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Permanent Revolution - a reply to Doug Lorimer

Author’s Note: This document was produced as a reply to the Democratic Socialist Party (Australia) pamphlet ‘Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution – a Leninist Critique’. It sparked a reply from its author, and two rejoinders. For the full debate go to www.dsp.org.au, click on ‘documents’ on the contents bar to the left.

By Phil Hearse

 “No one, no force, can overthrow the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries except the revolutionary proletariat. Now, after the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible. The only solution is for power to be in the hands of the proletariat, and for the latter to be supported by the poor peasants or semi-proletarians. And we have already indicated the factors that can enormously accelerate this solution.” (VI Lenin, On Slogans July 1917, my emphasis PH.)

 “We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a "by-product" of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities. We have always said that reforms are a by-product of the revolutionary class struggle. We said -- and proved it by deeds -- that bourgeois-democratic reforms are a by-product of the proletarian, i.e., of the socialist revolution.” (VI Lenin, Speech on the 4th anniversary of the revolution).

  “My tactical conclusions coincided completely with those which Lenin drew at the same time in Geneva, and consequently were in the same irreconcilable contradiction to the conclusions of Stalin, Kamenev and the other epigones. When I arrived in Petrograd, nobody asked me if I renounced my ‘errors’ on the permanent revolution...Kamenev accused Lenin of Trotskyism and declared when he first met me: ‘now you have the last laugh on us’. On the eve of the October revolution I wrote in the central Bolshevik organ on the prospect of the permanent revolution. It never occurred to anyone to come out against me.” (Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution p221, Pathfinder edition).

 Introduction: why debate?

 The Australian Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) has produced a brochure by Doug Lorimer, one of its central leaders, criticising Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution and counterposing “Lenin’s theory of the revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”[i].

 After the fall of the Soviet Union, and the defeats suffered by the workers’ movement and the left at the hands of neo-liberalism over the past 20 years, we are necessarily involved in a process of rebuilding the socialist movement internationally. In this situation - the fight for socialist renewal - international collaboration cannot be on the basis of total agreement on theory, strategy or tactics. Collaboration must also involve a fight for learning the lessons of past mistakes. It is inevitable then that international collaboration should simultaneously involve the breaking down of old boundaries, and comradely debate and polemic.

The DSP knows that all or some the members of a number of organisations with which it seeks to collaborate hold, or tend towards, the permanent revolution theory. These include, inter alia, the sections of the Fourth International, the Scottish Socialist Party, the Pakistani Labour Party, the NSSP in Sri Lanka, Solidarity in the USA and Socialist Democracy in Britain. But it is quite correct for the DSP not to have been swayed by petty “diplomacy” in forthrightly criticising permanent revolution in a very polemical pamphlet. Equally Doug Lorimer recently wrote a very sharp attack on Michel Löwy’s book on the national question[ii], despite the DSP’s collaboration with the French LCR and the Fourth International, of which Löwy is one of the best known theorists. This critique of Doug Lorimer’s pamphlet then follows the same policy: that international collaboration will go hand-in-hand with open critique and polemic.

The debate over permanent revolution of course mainly pertains to the semi-colonial and dependent semi-industrialised countries; and Australia  falls into neither of these categories. However, insofar as the DSP influences some organisations in these countries, and insofar as Doug Lorimer’s brochure attempts a general strategic view in these countries which is different to permanent revolution, it can only be confusing and disorienting.  

The theory of permanent revolution, as explained by Trotsky, does have some weaknesses in the light of 20th century experience. But these weaknesses apply just as much to the “democratic dictatorship” two-stage theory which Doug Lorimer defends. His general conclusion, that permanent revolution is “an inferior guide to revolutionary action compared to the Leninist theory and policy of a two-stage, uninterrupted revolution” is wrong. The reverse is true. 

In this document I make the following criticisms of Doug Lorimer’s approach:- 

1)  The whole pamphlet is written on the basis of an obviously false assumption; namely that the social structure of ‘third world’ countries today is much the same as that in pre-1917 Russia or 1920s China - ie that the peasantry is the overwhelmingly numerically dominant class. The fact that this is today untrue in most dominated and semi-colonial countries is not referred to once in Doug Lorimer’s pamphlet. This is connected to the second error. 

2) Doug Lorimer confines his critique to the experience of pre-revolutionary Russia, and to 1920s-30s China, and does not discuss either the other revolutionary experiences of the 20th century, or post-Trotsky attempts to analyse and re-analyse the theory in the light of subsequent experience. In his introduction Lorimer writes: 

 “I have also not attempted to take up the innumerable distortions of Lenin’s views on the class dynamics of the Russian revolution made by later Trotskyists and writers influenced by Trotskyism, preferring instead to concentrate on the original source of these distortions, ie Trotsky himself”. (Lorimer p9). 

 Thus into the dustbin of “innumerable distortions” go the writings of Isaac Deutscher, Marcel Liebman, Ernest Mandel, and two very important works which deal with these problems - Norman Geras’ “Legacy of Rosa Luxemburg”[iii] and Michael Löwy’s “Politics of Uneven Development - the theory of permanent revolution”[iv], not to mention the works of non-Marxist scholars like EH Carr. Löwy’s book in particular is a full-scale attempt to re-assess permanent revolution, taking into account all the most fundamental revolutionary experiences of the 20th century, and incidentally answering in advance every single point that Lorimer makes.  

Thus instead of an attempt to re-assess Lenin’s and Trotsky’s theories in the light of historical and contemporary experience, Doug Lorimer’s pamphlet stays stuck in a pre-revolutionary Russian time warp, which contributes to the brochure’s doctrinaire flavour. 

3) Doug Lorimer’s pamphlet fails to recognise that the solution of the national and democratic tasks of the revolution, in an epoch where ‘third world’ countries have achieved formal independence, but are still in the deepening iron grip of imperialist finance capital, cannot be solved without anti-capitalist measures, ie tasks of the socialist revolution. How can any state achieve real national liberation today without breaking the grip of the transnational corporations, World Bank, IMF and domestic banks and finance houses? 

4) The DSP pamphlet gives a partial, one-sided and therefore false account of the debates inside the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party up to October 1917, attempting to ignore the contradictions and inconsistencies in Lenin’s position, and to falsely caricature the position of Trotsky. In particular the pamphlet misrepresents the crucial debates inside the Bolshevik party in 1917.  It further omits all references to and quotations from Lenin which tend to contradict the DSP view. One is reminded of the debate in the Russian Central Committee in 1928, when Bukharin, like Lorimer, was attempting to prove the continuity of Lenin’s policy with quotations. Trotsky interjected: “there are many quotations which prove the opposite”. Bukharin, caught off guard, replied: “I know that, but I’m choosing the quotations which support my view, not yours”! 

5) Doug Lorimer tends to give a false picture of the nature and significance of the post-1923 struggles in Russia and elsewhere between partisans of the ‘two-stage’ and ‘permanent revolution’ positions - effectively writing out the struggle against Stalinism and its neo-Menshevik ‘two-stage’ positions. 

6) Paradoxically, while attempting to paint Trotsky’s views in the worst possible light, Doug Lorimer comes up with definitions of what the ‘revolutionary-democratic dictatorship’ might mean in practice which come close to being re-writes of permanent revolution. These theoretical concessions to Trotsky’s theory give back to Trotsky with the left hand what Lorimer thinks he has taken away with the right. We are thus left with an eclectic and dangerously confused mish-mash.

Despite what I say here about the importance of demonstrating theories by their contemporary relevance, I have necessarily been forced to take up Doug Lorimer at some length on his own chosen terrain - what happened in Russia. 

 The central strategic problem: class alliances in the dominated countries 

The centre-piece of Doug Lorimer’s criticism of Trotsky, the crux of his whole argument, comes down to this. He claims that in order to move towards socialist revolution it is first necessary to complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution, something Trotsky failed to understand. To complete the bourgeois democratic revolution, it is necessary to forge an alliance between the working class and the whole peasantry, on the basis of national and democratic demands, and this alliance can then take power in the form of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”. This alliance will include the “peasant bourgeoisie” and can then proceed to complete the bourgeois democratic revolution, in particular land reform, and only then can a break with the peasant bourgeoisie take place and the transition to socialist revolution be posed. This forms an “uninterrupted” process, but with a definite and distinct “national democratic” stage. It is thus a “two-stage” revolution. Lorimer argues:- 

“The Bolsheviks projected a line of march that was necessary for the working class to take and hold power in Russia. The Bolsheviks recognised that a socialist revolution could only be carried out in Russia if the majority of the population (the workers and poor peasants) supported it. But the majority of workers, and above all the masses of poor peasants could only be won to support a socialist revolution through their own experience in struggle. As long as the bourgeois democratic revolution was not completed, the Bolsheviks argued, the poor peasants would remain united with the peasant bourgeoisie in the struggle against the landlords and would not see their problems stemmed not only from the vestiges of feudalism in Russia (the autocracy and landlordism) but also from capitalism. As long as this remained the case, the revolutionary proletariat would be unable to rally the majority of the country’s population, i.e. the semi-proletarian section of the peasantry, to the perspective of carrying out a socialist revolution.” (Lorimer p.19). 

In the next section we go into whether this is an adequate account of what happened in Russia[v].  But even if it were, would this be applicable as a general schema for the ‘third world’ today? For South Korea, Argentina, Mexico, Brazil, Iran and South Africa? In fact social changes in a whole series of the dominated countries exclude such a strategy a priori, because the class composition of these countries - and the relative numerical weight of the different classes on a world scale - has changed dramatically.  In 1929 Trotsky could write: 

 “Not only the agrarian, but also the national question, assigns to the peasantry - the overwhelming majority in the backward countries - an exceptional place in the democratic revolution”. (Permanent Revolution p.276 - my emphasis.) 

Doug Lorimer writes:  

“Trotsky’s inability to clearly understand that a proletarian-socialist revolution could not be carried out in a peasant country except on the basis of the completion of the tasks of the peasant-democratic revolution, led him to identify the Bolshevik perspective with that of Menshevism.” (Lorimer p.70. Trotsky’s ‘identification’ of Menshevik and Bolshevik policy is dealt with below). 

Doug goes on to his conclusion - that permanent revolution is an ‘inferior’ guide to revolutionary action compared with what he takes to be Lenin’s theory - straight from his polemic about Trotsky’s theory “in a peasant country”, without a nod in the direction of the fact that today that most third world countries are not ‘peasant’ countries in the way that Russia was in 1917. 

As late as the 1960s socialist writers as diverse as Ted Grant, Tony Cliff and Ernest Mandel could all write “the overwhelming majority of the world’s population are peasants”. This is not true at the turn of the millennium. As Michael Löwy, writing about the 1848 Communist Manifesto and its relevance for today, puts it:- 

“That appeal (ie the Manifesto’s call for international working class unity -PH) was a visionary one. In 1848 the proletariat was still only a minority in most European societies, not to mention the rest of the world. Today the mass of wage workers exploited by capital - industrial workers, white collar workers, services employees, day labourers, farmhands - comprises the majority of the world’s population. It is by far and away the most important force in the class struggle against the global capitalist system, and the axis around which all other social forces other social struggles can and must orient themselves.” (Monthly Review, November 1998, pp22-3). 

