Ernest Mandel

On the Workers and Peasants Government

(April 1984)

On the Workers and Peasants Government, by Ernest Mandel (Revolutionary Workers League, Belgium), in International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Volume XX, Number 2, April 1984.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

As a governmental slogan ‘workers and peasants government’ or ‘workers governments’ crowns in all cases the program of transitional demands. Thus it has a general value. The objective of the transitional program, starting from the struggles and immediate concerns of the masses, is to bring them, with their given level of consciousness to the stage of understanding the importance of taking power; to win them to the perspective of exercizing power. Any program of transitional demands which aims to avoid the reformist swamp – which does not want to limit the struggle to one of reforms to be achieved in the framework of the capitalist economy, of bourgeois society and the bourgeois state must be completed with a governmental slogan.

‘Workers and peasants government’ (or ‘workers government’) expresses this demand in its most general form.

How was the seizure of power carried out in Yugoslavia, China and Vietnam

If we examine the course of victorious socialist revolutions since the Second World War we note that by and large they fit into the framework of general analysis of the Transitional Program of the Fourth International on the central problem of state power. [1]

In Yugoslavia there was a coalition government imposed on the Yugoslav CP by Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Teheran and Yalta conferences. The Yugoslav CP leadership accepted this government with extreme reticence and in its public propaganda. But in practice it stuck to its strategic perspective, adopted in 1941, of the CP seizing power. It concentrated its efforts on the mobilization and organization of the poor peasant masses from the beginning of the 1941 insurrection, and of the urban masses (we are obviously talking here of organization and not self-organization) from the liberation of Belgrade, Zagreb and Ljubljana.

On the 21st November 1944, all the companies and wealth of the Germans and their collaborators were confiscated and from that day on the nationalizations already included 82% of Yugoslav industry. When the coalition government was set up, the Popular Front, whose president was Tito, and which had more than 7 million members organized in local structures (right down to neighborhood level), was formed. The latter recognized the leading role of the Communist Party and in fact controlled the country’s political life. Given all this, given the fact that the National Liberation Army had more than ½ a million members, was the only armed force in the country and was entirely controlled by the CP, we can say that Yugoslavia was then already a workers state. This was definitively consolidated after the 1945 referendum on the monarchy the bourgeois ministers had just been token figureheads without real power. [2]

The Chinese revolution went through a very similar development to that of the Yugoslav revolution. The Maoist faction which led the Chinese CP from 1934 had drawn its own conclusions from the defeat of the Second Chinese revolution in 1927. The lessons it drew were neither those drawn by the Stalinist faction nor by the Trotskyist current. This conclusion can be summarized in a simple formula: avoid 1929-style disasters by forming an armed force independent of the bourgeoisie, under the exclusive leadership of the Chinese CP. This was a central strategic orientation established as early as 1934 or even from 1929.

True, this army was essentially made up of peasants (but not under peasant leadership or with a peasant strategic perspective). True, this strategic approach to the seizure of power through armed struggle was at times (especially in 1937-38 and 1945-46) sugar-coated in public propaganda statements which accepted and urged (on the express orders of Stalin) a coalition with Chiang Kai-shek. True too, from the programmatic and theoretical point of view, the Maoist faction for a long time held an intermediate line between the objective of the democratic revolution (resulting in a bourgeois-democratic republic with the maintenance of capitalist property) and that of the dictatorship of the proletariat resulting in not only the destruction of the bourgeois state and the disarming of the bourgeoisie, but also in the suppression of capitalist property. This ‘intermediate’ line was codified in the theory of the ‘new democracy’ and a ‘state that is neither bourgeois nor proletarian,’ but this was mitigated by the constant affirmation of the leading role of the Communist Party, presented as a proletarian party which had to lead the peasantry. This line sowed enormous confusion in the minds of Chinese Communists and especially among all Communists in Asia (beginning with the unfortunate Aidit and the Indonesian CP, which paid for their tail-endism of theoretical Maoism, with a million dead) – as well as on other continents. All these statements and deeds are manoeuvers and confusion which should be condemned and not excused, in spite of the victory of the Chinese revolution. These manoeuvers and confusion are not what made victory possible. On the contrary victory was achieved in spite of them. Furthermore such lack of clarity played a nefarious role by holding back, or even preventing victory in other countries.

But when all this is duly noted, as materialists we must still recognize that in reality, despite their opportunism and theoretical/political confusion the Maoists disarmed the bourgeoisie, destroyed the bourgeois state and generally expropriated the big bourgeoisie. This was done in the 1938 (Yenan) to 1950 period, in a series of territorial, not political stages. The Peoples Republic of China proclaimed on November 1st 1949 on the Tien An-Men square in Peking was, and remains, a dictatorship of the proletariat – something which the Maoists denied at the time but admitted later. A state defined as a ‘democracy of a new type’ has never existed in real life. From 1938 to 1949-50 there was territorial dual power in China – on one side a bourgeois state and army in decomposition but still surviving in the territory controlled by the Kuomintang, and on the other an incipient workers state in the territory controlled by the People’s Liberation Army. After 1949-50 only one state existed in the country a dictatorship of the proletariat with deep-going bureaucratic deformations from birth (a bourgeois state still survives today in Taiwan).

In order to ‘discover’ between 1949 and 1953 a ‘workers and peasants government’ in China distinct from a dictatorship of the proletariat bureaucratized from birth, you have to overestimate the real power of these bourgeois hostages, in other words to mistake appearance, or even worse misleading propaganda, for reality. [3] You end up with an insoluble theoretical problem. It was this state formed in 1949 and this army (which from 1949-50 controlled all mainland China) that went to war against American and international imperialism in Korea, supported (certainly with sectarian, adventurist, inadmissible and ineffective methods) the extension of the socialist revolution towards South Korea, supported (and saved) the Vietnamese revolution after the big offensive of French imperialism against the liberated territory of the North in 1947-48, confiscated capitalist property in stages and eliminated nearly all private peasant property in successive waves.

You get lost in an absurd paradox if you claim that a bourgeois state or a ‘peasant government’ (or one dominated by the peasantry) can, without any discontinuity, (the Chinese CP of 1953 is not in any way different from what it was in 1948) carry out such an anti-capitalist undertaking.

