British centrists search for halfway house
A workers government without revolution?
[Reprinted from Spartacist Britain #11, May 1979]
The following article discusses the positions of two centrist organisations, the International-Communist League and Workers Power, on the 'workers government' slogan. It is based on a presentation given to a Spartacist League national educational in London last December by comrade Joseph Seymour of the SL/US Central Committee.
Various centrist groups, currently among them the British International-Communist League (I-CL) and Workers Power group, have sought to exploit the confusions around the 'workers government' slogan at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 in order to construct a halfway house between the dictatorship of the proletariat and the administration of the bourgeois state by reformists. These groups insist that a workers government is not the dictatorship of the proletariat, but can only be an intermediate form between a bourgeois and proletarian state. Thus Workers Power leader Stuart King writes in his article 'The Workers' Government: Problems in the Application of a Slogan 1917-1977':
'Such a government could only be a temporary phenomenon, giving rise as it must to a civil war with the forces of the bourgeoisie. Although such a government was not the dictatorship of the proletariat, the Comintern allowed for the possibility of Communists entering such a government under certain strictly laid down conditions....' (Workers Power no 5, autumn 1977)
A few years ago the I-CL was in a short-lived international bloc with an Austrian group, the Internationale Kommunistische Liga, and reproduced favourably an IKL document which similarly presented the workers government as a stage on the road to the proletarian dictatorship:
'The workers' government is not the same as the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is to the same degree and in the same way as the slogan of workers' control is the same as socialism.' ('A Bold Tactical Compromise', International Communist no 7., March 1978)
While the various centrist groups differ among themselves as to what a workers government signifies, they all insist that it is not the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this they follow the well-beaten path of the 'big time' centrists of the United Secretariat (USec). In a mid-1960s introduction to Leon Trotsky's Transitional Programme, USec gnome Pierre Frank bragged about how he and his revisionist friends had enriched Marxism:
'... the key piece in the program is precisely the culminating slogan of the whole chain -- the slogan for a workers' and farmers' government or for a workers' government. Here again the Fourth International has both revived and enriched the teachings of the third and fourth congresses of the Communist International by using the slogan as a transitional governmental formula corresponding to the organizational conditions and consciousness of the masses at a given moment, and not as a synonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat.' (International Socialist Review, May-June 1967, emphasis in original)
Far from 'enriching' the teachings of the early Comintern, Frank thoroughly distorts them, and stands in flat opposition to the position of Trotsky's Fourth International. During the 1930s Trotsky insisted that the 'workers government' was a popular synonym for proletarian state power:
'The important thing is that we ourselves understand and make the others understand that the farmers, the exploited farmers, cannot be saved from utter ruin, degradation, demoralization, except by a Workers and Farmers Government, and that this is nothing but the dictatorship of the proletariat, that this is the only possible form of a Workers and Farmers Government.' ('Conversation on the Slogan "Workers and Farmers Government"', Writings 1938-39 [first edition])
The confusions at the Fourth Congress which centrist groups exploit arose because the Comintern launched a new slogan with two different, though not contradictory, purposes. The 'workers government' was to be used as a popularisation for the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which many social-democratic workers falsely identified with the dictatorial rule of a communist minority. It was also to be used as part of a united front offensive against the mass social-democratic parties, centrally in Germany and France, demanding that these parties break with the bourgeoisie and establish a workers government in alliance with the Communists.
