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Permanent revolution and the Arab Spring

By: 
Peter Hogarth

January 3, 2013

Based on the experience of the Russian Revolution of 1905, Leon Trotsky developed the theory of “permanent revolution,” which was put into practice in the revolutionary wave of 1917. A century later, this theory continues to inform our understanding of the current limits and future potential of the Arab Spring—from the combined and uneven development of capitalism, the central role of the working class, to the potential for international change.
 
Karl Marx outlined how capitalism could be defeated and how socialism could come into being. He wrote on the necessity of a certain level of economic development, and the emergence of a majority working class capable of both overthrowing the old system and also having the industrial and social development capable of sustaining a new socialist society. Many socialists at the time thought each country had to go through specific stages of economic and political development before the working class could lead a socialist revolution. This led to mechanical and sometimes Eurocentric conclusions that only highly developed countries like France, Germany and Britain were capable of having a socialist revolution based on their level of industrial and social development.
 
For many of these socialists, backward old Russia—with its autocratic monarchy, largely peasant population and working class that only numbered a few million—seemed an unlikely candidate for a revolution led by the working class. Even Lenin and the Bolsheviks thought that, while the working class could not trust the bourgeoisie and would necessarily play the leading role in a revolutionary movement, the revolution would stop short of a workers’ government and would instead carry out a series of democratic reforms that would make the struggle for socialism possible in the future. But based on the Russian Revolution of 1905, Trotsky elaborated the theory of “permanent revolution” in his book Results and Prospects—and just 12 years later Russia became the first (and still only) country to have a social revolution led by the working class.
 
 
Combined and uneven development
The theory of permanent revolution recognized the international development of capitalism. Breaking with the evolutionary socialism that was gaining prominence in the reformist German Social Democratic Party, Trotsky emphasized that the world-system of capitalism had to be understood in terms of uneven and combined development.
 
Capitalism develops unevenly, with different capitalist economies developing at different rates. The competitive nature of capitalism and the process of accumulation that is the engine of the system means that the differences between and within national economies can become quite intense. At the same time, capitalism draws all of the economies of the globe into a single, combined, world system.
 
The result of combined and uneven development can be seen in Russia 1905 or Egypt 2012: there is small peasant production and subsistence farming next to the most modern industries—like the Putilov metal factory in Revolutionary Russia, or the Ghazl al-Malhalla textile factory in Revolutionary Egypt.
 
As Trotsky wrote, the combined and uneven development of capitalism “permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages.”
 
           
Democracy and the working class
The political conclusions Trotsky drew from this recognition was that social and political structures of these countries were also affected by their late entry onto the scene of world capitalism.
 
Because the Russian bourgeoisie existed alongside a small but developed working class, and was intertwined with the global imperialist system, it could not play the revolutionary role the French bourgeoisie played in 1789 of overthrowing feudalism, achieving national independence and establishing bourgeois democracy. The bourgeoisie’s conservative role stemmed not just from their interests in the structures of the system, but also from a fear that the rebelling working class might go beyond democratic reforms and instead pose an alternative power.  
 
Trotsky emphasized that the only social class that could play that leading role was the working class. The strategic position of the working class in the economy and the reality that their fight for better living standards was necessarily bound up with cooperation and democracy, meant that even if that working class was a small percentage of the population, it could provide a progressive, leading role. This, in turn, could pull the mass of the peasantry and other oppressed elements of society behind it.
 
The decisive force that is the working class has been on display in many ways in the Arab Spring. In Tunisia, the role of the General Tunisian Workers’ Union was critical in deposing Prime Minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The weeks of occupation in Tahrir Square shook the Mubarak regime, but it was the mass strikes of workers in the textile industry, ports and oil fields that finally toppled Mubarak. Similarly, in places like Syria, the lack of intervention by the working class as an organized force has been a hindrance to the development of revolution there.
 
The Arab Spring also shows the inability of the local bourgeoisie to secure “bread, freedom and social justice” and to challenge imperialism. President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood came to power posing as an alternative to Mubarak, but he and the Brotherhood—a cross-class organization that includes many poor Egyptians but which is led by middle class elements—have only helped to entrench the military’s hold on the economy, assured Israel and the US of its fidelity and ordered a decree exempting themselves from judicial oversight. While in opposition the Brotherhood proclaimed that if elected they would break the siege of Gaza with millions of people, but as Israeli bombs dropped on Gaza, the Brotherhood was nowhere to be found; instead it was Egyptian socialists and other activists who broke the siege with aide and solidarity.
 
As Egyptian socialist Hossam El-Hamalawy wrote shortly after Mubarak’s fall,
“We have to take Tahrir to the factories now. As the revolution proceeds, an inevitable class polarisation will take place. We have to be vigilant. We hold the keys to the liberation of the entire region, not just Egypt. Onwards we must go, with a permanent revolution that will empower the people of this country with direct democracy from below.” The recent rebellions against the Brotherhood, and the establishment of independent trade unions shows the potential of the second phase of the Egyptian revolution in Egypt—which has regional and global consequences.
 
From democratic to social revolution
As the bourgeoisie are unable to solve the basic democratic, agrarian and national questions, Trotsky emphasized that solutions to these problems were also impossible without challenging the limits of bourgeoisie private property and capitalism itself.
 
The Russian example of 1917 makes this case quite clearly. What began in February as a demand for democratic rights and “peace, land and bread” turned into a socialist workers’ revolution based on the inability of the capitalist government that replaced the Tsar to end the war, end feudal land relations, or feed its people. The workers and peasants of Russia found they could not rely on new rulers to secure “peace, land and bread” and instead had to take power themselves—through “all power to the soviets.”
 
From this notion comes the final point of Trotsky’s permanent revolution; that is, the completion of the socialist revolution “within national limits is unthinkable ... Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.”
 
While the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are far from socialist revolutions, it is plain to see that they have certainly caused convulsions in other countries—triggering regional revolts across North Africa and the Middle East, inspiring public sector workers in Wisconsin, Occupy activists and Quebec students in the “printemps érable.” We are a long way from the potential of international socialism raised by the Russian Revolution in 1917, but it is clear that the Arab Spring has brought new life to struggles around the world. Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution shows how we can make sense of a world in revolt, how we can understand the limits placed on the revolutions so far, and how the organization and self-activity of the global working class are critical to achieving a better world. In this way, it locates less-developed countries as potentially central to the possibility of another world, not peripherally as was once thought.

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