Right from the beginning of 1950 in other words in a shorter period than after October 1917 in Russia – exactly as Trotsky had predicted something like 65% of all Chinese industrial capital and 80% of modern industrial capitalism were nationalized. These nationalizations preceded the land reform in the South of the country. So where is the ‘democratic phase?’ It is not possible to wriggle out of it with the argument that there was no total abolition of bourgeois property something that neither Trotsky nor any serious Marxist has ever proposed.

The case of the Vietnamese revolution is once again similar to that of Yugoslavia and China. The Ho Chi-Minh leadership had a clear orientation to the seizure of power resulting from the armed struggle under its exclusive leadership right from the beginning of 1945, and possibly even before this date. But it hesitated on its definition of the precise class content of the state and economy which would emerge from this seizure of power. Furthermore it was placed in such a difficult military situation through the successive (and combined) aggressions it suffered from French, Japanese, British, the French again and American imperialism etc. that we have to be careful not to interpret tactical, territorial military retreats – made after the 1946 attacks on Haiphong and Hanoi and during the 1954 Geneva agreements as a long-lasting political and social compromise (i.e. maintenance of bourgeois property or ‘bourgeois order’). Certain sectarian Trotskyists ‘pinned’ such intentions on the Vietnamese leadership. The latter clearly did not have such a project. History has already rendered its judgement on this. The balance-sheet of the official line of the Fourth International regarding the interpretation of the 1954 and 1974 agreements is fortunately much more positive than that of the sectarian tendencies inside and outside our ranks.

Again was there a ‘workers and peasants government’ distinct from the dictatorship of the proletariat in Vietnam? In North Vietnam this was obviously not the case. There was an anti-imperialist war combined with a civil war (the latter was less extensive than in the South given the weakness of the local bourgeoisie). When victory was achieved in the North and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam set up in Hanoi, there was dictatorship of the proletariat albeit bureaucratized from birth (less than in China, but to what degree? That is the subject of a separate discussion inside the Fourth International). As for South Vietnam where there was a long civil war it seems to us impossible to prove in reality, and contradictory from a theoretical point of view, to say that there was a ‘workers and peasants government’ distinct from the dictatorship of the proletariat between the fall of Saigon and the expropriation of the Cholon Chinese comprador bourgeoisie. [4]

Right after the fall of Saigon a fusion took place in practice between the Hanoi state apparatus and the new state in the South. If the state that emerged from the fall of Saigon was a workers state, the ‘workers and peasants government’ of South Vietnam is synonymous with the dictatorship of the proletariat – bureaucratized from the beginning.

How was the seizure of power carried out in Cuba and Nicaragua?

The Cuban and Nicaraguan cases are different from those of the USSR, China, Yugoslavia and Vietnam. In those two countries there were authentic people’s revolutions (unlike in Eastern Europe where society and the state were structurally assimilated to the USSR through essentially military bureaucratic means without a real people’s revolution). But these people’s revolutions resulted in the destruction of the dictatorships’ armies while leaving intact part of the bourgeois state. There was a transitional period of coalition government with real bourgeois forces (not simple ‘hostages’) both in Cuba and Nicaragua. But in both countries revolutionary forces had a hegemonic role.

In both cases the dictatorship of the proletariat was in the process of being established but at that time had not been definitively installed. Whereas the October revolution established the dictatorship of the proletariat by a single event in Cuba, as in China and Vietnam, it emerged through a progressive process of dual power (territorial in China and Vietnam, sui generis in Cuba) and not by a single resolute blow struck in favour of the proletariat.

But we have to be even more precise, the FSLN and the state power it represents in this situation of sui generis dual power, incarnates neither a ‘bourgeois state,’ nor a ‘two-class government’ nor a ‘popular front,’ but a dictatorship of the proletariat, a workers state in the process of being constituted but which has not yet definitively triumphed over its enemies on the social-political terrain.

In any case nothing justifies distinguishing a phase of ‘workers and farmers government’ from a phase of dictatorship of the proletariat in Cuba or Nicaragua any more than it justifies seeing such a separate phase in Yugoslavia, China or Vietnam. In the 6th World Congress resolution and the Fourth International Reunification Congress documents (7th World Congress), such a distinction was not introduced to characterize the victory of the Cuban Revolution.

It should be further noted that the 6th World Congress resolution on the birth of the Cuban workers state points out that while the Cuban state became a workers state after October 1960 (the Cuban leadership sets the transformation date at the end of August 1960):

“... on the level of political leadership, the evolution has been much more one of form than anything fundamental, real power being in the hands of the Ejercito Rebelde and the Fidelista team, even during the period of sui generis dual power going from the seizure of power to the fall of Urrutia.”

The same remark can be evidently applied to Nicaragua. We must not underestimate the reality of the bourgeois state in Cuba before the revolution much more solid than Somoza’s dictatorship where there was only a clique of gangsters linked to the army. But, we have to recognize that capitalist underdevelopment poses specific problems that further accentuates the possibility of de-synchronization between the destruction of the political power of the ruling classes and the destruction of their economic power. This de-synchronization was even foreseen by Marx and Engels if we look at their first formulations on the dictatorship of the proletariat in the Communist Manifesto. Trotsky makes the following point in Permanent Revolution:

The possibility of success in this struggle is of course determined to a large extent by the role of the proletariat in the economy of the country’ and consequently by the level of its capitalist development. This’ however’ is by no means the only criterion. No less important is the question whether a far-reaching and burning problem ‘for the people’ exists in the country, in the solution of which the majority of the nation is interested, and which demands for its solution the boldest revolutionary measures. Among problems of this kind are the agrarian question and the national question, in their varied combinations. With the acute agrarian problem and the intolerable national oppression in the colonial countries, the [emphasis added] young and relatively small proletariat can come to power [emphasis added] on the basis of a national democratic revolution sooner than the proletariat of an advanced country on a purely socialist basis ... A country can become ‘ripe’ for the dictatorship of the proletariat not only before it is ripe for the independent construction of socialism, but even before it is ripe for far-reaching socialization measures [emphasis added]. (The Permanent Revolution [New York: Pathfinder 1969], pp.254-5).

The separate workers and peasants government stage extended to all capitalist countries, including the imperialist countries.

