A fellow Pakistani blogger “Grand Trunk Road” has recently written about a conversation he had with one of Pakistani Left. He is amazed to see that Left in Pakistan is putting forward a position that Islamic Fundamentalism is some how “anti imperialist” and because of this reason it should be supported. Regardless of the fact that such a non sense can be called “Left”, this is a fact. Not only majority of Pakistani Left is of this opinion but so called “advance” European Left, has similar opinion about Hamas. This is the result when ideas degenerate. Nothing can be farther from texts, tradition and practice of the Left than these murderous positions. Haven’t we learnt from this exact blunder in Iran? Conceding the revolution to Iranian Mullah’s for the same reasons of “transitional phase” resulted in formation of one of the most monstrous regimes in human history. Genocide against Baluchs and Kurds is going on. Left has been purged. Torture, hangings and murders are order of the day in Iran. Philosophers and intellectuals are either in jail or murdered. Trade unions and Leftists are on hit lists. The GTR article can be reached here

There exists a more genuine and more leftist position on this issue. The “International Marxist Website” has published a series of article against this position. I think it is a far better and correct left wing position that what Tariq Ali and others are saying

Shaheryar Ali

Why Revolutionary Marxists should not support Islamic fundamentalists – Part One

By Maziar Razi


The question of Islamic fundamentalism has been one of the central tactical issues facing Marxists over the past few decades. In fact the origin of this dilemma and discussion dates back to three decades ago and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) in February 1979.

24&25 on flickr)
Hezbollah and Hamas soldiers

Those on the “left” who argue the need to support the Islamic fundamentalists, in general, and the IRI regime, in particular, fall into three categories. Firstly, there are confused so-called lefts (anarchists and radical petty bourgeois trends); Secondly, there are governments, that although in their own countries have carried out important radical reforms, such as Venezuela, or have even carried out radical social transformations, such as Cuba, have established diplomatic and economic ties with the IRI and Hezbollah seeking some kind of third front, an “anti-imperialist” alliance; Thirdly, there some so-called Trotskyists and their allies (e.g., the Socialist Workers Party “SWP” and Respect in Britain) who have a flawed analysis about Islamic fundamentalism.

The first two categories have based their position in regards to the fundamentalists on “the enemy of our enemy is our friend” theory. That is to say, that they are either not sure about the class nature of these Islamic trends, and support them at face value (apparently as they are showing resistance to imperialists policies); or they are well aware of the reactionary nature of fundamentalism but for the sake of diplomacy and strengthening the “anti-imperialist bloc” they pursue a very dubious position by siding with a reactionary and semi-fascist state and its allies (for which they will pay a big price once the essential errors of this diplomacy are exposed internationally).

The purpose of this article is to deal mainly with the third variant, which is best expressed by the Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP) of Britain. This is an organisation that claims to be “internationalist” and “Marxist”. We have to state quite clearly that the position adopted by the British SWP is based on a deep-rooted and theoretical misconception. Therefore their views have to be analysed in more detail. They claim that the defence of a reactionary regime, such as the Iranian, is justified on the basis of “Trotskyism”. In reality they have abandoned genuine Trotskyism and with it the essence of the permanent revolution.

The SWP does the unthinkable

On the basis of a false theoretical justification (which will be dealt with in this article), the SWP is de facto acting as a “spokesperson” of a reactionary regime in Europe. Their main slogans in anti-war demonstrations have included, “We are all Hezbollah now!” In their newspapers they support the Islamic Republic of Iran without highlighting the level of repression against workers and students which is unprecedented in recent history. Only when forced do they admit that workers are being repressed. Their approach to this has more to do with bourgeois diplomacy than with a genuinely revolutionary Marxist approach. They have watered down their criticisms of the regime for the sake of unity with a whole series of dubious Islamic fundamentalist groups. This process of adaptation became accentuated particularly in the SWP’s collaboration with George Galloway in the formation of the Respect party in Britain. We will look into this later.

