The Comintern workers’ government debate (2): Delegate speeches
These excerpts are also published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings and Resolutions of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (TUF), edited by John Riddell, Haymarket Books 2012. They are published here for the first time as a single text. Excerpts are copyright © John Riddell 2011. For other excerpts see workers’ government debate home page.
Gregory Zinoviev, Report of the Comintern Executive Committee
… The slogan of the workers’ government has not been sufficiently clarified. The united front tactic should be applied almost universally. We can hardly name a country with a significant working class where the united front tactic would not now be appropriate. It fits well in the United States, just as in Bulgaria, Italy, and Germany. Under present conditions, this tactic is almost universal. That however is far from the case with the demand for a workers’ government. The workers’ government should not be interpreted in that general way; it is more limited in its application. It should be employed only in countries where the relationship of forces brings to the fore the question of power, of government, both in the parliamentary and extraparliamentary framework. Certainly it is possible in the United States today to carry out good propagandistic work with the slogan of a workers’ government, explaining to the workers that if they wish to free themselves, they must take the power into their own hands. But given the relationship of forces in the United States, it cannot be said that the slogan of a workers’ government will arouse the kind of echo that it did in Czechoslovakia, can do in Germany, and both did and will do in Italy.
The slogan of the workers’ government does not have the general character of the united front tactic. The workers’ government slogan is a specific and concrete application of the united front tactic under specific conditions. It is easy to make errors of many kinds in this area. I believe, comrades, that we must protect ourselves against attempting to use this slogan universally, as if we necessarily had to go through a period of workers’ government. I believe that to the extent one can prophesy, it is much more likely that the workers’ government will become a reality only exceptionally, under quite specific, concrete conditions in one or another country. Moreover it does not mean that we are going to go through a semi-peaceful period and that the workers’ government will relieve us of the burden of struggle. A workers’ government with only a parliamentary basis would be of no value. It would be only a small episode in the struggle, which would not prevent civil war. That does not mean that the workers’ government slogan should not be used, under certain conditions. The working class must clearly understand that the workers’ government can only be a transitional stage, which will not eliminate the struggles and the civil war. That must be said plainly. Only when we understand the dangers of this slogan can we use it confidently.
The united front tactic too has its dangers, as the Executive pointed out in its December theses. It brings us especially great dangers in the question of the workers’ government. In countries with a parliamentary tradition, such as France, this is seen as if it meant something different for us than the dictatorship of the proletariat. We understand this slogan as an application of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Even if a workers’ government materialises, we cannot avoid civil war, and under certain circumstances it will even sharpen the civil war. (TUF, pp. 129-30)
Ernst Meyer, Germany
Now we come to a question that Comrade Zinoviev also touched on. Is the workers’ government a necessary stage in the workers’ movement of each country? Our answer is: No, it is not a necessary occurrence, but rather a historical possibility. It is possible that such a workers’ government will arise and maintain itself for a certain time. That also answers a second question: Is it possible that a workers’ government will exist for a long time, or will it be quite transitory in duration? To answer this question, we must be clear on what exactly a workers’ government is and whether there are differences between a workers’ government and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Comrade Zinoviev stated today that there was such a difference. That has not always been made sufficiently clear in discussions of this question. In the report on a session of the Expanded Executive we find the following statement of Comrade Zinoviev on page 123:
The workers’ government is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is a pseudonym for a soviet government. (Interjection: ‘Hear, hear’ from the Germans.) It is more comfortable for an ordinary worker, and that’s why we want to use this formula.
In our opinion, that is not correct. The workers’ government is not the dictatorship of the proletariat (‘Quite right’ from the Germans) but is rather first of all a demand that we advance in order to win the workers and to convince them that the proletarian class must organise a common struggle against the bourgeois class. If this slogan is taken up and adopted by the majority of the working class, and if they launch a real struggle for this slogan, it will soon become clear that the attempt to achieve a workers’ government – at least in the majority of countries with a strongly proletarian population – will lead directly either to a dictatorship of the proletariat or to an extended period of very sharp class struggles, that is, to nothing less than civil war in all its forms.
