The following article was originally published in Socialist Voice No. 8 (Fall 1979).

“Workers’ Government” vs. Workers’ State

Myth and Reality of the Transitional Program

1979 is the hundredth anniversary of Leon Trotsky’s birth, and 1978 was the fortieth anniversary of the founding of the Fourth International and its adoption of the Transitional Program. This Program, widely considered to be the definitive document of Trotskyism, has been put to a severe test during these anniversary years: revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations have broken out in Peru, Iran and now Nicaragua, and some of the nominally Trotskyist organizations on the scene have been able to apply their versions of the Transitional Program to ongoing revolutions.

It is our contention that the program has been treacherously misused. Designed for the “systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution,” it has been put to purely reformist purposes by centrists masquerading as Trotskyists. The main organization responsible is the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USec), whose two wings are led by Ernest Mandel and the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Groups under the USec’s guidance have helped waste tremendous opportunities for the proletariat and have dragged the Transitional Program through the mud of “democratic” parliamentarism and pacifism.

The foremost task of revolutionaries in a revolutionary situation is to win the working class for the conquest of state power, the proletarian revolution. This does not mean simply propagandizing for the dictatorship of the proletariat (or workers’ state) – although this certainly must be done; it means the use of all political tactics and slogans to prove to the mass of the working class that this goal is the only way forward. It means explaining at every opportunity that working class power can be won through revolutionary means only, the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, not through the accumulation of democratic and partial reforms.

Parliamentarism in Iran and Peru

The chief tool for the United Secretariat’s betrayal is the “workers’ and farmers’ government” (or simply “workers’ government”), the central slogan in the Transitional Program that deals with the question of state power. This slogan was devised by the early Communist International as a revolutionary tactic for breaking the working class from its reformist leaders by demonstrating their ties to bourgeois state power. It was adopted in the 1930’s by the Fourth International to win the workers away from the Popular Front coalitions with the bourgeoisie organized by the Social Democratic and Stalinized Communist Parties. But it had also been used in a purely “democratic” and reformist way by Stalin’s Comintern in the late 1920’s .

By itself, the slogan of the “workers’ government” is most likely to be understood as a change in government to the benefit of working class parties; the examples of the British Labour Party in power or the Unidad Popular of Salvador Allende in Chile are the most prominent. No government of a capitalist state, even if composed entirely of working class parties, represents a revolutionary workers’ state. These regimes are not at all what the tactic in the Transitional Program means. Using the slogan by itself is therefore insufficient; it ahs to be given the specific revolutionary content. In the hands of the USec, however, the slogan is given a specific content that is entirely parliamentary.

In Peru, a mass upsurge including widespread general strikes forced the ruling military junta to call for elections to a Constituent Assembly in the summer of 1978. Most of the “Trotskyist” parties combined in an electoral bloc known as FOCEP, which included the “workers’ and peasants’ government” in its program and continually fostered the illusion that such a government could be achieved through the bourgeois-dominated Assembly. Hugo Blanco of the USec was FOCEP’s representative because of his reputation as a fighter leader of peasant uprisings in the 1960’s . Blanco issued a draft constitution calling for a government based upon elected committees of workers and peasants. He stressed the democratic organizational forms in his draft, called for a democratic convention of workers’ and peasants’ organizations to amend and finally adopt the constitution – and added as the final step that “the draft should then be presented by the workers’ candidates elected to the Constituent Assembly” (Intercontinental Press, June 19, 1978). The masses were not told that a workers’ government means a revolutionary confrontation with the armed state power of the bourgeoisie. And this document was not an isolated exception. Throughout his several speeches as an Assembly delegate widely reprinted by the USec press, Blanco created the impression that “governments elected by the people” are the road forward to “workers’ and peasants’ power.”

In Iran, after the overthrow of the Shah in January, the HKS (Socialist Workers Party) was set up jointly by the two wings of the USec and the Organizing Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International. HKS leaders had previously explained their goal of a workers’ and peasants’ government as follows:

“The republic for which we struggle is not the replacement of the Shah by a president, nor even the replacement of all the reactionary elements by progressive functionaries and Moslems as Khomeini demands, but the complete democratization from top to bottom of the state apparatus, based on elections and the possibility of recall at any time at the demand of the base.” (Inprecor, French edition, January 18, 1979)

The state apparatus whose “complete democratization” is called for is the bourgeois state apparatus of the Shah and later the Ayatollah Khomeini. Despite the “workers’ and peasants’ government” label given to it, this call for a republic was in harmony, not opposition, to the bourgeois and predictably repressive Islamic Republic of Khomeini and his religious followers. The USec contributed to the illusion that Khomeini’s republic could be democratized and that a constituent assembly could be set up without a struggle by the working class to destroy the Khomeini regime. In its proposed “Bill of Rights for the Workers and Toilers of Iran” (Intercontinental Press, February 5, 1979), the HKS called for such a constituent assembly to “consider establishing” the structural bases of a workers’ and peasants’ government.

The USec did go so far as to bring up socialism. An official statement, “The Third Iranian Revolution has Begun” (Intercontinental Press, May 7, 1979), described the tasks of the proposed workers’ and peasants’ government:

“Such a government would cement the bond between the workers and the poor peasants, mobilize the masses to expropriate the major branches of banking and industry, break the power of the imperialists and their native capitalist junior partners, institute a planned economy, and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, opening the way to socialism.”

It was not mentioned in this comprehensive document that the task of “establishing” the dictatorship of the proletariat would be a violent one, requiring an armed clash with the armed forces of Khomeini and the bourgeoisie. On the contrary, the HKS’s Bill of Rights states that “the army must be democratized” – not defeated, a treacherous illusion to propagate among the unarmed masses.

The Incomplete Program

In these two outstanding revolutionary opportunities, Peru and Iran, the United Secretariat is using the goal of socialism – when it gets mentioned at all – as a cover to support the chimerical democratization of the Bonapartist bourgeois regimes. It bemoans each inevitable betrayal of democracy by these regimes after having deceived the masses that democratization was possible. It sees a fraudulent bourgeois democracy evolving peacefully into the real workers’ democracy of the masses. It avoids raising to the masses the necessity of smashing the bourgeois state and erecting a workers’ state. This strategy not only betrays socialism but cannot even achieve real democratic gains. The USec uses the workers’ and peasants’ government as its chief tool in this deception by promising workers’ power but giving the demand a passive, electoralist, non-revolutionary meaning. The consequence in both Iran and Peru, if the workers and peasants are not prepared for the revolutionary struggle, will be not just missed opportunities for socialism but a turn to savage reaction as in Chile.

How is it possible for the Transitional Program to be used this way? It is not the misinterpretation of words in the Transitional Program that has thrown the pseudo-Trotskyists off the revolutionary path. On the contrary, the degeneration of the Fourth International into centrism occurred over a quarter of a century ago under the impact of the massive defeat of the international working class during and after the Second World War (see our analysis in Socialist Voice No. 2); the fraudulent use of the Transitional Program is but one result of that decay. Today the revolutionary upsurge of the masses and therefore the struggle for a genuinely revolutionary program and leadership are at center stage. In various articles we have analyzed other aspects of the theories and practices of the pseudo-Trotskyists. Our specific purpose in this article is to rescue the Transitional Program from the myths created by its centrist interpreters, take apart the theoretical encumbrances that have been constructed around the workers’ government slogan in particular, and resurrect the Program as the centerpiece of revolutionary politics that it was intended to be.

The Transitional Program (its exact title is “The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”) was written by Trotsky as a draft program for the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938. It acquired the name “Transitional Program” because the bulk of the document is devoted to a program, or system, of transitional demands “stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.” The quotation is taken from the book The Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution (TPSR) published by the SWP’s Pathfinder Press (third edition, p. 114), which contains the Program itself in addition to many of Trotsky’s writings and recorded discussions on its significance. It is the only edition now widely available in the United States.

The SWP’s title of this book expresses the myth of the Transitional Program – for although the purpose of the Transitional Program is to bring about the socialist revolution, it is not the “program for socialist revolution.” The correct placement of the Transitional Program in the revolutionary armory should be evident from several specific statements by Trotsky. In the Program itself, he wrote:

“It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between the present demands and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands...” (TPSR, p. 114)

Of course, the bridge to the socialist program of the revolution is not the same thing as that program. A few paragraphs further on, Trotsky made the same point in different words:

“The old ‘minimal’ program is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution.” (TPSR, p. 115)

Clearly Trotsky meant the transitional program to be a substitute for the “minimal” program and not for the “maximal” program of socialist revolution. In fact the program does not contain the slogan of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The entire Program leads in this direction, but that was precisely the point: it leads this way but falls short. Trotsky was perfectly aware of the omission. As he stated in one of the discussions on the Draft Program with his followers (June 7, 1938, TPSR, p. 173):

“The draft program is not a complete program.... Also the end of the program is not complete, because we don't speak here about the social revolution, about the seizure of power by insurrection, the transformation of capitalist society into the dictatorship, the dictatorship into socialist society. This brings the reader only to the doorstep. It is a program for action from today until the beginning of the socialist revolution.”

Why was the Transitional Program devised to lead only to the “doorstep” of the socialist revolution? That is in essence the subject of this entire article. But we can certainly say that Trotsky was not interested in any far-left form of reformism; he did not intend to leave the working class to the revolution only to have the door slammed in its face. Nevertheless, the incomplete character of the program (in the sense Trotsky mentioned) has enabled centrists to use it as a weapon against the revolution.

The workers’ government slogan is central to the misuse of the Program because it has been used in fact as a substitute for the missing slogan of the workers’ state. It is no coincidence that the organizations which make this substitution are the same ones that, thirty years ago, devised the theory that petty bourgeois forces in Eastern Europe and China could substitute for the proletariat in making the socialist revolution. That, as we will show, is one of the keys to the misrepresentation today. At that time the expansion of Stalinism after World War II threw the Fourth International’s theory into disarray; today, the false theory has been crystallized into a program for disguising Stalinist-type reformism as Trotskyism. The substitution of workers’ government for workers’ state is nothing but the substitution of reform for revolution.

The Workers’ Government Tactic

The correct use of the workers’ government slogan is a complicated political question, made even more so by the fact that the major documents in which it is expounded are either contradictory and confusing in themselves (the resolutions of the Communist International in the early 1920’s ) or are only sketches of the entire body of theory (the Transitional Program). To recover the meaning of the slogan requires a review of its history in the light of the fundamental Marxist distinction between state and government.

