The workers' government

Posted: 7 February 07

Chris Harman and Tim Potter

This article appeared in the International Discussion Bulletin of the British SWP 30 years ago. At that time some of the biggest far left organisations in Italy to emerge from the great wave of struggle from 1968 to 1975 changed their strategy to one of focussing on the formation of a ‘left’ government within the existing parliamentary set up. Such a government never materialised—instead the then-powerful Italian Communist Party accepted a subordinate role to a Christian Democrat government through the ‘historic compromise’, and the revolutionary left entered a terminal crisis. Nevertheless, the arguments used then have a great deal of relevence in relation to the attitude revolutionaries should have today whenthe question of government is raised—particularly in Italy, where Rifondazione comunista has entered Romano Prodi’s cenre left government and voted for sending Italian troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon.

OVER THE last three years, there has been a major revision of the concept of ‘Left Governments’. This was sparked off by the disastrous conclusion of the Chilean experience. While some currents, eg the International Socialists, saw it as showing once again the impossibility of the reformist road to socialism, other groups, notably il Manifesto’ in Italy, saw the election of such a government as being a first crucial step towards socialism.

By 1976, the analysis was being applied to Italy itself. The election programme of Avanguardia Operaia (AO) and PdUP (il Manifesto being a component in the latter), had as its main slogan the formation of a left government composed of the Communist Party, Socialist Party, and perhaps the revolutionary left as well. Mass pressure, it was claimed, could prevent ‘the left government from stabilising the situation in the interests of capitalism’ and ‘open the road for the working class to exercise power’.

Since then, both organisations have split and one of the main points in the debate has been the role and limits of such a government.

In France, with the Socialist and Communist Parties looking set to win a majority in next year’s general elections, the debate within the revolutionary left has again taken up the concept. Whilst they have avoided the reformist traps of the Italian far left, the French groups often tend to see the left government as being an end in itself. (See H Weber’s article, for instance, issue 2/3 of International Discussion Bulletin). Thus two key issues have been raised: firstly, can a government within bourgeois democracy ‘open the way to workers’ power’ and second, what should be the strategy of revolutionaries as the traditional workers’ parties move to power?

What is a ‘left’ or ‘workers’ government?

A government of the traditional workers’ parties does not gain power, merely because the majority of workers have voted for it. It also depends upon being allowed take office by the bourgeoisie, in other words they feel they are forced to give up their governmental positions to the leaders of the parties with a base in the workers’ movement. They do this either because they feel it would be counter-productive to destroy the myths of parliament¬ary democracy merely to prevent the temporary loss of power or because they feel compelled to retreat before a mass upsurge of the workers movement (as in Germany in 1918 and the SPD-USPD government, or in Spain with the Caballero government of September 1936).

However, it is only governmental positions that the bourgeoisie give up. They maintain their control over the major sectors of the state machine, over the key areas of the economy and over most of the means of communic¬ation. In other words, they retreat from the ‘front-line’ of the state, which in any case have less and less importance as the concentration of capital proceeds, but instead consolidate their power in the hierarchies of the state machine and in the economy.

Thus the ‘left government’ is not a revolutionary government formed by the smashing of the bourgeois state. Rather it exists with capitalism and its state still intact.

At a time of major social crisis the bourgeoisie is prepared to concede even major material reforms on condition that their main agency of control—the state machine—is left intact. Short-term concessions can be made as long as the bourgeoisie retain the means to perpetuate their long-term control. Reforms can always be repealed and fresh attacks launched when the workers movement has declined. But once the state has been destroyed, the bourgeoisie have no instrument to counter-pose to the power of the working class.

Thus the ‘left government’ will face a choice—either to cooperate with the instrument of the bourgeoisie or to set about destroying the state machine and replacing it by a structure of workers power through councils and militia. And this choice will be forced upon it almost immediately. After all, Allende was only allowed into power on condition that he would leave the army intact. Any ‘left government’ would be subject to a whole number of measures aimed at forcing it to cooperate with the state.

Thus a ‘left government’ would in fact leave the power of the state untouched unless it moved decisively against the existing structures from the beginning. For instance, in republican Spain in the two months after the partial defeat of Franco’s coup of July 1936 the bourgeoisie had lost control over much of industry. The state machine was splintered almost beyond repair and the workers’ militias had a near monopoly of armed power. The bourgeois liberals in government found themselves almost helpless.

