Link in the chain

Dave Craig of the Revolutionary Democratic Group elaborates his theory of 'democratic permanent revolution'

In previous articles I identified four basic theories of revolution. I have outlined important features of three. In this article I want to complete the set, compare them and connect the question of permanent revolution to the politics of the working class. Then I want to take up some arguments from Gerry Downing, which illustrate the theoretical weaknesses of modern Trotskyism.

To summarise:

1. Stageism (S) is a three-stage theory associated with Menshevism and Stalinism. The first stage, democratic revolution, is separated from socialist revolution by a second stage of economic development. The first stage applies to 'backward' countries. The third stage of socialist revolution applies in advanced countries.

2. The second theory is permanent-stageism (PS). In backward countries democratic revolution grows over to socialist revolution. But advanced countries are already on the brink of stage three - socialist revolution. This is the theory of orthodox Trotskyism.

3. This is democratic permanent revolution (DPR), in which democratic revolution grows over to socialist revolution without regard to any distinction between backward or advanced countries.

4. Finally we have ultra-permanent revolution (or ultra-stageism - UPR).

Ultra theory

Trotsky describes the ultra theory in these words: "The proletariat must proceed to capture power under a purely socialist banner". Instant or 'stageless' socialist revolution is associated with Bukharin. The democratic revolution no longer applies. It is skipped over or superseded in backward countries and does not apply in advanced countries. The socialist revolution is a 'one-stage' revolution.

In 1924 Radek was engaged in a polemic with Trotsky. Radek says in 1916 he had been in agreement with permanent revolution. But Trotsky protests. He says Radek was "in agreement" with Bukharin's ultra-left theory of permanent revolution. Bukharin had abandoned any conception of democracy. Workers should proceed to socialism immediately without democratic revolution.

In 1928 Trotsky wrote a critical account of the 6th Congress of the Communist International. He says: "Naturally, I never shared the Bukharinist version of permanent revolution, according to which no interruptions, periods of stagnation, retreats, transitional demands or the like are at all conceivable in the revolutionary process. On the contrary, from the first days of October, I fought against this caricature of the permanent revolution."

Bukharin did the classic flip-over from ultra-permanent revolution to socialism in one country, joining forces with Stalin. "To be sure," says Trotsky, "the topsy-turvy Bukharinist permanency has not improved any by the fact that the present leaders of the Comintern far too frequently combine their adventurism of yesterday with their opportunist position of today, and vice versa."

The idea of 'socialist revolution everywhere and democratic revolution nowhere' can have a rightwing conclusion. In 1917 Kamenev and Rykov accepted this theory. But they concluded that socialist revolution 'everywhere' should begin in Britain and spread to Russia. They proceeded to explain to Lenin "in simple language" that "the socialist revolution must first be achieved in Britain before it could be Russia's turn". The October uprising must be stopped in the name of permanent revolution!

The stageless, or one-stage, super-charged revolution is equated with the moment when power is seized. The classic image of the 'revolution' is the storming of the Winter Place. Hence Russia has two revolutions, one in February 1917 and another on October 25 1917 (in DPR there is one democratic revolution beginning in February 1917 and ending in March 1921).

There is also an ultra-internationalist version. Here national socialist revolutions take place simultaneously. Highly coordinated armed insurrections are planned across the world at the same time. In ultra-stageless permanent revolution, all unevenness in the revolutionary process, and unevenness in working class consciousness, is done away with.

Trotsky gives this Bukharinist nonsense the thumbs down. He says: "The seizure of power by the international proletariat cannot be a single simultaneous act. The political superstructure - and a revolution is part of the superstructure - has its own dialectic, which intervenes imperiously in the process of world economy, but does not abolish its deep-going laws. The October revolution is legitimate as the first stage of the world revolution which unavoidably extends over decades. The interval between the first and second stage has turned out to be considerably longer than we had expected."

The SWP theory

The Socialist Workers Party works on the basis of ultra-stageless or one-stage revolution. You may hear the SWP chanting its slogan, 'One solution: revolution', on demonstrations. The SWP's ultra-revolution is so divorced from real life that it adds an element of syndicalism (or general strikism) to make it seem more credible. In the SWP's theory the general strike is a substitute for democratic revolution.