In that respect we view the workers’ government as a necessary and useful slogan to win the masses, one whose achievement will lead to a phase of sharpened class struggles, through which a proletarian dictatorship will ultimately emerge. (TUF, pp. 139-40)
Ruth Fischer, Germany
Although time is short, I should also add that the concept of a possible coalition with the Social Democrats is refuted by all the experiences of the recent years of revolution. This concept points toward the notion of an organisational fusion with the Social Democratic parties, which is being discussed in our Norwegian sister party with such refreshing candour. This is not only a false conception of the united front, but also conceals still-hidden tendencies toward revision of the revolution, toward styling its hair in ‘Western’ fashion, toward creating democratic transitional stages between what we have now and what we aim for. What we see here is an attempt to deceive ourselves regarding the difficulties of the civil war; an attempt to overthrow capitalism in alliance with the Social Democrats in neatly organised fashion and without great difficulties. (TUF, p. 147)
Karl Radek, Executive Committee
As for the question of the workers’ government, I would like to draw attention to a very striking formulation of Comrade Fischer. She said that there is a danger that communism might style its hair in Western fashion. I’d like to say a few words about this danger. Comrade Zinoviev said in the Expanded Executive, for us the workers’ government is a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat. That’s how Comrade Meyer quoted him; I do not know if he used exactly those words. In my opinion, this definition is not right. But it arises out of a concern, one that Comrade Fischer has described with the words ‘Western hairstyle’. For many comrades, the idea of a workers’ government is a kind of soft downy cushion. They say that the devil knows when our dictatorship will come, and it is certainly a very tricky business to conduct agitation for the slogan of the dictatorship; I’d rather just say workers’ government, which has a very gentle and innocent sound. No one knows what it is. Perhaps it will come to be. But in any case it does not appear to be so dangerous.
We must banish this danger through the character of our agitation. The workers’ government is not the dictatorship of the proletariat – that is clear. It is one of the possible points of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat, based in the fact that the worker masses in the West and are not politically amorphous and unstructured, as they were in the East. They are structured in parties, and they cling to these parties. When the revolutionary tempest broke out in the East, in Russia, it was easier to bring them directly into the camp of communism. For you that is much more difficult. The German, Norwegian, Czechoslovak workers will much more readily take a stand of ‘no coalition with the bourgeoisie, but rather a coalition with the workers’ parties that can secure our eight-hour day, give us a bit more bread, and so on’. That leads to the establishment of such a workers’ government, whether through preliminary struggles or on the basis of a parliamentary combination. It is nonsense the reject in doctrinaire fashion the possibility of such a situation.
The next question is whether we lean back on our soft cushions and relax, or whether we try to bring these masses, on the basis of their illusions, into struggle to achieve the programme of the workers’ government. If we conceive of the workers’ government as a soft cushion, we will not only drive it into bankruptcy, but also ourselves suffer political defeat. We will stand with the Social Democratic as a new type of swindler. We must maintain the masses’ understanding that the workers’ government is worthless unless the workers stand behind it, taking up arms and building factory councils that push this government and do not allow it to make compromises with the Right. If that is done, the workers’ government will be the starting point of a struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat and will in time make way for a soviet government. Rather than being a soft cushion, it will open up a period of struggle for power, using revolutionary methods.
I believe one of the comrades said that the workers’ government is not a historical necessity but a historical possibility. In my opinion that is the right formulation. It would be entirely wrong to present a picture that the evolution of humanity from ape to people’s commissar necessarily passes through a phase of workers’ government. (Laughter) But this variant is historically possible, above all in a number of counties where strong proletarian movements stand beside peasant movements, or where the working class is as large as in Britain, where the bourgeoisie has no direct major instruments of power against the working class. In Britain a parliamentary victory of the Labour Party is quite possible. That will not happen in the present elections, but it is possible, and the question will then arise, what is this workers’ government? Is it nothing more than a new edition of the bourgeois-liberal government, or can we force it to be more? I believe Austen Chamberlain was right to say that if a Labour Party government is formed in Britain, it will start with Clynes in power and end with the Left in power, because it has to solve the problem of joblessness.
