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Spartacist English edition No. 61

Spring 2009

Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State!

Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics

Corrections Appended

The Fifth Conference of the International Communist League in 2007 adopted the position of opposition to Marxists running for executive office in the capitalist state—e.g., president, mayor, provincial or state governor—as a matter of principle. This position flows from our understanding that the capitalist state is the executive committee of the ruling class. At its core this state consists of bodies of armed men—the military, police, courts and prisons—which function to protect the class rule of the bourgeoisie and its system of production.

Communist deputies can, as oppositionists, serve in the U.S. Congress, parliaments and other legislative bodies as revolutionary tribunes of the working class. But assuming executive office or gaining control of a bourgeois legislature or municipal council, either independently or in coalition, requires taking responsibility for the administration of the machinery of the capitalist state. The ICL had previously held that communists could run for executive offices, provided that we declare in advance that we don’t intend to assume such offices. But in re-examining this question, we concluded that standing for election to executive positions carries the implication that one is ready to accept such responsibility, no matter what disclaimer one makes in advance. For self-proclaimed Marxists to engage in such activity only lends legitimacy to prevailing and reformist conceptions of the state.

As we stated in our 2007 conference document:

“In adopting the position against running for executive office, we are recognizing and codifying what should be seen as a corollary to Lenin’s The State and Revolution and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, which are really the founding documents of the Third [Communist] International [CI, or Comintern]. This understanding was attenuated by the time of the Second Congress of the CI, which failed to draw a distinction between parliamentary and executive office in pursuing electoral activity. Thus we are continuing to complete the theoretical and programmatic work of the first four Congresses of the CI. It is easy enough to pledge that you won’t take executive office when the chance of winning is remote. But the question is: what happens when you win?...

“Our earlier practice conformed to that of the Comintern and Fourth International. This does not mean that we acted in an unprincipled way in the past: the principle had never been recognized as such either by our forebears or by ourselves. Programs do evolve, as new issues arise and we critically scrutinize the work of our revolutionary predecessors.”

— “Down With Executive Offices!” Spartacist No. 60, Autumn 2007

Behind the question of running for executive office stands the fundamental counterposition between reformism and Marxism: Can the proletariat use bourgeois democracy and the bourgeois state to achieve a peaceful transition to socialism? Or, rather, must the proletariat smash the old state machinery, and in its place create a new state to impose its own class rule—the dictatorship of the proletariat—to suppress and expropriate the capitalist exploiters?

Since the October Revolution of 1917, social democrats and reformists of various stripes, beginning with the Russian Mensheviks and exemplified most notably at the time by the German Social Democrat and erstwhile Marxist Karl Kautsky, have denounced the October Revolution, arguing that the Bolsheviks should not have led the proletariat to seize power. Instead, the reformists maintained that the Russian proletariat should have given the lead to and supported the liberal bourgeoisie—all in the name of defense of “democracy.” The State and Revolution, written on the eve of the October Revolution, and its companion piece, The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, written a year later, together represent a striking refutation of these views. In these works Lenin rescues Marx and Engels from the distortions and apologias of the opportunists, who selectively quoted, misquoted and, indeed, at times suppressed the views of Marx and Engels in order to justify their own anti-revolutionary course.

The revisionists and reformists are no less active today. Their politics consist of activity completely defined by the framework of bourgeois society. Such a policy was sharply characterized by Trotsky as “the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state” (Trotsky, The Lessons of October, 1924). Such accommodations to capitalist class rule by organizations claiming adherence to Marxism is, if anything, more pronounced today in a world defined by the final undoing of the October Revolution and the widespread acceptance that “communism is dead.”

Having made common cause with “democratic” imperialism against the Soviet degenerated workers state and the bureaucratically deformed workers states of East Europe, these organizations are now even more shameless in their embrace of bourgeois democracy, by and large dispensing with even lip service to the aim of proletarian revolution. In France, the fake Trotskyists of Lutte Ouvrière (LO), the Lambertist group (now calling itself Parti Ouvrier Indépendant) and the Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), flagship section of the United Secretariat (USec), regularly stand candidates for the semi-bonapartist presidency. The Lambertist candidate in the 2007 presidential election was a town mayor who ran as the “candidate of the mayors,” while LO and LCR help finance their electoral activity with direct and substantial subsidies from the French capitalist state. In Brazil, a leader of the USec group, Miguel Rossetto, actually served as a minister in the popular-front bourgeois government headed by the social democrat Lula. The French LCR has now transmuted itself into a “New Anti-Capitalist Party” that disavows any reference to communism or revolution. In Britain, Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party (core of the Committee for a Workers’ International), which in an earlier incarnation spent decades trying to reform the old Labour Party from within, now calls for a “mass workers party” defined by “Old Labour” reformism as an alternative to Blair/Brown’s New Labour Party.

Among the few avowedly Marxist groups that still sometimes speak the language of the October Revolution are the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) and the Internationalist Group (IG). The BT was formed by a handful who quit our organization in the early 1980s in response to the onset of Cold War II and is led by a sociopath named Bill Logan, whom we expelled in 1979 for crimes against communist morality and elementary human decency. The founding cadre of the IG defected from our party in 1996, following the capitalist counterrevolutions in East Europe and the Soviet Union, in pursuit of an opportunist orientation toward various “radical” petty-bourgeois milieus. These political bookends of the Cold War have come together in denouncing our line against running for executive office.

The IG denounced our position as a break in “the continuity of genuine Trotskyism” (“France Turns Hard to the Right,” Internationalist, July 2007), alluding to our 1985 election campaign running Marjorie Stamberg, now an IG supporter, for mayor of New York. In following the practice of our revolutionary forebears, our previous position was not subjectively unprincipled. But the IG’s continuing defense of such campaigns is unprincipled. The IG asserts that communists can run “for whatever post,” including that of imperialist Commander-in-Chief, arguing: “In the unusual case in which a revolutionary candidate had enough influence to be elected, the party would already have begun building workers councils and other organs of a soviet character. And the party would insist that, if elected, its candidates would base themselves on such organs of workers power and not on the institutions of the bourgeois state.” The BT then approvingly quoted this passage and the IG’s description of our position as a “novelty,” adding its own parliamentarist twist: “Perhaps the ICL comrades will eventually conclude that running for parliament is also ‘an obstacle’ because the winning party ends up exercising executive power” (“ICL Rejects ‘Executive Offices’: Of Presidents & Principles,” 1917, 2008).

In allowing that communists should run for executive office, the IG leaves open, and certainly does not disavow, the possibility of taking such office “if elected,” at least in a revolutionary situation. For its part, the BT obliterates any distinction between ministerialism—i.e., serving as a minister in a bourgeois cabinet—and contesting to serve as revolutionary workers deputies in a bourgeois parliament. Behind the BT’s whine lurks the implicit assumption (profoundly false and expressing petty-bourgeois prejudice) that bourgeois parliaments are sovereign bodies expressing the “will of the people.” Clearly what the BT has in mind is Her Royal Majesty’s Mother of Parliaments. The BT intones: “Of course, the only way to ‘abolish’ the institutions of the bourgeois state is through socialist revolution” (ibid.). But this is merely a Sunday sermon for the gullible.

The IG and the BT invoke a “revolutionary situation” as a deus ex machina—a screen for their opportunist position. Had the Bolsheviks, emulating the Mensheviks, entered the bourgeois Provisional Government in 1917 in the midst of that revolutionary situation, it would have rendered hollow the Bolsheviks’ call for “All power to the Soviets” and turned them into the left wing of bourgeois democracy. The IG and BT to the contrary, history is littered with “unusual cases” where would-be socialists and communists pleaded special circumstances to get their fingers on the levers of bourgeois state power. Moreover, the IG and the BT willfully ignore the fact that it is historically quite usual for reformist workers parties to get their first experience in administering the bourgeois state through winning electoral control of municipal councils, often in the absence of any hint of a revolutionary situation. Such municipalism, or “municipal socialism,” has served not to further proletarian revolution, but to derail it.

In a very real sense, the question of running for executive office goes right back to an incomplete fight against ministerialism initiated by left-wingers like Rosa Luxemburg in the Second International at the dawn of the 20th century. The arguments raised by the IG and BT in defense of their line on executive office place them to the right of the left wing of the pre-World War I social democracy.

The proletariat finds itself in a deep trough in this post-Soviet period. In these circumstances, it is even more crucial that revolutionaries defend the vital programmatic conquests of the past and, through critical study, debate and application, deepen and extend our understanding of the Marxist program. In doing so, it is necessary to look to the highest expressions of proletarian struggle and consciousness, like the lessons of the revolutions of 1848 and the Paris Commune of 1871 and of the proletariat’s greatest conquest yet, the October Revolution of 1917, which demonstrated conclusively that taking executive office in a capitalist government is counterposed to the fight for proletarian state power.

Marx and Engels on the State

In the Communist Manifesto, drafted just before the revolutionary upheavals in 1848, Marx and Engels made clear that the proletariat would have to erect its own state as “the first step in the revolution by the working class” (Manifesto of the Communist Party, December 1847-January 1848). They went on, “The proletariat will use its political supremacy to wrest, by degrees, all capital from the bourgeoisie, to centralise all instruments of production in the hands of the State, i.e., of the proletariat organised as the ruling class; and to increase the total of productive forces as rapidly as possible.” As Lenin notes in The State and Revolution, the question of how the bourgeois state was to be replaced by the proletarian state is not addressed in the Manifesto; nor, correspondingly, is the question of a parliamentary road to socialism—universal suffrage barely existed.

By early 1852, Marx had come to the understanding that “in its struggle against the revolution, the parliamentary republic found itself compelled to strengthen, along with the repressive measures, the resources and centralisation of governmental power. All revolutions perfected this machine instead of breaking it” (The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852). But it was above all the experience of the Paris Commune of 1871 that led Marx and Engels to conclude that “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made State machinery, and wield it for its own purposes” (The Civil War in France, 1871). Marx noted in this work that the “State power assumed more and more the character of the national power of capital over labour, of a public force organized for social enslavement, of an engine of class despotism.” The first decree of the Commune, therefore, was the suppression of the standing army, and the substitution for it of the armed people. The Commune, which replaced the bourgeois state power, “was to be a working, not a parliamentary, body, executive and legislative at the same time” (ibid.).

Several times, would-be supporters of Marx and Engels in the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) tried to defang or deflect their revolutionary internationalist perspective, centrally on the issue of the state. Marx is scathing in his treatment of the demand for a “free state” raised in the 1875 founding program of a unified SPD. Capturing in passing the essence of the Kaiser’s Germany of the 19th century, Marx excoriated the Gotha Program for resorting to the subterfuge

“of demanding things which have meaning only in a democratic republic from a state which is nothing but a police-guarded military despotism, embellished with parliamentary forms, alloyed with a feudal admixture and at the same time already influenced by the bourgeoisie, and bureaucratically carpentered, and then assuring this state into the bargain that one imagines one will be able to force such things upon it ‘by legal means.’

“Even vulgar democracy, which sees the millennium in the democratic republic and has no suspicion that it is precisely in this last form of state of bourgeois society that the class struggle has to be fought out to a conclusion—even it towers mountains above this kind of democratism which keeps within the limits of what is permitted by the police and not permitted by logic.”

