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


Since the publication of this book supporters of the proposition that the Bolshevik regime in Russia from October 1917 to the summer of 1918 was a democratic dictatorship (see Chapters 3 and 6), have introduced new arguments to justify their position.

We all accept (they say) that Lenin was the greatest Marxist after Marx and Engels; that Lenin used the Marxist method in an exemplary way to analyse the situation in Russia; that Lenin understood and introduced into the RDSLP the necessity of the worker-peasant alliance for a successful revolution in Russia; that Lenin developed Marxism with the innovation of the Leninist party; and that Lenin led the first successful proletarian revolution. Thus, and here we part company with these ‘Leninists’, Lenin cannot have been wrong when he proposed the Revolutinary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry. If Lenin’s writings on the RDDPP appear to fail to accurately predict or describe the reality of the Russian Revolution, then we are interpreting them incorrectly. The obverse is also presented; Trotsky was wrong in opposing the Leninist party so he must have been wrong in his Theory of the Permanent Revolution. Lenin, of course, did not suffer from this ‘Leninist’ bigotry, as shown in his attitude to the early writings of Plekhanov which he considered obligatory reading for young communists, even after Plekhanov’s outright capitulation to counter-revolution. In science such apparent contradictions are legion; the most famous being that Darwinian evolution, the universal acid eating at the heart of all religions (it shows that order can come out of chaos without the need for any external intervention), originated from a man who was a devout, establishment Christian.

However, our ‘Leninists’ have sufficient awareness and experience of the socialist movement to recognise that while such a barefaced appeal to the infallibility of the leader might have some appeal in North Korea, in the rest of the world it will go down like a lead balloon. A little more sophistication is required.

Marx himself is brought in to support their arguments. These ‘Leninists’ argue that in the late 1800’s Marx stated that in Russia a peasant revolution was inevitable, that such a revolution would be led by the workers and could by-pass capitalism and progress more or less directly to socialism because the peasants, the mass of the Russian population, lived in village communes or co-operatives which took communal decisions on all important matters affecting the village, most importantly it shared the land between the villagers, re-dividing it periodically to eliminate any inequalities.

It is argued that because Lenin accepted and developed these ideas in his early works(1), it is quite impossible that the interpretation given to the RDDPP by Trotskyists (see Chapter 3) is correct. Because Marx and Engels stated that the Russian Revolution could proceed quickly and directly to the socialist stage and because this did happen in 1917-18 under Lenin’s leadership, it is quite impossible that Lenin proposed anything different in the intervening period. In this light, quotations from Lenin such as from the 1905 article Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement to the effect that the Bolsheviks stood “for uninterrupted revolution”, and would “not stop half-way”(2) are now given double weight and presented as the true core of the RDDPP.

Our ‘Leninists’ cite the draft of a private letter from Marx to Vera Zasulich written in March 1881(6), in which he considers the theoretically possible development of the Russian commune system. Marx concluded that due to a unique combination of circumstances - the preservation of the rural commune on a national scale so that it existed contemporaneously with an international capitalist system that stood in fear of proletarian revolution - it was possible that the commune system could leave its primitive features behind and develop directly as an element of collective production on a nationwide scale. With the elimination of capitalism in the economically advanced countries Russia could by-pass the capitalist system and avoid experiencing all its frightful miseries. As Marx put it “in the return of modern societies to the ‘archaic’ type of communal property, ... (the Russian commune) will be a revival in a superior form of an archaic social type”.

However, even theoretically this outcome was not predetermined. The agricultural commune contained inherent contradictions, the common ownership of land as practised, allowed individual families to farm parcels of land and take the produce. The Russian government had decreed the re-division of land occur no more than once every twelve years, so that the opportunity for the growth of a layer of rich peasants (kulaks) was deliberately enhanced. There was thus an element of private property in the commune which allowed for an alternative development. Theoretically it was possible that this element could gain dominance over the collective.

Both solutions were theoretically a priori possible, but for one to prevail over the other it was obvious that quite different historical surroundings were needed. The outcome depended on the historical situation in which the commune found itself. In reality the Russian state was impoverishing the mass of peasants by extracting from them all the resources necessary not only to fund Tsarist oppression but also to pay for the importation of entire branches of the Western capitalist system; accelerating the conflicts at the heart of the commune between the poor peasants and the kulaks. Marx concluded that such developments must lead to the death of the rural commune without the revolutionary overthrow of the landowning aristocracy. The existing state of the commune was no longer tenable for any significant period of time.

