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Spartacist English edition No. 60

Autumn 2007

Excerpts from the ICL Fifth Conference Main Document:

Down With Executive Offices!

We print below a section of the ICL Fifth Conference document, “Maintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period,” February 2007.

* * *

A necessary element of maintaining our revolutionary continuity is to assimilate the lessons of the struggles in the international workers movement through cadre education and critically reviewing the work of our revolutionary predecessors. This is vital to formulating programmatic positions for today. We stand on the first four Congresses of the Communist International. But we are not uncritical of the early CI and from the early years of our tendency expressed reservations over the resolutions on the “anti-imperialist united front” and “workers government” at the Fourth Congress. “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern” (Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001) investigated the mistakes of the KPD and CI leaderships that led to the abortion of the German Revolution. In Lessons of October, Trotsky pointed out how the Bolshevik Party, under the leadership of Lenin, overcame the resistance of the Kamenevs, Zinovievs and Stalins who flinched when the question of power was posed. In Germany, however, the politics of capitulation triumphed and a revolutionary opportunity was wasted, with disastrous consequences. This work by Trotsky may have been in part a personal self-critique: Trotsky had been a component part of the CI leadership that bore its share of responsibility for the German debacle. However, neither Trotsky nor his supporters ever carried out a systematic and thorough review of the CI and KPD intervention into the events of Germany in 1923 nor did they criticize the flawed resolution on workers governments at the Fourth Congress. This resolution opened the door for the KPD’s policy of joining the provincial governments in Saxony and Thuringia in 1923, which Trotsky had wrongly supported as being a “drill ground” for revolution. But the maneuver in Saxony and Thuringia simply reinforced existing prejudices about the bourgeois state. If these were indeed “workers governments,” as the masses had been told, then presumably extraparliamentary revolutionary struggle, the formation of workers councils and workers militias, would be totally superfluous. The 1923 fiasco is a clear example of how cutting corners programmatically, rather than taking a straightforward Leninist position on the state, will lead to disaster.

The Fourth ICL Conference voted a line that communists could run for executive offices like president or city mayor, provided we declare that we don’t intend to assume such offices. Comrade Robertson challenged this line at the 2004 SL/U.S. conference. He noted the contradiction between our principled refusal to run for county sheriff in the U.S. and the fact that we say we can run for sheriff of U.S. imperialism. Our attitude should be “Down with executive offices!” Running candidates for executive office is counterposed to the Leninist understanding of the state. The executive office discussion should critically review early Comintern practice, where its sections ran candidates for executive offices and regularly assumed positions as mayors of municipalities, or in the case of Germany even had ministers in bourgeois regional governments. We see no difference in principle between national, regional or local capitalist governments—bourgeois institutions of local government are part of the mechanisms of the capitalist state which must be destroyed and replaced with organs of workers rule, i.e., soviets.

The fundamental line between reform and revolution is the attitude toward the bourgeois state, i.e., the reformist view that one can take hold of the existing state apparatus and administer it in the interests of the workers, versus the Leninist understanding that the capitalist state apparatus must be smashed through proletarian revolution. The problem with running for executive offices is that it lends legitimacy to prevailing and reformist conceptions of the state. There is a rotten history of social-democratic and Stalinist reformists administering the state in the interest of capitalism. The executive authority commands the “armed body of men” who are the core of the state apparatus; the revolutionary shattering of that state inevitably entails reckoning with the executive. Even in the great bourgeois revolutions in England and France, the Cromwellians and Jacobins who established a base in parliament had to get rid of the king and set up a new executive organ.

The Dreyfus case in the 1890s provoked a serious social crisis in France. It also polarized the French workers movement, with some socialists failing to understand the need to defend the Jewish military officer Dreyfus against bourgeois reaction and anti-Semitism. To defuse the social crisis and liquidate the Dreyfus case, the new prime minister (président du conseil) called for the socialist Alexandre Millerand to be seated in a government of bourgeois Radicals and republicans, with the butcher of the Paris Commune, General Galliffet, as minister of war. Millerand obliged, entering the Waldeck-Rousseau cabinet as minister of trade and industry in 1899. Millerand’s betrayal, supported by Jean Jaurès, divided the French Socialists. Characteristically, the Second International gave an ambiguous answer to ministerialism. At the Paris Congress in 1900 a compromise motion by Kautsky won. This motion criticized Millerandism...except when it was a matter of national survival: “The fact that an isolated socialist enters a bourgeois government cannot be considered as the normal beginning of conquering political power, but only as a forced, transitional and exceptional expedient. If in a particular case the political situation requires this dangerous experiment, it is a question of tactics and not of principle.” An amendment put forward by Guesde that sought to forbid participation under any circumstances was rejected. The revolutionary wing of Social Democracy including Lenin and Luxemburg vehemently opposed Millerandism. Luxemburg wrote, “The entry of a socialist into a bourgeois government is not, as it is thought, a partial conquest of the bourgeois state by the socialists, but a partial conquest of the socialist party by the bourgeois state” [“The Dreyfus Affair and the Millerand Case,” 1899].

The early American Socialist Party had no understanding of the importance of the issue of the state. The reformist wing, including such vulgar chauvinists as Victor Berger, indulged in the practice of running municipalities, which more militant socialists derided as “sewer socialism.” Although more left-wing, Eugene Debs had illusions that the existing capitalist state could be used to advance the cause of the proletariat and argued that the task of the Socialist Party was “to conquer capitalism on the political battlefield, take control of government and through the public powers take possession of the means of wealth production, abolish wage-slavery and emancipate all workers” (“The Socialist Party and the Working Class”). Debs’ campaigns for the American presidency set a pattern that was later followed by the American Communists and Cannon’s Trotskyists.

