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The Internationalist
  August 2015

ISO/Greek DEA: Theoretical Flim-Flam Greased the Skids to Sellout

Capitalist “Left Government” vs.
Revolutionary Workers Government

Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras lays down the law to SYRIZA Central Committtee, July 31, demanding that dissidents vote for brutal austerity. Opportunists cite Comintern Fourth Congress resolution on workers government to justify participation in SYRIZA, a bourgeois populist party, as it administers capitalist goverenment. Trotskyists insist there can be no workers government of a capitalist state. (Photo: Eurokinissi)

During 2010-11, Greek working people repeatedly went into the streets to protest the brutal austerity imposed on them by governments of the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Party (PASOK) and New Democracy (ND) on orders from the “Troika”1 of imperialist financiers. More than 30 one- and two-day general strikes, numerous mass protests and occupation of city squares lasting months had zero effect. So when SYRIZA2 campaigned in the 2012 elections calling for a “government of the left” to replace the disastrous governments of the center and right, its vote skyrocketed. In the 2013 elections for the (toothless) European parliament, it was the largest party in Greece. By 2014, it was evident that the “radical left” coalition could win next time around. But gearing up ostensible socialists in and around this populist party for the prospect of taking office in the capitalist state would take some doing.

The Greek cothinkers of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in the U.S. did their part by invoking the Communist International for theoretical justification. Last fall, the International Workers Left (DEA) published a volume of selected materials translated from the Fourth Congress (1922) of the Communist International, edited by Canadian socialist John Riddell under the title, Toward the United Front. DEA leader Antonis Davanellos contributed an introduction relating those documents to the current situation in Greece. “The essence of the united front policy was that the communist parties, in a situation in which an immediate struggle for power was not in the cards,” he wrote, “must propose alliances with Social Democratic parties – while retaining [their] independence and right to criticize the limits of the reformists – for the purposes of securing immediate economic and political demands.”

The purpose of this exercise was to provide a “sophisticated” rationale for support for a bourgeois government and participation in the government party. Thus Davanellos writes:

“During the Fourth Congress, the debate on the united front was focused on the issue of the workers’ government, meaning the possibility of a government supported by the left-wing workers’ parties, arising in the context of capitalism, through a combination of massive struggles from below and a parliamentary crisis.
“Despite strong objections, the slogan for a workers’ government was approved, as ‘a result of the logic of [the] united front.’ It was approved as suitable for general propaganda everywhere, and as an immediate political prospect in those countries where the crisis of the bourgeois parties created the potential for the formation of a workers’ government, while the conditions for actual workers’ power did not yet exist.”
–“The Fourth Comintern Congress,” International Socialist Review No. 95, Winter 2014-2015

A “workers’ government” without “actual workers’ power,” or even the conditions for it? Meaning? In plain text: some leftists and unionists sitting in the ministers’ seats while the military and police – the core of state power – are controlled by capital. If it sounds like a recipe for disaster, that’s because it is.

Davanellos’ conclusion: “In our view, the discussion on the Fourth Congress of the Comintern indicates a way to claim victory.” Some “victory”! In reality, this was “theoretical” rationalization for selling the masses the fool’s gold of a bourgeois “left government” that would supposedly put an end to austerity, but in reality would end up selling out Greek workers to the Eurobankers.

In part the ISO/DEA’s argument is based on distortions of the positions adopted by the Communist International, but it also reflects weaknesses and confusion in the Fourth Congress resolutions. As a rule, capitulatory policies among ostensible socialists are not the result of misunderstanding programmatic texts but reflect opportunist appetites, a desire for popularity and influence expressed in “get-rich-quick” schemes. But understanding the lessons of past revolutionary struggles and their strategic codification can help genuine communists arm politically against terrible errors and betrayals. So it is worth looking at the Comintern’s Fourth Congress discussion of the united front, and the workers government slogan in particular.

In the first place, the Fourth Congress did not advocate broad political “alliances with Social Democratic parties … for the purpose of securing immediate economic and political demands,” as Davanellos claims. Rather it called for united actions against the bourgeoisie together with social democrats and other reformists and centrists. The distinction is important. The ISR article quoted above cites Trotsky’s March 1922 article “On the United Front,” yet nowhere in that article will the reader find a call for political alliances with social democracy under capitalism. On the contrary, in his report on disputes in the French Communist Party, Trotsky argues emphatically against any political support for the social-democratic Dissidents who were allied with supposedly “progressive”bourgeois parties – which in France went under the labels Radical, Republican Socialist and even Radical Socialist – in a Left Bloc (later called the Cartel des Gauches) against the ruling right-wing National Bloc.

