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


In the past one and a half decades since the fall of the Soviet Union there has been an avalanche of books which claim to represent a “startling new appraisal” of the Russian Revolution and its principal leaders, Lenin and Trotsky. The purpose of this new literary genre is quite clear: to discredit the Bolshevik revolution in the eyes of the new generation.

It is therefore refreshing to read a book which, with a wealth of interesting material based upon an exhaustive research of the subject, develops new insights into the history of Bolshevism and the Russian Revolution. This book is well written and logically structured, each part being related to what has gone before and what follows. A wide range of authorities are quoted, providing a comprehensive bibliography on the subject. Above all, the author allows Lenin and Trotsky to speak for themselves. The numerous quotes from these outstanding revolutionaries allows the unprejudiced reader to form his or her own judgement on their ideas and their place in history.

Particularly interesting is the detailed account of the way in which Lenin’s position on the nature of the Russian Revolution evolved from his original theory of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry to his final position in 1917. The author provides a wealth of quotes of Lenin and Trotsky which conclusively show how the two men, proceeding by different routes, eventually arrived at the same conclusions.

This book includes a lively and accurate account of the events of 1917. It details the inner-party struggle by means of which Lenin achieved the ideological rearming of the Bolshevik Party after his return to Russia in April 1917. The author shows clearly that the intention of the Bolsheviks was not to achieve a “Russian road to socialism” but to ignite the flame of international revolution.

Of particular interest to present-day students of Marxism is the author’s polemic against revisionist writers such as Doug Lorimer, who has attempted to revive the old discredited formula of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry and the Menshevik-Stalinist theory of two stages. Where ever this theory has been put into practice it has led to bloody defeats. The most terrible example was the massacre of one and a half million Communists in Indonesia in 1965-66.

The experience of the Venezuelan revolution is a living proof of the impossibility of limiting the revolution in Third World countries to the tasks of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Through his own experience, Hugo Chávez has drawn the conclusion that the Bolivarian revolution, if it is to succeed must go beyond the limits of capitalism and carry out the socialist transformation of society. What is this, if not the permanent revolution?

One could make criticisms (what book cannot be criticised?), but these criticisms are of a secondary character, and do not affect the overall positive impression this book makes. The Russian Revolution had an enormous impact on the European working class. It led immediately to the November revolution in Germany in 1918, which was followed by a series of revolutionary upheavals in that country which only terminated in 1923. One year later, in 1919, there was a revolution in Hungary. In the same year a Soviet Republic was briefly declared in Bavaria. There were also revolutionary upheavals in Britain, France, Italy, Bulgaria, Estonia and other countries. These events demonstrated the essential correctness of Lenin’s (and Trotsky’s) perspective that the Russian Revolution could be the start of the European socialist revolution.

The reason why these revolutionary movements did not lead to the working class taking power was the absence of mass revolutionary parties and the betrayal of the leaders of Social Democracy. The revolutionary movement of the European working class was strong enough to prevent military intervention against Soviet Russia (in 1920 the leaders of the British Trade Unions threatened the government with a general strike over this) but was paralysed by the leadership of the labour movement.

The book quotes the words of the English historian E.H. Carr: “... The innumerable economic conflicts that had gone on before October now multiplied, and indeed became more serious as the combativity of the contestants was everywhere greater. The initiative for acts of expropriation, undertaken as necessities of struggle rather than according to any design for socialism, came from the masses rather than the government. It was only eight months later, in June 1918, that the government adopted the great decrees of nationalisation, under the pressure of foreign intervention. Even in April 1918 it was envisaging the formation of mixed companies which would have been floated jointly by the state and by Russian and foreign capital.

“The liquidation of the political defences of their capitalist exploiters launched a spontaneous movement among the workers to take over the means of production. Since they were perfectly able to take control of the factories and workshops, why should they abstain? The employers sabotage of production entailed expropriation as an act of reprisal. When the boss brought work to a halt, the workers themselves, on their own responsibility, got the establishment going again. [Council of Peoples’ Commissars had to decree the nationalisation of Russo-Belgian Metal Company’s factories, the Putilov works, the Smirnov spinning-mills and the power station belonging to the 1886 Electrical Company.]”.

These words could have been written today in relation to the situation that is developing in Venezuela. Of course, the destiny of the Venezuelan revolution has still not been decided by history. However, it shows that the theoretical controversies that formed an essential part of the history of Bolshevism are not only of academic interest. They have a direct bearing on the events of our own times, and it is quite impossible to understand these events without having made a careful study of the history and ideas of Bolshevism. In this respect John Roberts’ book represents a most valuable contribution.

Alan Woods. London. 2nd May 2007.