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A ‘workers’ government’ as a step toward socialism

January 1, 2012

The concept of a workers’ government is the awkward child of the early Communist International. The thought it expresses is central to Marxism: that workers must strive to take political power. But in the early Comintern, it was attached to a perspective that was contentious for Marxists then and is so now: that workers can form a government that functions initially within a still-existing capitalist state.

A modified version of this article, delivered at Socialism 2012 in Chicago, June 29, 2012, is available in audio format.

As French Marxist Daniel Bensaid commented, “The algebraic formula of a ‘workers’ government’ has given rise over time to the most varied and often contradictory interpretations.”(1)

Let us see what light can be shed on this question by the record of the Comintern’s 1922 World Congress, recently published in English.(2) This was the gathering that held the Comintern’s most extensive discussion of the workers’ government question and adopted its initial position.

The congress debate focused on countries like Germany where sustained, mass workers’ struggles posed the possibility that working people might form a government. It was therefore necessary to pose the concept of workers’ power not just as a long-range perspective but in terms of the existing workers’ organizations, with their strengths and weaknesses.

On the other hand, workers in Germany, Italy, France, and neighbouring countries did not then possess a network of revolutionary workers’ councils similar to the Russian Soviets of 1917. Most of the organized workers’ movement was still directed by pro-capitalist leaders, and Communists were still a minority current in the working class. The question of workers’ power had to be addressed in that framework.

In that context, the Comintern had launched efforts to build a united front of workers’ struggle, challenging the organizations led by pro-capitalist officials to join in efforts to win immediate demands such as opening the capitalists’ financial records, workers’ control of distribution of food, shifting the tax burden to the rich, and arming workers for self-defense against reactionary gangs. How could such a program be implemented? By a government of all workers’ parties, the Comintern answered — a “workers’ government.” (See “The Origins of United Front Policy” on this website.)

Introducing this concept to the Fourth Congress in November 1922, Comintern President Gregory Zinoviev conceded that this was an issue that “has not been sufficiently clarified.”(3) Delegates did indeed advance varied and contradictory interpretations. The text proposed for adoption went through more drafts than any other congress document. Even after its adoption, three different versions were circulated to Comintern parties. (For the three texts, see “The Comintern’s Unknown Decision on Workers’ Governments.”) Most subsequent English-language discussion has focused on a preliminary draft that differs substantially from the text that the Congress finally adopted.

The debate had opened two years earlier, during a general strike by German workers. The head of the Social Democratic trade unions, Carl Legien, called for formation of a government of workers’ parties and trade unions. His goal, to be sure, was to end the strike and begin to re-establish bourgeois order, as a united Social Democratic government had done after the German revolution of November 1918.

But circumstances had changed. Power no longer rested with revolutionary workers’ councils, as in November 1918, but with a bourgeois coalition regime. A workers’ government would draw its authority not from parliament, where deputies from workers’ parties were a decided minority, but from the workers’ mass movement. The German Communist party stated that, under these conditions, “formation of a socialist government … would create extremely favourable conditions for vigorous action by the proletarian masses,” and expressed conditional approval of the proposal.(4) A heated debate broke out in both the German party and the Comintern as to whether this stand was appropriate.

A call for a workers’ government of this type in Germany was included the next year in the Comintern resolution launching a campaign for a workers’ united front. This gave rise to an extended debate, which carried over into the Fourth World Congress in 1922.

Pseudonym or transition

The central issue was whether the term “workers’ government” was merely a pseudonym for the rule of workers’ councils under Communist leadership – a dictatorship of the proletariat – or whether it represented a transitional stage to that goal. The latter concept, warned Amadeo Bordiga, central leader of the Italian Communist Party, implied that the working class can take power “in some way other than through the armed struggle for power.”