Comrade Jack Barnes’ report For a Workers and Farmers Government in the United States (International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Volume 18, Number 5, June 1982) widens the differences inside the Fourth International by bringing into the debate tactical questions concerning the overthrow of capitalism in the imperialist countries. The intrinsic dialectics of his line of argument remorselessly operates. After having attacked the theory of the permanent revolution and the Marxist theory of the state, the SWP leadership majority is now attacking a substantial part of the Transitional Program.

As was already the case with Comrade Doug Jenness’ article [5], Comrade Jack Barnes’ report thoroughly muddles up the question. He leaps from the immediate tasks of the revolutionary government in Nicaragua to those of a similar government in the United States, in other words from an extremely underdeveloped country to the most developed imperialist country in the world. He mixes up the expropriation of the big bourgeoisie with the expropriation of the bourgeoisie “as a whole,” and even the “total” collectivization of agriculture. He lumps together the NEP, an economic policy carried out by the Bolsheviks under the dictatorship of the proletariat, with a policy of maintaining a significant private sector without the dictatorship of the proletariat under the predominance of capitalist property. Let’s try and unravel all this tangle.

Comrade Jack Barnes explicitly extends the idea of a “necessary workers and peasants government stage” distinct from the dictatorship of the proletariat to all the capitalist countries:

... what is a workers and farmers government? ... the first form of government that can be expected to appear as the result of a successful anti-capitalist revolution.

Not just in some countries, not just in backward countries, not just with inadequate leaderships, but “the first form of government that can be expected to appear as the result of a successful anti-capitalist revolution.” Period.

... a workers and farmers government is independent of the bourgeoisie, but at the same time still stands on capitalist economic relations.

Joe wrote that a workers and farmers government begins “on the basis of the capitalist economy and even part of the capitalist state structure.

This is the conclusion that we had reached by 1978, as a result of thinking about and generalizing the lessons from workers and farmers governments established since World War II ... (Barnes, Workers and Farmers Government, pp.5-6.)

Comrade Jack Barnes tries, with some difficulty, to insinuate (ibid., pp.12-13) that Trotsky would have indeed implicitly shared the revisionist ideas of the SWP majority leadership on the workers and peasants government. But Trotsky had explicitly rejected this in 1937. This is borne out by the following extract from his writings:

I just want to say something here on the slogan ‘workers and peasants government.’ We always argued against this formulation when the Stalinists counterposed it to the ‘workers government’ and to the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ At the same time we accepted the label of ‘workers and peasants government’ for the Soviet government. Everything depends on the real content given to this formulation in function of the situation, the policy and party in question.

We can very well accept the slogan of workers and peasants government in Spain as a common base with the POUMist and anarchist workers. But this slogan has to be immediately turned back against the POUM leaders. Workers and peasants government? Okay. But we must then begin by kicking the bourgeoisie, who exploits the workers and peasants, out of the government. Workers and peasants committees should be set up etc. In this way we will be able to take this popular slogan away from the POUM leaders by giving it a clearly revolutionary meaning, in other words, the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat.’ (Leon Trotsky, The Workers and Peasants government, 26th May 1937, translated from the French Oeuvres, Letter to Jean Rous, Volume 14, pp.73-74, our emphasis.)

To defend his far-fetched thesis, Comrade Jack Barnes without saying so clearly and frankly implicitly assumes:

  1. that before the seizure of power there has never been a broad sector of the proletariat already conscious of the necessity of expropriating big capital, i.e. a deep-going anti-capitalist consciousness;
  2. that there will never be generalized and centralized soviets before the seizure of power;
  3. that the workers will never occupy and take over the main workplaces (or even most workplaces), restart production under their control within a revolutionary process before this seizure of power;
  4. that a revolutionary party actually working for the dictatorship of the proletariat will never win over a majority of wage earners (in other words the absolute majority of the working population in the industrialized countries) inside the workers councils and/or peoples councils mentioned in ‘c)’, before the seizure of power;
  5. that this seizure of power by the soviets (workers councils and people’s councils) will never coincide with the destruction of the bourgeois army and the other repressive forces of the bourgeoisie, with the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus, with the general arming of the workers and with the beginning of the building of a state of an entirely new type, as outlined in Lenin’s State and Revolution, that is a state of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

For it cannot be denied that if these five conditions, or most of them, exist, the power emerging from the victorious insurrection has already destroyed the bourgeois state, confiscated most capitalist property and entered a head-on confrontation with the national and international bourgeoisie. Consequently it is difficult to see in what sense this workers and peasants government (or workers government) would be different from the dictatorship of the proletariat, and what supplementary ‘stage’ it would have to go through in order to reach the latter.

It is easy to understand why Comrade Jack Barnes is embarrassed in openly and frankly recognizing the presuppositions that underpin his thesis. For the implication is that he must pronounce dead and buried not just two chapters of the Transitional Program (on the theory of the Permanent Revolution and on the Workers and Peasants Government) but at least seven of these chapters, if not the whole program. Just refer to the following passage from the chapter The expropriation of separate groups of capitalists: “Only a general revolutionary upsurge of the proletariat can place the complete expropriation of the bourgeoisie on the order of the day. The task of transitional demands is to prepare the proletariat to solve this problem.” (Trotsky, Transitional Program, p.122, our emphasis.) (i.e., the general expropriation of the bourgeoisie and not just some sort of ‘mixed economy’ – EM)

Need we also recall the following chapter on the Soviets:

If the factory committee creates a dual power in the factory, then the soviets initiate a period of dual power in the country.

Dual power in its turn is the culminating point of the transitional period. Two regimes, the bourgeois and the proletarian, are irreconcilably opposed to each other. Conflict between them is inevitable. The fate of society depends on the outcome. Should the revolution be defeated, the fascist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie will follow. In case of victory, the power of the soviets, that is, the dictatorship of the proletariat and the socialist reconstruction of society will arise. (Ibid., pp.136-137, our emphasis.)

It is worth pointing out that there is no mention here of any sort of “intermediate stage” of the workers and peasants government distinct from the dictatorship of the proletariat. But then Trotsky, Cannon and other participants at the Founding Congress of the Fourth International were undoubtedly “hopeless sectarians” (Chicago speech).

It is true there were no soviets and no seizure of power by the soviets in the Cuban, Nicaraguan, Yugoslav, Chinese and Vietnamese revolutions.

