The April theses and permanent revolution
The CPGB's 'extreme democracy' presupposes economic inequality, argues Gerry Downing
The central thesis of this polemic is that both the Revolutionary Democratic Group, in an explicit form, and the CPGB's Provisional Central Committee, in more sophisticated but nonetheless clear form, propose not a socialist but a bourgeois democratic political revolution. That is, both attempt a Kautskyite utopian scheme to render perfect modern capitalist society without overthrowing it.
The RDG's democratic republic is clearly a stage that will allow a socialist revolution (workers' republic) to be fought for as the next stage in the indefinite future. This Menshevik position allows the PCC to appear far more orthodox than they really are by defending Lenin's pre-1917 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', condemning stageism, but crucially having the same governmental slogan for the democratic republic.
We will therefore analyse stageism and how revolutionaries understood the character of the coming revolutions in 19th century Germany and early 20th century Russia. We will look at its genesis in the writings of Marx and Engels, its relevance to the programmes of the German social democracy and its effects on the Russian SDLP (Bolshevik). Then to Lenin's Imperialism of 1916 and its significance for the turn that he made in the April theses and to the Russian Revolution itself, the failed revolutions in Germany in 1918-19 and 1923 and the failed Chinese revolution of 1927.
The victory of Hitler in 1933, Stalinism's abandonment of third-stage ultra-leftism and the adoption of popular frontism (total collapse into stageism) in 1934-35 signalled for Trotsky the need for the Transitional programme as the programmatic perspectives of a new international. We argued in our last polemic that these perspectives and the programmatic orientation that flowed from them were fully justified by the revolutionary situations that developed at the end of World War II ('Trotskyite economism?' Weekly Worker November 30 2006). International revolutionary leadership was the prime question for humanity and the crushing of these revolutions by the alliance between Stalinism and world imperialism proved that point in the negative.
Marx and Lenin, 1843 to 1905
In 1843 Marx wrote On the Jewish question, in which he argues with Bruno Bauer on the freeing of the Jews from the ghettos that "to be politically emancipated from religion is not to be finally and completely emancipated from religion because political emancipation is not the final and absolute form of human emancipation". He goes on to generalise this idea: abolishing political inequality in general fails to look at social and economic man. Several states in the US had abolished the property qualification for voting, "but the political suppression of private property not only does not abolish private property: it presupposes its existence".
As CJ Arthur argues in his introduction to Marx and Engels's The German ideology, "Marx considers even the most perfect democratic state [extreme democracy?] is inadequate because it is based on this fundamental contradiction between the political state and civil society." And "In political democracy" man - not merely one man, but every man - is there considered a sovereign being, a supreme being; but it is uneducated, unsocial man... man as he has been corrupted, lost to himself, alienated, subjected to the rule of inhuman conditions and elements, by the whole organisation of our society - in short man who is not yet a real species-being."
However, in the Economic and political manuscripts of 1844 Marx developed this theory of alienation to locate it in the labour process itself and the working class as the revolutionary class. The products of his own labour in an ever deepening crisis oppresses man. Congealed labour, capital, stands above him and outside of him and necessarily produces and reinforces private property, just as man creates a god in the sky as an idealised self and then becomes oppressed by his own creation.
The gender prejudices present in the use of the term 'man' by Marx are a product of their times and do reflect the values of a patriarchal society. Between 7,000 and 9,000 years ago humanity began to divide into class society; where mental and manual labour were separated and the patriarchal society was instituted. Here sexual relationships began to be regulated to ensure the male line of inheritance in place of the mother right in order consolidate private property. These relationships have to be overturned to forge the new society. Humanity has never faced a more daunting task, but yet it is the most exciting in what it promises in terms of human liberation on a real scientific basis of human equality.
Here is Marx setting out his break with Hegel and Feuerbach: his new world outlook, which really does demand a socialist and not a democratic revolution. The agency of the revolution, the working class, had not yet developed its organisational and political strength sufficiently to produce soviets until 1905 in Russia and so solve the dichotomy between the political and the social. Nevertheless it was to social man that Marx devoted the rest of his efforts until his death in 1883.
