Close this search box.

100 years on: the relevance of permanent revolution

Luke Cooper reviews 100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects, edited by Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice, published by Pluto Press, 2006

100 Years of Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects brings together a wide range of essays by academics, including non-aligned Marxists, as well as members of the Fourth International (FI) and International Socialist Tendency (IST). This collection marks, as the title suggests, the 100th anniversary of the publication of Results and Prospects, the work in which Trotsky first formulated the theory of permanent revolution. Its editors hope that it can contribute to the development of a “rejuvenated, anti-determinist Marxism, which can understand better not only the tumultuous 100 years, but also contemporary results and prospects” (Dunn and Radice: 9).

As this suggests, the essays focus heavily on the analytical method by which Trotsky developed his theory, which means that the authors only drop occasionally hints at what permanent revolution might look like today.

In the introductory essay, Bill Dunn and Hugo Radice, lecturers in political economy at Sydney and Leeds universities respectively, give a concise and unobjectionable summary of the theoretical premises and strategy of permanent revolution (p1-9). They point to the bold strategic proposal originally made by Trotsky to the Russian masses: to link the struggle against Tsarist autocracy with the fight for working class power, i.e. the formation of a workers’ government (ibid). They outline how Trotsky conceived of the working class coming to the head of the democratic struggle in order to lead it, “uninterrupted”, onto socialist tasks. In addition, they chart the development of Trotsky’s own politics from the early 20th century to the Russian Revolution, immediately before which he joined the Bolsheviks. They also point to how, in the 1920s, Trotsky generalised the strategy of permanent revolution, applying it to the resistance to imperialism in the colonial world. They show that the theory was lodged within an analysis of the uneven and combined character of world capitalism and the need for a global revolution, rather than the “socialism in one country” of Josef Stalin.

As Dunn and Radice also point out, an analysis of the uneven and combined character of global economic and political processes is timely given the plethora of discussion surrounding the contemporary “global economy”. Indeed, the bulk of the essays in 100 Years of Permanent Revolution deal with the question of uneven and combined development and what might be called the “political-economy of Permanent Revolution”, i.e. the analysis of social, political and economic processes, which acted as the bedrock for Trotsky’s revolutionary programme.

This narrow focus is the greatest weakness of the collection, as the questions of party, programme and tactics, were always essential to Trotsky. Dunn and Radice themselves state this, with reference to Trotsky joining the Bolsheviks in 1917: “While, it is only in 1917 that Trotsky accepts Lenin’s organisational model, he was, from the beginning, advocating party policy, tactics, a means of achieving a particular, optimal outcome” (Dunn and Radice 2006: p08). However, Dunn himself, in his essay “Uneven and Combined Development as a Strategic Concept”, does not broach the crucial questions of party, programme and class. Rather, he limits himself to a digression on the relationship between globalisation and the nation state, looking at the potential for an internationalisation of struggles, while pointing to the continued importance of nation states.

Useful as this is, it does not look at the vital strategic questions confronting the global social movements. This is despite Dunn and Radice pointing to the radicalisation of Chavez and the Zapatistas as “new exciting forms” vis a vis old-style European social democracy (Dunn and Radice: p9). I dare say this is because they would find little in Trotsky’s permanent revolution to theorise support for left bonapartists or peasant guerrilla movements respectively!

For Trotsky, achieving the permanence of the revolution necessitated the working class to fight for the leadership of the struggle for democracy and against colonialism; the smashing of the state (seen as an instrument of capitalist class rule); and the establishment of a working class state – based on soviets and defended by workers’ militias.

Trotsky’s generalisation of the theory of permanent revolution in the 1920s should be seen alongside the development of the other strategic discussions in the communist movement. In particular, the Communist International, prior to its Stalinist degeneration, developed the concept of transitional demands that link immediate struggles with the fight for working class power. In addition, it agreed a conception of a workers’ government, which both allowed it to be placed as a demand on left reformism at heightened periods of struggle and made clear that only a government based on the power of the working class, which expropriated capital, could be described as a government of the workers.