Ruth Fischer, who led the leftist minority in the German party, warned that the concept of revolution was being watered down by “styling its hair in ‘Western’ fashion, creating democratic transitional stages between what we have and what we aim for.” Initially, Zinoviev also had held this view. He retracted it as the congress opened but continued to express the underlying thought in more guarded form.(5)

Ernst Meyer

Leaders of the German party majority and Karl Radek, on the other hand, argued that the workers’ government was not a pseudonym for a workers’ dictatorship but a “point of transition” toward it. Achievement of a workers’ government can “lead to a phase of sharpened class struggles through which a proletarian dictatorship will ultimately emerge,” said Ernst Meyer. It will be parliamentary “only in a subordinate sense” and “must be carried by the masses.” Karl Radek called such a government “the starting point of a struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.”(6)

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.” A workers’ government can be sustained only by the struggles of the masses, the final draft states; its enumerated tasks begin with “arming the proletariat” and end with “breaking the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.”(7)

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.

Illusory workers’ governments

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. Zinoviev used the expression “liberal workers’ government” to describe the Labour regimes that had administered the Australian capitalist state after 1904 and a future Labour Party government in Britain. Such a regime, he said, “could be the jumping-off point for revolutionizing the country,” could take many steps “objectively directed against the bourgeois state,” and “can finish in the hands of the left wing.” Surprisingly, Zinoviev saw a parallel here with the role of the Russian Mensheviks in 1917.(8)

This position was opposed by leaders of the German delegation, who 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 antirevolutionary 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.”(9)

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 criticized the congress for the very weakness that its delegates sought to remedy.

Two unaddressed questions

Two other important aspects of the workers’ government issue, although posed in the congress, were left unaddressed.

The first concerned the role of peasants. During the congress debate, Vasil Kolarov, the senior delegate from Bulgaria, said that “the workers’ government is not posed in agrarian countries like the Balkans.” The final resolution, by contrast, referred to the possibility of a “government of workers and the poorer peasants” in regions such as the Balkans and Czechoslovakia.(10)

This question was most urgently posed in Bulgaria, governed by a radical peasant party that was facing a threatened coup by rightist forces. Here, an ideal opportunity to apply the concept of a workers’ and peasants’ government was blocked by the Bulgarian Communists’ hostility to ruling peasant party. No congress delegate mentioned the situation in Bulgaria. Only a few months later, the Bulgarian Communists’ sectarianism contributed to a tragic defeat of the workers’ movement.

The second unaddressed issue concerned the nature of workers’ rule. The resolution’s final text stated that “a genuinely proletarian workers’ government … in its pure form can be embodied only in the Communist Party.” Zinoviev said that only this variant “is indeed a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat.” The implication was that if Communists allied with non-Communist forces in a revolutionary government, this was only a temporary expedient until the Communists were strong enough to rule alone.

A comment by Leon Trotsky suggested quite a different approach. Describing the Bolsheviks’ alliance with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries in the first months of Soviet rule, Trotsky said the Left SRs had been ousted from the government on their own initiative, not that of the Bolsheviks.(11)

Nothing further was said on this point. As published, the resolution suggests a lack of clarity on the difference between workers’ rule and rule by the Communist Party.

An empirical approach

The resolution contains a typology of workers’ governments with five categories. In each case, delegates were thinking of a specific context, as follows:

  • Illusory: Liberal workers’ government (Britain).
  • Illusory: Social-Democratic workers’ government (Germany).
  • Genuine: Government of workers and peasants (Balkans).
  • Genuine: Workers’ government with Communist participation. (Germany).
  • Genuinely proletarian workers’ government (Soviet Russia).(12)

Zinoviev stressed to congress delegates that this list was not complete and that other types of workers’ governments could occur. He warned that “in the search for a rigorous scientific definition, we might overlook the political side of the situation.”(13) In other words, the Comintern’s approach was not prescriptive but empirical. It sought to analyze situations actually posed in the struggle at that moment.

There were at that time three previous examples of workers’ governments, 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.”(14)

The resolution also said nothing regarding the government that might result in the colonial and semi-colonial countries from the struggle for an anti-imperialist united front. This question was urgently posed in the years following the congress in China, where a mistaken Comintern policy resulted in a calamitous defeat. In the year of that setback, the United Opposition in the Bolshevik Party, led by Trotsky and Zinoviev, formulated a governmental proposal for China based on the Bolshevik strategic arsenal from the years before 1917: a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.(15) Trotsky was soon to repudiate the concept. Nonetheless, it remains among the possible variants of a workers’ and peasants’ government.

Long-term relevance?