But the fact that these five revolutions did not reproduce the course of the October revolution is hardly a sufficient basis for founding hypotheses on future revolutions. Indeed it is an especially inadequate basis for proclaiming in a peremptory fashion today that there will be always and everywhere “a workers and peasants government stage” distinct from the dictatorship of the proletariat, particularly since this stage did not even exist in Yugoslavia, China, Vietnam, Cuba and Nicaragua.

In order to identify the objective and subjective roots of the particular course taken by the revolution in the five countries where it has been victorious since the Second World War, we have to be clear about the socio-economic and political specificities of these countries in relation to the rest of the world:

  1. The proletariat as a class – not to speak of the industrial proletariat was not a majority of the working population in any of these countries.
  2. The proletariat was not the main spearhead in the revolutionary process in any of these countries (this does not at all mean that it did not play a very important role in Yugoslavia after the military victory and before the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat; or in Cuba through the success of the second general strike for the overthrow of Batista and the role played by the sugar plantation proletariat in the course of the revolutionary process).
  3. The workers did not set up soviet-type structures in the course of this process in any of these countries.
  4. The parties which led these revolutions did not have a clear programmatic line on the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat (with the exception of the Yugoslav CP) and in any case, they did not systematically educate and prepare the masses for this objective. But they had a conscious perspective of seizing power, although the precise class character of this power remained vague (except in the case of Yugoslavia and partially in Nicaragua).

Looking at the world today in the light of these conditions what can we observe?

The first two conditions hold neither for the imperialist countries, nor for the main semi-industrialized dependent countries, nor for the big majority of the bureaucratized workers states. A revolution in any of these countries without the participation of the majority of the urban and rural proletariat would be a minority revolution, a ‘Blanquist’ putsch, of the sort Lenin, Trotsky and their comrades always rejected in their struggle for a mass Communist International.

The fourth condition presupposes that one has declared the effort to build the Fourth International a definitive failure i.e., the fight to build a new revolutionary leadership of the proletariat with a clear perspective of the seizure of power and the self-organization of the toiling masses in structures of a soviet type.

If that is Comrade Barnes’ opinion then let him say so openly. At least we would know what we were really discussing.

As for the third condition – the most important of the four -it actually means projecting the Cuban and Nicaraguan model “onto” the rest of the world, overlooking the lessons of the totality of revolutionary experiences since the October revolution, and arbitrarily deriving these lessons from only five cases of revolutionary victories which, as if by chance, took place in more or less underdeveloped countries.

The real record of the world revolution 1917-1982

Now the real record of the world revolution over the 65 years since the victory of the October 1917, socialist revolution in Russia is a balance sheet that has to include at least 30 countries and not just five. Furthermore in the majority of these cases, in fact in all cases where these revolutions spread from the town to the country and not vice-versa, that is, in all countries where the urban proletariat was the main motor-force, the main themes of the Russian Revolution have been confirmed. Strikes with factory occupations and the self-organization of the proletariat played a central and determinant role.

This was the case with: the Finnish revolution in 1918, Germany and Austria in 1918-19, Hungary in 1919, the beginning of the Italian revolution in 1920, Germany 1923, Spain in 1936-37. June ’36 in France, the postwar revolutionary crisis in Italy culminating in the 14th July 1948 events, May ’68 in France, the Italian “Hot Autumn” of 1969, the Chilean revolution of 1970-73 and the Portuguese revolution in 1974-75. As proletarian revolutions the anti-bureaucratic political revolutions in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968-69 and especially Poland 1980-81 also confirm this.

To recognize that all these beginnings of proletarian revolutions had a great number of common traits with the 1917 Russian revolution (and that of 1905) is not a sign of any “Trotskyist dogmatic sectarianism” on our part.

It is the product of real life, real history and experience, just as the real revolutionary process in Cuba, Nicaragua, Yugoslavia, China or Vietnam is not a product of ‘revisionism’ but of real life. To deny the reality of the other revolutionary processes on the pretext they were not victorious is just as dogmatic, sectarian and idealistic as to deny the reality of revolutionary victories in the five countries we have referred to on the basis that the revolution was not led by a revolutionary Marxist party.

All revolutionary processes which have shaken bourgeois stability to its foundations since 1917 are part and parcel of the real development of the world revolution. It is inadmissible from the point of view of scientific socialism, of Marxism, to exclude one part of that real development from being part of the laboratory of examination and experimentation which helps us assess what will happen in future proletarian revolutions. (Particularly since the part left out concerns the big majority of those involved in revolutions and the overwhelming majority of proletarian participants).

The emergence of soviet-type structures (or in more general terms: “the dynamic of the masses towards self-organization”) stems from the basic reality of proletarian existence. In turn, such forms of self-organization correspond to the fundamental political demands of the class struggle once it has reached a certain level of maturity. That is why this type of body (or the dynamic towards self-organization) emerges in the imperialist countries, in the semi-industrialized dependent countries and the bureaucratized workers states, independently of the different strategic objectives of these three sectors of the world revolution. Soviet-type forms of organization do not appear as a result of the strategic aims of the revolution but because of the social composition of the majority of people involved.

The proletariat instinctively turns to soviet-type forms of organization because it is the only means of forming a united class front against the enemy or enemies it is fighting. It is the only instrument of organization and struggle which by definition unites all wage-earners. Neither the trade unions, nor a united front of parties (or parties and trade unions) nor a fortiori a single party (however revolutionary) can attain the degree of unification of the workers or people’s councils.

It also makes it possible to integrate into this self-organization all those, male or female, who don’t work in the capitalist work place.

Moreover, this thesis of the generalization of the Cuban and Nicaraguan experiences actually presupposes that the “ultra-leftism,” “impatience,” “sectarianism,” or, put more crudely, the ‘excesses’ of the soviets, were the basic reasons for the revolutionary defeats in Germany, Italy, Spain etc. We categorically reject such an argument. Our position is that the defeat of these revolutions is not due to the ‘ultra-leftism’ of the workers and their experience of ‘self-organization’ but to the rightist opportunism of the parties leading the workers movement of these countries, to their refusal to break with bourgeois order, to smash the bourgeois state. It was due to the absence of a revolutionary leadership, to the bankruptcy of the traditional leaderships of the workers movement of these countries.