Revolutionary violence and the dictatorship of the proletariat
"We were now hard, cold and ruthless, as our enemies had been since hostilities began. The British were met with their own weapons. They had gone down in the mire to destroy us and our nation, and down after them we had to go to stop them." Thus Tommy Barry justified the very undemocratic way in which the west Cork IRA meted out summary executions to spies and informers in 1920-21.
Revolutions are not schools of humanity and when Kautsky attacked the Bolsheviks in 1918 in his book The dictatorship of the proletariat Lenin replied "burning with anger" in his The proletarian revolution and the renegade Kautsky. Trotsky's Terrorism and communism (both given to all delegates at the 1920 3rd Congress of the Comintern) and his Social democracy and the wars of intervention: between red and white (1920) are the three major works that attack Kautskyism and the Second International, forces which were supporting the destruction of the revolution.
The three books each have one chapter devoted to the specific question of 'democracy': its class nature and the fraud of abstract pure democracy and defending the dictatorship of the proletariat and the use of revolutionary violence. They had not encountered the same animal in its 'extreme' form but it is clearly the same thing. Let us examine some of these.
"Have these gentlemen [the anti-authoritarians] ever seen a revolution? A revolution is certainly the most authoritarian thing there is; it is an act whereby one part of the population imposes its will upon the other by means of rifles, bayonets and cannon - all of which are highly authoritarian means. And the victorious party must maintain its rule by means of the terror which its arms inspire in the reactionaries. Would the Paris Commune have lasted more than a day if it had not used the authority of the armed people against the bourgeoisie? Cannot we, on the contrary, blame it for having made too little use of that authority?" Thus Lenin fulminated against those who would turn Marx into "a common liberal".
"History on the whole knows of no revolution that was accomplished in a democratic way. For revolution is a very serious contest, which is always settled, not according to form, but according to content. It happens quite frequently that individuals lose their fortunes and even their 'honour' when playing cards according to the rules of the game; but classes never consent to lose possessions, power and 'honour' by observing the rules of the game of 'democratic' parliamentarism. They always decide this question in grim earnest - ie, in accordance with the real correlation of the material forces - and not with the phantom shadows of these forces." So Trotsky explained in Between red and white.
"If we are not to mock at common sense and history, it is obvious that we cannot speak of 'pure democracy' as long as different classes exist; we can only speak of class democracy. (Let us say in parenthesis that 'pure democracy' is not only an ignorant phrase, revealing a lack of understanding both of the class struggle and of the nature of the state, but also a thrice-empty phrase, since in communist society democracy will wither away in the process of changing and becoming a habit, but will never be 'pure' democracy.)" Lenin defends the dictatorship of the proletariat.
"Is there a single country in the world, even among the most democratic bourgeois countries, in which the average rank-and-file worker, the average rank-and-file farm labourer, or village semi-proletarian generally "enjoys anything approaching such liberty of holding meetings in the best buildings, such liberty of using the largest printing plants and biggest stocks of paper to express his ideas and to defend his interests" as in Soviet Russia? " Instinctively, from hearing fragments of admissions of the truth in the bourgeois press, the workers of the whole world sympathise with the Soviet Republic precisely because they regard it as a proletarian democracy, a democracy for the poor, and not a democracy for the rich that every bourgeois democracy, even the best, actually is." Lenin defends Soviet democracy against bourgeois democracy.
We have quoted at length to contrast these view with Jack Conrad's 'Test of 1917' (Weekly Worker January 4), because the real issue in the debate between the democratic dictatorship and the proletarian dictatorship is what was and is the character of the coming revolution, what happened in October, why a second revolution was necessary and what it did. Lenin won the argument after a severe internal struggle in the central committee (not "easily") and by utilising the huge influx of new and revolutionary-minded member against the conciliators. He never again used the term 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry', because history had passed that slogan by.
