The minimum platform and extreme democracy

Under what conditions should communists participate in government? Mike Macnair revisits the strategic problem of authority

In the third article of this series I argued that the "strategy of the mass strike" foundered on the need of the society for a central coordinating authority: the mass strike wave, and the strike committees it throws up, break down the existing capitalist framework of authority, but do not provide an alternative (Weekly Worker March 30). The resulting dislocation of the economy leads to pressure for a return to capitalist order.

The Kautskyan centre's solution to this problem was to build up the united workers' party and its associated organisations (trade unions, etc) as an alternative centre of authority. This gradual process could find its expression in the electoral results of the workers' party.

When it became clear that the workers' party had a majority of the popular vote, the workers' party would be justified in taking power away from the capitalists and implementing its minimum programme. If elections were rigged so that a popular majority did not produce a parliamentary majority, or legal or bureaucratic constitutional mechanisms were used to stop the workers' party implementing its programme, the use of the strike weapon, force, etc would be justified.

In implementing its programme, however, in Kautsky's view the workers' party would use the existing state bureaucratic apparatus: this merely reflected the need of 'modern society' for professional administration. In this respect Kautsky in his most revolutionary phase had already broken from the democratic republicanism of Marx's writings on the Commune and Critique of the Gotha programme and Engels' arguments in Can Europe disarm?

All power to the soviets?

In a series of arguments in spring 1917, and more elaborately in State and revolution, Lenin proposed an alternative: 'All power to the soviets'. The soviets, he argued, represented the "Commune form of state" praised by Marx in The civil war in France, and the power of the soviets was the natural form of working class rule. On this basis the Bolsheviks spent much of spring-summer 1917 struggling to win a majority in the soviets. And (as it happened, against Lenin's advice) the Bolshevik leadership and their Left Socialist Revolutionary and anarchist allies launched the October revolution under the banner of the Military Revolutionary Committee of the Petrograd Soviet and timed it to coincide with the October 25 meeting of the All-Russia Congress of Soviets - which turned out to have a Bolshevik majority and a far more overwhelming majority for 'All power to the soviets'.

I have already argued in the third article in this series that the belief that 'All power to the soviets' represented an alternative political authority was mistaken. The Russian soviets came closer than any other historical body of workers' councils to creating a national political authority. They did so because until October 25 the Menshevik and SR leaderships continued to believe that they had a majority in the soviets nationwide, and one which could serve as a support for the provisional government pending the creation by the constituent assembly of a 'proper' - ie, parliamentary - democracy.

No other 'reformist' or bureaucratic mass party has made the same mistake of using its own resources to develop a national coordination of workers' councils. No far left formation or alliance has proved able to create such a coordination against the will of the existing mass parties.

Moreover, as several anarchist critics of Bolshevism recognise, the soviets were far from simple workers' councils consisting of factory delegates. They contained the workers' and peasants' parties, and their political role was animated by the political role of the workers' and peasants' parties. October did indeed create a central coordinating authority for Russia: the Sovnarkom, or council of people's commissioners. But this was ... a provisional government based on the parties that supported 'All power to the soviets': initially a coalition of the Bolsheviks and Left SRs with some passive support from the Menshevik-Internationalists; later a purely Bolshevik government.

Nor could Sovnarkom base itself fully on the soviets and their militia aspect. The soviets did not attain a governing character, but met episodically rather than in continuous session; the militia proved insufficient to hold back either the Germans or the whites, so that Sovnarkom was forced to create a regular army and with it a bureaucratic apparatus. As I said in the third article, the problem of authority over the state bureaucracy was unsolved. Lenin and the Bolsheviks fell back on the forms of authority in their party and, as these proved a problem in the civil war, almost unthinkingly militarised their party and created a top-down, bureaucratic regime.

All power to the Communist Party?

