US and World Politics

Zimbabwe—Another Revolution Betrayed

By John Blackburn

The failure of the world communist movement to adopt the theory of permanent revolution and act on it, has been a tragedy for all of humanity.

Forty years ago the National Stadium in Harare, was full to capacity with an exuberant crowd of thousands there to see freedom ?ghter, who became the prime minister of newly independent Zimbabwe (formally Rodesia), Robert Mugabe. Enthusiastic supporters of Zimbabwean independence and Black majority rule had gathered from the whole country and around the world. Bob Marley had asked speci?cally to play. It was a celebration. Free Zimbabwe was to be a beacon for all Africa. In September this year, his fake funeral service was held in the same stadium with three-quarters of the seats empty, the usual backdrop of military of?cers and a few overseas representatives it was a sorrowful affair but little of interest from most ordinary Zimbabweans who are struggling to get enough to eat.

The death of Robert Mugabe just weeks before the 40th anniversary of Zimbabwe’s independence has focused attention on yet another African tragedy. The election of Mugabe as the ?rst Black prime minister of independent Zimbabwe by universal suffrage in the former colony of Rhodesia was inspirational. With a social program of a minimum wage, school building, women’s rights and many other reforms expectations for Zimbabwe’s future were high.

Since the 1950s post colonial countries throughout Africa have histories of civil strife, famines, coups, military take overs and tyrannical “for life” presidents. Expectations were high that Mugabe and his government were going to do it differently and in doing so also help pave the way for the liberation of the Black people of South Africa. The borders of African counties were created by the colonial powers with the of?cial languages, state structures, civil service and legislation remaining virtually unaltered after independence. Black faces begin to replace white ones but the institutions continue to function as before while most of the wealth remains with the colonists and multinational corporations. The optimism of initial independence fades as the living conditions of the mass of people does not improve while the politicians and military in particular enrich themselves.

Some radical political leaders such as Patrice Lumumba (Congo), Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana), Thomas Sankara (Burkina Faso) were overthrown with the connivance of the UK, U.S. and other imperialist powers while others—Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya), Julius Nyerere (Tanzania), turned from freedom ?ghters to dictators over time.

Mugabe has become another in that ilk. The new despots were often well educated and articulate. All had risked death and imprisonment by their passion for national liberation and to end the exploitation and oppression of their peoples. They were also Pan-Africanists, viewing the particular problems in their own countries as being common to all European colonies and the solutions as international. In fact the Pan-African movement originated with African students and exiles together with Trinidadian Marxist C.L.R. James in London. Variations on these scenarios have been seen throughout the history of post-colonial Africa with a few exceptions—Ethiopia, Botswana, Morocco—and were used as propaganda by the South African apartheid regime to justify preventing Black majority rule. “Look what happens when the Blacks get independence—suppression of democracy, corruption and economic decay,” their apologists at home and abroad would argue.

A different outcome in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe offered the hope of a different outcome. The country that Mugabe’s government inherited was economically second only to South Africa in the region. There was a large manufacturing sector; a number of large mines meaning that there was a relatively large urban working class. Good roads, railways and a telephone network connected the whole country. Agriculture, which was domestic and industrial, could feed the population and produce large quantities of beef, fruit, tobacco and other cash crops for export. The land is fertile and there are plentiful water sources for irrigation schemes and domestic use. Well-managed, Zimbabwean agriculture could feed the nation and its neighbors in the region. There are rich mineral deposits including gold, copper, nickel, diamonds and emeralds making it a potentially very rich country. There was a high level of literacy among the Black population with two universities and a medical school of international standing. Health provision for whites and Blacks were relatively good.

Of course the best lands had been appropriated by the white settlers and were the principle source of the commercial agricultural wealth. The country’s industries, particularly the mines, were owned by multinational corporations. There were many similarities with Russia in 1917. But by not following the Bolshevik example, the capitalists and imperialists retained control of the economy and the crumbs they conceded were not suf?cient for the social programs promised. Stagnation, corruption and reaction set in. The ruling elite, their circle of politicians, military and police shared the morsels and bribes with Mugabe and his governments taking Zimbabwe on a path many have gone before. As always the masses who suffered most under the colonial system, who sacri?ced most in the struggle to obtain the country’s independence having put their leaders in power they are now the least rewarded and harshly punished for complaining. Former liberation leaders become tyrants and the executioners of their own people.