In doing this we wish to establish two central conclusions among others: 1) The workers’ government slogan is a tactical one which used correctly can lead to the revolution and the workers’ state. It is to be raised at certain conjunctures in the class struggle and withdrawn at others; if it is used as an omnipresent strategy it becomes a substitute for the workers’ state and serves only reformist purposes. 2) The slogan is agitational rather than propagandistic, in the sense that it codifies the idea of state power in a form accessible to large numbers of workers and does not in itself embody the full revolutionary implication that only the most advanced layer will be prepared to accept. (Of course, it can be discussed in propagandistic writings as it is being discussed in this article, but as a slogan it has only agitational significance.) Both of these conclusions indicate the limited and conjunctural character of the slogan. It has nothing in common with the universal substitute for the workers’ state that has been made of it.

The scientific codification of transitional demands began at the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921. The revolutionary upsurge that swept through Europe, inspired by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and fueled by the hardships of wartime, had subsided. It left in its wake in many countries Communist Parties which generally had the allegiance only of minority sections of the working class. Often the reformist Social Democrats and centrists had an equal or larger influence in the proletariat. The problem facing the Communists was a tactical one. Because of the example of the Bolshevik Revolution, it was clearly understood that the Communist Parties stood for the strategy of overthrowing the bourgeoisie by revolutionary means. Yet the Social Democratic strength made it apparent that not all workers believed that course to be necessary to win their demands. The Comintern congress turned to the tactic of the united front in order to prove to the reformist-led workers in joint struggle that the revolutionary strategy was in fact necessary.

The chief point at issue was the link between day-to-day struggles and the victory of socialism. The Social Democrats asserted that the gradual accretion of reforms, coupled with the growing electoral strength of their parties, would lead inevitably to socialism. The fitful prosperity in Europe at the turn of the century, derived from imperialism, had fostered the illusion that reform was a permanent capitalist institution and, moreover, that capitalism would be transformed into socialism through the democratic pressure of the masses without a revolution.

The illusion soon burst, and in the epoch of capitalist decay the minimum program of possible reforms proved to be no answer to the reality of life under capitalism. The minimum program held workers back from fighting for their daily needs, because capitalism in its crisis could not afford to grant even these. The Comintern found an alternative to the minimum program in the struggle for transitional demands:

“In place of the minimum program of the reformists and centrists, the Communist International mounts a struggle for the concrete needs of the proletariat, for a system of demands which taken together undermine the power of the bourgeoisie, organize the proletariat and form the stages in the struggle for the proletarian dictatorship, and each of which expresses a need of the broad masses, even if they are not consciously in favor of the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Such demands would be the basis for a united front approach to the Social Democratic workers. All the transitional demands were designed to break the workers from their reformist leadership and consciousness, not to blur over the difference between reformist and revolutionary outlooks. Every hesitation and refusal on the part of the reformist leaders to carry out such specific needs of the working class would undermine the Social Democracy’s hegemony over its followers; on the other hand, every concrete step jointly fought for by Communist and Social Democratic workers, despite the hesitations of the reformists to demand what the capitalists claim they cannot afford to grant, would be a victory for the working class. In every case, it would be the Communists who would hold the interests of the working class above any consideration of capitalist profitability and the Social Democrats who would refuse to go beyond limits determined by the bourgeoisie.

But there was one case in which it was the Communists, not the Social Democrats, who might appear to be the obstacle to a united front effort on behalf of the workers’ joint interests. The Communists refused on principle to join the bourgeois governments of the various capitalist states, while the Social Democrats did not hesitate to do so, arguing that their participation in government enabled them to aid the working class. The Social Democratic supporters did not consider the bourgeois governments to be organs of the capitalist class alone; they voted for the reformists precisely to win a “share” of the governmental power. The Communists understood that working class representatives in bourgeois governments serve to deceive the masses rather than carry out their interests; yet this understanding had to be proved in practice to the Social Democratic workers who considered such participation a victory. The united front had to be extended to governmental power.

The Bolshevik Precedent

The Communists were able to turn to a precedent from the Bolshevik Revolution. During the period of the Provisional Governments which were coalitions between the openly bourgeois parties and the Mensheviks (reformist Social Democrats) and the Social Revolutionaries (supported by the majority of the peasantry), the Bolsheviks were faced with a similar tactical problem. Here the climate was revolutionary in that the Czarist regime had been overthrown and the workers and peasants were actively fighting to continue the revolution. Yet the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries dominated the soviets, the councils set up by the workers and peasants, and the Bolsheviks held only a small minority of seats. The Bolsheviks raised the slogans “Down with the Capitalist Ministers” and “All Power to the Soviets,” in order to present the idea of an independent government of the workers’ parties, based on organs of the masses, that would carry out necessary measures such as ending the imperialist war, distributing the land to the peasants, organizing food distribution in the cities.

If the Mensheviks and S.R.’s had broken with their bourgeois partners and carried out the Bolshevik demands, there would have been a “workers’ and peasants’ government” under the bourgeois state. The Bolsheviks would not have participated in such a government since the state apparatus would still have been that of the bourgeoisie but would have used the fact that the government would be based upon the soviets to fight for power within these bodies. They hoped to win a majority in the soviets by exposing the reformists’ refusal to carry out their own promises even when not restrained by the bourgeois coalition. The “workers’ and peasants’ government of the Mensheviks and S.R.’s would have existed for only a historical moment; its existence would have aided the Bolsheviks in bringing the class conflict to a head. Here is how Lenin explained the Bolshevik proposal:

“The compromise would amount to the following: the Bolsheviks, without making any claim to participate in the government (which is impossible for the internationalists unless a dictatorship of the proletariat and the poor peasants has been realized), would refrain from demanding the immediate transfer of power to the proletariat and the poor peasants and from employing revolutionary methods to fight for this demand. A condition that is self-evident and not new to the S.R.’s and Mensheviks would be complete freedom of propaganda and the convocation of the Constituent Assembly without further delays...

“The Mensheviks and S.R.’s being the government bloc, would then agree... to form a government wholly and exclusively responsible to the Soviets, the latter taking over all power locally as well.... I think the Bolsheviks would advance no other conditions, trusting that the revolution would proceed peacefully and party strife in the Soviets would be peacefully overcome thanks to really complete freedom of propaganda and to the immediate establishment of a new democracy in the composition of the Soviets (new elections) and in their functioning....

“The Bolsheviks would gain the opportunity of quite freely advocating their views and of trying to win influence in the Soviets under a really complete democracy. In words, ‘ everybody’ now concedes the Bolsheviks this freedom. In reality, this freedom is impossible under a bourgeois or a government in which the bourgeoisie participates, or under any government, in fact, other than the Soviets. Under a Soviet government such freedom would be possible (we do not say it would be a certainty, but still it would be possible). For the sake of such a possibility at such a difficult time, it would be worth compromising with the present majority in the Soviets. We have nothing to fear from real democracy, for reality is on our side, and even the course of development of trends within the S.R. and Menshevik parties, which are hostile to us, proves us right.

“The Mensheviks and S.R.’s would gain in that they would at once obtain every opportunity to carry out their bloc’s program with the support of the obvious overwhelming majority of the people and in that they would secure for themselves the ‘ peaceful’ use of the majority in the Soviets.” ("On Compromises,” in Collected Works, Volume 25, pp. 307-8)

One further point about Lenin’s tactic must be stressed. The Bolsheviks withdrew the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” after the “July Days” of 1917 when the bourgeois government with the support of the Mensheviks and S.R.’s curtailed the soviets’ powers and outlawed the Bolshevik Party. Lenin then argued that the soviets as working class institutions had been hopelessly compromised so that even a “soviet government” of Mensheviks and S.R.’s would plainly be a tool of the bourgeoisie. Later, after the Czarist general Kornilov had been defeated in his attack on Petrograd in an attempt to overthrow the Provisional Government, the slogans were taken up again by the Bolsheviks on the condition that their freedom of action be restored. The above quotation from Lenin comes from this period of the revolution. The fact that the slogans for the “workers’ and peasants’ government” were raised at times and withdrawn at others indicates their tactical nature. Lenin made this explicit in the same article quoted above:

“Our Party, like any other political party, is striving after political domination for itself. Our aim is the dictatorship of the revolutionary proletariat.... We may offer a compromise to these parties only by way of exception, and only by virtue of the particular situation, which will obviously last only a very short time.”

Lenin’s proposal for a Menshevik-S.R. government comes in an essay entitled “On Compromises,” and our excerpt describes the compromise that Lenin proposed. The obvious must be pointed out: Lenin’s proposal was not part of the Bolsheviks’ fundamental program but a tactical compromise. It was made openly before the masses and not covertly, but it was a deal nevertheless. As well Lenin emphasizes, as will all future genuine united front proposals, that the Bolsheviks retain the right to criticize and propagandize during the compromise. They needed this freedom to prove to the workers the necessity of the workers’ state, even while they engaged in a compromise over a “workers’ government.”

The Bolsheviks’ proposed compromise was not accepted. The Bolsheviks won a majority of the soviets nevertheless and were able to use this power as a base for the October Revolution that overthrew the bourgeois state. The united front tactic was successful even though not accepted, in that the Mensheviks’ refusal to throw the bourgeois ministers out of the Provisional Government was an important element in undermining their influence among the masses.

The Bolsheviks offered another compromise to the centrists after the workers’ revolution – a share in the government of the new workers’ state. This offer was accepted for a time by the left wing of the Social Revolutionary party, reflecting the Bolsheviks’ adoption of the S.R. programs for the division of the land among the peasantry. This was in effect an actual workers’ and peasants’ government, a bloc of a working class party (the Bolsheviks) and a peasant party (the S.R.’s ) in power. The government was a united front whose key task was to defend the workers’ state against bourgeois restoration: the question of “which state?” was still alive. The bloc with the Left S.R.’s was also meant to expose the vacillators and win the revolutionaries among them over to the Bolsheviks, which to a large extent it did.

The post-revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government, although it happened to last only a brief time, was not the necessarily temporary even that a pre-revolutionary Menshevik-S.R. regime would have been. The difference was the class nature of the underlying state apparatus: the Menshevik government, a “workers’ government” of a bourgeois state would have been inherently contradictory and would of course have brought the question of which class is to rule to the fore. Thus although the two forms of workers’ and peasants’ governments had common aspects, the united front in particular, they were two fundamentally different things.