So, comrades, I believe that the Executive is basically correct in this question in how it presents the problem, warning on the one hand against an complete intransigence that says ‘soviet government or nothing’, and also against the illusion that tries to convert the workers’ government into a parachute. (TUF pp. 167-9)
Jean Duret, France
The slogan of a Blum-Frossard workers’ government was explained by a comrade of the Left, our Comrade Planchon of the Seine Federation, while making an amendment to the Frossard-Souvarine motion. The amendment was that the slogan that could best bring the masses in the future to an uprising was that of a Blum-Frossard workers’ government, and since there were not any workers’ councils in France, such a Blum-Frossard government would initially have to be based on a parliamentary majority.
I believe that from a Communist and revolutionary point of view this conception of a workers’ government is an aberration.
We are told that the slogan of a Blum-Frossard workers’ government is not meant as something concrete, something to be realised immediately, but is rather formulated in a way that can lead the French working masses toward a powerful campaign. This seems rather like the kind of social myth that Sorel used to advocate. It is somewhat reminiscent of his myth of a ‘general strike’.
The value of a slogan for the political movement, the mass movement, of a given country must be gauged in terms of its impact on the politics and tactics of the working masses.
How does this take place? It’s very concrete. If you advance the slogan of a workers’ government of Blum and Frossard in the manner advocated by Planchon, this leads quite simply to providing parliamentarism with a new buttress, to imbuing it with new life. In France there are no workers’ councils. A workers’ government must rest on a majority. We must work with all our strength to achieve a Socialist majority in parliament – not a Communist majority, but an overall majority of peoples’ representatives.
We can see where this takes us. This leads us to electoral cretinism and the resurrection of parliamentarism. That’s why we say that it would be dangerous in the present situation of the French party to raise the slogan of a Blum-Frossard workers’ government. It would polish up the coat of arms of the reformists still found in our party. That is one of the reasons leading us to oppose the united front tactic.
The united front tactic must be a slogan of action. But we must clearly understand what action means in the Communist Party of France: writing articles! (Many voices: ‘Very true’.) We make speeches in parliament and otherwise maintain unaltered the methods of the United Socialist Party. (TUF pp. 174-5)
Amadeo Bordiga, Italy
Now as to the workers’ government. If it is confirmed, as at the Expanded Executive in June, that the workers’ government refers to ‘the revolutionary mobilisation of the working class for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie’, then we consider that under certain circumstances this slogan can be used as a terminological replacement for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Certainly we will not oppose that, unless this need to hide our true programme could be considered opportunist. But what if the workers’ government slogan creates an impression among the masses that it refers not merely to a transitory political situation or to the momentary relationship of social forces, but rather suggests that the most important problem in the relationship between the working class and the state (the problem on which we founded the programme and organisation of the International) can be resolved in some way other than through armed struggle for power and its exercise in the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat? In that case, we reject this tactic, because it jeopardises a foundation stone for the preparation of the proletariat and party for revolutionary tasks, in return for the dubious benefits of achieving immediate popularity.
It will perhaps be said that the reality of the workers’ government does not correspond to our fears. But here I must say that I have heard countless explanations of what the workers’ government is not, but only from the mouth of Comrade Zinoviev or others can I learn what a workers’ government actually represents.
If the point is to consider objectively the achievement of a transitional regime that will precede the proletarian dictatorship, then my opinion is that if the proletarian victory does not take a very decisive form, the process will lead under the blows of reaction to bourgeois coalition governments in which the right wing of the opportunists will directly participate, while the centrists disappear from the political scene, after having exhausted their role as accomplices and Social Democrats. (TUF p. 182)
Antonio Graziadei, Italy
There exists in fact a part of the working class that is still influenced by Social Democracy and does not yet believe in the dictatorship of the proletariat. In order to convince them to seize power, we must content ourselves with the workers’ government formulation.