Trotsky wrote that while “we can and must, in all suitable instances, propose to the Dissidents a specific form of joint aid to strikers, to locked-out workers, unemployed, war invalids, etc., etc.,” such “practical agreements” are only permissible where they “must choose between the known interests of the bourgeoisie and the definite demands of the proletariat, to support the latter in action” and “renounce their ties with the parties of the bourgeoisie, that is, the ‘Left Bloc’,” a forerunner of the Popular Front in the 1930s. Anyone who supported the class-collaborationist Left Bloc, or even called for “unification with the reformists and Dissidents,” he insisted, “must be mercilessly ejected from our party.” The Comintern “Theses on the United Front” (December 1921) likewise called to challenge the reformists to support “mass strikes” and “revolutionary demonstrations” but ruled out any support to the Left Bloc or softness on those who refuse to break from the social patriots.

The International Workers Left, in contrast, is part of the “Coalition of the Radical Left,” a kind of Left Bloc in the form of a party – that is, a capitalist political formation subordinating ostensible socialists (like the DEA) to outright bourgeois elements. As promoters of the government party, whose election they loudly supported and trumpeted as a huge victory, they are responsible for the actions of the Greek government in carrying out the dictates of the imperialist bankers to impoverish the Greek masses. When we challenged ISO spokesman Todd Chretien on this at an April 23 forum in Brooklyn, ISOers tried to absolve themselves by (a) citing the Comintern Fourth Congress on the united front, and (b) saying that the DEA didn’t actually have anyone in the government. The latter is a distinction without a difference: the DEA campaigned for the government party in the elections and indeed is part of SYRIZA, including its leadership, hence it bears responsibility for its actions before the working class, no matter what edifying criticisms they may voice.

Beyond misrepresenting the Communist International’s tactic of the united front – turning the call for joint actions while maintaining political independence into a political alliance with reformist and even bourgeois forces – these opportunists justify being part of SYRIZA as it administers the capitalist state by citing the Fourth Congress discussions on the workers government. Several things should be said about this. For starters, a “left government” of the bourgeois populist SYRIZA is not identical to a government of reformist workers parties. And it’s quite a stretch to call the governing coalition together with the rightist Greek Democrats “left,” even in bourgeois electoral terms. But the fundamental betrayal by the DEA and its mentors is in being part of a bourgeois party and supporting its government based on the army, police, courts and overall repressive apparatus that is the core of the capitalist state, whose job is to defend the exploiters against the exploited, no matter which party is in office.

The social-democratic ISO and others in its milieu have insistently pushed this line ever since SYRIZA made its breakthrough into the electoral big time. An article on “The debate on the workers’ government” (International Socialist Review, June 2012) by John Riddell was quite explicit, arguing that the Comintern Fourth Congress (in its “Resolution on Tactics”) “sketches out the conditions under which a workers’ government may actually exist within a capitalist state, for a transitional period, with positive results.” This is why Davanellos thanked the ISO’s Haymarket Books “for its help in publishing a book in Greek on the Fourth Congress of the Communist International [Riddell’s Toward the United Front]…. We thought that with our relationship to SYRIZA, we were opening up a new path for socialists, but with these documents, we realized that the path was begun some years ago.”

We have seen where that path leads: to becoming accomplices and enforcers for the bourgeoisie. What the elucubrations of the ISO, DEA and Riddell on a “workers” or “left” government of a capitalist state mean in practice was shown on the night of July 15. As the deputies of the “Coalition of the Radical Left” voted for vicious measures of capitalist austerity in the Greek parliament, privatizing and impoverishing the masses on behalf of the Eurobankers, outside riot police at the orders of the SYRIZA government were brutally attacking anti-austerity worker and leftist demonstrators in Syntagma Square. Alexis Tsipras is not the only guilty party here, but also those who helped put SYRIZA in office, and the working people who bought their bill of goods are paying the check.

Trotsky: Only as a Bridge to Socialist Revolution

Leon Trotsky, ca. 1922. At time of the Fourth Congress and later, Trotsky insisted that call for a workers government must be to mobilize workers to break with the bourgeoisie.