Those who revived it in China during the appalling 'bloc of four classes' Menshevik orientation of the Comintern were largely the same people and were using it in the same way that the conciliators had used in the dual power situation between the two revolutions. And, remember, fusion with the Mensheviks was suggested on the ground at least by the supporters of the conciliators. And they used the same arguments about the non-complete character of the bourgeois revolution. Of course, bourgeois revolutions are never complete. We are sorry to have to disappoint the RDG: George Bush's USA is as good as you will get under capitalism. Here we have more frequent elections, more representative institutions, but the corporatist lobbies manage to subvert all that with the greatest of ease.
There was not, and never again will be, a correct 'Leninist' way to use the outdated 'democratic dictatorship' slogan. However, understandable confusion arose because of the impossibility of completing the bourgeois (or any) revolution in an isolated Russia emerging from semi-feudal absolutism.
Britain had its bourgeois revolution back in the 17th century. The 19th century expert on the British constitution, Walter Bagehot, postulated that Britain was fundamentally a democratic republic with a tokenistic monarchy. Certainly, in contrast to the republican USA or France, we cannot complain overmuch of our lack of democratic rights. So why would the CPGB want to fight for a democratic republic, which can only mean democratising the existing one? Surely it is to avoid being called Trotskyists and, since one cannot really be called a Stalinist nowadays, a third, Kautskyite way must be reinvented.
In 'Permanent revolution and state power' Jack Conrad excuses Kautsky: he made a "forlorn response" to the vote for war credits; Lenin and Trotsky agreed with his 1906 pamphlet; Rosa Luxemburg made a "mistake" in identifying the separation between the maximum and minimum programmes as the theoretical cause of the collapse of the Second International (Weekly Worker December 7). So the renegade Kautsky simply made an incorrect "forlorn response" to the greatest betrayal in the history of the working class up to then and we certainly cannot look for any political or programmatic causes for it.
Remember this political tendency (a "stinking corpse", in Luxemburg's immortal phrase) destroyed not just the German revolution, but the revolutions in all of central Europe at the time - not because they were "forlorn" in their responses, but because they were counterrevolutionary bloodhounds of the bourgeoisie, who murdered the best leaders to save capitalism and their privileged positions within the system.
Nick Rogers poses a not inconsequential question when he asks: "surely, we need to articulate demands that point towards workers' control of industries - and towards full socialism [a truly novel suggestion: GD] "our minimum programme should encourage workers to challenge the logic of capital at every point in their lives" ('A vital task' Weekly Worker November 23). But that would be a transitional programme based on 'Trotskyite economism', Nick, not a Kautskyite minimum programme.
Stageism and imperialism
When some Russian Marxists wrote to Marx to suggest that it might be possible to skip the stage of capitalist exploitation in their country he gave a conciliatory reply. Basically the argument was that because of the overwhelming peasant nature of Russia it would be possible to move from the egalitarian rural economy of the mir (village council), where strips in fields were allocated according to the needs of the individual families. Possibly, thought Marx, if we get rid of the landlords.
But Lenin answered the question in the negative when he produced his Russian agriculture in 1903. The villages were already far too socially differentiated, capitalism had penetrated every pore of the village economy, the kulaks (rich peasants, who arose after the abolition of serfdom in 1862) were aspiring to the position of the landlords. The poorer peasantry were being ground underfoot even more viciously than ever. The stage of capitalist exploitation was unavoidable, he thought. Yes, as against the bogus egalitarianism of feudal rural relationships; no, as against the international socialist revolution. Therein lay the confusion lodged in 'the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry'.
Following the defeat of the 1848 revolutions Marx drew the political conclusion that the "revolution in permanence" from the bourgeois to the socialist was needed, together with an alliance with the peasantry in Germany - a "second version of the peasants' war". It would be nice to report that Marx and Engels then followed this political line consistently and imposed it on the German Social Democrats. Alas, no. Correct as it was, it was merely a brilliant guess, when revolutionary times produced a glimpse of the future, reinforced by a further glimpse afforded by the Paris Commune of 1871.
