The debate on the workers’ government

A debate at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in 1922 sheds light on today’s options for political action by the working class.

FIVE YEARS after the 1917 Russian Revolution, the world revolutionary movement discussed how workers could achieve governmental power. After several decades of obscurity, this debate has attracted renewed attention because of its possible relevance to current struggles in Europe and, in particular, to the present situation in Greece.

In 1917, workers and peasants in Russia established a soviet government, that is, a workers’ democracy based on committees (soviets) of working people. During the next three years a revolutionary upsurge swept across Europe. During this upheaval two programs on how workers could achieve their aims were advanced. Social Democratic parties advocated joining with openly bourgeois groupings to seek reforms within the existing capitalist framework. Revolutionary forces, united in the Communist International (Comintern), called for the establishment of workers’ democracies on the soviet model.

By 1921, however, the revolutionary tide was visibly receding. How could working people regroup and begin a new advance toward socialism? It became increasingly urgent for socialists to help working people find a bridge leading from their urgent demands for immediate gains to the socialist program of the revolution. The Third World Congress, held by the Comintern in 1921, explained the necessary approach in these words:

The Communist International offers a struggle for the specific demands of the proletariat as part of a system of demands that, in their totality, undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat, and mark out the different stages of the struggle for proletarian dictatorship. Each of these demands gives expression to the needs of the broad masses, even when they do not yet consciously take a stand for proletarian dictatorship.

“Proletarian dictatorship” was a term socialists used to refer to political power in the hands of working people.

This “system of demands” included many that, although rooted in current conditions, aimed to help the working masses set out on the road to power. Following the usage of German Communists, these were known as “transitional demands.” In the conditions of intense struggle then prevailing in Germany, these demands included workers’ control of production; confiscatory taxation of capitalist property; abolition of bank, technical, and commercial secrecy; a state monopoly of the food supply; rationing under workers’ control; and a state monopoly of external trade and banking under workers’ control.1

But what kind of government would it take to implement such a program? Obviously, no conventional regime, based on the capitalist state and economy, could carry out such a program. Many Communists in both Germany and in the Bolshevik Party advocated a transitional form of regime, which they called a “workers’ government,” based on the initiatives and power of mass movements but functioning initially within a still-existing capitalist state. The concept was highly contentious for Marxists then and is so today.

World Congress debate
Let’s see what light the record of the Comintern’s 1922 World Congress can shed on this question. This congress held the Comintern’s most extensive discussion of the workers’ government concept.

Comintern president Gregory Zinoviev began debate at the congress by admitting that this was an issue that “has not been sufficiently clarified.”2 Delegates then advanced varied and contradictory viewpoints. The text proposed for adoption went through more drafts than any other congress document. Even after its adoption, three different versions were circulated to Comintern parties. Most subsequent English-language discussion has focused on a preliminary draft that differs substantially from the text that the congress finally adopted.

The successive versions can be read and compared in Toward the United Front, which contains the congress proceedings, and is on my Web site, johnriddell.wordpress.com.3

The debate had opened two years earlier, in March 1920, during a general strike by German workers. The head of the social democratic trade unions, Carl Legien, called for the formation of a government of workers’ parties and trade unions. His goal, to be sure, was to end the strike and to begin to re-establish bourgeois order, as a united social democratic government had done after the German Revolution of November 1918.

But circumstances had changed. Power no longer rested with revolutionary workers’ councils, as in November 1918, but with a bourgeois coalition regime. A workers’ government would draw its authority not from parliament, where deputies from workers’ parties were a decided minority, but from the workers’ mass movement. The German Communist Party stated that, under these conditions, “formation of a socialist government…would create extremely favourable conditions for vigorous action by the proletarian masses,” and expressed approval of the proposal, subject to a series of conditions.4 A heated controversy broke out in both the German party and the Comintern as to whether this stand was appropriate.

A call for a workers’ government of this type in Germany was included the next year in the Comintern resolution launching a campaign for a workers’ united front. This gave rise to an extended debate, which carried over into the Fourth World Congress in 1922.

