Party & Programme  •  Theory

Theses on Reformism

01 March 1983

The Theses on Reformism were first published by Workers Power in Permanent Revolution No. 2, 1982.

Reformism and the workers’ movement

The fundamentals of the Marxist critique of reformism were worked out by the founders and developers of scientific communism. Marx and Engels laid the foundations of this at the time of the Communist League in its famous Manifesto. They developed this critique in struggles within the First International and in their exchanges with the leaders of the early German Social Democracy (SPD).

Rosa Luxemburg continued this work in the struggles against Revisionism inside the SPD and the Second International. Lenin did so in the Russian Social Democracy and in the Second and Third Internationals. Trotsky, a participant in these struggles, further developed the critique of reformism in the 1920s and during the building of the Fourth International.

We adhere to this revolutionary heritage which is embodied in the pamphlets, resolutions and theses adopted by these organisations in their revolutionary periods and is exemplified by their practice. The politics and practice of the principal groupings which today claim adherence to Trotskyism, or present themselves as the continuators of Trotsky’s Fourth International, in reality embody a quite different tradition, one that originated in the period 1948-53.

This was the period of the centrist degeneration of Trotskyism. In the areas of theoretical analysis, programmatic assessment, political perspective and tactics, this epigone tradition has thoroughly revised the work of Trotsky and his great predecessors. In both an opportunist and a sectarian fashion, the “Pabloite” and “anti-Pabloite” wings of degenerate “Trotskyism” have proved, repeatedly, that they are incapable of rediscovering and re-asserting the central tenets of the Leninist and Trotskyist programme with regard to reformism.

From the late 1940s to the late 1960s, both the International Committee and the International Secretariat factions of the “Fourth International” pursued a grossly adaptationist and conciliationist attitude towards social democracy. The dramatic events of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the student demonstrations and riots, the militant anti-war movements, the mass strikes by the Italian, British and, above all, French workers, led the degenerate fragments of the Fourth International (FI) to sharply revise their positions on social democracy.

The groupings of Trotskyist origin, almost all of whom had been engaged in “deep entryism” at some point in the l950s and 1960s, veered away from their previous policy of political accommodation to reformism and towards the view that the reformist parties had no relationship to the proletariat.

The early and mid-1970s saw a turn to “building the Party”, a turn that was usually accompanied by an attitude to social democracy that was as blind, one sided and tactically inept as their previous one had been supine and liquidationist. In their search for elements that were uncorrupted by reformism, these centrist groupings looked variously to shop-floor militants in the unions, to students, or to the women’s movement to provide a base for revolutionary politics.

Social Democracy was proclaimed as being either dead or irredeemably bourgeois. Attempts were made to by-pass it, ignore it altogether or to kill it with curses in a “Third Period” manner.

Yet reformism survived the storm of spontaneous working class militancy. In France, the “dead” SFIO rose, phoenix-like, from the ashes of the electoral debacles of the late 1960s in the form of Mitterrand’s Socialist Party. In Italy, the Euro-Communist PCI survived the strike waves and the rise of militant shop-floor organisation after 1969. In Britain, Labour rode to power on the back of the union militancy of 1971 to 1974 and proceeded to demobilise it, robbing it of all its revolutionary potential. Needless to say, reformism also survived the curses and abstract propaganda of left centrism. Moreover, the “youth vanguards” grew older and “wiser”.

The “unofficial movements” were bureaucratised and consequently the revolutionary parties were not built. Indeed, the groups split. Although they had previously imagined themselves on the verge of success, they disintegrated and declined. Like hung-over revellers, the “Trotskyists” turned their backs on the self-indulgence of their post 1968 tactics and returned to what they now perceived to be the more sober tactics of their pre-’68 past. In turning back to the reformist parties, they often, in fact, tailed behind the middle-ageing youth, the women, the peaceniks and the “new left” trade union careerists.

This orientation spawned an analysis of social democracy similar to that of the pre-’68 period once again. It proved to be as one sided and useless as the “Left” abstract propaganda had been. The degenerate “Trotskyism” of the twenty years after 1948 could only offer a recipe for the liquidation of the “children of ’68” into social democracy.

A radical break with this whole tradition is essential. This, in large measure, involves a return to the old and unfalsified “tradition” of Bolshevism and Trotskyism whose method, applied to today’s conditions, can yield a programme, a strategy and tactics that can defeat reformism in the great battles looming as we approach the crisis torn years at the end of the twentieth century.

Political parties and the working class

Political parties are organised bodies which have the goal of expressing common social interests and political conceptions concerning the organisation of the state, society and the economy. Therefore such parties seek to exercise state power directly or supervise the exercise of such power.

In class society it is necessarily the case that these common interests reflect class interests. For Marxists the political characterisation of a political party is ultimately determined by which class interests it objectively defends, irrespective of the subjective ideas, aspirations or social origins of the party leaders or members.

In capitalist society, divided as it is between the major classes of the bourgeoisie and the working class, this resolves itself into defence of, or opposition to, the bourgeois state and private property in the means of production. Any party which, in practice, defends that state and that private property is a bourgeois party.

Obviously, since each class is not restricted to one party, a given class may have various competing “vanguards”, aspirants to its de facto leadership. Moreover, since classes are not homogeneous but consist of various sections whose interests may contradict one another, the open identification between parties and classes has a tendency to be obscured. Further, minority ruling classes have to rest on a mass base, mobilising it to defend themselves.

This necessitates compromises in terms of secondary programmatic questions and this is reflected in ideology. Thus, at least since the advent of universal suffrage in the imperialist countries (and in those semi-colonies with bourgeois democratic systems), bourgeois parties cannot consist exclusively, or even principally, of members of the bourgeoisie, but must include elements of subaltern classes, the urban petit-bourgeoisie, the peasantry and non-class-conscious workers, as their mass base. Moreover, a special caste of bourgeois politicians, linked to the “learned” professions, emerges to serve the bourgeoisie.

The wide spectrum of political parties which openly defend bourgeois private property is explained by these determinants in motion, that is, in conflict with the forces of antagonistic classes within the context of the capitalist system’s own contradictions, its wars and economic crises.

Conservative, liberal and fascist parties all defend the bourgeois social order but in ways that differ and depend upon the rhythms of capitalist development and of the class struggle. In the case of the fascist party, defence of bourgeois private property as a whole, as the basis of capitalist society’s production relations, can entail the political expropriation of the bourgeoisie’s own political parties by the fascists, whose social base is petit-bourgeois and lumpenproletarian.

More, it can entail the material expropriation of elements of the bourgeoisie to better enforce the interests of the monopoly and finance-capital sections. For all its pseudo-radicalism and its annihilation of bourgeois democracy the ideology of fascism is, in Trotsky’s words, a chemically pure distillation of imperialism, composed of all the putrid vapours of disintegrating bourgeois society.

Thus, although different political parties, with different social bases, can serve the interests of the bourgeoisie all of them have one thing in common. In government they are obliged to act within the framework of, and defend the bourgeois state. Whilst petit-bourgeois or aristocratic, liberal or fascist politicians can govern, the bourgeoisie, through its state, rules. In the last analysis the class character of such governments is always bourgeois.

As we shall see, this can apply equally to parties whose mass social base is the working class. In the countries where a clear majority of the population is proletarian, the bourgeoisie is forced to co-opt the proletariat into an acceptance of its continued exploitation: “In a developed capitalist society, during a ‘democratic’ regime, the bourgeoisie leans for support primarily upon the working classes, which are held in check by the reformists. In its most finished form, this system finds its expression in Britain during the administration of the Labour Government as well as during that of the Conservatives.”

A relatively prosperous capitalism diverts part of its super-profits obtained from imperialist exploitation into granting enough immediate reforms to enable the workers’ leadership to be “bought off” and to function as bourgeois agents. In the USA since the First World War, the prosperity and world hegemony of American finance and monopoly capital has been such that the labour leaders, the AFL-CIO bureaucrats, have been able to tie the working class to an openly bourgeois party, the Democrats, and to capitalist politicians who are “friends of labour” such as Hubert Humphrey and Edward Kennedy.

A similar situation existed in Britain between 1869 and 1900, during the unchallenged hegemony of British capitalism in the world market. Such parties as the nineteenth century Liberals, or the present day Democrats, whilst they may include a considerable degree of social reform in their programmes in order to buttress their claim to be “democratic”, are not what we would characterise as “reformist parties”.

Their success is based upon the limitation of the working class’ consciousness of its own interests to the purely economic level, that is upon its failure to attain political class consciousness. The situation is rather different with those parties-the social democratic, Labour and Stalinist parties-that we do characterise as “reformist”. To understand the significance of the difference it is necessary to re-assert the Marxist analysis of working class consciousness and its development.

The proletariat is created as an objective class by the development of capitalism. It is an essential productive force of the capitalist mode of production. It was within the very production relations of capitalism that Marx located the fundamental reason why workers could be receptive to an ideology that accepted bourgeois society as not only the “natural order” of things but one in which they could realise their own interests. The root of this was the apparent equality of the partners to the wage contract, worker and capitalist: “All the notions of justice held by both the worker and the capitalist, all the mystification of the capitalist mode of production, all capitalism’s illusions about freedom, all the apologetic tricks of vulgar economics, have as their basis the form of appearance [the wage form] discussed above, which makes the actual relation invisible, and indeed presents to the eye the precise opposite of that relation.”

In reality, however, the individual worker is too weak even to ensure that labour power is actually exchanged for an equivalent value in terms of wages. From very early in its existence, therefore, the working class is obliged to adopt forms of collective organisation to enforce, at least, a more equitable exchange.

Continued repetition of this struggle, this “guerrilla warfare” as Marx termed it, brings into existence permanent organisations, trade unions, which constitute a first step towards organisation of the proletariat as a class “in itself”. This organisation of the class becomes an essential first step towards its organisation “for itself”, towards consciousness of itself as a class.

Yet this by no means entails a complete rejection of capitalism. Indeed, any success in improving wages and conditions can reinforce the belief that the working class can be reconciled to capitalism. Trade unionism, whilst it poses the existence of the working class, recognises that class only as an economic category of capitalism, not as a class whose historic interest lies in the destruction of capitalism.

As such, trade unions can be, and often are, anti-socialist. Lenin angularly and correctly stressed this in the famous and still contentious passage of What is to be done?:”The spontaneous working class movement is trade unionism, is ‘nur Gewerkschaftlerei’ and trade unionism means the ideological enslavement of the workers by the bourgeoisie.”

It is necessarily the case that this enslavement is greatly weakened where the bourgeoisie are forced, by the demands of their system, to resist the attempts of the trade unions to improve wages and conditions. Where the bourgeoisie use all the forces available to them, including the power of the state, to enforce the highest possible rate of exploitation, the living experience of the class limits acceptance of bourgeois ideology.

Conversely, where the bourgeoisie can concede reforms to the working class or important sections of it, this can reinforce the domination of bourgeois ideology over the working class. Further, the very “success” of trade unionism in winning reforms leads to the creation within the labour movement of a caste of specialists in negotiation, the trade union bureaucracy.

This caste relies for its social existence on the continued existence of capitalism and its politics are those of class collaboration with the bourgeoisie. It has no inherent need to create its own political party. Where its interests, or those of its membership, require governmental action, it is content to form alliances with elements of the bourgeoisie that it defines as “progressive” or “friends of labour.”

However, for such a situation to obtain over a lengthy period requires a capitalism which is so prosperous, and has such a great advantage over its rivals, that it can afford to systematically “buy off” both the leaders of the working class and significant sections of the class itself. This was the case with nineteenth century Britain and is so with present day America. In such circumstances it is not only the bureaucrats who are “bought” by the bourgeoisie.

Whole layers of the workers themselves, especially the skilled workers in strategically important industries or industries able to generate above average profit rates as a result of imperialist domination of the world, can be bribed with better than average wages and conditions by the bourgeoisie.

This can lead not only to relative social passivity on their part but to outright support for imperialist policy and identification with the interests of the imperialist state both against workers of other nationalities and, indeed, against other sections of the proletariat in “their own” countries. In this way, in imperialist countries, the labour bureaucracy and “workers’ aristocracy” together form a powerful transmission belt for bourgeois ideology into the very heart of the working class, into its best organised sections.

Yet such a development is itself not without its contradictions. The success of trade unionism among the “aristocratic” layers forms a model for other layers who learn from it the importance of organisation, collective action and solidarity, since even the “aristocrats” have to wrest their privileges from the bourgeoisie.

Equally the internal development of capitalism leads previously unimportant or unprofitable industries to develop into pace-setting and highly profitable ones. Consequently its workers are able to enforce higher wages, to rise into the labour aristocracy. Another section may find their industry going into decline, may find that technological innovation undermines their position and they are forced to try to defend their past gains.

In such circumstances the contradictory nature of trade unionism is revealed. Although it accepts capitalism objective developments force it to fight capitalism. Trade unionism, once established, cannot limit itself to bargaining with individual employers. The enforcement of minimum standards of protection, safety, length of working day, for all trade unionists and, by implication for all workers, requires legislative action and, therefore, political representation of the working class.

In such a situation the preferred tactic of the trade union bureaucracy is to seek an alliance with one or another faction within the bourgeoisie whose interests they believe are not threatened by the proposed reforms. This section they label “the progressives”. However, where the capitalist class as a whole is unwilling to concede reforms without a serious fight and where there are no “friends of labour” to “represent” the class, or where working class pressure for reform is so great that an open alliance with such bourgeois politicians becomes impossible, it becomes necessary to create a political party to campaign for, and initiate, reform legislation.

Whether this takes place as a result of the pressure for reforms from an already established trade union movement, as was the case in Britain, or whether the fight for trade union rights is itself a component of the formation of such a party, as in Germany, such a party is a workers’ party.

That is, it comes into existence as an expression of the interests of the working class and its recognition of its need for independent political representation. In this respect the formation of such a party is an historic step forward in the political development of the working class. It is a step which has always been resisted by the bourgeoisie who, recognising the potential threat inherent within independent working class political organisation, have even been driven in certain circumstances to take the most extreme measures to destroy such organisations.

The politics of such a party, however, are neither produced spontaneously nor are they determined by some inner logic. Leaving aside external pressures, they are the results of the clash of conflicting forces within the class itself and the results of the particular interests of sections and elements of other classes which have integrated themselves into the workers’ party.

Should such a party succumb to the politics of class collaboration, best represented by the trade union bureaucracy, then its politics will subordinate working class interests to the preservation of the bourgeois order. In this case the highest aspiration of such a party will be the struggle for reforms within bourgeois democracy.

It will be a reformist party whose politics are entirely bourgeois in character. Nonetheless, its social base will remain different from that of other bourgeois parties. It will still be identified in the minds of millions of workers as “their party”, the “party of the trade unions” or “the workers’ party”.

However, in periods of relative class peace, particularly when Social Democracy is in government, another tendency comes to the fore. Social Democracy is decreasingly regarded by its mass base as a “workers party” and more and more as a liberal reform or “peoples party”, i.e. as a party of social reform which stands “above classes” and denies the class struggle. To most working class and petit bourgeois voters it may appear merely as the party which is most sympathetic to “ordinary people”.

Indeed this is just how the reformist leaders present their parties to the electorate. Such developments do not alter our basic position on such parties. Even in a period when such attitudes become ever more a mass phenomenon the fundamental contradiction, between the working class basis of the party and its bourgeois politics, continues to exist.

Whichever tendency is uppermost in any given period, class struggle leading to more pronounced class identification or class peace and the consequent loss of it, we call such parties “bourgeois workers’ parties”, a term conveying their contradictory nature. This does not mean that both sides of the contradiction have equal weight and that reformist parties have a “dual nature”.

On the contrary, the political characterisation of any party is determined by which class property relations it ultimately defends, and by this criterion, reformist parties are entirely bourgeois. The term “workers” is derived from the sociological composition of the largest part of its membership, supporters and electorate.

This characterisation can be applied to both social democratic reformist parties (those having their historical origins within the Second International) and Stalinist reformist parties (those having their origin in the Third International, and which continued, up to the crisis and collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the 1989-1991 period, to regard the USSR and the degenerate workers’ states as qualitatively progressive as against bourgeois states). In both cases these parties differ from other bourgeois parties fundamentally through their continuing organic links with the working class.

Such links are evidenced by, for example, mass individual working class membership, readership of newspapers, youth organisations and open identification with, or fractions within, the trade unions. In the case of parties such as the British Labour Party which owe their creation to trade union political initiatives, the direct affiliation of trade unions to the party constitutes the principal mass base of the party.

In all cases bourgeois workers’ parties continue to represent that original impulse towards political independence of the working class and this has to be defended by revolutionaries against any attempts by the bourgeoisie to destroy these parties.

Despite their countless betrayals of the interests of the working class these parties remain a creation of the class. They have, nonetheless, been deformed, twisted and redirected into the very opposite of a force for class independence. They have become instruments of the bourgeoisie for ruling the working class and negating its political independence.

Such a transformation, however, is by no means inevitable. Where reformist consciousness comes to dominate a workers’ party this is inextricably linked to the development and consolidation of a caste of bureaucrats in both the trade unions and the party. This caste, in addition to being a constant source of bourgeois ideology within the ranks of the workers’ movement, is also a real material force in its own right.