Furthermore, the Russian bourgeoisie, however weak it was compared to the Western bourgeoisie, was infinitely stronger than the Yugoslav, Chinese, Cuban, Vietnamese (not to mention the Nicaraguan) bourgeoisies. Remember Lenin explicitly classified it among the imperialist bourgeoisies. The Russian urban working class was also much stronger than the working class of the 5 countries mentioned above. In such conditions only a higher degree of self-organization, education and consciousness of the masses as well as a revolutionary leadership (or leaderships) that is (or are) programmatically and strategically better equipped than the leaderships who led the Yugoslav, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions to victory, will be able to bring down a much stronger and politically experienced enemy that is also far more capable of engaging in maneuvers including daring maneuvers to preserve its class power.

Is it possible to have a mixed economy regime in the course of a proletarian revolution – neither capitalist nor socialist?

In his article Comrade Jack Barnes imprudently links the question of the “two-class government” to that of the non-expropriation of the big (and a part of the medium-sized) bourgeoisie. In fact he defends the idea that a “transitional stage” of “workers and farmers government” before the dictatorship of the proletariat is generally applicable by arguing that it is impossible to ‘immediately’ expropriate big capital. He does not beat about the bush, he characterizes the economy of this transitional stage as a ‘mixed economy’:

There is another sense in which such a government can be called petty bourgeois, the only sense that holds true for all of them. That is the fact that the job such a government must accomplish in establishing the domination of proletarian economic forms is not yet done. As long as that job is not completed, there is no way it can base itself on something different from the bourgeois economic forms it inherited, even if increasingly diluted with a “mixture” of the proletarian economic forms it is heading towards, i.e., state property (Barnes, Workers and Farmers Government, p.7).

Let’s leave aside the fact that to characterize not only the Sandinista government but even Lenin and Trotsky’s government as “ petty-bourgeois” is the height of arrogant sectarianism. The more serious implication in our opinion is that the concept of the mixed economy is the traditional formulation of the social democratic reformists, taken up again later by Khruschev and the neo-Stalinists and then by the Eurocommunists. The parallel with the idea of “advanced democracy” put forward by the Western European CPs is striking. Revolutionary Marxists have always stated that a strategy based on an “intermediary” period during which the economy would stay formally capitalist and the state bourgeois, although workers would exercize political power in an “anti-capitalist” way, is utopian in reality and misleading as propaganda (of course the rhythm and precise degree of expropriation of the bourgeoisie is something quite different – it depends on judgements about the relationship of forces, i.e. as a purely tactical problem).

What exists in reality under the false term “mixed economy,” in the imperialist countries and most of the semi-industrialized dependent countries (including India), is a capitalist economy with a more or less extensive nationalized sector. Falsely dubbing this economy “non-capitalist” – as does the CPSU program adopted at its 22nd Congress – in no way changes this reality.

There is a basic criterion for deciding on whether a “national” economic system (having even a slightly stable process of reproduction) is capitalist or not: does the law of value still basically determine its motion? Are investments made as a priority in the most profitable sectors in relation to current prices on the world market? Does industrial development essentially depend on sector by sector estimations of profitability? Does the state systematically block such a tendency by steering the majority of all investment towards sectors considered as a priority on the basis of non-profit criteria? Does it maintain full employment, or progressively try and achieve this objective (the right to work for everybody), by virtue of its decision-making power over all investment? Is the economy as a consequence generally protected against the danger of being drawn into international capitalist crises? Does this economy continue to grow when the international capitalist economy declines?

Certainly we do not define the alternative to the capitalist economy as a socialist economy. The full and complete achievement of socialism is impossible in a single country or in a small group of countries. The real alternative to the capitalist economy, in one or several countries, before the victory of the world revolution, or at least its victory in the main industrialized countries, is not the socialist economy but a largely (or predominantly) socialized economy, the economy of a transitional period between capitalism and socialism. In such an economy the law of value no longer dominates productive activity but continues to influence it. These economies are not dragged into the storm of capitalist crises of overproduction, but are affected by their consequences.

Both forms of economy are possible, the last 65 years of experience has taught us that. What is impossible on the other hand is an economy that is regulated and yet at the same time not regulated by the law of value; where commodity production prevails and yet does not prevail; an economy integrated and yet not integrated in the international capitalist market; and where the state both has and does not have the decision-making power over overall investment, over its share-out between the main different sectors of the national economy and the resulting general level of employment. Such a ‘mixed economy’ is, to paraphrase Lenin, a hollow dream. It has never existed. It will never exist.

Even if out of necessity, due to the depth of the crisis in a semi-colonial country and given the international context, maintaining a dominant private sector can be politically correct, it still remains the case that the economic effects of this policy will be difficult to control. The key question is that such an economic policy must not become an obstacle to the self-organization and mobilization of the masses.

While the negative effects are already evident for the most backward semi-colonial countries any institutionalization of a “mixed economy” in a semi-industrialized dependent country, indeed in an imperialist country, is a dangerous, even blatantly reactionary, utopia. In the latter countries – with a few exceptions – there is already a big nationalized sector before the revolutionary crisis. A long time before the revolutionary crisis there is already a tradition of demands for nationalization, even expropriation of the additional sectors of the economy, by the trade union and workers movement – not to mention demands for the expropriation of big capital put forward by revolutionaries in their transitional program. An “instinctive” dynamic already exists among a significant sector of the working class to occupy the factories and take control of the machines, etc., during each mass strike.

In these conditions opposing the ‘immediate’ expropriations of Big Capital, means stirring up a process of division of the working class between the politically advanced and politically backward sectors. In other words deliberately basing oneself on the most politically backward sectors. Not only does this mean refusing to take on a vanguard role in the revolutionary process but it also opens up the big risk of having to carry out repression against the vanguard workers, including against the core sectors in defence of private property!

The only argument put forward by Comrade Jack Barnes in support of his thesis on the necessity of a transitional “mixed economy” without expropriating Big Capital, is that this “immediate” expropriation would cause economic chaos: “A revolutionary government can’t simply decree the disappearance of capital. It can try, but it won’t work and will create needless chaos.” (Barnes, Workers and Farmers Government, p.6.) “So the workers and farmers government opens up an entire new dynamic and direction, an anti-capitalist dynamic and direction. This is not an instantaneous transformation of the economy; that’s not feasible.” (Ibid., p.8.)

