WEB EXTRA: A tactical issue
Posted: 25 July 05
This new translation is a useful addition to The history of an argument, by Chris Harman
Translated by Liz Chapman firstname.lastname@example.org
Millerand’s appointment to the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet provides a good opportunity for socialists in France, as well as those in other lands, to make numerous tactical observations. However, actively participating in a bourgeois government is a phenomenon which lies outside the usual scope of socialism. Is this just as appropriate and legitimate a way of serving the cause of the proletariat as activity in the parliament or local council? Or is it, on the contrary, a break with the principles and tactics of socialism? Or does socialist involvement in a bourgeois government constitute a special case, which is permissible and necessary in certain circumstances, but reprehensible and damaging in others?
From the standpoint of the opportunistic approach to socialism, which has recently been expressed most clearly in our party through Bernstein’s theories – in other words, from the standpoint that socialism should be introduced piecemeal into bourgeois society – the addition of socialist elements to the government is not only desirable but natural. If it is actually possible to gradually smuggle socialism into capitalist society in small doses, and if the capitalist state turns gradually and of its own accord into a socialist one, then increasing involvement of socialists in the bourgeois government is actually a natural result of the ongoing development of bourgeois states, in accordance with the presumed trend towards a socialist majority in the legislative bodies. While the case thus fits the opportunist theory, it is no less an example of opportunism in practice. As the guiding principle of this practice is the attainment of small achievable goals, whatever the means, the appointment of a socialist to the bourgeois government of “practical politicians” must seem a success beyond price. A socialist minister can introduce all kinds of little improvements and palliatives, and patch up all sorts of minor social ills!
The issue looks different if we start from the premise that socialism can only be introduced following the collapse of the capitalist order, and that meanwhile, socialist action is limited to the – objective and subjective – preparation for this moment through the class struggle. It is a fact that Social Democracy, in order to have a practical effect, must press forward on all sides and take up all accessible positions in the current state. The only prerequisite is that these are positions from which the class war, the war against the bourgeoisie and their state, can be fought.
However, in this context there is a fundamental difference between the legislative bodies and the government of a bourgeois state. In parliaments, if the workers’ representatives cannot push through their demands, they can at least represent these standpoints in that they remain in opposition. The government, on the other hand, which is responsible for implementing laws, for action, has no room for principled opposition; all its branches must be operational at all times. Even when it is composed of representatives of several parties, as has been the case in France for several years in the coalitions, it must always have common ground under its feet, which enables it to operate. This is the common ground of the establishment, in a word, the ground of the bourgeois state. The most extreme representative of bourgeois radicalism can generally rule side-by-side with the most reactionary conservative. A principled opponent of the establishment, on the other hand, faces a choice: either to oppose the bourgeois majority in the government at every turn, which in effect means not being an active member of the government – obviously an unsustainable state of affairs, which must ultimately lead to the exclusion of the socialist member from the government – or to eventually go along with things, to perform the daily tasks which permit the continued operation and progress of the state machine in each branch of the government, which essentially means not being a socialist, at least within the boundaries of the government.
However, the Social Democracy programme has various demands lined up which could be met by a bourgeois government as well as by a bourgeois parliament – at least in theory. It may, therefore, appear at first glance that a socialist can serve the cause of the proletariat in the government as well as in parliament, by striving to push through the possible and achievable social reforms for its benefit. In this case, however, it becomes apparent that the main issue in the Social Democrat struggle is not what, but how. When Social Democrat representatives seek to put through social reforms in the legislative bodies, they also have complete freedom to give their struggle for bourgeois reforms a principled socialist character – the character of a proletarian class war – through their simultaneous opposition to the bourgeois legislators and the bourgeois government as a whole. This could be expressed in concrete terms by voting against the budget, among other things.
On the other hand, a Social Democrat who strives for the very same social reforms as a member of the government – that is, while supporting the bourgeois state as a whole – effectively reduces his socialism to bourgeois democracy or bourgeois labour politics, at best. Further involvement of Social Democrats in bodies representing the people thus strengthens the class struggle and furthers the cause of the proletariat, but their further involvement in the government can only bring corruption and confusion to the ranks of the Social Democrats. The representatives of the working class can only get involved in bourgeois government in one situation without undermining their role: when they overthrow it and transform it into the government of the ruling working class.
However, in the evolution or rather the demise of capitalist society, there can be moments when it is not yet possible for the representatives of the proletariat to finally seize power, but it nevertheless appears necessary for them to become involved in the bourgeois government: namely when the freedom of the country or democratic achievements such as the Republic are at stake, and the bourgeois government itself is already too compromised and disorganised to be able to rely on the people’s support without the backing of the workers’ representatives. In such a case, it is clear that the representatives of the working people should not shrink from defending the common good for love of rigid adherence to abstract principles. Even then, the Social Democrats’ participation in the government must take forms that leave neither the bourgeoisie nor the people in the slightest doubt as to the temporary character and specific purpose of their actions. In other words, socialist involvement in the government must still not lead to solidarity with its actions and overall stance. It thus looks doubtful whether the aforementioned situation was really the case in France, as the socialist parties had said in advance that they were prepared to support any upright republican government, without thinking about government involvement, and were then partially deterred from supporting it almost immediately when Millerand joined the cabinet – a move which was definitely not authorised by any of his colleagues. However, our purpose was not to pass judgement on the specific case of the Waldeck-Rousseau ministry, but to develop general guidelines from our basic principles. From this point of view, the involvement of socialists in the bourgeois government is an experiment which can only work to the detriment of the class struggle.
In bourgeois society, Social Democracy is marked out by its very nature for the role of an oppositional party; it can only form a ruling party on the ruins of the bourgeois state.