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Workers’ Government

Susan Green

Second in a Series of Articles: What Is a Workers’ Government?

Why Workers Must Free Themselves
from the Capitalist State

(8 March 1943)

From Labor Action, Vol. 7 No. 10, 8 March 1943, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

There is one basic truth every worker has to grasp about the state – or what we commonly call the government. The government is not an impartial umpire set up to see that everybody gets fair play. Contrary to Fourth of July speeches, it does not sit god-like above society administering justice to all alike. Quite the opposite is the case.

The state is the very partial, very biased agency developed by a given economic class to force the whole of society into subjugation to its private interests. That is why Marxian socialists talk about the CAPITALIST state and about BOURGEOIS democracy. The state in our modern world is the political arm of the capitalist class because that class is economic master. By the same token, the fascist and Nazi states are also capitalist states – only new and more despotic forms through which the same master class rules and which are capable of adaptation by the capitalist class of any country.

How Capitalist State Came into Being

The capitalist state has not always existed any more than the capitalist class itself has always existed. Before the advent of capitalist democracy there was the feudal state of the Middle Ages – the political armed fist by which the then powerful landowning nobility ruled over and extracted wealth from the toil of the serfs. THE FEUDAL STATE HAD BEEN CREATED AND DEVELOPED TO SUIT THE SPECIFIC NEEDS OF THE FEUDAL LORDS. When the capitalist class began to feel its oats, when it acquired money, began to build factories, to need wage labor, it realized it could not expand within the framework of the feudal state. History does not record that the rising capitalist class tried to establish “capitalist governments” within the feudal state – as chicken-hearted labor leaders have set up “labor governments” within the capitalist state. The young capitalist class undertook the revolutionary overthrow of the feudal state and the establishment of something entirely unknown in that age, namely, bourgeois democracy – their own capitalist state.

The most classical example of a capitalist class revolution was the great French Revolution. The great American Revolution was also a capitalist class revolution – the revolt of the maturing American capitalists against British imperialism, which used the powers of state to tax, suppress and exploit the colonies in its own behalf.

And just as the French bourgeoisie did not and could not utilize the feudal state, so the American bosses could not utilize the machinery of government set up in America by the British imperialists. The whole kit-and-caboodle was scrapped. American democracy was born – an independent capitalist state to serve the growing: American capitalist class. It has served it faithfully – it still does.

How Democracy Serves the Master Class

The capitalist classes in the various countries did not – and could not have – accomplished their revolution by themselves. It was the seething discontented masses of serfs, workers and townspeople who carried the capitalist revolution on their shoulders, fought the tyrants, gave their lives for liberty, equality, fraternity.

To the rising capitalists, liberty, equality, fraternity were ideals they wanted for themselves ALONE. They had no thought to grant the lower classes liberty, equality, and fraternity. To the ruling class the revolution ushered in a period of CAPITALIST MASTERY OVER THE LOWER CLASSES – IN THE PLACE OF THE MASTERY OF THE FEUDAL LORDS.

What could be better designed to placate and put off the irate people than political democracy? Certain political rights were given the masses – rights they did not have under feudalism and which the American people did not have under British rule. But ECONOMIC freedom – ownership and control of the means of production and therefore of life – this freedom was and is the special privilege of the ruling class. The state belongs to the class that has the economic power – to do the bidding of that class.

“In a democratic republic, wealth uses its power indirectly, but so much the more effectively, first, by means of direct bribery of officials; second, by means of an alliance between the government and the Stock Exchange.”

In the above quoted single sentence from Frederick Engels’ famous little book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, he outlined the whole process of development of bourgeois democracy that, to the fifty years since Engels wrote it, has reached the acme of perfection. Nowhere has a capitalist class nourished more bountifully than our own boss class under American democracy. Finance capital not only owns or controls every branch of industry and agriculture, it is, in the final analysis, the government.

The executive, legislative and judicial branches of government, the armed forces, the police, the courts, state and local governments are all meshed and geared in the complicated machinery by which the capitalist class rules. It enters all the doors that open to the clank of gold – by raw bribery, by campaign contributions, by pressure groups. It controls by getting its chosen men into strategic places In all branches of government – and this method of boss control of government never stood out more clearly than during the present War. It moulds public opinion, education, culture through its press, its radio, its class-biased educational systems. Lawyers, politicians, law-makers, professors, journalists, artists are willing receptacles of capitalist class ideology.

The Tail Can’t Wag the Dog

The tail can as easily wag the dog as can a few labor lieutenants of the capitalist class – stuck into government cabinets and called “labor governments” – use this capitalist state in the interests of the workers. As inevitably as the dog must wag its tail, so inevitably does the capitalist state wag the labor governments, the people’s fronts, the coalition cabinets, the management-labor-government boards.

The only role labor can play within the capitalist state – AND SERVE ITS OWN INTERESTS – is essentially one of opposition. To this end it must use the rights afforded it by political democracy – rights it has earned a hundred times over by the part the masses played in the bourgeois revolutions of history.

Thus the boss political parties, through which the sham of capitalist democracy is maintained, must be challenged by labor’s own independent Labor Party. Against the political platforms of the capitalist class must stand labor’s political platform based on its class interests. The policy of no support or collaboration with the capitalist class must be carried by labor’s elected representatives into the halls of capitalist Congresses and Parliaments. There they can fight for laws and appropriations to advance the welfare of the working people.

From Opposition to Workers’ Power

A never-to-be-forgotten example of a revolutionary leader of labor using the tribunal afforded by the capitalist state to oppose it, was Karl Liebknecht. As a deputy to the German Reichstag during World War I, he denounced the war as imperialist – and refused to vote for appropriations to carry on imperialist war. His revolutionary courage fired the war-weary workers of all Europe.

But, of course, opposition that is serious and purposeful cannot go on forever as opposition. The labor opposition will grow more powerful, will speak for the great mass of workers, poor farmers and little people. The time will come for the working class to pass from opposition to power. Just as the capitalist class came into its own through its revolutionary action against the feudal states and for the establishment of capitalist states – so the working people will make their bid for supremacy through their revolutionary party and a revolutionary program for the erection of a workers’ state in place of the capitalist state.


The Paris Commune of 1871, and the Soviet government under Lenin and Trotsky are the subjects for the next article. What bearing upon the problems of our day have these workers’ governments from whose triumph and failure we can learn so much? In a future article the question why the Stalin government is not a workers’ government will be discussed.

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Last updated: 21 March 2015