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Workers’ government: the realities of our era are different

January 16, 2012

The following is a guest column by David Camfield, an editor of New Socialist Webzine. It was submitted in response to my article, “Workers’ Governments and Socialist Strategy — a Reply.” David’s comments are followed by a list of links to all other items in the “workers’ government” exchange on this website.

I must thank John for the invitation to reply to his response to my comments on his article. His response raises many major political issues that I can only deal with here in the most cursory way.

Socialist strategy

Working-class rule can only come into existence through a social revolution that puts ordinary people in genuine control of society through new, radically democratic institutions – socialist democracy. Historically, socialist democracy has only been established briefly and on a local or regional scale, with one important and tragically short-lived exception: the Russian Revolution.[1]

John has documented the Comintern’s development of the demand for a “workers’ government” as an element of the united front approach (I think the term class-struggle government (CSG) is a better term to use today). Although there was confusion in the 1922 Comintern discussion and resolution, its best element involved the demand to form a government of working-class forces in a capitalist state that would launch a “resolute struggle at least to achieve the workers’ most important immediate demands against the bourgeoisie”. Such a government would “result in a bitter struggle with the bourgeoisie.” This might lead to “revolutionary struggle” for socialist democracy.

The realities of our era are different in many ways from those of the early 1920s, as I argued in my contribution. As a result, as Francois Sabado of the NPA writes, “The programmatic cohesion that we had in the previous century, or perhaps that we thought we had in the previous century… cannot answer the challenges of the twenty-first century.” This affects socialist strategic thinking in general, including the CSG issue.

In a comment on my contribution, Binh wrote “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.” I share this concern. In many places the political conditions that would make a CSG even a remote possibility (recognized in the Comintern resolution) simply do not exist today (this includes Quebec). In such places raising the demand for a CSG is not useful.

What is more, today in Canada and the US (which I know best) and many other countries the political conditions make attempts to formulate a socialist “governmental perspective,” to use John’s term, inevitably abstract and unhelpful (this doesn’t mean socialists should ignore what happens in parliamentary politics). In Canada and the US socialists should work with others to try to reinvent the labour movement and other movements. [2] Progress on that front would make it possible to reconsider the CSG demand (and much else).

I agree with John that my “bleak assessment of the prospects for workers’ governments applies less to conditions in the Global South.”

Past and present experiences

I suggested that governments in two German states in 1923, Bolivia in 1971 and Nicaragua in 1979 perhaps qualified as CSGs. I now believe the German examples clearly qualify but that Bolivia in 1971 saw embryonic forms of socialist democracy beginning to emerge alongside the capitalist state, not a CSG.

In Nicaragua the existing state was destroyed and the FSLN leadership formed a ruling junta that at first included some capitalist opponents of the Somoza dictatorship. Within weeks of taking power, the FSLN suspended their decree confiscating the property of the dictatorship’s supporters. In November 1979 they suspended the decree that nationalized Somoza family property, and soon accepted the foreign debt. They also moved against the far left early on. [3] So even if one doesn’t disqualify the government from being a CSG at the outset because it contained a minority of capitalists (debatable) its very rapid retreat from measures directed against the most reactionary sector of the ruling class – “the workers’ most important immediate demands” – means that the most that can be argued is that it was a CSG only very briefly.

John sees the Cuban revolutionary government established in 1959 as a CSG. I disagree, seeing it as a government created by a “political leadership that… was declassed in the sense that it had no strong organizational or institutional ties either to the petty bourgeoisie or to any of the country’s other major social classes.” [4]

As for Venezuela, I think the current government does still objectively rule for capital. It has implemented significant social reforms but continues to reproduce capitalist rule (at whose heart is capital’s social power, not the participation or support of capitalists themselves). It is not a CSG, but I agree with John that “the question of popular control of government in Venezuela” is posed by the situation. [5]


[1] In my view, socialist democracy in Russia (much more developed in the political sphere than in the economic) soon began to weaken (as noted by Rosa Luxemburg in “The Russian Revolution”). Before long, what existed was not working-class rule but the undemocratic rule of the class’s revolutionary leadership (see Samuel Farber, Before Stalinism, London: Verso, 1990). This layer degenerated politically and socially until by the end of the 1920s it had become consolidated as the Stalinist exploiting class.

[2] See my Canadian Labour in Crisis, Winnipeg: Fernwood, 2011.

[3] See James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus, London: Verso, 1988, p. 269-273.

[4] Samuel Farber, The Origins of the Cuban Revolution Reconsidered, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 116.

[5] See Jeffery R. Webber, “Venezuela under Chavez,” in 21st Century Socialism, edited by Henry Veltmeyer, Halifax: Fernwood, 2011.

Other articles on workers’ government in this exchange

  1. Jacob Richter permalink

    I think the term “class-struggle government” is a step up, actually, from the more muddled “workers government.” Again, however, what would be an appropriate program for a “class-struggle government”?

    Let’s take a step further back, near to the beginning, in the Communist Manifesto:

    “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat.”

    In modern parlance, the first two goals are the transformation of the working class in itself into a class for itself and the establishment of worker-class hegemony at the expense of bourgeois hegemony. The third goal expresses itself in the implementation of the recovery-in-progress Marx-Engels minimum program, whereby individual demands could easily be implemented without eliminating the bourgeois state order, but whereby full implementation would mean that the working class will have expropriated ruling-class political power in policymaking, legislation, execution-administration, and other areas. This Marx-Engels minimum program can be implemented without workers councils at all, though it cannot be implemented without worker-class party-movements as big or bigger than the pre-war SPD.

    So what exactly is this Marx-Engels minimum program in today’s terms? Something like these: (“Debating the Marxist programme”) (“Class-Strugglist Democracy and the Demarchic Commonwealth”)

  2. Jacob Richter permalink

    Geographically speaking, what about Paul Mason’s comment that SYRIZA might form “what Marxists refer to as a “workers government” – ie a radical reforming government with the participation of the far left, but limited to parliamentary means”? []

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