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Workers’ governments and socialist strategy — a reply

January 15, 2012

David Camfield and Pham Binh have raised important issues in contributions to the workers’ government strategy debate on this website. Here is a reply to each of them.

David Camfield on the ‘Crisis of Politics’

In “Workers’ Governments and the Crisis of Politics,” David Camfield makes a number of cogent comments on working people’s road to power. His definition of a workers’ government as “a government of working-class forces in a capitalist state …. that objectively doesn’t rule for capital” is useful – and consistent with the position of the Comintern’s 1922 congress analyzed in my article on this question. (“A Workers’ Government as a Step Toward Socialism”)

He is right to note that “sustained, mass workers’ struggles that pose the possibility that working people might form a government” are today quite rare. Individual capitalist states are “more tightly subordinated to international capital,” he says; the “main forms of left-wing politics” are “tremendously weakened”; far fewer workers now believe “that it is possible to really change society through taking political power.”

As a result, David writes, working people face “a crisis of politics.”

David’s thoughts are reinforced by French Marxist Daniel Bensaïd’s analysis of the “historic defeat” of the working class suffered at the hands of neoliberalism. (See “The Shape of Socialist Strategy” on this website.)

Certainly, David’s sobering portrayal applies well to most imperialist countries. For example, in federal politics in Canada, where both David and I are based, the only party that bears any imprint of the working class – the New Democratic Party – inspires little confidence. Given the party’s persistent pro-capitalist policies, calls for “NDP to power with a socialist program” lack credibility; a working-class governmental alternative is hard to formulate.

Under such conditions, it is not surprising that many Marxists play down or fall silent on the need for a workers’ government. Nonetheless, without a governmental perspective, socialist policy has no compass. Socialist strategy is then reduced to three disjointed elements:

  • Appeals to capitalist governments to improve workers’ conditions.
  • Efforts to build trade unions and other social movements.
  • Hope that the situation will be transformed some day by revolution.

What’s missing here is a path by which working people can take control of their destiny and build a new society. Demands for social reforms ring hollow unless capped by the perspective of a workers’ political instrument to lead in carrying them out. Unions and radical social movements may do good work, but in the process they run into resistance and repression that can only be adequately countered by a concerted political response. Without a struggle for workers’ political power, the capitalist state rides through its rough moments and sails on unchallenged.

Long-range goal

Even if there is no way to express the goal of a workers’ government as an immediate prospect, it is thus useful to present it as a longer-range strategic goal. As the Fourth Comintern Congress put it, “As a general propagandistic slogan, the workers’ government (or workers’ and farmers’ government) can be used almost everywhere.” (See “The Comintern’s Unknown Decision on Workers’ Governments.”)

We should also note a promising development in Quebec. A new workers’ political party there, Québec Solidaire, has won considerable support. The perspective of a workers’ government can be discussed in terms of the potential represented by Québec Solidaire, particularly if allied with social movements and the trade unions. For a recent assessment Québec Solidaire, see Richard Fidler’s website, Life on the Left.

Global South

In my opinion, David Camfield’s bleak assessment of the prospects for workers’ governments applies less to conditions in the Global South. David mentions Egypt and Chile as countries where the workers’ government demand is meaningful. We can go further. In the majority of South American countries, working people have been engaged in attempts to utilize government power in their interests – sometimes with few positive results, but sometimes with considerable impact.

Take the case of Venezuela. Some Marxists (including myself) believe that movements of working people have succeeded in gaining positions of significant influence within the Venezuela government, and that on a wide range of issues this regime, to use David’s wording, “objectively does not rule for capital.”

Other Marxists reject the government led by Hugo Chávez as a purely bourgeois phenomenon. But we can all agree that the question of popular control of government in Venezuela is posed. Marxist supporters of the Chávez government call for policies that could make the influence of working-class forces predominant. What of its Marxist opponents? If they view the Chávez government as irredeemable, they should pose an alternative.

Cuban example

Finally, I believe that workers’ governments have been rather more frequent than David indicates. He cites the FLSN government in Nicaragua immediately after the fall of Somoza and perhaps cases in Bolivia (1971) and Germany (1923).

Fidel Castro

But if the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua was a workers’ government, surely this was true in spades of the revolutionary government established in Cuba in 1959. Many Marxists still deny that there was any working-class content in the Cuban revolution. Yet this position leads to a paradox. Were the profound social transformations in post-revolutionary Cuba carried out under purely bourgeois governments? Such a conclusion surely expresses unwarranted confidence in the revolutionary potential of the capitalist ruling class.

Questions by Pham Binh:

“1. What does it mean to “form a government”? Meaning worker socialist parties win a majority in parliament and then choose a cabinet? Does any of this apply to local or state elections? Is there a difference between electing socialists/communists/radicals to legislatures (city council, state legislature, Congress/parliament) and electing them to executive positions (mayors, governors, presidents, dog catcher [a Big Bill Haywood reference])?

“2. I reiterate my questions posed in the earlier thread. One thing that bothers me is the one-sided focus on what we should argue for, demand, and support when, in fact, our forces are so marginal that these questions are not posed concretely and we are far away from having it posed in a concrete way (which by the way is the only real way to overcome the “lack of clarity” Camfield references). In Egypt for example they are still working on creating a workers’ party and winning a bourgeois democratic state, the two necessary preconditions for a “workers’ government” however that term is understood. Calling for a “workers government” in that context would probably not mobilize mass numbers of people in a situation where political freedom is entirely absent.”