The dual purpose of the 'workers government' slogan was expressed in the first paragraph of the Comintern resolution on the question. The first sentence states:
'The slogan of a workers' government (or a workers' and peasants' government) can be used practically everywhere as a general propaganda slogan.' (Jane Degras, ed, The Communist International 1919-1943 Documents, vol I: 1919-1922 )
In his report Zinoviev rightly noted that in the United States, for example, the 'workers, government' can be used for general socialist propaganda, but could not be posed as a demand upon a mass reformist party, which didn't (and still doesn't) exist:
'Of course, even to-day in the United States good propaganda work can be done with the slogan of the Labour Government. We can explain to the workers. "If you want to free yourselves, you must take power into your own hands." But we cannot say, in view of the present relationships of power in the United States, that the watchword of the Labour Government is applicable to an existing fight between two parties....' (Fourth Congress of the Communist International )
Having indicated the general propagandistic use of the 'workers government' slogan, the Comintern resolution went on to emphasise the tactical applicability of the slogan in countries where the bourgeois order is highly unstable and mass reformist workers parties are contenders for power:
'But as a topical political slogan it is of the greatest importance in those countries where bourgeois society is particularly unstable, where the relation of forces between the workers' parties and the bourgeoisie is such that the decision of the question, who shall form the government, becomes one of immediate practical necessity. In these countries the slogan of a workers' government follows inevitably from the entire united front tactic.' (Degras, op cit, emphasis in original)
The confusions surrounding the 'workers government' slogan derive from its second usage, as a united front tactic in the struggle for proletarian state power. One can identify three areas of confusion. One, can a workers government take a parliamentary form or must it be based directly upon the organs of proletarian power (soviets, factory committees, trade unions)? Two, could a soviet government under social democratic leadership represent the dictatorship of the proletariat or does the proletarian dictatorship require a government of communists? And three, is the demand upon a mass reformist party to break with the bourgeoisie and establish a workers government to be made at all times in all countries or is it rather to be raised only in exceptional circumstances?
Workers government, dual power and parliamentarism
To address the first question, we do not call for a workers government based upon the bourgeois state, and therefore within a parliamentary framework. A reformist parliamentary government, even in a revolutionary crisis when it is actively supported by factory councils, workers militias etc, is not a workers government. When we concretise the 'workers government' slogan as a demand upon a reformist party, .we call for that party to take power on the basis of proletarian organs.
Unfortunately, the Comintern theses do not address the question of the organisational basis of the workers government. Moreover, in the discussion a number of the delegates, among them Karl Radek, sharply demarcated a 'workers government' from a soviet government and from the dictatorship of the proletariat:
'... if we keep alive the consciousness of the masses that a Workers' Government is an empty shell unless it has workers behind it forging their weapons and forming their factory councils to compel it to hold on the right track and make no compromise to the Right, making that government a starting point for the struggle for the Proletarian Dictatorship, such a Workers' Government will eventually make room for a Soviet Government. (Fourth Congress of the Communist International)
The implication here is of a parliamentary government actively supported by the mass workers organisations.
Radek's interpretation of the 'workers government' slogan was implicitly opposed by the Polish delegate Michalkowski, who criticised the entire discussion for 'too much empty speculation'. He pointed out that the slogan of a 'workers government' was first used by the Bolsheviks between February and October 1917 in association with the demand 'All power to the soviets'. Thus, the slogan of the 'workers government' was a call upon the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who enjoyed a temporary majority, to break with the bourgeoisie and establish a soviet government.
Michalkowski then went on to generalise about, the use of the 'workers government' slogan:
'When there is another revolutionary wave, when again the working masses pour into the streets, when workers councils are formed again, based upon our historic experience we shall in all probability again come forward with this slogan and call for: Governmental power into the hands of the workers councils'.... It can well come about that there is a great revolutionary movement at a moment when we have not yet conquered the majority of the working class. The revolution comes -- that is the most probable eventuality -- at a moment when, through the revolutionary ferment, through the revolution itself, we will capture the majority much faster than at present. If in all probability we then come forward again with the same slogan, it will essentially be the same slogan that the [Comintern] Executive has already attempted to formulate in this or that fashion. It will essentially be the same government, but based on the mass movement. And if in this question the Executive has up to now been unable to find the correct form of the slogan, this in my opinion comes from our confusing two different things, from wanting to pose a slogan while simultaneously attempting to give it a form which we cannot at all do, because the form will be dependent upon the revolutionary conditions, in which it might well find a broader base than is now the case.' (Protokoll des IV. Weltkongress der Kommunistischen Internationale (1972], our translation)
We agree with Michalkowski as against Radek and insist a workers government must be based upon the organs of proletarian dual power, although it is not possible to project the specific form of these organs in advance. Radek's interpretation of the rather vague Comintern resolution opens the door to parliamentarist opportunism and revision of the Leninist position on the class nature of the state.