We can accept the historical possibility that the workers’ government is a genuine stage between the bourgeois government and the dictatorship of the proletariat. In this case it is quite possible that the workers’ government still takes on a parliamentary form.
This possibility is one of the reasons why the workers’ government concept is so difficult for many comrades. In Italy, where the former anti-parliamentary faction of the Socialist Party plays such an enormous role in the education and organisation of our Communist Party, this kind of difficulty is characteristic. Many of our best comrades are so greatly shocked by the idea of a workers’ government precisely because they fear its parliamentary form.
But as I have always told the majority of my party, this view is based on a great mistake.
In a country where a large part of the working class is still influenced by democratic bourgeois or half-bourgeois ideas, it may well happen that a workers’ government will for a certain time rest, on the one hand, on a trade union organisation – and ongoing efforts are needed to give it a constantly increasing political significance – and, on the other, still rest on parliamentary forms. We must not reject the workers’ government merely because it takes on parliamentary forms for a certain time. That would be a great error. In Russia the Communists made every effort after the March  revolution to increase the political power of the soviets, in which they were a minority, and still they did not leave the parliament, where the government was purely Social Democratic. In Germany, after the overthrow of the empire, both a parliament and soviets coexisted. (TUF pp. 189-90)
Adolf Warszawski, Poland
I would like to add a few words regarding the slogan of the workers’ government. First of all, I must say that we have not discussed this question either at our party conference or in our literature. The party as such has not made any decisions, because this question is not posed in Poland at present and is not likely to be posed in the coming period. In my opinion, there is too much speculation on this question, too much haphazard speculation. (‘Very true’ from the Germans)
Criticism on this question focuses on three points. First, that it will either be a government of the Scheidemanns or a coalition government of the Communists with the social traitors. Second, such a government must be based either on parliament or on the workers’ councils. Third, it is either an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat or it is not.
Well, comrades, I do not believe we have to grope in the dark, because we have real practical historical experience. What did the Bolsheviks do in 1917 before the conquest of power? They demanded ‘All power to the soviets’. At that moment, this signified giving governmental power to the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, who held a majority in the soviets. It meant a workers’ government made up of social traitors who were against a dictatorship [of the proletariat]. In social and political terms, that was the workers’ government slogan expressed through soviets. When and how this slogan can be realised is quite another question. But fundamentally the Bolsheviks put the workers’ government demand to outstanding use in their agitation.
In Germany we had the same situation after the November days . The Spartacists demanded, ‘All power to the workers’ and soldiers’ councils’, that is, to the Scheidemanns and the Independents, who were then a majority in the soviets and were opponents of the dictatorship [of the proletariat]. Thus once again, it was not a Communist government.
That’s the way things were in Poland as well, and everywhere else where workers’ councils were formed. And I believe that is the heart of the matter. It was a stage in our agitation, during a period when conditions produced a historically very important form – the councils – but the central issue was the workers’ government. When we see another revolutionary upsurge, with the working masses once again pouring into the streets and workers’ councils being formed, our historical experience will in all likelihood lead us once again to advance this slogan, demanding, ‘Place all governmental power in the hands of the workers’ councils!’
We will then demand the dictatorship of the proletariat. And at that point comrades will once again criticise us, just as in 1917 and 1918, saying: What is this? You are demanding the dictatorship of the proletariat, and all power to the soviets, when you have no majority there! It is quite possible that we will once again have a great revolutionary movement at a time when we have not yet won the majority of the working class. The revolution will most likely come at a time when the revolutionary ferment and the revolution itself enable us to win the masses much more quickly than we can do today. In all likelihood we will advance the same slogan, and fundamentally it will be the very slogan that the Executive has already tried to formulate in various ways. It will fundamentally be the same government, but based on the mass movement.