Almost a century has passed since the Comintern debated the workers’ government question. The revolutionary era that began in 1914 has passed away; we are headed toward new revolutions, under new conditions. There is no equivalent today of the mass Communist parties of the 1920s. The Comintern’s decisions on governmental policy were rooted in a political environment that no longer exists.

It can be harmful to employ the Comintern decisions as a template to be imposed on a vastly different reality. The relevance of its 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 realization. The decision also sketches out conditions under which a workers’ government may actually exist within a capitalist state, for a transitional period, with positive results.

The early Comintern position retains its relevance to struggles for socialism in the new century. This gives us good reason to revisit the debates in the Comintern’s first half-decade of activity over its awkward but vigorous child, the concept of a workers’ government.

This working paper was presented as part of the International Communist Movement stream of the Eighth Historical Materialism Annual Conference in London, England, on November 11, 2011.

For the variant texts of the Fourth Comintern Congress decision on workers’ governments, see “The Comintern’s Unknown Decision on Workers’ Governments” on this website.

Related articles on this website

References

1. Daniel Bensaid, 2011, La Politique comme art stratégique, Paris: Éditions Syllepse, p. 69.

2. John Riddell (ed.), 2012, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (hereafter TUF), Leiden: Brill.

3. TUF, p. 129.

4. Pierre Broué, 2005, The German Revolution 1917–1923, Leiden: Brill, 369.

5. TUF, pp. 182, 147.

6. TUF, pp. 139–40, 167.

7. TUF, p. 1159.

8. TUF, pp. 266–7.

9. TUF, pp. 1098–9.

10. TUF, pp. 243, 1161

11. TUF, p. 1161, 267, 1003.

12. TUF, p. 1160–1.

13. TUF, p. 267–8.

14. Chris Harman and Tim Potter, “The Workers’ Government,” in International Socialism, February 7, 2007.

15. Leon Trotsky 1980, Challenge of the Left Opposition, vol. 2, New York: Pathfinder, p. 369.

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10 Comments
  1. Political theory is here more developed than any forum today. The popular street protests of the Arab revolutions have not suceeded in formulating any conception of social administration.
    However this discussion makes no mention of any constitutional apparatus – Constituant Assembly.

  2. Angel Formoso permalink

    A ‘workers’ government’ represents a genuine dictatorship of the proletariat. Laws that were legislated were really not only worker inspired but really resolved all worker-employer contradictions. The managers of the old Soviet Union were really the most humane employers communist history had ever produced. Any anti-worker act or deed surely were dealt with in the most justifiable means. The workers were really a sovereign class especially during the era of Yugoslavia’s Tito and East Germany’s Honecker. I was there!!

  3. Tim K permalink

    Hi John,

    The way I see it, there are two kinds of ‘workers government’ that can be supported by revolutionary socialists without a call for a political revolution. These are 1) revolutionary socialist government, and 2) democratic socialist government.

    Revolutionary Socialist Government

    A revolutionary socialist government is one that is committed both to transcending capitalism, and to improving outcomes for working people (ending homelessness and poverty, healthy food for all, education and health care for all, fulfilling work for all, ample leisure time for all, a healthy environment, full social and economic democracy, ect.). Such a government recognizes that capitalism must be defeated on a global scale in order to guarantee the best outcomes for working people on a permanent basis. Such a government also recognizes that immediately abolishing Capitalism by nationalizing everything may not produce better outcomes if there is too much opposition from the people and the bureaucracy. Such a government will challenge capitalism to the extent possible without the people or the bureaucracy sabbotaging the project; and such a government will support peoples movements globally, definitively rejecting Bonapartism.

    This kind of a government is open to the people taking matters into their own hands to defeat the capitalists, and will generally provide as much support as possible to such activities.

    Democratic Socialist Government

    A democratic socialist government is one that is committed to better outcomes for working people. It does not recognize the necessity of abolishing Capitalism in order to produce better outcomes for working people, but will challenge Capitalism when it is clear that this is the only way to achieve better outcomes for workers. The ideology of this type of government may be summed up as “socialism if necessary, but not necessarily socialism”. It does not mind if it passes policy that leads to the destruction of Capitalist businesses, or entire sectors of the Capitalist economy, if the state or non-profit sectors of the economy are able to carry out any necessary functions formerly performed by these capitalists (ex. food distribution).

