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A talk I gave to the Canterbury branch of the SWP on 15/8

A while ago I wrote a response to an anti-Trotskyist leaflet1. It claimed that, by rejecting the possibility of ‘socialism in one country’, we try to put down “those who have the temerity to go on and build socialism”. It was a Stalinist group that put out this leaflet, but an orthodox Trotskyist could easily have written it.  One of the groups I spoke to at the Marxism festival was the International Bolshevik Tendency2, who are supporters of the theory that the Soviet Union (along with many other countries) was a “deformed” or “degenerated workers’ state”. Their spokesperson wagged a finger at me and told me about how awful it is that the SWP looks at the Hungarian uprising of ‘56 positively, rather than as an act of counterrevolution, and how we think a socialist revolution still needs to take place in North Korea.

So although as part of this talk I won’t be going over the arguments of the most uncritical Stalinists, I will be going part of the way to addressing that position, since the so-called Orthodox Trotskyists are themselves so often counterrevolutionary and apologists for Stalinism. It sounds like nonsense to say that a Trotskyist could be guilty of this, but Cliff explained well how it happens, and how it comes from following Trotsky dogmatically but losing his essence, and abandoning classical Marxism3.

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A leaflet distributed by the CPGB(M-L) (the M-L stands for More-Letters) first in June 2012 attempts to  briefly explain their position on Trotskyism: why it is anti-Leninist and counterrevolutionary, and why we ought to be Stalinists. [Read here] I don’t know what kind of leafleting session this must have been – in which communities can they go where people have a basic understanding of the concepts involved? More to the point, are there really enough people concerned about these questions to justify a leaflet? This confusion aside, there are some serious flaws with the old arguments presented, and with the assumption that Trotskyism and Leninism are directly opposed.

The writer begins by criticising Leon Trotsky’s most important theoretical contribution: the theory of Permanent Revolution – the theory that socialist revolution must occur in all capitalist countries, not just in one country alone. It is not a proper criticism, as the writer does not start by explaining the argument in favour of the theory. It is worth understanding that Marx and Engels had the same basic idea. One of the earliest expressions of it was in Friedrich Engels’s Principles of Communism, written in 1847. He answers the question of revolution in one country alone by saying:

“By creating the world market, big industry has already brought all the peoples of the Earth… into such close relation with one another that none is independent of what happens to the others. … It is a universal revolution and will, accordingly, have a universal range.”

Marx looked at the Paris Commune of 1871 and said that it could have only lasted if the same revolutionary activity was mirrored in Germany and Prussia. V.I. Lenin also seemed to adopt the theory, and in December 1917 wrote a short article, For Bread and Peace, that ended: “The socialist revolution that has begun in Russia is… only the beginning of the world socialist revolution.” The alternative proposed by Josef Stalin was a theory of Socialism in One Country. (In Isaac Deutscher’s essay on the emergence of the theory, he argues

An almost perfect leaflet from May 2012

An almost perfect leaflet from May 2012

that Stalin formulated it primarily to propose the opposite to Trotsky.) Even in a country that stretched as far as the Soviet Union, it still found itself isolated, surrounded by capitalist hostility. Weak working class leadership around the world and British and American interference combined made this dream impossible, but it is not enough to blame Churchill: the theory itself can’t deal with capitalist hostility. It isn’t a case of “having the temerity to go on and try to build socialism”. This doesn’t mean I cannot oppose imperialism in North Korea or Cuba, just because I don’t share the same optimism about socialism in those countries. In general I have found Trotskyists broadly agree with the aims of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign, even if they apply Tony Cliff’s “state capitalist” model to the country. Stalinists today often set up a false dichotomy, that you must support a country absolutely or not at all. You are either with the Free Syrian Army, or you are with Assad, for example.

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