— Critique of the Gotha Programme, 1875

Engels was compelled to return to this theme—and, at the same time, to denounce ministerialism—in his critique of the 1891 Erfurt Program. He wrote:

“If one thing is certain it is that our party and the working class can only come to power under the form of a democratic republic. This is even the specific form for the dictatorship of the proletariat, as the Great French Revolution has already shown. It would be inconceivable for our best people to become ministers under an emperor, as Miquel. It would seem that from a legal point of view it is inadvisable to include the demand for a republic directly in the programme, although this was possible even under Louis Phillippe in France, and is now in Italy. But the fact that in Germany it is not permitted to advance even a republican party programme openly, proves how totally mistaken is the belief that a republic, and not only a republic, but also communist society, can be established in a cosy, peaceful way.”

A Critique of the Draft Social-Democratic Programme of 1891, June 1891

Johannes Miquel was a member of the Communist League until 1852, after which he deserted to the German bourgeoisie, eventually serving as a leader of the National Liberal Party and as a government minister for a number of years.

The German SPD had grown enormously in size and influence in the last decades of the 19th century, despite the Anti-Socialist Law enacted by Bismarck in 1878, and even more so after the law’s repeal in 1890. A string of electoral successes resulted in the emergence of a huge municipal and parliamentary component. A sizable party treasury and other resources and a ponderous party and trade-union apparatus all combined to exert a conservatizing influence and to provide the material basis for a strong and ever more pronounced opportunist tendency. In his manuscript of an 1891 introduction to Marx’s main work on the Paris Commune, Engels wrote:

“Of late, the Social-Democratic philistine has once more been filled with wholesome terror at the words: Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Well and good, gentlemen, do you want to know what this dictatorship looks like? Look at the Paris Commune. That was the Dictatorship of the Proletariat.”

— Introduction to Marx’s The Civil War in France, March 1891

When the book was published, the SPD editors substituted “German philistine” for “Social-Democratic philistine”!

In the years following Engels’ death in 1895, leading SPDer Eduard Bernstein gave theoretical expression to the growing opportunist tendency by openly renouncing revolutionary Marxism in favor of an “evolutionary socialism” premised on gradual reform of bourgeois society. Bernstein pronounced that for him the “movement” was everything, the final goal of socialism nothing. Already by 1895, the reformist impulses in official German Social Democracy had become so strong that when Engels submitted his introduction to Marx’s The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, the SPD Executive objected that the work was excessively revolutionary, and asked Engels to tone it down. He reluctantly tried to oblige.

The SPD Executive did not print the entire redraft, omitting certain passages behind Engels’ back so as to make it appear that he had abandoned his revolutionary views. Most famously, they included his statement that “Rebellion in the old style, street fighting with barricades, which decided the issue everywhere up to 1848, had become largely outdated” (Introduction to The Class Struggles in France, 1848 to 1850, 6 March 1895). But they excised his categorical assertion, “Does that mean that in the future street fighting will no longer play any role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavourable for civilian fighters and far more favourable for the military. In future, street fighting can, therefore, be victorious only if this disadvantageous situation is compensated by other factors” (ibid.). Among these factors, explained Engels earlier in the introduction, was the need for the insurgents to make “the troops yield to moral influences.… If they succeed in this, the troops fail to respond, or the commanding officers lose their heads, and the insurrection wins” (ibid.).

Engels’ point was clearly not, as the reformists would subsequently maintain, that revolution was outdated, but that the proletarian forces had to split the bourgeois army. As early as 1856, acutely aware of the large peasant base at the core of the Prussian army, Marx had bluntly noted: “The whole thing in Germany will depend on whether it is possible to back the Proletarian revolution by some second edition of the Peasants’ war. In which case the affair should go swimmingly” (“Marx to Engels,” 16 April 1856).

Marx on the Question of a “Peaceful” Road

Social Democratic reformists also seized on isolated statements by Marx and Engels leaving open the possibility of peaceful transitions to socialism in certain countries. In a speech in Amsterdam, reported in the newspaper La Liberté, Marx said:

“We know that the institutions, customs and traditions in the different countries must be taken into account; and we do not deny the existence of countries like America, England, and if I knew your institutions better I might add Holland, where the workers may achieve their aims by peaceful means. That being true we must also admit that in most countries on the Continent it is force which must be the lever of our revolution; it is force which will have to be resorted to for a time in order to establish the rule of the workers.”

— Marx, “On the Hague Congress,” 8 September 1872

Marx based his argument on the understanding that these particular states lacked militarist cliques or significant bureaucratic apparatuses. But his speculation was in error. Britain and Holland both had vast colonial empires that required large bureaucracies, and attendant military forces to subdue the masses. During Victoria’s reign (1837-1901) Britain waged, in addition to the Crimean War of 1853-56, an almost nonstop series of lesser and not-so-lesser military actions and wars, capped off by the Second Boer War, to extend and maintain its empire.

The United States was then in the midst of its most democratic period, the era of Reconstruction. But the Civil War gave an enormous boost to Northern capital, so that by the time of the Grant administration all the pieces were in place that would blossom into full-blown imperialism over the coming decades. It was in this period that American capital began in earnest its economic subjugation of Mexico (already vastly diminished in territory as a result of the Mexican-American War of 1846-48), grabbing prime agricultural land, rail and mining concessions. The smashing of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 and, in that same year, the dismantling of Reconstruction were the unmistakable signposts of this process.

At the time of the 1848 Revolution, Marx had a different appreciation of whether England could undergo a peaceful transition to socialism. Writing of the defeat of the French working class at the hands of the bourgeoisie that year, Marx stressed the need for a successful rising against the English bourgeoisie:

“The liberation of Europe, whether brought about by the struggle of the oppressed nationalities for their independence or by overthrowing feudal absolutism, depends therefore on the successful uprising of the French working class. Every social upheaval in France, however, is bound to be thwarted by the English bourgeoisie, by Great Britain’s industrial and commercial domination of the world. Every partial social reform in France or on the European continent as a whole, if designed to be lasting, is merely a pious wish. And only a world war can overthrow the old England, as only this can provide the Chartists, the party of the organised English workers, with the conditions for a successful rising against their gigantic oppressors.”

— “The Revolutionary Movement,” 31 December 1848

Following the failed revolutions of 1848, capitalism grew enormously on the continent. But while the ratios of economic power shifted somewhat, Marx’s observations on Britain retained their essential validity, certainly through to the time of the Commune and later.

Whatever Marx may have speculated in 1872, we are now in a fundamentally different period of world history: the imperialist epoch characterized by the domination of monopoly finance capital, where a handful of great capitalist powers compete for world supremacy. Under such circumstances the idea of a peaceful, parliamentary transition to socialism is worse than a pipe dream: it is a reformist program that ties the proletariat to its class enemies.

As if to illustrate this point, in polemicizing against our opposition to running for executive office the misnamed Bolshevik Tendency cites an 1893 letter by Engels. Engels was replying to an émigré socialist (F. Wiesen of Baird, Texas), who argued that the practice of fielding candidates for the U.S. presidency constituted a denial of revolutionary principle. Engels dismissed Wiesen’s request for a principled position as “academic,” observing that the goal of workers revolution in the U.S. was still “a very long way off” and that it was premature to draw a principled line against running for Senate or president. He argued:

“I don’t see why it should necessarily represent an infringement of the Social-Democratic principle if a man puts up candidates for some political office for which election is required and if he votes for those candidates, even if he is engaged in an attempt to abolish that office.

“One might consider that the best way to abolish the Presidency and the Senate in America would be to elect to those posts men who had pledged themselves to bring about their abolition; it would then be logical for one to act accordingly. Others might consider this method to be inexpedient; it’s a debatable point. There could be circumstances in which such a mode of action might also involve a denial of the revolutionary principle; why it should always and invariably be so, I entirely fail to see.”

— “Engels to F. Wiesen,” 14 March 1893

Engels’ central concern was to prod the émigré-dominated Socialist Labor Party (SLP) into helping a political working-class movement get started. To that end he had some years earlier stressed the importance of the 1886 United Labor Party candidacy of single-taxer Henry George for New York mayor, viewing this as a step toward an independent workers party on the model of the social-democratic parties in Europe. In 1893 Engels did not know where principled lines would be drawn in the parliamentary arena when the hour of battle arrived. How could Engels at that point have unraveled the questions of what kind of party the workers needed to take power, of the principles of Bolshevik parliamentarism, of the dynamics of critical support to reformist misleaders? Even so, he knew enough to point the way to civil war.

Not so the BT, whose motivation in citing Engels is to engage in a backhanded defense of ministerialism. As Trotsky wrote in polemicizing against Kautsky in 1920:

“The bourgeois democratic state not only creates more favorable conditions for the political education of the workers, as compared with absolutism, but also sets a limit to that development in the shape of bourgeois legality, which skilfully accumulates and builds on the upper strata of the proletariat opportunist habits and law-abiding prejudices. The school of democracy proved quite insufficient to rouse the German proletariat to revolution when the catastrophe of the war was at hand. The barbarous school of the war, social-imperialist ambitions, colossal military victories, and unparalleled defeats were required. After these events, which made a certain amount of difference in the universe, and even in the Erfurt Programme, to come out with common-places as to the meaning of democratic parliamentarism for the education of the proletariat signifies a fall into political childhood.”

— Trotsky, Terrorism and Communism, 1920

Perhaps the BT will now change the name of its journal from 1917 (is the reference to February?) to 1893!

The Struggle Against Millerandism, 1900

The question of the nature of executive office in the bourgeois state was posed pointblank in June 1899, when Alexandre Millerand became the first socialist leader to accept a portfolio in a bourgeois government. In an 1894 letter not cited in the BT’s tract, Engels had specifically warned against just such a possibility in the event that the Italian Republicans came to power at the head of a revolutionary movement supported by the Socialists. Writing to Italian Socialist leader Filippo Turati, Engels argued:

“After the common victory we might be offered some seats in the new government, but so that we always remain a minority. That is the greatest danger. After February 1848 the French socialist democrats (of the Réforme, Ledru-Rollin, Louis Blanc, Flocon, etc.) made the mistake of accepting such posts. Constituting a minority in the government they voluntarily shared the responsibility for all the infamies and treachery which the majority, composed of pure Republicans, committed against the working class, while their presence in the government completely paralysed the revolutionary action of the working class which they claimed they represented.”

— “Engels to Filippo Turati,” 26 January 1894, Marx and Engels, Selected Correspondence (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1955)

Five years later, Millerand justified serving as Minister of Commerce under Prime Minister René Waldeck-Rousseau by arguing that the French Republic was otherwise in danger of being overthrown by a reactionary alliance of monarchists and aristocrats in league with the officer corps and the Catholic church. Sitting alongside Millerand in this government of “republican defense” was the bloody suppressor of the Paris Commune, General Galliffet.

The background to all this was the Dreyfus Affair, a political scandal that had thrown France into a profound political crisis. Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the General Staff, was convicted by secret court-martial in 1894 of selling military secrets to a foreign power and sentenced to life in prison. Soon it was revealed that Dreyfus had been framed by the army tops to hide the guilt of another officer, a member of the aristocracy. After years of captivity on Devil’s Island, off French Guiana, Dreyfus was retried and again found guilty in September 1899; he was finally given a presidential pardon later that month. Millerand had been brought into the government as a way to defuse the ongoing crisis.

