Permanent revolution and the battle for democracy

Ben Lewis reviews: D Gaido and R B Day (editors and translators) Witnesses to permanent revolution: the documentary record Haymarket books, 2011, pp682, £25.99

 “The revolutionary movement that is flaring up in Russia may become the most powerful means of overcoming the spirit of flabby philistinism and sober-minded politicking that is beginning to spread through our ranks; it may reignite the flame of commitment to struggle and passionate devotion to our great ideals” - K Kautsky The American worker (1907)

Witnesses is one of several excellent Historical Materialism publications of long forgotten documents. Despite some criticisms I have of Daniel Gaido’s and Richard B Day’s argument, this volume has the great virtue of providing an English-speaking audience with a priceless insight into the Second International and its debates on revolutionary strategy and the nature of revolution in Russia. Some of the International’s most influential leaders make an appearance - Rosa Luxemburg, Leon Trotsky, Alexander Parvus, Georgi Plekhanov, Franz Mehring and the ‘papal’ authority of Marxism at that time, Karl Kautsky. Gaido and Day have done a solid job of translating, editing and introducing the material (and this is not their only contribution to our collective understanding of the ‘Marxism of the Second International’ either: they have also produced an even larger volume on the question of imperialism, which was also published as part of the Historical Materialism book series).1

What sort of revolution?

The backdrop is the powder keg of the tsarist “prison house of nations” - the Russian empire in the early 1900s. It was a hated regime presiding over a majority peasant country with a small, concentrated working class using some of the world’s most advanced technology - imported from abroad. What was the nature of the coming Russian Revolution? Was it to be a ‘bourgeois’ revolution, or a ‘socialist’ one? Or, given the sheer political cowardice of the bourgeoisie and the fact that socialism was impossible within the confines of Russia itself, was it a case of the Russian working class gaining hegemony over the peasantry and taking the democratic revolution as far as possible, thus sparking the European revolution? This, of course, brings us to the idea of permanent revolution. A phrase that over the years has become somewhat shrouded in mystery and subject to a multiplicity of (mis)interpretations and (mis)understandings.

It is commonly held that permanent revolution originates with the precocious Marxist, Leon Trotsky, and as such has furnished titles of a whole swathe of Trotskyist publications and even the name of several groups. Indeed, the blurb of Pathfinder Press’s reprint of Trotsky’s essays on permanent revolution lauds the “certain symmetry” of “the two famous theories”: Trotsky’s permanent revolution and Einstein’s theory of relativity.2

One strength of Witnesses is that it aims to provide more context to Trotsky’s writings and thought: not treating him as some sort of cult figure. It does so through a “rediscovery and elaboration of the concept of permanent revolution in the years 1903-07” (pxi). Day and Gaido show that “Leon Trotsky, while certainly the most famous and brilliant proponent of permanent revolution, was by no means its sole author; indeed, several major contributions came from a number of other Marxists.” Some of these, like David Ryazanov,3 “have rarely been mentioned in this connection, while others - Karl Kautsky in particular - have often been regarded as pseudo-revolutionaries whose real commitment was always to parliamentary politics” (pxi). As the editors appositely put it, “It is a remarkable irony that Karl Kautsky, who subsequently denounced the Bolshevik Revolution and was famously condemned by both Lenin and Trotsky as a traitor and a renegade, in fact played a key role prior to 1905 in inspiring Russian Marxists” (p60). Further, Kautsky was “the first west European Marxist to employ the theory of permanent revolution in connection with events in the Russian empire” (p41).4

Kautsky and Korsch

The editors state that “the task of historians is to clarify great issues first, but the very act of doing so poses new questions” (pxii). For the purposes of this short review, I will zoom in on one question that I hold to be far and away the most important posed by the volume: the legacy of Karl Kautsky and ‘Second International Marxism’ more generally. For me, the all too common dismissal of this legacy has resulted in a loss of historical memory, widespread theoretical impoverishment and a general absence of a viable political strategy.

The story goes that Second International Marxism was so imbued with fatalism, determinism and parliamentary reformism that it was of no use to any revolution at all, let alone the Russian Revolution. Oddly, this view represents a broad, cosy consensus from anti-Marxists in the academy through to modern-day Stalinists, many Trotskyists and even anarchists.