Full-time functionaries of the unions and the party are systematically incorporated into bourgeois society. Through co-options into government commissions, the boards of nationalised industries and committees of experts, through entry into the machinery of local government and election to town councils, by entry into parliament and, ultimately, by cabinet seats in their “own” or coalition governments, such individuals obtain the connections and the power to control the unions and the party.

Having made its own peace with capitalist society, this caste uses its power to enforce acceptance of the bourgeoisie’s needs upon the memberships of the party and unions. Its members are the gendarmes of capital within the workers’ movement, and its first line of defence against possible encroachments by the workers’ movement upon bourgeois society. For communists, defeating the hold of reformism over the working class is integrally combined with the defeat and overthrow of this bureaucracy.

A revolutionary understanding of reformism, then, must encompass both the recognition of its counter-revolutionary, bourgeois character and its origins as a creation of the working class in the class struggle. Reformist parties, consequently, are organisations with which the working class seeks to defend or extend its immediate interests within bourgeois society. Thus Trotsky called the social democracy, “the party that leans upon the workers but serves the bourgeoisie”.

This emphasises its bourgeois political character. It was not however any paradox for him also to say that these parties, along with the trade unions, were “bulwarks of workers’ democracy within the bourgeois state”. By this he recognised that the workers utilise the reformist party and organisations to press for improvements in their social, economic and political conditions and rights within capitalism. They use these parties as defensive positions against attacks by the capitalist state.

They are indeed weak and ultimately ineffective “bulwarks” against any decisive attempt by the bourgeoisie to destroy the workers’ gains under capitalism, but they are bulwarks nonetheless and, therefore, an enraged and desperate bourgeoisie will attempt to destroy them as obstacles to its rule, (Germany 1933, Spain 1936, Chile 1973). Nor are the contradictions of the reformist organisations simply logical or analytical features.

They exist in real life and are of the very essence of reformism. Without its real roots in the working class, reformism would be of no use to the bourgeoisie. Without its commitment to the maintenance of the bourgeois order, the same reformism would not be the obstacle to working class progress that it has become.

Confusion, and as a result, incorrect political tactics, have flowed from exclusive emphasis on one or the other side of the dialectic which is expressed in the term “bourgeois workers’ party”. Those “revolutionaries” who are guided by an empiricist method, a method deeply ingrained at least in the “Anglo-Saxon” countries, remain perplexed by the multifarious and changing “appearances” of social democracy. As a result they draw useless, one-sided generalisations extrapolated undialectically from whichever element of its contradictory nature reformism exhibits in any given period or situation.

In certain periods since the degeneration of the Fourth International, “Trotskyists” have based their analysis of social democracy predominantly on its working class origins and support. They concluded that these were “workers’ parties”, capable of evolution towards consistent working class politics, and embracing “socialist policies”.

The only obstructions were the “bourgeois leaders”, who had to be replaced, and the bureaucratic organisational structures that had to be “reformed”, “renovated” or “democratised”. Alternatively, in other periods, when faced with the conservative and thoroughly bourgeois Labour and social democratic governments of the 1960s and 1970s with their onslaughts on civil liberties, trade union rights, their racism and their slavishly pro-imperialist foreign policies, “Trotskyists” concluded that these parties were pure and simple “bourgeois parties”.

They buttressed their conclusion with statistics which showed the withered organisational ties between the party and the working class or the declining electoral support among the working class.

The tactical fruits of these analyses were, in the former case, a slavish adaptation as the “Trotskyists” attempted to “relate” to left currents in social democracy or, in the second case, a wooden, abstract denunciation and abstention from contact with the Labour and social democratic parties. These two, equally false, positions are not mutually exclusive. Over a period of time the same “Trotskyist” groups have zig-zagged from one to the other.

What unites them is the absolute inability to fight the social democracy with the principled tactics of the communist tradition. In order to avoid such mistakes it is necessary for revolutionaries to be absolutely clear, in the first instance, on the political characterisation of reformist parties as bourgeois parties. Only then is it possible to comprehend the way in which the execution of a pro-bourgeois policy can be conditioned by the proletarian origins and social roots of reformism.

The strategy of reformist parties

The reformist party is bourgeois in its goal and in its strategy. That is, the “combined system of actions” leads not to the seizure of power by the proletariat but to the obstruction of such a seizure, to the maintenance of the class rule of the bourgeoisie.

This goal is, of course, disguised by a commitment to “socialism” but this “socialist goal” is no more than an accumulation of “social” reforms within capitalism. Even an open commitment to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange” (as in the now abolished Clause IV of the British Labour Party constitution) neither envisages the expropriation of the expropriators nor transcends the limits of the bourgeois state in its “democratic” form. Such nationalisations do not transcend state capitalist measures.

The programme of Marxism is qualitatively different. It consists of the seizure of state power, the establishment of workers’ power through the dictatorship of the proletariat, the expropriation of the capitalist class, the smashing of the bureaucratic military state machinery, and then the transition-on the basis of a planned economy and workers’ soviet democracy-to a socialist classless society.

Against this scientific programme Social Democracy, where it has not actually removed any “final goal” from its programme, advocates a utopian-reactionary road of reform to it, within the framework of the bourgeois state. Judged by this criterion it is not a socialist but a liberal party, albeit one of a special type.

Reformism is bourgeois in its tactics. It is systematically opportunist. Lenin described it thus: “Opportunism means sacrificing fundamental interests so as to gain temporary and partial advantages”. Engels also described opportunism as: “this chase and struggle for momentary successes in disregard of later consequences.” The proletariat’s historic goals and interests are sacrificed to a perspective of piecemeal social reform, gained by mobilising pressure on the bourgeois state and, above all, by gaining governmental office (either alone or in coalition with bourgeois parties) by electoral or parliamentary means.

Since such a government functions within the framework of bourgeois economic, judicial-legal and military-police supremacy, such governments are from the outset an instrument of the ruling class against the working class. The bourgeoisie rules through such governments. Labour governments are, therefore, bourgeois governments. Reforms are secondary, determined in their scope by the combativity and pressure of the working class, the ability of the ruling class to grant them or its inability to refuse.

In any case they are limited to those measures which either actually benefit capitalism or at least which do not threaten its strategic interests. Should a reformist government enact, or threaten to enact, measures seriously detrimental to bourgeois property rights or state power, it would be met with resistance or revolt by the bourgeois state apparatus. Varying in severity depending on circumstances, the government would be either “constitutionally” expelled or overthrown by armed force.

In its ideology reformism accepts the limits of the nation state. It identifies itself completely with the “national interest”, despite the fact that such supposed all-class interests are, under capitalism, simply a generalised ideological expression of bourgeois interests. It ruptures the essentially international character and interests of the proletariat. Furthermore, in imperialist countries such “nationalism” is “social imperialism”. Whilst this may take a more or less pacifist form in time of peace, in time of war this is transformed into virulent social chauvinism (as with its twin, liberalism).

The reformist right-wing tends to express such chauvinism openly in time of peace and indeed all social democratic governments of imperialist countries act as imperialist governments in office. Albeit under a democratic and pacifist label, social democracy is a purveyor of chauvinist poison to the working class. In the organisational practice of reformism the advanced workers are dissolved into a passive mass membership and electorate and excluded from control of the party by the clique of parliamentarians and trade union bureaucrats.

Trotsky described the structure of social democratic parties as: “… the hidden, masked but no less fatal dictatorship-the bourgeois ‘friends’ of the proletariat, the careerist parliamentarians, the drawing room journalists, the whole parasitic coterie which permitting the ranks of the party to speak “freely” and democratically but tenaciously holds on to the apparatus and in the final analysis does anything it pleases. This kind of “democracy” in the party is nothing but a replica of the bourgeois democratic state…”

Trotsky concludes that the purpose of this “fraudulent democracy” is to curb and paralyse the “revolutionary education of the workers, to drown out their voices by the chorus of municipal councillors, parliamentarians etc., who are imbued to the marrow of their bones with egoistic petty-bourgeois and reactionary prejudices.” The parliamentary fraction dictates the practical policy of the party in government and opposition. The membership, only episodically involved and then almost exclusively in electoral routinism or occasional “protest” actions, is thereby disadvantaged as against the apparatus of MPs, councillors and full-time officials.

The petit-bourgeoisie and skilled white collar workers provide a base for the reformist bureaucrats. By this means the formal democracy of these parties is rendered empty, allowing the parliamentarians, the party and trade union bureaucracy to dominate the party completely. In addition the rigid separation between the political and economic organisations of the proletariat, sanctioned in the phrases “the two wings” or “two pillars” of the labour movement, helps preserve the hold of parliamentarians and union bureaucrats alike.

Politics are kept to a minimum in the trade unions and within the party any idea of “direct action” or the utilisation of the unions for political ends is anathema. The party is preserved exclusively for electoral activity.

Although reformism’s need to relate to, and maintain, its social base is a secondary consideration with regard to its fundamental class nature, it is, nonetheless, precisely this which differentiates this bourgeois party from all others. Unlike other bourgeois parties the reformist party must relate to the inevitable struggles of the working class against capitalism in such a way as to remain the accepted leadership of the working class. Such a party cannot oppose, root and branch, the actions the workers take to defend themselves. More, if they are not to be pushed aside, the reformist leaders must in some measure support and lead those struggles even though they contain within them an anti-capitalist dynamic.

The attempt to “stay ahead of the workers” in such situations and, simultaneously, to limit the damage done to capital’s interests, allows revolutionaries to develop tactics designed to exploit and explode the contradiction lodged within reformism. In its most general form the fundamental contradiction is between an objectively revolutionary class which is thrown into motion against capitalism by that system’s own laws, its wars and its crises, and an anti-working class, counter-revolutionary party and trade union structure socially based within that class.

A dialectical understanding of the historic development of reformism as a product of the class struggle, but also a brake upon that struggle, allows revolutionaries to grasp how reformism’s strength can vary over time, dependent on the rhythm of the class struggle and the motion of capitalist society itself. In periods of capitalist expansion, the possibility exists for relatively serious and long lasting gains being made by workers.

These opportunities are greatest of all for the skilled workers of the major imperialist powers. They are smaller and even negligible for the unskilled of those countries or for workers in colonial or semi-colonial lands. Periods of protracted upswing within capitalism (e.g., 1890s/early 1900s or the 1950s and 1960s) are the natural seedbed of reformism. The role of the counter-revolutionary bureaucracy in such periods is to negotiate reforms which, while being important for the working class, are rarely more than minor concessions from the point of view of the bourgeoisie and do not challenge the roots of their power in the economy and the state. Nonetheless, struggles necessary to win these concessions serve to expand and strengthen working class organisation even where these are under reformist leadership.

There is, however, no automatic or inevitable triumph of reformism in such periods. Struggle decides the outcome. In all periods, either of upswing of downswing, conscious communist leadership can intervene to modify, utilise, offset and even reverse, “spontaneous” trends. If this is done then even periods of social stability can become periods of preparation, of marshalling the forces, of education and the development of the political consciousness of the vanguard.

In periods of acute capitalist crisis the reformist leaders do not cease to negotiate, only now they negotiate concessions, important and painful ones, from the proletariat to the bourgeoisie. These leaders have to make a greater or lesser pretence of resistance: verbal, parliamentary and even trade union action (strikes) protests (demonstrations). Their aim is not the historic or strategic defeat of the bourgeoisie.

It is to force the bourgeoisie to return to the road of petty concessions or, at least, to moderate their demands on the proletariat to those that the reformist leaders can “sell” to their members. Nevertheless, even such partial or mock mobilisations run the risk of encouraging the masses to go further than the leaders intend.

The reformist leaders themselves are subject to a contradiction; above all they must hold onto their positions as leaders of the masses. Their caste privileges, their salaries, their social importance in bourgeois society are entirely dependent on this.

They have to maintain the organisation of the workers and even mobilise them to some degree. However, if they mobilise the workers too much then they themselves can completely lose control and run the risk of being ground between the onslaught of the bourgeoisie and the upsurge of their own members. These two poles of pressure produce a right wing and a left wing within both trade unions and reformist political parties. The fundamental task of the right wing is to command, to be answerable to the bourgeoisie, to negotiate and co-operate with the state functionaries, to be a loyal and trustworthy executive for capitalism.

The major task of the left wing is to keep contact with the masses, to maintain and revivify illusions amongst them that their needs and aspirations necessitate submission to the reformist bureaucracy and the parliamentarians. Part of this task is to convince the masses that the betrayals and deceptions that these parties bring upon the working class are not inherent in the reformist programme and leadership. All reformist parties in government, where they act as the executive of the bourgeoisie, have a tendency to wear out their “credibility” which, consequently, has to be renewed by a period in opposition, and usually, a change of personnel.

The latter generally occurs by co-opting elements of the “left” or permanent opposition faction into the leadership-once they have severed all links with the masses and always providing they have not committed too many actions in the past that would make them untrustworthy with the secrecy and security of the bourgeois state.

In “peaceful periods” when the mass of the workers expect only limited reforms this cyclical process of governments producing disillusion, and opposition periods breeding new illusions, proceeds with little interruption. In periods of capitalist crisis, however, this procedure can take on a convulsive character.

Revolutionary tactics towards reformism

The onset of crisis has, historically, always been accompanied by working class struggle to defend past gains and to maintain living standards. Success in such struggles will severely limit the ability of the bourgeoisie to force the working class to pay the cost of the crisis.

As in periods of expansion, revolutionaries must intervene in such struggles, arguing for even the most partial and defensive demands to be fought for with those methods of direct action and the democratic involvement of the largest possible number of workers that can both win the struggle and prepare the class politically and organisationally for the period ahead.

Successful prosecution of such struggles, however, does not lead, of itself, to the development of revolutionary consciousness. Such a belief is the hallmark of economism. Revolutionaries cannot content themselves with merely arguing for better and more effective ways of winning the spontaneous demands of the workers.

Even where such demands have a progressive content (which is not always the case) it is the duty of revolutionaries to link the struggle for them to the historic mission of the proletariat, the conquest of state power. Such a linking is only possible through the use of transitional demands, demands that meet the real and central needs of the workers and that clash with the attempts of the capitalists and their state to make the workers pay the cost of the crisis.

The system of transitional demands advanced by communists, raising as it does the struggle for workers’ control exercised through organs of struggle such as soviets and factory committees, organises the working class for, and leads it towards, the struggle for the conquest of state power.

Necessarily the struggle of the working class for either immediate or transitional demands brings it into potential conflict with the established reformist leaders. Such leaders are torn between their commitment to capitalism and their need to retain the leadership of the workers’ organisations.

Every step they take to keep ahead of the workers tends to generate yet greater hopes and demands which go beyond what a bourgeois workers’ party (or a bourgeois workers’ government) can fulfil. Equally, in the course of struggles, new leaders, often of a militant left reformist variety are thrown up. While different tactics may be necessary in relation such leaders, they are not qualitatively different from the entrenched, conservative bureaucracy.

They reflect the consciousness of the workers who elect them. As such they represent, and become the means of maintaining, the reformist limitations of the consciousness of these workers. Trotsky pointed out this fact in relation to the Labour and trade union lefts in Britain in the 1920s: “The left-wingers reflect the discontent of the British working class.

As yet it is ill-defined, and they express its profound and persistent endeavour to break away from Baldwin-MacDonald in left-oppositional phrases entailing no obligations whatsoever. They transform the political helplessness of the awakening masses into an ideological maze. They constitute an expression of the forward move, but also act as a brake on it.”

To advance workers’ consciousness beyond that embodied in their choice of reformist leaders, it is vital that revolutionaries address tactics towards these leaders. Only if the inadequacies of the leaders, of both left and right varieties, can be understood by workers in the course of struggle, will they be overcome.

Wherever significant sections of workers are led by non-revolutionaries it is necessary for communists not only to demand that they mobilise their members in pursuit of existing working class aims, but also to raise other immediate and transitional demands necessitated by the struggle. In no case should the impression be given that non-revolutionary leaders can be relied upon to carry out such demands.

This tactic has three aims. Firstly, to put the leaders to the test in front of their own members. Secondly, to popularise the demands that best meet the interests of the working class. Thirdly, to show the necessity for a decisive class wide battle with the bourgeoisie. The correct application of this method carries with it the potential not only of shattering illusions in particular reformists but in reformism per se, thereby opening up the possibility of winning the workers to an alternative revolutionary leadership.

However even in the worst crisis there is no purely objective or automatic process that leads to revolutionary consciousness. If an alternative, revolutionary leadership and strategy does not triumph then defeat and demoralisation will either restore the reformist leaders to control over a tamed and broken membership or, in extreme cases, the bourgeoisie may be able to destroy the legal workers’ organisations completely. The dialectic of class struggle poses the possibility of the workers’ movement raising itself to a revolutionary level in terms of leadership, organisation and tactics.

However, if the resolution of the clash between proletariat and bourgeoisie does not occur at this higher level, then it must occur at a lower level The struggle will be resolved in the interests of the bourgeoisie. Thus, although social democracy suffered grievous blows during the great period of crisis between the imperialist world wars, inept tactics by revolutionaries, vacillations by centrists and then criminal sabotage by the Stalinist bureaucracy allowed the reformists to rise rejuvenated from the ground whence the crisis and the class struggle had hurled them.