The problem with Doug Lorimer abstracting from the Russian experience and transferring it, without mediation of any kind, to contemporary conditions, is that the changes described by Michel Löwy have changed the relative weight of the classes within specific countries and not just on a world scale. As an example which I know a little bit about, let’s look at Mexico. 

The Mexican example 

In Mexico the peasants - individual peasant farmers with their own plots of land - are a small minority of the population. Already in 1960 50% of the Mexican population lived in towns, today the figure is around 75% (compared with about 15%  in 1917 Russia). More than 20% of the roughly 98 million population live in Mexico City, whose population is incidentally bigger than that of countries like Belgium and Holland. The rural population is not in its majority composed of peasants but of agricultural labourers, working for a wage - and often only seasonally and intermittently employed.  

In the cities, the proletarian population lives side by side with the legions of urban poor, often engaged in petty trade, criminal activity - in general the ‘informal’ sector. But even here, the urban poor are often disguised proletarians. For example, the vast majority of the 100,000 ‘ambulantes’ in Mexico City - street traders - are actually employees of mafia-capitalists who control the street trade. Another huge sector of the urban population is engaged in home working, producing everything from clothes to fireworks in their backrooms and back yards. These people, despite the fact that they may own their own (pitiful) ‘means of production’, are also disguised proletarians, selling their products to the vastly rich capitalists who control the trade for a pittance. 

Now what do these changes in the social structure over the last 40 years mean for socialist strategy? The first point to make is that a society like Mexico is very different from Russia, not just from the point of view of social structure but from the point of view of the character of the agrarian question, which dominated the thinking of Russian Marxists about the peasantry. Lenin and Trotsky debated how to overthrow a semi-feudal aristocracy based on landed estates. But in Mexico there is no semi-feudal aristocracy, there is agribusiness, the thorough permeation of agriculture by capitalism, by capitalist social relations, and not the social relations of semi-feudalism. The enemies of the rural poor are Mexican capitalist farmers and international, especially American, agribusiness transnational corporations. Insofar as you can talk about latifundia in Mexico, it takes the form of big farms, linked to agribusiness and the rural bourgeoisie (not a semi-feudal aristocracy). 

The demands of the rural poor come right up against the national and international bourgeoisie, and are therefore directly linked with the anti-capitalist (not anti-feudal) struggle. This is obvious to virtually the whole Mexican left, and reflected in the ideology of the main peasant organisations of struggle - like the OCSS (Organisacion de Los Campesinos de la Sierra del Sur - Peasant Organisation of the Southern Sierra) - which are socialist, anti-capitalist, explicitly linked with urban left organisations. In other words, there is no push whatever to create an independent party of the peasantry, counterposed to proletarian and socialist demands. Insofar as the left and progressive parties fight for the allegiance of the rural poor, it is against the right-wing bourgeois parties, particularly the governing PRI. In other words, in a historical sense, the battle for the allegiance of the rural poor is directly between the working class and the bourgeoisie. A striking confirmation of Lenin’s argument that:- 

“If the peasant does not march behind the workers, he marches behind the bourgeoisie. There is and there can be no middle course.” (VI Lenin, The Year 1919). 

 A worker-peasant-indigenous alliance - which already exists in skeleton form - will be under the political leadership of the working class, and while putting forward demands to meet the needs of the peasants, will combine these with demands which meet the interests of the proletariat itself.

The governmental slogan which virtually the whole Mexican far left puts forward is “un gobierno obrera, compesino, idigena y popular” (a workers, peasants, indigenous and popular government). Even this of course does not capture the full complexity and diversity of the popular masses who will have to be mobilised to conquer state power. But such a government could not be anything but the dictatorship of the proletariat, ie a socialist government.

In a revolution in a country like Mexico there can be no talk of an alliance with the “peasant bourgeoisie” against the semi-feudal aristocracy, because there is no peasant bourgeoisie and no semi-feudal aristocracy. Does this mean that the demands of the peasants and the rural poor - in particular “land to the tiller” - are irrelevant or totally secondary? Not at all. For historical reasons the struggles of the peasants and indigenous people have enormous weight, and are enormously popular with the progressive sections of the urban workers. But it does mean that the crucial class to carry through a revolutionary transition is the working class itself. A worker-peasant-indigenous government could only be one under the political and ideological hegemony of the proletariat. 

The spectacular growth in the urban population in many third world countries is directly linked to changes in agriculture, ie the intrusion of capitalist social relations, the subordination of the rural population to agribusiness. This has led to the destitution of millions of peasants and their transformation into landless rural workers, often employed for only a small part of the year and living a miserable, semi-starvation existence. Mass migration to the cities (Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Karachi and Jakarta are classic examples) is a logical move for the rural poor: they know that the miserable existence of the urban poor is generally better, with more opportunities, than staying in the countryside. But a paradoxical effect of these processes is sometimes to heighten, rather than diminish, the importance of the land question. 

The intrusion of agribusiness, especially in this neo-liberal epoch, tends to involve counter-reforms in countries where limited land reform has already taken place (Mexico is an example). Nonetheless, individual or collective land ownership by the peasantry cannot be a solution to rural poverty in and of itself, so long as agribusiness retains its iron grip on the purchase and marketing of agricultural produce. Where agribusiness determines the prices and the quantities bought, rural poverty is bound to follow and the peasants become the indirect employees of national and international capital. (A recent article has explained why even in the United States independent small and medium farmers are being transformed into sui generis proletarians (Farmer as Proletarian, RC Lewontin, Monthly Review, July/August 1998, p.72]). 

However, owning your own plot of land and/or being part of a peasant collective, while not freeing you of your subordination to agribusiness, is going to give you more economic possibilities than being a landless labourer. That’s why movements like Brazil’s MST (Movement of the Landless) and similar movements have such enormous popularity. But coming up against not a semi-feudal aristocracy, but against the domestic and international capitalist/agribusiness nexus, these movements tend to have a spontaneously anti-capitalist ideology and ally themselves with the urban left. Show me a leader of the MST, and I will show you a Guevarist, a Maoist, a partisan of semi-Marxist liberation theology or a supporter of the PT (Workers Party). You will not find the social and political basis for an ‘independent’ peasant party counterposed to the Left, you will not find a peasant bourgeoisie, and you will not - outside some limited cases like rural Pakistan or parts of pre-1994 Chiapas (where the social relations of bonded labour, semi-slavery, persist(ed)) - find anything like a semi-feudal aristocracy. 

Of all people, Doug Lorimer and the DSP leadership, should know this because of their close attention to the debates in the Philippines Communist Movement. Remember, Doug, the early 1990s polemics by the Manila-Rizal leadership against the ‘semi-feudal, semi-colonial’ thesis of Sison and the CPP leadership, which was the theoretical basis of their Maoist, two-stage ‘bloc of four classes’ strategy? 

The decline of the semi-feudal aristocracy on an international scale is a function (to state the obvious) that it is (was) a hangover from the feudal mode of production which in a world more capitalist than ever, no longer exists. Russia in 1917 was a very peculiar social formation, being at the same time an imperialist country, financially dependent on western imperialist powers (especially France and Britain) and having, simultaneously, a semi-feudal rural class and a huge majority of peasants in its population. Where exactly can you find a similar social formation in the world today?  

One country which is overwhelmingly peasant in composition is of course the largest - China. Today only about 450 million people - about a third of the population - live in cities. This is a much bigger proportion than in 1917 Russia, and China indeed has some of the largest concentrations of the proletariat in the world. And there is indeed a peasant bourgeoisie, the kulak class created by Deng Xiaoping’s late ‘70s economic reforms which broke up the peasant communes - and have in successive stages led to China’s transformation into a capitalist state. However, Doug Lorimer’s theory could not possibly apply to contemporary China. The peasant bourgeoisie will not struggle for land reform against a non-existent semi-feudal landlord class, it will fight tooth and nail to defend its gains, together with the urban bourgeoisie, against the urban proletariat and the rural workers. Class struggle will develop along the axis of anti-capitalist struggle, under the hegemony of the proletariat. 

Irrespective of whether Doug Lorimer’s theory of Russia is right or wrong, it should be ABC that it needs confirmation of its contemporary applicability by reference to concrete conditions today. And cannot be just assumed by swapping quotations from what Lenin and Trotsky said about 1917. 

National and democratic tasks in the era of neo-liberal globalisation

The 1997 Asian financial crash was greeted with almost undisguised glee by sections of the ‘Washington consensus’ financial establishment. The World Bank waxed lyrical about the new possibilities of ‘globalisation’, by which they meant the buying up of South Korean, Indonesian and Taiwanese companies at bargain-basement prices by US companies. Neo-liberalism, the latest phase of imperialism, has clamped the semi-colonial and dependent countries under the most harsh regime of exploitation since the era of direct imperialist occupation.

The experience of the Asian ‘tigers’ and ‘dragons’ has disproved the idea that these countries are real independent centres of capital accumulation to rival the imperialist powers, and shown their financial dependence of the Western  imperialist centres. However much they may sometimes strain at the leash, the bourgeoisie in these countries is bound hand to foot to the imperialists. As a consequence, the ideologies of bourgeois and petty bourgeois nationalism which swept the third world in the 1950s and ‘60s, have been seriously undermined. The Nassers and Nehrus of yesteryear have been replaced by pale imitations, unwilling to take the faintest independent step against the imperialist powers. The national oppression of the semi-colonial and dependent countries has deepened and not lessened.

After the fall of the Berlin wall, the United States responded with a fake ‘democracy’ offensive. But a brief glance at Asia, Africa and Latin America today tells us that, far from democracy taking giant strides, neo-liberalism necessarily goes hand-in-hand with deepening repression.

For reasons explained earlier, the destitution of the rural poor and the immiseration of partially-employed agricultural labourers - together with the flight to the cities - has in many places increased the importance of the land question. 

From these factors, we cannot conclude that there is any diminution of the centrality of democratic and national questions (including land reform) in these countries. What has changed is the class structure of many semi-colonial and dependent countries, strongly increasing the specific weight of the working class. This is a positive factor in the struggle for socialism. But the content of the struggle for real national liberation and real democracy is more than ever an anti-imperialist and thus anti-capitalist struggle. 

DSP writer Norm Dixon has recently made the point that the struggle for national liberation is now even more than ever an anti-imperialist struggle. He argues: 

“The struggle for national liberation has shifted overwhelmingly to demands to end the Third World's subservience to the dictates of the World Bank and IMF, rejection of the austerity programs formulated by these imperialist‑controlled institutions, and the demand to cancel foreign debt. As a result, the labour and socialist movements are more centrally placed and essential in the struggle for national liberation than ever before.” (Marx, Engels and Lenin on the National Question, Links no 13). 