Mugabe claimed to be a Christian Marxist and like many other African national liberation leaders was university educated and articulate. His inspirational radio broadcasts from Mozambique were listened to all over Rhodesia and were instrumental in the liberation struggles giving Zimbabwe African National Union (ZANU)’s program mass support in the cities, towns and countryside but mainly among the Shona peoples. Zimbabwe African People’s Union (ZAPU) another wing of the liberation movement had its base among the less numerous Ndebele peoples who lived mainly in Matabeleland around Bulawayo in the South of the country. Mugabe’s course of action was restricted to some extent by the conditions of the Lancaster House agreement, which gave Zimbabwean Blacks the vote but left most of the state structures of Rhodesia—the military, the civil service and the legal system intact—most signi?cantly, the land in the hands of the white farmers. Having made these agreements in tri-partite talks with the British and Rhodesian governments and with the powerful military regime of apartheid South Africa on its border, Mugabe’s government stagnated, lost its revolutionary zeal, and soon became corrupt.

Rather that building a mass revolutionary party based in the industrial working class and agricultural labor that would challenge the status quo ZANU was turned into a police force. By 1982 and unable to meet its promises Mugabe turned on his erstwhile allies of ZAPU and the Ndebele people in general. They would be the ?rst scapegoats for the economic failures. Over the next three decades as many as 80,000 Zimbabweans would be murdered by Mugabe’s military, police and ZANU police force militias. The once highly developed economy in African terms has collapsed with massive debts, 90 percent unemployment, famine and infrastructure disintegration. The removal of Mugabe in 2017 has done nothing to improve the lives of most Zimbabweans who still struggle just to survive. One dictator and his entourage have replaced Mugabe and his.


“Why?” the liberals and social democrats bewail. “Not again!” Most on the left have no answer for this either. Some look for psychological answers seeing history as the product of good and bad individuals rather than the individuals being products of their historical circumstances. The Chinese Communist Party, Putin, the Cuban leadership (to its shame) and some other African dictators continue to hail Mugabe as a liberation ?ghter while others have chosen to ignore the tragedy unfolding in Zimbabwe for the past 40 years. Mugabe’s transformation is a common story not just in Africa—former freedom ?ghters, socialists, even “Marxists” within a short time can abandon their principles and their supporters becoming dictators and tyrants concerned only with preserving their position, privileges and enriching themselves.

A guide to understanding why this has happened repeatedly and what alternative there was ?rst outlined by Leon Trotsky in his pamphlet “Results and Prospect” written in the wake of the failed Russian revolution of 1905. Trotsky as leader of the Petrograd Soviet had close ?rst hand and daily contact with all the events as they unfolded. Russia was still a feudal aristocracy headed by the Tsar and kept power by a vast military and civil bureaucracy the cost of which was borne by the Russian peasantry. Russian industry was developing rapidly with large factories with modern techniques arising near all the major cities. These enterprises were not owned by native Russian capitalists but mainly by foreign banks and entrepreneurs. The vast pro?ts being made would be extracted by the Western European bourgeoisie with no interest in the conditions of the lives of the Russian people.

The responsibility of liberating the peasantry from it’s feudal bondage, removing the monarchy and the aristocracy, establishing free trade and many signi?cant changes in how present day society is run has historically been the achieved by the triumph of the bourgeois democratic revolutions. Trotsky realized in 1905 that the Russian bourgeoisie were unable to carry this out. Late arrivals on the scene, the Russian capitalists were too weak in numbers and in?uence to lead the anti-feudal revolution. The peasantry was too amorphous to unify suf?ciently to take on the aristocracy and the only social force capable of this was the industrial working class (the proletariat) provided it had a program to draw the mass of the peasantry into that struggle on its side.

Although not the most numerous class the working class could control the major industries, the ports and transport, particularly the railways, so was politically strong. The proletariat on achieving power, Trotsky argued, should not then stop there and hand power to the capitalist class but should wield power itself and start to implement measures that are in its class and the peasantry’s interests—policies that “…will be clearing the path and paving the way…” for the socialist construction of society. The achievements of the bourgeois democratic revolution is incorporated into the socialist revolution and thus the concept of permanent revolution.

