MARX AND THE PERMANENT REVOLUTION – Part 7 Trotsky deepens his analysis

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A painting showing the guillotine that was used to behead aristocrats after the French Revolution
A painting showing the guillotine that was used to behead aristocrats after the French Revolution

EXILED once again in 1929, but this time banished from the entire USSR by the Stalin-led counter-revolution which followed Lenin’s death, Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution deepened his analysis of both the English revolution and the years 1789-93 in France in the light of the establishment of the world’s first workers’ state.

‘In the Great French Revolution,’ he wrote, ‘the Constituent Assembly, the backbone of which was the upper levels of the Third Estate, concentrated the power in its hands – without however fully annulling the prerogatives of the king. The period of the Constituent Assembly is a clearly-marked period of dual power, which ends with the flight of the king to Varennes and is formally liquidated with the founding of the Republic.

‘The first French constitution (1791), based upon the fiction of a complete independence of the legislative and executive powers, in reality concealed from the people, or tried to conceal, a double sovereignty: that of the bourgeoisie, firmly entrenched in the National Assembly after the capture by the people of the Bastille, and that of the old monarchy still relying upon the upper circles of the priesthood, the clergy, the bureaucracy, and the military, to say nothing of their hopes of foreign intervention.

‘In this self-contradictory regime lay the germs of its inevitable destruction. A way out could be found, but only in the abolition of bourgeois representation by the powers of European reaction, or in the guillotine for the king and the monarchy …

‘But before it comes to war and the guillotine, the Paris Commune enters the scene – supported by the lowest city layers of the Third Estate – and with increasing boldness contests the power with the official representatives of the national bourgeoisie. A new double sovereignty is thus inaugurated, the first manifestation of which we observe as early as 1790, when the big and medium bourgeoisie is still firmly seated in the administration and in the municipalities.

‘How striking is the picture – and how vilely it has been slandered! – of the efforts of the plebeian levels to raise themselves up out of the social cellars and catacombs, and stand forth in that forbidden arena where people in wigs and silk breeches are settling the fate of the nation. It seems as though the very foundation of society, trampled underfoot by the cultured bourgeoisie, was stirring and coming to life. . .

‘The districts of Paris, bastards of the revolution, began to live a life of their own. They were recognised – it was impossible not to recognise them! – and transformed into sections. But they kept continually breaking the boundaries of legality and receiving a current of fresh blood from below, opening their ranks in spite of the law to those with no rights, the destitute Sansculottes. At the same time the rural municipalities were becoming a screen for a peasant uprising against that bourgeois legality which was defending the feudal property system. Thus from under the second nation arises a third.

‘The Parisian sections at first stood opposed to the Commune, which was still dominated by the respectable bourgeoisie. In the bold outbreak of August 10, 1792, the sections gained control of the Commune. From then on the revolutionary Commune opposed the Legislative Assembly, and subsequently the Convention, which failed to keep up with the problems and progress of the revolution – registering its events, but not performing them – because it did not possess the energy, audacity and unanimity of that new class which had raised itself up from the depths of the Parisian districts and found support in the most backward villages.

‘As the sections gained control of the Commune, so the Commune, by way of a new insurrection, gained control of the Convention. Each of the stages was characterised by a sharply marked double sovereignty, each wing of which was trying to establish a single and strong government – the right by a defensive struggle, the left by an offensive. Thus characteristically – for both revolutions and counter-revolutions – the demand for a dictatorship results from the intolerable conditions of the double sovereignty. The transition from one of its forms to the other is accomplished by civil war.

‘The great stages of a revolution – that is, the passing of power to new classes or layers – do not at all coincide in this process with the succession of representative institutions, which march along after the dynamic of the revolution like a belated shadow. In the long run, to be sure, the revolutionary dictatorship of the Sansculottes unites with the dictatorship of the Convention. But with what Convention? A Convention purged of the Girondists (big bourgeoisie MD) who yesterday ruled it with the hand of the Terror – a Convention abridged and adapted to the dominion of new social forces. Thus by the steps of the dual power the French revolution rises in the course of four years to its culmination.

After the 9th Thermidor it begins – again by the steps of the dual power – to descend. And again civil war precedes every downward step, just as before it had accompanied every rise. In this way the new society seeks a new equilibrium of forces.’

For our purpose in this series of articles, the first point of note in this analysis is this: a key part of the period it describes – i.e. the period following the execution of the king in January – is exactly the period of ‘the glorious year 1793’, characterised by Engels (see article 2) as ‘the revolution in permanence’. We can say with certainty, therefore, that as far as both Marx and Engels were concerned permanent revolution was synonymous with every manifestation of revolution moving beyond democracy towards socialism, as well as with every political anticipation of the kind of irreversibly permanent change in human social life which the end of class society will bring as ‘the ultimate form of organisation of the human family’ (article 1). It is in both these senses then – and in the one no less importantly than in the other – that the ‘battle-cry’ of permanent revolution is a semblance of Trotsky’s theory of the permanent revolution.

