David Broder looks at the similarities between the ‘workers’ government’ slogan and the cross-class strategy of the Popular Front
The recent history of struggle for communism, or even progressive social change, is not a happy one. While the last decade has seen struggles from which we can take some cause for inspiration, such as social movements in Latin America, general strikes in France and Greece and, even in Britain, the early days of the movement against the war in Iraq, our movement has struggled to offload the burden of the defeats it suffered in the 1980s. There is a crisis of confidence in the possibility of an alternative to capitalism, when every revolution in the twentieth century was defeated.
Given this long-term picture of repeated defeats, it is remarkable how Britain’s socialist groups are fixated with the general election which will take place in a few months time: already we see the calls for ‘guarded’ and ‘critical’ support for the Labour Party, for fear of ‘letting in the Tories’. Just one year after the greatest capitalist crisis for eight decades, we see the spectre of revolutionaries who only ask themselves which party of capital is ‘least-worst’: the short-term tactical consideration comes to shape their whole perspectives. But we will never be able to present an alternative pole of attraction, and make up for long-term historic defeats, if we allow the electoral calendar and the electoral prospects of right-wing social democrats to determine our short-term priorities. We should after all dispel, rather than propagate, mainstream politics’ understanding that you should vote for the least bad politician on offer (Labour’s main argument for the election…), based as it is on an assumption that working people cannot change anything ourselves.
Most on the radical left today would refuse any electoral support for a party like Barack Obama’s Democrats, even to keep out the Republicans, since both parties are plainly pro-business and pro-imperialist. Similarly, Trotskyists have long denounced the Popular Front strategy adopted by the 1930s pro-Moscow Communist Parties (and continued by their descendents today) whereby the communists would seek coalition governments with bourgeois liberals as well as social democrats. Clearly both are examples of supporting one faction of the ruling class against another.
But this critique comes rather unstuck when we consider what happens if the bourgeois liberals are taken out of the picture: should the communists enter government with the social democrats? You might think not, reading such a document as the ‘Where we stand’ column which appears in each issue of Socialist Worker. This proclaims that “The structures of the parliament, army, police and judiciary cannot be taken over and used by the working people. Elections can be used to agitate for real improvements in people’s lives and to expose the system we live under, but only the mass action of workers themselves can change the system” – yet in ISJ the SWP theorist Alex Callinicos attacked France’s Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste for its insistence on the principle of not entering government with the neo-liberal social democrats of the Parti Socialiste…
Following a resolution passed by the 1921 Communist International Congress, Trotskyists believe a United Front of parties with a working-class support base should seek to become a workers’ government: they counterpose this to the ‘cross-class’ Popular Front. In Britain, this has entered into mythology as the Communist Party seeking the election of a Labour government. But the capitalist state is not merely a matter of ministerial offices: concretely speaking, the occupation of governmental positions by communists is in itself a Popular Front, since the executive arm of the so-called workers’ government is in fact the capitalist state bureaucracy and the two have to co-exist. Mere rejection of alliance with liberals is not ‘independent working class politics’ if the workers’ parties sit on top of the state machine, i.e., separate and apart from the working class.
Because it is they who fundamentally hold power, it is up to the army, bureaucracy and courts and their backers to choose whether to co-opt and neutralise the left, or else get rid of them entirely. In some cases, such as Spain in 1936 and Chile in 1973, the bourgeoisie has resolved this by abandoning its own state’s constitution, suspending the rules-of-the-game in order to overthrow the left government. If the capitalist class do let the left occupy government, such as the current SPD-Die Linke regional administration in Berlin, and the 1997-2002 Parti Socialiste-Parti Communiste government in France, it is conditional on the left simply operating like any other government presiding over capitalism, imposing attacks on the working class and opposing movements from below. The only two choices for the communists involved in such an administration are to continue supporting the social democrats in spite of their accommodation to capitalism – just the same as their relation to the liberals in a Popular Front – or else to abandon government.
One of the original intentions of the United Front strategy is to expose the vacillation of the social democrats and their unwillingness to stand up to the bosses in the eyes of the working class, and thus win workers to communism: in fact the strategy weakens the communists’ appeal, because of the need to prop up the party doing the selling out. What better example than Rifondazione Comunista, who in 2006 as a young communist party with a vibrant internal life decided to enter coalition with the centre-left government of Romano Prodi. Like the Labour Party of old, Prodi’s Democratici di Sinistra had much working-class support and roots in the CGIL union federation, but were pro-imperialist and needed Rifondazione’s support to send troops to Afghanistan and Lebanon. For fear of prompting the collapse of the government and letting Silvio Berlusconi into power, the party loyally backed Prodi, and expelled those members who defiantly voted against the war. Just three years later, Berlusconi is on the offensive in power, the Italian troops are still in Afghanistan, and Rifondazione has lost all 41 of its MPs. Even where it is true that the right wing will attack workers more harshly than the social democrats, the loss of independence involved in support for the latter is an unacceptable price to pay for stopping the first problem in the short term. The opposition to Berlusconi today is weaker than it would have been had Rifondazione not been so desperate to keep him out of government in 2006, because they abandoned their consistent, clear advocacy of a communist alternative to all such governments.
Of course, the Trotskyist supporters of the workers’ government approach would denounce Rifondazione’s behaviour here, and would likely point to various contingent problems with such parties: for example, a lack of internal democracy, or lack of base in real grassroots struggle, such as could hold the leaders to account. Indeed, refusing to support the war and dumping Prodi out of government would clearly have been the only principled thing to do: but it would also have shown up the fundamental inoperability of the initial course of action taken, proven the naivety of the United Front and contradicted the much-vaunted need to do everything to keep out Berlusconi. As any good revolutionary knows, reformism is a dead end: so why then tail the reformists who also themselves believe that they are just being pragmatic?