    The foreign policy of this kind of government may be problematic It will generally not participate in imperialist wars, but may cooperate with repressive regimes as a means of securing the national interest.

    This kind of government also generally believes that the power of the capitalists can only be legitimately challenged via the legislative process, and in the event that workers try to defeat the capitalists on their own, such a government will generally side with the capitalists.

    This kind of a government is supportable for two reasons:

    1) This kind of government will ultimately recognize that the only way to improve outcomes for working people is to challenge the power of the capitalists. Extra-parliamentary activism can generally be quite effective in getting this kind of a government to implement policies that benefit working people and challenge the power of the capitalists.

    2) In the event that the working class truly begins to win the global class struggle against capitalism, this kind of government would be unlikely to prevent the working class from finally overthrowing Capitalism.

    Obviously, this kind of government needs to be criticized if and when it implements policies that are not in the interest of working people — yet the essential character of such a government determines that criticism ought not to descend into outright opposition unless the essential character of the government is deemed to have changed.

    Venezuela and Bolivia

    I would consider the governments of Bolivia and Venezuela as combinations of revolutionary socialism and democratic socialism. There are elements within these governments that want to abolish Capitalism, while other forces in these governments don’t want to go beyond democratic socialism. The ultimate fate of the Chavez and Morales governments remains to be decided.

    Governments Masquarading as Workers Governments

    There are three types of governments that masquarade as workers governments. These are:
    1) Bureaucratic Socialism
    2) Right-Wing Social Democracy
    3) Neoliberal Workers Government

    Bureaucratic Socialism/Stalinism

    This is the kind of government that emerged under Stalin in the Soviet Union, and in the other authoritarian communist countries after WWII. The primary goal of such a government is the abolition of Capitalism. Achieving better outcomes for workers is a secondary concern of this kind of government. This kind of government wants to nationalize everything even if the state is not in a position to ensure the same level of outcomes as exist within the private capitalist economy. Such a government generally believes that a highly centralized, authoritarian one-party state is needed to abolish Capitalism and ensure that it does not return. It generally relies on a Bonapartist foreign policy.

    Once power is concentrated within the party and state bureaucracy, class struggle atrophies, and inequality increases. Over time, the increased power of the bureaucracy leads them to develop managerial skills commonly associated with private enterprise. This usually leads to the re-establishment of Capitalism, either with or without the one-party bureaucratic state.

    Right-Wing Social Democracy

    Right wing-social democrats do aspire to better outcomes for working people, but they are also opposed to socialism, which they believe doesn’t work. A government of this variety tries to improve the lives of working people without challenging the power of the capitalists. When better outcomes for workers cannot be achieved without challenging the power of the capitalists, this kind of government will mostly abandon any serious attempts to improve the lives of workers.

    Such a government does not set out to implement neo-liberalism; however, when this type of government ultimately faces an economic or fiscal crisis, it rectifies the situation on the backs of workers, without challenging the power of capital. This type of government ultimately propogates the myths that actions such as saving Capitalism, balancing the budget, and paying down the debt, are in the interests of workers.

    This kind of government also pursues an essentially capitalist foreign policy.

    Neoliberal Workers Government

    A neoliberal workers government starts out with the false premise that implementing neoliberalism will lead to better outcomes for workers. This is a workers government in identity only: in that it comes from a political party that is associated with the working class and wich may have union affiliation; that it rejects corporate donations and may take union donations, and that workers and union bureaucrats may be part of it. In its policies, this kind of government is indistinguishable from the liberal wing of capital.

    Often, governments that start out as right-wing social democratic governments become fully neoliberal in character after a few years in power. Thus it can be possible to view these two types of governments as the same.

    Th petty-bourgeoisie plays a large role in both right-wing social democratic governments and neo-liberal workers governments.

    Cuba

    Cuba represents a special type of workers government. The Cuban government contains elements of revolutionary and bureaucratic socialism. While the Cuban government developed along bureaucratic lines, it never developed the lack of concern for the living conditions of workers that characterized the governments of the Soviet Union and the other so-called Communist countries. The ability of such a small, impoverished nation, under the boot of the US imposed embargo since the early 60s, to respond to the loss of the Soviet Union as a trading partner in the early 90s, is nothing short of amazing. Cuba is the only country to have reduced its greenhouse gas emissions to sustainable levels, all the while ensuring that the abject misery present in most other developing countries continues to have no place in Cuba.

