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The relevance of permanent revolution: A reply to Neil Davidson, by Joseph Choonara
Uneven and combined development affects not only the shape and pace of advance of the means of production of a society, but also the class structure. In the Russian case it meant a small and weak domestic capitalist class, heavily penetrated by external financiers, a colossal and repressive bureaucracy, and a freshly formed and small, but potentially powerful, urban working class.
This posed a problem for the country’s socialist movement, which was divided between its Bolshevik and Menshevik factions. For the Mensheviks, the coming revolution would be bourgeois in character. Therefore it would be made by the “democratic bourgeoisie”. Workers might assist as part of a democratic coalition of forces, but could at best act as a kind of ginger group assuring certain rights for workers in the ensuing democratic regime.13 The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, recognised the need for a militant struggle by workers. In their formulation there would be a “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” which would drive the revolution through. The proletariat would, according to this rather vague scenario, limit itself to the tasks appropriate to a bourgeois revolution.14 This formulation persisted until 1917, when, in the course of the revolution, Lenin won the Bolshevik Party (which Trotsky had by then joined) to a perspective remarkably similar to that of permanent revolution.15
As capitalism is an international system, connected both through imperialism and the world market, crises provoking revolutionary situations were likely to be regional or global in scale. The other dimension to the “permanence” of the Russian Revolution was, therefore, that revolutions would have to follow in major European countries. The revolutionary wave that followed 1917 was confirmation of the viability of Trotsky’s theory; the ultimate defeat of this wave, which paved the way for Stalinist counterrevolution, was, in a negative sense, also a confirmation.