And if the Executive has not yet been able to come up with a finished formulation of this slogan, in my opinion that is because two different things are being confused. We are trying both to advance the slogan and at the same time give it a form, which is quite impossible, because the form will depend on revolutionary conditions that permit it to find a broader foundation than is possible today. (TUF pp. 196-7)
Vasil Kolarov, Bulgaria
I am speaking on behalf of the Balkan Communist Federation. …
The workers’ government is not posed in agrarian countries like the Balkans, and I will therefore not linger on this question. (TUF pp. 242-3)
Zinoviev, Summary to the Executive Report
Zinoviev: Comrades, permit me first to deal somewhat more fully with the matter of the workers’ government. I am not sure whether we really have serious differences of opinion on this question, or whether it has perhaps simply not been fully explained and is perhaps partly a terminological question. This will become clear in the course of the congress and in drafting the resolution on questions of tactics, which will be taken up after those of the Russian revolution. For me it has nothing at all to do with the word ‘pseudonym’, which was quoted here. I am gladly prepared to give way in the quarrel regarding this word. But what is important is its meaning. I believe that I can best clear up the matter, comrades, by saying the following. Every bourgeois government is simultaneously a capitalist government. It is hard to imagine a bourgeois government that is not also a capitalist government. But unfortunately we cannot say the opposite. Not every workers’ government is a socialist government. This contrast is very profound. It deals with the fact that the bourgeoisie has its outposts within our class, but the contrary is not true. It is impossible for us to have outposts in the camp of the bourgeoisie.
Every bourgeois government is thus a bourgeois government, and even many workers’ governments can be bourgeois too in terms of their social content. But the contrary is not true. I believe that is the decisive point: there are workers’ governments and workers’ governments.
I believe that we can imagine four different kinds of workers’ governments (and that far from exhausts the list of possibilities). We can have a workers’ government that, in terms of its composition, is a liberal workers’ government, like that of Australia. There was an Australian workers’ government, and many of our Australian comrades said that the workers’ government slogan is incorrect because such governments have existed in Australia already and they were bourgeois. They were genuine workers’ governments, but their content was liberal. They were bourgeois worker governments, if I may use the term.
At present there are elections in Britain. It will probably not happen in these elections, but theoretically we can very well imagine a situation where a workers’ government comes to office that is similar to the Australian workers’ government and in its content is a liberal workers’ government. Given the present situation, such a liberal workers’ government in Britain could be the jumping-off point for revolutionising the country. That could happen. But the government itself is nothing more than a liberal workers’ government.
At present, we Communists vote in Britain for the Labour Party. That is equivalent to voting for a liberal workers’ government. Under current conditions, Communists in Britain have to vote for a liberal workers’ government. This tactic is absolutely correct. Why? Because it is objectively a step forward; because a liberal government in Britain is the best option to pave the road for the bankruptcy of capitalism. We have already seen in the Kerensky period that the position of capitalism was smashed, even though the liberals were agents of capitalism. Plekhanov said that the Mensheviks during the period from February to October 1917 were half-Bolsheviks. We denied that. We said they were not Bolsheviks at all, not even a quarter. We spoke in these terms because we were locked in fierce struggle with them and we perceived their betrayal of the proletariat. But objectively, Plekhanov was right. Objectively, the Menshevik government was most suitable to ruin capitalism’s game, to make their situation impossible. Locked in struggle against the Mensheviks, our comrades could not perceive this at that time.
We confronted each other in battle. We see only that they are betrayers of the working class. They are not opponents of the bourgeoisie, but when, for a period, they take hold of the bourgeoisie’s weapons, they can take many steps that are objectively directed against the bourgeois state. In Britain we support both the liberal workers’ government and also the Labour Party. The British bourgeoisie is right to say that the workers’ government will begin with Clynes and can finish in the hands of the left wing.
The second type is a Social Democratic government. Imagine that the unified SPD in Germany forms a purely ‘socialist’ government. That will also be a workers’ government (in quotation marks, of course). We can conceive of a situation where we would grant such a government a conditional credit, that is, conditional support. We can imagine that under certain circumstances a ‘socialist’ government can be a stage toward revolutionising the situation.
That is the second possibility.