Workers government and proletarian dictatorship
Perhaps the most intractable source of confusion is the relation of the workers government as a united front tactic to the dictatorship of the proletariat. As previously indicated the Comintern also used the 'workers government' formulation as a propagandistic popularisation for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Prior to the Fourth Congress, Leninists had restored, 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' to pride of place in the living Marxist vocabulary. Why then in 1922 did the Comintern adopt a softer, more popular synonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat? The answer to this question goes a long way towards resolving the confusions around the 'workers government' slogan.
In 1921 the Russian Communist regime outlawed the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who were engaging in counterrevolutionary agitation and conspiracy. The leaders of European social democracy made the defence of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries a cause celebre in their campaign against Bolshevism and claimed that 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' really stood for the tyrannical rule of the Communist Party. Social-democratic workers identified 'the dictatorship of the proletariat' in general with the existing situation in Soviet Russia where the Communists exercised a monopoly of political power.
The adoption of the 'workers government' slogan at the Fourth Comintern Congress, in both its general propagandistic and tactical uses was designed as a counter-offensive against social democracy. It was an attempt to address the following real and important contradiction. Many social-democratic workers wanted their own party to carry out a socialist programme, were open to a coalition government with the Communists and were even willing to establish such a government on the basis of proletarian organs of power, not parliamentarism. In other words, many social-democratic workers accepted the essential programmatic core of the dictatorship of the proletariat, while retaining illusions in their leaders and distrusting the Communists. At the same time, the social-democratic leaders were demonstrated counterrevolutionaries who in a revolutionary situation would sabotage proletarian state power and pave the way for bourgeois reaction.
For the participants of the Fourth Comintern Congress a soviet government under social-democratic leadership was not just an abstract theoretical possibility, but a bitter historical experience -- the Hungarian Soviet Republic of March-August 1919. The discussion around the workers government was conditioned by the fateful experience of the Hungarian Soviet government, composed of a social-democratic majority and a Communist minority.
The military defeat and disintegration of the Hapsburg empire effectively shattered the bourgeois order in Hungary. The social-democratic led labour movement, centrally the trade unions, remained the only real source of political authority in the country. At first the social democrats formed a coalition government with a handful of liberals around Count Michael Karolyi and persecuted the fledgling Communist Party of Bela Kun. However, the continuing radicalisation of the masses and the attempt by the victorious Entente powers to dismember Hungary, a multinational state, caused the social-democratic leaders to do a sharp tactical about-face. In March 1919 they released Bela Kun from prison, formed a coalition with the Communists and proclaimed the Hungarian Soviet,Republic as the dictatorship of the proletariat. This tactical turn was made to forestall the radicalisation of the workers, arrest the growth of the Communist Party and also to secure Soviet Russian military support to preserve greater Hungary against the Entente.
Throughout the brief history of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the social democrats systematically worked against the Communists and prepared the way for the victory of the counterrevolution. They secretly negotiated with the Entente to liquidate the Soviet regime. In the last phase of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the social-democratic leaders even plotted an armed coup against their Communist coalition partners, but were not able to execute it.
Especially in the light of the Hungarian experience, Zinoviev, who wrote the resolution on the 'workers government', correctly wanted to express the position that the social democrats could not and would not defend the dictatorship of the proletariat. However, he did so by constructing a confusing terminological schema of a spectrum of 'workers governments':
'1. Liberal workers' governments, such as there was in Australia; this is also possible in England in the near future.
2. Social-democratic workers' governments (Germany).
3. A government of workers and the poorer peasants. This is possible in the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc.
4. Workers' governments in which communists participate.
5. Genuine proletarian workers' governments, which in their pure form can be created only by the communist, party.,' (Degras, op cit)
The first two were seen as phoney workers governments. The third and fourth were considered weak or transitory workers governments because the social democrats would not defend them. Zinoviev defined the dictatorship of the proletariat as a strong workers government led by communists: 'The complete dictatorship of the proletariat is represented only by the real workers' government (the fifth on the above list) which consists of communists' Ibid).
