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Against Trotskyism: Revolution in two stages

By J. Sykes

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The disagreement between Trotsky’s “absurdly Left” (according to Lenin) theory of “Permanent Revolution” and the Leninist theory of revolution in two stages boils down to the question of how to deal with the question of the peasantry.

Trotsky argued for a socialist revolution that would be antagonistic to the tsar, the imperialist bourgeoisie and the broad mass of the peasantry, and that therefore depended on support from socialist revolutions in Western Europe, without which it would be crushed by counter-revolution.

Lenin, on the other hand, advocated a revolution in two stages. The first stage would be a bourgeois-democratic revolution against tsarism and feudal autocracy. The second stage would be a proletarian-socialist revolution against the imperialist bourgeoisie. Both of these, according to Lenin, would be led by the working class in alliance with the peasantry.

Indeed, Lenin called for the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” and warned against confusing the particularities of “the democratic revolution with the socialist revolution.”

It is worth looking at the Leninist theory of revolution in two stages, as it proved itself in practice in the course of the Russian revolution of 1917.

The first stage, the bourgeois-democratic revolution, lasted from 1903 to February 1917. At this stage, the aim was to overthrow the tsar and the landlords. The Bolsheviks led the proletariat, in a strategic alliance with the peasantry. Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood that the liberal bourgeoisie (the Cadets) would compromise with monarchism and tsarism, and they struggled to isolate them from the peasantry. This period revealed in practice that the Cadets had no interest in the demands of the peasantry for land and liberty, that the tsar supported the landlords, and the Cadets supported the tsar. Thus, the peasantry could rely on no one but the proletariat.

Because the working class was able to lead the peasantry in the struggle against tsarism, the bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia had the effect of weakening the bourgeoisie overall, paving the way for the proletarian socialist revolution, culminating in the Great October Revolution of 1917. The second stage of the revolution lasted through the eight short months between the February and October revolutions. In this period the proletariat consolidated its alliance with the peasantry. The new Provisional Government, dominated by the imperialist bourgeoisie together with the Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries, refused to pull out of the imperialist war or to confiscate and redistribute the landlords’ land. Under Bolshevik leadership, the proletariat again demonstrated in practice that it was the only reliable ally to the poor peasants. Thus, it was possible to advance, under the Bolsheviks’ slogan of “Land, Bread and Peace,” from the bourgeois democratic revolution to the proletarian socialist revolution.

Trotsky believed that the socialist revolution would inevitably put the proletariat into conflict with the masses of the peasantry as a whole. For Trotsky, the revolution was not a protracted struggle, proceeding carefully, step by step. It was a sweeping, global event. Lenin, however, built a plan for revolution in the countryside based on a concrete analysis of the real, material conditions that presented themselves to the proletarian dictatorship. Lenin argued that the majority of the peasantry could be drawn into the process of socialist construction through the development of agricultural co-operatives. By introducing collectivization in the countryside gradually, instead of through coercion and “tightening the screws” as Trotsky would have it, this antagonism between the working class and the broad peasant masses was avoided. As a result, the broad masses of poor peasants participated enthusiastically in the class struggle in the countryside and struggled sharply together with the working class against the resistance of the rich peasants (kulaks).

This gets us to the main problem at the root of Trotsky’s many errors: Trotskyism again and again demands a “pure proletarian revolution,” a “revolution without the peasantry.” This sort of narrow “workerism” leads the Trotskyites to wrong positions in relation to national liberation struggles and how to organize a united front. Instead of uniting with other classes in common cause against the monopoly capitalists, they treat the would-be allies of the proletariat as enemies.

Instead of uniting with democratic demands, they propose the nebulous concept of “transitional demands.” This Trotskyite organizational method is tied to their “all at once” concept of pure proletarian revolution. We should consider the Trotskyite notion of “transitional demands” in light of the Marxist-Leninist method of the Mass Line. Trotsky was an agitator and an orator, not an organizer, and this is reflected in how the Trotskyites approach the masses. Instead of uniting with the advanced masses around their felt needs, developing higher and higher levels of understanding, organization and struggle, shoulder to shoulder with the masses, the Trotskyites reduce the immediate demands of the masses to mere agitational slogans for socialism, shouted from the sidelines, with no concern for how to get from here to there.

We will see the Trotskyite opposition to revolution in two stages arise again when we look at the revolution in China. We’ll look more closely at this in a later article dealing with China in detail, but for now, let’s touch on it briefly. The main point here is that Trotsky and his followers failed to understand that the Chinese revolution’s first stage must involve an agrarian struggle against feudalism as an essential part of a national liberation struggle against imperialism. Thus, Trotsky opposed the formation of a national united front composed of the proletariat together with the peasants, petty-bourgeoisie, and the anti-imperialist national bourgeoisie. This was in direct opposition to the approach taken by Mao Zedong, which was proved correct in practice.

Again and again, the Trotskyites put forward a pure proletarian, all or nothing, approach to revolution. They shout their ultra-left slogans from the sidelines of the struggles of the workers and oppressed, and oppose the strategic allies of the working class. For the Trotskyites, it is always all or nothing, which, of course, amounts to nothing.

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