is a “workers’ government” a capitalist government?

31 12 2009

David Broder looks at the similarities between the ‘workers’ government’ slogan and the cross-class strategy of the Popular Front

The recent history of struggle for communism, or even progressive social change, is not a happy one. While the last decade has seen struggles from which we can take some cause for inspiration, such as social movements in Latin America, general strikes in France and Greece and, even in Britain, the early days of the movement against the war in Iraq, our movement has struggled to offload the burden of the defeats it suffered in the 1980s. There is a crisis of confidence in the possibility of an alternative to capitalism, when every revolution in the twentieth century was defeated.

Given this long-term picture of repeated defeats, it is remarkable how Britain’s socialist groups are fixated with the general election which will take place in a few months time: already we see the calls for ‘guarded’ and ‘critical’ support for the Labour Party, for fear of ‘letting in the Tories’. Just one year after the greatest capitalist crisis for eight decades, we see the spectre of revolutionaries who only ask themselves which party of capital is ‘least-worst’: the short-term tactical consideration comes to shape their whole perspectives. But we will never be able to present an alternative pole of attraction, and make up for long-term historic defeats, if we allow the electoral calendar and the electoral prospects of right-wing social democrats to determine our short-term priorities. We should after all dispel, rather than propagate, mainstream politics’ understanding that you should vote for the least bad politician on offer (Labour’s main argument for the election…), based as it is on an assumption that working people cannot change anything ourselves.

Most on the radical left today would refuse any electoral support for a party like Barack Obama’s Democrats, even to keep out the Republicans, since both parties are plainly pro-business and pro-imperialist. Similarly, Trotskyists have long denounced the Popular Front strategy adopted by the 1930s pro-Moscow Communist Parties (and continued by their descendents today) whereby the communists would seek coalition governments with bourgeois liberals as well as social democrats. Clearly both are examples of supporting one faction of the ruling class against another.

But this critique comes rather unstuck when we consider what happens if the bourgeois liberals are taken out of the picture: should the communists enter government with the social democrats? You might think not, reading such a document as the ‘Where we stand’ column which appears in each issue of Socialist Worker. This proclaims that “The structures of the parliament, army, police and judiciary cannot be taken over and used by the working people. Elections can be used to agitate for real improvements in people’s lives and to expose the system we live under, but only the mass action of workers themselves can change the system”  – yet in ISJ the SWP theorist Alex Callinicos attacked France’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste for its insistence on the principle of not entering government with the neo-liberal social democrats of the Parti Socialiste…

Following a resolution passed by the 1921 Communist International Congress, Trotskyists believe a United Front of parties with a working-class support base should seek to become a workers’ government: they counterpose this to the ‘cross-class’ Popular Front. In Britain, this has entered into mythology as the Communist Party seeking the election of a Labour government[1]. But the capitalist state is not merely a matter of ministerial offices: concretely speaking, the occupation of governmental positions by communists is in itself a Popular Front, since the executive arm of the so-called workers’ government is in fact the capitalist state bureaucracy and the two have to co-exist. Mere rejection of alliance with liberals is not ‘independent working class politics’ if the workers’ parties sit on top of the state machine, i.e., separate and apart from the working class.

Because it is they who fundamentally hold power, it is up to the army, bureaucracy and courts and their backers to choose whether to co-opt and neutralise the left, or else get rid of them entirely. In some cases, such as Spain in 1936 and Chile in 1973, the bourgeoisie has resolved this by abandoning its own state’s constitution, suspending the rules-of-the-game in order to overthrow the left government. If the capitalist class do let the left occupy government, such as the current SPD-Die Linke regional administration in Berlin, and the 1997-2002 Parti Socialiste-Parti Communiste government in France, it is conditional on the left simply operating like any other government presiding over capitalism, imposing attacks on the working class and opposing movements from below. The only two choices for the communists involved in such an administration are to continue supporting the social democrats in spite of their accommodation to capitalism – just the same as their relation to the liberals in a Popular Front – or else to abandon government.

One of the original intentions of the United Front strategy is to expose the vacillation of the social democrats and their unwillingness to stand up to the bosses in the eyes of the working class, and thus win workers to communism: in fact the strategy weakens the communists’ appeal, because of the need to prop up the party doing the selling out. What better example than Rifondazione Comunista, who in 2006 as a young communist party with a vibrant internal life decided to enter coalition with the centre-left government of Romano Prodi. Like the Labour Party of old, Prodi’s Democratici di Sinistra had much working-class support and roots in the CGIL union federation, but were pro-imperialist and needed Rifondazione’s support to send troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon. For fear of prompting the collapse of the government and letting Silvio Berlusconi into power, the party loyally backed Prodi, and expelled those members who defiantly voted against the war. Just three years later, Berlusconi is on the offensive in power, the Italian troops are still in Afghanistan, and Rifondazione has lost all 41 of its MPs. Even where it is true that the right wing will attack workers more harshly than the social democrats, the loss of independence involved in support for the latter is an unacceptable price to pay for stopping the first problem in the short term. The opposition to Berlusconi today is weaker than it would have been had Rifondazione not been so desperate to keep him out of government in 2006, because they abandoned their consistent, clear advocacy of a communist alternative to all such governments.

Of course, the Trotskyist supporters of the workers’ government approach would denounce Rifondazione’s behaviour here, and would likely point to various contingent problems with such parties: for example, a lack of internal democracy, or lack of base in real grassroots struggle, such as could hold the leaders to account. Indeed, refusing to support the war and dumping Prodi out of government would clearly have been the only principled thing to do: but it would also have shown up the fundamental inoperability of the initial course of action taken, proven the naivety of the United Front and contradicted the much-vaunted need to do everything to keep out Berlusconi. As any good revolutionary knows, reformism is a dead end: so why then tail the reformists who also themselves believe that they are just being pragmatic?

The episode unravelled as it did not due to some malign intention on the part of Rifondazione, but rather as the natural logic of the strategy itself. The same could also be said of Die Linke in Germany, who in regional coalition government with the SPD opposed the Berlin transport strike. Much as Die Linke (and, for that matter, the SPD) protest that they would not enter coalition at national level, the principle is little different, and it is alarming to now hear that the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, founded on rejection of the Communist Party’s idea of a ‘plural left’ government, would now consider regional coalition governments. In all these cases, it is accepting the idea that entering government is even a possible tactical choice which governs their drift towards seeing electoral politics as their central field of activity, and thus the reformist agenda they advocate. What kind of ‘anti-capitalist’ party could fathom participation in administering… capitalism?

“The policies of Allende were not determined by the bourgeois component (the small Radical Party) in his government. What was far more important was the constitutional agreement of 1970 not to interfere with the hierarchies of the state and his insistence (like all reformists) that the state was a neutral instrument that could be used in the building of socialism.”
Chris Harman and Tim Potter, The Workers’ Government

In 2008 Alan Woods, a member of Socialist Appeal, published a book Reform or Revolution? arguing that the Hugo Chávez government in Venezuela is carrying out a socialist revolution because he is aware that reformism, leaving capitalism essentially intact, would give the bourgeoisie space to organise a coup against him. The most obvious reaction to this would be to object that Chávez clearly is a reformist, since for over ten years he has been enacting a long series of nationalisations and progressive parliamentary bills and Venezuela is still capitalist. He wants to carry out his revolution ‘by a thousand pricks’ against the bourgeoisie. But there is more to it than that. Reformism is not counterposed to revolution merely because it seeks gradual rather than ‘big bang’ social change: rather, because its means of organising are a reflection of existing social relations. Chávez enacts reforms and then the people, as individuals, choose whether to approve the course of action he has decided to take: however ‘progressive’ his bills or however ‘socialist’ his rhetoric, the workers do not make policy by and for themselves.

Even beyond the question of whether the bourgeoisie will tolerate a left government, any party presiding over a state as such creates a hierarchical division of labour between experts and specialists who administer the system, and then a party membership who are there to support the decisions made by their leaders. This is because the very existence of the state represents the delegation of power by the mass of society – from the communities we live in and workplaces we work in – to some central body which holds power and sets its own rules. Even democratic controls over leaders or votes at conference cannot overcome this separation – the question of who initiates policy; negotiations with other parties; budgeting for the state bureaucracy, army, courts and so on; cannot but be the decision of the few and is directly counterposed to the principles of the type of mass, collective action which imposes retreats on the part of the capitalist class, rather than just asking them to rule us nicely.

But this is not at all an argument for passivity or rejection of piecemeal changes to the benefit of the working class – far from it, here we simply pose the opposition between fighting for negative demands which push back the frontier of capitalist control; and a benign caste of leaders making change on our behalf. After all, this same problem of reformism is also apparent in the politics of the Socialist Party of Great Britain – ‘impossibilists’ who reject single issue campaigns and trade unionism on the grounds that they are only partial, and do not challenge capitalism as such. These great opponents of reformism, who declare that the current system cannot be patched up, describe thusly their idea of the transition to socialism “Once the vast majority makes the decision in favour of socialism, then it will elect socialist representatives or delegates to prove its majority, and to serve as a temporary focal point to administer the elimination of capitalism and the creation of socialism. But it won’t be, and could not be, the elected representatives or delegates who create socialism, it will be the people of the world as a whole.” Despite verbal “ultra-leftism”, their conception of revolution is one whereby socialist representatives secure a parliamentary majority, take charge of the state then enact socialism. ‘Partial’ and ‘limited’ trade union type struggles and campaigns, even if they do not explicitly aim at uprooting capitalism as such, are still preferable to this idea of social change insofar as they promote working-class people’s sense of self-reliance and confidence in our ability to force change by our own collective power.

