How Clara Zetkin helps us understand Evo Morales

Clara Zetkin.

By John Riddell

September 18, 2011 -- First posted at, it appears at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- Is Bolivia “a case of a workers’ government in the sense the early Comintern/Clara Zetkin meant it?” The question comes from Pham Binh in a comment at In my view, the “workers’ government” concept is certainly relevant but must be used with caution.

My article “Clara Zetkin’s Struggle for the United Front” states:

Zetkin was an exponent of the concept of a workers’ government, that is, a government based on the mass movement of working people and acting in their interests. This was an application of the united front that originated in Germany and became part of the political tool chest of communists in Lenin’s time.

The government of Bolivia headed by President Evo Morales can indeed be viewed as a “workers’ government” of the type discussed by the German revolutionary Clara Zetkin and the Communist International (Comintern) in the early 1920s.

The “workers’ government” concept is valuable above all to open our minds to the fact that there is more to class rule than the counterposition of capitalist power and workers’ power. There are also situations where – for a limited time – workers form governments ruling within the capitalist state. Here we need to view the working class in an inclusive sense as an ensemble of all toilers and oppressed people.

In a broad, generic sense, that is what has happened in Bolivia. Indeed, Bolivia's vice-president Alvaro Garcia Linera has called the Morales regime a “government of the social movements” (García Linera 2011, p. 12).

Zetkin was ahead of most other Comintern leaders of her time in understanding the need to extend the united front beyond the proletariat (that is, employed industrial workers) and draw in women, farmers, other exploited non-waged workers and rebellious petty-bourgeois layers. In that sense, Zetkin thought in terms applicable to Bolivia today.

The “workers’ government” demand was developed as part of a general policy of building a “workers’ united front”. That suggests Marxists should take a “united front” approach toward the government of Bolivia led by Morales. The Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) — the ruling party in Bolivia — is itself a broad united front of worker, peasant, Indigenous and allied forces, including Marxists in its ranks. A united-front approach enables any necessary criticism or dissent to be expressed from within the broad movement, not from the sidelines.

Distinctive features of the MAS government

But there are many ways in which the MAS government and Bolivian reality today differ from what Zetkin was writing about in the early 1920s. Her eye was then fixed on the revolutionary ferment in Germany, an advanced industrialised country. In Bolivia, by contrast:

  1. Morales leads the country’s first Indigenous-based government.

  2. Bolivia is a very poor country, where peasants played a greater role than employed workers in bringing this government into office.

  3. Informal workers, small family businesses and small co-op enterprises based on Indigenous economy have greater weight in the popular movement than unions of employed workers.

  4. Social struggles for sovereignty, democracy and Indigenous rights play a major role in the Bolivian struggle.

  5. The Morales regime rules from within the bourgeois state. It is under pressure not only by the traditional state apparatus but by bourgeois representatives within the government and the MAS, the ruling party.

  6. Bolivia is also subject to enormous pressure from imperialism, its armed forces and its agencies within the country. Consequently, Bolivia must block with capitalist regimes in Brazil, Argentina, and now Peru, as part of a broader non-socialist Latin American initiative, most importantly through UNASUR.

  7. Above all, in contrast to the conditions faced by Clara Zetkin, Bolivia is not now in a revolutionary situation, there is no worldwide rise of revolutionary struggles, and the preconditions for socialist revolution in Bolivia do not yet exist.

It is hazardous to try to fit today’s reality into categories established almost a century ago. This was not the method of the Comintern of Lenin’s time. The Comintern’s list of the possible forms of a workers’ government sought to encompass the variants posed by struggles at that time in Europe and Asia.

Comintern president Gregory Zinoviev specified in 1922 that other types of workers’ governments could occur, and warned that “in the search for a rigorous scientific definition, we might overlook the political side of the situation” (Riddell 2012, pp. 267–68). The Comintern focused on the reality that it faced; we should take a similar approach.

Zetkin projected that, in the Germany of her time, a workers’ government could rally working people to begin the process of taking state power out of the hands of the capitalist class. That is not taking place in Bolivia. However, the MAS government is a genuine product of workers’ struggle, an experience in attempting to use governmental power to benefit working people, despite all the limitations and contradictions imposed by objective conditions.

Crisis of leadership?

Another comment by Binh regarding “Progress in Bolivia” is worth quoting:

You are absolutely right that workers will not become convinced of the need to overthrow the capitalist state if the road to reform remains open and that the struggle for reforms and/or to overthrow the system are part of a single process of class struggle. The rigid juxtaposition of the two is one of the mistakes that [Jeff] Webber seems to make, which leads him to denounce Morales for selling out, betraying, reconstituting, demobilizing, containing, etc., and in so doing, the dynamic process of the Bolivian revolution is reduced to the “crisis of the revolutionary leadership” i.e. the lack of a revolutionary party.

Binh is right that the model of a “crisis of revolutionary leadership” is not a good match for what has happened in the past decade in Bolivia.

Such a crisis occurs when objective conditions for socialist revolution are present, the working masses are ready to struggle for that goal, but the road is blocked by pro-capitalist leaderships of their organisations.

In Bolivia, by contrast, the working class is not blocked by a mass Stalinist, social-democratic or bourgeois nationalist party. The workers’ and people’s movement is fluid, and includes currents opposed to the MAS that are vigorous and influential. And yet, there is no organised revolutionary alternative to the MAS, even in embryo; no alternative socialist project. What is the problem, then? Are the Bolivian masses politically backward?

I’m reminded of Bertolt Brecht’s sarcastic crack at East Germany’s Stalinist bureaucrats in 1953, the year of a workers’ anti-Stalinist revolt: “The leaders have lost confidence in the people. Shouldn’t they simply dissolve the people and elect another?”

Conditions for socialist revolution

Progress in Bolivia” argued that objective conditions today block the road to a successful socialist revolution in that country. I did not hold that opinion of Bolivia’s prospects in the years following Cuba’s socialist revolution. International conditions today are less favourable.

It would be useful to discuss what could be the shape of a socialist revolution today in a country like Bolivia and what conditions would be needed for its victory and survival. Could a socialist revolution in Bolivia “go it alone” in a small, landlocked country? Or would not such a breakthrough have to come in tandem with anti-capitalist victories in other countries of the region?

I stand by my opinion that the greatest barrier to socialism in Bolivia is the absence of workers’ governments in economically advanced countries (or even in neighbouring Brazil with its enormous resources, population and industry) that could provide effective support. The existence of such allies would decisively weaken the grip of imperialism.

Bolivia’s ALBA alliance with Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua was conceived as an innovative attempt to find allies, but in another way – through an economic alliance of anti-imperialist governments in Latin America, based on principles of solidarity. ALBA doesn’t overcome the international obstacle to socialist revolution, but it’s an inspired step in the right direction.

The MAS regime does not correspond fully to Clara Zetkin’s projection of a workers’ government for Germany in 1921–23. However, ALBA goes much further than any governmental alliance achieved by the revolutionists of Clara Zetkin’s time.

[This article forms part of an exchange with Pham Binh posted as comments on “Progress in Bolivia, a Reply to Jeff Webber”. Thanks to Felipe Cournoyer for reviewing and commenting on a draft of this text.]

Related articles


García Linera, Alvaro 2011, El “Oenegismo”, enfermedad infantil del derechismo.

Riddell, John 2012, Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, Leiden: Brill.