Already polarized over the Dreyfus Affair, the French Socialist movement was split over Millerand’s action. One wing supported Millerand—especially Jean Jaurès, who in 1898 became one of Dreyfus’s most ardent and eloquent defenders, albeit strictly within the bounds of bourgeois liberalism. The other wing, the French Workers Party (POF), led by Jules Guesde and Paul Lafargue, had refused to defend Dreyfus and opposed Millerand joining the government.

Joining in the debate on Millerandism was Rosa Luxemburg, a founder of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania who then became prominent in the left wing of the SPD, particularly through the fight against Bernstein. In her eloquent refutation of Bernstein’s reformism, Luxemburg observed:

“People who pronounce themselves in favor of the method of legislative reform in place of and in contradistinction to the conquest of political power and social revolution, do not really choose a more tranquil, calmer and slower road to the same goal, but a different goal. Instead of taking a stand for the establishment of a new society they take a stand for surface modification of the old society.”

— Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution, 1898-99, reprinted in Rosa Luxemburg Speaks (New York: Pathfinder Press, 1970)

Luxemburg rightly argued that socialists should defend Dreyfus, using the case to indict French capitalism and militarism and to further the class struggle. But she opposed Millerand’s entry into the government and argued:

“The character of a bourgeois government isn’t determined by the personal character of its members, but by its organic function in bourgeois society. The government of the modern state is essentially an organization of class domination, the regular functioning of which is one of the conditions of existence of the class state. With the entry of a socialist into the government, and class domination continuing to exist, the bourgeois government doesn’t transform itself into a socialist government, but a socialist transforms himself into a bourgeois minister.”

— “Affaire Dreyfus et cas Millerand” (The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case), 1899, Luxemburg, Le Socialisme en France (1898-1912) (Socialism in France [1898-1912]) (Paris: Editions Pierre Belfond, 1971) (our translation)

Once in government the logic of Millerandism came to the fore—preservation of the Waldeck-Rousseau government at any cost. As Rosa Luxemburg commented ironically, “Yesterday, the cabinet must take defensive action in order to save the Republic. Today, the defense of the Republic must be given up in order to save the cabinet” (“Die sozialistische Krise in Frankreich” [The Socialist Crisis in France], 1900-01 [our translation]). Following the resignation of Waldeck-Rousseau, the Jaurès group supported the Radical government of Emile Combes and voted for the ministerial budget, including funding for the army and navy.

Lenin noted the evident link between Bernstein’s revisionism and Millerandism:

“Millerand has furnished an excellent example of practical Bernsteinism; not without reason did Bernstein and Vollmar rush so zealously to defend and laud him. Indeed, if Social-Democracy, in essence, is merely a party of reform and must be bold enough to admit this openly, then not only has a socialist the right to join a bourgeois cabinet, but he must always strive to do so. If democracy, in essence, means the abolition of class domination, then why should not a socialist minister charm the whole bourgeois world by orations on class collaboration? Why should he not remain in the cabinet even after the shooting down of workers by gendarmes has exposed, for the hundredth and thousandth time, the real nature of the democratic collaboration of classes?”

What Is To Be Done? (1902)

The discussion on ministerialism dominated the Paris Congress of the Second International in 1900, with Luxemburg, pioneer Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov, American SLP leader Daniel De Leon and other leftists pitted against the right wing, exemplified by SPDers Bernstein and Georg von Vollmar, who backed Jaurès and Millerand. Politically in the center, as was increasingly the case in the German party, was SPD theoretician Karl Kautsky, who was still widely deemed to be “the pope of Marxism” in the International. As historian G.D.H. Cole observed: “It was Kautsky’s task to devise a form of words that would satisfy the centre and disarm the extreme Left without driving the right wing out of the International, and without making Jaurès’s position impossible” (Cole, The Second International 1889-1914 [London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd., 1960]).

The compromise resolution cooked up by Kautsky is instructive as to how deeply social-democratic reformism permeated the Second International:

“In a contemporary democratic state the conquest of political power by the proletariat cannot be the work of a mere putschist action but can only constitute the conclusion of a long and laborious work of political and economic organization of the proletariat, of its physical and moral regeneration and of a step-by-step conquest of elective seats in communal representative assemblies and legislative bodies.

“But where governmental power is centralized, its conquest cannot take place piece by piece. The entry of an individual socialist into a bourgeois ministry cannot be regarded as the normal beginning of the conquest of political power but can be only a temporary and exceptional makeshift in a predicament.

“Whether in a given case such a predicament exists is a question of tactics and not of principle. Here the Congress shouldn’t decide. But in any case this dangerous experiment can be advantageous only if it is approved by a united party organization and the socialist minister is and remains the mandate-bearer of his party.”

Internationaler Sozialisten-Kongress zu Paris 1900 (International Socialist Congress in Paris 1900) (Berlin: Expedition der Buchhandlung Vorwärts, 1900) (our translation)

The gratuitous warning against putschism and the arguments in favor of gradual penetration of municipal councils and legislative assemblies were intended to placate the revisionists and were recognized as such by them. The “exceptional makeshift” escape clause was also happily accepted by Millerand and Jaurès, because they shamelessly wielded that argument to support their own ministerialism. In fact, it was the bourgeoisie that embraced this socialist minister in an “exceptional” move to liquidate the political crisis engendered by the Dreyfus Affair.

The minority resolution introduced by Guesde and Italy’s Enrico Ferri reaffirmed that “by conquest of public powers one should understand the political expropriation of the capitalist class, whether this expropriation takes place peacefully or violently.” It continued:

“Therefore it only allows, under a bourgeois regime, for occupying elective positions which the Party can seize through its own forces, i.e., the workers organized as a class party, and it necessarily forbids any socialist participation in bourgeois governments, against which socialists must remain in a state of irreconcilable opposition.”

Congrès Socialiste International Paris 23-27 Septembre 1900 (Geneva: Minkoff Reprint, 1980) (our translation)

Thus the minority resolution left open the possibility of taking positions in the bourgeois regime that “the Party can seize through its own forces.” Plekhanov went further, accepting the possibility that participation in a bourgeois cabinet might be a valid tactic under certain exceptional circumstances. Thus he initially supported Kautsky’s resolution but tried to amend it to include at least an implicit criticism of Millerand, arguing that if a socialist is forced to join a bourgeois cabinet in extreme cases, he is obliged to leave if it reveals a bias in its relation to the struggle of labor and capital. Plekhanov himself acknowledged that on a theoretical level his amendment “cannot stand up to criticism: what kind of bourgeois government could possibly be unbiased toward the struggle of labor with capital?” (“Neskol’ko slov o poslednem Parizhskom mezhdunarodnom sotsialisticheskom kongresse” [A Few Words About the Latest International Socialist Congress in Paris], April 1901 [our translation]). Jaurès then deftly amended Plekhanov’s amendment to say that a socialist must leave the cabinet if a unified socialist party deems the government biased in the struggle of labor with capital—but France did not have a unified party! Trapped, Plekhanov ended up voting with the minority while complaining that Guesde’s motion was too categorical in its opposition to entering a bourgeois cabinet.

Guesde also introduced a motion opposing socialist participation in class-collaborationist coalitions with bourgeois parties. While asserting that “class struggle forbids any kind of alliance with any fraction whatsoever of the capitalist class,” the motion allowed that “exceptional circumstances make coalitions necessary in some places” (Congrès Socialiste International [our translation]). This loophole was large enough that even the hardened opportunists could vote for the resolution, and it passed unanimously.

Amsterdam 1904: Millerandism Revisited

The Second International returned to the subject of Millerandism at its 1904 Amsterdam Congress. A year before, at the 1903 SPD Congress in Dresden, Kautsky had joined in endorsing a resolution condemning revisionism and, implicitly, Millerandism. American SLP leader Daniel De Leon commented acerbically: “At the Paris Congress an anti-Millerandist attitude was decidedly unpopular; there Kautsky was ‘running with the hares’,” while at Dresden Kautsky was “again to the fore, now ‘barking with the hounds’” (“The Dresden Congress,” Daily People, 3 January 1904).

The Guesdists then introduced the SPD resolution for endorsement at Amsterdam. As passed in 1904, the resolution “condemned in the most decisive way revisionist efforts to alter our previously proven and victorious class-struggle tactics in such a way that a policy of accommodation to the existing order of things takes the place of the conquest of political power through vanquishing our opponents” (Internationaler Sozialisten-Kongress zu Amsterdam [International Socialist Congress in Amsterdam], [Berlin: Expedition der Buchhandlung Vorwärts, 1904] [our translation]). It proclaimed itself frankly against any “party which contents itself with reforming bourgeois society” and further declared that “the Social Democracy, in keeping with Kautsky’s resolution at the International Socialist Congress in Paris in the year 1900, cannot strive for a share of governmental power within bourgeois society.” The positive reference to the 1900 Kautsky resolution was a characteristic sop to the right wing. The rebuke of the revisionists did not lead to a parting of ways, as all wings accepted the conception of a “party of the whole class,” i.e., a single, unified party of the working class encompassing all tendencies from Marxism to reformism. Nonetheless, delegates on both the left and the right at Amsterdam saw the 1903 Dresden resolution as a sharp counter to the conciliation of Millerandism in 1900.

De Leon had voted against Kautsky’s resolution at the 1900 Paris Congress. In 1904, De Leon again objected to endorsing Kautsky’s stand in 1900, submitting the following resolution:

“Whereas, At the last International Congress, held in Paris, in 1900, a resolution generally known as the Kautsky Resolution, was adopted, the closing clauses of which contemplate the emergency of the working class accepting office at the hand of such capitalist governments, and also, especially, PRE-SUPPOSES THE POSSIBILITY OF IMPARTIALITY ON THE PART OF THE RULING CLASS GOVERNMENTS IN THE CONFLICTS BETWEEN THE WORKING CLASS AND THE CAPITALIST CLASS….

“Resolved, First, That the said Kautsky Resolution be and the same is hereby repealed as a principle of general Socialist tactics;

“Second, That, in fully developed capitalist countries like America, the working class cannot, without betrayal of the cause of the proletariat, fill any political office other than such that they conquer for and by themselves.”

— De Leon, “Millerandism Repudiated,” Daily People, 28 August 1904

Failing to get any support for his resolution, De Leon voted for the main resolution.

In allowing for the filling of political offices conquered by the workers “for and by themselves,” De Leon’s resolution again avoided the key issue—the necessity of smashing the machinery of the capitalist state and replacing it with the dictatorship of the proletariat. While De Leon took a principled stand against bourgeois ministerialism, he was also committed to electoralism. Founding American Communist and, later, Trotskyist James P. Cannon honored De Leon’s pioneering role in the formative period of the American socialist movement while rightly noting that he “was sectarian in his tactics, and his conception of political action was rigidly formalistic, and rendered sterile by legalistic fetishism” (Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism [New York: Pathfinder Press, 1962]).

As he made clear in a 1905 address originally published as “The Preamble of the I.W.W.,” De Leon left open the possibility that, at least in the U.S., the proletariat could conquer political power peacefully through the ballot box, after which the new socialist government would disband itself and cede power to an administration of “socialist industrial unions” (“The Socialist Reconstruction of Society,” De Leon, Socialist Landmarks [New York: New York Labor News Company, 1952]). According to De Leon, such unions, formed under capitalism, would grow organically, progressively seizing and wielding economic power against the capitalists. Beginning in the 1890s, De Leon’s SLP faithfully, every four years, put up its own candidate for the U.S. presidency. Following De Leon’s death in 1914 and the SLP’s rejection of the lessons of the October Revolution as applicable to the American terrain, the party was transformed into a fossilized shell of its former self.

