The workers’ and peasants’ government
Introduction by Mike Taber
July 7, 2019 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from John Riddell's Marxist Essays and Commentary Blog — Reproduced below are a resolution and excerpts from a report adopted in June 1923 by the Communist International (Comintern). It took place at an enlarged meeting of the Executive Committee of the Communist International (ECCI).
It is reprinted from The Communist Movement at a Crossroads: Plenums of the Communist International’s Executive Committee, 1922-1923. That book, edited by Mike Taber and translated by John Riddell, is being published in a paperback edition by Haymarket books, available June 18. (A hardback edition was published last year by Brill.) It is the eighth installment in the series on the Communist International in Lenin’s time that was launched in 1983 under the editorship of John Riddell.
At its Fourth Congress in November-December 1922, the Comintern adopted the transitional demand of a workers’ government, linked to the perspective of the proletarian united front. Excerpts from the debate at the Fourth Congress over this issue were printed on this website, beginning with: https://johnriddell.wordpress.com/2015/03/17/the-cominterns-workers-government-debate-1-introduction/.
Five months later the discussion was renewed at the Third Enlarged Plenum of the Communist International Executive Committee.
Below is the full text of the resolution on the call for a workers’ and peasants’ government adopted by that plenum, along with the report to the plenum on that topic by Comintern chairman Gregory Zinoviev.
Resolution on the Workers’ and Peasants’ Government
Relations between the working class and the peasantry constitute one of the fundamental issues in the international proletarian revolution. For our struggle to succeed both before and after taking power, the interrelationships of these two main classes of working people must be evaluated correctly.
A thorough general appreciation of these interrelationships is presented in the resolution on the agrarian question adopted by the Second World Congress of the Comintern. It reads as follows:
1.) Only the urban and industrial proletariat, led by the Communist Party, can liberate the working masses of the countryside from the yoke of capital and landed proprietorship, from ruin and the imperialist wars that will inevitably break out again and again if the capitalist system endures. The working masses of the countryside cannot find salvation except in alliance with the Communist proletariat, and unless they give the latter devoted support in its revolutionary struggle to throw off the yoke of the landowners (the big landed proprietors) and the bourgeoisie.
On the other hand, the industrial workers cannot accomplish their epoch-making mission of emancipating mankind from the yoke of capital and from wars if they confine themselves to their narrow craft or trade interests, and complacently restrict themselves to attaining an improvement in their own conditions, which may sometimes be tolerable in the petty-bourgeois sense. This is exactly what happens to the ‘labour aristocracy’ of many advanced countries, who constitute the core of the so-called socialist parties of the Second International. In reality they are the bitter enemies and betrayers of socialism; they are petty-bourgeois chauvinists and agents of the bourgeoisie within the working-class movement.
The proletariat can be a genuinely revolutionary class and act in a really socialist manner only if it comes out and serves as the vanguard of all the working and exploited people, as their leader in the struggle for the overthrow of the exploiters. However, this cannot be achieved unless the class struggle is carried into the countryside, unless the rural working masses are united around the Communist Party of the urban proletariat, and unless they are trained by the proletariat.
2.) The working and exploited people of the countryside, whom the urban proletariat must lead into the struggle or, at all events, win over, are represented in all capitalist countries by the following classes:
First, the agricultural proletariat, wage-labourers (by the year, season, or day), who obtain their livelihood by working for hire at capitalist agricultural enterprises. The fundamental tasks of the Communist parties in all countries are to organise this class (politically, militarily, in trade unions, co-operatives, culturally and educationally, etc.) independently and separately from other groups of the rural population; to conduct intensive propaganda and agitation among this class; and to win its support for the soviets and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
[For an explanation by Lenin of the term “dictatorship of the proletariat,” see appendix below.]
Second, the semi-proletarians or peasants who till tiny plots of land, that is, those who obtain their livelihood partly as wage-labourers at agricultural and industrial capitalist enterprises and partly by working their own or rented plots of land, which provide their families with only part of their means of subsistence. This group of the rural working population is very numerous in all capitalist countries. However, its existence and special position are played down by the representatives of the bourgeoisie and by the yellow ‘Socialists’ belonging to the Second International, partly by deliberately deceiving the workers and partly by blindly submitting to the customary petty-bourgeois views and lumping together this group with the mass of the ‘peasantry’.
This bourgeois method of duping the workers is to be seen mostly in Germany and in France, but also in America and other countries. If the work of the Communist Party is properly organised, this group will become its assured supporter, for the lot of these semi-proletarians is a very hard one and they stand to gain enormously and immediately from Soviet government and the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In some countries there is no sharp division between the first and the second group. Under certain circumstances they can share a common organisation.