A third type is the so-called coalition government, that is, a government composed of Social Democrats, trade union leaders, persons without party affiliation, and perhaps Communists as well. We can conceive of such a possibility. Such a government is not yet the dictatorship of the proletariat, but could be the starting point for it. If all goes well, we will manoeuvre the Social Democrats out of such a government, one after another, until power rests in the hands of the Communists. This is a historical possibility.
Fourth, I am thinking of a workers’ government that is really a workers’ government, that is, a Communist workers’ government, for the others are not true workers’ governments. This fourth possibility, in my view, is indeed a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat – a workers’ government in the full sense of the word.
But that far from exhausts the question. A fifth or sixth type may occur, and all of them can be a good starting point for a further revolutionising of the situation.
I fear that in the search for a rigorous scientific definition we might overlook the political side of the situation. For me, it’s not a matter of hair-splitting scientific definitions, but rather that we don’t overlook the revolutionary side of things. Often, you get the feeling that many comrades imagine that we need only join with the Social Democrats in order to have a workers’ government. In the process, this would overlook one thing: first we must overthrow the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie will not willingly give up its position; it will struggle for power.
We must not forget that in addition to the workers’ parties there is also a bourgeoisie that has been in power for decades and that does everything possible to struggle for this power.
In order to create a workers’ government in the revolutionary sense, one must first overthrow the bourgeoisie. That is the key point. We must not forget to differentiate between two things. The first is the way we carry out agitation, how we best address ordinary workers, how we can best enable them to understand their situation. In my view, the slogan of the workers’ government serves that goal well. There is also a second question, namely how events will develop historically, and how the revolution will actually take place.
Let us lift slightly the curtain of the future.
How will the revolution take place? We like to make conjectures, for example, that it will pass through all stages of the workers’ government, including the coalition government, and then the civil war. We are all fond of prophesying the future course of the revolution. But the fact is that the only thing we can predict is that our prophecies will not hit the mark. The revolution will very likely take place in quite another manner than we imagine. It will come through quite another door. We saw that in our Russian revolution as well. Five years ago we imagined that we might be forced to our knees by the blockade, by hunger, and the rest. We considered different eventualities, but that of the New Economic Policy and the revolution’s present course was not foreseen by anyone.
In every country the situation is different. The revolution will probably take place quite differently in Germany than in Britain. That does not mean that we as conscious revolutionaries should not lift the curtain of the future. We are thinking beings, and we wish to lead the way for the working class. We must attempt to clarify things from every possible angle. But prediction is very difficult here. Looking at the workers’ government slogan from this point of view, as a specific question of how the proletarian revolution will take place, it seems very doubtful that the world revolution will necessarily step through the door of the workers’ government.
Yesterday our friend Radek said that the workers’ government is a possible form of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat. I would like to say that it is only a possibility, or to be absolutely precise, this possibility arises only exceptionally. That does not mean that the workers’ government slogan is wrong. It is correct. When conditions are favourable, it will bring us great successes in agitation. But when we examine the question of the path forward, of whether the revolution will necessarily take this path, in my opinion that question cannot be resolved here. It is probably the least likely path. In countries with a developed bourgeoisie, we will win power only through civil war, and if we oust the bourgeoisie in this manner, there is unlikely to be any pause for a considerable period. It could happen, but there is no point arguing about it; all we can do is propose conjectures. The main thing for us is to perceive clearly all the fundamental possibilities along the path to revolution. There may be a workers’ government that is nothing more than a liberal workers’ government, as possibly in Britain, Australia, and elsewhere. Such a workers’ government may objectively be of use to the working class. It is right to agitate for such a workers’ government, and we can gain a lot from this. But what we must not forget in this process is our revolutionary perspective. …
One more thing, comrades. A soviet government does not always signify a dictatorship of the proletariat. Not at all. In Russia, during the Kerensky government, a soviet parallel government existed for eight months, and it was not a dictatorship of the proletariat. Nonetheless we advanced the demand for a soviet government.