But in its electoralism, there was little to distinguish the SLP even under De Leon from the Socialist Party of Eugene V. Debs. From 1900 onwards, Debs was to run five times for the office of president of the United States. Debs intoned: “The workers must be taught to unite and vote together as a class in support of the Socialist Party, the party that represents them as a class, and when they do this the government will pass into their hands and capitalism will fall to rise no more” (“The Growth of Socialism,” 1906, Writings and Speeches of Eugene V. Debs [New York: Hermitage Press, 1948]). Debs ran his last presidential campaign in 1920, winning over 900,000 votes, from a prison cell in Atlanta, Georgia, where he was serving a ten-year sentence (as well as being disenfranchised for life) for his opposition to World War I. Debs’ presidential campaigns as well as his great authority cemented a tradition of socialists running for Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism that was by and large uncritically accepted by all except anti-parliamentary opponents of any electoral activity whatsoever. But where Debs advocated the overthrow of capitalism, many Socialist leaders, such as Morris Hillquit, were virulently anti-Leninist reformists. Another, Victor Berger, was aptly described as a “sewer socialist” for a program of municipal reform that was nearly indistinguishable from that peddled by the bourgeois Progressive movement.

Municipalism and the Second International

Municipalism was not the preserve solely of overt reformists. The deep division between the reformist and revolutionary wings of the Second International over socialists taking responsibility for bourgeois government at the ministerial level did not extend to the municipal level. In fact, the 1900 Paris Congress was unanimous in approving a resolution on municipalism that asserted:

“In consideration that the municipality can become an excellent laboratory of decentralized economic life and at the same time a formidable political bastion to be used by local socialist majorities against the bourgeois majority of the central power, once serious autonomy has been achieved;

“The International Congress of 1900 states:

“That all socialists have a duty, without ignoring the importance of general politics, to explain and appreciate municipal activity, to give to municipal reforms the importance given to them by their role as ‘embryos of the collectivist society’ and to strive to turn communal services—transit, lighting, water supply, electricity, schools, medical services, hospitals, baths, wash houses, municipal stores, municipal bakeries, food service, heating, workers’ housing, clothing, police, municipal works, etc.—into model institutions, from the standpoint both of the public interest as well as of the citizens employed in these operations.”

Congrès Socialiste International (our translation)

This is perhaps the most graphic example of the dilemma of the parties of the Second International—a real program of minimum reforms, and a maximum program of socialism, all too often to be dragged out for Sunday political sermons, but nothing more. Even those who were most outspoken and consistent in their opposition to Bernsteinism and Millerandism thought socialists could participate in municipal administrations. Thus Rosa Luxemburg wrote:

“The question of participating in a town council is entirely different. It’s true that both the town council and the mayor are tasked, inter alia, with administrative functions that have been transferred to them and with the carrying out of bourgeois laws; historically, however, both constitute entirely counterposed elements....

“For socialist tactics the result is a fundamentally different stance: the central government of the present state is the embodiment of bourgeois class rule, whose elimination is an absolutely necessary prerequisite to the victory of socialism; self-administration is the element of the future, with which the socialist transformation will link up positively.

“Admittedly, the bourgeois parties know how to infuse their class content even into the economic and cultural functions of the municipality. But here socialists will never get into a situation of being untrue to their own politics. As long as they are in the minority in town representative bodies, they will make opposition their guideline in the same way as in parliament. But if they attain a majority, then they will transform the municipality itself into an instrument of struggle against the bourgeois central power.”

— “The Socialist Crisis in France,” 1900-01 (our translation)

This view was in part a holdover from the period of the ascendancy of the revolutionary bourgeoisie, when the commune was a weapon of the urban classes against the feudal monarchical state. In the late Middle Ages, the communes in Italy and France served as bastions in which the mercantile bourgeoisies developed the roots of capitalism within feudal society and against the forces of absolutism. But after the bourgeoisie came to power, it pushed the autonomous communes aside in order to cohere a strong centralized state to defend its class interests at the national level. The adoption of municipalism by the Second International reflected not only theoretical confusion but also the fact that those reforms that were attained through class struggle in the last decades of the 1800s were often dispensed by socialist-controlled local governments.

In fact, Marx and Engels had sought to dispel municipalist illusions on several occasions. Following the revolutions of 1848, they cautioned that the proletarians “must not allow themselves to be misguided by the democratic talk of freedom for the communities, of self-government, etc.” (“Address of the Central Authority to the League,” March 1850). And in his writing on the Paris Commune, Marx warned against confusing the functions of the medieval commune with the tasks of proletarian socialism:

“It is generally the fate of completely new historical creations to be mistaken for the counterpart of older and even defunct forms of social life, to which they may bear a certain likeness. Thus, this new Commune, which breaks the modern State power, has been mistaken for a reproduction of the mediaeval Communes, which first preceded, and afterwards became the substratum of, that very State power.... The antagonism of the Commune against the State power has been mistaken for an exaggerated form of the ancient struggle against over-centralization.... The very existence of the Commune involved, as a matter of course, local municipal liberty, but no longer as a check upon the, now superseded, State power.”

The Civil War in France

In a similar vein, in the aftermath of the 1905 Russian Revolution Lenin denounced the “philistine opportunism” of Menshevik schemes for “municipal socialism”:

“They forget that so long as the bourgeoisie rules as a class it cannot allow any encroachment, even from the ‘municipal’ point of view, upon the real foundations of its rule; that if the bourgeoisie allows, tolerates, ‘municipal socialism,’ it is because the latter does not touch the foundations of its rule, does not interfere with the important sources of its wealth, but extends only to the narrow sphere of local expenditure, which the bourgeoisie itself allows the ‘population’ to manage. It does not need more than a slight acquaintance with ‘municipal socialism’ in the West to know that any attempt on the part of socialist municipalities to go a little beyond the boundaries of their normal, i.e., minor, petty activities, which give no substantial relief to the workers, any attempt to meddle with capital, is invariably vetoed in the most emphatic manner by the central authorities of the bourgeois state.”

The Agrarian Programme of Social-Democracy in the First Russian Revolution 1905-1907, November-December 1907

Indicative of the contradictions inherent in the support for socialist control of municipal governments by many revolutionary social democrats was that Luxemburg vehemently rejected parallel arguments applied by Vollmar’s cothinkers to defend voting for the budget of the Baden state government in May 1900. Citing their assertion that “the budgets of the individual German states, in contrast to that of the Reich, contain for the most part expenditures for culture, not the military,” Luxemburg retorted:

“Whether the budget contains more or fewer military expenditures or expenditures for culture, such quantitative considerations would be decisive for us only were we in general to base ourselves on the present state and merely fight its excesses, as for example the military state.... In fact, we refuse to vote funding from the taxpayers for the German Reich not just because it is a military state but rather above all because it is a bourgeois class state. The last applies, however, equally to the German federal states.”

— Luxemburg, “Die badische Budgetabstimmung” (The Vote on the Baden Budget) (our translation)

The false distinction between national and state as opposed to municipal governments left the opponents of ministerialism wide open to attack by Millerand’s supporters. Thus Jaurès seized on the fact that the Guesdists of the POF themselves occupied a number of executive offices at the municipal level to indict the Guesdists’ opposition to ministerialism as inconsistent and hypocritical. In a 26 November 1900 debate in Lille (a city with a POF mayor), Jaurès argued:

“One speaks of the responsibilities that a socialist minister assumes in a bourgeois ministry; but don’t your municipal elected officials assume responsibilities? Are they not a part of the bourgeois state?... I could say that the socialist mayor, even though he is socialist, can be suspended by the central power and disqualified from holding office for a year; I could say to you that he necessarily agrees, because he is mayor, to enforce and administer a great number of bourgeois laws, and I could say to you that if there are violent conflicts in your streets, he too is forced, for fear of it being said that socialism is plunder and murder, to call on the police.”

— “le Socialisme en débat” (Socialism Under Debate), l’Humanité hebdo supplement, 19-20 November 2005 (our translation)

Jaurès’ jibe at the Guesdists’ municipalism, while in the service of defending Millerandism, was on the mark and reflected an abiding weakness in the Second International that was to carry over into the Third International.

World War I: A Watershed

The reformism deeply ingrained in the Second International manifested itself in its incapacity to sort out the questions of parliamentarism, ministerialism and coalitionism. The Second International did not assimilate the lessons of the Paris Commune on the need to smash the bourgeois state and erect in its place a proletarian state of the Commune type. Indeed, the leadership of the SPD, Marx and Engels’ avowed heirs, did much to bury or obscure the lessons drawn by Marx and Engels from this epochal event.

The first interimperialist world war brought all the accumulated problems of the Second International to a head. Confronted with the onset of the war in August 1914, the International spectacularly collapsed into social-chauvinism. In the belligerent countries, only the Bolsheviks and some Mensheviks in Russia and the Bulgarian and Serbian parties opposed war funding for their governments. The social-patriots rallied behind their own bourgeoisies in the name of “defense of the fatherland,” falsely claiming as a precedent national wars of 19th-century Europe in which a victory for one side or the other had represented social progress against feudal reaction. World War I signaled that capitalism had entered the imperialist epoch: both sides were dominated by great powers fighting to redivide the world among themselves. Thus Marxists opposed both sides in the war, advocating revolutionary defeatism.

World War I was a watershed, provoking a profound realignment in the revolutionary workers movement internationally. Prepared by their years-long struggle and decisive split with the Russian opportunists—the Mensheviks—Lenin and his Bolsheviks emerged as the leadership of an international movement to recapture the banner of revolutionary Marxism. Beginning with his first writings on the war in September 1914 and continuing with the Bolsheviks’ interventions at the 1915 Zimmerwald and 1916 Kienthal conferences of antiwar socialists, Lenin hammered away at two intertwined themes: the need to break irrevocably with the social traitors of the Second International and their centrist apologists and to fight for a new, Third International; and the call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war against the capitalist system. (For a documentary account of Lenin’s struggle for a new International, see Olga Hess Gankin and H.H. Fisher, The Bolsheviks and the World War.) The revolutionary wave created by the continuing interimperialist slaughter broke at imperialism’s weakest link, tsarist Russia. With the collapse of the autocracy following the revolutionary upheavals of February 1917, the possibility presented itself to turn the Bolshevik slogan into a reality. Key to politically arming the Bolshevik Party to lead the struggle for proletarian state power was Lenin’s The State and Revolution, written in the summer of 1917, in which he exhumed Marx and Engels’ writings on the state and the lessons of the Commune.

The call to turn the imperialist war into a civil war left no room for electoral/parliamentary coalitions with bourgeois parties. Nevertheless, great struggles by Lenin, later joined by Trotsky, were required to keep the Bolshevik Party on the revolutionary course that was to lead the workers and peasants of Russia to triumph in October of 1917, posing acutely at every step the issue of which class would rule. Illusions in electoralism and parliamentarism, growing out of a failure to recognize that the old state power had to be swept away, threatened at every turn to derail the revolution. Ministerialism and municipalism had their decisive test in the crucible of this great revolution.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the early Communist International demarcated a line of principled opposition to coalitionism. The Trotskyists upheld this line against its reversal by the Stalinized Comintern (see, for example, James Burnham’s 1937 pamphlet, The People’s Front: The New Betrayal). But the issue of executive office was not clearly resolved even by the early, revolutionary CI.