The 2nd Congress of the Comintern in 1920 in its 'Theses on the role of the Communist Party in the proletarian revolution' recognised this reality: that it is a party or parties and a government created by a party or parties that can pose an alternative form of authority to the capitalist order. But the theses over-theorised this recognition and carried with it organisational conceptions that prevented the working class as a class exercising power through the Communist Party and communist government.

Thesis 5 says that "Political power can only be seized, organised and led by a political party, and in no other way. Only when the proletariat has as a leader an organised and tested party with well-marked aims and with a tangible, worked-out programme for the next measures to be taken, not only at home but also in foreign policy, will the conquest of political power not appear as an accidental episode, but serve as the starting point for the permanent communist construction of society by the proletariat."

And thesis 9 asserts: "The working class does not only need the Communist Party before and during the conquest of power, but also after the transfer of power into the hands of the working class. The history of the Communist Party of Russia, which has been in power for almost three years, shows that the importance of the Communist Party does not diminish after the conquest of power by the working class, but on the contrary grows extraordinarily."

However, the political ground given for these claims is the argument for the vanguard character of the party (theses 1-3). And a critical conclusion drawn is the need for strict Bonapartist centralism ("iron military order") in party organisation (theses 13-17). I discussed both of these in the sixth article in this series and identified how they can serve to destroy the character of the party as one through which the proletariat can rule (Weekly Worker April 27).

In fact, both arguments are wholly unnecessary to the proposition that "political power can only be seized, organised and led by a political party" (thesis 5). This proposition follows merely from the original arguments of the Marxists against the Bakuninists and opponents of working class participation in elections. If the working class is to take power, it must lead the society as a whole. To do so, it must address all questions animating politics in the society as a whole and all its elements. To do so is to become a political party even if you call yourself an 'alliance' or 'unity coalition' or whatever. To fail to do so is to fail even as an 'alliance' or 'unity coalition'.

Party-states everywhere

The converse of these points is that in the transition to capitalist modernity every state becomes in a certain sense a party-state. A critical difference between the successful dynastic absolutists in much of continental Europe and the failed Stuart absolutists is that the Bourbon, Habsburg and Hohenzollern absolutists made themselves prisoners of a party - the party which was to emerge, largely bereft of its state, as the 'party of order' in 19th century Europe. The Stuarts, following an older statecraft, avoided becoming prisoners of a party. James I, Charles I, Charles II and James II all endeavoured to manoeuvre between the Anglican-episcopal variant of the party of order, outright catholics and Calvinist critics of Anglican-episcopalianism in order to preserve their freedom of action as monarchs. This policy of preserving the individual monarch's personal freedom of action destroyed the political basis necessary to preserve the dynastic regime.

The result was a new sort of party-state: the revolution-state created in Britain in 1688-1714. This state was politically based on a bloc of Whigs and revolution (Williamite and later Hanoverian) Tories. The Jacobites, who clung to the Stuart dynasty, and the catholics, were excluded from political power and episodically repressed.

In the American revolution similarly what was created was a Whig party-state. The Whigs differentiated into Federalists and Democratic-Republicans, but outright Tories were largely driven out of the society.

The dialectical opposite of the American revolution was that over the later 18th to early 19th century, classical Whiggism was largely marginalised in Britain and the state became - as it is today - a Hanoverian-Tory party state, successively dominated by Liberal-Tory and Conservative-Tory parties and since 1945 by Conservative-Tories and Labour-Tories.

A similar story might be told of the French revolution. At the end of the day the result of the French revolution is a republican-state in which catholic monarchist legitimism is excluded from political power; and since 1958 a Gaullist-state dominated by Gaullist-Gaullist and Socialist-Gaullist parties.

The idea that political power can only be taken by a party or party coalition and that the resulting new state is necessarily a party-state does not, therefore, at all imply the tyrannous character of the party-state created in the Soviet Union and imitated in many other countries. This tyrannous character reflects the decision of the Bolsheviks (a) to create Bonapartist centralism within their party and (b) to use state repression (the ban on factions, etc) to resist the natural tendency of the party to split within the framework of the common party identification created by the new state form. Behind these decisions, as I argued before, is the fact that the Russian party-state created in 1918-21 was socially based on the peasantry.

