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Workers’ governments and the crisis of politics

January 10, 2012

The following is a guest column by David Camfield, an editor of New Socialist Webzine. It was submitted in reply to my article, “A Workers’ Government as a Step Toward Socialism.”

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 “The Comintern’s Unknown Decision on Workers’ 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.

Other contributions to this discussion are published at A Workers’ Government as a Step toward Socialism“; see bottom of web page.

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6 Comments
  1. Larry Mutter permalink

    Sadly Davids comments are the reality,a strong Left today is a Union with some attitude.Few workers today conceive of a political movement outside of some form of Capitalism.About the best we could achieve in the near future is some form of co-operative economic system inside the market.It would take a economic disaster for even the working class to consider radical systemic change.The financial system has forced to many of us to invest our future in its stability and to leap into the unknown would take immense courage from millions of people.Still when you hit rock bottom and chaos is all around you the possibilities are endless.

  2. I reiterate my questions posed in the earlier thread. One thing that bothers me is the one-sided focus on what we should argue for, demand, and support when, in fact, our forces are so marginal that these questions are not posed concretely and we are far away from having it posed in a concrete way (which by the way is the only real way to overcome the “lack of clarity” Camfield references). In Egypt for example they are still working on creating a workers’ party and winning a bourgeois democratic state, the two necessary preconditions for a “workers’ government” however that term is understood. Calling for a “workers government” in that context would probably not mobilize mass numbers of people in a situation where political freedom is entirely absent.

  3. David Camfield permalink

    Binh, I share this concern, as I think the final two paragraphs of my piece indicate.

    • I was not clear and for that I apologize. I think the entire approach of this piece is problematic. The problem for us on this question is not lack of clarity or misapplying labels.

  4. Tim K permalink

    David,

    While your article makes many valid points, I disagree with your assertion that there are no Workers Government’s in the world today.

    The governments of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia are Worker’s Governments according to your definition of the term. Both Chavez and Morales have brought about new constitutions for their respective countries that have deepened democracy, and have fought the power of capitalism and U.S. imperialism to achieve concrete gains for their peoples. Both countries have refused to implement policies demanded by the IMF make payments on IMF loans received by previous governments.

    Venezuela

    In Venezuela, the government of Hugo Chavez has encouraged democratic participation through the creation of communal councils. Any and all members of the community can participate in the communal councils, and many of the Chavez government’s social programs have been implemented through the communal councils.

    Some of the Chavez government’s social programs include: mass literacy programs; a network of publicly owned internet cafes; social housing (designed and implemented through the community councils); bringing thousands of Cuban doctors to Venezuela to provide health care to many poor venezuelans for the first time in their lives; a network of publicly owned food stores that provides basic foods (frutis, vegetables, grains, and meat) at heavily subsidized prices; land reform; and community gardens.

    The Chavez government has nationalized and re-nationalized many Venezuelan companies. It has supported worker-led intiatives to take over abandoned factories and turn them into worker-run co-operatives, and it has supported worker-democracy in some state-run companies.

    The Chavez Government has also pursued a foreign policy involving Latin American integration in opposition to U.S. imperialsm. To this end, the Chavez government spearheaded the people’s trade agreement called ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the People’s of Our America). Current ALBA members include Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador,Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

    Bolivia

    In Bolivia, the Evo Morales government presided over a constitutional process that led to the refounding of the country as a plurinational state in early 2009 with guaranteed constitutional rights for Bolivia’s indigenous majority. Morales also mobilized support for the government and the new constitution when some of the more right-leaning departments in eastern Bolivia threatened to secede from the country during the run-up to the constitutional referendum of 2009.

    The Morales government re-nationalized the hydrocarbon industry, and used the money obtained from these ventures to increase education funding; provide internet access to regions of the country that did not previously have internet access; and to fund social program to combat illiteracy and extreme poverty.

    Bolivia has also been the most oustpoken nation on the subject of climate change. The Bolivian government has criticized the UN climate negotiations to create a new climate treaty as leading to an agreement that will guarantee unacceptable levels of global warming. In April 2010, the Bolivian government hosted the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which produced an alternative set of principles around which climate justice could be based.

  5. David Camfield permalink

    Tim, I disagree. Bringing in social reforms, changing constitutions and denouncing imperialism and capitalism matter, of course. The Bolivian and Venezuelan governments must be defended against imperialism and attacks from the right within these countries. But what they have done doesn’t qualify them as “workers’ governments.”

    For one thing, neither the Bolivian government nor the Venezuelan government has carried out “a resolute struggle at least to achieve the workers’ most important immediate demands against the bourgeoisie.” In response, it might be argued that the current political situation makes it impossible for them to do so. But that would only underscore that they’re not WGs.

    I also don’t accept some of your specific claims. On Bolivia today, see this new article: http://www.isj.org.uk/index.php4?id=780&issue=133

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