As a broad historical generalisation, the above statement is correct. Only a government led by the communist vanguard can defend the dictatorship of the proletariat, centrally through its international extension. Thus, the Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR sabotages proletarian state power, strengthens capitalist imperialism and fosters restorationist forces internally.
However, as a definition of the dictatorship of the proletariat, Zinoviev's statement is misformulated and has proven historically inadequate. The proletarian dictatorship is centrally defined by the expropriation of the bourgeoisie as a class, not the party composition of the government. The Comintern rightly regarded the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic as the dictatorship of the proletariat, despite its treacherous and ultimately counterrevolutionary social-democratic leadership. Interestingly, in 1928 after Stalin had consolidated his rule, he revised the Comintern position on the Hungarian Soviet Republic, denying it had represented proletarian state power. This revision expressed the Stalinist dogma that the dictatorship of the proletariat is synonymous with a 'Communist' party state.
From another angle the post-World War II expansion of Stalinist rule also illuminates the inadequacy of Zinoviev's formulation on the relationship between the proletarian dictatorship and communist vanguard. Of course, no one in 1922 could have foreseen the overthrow of capitalism by petty-bourgeois military-bonapartist formations as in China, Vietnam and Cuba. However, post-1949 China and post-1960 Cuba are deformed expressions of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But they certainly are not governments of communist parties nor even of reformist parties based on proletarian organs of power, ie workers governments.
Zinoviev's famous list of 57 varieties of workers governments and Radek's rightist commentary on the Fourth Comintern Congress theses have been seized on by virtually every ex-Trotskyist revisionist who wants to abandon the fundamental principles of the Leninist party and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Tony Cliff baptised the post-World War II Labour Cabinet a 'workers government' and Joseph Hansen used the label to justify political support to the Cuban Castroite regime. But while there was plenty of ambiguity on the workers government slogan at the Fourth Comintern Congress, it was just that -- and not the anti-Leninist programme for a 'workers government' that is neither bourgeois nor proletarian in its class character.
Zinoviev repeatedly contradicted himself on the question of whether or not the workers government was the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. At a meeting of the enlarged Executive Committee of the Communist International in 1922, he said: 'The workers government is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is a pseudonym for the soviet government.' Then at the Fourth Congress in November 1922 he in effect said with his five-fold typology: sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. But in January 1924 he came back to his original position (with-a totally disingenuous explanation for his wavering): 'The workers' government is either really nothing but a pseudonym for the dictatorship [of the proletariat] or it is simply a social democratic opposition' (quoted in Helmut Gruber, ed, International Communism in the Era of Lenin (1967]). Even in his Fourth Congress summary remarks, Zinoviev says: 'Yes, dear friends, in order to erect a workers government one must first overthrow and vanquish the bourgeoisie.' .
So all the centrists who try to cover themselves with Comintern orthodoxy and the authority of Zinoviev in arguing for a 'neither-nor' workers government might as well throw in the towel. Their claim is utterly and demonstrably fraudulent. If at the Fourth Congress Zinoviev misformulated the dictatorship of the proletariat as only a government of communists it was in order to deny that the parties of Friedrich Ebert, Albert Thomas and Ramsay MacDonald had revolutionary potential. Those centrist groups today who want to separate the 'workers government' slogan from.the dictatorship-of the proletariat have exactly the opposite motive from that of the Comintern leader. They want to minimise the distance between the communist vanguard and reformist parties by projecting a stagist conception of proletarian revolution.