In reality the argument should be turned on its head. What causes chaos and economic collapse in the course of the revolutionary process in countries with medium industrial development’ and still more in highly industrial countries is precisely the desperate attempt by leaders of the mass movement to hang onto a mixed economy. It is the pursuit of this myth which leads rapidly to the near total halt of the economy.

Private capitalists stop investing. They organize the flight of capital on a large scale. The only valid response is the immediate seizure (indeed this is a preventive measure) of their factories and their bank accounts, the state monopoly of foreign trade, the substitution of public investment for private investment, radical monetary reform, in other words, the socialization of the economy. If this is not done, the result is a brutal drop in production, massive unemployment, shortages, galloping inflation, a decline in living standards, growing discontent, etc. (it is interesting that Comrade Barnes hardly mentions unemployment among the problems with which the workers and peasants government have to grapple immediately). There is nothing inevitable about all that except if one thinks it is out of the question to break with the market economy, to firmly end links with the national and international bourgeoisie on the economic level, to expropriate capital. Maintaining the “mixed economy” equals worsening chaos. Large-scale socialization of the economy equals positive outcome to the crisis: this is the dilemma.

Comrade Jack Barnes gets the question confused (just like the new Social-Democrats, Eurocommunists and Stalinists) by confusing preponderant socialization of the economy with complete socialization. No serious-minded person inside the revolutionary movement or the Fourth International has ever recommended the total nationalization of the economy 24 hours, 24 weeks or even 24 months after the victory of the socialist revolution in the USA, Great Britain, France or Germany, and in Poland or the USSR after the victory of the anti-bureaucratic political revolution. We are talking about the nationalization of the key sectors of the economy.

It permits the workers state or better still the national congress of workers councils (or soviets) to issue binding instructions and determine the general development of the economy – to end its subordination to the needs of profit, the law of value and commodity production.

There can be no principled objection to allowing the survival of a private sector of varying size in small scale industry, for artisans, in the distribution and certain other service sectors – and of course in agriculture – once there is the dictatorship of the proletariat and the economy is regulated by socialist planning (or even better planned and democratically centralized workers self-management). But this private sector must be sufficiently limited and controlled so that it does not go beyond certain limits. Private accumulation must not be allowed to get the upper hand over planning, nor the private sector link up with the world market.

Comrade Jack Barnes reaches the height of confusion when he mixes up the question of the “mixed economy” with the NEP in Russia. It is evident for anybody who knows the writings of Lenin, Trotsky and other Bolshevik leaders on this that events forced the Bolsheviks to adopt war communism and was neither the product of their political project nor an ideal model to follow. For us it is the ABC that the NEP was a salutary reaction against the excesses of “war communism.” We could remind Comrade Jack Barnes that Trotsky stated that he demanded such an NEP since 1919. Let’s hope he is not also going to challenge Trotsky’s evidence.

But what was the NEP? It was a tactical retreat by the Russian Communists, made possible by the fact that the dictatorship of the proletariat already existed (that is, it did not lead to capitalist restoration). In other words the Communists already held all political power, all basic industry, all large-scale commerce, all the transport system, all foreign trade, all the credit system was already nationalized. Lenin repeated this dozens of times. The NEP did not signify a retreat to capitalism precisely because there was no “mixed economy” in Russia but a solid base of workers power and the socialized economy. As against the claims of the Mensheviks, SRs, Social Democrats, and certain ‘Left’ Communists in the West, the NEP preserved the possibility of beginning to build a socialist economy and society (the beginning and not the end). By identifying “NEP” and “mixed economy,” Comrade Jack Barnes contradicts all the Leninist analysis of 1920-21 as well as the real course of USSR history.

Even in these “ideal” conditions – i.e., its introduction after the consolidation of the dictatorship of the proletariat in Russia, after several years the NEP involved major risks for the Soviet economy. After 1923 the ‘scissors effect’ between agricultural and industrial prices began to make itself felt. From 1923-24 the problems of stepping up industrialization and the growing differentiations inside the peasantry were posed. The Kulaks were in control of a major part of the agricultural surplus – i.e., the main potential source of funds for primitive socialist accumulation.

At that time two opposed political lines existed inside the CPSU. Zinoviev/Stalin/Bukarin proposed a more or less long term ‘harmonious’ continuation of the NEP with the peaceful integration of the Kulak and NEP men into this ‘accumulation’ (particularly through the mystification of a ‘sale of state bonds’ to the well-off bourgeois and petty bourgeois sectors, bonds to be used to finance industrialization). The Left Opposition (which Zinoviev later supported) predicted an inevitable exacerbation of the contradictions between the private and socialized sectors of the soviet economy, a growing tension between the Kulaks and the workers state, the need to step up industrialization, to give poor peasants the choice of voluntarily joining the kolkhozes equipped with agricultural machines and starting with levels of productivity, production of surplus and peasant family income higher than those of the kulaks.

Was this battle of Trotsky and the Left Opposition from 1923 “mistaken,” “sectarian,” “underestimating the peasantry?” We would like to know Comrade Jack Barnes’ answer on this one.

If the answer is negative then what remains of the thesis concerning a long “NEP” period? Shouldn’t we rather say that by alerting the party and proletariat to the contradictions and dangers of continuing the NEP, Trotsky and the Left Opposition saved the USSR from capitalist restoration? We could also add that the Zinoviev/Stalin/Bukarin refusal in 1923-24 to adopt the course proposed by the Opposition was one of the decisive factors leading to the Soviet Thermidor. It produced a catastrophic delay in the industrialization of the country, in the mechanization of agriculture. Pursuing such a policy led to the kulak ‘supplies strike’ in winter 1928 – which was one of the factors that triggered off the panic reaction of the bureaucracy the forced collectivization of agriculture. Didn’t this in turn result in the brutal decline in workers living standards, gigantic social tensions throughout society, the creation of a climate of generalized repression and the destruction of the final remnants of soviet democracy – including inside the CPSU?

And if this battle was sectarian, if Bukarin was right, wouldn’t we have to look again at the whole role of Trotsky and the Opposition in the USSR, in the CPSU and the Communist International after 1923? Wouldn’t it then be necessary to revise even more than seven chapters of the Transitional Program?