Third, the small peasantry, that is, the small-scale cultivators who, either as owners or as tenants, hold small plots of land that enable them to satisfy the needs of their families and their farms, and do not hire outside labour. This layer, as such, undoubtedly stands to gain by the victory of the proletariat….
3.) Taken together, the three groups enumerated above constitute the majority of the rural population in all capitalist countries. That is why the success of the proletarian revolution is fully assured, not only in the cities but in the countryside as well….
The Fourth World Congress of the Comintern further developed and expanded this resolution by providing an outline of a Comintern action programme (minimum programme) on the agrarian question.
The Second Congress thus provided programmatic foundations regarding the mutual relations of the working class and peasantry. The Fourth Congress made these foundations more specific. The present plenum of the Enlarged Executive Committee now has to provide a compact political formula that will permit us to carry out the decisions of the Second and Fourth Congresses with the greatest possible success.
This political formula is: the workers’ and peasants’ government.
After the first imperialist world war, the peasantry was different from what it had been before the war. In most of the countries that had taken part in the war, significant layers of the peasantry had already gained some political experience.
As a result, during recent years serious attempts have become evident to found peasant parties trying to play an independent political role. Note in particular the repeated attempts in recent years to found a ‘Green Peasants International’.
All things considered, the attempts of the peasantry to pursue an independent policy midway between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat have been without success. In the ‘advanced’ bourgeois countries, the bourgeoisie and the large landowners continue as before to lead the peasantry around by the nose. Even where apparently independent peasant parties exist, they are mostly led by alien class forces (clergy, lawyers, large landowners). The working peasant masses serve as merely a tool and as political cannon fodder for the worst enemies of their class. That is one of the pillars of the bourgeois government. Recent history is full of examples where broad layers of the working peasantry were able to defend their political interests only in close alliance with the revolutionary proletariat, and provided that the peasantry supported the revolutionary proletarian party.
Meanwhile, the parties of the Second International are altering their stance toward the peasantry. Instead of ignoring the peasants, as they had traditionally done, they are now making attempts to involve the peasantry in their counterrevolutionary Social-Democratic politics. The most important Social-Democratic parties are more and more losing influential positions in the working class and are frantically searching for a new social basis. As this happens, they unavoidably turn to the countryside, directing their attention to the prosperous layers of the peasantry.
The task of Communists today lies in immediately occupying the positions of strength that the Social Democrats are giving up, while simultaneously taking care to thwart the attempt of the Social Democrats to build a new base in the countryside. To this end, they must unite with the rural workers and agricultural semi-proletariat around our banner while winning the peasantry to an alliance with the revolutionary proletariat.
The mere fact that the Communist parties internationally are embracing the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government and beginning agitation for it will be the start of neutralising the middle layers of the peasantry and winning the small peasants.
The Executive Committee of the Communist International finds that the overwhelming majority of Comintern sections have been extremely sluggish with respect to work in rural areas and have caused enormous damage to our cause in this regard. This sluggish conduct reflects the regrettable tradition of the Second International, from which the largest Comintern parties emerged. It also reflects an incorrect theoretical position on the peasantry, which presents matters as if ‘orthodox Marxism’ means that a workers’ party need not concern itself with the peasantry. Thirdly, it reflects a narrow-minded craft-guild approach to the proletarian class struggle.
The task of Communist parties in the present period is to break once and for all with this guild-like attitude. The Communist parties must not regard themselves as representing only an extreme proletarian opposition within the bourgeois social order, as was the case in the heyday of the Second International. Communist parties must embrace the psychology of parties aware that in the near or not-so-near future they will lead the working masses in a struggle against the bourgeois order in order to overthrow the bourgeoisie and replace it in state administration. A limited guild-like psychology must be replaced by that of a party with a will to power, one that expresses the hegemony of the proletariat in the revolution. A Communist Party must prepare itself to defeat the bourgeoisie tomorrow, and therefore it must today set goals that embrace the entire people. That is why it sets the task of drawing into support of the proletariat all layers of the population that, at the decisive moment, thanks to their social position, can lend aid to the proletarian revolution in one way or another.
The slogan of a workers’ and peasants’ government, like that of the workers’ government before it, does not in any way replace agitation for the dictatorship of the proletariat, which is the foundation underlying all Communist policy. It does not in any way shove this agitation into the background. On the contrary, it is the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government that establishes the basis for carrying out the united front, the only correct policy under present conditions that points toward the dictatorship of the proletariat. A correct interpretation of the workers’ and peasants’ government slogan will enable Communists not only to mobilise the proletarian masses in the cities but also to establish important centres of influence in the countryside, and in this way to prepare the ground for taking power.
