[Book] Lenin, Trotsky and the Theory of the Permanent Revolution

Chapter 8 Conclusions

This book began by introducing Lenin and Trotsky, the major personalities in the debate on the most appropriate strategy for carrying through the bourgeois-democratic revolution in backward, semi-feudal Russia. The most important problem that revolution had to solve was the land question because the vast mass of the population were semi-literate, oppressed, land-hungry peasants.

The personal hostility between the two men (before 1917) might have given their disagreements a particular colouring, but during that time there were real political differences between them on the class nature of the state that would result from the forthcoming Russian Revolution.

Lenin and Trotsky agreed that the Russian bourgeoisie had arrived late on the scene, as an absolutely conservative force, lacking both the will to provide the leadership necessary to overthrow the autocracy, and the capacity to carry thorough the destruction of feudalism. Both agreed that the successful overthrow of the Tsarist, autocratic state would be achieved under the revolutionary leadership of the proletariat, even though it was politically inexperienced and relatively small in numbers. The very much larger, but geographically dispersed and socially-heterogeneous peasantry was incapable of independent action on a national scale but could be won to a revolutionary perspective, to form an alliance with, and follow the leadership of, the industrial proletariat, provided the proletarian party when in government was determined to abolish serfdom and endorsed the revolutionary expropriation of all lands and estates by the peasantry. Both men agreed the regime following the revolution would be a dictatorship because without it, it would have been impossible to break the resistance of the landlords, big business and Tsarism, and repel their counter-revolutionary attempts.

From about 1905 to about 1917, Lenin saw the alliance with the peasantry as imposing strict democratic, bourgeois limits on the revolution since the peasantry would lose its revolutionary zeal once it had achieved its goal of seizing the land for itself, and could not immediately be won to a socialist perspective. Whilst the proletariat would push the revolution forward with all its might to gain as much as possible for itself, the necessity of maintaining the alliance would impose objective limits on what tasks the revolution could successfully complete, as would the level of class consciousness of the proletariat and the degree of Russia’s economic development. Although the more advanced sections of the industrial workers would demand socialist measures, the revolutionary party itself would ensure that these were postponed to some unspecified, future, date - at least several decades away. The governmental form of the alliance of workers and peasants during the transitional period from semi-feudal to bourgeois state, would be the RDDPP, founded on Soviets, in which the revolutionary party would participate, but there was no question of an SD-only dictatorship, or even of an SD majority in the government. The outcome of the transitional period would be an elected Assembly representing the whole people, resting on a bourgeois-democratic state.

Trotsky, as Lenin, saw the alliance as originating from the self-interests of both the proletariat and the peasantry. However, before 1917, Trotsky more than Lenin, stressed that the peasantry would follow the towns and, if won to a revolutionary perspective, would follow the leadership of the industrial proletariat. This would be achieved if the proletariat, having taken power in the towns in the first stage of the bourgeois-democratic revolution, legitimised the peasants’ seizure of the land and led the destruction of serfdom. The actions taken by the workers in destroying the Tsarist state would, in the real world, overlap with their first collectivist measures, and the workers, carried by their own dynamic, would enact measures that would be the first steps towards socialism. The workers would have the determining say in the government, and the state form following the revolution would be the dictatorship of the proletariat, not least because during the crucial initial period, the bands of armed men that gave the state its authority would be largely working class, led almost exclusively by SDs and loyal to the urban Social Democratic Soviets.

Lenin’s own writings, as they appear in his Collected Works, show that he made a substantial and qualitative change to his assessment of the nature of the Russian Revolution as 1917 progressed. Beginning with his Letters from Afar and the April Theses, he posed the socialist revolution as being the new Bolshevik goal. After winning the party to his position in the April conferences, he proceeded to develop a more rounded version of what was, in reality, the ToPR, and in August 1917, was propagating an openly permanentist line: the international socialist revolution could begin in backward Russia, there could be no solution to the land question in Russia under bourgeois democracy. From a Publicist’s Diary, which he wrote at the end of August, places him unambiguously as a permanentist. Importantly, Lenin more than Trotsky, emphasised the need for the workers to seize state power in a proletarian, socialist revolution before feudal relations on the land could be abolished and the land question solved.

