Leon Trotsky
Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Sri Lanka)

The Theory of Permanent Revolution

2-1. Central to a scientific, that is a Marxist, revolutionary perspective is Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution—an integrated conception of world socialist revolution that encompasses the backward colonial and semi-colonial countries as well as the advanced ones. First formulated in the wake of the 1905 revolution in Russia, the Theory of Permanent Revolution was developed in opposition to the two-stage perspective of the Menshevik faction of Russian Social Democracy. The Mensheviks held that Russia must first undergo a prolonged period of capitalist development before the socialist revolution was possible. They concluded therefore that the proletariat had to ally itself with the liberal bourgeoisie in carrying out the basic tasks of the democratic revolution—the destruction of the Czarist autocracy and the radical transformation of land relations in rural areas.

2-2. Trotsky, along with Lenin, demonstrated the organic incapacity of the Russian bourgeoisie—dependent on international finance capital, tied to the rural landlords and fearful of the emerging working class—to carry out the democratic tasks. Trotsky and Lenin both foresaw that the natural ally of the proletariat against the Czarist autocracy was the multi-millioned peasantry. But Lenin’s formula of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry”, while imparting a particularly radical character to the democratic revolution, left unresolved the political relationship between the two classes. Notwithstanding the daring nature of his conceptions, Lenin did not regard the democratic dictatorship as the instrument for the socialist reorganisation of society, but rather as the means for giving the fullest scope to the development of capitalism.

2-3. Trotsky’s conclusions went further. On the basis of an examination of the entire historical record, he insisted that the peasantry was unable to play any independent revolutionary role. Given the inability of the bourgeoisie to resolve the democratic tasks, it fell to the proletariat at the head of the insurgent masses to carry out the bourgeois democratic revolution through the establishment of “a dictatorship of the proletariat that leads the peasant masses behind it.” The essential ingredient was a vigorous and consistent struggle by the revolutionary party for the political independence of the working class from all factions of the bourgeoisie. Having seized power, however, the proletariat would of necessity be compelled to carry out the revolutionary tasks through its own class methods, and would inevitably make deep inroads into the private ownership of the means of production. In other words, it would be forced to begin the reorganisation of society on socialist lines, and in doing so link its fate to the European and world socialist revolution.

2-4. Trotsky’s theory of the class dynamics of the Russian Revolution flowed from his conception of the world socialist revolution as an integrated, though not simultaneous, process. The social revolution in Russia could not be confined to one country, but, would be compelled for its survival to extend onto the international stage. “The conquest of power by the proletariat does not complete the revolution, but only opens it. Socialist construction is conceivable only on the foundation of the class struggle, on a national and international scale. This struggle, under conditions of an overwhelming predominance of capitalist relationships on the world arena, must inevitably lead to explosions, that is, internally to civil wars and externally to revolutionary wars. Therein lies the permanent character of the socialist revolution as such, regardless of whether it is a backward country that is involved, which only yesterday accomplished its democratic revolution, or an old capitalist country, which already has behind it a long epoch of democracy and parliamentarism.”[1]

2-5. The revolutionary events of 1917 in Russia verified Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution in all its essentials. On his return from exile in April 1917, Lenin took sharp issue with the Bolshevik leaders, including Stalin, who were giving critical support to the bourgeois Provisional Government which had formed after the overthrow of the Czar in February. In his April Theses, Lenin broke from his formula of the democratic dictatorship and in practice adopted the standpoint of Permanent Revolution. He called for the working class to oppose the Provisional Government and to take power through the workers’ councils, or Soviets, that emerged with the fall of the Czar. Lenin’s reorientation of the Bolshevik Party laid the basis for the October Revolution of 1917 and the establishment of a Soviet government, which gave a mighty impetus to the processes of world socialist revolution.

2-6. The Chinese Revolution of 1925–27 also confirmed the farsightedness of the Theory of Permanent Revolution in countries of belated capitalist development, albeit tragically and in the negative. The defeat of the Chinese Revolution was above all the responsibility of the Soviet bureaucracy headed by Stalin, which had arisen in conditions of the continued isolation and backwardness of the Soviet Union, and usurped power from the working class. Under the banner of “Socialism in One Country”, the Stalinist bureaucracy increasingly transformed the Third International from the organising centre of the world socialist revolution into a pliant tool of Soviet foreign policy and used the communist parties to manoeuvre with bourgeois parties and governments. In China, Stalin revived the Menshevik two-stage theory, insisting that imperialist oppression compelled the national bourgeoisie to play a revolutionary role. His subordination of the young Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to the bourgeois Kuomintang (KMT), which he hailed as the vanguard of the Chinese Revolution, resulted in crushing defeats for the revolutionary movement—first in Shanghai in April 1927 at the hands of KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek, and then in Wuhan by the “left” KMT government in July 1927.

2-7. Trotsky and the Left Opposition, formed in 1923 to politically combat the Stalinist bureaucracy, subjected Stalin’s policies to a withering critique and in doing so enriched the Theory of Permanent Revolution. Trotsky, who had strenuously fought for the political independence of the CCP from the KMT, explained that imperialism did not weld the national bourgeoisie together with the proletariat, the peasantry and intelligentsia into a revolutionary “bloc of four classes” as Stalin claimed. Trotsky wrote: “[E]verything that brings the oppressed and exploited masses of the toilers to their feet inevitably pushes the national bourgeoisie into an open bloc with the imperialists. The class struggle between the bourgeoisie and the masses of workers and peasants is not weakened, but, on the contrary, it is sharpened by imperialist oppression, to the point of bloody civil war at every point.”[2] As the revolutionary tide ebbed in 1927, Stalin criminally ordered the mutilated CCP in Canton and other cities to improvise insurrections that were doomed to defeat. The Canton Commune was timed to coincide with the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union—to demonstrate Stalin’s “revolutionary” credentials as he expelled the Left Opposition en masse and sent Trotsky into exile.

2-8. In the course of the twentieth century, the subordination of the working class to the so-called “progressive” bourgeoisie under the banner of the “two-stage theory” and the “bloc of four classes” has invariably ended in disastrous defeat. At the same time, the Stalinists and their apologists have waged a relentless campaign of vilification against Trotskyism in general and the Theory of Permanent Revolution in particular. However, Trotsky’s astonishing theoretical insights more than a century ago remain the essential guide for workers and youth seeking a revolutionary road forward. Nowhere has the struggle for the Theory of Permanent Revolution been more thoroughly fought out than in Sri Lanka. The rich strategic experiences of the struggle for Trotskyism on this small island, embodied in the SEP, provide vital lessons for the building of mass revolutionary parties throughout Asia, Africa, Latin America and around the world.


Leon Trotsky, Permanent Revolution (London: New Park Publications, 1971) pp. 154–55.


Leon Trotsky, “The Chinese Revolution and the Theses of Comrade Stalin” in Leon Trotsky on China (New York: Monad Press, 1976) p. 161.