Problems of theory and history

Chapter 2



In May 1904 Trotsky had just been excluded from the editorial board of 'Iskra' at Plekhanov's insistence. He continued, nevertheless, to collaborate with the Menshevik journal. At this time he made his way to Munich where he met the Russian social democrat, Alexander Helphand, whose nom de plume was Parvus. He was to remain with him until February 1905 and to fall strongly under his influence. Like him, while his sympathy went to the Mensheviks, he was to claim the role of arbiter, judge and pacifier of the two factions of the Russian Social Democratic Party, and in order to do this he was to keep himself apart from both sides. The 'theory' of the permanent revolution in its essential traits is due to Parvus. He was the first person to set out some of the ideas which continue to structure Trotskyist thought up to the present day.

    In a series of articles entitled 'War and revolution' he argued that the national state, the birth of which corresponded to the needs of industrial capitalism, was henceforth superseded. The development of a world market shattered this compartmentalisation by accentuating the interdependence of nations.
    At the beginning of the 1905 revolution Parvus wrote a preface to Trotsky's book 'Our Political Tasks' in which he argued: 'The Provisional Revolutionary Government of Russia will be a workers' democratic government . . . As the Social Democratic Party is at the head of the revolutionary movement . . . this government will be social democratic . . . a coherent government with a social democratic majority.'

    Trotsky was to conclude quite naturally that such a government could not but carry out a specifically social democratic policy and would therefore immediately commit itself to the road of socialist transformation. In this he was as much opposed to the Mensheviks who, arguing the bourgeois-democratic character of the revolution, supported the big liberal bourgeoisie who were seeking a compromise with Tsarism, as to the Bolsheviks who, while distinguishing the democratic stage from the socialist stage, considered that the proletariat had to mobilise the peasantry in order to take up the leadership of the democratic revolution and to carry out its tasks radically, which by no means implied that social democracy would be in a majority in a government set up after a victory of the people.(1)

    At first sight it may seem that Trotsky's theses are left-wing, those of Martov right-wing and those of Lenin centrist, but extremes converge and Martov agrees with Trotsky on more than one point. As we shall see further on, Lenin devoted an article to refuting the ideas of Trotsky which Martov had adopted on his own account.

    Trotsky, the eloquent tribune, was accepted as the head of the Petrograd Soviet by the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks precisely because he represented only himself and did not impede them in the pursuit of their policies. This was so true that, while both sides polemicised a great deal among themselves, afterwards they hardly ever bothered to refute his ideas.

    Before going on to discuss the 'permanent revolution' in the basis of an analysis of the concrete situation in 1905, let us recall that Trotsky was not long to remain proud of having been Parvus's disciple. The latter revealed himself a social chauvinist in 1914, and in addition an arms dealer and shady speculator. That is why Trotsky traced his theory back to Marx although he did not dare to deny his debt to Parvus.

    It is true that Marx uses the term 'permanent revolution', particularly in 'The Class Struggles in France', but what he says about it is at such a level of generality that it cannot be relied upon to confer the palm of orthodoxy on Parvus and Trotsky, nor on Lenin and Mao. The former and the latter agree with Marx while differing among themselves. Besides, Marx was aware of the relatively general and abstract character of his definition of the permanent revolution since he apologises for not having the space to develop it.(2) It was only after 1905 that a differentiation occurs among those calling themselves Marxist over this concept. In any case, the reference to Marx is deceptive, for in the passages where the words 'declaration of the permanent revolution' appear, what is at issue is more reminiscent of the cultural revolution in China than the tactics advocated in 1905 by Trotsky. The latter explicitly invoked Lassalle, who had drawn from the events of 1848-9 the unshakable conviction that 'no struggle in Europe can be successful unless, from the very start, it declares itself to be purely socialist'.(3) If Parvus is the father of Trotskyist theory, Lassalle is its grandfather. The notion of the permanent revolution peculiar to Parvus and Trotsky was an attempt to respond to the problems posed by the 1905 revolution. In what follows I shall endeavour to study the concrete situation at that time.