The SWP theory of revolution begins with a strike. This is the first stage. This builds up to a general strike - stage two. Then workers, supported by the party, realise they must go to the next stage - armed uprising. Thus the working class comes to power in a socialist revolution and implements socialism at stage four. The SWP's version of ultra-revolution is based on an artificial welding together of the British general strike with the storming of the Winter Palace.


We can compare the four theories. In so-called backward countries the first three (S, PS and DPR) begin with democratic revolution. In stageism there is no 'growing over'. The economic stage is a barrier between the two revolutions. In both versions of permanent revolution (PS and DPR), the democratic revolution grows over into socialist revolution. Furthermore both versions of permanent revolution locate the dictatorship of the proletariat as arising within the democratic revolution. In backward countries ultra theory (UPR) stands alone in opposing (or skipping) democratic revolution.

In so-called advanced countries a different picture emerges. Here S, PS and UPR all line up in opposition to democratic revolution. Only DPR begins with democratic revolution growing over to socialist revolution. Consequently virtually all socialists and Marxists oppose democratic revolution in advanced capitalist economies, such as Britain.

We need to examine socialist opposition to democratic revolution from a class point of view. Whose class interests are served by this? Which classes are opposed to democratic revolution and why?


Originally the rising bourgeoisie supported or benefited from democratic revolution. It helped bring them to power. The French revolution was seen as the classic example. But today the bourgeoisie are in power on a world scale. They are opposed to democratic revolution. It offers nothing except danger from the masses.

Back in 1848 Marx uncovered the truth that the bourgeoisie did not want radical democratic revolution: "The bourgeoisie had proven through its behaviour that it no longer had an interest in leading the charge for democracy". The bourgeoisie lined up with the feudal-landlord class, becoming a counterrevolutionary class, totally opposed to democratic revolution.

In Britain the bourgeoisie have long ruled the country. The current system of limited constitutional 'democracy', combined with bureaucratic state management, has served and continues to serve their interests. Why would the bourgeoisie seek to mobilise the masses for a democratic revolution which would overthrow the existing constitutional order? More generally the bourgeoisie is a counterrevolutionary class on a world scale.

Working class

In 1847 Engels describes his two years spent among Lancashire workers. He says: "In no other country in the world will you find men more sincerely devoted to democratic principles or more firmly resolved to cast off the yoke of the capitalist exploiters."10  This points to a more profound insight into the character of the working class.

In the early19th century the first mass democratic working class movement was Chartism. The working class gathered its forces around the banner of democracy. The long march for democracy spread across Europe and the world via the 1848 democratic revolutions, the 1870 Paris commune and the 1917 democratic or soviet workers' and peasant republic. This republic represented "an advance in democracy's development which is of worldwide, historic significance", compared to the bourgeois parliamentary system.11 

In Russia the working class democrats, in contrast to the bourgeois democrats, were known as (revolutionary) social democrats. They were organised in the RSDLP to lead the fight for democracy and overthrow the tsarist autocracy in a democratic revolution. So what is the relationship between the working class and democracy?

Democratic class

The working class is the democratic class. This is not simply a view about the working class relative to other classes. It does not mean that every worker is a democrat either in the past or the present. But it does reflect a democratic consciousness in the advanced part of the class and a general sympathy for democracy amongst much broader sections.

However, it is more accurate to understand this in a dialectical way, as a process of becoming a democratic class. The working class is becoming the democratic class through its historic struggles. This is an unfolding process of class struggle with a past, present and future. This adds more meaning to Marx's injunction that the working class must win the battle for democracy, not simply 'outside itself' in the wider society, but within the class by overcoming its own contradictions.

At one extreme we have a fully atomised working class. Every worker is on his/her own in competition with all other rival workers. The working class is a class in itself, a class of individuals. In this condition the working class is easily exploited and oppressed. One of the fundamental aims of fascism is to atomise the working class by destroying all forms of democracy - bourgeois and proletarian.

