What is permanent revolution?

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Regi Pilling looks at what Leon Trotsky meant by permanent revolution and if it still has relevance today.

At the start of this year the dictator Hosni Mubarak, who had ruled Egypt for three decades, was toppled by mass protests and strikes. But today we see the military violently retaking Tahrir Square, protesters attacked and strikes outlawed. Should the revolution stop now that Mubarak has gone? Could it move beyond political changes to economic and social transformation? Could socialism be brought about?

Egypt is relatively impoverished and its industry has developed less evenly than in most Western countries. Workers have only just started to form independent trade unions. So surely the working class can't bring about socialism yet?

Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution can help us to understand the possibilities of the revolution in Egypt and elsewhere. He developed the theory based on his experience of Russia's revolution in 1905. At the time the Russian socialist movement was split between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The Mensheviks believed that the revolution would be led by progressive elements of the middle class, as revolutions had been in England in the 1640s and France in 1789, and that workers should limit themselves to a supporting role.

The Bolsheviks, led by Lenin, argued that the Russian bourgeoisie were incapable of making a revolution because they were terrified of the power of workers and so clung to the Tsarist state for protection. But until April 1917 Lenin still argued that in the first instance the revolution would be limited to bourgeois democratic changes, opening up space for workers to form unions and facilitating the further development of capitalism. Only after this had happened could workers begin to fight for socialism.

Trotsky developed a different theory. He agreed with Lenin that workers were central but thought that despite Russia's backward economy and small working class there was the potential for socialism in Russia. Russia had not followed the same path of development as countries like Britain. Instead the latest technology from western Europe had been imported into Russian factories. This created areas where the working class, though small within the overall population, was highly concentrated and very powerful. It could lead a revolution, drawing in the support of other groups, such as the peasantry.

Trotsky argued that if the working class was part of a revolutionary movement struggling for basic democratic reforms, the revolution would not stop there and would lead to workers making their own demands. This was seen in 1905, when the first workers' soviets were formed. These were democratic councils run from below, an extremely advanced form of democracy.

Permanent revolution does not mean that a revolution goes on for ever. Revolutions become permanent in two senses. First, they spread on an international scale following the contours of international capitalism. The idea that this could actually happen was not a case of wishful thinking on Trotsky's part. The 1917 Russian Revolution helped to spark uprisings in Germany, Hungary and elsewhere. Revolutions also become permanent in the sense that they evolve a deepening social transformation within a society, spurred by the interaction of economic and political demands.

Egyptian society in 2011 is very different from the society that Trotsky wrote about in 1905 Russia, but there are some similarities. Egypt in relation to world capitalism is less economically developed but has some of the advanced forms of capitalism due to the imposition of neoliberalism. In some areas there is a militant working class but also a large number of people who live in rural areas. Gigantic factories like the Mahalla textile factory employ a vast, economically powerful workforce. The same was true in Russia in 1917, in huge factories like the Putilov works in St Petersburg.

The Egyptian working class have played a central role, forced to take militant action to push through the revolution using mass strikes on 8 February. However, the ruling class are trying to limit the revolution to elections and other constitutional changes, and to cement a form of bourgeois democracy. But revolutions do not follow a linear timeline - there are steps backwards and leaps forwards.

Trotsky's theory provides a useful guide in understanding the possibility for the democratic revolution in Egypt to "grow over" into a socialist revolution. However, it is not inevitable. Only if the Egyptian working class carry on the revolution and the struggle continues beyond the region and internationally, will the gains of the Egyptian Revolution be made permanent.