The united front and the workers' government

The Comintern's united front turn in 1921-22 meant recognising the reality that there was more than one party of the working class, although the communists hoped to displace the socialists as the main party. In this context, 'All power to the soviets' could not express the working class's need for an alternative central coordinating authority; but neither could 'All power to the Communist Party'.

The 4th Comintern Congress in 1922 adopted as thesis 11 of its 'Theses on tactics' the slogan of the "workers' government, or workers' and peasants' government". The thesis is relatively short but quite complex.

It begins with the proposition that the slogan can be used as a "general agitational slogan". In this sense the "workers' government" is clearly intended to be merely a more comprehensible way of expressing the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In some countries, however, "the position of bourgeois society is particularly unstable and where the balance of forces between the workers' parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the order of the day as a practical problem requiring immediate solution. In these countries the workers' government slogan follows inevitably from the entire united front tactic." The socialists are advocating and forming coalitions with the bourgeoisie, "whether open or disguised". The communists counterpose to this "a united front involving all workers, and a coalition of all workers' parties around economic and political issues, which will fight and finally overthrow bourgeois power".

The paragraph continues: "Following a united struggle of all workers against the bourgeoisie, the entire state apparatus must pass into the hands of a workers' government, so strengthening the position of power held by the working class." This statement is extremely unclear. At a minimum it could mean that all the government ministries must be held by members of the workers' coalition; more probably that there would  be a significant purge of the senior civil service, army tops and judiciary to give the workers' coalition control; at the furthest extreme, that the whole state apparatus down to office clerks and soldiers should be sacked and replaced by appointees of the workers' coalition.

A critical paragraph follows: "The most elementary tasks of a workers' government must be to arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counterrevolutionary organisations, bring in control over production, shift the main burden of taxation onto the propertied classes and break the resistance of the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie." This is the only statement of the substantive tasks or minimum platform of a workers' government in the thesis.

Such a government "is possible only if it is born out of the struggle of the masses and is supported by combative workers' organisations formed by the most oppressed sections of workers at grassroots level. However, even a workers' government that comes about through an alignment of parliamentary forces - ie, a government of purely parliamentary origin - can give rise to an upsurge of the revolutionary workers' movement."

This pair of statements amounts to a non-dialectical contradiction. It is illusory to suppose both (a) that a workers' government can only be possible if it is born out of the mass struggle and supported by mass organisations - ie, soviets - and (b) that a parliamentary coalition agreement can cause an upsurge of the mass movement. The contradiction reflects the absence of a full theorisation of the prior transition in the Comintern leadership's collective thought from 'All power to the soviets' to 'All power to the Communist Party'. The first proposition is within the framework of 'All power to the soviets', and in a fairly strong sense is within the framework of the mass strike strategy. The second is more like Kautskyan strategy in the most 'revolutionary' reading that can be given to The road to power.

The next paragraph addresses communist participation in coalition governments. This requires (a) "guarantees that the workers' govern-ment will conduct a real struggle against the bourgeoisie of the kind already outlined", and (b) three organisational conditions: (1) communist ministers "remain under the strictest control of their party"; (2) they "should be in extremely close contact with the revolutionary organisations of the masses"; and (3) "The Communist Party has the unconditional right to maintain its own identity and complete independence of agitation."

This amounts to a government without collective responsibility. But a government without collective responsibility is not a decision-making mechanism for the society as a whole - ie, not a government at all.

The thesis tells us that there are dangers in the policy. To identify these, it points out that there are several types of government that can be called a workers' government but are not "a truly proletarian, socialist government". In this respect, the thesis continues the line of 'All power to the Communist Party': "The complete dictatorship of the proletariat can only be a genuine workers' government "¦ consisting of communists."