Not one essay in the book fully outlines this position and certainly does not consider how it could be applied in the resistance to neoliberalism today.

In his contribution, Fourth International theorist Daniel Bensaïd attempts to analyse the programmatic content of permanent revolution and link it to Trotsky’s conception of the transitional programme. Vital as this is, as we noted in February, Bensaïd establishes a concept of transitional demands that sees them as simply pragmatic responses to certain circumstances (Cooper 2007b). Bensaïd argues that transitional demands were simply about mobilising the working class and educating it in Marxism and, with this understanding, he struggled to show how the transitional programme was different to the old “minimum-maximum” programme of pre-war social democracy. What was central to Trotsky’s transitional programme, which gave it distinctiveness against the latter, was that it sought to turn day-to-day struggles of the working class into a fight for working class power, by fighting for workers to take control of key elements of bourgeois society, e.g. working class control of production.

Bensaïd’s fellow comrade of the Fourth International, Michael Lowy, doesn’t do any better. In the “The Marxism of Results and Prospects” (Lowy: p27-34), Lowy analyses the different trends within Marxism prior to 1917 and their view of the coming Revolution. The analysis focuses on how Trotsky had the most complete understanding of the tasks of Marxists in the coming revolution, against both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks.

The events of 1917 certainly acted as a powerful vindication of Trotsky’s theory, and Lenin and the Bolsheviks had effectively gone over to the position of Trotsky. However, an uncritical account of Trotstky’s politics prior to 1917, as Lowy gives, is equally erroneous because it ignores the small detail that Trotsky opposed the formation of the Bolsheviks, as a class independent party – advocating, as he did up until 1917, conciliation towards the Mensheviks. It was the fact that by 1917 the Bolsheviks had been built as a mass independent force, that they were able to successfully win the workers and soldiers councils to the task of seizing power.

Lowy’s critique of the Bolsheviks and Lenin reaches the absurd when he argues, having correctly stressed the sophisticated dialectics present in Results and Prospects, that Lenin only discovered dialectics in 1917 – we need only point out Lenin wrote a book on dialectical materialism in 1908.

Uneven and combined Development

The book’s saving grace is that it brings together a diverse range of essays debating uneven and combined development. This debate on the Marxist understanding of uneven and combined development has been a prominent one over the last few years. It has not only been given a lot of space in this volume but has also been the subject of debate at the last two conferences of the journal Historical Materialism. This debate has an importance beyond the academy (although there is certainly a danger of a purely doctrinaire exchange) in so far as it may contribute to a Marxist analysis of globalisation, which informs the perspective and strategy of communists. What follows is a short analysis of the competing approaches the book brings together.

In “From Uneven to Combined Development”, Neil Davidson, author of the award winning Discovering the Scottish Revolution 1692 – 1746 and member of the IST, looks at concepts of unevenness in early Enlightenment philosophy and the work of Marx. Davidson attempts to construct an argument that sees Marx making similar colonialist mistakes to early Enlightenment thought, particularly insofar as he argued that British colonisation of India was progressive in that it brought with it a superior mode of production (Davidson 2006a: 10-26). Davidson’s argument is disingenuous, as in a number of writings Marx commented on the oppressive character of colonial expansion (Cooper 2007a). Nevertheless, Marx recognised how capitalism was developing and transforming mankind’s productive forces on a world scale in a manner not seen in the whole history of humanity – indeed, there was a dramatic surge in technological and industrial progress throughout the 19th century (ibid).

This incorrect analysis of Marx, which downplays the contribution Marx made to the theory of uneven and combined development, leads to Davidson detaching the notion of combined development from the operation of the capitalist world market (Davidson: 22-23). Thus, he argues, combined development refers exclusively to the relationship between pre-capitalist and capitalist structures within a nation state (ibid: 23). This leads him to argue that in states, such as early 20th century Russia, the “archaic and the modern had melded and fused in all aspects of the social formations” (ibid: 22). In effect, this is a view of the relationship between the archaic and the modern, which sees them as mutually re-enforcing as opposed to recognising that the capitalist system, in all its universality and global patterns of integration, was the dominant component in the interchange, which both integrated and subordinated pre-capitalist elements into the global economy.