Exactly. Real national liberation today means breaking the dominance of imperialist finance capital over the peoples of the exploited countries. This of course is a task of the socialist revolution, not the democratic revolution. A solution of the national and democratic tasks of the revolution, the “completion” of the national-democratic revolution, is inconceivable without anti-capitalist measures, for example the establishment of a monopoly of foreign trade, the nationalisation of the banks and finance houses, a regime of workers control over the finance houses and big monopolies, and the expropriation of - or at least the state control and supervision of - the assets of transnational corporations.  

Now, if Doug is going to turn round and say all these measures are quite compatible with the national democratic revolution, carried out by what he calls a “special form of the dictatorship of the proletariat”, he has really just baptised the first steps of socialist revolution with another name and agrees in essence with permanent revolution. If not, then he is going to be the partisan of a ‘democratic revolution’ which singularly fails - in the epoch of the domination of globalised finance capital - to solve the national and democratic tasks of the revolution. 

The centrality of these anti-capitalist measures to solve the national and democratic tasks of the revolution was made by Trotsky in his writings on China. He argued:- 

“The most extreme agrarian revolution, the general division of the land (which will naturally be supported by the communist party to the very end) will not by itself provide a way out of the economic blind alley. China requires just as urgently national unity and economic sovereignty, that is customs autonomy, or more correctly a monopoly of foreign trade. And this means emancipation from imperialism...” (The Third International after Lenin, Pathfinder edition, p.183). 

These continuing importance of the national and democratic questions makes alliances centering on these issues - especially between the workers and poor peasants - essential for mobilising the forces of anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, transition. 

But a decisive issue facing the revolutionary movement in third world countries today is how to articulate the question of class independence, ie working class independence of strategic alliances with the bourgeoisie. There are no cook-book recipes which give precise tactical advice on how this is to be achieved in each concrete situation. Tactical and conjunctural alliances with forces from bourgeois nationalist and petty bourgeois nationalist traditions are absolutely inevitable in this period, in specific campaigns and movements. This is different to a strategic alliance, such as that envisaged in the Stalinist-Menshevik version of the ‘two-stage’ theory.

In the movements around national and democratic objectives today, the revolutionary forces have to advance the objective of a “workers and peasants government” - ie a government politically led by the working class, supported by the poor peasants and other oppressed groups. This can only be the first stage of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The DSP on Indonesia

If Doug Lorimer does not attempt to demonstrate his theory by reference to contemporary conditions, one DSP writer - former Green Left staffer and present Canberra branch secretary James Vassilopoulos - has attempted to do this with reference to Indonesia (Uninterrupted Revolution, GLW 373).  

At the time of writing (October 1999) the political situation in Indonesia is extremely unstable, with right wing forces led by the army attempting to throw back the democratic gains made during and since the overthrow of Suharto. In this situation, the task of socialists in imperialist countries is to build solidarity, to the best of their abilities and in their own national circumstances, with the popular movements in that country. However this, as James’ article shows, cannot preclude debate about the strategy to be followed by socialists. 

James polemicises against the views of the Australian ISO. But in doing so he makes an entirely failed attempt to squeeze Indonesia into the optic of 1917 Russia. He starts off by conceding that social reality is entirely different between the two countries:- 

“How can Lenin’s policy of uninterrupted revolution be applied in Indonesia today? Indonesia is a capitalist country oppressed by imperialism. Russia was a weak imperialist power, with survivals of feudal relations in the countryside.” 

So far, so good. But... 

“The main significance of the Russian Revolution for Indonesia lies in the fact that in Indonesia, like Russia in 1917, the working class is in a minority. A socialist revolution cannot occur without the active support of the poor peasants.

“Before the 1997 economic crisis, there were some 86 million employed workers out of a population of 200 million in Indonesia. There are substantially fewer now since millions of workers have lost their jobs”. 

86 million employed workers, even if this number has fallen since the 1997 Asian crash, is an enormous percentage of the economically active population. In an advanced country it would the be more than the whole of the economically active population, although in a poor country where children and the elderly often have to work, it is a smaller proportion. Nonetheless, we should bear in mind Lenin’s strictures about the social and political weight of the proletariat:- 

“The strength of the proletariat in any capitalist country is infinitely greater than the proportion of the proletariat in the total population. This is due to the fact that the proletariat is in economic command of the central points and nerve centres of the entire capitalist system of economy, and because the proletariat expresses economically and politically the real interests of the vast majority of the toilers under capitalism.

“For this reason the proletariat, even if it constitutes the minority of the population (or in cases where the conscious and truly revolutionary vanguard of the proletariat comprises a minority of the nation) is capable both of overthrowing the bourgeoisie and of attracting subsequently (note: subsequently -PH) to it side many allies from among the masses of the semi-proletarians and petty bourgeois, who will never come out beforehand for the domination of the proletariat...but who will convince themselves from their subsequent experiences of the inevitability, justice and legitimacy of the proletarian dictatorship”. (VI Lenin, The Year 1919). 

 James continues:- 

“According to the PRD (People’s Democratic Party) about 10.5 million workers are employed in manufacturing, 30 million in service and mining industries, and 46 million in agriculture. In the cities there are millions of urban poor, many of whom are semi-proletarians, having only occasional waged work, and engaging in petty trading activities for survival.” 

At this point we should note that by any Marxist definition whatever, James has so far listed more than 40 million proletarian workers - even if we were to take the false step of discounting rural workers - ie 20% of the whole population, and a much bigger percentage than the Russian proletariat in 1917. James continues:- 

“If Indonesia is to have a socialist revolution, a revolutionary alliance between the working class and the tens of millions of rural and urban semi-proletarians will have to be forged...To forge such an alliance the revolutionary workers will have to champion the immediate needs of the peasant masses, which centre on winning democracy and land reform.

“The majority of Indonesia’s rural population are still landowning peasants. In the early 1980s, almost 16 million small landowners grew subsistence and cash crops on some 16 million hectares.” 

Of course, the algebra of revolution will never be solved by simple arithmetic, but at first blush I fail to see why the 16 million small peasant landowners are a majority against the 46 million rural workers. It would seem more logical to say that the economically active majority in the countryside are rural proletarians - at least on the basis of the figures which James quotes. 

He goes on:- 

“A Marxist party in Indonesia today would need to build a revolution as two stages of one uninterrupted process. In the first stage, an alliance would have to be forged between the workers and the whole of the peasantry. It would also have to include campus students (who largely come from urban bourgeois and middle class families) and the urban poor.

“Such an alliance would need to win the democratic right to strike, protest and organise.

“Under Indonesian law it is a crime to publish and distribute Marxist literature. So winning political liberty is crucial to being able to conduct open socialist educational and organising work among the masses of the people.” 

In his account of the alliance that needs to be forged, James has left out the agricultural workers. Once this correction is made, the vast majority of this alliance would be composed of proletarians and ‘semi-proletarians’ - ie those directly exploited by capital. Such an alliance, while centering initially on democratic and national tasks, would be inevitably be under the organisational and political hegemony of the working class. And its victory would be, as explained by the theory of permanent revolution, the dictatorship of the proletariat, the first step of the socialist revolution. 

James Vassilopoulos’ whole account is an attempt to argue that because alliances between different social groupings have to be made, this alliance must be of the same type as the (DSP’s account of) the worker-peasant alliance in Russia. In fact, even in imperialist countries the working class will have to lead an alliance (and it will include sections of the petty-bourgeoisie, semi-proletarian sections of the urban poor and even students!). The question is - under whose political leadership and hegemony? There will never be any such thing as a “pure” workers’ revolution. As Lenin said in his polemic over the 1916 Easter rising in Dublin: anyone who expects to see a revolution where the workers line up on one side, and the bourgeoisie on the other - with no other forces or alliances involved - is doomed to be permanently disappointed.  

James and the DSP are trying to make the urban poor and rural labourers into an ersatz substitute for the Russian peasantry. But in doing so, they are making an unwitting ‘workerist’ error in their conception of the proletariat. The proletariat today, in every country, is an immensely diverse, stratified and varied class. In the imperialist countries service workers of all kinds make up an enormous percentage of the working class, in some countries a bigger proportion than in manufacturing. The definition of the proletariat is not that it works in manufacturing, but the wage labour-capital relationship, ie the selling and exploitation of labour power, and the appropriation of surplus value from the labourers by the capitalist class. That is what makes millions of, for example, home workers proletarians. Obviously it is this definition of the working class which underpins Michel Löwy’s statement above. 

We can see the false counterpositions involved in the “two-stage’ dogma in an astounding section of James’ polemic. Under the heading ‘Socialist revolution Now?’ he argues:- 

“Should the PRD be calling for an immediate socialist revolution today? Such a call would have no mass resonance because the working class does not have sufficient class consciousness and organisation to carry it out and the poor peasants are inert.” 

I don’t know if the Australian ISO advocates ‘immediate socialist revolution today’, but if so they are out to lunch. Any serious debate between a “two-stage” and “permanentist” perspective in Indonesia would not be about ‘socialist revolution now’, but overall strategic perspectives. The immediate tasks of the class struggle in any country revolve around an uneven combination of transitional, democratic, immediate economic and other demands, depending on the situation. ‘Socialist revolution now’ is only relevant in a revolutionary situation, and even then it is unlikely to be posed in those words. 

What would we say about someone in the Italy who advocated ‘socialist revolution now’? Total ultraleft, at the very minimum. But we would not draw out from that, surely, that the revolution in Italy would be anything other than a proletarian and socialist revolution, and not a “two-stage” revolution? Despite the fact that 8% of the Italian population are individual landowning peasants, and that there is a large petty-bourgeoisie, and that a significant section of the population of some of the cities are ‘semi-proletarians’ (street traders and the like)? 

The debate over perspectives in a country like Indonesia is about something else, namely this. Can the national and democratic tasks of the revolution, in particular land reform and freeing of the country from imperialist domination (is that not the central ‘national’ issue today?) be solved other than through a huge national alliance which involves at its centre the multi-millioned legions of the proletariat and semi-proletariat? And could such an alliance possibly be under the hegemony and leadership of any class but the working class? Won’t such an alliance, if it is victorious, come immediately and massively into conflict with local capital and imperialism, and not ‘semi-feudalism’? And how could such a victorious revolution, in a country as important to world imperialism as Indonesia, avoid an immediate and direct clash with the long-term interests of local capitalism and world, especially, US imperialism? We return to these questions below. 

The debate inside the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP)

Doug Lorimer’s pamphlet contains an interesting section in which he attempts to prove “Trotsky’s identification of Bolshevik policy with Menshevism”, which according to him had become by the early 1930s a “grotesque absurdity” (Lorimer pp 67ff). Could this be the same Trotsky who wrote “Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution” (three not two Doug), in which Trotsky scrupulously explained the differences between Bolshevism, Menshevism and his own pre-1917 views (Trotsky Writings 1939-40)? 

Moreover, Trotsky in a painstaking and scrupulously objective way, explains the differences between the three views in Chapters 15 and 16 of the History of the Russian Revolution (The Bolsheviks and Lenin and Re-arming the Party). Doug Lorimer refers to Trotsky’s History as “providing an incomparable Marxist exposition of the events that led to the Bolshevik victory in 1917”. Has he forgotten that this whole book is written from the perspective of permanent revolution? Indeed is one of the most important expositions of the theory, it’s application to Russia and its theoretical underpinnings in the law of uneven and combined development? If Doug is right about the Trotsky’s views on the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks, then at the core of Trotsky’s book is ‘grotesque absurdity’ bordering on falsification. Strange then, that he should recommend its “incomparable Marxist exposition”. 