Reformism was moribund, yet the forces of revolution were unable to dispatch it into the abyss. This reveals the extreme danger of all simplistic schemas for the development of revolutionary consciousness. All of these, from the most evolutionary and gradualist to the most catastrophist throw onto the “objective process” what are really the tasks of revolutionaries. Such schematism is an infallible sign of centrism vis-a-vis the reformist leaders: “For it has always been centrism which has cloaked the sins of opportunism with solemn references to the objective tendencies of development . . . but in actual fact, expressed in this alleged revolutionary objectivism is merely an effort to shirk revolutionary tasks by shifting them onto the shoulders of the so-called historical process.”

Such schematism can be seen clearly among the modern centrists, even though they claim adherence to Trotsky’s ideas. The catastrophism of the Gerry Healy tradition, typified in the documents and outlook of the International Committee, is but an early and primitive form of the objectivism that characterised the Pablo-Mandel wing of “Trotskyism” within the lnternational Secretariat.

According to this current capitalism is, and has been for 40 years, on the edge of a disaster. The workers are boiling with revolutionary consciousness and only a thin layer, the reformist leaders, are holding back the masses from their appointed alternative, the revolutionary party. This latter has to be built, from the start, with all the apparatus and self-advertisement of a mass party, in readiness for the catastrophe. The workers can then simply join the party en masse and be freed from illusions.

Thus the tactics for overcoming reformism in action, embodied in the united front, rust away unused whilst what is in fact -despite all its self-advertisement – still a propaganda group, degenerates into a sect and from thence into a cult, wrapped in a cloud of idealist dialectics and self-mystification. This was the case history of Healy’s “Workers Revolutionary Party”.

The alternative schema, characteristic of the Mandel wing of the degenerate fragments of Trotskyism, is to seek to assist the process of world revolution by acting as organisers and attorneys for the left-centrist and left-reformist leaders. These leaders must be encouraged because they embody the forward march of history. Centrist schematism and “objectivism” can lead to both sectarian and opportunist conclusions within one and the same political grouping.

It led, for example, to the Healy grouping accommodating to Bevanism in the early 1950s and to party-proclamation hysterics in the 1970s. Similarly the British Mandelites’ attitude to the Labour Party oscillated from “Let it Bleed” and threats to physically disrupt its election meetings in 1969 to abject grovelling before Benn in the early 1980s.

The conclusions appear as opposites but the underlying method is the same. In offering to working class militants either the evolutionary transformation of the reformist parties or “building the Party” (i.e. joining the sect) both variants of centrism are completely useless to workers confronted with the need, here and now, to fight within reformist organisations and alongside reformist workers.

Revolutionary communists do not merely offer their alternative programme like a magic talisman, they utilise tactics, tactics which are, at one and the same time, the tactics necessary to win class battles and the tactics necessary to overcome reformism. Such tactics can only be developed on the basis of the living experience of the class struggle.

For this reason they received their fullest codification during the period of the most intense conflict between communism and capitalism. This took place in the years immediately following the first seizure of state power by a communist led proletariat, the Russian Revolution of October 1917.

In their struggle for power in Russia the Bolsheviks were confronted by a twofold task. The dynamic of the class struggle had led to the creation, by the workers, of the Soviets, organs of struggle based on the direct democracy of the working class. Within the Soviets, however, the majority of workers’ delegates did not, initially, recognise the need for revolution.

This ensured that leadership of the Soviets and, therefore, of the working class, fell to the Mensheviks who-unlike the working class-were consciously opposed to revolution.

The Bolsheviks, therefore, had both to reveal to the masses the ultimately anti-working class nature of Menshevism and the need for working class revolution. The tactics of the Bolsheviks, summed up in the slogans “All Power to the Soviets” and “Break with the Bourgeoisie”, were aimed at allowing the masses of the working class to learn, through their own experience of the struggle, that the conquest of state power alone could resolve their problems and that the Mensheviks would do everything in their power to prevent this.

The Bolsheviks convinced the workers of what they needed-Soviet power as the means to achieving “Peace, Bread and Land”, and of the need to demand that those leaders who said they were committed to the working class and the Soviets actually carried out this policy. Through this, the contradiction between the rapidly developing political class consciousness of the workers and the hold of the Mensheviks over them (itself predicated on the former lack of political class consciousness) was strained to breaking point.

In the heat of the revolution, this method of combating the reformist leaders, and enabling the masses to overcome their own reformist consciousness, was neither codified nor generalised. Yet the tactics of agitating for mass action and demanding that the reformist leaders support and lead such action as long as they maintain the confidence of the majority of workers, were repeatedly utilised by the Bolsheviks. It was this practice that the early Comintern crystallised into the complex of tactics known as the united front.

The United Front

The effective use of tactics to defeat reformism requires a firm grasp of the strategy of which these tactics are a component part. The series of related tactics that have become known as the united front must not be allowed to usurp their subordinate function.

Any theory or practice which assigns to the united front, either in one of its forms, or via series of united fronts, the role of an unbroken road to socialism is, ipso facto, unprincipled and can only lead to the systematic and progressive abandonment of the revolutionary programme. With iron necessity it leads to the negation of the independent and conscious role of the working class in its own emancipation.

It progressively downgrades and renounces in practice the role of a revolutionary party. It turns the united front from a weapon against reformism into a pretext for ideological surrender to, and organisational liquidation into, reformism. The road to power for the working class does not lie along an unbroken plane of trade union or electoral action, no matter how long any particular national labour movement may have been confined to such action.

Breaks in continuity, catastrophes as well as triumphs, the loss of previously acquired gains, the creation of new forms of organisation and tactics, leaps forward in consciousness all characterise the history of the international labour movement.

It is the task of revolutionaries to prepare programmatically, tactically and organisationally for these events. The creative role of the working class itself and of other oppressed classes and strata is the bedrock of Marxist tactics. The experience of the British, French and German labour movements culminating in the Paris Commune was the irreplaceable creative impetus to the foundation of scientific socialism.

On the basis of a critical analysis of this experience Marx and Engels came to elaborate the principles and strategy for working class power, the role of trade unions and the need for a working class political party. Lenin and Trotsky likewise developed the programme on the basis of the Russian proletariat’s use of the mass strike and the soviet; they did not do this by worshipping “spontaneity”.

They did not attempt to present or defend what was unconscious, backward looking or confused in all of these great examples of proletarian creativity. By critical analysis they understood the essential forward dynamic of these creations. Above all they understood the vital role of the revolutionary vanguard party. They understood it as the formulator of strategy and tactics, as alternative contender for leadership in the class’s everyday battles and necessarily, as the general staff and cadre of the decisive majority of the proletariat, in the seizure of political power.

The need for a scientific programme-re-elaborated whenever necessary to meet fundamental changes, but defended resolutely against impressionistic revision-is the very core of the party, its vital significance.

On this basis the party guides its own work, and strives to guide the proletariat, by developing concrete perspectives and utilising and combining tactics in a principled manner.

Those tactics are principled which in any given situation help advance the class towards its historic goals-either in a general or in a partial way. That is, tactics which develop its class consciousness and organisation. Those tactics are unprincipled (or opportunist) which for the sake of supposed momentary gains or for the good of a section of the working class, sacrifice fundamental interests or injure the unity and interests of the class as a whole-nationally and internationally.

Strategy and tactics are not fought for merely by literary exposition, by propaganda. Ideas do not conquer by their own correctness. They must be given organised expression. They conquer only in the hands of an organised cadre, a potential leadership for the working class. This alternative leadership cannot triumph all at once but partially, unevenly at first.

Only finally does this struggle become one of conflict between mass parties, between sections of the proletariat grouped under the banners of reform or revolution. When decisive questions are posed to the proletariat objectively by war, social crisis and revolution, the lack of a revolutionary cadre or its weakness, its lack of roots (seasoned militants) in the proletariat creates a “crisis of leadership” This crisis presents enormous possibilities to revolutionaries armed with the right programme and tactics.

The operator of these tactics is the organisation of revolutionaries. This organisation has to pass through a series of stages of growth from an ideological nucleus via propaganda circles, to a party embracing the vanguard of the working class. Its basis at all stages is a process of ideological and programmatic debate concluding in decisions for common action.

Out of this, as the grouping fuses with the struggles of workers and draws into its ranks the advanced workers there emerges workers’ democracy and disciplined action-democratic centralism. In all of its stages of growth, and through all tactical or formal compromises, the Leninist principle of organisation, of party building, cannot be compromised or diluted in favour of reformist or centrist alternatives.

Tactics cannot supplant strategy. If so, the united front first disguises, then dissolves or leads to the degeneration of, the revolutionary organisation itself, leading to the triumph of reformism. Reformism has all too many such victories to its credit. There is, however, no alternative to the battleground of the class struggle and therefore no avoiding of the specific “battles” of the united front.

Bordigist abstention-a passive propagandist rejection of tactical compromises including the united front-is no solution whatsoever to the “dangers” inherent in all real life conflict. The working class, whether the sectarian wills it or not, faces the imperative need to struggle on immediate issues, ranging from sectional struggles to those which pose objectively the question of political power in society.

The working class cannot and will not wait in passivity until it has the “right” leadership. United front tactics allow an immediate response to the attacks of the class enemy.They allow a frontal conflict with the common foe but they necessarily include a flanking political struggle against the treacherous reformist leaders. This necessity is dictated both by the immediate tactical needs of the struggle directly in hand, and by the historic interests of the working class. They are inextricably linked to the principled utilisation of immediate demands (economic and political) and transitional demands.

Thereby an alternative action programme and an alternative leadership can be posed to answer the repeated crises caused by the reformist leadership. Because communist tactics are the product of the unity of the scientific analysis of society and of revolutionary practice within the class struggle they are themselves subject to historical development, to re-appraisal, to re-elaboration. This is no less true of the Marxist analysis of reformism and the development of tactics to combat it.

The Marxist struggle against reformism did not commence with the crystallisation of the term “united front” in the Leninist Comintern. Marxism was born in struggle against a reformism, that of the degenerating utopian socialists or hybridisers of democratic and “socialist” ideologies in the 1840s-1860s. Marx and Engels’ struggle against Pierre Joseph Proudhon and his followers, against Louis Blanc’s “social democrats” grouped around the paper La Reforme, against the influence of Ferdinand Lassalle in the infant German social democratic movement all accumulated much of the programmatic capital used by Lenin, Luxemburg and others in the pre-1914 struggle against the growing power of opportunism and revisionism.

In 1848/49 Marx and Engels practised various forms of “united front”. Ryazanov justly remarks with regard to the First International and its “Inaugural Address” that, “Marx and Engels gave a classical example of ’united front’ tactics.” The founders of scientific socialism considered, correctly enough, that the “reformism” that they were combating had its origins in the petit-bourgeois and artisan milieu out of which the modern proletariat and its organisations were emerging.

Certainly the reactionary utopias of Proudhon and Bakunin represented a petit-bourgeois “backwardness” bound to yield ground and disappear before the advance of scientific socialism. Marx and Engels’ critical optimism appeared well founded given the achievements of both the First and Second Internationals in winning the world labour movement to Marxism.

Only in Britain did Marx and Engels encounter what we can call “modern reformism”, a proletariat which had fallen under bourgeois influence. This feat they put down to British dominance of the world market, the “buying” of sections of the British workers’ leaders by the bourgeoisie, the existence of an aristocratic stratum of skilled workers whose unions dominated the labour movement and who were liberal-radical in their political outlook.

They further emphasised the havoc wrought by the hostility between Irish immigrants and British workers estimating that the political nullity of the latter stemmed from their collusion in the national oppression of Ireland. Their prognosis was that when Britain’s unchallenged exploitation of the whole world was broken by the fast developing capitalism of the USA and Germany and when the great unorganised mass of the proletariat began to stir “then there will be socialism again in England.”

Whilst Marx and Engels’ analysis of the roots of the British workers’ failure to create an independent political movement provided an important methodological weapon for Lenin after 1914, the decade or so preceding this watershed date saw the falsification of the optimistic prognosis that reformism was a fading phenomenon linked to a dying class.

The resolute resistance by the German trade union leaders to the tactics of the mass strike, the growth of revisionism in the Social Democratic Party of Germany, as well as the party’s rapid bureaucratisation after 1905, all phenomena repeated to a greater or lesser extent throughout the parties of the Second International (1889-1914), indicated that the roots of the problem had to be examined anew.

Lenin and Luxemburg, from 1899 to 1914 fought revisionism and opportunism vigorously, castigating it as theoretically and practically a bourgeois trend within the workers’ movement. Neither, however, understood its roots or its full strength until 1914. The catastrophe came in 1914 when all the major parties of the Second International, with the exception of the Russians, voted war credits in defiance of resolutions passed by successive congresses of the Second International, most notably those of Zurich (1893), Stuttgart (1907) and Basle (1913) and supported a class peace to ensure the victory of their own imperialist “fatherlands”.

Not only was the proletariat deprived at one blow of the mass organisations of class struggle that two generations had built up, but the full magnitude of the cancerous growth of reformist bureaucratism was starkly revealed. Also revealed in its full magnitude was the epochal change which had occurred in capitalism-its development into its final stage, imperialism. Lenin’s analysis of this change was not simply “economic”. The new “epoch of wars and revolutions” had produced a new basis for bourgeois labour politics.

According to Lenin’s analysis the new imperialist capitalism was able, on the basis of super profits, to make concessions to the upper strata of the working class, the aristocracy of labour. This stratum became thereby conservatised, adopting a petit-bourgeois way of life. With the aid of trade unions, and through the reforms won by the use of the municipal and parliamentary franchise, this stratum felt it had “settled its social question” without recourse to revolutionary struggle.

Consequently it became the social basis of a powerful conservative bureaucracy within the unions and within the mass parties, co-operatives and the other workers’ organisations. This process of conservatisation and bureaucratisation had proceeded apace from the 1890s until 1914. It had occurred in labour movements dominated by Marxism and those where it was weak, though in the former it was disguised behind a formal orthodox phraseology. August 1914 posed the either/or for this new reformism. Now it had to “dare to appear what it in fact was”, as Eduard Bernstein had put it.

Only in the conditions of imperialist war this was not, as the father of revisionism had hoped, “a democratic party of social reform”, but a party of social chauvinism or social imperialism. Thus it was revealed to the revolutionary current represented by Lenin, Luxemburg and Liebknecht, not as the opportunist right wing of the proletarian army, but as the left wing of the forces of the bourgeoisie.

These bourgeois agents however, held the bulk of the workers’ organisations in a vice-like grip-a rigid bureaucratic structure that stifled proletarian democracy and policed the workers’ organisations, persecuting and atomising the revolutionary vanguard. Obviously Marxist tactics had to be developed to overcome this enormous setback. They had to be based on mobilising the working masses to defeat the reformist bureaucrats, to set the majority against the tiny minority, the base against the top.

These tactics were not “worked out” in isolation from struggle by superwise theoreticians. They were developed in the crucible of one great victorious revolution and one tragic defeat for the proletariat. On the basis of the Russian and German experiences the Leninist Comintern codified these into the tactics of the united front.

Between February and October 1917, the working class of Russia, through its soviets, held de facto power in the major cities. Order Number One of the Petrograd Soviet instructed workers and soldiers to carry out only those orders of the bourgeois Provisional Government which the Soviet had itself endorsed. However, the majority of workers in this period accepted the leadership of the reformist Mensheviks.

The latter had no desire to wield the power of the soviets to destroy the already tottering bourgeois state. Instead they used the soviets to shore up the tottering Provisional Government. The Bolsheviks, recognising that the bourgeois state could only be overthrown by the conscious decision of the majority of the working class to take power for themselves, developed tactics which could win the workers to that strategy and oust the Mensheviks.

This meant that, rather than baldly counterposing their programme-revolution-to the masses’ illusions that their needs could be satisfied without a further proletarian revolution they had to demonstrate in common action with the Menshevik-led workers and the SR-led peasantry that their immediate demands for peace, bread and land necessitated a seizure of power from the bourgeoisie.

That the Bolsheviks were able to do this was not due, in the last analysis, to either the weakness of reformism in backward Russia, or to the undoubted genius of Lenin and Trotsky. In the course of their development, the Bolsheviks had learnt to avoid the twin pit-falls of opportunism and sectarianism. They resisted the temptation to pose their programme against the limited consciousness of the workers or to liquidate their programme in the interest of accommodating to that limited consciousness.

This was not achieved without bitter struggles within the ranks of the revolutionary movement, the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP). In 1905, it was necessary to overcome a sectarian attitude to the first St Petersburg Soviet in the Bolshevik faction and an opportunist avoidance of the question of armed insurrection which predominated among the Mensheviks. In 1906, the position of boycotting the Duma had to be posed against opportunist electoral tactics, whilst in 1907 boycottism, against a background of working class defeat, itself became a sectarian error.

In 1914, the ability of the Bolsheviks to stand firm against social patriotism on the question of the war marked them out as the major grouping of revolutionaries committed in all circumstances to intransigent opposition to any degree of class collaboration. Yet, while holding firm to their opposition to the war, the Bolsheviks did not cease to be active within the working class even when the majority of the class supported the war. This remained the case when, after the February revolution, that war was being waged by the workers’ own leaders.

This principled flexibility was well summed up by Lenin when he wrote, a propos of the British SDF’s hostility to the Labour Party: “When objective conditions prevail which retard the growth of the political consciousness and class independence of the proletarian masses, one must be able patiently and persistently to work hand in hand with them, making no concessions to them in principles, but not refraining from carrying on activities right in the heart of the proletarian masses.”

