We summed up the theory of the permanent revolution in Cuba: Socialism & Democracy:
Trotsky and Lenin, indeed the whole of Russian Marxism, were at one in seeing the main task of the Russian Revolution as the completion of the bourgeois-democratic revolution: elimination of feudal and semi-feudal relations in the land, unification of the country and the solution of the national question, democracy – the right to vote for a democratic parliament, a free press, trade union rights, etc – and the freeing of the economy from the domination of imperialism. Lenin and Trotsky differed from the Mensheviks who believed that the task of the working class was to tail end the liberal bourgeoisie who they considered were the main agent of the bourgeois democratic revolution. Moreover they saw this as a necessary and inevitable stage of development for Russia without any serious international ramifications. However the belated development of the bourgeoisie as a class and bourgeois-democratic revolution in Russia meant that it was incapable of completing this historic task. The capitalists invested in land and the landlords invested in industry. Therefore any thoroughgoing bourgeois-democratic revolution would come up against the opposition not just of the landlords but of the bourgeoisie and their political representatives, the liberal bourgeois parties. They had demonstrated again and again not just in Russia, but in Germany in the nineteenth century and elsewhere that they were incapable of carrying their own revolution through to a conclusion.
The powerful and then unique development of the Russian proletariat, explained Trotsky, also affected the liberal bourgeoisie’s preparedness to carry the revolution through. It was terrified, quite correctly as events demonstrated, that a struggle against the thousand-year old Tsarist regime and the social foundations upon which it rested would open the floodgates through which the working class, together with the peasantry, would pour and place on the agenda its own demands. Both Trotsky and Lenin agreed therefore that it was an alliance of the working class and the peasantry, the majority of the population of Russia, who were the only force capable of completing the bourgeois-democratic revolution. Where they differed was on the issue of who would exercise the leadership in this alliance. Would it be the working class or the peasantry? Moreover, once this alliance had come to power, who would be the dominant force in the government? Would it just carry through the bourgeois-democratic revolution or would it be forced to go further?
Trotsky, in his Theory of the Permanent Revolution, argued that history attested to the fact that the peasantry had never played an independent role. It must be led by the one of the other two great classes in society: the bourgeoisie or the working class. However, Lenin and Trotsky agreed that the bourgeoisie could not carry through their own revolution. Therefore, argued Trotsky, the working class must assume the leadership of the revolution drawing behind it the masses in the countryside. In a very important summing up of the ‘Three Conceptions of the Russian Revolution’ in August 1939, a year before his assassination by the Stalinists, Trotsky makes the following comments about Lenin’s formula of the ‘democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. He states:
“Lenin’s conception represented an enormous step forward in so far as it proceeded not from constitutional reforms but from the agrarian overturn as the central task of the revolution and singled out the only realistic combination of social forces for its accomplishment. The weak point of Lenin’s conception, however, was the internally contradictory idea of ‘the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry’. Lenin himself underscored the fundamental limitation of this ‘dictatorship’ when he openly called it bourgeois. By this he meant to say that for the sake of preserving its alliance with the peasantry the proletariat would in the coming revolution have to forego the direct posing of the socialist tasks. But this would signify the renunciation by the proletariat of its own dictatorship. Consequently, the gist of the matter involved the dictatorship of the peasantry even if with the participation of the workers.” (1)
But then Trotsky goes on to comment:
“The peasantry is dispersed over the surface of an enormous country whose key junctions are the cities. The peasantry itself is incapable of even formulating its own interests inasmuch as in each district these appear differently. The economic link between the provinces is created by the market and the railways, but both the market and the railways are in the hands of the cities. In seeking to tear itself away from the restrictions of the village and to generalize its own interests, the peasantry inescapably falls into political dependence upon the city. Finally, the peasantry is heterogeneous in its social relations as well: the kulak stratum [rich peasants] naturally seeks to swing it to an alliance with the urban bourgeoisie while the nether strata of the village pull to the side of the urban workers. Under these conditions the peasantry as such is completely incapable of conquering power.
“True enough, in ancient China, revolutions placed the peasantry in power or, more precisely, placed the military leaders of peasant uprisings in power. This led each time to a re-division of the land and the establishment of a new ‘peasant’ dynasty, whereupon history would begin from the beginning; with a new concentration of land, a new aristocracy, a new system of usury, and a new uprising.” (2)
Lenin argued that history would decide whether or not the peasantry could assume an independent role in the proposed alliance. Lenin’s idea was in effect an ‘algebraic formula’ as to which class, proletariat or peasantry, would lead the alliance, what the precise complexion of the government would be and how far it would encroach on the powers of the capitalists. Despite all the attempts… to defend this formula, its author, Lenin himself, said in April 1917, that history had filled this with a “negative content”. He indicated that the task was now for the proletariat to seize power supported by the peasantry. To emphasize this, Lenin also proposed that the Bolsheviks should change their name to the ‘Communist Party’.