In “Three Conceptions” Trotsky is at pains to stress the tensions and contradictions within Lenin’s policy, and the fundamental change of 1917. The contradiction in Lenin’s policy, according to Trotsky, was on the one hand that he correctly identified that the Russian bourgeoisie would not lead its “own” bourgeois revolution, while at the same time failing to see the logical consequences of this; namely that if the working class in alliance with the peasantry led the revolution and took power, it would not and could not limit itself solely to the tasks of the bourgeois revolution and creating a bourgeois republic. Indeed, in the medium and long term, there cannot be a contradiction between the class(es) which hold the power, and the social programme which they implement. 

Before we go on to a textual examination of what Bolshevik policy  was, it is worth simply stating what the difference between the Doug Lorimer’s conception, and Trotsky’s conception, of the Russian revolution actually is. According to Lorimer, October 1917 saw the advent of the revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, which proceeded to complete the bourgeois revolution, and only after that in the summer of 1918 proceeded to the socialist revolution. But explicitly, October 1917 was not the socialist revolution. 

 According to the Trotsky (and -ist) explanation, the working class, supported by the poor peasantry seized power in a socialist revolution in October 1917, and first proceeded to solve the democratic tasks of the revolution, but combined this with tasks of the socialist revolution from the beginning. From the beginning, according to Trotsky’s conception, the working class held the power (which is, logically, the very definition of a socialist revolution, according to this conception). Trotsky’s account fits in well with the quotation from the 1921 Lenin speech at the beginning of this document: 

“We solved the problems of the bourgeois-democratic revolution in passing, as a "by-product" of our main and genuinely proletarian-revolutionary, socialist activities. We have always said that reforms are a by-product of the revolutionary class struggle. We said -- and proved it by deeds -- that bourgeois-democratic reforms are a by-product of the proletarian, i.e., of the socialist revolution (VI Lenin, Speech on the 4th anniversary of the revolution).” 

Equally, Lenin’s position in one of his most important works Economics and Politics in the Epoch of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, that the expropriation of the main groups of capitalists was accomplished “in a few months”, fits Trotsky’s position but not Lorimer’s. Lenin says: 

“We accomplished instantly, at one revolutionary blow, all that can, in general, be accomplished instantly; on the first day of the dictatorship of the proletariat, for instance, on October 26 (November 8),1917, the private ownership of land was abolished without compensation for the big landowners -- the big landowners were expropriated. Within the space of a few months practically all the big capitalists, owners of factories, joint-stock companies, banks, railways, and so forth, were also expropriated without compensation.” (VI Lenin, Economic and Politics in the Era of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat - my emphasis, PH). 

(How can “a few months”, with Soviet power, a Bolshevik-led government and a regime of workers’ control, be described as a “stage” in any but the most doctrinaire accounts? And how does this fit in with Lenin’s views in “Two Tactics” (1905) that the bourgeois revolution would be separated from the proletarian by a whole series of stages of revolutionary development?). 

The two different accounts - those of Lorimer and Trotsky - do however point to a difference, which has long existed within the Trotskyist movement and beyond, about the definition of the class nature of any particular revolution or state. Doug’s position, inherited from Joe Hansen and the US SWP, prioritises the character of the  relations of production - ie are they the social relations of nationalised property and national planning?  The Trotsky conception implicitly prioritises another criterion: which class has the power, and which social relations does this class, and its political representatives, defend in an historical sense

The logic of the Trotsky position is this: there is no socialist revolution in any country whatsoever, advanced or “backward”, which will carry out the socialist tasks of the revolution “all at once” (an absurd position which Lorimer attributes to Trotsky). As Marx and Engels explained in the Communist Manifesto, the working class will seize power “and then by degrees” socialise the economy. Are we to say, if the working class led by revolutionary organisations were to take the power in a country like France or Italy, that the socialist revolution had not happened until all basic industry was nationalised? If this were indeed to be the central criterion, we would probably have to conclude that all revolutions will have an initial, pre-socialist, stage. Indeed this was the trend of Joe Hansen’s thinking, made explicit by his latter-day caricaturers in the Jack Barnes loony-stage SWP (US)- that each socialist revolution would be preceded by a “workers and farmers government”.  

The timing of the socialisation of basic industry is, especially in more “backward” countries, a complex question. It crucially depends on the issue of whether the working class (and its allies) are socially and technically capable of running industry themselves. In the advanced countries where the working class has a higher educational and cultural level, the transition time will probably be short. Indeed the idea that the US, British, Canadian or French bourgeoisie would go on conducting its normal business for any length of time under the supervision of a workers’ government, and with a regime of workers’ control, is totally far-fetched. A revolutionary workers’ government in an imperialist country would almost certainly be faced with a sustained counter-revolutionary offensive, and the need to take more-or-less immediate steps to expropriate the major industries, banks and finance houses. 

But the Bolsheviks considered that the nationalisations of 1918 were “premature”, precisely from the point of view of the state of preparation of the working class to run industry. It was precisely to prepare for eventual socialisation that the Bolsheviks instituted the “regime of workers’ control and supervision” from the time they took power - the first step towards socialisation  The socialisations of 1918 were determined above all by the logic of the class struggle, ie the fierce clashes between workers and capitalists, leading to strikes, lock-outs and factory seizures by the workers. The working class took the tempo of socialisation into its own hands; a workers’ government had no choice but to sanction these workers’ expropriations, or come into sharp conflict with the working class. Doug Lorimer’s implicit scenario, that the Bolsheviks judged that the bourgeois democratic revolution was now completed and thus proceeded to the socialist revolution (“item 2 on the agenda, comrades!”) is a schema imposed upon the real course of events. In reality the socialisations were determined by the logic of the class struggle, ie by the workers themselves.. 

All these things happened in a country where the workers, through the soviets and the Bolshevik party, had conquered state power, ie where the dictatorship of the proletariat already existed. This of course confirms the “uninterrupted” (or to use the word used by Marx and Trotsky: permanent) character of the revolution. It does not however confirm a rigid two-stage theory. 

Doug Lorimer’s concessions to permanent revolution 

In trying to define the character of the regime which existed after the seizure of power in October 1917, Doug Lorimer ties himself up in rather “permanent” knots, and indeed comes very close to putting forward re-writes of Trotsky’s theory. He says:- 

“A revolutionary worker-peasant dictatorship, or state power, could only come into being if the workers in the cities overthrew and replaced state institutions of the tsarist landlord-capitalist state with their own organs of state power. The workers would use the state power they had conquered to rally the peasantry as a whole to consummate the bourgeois-democratic revolution and then, once the peasants came into conflict with the peasant bourgeoisie, to rally the poor peasants in the struggle for the transition to socialism. The proletarian-peasant dictatorship would therefore be the first stage of the proletarian dictatorship in Russia, or as Trotsky himself described in Results and Prospects, a “special form of proletarian dictatorship in the bourgeois revolution”. (Lorimer p 41). 

And again:- 

“A state power which organises the working class, in alliance with the peasantry as a whole, to suppress the resistance of the big landowners and industrialists in order to carry to completion a democratic revolution would also be a form of proletarian dictatorship, of working class state power. But it would not yet be the socialist dictatorship of the proletariat, ie a state power that organises the working class and the semi-proletarian elements to suppress the resistance of the capitalists to the “abolition of bourgeois property in city and village”. It would be a special form of proletarian state power in the bourgeois democratic revolution, a revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry.” (Lorimer p. 59, his emphasis). 

In these quotes Doug Lorimer its attempting to guard his back, because he knows very well that the Bolsheviks routinely described their regime from the first day of the revolution as the “dictatorship of the proletariat”. But in accepting that it was, in essence, the dictatorship of the proletariat, Lorimer is despite himself forced to veer towards permanentist perspectives. Who was it exactly in the RSDLP before 1917 who said that solving the national and democratic tasks would require the dictatorship of the proletariat? Wasn’t it the author of the theory of permanent revolution?  

Compare what Lorimer says with a passage he himself quotes from Trotsky:- 

“No matter what the first episodic first stages of the revolution might be in the individual countries, the realisation of the revolutionary alliance between the proletariat and the peasantry is conceivable only under the leadership of the proletarian vanguard...This in turn means that the victory of the democratic revolution is conceivable only through the dictatorship of the proletariat which bases itself upon the alliance with the peasantry and solves first the tasks of the bourgeois revolution.”  (Permanent Revolution p. 277, Pathfinder edition, quoted by Lorimer p.74). 

Now, there is a difference in emphasis between this quote and what Doug Lorimer says. But the similarity of positions - a worker-peasant alliance to create the proletarian dictatorship and solve the democratic tasks - will be obvious to anyone but the most doctrinaire. What is equally obvious is that neither of these two positions is anything like that defended by the Lenin or 1905 or 1908. Because, contrary to Lorimer, under the impact of the proof of events Lenin not only changed his position, but as a result demanded a change of the Bolshevik programme (and a change of the name of the party) in April 1917. Doug Lorimer imputes an identity to Lenin’s positions over the years 1905-17, in order to try to deny that he moved closer to Trotsky’s positions. It is to this we now turn. 

Lenin: from ‘bourgeois republic’ to ‘Commune state’ 

Against the Menshevik notion of subordinating the revolution to the liberal bourgeoisie, Lenin and the Bolsheviks developed the idea that the democratic revolution would be led by the workers and peasants - against the resistance of the bourgeoisie itself. In making this decisive theoretical advance, the Bolsheviks leadership implicitly acknowledged the workings of the law of uneven and combined development, later formulated by Trotsky and explained in the History of the Russian Revolution, as applied to Russia. The Russian bourgeoisie did not suffer from some original sin of ‘cowardice’, but from the uneven development of imperialism. The Russian bourgeoisie (and Russian industry) had developed a totally (financially and politically) dependent position in relationship to French and British imperialism from which it was structurally incapable of breaking. It was this which determined its inability to complete the bourgeois revolution internally. This incidentally shows the incorrectness of attempting to define the political situation in any one country solely by ‘internal’ factors. As Trotsky succinctly put it: 

“In reality, the national peculiarities represent an original combination of the basic features of the world situation.” (Preface to the German edition of Permanent Revolution, Pathfinder edition p.149). 

The Bolsheviks thus developed the idea of the “workers and peasants democratic dictatorship” - democratic because it would carry through the democratic revolution. But the democratic revolution did not mean going beyond capitalism. In Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution (1905) Lenin condemned as “reactionary” the idea of “seeking salvation for the working class in anything save the further development of capitalism”. Indeed he went further: 

“Marxists are absolutely convinced of the bourgeois character of the Russian revolution. What does this mean? It means that the democratic reforms that become a necessity for Russia do not in themselves imply the undermining of capitalism, the undermining of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, they will, for the first time, clear the ground for the wide and rapid, European and not Asiatic, development of capitalism; they will, for the first time, make it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class.” (collected works volume 9, p 29).