In 1994 Chris Harman wrote a lengthy document, The Prophet and the Proletariat, in which he attempted to defend a Marxist position on the question of Islamic fundamentalism. Harman explained that, “many of the individuals attracted to radical versions of Islamism can be influenced by socialists – provided socialists combine complete political independence from all forms of Islamism with a willingness to seize opportunities to draw individual Islamists into genuinely radical forms of struggle alongside them.” So far, so good.

It was in that same document that Harman wrote an oft-quoted piece:

“On some issues we will find ourselves on the same side as the Islamists against imperialism and the state. This was true, for instance, in many countries during the second Gulf War. It should be true in countries like France or Britain when it comes to combating racism. Where the Islamists are in opposition, our rule should be, ‘with the Islamists sometimes, with the state never’.”

Here Harman was already on a slippery road to opportunism, for although at the time he attempted to maintain a more balanced approach, it clearly indicated the tendency that was to develop later, as he confused the “Islamists” with the people governed by the Islamists. It is one thing to be with the working people of Iran against imperialism, it is another to side with the regime itself. Instead, more and more, as time has gone by the SWP has in practice played down the reactionary nature of “Islamism”.

We have to state clearly that the Islamic regime in Iran is a mortal enemy of the working class and youth. However, this does not just apply to the “Islamists” in Iran. Wherever Islamist regimes have come to power they have installed reactionary anti-working class regimes, and where they are not in power they play a reactionary role within the movement. In the past (see the Tudeh party in Iran at the time of Khomeini’s coming to power) it was the Stalinists who depicted the Islamic fundamentalists in a positive light. It is ironic that now a group that claims the mantle of Trotsky should be leaning in the same direction.

On the Iranian regime we can have no doubts about its reactionary and brutal nature. For what has the Iranian regime (this blood-soaked regime!) done to the workers and youth of Iran? In the past 30 years in power it has executed 50 times more socialists, communists and workers’ leaders than during the 37-year rule of the Shah and his CIA-trained hangmen and torturers! In 1987, during just two days, the regime executed more than 12,000 left-wing activists in prison. It has recruited 400,000 Basiji thugs from the villages and let them loose on women in Iranian cities. The regime’s thugs flog anyone who does not observe the “Islamic Dress Code” in the streets. They throw acid on women’s faces. They forcefully enter people’s homes to search for alcoholic drinks and music CDs. They have killed and imprisoned most of the leaders of the labour movement that is demanding the workers’ unpaid wages (for anything from 6-12 months) or basic trade union rights. The list is too long. Are these not the real issues that a “revolutionary” organisation should be concerned with?

The SWP in its publications admits that workers are arrested and so on, but it shies away from looking at the overall situation faced by the Iranian workers over a period of years. It allows itself to be sucked into the question of whether Iran has a right to develop Nuclear weapons

“So what is Iran doing wrong? As a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran is well within its right to develop nuclear energy for civilian purposes and has done so under the watchful eye of International Atomic Energy Authority.” (11 February 2006, Socialist Worker online)

They publish this as if the nuclear programme of the regime is purely for peaceful reasons, when it is clear that the Iranian regime is preparing to add itself to the list of nuclear powers, as a counterweight to the threats of US imperialism. Nobody should have any illusions about this. Of course, we cannot support the manoeuvres of western imperialism, in particular the USA, when they use Iran’s nuclear research as an excuse to lean on the regime and get it to act according to their interests. The task of dealing with the Iranian regime, and its nuclear research, belongs to the Iranian working class and no one else.

In another article we read:

“The Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s denunciations of Israel have proved popular in the Arab world. The Lebanese Islamist movement Hezbollah, Iran’s ally won even greater acclaim when it defeated Israel in last year’s war.” (21 August 2007, Socialist Worker online).

This may be a statement of fact, but surely the role of a “Marxist” critique should be to expose the demagogy of someone like Ahmadinejad and not to present him in positive light?