    The impact of the recent economic reforms in Cuba remains to be seen, but the essential character of the Cuban state remains intact at present.

    The CCF-NDP

    The CCF started out in the 1930s somewhere in between a democratic socialist party and a right-wing social democratic party. Over time, the CCF and its successor party, the NDP has wound up somewhere between a right-wing social democratic party and a neoliberal workers party. The experiences of the NDP in government at the provincial level over the past 20 years (BC, Sask, MB, Ont, NS), have confirmed this drift. Should the NDP ever achieve power at the federal level, it is likely it will govern in the same manner that it has at the provincial level over the last 20 years.

    How We Relate to Phony Workers Governments

    It is possible to lend some support to governments masquarading as workers governments. Yet any support we lend to such governments should be critical. Also the kind of support we provide differs depending on the type of government.

    All of the so-call Communist countries that implemented bureaucratic socialism have since abandoned it. Most have reverted to the status of liberal bourgeois democracies. China has abandoned socialism, though the bureaucratic state reamains, along with some reforms; and Vietnam is well along the same road as China. North Korea was never more than a military dictatorship. None of these regimes deserve support.

    Class struggle in any of these countries needs to be supported, even if it leads to the reintroduction of liberal bourgeois democracy. The leadership of these countries need to be recognized for what they are, a cancer upon those societies which need to be removed. Were North and South Korea to reunite, the loosening of North Korean repression would be worth celebrating. It would inevitably be followed by the fire-sale of state-owned enterprises by the South Korean government, a move which could not be supported.

    Right-wing social democratic governments need to be evaluated on a policy by policy basis. Where they implement policies in the interest of the working class, those policies should be supported and defended from right-wing attacks; where they implement right-wing policies, they need to be opposed. Such a government is generally more responsive to extra-parliamentary protests than bourgeois governments, since the government needs the votes of the working class to get re-elected.

    Revolutionary socialists also look to win workers over to the struggle against Capitalism and for socialism. At the same time, it is analysis of the electoral balance of forces that best determines when workers change their electoral vote, not ideology. to that end, it behooves revolutionary socialist to work to change the balance of electoral forces.

    Neoliberal workers governments also need to be evaluated on a policy by policy basis. The difference lies in the types of policies we anticipate a neoliberal workers party to implement, and this has implications for extra-parliamentary work. Our relationship with a neoliberal workers government is necessarily more adversarial than with a right-wing social democratic government. We also need to recognize when a right-wing social democratic government becomes a neoliberal workers government, and respond accordingly.

    Tim

    • Tim has given us an interesting analysis that, in a sense, attempts the opposite of what I did in my article on workers’ governments. I started with the Comintern debate of 1922 and tried to link it forward to today. Tim starts with what is before us now.
      Tim is right to single out the uniqueness of the situation in Cuba and also to highlight the progressive regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia — and, one can add, Nicaragua. Beyond that, his attempt to categorize different types of regimes based in some sense on the working class runs into a problem. Outside Latin America (and Nepal) we do not have any examples to work with. In all the imperialist countries, social democratic parties have been assimilated to neoliberalism.
      I agree with Tim that the NDP is a partial exception — at least, on the federal level. That has important consequences for socialists’ policy toward the NDP. But we must bear in mind that if the NDP is less assimilated into neoliberalism, it’s mainly because the party has never been allowed into the halls of government.
      There is a problem, I think, in relying too much on an analysis of government policies. Social democratic governments sometimes carry out significant pro-working-class reforms, but so too do purely bourgeois governments, when a high level of working-class struggle gives them no alternative. Thus in Europe, after 1945, similar reform policies were enacted in Britain, where Labour was in office; and in France under a coalition headed by De Gaulle, a rightist bourgeois. Conversely, even social democratic governments elected with a reform mandate do not get far if the bourgeoisie is adamantly opposed and workers do not mobilize. Thus Bob Rae in Ontario 1990-95.
      If I were to undertake a survey of this type, I would place more emphasis on the relationship of the government to the surrounding bourgeois state, on one side, and to the working masses on the other. We then see:
      1. Cuba: The bourgeois state was destroyed in 1959-61 and replaced by new structures based on the workers and people. Despite all problems and contradictions, the situation remains unchanged.
      2. Venezuela and Bolivia: Governments are based on parties of working people and sustained by a considerable degree of consultation with and mobilization by popular movements. Imperialist pressure has made possible an alliance with some bourgeois forces that has endured for a considerable period. The governments rule within and through the bourgeois state, suffering all the deformations resulting from this situation.
      3. Nicaragua is similar, but with the added feature that the security forces were constituted out of the 1979 revolution and have never been reabsorbed by the pro-imperialist bourgeoisie.
      4. The situation in Nepal is shaped above all by a stalemated civil war, in which, despite an armistice, the rival armies are still in the field.
      In all these cases, despite all their limitations and shortcomings, working people have made a bid for governmental power. The situation in these countries contrasts with cases where working people have waged struggles with immense tenacity and courage (Greece) but have yet to find a way to pose a governmental alternative.
      John Riddell