At the opposite extreme the working class organises its own democracy, becoming a political class for itself. Trade unions are the simplest form of working class democracy. Workers begin to overcome atomisation. But trade union organisation expresses limited sectional and economic consciousness. Workers' councils are a higher form of democracy and point to the possibility of the workers organising as a class. A workers' party is the democratic organisation of the politically active part of the class.

The question of democracy arises whenever the working class organises its struggles. Workers' democracy is not simply 'selfish' or self-interested, but carries a universal message of freedom, equality and solidarity. Democracy is in the political DNA of the working class. Through the extension of democracy the working class can become the most organised political class in the nation.

Democratic consciousness

However, at any moment workers' democratic consciousness and organisation is uneven. Only part of the working class gains democratic experience in trade unions, cooperatives or parties. But the instinct and sympathy for democracy involves much wider layers of the working class, recognising the value of universal suffrage, democratic rights and civil liberties.

The ruling class fears democracy, as it fears the working class. But it understands how to manipulate the democratic instincts and sympathies of the masses. George Bush did not tell American workers the US was invading Iraq to get control of its oil. He appealed to democratic values within American culture. The US was invading Iraq to 'overthrow the dictator' and 'bring democracy'.

Politically conscious workers did not believe Bush. They could see through his hypocritical phrases. Yet such pseudo-democratic arguments and propaganda may persuade the majority of people to accept the 'good' intentions of politicians like Bush and Blair. Public opinion may reluctantly support war if people think it is a necessary evil and will bring more freedom and democracy. They are invariably disillusioned.

Democratic training

The democratic class consciousness of the working class is uneven and influenced by the liberal democratic ideology and prejudices of the ruling class, absorbed through the media and the education system. The actions of the ruling class are presented in terms of bourgeois ideology.

The 'democratic' decision to invade Iraq is a case in point. It was taken in Washington. Blair and John Scarlett, the head of the security services, worked out how to manipulate public opinion and provide 'democratic' cover, despite millions demonstrating on the streets. All this helps explain why some socialists draw the 'left' conclusion that democracy is a con and workers should have nothing to do with it.

Marx, Engels and Lenin drew the opposite conclusion. Democratic class consciousness must be developed by political education. Workers must be trained by exposure to the real relations between all classes in society. The Iraq war shed light on the true state of 'democracy'. However, we do not reject it, but strive to develop the ability of the class to see through the sham of parliamentary pseudo-democracy and take up the fight for real democracy. This was the role of the paper in Lenin's What is to be done?

Democratic movements

The level of democracy achieved in any society cannot and does not remain unchanged. The ebb and flow of class struggle produces democratic advances, as well as major setbacks, such as the victory of fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain in the 1930s or Chile in the 1970s.

The struggle for democracy produces mass democratic movements. In Britain we could mention Chartism, the suffragettes, the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and the anti-poll tax campaign. There are many examples in every country, including the movements against slavery, for US civil rights, the many national and anti-colonial movements, Tiananmen Square, etc.

Recent issues of Weekly Worker provide current examples. The struggle for women's rights in Iraq saw the reactionary jihadist Ansar al-Islam group issue death threats against Houzan Mahmoud of the Organisation of Women's Freedom in Iraq.12  The paper reports the "growing democratic movement in Iran". Student protests and a 10,000-strong teachers' demonstration were met with repression by the state.13 

Democratic revolution

Democratic movements may produce democratic reforms. But in some circumstances the outcome is democratic revolution. The old regime is either overthrown or collapses as a result of the mass movement. Democratic revolution is the highest form of the democratic movement.

Democratic revolution is the 'locomotive of democracy', bringing in days or weeks what takes decades or centuries of 'normal' reforms to achieve. But what begins as a 'festival of democracy' brings forth the forces of counterrevolution. Democratic advance is by no means the certain outcome. Democratic revolution is a highly contested and sharply posed form of class struggle.