In his December 31, 1982 speech, reproduced in the magazine New International, No.1, Autumn 1983, Comrade Barnes makes a new 180 degree turn. He now states (p.76) that a workers and farmers government is “the first phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat.” But his contradictions do not become in any way more explicable. This all has to mean one thing or the other. Either (the first possibility) the ‘first phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ implies there is already a workers state. If that is true then what becomes of all the “theoretical innovations” of these last years? So we can have a dictatorship of the proletariat without ‘total nationalization of capitalist property.’ So obviously the socialist revolution of October 1917 created a workers state and the Chinese People’s Republic was a workers state bureaucratized from the time it was born. We deserve at least a self-criticism for the incredible off-handed way with which Comrade Jack Barnes treats Marxist theory. The other possibility of course is that the “first phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat” coincides with a bourgeois state. Now the state is the instrument of the ruling class to protect its class rule. A fine sort of “dictatorship of the proletariat” which is the instrument of bourgeois class rule!

But Comrade Jack Barnes gets even more confused. According to Comrade Jack Barnes the Ben Bella government in Algeria was also a ‘workers and farmers government.’ However this government was overturned by Boumedienne’s army which functioned as an army of a bourgeois state. But now we are asked to see Boumedienne’s army as an army of the ‘first phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat’ (since according to Comrade Jack Barnes’ latest version the ‘workers and farmers government’ equals the first phase of the dictatorship of the proletariat), i.e. an army whose class character was identical to that of the Red Army led by Trotsky. Unless they are perhaps both identically petty-bourgeois.

The dictatorship of the proletariat and the small peasantry

A big part of Comrade Jack Barnes’ report centers on the question of the necessary alliance between wage-earners (proletarian) and small peasants in the course of the socialist revolution and the period following the conquest of power. Starting from the necessity for such an alliance he proposes a “two-class government” as a “transition to the dictatorship of the proletariat” in practically all capitalist countries of the world. According to Comrade Barnes this alliance is necessary (at least in the imperialist countries and the most industrialized dependent countries) not so much because of the still high proportion of peasants in the population (i.e. among those involved in revolutionary struggles a criteria we think is correct for all countries where it is the case) but rather in light of the importance of agricultural production for the rebuilding of the economy. The possible exception of Great Britain to this rule is justified (p.18) by the fact that this country imports the major part of its foodstuffs (which incidentally is not true anyway).

Such an approach ends in legitimizing corporatist interests based on “privileged” jobs, justifying wages increases made up of “special interest payments.” Instead of representing the interests of the proletariat and the working masses as a whole, the workers and peasants government would become a mosaic of particular interest groups.

But Comrade Barnes retorts, small peasants are a “specifically exploited class” (Workers and Farmers Government, p.24). Due to this they deserve a specific place inside the government. This argument only deepens the contradiction.

It is true that small peasants are a specific class distinct from the proletariat; in many cases they form in effect an exploited class, although not to the same degree as the proletariat. But precisely because they constitute a specific class they also have specific interests apart from those of the proletariat’ not only in the historic sense of the term (attachment to private property and all that goes with it), but also in the immediate meaning of the term (particularly concerning the prices of food products).

If the government becomes a “two-class government” where workers and small peasants “govern together” (Ibid., p.25), who will arbitrate between these different interests? Will the opinion of 2, 3, 5, or 10% of the working population have the same influence as 55, 60, 75, or even 80% of the people? What happens to mass democracy, soviet democracy or socialist democracy?

Governments are made up of people who outside of totalitarian dictatorship – are nominated by parties, tendencies, bodies that are supposed to represent social classes or fractions of social classes. Indeed Comrade Jack Barnes says more or less the same thing when he explicitly refers (Ibid., p.25) to “parties and leaders ... of the working farmers.” But what parties, which leaders? Is there a single non-bourgeois peasant party or leader of peasant trade union organizations which are not linked to the bourgeoisie in the imperialist countries (since we are discussing the imperialist countries and not just the semi-colonial or dependent countries!)? Is it these parties and leaders we want associated with the government or represented inside the “workers and peasants government?”

Certainly it is inevitable that during a strong revolutionary upsurge of mass struggles in the semi-colonial and dependent countries, the poor peasant masses will form their own bodies of self-organization. It is possible the same process will be repeated in similar conditions in certain imperialist countries. These bodies of self-organization of the non-exploiter working peasantry are the preferred partners of the proletariat during the revolutionary process and after its victory. They will be its allies if the proletarian leadership does not have a wrong-headed sectarian attitude towards them.

But within this alliance, the emphasis should not be placed on hypothetical government participation of representatives of the peasant ‘soviets’ or ‘trade unions’ – a tactical question depending exclusively on concrete conditions that vary greatly from country to country and in different periods. Rather we emphasize the right of poor, non-exploiter, working farmers to freely decide their own future, and on the absence of any constraint by the dictatorship of the proletariat over them:

The alliance proposed by the Proletariat – not to the “middle classes” in general but to the exploited layers of the urban and rural petty bourgeoisie, against all exploiters, including those of the “middle classes” – can be based not on compulsion but only on free consent, which should be consolidated in a special “contract.” This “contract” is the program of transitional demands voluntarily accepted by both sides. (Trotsky, Transitional Program, p.128.)

In other words, the proletariat and its revolutionary party (or parties) would commit itself to respect the private property of small farmers if they demanded this. But it is not prepared to respect the private property of the bourgeoisie in order to “calm” the potential fear of the small landowning farmer (on most occasions such fear is greatly exaggerated by supporters of class collaboration). The proletariat and its revolutionary party (or parties) start from the given consciousness of the working population in the countryside in order to work out the pace of collectivization of the economy as a whole. The objective needs of the socialist revolution, the aspirations and level of consciousness of the proletariat (wage-earners) are decisive in the resolution of this question. That is the key difference between a “two-class government” and the pact (alliance) the Transitional Program projects between wage-earners and poor peasants.

