The following is the concluding section of the document on permanent revolution adopted by the International Conference.

The central objective of the 1920 Second Congress of the Communist International (Comintern, or CI) was to deepen and codify the split with Social Democracy, cleansing the CI’s ranks of political adherents to the Second International while also combating ultraleftist tendencies in the Communist movement. One of the means of advancing this aim was the national and colonial question. The “Conditions of Admission” to the Comintern, drafted by Lenin, demanded:

“Every party wishing to belong to the Communist International is obligated to expose the tricks of ‘its own’ imperialists in the colonies, to support every liberation movement in the colonies not only in words but in deeds, to demand that the imperialists of its country be driven out of these colonies, to instill in the hearts of the workers of its country a truly fraternal attitude toward the laboring people in the colonies and toward the oppressed nations, and to conduct systematic agitation among its country’s troops against all oppression of colonial peoples.” [emphasis added]

The “cardinal idea” laid out in the Second Congress “Theses on the National and Colonial Questions,” also drafted by Lenin, was, as he explained in presenting them, “the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations. Unlike the Second International and bourgeois democracy, we emphasize this distinction.” The Comintern saw in the colonial and semicolonial world, which comprised the overwhelming majority of the human race, an immense reservoir of revolutionary energy for the struggle against imperialist subjugation.

The second basic idea of the Theses, Lenin explained, was that the mutual relations between states in the world political system were determined by the struggle between the handful of imperialist powers and the soviet movement propelled by revolutionary Russia. Thus, the international political situation put the dictatorship of the proletariat on the order of the day in the subjugated, economically backward East as much as in the advanced West. Referring to the most underdeveloped of the Eastern countries, Lenin emphatically stated:

“The preponderance of pre-capitalist relationships is still the main determining feature in these countries, so that there can be no question of a purely proletarian movement in them. There is practically no industrial proletariat in these countries. Nevertheless, we have assumed, we must assume, the role of leader even there.” [emphasis added]

Indeed, the Congress established as the central task of Communists in subjugated nations the fight for leadership of the national liberation movement against the native bourgeoisie and pro-imperialist Social Democracy. The Theses stated that the Communist parties must directly support the revolutionary movement in dependent nations and colonies, or else the struggle against oppression would remain “a dishonest facade, such as we see in the parties of the Second International.” The document stressed the need to struggle against the reactionary and medieval influence of the clergy and the Christian missions, as well as against the Pan-Islamic and Pan-Asian movements that sought to tie the struggle for national liberation to the strengthening of the local nobles, landowners and clergy and the interests of competing imperialists. It was necessary to organize the peasants and all the exploited into soviets where feasible, “thereby establishing the closest connection between the western European Communist proletariat and the revolutionary peasant movement in the East, in the colonies, and in the backward countries in general.”

Communists in the subjugated countries needed to educate the masses to be conscious of their particular task of struggling for leadership of the bourgeois-democratic movement in their own nation. The Theses posited:

“The Communist International should arrive at temporary agreements and, yes, even establish an alliance with the revolutionary movement in the colonies and backward countries. But it cannot merge with this movement. Instead it absolutely must maintain the independent character of the proletarian movement, even in its embryonic stage.”

Lenin’s Second Congress “Report on the International Situation and the Fundamental Tasks of the Communist International” proclaimed:

“World imperialism shall fall when the revolutionary onslaught of the exploited and oppressed workers in each country, overcoming resistance from petty-bourgeois elements and the influence of the small upper crust of labour aristocrats [the social basis of reformism], merges with the revolutionary onslaught of hundreds of millions of people who have hitherto stood beyond the pale of history, and have been regarded merely as the object of history.” [brackets in original]

The “Theses on the Eastern Question” of the Fourth Congress, held in 1922, expanded and further concretized the general guidelines established at the Second Congress. The Theses expose the role of the native ruling classes as the main obstacle to national liberation. These forces aim to utilize the aspirations of the toiling masses only to advance their own interests as a proprietor class while also seeking to conciliate imperialism. To the degree struggle takes the form of a revolutionary mass movement, the native rulers will turn against it and seek protection from their imperialist masters.

The Theses explain that in the search for superprofits, imperialism arrests the development of the countries it subjugates, sustaining as long as possible the feudal and usurious forms of exploiting labor power. The struggle to free the land from feudal relations therefore takes on the character of a battle for national liberation. But bourgeois nationalists, given their dependence on imperialism and their links with the landowners, will do their utmost to water down agrarian slogans and prevent the revolutionary, mass eruption of the peasants—i.e., agrarian revolution. The Theses pose the task: “All revolutionary forces must subject this vacillation to systematic critique and reveal the irresolution of the bourgeois leaders of the nationalist movements” [our translation from German].