It is the systematic subordination and integration, i.e. unevenness, that Trotsky integrated into Marxist theory with his analysis. In doing so, he corrected the prevalent but one-sided interpretation of Marx which argued that capitalism was simply a universal system of linear social relations, i.e. simply combined, and was therefore able to show how it was the very universality of capitalism which led to it systematically reproducing uneven and combined development.

The essay by Sam Ashman, who is also a member of the IST, has a lot to contribute to such a framework. He looks at how Marx’s analysis of the world market in Capital, although it did not contain a fully developed theory of uneven development, did make a series of assumptions about the operation of unevenness (Ashman: p88-92). In particular, he argues that competition between different units of capital, with varying degrees of technological development and productivity, but whose behaviour is structured by the pressures of market competition, necessarily creates trends to equalisation and differentiation within the accumulation process (Ashman: p90 -91). In this sense, Ashman is able to establish the operation of uneven and combined development as existing at the level of the lawful abstraction of capitalist laws and tendencies within Marx’s Capital.

The essays from Colin Barker and Neil Smith, which we commented on in the last issue of Fifth International (Cooper 2006a), deal with the extent to which uneven and combined development can be understood as a social historical law. As we noticed previously, they both adopt equally wrong positions of seeing uneven and combined development as i) an ever present element in human development (Barker); or ii) rejecting, on the basis of empirical principle, the possibility of extrapolating laws of human development (Smith).

In this sense, the essay by Sam Ashman stands out in the book as contributing to a nuanced account of uneven and combined development, which sees it as specific to capitalism’s universality and as a function of the capitalist accumulation process. As Ashman argues, implicitly against Smith, to merely cite certain “sociological generalisations” makes impossible an analysis of the “systematic mechanisms that generate and reproduce uneven development” (Ashman 2006: p96).

As a discussion of the theoretical premises with which we may approach the contemporary contradictions in global political economy, 100 Years of Permanent Revolution Results and Prospects is not without interest. Indeed, developing a correct theoretical basis is critical in establishing an understanding of 21st century imperialism. However, the book, by not engaging with the strategic consequences of the competing theories, certainly risks stimulating a purely doctrinaire exchange – and this should, at all costs, be resisted.


Referenced articles from 100 Years of Permanent Revolution; Results and Prospects, published by Pluto Press, 2006, ed. Dunn and Radice

Dunn and Radice, 2006, ‘Permanent Revolution: Results and Prospects 100 Years On’, pp. – 9

Davidson, 2006a, ‘From Uneven to Combined Development’, pp. 10-26

Ashman, 2006, ‘From World Market to World Economy’, pp. 88-104

Barker, 2006, ‘Beyond Trotsky: Extending Uneven and Combined Development’, pp. 72- 87

Smith, 2006, ‘The Geography of Uneven Development’, pp. 180 – 195

Davidson, 2006b, ‘China: Unevenness, Combination, Revolution?’, pp. 211– 229

Herod, 2006, ‘Trotsky’s Omission: Labour’s Role in Combined and Uneven Development’, pp. 152 – 165

Bensaid, 2006, ‘The Baggage of Exodus’, pp. 61 – 71

Lowy, 2006, ‘The Marxism of Results and Prospects’, pp. 27–34

Dunn, 2006, ‘Combined and Uneven Development as a Strategic Concept’, pp. 166– 179

Other References

Cooper 2007a, ‘Uneven and combined development: Marx, Trotsky and globalisation’, Fifth International, Vol. 2, No. 2, February 2007

Cooper 2007b, ‘Daniel Bensaid and “The Return of Strategy”’, [INT],1075,0,0,1,0[/INT]

Lenin 1908, Materialism and Empirio-Criticism, [INT][/INT]


You should also read
Share this Article
Share this Article