Despite Marx's repudiation of the Gotha programme in 1875, by 1891 clearly two revolutions with an historical stage between them are mooted at Erfurt and Engels, despite his critique of the draft, basically agreed to this. There were no soviets to provide the link between the political state and civil society and therefore no transitional demands to link the maximum and minimum. The Erfurt programme is understandable and arguably methodologically correct for its time and place. It did not inevitably lead to the August 4 1914 betrayal of the leaders of German Social Democracy, but we really cannot ignore the world-historical changes then in train that produced the Russian Revolution or the effects of the negative experiences afterwards. The 20th century has not passed in vain; we cannot stuff the shit back in the horse - contrary to Eddie Murphy and Jack Conrad.
When Mike Macnair proclaimed his repudiation of Lenin's Imperialism at the CPGB's 'War and revolution' school on December 2, it provided a logical reason for his championing the maximum-minimum Erfurt programme of 1891. After all, if 'the only thing that was new about global capitalism was Germany' at the end of the 1890s, then it must make sense to look to extending democracy to socialism via red republicanism, as there was no qualitative change in the world economy that could be reflected in the consciousness of the world working class. Of course, this position is a thousand times wrong (we failed to locate the two-year-old article in which he theorises this position) because the world changed ineluctably and unalterably at the end of the 1890s to produce the modern world of imperialist exploitation.
In Imperialism Lenin identified the emergence of the domination of finance capital over industrial capital (in Britain and France) as the prime feature of the new imperialism: "Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; at which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; at which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun; at which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed." wrote Lenin in 1916.
The dominance of the export of capital rather than the exports of manufactures (Britain overwhelmingly in the period up to 1914); the emergence of monopolies and cartels in Germany and the robber barons in the USA; and the carving up of the world economy between these rival gangs of imperialist robbers, which led to WWI - to analyse this raft of changes as quantitative rather than qualitative is manifestly incorrect, but does give Mike Macnair a more consistent position than Jack Conrad, who defends Lenin's Imperialism, combined with a 21st century version of Erfurt.
It was this understanding of imperialism which underlies the internationalism of the April theses and led Lenin to proclaim that he would sacrifice the Russian Revolution (certainly not gladly) for the German revolution.
Let us now lay another bogey to rest. After 1848 no genuine revolutionary socialist still believed that the bourgeoisie would lead a revolution in Germany and none believed that they would do so in Russia after 1905. Apt quotations by comrade Conrad establish this point beyond doubt. The Menshevik programme that the bourgeoisie could do this identified them as capitulatory stageists and therefore provoked Lenin's bitter opposition to them on this vital point. They were willing to concede the leadership of the revolution to the bourgeoisie and constitute themselves as the extreme opposition, as comrade Conrad has pointed out.
However, Lenin did not think that a socialist revolution was possible in Russia - he foresaw a democratic revolution led by the working class in alliance with the peasantry carrying out the tasks of the bourgeoisie: democracy, industrialisation, education, etc. This was because he understood the bourgeoisie were too weak and cowardly, fearful of the working class and compromised by absolutism to do so itself.
But the confusion lodged in the algebraic 'democratic dictatorship' formula of the Bolsheviks masked a lack of understanding of how the working class might solve the contradiction of being in a tiny minority leading a revolution in an overwhelming peasant economy and how they could avoid being swamped by that backward peasantry. Although this was eventually the fate that befell the Russian proletariat certainly by 1928 (arguably as early as 1920), that revolution and its powerful international echoes would not have been possible had the old Bolshevik formula survived.
Lenin famously polemicised against the opponents of his April theses - Stalin, Zinoviev, Kamenev, etc - thus: "Whoever now talks only about the 'revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry' has lost touch with life, has, in virtue of this circumstance, gone over, in practice, to the petty bourgeoisie against the proletarian class struggle; and he ought to be relegated to the museum of 'Bolshevik' pre-revolutionary antiquities (or, as one might call it, the museum of 'old Bolsheviks')."
They would have compromised and destroyed the revolution by capitulating to national defencism in WWI and would have facilitated the victory of a semi-fascist bourgeois dictatorship. Kerensky's bourgeois 'democracy' was not an option in 1917: the character of the world imperialist economy precluded it, as Lenin had analysed in his Imperialism the previous year.
