The workers' government

Submitted by Matthew on 27 March, 2013 - 10:36

This is the third part of a review article looking at the themes of John Riddell’s new book of documents from the early communist movement. This week Paul Hampton discusses the idea of the workers’ government.


Probably the most wide-ranging and rancorous discussion at the Fourth Congress concerned the transitional slogan of a workers’ government.

This debate is of exceptional importance to the tradition represented by the AWL, yet outside our ranks it is rarely discussed or propagated at present. Translations of the theses and debates at the Fourth Congress were published by our predecessors in the 1970s, when the original texts were long out of print and hard to obtain. They informed our own discussions about intervening to transform the labour movement from that period onwards.

Riddell has done a first class job in translating the various draft resolutions and speeches, so as to clarify the meaning and importance of the workers’ government slogan. He regards the concept of a workers’ government as “the awkward child of the early Communist International” but nevertheless an important step forward at the pinnacle of the united front approach. The key question addressed in this debate at the Fourth Congress was: What kind of government should Communists advocate for the achievement of the demands in their united-action programme? As with transitional demands, it was the German experience that loomed largest.

On 13 March 1920 a right-wing military putsch led by Wolfgang Kapp and General von Lüttwitz ousted the government in Berlin. The SPD-led trade unions (ADGB) called for a general strike to defend the republic. By 14 March the strike was solid across the country. Workers formed local strike committees, demonstrated and formed militias. On 17 March the putschists capitulated and fled. The general strike continued as workers demanded a new government and decisive action against the militarist threat. Carl Legien, chair of the ADGB, proposed that the SPD’s coalition with bourgeois parties be replaced by a workers’ government formed by the SPD, the USPD and the trade unions. The KPD leadership eventually expressed support for this proposal, stating that “formation of a socialist government, free of the slightest bourgeois or capitalist element, would create extremely favourable conditions for vigorous action by the proletarian masses,” and promised, subject to certain conditions, to act towards such a government as a “loyal opposition” (Broué 2006: 369). The USPD refused to participate, which effectively finished the proposal. However, as Broué (2006: 385) pointed out, “for the first time in the history of the Communist movement, the problem was posed of a transitional form of government, which breaks from government of the parliamentary kind but is not yet the dictatorship of the proletariat, the conciliar republic”.

However, the debate continued to rage, particularly in state elections where the combination of SPD, USPD and KPD votes gave the workers’ organisations a majority. The KPD called for a workers’ republic based on councils like the Russian soviets. But in 1921 such councils did not exist in Germany or elsewhere. The KPD’s leadership and Karl Radek tried to formulate a governmental demand that related to Germany’s existing political institutions, while pointing towards the goal of workers’ power and came up with the “workers’ government”.

Riddell argues that when the Fourth Congress opened in November 1922, its leaders used the term in three different ways, which can be summarised as pseudonym, illusion and transition:

• Pseudonym: The International’s president, Gregory Zinoviev, as well as ultra-left leaders such as Ruth Fischer and Amadeo Bordiga held that the term “workers’ government” referred only to a regime of the type established by the Russian revolution of October 1917, that is, a dictatorship of the proletariat resting on revolutionary workers’ councils. This was the approach taken in the first two drafts of the Fourth Congress resolution on this question. However, delegates of the German party majority convinced the congress to abandon this approach mid-way through its proceedings, and it did not appear in the third draft.

• Illusion: This concept, advanced mainly by Zinoviev, referred to parliamentary-based governments formed by workers’ parties but carrying out a basically capitalist agenda. Zinoviev predicted that such a “liberal workers’ government” was likely to be formed by the Labour Party in Britain (as indeed it was in 1924). Zinoviev’s view was open to the charge that his “workers’ government” was a euphemism for a form of bourgeois rule. The changes made in the fourth and final draft of the Fourth Congress resolution did not eliminate Zinoviev’s concept, but renamed it as a “illusory workers’ government” and strengthened the argument against such a misinterpretation.

