The labour movement can and must push back the Tory government on individual policies. To do more than damage limitation, however, the labour movement needs to drive this government from office.
This is a longer version of the article than in the printed paper.
Seriously to propose policies like heavy taxation of the rich, or expropriation and democratic control of the banks and other big financial outfits, we need also to propose a government which might carry them out.
Yet Labour, under Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, promises only slight tweaks to Osborne's policy. Routine labour movement pressure can make those tweaks bigger, but tweak-plus still falls short of what we need.
These days it falls short of what we need even to stop social regression - widening inequality, increasing subordination of human life to the cruelties of the market, and ecological destruction. Unless we are willing to shrug and accept social regression as inevitable for ourselves and our children, we have to propose something more.
A revolution, one day? Yes, but what now? How can we begin to map out a path from now to a socialist revolution?
Leon Trotsky argued that active socialists should develop "a system of transitional demands, stemming from today's conditions and from today's consciousness of wide layers of the working class, and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat" [working class]. These would be "a bridge between present demands and the socialist program of the revolution".
Progress across the "bridge" depends on how and when large numbers of workers mobilise. That cannot be guaranteed, or predicted exactly, by deft tactics or deft analysis from the active minority. But the transitional-demands approach enables us, as Trotsky put it, to "base our program on the logic of the class struggle".
It cannot enable us to leap ahead from or bypass the working-class struggle; but it can enable us always to be pushing forward.
As a summarising "bridge" demand, knitting together the others and making them coherent, Trotsky proposed "the demand, systematically addressed to the old leadership: 'Break with the bourgeoisie, take the power'...
"Of all parties and organisations which base themselves on the workers... and speak in their name we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers' government..." At the same time we agitate for the working-class demands which require a responsive government to carry them out.
In Britain today the "workers' government" means a system of demands aimed at the labour movement:
* Calling for adequate social and economic measures;
* Proposing the radical democratisation of the labour movement, making Labour Party leaders and MPs accountable to the trade unions and local Labour Parties and replacing them where necessary, so that a Labour government can be made to serve the labour movement;
* Advocating a rebuilding and revitalisation of the labour movement at rank and file level, so that left-wing labour-movement policies have real force, rather than being formulas "nodded through".
AWL proposes such demands, and works to unite the widest possible working-class ranks round them, including workers who agree on immediate demands but think that our talk of "revolution" is fantasy. In our view, gains on those immediate demands - the creation of a "left Labour" government tied to working-class organisations and interests as closely as the Cameron coalition is to the bankers and bosses - would put the question of "revolution" in a new light.
Q. How would a workers’ government come to power? Would it need a revolution, or could a workers’ government be elected through the existing parliamentary system?
Genuine working-class revolutions are not explosions dropping from the sky, or military operations concocted by a radical minority. They are the culmination of a vast process of self-awakening, self-education, self-mobilisation by the working class.
Especially in a country with strong parliamentary traditions like Britain, that process can well result in the election of a "left Labour" government before a showdown over state power. In fact, it is unlikely that either the capitalist class or the working class will move the political struggle out of the parliamentary framework without that framework first being tested to the limit. Neither class will decide it has to move outside that framework without first learning by experience.
Once a "left Labour" government is elected, there will then be a battle over whether it becomes a real workers' government - i.e. whether the labour movement is powerful enough to control it and enforce radical measures. If it does, the bourgeoisie will deploy its back-up resources - the obstructive powers of the House of Lords, the monarchy, and the courts; and, if the elected government defies those unelected powers, then some sort of military coup.
In dull 2012, it seems fantasy to talk about a military coup in Britain. Yet we know, through subsequent admissions by army Chief of Staff Michael Carver, that in February 1974, "fairly senior officers were ill-advised enough to make suggestions that perhaps, if things got terribly bad, the army would have to do something about it".
February 1974 was a time of crisis? But we face, probably, bigger economic crises. No coup actually happened? The Labour government of that time was far from a workers' government. It was a safe administration for the ruling class.
In Australia, as "constitutional" a country as Britain, an only mildly-reforming Labour government was arbitrarily removed from office in November 1975 by the Queen's representative, the Governor-General, using the unelected powers of the monarchy.
In other words, the political struggle would, if the labour movement continued to mobilise, progressively burst out of the parliamentary framework. The labour movement would have to build new organisations like workers' militias and workers' councils. Those new organisations could establish the basis of a victoriously revolutionary workers' government; but they would be formed, in the first place, to defend the reforming parliamentary government.
They would be important instruments by which the labour movement would intervene into the ranks of the armed forces, and, by convincing rank and file soldiers that they should not fire on the working class they came from, help to make the existing unelected state machine unreliable as an instrument of suppression and to break it up and replace it by a new, radically-democratic "semi-state".
The future always turns out richer and more convoluted than we expect. It would be wrong to take a schedule of revolution developing from battles around a left-Labour parliamentary government as a dogma. But an instructive possibility? Yes.
Q. How is “workers’ government” different from “socialism”?
In strict Marxist terms, "socialism" is a stage of development a large time after a socialist revolution, achieved only when socialistic development has got far enough to wash away all class conflicts and contrasts.
So a workers' government is different from socialism as the boarding-steps to an airplane are different from the plane's destination. It is also, as we've seen above, a possible phase in the development of a revolution, rather than synonymous with the victorious and consolidated socialist revolution as such.
To counterpose "socialism" as "the answer" to the plight of capitalism is like saying that the answer to the perpetual chill of the Arctic is to move to a warmer climate, without saying how to get there. Not untrue, but not adequate.
Q. How is a “workers’ government” different from a reforming Labour government of the 1945 type?
In Britain, a workers' government would probably, in the first place, be a reforming Labour government of a sort - that is, a Labour government based on a revitalised labour movement and mandated by it into radical pro-working-class measures.
But a reforming Labour government may be much less than a workers' government; or (to put it another way) a workers' government of a very limited and stopped-short variety.
The 1945 Labour government introduced reforms, and was much more accountable to the labour movement than recent Labour governments have been. But it built nuclear weapons in secret. It made social cuts (in its later years), kept and used anti-strike legislation, and pursued imperialist wars (Malaya, Korea), all with at best reluctant and forced assent from the labour movement, which remained fairly bureaucratic and passive.
Although the Tories raged in Parliament against measures like the NHS, most ruling-class strategists recognised that in the aftermath of World War they had no choice but to concede reforms, and saw the Labour administration as a relatively "safe" though not ideal vehicle for that.
Q. Does a workers’ government require a revolutionary party, or parties, or just a trade-union party?
Not just any labour movement can create a workers' government. Only a mobilised, confident, democratic, and politically-sharp labour movement can do that.
And making the labour movement democratic and politically-sharp is not an automatic process. It requires an agency. It requires the more politically-alert, more revolutionary-minded, more democratically-minded minority to organise in advance, to organise effectively, to develop and redevelop clear ideas and policies, and to win serious influence.
In that sense, a workers' government is impossible without the emergency of at least a minority revolutionary party (though it might conceivably be organised as a tendency within a democratised Labour Party rather than an entirely separate structure). If the inevitable clash between the workers' government and the ruling class is to be resolved in favour of the workers, that revolutionary party will have to grow, in the crisis, to become not just a serious but a decisive influence.
It does not follow that socialists cannot advocate a workers' government without first having a full-scale revolutionary party. It makes no sense to agitate for a workers' government without simultaneously building a revolutionary socialist organisation. But a small revolutionary socialist organisation like Workers' Liberty can use agitation for a workers' government to help educate those around it, to win influence, and to grow.