This kind of prettifying of the present Iranian regime (i.e. rendering a service to a reactionary regime), may explain why the Iranian authorities have given the green light to the SWP leaders’ books being translated and published in Iran! We have to remember that in Iran any independent writer, translator or publisher has to get the permission of Vezarat-e Ershad-e Eslami (the Islamic Guidance Ministry) before any book or magazine sees the light of day. This so-called ministry consists of some influential clergy who act as a censorship body (Mr Khatami, the ex-president of Iran, was a member of this ministry). Any book or article which does not correspond closely with the “Islamic” code of conduct is censored.

To the surprise of many socialists and Marxists in Iran who have witnessed severe censorship and even arrests and closure of their offices for publishing or translating any Marxist work ‑ and in a country that has the highest level of censorship and repression against intellectuals and students in the world(!) – many books written by the SWP leadership have received permission from the Vezarat-e Ershad and have been published by official publishers. The major books by Alex Callinicos that have been translated and published in Iran are: Social theory: historical introduction; Against Postmodernism: a Marxist critique; Marxism and the New Imperialism; Trotskyism, Marxism and Philosophy; The revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx, and An anti-Capitalist manifesto. Books by Chris Harman include: A people’s history of the world and Explaining the crisis: a Marxist re-appraisal. In addition, official reformist newspapers like Iran and Shargh have published many articles by these two gentlemen.

What this reflects is the following. While in their articles the SWP leaders continue to pay lip service to the need for socialism, Marxism and so on, in practice they make a whole series of opportunist concessions to the Islamic fundamentalists. Having given such “critical” or “moral” support to the IRI, the least the Iranian regime can do is allow the publication of some of the SWP’s works! It is clear that the regime sees no problem in this kind of so-called “Trotskyist” grouping. Meanwhile many genuine militants continue to be arrested, harassed and victimised.

One of the main leaders of the SWP, Alex Callinicos, gave an interview in October 2006 published here in which he said the following:

“To the extent to which they [the Islamists] translate words into action, as Hezbollah have against Israel, then, on this central issue they cannot be described as ‘ultra-conservative’. Of course, when it comes to social and economic issues the picture is different – the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, supports privatization in Egypt. But even here one has to be careful. Both the Brotherhood and Hezbollah have cultivated a popular base among the urban poor through their welfare programmes, something that one can’t imagine American Republicans or British Tories doing.”

Thus reactionary parties are presented as being better than the Tories in Britain or Republicans in the USA. Here we see how they are already making concessions to the “Islamists”, but this comes as no surprise if we read the following, by the same Alex Callinicos in April 2002, available here:

“…Of necessity, these movements unite a wide range of political forces in common action. The anti-capitalist movement prides itself on its unity in diversity (…)”

“The same pattern is to be found in many different countries. The Movement for Democratic Change in Zimbabwe brings together liberals, trade unionists, civil rights campaigners and revolutionary socialists who are united by their opposition to the Mugabe regime. (…)”

“The best example is the Stop the War Coalition (StWC). As already noted, this brings together people of diverse politics around a very clearly defined set of issues ‑ opposition to the ‘war on terrorism’ and to the associated attacks on civil liberties and on ethnic minorities. The very success of the StWC is a consequence of this narrowness of focus. Its initiators on both the revolutionary and the reformist left quite rightly resisted attempts to broaden it out or to divert it into other issues ‑ for example, opposition to Islamist terrorism ‑ that would have divided and paralysed the coalition.” [Our emphasis]

“The Anti Nazi League is another example of a classic united front. Its enormous success since its inception in 1977 has lain in the ANL’s single-minded focus on mass mobilisation against organised fascists. Attempts to transform it into a broad campaign against racism that, for example, opposes all immigration controls have always been rejected. Such a change would cut the ANL off from the very large numbers of people who believe, wrongly, that non-racist immigration controls are both possible and desirable but who are willing to fight the Nazis. An ANL with a broader anti-racist platform would have a much narrower base. Deprived of its focus on mass action against the Nazis, it would in all likelihood degenerate into yet another talking shop of the type that already litters the anti-racist scene in Britain.”