Day and Gaido hope that the publication of Kautsky’s writings on the Russian Revolution will help to “overcome the stereotypical and mistaken view of Kautsky as an apostle of quietism and a reformist cloaked in revolutionary phraseology” (p569). They locate the near unanimity of this conception of Kautsky in “an over-generalisation drawn from Kautsky’s anti-Bolshevik polemics after 1917” and in “the ultra-leftist philosopher, Karl Korsch, in his reply to Kautsky’s work Die materialistische Geschichtsauffassung [‘The materialist conception of history’] (1927)”.

Their argument is buttressed by one constantly overlooked fact: the notion that Kautsky had more in common with evolutionary Darwinism than revolutionary Marxism was one that Lenin never entertained (the editors also say this is true of Trotsky, although I think here the matter is a little more complicated, particularly in Trotsky’s later writings).

But the reasoning offered differs. For Lenin, Kautsky scabbed in 1914 because he recoiled from the political project he had previously committed himself to. For Korsch, and other similar thinkers, Kautsky scabbed because of the impoverished and vulgarised version of Marxist philosophy that had characterised him throughout his entire career. Lenin thought highly of Kautsky’s grasp of the dialectic. Korsch did not.

I agree that Karl Korsch is certainly one of the leading culprits of what Gaido himself deems the “throw the baby out with the bathwater” school of historical interpretation.5 Yet I do wonder if the wedge that was driven between the Bolsheviks and their origins in the ‘Erfurt model’ of German Social Democracy actually happened slightly earlier. Perhaps it was a concomitant of the ‘Bolshevisation’ of the communist parties carried out under the leadership of Grigory Zinoviev.

Löwy and ‘totality’

Nonetheless, some of Korsch’s conclusions simply become even more absurd in the hands of other left thinkers down the line. In his popular The politics of combined and uneven development: the theory of permanent revolution (reprinted, also by Haymarket, in 2010), Michael Löwy boldly states that there is such an affinity between anti-Marxists and the “evolutionist” Marxists of the Second International, that Karl Kautsky would agree with Karl Popper: “… according to Marxism, the proletarian revolution should have been the outcome of industrialisation, and not vice versa, and it should have come first in the highly industrialised countries, and only much later in Russia” (p1).6

Those like Kautsky, then, are seen as holding a stagist, mechanistic and thoroughly undialectical view of social development. “The theory of permanent revolution, first formulated by Leon Trotsky in 1905-06” (!), as Löwy puts it, was uniquely placed to understand the politics of combined and uneven development in capitalism, and thus postulate the need for “the uninterrupted transition from the democratic to the socialist revolution”. Uniquely, Trotsky understood this international “totality” of the revolutionary process.

This conclusion is flatly contradicted by this volume. Kautsky, like all the writers gathered together in this volume (including Plekhanov), is clear about both the uneven development of Russian capitalism and its implications for revolution in ‘backward’ Russia itself. Kautsky describes the peculiarities of capitalist development in Russia as follows: “The surplus value produced in Russia will thus serve to increase [the capitalist’s] influence in France, not in Russia.” Thus, unlike in the USA, where the intelligentsia is corrupted by imperialist booty and the workers’ movement is as weak as capitalist development is strong, “nowhere is the number of theoretically educated socialist agitators greater than in the land of the illiterates” (ie, Russia; p649). Or, to quote Kautsky’s 1909 Road to power, where he describes the interrelated revolutionary developments across the globe: “Today, the battles in the liberation struggle of labouring and exploited humanity are being fought not only at the Spree River and the Seine, but also at the Hudson and Mississippi, at the Neva and the Dardanelles, at the Ganges and the Hoangho.”7 There was no social scale that ranged from countries ready for revolution to countries that were not. There was a globally concurrent revolutionary process. A “totality”, to use L?wy’s term.

But so what? Kautsky may not have been as rotten as he is often made out to be, but why does it matter? The problem is that views like Löwy’s are the precondition of a second - and, in my opinion, equally ahistorical - view about Lenin and the Bolsheviks commonly held on the left: ie, that the strategy of revolution they had developed was junked in 1917 when they finally cast away the fetters of the old ‘Second International Marxism’.

In her review of Witnesses for International socialism, Esme Choonara sums up an all-too-familiar argument: “But [Lenin] too accepted that there would need to be a ‘democratic revolution’ before a socialist one. He rectified his position decisively in practice, if not explicitly in theory, in the 1917 revolution.”8

The material contained in this volume makes it clear that what was meant by ‘permanent revolution’ in the Second International debates was not the “uninterrupted transition from democratic to socialist revolution” (that was Trotsky’s unique take on the term), but an understanding of the need to push the democratic revolution uninterruptedly forward against the bourgeoisie, maintaining revolutionary momentum to drive away any vestiges of tsarist oppression, and introducing the far-reaching democratic reforms needed to take the class struggle to a higher level.9 A sanctification of neither the bourgeois order nor the ‘historical role’ of the bourgeoisie.