Democratic revolution is therefore not an event, but a process of intense class struggle. A strike or a demonstration is a form of mass education. But democratic revolution is a process of rapid or accelerated mass political education. Incidents and events bring into the open the political interests and true state of relations between the various contending classes. The masses become directly involved in the democratic political affairs of society.

In 1848 Marx and Engels already grasped the importance of democratic revolution. August Nimtz explains that "Marx and Engels never forsook their basic goal of promoting the democratic revolution ... their practice had been to actively involve the proletariat in the fight for democracy in order that they be in the most favourable position to move to the next stage of the struggle."14 

Democratic revolution stimulates class consciousness. Engels explains that "The movement of the proletarians has developed itself with such astonishing rapidity that in another year of two we shall be able to muster a glorious array of working democrats and communists - for in this country democracy and communism are, as far as the working class concerned, quite synonymous".15 

Democratic revolution is a threat or danger to the ruling class and an opportunity for the working class. For the working class it is the opportunity to ascend the mountain of democracy and look down on the dung heap of capitalism. This is the main conclusion from the Russian Revolution.

Those who equate democratic revolution with the bourgeoisie believe the epoch of democratic revolution ended as soon as the bourgeoisie gained power. But the historic interests of the democratic class cannot be satisfied until the working class takes power. The democratic 'ideal' is therefore the Russian Revolution, not the French Revolution.

Socialist intelligentsia

Between the bourgeoisie and the working class is the petty bourgeoisie. But I will limit my remarks to the socialist intelligentsia (or 'universitariat'). This stratum is opposed to democratic revolution just as strongly as the bourgeoisie. But it cites theoretical reasons. It claims its opposition to democratic revolution is in the name of disinterested science.

The socialist intelligentsia declares that its hostility to democratic revolution is not motivated by money or profit. It is concerned with defending the theoretical heritage of Labourism, Stalin or Trotsky. But we should question this as a full explanation. Just as capitalism threatens the economic position of the petty bourgeoisie, could democratic revolution affect the socialist intelligentsia?

Democratic revolution and the process of working class liberation will undermine the position of the socialist intelligentsia as a separate stratum. The growing power of the democratic class will break down the divisions between the two. The socialist intelligentsia must serve the democratic class, not stand above and outside it, regarding the democratic revolution as a danger or threat to its special position.


Economism is liberal bourgeois politics for the working class. The essential idea is that workers should not interfere in politics, government, constitutional matters or the state. The working class should confine itself to improving economic and social conditions. The proper realm for working class politics is therefore trade unionism and collective bargaining. The working class should concentrate on this, and leave politics to liberals in parliament.

The socialist intelligentsia takes this liberal 'keep out of politics' message and transforms it into a theory of working class politics. Liberal ideas appear disguised as working class ideas. The working class should not interfere in abstract liberal constitutional matters, but concentrate on the 'class struggle'. The 'class struggle' is presented mainly as the economic struggle.

Economism does not ignore political affairs totally. But it tries to lend or give the economic struggle a political character. Economism is either indifferent to or opposed to democratic struggle. This means that economism underestimates the importance of democratic or political class struggle. It leads to the practice of tailism in relation to democracy.

Tailism means following the democratic movement, not leading it. Events usually force the socialist economists to wake up to the struggle for democracy. But it is always too little, too late. They cannot shake themselves free from the idea that democracy is a side show and real working class politics is all about worshipping the spontaneity of the economic struggle.

We can understand economism by looking at its opposite. Lenin, a fierce opponent of economism, identified the political struggle with the struggle for democracy and socialism. The working class must be at the forefront of the struggle for democracy. The party must stand at the head of the democratic movement. Lenin identified the working class as the vanguard fighter for democracy. The party of working class democracy must be in the forefront of that. This was at the centre of the Bolshevik strategy and the arguments in What is to be done?

In summary, economism is the ideology of the bourgeoisie transmitted to the working class by the socialist intelligentsia. The intelligentsia translates liberalism into the language of trade unionism and militant class struggle. It is one of the means by which the bourgeoisie establishes its hegemony, or ideological domination, over the working class movement. In Britain economism appears as Labourism and its left 'alternative' in Trotskyism.