Left governments not only leave capitalism intact but also reflect its division of order-givers and order-takers; whereas all movements from below based on collective decision making run up against the hierarchical systems of organisation which characterise capitalist society. Only in the latter case, steadfastly refusing to take responsibility for the management of the capitalist system or to lend support to one set of would-be rulers, can we gradually accrue the confidence, solidarity and belief in an alternative such that we might one day overthrow all existing social relations. This is not abstentionism from the immediately pressing attacks planned by the next Tory government, or advocacy of passively waiting until some ‘ripening of conditions’ whereby communism would become realisable: merely to realise that choosing a least-worst alternative in the here and now may actually put our overall objective even further away. In fact, the ‘ripening of conditions’, mass consciousness that communism is both desirable and possible, will never come about if we kowtow to the likes of Labour just to keep out the worse threat of the Tories.


[1] Much as this writer is no eulogist of Lenin, it is interesting to note that in Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder he advocated that to expose Labour, this support should be dependent on a series of unrealisable conditions: “The Communist Party should propose the following “compromise” election agreement to the [Labour leaders] Hendersons and Snowdens: let us jointly fight against the alliance between Lloyd George and the Conservatives; let us share parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of workers’ votes polled for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not in elections, but in a special ballot), and let us retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years—1903-17) the Russian Bolsheviks demanded and got it in respect of the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks.” Leninist advocates of backhanded support for Labour have for ninety years ignored this caveat.

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26 responses

31 12 2009
Bradley

In regard to Venezuela you appear to live in a imperialist based cloud cuckoo land where the rhetoric on the far left in regard to the Boliviarian revolution is so convoluted that it belongs in a bourgeois pollies media release.

(1) How long or short does “a revolution” have to be before it is accepted by this poster to fulfil his big bang theory?
(2) So reformism isn’t supposedly just a bourgeois credo but differs in the way it gets business done? Fine. But whats’ been happening in Venezuela in terms of mobilising the masses? Check out the numbers on the streets, the impact of the missions, and the challenges mounted by the new party… and how far the revolution has come by this means.

Much as I appreciate la communes reviewing of Marxism you are barrowing down the same sectrarian roadway that you attack the other orgs for. In fact when it comes to essentials you are looking for minutae to separate yourself from them by deploying such differences as workable shibboleths such taht so long as you can “prove” they all pandy to reformism — and you’re don’t — in the pissing comp, you’re ahead.

31 12 2009
ajohnstone

“their conception of revolution is one whereby socialist representatives secure a parliamentary majority, take charge of the state then enact socialism….” Not quite the policy.

But we definitely do not accept the SWP declaration “…The structures of the parliament, army, police and judiciary cannot be taken over and used by the working people….” Nor did Marx accept such a view .The SPGB position is consistent with Marx’s and Engel’s presuppositions to recognise parliament as an institution geared to the needs of capitalism, and therefore inappropriate as the vehicle for a fundamental transformation of society , but that its connected electoral practices coincide with the principles involved in that transformation which creates the possibility of a peaceful transition to a new society .

Our position is that socialism can only be achieved by a politically conscious working class. From the overly optimistic view of the founding members , the overall situation these days is that the purpose of the SPGB is to argue for socialism, and put up candidates to measure how many socialist voters there are. We await the necessary future mass socialist party as impatiently as others and do not claim for ourselves the mantle of being or becoming that organisation . In 1904 the SPGB offered itself (proclaimed itself, actually) as the basis or embryo of such a party (Clause 8). Not only did the working class in general, or in any great numbers, not “muster under its banner” but neither did all socialists. So we were left as a small propagandist group.

A socialist majority will elect socialist delegates to whatever democratic institutions exist ( and these may be workers councils in some places), with the sole objective of legitimately abolishing capitalism. The SPGB are well aware that if such a majority existed it could do as it damn well pleased, but we consider that a democratic mandate would smooth the transition and we are also aware that the socialist majority might in certain circumstances have to use force to impose its will, but consider this an unlikely scenario. Control of parliament by representatives of a conscious revolutionary movement will enable the bureaucratic-military apparatus to be dismantled and the oppressive forces of the state to be neutralised , so that socialism may be introduced with the least possible violence and disruption. Parliament and local councils , to the extent that their functions are administrative and not governmental , can and will be used to co-ordinate the immediate measures to transform society when socialism is established . Far better , is it not , if only to minimise the risk of violence, to organise to win a majority in parliament , not to form a government , but to end capitalism and dismantle the state.

The SPGB argue to abolish the State, the socialist working class majority must first win control of it and, if necessary, retain it (in albeit a suitably very modified form) but for a very short while just in case any pro-capitalist recalcitrant minority should try to resist the establishment of socialism. Once socialism has been established (which the SPGB has always claimed can be done almost immediately ), the State is dismantled, dissolved completely . We are not talking years or decades or generations here , but as a continuation of the immediate revolutionary phase of the over-throw of capitalism .

What really matters is a conscious socialist majority outside parliament, ready and organised, to take over and run industry and society. Electing a socialist majority in parliament is essentially just a reflection of this. It is not parliament that establishes socialism, but the socialist working-class majority outside parliament and they do this, not by their votes, but by their active participating beyond this in the transformation of society.
It is not token ultra-leftism as the article implies but one of the fundamental priciples of the SPGB . “Capturing” Parliament is only a measure of acceptance of socialism and a coup de grace to capitalist rule. The real revolution in social relations will be made in our lives and by ourselves, not Parliament. The first, most important battle is to the destruction of capitalism’s legitimacy in the minds of our fellow class members. That is, to drive the development of our class as a class-for-itself.

Likewise , the articles throw-away remarks about the SPGB attitude to trade-union and reforms are an over-simplicification of its real attitude and are easily confused with the similar slanders over the years from the Communist Party hacks and exhibits an ignorance of those present and past party members active in trade unions . The SPGB avoided the cul-de-sacs of dual unionism of the IWW and SLP ( and the CP “red unions” ) and the sectionalism of early syndicalism .
Trade unions arise out of the wage-relation that is at the basis of capitalism.When we say that labour-power has the commodity nature , it must express its value through a struggle in the labour market. Combining together in trade unions to exert collective pressure on employers is a way workers can prevent their wages falling below the value of their Iabour-power. It is a way of ensuring that they are paid the full value of what they have to sell. This is the usefulness of trade unions to the working class but they can do no more than this. Organised workers can ensure that the wage they get is the current value of their labour-power and, at times when the demand for labour-power exceeds the supply, they can temporarily push wages above the current value of labour power or even, in the longer term, raise its value. This was, and still is, the economic logic for the working class of trade union organisation.
We have argued trade unions can – and do – enable workers to get the full value of their labour-power, but they cannot stop the exploitation of the working class.We, therefore, accept trade unions as they are, and, realising that all their grave and undeniable faults are but the reflection of the mental shortcomings of their members.The SPGB is not antagonistic to the trade unions under present conditions, even though they have not a revolutionary basis .Under present conditions, trade unions are non-revolutionary but as far as the socialist thinks them necessary to his personal economic welfare and as far as economic pressure forces him to, he is right and justified in using them.The SPGB urges that the existing unions provide the medium through which the workers should continue their efforts to obtain the best conditions they can get from the master class in the sale of their labour-power.We do not criticise the unions for not being revolutionary, but we do criticise them when when they collaborate with employers, the state or political parties or when they put the corporate interests of a particular section of workers above that of the general interestof the working class as a whole.

Our critique of reforms has also lasted the test of time . It is reformISM that we oppose not individual reforms. It is the official SPGB policy that a minority of socialists MPs might vote, under certain circumstances, for reform measures proposed by other parties. This policy was adopted in 1911 and remains . But the roots of the SPGB opposition goes back to the original Marxist Social Democratic parties and the “maximum programme” of socialism and the “minimum programme” of immediate reforms to capitalism. What happened is that they attracted votes on the basis of their miniumum, not their maximum, programme, i.e. reformist votes, and so became the prisoners of these voters. In parliament, and later in office, they found themselves with no freedom of action other than to compromise with capitalism.While we are happy to see the workers’ lot improved, reforms can never lead to the establishment of socialism and tends to bleed energy, ideas, and resources from that goal. Reforms fought for can, and frequently are, taken away or watered down. Rather than attempting gradual transformation of the capitalist system, something we hold is impossible and has been proven by a century of reformist platforms of so-called workers’ parties which have led instead to the reform of such parties themselves to accept capitalism. ( In fact , it has been offered as a case against reformism that only the threat of a movement setting down as the immediate aim the establishment of socialism would force the capitalists to concede a whole menu of reforms favourable to the workers for fear of losing the whole cake.)