A good summary of this approach comes from Lenin in October 1915: “The task of the proletariat in Russia is to carry out the bourgeois democratic revolution to the end, in order to ignite the socialist revolution in Europe.” There could be no socialism within the confines of Russia. But this approach was hardly unique to Lenin.

‘Epistemological break’

And yet, before his alleged ‘epistemological break’ with Second International Marxism, Lenin’s strategy is often regarded as sowing illusions in the bourgeoisie, and as such was largely irrelevant to the actual course of the Russian Revolution itself. Once more these documents speak for themselves: neither Kautsky, Lenin, Luxemburg nor Trotsky held that the bourgeoisie would play any significant role in the struggle for democracy - it was too intimidated by the power of the burgeoning working class. To paraphrase Kautsky, the further east you look, the more cowardly and duplicitous the bourgeoisie.

Gaido and Day have provided us with ample material to blow this idea of an ‘epistemological break’ in Lenin’s thought out of the water. In addition, they have made available some of the key texts that moulded Lenin’s outlook. (A good example is Kautsky’s ‘Prospects and driving forces of the Russian Revolution’ - both Lenin and Trotsky wrote fawning prefaces for their Russian readers!) Yet the editors themselves appear not to have broken with this approach.

In his extensive review of Witnesses,10 Lars T Lih makes this point with typical clarity: “In the traditional picture painted by writers in the Trotsky tradition, Trotsky stands alone in rejecting the fatalism and determinism of the Second International (Löwy, 2010). Day and Gaido do not really challenge this framework. All they do is shuffle the players, moving some writers from the ‘fatalistic’ slot over to the ‘dialectical’ slot. But someone is still needed to play the role of fatalist, and Plekhanov is picked to be the fall guy, whose obtuseness sets off everybody else’s brilliance.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that this should be the case, given that such an interpretation of the Russian Revolution is dominant on today’s far left. Yet in my opinion it is a view that is both historically and politically disarming. It throws overboard some of the central tenets of Bolshevism and the strategic lessons it assimilated from the ‘revolutionary wing’ of the Second International - not least on the question of republican democracy and the need to win majority support for revolution. Indeed, today these fundamental tasks are often disdainfully described as sowing illusions in ‘completing the bourgeois revolution’ or engaging in some stagist Menshevik schema.

Following the ignominious collapse of the Second International in 1914, Zinoviev was adamant: “We are not renouncing the entire history of the Second International. We are not renouncing what was Marxist in it … In the last years of the Second International’s existence, the opportunists and the ‘centre’ obtained a majority over the Marxists. But, in spite of everything, a revolutionary Marxist tendency always existed in the Second International. And we are not renouncing its legacy for one minute.”11

What is striking in reading the passages in Witnesses - and another blow to the ‘big man’ theory of history so beloved of cold war warriors on both sides of the barricades - is the sheer wealth of ideas in this “Marxist tendency of the Second International”. Our revolutionary tradition was not passed on by Lenin on tablets of stone, or invented by Trotsky in a laboratory. It was forged by the leaders of mass parties in the heat of open, fraternal and honest exchanges conducted at an extremely high political level.

Given the truly astonishing neglect of so many important documents from our movement in the 20th century, Witnesses is a significant contribution to the necessary effort to re-emerge from the deep slumber of Stalinism and to re-articulate the Marxist political project.

These texts should not be limited to those who devote their time and energy to the study of the socialist movement and its history. They are of burning, actual interest to our movement today, and can hopefully become - like Kautsky’s The American worker, which went through seven editions in Russia - basic educational texts and reading materials for new militants and activists worldwide. In his review of Witnesses, David North is right to point out the relevance of these debates to the tumultuous events unfolding in the Arab world.12 Our brothers and sisters struggling for democracy and working class power will draw much inspiration from the ideas and innovations of these great Marxists. Kautsky’s description of Russia in 1907 could have been a description of Egypt or Tunisia in the upheavals of 2011:

“The struggle that we now see beginning in Russia involves more than physically pitting force against force. The revolutionising of minds advances alongside the revolution of fists. The now-awakening strata of the people are being seized by a passionate thirst for knowledge and are attempting to clarify for themselves their historical tasks, so that they might learn to resolve the most complex and difficult problems, rising above the small events of the daily struggle to survey the great historical goals that it serves” (p64).

