The Greek Crisis and the Fourth International (6) – what is a ‘workers government’?

The problems arising from the perspective of a workers and farmers’ government have been shown by John Riddle, who has his own blog here and who wrote an article explaining the different views that arose when it was discussed by the Third International.

He notes that a typology of five was contained in the final resolution of the 1922 Congress, not all of which were considered to be real and genuine workers’ governments:

“Illusory: Liberal workers’ government (Britain).

Illusory: Social-Democratic Party workers’ government (Germany).

Genuine: Government of workers and peasants (Balkans).

Genuine: Workers’ government with Communist Party participation. (Germany).

Genuinely proletarian workers’ government (Soviet Russia).”

He notes that at this time three previous examples of workers’ governments had existed, “none of which fit neatly into this five-point schema. Thus:

“The Paris Commune, an elected revolutionary workers’ government at war with a still-existing bourgeois regime.

The early Soviet republic: as noted, a coalition regime based on revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ soviets.

The revolutionary governments of Bavaria and Hungary in 1919, where, as Chris Harman and Tim Potter have noted, “bourgeois power virtually collapsed…. The workers’ government came into being and afterwards had to create the structure of proletarian power.”

He records that some delegates to the Congress, keen to distinguish the illusory from genuine workers governments, proposed an amendment to the Congress resolution:

“. . . the German delegation . . . submitted an amendment distinguishing between “illusory” and “genuine” workers’ governments. The amendment also specified that the illusory “liberal” or “Social Democratic” workers’ governments ‘… are not revolutionary workers’ governments at all, but in reality hidden coalition governments between the bourgeoisie and anti-revolutionary workers’ leaders. Such “workers’ governments” are tolerated at critical moments by the weakened bourgeoisie, in order to deceive the proletariat … fend off the proletariat’s revolutionary onslaught and win time. Communists cannot take part in such a government. On the contrary, they must relentlessly expose to the masses the true nature of such a false “workers’ government.’”

“Although adopted unanimously, the amendment was not incorporated into the published Russian version of the resolution, which has served as the basis for translations into English. As a result, English-language comment on this issue, singling out Zinoviev’s position for attack, has criticised the congress for the very weakness that its delegates sought to remedy.”

“During the editing process, the congress text was progressively aligned with a “transitional” concept of a workers’ government. The final text sharply counterposed it to a parliamentary-based “bourgeois-Social-Democratic coalition, whether open or disguised”.

The final draft thus states that a workers’ government can be sustained only by the struggles of the masses – its enumerated tasks begin with “arming the proletariat” and end with “breaking the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie”.

“Communists should stand ready to “form a workers’ government with non-Communist workers’ parties and workers’ organizations”, the resolution states, but only “if there are guarantees that the workers’ government will carry out a genuine struggle against the bourgeoisie along the lines described above”, and subject to other safeguards.”

Riddle argues that “The clarity of this position was seriously undermined, however, by the simultaneous use of the term “workers’ government” to describe rule by bourgeois workers’ parties that, while introducing some reforms, acted as loyal administrators of the capitalist order. This concept was voiced mainly by Zinoviev, who thus managed to stand simultaneously on both the left and the right wings of the discussion.”

Riddell therefore thinks that a definition of a workers’ government that was put forward in a previous contribution to the discussion is useful – “a government of working-class forces in a capitalist state …. that objectively doesn’t rule for capital.” He considers that this is “consistent with the position of the Comintern’s 1922 congress.”

Given this history, it should not be surprising that much confusion has surrounded the whole idea of a workers’ government. Trotsky, while supporting it, described it as “an algebraic formula”, and it is unfortunate that too much of what is now called Trotskyism is governed by such formulas.  Trotsky noted that “its drawbacks, deriving from its algebraic nature, lie in the fact that a purely parliamentary meaning can be given to it.”

For Riddell , standing back from this history a little, “without a governmental perspective, socialist policy has no compass. Socialist strategy is then reduced to three disjointed elements:

  • appeals to capitalist governments to improve workers’ conditions
  • efforts to build trade unions and other social movements
  • hope that the situation will be transformed some day by revolution.

“What’s missing here is a path by which working people can take control of their destiny and build a new society. Demands for social reforms ring hollow unless capped by the perspective of a workers’ political instrument to lead in carrying them out.”

“The relevance of . . . [the] workers’ government discussion lies rather in alerting us to the possibility that working people should strive for governmental power even in the absence of a soviet-type network of workers’ councils.”

“The Fourth Congress decision suggest that workers’ efforts to form a government, far from representing a barrier to socialist revolution, can be a significant transitional step toward its realisation.”

As is clear from what I have written in this series of posts, I do not agree with this perspective.  The capitalist state cannot be expected to either give or allow workers real power, and “governmental power” is not real power for “working people”.

The capitalist state is not “a workers’ political instrument” and cannot lead them in taking “control of their destiny and build[ing] a new society.”  It cannot lead in carrying out social reforms that threaten the system, and ultimately it only makes them supplicants of the social reforms that do get implemented.

What is meant to provide glue to the “three disjointed elements” of socialist strategy which Riddell refers to, and which is in any case inaccurate and missing the element of workers cooperatives, is a working class political party.

As I have said, political crises will in future throw up occasions in which the political strength of the working class movement will be reflected in parliamentary majorities.  On its own this will not usher in working class rule, for this is something that lies outside both parliament and the state.

The potential for such a parliamentary majority to arise, and for it to be a genuine reflection of workers’ social and political power, will be exponentially increased if this power already exists through more or less extensive workers ownership and control of production, a strong and democratic trade union movement, and a mass working class party, which sums up, and seeks to give direction to, the general social power of the working class.  But in this case there will be no leading role for such a parliamentary fraction and it will be the struggle outside the capitalist state arena that will lead and be decisive.

Since this power is by its nature an international one and since this internationalism must reflect the consciousness of millions of workers, we can see that, absent this and absent an international movement that reflects this consciousness, at least across Europe, there could not have been in Greece any realistic hope that the struggle against austerity could give rise to a break from capitalism.

This does not mean the struggle was doomed, but that it must be constructed upon a different perspective of how working class struggle against austerity and all the other oppression imposed by capitalism can be repelled and a socialist alternative created.

Series concluded

Back to part 5