MARX AND THE PERMANENT REVOLUTION – Part 4: The emergence of Soviets in Russia

The masses march to the Winter Palace in what was then Petrograd in 1905. Troops opened fire on them beginning the 1905 revolution
The masses march to the Winter Palace in what was then Petrograd in 1905. Troops opened fire on them beginning the 1905 revolution


LEON Trotsky’s analysis 1789-1848-1905 is contained in his 1906 book Results and Prospects.

This was written while he was in prison awaiting trial after playing the leading role in the St Petersburg Soviet of Workers’ Deputies during the defeated 1905 Revolution. Having spent fifteen months there he was among those sentenced to life imprisonment; but he promptly escaped, with the aid of supporters, while in transit to northern Siberia. Later, in My Life – though this was some twelve years after the victorious Russian Revolution of 1917 – he described Results and Prospects as ‘for that period, the most finished statement in proof of the theory of permanent revolution.’

What is the comparative relationship between Marx’s 1850 ‘battle-cry’ of permanent revolution, and Trotsky’s theory of it? Trotsky did not specifically cite Marx as his source, though he did refer to both The Class Struggles in France 1848-50 and The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte in his book 1905, completed a year after Results and Prospects. Much more important, however, are the historical and logical connections between the two, whose foundation is the emergence of the revolutionary role of the working class as capitalism developed as a world system and the grasping of this through the development of historical and dialectical materialist philosophy as its basic method.

What is certain, then, is that Marxism’s foresight was firmly grounded on a scientific understanding of what Engels called ‘the law of motion of history’ – without which it would certainly have been impossible to conceive of a theory of permanent revolution. And Marx’s call for ‘the Revolution in Permanence’, in the concluding words of the Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League, is very definitely an anticipation – i.e., the expression of what he sometimes called a semblance – of the conditions of worldwide permanent revolution which erupted onto the scene in 1905 and 1917 and are now dominating the political situation today.

It was in early summer of that same year 1850, as is very well-known, that Marx had been able to uncover for the first time previously unavailable economic statistics which showed, again in Engels’ words, that ‘the world trade crisis of 1847 had been the true mother of the February and March Revolutions, and that the industrial prosperity, which had been returning gradually since the middle of 1848 and attained full bloom in 1849 and 1850, was the revitalising force of the newly strengthened European reaction.’

This marked a decisive change, and a different course of action was necessary as a result. Revolution, Marx emphasised afterwards, was ‘only possible in the periods when . . . the modern productive forces and the bourgeois forms of production, come in collision with each other’. In our era of imperialism, of course, this general condition is itself permanent. But Marx’s understanding of the qualitative change in 1850 began the period of necessary research we noted earlier, culminating in his publication of the first volume of Capital in 1867, and the leading role he played in founding the First International.

On June 11 1849, however, shortly before France’s Legislative National Assembly threw out Montagne leader Ledru-Rollin’s motion to impeach Louis Bonaparte for the decision to bombard Rome, Marx had been unaware of this changed situation. The Assembly had voted by 361 to 203 to ignore the motion that day and move to next business. Marx – who had just been allowed temporarily into France as a political refugee, only to be expelled again in August – recalled that afterwards ‘a conference took place between members of the Montagne and delegates of the secret workers’ societies.’

The societies proposed to organise an attack on the government that same night, even claiming to have supporters within the National Guard. But the Montagne, as June 13 soon made clear, had very different plans in mind and rejected the proposal. ‘On no account did it want to let the leadership slip out of its hands,’ Marx commented, ‘its allies were as suspect to it as its antagonists . . . The memory of June 1848 surged through the ranks of the Paris proletariat more vigorously than ever . . .’

On seeing these limitations of their leaders, the societies’ delegates decided that ‘to begin the insurrection at this moment against the will of the Montagne would have meant for the proletariat, decimated moreover by cholera and driven out of Paris in considerable numbers by unemployment, to repeat uselessly the June days of 1848 . . .

‘The proletarian delegates did the only rational thing,’ Marx continued. ‘They obliged the Montagne to compromise itself, that is, to come out beyond the confines of the parliamentary struggle in the event of its bill of impeachment being rejected. During the whole of June 13, the proletariat maintained this same skeptically watchful attitude, and awaited a seriously engaged irrevocable melee between the democratic National Guard and the army, in order then to plunge into the fight and push the revolution forward beyond the petty-bourgeois aim set for it. In the event of victory a proletarian commune was already formed which would take its place beside the official government. The Parisian workers had learned in the bloody school of June 1848.’

And by this time, with the right of association about to be curtailed, the restraint of the Montagne was certainly not shared by the troops of the Paris Artillery, which advanced on protesters with fixed bayonets and took prisoner all those who couldn’t escape.