This question of a “pact” is furthermore not at all limited to a single (and hypothetical) “transitional period” between bourgeois power and the dictatorship of the proletariat (the transition to the transition of the transition). It remains relevant for decades – up to the end of socialist construction in other words up to the establishment of classless society. Such is indeed the classic Marxist position admirably expressed by Frederick Engels in his article, The Peasant question in France and Germany (November 1894):

... when we are in possession of state power we shall not even think of forcibly expropriating the small peasants (regardless of whether with or without compensation), as we shall have to do in the case of the big landowners. Our task relative to the small peasant consists, in the first place, in effecting a transition of his private enterprise and private possession to cooperative ones, not forcibly but by dint of example and the offer of social assistance for this purpose. And then of course we have ample means of showing to the small peasant a perspective with advantages that must be obvious to him even today.

We should note that Engels writes: “when we are in possession of state power.” He definitively does not say “when there is a two-class government.” The necessity of a worker-peasant pact which guarantees the small peasantry the right to freely decide its future, remains valid for all this long period. Therefore it does not imply any necessity of some sort of “two-class government” – unless one wants to institutionalize such a government for decades.

The distinction we draw between the worker-peasant alliance and a “two-class government” is not the result of some sort of “sectarianism” towards the working peasantry or some sort of primitive “workerism.” It results from an understanding that the political and economic power of the bourgeoisie must first of all be broken. It is necessary to break decisively with the logic of profit nationally and internationally in order to resolve the working people’s problems, including peasant concerns which the crisis of declining capitalism forces upon the laboring masses.

To smash the bourgeoisie’s power and to open the way to the socialist reconstruction of society means: all power to the workers, dictatorship of the proletariat, the power of the workers and peasants councils, planned self-management, socialist democracy in all fields and in all countries on a world scale. The worker-peasant alliance fits into this framework – with inevitable variations according to the social structure of each country. In no case can the victory of the socialist revolution, the rule of workers councils and people’s councils – when it becomes possible given the overall relationship of forces in a country – be held back because of the demands of so-called prejudices of the peasantry, unless one wants to deal a mortal blow to the interests of the working peasantry.

What progressively emerges in outline behind Comrade Barnes’ revisionist ideas is a growing skepticism towards the majority of the proletariat in the industrialized countries, concerning its capacity to carry out great anti-capitalist struggles or even to unleash socialist revolutions. No longer is it the proletarian masses which provide the pressure of the steam and the party which concentrates it on a precise objective as Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg thought. [6] No, it is now the government that represents the steam and the workers and peasants government “mobilizes” the masses in order to render them “gradually” capable of expropriating capital. It seems more and more unthinkable for Comrade Barnes that these mobilizations and this aspiration for expropriation could lead to the formation of a workers and peasants government. Its a curious way of presenting oneself as the “proletarian tendency” when one so blatantly underestimates – and even shows contempt – for the proletariat! If this logic is followed through to the end there is a risk of a total overturning of the proletarian Marxist conception of the relationship between the party and the proletariat. At the end of the road, a manipulative, paternalistic even bureaucratic conception replaces the proletarian Marxist approach and the party (party/government) is seen as the sole repository of ‘working-class class consciousness.’ We all know where such ideas have led the Social Democratic, trade union, Stalinist and Eurocommunist bureaucracies.

This is not yet the explicit position of Comrade Jack Barnes. For this reason we continue the debate with him inside the same international organization (taking into account the legal curbs represented by the reactionary Voorhis Act). But there is a risk of arriving at such conclusions. One would have to be blind and deaf to deny it.


1. We have cut out from this part of the article the quotations and comments concerning the Transitional Programme and the Tactics Resolution of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in order to keep within the commonly agreed limits for articles going in the IIDB of 50,000 characters (this is in reply to a document of 300,000 characters).

2. “... all this served to go beyond the traditional position of Marxism and the Third International concerning the two stages of the revolution the bourgeois-democratic revolution and the socialist revolution (the Yugoslav resolution had already gone beyond this idea, as Comrade Tito said as early as 1945).” (Milos Nikolic: The Basic Results of the Development of Contemporary Marxism, in Socialism in the World, International Journal of Marxist and Socialist Thought, Belgrade 1983, VII, No.38, p.58.)

3. The introduction written by the Intercontinental Press editors and inserted above my article, In Defense of the Permanent Revolution, when it was published in that magazine on the 8th August 1983, contains a blatant case of falsification. We are reproached for having said: “for more than two decades we [the reference is unclear] systematically warned the comrades leading the SWP of the dangers” in its “sectarian and dogmatic position” on the dictatorship of the proletariat.

Mandel thus dates the continuity of his differences with the SWP leadership on such questions as Cuba and the workers and farmers government to before the reunification of the Fourth International in 1963. (IP, Vol.21, No.15, p.446.)

Now if the reader refers to my article, published in the same IP issue and also as a special IV supplement 13th June 1983, he/she can immediately see that it is not at all a case of Cuba but of China (that the Reunification Congress decided to leave in suspense) and of the authentically “sectarian and dogmatic” position the SWP leaders adopted towards the leaders of the Chinese revolution. We predicted then that they would not be able to maintain such sectarianism and that it would lead them to a total change of their positions in the long term. This is what is happening now. Obstinately refusing to recognize the dictatorship of the proletariat already existed in China at the end of 1949. they were led to conclude that the dictatorship of the proletariat was not even established by the October revolution! Comrade Jack Barnes himself admits elsewhere in his report on the workers and peasants government that our forecast was correct. Since he states that it was the Chinese revolution which caused them a “gigantic problem.”

4. See the USec resolution on The Indochinese Crisis (April 1979) – Indicative vote taken on the general line of this resolution at 1979 World Congress (11th). (See IP Special World Congress 1980)

5. Comrade Doug Jenness’ article, How Lenin Saw the Russian Revolution, was published in November 1981 in the Militant/International Socialist Review. My answer, The Debate over the Character and Goals of the Russian Revolution, was published in April 1982 in the Militant/ISR. Comrade Jenness continued the polemic with his Our Political Continuity with Bolshevism in the June 1982 issue of the Militant/ISR; my second answer, In Defense of the Permanent Revolution, dated December 1, 1982, was published in International Viewpoint’s special supplement of June 13, 1983, and in Intercontinental Press, with an introduction by the IP editors, on August 8, 1983.

6. “Without a guiding organisation the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.” (Leon Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, Sphere edition, Preface, p.17.)


Last updated on 31.12.2005