An earlier understanding on the imperialist nature of the world economy and then his experience as the head of the Petrograd soviet in 1905 led Trotsky to propose his famous theory of permanent revolution, developed in 1904. He saw the new form of participatory democracy embodied in the 50-odd soviets that sprung up throughout Russia at the time and knew this was the solution to Marx's "contradiction between the political state and civil society". In summary his theory proposed the socialist revolution because of the combined and unequal character of the Russian economy, a highly concentrated working class at the centre of huge modern factories and the weak bourgeoisie at the centre of an overwhelmingly peasant economy. This would enable the working class to take power in Russia first.
However, this revolution had to be uninterrupted: it could only begin on a national scale, but it could not halt at the spontaneous democratic stage. Rather it must proceed directly to socialism. This could only be completed on the international scale, with the victory of the working class in advanced metropolitan countries, particularly Germany. This is the essential political content of the April theses. Charges of Trotsky's failure to recognise the vital necessity for a democratic centralist party of professional revolutionaries deeply embedded in the leadership of the working class are immediately conceded, as Trotsky himself did in 1917, as soon as he realised his mistakes and whenever the issue later arose.
After the revolution
It would be nice to report that Lenin and Trotsky shook hands on the coming together of Permanent revolution and the April theses in 1917 and agreed to follow this line consistently thereafter in all countries and in every revolutionary situation. Alas, again no. The name, 'Union of Soviet Socialist Republics', was not adopted until 1922, arguably when it was no longer true. And the Comintern, with Lenin and Trotsky's acquiescence, adopted positions on Turkey which they had repudiated in Russia, and on Germany which were dictated by the diplomatic needs of the Soviet state rather than by the international revolution. Victor Serge's report of Lenin's comments in 1920 - "This is counterrevolution, but we shall not be guillotined: we ourselves shall impose the Thermidor" - sounds all too believable in the light of subsequent events.
Kemal Atatuerk massacred the Turkish communists because he supposedly led a bourgeois revolution and, even worse, Trotsky's ally, Karl Radek, eulogised Leo Schlageter his 1923 speech, 'The wanderer into the void', in an effort to conciliate the far right in Germany in the violent rejection of the Treaty of Versailles and the victorious allies: "We are not sentimental romanticists who forget friendship when its object is dead, nor are we diplomats who say: by the graveside say nothing but good, or remain silent. Schlageter, a courageous soldier of the counterrevolution, deserves to be sincerely honoured by us, the soldiers of the revolution."
Following the murders of Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Leo Jogiches in early 1919, the Social Democrats succeeded in destroying the revolutions in Germany and in the states of the former Austro-Hungarian empire. Dreadful confusion surrounded the events of October 1923. Trotsky was not in a position then to alter the Comintern's centrist vacillations and the Schlageter affair demonstrated extreme confusion at the head of the Comintern. It was not until 1928 that he really began an open fight for the permanent revolution and to universalise his and Lenin's April theses theory in books like The Third International after Lenin following the disastrous defeats in China of the previous year. Here the two stages were clear and open. The Comintern's initial advice to enter Chiang Kai-shek's Kuomintang was compounded by Stalin's advice to enter the left Kuomintang following the massacre of the Shanghai soviet in 1927.
The transitional governmental slogan
Let us now address the governmental slogan, the prime transitional demand in revolutionary situations. In his Writings on China Trotsky advocates the slogan of the constituent assembly to address the democratic aspirations of the oppressed masses, but his orientation, and that of the Chinese Trotskyists, was always towards the working class in the big cites of Shanghai, Peking and Hong Kong. 'All power to the Soviets' was the successful Bolshevik formula, not 'Forward to the democratic republic', the Menshevik and Cadet formula.
Trotsky explains in The Third International after Lenin: "If, consequently, we are to take as our starting point the Leninist analogy between China and Russia, then we must say: from the standpoint of the 'political nature of the state', all that could have been obtained through the democratic dictatorship in China has been put to the test, first in Sun Yat-sen's Canton, then on the road from Canton to Shanghai, which culminated in the Shanghai coup d'etat, and then in Wuhan where the left Kuomintang appeared in its chemically pure form - ie, according to the directives of the ECCI, as the organiser of the agrarian revolution, but in reality as its hangman.