But "Communists are also prepared to work alongside those workers who have not yet recognised the necessity of the dictatorship of the proletariat. Accordingly communists are also ready, in certain conditions and with certain guarantees, to support a non-communist workers' government. However, the communists will still openly declare to the masses that the workers' government can be neither won nor maintained without a revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie."

The minimum platform

The conditions and the guarantees must be those stated earlier. But in this context it becomes apparent that the minimum platform, the "most elementary tasks of a workers' government", is utterly inadequate as a basis for deciding whether communists should participate in a coalition government or remain in opposition.

l "Arm the proletariat, disarm the bourgeois counterrevolutionary organisations." This is a statement of general principle. How? Disarming the bourgeoisie, in the sense of the possession of weapons by individual bourgeois, is a task that can only be performed through the exercise of military force. More practically, disarming the bourgeoisie means breaking the loyalty of the existing soldiers to the state regime.

This, in reality, is also the key to arming the proletariat: as long as the army of the capitalist state remains politically intact, the proletarians will at best be equipped with civilian small-arms - not much of a defence against tanks and helicopter gunships. The tsarist regime was disarmed by the decay of discipline caused by defeat in the run-up to February and by the effects, from February, of the Petrograd Soviet's Order No1, opening up the army to democratic politics.

l "Bring in control over production." This phrase is nicely ambiguous. What sort of control? If what is meant is workers' control in the factories, it is utterly illusory to suppose that a government could do more than call for it and support it: the workers would have to take control for themselves.

If what is meant is the creation of sufficient planning and rationing to deal with immediate economic dislocation caused by the bourgeoisie's endeavours to coerce the workers' government, this implies much more concrete measures, such as closure of the financial markets and nationalisation of the banks and other financial institutions; seizure into public hands of capitalist productive firms that endeavour to decapitalise or close, whether or not this is to lead to long-term nationalisation; the introduction of rationing of essential goods (food, etc) that become scarce as a result of capitalist endeavours to withdraw their capital ... and so on.

l "Shift the main burden of taxation onto the propertied classes." This is a less precise version of the demand of the Communist manifesto for a sharply progressive income tax. Its vagueness, in fact, makes it empty. A sharply progressive income tax strengthens the position of the working class both because it is directly redistributive against the possessing classes, and because its existence asserts limits on market inequality. It is for this reason that the right in the US, here, and across Europe, has begun the fight to cash its political gains of the last 25 years in the form of 'flat taxes'.

However, all taxes come out of the social surplus product, and thus at the end of the day the main burden of all taxation is at the expense of the propertied classes: if the taxes on workers are raised, the result is in the long run to force capitalists to pay these taxes in the form of wages. The slogan is thus empty and is in fact diplomatic in character.

"Break the resistance of the counterrevolutionary bourgeoisie." This point is so empty of content as to need no further comment.

An empty slogan

Without a clear minimum platform, the idea of a workers' government reduces to what it began with - a more 'popular' expression for the idea that the workers should rule - or to what it ends with - a communist government. It does not amount to a basis for working out concrete proposals for unity to the workers who follow the socialist parties.

This is made visible in Trotsky's 'Report on the 4th Congress'. Trotsky's initial account of the workers' government policy is as a policy to counterpose to the socialists' coalitionism: one that expresses in a very basic way the idea of class independence.

Trotsky expresses the view that there might be a workers' (or workers' and farmers') government in the sense of the Bolshevik-Left SR coalition of October 1917 - ie, a government of communists and left socialists as the beginning of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the fact that this coalition was based on a very concrete minimum platform - the distributive land policy as the solution to the food problem, peace without annexations, and 'All power to the soviets' - is wholly absent from this description.

