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Workers’ governments and socialist strategy — a discussion

"The FSLN government in Nicaragua immediately after the fall of the Somoza dictatorship may qualify as a workers' government" -- David Camfield.

January 17, 2012 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- A discussion is taking place at John Riddell's website on the demand for a workers' government and issues raised in the article by Riddell, "A ‘workers’ government’ as a step toward socialism". Below are article-length responses from David Camfield and Nathan Rao, a comment by Tim K, and a response by John Riddell.

Workers’ governments and the crisis of politics

By David Camfield, an editor of New Socialist Webzine

January 10, 2012 -- John Riddell is right that, “The Comintern’s decisions on governmental policy were rooted in a political environment that no longer exists.”

Before offering some comments on the demand for a “workers’ government” (WG) today, I think it’s important to clarify what kind of government we’re talking about. There has been a lack of clarity about what distinguishes a WG from a far more common phenomenon: left governments in capitalist states that rule for capital, as “administrators of the capitalist order” as John puts it.

This lack of clarity has led to cases of revolutionary socialists mistakenly supporting examples of the latter.

I think a WG should be understood as a government of working-class forces (or worker and peasant forces) in a capitalist state (or some other exceptional institutional setting other than working-class rule) that objectively doesn’t rule for capital. This means a government that disrupts capitalist rule in some ways rather than just reproducing it. For this to happen, a government must actually engage in “a resolute struggle at least to achieve the workers’ most important immediate demands against the bourgeoisie”, to use a phrase from the 1922 Comintern resolution (from “The Comintern’s Unknown Decision on Workers’ Governments”). This is only possible when the balance of class forces is very favourable to the working class (or workers and peasants).

A WG is different from socialist democracy: a government organised through new institutions like workers’ councils through which the exploited class(es) rules. The Paris Commune and the soviet government in Russia formed in 1917 were examples of socialist democracy, not WGs.

WGs have historically been extremely unusual, unstable and inherently short lived. Perhaps the left Social Democrat governments in the German states of Saxony and Thuringia in 1923 would qualify as WGs, along with the government of the People’s Assembly in Bolivia under Torres in 1971. The FSLN government in Nicaragua immediately after the fall of the Somoza dictatorship might also qualify (I haven’t reviewed the history of any of these examples in detail). No government in the world today is a WG.

I think any useful socialist political reflection on the demand for a WG today needs to consider such issues as:

1. The current era is obviously not one of wars and revolutions, with a high level of working-class struggle and working-class radicalisation in many places, as was the case in the years after the Russian Revolution when the “workers’ government” question arose. “Sustained, mass workers’ struggles” that pose “the possibility that working people might form a government” are few and far between.

2. The room that governments within capitalist states in almost all countries have to act in ways that aren’t sanctioned by capitalists even for short periods of time is very limited today, less than was the case in the early 20th century. This is because individual capitalist states are more tightly subordinated to international capital through bond and currency markets. In many cases, individual states are also subjected to pressures from international capital via the World Trade Organization, Internationl Monetary Fund, the World Bank, investment pacts like NAFTA, etc.

3. The three main forms of mass left-wing politics in the 20th century — social democracy, Stalinism and Third World nationalism — were all in deep crisis before the century’s end, their popular credibility as political alternatives to the neoliberal status quo (let alone capitalism) tremendously weakened. Most of the formerly reformist and more radical political forces of the exploited have accepted neoliberalism.

4. As a result of these and other changes, there is a crisis of politics. One aspect of this is that the belief that it is possible to really change society through taking political power (however this is understood) has declined. Even in highly-politicised France, to quote two members of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA), “in their great majority the activists of the ‘social movement’… continue to not pose the question of organising on the political map” (in other words, in a party or other political organisation).

5. There are today no revolutionary workers’ political organisations of significant influence, and few really significant workers’ political organisations to the left of reformism.

I think that today in most countries it makes little sense for socialists to put effort into arguing that “working people should strive for governmental power even in the absence of a soviet-type network of workers’ councils”, as John puts it. For one thing, the demand won’t seem relevant even to most radical worker activists. For another, the conditions required to make a WG — as opposed to a left government that objectively “administers the capitalist order”, no matter what its rhetoric is — possible simply don’t exist in most places.