Secondly – and for exactly the reason we’ve just now noted – the bold history of the Paris Commune to 1871, and of its destruction that year by the combined bourgeois armies of France and Germany, is not to be measured by any shortcomings of its leaders but by the great political maturity the Parisian workers reached by that time. ‘It was essentially a working-class government,’ Marx said of it, ‘the product of the struggle of the producing class against the appropriating class, the political form at last discovered under which to work out the economic emancipation of labour.’ Engels developed this analysis 20 years later; and in 1921 Trotsky called the events of 1871 ‘a lightning harbinger of world proletarian revolution.’

The period prior to and including the formation of the 1871 Commune – whose majority were Blanquists – was also the subject of Marx’s most substantial early addresses to the First International, in July and September of 1870 and on May 30 1871; and the murder of the Communards while Bismarck’s armies stood at the gates of Paris, for which the restored Orleanist prime minister of France’s Third Republic, Adolphe Thiers, was principally responsible, is still commemorated all over the world whenever the Internationale is sung. Between 20,000 and 30,000 of its defenders were massacred.

The real history of 1871 was first told in Marx’s Civil War in France; a text which also marked the end of the political career of Louis Bonaparte, swindler, adventurer and elected Emperor of France from 1851 to 1870. In fact, when Marx used the term imperialism – that is to say before the time when it was needed to describe monopoly capital, finance capital and moribund capital – he was almost invariably talking about Bonaparte and the French ‘Second Empire’. ‘Imperialism,’ he said, is ‘the most prostitute and the ultimate form of the state power, which nascent middle-class society has begun to elaborate as a means of its emancipation from feudalism, and which full-grown bourgeois society finally transformed into a means for the enslavement of labour by capital.’

And in the words of Engels: ‘Louis Bonaparte took the political power from the capitalists under the pretext of protecting them, the bourgeoisie, from the workers, and on the other hand, the workers from them; but in return his rule encouraged speculation and industrial activity – in a word, the upsurgence and enrichment of the whole bourgeoisie to an extent hitherto unknown.’ To realise this, however, Bonaparte had to organise foreign wars as a matter of course. And since ‘no extension of frontiers was so dazzling to the imagination of the French chauvinist as the extension to the German left bank of the Rhine’, it was only a matter of time, after Prussian Germany’s separation from Austria following the war of 1866, before Bonaparte was at war with Prussia and Bismarck.

That war was declared in July 1870 and lost by September, with the defeated French troops either stranded in Metz or captured, and as Paris began to starve under a German siege. In this declared state of national emergency only the workers were strong enough to defend revolutionary France. A new workers’ revolution in the capital restored the Republic, but still allowed the existing Paris deputies to constitute a ‘government of national defence’ in Versailles; even though armed workers formed the majority of those patrolling the city as members of the National Guard. When prime minister Thiers moved inevitably to disarm these workers and failed, civil war was declared on March 18 1871 and the Commune was elected and proclaimed by March 28. Two days later the Commune abolished conscription, the standing army and declared the National Guard, which now included all citizens capable of bearing arms, the sole armed force in Paris.

The further succession of revolutionary measures approved by the Commune was only halted when Thiers succeeded in persuading Bismarck to release captured soldiers and return them to Versailles to defeat the revolution. And only when these troops launched an actual bombardment of Paris late in May, when the German troops still outside were persuaded to allow them freedom to move against the Commune from the areas they occupied, and following eight days of fighting, were the workers ‘shot down in their hundreds’ (Engels), and subjected to mass arrests. In this event the Prussian members of the Saxon Army corps displayed more mercy than Thiers’ French troops.

The third point of note to be deduced from Trotsky’s analysis requires, first of all, use of a further quotation if it is to be fully understood: ‘What, then, is the peculiarity of this dual power as it appeared in the February revolution?’ he asked on the very next page. ‘In the events of the 17th and 18th centuries, (i.e. the English and French revolutions MD) the dual power was in each case a natural stage in a struggle imposed upon its participants by a temporary correlation of forces, and each side strove to replace the dual power with its own single power. In the revolution of 1917, we see the official democracy consciously and intentionally creating a two-power system, dodging with all its might the transfer of power into its own hands. . . In so far as the Russian “democracy” sought for an escape from the two-power regime, it could find one only in its own removal from power.’ The ‘democracy’ in Russia proved even less capable of assuming the power than in Germany.

• Continued on Monday