In the era of imperialism the bourgeoisie has abandoned its own democratic program at home and around the world and it has fallen to the international proletariat to defend and extend democracy now.

(It is worth noting that Trotsky developed the germ of the idea of the “law of uneven and combined development” at the time he wrote “Results and Prospects” in 1906. He developed the concept more fully in his History of the Russian Revolution where he gave the law its name.)

The evolution of society

The conventional Marxist analysis of the general evolution of society is that it has progressed through as series of social systems from primitive communism to slavery, feudalism, capitalism and then socialism. The system of production, the economic system that determined the relations between people, the structures of their society. In turn each social system developing the economic conditions that paved the way for its successor—the development of agricultural and industrial production of the necessities of life and luxuries under capitalism means that all that is needed for a high standard of living could be provided for every person on the planet.

Currently there is a world recession due to overproduction—a phase in the cycle of boom and bust, which Marx said will continue as long as capitalism. Overproduction does not make available life’s necessities to the poorest so does not alleviate poverty and misery. Capitalism has created the material conditions for socialism but the idea is far from universal. Socialism has been tarnished by the miserable conditions of peoples’ lives in the former so-called communist countries of Eastern Europe, the former USSR, and the totalitarian regimes of present-day China and North Korea.

Trotsky’s idea of the working class leading the peasantry in the democratic revolution, which should then continue uninterrupted into the socialist revolution, would seem heresy to orthodox Marxism. The bourgeois government of April 1917 was too weak to overthrow the aristocratic class and by October the Provisional government was in the process of capitulating to their representative General Kornilov who was marching an army on Petersburg. The working class, military units and peasantry of the Petrograd Soviet lead by the Bolsheviks overthrew the provisional government, organized the defense of Petrograd in October 1917 initiating the world’s ?rst successful socialist revolution. Real life does not conform to the textbooks. For the Bolsheviks their revolution was only a trigger that should initiate revolution in the industrialized countries of Western Europe providing Russia with the material means to develop economically, culturally, and socially.

The concept of “Socialism in One Country” which was to become Stalin’s strategy for the Soviet Union was alien to Marxist internationalism. Capitalism is a world system, which will be unrelentingly hostile to socialism until its eventual eradication. Capitalism’s control of the world’s economy means that it in?uences every country’s economy no matter how it may try to isolate itself. (Cuba’s economic development today is restricted by the effects of the U.S. blockade.) Responding to military hostility can drain enormous quantities of resources that could have social use. If revolution fails to spread, the result is the eventual restoration of capitalism as Trotsky predicted.

Permanent revolution—
a mainstream theory

Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution was mainstream thought in the immediate post revolutionary period. The pamphlet “Results and Prospects” written in 1906, in which it was ?rst proposed was reissued and circulated widely in Russia. Editions were printed in several foreign languages. It was Soviet orthodoxy until the death of Lenin in 1924 when it began to be used to insinuate a rift between Lenin and Trotsky.

By 1927 when Stalin’s faction had secured control both inside the Soviet Union and in the Communist International, Permanent Revolution had become heresy. Debates over points of theory or historical incidents between socialists often seem obscure, irrelevant or dated to many observers. Trotsky knew that this was not about personal vanity, an after dinner debate or tactical differences between comrades. At the heart of this dispute lay what strategy that the Communist International with its far-reaching in?uence on the world’s working class would adopt for the future.

The ?rst edition of the pamphlet “Permanent Revolution” written by Trotsky in 1927 has a number of facets. It is ?rst and foremost a rebuttal of the campaign that was being waged by Stalin’s faction claiming that there were fundamental differences between Lenin and Trotsky which was untrue.

Lenin had never speci?cally endorsed the theory of permanent revolution and by reviving past differences and manipulating the truth Stalin and his allies were trying to discredit Trotsky. Trotsky now had the experiences of a decade to draw on: The successful Russian revolution of 1917, the independence struggle in India, failed revolutions in several western European countries and the butchery of the Chinese communists by Chiang Kai-Shek who they had been supporting.

It outlines the alternative strategy for communist parties to take in the national liberation movements in colonial countries that he predicted would be a major feature of the world revolution in the 20th century. He warned that whenever the Stalinist stages-strategy is adopted, it will lead to disaster with massive casualties on our side. When the revolution is stopped at the democratic stage he predicted this would not last and before long the leader of the liberation movement will become a dictator or be replaced by one.