However, in Greece today it would make sense to call for a WG — a government that would reject austerity measures and exit the eurozone in a way designed to favour the working class. Egypt and Chile today may also be places where the demand is meaningful.

[For more contributions to this debate, see Comments #1 and Comments #2.]

Venezuela and Bolivia

By Tim K

David, While your article makes many valid points, I disagree with your assertion that there are no workers' governments in the world today.

The governments of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia are workers' governments according to your definition of the term. Both Chavez and Morales have brought about new constitutions for their respective countries that have deepened democracy, and have fought the power of capitalism and US imperialism to achieve concrete gains for their peoples. Both countries have refused to implement policies demanded by the IMF make payments on IMF loans received by previous governments.

Venezuela

In Venezuela, the government of Hugo Chavez has encouraged democratic participation through the creation of communal councils. Any and all members of the community can participate in the communal councils, and many of the Chavez government’s social programs have been implemented through the communal councils.

Some of the Chavez government’s social programs include: mass literacy programs; a network of publicly owned internet cafes; social housing (designed and implemented through the community councils); bringing thousands of Cuban doctors to Venezuela to provide health care to many poor Venezuelans for the first time in their lives; a network of publicly owned food stores that provide basic foods (frutis, vegetables, grains and meat) at heavily subsidised prices; land reform; and community gardens.

The Chavez government has nationalised and re-nationalised many Venezuelan companies. It has supported worker-led intiatives to take over abandoned factories and turn them into worker-run co-operatives, and it has supported worker-democracy in some state-run companies.

The Chavez government has also pursued a foreign policy involving Latin American integration in opposition to US imperialsm. To this end, the Chavez government spearheaded the people’s trade agreement called ALBA (the Bolivarian Alliance for the People’s of Our America). Current ALBA members include Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador,Trinidad and Tobago, Antigua and Barbuda, and Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.

Bolivia

In Bolivia, the Evo Morales government presided over a constitutional process that led to the refounding of the country as a plurinational state in early 2009 with guaranteed constitutional rights for Bolivia’s indigenous majority. Morales also mobilised support for the government and the new constitution when some of the more right-leaning departments in eastern Bolivia threatened to secede from the country during the run-up to the constitutional referendum of 2009.

The Morales government re-nationalised the hydrocarbon industry, and used the money obtained from these ventures to increase education funding; provide internet access to regions of the country that did not previously have internet access; and to fund social program to combat illiteracy and extreme poverty.

Bolivia has also been the most oustpoken nation on the subject of climate change. The Bolivian government has criticised the UN climate negotiations to create a new climate treaty as leading to an agreement that will guarantee unacceptable levels of global warming. In April 2010, the Bolivian government hosted the World People’s Summit on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, which produced an alternative set of principles around which climate justice could be based.

We need to provide a credible political perspective

By Nathan Rao, a Toronto-based socialist writer.

January 11, 2012 -- Thank you to John Riddell and others for this interesting discussion. So long as we keep front and centre the long list of caveats Riddell provides (and David Camfield enlarges upon), I agree with Riddell’s concluding paragraph with respect to the relevance today of the debates from nearly a century ago: “The relevance of its workers’ government discussion lies rather in alerting us to the possibility that working people should strive for governmental power even in the absence of a soviet-type network of workers’ councils.”

Precisely in order to tackle the “crisis of politics” that David Camfield correctly mentions, it is essential to argue that “ordinary working people” can and must strive to run government according to their needs and aspirations – while simultaneously insisting that beyond “government” also lies the problem of capitalist social relations and the state that sustains and deepens them.

There’s also a “defensive” reason for addressing this question head on. While there is certainly a “crisis of politics”, the central role of government remains. As the old saying goes, politics abhors a vacuum. If the radical left is unable to provide at least the beginnings of a credible outline of what our solution to the central problem of what a genuinely anti-capitalist government (or “workers' government” to use the term in this exchange) might look like – and of the organisational project and strategy for getting there – you can be sure that politicised working people, students and so forth will continue to support (however grudgingly) the existing organisations of the neoliberalised “left” or “centre left” as a “lesser evil” against an increasingly aggressive capitalist class and right wing.