A question to Doug. Is this what happened in 1917? That the revolution for the first time made it possible for the bourgeoisie to rule as a class?! 

Compare Lenin’s view with what Trotsky wrote in the very next year, 1906:- 

“The immediate task of the social democracy will be to bring the democratic revolution to completion. But once in control, the proletarian party will not be able to confine itself to the democratic programme, but will be forced to adopt socialist measures”. (Preface to the Russian edition of Marx’s writings on the Paris Commune). 

Now, which of these two quotations, Trotsky’s or Lenin’s, best explains what happened in 1917-18? The answer is obvious. Lenin at the same time stressed a) the bourgeois character of the revolution, and b) the need to politically sweep aside the bourgeoisie. Trotsky identified a tension in these ideas; they faced a logical and not dialectical contradiction. How could the workers and peasants be put in power and then merely preside over the “European’ development of capitalism? Trotsky noted:- 

“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 believe that the proletariat, having been raised to political domination by the internal mechanism of the 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.” (Results and Prospects, in Permanent Revolution, Pathfinder edition pp 101-2). 

At the same time, Trotsky did not argue that all the tasks of the bourgeois-democratic and socialist revolutions could be carried out ‘simultaneously’ as Lorimer falsely suggests. In fact Trotsky said the opposite:- 

“Political power is not omnipotence. It would be absurd to suppose that it is only necessary for the proletariat to take power and then by passing a few decrees to substitute socialism for capitalism. An economic system is not the product of the actions of the government. All that the proletariat can do is to apply its political power with all possible energy in order to ease and shorten the path towards economic collectivism.” (Ibid. p.100).  

Lenin’s ideas about the likely course of the democratic revolution were already present in his major theoretical work The Development of Capitalism in Russia (1899). In this work Lenin argues that that there are two different routes out of semi-feudalism - the American and the Prussian. In the Prussian case semi-feudalism had been destroyed by the transition to capitalism ‘from above’, transforming the Junker landlords into capitalists, but clamping the peasantry into a situation of harsh authoritarian and ‘unfree’ exploitation. The American system, ‘capitalism from below’, had by contrast created a free peasant farmer class, the basis for a much more rapid development of fully capitalists relations in agriculture - ie bourgeois farmers and agricultural proletarians. (This is all explained in detail in Capitalism from Above and Capitalism from Below, Terence J. Byres, MacMillan/St Martins Press 1996). As Byres explains (see pp30 and ff) Lenin strongly favoured the ‘American’ development of agricultural capitalism in Russia. He did so, because at that time (1899) he had no conception that the national-democratic revolution could do any more than hasten the development of capitalism.


As Lenin later explained:


[The victory of the revolution can be achieved by] “ only a dictatorship because the accomplishment of transformations immediately and urgently needed by the proletariat will evoke the desperate resistance of the big landlords, bourgeoisie and czarism...But this of course will be a democratic and not a socialist dictatorship. It will not be able to touch (without a whole series of transitional stages of revolutionary development) the foundation of capitalism. It will be able, in the best case, to realise a radical redivision of landed property in favour of the peasantry, introduce a consistent and full democratism up to instituting the republic, root out all Asiastic and feudal features not only from the day-to-day life of the village but also the factory, put a beginning to a serious improvement of workers conditions and raise their living standard, and last but not least, carry over the revolutionary conflagration to Europe.” (“Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution”).


It is not too hard to understand what this means. It is the establishment of a bourgeois republic by revolutionary means, against the resistance of the bourgeoisie itself. Socialist perspectives are postponed until after “a whole series of transitional stages of revolutionary development” (and it is obvious that he did not mean by this the ‘few months’ to which he referred in Economics and Politics in the Era of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat). This was Lenin’s contradiction, at the same time his strength (revolutionary means) and his weakness (social objectives). Events in 1917 forced him to change his perspectives, and hence the programme of the Bolshevik party.


Lenin fights for the ‘Commune state’


Lenin argued that the February 1917 had, in the form of the Soviet of Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Deputies, created the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry “in a certain form and a certain way”. But, he argued, unforeseen in the strategy of Bolshevism was that this ‘democratic dictatorship’ would voluntarily cede power to the bourgeoisie. Now a radical change was needed in Bolshevik strategy. The proletariat would have to seize power in a socialist revolution, supported by the poor peasants. He noted:


“No one, no force, can overthrow the bourgeois counter-revolutionaries except the revolutionary proletariat. Now, after the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible. The only solution is for power to be in the hands of the proletariat, and for the latter to be supported by the poor peasants or semi-proletarians. And we have already indicated the factors that can enormously accelerate this solution. ( On Slogans July 1917).


It was against this background that Lenin wrote one of his most important works, The State and Revolution, establishing the revolutionary and not reformist road to socialism, and the character of socialist democracy, ie soviet power, the self-rule of the workers. In its preface he wrote of the Russian revolution:


“Apparently, the latter [the Russian Revolution] is now (early August 1917) completing the first stage of its development; but this revolution as a whole can only be understood as a link in a chain of socialist proletarian revolutions being caused by the imperialist war.” (my emphasis - PH).


In the April Theses, which motivated the change in the Bolshevik programme, Lenin now wrote:


“The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution -- which, owing to the insufficient class-consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie -- to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants.”


Note that both in On Slogans and the April Theses Lenin argues for the proletariat to take power, supported by the “poor peasants” and “semi-proletarians” (not the peasantry as a whole). Indeed, he specifically argued for a political break with the representatives of the ‘small proprietors’.


In his Letters on Tactics (April 1917) Lenin now wrote the following (I have quoted a long piece here because key formulations are missed out in Lorimer’s quotes):


“After the revolution, the power is in the hands of a different class, a new class, namely, the bourgeoisie.

The passing of state power from one class to another is the first, the principal, the basic sign of a revolution, both in the strictly scientific and in the practical political meaning of that term.

 To this extent, the bourgeois, or the bourgeois-democratic, revolution in Russia is completed.

 But at this point we hear a clamour of protest from people who readily call themselves "old Bolsheviks". Didn't we always maintain, they say, that the bourgeois-democratic revolution is completed only by the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry"? Is the agrarian revolution, which is also a bourgeois-democratic revolution, completed? Is it not a fact, on the contrary, that it has not even started?

 My answer is: The Bolshevik slogans and ideas on the whole have been confirmed by history; but concretely things have worked out differently ; they are more original, more peculiar, more variegated than anyone could have expected.

To ignore or overlook this fact would mean taking after those "old Bolsheviks" who more than once already have played so regrettable a role in the history of our Party by reiterating formulas senselessly learned by rote instead of studying the specific features of the new and living reality.

"The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry" has already become a reality (in a certain form and to a certain extent) in the Russian revolution, for this "formula" envisages only a relation of classes, and not a concrete political institution implementing this relation, this co-operation. "The Soviet

of Workers' and Soldiers' Deputies" -- there you have the "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry" already accomplished in reality.

This formula is already antiquated. Events have moved it from the realm of formulas into the realm of reality, clothed it with flesh and bone, concretised it and thereby modified it.

 A new and different task now faces us: to effect a split within this dictatorship between the proletarian elements (the anti-defencist, internationalist, "Communist" elements, who stand for a transition to the commune) and the small-proprietor or petty-bourgeois elements (Chkheidze, Tsereteli, Steklov, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the other revolutionary defencists), who are opposed to moving towards the commune and are in favour of "supporting" the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois government.

 The person who now speaks only of a "revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry" is behind the times, consequently, he has in effect gone over to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; that person should be consigned to the archive of "Bolshevik" pre-revolutionary antiques (it may be called the archive of "old Bolsheviks").

 The revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry has already been realised, but in a highly original manner, and with a number of extremely important modifications. I shall deal with them separately in one of my next letters. For the present, it is essential to grasp the incontestable truth that a Marxist must take cognisance of real life, of the true facts of reality, and not cling to a theory of yesterday, which, like all theories, at best only outlines the main and the general, only comes near to embracing life in all its complexity.

 "Theory, my friend, is grey, but green is the eternal tree of life."

 To deal with the question of "completion" of the bourgeois revolution in the old way is to sacrifice living Marxism to the dead letter.”


The meaning of this couldn’t be clearer. The “democratic dictatorship” has been realised but failed to complete the democratic revolution. Only now by effecting a “split” between the Communist elements who stand for the Commune state (ie socialist revolution) and the petty-bourgeois democrats (who represent, let us note, the “small proprietors”) can the democratic revolution be completed by means of socialist revolution. Note: Lenin did not say: we got a fake “democratic dictatorship, now we need a real one”. He said that the democratic dictatorship slogan was now antiquated, and should be dumped in  favour of a socialist revolutionary perspective.

In this context it is easy to see why Kamenev said to Trotsky “now you have the last laugh on us”, and accused Lenin (as did others) of going over to Trotsky’s position. Doug Lorimer has to explain why  there was such a huge and controversial debate inside the Bolshevik Party over Lenin’s position inside the Bolshevik party. The answer is that much of the party leadership, including the St. Petersburg leadership in which Stalin played a central role, adopted an opportunist attitude to the Provisional government and/or the opportunist leadership of the Soviet, because they saw them as the living embodiment of the “democratic dictatorship” for which the Bolsheviks had always fought.


Lenin’s speech at the Finland Station when he arrived back in Russia at the beginning of April 1917, as is explained by eye-witnesses in many accounts, came like a blow over the head to the party stalwarts, when he called for workers’ revolution. For the majority of the Bolshevik fraction in the central soviet had, in line with their understanding of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ voted at the beginning of March for the peaceful transfer of power to the provisional government; and indeed at the end of March they supported, at the Soviet congress at which 82 soviets were represented,  the resolution on the same subject which had been drafted by the Menshevik leader Dan. How come, Doug Lorimer should explain to us, that the Bolshevik leadership ended up, at this point, supporting the same opportunist position as the Mensheviks? The answer is that many in the party leadership thought they were living through the ‘democratic dictatorship’, and that it would be ultra-left to oppose the provisional government from the perspective of workers’ power. This confusion was understandable because the very concept of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ was confused, and lent (and we should say: lends) itself to opportunist interpretations.


 Until he launched the political fight around the April Theses Lenin was virtually isolated in the Bolshevik leadership. Trotsky later commented:  “The whole of the April Party Conference was devoted to the following fundamental question: Are we heading toward the conquest of power in the name of the socialist revolution or are we helping (anybody and everybody) to complete the democratic revolution? Unfortunately, the report of the April Conference remains unpublished to this very day, though there is scarcely another congress in the history of our party that had such an exceptional and immediate bearing on the destiny of our revolution as the conference of April 1917.