The question becomes concrete in relation to Saxony, where the SPD and KPD together had a majority in the Land assembly and the local SPD proposed to the KPD a provincial government of the workers' parties. The Comintern congress told the KPD to reject this proposal. But the reasons given by Trotsky are not political reasons that could readily be explained to the ranks and supporters of the SPD:

"If you, our German communist comrades, are of the opinion that a revolution is possible in the next few months in Germany, then we would advise you to participate in Saxony in a coalition government and to utilise your ministerial posts in Saxony for the furthering of political and organisational tasks and for transforming Saxony in a certain sense into a communist drill ground so as to have a revolutionary stronghold already reinforced in a period of preparation for the approaching outbreak of the revolution. But this would be possible only if the pressure of the revolution were already making itself felt, only if it were already at hand. In that case it would imply only the seizure of a single position in Germany which you are destined to capture as a whole. But at the present time you will of course play in Saxony the role of an appendage, an impotent appendage because the Saxon government itself is impotent before Berlin, and Berlin is - a bourgeois government."

This is at best a vulgarised form of the arguments of Engels and Kautsky against minority participation of a workers' party in a left bourgeois government.


The emptiness of the Comintern's workers' government slogan had several sources. 'All power to the soviets' as a general strategy was intimately linked to the sub-Bakuninist mass strike strategy, which ignored or marginalised the problem of coordinating authority, and government is a particular form of coordinating authority.

'All power to the Communist Party' had the effect of emptying out the programme of the party in relation to questions of state form, because the Bolsheviks in 1918-21 had effectively abandoned this programme: the workers were in substance invited to trust the communist leaders because they were 'really' committed to fighting the capitalists.

When, within this framework, the Comintern proposes the possibility of a socialist-communist coalition, it can say nothing more than that the condition for such a government is that it must be 'really committed to fighting the capitalists': this is the meaning of the empty statements of abstract general principle of the minimum platform.

The concrete minimum platform used by the Bolsheviks in summer-autumn 1917, which formed the basis of the government coalition created in October - summarised in the tag, "Land, peace and bread: all power to the soviets" - is very precisely adapted to Russian conditions at the time. Any government coalition proposal elsewhere would need to have a similarly highly concrete and highly localised character. At the international level, the minimum government policy that would allow the communists to accept government responsibility would have to be concerned with state form and how to render the state accountable to the working class, leaving the national parties to identify the particular concrete economic, foreign policy, etc measures by which these principles could be rendered agitational in the immediate concrete circumstances of their country.

Trotsky's argument for the slogan in the 1938 Transitional programme gets halfway to this point: "Of all parties and organisations which base themselves on the workers and peasants and speak in their name, we demand that they break politically from the bourgeoisie and enter upon the road of struggle for the workers' and farmers' government. On this road we promise them full support against capitalist reaction. At the same time, we indefatigably develop agitation around those transitional demands which should in our opinion form the programme of the 'workers' and farmers' government'.

The problem is that the "transitional demands" of this programme address state power only in the form of 'All power to the soviets'. They therefore either remain abstract or become economistic, as in the various British left groups' 'Labour government committed to socialist policies'.


The most fundamental misunderstanding appears at the very beginning of the Comintern thesis. In some countries "the position of bourgeois society is particularly unstable and "¦ the balance of forces between the workers' parties and the bourgeoisie places the question of government on the order of the day as a practical problem requiring immediate solution."

In reality, in parliamentary regimes every general election poses the question of government - and every general round of local elections, since it indicates the electoral relationship of forces between the parties at national level, also poses it. (In presidential regimes the question of government is formally only posed in presidential elections, but is indirectly posed in elections to the legislature.)

The fact that it does so is central to the mechanism of the two-party system of corrupt politicians by which the capitalist class rules at the daily level in parliamentary regimes. The system was invented in Britain after the revolution of 1688 and has since been copied almost everywhere.

The patronage powers of government allow a party to manage the parliamentary assembly, to promote its own electoral support and to make limited changes in the interests of its base and/or its ideology. The 'outs' therefore seek by any means to be 'in'. In this game the bureaucratic state core quite consciously promotes those parties and individual politicians who are more loyal to its party ideology. The result is that outside exceptional circumstances of extreme crisis of the state order, it is only possible to form a government on the basis of a coalition in which those elements loyal to the state-party have a veto.