It was because tactics that would lead the class to revolution could only be derived from a clear programmatic conception of the revolution that the Bolsheviks were only able to apply principled tactics after their rejection, in the form of the April Theses, of the incorrect programmatic conception of the democratic dictatorship of the Proletariat and Peasantry and their de facto adoption of the strategy of the Permanent Revolution.

It was only after the adoption of the April Theses that the opportunist support of the Provisional Government and its military policy, adopted by some elements within the Bolshevik Party, was ended and replaced by total opposition to the war as long as it was an imperialist war in defence of the Russian bourgeois state.

At the same time, however, it was also from this point that the Bolsheviks were able to develop tactics which could break the working class from their existing leadership. Recognising that the Mensheviks’ loyalty was ultimately to the bourgeoisie, the Bolsheviks sought to expose the incompatibility of this with the needs and aspirations of their working class followers.

The fusion of the programmatic and tactical advances made by the Bolsheviks in 1917 can be summed up in their two pivotal slogans which were directed both at the workers themselves and at their leaders, “Break with the Bourgeoisie!” “All Power to the Soviets!” Within these formulae is encapsulated the concretisation of all that the communists had by then learnt of the interlinked problems of programme, strategy and tactics. The demand for revolution is linked inextricably to the actual activity and living organisations of the working class.

They themselves must take the power. This is proved repeatedly to the workers by the misery and death rampant in their ranks as a direct result of their leaders’ policies. Those leaders must, therefore, prove in practice whose side they are on in the class struggle. If they will not break their coalition with the bourgeoisie then the workers’ organisations must break with them.

At the same time the Bolsheviks did not wait passively for the passage of time to prove them right. That might have only been proven negatively, by the defeat of the working class at the hands of their own leaders.

On the contrary, the Bolsheviks demanded that the Mensheviks break their coalition immediately, not just on the central question of who ruled, but over the immediate life and death questions of the working class soviets’ control of food distribution, workers’ inspection of the war industries and the profits being made from them, nationalisation under workers’ control of the banks, immediate introduction of land reform to break the power of the landowners and bring the peasant masses to the side of the proletariat and, above all, the immediate cessation of the war.

By arguing within the soviets that, although these were the measures the working class needed the Mensheviks and the Socialist Revolutionaries in a bloc with the bourgeois Cadets, would never carry them out and that the soviets themselves should undertake them, the Bolsheviks not only exposed the true character of the Mensheviks and destroyed their social base but also, simultaneously, developed the ability of the soviets to take all power into their own hands.

The method of the Bolsheviks in 1917 can be summed up as follows: firstly, an open commitment to, and call for, the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state by the working class; secondly, the raising of those demands which linked the immediate experience and needs of the working class to the need for revolution, thirdly, complete tactical flexibility in relation to the mass of reformist-led workers, including activity within, and defence of, their organisations; fourthly, open characterisation of, and warnings against, the reformist leaders’ treachery coupled with a commitment to defend them at any time should they themselves come under attack from the open forces of the bourgeoisie.

During the revolutionary upsurge that began with the Russian revolution and lasted until 1921, the principal task of the Bolsheviks with regard to the international proletariat lay in the formation of the Comintern. In forging this as a world party it was necessary to draw a clear line of demarcation between revolutionaries on the one side and reformists and centrists on the other.

The crucial points of differentiation centred on questions of strategy, for the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state or for its defence, for soviet power or parliamentary democracy, for proletarian internationalism or defence of the fatherland, for defence of Soviet Russia or war against it. Under the desperate conditions prevailing in most of the metropolitan countries the working class moved to the left and, in order to keep their places in the leadership, reformists and centrists moved left also, at least verbally. In this situation it was imperative for the small communist forces existing in those countries to concentrate on exposing the real intentions of such leaders, to denounce them and their politics. The organisational conclusion to be drawn from this was the creation of separate communist parties or the transformation of existing socialist parties into communist parties by the purging of all traces of reformist and centrist politics.

The Comintern was successful in creating communist parties in this manner. It split the centrist USPD in Germany at the Halle Congress in 1920 winning its majority. As a result the membership of the KPD rose from tens of thousands to half a million. In France, in the same year, the SFIO split at the Tours Congress to create the French Communist Party. The following year, the Italian PSI split. This time a minority broke away to form the PCI.

The Comintern’s insistence on programmatic homogeneity, exemplified in the famous “Twenty One Conditions for membership of the Cl”, was essential not only to make clear the lines of division on theoretical questions between the reformists and the revolutionaries but because it also conformed to the needs of the class struggle itself.

As the bourgeoisie made concessions to the working class in order to gain time and consolidate their forces, it was essential for communists to argue against the reformists’ claims that such concessions were sufficient to meet the needs of the working class and removed the need for revolution. Typically the concessions centred on bringing into positions of “power” precisely the reformist representatives of the working class who then demanded of the workers they defend the “new” regime, give it time to prove its worth and not risk the loss of existing gains by pressing further demands on society.

Communists had to counterpose to this the mobilisation of the working class against such traitors and the state that they defended. As the Habsburg and Hohenzollern monarchies collapsed in Vienna and Berlin, workers’ councils held de facto power, workers’ militia patrolled the streets. Further evidence of the revolutionary possibilities, and the viability of revolution, was provided by the Soviet Republics of Bavaria and Hungary, short lived as they were.

However, outside of Russia, the bourgeoisie survived, the communist parties were established but remained a minority in the working class. In 1921, the Communist International at its Third Congress recognised that the initial post-war revolutionary upsurge was over, that the bourgeoisie were now on the offensive to claw back the concessions they had been forced to make. Nor were the reformists, who had negotiated and policed those concessions, safe from the bourgeoisie’s attack.

Increasingly they too were thrown aside, their usefulness now outlived. In developing tactics to meet this new situation the Comintern drew not only on the Russian experience of 1917 but, crucially, on that of Germany in 1919 and 1920. As in Russia, when the imperial monarchy fell in November 1918, power passed to the workers’ councils. As in Russia these councils were politically dominated by the reformist leaders, the SPD under Noske and Scheidemann. Unlike Russia, the reformists had extremely strong roots in the organisations and traditions of the German working class. As a result the working class had been educated and trained in the spirit of reformist practice which, in reality, was confined to the struggle for the “minimum programme”.

That is, it struggled for those reforms which, whilst they were undoubtedly in the interest of the working class, did not challenge the fundamental framework of the bourgeois order. The reformists in Germany were able to use their leading position in the workers’ councils to apparently implement this minimum programme. In fact it was the revolutionary actions of the workers which swept away the Kaiser and the German Empire.

It was the counter-revolutionary actions of the SPD which restored the reactionary general staff and bureaucracy to power. Thereby the soviets were first neutered, then destroyed. The result was the shaky edifice of the Weimar Republic.

The revolutionaries in Germany, the Spartacusbund, and later the KPD, were numerically very weak and politically inexperienced by comparison with the Bolsheviks. Almost as soon as they had created an independent party in December 1919, they were provoked into an ill-prepared conflict with the bourgeois state. Noske and Scheidemann used that state to isolate and liquidate the leadership of the KPD, first in Berlin and then in Bavaria.

The KPD, now without its most tested cadres, was forced into illegality. By March 1920, emboldened by their successes against the proletarian vanguard the extreme right of the German bourgeoisie attempted to claw back the concessions they had made by attacking the Weimar Republic’s government. The Freikorps, an irregular military force supported by the majority of the General Staff, marched on Berlin to overthrow the government and install a military government fronted by Willhelm Kapp.

Then the government appealed to the Reichswehr to defend the Republic. The army, under von Seekt, refused to act and the government fled to Dresden and thence to Stuttgart. Recognising that it was not only communist workers but also themselves that were now under attack, the leaders of the German trade unions, under Karl Legien, were forced to mobilise the only force that could now defend them. They called an immediate General Strike in defence of the Republic.

The vast majority of the working class, still committed to the political programme of their reformist leaders, heeded the call. Germany was completely strikebound within hours. Once again armed workers patrolled the capital. As the Freikorps retreated, workers’ councils were formed in the major cities, seizing the arsenals and securing the major buildings and railroads against possible counter-revolution.

The leadership of the KPD, which had lost its finest representatives in the counter-revolution, proved unable to effect the sharp tactical turn necessitated by this dramatic change in circumstances. They declared that the proletariat had no interest in the outcome of a class struggle which was in essence within the forces of counter-revolution.

They declared that the workers should not “lift a finger to defend the democratic republic”. Nonetheless, the dynamic of the struggle across Germany forged unity between Communists, Independents and the rank and file of the SPD. In Saxony, for example, the workers’ council consisted of deputies from all three parties.

The Berlin centre of the KPD were obliged to reverse their sectarian position within 48 hours. However, when Legien, scared both by the resurgence of the reactionary forces and the prospect of workers’ power, proposed that the SPD, USPD and trade unions form a workers’ government, the KPD refused to offer it any support, even against reaction.

The SPD, still more concerned to preserve its alliance with the “progressive” bourgeoisie also opposed the call and formed instead a coalition. Thereafter, it once again utilised the Reichswehr to demobilise the very workers’ councils and disarm the militias that had saved its skin. The response of the KPD to the Kapp Putsch was sectarian.

By counterposing revolution as an ultimatum, rather than allying with the mass of workers to defend the democratic gains they had made, they lost the opportunity of developing out of the struggle the political consciousness and independent organisations which could have held the SPD to account and prevented the disarming of the councils.

However, being only a small party, they did not carry the responsibility for the aftermath of the coup in the minds of the workers Rather, it was the USPD that carried the odium and which, in October 1920, lost hundreds of thousands of members to the KPD. Recognising that the party now had a mass base and real social power, the leadership of the KPD, now under Paul Levi, attempted to use that power to force the SPD and USPD leaders to fight against the rapidly developing capitalist offensive on wages and jobs. In January 1921, the KPD addressed an “Open Letter” to all the workers’ organisations in which they proposed the formation of a united front to fight on these questions. This proposal was supported by Lenin but, having being rejected by the reformists and centrists, the tactic of demanding united action was dropped in favour of a misguided attempt at independent revolutionary action, the March Action of 1921.

In attempting to provoke the working class into revolution the KPD met with complete disaster. The membership was halved and the rightist forces in Germany were greatly strengthened as they capitalised on the isolation of the communists and the hostility, or at best indifference, of the mass of the workers.

The essence of the change of circumstances in Germany which allowed for the possibility of joint action by the communists alongside the reformist workers, was that the reformist leaders had succeeded in keeping the majority of the working class in check during the revolutionary period of 1918-19.

They did this by pointing to the gains the working class had made without revolution. A considerable part of their traditional programme had been implemented. The monarchy was gone, universal suffrage had been granted, factory councils were legitimised and the workers’ party itself was now in government, albeit in coalition. These gains were sufficient, argued the reformists. They could be used to enforce a socialised economy which would keep the capitalists under strict control.

However, when the revolutionary tide had receded, the bourgeoisie necessarily returned to the offensive to recoup the power they had ceded in the workplace and in society at large. In attacking the concessions made to the working class they were also obliged to attack those who had negotiated them.

Even the reformist consciousness of the mass of the German workers dictated that they should fight to defend the Weimar Republic. Thus, the workers took to the streets during the Kapp Putsch with their reformist illusions still, essentially, intact. Prior to this, when the reformist leaders were in the van of the counter-revolution, communists could only attempt to turn the reformist workers directly against their own leaders, demand that they make common cause with the communists on the communists’ terms. Now with the reformist workers and their leaders under attack, it was possible to propose united action to both leadership and rank and file.

In all its essentials the same development took place internationally during and after 1921. The difficulty that the KPD had met with in trying to re-orient itself to the new situation and to develop flexible tactics to take advantage of it was repeated within the ranks of the Comintern.

It was an analysis of the change of period and the need for a change of tactics that the Third Congress concentrated on. In its Theses on Tactics, the Third Congress recognised that the most important task of the day was to “win predominating influence over the majority of the working class and to bring its decisive strata into the struggle.

For, despite the objectively revolutionary situation, political and economic. . . the majority of the workers are not yet under communist influence; this is particularly true of those countries where finance capital is very powerful and where consequently large strata of the workers are corrupted by imperialism (e.g. England and America)”.

The need to take part in the struggles of the workers was particularly emphasised in the section of the resolution entitled “Partial Struggles and Partial Demands”: “Communist parties can develop only in struggle. Even the smallest communist parties should not restrict themselves to mere propaganda and agitation.

They must form the spearhead of all proletarian mass organisations, showing the backward vacillating masses, by putting forward practical proposals for struggle, by urging on the struggle for all the daily needs of the proletariat, how the struggle should be waged, and thus exposing to the masses the treacherous character of all non-communist parties. Only by placing themselves at the head of the practical struggles of the proletariat, only by promoting these struggles, can they really win over large masses of the proletariat to the fight for the dictatorship”.

Finally, in its concluding manifesto, the Congress returned to the centrality of direct involvement alongside the mass of workers for their immediate needs: “The traitors to the proletariat, the agents of the bourgeoisie, will be beaten not by theoretical arguments about democracy and dictatorship, but on the question of bread, of wages and homes for the workers”.

The work of the Third Congress, with its guiding slogan of “To the Masses!”, was only the beginning of the task of elaborating the necessary new tactics. In December 1921, the Executive Committee of the Cl (ECCI) developed the logic inherent in the theses of the Third Congress. If it was necessary to take part in, and give a lead to, partial and immediate struggles then it was necessary also to propose such struggles.

As long as the majority of workers still held faith in their reformist organisations and leaders it was necessary to propose that they co-operate in such immediate struggles alongside the communists.This was the first conscious and planned application of the tactic of the united front.

Many sections of the Comintern found the greatest difficulty in accepting the new tactical policy. Particularly for those who had only very recently broken from the ranks of the reformist parties it appeared contradictory to now demand that the leaders of those parties co-operate with the communists. For many this appeared likely to “spread illusions” in those leaders.

In his argument with the French CP, who were particularly opposed to the policy, Trotsky gave the clearest possible explanation of the essentials of the tactic, its origins in the exigencies of immediate day to day struggle, the necessity of putting the reformist leaders on the spot by demanding of them united action: “It is perfectly self-evident that the class life of the proletariat is not suspended during this period preparatory to the revolution.

Clashes with industrialists, with the bourgeosie, with state power, on the initiative of one side or the other, run their due course. In these clashes-insofar as they involve the vital interests of the entire working class, or its majority, or this or that section-the working masses sense the need of unity in action, of unity in resisting the onslaught of capitalism or unity in taking the offensive against it.

Any party which mechanically counterposes it self to this need of the working class for unity in action will unfailingly be condemned in the minds of the workers. . . . Does the united front extend only to the working masses or does it also include the opportunist leaders? The very posing of this question is a product of misunderstanding.

If we were able simply to unite the working masses around our own banner or around our practical immediate slogans, and skip over reformist organisations, whether party or trade union, that would of course be the best thing in the world. But then the very question of the united front would not exist in its present form. The question arises from this, that certain very important sections of the working class belong to reformist organisations or support them.

Their present experience is still insufficient to enable them to break with the reformist organ isations and join us. It may be precisely after engaging-in those mass activities which are on the order of the day that a major change will take place in this connection. That is just what we are striving for. But that is not how matters stand at present. . . . The Communists, as has been said, must not oppose such (i.e. united) actions but on the contrary must also assume the initiative for them, precisely for the reason that the greater is the mass drawn into the movement, the higher its self confidence rises, all the more self-confident will be that mass movement and all the more resolutely will it be capable of marching foward, however modest may be the initial slogans of struggle.

And this means that the growth of the mass aspects of the movement tends to radicalise it, and creates much more favour able conditions for the slogans, methods of struggle, and, in general, the leading role of the Communist Party. . .”

The Comintern, however, saw clearly the dangers that the UF held as a tactic. It could become a cover for a peaceful non-aggression pact with the reformist leaders. The latter of course would always demand the cessation of “destructive” criticism. This communists can never concede, since it is to accept that immediate struggles should take place within a blinkered opportunist perspective.

Thus the ECCI demanded the “absolute independence of every CP which enters into an agreement with the parties of the Second and two and a half Internationals, its complete freedom to put forward its own views and to criticise the opponents of communism. While accepting a basis for action, communists must retain the uncondit onal right and the possibility of expressing their opinion of the policy of all working class organisations without exception, not only before and after action has been taken, but also if necessary during its course. In no circumstances can these rights be surrendered. While supporting the slogan of the greatest possible unity of all workers’organisations in every practical action against the capitalist front, communists in no circumstances desist from putting forward their views, which are the only consistent expression of the defence of working class interests as a whole.”

Furthermore the united front was not primarily an attempt at an agreement with reformist leaders but an appeal to the masses standing behind them. It was to be operated from above and below: “What is the united front and what should it be? The united front is not and should not be merely a fraternisation of party leaders. The united front will not be created by agreements with those “socialists” who until recently were members of bourgeois governments.

The united front means the association of all workers, whether communist, anarchist, social democrat, independent or non-party or even Christian workers, against the bourgeoisie. With the leaders if they remain indifferently aside, and in defiance of the leaders and against the leaders if they sabotage the workers united front.” Where the reformists resist the formation of a united front the communists should not just sit back and resort to literary, polemical denunciations but: “Build the united front locally too, without waiting for the permission of the leaders of the Second International.”