Drawing from the experience of the October Revolution, and in particular from the work of the Third CI Congress, which advanced the slogan of the united front, the Fourth Congress extended this tactic to all oppressed nations: the anti-imperialist united front. The “Theses on the Eastern Question” explained:

“The suitability of this slogan flows from the perspective of an extended, lengthy struggle against world imperialism, demanding the mobilisation of all revolutionary forces. This mobilisation is all the more necessary, since the native ruling classes tend to make compromises with foreign capitalism that are directed against the interests of the popular masses. And just as the slogan of proletarian united front in the West contributes to exposing Social-Democratic betrayal of proletarian interests, so too the slogan of anti-imperialist united front serves to expose the vacillation of different bourgeois-nationalist currents. This slogan will also promote the development of a revolutionary will and of class consciousness among the working masses, placing them in the front ranks of fighters not only against imperialism but also against survivals of feudalism.”

The ICL has always claimed adherence to the first four Congresses of the Comintern as representing the continuity of Leninism, but we took exception to the Second and Fourth Congresses in regard to the colonial revolution. The basis of our rejection of those Theses is our revision of Trotsky’s permanent revolution. The basic criticism of the Second Congress was laid out in comrade Robertson’s 1998 “Remarks on the National and Colonial Questions” (published in Marxist Studies No. 9, August 2003). He argued:

“At the Second Congress, the comrades did not view the colonial question as having a working-class component, and the Communist International was based upon a proletarian centrality, so it seemed like a big contradiction. The position that they adopted, pretty much—and again, rather vaguely, because of the lack of correlation—was to cheer on colonial insurrections on the grounds that they would weaken the major imperialist powers and therefore, to that extent, help the proletarian revolution…. But there was no extension of the experience of the Tsarist Empire into the colonial world for pretty good reasons: Until the First World War, you will find hardly anywhere, outside that weak link [both imperialist and semi-colonial] of the Tsarist Empire, industry in the colonial countries.” [emphasis added; brackets in original]

This is a social-democratic critique of the Second Congress. Dismissing the Theses for “cheering on colonial insurrections” is not only a distortion of the program of the early Comintern, it is also a rejection of the role of national liberation as the fundamental lever for proletarian revolution. It is therefore an abdication of the fight for leadership of that struggle. The “experience of the Tsarist Empire,” i.e., the experience of 1917, speaks to the fundamental core of permanent revolution, which is nothing other than the need for communist leadership of the democratic struggle, first and foremost national liberation. This is precisely what the Theses of both the Second and Fourth Congresses posed as the chief task of Communist parties in subjugated nations. As we showed above, Lenin posed the need to fight for leadership of the anti-imperialist struggle even in countries with no proletariat whatsoever. Indeed, the Comintern was based not upon an objective “proletarian centrality” (the existence of “a viable proletarian concentration,” as so many ICL articles put it) but on the fight for proletarian leadership.

It is not accidental that at the Second Congress the inveterate centrist Giacinto Serrati enunciated, one can say to the letter, the Spartacist criticism of the Second Congress Theses (and, in fact, of those of the Fourth as well):

“In general, campaigns by bourgeois-democratic groups for national liberation are not revolutionary, even when they resort to insurrectionary methods. They are undertaken either to benefit a nascent national imperialism or to serve the interests of a competitor of the country’s former imperialist ruler....

“True liberation of the oppressed peoples can be accomplished only by the proletarian revolution and the soviet order, not by assistance lent by Communists even indirectly, through temporary alliances, with the bourgeois parties termed revolutionary nationalist.”

As a matter of fact, Serrati’s condemnation faithfully enunciates the Spartacist caricature of permanent revolution: an orthodox-sounding formula that actually counterposes the dictatorship of the proletariat to national liberation and to all democratic struggle—the very opposite of Trotskyism.

For the Anti-Imperialist United Front!

It is because the Spartacist tendency turned permanent revolution into its opposite that we have thus far maintained that only on the basis of the experience of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution did Trotsky “extend” his theory outside the boundaries of the former tsarist empire. Comrade Robertson, in his remarks quoted above, contrasts Trotsky’s book The Permanent Revolution, whose various sections were written between 1928 and 1930, to the Theses of the Second Congress: “I believe,” he stated, “in fact that it was not possible in 1920 to arrive at the position that Trotsky was able to put forward only after the defeat of the Chinese Revolution and writing around 1930.”