We are often accused of being opposed to reforms: social legislation to ameliorate some more or less intolerable situation – The Welfare State , Social Security, NHS or whatever . Not so.
The SPGB are not opposed to reforms per se, any more than we advocate them. We do not set ourselves up as opposing the attempts of the workers to improve their status under capitalism. We know the limitations of these attempts, and the limitations of the unions. But it is one thing to say that socialists should not oppose the non-Socialists fighting for reforms, and quite another to state that Socialists should place themselves in a position of trying to make capitalism work in the interests of the workers, when all along they know it cannot. Not only is it inconsistent, in our opinion, for socialists to seek to solve problems for the workers under a system which they say cannot solve these problems, but in a practical sense, such a two-directional approach would never bring about Socialism. And it is the latter which is our goal.
Suppose the SPGB were to embark on a high-powered campaign to obtain better housing, hospitals, roads, and so forth as the Social Democtrat parties such as ILP did , Perhaps we would get a lot of people to join our organisation. On what basis would they join? The same basis on which we appealed to them. We would in the end have an organization consisting of workers who were seeking continual improvement under capitalist methods of production and distribution, under a price, profit, and wage economy. What happens when such an organization is voted into political power as a majority? It merely uses the power of the State to carry on capitalism under different forms such as state-ownership or ‘nationalisation’. It cannot use the control of the State to abolish capitalism, because its own members who joined on a reform basis, would be in opposition to it. The Party would have to carry out reform of capitalism, or lose its members to another organization which advocated remedial measures. We say capitalism cannot be reformed in the interest of the majority but that it can be abolished .By putting forth a program of immediate demands, we would not be educating any workers to the necessity for socialism. We would instead be educating on the need to get all they can under the capitalist system.The socialist movement is the natural umbrella for all people and all the single issues and their campaigns are seen by socialists as effects, the cause of which is capitalism. Effects can be ameliorated but it is better to eliminate the cause and prevent the effects returning. Go to the root of the problem and not the symptoms . To bring reality to solutions to each single issue it must be the recognition that theirs is just one small but significant part of an entity much greater than the sum of its parts.

Those associated with Commune should pay less heed to the hearsay about the SPGB and debate the real existing differences that exist within the ranks of the “thin red line” .

31 12 2009
David

@ Bradley:

1) I comment that the problem with reformism is not how ‘quick’ it is, and write “Reformism is not counterposed to revolution merely because it seeks gradual rather than ‘big bang’ social change”. No, the point is it is characterised by top-down change via the state, versus overthrow of the state.

2) Very true that there is mass mobilisation in Venezuela, but there is a limit to the extent people can take over their own workplaces and communities themselves. The 200,000 co-operatives are very far from non-capitalist, (see http://thecommune.wordpress.com/2009/02/16/new-pamphlet-on-chavezs-venezuela/) Chávez could have (does have) millions of ‘supporters’, but the point expressed in the article is that there is a strong division of labour, which is also why it is possible for the Bolivarian bureaucracy to stop people advancing workers’ control in workplaces.

I expand more on these points here http://thecommune.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/state-capitalism-and-communism-from-below-in-latin-america/

In what regard can you see a dynamic towards the withering away of the state in Venezuela, or at least social change which could not be reversed with the election of another government?

@Alan

Hi there, although you write a long exposition of the SPGB position, I do not think it particularly unfair to have written “the Socialist Party of Great Britain – ‘impossibilists’ who reject single issue campaigns and trade unionism on the grounds that they are only partial, and do not challenge capitalism as such” given that you yourself comment that you neither oppose nor advocate them. So you do reject the idea that they are part of socialist revolution.

Similarly, you are not “antagonistic” to trade unions, I am sure. I did not say you were. But nor do you get involved in them, and limited workplace struggles don’t play a role in your vision of socialist transformation, which was the only thing I referred to as regards the SPGB.

Much of what you say is all very true about reformism, but it does not square with your own attitude that it is necessary to have a parliamentary vote to enact socialism. If a crushing majority are for socialism, surely workers would start taking things over without needing some sort of legitimation from above. Am I right or not in saying this creates a division of labour in the party/movement?

A democratic mandate may well win troops etc. over to the revolution, but how can you flatly assume that this would work? There are many examples of democratically elected governements being overthrown by the army.

The structure of elections and bourgeois politics, which are no less neutral than the structures of the state itself, make it highly unlikely that any socialist/revolutionary party could possibly ever win a majority even in a revolutionary crisis. If there was a revolution in the offing, would we wait for the general election just so that our socialist MPs could enact change for us? The diversion of social movements into electoral politics (e.g. May 68) has been a key means of bureaucratic defeat of revolutions, since it takes power from the mass movement and puts it in the hand of a small clique in Parliament. That is precisely what reformism is.

My reference to “ultra leftism” was not me calling the SPGB “ultra left”, I loathe the term but was referring to its common usage on the left.

31 12 2009
Black Flag

A timely contribution, comrade Broder. Without the slightest measure of sycophancy, it has to be the most considered and balanced piece on the subject that I’ve read in a long time. The question surely arising from this now is: can we anti-state and libertarian communists form a workable and effective political bloc in contradistinction to impossibilism on the one hand and perpetual SWP-type ‘left cover’ for the insidious ‘reformism’ of social democracy on the other? I personally think we can.

1 01 2010
John

Perhaps draw a line in the sand. And don’t be apologetic, in any way. The tired ‘old far left’ is talking, often madly (just look at the blogs), to itself – a tiny audience. Let’s build anew.

1 01 2010
ajohnstone

Perhaps i was unjustly defensive of the SPGB position misinterpreting your comments that we do not support reforms or trade unions but of course it is true tyhat we do not see them as stepping stones towards socialism and nor also necessarily consciousness raising . Socialist consciousness involves understanding socialism which means talking about it, sharing ideas about it – in short educating ourselves and our fellow workers about it.People become socialists from their experiences; meeting socialists is part of that experience. In fact , nobody really knows how revolutionary class consciousness is going to arise and the SPGB has the intellectual honesty to admit this.
I don’t think anybody denies that socialism will be established by the working class and that its establishment will result from an intensification and escalation of the class struggle. That follows almost by definition–obviously, if the working class are going to overthrow capitalism and capitalist class rule the class struggle is going to be stepped up. That’s not the interesting question. The real question is what is it that is going to provoke the working class into intensifying/escalating the class struggle and/or acquiring socialist consciousness . We can say that socialist consciousness comes from life experience, but then that automatically implies that every worker should achieve it, it should have happened. And I see this as a problem. It leads to a belief of the old “historical inevitability” of Socialism. Workers don’t just wake up one morning and think to themselves – “Ah that’s it! Eureka! Socialism is the answer!” This is the mechanistic theory that a socialist consciousness can somehow materialise by circumventing the realm of ideology. We come to a socialist view of the world by interacting directly or indirectly with others, exchanging ideas with them. And that is perhaps the role of the revolutionary group as being – as a catalyst in the process of changing consciousness.

Class struggle without any clear understanding of where you are going is simply committing oneself to a never-ending treadmill. This is where the Leninists also goes wrong. They think mechanistically that a sense of revolutionary direction emerges spontaneously out of “the struggle” thus circumventing the realm of ideology – the need to educate . It does not. The workers can never win the class struggle while it is confined simply to the level of trade union militancy; it has to be transformed into a socialist consciousness.Conversely, socialist consciousness cannot simply rely for its own increase on ideological persuasion. It has to link up with the practical struggle. The success of the socialist revolution will depend on the growth of socialist consciousness on a mass scale and that these changed ideas can only develop through a practical movement.
Discontent over wage levels or conditions at work can be a catalyst for socialist understanding but so can many other things such as concern about the environment or war or the threat of war or bad housing or the just the general “culture” of capitalism . It can be said that history has not borne out the view that there is some sort of automatic evolution from trade union consciousness to reformist political consciousness to revolutionary socialist consciousness (as Marx and Engels and Social Democracy tended to assume). It’s just not happened. In fact the opposite has: trade unions have dropped talking about the class struggle and socialism to present themselves as on a par with insurance companies, complete with trendy names such as UNITE , or whatever , to deal with problems at work.We have never uncritically accepted trade unionism. We support only trade unionism when it is on sound lines .

You say concerning union activity ” nor do you get involved in them”

We certainly have commented and offered support and solidarity in our literature but we share one thing in common with the IWW in the sense that unions should not be used as a vehicle for political parties and have their control fought over . The SPGB have always insisted that there will be a separation and that no political party should , or can successfully use , unions as an economic wing , until a time very much closer to the revolution when there are substantial and sufficient numbers of socialist conscious workers . And for the foreseeable thats far off in the future . It is NOT the SPGB’s task to lead the workers in struggle or to instruct its members on what to do in trade unions, tenants’ associations or whatever , because we believe that class conscious workers and socialists are quite capable of making decisions for themselves.For the Trotskyist-Lenininist , all activity should be mediated by the Party .

Naturally , we have met your arguments against the employment of Parliament over the years from a variety of quarters .