If united fronts are directed at limited actions, to maintain a bloc with the reformist leaders during and after a betrayal in action, is to become complicit in it. Trotsky stigmatised the Russian trade unions for doing just this during the British General Strike by remaining with the TUC in the Anglo-Russian Committee: “Temporary agreements may be made with the reformists whenever they make a step forward. But to maintain a bloc with them when, frightened by the development of a movement, they commit treason, is equivalent to criminal toleration of traitors and a veiling of betrayal.”

Both the Leninist Comintern in the early 1920s, and Trotsky throughout the 1920s and 1930s, stressed the limited, clear and specific nature of the demands and slogans around which the united front should be offered. Writing in the 1920s, Trotsky pointed out that, “however limited the slogans, anything which develops the mass character of the movement embarrasses the reformists whose beloved arena is the parliamentary tribune, the trade union bureaus, the arbitration boards, the ministerial antechambers.”

The type of organisation appropriate to the united front is an organ of struggle-not of propaganda for a programme. As such, a trade union is in one sense a united front. More correctly a united front creates ad hoc fighting bodies commensurate to the task in hand. These may be strike committees, councils of action and at the highest level soviets. Such bodies, vital for the struggle, strengthen the pressure on the reformist leaders to “break with the bourgeoisie”.

The united front is a tactic for achieving the maximum unity in action for limited, immediate or defensive aims at a time when the forces of the proletariat are divided and the reformists and centrists still lead important sections, or an outright majority, of the class. It is, at the same time, a tactic for exposing the reformist leaders as betrayers of even the immediate goals of the workers, a tactic designed to win the masses to communist leadership.

Trotsky clarified the question of the united front and how it related, within the totality of revolutionary strategy, to other tactics: “The unity of the proletariat, as a universal slogan, is a myth. The proletariat is not homogeneous. The split begins with the political awakening of the proletariat, and constitutes the mechanics of its growth. Only under the conditions of a ripened social crisis, when it is fused with the seizure of power as an immediate task, can the vanguard of the proletariat, provided with a correct policy, rally around itself the overwhelming majority of its class.

But the rise to this revolutionary peak is accomplished on the steps of successive splits. It was not Lenin who invented the policy of the united front; like the split within the proletariat, it is imposed by the dialectics of the class struggle. No successes would be possible without temporary agreements, for the sake of fulfilling immediate tasks, among various sections organisations or groups of the proletariat . . . (these struggles) demand a united front ad hoc even if it does not always take the form of one . . . At a certain level, the struggle for unity of action is converted from an elementary fact into a tactical task. The simple formula of the united front solves nothing…The tactical application of the united front is subordinated, in every period, to a definite strategic conception. In preparing the revolutionary unification of the workers, without and against reformism, a long and patient experience in applying the united front with the reformists is necessary; always of course, from the point of view of the final revolutionary goal.”

How then do strategy and tactics relate to each other? Trotsky delineated the matter clearly in Strategy and Tactics in the Imperialist Epoch: “By the conception of tactics is understood the system of measures that serves a single current task or a single branch of the class struggle.

Revolutionary strategy on the contrary embraces a combined series of actions which by their association, consistency and growth must lead the proletariat to the conquest of power.” Seen from this angle any single united front or type of united front is a tactic, part of the overall strategy which includes splits, ruptures and eventually the unification of the majority of the class behind the revolutionary vanguard in the struggle for the seizure of power.

In this struggle the reformist leaders are most likely to be found in the camp of the counter-revolution and at best will be neutralised. Trotsky time and again stressed that no form of the united front could form a road to communism: “The policy of the united front with reformists is obligatory, but it is of necessity limited to partial tasks, especially to defensive struggles. There can be no thought of making the socialist revolution in a united front with reformist organisations.”

The form of the united front proposed by the Comintern in the early 1920s was the united front of the workers’ parties and unions. This was possible both because of the economic and political circumstances of the capitalist offensive but also because of the earlier policy of creating politically independent communist parties having been successful in several countries. Key communist parties were in a position to propose joint action between themselves and the non-communist organisations as a realistic contribution to unifying the class.

However when applied in situations where communist forces are small and marginalised the principles upon which the Comintern constructed the tactic of the workers’ united front can yield various other forms of the united front. In the years immediately preceding the rise to power of the German Nazis Trotsky propagandised for the creation of a “Workers’ United Front against Fascism” even though the forces of Trotskyism in Germany were tiny.

That the same guiding principles applied, even where communists disposed of scant forces can be seen from Trotsky’s emphasis on the immediacy of the demands to be raised and on the need to maintain the independence of the communist forces: “The programme of action must be strictly practical, without any of those artificial ’claims’, without any reservations so that every average social democratic worker can say to himself: What the communists propose is completely indispensable for the struggle against Fascism.”

But: “No common platform with the social democracy, or with the leaders of the German trade unions; no common publications, banners or placards! March separately but strike together! Agree only how to strike, when to strike and where to strike Such an agreement can be concluded with the devil himself, with his grandmother and even with Noske and Grezinsky. On one condition: not to bind one’s own hands.”

The call for a united front of the workers’ organisations, then, is not predicated upon the existence of a revolutionary party sizeable enough to conclude a formal united front agreement but upon its objective necessity when the class is faced by an attack and its forces are divided. It is the logic of the class struggle that poses the need for unity in action.

The role of the communists is to consciously intervene in such a situation, advancing the demands and methods that can advance the class in the given conditions. The united front of the mass organisations of the working class, whether raised agitationally or propagandistically, does not exhaust the arsenal of tactical weapons, based upon the same principles, that were developed by the Comintern and further elaborated by the forces of the Left Opposition, International Communist League and Fourth International.

These were designed for use, in particular, where revolutionaries were operating in highly disadvantageous circumstances, where reformism held virtually unchallenged sway over the mass of workers and communists had little or no contact with the day to day activity of the working class.

In the present period, which is characterised by precisely such features, these tactics are of particular importance for revolutionaries intent on breaking out of their isolation, reasserting the political method and programme of revolutionary Marxism and taking their places in the ranks of the workers’ organisations.

The Labor Party tactic

A democratic centralist cadre party is an absolute necessity if the struggles of the working class are to be led towards a centralised offensive against the bourgeois state power. Such a party must attain mass proportions in order to embrace the actual front line fighters of the workers’ struggles.

No sect which by self-proclamation claims to be the vanguard, no “historical process” or unconscious centrist current can do duty for this. The party must be built in and through the struggles of the working class. In the first phase of the imperialist epoch revolutionary Marxists in certain countries took the lead in this task and created mass cadre parties. However even in this period in certain countries-mainly “Anglo-Saxon” (UK, USA, Australia etc) – this process met the powerful obstacle of a mass trade union movement whose leaders were wedded to a bourgeois party.

In Britain the union leaders formed a sub-section of the Liberal Party, the Lib-Labs. Since the 1930s the AFL-CIO leaders have formed a similar component of the American Democratic Party. In the more developed semi-colonial countries-Argentina, for example-the union bureaucracy remains wedded to bourgeois nationalism. To deal with this situation revolutionary Marxists elaborated a variant of the united front tactic applicable to the task of breaking the unions or other mass proletarian organisations from their political servitude to the bourgeoisie and posing the need for a revolutionary party.

This tactic, which we will call “the Labor Party tactic” , is not aimed at the creation of reformist Labour Parties on the British model. Indeed whilst it starts from the position of “breaking with the bourgeoisie”, it is aimed at obstructing the formation of a disguised bourgeois party. Formally independent reformist parties are independent only on the terrain of electoral conflict and not on the battlefield of the classes.
The goal of the Labor Party tactic is to facilitate the creation of a vanguard revolutionary workers’ party which has won the leadership of the trade unions. In any actual situation where a separate workers’ party is being formed on the basis of the unions, the outcome-reformist or revolutionary-will be determined by struggle. The Labor Party tactic did not spring fully formed from the heads of Engels, Lenin or Trotsky.
All three however contributed to the development of the tactic, Trotsky in the late 1930s giving it a definite expression. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Marxists held that the creation of a workers’ party was, in itself, historically progressive. This was held to be true even in those cases, like Britain and Australia, where the party in question did not embrace the Marxist programme. Engels’ attitude to the British labour movement was a case in point.

Inter-imperialist competition at the end of the nineteenth century began to weaken the supremacy of British imperialism. The limitations of the British labour movement’s reliance on trade unionism and a political alliance with the openly bourgeois Liberal Party became exposed.

The defence and improvement of living standards required a political instrument independent of the openly bourgeois bosses’ parties. The need for an independent party of the working class was acutely posed. The reformist Labour Representation Committee (l900) and the Labour Party (1906) resulted from the trade unions’ break with the Liberals and turn to independent political representation. This reformist outcome, however, was by no means pre-ordained.

A correct intervention by revolutionaries could have either prevented the party being established as a bourgeois workers’ party or at least established a mass revolutionary alternative leadership inside or outside the framework of this party. The possibility of this reformist outcome should not have deterred Marxists from participating in the formation of this party, despite their initial numerical weaknesses. That the Marxists would start off as a tiny minority was not decisive.

As Lenin noted writing in 1907: “Engels insisted on the importance of an independent workers’ party, even with a bad programme, because he was dealing with countries where up till now there has not been even a hint of the political independence of the workers-where the workers mostly follow and still follow, the politics of the bourgeoisie.”

Engels argued that the masses must go through the experience of forming a party and he believed that they could and would learn from it. Writing to Sorge in 1889 about the new working class upsurge he said: “Now the movement has at last been set going and, I believe, for good. But it is not directly socialist, and those among the English who have understood our theory best remain outside it . . . Moreover, the people regard their immediate demands as only provisional, although they themselves do not yet know toward what final goal they are working. But this vague notion has a strong enough hold on them to make them elect as leaders only downright socialists.

Like everyone else, they must learn by their own experiences, from the consequences of their own mistakes. But since, unlike the old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of the identity of interest between capital and labour with scornful laughter, this will not take very long.”

The element of perspective contained here, oft repeated by Engels and based on the visible weakening of Britain’s economic position, was to prove incorrect. Engels could not foresee the massive growth of imperialist exploitation which would strengthen reformism within the working class. To understand and combat this would be the task of the next generation of revolutionary Marxists.

However Engels recognised that unity between Marxists and non-Marxists in the formation of a working class party was no barrier to the struggle for independent class politics within that party. This was an important starting point for the development of the Labor Party tactic in the United States of America by the Comintern and later Trotsky. The Communist movement in the USA emerged from the terrible crisis of the American socialist and syndicalist movement in the war years and immediately post war years.

It emerged as a chronically divided and persecuted movement isolated from the great bulk of American workers and with little appreciation of the tactics necessary to escape from this. The Comintern waged a prolonged struggle to unite the movement and vanquish the sectarian elements within it. The turning point came at the Third Congress of the Comintern in 1921. At this Congress the Comintern set out the need for Communist Parties to win the masses through practising unity in action against the bosses.

While nothing definitive was resolved in relation to the united front in America at this Congress Lenin, for the first time, raised the question of a Labor Party with the US delegates. In 1922 at the Fourth Congress, the American Communists, newly emerged from the underground as the Workers’ Party, had already begun to develop a position in favour of a Labor Party.

In May 1922, the Workers’ Party passed a set of Theses on the united front which recognised the Labor Party as the specific form of the united front in the US. In October of the same year the Cl representative in the States, Pepper, published a pamphlet “For a Labor Party “. This portrayed the Labor Party as a party of the whole of the organised labour movement, but which would have as its goal: “the abolition of wage slavery, the establishment of a workers’ republic and a collectivised system of production.”

However, when it came to the practical application of this specific form of united front the American communists revealed their limited understanding of the principled operation of such a tactic.

In 1923 the Workers’ Party convened a conference for a Labor Party with the reformist-led Chicago Federation of Labor and the populist Farmer-Labor movement (a loose coalition of parties from various states.) At the conference the communists placed their entire emphasis on the need for the rapid formation of a party.

The issue under debate was when that party should be formed rather than what its political content was to be This organisational fetishism of the communists precipitated a premature split with the reformist union leaders. The CP decamped to form the Federated Farmer-Labor Party (FFLP).

Through successful conference packing the CP gained control of this party but it proved a Pyrrhic victory. The FFLP was only an enlarged shadow of the communists. It was not a mass party of the American working class-indeed it purported to straddle two classes, farmers and Labor-and it did not have a revolutionary programme

Within the Workers’ Party the principal opponents of this FFLP orientation were James Cannon and the former syndicalist William Z. Foster. Their opposition was not to the political content of the FFLP but to the fact that the split with Fitzpatrick of the Chicago Federation of Labor had isolated communist militants from the “progressives” in the unions, the AFL. Their opposition to Pepper, the proponent of the split, was a right-wing one. Cannon himself admitted that at the time he was a “pronounced right-winger”.

Pepper, on the other hand, insisted that the FFLP was a mass party and a victory for the communists. The lack of disagreement over the programmatic content of the tactic was borne out by the fact that all sides supported Pepper’s later scheme of using the FFLP to support a middle class candidate in the 1924 Presidential elections.

Both Pepper and Cannon, for different reasons, saw support for the Liberal Wisconsin senator LaFollette as a means of vindicating their respective orientations. Cannon saw it as a means of rebuilding the party’s bridges to the progressives in the unions who looked to LaFollette.

Pepper, on the other hand, was developing a theory that the American farmers were the truly revolutionary force in the country. By supporting LaFollette the FFLP could fuse with these farmers to bring about an alliance with the petit-bourgeoisie within a two-class party. This party would in turn bring about a Third American Revolution (bourgeois democratic) which would clear the way for a fourth, proletarian one. This was an early version of Stalin’s Menshevik “stages” strategy.

It was only the Comintern’s intervention that prevented this course of action from actually being carried out in America. The Comintern’s opposition forced the Communists to break completely with all sections of the Farmer-Labor movement, wind up the FFLP and “turn left”. The Zinoviev-led Comintern prompted the CP to “rectify” its errors by committing another, i.e. denouncing LaFollette as a fascist!

The whole experiment revealed a fundamental weakness in the Labor Party tactic as conceived by the American Communists. From a sectarian abstention from the real Labor Party movement in 1919 the Communists eventually arrived at a position which regarded the formation of a Labor Party, regardless of what sort of programme it had, as the object of the tactic. This necessarily led them to accept the role of friendly midwives to a reformist Labor Party.

The “left” alternative to this was to act as abortionist to the moves for political independence within the unions. Cannon certainly thought of a Labor Party as a reformist one and even envisaged a Third Party Alliance across the classes. This mistake was based on a misreading of Engels’ advice in the 1880s, one that failed to recognise the importance of the split in the Second International and the development of the Third. It was a position based on the no-longer valid premise that any type of workers’ party would be an unqualified progressive step. This confusion persisted even among the best revolutionary communists until the late 1930s.

Within the Comintern and the American Party, the ascendancy of Stalinism prevented a critical appraisal of the 1922-23 period from being made. When the American Left Opposition was formed, it simply took over the position formerly held by the Communist Party. Cannon’s programme for the Left Opposition in America stated: “The perspective of a Labor Party as a primary step in the political development of the American workers, adopted by the party in 1922 after a sharp struggle in the party and at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, holds good today, although the forms and methods of its realisation will be somewhat different than that indicated at that time”.

The programme did criticise the fake “Labor Party” initiatives such as the FFLP, and attacked Pepper’s notion of a two-class “Farmer-Labor” party, calling instead for a Labor Party and an alliance with poor farmers. However, the key error of 1922-23-seeing the formation of the party in itself as a necessary step-was repeated. Its intrinsic right wing logic was not realised. It was this position that led Trotsky in 1932 to criticise the American Trotskyists’ position.

Trotsky’s criticism was based on an opposition to the idea that revolutionaries themselves should call for a Labor Party. In the terms in which Cannon posed the slogan – for a reformist Labor Party – Trotsky’s criticism was completely valid. First, the years of relative prosperity up to 1929 had undermined any mass movement for a Labor Party.

Secondly, a victory for the Left Opposition in the Comintern would enable a regenerated revolutionary communist party to place itself at the head of the working class when the latter’s militancy revived. Thirdly, the practice of creating long term blocs with the reformists or petit-bourgeois or bourgeois nationalists had been the essence of the Stalin-Bukharin betrayals in China and Britain. It had been developed into a full-blown stages theory. For Trotsky, the creation of a reformist party was not a desirable “first step”, but a potential stumbling block to the revolutionary development of America’s workers. For all of these reasons, he concluded: “the creation of a Labor party could be provoked only by mighty revolutionary pressure from the working masses and by the growing threat of communism. It is absolutely clear that under these conditions the Labor party would signify not a progressive evolution of the working class”.

While Trotsky’s criticism of the rightist position of the Americans was correct as a criticism, it was itself flawed by a shared belief that the Labor Party could only be conceived of as a reformist party. Trotsky’s view boiled down to the proposition that the Labor Party was either unnecessary or reactionary.

It would prove unnecessary if there was a mass upsurge of revolutionary consciousness in which case a mass communist party would be formed. It would be reactionary if the trade union leaders were able to dominate the movement. This view was much less dialectical than his later position, since it excluded a situation which combined these phenomena-where the mass pressure for a Labor Party could be turned against the reformist leaders.