The Fourth Comintern Congress

It was with the precedents of the Bolshevik Revolution in mind that the Fourth Congress of the Communist International turned to the slogan of the workers’ government. The Comintern statement was addressed to those countries where the bourgeois regime was unstable and the working class parties had substantial strength. It was designed to break the Social Democratic workers from their class collaborationist leaders by exposing the refusal of the reformists to break their ties with the bourgeoisie.

“...To the coalition, open or masked, between the bourgeoisie and the Social Democrats, the Communists counterpose the united front of all workers and the political and economic coalition of all the workers parties against the bourgeois power, in order to overthrow the latter once and for all. In the common struggle of all the workers against the bourgeoisie, the entire state apparatus must fall into the hands of the workers’ government, and in this way the position of the working class will be reinforced.

“The most elementary program of a workers’ government must consist of arming the proletariat, disarming the counterrevolutionary bourgeois organizations, installing control over production, placing the chief burden of taxation on the rich and breaking the resistance of the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie.

“A government of this kind is possible only if it arises out of the struggle of the masses themselves, if it is based on workers’ organizations suited for combat and created by the widest layers of the oppressed working masses. A workers’ government resulting from a parliamentary combination may also provide an opportunity to strengthen the revolutionary workers movement. But it is self-evident that the emergence of a genuine workers’ government, and the continuation of such a government carrying out a revolutionary policy, must lead to the fiercest struggle and eventually to a civil war with the bourgeoisie. The mere attempt by the proletariat to form a workers’ government will meet from the start the most violent resistance from the bourgeoisie. The slogan of the workers’ government is therefore capable of focusing and unleashing revolutionary struggles.”

The document thus clearly describes the nature of a workers’ government under a bourgeois state as a destabilizing force that necessarily brings the question of the class nature of the state to the foreground of struggle and in fact precipitates the civil war with the bourgeoisie, under conditions of mass working class mobilization.

But the document also exhibits certain measures of confusion. It goes on to list five possible types of “workers’ governments” that Communists have to anticipate:

  1. A liberal workers’ government. There is already such a government in Australia; there may also be one before too long in England.
  2. A Social Democratic workers’ government (Germany).
  3. A workers’ and peasants’ government. Such a possibility exists in the Balkans, in Czechoslovakia, etc.
  4. A workers’ government in which Communists participate.
  5. A genuine proletarian workers’ government, which in its purest form can only be embodied by a Communist Party.

The first two types are dismissed in the document as false workers’ governments that “camouflage a coalition between the bourgeoisie and the counterrevolutionary leaders of the workers.” However, it is inconceivable that such liberal or Social Democratic governments could ever carry out or even adopt the “most elementary program of a workers’ government” ("arming the proletariat,” etc.) that the document provided. The Fourth Congress dismissed these two types from further consideration, noting only that Communists must not participate in them and that they “can objectively contribute to precipitating the process of decomposition of the bourgeois regime.” This is true of the Menshevik-S.R. government of 1917 which the Bolsheviks had tactically proposed, but it was not true of the Social Democratic and liberal governments of the twenties that the Comintern cited as examples. In fact, Labour Party or Social Democratic regimes placed in office in non-revolutionary situations are generally no more destabilizing of bourgeois rule than any other bourgeois government.

So certainly some clarification had to be made, but the above list instead embodies a number of confusions. First, a Social Democratic or liberal government would not at all counterpose the united front of all workers parties against the “coalition, open or masked, between the bourgeoisie and the Social Democrats.” It would in fact be just such a masked coalition, aimed against the dictatorship of the proletariat. The slogan of the workers’ government does not in itself make this obviously fundamental distinction, and should therefore not be used in a situation where a counterrevolutionary government of workers’ parties is likely.

Secondly, the distinction among all five forms is made to depend on which parties participate in the government. That is one element but not the definitive one. For example the fifth, “genuine,” category is designed to stand for the dictatorship of the proletariat because it is “embodied by a Communist Party.” In Russia by 1922 the proletarian dictatorship was indeed embodied in the Communist Party alone. But the first post-revolutionary government had included non-Communists. The defining point of the proletarian dictatorship is not which parties make up the government but which class rules the state. The workers’ destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus and the establishment of their own creates the workers’ state. Communists will certainly be the leading force in the government if such a state, but for periods of time their party may share the power. (We know also know that petty-bourgeois forces may capture the governmental power in a degenerating workers’ state, as in the Stalinist-ruled USSR in the 1920’s and 1930’s , so that a workers’ state may have a non-Communist and non-workers’ government.

The third and fourth types on the list best fit the Comintern’s conception of how the workers’ government slogan should be used. But there is a third confusion. The document at the very beginning states that “the workers’ government... should be used everywhere as a general propaganda slogan“ as well as a “slogan of present-day political activity.” However, the slogan is directed to agitational uses throughout the document and must not be confused with a general propaganda slogan on the question of power which can only be the dictatorship of the proletariat. The document at the end makes this very point:

“Communists are ready to make common cause with those workers, Social Democrats, Christians, non-party, syndicalists, etc., who have not yet recognized the need for the proletarian dictatorship. The communists are also prepared, under certain circumstances and with certain guarantees, to support a non-Communist workers’ government. But the Communists must at all costs explain to the working class that its liberation can only be assured by the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Since the pre-dictatorship types of workers’ government are not inevitable stages towards the proletarian dictatorship, using the “workers’ government” slogan as a general propaganda slogan will lead to immense confusion. It would make the call for a workers’ government into a permanent united front strategy with reformists (who, like the Mensheviks during the July Days, are capable of playing open counterrevolutionary roles), not the tactical approach used for specific purposes under the conditions already described ("if it arises out of the struggle of the masses themselves,” etc.). Trotsky explained the principle behind the united front tactic in a different connection:

“The tactic of the united front still retains all its power as the most important method in the struggle for the masses. A basic principle of this tactic: ‘ With the masses – always; with the vacillating leaders – sometimes, but only so long as the stand at the head of the masses.’ It is necessary to make use of vacillating leaders while the masses are pushing them ahead, without for a moment abandoning criticism of these leaders. And it is necessary to break with them at the right time when they turn from vacillation to hostile action and betrayal. It is necessary to use the occasion of the break to expose the traitorous leaders and to contrast their position to that of the masses. It is precisely in this that the revolutionary essence of the united front policy consists.” (Leon Trotsky on Britain, p. 255)

We have already noted that the Fourth Congress resolution gives too much weight to the question of which parties participate in the workers’ government as the distinction among the various types. The pre-dictatorship types of workers’ government are meant to bring to a head the question of doing away with the bourgeois state. Of course, if Communists participate in such a government it will carry out a more resolute revolutionary program. But the Comintern of 1922 was taking a step beyond the Bolsheviks in 1917; Lenin had then stated that participation in a workers’ government within the still-bourgeois state was “impossible for internationalists.”

What made Bolshevik participation unprincipled in 1917 and possible in 1922? In 1917, the Bolsheviks were still a minority in the Soviets. Had they joined in a Menshevik-S.R. regime in a secondary role, they would have had to take responsibility for the betrayals of the majority. In the countries in which the question was posed in 1922, on the other hand, the Communist Parties were strong enough in the parliaments so that no purely working-class government would have been possible without them. The party wants to win over the new layers of the working class whose consciousness is changing in struggle. In the Russian situation the offer of support was enough to place the onus on the Mensheviks for not breaking with the bourgeoisie. But in the early 1920’s , if momentum for a workers’ government were to develop and the Communists refused, they and not the Social Democrats would be seen as the obstructors of working-class power.

Was such a government ever really conceivable? Trotsky described a particular conjuncture where it was, in the article “The Workers’ Government in France” written shortly after the Comintern discussion. (In this article, the “Dissidents” are the Social Democrats.)

“Is a workers’ government realizable in France in another form than that of the Communist dictatorship, and, if so, in what form?

“In certain political conjunctures it is perfectly realizable, and it even constitutes an inevitable stage in the development of the revolution.

“Indeed, if we suppose that a powerful workers movement, arising in the country out of a violent political crisis, leads to elections which give the majority to the Dissidents and Communists, including intermediate and sympathizing groups, and that the mood of the working masses does not permit the Dissidents to make a bloc within the bourgeoisie against us, then it will be possible under these conditions to form a coalition workers’ government which would constitute a necessary transition toward the revolutionary proletarian dictatorship.

“It is very possible, it is even probable, that such a movement, developing under the slogan of the workers’ government, will not have time to express itself in a parliamentary majority, whether there is no time for new elections or because the bourgeois government will try to ward off the danger by resorting to the methods of Mussolini. During the resistance to the fascist attack, the reformist working-class party could be drawn by the Communist Party down the road of forming a workers’ government by extra-parliamentary means. Under this hypothesis, the revolutionary situation would be even clearer than the first.” (Le Mouvement Communiste en France, pp. 215-216)

We can clarify the possible workers’ governments as they existed for the early Comintern by enumerating them, from left to right, as they stood in relation to the question of state power. We include any government made up exclusively of parties based on the proletariat (and in some cases on the peasantry as well).

  1. A government of the workers’ state following the proletarian revolution.
  2. A “transitional” workers’ government in a revolutionary situation within the still-bourgeois state. (This is the possibility Trotsky was discussing in the French situation above.)
  3. A “destabilizing” workers’ government made up of petty bourgeois-led parties based among the workers and peasants (such as the Menshevik-S.R. regime described by Lenin in 1917).
  4. A “stable” government made up of Labor or Social-Democratic parties in a non-revolutionary situation (best exemplified by British Labour Party governments today).

The workers’ government slogan should only be used as a challenge to the mass non-revolutionary parties to form workers’ governments of the “destabilizing” or “transitional” types. To call for a workers’ government when the outcome would be the “stable” type that rules comfortably for the bourgeoisie and serves as a brake upon the workers would be brazen deception of the masses. It is also ruled out in unstable situations when the capitulationist parties are openly attacking the working class. And to call for a workers’ government when the question of the workers’ state is on the order of the day – that is, in a revolutionary situation where there is no need to challenge or expose mass working class parties under petty-bourgeois leaders – would simply suppress the mobilization for the socialist revolution.