Basically, there are only three ways of winning control of the State: (a) armed insurrection; (b) more or less peaceful mass demonstrations and strikes; (c) using the electoral system.
The SPGB adopted, in the light of then existing political conditions, for (c), but without ruling out (b) or even (a) should these conditions change (or in other parts of the world where conditions were different).
But this was never understood as simply putting an “X” on a ballot paper and letting the Socialist Party and its MPs establish Socialism for workers. The assumption always was that there would be a “conscious” and active Socialist majority outside Parliament, democratically organised both in a mass Socialist political party and, at work, in ex-trade union type organisations ready to keep production going during and immediately after the winning of political control.
Having adopted (c), various other options follow. Obviously, if there’s a Socialist candidate people who want Socialism are urged to vote for thatcandidate. But what if there’s no Socialist candidate? Voting for any other candidate is against the principles. So what to do? The basic choice is/was between abstention and spoiling the ballot paper (by writing “Socialism” across it). The policy adopted and confirmed ever since was the latter, ie a sort of write-in vote for Socialism.

In the conscious political battle to abolish Capitalism, and introduce Socialism, some means must be utilized in effecting the change. The SPGB preferred method is the vote or ballot. History teaches us this method is revolutionary and effective. In modern society, where civilized custom prevails, the vote is invariably resorted to in order to translate thought and desire into action. Socialists knows that the vote is not merely a token, or gesture, or means of measurement, or scrap of paper, but a potent and effective weapon providing, of course, that there is an educated, determined individual behind the vote.

The State is the centralized organized power of the capitalist class. In the interests of that class it performs a dual function – administers the property affairs of the various sections comprising the class, and takes whatever steps are considered necessary to keep the working class in order. It is the latter coercive function of the State that concerns us here.
It controls every department of the armed forces, all the way from the policemen’s clubs up to the colossal force of the atomic bomb. So long as the capitalist class is allowed to remain in control of the military, there would be no chance of dispossessing the capitalists, or abolishing their system. The primary move on the part of a revolutionary working class entails gaining control of the armed forces. The House of Commons, Reichstag, Congress or Dail, these so-called popular assemblies control the armed forces. Every bill presented, and every law passed, regarding every phase of military expenditure, reduction, or increase, has to go through the parliamentary channels.
There is no possibility of the workers successfully engaging the capitalist class on the basis of brute force or violence. If the capitalist means of combat rested merely and solely of police clubs, then, we might well organize workers’ battalions ( such as the Irish Citizens Army ) equipped with the same weapons, and prepared by ten easy lessons in ju-jitsu, and give a good account of ourselves on the field of action. But the tremendous and destructive nature of military weapons in society today preclude the possibility of successful competition. The owning class has a supreme and invincible weapon within its grasp: political power, – control of the army, navy, air and police forces.
That power is conferred upon the representatives of the owners at election times and they, recognizing its importance, spend large amounts of wealth and much time and effort to secure it. In countries like Britain and the U.S.A. (and many more) the workers form the bulk of the voters; a situation the employers are compelled to face and deal with. Hence the intense stream of opinion-forming influences which stems from their ownership and control of press, radio, schools to influence the workers to the view that Capitalism is the best of all possible social forms. And that only political groups who accept this view are worthy of workers votes. All of capitalism’s power, including its coercive power, is in the hands of the working class.

“Democracy” has become an ideology used to give capitalist rule a spurious legitimacy . But it is still sufficient to allow the working class to organise politically and economically without too much state interference and also, we would argue, to allow a future socialist majority to gain control of political power.

You ask “Am I right or not in saying this creates a division of labour in the party/movement?”

Capitalist democracy is not a participatory democracy, which a genuine democracy has to be. Political analysts call the current affair the “elite theory of democracy” since under it , all that the people get to choose is which elite should exercise government power. People generally elect to Parliament professional politicians who they merely vote for and then let them get on with the job. In other words, the electors abdicate their responsibility to keep any eye on their representatives, giving them a free hand to do what the operation of capitalism demands. But that’s as much the fault of the electors as of their representatives, or rather it is a reflection of their low level of democratic consciousness. It cannot be blamed on the principle of representation as such. There is no reason in principle why, with a heightened democratic consciousness (such as would accompany the spread of socialist ideas), even representatives sent to state bodies could not be subject – while the state lasts – to democratic control by those who sent them there. They go as our message boys and girls . It is the quality of the voters that makes the vote revolutionary or not . The institution of parliament is not at fault . It is just that people’s ideas have not yet developed beyond belief in leaders and dependence on a political elite .

The argument sometimes raise against is that “power corrupts” . But if power inevitability corrupts why does this not apply also in non-parliamentary elected bodies such as syndicalist union committees or workers councils? Anti-parliamentarians have to envisage some other means of expressing the popular will/public demand other than a parliament elected by and responsible to a socialist majority amongst the population. But what, exactly? It would have to be something like the Congress of Socialist Industrial Unions or a Central Council of the Federation of Workers Councils . That’s not to deny that it could be one of these (because bodies such as these will exist at the time), but would any of these bodies be more efficient and more effective (and even more democratic) in controlling the State administrative machinery than a socialist majority elected to Parliament by universal suffrage in a secret ballot.
It is hardly conceivable when there is, say, 10 percent of the population who are socialist, that at election times they will not decide to put up candidates against those favouring capitalism. What would be the point of boycotting elections? There would be nothing to gain .

James Connolly wrote “I am inclined to ask all and sundry amongst our comrades if there is any necessity for this presumption of antagonism between the industrialist and the political advocate of socialism. I cannot see any. I believe that such supposed necessity only exists in the minds of the mere theorists or doctrinaires. The practical fighter in the work-a-day world makes no such distinction. He fights, and he votes; he votes and he fights. He may not always, he does not always, vote right; nor yet does he always fight when and as he should. But I do not see that his failure to vote right is to be construed into a reason for advising him not to vote at all; nor yet why a failure to strike properly should be used as a gibe at the strike weapon, and a reason for advising him to place his whole reliance upon votes.” http://www.marxists.org/archive/connolly/1914/05/changes.htm

As an SPGBer, i see no reason to fault him .

You can quote incidents from the past like Allende and i could counter with the example of Franco’s invasion by foreign troops ( the Moors and Foreign Legionaires ) and his very first atrocity – the summary execution of 200 hundred senior army officers who remained loyal to the State.

But it’s not us in the SPGB nor the handful of socialist/anarchists today who’re going to establish socialism.It will be the mass of people out there. Until they move,we’re stymied. Until then we agree to disagree. Those who want to argue that such a society should be established through democratic majority political action based on socialist understanding, and who want to concentrate on arousing this, will join the SPGB. Those argue that it will come about some other way, or want to do other things as well, will join some other group. But the disagreements should be comradely differing views within the same movement and move on from sectarianism , something that the SPGB has come more to recognise in recent years . Contrary to a book title , we are movement and not a monument .

1 01 2010
Chris

How would the SPGB view Marx’s consideration of the shortening of the working day as a triumph of proletarian political economy over bourgeois?

1 01 2010
ajohnstone

As confirmation of the necessity of political action .

Although the bettering of the conditions of existence by way of political reform is impossible, it is not the same as regards the conditions of fighting. To distinguish between the conditions of fighting and the conditions of existence is not to split hairs. Some reforms would render the attacks of the proletariat more powerful, those of capitalism weaker- the right to strike , the right to picket , for instance . The class struggle is, therefore, both industrial and political but the SPGB consider the latter as being its ultimate form and its revolutionary form .
Of course always useful to remember that what the State giveth, it can also taketh away. Since the 70s the struggle to reduce working hours has disappeared and improvements in working conditions have gradually been reversed.

1 01 2010
David

Both Chris’s question and Allan’s reply do not address the point of the article and previous discussion, however, which is that there is a difference between fighting for “reforms” (which are indisputably a good thing for the working class, both for giving better living standards and more space in which to fight for further gains) and entering a “reformist” government.

I want the capitalist state to concede (not, as Allan says, “give”) ground to us, I do not want us to manage it ourselves. This reflects the difference between socialism and social change “from below” or “from above”.

Obviously “the shortening of the working day” is a triumph for the working class, and runs against capitalism’s objective to make us work harder for longer and extract more profits. Making such gains increases our control over how things are run and in that sense accrues working-class power. It is incontestably important to win that, or else you will never convince people of the feasibility of us taking over the whole shop.

However, of course, ultimately it is true that what is wrong with capitalism is not just a set of grievances (bad managers, low pay, long hours) which could be reformed into socialism bit by bit.

1 01 2010
Barry

The schematic old formula’s of the Communist international implied that a “workers government” sat on top of the state apparatus to,use Davids phrase, could respond to mass pressure to the extent that it would represent some kind of transitional phase or stage. On the other hand the policy of the united front claimed to put the reformist leaders to the test and demonstrate that ultimately these leaders would defend the bourgeois state. When do they represent the proletarian mass pressure and when do they betray? in between the schematic tactical poles there is a history of accommodation to reformism.

Not that New Labour leaders are right wing social democrats like Roy Hattersley who is made to look very left indeed by the current leaders of the labour party. The mass of voters who vote new labour are voting for a lesser evil not for parliamentary socialism. The tiny bands of trotskyists who vote Labour are with the masses, but on the basis of the lesser evil not Socialism.

But the logic of the United front is that the official reformist leaders can become instruments of struggle to lead the movement towards a transcendence of capitalism. The history shows otherwise. It shows the murder of revolutionaries ,the killing and destruction of worker militants,the calling off of mass action. The crushing of the German revolution in 1918, the facilitating of the victory of the fascists in germany in the 1930′s the calling off of the general strike in 1926 in Britain, the irrelevance of the labour party to mass struggle 1910/14 in Britain and so on.