Lessons of the Bolshevik Revolution

The February Revolution, as Trotsky noted, presented a paradox. (All dates referring to Russia in 1917 are in the old Julian calendar, which was 13 days behind the modern calendar.) The Russian bourgeoisie and its liberal parties dreaded the revolution and tried to hold it back. The revolution was made with great determination and audacity by the masses who, as in 1905, threw up soviets (councils) that quickly became the masters of the situation. But these soviets were initially dominated by the petty-bourgeois Socialist Revolutionaries (SRs) and the Mensheviks, who were wedded to the idea that the revolution in Russia must be a bourgeois revolution and thus sought to thrust power into the hands of the impotent bourgeois Provisional Government. Referring to these Compromisers, Trotsky wrote:

“A revolution is a direct struggle for power. Nevertheless, our ‘socialists’ are not worried about getting the power away from the class enemy who does not possess it, and could not with his own forces seize it, but, just the opposite, with forcing this power on him at any cost. Is not this indeed a paradox? It seems all the more striking, because the experience of the German revolution of 1918 did not then exist, and humanity had not yet witnessed a colossal and still more successful operation of this same type carried out by the ‘new middle caste’ led by the German social democracy.”

— Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, 1930

Referring to this situation of dual power, Trotsky explained, “The February overturn led to a bourgeois government, in which the power of the possessing classes was limited by the not yet fully realized sovereignty of the workers’ and soldiers’ soviets” (ibid.). (In Germany 1918, the workers and soldiers councils remained under Social Democratic leadership and were soon subordinated to and liquidated by the bourgeois government.)

In the first weeks after the February Revolution, the Bolshevik Party had lost its revolutionary voice. In March, after ousting more left-wing Bolsheviks from the editorship of Pravda, Stalin and Kamenev proclaimed in the paper that the Bolsheviks would support the Provisional Government “in so far as it struggles against reaction or counter-revolution” and declared: “Our slogan is pressure upon the Provisional Government with the aim of compelling make an attempt to induce all the warring countries to open immediate negotiations...and until then every man remains at his fighting post!” (quoted in ibid.). Such declarations caused great anger in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party. Party locals reacted by demanding the new Pravda editors be expelled from the party. But the conciliators—the “March Bolsheviks”—stuck to their guns, with Stalin, for example, arguing that the workers and peasants had achieved the revolution and the task of the Provisional Government was to fortify those conquests!

When Lenin returned to Russia on 3 April 1917, he immediately launched a furious struggle against the March Bolsheviks and the capitulationist parties of the soviet majority. Lenin demanded a perspective aimed at convincing the workers and peasants to form a Paris Commune-type government based on the soviets. In so doing, he explicitly renounced his earlier conception that the Russian Revolution would take the form of a “democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry.” Lenin’s conclusion was operationally congruent with Trotsky’s conception of permanent revolution—that the Russian proletariat could win power in advance of the Western proletariat and would be compelled to transcend the bourgeois-democratic tasks of the revolution and undertake socialist measures. This congruence found expression some months later in the fusion Trotsky facilitated between the Inter-District Committee (Mezhraiontsy), in which he played an influential role, and the Bolsheviks.

Lenin was able to prevail in spite of his previous erroneous analytic formula, most fundamentally because his views were in accord with the revolutionary temper of the proletariat and because throughout the whole of its existence Bolshevism had maintained a steadfast stance of class independence and irreconcilable opposition to both the tsarist regime and the Russian bourgeoisie. It is the most graphic example of the critical role of party leadership in a revolutionary situation. Had the Bolsheviks not been able to make the turn away from being the left critics of the Compromisers, the party might well have let slip the revolutionary opportunity, which would not repeat itself for a very long time.

It is from this standpoint that the experiences of the 1917 Russian Revolution have great significance in assessing the role of parliamentarism, ministerialism and municipalism, and starkly highlight the question of contesting for executive office. The Provisional Government grew out of the rump of the old tsarist Duma. The great ministerialist of 1917 was of course Alexander Kerensky, a deputy chairman of the Provisional Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet, who on 2 March 1917 eagerly and with no formal approval accepted the post of Minister of Justice in the newly minted Provisional Government. Although none of Kerensky’s colleagues in the Committee were at that time eager to follow in his footsteps, by May 1 the majority of the Executive Committee decided (opposed only by the Bolsheviks and Julius Martov’s Menshevik-Internationalists) to enter into a coalition government with the bourgeoisie. In so doing, they hoped to work for a gradual dissolution of the soviets, seeking to replace them on the local level with new municipal governments (local dumas), and on the national level with a constituent assembly. The coalition government was thus to be a bridge to a bourgeois parliamentary republic. But the soviets persisted.

The Bolshevik response to this coalition of class treason was the slogan, “Down with the ten capitalist ministers!” As Trotsky explained, the slogan “demanded that the posts of these ministers be filled by Mensheviks and Narodniks. ‘Messrs. bourgeois democrats, kick the Cadets out! Take power into your own hands! Put in the government twelve (or as many as you have) Peshekhonovs [a “socialist” minister], and we promise you, so far as it is possible, to remove you “peacefully” from your posts when the hour will strike, which should be very soon!’” (The Lessons of October, 1924). The Bolshevik tactic was not aimed at capturing the Provisional Government, but at exposing the reformists for refusing to take power in the name of the soviet majority. The Bolsheviks sought to show the workers that this bourgeois government should be swept into the trash bin of history and replaced with a workers government based on the soviets of workers, soldiers and peasants. This was, if you will, a concretization of the slogan, “Down with executive offices!”

An integral part of Lenin’s rearming of the Bolshevik Party in April 1917 was a sharp dispute over how to orient to local duma elections. Highlighting the failure of the revolutionary wing of the Second International to correctly address the question of municipalism, L.M. Mikhailov, chairman of the Bolshevik Petrograd Committee, cited the 1900 Paris Congress as his authority to advocate a classic social-democratic program of municipal reform:

“The municipality, urban public administration, has always been regarded and is regarded by socialists of all existing tendencies and shades as ‘the embryo of a collectivist society.’

“And even though we firmly understand and remember that the victory of a ‘collectivist society’ is predicated on fundamental reconstruction of the entirety of the modern class state, socialists nonetheless unanimously declared at their Paris International Congress (1900) to charge their supporters with the duty of struggling to take control of local public self-administration, seeing in this ‘an outstanding laboratory of decentralized economic life and a powerful political bastion’.”

Sed’maia (aprel’skaia) vserossiiskaia konferentsia RSDRP (Bol’shevikov), Petrogradskaia obshchegorodskaia konferentsia RSDRP (Bol’shevikov), Protokoly (The Seventh [April] All-Russian Conference of the RSDLP [Bolshevik], Petrograd Citywide Conference of the RSDLP [Bolshevik], Minutes) (Moscow: Gozpolitizdat, 1958) (our translation)

On this basis Mikhailov argued for electoral blocs with the Mensheviks and SRs—right after these parties had meekly accepted the Provisional Government’s pledge to Russia’s imperialist allies to keep fighting on the side of the Entente. Lenin responded by denouncing any conception of an electoral bloc with the bourgeoisie or defensists as a betrayal of socialism. Without overlooking immediate issues such as food provisioning, etc., Lenin insisted that the local duma campaign had to center on explaining to the workers the Bolsheviks’ differences with the bourgeoisie and Menshevik-SR conciliators on “all present-day key issues, especially those concerning the war and the tasks of the proletariat in regard to the central power” (Lenin, “Resolution on the Municipal Question,” Petrograd City Conference of the R.S.D.L.P. [Bolsheviks], 14-22 April 1917).

As is clear from Mikhailov’s comments, the conflicting attitudes toward the municipal councils were merely a subset of the more fundamental conflict in the party: Would the Bolsheviks confine themselves to being the left wing of the democracy or would they struggle for proletarian power? In the new local dumas in Petrograd and Moscow, elected under the widest franchise, the Bolsheviks were a small but growing minority. The Mensheviks and SRs, the majority in both the dumas and the soviets, held the position that the dumas should supplant the soviets. But as Trotsky explains:

“Municipal governments, like any other institutions of democracy, can function only on the basis of firmly established social relations—that is, a definite property system. The essence of revolution, however, is that it calls in question this, the very basis of all bases. And its question can be answered only by an open revolutionary test of the correlation of forces.... In the everyday of the revolution the municipal governments dragged out a half-fictitious existence. But at critical moments, when the interference of the masses was defining the further direction of events, these governments simply exploded in the air, their constituent elements appearing on different sides of a barricade. It was sufficient to contrast the parallel roles of the soviets and the municipal governments from May to October, in order to foresee the fate of the Constituent Assembly.”

The History of the Russian Revolution

Following the Bolshevik-led rout of General Kornilov’s abortive counterrevolutionary coup in August, the Bolsheviks were catapulted into majorities in the Petrograd and Moscow Soviets. Lenin responded to the decisive surge toward the Bolsheviks and growing social turmoil, especially among the peasantry, with a series of writings centered on the necessity to prepare for insurrection. For its part, the Kerensky-SR-Menshevik bloc attempted to raise a series of “democratic” obstacles to the impending workers revolution. These included the September 14-22 Democratic Conference and its offspring, the Pre-Parliament, which opened on 7 October 1917.

Those elements in the Bolshevik Party who back in April had resisted Lenin’s perspective of a proletarian seizure of power now resisted its implementation. With Trotsky in prison and Lenin in hiding, on September 3 the Bolshevik Central Committee decided to take seats in the Petrograd Duma administration, including designating the head of the Bolshevik parliamentary fraction, Anatoly Lunacharsky, for one of three Deputy Mayor positions! In so doing, the Bolshevik fraction not only joined Kerensky’s SR and Menshevik Provisional Government partners in overseeing the city administration, but sat alongside the bourgeois Cadet Deputy Mayor, F.M. Knipovich! This despite the bluster of the Bolshevik opening statement to the Duma which renounced “any form of collaboration with patent enemies of the revolution [i.e., the Cadets] in executive organs of the city government” (cited in The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution, Minutes of the Central Committee of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party [Bolsheviks], August 1917-February 1918 [London: Pluto Press, 1974]).

The Bolshevik conciliationists also joined in legitimizing the Provisional Government’s “democratic” confabs. Still in hiding, Lenin retrospectively condemned Bolshevik participation in the Democratic Conference and hailed Trotsky for having advocated a boycott of the Pre-Parliament. Denouncing the Pre-Parliament as “in substance a Bonapartist fraud,” Lenin warned: “There is not the slightest doubt that at the ‘top’ of our Party there are noticeable vacillations that may become ruinous” in consummating the revolution (Lenin, “From a Publicist’s Diary,” 22-24 September 1917).

On October 11, Lunacharsky publicly solidarized with Zinoviev and Kamenev’s strikebreaking denunciation of the plans for insurrection and their declaration that a “Constituent Assembly plus the Soviets, that is the combined type of state institution toward which we are traveling” (quoted in The History of the Russian Revolution). Lenin and Trotsky carried the day against the vacillators and led the October Revolution to victory. But even after the insurrection, those who had flinched continued to wage a rearguard action. On November 4, Lunacharsky, Zinoviev and Kamenev resigned all their responsibilities after Lenin and Trotsky refused to accept their demand for an “all-socialist” government including the Mensheviks and SRs—a government that would, moreover, have excluded Lenin and Trotsky! As he had following Zinoviev’s and Kamenev’s strikebreaking, Lenin again called for expelling the capitulators if they maintained their course. Finding no support in the party and no Menshevik takers for a coalition government, the capitulators soon vacated their line, and Lenin advised their reintegration into responsible positions.