Workers government and the united front tactic
The centrists' misuse of the 'workers government' slogan is associated with the notion of the strategic united front, the policy of continually demanding that the reformist leaders of' the labour movement carry out the socialist programme. Thus, Stuart King of the Workers Power group writes:
'the workers government slogan remains a tactic of central importance for revolutionaries in the present period because of the strength of reformism in the working class movement. It is not a simple slogan to be raised or dropped as appropriate. It is a difficult complex of tactics aimed at the problem of winning the mass organisations of the working class away from the reformist leaders in the-procees of winning state power for,the working class. As such it performs a central part, it is in fact "the crowning piece", of the United Front tactic; it is the method by which revolutionaries counter-pose their programme and strategy, in struggle, to those offered by the reformists.' (Workers Power no 5, our emphasis)
We reject any notion of the united front tactic as continual-political collaboration with the reformists (ie sworn opponents of revolution) 'in the process of winning state power for the working class'. A united front is a conjunctural agreement for common action. As we wrote several years ago in response to the French Organisation Communists Internationalists, the best-known proponent of the strategic united front:
'The united front is nothing more than a means, a tactic, by which the revolutionary party, i.e. its program and authority, can in times of crisis mobilize and then win over masses (at that time supporters of other parties) by means of concrete demands for common action made to the reformist organizations. Any other interpretation must base itself on a supposed latent revolutionary vanguard capacity within the reformist or Stalinist parties themselves....' ('Letter to the OCRFI and OCI', Spartacist no 22, winter 1973-74, emphasis in original)
At the Fourth Comintern Congress the association of the 'workers government' slogan with the united front was conjunctural and confined to certain countries. If this is not so clear in the resolution itself, Zinoviev's report presents the relation of the 'workers government' slogan to the united front tactic quite well:
'The tactics of the united front are almost universally applicable. It would be hard to find a country where the working class has attained notable proportion but where the tactics of the united front have not yet been inaugurated....''By no means can the same thing be said of the watchword of the Labour Government. This latter is far less universally applicable, and its significance is comparatively restricted. It can only be adopted in those countries where the relationships of power render its adoption opportune, where the problem of power, the problem of government, both on the parliamentary and on the extra-parliamentary field has come to the fore.' (Fourth Congress of the Communist International)
(When Zinoviev spoke of the 'universal applicability' of the united front tactic, he was talking about communist parties which were sizeable relative to--the social democrats. Therefore.workers supporting social democracy might well be attracted to the communists' united front proposals, because the latter had the forces to affect the outcome of joint struggles. For revolutionary propaganda organisations, united front overtures to mass reformist parties are generally not applicable.)
Stuart King's statement that the workers government is always and everywhere 'the crowning piece' of the united front tactic is in a sense exactly wrong. The purpose of the united front and related tactics of the communist vanguard is to win over the base of the mass reformist parties before a revolutionary crisis erupts. If a revolutionary situation occurs and the reformists have leadership of the potential organs of dual power (factory committees, strike committees, workers militias) , this means that the communist vanguard has not succeeded in the prior period. If such a situation does arise, we do not throw up our hands in despair, but adapt our tactics and slogans accordingly. However, to define a workers government as-one led by reformists implies a defeatist attitude towards political struggle against social democracy and Stalinism in the present.
The same demand depending on the circumstances can either destroy illusions in the reformist leaderships or create them. To call upon the Largo Caballero wing of the Spanish-Socialist Party in 1934, when it was engaged in an insurrection against the right-wing bourgeois government, to establish a workers (soviet) government is not only correct but imperative. To call upon James Callaghan's Labour Party to fight for a workers government would be obscene and ludicrous. Would-be revolutionaries who, in normal bourgeois-democratic conditions, call upon the established reformist leaders to fight for proletarian state power foster illusions where none such exist and rightfully discredit themselves in the eyes of advanced workers.
During a major crisis when the normal conditions of bourgeois rule are disrupted, we are prepared to concretise the 'workers government' slogan as a propagandistic demand on the mass social-democratic or Stalinist parties. But this is precisely a demand that these parties break from parliamentarism and govern on the basis of organs of proletarian power. For example, during the 1974 British 'winter crisis', when the miners struck against the Tory government, we raised the demand of a Labour Party/Trades Union Congress government. The inclusion of the TUC indicated that the government we called for would be based o the organizations of the working class rather than the parliamentary institutions of the bourgeois democracy.