His later perspective, embodied in the Transitional Programme, was based on an understanding of the depth of the imperialist crisis and the lag in the consciousness of the working class. From this flowed a deep crisis of leadership within the proletariat’s organisations. It was vital for revolutionaries to be able to intervene in forward movements of the working class, whilst they were still under reformist leadership. It was necessary in order to win them to effective tactics and a coherent anti-capitalist strategy. In the heat of battle an alternative leadership could be forged and the crisis of leadership surmounted. The rise of the mass industrial unions-the CIO movement-in the mid 1930s, laid the basis for Trotsky’s re-elaboration of the Labor Party tactic. He did this in the light of the now fully-developed method of the Transitional Programme.

At its founding conference in 1938, the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of America repeated Trotsky’s 1932 position on the Labor Party, almost word for word. But now Trotsky rebuked them for it and fought to turn the party’s position round on its axis! Trotsky took two developments into consideration in developing his position in 1938. First, he analysed the CIO upsurge as a factor that would renew the working class’s perception of the need to take political action.

For this they would require a political party. He posed the choice for the working class thus: “It is an objective fact in the sense that the new trade unions created by the workers came to an impasse – a blind alley – and the only way for workers organised in trade unions is to join their forces in order to influence legislation, to influence the class struggle. The working class stands before an alternative. Either the trade unions will be dissolved, or they will join for political action.”

In other words, the objective situation posed sharply the need for a workers’ party. Moreover, if millions of workers in the CIO turned to political action, then their reformist leaders would be likely to channel them in an exclusively reformist direction. Revolutionaries could not afford to abstain from any stage of the workers’ political development if they were to have a chance of shaping it in a revolutionary direction. To this end they could unite with the millions of reformist-led workers to say to their leaders: ”Break with the bourgeois parties, do not tie our unions politically to the bosses”. In so doing they could place themselves in a favourable position to advance the revolutionary programme as the content of the political break with the bourgeois Democratic Party.

Trotsky’s second consideration was that the American section had not been able to assume leadership of the working class as rapidly as he had earlier hoped. This intensified the crisis of leadership within the working class. The masses were demanding political answers. This was reflected in the resurrection of a genuine Labor Party movement in organisations like Labor’s Non-Partisan League, the American Labor Party in New York, and others.

If the SWP abstained from these movements then the “crisis of leadership” would be resolved by the bureaucrats responding to the masses’ pressure precisely by creating a reformist Labor Party. To prevent this, and to channel the movement in a revolutionary direction, Trotsky developed the Labor Party tactic by transcending his own previous objections. He introduced into the tactic an algebraic element. That is, he combined the united front to build an independent party, with the advancement of a transitional programme that would, if adopted, signify the triumph of revolutionaries within the party.

He overcame the apparently stageist “reformist Labor Party” tactic, replacing it with one in which struggle would determine the outcome of the call for a Labor Party: “Are we in favour of the creation of a reformist Labor Party? No. Are we in favour of a policy which can give to the trade unions the possibility to put its weight upon the balance of forces? Yes. It can become a reformist party – it depends upon the development. Here the question of programme comes in.”

By fighting for its own programme as the programme of the Labor Party, the SWP opened up the possibility of shaping it as a revolutionary party. Naturally, this would be decided over a fairly short period of time, in a bitter struggle with the bureaucracy. But it remained a possibility and therefore was the goal that the SWP should set itself.

If the revolutionaries won out, they could organise the Labor Party as a revolutionary combat party, purged of reformists, Trotsky argued. But programme came first. A struggle for programme would decide whether the party would become revolutionary or reformist. It was for this reason that Trotsky thought that if practically realised, then the Labor Party “can preserve progressive significance only during a comparatively short transitional period.”

That is, until the battle between the reformists and revolutionaries was decided one way or the other. If the latter won, it would “inevitably break the shell of the Labor Party and permit the SWP to rally around the banner of the Fourth International the revolutionary vanguard of the American proletariat”. If the reformists won, then a counter-revolutionary social democratic party would be the result.

By 1938 Trotsky had developed the Labor Party tactic into its most refined revolutionary form. The guidelines that he laid down remain valid today. They can be summarised thus:
a) A refusal to accept that the demand for an independent party based on the trade unions, and the attendant demand on the bureaucracy to break with the bourgeoisie, are synonymous with the call for a reformist Labor Party.
b) The raising of the Transitional Programme as the programme for the Labor Party is the means of fighting to secure a revolutionary development.
c) The maintenance of a revolutionary organisation even within a Labor Party movement is essential for the inevitable battle with the bureaucracy.
d) Periods of economic crisis and sharpening class struggle are the most favourable for raising the Labor Party slogan. However, even during “calm periods” the slogan retains a propagandistic value and can be acted upon agitationally in local situations or elections. For example, against support for a bourgeois party candidate in an election, revolutionaries would call on the unions to field an independent working class candidate.
e) In no sense is a Labor Party that is anything less than the revolutionary party a necessary stage in the development of the working class in countries where there are no workers’ parties.
f) Once again it must be remembered – programme first. Today in the USA and elsewhere these guidelines – much trampled upon by groups like today’s thoroughly right centrist SWP(US) – must inform a revolutionary application of the Labor Party tactic.

The Affiliation tactic

The political flux to which revolutionaries attempt to relate via the Labor Party tactic, exists not only during the period before the creation of such a party.

It can continue, or develop, thereafter, as the conflicting programmes and tendencies within the working class clash over how the party should be built and upon what programme. This was recognised by Trotsky in 1932 when he wrote:

“It is evident that the possibility of participating in a Labor Party movement and for utilising it would be greater in the period of its inception, that is, in the period when the party is not a party but an amorphous political mass movement. That we must participate in it at that time and with the greatest energy is without question; not to help form a Labor Party which will exclude us and fight against us, but to push the progressive elements of the movement more and more to the left by our activity and propaganda.”

In the early 1920s the young Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) was able to put this tactic into practice with regard to the Labour Party (LP). The LP was not created as a centralised party but as a federation of affiliated organisations including both the trade unions and political organisations such as the Independent Labour Party (ILP), the Social Democratic Federation (briefly) and the Fabians. The federative principle effectively prevented democratic control of the leadership by the masses who supported the party and ensured the ideological formlessness which best allowed the reformists to continue their collaborationist practice.

However it also allowed the affiliation, during 1916, of the British Socialist Party (BSP), the successor to the Social Democratic Federation and the most significant grouping of “Marxists” in Britain.

When the BSP took part in the formation of the CPGB in 1920, therefore, the question of its continued membership of the LP was posed. In contrast to those who wished quietly to renew their membership of the LP as if nothing had happened and those who wished to demonstratively split from the LP, Lenin was in favour of the attempt by the CP itself to affiliate to the Party.

He proposed this in order that the Communists could put themselves in a position to relate directly to the many rank and file workers who were joining the LP as a consequence of its decision to allow individual membership after 1918. The affiliation tactic, therefore, was designed to put to the test the claim of the Labour Party to be the party of the entire working class at a time when the bureaucracy’s control of the party had not gelled and the character of that party had not yet been revealed to millions of workers by the experience of government.

Lenin pointed out that the operation of the tactic would imply minimal concessions from the communists while: ” . . . this party permits organisations affiliated to it to enjoy the present freedom of criticism and freedom of propagandist, agitational and organisational activity for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as long as that party presents its character as a federation of all trade union organisations of the working class.”

Such compromises or concessions mainly with regard to electoral questions, should be made by communists in order to allow them: “The opportunity of influencing the broadest mass of workers, of exposing the opportunist leaders from a platform that is higher and more visible to the masses, and of accelerating the transition of political power from the direct agents of the bourgeoisie to the ‘labour lieutenants’ of the capitalist class in order that the masses may be more quickly weaned from their best illusions on thing score.”

The request for Communist Party affiliation, made in August 1920, was rejected by the reformist leaders of the Labour Party. Nonetheless, on the basis of its members who were individual members of the Labour Party already, or were delegated to LP bodies from their affiliated trade unions, the CPGB continued, until 1928, not only to work within the LP but to continue to campaign for its right to affiliate. In the Labour Party after the rejection of affiliation, and in other reformist parties as a matter of course, the parties of the Comintern in its revolutionary period, undertook systematic fraction work.

In the course of 1920 the KPD fraction within the German USPD fought, with great success, for that party to accept the conditions of membership of the Comintern and purge itself of its reformist and centrist leaders. Such fraction work is not designed, however, to facilitate a strategic transformation of the parties within which it is undertaken. The effect of the KPD’s work was several hundred thousand members breaking away to join the Communist Party.

The continued fight for affiliation in the LP was also the result of disciplined and co-ordinated activity by communist members of the LP. In his advice to them Lenin made perfectly clear that by raising revolutionary politics they would be liable to expulsion but they should not shrink from this, since in the struggle over their membership it would be the reformists who were exposed as the dividers of the forces willing to fight the bourgeoisie:

“Let Messrs Thomas and the other social traitors, whom you call social traitors, expel you. This will have an excellent effect upon the mass of the British workers.”

Indeed: “If the BCP starts out by acting in a revolutionary manner in the Labour Party and if Messrs Henderson are obliged to expel this party, it will be a great victory for the communist and Labour movement in England.”

The potential that such a situation could develop was clearly shown by the experience within the British Labour Party even after affiliation had been rejected. The proposal itself was re-submitted at annual conferences and created continuing opportunities for the communists to win over fellow members of the LP, at least to their right to recognition as a component of the labour movement. In 1923, for example, they gained 200,000 votes although the resolution for affiliation was defeated by three million.

The reformist leaders were not satisfied by this, and through the 1920s they were successful in progressively removing communists’ rights within the party.

In 1924 they were denied the right to stand as Labour Party candidates. The following year they were banned as individual members of the party and in 1926 were declared ineligible as delegates to conference even if delegated from trade union bodies. These measures provoked serious opposition within the party.

Over 100 constituency parties refused to implement the 1925 decision. The tactic of the Communist Party was to try to build an alliance with left reformists and centrists to prevent expulsions and other measures. Some 50 local Labour Parties associated themselves with this National Left Wing Movement. Although the attempt to form this alliance was correct, the politics of the CPGB within it bore no resemblance to the principled approach outlined by Lenin.

As part of its rightist turn from 1925-8, the CP dropped its emphasis on its own political independence and supported the National Left Wing Movement’s declared intention not to supersede the Labour Party but to, “remould it nearer to the heart’s desire of the rank and file.”

Far from forcing the lefts and centrists to make genuine moves to the left through sharp criticism of such confused declarations, the CP launched a weekly newspaper, the Sunday Worker in which their allies were free to give expression to their centrist politics without a word of criticism from the Communists. The National Left Wing Movement became a non-aggression pact as the Communist Party desperately attempted to maintain the alliance in the face of their “left” allies’ retreats and betrayals.

After the defeat of the 1926 General Strike, the “lefts” did not raise a finger to obstruct the renewed offensive by the right wing either in the Labour Party or in the unions. The freedom of propaganda, which Lenin had cited as the prime condition on which affiliation was possible, no longer existed. The correct response of the Communist Party should have been to make the sharpest criticism of the splitting manoeuvres of the leaders and to fight for the supposed “lefts” and the many workers who were under their influence, to join the Communist Party as had been done in Germany.

Instead, under the guidance of the Stalinist Comintern, which had directed the rightist course previously, they now lurched violently to the left. The ultra-left politics of “Third Period” Stalinism led the CP to declare the Labour Party to be a “social fascist” party. Accordingly, they wound up both the National Left Wing Movement and the Sunday Worker.

The fundamental principles which should guide communist fraction work in reformist parties were clarified by the Left Opposition’s criticisms of the Stalinists’ errors and were developed by Trotskyists in the 1930s as they strove to deepen their roots within the working class. Thus in 1938 the SWP in discussing its work within the Stalinist American Communist Party, adopted the following resolution:

“At the present stage of development we do not, as a policy, withdraw adherents of the Fl in the CP from that party as individuals but rather strive to a) get these adherents (under our discipline) into strategic positions with the object of obtaining information and attaining influence; b) organise a national fraction with the perspective of a national split to be executed at some propitious time. When our fraction is strong enough we issue a regular national paper of this fraction for the YCL and the CP as a Leninist organ in the communist movement.”

The purpose of such fraction work is to enable communists to fight for their programme in the heart of the mass working class organisations which are dominated by reformists or centrists. It requires united front tactics inasmuch as it attempts to fight alongside those workers who accept reformist or centrist leadership of their party but are necessarily confronted with the need to wage the class struggle.

By raising demands on such leaders and by attempting to mobilise the rank and file independently of them, communists seek to break the masses from their leaders through direct experience of the repression, sabotage and vacillations of those leaders. Central to the success of the tactic is the maintenance of the political independence of the communist fraction.

If that is forfeited, then even should the workers become disillusioned with their leaders they will have no clear alternative to turn to. As with all applications of the united front, this tactic holds dangers, particularly for disorientated or inexperienced cadres. The danger of opportunism flows from the temptation to accommodate to the politics of the “host” party by watering down the programme of the Communist Party. An unwillingness to take part in limited struggles for partial, non-revolutionary objectives and the counterposing of the revolutionary programme when the workers have not yet been won to it leads to the opposite danger of sectarianism. In all cases the role of the fraction as a subordinate element under the discipline of the revolutionary party which exists as an independent party outside the reformist party, has to be maintained.

The Entry tactic

From 1934 Trotsky developed a tactic which involved the total entry of the Bolshevik-Leninists (the name used by Trotskyists at that time) into social democratic and centrist parties.

Trotsky did not regard it as a long term tactic, let alone an attempt to transform the social democratic parties into parties that could carry out the social revolution. Trotsky’s criteria for the entry tactic was as follows:

1) that there was a serious leftward movement of the masses, that is, a revolutionary ferment leading to tensions between the rank and file and the leadership. The actual background for the “French Turn” was the triumph of fascism in Germany and the awakening of the French workers to the danger it presented to them;
2) the formation, by the SFI0 and the CP under mass pressure, of the very united front which the Trotskyists alone had fought for from 1930 to 1933. Now, owing to the small size of Trotskyist groups and Stalinist persecution of them, they risked being excluded from the united front;
3) an approaching revolutionary situation was drawing workers into the SFI0 and obliging its leaders to adopt centrist rhetoric;
4) the split away of the right-wing (the “neo-socialists”) and the opening up of a factional struggle between centrist currents (e.g. the “Bataille Socialiste” paper edited by Zyromski and Pivert) and the Blum leadership created severe tensions within the SFI0.

Trotsky concluded from these factors that:
“Its internal situation permits the possibility of our entering it with our own banner. The environment suits the aims we have set for ourselves. What is necessary now is to act in such a manner that our declaration will not in any way strengthen the leading bourgeois wing but rather will support the progressive proletarian wing; that its text and distribution will allow us to hold our heads high in case of acceptance as well as in case of dilatory manoeuvres or rejection. There is no question of dissolving ourselves. We enter as the Bolshevik-Leninist faction, our organisational ties remain the same, our press continues to exist just as do “Bataille Socialiste” and others…”

Trotsky argued for entry on the full programme of the ICL/Fl. He insisted on a paper aimed at presenting this programme and propagandising for it-an “action programme” which posed the key tasks of the coming period. He called for a specific orientation towards the youth.

There was to be no let-up in criticism of the reformist leadership and no amalgamation with the left reformist/centrist elements. The “turn” was inaugurated in September 1934. The French Bolshevik-Leninists were divided on the issue of entry. A grouping around Pierre Naville denounced it as a capitulation. They split from the French section over entry but then entered the SFI0 themselves shortly thereafter. Trotsky harshly criticised this split saying that Naville’s intransigence was merely due to his being “frightened by the prospect of a ferocious battle against a powerful apparatus”.

Once in the SFIO, however, Trotsky observed that Naville had, despite his apparent intransigence, “. . . abandoned the banner of the organisation, the programme. He does not wish to be more than the left-wing of the SP. He has already presented motions in common with the left-wing, confused opportunist motions, full of the verbiage of so-called left centrism.”

The same weaknesses were displayed later by another grouping in the French section around Raymond Molinier, when the question of a final fight against expulsions was raised. The Trotskyists entered with about one hundred members plus some youth.

By June 1935 their forces were strong enough to force Blum to debate them at the Mulhouse Congress. Their membership rose to 300 by the summer of 1935. They were at their strongest in the Paris region (Seine Federation) where their principal resolution at its congress received 1,037 votes as against 2,370 for Bataille Socialiste and 1,570 for Blum and the Executive. They also formed a powerful tendency within the Socialist Youth where they co-operated with, and eventually won over, a grouping of youth led by Fred Zeller, who had previously supported the centrist Pivert.

Throughout this period the Trotskyists had maintained their full revolutionary criticism not only of Blum and the leadership, but also of Zyromsky and Pivert.

Armed by Trotsky with an action programme and with articles and pamphlets which explained the Bolshevik-Leninist Group’s full revolutionary perspective and programme, they concentrated their fire on the opportunist practice of the united front being pursued by the French Communist Party and the SFIO. They stigmatised its empty parades. They attacked it as an unprincipled mutual non-aggression pact. They argued for committees of action and a workers’ militia against the fascist menace.