Those socialists who insist that the immediate task of the movement is to fight for a socialist government - outside extreme crisis of the state - necessarily enter into the game and become socialist-loyalists.

Eighteenth century British 'commonwealthsmen' and republicans understood the nature of the game better than 20th-century socialists and communists have done. Their solution was to reduce the powers of patronage of the central government bureaucracy and its ability to control the agenda of the legislature. They were defeated, in Britain by the Tory revival, in the early US by federalism; republicans in France were defeated by Bonapartism. But their ideas echo in Marx's writings on the Commune, in Marx's and Engels' attacks on Lassalleanism, and in Engels' critique of the Erfurt programme.

Political platform

This understanding enables us to formulate a core political minimum platform for the participation of communists in a government. The key is to replace the illusory idea of 'All power to the soviets' and the empty one of 'All power to the Communist Party' with the original Marxist idea of the undiluted democratic republic, or 'extreme democracy', as the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

This implies:

l universal military training and service, democratic political and trade union rights within the military, and the right to keep and bear arms;

l election and recallability of all public officials; public officials to be on an average skilled workers' wage;

l abolition of official secrecy laws and of private rights of copyright and confidentiality;

l self-government in the localities: ie, the removal of powers of central government control and patronage and abolition of judicial review of the decisions of elected bodies;

l abolition of constitutional guarantees of the rights of private property and freedom of trade.

There are certainly other aspects; more in the CPGB's Draft programme. These are merely points that are particularly salient to me when writing. A workers' government policy as a united front policy would have to combine these issues, summed up as the struggle for 'the undiluted democratic republic' or 'extreme democracy', with salient immediate (not 'transitional') demands, such as (for Britain now) the abolition of the anti-union laws, an end to PFI, the renationalisation of rail and the utilities.

Without commitment to such a minimum platform, communists should not accept governmental responsibility. Contrary to Trotsky's argument on Saxony, whether the conditions are 'revolutionary' or not makes no difference to this choice. To accept governmental responsibility as a minority under conditions of revolutionary crisis is, if anything, worse than doing so in 'peaceful times': a crisis demands urgent solutions, and communists can only offer these solutions from opposition.

What we should be willing to do - if we had MPs - is to put forward for enactment individual elements of our minimum programme, and to support individual proposals - say, of a Labour government - which are consistent with our minimum programme.

The point of such a policy would be to force the supporters of the Labour left in Britain, leftwingers in the coalitionist parties in Europe, to confront the choice between loyalty to the state-party and loyalty to the working class. But in order to apply such a policy we would first have to have a Communist Party commanding 10%-20% of the popular vote.

As I argued in the last article in this series, it is illusory to suppose that the policy of the united front can be applied as a substitute for overcoming the division of the Marxist left into competing sects (Weekly Worker May 11). Without a united Communist Party, the various 'workers' government' and 'workers' party' formulations of the Trotskyists are at best empty rhetoric, at worst excuses for a diplomatic policy towards the official lefts.

Fight for an opposition

We saw in the fourth article in this series that the Kautskyan centre, which deliberately refused coalitions and government participation, was able to build up powerful independent workers' parties (Weekly Worker April 13). In the sixth article we saw that the post-war communist parties could turn into Kautskyan parties, and as such could - even if they were small - play an important role in developing class consciousness and the mass workers' movement (Weekly Worker April 27). This possibility was available to them precisely because, though they sought to participate in government coalitions, the bourgeoisie and the socialists did not trust their loyalty to the state and used every means possible to exclude them from national government.

The Kautskyans were right on a fundamental point. Communists can only take power when we have won majority support for working class rule through extreme democracy. 'Revolutionary crisis' may accelerate processes of changing political allegiance, but it does not alter this fundamental point or offer a way around it. There are no short cuts, whether by coalitionism or by the mass strike.

The present task of communists/socialists is therefore not to fight for an alternative government. It is to fight to build an alternative opposition: one which commits itself unambiguously to self-emancipation of the working class through extreme democracy, as opposed to all the loyalist parties.