The workers’ government slogan has an algebraic character which Trotsky explained in the article just quoted:

“The workers’ government is an algebraic formula, that is, a formula whose terms do not correspond to fixed numerical values. Hence its advantages and also its drawbacks.

“Its advantages consist in that it reaches out to workers who have not yet reached the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat or the understanding of the need for a leading party.

“Its disadvantages, deriving from its algebraic character, consist in that a purely parliamentary meaning can be given to it....”

Stalinists Drop United Front

Its algebraic nature does not mean that revolutionaries fight alongside more backward workers for a “workers’ government” without indicating the different possible meanings, assuming that whatever the masses think the result will inevitably be the proletarian dictatorship. Without mass awareness of just what the workers’ government means under a bourgeois state the fight for the workers’ state will inevitably be lost. In any struggle for a workers’ government in either the “transitional” or “destabilizing” form, the revolutionaries must constantly explain that the successful formation of such a government will bring about conditions of civil war for state power; the backward workers who desire a workers’ government under parliament may not believe this until it is proved in practice, but if they are forewarned and are able to make the necessary preparations the workers will be able to continue the struggle through the socialist revolution. This again points to the absolute necessity of freedom of criticism. Political compromises like the workers’ government are dangerous; they require constant attention to warning the workers and winning them from the reformists.

As a matter of history, the workers’ government tactic was dropped by the Communist Parties after 1923, in the sense of a systematic agitational campaign along the lines advocated by the Fourth Congress. This was a consequence of the degeneration of the Russian Revolution and with it, of the Communist International. The united front campaigns outlined by the Third and Fourth Congresses were abandoned, to be replaced by left and right zigzags between sectarian campaigns equating the Social Democrats with fascists and the Popular Front efforts that promoted alliances with large sections of the bourgeoisie, supposedly against fascism. Under these altered circumstances the revolutionary communists, organized as the Left Opposition to the Comintern until 1933 and afterwards as the Fourth Internationalists, had to use the transitional slogans under quite different circumstances.

The Left Opposition

Under the leadership of Stalin and Bukharin in the mid-1920’s , the Comintern made a shift to the right that gave the workers’ and peasants’ government slogan a totally different impact. The first example was the Chinese revolution of the 1920’s , where the slogan “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” was used. This old Bolshevik slogan had once signified that the major tasks facing the Russian revolution were first of all bourgeois-democratic – the abolition of Czarism, forming a republic, distributing the land among the peasants, etc. – and that only the proletariat and peasantry would carry them out. When the Czar was overthrown in February 1917, Lenin declared that the slogan had now been bypassed by history: the bourgeois coalition Provisional Governments which rested on the worker and peasant Soviets were as close to the “democratic dictatorship” as any regime could ever come. The strategic task now was to achieve the dictatorship of the proletariat, smashing the bourgeois state and replacing it by the workers’ state with the support of the peasantry. The bourgeois-democratic tasks would be accomplished by the proletarian revolution.

In China, under the guise of Lenin’s outlived slogan, the Comintern was really reverting to the Menshevik line of 1917. It claimed that conditions were not ripe for a proletarian revolution. The 1928 program of the Comintern reads:

“The transition to the proletarian dictatorship is possible only after a series of preparatory stages, only as a result of a whole period of the growing over of the bourgeois-democratic revolution into the socialist revolution.” (Trotsky, The Third International After Lenin, pp. 195-6)

The Comintern perspective was for a bourgeois stage under the leadership of the Kuomintang, the bourgeois nationalist party that, according to Stalin, embodied the interests of workers and peasants as well as the “anti-imperialist” bourgeoisie. The Comintern championed a capitalist state that would eventually evolve into a workers’ state without a proletarian revolution. This “workers’ and peasants’ government” had nothing in common with the conception advanced by the Fourth Congress. Although the original tactic was open to the danger of reformist deformations, the new formula meant that the Comintern itself was creating pacifist illusions and thereby preparing the Chinese proletariat for severe defeats. And that was exactly what happened, when the bourgeois “anti-imperialist” Chiang Kai-Shek took advantage of Stalin’s capitulatory line to massacre the unprepared Chinese workers.

The sharpest answer to the Comintern strategy was given by Trotsky in his 1931 pamphlet The Spanish Revolution in Danger; the Comintern had begun to apply the same disastrous “growing over” formula in Spain after the monarchy had fallen and been replaced by a bourgeois republic.

“...these people dream of a process of evolutionary transformation from a bourgeois into a socialist revolution, through a series of organic stages, disguised under different pseudonyms: Kuomintang, ‘ democratic dictatorship,’ ‘ workers’ and peasants’ revolution,’ ‘ people’s revolution’ – and what is more, the decisive moment in this process when one class wrests the power from another is unnoticeably dissolved....

“It is not the bourgeois power that grows over into a workers’ and peasants’ and then into a proletarian power; no, the power of one class does not ‘ grow over’ from the power of another class, but is torn from it with rifle in hand. But after the working class has seized power, the democratic tasks of the proletarian regime inevitably grow over into socialist tasks. An evolutionary, organic transition from democracy to socialism is conceivable only under the dictatorship of the proletariat. This is Lenin’s central idea.” (The Spanish Revolution, pp. 121, 123)

At the same time that the Stalinized Comintern was developing its evolutionary version of the workers’ and peasants government it was also refusing to address the political questions directly facing the Spanish workers. It ignored the 1931 elections to the Cortes (parliament) in which the radical bourgeois and working class parties dominated the vote and the Socialist Party received the single largest bloc of delegates. Trotsky advocated a revival of the workers’ and peasants’ government tactic along lines parallel to the Bolsheviks of 1917. He called on the CP to demand that the Socialist Party take governmental power itself and break its coalition with the bourgeois cabinet of Alcala Zamora and his minister of the interior, Maura. He proposed the slogan “Down with Zamora-Maura,” the Spanish equivalent of the Bolsheviks’ “Down with the Capitalist Ministers.” The situations were different in that the soviets, the organs of dual power, were already established in Russia in 1917 while there were no such bodies in Spain in 1931. Trotsky nevertheless advised taking advantage of the large vote given to the Socialists:

“Let us consider for a moment the way in which the Spanish workers en masse should view the present situation. Their leaders, the Socialists, have power. This increases the demands and the tenacity of the workers. Every striker will not only have no fear of the government but will also expect help from it. The Communists must direct the thoughts of the workers precisely along these lines: ‘ Demand everything of the government since your leaders are in it.’ In reply to the workers’ delegations, the Socialists will say that they do not have a majority yet. The answer is clear: with truly democratic suffrage and an end to the coalition with the bourgeoisie, a majority is guaranteed....

“All the considerations above would remain a dead letter if we were to limit ourselves only to democratic slogans in the parliamentary sense. There can be no question of this. Communists participate in all strikes, in all protests and demonstrations, arousing more and more numerous strata of the population. Communists are with the masses and at the head of the masses in every battle. On the basis of these battles the Communists put forward the slogan of soviets and at the first opportunity build soviets as the organizations of the united front. At the present stage the soviets can be nothing else. But if they emerge as the combat organizations of the proletarian united front, then under the leadership of the Comintern they will inevitably become, at a certain stage, organs of insurrection and then organs of power.” (The Spanish Revolution, pp. 149-50)

Trotsky had no illusions that the Spanish Socialists would actually form a government in order to bring about the proletarian dictatorship. He was raising a tactical approach to the workers that would bring about a destabilizing situation for bourgeois rule, whether or not the proposal for a workers’ government of the Social-Democratic kind was ever put into operation.

Trotsky also proposed a version of the workers’ government slogan during the early 1930’s in Germany. The Left Opposition’s campaign for a working class united front to halt Nazism is well known. It included a comprehensive program of mass action: defense of strikes, unions and party organizations, attacks on the fascist barracks, etc. It is less well known that Trotsky also used the workers’ government tactic to champion the united front of the working class parties, the Social Democrats and Communists, in this struggle:

“The Communist Party must say to the working class: Schleicher is not to be overthrown by any parliamentary game. If the Social Democracy wants to set to work to overthrow the Bonapartist government with other means, the Communist Party is ready to aid the Social Democracy with all its strength. At the same time, the Communists obligate themselves in advance to use no violent methods against a Social Democratic government insofar as the latter bases itself upon the majority of the working class and insofar as it guarantees the Communist Party the freedom of agitation and organization. Such a way of putting the question will be comprehensible to all Social Democratic and non-party workers.” ("The Only Road,” in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p. 322)

The German Communist Party, however, not only failed to fight for the working class united front against fascism, but it put up no political resistance when the Nazis marched to power in 1933. Moreover, the collapse of the CP in Germany inspired no reconsideration of tactics on the part of the Comintern as a whole. For these reasons, Trotsky and the Left Opposition estimated that the Third International was no longer a potentially revolutionary force in the workers’ movement and that new parties and a new International had to be built. This major change in the Trotskyists’ worldwide strategy for revolution also engendered tactical shifts.

The French Situation in 1934

The massive defeat suffered by the working class in Germany brought France to the forefront as the key European political situation in the mid-thirties. The German events touched off responses in France from both right and left. On February 6, 1934, the monarchist and pro-fascist right wing mounted a large armed demonstration in Paris which forced the government to resign, and the Bonapartist Gaston Doumergue became Premier. On February 12, the working class responded with a general strike and massive demonstrations against the danger of fascism and war, in effect bringing about a pre-revolutionary situation through the spontaneous united front of Socialist and Communist workers. This was a great breakthrough but insufficient: an organized united front had to be formed through workers’ committees at the base and agreement among the working class parties and trade union federations.

