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The Comintern workers’ government debate (4): Background

March 17, 2015

The Comintern workers’ government debate (4): Background

This text is also published in Toward the United Front: Proceedings and Resolutions of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International (TUF), edited by John Riddell, Haymarket Books 2012, pp. 22-27. The excerpt is copyright © John Riddell 2011. The text is followed here by a “Who’s Who” of participants in the congress debate on the workers’ government. For other excerpts, see Workers’ government debate home page.

By John Riddell. Gregory Zinoviev’s opening report for the ECCI included a brief passage on the workers’ government slogan. He differentiated between educational use of the slogan as a long-range goal, applicable ‘almost everywhere’, and a specific demand that such a government be constituted, a demand to be raised only where ‘the relationship of forces brings to the fore the question of power’. He described the workers’ government both as a ‘transitional stage’ and as an ‘application of the dictatorship of the proletariat’.[1] He stressed that a workers’ government would not eliminate the need for the seizure of power and civil war.

In the subsequent discussion, Amadeo Bordiga spoke for many delegates who were sceptical of the concept, warning against its use to suggest that the working class can take state power ‘in some way other than through armed struggle for power’. Meyer, on the other hand, greeted the fact that Zinoviev had moved beyond his previous statement that ‘workers’ government’ was merely a pseudonym for proletarian dictatorship. Achievement of a workers’ government, Ernst Meyer said, ‘will lead to a phase of sharpened class struggles, through which a proletarian dictatorship will ultimately emerge’. Karl Radek was more explicit, defining the workers’ government as ‘one of the possible points of transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat’. But it is ‘worthless unless the workers stand behind it, taking up arms and building factory councils that push this government. … If that is done, the workers’ government will be the starting point of a struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat’. The Russian delegates were initially divided on this issue, but Radek’s viewpoint prevailed, leading to Zinoviev’s withdrawal, in his summary, of the ‘pseudonym’ concept: ‘I gladly concede the word to Comrade Meyer’, he said.

The Comintern counterposed its call for a government of workers’ parties and organisations to the orientation of Social Democratic parties toward forming pro-capitalist coalitions with left bourgeois forces like the German Centre Party or the French Radicals. In France, the Comintern suggested the formula of a government of Léon Blum and Louis-Oscar Frossard – central leaders, respectively, of the SP and CP – as an alternative to the SP’s orientation to a ‘Left Bloc’ with bourgeois forces. The Comintern’s approach aimed to draw a class line between bourgeois and workers’ parties. Many Communists regarded this as a breach of Marxism’s longstanding principle of refusing to accept governmental responsibility under capitalism. In his summary of the opening congress debate, Zinoviev concluded that the slogan, while not wrong, had been premature in France. ‘Given the traditions of the party there, this was understood to be a parliamentary alliance,’ he noted. Supporters of the workers’ government concept sought to demonstrate the opposite: that it was an element of revolutionary strategy, not camouflaged reformism.

This interpretation was undermined by the ECCI’s use of the term ‘workers’ government’ to describe rule by workers’ parties that, while introducing some reforms, acted as loyal administrators of the capitalist order. In his summary, Zinoviev used the expression ‘liberal workers’ government’ to describe the Labour governments that had administered the Australian capitalist state after 1904 and a future Labour Party government in Britain. Such a regime, he said, ‘could be the jumping-off point for revolutionising the country’, could take many steps ‘objectively directed against the bourgeois state’, and ‘can finish in the hands of the left wing’. Surprisingly, Zinoviev saw a parallel here with the role of Russian Mensheviks in 1917. The notion of joining in efforts to bring Labour into office was rooted in Lenin’s well-known 1920 polemic against ‘left-wing’ communism, but Lenin’s thrust was quite different. Lenin had argued that a pro-capitalist Labour government would enable workers ‘to be convinced by their own experience’ that the Labour leadership was ‘absolutely good for nothing’.

Meyer, by contrast, emphasised the contrast between ‘liberal workers’ governments’ and a true workers’ government, which ‘does not merely carry the label of a socialist policy but actually implements a socialist-communist policy in life’. Such a government will be parliamentary ‘only in a subordinate sense’ and ‘must be carried by the broad masses’. KPD leaders Meyer, Hoernle, and Walter Ulbricht, on behalf of the German delegation, submitted an amendment that explained the different types of workers’ governments and distinguished between ‘illusory’ and ‘genuine’ variants. This was incorporated into the final resolution.

Another amendment resulted from the assertion by the senior Bulgarian delegate, Vasil Kolarov, that ‘the workers’ government is not posed in agrarian countries like the Balkans’. The final resolution referred to the possibility of a ‘government of workers and the poorer peasants’ in regions such as the Balkans and Czechoslovakia.

The workers’ government debate, which wound through the entire congress, was notable for the richness of the contributions by delegates who had grappled with its complexity in the work of member parties. Ruth Fischer gave voice to the reticence of many left-leaning delegates in warning that the concept of revolution was being watered down by ‘styling its hair in “Western” fashion … creating democratic transitional stages between what we have now and what we aim for’. Speaking for the pro-united front minority of the Italian CP, Antonio Graziadei called the workers’ government ‘the result of a united front’ – that is, the logical extension of a united front to a governmental level. Adolf Warszawski of the Polish majority likened the workers’ government slogan to the demand ‘all power to the soviets’, raised in Russia in mid-1917 and in Germany in late 1918 – examples of ‘a great revolutionary movement at a time when we have not yet won the majority of the working class’. Trotsky drew a parallel with the workers’ government formed by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 October revolution, a coalition with the peasant-based Left Socialist-Revolutionary Party.