In the above quote we can see an important element that lies at the heart of the SWP’s opportunism towards Islamic fundamentalism. In order to create the widest possible base for any campaign they water it down to one element, which leads them into alliances with utterly reactionary forces.

Callinicos wrote on the Socialist Alliance in 2002 (when they still had big illusions in the Socialist Alliance, which has since then collapsed!):

“This explains the peculiarly hybrid character of the Socialist Alliance. It is hybrid programmatically in the sense that it leaves open the issue of reform and revolution. To adopt an explicitly revolutionary programme, as some groups within the Alliance argue, would be to slam the door on Labour Party supporters who have rejected Blairism but who have yet to break with reformism. Keeping left social democrats out of the alliance for the sake of revolutionary purity would leave potentially hundreds of thousands of disaffected Labour supporters to drift around waiting for the next revival of the Labour left, or (perhaps more likely) to withdraw into cynical apathy. Far better to draw them into common activity with revolutionaries within the Socialist Alliance, where they are much more likely to be won away from reformism.”

Here their opportunism emerges quite clearly. Callinicos explains how the SWP operate. Since then the Socialist Alliance collapsed but they continued with the same tactics inside Respect later on, making all kinds of concessions to Islamic fundamentalist prejudices. The most blatant example of this was what was later to emerge in Respect (before it split) when its main spokesperson George Galloway even came out against abortion to appease the reactionary religious bigots that were supporting him!

It is clear that the SWP’s position on this question degenerated further when they formed Respect together with other political forces, some of them clearly of a reactionary Islamic nature. They bent particularly to the extreme opportunism of George Galloway. What happened with Respect is a good example of where this kind of opportunist position can lead. In the end, when Respect split, the real Islamists stayed with Galloway and broke with the SWP! The SWP were left with very little as a result and in fact lost members to Galloway.

“Respect” appealed to the Muslims as if they were one homogeneous bloc and not as a minority with class divisions within it. Thus they pandered to Islamic prejudices in order not to frighten the more reactionary elements away. Thus the SWP became victims of their own opportunism. The SWP position is clearly that fundamentalist Islam, or political Islam as they call it, is an anti-imperialist movement which should be supported both in the Middle East and in the advanced capitalist countries. The way they present it in their texts reflects the fact that at the back of their minds they feel a certain embarrassment at adopting such opportunist positions. Their behaviour in practice is another matter.

The method is one whereby very diverse political tendencies, from socialists to reactionary Islamic fundamentalists, are brought together around one single issue, and the “socialists” refrain from raising issues that might disturb the sensitivities of the fundamentalists. Instead of winning Islamists to socialist ideas what we have here is socialists prettifying the fundamentalists and opportunistically adapting to them.

In trying to justify their position the SWP try to use the authority of Lenin and the Bolsheviks. In the December 2003 issue of Socialist Review Dave Crouch wrote an article, ‘Bolsheviks and islam: religious rights’. This is an attempt to depict the present SWP’s opportunist adaptation to Islamic fundamentalism as a continuation of Bolshevik traditions.

Crouch reassures us that “atheism was never included in the Bolsheviks’ programme”, when in actual fact the programme of the Bolsheviks had a special section on religion and also dealt with anti-religious propaganda. The SWP leaders steer very clear of going into the question of religious beliefs and prejudices.

Theory of the permanent revolution

The question which has to be answered is this: what lies behind the justification of the SWP’s deviation or what is at the root of its position towards fundamentalism? The SWP considers itself as a Marxist, Leninist and Trotskyist internationalist organisation:

“Internationalism is at the heart of any genuine socialist politics. Capitalism is a world system, and can only be effectively challenged by an international revolutionary movement. The founders of the revolutionary socialist tradition played a leading role in such movements – Marx in the International Working Men’s Association, and Lenin and Trotsky in the Communist International.” (The SWP’s official web site).