The episode unravelled as it did not due to some malign intention on the part of Rifondazione, but rather as the natural logic of the strategy itself. The same could also be said of Die Linke in Germany, who in regional coalition government with the SPD opposed the Berlin transport strike. Much as Die Linke (and, for that matter, the SPD) protest that they would not enter coalition at national level, the principle is little different, and it is alarming to now hear that the Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste, founded on rejection of the Communist Party’s idea of a ‘plural left’ government, would now consider regional coalition governments. In all these cases, it is accepting the idea that entering government is even a possible tactical choice which governs their drift towards seeing electoral politics as their central field of activity, and thus the reformist agenda they advocate. What kind of ‘anti-capitalist’ party could fathom participation in administering… capitalism?
“The policies of Allende were not determined by the bourgeois component (the small Radical Party) in his government. What was far more important was the constitutional agreement of 1970 not to interfere with the hierarchies of the state and his insistence (like all reformists) that the state was a neutral instrument that could be used in the building of socialism.”
Chris Harman and Tim Potter, The Workers’ Government
In 2008 Alan Woods, a member of Socialist Appeal, published a book Reform or Revolution? arguing that the Hugo Chávez government in Venezuela is carrying out a socialist revolution because he is aware that reformism, leaving capitalism essentially intact, would give the bourgeoisie space to organise a coup against him. The most obvious reaction to this would be to object that Chávez clearly is a reformist, since for over ten years he has been enacting a long series of nationalisations and progressive parliamentary bills and Venezuela is still capitalist. He wants to carry out his revolution ‘by a thousand pricks’ against the bourgeoisie. But there is more to it than that. Reformism is not counterposed to revolution merely because it seeks gradual rather than ‘big bang’ social change: rather, because its means of organising are a reflection of existing social relations. Chávez enacts reforms and then the people, as individuals, choose whether to approve the course of action he has decided to take: however ‘progressive’ his bills or however ‘socialist’ his rhetoric, the workers do not make policy by and for themselves.
Even beyond the question of whether the bourgeoisie will tolerate a left government, any party presiding over a state as such creates a hierarchical division of labour between experts and specialists who administer the system, and then a party membership who are there to support the decisions made by their leaders. This is because the very existence of the state represents the delegation of power by the mass of society – from the communities we live in and workplaces we work in – to some central body which holds power and sets its own rules. Even democratic controls over leaders or votes at conference cannot overcome this separation – the question of who initiates policy; negotiations with other parties; budgeting for the state bureaucracy, army, courts and so on; cannot but be the decision of the few and is directly counterposed to the principles of the type of mass, collective action which imposes retreats on the part of the capitalist class, rather than just asking them to rule us nicely.
But this is not at all an argument for passivity or rejection of piecemeal changes to the benefit of the working class – far from it, here we simply pose the opposition between fighting for negative demands which push back the frontier of capitalist control; and a benign caste of leaders making change on our behalf. After all, this same problem of reformism is also apparent in the politics of the Socialist Party of Great Britain – ‘impossibilists’ who reject single issue campaigns and trade unionism on the grounds that they are only partial, and do not challenge capitalism as such. These great opponents of reformism, who declare that the current system cannot be patched up, describe thusly their idea of the transition to socialism “Once the vast majority makes the decision in favour of socialism, then it will elect socialist representatives or delegates to prove its majority, and to serve as a temporary focal point to administer the elimination of capitalism and the creation of socialism. But it won’t be, and could not be, the elected representatives or delegates who create socialism, it will be the people of the world as a whole.” Despite verbal “ultra-leftism”, their conception of revolution is one whereby socialist representatives secure a parliamentary majority, take charge of the state then enact socialism. ‘Partial’ and ‘limited’ trade union type struggles and campaigns, even if they do not explicitly aim at uprooting capitalism as such, are still preferable to this idea of social change insofar as they promote working-class people’s sense of self-reliance and confidence in our ability to force change by our own collective power.
Left governments not only leave capitalism intact but also reflect its division of order-givers and order-takers; whereas all movements from below based on collective decision making run up against the hierarchical systems of organisation which characterise capitalist society. Only in the latter case, steadfastly refusing to take responsibility for the management of the capitalist system or to lend support to one set of would-be rulers, can we gradually accrue the confidence, solidarity and belief in an alternative such that we might one day overthrow all existing social relations. This is not abstentionism from the immediately pressing attacks planned by the next Tory government, or advocacy of passively waiting until some ‘ripening of conditions’ whereby communism would become realisable: merely to realise that choosing a least-worst alternative in the here and now may actually put our overall objective even further away. In fact, the ‘ripening of conditions’, mass consciousness that communism is both desirable and possible, will never come about if we kowtow to the likes of Labour just to keep out the worse threat of the Tories.
 Much as this writer is no eulogist of Lenin, it is interesting to note that in Left Wing Communism: an Infantile Disorder he advocated that to expose Labour, this support should be dependent on a series of unrealisable conditions: “The Communist Party should propose the following “compromise” election agreement to the [Labour leaders] Hendersons and Snowdens: let us jointly fight against the alliance between Lloyd George and the Conservatives; let us share parliamentary seats in proportion to the number of workers’ votes polled for the Labour Party and for the Communist Party (not in elections, but in a special ballot), and let us retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years—1903-17) the Russian Bolsheviks demanded and got it in respect of the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks.” Leninist advocates of backhanded support for Labour have for ninety years ignored this caveat.