would be the new James P. Cannon thus continuing the ideological legacy that would help ensure the future socialist victory. All that was cast aside when Barnes decided that the new succession would be from Lenin to Fidel Castro. To continue to uphold Trotsky’s permanent revolution theory would be grounds for expulsion.

After I quit the SWP and started thinking about it critically, I couldn’t help but think that this notion of “revolutionary continuity” had a lot in common with the bloodlines for thoroughbred horses and the kinds of dogs seen at the yearly Westminster show. Except in our case, it wasn’t blood that mattered but doctrine. Maybe a more useful analogy would be with the Vatican that had doctrinal continuity going back to the Apostles. I often wondered if Jack Barnes fantasized about being the Lenin of our age, with the kind of power a Pope enjoyed except involving revolutionary rather than eschatological hopes.

Unlike Jack Barnes, Lih is a far more modest thinker. Keep in mind that he has never been part of any movement and probably puts as much time and energy into Gilbert and Sullivan productions as he does for writing paywall articles accessible mostly to university employees or a retiree like me. Lih has largely been responsible for the Karl Kautsky revival that has provided the theoretical basis for Jacobin’s stubborn support for the Democratic Party. In an article titled “Why Kautsky Was Right (and Why You Should Care)”, Eric Blanc said that reading him would help the left get over dogmatic assumptions such as “whether it’s okay to ever use the Democratic Party ballot line.”

Returning to what Marx wrote in 1850, you have to wonder if Lih was characterizing Hal Draper’s views accurately. If you keep in mind that his purpose in writing his 3-volume classic was to explain what Karl Marx stood for rather than Hal Draper, a review of the chapter Lih referenced will reveal little of the Trotsky/Proxyism. Instead, Draper makes it quite clear that Marx did not project much more than a bourgeois democratic republic with workers in the driver’s seat—not that far from what Lih advocates as did Lenin until the April Theses.

The second version involves a simple change: since the bourgeoisie refuses to take political power, the Democracy must strive to capture political power directly for itself. What remains unchanged is this: the perspective is still to accelerate bourgeois economic development (modernization and industrialization) under the aegis of the new revolutionary power to the point where the next stage—proletarian power—goes onto the order of the day. The bourgeois-democratic stage is to be telescoped under a political power which is not that of the bourgeoisie itself. (Looking ahead, we can see an analogy: under Bonapartism the bourgeois stage is also going to be carried out under a political power which is not that of the bourgeoisie itself).

Take note of Hal Draper’s reference to accelerating bourgeois economic development. In distinction to Lih, Draper’s understanding of the bourgeois revolution is not based on democratic rights, etc. alone. It is joined at the hip to capitalism’s ability to develop the forces of production that are necessary to create a socialist society in the future: a proletariat and  modern industry. Since Lih’s focus is on politics rather than on economics, this is something that he either missed or, perhaps, decided to sweep under the rug.

In Frederick Engels’s 1895 introduction to Marx’s “Class Struggles in France”, you’ll see how preoccupied Marx’s partner was with the forces of production:

History has proved us wrong and all others who thought similarly. It has made clear that the status of economic development on the Continent was then by no means ripe for the abolition of capitalist production; it has proved this by the economic revolution which, since 1848, has affected the entire Continent and has introduced large industry in France, Austria, Hungary. Poland, and, more recently, in Russia, and has made of Germany an industrial country of the first rank-all this upon a capitalist basis which, reckoning from 1848, implies great expansive capacity. But it was just this industrial revolution that has everywhere introduced clarity in regard to class relations, which has eliminated a mass of hybrid forms taken over from the period of manufacture and, in Eastern Europe, even from guild handicraft, which has produced a real bourgeoisie and a real industrial proletariat and forced both into the foreground of social evolution. Thereby has the struggle between these two great classes, which in 1848 existed outside of England only in Paris and, perchance, in a few large industrial centers, been spread over the whole of Europe, and has attained an intensity unthinkable in 1848.

Engels refers above to how the industrial revolution created a powerful working class only in England and Paris by 1848. Later in the article, he refers to the Paris Commune that Marx regarded as the incipient dictatorship of the proletariat, which Lenin cited as a precursor to the infant Soviet republic in “State and Revolution”:

After the war of 1870-71, Bonaparte disappears from the stage and Bismarck’s mission is finished, so that he can subside again to his status of an ordinary Junker. The termination of this period is formed by the Paris Commune. A surreptitious attempt by Thiers to abstract from the Paris National Guard its cannon, caused a victorious uprising. It was again shown that, in Paris, no revolution is possible other than a proletarian one. Government fell, after the victory, into the lap of the working class, all by itself.

That hardly conforms to the Kautskyite formulas spread through Lars Lih’s body of articles and books. I am hesitant to think in terms of red threads nowadays but it doesn’t seem far-fetched to connect the dotted lines between the Paris Commune, the USSR prior to Stalin’s rise, Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, and Lenin’s April Theses.

We have reached a stage in human history when all the old gradualist schemas seem utterly ill-suited to the collapse of capitalist society all around us. With pandemics and ecological collapse threatening our very existence, the need to construct a mass, internationally-based revolutionary party is more urgent than ever. Lih’s pleasant existence as a Musicology Professor at McGill University and his inexhaustible appetite for picking fights with revolutionary socialists make you wonder what makes him tick. After reading most of everything he has written for the past twenty years, I can only say that I am finding him terminally pernicious.


  1. “I am hesitant to think in terms of red threads nowadays but it doesn’t seem far-fetched to connect the dotted lines between the Paris Commune, the USSR prior to Stalin’s rise, Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution, and Lenin’s April Theses.”

    I can’t speak for Draper’s development after he left the IS, but prior to that, what you’ve written above was, I believe, his understanding. It was also the common understanding of the IS itself.

    Comment by davidberger6799 — January 7, 2021 @ 6:33 am

  2. You could have titled your post “The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Lih” if Lih had ever contributed to the revolutionary socialist movement.

    Comment by Dayne Goodwin — January 16, 2021 @ 11:14 am

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