“Lenin's position was this: an irreconcilable struggle against defensism and its supporters; the capture of the soviet majority; the overthrow of the Provisional Government; the seizure of power through the soviets; a revolutionary peace policy and a program of socialist revolution at home and of international revolution abroad. In distinction to this, as we already know, the opposition held the view that it was necessary to complete the democratic revolution by exerting pressure on the Provisional Government, and in this process the soviets would remain the organs of "control" over the power of the bourgeoisie. Hence flows quite another and incomparably more conciliatory attitude to defensism.” (The Lessons of October).


Doug Lorimer’s account of the April Theses debate (Lorimer pp71-3) is “less than forthright”. In fact it is positively evasive: Lenin’s description of the slogan of the democratic dictatorship as behind the times, his sharp attack on the Bolshevik leaders who clung to it, and his call for the transfer of power to the workers supported by the poor peasants - these things amounted to an admission of the failure of the “democratic dictatorship” in reality and as a policy. And this failure resulted in a change in the programme of the Bolshevik Party, and a change of name of the party to the “Communist Party”. It was much more than Doug Lorimer pretends - ie a change of tactics.


The account which I am giving here is the one accepted by nearly all non-Stalinist historians of the revolution. But no major historian of the revolution that I know of has argued that because of Lenin’s change of position, and the change of the Bolshevik programme, this amounted to a complete identity of theoretical positions between Lenin and Trotsky. That would be an exaggeration. For example, in the April 1917 polemical exchanges with Kamenev, Lenin, while calling for the dumping of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ attempted to outflank his opponent by denying that the call for a Commune State was a call for socialist revolution. Later, after the faction fight was over, Lenin had no such qualms. Lenin’s thought was in motion, and his ideas were changing. That’s what explains apparently contradictory formulas in 1917. But let me ask Doug directly: isn’t Lenin’s call in On Slogans (July 1917) for a proletarian government supported by the poor peasantry and semi-proletarians in contradiction to the idea of the ‘democratic dictatorship’? If not, then the debate between Trotsky and the Bolsheviks since 1905 was just over words - ie a big misunderstanding.


What is certain however is that the Bolshevik change of position was the basis for the political fusion between the Bolsheviks and the small group around Trotsky. The basis of the fusion was the perspective of the seizure of power by the workers supported by the poor peasants. If this was not the case, it could only be explained by Trotsky temporarily dumping permanent revolution, and only resurrecting it afterwards. In which case Trotsky is a complete liar when he claims that on the eve of the October revolution he wrote in Pravda on the perspective of permanent revolution and “it never occurred to anyone to come out against me”. That doesn’t mean of course that there was general acceptance of the theoretical framework of permanent revolution. It just means that ‘for a difference to be a difference, it has to make a difference’. And no one in the Bolshevik party thought there was a difference between Lenin’s and Trotsky’s perspectives (those around Kamenev would have added: unfortunately).


One final point on Russia.. Doug Lorimer holds that the peasants “as a whole” (including the ‘peasant bourgeoisie’) were represented in the Soviet government formed after October 1917 by the Left Social Revolutionaries. This would have come as a surprise to both the Left SRs and the rich peasants. The Left SRs were the militant wing of the party whose base was among the poorest sections of the peasantry - and urban sympathisers, including young intellectuals. Bringing the Left SRs into the government was nothing to do with representing rich peasants, but an attempt to bring the other revolutionary Soviet parties who supported the revolution into the government.


The fight around permanent revolution


Doug Lorimer’s pamphlet effectively ignores the historical context of the struggle for permanent revolution from 1923 onwards. Trotsky and his supporters never waged a prolonged battle against ‘Lenin’s theory of the democratic dictatorship’, they waged a fight on two fronts around this theory: first, against the Stalinist neo-Menshevik “two-stage” theory of revolution is less developed countries, and against the theory of “socialism in one country”.

Doug Lorimer notes that the Trotskyist movement was the “main vehicle” by which the tradition of Bolshevism was transmitted to the younger generation (or rather the generation that was ‘younger’ in 1968), especially in the advanced countries. But why? Because Trotskyism waged the fight against Stalinism. There were, after the Stalinisation of the Comintern, no significant forces which defended a Doug Lorimer-style “democratic dictatorship” theory against both Stalinism and the Trotskyists. Stalinism adopted a rigid Menshevik two-stage theory and baptised it “Leninist”. But the Stalinist theory contained one element which Lenin’s theory was always against: a strategic alliance with the ‘national’ bourgeoisie, the subordination of the interests of the working class to the national(ist) bourgeoisie.

The adoption of the “two stage” theory by the Stalinists signified a simple retreat to Menshevism, ie the theory that it was first necessary to create ‘national’ capitalism and then proceed to organise the working class for socialist revolution. As is known by everyone from the Trotskyist tradition, the Stalinist subordination of the class independence of the workers in the dominated countries has led to multiple catastrophes and betrayals in the 20th Century.

The first significant one was the subordination of the Chinese Communist Party to the Kuomintang (KMT) in the 1920s. Doug Lorimer claims that Trotsky made ultra-left mistakes on China in this period. But his discussion evades the main point. Irrespective of whether Trotsky made errors of formulation on China, was not proximate cause the catastrophe in China in 1927 - the massacre of the Communists by the KMT - the imposition on the Chinese Communists of the fatal policy of ceding leadership of the national and democratic revolution to the KMT, whose leader Chiang Kai-shek, had actually been made an honourary member of the Communist International? Having seen the fruits of this policy in the KMT marginalising the Communists, the CCP, under the pressure of the Comintern, staged the disastrous ultra-left Canton uprising in 1927.

This whole story is told at length in Harold Isaac’s classic, The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution. And was it not Trotsky, and only he in the top leadership of the Russian Communist Party after the dispersal of the mid-1920s joint opposition, who fought against the subordination of the communists to the KMT? And isn’t this the main point to be made about the debates over China?

We should remember that the Canton uprising took place just as the Communist International embarked on its ultra-left third period stage. Once the turn to the popular front had been made definitively in 1934, the Stalinised CPs deepened their neo-Menshevik “two-stage” course.


Lessons of Spain

Among the first consequences of this was the disaster in Spain; one hopes that with so many people having had the opportunity to see Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, the general outlines of this story are now better known. (The literature on this is vast - see for example Felix Morrow’s Revolution and Counter Revolution in Spain, P. Broue and E. Temime, The Revolution and the Civil War in Spain, or for those few socialists who haven’t read it, George Orwell’s classic “Homage to Catalonia”).

When army general Franco led a fascist-military putsch in June 1936, the workers and peasants of Spain rose up in a revolution, successful in many important areas, and especially in Catalonia and its capital Barcelona. Catalonia was a stronghold both of the anarchists and the POUM (Workers Party of Marxist Unification). Spontaneously the workers socialised just about everything, even organising into collectives the barber’s shops and shoeshine boys. In the countryside land was collectivised; peasant collectives sprang up in many areas.


The revolution in Spain was crushed however way before the fascist victory, but a right-wing republican alliance, who shock troops, flank guards - and anti-revolutionary murderers and torturers - were the Communist Party, and especially its Russian-organised GPU contingents.

The Spanish revolution was crushed in the name of a rigid two-stage theory: first win the national and democratic struggle against the fascists, and only then begin the struggle for socialism (concretised as: first win the war, and only after that the struggle for socialism).

Against this perspective, Trotsky counterposed permanent revolution. Despite the fact that Spain was a weak imperialist country like Russia, Trotsky insisted on the centrality of the national, democratic and land questions. Spain had a ‘belated’ bourgeois development, and these questions centrally concerned the building of an alliance including the poor peasants and agricultural labourers, under the leadership of the working class, capable of defeating fascist reaction.. But fighting for the solution of these issues under the leadership of the proletariat had to go hand-in-hand with the measures of socialisation taken immediately and spontaneously by the working class itself.

Any “two-stage” theory, any attempt to delay, prevent or obstruct, the spontaneous socialisation measures of the workers, meant repressing the revolution - which is exactly what the Stalinists did, of course.

The experience of Spain is incapable of being explained by Doug Lorimer’s theory. If the national and democratic revolution has to be achieved first, before measures of socialisation can be taken, if combining socialist measures with fighting to solve the national and democratic tasks simultaneously is a priori incorrect, then the actions of the working class in Barcelona and in many other proletarian centres, were ultra-left. Which is exactly what the Stalinists said (blaming the anarchists and the POUM).

Doug Lorimer makes just one reference to Spain in his pamphlet, criticising a formula from Trotsky’s pamphlet The Spanish Revolution and the Dangers which Threaten it, in which Trotsky argues that the “democratic dictatorship” means the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat (Lorimer p. 70). This Doug describes as “grotesque absurdity”. Trotsky argued:


“In April 1917, Lenin repeated and repeated for the benefit of Stalin, Kamenev, and others who were clinging to the old Bolshevik formula of 1905: There is not and there cannot be a “democratic dictatorship” other than the dictatorship of Miliukov-Tseretelli-Chernov. The democratic dictatorship, by its very nature, is a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie over the proletariat”.


When Lenin said the “democratic dictatorship” had been (in a certain way and to a certain extent) realised in Russia, he also insisted that “the bourgeoisie is in power” - Doug actually quotes this passage himself (Lorimer page ). Doug Lorimer never explains why the ‘democratic dictatorship’ was incapable of doing anything in Russia except putting the bourgeoisie in power.


But in any case, this passage is torn completely out of context. Trotsky was polemicising against the Stalinist “two-stage” theory, and its application in Spain. Doug would have done better to say something about the Spanish revolution, and show how his rigid insistence that the bourgeois-democratic revolution has to be completed before socialist measures can begin, could possibly explain the defiance of this schema actually demonstrated by the Spanish proletarian masses. Or is Doug Lorimer going to tell us that the workers socialising everything that moves is part of the bourgeois (national-democratic) revolution? If Doug Lorimer were to take that step, then we would have to conclude that his differences with permanent revolution were purely terminological. If not, he would have to conclude the Spanish masses were ultra-left. Either way, the experience of Spain wrecks his “two-stage” schema.


Unfortunately, the accounting of all the disasters which the Stalinists led the third world masses into through their neo-Menshevik  “two-stage” theory would require a long book. To conclude this section I want to refer to two more modern experiences, Indonesia and South Africa.


Prior to the Suharto military coup in 1965, the Indonesian Communist Party under Aidit, subordinated the Indonesian masses to a national ‘anti-imperialist’ alliance with the bourgeois nationalist government of Sukarno (father of Megawatti Sukarnoputri). This alliance fitted perfectly into the official national unity ideology of the Indonesian state. While the economic situation got progressively worse, instead of mobilising  the Indonesian masses around a class independentist line, the PKI acted as the left cover for Sukarno, leaving the party disastrously unprepared for the military-Islamic coup which followed. As James Balowski correctly  explained in a recent issue of Green Left Weekly:


 “The PKI adhered to the Stalinist/Maoist theory of revolution: a national democratic first “stage” in which state power is exercised by a “bloc of four classes” (the nationalist bourgeoisie, the petty bourgeoisie, the peasantry and the working class) would consolidate capitalism. After an extended and unspecified period of time, a distinct socialist stage would begin.”


