“We are not a government party; we are the party of irreconcilable opposition… Our tasks... we realise not through the medium of bourgeois governments... but exclusively through the education of the masses through agitation, through explaining to the workers what they should defend and what they should overthrow. Such a “defence” cannot give immediate miraculous results. But we do not even pretend to be miracle workers. As things stand, we are a revolutionary minority. Our work must be directed so that the workers on whom we have influence should correctly appraise events, not permit themselves to be caught unawares, and prepare the general sentiment of their own class for the revolutionary solution of the tasks confronting us.”
- Leon Trotsky, 1939
The outcome of the Irish general election, with a fall in support for right-wing parties Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil and a surge for Sinn Fein, has led to discussions about the formation of a “left government”. Leaders of Solidarity-People Before Profit, run by organisations linked or previously linked to the SWP and Socialist Party here, have taken it for granted they would support a coalition government with Sinn Fein if the parliamentary numbers were there (which they don’t seem to be).
More generally, much of the radical left – even the Marxist left – internationally has drifted into a more-or-less consensus that where socialists have a few seats in Parliament, and may hold the balance, they should form government coalitions or agreements with the soft, often extremely soft, left.
In extreme cases, self-described radical leftists have entered formal coalitions with right-wing social democratic parties, accepting ministries. In Italy’s 2006 election, the previously independent Communist Refoundation ran as part of an alliance dominated by the neo-liberal Olive Tree and then took positions in the second Prodi government.
Or a recent, less straightforwardly objectionable example: after this year’s Spanish election, the left-populist Unidas Podemos alliance entered a coalition with the Socialists, Spain’s more right-wing equivalent of Labour. (Socialist prime minister Pedro Sánchez and Pablo Iglesias of Unidas Podemos, one of his deputy prime ministers, pictured above.)
In other cases, left-wing forces with parliamentary representation have supported soft-left governments from outside.
The drift towards a more “supportive” stance seems to have gained momentum since 2011, when the centre-left returned to power in Denmark. The more left-wing Socialist People’s Party (a 1950s left split from the Danish Communist Party) joined the government and the cabinet. The much more radical Red-Green Alliance, including many Trotskyists, declared its willingness to “compromise and reach agreements”. From 2011 to 2015 and again from 2019 it has supported Social Democratic governments from outside, declaring itself part of a “red bloc” committed to putting the “left” in office.
In 2015, Portugal’s Left Bloc and Communist Party concluded an agreement to support a minority government of the soft-left Socialist Party, without actually entering the government. After the 2019 election, this confidence agreement was renewed.
Whatever exactly would have happened if Sinn Fein had won more seats, the Irish far left’s stance should be seen in this context.
There are debates in the history of the Marxist movement about support for and involvement in left-wing governments, the classic ones being state (regional) governments in Germany in 1923 (Saxony and Thuringia). Those debates took place on a very different basis.
The general and default assumption was that Marxists did not generically support, let alone become part of, “left” governments. The German cases were in the context of a collapse of bourgeois authority and very strong labour movements in particular regions, plausibly capable of sustaining “workers’ governments” which might allow the workers to arm and soon take power across Germany.
The conditions the German Communists placed on potential Social Democratic partners were very demanding. In Saxony the Social Democrats rejected making important government decisions subject to approval by a congress of factory councils – but accepted arming the workers, alongside a host of radical anti-capitalist measures.
The examples discussed here are all at or towards the opposite end of the spectrum. The Social Democratic parties involved are not radical even in the sense that Corbyn’s Labour has been radical. In general, they have continued neo-liberal policies, leftishly modified to a greater or less extent. Nor are they accountable in any real sense to the organised labour movement.
Before the next election in 2015, the Danish Social Democrats pushed out their Socialist People's Party ministers in order to push through the sale of shares in a public energy company to Goldman Sachs. In 2019, when they had support to return to office from the SPP and the Red-Green Alliance, they stood on an essentially anti-immigration platform.