Above all, permanent revolution is a strategy for the success of the socialist revolution in the developing countries and the imperialist heartlands. The triumph of the Bolsheviks in Russia had been a con?rmation in practice of the theory of permanent revolution. Trotsky had a world-view and realized that the weakest links in the capitalist system were in the colonial countries. Capitalism had reached its highest stage, imperialism and had penetrated into every corner of the globe and brought the economies of the most remote countries into its sphere of in?uence. The discovery of the anti-malarial quinine allowed the colonization and carving up of Africa by the imperial powers of Europe particularly Britain and France in the 19th century.

The forced removal and exploitation of native Africans went hand-in-hand with the seizure of the natural resources and fertile lands. From the beginning there was always resistance but most countries did not achieve their independence until the 1950s and ’60s.


We enter the period of neo-colonialism when, though the country is nominally independent, its main resources, industries and wealth remain predominantly the property of multinational corporations. The leaders of these newly independent countries now have a choice, complete the national independence struggle by taking control of the economy from the imperialists and colonists and redistributing the wealth and land to the mass of the population or decide to accept the status quo. They can build their regime on a proletarian base and program, which will draw in the rural masses, or they can enjoy the trappings and privileges of their of?ces and betray those who put them in power.

Many of the leaders of African liberation movements were also drawn to the communist movement. Both the USSR and China proclaimed their solidarity with the liberation movements in Africa loudly and actively trained guerrilla ?ghters. Thus they came under the political in?uence of Communist Parties continuing the strategy of Stalin’s “Stages” strategy coupled with the denouncement of Trotsky and permanent revolution as counter-revolutionary.

Stalin’s theory proposes that communists in national liberation struggles subordinate themselves to the struggle for achievement of an independent bourgeois democracy. After a period of time and economic development they believe the conditions will then be ripe for struggle for socialism.

Leaders of many African and other national liberation movements were not only educated in this political theory but trained also in the political practices of Stalinism, which are synonymous with bureaucratic, undemocratic and authoritarian behavior.

Stalinism in common with capitalism cares nothing for the rights, welfare or lives the mass of people. In that outlook, for peoples lives to be valuable, means total submission to the party leadership and its policies. Any dissent whether internal or external to the party leadership is condemned as anti-working class and therefore counter-revolutionary. Millions have been manipulated, used like pawns and sacri?ced to such leaders many times.

The transformation of Mugabe from freedom ?ghter to dictator ?ows directly from the application of his politics.

From the beginning the imperialists have tried to destroy every national liberation movement but when this ultimately fails they will organize the overthrow of any political leader who threatens their interests. Alternatively once in of?ce some decide that it is too dif?cult a challenge, it means overcoming powerful forces so they give up, settle to the wealth and privileges that come with the position and betray the people who put them there.

It is no exaggeration to claim that the triumph of Stalinism in the Soviet Union and the stages strategy in liberation struggles together with the vili?cation of Trotsky and the theory of permanent revolution have been a tragedy not just for the communist movement but has been paid for in hundreds-of-millions of peoples lives. Trotsky himself understood this, he “…thought in terms of continents and epochs…”

It was not an issue of personalities or differences over tactics but at stake was nothing less than the future of all of humanity. Trotsky was a Marxist, a humanist and an internationalist who cared to the core of his being about the lives of the working people of the world.

Lenin held the same deep convictions and that is why he became a “Trotskyist” in 1917. Trotsky refused to capitulate but chose to spend his life trying to convince the world communist movement to change its course. When Trotsky realized that that was not possible he, with his co-thinkers around the world, founded the Fourth International with the aim of building an international revolutionary party with permanent revolution at the heart of its political outlook. He would pay for his principles with his life at the hands of a Stalinist assassin.

Zimbabwe’s catastrophe is another in a sequence that began with the betrayal of the Chinese revolution in the 1920s and spans the continents of Africa, Asia and Latin America to the present day. This is the Stalinist legacy that all of humanity has paid a heavy price for.

We have the key to avoiding these failures in the future and it begins with the rehabilitation of Trotsky by the international communist movement and the adoption of permanent revolution as our strategy.