The focus on the tactical appeal to the official leaders of the mass reformist organisations exposes not so much the reformist leaders as the lack of confidence in the masses, in their own capacity to act independently in their own interest . Trotsky united front policy for germany in the 1930′s called on the german communist party to return to true Leninism when the leaders were stalinists and counter revolutionary and assumed the social democratic leaders would defend the bourgeois democratic state instead of conceding more and more democratic ground as a lesser evil until their was no democratic ground left. Trade union leaders even marched with Hitler after his victory before they were put in concentration camps, once they had served their purpose.

It should also be remembered that Lenins left wing communism was written during the period when the Bolsheviks were pursuing a policy of socialism in a separate country or saw the Soviet union as the centre of world revolution. The desired politcal effect of the United front tactic was pressure on the democratic states to moderate their stance on Russia. lenin did make revolutionary sounding qualifications, but often these qualifications were not practical once the united front or critical support for reformists was put into place. Their was no complete freedom of agitation and propaganda inside the labour party after Hendersons constitutional changes in 1918. There were banns prescriptions and expulsions. The socialist societies were marginalised and the role of the trade union leaders enlarged. The affiliation tactic was a dead letter or academic. Those who were or claimed to be communists would not be allowed into the party as an organisation.

i will finish on John maclean’s point from the mass struggle of 1910. The historical detail is outside of the abtract schemas of the Later 3rd International. The question of exposing the vacillations of the reformist leaders is not decisive. What is decisive is practically leading or helping to organise the mass struggle independent of the official leaders.

1 01 2010
c0mmunard

I think the article seeks to repudiate, and at times conflates, a few very different arguments:

– whether there is any value in the “workers’ government” slogan
– whether communists ought to enter coalitions with social democrats (the “united front”) in electoral politics and/or government.
– whether to advocate a vote for a “least worst” option (or “any least worst option which maintains some formal relation with trade unions”) (I think we’re all agreed, by the way, that the answer is no.)
– whether communists ought to participate in state elections at all

The article is mostly about the second and third of these issues, but puports to provide a resolution to the first through doing so. But answers on the second and third points are not enough to give us an answer to the first.

As a result, there are several open questions. For instance, the Harman/Potter article which David quotes (and which I would reccomend to everyone) is in favour of the workers’ government idea, essentially on the basis that immediately upon election, said government dissolve and arm the proletariat. David – where do you disagree with the article, and this perspective? (For what it’s worth, I think the other thing that could be done, in case of the proletariat not being immediately revolutionary, is radical democratisation of the state – I don’t see it as being the necessary path, a la our “democratic republican” comrades, but I don’t see why it’s impossible.)

Are there any conditions under which communists ought to participate in state elections? The article implies, but does not clearly say, no – which is a big idea to leave merely as an implication.

A democratic mandate may well win troops etc. over to the revolution, but how can you flatly assume that this would work? There are many examples of democratically elected governements being overthrown by the army.

True – but how could you flatly assume it wouldn’t? And isn’t that what you’re doing, unless you allow for some sort of interventionist orientation to electoral politics?

On the question of the SPGB’s attitude and Marx’s views, more germane is his view, expressed in Value, Price and Profit:

Such being the tendency of things in this system, is this saying that the working class ought to renounce their resistance against the encroachments of capital, and abandon their attempts at making the best of the occasional chances for their temporary improvement? If they did, they would be degraded to one level mass of broken wretches past salvation. I think I have shown that their struggles for the standard of wages are incidents inseparable from the whole wages system, that in 99 cases out of 100 their efforts at raising wages are only efforts at maintaining the given value of labour, and that the necessity of debating their price with the capitalist is inherent to their condition of having to sell themselves as commodities. By cowardly giving way in their everyday conflict with capital, they would certainly disqualify themselves for the initiating of any larger movement.
http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1865/value-price-profit/ch03.htm

For me, it’s those second and final sentences which are so key and so clearly true, which establish the relation between “economic” and revolutionary action (whilst the third sentence establishes the implicitly political nature of such action), and which the SPGB’s indifference to economic action (which often takes place through unions) directly contradicts.

1 01 2010
ajohnstone

i may have been out still celebrating new year and getting pissed but where exactly did in any of my posts did i give any credence to what Communard calls the “SPGB’s indifference to economic action (which often takes place through unions) ”

I won’t bother going thru those earlier posts . But again it exhibits what i previously called a throwaway dismissal of the SPGB case without any real understanding of it .

Are the workers to sit down and have their wages reduced? Are they to starve while capitalism lasts? This is the attitude being incorrectly advanced . The charge rests on the failure to distinguish between economic and political demands. First of all, it should be obvious, that even if we wished to avoid the day-to-day struggle, we HAVE to take part in it. It is not something created by socialists or something we can ignore, but part and parcel of capitalism. Socialists take part in every struggle in the economic field to improve conditions. We are as militant as anybody else. But we point out its limitations. That’s why we are members of the SPGB . The function of the Party is to make Socialists, to propagate Socialism.

Unions are the workers most effective means of defence under capitalism. In the absence of unions, the workers have no way of braking the downward pressure on their living standards and their working conditions. Only by means of their combined numbers in labour unions are the workers able to put up same form of resistance against the insatiable drive of capital for more surplus value. Only through unions can the workers ease the strain on their nerves and muscles in the factories, mills, and mines. Since surplus value is produced at the point of production, the most violent manifestations of the class struggle break out at that point. At that point the organized resistance of labour meets the combined onslaught of capital. The history of the labour movement proves the Marxian contention that wages are not regulated by any “iron law” but can be modified by organised militant action on the part of the workers by what Marx calls historical and social factors.

Those Socialists who argue that unions are only institutions of capitalism ( such as the ICC ) are correct, but they miss the point. Unions are class struggle institutions, and as such serve as a fertile field for socialist education and propaganda. As stated earlier , participation in the class struggle does not automatically make workers class conscious and that haqs to be remembered .

This brings us the role of the socialist in the trade unions. As a union member the socialist can participate in union affairs and in the course of doing so he can clarify events for his fellow workers in the light of socialist knowledge. No matter what issue happens to be under consideration, the socialist can explain it from the standpoint workers of class interests. Is the union engaged in negotiating with management for a wage increase , for example ? Then the socialist can make clear that wages represent only a portion of what workers produce, and that the unpaid portion is surplus value appropriated by the employing class. Another task of socialists in the unions is to wage an unceasing fight against the trend towards bureaucracy, urging the workers to be vigilant in the defence of their democratic rights, opposing high salaries for the officials , proposing limited tenure of office, insisting that all major decisions be ratified by the membership – demanding that the unions be conducted of, for and by its members in fact as well as theory. Socialists should consistently impress upon the workers the urgency of restoring the union to the membership, in whose democratic control it belongs. The character of the leadership is to a large degree a reflection of the maturity or lack of maturity of the rank and file. Socialists should seek to raise the understanding of the rank and file, to imbue them with an awareness that their elected representatives should be the servants, not the masters, of the membership. The unions should belong to the members, and not be dominated by any clique, political or otherwise.
Unions are first last and all the time economic organizations operating within the framework of capitalism. Attempts to use them for purposes other than this can only react to the detriment of the unions and their members.

Socialists understand that this economic struggle against the capitalists is merely a defensive struggle, to keep capital from beating the working class living standards down . For this reason we couple our struggle on the economic front with political education of the workers on the shop floor or in the offices . We point out the limitations of wage increases that it will merely stimulate employers to introduce new methods so that they will have fewer workers or higher productivity so ready and prepare for the next battle .

Socialists are involved in the economic struggle by the fact that we are members of the working class which naturally resists capital. But this is not the same thing as stating that the socialist party engages in activity for higher wages and better conditions. This is not the function of the socialist party. Its task is to fight for socialism, and the method it employs is education of the majority. The socialist party is not concerned with reforms under capitalism. This is the concern of the ruling class which uses reforms to bribe off the working class, and the concern of those groups, such as the unions and their political arms, which seek to get all they can out of the present system. ( Were the socialist movement to vanish from the earth, the capitalist, by the very class nature of the system, would still grant reforms to forestall the development of revolutionary thought among the workers and a rapidly rising socialist movement would force the capitalist class to grant more and more reforms)

Indifferent to economic action , give me a break !!!

1 01 2010
c0mmunard

“where exactly did in any of my posts did i give any credence to what Communard calls the “SPGB’s indifference to economic action (which often takes place through unions) ” ”

Earlier: “of course it is true tyhat we do not see them as stepping stones towards socialism and nor also necessarily consciousness raising”.

I appreciate you didn’t actually use the word “indifferent”, but I hope that you can see why I got the impression I did. To be clear, I think what Marx is saying in the section I quoted is that economic action, including union action is politically necessary, necessary for a revolutionary political movement. And you’re disagreeing with that, as I see it, since for you, economic action is valuable from the point of view of proletarians who rely on it for their living conditions, but has no fundamental conenection to revolutionary politics. The question isn’t whether “the socialist party” raises reformists demands, by the way, it’s about how it relates to the real emergence of action for such demands when they emerge from the class.

I assure you that I am not trying to misrepresent you.