At the same time as we expose the flim-flam of the reformist pseudo-socialists, it must be said that the theses of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International on the workers government are deeply flawed and confusionist. They open the door that opportunists and revisionists can drive through to carry out their distortion of Marxism. At the 1922 Congress, Grigori Zinoviev as chairman of the Comintern executive committee presented a sliding scale of different variants of “workers government,” ranging from “ostensible/illusory” regimes such as a Labour Party government in England or Australia, or a Social-Democratic government in Germany, to “genuine workers governments” which could include a government of workers and peasants in the Balkans, a government with Communist participation or, finally, a “genuinely revolutionary proletarian Workers government” led by the Communist Party.

There were sharp debates during the Congress over the slogan, with some insisting that a workers government can only mean the dictatorship of the proletariat, while others (notably Karl Radek) argued that it is a “transition point.” The resolution did specify that a workers government must have as its elementary tasks arming the proletariat, disarming the bourgeoisie, workers control of production and breaking counterrevolutionary resistance – all of which are a far cry from the track record in office of the bourgeois populist SYRIZA. But by presenting a potpourri of numerous varieties of workers governments, and saying that Communists might even support the “ostensible” variants, the resolution left plenty of room for opportunist interpretations.

It’s noteworthy that in their “new study” of the workers government slogan, the ISO, DEA and Riddell, all of whom claim some relation to Trotskyism, pass over Leon Trotsky’s comments on it at the time. In an article on “The Call for a Workers Government in France” (November 1922), the Bolshevik leader warned about this “algebraic formula” that “a purely parliamentary meaning can be given to it,” which would be “the most dangerous imaginable ideologically.” Instead, he emphasized, “calling for a workers government in France … is a slogan for mobilizing the masses of workers to break completely from parliamentary combinations with the bourgeoisie….”

Likewise, in seeking doctrinal authorization for their call for a “left government” of the capitalist state, the modern-day opportunists do not mention Trotsky’s drumbeat rendition of what the struggle for a workers government in France in 1934 would involve:

“…the creation and strengthening of the workers’ militia; well-organized demonstrations driving the reactionary bands from the streets; protest strikes; an open campaign for the unification and enlargement of the trade union ranks under the banner of resolute class struggle; stubborn, carefully calculated activity to win the army over to the cause of the people; broader strikes; more powerful demonstrations; the general strike of toilers of town and country; a general offensive against the Bonapartist government; for the workers’ and peasants’ power.”
–“Whither France” (October 1934)

A different historical period, to be sure, but this is light years away from SYRIZA in Greece today.

Over the years, various would-be Marxists have called a whole host of bourgeois regimes workers, or workers and peasants governments. The label has been applied to the post-WWII British Labour cabinet under Clement Atlee and Aneurin Bevan and to “Third World” nationalist capitalist regimes like Nasser’s Egypt (by Livio Maitan in 1965). Michael Pablo, who as head of the Fourth International broke from Trotskyism by abandoning the struggle for an independent Leninist vanguard, declared post-independence Algeria in 1962 under Ahmed Ben Bella’s National Liberation Front a workers and peasants government … and became a top advisor to Ben Bella in charge of implementing “self-management.” Others have used the term for budding Stalinist regimes, such as Mao Zedong’s China (Ernest Mandel in 1952) and Fidel Castro’s Cuba (Joseph Hansen in 1960) as they became bureaucratically deformed workers states.

Basically every pseudo-Trotskyist who wanted to tail after a regime would label it a workers (or workers and peasants) government. That doesn’t invalidate the slogan, correctly used, which derived from the experience of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Leon Trotsky in the founding document of the Fourth International, known as the Transitional Program (1938), discussed the demand for a workers and peasants government, and the misappropriation of this call by the Stalinized Comintern which gave it a very different content, capitalizing on the confusionist resolution of the 1922 Fourth Congress. Since the ISO, DEA and Riddell make no mention of Trotsky’s most extensive discussion of the slogan (and since, like Stalin, they seek to counterpose it to the dictatorship of the proletariat), we have reproduced it here. As Trotsky put it:

“The slogan, ‘workers’ and farmers’ government,’ is thus acceptable to us only in the sense that it had in 1917 with the Bolsheviks, i.e., as an anti-bourgeois and anti-capitalist slogan, but in no case in that ‘democratic’ sense which later the epigones gave it, transforming it from a bridge to socialist revolution into the chief barrier upon its path.”