Gerry Downing

I will illustrate aspects of this argument with reference to the article by Gerry Downing, 'The April theses and permanent revolution'.16  Gerry comes from the Trotskyist tradition. He therefore views politics in Britain as an advanced capitalist country in which the theory of permanent revolution and stageism converge into one (ie, permanent-stageism).

The conclusion of permanent-stageism is that democratic revolution is not relevant or possible in Britain. Stage-one democratic revolution took place in the 17th century English civil war. We have done stage two over the last 300 years. Gerry, along with Trotskyists, Mensheviks, Stalinists and Bukharinites, are waiting for the socialist revolution. Meanwhile working class politics is trade unionism. He sees democratic questions in terms of completing or tidying up the English bourgeois revolution or 'incomplete democratic revolution'.

I want to focus on three issues raised by Gerry: the relationship between politics and economics, democratic revolution and revolutionary violence.

Politics and economics

Democratic permanent revolution argues that political revolution 'grows over' into economic revolution. Political revolution is the transfer of political power from one class to another. New class power brings about economic change. This was the experience of capitalism. The English revolution in the 17th century changed the character of the state and paved the way for the industrial economic revolution in the 18th century.

In the Russian Revolution the political revolution from February to October 1917 created the basis for the radical extension of nationalisation in early 1918. Recognition of this relationship of politics to economics is a major distinction between political Marxism and economism. The class struggle is not simply an economic struggle. It is a political struggle for power which requires the political organisation of the working class.

Gerry takes up cudgels against this relationship between political revolution and economic revolution. First he argues that political revolution on its own will not succeed. He therefore promotes economic revolution as a corrective. Then he goes further and substitutes economics for politics.

He constructs his case in the following way. Marx came to the conclusion that political revolution and political action, in and of itself, could not lead to social liberation. As a young political revolutionary, the economic side was under-developed. Capital was his corrective.

But this does not overthrow political revolution. It puts it on solid foundations.

Gerry quotes Marx in On the Jewish question (1843). Marx argues with Bruno Bauer about freeing the Jews from the ghettos. He points out 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".

Political revolution on its own will not lead to freedom or emancipation if economic relations remain the same. What would happen if the class that holds economic power is overthrown politically but retains its stranglehold over economic life? It will not be long before this class begins to reassert itself, neutralise the political revolution, and win back political power. South Africa, where the African National Congress came to power without bringing economic change, is an illustration.

Gerry continues his theme. He quotes Trotskyist CJ Arthur, who says that "Marx considers even the most perfect democratic state is inadequate, because it is based on this fundamental contradiction between the political state and civil society." Gerry turns to the 1844 Economic and political manuscripts, where Marx develops his theory of alienation, located in the labour process, and shows how congealed labour, capital, stands above and outside the worker and necessarily produces and reinforces private property. Nobody should disagree with this.

Gerry concludes that even the most extreme political democracy will not liberate the working class from the power of commodity production and the worldwide law of value. Thus we have two revolutions - the revolution against the state and the revolution against the law of value. Gerry argues against the former and in favour of the latter, which is the basis of his economism. Scratch a permanent stageist and you find an economist!

Gerry's argument for economic revolution and against political revolution is then mobilised against democratic revolution. He says Marx's theory of alienation was "setting out his break with Hegel and Feuerbach: his new world outlook, which really does demand a socialist and not a democratic revolution".

This was in 1844. But in 1848 Marx participated fully in the democratic political revolution in Germany. August Nimtz summarises the experience of Marx and Engels in that year. They fought against the workerist trends, which "dismissed the importance of the democratic revolution and the people's alliance. Their error, in Marx and Engels' view, was to put the economic cart before the political cart."17  In pushing his economic cart before the political cart Gerry is repeating the same error as the leftists whom Marx fought against.