This is exactly the situation that we see in today in Canada, France and beyond – and it is one of the principal obstacles to the emergence of a radical left project with any kind of mass support.

David Camfield is concerned that “most radical worker activists” will not find the “demand” or project (of a “workers' government”) relevant.

First, I’m curious to know who he is talking about and how he is gauging their political/electoral behaviour today. Who and where are these workers who are presumably active in their workplaces and around broader working-class issues, but who don’t understand the importance of the question of who runs government and the state? At election time, but also in terms of whom they look to for guidance around the major questions affecting them, most working people with some basic class and political consciousness end up throwing their support behind (to use the Canadian example) the New Democratic Party (NDP) (or even the Liberals) at election time and look to the organisations in their orbit at other times. I think those with a more advanced consciousness tend to do so as well, but there are also those who “drop out” and abstain (the political content of which is hard to assess) and a very small minority who seek to build alternative groupings.

The point for me here is that not addressing the “government” question in practice simply yields the terrain of politics and government to the neoliberalised “left” and “centre left” (actually centre right in the case of Canada's Liberal Party). There may be small numbers of radical worker activists who don’t fit into this pattern of behaviour, but I’m not sure they are statistically and politically significant enough to act as a guide for the strategic debates of the anti-capitalist left. And even they would surely understand the importance of who holds the levers of governmental power in this society.

Second, there’s a much bigger problem than the possible reaction of a small number of radical worker activists to the “workers' government” slogan. It’s the fact that there are so few radical (or even not so radical) worker activists to begin with! Camfield and Riddell highlight the general absence of “sustained, mass workers’ struggles”, but they don’t go far enough in examining the reasons for this. In particular, they ignore one explanation that for me is key, overarching and directly related to what we are talking about here: the lack of a credible political perspective – or the lack of a perspective for “governmental power even in the absence of a soviet-type network of workers’ councils”, to use the language of this exchange.

Indeed, with all the changes and problems that Riddell and Camfield enumerate, why on Earth would groups of workers enter into any kind of serious and sustained process of struggle and confrontation if there are not even the beginnings of a credible prospect that their efforts won’t be a glorious waste of time (or worse, given the loss of wages, the possibility of job loss and repression, etc.)?

As Camfield rightly says in his point # 3, until the entrenchment of neoliberalism this credible prospect took the form of social democracy, Stalinism and Third World nationalism. These forces offered not only the seemingly credible prospect of longer-term improvements, but given their weight in society and the state, and given differences in capitalism and the state themselves (pointed out by Camfield in his point # 2), they could also deliver immediate gains. So it made perfect sense to enter into struggle to exert pressure upon employers and the state, from whom concessions could be extracted through the intermediary of social democracy, Stalinism and Third World nationalism.

But we can all agree that that mechanism of struggle and change (which was always uneven and imperfect) is now a thing of the past. So do we just throw our hands up in the air and wait for “sustained, mass workers’ struggles” to fall out of the sky into our laps? That’s one option that can sustain small groups who alternate between propaganda and (hyper)activism around local and short-term issues. Other small radical left groups will continue to carve out a niche within the neoliberalised organisations of the “left” and “centre left”, also waiting patiently for a heroic surge in working-class struggles as they become further and further embedded in the life and outlook of the bureaucracies where they find themselves. Most of the small radical left in Canada today combines elements of both of these approaches. On both counts, it’s a losing proposition.

We have a responsibility to break out of this strategic impasse by mapping out a credible political perspective for today – and this is where the question of “governmental power even in the absence of a soviet-type network of workers’ councils” may fit in, as does the corollary question of what type of organisation and strategy can lead us toward that goal.

If we shirk this responsibility, it makes it hard to fathom why we on the radical/anti-capitalist/revolutionary left even bother to pretend that we exist as a real political current – as opposed to scattered groupings of well-meaning people; curious cultural or intellectual remnants of a long-gone era.

[For more contributions to this debate, see Comments #1 and Comments #2.]

Workers’ governments and socialist strategy — a reply

By John Riddell

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” (above) 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 analysed 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”.)

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 (NDP) – 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 utilise 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).

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 mobilise 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 above.)

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 per cent? 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% 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.

 

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