Therefore in September 1936, governmental power was allowed to pass into the hands of Largo Caballero, the ‘left’ socialist. Caballero could achieve for the bourgeoisie what the liberals alone never could—the reconstruction of the state machine, since he was trusted by the masses. He accepted that the only way a ‘constitutional’ left government could function was through reliance upon the remnants of the old state machine and therefore used his ideological influence (along with that of the other workers organisations) to rebuild the state. By May 1937, the job had been done so well that the state hierarchies could replace Caballero with someone much more acceptable to their interests. Caballero was thrown out by the state machine he had rebuilt; just as Allende was murdered by the same generals whose power he had promised to respect. Yet the Spanish working class in 1936 had the power to destroy the state and the will to construct their own. By relying on the old-state, Caballero prevented the growth of the organs of workers’ power, his only defence against the day when the bourgoisie decided to get rid of him, and any ‘leftism’ that he represented.

Such a tendency to collaborate with the state machine is not primarily a consequence of the existence within such governments of bourgeois parties. Even a ‘pure workers government’ made up entirely of the traditional parties of the working class will still be in de facto coalition with the bourgeoisie through the state. 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.

Some tendencies in the left would say that the above analysis is ‘primitive’ and mechanistic; that it crudely equates the mass Euro- Communist parties of today with the pre-war parties of Social Democracy. But what elements have changed since then?

It is true that the Euro-Communist Parties are mass parties with a strong, militant membership but this was also the case with social democracy, for instance in Germany in 1918. Yet the leaders of such mass parties have presided over the reconstruction of the state and their base have been powerless to prevent them from within the party structures. The point is, that it is not the mass base

or lack of it which prevents a party from collaborating with the state. The base may provide some resistance to the government’s policies but unless it forces its govern¬ment to decisively break with the state and the bourgeoisie from the beginning, the path of Spain, Chile or Germany will be retraced. Is it really feasible that the base will be able to impose this on Berlinguer, Marchais or Mitterand?

Throughout Europe Social Democracy in power has moved rapidly to the right. In Britain, Germany and Portugal it is Social Democratic parties that are attacking the working class movement and stabilising the rule of capital. The PSI or PSF will attempt to do the same.

The role of the Communist Parties will be similar. The programme of the PCI is explicitly a policy of capitalist recovery and rationalisation of the state. They reject in advance the need to break from the state or the bourgeoisie. In fact they want a governmental alliance with its political representatives.

Further, the leadership of the Communist Parties is firmly entrenched within the parties as are their politics. II Manifesto’s strategy of gradually winning the party to the left, cannot take place without the splitting of the most militant sections of the party to a revolutionary pole.

II Manifesto’s strategy of entry into the left government as a left influence within it, also has its historical precedents. The left government in Catalonia in 1936 also had a revolutionary pole within it—the POUM, which had a far greater base and spoke far more eloquently of the need to replace the bourgeois state by Soviets, than il Manifesto in Italy. But the POUM had to pay the price of its participation in such a government. Whenever there was a clash between the self-activity of its base and the need of the bourgeois state machine for stability in order to get things done the POUM accepted the need to discipline their own members and to destroy the autonomy of the workers movement. Thus in November 1936, the leader of the POUM, Andrais Nin, had to persuade his members to dissolve the revolutionary committees that had displaced the state in Lerida. Six months later when the state machine had been rebuilt, it was to collaborate in the murder of Andrais Nin.

What applied to the anarchists and the POUM in the revolutionary ferment of Spain in 1936 will apply with equal force to the PCI and the leaders of II Manifesto. One cannot have one foot in the workers’ movement and another in the camp of collaboration with the state. As the workers’ movement grows, it will conflict with the bourgeois state. Revolutionaries must be based in the class in order to give it direction when that clash comes.

The proclaimed strategy of the left governments in Italy and France is bound to lead to that conflict. Their strategy is based on reforms in a time of capitalist crisis, and as such will be inherently unstable. Capitalism will demand the restoration of its privileges. The economy of the country will deteriorate as it is still locked into the world system which demands not reforms but increased sacrifices. As the bourgeoisie become increasingly worried with declining profit margins, economic sabotage will increase.

Mass right-wing movements can arise unless there exists a clear left wing alternative to the government, which mobilises workers against that government from an anti-capitalist position.

In summary, we can say that a left government has never broken decisively with the state machine and led the way to workers power. In Germany in 1918, the government itself was the instrument of counter-revolution as it smashed the Spartacist revolt against the existing state. In Chile, the government’s collaboration with the state meant that alternative organs of workers’ power were suppressed or neutralised by the government and as splits appeared in the base of the Popular Unity government, the armed state machine felt strong enough to destroy both government and movement.

In Italy and France, it is more likely that if and when the left comes to power, both Gaullists and Christian Democrats will use the opportunity to re-organise their forces as more efficient instruments of bourgeois rule. They will return re-invigorated as the working class become demoralised with the attempts of their parties to rationalise capitalism. Already, Chirac in France is grooming himself as the leader of this reaction.