Lenin was right: how well Kautsky wrote when he was a Marxist.



This is an edited version of an article that was first published in the latest volume of Revolutionary History. Edited by Ian Birchall, the volume commemorates the 50th anniversary of Algerian independence by looking at the response of the French left in particular. It costs £20 and can be ordered from www.revolutionaryhistory.co.uk. Copies will also be available at Communist University 2012.


1. D Gaido and RB Day (editors and translators) Discovering imperialism: social democracy to World War I Brill 2012, Historical Materialism book series, p951. For Mike Macnair’s review in this paper, see ‘Imperialism before Lenin’ Weekly Worker March 8 2012.

2. L Trotsky The permanent revolution and results and prospects New York 1969.

3. I do not ascribe the same importance to Ryazanov’s critique of the Iskra draft programme as the editors. Ryazanov’s article shares some of the misconceptions about Lenin’s supposed ‘party of a new type’ with the editors themselves. Perhaps Lars T Lih’s book on Lenin had not appeared by the time Gaido and Day were completing Witnesses, but it does seem a shame that they condemn Lenin, via Ryazanov, for the supposed “narrowness” of his organisational concepts. These were markedly different from the Mensheviks, who “hoped for a movement similar to that in Germany” (p73). In light of Lih’s research published on the same HM series, these all too familiar jeremiads jar somewhat.

4. Locating Kautsky as a theorist of permanent revolution builds upon the scholarship of Moira Donald in her excellent Marxism and revolution: Kautsky and the Russian Marxists Yale 1993. While many on the left fail to recognise any affinity at all between the outlook of Kautsky and Lenin before 1914, scholarship such as this points to the true relationship.

5. Interesting in this regard is Karl Kautsky’s review of Korsch’s Marxism and philosophy. It is published in translation for the first time in Platypus review No43, February 2012.

6. Against such a caricature of Kautsky’s ‘fatalism’, it is worth quoting the man himself: “The world is not so purposely organised as to lead always to the triumph of the revolution where it is essential for the interest of society. When we speak of the necessity of the proletariat’s victory and of socialism following from it, we do not mean that victory is inevitable or even, as many of our critics think, that it will take place automatically and with fatalistic certainty, even when the revolutionary class remains idle. Necessity must be understood here in the sense of the revolution being the only possibility of further development” (p223).

7. If only to underline the absurdity of Löwy’s claim, it should be noted that even the renegade Kautsky stressed this basic point in 1917. While he expressed himself somewhat cryptically in order to circumvent the prying eyes of the censor, he does write: “… the international interdependence of state life for the peoples of Europe has already made too much progress for such a tremendous event as the transformation of the tsarist empire into a democratic republic to occur without repercussions for the other states”, including “a tremendous upswing in the political power of the working classes in the entire capitalist realm” (K Kautsky ‘Prospects of the Russian Revolution’ Weekly Worker January 14 2000).

8. Choonara argues that the book “overplays” Kautsky and his role. Yet just how the book does this remains Choonara’s secret. The review is revealingly entitled ‘Skipping stages’ (International Socialism No128, October 2010).

9. Pointing out, contra Day and Gaido, that Trotsky’s conception of permanent revolution was different from that of other writers who use the term does not in any way imply that Lenin then fully adopted his approach in April 1917. With his talk of ‘steps towards socialism’, Lenin believed that, in light of the world situation, the peasants could be won to socialist measures, and thus socialist transformation on the back of majority support was possible. This was new, and reflected a convergence between his and Trotsky’s views. Yet it is clear that Trotsky thought socialist measures were possible without the support of the peasantry. Thus without the internationally connected revolution they were all expecting, there would be ‘civil war with the peasantry’.

10. LT Lih, ‘Democratic revolution in Permanenz’ (forthcoming) Science and Society 2012. Lars’s expertise on the Russian movement allows him to provide a much more solid interpretation of the issues at hand, and I would recommend that readers study Witnesses alongside this article.

11. J Riddell Lenin’s struggle for a revolutionary international New York 1984, p105.

12. D North, ‘A significant contribution to an understanding of permanent revolution’: www.wsws.org/articles/2010/apr2010/perm-a19.shtml.