What we mean by a "workers' government"

Submitted by Matthew on 29 April, 2010 - 4:39 Author: Sacha Ismail

“The workers will prefer a coalition of labour parties which would guarantee the eight-hour day and an extra crust of bread. Shall we recline upon this soft cushion and take a good rest, or shall we rather lead the masses into the fight on the basis of their own illusions for the realisation of the program of a Workers’ Government? If we conceive of the Workers’ Government as a soft cushion, we are politically beaten. If, on the other hand, we keep alive the consciousness of the masses that the Workers’ Government is an empty shell unless it has workers behind it forging their weapons and forming their factory councils, such a Workers’ Government will become a lever for the conquest of power.”

— Karl Radek, 1922

As we approach the election, the economic crisis has massively discredited free market ideas. Even capitalist politicians accept the need for large-scale state intervention in the economy.

This “socialism for the rich” means governments intervening in the interests of the capitalist class, managing the economic slump in the best way for capital and, as far as possible, returning to “free markets” as fast they can.

That’s why the banks the Labour government has nationalised or part-nationalised have not stopped paying their executives huge salaries; they have not stopped sacking workers; and they have not stopped repossessing the homes and ruining the lives of working-class people. They are still under the control of their bosses, and will be returned to the private sector when it is judged viable. Their losses have been socialised — underwritten with tax-payers’ money, now being paid for by our class through job losses and huge cuts in public services — while their profits continue in private ownership.

To win socialism worthy of the name — democratic control of the economy by society’s working-class majority, so that the wealth we produce can be used for the benefit of all, not a tiny elite of bankers and bosses — we need a revolution. We need to make a clean sweep of the capitalists and replace the state machine that serves them with a more democratic workers’ state. Yet as thing stand in Britain, the big majority of not only the working class, but the organised labour movement and even its left wing, are not prepared in either sense of the word to fight for that.

What we propose

The great majority of working-class activists, including those who call themselves socialists, still operate under the assumptions of capitalist democracy.

That is why we use elections to rally a movement for working-class politics, both through standing independent socialist candidates and through a fight in the Labour Party. We want to convince workers that there is no parliamentary road to a new society — but we will not do that by standing aside from the political struggle today and limiting ourselves to propaganda for revolution.

We propose to working-class activists and organisations: if you are serious about fighting for workers’ rights, and about transforming society, then do not stop at lobbying one or other variety of anti-working-class government. Put in power your own government, based on and accountable to the organisations of our class, and serving workers as New Labour and the Tories have served the bosses and the rich.

A government of struggle

The call for a “workers’ government” is not counterposed to working-class direct action in the workplaces and on the streets, or to rebuilding our movement from the grassroots up. On the contrary, it seeks to give such struggles a clear goal and political expression.

The principle of a “workers’ united front” — that to struggle effectively requires united action by different working-class organisations, unions, political groups and campaigns — is as true for large-scale class battles as for the smaller, defensive ones we are mostly limited to at present. At the same time, the class struggle does not stop at the door of the workplace. It exists at every level of society and in the last instance is shaped at a society-wide level, by politics.

Look at the kind of demands necessary to defend and extend the rights and living standards of working class in this economic crisis:

* Jobs for all. Cut the working week without loss of pay. Nationalise companies that cut jobs, under workers’ control.

* Stop cuts and privatisation. Tax the rich and business to rebuild the NHS and public services. A crash program of council house building and repairs.

* Scrap the anti-trade union laws and introduce a legal charter of workers’ rights: to strike, picket, take solidarity action.

* Nationalise the banks and financial institutions, sack their bosses and use their resources to fund jobs, homes and services for all.

Many of these and other similar demands are inescapably demands for government action — 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 a programme to be carried out by New Labour, the Lib Dems or the Tories 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 different workers’ organisations should unite to defend our class against attacks, and win positive reforms, 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 in the interests of the working class?

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.

Old Labour government?

Even the best Labour government of the past, in 1945-51, ruled through the institutions of the capitalists’ state and carried out policies serving the needs of the bosses (combined with real reforms for the working class, like the NHS and welfare state).

Whether a future labour movement-based government is any different will be determined by:

* Whether a real attack is made on the wealth and entrenched power of the capitalists;

* 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 supports what we do (e.g. strikes and occupations), and avoids becoming a captive of the state machine.

In a country like Britain, with its presently conservative labour movement and long traditions of parliamentary democracy, the fight for a workers’ government will certainly involve a fight to elect workers’ representatives to Parliament and win a majority there. Yet to create such a government, 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, as an industrial power that could as necessary dispense with the parliamentary representatives. Without such organisation, it will not be possible to transform society.

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 minister’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, 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.

Look at Chile in 1973; or the miners’ strike, where the ruling class was not threatened with losing everything, but still used the police as a centralised military force to baton the working class into submission.

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 police and the army, they will happily make use of the violent far-right gangs which, in this economic crisis, are already growing.

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

The road to a workers’ government

A big majority of the most militant working-class activists, let alone the working class as a whole, are not yet convinced of the need for revolution.

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? Before the Blairite transformation of the Labour Party, the fight for a workers’ government was centred on using the levers and channels of the Labour Party transform the Labour Party — and in any case to rally those decisive sections of the working class that found their political expression in the Labour Party. Today, those channels have been to a large extent blocked up, though not completely destroyed.

The job is still to transform the labour movement politically. The future stages of that transformation are unpredictable. But we can tell how to start: resisting the bosses’ attempts to make us pay for their crisis; rebuilding workplace organisation through recruitment drives, campaigns, strikes; building up socialist organisation, including through election campaigns; reviving trades councils; encouraging unions affiliated to the Labour Party to come out against the Labour leaders, and organising working-class activists for this struggle through initiatives like the Socialist Campaign to Stop the Tories and Fascists.

All the details can be tied together by the overall aim. 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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