But there is a fourth possible outcome and that is the revolutionary overthrow of the government from the left and the creation of a workers’ state. But this demands a clear understanding by revolutionaries of the necessary strategy to achieve this goal.

The position of the Third International

The debate in 1922 on the issue was the outcome of a struggle led by Lenin and Trotsky to force the ultra-left elements in the Comintern to accept the tactic of the united front as a way to break the hold of the Social Democrats on concrete questions. Why should this activity not culminate in a programme for a joint workers’ government?

Unfortunately, it cannot be said that the discussion clarified the issue. The discussion was dominated by Zinoviev and Radek. Both argued strongly that the fight for a joint Communist Socialist government was the logical outcome of agitation for a workers united front. They implied that such a government would almost automatically lead to a deepened level of struggle and from there to the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Thus Radek’s speech was extremely mechanistic. Where the Labour government comes into existence, it will merely be a stepping stone to the dictatorship of the proletariat, for the bourgeoisie will not tolerate a Labour Government even though founded on democratic principles. The Social Democratic worker will find himself compelled to become a Communist, in order to defend his rule.’

But the democratic principles on which the government would be based are precisely those of working within the framework laid down by the state—structures designed to make impotent ministers with radical ideas. Further, the dominant forces in such a government are not social democratic workers who might change their ideas under the impact of events but the reformist bureaucrats who will do all in their power to deflate the struggle. Instead of this schema it is far more likely that the communist leaders would be sucked into the structures of government.

The actual motion passed was far more guarded than the speeches of Zinoviev and Radek. Strict conditions were laid down to ensure that the government ‘arose from the struggle of the masses’. But it was still seen as inevitable that such a government would ‘meet immediately with the most stubborn resistance of the bourgeoisie.’ Thus ‘the most elementary tasks of a workers’ government must consist in the arming of the proletariat’.

There can be little doubt that the debate was confused. In part, this is to be expected; after all there was very little experience of governments being made up solely of workers parties. Trotsky could write in 1923, for instance’ ‘Once we… rally the majority of workers to this slogan …of a workers government… the stock of Renaudel, Blum and Jouhaux (the reformist leaders) will not be worth much, because these gentlemen are able to maintain themselves only through an alliance with the bourgeoisie …’ (The First Five Years of the Communist International Vol 2, p173). Unfortunately, 55 years of bitter experience have shown that reformist governments without the participation of the bourgeoisie are quite possible without capitalism crumbling, and have often been used to strengthen its rule.

But this is not to say that under no circumstances can a real workers’ government come into being before the dictatorship of the proletariat. In the past there have been workers governments whose most elementary task is the arming of the proletariat’, though they were extreme exceptions. For instance in Hungary and Bavaria of 1919 bourgeois power virtually collapsed, and the government passed into the hands of people who based themselves on the slogans of Soviet Power. The workers’ government came into being and afterwards had to create the structure of proletarian power—workers militia, workers councils and so forth.

The major component in these governments was openly revolutionary, and their key task was to create a new workers state before the bourgeoisie could regroup. In Bavaria, the Communist leader Leviné refused to join the first soviet government since it was made up of centrists and reformists who would not have been prepared to arm the workers and establish real workers’ councils. Yet only such moves, he correctly insisted, could put the workers’ government on a firm footing—by establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. To establish a workers’ government on any lesser basis would lead to counter¬revolution.

Lenin’s attitude was similar. In the weeks before October he insisted that the only way forward was for a government, based on the Soviets, in which ail the key positions were to be in the hands of the Bolsheviks. However, recognising that the Bolsheviks were still a minority in the working class, he stated that if the other socialist parties were to form such a government the Bolsheviks would act as a ‘loyal opposition’ which would continue to criticise its failings in front of the class. The Bolsheviks would take no responsibility for its policies and maintain their independence from it. The task was to win the masses from the reformist parties to Bolshevism, so as to be able to replace the government with the dictatorship of the proletariat in the future.

It is this legacy that must be adapted to today’s world, rather than a wholesale adoption of the theses of the Comintern.

Revolutionary tactics for reformist governments

Although a left government cannot steer a path to socialism, revolutionaries are not indifferent as to whether such a government comes to power. Even though the bourgeoisie has only retreated from the front-line positions and still retains control of the economy and the state, immense possibilities can be opened up.

In both France and Italy, the entry into government of both communists and socialists for the first time since the late 1940s would lead to increased confidence and perhaps, militancy of the workers movement. To this extent the election of a left government provides the possibility of a major advance of the workers’ movement; if the masses take advantage of the temporary confusion of the bourgeoisie. But the advance is not inevitable, the government will be attempting to stabilise the situation, and the bourgeoisie will be regrouping. If the workers fall into the delusion that they have taken power, rather than crossed the first barrier, if, in other words, they rely on the government rather than their own activity, then their advance will be limited to reforms which can be clawed back by a resurgent bourgeoisie.