• Transition: This concept, advocated by the KPD majority leaders such as Zetkin and by Radek, saw the “workers’ government” demand as a component of a transitional programme, a set of demands that “undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organise the proletariat, and mark out stages in the struggle for its dictatorship” (Third Congress resolution On Tactics 1921). Such a government, while possibly constituted by parliamentary means, would rest on the workers’ mass movement and take measures to dismantle the bourgeois state. This transitional concept was presented in the later drafts of the Fourth Congress resolution.

The evolution of the debate became clear from the speeches.

In his Report of the Executive Committee, 10 November 1922, Zinoviev was circumspect in his presentation, arguing that the slogan of the workers’ government had not been sufficiently clarified and was of “exceptional” and “limited application”. He said the slogan was “an application of the dictatorship of the proletariat”. At the Comintern executive in June 1922 Zinoviev apparently said: “The workers’ government is the same thing as the dictatorship of the proletariat. It is a pseudonym for a soviet government. It is more comfortable for an ordinary worker, and that’s why we want to use this formula” (2012: 129-130; 140)

The German communist Ernst Meyer disagreed, reading out Zinoviev’s statement from the June executive meeting. Meyer argued that it was important to differentiate between a Social-Democratic and a workers’ government. He said: “We have seen Social-Democratic governments in Germany, in Saxony and Thuringia, and earlier also in Gotha, governments that we must support but that have nothing in common with what we understand to be a workers’ government”. He said that the workers’ government “differs fundamentally from a Social-Democratic government, in that it does not merely carry the label of a socialist policy but actually carried out a socialist-communist policy in life”. A workers’ government will therefore not be parliamentary in character, or will be parliamentary only in a subordinate sense. It was “not a necessary occurrence, but rather a historical possibility” (2012: 139).

Radek’s intervention the following day agreed with Meyer. He said: “Comrade Zinoviev said in the Expanded Executive, for us the workers’ government is a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat... In my opinion, this definition is not right.” Instead he argued that the workers’ government was “one of the possible points of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat”. The German, Norwegian, Czechoslovak workers could take a stand of “no coalition with the bourgeoisie, but rather a coalition with the workers’ parties that can secure our eight-hour day, give us a bit more bread, and so on”. That could lead to “the establishment of such a workers’ government, whether through preliminary struggles or on the basis of a parliamentary combination”. It was “nonsense to reject in doctrinaire fashion the possibility of such a situation” (2012: 167).

Radek accepted some of Zinoviev’s concerns and reservations. The workers’ government would be “worthless unless the workers stand behind it, taking up arms and building factory councils that push this government and do not allow it to make compromises with the Right”. But if that were done, “the workers’ government will be the starting point of a struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat”. For example, in Britain, “a parliamentary victory for the Labour Party is quite possible, and then the question will arise, what is this workers’ government? Is it nothing more than a new edition of the bourgeois-liberal government” (2012: 167-8).

Radek’s approach was transitional, taking the demands from the united front to their logical conclusion. But he did not argue that a workers’ government was the only, indeed the necessary or even likely road to power. This he summed up with a rather pithy joke. He told the congress: “It would be entirely wrong to present a picture that the evolution of humanity from ape to people’s commissar necessarily passes through a phase of workers’ government” (2012: 168).

Zinoviev returned to the podium somewhat chastised the next day, with rather sharper formulations. He conceded that the workers’ government had nothing at all to do with the word ‘pseudonym’, and declared that he was “gladly prepared to give way in the quarrel regarding this word”. He argued that “every bourgeois government is simultaneously a capitalist government. It is hard to imagine a bourgeois government that is not also a capitalist government. But unfortunately we cannot say the opposite. Not every workers’ government is also a socialist government... Even many workers’ governments can be bourgeois in terms of their social content” (2012: 266).