EDIT: By the way, a further thought on the original article. I thiink a major issue with the slogan, a la AWL, is that in the absence of a concrete movement on which to base the call for the creation of a political or electoral wing, all it amounts to is a call for action to put pressure on the union leaders or Labour MPs.

2 01 2010
Chris

Comrade David’s conflates several old questions under the subject of the slogan of a workers government, reform and revolution, the united workers front, communist participation in coalition governments and the popular front to name a few. In terms of the united front it is felt it is counterproductive and weakens ‘the communists’ appeal’ and a priori so to the workers government.

The United Front
Current concepts of the united front originates in a very different historical context from our own. Contrary to the above article the united front was a tactic not a “strategy”, it was first mapped out at the Third congress of the Communist International in 1921 and more fully at the Fourth in 1922. The context of this policy was one in which there was an ebb in the revolutionary wave in the metropolitan capitalist countries. Revolutions had been defeated in Hungary, Slovakia and Germany, struggles in Czechoslovakia and in Italy had ended in failure. A capitalist counter-offensive was underway and fascism was on the move. Nevertheless the communist movement was still growing, and whilst the situation was still volatile there was a need re-adjust its tactics in light of changed circumstances. This has relevance for our situation in terms of how we adjust our activities to a non-revolutionary situation where the working class in not on the offensive. Part of the reasoning at the time was also directly linked to the very role of a communist party – that is to generate mass communist consciousness – something hardly achievable by small sectarian left organistaions. The driving force of the policies was to get rooted in the masses.
The Comintern was explicit that the “united front tactic has nothing to do with the so-called ‘electoral combinations’ of leaders in pursuit of one or another parliamentary aim.” But was “ simply an initiative whereby the Communists propose to join with all workers belonging to other parties and groups and all unaligned workers in a common struggle to defend the immediate, basic interests of the working class against the bourgeoisie.”
The tactic was not simply some trick to expose reformist leaders of the Social-Democratic parties, it went much wider, it involved the cohering of the working class’s forces to mount more effective struggles and developing the hegemony of communist ideas and organisation. It was to “mean the unity of all workers willing to fight against capitalism – including those workers who still follow the anarchists, syndicalists, etc.”
David says the united front weakens the communists because the tactic requires propping up the party doing the selling out, but where, when, and what was the alternative? The German left KAPD opposed the united front and spiraled in sectarian self-isolation from a party of tens of thousands to a few hundred. Their policy was later mimicked by the KPD itself in the face of the rising Nazis with disastrous consequences. Similarly the Gramsci/Bordiga led Italian PCI opposed the united front –this refusal to work with the Socialists against the fascists only maintained a divided workers movement clearing the road for Mussolini – Gramsci to his credit learnt from this erroneous viewpoint.
The Comintern conception of the united front in no way amounts to a capitulation to reformism or opportunism. The policy was emphatic on maintaining independence and warned: “There may be cases of bending the stick too far the other way; there may be tendencies which amount to the dissolution of the Communist Parties and groups into a formless united bloc. If the use of this tactic is to advance the cause of Communism, the actual Communist Parties carrying it out must be strong, united and under an ideologically clear leadership.”

The Workers Government
The Comintern concept of the workers government similarly had little to do with class collaboration with bourgeois parties, unlike the later idea of the Popular Front of Stalinism. The slogan of a workers government originated with the German Communist’s, it was designed to counter act attempts by the reformist Social Democrats to form coalitions with capitalist parties. Whilst considered a general agitation slogan it was specifically about countries where the balance of class forces put the question of government on the day. It was not about managing capitalism but overthrowing it. A workers government of the workers parties was considered possible, even arising from a parliamentary basis, BUT only in close connection with the revolutionary movement and its struggle. The policy placed a strict condition that Communists would join such a government on the basis it actually fights the bourgeoisie including arming workers. The whole idea is that it should sharpen class conflict and increase the revolutionary potentialities. This is what happened in Germany in 1923 when the KPD formed a coalition regional government with the SPD.
The whole of the workers government was not for the workers’ parties to “sit on top of the state machine, i.e., separate and apart from the working class.” The opposite was the case. See: Theses on Comintern Tactics
http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/4th-congress/tactics.htm

Revolutionary Parliamentarism
Clearly our circumstances in the UK today are very different from the situation when the tactic of the united workers front and workers government were penned, we are as communists simply not in a position to build genuine united front’s as originally conceived. Whilst this all may seem remote they still hold very relevant ideas for us, and as cited we can see on the continent experiences not so distant – such as that of Rifondazione Comunista in Italy.
David points to the decision to enter a coalition government with Prodi and vote for more funding for troops in Afghanistan. But what does this prove, that the slogan of a workers government is wrong or the unprincipled behavior of Fausto Bertinotti’s leadership? It was entirely possible for them to have entered the coalition on a principled basis, linked to the movement engaged in extra-Parliamentary struggle, and conditional on its interests. That is to engage in Revolutionary Parliamentarism – one act of entering the government did not necessarily lead to the other of betrayal. This arose from politics not participation as such. The damage to the communist party by this opportunism was compounded by sectarianism, true to form the Trotskyists left the mass party over the first big disagreement to form Partito Comunista dei Lavoratori, Partito di Alternativa Comunista and Sinistra Critica.
David’s narrowing to two choices is simplistic in this regard – a revolutionary communist approach would not have been to walk away but lead a struggle and utilize the platform provided. The failure of the Party Ministers to follow should have seen them expelled. A further point here is that this example is of a communist party entering a coalition with a reformist party I would argue that for a communist party to enter a coalition with a bourgeois party – a Popular Front would be a very different and completely unacceptable practice. Where the workers government slogan was part of breaking up the bourgeois state – the latter is about supporting it. This makes the whole sogan very abstract in the UK today as to whom does the slogan workers government relate to? There is no communist party as such, to call for a Labour vote is hardly the equivalent to the slogan of a workers government at all.

Revolutionary process is not a blueprint
I cannot disagree with the critique of the nature of left governments which seek to manage the system but this is not the concept of workers government in the original, communist, meaning of the concept. Furthermore it is important to consider that a revolutionary process in the UK will in all probability involve divisions and splits of sections of Parliament and Local government. The historical experiences of revolutions from the English Revolution of the 17th century, Chartism 19th century and Ireland in the 20th century show combinations of representative forms within the unfolding revolutionary process. Splits taking place and new bodies arising in opposition to the old. Any future communist revolution could see a similar pattern, one thing is certain however self-isolation such as abandoning the united front can only undermine the ability to achieve working class hegemony and wage the war of position.

2 01 2010
David

The article explains why a coalition between a communist party and social-democrats over the bourgeois state is also a cross-class alliance since the workers’ parties are tied to… the bourgeois state. The sentence:

“a Popular Front would be a very different and completely unacceptable practice. Where the workers government slogan was part of breaking up the bourgeois state – the latter is about supporting it”

Does not address the argument I raised, which is that governments not involving bourgeois parties also support the bourgeois state.

The Fourth Congress document has all sorts of flighty phrases about the government being based on the class struggle and Chris adds that it would break up the bourgeois state.

We have already discussed the division of labour of this schema (mass mobilisation of supporters for the left government is not the same thing as revolution from below), not to mention that it intents to break up the state bit by bit and from above. It is a tactic for non-revolutionary times: but if what it seeks to do is revolutionary, breaking up the bourgeois state, then it is little but a reformist strategy for revolution. It is meant to start off not revolutionary, then with the gradual realisation that that is impossible without resistance from the bourgeoisie, change course…

“a coalition of all workers’ parties around economic and political issues, which will fight and finally overthrow bourgeois power. Following a united struggle of all workers against the bourgeoisie, the entire state apparatus must pass into the hands of a workers’ government, so strengthening the position of power held by the working class.”

(Despite its apparent confusions, the argument is that the workers’ government is indeed revolutionary because it would take full control of the bourgeois state then rule it on behalf of the class).

“It is obvious that the formation of a genuine workers’ government, and the continued existence of any such government committed to revolutionary politics, must lead to a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie or even to civil war. The mere attempt by the proletariat to form such a workers’ government will from its very first days come up against extremely strong resistance from the bourgeoisie. The slogan of a workers’ government therefore has the potential to rally the proletarians and unleash revolutionary struggle.”

(Harman’s comment comes to mind: “Hence the all-important paradox: the advent of a left government will only strengthen the workers’ movement inasmuch as the class, or at least its vanguard, do not have illusions in this government. The more independent and strong the workers’ movement is, the more reforms it will force from the government. The more it relies on its own forms of organisation, the more the way is open to a fundamental change in the balance of power between the workers and their allies and the bourgeoisie. But the more it is tied to the structures of state power, the greater is the possibility of bourgeois reaction.”

The Fourth Congress document is also confusionist, the language about it being borne from the movement from below masking the fact that the formation of a workers’ government would represent the delegation of power from the mass movement to a group at the helm of the bourgeois state.

Of course it wants extra-parliamentary support, and anyone can denounce parliamentary manoeuvres, but in the only example you give, the extra-parliamentary movement was subordinated to the parliamentary agreement:

Chris raises the example of Germany in 1923. I do not see what advocates of the workers’ government slogan see in this. Really it marked an adaptation of the KPD leadership, and the right of the party, to the left of the SPD. In October of that year the KPD entered government in Saxony (10th) and Thuringia (16th) with the left-wing of the SPD.