In fact, the article “The Origins of Chinese Trotskyism” (Spartacist [English edition] No. 53, Summer 1997) traces a continuity—albeit a partial one—between Stalinism and the “Theses on the Eastern Question”: “It was of course a sharp descent from these opportunist impulses expressed at the Fourth Congress of the revolutionary Comintern to the full-blown catastrophic betrayal subsequently carried out in China by Stalin and Bukharin.” The historic position of Spartacism turned the world upside down: Trotsky’s permanent revolution was absent from the early Comintern whereas Stalin’s betrayal was there in embryo at the Fourth Congress!

Against the Fourth Congress Theses, our article argued:

“The Theses were mooting a call for a political bloc with bourgeois nationalism around a minimum program of democratic demands. Implicitly they posed a Menshevik, two-stage program for the colonial revolution, with the first stage being a democratic struggle against imperialism (the ‘anti-imperialist united front’).”

The “proof” of this “Menshevik deviation” was, according to Spartacist, the following sentence of the Theses:

“The proletariat supports and advances such partial demands as an independent democratic republic, the abolition of all feudal rights and privileges, the introduction of women’s rights, etc., in so far as it cannot, with the relation of forces as it exists at present, make the implementation of its soviet programme the immediate task of the day.” [as quoted by Spartacist]

However, this passage from the Theses was directly preceded by these two sentences insisting on the need for class independence:

“The workers’ movement in the colonial and semi-colonial countries must strive above all to achieve the role of an independent revolutionary force in the overall anti-imperialist front. Only when its autonomous weight is acknowledged and its political independence is thus safeguarded is it permissible and necessary to conclude temporary agreements with bourgeois democracy.” [emphasis added]

No matter how many times the Theses of the Second and Fourth Congresses insist on the need for proletarian class independence, the very notion of Communists engaging in democratic struggle—in temporary alliances with nationalist forces in order to vie for leadership of the toiling masses—represented in the Spartacist view a deflection from “the class question,” in other words, a mere Menshevik scheme.

The “Theses on the Eastern Question” make clear that insofar as the national bourgeoisies maintain hegemony over the national liberation struggle, it is necessary for communists to seek to conclude temporary agreements with them—anti-imperialist united fronts—in order to expose, in struggle, their vacillations and capitulations. This is the only way to drive a wedge between the working class and the peasant masses on the one hand and the neocolonial bourgeoisie on the other and show that the Trotskyists are not only the best but the only consistent fighters for national liberation.

In contrast to the Comintern, whose program challenged the bourgeois and reformist leaderships of democratic struggles in order to rally the masses behind the Communist banner, the ICL’s program has been to denounce bourgeois nationalism in oppressed countries as simply reactionary. Undoubtedly, left groups of all denominations have betrayed the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship in the name of the anti-imperialist united front by subordinating the toiling masses to the bourgeoisie. But the ICL’s sectarian rejection of this tactic does nothing to expose the bourgeoisie in front of the workers and peasants. In fact, it further consolidates the masses’ subordination to the bourgeoisie by showing that “communists” are totally insensitive to national emancipation, land reform and other democratic questions.

The 1922 Theses polemicize directly against the program and methodology of the ICL:

“Any refusal of Communists in the colonies to take part in the struggle against imperialist tyranny, on the excuse of supposed ‘defence’ of independent class interests, is opportunism of the worst sort that can only discredit the proletarian revolution in the East.”

That was the justification we used to denigrate struggles for national liberation in Quebec, Greece, Mexico, etc. The main difference with the above quote is that we were, in most cases, lecturing from the imperialist countries to the oppressed masses of the neocolonial world.

The anti-imperialist united front was essential then and still is today in all countries where the national liberation struggle is in the hands of the bourgeoisie. For communists to be able to break the bourgeoisie’s hold on the struggle, it is necessary to gain decisive influence among the proletariat, the peasantry and the lower strata of the urban petty bourgeoisie. And to do this, communists must not remain suspended in the air as immaculate critics on the margins of the struggle, but place themselves in the midst of the melee. We must win influence and prestige in the national and democratic struggle against foreign domination, and this can only be done by revealing to the masses the weaknesses, deficiencies and betrayals of the national bourgeoisie. That is the purpose of the anti-imperialist united front: to win the masses, to prepare the ground for the inevitable open conflict with the national bourgeoisie in the struggle against world imperialism.

Trotsky vs. the ICL on Lenin’s “Democratic Dictatorship”

From 1905 to 1917, there was an essential identity between Trotsky’s permanent revolution and Lenin’s strategic line expressed in the formula of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in that they both saw the unresolved democratic tasks, primarily agrarian revolution, as the motor force of the coming Russian revolution. Against the Mensheviks, they both acknowledged the utterly reactionary character of the liberal bourgeoisie, which stood ready to make a compromise with tsarism. And they both arrived at the same revolutionary conclusion: the need for proletarian leadership of the democratic struggle, at the head of the peasantry, in opposition to the liberal bourgeoisie. Furthermore, they both held that a dictatorship of workers and peasants was the necessary agent of the bourgeois-democratic revolution. For these reasons, their strategic lines converged.