Instead he set out four different kinds of workers’ governments, which “far from exhausts the list of possibilities”. First there was a workers’ government that, “in terms of its composition, is a liberal workers’ government, like that of Australia”. Such a liberal workers’ government in Britain “could be the jumping off point for revolutionising the country... At present we Communists vote in Britain for the Labour Party... Why? Because it is objectively a step forward”. The second type was a Social-Democratic government. Zinoviev asked delegates to “imagine that the unified SPD in Germany forms a purely ‘socialist government’. That will also be a workers’ government (in quotation marks, of course). We can conceive of a situation where we would grant such a government a conditional credit, that is, conditional support”. A third type was the so-called coalition government, that is, a government composed of Social Democrats, trade union leaders, persons without party affiliation, and perhaps Communists as well. Fourth was “a workers’ government that is really a workers’ government, that is, a Communist workers’ government”. Zinoviev regarded this fourth possibility as “indeed a pseudonym for the dictatorship of the proletariat” (2012: 266-7).

But Zinoviev retained some reservations. He noted that “yesterday our friend Radek said that the workers’ government is a possible form of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat. I would like to say that it is a possibility, or to be absolutely precise, this possibility arises only exceptionally... It is probably the least likely path”. He warned that “woe betide us if, in our agitation, we permit for one moment the idea to crop up that there will necessarily be a workers’ government, that it could come about peacefully, that there is some organically fixed period that could replace the civil war, and so on”. The workers’ government slogan “remains correct as a way of getting a hearing from the masses... It harbours the same dangers as the united front tactic” (2012: 267-8, 270).

But Radek did not leave the matter there. In his speech on the capitalist offensive three days later, he returned to his critique. He said: “Zinoviev offered an abstract classification of the possible forms of a workers’ government. I agree with this attempt at classification... It is important for us here to replace the abstract classification with the question: ‘What do the working masses — not just the Communists — think when they talk of a workers’ government?’... In Britain, they think of the Labour Party... The idea of a workers’ government has the same meaning for the working masses: they think of a government of all workers’ parties” (2012: 399).

Radek accepted some caveats and acknowledged the nuances between different speakers. He said that “the workers’ government is not inevitable, but possible. Or, following Comrade Zinoviev, we can say paradoxically that it is not inevitable but is likely the most improbable road”. The question to decide when going to the masses was “whether or not we are prepared to struggle for a workers’ coalition government and create the preconditions for it”. In his opinion, “in our struggle for the united front, we should say frankly that if the Social Democratic worker masses force their leaders to break with the bourgeoisie, we are ready to take part in a workers’ government, provided this government is a vehicle for class struggle”. The workers’ government slogan “conceives of the united front as a unified political goal” (2012: 399-401).

Broué (2006: 668) argued that Radek’s view of the workers’ government slogan was based on the experience of the struggles in the West. It took into account that “the West differed from Russia, where the majority of the workers could be won directly to Communism, whilst in the West the workers showed strong allegiances to various parties”. Further discussion took place in the commission formulating the resolution, On the Tactics of the Comintern. Edwin Hoernle reported on the last day of the congress, 5 December 1922, that “the most significant amendments concern the section on workers’ government”. The Commission was “concerned to define and highlight the question of the workers’ government as clearly and distinctly as possible” (2012: 1097).

The resolution stated:

“The Communist International must consider the following possibilities.

I. Illusory workers’ governments

1. A liberal workers’ government, such as existed in Australia and may exist in Britain in the foreseeable future.

2. A Social-Democratic workers’ government (Germany).

II. Genuine workers’ governments

3. Government of workers and the poorer peasants. Such a possibility exists in the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, and so on.

4. A workers’ government with Communist participation.

5. A genuinely proletarian workers’ government, which, in its pure form, can be embodied only in the Communist party” (2012: 1161).