The Second International could not resolve the issue of executive offices because it was not revolutionary. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party demonstratively showed its total hostility to ministerialism through its intransigent hostility to the popular-front Provisional Government. However, Lenin sharply distinguished between assuming executive office, which necessarily means administering capitalism and hence class betrayal, and the revolutionary utilization of parliament. Referring to the Bolshevik work in the tsarist Duma, Lenin noted: “At a time when nearly all ‘socialist’ (forgive the debasement of the word!) deputies in Europe have proved chauvinists and servants of chauvinists, when the famous ‘Europeanism’ that once charmed our liberals and liquidators has proved an obtuse habitude of slavish legality, there was to be found in Russia a workers’ party whose deputies excelled, not in high-flown speech, or being ‘received’ in bourgeois, intellectualist salons, or in the business acumen of the ‘European’ lawyer and parliamentarian, but in ties with the working masses, in dedicated work among those masses, in carrying on modest, unpretentious, arduous, thankless and highly dangerous duties of illegal propagandists and organizers” (“What Has Been Revealed by the Trial of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Duma Group”).

However, the Comintern never pursued the issue of Millerandism to a satisfactory conclusion. The Second Congress “Theses on the Communist Parties and Parliamentarism” contain contradictory language on the appropriateness of Communists running municipal councils. Thesis 5 notes correctly that “the bourgeoisie’s institutions of local government…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” (Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920 [Pathfinder, 1991]). But Thesis 13 states that Communists who “hold a majority in institutions of local government” should “organize revolutionary opposition against the central bourgeois government.” This provision was proposed particularly in connection with the “model” of the Bulgarian Communists and served as a justification for the practice of running municipal councils. Administering local councils has historically been used as a mechanism by which the bourgeoisie has co-opted reformist parties into the capitalist order, as was the case with the post-WWII Communist Party in Italy. Our opposition to running for and holding executive office applies equally at the local and national level. While some of the early leaders of American Communism drew a distinction between running for legislative and executive office, sometime after the formation of the United Communist Party in 1920 this differentiation ceased to exist. In 1921 the Communists ran a campaign for mayor of New York City and from 1924 onward ran in every presidential election. The Socialist Workers Party ran for president from 1948 onward. The French CP ran a campaign for president in 1924 and numerous campaigns for mayor. In Germany the KPD ran Ernst Thälmann for president in 1925 and then again in 1932. The shrill Third Period rhetoric notwithstanding, the KPD’s electoral campaign for president in 1932 as well as its campaigns for the Reichstag (parliament) in the early 1930s were not a staging ground for extraparliamentary struggle but in fact a noisy disguise for the bankruptcy of the CI and the KPD, which refused to engage in united fronts with the Social Democrats and mobilize workers militias to smash the Nazis. Notably when the Nazis marched on KPD headquarters in Berlin on 22 January 1933 the Communist leaders ignominiously refused to mobilize the workers to defend Karl Liebknecht House, instead telling them to appeal to the Prussian police while calling on them to vote KPD in the Reichstag elections scheduled for March. By then the KPD had been banned by Hitler. Hitler was allowed to take power without a shot being fired. When the Comintern passed over to the popular front a couple of years later, this resolved any remaining pretensions that the CI drew a line on the question of the state.

While Trotsky of course sharply denounced the policy of the popular front, he did not come out in opposition to running for executive office. In 1940, expressing concern that the SWP was adapting to the pro-Roosevelt trade-union bureaucracy, Trotsky proposed that the SWP launch its own campaign for president or fight for the labor movement to run such a campaign. When the SWP did nothing to implement this, he proposed that they consider critical support to the CP candidate, Browder, in the context of the Stalin-Hitler pact where the CP had come out against Roosevelt. We also need to review our own past practice, including the fact that we have run candidates for such local offices as mayor.

In arguing against running for executive office, we do not want to preclude giving critical support to other workers organizations in appropriate instances where they draw a crude class line. This was the case in Trotsky’s proposal around Browder. 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. Indeed, otherwise one could never extend critical support to a mass reformist party, because on winning an election inevitably they will seek to form the government, i.e., administer capitalism. The point in such instances is to demonstrate that despite the claims of such parties to represent the interests of workers, in practice they betray these interests.

The discussion at the Fifth ICL Conference is extremely important. 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 International. 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? Cannon’s SWP never really addressed this issue. The stakes are high. If we cannot arrive at a correct answer of how to deal with executive offices we will inevitably bend in the direction of reformism when the issue is posed.

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. In particular, our study of the German events of 1923, as well as of the defects of the Proletarian Military Policy, has prepared the position we are taking here, which represents a deepening understanding of the relationship of communists to the bourgeois state. To continue the past practice of running for executive office, now that this has been revealed as defective, would be opportunism.

English Spartacist No. 60

ESp 60

Autumn 2007


Fifth International Conference of the ICL

Maintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period

Excerpts from the ICL Fifth Conference Main Document:


A Review

Bryan Palmer’s James P. Cannon and the Origins
of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890–1928

A Biography of James P. Cannon

1922 Speech by James P. Cannon:


Spartacist Group of Poland Refounded


Diana Kartsen, 1948–2007


From the Archives of Marxism: 1924 Speech by Leon Trotsky

Communism and Women of the East

(Women and Revolution Pages)