Democratic permanent

Gerry applies the stageist model to Britain. He asks the question - is Britain at the stage of democratic or socialist revolution? He concludes it is at the "socialist stage". He thinks we in the Revolutionary Democratic Group have asked ourselves the same silly question and come up with the wrong answer. We are poor, helpless idiots who have not realised that Britain is at the socialist stage, not the democratic stage. We have not yet worked out the bourgeoisie is already in power!

He reminds us: "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."

Gerry thinks we are promoting the stageist theory of 'incomplete bourgeois revolution'. He says: "Of course, bourgeois revolutions are never complete." But this is his theory of incompleteness, not the RDG's. He is so obviously wrong. Bourgeois revolutions are complete when the bourgeoisie is in power and capital rules the roost. This is so obvious, it is embarrassing to point it out.

The bourgeois revolution, both in a political and economic sense, is complete in Britain. We will not have another. But complete democratisation or modern democratic revolution has not happened. For stageists this is incomprehensible, since the bourgeoisie and democratic revolution are simply inseparable. The bourgeoisie loves democracy and democracy loves the bourgeoisie!

Stageism cannot conceive of a working class-led democratic revolution. Yet without realising it Gerry gives us an example. He quotes Lenin explaining how workers round the world saw the Russian Revolution: "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."

Note my previous point that the working class is the democratic class and is therefore 'naturally' drawn to support what they perceive as real democracy for the majority. Socialism did not exist in Russia in December 1917, but real democracy did. It was created by a popular, working class-led democratic revolution. The only question was whether it could 'grow over' into an international socialist revolution.

American democracy

Gerry in common with the whole trend of Stalinism and Trotskyism, arrives at the following conclusion. The US constitution or the American republic is the best democracy we can hope for whilst we have capitalism. He pats the RDG on the head: "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."

Tell this to America's black people, who in the 1960s organised the civil rights movement and refused to accept Gerry's theory that the US democracy was the best you can hope for this side of socialism. Nor is it now the best democracy because the civil rights movement 'completed' the bourgeois revolution!

Every Marxist should know the best democracy we can achieve, even when capitalism still exists, happened in Russia between October 1917 and March 1918. Nor should we forget the 1870 Paris Commune, where the working class also disproved the theory that American democracy is the best we can hope for.

Gerry is a working class democrat and militant. Yet in his head is a bourgeois theory of democracy. It leads him to 'remember' that US democracy is the best we can hope for and 'forget' the examples of democracy in the Russian republic and the Paris Commune. If the US republic is as perfect as it gets, there is a logical and conservative conclusion for Britain. What is the point of replacing our bourgeois constitutional monarchy with a democratic republic if America is all we can hope for? Let's keep politics as it is and just ask the bosses for more wages!

Democratic civil war

In the abstract if we were given a choice between achieving our democratic aims with or without violence, most sensible and humane people would choose the latter. Unfortunately the working class will not have that choice. Democratic revolutions are revolutions. No genuine popular revolution has been achieved without mass mobilisations, confrontations and violence, which may escalate into civil war.

Gerry quotes Lenin, who says: "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?"

Because of his bourgeois theory of democracy Gerry comes to a contrary conclusion. He thinks a democratic revolution is a revolution achieved in a democratic way. He interprets this as a peaceful and parliamentary way. He understands democratic revolution as bourgeois pacifist revolution. Were the English, American, French or Russian democratic revolutions achieved without armed struggle?

Gerry quotes Trotsky, who says quite correctly: "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." This is not an argument against democratic revolution. It was an argument against Kautsky's posing parliamentary methods or 'democratic ways' against democratic revolution - or democratic civil war, if you prefer the term.


Democratic revolution is the means by which the democratic class comes to power. This is not an end in itself but merely a link in the chain of permanent revolution. The main opponent of democratic revolution is the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie. But they are supported ideologically by the socialist intelligentsia. This stratum serves the bourgeoisie by promoting the theory of economism within the working class movement.

Communists become tools of the socialist intelligentsia by promoting stageism and ultra-permanent revolution. The former is a right opportunist trend and the latter a left sectarian trend. To build a new international, revolutionary-democratic, communist movement we need to develop the theory of permanent revolution from the foundations laid by Marx, Lenin and Trotsky.