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Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution


Leon Trotsky (1879–1940), whose original name was Lev Davidovich Bronstein, was one of the chief figures in the Russian Revolution of 1917. After years spent in exile agitating in favor of Russian communism, he put his ideas into practice as one of the leaders of the Bolshevik Revolution. After falling out with Stalin, he was expelled from the Russian Communist Party in 1927 and forced into exile once again. There he wrote prolifically about the meaning of the Russian—and French—revolutions.

This source is a part of the Legacies of the Revolution source collection.


History does not repeat itself. However much one may compare the Russian Revolution with the Great French Revolution, the former can never be transformed into a repetition of the latter. The 19th century has not passed in vain.

Jacobinism is now a term of reproach on the lips of all liberal wiseacres. Bourgeois hatred of revolution, its hatred towards the masses, hatred of the force and grandeur of the history that is made in the streets, is concentrated in one cry of indignation and fear—Jacobinism! We, the world army of Communism, have long ago made our historical reckoning with Jacobinism. The whole of the present international proletarian movement was formed and grew strong in the struggle against the traditions of Jacobinism. We subjected its theories to criticism, we exposed its historical limitations, its social contradictoriness, its utopianism, we exposed its phraseology, and broke with its traditions, which for decades had been regarded as the sacred heritage of the revolution.

But we defend Jacobinism against the attacks, the calumny, and the stupid vituperations of anemic, phlegmatic liberalism. The bourgeoisie has shamefully betrayed all the traditions of its historical youth, and its present hirelings dishonor the graves of its ancestors and scoff at the ashes of their ideals. The proletariat has taken the honor of the revolutionary past of the bourgeoisie under its protection. The proletariat, however radically it may have, in practice, broken with the revolutionary traditions of the bourgeoisie, nevertheless preserves them, as a sacred heritage of great passions, heroism and initiative, and its heart beats in sympathy with the speeches and acts of the Jacobin Convention.

What gave liberalism its charm if not the traditions of the Great French Revolution? At what other period did bourgeois democracy rise to such a height and kindle such a great flame in the hearts of the people as during the period of the Jacobin, sans-culotte, terrorist, Robespierrian democracy of 1793?

What else but Jacobinism made and still makes it possible for French bourgeois-radicalism of various shades to keep the overwhelming majority of the people and even the proletariat under its influence at a time when bourgeois radicalism in Germany and Austria has closed its brief history in deeds of pettiness and shame?

What is it if not the charm of Jacobinism, with its abstract political ideology, its cult of the Sacred Republic, its triumphant declarations, that even now nourishes French radicals and radical socialists like Clemenceau, Millerand, Briand and Bourgeois, and all those politicians who know how to defend the mainstays of bourgeois society no worse than the dull-witted Junkers of Wilhelm II by the Grace of God? They are envied hopelessly by the bourgeois democrats of other countries; and yet they shower calumnies upon the source of their political advantage—heroic Jacobinism.

Even after many hopes had been destroyed, Jacobinism remained in the memory of the people as a tradition. For a long time the proletariat spoke of its future in the language of the past. In 1840, almost half a century after the government of the "Mountain," eight years before the June days of 1848, Heine visited several workshops in the faubourg of Saint-Marceau and saw what the workers, "the soundest section of the lower classes," were reading. "I found there," he wrote to a German newspaper, "several new speeches by old Robespierre and also pamphlets by Marat issued in two-sous editions; Cabet's History of the Revolution; the malignant lampoons of Carmenen; the works of Buonarroti, The Teachings and Conspiracy of Babeuf, all productions reeking with blood. . . . As one of the fruits of this seed," prophesies the poet, "sooner or later a republic will threaten to spring up in France."

In 1848 the bourgeoisie was already unable to play a comparable role. It did not want and was not able to undertake the revolutionary liquidation of the social system that stood in its path to power. We know now why that was so. Its aim was—and of this it was perfectly conscious—to introduce into the old system the necessary guarantees, not for its political domination, but merely for a sharing of power with the forces of the past. It was meanly wise through the experience of the French bourgeoisie, corrupted by its treachery and frightened by its failures. It not only failed to lead the masses in storming the old order, but placed its back against this order so as to repulse the masses who were pressing it forward.

The French bourgeoisie succeeded in bringing off its Great Revolution. Its consciousness was the consciousness of society and nothing could become established as an institution without first passing through its consciousness as an aim, as a problem of political creation. It often resorted to theatrical poses in order to hide from itself the limitations of its own bourgeois world but it marched forward.

The National Convention, as an organ of the Jacobin dictatorship, was by no means composed of Jacobins alone. More than that—the Jacobins were in a minority in it; but the influence of the sans-culottes outside the walls of the Convention, and the need for a determined policy in order to save the country, gave power into the hands of the Jacobins. Thus, while the Convention was formally a national representation, consisting of Jacobins, Girondins, and the vast wavering center known as the "marsh" [Plain], in essence it was a dictatorship of the Jacobins.

When we speak of a workers' government we have in view a government in which the working-class representatives dominate and lead. The proletariat, in order to consolidate its power, cannot but widen the base of the revolution. Many sections of the working masses, particularly in the countryside, will be drawn into the revolution and become politically organized only after the advance-guard of the revolution, the urban proletariat, stands at the helm of state. Revolutionary agitation and organization will then be conducted with the help of state resources. The legislative power itself will become a powerful instrument for revolutionizing the masses. The nature of our social-historical relations, which lays the whole burden of the bourgeois revolution upon the shoulders of the proletariat, will not only create tremendous difficulties for the workers' government but, in the first period of its existence at any rate, will also give it invaluable advantages. This will affect the relations between the proletariat and the peasantry.

In the revolutions of 1789–93 and 1848 power first of all passed from absolutism to the moderate elements of the bourgeoisie, and it was the latter class which emancipated the peasantry (how, is another matter) before revolutionary democracy received or was even preparing to receive power. The emancipated peasantry lost all interest in the political stunts of the "townspeople," that is, in the further progress of the revolution, and placing itself like a heavy foundation-stone at the foot of order, betrayed the revolution to the Caesarist or old-regime absolutist reaction.

The Russian revolution does not, and for a long time will not, permit the establishment of any kind of bourgeois-constitutional order that might solve the most elementary problems of democracy. All the "enlightened" efforts of reformer—bureaucrats like Witte and Stolypin are nullified by their own struggle for existence. Consequently, the fate of the most elementary revolutionary interests of the peasantry—even the peasantry as a whole, as an estate, is bound up with the fate of entire revolution, that is, with the fate of the proletariat.

The proletariat in power will stand before the peasants as the class which has emancipated it. The domination of the proletariat will mean not only democratic equality, free self-government, the transference of the whole burden of taxation to the rich classes, the dissolution of the standing army in the armed people and the abolition of compulsory church imposts, but also recognition of all revolutionary changes (expropriations) in land relationships carried out by the peasants. The proletariat will make these changes the starting-point for further state measures in agriculture.

How to Cite This Source

"Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution," in World History Commons, [accessed June 23, 2024]