Both governments were legitimately elected… but nonetheless the Berlin government agreed that the army should take direct control of the local police. So no access to weapons.

The KPD called a factory councils conference in Chemnitz for the 21st, to plan a general strike. There would have been a majority for such a strike, but the SPD lefts would not have supported it. So what did Brandler do? Cancel the strike. He wrote to Zetkin:

“During the Chemnitz conference I realised that we could under no circumstances enter the decisive struggle, once we had not been able to convince the left SPD to sign the decision for a general strike,” Brandler wrote. “Against massive resistance I altered course and prevented us, the Communists, from entering the struggle on our own. Of course we could have received a two-thirds majority for a general strike on the Chemnitz conference. But the SPD would have left the conference and their confusing slogans, that the intervention of the Reich against Saxony had only the purpose of concealing the Reich’s intervention against Bavaria, would have broken our fighting spirit. So I consciously worked for a foul compromise.”

The Hamburg uprising happened anyway – unaware of this pulling back – and was crushed. The army then took the opportunity to invade both Saxony and Thuringia and depose the governments. Hardly a tactical triumph for the KPD.

For sure we can think of all sorts of nuances and reasons why the same experience would not unfold today. But given that the workers’ government lasted briefly and achieved so little, why is it such a good example of the tactic’s efficacy?

2 01 2010
David

Communard:

Obviously I would agree that in Britain today there are no forces by which to bring about the slogan of workers’ government anyhow and thus it is pie in the sky to raise such a specific strategy. There is no communist party, and who are the ‘reformists’ today? Labour reform towards… what?

I do not accept that I am ‘conflating’ the workers’ government with united front with social democrats, since as the Third and Fourth Congress documents argue, the workers’ government is the natural conclusion of the united front of such parties ‘in struggle’. Workers’ government is just a label for a variant of such a government. The level of class struggle in wider society is of course important but I do not think there is much difference between managing the capitalist state ‘in defence of working class living standards’ (low class struggle) or ‘towards socialism’ (revolutionary class struggle outside Parliament…), they both fall down for the reasons I have described.

I see no need for a middle stage of ‘failed attempt at socialism from above’ in between now and the future revolution so see little value in the idea of workers’ government. I will repeat once again, in response to all points raised, that coalition with social democrats means coalition with people committed to managing capitalism, and who in the case of resistance (not just armed resistance to revolution, but even opposition to progressive legislation) from the bourgeoisie will not proceed to socialism but backtrack.

And in terms of arming the proletariat: how useful could this be today? Most revolutions live or die depending on their ability to either pacify the army or win mass disaffection from soldiers (Portugal 1974 and Iran 1979: army support for regime collapses; Russia 1917, enough desertion to allow Reds to win). That is obviously important if attempted revolution is not to end in nuclear apocalypse…

On another couple of points

However, the scenario is not so wildly unimaginable in some countries on the continent. Confounding his claim that coalition of workers’ parties and the workers’ government are separate things and should not be conflated, Chris defends Rifondazione entering government “one act of entering the government did not necessarily lead to the other of betrayal.”

Entering a government attacking the working class is in itself a betrayal though, they could not even have voted through Prodi’s budget without selling out extra-parliamentary movements. I do not see any particular tactical nous in entering such a government then ditching either, if they make such a big deal about the need to keep out Berlusconi, then let him in when they dump Prodi out of power, they will end up looking foolish.

We may well live in non-revolutionary times, that is no reason to accommodate to reformism and go into government, which is what such a coalition is. As I said in the original article, there do not need to be “bourgeois parties” involved for it to be a Popular Front, if the right wing of the coalition is committed to managing capitalism.

Chris uses the argument about breaking up the bourgeois state in defence of the classic conception of the workers’ government (wrongly in my view, as in comment above) but clearly cannot do so for the 2006 Italian government example, so how can you possibly defend the coalition?

2 01 2010
Chris

David says his article is based on the most simplistic and actually a moral argument – that a coalition between a communist party and social-democrats is a cross-class alliance. The evidence of this is not the politics of bloc but the simple fact it occurs at all. T he simple fact of taking up a position in the bourgeois state equals class collaboration because it is the bourgeois state. This makes no differentiation at all of whether the communist party takes up the position to actually govern, wreck, use it as platform for wider mobilisation against the state.
To complement this David simply reads into the old Comintern policy what he wants, that is to imbue it with reformism, and to turn it into an absolute policy in all times in all conditions which it was never intended to be. Here it says explicitly:
“ However, as a central political slogan, the workers’ government is most important in countries where the position of bourgeois society is particularly unstable and where the balance of forces between the workers’ parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the order of the day as a practical problem requiring immediate solution.”
This is not a tactic for non-revolutionary times is it?
The Comintern did not advocate a reformist parliamentary road to revolution unless you consider standing in any election, obtaining any reforms as reformism. This was a movement also actively organising armed actions at the time of this policy.
Furthermore I have tried to show that historical – real experience – shows that a revolutionary process in the UK will no doubt combine elements of elected representatives in the existing state prior to the creation of new organisation outside of it.
There is no hard and fast rule except, participation in the bourgeois state does not exclude the emergence of workers own organisations to replace it.
You furthermore do not explain the abandonment of the united front tactic – what is the alternative to pure, splendid isolation?

2 01 2010
David

Hi Chris, my reference to non-revolutionary times was quoting your own

“whilst the situation was still volatile there was a need re-adjust its tactics in light of changed circumstances. This has relevance for our situation in terms of how we adjust our activities to a non-revolutionary situation where the working class in not on the offensive. ”

Again though, I would ask how the various arguments about the Comintern (e.g. it wasn’t hard and fast, they wanted to break up the bourgeois state, they had conditions) fit with your arguments over Rifondazione, in which those conditions clearly do not apply…

To clarify (and I apologise because it is not clear in my comments above), I am very much in favour of ‘united fronts from below’, i.e. workers of different political persuasions fighting over particular struggles, campaigns etc. together. I am not at all advocating abstention from such fights until such a point as the communists are already in the majority (!). No, not at all.

But what is important in that is the unity in action, the movement from below, the same cannot be said either for such things as campaigns which are just lash-ups between union leaders and left groups (No2EU, anyone?), nor the coalition government of workers’ parties.

I nowhere say that the Comintern tactic is a hard and fast rule. I did argue that in the main example of its application, Germany in 1923, it both did not work, and undermined the extent to which the KPD were actually “wrecking” the bourgeois state. The Comintern also organised armed insurrections at the same time, yes, but they did not sit easily with this approach as the German example showed.

As it happens, the Fourth Congress motion advocates the workers’ government taking over – rather than simply dissolving – the entire state apparatus and says this would crush bourgeois power. To me certainly that seems statist and an inadequate understanding of where the bourgeoisie’s (and working class’s) power lies.

I think there is a distinction between entering government and then taking part in elections/having MPs, since the latter does not necessarily mean taking responsibility for capitalist budgeting and can be a platform of resistance, I do not think you can say the same for those on the inside of government.

2 01 2010
Barry

The revolutionary process is not a blue print or a tactical plan from the 3rd International put forward in very different historical circumstances. Nor should we assume the tactics recommended at the time were true communist tactics as an article of faith. If we had a critical view of the internal policies of the communist leaders of the Soviet union 1921/22 at our recent day school why can we not have a critical view of of their external policies in their leadership of the 3rd international?

In his report on the tactics of the united front to the international in 1922 Trotsky spoke about workers desire for unity in the struggle against capitalism. The tactic of the united front was decisive or came to the fore when a communist party had independently won over a significant section of the class to communism. He put the amount of support at about 20% or even a third of the class. These mass of communists would connect with the mass of workers in reformist organisations with the demand on their leaders for unity with the communist party. if the leaders turned down unity they would be exposed opposing the basic desire of workers for unity. But the tactic assumed the social democratic leaders could become instruments of the revolutionary struggle. But to what extent? Trotsky aknowledges the reformist leaders could be a brake on the movement. But what about if they head off the movment or disarm it (TUC 1926) it or help destroy it? (Germany 1918)

This brings us to the issue of governmental coalition with reformists. Lenin at one point described the British labour party as a bourgeois party that is to say a Capitalist party with workers support hence a bourgeois workers party.It was workers party in a sociological sense not a party that fought for the class interests of workers. And this applied elesewhere in Europe at the time. so despite the Trotskist myths there is not a clear dividing line between popular front and united front. The popular front is not simply a stalinist phenomena. A coalition governemnt with labour party leaders such as phillip snowden and Ramsey Macdonald would be a popular front in the sense that they were bourgeois politicians and leaders of a party that was politically bourgeois.Trotsky once said the soviets were the essence of the united front, but as al Richardson used to point out unlike 1905 the soviets in 1917 in Russia were popular fronts since they included the representatives of the peasantry or another class. Lenin claimed the soviets were the living embodiment of his stategy of the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry. This envisaged a coalition government with the representatives of the peasantry. A popular front. All this is a long way from today where we face neo liberalism in the workers movement as well as in open capitalsit party’s. The tactics of the united front were debatable at the time so there usefullnes today is also open to question.