For the Trotskyists the tactical problem was particularly acute. Theirs was the only organized tendency that stood for a united front of working class organizations, yet they constituted a tiny handful and no longer held the perspective of addressing the Communist Party as their own. The united front made no sense at all unless it was formed by the two major working class parties, yet neither of them was yet responding to the pressure of the masses in that direction. Trotsky’s article “France is Now the Key to the Situation,” written in March (Writings 1933-34, p. 244) summarized the program of the International Communist League in a list of slogans mainly directed toward the tasks of the workers’ united front:

It is obvious from the above list of demands that the workers’ government slogan is deliberately omitted. The reasons for the omission are not explained, but they can be surmised from our general understanding of the tactic. Slogans for the revolution, the workers’ state and socialism are included, not as immediate demands but nevertheless present as longer-term goals of the struggle. From the inception of the formal united front tactic at the third Comintern Congress, it had been understood that raising the slogan of the proletarian dictatorship was not enough when the masses were not ready for it and their attention was drawn to more immediate defensive struggles. The workers’ government slogan was devised for just such situations, but how was it to be applied in France at that moment? Toward which party? The Socialists were still acting as the working class arm of the bourgeoisie; the Communists were maintaining their isolation from the living mass struggles by following the bureaucratic policy of refusing to join united fronts except through ultimatums from above. The CP was not taking the leadership of those united front organs at the base and was expelling members of the party who attempted to; thus the workers’ government tactic could not be formulated through the CP. Nor would it work through the Socialists; the parliamentary paralysis that the SP had contributed to had produced a semi-Bonapartist regime, making the idea of a working class electoral majority meaningless. No useful form of the workers’ government slogan was available.

In June Trotsky helped draft the International Communist League’s “Program of Action for France” (Writings 1934-35, pp. 21-32), a document which in many respects serves as a model for the Transitional Program of 1938 and elaborates many of the same transitional demands. Yet it too nowhere uses the workers’ government slogan but instead relies on the workers’ state to pose the question of power. Thus in summarizing the demands for nationalization of industry “by the workers” and for the monopolization of foreign trade, the Action Program states, “only the state, ruled by the workers, would really control all foreign commerce for the benefit of the collectivity.” Under the heading of the workers’ and peasants’ alliance it explains that “the proletarian state must rest on the exploited peasants as well as on the workers of town and country.” And in the section entitled “Down with the Bourgeois ‘ Authoritative State'! For Workers’ and Peasants’ Power!” the Action Program reads:

“The task is to replace the capitalist state, which functions for the profit of the big exploiters, by the workers’ and peasants’ proletarian state. The task is to establish in this country the rule of the working people. To all we declare that it is not a matter of secondary ‘ modification,’ but rather that the domination of the small minority of the bourgeois class must be replaced by the leadership and power of the immense majority of the laboring people.”

The Trotskyists’ slogans changed when the situation took a new turn. At the end of May, the Socialist Party convention voted against further governmental blocs with the bourgeois Radicals and invited previously ousted left-wingers to rejoin. In July, the Communist and Socialist leaders held talks over the possibility of a united front, and a pact against fascism was signed on July 27. The French Trotskyist group took advantage of the SP’s shift to the left and joined it as a distinct Bolshevik-Leninist tendency in order to win the developing left wing to revolutionary politics. Their programmatic slogans shifted as well. By the time Trotsky issued his article “Whither France?” in October, the Communists were moving further to the right. CP leader Marcel Cachin had already made overtures to the Radical Party to abandon the workers’ alliance and “extend” it to an alliance including sections of the bourgeoisie, the Popular Front. Trotsky sought to counterpose the workers’ united front and therefore posed the struggle for power in terms of the workers’ government tactic via the leaders of the two working class parties: “The aim of the united front can only be a government of the united front, i.e., a Socialist-Communist government, a Blum-Cachin ministry” (Leon Trotsky on France, p. 59). Yet he did not therefore neglect to raise the goal of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the alternative to Doumergue:

“The struggle for power means the utilization of all the possibilities provided by the semi-parliamentary Bonapartist regime by a revolutionary push, to replace the bourgeois state by a workers’ state.”

And the slogan was specifically linked to the previous Action Program of transitional demands:

“The struggle for power must begin with the fundamental idea that if opposition to further aggravation of the situation of the masses under capitalism is still possible, no real improvement of their situation is conceivable without a revolutionary invasion of the right of capitalist property. The political campaign of the united front must base itself upon a well-elaborated transitional program, i.e., on a system of measures that, with a workers’ and peasants’ government, can assure the transition from capitalism to socialism.” (Ibid, p. 60)

The Trotskyists made a tactical shift within a few months, but during a period in which the upheaval of the masses had forced the working class parties through large swings and evasive twists by their leaders. The workers’ and peasants’ government slogan was introduced when the workers had forced their leaders into joint action, a turn which the pro-bourgeois leaderships naturally tried to transform into a renewed coalition with the supposedly anti-fascist wing of the bourgeoisie. The tactics worked out in this period deserve a careful examination by Trotskyists today, when the workers’ and farmers’ government slogan has become a substitute for propaganda for the workers’ state and has been petrified into a permanent strategic line.

The 1938 Transitional Program

By the time the Transitional Program was produced, the revolutionary opportunities of the early and mid-thirties had passed. Hitler was in power, the Spanish Republic defended by the workers was losing the civil war and the French Popular Front had deflected the mass explosion that culminated in the 1936 general strike into safer electoral channels. The forces of the Fourth International were pitifully small and isolated from Socialist and Communist Parties. Moreover, the Second World War was imminent and would inevitably inflict even greater misery. The task of showing the workers the way forward was made immense by the vastly unfavorable balance of forces between the revolutionaries on the one hand and the reformists and Stalinists on the other, who were responsible for an extensive mood of demoralization brought about by the successive defeats.

Winning the workers from their leaderships required challenging the dominant parties to carry out their own programs, promises with which they had deceived the mass of workers into following them. The masses still regarded these organizations as usable for defensive purposes, even when they understood that they were hardly revolutionary. (The Trotskyists, it should be noted, no longer considered the Stalinists to be centrists at this point: the Transitional Program refers to the “definite passing over of the Comintern to the side of the bourgeois order, its cynically counterrevolutionary role throughout the world – TPSR, p. 113.) Since the bourgeoisie had proved time and again that it was ready to mobilize its full force against the workers, only the revolutionary program constituted a real defense of the working class. Because of their ties to capitalism, the CP’s and SP’s were incapable of leading this defense; it was this fact that had to be proved to the workers in practice.

Trotsky defined the Transitional Program as a tactical, not a strategic program:

“The strategic task of the Fourth International lies not in reforming capitalism but in its overthrow. Its political aim is the conquest of power by the proletariat for the purpose of expropriating the bourgeoisie. However, the achievement of this strategic task is unthinkable without the most considered attention to all, even small and partial, questions of tactics.... The present epoch is distinguished not because it frees the revolutionary party from day-to-day work but because it permits this work to be carried on indissolubly with the actual tasks of the revolution....

“Insofar as the old partial, ‘ minimal’ demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism – and this occurs at each step – the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime.” (TPSR, pp. 114-5, emphasis added)

The transitional demands are what enable daily work to be linked so closely to the revolutionary tasks. Unlike the democratic and partial demands (some of which are also included in Trotsky’s draft program) the transitional demands challenge the structure of capitalist relations, the right of the bourgeoisie to exploit the workers and to rule the state. Although it is certainly true that bourgeois society in particular periods may be unable to grant partial demands, that is not what makes a demands transitional. The transitional demands are “directed against the very foundations of the bourgeois regime” because they reflect the program of the workers’ state.

The workers’ state is the transitional phase between capitalism and socialism in which the proletariat holds state power in order to eliminate over time all bourgeois social relations. The program under which this is carried out can properly be called the socialist program. The Transitional Program reflects the socialist program but does so through the tarnished mirror of capitalism. The way a transitional demand appears to reformist workers living under capitalist conditions is quite different from its socialist model. For example, the “sliding scale of working hours” can take the form of “30 for 40” (thirty hours’ work for forty hours’ pay) and may be limited to one factory or one industry; even a victory along these lines is of a different order from the socialist program which aims at dividing the necessary labor among the available workers and thus expanding the leisure time of all workers for the purpose of ruling society.

Thus the Transitional Program is algebraic. The demands make the program of the workers’ state visible through the capitalist mirror and therefore real to workers who do not accept the workers’ state. Such workers, still following reformist leaders, will give the demands a sectoral meaning. The struggle itself will demonstrate the inadequacy of sectorally limited demands and prove that what the revolutionaries are saying is correct. Used in this way, the demands bridge the gap between workers’ present consciousness and the objective necessity of class unity for reaching socialism, and thereby become transitional.

The Workers’ Government Slogan

The slogans of the transitional program are aimed at the mass parties and unions of the working class. These organizations under reformist leadership cannot be expected to adopt revolutionary demands for overthrowing capitalism. But they can be asked to carry out their own promises and professed programs and to fight for them to the limits of capitalism, since reformism teaches that far-reaching reforms can still be won under this system. This is what Trotsky meant when, in the discussions with comrades about the draft Transitional Program, he said:

“Yes, we propagandize this program in the trade unions, propose it as the basic program for the labor party. For us, it is a transitional program; but for them it is the program.” (TPSR, p. 87)

Revolutionaries can approach other workers for a united front struggle through the mass organizations for transitional demands, explaining that the lessons of the struggle will prove whether the demands can be achieved within the present society. They will also prove in practice the limitations of the reformist leaderships. The most far-reaching demand of this kind is the workers’ government, the ultimate possible program of a reformist working class party. After all, the purpose of a political party is to take over the government, and the natural goal for a working class party is a workers’ government. As Trotsky put it:

“Of all the parties and organizations which base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers’ and farmers’ government. On this road we promise them full support against capitalist reaction. At the same time, we indefatigably develop agitation around those transitional demands which should, in our opinion, form the program of the workers’ and farmers’ government.” (TPSR, p. 134-5)

The “workers’ and farmers’ government” slogan is transitional with a significant distinction. It reflects not just an aspect of the workers’ state but the state power itself. If such a government ever comes about it would amount to such a severe challenge to the bourgeoisie – ousting this class from the government of its own state – that it can occur only under revolutionary conditions and then can only have a fleeting existence. Either it leads to the proletarian revolution or it is defeated and bourgeois order is bloodily restored. A workers’ government can only be directly transitional to the workers’ state, and the proletariat has to be well prepared for this transition.

Stalinist Workers’ Governments?

Trotsky’s analysis in the Transitional Program emphasized the immediately transitional character of the slogan. He cited the Bolshevik example, stating that “in the final instance it represented nothing more than the already established dictatorship of the proletariat” (TPSR, p. 133). He attacked the Menshevik and Stalinist construction of the “democratic dictatorship,” which used the workers’ alliance with the peasantry as a means of collaboration with the bourgeoisie. He contrasted this to the Bolshevik challenge to the Mensheviks and S.R.’s , the method he advocated for the Fourth International. “The slogan ‘ workers’ and farmers’ government’ is thus acceptable to us only in the sense that it had in 1917 with the Bolsheviks, i.e., as an anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist slogan...”.