That is why I believe, comrades, that we can continue to advance the slogan of a workers’ government, with the one proviso that we know exactly what it refers to. Woe betide us if in our agitation we permit for one moment the idea to crop up that there will necessarily be a workers’ government, that it could come about peacefully, that there is some organically fixed period that could replace the civil war, and so on. If such conceptions are held by any of us, and they are probably present somewhere, they must be decisively combated. The working class must be educated in such a way that we tell them: Yes, dear friends, in order to achieve a workers’ government, first we must overthrow and defeat the bourgeoisie!
That is what is most important about this slogan. If you want a workers’ government, fine, we agree on that, even with the Social Democrats. We say that they will betray you. But even so, we are for such a workers’ government, but only on the condition that it is ready to fight shoulder to shoulder with us against the bourgeoisie. If you are willing, we will take up the struggle against the bourgeoisie, and if a workers’ government arises from this struggle, it will rest on a firm foundation and will truly be a prelude to and beginning of the dictatorship of the proletariat. In and of itself, it is not a matter of the word ‘pseudonym’ – I gladly concede this word to Comrade Meyer. It’s rather a matter of having a clear position on this question. This is absolutely not some subterfuge through which we can trick the bourgeoisie into renouncing civil war. The International needs a good strategy, but this strategy cannot enable us to avoid civil war and to glide smoothly into the realm of a workers’ government. Such a process simply doesn’t exist. The decisive element is the struggle, which conquers the bourgeoisie. Once it has been conquered, various forms of workers’ government can occur. (TUF pp. 265-70)
Radek, Report on the Capitalist Offensive
And I now come to a question that plays a major role in our struggle against the capitalist offensive and to which Comrade Zinoviev gave considerable attention in his presentation on tactics: the workers’ government. Comrade Zinoviev offered an abstract classification of the possible forms of a workers’ government. I agree with this attempt at classification. I would expand it only with reference to the forms of workers’ and peasants’ governments possible in countries like Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, and so on.
It is important for us here to replace the abstract classification with the question: What do the worker masses – not just the Communists – think of when they talk of a workers’ government? I will limit myself to the countries in which this concept has already won a response: Britain, Germany, and Czechoslovakia. In Britain they think of the Labour Party. Communism does not have mass influence there. In the countries where capitalism is in decomposition, this concept is closely bound together with the united front. Workers think that united front means that when there is a strike in the factories, Communists and Social Democrats do not fight each other but work together. The idea of a workers’ government has the same meaning for the working masses: they think of a government of all workers’ parties.
What are the stakes for the masses here, both practically and politically? This question demands an answer. And how do we approach this question? If we look into the question of how likely it really is for such a workers’ coalition government to come into being, we can come up with a thousand stimulating answers. We can say that the workers’ government is not inevitable, but possible. Or, following Comrade Zinoviev, we can say paradoxically that it is not inevitable but is probably the most improbable. The question will be decided politically by whether Social Democracy will stand by the bourgeoisie right to its death. If that is the case, then a workers’ government is possible only as a dictatorship of the Communist proletariat. We cannot decide the policies of Social Democracy. The question we must decide when we go to the masses in our struggle against the capitalist offensive is whether or not we are prepared to struggle for a workers’ coalition government and create the preconditions for it.
Supposedly theoretical calculations can only confuse this question for the masses. In my opinion, in our struggle for the united front, we should say frankly that if the Social Democratic worker masses force their leaders to break with the bourgeoisie, we are ready to take part in a workers’ government, provided this government is a vehicle for class struggle. But, let me stress, only if the Social Democracy is prepared to fight together with us. Imagine that we had a situation where chickens fell fully roasted from the skies, where nothing had changed in the German state: Stinnes had the coal; the monarchists had the army, and Scheidemann had only Wilhelmstrasse. Imagine we too were invited to Wilhelmstrasse, and our Comrade Meyer appears, dressed in tails, (Laughter) taking by the arm Comrade Ruth Fischer, who is bristling, (Laughter) and escorts her into the Reich Chancellery. If such historical conditions existed, such a proposal would run into a hitch, as follows. First of all, a lieutenant with ten men would appear and remove comrades Meyer, Scheidemann, and Ruth Fischer, and that would be the end of the workers’ government.
