What sort of political changes are possible when workers are a minority of the population? Neil Davidson looks at a question which has absorbed Marxists for over 100 years.
At the beginning of the last century a series of revolutions in Russia (1905), Turkey (1906), Persia (1909), Mexico (1910), China (1911) and Ireland (1916) announced that the inhabitants of the colonial world were not prepared to be passive spectators of the historical process. Yet beyond freeing themselves from the direct or indirect control of the great powers, the goals of these revolutionary movements were ambiguous, even contradictory. Were they to enable the newly liberated states to enter the world capitalist system? Or were they to achieve a more fundamental freedom for the mass of their populations - in other words, were they to bring about socialism?
At the time most people, including most Marxists, believed that only the former was possible. Socialism would have to wait until colonial and pre-capitalist domination had been overthrown. However, Leon Trotsky began to develop two concepts which suggested that socialism might be a more immediate prospect.
One was the theory of "uneven and combined development". Unevenness means that societies reach particular stages of development at different historical times. Combination means that, under certain conditions, societies can leap over aspects of one or more of these stages to create new hybrid formations. Starting from the imperialist stage of capitalism, which opened during the last third of the 19th century, advanced forms of capitalist production were introduced into otherwise pre-capitalist societies, causing new tensions.
In particular, capitalist industrialisation gave rise to working class movements that, because of the intensity with which they were formed, had the potential to rise to higher levels of theoretical understanding and industrial militancy than those in the dominant imperialist countries. These new working class movements often found themselves in conflict with state machines that were much weaker than those of the older capitalist countries.
The other was the strategy of permanent revolution - made possible by uneven and combined development. The working classes in the developing world, although a minority of the population, have a social weight greater than their numbers. This, Trotsky argued, made them potentially capable of leading the other oppressed classes directly towards socialism.
This strategy only gained majority support within the working class movement during the Russian Revolution of 1917. In every other situation where it has been applicable, alternative strategies have been followed which have led, at worst, to total defeat (China in the 1920s) or, at best, to partial victories which gained considerably less than was possible (South Africa in the 1990s). A crucial factor in these failures has been the absence of a sizeable revolutionary party capable of successfully arguing for permanent revolution.
Colonial rule had not yet achieved its full geographical extent in 1917 and pre-capitalist regimes still existed. Most of these have long since ended, swept away by a series of revolutions.
In China in 1949, Cuba in 1959 and a host of other countries the transformations masqueraded as communist in content, but in effect acted as the handmaidens of state capitalist development. Indeed, the Chinese state is now one of the most dynamic sectors in the global capitalist economy. The working class in the Third World has risen time and time again during the same period, but nowhere succeeded in taking power on its own behalf. Does this mean that Trotsky's claims for its revolutionary role have been proved wrong?
Does the Third World still exist?
The first thing we need to establish is that the Third World - in the sense of a group of countries sharing a common position of underdevelopment within the capitalist world system - still exists. Many people, on both sides of the globalisation debate, claim that it does not. They give three main reasons for this.
First, there is the increasingly differentiated pattern of socioeconomic development across these countries. What possible comparison can there be between a "failed state" like Haiti and economic and military giants like India? Second, there is increasing homogenisation across the world.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argue in their book Empire that, "The spatial divisions of the three Worlds (First, Second and Third) have been scrambled so that we continually find the First World in the Third, the Third in the First, and the Second almost nowhere at all." Third, there is a reluctance among anti-capitalists to differentiate between regions of the world, not least because globalisation from above is increasingly binding all populations to the same exploitative machine.
Nevertheless, it is still possible to characterise the Third World as having some or all of the following features. First, the majority of the population tends to be poor in absolute rather than relative terms. Second, the state is often unstable and consequently prone to both internal police repression and external military adventures.
Third, the economies of the majority of the less developed states will continue to be heavily influenced by imperialism as a system. Fourth, the main source of hope for overcoming these obstacles, the working class, is still a minority, albeit a growing minority, of the population.
This is true even in China, the biggest and most rapidly industrialising of all the less developed countries. The existence of large numbers of peasants, independent producers and small businesses means that the working class has insufficient social weight to take and exercise power alone. Class alliances of some sort therefore remain necessary.
Whether the working class is now a majority of the population in the developing world is difficult to judge and in one sense irrelevant. The main point is that it is huge, and vastly bigger than in Trotsky's day. Increasingly, the majority of workers in the Third World are of the industrial type. There are time lags in the availability of the data, but if we include the former Communist countries, then the number of industrial workers in the Global South rose from 285 million in 1980 to 407 million in 1994, at a time when the number of workers employed in industry was 500 million.
Many of those who dismiss the idea of the working class making a revolution in the Third World celebrate the electoral successes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia as an alternative strategy. But again this is to miss the point.
Welcome though the success of these leaders is, they were only elected and sustained in office because of mass mobilisations at the heart of which were working class movements. In Bolivia, for example, the previous government's plans to sell off natural gas supplies were met with months of blockades and occupations in the countryside that helped feed a growing revolt among workers in the towns and cities. Ultimately the privatisation plan was defeated.
But the unevenness in uneven and combined development does not only work in a positive direction. In some cases, entire areas, most of which are in Africa, have been abandoned by capital in any economic sense. There the working class is not growing, but shrinking and increasingly atomised as scarcity drives societies into territorial wars and ethnic fragmentation. It would be absurd to say that only the working class can solve the crises in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan or Haiti, if by this we mean the individual working classes of those countries. It is here that the international aspects of permanent revolution are still decisive - the solution cannot be internal, but depends on the actions of the working class in the surrounding countries.
But even in those countries where there are strong labour movements, there is an important new social development which is as yet politically undetermined. In its original formulation, permanent revolution involved the working class leading other oppressed groups, the largest of which was the peasantry. The peasantry has not vanished, but its importance is diminishing because of the emergence and expansion of massive urban slum areas on the peripheries of the great Third World cities.
These vast, improvised repositories of semi-surplus population, described in horrifying detail by Mike Davis in Planet of Slums, are explosively volatile. Involved in work mainly through what is politely referred to as the informal sector, the relationship of these populations to organised labour tends to be minimal. Yet potentially, they could be an extraordinary revolutionary force (we have seen the possibilities of this in Bolivia) - or the foot soldiers of right wing demagoguery. The question of leadership remains essential.
For nearly 50 years Stalinism and varieties of secular nationalism dominated the politics of the Third World, using organised labour as a stage army when popular mobilisation was required. The pretensions of both have been exploded, above all in the Middle East. The space vacated by the collapse of Stalinism and secular nationalism means that millions of people who want to be part of a movement against both imperialism and poverty are looking for ideas that can take the struggle further than simply the establishment of bourgeois democratic regimes.
This brings me to the final point. We can be sure that the working class will continue to fight to improve its conditions - by which I mean increasing democracy as much as improving living standards - as we have seen in Iran, Egypt and China over the last year. What is still open is whether it can go beyond this to challenge for state power.
Neil Davidson was the joint winner of the Isaac Deutscher Memorial Prize in 2003 and is a contributor to 100 Years of Permanent Revolution - eds. Bill Dunn & Hugo Radice, published by Pluto and available from Bookmarks.