“The central theme of Trotsky’s theory remains as valid as ever: the proletariat must continue its revolutionary struggle until it is triumphant the world over. Short of this target it cannot achieve freedom” (Permanent Revolution by Tony Cliff. First published in International Socialism Journal, first series, number 12, spring, 1963).

Before dealing with the SWP’s revision of the theory of permanent revolution and their stance in regard to Islamic fundamentalism, which is directly derived from this revisionist position, the actual concept of the permanent revolution has to be examined.

The theory of permanent revolution was originated by Trotsky based on the experience of the 1905 revolution (written in The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects), and became the basis of the October 1917 revolution in Russia which simultaneously abolished the semi-feudal semi-capitalist regime of the Tsar and expropriated the bourgeoisie and the landlords.

The actual living experience of the Russian revolution contradicted a belief that had been held by many Marxists up till then. Marxists such as Kautsky and Plekhanov believed that only advanced industrial countries were ready for socialist revolution. They argued that countries would achieve workers’ power in strict conformity with the stage to which they had advanced as a social formation and technologically. Backward countries could see their future image mirrored in the advanced countries. Only after a long process of industrial development and a transition through a parliamentary bourgeois regime could the working class mature enough to pose the question of socialist revolution. Lenin also saw the forthcoming revolution as bourgeois, but he went a step further than the others in understanding the reactionary nature of the Russian bourgeoisie before it had even come to power, and hence the need for an independent policy of the working class.

All the Russian Social Democrats – Mensheviks as well as Bolsheviks – believed that Russia was approaching a bourgeois revolution, resulting from a conflict between the productive forces of capitalism on the one hand, and autocracy, landlordism, and other surviving feudal structures on the other. However, the Mensheviks concluded that the bourgeoisie would necessarily lead the revolution, and would take political power into their own hands. They thought that the Social Democrats should support the liberal bourgeoisie in the revolution (form the left tendency of it), at the same time defending the special interests of the workers within the framework of capitalism by struggling to achieve social reforms and minimum demands.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks agreed that the revolution would be bourgeois in character and that its aim would not pass the limits of a bourgeois revolution.

“The democratic revolution will not extend beyond the scope of bourgeois social-economic relationships… This democratic revolution in Russia will not weaken but will strengthen the domination of the bourgeoisie.” (Lenin: Two Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, 1905).

However, after the revolution of February 1917 Lenin discarded this view. In September 1914, he was still writing that the Russian revolution must limit itself to three fundamental tasks:

“the establishment of a democratic republic (in which equality of rights and full freedom of self-determination would be granted to all nationalities), confiscation of the estates of the big landowners, and application of the eight-hour day.”

Where Lenin fundamentally differed from the Mensheviks was in his insistence on the independence of the labour movement from the liberal bourgeoisie and on the need to carry the bourgeois revolution through to victory against their resistance. In opposition to the Menshevik-sponsored alliance between the working class and the liberal bourgeoisie – Lenin called for an alliance of the working class with the peasantry. Where the Mensheviks expected a government composed of liberal bourgeois ministers after the revolution, Lenin envisaged a coalition comprised of the workers’ party and a peasant party, a “democratic dictatorship of the workers and peasantry”, in which the peasant party would have the majority. The “democratic dictatorship” would establish a republic, expropriate the large landowners and enforce the eight-hour day. Thereafter the peasantry would cease to be revolutionary, would become upholders of property and of the social status quo, and would unite with the bourgeoisie. The industrial proletariat, in alliance with the proletarian and semi-proletarian village population, would then become the revolutionary opposition, and the temporary phase of the “democratic dictatorship” would give way to a conservative bourgeois government within the framework of a bourgeois republic.

Trotsky was as convinced as Lenin that the liberal bourgeoisie could not carry out any revolutionary task consistently, and that the agrarian revolution, a fundamental element in the bourgeois revolution, could only be carried out by an alliance of the working class and peasantry. But he disagreed with Lenin about the possibility of an independent peasant party, arguing that the peasants were too sharply divided amongst themselves between rich and poor to be able to form a united and independent party of their own.