It also clarified what these meant:

“The only type of government that can be considered a genuine workers’ government is one that is determined to take up a resolute struggle at least to achieve the workers’ most important immediate demands against the bourgeoisie. That is the only type of workers’ government in which Communists can participate.

The first two types, the illusory workers’ governments (liberal and Social-Democratic), are not revolutionary governments but can, under certain circumstances, speed up the decomposition of bourgeois power.

The next two types of workers’ government (workers’ and peasants’ government; Social-Democratic-Communist government) do not yet signify the dictatorship of the proletariat and are not even an historically inevitable transitional stage to this dictatorship. Rather, wherever they come into being, they are an important starting point for a struggle for this dictatorship” (2012: 1161-2).

One important caveat should be noted in relation to the actual experience of regional workers’ government in Germany.

As the Fourth Congress convened, there was a high-level discussion about the possible entry by the Communists into the Saxon government. According to Broué’s account (2006: 657), the Social Democrats rejected two points of the Communists’ programme, the arming of the workers and the calling of a congress of factory councils in Saxony. The German delegation declared in favour of deleting these two points and forming a socialist-Communist government, with four of the Left voting against. “At that point, the Russians intervened. For an entire evening they argued against Thalheimer and the German majority. Lenin, Trotsky, Radek and Zinoviev were unanimous. There was no question of yielding on this point. It had to be upheld. The Communists had to insist upon the Social Democrats accepting their demands in full, or else they would be politically disarming themselves. The Germans gave in to the pressure.”

Overall, while Radek, Zetkin and Meyer’s arguments on the workers’ government slogan appear insightful and innovative, Zinoviev’s position was contradictory and ultimatist. The latter showed little evidence of grasping the transitional method or indeed the united front. Throughout the debate, the slogans raised were always related to concrete realities and the role of the revolutionary party as active protagonist is assumed. Sadly, the Fourth Congress discussion and particularly the debate in Germany were only just beginning in 1922 and they would be neutered by the rise of Stalinism soon after.

Soon after the congress, Zetkin wrote an article “The Workers’ Government” (translated on the AWL website here), summing up the importance of these discussions. She wrote: “In easily the majority of countries under capitalist domination, the workers’ government appears as the crowning summit of the tactic of the united front, as the propaganda and rallying slogan of the hour”. The approach allowed Communist parties to grow and develop their influence within the labour movement, until they were neutered by the rise of Stalinism. But the method was not forgotten: it was renewed and developed by the Left Opposition forces around Trotsky into the 1930s.

The SWP in Britain has long denounced the slogan of a workers’ government, even after it revived the language (but not the content) of the united front under the Rees-German leadership. Chris Harman regarded it as a minor tactical slogan which was soft on the nature of the state. Duncan Hallas’s book The Comintern denounced the workers’ government slogan as “clearly wrong in principle” and something that “inevitably shifted the emphasis to the question of parliamentary majorities”. Riddell has made the point that the SWP’s position probably relied on a misreading of the earlier drafts of the thesis, rather than the final one published in the book. This is too generous: the SWP did not accept the approach of transitional demands, the united front and the workers’ government because it never understood the importance of the early Comintern, recoiled from the post-Trotsky Trotskyist abuse of that tradition, but mainly because of its Stalinoid version of the revolutionary party. The SWP’s essentially Second International maxi-mini approach explains why it has been rigid on the question of the Labour Party, why it has only ever run tightly controlled front organisations rather than genuine alliances and why its work in the unions has largely lacked any alternative strategy to that of the bureaucrats.

The AWL regards the workers’ government slogan as a bold tactical compromise. Although conditions today are very different, making propaganda for a workers’ government — for example when Labour came to power in 1997 or when the financial crisis broke — makes sense. It also has more agitational purchase in circumstances like present day Greece, where a government of Syriza may be posed.

The demand plays a pivotal role in the transitional programme, linking day-to-day struggles within the present political system to the struggle to disrupt, overthrow and replace that system.

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