The workers’ and peasants’ government slogan will also be helpful to the Communist parties after the proletariat has won power. Through this slogan the proletariat can always and repeatedly remember that its forward march must be in step with the mood among the country’s peasantry, that a correct relationship must be established between the victorious proletariat and the peasantry, and that the proletariat’s economic measures must be carried out with prudent moderation. This corresponds to the conduct of the victorious Russian proletariat in the present phase of the Russian Revolution, which is known as the New Economic Policy.
It is self-evident that agitation for a ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ must be shaped by the specific relationships in each individual country. For example, in North America it is a question of the working farmers.
The starting point of all our agitation for a workers’ and peasants’ government is the protection of the peasantry’s economic interests, as set out in the decisions of the Comintern Second and Fourth World Congresses. The Enlarged Executive Committee instructs each national party to immediately develop a specific action programme for its relationship with the peasantry and introduce a corresponding draft law through its parliamentary fraction. If this draft really expresses the current interests of the working peasants, it will have a major political impact. Signatures can be gathered in the countryside to support it.
The ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ slogan is a propagandistic formula that enables us to express arithmetically what was previously expressed only algebraically. As such, it can be universally helpful. On the other hand, as a slogan for present political struggle, the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ slogan will be useful especially in countries like France, Germany, Italy, the Balkans, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, etc. Moreover, without assistance from the peasantry, whatever form it takes, the victory of proletarian revolution and its consolidation is not possible anywhere. In this sense, the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ must be a general slogan of Communist parties.
While strongly supporting the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ slogan, the Comintern Executive Committee also recommends that all Communist parties keep in mind the dangers that could result from its incorrect implementation. Just like the united-front policy in general, the slogans of the ‘workers’ government’ and the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ can undoubtedly lead to grave dangers if our parties do not implement them in a revolutionary Marxist spirit. The most evident dangers linked to the demand for a workers’ and peasants’ government are the following:
1.) In parties where Marxist education is still insufficient, there is a danger that the slogan could be interpreted in the fashion of the Russian Social Revolutionaries. That approach, in the spirit of petty-bourgeois ‘socialism’, views the entire peasantry as a compact mass and does not take into consideration that there are different layers within the peasantry. The Executive Committee of the Communist International calls to mind the corresponding passage in the programmatic resolution of the Second Congress, which reads:
The large peasants are capitalist entrepreneurs in agriculture, who as a rule employ several hired labourers and are connected with the ‘peasantry’ only in their low cultural level, habits of life, and the manual labour they themselves perform on their farms. These constitute the largest of the bourgeois strata who are open and determined enemies of the revolutionary proletariat. In all their work in the countryside, the Communist parties must concentrate their attention mainly on the struggle against this stratum, on liberating the toiling and exploited majority of the rural population from the ideological and political influence of these exploiters.
2.) The second danger is that an attempt might be made by not entirely reliable Communists to carry out revolutionary mass work among broad layers of the working peasantry through unprincipled deals in parliament with so-called parliamentary representatives of the peasantry and leaders of so-called peasant parties, which often represent the most reactionary forces of the bourgeoisie.
Although the Communist parties must remain aware of these and similar dangers associated with the use of the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ slogan, they should not turn their back on the advantages for the proletarian vanguard in being flexible in policy and in the corresponding tactics. They must learn the art of combining penetration of broad layers of working people with a tough, relentless, and consistent defence of the principles of revolutionary Marxism.
Obviously, penetrating the peasant masses and adopting the slogan for a workers’ and peasants’ government does not convert our party in any way from a workers’ party into a ‘party of labour’ or a ‘workers’ and peasants’ party’. Our party must remain a party of the working class in its social composition and its goals, but this signifies a working class that carries forward with it every layer of the working people and leads them into struggle against capitalism.
One of the most important preconditions for applying the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ slogan successfully among the broad rural masses is that Communists work very energetically in the trade unions of agricultural workers. In the coming period Communists will have to commit all their energy in order to win a majority of the already existing agricultural workers’ unions, or, if they do not exist, found such unions. Among the tasks of a farmworkers’ union is the important political goal of taking the ‘workers’ and peasants’ government’ slogan into the broad peasant masses. In this sense the agricultural workers’ unions provide a bridge between the Communist Party and the countryside.