Critical Support vs. Ministerialism

The fundamental features of the October Revolution were not limited to Russia alone, nor was its impact. It polarized the workers movement worldwide, as revolutionary internationalists embraced the cause of October and struggled to forge new revolutionary parties based on its lessons. Bolstered by their victory, the Bolsheviks took the first steps in forging the new, Communist International Lenin had called for since the collapse of the Second International into social-patriotism.

At its First Congress in 1919, the Comintern raised the banner of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the lessons of The State and Revolution. The Second Congress a year later tackled among other things the issues of parliamentarism and revolutionary electoral tactics. To sift through the reformist posturers and the accidental centrist elements gravitating toward the Comintern a set of conditions was imposed on all parties seeking affiliation. On the parliamentary front, Condition 11 stated:

“Parties that wish to belong to the Communist International have the duty to review the individual composition of their parliamentary fractions, removing all unreliable elements from them, and to subordinate these fractions to the parties’ executive committees not just in words but in deeds, demanding that each Communist member of parliament subordinate all of his activity to the interests of truly revolutionary propaganda and agitation.”

— “Theses on the Conditions for Admission,” Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite! Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 (New York: Pathfinder, 1991)

Lenin’s The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, Trotsky’s Terrorism and Communism and other polemics were aimed at drawing clear programmatic lines against the social democracy, especially the Kautskyan center. At the same time, Lenin sought to win over the anarcho-syndicalist and ultraleftist elements whose rejection of social-democratic parliamentarism led them to renounce as reformist any electoral or parliamentary activity. On the eve of the Second Congress, Lenin wrote his handbook on Communist tactics, “Left-Wing” Communism—An Infantile Disorder (April-May 1920). He urged that Communists adopt a posture of critical support to, e.g., the Labour Party in the pending elections in Britain. Lenin explained:

“It is true that the Hendersons, the Clyneses, the MacDonalds and the Snowdens [British Labour leaders] are hopelessly reactionary. It is equally true that they want to assume power (though they would prefer a coalition with the bourgeoisie), that they want to ‘rule’ along the old bourgeois lines, and that when they are in power they will certainly behave like the Scheidemanns and Noskes. All that is true. But it does not at all follow that to support them means treachery to the revolution; what does follow is that, in the interests of the revolution, working-class revolutionaries should give these gentlemen a certain amount of parliamentary support....

“The fact that most British workers still follow the lead of the British Kerenskys or Scheidemanns and have not yet had experience of a government composed of these people—an experience which was necessary in Russia and Germany so as to secure the mass transition of the workers to communism—undoubtedly indicates that the British Communists should participate in parliamentary action, that they should, from within parliament, help the masses of the workers see the results of a Henderson and Snowden government in practice, and that they should help the Hendersons and Snowdens defeat the united forces of Lloyd George and Churchill. To act otherwise would mean hampering the cause of the revolution, since revolution is impossible without a change in the views of the majority of the working class, a change brought about by the political experience of the masses, never by propaganda alone.”

“Left-Wing” Communism

Lenin categorically insisted that the British Communists must “retain complete freedom of agitation, propaganda and political activity. Of course, without this latter condition, we cannot agree to a bloc, for that would be treachery; the British Communists must demand and get complete freedom to expose the Hendersons and the Snowdens in the same way as (for fifteen years—1903-17) the Russian Bolsheviks demanded and got it in respect of the Russian Hendersons and Snowdens, i.e., the Mensheviks” (ibid.).

The whole point of Lenin’s tactics was obviously not that the Communists would seek to replace a Labour majority with a Communist majority—on the contrary, Lenin insisted that “the number of parliamentary seats is of no importance to us” (ibid.). Rather, such tactics would assist in exposing the reformist obstacles to revolution. As Lenin put it, “I want to support Henderson in the same way as the rope supports a hanged man—that the impending establishment of a government of the Hendersons will prove that I am right, will bring the masses over to my side, and will hasten the political death of the Hendersons and the Snowdens” (ibid.). Nowhere in “Left-Wing” Communism did Lenin entertain the possibility of a Communist capturing an executive office in a bourgeois government, or its functional equivalent—a parliamentary majority. As he had made clear in an earlier statement:

“Only scoundrels or simpletons can think that the proletariat must first win a majority in elections carried out under the yoke of the bourgeoisie, under the yoke of wage-slavery, and must then win power. This is the height of stupidity or hypocrisy; it is substituting elections, under the old system and with the old power, for class struggle and revolution.”

— Lenin, “Greetings to Italian, French and German Communists,” 10 October 1919

The electoral tactics Lenin proposed were completely congruent with opposition to fielding candidates for executive office. In a document written on the eve of the Second Congress, Lenin made clear that revolutionary parliamentarism meant only having “deputies to bourgeois representative institutions (primarily the national, but also local, municipal, etc., representative institutions)” (“Theses on the Fundamental Tasks of the Second Congress of the Communist International,” 4 July 1920). Only workers deputies in the legislature—Lenin never mentioned administrators, mayors, governors or presidents in the executive branch as representing workers’ conquests in the enemy camp.

The Second Congress, Municipalism and the Bulgarian Communists

The draft theses on “Communist Parties and the Question of Parliamentarism” submitted by the Executive Committee of the CI (ECCI) for discussion at the Congress were in line with Lenin’s documents. They likewise made no mention of taking executive office—including at the municipal level—and instead argued the opposite. However, the theses that were presented by the Parliamentary Commission to the floor of the Congress and subsequently adopted had been modified in certain critical respects. Trotsky, who, along with Bukharin, was assigned to be part of the Russian delegation to the Commission, authored a new historical introductory section, replacing the first thesis in the original draft. The third section of the theses, originally authored by Zinoviev as a separate document of instructions for parliamentary deputies and reviewed by the Political Bureau of the Russian party before its submission, was adopted with no substantive changes. But in the second section of the document, originally drafted by Bukharin, a number of anti-Marxist amendments were introduced, watering down the revolutionary intent of the draft. Thus the (renumbered) Paragraphs 4 and 6 no longer categorically rejected the possibility of Communists taking over bourgeois parliaments, but rather allowed for that possibility on a temporary basis (we have indicated amendments in emphasis):

“4. Bourgeois parliaments, among the most important organizations of the bourgeois state machine, cannot as such be taken over permanently, just as the proletariat cannot possibly take over the bourgeois state. The proletariat’s task is to break up the bourgeoisie’s state machine and to destroy it, and with it parliamentary institutions, whether republican or constitutional-monarchist.

“5. It is no different with the bourgeoisie’s institutions of local government. To counterpose them to the organs of the state is theoretically incorrect. They are in reality organizations similar to the mechanism of the bourgeois state, which must be destroyed by the revolutionary proletariat and replaced by local soviets of workers’ deputies.

“6. Thus, communism rejects parliamentarism as a form of the future society. It rejects it as a form of dictatorship by the proletarian class. It rejects the possibility of taking over parliaments on a permanent basis; its goal is to destroy parliamentarism. Therefore it is possible to speak only of using bourgeois state institutions for the purpose of destroying them. The question can be posed in this sense and in this sense alone.”

“Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism,” Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress

Most significantly, the Commission added a new Thesis 13 that effectively contradicted Thesis 5:

“13. Should Communists hold a majority in institutions of local government, they must (a) organize revolutionary opposition against the central bourgeois government; (b) do everything possible to serve the poorer sectors of the population (economic measures, creating or attempting to create an armed workers’ militia, and so forth); (c) at every opportunity point out how the bourgeois state blocks truly major changes; (d) on this basis develop vigorous revolutionary propaganda, never fearing conflict with the state; (e) under certain conditions, replace municipal governments with local workers’ councils. In other words, all of the Communists’ activity in local government must be a part of the general work of undermining the capitalist system.”


This stands in sharp contrast to Lenin’s arguments against municipalism, as in 1907, cited earlier.

The stenographic reports of the Second Congress and its associated Commissions are notoriously spotty, and we have not located any record of the proceedings of the Parliamentary Commission. But the available evidence points to the political import of the relevant amendments—a concession to the municipal practices that pervaded the work of some of the parties. In this regard, it is notable that the Commission also introduced an amendment to Thesis 11, adding the Communist Party of Bulgaria (CPB) to the examples of Karl Liebknecht in Germany and the Bolsheviks as models of revolutionary work in parliament. Only months before the Congress, the CPB, which already had a sizable parliamentary fraction, had scored a stunning victory in municipal elections throughout Bulgaria. The French Socialist Party, whose application for admission to the CI was then pending, also controlled some 1,500 to 1,800 local governments at the time; the Italian Socialist Party likewise ran a substantial number of municipalities.

The main report on parliamentarism to the Congress, by Bukharin, did not address the Commission’s amendments at all. They were presented to the delegates without comment in a short supplementary report by the German delegate Wolfstein (Rosi Frölich). The ensuing discussion was dominated by a debate with the Italian ultraleftist Amadeo Bordiga, who gave a minority report opposing parliamentary activity and presented a counterposed set of theses on behalf of the Communist-Abstentionist Faction of the Italian Socialist Party. Lenin’s remarks in the discussion, which allowed three speakers for and three against the majority resolution, dealt exclusively with Bordiga’s arguments.

Only one of the speakers in favor of the majority theses, the Bulgarian Nikolai Shablin (Ivan Nedelkov), addressed the question of municipalism. Shablin boasted:

“In the local elections of December 1919 and the district elections of January 1920, the party received 140,000 votes, winning a majority in the councils of almost every city and in about a hundred villages. In many other city and village councils the party holds large minorities. For the local and district council bodies, the party has a program for organizing workers’ and peasants’ soviets in the cities and villages whose individual units, in time of revolution, are to replace the local and provincial representative bodies and assume their functions....

“We use campaigns in Communist municipalities to explain to the masses that they alone, through their organizations, can make the central government respect the decisions of Communist municipal councils on questions of food, housing and inflation and on all the working population’s other immediate needs.”

— “Parliamentarism,” Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress

The only delegate to respond to Shablin was the Swiss Jakob Herzog, who opined that the CPB’s parliamentary work was not as sterling as Shablin claimed. Herzog recounted:

“In the commission we had a long discussion about how Communist representatives on municipal councils should conduct themselves, about what they should do when they are in the majority. Comrade Bukharin said there, ‘When they have a majority, they must try to improve the workers’ conditions in order to heighten the contradiction between the Communist municipal council and the state.’ That is exactly what the opportunists also tell us when they go into parliament.”


However, Herzog opposed any form of parliamentary activity and made no distinction between controlling a municipal council, which meant administering a local organ of the bourgeois state apparatus, and being a Communist oppositionist in a bourgeois legislative body. But this distinction is decisive. Trotsky’s introductory section to the theses states that Communist members of parliament act for the revolutionary working class as “scouts in the bourgeoisie’s parliamentary institutions.” Thesis 8 in the third section of the resolution further insists:

“Every Communist member of parliament must be mindful that he is not a legislator seeking agreements with other legislators but is rather a party agitator sent into the camp of the enemy in order to carry out party decisions there.”

— “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism”

In contrast, functioning as a Communist majority in a local or national legislative body comes down to the same thing as holding executive office: it means control of the budget and administration. The question of taking control of such bodies needed to be explicitly addressed and opposed.