After the October Revolution, Lenin relentlessly, and without self-contradiction, referred to it as socialist and the state that immediately resulted from it as the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this he was consistent until his death.

It was expected that the theories that led to the success of the Russian Revolution would be seen in the policies of the Third (Communist) International. For a number of specific reasons it was Lenin, not Trotsky, who proposed a permanentist analysis: that medieval oppression was ended in Russia after the proletariat took state power for itself in an armed revolution. In July 1920, just one month prior to the Second Congress of the CI, Lenin spelled out that the peasantry were capable of giving resolute support to the revolutionary proletariat only after the workers won power, only after the peasants saw in practice that they had a leader and champion. Such an analysis was more than just a re-wording of Trotsky’s position: “The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it”. Trotsky’s theory was based on analysis of specifically Russian conditions and history (even if the international context was an essential and important element), and observation of the behaviour of the Russian proletariat in a revolutionary situation. Once the Russian bourgeois-democratic revolution had begun, the workers would come to the fore as the revolutionary dynamo and, after solving the crucial land question, would take the first steps towards socialism.

Lenin’s made two significant changes in emphasis to the ToPR. Firstly, he stressed that the solution of the all-important agrarian question was not possible unless the workers first took state power, established their dictatorship and used it for their own ends. Secondly, by presenting his permanentist analysis to the CI and the Communist Parties of the East, he generalised the ToPR and gave it an international dimension.

The opinions of certain authors who have attempted, in a partial and one-sided way to present Lenin’s ideas on the Russian Revolution as following a single uni-directional trajectory have been considered. The method used was that of the amalgam: unrelated quotations are torn out of context and strung together in a manner that “proved” whatever the author wished. It is shown that by siting the quotations supplied by these authors in their original context, that Lenin did not intend to convey the meaning ascribed to him. The essential weakness of their arguments can be seen in the fact that none of them addressed the key questions of how it was that the first stage of the international socialist revolution took place in backward Russia, or why Lenin consistently referred to the Russian state from October 1917 as a dictatorship of the proletariat, and the October Revolution as socialist and proletarian, or why he never referred to the post-October regime as the RDDPP, nor ever suggested that the RDDPP was a strategy for any section of the CI.

The book ends by considering how the role of the Constituent Assembly in the Russian Revolution, as perceived by Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, changed qualitatively from the declared goal of the revolution (1905-1915), to a counter-revolutionary force that had to be overthrown (1918). In parallel, Lenin’s volte face on the Paris Commune from something the Russian Revolution should not emulate (1905), to the call for a Commune-type state (1917) is noted. Both changes are taken as alternative expressions of Lenin’s transition to a permanentist perspective.

We are now in the position of being able to formulate a number of questions concerning the two theories which test how well they stood up to events:

1. Did the socialist revolution in semi-feudal Russia take place before the socialist revolution in Western Europe?

2. Did Lenin, from April in 1917 argue that Russia faced a revolution that must take the first steps towards socialism?

3. Did Lenin, from at least August 1917, argue that the proletariat must hold state power (the dictatorship of the proletariat) to fully liberate Russia from Tsarism?

4. Was the 1917 October Revolution organised with the clear aim of the (urban) proletariat taking state power?

5. Was the 1917 October Revolution organised by the Bolsheviks alone without any alliance with peasant parties?

6. Did the Bolsheviks achieve the “impossible” and constitute the majority of the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government? Were the representatives of the working class the dominant and leading participants? Was the revolutionary dictatorship led initially, by a Bolshevik-only government?

7. Was Lenin correct, in 1917, when he said the dictatorship of the proletariat was required before the agrarian problem could be solved in the interests of the peasantry?

8. Did Lenin consistently describe the 1917 October Revolution as a ‘socialist’ revolution, and the state that resulted from it the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’?

9. Was the post-October regime a Commune-type state, or was the goal of the revolution a bourgeois Constituent Assembly?

10. After the October Revolution did Lenin ever refer to the Bolshevik regime as the RDDPP?


Political theory should be a guide to action. A political schema should give a correct indication of the general development of the class struggle and help to orient both the individual and his/her political party to the actual course of events. It is argued that in this sense, it is impossible not to recognise that the ToPR passed the test of subsequent events much better than the RDDPP; that Lenin himself recognised this and, from at least August 1917, changed his revolutionary strategy accordingly.