However, events were moving to limit the duration of the “French Turn”. These were:

  1. The onset of the “Popular Front” policy (formed on 14 July 1935) linking the SFIO, the PCF and the bourgeois Radical Party-a line endorsed and generalised at the 7th Comintern Congress during July and August of that year.
  2. The Stalin-Laval pact stated, “Stalin approves of French defence policy”, that is, re-armament. This was initiated as a Franco-Soviet pact against Hitler but it was extended to PCF support for national defence. The Popular Front therefore became a vehicle for social-patriotic preparation for the second imperialist war.
  3. The final collapse of the Comintern into social-patriotism sharpened the need to set in hand the formation of the Fourth International.
  4. The Blum leadership – under Stalinist pressure-moved to expel the Bolshevik-Leninists.
  5. Strikes, riots and mutinies broke out in Brest and Toulon, clearly indicating an approaching mass workers’ struggle.

The Trotskyists had collaborated with Pivert and his followers over practical issues-workers’ defence, defence against the party leadership. But they had not mixed their politics or ceased criticism of his left centrism. However, faced with the need to end their work in the SFIO and set up an independent party, the GBL hesitated.

All three tendencies in the leadership of the GBL fought the expulsion of GBL members from the SFIO on constitutional grounds, accusing Blum of being a “splitter”. This was accompanied by a weakening (and even hiding) of their criticism of the SFIO leaders and of Pivert. Revealing his ingrained centrism, Pivert refused to consider leaving the SFIO and, just after the expulsions began, he split from Zyromski and set up the “Gauche Revolutionnaire” tendency.

This was designed to limit the number of SFIO members going to the GBL. During this period the GBL showed that they did not know when and how to leave the SFIO. They began making political concessions in order to remain in the party. Pivert was not criticised for fear of losing his (purely verbal) “support” against the expulsions.

In December 1935 Trotsky pointed out that “It is necessary to know not only how to enter but also how to leave. When you continue to hang onto an organisation that can no longer tolerate proletarian revolutionaries in its midst, you become of necessity the wretched tool of reformism, patriotism and capitalism.”

All three tendencies agreed at this time that the GBL should set up a “mass paper” and that its programme should be something other than the full revolutionary programme. This was perhaps the first attempt by would-be Trotskyists to set up a centrist paper and organisation. But even on this point the organisation hesitated.

It was left up to the Molinier/Frank tendency to carry out the logic of this capitulation to social patriotism. They offered to set up a joint “mass paper” with Pivert. He refused. Undeterred, they launched such a paper – La Commune-themselves. For this they were expelled from the GBL for breaking discipline. The split lasted until June 1936, and effectively crippled the French Trotskyists, seriously limiting their ability to intervene in the great general strike of that summer. Trotsky summed up the principles of the entry work associated with the “French Turn” in the article “Lessons of the SFIO Entry”:

  1. Entry into a reformist centrist party in itself does not include a long term perspective It is only a stage which, under certain conditions, can be limited to an episode.
  2. The crisis and the threat of war have a double effect. First, they create the conditions in which the entry itself becomes possible in a general way, but on the other hand they force the ruling apparatus to resort to expelling the revolutionary elements.
  3. To recognise in time the bureaucracy’s decisive attack against the left wing, and defend ourselves from it, not by making concessions, adapting or playing hide and seek, but by a revolutionary offensive.
  4. What has been said above does not at all exclude the task of “adapting” to workers who are in the reformist parties by teaching them new ideas in the language they understand On the contrary, this art must be learned as quickly as possible. But one must not, under the pretext of leading the ranks, make principled concessions to the top centrists and left centrists.
  5. Devote the most attention to the youth.
  6. … firm ideological cohesion and perspicacity towards our entire international experience.”

In the years 1933-38 other entry tactics included the entry of the British Trotskyists into the centrist ILP (1933-6) and then into the Labour Party; the entry of the American Trotskyists into the American Socialist Party (1936-7) and the entry of the Belgian Trotskyists into the Belgian Labour Party (POB). In each case-in so far as Trotsky himself could influence matters-the principles of the tactic remained the same.

Trotsky’s view of the entry tactic as exemplified in the French turn, was firmly based on addressing an important section of the vanguard elements of the working class, of winning them to communism and the Fourth International. It was not viewed as a process of transformation of the Social Democratic parties into revolutionary or roughly revolutionary ones. This evolutionist distortion of the entry tactic which is current today, dates from the period of the degeneration of the Fl in the late 1940s. It involves the creation not of a revolutionary communist tendency or faction in social democracy winning to itself leftward moving reformists or subjectively revolutionary elements. Instead it sets about the creation of a centrist current with the “perspective” that this will automatically develop in a revolutionary direction under the pressure of objective circumstances.

Nowhere in Trotsky’s writings will one find any advice to form blocs for propaganda with centrists-let alone with “left” reformists. Quite the reverse! Trotsky’s political intransigence vis-a-vis Pivert during the entry tactic-a figure one hundred times further to the left than a Bevan or a Benn -is a measure of the degeneracy of the post-war epigones of the Fourth International- Pablo, Mandel, Healy, Grant.

The perspective of the entry tactic must be to raise the full revolutionary programme within the reformist party. Around this banner, the best elements within that party must be rallied. To achieve this there must be a real prospect of a sympathetic response from advanced workers in the reformist party to the presence of revolutionaries.

On the basis of workers’ democracy, the advanced elements must be prepared to tolerate, listen to and defend a revolutionary minority against the labour bureaucracy. The revolutionaries must address these workers with a revolutionary action programme, and specific “united front” demands.

This way, via unity in action on immediate, and where possible, transitional demands, a hearing can be won for communist tactics and propaganda. A revolutionary tendency can thus be crystallised-winning workers from left reformism and centrism. Faced with the inevitable attack of the party bureaucracy and the capitulation of the fake left leaders, communists will wage an intransigent defence of their programme not fearing expulsion.

Communists have no strategic commitment to membership of reformist parties. Since their tactic is to win workers from reformism, their aim can never be to stay in at all costs. That would lead to programmatic concessions in order to remain. If the rank and file supporters recruited inside social democracy have really been imbued with communist ideas they can and, will be, won to face expulsion and an independent existence as a revolutionary organisation.

Of course, this cannot be done by inculcating a morbid fear of expulsion, of “sectarianism” or isolation. A communist who cannot stand alone, cannot swim against the stream and cannot find the path back to the masses, is no communist.

The general practice of “Trotskyists” with regard to the entry tactic has been far removed from Trotsky’s method since at least 1951. The “theorist” of this break from Trotsky’s tactical method was Michel Pablo, Secretary of the Fourth International. Pablo’s report to the Tenth Plenum of the International Executive Committee of the Fourth International embodied this entryism “of a special type” or “entryism sui generis”.

Its very name suggested the break from Trotsky’s method, and indeed Pablo did not conceal it. Referring to Healy’s practice he remarked: “It has been developed since then in a manner considerably different, I would almost say qualitatively different, from ’entrism’ as it was practised by our movement in the years 1934-8.”

Pablo envisaged “long-term entryism” in all countries whose working class movements were dominated by “reformism or Stalinism” Pablo’s “tactic” was initially justified on the basis of a perspective of imminent war and revolution, on an objective process of world revolution whose time-scale would not allow for the smashing of the reformist parties and replacing them with revolutionary ones. Recognising that, for Trotsky, “it was not a question of facing the tasks of the war and revolution by remaining inside these parties …” Pablo recognised the difference of his conception and stressed it heavily:

“We are entering them in order to remain there for a long time banking on the great possibility which exists of seeing these parties, placed under new conditions, develop centrist tendencies which will lead to a whole stage of the radicalisation of the masses and of the objective revolutionary process in their respective countries. We wish in reality from the inside of these tendencies to amplify and accelerate their left centrist ripening . . . and to contest even with the centrist leaders for the entire leadership of these tendencies.” Pablo is insistent that the task is to “help in the development of their centrist tendencies and to give it leadership.” The tactics employed are to avoid “every manoeuvre and every policy which runs the risk of prematurely cutting us off from the great mass of these parties.”

The self-boycotting of Trotskyist policies involved in this was stated unambiguously in the report of the Austrian commission. Austria, with Britain, had been one of the two “special cases” in the 1944-47 period where the new entryism had been given a trial run-in the case of Britain under Pablo’s direct supervision and at the cost of messily liquidating the Revolutionary Communist Party.

Thus in Austria “The activity of our members will be governed by the following directives: a) not to come out as Trotskyists with our full programme; b) not to push forward programmatic and principled questions.” Instead of the “old Trotskyism”, a melange of immediate reform demands and demands culled from the Transitional Programme was concocted-all centring on policies to be adopted by the reformist parties in office.

The formula Pablo advanced as the summation of the politics to raise in the entry was, “The Socialist Party to power in order to apply a Socialist policy.” In British terms the slogan “Labour to Power on Socialist Policies/a Socialist Programme.”

Pablo’s position, practised today by the majority of the degenerate fragments of the Fourth International, is thoroughly liquidationist. By this we do not mean simply or exclusively the organisational liquidation of Trotskyist groups. This definition of “Pabloite liquidationism” pioneered by the International Committee opponents of Pablo (Cannon, Healy, Lambert) was crude and erroneous.

The decisive aspect of Pablo’s policy was the political, the programmatic liquidationism enshrined in his version of entryism. This took place despite the maintenance of an organisationally independent Fourth International throughout the 1950s. We completely reject “entryism sui generis” as a tactic and we regard it as a departure, in principle, from revolutionary communism.

Critical electoral support for reformist parties

It is an essential purpose of the united front tactic to break the mass of reformist – influenced workers from their leaders and unite with communists. Yet because the central political claim of the reformist leaders is that they can utilise bourgeois state power to satisfy the needs of the working class, it is necessary for communists to find ways of putting reformists to the test while in government.

At its most elementary level this takes the form of giving critical electoral support to the candidates of bourgeois workers’ parties. Lenin explained both the purpose and the form of this tactic in his advice to the British Communists in 1920:

“If we are the party of the revolutionary class, and not merely a revolutionary group, and if we want the masses to follow us and unless we achieve that we stand the risk of remaining mere windbags) we must, first, help Henderson or Snowden to beat Lloyd George and Churchill (or rather compel the former to beat the latter because the former are afraid of their victory!); second, we must help the majority of the working class to be convinced by their own experience that we are right; i.e. that the Hendersons and Snowdens are absolutely good for nothing, that they are petit – bourgeois and treacherous by nature, and that their bankruptcy is inevitable; third, we must bring closer the moment when on the basis of the disappointment of most of the workers in the Hendersons, it will be possible, with serious chance of success, to overthrow the government of the Hendersons at once.”

Although Lenin was here talking to communist groupings consisting of only several hundreds and not yet united into a single party, he was adamant about the form the tactic should take:

“We would take part in the election campaign, distribute leaflets agitating for communism, and in all constituencies where we have no candidates, we would urge the electors to vote for the Labour candidate and against the bourgeois candidate. Comrades Sylvia Pankhurst and Gallagher are mistaken in thinking that this is a betrayal of communism, or a renunciation of the struggle against the social traitors. On the contrary, the cause of communist revolution would undoubtedly gain thereby.”

Indeed, it was the very small size of communist forces and their distance from the working class that necessitated the use of the tactic: “At present, British Communists very often find it hard even to approach the masses, and even to get a hearing from them.

If I come out as a communist and call upon them to vote for Henderson and against Lloyd George, they will certainly give me a hearing. And I shall be able to explain in a popular manner not only why the Soviets are better than a parliament and why the dictatorship of the proletariat is better than the dictatorship of Churchill (disguised with the signboard of “bourgeois democracy”) but also that, with my vote, I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man – that the impending establishment of a government of Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and Snowdens just as was the case with their kindred spirits in Russia and Germany.”

As in all variants of the united front, the compromise involved in taking common action alongside workers, in this case voting for “their” candidates, does not in the least imply any compromise on the political programme of the communists. This is why there is no contradiction between standing communist candidates in some constituencies and voting for reformists in others.

In both cases the whole election is used as a vehicle for the explanation of the communist programme. Where communists do give critical support they raise immediate and certain transitional demands – demands that meet the most burning needs of the masses on the reformists. These demands are designed to mobilise workers in struggle to force a reformist party in government to act in the interests of workers, and to organise the workers to struggle for them independently if the reformists refuse to carry them out.

Both of these elements of critical support – demands on reformists, and organising independent struggle in pursuit of these demands – are crucial because a government of a bourgeois workers’ party (i.e. a bourgeois workers’ government) will inevitably be the tool of capital against the working class. Organising for struggle is vital to prevent defeat and demoralisation amongst the masses when this becomes clear in practice.

At the same time, the communists put forward their own programme, counterposing it to the reformist programme, even where they do not stand communist candidates. To win workers to a revolutionary alternative it is necessary to spell out, even for the duration of the united front (in this case, basically the election campaign) what the alternative is.

The tactic of critical electoral support flows solely from the existence of the organic relationship between the bourgeois workers’ party and the working class. It is not in any way predicated upon the programme or promises of the reformists. Communist agitation and propaganda for electoral support must not be open to interpretation as support for the reformists as a “lesser evil” than the open bourgeois parties.

The purpose of bringing the reformists to power is precisely to put them to the test, to prove that they are indeed as willing as the open bourgeois parties to defend the class rule and state power of the bourgeoisie and to attack the working class to serve that end. Similarly, communists do not divide their critical support for the bourgeois workers’ party, giving it to “left” candidates but not the “right”.

When discussing the question of critical support for the Labour Party in Britain from the ILP (November 1935) Trotsky insisted that such support had nothing to do with the question of sanctions against Italy after its invasion of Abyssinia:

“Question: Was the ILP correct in refusing critical support to the Labour Party Candidates who advocated sanctions? Answer: No. Economic sanctions, if real, lead to military actions, to war. The ILP itself has been saying this. It should have given critical support to all Labour Party candidates, i.e. where the ILP was not itself contesting. In the “New Leader” I read that your London division agreed to support only anti – sanctionist Labour Party candidates.

“This too is incorrect. The Labour Party should have been critically supported not because it was for or against sanctions but because it represented the working class masses . . . The war crisis does not alter the fact that the Labour Party is a workers’ party, which the governmental party is not. Nor does it alter the fact that the Labour Party leadership cannot fulfil their promises, that they will betray the confidence that the masses place in them.

“In peace time the workers will die of hunger if they trust in social democracy; in war, for the same reason, they will die from bullets. Revolutionists never give critical support to reformism on the assumption that reformism, in power, could satisfy the fundamental needs of the workers . . . No, in war as in peace, the ILP must say to the workers; ‘The Labour Party will deceive you and betray you, but you do not believe us. Very well we will go through the experience with you but in no case do we identify ourselves with the Labour Party programme.’ “

The relationship between the bourgeois workers’ parties and the working class can be extremely deep – rooted, in some countries over a century old. The experience of one or two terms of office, particularly in periods of relative capitalist expansion, may not be enough to break that relationship and win the mass of workers to communism.

This does not alter its tactical nature. The bringing to power of the reformists is never, and can never be, a strategic or necessary programmatic objective of the working class. The tactic has to continue to be used so long as the masses have not broken from their reformist leaders, even where revolutionaries might believe that the workers have already experienced enough to turn against them, a point once again made by Trotsky:

“It is argued that the Labour Party already stands exposed by its past deeds in power and its present reactionary platform. For example, by its decision at Brighton. For us – yes! But not for the masses, the eight millions who voted Labour.”

Whilst the tactic of critical electoral support is most generally applicable to mass – based bourgeois workers’ parties it can, in certain circumstances, be applied to smaller reformist or centrist formations. Again the deciding factor is that of the relationship of such currents to the working class, or sections of the working class. Where small reformist or centrist groups represent a genuine break to the left by workers or oppressed groups it is possible that illusions in their incomplete, or false, programmes can best be dispelled via the use of critical support.

However, such a tactic has to be very carefully weighed in its context. Communists must oppose any tendency in such formations to turn their backs on the working class who still support the major reformist party. In general the tactic of critical support by communists for other parties, applies to the other (bourgeois) workers’ parties. Exceptions to this occur support for revolutionary nationalists who are leading an anti-imperialist struggle, can, under certain circumstances, be granted.

Despite the different class base of such parties in the specific cases where critical support is granted, all of the guidelines for this variant of the united front apply. In no sense do we politically support (that is, subscribe to) the programme of petit-bourgeois revolutionary nationalists. Where centrist or reformist currents stand for election without significant working class support, they should be opposed. Support for such candidates could only be interpreted as support for their politics which communists can never give. Even more is this the case with petit-bourgeois currents such as ecologists and peace campaigners.

The Workers’ Government

The Fourth Congress of the Communist International recognised that in countries where the relationship of forces between reformist parties and the openly bourgeois parties raised the question of which should form the government, the slogan of a workers’ government, “follows inevitably from the entire united front tactic.”

Even where this was not the case the slogan itself could be “used practically everywhere as a general propaganda slogan.” That is to say, the argument that the government should be under the control of the workers’ organisations, should act in their interests against capital and should arm the workers’ organisations, is an elementary component of communist propaganda. The Fourth Congress did not complete the necessary work of elaborating the use of this slogan as a tactic.

Thereafter, scientific discussion of the question was first derailed at the Fifth Congress and later stopped altogether when the Stalinist Comintern dropped the term in favour of an open coalition with the bourgeoisie, the Popular Front.