In Results and Prospects in response to Lenin’s formulation he wrote:

“For this reason there can be no talk of any sort of special form of proletarian dictatorship in the bourgeois revolution, of democratic proletarian dictatorship (or dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry). The working class cannot preserve the democratic character of its dictatorship without refraining from overstepping the limits of its democratic programme. Any illusions on this point would be fatal. They would compromise Social Democracy from the very start.”

“…it will be clear how we regard the idea of a ‘proletarian and peasant dictatorship’. It is not really a matter of whether we regard it as admissible in principle, whether ‘we do or do not desire’ such a form of political co-operation. We simply think that it is unrealisable…All the experience of history,…shows that the peasantry is completely incapable of playing an independent role. The proletariat grows and strengthens together with the growth of capitalism. In this sense, the development of capitalism signifies the development of the proletariat toward the dictatorship. But the day and hour when the power passes into the hands of the proletariat depend directly not upon the state or the productive forces, but upon the conditions of the class struggle, upon the international situation, finally, upon a series of subjective factors: tradition, initiative, readiness for struggle …”

“In an economically backward country, the proletariat can come to power sooner than in the economically advanced countries. In 1871 it had consciously taken into its hands the management of social affairs in petty bourgeois Paris – in truth only for two months – but it did not for one hour take power in the robust capitalist centres of England and the United States. The conception of some sort of automatic dependence of the proletarian dictatorship upon the technical forces and resources of the country is a prejudice derived from an extremely over-simplified “economic” materialism. This view has nothing in common with Marxism. The Russian revolution, in our opinion, creates such conditions under which the power can pass over to the proletariat (and with a victorious revolution it must) even before the policy of bourgeois liberalism acquires the possibility to bring its state genius to a full unfolding.”

“The proletariat grows and strengthens together with the growth of capitalism. In this sense, the development of capitalism signifies the development of the proletariat toward the dictatorship. But the day and hour when the power passes into the hands of the proletariat depend directly not upon the state or the productive forces, but upon the conditions of the class struggle, upon the international situation, finally, upon a series of subjective factors: tradition, initiative, readiness for struggle …”

“The Russian revolution, in our opinion, creates such conditions under which the power can pass over to the proletariat (and with a victorious revolution it must) even before the policy of bourgeois liberalism acquires the possibility to bring its state genius to a full unfolding.”

The 1917 revolution in Russia proved all of Trotsky’s assumptions to be correct. The bourgeoisie was counter-revolutionary; the industrial proletariat was the revolutionary class; the peasantry followed the working class; the anti-feudal, democratic revolution grew over immediately into the socialist; the Russian revolution did lead to revolutionary convulsions elsewhere (in Germany, Austria, Hungary, etc.). And finally, alas, the isolation of the socialist revolution in Russia led to its degeneration and downfall.

But this concept of the permanent revolution, which was previously accepted by SWP, was revised by Tony Cliff.

Theory of the permanent revolution as revised by the Tony Cliff

Tony Cliff, the SWP’s main theoretician, summed up the theory of the permanent revolution as follows:

“The basic elements of Trotsky’s theory can be summed up in six points:

1-A bourgeoisie which arrives late on the scene is fundamentally different from its ancestors of a century or two earlier. It is incapable of providing a consistent, democratic, revolutionary solution to the problem posed by feudalism and imperialist oppression. It is incapable of carrying out the thoroughgoing destruction of feudalism, the achievement of real national independence and political democracy. It has ceased to be revolutionary, whether in the advanced or backward countries. It is an absolutely conservative force.

2-The decisive revolutionary role falls to the proletariat, even though it may be very young and small in number.

3-Incapable of independent action, the peasantry will follow the towns, and in view of the first five points, must follow the leadership of the industrial proletariat.