Authentic Trotskyists insist there can be no “workers government” of a capitalist state, which no matter what party is in office is an apparatus for enforcing the rule of capital. When at different times in 1917, the Bolsheviks called on Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries to take power, it was on the basis of their majority in the soviets, to expose their refusal to break with the bourgeoisie, and was combined with the call for “All power to the soviets!” Trotsky conjectured that some petty-bourgeois party might somehow, somewhere “go further than they wish along the road to a break with the bourgeoisie” (a loophole that just about every opportunist in the business has sought to use), but added that such a hypothetical “workers and peasants government” would be “merely a short episode on the road to the actual dictatorship of the proletariat.” The experience of thebourgeois party SYRIZA in office, however, has been a short episode reaffirming the dictatorship of finance capital.

For revolutionary Marxists, as the crowning demand of a transitional program, a workers or workers and peasants government must be based on organs of workers power (such as workers councils) opposed to the bourgeois state apparatus. And when Trotskyists call for it, it is to begin the socialist revolution, to establish the dictatorship of the proletariat, not as some intermediate stage.

Trotsky noted that the Stalinists and social democrats in the 1930s falsely tried to portray the popular-front governments in France, Spain and elsewhere as representing some kind of workers and peasants governments. But in France this regime tying the workers to their class enemy opened the way for the Nazi-allied Pétain regime. In Spain, even with the workers rising up in arms, the bourgeois governments of the popular front blocked the road to revolution and opened the way for the bloody Franco dictatorship. In the 1970s, the Unidad Popular government of Salvador Allende in Chile awakened similar illusions, with the same disastrous outcome, as his last defense minister, Augusto Pinochet, installed a military junta, murdering tens of thousands.3Yet DEA leader Davanellos explains the demise of the UP as due to lack of “a clear direction on the character of a left-wing government,” rather than the nature of the popular front as a coalition of class collaboration chaining the workers to a sector of the bourgeoisie.

At the time, the Spartacist League/U.S. (SL) warned that: “It is the most elementary duty for revolutionary Marxists to irreconcilably oppose the Popular Front in the election and to place absolutely no confidence in it in power. Any ‘critical support’ to the Allende coalition is class treason, paving the way for a bloody defeat for the Chilean working people when domestic reaction, abetted by international imperialism, is ready” (“Chilean Popular Front,” Spartacist No. 19, November-December 1970). Chile had a very class-conscious working class, which by 1972 had set upcordones industriales(industrial belts), which could have become the basis for soviets. Yet they had been duped into believing that a peaceful and “democratic” transition to socialism was possible. When the clock struck 12 for the Allende regime on 11 September 1973, the workers were left both without arms and without a clear revolutionary program.

Marxists are notoriously exacting in programmatic questions because a false or even ambiguous interpretation can be used to justify polices with terrible consequences. In China in the mid-1920s, Stalin called Chiang Kai-shek’s bourgeois nationalist Guomindang a “workers and peasants party” and ordered the Communist Party to submit to its discipline, leading straight to Chiang’s 1927 Shanghai massacre of Communists and revolutionary workers. In 2015, pseudo-Trotskyists use the Fourth Congress discussions of a workers government to justify participation in the SYRIZA “left government” as this bourgeois populist party joins the imperialist financiers in “waterboarding” Greek working people, further submerging them in poverty.

In Greece today, and since the moment the “Coalition of the Radical Left” took office, the struggle for a genuine workers government is not to support SYRIZA, or to present a new more leftist version of it, but on the contrary, to wage intransigent struggle in defense of the working people against the depredations of finance capital, and its administrators in Athens. For genuine Leninists and Trotskyists, the struggle against capitalist austerity must lead to a workers government that is the opening of a Europe-wide socialist revolution.■

  1. 1.European Central Bank (ECB), European Commission (EC) and International Monetary Fund (IMF).
  2. 2.Greek acronym for Coalition of the Radical Left, which as we have shown is a bourgeois populist party based on middle-class sectors (see “What Is Syriza?The Internationalist No. 39, March-April 2015.
  3. 3.See the Internationalist Group Class Readings volume on The Popular Front: Roadblock to Revolution (May 2007).