  4. David Camfield permalink

    John is right that “The Comintern’s decisions on governmental policy were rooted in a political environment that no longer exists.”

    Before offering some comments on the demand for a “workers’ government” (WG) today, I think it’s important to clarify what kind of government we’re talking about. There has been a lack of clarity about what distinguishes a WG from a far more common phenomenon: left governments in capitalist states that rule for capital, as “administrators of the capitalist order” as John puts it. This lack of clarity has led to cases of revolutionary socialists mistakenly supporting examples of the latter.

    I think a WG should be understood as a government of working-class forces (or worker and peasant forces) in a capitalist state (or some other exceptional institutional setting other than working-class rule) that objectively doesn’t rule for capital. This means a government that disrupts capitalist rule in some ways rather than just reproducing it. For this to happen, a government must actually engage in “a resolute struggle at least to achieve the workers’ most important immediate demands against the bourgeoisie,” to use a phrase from the 1922 Comintern resolution (from http://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2011/08/14/the-comintern%E2%80%99s-unknown-decision-on-workers%E2%80%99-governments/). This is only possible when the balance of class forces is very favourable to the working class (or workers and peasants).

    A WG is different from socialist democracy: a government organized through new institutions like workers’ councils through which the exploited class(es) rules. The Paris Commune and the soviet government in Russia formed in 1917 were examples of socialist democracy, not WGs.

    WGs have historically been extremely unusual, unstable and inherently short-lived. Perhaps the left Social Democrat governments in the German states of Saxony and Thuringia in 1923 would qualify as WGs, along with the government of the People’s Assembly in Bolivia under Torres in 1971. The FSLN government in Nicaragua immediately after the fall of the Somoza dictatorship might also qualify (I haven’t reviewed the history of any of these examples in detail). No government in the world today is a WG.

    I think any useful socialist political reflection on the demand for a WG today needs to consider such issues as:

    1. The current era is obviously not one of wars and revolutions, with a high level of working-class struggle and working-class radicalization in many places, as was the case in the years after the Russian Revolution when the “workers’ government” question arose. “Sustained, mass workers’ struggles” that pose “the possibility that working people might form a government” are few and far between.

    2. The room that governments within capitalist states in almost all countries have to act in ways that aren’t sanctioned by capitalists even for short periods of time is very limited today, less than was the case in the early 20th century. This is because individual capitalist states are more tightly subordinated to international capital through bond and currency markets. In many cases, individual states are also subjected to pressures from international capital via the WTO, IMF, WB, investment pacts like NAFTA, etc.

    3. The three main forms of mass left-wing politics in the 20th century — social democracy, Stalinism and Third World nationalism — were all in deep crisis before the century’s end, their popular credibility as political alternatives to the neoliberal status quo (let alone capitalism) tremendously weakened. Most of the formerly reformist and more radical political forces of the exploited have accepted neoliberalism.