In his remarks at the Congress, Shablin himself hinted at the problem with Communists administering local governments. He asserted that the CPB’s program was to replace these bodies with soviets in “time of revolution.” Until that time, however, the Bulgarian Communists found themselves administering these local bodies and taking responsibility for maintaining order and rationing scarce resources within the framework of capitalist class rule. Moreover, Shablin falsified the CPB’s actual practice. The Bulgarian party was not organizing soviets to replace the bourgeois municipal administrations, but rather aimed at organically transforming those administrations into soviets at the time of revolution. CPB founder Dimitar Blagoev made that clear when he wrote in 1919 that

“winning the municipalities can be the beginning of the soviet system of rule.... The struggle to take over municipal power, and especially the struggle that our party will have to wage to reinforce the power of the proletariat and poorer classes wherever we run the municipalities—this struggle will in essence be for the spread of soviet power (CP), for the soviet system of rule as a whole.”

— quoted in G. Tsonev and A. Vladimirov, Sentiabr’skoe vosstanie v Bolgarii 1923 goda (The September Uprising in Bulgaria in 1923) (Moscow: Gosizdat, 1934) (our translation)

The Bulgarian Communists were not municipal socialists à la Victor Berger in the U.S. The CPB was a revolutionary party violently sucked into the vacuum of Bulgaria’s post-WWI collapse, and thrust into office by an upheaval of popular support for the Russian Revolution. The precursor of the CPB was the Tesnyaki, Blagoev’s Bulgarian Social Democratic Labor Party (Narrow), which had suffered intense persecution for opposing the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 and World War I and for voting against war credits in parliament. The CPB took municipal office not to sell out socialism, but to try to realize it in the best traditions of yesterday’s social democracy and what little Bolshevism they knew. The contradictions between its aims and its position in administering the bourgeois state apparatus at a local level could not, and did not, last.

Despite its identification with Bolshevism, the CPB carried over a lot of social-democratic baggage from the left wing of the Second International. Lenin expressed deep concern over the party’s abstentionist policy in the September 1918 Radomir Rebellion, a large-scale mutiny by peasant soldiers in the Bulgarian army. On the eve of this rebellion, soldiers had already begun forming soviets under the direct inspiration of the Bolshevik Revolution. Rank-and-file Tesnyaki joined as many as 15,000 rebel soldiers in three days of pitched battle, determined to overthrow Tsar Ferdinand. But the party opposed any organized intervention into the uprising, which subsequently helped catapult Peasant Union leader Alexander Stamboliski to power. The CPB did not take up Lenin’s criticisms and Blagoev later defended the party’s failure to seek to lead the uprising in the direction of a proletarian revolution. The CPB’s refusal to intervene in the Radomir Rebellion reflected, in good part, its longstanding hostility to the peasantry.

The party had grown rapidly during the war and amid the postwar upheavals, though this meant an infusion of a large number of raw elements, who were not in the main industrial workers. At the same time, the CPB developed a large network of publishing houses, cooperatives and other enterprises while spawning a huge parliamentary and governmental apparatus. By 1922 over 3,600 Communists sat on municipal councils, another 115 served at a provincial level, and nearly 1,500 sat on school boards. This amounted to a hefty percentage of the CPB’s 38,000 members.

The Bulgarian experience demonstrated anew that control of bourgeois municipal government was counterposed to the fight for soviet power. When the bourgeoisie was finally able to “restabilize” the country in the bloody Tsankov coup against the peasant-based Stamboliski government in June 1923, the CPB was cleared out of its “municipal communes.” Instead of preparing for united-front action with the Peasant Union forces against the looming right-wing coup on the basis of the Communists’ own independent mobilization of the workers and peasants, the CPB veered between confidentially appealing to the regime for arms in the run-up to the coup and then refusing to oppose the coup at all once it happened.

In the aftermath, the CPB embarked on a series of adventurist military actions, including an abortive insurrection in September 1923, which simply brought down increased bourgeois repression. The party that had until then been held up as a model was physically crushed in the White Terror of 1923-25. Shablin was one of no less than 5,000 Communists who paid with their lives for the CPB’s political failings. The zigzagging CI leadership under Zinoviev pushed the Bulgarian party onto its adventurist course while simultaneously establishing a Red Peasant International, the Krestintern, and supporting the formation of bourgeois “workers and peasants parties” around the world. By this time the CI was no longer the revolutionary international party it had been when it held its first four Congresses. Beginning in 1923-24 the Soviet party, and with it the CI, underwent a process of qualitative bureaucratic degeneration. This was politically codified in late 1924, when Stalin promulgated the anti-internationalist dogma of “socialism in one country.”

The CI on Municipalism: A Problematic Legacy

The Second Congress began with correct insights on municipalism, but concluded by amending them into a contradictory hodgepodge that licensed ministerialism in embryo. In considering the failure to pursue this question, it should be noted that as the first real working congress of the CI, the Second Congress had to address a large number of other questions—including the basis for admission into the Comintern, the national and colonial questions, the trade-union question, etc. Moreover, the Congress took place at the height of the war with Poland and the Red Army’s counteroffensive against Pilsudski and his French imperialist patrons; had the Soviet forces succeeded in taking Warsaw, they would have opened up a direct bridgehead to the powerful German proletariat. A Red Army victory in Warsaw would have rocked Versailles Europe to its foundations and possibly spread the revolutionary fires of 1920 into a conflagration across Europe. Then the question of participation in municipal administration would have been posed directly in the context of a proletarian struggle for power, as in 1917.

While the Second Congress touched on the question of executive office only implicitly, the question had been explicitly posed in the American Communist movement. Unlike the parliamentary system in Europe, the American presidential system made a clear distinction between legislative and executive offices. This distinction did not figure at all in the floor discussion on parliamentarism at the Second Congress, though a member of the Communist Party of America (CPA), the Russian-born Alexander Stoklitsky, had been assigned to the Parliamentary Commission. At its founding conference in 1919, the CPA had adopted a correct position against running for executive office. When a section of this party broke away to fuse with the Communist Labor Party in May 1920 to found the United Communist Party (UCP), this position, argued for by C. E. Ruthenberg, carried over to the new party. The UCP founding conference asserted: “Nominations for public office and participation in elections are limited to legislative bodies, such as the national congress, state legislatures and city councils” (UCP Program, reprinted in Revolutionary Radicalism, Lusk Commission Report to New York State Senate, submitted 24 April 1920).

The position was controversial at the UCP conference debate: one tendency upheld the above position, while a second opposed all electoral activity and a third supported running for all offices. A contemporary account reported: “The opponents of executive elections argued that the election of Communists as Governor, Mayor, and Sheriff will corrupt them and will be detrimental to the movement; that we have no right to take upon ourselves the responsibility for the bourgeois state” (The Communist, 1 September 1920). However, these correct arguments were linked to an ultraleft insistence in the UCP Program that Communist representatives in legislative bodies “will not introduce nor support reform measures.” In the wake of the fight against ultraleftism at the Second Congress, the American Communist movement dropped the distinction between running for executive as opposed to legislative office. In 1921, Ben Gitlow ran as the Communist candidate for mayor in New York City. The following year, a CI document for the August 1922 American Communist convention insisted, “The communists must participate as revolutionists in all general election campaigns, municipal, state and congressional, as well as presidential” (“Next Tasks of the Communist Party in America,” printed in Reds in America [New York City: Beckwith Press, 1924]). In 1924 the American party ran William Z. Foster as its candidate in the U.S. presidential elections.

The absence of clarity on the linked questions of executive office and municipal administration was to plague the Comintern and its affiliated parties, as seen in Trotsky’s own writings. At the Fourth Congress, Trotsky authored its 2 December 1922 resolution on France, in which he amalgamated “mayors and the like” with “Communist parliamentarians, municipal councilors, general councilors” and stated that the former could likewise become “one of the instruments of the revolutionary mass struggle” (“Resolution of the Fourth World Congress on the French Question,” Trotsky, The First Five Years of the Communist International [New York: Monad Press, 1972]). In his May 1924 introduction to The First Five Years, he welcomed the French CP attaining these posts: “The fact that our party received about 900,000 votes represents a serious success, especially if we take into account the swift growth of our influence in the suburbs of Paris.” The French CP’s “influence” in the suburbs had grown over to administration of some large number of municipalities.

It must also be noted that Trotsky did not change his views on this question. In a 1939 article (unpublished at the time), he wrote:

“The participation of the trade unions in the management of nationalized industry may be compared to the participation of socialists in the municipal governments, where the socialists sometimes win a majority and are compelled to direct an important municipal economy, while the bourgeoisie still has domination in the state and bourgeois property laws continue. Reformists in the municipality adapt themselves passively to the bourgeois regime. Revolutionists in this field do all they can in the interests of the workers and at the same time teach the workers at every step that municipality policy is powerless without conquest of state power.

“The difference, to be sure, is that in the field of municipal government the workers win certain positions by means of democratic elections, whereas in the domain of nationalized industry the government itself invites them to take certain posts. But this difference has a purely formal character. In both cases the bourgeoisie is compelled to yield to the workers certain spheres of activity. The workers utilize these in their own interests.”

— “Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management,” 12 May 1939

That Trotsky could refer to the PCF in the context of its control of municipalities as being “free of any sort of political obligations to the bourgeois regime” in 1924 and suggest a parallel formulation on municipalities in 1938 is not to impute to him municipal reformism, but to recognize that an unsettled problem of communist strategy has been handed down to us.

In our report on the executive office discussion at the ICL’s Fifth Conference in 2007, we noted:

“The position that communists should under no circumstances run for executive offices of the bourgeois state is an extension of our longstanding criticism of the entry of the German Communist Party (KPD), with the support of the Comintern, into the regional governments of Saxony and Thuringia in October 1923. The KPD’s support to these bourgeois governments run by ‘left’ Social Democrats—first from outside the government and then from within—helped to derail a revolutionary situation (see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001).”

Spartacist No. 60, Autumn 2007 (executive office excerpts reprinted, along with the Germany 1923 article, in ICL Pamphlet, The Development and Extension of Leon Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution, April 2008)

The KPD’s entry into these governments was prepared by the flawed and confused resolution on “workers governments” adopted at the Fourth Congress of the CI less than a year earlier. That resolution confused the call for a workers government—which for revolutionaries is nothing other than an expression of the dictatorship of the proletariat—with all manner of social-democratic governments administering the bourgeois state apparatus, and left open the possibility of Communist participation in such a government in coalition with the social democrats. While Trotsky fought for a revolutionary perspective in Germany in 1923 and insisted that the KPD make concrete preparations and set a date for an insurrection—as had Lenin in September and October of 1917—Trotsky wrongly supported the KPD’s policy of joining the Saxon and Thuringian governments, arguing that this was a “drill ground” for revolution. If these were indeed “workers governments,” as the masses had been told, then presumably extraparliamentary revolutionary struggle and the formation of workers councils and workers militias would be totally superfluous. In the upshot, the KPD and the CI leadership under Zinoviev let slip a revolutionary opportunity. The ensuing demoralization of the Soviet proletariat was a critical factor in allowing the Stalinist bureaucracy to usurp political power.

