Journal of Emancipation | Spanish

Permanent revolution

Marxist Dictionary

Revolution in which the proletariat achieves political power under the programme of the bourgeois democratic revolution, establishing from then on its own objectives and transforming the bourgeois democratic revolution into a socialist one.


The term was first used by Marx in 1850 in a message from the Central Committee of the League of Communists to its members, who were scattered throughout Germany. The framework is that of the bourgeois revolution in Germany, a revolution whose primary objectives are the creation of a national market, state centralization, and the establishment of a basis for the spread of big industry and the emergence of a mass proletariat. But the bourgeoisie, the origin of the movement, has formed a bloc with the reactionary forces (the Kaiser and the Prussian landowners, the “junkers”) and the petty bourgeoisie, the democrats, manifest the characteristic political impotence of a class without its own historical program. Marx proposes to the German communists to act as the left wing of the democratic movement, to take their proposals to the limit with the aim of making the revolution “permanent”, that is to say so that the same revolutionary process takes on a socialist objective.

We have seen that the democrats will come to power in the first phase of the movement, and that they will be forced to propose measures of a more or less socialist nature. (…)

They will wonder what countermeasures should be proposed by the workers. Of course, in the beginning they will not be able to propose the present communist measures; but the democrats can be compelled to attack the old social order on as many points as possible, to disturb its regular procedures, to compromise themselves, and to concentrate in the hands of the state, in the proportion that can be achieved, the productive forces, the means of transport, factories, railways, etc. etc. The determinations of the democrats, who are in no way revolutionary, but simply reformist, must be encouraged to the point that they become direct attacks on private property; so, for example, if the petty bourgeoisie proposes the seizure of the railways and factories, the workers must say that, these railways and factories being the property of the reactionaries, they must be seized simply by the state and without compensation. If the Democrats propose proportional taxes, the workers should call for progressive taxes; if the Democrats declare themselves that they are in favor of a moderate progressive tax, the workers should insist on a tax which, step by step, means the collapse of big capital; if the Democrats propose the regulation of the National Diet, the workers should call for the bankruptcy of the state.
The demands of the workers will depend on the purposes and measures of the Democrats. If the German workers are to come to power and the pursuit of their class interests only after a prolonged revolutionary development, they can at least be certain that the first act of this revolutionary drama will coincide with the victory of their class in France, and this will surely accelerate the movement for their own emancipation.

But they themselves will have to do most of the work; they will need to be conscious of their class interests and adopt the position of an independent party. They must not be driven away from their line of proletarian independence by the hypocrisy of the democratic petty bourgeoisie. Their battle cry must be: “The Permanent Revolution”.

“Circular from the Central Committee to the Communist League.” Karl Marx, March 1850.

The model served as a reference for revolutionaries in countries like Russia. At the beginning of the 20th century the bourgeoisie had created a proletariat of 25 million people, highly concentrated in a few regions and surrounded by a veritable ocean of almost 100 million petty-bourgeois peasants. All this under an autocratic, feudal state, buttressed by the bourgeoisie itself. The Russian bourgeoisie will not be inconsequential at the time of the bourgeois democratic revolution, as the German had been in 1848, to the contrary, it will be reluctant or even openly opposed to it.
The 1905 revolution would show that only the proletariat was able to set in motion and lead the bourgeois democratic revolution but only by mobilizing behind it a massive and motivated peasantry on its own agrarian program. The slogans of “Democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants” and Lenin’s theorization of the “permanent revolution” will represent in reality the same approach that anticipates the 1917 revolution: archetype and success case of a permanent revolution.

The agrarian problem, and with it the national problem, gives the peasants, who constitute the overwhelming majority of the population of the backward countries, an exceptional position in the democratic revolution. Without the alliance of the proletariat with the peasants, the aims of the democratic revolution not only cannot be realized, but cannot even be seriously considered. However, the alliance of these two classes is only feasible by fighting irreconcilably against the influence of the liberal-national bourgeoisie.

Whatever the first episodic stages of the revolution in the different countries, the realization of the revolutionary alliance of the proletariat with the peasant masses is only conceivable under the political leadership of the proletarian vanguard organized in the Communist Party. This means, at the same time, that the democratic revolution can only triumph through the proletarian dictatorship, supported in the alliance with the peasants and aimed in the first place to achieve the objectives of the democratic revolution.

Focused on its historical sense, the Bolshevik slogan: “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants”, did not want to express anything else than the relations characterized above, between the proletariat, the peasants and the liberal bourgeoisie. This has been demonstrated by the experience of October. But Lenin’s old formula did not resolve beforehand what the mutual political relations of the proletariat and the peasants within the revolutionary bloc would be. In other words, the formula was consciously assigned a certain algebraic character, which had to give way to more concrete arithmetical units in the process of historical experience. However, the latter has shown, and under conditions that exclude any twisted interpretation, that however great the revolutionary role of the peasants may be, it can never be autonomous, and even more so, leading. The peasant follows the worker or the bourgeois. This means that the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants” is only conceivable as a dictatorship of the proletariat dragging behind it the peasant masses.