But Marx ended on a very positive note: “If the revolution came at an opportune moment, if it concentrated all its forces so as to allow the rural commune full scope, the latter will soon develop as an element of regeneration in Russian society and an element of superiority over the countries enslaved by the capitalist system”.

Marx was not alone in considering the Russian situation. Six years before, in 1875, Engels had addressed the possibility of the peasant commune being a vehicle for the socialist revolution in Russia(3). Engels had described how communal ownership of the land was an institution that had existed across Europe into Asia, from Ireland to India, and how in 1608, in the newly conquered North of Ireland, the established communal ownership of the land gave the English a pretext for declaring the land to be ownerless and, as such, seized by the Crown. In Western Europe at a certain stage in its social development, this communal ownership became a brake on agricultural production, and was largely eliminated. In Russia, on the other hand, it had persisted, thereby proving that Russian agricultural production, and the social conditions in the countryside corresponding to it, were still very undeveloped.

The so-called emancipation of the serfs in 1861 had, in reality, placed enormous additional burdens on the peasants and it was clear that communal ownership in Russia was long past its peak, and was moving towards its disintegration. Nevertheless, Engels did say, there was the undeniable possibility of raising this form of society to a higher one. But he placed two clear conditions on the communes themselves that had to be met before this possibility could be fulfilled; (i) communal ownership must last until the circumstances were ripe for revolution, and (ii) the peasants had to change the system so that they no longer cultivated the land separately, but collectively. In such circumstances it was possible for Russia to reach a higher form of social organisation without it being necessary for the Russian peasants to go through the intermediate stage of bourgeois small holdings. However, the world context that made such a transition possible, would be a successful a proletarian revolution in Western Europe, which would provide the Russian peasant with the massive resources necessary to revolutionise the entire Russian agricultural system. We met this latter point, in principle, in Chapter 3 when Lenin considered the likely outcomes of the RDDPP and claimed it would require a socialist revolution in Western Europe to enable the Russian Revolution to protect its democratic gains and move forward to its own socialist revolution.

However, Engels was not optimistic that the peasant communes would either continue to exist, or change their methods to collective cultivation. He suggested that the development of capitalism in Russia was likely to destroy communal ownership. That the great differences in the degrees of prosperity of the peasants that were appearing in the villages must eventually cause a breakdown of the communes, to the advantage of the few rich peasants who were the money-lenders, who were acquiring an ever greater amount of land for their families to farm, and who were increasing employing peasants whose land did not provide them with a living.

In 1882, one year after Marx’s letter to Zasulich, in their preface to Plekhanov’s Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto(4), Marx and Engels stated:

“in Russia ... the question is: can the Russian commune, this form of the original common ownership of land which is actually already in a state of severe disintegration, make the direct transition into a higher communist form of landed property - or must it first undergo the same process of dissolution that characterises the historical development of the West? The only possible answer to this question today is as follows: when the Russian revolution gives the signal for a workers’ revolution in the West, so that each complements the other, then Russian landed property might become the starting point for a communist development.”

By 1894 Engels could write(5) that the commune had contained elements which under certain conditions might have developed and saved Russia the necessity of passing through the torments of capitalism, but now the commune was fading away. The likelihood facing Russia was the process of replacing the landowners by a new class of bourgeois landed proprietors which could not be carried out without fearful suffering for the peasants.

The growth of the railway system, which was a sure sign of the growth of large-scale domestic industry, demonstrated the advent of the capitalist era in Russia, the era of the rapid destruction of the common ownership of land. With the railways came the “money economy” and end of the subsistence economy with a consequent breakdown of traditional conditions of employment. Within the communes large differences in wealth were appearing between the members - debt was turning the poorer into the slaves of the rich kulaks.

In 1894, Engels remained convinced that what remained of the commune could be preserved, but only through the revolutionary overthrow of Tsarism, which would tear the great peasant masses away from the isolation of their village existence, simultaneously energise the labour movement of Western Europe and so hasten the victory of the modern industrial proletariat without which Russia could never achieve a socialist transformation, whether proceeding from the commune or from capitalism.

Marx’s and Engels’ writings are quite clear that transition to a socialist revolution could NOT take place in Russia without a simultaneous or prior socialist revolution in Western Europe. This is identical, in principle, with Lenin’s position as described in Two Tactics and other writings on the RDDPP. In fact, before Trotsky said it in 1906, no socialist, anywhere, had posed the possibility of a socialist revolution in Russia initiating the world socialist revolution. A serious investigation of what Marx and Engels actually wrote has robbed our ‘Leninists’ of the very foundation on which their new argument rests. Marx did NOT say a socialist revolution based on the agricultural communes could occur in Russia before the socialist revolution in Western Europe.