But the Communist parties must not pass this new task onto the farmworkers’ unions alone. The entire party must take up, as one of the most urgent tasks, the winning of the peasant masses to an alliance with the revolutionary proletariat.
From the Report on the Workers’ and Farmers’ Government by Gregory Zinoviev
… I draw the conclusion that [the Communist movement must] broaden the slogan for a workers’ government to read, ‘For a workers’ and peasants’ government’. You remember how this developed over time, comrades: first the united-front policy, then the workers’ government. Now, I believe, we should broaden the slogan….
We must assess precisely how the workers’ and peasants’ government slogan relates to our old formula of the dictatorship of the proletariat. There will be comrades among us who will, without doubt, ask whether in calling for a workers’ and peasants’ government we are just dropping our old call for a dictatorship of the proletariat. And will we remain a workers’ party or become a workers’ and peasants’ party?
Anyone who understands anything about the united-front policy, who has begun to grasp what the proletariat’s class-based political strategy is, must see that the slogan of a workers’ and peasants’ government indicates the road to a dictatorship of the proletariat and does not negate it in any way. In the strict and scientific meaning of the term, a workers’ and peasants’ government can hardly be achieved. The Soviet government is in fact a workers’ government. Power is exercised by the working class and its party. The steering wheel of the state is held in the hands of the proletariat. But the proletariat and its party understand that the peasantry must be accommodated and drawn into participation in leadership of the state. In a word, the party aims to rule the country wisely. That is precisely why the proletariat in Russia, taking into account the real relationship of forces in its country, has summoned the peasantry to joint coordination in this framework, establishing a relationship within which the peasants support the workers. Thus the experience of one of the greatest of revolutions, the Russian Revolution, has proven that this is possible. The task of our Communist parties is to utilise the lessons of the Russian Revolution and apply them concretely to the specific conditions of each individual country.
In raising the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government, that does not imply in any way that we give up the dictatorship of the proletariat. We cannot retreat a single step from it. There is no way to free humankind from the yoke of capitalism other than the dictatorship of the proletariat. No other road is possible. The only genuine revolutionary class, revolutionary to the end, is the working class. But this class – which means its party – can act in either an intelligent or a stupid way. So we will reach the goal much faster and with fewer losses. We will partially neutralise significant layers of the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie and partially draw them over to our side. However, if we act clumsily, if we conceive of the great class objectives of proletarian liberation along the lines of a craft guild, we will delay the moment of our victory.
We believe that the time has come to generalise the slogan of a workers’ and peasants’ government. Already at the Fourth Congress we had the feeling that things were evolving in that direction. Even then, we had formulated the task in Central Europe in almost those terms. Now it has become clear that this question has importance for all countries, that it is a genuinely international matter. And precisely at the moment that the Hamburg Congress has demonstrated so openly its complete political impotence, we must hurry to issue the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government.Gentlemen like [Belgian Social Democrat Émile] Vandervelde will seek to win the peasants, but this will succeed only if we are completely short-sighted. If we proceed as we must, then we will lead significant layers of the peasantry to the party and the working class, which represents the interests of the nation.
This slogan will also play a not-insignificant role in the struggle against fascism. Take Italy, for example, which is the classic land of fascism. Consider the sequence of events. Fascism was born precisely in the peasant districts where the peasantry had risen up in struggle for the land. Fascism was initially a reaction of the estate owners against the authority achieved by the peasants. Now that fascism has achieved power, it hurls itself with brutal force against these peasant districts. Mussolini has introduced some genuinely mediaeval laws, such as the one forbidding people from leaving their homes after 8:00 p.m. It is in these peasant districts that the fascist bands are now raging. They seize the peasants who have ‘gone wrong’ and force them to drink the urine of fascist soldiers. These are facts passed on by our Italian comrades. Surely it is obvious that under such circumstances, the peasants’ anger and hatred against the fascists grows with every hour….
Isn’t it obvious that the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government is more appropriate than any other in present-day fascist Italy? We must raise this slogan.
To be sure, the Social-Democratic gentlemen will immediately assail us with abuse, claiming that, when advanced by us, this slogan is nothing more than demagogy. But workers who want to defeat the bourgeoisie will see things differently. They will understand that we are seeking and finding allies in this struggle against the bourgeoisie. Working peasants will also see things differently. We will make it possible not just to neutralise significant layers of working peasants, but to win them over. We must utilise this slogan in every country where there are peasants – and where is that not the case? Of course we will apply it in a manner befitting specific circumstances. We will naturally focus especially on peasants who do not employ wage labourers.