Zinoviev’s summary, delivered in Session 7 (12 November), did not pick up on Meyer’s and Radek’s description of the workers’ government as a transitional stage to soviet power. While conceding on the word ‘pseudonym’, Zinoviev restated his point in another form, arguing that ‘to establish a workers’ government we must first overthrow the bourgeoisie’. The workers’ government represented ‘the least likely path’ to workers’ power. As for the variant of a ‘liberal workers’ government’, perhaps in Britain, ‘[i]t is right to agitate for such a workers’ government’, while maintaining a revolutionary perspective. On this ambiguous note, the discussion moved into the congress commissions.

Meanwhile, outside the plenary sessions, a sharp debate was under way regarding a proposal that the KPD join a coalition government in the German state of Saxony with the two Social Democratic parties. A year earlier, elections in the neighbouring state of Thuringia had produced a narrow majority for the Social Democratic and Communist parties, taken together. The KPD had declined to join in a common government with the SPD and USPD, but its support enabled the two parties to form a state government independent of the bourgeois parties. When the Saxon elections in late 1922 produced a similar result, the now united SPD invited the Communists to join the government. The KPD posed a number of conditions, of which two were rejected: the arming of the workers and the calling of a congress of factory councils. The KPD majority leadership then proposed to enter the government regardless. The Fischer–Maslow current protested. The question was debated in Moscow midway through the congress, on 16 November, at a special meeting of the German delegation with leaders of the Russian party, chaired by Lenin. Zinoviev, Trotsky, Radek, and Lenin were unanimously opposed to entry into the government, and the German leadership gave way.

A month after this discussion, Trotsky summarised its outcome in a report on the congress. The Comintern had been prepared to support participation in the government, Trotsky said, if the KPD was ‘of the opinion that a revolution is possible in the next few months in Germany’ and that ministerial posts in Saxony could be used ‘for transforming Saxony … [into] a revolutionary stronghold’ during this period of preparation. But given the actual conditions in Germany, KPD ministers ‘will of course play in Saxony the role of an appendage, an impotent appendage because the Saxon government is itself impotent before Berlin, and Berlin is – a bourgeois government’.

As noted above, Section 11 of the Theses on Tactics, which deals with the workers’ government, was the most frequently and thoroughly rewritten text in the congress resolutions. The first and second drafts affirmed the workers’ government to be identical with the dictatorship of the proletariat, and omitted the concept that it can be a fighting instrument to help dismantle the bourgeois state and prepare for insurrection. All this was altered in the much-revised text presented in Session 32 to congress delegates.

The completed resolution represented a workable synthesis, based on a transitional concept of a workers’ government. It labelled a potential Labour regime in Britain as an ‘illusory workers’ government’, stating that it will be supported ‘only to the degree that it defends the workers’ interests’. The final text described the tasks and character of a workers’ government in these terms:

The most basic tasks of a workers’ government must consist of arming the proletariat, disarming the bourgeois counter-revolutionary organisations, introducing [workers’] control of production, shifting the main burden of taxation to the shoulders of the rich, and breaking the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. Such a workers’ government is possible only if it is born from the struggles of the masses themselves and is supported by militant workers’ organisations created by the most oppressed layers of the working masses.

However, the confusion attending this debate extended into publication of the resolution. The description of ‘illusory’ or ‘false’ workers’ governments published in the congress proceedings and translated in the present work was elaborated and strengthened in the German-language edition of the congress resolutions. Unfortunately, the Soviet edition of the congress resolutions published in 1933 omitted the amendments adopted in Session 32 and subsequent changes, and that version has served as the basis of all published English-language translations. As a result, much subsequent discussion of this congress text has focused on weaknesses that the congress itself identified and sought to correct.

List of Participants in the Workers’ Government Debate

Gregory Zinoviev – President of the Comintern, spoke for those in its Executive Committee who accepted the workers’ government concept with reservations.

Karl Radek – Member of Comintern Executive Committee responsible for relations with German party, spoke for those in the Comintern Executive Committee who were more positive toward workers’ government concept.

Ernst Meyer – Spoke for majority leadership of German party who had helped shape the workers’ government concept.

Ruth Fischer and Hugo Urbahns – Leaders of the leftist minority current in the German party critical of the workers’ government concept.

Adolf Warszawski – Leader of the Polish party’s majority current, which was close to the German majority in approach.

Amadeo Bordiga – Leader of the leftist majority current in the Italian party that was critical of the united front strategy.

Antonio Graziadei – Leader of the minority current in the Italian party that accepted the united front strategy.

Jean Duret – Leader of a minority current in the French party critical of the united front concept.

Vasil Kolarov – Leader of the Bulgarian party, which accepted the united front strategy in principle but tended to reject it in practice.


[1]. Participants in this congress used the term “dictatorship of the proletariat” to describe a workers’ state similar to that in the Russian Soviet republic and characterized by the democratic rule of workers’ and peasants’ councils.

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