Pseudonym or transition
The central issue at the congress was whether the term “workers’ government” was merely a pseudonym for the rule of workers’ councils under Communist leadership—a “dictatorship of the proletariat”—or whether it represented a possible transition to that goal.

Italian Communist Amadeo Bordiga said the transitional concept suggested that the working class can take power “in some way other than through the armed struggle for power.”

Ruth Fischer, who led the leftist minority in the German party, warned that the concept of revolution was being watered down by “styling its hair in ‘Western’ fashion, creating democratic transitional stages between what we have and what we aim for.” Initially, Zinoviev also had held this view. He retracted it as the congress opened but continued to express the underlying thought in more guarded form.5

Leaders of the German party majority and Karl Radek, on the other hand, argued that the workers’ government was not merely a pseudonym for a workers’ dictatorship but a “point of transition” toward it. Achievement of a workers’ government can “lead to a phase of sharpened class struggles through which a proletarian dictatorship will ultimately emerge,” said Ernst Meyer. It will be parliamentary “only in a subordinate sense” and “must be carried by the masses.” Karl Radek called such a government “the starting point of a struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat.”6

During the editing process, the congress text was progressively aligned with a “transitional” concept of a workers’ government. The final text sharply counterposed it to a parliamentary-based “bourgeois-Social-Democratic coalition, whether open or disguised.” A workers’ government can be sustained only by the struggles of the masses, the final draft states; its enumerated tasks begin with “arming the proletariat” and end with “breaking the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie.”7

Communists should stand ready to “form a workers’ government with non-Communist workers’ parties and workers’ organizations,” the resolution says, but only “if there are guarantees that the workers’ government will carry out a genuine struggle against the bourgeoisie along the lines described above,” and subject to other safeguards.

This approach can also be applied in the form of a challenge to workers’ parties that do not oppose capitalism. As Leon Trotsky wrote many years later, revolutionaries should “demand of all parties and organizations that base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers’ and farmers’ government.”8

Illusory workers’ governments
The clarity of this position was muddied by Zinoviev, who also used the term “workers’ government” to describe rule by bourgeois workers’ parties that, while introducing some reforms, acted as loyal administrators of the capitalist order. Zinoviev used the expression “liberal workers’ government” to describe the Labor regimes that had administered the Australian capitalist state after 1904 and a future Labor Party government in Britain. Such a regime, he said, “could be the jumping-off point for revolutionizing 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 the Russian Mensheviks in 1917.9

This position was opposed by leaders of the German delegation, who secured passage of an amendment branding a “workers’ government” of the Labor Party type as “illusory.” The amendment also specified that the illusory “liberal” or “Social Democratic” workers’ governments “are not revolutionary workers’ governments at all, but in reality hidden coalition governments between the bourgeoisie and antirevolutionary workers’ leaders.”10

Although adopted unanimously, the amendment was not incorporated into the published Russian version of the resolution, which has served as the basis for translations into English. As a result, English-language comment on this issue, singling out Zinoviev’s position for attack, has criticized the congress for the very weakness that its delegates sought to remedy.

Three unaddressed questions
Some other important aspects of the workers’ government issue, although posed in the congress, were left unaddressed.

The first such issue concerned the role of peasants. During the congress debate, Vasil Kolarov, the senior delegate from Bulgaria, said that, “the workers’ government is not posed in agrarian countries like the Balkans.” The final resolution, by contrast, referred to the possibility of a “government of workers and the poorer peasants” in regions such as the Balkans.11 The congress did not discuss, however, how this concept was to be applied.

This question was urgently posed in Bulgaria, governed at that time by a radical peasant party that was facing a threatened coup by rightist forces. No congress delegate mentioned the situation in Bulgaria. Only a few months later, the Bulgarian Communists refused to defend the peasant-based government against a coup, with disastrous results.