Marx concluded after recounting the event: ‘If June 23 1848 was the insurrection of the revolutionary proletariat, June 13 1849 was the insurrection of the democratic petty bourgeois, each of these two insurrections being the classically pure expression of the class which had been its vehicle.’ It was only in Lyons, to the south, that an ‘obstinate, bloody conflict’ arose – in an area of France ‘where the industrial bourgeoisie and the industrial proletariat stand directly opposed to one another . . .’

And in summary of the wider situation he added: ‘While the French republic thus became the property of the coalition of the royalist parties, the European coalition of the counter-revolutionary powers embarked, simultaneously, upon a general crusade against the last places of refuge of the March revolutions. Russia invaded Hungary; Prussia marched against the army defending the Reich constitution, and Oudinot bombarded Rome. The European crisis was evidently approaching a decisive turning-point . . .’

Marx’s concluding articles in The Class Struggles in France 1848-50 appeared in the very last issues of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung – by which time the events he was writing about were significantly more recent; so recent in fact that, as in 1848, they were immediately determining the course of his thinking. It was March of 1850, and he was at that very time preparing that same Address to the Central Committee of the Communist League. What he had learnt from the German uprisings, and his recognition that the Communist workers in France were now breaking from petty bourgeois utopian and doctrinaire socialism to look towards permanent revolution (see article 3), had featured in this same March issue. This was how he developed it in relation to Germany:

‘Far from desiring to revolutionise all society for the revolutionary proletarians, the democratic petty bourgeois strive for a change in social conditions by means of which existing society will be made as tolerable and comfortable as possible for them . . . As far as wage-workers are concerned, it remains certain above all that they are to remain wage-workers as before; the democratic petty-bourgeois only desire better wages and a more secure existence for the workers . . . in short, they hope to bribe the workers . . . and to break their revolutionary potency by making their position tolerable for the moment . . . those few who see their own programme in what has been outlined above might believe that thereby they have put forward the utmost that can be demanded from the revolution.

‘But these demands can in nowise suffice for the party of the proletariat. While the democratic petty-bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible, and with the achievement, at most, of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been forced out of their position of dominance, until the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of proletarians, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians. For us the issue cannot be the alteration of private property but only its annihilation, not the smoothing over of class antagonisms but the abolition of classes, not the improvement of existing society but the foundation of a new one . . .’

Marx continued: ‘Instead of once again stooping to serve as the applauding chorus of the bourgeois democrats, the workers, and above all the League, must exert themselves to establish an independent, secret and public organisation of the workers’ party alongside of the official democrats and make each section the central point and nucleus of workers’ societies in which the attitude and interests of the proletariat will be discussed independently of bourgeois influences . . . During the struggle and after the struggle, the workers must, at every opportunity, put forward their own demands alongside of the demands of the bourgeois governments. They must demand guarantees for the workers as soon as the democratic bourgeois start taking over the government . . .’

For such a situation, Marx went on to stress, the workers would need to be armed and organised, with this organisation centred in workers’ own clubs; when such situations arose, he insisted, the Central Committee should send an emissary to ‘convene a congress and put before the latter the necessary proposals for the centralisation of the workers’ clubs under a leadership established in the chief seat of the movement.’ The organisation of ‘at least a provincial interlinking of the workers’ clubs is one of the most important points for strengthening and development of the workers’ party…’

And on the key issue of relations of the working class to the peasantry, he insisted: ‘The first point on which the bourgeois democrats will come into conflict with the workers will be the abolition of feudalism. As in the first French Revolution, the petty bourgeois will give the feudal lands to the peasants as free property, that is to say, try to leave the rural proletariat in existence and form a petty-bourgeois peasant class which will go through the same cycle of impoverishment and indebtedness which the French peasant is still now going through. The workers must oppose this plan in the interest of the rural proletariat and in their own interest.

‘They must demand that the confiscated feudal property remain state property and be converted into workers’ colonies cultivated by the associated rural proletariat with all the advantages of large-scale agriculture, through which the principle of common property immediately obtains a firm basis in the midst of the tottering bourgeois property relations.

‘Just as the democrats combine with the peasants, so must the workers combine with the rural proletariat. Further, the democrats will work either for a federative republic or, if they cannot avoid a single and indivisible republic, they will at least attempt to cripple the central government by the utmost possible autonomy and independence for the communities and provinces. The workers, in opposition to this plan, must not only strive for a single and indivisible German republic, but also within this republic for the most determined centralisation of power in the hands of the state authority.’