Trotsky did not compare his use of the slogan with the Fourth Comintern Congress, undoubtedly because the situations and necessary tactics were quite different. The revolutionaries in 1938 had no mass weight or political influence to use against the reformists but only the appeal of their politics. United front tactics therefore could not be used directly, because the united front means the alliance of the entire working class or at least of its largest sections. The Transitional Program does not use the united front slogan, so prominent in Trotsky’s writings when he was addressing the entire Comintern in the 1920’s and early 1930’s . The indirect form of the united front which the Fourth International employed was the tactic of critical support, as in the paragraph quoted above.

Thus there was no question in 1938 of whether the revolutionaries might participate in workers’ governments; their small size ruled it out. The “workers’ and farmers’ government” slogan was now solely a challenge directed at the capitulationist mass parties of the working class. The Social Democrats and Stalinists now had an extensive and explicit history of betrayals, and Trotsky therefore estimated that it was “to say the least, highly improbable” that they would break their alliance with the bourgeoisie. He added:

“However, one cannot categorically deny in advance the theoretical possibility that, under the influence of completely exceptional circumstances (war, defeat, financial crash, mass revolutionary pressure, etc.), the petty-bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists, may go further than they themselves wish to a break with the bourgeoisie. In any case, one thing is not to be doubted: even if this highly improbable variant somewhere, at some time, becomes a reality and the workers’ and farmers’ government in the above-mentioned sense is established in fact, it would represent merely a short episode on the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.”

This passage has been often cited by the pseudo-Trotskyists as a justification for the notion that Stalinists could lead the way to socialist revolutions and workers’ states. Such an interpretation is blatantly false, since “the short episode” Trotsky mentions between the workers’ and farmers’ government and the workers’ state is in fact the proletarian revolution against the petty-bourgeois parties along the lines of the Bolshevik challenge to the Mensheviks (see Socialist Voice No. 3, p. 30).

Trotsky’s analysis in this passage nevertheless proved to be partly wrong. Trotsky considered the Stalinists to be essentially reformist and therefore expected that they would break their open coalition with the bourgeoisie under revolutionary mass pressure. In fact the CP’s had become the parties of state capitalism and therefore could afford to break with the old bourgeoisie only after the workers’ upsurge had been suppressed. (See our article on the nature of the Communist Parties in Socialist Voice No. 3.) The Stalinists did set up their own governments in several countries after World War II, but shadows of the old bourgeoisie were kept in office for a period to make clear that the states did not belong to the workers. The regimes set up were neither revolutionary workers’ governments as described by the Fourth Comintern Congress nor soviet-based Menshevik governments as proposed by the Bolsheviks; they were state capitalist regimes.

What conclusions can be drawn about Trotsky’s use of the workers’ government slogan? Trotsky’s error was to identify the Stalinists’ possible break with the bourgeoisie as a workers’ government, not in linking a real workers’ government so closely to the workers’ state. All the transitional demands aim at the conclusion that the workers must establish their own power, but the workers’ government slogan points to that conclusion directly. When Trotsky wrote that the workers’ and peasants’ government “in the final instance” meant nothing but the dictatorship already established (TPSR, p. 133) he meant two things: one, that the term had become, after the 1917 revolution, a popular designation for the workers’ state that clearly indicated the workers’ alliance with the peasantry; and two, that the tactical use of the slogan in the pre-revolutionary period had reached the successful final result of guiding the masses of workers to the proletarian revolution. Any conclusion that the slogan means “only” the dictatorship of the proletariat is completely foreign to the method of the Transitional Program and its pre-history. The slogan is designed to be an important tactical step enabling revolutionaries to carry a pre-revolutionary situation successfully through the “doorstep” of the revolution.

Other conclusions drawn in this article will be summarized at this point.

  1. The workers’ government slogan is designed for tactical use against mass reformist, centrist or Stalinist parties of the working class. It challenges them to follow the logic of their proclaimed programs and run the government in the interest of the workers without ties to the bourgeoisie. The slogan “workers’ government” was never used in this bald form by Lenin or Trotsky. They always specified just which parties should form what government. If no mass reformist parties exist, or if they are playing an openly counterrevolutionary role in the conjuncture, the workers’ government slogan as a united front tactic is dangerously inappropriate. If the slogan is raised permanently it becomes a strategic policy, not a tactical one. The revolutionary party which proposed a permanent united front with reformists is ultimately taking responsibility for all the reformists’ deeds both when they are pushed to the left by the masses and when they turn to the right against them.
  2. The slogan is agitational and not propagandistic, since it is used to win over the layers of workers who do not yet accept the proletarian dictatorship as their goal. Our propagandistic slogan for workers’ power is the workers’ state (which in a revolutionary situation may itself be used agitationally). To use the workers’ government slogan as propaganda, that is, as a scientifically exact description of the revolutionary goal for the most advanced layer of workers, is to state in effect that the final goal lies within the framework of the bourgeois state. This usage is the hallmark of the variety of centrism that descends from Trotskyism. This centrism refuses to call for the dictatorship of the proletariat explicitly, even propagandistically, but relies instead on the objective and blind “revolutionary process” to push the workers over the doorstep of the revolution.
  3. The slogan is algebraic but it is not a trick to blur the difference between a workers’ government and a workers’ state. The slogan in fact comes into play when the blurring has already been done by the reformists, that is, when there are large numbers of workers demanding that their leaders take the power but who still believe in purely democratic (parliamentary) solutions. The algebra then arises over the goal of the workers’ government: the reformists will try to keep it within bourgeois bounds, which will lead to counterrevolution given the volatile situation; the revolutionaries must fight at every stage in the struggle to make certain that the workers understand the need to press beyond to workers’ revolution. The workers’ government slogan above all else must point to a break from bourgeois terrain.
  4. Finally, why did Trotsky write the Transitional Program with the deliberate intention of leaving out the slogans of socialism and the dictatorship of the proletariat? Obviously not in order to abandon these slogans but because the Transitional Program had to guide the workers to the point where socialism and the dictatorship would appear as necessary goals. It was an unquestionable fact that the Fourth International (named the World Party of the Socialist Revolution) was completely identified with the program of the socialist revolution and the workers’ state. With this in mind Trotsky could point to the need to complete the program of the Fourth International after having brought it to the “doorstep” of the revolution with the transitional demands. The Transitional Program was designed to supersede the old minimum program and bring the daily demands of the workers into line with the revolutionary conditions of the epoch of capitalism’s decay so that the maximum goals become the necessary consequence. The greatest mistakes have come from those who imagine that the Transitional Program supersedes the workers’ state and the socialist revolution as well.

    This is precisely the situation with the pseudo-Trotskyist parties in Peru and Iran. They call for workers’ governments as a disguise, in their own minds, for workers’ states, but they leave out the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state machine that comes between the two. They call for workers’ and peasants’ governments not as a challenge against any mass working class parties (in Peru, Hugo Blanco’s FOCEP itself won the largest working class support in the Assembly elections); thus they are raising it as their own program. The effect is not to win the reformist workers from petty-bourgeois leaders as the Fourth Congress and the Transitional Program intended, but to keep the workers mired in petty-bourgeois conceptions. In effect, they are using the workers’ government slogan in none of the possible ways that the Comintern put forward but in “that ‘ democratic’ sense which the epigones later gave it, transforming it from a bridge to socialist revolution into the chief barrier upon its path.” (TPSR, p. 134). Of all the lessons which “Trotskyist” might have drawn from the immensely rich tactical heritage of Bolshevism and Trotskyism, these people have firmly grasped the method of Menshevik Stalinism.

The Pablo-Hansen Theory

The treacherous misuse of the workers’ government slogan today, so contrary to the tactic developed by the Fourth Comintern Congress and the Fourth International, is wholly consistent with a theory of “workers’ and farmers’ governments” concocted by the Pabloite leaders of the Fourth International in the late forties and early fifties. This theory saw workers’ and farmers’ governments set up by the Stalinists evolving naturally into workers’ states.

Michel Pablo, the head of the International at the time, was chiefly responsible for the idea that the states of Eastern Europe conquered by Stalinism were workers’ states; he called them deformed, not degenerated, because they had never been genuine workers’ states. The theory was afterwards extended to China, Korea, Vietnam and Cuba. It has been debated whether to extend it to Ben Bella’s Algeria, Nasser’s Egypt, and now Kampuchea, Angola, Mozambique and other regimes.

The Pabloite notion of deformed workers’ states clashes immediately with Marxism: a workers’ state means a state created by a workers’ revolution that places the working class in power, but the new Stalinist states were created through revolutions led by petty-bourgeois forces (Stalinist parties or peasant armies). The workers generally had to be crushed by the Stalinists or the old bourgeoisie before the Stalinists would undertake to seize power. In no case was such a “workers’ state” the creation of the working class. In all cases the revolutionary Marxist or Trotskyist parties that existed were destroyed and their members killed, exiled or jailed.

The Pabloites were willing to swallow these problems because of the Stalinists’ nationalization of industry, for them the key criterion in their attempt to sustain the analysis of Russia as a workers’ state. But there were additional problems. The Stalinists did not statify the economy immediately; they maintained some degree of privately-owned property and even coalition governments with the bourgeoisie for several years. Hence the question: just when did the countries become workers’ states? When the Stalinists initially took power, or when the nationalizations were consolidated?

The first choice led to the difficulty that the seizure of power could be reversed without a counterrevolution and still without any surviving nationalizations. For example, Russian troops left their sector of Austria after a treaty was signed with the Western powers; had Austria already been labeled a deformed workers’ state, no trace of “proletarian” power would have remained evident. Moreover, even the strongly entrenched Stalinist rulers vociferously argued against any notion that they had made socialist revolutions. Mao Tsetung in China, for example, insisted that only a “new democracy” had been created, a progressive form of bourgeois society that would ultimately turn itself into socialism.

The second choice posed difficulties as well. If the Stalinist states became proletarian only after a period of years, they did so without any revolution. Eastern Europe, for example, was taken over with the defeat of Nazism in 1944-45; after that, there were no violent revolutions that could signal the appearance of a new class society. China likewise had its revolution when the imperialist puppets of Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang were ousted in 1949; in the fifties, when the Pabloites decided it was a workers’ state, where was the revolution that transformed bourgeois into proletarian rule?