The second failed discussion concerned the nature of workers’ rule. The resolution’s final text stated that, “a genuinely proletarian workers’ government…in its pure form can be embodied only in the Communist Party.” The implication was that if Communists allied with non-Communist forces in a revolutionary government, this was only a temporary expedient until the Communists were strong enough to rule alone.

A comment by Leon Trotsky implied a different approach. Describing the Bolsheviks’ alliance with the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries (Left SRs) in the first months of soviet rule, Trotsky said the Left SRs left the government on their own initiative, not that of the Bolsheviks.12 Nothing further was said on this point. As published, the resolution fails to distinguish between workers’ rule and rule by the Communist Party.

In addition, nothing was said in the congress regarding the government that might result in the colonial and semi-colonial countries from the struggle for an anti-imperialist united front. The concept of a revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry, which the Bolsheviks raised before 1917 to describe a possible outcome of a successful anti-tsarist revolution, was not mentioned.

An empirical approach
The resolution contains a typology of workers’ governments with five categories. In each case, delegates were thinking of a specific situation at that time, as follows:

  • Illusory: Liberal workers’ government (Britain).
  • Illusory: Social-Democratic workers’ government (Germany).
  • Genuine: Government of workers and peasants (Balkans).
  • Genuine: Workers’ government with Communist participation. (Germany).
  • Genuinely proletarian workers’ government (Soviet Russia).13

Zinoviev stressed to congress delegates that this list was not complete and that workers’ governments could occur in other forms. He warned that “in the search for a rigorous scientific definition, we might overlook the political side of the situation.”14 In other words, the Comintern’s approach was not prescriptive but empirical. It sought to analyze situations actually posed in the struggle at that moment.

There were at that time three previous examples of workers’ governments, none of which fit neatly into this five-point schema:

  • The Paris Commune, an elected revolutionary workers’ government at war with a still-existing bourgeois regime.
  • The early Soviet republic: as noted, a coalition regime based on revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ soviets.
  • The revolutionary governments of Bavaria and Hungary in 1919, where, as Chris Harman and Tim Potter have noted, “bourgeois power virtually collapsed…. The workers’ government came into being and afterwards had to create the structure of proletarian power.”15

Long-term relevance?
The Fourth Congress decision suggests that workers’ efforts to form a government, far from representing a barrier to socialist revolution, can be a significant transitional step toward its realization. The decision also sketches out the conditions under which a workers’ government may actually exist within a capitalist state, for a transitional period, with positive results.

Almost a century has now passed since the Comintern debated the workers’ government question. The revolutionary era that began in 1914 has passed away; we are headed toward new revolutions, under new conditions. There is no equivalent today of the mass Communist parties of the 1920s. The Comintern’s decisions on governmental policy were rooted in a political environment that no longer exists.

The Comintern decisions should not be imposed on a vastly different reality, whether in today’s Greece or elsewhere. Nonetheless, the early Comintern position seems relevant to struggles for socialism in this century. Its workers’ government position alerts us to a possibility that, even before the appearance of a soviet-type network of workers’ councils and the onset of socialist revolution, workers can find a way to struggle for governmental power.


  1. John Riddell ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922, hereafter TUF (Haymarket Books, 2012), 35–36; Pierre Broué, The German Revolution 1917–1923 (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2005), 648–50.
  2. TUF, 129.
  3. See “The Comintern’s unknown decision on workers’ governments,” available at johnriddell.wordpress.com.
  4. Broué, 369.
  5. TUF, 182, 147.
  6. TUF, 139–40, 167.
  7. TUF, 1159.
  8. Leon Trotsky, “The Transitional Program,” available at www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp....
  9. TUF, 266–7.
  10. TUF, 1098–99.
  11. TUF, 243, 1161.
  12. TUF, 1161, 267, 1003.
  13. TUF, 1160–61.
  14. TUF, 267–68.
  15. Chris Harman and Tim Potter, “The Workers’ Government,” in International Socialism, February 7, 2007, available at www.isj.org.

 

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