Our ‘Leninists’ are right about one thing - Lenin did use the Marxist method to extend Marx’s analysis of Russia and bring it up to date. Unfortunately for them Lenin came to just the opposite conclusions to those they ascribe to him! The major theme of Lenin’s writings until his exile was to prove the development of capitalism in Russia was a native Russian phenomenon and not an import. What the Friends of the People Are(1), written in 1894, was one of his major publications in this area, to be followed in 1899 by The Development of Capitalism in Russia(7). The themes of these books was how a purely Russian home market was being formed for Russian capitalism, the evolution of capitalist agriculture and the consequent differentiation of the peasantry, and the disappearance of small peasant or handicraft manufacture with the development of large scale industry. The impoverishment and ruination of the peasant poor combined with the widespread survivals of feudalism gave the Russian peasantry a revolutionary character, but Lenin makes no suggestion that the commune system could be saved, or could be the basis of a leap to a higher, post-capitalist, social stage. Indeed, in both these books he was at pains to point out there were only two main lines of development: the old landlord economy was retained and evolved slowly into a purely capitalist economy which retained many feudal features, or the old landlord economy was broken by a revolution which destroyed all relics of serfdom, enabling the free development of small, capitalist, peasant farms(7). Neither of these lines of development considered the commune as being the basis of a leap over the capitalist stage of development. In fact, Lenin ends What the Friends of the People Are with a description of how exploitation of the working people in Russia was everywhere capitalist in nature, but the semi-feudal existence in the countryside tied the tiny enterprises of the peasants to the bourgeois system while preventing them (at that time) from becoming class-conscious and uniting, and that this made the proletariat the leaders of all the democratic elements in the coming Russian Revolution (8). The Russian proletariat would then unite with the proletariat of all countries to openly struggle for the “Communist Revolution”.

Examining what Marx, Engels and Lenin actually wrote about the Russian Revolution one can see a clear common thread. The Russian Revolution against absolutism could lead to the socialist transformation of Russia provided the Western European proletariat simultaneously rose in a socialist revolution. If the communes maintained their existence and changed production from family based farming to collective farming they could move directly to a higher form of production and miss out the capitalist stage because the Western European states would provide the necessary material support. There is no suggestion in any of this that the Russian workers could lead the revolution against the Tsarist state and then, based on the mode of production present in the village communes, leap directly to the socialist revolution. To understand Lenin’s perspective for the Russian Revolution from 1905 to at least 1915 it is necessary to read what Lenin actually wrote on the question of the RDDPP, and to accept that what he said is what he meant.

Our new ‘Leninist’ argument thus fails on three fundamental grounds

1. It is methodologically incorrect to base any political argument on the grounds that any one of the Marxist authorities was always correct: certainly neither Marx, nor Engels, nor Lenin ever claimed this for themselves.

2. The writings of Marx which our ‘Leninists’ quote in their favour say something quite different from that claimed. The supplementary writings of Engels and Lenin are even clearer - the Russian Revolution (with or without agricultural communes) could only move to its socialist stage simultaneously with, or after, the socialist revolution in Western Europe.

3. It is quite wrong to claim that the writings of one era can automatically be applied to another - all the great Marxists built their political analyses on analysis of actual, real events. It was this method that allowed Lenin, in 1917, to move from a stagist position to a position that was in every important way coincident with that of Trotsky and the ToPR.

Postscript References

1 - Lenin, V.I., What the “Friends of the People” are, and how they fight the Social Democrats, CW1:133-332 1894 is considered particularly relevant - possibly because it is one of Lenin’s least read works these days.

2 - Lenin, V.I., Social-Democracy’s Attitude Towards the Peasant Movement, Sept 1905, CW 9:236

3 - Engels, F., On Social Relations in Russia, MCEW 12:39-50. Written between mid-May 1874 and April 1875.

4 - Marx, K and Engels, F. Preface to Plekhanov’s Russian translation of the Communist Manifesto. January 21, 1882

5 - Engels, F., Afterword to Social Relations In Russia, MCEW 27:421. January 1894

6 - Marx, K., First Draft of Letter To Vera Zasulich, MCEW 24:346. March 1881.

7 - Lenin, V.I. The Development of Capitalism in Russia. CW 3:32-33. 1899

8 - Lenin, V.I., What the “Friends of the People” are, and how they fight the Social Democrats, CW1:299-300, 1894.