Any attempt to reforge a revolutionary movement in Indonesia has of course to critically appropriate the strategic errors of the Aidit leadership, and thus be based on a militant rejection of the “two-stage’ theory.


In South Africa, prior to the 1994 transition, the South African Communist Party (SACP) completely subordinated itself to the pro-capitalist policies of the ANC. Crucially, when class independentist forces emerged in the trade unions in the late 1980s, around first FOSATU and then COSATU, the SACP acted as the central conduit for re-integrating the militant unionists into the ANC coalition, through the medium of a fusion with the SACP/ANC trade union front SACTU. The strategic question in South Africa was not, as some ultra-leftists thought, socialist revolution versus the national democratic anti-apartheid struggle. It was “which class will take the leadership of the national democratic struggle?” - the key question posed by permanent revolution. That question has been answered in practice; now we have a neo-liberal government ANC government, headed by a former leader of the SACP, and graduate of the Moscow Lenin School, Thabo Mbeki. And a growing mass struggle, led by the unions, against the ANC government.

I do not exclude the possibility that sections of the SACP could learn the lessons of this process, or criticise anyone for maintaining friendly relations with people in the SACP. However, an honest discussion with these comrades cannot evade the whole issue of the strategy of the SACP before the fall of apartheid.


Numerous other experiences showing the disaster of the Stalinist-Menshevik ‘two-stage’ theory could be listed, from the subordination of the Middle East Communist parties to bourgeois nationalism (Nasserism, the Ba’ath etc); the subordination of official Latin American communism to their own national bourgeoisie, tail-ending Peronism, being the most rightwing force in the Chilean popular front in 1970-3 (literally disarming the workers), tail-ending the 1970s military regime in Peru etc

; and the CPI and the CPI(M) tail-ending Congress in India, and even forming coalitions with more right-wing forces to prop up the bourgeois order.


Doug Lorimer says: “Any attempt to build an international movement that is really based, as Cannon put it more than 50 years ago, on a revival of ‘genuine Marxism as it was expounded and practised in the Russian revolution and in the early days of the Communist International’, cannot avoid dealing with the misrepresentations of Bolshevik policy made by Trotsky in the 1920s and ‘30s” (Lorimer p.8).


It would have been better to say: “Any attempt to rebuild the international socialist movement cannot avoid dealing with the rotten Menshevik-Stalinist two stages theory of revolution, which for decades was fought from the perspective of permanent revolution”.


Permanent Revolution versus Socialism in One Country


The Stalinist line of subordinating the struggle in dependent countries to the interests of the ‘national’ bourgeoisie, using the “two-stage” theory, did not just arise from wrong theory, but from the material interests of the Soviet bureaucracy. Socialism in one country was the theorisation of the perspectives of the bureaucracy, and its abandonment of international revolution - later theorised as “peaceful co-existence” with imperialism. The degenerated Communist International became the vehicle for imposing Stalinism on the world communist movement, and transforming the Communist movement into an instrument for defending the diplomatic interests of the Soviet state. As noted above, this approach became crystallised with the adoption of the ‘popular front’ with bourgeois parties in 1934.

Stalin’s socialism in one country  theory envisaged the revolutionary process, and the building of socialism, as something which happened more-or-less independently in each country. Trotsky insisted however that the fate of the Russian revolution was directly linked to the process of world revolution. As he, and Lenin, repeatedly stressed, unless the European workers came to its aid, the Russian revolution was doomed to defeat.

This understanding - that the world class struggle and the world revolution was a powerful independent reality  and not just the sum of national struggles - was built into the theory of permanent revolution from the beginning. Already, in Results and Prospects (1905) Trotsky premised his audacious theory that the democratic tasks could be solved through the proletariat taking power on the idea that the Russian revolution would be part and parcel of the European revolution, and could not be considered independently.

Thus Trotsky’s theory was an early insight into the nature of the new imperialist epoch. His best exposition of this notion however is in the Introduction to the German Edition of Permanent Revolution (Permanent Revolution, Pathfinder edition, p144), in which he explains the dialectical interaction between national and international events. This, incidentally, is a much clearer exposition than anything that can be found in Lenin.

Thus, permanent revolution was the theoretical underpinning of the proletarian internationalism of the Russian Left Opposition, and later of the Trotskyist movement. After 1934, this struggle had to be waged against the “popular front” and other class collaborationist positions in the advanced countries, and against the “two stages” theory in the semi-colonial world.

In his introduction Doug accepts that this aspect of permanent revolution “fully accorded” with the positions of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. But there is no reference to the fact that the battle for this aspect of permanent revolution was waged against a world communist movement, increasingly Stalinised, which advocated a “two-stage” theory, and often referred to the “democratic dictatorship” theory in its defence.

I am not saying, let me repeat, that Doug Lorimer’s  theory is the Stalinist neo-Menshevik theory. What I am saying is that some acknowledgement of the overall historical context is in order, ie that the fight against class collaborationism in the imperialist and semi-colonial countries, and the fight for proletarian internationalism worldwide, was fought under the banner of permanent revolution.


The Revolution against Capital: combined and uneven development


Antonio Gramsci referred to the Russian revolution as the “revolution against Capital”. This of course was a pun: he meant simultaneously against capitalism and against the theory of iron ‘stages’, a sequence of logically successive modes of production, which he attributed to Marx’s book Capital. This attribution by Gramsci, although providing a neat verbal trick, was unfair. Nowhere in Marx’s work - and let’s remember that Marx, not Trotsky, first coined the term ‘permanent revolution’ - is there the idea the idea that the whole of humanity has to go through a logically successive series of modes of production - barbarism, slave society, feudalism, capitalism and then socialism. On the contrary, Marx insisted that this generalisation was only true of Europe, and only then with important reservations. (Despite this, the ‘inevitable stages’ theory became common in the bowdlerisations of the Second International, and subsequently in the leaden textbooks of Soviet Stalinism. On this, see Perry Anderson’s Considerations on Western Marxism).

At the base of the rejection of  ‘inevitable stages’ theories of historical materialism are two basic factors. First, contrary to simplistic theories, a distinct set of forces of production do not automatically give rise to a pre-defined mode of production. For example, the same level of productive forces was present in west European feudalism as in the ‘tributary’ mode of production which existed simultaneously in the Ottoman empire. The level of the productive forces sets distinct limits of course - capitalism could not have existed in either place at that time.

The second reason why ‘inevitable stages’ is a wrong way of looking at human development is because less advanced countries come into contact with more advanced, and are transformed by this contact. ‘Stone-age’ tribes in the Amazon or Papua New Guinea will never go through feudalism. Probably (and hopefully) contemporary semi-colonial countries will never go through the stage of advanced capitalism.

The reason for this is that the world process is not only uneven, but also combined. The theory of combined and uneven development is the theoretical underpinning of permanent revolution, and when Trotsky originally put forward his theory he was precisely accused (by the Mensheviks) of wanting to “skip” historical stages (ie the stage of Russia’s ‘proper’ capitalist development). (Incidentally Doug doesn’t mention combined and uneven development - does he agree with it?). Trotsky notes:


“It is nonsense to say that in general stages cannot be skipped. The living historical process always makes leaps over isolated ‘stages’ which derive from theoretical breakdown into its component parts of the process of development in its entirety, that is taken in its fullest scope. The same is demanded of revolutionary policy at critical moments.” ( Permanent  Revolution p240).


From this angle, we might ask exactly why there is an ‘inevitable’ stage of the ‘democratic dictatorship’ is each and every less developed country. Irrespective of the stage of the world revolutionary process? Irrespective of the exact pattern of class forces in each country? Doug Lorimer is in danger of erecting a new, and ahistorical, schema of inevitable stages. Lenin, in his Letters on Tactics noted:-


“"Our theory is not a dogma, but a guide to action’, Marx and Engels always said, rightly ridiculing the mere memorising and repetition of "formulas", that at best are capable only of marking out general tasks, which are necessarily modifiable by the concrete economic and political conditions of each particular period of the historical process.”


There is no magic theory, no cookbook (permanent revolution included) which will provide all the concrete answers to revolutionary strategy and tactics in any particular country.


Weaknesses in, and misinterpretations of, the permanent revolution theory


The weaknesses, in the light of historical experience, of the permanent revolution theory stem from the ambiguities involved in the notions of ‘bourgeois democratic’ and ‘national democratic’ revolutions. The bourgeois revolutions, for example those in Britain and France, broke the hold of feudal relations of production and cleared the way for the full development of capitalism. From this Marxists imputed a paradigm of general “tasks” of the bourgeois-democratic revolution which included the abolition of feudal relations in the countryside, and the creation of national unity and independence. These factors, it was held, were a prerequisite for the full development of capitalism, which required a unified national market and a free labour force capable of being proletarianised. The full development of capitalism was taken to mean the beginning of industrialisation.

 From this, many Marxists drew the conclusion that the beginnings of industrialisation in the semi-colonial countries, and the achievement of basic tasks of the bourgeois revolution, were - in the epoch of imperialism -impossible without the conquest of power by the working class. It was held that imperialist domination completely blocked the road to all national-democratic reforms and even partial industrialisation. Trotsky seemed to lend credence to these ideas in some his writings.

The experience of the 20th century has contradicted, at least in part, the idea that in the epoch of imperialism basic tasks of the bourgeois revolution cannot be carried out by the nationalist bourgeoisie, but only by the conquest of power by the working class. In many less developed countries there has been a partial solution of the tasks of the bourgeois revolution under bourgeois or petty bourgeois nationalist leaderships.

For example, in Mexico between 1910 and 1920 there was a bourgeois revolution led by the peasantry and sections of the bourgeoisie itself. As an eventual consequence of this revolution a ‘state-capitalist’ model of capital accumulation was initiated and partial industrialisation begun. A radical land reform in favour of the peasantry was carried out in the 1930s under Lázaro Cardenas. A form of parliamentary democracy - severely controlled - was established. The leading Marxist historian of this process, Adolfo Gilly, argues that the revolution was ‘incomplete’ and ‘interrupted’. This is correct from one angle.

Real democracy was not, and has not been established. Real national independence does not exist when the country is in so many ways under the tutelage of US imperialism. But then, as explained above, breaking the grip of imperialism is a task of the socialist revolution.

On the other hand, did the revolution do away with the last vestiges of semi-feudal relations, and did it establish the basis for the emergence of an unambiguously capitalist country, and free wage labour? Obviously it did. In this sense it was a ‘successful’ bourgeois revolution.

 What, clearly, the nationalist struggles under bourgeois or petty-bourgeois leadership have been incapable of doing is establishing new imperialisms to rival the existing ones. They have all been subordinated to imperialism, which is why ‘real’ national independence cannot be achieved outside the conquest of power by the working class.

In the light of experiences in Brazil, Mexico, Taiwan, South Korea, Argentina, India and other places show, the idea that imperialism is a complete block to any form of industrialisation is also wrong. These countries, among others, have achieved a partial, but dependent, industrial development. The traditional model of semi-colonial countries - exporters of raw materials, importers of manufactures - does not fit these examples. Which is why some Marxists have preferred to call them “dependant semi-industrialised countries”. This category was prefigured by Lenin, when in his pamphlet Imperialism he talked about the ‘Argentinean variant’, as distinct from semi-colonialism proper.

