Chapter 5: What does workers' government mean?

Submitted by AWL on 5 May, 2009 - 2:26

A government of struggle

For the working class to fight effectively implies united struggle by different working-class organisations — unions, trades councils, campaigns, the various socialist organisations. Obviously such ‘united fronts’ can take various forms, depending on the nature, scope and intensity of the struggle; but the general principle is as true for large-scale class battles as for the small defensive ones we are mostly limited to at present.
As we have already noted, many of the demands necessary to defend and extend the rights and living standards of the working class in this crisis are inescapably demands for government action — democratic control over the banks and high finance, for instance. But that in turn begs the question: what sort of government is going to carry out these demands? To pose them as demands on New Labour, or the Tory government which is likely after the next election, is clearly nonsense. We may be able to impose elements through determined action, but the programme as a whole clearly implies a different kind of government.
If the various workers’ organisations should unite to defend our class against attacks, and win positive changes, why should this unity in struggle stop at the level of lobbying the existing government? Why should the labour movement, which after all represents the interests of the great majority of people in Britain, not seek to create its own government, which can serve and fight for the working class in the same way that New Labour and Tory governments have served the capitalists and the rich?

The call for a workers’ government is a call on the organised working class to rally itself to win political representation and fight for its political representatives to take power and form a government that will carry out working-class policies. It is the keystone, the logical conclusion of both the notion of a working-class ‘united front’ and the idea of ‘transitional demands’.

Workers’ government or Labour government mark two?

We have had governments based on the labour movement in Britain before, through the Labour Party — but all of them, fundamentally, have rested on the institutions of the capitalist state and carried out policies serving the needs of the bosses (combined, at least in 1945-51, with real reforms for the working class, such as the NHS and the welfare state). Whether a future labour movement-based government will be a more or less radical new installment of previous Labour-type governments, or a workers’ government in a meaningful sense, will be determined by two things:

• Whether a real attack is made on the wealth and entrenched power of the ruling class; and
• Whether it rests at least in part on the organisations of the working class instead of on those of the state bureaucracy, the military and Parliament; whether in response to demands and direct action by the working class it does what we want, or endorses and supports what we do (e.g. strikes and workplace occupations), and avoids becoming a captive of the state machine.

In Britain today, the fight for a workers’ government will certainly involve a struggle to elect working-class representatives to Parliament and to win a majority there. And yet to create such a government, and make it real, the working class would also need to organise itself outside the rhythms, norms and constraints of Parliamentary politics. It would need to rebuild its union organisation, trades councils, etc, and establish workplace committees, shop stewards’ networks and so on — up to and including workers’ councils — as an industrial power that could as necessary dispense with the Parliamentary representatives. Without such organisation, no fundamental transformation of society will be possible.

The bosses will resist

The working class needs to organise itself for direct action in industry and on the streets because the real wealth and power of the capitalists does not lie in Parliament. It lies in their control of the economy, and in the state institutions which they dominate through a thousand ties, direct and indirect: the prime minster's office, the civil service hierarchy, the House of Lords, the judiciary, and in the last instance the police and armed forces. In a crisis, even the monarchy could become the rallying point for reaction.

A workers’ government that attempted really radical change would face a thousand attempts at bureaucratic obstruction, whether peaceful and constitutional or outside the law and, in the final crunch, violent.

That this is not alarmism is shown not just by experiences like Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, but by episodes like the dismissal of a mildly reforming Labour government in Australia by the Queen’s representative in 1975; the fact, now widely acknowledged, that in the mid 1970s “fairly senior officers” considered a military coup; and the illegal use of the police to smash down the working class during the 1984-5 miners’ strike.

The bosses have not had much need to use force since then — but no one should doubt they will if their privileges are seriously threatened. In addition to the army and the police, we may see the growth of violent fascist squads.

To be anything more than a passing episode that collapses in the face of capitalist reaction, constitutional and ‘democratic’ or violent and openly anti-democratic, a workers’ government would have to rely on the mass force of the organised working class outside Parliament — including armed force. It would need to appeal to the rank-and-file soldiers to come over to its side and help organise them against the military hierarchy; it would need to help workers organise and arm flying pickets to form a workers’ militia. Only on the basis of such a struggle, to break up the existing state machine and armed forces and replace them with a democratic working-class armed force, could workers’ political power be made secure.

In other words, a workers’ government would either be the prelude to full working-class power throughout society, replacing the old state in a revolution, or it would fall.

All this implies the continued political independence of revolutionary socialists, so we can remain free to criticise the hesitations and half-measures of our allies in forming a workers’ government, and fight for a majority in the working class.

The road to a workers’ government

All that is at the other end of a long road. A big majority of the most militant working-class activists, let alone the working class as a whole, are not yet convinced of this perspective. We will seek to convince them in the course of united action. In the meantime, we propose the idea of a workers’ government as a common perspective that can shape our struggles.

How could a workers’ government come about, concretely? In previous years, before the Blairite transformation of the Labour Party, the fight for a workers’ government involved, in part, using the levers and channels of the Labour Party to fight — to push Labour governments, when they were in office, but in any case to rally those decisive sections of the working class that found their political expression in the Labour Party. Today, however, those levers no longer exist.

The mechanics now are manifold: resisting the bosses’ attempts to make us pay for the crisis; rebuilding workplace organisation through recruitment drives, campaigns, strikes; building up socialist organisation; reviving trades councils; encouraging unions affiliated to the Labour Party to come out openly against the Labour leaders; urging unions to sponsor local labour-representation conferences and support working-class candidates coming out of them... All the small details can be tied together by the overall aim. At the moment 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 need to start preparing, clearing the road, mapping out the way, now.

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