In addition Trotsky in 1922 recommends an ideologically homogenous communst party as a condition of the united front. This reflected the ban on factions and intolerance to criticism within the Russian party. The 3rd internationl was hardly democratic and tolerant either. This kind of politics should not and cannot be a guide for today.

3 01 2010
Chris

Hi David,
As regards the Rifondazione Comunista clearly the conditions in Italy not to mention mostof the world are in stark contrast to the Comintern period. This certainly renders aspects of the workers government policy of the old Communist International out of context. But not all of the principle of the approach of communists to parliamentary activity and conditions of unity with reformists.
If the Italian communists of Rifondazione entered the government as opportunist reformists ready to accommodate and play second fiddle, then that is the result which will be arise.
It is not however the case that it is inevitable that by communists such as Rifondazione Comunista entering government this should be the case simply by the fact of them being there. Many of the strict principles outlined by the old Communist International could be equally applied and adapted as an alternative to what happened.
• They could have located their parliamentary activity within the framework of a wider struggle with the capitalist class even within the framework of bourgeois democracy
• They could have set out clear condition on a coalition of class struggle and reforms to the advantage of the working class
• The Parliamentary faction should have been subjected to strict accountability to the Party
• The whole affair should not have been an end in itself but a subordinate part of mobilising extra-parliamentary forces and sharpening the class struggle.
None of what happened justified either the walking out by various sections especially the Trotskyists from Refondazione. In the UK there is no similarity, we have no mass or even large communist party, the question of voting labour is not the same thing as that of the slogan of a workers government as originally conceived. Nevertheless should communists not only stand for elections but form a government, this is certainly the case in terms of local government. The Comintern envisaged:

Should the communists have the majority in local government institutions, they should a) carry out revolutionary opposition to the bourgeois central power; b) do everything to be of service to the poorer population (economic measures, introduction or attempted introduction of an armed workers’ militia, etc.); c) at every opportunity show the limitations placed on really big changes by the bourgeois state power; d) on this basis develop the sharpest revolutionary propaganda without fearing the conflict with the power of the state; e) under certain circumstances replace the local administration by local workers’ councils. The whole activity of the Communists in the local administration must therefore be part of the general work of disrupting the capitalist system. http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/2nd-congress/ch08a.htm#v2-p49

The principles and spirit of this policy are as applicable today and not beyond the realm of possibility. If a mass communist party was to develop, or one comparable to the Italian comrades a few years ago should it adopt such principles towards the House of Commons or a workers government coalition. It entirely depends on the circumstances – the old KPD in Germany stated – “The workers government is not an unconditional necessity, but a possible stage in the struggle for political power”.
Actual revolutions and revolutionary situations in the UK show an experience of various possibilities and combinations. The 17th century English Revolution saw a split in Parliament, counter-revolution then extra parliamentary forces arise, soldiers committee etc. The Chartists posed their own counter-parliaments and were also prepared to participate in Parliament where possible in the restricted franchise. The Irish revolution saw MP’s elected split off to assemble as a counter-parliament in Dublin. Such is the weight of bourgeois democracy in political life that the next English Revolution may well involve a process of splitting off, using existing state formations as platform etc whilst simultaneous developing workers self-activity externally of the organisations of a new working class government.

As for the ‘united front from below’, on its own what does this mean how does it differ from the united front? It is a term which originates in the most sectarian and ultra left phases of the old communist international. It was a cop out from an actual united front, of building organised solidarity amongst workers of various politics in their most immediate interests. At its worst it was adopted under the direct influence of Stalinism, in Germany they said we wont form a bloc with the Social Democratic organisations against the Nazis or on anything else, but only joint activity with rank and file social democratic workers and others. It is not a united front but a word game, which basically amounts to communists saying come and support us. It was in practice an historical disaster.
The united front largely will involve activity be from below, and will develop at a rank and file level. But it does not remain there necessarily or mean abstention from organisation and unity at leadership levels also. It is ridiculous to consider all such initiative at leadership levels could equates to some form of bureaucratic manoeuvre or opportunism. Or to presume it would not make a positive difference to force the bureaucracy to move in our direction on this or that issue.
The capitalist class consistently deploy flexible tactics towards the working class, the united workers front is a part of a flexible response. The workers government is one extension of that tactic, it is not a principle or an end in itself. It does not amount to believing in capturing or being captured by the capitalist state.

3 01 2010
Chris

Hi Barry,
I do not disagree communists should be prepared to criticise not only internal policies of the governing Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in the USSR but also the external policies, such as their influence on the Third, Communist International. It would be an error however to equate the time-line of the retrogression within the infant USSR as simultaneous with that of the reduction of the mass Communist International to an agent of Stalinist Russian foreign policy. As regards the policy of the united workers front and workers government this was not formulated by the Russian CP, it originated with the German CP and their leading and talented theorist August Thalheimer. It was Thalheimer who drafted the theses of the Fourth Congress of the Comintern. Nor was this a policy which all sections adopted, the CP in Italy led by Gramsci and Bordiga did not adopt this policy. The consequences were disasterous.

3 01 2010
David

I am well aware of the historic connotations of the phrase “united front from below”, however, that does not prove it wrong.

My starting point is not that there is a Communist Party looking for allies and thus deploying one or other of these tactics, but how workers can organise, which may or may not include such forms as a party. If a NPA type party (a few thousand members) exists then its starting point should not be electoral unity with the CP or the PS but rather to support the many vibrant social movements such as already exist.

The Anti-Poll Tax Unions in Britain in 1990, for example, were not simply the creation of some left group. I am not advocating ‘come and join us’. In that example, people united on a common struggle, they did not just appeal to union general secretaries to act on their behalf.

That is the difference, between a united front which is just a coalition of leaderships, and one which demonstrates real unity. In France in 1934 the anti-fascist unity came about thanks to united mobilisation by the grassroots of the CP and SFIO, which pre-dated the moves to the Popular Front.

So for example the Poll Tax movement is different from something like Stop the War which although mobilising people en masse, is politically dominated by just a few leaders and ‘big names’ like Tony Benn, (in the past) George Galloway, SWP leaders etc.

On a question raised before, what would you say about the “workers’ government” in eastern Germany in 1923?

5 01 2010
Barry

Hi Chris

I was not attempting to equate the 3rd International as an agent of the ” soviet state” under stalinism with the the first few years of the International. But was I was pointing out was the subordination of internationalism to the interests of the development and consolidation of the regime in Russia which existed prior to the onset of stalinism. The stress on iron discipline and centralism and the unthinking following of instructions from above such as in the Bolshevisation of the CPGB with the organisation report 1922 facilitated the use of communist organisations as instruments to be manipulated.

There is a qualitative difference between the full blown socialism in one country of Stalin and Bukharin and pursuing policies that give priority to building socialism in a separate country or consolidating the revolution which has already begun in russia as lenin put it. But the Nationalist tendancy existed before the rise of stalinism.

Lenin and Zinoviev had countered Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution in 1916 with that of National democratic revolution. Lenin returned to a varient of national revolution after or during the Brest Litovsk Treaty. As early as 1918 lenin described the International revolution as a fairy tale. Bukharin used scattered writing of lenin on consolidating the revolution in Russia as the buiding blocks of his theory of socialsim in one country. Like stalin he could always find a lenin quote to back up his schema.

As far as I know the tactic of the united front originated with Bolshevik Tactical lessons from 1917 and Kornilov and the slogan to put pressure on the mensheviks: take the power. Trotsky was advocating it in advance of the fourth congress.(thesis on tactics 1922?) At one point in the thesis it aknowledges that the real success of the tactic depended on a movement from below.

But one aspect of the tactic is getting close to the social democratic leaders. one example is lenins tactics towards labour party leaders in left wing communism: Henderson Snowden Macdonald. now the context is a rant about the childishness of talk of the gap between leaders and led and dictatorship over workers. Which was as we now know was rather important in the degeneration of the Russian Revolution. So what is stressed is leaders and leaders. communist leaders manouvering with social democratic leaders on a political stage in front of an audience of the masses.

Now sylvia Pankhurst who was expelled from the CPGB for daring to criticise before the esablishment of stalinism had a good understanding of what the small forces of communism should do in relation to the fledgling Labour party. Not to dissipate revolutionary energy buiding up the labour Party but concentrate on making a communist movement to oppose the first labour Government.

But Lenins tactic was for the communist leaders to join forces with Snowden Henderson and macdonald against Lloyd George and churchill in elections. But the workers voting labour,many voting for parliamentary socialism did not need the help of 5,000 Communist votes and would be distrustful of those who called themselves communist and voted labour. Furthermore the record of henderson snowden and macdonald in government would not and did not reflect well on communists who had supported them however critically. And the tactics led to the demoralisation of the communist opposition.The Early CPGB using Lenins tactics towards the labour party and the trade union officials found themselves in a blind alley and lost support and members and were never to recover to become a mass party.

But anyway social Democracy and stalinism no longer have a hold over the masses so we need to rethink.

11 06 2012
Jacob Richter

Despite our differences, would it be possible to post an updated version of this article with more focus on Greece and less on the obviously politically bankrupt case of working with Labour?

11 06 2012
Barry

The comrade who wrote the article is no longer active in the commune. Why not post something yourself on Greece drawing on some points made in the article and in the debate. I had forgotten about this debate which looking at it now, is of high quality and still relevant

23 04 2013
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