And now we will see how Trotsky, fifty-five years later, analysed the 1848-9 events in relation to those of 1789 and 1905, looked particularly at the example of Vienna where the 1848 German uprisings had begun, and then detailed the Russian conditions which gave rise in his lifetime to the birth of the Soviets: ‘However much one may compare the Russian Revolution with the Great French Revolution,’ he insisted, ‘the former can never be transformed into a repetition of the latter. The 19th century has not passed in vain. . .’

Trotsky continued: ‘In the heroic period of French history we saw a bourgeoisie, enlightened, active, as yet not aware of the contradictions of its own position, upon whom history had imposed the task of leadership in the struggle for a new order, not only against the outworn institutions of France but also against the reactionary forces of the whole of Europe. The bourgeoisie, consistently, in all its factions, regarded itself as the leader of the nation, rallied the masses to the struggle, gave them slogans and dictated their fighting tactics . . . During the revolution itself, though class antagonisms were revealed, yet the powerful inertia of the revolutionary struggle consistently threw the more conservative elements of the bourgeoisie off the political path. No stratum was thrown off before it had transferred its energy to the stratum behind it . . . At what other period did bourgeois democracy rise to such a height and kindle such a flame as during the period of the Jacobin, sansculotte, terrorist, Robespierrean democracy of 1793? . . .

‘In 1848 the bourgeoisie was already unable to play a comparable role. It did not want and was not able to undertake the revolutionary liquidation of the social system that stood in its path to power. We know now why that was so. Its aim was – and of this it was perfectly conscious – to introduce into the old system the necessary guarantees, not for its political domination, but merely for a sharing of power with the forces of the past. . .

‘The German bourgeoisie, however, from the very start, did not “make” the revolution, but dissociated itself from it. Its consciousness rose against the objective conditions for its own domination. The revolution could only be carried out not by it but against it . . . In 1848 a class was needed that would be able to take charge of events without and in spite of the bourgeoisie, a class which would not only be prepared to push the bourgeois forward by its pressure but also at the decisive moment to throw its political corpse out of the way. Neither the urban petty-bourgeoisie nor the peasants were able to do this. . .

‘The proletariat was too weak, lacked organisation, experience and knowledge.

‘Capitalism had developed sufficiently to render necessary the abolition of the old feudal relations, but not sufficiently to bring forward the working class, the product of the new industrial relations, as a decisive political force… Austria provided a particularly clear and tragic example of this unfinished and incomplete character of political relations in the period of revolution. Altogether a position was created concerning which a contemporary accurately said: “A Republic had actually been set up in Vienna, but unfortunately no one saw this.” The Republic that nobody noticed departed for a long time from the stage, giving place to the Habsburgs . . . An opportunity, once missed, never returns.’

By contrast, he stressed: ‘The Russian working class of 1906 in no way resembles the workers of Vienna of 1848. The best evidence of this is the springing up all over Russia of the Soviets of Workers’ Deputies. These were not previously-prepared conspirative organisations for the purpose of seizure of power by the workers at the moment of revolt. No, these were organs created in a planned way by the masses themselves for the purpose of co-ordinating their revolutionary struggle. And these Soviets, elected by the masses and responsible to the masses, are unquestionably democratic institutions, conducting a most determined class policy in the spirit of revolutionary socialism.

‘The social peculiarities of the Russian revolution are particularly evident in the question of the arming of the nation. A militia, the National Guard, was the first demand and the first gain of every revolution, in 1789 and 1848, in Paris, in all the states of Italy, in Vienna and in Berlin. In 1848 the National Guard, i.e. the arming of propertied and “educated” classes, was the demand of the whole bourgeois opposition . . .

‘In Russia the demand for a militia found no support in the bourgeois parties. The liberals cannot help understanding the serious significance of arms; absolutism has given them some object-lessons in this respect. But they also understand the impossibility of creating a militia in Russia apart from or against the proletariat . . . Arming the revolution, in Russia, means first and foremost arming the workers. Knowing and fearing this, the liberals altogether eschew a militia. They even surrender their positions without a fight just as the bourgeois Thiers surrendered Paris and France to Bismarck simply to avoid arming the workers. . . (in 1871, prior to the Paris Commune uprising – MD)

‘For that reason the task of arming the revolution falls with all its weight upon the proletariat. The civil militia, the class demand of the bourgeoisie in 1848 is, in Russia, from the very first a demand for the arming of the people and above all for the arming of the proletariat. The fate of the Russian Revolution is bound up with this question.’

At the end of Results and Prospects Trotsky spelled out the most essential component part of what was to become the theory of permanent revolution: its internationalism: ‘Without the direct State support of the European proletariat the working class of Russia cannot remain in power and convert its temporary domination into a lasting socialistic dictatorship. Of this there cannot for one moment be any doubt.’ So permanent revolution is synonymous with the necessity of the world socialist revolution.