I’ll reply to the second question first.

Binh warns that talk of a “workers’ government” may not relate constructively to the struggles taking place before us. This is a justified concern. I agreed with Binh, for example, when he argued that socialists should not arrive at “Occupy” encampments demanding adoption of their pet programmatic demands; the first step is to become part of the movement and get a feel for its needs. (See “Occupy and the Tasks of Socialists.”) However, socialists need a long-range program and strategy, even if much of it cannot be applied immediately in today’s struggles. (See Nathan Rao’s comments on this website.)

Even in the United States, the Occupy Movement has governmental implications. In a few short weeks, this movement spread across the country, won the active support of trade unions and social movements, and (according to polls) the sympathy of a considerable majority of the population. It told us not that a reform was needed here or there, but that the entire society had to be changed. Its message, so all-encompassing and poignant, reminds me of what Abbé Sieyès wrote on the eve of the 1789 French revolution. Permit me to reword slightly:

“What is the 99 percent? Everything.
What has it been until now in the political system? Nothing.
What does it desire? To become something.”

In other words, the message of the Occupy Movement was that the rule of the 1 percent is illegitimate and should end; it should be replaced by a democratic order in which the influence of the 99% counts for something. That is a governmental perspective.

I do not propose to foist the question of government on the movement prematurely. But in a broad socialist analysis of this movement, I believe the issue of government has a place.

Pham Binh’s first question concerns the forms of a workers’ government. As I wrote in my original article on this topic, the examples considered by the early Comintern were eclectic. They included governments established by insurrection (Russia) and through the interplay of parliament and mass movements (Germany), regimes both on a national and a regional level. The most important lesson of the early Comintern’s position, in my opinion, is that we must not be restricted by blueprints from the past and must be guided by our experience.

  1. Andrew Pollack permalink

    John is right, the Occupy movement has made the question of a workers’ government relevant. The movement says explicitly that it wants an entirely different form of society. See, see also the website of the Organization for a Free Society, which includes some leading occupiers, and whose program is word for word that of Znet’s “participatory economics” vision. The occupytheory journal I would characterize as having anarchist leanings mixed in with John Holloway/Zapatista style “please, don’t ask us to take power!”
    These positions certainly make a discussion of postcapitalist societies fair game. In the piece here:
    … I think I do so using a relevant hook (as opposed to just shouting about the need for a workers’ governnment). More generally, if you’re going to be claiming to want to occupy Wall Street, then you leave yourself wide open to a discussion of what that would mean should it happen in reality. And for opening that discussion space we should be eternally grateful to Occupy, even if most of their activists at the moment DON’T want to seize Goldman Sachs or any of the other banks.
    PS re the tasks of socialists: Pham is right about the need to build the movement and be tactically sensitive. Thus, for instance, when one group tried to get the OWS Labor Outreach Committee to endorse their push to get OWS as a whole behind their jobs for all demand, several of us pointed out how tactically suicidal that would be given that 99% of OWSers still don’t want demands, and instead we encouraged using the LOC to push for jobs using the autonomy that we, like all OWS working groups, have to do whatever we want in the outside world. A similar tactical flexibility is required in the huge opening provided by Occupy’s discussions about this year’s May Day.
    Andrew Pollack

  2. Michael C permalink

    This has been an interesting and enjoyable series. I am left feeling that the slogan does not really express much beyond the general idea of working class power, i.e DOTP, given how hard it is to give the concept a clear meaning beyond this.

    I’ll link to an article by Mike Macnair as part of his ‘Revolutionary Strategy’ series that deals specifically with the ‘workers government’ question very clearly:

    Well worth your time reading/

    Michael C

  3. Thanks for the reply. I don’t know if my first question was ever really addressed. Occupy has certainly posed the question of power indirectly, but there is zero chance of Occupy running its own candidates for any office any time soon. There is a struggle over what “Occupy Congress” will mean concretely (sit-ins at the offices of politicians, voting for Democrats, or both).

    Based on these discussions it is very clear that the revolutionary left is wary of dealing concretely with the question of power prior to a revolutionary overturn. Why shouldn’t we have socialists holding political office at every level of the capitalist state prior to a proletarian revolution? Are we that fearful of opportunism?

    • I agree that it is useful for socialists to contest political office, where this is possible, and to take office if elected. How can a socialist movement ensure that its elected officials march in step with the needs of the working class as a whole and do not get swallowed up by capitalist parliamentarism? A lot has been said on that question, and most revolutionary socialists have argued that it is better to run these risks rather than to boycott the electoral process.

      There are some other reasons why socialists may wish to be cautious regarding running for election. To start with, running a candidate is easier for an organization that is homogenous and has a broad program. It is not so easy for a wide coalition of forces, who may not agree on whether taking part in elections is a good idea, who may be divided on their approach to the Democratic Party, as well as approach to other issues. Sometimes, electoral projects are launched in an attempt to shift a mass movement away from a militant course of action. On this, see Fred Halstead’s historic account of the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, “Out Now.”

      However, all this depends on circumstances. I think Pham Binh’s basic point is correct.

  4. An article that sheds light on Lenin’s attitude towards socialists holding executive positions in a bourgeois state:

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