    4. As a result of these and other changes, there is a crisis of politics. One aspect of this is that the belief that it is possible to really change society through taking political power (however this is understood) has declined. Even in highly-politicized France, to quote two members of the NPA, “in their great majority the activists of the ‘social movement’… continue to not pose the question of organizing on the political map” (in other words, in a party or other political organization).

    5. There are today no revolutionary workers’ political organizations of significant influence, and few really significant workers’ political organizations to the left of reformism.

    I think that today in most countries it makes little sense for socialists to put effort into arguing that “working people should strive for governmental power even in the absence of a soviet-type network of workers’ councils,” as John puts it. For one thing, the demand won’t seem relevant even to most radical worker activists. For another, the conditions required to make a WG — as opposed to a left government that objectively “administers the capitalist order,” no matter what its rhetoric is — possible simply don’t exist in most places.

    However, in Greece today it would make sense to call for a WG — a government that would reject austerity measures and exit the eurozone in a way designed to favour the working class. Egypt and Chile today may also be places where the demand is meaningful.

  5. Aashish permalink

    Hi. I am just working. So if there is a worker’s government, what happens to the voice and political participation of everyone else? I mean here kids, the elderly, the diabled and the infirm, and also, the unemployed?

    • Hi Aashish — thank you for your question.
      When socialists speak of the ‘working class’ or ‘working people,’ they are referring to those who live primarily from their labor rather than primarily from owning property. That applies to workers who may be ill, disabled, unemployed, upgrading their qualifications at school, have retired, etc. One might well wish that those unable to work would be sustained by society with a living wage, but I know of no capitalist country where this is true.
      Many working people are not employed in the legal sense — like working farmers, many contract workers, self-employed craftspersons, etc. When socialists talk of a workers’ government, they include (or at least should include) such people.
      As for children, under current conditions a child normally forms part of the social class of the family responsible for supporting and rearing her/him.
      In North America, the Occupy Movement’s distinction between the 1% and the 99% helped clarify that socialists aim to speak on the behalf of the immense majority and to help assure their democratic right to shape society.

  6. Question: what does it mean to “form a government”? Meaning worker socialist parties win a majority in parliament and then choose a cabinet? Does any of this apply to local or state elections? Is there a difference between electing socialists/communists/radicals to legislatures (city council, state legislature, Congress/parliament) and electing them to executive positions (mayors, governors, presidents, dog catcher [a Big Bill Haywood reference])?

  7. Jacob Richter permalink

    Why did the Comintern have a slippery definition of “workers government”? Because it moved away somewhat from “propagandism” and because “workers government” was a good slogan to use.

    Let’s take a step further back, near to the beginning, in the Communist Manifesto:

    “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

    No so-called “bourgeois workers party” that lays claim to “Labour” or “Social-Democratic” or even “Democratic Socialist” labels aspires towards any of the three goals above, while “petit-bourgeois workers parties” do not aspire towards the last goal and seek to replace bourgeois hegemony with some other form of non-worker hegemony. For obvious reasons, vulgar “vanguardists” and their philosophical or conspiratorial circle-sects don’t bother with the first goal and substitute themselves for the working class in the third goal.

    In modern parlance, the first two goals are the transformation of the working class in itself into a class for itself and the establishment of worker-class hegemony at the expense of bourgeois hegemony. The third goal expresses itself in the implementation of the recovery-in-progress Marx-Engels minimum program, whereby individual demands could easily be implemented without eliminating the bourgeois state order, but whereby full implementation would mean that the working class will have expropriated ruling-class political power in policymaking, legislation, execution-administration, and other areas. This Marx-Engels minimum program can be implemented without workers councils at all, though it cannot be implemented without worker-class party-movements as big or bigger than the pre-war SPD.

    So what exactly is this Marx-Engels minimum program in today’s terms? Something like this:

    http://www.revleft.com/vb/class-strugglist-democracy-t112390/index.html

    I suggest a better term right from Marx and Engels themselves, one that can’t be sloganeered but one that can drive home the point more accurate: Proletarian-Not-Necessarily-Communist or Proletocratic-Not-Necessarily-Communist.

  8. A modified version of “The Workers’ Government as a Step toward Socialism,” delivered at Socialism 2012 in Chicago, June 29, 2012, is available in audio format at http://wearemany.org/a/2012/06/toward-united-front.

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