From these experiences, in my opinion it would be more useful to distinguish the tasks of the national democratic revolution as being distinct, or at least partially so, from the bourgeois revolution per se. If this is done, then it makes sense to say that real democracy, real national independence, real national unity etc can only achieved by the conquest of power by the working class and its allies (or if Doug Lorimer prefers: a special form of the dictatorship of the proletariat).

After all, the declared aims of the bourgeois revolution - liberty, equality and ‘fraternity’ (social solidarity) - could only ever be achieved by the socialist revolution anyway.


Some organisations with origins in the Trotskyist movement (for example comrades from the HKS tradition in Iran and the AWL in Britain) have concluded from the developments discussed above that a series of countries have become “sub-imperialist”, relays of imperialist powers or small imperialist powers themselves, and thus there are no democratic and national tasks to solve. The conclusion these comrades have drawn is that the revolution is simply now a socialist revolution, analogous to that in the imperialist countries. One other consequence of this is that these organisations have been loathe to take an unambiguously anti-imperialist position in the case of wars between these countries and big imperialist states - for example over the Malvinas and Iraq (and the AWL supported the war against Serbia in 1999). The logic has been - why take sides between big gangsters and small gangsters, when there is no fundamental difference between them?

I do not have the time and space to make a detailed critique of the “sub-imperialism” thesis here. It seems to me however that the events of the 1990s - the war against Iraq, the deepening enslavement of third world countries to the debt crisis, the domination of imperialist finance capital, the debacle of the Asian “Tigers” in the 1997-8 financial crash - all these things show the sub-imperialism theory is wrong.

It should be said that this ‘sub-imperialism’ thesis has not really been a mistaken interpretation of permanent revolution, but a rejection of it - explicitly so in the case of the ex-HKS comrades.



Conclusion: under-estimating the role of the proletariat, underestimating the role of the party


The final irony of Doug Lorimer’s pamphlet is that despite its intention to take a stand on Leninism and Bolshevism, it ends up under-estimating the role of the proletariat, and thus the role of the revolutionary party. How?


As we have seen, Doug Lorimer wants to defend the idea that in the countries oppressed by imperialism, it is first necessary to forge an alliance with “the whole peasantry”  including the mis-named “peasant bourgeoisie”, to first complete the bourgeois-democratic revolution. However, as we have also seen, the peasantry is a declining force worldwide, and the peasant bourgeoisie a theoretical anachronism. Since the DSP theory simply doesn’t fit contemporary reality, it is what the philosopher of science Imre Lakatos called “a degenerating research programme”. The DSP has now carried out a series of subsidiary theoretical manoeuvres designed to defend the basic theory, but in fact further undermining it. The DSP theory now assigns the urban poor and the agricultural labourers directly exploited by capital the role previously assigned to “the whole peasantry”.


The political-strategic consequences of this move are the following. Since the DSP theory considers it necessary to forge an alliance on the basis of national and democratic demands with the rural and urban poor, it follows that it considers that these forces will be under the political leadership of non-proletarian political forces, and specifically not under the leadership of the revolutionary party. In Russia the Lorimer theory considers that the peasants were under the leadership of a peasant party, the Social Revolutionaries, and that the Bolshevik alliance with the Left SRs was key to cementing a worker-peasant alliance. But it is very difficult to imagine what the contemporary analogue of the Socialist Revolutionaries might be amongst the multi-millioned legions in the ghettos and barrios of the growing cities of the “third world”. The urban poor are often proletarians in the most direct sense themselves: there are hundreds of thousands of factory workers, construction workers, transport workers, government employees, personal servants and workers in the tourism, catering and entertainment industries who live in the huge poor barrios of Iztapalapa, Indios Verdes and La Villa in Mexico City. They live cheek-by-jowel with the “semi-proletarians” - street traders, home workers, unemployed etc. in the same neighbourhoods. If the working class political forces do not seize the leadership in the poor neighbourhoods, then the forces of right wing reaction will (in Mexico in the form of the fascistic Antorchistas, who have a small mass base in precisely these neighbourhoods, but thankfully much smaller than the left). There is no political force which can take the leadership in the poor barrios which is independent of both the bourgeoisie and the proletariat; there is no candidate for an “alliance” on a democratic basis. On the contrary, the revolutionary forces must themselves fight for the leadership of the struggles around housing and other amenities which dominate the barrios. These of course are class, not national or democratic, demands.


Equally, the struggles of the rural poor - peasants, day labourers, agricultural proletarians - increasingly come up against agri-business, rural bourgeois and capitalist farmer-landlords. The forces of capitalist reaction will themselves try to establish - through clientalism and violent repression - a mass base among the rural poor. In today’s conditions it is mostly fruitless to try to find  (ideologically) “independent” peasant organisations to form an alliance with. The revolutionary and progressive forces among the workers will spontaneously ally with the combat organisations of the rural poor, who in general reciprocate. The rebellious peasants and agricultural workers face the same enemies as the urban workers; that is why they today strongly incline towards the left. The worker-peasant alliance today is overwhelmingly an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist alliance.

The DSP theory amounts to a self-limitation of the role of the revolutionary party. In the dominated countries the revolutionary party cannot limit itself to building a base among the workers (although that is crucial) and then looking for allies in a “democratic” alliance. It has to directly build itself among the urban and rural poor, to try to take the leadership of their struggles. Many of these struggles will unfold on the terrain of national and democratic demands, which are today inherently linked to anti-capitalist objectives.

 The DSP theory, as advanced by Doug Lorimer, is a recipe for confusion on central issues. It correctly identifies the centrality of national and democratic questions, and, in key formulations, concedes that the “democratic dictatorship” it advocates is a form of the dictatorship of the proletariat. From this we might conclude that the differences with permanent revolution are purely terminological.

The weakness of the DSP theory is its hankering after an alliance with the “peasant bourgeoisie”, or forces who might be taken as their political representatives, in circumstances where often the “peasant bourgeoisie” is a theoretical anachronism (see end note 5). Its second weakness is its insistence on a ‘democratic stage’ at a governmental level, when the class polarisation is third world countries does not create the social or political basis for this. It is hard to imagine a “democratic stage” which will not be anything other than an Aquino-type government which was the eventual outcome of the February 1986 “peoples power” movement in the Philippines; or an ANC-type government, which was the outcome in South Africa. In other words a “democratic stage” means a new form of capitalist stabilisation. This generally signifies the defeat of the revolutionary forces, or at least that they are not strong enough to impose an alternative, workers and peasants, solution.  

The idea that there could be a “stage” other than a workers’ and peasants’ government, the dictatorship of the proletariat, which could solve the national and democratic tasks of the revolution, is extremely dangerous and is potentially open to all kinds of opportunist interpretations.  

However, programmatic codification is not the same as political practice. As Trotsky insisted, a programme is a concrete series of actions. There is no evidence that the DSP has adopted positions, or advocated actions, which in key countries like Indonesia or the Philippines would automatically lead to a subordination of the interests of the workers and poor peasants to those of the bourgeoisie and imperialism. In debating questions like these among grown-up revolutionaries (even if the debate is sharp) we are not dealing with accusations of ‘betrayal’, as infantile sectarians believe. Doug Lorimer’s pamphlet maintains an admirable sense of proportion on these matters, concluding simply that (his version of) Lenin’s theory is a superior guide to action than permanent revolution.

While Marxists aim for the highest possible unity of theory and practice, in reality this evolves in a combined and uneven way. Organisations with different theoretical codifications can come to precisely the same conclusions in concrete situations. Which is why the question of whether an organisation is revolutionary or not cannot be read off, a priori, simply from its programmatic codification. It is another reason why collaboration between revolutionaries today cannot be based on total theoretical agreement. If it were, it would be a recipe for building international ‘branch offices’ of the type promoted by the British SWP and Militant/Socialist Party.

In my opinion the DSP should re-think its opposition to permanent revolution, a hangover from when the DSP was in an alliance with the US Socialist Workers Party, and under the pressure of Jack Barnes’ repudiation of permanent revolution in the 1980s (see “Our Trotskyism and Theirs” Jack Barnes, New International no.1).

Irrespective of the immediate consequences, it is always a shame when a revolutionary organisation takes a theoretical step backwards, towards confused and less adequate positions.

Appendix: Don’t Mystify Lenin

One problem with organisations which describe themselves as “marxist-leninist” is often  their apparent elevation of Lenin into a thinker whose thought had no contradictions, and who made no mistakes. If you do this, paradoxically you diminish Lenin’s greatness. (The same error of course is made by sectarian Trotskyist organisations who fetishise and reify Trotsky’s writings).

Every theoretician, every political leader, makes mistakes. The thought of every living thinker evolves and develops. The great Marxist leaders of the early part of this century - Lenin, Trotsky, Luxemburg and Gramsci  and others - all left a substantial body of theoretical work. This has to be appropriated critically by contemporary Marxists, not woven into timeless dogma. Equally the political actions, and organisational methods, of each of these leaders has to be assessed critically.

The essence of Lenin and Leninism is not at all his conjunctural assessments on tactical questions, often made in the heat of factional battles. Lenin’s most enduring theoretical contributions were his general theory of party organisation (even though the proposals for 1902 Russian clandestinity cannot be simply copied today); his theory of imperialism; his writings on dialectics, particularly his Philosophical Notebooks; his writings on the national question and self-determination; his reaffirmation and concretisation of the revolutionary, and not reformist road to socialism; his reaffirmation of socialism being the self-rule of the workers, rather than the dictatorship of a single party; and his general overview of revolutionary strategy in the advanced capitalist countries. The main writings which correspond to these issues are What is to Be Done?; Imperialism - the Highest Stage of Capitalism; On the National Question and Self-Determination; The State and Revolution; and Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder. These writings were an essential underpinning for the work of the Communist International in its early years.

Lenin however did not theorise many things which Trotsky did (for example fascism) because he died in 1924. In the course of analysing fascism, Trotsky necessarily was forced to engage in much more detail with strategy and tactics in the advanced capitalist countries than Lenin ever had. To that extent, Trotsky’s thought on this and other questions is more up to date.

However, none of the thinkers named above was alive after 1940. There are many new questions which we have to theorise for ourselves. There is much to learn from all the great theorists of Marxism; but none of them took the work of previous theorists, not even Marx and Engels, to be holy writ.


[i] Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution - a Leninist critique. Doug Lorimer, Resistance Books, 1998.

[ii] Fatherland or Mother Earth? IRRE-Pluto, 1998

[iii]  Verso 1982

[iv] Verso 1981

[v] I am not very happy with the phrase “peasant bourgeoisie”. It would be much more accurate to say the rich peasants (kulaks) were a section of the petty bourgeoisie. In one of his writings Lenin says, rhetorically, “are not the peasants also a form of bourgeisie?”. Well, no. The more wealthy peasants in general employed only a few agricultural workers. They were not bourgeois in the normal sense of the word. Here I have not disputed the term “peasant bourgeoisie” every time it occurs.