4-A consistent solution of the agrarian question, of the national question, a break-up of the social and imperial fetters preventing speedy economic advance, will necessitate moving beyond the bounds of bourgeois private property. “The democratic revolution grows over immediately into the socialist, and thereby becomes a permanent revolution.”

5-The completion of the socialist revolution “within national limits is unthinkable … Thus, the socialist revolution becomes a permanent revolution in a newer and broader sense of the word; it attains completion only in the final victory of the new society on our entire planet.” It is a reactionary, narrow dream, to try and achieve “socialism in one country”.

6-As a result, revolution in backward countries would lead to convulsions in the advanced countries.”

He then questions the relevance of the permanent revolution in this way:

“While the conservative, cowardly nature of a late-developing bourgeoisie (Trotsky’s first point) is an absolute law, the revolutionary character of the young working class (point 2) is neither absolute nor inevitable…up to now experience has shown both the strength of revolutionary urges amongst industrial workers in the emergent nations, and their fatal weaknesses. An automatic correlation between economic backwardness and revolutionary political militancy does not exist”.

“Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky’s theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces. His third point is not realised, as the peasantry cannot follow a non-revolutionary working class, and all the other elements follow suit. But this does not mean that nothing happens…”

“Those forces which should lead to a socialist, workers’ revolution according to Trotsky’s theory can lead, in the absence of the revolutionary subject, the proletariat, to its opposite, state capitalism. Using what is of universal validity in the theory and what is contingent (upon the subjective activity of the proletariat), one can come to a variant that, for lack of a better name, might be called the ‘Deflected, state capitalist, Permanent Revolution.'”

“In the same way as the 1905 and 1917 revolutions in Russia and that of 1925-27 in China were classic demonstrations of Trotsky’s theory, Mao’s and Castro’s rise to power are classic, the purest, and most extreme, demonstrations of ‘Deflected Permanent Revolution”.”

It is interesting to note the formulation that, “Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky’s theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces.” Here the lack of a revolutionary leadership, a revolutionary party like Lenin’s Bolshevik party, is confused with the lack of “revolutionary nature” of the working class. Once one goes down this road utter confusion is the end result.

In conclusion Tony Cliff writes:

“For revolutionary socialists in the advanced countries, the shift in strategy means that while they will have to continue to oppose any national oppression of the colonial people unconditionally, they must cease to argue over the national identity of the future ruling classes of Asia, Africa and Latin America, and instead investigate the class conflicts and future social structures of these continents. The slogan of ‘class against class’ will become more and more a reality.” (Permanent Revolution by Tony Cliff. First published in International Socialism journal, first series, number 12, spring, 1963).

In a nutshell, Tony Cliff argues that, Leon Trotsky’s Permanent Revolution is outdated because the “revolutionary character of the working class is neither absolute nor inevitable… Once the constantly revolutionary nature of the working class, the central pillar of Trotsky’s theory, becomes suspect, the whole structure falls to pieces.” And a new force, the “intelligentsia” will “fill the social and spiritual vacuum”! And the task of “revolutionary socialists in the advanced countries” would be to “cease to argue over the national identity of the future ruling classes of Asia, Africa and Latin America”!

In other words, Tony Cliff very clearly announces the centrality of working class in the anti-capitalist movement as null and void! And shifts towards defending the petty bourgeoisie leadership such as Maoist or Stalinist “intelligentsia” in “Asia, Africa and Latin America”.

This “new” line is not only a break from the traditional Trotskyist position in the permanent revolution, but it is a revision of Marxism as well.