I will move on. At the Fourth Congress, we explained to you why, in our opinion, the Soviet government’s New Economic Policy is not merely an episode of the Russian Revolution; it has international significance. We showed you that almost every country, after its revolution, will have to go through a more or less extended period of this policy. We all agreed that the New Economic Policy is not a Russian phenomenon. No matter what the country, the victorious proletariat will have to pursue, at the appropriate time, unification of the working class and the peasantry. This fact – which is beyond any doubt – also seems to point to the logical conclusion of the workers’ and peasants’ government. Reviewing conditions in a wide range of countries, we cannot identify a single country in which this slogan would not be appropriate. We tell backward workers and peasants that we want to destroy the rich people’s state and create a workers’ state. Let us decide to add to this that we therefore propose the formation of a workers’ and peasants’ government. By doing this we will make it impossible for the Social-Democratic party to outstrip us, even in the parliamentary arena.
Of course it is not enough merely to adopt empty resolutions on this question. The task is to see clearly that this slogan too is fraught with major dangers, just like the united-front policy as a whole.
The danger linked with the workers’ and peasants’ government slogan is that some sections that are less consolidated and less well-schooled in Marxism could slip into interpreting this slogan in the fashion of the Left Social Revolutionaries. This party presented itself as representing the workers, the peasants, and the intelligentsia. We say – now and in the future – that we are a party of the working class….
Under no circumstances must it adopt the Social-Revolutionary formula of being a ‘party of the workers, the peasants, and the intelligentsia’.
The danger posed by the workers’ and peasants’ government slogan is that our less-consolidated parties might be induced to water down the class character of our party. We need to act now to head that off. Now as before we remain Marxists, hard as a rock and irreconcilably ‘dogmatic’. We are still, now as before, a workers’ party fully committed to its class-based point of view. The social composition of our party must be proletarian. But we must be able to manoeuvre cleverly and successfully while successfully warding off the danger of sectarianism. We must become mass parties at all costs – a task that is by no means easy….
We do not close our eyes for even a moment to the dangers inherent in the slogan of a workers’ and peasants’ government. But those who are afraid of wolves should stay out of the forest. We have already learned a good deal about mastering the difficulties of our policy of manoeuvre. This was evident in carrying out the united-front policy. Our parties learned to swim by jumping in the water, and some of our parties have already mastered swimming. Indeed, the campaign linked to the united-front policy was our first campaign carried through on an international level. The difficulties it faced were not inconsiderable, but still they were almost completely overcome. Now is the moment to broaden out our radius of action and to alter the psychology of our party. Our parties must stop viewing themselves as a sort of guild carrying out specifically workers’ tasks. They must act as parties that set out with determination to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie. We must take all preparatory measures, in the realm both of theory and also of organisation and politics. In this process we can be sure that issuing the slogan of the workers’ and peasants’ government will bring us gains not only in Czechoslovakia, France, Britain, Scandinavia, the United States, and Germany, but – in a word – everywhere.
At the Third Congress we summed up our tasks in three words: To the masses! At the Fourth Congress we defined our united front more precisely and developed it further. The last six months have shown that this has helped us to gain a footing in broader layers of the working class.
Now we face an even greater task. We must awaken the will to power in our parties. We must make them into parties aware in their every move of their task to overcome the bourgeoisie. Our parties are the vanguard of the working class. Imbued with the will to power, this vanguard will transmit this commitment to the broad layers of workers in their millions. And when millions and millions of proletarians are imbued with this will to power, victory will no longer be so difficult.
Appendix: On the term ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’
The term “dictatorship of the proletariat,” Lenin explained in 1919, referred to the “conquest of political power” by the proletariat, that is, the social class of those who sell their labour power to live, and its use for the “forcible suppression of the resistance always offered by the exploiters – a resistance that is most desperate, most furious, and that stops at nothing.”
This form of rule, Lenin continued, “provides an unparalleled extension of the actual enjoyment of democracy by those oppressed by capitalism – the toiling classes.”
The masses previously debarred from “participation in political life and enjoyment of democratic rights and liberties” are now “drawn into constant and unfailing, moreover, decisive, participation in the democratic administration of the state.”
Source: V.I. Lenin, “Theses and Report on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,” in John Riddell, ed., Founding the Communist International, pp. 150, 156.
 The Green International (formally the International Agrarian Bureau) was founded in 1921 by bourgeois agrarian parties in Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, and Poland, with offices in Prague.
 The Second and Two-and-a-Half Internationals fused at a congress in Hamburg May 21–25, 1923. The merged organisation was known officially as the Labour and Socialist International.