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.

This means that the role of revolutionaries is not to enter such a government ‘in order to accentuate the contradictions within it’, for to do this is to precisely tie the workers to the bourgeoisie.

Rather the job of revolutionaries is to break the illusions that the workers have in a ‘left’ government— and that means taking up all the partial limited struggles of workers, generalising them and leading them even if they conflict with the strategy of the government. In short, it is to organise a left opposition to the government, seeking to replace the reliance on the state with the self-organisation of workers.

Of course, tactically there are times when the revolutionary left defends the left government or perhaps particular measures; when it is open to attack from the right and the bourgeoisie trying to regain positions it has lost. But this should never obscure the fundamental positions that the revolutionary party has to adopt: the strategy of developing working class forms of power, which by definition will conflict with the bourgeois state power still in existence, in order to overthrow the government from the left and replace it with a workers state.

Otherwise, revolutionaries can find themselves in the same situation the Chilean left found itself in occasionally-appearing to defend unpopular governmental decisions against movements of the workers and petty bourgeoisie, so allowing the forces of the right to manipulate those movements.

Breaking the links

The possibility of a government controlled by their own reformist parties, particularly after long years of rule by the parties of the bourgeoisie, can be of great attractiveness to many workers. It appears as a precondition for any fundamental change in society. Now revolutionaries must recognise firstly that this is a delusion. The workers cannot change society merely by their parties taking governmental power but leaving the state intact. Secondly we must also recognise that for many workers this delusion represents an increase in class consciousness; they are beginning to think in terms of their class controlling society rather than it being run to openly capitalist criteria.

Our job is to build on the increase in class consciousness but at the same time breaking down the delusions in the role of a left government.

Effectively we have to say to non-revolutionary workers: ‘You believe that a left government can change society in the interests of the working class; we do not. But we will fight alongside you to put your views to the test. However, we repeat that you should rely on your own struggles, not put your faith in your political leaders.’

The slogan of the left or workers government is therefore not seen as a magic panacea, rather it is a tactical slogan that we support but subordinate to our general politics of developing the workers’ struggle.

Our task is to raise slogans that mobilise workers in defence of their interests, to form unity in action with

reformist workers and in the struggle to break down the illusions in the ‘left government’. It is above all in action that consciousness changes.

That is why the Italian revolutionary left are so mistaken when they talk of ‘an alternative strategy to that of the PCI’. They attempt to give solutions to a crisis of capitalism, without posing its overthrow. Thus they attempt to solve the balance of payments crisis of Italian capitalism by proposing rationing and import controls. But to solve any balance of payments crisis fundamentally you have to remove Italy from the capitalist system and that means the overthrow of the domestic bourgeoisie as a precondition. The left here adopt a basically national¬istic viewpoint which attempts to solve the Italian crisis at the expense of fellow workers in Britain, or Japan or Germany. For import controls in one country means unemployment in another.

On a more general level, the revolutionary left cannot propose alternative strategies for the solution of the crisis of capitalism except by posing its overthrow. What it could propose however is a strategy for dealing with the effects of the crisis; a strategy against unemployment, against inflation etc which workers can implement through their power in the workplaces and as a mass force. Such a fight would lead to the strengthening, of workers organisation and consciousness and point to the overthrow of capitalism. In such a movement, unity would be formed between revolutionaries and the base of the mass reformist parties. It is this unity in action over partial objectives that can break workers from reformism as they see their leaders constantly vacillating between their base and the demands of capital (see the letter from A Callinicos in this issue for a fuller discussion of the problem of the united front.).

The breaking of workers from reformism will not occur as the Italian left seems to think by proposing a radicalised version of the reformists programme.

Faced with two reformist programmes (and that of AO/PdUP is to the right of the British Communist Party’s) workers will choose that put forward by the reformists given it is the PCI and not the revolutionaries who will be the main force in a ‘left government’ and thus capable of implementing the programme. Further, reformists and revolutionaries cannot unite in struggle around such a programme, they can only polemicise against each other.

The Italian left has fallen into precisely the trap that AO warned against only three years ago: ’. .. revolutionaries must not give advice to the PCI in its movement to government. That would be to tail the reformist strategy, to make the revolutionary process depend on their actions. It would mean not working to build an autonomous revolutionary strategy both on the level of self-organisation and in terms of politics. Finally this advice would be a source of confusion for the masses’ (Theses for the fourth congress of AO, p75).

The sooner AO rediscovers its original strategy, the sooner will a start be made to clearing up the chaos in the Italian left.