There has been excitement on the left about Portugal’s Socialist Party government winning again with an increased vote, and concessions extracted by the parties to its left. The same for the Socialist-Podemos coalition in Spain. But that excitement must reflect the left’s ambitions fading in the context of triumphant neo-liberalism and nationalism. Partially winding back austerity is not radical!
Even more misguided, I think, is the idea that Bernie Sanders and socialists in the US should support any Democratic nominee for President – including not just Hillary Clinton in 2016, but now also right-wing billionaire Michael Bloomberg. If today’s European social-democratic parties are distant from the SPD left wing in 1923 Germany, how much more distant is the US Democratic Party.
Revolutionaries should, of course, side with “soft-left” governments against military or fascistic coups, as the Bolsheviks sided with the Kerensky government against the attempted Kornilov coup in 1917 – but, as Lenin stressed at the time, without positively supporting Kerensky politically.
We should also side with liberal or even conservative bourgeois-democratic governments against militaristic radical-right attempts to overthrow them – though with a different political message than in cases where the government has some connection, however weak, to the labour movement.
There may be tactical issues around parliamentary votes, the details depending on each country – for instance, votes of confidence and no confidence in social-democratic governments. In 1931 the German Trotskyists denounced the Stalinists’ support for the Nazi campaign to oust Prussia’s Social-Democratic state government through a referendum, and so gave that government a sort of “support”.
There is no objection to supporting “left” governments on particular policies or conflicts, or ad hoc negotiations to try to win concessions.
The problem is rather that the whole debate, even among Trotskyists, has shifted towards the assumption of positive and general (to some extent) support. The context has been growing threats from the right – but the result has been to make the socialist left even more marginal and even less capable of shifting the political situation.
Very quickly after 2006, Italy’s Communist Refoundation, a party that had loomed large on the European left, destroyed itself as a result of its involvement in the Prodi government. Objecting only late in the day when it came to a crunch, Trotskyists were driven out of Refoundation by its leadership.
In Brazil in 2003 Miguel Rossetto, a member of the same “Mandelite” Fourth International, became a minister in the genuinely reforming but indisputably bourgeois and neo-liberal Lula government. His comrades’ understanding attitude towards his adventure did not stop the Workers’ Party leadership attacking and driving out the far left.
Nor did it stop the eventual fiasco of the Workers’ Party regime leading to the rise of Bolsonaro. The idea that the revolutionary or radical left must support soft-left coalitions for fear of the right gaining the advantage generally leads only to the right gaining a greater advantage later on, but now with the whole “left coalition” discredited by its record in government.
If soft-left and mainstream-right are evenly balanced in Parliament, it does not follow that the revolutionary left making a coalition (formal or informal) with the soft left is the best option.
The parliamentary balance that would give that coalition the option of office also enables the revolutionary left, plus the soft left if enough pressure can be applied, to vote down the right and its measures, and thus pave the way for discrediting the right and the rise of working-class confidence, rather than the opposite.
Left-wing forces supporting soft-left governments often appeal to the idea of extra-parliamentary mobilisation. This does not resolve the problem. When the French Communist Party was in coalition governments with the Socialist Party in 1981-4 and 1997-2002, it said it would combine two levels of activity, one seeking the best deal within the government, and the other mobilising on the streets.
That included the CP supporting protests against policies pushed through by CP ministers, with the devious explanation that the CP ministers were doing the best they could on their level, and the CP rank and file must do the best it could on its level.
The result was an effectively neo-liberal government, a discrediting of left-wing ideas, and a demobilisation of the working class.
The job of the socialist left must always be to help advance working-class class-consciousnessness and a spirit of socialism and solidarity, including at the expense of social-democratic politics, and to develop workers’ struggles and organisation, against all capitalists and capitalist governments. The approach of routinely backing up as left a government as you can get is not compatible with those tasks.