We of the Spartacist League/US developed our position on the workers government in good part through political struggle against the Healy/ Wohlforth Workers League, which continually campaigned for the violently anti-communist and racist Meanyite bureaucracy of the trade unions to form a labour party. The more advanced American workers, especially blacks, hate George Meany, who, except on a few narrow economic issues, stands to the right of Democratic Party liberals. Tell a black American steel worker to break with the Kennedys and fight to make George Meany build a labour party and he'll think you're some kind of strange right-winger
To summarise, we use the 'workers government' formulation in general as a propagandistic popularisation for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Therefore we identify a workers government in general with a communist leadership, not an episodic, unstable coalition dominated by reformists. It is a historical possibility that a revolutionary upheaval might place reformists in power on the basis of proletarian organisations (Hungary 1919), but we do not call for a soviet government led by class traitors as a programmatic norm! Our programmatic model of a workers government is the Russian Soviet Republic of October 1917 not the Hungarian Soviet Republic of March 1919.
Trotsky's Transitional Programme
Our use of the 'workers government' slogan conforms to Trotsky's 1938 Transitional Programme rather than to Zinoviev's 1922 Comintern resolution, which is vague, confusing and highly conjunctural in purpose. Trotsky's presentation of the 'workers government' slogan has a very different weighting from that of the Fourth Congress resolution with its conjunctural emphasis on the united front offensive, especially in Germany.
For Trotsky the question of a workers government of or with the old reformist parties was an exceptional historical possibility and not at all the essential meaning of the slogan:
'Is the creation of such a government by the traditional workers' organizations possible? Past experience shows, as has already been stated, that this is to say the least highly improbable. However, one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under.the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.), the petty-bourgeois parties including the Stalinists may go further than they themselves wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie. In any case one thing is not to be doubted: even if this highly improbable variant somewhere at some time becomes a reality and the "workers' and farmers' government" in the above-mentioned sense is established in fact, it would represent merely a short episode on.the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.'
What Trotsky is referring to here is the situation if in mid-1917 the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries had expelled the ten capitalist ministers from the provisional government. This could only have been a fleeting episode before all effective power was in the hands of the soviets.
Having dismissed the perennial centrist project for a workers government of the old reformist parties as a most remote historical possibility, Trotsky then goes on to emphasise the value of the slogan as a popular expressioin for proletarian state power:
'The agitation around the slogan of a workers'-farmers' government preserves under all conditions a tremendous educational value. And not accidentally. This generalized slogan proceeds entirely along the line of the political development of our epoch.... Each of the transitional demands should, therefore, lead to one and the same political conclusion: the workers need to treat; all traditional parties of the bourgeoisie in order, jointly with the farmers, to establish their own power'.
It is highly revealing that in his lengthy article on the 'workers government' slogan, Stuart,King omits any mention of the 1938 Transitional Programme, the basic statement of Trotskyism. He limits his quotes from Trotsky on the 'workers government' to the 1922-23 period as if this was Trotsky's last word on the subject. This dishonest methodology is similar to considering Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution solely based on his pre-1917 writings. Furthermore, King deliberately distorts Trotsky in 1922-23 by trying to present him as an apologist for a 'strategic united front'.
The document on the workers government by the Austrian IKL does deal with the Transitional Programme, but only by falsifying its meaning. Here is the IKL's interpretation of the passage about the 'traditional workers' organisations' cited above:
'It must be seen as extremely improbable that the reformists or centrists could be forced to break with the bourgeoisie without coming under the pressure of a mass revolutionary party. Only the situation of a massive fight-back by the working class that in parts already bases itself on the revolutionary programme, of the united front of these workers with other sections of the class, could establish the preconditions for a transitional government.' ('A Bold Tactical Compromise')
So according to the IKL, given the right pressure by a mass revolutionary party (maybe in the back of the neck), it ceases to be 'highly improbable' that the reformists will establish a workers government and perhaps even becomes probable. Trotsky clearly stated that it was 'highly improbable' that the established reformist parties would create a workers government at all, pressure or no pressure from a mass revolutionary party. In opposition to centrism, Trotsky's programme was not to pressure the reformist parties into establishing a workers government, but to win over their base -- precisely in order to establish a workers government.
As against various centrist groups, Trotsky did not centrally define a workers government as a united-front 'transitional' government with the old reformist parties. We, as Trotskyists, take as our model of a workers government the Bolshevik-led Russian Soviet Republic of 1917.