In the aftermath of the German debacle of 1923, Trotsky began an evaluation of the political reasons for the failure. In The Lessons of October (1924), which was implicitly self-critical, Trotsky contrasted Lenin’s successful struggle in 1917 to overcome the resistance of the Kamenevs, Zinovievs and Stalins, who flinched when the question of power was posed, with the capitulationist politics that prevailed in Germany in October 1923. Trotsky later noted the need for a more systematic and thorough review of the CI and KPD intervention into the German events of 1923. However, he never explicitly criticized the KPD’s entry into the Saxon and Thuringian governments nor the flawed resolution on workers governments at the Fourth Congress.

A corollary to Trotsky’s support for Communist administration of local governments was his acceptance of the practice of running Communist candidates for executive office. In addition to numerous campaigns for mayor, the French CP ran a campaign for president in 1924. In Germany, the KPD ran Ernst Thälmann for president in 1925 and then again in 1932. Trotsky fought for the KPD to engage in united fronts with the Social Democrats and mobilize workers militias to smash the Nazis and open the road to a direct struggle for power by the Communist-led workers. This was the urgent task of the day, and the KPD’s 1932 electoral campaign, with its shrill Third Period characterization of the Social Democrats as “social-fascist,” was a noisy disguise for its refusal to carry out that task. Trotsky hammered away at the bankruptcy of the Stalinists’ “social-fascist” line, but he mentioned the KPD’s electoral campaign only in passing and did not criticize them for running for president.

In 1940, Trotsky explicitly mooted the possibility that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in the U.S. run a candidate for the presidency against Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt (“Discussions with Trotsky,” 12-15 June 1940). When the SWP leaders ruled this out on logistical grounds, Trotsky raised the possibility of fighting for the labor movement to launch an independent candidacy against Roosevelt. He also posed the question of giving critical support to the CP candidate, Earl Browder, who then stood in opposition to Roosevelt and the imperialist war. In the discussions, Trotsky made clear his concern that the SWP was adapting to the “progressive” pro-Roosevelt trade-union bureaucracy. What is obvious from these discussions is that neither Trotsky nor the SWP leaders considered the question of running for the presidency as controversial in principle. Beginning in 1948, when it ran a candidate against the Stalinist-supported bourgeois Progressive Party of former FDR vice-president Henry Wallace, the SWP regularly ran in presidential elections.

Trotsky’s proposal regarding the Browder candidacy was quite appropriate. In the wake of Stalin’s August 1939 pact with Hitler, the American Stalinists had made a temporary turn to the left—from being avid supporters of FDR’s “New Deal” to posing as fighters against American imperialism. They would revert to support for Roosevelt in the name of the “fight against fascism” after Hitler invaded the USSR in June 1941. Trotsky’s arguments for critical support to Browder were aimed at taking advantage of the CP’s temporary anti-imperialist stand in order to expose the party before its base in the working class.

In arguing against running for executive office, the ICL does not preclude giving critical support to other workers organizations in appropriate instances where they draw a crude class line. When a Leninist organization gives critical electoral support to an opponent, it is clearly not because we think it will apply the same principles as we do. Otherwise one could never extend critical support to a mass reformist party, because on winning an election it will inevitably seek to form the government, i.e., administer capitalism. Indeed, this argument is an essential polemical aspect of our critical support. The point in such instances is to demonstrate that despite the claims of such parties to represent the interests of the workers, in practice they betray these interests.

Their Heritage and Ours

A necessary element of maintaining our revolutionary continuity is the critical assimilation of the lessons of past struggles in the international workers movement. In our fight to reforge Trotsky’s Fourth International, founded in 1938 over the political corpses of the Second International and the Stalinized Comintern, we stand on the first four Congresses of the CI. But we are not uncritical of the early CI and from the early years of our tendency we expressed reservations over the resolutions on the “anti-imperialist united front” and the “workers government” at the Fourth Congress.

In contrast, our political opponents gut or reject the principles of the October Revolution and the programmatic fundamentals of Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International and cherry-pick those “traditions” that lend an aura of historical authority to their opportunist pursuits. Such is the case with the Internationalist Group and the Bolshevik Tendency, whose lawyers’ arguments in defense of running for executive offices in the bourgeois state have far more in common with the Kautskyite wing of the Second International than with Lenin’s Bolshevism. As for the IG and BT’s reformist big brothers, occasional references to Trotskyism notwithstanding, their tradition is that of the Millerands and MacDonalds.

The IG and BT’s feigned anguish over the supposed dilemma posed by communists winning an executive position or a majority in a bourgeois legislature reveals a thoroughly opportunist impulse. In her highly favorable account of the left-Labourite Poplar borough council in 1920s Britain, historian Noreen Branson poses much the same question: “What do you do when you get a majority? How far does the existing legal and administrative framework allow you to bring about the changes for which you stand?” (Branson, Poplarism, 1919-1925 [London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1979]). Citing Branson’s question, a 1982 article on municipalism by the then-centrist British Workers Power group, which has since split into two competing reformist outfits, replies by citing Thesis 13 from the CI Second Congress (“The Struggle in Poplar 1919-21: Communism vs. Municipalism,” Workers Power, May 1982)!

The WP article enthuses over the militancy of this Labour-led council—which included two Communists, Edgar and Minnie Lansbury—in London’s poor, working-class East End to promote what it describes as “the revolutionary attitude to the municipal struggle.” The failure of the CI to win over the syndicalist-inclined elements in the British revolutionary movement during and after the Second Congress left British Communism stillborn and under the leadership of elements who were more than comfortable in the Labourite parliamentarist milieu (see “British Communism Aborted,” Spartacist No. 36-37, Winter 1985-86). The two Communist councillors were in practice virtually politically indistinguishable from the rest of the Labour majority on the council, which was led by Christian pacifist George Lansbury, Edgar’s father. And this was at a time when Britain was in the midst of intense social turmoil. At the height of the Poplar Council’s activity, in 1920, the country was swept by strikes and demonstrations demanding “Hands off Russia” and opposing British arms shipments to Pilsudski’s Poland. The councils of action that sprang up in this campaign pointed toward the emergence of organs of dual power.

Where the burning task is to expropriate and reorganize the means of production under proletarian power, reformists simply tinker with the system of distribution. While the Poplar councillors were certainly more militant than the mainstream Labour politicians even of their day—going to jail and organizing mass demonstrations on behalf of their policies—their power and political horizons were limited to rationing the threadbare resources at their command by increasing relief payments for the poor and unemployed and raising the meager wages of council employees for a period of time. As George Lansbury put it, “The workers must be given tangible proof that Labour administration means something different from capitalist administration, and in a nutshell this means diverting wealth from the wealthy ratepayers to the poor” (quoted in Branson, Poplarism). In fact, control of municipal councils in working-class areas was critical to Labour’s leap to becoming a party of government at the national level, as it did for the first time in 1924. When the King visited the East End in 1921, the newly elected Poplar councillors greeted him with the sign: “Poplar Borough Council expects this day the King will do his duty by calling upon His Majesty’s Government to find work or full maintenance for the unemployed of the nation” (quoted in ibid.)!

Six decades later, when the fake-Trotskyist Militant Tendency led by Ted Grant and Peter Taaffe (who subsequently split to form separate organizations) took control of the Labour council in the clapped-out city of Liverpool, they did not even hold a candle to the Christian pacifist Lansbury and his crowd. At one point, these “Trotskyist” administrators of the local capitalist government threatened to lay off all of the city’s more than 30,000 municipal workers, claiming that this was a “tactic” to deal with the budget crunch imposed by the Tory Thatcher government. We have no evidence, however, that they petitioned Queen Elizabeth II.

Local administration has historically served as a means for integrating working-class parties into the bourgeois order. This was the case not only in Britain, but also in France, Italy and elsewhere. An exchange on “The Italian Communists & the US” observed: “Communist control of regional and city governments...were in fact important in strengthening the trend within the PCI toward a pragmatic reformism” (New York Review of Books, 11 May 2006). Running for or assuming executive office at any level is not a stepping-stone toward the revolutionary mobilization of the working masses but rather serves to deepen prevailing illusions in the reformability of the capitalist state and to strengthen the chains that bind the proletariat to the class enemy.

On the other hand, a Marxist workers party would actually seek to win some seats in bourgeois legislative bodies, where the party’s deputies would use their positions to advance exemplary bills—as the Bolsheviks did in the tsarist Duma in condemning anti-Semitism and pogromism—“designed not for adoption by the bourgeois majority, but rather for purposes of propaganda, agitation, and organization” (“Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism,” Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920). Through such means—in the U.S. or Japan, for example, proposing legislation to abolish the death penalty—and by placing the communist deputies “in the very first rank” of workers demonstrations and strike rallies, a Marxist party would use its parliamentary positions as “auxiliary bases for its revolutionary activity” (ibid.). Such a perspective is clearly at odds with running for or taking executive positions.

For communists, running for electoral office is not simply a propaganda effort or the political photo-op envisioned by the likes of the Internationalist Group. In periods of relative stability, and in the absence of any perceived challenge to their class rule, the bourgeoisies in the imperialist “democracies” may tolerate revolutionaries running for office, the better to reinforce illusions that the government represents “the will of the people.” Or they may not: witness the fact that during the post-World War I “red scare,” five Socialists duly elected by their districts in November 1919 to the New York State Assembly were denied their seats for no reason other than their membership in the Socialist Party. In the semicolonial countries, where democratic institutions are far more fragile and the masses feel the whip of imperialist exploitation, election campaigns often pose deadly clashes with the forces of the bourgeois state and right-wing thugs. To demand time and blood from the already hellishly squeezed and terrorized toilers for a candidate for executive office who vows not to take his position if elected is a mockery.

All of this serves to underline that the question of the state is a life-and-death question for a revolutionary workers party. It is the question of revolution. In adopting our position against running for executive offices of the bourgeois state and in critically reviewing the policies and practices inherited from our forerunners, we seek to illuminate the political gulf between the ICL and all the opportunists who falsely claim to be Marxists and to represent the historic interests of the working class. Our task is nothing other than the organizing, training and steeling of the proletarian vanguard parties, sections of a reforged Fourth International, necessary for the seizure of state power and the establishment of workers rule around the globe.


The article “Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics” in Spartacist (English edition) No. 61 (Spring 2009) implies on page 20 that Trotsky is referring to municipal elections in his May 1924 introduction to The First Five Years of the Communist International when he hails the French Communist Party (PCF) getting about 900,000 votes as “a serious success, especially if we take into account the swift growth of our influence in the suburbs of Paris.” In fact, as stated in the French (No. 39, Summer 2009) and Spanish (No. 36, November 2009) editions of Spartacist, “Trotsky was likely referring to a parliamentary election that had been held that month.” However, as we also noted, “the PCF’s ‘influence’ in the suburbs also included its administration of several municipalities.” Just after the above quote, Trotsky’s “Nationalized Industry and Workers’ Management” is correctly dated as 12 May 1939, though the subsequent paragraph incorrectly refers to 1938. On page 18, the caption implies that the drawing of Nikolai Shablin is to the left and that of Amadeo Bordiga to the right; it is rather the converse. (From Spartacist [English edition] No. 62, Spring 2011.)


English Spartacist No. 60

ESp 61

Spring 2009


Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State!

Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics


Against Apologists for the Treachery of the POUM, Then and Now

Trotskyism vs. Popular Frontism in the Spanish Civil War


Women Workers and the Contradictions of China Today

Defend China Against Imperialism, Counterrevolution!
For Workers Political Revolution!

(Women and Revolution Pages)


Gérard Le Méteil, 1959–2007