The difference consisted in that Trotsky, analyzing the class position of the peasantry as a component of the heterogeneous petty bourgeoisie, held that it was incapable of playing an independent revolutionary role; it could but follow either the proletariat or the bourgeoisie. Lenin, while always explaining the unique revolutionary role of the proletariat, left the door open to the possibility of the development of a peasant party independent both of the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. He therefore refused to establish a priori the concrete forms that the necessary alliance of workers and peasants would take, the concrete forms of the government institutions issuing from the revolution carried out by these two classes. That is the only distinction between Trotsky’s formula, the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the peasantry, and Lenin’s algebraic formula.

As Trotsky himself retrospectively explained in The Permanent Revolution, these two formulas were prognoses that required historical verification. It was a difference of nuance in the revolutionary trend of Russian Marxism. The eruption of the revolutionary process in February 1917 solved the equation once and for all, revealing to Lenin the actual class dynamics. The algebraic formula was outlived. In order to advance the interests of workers and peasants, it was necessary to substitute arithmetic for algebra. “No support to the Provisional Government!” “All power to the soviets!” “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” These became the slogans of the fight for the dictatorship of the proletariat, supported by the peasantry.

Lenin’s formula was not a dogma but a call to action: the revolutionary alliance of workers and peasants for all-out struggle not only against the autocracy and the landed nobility but against the liberal bourgeoisie—the need for a dictatorship of the revolutionary classes issuing from victorious insurrection. Lenin’s strategic line cannot be separated from his fight to build the Bolshevik Party, the most revolutionary party in history. The real programmatic difference between Lenin and Trotsky was not over the prospects of the Russian revolution but precisely over the party question, over unity with opportunism. While Trotsky’s prognosis was certainly brilliant, he spent years trying to reunite the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks. Once he understood this problem, as Lenin put it, there was no better Bolshevik than Trotsky.

Lenin’s struggle within the Bolshevik Party, codified in his 1917 April Theses and “Letters on Tactics,” to rearm the party by abandoning the algebraic formula as outlived flowed from Lenin’s own strategic line, not from repudiating it. The Stalinists’ revival of the “democratic dictatorship” slogan, digging it out from “the archive of ‘Bolshevik’ pre-revolutionary antiques” to which Lenin had consigned it in 1917, was designed to cover up their subordination of the Communist Party of China to the bourgeois Guomindang. The Stalinist betrayal of the 1925-27 Chinese Revolution was the exact opposite of Lenin’s strategic line; it was chemically pure Menshevism.

In explicit contradiction to everything that Lenin and Trotsky wrote on the subject, our International Declaration of Principles states that Lenin’s “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” was “a flawed slogan projecting a state defending the interests of two different classes” which the Bolsheviks failed to “explicitly repudiate” (Spartacist [English edition] No. 54, Spring 1998). This is again a social-democratic denunciation of Lenin that renounces the alliance between workers and peasants, and in fact renounces the early Soviet government that embodied it. As such, it amounts to transforming October itself into a caricature.

Our counterposing of Lenin to Trotsky prior to 1917 could only stand on a perversion of permanent revolution that transforms Trotskyism into the social-democratic ramblings of a Serrati or a Levi by renouncing the centrality of democratic struggle. Such are the reactionary implications of our line. The fundamental lever of October was first and foremost the agrarian question. The early Soviet government did, in fact, defend the interests of workers and peasants by unleashing the peasant war under the leadership of the proletariat. Without defending the interests of the peasantry, the dictatorship would not have lasted a single day. As Trotsky warned in The Permanent Revolution, “Lenin must be considered in a Leninist way, and not in that of the epigones.” Referring to the “democratic dictatorship,” he stressed:

“The Bolshevik slogan was realized in fact—not as a morphological trait but as a very great historical reality. Only, it was realized not before, but after October. The peasant war, in the words of Marx, supported the dictatorship of the proletariat. The collaboration of the two classes was realized through October on a gigantic scale. At that time every ignorant peasant grasped and felt, even without Lenin’s commentaries, that the Bolshevik slogan had been given life. And Lenin himself estimated the October Revolution—its first stage—as the true realization of the democratic revolution, and by that also as the true, even if changed, embodiment of the strategic slogan of the Bolsheviks.”