However, in the deliberations and theses of the Fourth Congress are to be found the essential defining features of what constitutes, for communists, a real “Workers’ Government”:

“The overriding tasks of the workers’ government must be to arm the proletariat, to disarm bourgeois, counter-revolutionary organisations, to introduce the control of production, to transfer the main burden of taxation to the rich, and to break the resistance of the counter-revolutionary bourgeoisie. Such a workers’ government is only possible if it is born out of the struggle of the masses, is supported by workers’ bodies which are capable of fighting, bodies created by the most oppressed sections of the working masses.”

While this is a description of the type of government communists strive for, posed as a united front call on non-revolutionary working class parties, the slogan has an algebraic character. For communists this government will declare revolutionary war on the bourgeoisie:

“It is obvious that the formation of a real workers’ government, and the continued existence of a government which pursues a revolutionary policy, must lead to bitter struggle, and eventually to civil war with the bourgeoisie.”

However, if this is the content given to the slogan, “For a Workers’ Government”, by communists, it is clear that, since the slogan can be proposed as a united front, the reformists and reformist-led workers may, and probably will, give it another, non-revolutionary content. The Fourth Congress, therefore, found it necessary to identify five types of government to which such a label might be applied and to distinguish between them.

The first possibility was a “Liberal Workers’ Government”. By this was meant a government of a Labour Party which did not even profess to be socialist. This had been the case in Australia, and was likely to be the case in Great Britain. Secondly, the “Social Democratic Workers’ Government” this identified a government of the social democracy, as had existed in Germany. Both of these first two were governments of “bourgeois workers’ parties” and, in reality, covert coalitions with the bourgeoisie.

The Comintern recognised that, while such governments were tolerated by the bourgeoisie to fend off revolutionary offensives and that communists could give them no political support “even such governments may objectively help to accelerate the process of the disintegration of bourgeois power.”

This was because, having ridden to power as representatives of the workers, such governments might be forced to go further than they wished, thereby raising the expectations and demands of their worker supporters. In addition, since they would, inevitably, side with the bourgeoisie wherever this was necessary, they could also accelerate the disillusionment of the masses in reformist parties.

The third possibility was a government of workers and poor peasants (at that time possible in the Balkans, Poland, Czechoslovakia) and the fourth, a workers’ government in which communists could participate (i.e. the governmental expression of the workers’ united front.) Both of these could be supported by communists:

“Communists are however prepared to act together with those workers who have not yet recognised the necessity of the proletarian dictatorship, social democrats, members of Christian parties, non-party syndicalists etc. They are thus ready, in certain conditions and with certain guarantees, to support a workers’ government that is not communist . . . The two types numbered three and four, in which communists could take part, do not represent the dictatorship of the proletariat, they are not even a historically inevitable transition stage towards the dictatorship. But where they are formed they may become an important starting point for the fight for the dictatorship.”

The fifth possible form of workers’ government was that in which the communists themselves formed the government. This was the only “pure” form of the workers’ government and was equated, by the Comintern, with the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The Comintern’s typology of workers’ governments is, today, somewhat anachronistic in that a convergence of the old “Liberal-Labour parties” and the social democratic parties has taken place thereby “fusing” the two types of “bourgeois workers’ governments” into one.

In addition, the degeneration of the Soviet Union and its counter-revolutionary politics since the Second World War has created the possibility of a further form of the workers’ government-the “bureaucratic workers’ government”. Here we mean a government which, under exceptional circumstances, which always involve the prior political expropriation of the working class vanguard, expropriates the bourgeoisie’s property through bureaucractic measures. Thereafter, it introduces the fundamental economic structures of the dictatorship of the proletariat-a planned economy and state monopoly of foreign trade. Although this is a degenerate form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, it cannot advance the proletariat’s march towards socialism, and hence cannot be proposed or demanded by revolutionaries.

The specific measures taken by such a government against capital, can however be defended. The theses on the Workers’ Government adopted by the Fourth Congress bear the marks of the conflict, already developing in 1922, that accompanied the later degeneration of the Comintern. Zinoviev, for example, wished to equate the workers’ government directly and only with the dictatorship of the proletariat. Such an interpretation, that a “workers’ government” is simply “a synonym for dictatorship of the proletariat”, robs the slogan of its use as a united front proposal. In Zinoviev’s usage the slogan could only be posed ultimatistically against, for example, a social democratic government.

However, such ultimatism can easily be transformed into its opportunist opposite. This was done by Stalin and Bukharin when they equated “workers’ and peasants’ government” with the historically obsolete and therefore reactionary concept of the “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”.

This serevd to obscure the crucial point, namely, that such a government would be, programmatically, a bourgeois government. Stalin and Bukharin presented the formation of such a government in China as a programmatic necessity when in reality, as Trotsky explained, such a government would be “a chief barrier upon the (socialist revolution’s) path” and thus a negation of the workers’ government tactic.

The dangers inherent in such loose formulations as those contained in the Comintern Theses are most clearly seen with regard to types three and four of the typology of workers’ governments. These may, or may not, contain communists. The conditions upon which communists could enter such governments were strictly laid down by the Comintern: only by consent of the Comintern, only if the communist members of such a government were under the strictest party control and were in closest contact with the workers’ revolutionary organisations and, finally, only if the communists were granted absolute independence and the right of criticism.

What was not specified was the attitude to be taken either where these conditions were not met, or where, for other reasons, communists were not members of these workers’ governments.

Within a year of the Fourth Congress, divisions over the attitude to be taken toward SPD and USPD-dominated regional governments within Germany, and the conditions upon which Communists might enter them, were to have disastrous effects upon the German Communist Party (KPD). The correct usage of the “workers’ government tactic” can be seen from the practice of the Bolsheviks in Russia in the months between the February and October revolutions.

When the Bolsheviks demanded that all power should pass to the Soviets, they were in effect demanding a government based on the workers’ own fighting organisations, that is, in the later terminology, a workers’ government.

The actual forces that should compose such a government were not laid down in advance by the Bolsheviks. In this sense the demand is “algebraic”. In terms of the structure of the government all that is demanded is that it be responsible to the Soviets. Its political tasks, however, are spelt out most clearly: immediate peace, workers’ control over production, nationalisation of all banking, land to the peasants and the use of the armed power of the state (i.e. the soviet militia) to put down bourgeois resistance to these measures.

By winning workers to the recognition that these were the minimum necessary demands, the Bolsheviks created even greater pressure on the Mensheviks and SRs to adopt this programme. When coupled with the demand, “Break with the Bourgeoisie!” and the refusal of the Mensheviks to base themselves upon the soviets or to carry out the programme, this pressure rapidly destroyed the Menshevik majority in the Soviets.

When power did pass to the Soviets the resultant Soviet government consisted of those political parties who were prepared to base themselves upon Soviet power and carry out the necessary measures, in this case the Bolsheviks and the Left SRs. The Bolsheviks did not fetishise the role of the Soviets in the conquest of power. After the July Days, when the Bolsheviks were barred from the Soviets, they dropped the demand “All Power to the Soviets!”. Instead, Lenin began to see the factory councils as the possible organisational form of the power base of the workers’ government. The Soviets were only brought back to the centre of Bolshevik propaganda when they were re-democratised after the Kornilov incident.

During the Kornilov incident, the Bolsheviks were prepared to defend, arms in hand, a “bourgeois workers’ government”, unconditionally, against reaction. Their purpose in this was not only to allow the military preparations necessary for revolution to proceed but, more fundamentally, to keep the Mensheviks in power so that their bankruptcy and class treachery would become clear for a majority of the working class to see.

This support proved precisely to be the hangman’s noose for Kerensky. It paved the way for a workers’ government which was, in fact, the governmental form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The essence of the Bolshevik usage of the workers’ government tactic lies in the following:

  1. The raising of an “action programme” of immediate measures which both answer the needs of the workers and pose the need for working class state power.
  2. The government necessary to fulfil this programme, a workers’ government is posed, initially, algebraically, its precise composition is not defined.
  3. The workers’ and peasants’ parties are called on to break with the bourgeoisie and form such a government, relying for defence and support upon the workers’ own fighting organisations.
  4. As long as the reformists retain the support of the masses, communists defend them against reaction, whilst giving no political support to them and maintaining their own complete independence.
  5. Should a government, based upon soviets, be formed by reformists or centrists, communists will defend it, unconditionally, against reaction. As long as such a government respects soviet democracy, the communists will not violate this democracy by insurrection.
  6. Throughout, the communists retain their independence of programme and organisation and their intention to seize state power as soon as the vanguard of the working class, and behind it the majority of workers, are won to the need for revolution.

Only the clash of real social forces can give the call for a workers’ government a precise “arithmetical” content. Thus in 1917, the correct slogan before the Second Congress of Soviets was “All Power to the Soviets!” at the Second Congress the correct demand was “for a Bolshevik and Left S-R government”.

Whilst the demand that the reformists should form a government based upon, for example, soviets is a central element of the use of the workers’ government tactic, it must always be subordinated to political programme. Inasmuch as they are representative bodies, soviets can as well have a reactionary majority as a revolutionary one.

Their existence, in itself, guarantees nothing. This was proven, negatively, in the German Revolution of November 1918.

There, power lay in the hands of the councils of workers’ and soldiers’ delegates. As in Russia in February 1917, they handed power to their reformist leaders. The government proclaimed by SPD leaders Ebert and Scheidemann, after the failure of their attempt to save the monarchy in alliance with Prince Max von Baden, was a republican government based upon the workers’ councils. It was, in its form, a workers’ government.

However, its political content was that of a bourgeois workers’ government, that is, a covert alliance with the bourgeoisie to contain and ultimately destroy the revolutionary offensive of the proletariat. The SPD leaders used their support in the councils to transfer their power base to a parliamentary body via the National Assembly and the Weimar Constitution.

In this they brought the form of their government into correspondence with its content. Throughout 1919 the reformists, now in open “popular front” alliance with the bourgeois and aristocratic elements, used their bourgeois state power to terrorise and liquidate the revolutionary vanguard of the working class, capitalising on their isolation from the majority of workers.

The Kapp putsch of March 1920 revealed both the flexibility and the limitations of reformism when forced to the absolute limit of its ability to manoeuvre between the classes. Ebert, Scheidemann and Noske were kept in power by the mobilised and, in part, armed workers when the bourgeois army deserted them. However, when Legien proposed a “Workers’ Government” (by which he meant a “bourgeois workers’ government”) to ensure there was no repetition of the coup, the SPD leaders recognised that this would place them under too great pressure from the working class, In such a situation to openly proclaim the workers’ councils as the basis of the government would create expectations amongst the workers which the SPD knew they could not, and would not, fulfil. Faced with this prospect, the SPD preferred to form a new alliance with the bourgeoisie.

Once the new government was firmly in power the Reichswehr was mobilised to disarm the workers’ councils. At the time of Legien’s proposal, the KPD opposed in principle the formation of such a “workers’ government” and counterposed to it the need for revolution.

This in effect helped the SPD to get themselves off the hook and was a sectarian response. The value that the correct usage of the workers’ government tactic could have had at this time is clear: insistence upon the political programme of such a government, legalisation of the workers’ councils with their arms, demobilisation and disbandment of the Freikorps, immediate alliance with Soviet Russia, opposition to the Versailles reparations.

All this could have put a roadblock in Legien’s path. At the same time, positive support for the idea of a government of the workers’ parties and unconditional defence of such a government against reaction would have brought the KPD into closer contact with the social democratic masses and, thereby, increased the pressure on the reformists not to form an alliance with the bourgeoisie.

Had they, nonetheless, done this, the workers would have been better prepared to take independent action in their defence as soon as the reformists tried to demobilise and disarm them.

Given that Germany is considerably more representative of reformism’s hold on the working class in the advanced capitalist countries than is Russia, the lessons provided by the German experience must be learned by revolutionaries. In particular, a distinction must be made between defence of governments and political support for governments.

With regard to governments led by reformists, whether these are formally bourgeois constitutional (i.e. bourgeois workers’ governments) or formally based on workers’ organisation (workers’ governments), communists stand prepared to defend them, arms in hand if necessary, against reaction. Political support, by contrast, can only be given to a workers’ government that takes the road of revolution, that is, one that implements the central elements that define a “real” workers’ government.

In line with the Comintern and the Fourth International, we do not expect the bourgeois workers’ parties or centrists to prove capable of forming such a government. However, as the Transitional Programme explains, “. . . 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 petit-bourgeois parties including the Stalinists may go further than they themselves wish along the road to breaking with the bourgeoisie.”

The recognition by Trotsky of this remote, theoretical possibility, that the social democrats and Stalinists could form “real workers’ governments” that broke with the bourgeoisie in some significant manner, has been distorted by the epigones of Trotsky into the proposition that governments that include such parties are “workers’ governments”.

To suggest that either a CP-SP government in France, for example, is a workers’ government in anything other than the sense of a bourgeois workers’ government (as does Pierre Lambert’s Fl (IC)) or that the formation of a workers’ government by the British Labour Party is not only distinctly possible but strategically necessary is the most craven opportunism.

We reject such usages of the term “workers’ government”. The spirit of the theses of the Fourth Congress is quite clearly the following: “workers’ government” refers to a government which disarms the bourgeoisie, initiates measures to remove their control over production and, in order to enforce these policies and to defend itself, arms the working class through their own organisations and holds itself responsible to those organisations.

It is in this sense that we refer to the “demand” for a workers’ government by which we mean the proposal, in accordance with the principles of the united front, for communists and non-communists to close ranks, even at governmental level, to protect or advance the interests of the working class. All other forms of government by reformists and centrists are correctly referred to as “bourgeois, workers’ governments.” Obviously, raising the workers’ government as an immediate demand depends upon circumstances.

In general, except in cases of revolutionary crisis in which the question of power is raised, communists raise the workers’ government as propaganda for a real, revolutionary workers’ government, while at the same time demanding of reformist parties in government that they take concrete steps to break with the bourgeoisie and act for the workers.


1 L Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, New York, 1971, p.28
2 ibid p.158
3 K Marx, Capital Vol 1, Harmondsworth, 1971, p.680
4 VI Lenin, What is to be Done? In Collected Works Vol 5 Moscow, 1961, p. 384
5 L Trotsky, op cit, p.159
6 ibid
7 VI Lenin, quoted in On Scientific Communism, Moscow, 1967 p.490
8 F Engels, quoted in ibid
9 L Trotsky, The Crisis in the French Section, New York, 1977, p.45
10 L Trotsky, On Britain, New York, 1973, p.154
11 ibid p.161
12 D Ryazanov, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, New York, 1973, p.150
13 K Marx and F Engels, Articles on Britain, Moscow, 1971, p.394
14 VI Lenin, British Labour and British Imperialism, London, 1969, p.97
15 J Degras (Ed) The Communist International: Documents, Vol 1, London 1971, p.243
16 ibid p.248
17 Theses, Resolutions and Manifestos of the Communist International, London, 1980, p.302
18 L Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International, Vol 2, New York, 1953, pp 91-4
19 Degras, op cit pp 313-4
20 ibid p. 341
21 ibid p. 342
22 L Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, New York, 1970, p 129
23 L Trotsky, The First Five Years, op cit p 94
24 L Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism in Germany, New York, 1971, p 394
25 L Trotsky, The Third International after Lenin, op cit p 75
26 L Trotsky, Writings 1933-34, New York, 1972, p.55
27 L Trotsky, The Struggle against Fascism, op cit p 139
28 ibid p 138
29 We use the US spelling of “labor” for the “Labor Party Tactic” because this tactic, given classical expression by Trotsky, originated in the US and because it helps us to distinguish this tactic from tactics towards the British Labour Party.
30 V I Lenin, British Labour and British Imperialism, London, 1969, p 77
31 Marx and Engels Correspondence, Moscow, 1975 pp 385-6
32 T Draper, American Communism and Soviet Russia, New York, 1960, p 36
33 J Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, New York, 1973, p 59
34 The insufficient material available prevents us from making a definitive judgment on the
Comintern’s position in this period.
35 J Cannon, The Left Opposition in the US, 1928-31, New York, 1981, p 106
36 L Trotsky, Writings 1932, New York, 1973, p.95
37 L Trotsky, The Transitional Programme, New York, 1977, p. 190
38 ibid p 82-3
39 ibid p 108
40 Founding of the Socialist Workers’ Party, New York, 1982, p. 241
41 L Trotsky, Writings 1932, p 96
42 V I Lenin, Collected Works Vol 31, Moscow, 1966 p.199
43 ibid
44 V I Lenin, British Labour op cit, p.271
45 Quoted in M Woodhouse and B Pearce, Essays in the History of Communism in Britain, London, 1975, p.180
46 Founding of SWP, op cit p 217
47 L Trotsky, Writings, Supplement, 1934 – 40, New York, 1979 p 494
48 L Trotsky, Writings 1934-35, New York, 1974, p 393
49 L Trotsky, The Crisis in the French Section, op cit, p117
50 ibid p 125-6
51 Towards a History of the Fourth International, New York,, 1974, part 4 Vol 1 p.32
52 ibid p.35
53 ibid
54 ibid p. 36
55 ibid
56 Report of the Austrian Commission in International Information Bulletin, New York, 1951
57 VI Lenin, Collected Works 31, op cit p.85
58 ibid p.88
59 L Trotsky, Writings, 1935-36, New York, 1977, p. 199
60 ibid
61 Degras, op cit, p.425
62 ibid
63 ibid
64 ibid p.427
65 ibid
66 L Trotsky, Transitional Programme, op cit p 134
67 ibid p.135

Tags:  •   •   •   • 

Class struggle bulletin

Stay up to date with our weekly newsletter