"But the social content of the bourgeois democratic revolution will fill the initial period of the coming dictatorship of the Chinese proletariat and the peasant poor. To advance now the slogan of a 'democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry' after the role not only of the Chinese bourgeoisie, but also of Chinese 'democracy' has been put to a thorough test, after it has become absolutely incontestable that 'democracy' will play even a greater hangman's role in the coming battles than in the past, to advance this slogan now is simply to create the means of covering up the new varieties of Kuomintangism and to prepare a noose for the proletariat."
This has relevance for the Israel/Palestine question today. The debate between comrades Greenstein, Kent and others in the Weekly Worker is a debate on the correct governmental slogan for the region. We believe that comrade Greenstein is correct in rejecting the two-state slogan in any form: it can only encourage Israeli reaction and result in a Bantustan state of second and third-class Palestinians at best. However, he is not correct in refusing to admit that Israeli Jews now constitute a nation and that therefore the demand of a secular, democratic state of Palestine makes the forging of alliances between Israeli Jewish workers and Palestinian workers almost impossible.
The most powerful state in the region cannot be overthrown by anything other than its own working class now. Therefore if we were to proclaim our allegiance to a socialist federation of the Middle East as an overall slogan for the region and a unitary binational state of Israel/Palestine in that context, then we would have the correct transitional governmental slogan. This would militate against both Jewish fundamentalism and Hamas without seeking to restore credibility to the discredited and corrupt PLO bourgeois leadership.
Jack Conrad ignores the April theses and its place in history in his recent polemics and only when pressed does he give a partial and misleading account of the significance of this world-historic document. This document rejected stageism and set the face of the Bolsheviks, after Lenin's exceeding bitter internal struggle, towards the socialist revolution. That is, not only towards the taking of power by the working class, but the expropriation of the capitalist class and the institution of the proletarian dictatorship, the planned economy and production for human need instead of profit.
Though it is true that the capitalists were not expropriated until late 1918 and a planned economy was not instituted until after that, nevertheless no serious revolutionary socialist would question that this was the trajectory adopted in April 1917. It was a workers' state because the working class held political power and the capitalist were about to lose not only political but also all social and economic power.
If this did not eventually succeed, it was not the fault of that orientation but the international character of the world economy (the advent of modern imperialism) and the defeats of the international class struggle, particularly in Germany, Austria-Hungary, Italy and then China. If the Soviets degenerated and died as representative of the democratic will of the masses, this was not because of the machinations of Stalin or their inherent inferiority to bourgeois democracy, as Jack Conrad and others seem to suggest, but because of these international defeats, which caused the rise of the bureaucracy which then combined with the exhaustion of the masses and the revolutionary generation in the Soviet Union.
The April theses contain all the relevant elements of the current debate about programme, because programme vitally rests on perspectives, and perspectives rest on our analysis of the international balance of class forces. There is no democratic republican stage between imperialism and the socialist revolution.
The soviets and the constituent assembly did represent a conflict between two forms of democracy and the rule of two classes whose interests were irreconcilable. One had to suppress the other and it is clear that the peasantry would dominate the assembly, as was evident in the elections to that body. The Bolsheviks won the cities but the SRs took the countryside. Bourgeois democracy demanded that the Bolsheviks yield to the will of 'the people' and concede that the 'democratic dictatorship' meant the rule of the peasantry over the working class and thence capitalist restoration.
The Bolsheviks suppressed the constituent assembly because they represented the far more advanced participatory socialist democracy of the soviets. What revolutionary socialist would say they were wrong to do so?
1. K Marx and F Engels The German ideology ed CJ Arthur, pp8-9.
2. L Trotsky The permanent revolution and results and perspectives (1928).
4. See L Trotsky Lessons of October for a detailed analysis of why the Russian October of 1917 succeeded and why the German October of 1923 failed.