“What is the permanent revolution? Fundamental theses”. Leon Trotsky, 1930

Trotsky’s clarifications, obvious to anyone who has approached the Russian revolution, were of fundamental importance at the time. The International, taken over by stalinism, had ordered the Chinese Communists to dissolve the soviets and prevent the formation of independent class organs. In fact it had ordered the Chinese Communist Party to dissolve into the Kuomintang, presented by stalinism as a tool for building a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasants” distinct from a dictatorship of the proletariat. Such a historical and political aberration tried to be sustained by falsifying Lenin’s formulation to oppose Marx and Trotsky’s idea of permanent revolution. The policy of the Stalinist Komintern led, as is known, to the massacre of the Chinese proletariat in 1926-27 and the ignominious persecution of the communist leaders, who would join the communist left. It was the last battle of the left opposition within the Russian Communist party before its savage repression.

The democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants, as a regime that differs from the dictatorship of the proletariat in terms of its class content, would only be possible if an independent revolutionary party embodying the interests of peasant and petty bourgeois democracy in general were possible, a party capable, with the support of the proletariat, of seizing power and implementing its revolutionary programme from it. As the experience of all contemporary history, and especially that of Russia during the last quarter of a century, testifies, the lack of economic and political independence of the petty bourgeoisie and its deep internal differentiation constitutes an invincible obstacle on the road to the creation of a peasant party, as a result of which the upper layers of the petty bourgeoisie (of the peasants) in all decisive cases, especially in war and revolution, go with the big bourgeoisie, and the lower ones with the proletariat, thus forcing the intermediate sector to choose between the extreme poles. Between Kerenskyism and the Bolshevik power, between the Kuomintang and the dictatorship of the proletariat, there is no room for an intermediate possibility, that is, a democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasants.

The tendency of the Communist International to impose at present on the oriental peoples the slogan of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasants, long since definitively overcome by history, can only have a reactionary character. Inasmuch as this slogan is opposed to the dictatorship of the proletariat, it contributes politically to the dissolution of the latter among the petty-bourgeois masses and thus creates the most favorable conditions for the hegemony of the national bourgeoisie, and consequently for the failure of the democratic revolution. The incorporation of this slogan into the Programme of the Communist International already represents in itself a direct betrayal of Marxism and the Bolshevik traditions of October.

“What is the permanent revolution? Fundamental Theses”. Leon Trotsky, 1930

Are permanent revolutions possible today?

Possibly the Chinese Revolution of 1926-27 was the last historical window for a permanent Revolution as the Russian one had been. Capitalism was going into decandence and the transformation that this meant was quickly and definitively felt in the social structure and political conditions throughout the world. The national and agrarian program of the petty bourgeoisie is openly reactionary because it has been in opposition to the socialist revolution -the only one on the historical agenda- since its inception.

The next great revolution, the Spanish Revolution, will be already a socialist revolution from the first moment, not permanent. Its agrarian policy will be collectivization. In working-class areas like Llerena, production is immediately socialized from the workers’ cooperative that had emerged from the struggles of previous years and begins to produce and distribute according to the needs of each family already in the days following July 19. In Aragon, it is the workers’ militias who bring the “collectives” to the villages of small property based on subsistence agriculture and to those of tenants, who instead of simply taking over the property, concentrate them in the collectivity.

Since then, under the decadent conditions of the system, the independent peasantry has practically disappeared all over the world and where it exists, it has no option in an impossible capitalist development of the countryside. The agrarian petty bourgeoisie has been reduced and concentrated, exacerbating its antagonism with the agrarian proletariat which it can only mercilessly exploit to survive. In countries such as the US, the highly technical small family farmers continue to exist, in permanent threat of ruin. But today it has become an appendix of the big agribusiness industry and the big capital funds. They fix their inputs, their prices, their margins, what they will reinvest in and even the financial costs they will bear. Today it is a servant of capital that retains nominal ownership of land but cannot decide what to do with it. Its own claims do not even reach a program: forgiveness or moratorium of debts and guarantees of purchase of crops by the state.

And most importantly, there are no ”democratic tasks” or bourgeois revolutions left. There are no feudal regimes left, and even if there were “remnants” somewhere, they are so deeply embedded in world capitalism that they have no other way out than communist.

On the scale of capitalist social development, the scale of the proletariat’s ability to impose communism and thus bring about a new mode of social development responds. However, the limits of this capitalist development have been evidenced by the possibility and reality of a First World War, indicating the achievement of the domination of capital on the planet. This complete domination means that even if we find survivors of previous modes of exploitation, they are connected, integrated, totally absorbed by the global circuits of capitalist exploitation. From then on, global social development is not possible under the aegis of capital, the capitalist system is obsolete, decadent; growth and development, until then concomitant, are dissociated and even opposed to each other. At this stage of development, corresponds the proletariat’s ability to immediately affirm the revolutionary communist project for the whole world. This capacity means that even if one encounters exploited of a different kind than the proletarians, they can no longer have the slightest independence from the objectives of the proletariat. In fact, they are connected to and subject to the same overall mode of exploitation and oppression; they must be seen as part of the world proletariat. Struggles that do not directly and exclusively concern the working class not only do not benefit it, but are now irreducibly opposed to it.

“Viejas naciones, nuevas luchas, vieja cantinela”, 1990