To bridge these difficulties a retroactive theory was contrived under the inspiration of Ernest Mandel and the SWP’s Joseph Hansen. They suggested that the initial Stalinist takeovers created “workers’ and farmers’ governments” according to the descriptions of the Fourth Congress and the Transitional Program; then, after a while, these governments transformed the states they ruled into workers’ states. The kernel of truth in this reasoning is that the Fourth Congress did conceive of a “transitional” form of workers’ government, under the still-bourgeois state, that would bring about the socialist revolution. Also, Trotsky did allow for “the petty-bourgeois parties, including the Stalinists” to go “further than they themselves wish along the road to break with the bourgeoisie”; indeed, such workers’ and farmers’ governments “would represent merely a short episode on the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.”

But the precedents led to precisely opposite conclusions from the Pabloites'. The workers’ and farmers’ governments of both Trotsky and the Fourth Congress would engender civil war and revolution almost immediately. They would not bring about a peaceful evolution into the workers’ state. Moreover, a victorious outcome would not signify the defeat of the proletariat! The Fourth Congress had expected the revolutionaries to join in its “transitional” workers’ government, not be hurled into jail. And as mentioned earlier, the Transitional Program meant that the Stalinist governments would be driven from power by the proletarian revolution; they were not portrayed as its revolutionary agents.

The ancestry of the Pablo-Hansen theory does not lie in Bolshevism or Trotskyism but rather in Stalinism and Maoism. When the Stalinists took over in Eastern Europe they labeled their states “people’s democracies.” At first, the conception was that these were a progressive form of bourgeois state because they had Communist Parties at their heads. Later, when it became clear that the Stalinists would have to embark upon the state capitalist road to maintain their power, the theory shifted and the people’s democracies became “democracies of a new type.” The Soviet theoretician Varga wrote, “The social structure of these states differs from all those hitherto known to us; it is something totally new in the history of mankind. It is neither a bourgeois dictatorship nor a proletarian dictatorship.” (Quoted in A. Ross Johnson, The Transformation of Communist Ideology, p. 13.)

Mao’s theory was similar, with the exception that he had worked most of it out in advance of the Chinese Revolution and did not have to develop it step-by-step when conditions changed. The Chinese Communist Party called for a “new democracy” through the overthrow of Chiang Kai-Shek and imperialist control, a democratic anti-imperialist bourgeois regime headed by the CP. “We Communists do not conceal our political views,” Mao wrote, mocking Marx and Engels. “On joining the Party, every Communist has two clearly defined objectives at heart, the new-democratic revolution now and socialism and communism in the future...” (On Coalition Government, written in 1945). The socialist stage meant for Mao the nationalization (by the new democratic state) of the means of production when the rulers deemed it suitable; no further revolution was necessary.

SWP vs. Mandel

Mao derived his theory from the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” that Stalin had foisted upon the Comintern in the mid-1920’s . Just when Mao was explaining that the 1949 revolution in China had set up a “new democracy” and certainly not socialism or a workers’ state, Mandel similarly convinced the Pabloites that China was a “workers’ and peasants’ government” with the same potential of reaching socialism. By the mid-1950’s , Mao was saying that China had become a form of proletarian dictatorship, and Mandel, Hansen & Co. followed suit. The Pabloite terminology was different from Mao’s but the underlying reformist content was exactly the same.

The distortion of Marxism embodied in the Hansen theory is overwhelming, and it is not mitigated by occasional bouts of comparative honesty such as Hansen’s admission that “the Bolsheviks excluded the possibility of such formations actually establishing a workers state.” (The Workers and Farmers Government, SWP Education for Socialists pamphlet, p. 17.) What is the explanation for this remarkable failure of theoretical insight on the part of the Bolsheviks? Hansen simply appeals to “the facts”: the Bolsheviks were wrong because “The experience in China showed that in at least one case history had decreed otherwise.” (Ibid., p. 27) The existence of such “deformed workers’ states” is not a fact but simply a wrong interpretation of facts, decreed not by “history” but by Mandel, Hansen and others who conceive that the working class is an optional, even an exceptional, component of the proletarian revolution.

History has, however, decreed that outrageous distortions of itself do not go unavenged. In the early months of 1979 wars broke out among the Stalinist states of Southeast Asia: Vietnam invaded and took over most of Kampuchea, and China subsequently invaded Vietnam. Theoreticians who call these countries socialist or workers’ states were thrown into a turmoil. Of course, Russia had been known to embark on an invasion or two, but not the “revolutionary” variety of Stalinists who had fought liberation wars against imperialism recently. The United Secretariat in particular flew into a theoretical tizzy over the class nature of Kampuchea. The SWP, which had never before been able to figure out what sort of state Pol Pot’s Kampuchea actually was, now suddenly discovered that it was capitalist in order to justify Vietnam’s takeover. The USec majority led by Mandel objected and called for Vietnam’s withdrawal from its “fraternal” deformed workers’ state.

The ensuing debate has forced both sides to try to plant firm poles in the swamp of Pabloite theory. Mandel, ignoring the workers’ and farmers’ government explanation that he helped develop, insists that Kampuchea had to be a workers’ state because its bourgeois rulers were ousted in 1975, just like – he now says – China had to be a workers’ state as soon as the Stalinists ousted the Kuomintang in 1949. For if the state remained bourgeois only to have capitalism overthrown later, “how could a bourgeois state be used to abolish capitalism?” (Intercontinental Press, April 9, 1979) An excellent question and a fundamental one for Marxists. It has taken the leading theoretician of the “United Secretariat of the Fourth International” only thirty years to see the contradiction that he himself created.

For its part, the SWP relies on ridiculing the notion that any regime as brutal and backward as Pol Pot’s could possibly be considered proletarian by anyone. This is true enough, but the SWP still believes that the other Stalinist states are workers’ state. To explain the difference, it is forced to retrospectively manufacture working class “mobilizations” in all of the Stalinist takeovers (except for Pol Pot’s ) to replace the missing working class revolutions. Despite these gyrations, they do score a point against Mandel over Kampuchea:

“When Rosa Luxemburg proclaimed that the choice before humanity was socialism or barbarism, it never occurred to her that any Marxist might mistake one for the other.” (Intercontinental Press, July 16, 1979)

This “mistake” has been the trademark of the entire Pabloite movement for a quarter of a century. The SWP has hit the nail squarely on its own head.

While Mandel has apparently forsaken the Pabloite theory of workers’ and farmers’ governments, the SWP has taken it to further theoretical conquests. It now asserts that the Bolsheviks did not really set up a workers’ state in 1917; it was only a workers’ and peasants’ government, since property had not yet been nationalized. Only when the nationalizations occurred in 1918 was it really a workers’ state. As justification for this it cites Trotsky:

“Not only up to the Brest-Litovsk peace but even up to autumn of 1918, the social content of the revolution was restricted to a petty-bourgeois agrarian overturn and workers’ control over production. This means that the revolution in its actions had not yet passed the boundaries of bourgeois society.... Only toward the autumn of 1918... the workers went forward with the nationalization of the means of production. Only from this time can one speak of the inception of a real dictatorship of the proletariat.” ("The Class Nature of the Soviet State,” in Writings 1933-34, p. 106)

Trotsky’s meaning was that the proletarian revolution had immediate bourgeois tasks to carry out, most importantly the distribution of land among the peasantry. The workers did not seize industry until after many months. When Trotsky reasoned that the dictatorship was not “real” until the workers had begun the specifically proletarian (not just bourgeois-democratic) tasks, he certainly was not implying that the Bolshevik state was still capitalist. He only said that the workers’ revolution “in its actions“ had for a time confined itself to the left-over and pressing bourgeois tasks. But a capitalist state is the necessary implication of the SWP’s new conception, for it does believe that Mao’s China rested on a bourgeois state after 1949, and likewise with Eastern Europe until 1948. The SWP has backed itself into a position where Bolshevik Russia ruled by the workers with arms in hand was capitalist, but Stalinist Eastern Europe which had crushed the workers was proletarian. They have forgotten that a workers’ state means precisely a workers’ state and nothing else. Confusing socialism for barbarism is an inevitable consequence.

Joseph Hansen is now dead, but one comment of his in 1969 on the state of Pabloite analysis to which he contributed so much deserves to be remembered: “I think it is just to say that we have not yet achieved a fully satisfactory unified theory.” (The Workers and Farmers Government, p. 23)

Pabloism in Practice

The real meaning of the Pablo-Hansen notion of workers’ and farmers’ governments evolving into workers’ states lies in the actions it inspires. The United Secretariat has taken its scenario not as an exceptional line of development but as the norm. In Peru and Iran, the USec sections apparently believe that the road to socialism must pass through the stage of the workers’ and farmers’ government. Since the Pablo-Hansen theory envisages the transition to the workers’ states and socialism without any further revolution, there is no need to include revolutionary demands in the Pabloite program. The workers’ and farmers’ government will be achieved as a “transitional” government under the existing bourgeois state; all that is required is the election of a “democratic” Constituent Assembly to set the workers’ and farmers’ government process into motion. This government will then make the transition to the workers’ state without excessive violence and without having to rouse the masses, as the Pablo-Hansen theory supposedly demonstrates. By breaking the transition to socialism down into two stages, both evolutionary, the Pabloites (like the Stalinists) eliminate the need for the actual socialist revolution.

The crowning test of the Pablo-Hansen theory came with the victory in July of the Nicaraguan revolution against the murderous Somoza regime. This victory was the climax of mass struggles under the military leadership of the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN), a petty-bourgeois nationalist guerrilla force inspired by the success of the Cuban revolution. The majority wing of the Sandinistas follows a two-stage reformist program derived from Stalinism and has international connections with liberal bourgeois Latin American governments; the two smaller wings are reported to be further left but share the stage theory of revolution. No wing is based on a working-class party. Articles in the USec’s Intercontinental Press and Inprecor in June 1978 argued convincingly that the FSLN is not a working class organization.

After Somoza’s ouster, a Government of National Reconstruction was set up by the Sandinistas under U.S. pressure with an openly bourgeois majority, and it has promised to respect most private property and all capitalist relations. The immense hopes in their revolution and have already begun to form bodies of workers and peasants that threaten to compete for power. A leading obstacle is the masses’ illusions in the ability of the Sandinistas to deliver on their promises. The FSLN policy of compromising with capitalism (and therefore with imperialism) will lead quickly to a conflict with the aspirations of the masses.

