Since I’m working on Leon Trotsky, I was very excited to note in Johnson’s Russia List the claim that Russian President Dmitrii Medvedev, writing for gazeta.ru, had called for “permanent revolution” in Russia. I thought Trotsky was making yet another comeback, given Trotsky’s deep association with the concept of permanent revolution.
Sadly it turns out that’s not the case at all. The claim that Medvedev was calling for a permanent revolution is precisely the opposite of what he actually said.
What Medvedev in fact said was that he wanted to disappoint (ogorchit’) those who wanted a permanent revolution. Don’t believe me? Read it yourself, either in Russian or English. Medvedev’s point was that he wanted to avoid revolution, but instead push for political, economic, and bureaucratic reform in careful, graduated, evolutionary steps.
In keeping with last month’s theme of misquotation, I’d like to point out that Medvedev uses the term not as Trotsky (or indeed Lenin) actually meant it, but as Trotsky was much later vaguely and inaccurately interpreted.
The original idea is fairly straightforward. What Trotsky called “permanent revolution” (permanentnaia revoliutsiia) was the idea that even when the proletariat was objectively weak, too weak to seize power in an orthodox Marxist revolution, it could ally with the bourgeoisie to overthrow feudalism, and then take advantage of that revolutionary moment to keep going and overthrow the bourgeois in turn to produce proletarian power. So there’s nothing very permanent about permanent revolution, and Trotsky admitted that the term was something of a misnomer.
Of course, this permanent revolution is very close to what actually happened in 1917, which is what brought Lenin and Trotsky together. They had independently converged on the idea of piggybacking the proletarian revolution on a successful bourgeois revolution–in Russia, there was no other way of making a proletarian revolution happen. Lenin called the concept “uninterrupted revolution,” which is a better label, but the concepts are essentially the same.
So what does this have to do with Russia in 2009? Not very much. “Permanent revolution” has become a vague synonym for hard-core radicalism, and that’s how Medvedev seems to use it. Evidently he hasn’t read much Trotsky. Too bad. Trotsky’s other key concept, of a revolution hijacked by the state apparatus in its own interests, might just be instructive.