Fight for a "workers' government"!

Submitted by martin on 19 November, 2008 - 11:47 Author: Editorial

The "workers' plan for the crisis" published in our last issue concludes by calling on "activists to build - through the trade unions, Trades Councils, and other working-class organisations - a movement for independent working-class representation in politics, as the basis for a new workers' party.

"Its aim should be a workers' government, based on mass working-class mobilisation and accountable to the labour movement - a government which serves our class as the Tories and New Labour in power have served the rich, and reshapes society in the interests of people, not profit".

What does the slogan, "workers' government", mean?

The two main debates at the conference on 15 November of the Labour Representation Committee (a group led by Labour MP John McDonnell, but sponsored by six unions, two of them not Labour-affiliated) were instructive on this point.

One main debate was about policies for socialists to advocate in the crisis. The conference backed fairly radical policies, including many of the points in our "workers' plan". A few speakers, notably Jon Rogers, who was the left candidate in the last election for Unison general secretary, claimed that such policies were too ambitious, but the big majority voted for the policies.

Broad-brush radical policies can and should inform and guide us in the smallest of struggles. It may be a while before the crisis stirs up a proper firestorm of revolt, and in the meantime it is the duty of socialists to seek for and cherish every spark of resistance, however scattered.

But demands such as for full public ownership and democratic control over the whole of high finance are, inescapably, demands for government action.

What sort of government? The LRC conference was instructive on the dilemmas raised by this question.

The AWL motion on the lines of our conclusion to our "workers' plan" (as above) was vehemently attacked by many speakers who had supported the radical policies. Some speakers threatened to disaffiliate their organisations from the LRC if the motion was passed.

By opening the way for the LRC to back local labour-movement electoral candidates which are not official Labour, they said, the motion would cast the LRC out into the cold. The Labour leaders would respond to it by expelling leading LRC figures, and that must be avoided at all costs.

The Labour leaders might or might not respond that way. At last year's LRC conference Bob Wareing, a leftish Labour MP, was loudly applauded when he announced his intention to run in the next general election as an independent against the New-Labourite pushed in to replace him as official Labour candidate. The cries of pious horror on 15 November at the very idea of backing non-Labour candidates were overdone.

But, in any case, remain in the "warm" of official Labour... to do what, positively? In previous years, the answer would have been clear: to use the levers and channels of the Labour Party to push the policies - maybe to push the Labour government, in any case to rally those decisive sections in the working class which found their political expression in the Labour Party.

No-one suggested that, or anything else positive. It is impossible to push the policies at Labour Party conference because since 2007 both unions and local Labour Parties have lost the right to push political motions at the conference.

The nearest thing any of the Labour-loyalists could suggest was an appeal for a recall TUC congress. It is possible to get political motions on to the agenda at TUC congress; but that begs the question of what the TUC (or, more realistically, the more lively and combative unions) should then do to translate the policies into political action.

The call for a workers' government is a call on the organised working class to rally itself to win political representation and to fight for those political representatives to take power and form a government which will carry out working-class policies.

The mechanics of it now are manifold: building socialist organisation, building local Trades Councils, encouraging unions affiliated to the Labour Party to come out openly against Brown and Darling, urging unions to sponsor local labour-representation conferences and to support broadly-backed worker candidates coming out of them... All the small details are tied together by the overall aim. Right now it is mostly a matter of painstaking detail work. We don't know at what stage it may become possible to take big, qualitative leaps forward. But we start preparing, clearing the road, mapping out the way, now.

The formula "workers' government" originates in a discussion in the Communist Parties around the fourth congress of the Communist International in 1922, the last pre-Stalinist congress. Then, it mainly meant that big Communist parties should approach big worker-based Social Democratic parties to propose joint action for coalition governments of the workers' parties to carry through at least a basic "workers' plan" for the crisis then. It was a keystone to the approach argued by Lenin and Trotsky over the previous year or so, the "workers' united front".

After the Stalinist degeneration of the Communist Parties, Leon Trotsky reformulated the "workers' government" in these terms: "Of all parties and organisations which base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers’ and farmers’ government. On this road we promise them full support against capitalist reaction. At the same time, we indefatigably develop agitation around those transitional demands which should in our opinion form the program of the 'workers’ and farmers’ government'."

In the USA of 1946, where the workers had no party that spoke in their name, and were tied instead to the Democratic Party, Max Shachtman readapted the idea as follows:

"The workers need a party of their own to issue the Declaration of Independence of the working class. It is the first big step in breaking from the capitalist parties and capitalist politics, and toward independent working-class political action.

"However, it is only the first step. The formation of an independent workers' party acquires great significance only if it proclaims the objective of a Workers' Government.

"What would be the program and purpose of a Workers' Government? Would it simply be to put the workers in the offices now occupied by capitalist politicians and bureaucrats? [No]. A Workers' Government must have a basically different principle if it is to discharge its great obligation to those who placed it in power. To the evils of capitalism, it must oppose social progress and human welfare. To the interests of a ruling minority, it must oppose the interests of all humanity".

Today in Britain Shachtman's adaptation is the most relevant. If any of our talk of a workers' plan in the crisis is to make any sense, we must fight for the creation of a political agency opposed to Brown and the New Labour Party. But each move to independent workers' representation "acquires great significance only if it proclaims the objective of a Workers' Government".