But the struggle against the capitalist offensive is not a matter of parliamentary coalitions but a platform to mobilise the masses and wage struggle. What’s at issue is whether the Social Democrats will continue to rot in the coalition; or whether they will be heaved out and will sit in some quiet corner complaining; or whether we will help the masses to compel them to take up the struggle. It could be countered that there’s no reason for us to cudgel our brains over what they will do. If it were just a matter of the Social Democratic leadership, we would certainly prefer to just let them rot. But if it is a question of mobilising the Social Democratic worker masses, we must have a positive programme. To what degree does this contradict the dictatorship of the proletariat and civil war? The contradiction is similar to that between the porch and the front door. (‘Very true!’) If the house is locked, we can also get in through the wall or down the chimney.
Hugo Urbahns (Germany): Blood has flowed down that chimney.
Radek: This is the first time I’ve heard that the proletariat prefers to build its barricades on the roof. Even if the bourgeoisie in some country hands over the government to the Social Democracy and the Communists, and the Hungarian example shows us that this is not excluded, this will lead to a period of fierce struggles. There can also be a situation similar to Germany on 9 November , when the bourgeoisie simply vanished. They may find themselves in a situation where they hand over power to us in the hope that we will not be able to hold it. Whether we come to power through civil war or through a breakdown of the bourgeoisie, workers’ government will lead to civil war. The working class will not be able to stay in power without civil war. Not that we Communists believe that we cannot live without civil war, the way Tom Sawyer got the Black man to believe he would be freed by an underground gang, when in reality the doors stood wide open. It’s not that we would say we refuse to accept power without a civil war, that without a civil war we will simply be miserable (Laughter) but for the simple reason cited by Comrade Zinoviev: the bourgeoisie may break down at this or that moment, but ultimately it will not surrender power without a bitter struggle.
If the Social Democrats are not capable of struggle, then we will advance right over them. If a workers’ government comes into being, it will be only the starting point for a struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. The bourgeoisie will not tolerate a workers’ government, even if it is democratically constituted. The Social Democratic worker simply has no choice. He must become a Communist and wage civil war to defend his rule. I therefore believe that in practice, as events unfold, we are will not be threatened by major dangers of getting stuck in the mud. Provided, of course, that it’s a matter of genuine class struggles, not of parliamentary governmental combinations in small isolated regions like Brunswick or Thuringia, where we can take part in the government without civil war – not that I am saying that such questions count for nothing. The workers’ government slogan is important to guide us. It conceives of the united front as a unified political goal. The moment when workers come together to fight for the workers’ government and control of production will mark the beginning of our counteroffensive. For our offensive begins when we no longer limit ourselves to defending what exists and what is passing away, but rather struggle for new conquests. (TUF pp. 399-401)
. No source for this quotation is available, but it is confirmed by Zinoviev elsewhere in the congress.
. Four days after this session, the Conservative Party won the British general elections. In the subsequent vote, in December 1923, the Labour Party under Ramsay MacDonald gained enough seats to form a minority government the following month.
. The Frossard-Souvarine motion, a product of Left-Centre parity negotiations in early August 1922, aimed to set a political framework for united functioning by the two main factions in the French CP. It was debated throughout the party in the run-up to the October 1922 Paris convention, where the Left-Centre unity project broke down.
. ‘United Socialist Party’ refers to the French Section of the Workers’ International (SFIO or SP) formed in 1905 through a unification, chiefly of parties led by Guesde and Jaurès.
. Graziadei is referring here to the former ‘abstentionist’ current in the SP led by Bordiga.
. Zinoviev’s conception of the types of workers’ governments was incorporated into the Theses on Tactics, in an amended form.
. Wilhelmstrasse, a street in central Berlin, was the administrative centre of the German state, housing the Reich Chancellery.
. On 9 November 1918, a workers’ and soldiers’ revolution brought down the imperial German government, and power passed momentarily into the hands of workers’ and soldiers’ councils. However, an SPD-USPD provisional government organised a rapid transition to parliamentary capitalist rule.