Trotsky’s theory was a development, application and expansion of Marx’s analysis of the 1848 revolution. Even before that revolution, the Communist Manifesto had predicted that because of the ‘advanced conditions’ and ‘developed proletariat’ of Germany, ‘The bourgeois revolution in Germany’ would be ‘but the prelude to an immediately following proletarian revolution’. (Marx, Selected works, Vol 1, London, 1942, p 241). And after the defeat of 1848 Marx stated that, faced with the incapacity of the bourgeoisie to carry out the anti-feudal revolution, the working class had to struggle for the growth of the bourgeois revolution into the proletarian, and of the national revolution into the international revolution. In an address to the Central Council of the Communist League (March 1850) Marx said:

“While the democratic petty bourgeois wish to bring the revolution to a conclusion as quickly as possible and with the achievement at most of the above demands, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent, until all more or less possessing classes have been displaced from domination, until the proletariat has conquered state power, and the association of the proletarian, not only in one country but in all the dominant countries of the world, has advanced so far that competition among the proletarians of these countries has ceased and that at least the decisive productive forces are concentrated in the hands of the proletarians.”

And Marx ended his address with the phrase: ‘their (the workers’) battle-cry must be: the permanent revolution!’ (K Marx, Selected works, London, 1942, Vol III, pp 161-168.

Tony Cliff fails to understand that the struggle of Trotsky and Marx against the petty bourgeoisie in defence of the proletarian revolution was based on a long-term strategy and its objective perspective, and not a tactical issue for a short period. Tony Cliff’s interpretation of Trotsky’s permanent revolution is totally false.

Trotsky argued that because of the weakness and reactionary nature of the bourgeoisie in Russia, the belated bourgeois democratic tasks of the revolution (such as land reform, democratic rights, the question of forming a republic etc.), as well as the socialist tasks (such as workers’ control, planned economy etc,), both fall on the shoulders of the revolutionary proletariat. Indeed, during the Russian October Revolution the bourgeois democratic tasks were completed in a few months. But those socialists tasks related to the revolutionary transition of society into a socialist one (even though they did not eventually materialise) opened up an era of “permanent revolution”: not in the sense of the transition “from the democratic revolution to the socialist”, but in the sense of the revolutionary process of transition to socialism itself and the need for the expansion of the revolution internationally (based on two other aspects of Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution).

In other words, what Trotsky meant was that the two sets of tasks (bourgeois democratic and socialist) will be achieved with one leadership (the proletariat). There is no Chinese wall between the first and second set of tasks. There is no change of leadership in carrying out these combined tasks. Furthermore, the theory of “uneven and combined development” indicates that the two sets of tasks facing underdeveloped countries must in fact themselves be combined historically. This means that, one cannot separate out the two types of tasks into two historical sets and then claim that the first set must be resolved completely before history is ready for the second set (as in the Stalinist two stage theory of revolution). In the epoch of imperialism achieving the belated democratic tasks needs the destruction of capitalist property relations.

Furthermore, when Trotsky talks about “bourgeois revolution”, what he means is that the tasks of the revolution are “bourgeois” (tasks that were traditionally achieved under the leadership of the bourgeoisie in the 18th and 19th centuries). Trotsky did not mean that this is a “stage” during which the bourgeoisie or an “intelligentsia” wing of it will remain in power (because of the weakness of the proletariat); and that the “communists” should defend it until the proletariat becomes stronger in the next stage! On the contrary, it means that what guarantees the accomplishment of the bourgeois democratic tasks is the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And if for whatever reason the proletariat is weak and not ready to take power the task of the revolutionaries is not to follow the dubious “intelligentsia”! The task of revolutionary Marxists is to patiently work towards strengthening the proletariat by daily intervention amongst them. The “get rich quick” policies, belongs to petty bourgeois and opportunist trends within the workers’ movement.

Tony Cliff like any other opportunist petty bourgeois tendencies within the workers’ movement, instead of helping the working class to achieve their historical and objective tasks, becomes tired of long term and patient class struggle and promotes illusions in the petty bourgeois “intelligentsia” leadership. Tony Cliff end sup by de facto denying the centrality of the workers’ perspective of carrying out a socialist revolution, by revising the theory of the permanent revolution. By doing so he in practice breaks with revolutionary Marxism.

December 2008

[This article is based on the interventions of comrade Maziar Razi at the IMT World Congress, in Barcelona, August 2008. The article has been written for Marxist.com.]