The USec’s position towards the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan revolution has necessarily been different from its line in Peru and Khomeini’s Iran: the strictly parliamentary road obviously makes little sense in the midst of a violent civil war. But the USec has not stood for a proletarian revolution. While supporting the military effort of the FSLN during the insurrection, the USec raised democratic and transitional demands and criticized the Sandinistas’ policy of promising the bourgeoisie a coalition government. Its culminating slogan, predictably, was the workers’ and peasants’ government. But in the context of urging the Sandinistas to break with the bourgeoisie, this slogan means a government of the Sandinistas alone, a petty-bourgeois government. While the USec has been careful not to give a clear class characterization of the Sandinistas as petty-bourgeois, it should have no conflict in doing so: its Pabloite theory asserts that petty-bourgeois forces can make the socialist revolution.

During the anti-Somoza struggle in 1978, the USec had a section in Nicaragua which reportedly urged steps like the formation of strike committees to take political leadership of the fight out of the hands of the liberal bourgeoisie (Inprecor, French edition, October 5, 1978). It also called for a Constituent Assembly for similar purposes. But now that the Sandinistas are in power, the USec changed its attitude. The Nicaraguan section has not been publicized since last fall, a sharp contrast to the publicity it gives its Peruvian and Iranian sections. There are no longer open calls for the Sandinistas to break with their bourgeois partners and there are none at all for a Constituent Assembly or the formation of an independent working class party. All trust is given to the Sandinistas alone because of “the revolutionary capacities of this leadership.” The masses are not even warned to resist the government’s call to hand over their arms and submit to the government’s military command. Instead they are asked to mobilize in defense of the ruling Sandinistas who will propel the revolution forward. The SWP, the most sycophantic wing of the USec, warns the masses not to challenge the Sandinistas’ power:

“The choice in Nicaragua is either to move forward to the victory of a socialist revolution, as in Cuba – or to suffer a bloody defeat, as in Chile. Either the Sandinistas will consolidate the power of the workers and peasants and deepen the revolution into a socialist transformation, or they will be beaten back by imperialism.... There is no third road.” (Militant, August 24, 1979; emphasis added)

Either Cuba or Chile – there is no other road. Working class revolution is prohibited! But even if we were to accept the USec’s endorsement of Cuba, it must be pointed out that the Cuban road is a very unlikely alternative for Nicaragua. In Cuba as in Eastern Europe, it was first necessary for the Stalinists to nullify the power of the working class; this was done by taking over and disciplining all working class institutions. In Nicaragua there is no strong Stalinist party rooted in the working class, and the Sandinistas alone do not have the cynically hardened working class cadre to accomplish this task. (Nor did the original Fidelistas; they had to ally and then merge with the Cuban CP in order to carry through the state capitalization of Cuba.)

In addition, the Russian sponsors of Cuban state capitalism are loath to take on another dependency or to challenge United States hegemony in this hemisphere. The Eastern bloc, even more crisis-ridden than the West, is too dependent on the higher productivity of the U.S. and its allies to take the risk (see Socialist Voice No. 7 for our analysis of this relationship). Not surprisingly, Fidel Castro has openly told the Nicaraguans not to hope for a Cuban solution.

“Democratic” Betrayal of Democracy

The only kind of transformation that can be envisaged is a revolutionary one leading to a genuine workers’ state. But to the SWP, the good will of the Sandinistas has greater weight than material and historical considerations, so it chooses the Cuban road. It supports an admittedly bourgeois state against the possibility of a working class revolution. There is no word for such a line but counterrevolutionary.

To prove its loyalty, the SWP has contemptibly betrayed its own USec comrades who fought on the side of the FSLN in the Simon Bolivar Brigade. This grouping was expelled from Nicaragua in August by the coalition government, charged with being “outsiders” trying to “capitalize on problems” for agitating in Managua for working class demands. The SWP implicitly supported the expulsion (Militant editorial, August 31, 1979). This incident was the first test of the Sandinistas’ democracy and internationalism – which they and their admirers in the SWP have abysmally failed.

The SWP thus applauds the police of a bourgeois state disciplining its own comrades. It has come full circle. The USec justifies its workers’ and peasants’ government strategy as a defense of democracy which will grow over into socialism. But in reality the workers’ state is the only defense of democracy from the bourgeois democrats who are far more bourgeois than democratic. Support for the “democratic” workers’ and peasants’ government as opposed to a revolutionary break by the workers from the bourgeois state betrays democracy as well as socialism.

In making use of the Pablo-Hansen theory in Nicaragua the SWP actually has to take it farther than Hansen did. Cuba was Hansen’s shining example, and he developed his “workers’ and farmers’ government” notions when the Fidelistas ousted their bourgeois coalition partners from the regime. But in Nicaragua the bourgeoisie is still in the government. So the Pabloite theory has to be extended to one more transitional stage. Where Marx and Lenin had envisaged the workers’ state as the only transition between capitalism and communism, Pablo and Hansen added the workers’ and farmers’ government as the transition to the workers’ state. In Nicaragua, the revolution has already occurred to the SWP’s satisfaction (the radical petty bourgeoisie is in power) and there is no workers’ and farmers’ government yet, so we are presented with a new transitional regime. The SWP does not as yet have a formal label for it, but it uses classless terms like “revolutionary power” to describe it. The theory provides a many-layered cover for radical forms of bourgeois rule so that the workers and peasants will not find the road to their own state power. The SWP’s contribution today makes this position explicit, but it has been the underlying method of Pabloism from the start.

The Program for Counterrevolution

For genuine Trotskyists, the Transitional Program is designed to raise the consciousness of the masses in order to confront the bourgeoisie. For Stalinists, revolutionary consciousness is a danger to their own power and must be undermined: the programs of “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry,” “new democracy” and “people’s democracy” have precisely that effect. The Pabloite program likewise casts workers’ consciousness aside: no revolutionary proletariat is required for the “road to socialism” following the path of the “workers’ and farmers’ government.” In the past, Pabloites have argued that the “objective” processes of the revolution are what impels petty-bourgeois forces to undertake that socialist transformation; Nicaragua indicates, however, that it is the consciousness of the radical petty bourgeoisie that is really decisive for them and determines their cheerleading role.

It may appear strange that the SWP actually talks about socialism in the case of Nicaragua, because in Peru and Iran it has generally concentrated upon purely democratic demands. The difference is that Nicaragua is more advanced; it already has a “revolutionary power” which the SWP believes can evolve into a workers’ and farmers’ government. The SWP is addressing its socialist ideas not to the masses but to the Sandinistas – the people who can really do the job. For the SWP the road to socialism lies through the petty-bourgeois radicals at the head of the state. It is safe to talk of socialism because the masses can be assured that no revolutionary activity on their part is required. In other countries where there are no appropriate petty-bourgeois heroes yet, the workers might actually think that calls for revolution are addressed to themselves.

The USec’s call for a petty-bourgeois route to socialism and its enthusiasm for the Cuban solution show that its socialism amounts in reality to state capitalism. For this goal no transitional program is needed but instead a program that stretches capitalism to its limits without going beyond them. Trotsky’s Transitional Program has been adapted for this purpose by using a selection of its slogans without the proletarian revolutionary content that must accompany them. The workers’ and farmers’ government slogan serves admirably, as long as it is taken either in a democratic-parliamentary sense or else as a goal to be handed down from above by radicals running the state apparatus. In either sense, such a “workers’ government,” combined with a program of selective nationalizations, represents the ultimate aspiration of reformism: state capitalism. But a state capitalist transformation means a political revolution to supplant the old bourgeoisie and – as the Stalinists well know – a decisive defeat of the working class. The Transitional Program, eviscerated, mythicized and transformed into a program for state capitalism, thus becomes a program for counterrevolution.

In condemning the substitution of the workers’ government slogan for the workers’ state, we are therefore making a substantive distinction, not simply a terminological one. If there were parties in Nicaragua, Peru and Iran today calling for “workers’ governments” but presenting the content of smashing the entire bourgeois state apparatus, that would not be a political capitulation. But it would still be a dangerous error. The workers’ government slogan is a challenge to the mass reformist parties to carry out their promises and, separated from the workers’ state, it also represents their ultimate program. Using “workers’ government” to mean workers’ state implies that reformism can achieve the destruction of capitalism – a deadly mistake, literally.

This substitution is by no means confined to the United Secretariat. The workers’ government as the foremost revolutionary goal is the hallmark of all the centrist deformations of Trotskyism. And it is usually not prescribed with the actual content of a workers’ state. If other organizations have not yet made the same outright betrayals as the USec in practice, and even if they faithfully and consistently advocate working class revolutions, the workers’ government substitution is a deadly weight around their necks. The SWP has clearly chosen the side of the bourgeoisie in Nicaragua. Others who share the same theoretical conceptions and “transitional” slogans are obliged to prove that they will not be forced to the same conclusions.

Over the last three decades, the capitulations by the epigones of Trotsky have not been limited to revolutionary situations but have occurred in everyday practice as well. Every slogan from the Transitional Program has been stripped of its revolutionary content and used in collaborationist ways. Bolshevik intransigence has been turned into groveling obeisance.

We have pointed out that the Transitional Program was designed to be a bridge between the immediate struggles of the working class and its revolutionary destiny. The Pabloites have transformed it into a smudge between reformist and revolutionary ideas by preaching that the consistent struggle for reforms and democracy grows over into revolution. Inevitably, the epigones are driven to the conclusion that the counterposition of proletarian leadership to petty-bourgeois leadership, at the heart of the Transitional Program, must be abandoned. The renegade Kautsky becomes a stage in the development of the Bolshevik Lenin. The petty-bourgeois radicals become the proletarian revolutionaries.

The Marxism of the marsh is no accidental fever. It reflects not a trend in logic or theory so much as the underlying fact that the Pabloites are a middle class formation within the workers’ movement. Once the Fourth International presented itself as the vanguard of the world working class. Now its degenerated offspring represent only its negation. Linked by a thousand threads to the other strands of petty-bourgeois democrats, they prefer every extreme “solution” to the death agony of capitalism but one – its termination by the proletarian revolution.